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A Darker Shade of Grey

Chapter Text

  NOW

The public house was busy as they approached, the noise reaching them far before they drew up alongside it. It was an odd building, towering three storeys high and seeming to lean towards the river it was separated from by a broad street; on the other side of this street was a garden littered with tables and chairs and floating lanterns, looking warm and welcoming in the gathering dusk. The lanterns flickered off the surface of the river and blended in to its red glow, the whitewash of the pub tinged pink. People chatted and laughed, hurried back and forth carrying large glasses full of deep amber liquid. A polite sign in both Arnesian and High Royal advised patrons to please not sit on the ledge past this point, and also to keep all glasses from passing the sign. Whether out of guilt or malicious compliance, several glasses were perched precariously on the top of the sign.

The fact that the pub’s drinking area was separated by a road was not the only strange thing about it. On one side the road slanted slightly towards the outdoor seating and the grassy slope leading to the river, but on the other side it was bordered by a curb that easily reached hip-height. A back door was propped open, leading to a staircase that passed by several storerooms, and it was from this door that people appeared with fresh glasses, turning their heads behind them in the narrow passageway to call to friends following. Many people had probably never seen the front entrance of the pub, even though it did have one: a perfectly normal and respectable one on a well-travelled side street, with a neat sign declaring it to be named The Barmy Tide. The truth was, though, that the road behind the pub, running parallel to the glittering red river, was the one much more travelled; scenic and rambling, the walk was a favourite of locals and tourists alike, and there was the pub waiting to entice thirsty travellers.

Another sign, again in both Arnesian and High Royal, explained the strange set-up.

 

Beware!—the Isle is a tidal river. At high tide this door will be inaccessible. Please pay attention to the diagram for reference. At high tide, follow the arrows to the side entrance.

 

Below it was an incredibly accurate drawing of the pub, the road, and the garden, rendered in impeccable detail. A blue line shone at the foot of the garden, labelled 1 metre. A yellow one shone at the end of the garden and the edge of the road, labelled 2 metres. Finally a red one touched the large curb itself, labelled 5 metres. Several people had gathered around the sign as Victor and Mitch approached; as they glanced at it, the diagram briefly vanished, replaced instead by words.

 

               TODAY’S TIDES:

               Low – 5:14am (0.7 metres)

               High – 8:42pm (4.8 metres)

 

Someone checked a watch and pulled a face.

“Probably going to have to move back inside before we’ve finished this one,” he said to his friend, as between them they carried several pints towards the garden. “Pretty sure I can already see it coming up the edge of the garden.”

“And it comes in so fast,” his friend said, as they faded out of earshot. “One minute you’re sat there having a grand old time, and the next you’ve got waves lapping right at your…”

Victor leapt lightly up the curb; beside him Mitch stepped up as easily as though it were of normal height. They slipped into the cool passageway, both of them taking two steps at a time, though Mitch had to turn almost sideways in order to fit his large frame through the narrow opening. Voices grew closer, louder, and then with no warning at all they emerged in the pub itself, a large airy room that glowed a soft red thanks to the floor-to-ceiling windows looking out over the river. The pub relied on that light more than its own, leaving many corners delightfully shadowed and the lighting easy on the eye – only the bar was lit properly, a crowd of people around it and the bartenders moving as quickly as they could.

Ever since Eli had first brought him here, Victor had thought the place was odd. There seemed to be nothing about it that could be pinned down: its aesthetics, its vibe, its atmosphere, even its clientele all seemed to be at odds with one another. At first glance the place looked rather well-to-do, tastefully decorated and with finely dressed patrons, but a closer look here and there told evidence of something a little more exciting: people huddled in corners whispering conspiratorially, hands passing things under tables, the occasional scratch or scorch-mark in the heavy wooden floor. From what Victor could tell, the place liked money, but didn’t much care for how a person got it. That, it seemed, explained the variety of visitors.

Several of the regulars eyed Mitch with some suspicion – maybe even a little hostility. He looked even more out of place than Victor did with his lean height and his foreign fair features; Mitch was dark-skinned and tall, covered in tattoos, his fists the size of most people’s heads. Victor didn’t look like much of a threat (and he wasn’t, Victor thought bitterly, at least not anymore) but Mitch very much did, and Victor supposed that was what kept him safe despite his very limited magic. There had been a time where Victor wouldn’t have had to worry about simply relying solely on Mitch’s brawn, but those days had passed long before he had met him. Eyes passed over Mitch with carefully deflected interest, but several people forgot all about such things when their eyes landed on Victor. It gave him a bit of a thrill, to be honest; to know that he hadn’t been forgotten. To know that he was recognised. To know that word would soon get back to Eli, no doubt about that.

“Where have you been, Vale?” growled a familiar voice, once Victor and Mitch had made their way to the bar. “And who’s this you brought back with you?”

“Where do you think I’ve been?” Victor replied, slamming down a few coins onto the bar and catching the eye of the nearest bartender. He went straight for the nicer whiskeys – clearly Victor was remembered, after all. “This is Mitch. Mitch, this is Dominic. If you ever need him, you’ll find him here.”

Dominic’s face flashed with momentary surprise at the sheer size of Mitch, before he half-raised his glass in greeting and took a long drink. If anything, Victor had always thought that Dominic was the only person in the pub that never seemed to fit, no matter what the reigning atmosphere was that night. When things were going smoothly, he looked far too shabby, his hair too long and too grubby, his clothing too stained and too dirty. When things were going much more chaotically, he seemed too disinterested, propping himself up at the bar and ordering drinks as though there wasn’t a brawl going on behind him. The most Victor had ever seen him react was when a chair had sailed through the air directly towards Dominic’s head, and the man had raised a hand and batted it away with a strong gust of wind.

With a confirming glance, the bartender had poured out two generous measures of whiskey and slid them across to Victor and Mitch. Coins were taken, change given; Victor gave Dominic a questioning look and, when Dominic shook his head, left him at the bar and made his way to a corner table instead. They sat on the other side of the room from the riverfront, where the shadows were darker and the company more sparse. Victor raised his glass, clinked it against Mitch’s in a silent toast, and then briefly observed the deep amber liquid in the glass, something so unbelievably simple and yet, until recently, so inaccessible.

It had been ten years since he had last had a drink. He had missed it more than he thought.

