To protect his friends, Mage Alex Verus has had to changeand embrace his dark side. But the life mage Anne has changed too, and made a bond with a dangerous power. She's going after everyone she's got a grudge againstand it's a long list.
In the meantime, Alex has to deal with his arch-enemy, Levistus. The Council's death squads are hunting Alex as well as Anne, and the only way for Alex to stop them is to end his long war with Levistus and the Council, by whatever means necessary. It will take everything Alex has to stay a step ahead of the Council and stop Anne from letting the world burn.
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The mountain had no name. It was deep in the Himalayas, overshadowed by a ridge on one side and a peak on the other, with the remains of an ancient Sherpa village on its lower slopes. The ground was dry-it was late August and I was below the snow line-but the wind whistling down from the white-capped peaks carried a cold that bit through my clothes and numbed my ears and nose. The sky was a clear blue, fading to a lighter shade near the horizon, with lines of puffy clouds floating between the mountains, snowy peaks shining bright in the sun. Nothing grew but scrubby grass and brush, and not a single bird flew in the sky. There was a beauty to the landscape, but it was bleak and pitiless, indifferent to life.
As I climbed, my attention was split three ways. The first part was focused on my footing and keeping my balance on the shifting stones. The second part was focused on the three men lying in wait in the rocks above. The third and largest part was occupied with the question of what else I would find. A little over twenty-five minutes ago, I'd learned that a certain person whose movements I was very interested in had travelled here. Unfortunately, while twenty-five minutes is a pretty fast response to an alert on the other side of the world, it was also more than long enough for that person to kill everyone on this mountain many times over. There was a very good chance I was already too late.
On the plus side, the people above seemed interested in me, judging by the fact that one had a rifle trained on my chest, so at least I wouldn't have to chase them down.
To a normal person my position would be a death trap. The mountain was bare, with the rocks providing only intermittent cover. I was well within rifle range, and the men above would have plenty of time to shoot me if I tried to run. If I tried to talk, they'd capture me, which would lead to me being interrogated, shot, or interrogated and then shot. That just left fighting. The three men had an assault rifle and a pair of submachine guns, while I had a pistol holstered in the small of my back. Bad odds.
To a diviner, the position was better, though still dangerous. I could use some combination of cover and misdirection to split them up, and then pick off the isolated man. From there, I could use a condenser on the remaining two to block their vision and set up a surprise attack. I'd need them to make mistakes, but not many people have experience in fighting diviners, and if I was careful and quick I could eliminate all three without exposing myself to fire.
I'm not a normal person, and I'm not just a diviner anymore. I didn't go looking for cover. Instead I climbed straight up the slope.
They let me get very close. By the time the first man stepped out with weapon levelled and shouted, "Ting!" at me, I was right in the middle of them.
I stopped and raised my hands. The man ahead was Chinese, short and compact, dressed in dark body armour with a submachine gun of a type I didn't recognise. He gave me an order.
"I need to talk to your boss," I said, keeping my hands raised.
The man repeated his order, with a forceful gesture.
From looking through the futures, it was pretty clear that this guy didn't speak enough English for us to hold a conversation. The second man was behind me, and the third was off to the right, covering me with his rifle. They were being cautious.
"I am not kneeling down for you to search me," I told him. "I have business with Lord Jagadev. Please let me pass."
The man called something to the man behind. I could imagine what I looked like to the Chinese soldier. A Westerner, tall and gaunt, wearing armour of an unfamiliar design and a coat that probably held some kind of weapon. Clearly suspicious, but not threatening. He wasn't intimidated, and he wasn't about to let me go. I heard footsteps at my back; the second man was advancing.
"All right," I said. "I don't really have time to talk to you anyway."
