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Agents of Change by Gary Riddell

© Gary Riddell

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Chapter One

The light exceeds me; trembles and glows on the golden cloak of my watcher. It is spilling over my shoulder, but I’ve only just woken and can’t turn to find its source. I look up and examine the strong manacles linking my wrists together. Looking down I see that I’m wearing dark trousers but my torso is bare, the sharp vivacity of bone and muscle indicating a strength and vitality which pleases me.

I can’t remember who I am. Dread and excitement wrestle together in me, and I feel that if only I can be free, truly free then it doesn’t matter who I am, only what I make of it. A soft movement tears every last flicker of warmth from the air and I see the golden mask of my captor’s face above his golden cloak. He is like a gold machine.

I open my mouth and thirst stretches out its white dunes, but I try to speak anyway. “Who are you and where are we?”

The golden ghost doesn’t speak but I can hear movement in the corridor outside. It feels like I’m in some kind of dungeon but the light emanating from behind me suggests a window, so we must be above ground – or they’re fucking with me. I try to turn again and can’t, but the door creaks open and a huge figure (at least twelve feet tall) stoops to enter my prison, four normal-sized guards accompanying him.

The immortal stands full-length in front of me. His beauty and power are astonishing, seeming to pierce those around him, attenuating their features and subjugating them to his own. He has a cascade of long black hair and his eyes are striking, like a black hole filled with moonlight. He’s a picture of refinement with something feverish around the edge, a subtle verve both malicious and tender, and as I look up in awe the ghost of a smile creases his perfect face.

“It is not power that corrupts but fear. Fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it.” His voice is deep and sonorous and, like powerful machine jaws, consumes the silence. “Do you feel fear now?” He looks at me as if expecting me to melt away and I meet his gaze full-on, that face like precious marble, smiling rarely and painfully.

I opt to play it cool and pretend to know more than I do; which is nothing. “Well, I’m here now…”

“Can you,” he repeats, “feel fear?” He stoops and his plaintive, devouring eyes search my face like it’s a meal that could be whipped away at any minute. I don’t know much about myself but I can tell I’m well over six feet tall and powerfully built, given extra height by hanging from the ceiling, yet he almost takes a knee as he stares into my eyes. His face is cold and white, like the snow-covered slopes of some long-extinct volcano.

He rises dismissively and, seeing I’m not going to contribute, continues. “The gods spread corruption because all they know is fear and all they can give is fear. I do not feel fear. I know there are greater things off the easy path; greater things than safety; more terrible things than death. You don’t scare me. I’ve wanted to say that to you for uncountable generations.”

I seem to see myself from a higher angle and a wry smile cuts my face. “Yes, I can picture you writing your little speech, scribbling away in crayon–”

The back of his hand cracks my face, throwing my head back. “You don’t have the right to joke!”

“And you don’t have the right to judge!” I pitch this idea without knowing what the fuck I’m talking about, but I imagine that someone this large and annoying will find meaning in anything. It seems I’m right because his eyes shift and greedy red flashes begin jumping about in them. I feel a sudden keen pride in my ability to annoy.

I don’t know where the feeling comes from but I get a sense for the thin soil of his heart; not fertile, yet capable of the one crop it needs: hate. My memory is like water which spreads its widening rings as each word drops like a stone, but I still don’t know who I am.

The immortal’s limbs are as thick as tree trunks and his tone matches their strength. “The higher powers are nothing to me, and I’ll crush the gods to powder before I’m done. I’ll snap their necks one-by-one until what was taken is returned.”

“Can you snap a god’s neck?” I ask.

His fingers curl like claws, hungry for violence and he looks at my neck. “We’ll see.” A look flickers on his face like a picture moving in and out of focus, as if he is two people trapped between anger and arrogance, straining in opposite directions.

He leans in so close I can feel the power of his breath and I sense a primordial fire of goodness in him which disturbs me. He’s more complicated than I first thought and all these qualities I now sense in him (albeit I have no idea how I can know these things) are piled on top of each other like a big sandwich…a big sandwich of evil.

