Chapter 1 1
THIS IS THE part where I hesitate.
Logically, I know I’ll be fine. I’ve escaped half a dozen times, no problem. Wards are barrier magic, but the one outside my bedroom window was cast to keep intruders out, not to lock occupants in.
Still… it feels like a smart idea to test the silent, shimmering curtain of light that surrounds the Lodge before I fling my whole body through it. Just in case.
I raise a hand to the open window and press until my palm hits aether. The silver-blue ward flares at my touch, but doesn’t put up a fight. Instead, it ripples in a sluggish wave over my knuckles and wrist. Prickly and warm, but harmless. My fingertips ease through the iridescent layer to meet crisp night air on the other side. When I withdraw my hand, the magic calms again.
The wind picks up, blowing a wave of harsh scents in my face: Bright, spicy cinnamon. Warm whiskey. Smoke from long-burning logs.
Sel usually recasts his wards in the early evening before Shadowborn activity rises, so his aether signature is still fresh. He can only place barriers around specific and immobile locations. Buildings, circles of land, a room. I was moved into the Lodge—against my wishes—precisely because it sits behind a fortress of protective wards. This one in particular wraps the brick and stone and is stronger than the ones he used to cast, making it impossible for someone to enter the home without the assistance of a Legendborn or Merlin.
I’ve only been the Scion of Arthur for a month and already I know a little of what Nick must have felt his whole life. Stifled. Trapped. Powerful and powerless, all at the same time. Restless.
“Phew.” Another gust hits my sensitive nose. I wince and turn. Glance at the bedside alarm clock. Ten thirty.
I fall back on the bed with a huff. Sel and the Legendborn are probably just now reaching the first stop on their patrol route, the small tract of woods down near the south end of campus. No matter how hard I try to relax, my entire body is a coiled spring. Even my jaw is clenched tight while I wait.
A biting breeze blows through the open window, this time tickling my cheeks with the chill of early fall. A reminder that winter is on the way, and that time is passing us by.
I shouldn’t be here.
The same phrase runs through my mind every day. No matter where I am or what I’m doing, those words will bubble up from somewhere deep in my gut, flow up the back of my throat, and sort of… crash around in my brain.
I shouldn’t be sitting in this English classroom, listening to a lecture. I shouldn’t be eating a four-course meal in the Lodge dining room. I shouldn’t be sleeping on a soft bed, safe behind the Lodge’s walls.
I’m certain my friends have guessed what I’m feeling by now. How could they not? Greer sits beside me in that classroom, so they see my bouncing knee. They can probably tell that I’m ready to launch out of my chair at any moment. I sit down for the four-course meal, but Pete is right there at my elbow when I poke at the food on the plate and forget to eat it. When the Legendborn return at two a.m. from their late-night patrols, I am always awake, waiting at the door to greet them.
The Legendborn are in a holding pattern. I am in a holding pattern. We have been, ever since the events of the ogof y ddraig, the cave of the dragon. Ever since I—we—faced murder and betrayal and ever since bitter truths were revealed.
Ever since Nick was taken from my side as I slept, abducted by Isaac Sorenson, the powerful Kingsmage bound to Nick’s own father. No one has heard from or seen the three of them since.
Frustration lives in my stomach like a piece of coal these days—and just thinking about Nick’s capture stokes it into a painful flame, bright and familiar.
A month ago, deep under Carolina’s campus, the spirit of King Arthur Pendragon Awakened into the world—and within me, his true descendant. His Awakening signaled that Camlann, the ancient war between the Legendborn and Shadowborn forces, was coming once again. And the very next day the Regents, the current leadership of the Order of the Round Table, instructed us to do… nothing. We are to attend classes, take tests, even go to parties if we’re invited. We can’t afford to draw attention to the chapter—or to me—while the Regents’ intelligence agents gather intel about our enemies and about Nick’s capture by a well-known loyal servant. Until further notice, the Legendborn have been ordered to sit tight and stay here.
