Authors: Mark Tuson
Eddie nodded slowly. ‘True. You do need to be prepared at all times.’ He took a wand from his pocket and drew a sigil in the air over his food, and immediately it became hot again. At the same time, Peter noticed the air in the room growing momentarily cooler, as though he had just stepped through the line of fire of the air conditioner above a shop doorway. A very simple little spell, Peter noted, and quite useful.
‘Speaking of which,’ Eddie continued, ‘you need to make yourself ready. We’ve got a few operations on at the moment, and you’re now eligible to be selected for dispatch. I’d start attending practice sessions and learning some of the offensive and defensive basics if I were you. You’ll need them.’
Oh, right. Peter had forgotten about that. He hadn’t ever done offensive or defensive
, let alone magic. He didn’t have the foggiest idea where he should start.
‘There’s a workshop every Wednesday after lunch, led by some of the more experienced magicians. Crash course, you could call it.’
That could be fun. He could do some practice at other times as well, maybe that might help Peter to curb some of his irrational focusing on magical cosmogeny. ‘Okay,’ he said. ‘I’ll have a look-in at that. Where is it?’
Eddie told him, and then, sensing that Eddie didn’t want to have to warm his breakfast up again, Peter excused himself and left.
It was strange: although Peter’s first exposure to magic had been that evening all that time ago, which was purely combative, he hadn’t ever thought of magic as being a weapon, but a tool. The notion of attacking someone magically hadn’t occurred to him; the closest to that kind of thought had been when he was on the island, when he needed to hunt. This was entirely different though. It was a reminder that he may have to fight. He may have to defend himself, even be prepared to kill or else die himself if the situation was desperate enough.
He wanted to be outside. As he walked upward and outward, following the corridor to its end, he wondered how many other magicians had trod this path before him – both literally and figuratively: the place was old, older what must have been the last four or five iterations of civilization, far beyond what any person could imagine, and this structure itself must have been here, in some form, for several millennia. There must have been tens – if not hundreds – of thousands of people in all those years who had both walked through this corridor and followed the journey of learning that was before him. That was a humbling thought. And terrifying.
Outside, he took out some of his residual frustration by kicking leaves around and breathing deeply, inhaling fresh, cool air. It helped clear his head. Eddie and Caroline were right; he should start practicing magic properly, and maybe let the Fraud and however he had done whatever he had done rest, for the time being at least.
As it happened, it was easier to apply himself to the training than he had expected it to be. As a person, Peter was someone who needed a project to be working on, and when he was working on a project he liked to see progress being made. So, given that there was an almost immediate return on the investment of time and energy into magical combat training, it seemed to be a more rewarding project to be working on than the Fraud. He was still interested, and he fully intended to find out the answers to his questions. But he was happy for now, doing this, and he was also happy to find that he was not the least knowledgeable or competent person there. That was always encouraging.
Over the following few weeks, Peter applied himself as hard as he could to his combat training. It wasn’t that he was fantastically interested – and that made it all the harder for him to make much progress – but he knew he needed to get along with other members of the Guild, and he knew that if he was likely at any point to be sent to fight, or to defend, or to do other things, he didn’t want to get himself or anyone else killed through his own lack of competence.
It was actually a lot easier than he had expected; combat magic, it turned out, mostly consisted of adapting the types of magic he already knew to either attack or defend.
Caroline was often there in the role of an instructor, along with someone else whom Peter didn’t recognize – an old, short man called Robert who sported a cloud of curly white hair, whom Peter thought would have been better suited to the role of kindly old vicar in some ancient parish church. They were both very experienced with many forms of magic, and ran the sessions as workshops rather than formal lessons or seminars. This sort of arrangement was far more conducive to open thought and open speech, and rapid learning by Peter and the others who were there with him.
The call to service came. It wasn’t formal or dramatic, not in the slightest, though Peter felt a sort of gravity in it. It came in the form of a note, which slipped under the door of his room one morning. On opening it, he saw it was from Eddie:
Good morning Peter. Please meet at refectory at ten-thirty. Bring only tools, nothing else. Do not be late.
