The Neon Court: Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift

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Overview

War is coming to London. A daimyo of the Neon Court is dead and all fingers point towards their ancient enemy - The Tribe. And when magicians go to war, everyone loses.

But Matthew Swift has his own concerns. He has been summoned abruptly, body and soul, to a burning tower and to the dead body of Oda, warrior of The Order and known associate of Swift. There's a hole in her heart and the symbol of the Midnight Mayor drawn in her own blood. ...

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The Neon Court

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Overview

War is coming to London. A daimyo of the Neon Court is dead and all fingers point towards their ancient enemy - The Tribe. And when magicians go to war, everyone loses.

But Matthew Swift has his own concerns. He has been summoned abruptly, body and soul, to a burning tower and to the dead body of Oda, warrior of The Order and known associate of Swift. There's a hole in her heart and the symbol of the Midnight Mayor drawn in her own blood. Except, she is still walking and talking and has a nasty habit of saying 'we' when she means 'I.'

Now, Swift faces the longest night of his life. Lady Neon herself is coming to London and the Tribe is ready to fight. Strange things stalk this night: a rumored 'chosen one,' a monster that burns out the eyes of its enemies, and a walking dead woman. Swift must stop a war, protect his city, and save his friend - if she'll stop trying to kill him long enough for him to try.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Griffin wraps up the story of electrical sorcerer Matthew Swift in this stylish, inventive, and often frustrating sequel to A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor. Eternal night has descended on modern-day London, which is disappearing one neighborhood at a time, and war is about to break out between the mystical clan known as the Neon Court and its magical enemies, the Tribe. Everyone hopes that Swift, who's been dubbed the Midnight Mayor, can protect the city from supernatural dangers, but he may well be in over his head. As Swift, his likable apprentice, and a few less-than-trustworthy colleagues race to prevent the destruction of the city, the special effects and chase scenes too often overwhelm the characters and their story. (Apr.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780316093644
  • Publisher: Orbit
  • Publication date: 3/24/2011
  • Series: Matthew Swift Series , #3
  • Pages: 512
  • Product dimensions: 5.70 (w) x 8.30 (h) x 1.60 (d)

Meet the Author

Kate Griffin is the name under which Carnegie Medal-nominated author Catherine Webb, writes fantasy novels for adults. An acclaimed author of young adult books under her own name, Catherine's amazing debut, Mirror Dreams, was written when she was only 14 years old, and garnered comparisons with Terry Pratchett and Philip Pullman. She read History at the London School of Economics, and is now studying at RADA.

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Read an Excerpt

The Neon Court

Or, the Betrayal of Matthew Swift
By Griffin, Kate

Orbit

Copyright © 2011 Griffin, Kate
All right reserved.

ISBN: 9780316093644

Prelude: The Summoning of Matthew Swift

In which an enemy asks help of the last person in the world you might have expected, a fire leads to more than just minor burns, and a war breaks out in Sidcup.

I thought I could hear footsteps in the darkness behind me.

But when I looked again, they were gone.

I was in the middle of a sentence. I was saying, “… ‘dragon’ is probably too biologically specific a way to look at the…”

Then someone grabbed me by the throat with the fist of God, and held me steady, while the universe turned on its head.

There was a hole in the world and no fingers left to scrabble.

I fell into it.

It was my phone ringing in my pocket that woke me.

I fumbled for it and thumbed it on, held it to my ear without raising my head, just in case stillness was the only thing keeping my head attached to my body. My throat was dry. I guessed it had something to do with all the smoke. I said, “Yeah?”

Penny, my apprentice, was on the other end. She sounded too cool, too calm, and therefore afraid. “You vanished.”

“Uh?”

“Like… hello poof whoops bye bye.”

“Uh-huh?”

“You dead?”

“That supposed to be funny?”

I rolled onto my back, every rib in my chest pressing against skin like they had been vacuum-packed into place. Something wet and sticky moved underneath me, made the sound of velcro tearing. My fingers brushed it. It smelt of salt and iron. It had the thickness of thin honey. She said, “So what the fuck happened?”

I licked my lips. They tasted of charcoal. “Summoned,” I wheezed. Why was it so much work breathing in here? “Some bastard summoned. Me. Summoned me.”

