The eleventh novel in the urban fantasy series which began with Fated – the Alex Verus novels are magic-filled fan favourites, perfect for readers of Jim Butcher and Ben Aaronovitch.
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 snowline – 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 sub-machine-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 any more. 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 sub-machine-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 him 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 wrist lock 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 rockface 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.’
‘Yup.’‘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 mid-air 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 forwards, 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.’
‘You’re not the one who lost family here.’ The next door had been left ajar, and Variam reached for it, talking over his shoulder as he did. ‘I know you technically didn’t lie to us,’ the door swung open, ‘but— Holy shit.’
Beyond the door was an entrance hall. Square pillars lined the hallway, making two rows down the length of the room, and a long, shallow pool stretched between them. The floor was white marble, the walls and columns were decorated in pale yellow, and the pool was lined a rich gold. More of the faux torches were mounted on the pillars, and their flickering glow was caught and reflected from the waters of the pool, casting a thousand sparkling points of light across the hallway. Doorways on both sides and at the end led deeper into the caves.
The entire room was littered with bodies. Men lay sprawled between the columns, spread out on the floor, and propped against the walls. One had fallen into the pool and his body floated face down, bobbing slightly. As I looked more closely, I saw that not all the bodies were human. Creatures of some kind were mixed in amongst them, man-sized but covered in brown fur. But all were very much dead.
When Variam didn’t move, I slipped past him, glancing from left to right as I moved through the bodies. The men had been geared for battle, armed and armoured. Some had been carrying guns, while others were bare-handed or wielding focus items. The furred humanoids had been using curved metal claws with a handle shaped to fit into the palms of their hands. Up close, they looked like a cross between humans and monkeys, with intelligent-looking faces and thin tails.
‘She did all this?’ Variam asked.
‘This was their defensive strongpoint, I think,’ I said, scanning the room. ‘The traps and the earth elemental were to slow attackers down. They would have gathered here to make their stand.’
‘You mean to get slaughtered.’‘Or that.’ Jagadev’s defences would have been enough to handle a life mage. A life mage augmented by a marid jinn was another story. Looking through the futures, I could see that the bodies weren’t yet cold. ‘Still some heat in them. I don’t think this happened more than twenty minutes ago.’
‘Guess we might catch up,’ Variam said. He still didn’t move. The sight of the massacre seemed to have cooled his temper.
It was more than a little disturbing to me as well. It’s one thing to know that someone’s capable of dealing out this kind of death, and another thing to walk through it. Every time I thought about what had happened here, I’d remember a quiet, shy girl with red-brown eyes, gentle and kind. Looking at the bodies, that image wavered and warped. I didn’t want to think about her doing this.
‘You know what the creatures are?’ I asked Variam, trying to distract myself.
‘Vanara,’ Variam said. He sounded uneasy. ‘Why would she want to kill . . . ?’
‘Looks like they were with Jagadev.’
‘It feels wrong,’ Variam said. ‘Why’d they be helping someone like him?’
‘Jagadev had humans working for him,’ I said. ‘Not much of a stretch to think he could get other creatures too.’
‘Yeah.’ Variam shook his head. ‘Yeah. We should move.’
We picked our way through the bodies. I stepped over a vanara’s legs, placed my feet to avoid stepping on a man’s outflung hand. ‘Jesus,’ Variam muttered to himself. ‘I think I know some of these guys.’
‘Jagadev probably brought them along when he left London,’ I said. As I walked, I looked at where the defenders had fallen, trying to read the flow of the battle. It must have been fast. There were a couple of scorch marks on a column and a few bullet chips on the walls, but very few. Most had probably died without realising how outmatched they were.
There was one man at the far end of the hall a little apart from the others. He was Chinese, dressed in a white suit, with a pair of sunglasses covering his eyes. He was sprawled on his back, arms outstretched.
‘That’s Kato,’ Variam said, staring down at the body. ‘He was major-domo at the Tiger’s Palace.’