“So what’s his story?” Mitch asked, glancing back at Dominic. “Alcoholic?”

“All that and more,” Victor replied. “I’m surprised he’s still alive, if I’m honest. Can you believe he’s younger than me? He looks like he could be older. He’s here from opening until close most days, or he was when I was last here.”

“What a life,” Mitch said grimly.

“Far more exciting than the one we’ve been leading,” Victor said.

“I suppose I can’t argue with that,” Mitch agreed. “Though something tells me you’re not exactly here to enjoy a drink and the view.”

“No,” Victor said. “I’m not.”

“You think you’ll recognise him, if he does show up?”

Victor laughed, but didn’t explain. He had kept the nature of Eli’s abilities a secret for all these years, not entirely sure why but doing so nonetheless. He was looking forward to the reveal. “I’m quite sure I will.”

 

THEN

Ten years ago, Victor had been a student. He had been a student of magic, to be precise, though not in the same way most people were in this world. He didn’t study magic in order to use it, simply because that hadn’t been possible for him. It had been a hard blow, but Victor had decided that if he couldn’t use his magic, he would make sure to know it better than anyone else – better, even, than those who were allowed to wield it, to use it, to connect with it. It was the closest he would ever be able to come to it, after all – he had come to terms with the fact, angrily and reluctantly, some time ago.

He had been young when his affinity for bone magic had shown itself. He had been given the element game by his parents when he had been five years old, but he knew they would expect him to use it right away and he had never been able to stand their constant watching of him, waiting for him to show what it was he could do. Both of his parents were attracted to ground magic – soil and stone and anything of the earth – and it was a known fact that they thought that was the single best element to have an attraction to. They had turned it into quite the career, going on and on about how the earth was connected to everything and therefore those who could tap into its magic were connected to everything too, and they had written several terrible books on the subject. Despite Victor’s hope that the rest of the world would see what crackpots they were as clearly as he had, people had eaten it up, and now Victor had to suffer through seeing his parents quoted in numerous journals and heavy-bound books, cited as though they knew a damn thing.

It hadn’t been until he was around eight or nine that he had decided to see for himself what he could do. He had stubbornly refused to communicate with any magic up until that point, because he had been so afraid that he would be like his parents after all that he couldn’t stand the idea of having it confirmed. He knew that it didn’t work that way, of course – magic simply chose, and what a parent could do had no bearing on what their child might be able to do – but still. It was a risk. Victor had had no idea what he would do if he found out he was just like them. The thought of how proud his parents would be disgusted him, made his skin crawl. He lay in bed at night and imaged them watching him closely, using him for more of their case studies, trying out their theories on him, constantly giving him tips and stupid advice. It was enough to make him want to scream.

But he hadn’t taken after them, after all. It had been an almost instantaneous thing: one moment Victor was looking at the element set, open for the first time in front of him, and the next he had moved his hand over the board and the bone shard had immediately leapt up, crashing into his palm and staying there despite the fact Victor hadn’t closed his fist. Victor had been thrilled – but not stupid enough to let anybody know.

He kept it a secret until he was thirteen. Looking back, he wasn’t entirely sure how he was caught. He had been careful, but careful was impossible, really, when it came to practising such a thing. People began to notice odd occurrences around him, began feeling how he tampered with them. He did nothing that would provide solid proof, but people got talking and suspicion fell on him. He was the only one who hadn’t shown what his element was, after all, and partly encouraged by the celebrity of his parents, nobody could believe he was without magic. Not because of his parents’ abilities, of course – again, magic didn’t work that way – but more because of the fact his parents hadn’t written a book on the subject yet. Victor had had to agree with the logic there.

Questions had been asked, his parents had been informed, arguments had ensued, and the element board had been produced. Just like that Victor had been outed. He played the terrified, misled child as best as he could, snivelling and insisting that he didn’t know, that he was sorry, that he hadn’t meant to hurt anyone, all of that good stuff. They had all believed it, of course, again encouraged by his parents, and all he had gotten was a long talking to from them and one of the priests, who had urged him to forget about the bone thing and focus on something else instead. Victor had said he would try, and he had, but he had never forgotten about the bone thing.

It had been a good thing, too, because Victor Vale had never connected with any other element. Without the bones, he might as well have had no magic at all. It lay dormant in him, festering in frustration over the years, and Victor had eventually had to come to terms with the fact that this was how it was, and how it would always be, and if he couldn’t use his magic he would know it in a different way; he would know more than anybody. That had led him to school, and that had led him to Eliot Cardale.

Victor had initially hated him on first sight, and while he had soon become his best friend, sometimes Victor wondered if he should have trusted that first instinct. Eli was smart, and good looking, and charming, but that was all he was. There was not a lick of magic in him. For anyone else it would have been a condemnation; a life in the slums, rejected by society and looked upon with disdain, because it was common knowledge that magic only chose the worthy, and those who had been passed by were wrong somehow. If any of this thinking had gotten to his head, Eli clearly didn’t believe a word of it, and somehow – inexplicably, infuriatingly – people seemed to agree with him. Eli openly admitted he had no magic, even poked fun at himself for it, and somehow instead of ridiculing him and rejecting him people laughed with him, and invited him to their rooms and their tables, and greeted him in hallways, and liked him; loved him, even. It seemed he had barely arrived at the university before he had an endless stream of friends, and not to mention the affections of Angela Knight, perhaps one of the most powerful up-and-coming magicians in the world.

How,” countless people had asked Eli, the question good-natured, full of laughter, “does a magicless wreck like you manage to catch the attention of a triad?”

Eli had only shrugged, giving one of his winning smiles. “She must know something the rest of us don’t.”

How that line had been remembered later! It was almost as though the universe had been working in line with Eli, helping him, liking him, the way everybody did. But that hadn’t been until later. For a long time it had been somehow the three of them, because even when Angie and Eli had started dating they still never left Victor out, and they even had the annoying habit of not making him feel like a third wheel. It would have been easier to hang on to his anger if they had, Victor thought, but the two of them were both too sincerely fucking nice. It was Victor’s fault, he supposed. He had been the one to introduce them: Eli, his new roommate, and Angie, his only real friend. Together they made quite the interesting group – Victor with his forbidden magic, Eli with none at all, Angie with the rare ability to control three elements with ease (fire, water, and earth, for those keeping track). Things had been good, suspiciously good, and that was probably why Victor had felt such cold dread grip at his heart when Eli had stumbled back in from the library one day, arms full of scrolls, his brown eyes bright and his cheeks flushed.