The smoke was getting thick now, grey-black, tumbling in under the crack beneath the door. Through it I could half see the walls, cracked and grey, the only colour on them from scrawled messages in cheap spray paint,

ANARKST 4EVR

JG WOZ ERE

NO GOD GAMES ALLOWED

help

WE’RE WAITING FOR YOU

I said, “I’ll call you back,” and hung up before my apprentice could start swearing.

My eyes burnt. The room was too hot, the light behind the smoke too bright. Somewhere outside the broken window it was raining, thick pattering on the still London night. I crawled onto my hands and knees, ears ringing. Something warm dribbled into the hollow of my ear, pooled there, then continued its journey down the side of my neck. I felt my head, found blood drying in my hair, and a lump. I looked down at the floor and at the same sticky stuff on my fingertips. Against my skin it had appeared almost black, but in the dull sodium light that reflected off the belly of the night-time clouds, and the glare of the unknown something on the other side of the smoke-tumbling door, it was undeniably crimson.

Undeniably blood.

But not my blood.

That at least was a pleasant discovery, though it came with the snag that it was not my blood because nothing bled that much and lived. It had saturated the thin carpet, splattered across the gutted tattered remains of a couch, smeared its paw marks over the paint-scrawled wall behind a low gas stove and a graveyard of broken beer bottles. It was fresh, and only felt cool because its surroundings were so rapidly growing hot.

Someone had been finger painting on the floor with this blood. They’d painted a pair of crosses. One was smaller than the other, nestling in the top left-hand quadrant of its big brother’s shape. Look at it with a knowing eye, and you might consider it to be a sword, not a cross, although when your tool was blood and your surface was carpet, the distinction was academic. What it was, and what there could be no doubt that it was, was the ancient emblem of the City of London and, by no coincidence at all, the symbol once carved by a mad bastard, with a dying breath, into the palm of my right hand—the mark of the Midnight Mayor.

I made it to the window, pulled myself up by my elbows, broken glass cracking underneath the sleeves of my anorak, looked out, looked down. A half-moon was lost on the edge of rain clouds turned sodium orange by reflected street light from the terraced roads below. A line of hills cut off the horizon, their tops tree-crowned and unevenly sliced by the carving of motorway planners. The falling rain blurred everything: the neat straight lines of buildings that peeked up between Chinese takeaways and bus stations; the pale yellow worm of a mainline train arcing towards a floodlit station; the darker stretch of a public heath on a low hill around which tiny firefly cars bustled; the reflection of TV lights played behind curtained windows; big square council estates with bright blue and red buttresses as if the vibrancy of colour could disguise the ugliness of what they supported. But no distinctive landmarks other than to say that this was anonymous surburbia, not my part of town. But still my city.

I looked down. Down was a long way away. Paving stones shimmered black with rain-pocked water, like a disturbance on the dark side of the moon. A play area of rusting swings and crooked see-saws. A little patch of mud sprouting tufts of grass for dogs to run about on; a bicycle rack that no one had trusted enough to chain their bicycle to. A line of garages, every door slathered with graffiti ranging from would-be art to the usual signatures of kids out for a thrill. A single blue van, pulling away up the narrow street leading from a courtyard below and out of my line of sight. The glow of fire where there should only have been fluorescent white floodlights, and somewhere, not very far at all, the sounds of alarms starting to wail and flames eating at the door.

Smoke tumbled past my head, excited by the prospect of open air beyond the smashed-up window. I pulled my scarf over my mouth and my bag across my back. I fumbled in my pocket for the phone, my bloody fingers slipping over the keys, got as far as dialling the first two nines, and a hand closed around my ankle.

We jumped instinctively, kicking ourself free and snatching power from the mains ready to hurl at our unseen enemy, our hair standing on end, our heart beating like the engine of a car about to blow. I looked down, expecting death, pain, an end, a stop, a terror, something nameless that I had not had the wit to imagine until now, and saw the hand. Skin on top dark, deep-roasted cocoa; pink underneath. Soaked in its own blood, too much, too fresh. Arm, covered in a long black sleeve. Head. Wearing a headscarf of white and green that was half knocked off, revealing the long-ago-burnt scalp. Face. Round, smart, angry, lips curled, eyes tight with pain, a tracery of scars down the left side like a map of shifting desert sands. I knew that face. I’d regretted seeing it many times before, and tonight was heading for the clincher.

I wheezed, eyes running and carbon on my tongue, “Oda?”

Oda—assassin, murderer, fanatic, holy woman or insane psychopath, pick one—looked us in the eye and whispered through her cracking lips, the smoke curling around her breath as she spoke, “Help me.”

