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Emma L Adams

Catalyst: The Alliance Series Book 5 (Paperback)

Catalyst: The Alliance Series Book 5 (Paperback)

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Book 5 of 6: The Alliance Series

Kay and Ada achieved the impossible and defeated the StoneKing, but only they know about the terrible dangers beyond the Inter-World Alliance’s borders — and within them.

All Kay wanted was to escape the shadow of his father, Lawrence Walker, the former council member responsible for dooming Ada’s homeworld to destruction. But now Walker is back, his plans more ruthless than ever, and the world he left behind might be the final catalyst for a cross-world war.

Kay and Ada race against the clock to stop Walker and save a world from the deadly trap that cost Kay’s mother her life. With the Alliance turning on itself and Ada’s homeworld threatening war, Kay and Ada must overcome their most dangerous adversary yet before it tears the Multiverse apart.

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“You’re absolutely sure they aren’t going to eat us?” asked Raj, one of the Inter-World Alliance’s Ambassadors for Earth. We stood on the threshold of Cethrax, the most notorious world in the Multiverse, and for once in a lifetime, it wasn’t because of some atrocity committed by one of their runaway monsters.

Didn’t mean I’d trust them not to dismember us if we got too close. “Can’t say for sure,” I said, “but even they wouldn’t be stupid enough to attack Ambassadors. Especially given the situation.”

‘The situation’ being the reason we were there in the first place: a potential cross-world war. To be honest, if I’d ever imagined a war with any other worlds in the Multiverse, I’d have expected Cethrax to be on the opposing team. Firstly, because they hated the Alliance. Secondly, because they hated everyone else, too.

When I joined the Alliance last summer, if anyone had told me I’d ever be making a trip into Cethrax’s territory, I’d have told them they were talking crap. Or just laughed. It went against common sense, not to mention survival instinct. Cethrax’s monsters were predators. And humans were their prey.

But, for once in a lifetime, we had a common enemy. I finished sketching Cethrax’s symbol—a wyvern’s handprint—on the wall of the Passage with the end of a thin black-glass-looking stick, a world-key, and pulled back. The wall glowed in the patch around the symbols I’d drawn, an arrowhead pointing to the right, and two others I wasn’t sure of the meaning, and a rectangular door opened in the wall. I nodded to the others—Raj and Iriel, fellow Earth Ambassadors, along with representatives from six other allied worlds and two council members—and we entered the monsters’ lair.

Cethrax as I’d experienced it was an uninspiring place of swamp and mud and the occasional beaten-up-looking stone building, so it was somewhat jarring to open a doorway right into the heart of a city… of a sort. The central point was what looked like a pile of garbage—bits of rock and wood and god-knew-what-else heaped on each other to form a fifty-foot stack. Had to be the palace. Rather than putting in windows, the Cethraxians simply kicked a piece of the wall away whenever they wanted to take a look outside, evidenced by the number of holes in the construction. Apparently it hadn’t occurred to them that at some point, the entire structure would collapse on them.

Hopefully we’d be lucky enough to avoid it happening while we were here.

The palace was the home of the Vox, who, for the first time in a hundred years, had agreed to meet with Alliance representatives on his own territory. Considering Cethrax usually responded to any incidents involving escaped monsters wreaking havoc in the Passages with blank indifference or outright threats, I supposed to most people, this plan was a long shot. But I’d seen the Vox, leader of this area of Cethrax, subdued by a monster even more powerful, and by freeing him with Ada’s help, earned a favour from the king of the swamp. Granted, he’d already allowed us access to his territory in exchange, but only to stop the same monsters enslaving him from destroying the Multiverse. Generally, the only way to get through to the monsters was to threaten them with bodily harm. It was the one language they understood.

Unfortunately, knowing that wouldn’t make negotiations any easier.

Raj shook his head at the palace. “Place is going to come down around our ears,” he said. “That is, if they don’t lock us in a dungeon.”

“Ever the optimist,” said Iriel, the other Ambassador.

“You did memorise the guidebook, didn’t you?” I spoke in an undertone. “Talk legal speak at them and it’ll put them to sleep. Besides, we’ve common ground.”

