INK FREE CHAPTERS

CHAPTER ONE

 

It was summertime, mid-afternoon, and I was leaving my Dad's place in Connaught Square having argued with him over my most recent piercing. He’d made it clear, during the meal, that facial ornamentation was not his idea of an acceptable mode of personal expression.

 

My father is Colonel James Anthony Blake, retired. He is of noble descent. His back is ramrod straight, his upper lip ridiculously stiff and his military lineage both long and notable. He is also excruciatingly straight-laced, though he can't always have been quite so bourgeois, having once been rash enough to marry my chaotic lush of a mother.

 

She has been compared to one of those fragile porcelain figurines of Russian ballerinas, dark and mysterious, elegant and implacable. In contrast, there are those who tell of a time, before her marriage, when, as a British Airways flight attendant, she had famously made the most of her time aboard both a fleet of aircraft and a string of obliging Captains.

 

Not that I begrudge her some youthful indiscretion, nor can I malign her too harshly for deserting the old man, having just taken an identical course of action myself. It effectively proves our resemblance to be far more than the obvious physical one.

 

Our family feelings of disappointment are entirely mutual. My mother despairs at my repeated expulsions from school, my 'Goth' inspired clothing and my spitefully wasted genius. My father, on the surface merely impatient at being saddled with an ungrateful son, has always been concerned at our distinct lack of physical resemblance, perhaps suspecting my mother of sampling more than one type of Italian at those up-market riverside restaurants she likes so much.

 

to have affected my usually impeccable sense of direction. In my Lost in thought, I was heading in the wrong direction away from the tube station at Marble Arch, my annoyance at having been drawn back into the old family drama irritation I smoked fast, each draw on the cigarette shortening it by a half an inch.seeming

 

Walking swiftly, feet pounding the evidence of my mood deep into the pavement, I kept my gaze fixed on the ground to avoid the risk of eye contact and its inevitable result: tedious conversation with a passing stranger. I'm a Londoner, we learn this trick almost before we can walk.

 

Even with my gaze averted, it was impossible to ignore the group of smartly-dressed Settlers striding toward me. Their fire red eyes were disguised beneath trendy Ray-Bans and their androgynous figures were clothed in stylish-cut Savile Row suits. No doubt they were on their way to or from some thoroughly virtuous enterprise or other.

If something seems too good to be true, it usually is. That's my view and the Settlers fit into that category.

 

Eventually, I became aware of the direction I was taking and spun on my heel meaning to retrace my steps. As I did, I noticed a dim light in the half-open doorway of a nearby basement. It had one of those red, flickering neon signs in the window.

 

Intrigued, I walked between the cast-iron railings, which stood like sentries at the pavement's edge, and stepped down the stone steps towards the recessed doorway below. My eyes adjusted easily to the strange light and, as I descended, I caught my first glimpse across the light-well and into the room beyond.

 

The Georgian-squared window and half-glazed door revealed a small room with walls plastered, from floor to ceiling, with bizarre and exotic works of art.

 

I halted, almost stumbling over my own feet. What was this place?

 

And then as if in answer to my question, I noticed what the neon sign actually read as it flickered at an awkward angle above the door:

 

‘INNOCENT INK’

 

According to the colonel, Blakes never show weakness or demonstrate uncertainty of any kind. Luckily, my moment's hesitation would have been imperceptible to anyone watching, and I was relieved when my natural inquisitiveness returned.

 

I drew nearer, and I could have sworn the artwork inside the shop moved, as if the figures needed to stretch out their aching limbs just for a moment as they prepared for the events to come.

 

Idiot, I admonished myself. You're just imagining things. I blinked away the image and continued forward.

In response to my rough shove, the old, warped door shuddered to life and lurched inward. As it did, an old-fashioned bell jangled a stuttered greeting, and I called out a soft 'Hello' as I crossed the threshold.

 

On closer inspection, the room turned out to be a makeshift gallery displaying the strangely savage art of the resident tattooist. Although I'm not particularly tall, as I entered the room I felt a strong urge to stoop my shoulders, perhaps in response to the low basement ceilings but more likely due to the claustrophobic feel created by the overabundance of theatrical artwork gracing its short walls. There was barely an empty space anywhere.

