Harry Potter meets The Terminator in this action-packed adventure about a young man who discovers that everything he believed about his world is a lie.
The year is 2120. The humans are dead. The mages have retreated from the world after a madman blew up civilization with weaponized magical technology. Safe within domes that protect them from the nuclear wasteland on the other side, the mages have spent the last century putting their lives back together.
Nikolai is obsessed with artifacts from twentieth-century human life: mage-crafted replica Chuck Taylors on his feet, Schwarzenegger posters on his walls, Beatlemania still alive and well in his head. But he’s also tasked with a higher calling—to maintain the Veils that protect mage-kind from the hazards of the wastes beyond. As a cadet in the Mage King’s army, Nik has finally found what he always wanted—a purpose. But when confronted by one of his former instructors gone rogue, Nik tumbles into a dark secret. The humans weren’t nuked into oblivion—they’re still alive. Not only that, outside the domes a war rages between the last enclaves of free humans and vast machine intelligences.
Outside the dome, unprepared and on the run, Nik finds Jem. Jem is a Runner for the Human Resistance. A ballerina-turned-soldier by the circumstances of war, Jem is more than just a human—her cybernetic enhancement mods make her faster, smarter, and are the only things that give her a fighting chance against the artificial beings bent on humanity’s eradication.
Now Nik faces an impossible decision: side with the mages and let humanity die out? Or stand with Jem and the humans—and risk endangering everything he knows and loves?
|Product dimensions:||5.60(w) x 8.30(h) x 1.60(d)|
About the Author
Shaun Barger is a Los Angeles-based novelist who detests cold weather, idiot plotting, and fascism. He splits his days between writing, resisting the siren’s call of Hollywood’s eternally mild summer climes, and appeasing a tyrannical three-pound Chihuahua with peanut butter and apple slices. Mage Against the Machine is his first novel. Find him on Twitter and Instagram @ShaunBarger.
Read an Excerpt
Mage Against the Machine
A mage in black followed a trail of footprints through the darkness of a thickly wooded forest, unseen.
The trail had been left by a dead man who’d been speaking to his revolver, last the mage had seen him. Anxiously eyeing the shadows between the trees, he wondered if the rune-etched firearm had responded.
The mage was young—barely out of training—with dark, carefully tousled hair and a slight frown that might have seemed permanent to those who didn’t know him well. His replica high-top sneakers squelched wetly in the sodden moss as he tracked the dead man’s steps, which shimmered with a golden light through Nikolai’s enchanted spectacles.
Nikolai Strauss was being stupid. He knew that he was being stupid. His first actual assignment and he’d already lied to his team—to his friends. Already defied his orders to: Observe. Do not engage. Report immediately should the buyer be spotted.
Technically, Nikolai wasn’t really even on this case. He’d been a cadet until a few months ago. The Edge Guard insignia on the breast of his uniform was so freshly made that the enchantments still tickled when he brushed his fingers across the slick enamel surface.
This was supposed to be some simple field experience for training—a low-risk opportunity for Nikolai to observe more experienced Edge Guard agents working the field as they staked out an illegal artifact exchange. They probably wouldn’t have even brought him with them all the way from the capital if the buy hadn’t been going down in Marblewood, Nikolai’s hometown.
The captain had suggested that Nikolai’s relationships with the citizens of Marblewood might come in handy should they find themselves short on leads.
Though Nikolai hadn’t kept in touch with anybody from his hometown (and would have preferred to keep it that way) the intel implicating the Eaglesmith family had smothered his protests.
He was indifferent to the family as a whole. His scorn was reserved for his former classmate, Joseph Eaglesmith, rich-kid golden-boy athlete and longtime boyfriend of Nikolai’s estranged childhood sweetheart.
Nikolai hated the prick. And now, for his pettiness, here he was. Alone. In the dark. Following a possibly demented Battle Mage with a magic gun.
Sure, Nik was also a Battle Mage, well versed in the magical arts of violence. He was a member of the Edge Guard, a powerful government order charged with the defense and maintenance of magical domed Veils that hid the magi from the ruined human world, which had been reduced to lifeless, magically radioactive wastelands a century prior, in 2020.
The Edge Guard also investigated crimes that fell under the jurisdiction of multiple Veils.
But mostly, Nikolai got coffee.
Nikolai was happy to just get coffee for his senior teammates, leaving them to handle the dull responsibilities of the stakeout. To nod and say “Yessir” at all the right moments, occasionally jotting a note into the margin of whatever novel he currently had his nose buried in.
The problem was, Nikolai was now pretty sure that their entire reason for being there was bullshit. That there’d never been any artifact smugglers—that the intel was just a ruse. Bait, specifically set to draw Nikolai back to his hometown, away from the watchful eyes of the capitol. The Eaglesmith family’s involvement was a juicy worm wriggling at the end of a hook.
Nikolai hadn’t said much about his life back in Marblewood to his fellow Edge Guards. From what little he’d let slip, however, his thinly veiled grudge against the rising flyball star had featured prominently. After a couple of drinks, at least.
The mage who’d set the bait had once been Nikolai’s mentor. His friend, even. And Nikolai knew that if his superiors got to him first, he’d never have a chance to speak to Hazeal alone. Never have a chance to ask without supervision why his former mentor had gone to such lengths to contact Nikolai. Or how the hell he wasn’t dead.
His old mentor had first made contact when Nikolai was on his way back from a cafe half a block from the stakeout earlier that day, three boiling hot coffees floating precariously before him on a tray of hardened air that looked like frosted glass.
“I have a message from your mother,” came a voice so quietly that Nikolai might have imagined it.
He spun around, searching, scanning the bustling pedestrian crowd until he found a swarthy, middle-aged mage (whom Nikolai had almost certainly never seen before) staring at him from across the street, under the awning of a butcher shop.
Everything about the mage was forgettable. He was neither ugly nor attractive, wearing a plain charcoal topcoat over a suit that might be found in the closet of any clerical mage with a middling desk job. The only noteworthy thing about him was his conical, wide-brimmed hat, which was normally only worn with formal robes.
Still, there was something about the mage that put Nikolai on alert. His hand, hovering twitchy and trembling at his hip. His eyes, wild and tight with pain.
The stranger pinched the rim of his hat and the illusory disguise pulled away in neatly angular folds of colorful light to reveal a mage that Nikolai knew quite well.
His name was Hazeal. Lieutenant Armand Hazeal. The kindest of Nikolai’s teachers during cadet boot camp in the capitol, who’d always gone out of his way to make sure that Nikolai, more than any of his other students, was managing well both as an Edge Guard trainee and a young, small-town mage adjusting to life in the big city.
Killed just six months prior, in a scuffle with a pair of corrupt Watchmen.
So they’d been told. There’d even been a funeral.
Underneath his disguise, Hazeal was sweating, filthy, and appeared to have aged ten years since Nikolai had seen him last. A strange revolver hung holstered at his hip, surface etched with runes that pulsed as Hazeal pushed aside his topcoat to grip the pommel.
Nik had been so dumbfounded at the appearance of his old teacher that he momentarily neglected maintaining the spell he’d used to create a tray for the coffees.