‘Hmm,’ I said. I crouched down, studying the corpse. Behind the sunglasses, Kato’s eyes were open, staring sightlessly at the ceiling. ‘I don’t think he died in the battle. Positioning’s too neat.’ I glanced up at Variam. ‘Did he ever give you guys a reason not to like him? Especially Anne?’
‘Few reasons, yeah. Why?’
‘I think he might have got special treatment.’
Variam looked back at me with a frown, then shook his head again. ‘Come on.’
I followed Variam deeper into the mountain, leaving Kato’s body behind. The fight in the entrance hall must have broken any resistance, because there were no further signs of combat. If anyone had escaped from that room, they’d kept running. I couldn’t blame them.
I kept searching as we walked, mapping the tunnels and watching for any further traps, and as I did an old memory surfaced. Back when Variam and Anne had been living with me, I’d tried to find them both a master, and the search had taken me to Dr Shirland, an elderly mind mage in a terraced house in Brondesbury. We’d sat and talked while a fat black and white cat had watched sleepily from an armchair.
If I approached anyone to refer Anne as an apprentice, they’d ask whether she was dangerous. And I wouldn’t honestly be able to answer no.
Anne won’t even kill flies, I’d said. She might be powerful but she’s not dangerous. She’s innocent.
I don’t think she’s quite so innocent as you believe.
The massacre in the entrance hall floated before my eyes, and I shook my head, trying to make the image go away. It wasn’t like that was Anne anyway. Or not just Anne.
I don’t think she’s quite so innocent as you believe.
She was innocent. Well, not completely, but I could understand her reasons. She’d been pushed into it, first by Sagash, then by Jagadev, then by Levistus and Sal Sarque, finally by Richard. It wasn’t as though I’d been wrong.
Anne won’t even kill flies.
Okay, I might have been wrong. But I’d been right about the bits that mattered. Anne might have snapped in the end, but she’d never done anything to me.
Well, except at the Tiger’s Palace. And afterwards, in San Vittore. And then there was what she’d done to my hand . . .
I don’t think she’s quite so innocent as you believe.
Focus, I told myself.
The image of those corpses in the entrance hall came back, followed by an image of Anne. Anne, bodies. Bodies, Anne.
Angrily, I shoved it away. It didn’t matter. I just needed to find a way to fix all this, then I could take Anne away and we could go back to how things were.
I don’t think she’s quite so—
Variam stopped and looked back at me with a frown. ‘What?’
I breathed in, closed my eyes, breathed out. ‘I didn’t mean you.’
Variam gave me a sceptical look. ‘Starting to think you’re the one who shouldn’t be here.’
The rooms and hallways had been growing richer and more opulent the deeper we went. This hadn’t been some last-minute hidey-hole – Jagadev must have been preparing this retreat for a long time. Maybe he’d been using it as his base for centuries. Right now we were in what almost looked like a museum. Thick glass cases stood on marble pillars, each holding some odd item to catch the eye. A pile of small bones was within one case, an ancient handwritten diary within another. A wrought-iron polearm was contained in an especially long case, while another held a dark brown cloak with a magic aura I couldn’t identify.
As I looked around, I realised that unlike the last few rooms, this one had signs of battle. There was no blood, but a gilded chair had been knocked over and a leather pouch lay discarded on the floor. Concentrating, I could sense a faint magical residue. It must have been very strong to still be visible.
‘Someone went through,’ Variam said. He was staring at a set of gold-inlaid double doors at the end of the room.
‘Yeah,’ I said. I was focused on scanning for danger. There was no threat around the doors, no threat in the next room, but I didn’t like the look of the futures in the middle distance. ‘Let’s see who.’ I strode to the double doors and pushed them open.
The room within was a bedroom, and dripped with wealth. Gold rugs and tapestries were scattered upon the floor, silks hung upon the walls and the furniture was a dazzle of precious metal. The gaudiness made me blink: I’d been scanning only for danger, and anything that wasn’t a potential threat hadn’t registered on my radar.
Which was why I hadn’t realised that Jagadev was on the far wall, crucified against the stone.
