OF ALL THE AWFUL THINGS demons do, keeping Latin alive when it deserves to be a dead language might be the worst.
To say nothing of ancient Sumerian. And ancient Sumerian translated into Latin? Diabolic. My tongue trips over pronunciation as I painstakingly work through the page in front of me. I used to love my time in the library, surrounded by the work of generations of previous Watchers. But ever since the most recent time the world almost ended—sixty-two days ago, to be exact—I can barely sit still. I fidget. Tap my pencil. Bounce my toes against the floor. I want to go for a run. I don’t know why the anxiety has hit me differently this time, after all the horror and tragedy I’ve seen before. There is one possible reason that tugs at my brain, but . . .
“That can’t be right.” I peer at my own writing. “The shadowed one will rise and the world will tickle before him?”
“I do hate being tickled,” Rhys says, leaning back and stretching. His curly brown hair has once again defied its strict
part. It flops over his forehead, softening the hard line of his eyebrows, which are perpetually drawn close to his glasses in thought or concern. After we finish this morning’s lessons, I’ll tidy up my small medical center, and Rhys will train for combat with Artemis.
I shake out my hands, needing to move something. Maybe I really will go for a run. No one would miss me. Or maybe I’ll ask if I can join combat training. They’ve never let me, but I haven’t asked in years. I really want to hit something, and I don’t know why, and it scares me.
It could be the demonic prophecies of doom I’ve been reading all morning, though. I scratch out my botched translation. “As far as apocalypses go, tickling’s not the worst way to die.”
Imogen clears her throat, but her indulgent smile softens the severity. “Can we get back to your translation, Nina? And, Rhys, I want a full report on half-human, half-demon taxonomy.”
Rhys ducks his head, blushing. He’s the only one here who’s in line to be a full Watcher, which means he can join the Council one day. Someday he’ll be in charge, part of the governing body of the Council. He wears that weight in everything he does. He’s the first one in the library and the last one out, and he trains almost as much as Artemis.
Watchers were meant to guide Slayers—the Chosen Ones specially endowed to fight demons—but over the centuries we evolved to be more hands-on. Watchers have to make the hard decisions, and sometimes the hard decisions include weapons. Swords. Spells. Knives.
Guns, in my father’s case.
Not all of us train, though. We all take our education seriously,
but there’s slightly less pressure for me. I’m just the castle medic, which doesn’t rate high on the importance scale. Learning how to take lives beats knowing how to save them.
But being the medic doesn’t get me out of Prophecies of Doom 101. I push away the Latin Sumerian Tickle Apocalypse. “Imogen,” I whine, “can I get something a little less difficult? Please?”
She gives me a long-suffering sigh. Imogen wasn’t supposed to be a teacher. But she’s all we’ve got now, on account of the regular teachers being blown up. She teaches for a few hours every morning, and the rest of her time is spent managing the Littles.
Her blond ponytail swings limply as she stands and searches the far bookshelf. I hold back a triumphant smile. Imogen is always nicer to me than to anyone else. Actually, everyone here is. I try not to take advantage, but if they’re going to treat me like the castle pet just because I’m not all with the stabby stab, at least I should get some perks.
The shelf Imogen is searching is technically off-limits, but since Buffy—the Slayer who single-handedly destroyed almost our entire organization—broke all magic on earth a couple months ago, it doesn’t matter anymore. The books that used to pose threats such as demonic possession or summoning ancient hellgods or giving you, like, a really bad paper cut are now as benign as any other book.
But that doesn’t make them any easier to translate.
“Magic is still broken, right?” I ask as Imogen runs her fingers down the spine of a book that once killed an entire roomful of Watchers in the fifteenth century. It’s been two months without
a drop of magical energy. For an organization that was built on magic, it hasn’t been an easy adjustment. I wasn’t taught to use magic, but I have a very healthy respect-for-slash-terror-of it. So it’s creepy seeing Imogen treat that particular tome like anything else on the shelf.
“Fresh out of batteries and no one can find the right size.” Rhys scowls at his text as though insulted by the demon he’s reading about. “When Buffy breaks something, she breaks it good. Personally, I think that if confronted with the Seed of Wonder—the source of all magic on earth, a genuine mystical miracle—I might opt to, say, study it. Research. Really think through my options. There had to be another way to avert that particular apocalypse.”
