Raven’s Song excerpt

This is an excerpt from my novella Raven’s Song, which is part of the Here Be Magic Boxed Set Anthology. 8 Fine novellas, many from best-selling or award-winning authors, for only $.99!

 

Ok, so for those of you who haven’t read Ravensblood, we’re in a *very* alternate version of the Pacific Northwest. Magic is real and openly acknowledged, and the Three Communities are ruled by a Joint Council representing Art –mages, practitioners of high magic. Craft—that would be all the shamanic and wiccan folk, and Mundane—that would be the people who have not aptitude for or interest in magic.
Raven’s Song is a novella set between the first two books of the series.
Forgive the spoilers , by the way, for those of you who haven’t read the first book yet, but I want to set the stage for the reading I’m about to do from Raven’s Wing. In the last book, the notorious dark mage, Corwyn Ravenscroft—Raven—, with the help of Cassandra Greensdowne, the former apprentice and lover he once betrayed, redeemed himself and won a pardon from the Joint Council by spying against and ultimately bringing down his master William, who had been trying to overthrow the elected government to set himself up as ruler absolute.
In the beginning of this story, Cass and Raven are lovers once again. Cass has been promoted from her former job as a Guardian—magical law enforcement for the Three Communities—to Guardian International Investigations. GII handles the complicated cases that are beyond the scope and abilities of the local Guardians, and tends to hire misfits and eccentrics, sometimes with questionable pasts.
Raven had been doing some unpaid, unofficial consulting on difficult cases for the GII, and while Cass is away on a case Davison, one of her colleagues, contacts Raven for help with a stalker case that has him stumped. Their first attempt at collaboration does not go well. Davison has a deep dislike of dark mages, and Raven’s past experiences with Guardians makes him distrustful.
But their mutual concern for the Mundane opera singer being stalked makes them try again. In this section, Davison has asked Raven to look over Miss Love’s house to see if he can figure out how the stalker is getting in. They are just now looking at the wards, which are the commercial type a Mundane can pay a professional ward-builder to set up.
One other bit of information you will need: The ‘Sherlock’ mentioned is not, of course, Sherlock Holmes, but Cass and Chuckie’s boss, given name Abigail Andrews. She got the nick-name ‘Sherlock’ for her Anglan accent and her unusual pipe-smoking habit, as well as a fondness for tweed.
OK, I think that’s all we need to start.

 

“I’m sensing wards,” Raven said.
“I had them leave them down for us, but yeah. Standard, commercial grade, the sort that a Mundane can pay to have commercially installed. Keyed to a palm-print—there’s a pad for it on the wall beside the door, inside and out. Set to Miss Love, of course, and a few other people she wanted to have access. Her PA, her housekeeper.”
Such wards weren’t popular, since they were expensive and required regular maintenance. They were also practically useless against a mage who really knew what he was doing.
“Were the wards breached?” Raven asked.
“Not obviously, but with this type. . .”
“I could have gotten in and out without leaving a sign,” Raven said. “While I was still in General Academy. Still, it might have helped if you had called me in while there were still magical signatures to be read.”
Davison looked down. “Yes, well, we were still hoping to come up with something ourselves.”
“Can I get a look at the wards while they’re up?” Raven asked.
“Give me a minute.”
Davison put a hand on the ward panel, tapped his fingers in a quick pattern. The wards sprang to life. Raven reached out with his magical senses. They were, for their type, surprisingly strong. He’d be able to blast through them, but not without getting singed in the process. As for dismantling them, well, he would have still been able to do it by his last year in General Academy, but it would have taken him a while, and he doubted many other of his fellow students would have been able to achieve the same.
“Do you mind if I try to take them down? Just to see what it takes?”
“Can you put them back together again?”
“Better than new.” Raven flashed a smile.
Quite literally better than new. It’d be violating the ward-builders proprietary magic seven ways to Sunday, but only if they found out about it. More important to keep Miss Love safe.
“Be my guest, then.” Something in Davison’s answering smile told him he knew what Raven had in mind and had no objection.
Not so by-the-book as all that, then. GII had a reputation for creative interpretation of rules, but Davison had struck him as more straight-laced than his colleagues. Wonders never cease.
Raven sent a flow of soft, soothing thoughts to the ward, mimicking its own patterns so as not to rouse it. Easy enough—although he’d never met this ward in particular, it varied little from a standard type every mage learned. Then gently, carefully, he searched for a loose thread in the magic. It took him a moment; the maker had woven his ends back in carefully. But eventually he found a strand that he could work loose, and from there it was just a matter of unknotting and unravelling, working faster as he realized that the ward was not going to wake.
Then the ward fell apart, useless and inert.
