Mirah Bolender follows The Monstrous Citadel with Fortress of Magi—the pulse-pounding conclusion to her debut fantasy trilogy in which a bomb squad defuses the magic weapons of a long forgotten war
The Hive Mind has done the impossible—left its island prison. It's a matter of time before Amicae falls, and Laura Kramer has very few resources left to prevent it.
The council has tied her hands, and the gangs want her dead. Her only real choice is to walk away and leave the city to its fate.
Chronicles of Amicae
City of Broken Magic
The Monstrous Citadel
Fortress of Magi
At the Publisher's request, this title is being sold without Digital Rights Management Software (DRM) applied.
Release date: April 20, 2021
Publisher: Tom Doherty Associates
Print pages: 336
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Fortress of Magi
“Gaudium’s quiet today,” said Laura Kramer.
She leaned close enough to the cable car window to make a mark on it with her nose. Currently she was descending from Amicae’s Fifth Quarter to the Sixth, and the cable line jutted out just enough that she could glimpse the speck of Gaudium in the southwest.
“Is it?” said Okane Sinclair, her coworker and the only other current passenger.
“Do you think something’s wrong?” said Laura.
Okane hummed. He moved to the same window, sat on the uncomfortable metal bench to angle himself the way she did, so he could look out with his unnaturally silver eyes. Honestly it was impossible to tell anything about Gaudium at this distance, but he always humored Laura’s moods like this. She glanced up to give him a grateful smile.
“Do you sense anything?” she asked.
“No, but Gaudium’s far away,” said Okane. “I’m not able to sense anything across the bay.”
“You were able to sense something happening way underneath Amicae, back during the Falling Infestation,” said Laura.
“I was standing on top of it. - - -’d notice a hornets’ nest if - - - stepped on it, too,” said Okane.
“I get it,” said Laura, turning back to the window. “I’m just worried, is all.” They were supposed to have infestations around every corner, with the size of Rex’s crusade. The further an infestation was from its hive mind the longer it seemed to take for the hive’s anger to reach it, but they’d had more than enough time to roll their way northward. “We should be in the middle of a catastrophe right now.”
“I’m glad we’re not. We have too few people to handle a catastrophe,” said Okane.
He and Laura were the only officially active Sweepers in all of Amicae. Sure, there were mob Sweepers in organizations like the Mad Dogs and the Silver Kings, but they were loose cannons at best, and the Mad Dogs had actually initiated one of the worst monster swarms in the city’s history; it was a wonder they’d made it out of the Falling Infestation alive. They weren’t equipped for a catastrophe in the least.
Laura picked at the seal on the cable car window, brow furrowed, before saying, “It’s kind of selfish, but I keep hoping Gaudium reports something. They’re south. Whatever comes up will hit them first. If we can get any kind of forewarning…”
“And you’re worried about Ellie.”
“Wh—But—Of course I’m worried about Ellie! But it’s not like I’m playing favorites!” said Laura.
Okane raised his brows, as if to say, Oh, really?
“Maybe I’ve got a little favoritism,” Laura admitted. “But you saw that letter, didn’t you? She signed it at the end herself! She used about twenty exclamation points to postscript how much she admired us!” When she’d first opened the letter, she’d hardly dared believe it. She was used to Amicae’s newspapers publishing trash about her, and their ongoing attempts to link her to the mobs. And to hear such praise coming from a Sweeper, even an apprentice, was precious validation. She’d kept checking it all through the day yesterday and come away giddy every time. “Do you have any idea how long I’ve wanted to get something like that?” Okane eyed her a little more closely, and she said quickly, “Don’t answer that honestly.”
“A long time, anyway,” said Okane. “I understand being acknowledged can be good for figuring out where - - - are - - -rself. I’ll admit, though, I’m not fond of attention from strangers.”
He turned to look out the window again, and one of the markers of his discomfort was made more obvious as a result. Two months ago, Rexian forces had tried to attack Amicae through the mines, and Laura and Okane had been the first on the scene to hold them back. Laura had emerged with branching discoloration up the length of her arms, but Okane’s injury was more obvious. A kin-infused gauntlet had missed his eye but left five welted burn lines where those fingers had been. The old money-shaped scars on his arms he could at least hide under his sleeves, but the new one on his face pulled attention everywhere they went. Okane still tended to associate attention with future pain. It wasn’t a good combination.