“Because you almost blew the place up.”

“Hmm.” That was one way of putting it. Our common enemy, the Stoneskins, were monsters with skin made of unbreakable adamantine. They’d enslaved the Vox and used Cethrax’s doorways indiscriminately, trying to find a way to break into a world that had been locked off because of a worlds-spanning magical war. They’d almost wiped out the Multiverse in the process, and Cethrax could no longer deny they were in way over their heads. The monster-ridden lower levels of the Passages had been a nuisance as long as the Alliance had been around, but no one guessed the monsters hadn’t been acting alone. Something had been influencing them. Either we ignored the problem and hoped it didn’t happen again, or took the initiative and made a deal with the devil. Or rather, the Vox.

Shadowy shapes moved through the mess of discarded metal and tree and rock surrounding the central palace. Ramshackle stone houses belonged to the goblin-like foot-soldiers, while the smaller variations of the vox-kind had been kicked out of the city before we were due to arrive because of their unpredictable habit of attacking people. We were armed, of course, with adamantine daggers and Valeria’s new stun-guns designed to pierce even the stony hide of a chalder vox, but the whole point of our visit was to avoid hostility.

The higher council members took the lead, as they’d apparently been here before. Zan Izen was Klathican, a war survivor with cybernetic replacements for both arms and an enhanced-sight upgrade to one eye, giving it an unnatural pale blue glow. Then there was Alexis Greene, Valeria’s leading council member, who insisted on wearing shoes with hover-tech built in so she didn’t have to walk through the swamp. The representatives of the other allied worlds followed. Earth’s council had been forced to remain at Central, locked in videocall meetings with the Republic of Thairon, as they had been for the past week.

Right now, I’d rather think about the monsters than anything to do with Thairon.

“Also,” Raj said, his voice dropping as we got closer to the palace, “we’ve killed quite a lot of them. Just saying.”

“True.” When Cethrax’s monsters trespassed into the Passages, they’d attack any human unlucky enough to stumble into them. Alliance guard patrols were trained to show no mercy to any opponent from Cethrax unless they planned on taking up a new existence as a human-shaped mural on the Passage wall. Besides, Cethrax didn’t show much more kindness towards its residents than people from Earth. This became evident when the leading council members finally tracked down the palace’s door—or rather, a hole in the wall where one of the vox-kind had clearly barrelled through it, leaving a gap the size of a large boulder. The entryway—if it could really be called that—was filled with skulls that looked like they belonged to dreyvern or ravegens, the smaller goblin-like creatures which roamed through Cethrax.

Oh, crap. Those rocks lying around definitely weren’t rocks, but sleeping vox-kind. I made a mental note to assume anything unmoving was alive unless proven otherwise.

Alexis Greene looked back at the group as though hoping someone else would go into the palace first. When no volunteers were forthcoming, she went in, hand twitching in the direction of the magic-gun at her waist. Valeria’s residents were allowed to carry weapons offworld, though use of most was forbidden in the Passages, on the quite reasonable grounds that weaponry was liable to explode in the user’s face.

Personally, I thought daggers were a safer bet.

The inside of the palace was all one floor, and looked no different to outside apart from the mud on the floor being trodden down. It was dim to the point of near-darkness, and I had to take out my communicator and switch on the torchlight app to keep from tripping over anything in the dark. Like sleeping chalder voxes, for instance. Cethrax’s inhabitants apparently had night vision. That, or no common bloody sense.

The dark made the ceiling feel lower and the walls closer than they actually were. We walked through to the centre of the room where a dark wooden table was set up surrounded by lumps of rock. No one sat down in case their seat grew teeth and ate them.

At the head of the table was a being the size of a small bungalow. The Vox was the largest and ugliest of its kind, though also the most intelligent—not that ‘intelligent’ was generally a word used to refer to Cethrax. The monster blinked eyes the size of plates, looking down at us as though wondering why a group of humans had wandered into its lair.

Raj swore in an undertone and tried to conceal himself in the middle of the group. I didn’t blame him. If I’d had a normal person’s sense of self-preservation, I’d probably have done the same. The curse of being a magic-wielder was inevitably getting landed with the most dangerous missions.

