The action-packed final 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 castle was falling.
Walls and battlements of yellow stone stretched into the distance, fading into the haze of the noonday sun. I was on top of the tallest tower on the eastern wing, and from my vantage point I could see the battle raging. Two black armies fought in the haze, clashing on high walkways and in the courtyards below. They blended in a sea of violence, tiny figures striking each other down, the bodies tumbling into space to wisp away into nothingness.
The attacking army was made up out of jann, slender humanoids that seemed to have been sculpted from living darkness. They moved with a darting grace, murderous and quick. The defenders were shadow constructs, smoky bodies with glowing white eyes. They were slower and clumsier than the jann, but they didn’t die – when their bodies were destroyed they would simply re-form at their place of creation. A steady stream of them were flying from the tombs, flapping through the sky with heavy wingbeats to rejoin the combat.
But the jann and the shadows were only pawns: it was the mages who would decide the battle. Few in number, they were hidden behind rooftops and ramparts, but their power made them simple to track. Here a swarm of jann vanished into a building, but never came out. Farther south, a flock of shadows descended into a courtyard; light flickered briefly off the walls, and a few minutes later a new cloud of black specks emerged from the distant tombs.
The castle belonged to a Dark mage called Sagash. Or had belonged; I’d been watching for twenty minutes and it was clear Sagash’s forces were losing. The cathedral overlooking the southern quadrant had held out for a long time, lightning striking down any jann that came close, but ten minutes ago there’d been a flurry of battle magic and the lightning had stopped. The last time I’d been in this castle I’d fought one of Sagash’s apprentices, a lightning mage called Sam. I had the feeling it was him I’d sensed in that cathedral. I also had the feeling I knew who’d silenced him.
As I watched, I noticed an offshoot of the battle moving in my direction, shadows fighting a running skirmish against a pursuing force of jann. Both sides were taking losses, but the jann were receiving reinforcements and the shadows weren’t. From the shadows’ movements they seemed to be protecting something, but I couldn’t see what.
I scanned through the futures, searching for information. In one possibility ninety seconds away, I caught a glimpse of a figure on a rooftop, fighting alone against a swarm of jann. I couldn’t get a look at their face, but I could make a good guess at who it was.
I considered a moment, then stepped off the tower, letting myself fall.
* * *
By the time I arrived, the shadows had all been destroyed, the last two dissolving into smoke as I stepped out onto the yellow stone. The battle had gained height and we were on a flat rooftop, iron spike railings and low parapets guarding against a sheer drop on three out of the four sides. Huge buildings to the north and south were separated by yawning gaps, the walls dropping away down and down to courtyards far below. Wind rushed across the roof in a low, steady roar, whipping at my hair and clothes.
There were three jann standing over the remains of the shadows, and as I arrived on the rooftop they turned and loped toward me, claws outstretched. I left all three burning on the stone. At the end of the rooftop, a flight of stairs descended out of sight; the bulk of the jann were clustered around it, their attention focused on something below. A small square-topped tower rose twenty feet above roof level, and I jumped up onto it.
From my new vantage point I could see that the flight of stairs descended to what might once have been a bridge but which now ended in a ten-foot stone platform. Beyond was a jagged break and a sheer drop. Standing on the square was a young Korean woman, dressed in blue and grey. She carried a short-sword and a small shield, and was crouched in a fighting stance, facing the stairs. It was probably the same sword she’d tried to stab me with on my last visit.
The stairs were packed with jann, crowded tightly all the way up to the top. They were focused on the woman, but weren’t attacking. Instead they clustered just out of range of her sword, their stance low and predatory, wolves facing a cornered deer.
The jann and the woman were focused on each other. They were over a hundred feet away; between the distance and the roaring wind, neither had yet noticed me. I reached out through my dreamstone, finding the woman’s mind and touching it delicately. Yun Ji-yeong, wasn’t it? I said through the link.
I saw Ji-yeong start. Her mouth moved.
Talk through your thoughts, I told her. I’m on the towertop at your two o’clock.
Ji-yeong turned her head and saw me, then something made her jerk back toward the jann. Who are you? she demanded. Her thoughts were rough and scratchy, but clear.
