An alien ruin
A murdered archeologist
An ancient secret—and a conspiracy that will kill to keep it.
When a scientist is murdered after finding signs of alien magic in an archeological dig, Mage Damien Montgomery, Hand of the Mage-King of Mars, is sent to investigate both the murder and the alien runes.
His investigation is interrupted when a mysterious ship attacks the ruins with weapons only available to the Martian Navy. Despite saving the dig site, Montgomery is left with more questions than answers.
His investigations reveal questions about the origin of his magic and his nation—and lead him back to the one place that should be safe: the court of the Mage-King of Mars.
Professor Yoshi Kurosawa, Mage, Rune Scribe, and holder of PhDs in xenoarchaeology from several of Mars’s most prestigious universities, would not have described himself as bored. He had an entire centuries-old alien facility to investigate.
But after a year in the Andala System, digging through the scraps and the wreckage of what had once been someone’s refueling station, Yoshi was starting to wish they would find something interesting.
The Rune Scribe was on Andala IV because the ruin there was the only evidence humanity had ever found of aliens with interstellar travel—and humanity only traveled the stars by the magic of the Jump Mages and their runic jump matrices.
He’d hoped, when he’d agreed to the placement, to find alien runes in the wreckage. The complex wasn’t small, after all. Six domes, each over six hundred meters across, on top of an underground structure that stretched dozens of levels into the ground.
It had been a refueling station once. They hadn’t found any evidence of gas extraction facilities at the gas giant in the system, but the ruins had once contained massive, billion-liter tanks of hydrogen. Their contents were long evaporated now, but the tanks remained.
Checking his breather, Yoshi wandered deeper into the ruins. While the humans had attached a prefabricated habitat to the alien dome that had been the focus of their investigations so far, the planet’s atmosphere was toxic to humans. There was enough oxygen in it to be breathed, though, so simply filtering out the high carbon monoxide and carbon dioxide content was enough for humans to survive.
The domes were mostly intact and had shielded their interior structures and the underground tunnels from the planet’s weather. Over three years of investigation, the archaeologists had cleared and cataloged twelve floors and subbasements of three of the domes.
Water and collapsed tunnels had stopped them going deeper. The current plan was to clear and catalog every dome as deep as they could go, which frustrated Yoshi to no end.
He’d seen the drone video of the rest of the complex. There were no runes there, not even where there should be. No gravity runes. No defensive spells. No emergency atmospheric magic. None of the things that humanity would have included in this facility.
It was possible, of course, that the aliens did have a technological method of faster-than-light travel, in which case they wouldn’t have the magic that Yoshi wanted to find. Except that the technology they had found was no more advanced than humanity’s—cruder, in many cases, than modern human tech.
Yoshi wasn’t supposed to come down and stare at the collapsed tunnels leading deeper into the alien base. As he was one of the most senior scientists and the only Mage in the research team, though, there wasn’t really anyone to tell him not to.
The walls around him were smooth rock, either cut or smoothed by lasers long enough before that humanity hadn’t even had the technology. Some failure of design or intervention of nature in the centuries since had first bowed and then shattered the roof of the curving stairwell leading deeper into the underground complex.
Magic twitched in his hands, the Gift of his Martian bloodline itching to serve his curiosity, and Yoshi laughed softly to himself. Opening up the lower levels would take time and energy for the rest of the Expedition. They would bring in heavy equipment and carefully remove the rubble, shoring up the roof with supports and bracing.
He could just…open it.
There were a hundred reasons why he shouldn’t, but at that moment, deep in the bowels of an alien base that utterly refused to reveal its secrets to him, none of them came to mind.
Softly humming to himself through the breather, Yoshi gave in to temptation. Power flowed through his body as he carefully considered the debris, continuing to hum as he reached out his hands and unleashed the energies he commanded.
Yoshi Kurosawa was a Martian-born Mage by Blood, born to one of the oldest families of Mages and descended directly from the survivors of the Eugenicists’ Project Olympus. For all that he was an old man now and had been an academic his entire life, he was a powerful Mage.
The fallen stones bent to his will. They lifted, adjusting and merging together to form a new supporting archway through the debris. It wasn’t large, just enough for Yoshi himself to walk through, and he wasn’t a tall man.
A few minutes of magic, an exertion of will no one else in the research team could match, and a tired-but-pleased Yoshi walked through his new tunnel to see what secrets the debris had hidden.
At first, his light fell on the same smoothed stone and ancient light fixtures that had been present on the other side of the cave-in, but he hadn’t expected anything different.
Carefully and gently, he walked deeper into spaces where no human had ever set foot. His breather warned him the air here was different from outside. Staler. It still had enough oxygen for the machine to function, though, so he carried on.
Turning a corner, however, he stepped into an open gallery, and his breather calmly informed him it was now redundant. Surprised, he checked the readings on the device through his wrist computer. The air still wasn’t perfect for human consumption, but it was far closer than it had been even a few steps back. The carbon dioxide and carbon monoxide had been reduced to levels that wouldn’t harm him.
