This is a time for heroes. After a long journey across the ages, Jack Churchill has returned to the modern world, only to find it in the grip of a terrible, dark force. The population is unaware, mesmerised by the Mundane Spell that keeps them in thrall. With a small group of trusted allies, Jack sets out to find the two ‘keys’ that can shatter the spell. But the keys are people – one with the power of creation, one the power of destruction – and they are hidden somewhere among the world’s billions.
As the search fans out across the globe, ancient powers begin to stir. In the bleak North, in Egypt, in Greece, in all the Great Dominions, the old gods are returning to stake their claim. The odds appear insurmountable, the need desperate.
Published by Gollancz (2008) & Pyr (2012)
In the quiet hour before dawn, the city breathes steadily. The river drifts, dark and slow. The trains have stopped, the traffic has slowed. Listen. You can almost hear each exhalation, and the whispers that rise from the subterranean unconscious.
In Ealing and Richmond and Clapham, children wake, crying about a fire, a terrible fire, and their parents cannot calm them. One, in Battersea, gives clear voice to his fears. Afterwards, his mother sits alone in the dark lounge, sobbing.
Along the Strand, a policeman stops, troubled. Every night an old homeless man everyone knows as Glasgow Tom sits on his patch and babbles relentlessly from dusk till dawn. Tonight, for the first night the policeman can remember in three years, Glasgow Tom is silent. He sits against the wall, reeking of strong, cheap beer and urine, and traces an outline of a man against the dark sky, over and over again.
In the zoo, to the north, beyond the green expanse of Regent’s Park, there is no silence. The animals howl and chatter and scream in a way that their keepers have never before heard. The beasts look to the sky as if seeing things that no human can see. In every cage and pen, animals looking to the sky. With jokes and shrugs, the keepers try to believe there is some rational explanation. There is not.
At the insect house, in the glass case of solenopsis invicta, sixty five million years of order have fallen. In their nest, the fire ants have turned on each other, killing their own kind wantonly. In the glass cases beyond, the arachnids are still and watchful.
The city dreams strange dreams.
To the east, in the commercial district bleeding out of the City and into the old Docklands, the monumental buildings, and the expensive cars, and the well-tailored suits dream of hard things; of money and what money makes. Sleep here is easy.
But there are those who do not have the luxury of rest. High up in the tallest tower in Canary Wharf are the offices of Steelguard Securities, which prides itself on being the hardest, the most driven, most morally ambivalent and therefore most successful, company in the quarter. Here two employees still toil despite the lateness of the hour.
Mallory is beneath notice, in his blue overalls, his dark hair fastened back with an elastic band, with his vacuum and his cleaning products, maintaining his ironic disposition despite the same routine of emptying bins and cleaning phones night after night after night. When he is asleep, Mallory is not allowed to dream. His dreams come when he is awake, in flashes that are almost like memories, rich in detail and clarity of purpose. Yet they could not be real in any way, and so he is troubled by them. In his dreams, he is a hero with a magical sword, battling in a fallen world. One of five great heroes struggling to prevent life slipping into endless shadow.
Yet here he is with his vacuum and cleaning products. No sword; no hero by any measure.
In the main dealing room, beyond the glass partition wall that Mallory cleans, sits another employee. Like Mallory, she is in her late twenties, with an intelligent but knowing face that Mallory finds intriguing. Sophie Tallent is not allowed to dream while she sleeps too. She watches the figures on her screen as the Nikkei 225 index rises and falls in minute increments. Like Mallory, Sophie has lucid flashes of another life that she fervently wishes was real. A life filled with meaning, the soothing pulse of nature, swelling emotions, and deeds that helped make the world a better place. In contrast, her existence at Steelguard is a ghost-life, where the dead continue with the meaningless rituals they followed when they were alive.
Sometimes she glances at Mallory, and sometimes he casts a furtive glance at her, but their eyes never meet. It has been that way for as long as they have worked there, which feels like forever. Occasionally they wonder what they would see in those depths if their gaze did coincide.
Mallory was so engrossed in the woman that he did not hear any footsteps approach through the echoing annexe. Perhaps there had not been any. Startled by a cough, he turned to find the kind of man who could appear in any situation and leave no impression whatsoever: bland features, neither handsome nor unattractive, dark hair, cut short but not too threatening, dark suit, not too expensive, not too cheap. Mallory even had difficulty placing his age.
“I’m Mr Rourke, the night manager,” he said. “Haven’t you finished here yet? Stop dragging your feet.”
Mallory thought he knew everyone on the night staff, but he had never seen Rourke before. “Nearly done.” Sullenly, he returned to his cleaning products. Something about the manager set his teeth on edge.
When he had reclaimed the window cleaner, he was surprised to see another person had arrived silently behind Rourke. Mallory had a second to take in the man’s determined face before a fiery crackle signalled Rourke’s head leaping from its shoulders.
At first Mallory had difficulty perceiving what the assassin held. His mind told him it was a clockwork machine, seemingly too large for him to hold, then a crystal glowing a brilliant white. Finally he realised it was an ancient sword with a thin blue flame flickering along the edge.
And then he was no longer the Mallory who cleaned the toilets five times a day. Instinctively, he whisked his mop handle to the stranger’s throat like a sword. The stranger simply smiled.
“You killed him,” Mallory said incredulously.
“I’ve been looking for you for a long time. They hid you well,” the stranger said. “My name’s Church. I’m here to take you back to your real life.”
Mallory’s thoughts were already racing ahead, evaluating numerous strategies for disarming the assassin, defensive positions to protect the woman in the next room.
Church appeared to know exactly what Mallory was thinking. He wagged one cautionary finger, then pointed down.
Where Mallory had expected to see Rourke’s severed head, there were now spiders, lots of them, some small, some as big as his fist. Rourke’s body, too, was disintegrating as the spiders appeared from its depths. Seemingly with a single mind, they surged towards Church, and where they passed it appeared the very fabric of the building was being scoured to reveal a hole into space.