The hoofbeats thump into me. As the horse races over the green, undulating pasture, I sink forward and grab the knight in front of me. My fingers slide over his glimmering armor, struggling for purchase.
I can’t see his face. I never can. But that’s not the point. His touch is the most reassuring thing in the world.
And if only this were the world and not a dream.
Even as I open my eyes and cast a wary glance to my side, I realize that there’s no depth to the swaying grass. It’s punctuated here and there by the golden, fluttering heads of wheat, and while one or two look real, the rest just blur off into the distance. But one thing remains – my knight. So I sink harder against him, wrapping my arms even further around his middle.
He lets out a soft grunt. “Almost there.”
He’s been promising that my entire life. Because this dream has repeated every single day since my sixteenth birthday. I might be young, but that doesn’t matter. My past withers compared to the intensity of these dreams.
“Almost where?” I mutter. I can’t count the number of times I’ve asked that. I’ve never received a satisfying reply.
He just leans further over the horse’s reins, grunts, and pushes the beast into a sprint.
I’m forced to clutch him even tighter.
He smiles. Don’t ask me how I know that, but I can tell. It’s as if the move spreads warmth all the way down his chest and into my fingers.
I ground my cheek against his back and close my eyes. That’s a mistake. I can feel myself in bed. I almost rouse, but at the last moment, I clutch hold of that dream with all my might. Because it’s the only damn thing that’s ever mattered in my life. A life of boredom and loss. Just as I can feel the pillow underneath me, I grab him with all my remaining strength. “Almost where?” I demand again.
“Just over this rise,” he promises. “But first, the fight will come.”
His voice becomes grave. This isn’t the first time I’ve reached this part of the dream, though it’s rare.
I have to squeeze my eyes closed to remember the fight. Creatures – who can’t possibly exist in the real world – will soon pull themselves out of the cracks of this field.
And I’ll be asked to fight them.
We power up the side of the rise, but we never reach the top. I hear this fell creature scream from right behind me. The cry is so sharp, I’m certain it’s going to drive a hole right through my skull. I whip my head over my shoulder, and my long hair fans in front of my face.
That’s when I see one of those monsters. They’re tall. They look like they’re stretched-out shadows. But shadows with the sharpest of gazes. The closest one opens its mouth and cries. It almost wakes me up. I’m aware of my rumpled sheets as they stick to my sweaty skin. I can even feel the slight breeze making it in through the window behind my bed. Is that a siren outside? It doesn’t matter. We’re almost there. We have to get to the rise. I’ve never done that before. Come on, I repeat in my mind.
Those creatures throw themselves, not at the knight, but at me. One even clutches my leg and tries to pull me off.
“You’ve gotta learn to fight it,” the knight rumbles in a deep voice.
He reaches around and, somehow, while still holding onto his horse’s reins, pulls a long sword out of its sheath. Magic rushes along the tip. It’s so vibrant that it plays along my face and sends light reflecting up into my eyes.
With a cry, he cuts the creature down. It’s dust long before it reaches the ground.
But they’re not done yet. Another one launches at me from the side.
He can’t swing the sword around quickly enough.
This one grabs my other leg. It sinks its claws in hard. It’s so sharp, I scream. It’s bloodcurdling as if I know my life is about to end. But just before it can, my knight reaches around. He locks his gauntlet on my hand and stops me from falling. As his armored fingers snap around mine, I swear I feel something jolt from his skin into me. “You have to wake up, Dawn.”
“I don’t want to. I never want to leave this dream again.”
“Not from the dream. You have to wake up from life. That’s the lie. Remember what you are. Grab hold of what’s inside you.”
Another creature launches itself at my legs. I can feel it dragging me down. As its claws sink into my thigh, I should scream, but instead, all I can do is pay attention to how the knight holds me. I swear I can feel pure potential pushing into me.
“Wake up?” My lips tremble.
“Wake up before it’s too late. There’s only so much I can do for you until you rise on your own.”
Another creature launches itself at me from the other side. Now there are two. While the knight valiantly tries to fight them off, he can’t, and I feel myself being pulled to the left. I’ve never fallen into one of those creature’s waiting arms. I’ve always managed to wake myself up beforehand. I wonder if I can do that now. All awareness of the bed has completely disappeared. All that’s left is this dream and the horror of the pain tearing through me. The pain and yet the promise.
Just before I can be wrenched free from his grip, I feel a spark igniting in the center of my palm. I don’t know where it comes from. I’m still aware of the fact that I’m dreaming, so part of me knows that this is nothing but the contents of my own unconscious mind, and yet this feels like it comes from beyond. It plows into me from some infinite source I’ve never had the capacity to reach toward before. But now as it ignites deep inside me, it can never be thrust back.
We’re close to the rise. It’s just there.
But I’ll never reach it if I’m pulled off the horse. So I scream. And for the first time in my life – and for the first time in these dreams – I frigging fight back.
I open my palm, and a charge of magic blasts out of it. As it spins through the air, I can see symbols dancing around within it. They are these brightly glowing runes. Each one of them seems to be possessed of its own infinite burst of power, and as they coalesce and slam into that monster, it doesn’t have a chance. It’s cut down just as easily as when the knight strikes one with his sword.
“That’s it, you did it. You’re finally ready. Now wake up. We’re almost at the rise.”
He’s already cut down the monster that grabbed my leg from the other side. So there’s nothing to stop me from pressing forward. I lock my arms around his middle and bury my face against the smooth, shiny armor of his backplate. “I don’t want to. I don’t ever want to wake up again. I’ve never come this far.”
“Not from this dream,” he says again, his voice rumbling. “You have to wake up from reality. Before it’s too late. You have to wake up, Dawn.”
We reach the rise. And that’s when dawn – my namesake, and not me – blasts over the top of the hill. It’s brilliant. These deep gold and purple rays shine forth as if a star is being born.
He stops on the rise, and down below, I see a castle.
My heart’s pounding so hard, I swear I’m going to wake myself up. I’ve never… I’ve never gotten this far before. I’ve tried with all my heart, but it never mattered.
If there’s one thing I want to see more than the sunrise and the castle below, it’s his face.
Still holding onto his middle, I pull my head back.
He reaches around and grips my hand. He slides off the horse. He pulls me with him.
I’m in his arms. I tilt my head back. It’s hard to distinguish his features. The dawn suddenly becomes even brighter. As its light plays over my face, reflecting up and over my cheeks and dancing along my eyelashes, I see a long, strong jawline. I see two pale blue eyes. As he smiles, and I see his lips, it ignites even more power within me.
He presses forward, and the next thing I know, he locks his lips against mine.
I feel like eternity opens up within me. Sensations I’ve never even guessed were possible rush through me. They start in my stomach. They shiver down to my pelvis, then race up to my lips. I open my mouth further. He locks a hand against my back and pulls me close.
But that’s when I hear the dreaded alarm. Its blare can cut through anything. It’s far more effective than this knight’s sword, and God knows it has more power than the magic racing through my veins.
I open my eyes one last time. I desperately stare at his face just as the dream resolves into nothingness. And I see him.
For the first time in my life, I finally see my knight in shining armor.
I bolt out of bed.
I stare at the alarm. I must’ve overslept the first one, because I’m already 10 minutes late. And now the alarm is blaring so loudly, I think it’s a warning that there’s about to be a nuclear meltdown.
I don’t immediately reach over and smash my hand against the top of the alarm to silence it. I just sit there, a little cold but hot, too. The heat’s in my lips and chest. The rest of me tingles as if I’ve just jumped into an ice-cold bath.
“You… you actually saw him, Dawn,” I stammer to myself. It’s dumb and is a testament to how empty my life is apart from my dreams, but I brush my fingers down my lips. I try to lock in the memory of that kiss. But it’s nowhere near as important as his face.
I’m not much of a drawer. I used to have skills, but ever since my life went to hell, I haven’t had the chance to concentrate on them. That doesn’t stop me from launching out of bed. I finally turn the alarm off – not by hitting the button on the top, but by wrenching the power cable out of the wall. It tumbles down onto the plush carpet just as I grab a pen and some paper. I lean against my bed, and I scribble.
I know this is only going to make me later, but I don’t care.
It takes me about 10 minutes until I have his likeness. It’s the best drawing I’ve managed in years.
Reverentially, I place it on my desk. Then I stare up. Judging by the light alone, I’m not just gonna be late – I’m going to get in massive trouble.
I sigh. Locking a hand on my chest, I decide it’s time to face the day.
I finally dress, but before I can grab my bag, I race over again. I stare at him one last time. “I finally found you.”
I head out. There’s no point in grabbing breakfast. I don’t keep much in the fridge. It’ll be a few days until I can afford to do a proper shop. It doesn’t matter. I’ll grab something from my best friend. She knows about my situation. While I’m forced to live alone and fend for myself, she still lives with her parents. Her incredibly rich parents. She’s always sneaking me food, if not money. She’d help me out by buying me a house if she could, but I don’t need one. The apartment roof over my head is the one thing I do have. The one thing my dad left me before he too, incidentally, left me.
It’s under my name. It’s not the greatest. It’s a piece of junk, really, but it’s in a good area. It beats sleeping rough.
My stomach grumbles as I secure my bag higher over my shoulder. I pat down my pleated skirt, run a hand over my blazer, and frown at how frumpy I look. What do I care? One more month of this, and I’ll graduate. Next year, it’s university. Or, more likely, given my situation, a full-time job.
“Doesn’t matter. Anything’s gotta be better than this,” I mutter to myself. I shove forward. I know I’ve already missed the bus. That’s okay. I’ll just take a detour through the park. There’s another bus that will be arriving soon on the opposite side of it.
I might’ve called this area okay before, but it has rough patches. Everywhere in the city does. You never know when you might come across some abandoned little laneway stuck between expensive stores on one of the downtown blocks. Sometimes I wonder if anyone else in the city has noticed that or if it’s just me. Technically, those laneways are a consequence of the fact this city is over 500 years old. There was no planning that went into it. Still, you’d think little boutique stores and cafés would buy up the tiny spaces and extract them for all their worth. They never do. So those dark abandoned laneways remain as reminders of the ancient past this city has failed to outgrow.
I suddenly smack myself in the center of my forehead. I grind my palm in. “Those are some pretty damn stupid thoughts. You should clean up your brain before you get to school. Oh yeah, and you should run,” I mutter.
I do as I’m told, and I push into a sprint.
I shove down a little space between two apartment blocks. The park’s just there in front of me.
If you asked me, it’s the drabbest thing I’ve ever seen. It’s used – only on the weekends, but that doesn’t really matter as long as it gives the families around these parts a glimpse of green grass and a breath of air from apartment living. But when it’s not in use, it looks like it’s out of some kind of horror show. I once was flipping through a book on Soviet history, and I found a playground that looked almost exactly like it in Chernobyl of all places.
There are two swings and some climbing equipment, but regardless of the fact the Council only replaced both last year, they still look ancient. The grass is patchy, and while there are a couple of solid stone retaining walls, they’re stained from weather, cigarette butts, and other unquestionable substances.
I usually don’t like coming through here. Though if I’m really down, I’ve been known to spend hours on the swing, just kicking my legs back and forth and waiting for my life to get back to normal.
It never works, of course, and the park only ever leaves me feeling worse.
“Just get through it and get to the other side,” I mutter.
That’s the plan, at least.
I throw myself forward, my old, slightly worn shoes skidding over the bald patches of grass and tearing up chunks of turf. They splatter over my socks. It must’ve rained last night. I slept right through. In my apartment, it was hot as hell. This summer has been the worst. I always feel like, while everyone else is enjoying themselves, I’m the unlucky one getting smothered.
I don’t know about being smothered, but I’m certainly unlucky, which is proven when I take another step and slip right down onto my ass. It’s a hard jolt, and it travels up through my hip and into my lower back. I curse loudly as my bag slides off my shoulder and slaps into a muddy puddle beside me. It trashes my already frumpy uniform.
“Dammit,” I snarl.
I shove up.
I’ve already passed the swing. It’s dead quiet today. There isn’t even a breeze. But from behind me, I hear this creak. The swing has started to move.
I frown. I know in closed-off places like this sometimes you can get blasts of wind that affect one thing but not another. All of the tall apartment blocks around me can act like funnels. But this makes the skin along the back of my neck itch. My hair stands on end, and these tingles escape down into my palms, across my wrists, and up into my elbows.
I turn slowly. By the time I do, I’ve already told myself a thousand times that there’s nothing there.
But that’s when I see a woman.
She’s older – maybe in her fifties. She’s wearing suit pants, a gray jacket, a red top, and a strange gold necklace. Oh yeah, and she’s dead.
There’s a knife right in her chest. Blood’s running down from the wound. It’s more than I’ve ever seen in my entire life.
I freeze. For about five seconds, I can’t unstick myself. My whole body feels like it’s been cemented in place. The first thing to move is my left hand. It gropes open, then closes into a fist. It’s an involuntary action. It’s as if someone has shoved electrodes into my brain and they’re learning how to move my body independently.
I close my eyes once. I open them again, but she’s still there. Because this is real.
I scream. I tilt my head back, and I open my lungs, giving it everything I can.
I crumple a hand over my mouth. Still shaking, I leave my bag exactly where it is, and I rush over to her.
I reach her. “Are you…?” I begin, my body still shaking, but I never get the opportunity to place a hand on her.
There’s another blast of wind. This time I feel it, because it rushes into me. It grabs my hair and sends it whipping over my face.
I’m forced to turn around. I bring up an arm and hide behind it.
By the time I turn, the unimaginable has occurred. The lady is gone. But the blood isn’t. It’s dripping down the old seat of the swing. It’s formed a little puddle underneath where her limp feet were.
I scream this time. I jerk back.
This is impossible. Bodies don’t just appear only to disappear. The only way that can happen is if the mind is not functioning.
I… I’m hallucinating.
I squeeze my eyes closed. Maybe I’m still asleep. Perhaps this is just a false awakening. I’ve had them in the past.
It’s the only thing that could make sense.
I back off. My eyes are still closed.
I suddenly tumble down to my ass. My foot struck a stone of some description. As I feel another gust of wind, it comes racing over my shoulder. Then the swing creaks.
I’m forced to open my eyes. And once more, she’s there. She’s sitting in exactly the same position. Her head is tilted to the side. Her gray-flecked black hair is a mess over her front. I can see one side of her face, though, and her eyes are open. They stare at me lifelessly.
I clamp a hand on my mouth. I continue to shake so badly, it feels like I’m gonna pull my fingers out of my palm.
I shake my head. I close my eyes. I open them, but this time, she’s still there. I scream again.
There’s no one about. Especially not at this time. Plus, though this is a pretty good neighborhood, it’s not the kind of place where people will automatically rush to your aid. Which is evidenced by the fact that not a single person opens a window in the surrounding apartment blocks and calls out to find out how I am.
It’s just me. Me and the dead body.
I… it takes me so long to shove up. When I finally do, I feel like I’m dead.
I’m cold. Cold all through. But then patches of heat start to build within me. They begin in my hands. That doesn’t make sense. I might not be an ace at biology, but I understand how a person’s circulatory system works. In times of shock, blood is redirected to the core – to the organs and the important infrastructure that actually runs the body. The peripheral limbs can go to hell – that is unless you have to run. And now running is the very last thing I can do. I barely manage to walk. I make it over to her.
I try to place a hand on her shoulder. That’s when my fingers are rebuffed. It makes no frigging sense. The sensation is unlike anything I have ever experienced. It’s as if I have struck some kind of invisible wall – one that’s made out of pure energy.
I yelp, jerk my fingers back, and stare at them. I almost think I see a few sparks of something charging over them and disappearing into the air.
I back off again. I keep shaking my head. “This is impossible. Dead people don’t just appear only to disappear.” I close my eyes, giving the body another chance to disappear, but this time, it remains exactly where it is.
“You must still be asleep. Or if you’re not asleep, then… you’ve gone mad. Turn right around. Call the police on yourself,” I mutter. My voice is as weak as I’ve ever heard it. I open my eyes again. I stare at the body. This time I can even hear the blood dripping down from that wound. It slides over the metal chains of the swing, reaches the base, then drips onto the patch of dead grass below.
It’s that last detail that really gets to me. Would a hallucination really have such information?
“No frigging way—” I mutter.
I’ve been telling myself that the woman is dead. There’s no way she’s alive – not with sightless eyes like that. I’ve never seen a corpse before, but there’s something that I fancy is ingrained in every single human being – the ability to recognize death when it stares us right in the face.
But that’s when she splutters. It’s the barest of moves. I only make it out because I’m paying attention to her with everything I have.
As soon as she makes a sound, I jolt. I rush over to her.
I am still shaking all over.
She blinks her eyes closed, then opens them one at a time.
It’s the strangest thing, but she’s still got a dead, hollow gaze. There are two tiny flickers of life right in the middle of her pupils. It’s almost as if she’s fighting death off – but only for a few seconds.
Her lips wobble open.
I’m forced to get closer. I fall onto my knees in front of her. My uniform is now ruined. “What… what happened to you? Who did this to you? Are you even real?” I can’t help but add that last bit.
She reaches a hand out to me. Her fingers are dripping with blood. Before they can lock on the side of my face, she reaches that wall of resistance I encountered earlier. There are sparks, and this time, I genuinely see them. They flash around her hand as if trying to stop her in place, but she simply tightens her fingers into a fist and mutters something I can’t catch under her breath. That magical wall shatters. I can see it. Sparks erupt everywhere.
I scream, but I don’t get a chance to jolt back. She suddenly leans forward and grabs both of my hands. “You’re magical,” she whispers. “A Grail, no less.”
“You need… you need to stay away from them.”
“Stay away from whom?” I stammer.
“Stay away from them. They’ll only use you to kill.”
As soon as she says the word kill, a wash of fear rushes over me. It’s not like I need a reminder that this woman is dead, or at least on the very edge of death. But her words are nonetheless a timely reality check.
I stare down at the dagger in her chest again. I lurch forward to remove it, but she won’t let me. She continues to hold my hands in a tight grip. She doesn’t just use her strength. Energy collects around her fingers. I’ve never felt anything like it. No, that’s a lie. I’ve felt something like it in my dreams. It is a power unlike anything else. Modern technologies can’t match it. Nor can robots. Nor can anything save for magic itself.
She grips my fingers even harder. Her eyes widen. Then suddenly they close in a moment of weakness. When she manages to blink them open again, I swear she’s died once more. All the light has left her pupils.
I scream and go to jerk away, but she won’t let me, and with her dying strength, she’s still holding onto me. “Stay away from them. Whatever you do. Don’t let them… do to you what they plan to do to the rest of us.”
“What are you talking about? Who are you?” I demand, but she’s losing the battle against passing away.
I can tell she’s starting to die. It’s as if something is disappearing through my fingers – like I’ve been foolish enough to cup water in my hands, and now I’m crying at the fact that it’s leaking between my weak grip.
Her head goes to flop to the side.
I try to grasp it, to hold her up, to give her another chance to rouse, but that’s when I hear something behind me. At first I think it’s the scattering of leaves – then I realize it’s too loud and too pronounced.
I immediately jerk my head around. That sound reminds me of something I’ve only ever heard in my dreams. Those monsters, to be exact.
As a rush of terror grips me, I swear I can see something. It’s just around the side of one of the apartment blocks.
Fear the likes of which I have never experienced just explodes in my stomach. It ricochets up to my heart then bounces around my chest. It’s gonna swallow me – gonna crack me in two.
I think I see something flitting toward me. It’s moving fast – faster than anything should in this world. I swear I see a glittering yellow gaze, but whatever it is, it never manifests.
There’s a grunt from behind me. I turn my head over my shoulder to see the woman opening her hand. “I command you,” she screams at the top of her lungs, “to protect all you can.” A blast of yellow magic shoots out of her fingers. It sails forward. It smashes into that creature, and it scatters into dust.
I scream. I fall to my ass.
I open my eyes.
The woman’s still there. Her body has become limp. She has breathed her last breath.
All I can hear is the sound of her dead form as the swing is pushed back and forth in the wind.
I call the police. There’s nothing else I can do.
I want this to all be in my head. It has to be nothing more than a hallucination, but as I sit there, blinking my eyes open and closed and waiting for her to disappear, she remains. She can’t go away, because there really is a dead body on that swing.
By the time the cops arrive, it starts to rain. Just as the squad car pulls up, the unimaginable occurs. When the first droplet of rain falls onto her body, I hear this hissing sound. The next thing I know, she disappears.
I’m left there, standing in complete shock.
I want to erase every single thing I saw and pretend it’s not real, but her commanding words still boom in my mind. I have no clue if her departing comment was for her spell or for me. But the words protect all just reverberate in my skull.
The police aren’t happy. They think I’m some foolish kid who’s out for kicks. They take my name and threaten to prosecute me for wasting their time.
When it’s finally over, I pick myself up and walk away.
I can’t think of a damn thing.
My head is empty. My body isn’t. These tingles race around me. It’s like I’ve swallowed a tidal wave. And it’s one that won’t sit still. No matter how many times it crashes against the shore of my mind, it keeps attacking me. By the time I finally make it to school – on-foot, no less – I’m a total mess.
I expect to be dragged in front of the principal. In my head, the police have already called him.
Even if I’m not, people are gonna ask valid questions. They’re going to want to know why I’m completely covered in mud.
But before I can even walk into the school grounds, someone darts forward, grabs my elbow, and pulls me to the side.
It’s Fiona, my best friend.
She takes one look at me, pulls back, and gasps in amazement. “What the hell happened to you? I got worried when you didn’t pick up your phone. I kind of figured that something happened at home. Maybe you had a fight with a neighbor or something. But this?”
I go to open my mouth, but I have no clue what to tell her, so I simply close my lips.
I let my gaze slice down and lock on my feet.
She ducks her head forward. Her blond hair slides over her shoulder. It frames her blue eyes. They just get me thinking about my knight in shining armor. To think, I wasted precious time drawing his face for 10 minutes. If I hadn’t done that, I would never have missed the bus. And if I hadn’t missed the bus….
I collapse my arms around my middle. We’re close to the school wall. It’s tall and runs around the entire campus. I turn and lock my shoulders against it and close my eyes.
“You look like hell. You okay?” Fiona asks as she grabs my shoulder and rubs it.
I jolt a little.
“What happened?” she demands now, her voice getting harder. Not with anger, but with the need to know why I’m acting so weird.
I realize I have to tell her something. The police were pretty pissed this morning. They are going to call the school. So the truth will get out.
It’s hard to bring it up, though. What should I say? I hallucinated? Or it was a prank?
I rub my face. “I thought I saw something on the way to school. A… crime. I called the cops. But then… it turned out I didn’t see it. I guess it was… a trick of the light or something.”
“Oh my God, poor you.” She rushes in and hugs me.
I try to hold it together and not cry.
She pulls back. She stares down at my uniform. “Lucky for you I’ve got a uniform in my bag. We don’t even have to sneak back into school to the locker room. But we’ve gotta hurry. The busses are gonna be here shortly.”
I have no clue what she’s talking about. Every time I close my eyes, all I can see is that woman dead on the swing. I think the sound of it moving is gonna be with me for life. It has become buried in my psyche as if it’s sprouted roots.
“The excursion,” she says as she frowns at me. “To the new wing of the museum? The Arthurian legends exhibition? You know those artifacts they dug up recently? Is any of this ringing a bell?”
Yeah, it is. I finally nod. I was actually excited about this excursion. But that was before whatever the heck happened this morning.
Fiona pulls me down to a public bathroom that’s nearby, and I change into her uniform. Fortunately, it fits me well.
By the time we get back, the buses are arriving.
The principal is out and about, but he doesn’t scream at me to come over.
I hope either the police have decided to let it go, or they haven’t contacted him yet.
I’ll deal with everything when we get back from the exhibition.
How will I deal with it, though? I always promise myself that. I’m forever telling myself that if I push my problems away, I’ll find a way to get over them later. Yet while there’s always a later, there’s never a solution.
I guess that’s the way you’re taught to think in life when you can’t trust anyone or anything.
Fiona sits right beside me as we travel to the exhibition.
She tries to engage me in conversation. I can hardly pay attention. My mind’s back with that woman. I go through absolutely everything I saw. I try to tell myself that I was just tired. I saw something that wasn’t there because… because I didn’t sleep well. That’s it. I got overheated last night. It must’ve cooked my brains.
I can tell myself that all I want, but it doesn’t change the heavy pressure building in my body. By the time we make it to the museum, I feel like I’m going to explode. Fiona is doing her best to distract me. She loops her arm through mine and helps me down the stairs of the bus.
Fortunately the kids are too distracted to notice me.
I really don’t need any more excuses to get on the bad side of most of the school. That always happens to me, see. I do something weird or someone takes a disliking to me, then I’m kicked right down the bottom of the social heap. Then I’m always forced to move on to a new school. I figure out how to fix my life again and get everything back on track, and I go back to surviving.
As I tilt my head up and I look at the sky, I feel like something’s changed for good. There’s going to be no more mere surviving. And there will be absolutely no more hiding.
A jolt travels hard down my back.
We are in the car park at the back of the museum. The teacher who’s looking after our class starts to do the roll call.
I get distracted. I turn around. That’s when I watch another bus roll into the museum car park.
Fiona is staring in the direction I am. She instantly purses her lips and whistles. “Well, damn,” she says, putting all the emphasis on damn she possibly can until her voice shakes. She follows it up with biting her lip.
“What? Where does that bus come from?” There’s an emblem on the side, but I have absolutely no clue what it means. I feel like I’ve seen it before, but I can’t put my finger on it.
“It is only the most elite school in the city. Hell, what am I talking about? It’s the most elite school in all of the country. You can’t just be rich to go there. You have to be special.” She hisses special until it feels like she’s trying to carve it out of the air with sparkling lights.
I frown at her. This is the first time I’ve managed to be distracted from the incident in the park. “What do you mean by special?”
“My cousin – you know my cousin?”
I make a face. “The entire world knows your cousin. Owing to the fact he’s the only son of one of the most famous rock stars there’s ever been.”
“Yeah, him. He wanted to go to that school,” she gestures to the bus, “but he was knocked back. I know of countless other examples. Money and prestige aren’t enough to get you in.”
“So what will get you in?” I mutter.
She shrugs. “I’ve got no clue. All I know is that I don’t have it. They,” she points a finger at the bus just as the doors open and the students start to walk down, “have it in spades.”
I get stuck staring at them. I’m not the only one. The teacher might still be valiantly doing the roll call, but nobody is paying the faintest scrap of attention.
The kids who walk down from that bus look otherworldly. They look a lot older, too. Beyond that….
Maybe some people might get stuck on their looks. I don’t. Even as two guys walk down who look like they could be models, I ignore them.
Their looks are irrelevant. There’s something….
I suddenly yank up my sleeve and start scratching at my arm. It’s a violent move as if I’ve just felt worms wriggling under my skin.
No one is paying attention to me – not even Fiona.
She’s craning her head to get a better look.
“Pay attention,” our teacher tries.
Nobody pays attention. It takes until all of those kids file in through the museum doors until anyone even bothers to look around.
Fiona pushes in close. “Did you see that guy with the green eyes? I mean, damn, kids our age can’t really look like that, right? He was like otherworldly or something.”
I get uncomfortable on the term otherworldly.
Yeah, that school bus and all of the students on it was a distraction. But now….
I see that woman again. I see her dead stare.
I grab my face and run my fingers down it.
Fiona is with it enough to help me into the back of the museum when the roll call is finished.
To think, I was actually excited about this exhibition once upon a time.
It led right back into my dreams, see. Like I said, ever since my sixteenth birthday, I’ve been dreaming that same dream. It’s always me on horseback with that knight in magical armor. So when the chance to find more about knights came up, I got genuinely excited.
I want to find some kind of hole to hide in.
I don’t want to be seen while I’m this fragile.
I just want to close my eyes and figure out what happened.
It had to have been a hallucination, right?
I nod. Of course I was seeing things. Because what else could it possibly have been?
I’m only half paying attention to where I’m walking. Fiona has just jolted off to the side to an exhibition on jewelry.
With no one to guide and steer me while I’m in this fog, I walk right into the back of some guy. It’s not one of our students. It’s one from that fancy school.
The guy has his hands in his pockets. He slowly turns and looks at me.
I don’t even bother to mutter sorry. I just walk around him.
I never lift my dead stare.
“You alright?” he calls after me.
I ignore him.
I try to tell myself that there’s nothing wrong with me, but then why are my arms so itchy? Why does it feel as if there’s pressure building in my chest?
It’s that last one that really freaks me out. Back when my dad left, I started to suffer from panic attacks. Any kid would. He was my last haven. Everyone else in my life had abandoned me either through sickness or by just walking out.
I really can’t afford to have a panic attack here. Not in front of all of the kids from my school – and certainly not in front of the kids from that posh academy.
As my eyes widen, I start to look for the bathrooms.
I can’t find them, but I soon spy a room that’s cordoned off with tape.
It’s probably got some kind of new exhibition in it. Or maybe it’s being built. Who cares? As long as there’s no one in there, that’s all that matters for me.
I duck under the tape.
I push inside.
The room is unusually large and unusually dusty. I thought this was meant to be the unveiling of a new wing of the museum?
Maybe they’ve built on to a particularly old section of the museum or something. That’s the only thing that can account for just how old this room feels.
It’s got a really high ceiling. Maybe it had a mezzanine level once upon a time, or maybe it was built for acoustics.
It doesn’t have many windows. The few it does have are high up the wall. They’re right up next to the ceiling. They let in a little light. But it’s not enough to properly illuminate this place.
It’s full of junk. I don’t know if it’s construction equipment. Most of it is covered in dust cloths.
Sometimes I suffer from asthma, and the sight of dust cloths is like the sight of a spider to someone with arachnophobia. I instantly clamp a hand over my mouth.
I turn to leave, but I can’t.
I close my eyes, and all I can hear is that damn squeaking of the swing.
“It didn’t really happen. You have to put it out of your head. You have to move on, because it didn’t damn well happen,” I mutter to myself, my hands still clasped over my mouth.
“What happened?” a deep voice asks from behind me.
I turn quickly. I don’t have good balance at the best of times. Especially not now that I’m so rattled.
I tumble to the side. There’s a pile of dust cloths to my left, and my feet get all caught up in them.
Before I can fall face-first on this unyielding old concrete floor, a guy reaches in and grabs me.
His grip is like nothing else. As soon as it closes around my arm, it feels like I’m being held in place by a mountain.
There’s something more, though. It’s a jolt. It’s exactly the kind of sensation that I felt when that woman grabbed me.
I freak out. My eyes widen, and I push back.
That just overbalances me further.
Before I can pull him down on top of me and we can fall in a tumble of limbs on those dust cloths, he twists me to the side.
My hair fans around my face.
I feel it again. Just a little jolt of magic. This time, it pushes into my back, holding me steady until I stand straight again.
And it takes me approximately three more seconds to realize what I just thought. A jolt of magic?
It’s the same guy I walked into earlier. The same guy that Fiona noted in the car park. The one with the green eyes. They’re like emeralds – though a shade too pale. But they give me the impression that the reason they’re pale is so that when they choose to shine with light, they will be seen from a mile off.
And that is a strange impression to have indeed.
He frowns at me. “You okay? You realize you can’t be in here, right?” He turns and looks at the place. “This isn’t even part of the real museum.”
“Not… part of the real museum?” I stammer.
He looks me up and down. “Where are you from, anyway?”
I shake my head. I can’t engage in a conversation right now with anyone. I can’t do anything. I… I felt something when he touched me. It couldn’t have been my imagination. He has magic.
No. I slam the brakes on that thought so fast, it’s a surprise it doesn’t cause a car crash in the middle of my frigging skull.
Magic doesn’t exist. What I saw this morning was impossible.
The only explanation of what is going on with me is that I’m finally cracking. It’s understandable. My life is a train wreck I’ve only just managed to keep together.
Without a word, I go to turn away from him. I’ll head to the bathrooms. I’ll break down. I’ll cry. Then the teacher will come, and I’ll admit that I need to get out of here.
I don’t get the chance to.
He reaches out and grabs my arm.
He holds it for a few seconds until, once more, I feel that jolt of magic.
I yank my head around and stare at him.
He considers the surprise widening my eyes. I can see the suspicion narrowing his. “You felt something just then, didn’t you?” His voice is deceptively quiet. It’s that way so I can’t tell his tone. But I can read his expression.
It focuses in with interest.
My heart skips four beats. I yank my arm back from his hand. “I don’t know you,” I mutter.
“That’s not nearly as interesting as the fact that I don’t know you, and I know every single gifted in this town.”
The way he says gifted… God, it’s horrifying. It does things to me. It shakes up a part of me I didn’t even know existed. I clutch my arms around my middle. I sway a little. I go to run out of the room, but I have another uncoordinated moment. My knees collapse. This time he’s too far away to save me. I fall on a dust cloth. It catches under my feet and sends me tumbling to the left. There’s an old, rough wooden box to my side. I fall on top of it, and I cut my thumb as I slide down onto the floor.
I hiss in pain. It’s a long, deep gash.
He takes a step up to me. “What are you—” he begins.
I clutch my thumb hard. It’s a really deep cut, I realize with a surprised pang. I’ve already bled all over that box.
And that would be when the box gives a jolt.
I’m right next to it.
I just stare at it. I stare in that way that any human does when every single rule of their once stable universe starts to get violated.
The box shakes again. But that’s not all that happens. This yellow light starts to pick up from within it. It’s not an ordinary light. This isn’t caused by diodes. This isn’t even some natural luminescence. This is….
“Jesus, there’s a farling in there.” He grabs my arm and pulls me back.
The box continues to shake.
I hear this scratching sound. Immediately it brings me back to the park.
I feel like something is climbing my back. It’s using me as a ladder to pull itself up from hell.
He keeps a hand secured around my elbow.
He holds his hand out forward. It’s in a defensive position. It almost looks like he’s holding a sword. But he isn’t. There’s nothing in his grip but air.
The box continues to shake. Then the impossible occurs. It pushes up, and it starts to hover a few feet in the air.
“No,” I stammer. “No way. This is not happening again. This is not happening.”
I’m way beyond caring that I’m being pathetic in front of him. This just has to stop. I’m not magical. It doesn’t exist. Magic is just something my brain has invented during a period of high stress.
The box suddenly explodes.
Wood shards blast out everywhere. By all rights, they should smash into the guy and cut him, but they don’t. He twists his hand to the side, and something appears in front of him.
It’s another one of those invisible force fields. As the wood smashes into it, I can see it scattering off. A few shards even catch the light. They’re dust by the time they strike the floor.
“What?” I stammer. I can’t finish the sentence. I can’t push a thing out of my shaking lips.
I go to fall down to my knees, but the guy won’t let me. He yanks me to the side. “Don’t let it touch you,” he snaps.
Something suddenly lands down from the remains of the blasted box.
It takes me no time at all to recognize what it is. It’s one of those elongated, shadowy creatures – exactly like the ones from my dream.
The guy won’t let me stand there, though. He shoves into me, pushes me to the side, then slices his hand forward.
Light blasts out. But it doesn’t smash into the creature. It jumps into the air. It’s seriously lithe.
It moves like it doesn’t have a body. Because it doesn’t have one, does it? It has the magical approximation of one. It has a force that unites it and brings together the various molecules of its form. That force isn’t muscles. And God knows it’s not bones.
It is not constrained by the same range of movement that we are. That’s a fact it proves as it turns its head a full 360 degrees. Then it runs up the wall beside it.
I can’t scream. I don’t think there’s any shock left in me. It was beaten out of me by that dead body this morning.
The creature is now running across the ceiling. Its head continues to whip this way and that. As it twists around, it sounds like someone getting ready to flick a rubber band.
The guy never drops my arm. His fingers sink into my elbow, locking me in place hard without hurting me.
“This isn’t happening,” I try weakly.
“Nobody ever got anywhere denying reality,” he mutters. “Now, move.” He shoves me in the side.
I tumble to the side. It’s just in time. The creature suddenly opens its mouth, and something lances down from its gullet. It smashes into where I was standing. If it weren’t for the fact the guy pushed me, that attack would’ve struck me right on the chest.
I fall back onto my ass, my skirt up around my knees. Chunks of floor hail down around me. A few strike my cheeks and cut them.
The guy lets out a roar. He jolts forward. He slices around with his hand again, but while he does manage to attack, the creature is too fast.
“Dammit. This is an ancient one. What the hell was it doing in this museum?” he mutters.
I haven’t bothered to pull myself up to my feet yet. What’s the point? If this is real, then there’s nothing I can do. And if this isn’t real – which is the most likely scenario – then this is some kind of hallucination. It’s better for me to stay exactly where I am.
The guy has no intention of letting me do that. With a roar parting his lips, he reaches around, grabs me, and pulls me to the side. He starts to back off into me.
I can tell he wants to head toward the door and back toward the safety of other people, but the creature doesn’t give us that opportunity. It suddenly snaps its head toward the door then leaps. Its body twists around until it’s standing between the door and us.
The guy swears. The move’s deep, and it shakes through his chest. It pushes into me. It makes this even more real.
I suddenly squeeze my eyes shut. No way. Magic does not exist.
As I keep my eyes closed, I’m treated to the sight of my dream, not the murder.
I feel myself on the back of that horse, my knight in shining armor right in front of me.
“Fight it,” he whispers.
At first, I can’t really hear his voice. It’s fading as if someone has thrown a blanket over it.
But as he says fight again, I feel that rush of energy I did from my dream. There’s an energy inside me.
It’s an energy I can no longer put to sleep. It has risen and will continue to rise, regardless of whether I want it or not.