Initially, my gaze was drawn to a dramatic group of designs on the left-hand wall. I recognised them as being Native American Haida; strange, abstract representations of their most powerful Gods embodied in the forms of Killer Whales, Bears, Thunderbirds and Ravens.

 

I had seen reproductions of totems in books and magazines - these were similar, but more impressionistic, and they were bold, almost aggressive, in their portrayal of these fierce and powerful deities.

 

The wall to my right was covered with Christian symbols. I recognised a few, but not many, as any potential religious leanings I might have fostered had been literally bored out of me by years of morning chapel at school. As a result, to me this wall appeared somehow less vitally alive than the first, giving a more restrained and less primitive impression.

 

Once again, my eyes wandered, this time to the rear of the room, which boasted a large shop's counter with a partially hidden doorway behind it. Not only were there more designs on the rear wall and on the door's surface, ones I didn't recognise at all, but the counter itself was elaborately decorated with all sorts of mythical creatures. Intricate figures depicting Gods, Angels, Demons and Skulls were embedded within the counter’s clear Perspex construction. The effect was one of menace, but also of power and grace.

 

I stood still for a moment, soaking in the atmosphere, intrigued by these breath-taking tattoos, when the jangling bell announcing my arrival was answered at last.

 

***

 

The man who emerged from the unseen adjoining room complemented his surroundings perfectly. I could not have conjured up a more fitting occupant in my wildest imagination.

 

He was a giant of a man, whose waist-length black hair swung like a curtain to cover his face as he stooped to pass through the small doorway, but not before I noticed the warm bronze tone of his skin and contrastingly steely look in his cold black eyes. He looked like an old-fashioned movie villain and I briefly considered a tactical retreat before I got myself in serious trouble.

 

The giant's long legs were encased in slim-fitting black jeans and he wore an ancient looking Harley T-shirt beneath his sun-faded leather biker jacket. Even though I'd never previously encountered either one in person, I was now convinced I was about to meet a Native American Hell's Angel.

 

I stood immobile as he squeezed his bulky frame through the small door behind the counter, and I noted that, unlike me, he really did need to stoop within the confines of the basement room. As I observed him, the new arrival stood impassively, allowing me at last to fully explore his features while he took the opportunity to study me too.

 

He was impressive, this exotic stranger. Only small areas of his skin were visible beneath his outlandish clothing, and almost all of it was covered in intricate black and red tattoos. He was a human canvass, and I recognised numerous creatures rippling to life as blank faced, he sauntered over to me.

 

Most dramatic of all, clawing up the length of his neck and onto his face, were the huge talons of what appeared to be an immensely powerful bird, one which I couldn't identify with any certainty, as it was largely hidden under his jacket.

 

'I'm Raven' he said. Okay, so the bird was a Raven. Cool.

 

'Hi,' I replied. 'I'm Christian.'

 

'Can I help you?' he asked. He seemed as surprised as I was to find a wide-eyed teenage boy in this dark, and distinctly adult, lair of his.

 

'No, not really,' I replied.

 

I realised my close to monosyllabic responses were failing to move the conversation forward, so I took pity on him, 'I noticed your light as I was passing, and something seemed to call to me.' I sniggered at my own foolishness. He didn't.

 

'It does that,' he smiled woodenly, leaving me with the distinct impression it was a rare occurrence. 'You'd be surprised at how few people find me here. Are you sure there's nothing I can do to help?'

 

Was there? I wondered. Although I had been pushing parental boundaries recently with a bunch of new piercings, I had yet to give any serious consideration to the idea of a tattoo.

 

'This place is quite different from any other tattoo parlour you may have visited,' he explained. I didn't like to admit I hadn't visited a single tattoo parlour before, but I considered myself relatively well prepared, as I was a firm follower of Miami Ink.

 

Raven interrupted my train of thought. 'I've found the best way to avoid disappointment is to allow the art to choose its own canvas.' He paused for effect then, I suppose.

 

I'm not stupid. Far from it, and it was clear to me the art could not pick its own canvas. I said nothing, however, waiting for his next statement, assuming it would somehow put the previous one into context. It didn't.

 

'If you stand still over there in the centre of the room and close your eyes, just for a moment, your tattoo will reveal itself.'

 

I had no idea what he was talking about but was surprised to find myself intrigued by the idea. The tattoo would reveal itself, and then what? I wondered. I realised then how much I was enjoying the distraction of this peculiar place, my previous irritation with my parent having miraculously lifted.