For us, here is weeks of holding our collective breath while on the brink of war. But for me, here is sitting alone inside my room in the Lodge while the Legendborn are out hunting our enemies.
My father already knew the Order as an old academic student group. Knew Nick had invited me to join. But after he found out about my sudden move to their off-campus housing, he’d demanded an explanation. It took the dean of students, my best friend Alice, and my former therapist, Patricia, to convince him the Lodge was legitimate and safe. I couldn’t tell him the whole truth, but I told him there was nowhere more secure. That’s not a lie, it’s just that…
I shouldn’t be here. I don’t want to be here.
So recently… I have decided I won’t be here.
At least for a few hours at a time.
Another glance at the clock. Ten forty-five now. That should do it.
As I climb up on the sill, I have to chuckle. Even with Arthur’s strength, I never would have considered jumping out of a two-story window if I hadn’t experienced Sel do it from three—with me on his back.
“Thank you for the inspiration, Kingsmage,” I murmur with a grin as I balance on the narrow strip of wood.
The difference between a jump and a fall? A decisive, hard push off the Lodge’s stone exterior.
“One.” I inhale. “Two.” I grit my teeth. “Three!” I jump.
When I land, I hear my trainer Gillian’s voice telling me to take the impact intentionally, bending my knees rather than locking them. Back when Gill was first training me, before I inherited Arthur’s preternatural strength, my legs couldn’t have absorbed even a half-story of shock. A jump like this would have sent all that force from the ground straight up my ankles into my knees and hips.
Now, Arthur’s strength keeps me from breaking something, but it does nothing for my balance. When I stand, I wobble a bit but manage to remain upright. Progress. I’m only one step away from the building before a voice stops me.
“He’s going to catch you one of these nights, you know.”
I twist back to see a figure emerge from the shadows. William, in a green denim jacket and blue jeans, wearing a wry smile.
“And do what?” I cross my arms. “Yell at me again?”
William’s mouth twitches. “Yes. Loudly.” He tilts his head up to my darkened window. “Not a bad jump. Or landing, for that matter. You’re acclimating to Arthur’s strength.”
“Yeah, well”—I shake my head—“strength is not enough.”
“It never is.” William would know what strength is and what it’s not. For two hours a day, he is the strongest of us all. Stronger than me. Stronger than Sel. Stronger even than Felicity, the Scion of Lamorak.
Silence. I bite my lip. “You here to stop me?” He could, if he wanted to. He probably should, but…
William sighs and slips his hands into his back pockets. “No. If I stop you, you’ll just keep sneaking out. In increasingly creative ways, I imagine.”
The first time William met me, I’d been injured by a hellhound. He healed me while I was barely conscious, without knowing my name or even asking for it. Not long after—when he knew enough to suspect that I wasn’t being fully honest about why I was joining the Order—he healed my injuries again. William understands the value of secrets and doesn’t judge others for keeping them. A blessing, really. Especially tonight.
In lieu of judging, he watches me with a mild expression, waiting for me to own up to my crimes. I sigh. “How long?”
“Have I known you’ve been sneaking out?” He nods toward my right arm. “Since Monday morning when I spotted the poorly wrapped burn on your wrist at breakfast.”
That was four days ago; the burn is mostly healed now. I tuck my arm behind me. “Thought I hid that under my sleeve.”
“You did. From everyone other than me.”
I am grateful for how much William just… knows… without saying anything. But I don’t want to discuss the burns I’m not yet skilled enough to prevent.
“Sel would have spotted it, too, if he’d seen you that day.”
“Well, he didn’t see me that day,” I mumble.
William doesn’t comment.
“I thought you’d be out patrolling with the others.” I gesture between us. “Or is this another one of y’all’s bodyguard shifts?”
“Bree.” William regards me for a long moment, letting the gentle admonishment settle like a soft weight around my shoulders. “You can’t blame us, can you?”
“No.” I look away, and repeat the lore no one will let me forget since that night in the cave. “?‘If a fully Awakened Arthur is struck down by Shadowborn blood, the Legendborn Lines will be broken forever.’ I get it.”