Davison whistled low. “Just over a minute. I’m impressed.”
Raven shrugged. “Hardly a challenge. Now the wards on the Council museum, those were some wards. Took me over a week of study and practice, and I barely got through in time to make the schedule.”
“You killed a guard that night.” Davison’s cold voice cut through his memory of the adrenalin of that night, the thrill of having gotten away with the near-impossible.
“I didn’t.” Raven said. “Although my partner in that particular crime did. I regret that it was unavoidable.”
“I’m sure that’s a great comfort to his widow and children.”
He’d found out the man’s name and contributed, anonymously, a large sum to the widows and orphans fund in his memory. But that didn’t make anything better and besides it wasn’t Davison’s business.
“I suppose none of your undercover agents have ever stood by and watched murder take place rather than blow their cover in service to the greater good,” he said.
Davison blanched. The barb had hit a sensitive mark. More sensitive than Raven had aimed for. He bit back a question. Let Davison deal with his ghosts. Raven had enough of his own.
He turned his attention to rebuilding the ward, weaving in a few nasty surprises for the unaware, and finishing by weaving the strand he’d first pulled loose even more firmly into the ward and finishing with a trap-rigged knot that even he would have trouble with, if the ward did not recognize its creator.
“So Miss Love had the ward keyed to you for ease of access. Anyone else in GII?” Raven asked.
“Why do you ask?” Davison’s eyes narrowed. “If you are implying that one of my men—”
“Baseless accusations are your area, not mine,” Raven snapped. “I merely wanted to warn you that if anyone needs to dismantle the wards because they don’t have access to take them down, they had best be very careful.” He sighed. “Or have them call me and I’ll come down and do it.”
“Oh. Right.” Davison looked flustered. “There’re a couple more of us on the case, and we’re all keyed in to the wards.” He took a deep breath, blew it out. Then he pulled out a key on a fob marked with a serial number of some kind and the GII logo, and opened the door.
“Miss Love is in a safe house right now.” Davison gestured Raven to precede him. “She’s given us permission to enter the residence.”
In the foyer of the house, Davison took the lead, and Raven followed him through the living room, taking in the replica French baroque furniture, all white satin and ornate gilt-painted wooden trim. A coordinating curio cabinet in one corner held porcelain figures of ballet dancers. What looked like a genuine Persian rug dominated the room with its vivid golds and blues and its fanciful birds and flowers. It lay on a spotless white carpet so thick that their feet made no sound as they crossed the room to the bottom of the stairs.
“I want you to look at the display he left,” Davison said. “I know you said that the MO doesn’t sound like anyone you know, but looking at it might jog something anyway.”
“Fine.” Raven followed him up the wide, carpeted staircase. Cassandra was out of town, and he had nothing better to do than swear at the piano for things that were not the instrument’s fault. He had some research projects on his desk, but without the urgency of practical application they had failed to hold his interest for long.
At the landing he paused. “I never even entertained the thought that the stalker might be a Guardian. I may suspect your average Guardian capable of a lot of things, including willful ignorance, prejudice, and a willingness to brutalize suspects, but I’ve no reason to believe that any of you are sexual predators.”
Davison froze, clearly searching for a response to this unexpected declaration. Finally he settled for a curt nod, and led Raven into the dressing chamber that was the anteroom of Miss Love’s bedroom. The wallpaper was cream with pink roses, dusted with a faint golden glitter, a rather old-fashioned design. The dressing table, bureau and wardrobe were all cream, accented in antique gold. Framed photos from several of Miss Love’s performances hung on the wall in artistic arrangement. An elaborate pink beaded-and-fringed Victorian lamp sat on top of the dresser. The room smelled distinctly feminine, the scent of make-up and expensive floral perfume.
Incongruous on the center of the dressing table stood a garish, crude diorama. A woman crowned with ivy and holly writhed in labor on what was clearly meant to be a manger, her face contorted. A creature, half-stag and half-man, stood by, naked and rampant in arousal, while men robed like ancient magi of the East knelt at his feet in adoration. A mural painted on the mirror depicted in pornographic detail a woman having sexual congress with a bull, and a multi-rayed sun or star hung from the corner of the dresser mirror, glowing like a light-globe.
It was a parody of both Christian and pagan traditions, so obscene that it chilled his blood.
“You—” he swallowed bile. “I assume you’ve checked for magical signatures?”
“On this?” Davison gestured. “Nothing magical about it. Except the light globe, and I doubt the man spelled it himself.”
Raven shook his head. When did GII start hiring idiots?