Actually, forget I said that because it sounds incredibly stupid, and I haven’t eaten for days so it’s best to avoid mentioning food in front of me – I know it’s completely my fault but still, you should know better.

Anyway, the guy comes up to me so close I can feel the power of his breath and he says, “I am Salazar, King of Mornwall and my face is the last thing you will ever see.”

“I’m both terrified and aroused. Where’s Mornwall? Sounds like the kind of place where they don’t care who the leader is and just choose whoever has fondled the most breasts.” I look him up and down appraisingly. “Good for you.”

Two fists strike my sides like pistons before I can even register them and I gasp in agony. I now understand how he can discuss crushing gods in such a blasé fashion. I’m not used to being hurt, I gather, because something in my mind rebels at the notion, some deep-seated pride or ancient sadness.

I look up and catch Salazar’s last look regarding his homeland Mornwall, resting his mental eye upon it sadly and lovingly until he remembers himself and pulls into the present, his face poignant and revealing. I feel a new respect and hatred for this dark figure who just sucker-punched me.

The cell door opens with a protest and a voice, hurried and panting, enters. “Sir, they’ve found us.”

Salazar empties a look of hate at me and sweeps out the room with his gold cloak guard, leaving the four mortals to look after me. I hang around in pain, my fingers climbing steadily up the chain feeling for its tautness. Finding the point of maximum resistance, I look up and see the guards staring at me, their eyes full of a strange attention which resembles repressed fear.

I wonder at my identity and then pull down half the ceiling, freeing my hands as the room fills with gasps. Spears and swords flash my way but freedom floods my body, and I move with the raw and fabulous love it, full of energy and daring as if everything depends upon it – which, to be fair, it probably does. I slap away a spear and in an instant close the distance, my hand around a throat.

I look into the man’s eyes and there’s something very much alive about them, something penetrating and shrewd. His round mouth opens and shuts in the manner of a fish’s song, emptying all his strength to fight me as I barely feel it. A piercing ache of tenderness and pity shoots through me, and I throw him into a wall with what I consider to be a degree of care.

If I can spare someone’s life I will do so. Especially if I don’t know why we’re fighting. I’m able to move faster than the guards so they barely draw their swords as I plunge forward, grip one’s wrist and clothesline him with my arm. In the same motion I take his blade and flick the weapon out of another’s hand, ducking out of reach of the fourth’s blade but moving not a millimetre beyond the limits of balance.

I’m pretty happy with how things are going, to be honest. I break the disarmed man’s leg and backhand him into unconsciousness. The fourth opens his mouth to scream and I flick my palm lightly into his throat, his eyes bright shells of terror as he clutches it and hits the wall, staring up at me with a fierce, raw, fresh hate. What can I have done to inspire such hate and terror? He looks at me, his breath bronchial as a saw, and I try to look charitable as I clap him round the temple, but he falls just the same, his fingers twisting like flames as consciousness leaves him.

I hold the sword, gripped by power and a blazing solitude. The door is sealed but instinctively I hold my splayed fingers towards the lock and it swings open. Interesting, I think to myself. That’ll make locksmiths redundant in the future. I look back and see that I was right: there is a window, so I was being held above ground but it’s too high for me to climb so I carry on into the corridor.

My chains are dragging behind me, so I hitch them up and carry them like flails, still holding the sword. Voices stamp themselves on my ear and I project my senses forward, somehow seeing a group of guards marching through an opposing corridor that I couldn’t possibly see with my own eyes. I didn’t know I could do that: very good, I’ll keep that in mind.

I slither through the shadows and get a feel for the place; it seems to be some kind of castle or fortress, but its design is unusual and futuristic. There’s a tingling feeling in my mind and I throw myself to the side as lightning-streaks of fire strike where I was. Turning I see two of the masked, gold cloak guards moving towards me, each with a palm extended and wielding blades in their other hands.