“I’ve worked it out,” he had said, sweeping past Victor and dumping the scrolls and – unseen under them – several books onto their living room table.

“Worked what out?” Victor asked, closing the door behind him. How strange it was that it had all begun and ended on that threshold: the first time Victor had seen Eli, brand new and smiling in a way that looked shy until one noticed it was carefully curated to look that way; and this time, this last time he was sure he had seen Eli, and not the obsession that had taken his place.

“Magic,” Eli had said simply, and Victor had laughed.

Eli had been there for the same reasons as him, of course. He had no magic himself, which was to say another way of not being able to use it, and he wanted to know as much as possible in order to get as close as possible. It had been why they had gotten along in the first place. They had spent many nights sitting in that very living room, drinking and throwing out theories, and perhaps that night wouldn’t have been much different. It had been, though, and Victor was no longer laughing when Eli had finished almost an entire hour of talking later, jabbing his fingers at various scrolls and passages, throwing books around and finding dog-eared pages, reciting things from memory.

“Don’t you see?” he had finally said, breathless, his face alight with excitement. “I mean, at first I wondered if it was just sheer arrogance to think it was a mistake, because how can magic make mistakes? But then I thought, magic is the most natural thing in the world. It’s everywhere. And even nature makes mistakes. Something happens, something interrupts its flow, and it all goes wrong. You pollute a river, for example, and the fish die, and the plants die, and years and years after it’s been cleaned up fish are being born deformed. It’s a mistake, but there’s a reason for the mistake. There’s an interruption. And I know what it was.”

Victor had been silent by then, gripping his glass of whiskey tightly. Eli had explained how magic was in the blood, how everyone knew that; how it had an uninterrupted flow around the body. He had argued with himself for some time over when a baby was a person – if it was at the moment of conception or if it was when the baby was born, taking in the first breath of air, and had eventually concluded that when it came to magic that moment was significant because it was the moment all the elements came together.

“You have your blood and your bone and your water in the womb,” Eli had said, and Victor had known where it was going and had hated him for how much it made sense. “As soon as you’re born, you have that connection with the earth – you’re in it, finally, as your own autonomous person – and you’re cut free from the cord with equipment heated by fire to become sterile, and you breathe. You breathe air for the first time. Everything has come together, and that’s when magic makes its move. But what if that’s interrupted?”

“Interrupted how?” Victor had asked, through gritted teeth.

“I was born with the cord wrapped around my neck,” Eli said, finally collapsing into an armchair. “I didn’t breathe when I was born. It was an excruciatingly long time before they got me to breathe. They were about to give up, or so my father said. Finally someone grabbed me by the ankles and turned me upside-down and slapped my back, and I started wailing. But I think by then it was too late. I’d missed the moment.”

“It can’t be that simple,” Victor said, shaking his head.

“It’s hardly simple,” Eli protested. “It has to be a perfect combination of timing. Most people have magic. They would all have been nice, normal births.”

“And everyone without magic had difficult births?” Victor asked disbelievingly. “How can you prove this?”

Eli’s face lit up again. “I’ve been conducting interviews.”

“Interviews,” Victor deadpanned, hating Eli, hating the whole damn theory. Hating, most of all, that Eli was clearly onto something.

“I’ve been down in the slums most of the last two weeks, gathering data for my thesis. It all adds up. Everyone I asked with little or near little magic recalls something unusual about their birth. Many of them were born with breathing complications, either prematurely developed lungs or some obstacle in their throat or around their neck. A minority of people had other issues: born without their hearts beating properly, getting stuck in the birth canal, that kind of this. All disruptions.”

“So theoretically,” Victor said, not kindly, “if you just recreate your birth realistically enough, you’ll access magical abilities.”

Eli had laughed, sincerely and good-naturedly, and Victor’s anger coiled tighter, stabbed deeper. “Not quite, but on the right track. I’ve already been born. I can’t do that again. But I can recreate the process of stepping into life.”

“How could you possibly recreate that?” Victor demanded, but he had known even as Eli spoke.

“By dying and coming back, of course.”

Victor had tried to talk him out of it, less out of concern at that point than out of fear it might work. Eli had even been crafty enough to let Victor believe he might have mostly been talked out of it, too – by the time they had parted for the night Eli was dejected and a little unsure of himself, exhausted from deflecting Victor’s criticisms and raised points and ridicule. Perhaps he had been a little cruel about it, Victor thought, but better that than having him disappoint himself, or make an idiot of himself in front of their tutors, or die for nothing. Victor had left for class that morning fairly content, but then he hadn’t seen Eli in any of his morning classes, and had slipped away before the final class before lunch and come back to their quarters.

Ridiculous, really, how well Eli knew him. He had taken a huge risk, but it had paid off. Eli knew Victor would notice; he knew he would come back. He had even known which class Victor would skip, because Victor often talked shit about that class, and how easy it was to pass, and how he could skip whenever he wanted and still get the top grades. None of this had occurred to Victor as he arrived home, though, and it was pushed further and further from his mind when he got through the living room and saw the bathroom door slightly open and knew, beyond all doubt, that something was very, very wrong.

He had found Eli in the bathtub, knees bent and slouched to the side, his torso and head completely submerged. Suddenly the several empty containers in the kitchen area made sense – the water was tinged red, because of course Eli had taken the water from the river, of course he had. As Victor dropped to his knees next to the bath, not yet noticing the sand and dirt sprinkled all over the bathroom tiles, he had noticed that on Eli’s right arm there were two welts that looked like burns.

“I should just leave you like that,” Victor growled at him, but he hadn’t.

Instead he head plunged his hands into the water, feeling the tremor of its magic travel up his arms. He had grabbed Eli under both arms and hauled him out, landing with a thud on the tiles and with Eli’s dead weight on top of him – his literal dead weight, Victor quickly realised, because Eli wasn’t breathing and Victor could feel no pulse.

“Idiot,” he had spat, even as he had pushed Eli onto his back, laced his hands together, pressed it against the hollow of his chest. “Idiot. Idiot.”