Eddie Harrison –
He didn’t know what it meant, exactly, but he had a thought it would be something, possibly, to do with being called into service with other members of the Guild as part of an operation or manoeuvre. ‘Bring only tools,’ it said – that must mean his wand and his two-stick. He was excited, but he was also fucking terrified. He knew what magic could do to a person: he himself had survived where, apparently, most people would have given in and died.
The walk to the refectory felt to him like he imagined the walk to be executed. A scene from a film he had watched as a teenager flashed through his mind: ‘I’m walkin’ the mile!’ Shudder.
When he arrived, he wanted to eat something, but he couldn’t. He felt sick. They couldn’t do this to him, he wasn’t ready – surely they should have known that. But then… if he didn’t do it this first time, he’d never be ready. Maybe he needed to go into this with only knowledge and practice, and it would
The refectory was empty but for Eddie and four other people, all in black suits like his own. He forgot himself and laughed momentarily: hadn’t anyone ever noticed that the uniform the Guild wore when operating in public so greatly resembled the Men in Black? Had they stolen the idea, or was it a generic notion of trying to appear to have no distinguishing marks in one’s dress? Or… was it a generic notion
of the Guild’s influence? An organization which had been around that long would, by definition, have been around long enough to have had significant influences on a large number of things throughout history.
Peter sat down with them, making the meeting quorate. Peter sensed a mixture of feelings emanating from the other people there: fear and anxiety along with purpose and confidence.
‘Hi Peter,’ said Eddie. ‘I don’t think you’ll have met the people you’ll be going with today?’
He hadn’t. ‘Nope. I’ve seen them round and about though.’
‘Okay.’ He motioned each person in turn.
‘This is Karl.’ A pale, chubby man with an afro-looking ginger hairstyle. ‘He’s your age but he’s been a member of the guild since he was sixteen. He’s very strong at offensive magic, fast to cast, but not awfully strong on the defensive side.
‘Sue.’ A slim woman who looked around forty. ‘She’s a natural leader, who used to work for the DHSS until she joined us twenty years ago. She’s vastly intelligent, and has an extensive knowledge of various kinds of strategies from all around the world, which makes up for her slight weakness on the practical side of casting.
‘Tim.’ A stern-looking sergeant-majorly negro with what looked like a polished scalp. ‘Did a doctorate in particle physics and discovered magic accidentally; in his time with us he’s invented a sort of magical particle accelerator which –‘ he looked at Peter ‘– you might find interesting. His magic, as you might guess, takes advantage of a number of quantum effects.
‘Will.’ A completely generic-looking man with no apparent age. ‘Who more than makes up for Karl’s weakness with defensive magic.
‘And lastly, Peter. His training is in computer programming, and he has expertise in electronics as well. This is his first assignment with us, so nobody has really seen his strengths and weaknesses, so I’d like you all, please, to look after him. I’m sure you all remember how daunting your own first outings were.’
That last comment seemed to Peter to be a little bit of a cliché, but he had always fostered the belief that clichés became so simply because they were true: an extension of Occam’s Razor.
They all shook hands and welcomed Peter to the team. For a moment it felt like it had when he had been introduced into groups of students at university. It was almost reassuring – almost. When he remembered that he was going to be going on what was, effectively, a military operation with these people – and he might conceivably be dead by the end of the day – his head swam again. He pressed it against the cool table.
Someone brought him a bowl of porridge and a strong cup of coffee. Looking up, he saw it was Sue. ‘I know you don’t want to,’ she said, ‘but eat. You’ll need energy and you’ll need strength.’
She was right, he didn’t want to. He really didn’t want to. But she was right, he had to; if he was hungry, he would be more of a burden to the team than an asset.
He ate slowly as they talked. The porridge was sweetened with syrup, and the coffee was so strong that it he initially had to suppress a gag, but even while he was still eating and drinking, he was starting to feel a little better.