The rakshasa looked like a humanoid tiger, as tall as a man but far more heavily muscled. Ornate spears had been driven through his hands and feet, pinning him against the wall, and all around him some kind of net of magical energy hovered, glowing a menacing black-green. The energy in the spell was so powerful that it made the rest of the room look dim. Jagadev’s eyes were closed and he didn’t move.
‘Shit,’ Variam said. ‘Is he dead?’
‘No,’ I said, frowning. The spell around Jagadev was incredibly complex. It was life magic, but with thick strands of the jinn’s power woven in, grey-black and opaque. It was interacting with Jagadev in some way, but I couldn’t figure out how.
Variam was staring at Jagadev like a dog at a hunk of meat, but he managed to tear his eyes away and look around. He ignored the gold and silver as though it wasn’t there. ‘Where’d she go?’
I swept the room with my diviner’s senses and nodded to one of the silk hangings. ‘Escape tunnel behind there.’
Variam looked at it, then back at Jagadev, clearly torn. ‘Can we catch her?’
‘No,’ I said with a sigh. I’d been searching for futures in which either of us caught up to Anne, and I hadn’t found a single one. ‘I don’t even know if she took the tunnel. For all I know, she used that jinn to punch straight through the gate wards.’
‘You got some other way to follow her?’
‘I don’t know. Use that new hand of yours.’
‘If it were that easy, I’d have found her already. Anne is at the top of the Council’s hit list and she is taking a lot of care to be hard to trace.’
‘You’re saying you can’t find her.’
There was a moment’s silence. ‘Well,’ Variam said. ‘I guess we’ll just have to take him as the consolation prize.’
‘Mm,’ I said. I was wondering how long Anne had taken to overwhelm Jagadev and pin him like this. How long had we missed her by? My instincts said not long. Maybe no more than a few minutes. If I’d been faster, we might have been able to catch up with her . . .
. . . and do what? Well, that was the problem, wasn’t it? ‘How long until you need to be back?’
‘A while.’I looked at Variam. Something about his tone of voice gave me the feeling that he was cutting things closer than that. ‘We should probably stop talking about this anyway. Jagadev’s been listening since we walked in.’
Jagadev opened his eyes. The pupils were golden and slitted like a cat’s, and they stared down at us without expression. Variam took a step forward. The fingers on his right hand twitched, and the futures of violence suddenly spiked.
‘Vari,’ I said warningly.
‘Can he hear?’ Variam said.
‘Why?’ Variam spat.
‘Because Anne left it that way,’ I said. I wondered what she’d had to say to her old enemy, and how I could get Jagadev to tell us.
‘Hey, asshole,’ Variam told Jagadev. ‘Remember me?’
Jagadev stared down at Variam.
‘You’re going to tell me exactly what you did,’ Variam said. ‘And who helped you. If not –’ He flexed his right hand. ‘– we’re going to see how well that fur of yours burns.’
Jagadev didn’t so much as blink. The rakshasa’s features were hard to read, but even pinned to the wall and motionless, he somehow managed to look down on Variam as if the fire mage were some sort of insect.
There was a dangerous tone to Variam’s voice, and I could sense violence flickering very close now. ‘I’m not going to ask again.’
‘He’s not going to answer, Vari.’
‘Yes, he will.’
‘No, he won’t.’ I was still sorting through the futures, snatching glimpses between the shifting possibilities. ‘Setting him on fire won’t make him talk. Burning pieces off him won’t make him talk. He’s not afraid of you.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ Variam said. ‘Let’s change—’
Jagadev spoke suddenly, his voice a purring rumble. ‘Your brother was a coward.’
Variam went very still.
‘He died begging for his life,’ Jagadev said. He raised one eyebrow slightly. ‘Would you like to know how?’
‘Shut up,’ Variam said.
‘He pleaded for us to take his family instead,’ Jagadev said. ‘He wept and cried that he would give up the rest of you if we would only spare him. First he tried to offer his mother. Then when that failed, he offered you. He told us that you would come at his call, that you’d be eager, because you blindly trusted him, worshipped him as a hero even though—’
Variam’s hand snapped up.