 

Once again, this Raven's voice broke into my thoughts. 'The tattoos can feel your strengths, sense your gifts. When they do, your Guide will recognise you.'

 

I swear to you I hadn't taken anything, dropped anything, swigged anything or even injected anything, I really was listening to man mountain's promise of a self-actualising tattoo.

 

I laughed at this pronouncement and wondered how it would manage to recognise me. I also wondered what the hell I was getting myself into. But of course, in life as well as in fiction, with my interest piqued, I can't resist finding out what happens next, even if I must skip over a few chapters to do it.

 

So, in a not entirely unfamiliar act of impulsiveness, I stepped into the centre of the room and with the distinct feeling of having come to this tale partway through, I was filled with a sudden and somewhat confusing compulsion to uncover the next instalment. I took one last look at Raven and at the art on the walls, then closed my eyes.

 

***

 

I regretted my decision instantly.

 

Of course I did. There was nothing unusual in that.

 

When would I ever learn?

 

I did my best to stand my ground, waves of dizziness and nausea rolling over me, until I felt like I'd been shoved cruelly by some giant invisible hand. I swayed in my shoes and, as I did, a golden light burned into my eyelids and seared onward, deep into my brain.

 

Out of this shimmering light swelled an excruciating stabbing pain, beginning at the spot behind my eyes but spreading rapidly throughout my body. With the spread of pain, I felt myself being engulfed by what I can only describe as a dark sense of foreboding. I wanted to scream, but when I opened my mouth no sound emerged.

In the past, having heard accounts of people's most terrifying moments when they have described an inability to utter even a single syllable, I have shown what I thought was an appropriate level of cynicism. So, it is somewhat shameful to admit that, finding myself in a similar situation and far from being able to overcome this temporary paralysis, I couldn’t speak or even make a sound.

 

I was relieved when, after what seemed like an eternity, my knees gave way and I dropped to the floor, effectively breaking the spell. The pain was swift in its retreat and the blinding light was quickly extinguished, leaving only darkness. For a moment, I laid there on the cold floor panting like a dog.

 

I may have lost consciousness again, because my next memory, through the mist of the receding wave of pain, was Raven's voice calling my name.

 

'Christian.' There was no softness to it, nothing to indicate concern. Instead it was determined, forcing me back. 'Christian!'

 

When at last I opened my eyes, nothing in the room appeared different.

 

Was it possible nothing had changed? How could that be? After such an intense experience I felt sure the world would be different when I opened my eyes.

 

Later, I forget when exactly, Raven informed me the world had, in fact, been transformed in that moment, that the odds had shifted slightly in our favour.

 

I closed my eyes again, exhausted, but rallied my strength. I knew I needed to stay conscious if I was going to get through this.

 

I strained to hear Raven's soft contemplative voice as he murmured to himself, 'So it is you who claim him, Hagalaz,' in a tone that told me he was far from surprised by what had happened.

 

I dragged myself to my feet and Raven fell silent. When at last I glanced across at him, he was wearing that same wooden smile.

 

'What the hell just happened?' I demanded, fury rising in my aching body. ‘What did you just do?’ I was far from placated by Raven's awed response.

 

'You are Hagalaz, the Disruptor. It is an honour to be selected to represent this ancient Rune symbol,' he announced solemnly.

 

Impressive as he had initially seemed, I was beginning to think this guy was a freak. And not just a freak, a dangerous freak. I felt like shit and he thought I should consider myself honoured.

 

'What the hell are you talking about? What did you do to me? And what the hell is a Rune?' I repeated.

Only then did I notice how hoarse my voice sounded.

 

No, not exactly hoarse, it was just deeper than before. Although it had broken years ago, I felt like it had deepened again past the point of successful puberty, and my annoyance mounted when Raven smiled at me, smugly amused at some secret joke.

 

'I didn't do anything,' he answered, gesturing towards my chest. 'Your Guide has made his selection. It is said that Odin gave order to the uncontrollable forces of the universe by creating the rune symbols to embody them. In fact, it was a far greater act he performed – he moulded these forces, harnessing their power, by making them into Gods in their own right.'

