“We’ll do it,” Callum said.
“Of course we will,” I said. “Why would we not stalk the scary magician who might be trying to raise his son from the dead? For free?”
Like it or not, when a sorcerer asks you to track a magician, you track a magician. It’s that or spend life as a hamster. So we did.
But, turns out, the scary magician is the least of our worries. Between raging squirrel mobs, My Little Ravenous sewer monsters, and bungalow-dwelling necromancers with a good line in attack dogs, it’s all we can do to keep ourselves the right side of dead.
And that’s before we stumble onto something far more sinister. Something that makes one dead son look like small carrots. Something that’s going to raise an ancient almost-god and bring the world to its knees.
Unless G&C London, Yorkshire’s premier magical PIs – well, only magical PIs – can stop it first.
We definitely should’ve charged for this one.
Lovely people, launch day is getting closer! I now have the paperback cover for A Melee of Mages, and Monika from Ampersand Book Covers has done an amazing job yet again. I’m astonished every time that when I say something like “it needs to look kind of magic-y”, she somehow makes that into a cover. That’s a special kind of skill.
Of course, now that I have the paperback cover, I desperately want to get my paws on a print book, but as I’m now in NZ in a quarantine hotel I guess I’ll just have to wait. Sigh.
That doesn’t mean you have to wait, though.
Release date is next Friday, 7th of May, and you can absolutely get your pre-orders in now! If it’s for the ebook, it’ll arrive all appropriately magic-like on the 7th, and if it’s a paperback it’ll be a more postal type of magic. Which is still pretty magical, when you think about it. From my head to yours, via the postal service.
Actually, is that more magical, or more weird? Not sure.
And now I shall get out of the way and let you read chapter two. (And if you missed chapter one last week, head over to the blog to read it now!)
Read on, lovely people!
Edit: As this is, of course, an older post, Gobbelino London & a Melee of Mages is waiting for you at your favourite retailers! Just mind the taxidermy …
Gobbelino London & a Melee of Mages
Chapter Two: I Should Have Worried More About Squirrels
Enchanted tadpoles and dead friends aside, nothing more was happening that day, and a cat needs their sleep. Usually a good sixteen hours will suffice, but it was a lot less than that when the pounding started on the door. I jerked upright in my bed on top of the filing cabinet, the morning still damp and dark against the windows.
“London!” someone bawled outside. “London, get yourself up!”
Callum sat straight up with a yelp and rolled off his bed, which did service as an armchair during the day, and, along with the desk, made up the majority of our furniture. “Coming!” he yelled, stumbling to the door before our early morning visitor could smash it off the latch. Not that it would take a huge effort to do so – the structural integrity was pretty compromised. We’d had to repair it more than once after overeager clients had decided locked just meant hit it harder.
Callum pulled the door open to reveal our landlady, her hand raised to bang on the door again. Two of her sons lurked behind her in the shadows of the patchily lit hall. They had the sort of faces that were designed for lurking, in my mind.
“Morning,” Callum said, giving her one of his Callum smiles, the one with dimples at the corners that seemed to encourage a certain proportion of the population to just trust him.
Not our landlady, however. She just scowled at him. “You’re behind again.”
“I know.” He ran a hand over his hair, making it stand up in strange directions. “I’ll have it by the end of the week.”
“Is that this month’s rent, or last?”
He tried the smile again. “I’ll get it.”
“You’d better. Plenty of people looking for decent housing in this area. Don’t think I won’t kick you out.” She turned and marched down the hall, her sons lurking after her, doubtless to bang on someone else’s door. No one in this place was exactly excelling at life.
I looked around at the flaking paint on the walls and the draughty window with the mouldy stain underneath that wouldn’t go away, no matter how much bleach Callum had tried on it. “Does she believe herself when she talks about decent housing?”
Callum snorted, pulling his hoody on. “Like we have much choice.”
“You’re not telling me anything I don’t know.” I watched him amble into the kitchenette and flick the kettle on. “So I suppose this means we’re meeting the creepy magician?”