My hand hit Variam’s just as he loosed his spell, and the heat burst hit the wall to Jagadev’s right. There was a whump of superheated air. A tapestry flashed into ash and burning sparks, and a section of gold-friezed marble melted and deformed.
‘Vari!’ I snapped.
Vari had turned on me, orange-red light glowing around his hands. They weren’t aimed at me – not quite – but they were close. ‘I told you not to get in my way,’ he said through gritted teeth.
‘He’s manipulating you,’ I said sharply. ‘He’s had years to plan out this encounter, figure out exactly how to push your buttons. Stop and think!’
Flames surged around Variam and his eyes lit up red. Death and violence danced in the futures, and not all of it was aimed at Jagadev. I stared back at Variam and stood my ground. For a long moment, everything was still but for the flickering fire around Variam’s body; I could feel the heat at my face and hands but didn’t flinch.
Then Variam withdrew. The fire around him dimmed and he let out a long, hissing breath. The futures calmed and settled. ‘Take a walk,’ I said. ‘Five minutes. I’ll make sure he’s still here when you get back.’
‘He’d better be,’ Variam said.
‘You have my word.’
Variam gave Jagadev one final look, then turned and left the way we’d come in.
I turned back to Jagadev. The rakshasa had fallen silent again. ‘Hello, Jagadev,’ I said. ‘How long’s it been, six years? Though I suppose that’s not much to you.’
Silence. Jagadev’s slitted golden eyes stared at me without expression. But no – there was an expression there, something unfamiliar. I’d been searching through the futures, picking out glimpses and clues, and all of a sudden I understood what I was seeing. ‘You’re in agony right now, aren’t you?’ I said softly. ‘That’s what that spell is doing. It’s not just paralysing you; it’s inflicting the most pain it possibly can. It’s a wonder you’re even able to talk.’
Jagadev’s expression didn’t shift, but I knew I was right. ‘So that was why Anne left you alive,’ I said. ‘She could have killed you in an eyeblink, but that would have been over too soon, wouldn’t it?’ I tilted my head. ‘So what did she have to say? I’m guessing she wasn’t all that grateful for all you’ve done for her.’
Still no answer.‘If you’re not going to talk, I might as well call Vari back in to finish you off.’
‘Anne knows you will betray her,’ Jagadev said.
I paused, caught in the middle of turning around. ‘You think to ally with her against your shared enemies.’ There was no trace of pain in Jagadev’s voice: it was silky, contemptuous. ‘She knows you will turn on her as soon as you can. She will expect it, and you will fail.’
I felt a stab of fear. I knew Jagadev had to be guessing, but his guesses were dangerously close. ‘Nice try.’
‘She knows your plans, Verus. But do you know hers?’ Jagadev raised an eyebrow. ‘I think not. When she strikes, all your divination will not foresee it.’
‘This is what you always do, isn’t it?’ I said. ‘Plant suspicion, turn people against one another. All those people out in the entrance hall, those men and the vanara . . . I bet you spun them a very convincing story. How well did it work out for them?’
‘And yet here you are,’ Jagadev said. ‘Because no matter how you try to hide it, you wish for my knowledge, my wisdom. Like all mages. Like all humans.’
Jagadev had a point. The rakshasa was hundreds of years old, if not thousands. He would have had the time to amass wealth and secrets beyond most mages’ dreams. The secrets would be worth the most: locked away in his mind would be the keys to entire kingdoms. I felt the temptation of Jagadev’s unspoken offer. Help him, and I’d have access to the knowledge that only he possessed. Of course, to do so, I’d need to keep him alive . . .
. . . and in doing so, I’d be betraying Variam. And once I’d protected Jagadev, he’d betray me as well. The rakshasa had spent centuries practising these deceptions. He’d promise me everything, and give me nothing but death.