“You don’t have to be, right now,” said Laura. “It’s probably for the better, here in Amicae. If you did want the Council here to praise you, you’d be disappointed at every turn.”
Okane snorted. Outside, the roofs of the Sixth Quarter eclipsed what little of Gaudium they could see.
Amicae’s Sixth Quarter held no residences but the outer barracks of the military, the emptied Ranger district, warehouses of the fields, and, of course, the trains. The cable car station was wider and cleaner than most, considering the traffic—even First Quarter citizens had to use this landing if they went traveling—and when the cable car drew even with the dock, an attendant on the outside not only opened the door, but offered his white-gloved hand to help them disembark.
“I’m good,” said Laura, and hopped out of the car with Okane quick behind her.
The attendant accepted this with grace, and simply said, “Good day, miss.”
The Union Depot rose high before them with many spires, a clock face above its massive doors reading 9:10 A.M. They were running late. Laura hurried her pace, and Okane fell into step beside her with his head down to hide his face from the passersby. There wasn’t anywhere else to hide; with so many restricted operations in this Quarter, walls had been built to funnel everyone straight from cable car to depot to keep anyone from wandering. By contrast, the inside of the depot was wide and loud and open. Travelers and peddlers crowded around the pillars, the ticket stalls rattled, and the steam of arriving trains mixed with the smells from wheeled food stalls. Voices echoed high overhead among the arches and the hanging clocks. Simply put, it was chaos.
“More people than usual today,” said Okane.
“There are some big film stars coming in about now,” said Laura.
“Barnaby Gilda and Monica Reeves.”
Okane gave a low whistle. “The biggest film stars there are these days.”
“Exactly. That’ll give us plenty of cover to meet Byron,” said Laura.
Perfectly timed, the doors of the train on platform three opened. The crowd that had been milling before now surged toward it, and the shouting increased tenfold.
“Mr. Gilda! Mr. Gilda! Please look over here!”
“Miss Reeves, you’ve been nominated for the Golden Bough! Do you have anything to say to your fans?”
Camera flashes popped amid the clamor. Laura thought of her last visit to the depot, thought of Juliana MacDanel pointing a gun at her face, and practically ran to avoid the influx of attention. Unluckily for her, the uninformed people on surrounding platforms were hurrying in for a look at the commotion too. She fought her way upstream, and by the time she found some calm behind the pillars of platform six, she was panting from the effort.
“Okay. So. I may have underestimated the sheer amount of fans,” she said.
One of the actors must’ve said something, because the crowd shrieked with delight. Okane winced at the noise.
“Do - - - think Byron can even find us in all of this?” he asked.
“Are you doubting my skills already?”
They leaned around the pillar to find PI Byron Rhodes leaning against the opposite side. He wore his usual bowler hat, with the ever-present pipe stuck between his teeth. He didn’t look very threatening, but he had once been part of the police’s MARU task force, and Laura had seen for herself just how good his information gathering could be. He gave them his usual tired smile and said, “Thanks for coming on such short notice.”
“You’ve never called us out like this before. We knew it had to be important,” said Laura. “If you called us directly, it must be Sweeper business, right? But it can’t actually be Sweeper business if police haven’t roped this place off. There’s no infestation here, is there?”
Would one finally be here, come in on the trains? Laura automatically fell into a wider stance, looking around for hiding places and emergency exits for the crowd. Okane did the same, but his brow was furrowed in confusion.
“I haven’t sensed anything,” he said. “Has a hibernating one been delivered to Amicae?”
“There’s no infestations involved, so I wouldn’t say that it’s exactly a Sweeper problem. It’s more of a … Sinclair-Kramer problem,” said Byron.
“A Sinclair-Kramer—” The only thing related to them personally that Byron would be involved with … Laura’s eyes narrowed. “You don’t mean there’s a mob connection here, do you? Have you finally found a lead on the Falling Infestation?”
That would be worse. Laura could take on a monster easily, but she wasn’t so keen on being shot at by actual people. She was also sure she’d be a terrible detective.