My heart throbs like something feral but I control it, push it down and run, past lights burning in the walls like rare alarms; the glow from these lamps is not fiery but magical and blue. Mortal guards appear ahead of me and their fear shines out like flares. I pirouette past several attacks, disarming and cutting tendons as I go. A fireball slams into my back and I fall amongst them, strikes raining down on me as I regain my balance and I’m aware, painfully aware of the gold cloaks closing in as the crowd piles on.

I throw several men into the air and they land with a sickening crunch, but before anyone else can descend I whirl my manacle chains and strike out at several attackers, who fall immobilised. I set off down the corridor at a run but know that I’ve lost valuable ground to the gold cloaks, whose magical attacks I fend off with my forearms. Each of these hits, I instinctively know, should be enough to kill a man but they only hurt me. And what’s a little physical pain between enemies?

I’m trapped because I can tell from a distance that the metal door in front is locked and a kind of dark, atavistic rage within me builds so that, instead of slowing down to use my lock-opening trick I jump forearms-first through the door and it smashes forward with impossible weight, bringing the stone on either side with it. This barely slows me down. In fact I think I’ve gained speed from it.

To the left is another endless corridor but to the right the ceiling gives way to a kind of open bridge across to another tower – I now assume the building I’m in is a dark tower similar to the one several hundred metres distant. The sky is an unnatural sooty black. I start across this bridge, look down and gasp: beneath is a vast cavern filled with lakes of fading light and long remorseless shadows, hot springs of strange unearthly light billowing up into the darkness and being caught in it but flowing on unceasingly, from deeper down in the world; I’m almost tempted to say deeper down in the gloom, but of course the light proves there are worlds of colour and imagination somewhere beyond our reach.

“No further.” Salazar is ahead of me whirling a huge spear, cleaving the air with a ladylike whisper.

There is no escape. I feel the grave moving forward from its ambush. He charges and we’re well-matched for power, but his speed is unbelievable for such a big unit. He’s smashing my guard down repeatedly and I can only recover it before the next blow comes, one attack biting into my shoulder and I feel the blood move in black, brittle rivers down my arm.

I see a chance and take it, leaping forward as he drops his guard but it’s a feint and he sweeps away my blade, knocking me to the ground. “Well fought, in your current form,” he says, leaving long pauses after he speaks as if he’s rolling stones with his voice.

I reply as he paces towards me, trying for some immortal line with which to secure my legacy and skewer my enemies on my wit like some witty guy with a skewer “Piss off, you shit…slap.” Okay, that was the amnesia.

“I don’t know what that is,” Salazar growls.

“It’s a type of thing, I suppose.”

His spear tenses like a snake. “I’m going to kill you now.”

“That would be less awkward.”

I look down at the pulsing light and think: ah, fuck it. I tumble over the edge and feel the speed and gleam and quiver of a thousand forming stars as the light sweeps me up. I feel a magnetic pull towards a hostile triumphant strength, but move away towards a thousand other things: things which remind me of the mild breeze of childhood, ruined worlds seen across the black ash fields of their history, and precious people I no longer knew.

The scene resolves itself and I’m dressed differently, and in a long, dark hallway. There’s a strange device on the wall with numbers on it and as I lift my hand to touch it, it rings. I pick up the receiver, hold it to my ear and a voice says, “He’ll come to you. He’ll ask for your help.” The line goes dead and as I put the receiver down the scene dissolves. Was that real? Was it the past or the future, or some reality beyond both?

My hand is pierced through by the soft touch of grass, there’s a chill on the breeze and the air’s hammers strike my bare body. A rising sun casts blow after blow from the ardent hump of the horizon and I get to my feet slowly, shaking the grass off my dark trousers. Things here feel real to me.

The wind grabs the trees by the hands and catapults voices my way. I sense I’m in a more normal world than I was before, though that’s not saying much. I follow the voices, look down a small hill and see a young woman standing alone, tensed. Behind her, charging fast, I see a creature of pure nightmare, but as I try to call out she doesn’t seem to hear.