‘You know, it’s funny,’ I said. ‘You could have killed Anne and Variam so many times when they were living as your wards in the Tiger’s Palace. I mean, they were the last living descendants of the mages who killed your wife, weren’t they? And you managed to get them under your power, living under your own roof. So why did you hold off?’ I looked at Jagadev. ‘I think it was because they were the last. Once they were gone, you’d have nothing left. And when you finally decided to kill Anne, you didn’t just have her assassinated cleanly, because that wasn’t enough for you, was it? You tried to destroy her in every way you could. And now she’s doing the same thing. She could have finished you off, but instead she decides to play with her food. I guess she learnt it from you.’ I shook my head. ‘So much for your wisdom.’
‘You know nothing about Anne.’
‘I know enough,’ I said. ‘And what I don’t know is definitely not worth the price you’d charge for it. So no, Jagadev. I’m not making a deal. You’re going to die right here in this room. All I’m really interested in is whether you have any last words.’
‘Last words?’ Jagadev said. He paused, and his voice became harsh, deadly. ‘Then take these for your last words, mage. I may die here, but before the year is out, you and your underling will follow me. I have killed countless members of your kind, yet the number who will die at the hands of your lover will dwarf that. And you will be the one who enables it. Her name will be remembered in infamy, and yours alongside.’
I stood looking back at Jagadev for a moment before raising my voice. ‘Vari! We’re done.’
Footsteps sounded and Variam appeared, carrying something slung over one arm. He ignored me, looking straight at Jagadev. ‘You do not say another word about anyone in my family,’ he told Jagadev. ‘Understand?’
Jagadev looked at Variam contemptuously. The green-black energy of the spell was still swirling. I wondered how much longer it would take to kill him.
‘I just want to know one thing,’ Variam said. ‘Why?’
‘Why you?’ Jagadev sounded almost amused. ‘Are you truly so ignorant?’
‘I know why me. Alex told me that part. I just want to know why you did all this shit. How is it worth it? How could it ever be worth it?’
‘You would not be able to understand.’
‘Understand what?’ Variam demanded. ‘You could have gone anywhere, done anything. Instead you spend two hundred years killing people who’d never even heard of you?’
‘Oh, your brother had heard of me,’ Jagadev said. ‘At least by the time—’
Variam’s hand snapped up again, and this time I didn’t stop him.
Fire bloomed like a miniature sun. The noise was somewhere between a thump and a roar, and a wash of heat hit my face. I’d thrown up my hands to protect my eyes, and even with my armour, I could feel the skin scorching. A nauseating smell of burnt hair and flesh filled the room.
I lowered my hand to see that Jagadev was gone. A semicircular depression had been burnt in the wall, the stone charred black. The remains of the rakshasa’s body mixed with cooling lava in a charred mass on the floor below.
‘Well,’ I said. ‘You did warn him.’
Variam didn’t reply. We stood looking at the remains in silence.
Movement stirred in the futures. I looked ahead and one glance told me what I needed to know. ‘Come on. We’ve taken too long.’
‘Yeah.’ Variam tore his eyes away from Jagadev’s corpse and started to turn towards the door.
‘Not that way.’
Variam halted. ‘More of Jagadev’s?’
‘Not Jagadev’s,’ I said. ‘The same guys I ran into outside.’ There were more of the soldiers, and this time there were adepts and mages with them. ‘Chinese Council.’
‘Shit,’ Variam said. ‘I don’t want to have to talk my way past those guys.’
‘If I’m standing next to you, I don’t think they’ll give you the chance.’ The Councils of the various magical nations aren’t always on the best of terms, but they do share information. I headed towards the tapestry. ‘Let’s take the back door.’
‘How are these guys even here?’ Variam asked as I pulled aside the silk hangings to reveal a smooth wall.
‘Either we tripped some sensor, or Jagadev called them in.’ I ran my hand across the wall, my fingers finding a depression; I pushed and with a click a crack appeared in the stone. I shoved it open, the smooth marble rotating to reveal a dark opening.
‘He would, wouldn’t he?’ Variam was still carrying that bundle of fabric over his left arm, but with his right he sent orange-red flames flying over my shoulder, their light illuminating a rocky tunnel.
