Marked – Benedict Jacka

The factory hadn’t changed much in five years. The building was the same shade of brownish grey, grime on brick, and the rusted coils of razor wire still gaped atop the walls. From my position on the rooftop I could look down into what had been the car park, and into the windows of the factory itself. There were no signs of movement, but that didn’t matter: I knew what was inside. Off to the right, the skyscrapers of Canary Wharf rose into the night, yellow-white pinpoints glittering off the dark waters of the Thames, topped by the double strobe of the pyramid-shaped tower. The hum of a boat’s engine blended with the deeper rustle of the waves, all of it merging into the sounds of London. It was June, but the night wasn’t a warm one. The breeze off the water was keeping the air cool, enough so that my armour was comfortable to wear. My armour is plate-and-mesh, an imbued item, alive in its own way, and if I focused on it I could feel its presence, guarded and watchful. There was a second imbued item tucked into my pocket – a dreamstone – and a third hidden in that factory. Of the three, my armour was the only one I was glad for. It might not be the strongest of items, but it was one I’d come to trust, and its reactive mesh had saved my life more than once. It could deflect a knife or bullet, maybe even a spell from a battle mage. Assuming the battle mage didn’t have time to study the armour beforehand and figure out exactly how much power he’d need to pierce it. A voice spoke from behind.

‘Hey.’ ‘Correct term of address, please,’ I said absently. Normally I go by Verus to colleagues and Alex to friends. As of eight months ago, I’d picked up a new title. The man behind me grimaced, thinking I couldn’t see him. He was young, with close-cut hair and a narrow face, and he’d been staring at my back for the past few minutes. His name was Chimaera, and he was the newest and youngest of the three Keepers assigned with me to this job. ‘Councillor,’ Chimaera said grudgingly. ‘We going?’ ‘Patience,’ I said. Sergeant Little was due to call, but it wouldn’t be for another two to five minutes.

So I’d gone up here to admire the view, and to see if Chimaera would make a move. So far he hadn’t, but I’d seen flickers of possibilities where he did, enough that I was continuing to stand with my back to him, waiting to see if he’d give in to temptation. I wondered whether Chimaera had volunteered, or whether someone had put him here. I could look into it, if I had the time. Standing here made me think of the first time I’d come to this factory. I’d been hunting a barghest, and once it was over I’d met Luna up on this rooftop and warned her that the Keepers who’d been working with us today might be our enemies tomorrow. I’d thought I was experienced; with hindsight, in my own way, I’d been as naïve as her. Back then I’d thought of the Council as a single block, something to work with or distrust. But it wasn’t a single block: it was a thousand individuals, each one with their own motivations and agenda. Trust didn’t come into it; you work with the tools you’re given.

My communicator was about to ping, and the short-term futures were quiet. Chimaera wasn’t going to try it. Pity. I waited for the voice in my ear to say my name before answering. ‘Verus.’ ‘We’re ready,’ Sergeant Little’s voice said. ‘On my way,’ I replied, and turned. ‘Time to go.’ Chimaera nodded. I could feel his eyes on my back all the way down.

The men were already assembled when we arrived. There were twenty Council security, armed and armoured, led by a compact, tough-looking man with sharp blue eyes called Sergeant Little. Of the two Keepers, I only knew one, a tall veteran with a long face who went by the name of Ilmarin. The other, Saffron, was a heavily built woman whose communication consisted mostly of grunts. ‘Our target’s in the factory,’ I said. ‘Both him, and the people he’s suborned. Sergeant, pick out enough men to cover the exits. The rest of us will go in through the front door.’ ‘ROE?’ Sergeant Little asked. He meant the rules of engagement.

It was a good question, and one with no good answer. ‘Nonlethal where possible. Remember, these are civilians.’ The sergeant nodded slowly, though I could tell he was doubtful. One of the other men wasn’t so reticent. ‘All due respect, sir, but that’s going to be a bit hard if they’re shooting at us.’ ‘I’ll be on point,’ I said. ‘Keepers Saffron and Ilmarin will assist. We’ll disarm as many as we can.’ ‘What about me?’ Chimaera said.

‘You’re rearguard.’ ‘Why should I—?’ ‘Because Ilmarin and Saffron can subdue non-lethally,’ I said. Ilmarin was an air mage, and Saffron a mind mage. ‘You can’t. Unless you were planning to burn them half to death.’ Chimaera scowled. Fire mages are notoriously bad at using less than lethal force, and they don’t respond well to criticism, either. ‘You’re going to prove something by going first?’ I saw the faces of the security men shift, and several looked at Chimaera with expressions that were a little too neutral. The Council has a habit of using its security forces as screening units, and if someone needs to be first through a door, then it’s usually a Council security man who gets the job, in much the same way that one might poke a suspicious object with a long stick. Sometimes the object turns out to be a bomb, which is hard on the stick.