“Sh-shit—akro!” He’d cast too late, whipping out a half-formed blob of the glassy substance in a fruitless attempt to catch all three drinks. One of the boiling brews poured harmlessly down the defensive enchantments of Nikolai’s Edge Guard jumpsuit uniform, but reflexively he yelped and dropped the rest as he danced back.
When Nikolai looked back up, Hazeal seemed to be engaged in a furious hissed debate with the revolver. Noticing Nikolai’s gaze, Hazeal angrily tugged his coat back over the holstered weapon and released his pinched fingers from the brim of his hat—the illusory folds of his disguise snapping back into place.
“Find me where she used to hurt you,” he said, once again barely audible from across the busy street. Then, with a strange smile, he tipped his hat at Nikolai and darted away into the crowds.
Though reeling from the words and the flood of traumatic memories that came with them, Nikolai managed to fire a tracer enchantment onto the back of Hazeal’s coat before completely losing sight of him. Then, struggling to maintain some semblance of calm, the young mage took off sprinting toward the building where his team was hidden on their stakeout.
The Edge Guard trio had spent the past four days holed up in a dusty apartment across the street from the secondary Eaglesmith estate, practicing the art of silent patience while they waited for their covert surveillance wards to trigger any sign of activity.
Nikolai’s first superior officer, Junior Lieutenant Ilyana Xue, passed the time between shifts by working out, chain-smoking from a long-stemmed cigarette holder, and experimenting with various chemicals and potions—with occasionally explosive results.
There was a crass sort of elegance about Ilyana. She had the swaggering, smarmy charm of a trust-fund troublemaker, despite her oft-voiced contempt for the upper class she was obviously a product of.
Nikolai’s second superior officer, Junior Lieutenant Albert Cross, wrote letters to his extensive noble family, bid extravagantly on remote auctions for rare art, artifacts, and grimoires, and caught up on the hottest new Schwartzwaldian operas: tiny stages vivid on postcard glossies from his sister, audio quietly resonating from a polished copper memory cube. He’d idly translate lyrical snippets from French, German, and Italian, explaining the plots while Ilyana and Nik politely feigned interest.
Ilyana and Albert were only a couple years older than Nikolai, and now just one rank higher. Though they’d initially taken him under their wing as informal big-bro/big-sis mentors, in the two years since he moved to the capitol to join the Edge Guard they’d become Nikolai’s closest friends. Maybe his only friends, considering how long it had been since he’d spoken to anyone from Marblewood.
They looked up with shock as Nikolai burst into the cramped apartment.
“Just ran into my ex,” he lied in a rush. “Said I’d grab a quick drink with her, you guys don’t mind, right? I’ll be back in an hour, maybe more, sorry bye!”
And off Nik had gone, his two supervising officers too startled to argue as he pursued Hazeal into the thickly shadowed depths of Marblewood’s forest.
Nikolai had recently graduated the Edge Guard’s sparsely populated cadet training academy with the rare honor of highest distinction—a fact that he was always sure to teasingly remind Albert and Ilyana of, who, without the edge unpleasantly afforded to Nikolai by the brutal training he’d endured as a child from his Edge Guard mother, had merely graduated with distinction.
For the first time, Nikolai felt a true appreciation for the immense scope of drills and training he’d received as a cadet, covering everything from tactical featherweight acrobatics to covert urban and wilderness tracking—the latter of which he was, at that moment, specifically grateful for.
The afternoon sun grew soft in the wood, the dappled light dim across Hazeal’s fading footsteps that Nikolai could see through his government-issued tracking spectacles. Hazeal’s tracer was no longer moving up ahead, and it wouldn’t be much longer before he’d catch up to the disturbed mage.
With every step closer he took to his former teacher, Nikolai grew more apprehensive—his initial confidence that Hazeal would never hurt him growing less and less certain. But as his fear grew, so did his curiosity.
A message. From his mother. Had Nikolai heard him correctly?
His parents had been dead for a decade. Killed in a skycraft crash when Nikolai was only ten.
Ashley Strauss, his mother, had also been a member of the Edge Guard. Lancer Class—the highest rank attainable, required for expeditions beyond the Veil, into the ruins of the human world.
Hazeal claimed to have only known Ashley in passing—praising her brilliance and lamenting her loss whenever Nikolai had asked, but no more so than any of the other Edge Guards who’d served with his mother. If anything, Hazeal had been more reticent than most. As if he hadn’t actually liked her very much, but knew better than to say so. Though it was obvious they’d never been close.
So what could Hazeal possibly have to tell Nikolai about his mother?
Nikolai wondered if Captain Jubal, the commander of the Edge Guard, knew that Hazeal was still alive. Nikolai was extremely fond of the captain, and couldn’t imagine that he would have lied to them about it.
Maybe Hazeal was undercover, and the funeral had been a government-sanctioned farce. But why would an undercover agent who’d gone so far as faking his own death reveal himself to a lowly sergeant?
Second possibility: Hazeal was dirty, and was going to trick or manipulate Nikolai into helping him with some sort of espionage. Maybe he was corrupt—maybe he’d gotten deep into some shit and the Moonwatch had caught wind of it. Maybe he’d faked his own death to get out of Dodge, and not even Captain Jubal was the wiser.
But Hazeal? Corrupt? It just didn’t fit. He was a family man with a long career in the Edge Guard. He liked expensive tea and cooking extravagant meals for his children and grandchildren on the weekends. He was respected, and, well, a little bit boring.
So if Hazeal had faked his own death, then why? And what did any of that have to do with Nik’s mother? Nikolai had to know.
If he told the others about seeing him, not even Ilyana would hesitate to call in the higher-ups. She was fiercely loyal to the captain, and Albert, though less fond of Jubal than Ilyana and Nikolai, was a strictly by-the-books kind of mage.
Nik wheeled around with a stifled yelp, barely resisting the terrified knee-jerk urge to blast his former teacher with a thousand degrees of boiling flame. The tracer remained stationary a mile or so north—but then Nikolai noticed that Hazeal was no longer wearing the coat.
Damn. He must have found the enchantment.
Hazeal idly spun the chamber of the rune-etched revolver. His smile was weary, his eyes unfocused as he stared through the spot where Nikolai stood, hidden from view by a thin layer of magical invisibility.
Hazeal’s voice was soft. Raspy.
“No, no, I can’t see you.” He popped the chamber into the revolver, admiring the weapon. “But this can.”
“Lieu . . . Lieutenant.” Nikolai tried and failed to keep the tremor from his voice.
“Not lieutenant.” He chuckled bitterly. “Not even a mage anymore.”
Only then, with Hazeal no longer wearing his coat, did Nikolai notice the absence of the ivory staff and the jeweled whip that used to hang at his sides. His Focals. Objects much like a wizard’s wand from one of the old human stories—objects a mage never went without, due to the weakening of power they would suffer without a Focal to channel their spells.
Nikolai looked him up and down, sure that he must have them hidden away. But no, he realized with horror—they were gone.
Hazeal’s pleasant expression slipped into irritation.
“If I’m going to kill you, there’s nothing you can do about it. Even without my magic. Not even the Mage King could stop a bullet from this gun. So please drop the cloak. I like to look a mage in the eyes when I discuss matters of importance.”