He didn’t know how long he tried for. At some point he was dimly aware of using his magic, forcing Eli’s ribs to obey the movement easier, to stop it being such an effort. Several times he was sure he saw Eli try, but it must have been his imagination, because when he stopped to check Eli still lay motionless. Without wanting to, Victor remembered Eli without any anger, remembered the time they had spent together, remembered all the things they had worked out, theorised, laughed at. Eli’s theory had seemed sound, but Victor had been right all along – it was bullshit, and quite suddenly Victor realised his friend didn’t deserve to die for a mistake.

“Come on, Eli,” he muttered, and in a final desperate act born from a memory he barely noticed, he pushed Eli over onto his side and hit him once, twice, three times in the back, as hard as he could.

Eli had shuddered, coughed, coughed harder. Pink-tinged water ran out of his mouth; he coughed again, constantly now, a painful hacking cough that saw him gasping desperately for breath. Victor held him up slightly, until the water had stopped coming, and then Eli had collapsed back shivering against the floor, his eyes closed, wheezing.

“Happy birthday,” Victor said drily, and Eli had laughed, coughed again, opened his eyes.

They had looked glazed, Victor noticed, not without worry. He leaned closer, looking at them more closely, one at a time. It must have been a trick of the light, or maybe a temporary thing: the eye he was looking at now was clearing, becoming alert, the brown deep and warm and no longer covered by some kind of film. The other one seemed to be doing the same, changing before Victor’s own eyes, and then with a jolt he realised it wasn’t getting brighter but rather darker, so dark that the brown blended into Eli’s iris, and then Victor realised that the white of his eye was turning an off grey, and then a deep grey, and then finally, unbelievably, completely black.

“What?” Eli asked, seeing something on Victor’s face. “Vic, what is it?”

Victor couldn’t say anything. He could only stare. He realised he was shaking, the rage suddenly consuming.

“Vic?” Eli asked again, and Victor heard the hope there. “What—?”

He gave up mid-question, stumbling to his feet, falling to one knee, heaving himself up with the help of the wash basin. Victor remained kneeling on the floor, but he followed Eli with his eyes, unable to resist even if he didn’t want to know, didn’t want to see the moment Eli realised it had worked.

Not just worked, Victor thought. Beyond worked.

Eli was gripping the basin so tightly his knuckles were a stark white against his usually tan skin. Distantly, Victor noticed a fine criss-cross of scars across Eli’s shoulder blades, and absently wondered where he had got them. Eli leaned forward, his nose almost touching the mirror, his grip on the basin tightening. He stared at himself for a long moment, and then he laughed.  

 

NOW

True to Victor’s assumptions, it didn’t take long for Eli to appear. A further testament to how well Victor knew him – still, after all these years – was the fact that Eli didn’t acknowledge him in any way, despite knowing beyond all doubt that he was there. His eyes, one a deep brown, the other completely black, passed almost lazily across the room, lingering for not a second on the table where Victor and Mitch sat both facing the door, and then turned abruptly back to the person who had just shouted his name and waved him over. Naturally he wasn’t alone, because when had Eli ever been without a group of people hanging on his every word? Victor scowled.

Mitch turned to him as soon as Eli and the others had made themselves comfortable on the other side of the room, by the large red-tinted windows. A steady stream of people were arriving into the pub now, half-finished drinks in their hands – evidently the tide was rising. The glow from the river got brighter as the water edged closer, and soon Victor was sure they wouldn’t need any lights at all.

“What?” Victor eventually snapped. “Are you going to ask, or are you going to continue staring at me?”

“Why didn’t you mention that?” Mitch hissed. “Why wouldn’t you have said something before?”

“Why bother?” Victor asked. “It isn’t important.”

“You want to kill an Antari?” Mitch demanded. “The magician you want to kill is a fucking Antari, and you didn’t think that was important?”

“I don’t see how it is,” Victor replied. “He has a beating heart, the same as anyone else.”

“A heart that’s incredibly difficult to make stop beating,” Mitch said. “Victor. You know this. How long did you study magic for? You know about Antari. You know they can’t be killed easily, if they can even be killed at all. And you know that between us, we barely have any magic to throw at him!”

Mitch didn’t mention the fact often. He knew how powerful Victor had become, in the weeks following Eli’s experiment. He knew how Victor had practised in secret, utilising the slums for his own experiments much the same way as Eli had; people who wouldn’t be reported missing, who wouldn’t be missed, who would be too poor for anybody to want to investigate their deaths any further, even if the bodies were grotesquely positioned, their limbs twisted by breaks, their spines crooked, their heads facing the wrong way. He knew what Victor had lost.

No, he didn’t mention it often, but when he did it hit home. Unable to resist the urge, Victor reached first with one hand and then the other, tugging at the sleeves of his coat. The marks of the limiters scarred into his skin were not visible, the sleeves being far too long, but Victor drew some comfort from the action anyway.

“That’s why we’re not going to use magic, necessarily,” Victor responded calmly. “You’ve been in plenty of fights. I’m quick on my feet.”

Mitch still didn’t look convinced.

And I know some people,” Victor added, glancing at Dominic.

Him?” Mitch asked, raising an eyebrow. “The alcoholic barely propping himself up at the bar?”

“Do you wonder why he drinks?” Victor asked. He could tell by Mitch’s expression that he didn’t think it was relevant. “It’s because he’s in pain. Every minute of every day. He’s in constant agony. Do you know why?”

“Why?” Mitch asked, falling for the bait despite himself.

“He runs with a rough crowd of magicians,” Victor explained. “They do a lot of things that aren’t strictly legal. Aren’t legal at all, if I’m honest. Things that have no right being out in the world, really, but the world is a dirty place and there’s always use of them. A lot of the crowd dabble in smuggling: artefacts, people. People are a lousy cargo. They’re loud and unpredictable, and many of them are magical. The group of them were working on temporary limiters, something that could be put on a person to dampen their magic until they were at the location they needed to be in. It’s a tricky science, and Dominic tested a bad one.”

Victor glanced at Dominic as he spoke, seeing the man was now essentially laying across the bar. Somehow, he was still receiving drinks.