Greene cleared her throat. “We are here to negotiate with Vox Grarl Char-Ferven of the Janx territory, at his own request in the presence of the undergods of Cethrax, in order to discuss the Alliance’s future working partnerships with himself and those in his territory.”

I had to hand it to her for not flinching when the Vox moved one long, thick hand towards us, made some gesture, then returned to his boulder-like stillness. He opened a mouth filled with teeth the length of human arms and laughed.

“You dared to come to my territory?”

Crap. Guess the bugger had changed his mind after all. My hand twitched towards my dagger, sheathed in my sleeve. The Vox had few weak points, but they weren’t invincible—unlike the monsters that had enslaved him.

And we’d beaten even them.

Throwing caution aside, I stepped in. “Yes,” I said, “seeing as you asked to speak to us, in light of the Stoneskins using your territory freely to open illegal doorways and risk the destruction of your world, after they’d already enslaved yourself and killed your subjects. Now we’ve dealt with that particular threat, there remains the issue of the war, and the Alliance would like to extend an offer of understanding so we may protect all of our worlds from destruction.”

The council members had stepped back to let me speak, looking undeniably relieved. I figured they’d assumed, like me, I’d have the best shot at convincing him seeing as I’d already proved I would keep my word.

Maybe not. His expression didn’t change.

“Protect us?” The Vox’s rumbling laugh shook the whole palace. “You humans should worry about protecting yourselves. You have done us no favours in the past.”

I stuck to my argument. “That’s why we want to make an alliance with you now. Before anything else happens to threaten us. We killed the trespassers in the Passages because they were acting on the orders of the StoneKing. He’s dead now, so we can work out an understanding.”

“You really think you can erase a thousand years of history?”

I looked him in the eyes. “No. But you were the one who called a meeting.”

“I have had,” said the Vox, “a change of heart.”

Alarmed looks crossed the other Ambassadors’ faces.

“That’s unfortunate.”

“For you, that is.”


The stone-seats all shifted in unison, and I was doubly glad none of us had sat down. Our group began to back away. Nobody bolted for it, thankfully. We had a plan.

“Beginning to regret this venture?” asked the Vox.

Yeah. Luckily, we’d figured the odds were in favour of the bastard turning on us, and had come prepared. In unison, we each drew out a small metal device, turned heel, and made for the door. The magic buzzed against my skin as I amplified the metal in my hand, hoping to god it worked for the others. The new sciras-shields ran on magic-based batteries, but I had the added advantage of being an amplifier as well as a magic-wielder.

I felt the Vox’s eyes on my back as we left. Probably confused as to why we didn’t seem threatened. If any of them attacked us, they’d find out. We’d obviously thrown them for a loop because we’d almost made it to the door before the Vox roared, “Do you think me a fool, humans?”

Not gonna answer that.

A chalder vox, seven feet tall and ugly as sin, lumbered in front of the door to block the way. The creature resembled a chunk of walking concrete on three stumpy legs. The Ambassadors leading the group were already on the case. They brought the beast down with two well-placed strikes to the jaw, sending it stumbling in confusion. The sciras-shield devices were the Alliance’s newest gadget and temporarily made us sort-of-invincible. That is, we could take a hit from a monster and not die, and were more than a match for the vox-kind. Usually you had to use stealth to take down the monsters, rather than head-on combat.

“What in the name of the undergods is this?” howled the Vox, and there came an ominous slithering sound. Bastard was following us. Kicking the chalder vox’s prone concrete-like body aside, the Ambassadors led the way through the door.

Vox-kind of all sizes had assembled outside, shambling heaps of rock coming to life. A dozen pairs of angry black eyes fixed on our team.

“Shit,” I said, abandoning all notion of getting out without breaking records for the worst negotiations meeting in the history of the Alliance.

I scanned the city for a likely route back to the doorway which would get all of us through unharmed. At least I’d opened a door too small for any of those monstrosities to escape through. Nodding at the Klathican council member on my right, Zan Izen, we prepared to confront the group. The Vox himself had slipped into shadow-form to leave the palace, re-forming in the middle of his subjects, starting with his gigantic head ten feet off the ground. A horn curved either side of its grinning face. He was even taller without the palace to contain him.

