My head was angled down, as if absorbed in the free London rag. But my eyes flicked around looking for telltale signs of casting in any of the individuals present – paraphernalia, the furtive movement of lips pronouncing whispered words in variations of Latin, Hebrew or anything else – signs of discomfort in another. There seemed to be none.
Art student: flipping the pages of some glossy periodical. Suit: phone call. Roadie: slurping tea. Poles: arguing, maybe just talking, tone and cadence quite at odds with any conjuring I could imagine. Camdenite: phone – gossip about a friend who needed to lay off the recreationals. Del Boy: flicking through his Auto Trader (perhaps for surviving Reliant Regals or Ford Capris). Uncomfirmed builder: late lunch of chicken and chips.
I decided on something general for the under-table glyph, something to undermine the efforts of the majority of esoteric efforts, if only a little. Play the odds; business as usual. Surreptitious mutter of the appropriate words and all sealed and sorted. This close I could feel its presence in the localised aetheric landscape.
I rummaged in my bag considering some specific bits, and an arrangement thereof, that would seem the least strange to the general clientele; the least obvious to a fellow practitioner who now was doubtless present and up to no damn good. I went for my student configuration. Notepad for doodling (magical warding in biro still being territory no one so far had managed to effect). Textbook – Business Studies; nothing anyone would take interest in, or someone who was reading it. Mobile so I could use its signal reception – or lack of – as a magical barometer for how fucked up things were getting (currently down to one-two-one bars from a high five).
Then I took out my snow globe; might look a tad weird but not likely to be interpreted as anything more than eccentric ornamentation. I gave it a shake and those alchemied flakes swirled around the solution within the artificed container. Good for keeping the aether moving, the magic going round, without stopping on any one person with a bit of a helpful nudge by some incanting on top; also festive (if in no respect seasonally appropriate).
I had a few other bits to hand and hanging round my neck but that would do for now. I picked a pen, a Bic, to chew and waggle thoughtfully and got down to my studies which were of everything but what was in the book. I gazed at a vacant spot on the wall, a little above head height, and checked each customer from the corner of my eyes.
Who was it? Who?
Art student – young. If she was a mage she couldn’t have been beyond apprentice stage. Mind malefic magicians have very different attitudes to preparing someone for life in the magical world. Less responsibility and aptitude so much as capability and how can you be most useful (steeple fingers and rub together). Victim more likely – though for no reason that leapt out.
The suit was certainly old enough, but he was still on the phone. Money means motive means higher on the potential victim scale.
The roadie had got himself a magazine. I risked a look: a philosophy rag. Meant nothing. A lot of roadies are a lot more intellectual than the average person would give them credit for. Possibly he could mutter some incantation more discretely beneath that bad mother beard/moustache ensemble. I’d check again later.
Two of the poles were leaving with handshakes and rough humour as farewells, no break in the act if such it was. Mind a lot of Polish magicians – czarownik and znakhari – carried swords, not unlike certain elements of London’s Worshipful Company; and some of these boys took their sword-practice very seriously. I looked for long bags like mine but found only an absence. One sat there doing something with his mobile, the other was now behind a Polish paper behind which he could… well I was keeping tabs.
Camdenite – just gone to use what horrible excuse for a lav they had here. Del Boy was still looking for his next second hand car. The builder-by-suspicion had finished his late lunch (during which he couldn’t have been conjuring). Mo was doing her knitting.
Back to the roadie, back to the Pole behind his paper…
The last bars… bar on my mobile disappeared. I felt a noticeable surge in the aether; oh it was all happening now. But what was happening? And to who? And who was the cause?
I got muttering under my breath behind the cover of my arm while my hand massaged my forehead in concentration which I was (just not on module 4.5.2 – a case study on the relative merits of Dawson’s Spanner Emporium or whatever). I cycled the words – part active spell, part mantra – to tune me a little deeper into the unseen drama that was trying to unfold.
It was some kind of hex – no, a whole bunch of hexes. The kind I’d mostly encountered were ‘thrown’, combat hexes and blasts you could dodge or deflect if you’ve got the protections, or counters, or the knack and knowhow to unweave them. These weren’t those. These were the kinds of cursing normally done from afar. But this was all happening in situ, up close: Some targeted attempt at grievous subtle-bodily harm if not outright occult assassination.
Yeah I was pretty sure there wasn’t any thread of spell-work extending beyond the threshold of this place. The long range stuff needed soma aside from anything else, nail clippings, hair or blood from the target, naming true and unprotected, and ritualling besides. On the other hand it took some serious expertise to do something up close without the extras or overt canting and gesture. The fact it was happening at all – and in multiples – spoke of proper talent, regardless of whether any of it had yet to land, to collapse into harmful certainty on the intended.
I identified the clotted pattern of a pestilenta hex, some kind of illness. I got busy with my own canting, too quiet even to be called a whisper, just the faint verbal markers of consonants to outline the spell. I pried into the hex with the incantation then worked on it bespoke until it frayed and its potency bled to homeopathic levels. Rendered harmless I tried to discern what I could of the others.
There was some kind of blight curse, an almost sentient gnawing thing that would suck at the victim’s vitality causing a wasting hunger. There was a pretty serious jinx as well, something that even those who conjured such things had little understanding of their true workings. Alone it was hazardous; in combination with something else… Around they went and around, kept loose by my artificed alchemical snow globe, and nudged on helpfully by yours truly so none settled on whoever their intended target was.
I was distantly aware, in the grey outside, rain beginning to spatter.
Ah – that was a more straightforward shock-hex. Not a physical blast of fulgar (that’s wizard-speak for electricity, small scale lightning like) but an aetheric jolt direct to the body. It’d give you a brief fit maybe but it was really to leave you vulnerable to one of the other nasties whirling unseen in the immediate vicinity. I lost it but was pretty sure I could break it apart the next time it came round.
Still though, I couldn’t work out who the assailant was and who the assailed. Sometimes a particularly sensitive magician can tell the former from the concentration of aether around that person or track back the other way. Well I’m a little sensitive, but…
On the other hand the assailant had no reason to suspect that another magician was present. My own workings were subtle and the problematic nature of this hexing meant that one coming apart could be accounted for by other factors. As long as I kept the hexes from settling, or if I could work out who it was and interrupt them, that would be job done. If the diviner who’d sent me here was on the money – and this time dollars to dinar he had been – there was an expiry date on this situation. So assuming I could hold them off until 4ish I could call it a day…
Something occurred to me then… but it was stupid. It was the kind of stupid you’d be stupid to follow – but moreso to ignore. Because it was the kind of twist that could bite you in the backside if you didn’t rule it out.
It was an awkward move to make, something I’d otherwise worry would attract attention. To the civilian contingent it might look a bit weird – that, just then, I’d decided the inward-facing seat to my left was suddenly more preferable to where I’d been sat these last hours. But to a magician, especially one busily magicking, if anything it’d be confirmation that whatever they were conjuring was manifest. Moreover it would indicate that I was just a regular member of the public who’d unconsciously picked up something going on, something which they could only put in the context of a strong preference for another seat. At least I wasn’t facing Mo now. I was also facing away from the art student and the suit. But now I could see the counter and the waitresses behind, cleaning up in the post-lunch lull.
Like I say, stupid; but had I spent the whole time facing away from them, only to watch someone keel over when all the time someone was merrily muttering hexes while washing dishes and making sarnies I’d have felt really bloody daft.