“Buffy sees, Buffy destroys,” I mutter. Her name feels almost like a swear word on my tongue. We don’t say it aloud in my family. Then again, we don’t say much in my family at all, besides “Have you seen my best dagger?” and “Where are our stake-carving supplies?” and “Hello, my twin daughters, it is I, your mother, and I love one of you better than the other and chose to save the good twin first when a fire was about to kill you both.”
Okay, not that last one. Because again: We don’t talk much. Living under the same roof isn’t as cozy as it sounds when that roof covers a massive castle.
“Think of all we could have learned,” Rhys says mournfully, “if I had had even an hour with the Seed of Wonder. . . .”
“In her defense, the world was ending,” Imogen says.
“In her not defense, she was the reason the world was ending,” I counter. “And now magic is dead.”
Imogen shrugs. “No more hellmouths or portals. No more demons popping in for vacations and sightseeing.”
I snort. “Foodie tours of Planet Human are canceled. Sorry, demonic dimensions. Of course, it also means no current tourists can get back to their home-sweet-hellholes.”
Rhys scowls, pulling off his glasses and polishing them. “You’re joking about the disruption and destruction of all the research we’ve compiled on demonic traveling, portals, dimensions, gateways, and hellmouths. None of it is current anymore. Even if I wanted to understand how things have changed, I couldn’t.”
“See? Buffy hurts everyone. Poor Rhys. No books on this subject.” I pat his head.
Imogen tosses a huge volume on the table. “And yet your homework still isn’t done. Try this one.” A poof of dust blows outward from the book; I flinch away and cover my nose.
She grimaces. “Sorry.”
“No, it’s fine. I actually haven’t had an asthma attack in a while.” It’s fine that my asthma mysteriously disappeared the same day Buffy destroyed magic, the world almost ended, and I got showered in interdimensional demonic goo. Totally fine. Has nothing to do with the demon. Neither does the fact that I’m desperate to go running or start training or do anything with my body besides snuggle up and read, which used to be its primary occupation.
I pull down my sweater sleeve over my hand and carefully wipe the leather cover. “?‘The Apocalypses of . . . Arcturius the Farsighted’? Sounds like the dude just needed a better prescription for glasses.”
Rhys leans close, peering curiously. “I haven’t read that volume.” He sounds jealous.
Notes have been scrawled in the margins, the handwriting changing as it moves through the centuries. On the last few pages there are orange fingerprints, like someone was reading while eating Cheetos. The Watchers before me have made their own notes, commenting and filling in details. Seeing their work overwhelms me with a sense of responsibility. It’s not every sixteen-year-old girl who can trace her family’s calling back through the centuries of helping Slayers, fighting demons, and otherwise saving the world.
I find a good entry. “Did you know that in 1910, one of the Merryweathers prevented an octopus uprising? A leviathan demon gave them sentience and they were going to overthrow us! Merryweather doesn’t give many details. It appears they defeated them with . . .” I squint. “Lemon. And butter. I think this is a recipe.”
Imogen taps on the book. “Just translate the last ten prophecies, how about?”
I get to work. Rhys occasionally asks Imogen questions, and by the time our class period is almost over, he has what looks like half the extensive shelves piled on our groaning table. In years past, Rhys and I wouldn’t have studied together. He’d have been in classes with the other future Council hopefuls. But there are so few of us now, we’ve had to relax some of the structure and tradition. Not all of it, though. Without tradition, what would we be? Just a bunch of weirdos hiding in a castle studying the things that no one else wants to know about. Which I guess is what we are with tradition too. But knowing I’m part of a millennia-long
battle against the forces of evil (and apparently octopuses) makes it much more meaningful.
Buffy and the Slayers might have turned their backs on the Watchers, rejecting our guidance and counsel, but we haven’t turned our backs on the world. Normal people can go on living, oblivious and happy, because of our hard work. And I’m proud of that. Even when it means I have to translate dumb prophecies, and even if I’ve wondered more and more the last few years if the way the Watchers and Slayers fight evil isn’t always right.