‘So,’ Eddie was saying, ‘We’ve lost contact with one of our smaller outposts – the one in Scotland. Of course, this is concerning, but it’s even more concerning because it’s not happened in a couple of centuries.’
There was murmured anguish among everyone, Peter included: magical contact was usually very tight, which meant that compromising it was entirely nontrivial in terms of difficulty of execution, even if it was fairly trivial theoretically. The other outposts were scattered around the world to allow the Guild to monitor the whole world, so that they would always know within a few minutes if there was a Fraud-related threat – and to a lesser extent a non-Fraud-related threat – wherever it may be. So, naturally, it was never a particularly good sign if contact with any of the other outposts had been compromised.
Peter also knew what Eddie was going to say next, by the very fact of their presence here, but he listened anyway.
‘So I’d like you to go and find out what has happened, and report back to me at seven o’clock this evening. If need be, we’ll send a larger force to retake the place.’
Simple as that. Everyone nodded, suddenly grave and serious, and after a few more minutes they were ready to go.
Eddie looked at a watch on his wrist. ‘Eleven o’clock,’ he said. ‘Time to get going.’ He shook each one of them by the hand. ‘Good luck.’
The journey was by portal, as Peter’s had been when he went to and returned from his exile. The portal was ignited by Eddie using a device that looked superficially like a chunky, old-fashioned television remote control, though at a glance it appeared to be made from mahogany, with brass contacts rather than buttons.
They were there in less time than it would have taken Peter to sneeze.
It seemed like Eddie may have been stretching the truth in saying that the outpost was ‘in Scotland.’ It was cold and windy here, and raining hard, causing the clumps of hardy tall, grass to look as though an invisible hand were trying to tug and pluck them out of the ground. It was an island – Peter would have guessed it to be somewhere in the Orkneys or the Hebrides.
‘This way,’ said Sue. She led them into a woody patch which didn’t appear to be very big from the outside, but after they had walked in just a few yards Peter found himself suddenly disoriented. He dropped to his knees, wondering if his porridge was about to make a second appearance, but Will put a hand on his shoulder.
‘It’ll pass, just take a deep breath and swallow.’
He did, and it did. ‘What was that?’ He said.
‘Dimensional rift,’ said Tim. ‘Ever seen Doctor Who?’
Peter laughed. ‘So, what, the wood’s bigger on the inside?’
‘How else would you hide something like this?’ Suddenly they were facing a large horseshoe-shaped terrace. It looked bigger than even the whole wood had, and was in something similar to a Tudor style, with its whitewashed walls and black wooden beams. In the centre of the horseshoe was a large lawn with a path around it and a cherry tree surrounded by white stones in the centre of that. It made Peter think of a country mansion where they might be about to take lunch with the tweed-wearing, fox-hunting lord of the manor. Hot soup and fresh bread, given the inclement weather.
There was nobody here. Sue stopped dead and stared intently at the building. ‘Tim, cloak – quick as you can. Peter, what do you see?’
Bam! On the spot just like that. He hurriedly wove a magic detection spell, and almost fluffed it in his surprise at being asked. Sure enough, however, once he got the spell off he found immediately that there was a strong hiss here: the magical equivalent of a jamming signal. But it seemed to possibly be a side-effect of a different spell, though it was too complex for Peter to sense what that might have been.
‘Static.’ He was trying so hard not to sound unsure that he probably sounded even more so. ‘It’s… it looks like a side-effect of something else though…’ now he said it aloud he recognized it. ‘Reminds me of a really old sort of radio transmitter. It’s doing something else, but at least part of the reason why it’s being done this way is for the side-effect.’
Sue nodded. It looked like she already knew. ‘I think it’s the weather. There’s a lot of ways you can influence the magical plane using weather, but it’s so dangerous it’s almost not worth the risk.’