Nikolai bit back a growled response at the threat, considering whether or not it was a bluff. But the mage—half-mage now, apparently—gripped the revolver more tightly with every passing moment.
“Okay. Please don’t shoot, Lieu . . . Armand. I just want to talk.”
The weaves of invisibility melted from Nikolai like mercurial foam.
Hazeal smiled, eye twitching. The fingers holding the revolver remained tense. He reached over his free hand to caress the papery skin of his gun hand, as if calming an animal.
“I thought you were dead,” Nikolai said. Careful now. “The captain sent us here to investigate an . . . artifact exchange.”
Nik glanced down at the gun.
“Don’t look at it don’t look at it DON’T LOOK AT IT!” Hazeal snarled, weathered face pulling back in animal terror as he closed the distance between them.
Nikolai stood, frozen, eyes locked with Hazeal’s, inches from his own. Trembling. Unmoving.
Hazeal let out a long sigh.
“You have to be careful,” he said. “It’s sleepy now. I’ve used it too much, since I lost my magic. Been its servant for too long. It’s a powerful weapon, Nikolai. And the knowledge it carries! The spells! But it’s like snatching gold from a dragon’s mouth.”
Hazeal chuckled, pale eyes twinkling, and for the briefest moment Nikolai saw the shadow of the jovial mage he’d once been. But then Hazeal flinched, whipping his head back and forth as he looked around the clearing, seeming to have forgotten how he got there. Then he looked back at Nikolai, the weathered lines of his face going slack.
“I’ll be dead soon, and I’m a half-mage now. My soul is . . . withered. When I die, I’m just going to turn off. Whatever lies in the Disc, whatever afterlife or void might await normal magi—I’ll no longer have the opportunity to discover what that might be. So why not deal with the devil?”
“Do you really have a message from my mother?” Nik asked, voice barely above a whisper.
The smile returned, the half-mage’s eyes clearing. He pointed up.
“Do you know what’s out there?” he said. “Beyond the sky? Outside of our domes, our Veils?”
Nik hesitated, unsure of where Hazeal was going with this. “Of course.”
The chaos of shattered reality and radioactive wastelands. The end result of a magically enhanced nuclear exchange that killed off mankind a century before, in 2020. Lancer Class Edge Guard regularly braved the desolation, carefully documenting their expeditions for the largely disinterested public.
Nikolai had seen it all.
“Do you now?” Hazeal chuckled. “I’ve seen it, you know. With my own eyes. It’s as terrible as you think. But not in the way you suspect.”
Nikolai eyed him, impatience starting to mingle with fear. In the year since he’d last seen the old mage, Hazeal had turned into the fucking Cheshire cat.
Hazeal drew a handkerchief from his pocket, mopping his weathered brow.
“Your mother was the one who brought me there,” he said, folding the handkerchief into an uneven rectangle with trembling fingers. “It’s what killed her, in the end.”
Nikolai froze. “What . . . are you talking about?”
“I owe your mother a great debt, Nikolai. To say the least. But now, that debt is paid.”
Hazeal reached into his pocket, serpent quick, and tossed Nikolai a slick medallion. Nik ignored his instinct to slap it away with a swipe of his baton. He caught it, powerful enchantments burning cold against his skin.
Nikolai eyed the shimmering medallion in his palm as if he’d been handed a grenade. A dimly luminescent crescent moon set against the illusion of star-spangled sky. The rank insignia of the Moonwatch—a clandestine network of the most powerful living Battle Magi serving as royal assassins, spies, and secret police, as well as the only order to outrank the Edge Guard.
It was the king’s own license. A key to any lock.
“I lost my magic fighting a Moonwatch to get that for you,” he said, through gritted teeth. “Burned myself out. Should be a few weeks before they realize the owner is dead. Hide it. No, don’t just put it in your pocket, I said hide it!”
Slowly, Nikolai slipped off his sneaker and stowed the medallion away, never taking his eyes off Hazeal as the old half-mage’s expression flitted madly between sorrow, rage, and euphoria.
Hazeal clamped the handkerchief on the revolver’s grip and drew it from its holster. Nikolai tensed, reaching for his Focals as he prepared to dive aside and kill the half-mage. But Hazeal wasn’t trying to shoot Nikolai. Careful not to let his fingers touch the rune-etched steel, he offered it to Nikolai, pommel first.
“This was your mother’s. She wanted you to have it.”
Nikolai eyed the revolver suspiciously, not moving to take it. “I thought you said you had a message for me.”
“A message, and gifts,” he said, eye twitching impatiently. “The insignia, so you can go see what kind of men you’re really working for. Especially that murderer. That fucking butcher.”
Hazeal’s cracked lips widened into an unpleasant smile. “Why, your precious Captain Jubal, of course. But don’t take my word for it. Look to his library, and see for yourself.”
Nikolai furrowed his brow, incredulous. “And the revolver?”
“She wanted you to use it. Wanted you to finish what she couldn’t.”
“Finish what? Use it for what?”
“The gun will teach you the secrets of manipulating Veil with the apocrypha weave, if you ask it to. To make a door in the sky.” He looked up at the lush roof of leaves fiery red with autumn, his eyes lit with a junkie’s wild gleam. “So you can see what the human world is like, for yourself.”
“Why don’t you save me the trouble and just fucking tell me?” Nikolai snarled, eyeing the revolver like it was a venomous insect.
Hazeal whimpered, suddenly appearing quite frail. “Please, Nikolai. I’m not supposed to, I don’t understand why. It won’t hurt you. I promise it won’t. I’m only this way as punishment. For what I did.”
“Punishment? For what?”
His eyes welled up with tears. “Your mother died because of me. She—”
“My mom and dad died in a skycraft accident,” Nikolai said, cutting him off. “How is that your fault?”
“No, Nikolai. I’m afraid that’s not what really happened. The crash was just a cover, for an embarrassment to the crown.”
The realization that Hazeal was telling the truth hit Nikolai like a steel-toed kick in the balls. Though he wasn’t surprised—not really. How could that terrifying woman have possibly been killed by something so mundane as a crash?
“She trusted me,” Hazeal continued. “Asked for my help. But I lied. Pretended I was on her side, then ratted her out. Swallowed my guilt and moved on with my life, until six months ago I found a parcel. Shelved among my books, covered in an inch of dust, as if it’d been there for years. But I’d never seen it before.”
Perspiration darkened the handkerchief clenched around the gun from fingers visibly straining with effort.
“Your mother discovered my treachery too late to save herself and the others, but apparently with enough time to leave a vengeful little gift for me—enchanted to remain hidden until enough years had passed for you to become a fully-fledged Edge Guard. Which she never doubted you would. I went out of my way to show you kindness when you joined the Edge Guard as a cadet, to alleviate my own guilt. But when I opened that parcel to find the revolver . . . your mother’s messenger made it quite clear that my debts were far from paid. So please. Take the gun. I’ll give you her message afterward, just please. Let me be done with this.”
“How do I know this isn’t a trick? None of this makes sense. How am I supposed to believe you?” Nikolai shook his head. “No. Give me the message first.”
“Please, Nikolai . . .”
“Message first. Then we’ll see.”