The library door slams open and my twin sister, Artemis, walks in. She takes a deep breath and scowls, crossing past me and tugging open the ancient window. It groans in protest, but, as with all things, Artemis accomplishes her goal. She pulls out one of my inhalers from her pocket and sets it on the table beside me. Everything in this castle runs because of Artemis. She is a force of nature. An angry but efficient force of nature.
“Hello to you, too,” I say with a smile.
She tugs my hair. We both have red waves, though hers are always pulled back into a brutal ponytail. I have a lot more time for moisturizing than she does. Her face is like looking in a mirror—if that mirror were a prophecy of who I’d be in another life. Her freckles are darker from spending so much time outside. Her gray eyes more intense, her jawline somehow stronger. Her shoulders are straighter, her arms are more defined, and her posture is less snuggly and more I-will-destroy-you-if-it-comes-to-that.
In short, Artemis is the strong twin. The powerful twin. The chosen twin. And I am . . .
The one who got left behind.
I don’t just mean the fire, either. The moment when my mother was forced to choose to save one of us from the terrifying flames—and chose Artemis—was definitely life changing. But even after that, even after I managed to survive, my mother kept choosing her. Artemis was chosen for testing and training. Artemis was given responsibilities and duties and a vital role in Watcher society. And I was left behind on the fringes. I only sort of matter now because so many of us are dead. Artemis always would have mattered. And the truth is, I get it.
I was born into Watcher society, but Artemis deserves to be here.
She sits next to me, pulling out her notebook and opening it to today’s to-do list. It’s in microscopic handwriting and goes past the first page and onto at least one more. No one in this castle does more than Artemis. “Listen,” she says, “I might have hurt Jade.”
I look up from where I’m almost finished with this book. Every other prophecy had margin notes detailing how that particular apocalypse was averted. I idly wonder what it means that this is the last prophecy. Did Arcturius the Farsighted finally get glasses, or was this apocalypse so apocalypse-y that he couldn’t see past it? It also has no Watcher notes. And Watchers are meticulous. If it doesn’t have notes, that means it hasn’t been averted yet.
But my own castle emergencies are far more pressing. “And by ‘might have hurt Jade,’ you mean . . .”
Artemis shrugs. “Definitely did.”
On cue, Jade limps in. She picks up her tirade midargument. “—and just because magic is broken, doesn’t mean that I should
be Artemis’s punching bag! I know my father worked in special ops, but I don’t want to. I was good at magic! I am not good at this!”
“No one is, next to Artemis,” Rhys says. His voice is quiet and without judgment, but we all freeze. It’s one of the things we don’t talk about. How Artemis is inarguably the best, and yet she’s the assistant and Rhys is the official golden boy.
Watchers excel at research, record keeping, and not talking about things. The entire organization is ever-so-British. Though technically Artemis and I are American. We lived in California and then Arizona before coming here. Rhys, Jade, and Imogen—who all grew up in London—still laugh when I treat rain like a novelty. It’s been eight years in England and Ireland, but I adore rain and green and all things nondesert.
Jade flops down on the other side of me, hauling her ankle up onto my lap. I rotate it for range of movement.
“That one translates as ‘Slayer,’?” Artemis says, peering over my shoulder. She crosses out where I had mistranslated a word as “killer.” Same difference.
Jade yelps. “Ouch!”
“Sorry. Nothing is broken, but it’s swelling already. I think it’s a mild sprain.” I glance at Artemis and she looks away, guessing my thoughts as she so often can. She knows I’m going to tell her there is no reason to train this hard. To hurt each other. Instead of rehashing our usual debate, I point to my translation. “What about this word?”
“Protector,” Artemis says.
“That’s cheating,” Imogen trills from where she’s reshelving.
“It doesn’t count as cheating. We’re practically the same
person!” No one calls me on the lie. Artemis shouldn’t have to do my homework on top of everything else, but she helps without being asked. It’s how we work.
“Any word from Mom?” I ask as casually as I can manage, probing around the topic even more gently than I’m probing Jade’s ankle.
