FROM A DISTANCE, the man struggling up the white face of the glacier might have looked like an ant crawling slowly up the side of a dinner plate. The shantytown of La Rinconada was a collection of scattered specks far below him, the wind increasing as his elevation did, blowing powdery gusts of snow into his face and freezing the damp tendrils of his black hair. Despite his amber goggles, he winced at the brightness of the reflected sunset.
Still, the man was not afraid of falling, although he was using no ropes or belay lines, only crampons and a single ice axe. His name was Alastair Hunt and he was a mage. He shaped and molded the frozen substance of the glacier under his hands as he climbed. Handholds and footholds appeared as he inched his way upward.
By the time he reached the cave, midway up the glacier, he was half frozen and fully exhausted from bending his will to tame the worst of the elements. It sapped his energy to exert his magic so continuously, but he hadn’t dared slow down.
The cave itself opened like a mouth in the side of the mountain, impossible to see from above or below. He pulled himself over its edge and took a deep, jagged breath, cursing himself for not getting there sooner, for allowing himself to be tricked. In La Rinconada, the people had seen the explosion and whispered under their breaths about what it meant, the fire inside the ice.
Fire inside the ice. It had to be a distress signal … or an attack. The cave was full of mages too old to fight or too young, the injured and the sick, mothers of very young children who could not be left — like Alastair’s own wife and son. They had been hidden away here, in one of the most remote places on the earth.
Master Rufus had insisted that otherwise they would be vulnerable, hostages to fortune, and Alastair had trusted him. Then, when the Enemy of Death hadn’t shown up on the field to face the mages’ champion, the Makar girl upon whom they’d pinned all their hopes, Alastair had realized his mistake. He’d gotten to La Rinconada as fast as he could, flying most of his way on the back of an air elemental. From there, he’d made his way on foot, since the Enemy’s control of elementals was unpredictable and strong. The higher he’d climbed, the more frightened he’d become.
Let them be all right, he thought to himself as he stepped inside the cave. Please let them be all right.
There should have been the sound of children wailing. There should have been the low buzz of nervous conversation and the hum of subdued magic. Instead, there was only the howl of the wind as it swept over the desolate peak of the mountain. The cave walls were white ice, pocked with red and brown where blood had splattered and melted in patches. Alastair pulled off his goggles and dropped them on the ground, pushing farther into the passage, drawing on the dregs of his power to steady himself.
The walls of the cave gave off an eerie phosphorescent glow. Away from the entrance, it was the only light he had to see by, which probably explained why he stumbled over the first body and nearly fell to his knees. Alastair jerked away with a yell, then winced as he heard his own shout echo back to him. The fallen mage was burned beyond recognition, but she wore the leather wristband with the large hammered piece of copper that marked her as a second-year Magisterium student. She couldn’t have been older than thirteen.
You should be used to death by now, he told himself. They’d been at war with the Enemy for a decade that sometimes felt like a century. At first, it had seemed impossible — one young man, even one of the Makaris, planning to conquer death itself. But as the Enemy increased in power, and his army of the Chaos-ridden grew, the threat had become inescapably dire … culminating in this pitiless slaughter of the most helpless, the most innocent.
Alastair got to his feet and pushed deeper into the cave, desperately looking for one face above all. He forced his way past the bodies of elderly Masters from the Magisterium and Collegium, children of friends and acquaintances, and mages who had been wounded in earlier battles. Among them lay the broken bodies of the Chaos-ridden, their swirling eyes darkened forever. Though the mages had been unprepared, they must have put up quite a fight to have slain so many of the Enemy’s forces. Horror churning in his gut, his fingers and toes numb, Alastair staggered through it all … until he saw her.
He found her lying in the very back, against a cloudy wall of ice. Her eyes were open, staring at nothing. The irises looked murky and her lashes were clotted with ice. Leaning down, he brushed his fingers over her cooling cheek. He drew in his breath sharply, his sob cutting through the air.
But where was their son? Where was Callum?
A dagger was clutched in Sarah’s right hand. She had excelled at shaping ore summoned deep from the ground. She’d made the dagger herself in their last year at the Magisterium. It had a name: Semiramis. Alastair knew how Sarah had treasured that blade. If I have to die, I want to die holding my own weapon, she’d always told him. But he hadn’t wanted her to die at all.
His fingers grazed her cold cheek.
A cry made him whip around. In this cave full of death and silence, a cry.
He turned, searching frantically for the source of the thready wail. It seemed to be coming from closer to the cave entrance. He plunged back the way he had come, stumbling over bodies, some frozen stiff as statues — until suddenly, another familiar face stared up at him from the carnage.
Declan. Sarah’s brother, wounded in the last battle. He appeared to have been choked to death by a particularly cruel use of air magic; his face was blue, his eyes shot with broken blood vessels. One of his arms was outflung, and just underneath it, protected from the icy cave floor by a woven blanket, was Alastair’s infant son. As he stared in amazement, the boy opened his mouth and gave another thin, mewling cry.
As if in trance, shaking with relief, Alastair bent and lifted his child. The boy looked up at him with wide gray eyes and opened his mouth to scream again. When the blanket fell aside, Alastair could see why. The baby’s left leg hung at a terrible angle, like a snapped tree branch.
Alastair tried to call up earth magic to heal the boy but had only enough power left to take away some of the pain. Heart racing, he rewrapped his son tightly in the blanket and wound his way back through the cave to where Sarah lay. Holding the baby as if she could see him, he knelt down beside her body.
“Sarah,” he whispered, tears thick in his throat. “I’ll tell him how you died protecting him. I will raise him to remember how brave you were.”
Her eyes stared at him, blank and pale. He held the child more closely to his side and reached to take Semiramis from her hand. When he did, he saw that the ice near the blade was strangely marked, as if she had clawed at it while dying. But the marks were too deliberate for that. As he bent closer, he realized they were words — words his wife had carved into the cave ice with the last of her dying strength.
As he read them, he felt them like three hard blows to the stomach.
KILL THE CHILD
CALLUM HUNT WAS a legend in his little North Carolina town, but not in a good way. Famous for driving off substitute teachers with sarcastic remarks, he also specialized in annoying principals, hall monitors, and lunch ladies. Guidance counselors, who always started out wanting to help him (the poor boy’s mother had died, after all) wound up hoping he’d never darken the doors of their offices again. There was nothing more embarrassing than not being able to come up with a snappy comeback to an angry twelve-year-old.