He put a teabag in a mug and rubbed his hair again, making it even more tangled. “It’s all we’ve got.”
“You know it won’t really help Ifan? And you hadn’t seen him for years, anyway. Certainly not since I’ve known you.”
“I know.” Callum hadn’t even gone to the funeral, just spied on it from the cemetery gates. That didn’t exactly sound like bestie material to me, but Ifan had been there before I’d met Callum. He’d got Callum out of his hometown of Dimly and away from his family – even helped him kick some of the nastier Folk drugs, although the human ones had hung on a bit longer. The only reason we’d stumbled onto the whole zombie outbreak was because Callum had wanted to visit Ifan’s grave, so that had been a fun day.
At least Ifan hadn’t been a zombie. Or we thought he hadn’t – we’d put the zombies down, but we’d never spotted Ifan. Which was probably a good thing, as I wasn’t sure Callum would’ve actually been able to deal with him as needed, and as highly suited to many things as cats are, zombie dispatch is not one of them.
“And I should just point out that the last time we helped a long-lost friend of yours we almost got killed by your long-lost sister. And there was a Cerberus dog.”
“Ez didn’t actually try to kill us—”
“Okay, so your long-lost friend’s recently lost sister did, or whatever. My point being, you have too many long-lost whatevers popping up about the place, and it’s now company policy that we either avoid them or at least get them to pay up front in case anyone gets eaten by lizards or zombies.”
Callum carried his tea to the desk and sat down. “I don’t remember agreeing to that.”
“My name’s first, right? G&C London, not C&G.”
He sighed. “Look, we’ll just find out what Lewis wants. He’s probably just trying to figure out what happened to lead to Ifan … you know.”
“I don’t trust him,” I said. “What if he blames you for Ifan’s death?”
“How? Like you said, I hadn’t been around for years.”
“Who knows what a magician thinks. Maybe he read some chicken entrails and they told him.”
Callum made a face and picked his cigarettes up off the desk. “Is that a magician thing? Entrails?”
“I don’t know. Magicians. Enchanters. Sorcerers. They’re all creepy. Give me indigestion.” I shuddered.
“Custard gives you indigestion. Doesn’t stop you though, does it?”
I sighed. “He’d better pay well. I’ve seen his house. He’s not getting away with a couple of cloaking charms and half a sandwich or something.”
Callum snorted. “I’m sure we’ll work something out.”
“That’s not actually a business model, you know?”
Callum pulled the car up to the big metal gates of the magician’s house just before eight, and we sat there staring at the high walls and waiting for the clock to tick over. The battered old Rover didn’t exactly blend in on the broad, tree-lined street, full of chunky BMWs and flashy Audis slipping past on school runs and commutes. Houses hid behind high walls and secure gates, and everyone on the street seemed to shop at the same fancy, overpriced stores. Joggers with wireless headphones and bright, unstained shoes peered at us suspiciously, and more than one dog walker snapped a photo of the car in a not-particularly-subtle manner.
Finally Callum checked the time on his phone and got out of the car to ring the intercom button, the collar of his long, stained coat turned up against the damp day. Winter had settled into the north, and not in a pretty, frost-glossed way. Everything was grey and dead and bored looking, waiting for spring to come back and liven things up again.
There was no answer. Callum frowned and tried the buzzer again, then came back and opened the car door, looking in at me. I drew back, just in case he thought I should get out and join him.
“He’s not there.”
“Probably for the best,” I said, and meant it, although the pay would’ve been handy.
Callum checked his phone again. “Maybe he nipped out for something.”
“Or you got the wrong day.”
“I didn’t get the wrong day.”
“You didn’t even write the day down.”
“It was Tuesday. Today.”
“You need a diary,” I said, curling my tail over my toes.
Callum swung back into the driver’s seat, tucking his tatty coat over his long legs. “We don’t have enough cases for me to need a diary.”
“So what now?”
“We wait, I suppose,” he said, and pulled his cigarettes out while I wheezed pointedly.