‘Close it behind us,’ I said, stepping through. Variam followed and with another click the light from the room behind was cut off, along with the stench of burning meat. ‘Yeah, probably. Just a final “screw you” to whoever killed him. Oh, and he’s rigged this place to self-destruct.’
‘We’ve got time,’ I said. I’d noticed the spell during our conversation. Someone, probably Anne, had interfered with the triggering mechanism, but it had been delayed, not stopped. ‘Twenty minutes at least.’
‘What is it, a bomb?’
‘Some sort of dimensional gate that’ll turn this mountain inside-out and drop the contents into God knows where.’
‘Okay, let’s not stick around to find out.’ Variam stepped around a patch of fallen rubble in the tunnel. ‘How far do these gate wards go?’
‘Not to the edge of the mountain,’ I said. The wards over Jagadev’s palace were strong, but no ward has unlimited range. ‘We keep going another few minutes, they’ll have weakened to the point where we can . . . Oh, for the love of God.’
‘Someone’s coming down the corridor towards us. Come on.’
I sped up my pace, searching through the futures ahead. Variam hurried to follow me, his shorter legs taking three steps to my two. Orange-red light from his flames flickered on the wall, casting dancing shadows. ‘More Council?’
‘I wish,’ I said. ‘Rachel.’
‘Seriously? That crazy bitch again?’ I heard a clatter as Variam stumbled over a stone before catching himself. ‘Can we get into deep falloff for the wards before she gets to us?’
There was a pause. ‘Can we get that far and finish a gate before she—?’
‘Can we find—?’
‘Terrain favours her too much.’
‘It’s really annoying when you do that.’
‘We don’t have time for a fight,’ I said. ‘There’s a dip in the ward coverage in about a hundred feet. If you start a gate there, I’ll hold her off long enough for you to finish.’
A hundred feet along, the corridor bent right. The wards were still clearly detectable to my magesight, but I could sense the fluctuations that betrayed the underlying weakness around this patch of tunnel. Variam started casting, shooting me a look that said you’d better be right about this.
Ahead, the futures shifted. Rachel had broken into a run. ‘She’ll be here in thirty seconds,’ I said. ‘Keep the gate going and don’t get distracted by disintegrate spells or cave-ins.’
‘Yes, Mum. Shouldn’t you be worrying about her?’
I walked forward, picked my spot and waited.
Sea-green light bloomed, illuminating a human shape. The footsteps changed, slowing from a rapid beat to a steady, relentless clack-clack-clack. The light brightened, intensifying at Rachel’s hands and revealing her face.
Rachel had not done well since we last met. The domino mask hid her upper face, but not the lines of tension along her face and jaw. Her clothes were dirty and torn, and the hatred in her eyes as her gaze met mine was like a physical blow. Before, I’d thought that Rachel had hated me about as much as a person possibly could. I’d been wrong.
Energy swirled around her hands as she stalked forwards. She wasn’t stopping or slowing, and I felt a twinge of déjà vu. Trapped in a tunnel with a more powerful mage ahead . . .
No. I shook the memory away. Not more powerful any more. I drew my gun, the barrel coming up to line on Rachel’s head.
Rachel reacted instantly. A sea-green ray flashed out.
I dodged the moment the future firmed, but even so I barely made it. The ray threaded the gap between my arm and body, then struck the rock behind and disintegrated a load-bearing section of the tunnel wall.
I was already sprinting away from Rachel as the ceiling collapsed with a deafening rumble and boom. Stones bounced around my ankles, but the whole thing was over in seconds and I slowed to a walk, a cloud of dust making my coat billow around me and ruffling my hair.
Variam was still forming his gate spell, one eyebrow raised. ‘Don’t get distracted by cave-ins, huh?’
I could hear rumbling sounds as Rachel fired more disintegrate spells from the other side. It wouldn’t do her any good: more of the mountain would collapse to fill in any holes she made. ‘Let’s get out of here.’
Variam’s gate completed and an orange-red portal formed. We stepped through and left the Himalayas behind.