“Nothing new since Tuesday. She should finish up South America in the next few days, though.” Artemis planned our mother’s whole scouting mission. I haven’t heard so much as a word from her since she left seven weeks ago, but Artemis merits regular updates.
“Can you focus?” Jade snaps. She was on assignment in Scotland keeping tabs on Buffy and her Slayer army antics. It didn’t do us much good. Buffy still managed to trigger an almost-apocalypse. Now that Jade’s back at the castle without any magic, she’s not happy about it, and she lets us know.
“Rhys,” I say, mindful that Artemis would do it in a heartbeat, but her to-do list is already super full and I don’t want to add to it, “can you go to my clinic and get my sprain pack?”
Rhys stands. He shouldn’t have to run my errands. He ranks far above me in pecking order, but he puts friendship before hierarchy. He’s my favorite in the castle besides Artemis. Not that there’s a tremendous amount of competition. Rhys, Jade, and Artemis are the only other teens. Imogen is in her early twenties. The three Littles are still preschoolers. And the Council—all four of them—aren’t exactly BFF material. “Where is it?” he asks.
“It’s right next to the stitches pack, behind the concussions pack.”
“I’ll be right back.”
He saunters away. The medical clinic is actually a large supply closet in the opposite wing that I’ve claimed as my own. The training room is amazing, naturally. We prioritize hitting, not healing. While we’re waiting for Rhys, I elevate Jade’s ankle by propping it on top of books that used to contain the blackest spells imaginable but now are used as paperweights.
George Smythe, the youngest of the Littles, bursts into the library. He buries his face in Imogen’s skirt and tugs on her long sleeves. “Imo. Come play.”
Imogen puts him on her hip. During teaching hours, Ruth Zabuto is in charge of the Littles, but she is as old as sin and far less pleasant. I don’t blame George for preferring Imogen.
“Are you done?” she asks me.
I hold up my paper triumphantly. “Got it!”
Child of Slayer
Child of Watcher
The two become one
The one becomes two
Girls of fire
Protector and Hunter
One to mend the world
And one to tear it asunder
“There’s a postscript, like Arcturius can’t help but comment on his own creepy-ass prophecy. ‘When all else ends, when hope perishes alongside wonder, her darkness shall rise and all shall be eaten.’?”
Imogen snorts. “Devoured. Not eaten.”
“In my defense, I’m hungry. Did I get the rest?”
She nods. “With help.”
“Well, even with Artemis’s help, it doesn’t make sense. And it doesn’t have any calamari recipes.” I tuck my papers back into the book.
Rhys returns with the supplies just as the other two Littles break into the library and swarm Imogen. She’s the busiest person in the castle, other than Artemis, who has already left to prepare lunch for everyone. Sometimes I wish my sister belonged as much to me as she does to everyone else.
Rhys strides toward me with the sprain pack. Little George runs at his legs, and Rhys trips just before he gets to me. The pack flies out of his hands. Without thinking I lunge and save the kit in midair with one hand, the whole motion feeling surprisingly effortless for my usually uncoordinated self.
“Good catch,” Rhys says. I’d be offended by his surprise if I weren’t experiencing another ripple of anxiety. It was a good catch. Way too good for me.
“Yeah, lucky,” I say, letting out an awkward laugh. I break the ice pack and wrap it into place around Jade’s ankle. “Twenty minutes on, an hour off. I’ll rewrap you when the ice comes off. That will help with the swelling. And rest it as much as possible.”
“Not a problem.” Jade leans back with her eyes closed. She’s substituted all the time she used to spend on magic with sleeping.
I know it’s been rough on her—it’s been rough on everyone, having the entire world change yet again. But we do what Watchers do: We keep going.
My phone beeps. We avoid contact with the outside world.
Paranoia is a permanent result of having all your friends and family blown up. But one person has this number and he’s the highlight of our tenure here in the forest outside a sleepy Irish coastal town. “Cillian’s almost here with the supplies.”
Rhys perks up. “Do you need help?”
“Yes. I don’t know how I’d manage without you. It’s absolutely essential that you come out with me and flirt with your boyfriend while I check over the boxes.”