I rush into the fray.

Chapter Two

I’m rushing down to the rescue when I hear a series of mangled, inhuman cries and look up to find the young woman slashing at the monster, forcing it back. It rears up like a tense flame and I see its eyes are a solid fire of gems, its gaze of sad hunger tinctured with rage; vampire variant. Ruby eyes slash at the woman’s pale coat, winds of memory pouring in as the monster hisses with fury.

It’s a shadowy, though solid form, like a woman’s image burned into a wall, and its hands are wide fans topped with eight inch claws of shadow. The woman ducks, avoiding the creature’s splayed claws, and slashes upward striking the monster’s jaw as it jumps away, flailing its long arms.

She turns to me, still crouched and says. “Come on then,” with a smile, indicating the beast with her head. My first thought is that it’s rather presumptuous of her to think I’d help but my second thought is that she’s rather pretty. I decide to help – purely for charitable reasons, of course – I’d help even if she was an ugly, morally-detestable git. Speaking of which: A voice calls out, echoing like a horn.

“Come ‘ere then, ya big bastard!” An axe-wielding dwarf charges across on light, wolfish feet and all I see is a ginger Mohawk, its hairs rising like motionless tongues of flame, before he becomes hopelessly entangled with the vampire, bashing its face in while shouting, “Have some! Have some! Have some!” The fact he probably shouts the same thing during sex amuses me, but I remember he might be with the pretty woman and feel as if somehow the joke is always on me.

Anyway, the creature throws the dwarf off and blood scatters over the ground in red threads and spots; it’s clear he’s wounded it, albeit I probably would have done better in his position, just saying. The creature belches a cry of terror and spits out shreds of horrible, alien words. Something dark and agonising touches me, but I try to push it off. I can tell that it’s a killer.

The woman points to the dwarf. She’s clearly the leader. “Sig, circle round it. Strange half-naked guy who appeared out of nowhere,” that would be me, “come here and stick with me.”

The creature feints towards Sig, who raises his axe but it turns and advances on us, its arms a wild invincible meat grinder. I punch it in the side and a claw lashes out swifter than a bird’s leg, a flame of malice flashing vainly in its eyes as I dodge out of range. It felt that.

The woman’s eyebrow shoots up. “Did you seriously just punch it?” Respect and derision have pressed themselves into her expression, and I don’t know which is real. She ducks an attack, brings down her blade on its right arm with full force; it severs in a spray of black cloud and disappears. She cuts its head off and the whole thing ascends in a smokescreen of solid black, evaporating in an instant. I’m impressed, and slightly emasculated.

She cleans the blade on her sleeve and looks at me as she slides it into the sheath, a light in her eye fierce and cautious both. She goes to speak and I intercept her with something I didn’t know I was going to say even a second ago. “Anya Fitzwallis?” I ask, not knowing where the name comes from.

Her eyes are piercing into my face like pitchfork prongs. “Yes.”

I don’t know where these things I’m about to say come from but my mind freezes around the words as if trying to preserve them for later use. “I need your help. I don’t know how I know your name or why I believe I can trust you, but I do.” I take a deep breath. “Do you know me?”

She sizes me up and answers slowly, hesitantly. “I don’t know you.” She flicks a fleck of blonde hair out of her way and I feel as if she’s intending to say more.

The susurrus of falling leaves and the crunch of their broken brothers signal a new arrival, and a dwarf’s voice roars into life. “Is Mr Muscle chatting you up?”

“Who are you?” I ask.

“He’s no one,” Anya shoots back.

The dwarf recoils in mock outrage as he answers her, his mouth a crimson scar. “I’m your bosom friend. Friend of your bosom.”

“You wish,” she smiles.

“And dream, and aspire that one day I may lick the heel of your boot.”

“Your shoe fetish gets more disturbing by the day.”