I didn’t plan to sneak out, not at first. But then one day last week Greer confessed that Sel had ordered the Legendborn Scions and Squires to escort me from building to building on campus. Quietly, so I wouldn’t notice that the others were protecting me from potential attacks. Secretly, so I wouldn’t get offended by their hovering.
I got offended anyway.
Hot frustration wells up even now, and I clench my fist—until my nails break the skin. I hiss and unclench immediately. Arthur’s strength is more annoying than useful when I’m not allowed to use it. I release a sigh and turn back to find William eyeing my hand. God, he notices everything.
William raises a brow. “If you get it, then why are you angry?”
“I should be able to defend myself just fine. I should fight in this war just like everyone else.”
“You will. Just not yet.” He gazes past me, along my intended path into the woods. “Heading to the arena?”
No use in hiding it. I nod.
His expression turns doubtful. Sneaking out is one secret; going to the arena alone is another. “It’s already late, and the memorial is in the morning….”
“I know.” I chew on my lip. I hadn’t forgotten the memorial. How could I? The Order’s formal ceremony for Russ, Whitty, Fitz, and Evan will be the first funeral I’ve attended since my mother’s. “I won’t be out long. Promise.”
I pout harder. “Please.”
With a sigh and an amused eye roll, he relents. “Okay.” Then, to my surprise, he steps to my side. “But if you’re going, I’ll join you.”
I blink. “You will?”
He shrugs. “Lead the way.”
We both know the path through the woods well enough that we can walk it even without my flashlight. If Sel were here, he could light the walk with a palm full of aether.
But if Sel were here, he’d be dragging me back into the house, even though his wards form a triple-layered perimeter around the Lodge now. The one at the window was just the first.
When we press through the second ward, William notices my reaction to it. My wrinkled nose and watering eyes. “That Bloodcraft ability of yours is fascinating.”
“Smelling aether?” The only Bloodcraft power readily available to me all the time is the passive ability to sense magic: Sight that allows me to see aether, touch that allows me to feel it. A nose that tells me that someone has used it in a casting.
“Not just scenting aether. The Legendborn can tell when there’s aether around and if it’s been weaponized, but you can discern between individual casters, their moods….” He shakes his head in wonder.
Vera’s Bloodcraft spell was designed, first and foremost, to help her descendants sense nearby aether users who might hunt us—Merlins, in particular.
“I’m curious.” He points back at the ward we passed. “What did you pick up just then?”
I take another breath. “It burns a bit, so Sel was angry when he cast it.”
He chuckles. Pauses. Turns my response over in his analytical, medical mind. “You sound congested. Are you allergic?”
I consider it. “No. More like… when someone walks by with really strong cologne.”
William ducks beneath a branch. “Sel does leave an impression.”
I groan. “Even when he’s not around! The wards, the Legendborn bodyguards, the demands. It’s suffocating.”
William laughs then, gray eyes sparkling.
“What?” I ask.
He smiles softly. “You sound like Nicholas.”
For the second time tonight, pain strikes me from within. Worse now, because I’d shoved it away earlier. The deep ache of losing Nick is not the obliterative wave of grief I still feel when I think of my mother, but something sharper. This grief slips between my ribs like a scalpel. A thing I gasp against but can’t prevent. The trees blur. My eyes sting. I stop walking.
Nick was right beside me when he was taken. He’d just lost his title and been betrayed by his father, and yet he chose to stay with me while I recovered in his bed. Sometimes, I think I remember the heat of his breath against my collarbone, the reassuring weight of his arm across my middle. Words, whispered into my shoulder: “You and me, B.”
“Bree.” William steps in my line of sight. His voice is low, to soothe. “We don’t have any reason to believe his father would harm him.”
I blink away the prick of tears. “Harm will find him. At this rate, well before we do.”
