Cursed (Alex Verus Series #2)by Benedict Jacka
Since his second sight made him infamous for defeating powerful dark mages, Alex has been keeping his head down. But now he's discovered the resurgence of a forbidden ritual. Someone is harvesting the life-force of magical creatures-destroying them in the process. And draining humans is next on the agenda. Hired to investigate, Alex realizes that not everyone on
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Since his second sight made him infamous for defeating powerful dark mages, Alex has been keeping his head down. But now he's discovered the resurgence of a forbidden ritual. Someone is harvesting the life-force of magical creatures-destroying them in the process. And draining humans is next on the agenda. Hired to investigate, Alex realizes that not everyone on the Council wants him delving any deeper. Struggling to distinguish ally from enemy, he finds himself the target of those who would risk their own sanity for power . . .
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The old factory was the kind of place you only find in the very worst parts of big cities. Its bricks had once been red, but years of grime and pollution had darkened them to a brownish–grey. The outer wall was topped with ragged coils of razor wire. The wire was rusted and full of holes that hadn’t been repaired in years, as if the owners had decided that they couldn’t keep the burglars out but might at least be able to give them tetanus on the way in.
The rest of the dead–end street was dark, empty–looking buildings and shops hiding behind steel security gratings. The gratings were covered in graffiti and it was hard to tell whether the businesses locked behind them were still open or whether they’d been abandoned too. The only shop that looked in good shape carried the triple–sphere sign of a pawnbroker’s. Behind the shops and factory was the sort of council estate where the muggers use broken bottles because they can’t afford knives.
It was only eleven o’clock and the rest of London was filled with the sounds of the city, but on the street nothing moved. The road was empty except for parked cars. Half of them were missing wheels, windows, or both, and none would have looked out of place in a junkyard—except for the minivan parked at the top of the street. Its polished black paint melted into the shadows, with the orange glow from the streetlights picking out the silver hubcaps and lights along with the Mercedes symbol mounted on the grill. I rolled my eyes when I saw it. My senses told me there was no immediate danger but I stayed in the shadows of the alley and scanned the street for another minute before walking out towards the van.
Most of the streetlights were broken and the ones still working were patchy. I walked the street’s length cloaked in darkness, with only the occasional circle of orange piercing the gloom. Looking over my shoulder I could see the pillars of light of the Canary Wharf skyscrapers, visible over the rooftops. We were close to the river, even if I couldn’t see it, and as I walked I heard the mournful sound of a boat’s horn echoing off the water. Ragged clouds covered most of the sky, their cover blending with the glow of the streetlights to hide the stars.
As I reached the van one of the front windows slid down, and the street was quiet enough that I could hear the purr of the motor. I stopped by the door and looked at the man sitting inside. “Could you possibly have made it any more obvious?”
My name is Alex Verus. I’m a mage, a diviner. In mage terms I’m unaligned, which means I’m not affiliated with the Council (the main Light power block) but don’t count myself as a Dark mage either. Although I’m not part of the Council I do freelance jobs for them, like this one. The man in the passenger seat to whom I was talking was my contact with the Council, a mage named Talisid, and he gave me a patient nod. “Verus.”
“Good to see you.” I looked the van up and down. “Seriously, a Mercedes? Did you get it waxed, too?”
“If you’re concerned about stealth,” Talisid said, “perhaps we shouldn’t be talking in the open?”
Talisid is a man in his forties, shorter than average, with greying hair receding from a balding head. He always seems to be wearing the same understated business suit, but with a sort of steadiness that suggests he might be more than meets the eye. I’d met him in the spring, at a ball in Canary Wharf where he’d offered me a job. Things didn’t exactly go to plan, but Talisid had held up his end of the bargain, and when he’d asked for my help tonight I’d agreed. I stepped back and watched as the passengers piled out of the van. Talisid was first and following him was a tall, thin man with a long face like a greyhound, who gave me a nod. His name was Ilmarin, an air mage. I didn’t recognise the next three but I hadn’t expected to; their guns marked them as Council security.