Peter didn’t think it could possibly be that simple. ‘Can’t we pick it apart, then?’
‘Nope,’ said Karl. ‘It’ll be connected to some kind of power source inside, or feeding off another spell that’s in motion.’
‘I’d go with the latter,’ said Tim.
Karl nodded. ‘Right.’
The five of them carefully walked on around the path at the edge of the sodden lawn, toward the centre of the horseshoe. Fittingly enough, there was a fairly sizeable oak door which comprised the main entrance to the building, with a large polished brass knocker. Sue knocked with it exactly once.
Nothing happened. For five minutes nobody answered, but likewise nobody knocked on the door again either. They just waited, Peter growing nervous again. Surely the place couldn’t be as dead as this – if it was, why would there be a magical jamming signal ambient around here? Or was that just the echo or aftermath of a spell which might, perhaps, have been used to depose or destroy the Guild members here? He didn’t want to think about it.
And then it happened. The door opened, suddenly and silently, such that it took Peter a moment to realize it had happened. There was nobody in the doorway. Peter drew his wand, noticing that the others’ were already in hand and poised to cast.
‘Onward and upward,’ said Will. In they went. Tim’s cloaking spell must have taken; their footfalls sounded muffled and distant.
Inside, it reminded Peter of an old schoolhouse. The walls were painted a matte creamy colour, and the floor was polished parquet. They were in a reception area, with two wooden settles against the opposite wall and a corridor on either side of the door. There was a palpable silence in here, which reinforced Peter’s sensation of being at school: it was as though the building itself was on best behaviour. Curious.
They were stood in a loose circle, but they didn’t have to stand for long. Presently another man in a black suit approached them and looked straight at Tim. He waved his hand as though he were swatting an irritating fly, and Peter felt a momentary drag: their cloak was gone.
‘I would have thought that wouldn’t be necessary,’ said the man. He had silvery hair and, appropriately enough, headmasterly air. ‘Since you’re among friends.’
Sue flashed a stern look at the other four in their party, as if to say ‘on your guard, folks.’ She then addressed the man. ‘But are you? We’ve lost your like at the monastery, we thought there was trouble.’
Smile. ‘No, no trouble.’ And then, suddenly deadpan, ‘there’s nothing to worry about here. You should go back.’
Even Peter saw through that. Sue raised her eyebrow and studied him. Peter felt a mounting surge of ambient power. Shit.
The man looked affronted, as if at the impudence of Sue trying to work him out. He locked eyes with Sue and took a deep breath, apparently in an effort to gather his patience rather than his wits. ‘I dare you.’
Sue started to prepare a spell, but nobody ever found out what it was: slowly, gracefully, she slumped down against the wall, her head falling into an angle that simply made no sense. She was completely still.
Peter jumped at the sight. He hadn’t ever seen someone die before. He went lightheaded and had to close his eyes. In the distance he heard the man clear his throat. ‘Anyone else?’
Through the fury and terror, Peter didn’t know what he was doing until he realized he was pinning the man against the wall by his throat. There were gurgling noises issuing from it, and the others were hesitantly firing spells at him, trying at the same time to miss Peter. Some of the side-effects gave Peter the impression that they were alternately trying to freeze and then boil the man’s blood, but every spell seemed to miss as they both writhed and struggled.
He was trying, now, to get a punch in, while holding him down still by the throat, but that was proving too difficult, since he was also trying to prevent him from casting any spells.
‘Fuck’s sake, just do it and stop trying to miss me!’ He screamed.
Karl yelled back, ‘It’s not that simple!’
Peter’s hand was starting to hurt from the physical force he was exerting on the man’s throat, which didn’t seem to be doing as much damage as he had supposed it should. Cunt should be dead by now, he thought. He jumped back and threw a shield over himself as quickly as he could. Only a basic spell, but it was the best he knew. He then started firing spells of his own at the man, who was in a genuflecting position with a bright red face and rapidly tracing lines in the air with the fingers of one hand and a wand in the other.