Hazeal paled, hesitating.
“She hurt you, when you were a child. In this very forest. Every morning. For years. And then . . . in the end . . . before she died . . .”
Nikolai flinched, feeling as if he’d been slapped. “Stop.”
“. . . she hurt you even more. The worst she’d ever hurt you.”
“I said stop. Shut up!”
“She needed you to know that she never wanted to hurt you. That she was sorry. So very sorry. And even though she could never ask you to forgive her for the pain she caused you . . . she hopes that this final inheritance might make up for it, at least in part. That once you possess the revolver, she can be at peace knowing that no one will ever be able to hurt you again.”
Hazeal’s haggard features softened as he watched Nikolai, who felt smaller with every word.
“I don’t know what it means, Nikolai. I don’t know what she did to you. But . . . that final, terrible thing. Does anybody but you know about it?”
Nikolai grew dizzy, blood pounding in his ears as he struggled against the onslaught of horrible memories.
“N . . . no.”
“This isn’t a trick. Your mother was a deeply flawed woman. But she loved you. And I know for a fact that she would have destroyed whole cities to keep you safe.”
Hazeal took a step closer, eyes brimming with a concerned, fatherly warmth. Revolver still held aloft for Nikolai to take.
Nikolai took the gun.
An overwhelming sensation—an almost liquid pleasure—seeped into the skin of his fingertips as a woman’s voice whispered promises of secrets and power and violence and sex and fire and blood and—
Nikolai tried to let go, screaming as he fought against the crushing euphoria, struggling to shut out the voice and the feeling of violation as it touched his mind, as the cool creeping tendrils spread into his pools and channels of magic.
The hellish ecstasy tore away like a stinging shock of icy water as the gun was knocked from his grasp by a muddy stick Hazeal swung hard enough to break two of Nikolai’s fingers. The silky, irresistible whispers dwindled to a distant hush as the revolver tumbled away.
For a moment, Nikolai could only stand there, stunned as he stared at his hideously crooked digits. Then pain exploded in his jaw as Hazeal slammed a heavy fist into his face.
Reeling, Nikolai drew his baton Focal to try and defend himself, but Hazeal tackled him, howling with crazed, triumphant laughter.
“You thought you had me! You thought I was yours but I’m a half-mage now. I hid my mind! And now . . .”
His hands were slippery as they found purchase around Nik’s wrists. A cloud of flame billowed out to the side from the tip of Nik’s baton as Hazeal turned the hand away the instant before Nik could incinerate him.
Mud steamed and blackened. Moss turned to ember, filling the air with putrid smoke as Nik struggled and screamed under the thickly built man.
“St-stop! STOP! Get—get the fuck off of—”
“I lied, Nikolai! Your mother was a vile woman. Everyone else worshipped her, but I knew what kind of mage she really was. I knew! Just like I know you’re going to be monster, like her. If not worse.”
Nik strained with his broken-fingered hand to draw his second Focal—a dagger. The pillar of flame billowing from his baton grew to a blue-and-red inferno jetting off beside them, and Nik could feel his hair smoldering, could see Hazeal’s filthy clothes catching from the heat alone, and—
Hazeal wrenched the wrist of Nikolai’s baton hand with an audible crunch. The billowing inferno sputtered out as the baton slipped from fingers Nikolai could no longer control. Hazeal cast aside the baton, then drew Nik’s blade Focal and tossed that away as well.
“I should’ve known she’d make me pay eventually. But I’m glad they killed her! Just like I’m going to kill you. I hope she’s watching from hell.”
He struck Nikolai in the face with the bloodied knuckles of his free hand, each punch a distant thud the young mage could barely feel anymore.
A thread of light silently pierced Hazeal’s neck. There came a flash of heat and the pressure released, the weight of the stocky man suddenly gone. Nikolai sputtered and choked, blinded as he was enveloped by a thick cloud of ashes.
Two voices argued loudly over him.
“—STYX Ilyana this is an order do not give him that potion you are NOT a healer and you just killed that mage oh Disc I knew Nikolai was up to something but of all the foolish, idiotic—”
“We’re the same rank, Albert,” Ilyana said, her voice shaking audibly. “You can’t give me orders.” Her hands trembled as she cradled Nik’s head and poured something warm and bitter into his mouth. “If I hadn’t killed him he might have killed all three of us, and—don’t touch that gun!”
Nikolai choked and spit and tried to open his eyes but he was still blinded by the ashes of the dead half-mage. The bitter warmth of Ilyana’s potion spread in an instant—throat to stomach, stomach to fingertips. Pain disappeared. The voices became distant. Darkness took him.
“Superstitious bullshit,” Nikolai grumbled as they descended the great white steps into a hall draped with red and gold. “This is such a waste of time. I’m fine.”
At the end of the hall stood a pair of immense polished black doors, standing in sharp contrast to the white stone. A dancing glow flickered from under the doors, moving and refracting like light reflected off water.
“You were exposed to dangerous magic,” Ilyana said. “Dirty. Old.” She pointed at her temple, twirling her finger. “Crazy-making.”
“I’m surprised the healer didn’t try to leech me. Or rub me down with snake oil.”
“That healer managed to rebuild your shattered face to its former glory without so much as a scar. So stop complaining.”
“Money maker intact,” Nik agreed solemnly, rubbing his chin. “Disc bless that mage.”
“And I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t say no to a snake-oil rub,” she said, nudging Nik with her elbow. “Depending on the masseuse.”
Nik smiled weakly, but he could tell that her cheerful bravado was at least partially a facade.
“Your healer gave orders to sit in the Disc’s light for at least two hours to be cleansed. Dirty magic gone.” Ilyana’s colorfully painted eyes teased from below Cleopatra bangs as she pushed open the big black doors. “And if that doesn’t work, we can always try skinny-dipping in the sacred water.”
The Marblewood Disc Chamber was a cavernous dome of slick white marble, built so that hundreds of magi could comfortably stand around the smooth glassy pool at the center of the room.
Hovering over the pool was Marblewood’s enormous white Disc. It shone with silver light as it floated at the center of the domed ceiling, seeming to pulse and strain against the massive black chains that held it in place. It dripped occasional droplets of water infused with magical energy, feeding the pool below. It was roughly the shape of a coin, soft-edged and otherworldly.
Every Veil had its own Disc. Limitless supplies of magical energy revered by some magi as gods—or God, depending on whom you asked. The truth of their origins was long lost to history. All that was known for certain was that without the Discs, there would be no magi.
The Discs were silent. Eternal. And when a mage died their soul slipped from their bodies, a phantom visible to only the most powerful magi as it returned to the nearest Disc and disappeared forever within its pearly depths.
Ilyana watched with delighted amusement as Nikolai unslung a bag from his shoulder and produced a picnic blanket.
“We’re going to be here for a while,” he said, spreading the cloth across the floor along the curving wall. “Might as well get comfortable.”
He pulled a couple tall, amber-tinted bottles of expensive honeybrew from the bag and popped the caps with a wedge of hardened air. “Want one? Doc didn’t say anything about drinking.”
En route from the healer ward to city hall the day after Nikolai’s traumatic encounter with Hazeal, they’d made a brief stop at the safe house so Nikolai could freshen up, change, and quickly pack a bag to bring along for the prescribed basking in the Disc’s light.