 

I stared down and was horrified, comprehension dawning at the source of his amusement. My 'Muse' T-shirt was burned up, but my gaze was drawn to a large intricate circular tattoo which had miraculously appeared on my chest and over my heart. I gawked in disbelief. I'm pretty sure I had never gawked in my life.

 

Then, probably psychosomatically, I felt the beginning of a dull ache, as if I really had posed for an hour or two as the needles of a tattoo gun scratched this beautiful and dangerous design into the skin of my chest. Instinctively, I reached my hand towards the tattoo to soothe away the ache.

 

'Don't touch it,' Raven growled. 'I'll get you some cream and something to cover it.' Like I was the unreasonable one.

 

As he turned to retrieve the items, Raven called over his shoulder, 'Can you think of a reason Hagalaz might choose you?'

 

'I don't even know who or what that is.' I frowned. 'In fact, I don't have the slightest inkling of what the hell just happened.' I knew I needed to get a grip on myself, but was, I thought, justifiably bemused by the situation.

'Perhaps I should explain,' Raven replied. 'But first I should tend to that tattoo.'

 

CHAPTER TWO

 

After a couple of minutes of amateur first aid, Raven gestured me through the doorway into the small back room. When I'd entered the shop and seen the door, I had assumed it led into the main tattoo-parlour, picturing noisy needles and indelible ink.

 

Passing through the doorway, I was surprised to find myself entering a cosy living room with soft sofas and padded armchairs. Covering the floor and hanging from the walls were heavy Native American blankets and delicate ancient eastern rugs – a regular jumble of ethnic treasures. Raven offered me a seat as he settled himself into a deep armchair. I waited, hoping he would explain what just happened. Instead, he started with a question.

 

'Have you been to Connaught Square before?' he asked.

 

'Yes,' I snapped. ‘I’ve been here about a million times. I’m the native here, not you.’

 

'Have you ever noticed my basement before?' he asked, unmoved by my anger.

 

'No.' That was a little odd. I shifted forward in my chair. 'Is this place new?' Looking around the room I felt sure the furnishings were old. “Lived in” was the politest way of describing them.

 

'I first arrived around ten years ago, almost to the day,' was his surprising reply.

 

That had been about the time my father moved here, beating a hasty retreat from the family home. Coincidence, I wondered? Probably not, since this whole situation had the unsettlingly deliberate feel of a plan which had been a long time in the making.

 

Hang on. Was I taking his word as gospel? I knew better than that.

 

'Yeah, sure. I’ve played around here as a kid. I’d have noticed this place. No doubt.'

 

'You wouldn't,' Raven replied. 'It only appears to the chosen when they are ready to see it, and then, just once.'

He was talking in riddles and I was beginning to tire of it. He was 'speaking with fork-tongue' I thought to myself, remembering those old westerns where the Native Americans were characterised either as the eternal 'bad guy' or naïve fools who believed in the double-crossing white man. I had the distinct feeling that Raven was no fool but I had yet to decide whether he wore a white hat or a black hat.

 

'What do you mean it appears?'

 

'Yes. Only people who are chosen can enter my store. I never know who's going to arrive or which of the Guides will claim them,' he explained, shaking his head. 'I can't think why I am still surprised by the process.

 

'Today, when the entry bell rang, I was resting back here in the lounge room.' Now we were getting somewhere. Raven had at last taken pity on me and was providing a close to coherent explanation. Then he went and spoiled it. 'I knew, walking through that doorway, I could be entering any one of more than a dozen possible locations around the world—'

 

'What?’ I interrupted. 'That's impossible.'

 

'Impossible or not, that's what happens. This afternoon, this room was located at the rear of my New York store, on East 78th Street, near Central Park.’

 

'But why does it happen? Why was I chosen?' Angry questions burst out of me, betraying my confusion, and a mounting hostility. Surely that was understandable. After all, I had been physically assaulted.

 

'I don't have all the answers, kid, but I do know there is a great upheaval coming. These transformations only happen when there's a threat to the survival of the Earth. The Guides, which is what we call our defenders, appear one by one to share their powers with the humans they have chosen. It has happened, in secret, throughout history.

 

‘Each of the Guides selects a human host and when the time is right, brings him to this place, or one like it, and the transformation is completed. They choose you for your special gifts and match you with your group.'