William chooses his words carefully. “It’s been two hundred and forty-five years since a Scion of Arthur was last Called. No one alive has ever witnessed the moment in which we are living. Everything I know of the High Council of Regents would support their being… measured. Careful in how they proceed when war is on the horizon and Onceborn lives are at stake—”
“Onceborn lives aren’t the only lives at stake,” I insist. “Nick was abducted by a murderer. His life is at stake too!”
William presses his lips into a patient line. “As is yours.”
I don’t usually argue with William, not really. But on this topic, we have gotten into a regular dance of point, counterpoint.
“Except that anyone who knows about the Order still believes that Nick is the Scion of Arthur.” I take a deep breath. “And his father and Isaac have him out there on the run with some unknown number of Shadowborn still hellbent on killing him. Which means his life is currently in far more danger than mine is.”
There is no arguing with this, and William doesn’t try to. Keeping my identity secret for my own safety was the very first order that the Regents handed down. Up until Arthur Called me in the ogof y ddraig, Nicholas Davis was the Scion of Arthur. To the Legendborn world, Nicholas Davis is still the Scion of Arthur. But in reality, he’s not. I am. Nick is not on a leave of absence from school to prepare to ascend the throne; he’s been kidnapped, and I am the one preparing. Right now, there are fewer than twenty people in the world who know that—and my life depends on that circle of trust remaining as small as possible.
As the Awakened Scion of Arthur and anchor of the Spell of Eternity, I am the living, breathing embodiment of Legendborn power. Like an engine, my blood and my life fuel the magic that binds the spirits and enhanced abilities of the original thirteen knights to their Scion descendants. If I die by the hand of a Shadowborn demon, the spell will die too, and fifteen centuries of Legendborn power will end. No Scion will ever be Called again, and humanity will fall to Shadowborn rule. Demons will be free to feed on human emotions, stoke chaos and conflict, and attack indiscriminately and without recourse. So, you know, no pressure or anything.
William sighs. “You will have more say—in everything—after the Rite.”
I roll my eyes. “The Rite where I pull the sword from the stone again. This time for an audience?”
William frowns. “Pulling the sword in battle was spontaneous and necessary—”
It also wasn’t just me, I think. It was Vera, Arthur, me. All together. Not one hand, but three.
“You must formally and intentionally claim your title before the Regents to initiate the transfer of power, make it official. Especially in wartime.”
I snort. “The only time that Arthur Calls his Scion is wartime, William.”
“War against known enemies, perhaps. If that goruchel mimic, if Rha—” William’s sentence ends abruptly. He inhales before trying again, as if he has to force his mouth around the name of the demon who murdered and mimicked Evan Cooper so perfectly that he fooled the entire chapter. “If Rhaz was telling the truth, there could be other impostors on this very campus. Even if Rhaz was lying, we still can’t risk drawing undue attention to you or to Nick’s absence. Not with Gates opening every night and Camlann on the horizon. Our forces are incomplete.”
It’s true. A completed Round Table is made up of twenty-six Legendborn members: thirteen Scion descendants, each with a bonded Squire to fight alongside them. The Table gained me when Arthur Called, but Rhaz murdered four: Fitz. Evan. Russ. Whitty. Their names are written in William’s eyes. Lost Table members, lost warriors, lost friends.
When Fitz died, his younger brother was Called by Sir Bors to replace him immediately. But Evan, Russ, and Whitty were chosen Squires, and the Scions have been slow to select replacements. Not that they have many options. After word got out that Whitty was killed by a demon in battle mere hours after becoming William’s Squire, most of the Pages who competed to become Squires in this year’s tournament withdrew their names from consideration.
And then there’s Nick and me. Nick may not be the Scion of Arthur any longer, but he is the Scion of Lancelot. As Scions, Order law dictates that we will need to choose our own Squires.
Merlin bespelled the original Round Table for twenty-six; our peak power requires twenty-six—and we are five members short.
War is coming, and we aren’t ready.
“The Regents will hand you a kingdom in grave circumstances, Bree. But they will not deliver you an inner circle that you cannot trust. I, for one, am glad of this.” William’s brow pinches in a rare show of pain. “We have had too many losses to not proceed with caution and with Oathed allies at our side.”