Penny Ngwenya, sorceress (in training) and one-time traffic warden, announced one mild evening as we walked through Spitalfields together, “You know, you were really cool until I met you.”

Under normal circumstances, I might have said something rude.

But Penny, whose anger had nearly destroyed an entire city, was not a woman who had much truck with normality.

“Thing is,” she went on airily, “you’re an urban sorcerer. You bend sodium light with a thought, can taste the rhythms of the city, feed on dust and carbon monoxide and get major hayfever if you go near anything green. And that’d be like, pretty cool, you get what I’m saying? And it’s even cooler than that—you’re a dead sorcerer. Like there’s a grave marked ‘Matthew Swift, got killed by a mystical shadow or whatever’ and an empty coffin, but you’re not dead. You came back, and you came back with like, the blue electric angels attached, or whatever, and that’s like, you know, Jesus. And you’re the Midnight Mayor, which is this majorly pompous job thing that’s been going for like two thousand years and you’re supposed to protect and save the city and stuff, which is like King Arthur, so… you know… you’re pretty cool. Until you speak.”

I thought about this a while.

I said, “Like Jesus?”

She said, “Yeah. You should probably forget I said that.”

Oda aka “psycho-bitch” lay behind the spring-poked remnant of the sofa, in the thickest, deepest pool of blood in the room. It had sunk so far into the carpet that when she moved, little swells and bubbles burst out beneath her, as pressure dynamics did its thing. There was blood on her hands, on her face, in her hair, it had saturated her jumper, and soaked into the side of her leg. There was no doubt that it was hers. Her face was as grey as a face so richly coloured could be, her eyes were bloodshot, pinky-red, her grip round my ankle had the unnatural strength of the newborn babe or the nearly departed dying. We felt our stomach turn, but squatted down and tried to help her up. She grabbed the back of my coat, bundling it up in her fist like a yachtsman’s lifeline in a storm. “Help me,” she repeated.

“What the bloody hell is happening?” I wheezed.

“We’ve got to leave this place,” she replied, reaching her other arm round my neck to form a crude sling. “Help me!”

“No shit,” I growled, and putting my arms round her waist, tried heaving her to her feet. She cried out in pain, an animal shrill of distress, her eyes closing. As she moved, a knife-slice smile opened and shut in the front of her jumper, right above her heart. We half thought we could see something else grinning beneath, and quickly looked away.

She made it to more or less upright, head bumping against my shoulder, her weight dragging down on my neck. “Out,” she hissed. “Have to get out.”

I half dragged her to the door, felt the heat blasting through it, said, “Can you run?”

“No,” she growled through gritted teeth.

“Can you fight?”

“No.”

“You got a fireproof suit beneath that jumper?”

She didn’t grace that with a reply. “Deep breath,” I wheezed, and, wrapping my shirt around my fingers against the scalding heat, took hold of the door handle, and eased the door back.

Flame, brilliant yellow-orange, leapt inward round the door frame. I opened the door a little further, felt the draught in my hair as the fire, already clothing the walls and ceiling, sensed oxygen behind me and started to surge. Along both sides of the corridor some apartment doors stood open; some were shut; some had been bashed off their frames, pinched for who knew what purpose, some were already half-eaten black cinders, tumbling out smoke that blasted this way and that across the ceiling in giddy twists. In places the flame had found handy little holes between the ceiling’s ruined timbers and cracked plaster, through which it was crawling to the floor above. My feet slipped as the soles of my shoes began to liquefy; I felt the hair of my eyebrows and on the back of my neck curl and singe in the heat, could barely breathe for the knives of pain that came with every gasp of oxygenless vapour. Among the carbon and baking damp fungus I smelt petrol.

I half shook Oda, demanded, “Stairs?”

“That way,” she mumbled, jerking her head towards the end of the corridor.

Too bright to look at, too much, too hot, just glancing that way dragged the water from my eyes. I adjusted Oda’s weight on my shoulder, hissed, “Take a deep breath.”