“One of my men did check that,” Davison continued. “Said it was a classic light globe spell. No trigger, meant to stay on for a set period, then burn itself out. No evidence that it was a custom job. You see trinkets like it all over the shops, this time of year. We did try to trace the shop it came from, but no luck. By this point, any magical signature from the maker would have faded.”
Raven shook his head. “Not necessarily. There are ways to read it in the fabric of a continuous spell like this.” Not everything in his ancestor’s journal was dark magic.
Davison frowned doubtfully, but kept his silence.
Raven reached for it, and paused. “May I?”
Davison reached into his pocket and offered him a bag of latex gloves. “Knock yourself out. We’ve already dusted for prints, checked for fibers. Forensics already cleared the place, or I wouldn’t have brought you in. Technically, I could have had the lot of this carted off to the evidence room days ago, but since Miss Love doesn’t feel safe returning. . .” he shrugged. “I wanted to look at it just as he placed it, just where he placed it. Try to get into his mind, understand what he’s thinking.”
Raven shook his head. “I don’t think you’ll ever understand what he’s thinking. And you’re the better man for it.”
He hadn’t meant the compliment to slip out, but Davison, staring at the pseudo-crèche, didn’t seem to register it.
Raven put on the gloves, and took down the glowing star, holding it in his hands as he tried to register its signature. There was something. . .wrong about it. The signature was muddled, as Davison had said the stalker’s was. Almost certainly not a route commercial job; he could tell that as easily as he could tell the difference between factory-made furniture and pieces crafted by an artisan. Davison’s man clearly needed re-training. But even beyond the muddling of the signature—oh, yes, almost certainly deliberate and he needed to learn how that was done—it was just wrong. Not the wrongness of someone who had spent his life devoted to dark magic, Raven knew that sort of wrong. This was something different. It felt like a sickroom smells.
Underlying the muddling, underlying the wrongness, something tugged at his memory. He’d encountered this signature before. No, it wasn’t one he knew well, but something he’d caught in passing, like a tune heard on the wind as he walked down the sidewalk past an open window.
After carefully replacing the ornament on the mirror, Raven told Davison what he had found.
Davison shook his head. “It’s not like Matthews to make that sort of mistake, but he’s been off his game. I’ll talk to him. Still, it doesn’t sound like his mistake cost us any material information we didn’t already have. I’m more interested in the fact that you said the signature seems familiar to you. Someone from your old life, do you think?”
Raven shook his head. “I can’t be sure, but it doesn’t feel like it. For one, the signature is barely familiar. Certainly it wasn’t anyone in William’s inner circle, or I would recognize it. Could be someone on the periphery, but I would still expect it to reek of dark magic. This is a different kind of wrongness.”
“What do you mean, a different kind of wrongness?” Davison snapped.
He’s frustrated with the case, not shouting at you. Raven took a deep breath. Let it out. “I wish I knew,” he said evenly. “It might give us some clue as to who we’re looking for. “He took another deep breath. “You said something about showing me the rest of the house, and why you think the front entrance is the most likely one.”
Davison nodded, and led the way back down the stairs, through a dining room with a chandelier and a polished wood table clearly meant for large dinner parties, and through a kitchen that many a gourmet chef would trade his first-born for.
At the door he paused and turned toward Raven, blocking his way, forcing Raven to look at him. “You made a reference earlier, to Guardians brutalizing suspects. Were you abused in custody?”
Raven shrugged and looked away. “Nothing that can be proven. I fail to see how this is relevant.”
“It’s relevant because it shouldn’t have happened. If it happened, it needs to be addressed.”
Raven smiled cynically. “How could you get so far in the Guardians and remain so charmingly naive? Nothing that happens to a dark mage matters.”
He tried to brush past Davison, but the Guardian grabbed his shoulder. “It matters, because we’re Guardians. No matter who or what the suspect is, we’re supposed to be better than that.”
Raven shook his head. “I almost think you believe that.”
“I’m not saying abuse doesn’t happen. I’m not stupid. But it needs to be addressed.” Davison spoke with a fervor that reminded Raven of all he used to believe about Guardians, back when he was a child.
“It was almost a year ago. It can’t be proven. Let it go.” Raven pulled away from Davison’s grip.
This time, the agent let him pass. Which is all he wanted. No reason to be disappointed that the Guardian did not pursue the matter further.
He followed Davison out into a formal garden complete with fountains. Though it was the wrong season for flowers, green still lined the white gravel paths. A low stone wall enclosed the borders.
“If you think that wall is enough—” Raven began.
“Hush and follow,” Davison said.
Hush? The audacity of the man! Still his curiosity drove him to follow on the man’s heels to look over the wall.