“Now,” I whispered, and in unison, all of us magic-wielders held up the metal talismans we’d used to become temporarily invincible. Letting the effect fade, I sent a jolt of magic into the metal. It had taken many explosions to find a suitable source to use this magic trick on without blowing everyone up, but now, every magic source lit up like a blinding white beacon. Our eyes were used to magic. The Vox’s were not.

The smaller vox-kind flailed, rubbing their eyes to clear the flash. Even the giant shadowy Vox was momentarily stunned, and we took the opportunity to run like hell.

Our feet pounded on the swampy ground. The door to the Passages was only feet away, and I flung myself through it, switching the amplifier from the sciras to the world-key I’d drawn with my other hand. Amplifying the world-key, I made the doorway open wider. Once everyone was through, I closed it, cutting off the monsters giving chase. Silence followed.

Raj collapsed next to me, leaning on the Passage wall. “That was a close call. I knew bargaining with those vox-kind was a bad idea.”

“That’s one way of putting it.” Iriel was somewhat more composed, as a trained magic-wielder. “We never should have trusted him.”

“It was worth a try.” I pocketed the source and the world-key. In response to Raj’s splutter of incredulity, I said, “Come on. The Alliance doesn’t need any more enemies to deal with. For all we know, refusing the offer of a meeting might have pissed the Vox off even more.”

“I get your point,” said Raj as we turned to head into the main corridor of the Passages. Even with the doorway closed, I wanted to put as much distance between us and the swamp as possible.

“It makes no sense, I admit,” I said. “Total change of heart… I reckon someone might have bribed him. Or coerced.”

“Impossible. The Stoneskins are dead.” Iriel walked alongside us, her cyber-eye rotating in its socket. “Who else can threaten the Vox?”

“Technically, they fell into the abyss,” I said. “They didn’t die. If they found a way back to Cethrax…” It’d be our fault. My fault. I’d been the one to open the abyss, while Ada and the other Alliance guards fighting the Stoneskins had pushed as many of them as possible over the edge. Those who’d fled had been arrested on Valeria and locked up.

The other Ambassadors and council members split up as we reached the main corridor of the Passages. Zan Izen and Klathica’s other delegates headed to the mecha-guarded door to the Klathican Embassy, while Greene went through one of many doorways to Valeria. Meanwhile, Raj, Iriel and I headed for the smaller corridor to the side, which led to the Passage door behind Central.

I’d expected my boss, Ms Weston, to meet us in the Passages for debriefing, but instead an irate-looking Carl, head of Central’s guards, accosted us.

“Are the council…?” I started.

“Still occupied,” he answered. “I take it the mission didn’t go as planned?”

“The Vox said he had a change of heart and ran us out of the swamp,” I said.

“As expected,” said Carl, shaking his head. “At least some of the guards who made bets will be happy.”

“Wait, they bet we’d get eaten?” asked Raj indignantly.

Carl shrugged. “I couldn’t stop them. It was the first mission into Cethrax in years, and you all came back in one piece. You’re free to go now.”

“It wasn’t a total bust,” said Raj, as we walked back to the main Passage corridor. “At least we get to go offworld now. Or get horribly drunk and forget all about it.”

“Hmm. I think I’d rather ride a hover bike.” My words received a predictable incredulous reaction. “Come on, you can’t deny the risk factor’s lower than Cethrax’s swamp.”

“No, you’re right, I can’t,” said Raj. “That was too close. You’re going to Valeria now?”

I nodded. “Might as well. I arranged to meet Ada there.” I didn’t mention I intended to spend as little time on Earth as possible. Like most people, Raj hadn’t made the connection between the recent announcement of negotiations re-opening with Thairon and a certain council member who’d been off-grid for the past five years, but it was only a matter of time.

People stared as I headed through the crowded main Passage to Valeria’s door. I shook off the paranoia. They had good reason to stare at me, and it didn’t mean they’d found out about Thairon. I’d opened the Alliance’s eyes to the threat of the Stoneskins—not to mention crashed an invisible car into a wall outside Cethrax. 