The great hall of the castle, always chilly, is lit with the late-afternoon sun. The stained-glass windows project squares of blue, red, and green. I fondly pat the massive oak door as I step out into the crisp autumn air. The castle is drafty, with questionable plumbing and dire electrical problems. Most of the windows don’t open, and those that do leak. Half of the rooms are in disrepair, the entire dorm wing is more a repository for junk than a living space, and we can’t even go in the section where the tower used to be because it isn’t safe.
But this castle saved our lives and preserved what few of us are left. And so I love it.
Out in the meadow—which has finally recovered from having a castle magically dropped into the middle of it two years ago—old Bradford Smythe, my great-uncle, is sword fighting with horrible Wanda Wyndam-Pryce. Though sword bickering would be more accurate, since they pause between each block and strike to debate proper stance. The mystery of the Littles escaping is solved. Ruth Zabuto is dead asleep.
I watch her across the meadow to make sure her chest is moving and she’s only dead asleep, not dead dead. She lets out a snore loud enough for me to hear from this distance. Reassured, I
follow Rhys to the path outside the castle grounds. I can still hear Wanda and Bradford arguing.
Cillian is on a scooter, boxes strapped to either side. He lifts a hand and waves brightly. His mom used to run the sole magic store in the whole area. Most people have no idea that magic is—was—a real thing. But his mom was a decently talented and knowledgeable witch. And, best of all, one who could keep her mouth shut. Cillian and his mother are the only people alive who know there are still Watchers in existence. That we didn’t all die when we were supposed to.
We haven’t told them much about who we are or what we do. It’s safest that way. And they’ve never asked questions, because we were also their best customers until Buffy killed magic. But even now, Cillian still makes all our nonmagical supply deliveries. Weirdly, online retailers don’t accept “Hidden Castle in the Middle of the Woods Outside Shancoom, Ireland” as a proper address.
Cillian stops his scooter in front of us. “What’s the story?”
There’s a flash of movement behind Cillian. A snarl rips apart the air as darkness leaps toward him.
My brain turns off.
My body reacts.
I jump, meeting it midair. We slam into each other. The ground meets us, hard, and we roll. I grab jaws straining for my throat, hot saliva burning where it falls on me.
Then I twist and snap, and the thing falls silent, still, a dead weight on top of me.
I shove it aside and scramble to my feet. My heart is racing,
eyes scanning for any other threats, legs ready to leap back into action.
That’s when I hear the screaming. It sounds so far away. Maybe it was happening the whole time? I shake my head, trying to force the world back into focus. And I realize there’s a creature—a dead creature, a creature I somehow killed—at my feet. I stagger backward, using my shirt to rub away the hot sticky mess of its drool still on my neck.
“Artemis!” Bradford Smythe runs up. “Artemis, are you all right?” He hurries past me, bending down to examine the thing. It looks like hell’s version of a dog, which is accurate, because I’m almost certain it’s a hellhound. Black, mottled skin. Patchy fur more like moldy growths. Fangs and claws and single-minded, deadly intentions.
But not anymore. Because I killed it.
I killed it?
Demon, a voice in my head whispers. And it’s not talking about the hellhound.
“Nina,” Rhys says, in as much shock as me.
Bradford Smythe looks up in confusion. “What?”
“Not Artemis. That was Nina. . . . Nina killed it.”
Everyone stares at me like I, too, have sprouted fangs and claws. I don’t know what just happened. How it happened. Why it happened. I’ve never done anything like that before.
I feel sick and also—elated? That can’t be right. My hands are trembling, but I don’t feel like I need to lie down. I feel like I could run ten miles. Like I could jump straight over the castle. Like I could fight a hundred more—
“I think I need to throw up,” I say, blinking at the dead thing.
I’m not a killer. I’m a healer. I fix things. That’s what I do.
“That was impossible.” Rhys studies me like I’m one of his textbooks, like he can’t translate what he’s seeing.
He’s right. I can’t do what I just did.
Bradford Smythe seems less surprised. His shoulders slump as he pulls off his glasses and polishes them with resignation. Why isn’t he shocked, now that he knows it wasn’t Artemis? The look he gives me is one of pity and regret. “We need to call your mother.”