He’d bought the aged brews a few days prior, originally intending to invite Ilyana to join him for a picnic on the secret lakeside beach he used to go as a child. He’d still been mustering up the courage to ask her out, but when she volunteered to supervise his cleansing, he figured the Disc chamber would do as well as the lake. City hall was closed for the night, so at least they’d have privacy.
Besides—they could both use the drink.
“Well, well, look at you,” she said, sitting beside him and taking a long swig. “Disc. That’s good.”
“Just because I didn’t grow up in a two-thousand-year-old enchanted castle surrounded by puzzle halls like you and Albert doesn’t mean I can’t class it up.”
“Mine was only five hundred. More manor than castle. And no puzzle halls. Those are so tacky. Gilded Age Schwarzwald bullshit.” She took another swig and sighed, flashing Nikolai a forced smile. “Ever have a picnic with a murderer before?”
He winced, and she turned away, seeming to regret the jest.
She went quiet, staring at the bottle as she idly peeled the label, digging her thumbnail around the edges of the sticker. “Sorry. That was in poor taste. I haven’t quite . . . I’ve never . . .”
Nikolai reached to put a hand on her arm, but stopped short, thinking better of it.
“It’s my fault. I shouldn’t have snuck off. Shouldn’t have lied. I just . . .”
“I just. You just. We just.” Ilyana shrugged. “The captain is going to chew your ass out when we get back to New Damascus, but I get it.”
“That spell,” Nikolai said, curious. “That thread of light.”
“Nasty little weave, isn’t it? You’ll learn it on your next promotion.” She shook her head, holding out the palm of her hand. “It’s easy, too,” she said, a slight tremor to her voice. “Just the littlest twist on a normal pyrkagias fire spell. Scary how easy it is to turn a person into dust. And Lieutenant Hazeal . . .”
“That gun,” Nik said. “I think it drove him insane. He was going to kill me. He . . . hated me.”
Ilyana and Albert had been present for Nikolai’s debrief. He’d been sparse with the details, acting more shocked and dazed than he’d actually been to buy some time to think.
Captain Jubal had interrogated Nikolai through a communication crystal. Nik had almost given in, almost handed the medallion over as he struggled not to wilt under the concerned warmth in the captain’s eyes, cutting through him even as a miniaturized image in the depths of a sphere.
He told them that when Hazeal appeared, claiming to have a message from Nikolai’s mother, he’d followed the half-mage without telling the others because he’d been afraid of spooking the supposedly dead Edge Guard. Nik left out most of the details of their actual encounter—saying only that the half-mage had tricked him by relinquishing the revolver in a false show of surrender, then viciously attacked once Nikolai had been incapacitated by physical contact with the artifact.
When pressed as to whether or not Hazeal had said anything—anything at all—Nikolai recalled, with subtle enough difficulty to be believable, Hazeal ranting about his mother while he attacked. Something about killing Nikolai as revenge.
Not a lie, exactly. Just a carefully curated truth.
Nik smothered the surge of anxiety at the thought, the pang of guilt focused on the Moonwatch medallion hidden in the lining of his suitcase back at the safe house. The others hadn’t found it hidden in the sole of his shoe, even after they’d undressed him to be healed.
“Ilyana . . .” he said. “Can I tell you something . . . in confidence? Something you can’t even tell the captain?”
Ilyana barked a laugh. Then, realizing he was serious, she looked him in the eyes, and let out a long whistle. With a puzzled smile like she couldn’t believe the words coming out of her mouth, she said, “I trust you, Sergeant Nikolai Strauss.”
“Oh. Um. Thank you. I mean—”
She held up a finger, cutting him off.
“When you’re promoted to lieutenant, like me, you swear a long and complicated set of oaths on bended knee to the king. One of those oaths is that if I discover a Battle Mage subordinate guilty of or planning to participate in treason, I’m sworn to execute them on the spot, unless further intel is required. In which case we’re supposed to cut out their brain and put it in stasis for the Neuromancers to data-mine later.”
Nikolai looked at her, aghast. “Fucking Christ . . .”
“Just kidding! About that last part, I mean. The execution oath is real.” Then, at his expression of deepening horror: “Awww. I wouldn’t ever hurt you, Baby Nik! What I’m trying to say is if you tell me something illegal, I’m not going to report you. That makes me an accessory. So if you get busted—BOOM!—I’m busted too. But I know you, Nikolai. You’re smart. Careful. And you take an ass-kicking like a champ. So I trust you. I know you won’t get me in trouble. You can tell me anything.”
She wrinkled her freckled nose. “Except about your exes. Never tell me about your exes.”
A warmth spread through Nikolai. He felt light-headed.
“I . . . held a few things back,” he said. “About what happened with Hazeal. We talked a little, before he tried to kill me.”
Ilyana seemed unsurprised. “About your mom?”
Nikolai nodded. “He said my mom showed him what’s beyond the Veil. That we’ve been lied to about what’s really out there—that the expeditions are bullshit, the data and footage falsified. But of course he wouldn’t tell me what the supposed truth is. He just said . . .”
The gun will teach you the secrets of manipulating Veil with the apocrypha weave. To make a door in the sky. To see the human world, for yourself.
“ . . . that it’s horrible, but not in the way I’d think.” This had troubled Nik, almost as much as the newly mysterious circumstances surrounding his mother’s death. “If—hypothetically—Hazeal was telling the truth . . . what do you think might actually be out there?”
Ilyana took a swig from her bottle.
“Ohhhh, I’ve got the usual set of theories. If you really don’t buy the official story that it’s all wastelands of broken reality permanently ruined by Vaillancourt’s enchanted warheads, then . . . well . . . maybe it’s just the inky void of space. Or maggoty lands, pockmarked with Foxbourne breeding pits. Maybe boiling seas of lava, or rips and whirlpools in space-time that would drag you back to the age of dinosaurs. Oh, the folly of man! Oh, the foolishness of magi. Who knows? We’ll find out once we’re Lancers, like your mom was. So long as we do our jobs and keep our noses clean. So no more sneaking off and defying orders, kiddo. Or no government-issued time-traveling pterodactyl for you.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right.” Nikolai shifted uncomfortably, swirling around what little honeybrew remained at the bottom of the bottle. “It was weird how much he hated her. Everyone else I’ve ever met who knew my mom never shuts the fuck up about how amazing she was. How much they miss her. How much I look like her.”
His lips twisted into a sneer. “Why would I want to hear that? Um, hello, twenty-year-old boy. FYI, you look just like your piece-of-shit mother, who we were all so fucking terrified of that we still kiss her ass, even though she’s been dead for a decade. I thought my parents died in a skycraft accident, but Hazeal said he ratted her out about something, and that’s what got her killed. Which, of all the things he said, that’s what I believe the most. I wonder what she did? Knowing her, I bet it was baaaaad.”
“Treason?” Ilyana suggested. “She was really high up for a while there. Practically Jubal’s second-in-command. A traitor rising so high in command before getting caught would have made the king look weak. Covering it up makes sense.” She put a hand on Nikolai’s arm. “Especially to protect the ones she left behind.”