As she inhaled, so did I. The effect was like swallowing a mosquito swarm, that roiled and writhed inside my lungs. Transmutation had never been one of my strong points; on the other hand impending death had always produced my very best work. So, as the burning air settled in my lungs like charred meat swallowed the wrong way, I half closed my eyes, clawed at what little part of my strength wasn’t dedicated to staying upright, and inwardly pushed. Something foul and chemical, toothpaste without the mint, rotting eggs and white dust, settled over my tongue, coated the inside of my throat, grabbed my chest from inside. The urge to retch contorted my back once, twice, but I swallowed it down, face aching with the strain of keeping my mouth locked over the pressure and taste trying to crawl back up. Oda’s fingers dug into my shoulder; she half closed her eyes against the heat. I waited until my bones could no longer take the strain, then waited half a second more and exhaled.

A white cloud, fine powder on billowing air, burst from my mouth and nose, hard and fast enough to knock my head back and send a shudder down my back that nearly shoved me and Oda off our feet. I steadied myself, instinctively reaching towards the wall for support and then shying away from the intense heat of the flame licking along the cracked old surface. More graffiti, more paint:

hocus pocus

ONE NATION UNDER CCTV

let me out of here

slowly fracturing and popping till it resembled the multifaceted black surface of a bottle fly’s skin as the fire raced along.

I couldn’t stop myself now, the breath was coming out of me too much and too fast, more breath than I had in me to give, sucking up acid from my stomach and blood from the inside of my nose, its pressure too high as the white cloud burst out from between my lips and blasted down the corridor. The fire recoiled from it, shied and shimmered away, bent backwards and, in one or two places where its dominion was still thin, winked out as if it had never been, leaving carbon scars. And for a moment, I could see the way out. I half fell forward as the last gasp left my body, then heaved in air, shuddering with the strain of it, mouth full of a chemical taste, blood trickling down from our nose, its salt taste blissful against the foulness inside our throat. Oda was already moving, tugging at my coat like she was pulling on the reins of a horse. Even after being blasted by the mixture of magic and fire extinguisher from my throat, the flames were coming back, slithering probes towards us from the ceiling. The glass in the metal-mesh door at the end of the corridor had cracked, turning yellow-green in the heat. I could see the staircase beyond; its metal railings were glowing cheery orange-rose hot, the smoke billowing upwards as if the stairwell were a giant chimney. I peeked down and immediately looked away, half blinded, the after-image of the fires below playing behind my eyelids. Oda risked a glance too, snapping her head away like a frightened bird as the rising heat and light hit the back of her retinas.

“Other ways down?” I wheezed.

“Back there,” she replied, indicating the corridor behind us. “Smell petrol?”

“Yep.” I looked up. The smoke had blackened the stairwell above, and no lights shone enough to pierce the darkness, but it was moving, I could feel it moving, drawn up towards colder, more breathable air. I closed my fingers tight together, dragged in a little strength from inside my aching chest, opened my palm and let the sodium light blossom between my fingers, yellow-orange, the colour of street lamps, the light that all good urban magicians summon when they need a guide. I aimed it towards our feet, its glow barely enough to illuminate the steps in front of us, and, heads bowed towards that one light, we began to climb. Oda reached instinctively for the banister, then flinched away with a smell of scorched skin as her fingers brushed against it. The plastic cover on the iron rails had begun to melt and run like tar on a summer’s day. On the first landing I found a window, already cracked and foul from earlier times, and smashed it out with a swing of my bag. Smoke spiralled greedily out of it into the open air. I took a breath of the momentarily cold, ice-cold by comparison, blissful pure air of the outside world, and then kept on climbing. The flames were already claiming the floor above, but they had come by easier ways than the stairwell, crawling through cracks in the ceiling, and sending sparks up the tattered remains of curtains. And everywhere there were the graffiti, old dirty paint, cracked pipes and dangling wires that led from nothing to nowhere, mould and fungus and the grey bane-mark of too much time and not enough love, eating as surely as the fire at the heart of this building. Up another floor, and the smoke grew thinner, the fire not yet penetrating this far, but I could still feel it buffeting from below, drawn towards the roof and the wide open sky. We rounded the corner, and there was a body on the stairs.

We nearly tripped over him, feet splayed, arms stretched up like a pinned butterfly in a specimen box. His soot-stained face had once been pale, until someone with a red-hot needle had driven the tip into every freckle across his nose and cheeks, raising swollen pinpricks of scarred red tissue in a dot-matrix printer pattern. He wore the remnants of a black hoodie, starting to smoulder, a pair of blue jeans slashed at the knees and grey trainers, the heels smoking and warped out of shape. Someone had cut his throat; the black-red blood was still working its sluggish way down from the wound. Oda’s fingers tightened in my coat, but she didn’t speak. We stepped round him, shuffling over the outflung barrier of his arm and upwards, past a pair of empty grey eyes vanishing into the thickening smoke.