If not for the more present threat of a potential upcoming war, I was pretty sure most of the Alliance members who’d witnessed what happened would want to avoid me, the unhinged magic-wielder who’d trodden a very fine line between necessary risk and breaking every law in the Multiverse into pieces. As it was, Dr Helm, creator of the invisible car in question, had pressured Valeria’s Alliance into issuing a cross-world statement detailing the recent events in a way that made sense to the public. Usually the word “magic” was enough for people on Earth. 

Even I couldn’t explain everything, and I was the freaking walking amplifier.

I entered Valeria through the normal-person route, on the ground. The guards at the doorway entrance stared at me and scrutinised my Alliance ID, but let me through. Valeria had been particularly affected by the damage the Stoneskins had done, firstly when two of them had gone on a rampage after falling through a doorway to the city, and secondly when it had become the site of a vicious standoff between the Alliance and the Stoneskins. Even in a city where magic-centred chaos was the norm, security was on another level, and the abundance of enforcement squads on the streets and outside most buildings was unsurprising. The hover-racetrack was surrounded by armed guards.

A familiar figure waited behind the glass walls meant to keep the racers from rampaging outside the track. Ada, Alliance novice-in-training and the single most remarkable person I knew. She’d only recently returned to Earth after being kidnapped by the StoneKing—which just scratched the surface of the messed up things we’d been through in the few months we’d known each other. Yet here she was, on a world she’d damn near died on, alive and ready to give the middle finger to the next dickhead who tried to hurt her for her magic. I admired the hell out of her.

I paused for a moment just to watch her, to feel the all-consuming relief that she was alive. I knew every detail of her face, the way she absently chewed on her bottom lip, the fall of her slightly-tousled dyed red hair. One foot rested on her ankle as she leaned on the railing. She hadn’t seen me yet.

Beside her stood Simon, my old friend from the Academy. I’d asked him to keep Ada company if she wanted to go offworld. She hadn’t objected like she might have before. Ada was more than capable of handling herself, of course, but it was better to be on caution’s side.

A hover car zoomed overhead, one of hover-tech’s latest models. A couple of people noticed me and waved. I wasn’t sure whether it was because they’d witnessed my stunts here at the track before, or because they recognised me as the legend who’d crashed an invisible car into a Passage wall. Either way, I’d rather be recognised as that guy than Lawrence Walker’s son.

I walked over to Ada and Simon. She looked up, and the way her face lit up was enough to send any thoughts of Walker scurrying out of sight. She’d worn her faux-leather-style guard gear, a sensible precaution when travelling offworld… and one that also made her even more damned irresistible.

“Just make out already,” Simon called from the side-lines as I approached Ada. I gave him the finger. Ada met me halfway and kissed me on the mouth, to the sound of wolf-whistles from the hover-track.

“Nice to see you, too,” Simon said loudly. “Cethrax didn’t eat you?”

“They tried,” I said. “Seems they think the Alliance are behind the war. They want no part in it.”

“Shit, really?” asked Ada.

“Ah, crap,” said Simon. “I mean, I wasn’t keen on the idea of fighting alongside those treacherous vermin, but I’d rather be with them than against them.”

“Exactly,” I said. “I get the feeling something else is influencing the Vox.”

Ada’s eyes widened. “Not… the Stoneskins?” She spoke in a quiet voice, and anger curled within me at the memory of the damage they’d done to her. They couldn’t be dead enough, in my book.

“Can’t be,” I said, “but I don’t like it.”

“Nor me,” Ada said. “What’ll happen now? I guess the Alliance weren’t banking on Cethrax saying yes, right?”

“No clue.” I shrugged. “More meetings, I’ve no doubt. Cethrax is on shaky ground as it is, but I’d have thought they’d at least take the idea of a cross-world war seriously. They know they can be wiped out as easily as the rest of us.”