“It didn’t wipe him of his magic completely,” Victor continued, “but it messed him up. There was barely a bone in his body that wasn’t broken. The force of the magic being cut off seemed to translate itself physically, and his bones just shattered. He couldn’t see anybody good about it, because he would have to explain what happened. So all of them healed wrong, and now he can’t exist without pain.” Victor looked back to Mitch. “This crowd of his, they know the magic behind limiters. They can build them and they can take them apart. Those on skin as well as those applied. I’m a bone mage. I told him if he could hook me up with something similar – something that works – I would help him out.”

Mitch let out a low whistle, shaking his head. “So you’re going to slap one of those on Eli, and then kill him.”

“Essentially,” Victor replied. “After I’ve had a little fun with him. There are lots of bones to break in the human body, and I’d quite like to experience breaking them all.”

“There’s just one small flaw to the plan here,” Mitch said, and Victor gave him a lazy look. “Antari are rare. They’re valuable.”

“Yes?” Victor said.

“So that means Eli is almost undoubtedly in service to the Crown,” Mitch said firmly. “And if you go out there killing him—”

“He’s very much a friend of the Crown,” Victor interrupted. “They all love him, the royals and the nobles. But Antari are flighty by nature, Mitch. They wander off to worlds nobody else can access. I’m sure if I make him disappear quickly enough, nobody will know. And even if they suspect, there’s no way they would be able to prove it. I doubt they will, though. They’ll probably assume he’s in another world, and by the time they find anything that says otherwise – assuming they even can – we’ll be long gone.”

Mitch still didn’t look convinced, and Victor drained his glass and sighed, getting up to head back to the bar.

“I’ve had ten long years to think about this, Mitchell,” he said. “I think you ought to trust me a little more.”

True to form, Victor ignored Eli as he went to the bar, waited for his drink. Eli seemed to be doing the same, but as Victor turned to go back to his table it seemed something grabbed both of their gazes and snapped them together, meeting ever so briefly across the room: ice-blue and brown-black.

 

THEN

Never before had Eli’s life changed so quickly, so drastically, so totally.

There had been periods of upheaval before, of course. He had thought it could get no worse than when his mother had died, leaving him alone with his tyrant of a father. That had been sudden, too, but his life hadn’t changed all that drastically for it. He simply had an ache in his chest where a mother’s love had once been, his trust in the world ripped away with it. The rest of it had been the same: his father’s temper, his constant pressure, his violence. Eli had driven his mother to suicide, his father had claimed; driven her to it because he was tainted, because he was unworthy, because he was bad. After all, why else had no magic touched him? John Cardale had tried to beat the answers out of his son, as if he could find some clues in the boy’s blood, but he had never worked it out. Eventually shame and despair had pushed him into the priesthood, where he would have been free to abandon all his earthly responsibilities, and Eli hadn’t seen him since.

But his father had been wrong. He had been so, so wrong. Eli had known it from the second his mind had caught up with what he was seeing in the mirror that late morning: one of his eyes just the same as it had always been, warm and dark brown, but the other now a shimmering, inky black. There seemed to be a whole world inside it as Eli tilted his head this way and that, rolled the eye around in its socket, seeing the smooth, unbroken blackness there. His father’s mistake had been undeniable then. Eli wasn’t cursed. He was blessed. Blessed as clearly as he could ever be, the mark of magic right there on his face for all to witness. Not just any magic, either – this wasn’t mastering an element or two, or even three. This was mastering them all, and then more. This was magic’s ultimate acceptance: the mark of a blood magician, the ones who had magic sing in their very veins. The ones who could talk to it.

And surely it had always been this way? Surely this was what he had been missing – what had been there from the start but had been interrupted before it had taken root. Magic had chosen him from birth, but circumstances had prevented it, as was possible when Eli considered the chaos of the world, of magic itself. But magic had never forgotten, and by sheer guidance Eli had worked this out and called it back to him. His heart was hammering in his chest, his whole body ached, but Eli barely felt any of it.

Looking back, he admitted that he hadn’t been paying much attention to Victor. Not out of any ill intent, but simply because he didn’t have the time, and Victor was so good at fading into the background. If things were tense, Eli assumed that it was because Victor was in shock. He could hardly blame him. Eli felt it too; the constant undercurrent of disbelief, of feeling as though the whole thing wasn’t real. Eli had hidden in his room for the first two days, waiting for his eye to change back, dreading the moment, but it never did. Hesitantly he had begun reaching to things, calling to things, and the world had eagerly responded. Eli had gone from barely being able to make a flame flicker or a drop of water tremble; now he could summon fire in his cupped hands, lift water from his glass and sail it around the room. It came as easily to him as breathing.

On the evening of the second day there was a persistent knock on the door, and then Angie’s unmistakeable voice.

“Eli! Victor! One of you had better open this door or I’m bringing it down.”

Silence. Eli thought he should probably go get it. Where was Victor, anyway?

“One,” Angie called warningly. “Two.”

Somewhere between the first number and the second Eli thought he heard a sigh, the clink-thud of a glass being put down near a bottle. Had Victor been here this whole time, sitting in the living room and drinking? Eli supposed he must have been, because Angie didn’t get to three, and there were murmured voices now, too quiet to hear through the walls. Every so often Angie’s voice rose in pitch for a moment and then quietened down; Victor’s remained even, as rough as gravel.

Eli wondered if Victor was covering for him, making some excuse, but he knew if he was it would only be cursory. Angie was far too clever for that, and she would know something was seriously wrong if the top two performers in the whole year were absent for two days this close to the end of term, and one of them was found drinking this early in the evening.

Sure enough, Eli suddenly heard footsteps heading up the short hall, and after something that could only be very generously called a knock, Angie came into the room.

What is going on?” she demanded. “Victor won’t tell me anything and he’s in a foul mood, all he’ll say is something about you and experiments. What have you done to yourse—”

She had come close enough to see him where he remained laying on the bed, his arms folded behind his head, staring at the ceiling. He moved his gaze to meet hers, a slight smile on his face as he watched her eyes flicker back and forth, always settling on his black eye, moving away again, coming back. She stood for a moment, her mouth open, and then sat heavily on the bed. She stared at him for a moment more and then reached out, gently touching at the skin around his eye, pressing lightly. She paused, and then suddenly she touched the eye itself, a light pressure that made Eli jerk his head away and blink rapidly.

Ow. Do you mind?”

Sankt,” Angie muttered. “It’s real.”