Nikolai tentatively put his hand over hers, grateful for the comfort. “Yeah. I totally buy her throwing a coup. Sometimes when she was manic, she’d clean the entire house with Les Misérables just blasting from a memory cube. She’d sing the whole thing—had it memorized. Then she’d be in this really great mood for the rest of the night, and would joke around with me and my dad with this genuinely terrible French accent.” He snorted. “What a fucking joke.”
“I hate Les Mis,” Ilyana said.
“I dunno,” Nikolai chuckled. “I think it’s pretty good. Humans were always so much better at theater than magi. Which doesn’t make any sense to me.”
“Bigger talent pool,” Ilyana said. “There were, what? Seven billion of them, in the end? And like, three hundred million of us—all spread out in thousands of different Veils. Population as small and divided as ours can only produce so many musical theater prodigies.” She turned her honeybrew bottle over, frowning as a single droplet trickled out. “You didn’t pack seconds, did you?”
Nikolai peered at his own empty bottle. “ ’Fraid not.”
“Probably for the best,” she sighed. “I’m tipsy already.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Did he say anything else to you? Just ‘Your mom’s a traitor, the outside’s a lie, fuck you Nik—die, die, die’?”
He looked at her for a moment, then shrugged.
“Well Nikolai,” she said. “All I can say is . . . fuck Hazeal. And fuck your mom. I know it’s easier said than done, but try not to let it get to you. And maybe . . . at least think about telling Jubal. You know he’d be cool about it.”
“Yeah. You’re probably right.”
Ilyana pulled out an intricately carved tobacco pipe. “For what it’s worth, I can sympathize with you having a shitty mom. When I was eleven, mine sent me away to live with my dad, who I barely knew, in New Damascus. Said a mage of my ‘disposition’ would be better suited to the North American Veils. Basically bought me out of the family by giving me my inheritance early. Which just happened to be slightly more than my father’s total worth, as a snub.”
Nikolai hissed a breath. “Jesus. That’s . . . fucked up. Where are you from originally?”
Ilyana rarely talked about herself, even when pressed. Nik knew that her father owned a chain of distilleries and breweries, but she’d never mentioned her mother before.
“Xanadu,” she said, thumbing tobacco into the pipe. “My little brother is studying law—being groomed for office. They’ve been prepping him since he was little, poor kid. So I obviously had to go. Bad influence and all that. My mother’s the Lady of Xanadu, actually—she’ll be running to be Duchess Elect of the Asian Veils in a couple years. Be the fourth Xue sorceress to hold the position, if she wins.”
Nikolai smiled, but then realized she was being serious. “Whoa—what? Your mom is—”
“Oh,” Nik said, taken aback.
Ilyana took a glittering crystal flask from its holster at her hip and twisted the top. The liquid within, which had been a sluggish glowing red, was replaced by glittering silver dust.
The flask was Ilyana’s logic Focal, which would normally have marked her as a potion master. The long, ruby-bladed dagger sheathed at her side was her art Focal.
While many Focals, such as Nikolai’s, merely served as conduits for spellcasting, other Focals like Ilyana’s flask served as magical tools to aide in their profession. Within the flask, Ilyana could store any number of different potions and ingredients within myriad tiny pocket dimensions. The dimensional pocket of her choice was selected with intuitive twists of the cap.
A small opening appeared at the top of the flask, and Ilyana gently tapped out a dash of the mysterious silver dust onto the tobacco in her pipe. She lit up the pipe and took a deep drag, holding it in. When she exhaled, the smoke came out swirling blue and green—tiny sparks crackling like a little electric storm.
“My parents separated when I was little,” she said. “My mother remarried, then had my brother. He and I used to be close, but we barely talk now. Mother’s side of the family is an old lineage—they weren’t very happy when she ran off with my father. He’s always been wealthy; our honeybrew and dragon’s milk are popular in Veils all over the world,” she added, with a hint of pride. “But he’s Merchant class—so, you know.”
“Who cares—rich is rich, right?” Nik said.
“Royalty cares. Also, my father’s black. So there’s always that.”
“Ah. Good ol’ classism and racism,” he said, eyeing the electric cloud of smoke with alarm. “Disc—what the hell is that stuff?”
“What,” she purred, exhaling another cloud of emerald and blue. Nik could feel her relaxing beside him, sinking deeper against the wall as her muscles seemed to melt. “You’ve never had Strum before?”
Nik stared at her blankly.
“Poet’s Powder? Glow Dust? No?”
He shook his head.
“Aw.” She leaned over and kissed his cheek. Nikolai flushed, trying to hide his surprise. “Sometimes I forget what a hayseed you are. Want some?”
“I dunno . . .”
She giggled. “That’s okay, Baby Nik. I won’t force you. It’s pretty mild stuff. Makes colors brighter. Makes every stone and every blade of grass burn and sing. Makes it so I can see my own magic. My weaves—they’re like gossamer. I can see them, hear them. Understand them in a way that’s hard to describe. Like our bodies are just gloves and we’re our magic, you know?”
She held out her hand, spreading her fingers. Threads of light shot from her fingertips, glowing neon purple, blue, pink, and white. Then she clenched her fist, sighing, and the threads disappeared.
“When we cast spells, it’s our real bodies we’re moving, peeking out from these husks.” She looked down at her naked hand with disdain. “These gloves.”
Nikolai stared at Ilyana, concerned. She met his gaze, her lips peaking up into a sly smile.
“I used to be called the Alchemist back in Academy,” she said, her eyes lit with a feverish gleam. “Did I ever tell you that? I was a purveyor of all sorts of mind-altering substances. Dangerous stuff—stuff you can only get from the worst part of the Noir district in the capital, from half-mages of ill repute. Stuff that can make nightmares come to life.”
“I got lucky,” she said. “I’ve cleaned up since I became an Edge Guard. Strum? Strum is nothing. Strum’s a trip to the shore twenty minutes away.”
“I’m . . . I’m glad nothing bad happened,” Nik said weakly. “I’m glad you joined the Edge Guard, and that you’re okay. You . . . are okay, right?”
“Me? Oh, I’m graaaand,” she said, tapping out the ashes from her pipe and pocketing it. “I’ve always had money. Always gotten everything I’ve ever wanted. But when you get everything—it gives you a kind of clarity.”
She held up a hand and created a snake of fire. It coiled in and out through her fingers, slender and colorful.
Nik watched nervously, worried that she was going to burn herself.
“A blindness too,” she continued, “to so easily have what so many others struggle for their whole lives; it removes all value. But value’s an illusion—there’s your clarity. Magi, Nikolai? We’re purposeless little things. We work, we breed, we live our lives, but nothing really changes. Day-to-day life has been pretty much the same for a century. There’s no disease, no real poverty. And worst of all—there’s no frontier.
“The borders are set, the Veils unchanging. There aren’t any new lands to discover, to bend and shape. We’re stagnant. Nothing we do matters because nothing will ever change. So I’d Strum and I’d Glow and I’d enjoy every possible explosion of the senses. Because I don’t feel much, Nik. I never have. I smile, I talk, and I laugh—but most of the time, I’m just sort of . . . numb. Like that feeling you get when you’re so bored it hurts. Like there’re ants under my skin, and if I don’t find a way to distract myself from them, they’ll eat me alive.