“Still planning to take the lead?” Talisid asked me quietly as the security team went through their preparations, checking rifles and headsets.
“That’s what I’m here for.”
“It’s also what they’re here for,” Talisid pointed out. “It’s their line of work.”
I almost smiled. When Talisid had called me yesterday and given me the briefing, he’d assumed I’d be staying at the tail end of the formation, maybe all the way back in the van. He was offering me another chance to back out. But there was another message in there too, which wasn’t so funny: the security men were expendable and I wasn’t. “I’m not going to be much use from a hundred yards back,” I said. “I’ll give you all the warning you need, but I need a good view.”
Talisid held up a hand in surrender. “All right. You’ll be on point with Garrick. We’ll move on your signal.”
The man Talisid had nodded towards was the one who’d been in the driver’s seat, now standing a little apart from the others. He was tall, with short sandy hair and an athlete’s build, strong and fast. He was wearing black body armour with a high–tech look, along with dark combat fatigues, black gloves and boots, and a webbing belt that held a handgun, a machine pistol, a knife, and half a dozen metal cylinders that looked suspiciously like grenades. A second pistol rested in an ankle holster, and he carried a weapon in a sling that looked like a cross between a submachine gun and an assault rifle. He watched me with calm blue eyes as I walked up. “Garrick?” I asked.
Garrick nodded and spoke in a deep voice. “What’s the layout?”
“I’ll tell you once we get inside.”
“Going with Talisid?”
Garrick raised an eyebrow and looked me up and down. I was wearing combat trousers, black sneakers, a belt with a few things hooked into it, and a light fleece. If Garrick looked like something out of a military thriller, I looked like an amateur camper. “I’m flattered,” Garrick said, “but you’re not my type.”
“I’m your recon,” I said.
“That’s nice,” Garrick said. “You can do it from the van.”
“I’m not going to be in the van.”
“This is a combat mission,” Garrick said patiently. “We don’t have time to babysit.”
A lot of people think diviners are useless in a fight. All in all it helps me more than it hurts me, but it’s still a bit of a nuisance when you want to be taken seriously. “I’ll be the one doing the babysitting,” I said. “Those guns won’t do much good if this thing takes your head off from behind.”
I expected Garrick to get annoyed but he only gave me a look of mild inquiry. “What are you going to do? Punch it?”
“I’m going to tell you exactly where it is and what it’s doing,” I said. “If you can’t figure out a way to beat this thing with that going for you, then you can back off and let us handle it.”
Garrick studied me a moment longer, then shrugged. “Your funeral.” He turned to the other men. “Let’s move.”
The inside of the factory was pitch–black. The power had been turned off a long time ago and the lights that hadn’t been smashed or lost their bulbs were dark. Corridors were cluttered with old machinery and pieces of junk that had been piled up and left to decay, forcing us to pick a winding path through the obstacles and making it difficult to get a clear line of sight. The air smelt of dust and rusted metal.
The creature we were hunting was called a barghest: a shapeshifter that can take the form of either a human or a great wolflike dog. They’ve got preternatural speed and strength, and they’re difficult to detect with normal or magical senses. Or so the stories say; I’ve never met one. But all the sources agreed that the creatures killed with claws and teeth, making these sort of dark, cramped quarters the absolute worst place to fight one. There were too many possible hiding places, too many ways the creature could lie in wait to attack from behind.
Of course, that was the reason Talisid had brought me along.
To my eyes, the factory existed on two levels. There was the present, a world of darkness and shadow, broken only by the torches in my hand and on Garrick’s rifle, looming obstacles blocking our path and the threat of danger around every corner. But overlaid upon that was a second world, a branching web of lines of glowing white light, the web branching over and over again through four dimensions, multiplying into thousands and millions of thinning wisps, every one a possible future. The futures of the corridor and the objects within it were fixed and solid, while my and Garrick’s futures were a constantly shifting web, flickering and twisting with every moment.