“This farling is too powerful for me. I need a frigging sword, but I can’t draw,” the guy spits.
I open my eyes.
I’m still shaking, but it’s not because I’m disbelieving every single thing that’s in front of me.
I can still hear that voice echoing in my mind.
I can’t fight it anymore – what I am.
I can’t fight it, because it will rise without me even if I try to push it down.
I’m suddenly aware of the fact that the creature is about to attack. Don’t ask me how I know that. But I’m certain that it’s about to unleash an unholy barrage right at the guy. He’s strong and fast, but he won’t be able to withstand it.
He doesn’t know this, though. He jolts forward, seeing an opportunity that is not there.
I don’t know how all of these certainties are rushing through me. I’ve got no clue where they come from. But I cannot deny them. All I can do is go with the sensations building and rushing through my body.
I jolt forward. It’s just as he spreads his hand open.
I skid down to my knees. I grab his left hand. I pull him back.
“Don’t—” he begins.
Magic rushes through me, and this time, there’s no denying it. For its power is unchecked and impossible to ignore.
I don’t know where it starts. Or maybe it has no specific location in my body and comes from everywhere at once. But the thing I note above all else is its power. As it rushes through me, it opens my eyes. It takes me back to my dream then beyond. It allows me to see my life in a new light. This – what I’m displaying right now – is the true me. The Dawn from before was nothing more than a fiction.
That light is visible. As the magic rushes through me, it appears over my skin as these deep green runes. They’re the color of new oak leaves.
The guy turns around. He becomes slack-jawed as he stares at my hand. Magic is now rushing into his fingers. It’s crackling up his elbows. It’s dancing over the top of his uniform. “You’re a Grail,” he says in a stilted voice that is so filled with awe, it’s as if he has just chanced upon a wonder of the world.
That creature screams. It clearly senses an opportunity.
It slices toward the guy. Magic builds in its gullet. But it never gets the chance to attack fully. Out of nowhere, the guy pulls a sword. He just reaches over his shoulder and grabs hold of something. Then the next thing I know, a blade appears out of thin air. It is no ordinary sword. It instantly reminds me of my dreams. It’s the same kind of broadsword my knight in shining armor always carries. And, just like that sword, it’s completely covered in magic. It races up the blade, plays along the hilt, and rushes across the guy’s fingers.
It lights up the side of his face until so much power is playing over his features, he doesn’t look human anymore – nowhere near.
As he pulls the sword in front of his body, it forms some kind of protective barrier. The creature’s attack lances into it. It is completely absorbed. The guy isn’t even forced to skid back.
He lets out a growl.
“Whatever you do, don’t move. Don’t stop concentrating,” he stammers, that awe still blasting through his tone.
He throws himself forward. He lets out another scream. I hear the sound of his expensive shoes skidding along the dusty floor. He leaps into the air. He is almost suspended there for a second as magic builds around him. It pushes from the sword into his body until he’s so bright, he could light up the city. Then he slices down. This time, the creature cannot dodge him. The blade cuts right through its middle.
It tries to fight him, but his magic is too strong. The creature is blasted apart. Its scattered remains have a chance to strike the walls before they turn into dust. The dust does not stick around. It quickly disappears into wisps of curling gray smoke.
I stare over at the guy just as he turns, just as his expression falters, and just as his mouth drops open. And just as he says something that will shatter my world from now until forever. “You’re a Grail.”
I’m still shaking, but my magic is starting to disappear. I stare at my hands. I watch as the light sinks into my body. It doesn’t go for good, though. I can feel it. It’s moving through me. It’s like I’ve swallowed a storm. It is not one that is designed to destroy me, though. It’s one that, at any chance, with just a thought, I will be able to invoke once more.
There’s a hiss, and the guy’s sword starts to disappear. He shoves it back over his shoulder, and I hear the sound of it moving back into a sheath. But then it’s gone.
He drops his hand. It falls weakly to his side. He takes a step up to me. I’m aware of his breathing. It’s unusually heavy.
As for my breathing, it’s erratic. I’m panting as if I’ve just run a marathon. I even grip my chest.
“You’re a real Grail,” he says again. I didn’t think his voice could become filled with more awe, but it does. And it’s nothing compared to how he stares at me.
The last few scraps of my sanity start to catch up to me, and I shake my head. I push to my feet. “This… didn’t….”
“Happen?” he finishes my sentence, his voice shooting up high with amazement. “You can’t deny what’s right in front of you. It did happen. You’re magical. What’s your name?” he demands quickly.
I can’t stop shaking my head. “This didn’t happen.” I open my hands wide. I look at him. I look back to where the creature was, but it’s gone. You know what? So is that box I tumbled into. All evidence of what occurred has just disappeared.
… Which is what would happen if this was a hell of a hallucination, I tell myself quickly. I start to breathe too hard. “Magic doesn’t exist. This didn’t happen. It’s all in my head.”
“Like hell it is. You’re a Grail. You’re the rarest of all magical breeds. You need to—”
I shove to my feet.
Two students from his school have just appeared in the doorway.
I spy my opportunity. Neither of them is paying attention to me. They’re clearly after their friend.
“Hey,” he calls after me desperately.
I do not give him the opportunity to run after me.
I rush out of the door.
I know he’s going to be hot on my heels. I quickly search for a place to hide. I don’t need to search for long. There’s a door that leads out into the car park. It’s not one for standard patrons, though. It’s some kind of service door. The only reason it’s open is a maintenance guy has just walked through.
I grab it just before it can close, and I dart through. I slam it shut.
“What are you doing?” some guy asks from behind me.
I press my fingers into the door. When that magician doesn’t hammer on it, I realize he has no clue where I’ve gone.
Sorry. Not a magician. Just a guy.
Because this is a hallucination.
I let go of the door. I’m still shaking.
“Kid,” the maintenance guy from behind me says in a strict voice. “What—”
“I need to throw up,” I stammer.
The guy gets out of my way and points to a door that leads to the car park.
I grab hold of it. I push out.
While it would be tempting to just tumble down to my knees, I know I can’t.
Though I’m certain this was just a hallucination and I keep repeating that to myself, I know that guy is going to come after me. Which makes no sense. He would have no reason to follow me if everything that had transpired had only been in my head. But I’m not in any position to think things through.
I round the edge of the car park, running as fast as I can.
Then I just keep running.
My phone’s in my pocket. It takes me a few blocks until I call Fiona.
I tell her that she needs to dream up an excuse for my teacher and that I won’t be back all day.
She is not happy.
I hang up while I still can. Then I find some alleyway. I crawl down it. Literally. I can’t even keep myself up anymore.
I find a dumpster, hide behind it, curl up into a ball, and just… collapse. Both inwardly and outwardly.
This can’t be happening. There’s no way I’m magical.
All I am is Dawn Cooper – a pathetic screwup with no hope and no power.
I’m not a Grail, whatever that is.
And this… this will all be over when I open my eyes again.
I don’t know how long I remain there behind the dumpster.
By the time I finally pull myself out, it’s raining. It looks like a good few hours have passed.
I tell myself that that guy won’t be following me anymore. He would’ve given up. Right?
I quickly shake my head. I secure my hands around my elbows. “Does that even make the tiniest bit of sense, Dawn?” I hiss at myself. “That guy would not have run after you. He would’ve only run after you if you were a Grail and everything you saw and did back there was real….”
I shake my head.
That was a stupid thing to think. That word… it does things to me. Things that a mere word should not be able to do to somebody. It’s like a key that someone has just thrust into my chest to unlock my darkest secrets.
I lock a hand on my sternum. I really grind my palm in. I massage until I feel pain. I don’t stop there.
I squeeze my eyes as tightly shut as they can possibly go.
“This is not happening. Just… get home. Deal with the police and the principal. And every other problem in your life.”
As I drag myself away from that dumpster, I tell myself that none of this happened. With every step I get, I actually manage to believe that fact.
When there are no sirens and there are no more of those shadowy creatures, I fool myself into believing that all of this was some kind of psychiatric episode. And it’s over now, I think hopefully.
I don’t take the bus back home. I walk in the rain. It’s good for me. It allows me to put everything in perspective.
I’ll find a way to deal with the police. I know a good doctor, too. I’ll explain what happened. And even if I have to be booked in for treatment, I’ll do it.
Before my mother died, according to my father at least, she went mad.
So I have the genes for insanity.
Maybe this was just my first taste of what that experience is gonna be like.
By the time I finally make it home, it’s raining so hard, I feel like it’s punishment from God.
I drag myself up to my apartment. I unlock it, open the door, and immediately collapse down onto my knees. I shove my hands over my face. I inch my foot behind me and kick the door closed. I go to flop against it, but that’s when I hear something. Someone just cleared their throat.
Because someone’s inside my apartment.
My apartment’s small, and the front door leads onto the kitchen. The kitchen bench is right in front of me, separating me from the rest of the room.
“Who’s there?” I say in a high-pitched, scared voice.
It’s a professional voice. It’s strict and sharp. It puts me in mind of a teacher and not an assailant, but my heart is still pounding at a million miles an hour.
I launch up. I go to grab the door, but that’s when I see something shimmering over the surface of it.
“Please do not try to run. The door is locked. But understand, it’s for your own safety.”
I beat on the door once, then turn around. I finally see that there are two people sitting at my tiny chipped kitchen table. They’re in long rain jackets, but I can see what’s underneath. The guy’s wearing an expensive dark suit. The woman is wearing a blouse and a trim skirt. I can see a hint of a chain.
The man pushes up. He places his hands in front of himself, and he nods. “I am Revas Archer. This is Suzanne Williamson. We are here to take you to Saint Teresa’s.”
I just stare at them. I back off until my shoulders strike the door. I start to shake. The old wood rattles with me. “How the hell did you get in here? You’re not the police. You’re—”
“We are teachers at Saint Teresa’s – the most prodigious school for magic in the country.” Revas nods low.
I shake my head even harder. “Magic doesn’t exist,” I stutter.
Revas shares a look with Suzanne. She pushes to her feet. Rather than talk things through, she just opens her hand. A fireball settles in her grip.
I whimper and fall down to my butt. I grab my face. “Nothing that happened today existed. Go away. It was all in my head.”
I hear footfall as they near. “Do not doubt what is in front of your eyes,” Suzanne says. It’s similar to that statement that guy said in the museum.
I just block it out by childishly grabbing my ears and grinding my palms in hard.
“You need to come with us, Miss Cooper. The paperwork is complete, and your current school knows you are transferring.”
The suddenness of that comment gets to me, and I drop my hands. “What?”
“You can keep the lease on this apartment if you wish,” Revas says as he shoots my home a somewhat disgruntled glance. “But all students at Teresa’s board there. It is to ensure that we can control your powers at all times. And with you, that will be doubly necessary. You will not be able to go out without a chaperone.”
“Chaperone?” I say breathlessly. I shake my head again. “Can you just go away? I need to call the ambulance. I’m having a psychiatric episode.”
There’s another pause. “While it is common for late-stage witches to doubt their sanity, this is getting somewhat tiresome, Miss Cooper,” Suzanne says. “You’re clearly magical. John informed us what occurred today at the museum. Without your assistance, he would’ve had quite an incident on his hands. Then again, you did inadvertently cause it by offering up your blood to a farling.”
“Offering… offering up my blood to a farling?”
“Grail blood is supremely powerful. It attracts farlings. It is another reason that you must be controlled. Now, please rise. Take whatever you need and come with us.”
“I’m not going anywhere with you people. I don’t know who you are. I—”
“There is nothing left for you here. Grails cannot be left unaccompanied. If you do not come with us, your future will be dark indeed.”
There’s something about the way she says that that makes me look up at them.
My heart begins to shake. “What… are you talking about?”
“Farlings will come after you. And yet, they will be the least of your troubles,” she says, her voice dropping low until it shakes with this menacing pitch no one would be able to ignore. “Many a creature will be attracted to your blood and your power. We offer you protection.”
“It’s hardly an offer,” Revas says importantly. “It’s a demand. You will risk your community if you stay here. Now, Miss Cooper, please, rise to your feet. Take your possessions, and we will accompany you to your new school. There you will learn what you are.”
“I’m….” I give up.
I keep waiting for this vision to just crack and disappear. But it isn’t. It’s steadfastly remaining in front of me, refusing to dissipate. It’s almost… like it’s really happening. I rub my face one last time. But as my fingers drop and nothing changes, I finally push up.
I stare at them warily. For Suzanne’s part, she looks a little bored. Revas looks impatient. He nods at my things dismissively again. “Take whatever you need. That being said, whatever you require will be given to you. Within reason, of course. But you are welcome to clothes, technology, whatever you wish.”
I stare at them. If this… okay, go with me for a second, but if this is really happening and this is my last chance to gather what I want, then I can’t just stand here.
I have memories in this place.
I head into my bedroom. I’m not surprised when Suzanne walks with me.
I cast a desperate glance toward my window. What I wouldn’t give to rush out. That being said, I’m on the twentieth floor, and there wouldn’t be anywhere for me to go.
I start to search around.
I don’t know what to take.
There are strong memories here, but at the same time, there are bitter ones, too.
I’ve often thought about throwing all my old stuff away.
I finally figure out what I want.
I head over to my desk. I grab up a locket with my mom’s picture in it. I shove it protectively into my pocket. Then I glance down at the drawing I did of the knight in shining armor.
I clutch it up without thinking about it. I fold it before Susan can glance at it.
Then I grab up my drawing gear. I take a few more things and dump them in a bag. Then I just stand there and stare at her. I go to tell her that this isn’t happening. She somehow knows exactly what I’m about to say, and she arches an eyebrow. “Your protestations are getting a little tiresome. Now, please, my dear, we need to be on our way. As we have said earlier, it’s not safe for you or your community for you to remain here anymore.”
It’s at the promise that it’s not safe for my community that I finally move a little faster.
I stride out. I stand near my kitchen bench. Revas is watching the door warily.
… They can’t be that serious, right? If… if magic really does exist, and I’m really a Grail, I can’t be that dangerous, right?
“This way,” Suzanne says. She doesn’t head over to the door. Instead, she turns and heads toward the window.
Like I said earlier – I’m up on the twentieth floor.
“You think this really justifies the magical use of a portal?” Revas questions.
“Can you think of a situation that would better justify one? We’ve already wasted enough time. The board will need to know the second she is in safe custody.”
“You have a point,” Revas agrees.
Suzanne grabs the window. She holds it in stiff fingers. Then she starts to mutter under her breath.
I can feel magic picking up in the air. It snags her short hair and makes it lift up around her face.
A breath becomes trapped in my throat.
She opens her mouth, exhales some magical word that I don’t catch, and thrusts a hand forward.
The window suddenly changes. It warps. Magic crackles up until there’s a circle in front of me. It’s large enough that even Revas with his tall form will be able to fit through.
The window itself has disappeared. Beyond, I see a long marble corridor.
“What the hell?” I stammer.
“At Saint Teresa’s, you will always be expected to watch your language,” Suzanne demands. “Now, come.”
I don’t thrust through that portal. I can’t. My knees seize up. It takes until Revas clears his throat from behind me that I finally jolt. That pushes my finger just beyond that magical line. It doesn’t feel like anything. My head promises me that it will feel like I’m being swallowed up, but it doesn’t. There’s only the barest tickling sensation.
“Come,” Suzanne says, her voice a deep growl.
I have no option I guess. I close my eyes and take in a breath that becomes locked in my chest, and I push through. The next thing I know, I feel myself in a whole new place entirely. The smell, the temperature, the sound level, the pressure – everything is different. It’s almost enough that I fall over, but Revas won’t let me. He comes bustling in from behind. He clears his throat importantly, turns, mutters something under his breath, and swipes his hand to the left.
The portal collapses. And that right there is probably the last time I’ll see my little apartment. I might’ve hated it, but it was my last haven.
As I turn around, I shiver. It’s involuntary. Clearly my body knows something I don’t. As I lock eyes on this grand hallway, fear climbs my back. It promises me one thing. Whatever my life was before, regardless of whether I loved or loathed it, everything has changed.
For the worst.
“This way, Miss Cooper. Your bag will be taken to your room.”
I turn and scurry quickly after Suzanne.
Every single step I take in this hallway echoes so loudly, I feel like it’s going to advertise my position to all of my enemies. And that right there – a statement about all of my enemies – is not one I have ever made in my life before. But I guess it’s one I’m gonna start to have to get used to.
I’m forced to lock another breath deep in my chest as I rush after her. My heart’s now beating hard. It’s thumping around in my sternum, shaking up into my jaw and pushing down into the back of my shoulders. It makes me feel as if I’m now balancing on a pinprick. With the slightest pressure, I’m gonna fall over for good.
We make it to a set of stairs. If I thought the hallway itself was grand, then it has nothing on the stairs. They sweep around and up to a floor above. They look like the kind of thing you’d get out of a Disney movie. You know, in some kind of proper castle.
Believe it or not, I’ve never visited a castle in all my life, despite their proliferation in the countryside. I’ve never had the time or opportunity. And frankly, I’ve never had the inkling, either. I always hate seeing how the other side lives. It only ever leads to expectations that cannot be fulfilled.
I have to place a hand on the banister beside me to steady my shaking body. I know a couple of mental techniques to try to calm myself, from taking big deep breaths, to trying to do complicated math problems in my head. Nothing’s working.
The further we climb, the more I realize this is real. You see, the castle itself is magical, too. I don’t notice it at first, but when I start to stare up at the light fittings, I see they’re not even attached to the wall. They’re just these orbs of light that are disconnected and hovering a good meter back from the ceiling. There are no power cables going to them. Worse than that, they can move around, and they do. The lights always shine on us, keeping our path up the stairs well lit. As for the stairs themselves, they are way too long. I wouldn’t claim to be an expert on architecture, but I understand some of the fundamentals of building design. Stairs this long could not be supported without thicker walls and struts.
Worse than that, I swear the stairs just keep getting longer. It’s as if they’re deciding how much we should walk, like they’re vicious personal trainers who want us to get more steps in.
“Almost there,” Suzanne says. She reaches out and taps a hand on the banister beside her. As she drums her fingers down on it, I see a few symbols leak out of her fingertips. They blast down into the wood then spread like fire.
You would think that I would have gotten over witnessing strong displays of magic by now, but you’d be wrong. My body is so jittery that it will react to anything.
I finally hear and see the stairs growing right in front of me. And it’s an unmistakable sight.
We’ve almost reached the top, but suddenly, more steps grow out of it. They’re multiplying like stairs shouldn’t. They look more like dividing cells.
“What the hell is this?” I stammer.
Suzanne reaches around and suddenly smacks the back of my knuckles. “Language,” she mutters.
I yank my hand back and massage it. It’s the same one that got cut. I tied a scrap of fabric I found around it, but it’s still a little loose. A little of my blood peeks out from underneath.
“You’re still injured. You didn’t deal with your cut. Foolish child,” Suzanne mutters.
“She will have to be taken to the nurse’s office after this,” Revas says.
“Indeed. Now, the principal is waiting.”
Suzanne walks to the end of another floor. I gasp when I realize the stairs don’t connect to anything. They simply abruptly stop. They drop back down to the floor far below in a fall that looks as if it would kill anyone, even if they had a frigging parachute.
It’s that sight that really starts to drive home to me what’s happening. If this is still a hallucination, then it is the most detailed in history. It’s going on for too long. And it….
“I suggest you get a hold of your nerves,” Revas says quietly from behind me. “I suggest you keep an open mind, too. There is much for you to learn. That is always the way with a late-stage witch.”
“You… called me a Grail.”
“Indeed. But you are still a female practitioner, so you belong to the greater category of witch, regardless of where your power comes from.”
“What… what am I, anyway?” I concentrate on talking to Revas so it can pull my attention off that abrupt drop. I’ve never been good with heights.
I say that, then I see Suzanne take a step out into nothingness.
I seize up, grip my chest, and actually yelp.
Suzanne turns around. She has not just plunged down to her death. She’s standing on… nothing at all.
As my heart races, she shoots me a somewhat peeved look. If this is Suzanne at her nicest, then I imagine she’s going to be a handful when I start to attend classes. She also looks like the kind of person who’s going to deliberately go out of her way to keep an eye on me. Which is exactly what she does now. She gives me an irritated up-and-down look. “You will become accustomed to magic soon. But, one hopes, you will not have to become accustomed to visiting the principal’s office. Now follow behind me without missing a step. Put your feet exactly where I put mine. Or we may have another reason to head to the nurse’s office.”
With that cryptic statement, she starts to walk in the air. That’s when I see that on the far wall, there’s a door. She heads toward it.
I, suffice to say, do not walk out into nothingness. I told you barely a few seconds before that I have a problem with heights. I have not miraculously gotten over that phobia in the past few seconds.
My heart pounds even harder.
Revas clears his throat. “It will not kill you. There is a hidden path to the principal’s office. It is to ensure that no one can go there without his permission.”
“What if a student has to see him for something?”
There’s a long pause. “I cannot think of a single circumstance where that would occur. The principal here is a guiding light. He is the strongest practitioner in the school. He is here to shepherd us. He is certainly not here to listen to petty complaints.”
“What if the complaint—”
“Enough,” Suzanne says. She’s already reached the door. She sighs when she realizes I haven’t followed. “Revas, take her by the arm and bring her here.”
Revas gently clasps his fingers around my arm. Then the next thing I know, he pulls me off the last step.
My whole body stiffens. I can’t help but think I’m about to plunge down to the floor below. I’ll break every single bone in my body. And hey, maybe that will be better than having to attend this crazy school.
But something appears under my feet. Something solid. It feels as if it’s something that’s always been there. It’s just… invisible.
I get stuck staring at my feet.
“Pull your head up. You don’t want to take a single misstep,” Revas reminds me.
“Why… why would it be so hard to get to the principal’s office?” I stammer.
“So nobody disturbs him when he does not wish to be disturbed,” Suzanne says imperiously.
It doesn’t make any sense. Principals shouldn’t be lauded over students like kings. They should be there to ensure the entire school runs smoothly.
This guy sounds more like an emperor on school grounds.
One that is perilously hard to get to.
Revas doesn’t give me the opportunity to misstep. He carefully pulls me along beside him.
At one point, however, my foot juts to the side slightly. That’s when I realize there’s absolutely nothing underneath my toes. If I were to push all of my pressure onto them, I would trip, and I would tumble down.
Judging by everything I’ve heard, there would be no safety net. There’d just be death.
I haven’t had a chance to think about the school – about what it will be like. I am way too busy trying to come to terms with the fact that I’m magical in the first place and that my life is about to change for good. But what kind of a school has a trap leading to the principal’s office? One that, if you can’t successfully navigate it, will kill you?
I’m soon going to get my answer.
As we arrive next to Suzanne, she flicks her gaze at me dismissively, flattens a hand down her top, clears her throat, and knocks on the door twice.
I think I hear something complicated within unlocking.
There’s a grating sound.
The door opens.
As it swings inward, I feel magic.
I might just be a late-stage witch as they keep telling me, but I clearly have senses. Miraculously, they haven’t been completely tired out by my day. I certainly feel a charge of power. It makes my tongue tickle. It’s almost like I’ve licked electricity.
I cough, too, and I’m forced to lock a hand over my mouth.
“It is simply the magical field disconnecting,” Revas explains from behind me.
“More protection,” he says without further comment. He gestures me forward.
We don’t walk straight into the principal’s office. There’s a kind of anteroom before it. It’s full of pot plants, a couch, and a coffee table with magazines on it. I’m grateful to note that it’s the most normal thing I’ve seen in this castle so far. That is until the plants turn around. One of them has a set of eyes, and it starts watching me.
I scream and jolt back hard into Revas. Fortunately I don’t push him out of the door and send him tumbling down to oblivion.
He clears his throat. “It’s just a watcher plant. It’s here as the last line of defense to the principal.”
The watcher plant blinks. It is the most disgusting thing I have ever seen. I have to clamp a hand as hard over my mouth as I possibly can.
I edge around it.
That’s when I realize there isn’t another door out of here. Until suddenly there is. There’s a sound as if someone is industriously building one. This dense vibration shakes up through the wall. Then right in front of me, a door appears.
Suzanne clicks her fingers, mutters under her breath, gets a preparatory charge of magic over her hand, then leans in and opens the door.
There’s more magic. It simultaneously makes me feel energized yet sick.
This is all too much. I just want to crawl back home and go to bed. Even if I wake up in the morning and this is still my world, I’ll deal with it. But for now, I need everything to go away.
That is not about to happen.
We finally walk into the principal’s office.
I don’t know what I’ll find. By now, my imagination has completely given up. I could tell you the craziest thing I could think of, but it wouldn’t be weirder than this magical castle.
And yet, the principal’s office, at first glance, at least, looks just like an office. It’s a large room. It’s cut on two levels. His desk is down below, while above there’s nothing but bookshelves. There has to be thousands of books in here. They reach right up to the ceiling.
Down below, he has a series of three desks. There’s his large main desk in the middle. Then there are two other desks. One of them actually has a computer on it. The other is piled high with boxes. I can see colorful potions sticking out of them.
The principal himself is sitting in a chair with a high back. It’s directed away from us.
Finally it turns.
He looks right at me.
I’m expecting something crazy. All I get is an ordinary man. He looks as if he’s in his mid-sixties. He’s got a gray beard that’s still flecked with a few rays of black.
He looks right at me for several seconds.
I don’t know what to do, so I actually bow slightly. “Ah, I’m—”
“The Grail. A late-stage witch Grail, to be exact. I didn’t think I would ever see one in my time.”
I just offer him a nod. I lock my hands in front of my middle. I start rubbing my thumbs over and over each other. It’s the only way to deal with my exploding nerves.
Suzanne shoots me a somewhat peeved look. She also tilts her head back and straightens up. I can tell that’s an instruction to me, but I can’t comply.
I’m getting sicker and sicker.
The principal stands. There’s a creaking sound. Sure, he looks old, but judging by the sound, he’s like a tree.
He looks at me for a few seconds. No one says anything.
He walks around from behind his desk.
My stomach just knots with more nerves.
I don’t like the look in his eyes. I can’t place it. I can’t place anything here. I’m completely out of my frigging depth. He stops about a meter in front of me. “I warn you, your life will be tricky and hard for a while. There is much for you to learn. The realm of magic is a complicated one. However, your every need will be looked after. And you will have a bright future after your time here.”
“And how long will my time be here?” I stammer. “I’m about to graduate—”
“Graduation only occurs when you master magic. It could take years. It could take a decade.”
My lips slide open. “Sorry, a decade?”
“Do not speak back. Only speak when spoken to,” Suzanne growls.
I ignore her. I’m stuck on the fact that I could be at this school for 10 more years.
“It is very important for a Grail such as yourself not to be allowed freedom until you are capable of defending yourself. Grails are fundamentally dangerous but powerful things,” he says with a strange look in his eyes.
I’m staring at him – close enough that I won’t miss a thing. I swear I see this curious flicker of a smile cross over his lips. It makes me even sicker. I’m forced to lock a hand on my stomach now.
Suzanne has given up subtly trying to instruct me how to behave, and she outright growls beside me. “Stand up straight and drop your hand.”
I try to stand up a little straighter, but my shoulders only hunch further forward. I keep my hand locked exactly where it is. It’s that, or throw up all over this highfalutin principal’s office.
“Your instruction will begin as soon as your injury and your mild nausea are dealt with. After you head to the nurse’s office, you will head straight to night classes.”
He might have just called this mild nausea, but it’s starting to peak. I honestly think I’m about to throw up now. I lock the back of my hand against my mouth.
Suzanne has given up instructing me on how to stand and how to act.
The principal, despite the fact he’s clearly aware of how ill I am, just continues to stand there. And that smile is still on his lips. If I weren’t suddenly as sick as a dog, I’d get freaked out by that smile. You see, it’s the kind of grin someone gives when they know that you have no clue what’s going on. And people who are out of their depth are easy to manipulate.
Before my father left, he did impart a few lessons. And not being manipulated was always his number one go-to message. He was a bit of a conspiracy nut. He always believed everyone was out to get him. And he would tell me, until he went green in the face, never to let anyone sink their hooks into me.
His number one fear was being used for someone else’s dirty work.
I never thought about it much. Maybe he had a bad experience when he was a kid or something. Maybe he was just mad like my mother. I have no real idea why this is all coming into my head now, but I can’t stop staring at the principal’s crumpled little smile.
He continues to look at me for a little. He pushes forward. He plucks up my hand. It’s an oddly intimate move. My shoulder stiffens. He looks at my fingers, then up to my shoulder, then across to my face. He suddenly squeezes my hand. I feel a few charges of magic descend from his palm into mine. I yelp and try to jerk back, but he has a strong grip.
“He’s checking on your magic,” Suzanne growls. “Stay still, and for God’s sake, stay polite.”
This is impolite? I can tell you what’s not polite: grabbing someone’s hand without their permission and checking their magic by sending sparks into them. These guys know that I’m a new witch. Yet they’re treating me like dirt.
If I weren’t as sick, maybe I’d get a flicker of defiance in my gaze.
As it is, I wince and close my eyes.
He soon drops my hand.
He turns away before I can check his expression. He nods once at Suzanne then walks over to his desk and sits back in his chair. He actually steeples his fingers. I’m sorry, but has this guy seen too many James Bond movies? He looks like some kind of glorified villain.
“It may take some time to fit in, but you’ll find yourself being quite popular,” the principal mutters.
My brow scrunches up. “What does that mean?”
He chuckles. “You’ll soon find out. Grail’s are rare at the best of times. Now we find ourselves with two. How intriguing. It shall be an interesting school year. Now, good day.” With that, without another word of explanation, he pulls a book out from somewhere and starts writing in it.
I open my mouth. I have a thousand questions. Who am I kidding? I have a million.
And the questions are the only thing that can momentarily pull me out of my nausea.
But Suzanne obviously has absolutely no intention of letting me ask them.
She clasps a hand on my shoulder and turns me around. The move is pretty rough.
I might not have liked my previous school, but all the teachers showed basic respect for the students. I suddenly get the impression that’s not going to be the case here.
I’m practically manhandled out of the office. When we reach the anteroom, the door closes up. That disgusting plant turns and stares at me. I swear its gaze flicks down and up my body, just like the principal’s stare did moments before.
“You will learn proper decorum, Miss Cooper. I will ensure that as the head of discipline,” Suzanne says imperiously as she crosses her arms at me.
Revas just chuckles. “Perhaps you should cut her some slack.”
Suzanne arches an eyebrow. “Cut her some slack? What are you doing talking like that, Revas?”
“Our Grail here is clearly ill. Let us do what the principal suggested and take her to the nurse’s office, then introduce her to her first class. Everything else can wait.”
Why does his voice become far-off on the word everything? Maybe it’s just my nausea talking, but I get the impression that there’s a lot he’s not saying.
There’s a lot everyone’s not saying. And all of it – all that important mystery – is crammed into one word. Grail.
Whenever they say it, my whole body tenses up. I feel like someone’s wrapping wire around my gut, back, and cheeks. They’re holding me in place and stopping me from running.
I squeeze my eyes closed just as the door opens back to the stairs.
I should’ve run. This morning when I found that dead woman – whether she really existed or even if she was just in my head – I should’ve run.
I will never get that chance again.
I’m taken back down the stairs. We head down a short corridor to a large room that has to be the nurse’s office. And it’s on my way that I finally see my first students. I think I recognize them from the bus and the museum this morning. It’s one girl and two boys. All of them are stunning. I mean, seriously, kids shouldn’t look like that. Not unless they’re photoshopped.
They’re standing at the end of the corridor. They’re having a conversation, but when I walk past with the two teachers, their eyes lock on me. I don’t think I’ve ever been so thoroughly examined.
I immediately turn my head and drop my gaze.
We reach the nurse’s office. The nurse, it seems, is waiting for us.
The door opens, and he takes one look at me and clucks his tongue. He’s in a long robe. It’s the first robe I’ve seen. Blame it on all of the TV I’ve watched, but I expect witches and wizards and whatnot to be in robes all the time. Everyone else I’ve seen has either been in impeccable blazers or office suits.
This guy’s robe reaches right down to the floor. There’s silver thread that’s been embroidered with the school’s emblem on both the sleeves. There’s fancy detail around the collar, too. It matches his glasses. He’s roughly in his early forties. He takes another look at me and shakes his head. “Whose idea was it to allow the Grail to walk around with an active wound?”
Suzanne stiffens up. “I do not—”
“Your authority starts there,” the nurse points at the floor underneath her feet, “and mine starts here.” He suddenly reaches over, grabs my good hand, and pulls me through.
I catch a glimpse of Suzanne’s face. Damn, she looks like she’s about to explode. I swear so much blood is rushing to her head, she’ll have a stroke.
Revas, for his part, simply shoves his hands into the pockets of his large rain jacket and chuckles under his breath.
As soon as the nurse pulls me in, the door closes behind me.
He promptly drops my hand. He takes several steps away from me and looks me up and down. He fixes his glasses further up his nose. That’s when I see something shimmering in the lenses.
I’ve seen a lot of magic, so I have no clue why this particular display gets to me, but I find myself staring.
His lips kink to the side. He taps the side of his glasses. “It’s a special kind of spell. You ever watch sci-fi?”
This guy is obviously not good with introductions. Having a conversation with him is like going on a roller coaster. “Ah, yeah, I guess.”
He taps his glasses again. “Then imagine that these are kind of like a medical scanner. They help me instantaneously diagnose a patient. And you are a new witch with burgeoning powers, a deep gash in her hand, and a nasty case of surprise. Oh yeah, and it looks like you haven’t eaten for a while and you’re dehydrated, too. Have I missed anything out?”
“I want to go home,” I add dejectedly. I don’t know why I say that. This guy is very much not my friend. I’ve just met him.
He chuckles though. He certainly doesn’t snap at me like Suzanne would. “Yeah, I can help with everything, but not with that. I take it your situation has been explained to you?” He gestures me over to a bed. I’m happy that it and most of this office looks normal. I can’t see any boxes of potions. And nothing’s floating.
I walk over to the bed. I pull myself up on it, then pretty much flop. It feels like someone’s deboned my shoulders.
“Explained to me?” I finally pick up on his question. I palm my face and turn my fingers in. “I’m a new witch. A Grail – whatever that means. And I might have to be here for 10 years.”
He laughs. “I doubt you’re going to be here for 10 years. You’re a Grail – you can learn quickly. That being said….” He turns around, goes to the cupboard, and pulls out a syringe.
I straighten a little. “That being said what?”
“You’re going to change. Your life’s never going to be the same again.”
I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve told that to myself ever since figuring out what’s going on here. But having someone else say it is different. I shiver. “What exactly does that mean?”
“Grails are rare, and they’re very… what’s the word? Precious.”
I make a face. He turns around and sees it.
He makes a face too. He is categorically the most normal person I have come across at this school, even if he’s the one who actually looks like a magician.
“You’re really powerful. And there are a lot of enemies out there who want you. So yeah, your life is going to be different. Even after you graduate, you will be monitored. And for a while, you won’t be able to go anywhere without a chaperone.”
That’s the second time I’ve heard that. Just being in this office is making me feel a great deal better. My nausea is still there, but I’m managing to tamp down on it. “What does that mean?”
“It means what it sounds like. If you want to go out, you’ll have to have a powerful student come with you. Don’t worry, though, you’ll have them lining up.”
I make another face. “Ha?”
He has a small vial of medicine in his hand, and he’s just drawn it into the syringe. He stops and narrows his eyes at me. “Someone has explained what a Grail is to you, right?”
I shake my head.
He spreads his lips over his teeth. He turns and looks at the door and mutters something under his breath that sounds like a swearword. “I don’t know why they sent the head of discipline and the history teacher after you. Literally anyone else would’ve been better.”
“What’s a Grail?” I ask, my voice becoming fragile.
“You’ve got a lot of power. But your true power is allowing other people to draw.”
I tick my head to the side. “You mean, like, pictures?”
He laughs. He’s got an easy laugh. It doesn’t sound fake. If I close my eyes and listen to it, I could almost fool myself into thinking that I’m not currently in a school for magic.
“No. I don’t mean draw pictures. I mean draw powerful weapons.”
I suddenly think of what that guy, John, did back at the museum. He pulled a sword out of nothingness.
I stand a little straighter. “Why would I be able to do that?”
“You can channel magic. Not only have you got a lot of it on board, but you can increase someone else’s skills. That’s why you’ll be popular, not just with the students at the school, but,” his shoulders slacken a little, “with your enemies, too. Have you ever played video games?”
I blink at him. This guy changes topics so quickly, he’s gonna give me whiplash. “Yeah, a little. Why?”
“I’ve played one or two.”
“You’re kind of like a fancy talisman or status spell. When you bond with somebody, you instantly increase all of their skills and magic. And the more powerful you get, the more you do that.”
My lips wobble open. I’ve understood his example, and I don’t like what he means. I’ve never liked sticking out from the crowd. But I’ve only ever stuck out for the wrong kinds of reasons. This sounds worse.
And there’s one word specifically I have to go back to. “Bonded?”
“As you get a lot better and stronger, you will pick somebody you’ll want to work with most of the time. You’ll start to match your magic with theirs and vice versa. You will form a strong bond. And it’ll mean you’ll be practically undefeatable when you fight together. And for that reason, you’re gonna be mighty popular. So don’t worry about having to fit in. Hell, you’re even lucky enough that you’re not gonna be alone. You’re not the only Grail on campus at the moment. Which is gonna go down in history books. Two Grails at one time? Unheard of.”
He’s pretty much just muttering to himself now. It takes me a while to digest what I just heard. “So… what happens now?”