My name’s Alex Verus. We met four years ago.
Verus? Ji-yeong sounded startled. You were with— The mood of her thoughts changed. Ah, shibal.
Ji-yeong said something angry in Korean, then switched back to English. You know, fine! You want me? Call off your dogs and come get me yourself!
You mean the jann? I asked. They’re not mine.
You came with her, didn’t you?
I’m not on her side, and I’m not on yours.
Ji-yeong paused, and when her thoughts came again they felt more cautious. What do you want?
Information, I told her. Here’s the deal. Answer my questions and do as I say, and in exchange I’ll get you out of your current mess and keep you safe.
Sagash isn’t going to let you— Ji-yeong began, then cut off abruptly and lashed out with her sword. The nearest jann jumped back; a ripple went through the crowd, and other jann edged closer.
I don’t think Sagash is your biggest problem at the moment, I told Ji-yeong once the jann had settled down.
What the hell are you going to do? Ji-yeong demanded.
Her thoughts were keyed-up, tense. If you aren’t with her, those things aren’t going to obey you.
You’re a diviner, right? You going to kill them from up there?
So what are you going to do? Stab them all to death?
Ji-yeong laughed. I’d like to see you try.
Do we have a deal?
Sure. Why not? It’s not like I’ve got anything to lose.
I hopped down to ground level and started walking across the rooftop. As I did, I spun my weapon into a ready position. It was a polearm called a sovnya, a slightly curved scimitar-like blade mounted on the end of a long shaft. I held it one-handed, arm extended, the blade low above the flagstones.
I was clearly visible on the empty rooftop and it didn’t take long for the jann at the back of the crowd to notice me. Two of them turned, faceless and eyeless; any sound they might have made was carried away by the wind. I kept walking and the two of them loped forward, splitting up to come at me from both sides.
Futures unfolded before me. The one on the left would feint, trying to draw my attention from the one on the right. If I turned right, the one on the left would strike instead. A simple attack, a simple counter.
The jann moved into their attack pattern and I showed them what they were expecting. The right one hovered just out of reach as the left lunged. Without turning to look, I reversed the sovnya and thrust, feeling the shudder as the weapon bit. The jann in front hesitated; I waited exactly one second, then brought the sovnya around to meet its lunge. The blade bisected it at the shoulder, the jann’s shadowy flesh igniting with red light. Its body fell to the stone in two halves, flaming and burning. The sovnya pulsed greedily, hungry for more.
In the time it had taken me to kill the first two jann, five more had noticed me. They turned and attacked, fanning out to come from all directions.
Four died in eight seconds. The fifth backed away as the rest of the crowd finally started to take me seriously.
In the old days, I would never have taken this fight. My divination shows an enemy’s weaknesses, tells me what to expect and where to move, but against this many enemies, that’s not enough. Sooner or later you’ll get tired, or they’ll come from too many angles, and you’ll get overwhelmed.
But in the old days I hadn’t had a set of reactive armour that could shed a strike from a jann’s claws, stiffening at the point of impact to deflect the blow. And I hadn’t had the sovnya, a weapon forged to kill magical creatures. The polearm burned with a fierce light, its blade cutting through the jann’s bodies like a flaming sword through cobwebs. I’m better with a knife than with a spear, but the sovnya knew how it wanted to be used; it was less like wielding a weapon and more like fighting with a very close partner.
And most of all, I had the fateweaver. As I danced through the futures, I didn’t just see them, I changed them. Small touches to possibilities, closing off some paths, widening others. I nudged the movements of the jann so that they were never quite co-ordinated, never attacking in exactly the right way. Every time one was in a position to threaten me, I’d shift things so that I’d have an extra half-second to react before they could strike.
Superior intelligence; superior weaponry; better defence; fate manipulation. You can overcome one of those advantages, if you have an edge of your own. Maybe two. Not all four.
The jann died, their bodies falling to the stone to burn from the inside out as the sovnya consumed them. The only sounds were the stutter and scrape of footsteps, and the roar of the wind, interrupted by the high-pitched whine of the jann’s death screams. By the time the remaining jann realised that they should run, it was far too late. They were backed down onto the stairs, trapped between Ji-yeong and me with an endless drop on both sides.