Looking through the futures I saw my possible actions, and their consequences. I saw myself stepping on the loose piece of scrap metal in front of me, saw myself tripping and falling, and corrected my movements to avoid it. As I did, the future in which I fell thinned to nothingness, never to exist, and the futures of me stepping around it brightened in its place. By seeing the future, I decided; as I decided, the future changed, and new futures replaced those never to happen. To anyone watching, it looks like pure fluke; every step in the right place, every hazard avoided without seeming to notice. But the obstacles were just a detail. Most of my attention was on the near and middle future, watching for the flurry of movement and weapons fire that would signal an attack. As long as I was paying attention, nothing in this factory could surprise us; long before anything got into position for an ambush, I could see it and give warning.
This was why Talisid had wanted me along. Just by being here, I could bring the chances of things going seriously wrong down to almost zero. Knowledge can’t win a battle, but it’s one hell of a force multiplier.
Something caught my attention as we passed through a doorway, and I signalled for Garrick to stop. He gave me a look but held up his hand and I heard the main body of the group halt behind us. I crouched and brushed a hand across the dusty floor, feeling the chill of the concrete.
“What is it?” Garrick said at last.
“Someone forced this door,” I said, keeping my voice quiet. “Not long ago either.”
“Could have been the barghest.”
I held up a broken link of chain. The outside was rusted but the edge where it had been broken glinted in Garrick’s torch. “Not unless our barghest uses bolt cutters.”
Garrick raised an eyebrow and we moved on. I didn’t mention the second thing that had been out of place: The rest of the chain had been taken away.
We moved deeper into the factory. Garrick and I were on point with two of the security men ten paces behind. Talisid and Ilmarin walked in the centre of the formation, the last of the Council security bringing up the rear. When I sensed that the barghest was near, I was to withdraw and let the mages and soldiers move up into a combat formation, ready to take it by surprise. At least, that was the plan.
Things weren’t going to plan. By now I should have sensed where and how the fight was going to start. Looking forward into the future, I could see us searching every room of the factory, yet there wasn’t any sign of combat. In fact, I couldn’t see any future in which any of us got into combat. I could feel the men behind us growing tense; they knew something was wrong. The only one who seemed unconcerned was Garrick, radiating relaxed confidence. Had Talisid’s information been wrong? He’d been certain this was the place . . .
Around the next corner was a bigger room with a high ceiling and again I signalled for the others to stop. I closed my eyes and concentrated. Searching for combat wasn’t working. Instead I started following the paths of our group through the timeline, looking to see what we would find. Something in the next chamber would occupy everyone’s attention, and I looked more closely to see what it was . . .
And suddenly I knew why there wasn’t going to be any fighting tonight. I straightened with a noise of disgust and called back to Talisid, no longer making any effort to keep my voice down. “It’s a bust.”
There was a pause, then I heard Talisid answer. “What’s wrong?”
“We came here for nothing,” I said. “Somebody beat us to it.” I walked around the corner and out onto the factory floor.
Most of the machinery on the floor looked to have been removed or cannibalised for parts long ago, but a few pieces were still rusting in the gloom, piles of rubbish in between. My torch cast only a weak glow in the darkness, the beam of light disappearing up into the wide open ceiling, and my footsteps echoed in the silence as I picked my way through broken boards and half–full plastic bags. The smell of dust and old metal was stronger here, this time with something underneath it that made my nose twitch.
The barghest was lying in the centre of the room, and it was dead. With its life gone, it looked like a grey–brown dog, big but not unnaturally so. It was lying on its side, eyes closed, with no blood or visible wounds. There was no smell of decay; it obviously hadn’t been there long.
The others moved up into the room, following me. Garrick came up to my side. Although his weapon was lowered, his eyes kept moving, checking the corners and upper levels of the room. Only once he’d swept the area did he look down at the body. “Doesn’t look like much.”