I smile as they’re clearly being sarcastic and when I turn to Anya she’s looking over my naked torso, and I do a quick mental fist bump. I hope that nobody present can read minds. Her eyes twinkle like glass beads. “How do you know me?”

I shake my head. “I have no idea. I can’t remember anything about myself–”

The dwarf laughs. “Ah, the old ‘Please fuck me, I’m an amnesiac’ technique. Classic – I’ve used it myself.”

“Did it work?” I smile.

“I don’t remember,” he shoots back with a wink and we both laugh. It feels strange and comforting.

“That’s enough, Sig,” Anya warns, but a smile sneaks over her lips. “Let’s do formal introductions, even though you seem to know my name: I’m Anya Fitzwallis, professor of Ancient History at Strathbrook University and this is–”

“Sig Hammerhead,” the dwarf cuts in. “Professor of hitting stuff with an axe at the university of life, esteemed scholar of the arts martial and–”

“A first class asshole,” Anya completes his sentence.

Sig’s eyes glint cheekily like the flash of knives in a cave. “I’m an asshole with a heart of gold.”

Anya laughs. “I agree. Except you don’t have a heart of gold.”

“True.”

Half of me wants to join in and the other half to walk very quickly in the opposite direction. Clearly they aren’t lovers but there’s a bond between them; one moment they can be serious and the next having fun, raising from the ocean bed a whole sunken world of looks, jokes and allusions. “Why are you out here fighting monsters, professor?” I ask.

Anya empties a pitying look as if sensing my confusion. “I do a bit of detective work on the side – helping people out, supernatural stuff mostly – and Sig helps with that. My brother normally lends a hand too; he’s a mage but he’s back at the university doing his research – he’s head of Enchanting and Experimental Magic.”

Experimental Magic definitely sounds promising. “I don’t know why I think you can help me,” I answer slowly. “But something tells me you can. Will you?”

“Are you asking me or her?” Sig cuts in.

“Definitely her.”

We all smile but Anya’s voice is level and sincere. She meets my eyes with her own, and they’re swollen with brightness. “If I can I will. You’re with us now.”

I feel the words dancing from ear to ear: you’re with us now. Colonies of feeling I haven’t reached in…who knows how long are being touched and I feel like a fire groping blindly, tremulously forward, happy just to burn. Oh, and I must remember to borrow a shirt from her brother because the topless look only works for so long and Sig isn’t my size.

Anya turns, almost embarrassed. “So you don’t remember your name?”

“Not at all.”

“We’ll have to come up with something to call you,” she smiles, looking me up and down appraisingly.

Sig coughs. “I once had a pet called–”

We both ignore him and Anya interrupts. “Sorley! That’s a good name.”

“Where’d you get it from?” I ask, enlivened by a flash of boldness.

A sadness blazes in her face. “It’s just a nice name.”

I nod, smiling, though my thoughts cling with bruised fingers to the fact I’ve made her sad. “It’s a good name,” I say.

“Come on, back to the city.”

The city is Blitz, capital of the Samarian Empire, and early evening is touching fingers of light with its colours; buildings are strung up in a strong light on the horizon, the drumming growth of houses stretches as far as the eye can see. Ten million souls live here permanently and almost as many again in passing, or so I’m told.

The wind is dripping with rain and between the business of the city, its deals and fights and merriment, are sharp little voices cutting through the din: children, I remember. I wonder if I have any children, if I have anything in the world – is this even my world? I feel a sensation of hopeless pain, of bitterness and sweetness. People have a desperate commitment to the past, to family, to things that have happened otherwise they might walk out one day and never return like some animals.

I have none of that. Perhaps I’ve walked out never to return. But I have these two beside me, excitedly explaining all the things there are and all the things they’ve done. I feel like they’ve taken my life down from the shelf and blown off the dust.

Pavements whisper and echo around high buildings with their winking glass, and in the reflections I can almost see other worlds twisting around me as I walk.

“What are you looking at?” Anya asks.

“Just the architecture,” I smile.

“Here we are,” says Sig, indicating a set of gates within a huge curving wall stretching into the distance. “The university.”