Eli rubbed at his eye. “Of course it’s real. What did you think it was?”

“A prank,” Angie admitted. “I mean, what else could it be? How could—when did—I’ve never—you’re Antari?”

“Apparently so,” Eli said, before laughing at her expression. “Didn’t I always say you must know something about me that I didn’t?”

“Well, yeah, but I never thought… I didn’t realise it could happen so late.”

“I guess there’s no telling these things, huh?”

“Victor was saying something about an experiment,” Angie said, frowning. “You didn’t do anything stupid, did you? This is real? It’s not some… some corruption, or anything?”

“It’s real,” Eli said smoothly. “Victor’s exaggerating. I think he’s a little shocked. You know what he’s like. He’s my best friend, but I know he’s also a dick. I kind of think it was good for his ego, knowing I was one less rung up than he was in terms of magical ability. This changes things slightly.” He gave another small smile. “I don’t hold it against him. What he probably means is that I had a theory about magic, that I was working on for my thesis, and this kind of accidentally proved me right.” He frowned. “And now I suppose I’ll have to re-write a chunk of it to account for the new data.”

“Only you,” Angie said, “could become Antari overnight and then worry about your thesis.”

Eli laughed. “Well, it’s kind of directly relevant, I mean, I was looking at—”

She cut him off with a kiss, her hands cupping his cheeks and pulling him roughly against her, both of them suddenly desperate and triumphant all in one, and it took them several moments to realise Victor was standing in the doorway – had he not cleared his throat, they probably wouldn’t have noticed at all.

“Sorry if I’m interrupting anything,” he said, not sorry at all. “But I was hoping that you’d be less happy about this.”

Angie frowned, still straddling Eli’s waist. “Why? It’s a good thing, Vic.”

“I’m not saying it’s a bad thing,” Victor said, as Eli sat up a little straighter. “I’m just saying that it’s a complicated thing. How are we going to explain this?”

“What do we have to explain?” Angie asked, while Eli looked at him questioningly.

“And can this discussion wait?” he added, and Angie laughed. He grinned at her, but didn’t miss the dark look Victor shot him.

“It can wait,” Victor said, looking at Eli, “but not forever. This doesn’t just happen. They’re going to want to know the details.”

“What other details are there?” Eli asked, meeting Victor’s barely detectable challenge with one of his own. “The magic found me again, Victor. Don’t you see? It was always supposed to be this way.”

It seemed later that everyone was in agreement with him. Eli wondered, briefly, if he should be forthcoming with how he had called the magic back to him, exactly, but something kept him from doing so. He supposed deep down it was a concern that others would try it, should word get out, and nobody would see that it was magic being called back to a specific person who should have always had it. Eli knew people would just see a way to perhaps become Antari, and he didn’t think he could deal with all those inevitable deaths on his hands. Gradually, over the course of many days, he smoothed out the whole mess into a stroke of luck and the implication that because he was thinking so much about it, something must have clicked into place. To his surprise, Victor didn’t betray what had really happened, despite the increasing severity of the glares directed at him on the rare occasions they saw one another.

Such occasions were very rare. Eli had no idea what Victor did with his time now, but Eli had plenty to keep him occupied. Everyone was fascinated by him, stares following him down every street and hallway he walked, a strange kind of respect and deference common among the people who caught sight of him. The news seemed to have spread like wildfire – that there was an Antari, here in the city, and before long Eli was frantically trying to find something to wear to answer a royal summons. It was his luck that Angie was allowed to come with him; he had been permitted a guest, and Angie was of course the logical choice, being his long-term girlfriend and also the youngest ever winner of the Essen Tasch (she had been fifteen). Therefore she was well-rehearsed with royal meetings and royal dinners and royal palaces, and without the etiquette to panic over, Eli was able to be his usual charming self; much to Victor’s disdain, he was sure, he managed to win over everyone he met.

The evening had gone to such highs, but by the end of the night it managed to reach impossible lows. Eli supposed that was the balance that everyone was talking about; the constant swinging back and forth between the two that the world was so consistent with. Highs and lows, balance and chaos. The night it had all gone wrong, he and Angie had left the palace and decided against taking a carriage anywhere; they had walked back towards the campus instead, wandering down by the river and enjoying its comforting light, moving aimlessly around streets and back alleys and seeing where their feet took them. Even the rougher areas of the city were no worry to them now. It was unlikely that anybody would dare lay a hand on an Antari, but if they did, both Eli and Angie were independently capable of kicking their ass.

Looking back, Eli was sure that he had been led to Victor. It seemed too controlled, the weaving through the streets, the going out of their way, the constant sense of direction. They didn’t find Victor right away, but they found his latest victim: an old beggar, crumpled on the ground, his limbs unnatural and his eyes and mouth open wide in shock and pain. Eli went quickly to him, but immediately saw it was too late for anything he could do – the man was already dead. He didn’t know why he thought immediately of Victor; he didn’t know why Angie had turned pale when he said his name, as though she had known too. They searched without luck for several minutes, and then Eli shook his head.

“Go and find some guards,” he said grimly. Somewhere, he realised, he knew where Victor had been all these nights; knew what he had been doing – what he had driven him to. Why else would Victor be doing this? “I’ll find him.”

“Eli,” Angie said hesitantly, but Eli shook his head.

“Go. It’s my fault anyway. I’ll talk to him. I’ll… I’ll explain. Maybe I can get them to go easier on him. Just, go, alright?”

She paused for a moment, and then she saw what he was digging out of his pockets: loose change, notes on scraps of paper, and finally a small flick knife, one she recognised instantly. She understood then, and gave a small nod.

“I hate to say it, but be careful,” she said, and then hurried back the way she had come.

Eli took a steadying breath. He had borrowed the knife from Victor several days ago, needing something a little fancier than the kitchen knives to show up to the palace with. Strange, that he had been trying to decide which knife to bring to a royal meeting, but he had known he would be expected to prove what he was. The only way to do that for certain – to ensure he was Antari and not simply a very powerful elemental mage – was to use blood magic. It hadn’t been all that long ago at all; when Eli pushed back his sleeve, he could still see the faint scratch there, still remember the mutters of awe and delight as he had frozen the hall’s floor and then shattered the ice with four words and a drop of blood. He searched for that calm now, all too aware of the fact that this was the first time he would actually move between places; the first time he would do what Antari were most known for. He had practised all the spells he could, trying to gain some familiarity with them in the short time it took until he had been pushed out onto the world stage, and it had all worked as it should have but there was still something that coiled in Eli’s gut as he approached the wall next to him, a solid stone thing that looked as unyielding as anything could be. He had only read about such things in books. What if there was more to this than just a cut and some words?