My hand finds his forearm in the dark and squeezes it before we keep walking.
I gnaw at my lip. “Speaking of Oaths… Sel…?”
“Would have alerted us if his Oath indicated that Nick was in danger,” William says evenly. “Nick is a valuable chip. Lord Davis will want to make the right play.”
“Still can’t believe Merlin didn’t design that Oath with some sort of tracking spell or something. What’s the use of a bodyguard knowing their charge is in danger if they don’t know where they are?”
“In the old days, Kingsmages never left their charges’ sides.” William raises a brow. “Modern times have made that… challenging.”
The empty arena is near silent when we arrive; the night air too cold for wildlife and insects. Our footsteps echo as we descend the stairs carved into the cliffside. The cloying, sour-sweet smell of dying leaves and damp wood beckons from below.
The night of the first trial, I’d walked down these same steps with my eyes cloaked by Sel’s mesmer and Nick guiding me. As I walk down now, I can almost feel his hands, large and warm on my shoulders. Almost hear his voice—a low, amused laugh from a forgotten memory.
“Steady, B, steady. See, the problem is that if you fall, the code of chivalry says I have no choice but to dive after you.”
“You still wear his necklace?” William’s voice jolts me from the memory.
We’ve reached the bottom of the stairs and he’s behind me, peering down at where my thumb is rubbing the Pendragon coin hanging from the chain at my chest.
My ears heat. “Yeah.”
The coin may have been a gift from Nick, but it feels like something we share now. The sigil of the Line of Arthur, the dragon rampant, the mark of the king, on one side, and the Legendborn symbol—a four-pointed diamond overlaying a circle—on the other. I remember how indignant I’d felt when Nick first gave it to me, that he’d claimed me as “his” in a way that wasn’t right. Later, I let myself think that maybe I could be his in a way that did feel right. And then I was.
I shake my head to clear it and lead us onto the grassy arena floor. When we reach the center, William stops mid-step. “Sel’s last ward—”
“Follows the tree line. I’ve checked.” I jerk my chin to the other side of the open field. Sel’s third and outermost ward starts a few feet from the ditch where I’d once hidden with Sydney, a Page, during the tournament. From there, it stretches in a wide curve to make a massive circle of Battle Park with the Lodge at the center.
William nods, satisfied. “All right. Show me what you’ve got, newbie.”
I know what he’s doing. Teasingly reminding me that even though I—not Arthur—succeeded in the combat trial using my own hard-earned skills, the other Scions are still years ahead of me when it comes to knowing how to fight with aether. They’d started preparing for the possibility of inheriting their knights’ aether abilities when they were six years old. Began training with rubber and wooden practice versions of their knights’ preferred weapons at seven. I’m sixteen—ten years behind everyone else and just getting started.
William is reminding me, I think, to be kind to myself. To remember that even as adept as he is, he is human, like me. And humans must learn to wield aether, one step at a time.
Mediums can’t control the dead. Even if I could contact Arthur at will, I can’t—and won’t—rely on possession to wield his power. If I am to lead, I have to be able to access and control aether on my own, like the others do.
My own breath is loud and raspy in my ears. My heart kicks at my rib once, twice. I close my eyes. Try to slow it down. Take another breath. Open my palms to the sky.
“Aether is all around you.” William’s voice is soft in my ears. “Already at your fingertips.”
Aether is all around me. It’s already here.
“A whisper. That’s all you need.”
I grin. “Sel doesn’t whisper for power, he pulls.”
William snorts. “A model you don’t have to follow, not here.”
I breathe deep and reach without reaching until warm air—aether—begins to dance along my skin. Then, I open my eyes—and call for that aether. Invite it to transform from its invisible gaseous state to the energy I can see and manipulate—and blue fire ignites around my hands and arms.
“Good,” William murmurs, “Calling aether to mage flame is the first hurdle. Now, forge it….”