The gate is manned by half a dozen battlemages and three times that number of ordinary soldiers, and on the way Anya mentioned something about it disabling all undeclared enchantments, magical augmentations and other effects. Nervousness jolts through me and I suddenly get the feeling, as we walk up to the gate that I’m going to be struck down as soon as I cross its threshold.
I begin to ramble. “A lot of muscle for a university.”

“We like to be sequestered here,” Anya says. “It combines the benefits of a metropolis with those of a countryside estate. You can live here without ever visiting the outside world, should you choose to.”

I nod repeatedly as we are now seconds from the gate. A battlemage looks at my topless body and thinks, “Typical students,” until Anya shows him her pass and he lets us through – but how did I know what he was thinking? Perhaps I belong at this magical university after all.

The campus is a miniature city within a city. Its population of forty thousand come from all races and corners of the world, giving it a metropolitan atmosphere: herbs and spices fling their scents across the street, and machines belch smoke that rages beautifully across the sky, passing the stony gaze of statues perching silently above doorways and on roofs.

“Tell me if you need anything,” Anya says from the door as I settle into my apartment on the tenth, and top, floor of the Vicaro Building, a central hub of the university. She’s able to arrange my accommodation at short notice because, in addition to being an academic Anya is a famous explorer who brings a lot of prestige to the university and Indigo , her brother, is a world-leader in Experimental Magic, a term which still intrigues me.

I watch the ladder of light sink into nothing as she closes the door and feel a strange urge to visit Indigo, who lives in a tower turreted into the tenth floor and which sticks up like a golf tee for another three floors of its own. First I check my reflection: muscular, a black harvest of whisker across my cheeks and, modesty aside, a rather handsome head of ink black hair.

Walking to where the tower should begin I see only an empty space spiralling up into darkness, but my foot makes contact with the floor and steps rise to meet it, sweeping me up into the tower. It’s impressive magic and I’m nervous about meeting this mysterious figure, who Anya describes thusly: “He likes things to be clear and structured and ordered, and he wants to know where everyone stands in a conversation. He’s the most stunningly gifted mage but he can’t intuit things that are done with body language or suggestion. Keep these simple things in mind: he is very kind and assumes the best about everyone. He can be funny, but try to avoid jokes or laughter that is out of context or ambiguous, because he is prone to think that people are laughing at him.”

She thinks I’m going to meet him for the first time tomorrow, when I will have her to help me. She’s wrong. A sooty black door greets me but opens before I can touch it, emitting a tongue of light that is swiftly cut off as it closes. I suddenly feel watched and exposed.

From an outside view I know the room must be spherical but it stretches much further than would seem possible, giving the appearance of a long hall. All the windows are covered by blinds, cutting the room off from the outside world and the ceiling is a magical reflection of the space between worlds, illumed by the dappled light of stars.

A young man in blue robes stands with his back to me, his frame illuminated by a fireplace set with emerald flame into which all his attention pours. He turns, sees me and shivers perceptibly. A thin, watery smile spreads across his unnaturally handsome features. Dark blonde arranges itself in shoulder-length curtains either side of his face.

He’s incredibly thin and, I would guess about a hundred and thirty pounds despite being around six feet tall. His words, like globules of quicksilver, are quick but lasting. There’s an immense shyness to the man crouching behind everything he does. “I’m happy to meet you. As you probably guessed, I’m Indigo Fitzwallis, Anya’s brother.”

I’m confused by this. “You’ve been expecting me? Anya hasn’t had a chance–”

His fingers, thin and fierce as a spider’s legs, flick upwards. “I was watching you.”

I look up into the false night sky and fail to understand; fail hard. He whispers like a proud man’s apology. “It must be hard for you, not knowing how you fit.” His eyes are hidden in their sockets.