Time seemed to slow as my futures branched. In one, the man behind me used the stock of his gun to club me on the back of the neck, stunning me and knocking me face down; the other man followed up, both of them aiming their weapons at me, shouting questions and threats. But that future was already ghostlike and fading as I turned from it towards others. In a handful of futures I spun away, drawing my gun and firing. Usually I killed one; in some I killed two, but all three men had me in their sights and nearly all the possibilities ended with bullets ripping through my body.
I blanked out those futures and looked at the ones where I caught the man behind me and used him as a shield. Instantly the futures opened up: the possibilities in which the other two men fired on me were rarer, and in most strands didn't happen at all. Their hesitation wouldn't last long, but it would be long enough for me to kill the man in front of me, then the one I was holding, then . . .
. . . the future terminated with a bullet through my head. The problem was the third man, hiding in good cover in the rocks to my right. In most of the futures in which I shot at him, I missed. In a few, I hit. That on its own wasn't a problem, but the ones in which I hit branched further: there was just time for the man's own trigger finger to squeeze, the bullet passing mine and taking me with him. And while I could choose which future I took, I couldn't choose which future he took. I needed a way to eliminate the risk.
I widened my search slightly and found a cluster of futures where I wasn't at risk of being shot. In all of them, I ducked down slightly, but I couldn't see why-ah. He had his rifle propped on the rocks, and couldn't depress its elevation below a certain angle without taking a second to shift his weight. I had the chain of events I needed. I opened my mind and called upon the fateweaver.
The future I'd chosen seemed to light up, energy flowing from my right hand up my arm and out into time and space. Unwelcome possibilities vanished, while the sequence of events I needed pulsed with light and strength, becoming an unbreakable chain. In an instant, every other future was banished, leaving only the fate that I chose.
It had all taken less than a second. Behind me, the second man's gun was just coming down.
I stepped left and turned. The movement was so casual that by the time the man behind me realised he was going to miss, his gun was swinging through empty air and he was stumbling past. He clutched at me and I took his hand, twisting it up and behind his back in a wristlock that drove him up onto his toes. At the same time I was sinking, using the movement to cover my right hand as it reached behind my back so that by the time the man in front of me saw the gun, it was already aimed at him. His eyes started to go wide.
I shot him through the head, aimed right and shot the man in the rocks, shoved the barrel up under the plates of the body armour of the man I was holding and fired a third time. He jerked and went limp, and I let him fall. The echoes of the shots rolled around the mountainside, rebounding from the far slopes to return again before fading into silence. I was left crouching, surrounded by three dead men, alone once more.
I straightened, holstered my gun, and kept climbing.
Another thirty seconds brought me to the way in. An illusion of a rock face covered a short tunnel that led to a thick metal door. The walls of the tunnel held traps, the door held a formidable-looking lock, and the whole area was heavily warded. It was a well-hidden and well-defended entrance.
Or at least it had been. The illusion spell had been broken, leaving the tunnel clearly visible, and the traps beyond had been triggered or destroyed. The only reason I could tell the tunnel had been warded was from its magical signatures, and even those were fading. The door had been ripped off its hinges, the solid steel bent and warped, leaving a gap that led into darkness. Beyond, nothing stirred; the area was silent but for the whistling wind.
It was about the most obvious Do Not Enter sign I'd ever seen. No prizes for guessing what I was about to do. Even after everything that had happened, I was still a diviner, and if there's one thing diviners do, it's poke their noses where they're not wanted.
Well, if you're going to do something stupid, you might as well have company.
I reached into my pocket, took out a small dull yellow pyramid, and set it down on the flattest piece of ground I could find. Then I stepped back and reached out mentally, stretching out my thoughts over a gap that was both unimaginably vast and thinner than a razor. Vari, I said. Clear to gate.
Thirty seconds passed. Sixty. Then the air above the pyramid glowed, turning from yellow to orange-red. Space seemed to ignite as flame flared into existence in a vertical oval, six feet high and three feet wide. The centre of the oval darkened and the oval became a ring, a gate linking two points in space, providing a view to a leafy forest, shadowed and gloomy. A young man stepped through, head turning as he scanned from side to side.