With magic, the counter-effect rule applied even in a world like Cethrax, where the inhabitants themselves couldn’t use magic. The principle stated that if you used magic, it hit you back with equal power. Unleash a magic source at level three and it killed anything it hit. Whole universes had been reduced to scorched wastelands through third level magic. Even Earth, which had no magic, had had enough close calls of its own.

“Cethrax doesn’t take anything seriously,” said Simon. “Doubt any of the higher-ups really thought the Vox’s promise meant shit.”

“Probably not,” said Ada. “It’s still a pain, if they made you go to all that trouble. Did they chase you off?”

“Pretty much,” I said, turning back to the hover track. “Anything interesting happen here?”

“There’ve been five crashes and one arrest,” said Simon.


“Nothing serious,” said Ada. “Someone trying to sell hover-enhancements to offworlders.”

“That guy?” I rolled my eyes. “He tried to sell me one of those for my bike. Guess they’re cracking down on that kind of thing.” Using Valeria’s technology on low-magic worlds was not a wise move. Their hover-tech tended to explode when taken away from the magic that fuelled its batteries. True, I had taken Dr Helm’s chameleon car into the Passages and onto Cethrax, but magic existed there where it didn’t on Earth. Also, it had been an emergency. The Alliance weren’t best pleased with how many people had found out about it, but to be honest, it had been forgotten in the aftermath—most people found the idea of a potential war more alarming than a runaway hover car.

Speaking of… I caught sight of Dr Helm on the other side of the track. “What’s he doing here?”

Simon shrugged. “Beats me. Maybe he wants to branch out into invisible bikes.”

“Maybe.” But considering he had a bunch of Stoneskins held captive in his lab, I’d have thought he’d be more concerned with questioning them. Then again, he’d had enough time already. “He’s coming this way.”

Dr Helm’s shell-like protective suit would have attracted stares were it not for its similarity to Valeria’s police force’s uniform, and there were plenty of them around. Only his face was uncovered.

“I thought I recognised you,” he said to Simon. “You aren’t here for another car, are you?”

“Just browsing,” said Simon. 

“Ada, this is Dr Helm,” I added.

“The owner of the invisible car?” Ada smiled. “It saved my life.”

Dr Helm blinked. “Well… I guess that almost makes up for the damages. I did succeed in replicating the model, but we’ve yet to test it in practise.”

“I’m surprised to see you on the streets,” Simon commented.

“We were evacuated due to refurbishments.” He sounded like he thought the very idea was distasteful. “The police are insisting on relocating the prisoners, too. I admit I found those Stoneskins a rather distracting presence in the lab, but I would have liked to have had a say in the decision.”

“Yeah, can’t imagine they were good company,” I said. “Did you get any other information out of them?” I asked. “Like…” I dropped my voice. “Why they targeted your lab.” The Stoneskins had been furious, blaming the scientists for whatever experiment had turned them into adamantine-coated monsters, and Dr Helm and the others had seemed genuine when they’d denied it. I’d learned to tell when someone was lying. They really hadn’t known. The question was… who did they mean?

After checking no one was close enough to overhear, Dr Helm said, “They mentioned they were part of a project, but there was never such a project at our lab. We took the name from our sister company in Klathica.”

“That’s where they were from,” Ada cut in. “I forgot—I totally forgot. With everything that happened…”

“It’s okay,” I said. “I know you told the Alliance everything important.” Our supervisor, Ms Weston, insisted on detailed reports, but it was impossible for Ada to remember every tiny detail of her time with the Stoneskins. Amanda, Ms Weston’s sister, had put her foot down and said Ada shouldn’t have to relive it. Even though we needed as much information as possible if we wanted to prevent a similar attack from ever happening again.

Ada shifted her feet, subtly, but I noticed. A sudden unease prickled the back of my neck. Had she told the Alliance everything important? Ada wouldn’t hide the truth on purpose. But I had good reason to avoid the company’s sister branch on Klathica, especially now.

“Yeah,” she said, “of course. But they did mention Klathica. That wasn’t the world they said the experiment was on, though. They said they were created on Thairon.”

My heart missed a beat, then sank, hard, like someone had punched me in the chest. Thairon was the world my father would be returning from. The world the Alliance was in negotiations with. And the world my mother had died on.

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