“But then I became an Edge Guard. Then I found out that there are monsters at the gate. Or something like monsters. That our borders are delicate, and that we aren’t stagnant at all but desperately trying to keep the darkness at bay, to keep from being snuffed out like tiny candles. I don’t know what’s beyond the Veils, I don’t know what we’re training to fight, if anything—but for the first time, I have something to care about. I have purpose. Captain Jubal and the Edge Guard gave me that.”
Her eyes widened and she was smiling, elated; the rope of fire she’d been twisting between her fingers collected into a coil over her palm.
“Though sometimes,” she whispered, her smile disappearing, “sometimes I wonder if it might be better to let it all come crashing down.”
The coil of flame began to swirl—growing, spinning—and as it grew, she stared into it, enthralled, until the inferno began to roar and the heat of it grew so hot that Nikolai’s civilian clothing began to singe. And it was getting hotter now, so hot that Ilyana was going to hurt herself, was going to burn off her hand—
“Pyrkagias!” Nik breathed, clasping his hand down on hers, smothering the roaring flame with an inverted weave of the spell. Their fingers intertwined—and as the flame disappeared, she slowly came back to reality.
He wished he had something to say—something smart. Something funny or insightful. Something that could take away her incredible sadness. But all of a sudden, he’d never felt so young, never felt so naive—and it struck Nikolai that he didn’t know Ilyana at all.
So he kissed her. Hand sliding along her neck, down to her waist. She kissed him back and reached up. Nikolai felt a flash of heat, and then another, and looked down to see that she was burning off his buttons with tiny bursts of flame.
A wizard and a sorceress fucked in the Disc’s pale glow.
Afterward, they lounged in a tangle of limbs on the blackened picnic blanket, fingers entwined as they stared into the Disc.
“I’ve never killed anyone before,” she said, barely above a whisper. “I thought that I might eventually. But not someone I knew. Someone I liked. It’s the strangest thing.”
Nikolai brought his hand to her face, tracing his fingers across the constellations of her faint, scattered freckles. “Nobody expects you to just be okay. But Hazeal—he wasn’t the same person he used to be. He would have killed me if you hadn’t stopped him.”
She chewed her lip, avoiding Nik’s gaze.
“It’s not that. It’s . . . it’s that I don’t feel guilty at all. And no, it’s not shock. It’s not denial. I just don’t care. How awful is that?”
Nik didn’t know what to say.
After a long silence, she pulled away from him and began to dress.
“Hey,” he said, panicking. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”
“No, no, you didn’t do anything wrong. But this. This can’t happen. We work together. I outrank you. I shouldn’t be getting high with you, let alone fucking you. This is all already so complicated. It’s been a while since I’ve felt like such a child. I need to just . . . process all of this. You know?”
“Sure,” Nik said. He sat up, awkwardly pulling on his now buttonless shirt. “I understand.”
“Chin up, Sergeant,” she said, flashing that wicked smile that Nik was growing so fond of as she clasped her final button. “You weren’t half bad. Let’s just take some time to think about whatever the hell this was, yeah?”
Ilyana didn’t sleep at the safe house that night. She was treating herself now that the stakeout was over, and had rented a room in one of the nicer hotels.
“I’ve got to be able to get a massage somewhere, even in a Veil as small as Marblewood,” she’d said. “Don’t call me unless there’s an emergency. And even then, don’t call.”
That left only Nikolai and Albert in the cramped apartment for their final night in Marblewood. Nikolai lay there, awake, staring at the dusty ceiling as he waited for Albert to fall asleep in the other room.
Alone with his thoughts, Nikolai replayed everything that had happened with Ilyana in the Disc Chamber over and over again. Little gestures, and things she said—the way she said them. The way she looked while they held each other, naked, in the shimmering silver light.
Slowly, his mind drifted away from Ilyana, focusing instead on his far less pleasant memories of the last time he’d been in the Marblewood Disc Chamber.
The two years that had passed since that day—Assignment Day—somehow felt to Nikolai both like an eternity, and no time at all.
On Assignment Day, young magi would swear oaths of magical conduct and then reach into the pool of water beneath the Disc to draw their Focals; indestructible pieces of a mage’s soul, manifested physically as objects able to greatly focus and power one’s magic.
First they’d draw the logic Focal, which symbolically represented and practically assisted with the career a magi would be best suited for as a full wizard or sorceress.
Second, they’d draw the art Focal, which represented and aided the creative vocation for which the mage had shown the most promise.
A mage could choose either to define their career path—or neither, if they preferred. Though that was unusual.
Nikolai remembered how hot it had been. Remembered the wide-brimmed hat and the sweaty, itchy fabric of his formal robes, which seemed to grow heavier with every student called before him to swear their oaths and draw their Focals.
The mage just before Nikolai drew a Watchman’s glittering, gold-striped staff as her logic Focal, which could powerfully channel the brute elemental forces of fire and air.
Nikolai stewed with envy as applause for the mage—a full sorceress now, having sworn her oaths and drawn her Focals—roared in his ears.
His father had been a highly respected Watchman, and since his death Nikolai had dreamed—obsessed, really—of following in his footsteps. Thinking of his father always filled Nik with warmth. The pristine white of his topcoat, flapping in the wind behind him; his watchman staff, twinkling with light as it coursed sluggishly up the striped gold.
Nikolai remembered being called. He remembered the other students whispering about him. Remembered the flyball players snickering as he approached the pool.
Oaths were sworn and Nik reached into the pool, not even bothering to roll up his sleeve. The water was like ice. He reached around, snaking his hand through the pool. The edges were smooth, more like glass than stone. His hand closed around what felt like a staff, thick and sturdy. Thicker than the cane of a teacher or the scepter of a politician. Resilient and utilitarian.
A Watchman’s staff!
Nik nearly gasped out a sob of relief before stifling it, and with a ferocious grin he yanked the Watchman’s staff out of the water.
Only it wasn’t a Watchman’s staff. It was . . . something else.
A baton. A club, as long as his forearm. Rounded at the ends. Metallic but matte and soft. Plain and dull and black. So black it was almost hard to look at—hard to see.
Every magi’s Focals were different, unique. But one thing they all had in common was dazzling aesthetics. Whether jeweled, chromatic, or intricate and colorful as delicately spun candy, a magi’s Focals were always things of beauty.
This was not the case with Nikolai’s baton.
An awkward silence fell across the chamber. The council members exchanged puzzled looks as Nik hunched in on himself. He’d never seen a Focal like this, and from the looks on their faces he knew that they hadn’t either and something was wrong with him or the Disc or who knows what.
He could hear people tittering with shock and cruel amusement. One of the flyball players stage-whispered “Nikolai Half Staff” loud enough for everyone to hear, and when Nikolai made the mistake of glancing back he saw that many of the others had begun to laugh.
Nikolai thrust out his hand, handing the first mage of the council his Focal.
“Oh, um, yes—thank you,” she stammered, accepting the baton after a moment of hesitation, like it was radioactive.
He could feel her hands on it. The baton was a part of him, a piece of his soul or essence or whatever the Disc took out of him and created in the pool, and it felt wrong for someone else to be holding it.