Variam Singh is small and compact, dark-skinned and dark-eyed. He used to be wiry, but he's filled out since he joined the Keepers. As far as I can tell, pretty much all the extra weight is muscle-Vari joined the Order of the Shield just as the Council was ramping up for war, and his first year as a journeyman mage was a busy one. He spared a glance at the bodies down the slope, then focused on the ruined door with a scowl. "Shit."
"We're too late, aren't we?" Variam said.
"Half an hour," I said. "She might still be inside."
Variam gave me a look.
We started towards the entrance. "Jagadev's goons?" Variam asked, nodding his head back down the slope.
"More likely a scout-response team," I said. "The Chinese Council claims this territory these days."
"How long till more show up?"
"None on the way, but let's not hang around."
We entered the tunnel, Variam conjuring up a flame of bright orange light. It danced and flickered, casting shadows on the rocky walls. I glanced at Variam's black robes and turban. "No armour?"
"I'm supposed to be on my lunch break," Variam said. "I check out a set of armour from the ready room, they might get a little suspicious. We clear?"
The doorway led through into a long, straight corridor, its walls made from smooth blocks of stone. A pair of torches burned in sconces, the magical flames casting light but no heat. Variam took a step forward.
Futures flashed up in front of me. "Stop!" I said sharply.
Variam froze instantly. "What?"
"Stay where you are and don't move forward," I said. "Watch." I looked around until I found a pebble about the size of a large grape, stepped up next to Variam, and tossed it underhand.
A blade swept out of the wall in a silver flash, hitting the pebble in midair with a whangggg! and sending it bouncing back down the corridor. Variam jumped away, but before he'd even landed, the blade had disappeared back into the wall. It had missed him by about two feet.
"Bloody hell," Variam said.
"Optical trigger," I said, nodding down the corridor. "Laser, probably. No magical signature, no heat signature, and that blade's strong enough to cut an armoured man in half. You know what's interesting?"
"You mean apart from that?" Variam glared at me. "No. No, I don't."
"What's interesting," I said, "is that that's exactly the kind of trap you'd use to kill a life mage or a fire mage."
"Thanks," Variam said. He scanned the ceiling, focusing on what looked like a piece of ornamental ironwork. "Sensor's in that?"
"Could be," I said. "Though we could just duck under-"
Variam raised his hand and a burst of heat melted the ironwork to slag.
"-or that works too," I finished. "You're clear."
Variam walked forward, kicking aside bits of cooling metal. I followed, scanning ahead for more dangers. "This would be easier if you'd let me take point."
"Screw that," Variam said, and I glanced sideways to see that his face was set. "You know what that bastard did. If she hasn't killed him, I will."
The door at the end of the corridor led into a wide circular room. In contrast to the corridor, the walls and floor were rough rock, with only a single smoothed path running through it. Variam stopped in the entrance. "This is another trap, isn't it?"
"It was," I said, pointing at the centre of the room. "See the residue there?"
"Earth magic, right? Some sort of ceiling collapse? Wait for people to get in, then drop the roof on them?"
"I thought of that too, but no. Looks more like a summon effect. I'd guess earth elemental. Similar result, but doesn't require you to dig out the whole room afterwards. It was summoned there, but it doesn't look like it had time to do much."
I shook my head.
We kept walking, following the smoothed path towards the door at the far end. "You planning to get in my way if we find him?" Variam asked.
"Yeah." Variam gave me a look that wasn't entirely friendly. "That was why you sat on this for five years, right?"
"I didn't want you going after him back then, if that's what you're asking."
"You try and give me some speech about forgiveness and how revenge isn't the way, I am going to punch you."
"I'm not going to hold you back," I said. "But I do want you to look before you leap. Remember that blade trap. Jagadev's had a long time to figure out how to kill you both if you came here. I am not okay with you going on a suicide run."