The last twenty feet or so beneath the wall had been shored up with a rock retaining wall, now slick with the moss that covered everything in the Pacific Northwest that didn’t run away fast enough. Below that, the hillside dropped away abruptly to something half-way between a slope and a cliff, mostly rocks and mud, with deep grooves worn by run-off.
I sincerely hope Miss Love had an engineer look at the stability of this before she bought the house. “And?” Raven asked. “I’m not a hiker or a climber, but this doesn’t look impossible. Difficult, maybe.”
“I hike and climb with the wife and kids on weekends, and I wouldn’t want to try this without equipment. More to the point, it would be impossible to do it without leaving prints in the mud or scuffs on the moss. No one came up this way.”
“But surely there’s another way into the garden,” Raven said. “I can’t imagine the architect would not have placed a back entrance somewhere to provide an adequate exit in case of fire.”
“Gate on the side. Ivy twined around the gate and post. Clearly hasn’t been opened in a long time. Someone really should talk to Miss Love about that. Not only is it a safety issue, but ivy is a non-native species. It really shouldn’t be allowed to grow and propagate itself.”
Raven studied the house, registering the ornate metal grillwork over each of the windows on the first floor. Functional as well as decorative. No one made it into the house through that.
“Teleportation?” Raven asked. “How long have the wards been up?”
“I don’t remember the exact date. Since before Yule, anyway. You see why I think the stalker used the front door. There’s not more than a handful of mages that could teleport through even a weak ward.”
And you almost certainly can guess that I’m one of them. But if Davison had any suspicions, he kept them to himself. Either he’d learned his lesson, or he’d had the fear of Sherlock put into him.
Raven frowned. “While it’s possible for an exceptional mage to take the wards down and put them back up again without leaving a trace, what would be the point?”
“To further muddy the trail? To throw suspicion on those who had access?” Davison ran a hand through his hair, which looked weeks overdue for a cut. “Gods only know.”
“Are any of Miss Love’s staff from the Art community?”
Davison shrugged. “Her PA graduated from General Academy, by his own admission at the bottom of his class. Says he hasn’t done anything with it since. Claims he can turn on a light globe and work a message crystal, but not much else.”
“Do you believe him?”
“No reason not to. But I’ve never been particularly adept at gauging another’s power. Can you. . .”
Raven smiled darkly. “Basic survival skill, living with William’s merry band of vipers. Find an excuse for me to meet with him, and I can tell you in under two minutes whether you should write him off or move him up the suspect list.”
“Thank you, I—“Something trilled in Davison’s jacket pocket. “Excuse me.”
Raven raised an eyebrow. A Mundane cell phone? Some mages owned one; Cassandra did, though she rarely used it. He’d never met a mage before who actually carried one on a regular basis.
“GII’s experimenting,” Davison mouthed to Raven as he hit a button and held the phone up to his face. “Davison here.” His face changed, shock and urgency written in every line. “Miss Love? Madeline? Is that you? I can’t understand you, take a breath and try to slow down.”
Raven’s heart pounded. Adrenalin surged through his body in a way it hadn’t since his return to mainstream life.
“Listen,” Davison kept his voice soothing yet firm, though his eyes were wild. “You need to call 911. Have you called 911? They said what? Okay, okay. I’m on my way.”
He hit a button and then tapped another. “Marcus? What the hell is going on in dispatch? What? Oh, hell. What was that? Marcus, you’re breaking up. I don’t understand—” He looked at the screen, viciously stabbed a few buttons, and shoved the cell back into his pocket. “Shit, shit, shit. Godsdamned Mundane piece of junk.”
He turned to Raven. “I can barely make sense of Miss Love. The Guardian on shift at the safe house is down, maybe dead, something about blood everywhere. Dispatch says there’s a bomb threat at a shopping center and a possible hostage situation at an elementary school, they have no idea when they can get someone out to the safe house. And the fucking phone just cut out. No idea if it’s the battery or what, but I won’t be able to raise my team. There’s not a crystal anywhere here.” He glanced about frantically, as if looking for a message crystal, or a miracle.
“You have no idea what you’re jumping into,” Raven said. “You can’t go in alone.”
Davison bared his teeth, a cross between a grimace and a grin. “Watch me.”
“Anchor for me when you get there. It’ll take less than a second. I’ll be your backup.”
“You think I’d bring a civilian into a potential crime-in-progress? You’re mad!”
“I’ve probably seen more violent magic than any Guardian you’ll ever meet,” Raven said. “And it’s not like the public will call for your head if you get me killed. We don’t have time to argue.”
Davison pressed his mouth into a thin-lipped frown. “Fine,” he snapped and teleported.
The GII agent could have simply teleported and then blocked Raven from using him as an anchor, but when Raven reached out through the ether a moment after Davison faded out, he found a steady anchor to follow.