“Now?” He gestures to the needle. “I stick this in your arm. Then your nausea goes away. After that, I’ll deal with your hand.”
“I was kind of meaning after I’m discharged.”
“You’ll head to classes. Then you’ll be taken to your dorm. You’ll get to meet the other people you’re bunking with.”
I make a face.
Though this guy could have a conversation with a wall, he’s responsive enough that he clearly picks up on my expression. “Not up to bunking with others?”
I shake my head immediately. “I just want some time to adjust. Is there… anyone I can petition to get my own room?”
“Suzanne will frown on it, but I can cook up a medical reason for you. Let’s just say that you have nightmares, shall we?”
I stiffen as I look at him.
He’s just become distracted, so he doesn’t see my expression.
I manage to suck a breath into my chest, and I hold it there. “Sure, let’s say that,” I say in an almost natural voice.
“Anything else you need to feel more comfortable?”
“How about you take my powers away from me and let me go back to my ordinary life?”
He’s been pretty easy going up until now, but he reacts. His shoulders push up high toward his ears. He turns slowly, and his expression is deadly serious. “I wouldn’t wish for that.”
I’m surprised by his reaction. “Sorry?”
“I wouldn’t wish for your powers to be taken from you. As a Grail, that would be one of the most painful things you could ever experience. It would leave you even more vulnerable than before. And it would not stop your enemies from going after you.”
I’m getting uncomfortable at his reaction. I stiffen up even further, and I straighten until I’m like a steel pole. “What?”
“Never mind. Just be careful what you wish for. There will be forces out there who would love to take your magic away from you.”
I get really uncomfortable. He finally injects me, and I’m surprised when, about two seconds later, my nausea lifts.
I shouldn’t be that surprised. Because I suddenly realize he hasn’t injected me with a normal drug. I catch sight of the syringe, and I see a few little sparks of magic flickering over the needle.
He places it to the side then picks up my injured hand. He pulls off the rag I tied around it. He makes a face. “You got yourself good. I imagine you even left a little bit of your blood all over town.” He clucks his tongue.
“Is that an issue?”
“Let’s just say you got lucky. When you ran from the museum like that with a fresh injury and new magic, you could’ve attracted all the wrong kinds of creatures.”
I suddenly realize something. It’s something I haven’t been holding onto by choice, but something that I simply haven’t thought through.
“The murder,” I suddenly splutter.
He leans back and frowns. “Sorry, what? You’re talking about the museum, right? The farling? Not a murder. Technically not alive.”
“No, the woman on the swing this morning,” I say, my voice shaking. All of the trauma is rushing back in. He might’ve just given me something magical to stop my nausea, but it sure as heck can’t do anything for my nerves. I know that my heart is now beating twice as fast as it should.
He blinks quickly. “What woman on a swing?”
“I called the police, but she disappeared when it started to rain.” I know I’m not making any sense, but I have to get this all out.
“How about you start from the beginning? What are you talking about?”
“I was late this morning. I had to detour through the park. I was walking through it. Then I heard… I heard the swing. There was a woman on it. She was stabbed through the chest.”
“What?” He doesn’t immediately tell me that I must be mad.
“I thought she was dead, but then she woke up. There was this creature. I didn’t really see it. Or maybe it wasn’t there. Maybe it was all in my head. She killed it. Said something about protecting all. Then she died.”
I’ve finally got my story out. Now I practically crumple.
I lock a hand on my head.
Everything comes flooding back in.
I can still damn well hear the sound of that swing slowly creaking in the wind.
The nurse doesn’t say a thing. Not for a long while. Then he slowly tilts his head toward the door. “Did you tell anyone else about this?” There’s a real note in his voice.
I finally drop my hand. I straighten. “What?”
“Did you tell those teachers about this?”
I shake my head. “I thought it was all in my head. I didn’t realize that it could be real. It wasn’t real, was it?” I beg.
“You told the police, right?”
I don’t know why he’s acting like this. I just admitted that I could’ve seen the equivalent of a magical murder. Why does he care whether I called the human police?
“Yeah, I told the police. And they threatened to charge me for wasting their time.”
“I’ll look into it.”
I blink so quickly, I could lose my eyelashes. “Sorry, but what do you mean you’ll have a look into it?”
“If I were you, I wouldn’t mention it again.”
“Especially not to them,” he says as he turns and nods at the door.
I swivel my gaze from the door over to him. “What the hell is happening? She… wasn’t real, was she?”
“Yeah, she was likely real.”
My shoulders just crumple. I lock my hands on my mouth. “I walked away from a real dead person. I….”
“There was nothing you could do. At the time, you didn’t even know it was real. And calling the police was brave but stupid.”
“What… who was she?”
He suddenly looks uncomfortable. He stands straighter. He’s got my bloody home-made bandage in his hands. He turns away, heads over to a metal bench, then sets it down on top. He draws his thumb around it, clicks his fingers, then swipes his open palm over the top. My rag immediately catches light and burns.
I’m surprised by it, and I jolt back with a yelp.
He turns quickly. He locks me in a serious look. “Don’t mention it, okay? I’ll look into the police report.”
“I’m sorry, but what’s going on?”
“What’s going on is you’ve walked into a very complicated school, Miss Cooper.”
“I…” I go to say that I don’t understand, but all I think about is the principal. The way he looked at me – that snide little smile. Every single interaction with Suzanne comes flooding back in, too.
I just stare at the nurse. Complicated is an understatement.
He suddenly flattens a smile over his mouth. I can tell that he is deliberately changing the topic. He slaps a hand on his chest. “Bradley.”
“Bradley Stanza. That’s my name. I realize I never introduced myself.”
“But the murder—”
“Try not to think about it again. There’s nothing you can do, anyway.”
I shiver a little at his promise that there’s nothing I can do.
With that, he starts to look at my hand.
He’s very careful. Whenever he gets a droplet of my blood on anything, he goes back to that metal table, and he burns it.
It takes a full five minutes for him to deal with my injury. I get the impression that if I were an ordinary person, it would’ve taken five seconds. But he has to be meticulous. It’s almost like I have an infection.
By the end, while I’m feeling a lot better, my shoulders are still up around my ears and tension is raging through my body like a storm. All I want to do is ask more questions about that murder, but I know that he won’t answer them.
He stands in the middle of the room and places his hands on his hips. “You’re good to go. Time to head out to the shark tank.”
I frown. “Ha?”
“You’ve got a class to get to. Lucky for you, night classes are always the hardest. That’s when defense is usually taught.”
“The magical world is a pretty hard one. You’re always going to need to know how to defend yourself. Especially as a Grail,” he adds.
“I’m free to go?”
“Into the school, sure. I’ll get onto the school board. I’ll have you your own room by tonight.”
I slide off the medical bed. I’m surprised when I’m perfectly balanced. There’s no hint of my nausea anymore. And as I flex my hand in and out, the injury feels like it was never there to begin with. I take a little step toward him.
He turns and locks his gaze on me. He shakes his head once. He clearly knows what I want to ask.
“I’ve got this,” he promises. “Now don’t tell anyone. And get out there.” His demeanor changes immediately. “Have fun.”
He turns from me and starts to busy himself with cleaning the last of the instruments he used on me.
I hover near the doorway.
When he doesn’t turn again, I reach over, twist the handle, and walk out.
Suzanne is nowhere to be seen. Revas is still there, but he’s down the corridor talking to some students.
As soon as I appear, everybody’s attention locks on me.
Now I no longer feel like I want to throw up, I have to admit how uncomfortable it is to be stared at like that. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve been stared at so many times at school that it’s not a new experience. But it’s always been for the wrong reasons. I’ve been the poor girl, the pathetic girl. The kid with no family. The kid with no damn hopes and dreams. Now….
My skin just wants to crawl off my body. The way those students stare at me, it’s like I’m a solid gold bar someone has left out on the street.
Revas clears his throat and walks away from them. “Your injuries have been healed. It’s time to get to class.”
“I see that Nurse Stanza has explained some things to you. Do not worry. You will not be expected to do anything in your first class. Just watch.”
“Great.” I fall into step behind him.
He told me not to worry, but the first thing I do is turn around and stare at the door back to the nurse’s office. How could I not worry? What the hell is going on with that murder? And more to the point, what the hell is going on with the school? Why does Bradly not want me to mention it to anyone?
That right there is the only thing that can distract me, and I desperately need an adequate distraction.
Thus far, I’ve only been walking around the back sections of the school. Now Revas takes me right through the middle of it. We head down a set of stairs, and I can hear the noise from here. I glimpse a crowd of people. There’s got to be at least 100 students standing around in a wide corridor. They don’t even range in age. And, judging by what they’re holding and their specific uniforms, they look like they’re from the same grade.
Just how big is this school?
As soon as I appear, all eyes are on me.
I’ve never been someone who likes to hide, but I start walking behind Revas, trying to use him to block me off from those stares. It won’t work. Even a shield wouldn’t help.
As we walk through, all the conversations just stop. Silence spreads out like a frigging virus.
I have a few questions I want to ask Revas, but I can’t even bring myself to open my lips, let alone push them out.
The corridor is large. And, like everything in this castle, it’s as fancy as anything.
There’s art on the walls, even vases on pedestals. Everything seems to have some kind of magical purpose, too, but I can’t begin to imagine what it is. Because I am way, way out of my depth.
I haven’t had a panic attack in a while, but I can feel one coming on. Way to go to get even more attention. It’s gonna solidify the memory of me in the minds of every single one of these students. I know how damaging it is to make a bad first impression at a new school. I still can’t stop myself from clutching my chest. My breath becomes shallower and shallower.
Revas suddenly stops in front of a large open doorway. He turns and gestures to it. “This is the defense hall. Though technically there are many throughout the school. This is the primary one. As I say, you won’t be expected to do anything, just watch—”
“The expectations of my students are in my hands,” someone says importantly from behind Revas.
I turn my head to see a diminutive woman walking through the crowd. She has a big voice, though, one that can easily tower over everyone.
She stops a few meters in front of me. She isn’t wearing a robe or a suit. She’s in active gear. Her hair is tied in a strict bun behind her head. She has sharp features – and a sharp gaze to match. She uses said gaze to look me up and down. I have no clue if she likes what she sees – because her resting expression is one of hating everything.
Revas straightens. “This is—”
“Our new Grail. I’ve heard.”
“Like everyone else, will be engaging in defense class. I don’t need you to tell me what to do with my students. Good day, Revas.” With that, the teacher stomps right past Revas.
I catch a glance of Revas’s expression. His brow descends a little. His lips thin. But it’s hard to say if it’s a smile or a frown. He holds his expression neutral. He turns and nods at me. “Someone will be ready to take you to your room after classes. Good luck, Miss Cooper.” With that, he turns and walks away.
I’m glad for that interaction insofar as it took some attention off me. But it doesn’t last. Now Revas is gone, there’s no one to hide behind.
I’m standing just a few meters away from some students. They just stare at me as if I’m not there – or, rather, as if I’m an object without a mind. Something that wouldn’t care that it’s being gaped at.
The defense teacher clears her throat. “Miss Cooper, this way. You’ll quickly find that I don’t like people creating a bottleneck at the front of my class.”
“Ah, yes… Miss.”
“It’s Professor Twitch. Now, this way.”
If I were in a different frame of mind, I might smile at that. It’s a terribly cute name. But it certainly does not match her personality.
I turn and pull myself into the hall. Every footstep echoes. This place is like a chamber for an orchestra. As soon as it starts to fill with students, it becomes cacophonous. That is until Professor Twitch walks into the middle of the room and clears her throat once.
All sound cuts out as if someone has just hit stop on a recording.
Twitch starts to push up onto the tips of her toes then back down onto the balls of her feet. Then she strikes a defensive pose. She moves fluidly. She might be small, but her body is undoubtedly strong. Her muscles push against the tight fabric of her pants. She brings her fists up and opens them wide. “I’m not gonna hold back. You’ve only got a few months until exams. All of you will pass them, or you will die trying.”
There is a nervous muttering of laughter. It’s the kind that tells me no one’s entirely sure if she’s joking or not.
I’ve had rough teachers in the past. I’ve always just managed to put my head down and disappear into the back of the class. But I don’t think I’m gonna get the chance to do that as a Grail.
I try to head toward one of the walls, but Twitch clears her throat. “Miss Cooper. You can come up here. I never let a student fall behind. It doesn’t matter how new they are to magic. The further you have to go, the sooner you have to start.”
I wince my eyes closed. Then I turn. “I don’t—”
“There’s no don’t in my vocabulary. There’s do or try.” She points beside her.
I scurry up.
I’m well aware of the fact that I’m in a trashed school uniform that belongs to another academy. Not only is it a heck of a lot less fancy than what everyone else is wearing, but it’s got a skirt. All the other girls are wearing trousers.
I sure as hell hope that nothing is gonna get physical. The very last thing I want to do is flash my knickers to everyone.
I stand there, lock my hands together, and try to make myself look as small as I can. That’s impossible when everybody is staring at me. I could shrink to half of my size, and it wouldn’t change anything. Hell, I could reduce down to the cellular level, and I’d still be getting the same attention.
And this attention? It’s never going to stop. I suddenly realize that. It’s like a slap to the face.
“The first and most important decider of any battle is your senses. If you want to win, you have to understand the flow of what’s going on. You have to get into your enemy’s mind. You have to know what they’re going to do long before they do it. But unfortunately, that sense is usually the last to develop in a new witch.”
“Not with her,” someone mutters. It’s from behind me, and Twitch doesn’t hear.
I turn. And just a few meters away is John.
I haven’t thought about him ever since I got home to see two teachers sitting at my chipped kitchen table. Now I make eye contact.
He crosses his arms, tilts his head back, and stares at me with such an even gaze, nothing looks like it will be able to disrupt it. You could hit it with a hammer, and it would not shift an inch. A second later, one of his stiff lips twitches up into a smile – of sorts. “Long time no see,” he mouths at me.
I become a little red-cheeked at his attention. Everyone else is one thing. He’s something different.
It’s not just the fact that Fiona ogled him this morning. It’s that John, unlike everyone else here, actually knows me. Or if not knows me, then knows how I scream. He knows how I fall down and freak out during a fight. He’s seen me at my worst.
“Pay attention,” Twitch says with a snarl. “As I said, the first thing you need is unfortunately the last thing to develop—”
I tune out just a little. I don’t know why. My head just kind of expands. It’s like someone has taken my psyche and wrapped it around the room, pushing it out of the bounds of my skull until it’s grown like a flower. That’s a crazy image, right? But it’s a crazier sensation I’m struggling to keep up with.
As I space out, I start to become aware of more than myself. My nerves and red cheeks become a side note.
The last time I felt this was this morning – back in the museum when I was fighting with John.
Though I haven’t thought about it since, I knew that he was going to be attacked before he was attacked. The knowledge just came upon me, flooding in as if someone had broken the banks of a river.
I get that same distinct impression now.
Suddenly Twitch twists to the side. She punches her hand out. But just before she can grab my shoulder, I sidestep her.
I don’t have to think it through. It just happens.
Time suddenly speeds back up, and I become aware of what I’m doing once more.
Twitch’s hand is groping in the air where I was standing.
There’s a sharp silence in the room. Twitch’s eyes widen in surprise.
But she is nowhere near as surprised as I am.
From behind me, I hear John chuckle. “I told you she’s already got battle senses.”
A peeved expression marches over Twitch’s face, and the next thing I know, she hooks her leg underneath mine. She deliberately trips me up.
She follows the move down by planting a hand on my chest. She rams me into the floor. It is a hard move, and there aren’t crash mats on the floor – it’s just wood. It has a little bit of give, but not enough. I’m winded. I’m also in a skirt. Rather than try to soften the fall, I simply grab hold of it to ensure it doesn’t ride up.
Twitch keeps a hand on my chest for a few seconds then pushes up. She grabs my arm and pulls me to my feet.
I rub my chest.
“Anyone can get lucky,” she says, still slightly peeved. “But true senses are built over time.”
She does not attack me again. That’s a good thing. My back protests from where it was slammed against the floor.
“I need some volunteers. You and you.” Twitch points at two people, obviously not knowing what the concept of a volunteer is.
They push through the crowd and instantly take up a defensive position. One’s a guy and one’s a girl. I think I recognize them from earlier. They were in the corridor outside the nurse’s office.
Though they clearly need to be paying attention to each other, they spend a lot of time staring at me.
I just try to neaten up my uniform as best I can. I ignore the pain pounding through my back.
“Spar,” Twitch says. She clicks her fingers and strides off.
I’m standing exactly where she left me. I don’t know what to do. I am starting to get the impression that if I don’t do exactly what I’m told, I’m just gonna get in trouble anyway.
I remain there until I feel a hand on my shoulder. Someone pulls me back, but it isn’t Twitch.
I remember the fingers somehow. I shrug a little, then turn my head to the side.
Sure enough, there’s John. And sure enough, there’s that half smile crumpling his lips. “You probably don’t want to stand there. That’s in the blast zone.” He points to the floor. “You see the green circle?”
I blink. I can vaguely see a faint green outline. “Oh, yeah?”
“That’s the limit of normal magic. You’ve gotta stand outside of that, or you’ll just keep going to the nurse’s office.”
I stiffen a little at the mention of the nurse.
John still has his hand on my shoulder, but he lets it drop. He looks down at his feet briefly, glances over at the students as they begin to spar, then locks his full attention on me once more.
I should be watching the students. Not only do I get the impression that’s what I’m meant to do in this class, but, come on, this is my first magical sparring match. I need to take everything in.
But my body won’t let me turn away from John.
“You took me on a bit of a runaround today,” he mutters.
I’m glad to find out that he’s not the only person talking. Twitch is thankfully on the other side of the room, snapping at a bunch of students to keep quiet.
“I….” I have no clue what to say to him. Sorry? I’m not sorry. If you took me back to that situation in the museum, I would run every time.
I look at my feet.
“You’re here now anyway. But the learning curve is going to be steep. Yet somehow I get the impression it won’t be nearly as steep as it should be for you.”
I’d locked my gaze down on the floor, but now I swivel it to him quickly. “What does that mean?”
He smiles with his whole mouth. It’s enigmatic. I wonder if he’s practiced this a thousand times in front of the mirror or if he’s just lucky enough to be one of those people that has a smile that can pull you in. “Unlike Twitch here, you don’t need to prove anything to me. I’ve seen you fight. You don’t have that far to go.”
“What do you mean?”
“Your powers might have come to the fore late, but you’ve clearly been developing them for a while.”
“If it weren’t for you in that fight, I’d be dead. You figured out what that farling was going to do before it attacked. And you helped me draw. Just like that.” His hand is loose beside him, and he clicks quietly.
Then, once more, he swivels his attention to me.
Every time he does that, I feel like it pulls me in just that little bit more. I’m a fish on a hook, and there’s no way to get away.
My stomach kicks a little. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
He laughs. “You’ll learn. Now, do exactly as Twitch says. She’s coming over. If you need to pair up with anyone, I’ve got your back.” He casts me one last lingering look then disappears into the crowd.
I go to ask what he’s talking about, but I feel Twitch behind me.
I straighten and lock my eyes forward.
“The entire point of this battle is for you to pay attention,” Twitch growls. “As I said earlier, just because you are new does not mean that you should not start now. It means that it is more important for you to start learning as soon as you can. The students around you are preparing for an exam in two months that you couldn’t even hope to take in two years. You have a long way to go.”
“Do not call me that. I am Professor Twitch. You will call me by my title. Do you understand?”
“Now, students, pair off. It’s time to spar.”
I look at her. She can’t be serious, right? Not only am I not in the right clothes, but I literally have no clue how to use magic.
“Do I have any volunteers—” Twitch begins. She doesn’t even get through her words before everybody puts their hands up.
And I mean everyone. Even the two students who are currently sparring put their hands up.
“Do I have any volunteers to assist with the reclamation of the magic from the room once we’re finished our match today?” Twitch continues.
Every single person with their hand in the air groans and drops it immediately.
I have no clue what that means.
“As for sparring—” Twitch slices her gaze through the crowd.
John stands a little taller. He shifts to the side.
He’s imposing at the best of times. He stands a full head above most students. That makes him practically tower over Twitch.
“I’ll do it,” he mutters. “I’ll clean the room, and I’ll be her first sparring partner. Make sense. I’m the only person who’s seen her use magic thus far.”
I get ready for Twitch to snap at him. He spoke out of line, right?
Apparently not. Twitch shrugs. Obviously she has one set of rules for certain students like me and another for other students. “As you wish, Mr. Masters.” She gestures toward me. “As for everyone else, pair up.”
John walks up to me.
I’m pretty much captured by his gaze. There’s nowhere to move, and there’s nowhere I want to move.
As his gaze locks me to the spot, I hear the students muttering about how unfair this is.
Fortunately this room is large enough that as people begin to spar, they’re nowhere near us. The green circles appear around everyone, blocking their magic off from one another.
“You owe me one,” he mutters.
I blink quickly. “Sorry, what?”
“I put my hand up for cleaning duty for you.”
“Magic reclamation. The students are using a lot of force. It gets captured in the room. You can reuse it. But you’ve got to clean it first. And it’s laborious.”
“Ah… sorry?” I try.
He chuckles. “Not the sincerest apology I’ve ever heard. Now.” He looks down at my feet.
I blush a little. He isn’t sliding his gaze up my legs or anything. I still feel uncomfortable. He tilts his head to the side. He looks over at the nearest sparring students. He shakes his head. He walks several meters away. When I don’t follow, he inclines his neck.
I walk off after him.
He takes us a good distance away from the rest of the students.
“John, is there a reason you haven’t started yet? And why are you so far away?” Twitch demands.
“Just finding a safe distance, that’s all,” John mutters back casually.
“You don’t need that much space,” Twitch replies, but she doesn’t force the issue.
“Pretty sure we do,” John whispers.
We walk as far away from the rest of the students as we can get. We’re close to the wall.
“Ah, what exactly is meant to happen now?” I mutter. My cheeks are all flushed. My heart’s beating a little too hard, too. And despite the fact that I was given anti-nausea medication, my stomach’s beginning to feel mighty weird.
And it’s all because of the look he shoots me next. It’s enigmatic. It pulls me all the way in. The only other time I’ve felt like that is in my dreams. But one look from him, and he starts to erode the image of my knight in shining armor, no matter how carefully it was carved into my mind over the past several years of dreams.
“Now, you’re not dressed for this, so let’s keep it simple,” John mutters.
I’m grateful for the fact that he’s noticed. But I’m also a little embarrassed. I hook a hand on my skirt and ensure it’s as far down as it can go. At this stage, I will end up pulling it off my butt by accident.
“Open your hands,” he says.
I reluctantly let go of my skirt and open my hands.
He chuckles. And there it is again – it’s charming, enigmatic, melodic. It is perfectly programmed to distract me and reel me in.
The next thing I know, I’m smiling. It’s only slightly, but it’s the most I’ve managed in a long time.
He locks onto the move. “You see, I’m not that bad. You won’t need to run away from me again.”
I lock my bottom lip between my teeth. “I’ll try not to. No promises.”
He laughs. “Now, do you want to try to open your hands as if you’re about to practice magic?”
I just frown at him. I look down at my hands and shrug. “This isn’t how you do it?”
“Try to strike a defensive pose.” He encourages me by striking one himself. He looks strong. Because, to be fair, with his broad shoulders and tall form, he would look strong regardless of what pose he was striking.
I feel exceedingly awkward as I shift my legs back. I try to take a balanced stance, but I wobble. I bring my hands up, but I feel so foolish that I drop my shoulders quickly.
“Yeah, we’re probably gonna have to work on that. But training is always useless, anyway. It can’t prepare you for the real world. And when you fight in the real world, your body takes over. We already know your body knows exactly what to do.”
I flush a little at the fact he keeps mentioning my body. Then I actually listen to what he said. He’s not faking this. There’s real awe in his voice. I get the impression it’s not just at the fact that I’m a Grail.
“I… barely helped you during that fight,” I mutter. “I remember being pathetic and just sitting on the ground and screaming.”
“Then you don’t remember exactly what happened. Without you, I’d be dead.”
I’m shocked by that revelation. “That farling would’ve attacked you, but—”
“That was no ordinary farling. It was an ancient one. God knows what it was doing in that part of the museum.”
“But….” I trail off. What exactly am I going to say? That he was wrong? He’s the magician. I’m the new witch. I know nothing.
… Which means he’s right. And without me, he really would have died.
“Like I said before, this training is useless. But you have to go through the motions,” he says under his breath as he turns over his shoulder and ensures Twitch is on the other side of the room. “You have to learn to fight how they think you should. But don’t ever forget how you really fight.” He taps the side of his head. “Ensure your body actually knows what to do in real moments of stress. Don’t let them train that out of you.”
“Okay,” I mutter. “But.….”
“I have a million questions, but no one is answering them.”
He chuckles. “Yeah, I imagine they’re not. You’ll find pretty soon – if you haven’t already – that this academy is dysfunctional. Anything to do with magic is.”
That right there is something I need to hear. Up until now, I feel like I’ve been taking crazy pills. From the way the students and teachers have been treating me, to every single thing I’ve seen – dysfunctional is the only way to describe it.
My shoulders drop a good inch.
“Put your hands back up. Twitch is about to walk over to us.”
I have no clue how he knows that. He doesn’t demonstrably stare to the side, but his senses are bang on the money.
I see Twitch marching our way.
I try to look as much like an action hero as I possibly can. I’m not good at balancing, so I shift my legs further apart, bite my lip, and hope for the best.
“Attack,” Twitch snaps.
John shrugs at me. “Sorry,” he mouths.
He curls his hand into a fist and punches it forward. It doesn’t strike me. He’s a good meter away. But magic does push out from the blow.
I’m too distracted. Everyone is staring my way despite the fact they’re meant to be sparring.
I don’t dodge, even though I’m pretty sure I could. John’s magic is pretty light, but it’s effective. It snags my shoulder and twists me to the side. The next thing I know, I spin, strike the wall, then kind of slide down it. At the last moment, I grab my skirt, locking it hard against my knees.
I groan and shove up.
“You could’ve dodged that,” John mouths.
Twitch doesn’t notice. She does, however, look pleased. Pleased at the fact that I was just smashed against the wall.
Dysfunctional. I go back to what John said, and I clutch hold of that word as if it’s a safety line designed to get me out of this crazy situation.
I pat down my skirt.
“You can’t rely on luck, Miss Cooper. That’s what this sparring match is going to teach you. It’s going to show you how much you have to learn. Continue, John, and don’t hold back,” Twitch says. She turns and walks away.
… She’s angry about the fact that I dodged her first attack, isn’t she? All this is payback.
John waits until she’s out of earshot. “Why didn’t you dodge? You could have.”
How does he know that I could’ve dodged? I mean, yeah, there was a moment there when I felt his magic coming toward me where I could’ve shifted to the side, but….
I bite my lip and shrug. “I guess I’m not as good as you think.”
He laughs. “Nope, you’re probably better. Now, technically, I’ve got to kick your ass. But I can’t really be bothered doing that. How about you take up a defensive position and kick mine instead?”
There’s something about the way he says that. It’s warm. Everything about him is warm. And it’s perfectly calibrated to yank my attention off all of my troubles. I turn and frown at him. I look him up and down pointedly. “You’re like twice my size. How exactly am I going to kick your ass?”
“Oh, you will find a way pretty soon. Take up a defensive position. This time, try not to balance on the balls of your feet. Keep yourself light. Don’t think about the fact that you don’t want to be moved. Think instead about the fact that when you are moved, you want to control where you go to.”
I frown and do as he says.
“Now, sink down through the base of your back. That’s where the majority of your wait is. Use it.”
I do as he says. “Is this how you’re gonna teach me to practice magic?”
“I don’t need to teach you how to practice magic. You clearly already know.”
“All I did was grab your hand during that fight. I have no clue what I actually did.”
“For a Grail, drawing is one of the hardest things you can do. You did it just like that.” He clicks his fingers. “No tutelage, no nothing.” There’s that look in his eyes again. This time it’s a little more intense.
That makes me even more uncomfortable. But in a good way. I don’t get the urge to turn away. I get the urge to face him. I shift a little closer. “I….” I go to tell him that I used to dream of farlings. That I’ve been dreaming ever since my sixteenth birthday. And that in those dreams, regardless of the fact my knight in shining armor was always the one to help me, I faced magic. Maybe every night they were training me without me realizing it.
“Never mind.” I can’t talk about my dreams. They’re the most intensely personal thing I have left.
“Okay, concentrate. I’m going to attack you again, and you’re going to—”
He doesn’t finish his sentence before he attacks.
He comes at me with a side swipe. Green magic charges over my shoulder. By the time it reaches me, I’ve already twisted to the side. I’m relatively light on my feet, but I still overbalance slightly.
Fortunately I don’t fall on my ass and reveal my knickers to everyone.
“Good,” he says, and he means it. “But next time, you’ve gotta follow through with the move. Always remain light on your feet. Always be prepared to dodge. That means that while you take up a defensive position, it’s an active one.”
I don’t really know what that means. But I keep doing what he says.
He attacks, and I pretty much dodge every time. Twitch isn’t paying attention to us. She’s ensconced on the other side of the room. She can’t even see me. But the students around can. They are paying so much attention to me, I feel like the back of my neck is going to start burning.
“How does she already know how to do that?” one girl mutters.
“This is insane. John must be holding back,” someone else says.
John can hear them. “I’m not holding back, guys. You know me – we Masters aren’t allowed to.”
It seems like an offhand comment, but I’m not ready to let it slide. “You Masters? What does that mean?”
He looks surprised that I pulled him up on it. “Family name.”
I glance to the side. “Yeah, I figured that. But—”
“Never mind,” he says way too quickly.
I can tell he wants to change the topic, because he attacks me again, and this time, it’s a little fast.
I manage to dodge, but I overbalance quickly. I have rapidly figured out that my shoes have zero grip. Maybe they’re okay for walking around school grounds, but they are not okay for sports.
I quickly slip, but long before I can fall flat on my ass with my skirt right up around my hips, he grabs my arm.
It’s a quick, smooth, damn chivalrous move. Because it doesn’t last. He doesn’t let his grip linger. He just grabs my arm, waits until I’m standing straight, then pulls back long before anyone can see what he’s done.
It leaves my cheeks hot and my stomach tingling with fire.
“First things first, we’re going to have to get you a new uniform. There’s probably gonna be one waiting in your room for you when you get back. Let me know if you need anything else, though.”
Really? Anything? Because there’s a lot I need right now. Before I can open my lips, Twitch suddenly claps her hands. Magic shoots up into the middle of the room. Everyone stops sparring.
“Class is over. Something’s come up.”
I quickly whip my head back to him. “What’s going on?” I ask quietly.
A frown marches deeper over his lips. He pushes up onto his toes to get a better look over the crowd. His gaze doesn’t slice toward the door but instead over toward one of the windows that presumably looks out onto the rest of the school campus.
“I’ve got to go check on something. Head back to your room. See you around.” With that, without even glancing at me again, he offers me a slight wave then marches off through the crowd.
I’m glad for the fact all the other students are distracted. I can tell that it must be unusual for a class to end like this. Everyone’s talking amongst themselves about what it could be, and nobody is looking at me.
Just to ensure that I don’t garner people’s attention again, I hang around at the back near the wall until almost everyone else has filed out. Only when I feel comfortable do I shove my hands into my pockets and edge towards the door. Even then, I get distracted. When there’s no one else around, I figure there’s no problem in me heading over to that window. It was the window, after all, that first got John’s attention.
I start to head toward it, but this red light picks up through the room. There’s a sound as if somebody’s hit a buzzer. “Class is over. All students are requested to leave.”
Startled that the room has been checking up on me, I scurry toward the door as quickly as I can.
By the time I’m out in the corridor, almost all of the students have walked away.
Which leaves me in a bit of a pickle. I’m meant to go back to my room – but I have no clue what direction it’s in, let alone exactly where it is.
I head off after the students.
The whole while, I keep turning my head back around toward the classroom. What was John so intrigued about through that window?
And why is my stomach kicking with nerves?
Hold up – I can answer that pretty easily. The reason my stomach is kicking with nerves is that I have just been thrust into a magical world. This morning, I finally achieved what I’ve been trying to do for years, and I saw my knight in shining armor. And today, my life went to hell.
Whatever is going on here – the reason the class was canceled early – is completely irrelevant. I need to focus on my own problems.
If I don’t, they will turn around and strangle me. And that’s a promise.
I hurry after the students, but I never get close enough that anyone notices me.
Is this going to be my life from now on? Will I just flit from class to class in the hopes no one sees me?
Fat chance. All I have to do is grab the side of my face and close my eyes, and I can feel the way they were staring at me earlier. Their interest is now imprinted in my soul.
It’s a lot to swallow for a girl like me – a girl who was always thrust to the back of the class, a girl who never got any attention, and a girl who could have disappeared without anyone knowing.
I continue to follow the students from behind. By and large, they keep chatting amongst themselves about the reason the class was canceled early. Most people think that Twitch had a prior engagement – even a date. I really doubt that. It happened too suddenly. If she’d been planning to end the class, she would’ve looked… well, twitchier earlier. She didn’t. It happened all of a sudden.
I get closer to a group of students in front of me. They’re ensconced in a conversation, so fortunately they have no clue that I’m here behind them.
“You don’t think it’s another one, do you?” one of them says in a dark voice.
The guy next to him straightens. “I wouldn’t go there,” he growls.
“Come on. It makes sense. Class was canceled just like that.” The guy clicks his fingers, the sound echoing through the large hallway.
“Do you think if another person got murdered,” the second guy’s voice drops all the way down low until I can barely pick it up, “class would’ve just been canceled? The whole school would’ve been sent home.”
“Not necessarily. We’re always safer here than we are back out in the community. I guarantee you – something untoward happened.”
I try to stay as quiet as I can behind them, but at the mention of murder, I gasp a little. I lock a hand over my mouth, but the damage is done.
All I can do is think of that woman in the park and what Nurse Stanza told me.
As soon as I make a noise, both guys turn. Their gazes settle on me as if I’m a prize fish that was stupid enough to just jump out of the ocean.
“Hey—” one of them begins.
I scurry past. I’m gonna get really good at scurrying by the end of my time at this school. I’ll likely turn into a mouse.
I try to disappear among the other students. It’s pretty hard. I stick out like a sore thumb. I’m still in a completely different uniform.
Now I’m amongst them, it’s way worse. I feel everybody turn to stare at me.
I feel like crawling out of my skin. If I could leave it behind to distract them so I could run, I would. And yeah, I get it, that sounds disgusting. I am completely freaked out by this attention, though.
“You’ve got a long way to go, but I’m a good teacher,” someone tries.
“You should try to join our class. It’s advanced combat. It’ll be too much for you to begin with, but we’ll be with you every step of the way.”
By and large, people say kind things. Or at least targeted kind things. They still want something from me. It feels like the energy behind their words is the same as when I was bullied back at my old school. They might smile, but they sure don’t value me beyond my objective worth.
I just tug my head down. I even pull my hair a little over my face as if I’m trying to hide behind curtains. It doesn’t work, and I simply progressively get more and more nervous. Some guy even reaches out and grabs my wrist.
I manage to pull my hand back. But the damage is done. I’m starting to panic.
The hallway we’re in opens out into a large atrium. I think this is where I arrived. Or if not, it’s close. There’s a similar sweeping staircase just up to my left.
I have no clue where it goes, but I tell myself I’ll run up it. Maybe I’ll find a teacher. And they’ll put a stop to this, right? Because I feel like I’m about to be torn apart like a carcass in a meat market.
A single tear trails down my cheek just as I’m jostled to the side once more.
I find myself at the foot of those stairs.
I expect everyone to continue to rush forward and demand a piece of me, but they don’t. There’s a sudden hushed silence. I can hear footsteps coming down from above.
“God, he’s back,” someone whispers.
“The prodigal son returns,” someone else hisses.
“I never thought he’d actually passed the test.”
The whispered words are almost enough to make me look up, but I can’t. I have to grind my fingers into my palms and control my breath – every single one. If they get too shallow, I’m gonna do it, and I’ll have a panic attack right here in front of everyone.
But that footfall slowly moves toward me, each step easy but strong. It lulls me.
There’s something about the sound and the oncoming presence that calms me.
I close my eyes, just for a second – one flickering second – and I’m back in my dream. I’m on horseback. My arms are wrapped right around my knight. I bury my face against that glimmering, smooth armor. He reaches a hand off the reins and places it on my fingers. His gauntlet grips me, fastening my hand against his chest.
The image is sharp. It pushes into my mind, seeps down into my body, and soothes my nerves when I need it most.
I’m still standing right at the base of the stairs.
Someone clears their throat right in front of me.
I open my eyes.
And right there – close enough to touch, close enough that it feels like I’ve walked right into a vision – is my knight in shining armor.
The real one. I’ve finally found him.
My brain can’t catch up. The image of my dream is so sharp that it feels like I’m still there. But I’m not.
Right in front of me is the perfect picture of the knight from my nightly escapades. The same pale eyes, the same smile, the same jawline, the same hair. The only difference is he’s not on horseback and he’s not in armor.
He locks his gaze on me. I wait for that smile to spread over his lips. The recognition – the need.
It doesn’t come. He only frowns harder. It pushes against his jaw until his lips part open. It almost looks like he wants to say something to me, but then someone calls from further up the stairs.
I look up to see a stunning student rushing down. She has curly red hair that falls over her shoulders and tumbles down to her lower back. She’s in a uniform that fits her like a glove. As she rushes down the stairs, her tall, lithe form casts a slim shadow against the wall.