The mage flame grows hotter. I hiss but hold steady and imagine the whirling wisps falling into the solid mass of Excalibur. I craft Arthur’s hilt in my mind and push the flames into my image. I visualize a swirling storm of aether collapsing into the length of Arthur’s blade, then layering over and over itself until thin sheets of magic become a sharp-edged weapon.
But my will isn’t enough to cool the mage flame into a solid. My images don’t work.
There is only burning.
Instead of concentrating into solid mass, my flames roar higher. The fine hair on my forearms singes; there’s a charred smell in my nose. “Come on…,” I mutter.
William steps forward. “Bree, stop. We’ll try again.”
“No.” I need to try again now. While the flames are here. The blade is a… a longsword. Thick and silver, a blood groove down the middle…
“I can do it.” I grit my teeth. Pommel is shaped like a circle. Red diamond at the center—
My hiss grows until it’s a low cry. It’s no longer the aether scalding me; it’s my refusal to let it go.
“Bree, release it—”
“No! I just need—”
The magic bites into my skin, the burns going deeper. I scream—and finally release it.
The explosion blasts out and down, blowing dirt and dead leaves up into my face before the aether shimmers and disappears.
“Damnit!” I slam a balled fist into the ground—and punch a hole into the earth.
William coughs, waving a hand through the dust in his face. “Now there’s dirt in your wounds.”
I groan. He’s right. And it’s in my hair. I’ll have to wash it again if I want it to look nice for tomorrow. “Damnit!” I repeat.
William kneels at my side, one silver-liquid-coated hand resting over my forearm. He’d called his own aether for a healing swyn so quickly I hadn’t seen it. The bright, citrus scent of his aether signature floods my nose. “It’s okay.”
“No, it’s not! I tried for Arthur’s sword this time. Before, I’d tried for his shield. God, even just a plain gauntlet, William. I can’t forge any of Arthur’s armor, much less make something solid enough to do damage.”
William takes my right arm in his gentle fingers and tuts. The burns sting like hell, even more so now with little bits of soil clinging to the raw and shiny red streaks. “Forging aether into solid matter was overwhelming to me, too, even after all that I’d studied—”
“I don’t have a decade to study!” I shout.
Used to Sel’s outbursts—far angrier and louder than mine—William doesn’t flinch or even look up, just continues. “Even after all that I’d studied, it took long hours to visualize and forge Gawain’s daggers. I visited the replicas in storage often to memorize their weights, feel their hilts in my hand. You must know the weapon to forge it. You need more time with Excalibur, I think. It is unique in our world, remember. An aether weapon made stronger by each Scion of Arthur who wields it, changing with each hand that holds it.”
William’s swyns are a literal balm. Calming, soothing.
“Your castings don’t burn at all. You cool aether down from that”—I gesture in the air with my left hand—“to this.” I point to my wrist, wrapped in shining silver-blue fluid.
“The aether I call is nowhere near as hot as yours to begin with. And I certainly don’t call it in the amounts you do.”
I frown. “What does that mean?”
“It means what we already know. That you are unusual. A new type of power—or rather, a new combination of powers. The invisible energy we call aether is a mutable ambient element manipulated by will, but that manipulation is somewhat defined by the user. Scions and Squires are limited by their knights’ inheritances. I can cast Gawain’s swyns and I can forge armor—not the exact sixth-century variety, no plates back then—but it must be a variation that works for Gawain’s gifts. The only weapon we can cast is our knight’s chosen weapon. With their demon heritage, Merlins can cast anything they wish: a staff, a hound, a protective barrier. You yourself have wielded aether in its mage flame state to burn demons in battle—something the Legendborn cannot do.” He pauses. “What about your Bloodcraft abilities? Can you call the aeth—root—you create from within, then forge it into solid matter?”
I shake my head. “My Bloodcrafted root doesn’t work like that. It’s defensive, not offensive.”