“Not any more it’s not.”
The next two security men reached us, followed by Talisid and Ilmarin, and we formed a circle around the creature. They made a lot more noise than Garrick, as if they didn’t know where to place their feet. “Well,” Talisid said at last.
“It’s dead?” Ilmarin asked me.
“It’s not getting up any time in the next few years,” I said. “Yeah, it’s dead.”
“Correct me if I’m wrong,” Garrick said, “but I thought the mission was to kill this thing.”
“Looks like someone else had the same idea.”
“Can’t find any wounds,” Ilmarin said. Air mages are great at sensing movement but not so good with objects. “Verus, any idea what killed it?”
I’d been looking through the futures of me searching the body of this thing, watching myself rolling it over and running my hands through its fur. All I’d found was that it was heavy and smelt bad. Actually, I didn’t need my magic to notice that it smelt bad. “No wounds, no blood. Looks like it just dropped dead.”
“Maybe. Anything from the living family could do it.”
Talisid had been studying the body; now he looked at me. “Is there any danger in splitting up?”
I looked through the futures for a few seconds, then shook my head. “This place is a graveyard. The only way anyone’s going to get hurt is if they fall off the catwalks.”
Talisid nodded and turned to the others. “Spread out and search in pairs. Look for anything unusual.” Although he didn’t raise his voice, there was a note of command that assumed he would be obeyed. “Check in every ten minutes and we’ll meet back here in an hour.”
Somehow or other I ended up with Garrick. We worked our way through the factory’s ground floor, searching methodically.
The bodies of the barghest’s victims were in a side room off from the factory floor. There were seven, in varying states of decay. I didn’t look too closely.
“Had an appetite,” Garrick remarked once we’d left the room and called it in.
“That’s why we came,” I said. I was trying not to think about the corpses.
“Really?” Garrick looked mildly interested. “My contract was to make sure it was dead.”
“Looks like someone did your job for you.”
Garrick shrugged. “I get paid the same either way.” He gave me a glance. “So how far into the future can you see?”
I returned Garrick’s gaze. “On who’s asking.”
Garrick looked back at me, then gave a very slight smile. It made me think of an amused wolf.
I went back to the factory floor and found Talisid. “The bodies are in the second room off the back corridor. Nothing else worth checking.”
Talisid nodded. “I’ve called in the cleanup crew. You may as well take off.”
I looked at the barghest’s body, still undisturbed amidst the rubble. “Sorry I couldn’t help more.”
Talisid shrugged. “The problem’s been dealt with.”
“Even though we didn’t do anything?”
“Does it matter?” Talisid said. “There’ll be no more killings and we took no losses.” He smiled slightly. “I’d call this good enough.”
I sighed. “I guess you’re right. Did you find anything else?”
Talisid’s smile faded into a frown. “Yes. Scorch marks on the walls and signs of weapons fire. Several places.”
I looked at Talisid. “A battle?”
“It seems that way.”
I nodded at the barghest. “But that thing wasn’t burnt or shot.”
“Not as far as we can tell.”
“So what happened here?”
Talisid surveyed the dark room, sweeping his gaze over the rusting factory floor. With everyone else gone the place looked like it had been abandoned for a hundred years, and once we left there would be no trace of our visit but for footprints. This was no place for living people, not anymore. “We’ll probably never know,” Talisid said at last, and gave me a nod. “Good night, Verus.”
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Benedict Jacka is the author of the Alex Verus series and the Ninja series. He earned a BA in philosophy from Cambridge University and has held positions ranging from civil servant to bouncer to teacher. He lives in London.
With acting credits that span stage and screen, Gildart Jackson is most often recognized for his role as Gideon on Charmed. He has also been featured on Providence and General Hospital, and his theater roles include Trigorin in The Seagull, Henry Higgins in My Fair Lady, and Adrian in Private Eyes at the Old Globe.
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