'What group?' I asked, 'and what does the tattoo do?' I was narked at the "kid" comment but held my tongue. I wanted answers.

 

'The tattoo is a conduit, your link to the Guide. Your tattoo symbolises Hagalaz. We call him the Disruptor. He controls the elemental forces, the weather. He brings change, often of a catastrophic nature. I can't wait to see what powers he has granted you,' he explained.

 

At last he had said something which made sense. A crazy sort of sense, but sense nonetheless.

 

I could now see why this Hagalaz might choose me. I have a hard-won reputation for being disruptive. I had been unceremoniously ejected from more than one school, and I can guarantee a student with such reputation-enhancing grades really has to put in some effort to achieve outright expulsion. Also, to this day, my parents have, in my view unfairly, continued to hold me responsible for the disintegration of their marriage. After all, who could withstand the pressures of such an unruly, chaotic child?

 

Digesting Raven's explanation I dredged another question from deep within my addled brain, 'Why me?'

'You must have been chosen for a special task by the Guides. I don't think Hagalaz has ever deigned to share his powers before, and I'd only be guessing at what you can do.'

 

'You mean I have special powers?' I gasped, starting to like the sound of this.

 

'Yes. You are transforming as we speak. Can't you feel the differences in yourself already?'

 

I considered this and realised that yes, I could. I felt stronger, more powerful, as if I really was the force of nature Raven had so recently described. Although some people might disagree, I have always considered myself to be remarkably unremarkable, my only discernible specialities being my outrageously undisciplined behaviour and my unfeasibly high IQ.

 

But now, not only had my voice deepened and my heartbeat slowed, I could feel new muscles rippling under my skin, feel a harder, denser edge to my bones. I was now a man. But I was more than that. I felt the same but different. Me, but not me.

 

'What’s this terrible threat you were talking about?' I asked. I couldn't think of any sudden change which might have prompted my transformation, but then again I wasn't exactly a regular listener to the lies they spouted on the ten o'clock news. 'And how am I supposed to help? I don't even know how to use these powers you say I've developed.’

 

A look of exasperation crossed Raven’s face as he summoned the strength to deal with my questions. I was used to that look and it grounded me.

 

That expression was replaced by another equally familiar one – he was considering how much to say. My mother often wore that same look. It said: ‘You’re a kid, you won't understand.’ My eyes hardened, and I felt rather than heard him sigh at my angry look.

 

'We need to get on. We don’t have time for this now,’ he said. Taking pity on me he added, ‘My own Guide tells me that a global catastrophe, on an unimaginable scale, has somehow been set in motion through the actions of the beings you call the Settlers. The Guides have foreseen it and are transforming new immortals so we can take action to discover the secret the Settlers are hiding and reveal the threat.'

 

I stayed silent. I had always suspected our alien Settlers of all sorts of despicable actions and foul play without any tangible evidence to support this view. I had also often wondered why they were here, and I had walked right into a perfect opportunity to find out.

 

But that was only if I went along with this plan. I wasn't known for going along with anything, and why change the habit of a lifetime?

 

These powers he said I had, they could be dangerous. I loved an adventure, but I prefer adventures of my own making where I’m the one dictating the terms.

 

And anyway, I'd made plans to meet Ben later and, although I was well known for letting my parents and teachers down, I would never leave Ben or any one of my posse hanging. Not ever.

 

'Do the Settlers have special powers too?' Damn, why did I keep asking questions?

 

'I'm sure you are aware of their ability to deflect our questions and doubts using their charisma. We think it is some sort of mood-altering ability, which is not unheard of amongst our number too.' He smiled his stiff little smile then. Damned if I knew why.

 

'Some of them may have other talents that they keep hidden from us. All of them could for all we know.' He leaned back in his chair in another obvious attempt to cut our conversation short.

 

But I wasn’t done with my questions. 'How do I use my shiny new powers?' I asked. A little knowledge is a dangerous thing. That's what my parents, teachers and pretty much every adult I had ever met had said to me on numerous occasions. Why? Because, in the hands of Christian Blake, a little knowledge was only slightly less dangerous than a lot of knowledge. Ha!

 

'You place your hand over the tattoo', Raven said, placing his hand over his heart. 'Then think of the elements, of Hagalaz. That will call him to you. When he comes, your journey will begin, giving you the opportunity to learn how to use your powers.'