Byron shook his head in amusement. “Do you really think the Mad Dogs are going to slip and expose their ties to that this late in the game?”
“Everyone says they’re cocky, and they’ve got most of the northern Fifth Quarter on lockdown,” said Laura.
“They didn’t lock down that area on luck or brute force alone. They’re clever. We’re a long way from proving anything on the Falling Infestation.”
“Then is there another mobster plan in the works we should know about?” said Laura.
“The situation here has nothing to do with mobsters, and it’s not an infestation.”
Laura and Okane shared an uneasy look. “Really? Then I’ve got no idea what you’d need us for.”
“It’s a bit complicated, but rest assured, you are exactly the professionals I need right now,” Byron replied. “Come with me this way. I’ll show you.”
He led them still farther from the cameras, almost to the end of the depot itself.
A small, square building stood between platforms eleven and twelve, bearing a door marked EMPLOYEES ONLY. Presumably it housed a break room or office for station workers. Byron knocked twice. After a moment it opened a crack. A woman in the depot’s red uniform peeked out. She took in Byron and the two Sweepers behind him with suspicion.
“We’re expected,” said Byron.
“If you’re looking for the timetables, you’re in the wrong place. Go back to the ticket booths,” said the worker.
“You don’t recognize the detective you personally called?” said Byron.
“You’re the ex-policeman?” The worker deliberated a moment, then opened the door further so they could enter. “Fine. I trust you can pick your company well. Come in, but do it fast.”
They entered without further ado. As she passed, Laura noticed that the worker held a rifle under her arm, and her eyes flicked back and forth in such a nervous way that one would expect a cavalry to appear in pursuit of her. She closed the door and bolted it once they were all inside. Another depot worker stood deeper in with a matching firearm; luckily the muzzle wasn’t pointed at them, but at three people who sat around a small break table. The three seated people all had ash smeared across their cheeks; not the by-product of mining, but more as if they’d swiped the remnants of a campfire to mask something on their faces. Likewise, their clothes weren’t anything like a miner’s, or even the depot workers’. Two of them wore heavy uniforms with the shadow of a ripped-off crest, laden further with straps, buckles, and bags of supplies, and most importantly, long sheaths at the belts to hold familiar magical blades. The last member of the group was probably the roughest-looking—where the others had obviously prepared for a long trek, she wore regular civilian clothes, tattered and dusty from a journey that had certainly not been by train. Despite her shabby appearance, this last member clapped her hands in delight at the sight of them. Laura recognized her immediately.
“Zelda?” she gasped.
“How sweet!” Zelda cooed. “The dream team remembers me!”
How could Laura forget? Zelda had led them through Rex on their ill-planned rescue. They’d parted outside the city limits, and despite the mention of a reward, Zelda said she had another task to attend to. Laura hadn’t expected to see her again. Come to think of it, she’d seen the man sitting beside Zelda too: Ivo had aided them in Rex’s Sweeper headquarters. The third member, slight and blond with painfully green eyes, was a total mystery.
“They said they knew you,” said the worker at the door. “Mr. Rhodes, they mentioned you by name.”
“Yes, you mentioned that much over the telephone,” said Byron, striding closer. He stood in the very middle of the room to eye them all. “This fits into the situation as I understand it already. It appears they’re also familiar with the Sinclair family.”
Laura shot a glance at the station workers, but they didn’t seem at all intrigued by the mention.
Zelda grinned. “Isn’t that Sinclair a shining example of manhood? I gave him a glowing review.”
“It was crystal clear,” Byron said dryly, and Laura groaned at the awful joke.
“But why are - - - here?” said Okane. “Why would - - - come all the way to Amicae and then let - - -rselves get caught?”
Because they had. Zelda was a Magi, but while most Magi could temporarily boost their speed, strength, balance, or sensing, she could erase herself. Anyone not specifically looking for her or the people beside her wouldn’t pick up on their presence at all. She could’ve walked to the Cynder Block and knocked directly on Laura’s door, but no; here she sat in a train office, mashed between a pair of possible invaders and the depot switchboard, with guns pointed at her and an investigator watching every move. She looked quite pleased with herself.
Copyright © 2021 by Mirah Bolender
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