Six jann left. Four flung themselves at me, trying to escape. Three, then two, then one. The last managed to pass me and almost made it to the top of the steps before the sovnya took off its leg.
The two at the back went after Ji-yeong. I could have moved in to finish them, but instead I stopped to watch. Ji-yeong engaged the first, blocking with the shield, stabbing with the sword. Her movements were unnaturally quick; in my magesight, I could see the green lace of life magic twined around her limbs.
The first jann opened up a gash on Ji-yeong’s arm; blood welled up but she ignored it and closed the distance, ramming her sword into the thing’s body over and over again until it shuddered and fell to the stone. The second jann ripped Ji-yeong’s back with its claws; she whirled and slammed it with her shield. The jann stumbled back over the edge, falling silently down and down to disappear into the haze below.
Ji-yeong turned to me, breathing hard.
‘You’ve gotten better,’ I told her.
The green light of Ji-yeong’s life magic wove around her wounds. The gash on her arm stopped bleeding and pulled together, the edges of the cut binding to leave smooth pale skin. A glow from behind showed that the same was happening to the tear on her back. In only a few seconds, she was healthy again. She straightened and looked at me, her eyes flicking to my weapon and armour.
I turned and climbed the stairs. Once back on the rooftop, I walked twenty feet, then turned and waited.
Ji-yeong followed me up. She moved out onto the rooftop cautiously, glancing from left to right. ‘Decision time,’ I said, raising my voice to be heard above the wind.
I gestured to the open rooftop. ‘You want to try and take me, now’s your chance.’
Ji-yeong hesitated for a long second, futures flickering. Battle, flight, submission. One future eclipsed the others as she made her choice. Her stance relaxed slightly and she wiped off her sword, then slid it back into its sheath.
I nodded. ‘Follow me.’
I took a winding route back across the battlements, Ji-yeong trailing me at a distance. Once I reached the tower I’d been using as a vantage point, I stopped in front of the doorway. That door led into a spiral staircase that would take me to the top of the tower. I crouched, then leapt.
Air magic surged from the metal headband around my brow and a rush of wind hurled me upward, bearing me thirty times farther than I could have jumped on my own. I soared up and over the tower’s parapet and landed lightly on its roof. Then I turned toward the open stairwell leading down into the tower, and waited.
If you’re going to have a problem with someone, it’s best to settle it early. I’d already given Ji-yeong the chance to fight. Now I was giving her the chance to run. She was fifty feet away and out of sight; if she wanted to flee, she’d never have a better opportunity. Again I saw the futures waver, but this time she made her decision quickly.
Two minutes later footsteps sounded and Ji-yeong’s head appeared in the open stairwell. She looked around the towertop, saw me, and walked across. The sword was still sheathed at her hip. ‘You could have given me a lift,’ she told me, raising her voice above the wind.
I wasn’t actually sure if I could. The copper headband I’d been using to make these jumps was an imbued item that employed air magic; I’d taken it from Levistus’s shadow realm only two days ago, and while it was willing to carry me, passengers were another story. ‘Something wrong with your legs?’ I asked Ji-yeong.
Ji-yeong looked unimpressed.
I turned to the parapet. ‘Let’s get to work.’
The battle had moved on while we’d been busy. The areas closer to us had emptied; all the fighting was far away now, around the central keep. Jann and shadows clashed in waves, looking like black dots, a steady stream of reinforcements flying in from the tombs. I pointed toward the tombs. ‘Who’s fighting who?’
‘You mean who started?’ Ji-yeong asked. ‘Or who’s left?’
‘Start at the beginning.’
Ji-yeong made a face. ‘This is humiliating.’
‘Let me guess. First you got beaten by Anne, now you had to get rescued?’
‘And now you want me to tell you the story.’
‘You’re alive,’ I said. ‘Which means you’re doing a lot better than most people who’ve gone up against Anne lately. Now start at the beginning.’