Arthur turns. The frown that dug across his lips and looked as if it was about to be tattooed into his chin turns upside down. “Genevieve.” He reaches a hand out to her.
I… I can’t keep up.
This is my knight. Arthur….
That name almost brings something up. It feels like I can see a new chapter to my dream – even though I’m almost certain that I never dreamed of it before. Or maybe I did, and I just forgot. I grip the side of my face. I dig my fingers in.
Whoever this Arthur is, he has to be important. No one’s paying attention to me anymore.
Genevieve reaches out a hand, and Arthur clasps it. He has a firm grip. I can bet it’s warm.
He smiles up at her again.
She looks across at everybody. She has an engaging stare. There’s something truly regal about it. It lacks some of the directness of everybody else’s looks – the greed too. “How has everyone been?”
I can’t move. I feel like I’m rooted into the ground. My legs are heavy. My feet are wobbly, too. As for my heart, I think it’s just skipped five beats. If it continues to do this, I’m gonna go into cardiac arrest. All because he’s right here. Arthur….
He’s holding someone else’s hand.
I know that dreams aren’t real. Or at least, before I found out about my magic, I kept telling myself they aren’t.
He turns back. He glances at me once. There’s something very specific about his gaze. He looks down at my feet and shrugs to the left.
That’s when I realize he’s not looking at me – all he cares about is the fact I’m in his way.
I jolt to the side. I almost slip, but he makes no move to help me out.
“New student?” he says dismissively. “You will soon learn the rules.”
I don’t like the way he says that. There’s an edge to his voice. It’s as if one of the rules I have to learn is to never get in his way.
I grip the side of my head again. This doesn’t make any sense. This guy right here is completely at odds with the knight from my dreams. Yet the face is the same.
Genevieve, for her part, barely looks at me. She smiles like she’s the happiest person in the world.
Arthur goes to lead her through the group – which parts like water for Moses.
Whoever this guy is, it feels like he’s the king of the school.
He goes to take a step past me.
That’s when my eyes involuntarily close. I see him again. It’s the dream from this morning. The one where he kissed me.
His lips are against mine – his breath, his heat, his magic. It’s all there, all around me, holding me in. For a few seconds, it wipes away the horror of today. It gives me something to hold on to when I swear that the rest of my life is crumbling by my feet.
But it doesn’t last.
The dream hits fast forward. I see myself at the foot of that castle. It stretches up above me. It is at once the most amazing and yet imposing thing I have ever seen. It seems perfectly designed to take my breath away.
Then the doors open.
And inside, something screams. Sharp, resounding, deadly.
The pitch of it stabs right into my mind until the next thing I know, I open my eyes and the vision breaks. I clutch my head harder.
My balance becomes affected, and I suddenly fall down, right at Arthur’s feet.
There’s a general hush of silence. It travels over the group like a Mexican wave.
Arthur doesn’t reach down to help me up.
I have a moment where the pain subsides a little, and I look up at him. All he does is stare down at me with cold eyes. “Can you move?”
The answer is no. The pain is getting worse.
But while Arthur won’t help me, someone else will. I soon feel a welcome grip descending on my shoulder. Then the next thing I know, John is helping me up to my feet. “You okay? This can happen to new witches. I’ll take you to the nurse’s office. Wouldn’t want to get trampled under the king’s feet here,” he mutters.
Maybe he thought it was low enough that Arthur wouldn’t pick it up. But his eyes narrow. “John. So chivalrous. Helping a new witch, are you? Perhaps you should teach her the ropes sooner rather than later.”
John’s still got a steady grip on my elbow. It tightens a little as I feel him stiffen at Arthur’s words. That’s nothing compared to John’s lips. They look as if someone has just set them in concrete. He presses them against his teeth and lets them split open. It’s very much as if he’s pulling a knife from a sheath. “And what ropes would those be, Arthur? I think she’s already starting to figure out the school is dysfunctional. Now she’s met you, she’ll know why.”
At first, I couldn’t wrench my gaze off Arthur, but now I let it slide toward John. What the hell is he talking about?
Arthur looks at his feet. He’s still holding onto Genevieve’s hand. I can tell his grip is becoming harder, just the same as John’s fingers are tightening around my wrist.
“Is there a reason you’re challenging me right here, right now? You do understand that I’ve just come back from my trial. A trial I have completed successfully.” Arthur’s voice drops down low.
“Congratulations. But you’ve been away. Interesting things happened while you were gone.”
My stomach knots with nerves. God, he’s gonna talk about me, isn’t he?
I start to edge back.
I look up at Arthur again.
I keep trying to tell myself that he is the knight from my dreams, but he clearly isn’t. That knight is compassionate, kind – and would do anything he could to help me. This Arthur? If I met him on the street and I’d never seen his face in my dreams, I would conclude that he’s a complete asshole.
“What happened? Did you finally figure out your family has fallen for good, and no matter what you do, you’re never going to rise again?” Arthur’s words are snide.
There’s a collective gasp from behind me. I don’t need to turn my head and stare at the other students to appreciate that comment is below the belt. Way, way below.
Sure enough, John stiffens even more than before. He’s now gripping my wrist hard. It’s probably unconscious, but his fingers feel a little like a cage.
“Boys, please, you don’t need to fight like this over me,” Genevieve says in a soft, lilting voice.
… They’re fighting over her? It certainly doesn’t look that way.
John nods but doesn’t look at Genevieve once. “You’re absolutely right,” he says in a completely even voice. “I’ve got to get my Grail here to the nurse’s office. It’s been a big day for her.”
There. He said it. Right in front of Arthur. Two words. My Grail.
My stomach kicks. Who am I kidding? It practically jolts around my gut like it’s a pinball. Tension wraps around me until I feel like I’m going to faint.
At first, Arthur lets out a snide laugh. Then his gaze quickly turns to the crowd. When no one else laughs, he finally does it – and he looks right at me.
My shoulders are already up around my ears. I’m tense – and getting tenser by the second. I want to wither up and die. I want to get the hell away from here for good, but there’s nowhere to go.
So I just drop my gaze.
“Grail?” Arthur says. “You think I’m gonna believe that there are now two Grails at school? When there’s only ever one every generation?”
Only one every generation? I was led to believe I’m rare, but that’s rarer than rare.
John laughs. “Do you honestly think I care what you believe, Arthur? I’m glad you finished your trial. I’ll finish mine soon, too.” With that, without another word, John turns me around.
I open my eyes. As my hair fans in front of my face, I lock my gaze on Arthur.
He stares at me. But it’s not long enough that I can guess what he’s thinking.
John keeps hold of my hand. But not forever. Fortunately, there’s a door not too far away. He opens it. As soon as we’re through, he closes the door and drops my wrist. He takes a respectful step back. He winces.
It’s completely different from the macho act I saw out in the corridor.
“I’m sorry about that.” He rubs the back of his head then lets both his arms drop. He looks defeated.
“… What the hell just happened?” My voice is tight. I even clutch hold of my blouse and wrap my fingers hard around the collar. I slide my gaze back in the direction of where Arthur is.
I want… wait, what do I want to do? Run and hide or go back and face him one last time?
Why did I dream of that man? Why was he my knight in shining armor, when, in reality, not only is he already with someone, but he is a complete asshole?
“That back there is Arthur. He is bonded to the other Grail at the school. She’s Genevieve. But you probably figured that out already.”
I take a breath. I let my gaze drop from the door. “Yeah, I figured that out. Why—”
“You’ve probably got 100 questions, but unless you want a crowd, I suggest we get out of here. It’s not gonna take long until they come after us.”
“Sorry – I probably shouldn’t have left you alone. This way.” He doesn’t grab hold of me again. He rushes off a few steps and motions me on.
We reach another door. He makes a complicated set of motions in front of it and opens it.
He turns, and a cheeky grin spreads across his lips. “Magic. You’ll find most of everything at this school is magic.”
“Right.” It’s not the smartest of comments, but it’s all I can manage.
He ushers me through, and the next thing I know, we’re in a wide corridor. Maybe it’s just a guess, but it feels like it’s on the opposite side of the school. There are huge windows in front of me. They’re arched, and they travel from the floor most of the way up to the ceiling.
I instantly get pulled in by the view. I haven’t seen it before. When I came here, I arrived inside a hallway.
I’m drawn toward it. My feet are a little unsteady. I place a hand on one of the panes of glass and stare out.
“This academy’s huge,” I hiss.
“Sure is. The campus has 20 buildings. There are over 8000 rooms.”
“8000 rooms? That doesn’t—”
He shoves a hand into a pocket and curls up one side of his lips as he steps in close. He shrugs at the view. “That doesn’t make sense? Magic,” he says by way of explanation once more.
I suck in a shaking breath. “Yeah, magic. Now—”
He yanks his hand out of his pocket as fast as he can. He opens his fingers wide. “I want to start with I’m sorry.”
I’m not expecting that, and I blink quickly. “Ha?”
“What happened back there?” He stiffens even though I can tell he’s trying to keep casual. “I didn’t mean to refer to you as my Grail or anything like that. I just… that guy gets my hackles up. Real asshole. But you saw that, didn’t you?” There’s a hopeful edge to his voice.
I should answer quicker than I do. It takes a full four seconds until I mutter out a, “Yeah.”
“He thinks he owns the school. His family is one of the founding families. And they’re one of the richest in the entire magical community. Anything he wants,” John clicks his fingers, “he gets. It’s a shame we had to get out of there so quickly. What I wouldn’t have given to see his face.”
“Ha?” My voice gets quiet. I know exactly what he’s talking about, even if I’m playing innocent.
“Arthur always wants the best of the best. And anything he wants, he gets,” John’s voice becomes tight again. “But he’s already got a Grail, and he can’t have two.”
I don’t know what to say. So I just stand there.
When John realizes I’m not participating, he winces again. “How about I just take you to your room?”
“I thought you said you were going to take me to the nurse’s office?”
“You look better now. Headaches are pretty common when your powers are starting up. Did the nurse tell you that?”
I shake my head.
“You’re probably tired. Really tired. Your body has to adjust to all of this. It’ll take a while. If the headaches continue, just let me know.”
I turn and look at the view again. My gaze slides down to the massive circle of grass in between the buildings. Then I remember something. I turn to him. “Why did you disappear earlier, and why was the class ended so quickly?”
“Twitch probably had something to do,” he mutters.
I should just leave it, but I don’t. “No. I heard from the tone of her voice that she was surprised. And she didn’t expect to end the class early – if she had expected to, her demeanor would’ve been different.”
He shoves a hand back in his pocket, and he slowly swivels his attention to me. “You’re pretty sharp, aren’t you?”
“I guess.” I cross my arms. “What happened?”
“There are a lot of things at this school that you don’t want to pry into,” he whispers.
Suffice to say, that is not the answer I want. But at the same time, the exact way he says it makes my hackles rise.
I go to open my mouth, but I hear voices.
He turns over his shoulder. “That’s the other students. We need to get you to your room before you create another commotion. You’ve probably had enough for one day.”
I nod. The only thing I want to do now is bury my head in my pillow. Yeah, and tear up that damn picture of my so-called knight in shining armor.
“Let’s see.” John reveals a watch. Or at least, I think it’s a watch. He has to pull his sleeve down. It looks sophisticated – like it’s a Rolex or something. But then, as he swipes his hand over it, the clock face changes. I can see magic twisting around inside. Then an image appears right over it.
I gasp and jerk back.
He chuckles. “This is pretty basic magic. And this is a pretty unsophisticated magical device. You’ll get one too. When you learn how to use it, it will help you navigate through the school.” He clears his throat. “Show me where Dawn Cooper’s room is?” he says in a clear voice.
He waits, and an image of the school appears. It shifts until it shows a door.
He nods. He swipes his hand over the watch, and the image disappears.
“How do you know my name?” I suddenly realize that we haven’t actually been introduced.
He just shoots me a sideways glance. “Because you’re a Grail. Because you gave me the runaround today. Because you just joined my class. Oh yeah, and because you saved my life,” he says, his voice dropping with reverence.
I bite my lip. “I just realized we weren’t properly introduced, that’s all.”
Without missing a beat, he thrusts a hand out and picks mine up. He does all the shaking. “Nice to meet you, Dawn Cooper. John Masters.”
He drops my hand. “This way.” He twists his head over his shoulder.
I hurry after him. He’s right. We can hear the other students coming.
I really don’t want to put up with another scene.
It doesn’t take him long until we reach a door. It looks relatively nondescript.
He glances at me and nods, clearly impressed. “You got your own room? How did you secure that?”
“The nurse helped me.”
“You got on the good side of Bradley already? You must be a good person,” he mutters.
I can tell that was nothing more than a throwaway comment, but for some reason, it makes me frown. “Why?”
“Because Bradley is one of the few people at the school who doesn’t have the wool pulled over his eyes,” John mutters distractedly. “Now, your door’s locked, but—”
We turn to hear footfall. Fortunately, it isn’t a student. It’s Revas.
He looks at John and nods low. “Thank you for accompanying our new student to her room. I’ll take things from here.”
John just looks at me and nods once. “See you tomorrow.” Without giving me a chance to reply, he waves, shoves a hand into his pocket, and walks away.
My gaze gets stuck on his strong back.
Revas walks up and clears his throat. “How was your first class? A shame that it was cut short.”
Is there something in his tone?
It’s hard to say.
Revas reaches the door and settles his palm on it. He incants something, and the next thing I know, a circle of magic appears right in the middle of the door. It’s accompanied by the scent of burning wood.
It alarms me a little, but he simply slices his gaze over to me. “This will be your personal lock. Only you and certain teachers will be able to use it. It is to ensure student privacy at all times.”
He continues to incant under his breath and closes his eyes. Then he pulls his hand back. He gestures at me. “Place your palm in the middle of the glowing circle.”
I want to shake my head. I can still smell the scent of burning wood, and I can just tell that the door is going to be as hot as coals.
“I assure you, Miss Cooper, you will be safe. You must complete the lock quickly, otherwise I will have to begin the process once more.”
I sigh, and my shoulders shove up around my ears. I finally shuffle forward. I hesitate then shove my hand against the glowing symbol. It’s as cool to touch as ice from a freezer. It certainly does not feel as if I’ve just stuffed my hand into a crackling fire.
It takes two seconds, then I feel something zip up into my fingers.
I yelp and jerk back. The glowing circle disappears.
I shake my fingers out. It takes a while for that tickle to disappear.
“The lock is complete. All you have to do to open your room now is place a hand on the door. Go ahead and try.” Revas stands back.
Dragging my lips through my teeth, I push forward. I do as he says. I don’t even have to concentrate. Those glowing red circles appear once more. Then the door unlocks and opens itself.
I blink in surprise.
He nods at me and gestures within. “You’ll find your things on your bed. I hope your room is to your liking.”
I walk in.
It is amazing. It’s huge. It’s the size of my apartment. The bed is a sumptuous fourposter. It’s directed toward one of those enormous floor-to-ceiling arched windows.
It looks like this is some kind of penthouse apartment you’d get in one of the fanciest cities in the country.
I’m so startled, I can’t say a thing.
Revas gestures to a large carved dresser. “All of your clothes are in there. If you find yourself needing anything, all you have to do is program the dresser, and it will be able to create any style and any fabric you require.”
“Sorry?” I stutter.
“If you are unsure how to use it, simply ask one of the other students. They will gladly help you. Now, if there is anything you require throughout the night, you can use your phone. All school contacts are loaded into it.”
He gestures to the bed. That’s when I see one of those watches.
I walk over to it. It takes a while. Because seriously, this room is massive.
I pluck up the watch and frown at it.
“You will be expected to wear that at all times.”
“Even when I’m sleeping?”
“And even when you are showering. It is a requirement of all students to wear it. And for you, it is doubly so.”
I go to pull it on, but I shiver. “Is this… going to keep me away from my enemies or something?” I hear myself speaking, and I know I sound stupid, but I can’t stop.
Because I can’t deny that there really are enemies out there after me.
“Indeed, Miss Cooper. It is a security precaution.” He stands there and watches as I put it on. He only stops staring when I feel it lock into place.
I shake my hand this way and that. It doesn’t feel like it will ever fall off.
He nods once. “Very good.” He turns to leave. That’s when my stomach growls.
I place a hand on it. “I’m pretty thirsty. I haven’t—”
He gestures to a door on the left side of my room. “Though students usually eat together, if you require food between main meals or if for some reason you cannot attend the dining hall, you can eat on your own. Everything you need is in there. Your bathroom is on the other side. Good day, Miss Cooper.”
“I think you mean good night,” I whisper as he walks out and closes the door behind him.
As soon as he’s gone, I turn and flop on the bed. I bury my head in the covers. They are so soft.
It is categorically the most welcome thing in the entire world.
Though I could fall asleep right now, I don’t want to. I slide off the bed. My knees thump onto the soft carpet underneath it. I grab my bag. I pull it close. Everything I brought from my apartment is inside – including the drawing of Arthur.
“No,” I say as I shove up to my feet, my lips curling hard into a snarl. “This is not of Arthur. This is of my knight in shining armor. Arthur is an asshole.”
I go to rip the drawing, but I think better of it. I screw it up and go to shove it back in my bag. I realize that’s a bad idea. I don’t know why, but what if someone were to find it?
I find somewhere to hide it in the room instead.
Then I start to explore. I head over to the chest of drawers. I open them. Every drawer is full of clothes. It’s not just uniforms – there are jeans and tops and jackets. Everything I need.
Next I head to the bathroom. It’s palatial. It’s five times the size of my previous bathroom. It has a clawfoot bath, and there’s a skylight. Right now, it’s shining moonlight down over the black-and-white checkered tiles in shimmering silver rays.
I let my fingers slide over the basin to my side and give a happy smile.
Then I rush over to the other door.
It leads to a small but very well stocked kitchenette.
There’s even a fridge and a stove. I open the fridge, and it’s full of food.
I lock a hand on my stomach.
I just grab the first thing I can. It’s a sandwich. I don’t stop. I shove it down my mouth. Then I pour myself two glasses of water. By the time I’m finished eating and drinking, I feel a lot better.
I make it back to my room. I fall on my bed. I close my eyes. I settle my hand on my chest.
“You’re… magical, Dawn. When you wake up in the morning, you’re still going to be here in the school. Because this is real. No hallucinations, no more visions.” I find myself getting sleepier and sleepier. I grab the pillow from behind me and yank it under my head. “No more visions,” I whisper again sleepily.
I can say that all I want, but it isn’t the truth. For the visions have just started.
They will not stop, not until I find that they’ve always been a part of me….
It doesn’t take long to slide into sleep, and from there, it doesn’t take me long to slip into another dream.
This time I’m not on horseback. This time my knight in shining armor isn’t with me.
I’m alone. I feel myself walking down a cold, echoey stone corridor. I instantly lock my arms around my middle. I shiver. It’s dark, save for the light coming out of my own body. There are symbols playing up and down my arms. They spread over the rest of my flesh. They’re the same dancing green runes I’ve seen when I’ve used magic previously. This time they’re brighter, though. It’s almost like… I can access my true magic in my dreams. Or at least in my dreams I remember exactly how powerful I am.
I continue down the stone corridor. I have no clue where I am.
But I am aware of this fact. This is the first time since my sixteenth birthday that I’ve dreamed of anything other than riding on horseback with Arthur.
I reach the door. It’s wrought iron. I push it open. There is a set of narrow, carved steps. I take them, one at a time, my balance unsteady.
I’m now in an even narrower corridor.
It’s cold, and with every breath, it gets colder until white clouds puff out of my lips.
I continue to walk until I hear a moan.
I turn around a corner. In front of me are rows of cells. They’re blocked off by old, rusted iron bars, but curling around the bars are little charges of green magic.
I don’t know why, but the exact color of that magic sinks into my gut like a punch.
I wrap my arms even further around my middle. Now every breath is as white as a snow cloud. I look down at my arms to see that my symbols are blazing brighter. It’s as if they’re trying to keep me warm, but there’s not a lot that can be done. The coldness is seeping into my very bones.
I hear another moan. It forces me to move quicker. I shove right down to the end of the room. And there is a cell.
I glimpse beyond the compact iron bars to see a woman down on her side. Her hair is splayed over her face. She’s wearing long dark robes. I can only just see one hand. It’s pale, the skin a sickly gray.
She moans again.
I get down to my knees. “You okay?” I hiss.
She suddenly opens her eyes wide at the sound of my voice. She grips the green bars. I can tell she’s not meant to, because the magic actively tries to push her back. But while it can crackle around her fingers, she just grits her teeth and holds on. “Is someone there?”
“I’m right here,” I whisper. “Right in front of you.” I wave my hand to the side, but she doesn’t see.
Her eyes open until it looks as if the skin is going to crack. She stares from the left to the right, but her gaze never locks on me. “Save me, please. Before they kill me, save me,” she begs.
“What are you doing here? My dream—”
“This is not a dream,” she hisses. “Please,” she asks, her voice broken with real emotions. “You have to save me. Get me out of here before they sacrifice me.”
On the word sacrifice, my whole body becomes stiff. I shove closer. “Who’s going to hurt you? Why are you here? What is this place?”
“The ministry. It’s the dungeon in the ministry. Please.” She reaches toward me. She can’t see me, though, and her hand’s a little to the side. She tries to push her fingers beyond the bars. More charges of green magic thrust her back.
“Ministry? What ministry?”
“Please,” her voice just cracks once more. “Don’t let them kill me like they killed my sister.”
All she has to do is say sister, then I see the resemblance. She has the same eyes and nose as that woman from the swing.
Terrified, I jolt back. I fall flat on my ass. Now I’m no longer holding my arms around my middle, the coldness is seeping further in. It’s climbing my bones. It feels like it will rip my flesh from my body. I shudder, my teeth chattering in my skull. This time when I breathe, my exhalation is so white, I feel like it’s going to turn into snow.
She stares at me once more, her eyes now so wide open, I feel like they’re trying to swallow all of reality. “Please, break me out of here before they kill another one of us. They will murder us all. All the pillars until there are none left to hold up the throne.”
I hear something. It’s footfall. It’s coming down those long steps. It won’t take long until whoever it is reaches the cell.
She looks even more desperate. She jolts forward, and I see something slide out of her long robes. It’s a long silver chain with a pendant. It looks exactly like the one I saw on her sister this morning.
My gaze locks on it and traces the symbol.
“Please, just find a way to save me. I’m in the dungeon of the ministry. Please.”
“Dungeon of the ministry?” I repeat again.
She stands. She staggers away from me. She reaches the back of the cell, locks her shoulders against it, and trembles down into a pile.
That footfall is right behind me now.
“Who are you talking to?” someone growls.
The voice is so sharp that it makes me jolt – not just in the dream, but in bed.
I turn, but long before I can see their face, I find myself waking up.
I am slick with sweat. I’m shaking, too. My covers have somehow tumbled onto the ground.
I open my eyes and lock a hand on my mouth.
I slide my gaze over to the huge window in my room. Sunshine is already slicing through it.
… It’s dawn. But that doesn’t make any sense. It was only a few minutes ago that I slipped into slumber.
I push up. I lock a hand on my head.
The watch on my wrist suddenly jolts. “It is time to get up. Class will be in half an hour. You should attend the dining hall.”
“Dining hall?” I mutter quietly.
I remain exactly where I am. I try to wipe the sweat off my brow, but my hair is sticky.
I soon tumble out of bed.
I head to the bathroom. I take a shower. No matter how hard I scrub, I can’t wash the contents of the dream from my mind. Instead, the water makes it solidify as if I’ll never be free of that woman’s terrified gaze again.
In a daze, I head over to my chest of drawers. I have no clue what kind of uniform to pick. There are 20 different options. My watch somehow knows that I’m struggling, and without me having to ask it, it suddenly reveals an image of which uniform I have to wear.
I pluck it up and dress.
Maybe this is where I should stand in front of the mirror and stare at my new reality. I can’t.
All I can do is replay the contents of that dream over and over again. What did that woman say about some ministry? And more than that, what did she mean about the pillars that hold up the throne?
My watch keeps reminding me that I have to get to the dining hall.
I really don’t want to. I’d prefer to eat here, but when I head to my kitchen, the watch vibrates once more. It tells me in a petulant voice that I have time to head to the dining hall and it is expected of me.
I get the urge to throw the watch out of the window, but I know that would be a bad look. It would probably initiate some kind of alarm, and every teacher in the school would descend upon me.
When I finally walk out of my door and close it, I try to shrug off the last of my dream, but I can’t. That woman’s pale gray skin is stuck in my brain.
Fortunately I’m late. There are only a few other students rushing down the hallway. I get the same looks I did yesterday. Some students even slow down and try to crack up a conversation. I just mutter that I’m late.
I also keep my eye out for John.
I might’ve only had a few interactions with him thus far, but he’s the only person who has been nice to me. Everyone else just wants something.
… And John doesn’t? The devil’s advocate part of my mind points out. All I have to do is go back to the interaction with Arthur. The way John held me – and the way he said I was his Grail. He might’ve apologized for it afterward, and he might have appeared genuine, but….
“Just shake it off,” I mutter to myself as I follow some of the students down the hallway. I suddenly realize I don’t actually need to follow them. I’ve got my watch. Feeling a little awkward, I tap the glass face and bring it up. “Ah, are you listening? Can you tell me where the dining hall is?”
“It’s just this way,” someone says from behind me.
I turn to see a girl of roughly my age. Every other person has begun their conversations with how powerful they can make me. She just nods to the left.
When I don’t follow, she crosses her arms and frowns. “I don’t want you to be my Grail, if that’s what you’re thinking. You’re a new witch, and so am I. Let’s go.”
Maybe it’s her delivery – or the fact she doesn’t turn around and stare at me – but I find myself following.
“It must be pretty crazy for you,” she mutters as we head down a short set of steps that thankfully do not grow and do not change right in front of my feet.
She chuckles. “You’re not the only new witch at the school. Though technically, it’s been a year for me. I’m not a Grail, though.”
“… You’re a new witch too?”
I have so many questions. But that little paranoid part of my brain makes me wonder if this is just an act.
She has her back to me, and she suddenly turns over her shoulder. “I know what you’re thinking. I couldn’t care less. I don’t want a Grail. I’m not seeking infinite power like the rest of them. I just want to graduate and get the hell back to the real world. This place is screwed.”
“Wait… you can get back to the real world?”
“They haven’t told you that yet? I’m not sure what it’s gonna be like for you, but once I graduate and I can prove that I can control my magic, I can leave this place behind. For good.” There’s a growl in her voice.
I want to tell myself that she’s faking her emotions, but at the same time, she’s so frigging genuine. She speaks to the same tumultuous feelings within me. “What’s your name?”
“Lucy. Lucy Rivers. You’re Dawn Cooper. Must be pretty crazy for you. If you were a normal new witch, I’d just tell you to keep your head down. But you’re not. I can’t give you any advice. Sorry. But the hall is just here.” She stops in front of a door. She turns and looks at me. “This is the side door. I’m going to head through the main door. I don’t want any students seeing me with you. They’ll get the wrong idea and think I’m going after your power. I don’t want any trouble.” She opens her hands wide, and without another word, turns away.
I blink back my surprise. “Ah, thanks?”
She just waves over her shoulder.
I stare at the door. My stomach knots with nerves. I really don’t want to face anyone this morning, but I guess I have no choice. I open the door and push through.
The dining hall is huge. I have no clue how many students are here, but I get the impression that this isn’t even all of them.
There are long tables set up. There are massive windows on one side.
As for the food? I can’t tell where it’s coming from. Students just have bowls of it. They walk past with all sorts of different dishes. Some of them just have cereal and toast while others look like they have three-course meals.
I stand there, staring.
As my gaze traces back and forth across the tables, I realize I’m looking for something. No. Someone. And it isn’t John, my only safe haven.
… Is there a reason I didn’t dream of my knight in shining armor last night? Is it because meeting Arthur completely ruined that sweet fantasy?
I clutch the side of my face.
Someone turns around, and they spy me.
“Whoa, come sit here,” the guy says. He shoves one of his friends out of the way to make room.
He makes such a ruckus that other people notice me.
God. It’s happening again.
Everyone stares my way.
I would give anything to go back to the days when I was just a pariah. It was so much easier to navigate school life.
“Do you need food? What do you want?” one particularly chipper student asks.
I lock a hand on my stomach. I was hungry before, but I’m feeling sick now.
Other students rush toward me, until suddenly they stop.
I hear someone walking through the door behind me.
It’s gotta be John. Thank God.
I turn. But it sure isn’t John.
He’s close enough that he looks right into my eyes and I look into his.
I think the rest of the world crumbles away. But only for a few seconds.
He continues to stare at me. Then he slices his gaze to the side and walks off. He doesn’t say a word. He simply dismisses me and walks away.
I find myself blinking, a little cold and shocked by his indifference.
It’s weird for the rest of the school to be so keen on me and for him to treat me like I’m nothing.
It solidifies what I already concluded last night. This guy is a prick.
“Don’t just stand there and get in people’s way,” he mutters when he’s several meters away.
It sends a shot of anger blasting through my gut.
I am not bolshie at the best of times. It usually takes a lot for me to arc up. For some reason, I feel my frustration coming to the fore. I get ready to give him a serve for being rude, but I never get the chance.
John appears, and he’s somehow right in front of me. He takes one look at my angry expression and smiles. “I would tell you that it’s not worth it, but it would be worth it. I would love to see you put him in his place, but the only way to do that is on the battlefield.” With that particular cryptic statement, he nods toward the edge of the room.
I frown and follow the move. There’s a wall. I look at it then back to him. “You want to walk through walls now?”
He laughs. “You won’t be able to do that for a while. I mean that’s where the food is.”
I just stare at him blankly.
He chuckles and walks away.
I turn over my shoulder. I stare over at Arthur.
He isn’t looking at me. In fact, he looks as if he’s taken up a position deliberately so he doesn’t have to glance at me once.
We reach the wall.
I’m still frowning at John. “Are you expecting me to eat plaster?”
“No. I mean, you can if you want. The dining hall is programmable. It can whip you up any dish you desire. You want ground-up wall? Because I can get you that—”
“Nice try. Just get me some cereal.”
“What kind? There are literally millions of options.”
I make a face. I’m not really in a mood to try to decide.
He can clearly see this. He clicks his fingers. “Let’s just go with the standard menu.”
He swipes his hand to the side, and his watch face starts to glimmer. I can see a charge of magic passing from it into the wall. Then a circle appears.
It looks like it’s a hole right through the wall to the kitchen beyond.
I gasp. Fortunately it’s not loud enough that anyone but John hears.
“Cereal. Standard,” he mutters in a clear voice.
The next thing I know, somebody walks up to that hole and hands him a bowl of cereal.
He gives it to me.
I stare at it.
“Anything else? You want a drink? Coffee? Something stronger to get you through your first day?”
“Just a glass of water will be all right.”
Someone hands him a glass of water, and he gives it to me.
He grabs his own food, and we make it over to a table.
All eyes are on me. I think I’m starting to get used to it. No, that isn’t true – when I’m in John’s presence, it doesn’t affect me as much.
We sit down and eat.
I find my gaze tracing back to Arthur so many times, but not once does he stare my way.
John sees what I’m doing, though. “You want to know his story, ha? You want to know why he’s such a damn asshole. Like I said,” his voice drops, “he pretty much owns this school.”
“You said last night that his family helped found it.”
“And that translates to him pretty much owning it. The Pendragons can do whatever they want.”
“Pendragons,” I say, the word not exactly slipping off my tongue.
“Anyway. Like I said, you don’t have to bother about him. In fact, he’s probably the only student you don’t have to worry about. He’s already got a bonded.”
“Right,” I say emptily.
We eat quickly. I have a lot of questions I want to ask him, but I have a really big audience.
Every table around us is quiet. The students are listening to everything we say.
I want to grill John again about what happened last night, but I figure this is not the time.
We quickly finish, leave our dishes on the table, and head out the door.
Once or twice, I feel Arthur’s sharp gaze on the back of my neck, but every time I turn around, he’s not looking at me.
It must all be in my head.
I can tell you what else is in my head. The dream from this morning. By the time we finally make it to class – which is history – I’m replaying the dream over and over again.
I sit with John up the back. It means that people will have to crane their necks obviously to stare at me.
Revas is taking the class. He walks in, and I’m grateful when he just starts speaking to everyone. There’s no magic. There are no holograms. There’s nothing I can’t keep up with.
It means I can tune out.
I have my books in front of me. It doesn’t take long until I start to draw. The first thing I go to draw is Arthur’s likeness, but I freeze and scribble over it.
Then I draw the next thing that’s buried in my subconscious. That symbol – the one from that woman’s necklace. I start at the top and trace a circle. Then I draw the likeness of half a dragon in the middle.
When I finish, I start drawing another one on the opposite side of my page.
I don’t think anyone is paying attention to me. Because I’m not paying attention to the world. The more I draw that symbol, the more I’m pulled out of the classroom. That is until John suddenly leans over.
He takes one look at what I’m drawing, then silently settles his hand on my paper. He sends a charge of magic over the parchment. It erases everything I’ve drawn.
“What—” I begin.
Because I haven’t been paying the slightest bit of attention, I haven’t realized that Revas has stopped his lecture. He’s walking down the long lines of students.
“Straighten up and pretend like you’re paying attention,” John says.
There’s a real edge to his voice. His gaze is still locked on my paper. It’s as if he’s freaked out by what I was drawing.
I do as he says.
Revas stops in front of my desk. “What have you learned, Miss Cooper?”
I bite my lip. “That I have a lot left to learn?” I try.
Surprisingly, Revas is actually satisfied with this answer. “Indeed you do. And that is why study is important. I will be assigning you different texts to the rest of the class. Please ensure that you read them thoroughly and carefully.”
Then I make the mistake of sliding my gaze back to John.
He’s looking at me… and for the life of me, I can’t place his expression.
He gazes at the parchment in front of me one last time then mutters, “Don’t scribble during class again. Especially not that.”
I look at him nervously.
The class continues. This time I don’t allow myself to draw.
I pay attention. Do I learn anything? No. I’m too freaked out by John’s reaction.
When class ends, I can tell he wants to speak to me, but we don’t get the chance.
I expect that I’ll have all my classes with him – or at least, I hope like hell I will. But the next class I have to do on my own.
Suzanne comes marching up out of nowhere and plucks me out of the crowd. “You will come with me, Miss Cooper. You will be receiving one-on-one basic tutelage at this time every day. Now, hurry. And watch your manners,” she adds.
I rush after her.
I turn over my shoulder to see John. He’s frowning at me.
It was that symbol, right? What was it?
Suzanne takes me to an empty classroom.
I’m kind of grateful that there’s no one else here, even if I’m alone with her. She’s strict and all, but it beats being stared at like I’m fresh meat at a butcher’s shop.
I scratch my arms.
“You will stand up straight and wait for instruction,” she chides me.
“Yes… Professor,” I say quickly, remembering that Twitch hates being called ma’am.
“Good. Now, what do you understand about magic?”
It’s a pretty open question. I don’t even know where to begin. “It’s… powerful?”
She has a disappointed expression. She crosses her arms. “Yes, indeed, it is powerful. But what is it?”
I really make a face at her now. “It’s… magic.”
Suffice to say, she is not pleased with my reply. “Magic is one of the fundamental forces. Are you familiar with the other fundamental forces of physics?”
She simply sighs. “Very well, let’s start from the beginning. Magic is a force alongside life, death, and time.”
I might’ve shrugged before, but I am familiar with the fundamental forces, and life, death, and time do not factor on the list.
“Magic,” she swipes a hand to the side, and an image suddenly appears in front of her, “is one of the unifying forces that binds everything else together. Without it, life and death would collapse into one, and time would become irrelevant. For time only counts when there are conscious creatures to watch it pass.”
I quickly understand this is going to be way different from any other physics lesson I have ever received.
I try to pay attention, but my mind is still locked on my dream.
It was just a dream, right? It wasn’t some kind of vision. It was just the contents of my otherwise paranoid mind trying to come to terms with what has happened to me.
But the more I try to tell myself that, the more my stomach kicks.
The dream was too sharp. And that symbol certainly seemed to freak John out.
I know I should be paying attention, I really do, but I start to tune out – until Suzanne comes over and knocks me on the back of the head.
“Hey,” I splutter.
“I would say the same. You’re here to pay attention. You may not understand how important this is, but you are a Grail,” her voice falters. “You must learn magic while you still have the chance. If your enemies were ever fortunate enough to get their hands on you, there is nothing you would be able to do to save yourself. You have been lucky thus far,” her voice drops and vibrates hard. “Do not plan to be lucky again. Those who foolishly think fortune is on their side will soon find out that it is a poor replacement for planning.”
I just have to stand here and listen to her. I know that if I’m stupid enough to talk back, all that’s going to result in is an ear-bashing. But I want to frown and point out that this is my first day. Nobody’s even bothered to explain to me what I am, let alone tried to teach me magic. Sure, I don’t have a plan. But I also don’t have very good help, either.
I, of course, keep every single word of this to myself.
“Magic,” she takes a step forward, and for the first time, she opens her hand, and magic charges over it, “comes easier to some than others. It should, theoretically, come quite easily to you. But it will be very hard to control.” Her voice vibrates down low on the word control. She also tips her head forward. There’s something about her gaze as it locks on me.
I’m forced to stand a little straighter. I don’t know why, but I open my hand in the exact way she does. I assume that we’re going to have an actual lesson here, but instead of showing me how to practice magic, she turns around again. She continues to click her fingers, and more magic charges around her hand. It wraps itself around her palm, descends to her wrist, then rises to her elbow. Soon, her entire left arm is charged with it. It’s bright – more than bright enough to chase away every shadow in this previously gloomy room.