But that kind of thinking hadn’t got him anywhere. He flicked the knife open and drew a small cut on the skin of his forearm, letting the blood well there and stain the blade. Then he briefly held the knife in his other hand and, still holding it, pressed those fingers to the wound. Blood coated his skin, and he ignored the lurch of nervousness in his gut as he reached out and pressed his hand flat against the wall, Victor’s knife caught between. He swallowed hard.

As Tascen Victor Vale,” he said, as clearly and with as much confidence as he could muster.

A beat, and then Eli felt the stone under his fingers change. It seemed to turn soft, grainy, like wet sand, and then it simply fell away and Eli found himself walking – being pulled? – through. The ground dropped out from under his feet, all sound and sensation vanished; for a long moment it was as though he didn’t exist at all, and then his foot finished its step and there was solid ground again, and Eli realised he had literally only taken a single step, and now he was standing on a cobble-stoned street, barely lit and eerily quiet, and he still had his hand stretched out in front of him.

Swallowing hard again, Eli lowered it but kept the knife out, looking around. He wasn’t far – if he turned behind him he could just about make out the roofing of the building he had just passed with Angie – but the alleys and streets crisscrossed enough that Eli knew it would have been unlikely he ended up here. He looked around, suddenly remembering that Victor might be nearby, and it didn’t take him long to find him.

He was walking down a nearby alley, only just out of arm’s reach to Eli’s left. He had arrived so silently that Victor hadn’t even noticed, but as soon as Eli took a step Victor turned quickly, and Eli felt his leg wrench itself out from under him. He fell painfully to one knee, the impact shuddering through his kneecap, and then the tension vanished.

“Eli,” Victor said, quite casually, as Eli got back to his feet. “Surprised to see you here. I thought you were at the party.”

“It was a dinner,” Eli replied, “and it’s over now. It’s the early hours of the morning.”

“Is it?” Victor asked. “I hadn’t noticed.”

“You’ve been busy,” Eli said pointedly. “I suppose the time got away with you.”

Victor’s eyes flickered across his face, and Eli saw the realisation dawn there.

“Ah,” he said simply.

“Why, Vic?” Eli asked, and he hated the way his voice sounded so suddenly on the verge of cracking. “Why did you do it? Why did you feel you had to? You must have known you can’t go around—go around killing people like that. Weren’t there other ways you could have worked it out?”

“No,” Victor said coldly. “You know there aren’t. I shouldn’t even be practising it. Don’t pretend like there’s another way.”

“I could have asked,” Eli said desperately. “I could have tried to work something out for you, I could have—”

I don’t need you to,” Victor growled.

“This was my fault,” Eli said, feeling his eyes burning. “This is my fault, isn’t it? I drove you to it when I discovered what I was, and of course you’d feel this way, of course you’d miss your magic, I mean it’s only natural—”

Pain lanced through Eli’s arm as the limb tried to bend itself back at the elbow; at the last moment Eli forced it back, realising that he had done so with surprising ease. Victor frowned, and for the first time Eli felt a flash of anger.

No,” he said, letting out a breathless laugh. “No, Victor. I’m sorry. I can’t let this go on.”

Victor’s eye narrowed. “I don’t need your help. It’s only fair, Eli. You get your fun, I should have mine. It’s not like anyone will miss these people. They’re all old anyway.”

“No,” Eli repeated, shaking his head. “I’m sorry, Vic. I really am. I know you don’t want my help, but that’ll change. I’m sure it will. I’ll do something for you. I’ll have them go easy on you.”

“What do you mean?” Victor demanded, but Eli saw on his face that he knew.

This time Eli was ready. He barely felt anything Victor was trying to force on him before he pushed it back tenfold, seeing Victor’s limbs lock into place. Eli could see him fighting it, see his fingers twitching as he very nearly managed it, but despite Eli’s inexperience his will was stronger; his magic stronger. He held him there, wanting to look away but forcing himself not to, forcing himself to look his friend in the eye. He saw nothing that made him think Victor still thought so kindly of him. His eyes were alight with hatred.

Footsteps sounded, and Eli glanced behind him. It was only Angie, breathless and still running; she saw him at the last moment and skidded to a stop, coming towards him. Eli turned back to Victor, but his moment of distraction had been a moment too long. Victor didn’t bother with magic this time; as Eli turned Victor’s hand was already coming for his head, palm up, and the heel hit him in the nose and smashed his head against the stone wall behind him. Eli cursed, blood dripping from his nose, and then Victor was past him and Eli was sure he would run, sure he would lose him.

He quickly wished that was what happened. He pushed himself away from the wall, the hand that was still gripping the knife now cupped over his nose. Victor had stopped, his eyes fixed on something, and Eli could hear horse hooves on cobbles. Relief washed through him – Angie had found the guards after all, but then Victor looked back at him with such hatred that Eli felt his blood run cold. Somehow he knew what he was going to do.

Victor!” he screamed. “Don’t!”

Angie was between them now, apparently also assuming Victor would have ran. She was more concerned with Eli’s injuries, and by the time he screamed it was too late. She half-turned and then suddenly gave a violent jerk, the scream dying in her throat before it had even begun. She collapsed to the ground, her eyes staring but seeing nothing; Eli could see the unnatural bulge in her neck, how limp her head had rolled to the side.

Victor was running. Eli stared at Angie for a moment, unable to really see anything at all. Then something was pulling him to his feet, sending him stumbling out to the road, losing his footing, falling back against the cobbles. The horses came past him, but Victor was going to the nearest alley, going to lose them—

Eli slammed his hand against the cobbles, the blood smearing them.

As Steno,” he growled.

The cobbles shattered into sharp shards, and Eli stood, the shards rising with him. His blood drummed in his ears, the magic seeming to briefly press at him in a way that was so overwhelming he was sure he could do nothing with it, and then he let a breath out through his nose, remembering the brief lessons he had received before the royal meeting. Concentrate. Concentration was key; calm was key. Magic was chaotic, unpredictable – the magician had to be calm. A strange coolness flooded through him, his thoughts stilling, and Eli willed the shards forward.