‘Fine. A couple of hours ago the breach alarm went off. When we got to the gatehouse, there were three people waiting on the other end of the bridge. The one in the middle was that Anne Walker girl.’
‘Western woman, Western guy. Oldish, forty or something? The woman was a fat earth mage, the man was a force mage in a nice suit. We went out to meet them.’
Caldera and Barrayar. ‘Who’s “we”?’
‘Me, Aether and Jethro.’
‘Aether’s Sam. He took that name after Sagash made him Chosen. Jethro’s the new kid.’
‘What happened to Darren?’ I asked. He’d been the third of Sagash’s apprentices.
‘Killed in a raid two years back. Anyway, the Walker girl did all the talking. The other two just stood there like statues. She threatened me and Sam a bit, but she was really here for Sagash. She called him out.’
‘Did he come?’ I asked with interest.
‘Kind of,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘Talked via projection. We backed off so I didn’t hear what they were saying, but when it was done Sagash didn’t sound happy.’ Ji-yeong paused. ‘Well, he never does these days. He shifted his projection to in front of us, told us to defend the castle and vanished.’
‘He didn’t come to join you?’
Ji-yeong shook her head. ‘Been months since he left the keep. And he’s been getting more unpredictable. I was actually starting to think about . . . well. Guess it doesn’t matter now.’
I waited. After a moment Ji-yeong carried on. ‘So we decided it was worth a shot. I mean, three on three’s not so bad, right? And we’d have the shadows backing us up.’ Ji-yeong was silent for a moment. ‘Yeah. That did not go to plan. First she calls up an army of summoned monsters in ten seconds flat. I mean, that’s not even supposed to be possible. Sagash spent ten years building up those shadows and there’s a whole ritual arrangement in the tombs. You need set-up. She just did it –’ Ji-yeong snapped her fingers. ‘– like that. And then there was her. I mean, the Walker girl’s a life mage, sure, but Sam and I dealt with her last time, we knew what she could do. Or we thought we did.’ Ji-yeong shook her head. ‘It was nothing like last time. She’s got some new kind of magic. Sam and I went at her from both sides and she held us both off and I don’t think she was even trying. It was like fighting Sagash.’
‘Jethro’s dead,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘He tried to run and the guy in the suit got him in the back. I saw him go off one of the walkways. Aether – Sam – last I saw, he was facing Anne Walker. I stopped sensing his magic a minute later. For all I know he’s dead as well.’
‘Does that bother you?’ I asked.
‘You don’t expect other apprentices to be your friends.’
‘But what?’ Ji-yeong shot me a challenging look. ‘You want to see if I’m going soft?’
‘Anybody else in the castle?’
‘Just the shadows.’
I nodded and stepped away. ‘All right. We’re done here.’
Ji-yeong frowned. ‘I thought you wanted information.’
‘I’ve got all I need.’
Ji-yeong pointed at the keep in the distance. Black flashes of battle magic lit up its walls; even from this distance I could sense the power in the spells. ‘You don’t want to see who wins?’
‘I already know.’
‘I’ve never seen Sagash lose a fight.’
‘Doesn’t matter,’ I said. ‘This is the problem with setting yourself up as ruler of your little pocket kingdom. You get isolated. If Sagash had stayed in touch, he might have got wind of what was coming. He wouldn’t have won, but he could have set up a bolt-hole.’ I pointed in the direction of the battle. ‘Those two other mages, Caldera and Barrayar, they’re possessed by ifrit jinn. Anne is possessed by a marid. There’s only one way this is going to end.’
I started walking toward the stairs. Ji-yeong fell into step just behind me. ‘So what’s going to happen?’
‘Anne is going to smash through Sagash’s defences and take him down,’ I said. ‘Once that’s over, she’s going to do a sweep of her new shadow realm.’
The inside of the tower was cool and dusty, beams of light passing through arched windows to splash across the spiral staircase. ‘What happened with you two anyway?’ Ji-yeong asked. ‘Last time you were . . .’
‘We were what?’
I hadn’t raised my voice, but there must have been something in my tone because Ji-yeong didn’t finish her sentence. We descended a flight of stairs in silence.