“I think a lot of people feel that way often. They just don’t say it. You’d think knowing their where they come from would help them but it doesn’t.” I’m not sure where these words are coming from, only that they’re shaped for the occasion by my tongue and it’s pulling frantically at its roots, striving to say something it has no language for. I don’t know why I want to talk to him so badly, but maybe it’s because instinctively I know he’s an outsider too.

“I noticed a disturbance when you arrived.”

“Arrived?”

“On this world.”

“So this is a different…world than where I was imprisoned?”

“I didn’t know you were imprisoned, but yes. Inter-dimensional travel is still theory on this world, but I’ve pushed its study further than anyone and I felt your arrival.”

My eyes sweep the room anxiously, trailing every shadow back to its source. “I was imprisoned by an immortal called Salazar. He called himself King of Mornwall and claimed he would crush the gods. He says fear of losing power corrupts those who wield it and fear of the scourge of power corrupts those who are subject to it. He says he is not afraid.”

Indigo nods shyly. “Mornwall is a nation in this world but Salazar disappeared thousands of years ago. He was one of the Fatherless.” His eyes flick to the door. “My sister would know more about him.”

“No!” I say, a little too aggressively. “I want to take things one step at a time.”

“I can–” His head darts to the side, and I know why because I heard it too.

Something moves quietly outside the door, with a rush like a head dropping into a basket. I’m unarmed but at least Anya fetched me a shirt before she left my room, I think sarcastically. As if reading my thought, Indigo inclines his hand slightly and a flaming sword appears in my hand, dripping fire like a chainsaw. I try not to look surprised or impressed.

The air shifts and a gold cloak appears behind me, the portal closing silently as an eye. The room is hacked with light, a fire blast smashing into my blocking arms and flowing around them while smashing several things on the mantelpiece, but strangely I don’t see Indigo anywhere.

Another gold cloak slithers through the door but they don’t seem to make any noise, except when they launch their magical attacks, so I only just block the thrust of his lightning blade in time. The other has some kind of electric staff and swings it from above his head, forcing me to block heavily while the other ducks under my guard, but I dodge with superhuman alacrity and end up on the other side of the room.

I whirl my blade aggressively and a hungry fire licks at their masks, so I dart forward, smash the staff out of his hands and swing my sword at his face; he catches it with glowing hands and we struggle, but the other approaches and I roundhouse kick him until we’re all facing one another, armed once more.

“Let’s call it a draw,” I smile but when they move to disagree, a chill power fills the room.

Indigo Fitzwallis stands like dead clay but power moves in him like the slow rising voice of fire. He lifts a hand and a shattering force strikes the cloaks, but is reduced to a ragged gust by their magical barriers. An unexpected and lithe thrust of a gold cloak’s sword almost takes his head off, but deflects off his magical barrier. They fling spells which he turns away like a conductor, and then he really gets angry.

The air around him inverts with a sudden raw howl, a plethora of colours and hopeless black connecting with explosive force and throwing back both Indigo and the gold cloaks; he keeps his feet, his eyes crackling with visionary fire as the immortals flick their masks to the side, listen for something and then disappear silently through a portal.

A second later, Anya, Sig and a dozen battle mages rush through the door. Sig growls. “Did I miss the killing? Don’t tell me I missed the killing.”

*

The next morning I come up to breakfast in Indigo’s tower when the others are already at the table. The blinds are all pulled down as Indigo likes them but a little light sneaks under, forming a golden plate on the floor. I can see that something’s happened.

“Morning,” I say and Anya looks up, the tension dropping from her like a stricken bird.

“Morning,” she smiles but pushes a paper my way.

The headline reads, Revolution in Taburnia and I ask about it, but no one answers. A tiny squirrel pops out of Indigo’s top pocket and looks at me with its cute, child-like eyes. It becomes a small bird and flutters onto my shoulder, where I feel a sense of warmth and comfort.

“That’s Gaia,” Indigo mutters. “She’s a kelpie shapeshifter.”

I’m taking this in when I see Anya reading a letter as if it’s a skull she’s robbed from the grave. She looks up and says, “We need to go to Taburnia.”

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