 

I thought about what he had said. I could leave now. I could go to Ben’s as planned and pretend all this had never happened, or I could listen to this man and follow him down the rabbit hole just to see where it would lead.

But I was no hero. I didn’t have it in me to save the world. Too idle, Colonel Blake would have said. And I couldn't see any reason why I should. This was a problem of other people's making and I had my own brand of mayhem to inflict on the world. I felt a flutter of uncertainty, accompanied by a burst of heat in my wounded chest.

 

I moved my hand to rub the aching tattoo, and I felt a shift within myself, as if I was no longer the only presence within my body.

 

Oh shit!

 

I removed my hand and felt a tingling in my fingertips. Almost like there were sparks there.

 

It was going to be okay. Really, it was fine. I’d be on my way to Ben’s soon and we’d work this shit out together. Raven had told me how to call this Hagalaz character, so I could experiment myself without risking my skin to save a world that couldn’t give a single shit about me.

 

'We've noticed the Settlers have a fascination with young people, particularly gifted but disenfranchised young men and women,' Raven continued speaking, having no idea I'd already, if only mentally, skipped this joint.

'Groups of them have begun to sponsor university student groups, inner-city youth clubs and charities for teenage runaways. We don't know why you are so important, but we need to find out. We’re hoping your group can infiltrate one of these centres to see what they are up to.'

 

Blah, blah, blah. He was just like every other adult I'd ever met.

 

Hang on a minute, did he just say my group?

 

'Are there others like me? Transformed?' I asked, half-hoping to be the first but also praying I wouldn't be in this alone.

 

What was I thinking? I wasn’t even going with Raven.

 

'There are three of you so far, but I expect there will be more soon.'

 

Shocked, I sat back in my chair, trying to absorb everything we had discussed: the transformation, the powers, the threat to our safety. It all seemed so far-fetched, and yet, instinctively, I believed every word.

 

I thought of how, only an hour earlier, I had been so angry at my father for his cold indifference to me. I had been childishly petulant during the lunch we ate together and now, if I chose to go along with this hare-brained scheme, I might never see him again. But I wasn't going along with the scheme, was I?

 

I looked up and found Raven staring intently at my face, as if memorising my features. 'I'll arrange for you to meet the others at a training facility,' he said. 'It's a place where you can test your new skills and learn to control them in a safe place.'

 

'Where is that?' I asked.

 

'We're going to the desert. But first,' he said, smiling. 'First we are going to Las Vegas.'

 

***

 

Raven's reasons for travelling to one of the most exciting cities in the world and, incidentally, one I was yet to visit, were far from thrilling, at least to my mind. Apart from it being on the way to the Desert Training Facility, his only interest in the place was the chance of retrieving an artefact from a man at a casino.

 

Sitting on a comfy recliner in the back of the tattoo parlour, Raven had explained just how imperative it was to the operation that we find a man called Jason Tilley, who would give us a box which Raven was certain contained something which would be vital to our success. All very Mission Impossible, I thought, but anticipating Raven's likely sense of humour failure when it came to this mysterious box, I kept my mouth clamped firmly shut.

 

Then, without waiting for my opinion or consent on the plan, Raven retreated into a dark corner of the room. Apparently, I was to sit there twiddling my thumbs.

 

After no more than ten minutes of whispered conversation, Raven returned, triumphant at having been allocated two seats on a flight departing from Heathrow at 10am the following morning.

 

Even this miraculous outcome was not entirely to Raven's satisfaction and I could sense he found the limits to his ability to teleport, and the unpredictable nature of the transformations, extremely irritating. What I found irritating was Raven’s assumption that I would be going along with his plan unquestioningly.

 

'Well, nice talking to you,' I said.

 

'There's more you need to know before we begin.' This is where automatically assuming someone would tow the line got you. Sadly, Raven didn’t yet know that compliance wasn't my speciality and I needed time to think.

I didn't know this guy from Adam. He could be making everything up. And anyway, who put me in charge of saving the world?

 

'I’d only need to know more if I was coming with you. I'm afraid my social calendar is all booked up, so this Laz fellow is going to have to find himself another patsy.' I stood up, suddenly energised. I needed to get back home and grab some things if I was going to make it to Ben’s place on time. 'I'm off. Good to meet you.'