“Just go and have a look.”
“No one just goes and has a look at a magician’s private property. There’re probably giant guard spiders in there. With fangs. And wings. Maybe tentacles.”
Callum sighed. “We can’t just sit out here all day. Someone’s going to report us for lowering the tone of the neighbourhood.”
I peered out the window at a very skinny woman in leggings and an oversized jacket, who was scowling at us and talking on her phone. “Let’s just go, then. He’s obviously decided he doesn’t need our services, and I for one—”
“Don’t like magicians, I know. Just poke your nose under the gate and see if anyone’s about. He wouldn’t have contacted us if he had any choice, I imagine. So maybe something’s gone wrong.”
“Which would be a good reason for us to stay out of it.”
“He might need help. Anything could’ve happened.”
“If I said good, one less magician, would that be considered unprofessional?”
“Yes. Go on.” He leaned over me and opened the door, and I stared out at the rain distastefully. The skinny woman had moved on, and there was a squirrel watching me from halfway down the trunk of the nearest tree. I bared my teeth at it, and it chittered at me indignantly.
“If I’m eaten by giant acid-spitting spiders, I’m going to be even more obnoxious in my next life. And I’m coming back to find you.”
“Well, that’s something to look forward to.” Callum shut the door as I jumped out into the drizzle, pausing to sniff the mixed scents of leaking oil from the car and dog pee from the squirrel’s tree.
I looked up at the squirrel, who was still glaring at me. “Hey,” I said.
“Sod off,” it replied. “Bloody cats.”
“Oh, lovely. Have you seen the magician go out? Or is he inside still?”
“What do I care?”
I sighed. “Just hoped for a little cross-species cooperation.”
“Got any nuts?”
“Not on me, oddly.”
“Then take your cross-species codswallop and stuff it.” The squirrel scooted back up the trunk, and I grumbled at his retreating tail, but not too loudly. Where you had one squirrel, you had a pack, and if they took the notion of actually stuffing me, they might.
I trotted to the gate and peered underneath. Nothing looked that out of the ordinary. I could smell shift locks burned into the fence, charms that stopped cats appearing within the property the way they appeared anywhere else they fancied. Humans – or at least humans who don’t see – think cats are simply around, without ascribing any sort of importance to it. We’re part of the scenery, as unnoticed as abandoned crisp packets and squabbling pigeons. Even those weird sorts who have to talk to every bloody cat they see never really think much about us, other than as objects of devoted attention. Which is, of course, as it should be.
That’s how we end up cruising the halls of Downing Street and suchlike. Mostly just out of curiosity, to be honest. It’s not like we’re sabotaging things. Humans are plenty good at doing that for themselves. But we like to know what you’re up to, and we go where we want. Partly we do that by shifting, by stepping into the Inbetween, the space that runs between the worlds, and out again somewhere new. Or other cats do. A certain disagreement in a previous life meant I couldn’t do it unless I wanted to step out again missing some vital body parts.
Magicians, however, know cats are rather more than just small, adorable gods (although we are also that). Magicians know about the cats of the Watch. They know who keeps an eye on the balance of magic and Folk in the world. If they’re any good – like old Lewis – they escape the notice of the Watch itself. But if they’re careless or cocky, and the Watch suspect they might threaten the balance by calling human attention to Folk, or using magic to raise themselves over other kinds, they’ll get visits. The Watch doesn’t go in for much in the way of warnings, either. They tend to favour the sudden attack over any sort of messing around. I knew that first-hand from my dealings with them.
All of this means that magicians, along with most Folk, secure their houses with shift locks, little charms and runes carved into the bones of their property. Of course, a shift lock doesn’t stop a cat walking in. It just stops us stepping through the Inbetween and appearing in the living room, but it’s something. It kind of takes away the element of surprise, and for anyone who knows the way the world really works, they’re as vital as running water. For those who can’t make their own, shift locks are cheap enough to buy from the right market stalls. Although it pays to be sure it’s the right stall. More than one homeowner has activated a charm only to find that instead of locking cats out, they’ve actually summoned a small demon or – worse – a nymph in, and have to pay twice as much to get them removed. No one needs a nymph sitting in the kitchen sink, clogging the drain with their hair and asking why there aren’t any lilies.