I know I’ve seen a lot of magic thus far, but it still takes my breath away. It proves to me that no matter what happens next, even if my life is thrust into danger after danger, it’s not exactly going to be boring.
“Grails are conduits. They can access the true heart of people’s power. They do this, in large part, by accessing the truth.” She turns suddenly, her skirt ruffling around her knees. She frowns, and the move is framed by her hair as it drops in front of her face. She looks quite the sight with her glowing arm and her hidden expression.
She doesn’t need to add more drama just to get my attention. I take an automatic step toward her. “Truth?”
“Indeed. A Grail’s primary purpose is to channel another person’s inner truth. It is one’s inner truth that gives them access to their real powers.”
I know I have to suspend my belief here. I have to push away everything I think I know about physics and the real world. But how can helping someone else access their inner truth give them more power?
“You have a long way to go, but you can start by accepting this lesson. Grails do not lie. They do not act improperly. And they do exactly as they’re told. They are only there to help others.”
“What about to help ourselves?” It’s just an automatic question. My teachers back at my old school weren’t the best, but they encouraged questions. It’s a requirement of learning, after all.
Not Suzanne. She actually growls at me as if I’m a dog that’s stepped out of line. “Grails are there to help others. You may currently be too selfish to understand this, but your part in magic is to assist the larger good.”
I open my mouth. I have about 1,000,001 questions, but I don’t get the chance to ask them. Her phone rings.
She frowns, shoves a hand into her pocket, and takes the call. I strain my hearing, trying to pick up what she’s saying, but I can’t.
She walks out of the room, but I can see her just beyond. She keeps her conversation muttered. Even if I were to go all the way up to her, I doubt I’d be able to pick up what she’s saying.
… Which just leaves me alone again. Here I am, on the cusp of apparently learning magic, and all I’ve got are a thousand questions and a lot of time on my hands.
I start to walk back and forth across the room, but it’s pretty boring and plain. There’s nothing much to look at. There isn’t even a window. After she doesn’t come back for a full five minutes, I get distracted enough that I start trying to practice magic, as crazy as it sounds.
You would think that I would have no grounding whatsoever – that I would have absolutely no clue how to even create a charge of force – but you’d be wrong. Because I have to go back to one thing. My dreams over the past several years have taught me what I am, even if, at the time, I wasn’t aware of it.
I open my hand. I concentrate. I push a breath through my teeth. Though I really don’t want to remember Arthur and my dreams about him, I’m forced to. I take my mind back there. I really close off the rest of my senses until it’s just me and my imagination – until it feels like I’m actually back on that horse with him. And I remember how it feels. But most importantly, I tune in to how my body feels when magic is rushing through it. It’s natural. It’s not something I have to second-guess, and critically, it isn’t something I have to control. It’s like breath. If you don’t get in its way, your body will do it for you.
My mind is now completely closed off from the rest of the room. A bomb could go off behind me, and I wouldn’t even blink. It’s just me and my hand, me and my magic, me and my soul. It’s just me and that dream until I can almost feel Arthur right in front of me.
I swear I hear his voice. “That’s it. Just a little more. Let your heart flow through the move. Let your energy follow your mind.”
I didn’t just make that up. I genuinely heard his voice. It forces me to open my eyes quickly. It’s such a snapped move, my eyelids could ricochet off and bounce around the room. But that’s nowhere near as surprising as what has developed in the palm of my hand. There’s a charge of magic. It’s tiny, granted, and it looks no larger than a small firefly. But… it’s there.
I gulp and stare at it, my cheeks becoming so cold and slack, I think they’re going to slide off my face.
Suzanne has just finished the conversation, and she comes into the room. There’s a skidding sound as she stops by the doorway. I don’t know how she’s gonna react – if she’s going to be surprised or scared. But as I whip my head over to her, I catch a moment of total, awe-struck surprise. It’s clear that I shouldn’t be able to do this yet. But her slack jaw doesn’t last. A frown quickly tugs down her lips. It’s hard and pronounced enough that I don’t think she’ll ever be able to smile again. “What are you doing?” she snarls.
“Sorry,” I splutter. I jerk my hand to the side, and without even being aware of it, the magic disengages from my hand. It actually jolts into the air.
It’s weak, and even though I don’t know that much about force, I get the impression that it’s not gonna be able to do anything. It’s hardly going to start a fire. Hell, even if it were to land on someone, I imagine it would just make them slightly ticklish. But that doesn’t account for the way she reacts. With another earsplitting growl, she jolts forward and she opens her hand. The next thing I know, my magic shoots off course and falls into her palm. She crunches her fingers in and extinguishes it. I see little wisps of smoke erupting through her tensed knuckles.
She locks her expression on me. It looks like it’s a cage. Not just one for my magic, but one for my hope too. My pride at the fact that I just managed to do that is completely washed away.
She takes a menacing step toward me. “Magic is no game, Miss Cooper. I am here to teach you. You are not here to teach yourself.”
I know I shouldn’t snap back. I know I should just lock my lips together and keep my frigging mouth shut, but I can’t stop myself. “I thought you said that I had to follow my own truth in order to access my powers? Isn’t that—”
“This lesson is over. You will be attending detention later today. I will tell the principal of this.”
I blink quickly. “Of what? Proper learning requires people to ask questions—”
“I do not need you to tell me what learning is for a witch. All you need to do is follow. You clearly have not grasped the severity of your situation. You are not here to gain intellectual points by arguing. You’re here to do as you’re told so that you can help the magical community as a whole. Now, perhaps you can reflect on that.” With that, she just turns around and walks out.
I’m left standing there, completely flabbergasted. I’ve never had a teacher treat me like this. Then again, is she really a teacher?
Yeah, this is a school for students and all, but nobody acts like they should.
Long before she’s walked out of the room, she shoves her hand into her pocket and pulls her phone out.
That makes me narrow my gaze.
She was planning on canceling this lesson early, wasn’t she? Ever since she got off the phone, she was angling for an argument with me.
It had nothing to do with what I said and did. It had everything to do with that conversation she had earlier.
I get the urge to follow her, but I know that’s gonna get me into even more trouble, so I just stand there. I await further orders. I assume she wants me to go back to class or something, but I don’t even know where class is.
When she’s good and gone, I finally pull myself out of the room.
I wait for my watch to vibrate and tell me I should rush somewhere, but it doesn’t.
… So I’m on my own. For the first time, I get the chance to explore this castle without anybody there to bother me. All the other students are in class, and by the sounds of it, the teachers are too.
I’m wary at first. I skulk through the halls.
I stare at the walls. They’re grand – because everything is. This castle is amazing. I’ve never seen anything like it – not even in books. Because something like it shouldn’t exist.
I rub my face. My fingers get caught in my hair. I don’t know why, but I drop my hand and I stare at my palm. The slightest smile cracks my lips. Who cares about detention? I practiced magic on my own.
I continue to stare at my hand. It drags my attention off this castle and all my other problems.
I don’t know where I’m walking. I’m just wandering. And I continue to do that until I hear a low voice.
It’s far off, and I have no idea who’s speaking, but that doesn’t matter, because the quality of the utterance suddenly locks me to the spot. It reaches in and does something funny to my gut. I feel myself shaking slightly. My heartbeat quickens, too, and involuntarily, my hands grope to the sides. As soon as I get closer, I realize why. I know that voice. I’ve been programmed to react to it for several years, you see. It’s Arthur.
He has no clue I’m here. He’s around a corner. By the sounds of it, he’s on his phone. Though his voice is low at first, as I get another step closer, I start to hear what he’s talking about.
“Just as long as she remains in the prison, that’s all that matters. We can’t afford for another one to escape,” he says.
His voice is different. It’s a lot less arrogant compared to the Arthur I’m starting to get used to. Instead, it’s filled with fear. The kind of fear that would see somebody shaking in their boots. The kind of fear that would overshadow someone’s entire life, casting gloom wherever they went.
I’ve only heard it a couple of times before. My mother was steeped in that fear in the months and weeks before she died. So just the sound of that tone in his voice makes me begin to sweat. I push myself against the wall. I stay as quiet as I can.
“I don’t care what the ministry says. Keep her in that prison. You understand?” he snaps once more.
It suddenly strikes me. Ministry. Woman. Prison. This is almost exactly like my dream.
I was willing to dismiss it. Or at least, I was willing to dismiss most of the content of my dream, even if I couldn’t actually get it out of my head. But this is impossible to ignore.
“Just—” Arthur begins, but he stops abruptly.
I should take something of his sudden pause, but I don’t. I remain exactly where I am – that is until he takes a quick turn around the corner.
He faces me, and his expression becomes as stony as a statue. “Got to go,” he snaps. He hangs up his phone.
He locks his gaze on me.
I push away from the wall. I look at him then at my feet. I go to turn away, but he gets in my way. “You listened to my conversation. I already figured out you’re rude, but this—”
“I only heard a little. You were talking about someone in prison. A woman—” I begin. I know I shouldn’t admit to what I’ve heard, but I have to get this off my chest. At the prospect that my dream could somehow be real and that Arthur could be involved in it, my emotions get the better of me.
His cheeks slacken. “You—”
“Who is she? What’s the ministry? Where is it?”
“You have no right to eavesdrop on other people’s business. Nor do you have a right to question me,” he says, and damn is there a holier-than-thou quality to his voice.
It suddenly reminds me how much I hate him. Maybe this is where I should back down. From the look in his eyes, that’s exactly what he expects me to do, but screw that.
Suddenly all of the pressure that I’ve been facing over the past day comes crashing down on my shoulders. I will never be normal again. Hell, I’ll never even be able to leave the school without a frigging chaperone. And now I’m stuck in Suzanne’s clutches. And for some reason, I get the impression it’s all his fault. If I hadn’t had those dreams – and if I hadn’t seen his face and wasted 10 minutes drawing it yesterday – I wouldn’t be here right now.
“Damn you’re arrogant,” I snap. “Where do you get off treating people like this?”
He splutters. It’s clear he wasn’t expecting me to fight back.
I cross my arms.
“Do you have any idea who I am?” His voice drops into a menacing growl.
“Yeah, an asshole. I’m pretty sure every single person at the school has figured that out by now. They can see you coming a mile off.”
His cheeks stiffen. Yet I can’t quite place the look in his eyes. “I’m a Pendragon,” he mutters. I expect there to be more force behind that grand statement. I expect him to shout Pendragon as if it’s a shield. No, better than that – a symbol. One of righteous power. All he has to do is flash it, and everyone will fall at his feet.
And yet it just slips out of his stiff lips as if he can’t dare whisper it louder.
It’s a little disarming, but I’m not about to give up yet. I go back to the fact that Arthur is the reason I’m stuck here, even if that is pretty irrational. “I don’t know what a Pendragon is, and I don’t much care. But I do know that this school is screwed.”
“I would watch my mouth if I were you,” he says, and he takes a step closer to me.
He’s not invading my personal space or anything, but just tell that to my stomach. A second ago, I was ready to fight him on every single front, but now my gut kicks hard. It’s not a nervous move so much as an expectant one. It suddenly brings my dream to the fore. It reminds me that I know exactly what it feels like to kiss Arthur.
I fear that my cheeks are about to redden. If they do that, I’ll never be able to live it down.
I go to open my mouth to snap at him again, but his phone rings. He looks down at it then looks at me. “Do not get involved in my business again. It’s unsafe for a Grail like you.” With that cryptic if threatening statement, he walks off. It takes a while before he answers. Even then, he shoots me a warning look over his shoulder.
I just stand there, fuming.
What a complete asshole. I suddenly understand why John was so determined to insult him yesterday.
Arthur deserves to be dragged through the dirt a bit.
I walk away. I curl my hands into fists. They’re bloodless. I feel like I’m going to tear the skin off my palms, too, but there’s nothing I can do to slacken my fingers.
“What an asshole,” I mutter to myself three or four times. It takes until I’m down another length of the corridor until I stop. Yeah, what an asshole, but he was talking about a woman in some kind of ministry prison. And that cannot be a coincidence.
That strikes me again. I clutch my head. I frown. For some reason, I go to grab hold of a pendent I’m not wearing. I close my eyes. I remember the exact symbol of that necklace I saw in the dream.
I’m lucky enough that there’s no one around. I have no clue where I am, but it seems to be a particularly dead part of the school.
There’s barely even a sound. Until suddenly there is. This unusual scratching picks up from somewhere.
Though all I want to do is try to figure out how Arthur is involved in my dream, I open one eye then the other. By the time they’re both open, I’m frowning. The hard move marches across my lips relentlessly.
I edge forward.
The scratching seems to be coming from just down the hallway.
I walk down it. I turn down another corridor. This section looks even more abandoned than the last. I mean, I get it, John told me that there are 8000 rooms. I don’t think there’s anywhere near that many students. So even if they had a room each, there’d still be empty space. But why do I get the impression that this particular section of corridor hasn’t been visited ever?
It just has this… lonely feeling.
I soon find myself clutching my arms. I really push my fingers in until I hook them into my elbows and I’m holding on for dear life.
I turn around.
I go to head back the way I’ve come. I know it sounds stupid, but this abandoned corridor is starting to ignite my fear.
I turn around, but the scratching gets worse. And that’s when I hear this low mutter.
It’s enough to get my attention. And by get my attention, I mean that a wave of nerves suddenly strikes me. It rushes over my back. It sinks into my stomach. It makes me arch my neck. I turn over my shoulder so quickly, I think I’m going to unscrew my head and send it tumbling over the floor.
My eyes open and lock on a section of wall. I walk toward it, my footfall unsteady. “Ah, is someone there?”
The moaning gets a little louder.
I press my head close to the wall. “Is somebody there?” I ask again. I even curl my knuckles and rap them twice on the wall.
And that’s one of the greatest mistakes I’ll ever make.
Something suddenly bursts out of the plaster. I can see magic crackling all around it. But I can’t react. A hand grabs hold of my wrist. The next thing I know, I feel some kind of claw sinking into the soft flesh just below the base of my palm. I feel a single droplet of blood leaking out.
The crackling gets worse. I go to scream, but I never get the chance. Something locks over my mouth. I’m pulled right through the wall.
Everything happens so quickly, I can’t possibly hope to catch up.
I fall down a set of steps. They’re long and dark and stone. And by the time I reach the base, I’m bleeding from my brow and from a long cut down my arm.
I’m also discombobulated. I shove to my feet. I stagger and plant a bloody hand against the wall.
I finally scream. It’s delayed, but dammit I put all my effort into it. As it shakes through my chest, I feel like it’ll wake the entire school.
Or at least, it would if they could hear me.
I jerk backward. I can’t really see in the dark. But I remember that moan.
There’s something down here with me. I swipe my hands protectively in front of my body, but it doesn’t matter. I can’t catch hold of anything.
“What’s happening? What’s happening?” I hiss again.
No matter how much I scream and fight, it doesn’t matter.
The blood continues to ooze down from the cut in my brow. It has to be bad. I can’t see out of one eye. I keep blinking and trying to push the blood back, but it just stings me even more.
I finally hear that moan again.
I straighten up. My whole body freezes.
This is it.
Something at the back of my head tells me that this might just be a test. Maybe Suzanne is trying to prove her point. But that growl… it speaks to something deep within me. It accesses the knowledge that my dreams downloaded into my psyche. And it warns me that this is very real.
My lips part open of their own accord. “Farling,” I hiss. I barely push any volume into the word, but that doesn’t matter. As I say that, I hear the scattering of claws. Then something moans again.
It is categorically one of the most terrifying sounds I have ever heard. It sounds as if someone has just pushed me into a grave with a walking corpse.
“What’s going on? Please. What’s going on? How did I get down here?”
That moaning gets closer. And that’s when I realize it’s not alone. There are two voices. Two farlings.
One of them approaches. I can feel their body moving in the darkness. The claws are right in front of me. Their face draws close. Then they sniff. As the air is pulled into their nostrils, my hair plays across my face.
I freeze until I can’t even breathe.
Then one of the farlings finally grabs me. It sinks its claws into my wrist and pulls me forward.
I feel some kind of magical wave pushing through me. It’s numbing. I can’t say it’s calming – it does the exact opposite. While it stops my body from moving, it makes my heart beat even faster. I feel a fear more exquisite than any I have ever imagined before.
I’m certain that I’m about to pop.
I’m not gonna be that lucky.
As my body gives way, one of the farlings picks me up. It throws me over its shoulder. I’m treated to the feel of its body, and it is categorically one of the most disgusting things I have ever encountered. It feels like worms. There’s no solidity. The energy that makes up its form twists and writhes. As I lie against it, it makes my skin tickle and warns me that I’m covered in spiders.
I try to scream again. I can’t. I wonder if I’ll even be able to breathe in a few seconds.
The farlings carry me forward through the gloom. My eyes adjust – but only a little. I can tell that I’m in some kind of stone tunnel.
I wonder what will happen next. Everybody’s been warning me about my enemies, but I don’t have a strong enough imagination nor a sufficient understanding of the magical world to actually predict what they’ll do to me. Will they strap me up to some kind of magical device and extract my power? Or will they keep me in this state forever? Will I be a vegetable as they use my magic to help themselves?
Though I can’t really move most of my body, I close my eyes, and a single tear trails down my cheek.
We reach another set of stairs. This one seems to go even deeper. I have no clue where I am. Is this part of the castle? Is it a basement of some description? Or is this a spell?
I don’t know why I’m bothering to distract myself with these questions. I can’t answer them, and even if I could, then what?
I have no magic. I can’t get out of here. And there’s no one to help me.
The words it’s over repeat in my skull. They’re like a mantra – but one that’s designed to destroy me. They suck away the last of my hope. As they shake through my limbs, I feel myself giving in to that numbing spell even more until I’m certain I’ll never move a centimeter again.
I’m vaguely aware of the fact that we’ve reached the end of the stairs. Then we enter some kind of open area. I only know that because the airflow changes. I can feel it as it shifts against my hair and sends it tumbling over my cheek.
I don’t know why, but I get the impression that once we cross this expanse, that’ll be it. We’ll be far away from the school and far away from any potential help.
I close my mind off.
Usually my visions overcome me when I don’t want them to. Now I push my mind back into my dream. I don’t care that my knight in shining armor is now permanently stained with Arthur’s image. Right now I reach out for the only comfort I know.
I push my mind into that dream. I shove away every distraction. I concentrate like I’ve never concentrated before.
I lock my mind on it more and more until finally, finally I can feel that smooth armor. I can hear the hoofbeats. And most importantly, I’m aware of his presence right in front of me.
He turns toward me. I see his face and the powerful light of dawn. “Just hold on, I’m coming.”
Those words reverberate in my mind just as I’m unceremoniously dumped off the farling’s shoulder. I fall flat on my face. I think I bang my nose because more blood begins to drain down my lips.
It seems to ignite the farlings even more. They hiss with pleasure.
I start to feel this crackling. I can’t be certain, but they’re casting magic.
Maybe it’s gonna be another portal spell like the one that took me from my apartment to the castle.
When it’s done, I’ll be spirited away.
I think I can almost hear the echo of Arthur’s words in my mind. Don’t worry. I’m coming.
Another tear has a chance to trail down my cheek.
I go to give up, but at the last moment, I hold on to those words.
Once more I hear them. But there’s something different. They’re louder.
“Don’t worry, I’m coming,” he screams.
I go to tell myself it’s in my head, but it can’t be. Because just at that moment, the farling in front of me that’s grabbed me by the shoulder twists its head around. It hisses. It’s no longer triumphant. It’s shaking with total fear.
I somehow gather the strength to blearily open one eye. I lock it on the other side of the room. I can see light.
There’s someone over there.
My lips crack open. Even if this is a waste of my last breath, I can’t stop myself. “Arthur.”
He lets out a roar.
Both farlings scatter back from me. They take up defensive positions just a few meters away. Their bodies begin to glow with yellow magic. It could be beautiful – if it weren’t so chaotic. It leaps high off their shoulders and shakes just above them. It seems to poison the air. It produces these waves of further chaos that spread out from them for meters.
“How the hell did you get into the school?” Arthur snaps.
I try to whisper his name again, but my body just won’t work.
“Dawn, get away from them.”
I can hear his words, but I sure as hell can’t do what he says. My body is getting even heavier. I’m gonna black out, aren’t I?
“Dawn, you have to work with me. Wake up. Shake off the spell. It isn’t hard. Get out of there. I can’t attack until you do.”
My mind keeps spinning backward and forward. I’m stuck in one of my visions again. I’m on horseback. But everything is changing. Arthur is slipping away from me. I’m at the foot of that castle again. The door opens, and I hear that soul-crushing scream.
As it breaks around me, I feel myself tumbling into unconsciousness.
“Dammit, don’t,” Arthur snaps.
There’s anger in his voice – desperation too – and it’s enough to keep me awake.
I hold on to his presence, and it stops me from slipping under. For now.
I start to hear the sounds of the fight.
I see light charging through the room.
I hear one of those farlings hiss. I am aware of the fact it jolts to the left as the other jolts to the right.
“Dawn, get out of there,” Arthur tries again.
Is that real emotion in his voice? Or is it irritation at the fact that he had to come save me?
I don’t have the mental energy to sort through that comment. The only thing I can do is hold on to what he said.
You would think that following up on his words would be the last thing my body would want to do, but it’s the exact opposite.
If it were anyone else than Arthur saying this to me, I wouldn’t be able to pay attention, and I certainly wouldn’t be able to follow through. But I manage to settle my hands on the floor.
I… as crazy as it sounds and as hard as it is, I manage to push up into a kneeling position.
“Get out of there,” Arthur screams.
More light blasts through the room. I have no clue what this place is, but it’s even larger than the defense hall from last night.
I stare into the gloom. I can’t even see the walls. But I can see something around me.
I was right before when I got the impression that the farlings were casting some kind of portal spell. I can see a faint glowing yellow circle, and I’m right in the middle of it.
I might not know much about magic, but I can figure out what this means. And I can also predict what will happen if I don’t get away.
With a powerful jolt, I start to crawl.
“That’s it. Get—” Arthur begins.
But I hear him being struck.
The breath is pushed from his chest.
I jerk my head over my shoulder.
The light from his attacks was the only thing illuminating this room. Suddenly it’s extinguished.
“Arthur?” I scream.
He doesn’t reply.
I think I hear one of those farlings coming close.
It starts to incant something under its breath. Its voice is just one long hiss. It doesn’t even have to suck in a breath.
I have to get out of here.
I concentrate everything I have on crawling. I don’t think I’ve ever moved faster in all my life. I can see the edge of the magical yellow circle right in front of me. I throw myself toward it. Just as it becomes twice as bright and I feel this kind of force field kicking into place, I roll past it.
The farling hisses.
I turn over my shoulder, my hair fanning in front of my face. I see a sudden orb of light developing in the middle of the circle. Then there’s a flash.
The stone I was lying on disappears.
Both of the farlings hiss.
I can hear them running around the circle to get to me.
I have no energy. There’s nothing in me. Whatever spell they cast on me is the equivalent of an anesthetic.
I… shouldn’t be able to stand. But I have to.
Arthur is in trouble.
That thought bypasses every single interaction I’ve had with the real Arthur. It goes right back to my dreams.
I shove up.
One of the farlings almost reaches me, but I manage to push into a run. Just as it attempts to leap onto my back, I figure out what it’s going to do a second before it does, and I deliberately lurch down to my knees.
It falls, its momentum sending it several meters away.
The other farling comes at me. I know there’s a limit to how much I can dodge. There are two of them, and ultimately, they know how to use magic and I don’t.
With a grunt, one of them grabs me by the throat. It goes to pull me around.
Fear blasts through me. The creature locks its claws into the back of my neck. That sensation reminds me only of one thing. I’m brought back to my dream – back to the one I had yesterday morning. I’m on horseback with Arthur again, and a farling has just sunk its claws into my thigh. It’s up to me to throw it off.
Time kind of funnels into a point. My attention focuses like it never has before.
As the farling goes to wrench me back, I do exactly what I did in that dream. I open up to my magic, and my magic opens up to me.
It blasts out and up into the creature’s claws until it screams. But that’s not all it does. It’s thrown off me as if someone has just shot it between the brows with a powerful gun.
I’m so surprised by the move – so damn surprised that the power came from me – that I stagger down to my knees.
That’s when I remember that I haven’t heard Arthur’s voice for over a minute now.
I shove to my feet. “Arthur?” I wouldn’t be able to hide the tone in my voice. The need. The familiarity, too. It’s like I’m calling out to a long-lost lover.
While I’ve downed one of the farlings, the other one is still there.
It doesn’t come after me. I know it’s holding back and judging the situation.
I keep running away from it. That is until something suddenly sweeps around my middle.
I’m terrified. For half a second. It takes my body no time at all to realize it’s Arthur. He locks his arm over my middle to hold me in place. Then he presses his other hand into my lips.
“Don’t make a single sound. I’m about to cast a haze spell. It will only work if you don’t advertise your presence.”
He doesn’t wait for me to respond with a yes. Instead, he keeps his arm around my middle and his hand on my lips. Then I feel him concentrate. I feel him cast magic, and it’s an experience like nothing else. Force rushes up through his body. It concentrates first in his chest, drawing my full attention to the rigid line of his muscles. Then it pushes further through him. It’s fast but at the same time slow. It’s furious, unstoppable force, yet at the same time somehow gentle.
As it spreads from him, it does something to the air around us.
Even though it’s already dark, this impenetrable gloom begins to envelop the room.
I can tell it’s some kind of environmental spell. The farling is not far off. I can hear its cry. It goes to rush toward us, but as that environmental spell spreads out, it suddenly stops. I can hear it hiss, and it’s clear it’s confused.
Arthur says nothing. He keeps his hand over my mouth. His breathing is hard. I can tell he’s been injured. His arm’s moist with blood.
There are a thousand things I want to say to him – but I do nothing but try to control the sound of my breath.
And when I’ve done that, the only thing left for my brain to do is note Arthur in all his glory.
I’ve been telling myself that there’s no way that he’s the guy from my dreams. But he has to be. Because I’ve felt this all before.
His presence has been my constant accompaniment every single night for the past several years. And without it, I would’ve been a broken mess.
The farling suddenly hisses again. And that’s when it starts to attack.
It sends random charges of magic off in every single direction. One slices into the floor not far away from us. It sends chunks of hot, burning stone lurching up into the air. One strikes my foot. It’s painful as all hell, and I wince, but I don’t make a sound. Arthur won’t let me.
As for him, he hisses slightly.
He’s backing away. I don’t know why he’s not attacking.
I took down one of those farlings. I didn’t just attack it – I haven’t seen it since. And though I can’t detect its body, I just know that it’s down and out.
But for whatever reason, Arthur isn’t attacking the farling. He continues to back off. It takes ages – maybe a minute and a half – but we finally reach a set of stairs. I can feel it just behind my shaking legs.
“No sounds,” he mouths right by my ear. Then he lets go of my mouth. He doesn’t so much let go of my stomach as slide his hand around until he’s gripping my hand. Only when he’s got a firm hold of it does he start to pull me up the stairs.
I resist for a second.
My eyes are getting better. They’re adjusting to the gloom.
It takes me a moment to realize why. It’s because my arms are glowing.
I stare down at them, then yank my gaze back to Arthur.
He looks right into my eyes. My light plays over his body, and it makes his gaze all the sharper. He already has a handsome face that could stop traffic, but as my light plays over his features, it makes him even more engaging. Or at least it does to me. There’s something about seeing him in the reflections of my own power that does something to me – something deep.
“We have to go now. We can’t—”
He never gets to finish whatever he wants to say.
I feel something. It’s the same sensation I had back when I fought with John in the museum. It’s a premonition. And it is as sharp as a knife to my throat. I know that something is about to attack. And I know the direction it’s coming from. But that’s it.
I shove Arthur. I rugby tackle him down to the stairs. He automatically locks an arm around my middle, but before he can do anything about my sudden attack, something smashes into the wall just where his head was. It’s such a powerful attack that it takes a chunk of the wall down. It hails around us. Before it can crush me, he grunts, shoves up, and with me still in his arms, pushes us down the stairs. The wall collapses in behind us.
I feel him breathe hard. His chest rams hard against my own.
Then that farling comes toward us.
The haze spell doesn’t count anymore. The creature knows exactly where we are.
I think I know how this battle is going to go down. The farling is going to attack. And then Arthur is going to fall.
I don’t need to rely on my precognitive abilities or whatever the hell those battle senses are. All I have to do is squeeze my eyes shut and tell myself that there’s no way this can happen.
I can’t let him die. Not like this. Not ever.
He lurches to his feet.
I can tell he’s going to protect me. He doesn’t have enough magic, though.
So I reach forward. I grab his hand.
I don’t have to concentrate. My mind’s empty. My body is, too. Sure, it’s raging with emotions. Sure, my heart’s beating at a million miles an hour. And sure, I’m bursting with fear. But I mean my body’s empty in a different way.
You know when a tidal wave comes to shore, but just before it does, all of the water recedes first? It’s just like that.
My arms are already glowing, but in a rush, I start to access the power from my dreams – the effortless force that’s always been inside me.
Arthur has a single second to turn around, and I have a single second to stare into his awe-filled eyes. That moment does things to me. It’s written right there on my heart, in my soul, in my destiny.
It can’t last, but that doesn’t matter.
The farling suddenly jumps out of the darkness.
It never gets a chance to slash its claws across Arthur’s chest. With a grunt, he reaches behind him and draws a sword. It glows as he pulls it out of nothingness.
The farling’s attack smashes into the sword, but the force is rebuffed. Power crackles out in every direction.
The farling lands and hisses in total fear.
Arthur grunts. He slices the sword to the side.
The Farling tries to turn, but it doesn’t have the chance. With a single powerful attack, it’s cut right in half. Its body soon scatters into dust. As it hits the floor in a silent hush, I drop Arthur’s hand. I don’t choose to. I’m just too weak.
I almost fall to the side, but there’s one thing stopping me from slipping into unconsciousness. I have to see his face.
He stands there for a few seconds, panting, his barrel chest shoving out hard against his school uniform. Then he slowly turns. He loosens the sword in his grip but doesn’t push it back into that invisible sheath over his shoulder. He looks at me. I look at him.
We’ve done this a few times already, but this time it’s different.
He looks at me like he really sees me.
And me? Though I’m trying to hold on, I can’t anymore. I’m starting to black out.
In a quick move, he gets rid of his sword over his shoulder and jolts forward. “Don’t black out,” he warns.
“But… they’re dead. It’s over.”
“They’re not dead; they’re banished. And it’s not over. Not until we get out of here. Now stay awake.”
He picks me up.
This time it’s different. This time… he’s not the kind Arthur. He’s back to being the arrogant prick I fought with in the corridor only minutes ago.
He lifts me so easily, I feel like he could carry a weight ten times mine and he wouldn’t even flinch. He heads back toward the stairs, but it’s clear that they’re completely caved in. He swears under his breath. “We’ve got to get out of here. More will be on their way. I have no clue how they got into the school.”
“Farlings,” I mutter.
“Yeah, farlings. How did you get down here, anyway?”
“… One of them grabbed me through the wall.”
He runs across this large expanse. I can tell he’s looking for another way out.
“What… what even is this place?” I stammer.
“It’s the old basement. It was sealed off years ago.”
“When it was found that there are secret passages through it, the school body decided that it was unsafe. Too many holes to block up.”
That’s about the straightest answer I’ve ever received at this school. Most other people answer my questions with questions of their own or useless repetitions of the fact that I’m a Grail.
I close my eyes.
He doesn’t look like he’s paying attention to me, but he must be, because he suddenly jolts me, and it’s hardly a gentle move. “You’ve gotta stay awake.”
“I’m gonna need you to help me draw again if it comes to a fight.”
“Draw….” I don’t even know what I want to say. I’m starting to slip under.
“Yeah, draw. You know what that is, right? That’s what you do as a Grail. You assist—”
“People to find their inner truths,” I whisper, my sleepy mind reminding me of what I was taught earlier this morning.
He snorts. “Inner truth? Who told you that?”
“Yeah, I’m sure she did.” There’s a growl in his voice. I don’t expect it to be there. Isn’t he the darling of the school? And shouldn’t the darling of the school support every single teacher?
It’s almost enough to distract me, but I feel myself slipping under again. That is until he jolts me. This time it’s hard.
“Hey,” I snarl.
This makes him snort with laughter. “You think you’d be a little more thankful to me. I’m the one carrying you. I get to jolt you as hard as I want to.”
There he is. The real Arthur. I can kid myself all I want that he’s my knight in shining armor, but he isn’t.
“You’re pretty heavy. The least you can do is not complain.”
“Where do you get off acting like this, anyway? Yeah, I get it, you’re a Pendragon—”
“Don’t bring up my family,” he snaps. He’s serious, and his voice shakes hard.
His reaction is almost enough to warn me off, but I rapidly realize that fighting with him is the only thing that’s keeping me awake. “Why? Doesn’t your family own this school?”
“I told you not to mention my family,” he says. His body becomes stiff.
I want to keep pushing, but I can’t. For two reasons. I start to hear moaning, and he stiffens so much, it feels like his muscles are going to break.
“Is that a farling?” I ask, barely capable of controlling my voice.
“Yeah. Stay quiet. And stay awake, too, okay?”
I don’t snap at him. Not now we’re in danger again. “Okay,” I whisper.
He runs. And for about a minute, that’s all I can feel. It’s all I can think of. It’s all I need.
He might’ve told me not to black out, but I indulge in squeezing my eyes closed. I’m surprised when I’m not met with a vision from one of my dreams. All I can see is the darkness behind my own eyes. And all I can feel is his every jolting footstep and his every sharp breath.
I’d be dead right now if it weren’t for him.
“There,” he finally says, a note of satisfaction winding through his voice.
I open my eyes again. My vision is resolving more and more with every second I’m down in this gloomy tunnel. I can see a set of stairs. And unless I’m very much mistaken, it leads up.
He takes a deep sigh that pushes his chest further against my side. But we’re not out of the woods yet. I can hear a farling only several meters behind him.
“You have to fight it,” I stammer. “What if it causes another cave in?”
“Don’t tell me how to fight,” he snaps.
“I’ve got this.” He throws himself at the stairs.
But the farling is there. It’s only several meters behind us.
I try to strain over his shoulder. I think I can see the creature.
I catch a glimpse of it – flashes of its claws, glimmers of its eyes, then the sight of its protruding mouth.
Its attention locks on me. I’ve never been hunted before. But this is like having every single pride of lions on the African savanna go after me all at once.
The farling is only several meters behind.
I continue to strain over Arthur’s shoulder as I stare at it, and he never snaps at me to turn back around. I can tell he’s focused on climbing the stairs.
I don’t know what he’s going to do when he reaches the top. He’s already told me this basement area has been closed off. Is he going to plow through a wall or something?
I don’t have the breath to question him, and I can’t distract him, either.
The farling gets closer. It’s only a meter away now. It hasn’t attacked yet, but I can see a charge of magic building in its hands.
I don’t know what to do. I open my own hands.
“Don’t,” Arthur roars.
“We’re almost there,” he stammers back. He has to suck in breath after breath, and his chest becomes a veritable bellows. It rams hard against my back.
I squeeze my eyes closed. My battle senses are aligning. They tell me he’s seconds from being attacked. And this time….
We reach the top of the stairs. And right in front of us is a stone wall. There is no door – there’s not even a crack.
That doesn’t stop him from sprinting right at it.
He mutters some Latin incantation under his breath. When he reaches the last word, he screams it with all his might.
Behind him, the farling leaps into the air.
Arthur throws himself at the wall.
To my never-ending surprise, the wall does not push us back. Instead, it begins to move around us. Magic pulses off Arthur’s body. It sinks into every stone. It disrupts them and sends them scattering to the side. As they rain down around us, we shove through and fall onto a white marble floor.
We’re back in the school.
The stones fall all around us. The farling leaps high through a cloud of dust.
Arthur drops me. He rolls and catches the farling just before it can sink its claws into his throat.
I go to scream, to thrust forward, to do something, but I don’t have to. A pitching alarm shrieks through the hall. Then there’s footfall. I don’t know where it comes from. But as I look up, I realize that teachers are porting into the hall. At the front is Revas.
The farling is outnumbered. I can tell that. I have a moment to look into its eyes though, and it has a moment to stare into mine. I can see its animalistic intelligence gazing back. I think I can see a flicker of something else, too. It’s so cold and spine-tingling, it locks me to the spot.
Revas and the other teachers incant something, and together, they cast a spell like nothing I’ve seen. It smashes into the farling, lifts it off its feet, and tears it asunder. It turns into dust – which scatters all over Arthur.
With a sigh, he drops his arms and flops back against the floor.
“Arthur?” I stammer.
I go to lurch toward him, but he opens a hand, locks me in a sharp gaze I cannot begin to understand, and shoves up. He wipes the dust off his arms. He faces Revas.
For Revas’s part, he looks surprised… but somehow not as surprised as he should.
Everyone kept telling me that I would be safe in the school. I am very much not safe.
If it weren’t for Arthur….
If it weren’t for Arthur Pendragon, I’d be dead right now.
It doesn’t take long for us to draw a crowd.
Several teachers block off that wall we blasted through while a few more head down to the basement. As for Revas, he stares at Arthur and nods once. “She was lucky to have you.”
I flush a little. There are several things wrong with that statement. First, it doesn’t sound right. He chose his words wrong – because I certainly do not have Arthur. Secondly? I can speak for myself.
Or at least I think I can. Arthur continues to wipe dust off his arms and face. He turns to me. My lips are open. I’m ready to say something. And maybe it’ll even be a thank you. But at the last moment, I can’t push it out.