The men (and it’s almost entirely men) on the Council security forces know the risks of the job, and they’re paid well, but no one likes to be reminded that they’re expendable. Ilmarin shot Chimaera a sharp glance, which the younger mage didn’t notice. ‘Is this the kind of discipline Keepers are taught nowadays?’ I didn’t raise my voice, but I didn’t take my eyes off Chimaera either. ‘You were assigned to my command. If you have a problem with that, get lost.’ Chimaera glowered but didn’t answer. I waited a second, then turned back to the others. ‘Primary objective hasn’t changed. Remember, there isn’t any limit on the number of thralls this thing can maintain. It takes it a certain amount of time to bring someone under its control, but once it’s got them, it keeps them.

That means the longer we leave this problem, the worse it’s going to get.’ ‘What about the bearer?’ Sergeant Little asked. ‘No restrictions,’ I said. ‘Take him down any way you can.’ I would have liked to take the guy alive, but I was asking enough from the men as it was. I looked around. ‘Any questions?’ The group looked at me. No one spoke. ‘Okay,’ I said. ‘Move out.

’ Up close, the factory loomed like a monstrous shadow. Orange radiance from the street lights lit up the upper walls, while the ground floor was shrouded in gloom. ‘One on the gate,’ Ilmarin said quietly into my ear. I nodded. I could have crept up and taken him down, but we could afford to take things slowly. ‘Saffron?’ Saffron leaned around the railings, staring into the shadows surrounding the front door. I could feel the spell working, a kind of rhythmic pull. Mind magic is hard to detect; it’s not easy to make out the details of a spell even when you know what to look for. Thirty seconds passed, a minute, then I saw a dark shape slump to the ground. The futures in which the alarm was raised vanished.

We moved up, the security men trailing us. Once we reached the door I clicked on my light, shining it down. The beam revealed a kid of maybe seventeen or eighteen, dressed in dirty clothes. He was fast asleep, breathing slowly and steadily, and on his head was a silver mesh cap. ‘That’s how it controls them?’ Sergeant Little asked quietly. I nodded. The Council records on this thing had been thorough, and they’d contained drawings of similar devices. The cap was made of metal, crudely soldered, and it was clamped around the boy’s skull. ‘How long would it take you to get it off?’ I asked Saffron. Saffron shrugged.

Which meant I couldn’t count on her to do it fast enough. ‘Cuff him and move him back to the perimeter,’ I said. This one hadn’t been carrying a gun; that would change once we got inside. Little’s men removed the sleeping boy while Ilmarin worked on the door. It opened quickly and we moved in. We picked our way through dark corridors. Junk and rubbish littered the floor, making it hard to find a path, and every now and then there’d be the crunch of something being crushed under an unwary boot. Each time it happened, Little would shoot a glare at the offending person, but I didn’t turn to look; all my attention was focused on the futures ahead. There were signs that the factory was in use – footprints in the grime, splinters of wood and brick that had been kicked out of the way – but there had been no attempt to make the place more hospitable. There was no power, and judging by the smell, no plumbing either.

Even if there had been, I didn’t think anyone would want to live here. The factory had an unwholesome feel to it, malignant and cold. There was a metallic skittering, something small bouncing away down the corridor. ‘Hold up,’ Ilmarin said quietly. He put a hand to the wall. ‘Sergeant?’ ‘I see it,’ Sergeant Little said, frowning at the scratches and pockmarks in the concrete. ‘Looks like an AP mine.’ ‘They’ve got the place trapped?’ ‘No,’ I said absently. Behind me, I felt Ilmarin and Little exchange glances. Little bent down, picked up a ball bearing, sniffed at it.

‘It’s not new.’ ‘You sure?’ Ilmarin said. ‘If there are mines here …’ ‘This is years old,’ I said. Ilmarin gave me a thoughtful look. He’d been with me the last time we’d come here, and there hadn’t been any mines. ‘He’s right,’ Little said. ‘Too much dust in the scorings.’ ‘You hear that?’ one of the other men said. We stood still, listening. After a moment I could pick it out: a steady throbbing sound.