‘How much do you know about Anne’s history with Sagash?’ I asked.
‘He doesn’t talk about it.’
‘Sagash kidnapped Anne and brought her here nine years ago. She was eighteen at the time. He wanted an apprentice-assassin and when Anne didn’t turn out murderous enough for his liking he decided to change her by force. It had some lasting effects. When Richard Drakh showed up looking for a host for that marid, he decided she was the perfect candidate.’
‘Recognise the name?’
‘Well, yeah,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘He made kind of an impression. He met with Sagash after you escaped.’
‘What did he want?’
‘I don’t know, but whatever it was, Sagash turned him down.’
I nodded. That decision had probably sealed Sagash’s fate.
We came out of the tower at ground level. Grass grew in between weather-worn structures of pale stone. ‘Wait,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘So all of this has been about this Anne girl? First Sagash wanted her, then Crystal wanted her. And now you’re saying Drakh’s been chasing her too?’
‘I don’t get it,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘All these master mages, fighting over one life apprentice who doesn’t even want to join them?’
I glanced back at Ji-yeong. ‘You think they should have found a volunteer? Like you?’
Ji-yeong looked defensive. ‘Well, why not?’
‘The traits that Sagash and Richard Drakh valued in Anne were exactly the ones that guaranteed she would never willingly join them.’
‘It’s still stupid.’
‘Well, in the long run, it was,’ I said. ‘Sagash and Drakh both tried to mould Anne into the kind of person that would suit them. And they weren’t the only ones. A rakshasa called Jagadev, a Councillor called Levistus . . . they put Anne on a path, forced her to keep walking down it. Trouble was, once she got to the end of that path . . . it turned out what they’d actually been creating was a monster.’
‘She didn’t look like a monster last time,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘More like a victim.’
‘A lot of monsters start out that way.’
We stopped in a corner of a grassy courtyard. Sagash’s shadow realm had wards that made it impossible to gate in or out except from the platform at the end of the bridge. But it’s hard to make a gate ward strong everywhere, especially over a place as big as this castle. There was a small vulnerability in this particular spot, between two of the nodes; every now and again, the ward coverage would weaken just enough to allow a gate. The next window wasn’t due for another thirty-six hours, but I’d already used the fateweaver to adjust that. Maybe this was how Richard had broken in all those years ago. ‘This is my stop,’ I told Ji-yeong. ‘Coming?’
‘Do I have a choice?’
‘Sure,’ I said. ‘You can try to fight your way back to the bridge and gate out while they’re busy. You know the castle; you might manage it. Or you could join up with Anne. She’s recruiting at the moment.’
‘What happens if I do that?’
‘You get possessed by a jinn for two or three days.’
‘Just two or three days?’
Ji-yeong started to answer, then paused. ‘What happens after two or three days?’
‘An army of mages invade this shadow realm and kill you.’
‘Okay, that last bit?’ Ji-yeong said. ‘I think you should have told me that part first.’
I leant on the sovnya. ‘So what’ll it be?’
Ji-yeong watched me suspiciously. ‘You’re giving me a lot of chances to walk away here.’
‘As one of my old teachers used to say, I prefer willing servants.’
Ji-yeong tapped her sword hilt. The futures hovered, then settled more solidly this time. Ji-yeong gave a little sigh. ‘You can’t start dancing until someone plays the drum.’ She inclined her head. ‘Lead on, Master.’
I nodded and turned back to the grassy corner. A few touches with the fateweaver, then I channelled through my dreamstone, linking our world to Elsewhere.
‘I’ve still got my gate focus,’ Ji-yeong said. ‘But it won’t do any good unless we can—’
The air shimmered and became an oval portal. Beyond the portal was another castle, this one made of black stone instead of yellow.
Ji-yeong stopped. ‘How did you do that?’
Somewhere in the distance, the battle was still raging. I wondered how long Sagash would last. Anne wouldn’t want to kill him quickly. She’d been looking forward to this for a very long time.
I stepped through into Elsewhere. After only a moment’s hesitation, Ji-yeong followed and I let the gate close behind us.