 

For the first time I noticed how hot it was in that back room. I flapped my t-shirt to cool myself down and, once again, noticed the damage it had sustained when . . . no, I wasn't even going to think about that.

 

'Christian, you need to learn to control your powers. Hagalaz is unpredictable. If you don't learn how to communicate with him, anything could happen,' Raven argued in a slow calm voice, as if explaining to a child.

'Yeah, yeah, I'll bear that in mind.' I replied. 'I'm leaving now.'

 

'You are not leaving,' Raven pronounced. Hmm, I've never done that well with pronouncements. 'You are NOT leaving,' he repeated, unnecessarily, and with that same hypnotic tone, you are nooooooooooot leaving. Ha!

 

'Look, you made your pitch, and my answer is thanks but no thanks.' Sauntering toward the door I noticed a confused look on Raven's face. As if I was doing something unexpected. Don't get me wrong, I was always doing something unexpected, but I knew what that sort of confusion looked like and it wasn't that.

 

'How are you resisting me?' Raven asked, shaking his head in bewilderment.

 

'Easy. Like this.' I grinned as I walked through the door, through the shop and up the steps onto the street.

Raven shouted, ‘If you change your mind, I’ll be at Victoria station at 9am!’

 

Well, I certainly had loads to report to Ben.

 

CHAPTER THREE

As soon as I was out of earshot I dialled Ben’s number.

 

‘I’m on my way back home. I’ll grab a few things and be over to yours in an hour.’

 

‘Okay, I’m just chilling,’ Ben agreed.

 

‘I have news. Big news. And I’m going to need your help with something.’

 

‘What have you been up to now? Oh, and if you need my help, I’m going to need copies of the new Biffy Clyro and Manchester Orchestra albums.’ He was still laughing when I hung up.

 

I skipped down the steps to the underground station, my mood already better after my call with Ben.

 

***

 

I arrived at my mother's house in Richmond having spent the entire journey contemplating my burned bridges with Raven. I needed to think, and I did my best thinking when I was hanging with Ben.

 

I walked up the steps to the front door. I'd always loved this old place, with its mellow Queen Anne facade and elegantly sophisticated interior. It still felt like home even though, for years, it had been cast in the role of a marital battleground.

 

The sound of a Mozart Piano Concerto swirled through the air as I entered the big old house, its grand dimensions a perfect fit for the symphony's lilting melody. This had been our family home, not just before the divorce, but for generations. A huge oil painting of my aristocratic great grandfather hung on the staircase and I, for one, found it somewhat ironic that its current occupant was a Liverpudlian former air hostess.

 

This was the place I always returned to – not the scene of the crime but the refuge to which I retreated – often with my metaphorical tail between my legs when I found myself in deeper trouble than I could handle.

 

A pungent odour hit my nostrils as I entered the reception hall. She can't be decorating, I thought as I followed the smell into the drawing room. Confused, I continued my quest until, at last, I located my mother, sitting behind an easel, paint-filled brush in hand, ensconced in the grand conservatory which was glowing burnt orange in the evening sunlight. At last, the mystery of the odorous house was solved.

 

My mother is a petite raven-haired beauty. Her hair had been the same shade of darkest brown my entire life but I couldn't swear it didn't come from a bottle. Frankly, I had rarely seen her turn down anything which hailed from a bottle. Her eyes, I'm pleased to say, are natural brown and so is the easy elegance she exudes.

 

As usual, she was disinterested and distracted which, for once, was exactly what I'd hoped for.

 

‘I’m back,’ I called to her from the doorway.

 

‘Mmmhmm,’ was her distracted reply as she continued daubing paint.

 

‘Dad was being a moron so I came home.’

 

‘Mmmhmm,’ she repeated. ‘I’m learning to paint, darling.’ She couldn’t raise her eyes from the canvas for me but she’d managed to find a different interesting subject: herself. ‘Barry says I have natural talent.’ Barry was her new boyfriend – an idiot gold-digger out to fleece her of her divorce settlement. But he wouldn’t last – none of them did - and that was her problem anyway. I had bigger fish to fry.

 

‘I’m off to Ben’s. I don’t know how long I’ll be staying with him.’

 

‘Mmmhmm,’ she mumbled, back to monosyllables, but that was par for the course and at least I told her where I was going.