Nikolai shoved the feeling of wrongness aside and looked expectantly at the next council mage, his cold gaze half lidded and uncaring because now he just wanted to get this shit over with and go home and sleep for the next hundred or so years.
“Right, ahem, of course,” the councilwoman said, and quickly dipped the butt of her staff into the water. The water shimmered, ready for his second drawing. Nik reached in, fishing around without enthusiasm. He found his art Focal quicker than the logic, his hand closing around a handle with a rough, leathery grip. He pulled it from the water, uncaring . . .
. . . and gasped.
In Nik’s hand was a dagger, edge dripping with water from the pool. Not a carving knife. Not a tool for working leather, cutting cloth, or meat. It was a wicked blade—curved and black, like a demon’s steely talon.
That was his art. A thing for wounding. For killing.
A soldier’s weapon. The Focal of a Battle Mage.
Just like his mother.
There hadn’t been any laughter this time. No snide remarks, no giggling among the students. Just a deep, uneasy silence.
With a groan, he stood up and snatched the black baton. He ran.
The stairs were a blur, the citizens and government workers milling about the entrance hall out of focus and vaguely dreamlike as he sprinted through their midst, dagger in one hand, half staff in the other.
As he ran, half staff swinging at his side, he noticed that as the baton moved it left a vague trail of light in its wake, a smearing of multicolored rainbow.
The fake sun set in the fake sky, and he began to limp, feet blistered from running in the replica Converse sneakers his only friend, George Stokes, had made for him as a graduation gift.
Nik finally found his way to the secluded lakeside beach he always fled to when he wanted to be alone. He sat heavily at the edge of the waves and pried off his sneakers from under his robes, sticking his toes in the icy water.
He pulled out the dagger. The black blade glittered in the moonlight. Gently he touched the tip of his finger to the edge and instantly drew blood. He popped the bleeding finger into his mouth and laid the dagger in the sand. He could feel it there, waiting, hungry for violence.
That’s what it was made for—to focus and strengthen the destructive arts. With this blade, he could make fire so hot it burned white. He could turn sand to glass, skin to dust, stone to lava.
But the baton . . . it felt like more than a simple tool for violence. Nik waved it around, watching the smearing rainbow trail. It sucked at his magic like gravity, like wind trying to pull you over a cliff. The power was immense. It made him dizzy.
Two years later, Nikolai still hadn’t been able to discover why he’d drawn such a uniquely strange Focal, nor how it trailed light or what purpose the light might serve. Even Captain Jubal had been stumped.
“We like to pretend we’ve mastered the arcane,” he’d said, with the faintest lingering hint of his Blue Ridge Veil drawl. “But the fact of the matter is that most magi underestimate the indescribable scientific and quantum complexity of even the most simplistic spells. Any number of factors could have led to the anomaly that is your Focal—nothing to be done about it.”
Through all the doubt and anxiety, Nik had been quietly sure that he’d become a Watchman like his father. That things would work out, like in the stories. The kids in stories were always orphans destined for greatness. Street urchins and outcasts who overcame their humble beginnings to become heroes and saviors, beloved by all.
Nobody could tell stories like Nik’s dad. His mom, she’d go through these depressions—weeks when she’d barely speak, barely eat, when she’d come home from work, trembling and dead in the eyes. Nik couldn’t remember her face—he hated that he couldn’t remember her face—but he remembered seeing her, and even as a child thinking, There’s nothing there. There’s nobody home.
She’d always hurt Nikolai the most during these periods of darkness. Always pushed him harder during their secret training sessions in the heart of the wood. It was then that she’d go as far as to crack his bones as she taught Nikolai to defend himself from her vicious strikes. It was then that she’d make him wait for healing after he’d burned himself on botched spells he wasn’t supposed to know, screaming at him for sloppy spellcasting while he writhed in the mud.
Only his father’s stories could bring her back from the darkness. It would start with a laugh, and she’d seem surprised, every time, as if she’d forgotten that it was within her ability.
Nik’s father had loved stories—loved hearing them, made an art of telling them. He had boxes and boxes of novels mostly written by long-dead human authors. Nik’s favorite memories of his parents were of being nestled on a sofa between them as they read to him by firelight, the both of them reading for different characters, doing all the voices. It was those nights that he most powerfully felt their love—for Nik, for each other.
Nikolai’s uncle Red took him in after his parents died. And though he took care of Nik to his best ability, the man became withdrawn. Cold and distant. Nikolai’s only childhood friends, Astor and Stokes, had rallied to help him through it. But what really saved him were the stories.
The humans had loved writing stories about triumph over adversity. Of good triumphing over evil. Of love conquering all and people defeating monsters without becoming monsters themselves. Of life having a way of working out in the end—no matter how bad things might seem at the time.
But that’s all they were. Stories.
The humans were dead. Nik’s parents were dead. And he was just a stupid orphan who’d never be like his father, no matter how hard he tried.
He was his mother’s son.
The slender floating hands of the clock on Nik’s bedside table finally struck midnight, drawing him out of his reverie.
Nikolai rose and quietly pulled on some clothes. He peered into Albert’s room, checking to make sure the junior lieutenant was asleep. Clad in emerald silk pajamas, snores muffled by his gauzy, enchanted face mask, Albert was dead to the world.
Nik’s rank normally would have been insufficient to open the safe hidden under the loose, enchantment-masked floorboards. They’d locked it up tight under Captain Jubal’s orders, setting it so that not even Albert or Ilyana could open it—let alone a lowly sergeant.
Taking a deep breath to steady himself, Nikolai drew out the Moonwatch rank insignia. The crescent moon burned in the darkness, casting a pale white glow on the seamless black surface of the box.
A line seared across the edges of the box, a hinge forming from mercurial beads. With a hiss, the safe opened to reveal an object wrapped in layers of enchanted lead mesh.
It was silent now. Muffled by the lead. But somehow he knew the revolver could hear him. And then, at the edge of his mind, he could hear it. Not hear it, exactly. But he could feel the words, sense the ideas—there, just within reach. The spell that would allow him to see for himself what remained of the human world beyond the Veil.
He just had to ask.
Like snatching gold out of a dragon’s mouth.
Nikolai dragged his fingertips across the cold, rune-etched barrel, and as he allowed the creeping tendrils of ancient magic to enter his mind, he relived every pleasure he’d ever experienced in an explosion of blinding ecstasy. Every laugh, every kiss, every kindness. Every moment of tenderness, every night of passion—all in one single instant.
He wasn’t in the apartment anymore, he was in an infinite space, sky and stars and songs he could see in colorful waves dancing around him, and he was screaming with laughter, he couldn’t stop, he was rapture incarnate, a being of pure joy, and there was a woman, a beautiful woman all dressed in red—he couldn’t see her face but somehow he knew she was beautiful, the most beautiful woman in the world.
“Show me the apocrypha weave,” Nikolai begged her, fighting to speak through the crippling euphoria. “Teach me to bend Veil. To make a door in the sky.”
Her Yes was a feeling more than a word. A color more than an idea.
The woman reached out with crimson-clad fingers and took Nikolai’s hand.