I squinted down the drive at the house, but I couldn’t tell anything from here. It just stared back at me, blank-faced and empty, a big old car sagging on the circle of gravel that met the steps at the front door, some ragged ivy crawling up one wing of the building and looking more dead than alive. The rest of the garden was much as I remembered it from last year – neglected and overgrown, full of topiary gone to misshapen seed and flowerbeds that were more weeds than flowers. The only difference was that everything looked more dead and mouldering in the winter rain. Lewis hadn’t made it up with the gardeners, then.
I trotted back to the car and Callum opened the driver’s side door, looking down at me. “Well?”
“Can’t tell,” I said. “Maybe he’s sleeping off a big night. It’s unreasonably early.”
Callum sighed, tapping his fingers on the wheel. “Can you go in and have a look at the house?”
“Absolutely not. Did I mention the possibility of fire-breathing spiders?”
“Fine. We’ll both go in.”
“And how do you suggest doing that? Are you going to squeeze under the gate too? I mean, you’d just about make it, but that might get us more than accusations of lowering the tone.”
“You’re going to open the gate,” he said.
“Aw, hairballs. Why do I have to be the one to go in first?”
“It’s in your job description.”
“I don’t have a job description.”
“Of course you do. You put the cat in cat burglar.” He looked inordinately pleased with himself, and I glared at him.
“Cat burglar? Really?”
“Really. Now move it.” He pulled the door shut again, and I made a few suggestions about his parentage, then slunk back to the gate. This is the problem with being small yet perfectly formed. Someone always has jobs for you that no one else can do.
Popping straight into a magician’s garden seemed like a good way to lose my fourth life, so I examined the gate itself. It was all slick, white-painted metal (with a few streaks of rust – I bet that got the neighbourhood watch in a huff), but the walls were invitingly chunky brick and most certainly not cat-proof. And if nothing else, a bit of height would give me a better view of any attack-arachnids.
I bunched back onto my haunches and launched myself at the wall, skittering up to the smooth, damp top before gravity took too close a look at what was going on. I paused there, ears back against the rain, and surveyed the garden, feeling pretty pleased with my reconnoitring skills. Then a squirrel crashed onto the wall next to me, screeching squirrel insults. They’re pretty inventive and often nut-based, but I wasn’t in the mood.
“Oh, sod off,” I said. “I’m nowhere near your tree.”
“This is our wall,” he shrieked back.
“It’s actually a magician’s wall,” I pointed out, and the squirrel suggested an unusual use for conkers, then screamed so loudly his ears trembled. I stared at him, and he made a few threatening little darts forward, chattering his teeth.
“I’m not after your bloody nuts, if that’s what you’re worried about,” I said.
The squirrel chittered, and answering calls came from further up the tree.
“Oh, come on,” I muttered, and glared at three more squirrels as they jumped down from the tree, tails rigid with indignation.
“Thief!” the first squirrel screeched at me. “Nut thief! Nest thief! Murderer!!
“That’s libel,” I said. “Or slander, or whatever. I’m just— Hey!” Because a squirrel had just landed behind me and nipped my tail. “Back off, you nut-addled rodent!”
“Get off!” the first squirrel shouted. “Our wall! Get off!”
“Off!” the other squirrels chorused. “Off! Off! Get off!”
More squirrels piled down the tree, crowding the branches closest to me and shaking them with their weight.
The ones on the wall pressed around me, all sharp teeth and bright furious eyes and sharp-looking claws, and not a shred of reason among them. There never is with squirrels. Either they’re all cutesy picture-book paintings you can almost have a conversation with, or they get panicky about their nuts and turn into a horde of hysterical, nippy monsters. Give me a nice reasonable rat any day.