What the Legendborn have named “aether,” Rootcrafters refer to as “root.” Instead of forging weapons, typical Rootcrafters commune with ancestors to request access to ambient root—and there doesn’t seem to be a limit with how they use it after that, from healing to memory walking.
But Vera’s Bloodcraft spell takes it one step further. In the cave, red root flames ignited within me and flowed from my body, down my arms and hands. I breathed crimson fire that scorched isels and burned through their demon flesh—but only after they’d attacked me first.
William hums thoughtfully and switches his aether-drenched fingers to my left arm. The stinging burns on my right have already faded to a horrible itch. “What you did in the ogof… that was far more powerful than any Legendborn weapon casting could ever be. You didn’t need a weapon; you were the weapon.”
William’s words remind me of Vera’s. You are my lineage, at its sharpest and strongest. I breathe through the memory of her voice, every syllable its own type of cut. “All that power—Arthur’s aether armor, Vera’s Bloodcraft root—was out of my control. Just like now.” I face him again, voice firmer. “And I need to get control before the Regents find out I don’t have it.”
“Why? You are the Awakened Crown Scion of Arthur. Control over his aether abilities, or lack thereof, doesn’t change that. You can claim the title with the Rite, even be coronated, without forging a single plate of aether armor. You pulled the sword.” He flashes a grin. “You are his heir, burned forearms or not.”
“But if I’m going to lead the search for Nick, I need to earn the Regents’ and other Scions’ respect. I need to be as good at this as Nick would have been.”
“Well,” William says, sympathetic. “My diagnosis? It’s only a matter of time with Arthur’s abilities. And until then, at least you know how your Bloodcraft works.”
I scoff and kick at the ground. “Not as well as I’d like. I ran from my Bloodcraft at first, even if I didn’t fully realize that’s what it was, because I didn’t want to deal with my mother’s death. If I had just faced things head-on, I would have had access to root months ago.”
William watches me. “Is that what you’re doing now? Facing your challenges head-on?”
I think about it for a moment, and Vera’s last words return once more. Hot and sharp and direct. We ran so you would not have to. Then my mother’s, from the hidden memory she’d left behind. When the time comes, if it comes, don’t be scared. Fight. My mother hadn’t known half as much about our Bloodcraft powers as I do, and she used them to do what was right anyway. To save people.
“Yes,” I tell him. “No more running.”
“What the hell are you two doing?”
Selwyn’s voice cracks across the arena—a whip of sound that lashes us both. I groan and look up. William sighs and shakes his head.
Sel is a tall, dark shape at the top of the cliff. Too far to make out his facial expression, but I don’t need sight to sense his anger. Even from fifty feet away, his gaze scorches my cheek.
He steps over the edge. His coat lifts in the air behind him, a dark shadow fluttering against stone. As soon as he lands, he’s moving—and at my side in a furious blur.
This close, his eyes are a harsh bright gold. He looks like he’s just come back from hunting: flushed cheeks, wind-whipped raven-black hair, smudges of dirt on his dark duster, and his aether signature billowing in a cloud around him, fresh and burning. Whiskey, set ablaze.
“Explain yourselves!” Sel bellows, staring down at William.
William releases another, heavier sigh and continues his work. “Hello, Selwyn. Back from the hunt already?”
“The campus is clear,” Sel snaps. “Imagine my alarm when I arrived home and you were both missing. I will give you two minutes—no, one minute to explain yourselves before I drag Br—” Sel’s glare lands on my arm in William’s hands.
He must be beyond furious for his situational awareness to be so delayed. In the span of a breath, the Merlin takes in the healing aether wrapping my arm from elbow to wrist. His nostrils flare, scenting the lingering ozone in the air. “You have burned yourself.” He looks up, and his gaze hardens on mine. “Again.”
It’s the first time he’s looked me in the eye since he arrived. The first time we’ve seen each other in a week. The first words he’s said to me after days of silence.
And here we are having the same fight that drove us apart.