I look at my feet. I’m still down on the ground. I really doubt there’s any point in standing up.
He grunts. “Missed opportunity,” he says.
“Sorry?” His arrogant tone is enough to make me look up, all right.
“That was where you needed to say thank you. You didn’t. So you missed your opportunity. I guess I was right about you after all.” With that cryptic statement, he goes to turn away.
“Excuse me?” I push to my feet. I’m surprised when I don’t sway. And the only reason I don’t sway is that Arthur has turned back into the arrogant prick I already knew he was on the inside. It’s almost enough to wash away what just happened between us.
“You heard. I just risked life and limb for you. And you can’t even mutter a thank you. You’re much ruder than you think.”
“Sorry, I’m the one being rude?”
He just grunts. He’s cleaned most of the dust off his shoulders now. He locks his sharp gaze on me once, and the disappointment is so damn palpable. It is completely at odds with the awe-filled expression he shot me when I helped him draw. I take a snapped step towards him, ready to point that out, but I never get the opportunity. There’s more footfall. Students are beginning to assemble. I look up to see none other than Genevieve.
I don’t know why, but a guilty flush climbs my cheeks.
It’s not like we were doing anything down in the basement other than fighting for our lives, but I still feel a little flustered.
Genevieve rushes over to Arthur. She holds his face. I know I shouldn’t feel jealous. It’s damn freaking foolish to feel jealous, but I still grind my teeth.
She cleans a spot Arthur missed on his left cheek. Her move’s tender, and it makes him smile.
It’s the kind of smile I wish he would bestow upon me. It’s warm, and damn is it engaging.
“What happened? You okay?” Genevieve asks. She has a light voice. It’s completely at odds with the strident tone I always use on him.
I’m now standing there awkwardly. It brings my attention to my injuries. I’ve been ignoring them, but they’re pretty severe. The cut above my brow is deep. Long lines of blood stream down my face. As I tilt my head to the side, they sting my eyes.
I stagger a little as I wipe them clean.
Arthur glances toward me once.
But that’s it.
He cares more about Genevieve. He even reaches forward and places his hand on her cheek. Hello, we’re in full view of the teachers and students. He doesn’t seem to have any shame, though.
“It’s all right. There was a small attack on the school. But I dealt with it,” Arthur says.
… That makes it sound as if he dealt with it on his own. If it weren’t for me, we’d be dead. Then again, if it weren’t for me, he would never have had to get involved in the first place.
I hate playing Devil’s advocate in my own mind, so I quickly silence that inner voice. I turn away. It’s easier than seeing them act like a lovey-dovey couple.
I’m not surprised when I see Suzanne. She comes rushing down the hallway. There are a few teachers behind her. I’ve never seen them before, but I get the impression that they’re her lackeys.
Revas straightens up as soon as he sees her. “Suzanne. I’m sure you have heard—”
“What happened? What did you do?” she asks me flatly in front of everyone.
I’m not expecting it. I just blink. “I—”
“You were told, multiple times, but you didn’t listen, did you?”
I am very much not in the mood to be verbally attacked by anyone – especially not a teacher – and especially not with such an enormous audience.
I might be able to hold my own with Arthur, but Suzanne is different. I feel myself becoming red-cheeked again. But it doesn’t last. It’s the last kick of my circulatory system before it gives up. I’m suddenly reminded of the fact I just went through hell. Worse than that – the farlings cast some kind of strange numbing spell on me. It’s still in my body somewhere. My knees buckle a little.
“You couldn’t take it seriously that you were going to put those around you in danger—” Suzanne begins.
I know that I can’t afford to make a bad impression in front of the other students. I’ve told myself that 100 times before. But it doesn’t count anymore.
As Suzanne’s harsh words sink in, the enormity of what I just experienced catches up to me.
My knees fall out from underneath me. There’s no one there to catch me. As I fall, my head twists to the side, and I see Arthur.
He looks at me once. I… I think I see something in his gaze. But just as I lose consciousness, he turns away, his hand around Genevieve’s.
I’m not surprised to find that I rouse in the nurse’s office. It takes a while, and I’m pretty bleary. Immediately, a groan splits from my lips.
“There you are. I thought it would take longer for you to rouse, to be honest. You’ve been through hell and back.”
It’s Nurse Stanza.
He’s on the opposite side of the room. I go to roll to face him, but I can’t. So I settle for groaning again.
He chuckles. “It’s good to hear your voice. How are you feeling?”
“Good enough to groan, but that’s it,” I mutter.
He laughs at my non-joke. “That’s good to hear. It’s better than being dead. Trust me on that one.”
I blink quickly. “Sorry, dead? I… could’ve died?”
I really don’t want to hear that. It makes me sharpen my senses. I finally roll, and I see him. He’s working on that metal table where he always deals with my blood. I see that he’s actually dealing with a dressing now. He runs his thumb around it, casts a spell, and burns it right in front of me. Then he turns, crosses his arms, and leans against the table. “You got attacked, ha? On school grounds, no less.”
I have no idea what to do with that comment. Is he testing my memory? I nod.
That doesn’t seem to be the reaction he wants. He opens his mouth to say something, but there’s a knock on the door.
His demeanor changes completely.
I’m not sure who I expect. Maybe Suzanne. In fact, it’s definitely her. She’ll be here to give me another serve. I stiffen up. I can’t forget that the last time she told me off, I fainted in front of the students. I haven’t had the time to come to terms with that, but now a pang stabs down hard through my gut and spreads into my torso as if I’m drowning in ice-cold water.
There’s a deep frown on the nurse’s face. It’s clear Bradley didn’t think that he would be disturbed. He opens the door. Then he actually doubles back. His hands fall loosely to his sides. I see the fingers twitch. Then they curl into fists. Bloodless ones. But he quickly hides them behind his back. He scurries backward. Here was me thinking I was the only person who scurried at this school. Now Nurse Stanza makes as small a target of himself as is possible.
I see why as I crane my neck to the side. It’s none other than the principal.
I already got the distinct impression that it’s a rare day in hell when the principal ventures down from his office on high. Now all I have to do is look over at Bradley’s slack features to confirm that fact.
Even though I don’t want to show any deference for this asshole, I still sit up. It’s murder. And my back clunks the whole way as if someone has replaced the vertebrae with old trees. I arrange my hair over my shoulder and sit as straight as I possibly can. My shoulders are still rounded, and my body is protesting every single second of this, but I manage it.
The principal clasps his hands behind his back and saunters in. He’s also in a robe, but it’s a lot showier than Bradley’s. Though I’m not really getting a hold of magic, I get the impression that what Bradley is wearing is functional. Maybe it serves some purpose to stop my blood from affecting him or to otherwise protect him from magic.
The principal, on the other hand, is all show. His robe glimmers. It’s the first time I’ve seen magic actively at work in fabric, and it’s an insane sight. With every plodding step he takes into the room, his robe shines as if he’s somehow captured all the starlight in eternity and woven it down into one single garment.
His hands are still clasped behind his back. He looks important – or at least like he’s trying to appear that way. He stops about a meter away from me. “How’s our patient?”
I try to pick up his tone, but it’s hard. He mumbles a lot. His stare is also directed down. I don’t know why he looks at my feet first, but he does, and he only glances up at my eyes slowly. It’s as if he’s doing some kind of scan to ensure that I’m still in one piece.
I’m really not in the mood to be put on the spot. Right now I’m at my most vulnerable. Sure, I manage to sit straight, but that’s the only thing that can be said for me. I feel like I’ve run a marathon. Worse than that – I feel like every single one of my cells has been put through a beating. Sure, I’ve practiced magic in the past, but nothing like what I did down in the basement with Arthur.
I’m suddenly reminded of the fact that he was winded to the point where he almost blacked out. He also had an injury nearly as deep as mine. “How’s Arthur?” I stammer.
A large part of me is disappointed by my reaction – doubly so by the obvious emotion twisting through my tone. I’ve already confirmed that when Arthur isn’t saving me, he’s a complete asshole. One I should reject before I get even more burned than I already am.
But the words are out.
Bradley doesn’t say a damn thing. He’s receded back to the edge of the room. His side is now pressed into the metal table where he always gets rid of my blood. He looks like he’s trying to get as far away from the principal as is possible.
“It’s kind of you to ask about Mr. Pendragon. He barely sustained an injury. That fight was nothing to him.”
My nose scrunches a little. Unlike the principal, I was there. There for every single grunt, there for every single cry, there for every single stagger. Yeah, sure, we were victorious in the end, but the most salient point there is that we were victorious. Without me, Arthur wouldn’t be here.
I want to question the principal, but I also know that I’m tired. I can’t afford to do anything stupid. I’m already on Suzanne’s radar. If I start talking back to the principal, I’ll probably sink so far down that she’ll put me on detention for the rest of my life. I clutch my hands in my lap. They’re a little loose, and it’s kind of hard to lock the fingers together. But I manage it. “That’s good,” I mutter awkwardly when I realize he’s waiting for a response.
He nods. “Indeed it is.” His eyes are on me again.
I feel so uncomfortable that I want to hide behind the bed. If that doesn’t work, I’ll just run to another room. But I get the impression that piercing gaze will follow me anyway. In a moment of desperation, I look up at Bradley.
He looks worse off than I am. He’s got an almost panicked expression on his face. I see his gaze dart to the side. There’s a cupboard over there. I’ve seen him pull medication out of it.
… Why do I get the impression that maybe there’s something in there he doesn’t want the principal to see?
I have no clue where my loyalties lie in the school. But I do know where they do not lie. The principal is the guy at the top – the one responsible for this dysfunctional place.
I straighten up.
The principal goes to turn his head toward Bradley, which will bring his gaze in line with that cupboard, but I shove forward. I go to stand. It’s deliberate. And I’m gonna fall. But that’s the point. Sure enough, as I slide my feet off the bed, I tumble to the side.
I’m surprised when the principal actually grabs my arm to help me. “Watch yourself. Unlike Arthur, you can’t bounce back like a Pendragon.”
I keep my expression entirely flat. I sit back up on the bed, but only with his help. It’s pretty disgusting to receive it. It’s in his gaze, see. He’s still looking at me as if he can pare back my layers to stare at something only he can see within.
I nod. “Thank you for coming to see me, sir.”
He chuckles. “No need to call me sir. Professor is fine.”
He looks like he’s being eternally magnanimous. I don’t bother to point out that sir and professor are pretty much interchangeable. They’re both terms of utter deference around here.
I glance away, waiting for him to leave.
He doesn’t. He clamps his hands behind his back again. “I’m just here to assure you that something like that will not happen again.”
“I… okay.” I know that I should at least endeavor to use better English, but I can’t wrangle my brain cells right now. I just want him to leave. Though I’m careful not to look at Bradley directly, I can see that he’s getting progressively more panicked with every second. The poor guy will pop if the principal doesn’t skedaddle soon.
“It was a momentary glitch in our security system. That being said, you must be careful,” the principal warns, and his voice drops down low.
I can tell he’s about to get to the point.
I straighten up. My shoulders are shaking. My lower back feels like hell. Did someone do a dance on it when I wasn’t looking? Because it goddamn feels that way.
“You should never wander anywhere on your own. You should never leave the school on your own, either. At all times, you should be accompanied unless you are in your room. I have let the head of discipline know this. She will be drawing up a plan to ensure students are with you at all times.”
I try not to grimace. Really? I’m pretty much going to be a prisoner here now? I get it, and what happened was bad. But like he said – it was likely a security glitch. This is meant to be the most protected school in the country, right? So surely I should be okay walking around on my own. Because if I’m not okay, that means no one else is okay, either. These darklings are serious monsters. And though I get that I’m a high-level target, you can’t have them just wandering around the school and bumping into other students.
My mouth slowly slides open. I know I shouldn’t say anything, but I can’t stop myself. “I—”
“Our patient is still a little tired,” Bradley says, and I can tell from the way he has to grip his hands behind his back that he’s controlling the tone of his voice with every skill he has. “I will be sure to relay this message to her and underline how important it is. Thank you very much for your visit, sir.”
The principal doesn’t bother to correct Bradley on using sir. He simply turns over his shoulder slightly and gives a somewhat dismissive nod Bradley’s way. He turns his attention back to me. “We will ensure your time at Saint Teresa’s is a safe and prosperous one. I’ll keep my eye on you, Miss Cooper.” With that particularly creepy statement, he walks out.
Bradley doesn’t unstick himself from the opposite side of the room until the door closes. Then he practically melts. I think he’s going to fall down onto the floor – his legs become so weak.
He grips his head. His eyes are pretty much sightless. That is until they tick up to me.
I don’t say anything. I flop back down. I grab my lower back. “I feel terrible. And what the hell does he mean that I have to be chaperoned even in the school now? That doesn’t make any sense, does it? If there are more darklings lurking through the halls, then everyone’s in trouble.” I blurt out everything I should’ve told the principal but I was too weak to.
“No. You’ll find nothing at this school makes sense. As for your back – it’s generalized pain. It comes from the spell the darklings cast on you. You did well, by the way.” He turns from me. His demeanor has completely changed. It’s back to what it was. Albeit with an edge. His shoulders are still up high around his ears.
He walks over to the cupboard – the same cupboard he looked at with a panicked gaze previously.
He rifles in a basket and pulls out some medication.
Though I know I shouldn’t, I still push up and sit. “You have something in there that you don’t want the principal to see, don’t you?”
Way to go to just blurt out what’s on my mind. That statement right there is something I most definitely should have kept to myself. But blame it on my lowered inhibitions. I simply can’t think straight. The principal’s creepy statement is echoing through my brain, eroding away even more of my reason.
Bradley stiffens. He looks like he’s just been struck by a bat. Slowly, with the medication in-hand, he turns around.
I put my hands up. “I’m not gonna tell anyone. It’s just an observation. I helped you out, anyway. Why do you think I voluntarily fell on my ass and let that creep help me back to the bed?”
I’m taking a risk here. Yeah, Bradley certainly seems to be the most normal person at this school, but he still might be loyal to the principal. I shouldn’t call the guy a creep in front of him – even though it would be obvious to anyone that the principal is terrifying.
“You’re observant. I’m not sure if that’s a good thing or a bad thing. No. I know that answer.” He grabs a syringe and starts drawing from the small medication bottle. “It’s a bad thing. Curiosity can get you killed around these parts.”
I straighten a little and blanch. “Killed as in dead?”
He locks his gaze on me and gestures for me to give him my arm.
“Yeah, killed as in dead.”
Suddenly everything comes flooding back. Bradley is the only person I told about that murder. My cheeks become stiff. My lips wobble, then seize up. I can’t even open them. I—
He injects me then takes a step back. He looks right into my eyes. “I dealt with it. No more police report.”
“What?” I stammer.
“I know you have a wealth of questions, but you need to trust me that the reason I don’t want to answer them is that I don’t want you to get into any more trouble than you already are.” He slices his gaze toward the door and where the principal left.
I stiffen even more.
I’m still seated. I suddenly forget the fact I’m weak. Either it’s the injection he just gave me or the terrible promise playing in his eyes. “What do you mean?” I straighten and pull my hands off the edge of the bed.
He slides his gaze back to me. He guffaws. But it isn’t the equivalent of a chuckle. It’s way too tense. I can see the rope like-muscles of his neck contracting then expanding ever so slightly before they snap back to being like tight springs. “You’re a Grail. You’re the second Grail at the school. And you’re—”
“I’m what?” I stammer.
“Powerful enough that you can already help people draw. Likely no one has told you this – because at this school, misinformation is preferred over actual facts. But you shouldn’t be able to let anyone draw yet.”
My brow crunches down. “Sorry? You mean how I let John and Arthur pull their swords, right? I thought that’s what a Grail did.”
“Yes,” he stammers. “But not this soon. You need to be trained properly first. I mean, you’ve just come into your magic. Drawing is something you do way down the track. It took Genevieve years to draw. She only managed it 10 months ago.”
I really pale at that. That can’t be true, so I try to shake my head, but I give up halfway through the move. “She’s powerful, though.”
“So what does that make you?”
I hate that question. I secure a hand on my chest. I don’t know what I plan to do with it, so I just leave it there. It’s almost as if I’m getting ready in case my heart falls out. I end up clutching my uniform. I look down and realize it’s all torn and sooty.
“Don’t worry about that, it can be replaced.” The way he says that suggests that while the uniform can certainly be replaced, other things can’t be.
“What’s going on at this school? Why is it so screwed up? And why have I fallen into the middle of it? I just want to go home,” I say. I’m holding nothing back.
He takes a deep sigh. “You and everyone else. But you can’t go home. You’ll never be able to again. I know that’s harsh. I should try to shelter you from that fact, but you also need to understand your precarious situation. The magical community isn’t ever going to let you go. You’re not like an ordinary new witch. By and large, if someone doesn’t have that much power, no one cares as long as they can control it. With proper tutelage, they can go back into the community. As long as no rules are breached and no one practices in front of ordinary humans, that is. But you….”
“I’m gonna be stuck in here for the rest of my life. Great. But—”
“Look—” He jerks his head toward the door and frowns at it. “You can’t stay here much longer. One of the other teachers is going to come to get you. You just have to keep your head down. I know that’s impossible advice to give a Grail, but try to do it as much as you can.”
“No way. There are too many things I don’t understand. I—”
“Whatever you do, don’t follow your nose. Leave that to other people.”
As he says other people, he straightens up.
I get the distinct impression he means himself. I’m reminded of what John told me. Bradley, in his estimation at least, is a good guy.
I scoot further forward on the bed. My legs dangle all the way off it. “I need your help with something.”
“I just told you—”
“Do you have a piece of paper?”
“I want to draw something for you. I need to know what it means.”
“Look, we don’t have—”
“If we don’t have that much time,” I stare pointedly at the door, “then grab the piece of paper quickly. I’m a quick artist.”
He grumbles. But he marches over to his desk, pulls out some paper and a pen, and hands it over.
I quickly draw the symbol I saw in my dreams. Even when I’m only halfway through, he reacts. And it’s one hell of a reaction. His shoulders seize up. He stops breathing, and out of the corner of my eye, I can see that his cheeks become pale. As soon as I’m finished the drawing, I don’t even get the chance to ask what it is. He reaches over, plucks it up, and actually burns it in his grip. He sends a charge of magic blasting into the parchment, and it completely obliterates it.
“Don’t ever draw this again. Anywhere in the school. You got that?”
“But what is it?”
“How did you even see this?” He’s slightly breathless as if he’s run a mile.
I go to say in my dreams, but that’s when there’s a knock on the door.
He gives me a panicked look. “Never draw it again. Okay?”
I nod. I slide off the bed.
The person who’s knocking doesn’t wait to be let in. They just open the door. And from the exact way it opens, I know it’s Suzanne.
Bradley walks away, no doubt to hide his expression.
I grab my hair and pull it over my shoulder. It gives my hands something to do. It’s better than them shaking obviously.
Suzanne looks across from Bradley to me. She stares at me for a few seconds. It’s clear she’s trying to figure out how injured I am. “You look fine to me. The nurse did a good job.” She doesn’t actually bother to refer to Bradley by his name. Nor does she acknowledge him in any way.
She nods at me.
She doesn’t say anything. She doesn’t express gratitude for the fact that I’m okay even though I could very much be dead right now. She simply nods in the direction of the corridor.
“Thank you for your assistance, Nurse Stanza.”
“Don’t mention it,” he says, his voice still tight.
His warning echoes in my head as I walk out of the nurse’s office.
There’s no one around. I remind myself suddenly that it’s probably still the middle of the day. While I have no clue how long I blacked out for, I guess it wasn’t long. Judging by the sunlight streaming in through the large windows, it looks like it’s around about early afternoon.
“The principal has already informed you that from now on, you must have a chaperone at all times. You must not walk the halls on your own. You must head straight to your room after classes. And if you are ever allowed to leave, under my permission,” she suddenly adds, “it will only be with a high-level magician. Do you understand?”
Nope. I have to go back to the point that if this is dangerous for me, then it has to be dangerous for everybody.
I take a breath. “Yes, ma’am.”
I’m not thinking.
She turns around. She arches an eyebrow. “The preference of the school is to call somebody by their position. It is yes, Professor,” she emphasizes.
Damn, there’s a dark look in her eyes. I get the impression that she would prefer to be beating that lesson into me.
Maybe this is where I should shrink back, but I don’t.
We walk down a hallway, and I see that there are students at the other end. For the first time, I don’t care that I might have witnesses. In fact, I want one specific witness. Arthur.
It doesn’t take long for my brain to ask why? Not only is he an asshole, but he has something to do with that woman in the ministry prison. I want to tell myself that my dream was nothing and this is just a coincidence, but how can it be? I dreamed of a prisoner in some ministry without even knowing such a thing exists. Then Arthur speaks about the exact same situation on the phone?
I… things are happening to me. And magic is frigging real. I need to readjust my sense of what’s possible here.
I crane my neck, trying to see if Arthur is amongst the gaggle of students. He’s not. And now is not the right time to ignore Suzanne.
“I now see that I am part of the problem. I assumed that, considering your age, you would be capable of following the rules. You must be reeducated.”
I stop craning my neck. The way she says reeducated is like somebody offering to crack you across the knuckles with a whip.
I take a quick breath. “I—”
“I was not inviting a comment from you. And that is your problem. This is not a discussion. I am your senior. You will only do as I say. I would ask if you understand that, but the answer is that you clearly do not. So in time, you will be taught to understand it.”
I hate the way her voice twists on the word taught. It puts me in mind of her whipping my knuckles again.
“This way,” she snarls.
I follow her.
We walk through students. It must be between classes or something. Rather than hang out where they are, they quickly scurry off. But every single one of them stares my way. I even catch a few mumbles.
I expect them to talk about the fact that I fainted right at Arthur’s feet. They don’t.
They’re muttering about the fact I helped him draw. So rumors of that have already spread? Great.
That would account for the way they’re staring at me now. I already couldn’t hack the way people gazed at me previously. The awe. The wonder. Now it’s 10 times worse.
I feel like I’m boiling in my own skin. I keep gripping and re-gripping my collar and pulling it away from my neck. It doesn’t matter. I’m certain I’m suffocating.
We arrive at a large classroom door.
It’s already filling up with students. Everybody walks around me, a good few centimeters away. I don’t think it’s because I smell or anything. It’s because it allows them a better chance to stare at me.
Suzanne stops in the doorway and turns to me. “Your detention will begin this afternoon after classes. I will come and get you. You will wait for me.” With that, she walks off without so much as a goodbye.
My shoulders sink down.
Great. Detention is honestly the least of my troubles. My life has already gone to hell. Can it possibly get any worse?
I turn around to face the class in front of me. My eyes settle on none other than Arthur Pendragon. The answer is right there. My life sure can get a lot worse. And it will.
I walk in.
I don’t want to look at Arthur, but at the same time, I can’t stop myself from staring at him. It’s honestly as if every other person in the room has just dropped away. All of reality becomes insignificant. It’s just him and me. It feels like that stare we shared back down in the basement. The one where the air could have sizzled between us.
It doesn’t last, though. I haven’t even noticed the fact that Genevieve is beside him. She soon reaches over and pushes her hand through his arm. She secures it against her side. Then she smiles at me. On the face of it, anyone would assume that was a genuinely nice smile. All of the movements are correct. The light is even there behind her eyes. But….
I quickly walk past.
I head toward the back of the class. Nothing has changed in that respect. I want to stay as far away from people’s gazes as I possibly can.
I haven’t paid any attention to the classroom until now. But I realize it looks like it’s set up for chemistry. I really doubt standard chemistry is taught in a magical course, however. So is this going to be… potions?
I hide right at the back of the room. As the class fills up, the teacher comes in. “Everybody pair up,” she says distractedly.
God. I search for John. I quickly realize he’s not in this class. There’s someone else, though. One single friendly face. If you could call her that.
It’s Lucy. She’s also made her way to the back of the room, but unlike everyone else, she isn’t suddenly rushing toward me to be my partner.
I thrust over to her. I grab her arm. She looks at me, completely surprised. “You’re my partner,” I say. There’s no question of that. It’s a statement.
“What are you doing?” Her voice shoots up with alarm.
“You’re my partner. Please?” I stammer. There is a note of desperation in my voice no one would be able to ignore.
None of the other students look pleased, but Lucy doesn’t shove me off. Until she actually shoves me off. But she doesn’t tell me to beat it.
She arches an eyebrow.
“Everyone, take your seats,” the teacher says.
Lucy leans in close. “I told you that I’m not interested in you being my Grail. I wouldn’t even be able to use you, anyway.”
“I know. Which is precisely the point. I don’t want to have to hang out with anyone who has ulterior motives for me. It’ll just be for this class. Okay? After that, we can go our separate ways. Please?”
She is certainly not the friendliest person out there, but she still makes me smile.
“I’m not the best at potions, but I’ll try to give you pointers.”
“Thanks so much.” I press my hands together and bite my lip.
The teacher soon begins the class.
Suffice to say, I don’t understand a single thing. I try, but I still don’t know even the most basic stuff about magic.
We soon have to start an experiment.
I watch Lucy as she pulls out potion canisters from underneath the desk.
I’m so glad of the fact that I picked a desk at the back of the room. No one can turn around to pay attention to me. The teacher is pretty strict about that. She wants everyone’s eyes forward.
She’s not so strict on us chatting amongst each other. We have to do the experiment, anyway.
“Just let me do everything, okay?” Lucy says.
“Whatever you want.” I sit there on my stool. I try to control my gaze, but every now and then, it slips toward the front of the class. It locks on the back of Arthur’s head. Really? He didn’t even acknowledge me as I walked into the room. Sure, he stared at me. But no words. No questions about how I am. Nothing.
I grip my collar and pull it out.
“Okay, I’m meant to do everything, but you at least need to look as if you’re paying attention. I don’t want you to get me in trouble,” Lucy snaps.
I pay more attention. “What do you want me to do?”
“This is the standard substrate.” She indicates a pale blue bottle. “Just think of it as a kind of filler for a potion. It’s what you add real active ingredients to. It ensures the potion goes further.”
She keeps trying to explain things to me. I do honestly try to pay attention, but I have a lot to think about. I go back to that symbol.
What exactly does it mean? And why was it in my dream?
I grip the side of my head.
“The teacher is coming,” Lucy snaps.
I sit forward and look as attentive as I can.
She stops in front of us. “Thank you for assisting our new witch, Lucy. She would do well to learn from you. You have excelled in this class quickly.”
Lucy nods and says thank you.
The teacher soon walks off.
Lucy sucks in a deep, shaking breath. “That went better than usual.”
“Professor Chan,” she nods at our departing teacher, “is one of the nicest people at this school. Revas is pretty good, too. The rest…” she trails off. It tells me that she can’t stomach finishing the sentence.
Sure, Lucy looks tough, but for a moment, she appears vulnerable.
“What does that mean?”
“I’m sure you’ve figured it all out by now. Then again, maybe you haven’t. You are a special case.”
“New witches come from random families. Not from the elite lineages of old. Just from ordinary people. And that is frowned upon in the magical community. The further you can trace your magic back to your forefathers, the more prestigious you become. New witches like us – we’re usually treated like dirt. Not you,” she adds again.
I straighten up. I don’t know if I can say I’ve been treated like dirt, but I’ve been treated like prized livestock instead. I’m not sure which is better. “But it’ll be okay. I mean, you’ll actually be able to get out of here one day, won’t you?” I can’t hide the sadness in my voice. I have not come to terms with the fact I’m now trapped for eternity. How could I possibly have come to terms with anything? It’s still all too fresh. Two days ago, I was just an ordinary person. Now, I will never know what ordinary is again.
She offers me a sad nod. “I’m really sorry you got dragged into this world. You know, there hasn’t been one like you for centuries.”
I frown. “Ha?”
“Every other Grail has been born to the most prestigious of families. They probably have no clue what to do with you. I imagine they’re gonna control absolutely every aspect of your life going forward now.”
I make a face. “They’re already trying. I get detention for breathing too hard.”
She offers me a slight laugh. “Yeah, and I imagine the worst of it hasn’t even hit yet.”
“What does that mean?” I sigh loudly.
“At some point, you’ll likely have to go through Grail training. From what I hear, it’s brutal. I imagine they’re gonna want you to go through it sooner rather than later. Then you’ll be more useful to them.”
I clutch a hand on my stomach. I certainly do not tell her that I can already draw. Maybe she already knows. Maybe she doesn’t. It’s not something I can admit to without feeling the need to hurl.
Once more, my gaze slides toward the front of the room.
I’m so used to Arthur having his back to me that I almost look away immediately. But I see that he’s turned around. He’s grabbing something out from underneath his bench. And for a single second, his gaze slips toward me.
It certainly doesn’t lock on me for long. But he can’t change the fact he at least glances at me.
I can’t really describe what happens to reality when we stare at each other. Everything else just doesn’t seem to matter. I could be standing on an asteroid shooting through space, and it would be irrelevant. It would be the same as standing on the top of a pleasant sunny hill.
He turns away. He doesn’t glance at me again.
God. I want to slap myself. My thoughts are getting progressively more ridiculous.
I am forgetting one essential frigging fact.
If my dream is… I don’t know – real? Then he has something to do with the fact that a woman is imprisoned in the ministry.
Whatever that is.
I turn quickly to Lucy. “How much do you know about the magical world?”
“Enough that I’ll be able to graduate soon and get back out there into reality. Why?”
“I heard… I heard someone talking about something called a ministry. What is it?”
“The governing body of the magical community. There’s a branch in every single country. The local branch isn’t far away from here. Why?”
“Do they… imprison people?”
I get that my questions are pretty random.
She doesn’t point that out. She nods. “You bet you they imprison people. Not only are they the governing body, they’re also the enforcing body. They ensure that magicians don’t get out of hand. There are a bunch of rules. I’m sure you haven’t been taught that yet because they don’t intend to let you out into the real world for a very, very long time. But you can’t practice magic in front of normal people. It’s a massive no-no.” She starts ticking these facts off on her fingers. “You can’t practice dark magic. You can’t help evil forces like the darklings. Then there are a bunch of other laws. No murders or anything like that. Pretty standard stuff. You’ll be taught this in history class at some point.”
I nod. “But… do they… have capital punishment?”
She frowns now. She was okay with my questions before. This one’s crossed the line. “I get that your impression of this place is bad, but the whole community isn’t as screwed as this school.”
I open my mouth. I don’t want to tell her that I had a dream about a woman in the ministry prison – one who’s about to be killed, no less.
Lucy already doesn’t want to be pulled into my troubles.
I have the information I need, anyway.
I get the urge to draw that symbol for her, but the teacher comes back.
For the rest of the lesson, I try to pay as much attention to the actual contents of the class as I can.
I honestly attempt to learn, but it’s too hard. I don’t have the basic knowledge.
But I do… I have feelings. I know feelings are no substitute for knowledge, but I can’t deny that at least every time I pick up a potion, some part of me recognizes it.
It takes me back to my dreams then beyond.
By the end of the class, I’m in a sanguine mood. I spend a lot of time looking at my hands.
Apparently, I shouldn’t be able to make anyone draw yet. But I can.
Hear me out. I know this is crazy, but I honestly think my dreams were training me somehow.
It doesn’t matter that I only managed to learn how to fight recently. Every single time I had that dream, it was making me comfortable with the fact I was magical. It was also doing something to my mind. It was training me more effectively than this school could.
My sanguine mood ends quickly. Lucy mutters a goodbye, tells me she would hate to be me, and rushes off.
I go to leave, but I’m reminded of the fact that I have to wait around for Suzanne.
I’m not the only one who waits in the class, though. Everyone else – including the teacher – leaves.
That just leaves me and Genevieve.
I don’t notice her at first. I’m simply sitting down the back, mindlessly plucking the edge of the bench with my nails. But then she turns around. She looks right at me, leans forward, locks a hand on her chin, and just stairs.
I slowly tick my gaze up to her.
It’s kind. Or at least, it’s meant to be.
“My name’s Genevieve. You probably already know that by now. You’re Dawn Cooper. Nice to meet you.”
I stiffly manage to force a smile to climb my cheeks. “Yeah, nice to meet you.”
She tilts her head to the side. She stares at me as if she’s not entirely certain what she’s looking at. Then she pushes up.
It is ostensibly not a threatening move. Considering the actual threats I’ve faced today, it’s pretty low down on the scale of possibly dangerous. But it makes my gut churn.
I sit a little straighter. I slide my gaze over to the door.
I wish Suzanne would just hurry the hell up. I know that’s crazy. You would think that the last thing I would want is to spend more time with the head of discipline. But it sure would beat that look in Genevieve’s eyes.
“We’re going to have to get to know each other pretty well. What with being the only two Grails in the school and all. It’s kind of nice, really.” She stretches. “I thought I was going to be alone. Now I have someone to share my troubles with. Someone who will understand.”
She’s saying words. And they’re meant to be kind. But the impression I get behind them is of somebody slowly pulling a gun out of their pocket.
I lean back. She hasn’t even reached my bench yet. It still feels like she’s right up in my face. “Yeah.”
I can’t add anything. I can’t even think. I slice my gaze toward the door again. Am I starting to panic? It wasn’t even this bad when the darkling grabbed me through the wall.
“I heard about what you managed today.”
Here we go.
She might be trying to hide it, but I suddenly see a flash of jealousy behind her gaze. She is very good at controlling her expression, but it leaks through.
“I didn’t know what I was doing,” I mutter quickly.
I don’t add that if it weren’t for Arthur, I’d be dead. I do not mention his name. I’m not that stupid.
“But you will have to learn. We’re going to need to train together.”
Train together? The way she says that is like a frigging noose. And it’s one that she is itching to put over my neck.
I bite my lip. “Yeah. I guess. At some point,” I add, really emphasizing that. “I don’t even know how to cast magic yet.”
She tilts her head to the side. She fakes another one of those kind smiles. “But you will have to learn.”
I finally see Suzanne appearing around the door.
I can’t control the relief that rushes over my expression. But it doesn’t last.
Suzanne walks up to Genevieve, not me. She even places a hand gently on Genevieve’s shoulder. “Thank you so much for volunteering to assist with this. I know you had to give up valuable time. But it’s in aid of a good cause.”
I grip the edge of the bench and lean back.
I’m not stupid enough to question what’s going on here.
Suzanne locks her gaze on me. “Your first training session is going to begin as a Grail. Personally, I think it’s a little hasty, but the principal has insisted. So come along, Miss Cooper.”
Man, I want to run.
But there is nowhere to go.
Genevieve shoots me an odd smile. It curls a little too hard toward her cheeks. It’s victorious. Or at least, expectant.
I’m about to get my ass kicked.
The only thing I’m thankful for is that we’re not going to have an audience.
Or at least, I hope we won’t.
We walk out of the potion’s classroom.
Students are still out in the corridors. As I’m forced to walk past them, it feels like I’m a gladiator heading to the ring.
They all hide behind their hands and start talking amongst themselves.
I want to clutch a hand on my stomach, but I can’t let myself. I tilt my head up.
You can get through this, I repeat over and over and over in my head.
I remind myself I’m powerful enough that I can already help people draw.
I promise myself that my dreams were helping me train. Then all of that goes out the window. Because from beside me, Genevieve opens her hand, jerks her fingers to the side, and lets a charge of magic build in her palm.
I might not know anything about magic, but I know she’s terrifyingly strong.
We walk down the gauntlet of students until we reach a training hall.
It’s not large. But I do notice that there are crash mats on the floor and the walls.
Suzanne walks in. She stops in the middle of the room. She gestures at me.
I walk to where she’s pointing.
She simply smiles at Genevieve. “Thank you again for giving up your precious time for this. We will forever be in your debt.”
She talks to Genevieve as if she’s some kind of partner in a company – certainly not a student.
My hands are sweaty. I lock them behind my back. I jerk my gaze over to the doorway. It’s big. The door is wide open. Students are standing there. They’re not walking into the room, but they’re certainly staring.
“I was told by your defense teacher that you have a long way to go to develop the senses required for somebody to adequately sustain themselves in a battle,” Suzanne says as she stares right at me triumphantly.
Twitch told her that? Yeah, right. I managed to dodge Twitch’s first blow. She’s just been sore about it ever since.
“The capacity to read your opponent and react to what they are going to do before they do it is the cornerstone of fighting. It is something you will learn in time. And the only way to adequately learn it is to be taught by someone who is good.” She places a hand on Genevieve’s shoulder.
As for Genevieve, she’s beaming. She looks like a cat who’s currently being preened.
My stomach descends further and further.
The only way this could be worse is if the audience expanded. Specifically, if it expanded to include Arthur.
That’s the sole thing I can be thankful for. He’s nowhere to be seen. That is until Suzanne takes a step back.
It’s clear that she’s about to call the match. And that’s when the crowd parts and one specific person pushes to the fore. I don’t need to stare at him. My heart recognizes him from here. It’s Arthur. He’s come to watch the show.
My heart does this thing. Maybe it’s a wobble – maybe it’s an ectopic beat. Maybe it just decides to give up for a few seconds until it flutters back into action.
Maybe it’s something I can’t begin to understand now.
The point is, it distracts me when I don’t need it. I’m still staring at Arthur. The match has begun.
Genevieve shoves toward me.
She punches me in the gut with a magic-laced fist before I can even twitch. I fall flat on my ass.
There’s general laughter from the doorway. The only person who doesn’t join in is Arthur.
Even Suzanne claps her hands. “Very effective, Genevieve. You downed your opponent in a single move.”
I groan. I shove up.
I’m still clutching onto my stomach. I have no clue how this match will work. Is it kind of like boxing? Does it reset every time she knocks me to my ass?