 

Before I turned to leave, she tossed me a ten-pound note to buy dinner and, having fulfilled her parental responsibilities, turned back to her masterpiece.

 

When I left her, she was still sitting in the conservatory daubing her unsuspecting canvas with inches of thick oil paint, declaring the light was perfect and she simply couldn't stop to talk any longer.

 

Preoccupied, I almost missed the ease with which I bounded up the elegant staircase to my room. Perhaps the adrenaline of this afternoon still lingered, I thought, surprised by the speed at which I packed my ancient backpack and downloaded the two albums Ben had insisted I bring as compensation for his cooperation in my experiment. He was yet to find out that I was the experiment.

 

Sitting on the number 337 bus, I hummed the Mozart Concerto while constructing a mental list of facts I knew for certain about the Settlers.

 

Although Raven hadn't been explicit in his description of the catastrophe the Guides had foreseen, I could sense from his words a very real fear for the future of the planet, and if he was worried, then so was I.

 

***

 

Daydreaming as the bus made its lumbering way along Roehampton Lane, I tried to recall everything I knew about the Settlers' arrival and drew almost a total blank.

 

I was only eight when they revealed themselves and, since they had been here for many years before their big reveal, I have had to rely on hearsay evidence when it comes to this early part.

 

Prior to the revelation, in an attempt to protect their anonymity, the Settlers had worn coloured contact lenses and dark glasses, dyed their hair a variety of shades and otherwise affected a wide range of plausible disguises. There were fewer of them then which made it easier for them to hide I guess.

 

At the time of the revelation, they explained that their own planet had been and unable to sustain life, that they had to abandon their homes in massive space ships, boarding like Noah's animals, two by two. They told of how they had spent countless years searching to find a suitable place to settle their families.dying

 

People were captivated by them from the outset. The romance of the situation was irresistible. Here was an alien race so like us, but so intriguingly different too. The subtle hint of danger in their fiery eyes ensnared us, and their poise and grace took our breath away. I'll admit that, in the beginning, I too was in awe of them, but it didn't last and, while the partially-sighted majority continued to obligingly accept their blatant evasiveness, I wasn't convinced. Thankfully, I wasn't alone.

 

By 2013, a few people had, at last, started to notice the changes in our society. An innocuous sounding research study was commissioned at Oxford University with a group of academics undertaking a wide-ranging study into the most powerful people on the planet.

 

I was thirteen at the time so I have to admit the study wasn't on either my required or my preferred reading lists, but the way I hear it the results were astounding. In the mere five years since they'd officially joined us, the Settlers had come to dominate the political and business infrastructure of the planet. But the research paper and its results went by almost unnoticed, and nobody worried about this apparent shift in power.

 

By now you are probably aware that wasn't accidental. The lack of interest we had in the background of our visitors from space was unprecedented and strange. The Settlers have a knack of appearing plausible. It’s almost as if they cast a spell over every human they come in contact with.

 

We were dazzled by a tactical charm offensive and disarmed by what we believed to be a genuine desire to help, and when they explained how their different cultures had long ago learned to live together peacefully and offered to help us to find harmony on our own planet, there was no reason to refuse.

 

No one seemed inclined to point out their planet had self-destructed. But that's just one of many reasons a truly evolved society has for tolerating the presence of acerbic teenagers, isn’t it? So they can point out the obvious.

Yes, this charm they have, the 'gift of the gab', my Nan would have called it. It's a skill that’s kept them safe and their more covert activities secret for many years.

 

Perhaps not surprisingly, from early childhood I have had a profound admiration for those iconic commanders of the Starship Enterprise who, from their positions on the bridge and clothed in their fetching mustard and black uniforms, demonstrated a lifelong, if sometimes flawed, commitment to their Prime Directive.

 

Sadly, our own visitors have shown a far more erratic adherence to what I consider to be an admirable principle of non-interference.

 

But don't misunderstand me, even now I am convinced it was their sincere intention to live peacefully among us.

The more mature among you may recall the tongue in cheek TV campaign, expounding their “come in peace” message that seemed to me to be far more than a cheap marketing ploy.

 

So, they really are among us, utterly integrated. It's funny, we used to call them the Visitors but they campaigned against it. They argued “Visitor” implied an intention to leave. As we have come to realize, that was never a part of their plan in the first place.