One more floor, and the air was almost breathable, the sodium cast from my little summoned light almost good enough to see well by, if you ignored the residual burning pain in the lungs, the cracked lips, the blistered skin, the brilliant yellow-blue afterburn that was visible on the front of the eyes even when you didn’t try to close them. One more flight of stairs, smaller than the rest, led to a metal door, its rusted chain long since wrenched off, the lock twisted and broken, a sign dangling by a single screw saying,

ROOF ACCESS—AUTHORIZED PERSONNEL ONLY

I pushed at the door, and it gave with a banshee screech of rust. We tumbled out onto a flat concrete surface, stained with the white tidemarks of a decades-old battle between pooling stagnant rainwater and pigeon crap. The rain was bliss, cold and wonderful and pure. We turned our face towards it, gasped down air, felt the water run down our face and neck, let it. I could hear sirens somewhere below, a distance away but drawing closer. Oda untangled herself from me and flopped on her hands and knees into a puddle of rainwater, gasping for breath, eyes shut, head bowed. The twisted remnants of satellite dishes and TV aerials made up the forestry of this rooftop, and here and there were the sad remnants of beer cans, billowing plastic bags weighed down by pooling water inside them, and limp fast-food boxes. A vent, taller than me, stood dead and silent, some of its bars broken, leaving just enough space for birds to hop inside and nest. A low metal railing ran round the edge of the roof. I staggered over to it, as much to have something to lean on as to get my bearings, and draped myself over it to catch my breath. From here, I could see in every direction, and could fill in the picture that I hadn’t been able to complete in the flat below. Canary Wharf, white speckled monuments rising up in the darkness, a hint of silverish water below; the Millennium Dome, a bulb of white before the thicker darkness where the city started to end and the estuary began; Greenwich Hill, a small patch of rising darkness crowned with a glimmer of light where the observatory sat, blasting out a thin green line into the night to declare that here, right here and no more than a needle thick, was the middle of the world.

I was in South London; at a guess, Sidcup or, optimistically, Blackheath. Distances changed their meanings south of the river; short became long, long became expected. I could taste the buzzing magic of the place, tight, full of corners and bumps where a slither of power could suddenly become an overwhelming roar, and a river of magic could dwindle to nothing just when you thought you’d tangled your fingers in it. South, and not as far south as I would have liked, and the familiar silver taste of the city’s magic began to give way to the elusive older magics of the countryside, of forests and rivers and the old ways of doing things. We did not like those magics; we neither fully understood nor mastered them, and that left us vulnerable.

I glanced down and saw that the tarmac below the tower was now glowing with the crazy fire dance of reflected light from where the flames were beginning to crawl out of the windows, smoking and steaming in defiance of the falling rain. Blue lights played off the streets around us as the emergency services arrived, their siren sounds calming, a strange reassurance in the night, even though they were much, much too late. The fire had spread too fast, too far, and not entirely of its own accord. I crawled back to where Oda still knelt, head down, resting on the palms of her hands, back arching with the effort of drawing breath.

“You OK?”

She nodded in reply, eyes still fast shut. “Can you get us out of here?”

“Fire’s all over the lower floors.”

“You can control fire?”

“I can negotiate with it.”

“Thought sorcerers loved fire.”

“More in a metaphorical than practical sense. It’s too big for me to stop it now. And…”

“And?”

“It moves too fast. Takes a lot of power to argue with petrol once it’s got a big idea.”

Slowly she raised her head, and opened her eyes, and for a moment, I thought I saw blood pooling along the rim of her lower eyelids. Then she blinked and it was gone. “You’re the Midnight Mayor. You’re the blue electric angels. Work something out.”

“Oda… what the hell is going on here?” She closed her eyes, lowered her head again, and said nothing. “I get us out, you owe me,” I said, voice low to her ear. “You owe me for this.”

“You want to die here?” she asked.

Our lips curled in frustration. Now that the need to survive the next five seconds had receded, other feelings were returning, as hot and raw as the inferno beneath us. I heard sirens below, wheels splashing through water, the voices of men. I stood up slowly, flexing my fingers at my sides, breathing down our anger, and looked into a pair of lilac eyes.

There was a man on the roof.