Yoshi looked around him. Someone, long before, had gone to a lot of effort to make the gallery look as welcoming as a two-hundred-meter-long cavern could. He stood on a balcony around a third floor, looking down at a floor ten meters below, centered around what had clearly been some kind of fountain. Murals of strange and alien trees, now flaking and faded, had been painted on the walls.
Part of the roof had collapsed at some point in the intervening centuries, leaving debris scattered across what had once been some kind of market concourse, but this had clearly been a place for rest and relaxation for visiting ships’ crews—and had been set up to preserve atmosphere somehow.
Yoshi knelt next to the murals, brushing aside debris and dirt as he searched for what he knew had to be there. No technological solution could have lasted this long.
It wasn’t in the murals, he realized after a moment. It was in the safety railing. The safety barrier around the balcony had been laser-carved from the original stone, and the top layer then bleached white—and inlaid with familiar silver runes.
“Yes!” Yoshi shouted aloud, pulling his camera around to take pictures and record everything. It wasn’t much—just a simple spell to maintain atmosphere in this massive space—but they were runes. Still-functioning runes of an alien race.
He was starting to salivate over the potential lessons humanity could learn from studying a completely different species’s approach to magic when his computer happily started popping up recognition notes for the matrix.
He stared in shock as his computer happily translated the matrix into normal human diagram summaries. It recognized the symbols. That was impossible.
Dropping to his knees once more, Yoshi Kurosawa studied the silver inlay with a critical eye. Looking for it now, he saw what his computer, following its basic programming, had seen instantly. The runes weren’t alien. They weren’t even just similar to the Martian Runic script humanity used.
It was Martian Runic.
But no being of any kind had set foot in these buried lower levels since before humanity had relearned magic. They’d dated the debris—the tunnel he’d opened had collapsed before Martian Runic had been invented…which meant…
“Damn,” a voice murmured softly behind him. “I’m sorry, Professor. I’d really hoped you wouldn’t find anything.”
Yoshi jerked back to his feet, turning to find Samara Hollins behind him. His tall, athletic student wore the same breather as he did—but instead of carrying a light, she was wearing light-gathering optics. Military gear that would have enabled her to sneak through the abandoned base without being seen.
“What are you doing here, Samara?” he asked, then shook it aside in the excitement of his discovery. “Come take a look at this,” he told her. “These runes! They’re Martian Runic—exactly. That means…”
“I know,” she cut him off coldly. “I know what they are, I know what that means. I don’t suppose I could convince you to stay quiet about this?”
Yoshi stared at her in shock.
“This is the find of a lifetime!” he snapped. “What can you possibly mean, stay quiet about it?!”
In answer, his student conjured blue witch fire around her hands—burning off both the gloves she wore and another layer of skin-toned covering he’d never realized she wore. A chill ran down Yoshi’s spine as he realized Samara had a projector rune carved into her hand—a rune only given to Combat Mages.
“You’re a Mage?” he demanded. “I don’t understand.”
“I was sent here to make sure no one discovered what you just found, Professor,” she said sadly. “If you will not keep silent, then my orders are to silence you.”
Witch fire flashed from her hand, but she’d talked for too long and Yoshi was no fool. A shield of frozen air flashed into existence between them, Yoshi backing away as he drew on half-forgotten training to try to defend himself.
More fire hammered against his shield, and a tug of force tore his feet out from underneath him. The old professor fell, feeling his bones snap as he slammed into ancient stone.
“I’m sorry, Professor,” Samara said gently. “But there are secrets I am sworn to keep.”
Yoshi Kurosawa would not die on his knees. Power flashed through him, lines of force supporting old and broken limbs as he rose to his feet once more and attacked. Waves of pure force flashed across the space between them, throwing Samara back as he struggled to remain standing.
She used magic to control her movement, twisting in the air to land on her feet like a cat and then sending more fire hammering back at him.
Focused on standing, he’d dropped the shield. Witch fire hammered into his flesh, setting muscles and nerves alike on fire. Somehow, he remained up and flung lightning and force back at her.
She dodged, sidestepping his wild attack with the ease of practice. Whatever Samara Hollins was, she was not a xenoarchaeology grad student!
Her counterstrike hammered into a hastily raised shield, force and flame flinging him backward. Yoshi barely had time to realize the only thing behind him was the railing when he slammed the old carved stone with an echoing snap.
It was only when his legs and hands refused to respond to him that he realized he’d snapped his back in multiple places against the safety railing. He tried to summon his magic, bring himself back to his knees, but only sputters of power answered him.
Then he was rising, but not under his power. He looked down at Samara, who held him suspended in the air.
“Dammit, Yoshi,” she whispered, “you could have been one of us.”
Then she threw him over the balcony.