‘Generator?’ Little asked. ‘I think so,’ Ilmarin said. ‘All right,’ I said. ‘Little, have the men do their final checks.’ ‘You’re still planning to be the first one in?’ Ilmarin asked me. ‘You don’t approve?’ ‘I don’t mind backing you up, if that’s what you’re asking,’ Ilmarin said dryly. ‘But I have a shield.’ ‘Well, I don’t,’ Saffron announced, ‘and I’m not going in first.’ ‘Stay and cover the door,’ I told her. ‘You can pick them off from there.

’ ‘And Chimaera?’ Ilmarin asked. The young Keeper was at the back of our procession, far enough away to be out of hearing for the conversation. ‘I meant what I said,’ I told Ilmarin. ‘I want these people alive.’ ‘You do make life difficult for yourself,’ Ilmarin murmured, but his lips quirked in a smile. ‘Well, then. Shall we?’ I looked at Little and got his nod. ‘Let’s go kick the hornet’s nest.’ The main factory floor had been mostly cleared. The old machines, too heavy to be moved, still squatted like rusting statues, but the concrete around them had been swept clean, the rubbish piled untidily in the corners.

In the centre of the floor were a pair of splintered wooden tables, and a dozen people were clustered around each, sitting on broken chairs and old packing crates. They were young and old, male and female, and they were all hunched over, working with feverish intensity. All wore the mesh headpieces that we’d seen on the boy outside. Above, catwalks ran from wall to wall. Yellow lights around the room threw off a dull glow, and in one corner a petrol generator was rumbling away with a steady chug-chug-chug. Ilmarin and I walked out onto the factory floor. With the sound of the generator drowning out our footsteps, no one noticed us at first. Then a woman at the end of the table saw us out of the corner of her eye and looked up. There was a moment’s pause, then every other person in the room looked up in eerie synchronisation. Twenty-four pairs of eyes stared blankly at us, then as one, they rose to their feet and began moving forward.

‘Well, we have their attention,’ Ilmarin said. ‘What’s step two?’ ‘Step two is to take out the ones with guns,’ I said. I’d been hoping that their reaction to two apparently unarmed men would be to capture, rather than shoot. It seemed to be working, at least so far, but three at the back had pulled out pistols. If I wanted to avoid any dead bodies, I needed them disarmed. The thralls had closed to within a few feet. Their arms came up, reaching to grapple. ‘Go,’ I said, and darted forward. For an instant they hesitated, but an instant was all I needed. I slipped the attack of the first, knocked the breath out of the second, tripped him and threw him under the feet of the third.

They tried to press around me and grapple, acting in unison. Against most people it would have been effective, but here it was the reverse. Normally it’s uncertainty that’s my biggest enemy in combat, the chaos and confusion cutting the range of my divination to a bare few seconds. But here I wasn’t really fighting a crowd, I was fighting a single entity that was using the thralls like fingers and toes, and I slid away from their attacks, using their numbers against them. There’s a rhythm to battle, a cadence, almost like a dance. Every move has its counter, every strike its timing. Once you understand it, it doesn’t feel as though you’re attacking at all: you just do what’s natural. Dimly, through the press, I was aware of Ilmarin hammering thralls with fists of air while they beat uselessly at his shield. A man swung at me with a broom handle. I like sticks, especially long sticks.

The staff came out of his fingers as I twisted it, and a blow to his head put him on the ground. Felling him opened a gap in the crowd, and I sprang onto a packing crate and up onto the table. Grasping hands reached for me but I ran down the table, kicking aside bits of metal and unfinished headpieces, then jumped down in front of the trio with guns. They had their pistols levelled but I could see in the futures that they weren’t going to fire, at least not yet. My stick cracked the wrist of one of them, sending the pistol skittering off across the concrete, and I kicked the second hard enough to make him fold over. The third backed up, still aiming the gun, and I closed, spun, took his ankle out from underneath him, then stunned him with a blow to the head. The futures changed. There was gunfire, now. Time for step three. ‘Little,’ I said out loud, hearing the communicator in my ear chime.

‘Go.’ There was a rush of footsteps and the Council security came charging in. Caught between us and the reinforcements, the thralls hesitated before turning on the security men, but the Council security waded in with batons and tasers, focusing the thralls down one at a time. The thralls on my side of the room ran for the fallen guns. I caught one before he could reach it, tripping him then cracking him over the skull as he tried to rise. ‘Ilmarin!’ I shouted, and the air mage threw out a hand; the other two pistols went flying up and over the mêlée, falling behind the Council security

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