He was half a foot taller than me, wore black trousers slashed on the inside in that very neat, very minced way that made it fashion, not poverty, wore a cream-coloured T-shirt, five layers of gold chain that at their lowest dropped to just above his diaphragm and at their shortest hugged his throat like a jealous lover, an open black jacket, fingerless white driving gloves and golden spiked hair like a billionaire hedgehog. His skin was white, snow white, painted white, and someone had gone to the trouble of adding to this two great red spikes of paint that stretched up across each eyelid like a mask. He carried a thing that, while not exactly a sword, was well past the point where it could claim to be a knife. It had a handle in the shape of a bottleneck, but of ornate silver wound round with golden wire, and the blade was made of cobalt-blue glass. It looked like it shouldn’t be sharp, but the ease with which it tore through the air, sending spinning eddies of rain flying out of its path as it came down towards my throat, suggested otherwise.

I squeaked like a startled rabbit, tried to leap away, banged into Oda, knocking her to the floor, and then fell backwards over her, landing with a splash in the puddle behind me. Oda lay still where she’d fallen, like one dead already, showing none of the usual violent instincts I had come to rely on. So he came after me, face contorted, as if he was a hiccup away from a seizure. I began, “Wait just a…” and the glass blade smacked down on the place where my heart should have been. We rolled. Instinct was better than reason, and we were not willing to die in this place, at the hands of this painted bug. We rolled across Oda and then kept rolling up onto our feet, in a half-crouch ready to strike, spreading our fingers to the sides and letting the power flow to them. We took the rain running across our skin, and then we took the faint bite of acid inside it, the faint chemical sting and we pushed it between our fists, let it build up into a bubble of burning not-quite-water that fizzed and hissed as the rain passed across its translucent surface. Surprise, almost comical in its briefness and intensity, passed across the man’s face, then he raised his blade high above his head, face contorted again, and gave a battle cry of spit and fury that briefly drowned out the sirens and the flames below. We said, calm and true, “We will kill you if you try.”

If he heard us, he showed no sign.

He charged towards us, a man with no other mission in life than to slice our skull in two.

We opened our palms, and let the stolen poison between our fingers fly. It smacked into his face, two fistfuls of burning liquid, and he screamed, clutched at his eyes, blade falling from his hands, screamed and screamed to the little hiss of flesh burning, blood running down between his fingers where he had clasped them over his eyes, a man drunk on his own pain, blind and howling, and my stomach twisted. I tried to grab his shoulders. “Don’t touch,” I breathed. You’re not helping here.”

His fingers curled, and for a moment I thought he was going to try and pull his eyes out of their sockets, but he steadied himself, quivering with the effort of control. Slowly, my hands on his shoulders, he dragged his fingers away from his face. I saw eyes turned the colour of wet beetroot, and skin blistered black and yellow, and could not help but look away.

There was a snicker-snack.

The weight of his shoulders suddenly became too much for me to support.

He dropped, face banging into the end of my shoes, dead even before gravity got a look-in. Oda stood behind him, his glass blade in her hands, his blood being washed away by the rain. Her face was nothing, an empty pit with no bottom. She said, looking through me like I wasn’t even there, “We must leave this place.”

I found my hands were shaking. “You… He was…”

She turned the blade easily in her hands, tip pointing towards the stair. “This building will burn soon,” she said. “We cannot control the fire. We will burn with it. We must leave this place. You will find a way.”

She half-turned her head, like a curious pigeon, to one side, and there it was, there was something wrong with her eyes. I thought I heard footsteps and glanced over my shoulder, but there was nothing there, and when I looked back, her face was a crumpled piece of paper and the blade had slipped from between her fingers, limp and weak. “Sorcerer?” she said and her voice was a thin stretch short of a whimper. “I think there’s something wrong with me.”

“Yeah,” I breathed. “Yeah. I think so too.”

“Kill me?”

Her eyes were on the floor, her shoulders hunched, back bent, I half thought I’d imagined the words.

“What?”

“Kill me?”

“I… I gotta tell you, there’s a bit of a queue. I’m barely in sixth or seventh place.” She sagged, and I caught her before she hit the floor, dragging her back up. “Come on,” I whispered, “think psycho-bitch, OK?”

She nodded dumbly.

I looked for a way out.

It didn’t seem likely that the fire would stop short of the top floor. It’d just take that much longer for us to be burnt alive.