I’m just standing, waiting for things to be explained to me. Which is a bad idea, apparently, because this is nothing like boxing.
Genevieve rolls to the side. The next thing I know, she slams her hand down on the mat and a charge of magic blasts toward me. It hits my ankles and picks them up from underneath me. I’m smashed back down onto the crash mats. I’m thankful for the fact they’re soft. They’ve also got some kind of magical property. As I fall on them, it’s nowhere near as hard as it should be. I’m still winded from the move – doubly so from the punch she managed to land before.
I’m gonna end up in the nurse’s office again, I think miserably. I remind myself that might not be such a bad idea, because it’s clear I have a lot to discuss with Bradly.
I shove to my feet warily.
You would think that Genevieve would just zero in for the kill. That’s what a proper soldier would do. But she doesn’t. She’s too busy staring at everybody. She likes the attention too much.
I haven’t bothered to get a read on her – haven’t had the chance.
She soaks up their attention for another second – then she comes at me.
Now I settle into things.
She goes to punch me – this time right in the face. But at the last moment, I let my body do what it has to. I get out of the way of its urges – of its knowledge.
And that proves to be the only thing that saves me.
I can instantly tell that this punch is vicious. Genevieve’s even looking at Arthur as she goes to land it.
It never lands. Just at the last moment, I twist to the side. It’s a light move. I put barely any energy into it.
Genevieve is locked into the momentum of her move. She can’t change it. So as I shift my position, she just sails on past. She lands hard down on her knees.
I get the impression that right now I could shove forward and lock my arm around her throat. Or I could just kick her in the ass. I don’t. I stay exactly where I am. Attacking would be a waste of energy.
A fight like this comes down to attrition. You force your opponent to use as much power as they can in trying to corral you. Only when they are weak do you start using your own force.
And I have no clue where that knowledge even came from. No – wait, it came from my dad, didn’t it? He was big into playing battle board games.
It’s a weird, old memory, and it distracts me slightly.
It does not, however, distract me from the look that Suzanne shoots me. It’s aggrieved. It kind of looks like the one that Twitch got when I dodged her the first time.
It’s nothing compared to Genevieve. She picks herself up. Then with a snarl that could crack glass, she comes at me again.
“Luck is never a plan,” she snaps.
It’s pretty similar to something that Suzanne told me earlier today.
Genevieve goes to punch once more.
I know I have to pay a lot of attention.
There’s a lot of force behind Genevieve’s move. Not only is it powerful, but there’s a lot of emotional energy behind it, too.
According to my dad at least, one of the first and most important lessons about wearing your enemy down is to get them as angry as they possibly can be as soon as you can.
It will force them to act stupidly.
Right at the last moment, my senses align again, and I manage to dodge. It’s a little harder. She comes at me with a lot of force. But I twist to the side.
She falls right back down on her knees.
There’s no more laughing. In fact, everybody who’s watching from the doorway is completely silent. I can tell this is not how this match is meant to go down.
I haven’t attacked once. Nor have I used any magic. But Genevieve is still losing.
“Luck is not a plan, Miss Cooper. To win the match, you will have to attack,” Suzanne snarls.
I can see a slightly flighty look in her eyes.
She’s going to intervene, isn’t she? If I don’t lose, she’s gonna figure out some reason to give me another detention. Whatever. It’s not like I can go anywhere or do anything. I might as well spend all of my time under her terrifying watchful gaze.
As I make my peace with that fact, Genevieve rushes to her feet once more.
She is hopping mad now. No – she’s glowing mad. Literally. Magic is rushing up around her arm. It’s sinking into her shoulder.
I see a faint hint of a symbol. It’s appearing over one of her sleeves. It reminds me a lot of what I see on my arms when I practice.
It’s enough that it distracts me. Right at the wrong moment.
She launches at me. She manages to grab my shoulder.
Now she has me, the only thing I can do is work with her move.
Rather than let her throw me to the ground, I round my back, let my knees collapse, and fall voluntarily. But I make sure the energy is mine.
Her magic goes to sink into me.
It reminds me of what the darklings did this morning.
That incident is still trapped in my body. I’ve had no time at all to come to terms with it. It’s traumatizing, too. Just the feel of her magic trying to sink into me brings back that cold basement. I’m almost back there. And the horror of seeing the transport circle fills my mind.
She goes to punch me.
She’s still pinning me with her other hand. I bring up my own fist.
I don’t think of anything. And that’s the key. No magic, no force. I let my emotions and my body do what they need to. Energy rushes through me.
She goes to punch my face with all her violent force, but I grab her fist.
That’s not all I do.
I stop her magic in place.
I see her eyes widen. She reveals her teeth. This is not another fake smile. There’s just the brutality of wanting to hit one human until they stop dead.
But that brutality flickers then turns to shock.
I shove back.
The fight’s coming back to me. Everything is frigging coming back to me. The murder, the darklings from my dreams. Even that castle. And it’s the castle that’s the worst. Standing there and facing that spine-tingling, soul-crushing scream makes me scream back.
I shove her off.
While she only has a few symbols glowing up over her sleeve, I have a full complement. It’s exactly what I saw back down in the basement today. It’s from my dreams, too.
I twist around. Now I’m on top of her.
She stares up at me with fear-filled, shocked eyes.
Everything comes to a head. All the pressure. All the freaking hatred and damned mystery of this school.
Hell, my whole life comes gushing through me, all in one never-ending stream of torture.
It’s time to lift my fist.
I’m not going to punch her, though. I have every intention of settling my magic into the crash mat beside her. Because I’m nothing like her.
I never get the chance to do that. Somebody tackles me. A strong arm wraps around my middle, and I’m driven down into the crash mats.
I stare up in surprise at Arthur’s grim expression.
He doesn’t pin me. And he doesn’t help me up. He gets to his feet.
“This is enough, Suzanne,” he says. His tone is even. There’s no derision. But nor is there any respect. “In the future, I think your training sessions should be more controlled.” With that, he turns around, and he reaches out to Genevieve.
She’s actually shaking.
“This… what happened? She cheated,” she stammers. “She freaking cheated. She’s got some kind of powerful potion on board. This isn’t fair—”
Suzanne clearly has no idea what to do. It’s very obvious by now that I was not expected to win.
“She cheated,” Genevieve tries again as Arthur tries to pull her away.
Suzanne clutches hold of Genevieve’s claim – whether she believes it or not. She turns to me. Her gaze is blazing. It’s not solely with anger. I can see the surprise. She’s trying to hide it, but it keeps rising up, unstoppable. “This is a training session. It was a privilege to be invited here. For you to cheat by hiding a powerful potion—”
“She’s a new witch,” Arthur says, his voice low so no one can pick it up. “Are you really suggesting that she even knows which kind of potions to select, let alone how to cast them on herself?”
Suzanne looks dumbfounded by Arthur’s words.
“In the future, as I said before, you should structure these training sessions better.” With that, he walks away, Genevieve still in hand.
If gazes could kill, she’d be burning me to a crisp.
I stand there. I feel completely exposed. It’s not from the fact I won the fight. It’s from Arthur.
I can still feel where he grabbed me around the middle. And I’m still melting under the sharp gaze he shot me.
Was there disappointment flashing in his pupils? Well he can get lost. His girlfriend was about to pound me to a pulp. I wasn’t going to hit her, I want to scream back at him. But he’s already tugged Genevieve out of the door.
All of the students who were standing around outside are breathless. Nobody knows what to do with this.
Even Suzanne takes a few seconds to straighten up. She shoots me a look. It’s one part hard to one part completely flabbergasted. “You—”
I know I need to explain how I just practiced magic. So I get in there first. “I’ve been practicing the lesson you gave me this morning diligently. You’re a good teacher. Did I do something wrong?”
It’s like kicking myself in the guts to say that. But she still straightens a little. It mollifies her a touch. “Yes, you did something wrong. We can discuss that later. Come—”
She never gets the chance to finish. Her phone rings. She’s like a slave to it. Midsentence, she just shoves a hand into her pocket. She looks at the screen, pales a little, and walks away from me to answer it.
I’m left standing there. All of the students in the doorway continue to stare at me. I can feel their gazes drilling into the back of my neck.
I turn and face them.
Some of them look shocked. A couple of others… they actually look scared.
Really? They were egging Genevieve on. They wanted her to pound me to a pulp. But now I defended myself, I’m the one who is facing their fear?
I know I shouldn’t leave.
I can’t stop myself.
I don’t care about detention anymore. I don’t care about anything this frigging school has to throw at me.
Unless I get out of here right now, I’m gonna break down completely.
If fainting in front of the students was bad enough. This is gonna be way, way worse.
I walk toward the students, my hands clutched into bloodless fists. I’m surprised when no one gets in my way.
I reach the corridor.
My breathing is way too fast.
I don’t know what my plan is. Am I going to head back to my room? I don’t care about detention. They can come and find me. I just need to get somewhere where people can’t see me anymore.
I focus on that.
I don’t know where I am. I know that I need to bring my watch up and ask, but I don’t have the breath and I certainly don’t have the coordination to lift my hand right now. If I so much as unclench my fingers, I’ll unravel.
I think the students are gonna leave me alone, but they don’t. They’re getting over their initial shock.
One or two of them are following me.
I can’t take this. I don’t want to be watched, dammit. I’m sick of being a spectacle.
I speed up.
So does my breath.
It’s now so shallow, I am right on the edge of a panic attack. My heart is pounding so hard, I think it’s gonna drill right down into my stomach.
The students don’t immediately run after me. It gives me a little head start. When they start to follow, I just… I break down completely.
Tears begin to rush down my face.
I can’t hack this school anymore. I can’t take anything. I—
Suddenly, a door opens to my side, and someone grabs my wrist. Long before I can make a sound, they twist me in through the door and slam it closed.
That’s when I scream.
This morning comes smashing back into my mind.
It has to be a darkling. It—
He lifts his hands quickly. “Stop screaming. They’re going to figure out where you went. Wait, are you okay?”
Hell no I’m not okay.
I can’t breathe.
As I hyperventilate properly, I turn around, push my back against the wall, and slide down.
My torso keeps rocking back and forth as I suck in heaving breath after heaving breath.
“It’s all right,” he says in a soothing tone. He locks a hand on my shoulder. “No one knows you’re here. It’s okay.”
“Okay?” I manage. “My life has been destroyed. I—”
“Put your head between your knees. Just focus on breathing. This will hurt a little,” he adds.
I have no clue what he’s going to do, but I do as he says, and I put my head between my knees. Then he slaps me once on my back. A little jolt of magic transfers across my shoulders. It makes me shake. Almost immediately, it calms my nervous system. For the first time, I manage to take a proper deep breath.
I look up at him, my eyes widening with surprise. “What—”
“It’s just a quick neural reset. A simple spell, really. Pretty dangerous in the wrong hands, though.” He’s kneeling on his haunches beside me. His mouth suddenly kinks up into a smile. “I saw your fight. And dammit,” he says without adding anything else.
From his grin, you would think that while he saw the fight, he did not see everything that happened afterward.
“I just… had a panic attack,” I point out as if he lacks the visual skills to notice my current state.
“Yeah. Everything can get pretty overwhelming at this school. Doesn’t change the fact that you kicked Genevieve’s ass in your first fight. That is gonna go around the school at light speed.” He twists a hand in a circle.
That only makes me feel sicker. I grab my stomach and bend forward. I lock a hand over my mouth.
He pats my back again. It sends another blast of calming energy through me.
It cannot change my situation, though. Nothing can.
“I know it’s hard for you,” he says in a commiserating tone.
I lock a hand over my face. I push my fingers in. I neither want to see him nor the rest of the world. I’m telling myself stupidly that if I block both out, that everything will go back to normal. I’ll wake up in my simple, crappy apartment to my simple, crappy life.
None of that happens.
He remains down beside me on his haunches, but he soon twists his gaze to the side. He snarls. “Someone’s trying to get through my lock. Come on.” He grabs my wrist and pulls me up.
I blink over at the door. “Sorry, you locked that?”
He nods. “I may not look like much, but I’m one of the best environmental casters at the school. And locking things or otherwise producing barriers to stop people from accessing some point is a type of environmental spell.”
… Sorry, he might not look like much? Has he ever stared at himself in the mirror?
I don’t point this out. Nor do I wrestle my hand from his grip. I let him pull me forward.
I’m not sure if it’s the fact that we’re moving or the calming spell he just cast on me – but I’m not struggling for each breath anymore. I’m still nervous. Completely terrified, in fact. But as we run down the narrow corridors before us, I’m no longer shaking in my shoes.
We reach another door. He settles his hand on it, and this time I see exactly what he’s doing. He half closes his eyes, mutters something under his breath that pushes his tongue quickly against his lips, then suddenly turns the handle.
I think I can hear some kind of crackle. I’m certain I can detect magic, too.
He turns his head to me, and a smile crumples his lips quickly. “One day you’ll be able to do this too. And judging by your display back there, it won’t take too long.”
Way to go to ruin the moment. My hackles rise once more. My shoulders shoot up toward my ears. I can’t handle anyone talking about my power at the moment.
He pulls me through the door and closes it. It’s just as I hear people behind us.
My heart pounds. I have discovered that I hate being chased. It doesn’t matter that nobody wants to ostensibly kill me at the school. It’s the attention. It feels like a noose around my neck.
He drops my hand as soon as we’re through. Then I realize we’re in complete darkness. Long before I can freak out, he clicks his fingers, and a flame appears in the palm of his hand. It doesn’t remain there, though. With a few muttered words, he swipes his hand to the left, and the flame arcs up above him. It stays about half a meter above my head like a permanent torch.
I blink quickly and turn back to him.
He opens his hands. “You have a lot of questions. So I’m going to answer them. Someone should.”
I could about fall over at that offer. He would have absolutely no clue how many millions of questions I have. They’ve been mounting all day. As every single one piles upon me, I feel like I’m being steadily crushed under them.
A wave of relief rushes through me.
“First things first, we should probably get out of these old hallways before we trip an alarm.”
I frown. “Sorry?”
He grabs his tie and loosens it. “Technically we’re not meant to be here. Nobody is. That being said, everybody uses these tunnels. I know I’m not the only one who knows about them.”
“They belong to an old part of the school. Incidentally the same part of the school that was shut down when the basements were found to be riddled with transport spells. But I shouldn’t need to tell you that – considering what you got up to today.” He slides his gaze toward me. I can tell that he wants to ask a question, and it’s pretty obvious what that question is. He needs to know what I got up to with Arthur. I would assume that knowledge has spread wide and far by now.
Rather than answer him, I focus on the tunnel. I soon frown. I start to feel… old. No, it’s not me – it’s the walls and floor and ceiling. Frowning, the move deep and cutting down hard across my chin, I reach a hand out. Before I can settle it on the wall beside me, he quickly grabs my fingers and plucks them back. For a few seconds, his thumb lingers as he closes my hand. Then he drops it.
The damage is done, though. I can feel a gentle, warm tingle racing up through my fingers.
“I wouldn’t touch that if I were you,” he mutters.
“I doubt there are any hidden booby-traps or anything. I’ve been through these tunnels extensively. Like I said – other people know about them, too. I’m constantly coming across evidence of people casting in here.”
“And… you think that they left dangerous spells behind?”
“Not exactly. Maybe surveillance spells, though. Maybe even something else. Point is, when you encounter an area you know has environmental spells, you keep your hands to yourself.”
I follow his advice and shove my hands into the pockets of my blazer. Then I frown at him. All those millions of questions are coming to the fore. My lips open.
He simply presses a finger against his mouth. “We’ll get to that juicy stuff when we get to the library.”
“There’s a library?”
He laughs. “Of course there is. There’s everything you could think of. Like I said earlier – there are 8000 rooms in the school. Even I haven’t been to every single one.”
He shoves his hands into his pockets. He doesn’t stride far ahead, even though I can tell that he’s not happy with how slowly I’m moving. He remains about a step and a half in front of me. I know he’s fully aware of me, though. If I were to slow down by even a few centimeters, he would drop back. If I were to slow too much, he’d probably even grab my hand again.
With my hands firmly in my pockets, I curl my thumb up and try to retrace his grip on my wrist.
“Thanks for coming to get me,” I mutter.
“Don’t mention it. Someone has to save you from this school.”
That sends a shiver racing down my back. It plunges into my gut and does this thing. It feels like it twists in on itself, curling like a snake about to bite its own tail. I’ve already appreciated that the school is dangerous – but today has underlined just how potentially lethal it is. “None of this makes any sense. You know I can’t walk the corridors on my own anymore? I’m probably going to get in so much trouble for leaving Suzanne. I just don’t care. Why is it dangerous for me to walk through the school alone, but it’s not dangerous for anyone else? If there are darklings everywhere,” I hiss, dropping my voice as I say that word, “aren’t they dangerous to everyone, not just me?”
He snorts. The exact derision behind it gives me the impression that this is a point that has come up for him before. “Of course it means it’s dangerous for the other students. That’s why there have been murders.”
I ground to a halt. Sorry, but I’m pretty sensitive when it comes to that word. My lips open. Who am I kidding? They feel as if they’re going to loosen and tumble right off my face. “Sorry?” My voice is a flighty stutter. “Murders?”
He turns and nods at me. “One or two students – mostly staff.”
“Staff?” My voice shoots up.
“Yeah. There have been three in the last year.”
“Apparently all of them were accidents,” he says in the kind of voice that would make anyone recognize that he doesn’t believe a single word of that. “First there was the activities teacher.” He starts to tick things off on his fingers. “She fell from the roof. Nobody made anything of the fact that she had blast marks up her skin. There was barely an investigation. Then there was the old potions teacher. He was a special case. They never found his body. Just remains. A few cells smeared over the walls here and there. That, apparently, happened because he didn’t know the force of some explosive potion he was working on. Which is, what?” He makes a face as he tries to think. “About lesson one when you begin potions class. And then most recently there was the symbols teacher.”
“How did he die?”
“She. They never found the body. Official report is that she just went missing.”
I open my mouth. But what’s there to say? Should I rejoice at the fact that my suspicions about this school have finally been confirmed? Or should I withdraw, take this very second to run, and get the hell out of here while I still can?
We’re still paused. He arches his head to the side. “Come on. We can’t hang around forever. I’d like to think that no one can find us, but like I said—”
“Other people use these tunnels.” I push into a half jog.
He chuckles as he catches up to me. “The thing about these tunnels is you have to know where you’re going. If you don’t, you might wind up in the basement.”
I blanch and make a face at him.
He opens a hand wide in a placating motion. “Don’t worry. I won’t let us go down there. Not yet, anyway.”
I don’t like the way he says anyway, but I don’t point that out. Instead, my questions start to line up in my mind, ready for me to shoot them out in rapid-fire.
“Here we are,” he says about a minute later.
We reach a far more ornate door. Unlike the other ones we’ve come across, this one is not utilitarian. It looks like it belongs in a real castle. It’s large, too. And there are symbols all the way around it. I desperately want to trace my fingers over them. I don’t know why – but there’s this anticipatory tingling in my gut.
He leans over and points at them. “It’s a magical incantation. It helps the library protect the books that are within it, and it also helps it stop any magic leaks. Which can happen – considering how much force is within each tome. Now, you ready? This might tingle a little.”
I frown at him. He put a lot of emphasis on the word tingle.
Without another warning, he reaches forward and opens the door. Every single one of those symbols lights up. It’s like a chain reaction as the illumination rushes around the outside of the doorframe.
Then the door opens. A gust of wind – or something – rushes through. It picks up my hair and sends it whipping around my face. I’m forced to hide behind my hand.
John chuckles. “You tend to get a bit of chaotic environmental magic when you’ve got a lot of force concentrated in a single room. That’s your first lesson.”
He walks in. He shoves his hands into his pockets and doesn’t care that his short hair is whipped around his face.
I know that I can’t hang out in these tunnels without him, so, with a sharp breath, I shove in. As soon as I’m past the threshold, the wind dies down completely.
I blink and drop my hand.
Then I stare at the library.
It’s astounding. I’ve always had a thing for libraries. I’ve read since I was a little kid. Because reading was my way out of the world. It was a window into other places and times. When I was ensconced in another character’s adventures, I didn’t feel my own boring life as sharply.
Now my mouth slides open.
The library is enormous. It looks like it’s its own freaking castle. There’s one huge space with various sections of arched ceilings. There are three mezzanine levels, and there are books from the floor to the ceiling. Their colorful, ornate spines twinkle out at me.
But that is nothing – nothing at all – compared to the magic. As I stagger over to a railing and clutch it with tight, sweaty fingers, I close my eyes. It feels like I’ve just walked inside a vortex. As the force rushes around me, curls around my legs, pushes up to my chest, and reaches my face, it’s like all of history has just turned around to embrace me.
John comes to a stop beside me. I know his eyes are on me. I should stop looking like such a geek. I can’t be bothered.
This is the first nice experience I’ve had all day.
That is until John reaches over. He places his hand on mine.
It’s a pretty intimate move.
I can’t sense any threat – so he’s not doing this to snap my hand up and pull me away. He’s doing this to focus my attention – on him.
He clears his throat. “Dawn, I know this is forward, but I’ve got to ask you something. So open your eyes.”
My gut kicks. Who am I kidding? I’m pretty sure it lurches right out of my body. My heart flutters, too. I open my eyes quickly.
But long before a tremendous blush can rise up my cheeks, he drops my hand and takes a step back. He shoves his own hands into his pockets and turns away. He suddenly becomes rigid. I can trace the path of his muscular tension as it sinks into his shoulders, back, and face.
“I don’t really know where to start, so I’m just going to jump in. I need your help.”
My heart has well and truly stopped fluttering. I even drop my hand off the banister. It slides weakly down to my leg. Then I hide it behind my back. I sink my thumbnail hard into my palm. Idiot, I remonstrate myself in my mind. “What do you need?” I ask, trying to ensure my voice is even.
“A way out of this horror,” he says. He’s not faking the anger in his tone. Nor the twisted fear. He suddenly clamps a hand on his face. He closes his eyes, then turns around. “Let’s start with the symbol.” He glances at the library. There’s no one anywhere near us, but as he leans over the banister, it’s clear that he wants to ensure there’s no one in the library at all.
When he’s satisfied, he brings a finger up, and he starts to trace a symbol in the air. It only takes half a second until I realize that it’s the symbol I’ve been drawing all day. The one he himself burned in history class.
As soon as he’s finished, he takes a step back.
I’m breathless for some reason. I walk up to the symbol. It’s so much easier to get a handle on it now it’s so large. It’s also glimmering. As I tilt my head from side to side, I realize it’s the exact copy of the symbol from my dream.
My eyes jerk up to him. “Do you know what this is?”
“Yeah,” he says, and I don’t think he could be any tenser. “I know exactly what that is. My family had a part in establishing it, after all.”
I blink, confused. “They established a symbol?”
He shakes his head. “No. What it stands for. That,” he gestures to it, “is the seal of a secret sect.”
I hear the words secret sect. On some level, I understand them. I have absolutely no context, though. So I just frown at him.
“By now you’ve seen how screwed up this magical world is. Maybe some people only think it’s the school. Ask yourself this. How could it only be this school? How could you have a school where teachers are murdered every other day, and the larger magical community doesn’t care or notice? The rot runs deep,” he says, his voice vibrating hard. “It has been running deep for millennia.”
I balk at that. Millennia? Yeah, I get it, and the history of magic has to be a long one. But….
My gaze is drawn back to that symbol. I find my eyes tracing it. I don’t know what I’m looking for. It’s almost… like I know that it’s going to open up a door inside me. All I have to do is figure out how.
I take a jerked step toward it.
I’m obviously unsteady, and John’s eyes open a little. He doesn’t rush over and pat my back again. He just watches me.
There’s a nervous quality to his gaze – an expectant one, too.
I reach up and start tracing the symbol with my fingers. It remains in the air. It isn’t like smoke or anything – and it doesn’t eddy around my grip. But as my fingers slide across it, I can feel the tingle of the magic resisting my move.
“That symbol – it’s called The Retribution.” There’s a real kick to his voice as he says the word retribution. It’s a half growl, half wheeze.
It speaks of so much emotion, I feel like it could tear him in half.
I drop my hand. “… Retribution?”
“I take it I don’t need to explain to you what that word means.”
I shake my head. But my nose still scrunches up. “Is this… some kind of revenge on the magical community?”
He lets out a tight wheeze. It sounds as if someone has been trying to chain up his throat. “It’s a way to stop them. Before they can do any more damage. Before they can kill any more innocent souls.”
I take a step back from the symbol. Though it stole away my attention like nothing else could, now John holds my focus. I walk to the side so I can see him in full. “What?”
“You must already see how screwed this place is.” He shifts up to the railing, clamps his hands around it, and stares at the library rather than me. “My family used to do all they could to protect people. But we fell.” He shrugs.
“What does that mean?”
“We lost our power and prestige. Sorry – lost our prestige. Some of us,” he pulls his hands back and stares at his palms again, “are still intrinsically strong. We Masters, after all, have always had a very strong magical line.”
“But you… fell?”
“Yeah. My father, the idiot that he was,” he says, really emphasizing the word was, “tried to go up against the current president of the ministry.”
As soon as he says the word ministry, I straighten. It feels like someone has replaced my spine with a steel pole. It takes a while for my lips to wobble open. “Ministry?”
“Sorry, I keep forgetting that you’re new to this magical world. You are powerful, but you’ve got no context. The ministry is the—”
“Ruling body. And there’s one in every country. And their headquarters are not that far from here, right?”
He turns and looks at me, surprised. “Who told you that?”
I go to open my mouth. I don’t even know where to begin. Do I tell him about the dream? Or should I go further back and tell him about the murder? Do I even admit to what I heard Arthur say on the phone?
I… have no idea who to trust. I should know, though. John is the only person who has continuously helped me and been kind to me. Arthur, on the other hand, while he has saved my life, has done so begrudgingly. I still can’t get our previous interaction out of my head, either. The way he looked at me when he pulled me off Genevieve makes me want to punch him. Repeatedly.
But I still can’t push those words out.
“I heard someone talking about the ministry. It’s one of the millions of questions I have,” I say.
He turns, so he doesn’t see me wincing.
The lie is out now. I won’t be able to pull it back.
“Yeah. The ministry is the governing body for magic. They’re also the police. And the executioners,” he whispers.
My heart kicks. “I thought there wasn’t such a thing as magical execution.”
He laughs. “Of course there is. It’s just not made public. You don’t hear about it on the news. The only thing average folk are told is that another accident has occurred.” He now locks his arms around his middle. Judging by the exact tension in the move, I can tell that he’s trying to hold something in.
And it doesn’t take long to realize what it is. “Your father… was killed by the ministry, wasn’t he?”
He looks up at me quickly. He nods once. “Yeah, you’re pretty smart. You’re quick. You’re curious, too. And those are two very bad features for a Grail.”
I make a face.
“If you dig, it can be dangerous for you. I’m not gonna lie about that. I don’t want to lure you into a trap. Not like the rest of them.”
“What do you mean?” My voice goes up sharply.
“They want to control you. They don’t want you to ask questions that are uncomfortable. And they certainly don’t want you finding out the truth.” He turns around. He stops gripping hold of the railing. Now he pushes his back against it. He’s still tense, but he’s far more in control of his body now. “Me? I want you to find out the truth. But for that, I’m gonna need your help.”
“Help?” I take a small step up to him.
“You know what you said before about the darklings?” He automatically drops his volume. He’s only barely audible when he says the word darklings.
It still has a demonstrable effect on my gut. It kicks wildly.
I offer a shaking nod.
“Yeah, it’s dangerous for the entire student and staff body for there to be darklings in the basement. It’s not just you. But the higher-ups are protecting you for two reasons. They don’t want you getting captured, but they also don’t want you to find out the truth.”
“So… what do you want me to do?”
“Firstly, I want to find out more about how those darklings attacked you today. Don’t you?”
Without even thinking it through, I nod, and it’s a strong move.
“So that’s settled. Good. Let’s go, then.”
I blink. “Sorry, let’s go where?”
“Down to the basement.”
I’ve taken a few mincing steps toward him, but now I take one large one back. I pale. It would look as if someone has just slashed me across the throat. “Sorry?” I stutter.
“The evidence will disappear soon. Trust me, despite the fact they apparently sent teachers down to the basement to figure out what happened this morning, they did not look for any evidence. They went to destroy it. But a bit of evidence should still be there. We need to act now.”
I take another step away from him. “You want me to… voluntarily go down to the basement?” I should be trying to hide my fear, but I can’t. I swear my heart is beating so hard that it’s practically shaking up through my throat.
“I know you’re stronger than this, Dawn. I also know that you desperately want to find out what’s going on. Like I said – this world is screwed. The longer it remains that way, the more innocent people will die.”
All he has to do is say the word die, and I think of that woman in the ministry. Worse than that, I think of her sister on that swing.
I go to shake my head, but I stop halfway through.
“You defeated Genevieve today in a single match. She has got years of education on you. She has formal training that would make an ordinary practitioner wince. You defeated her, just like that.” He clicks his fingers.
“I… got lucky.”
He snorts. “No you didn’t. Suzanne might tell herself that, but you didn’t get lucky. I saw the entire thing. You waited for your opportunity, got Genevieve angry, then attacked. If it weren’t for Arthur,” his lips move hard over his teeth, “you would’ve downed Genevieve in a single hit.”
I don’t know what to do with that. So I just turn away.
But he won’t let me leave. He gets in my way. “It won’t be dangerous. There shouldn’t be any more darklings down there.”
“Wait… are you telling me there could be more down there?”
He shrugs. “There could be. We can take them on, though.”
I take a shallow breath. All I can do is think of that magical yellow circle. I still don’t exactly know what would’ve happened if it had engaged and spirited me away. But my imagination is getting more precise by the minute.
“It’s up to you,” he says. “I’m not gonna force you. You can go back to your room and wait for Suzanne to come and give you detention, if you’d like. You can follow absolutely everything they say. You can have the principal watching you in the halls, if you want. You can become their prized Grail, if that’s what you’d like.” With that, he turns away.
I know he’s only saying these things to get me to react. But I….
Can I really go back down to the basement?
The answer is yes. I think I’ve just got enough courage to pull myself down there.
The question becomes should I?
I close my eyes.
I really want to just reject this magical world. But I can’t. It’s childish to think that one can close their eyes and wait for reality to disappear.
If you’re an adult – and critically, if you want to be a master of your own destiny – you have to act when given the opportunity.
He starts to walk away without another word.
“Stop,” I say, my voice barely audible. I clench my hands into fists. With my eyes still closed, I turn to him. I’m wincing, and I probably look like I’m expecting a hit. “I’ll go with you.”
I hear him releasing a deep breath. It sounds like he’s some kind of steam pipe. “You will? You actually want to?”
“Yeah,” I say as I open my eyes.
He just smiles at me. It’s engaging. It’s the kind of smile that can easily wipe away all of the interactions I’ve had with Arthur. Because unlike with Arthur, John isn’t hiding anything.
“Let’s do this now.” With my hand still curled into fists, I walk past him, back toward the door that leads to the hidden tunnels.
He laughs. “You’re a woman after my own heart.”
I don’t know what that means. Fortunately I’m a few steps in front of him, so he can’t see my face.
“I’ve never liked hanging around, either. And the last few years at school have been hell. Let’s go get some retribution.”
The way he says that – the way his voice echoes down low – it sounds like far-off thunder.
But it can’t be far off, can it? Because I’m standing right next to him. And I intend to stand right next to him until this is done.
Maybe this will be the worst decision of my entire life. Hell, maybe my life won’t last much longer.
But I’ve made my choice.
I will not hang around in this school and wait to be killed or to kill.
We make it back into the tunnels.
This time I’m a lot more nervous. I’m not idly chatting. I’m focused on the fact that soon I’ll be heading back down to the basement.
Fortunately, we don’t need to go back to the main school halls. John’s right – and he knows the hidden tunnels like the back of his hand.
We head through a particularly narrow section, and he stops. He stares at the wall. I frown at it. It looks pretty plain to me. “What are you looking at?”
“Someone’s come past here recently.”
I stand straighter. “You think the teachers are on to us?”
He shakes his head. “They walked past about a day or so ago.” His breath is tense.
I stare at the wall. “How the heck do you know that?”
I just look at the wall. I have no clue what he’s talking about.
“It’s a special kind of environmental spell. It’s not so much a surveillance spell as more of a… well, reflection spell. Think about somebody walking past a body of water. Their image gets reflected in it, right?”
“Well this is the same. Except the reflection lingers.”
“Okay,” I say. It’s not okay, and I have no clue what he’s talking about. But I appreciate that he knows a lot more about magic than me.
With another frown, he continues forward.
It doesn’t take much longer until we reach another door. I can tell this one leads down to the basement. It’s much, much thicker. It looks like we’ve just encountered an airlock.
I lock a hand on my stomach, and I make no move to hide how nervous I am.
He glances over at me. “It’s not gonna be a problem. As soon as we get down there, help me draw,” he says, his voice tense. “No darkling is going to be stupid enough to attack if I’ve already got a drawn weapon out.”
“Wait… why do you refer to it as a drawn weapon?”
“I keep forgetting that you don’t know anything about your own powers. That’s just what we call it. Technically as a magician, you can draw other kinds of weapons. At least, you can manifest them. There’s something very different when a Grail assists you. You can draw true weapons. Molded soul blades.”
I make a face. “What the heck does that mean?”
He chuckles. “It means exactly what it sounds like. When you get to be a high-level magician, you can mold your soul into weapons with the help of a Grail. You know that sword I pulled at the museum? That was one of my molded soul blades.”
“Isn’t… it a little dangerous to fight with fragments of your soul?”
He snorts. “If you’re in a situation where you have to draw a soul blade, it’s a little dangerous not to.”
He has a point.
“Now, we’re gonna face some pretty nasty environmental spells when I open this door. Get ready to rush across the threshold. Don’t linger,” he warns.
I nod hard.
He settles his hand on the door. He starts to concentrate. I can hear him chanting – but it’s more accurate to say that I can feel him. As he utters these words, they have an effect on the air. They push through it, vibrating and pressing hard against my skin. I’m not sure if I want to shiver or start sweating.
He continues to chant. Then, all of a sudden, he shoots forward.
I hear something cracking inside the door, and I realize it’s the magical lock.
As it breaks, the door opens.
John was not lying. Instantly a blast of wind shoots out and slams into me. This one is way worse. It feels like I’ve jumped into a hurricane. My hair whips up in front of my face in a vortex of pure power.
John leans forward, grabs my wrist, and pulls me across the threshold. “Don’t linger,” he warns with a sharp tone.
He might yank me right across the threshold, but it doesn’t matter. It is a horrifying experience. I feel like something is trying to tear me apart. I swear I hear a moan, too. It reminds me of what I encountered this morning. By the time I reach the other side, I’m weak, and I thump against John’s chest. He doesn’t shove me back. He leans in close to keep me steady. “You okay?” he asks quickly, his voice shaking with fear.
I soon push up and away from him. “Yeah, I’m okay. What the heck was that moan? Was it a darkling?”
“No. You get that with environmental spells sometimes. Now.” He doesn’t add anything. He opens his hand. Another spark of light appears over his palm. It jumps above his head. It’s a strong spell, and it immediately illuminates the tunnel around us. Right in front, about a meter away, it drops off down to a set of stairs.
My stomach shakes. The fight with Arthur comes back to me. The moment where I saved him from the collapsing tunnel slams into my mind.
I know from experience how fragile this area can be.
I stare at the tunnel walls warily.
“Let’s go. The longer we leave it, the more likely it is that they will destroy the evidence.”
“Yeah.” I follow him.
I start to appreciate exactly what I’m doing. Then again, what am I doing? This is the right thing, right? John is the only person I can trust at this school. And he’s right. This place is screwed up. But… is this really the right thing to do?
What if we get into trouble? There’s not going to be anyone to save me.
I shouldn’t think of Arthur. I should’ve already kicked him out of my frigging brain, considering how much of a prick he is, but it still doesn’t stop me from settling a hand on my heart. I sink my fingers in, the nails dragging over the fabric of my top.
I don’t say anything. We reach the stairs. We start to climb down them.
I’m terrified by the sound of my footfall. I feel like it’s so loud that someone’s blaring over a megaphone.
John doesn’t say a thing. He is ready for action, though. His shoulders are up high. His hands are permanently open in front of him. There’s a single charge of magic racing across his palm. It circles around and around his fingers.
“When we get to the base of the stairs, we’re going to draw, okay?” He turns around.
There’s real need in his eyes.
I nod. I should really shake my head. Yeah, I’ve helped people draw before, but it’s always been in extremely tense situations. And though this situation is tense, and all, it’s not the height of battle. What if I can only help someone draw when I’m terrified out of my wits?
What if I fail? And what if in failing, the darklings get us?
I’m working myself up into even more of a frenzy.
I’m hardly disintegrating into another full-blown panic attack, but I feel like I’m close.
The feeling of the tunnel does not help. It is categorically the darkest place I have ever encountered. And I’m not talking about the lack of illumination. It’s just… it’s like it’s designed to close my mind in.
I can’t think of the future – I can’t even think of the past. All I can think of is the narrow present that leads down those steps into danger.
We finally reach the base of the stairs.
John opens his hand wider and flicks his fingers to the side. That glimmering orb of magic above us becomes even brighter. It lights the path forward. We’ve encountered some kind of open room. I can’t tell how large it is. Even John’s strong illumination spell cannot cast the shadows back.
I find myself taking a step closer to him.
He turns suddenly. That means he’s looking right into my eyes.
I’m reminded of the moment we almost had in the library. Who am I kidding? It was a moment for me, at least, but not for him.