“Callum,” I called, but he just peered at me through the windscreen and gave me a what do you expect me to do shrug. Some partner he was.
“Get off!” one of the squirrels screamed, just about shattering my eardrum.
“Okay!” I yelled. “Okay, okay, I’m going!” I started to slide my paws down the street side of the wall and about three of the damn monsters rushed me, pushing me back. “Hey!” I tried to scoot away but the one behind me nipped my tail again, and as I spun to confront him, the others pounced. They hit me in a solid scrum of soft grey fur, and I lost my footing as I was swept up by grabby little paws and long hard teeth and hurled off the wrong side of the wall. I squawked as I tumbled into space, twisting to turn the fall into a jump that was a long way short of graceful, and plunged straight into the magician’s garden with my body splayed as I tried to slow myself.
I hit the ground harder than I’d have liked, recovered, and shot straight behind a bushy clump of weeds, panting and waiting for the spiders to emerge. None did, and as my breathing started to calm down I had to admit that I may have given the idea of giant cat-eating arachnids a little too much headspace and frenzied attack squirrels not enough. Not that I’m afraid of spiders or anything, but cat-eating ones were excessive, and just the sort of thing magicians would get up to.
I blinked around, still breathing too hard, and spotted a little pillar to one side of the gates, about a car’s length down the drive. It looked very innocuous, which meant it seemed suspicious given the circumstances. Cats don’t hold much with the concept of private property or the trespassing on thereof, but magicians were fiercely protective of their houses. The whole place had a greasy sheen of magic to it, and I was half-expecting to be charged by a pack of Cerberus dogs any moment, if the spiders were off the table.
Although, this being a fancy suburb of Leeds and not a pocket town like Dimly, where magic still lived, I supposed Cerberus dogs would be hard to hide. Folk are everywhere – the diminutive, fashion-forward barista at the local coffeeshop who always wears an oversized hoody could well be a faery, while half the plant nurseries in the country are run by dryads, and fauns make excellent sourdough and look pretty much indistinguishable from your average hipster anyway. But humans rarely see them for what they are. Kids do, but as they grow up they get told what to see so often that they start seeing it. Or not seeing it, to be more accurate. Which is why magical Folk can exist quite happily alongside humans, as long as they play by the rules. Cerberus dogs were not playing by the rules. Even the most unobservant delivery driver might notice the dog that just bit him had three heads to do the biting.
No, Cerberus dogs and faeries with their tatty wings on show are best kept for pocket towns, where humans never go unless they already live half in the magical world, like Callum. So I was probably safe from them, but there was no telling what else a magician might have. Something unpleasant. Geese, maybe. I don’t trust geese.
I eyed the sweep of gravel drive that led to the house. It looked even more potholed and weed-ridden than it had when we’d been here in the spring. The grass was long to either side, and could well have hidden a phalanx of advancing geese, if they were crawling on their bellies. Or giant spiders. I craned my neck, but I couldn’t see anything approaching. The place felt deserted.
“Sod it,” I said aloud. “Let him come in and deal with the wildlife, then.”
Now tell me, lovely people – what’s one thing that’s commonplace, but is actually pretty magical when you think about it? I still love the fact that I can chat over messenger or skype with friends on the other side of the world, whenever I want. When I first left NZ, the only way to do that was very expensive phone calls. As in, once-a-year-on-special-occasions-if-I-was-feeling-flush expensive. Now I can actually video call them, if I’m feeling brave and have remembered to brush my hair, and it’s basically free.
Which makes me think I should really do more of it. The calls, not the videos. Let’s not get carried away.
Although I think sharing stories with you may still be the most magical thing of all, in so many ways. So thank you, lovely people. You’re all very magic, as it happens.
And fancy that preorder? Head to your online retailers here, and if you’d like to ask your local indie bookshop about the paperback, use ISBN 978-1-8383265-7-9 . Be warned, paperbacks might take a little while to become available, because their magic works a little more slowly…