Something small, white and limp stirred in the rain, trying to escape the heat and failing. I prodded it with my toe. The sad torn remnants of a Tesco plastic bag, a rip in one side, a puddle of greenish-grey water pooling in what was left of its guts. In my pocket, my phone buzzed. We answered it without looking.

“Hi Penny,” I said.

“Hi,” she replied. “Still not dead?”

“Still a bit busy.”

“Bad time, huh? Only you left me looking like a prat holding half a packet of fish and chips that’s getting cold…”

“Kinda in a burning building full of the dead, the dying and the should-be both.”

“Oh. OK. Bad time.” Then, cautiously, “Anything I can do to help out?”

“I’ll get back to you.”

I hung up, slipped the phone back in my pocket, bent down and picked up the limp Tesco bag with the tips of my fingers. It twitched in the wind, the hot updraught from the approaching flames, trying to escape. I let it go, watched it billow up and away like a demented nervous dove. Oda wheezed, “Any time, sorcerer.”

I picked my way across the detritus of the roof and pulled out from a small mound of dead cans and cardboard boxes another bag. This one was blue, whole, dirty, smelling of indefinable rot. I shook the worst of the stagnant water off it, wiped it down on the side of my coat, took a deep breath, held the open lips of the bag over my mouth, exhaled. The bag swelled up. I pulled it shut before the air had a chance to escape and tied the handles together. It tugged and twisted in the heat, even as its surface bent and snapped under the impact of the falling rain. I held it up over my head and let it go, caught almost immediately in the twisted, bewildered wind and carried away past the dead snares of bent aerials. We watched it go. Beside us Oda said, “This had better be good.”

“How long do you think before we burn to death?”

“Maybe fifteen minutes. It’ll seem shorter.”

“Fifteen minutes! I should have brought a book.”

“Are you really going to meet death reading trashy fiction?” Oda was swaying, the smoke forming odd eddies around her as it tumbled over the roof. Her eyes were shut again; had she looked too long at the fire?

“If it’s a choice between trashy fiction and abject terror, I know which one I’d go for any day.” I reached out for her instinctively as pain flickered over her face, then held back, uncertain, not wanted. The body of the man with lilac eyes and hedgehog hair lay between us.

“Getting hot,” she breathed, and there was a glow now in the doorway, and a sound of ticking metal beneath our rapidly warming feet.

“All in hand,” I sighed.

“I feel sure you should start incanting about now.”

“You hate magic.”

“We will live.”

“We?”

She hesitated, words catching at the back of her throat. I thought I saw something move above and behind her, and looked up, saw the shimmer of something dark and fast caught silver-black in the rain.

“Sorcerer?” What little of Oda’s voice had escaped the trap of her tongue was thin and weak. “Matthew?”

“Still here.” The building groaned under us, a giant with indigestion, a volcano about to go, drowning out the sirens on the ground a long, long way below.

“There’s something waiting for you at the end of the alley.”

“Is that a threat, or a geographically obscure statement of fact?”

“It’s… I don’t know. It’s true. It’s what it is. It is the end.”

Something wide and dark caught the orange flicker of the reflected street lamps, turned overhead, gathered more speed and began to dive. “Oda, you’re wet, you’re burnt, you’re a little oxygen-deprived and, if you don’t mind me saying it, you’ve got what looks like a kinda nasty stab wound through your heart. I don’t want to leap to any conclusions, but I’d suggest you’re not in your right frame of mind.”

She looked up, straight into our eyes, and on her face was misery, true and as deep as the darkest ocean. “Help me?”

“You asked; I did. Fancy that.”

“Kill me?”

“It’s on the list.” I held out my hand to her, right hand, twin cross scars aching beneath its fingerless black glove. “Come on.”

She hesitated.

Put her hand in mine.

I couldn’t remember ever feeling the touch of psycho-bitch’s skin before.

“Where are we going?”