I bite my lip so I don’t scream at him. “I told you I can’t just sit in my room while you’re all out hunting and fighting. I should be—”
“You should be back in the Lodge!” he snarls. “Behind three layers of wards, Briana!” He points at my wounds. “Is this not evidence enough of that?”
Shame and embarrassment flood my cheeks. And on top of those, I feel the sting of Selwyn using my full name to chastise me. “Once I can control Arthur’s aether, I won’t need the wards. And you can’t give me orders forever, Kingsmage!”
He levels a stony glare at me. “I will give you orders right up until you take the Rite of Kings, and stop not a moment before.”
This time I do scream—a wordless, frustrated sound behind clenched teeth. “What about everyone else?”
Sel lifts a dark brow. “Be specific.”
“You—” I push to my feet, but William tugs me right back down. It’s not yet midnight; I could break his grip with Arthur’s strength, but it’s William. He may not get in the middle of our fight, but he is a healer through and through—he’ll never let me walk away with fresh wounds. “You ordered the others to follow me on campus!”
Sel’s mouth thins. “I did.”
“I don’t need them to guard me—”
“Clearly you do.” He shakes his head. “Do you have any idea—”
A short, screaming howl cuts him off from beyond the arena trench. The sound shutters our argument. My heart rockets against my ribs so fast it hurts. I know that cry…. I remember it.
His expression flips from surprise to deadly focus in an instant. “Flank her,” Sel orders, and speeds to my right with aether streaming toward both palms.
William is already on his feet, at my left in a blink. His aether armor builds itself in a rapid flow of clinking plates and chain mail. I stifle my envy.
The high-pitched screech comes again. It hits the cliff wall and bounces back against the trees, playing tricks on our ears. “How many?” I ask.
“Too many. Could be a pack.” Sel glances behind us and above the cliff, where the forest continues back toward the Lodge in the pitch black of night. I know what he wants to do, what he’s thinking. He wants to send me running back the way we came, to cross into safety behind his wards. “Go.”
“No.” I set my jaw. “I have Arthur’s strength!”
His eyes flash. “But not his wisdom.” Whatever calculus he’s doing, whatever scenarios he’s running in his mind, they don’t include me. “William, we need Gawain’s power. How much longer?”
William glances at the moon overhead. A quick check of the sky for the power in his blood. “Still a few minutes—”
Sel curses. “Too long.”
“Get Bree back to the Lodge,” William says. “I can handle this on my own.”
Sel’s eyes narrow into the darkness, seeing more than we can—and his face pales. “No, William, you can’t.”
“Selwyn!” Insult flashes across William’s face. “I said I can handle it! Stop being—”
“Oh no…” I finally see what has found us in the woods.
William follows my pointing finger and blanches. “Dear God.”
A dozen enormous, armored, fully corporeal hellfoxes emerge from the trees. These monsters may be lesser demon isels, but they are as tall as trucks. The line of them stretches thirty feet across in either direction. Green, smoky aether rises from their bodies, pluming upward into a dozen clouds with every swish of their scaled tails.
William rotates his wrists once—a sharp snap up—and two shining gauntlets appear on his forearms. “That’s not a pack….”
“No.” Sel grits his teeth. “It’s a legion.” By now he’s gathered enough aether to create a swirling cloud around our ankles—cool to the touch and perfectly in his control—but I don’t know if it’s enough. Sel and I were barely able to fight three together, and they were half the size of these and partially corporeal.
I’ve never seen this many fully corporeal Shadowborn at one time. How much aether have they been able to consume to become dense enough that Onceborns could see them?
The foxes snap at Sel’s ward. Butt their heads against it. Testing it. Ripples of aether appear on impact, fanning out in abrupt, bright circles in the air.
“The ward will hold them, won’t it?” I ask.
As if in answer, the fox directly across from us steps back and crouches low. It opens its jaw wide in an ear-splitting call—and the aether of Sel’s ward begins to flow into its mouth in a stream of silver smoke.
“Oh, sh—” Sel is cut off by another scream and another, until all twelve foxes begin calling a section of his casting into their bodies… and his ward thins before our eyes.