They moved so quickly Eli couldn’t see them. He could feel them, though, and see their effect on the world. The horses skidded to a stop, rearing, their nostrils flaring as the shards passed between them so closely that it moved the hair of their manes; Victor was just about to vanish out of sight when the shards met their mark. Eli saw him stumble once, twice, fall against the wall, and then collapse to the ground.

The guards remained still for a moment, and then urged their horses forward.

Eli turned back to Angie.

“Angie,” he whispered hoarsely, dropping to his knees beside her. “Angie.”

Her eyes were glassy, unfocused. Eli reached out a trembling hand and pressed two fingers to her neck.

“Angie,” he said quietly. “Angie, please.”

Was there something fluttering under his fingers? He didn’t know if it were just wishful thinking. He pressed down harder, sure he felt something, and then moved his hand to hover over her mouth. He was sure there was warmth there, weak but present. It was all he needed.

The knife was still just out of reach, so Eli dug his fingers into the wound on his arm, the small cut left from finding Victor. He wasn’t sure if his nose was still bleeding enough, nor did it occur to him to check. He simply clawed at the wound, tearing it open with his nails, gritting his teeth through the pain. The blood dripped, and then came in a steady flow. Eli cupped his hand against the wound, feeling its heat in his palm.

“Please,” he whispered again, no longer sure who he was talking to. He pressed his blood-filled hand to Angie’s neck. “As Hasari.

Blood oozed through his fingers. He watched Angie’s face, but it didn’t change. Two more horses galloped past him; he barely noticed.

“Please,” he choked out, his eyes burning. “Please, work, come on, come on! She’s not dead yet, I know she isn’t. Help me.”

Angie’s eyes continued to stare at him, glassy and distant, and then Eli felt something shift under his hand, deep in Angie’s neck. It seemed to move forever, bone rolling under his hand, pressing against her skin, and then as abruptly as it started it had stopped, and Angie’s eyes cleared, and she took a great gasp of breath and reached up to grab his wrist in a vice-grip.

Eli!”

He leaned down, pressing his forehead against hers, and for a moment they stayed like that, each of them shaking, each of them breathless. Hooves sounded on cobbles, slower now, coming closer, but neither of them looked up.

“Mister Cardale,” somebody said. “Miss Knight.”

Eli shook his head, holding Angie tighter. In a moment he would have to face what had happened, he knew. He would have to explain, probably to the King and Queen themselves, why a rogue bone magician had been roaming around the city murdering people, and why it was all his fault, and how he’d had to kill his own best friend. That much was inevitable, but the inevitable could be put off a little longer.

 

NOW

Victor had held that gaze for just as long as Eli had, and then turned back towards his table. He sipped at the drink and answered Mitch’s questions as vaguely as he could, and then he felt the gaze on him again and stood quickly enough that Mitch was immediately suspicious.

“Stay here,” he said, and Mitch shook his head.

“You can’t—”

“I’m not going to try anything,” Victor said firmly, “and neither is he.”

He walked away before Mitch could protest, heading to the door they had entered by. He had just seen Eli slip through it.

The passageway was deserted now the tide was up, but the door was still open, making the stone glow red. It looked as though something were alight down there, and Victor approached cautiously, seeing Eli standing just outside on the high curb. The water was lapping against it now, the road completely submerged, the tables and chairs in the garden floating obediently in place. They were charmed, Victor supposed.

The magic hummed in the air this close to the water, and Victor remembered how it had felt to touch it that time; felt the echoes of the river’s power in the marks around both of his wrists. His magic was still there, he knew; it was fighting to get out. Anger flared in him, briefly making the ache unbearable, and then dissipated as he forced it back. He would not act so rashly now.

“Hello, Victor,” Eli said, without turning around. “I’m surprised they let you out.”

“My sentence was reduced,” Victor said, “on account of the limiters. I suppose you did something for me after all.”

Eli turned then, and this close to him Victor was annoyed to see he had barely changed in the decade since they had last met. The cells had hollowed Victor’s cheeks out, set permanent shadows under his eyes and etched lines into his skin. The limiters didn’t help, what with how sickly it made him to repress his power all the time. Eli, on the other hand, had never looked healthier. There were no wrinkles lining his face, not even at the corners of his eyes or the furrow of his brow, and he watched Victor approach with a kind of ease that Victor had never seen before.

Of course, Victor thought. You’re harmless now.

“Would you have insisted on the limiters,” Victor asked, “if you knew it would lead to them letting me out on good behaviour?”

“I would have sooner laughed at the idea of you behaving,” Eli replied. They were standing only feet from one another now. “But yes, I would have insisted. I think it’s a lot better this way. A lot safer.”

“Hmm,” Victor said. “I get the impression you just wanted to hurt me, actually. Was driving three shards of stone through me not enough?”

“Evidently not,” Eli said, looking at him. “You’re still here.”

“I’m going to return the favour, Eli,” Victor said, calmly, clearly. “I’m going to give you a matching set of scars before I kill you.”

“It’s very difficult to kill an Antari,” Eli said easily, “and nearly impossible to scar one.”

“I’ll make sure I have plenty of time.”

Eli looked at him for a moment, fixing him with the same gaze that Victor had loved before it had started to direct itself at him. That studious gaze; the eyes of the scholar that Eli had once been, the ones that had picked up on the pattern in magic’s chaos before Victor had, the ones that had allowed him to do the impossible. The ones that now wore the evidence in inky black.

“Did it really hurt that much?” Eli eventually asked. “When they applied the limiters, I mean. You were screaming so much, but you’ve always had a flair for the dramatic.”

Victor prickled with anger, with humiliation. With some effort he forced it from his face, forced the memories away: the magic searing into his skin, burning him from the inside out, tracing deep lines over both his wrists. And Eli, standing on the other side of the cell, his face unreadable, his eyes alight.

“Perhaps one day you can find out yourself,” Victor said evenly, and turned for the stairs.

Eli didn’t follow. Victor glanced back once, before vanishing back into the crowded pub, and saw Eli staring at the spot where he had just been. The Antari’s face seemed blank, but Victor could see the slightest crease between his eyebrows; the vague ghost of a frown.