I tilted my head upwards. She followed my gaze. Something passed overhead; momentarily, no rain fell around us, and there was the pattering of water on plastic. I pulled her close to me, felt the rain resume across my upturned face, washing away the skin of carbon. She was breathing fast and shallow, but didn’t shy away. I heard

water beating on the skin of a drum

rustle of plastic

air beneath mighty wings

And I saw a thing catch the glow of the fire on its belly as it swung round through the sky towards us, as slow, ponderous and inevitable as an oil tanker down a mountainside, its wings of spun white, orange and blue, rolling tapers of plastic streaming back from its parted beak, and it was bigger than an eagle and smaller than a jet plane and wider than a bus and longer than a car and as it swooped down towards us I saw that its belly was sagging with loose plastic handles and its skin rippled and beat in the passing of the wind and on its flesh were written the words:

for Mums who

every penny

thank you for shopping at

finest quality

recycle your plastic bags

And its wings were the same inflated plastic bags that made up the rest of its flesh, rolled and round at the front like the aerofoil of a plane and free, gaping at the back where the mouths of the bags parted. It came towards us, this more-than-eagle, talons of plastic outstretched and I heard Oda draw in breath, I reached up, felt the dry underbelly of bags brush my fingers and caught a handle, twisted my wrist into it and Oda was doing the same, was yanked off my feet by my wrist so hard and fast I thought it was going to pop from the socket. My knees banged against the rail on the edge of the roof, the force spinning me round, plastic biting into my skin, the shock running up the length of my spine. I closed my eyes instinctively as the world dropped away beneath our feet; we opened them again.

Two pairs of feet flapping over a great dark drop.

Blue lights flashing below, firemen with heads turned all towards the blaze, no one marking us, and the tower block was on fire, it was going to go all the way, windows spurting flames like a Satanist’s lips bursting obscenities, and both top and bottom now catching alight, the thing already looked lopsided, the place sagging where the fire began as if too tired to fight, it was going to go, the entire thing was going to go and leave nothing but black bones behind. I saw metal glowing red on the lower windows where safety shutters were starting to tick and expand in the heat, I saw workmen’s huts and warning signs scattered around its rim and then we were up, swept over it all by my summoned plastic-bag eagle towards the rain, buoyed up by the heat tearing off the building and we saw the city stretching out beneath us, starlight, galaxy-light, an infinity of tungsten stars spread upside down across the universe, flowing rivers of red brake lights and white headlamps, silver snaps of light from the wheels of a rolling train, a horizon of shadow where night sky met night city, magic, pure and brilliant magic the city at night, so beautiful we could have caught fire with the power of it and we saw…

I saw a shape move on the roof below us as the plastic eagle turned slowly on the air like a harpist’s fingers over the strings.

There was a man, on the roof, bursting out of the door, and he was on fire. His ragged old woollen hat, his stained coat, dirty trousers and his torn boots, his beard that stretched down over his chin and neck, his hair stuck out around his ears: he was on fire, screaming, clawing at his own skin like he would try to pull it free, douse the flames in blood. And he looked at us, and screamed. It took too long for him to die, and it was not a quick turning out of the lights, and he did not stop fighting until his throat had shrivelled too tight for air to pass. The body, when it fell into the pools of water on the roof of the building, kept burning, and steam rose from the ground all around it like a sauna in a mortuary.

So we too closed our eyes.



Continues...

Excerpted from The Neon Court by Griffin, Kate Copyright © 2011 by Griffin, Kate. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

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Average Rating 4.5
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Sort by: Showing all of 19 Customer Reviews
  • Posted March 10, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    This is an exciting Swift fantasy

    London is trapped inside the eternal night with neighborhoods vanishing one after another. War is imminent between the Neon Court and the Tribe; besides being enemies for seemingly ever, a daimyo was murdered. The only hope to prevent the hostilities between two magical user groups from igniting is the electrical magician Matthew "The Midnight Mayor" Swift. He has shown the ability to protect London from various paranormal threats including A Madness of Angels, but he fears he will not be able to stop the war.

    However, Matthew has been ordered to come to a nearby burning tower where the corpse of his associate Oda the Warrior of The Order lies. She has a hole and Matthew's symbol as the Midnight Mayor drawn in her blood; yet she walks and talks while trying to kill Swift. As the night turns darker, Lady Neon is coming to London while unknown phenomena hunt for a monster that burns the eyes of victims and the dead woman still walking and talking.

    This is an exciting Swift fantasy (see A Madness of Angels and The Midnight Mayor) as the electrical sorcerer deals with big issues trying to prevent a war and personal issues trying to save his friend from killing him. Loaded with tons of action mostly of a paranormal kind that at times supersedes the plight of the hero, readers will enjoy Matthew Swift's tightrope as otherworldly occurrences threatens his city and definitely his well-being.

    Harriet Klausner

    2 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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    Posted March 17, 2013

    A girl

    Hey im carrie

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