He opens his hand. It’s a slow, unfurling motion.
I don’t look at his fingers. I just gaze up into his eyes.
Without really thinking, I place my hand in his.
Immediately, magic rushes over my body.
It starts in my palm, then races up to my wrist then across my arm.
It’s happening without me thinking of it.
I have no control over the process. It’s as if my body just knows exactly what to do whenever it encounters the hand of a strong magician.
His mouth immediately cracks into a grin. There’s hope in his gaze, too. It’s pretty damn engaging.
He reaches a hand over his shoulder, and he draws. It’s the first time I’ve been treated to the sight of someone drawing slowly. Every other time, I’ve been in a battle for my life. Now I swear I can almost see as he accesses his soul. There’s a blast of strong light. This halo of illumination spreads around his head, too. As he grips the sword and pulls it out, there’s this far off sound like thunder.
When he pulls the sword all the way over his shoulder, it sings in his grip.
He stares down at it. He looks across at me. Then he smiles. He doesn’t drop my hand. He turns me around, and without a word, we start running forward.
I still don’t understand enough about being a Grail. Do I need to maintain contact with him for him to continue to be able to draw his sword?
Or is this it? Is this all I’m required to do in any battle?
“I’m gonna need you to concentrate,” he says as we continue forward. “We need to figure out exactly where you were attacked. I’m trying to trace my way back there based on my understanding of where you were attacked this morning, but these basements move.”
“Sorry,” I stammer quickly. “They move? What does that mean?”
“It means exactly what it sounds like. They’re capable of moving. They reconfigure themselves occasionally. You can leave something in one section of the basement only to find out it’s on the opposite side a day later. It’s a security precaution. Or at least it used to be. Now it’s a nightmare.”
I do not like the fact that we are now stuck in basements that move. Does that mean we’ll never be able to get out?
“You will concentrate. Though this is a pretty high-level lesson, you can feel into the environment magic in these tunnels. Every single environment is unique. These basements—”
“Feel old,” I say, my back shivering.
“Yeah, they do. But can you detect that age – can you discern any difference in it?” He whips his head over his shoulder and looks at me hopefully.
“I….” Rather than answer with words, I try to do what he said. I half close my eyes, knowing full well that he’s not gonna let me fall. I really concentrate on the environment around me. Though the age and darkness of these basements are terrifying, with John’s grip firmly around mine, I let myself sink into that fear. It only takes a few more seconds until I can discern something else. It’s like… I don’t really know, but it’s almost like it’s a trace. It’s like it’s a unique scent or something. I’m having real trouble explaining it. Because I can only just pick it up. But it’s enough that my frown slightly turns into a smile.
“You’re doing it, aren’t you?” he says hopefully.
“I… think I am. And this section of the basement isn’t the right one. But… it might be close?”
I know I’m not being convincing. But he clearly doesn’t care. “Which way, left or right?”
I open my eyes to see that we’ve just reached an intersection.
I turn to the left, then the right. I don’t honestly know.
He doesn’t hurry me on. He keeps his soul blade out in front of him.
He doesn’t repeat the question.
I palm my chest.
He may not be pressuring me, but I start to pressure myself.
We can’t just remain here. The darklings will find out, won’t they? Or maybe the teachers will.
If I thought ditching Suzanne would be bad, this is going to be way, way worse. What will happen to John, anyway? Will he get kicked out because of me?
The pressure begins to mount.
“Just focus on your body. Nothing else. Don’t let your mind intervene. Your body will recognize the magic flows around you, even if the rest of you can’t at the moment. Just let it do what it has to.”
I open an eye and stare at him. Then I close it. I lock my lips together. I breathe through them.
The next thing I know, I’m turning to the left.
John doesn’t say anything, and he certainly doesn’t question if I think I’m right. But with his hand tightening around my grip, he pulls me forward once more.
It doesn’t take long until we reach an open area.
Suddenly, it strikes me.
“This is it,” I stammer. I pull back in his hand, but I don’t break his grip.
I open my eyes. My breath becomes choppy.
I stare at the room. I can’t see the whole thing – only that which is illuminated by the orb of light above us. It’s still terrifying.
I think I can even still smell the remnants of my fight from this morning. The blast marks, the burned stone – even my own damn blood.
“Let’s go. There’s got to be evidence around here.” He starts to walk forward.
I see the very faintest glimmer of a yellow circle in front of him. I grab his arm and haul back on it hard. “Don’t,” I scream.
I point down at the ground.
His eyes open with surprise. “What the hell is that?”
“The… the darklings tried to transport me with it this morning.”
“The teachers should’ve gotten rid of this immediately.” He walks right up to the edge of the circle, but fortunately he doesn’t pull me in.
I’m breathing a little too hard. The sight of that circle is bringing back everything.
I might be holding up remarkably well – or at least a fraction of okay – but the sight of that circle destroys my courage.
I only got through the fight this morning because Arthur was there. John should be enough, but….
He suddenly breaks his grip on my hand. It’s abrupt. I go to clutch his fingers, but he just gets down to his knees. He stays at the edge of the circle. He slowly wipes his thumb across it. There are a few charges of magic. “This can be activated again,” he says, his voice hardening with suspicion.
“What does that mean?” Now he’s not holding onto my hand, I’m forced to wrap my arms around my middle. I keep nervously staring over my shoulder. My paranoid mind is telling me there are more darklings. They’re just waiting for an opportunity to attack.
“This right here is evidence. It’s way more than I thought we’d find. The first teachers to come across this should’ve destroyed this immediately. They didn’t. Which means….”
“Which means what?”
He gets to his feet. “Come on.”
“What does it mean, John?” I demand, my voice shaking with fear.
He looks right at me. The light from above lets long shadows build up underneath his eyes and chin. “Maybe they had help to get into the school.”
“The darklings?” My voice shifts up.
“I suspected this for some time. This is the evidence I need.”
“You… are you trying to tell me that one of the staff members is working with the darklings to kidnap me?”
“Think about it. You were just walking through the hall. They found you. They reached right through and dragged you into the basement. Yeah, we’ve known we’ve had a problem with the basement levels of the school for years. But it was previously only the deepest levels. Darklings haven’t gotten into the actual school before.”
“Suzanne,” I say, my voice completely constricted. “She has it in for me.”
“Maybe. It’s more likely someone you haven’t even come in contact with yet.”
“There are approximately 400 staff members at the school,” he suddenly reveals.
I balk at that. 400 people who could potentially be after me?
I clamp a hand on my suddenly sweaty brow.
“Hey, it’s gonna be okay,” he says as he takes a step toward me. He goes to settle a hand on my shoulder, but he never gets the chance. From behind him, I suddenly see that circle glow. I pale. I do the only thing my body will let me do, and I knock into him. It’s a hard move, and he’s not ready for it. I push him to the side. It’s just in time.
The circle activates a few centimeters away from my foot.
Because the fight from this morning was never over. It was only paused.
I’m forced to bring a hand up and hide behind it as light blasts all around me. The circle glows so brightly, it looks like the corona of the sun.
“Dawn,” John says as he smashes into me, grabs me around the hips, and pulls me to the side.
Something lands down beside me.
It’s a darkling, but it’s unlike anything I’ve ever seen. It has a chain attached to its foot.
“Oh no,” he stammers.
He rolls until he’s protecting me with the bulk of his back. He’s still got his sword. He keeps it held to the side.
Suddenly that darkling whips its chain down. It smashes into John’s back.
I scream, expecting the worst, but his sword manages to send a pulse of magic out. It stops the chain from impacting him.
But it doesn’t stop the darkling from attacking again.
John pulls me up. He shoves me behind him. He yanks his sword high.
I can see the side of his face. It’s plastered with fear. While it’s clear that he expected to face darklings down here, it is just as clear that he didn’t expect to face this – whatever it is.
I don’t dare waste my breath to distract him to ask what’s going on.
I remain behind him. The darkling screams. It thrusts forward. It whips the chain down.
John is thankfully quick. He manages to roll. He doesn’t come up and attack. Instead, he darts to the side. He’s fighting just like my father taught me to fight – or at least, taught me to fight in board games. He’s waiting for the darkling to get tired.
But that’s a problem. Because John is not the darkling’s target – I am.
I stand there, completely open to attack.
“Duck,” John roars.
I can’t. My body is locked with fear.
I shouldn’t have come down here. I was a fool for thinking I could make a difference. I should have just kept my head down. I should have—
The creature whips its chain down.
It never reaches me. John reaches me instead. He uses the bulk of his shoulders to protect me, but his sword can’t completely block that blow. The chain smashes into his left shoulder.
He’s driven down hard into the ground. A few droplets of blood splatter out. It rips the fabric of his blazer until his jacket almost falls off him.
“John,” I scream.
He doesn’t remain on the ground. He rockets up, grabs me by the wrist, twirls me around, and holds the sword in front of him. He doesn’t say a word. He doesn’t remonstrate me for the fact that I couldn’t dodge. He’s completely focused on the fight.
That darkling screams. It’s got a real edge to it. It sounds… it almost sounds as if there are multiple other voices trapped in its gullet.
“I need your power, Dawn. There’s no way I can get through an ancient on my own.”
“Ancient?” I stammer.
“This is no ordinary darkling. God, it was just waiting there inside the spell. The teachers didn’t even deal with it.”
“What’s going on, John?”
“This is a very high-level monster. If we hadn’t come across it, it would’ve gotten loose at some point and gone after you in the school.”
That’s cold comfort. Even as I stand here, I get an image of me lying in bed only to hear the chains of this darkling being dragged through my door.
“You need to give me your power,” he says as he re-grips my hand harder.
“I don’t know how to do that—”
“Focus. I’ll do the rest. Just focus. Help me find the power within myself.”
It’s easier said than done. I allowed him to draw, because that, apparently, comes instinctually to my body. But I go back to what Suzanne taught me. A Grail helps someone find their inner truth, and that, apparently, helps them fight.
I desperately need a set of instructions – not something so esoteric.
Do I concentrate on his hand? Or do I concentrate on my own? Do I try to drive a path through my own mind? Or is it more to do with my body than my psyche? Thousands of questions pile upon me, but I know I don’t have time to think them.
That creature screams. It launches forward again. John’s quick, and he manages to pull me to the side, but he can’t be quick forever. He has to dodge for the both of us. He will make a mistake. Or worse – that darkling will call more of its brethren to its side.
I have to help John. I just….
I squeeze my eyes shut. It’s probably not recommended. This is going to be even more of a burden to John, but I have to concentrate.
I take my mind back to my dreams. Is the secret of helping somebody draw on their true power in there?
I try to remember everything, but I get stuck in one specific recollection. I’m down in front of that castle. The door opens, and I hear that bloodcurdling scream.
In my dreams, I was always trying to reach that castle with Arthur. But why were we trying to reach it if there’s some kind of monster inside?
“Dawn,” John suddenly says. It brings me back to the real world.
He’s forced to dodge. He pulls me, and we fall to the ground. I land harshly on his chest. Before I can even note the move, we have to roll again. Now he’s on top of me.
The darkling goes to bring its chain down. There’s nothing protecting John’s back. It’s gonna slice right through.
In a moment of total panic, I access my power. Or it’s more accurate to say that my power accesses me. It thrusts past my every doubt. It sails through my body, unstoppable.
I jolt forward and open my hand wide.
A blast of magic pushes out.
It is brilliantly bright. It looks like I have channeled the power of a thousand stars.
It smashes into the darkling – right into its face. It screams. My attack does not destroy it, but it does send it thrusting back across the room. It rolls, and I hear the sound of its chain jolting rhythmically across the floor.
John breathes hard against me for a few seconds, his chest rocking into mine. Then he pulls me up.
He looks into my eyes. “You attacked on your own. That was—”
I don’t get the chance to find out what that was. The creature comes at us again. This time it’s desperate. It can clearly tell that if it allows me to attack again, I might win. So it comes at us in a flurry. It whips the chain from left to right. It’s not just using it as a weapon – somehow, it’s funneling magic.
It blasts all around me.
It catches the edge of my blazer and sets it alight. I scream and try to pat it down.
John swivels around and stands in front of me. He pulls up his blade. He chants under his breath, and a line of magic blazes across the hilt. It shoots up to the tip, and symbols begin to glow across it.
He screams. He thrusts forward.
It’s his first head-on attack.
But apparently the darkling is ready for it. It swings the chain forward.
It parries John’s blow easily.
I see John’s eyes open wide. There’s real resignation in there.
My father always told me that you can tell who someone really is by how they display their fear.
It was always a kind of creepy statement, and I never understood it.
Now I do. I feel like I catch a glimpse right down to John’s soul.
And isn’t that enough? If I’m a Grail, if my entire point is to let somebody understand their own truths, then isn’t this the truth that I have to show John?
I don’t know what I’m doing. I thrust forward. It’s probably the last move I’ll ever make. I settle a hand on his ankle. I focus on him – with everything I have. I tell myself that I can do this. No – that I am doing it.
I don’t need to find the secret hidden Grail powers within me – they’ve already manifested.
I’m not sure if it’s my desperation or the fact that I’m now just giving in to my magic, but those lines are now glowing up my arms. They stand proud of my uniform. They shake there, burning as if somebody has seared them into the very air.
I don’t bother to scream. I barely make a sound. I simply concentrate until I feel something rushing out of me.
It’s just in time. The darkling whips its chain around once more. This time it is completely glowing with force. I can tell that if it were to slice into John, it wouldn’t just cut him in half – it would atomize him. There would be no evidence left of his body.
But as my power blasts into him, I honestly feel something unlocking within.
He screams. It’s deep. It’s also powerful. It shakes across the four walls.
He slices out with his blade.
It meets the chain, and this time, he thrusts it back.
The darkling staggers.
John doesn’t stop there.
He slices out with his sword again. It sends a blast of power into the darkling. Once more it tries to parry, but it’s caught off balance.
“That’s it,” John says, his voice trembling with strength yet awe. “Just a little more. Just a little more.”
I close my eyes and concentrate.
It feels strange to be on my knees, pumping power into someone else. I should be the one at the fore, swinging my sword. But this is all I can do for now. So I throw my heart into the move.
I won’t let anything get in my way. Memories don’t rise up from my childhood. Old voices that used to haunt me and tell me I couldn’t do anything and that I would never make anything of myself just crumble away. Nothing can remain in the face of this power.
John screams again. Whatever he does, he does not break away from me. That means he has to concentrate on using the sword to blast magic out. That does not matter. In fact, it’s probably more effective.
He catches the darkling again just as it staggers to its feet. And this time, he rips the chain right out of its grip. It clatters onto the floor.
I think he’s gonna go for the darkling, but he doesn’t. His eyes widen as he clearly sees an opportunity. He twists the sword around then slices it down. A blast of blue-black illumination shoots out of the blade. It slams into the chain. It’s picked up. It begins to shake. Then, link by link, it explodes.
The darkling screams. I’m shocked when one of its arms – the one it used to hold that chain – blasts apart, too. It soon turns into dust that scatters everywhere.
“Just a little more. You can do it, Dawn. Just a little more.”
I go to tell myself that he’s right, and I can do it, but that’s when I start to feel weak.
This emptiness is raging through me. It’s like a void is opening up in my heart.
My grip doesn’t falter on his leg yet, but it will soon.
I have never felt anything like this. I try to use every trick in the book I know to stay awake, but it’s getting harder and harder.
“Just a little more. Just a little more power,” he begs.
The darkling throws itself to its feet. It might now only have one arm, but that doesn’t objectively matter. It’s still incredibly powerful – and incredibly angry.
It throws itself at John. But it doesn’t attack him head-on. At the last moment, it changes direction, pushes down into its feet, and flips high into the air.
John attacks again, but the creature successfully dodges his blow. John’s magic smashes into the ceiling. It tears off an enormous chunk of stone that rains down onto the ground only a few meters away. Dust erupts everywhere.
I’m in no condition to put up with it. As I suck it into my lungs, I start to splutter. It makes me even weaker. My eyes begin to roll into the back of my head.
“A little bit more,” he says. There’s a real begging note to his voice. I wonder if it’s not just because he wants to win. It’s almost like I’m unlocking something in him that he’s always been striving for.
Maybe this is easing the pain of the fact that his family has fallen from grace. Or perhaps I’m just reading too much into that because my mind is starting to freaking shut down.
My eyes really do roll into the back of my head now. There’s nothing… there’s nothing left.
“Hold on so no one ever has to be threatened by this monster again,” John tries.
I hear his words, and they sink in.
If he’s right, and this monster was waiting for an opportunity to catch me, then how many staff and students would have been collateral damage?
How much blood could’ve been on its hands?
And unless we defeat it now, how much blood will be on its hands in the future?
I don’t honestly know how I hold on. But I do. It’s not just John’s words.
I take myself back into my dream. I stare at the castle again. I hear that scream. But this time, it doesn’t scare me nearly as much as it did before.
“Just a little bit more,” John screams.
He slashes out again, but once more, his attack doesn’t catch the creature. It’s become far nimbler.
I don’t know how long he can keep this up, but I know that I can’t keep this up much longer.
The creature lands again. It’s right behind me this time. It’s clearly realized that I’m the weakest link.
“No you don’t,” John screams. He pivots to the side, but he breaks my grip on his leg.
I feel something snap between us.
I begin to flop to the side. It’s like someone has just kicked me in the head – no, the psyche.
“Dammit,” John says. His voice is suddenly weak. I might not be aware of much, but I can tell that the illumination in the room has just been cut by half – which means that the power blazing off his sword has just dimmed.
Without it, he won’t have a chance.
I hear the creature scream. I can’t see it – but I know full well what it’s going to do next. It’s gonna throw itself at John. And there isn’t gonna be anything he’ll be able to do.
With a groan, I reach forward. John’s just in front of me. I grab his leg. I concentrate one last time.
I sink my mind into his power. I open up.
And the force rushes through me.
As I begin to black out, I’m back there – back at the foot of that castle. Back there and facing that soul-crushing scream. But this time?
I take a step inside.
I black out.
It’s not before John wins. With a triumphant scream, he cuts the darkling down. For now.
I black out – but not for long. My consciousness is interrupted for a few seconds. I hear John get down to his knees. The next thing I know, he’s pushing my sweaty, bloody hair from my face. “You okay?” he says in a voice that is tinged with total victory.
It takes me a long time to open my eyes. I feel like someone has tied them to my face. I have to shove up through layers of fog in my mind. Just before I think I’m going to slip back down again, I feel John’s fingers as they trace a pattern down my face. This isn’t him just pushing the hair from my eyes. This is….
I blearily blink up at him. “What… happened? Why do I feel so tired?”
He smiles. It’s an infectious grin. It looks as if it’s going to take over his entire face. “Because you didn’t just help me draw – you helped me win against an ancient darkling. A seriously powerful one. It was a level V if I’m not mistaken.” Every single word he pushes out of his lips is accompanied by two things – total awe, and the trace of his fingers down the side of my face.
I want to tell myself that we didn’t have a moment back in the library. What if we did and I was too obtuse to see it?
There’s certainly something kindling between us right now.
He reaches forward. I know that he’s about to lift me up – maybe even pick me up in his arms and carry me away, but I shove to my knees. I’m wobbly, but I need to see around me. I frown down at where the creature was destroyed. Then I let my gaze trace forward, and I locate that faint orange-yellow circle. It starts to disappear.
I look at him. “Shouldn’t we do something about it?”
“Yeah.” He looks disappointed at the fact that I managed to sit on my own. He turns. He wipes his sweaty hands on his pants. He closes his eyes, and he mutters something under his breath. Then, as if he’s nothing more than a petulant teenager, he goes over to the circle and starts to kick it. It takes a few seconds, but soon enough his boots scuff it. He doesn’t stop until he has completely destroyed it.
He kneels in the center. “Ashes to ashes,” he mutters. He gathers some stone dust in his palm, sets it alight, then blows it into the center of the circle. I hear something breaking.
Oddly, just as it does, I swear I get this strange sensation around my left wrist. I grab it up, but there’s nothing there.
He turns, shoves one hand into his pocket, and looks the epitome of a dashing hero. His hair is all messy. It’s flopped forward over his left eye. But that doesn’t do anything for his grin – you could hide it behind several walls, but you would not be able to stop it from beaming out at me. “I can’t believe you actually did it. I mean, I knew you were powerful—”
I lock a hand on my stomach. “Please stop talking about how powerful I am.” My voice shakes. “I just want to understand what just happened. Were you serious before? If we hadn’t dealt with that ancient darkling, would it have—”
He turns to me quickly. He tilts his head up and faces the rest of the school above. “It would have blasted through everything to get to you. Like I said earlier – a staff member must be helping the darklings. I can’t believe this.” He claps a hand on his mouth. He pushes his sweaty fingers in then lets his grip slide down. “Then again,” he lets out a rueful, dark laugh, “I’ve seen worse. I should’ve expected this was going to happen.”
I open my lips, but what is there to say? They slide closed. I look back at where he destroyed the circle. “It’s over now?”
He nods. Then he leans down and reaches a hand out to me. We have a moment now. It’s not the same as when he was gently touching my face. This is different. I feel anticipation building between us. I think I even feel a crackle of magic along my arms. I reach forward without hesitation and place my hand in his. He pulls me to my feet. I’m still pretty wobbly, but I’m starting to get better.
I was starting to fear that I needed a visit to the nurse’s office, but I’ll be fine.
I look back at the circle. “Are you sure there aren’t any more darklings in the basement?”
He has a firm hold of my hand as he pulls me forward. “There could be,” he concedes.
My hackles rise as fast as a spring snapping up. “Then—” I turn my head around, my eyes widening as I peer through the darkness.
“They’re not going to attack. That ancient was the main event. We dealt with it easily. Now let’s get out of here. I’ve got the evidence I need.”
“That dust spell I cast earlier captured a few fragments of the transport spell. It’s gonna prove that the teachers never dealt with it.”
“What if… they had a reason for not getting rid of it?” I stammer.
He looks at me. At first, he almost looks irritated, then that smile fattens his cheeks again. “I keep forgetting that you don’t know anything about magic. There is no reason to leave a transport spell like that underneath the school. Not unless you wanted something to come through.”
I take a breath. It’s hard. I have to press my lips together and push it out of my clenched teeth.
I close my eyes. The fight replays in my mind.
It was insane. Especially the part where I managed to get out of my own way and channel as much magic as I could to John.
I open one eye to see that he is staring at me with everything he possibly has.
You would think that I’m the rarest creature in all existence. “Ah….”
“Sorry.” With his free hand, he pats his hair down. He stares forward. We’ve just reached a set of stairs. “I’m just thankful I met you, that’s all. Can you imagine what would’ve happened if you hadn’t entered the forbidden side of the museum that day?”
I know this is just an offhand comment, but I frown. “Sorry, what do you mean?”
He looks around at me and blinks back in surprise. “Didn’t I tell you that already? That area of the museum you went into – no ordinary mortal could’ve gone in there.”
“I’m assuming that’s why the darkling was being kept there.”
“… Are you telling me that someone at the museum is keeping darklings? And what do you mean about the forbidden side?”
“You’ll find that most buildings that house historic objects tend to have magical sides. Even if the architect and the people who run the place aren’t magical themselves – they inadvertently gather magic without knowing what they’re doing. The magic community usually steps in to separate any powerful forces from normal people. The museum is a big local site. So it’s monitored regularly.”
“… So why was there a darkling inside?”
He shrugs. “The people who are doing the monitoring are even worse than criminals,” he states flatly.
My stomach sinks.
He turns to me once more. He nods. “I can’t believe we finally have a chance.”
He said we, but I know he meant he.
I think back to what he told me in the library. “The… retribution?”
He takes in a deep breath. It pushes his chest hard against his shirt – or what remains of it. He’s pretty beat up from that fight. He has a long cut down his brow, but apart from that, he’s holding himself well.
Me? If it weren’t for his firm grip, I would be down on my knees.
I get that I’m just a new Grail and all, but I feel completely bled dry.
Worse than that, there’s a strange tingling around my left wrist.
I pull my hand out of his. He looks surprised but relaxes when he realizes I just need to scratch the skin around my wrist. I pull the sleeve right up, and I stare at it.
“Did you get injured?” He grabs my wrist and looks at it. He shrugs. “I can’t see anything. It should be fine. It’s probably just nerves. The more you practice as a Grail, the easier it will become and the fewer symptoms you’ll have after a fight,” he promises.
We reach the top of the stairs.
“Now,” he scratches his brow, “it would be a lot better for us if we arrive in the secret tunnels, but I’m not sure where we are. I’ve got to think this through.” He starts placing his hands on the walls and walking them across the old stone. He closes his eyes – but only half. Occasionally they pulse open as if he’s found something, but he swears and goes back to what he’s doing.
I feel completely useless as I stand behind him. I start scratching my arms, but I go back to my left wrist.
Of their own accord, my eyes tick to the side. I stare down that staircase.
What if… it’s not over?
I wouldn’t have thought that before. But this morning after my fight with Arthur, I thought it was all done.
It clearly wasn’t.
“I found something,” John says victoriously. “Come here.” He waves me over. “When I open this door, there’s going to be another powerful threshold. You ready to deal with it?” He looks at me sincerely.
I nod. It’s an automatic move. I don’t honestly know what I’m ready to deal with anymore. This whole world is changing under my feet every single second.
I can’t keep up.
You know what? John has absolutely no intention of letting me fall behind.
He swipes his hand to the side, concentrates, and sends this mandala of light spinning into the wall. It’s a spell unlike anything I’ve ever seen, and it takes my breath away. But something else takes my breath away even more. He reaches in, tenderly grabs my hand, and suddenly pulls me right through the wall.
I’m smart enough not to scream.
He’s right, and we do pass some kind of threshold, but it’s a lot crazier than the thresholds I’ve crossed in the past. For one, I’m not buffeted by the wind. Instead, these crazy sensations rush through my body. It’s exactly what you’d feel if you, you know, had actually walked through a wall.
We arrive on the other side in a wide hallway. I can instantly tell that this is not one of the tunnels.
John curses under his breath. “Dammit, I got it wrong. Oh well. This place looks like it’s abandoned. Come on. Hopefully everybody else’s either in their homeroom or back in the dorms. Let’s go.” He’s still holding onto my hand.
He pulls me forward. It takes me a while to shake off the craziness of that threshold. I turn around and look back at the wall. I think I see the faintest crackle of magic. But that’s it.
No one saw us. So I won’t get thrown into detention again.
Really, detention? I tell myself after a long pause. Why the hell am I even thinking about that?
There is a teacher at this school working with the darklings to kidnap me. A teacher who seems to be intent to harm any number of students just to get to me.
Detention is the least of my problems.
I feel a little cold. Sick, too. It’s this descending nausea. It starts at my head then winds its way around my gut. It pushes down to my feet. The one area it never touches is my left hand.
I look down at it. Is it just me, or is it cold? Numb, even?
I’d scratch at it again, but John is firmly holding onto my hand. Judging by the exact way he’s gripping me, it doesn’t seem like he’s going to let me go anytime soon.
We head down another corridor.
Now we see students. I expect John to drop my hand. He doesn’t.
Everybody makes eye contact with us. Sorry – they stare at the way he’s holding me.
I instantly blush. I try to pull a little back from John.
“I’m helping calm your nervous system. That fight really took it out of you,” he mutters, ensuring his voice doesn’t travel.
“Oh,” I say.
I look at the way everyone’s staring at me. I cringe. Then I remind myself that this is the least of my troubles. These students could be killed – all to get to me.
That’s a truly cold and sobering thought.
We reach a set of stairs. We walk down them.
I’m not paying any attention. I know there are students at the base, but I don’t care. My mind goes back 150 percent to that fight.
We won in the end. It could’ve gone differently, though.
I should’ve dodged that darkling when I had the chance. Why didn’t I?
I’m meant to be good in battle and all, but….
But I’m confused, for confusion is the sole thing that pervades every single experience I’ve had at this school – every single dream since my sixteenth birthday, too.
We reach the base of the stairs.
Two students are standing out from the rest. One is Genevieve.
And the other is….
Arthur looks down at John’s hand, then up at John’s face. He does not once make eye contact with me.
I’d kind of forgotten that John was holding on to my hand for the past few seconds. Now that fact comes crashing back into my mind.
I get the urge to tug myself free.
John just tightens his grip. He looks over at Arthur. “Can I help you, Pendragon?” he asks, a real edge to his voice.
Does Arthur look irritated? Jealous, even?
No. That’s all in my head. His expression is completely neutral. He also does not glance at me – not even once.
Genevieve, on the other hand, looks like she wants to flay me alive. Gone are the kind smiles – at least around me. It’s clear that she can’t get anything from me by manipulating my emotions. Instead, she looks like she wants to kick my head in.
There are other students around them. I don’t really understand who’s loyal to who in this school, but it’s pretty damn clear that Arthur Pendragon is at the top. John is not.
“Are you going to get out of my way, Arthur?” John asks. There is precisely no deference in his voice. There’s the exact opposite. It drips with derision.
Finally Arthur looks at me. He slides his gaze toward me once as he steps to the side.
He frowns. It’s momentary. It barely lasts. And I have no clue what it means.
Is he disappointed in me? Is that the exact look flickering in his gaze?
“What have you two been up to?” Genevieve asks. She crosses her arms.
“Studying,” John says, ignoring her.
“So why is she covered in dust?”
I pat my head. Crap, I am covered in dust. I also look like hell. But, to be fair, I never changed my uniform after my fight with Arthur this morning.
John, on the other hand, has a completely ripped shirt. As for his blazer, it’s sliced down the back.
Way to go to hide what we’ve been up to.
My cheeks become hot.
I get flustered.
John just shrugs. He turns and looks at Genevieve. “Someone’s gotta train the Grail.”
It’s a pointed comment. He doesn’t have to add anything more. Genevieve turns beetroot red.
She looks like a boiler that’s getting ready to explode.
“Indeed,” Arthur mutters. He doesn’t add anything.
It’s enough to see John turn. He still tugs me along. I’m getting more and more conscious of the fact he’s holding my hand. I really want to pull back. But if I do that, is it going to be the equivalent of siding with Arthur?
Everyone is staring at us. If their gazes could combine together, they would dig right through the center of my skull.
“Yeah, someone does have to train her. But that’s not your concern, is it? Get back to what you always do, Arthur. I’ve got this.”
My stomach kicks. He’s not talking about me, is he? I get it. He’s competitive around Arthur. But I’m not a this.
I finally do it. I pull back from John.
He looks shocked.
I think I almost see a glimmer of satisfaction in Arthur’s eyes. But immediately I begin to scratch my wrist.
It’s sending me insane.
John turns quickly, realizing – or at least assuming – that the reason I pulled back from him wasn’t that I was sick of him dragging me around like a dogeared doll.
“You okay?” he asks quickly.
“Yeah. I just….” There’s nothing to add. I want to get out of here.
Without another word, I walk away.
John follows a step behind me. But that’s only after shooting Arthur a death glare.
As soon as we’re away from him, he turns to me. “That could’ve gone better—”
“I’m not a this, John. I get that you need my help. I really do. But I’m not a frigging this.”
He looks shocked. He also looks as if he has no clue what I’m talking about—
“Back there, you said you’ve got this—”
“I wasn’t talking about you—”
“Yeah, you were. And please don’t talk like that again. I’m not some glorified weapon.” I try to keep my voice even, but it cracks a little.
I can tell that he wants to keep pushing and pretending that he wasn’t being rude, but he stops. He winces. “Sorry. I guess I get a little bit uncontrolled around that asshole.”
We descend into silence.
I keep scratching my wrist. “I really want to get a shower. I’m going to head back to my room. You got all the evidence you need, didn’t you?” My voice drops.
He nods. “I’ll take you to your room.”
I open my mouth to say that’s not gonna be necessary, but then I realize that if I’m seen walking the halls on my own, I’m going to get in even more trouble.
He walks me back to my room silently. When he stops at the door, he turns. He shoots me a penetrating gaze. “We worked well together. Really well. Most Grails shouldn’t be able to help their bonded produce that much power that quickly.”
“Bonded?” I lock onto that word.
He grabs the back of his head. He digs his fingers in then lets his hand drop down to his shoulder. “Well… I mean… we fought together—”
“I don’t understand what’s going on at the moment. No one really ever explained what a Grail is. I have a long way to go. I’ll see you in the morning.” With that, I open the door and walk in. I close it before he can say anything.
I press my back against it and close my eyes.
Was I just rude to him?
Yeah. Did he deserve it? God, I don’t know.
He admitted to me that he lost his father to the ministry.
He admitted to me that this entire magical community is screwed and that staff are actually dying under our noses.
He has a lot to lose. And in me, he finally sees the possibility of fixing everything.
I ball a hand into a fist. I strike it against the door several times.
Then my wrist bothers me once more. I head to my bathroom. I strip and shower. I spend a long time under the hot water. But no matter how much it rains down over me, it can’t wash away the fight. If I close my eyes, I get afterimages of it.
I see the moment that I pumped the power into John that allowed him to destroy the creature. But before that, I see the moment that I faced the castle in my mind.
I can hear that soul-splitting scream.
“What is it?” I grip the side of my face. I sink my fingers in hard.
I stand there for another five minutes, just soaking in the hot water.
By the time I’m done, though my wrist doesn’t feel any better, I ignore it.
I am bone tired.
I dress in my pajamas and fall face-first on my bed. I don’t even bother to burrow under the covers. I just pull the pillow toward me.
I fall asleep. Or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I’m pulled.
I’m not surprised when I start dreaming almost immediately. I’m not on horseback, though. Those sweet dreams seem to be far, far in the past. Instead, I’m back in that long stone corridor. It doesn’t take me too long to recognize it.
“The ministry?” I whisper under my breath.
I shove a hand out. I touch the wall. It’s… weird.
Whenever I’m dreaming, I’m usually aware of the fact that I’m dreaming. But I can’t usually interact with the images around me in the way I do now.
Things are usually hazy. When I’m on horseback with Arthur, only the things I’m looking directly at are in detail. Everything else is blurry. Now… it almost looks like I’m actually here.
As I walk, I hear the dull sound of my footfall. I keep my hand locked on the wall. As I trail my fingers over the stone, I detect every single imperfection. I swear I’m even leaving stone dust under my nails. I reach a set of stairs, and I walk down.
I’m back in the wide room with the prison cells.
I can hear someone crying.
I rush over.
I get down on my knees.
There’s the woman again.
She looks as if she’s on the edge of death. Sweat is plastered across her brow. Magic plays across her body chaotically. It bursts over her chest, rushes up her arms, then discharges into the ground with loud crackles.
“You okay?” I stammer.
At first it looks as if she won’t answer. If I had to guess, she’s feverish.
As soon as my words vibrate through the air, her eyes open wide.
She stares over at the bars. “It’s… you, isn’t it?”
“I….” What should I say? That this is all a dream? That, because it’s a dream, she should just be able to walk out of these bars because nothing is real?
She pushes up. She groans. It looks as if she’s been forced to use most of her magic. How I know that, I’m not sure. But the fact digs into my mind, burrowing all the way in.
“You have to get me out of here. Please. I’ll be dead within the day if you don’t. And they’ll just use me to further chip away at the throne. Please,” she stammers.
“Throne? What throne?”
Her eyes widen. “You don’t know about magic?”
“Magic? I’m… only a new witch. I—”
She recedes from me a little, confusion marking her brow. “How can that be if you’re astral traveling?”
“Astral traveling?” The words clunk off my lips. They do not slip forth with ease.
I stare at my hands. I can see them, but her gaze doesn’t follow me. Her eyes lock on the air over my shoulder.
“Please – you have to come find me. You must be powerful. You have to come find me before they kill me. They’re going to use the last of my power. Please. I might be a Grail, but—”
I reach forward. I grab the bars. I expect them to thrust me back. That’s what happened the last time she tried to grab them.
But they don’t. I can interact with them, but… it’s almost as if they can’t interact with me.
“What do you mean you’re a Grail?” I hiss.
Her cheeks become cold. She stares down at her own hands. “I’m a hidden Grail – at least I was until they found me. Now they’re going to use my power to take down one of the legs of the throne. Please – I don’t want that to happen. I just want to go back to normal. My sister—”
I don’t know what possesses me to say this, but I can’t stop myself. “Your sister is dead,” I stammer.
Her eyes open wide. It looks like I slapped her – no, stabbed her. She grabs her chest. She scrunches her fingers in. I can hear the sound of them sliding and grating over the fabric of her robe. “What?” she whispers. It sounds as if someone has punctured her lung.
“Your sister… or a woman almost exactly like you was killed. And she was wearing a necklace like that.” I point at the pendant she’s still wearing. “She was stabbed to death. I found her in a park. I—”
Tears run down her cheeks. She reaches toward me, but it’s clear that she doesn’t have the strength to grab hold of the bars. “You have to get me out of here. If my sister is gone, that means there are only four of us left. Four more Grails. If we’re killed – when we’re killed,” she corrects, her voice now nothing more than a wheezing mess, “the throne will fall. Then chaos will return.”
I hate the way she says chaos. It seems to grab hold of my heart and shake it. “Chaos?”
“There’s no time to explain that. You have to protect me. I’m in the ministry. I’m in the third wing of the prison. Cell eight. Please—”
“I… what do you want me to do? How can I possibly get you out?”
“You have to find a way. You have to—”
I hear something from behind me.
It’s this grating sound.
It sounds like someone’s dragging a chain. Considering my day, I quickly whip my head over my shoulder. I can’t see anything.
The woman doesn’t react to the sound. It’s almost as if she can’t hear it.
“You have to break me free. Before it’s too late. If I fall, they will move onto the next Grails. You have to—”
I suddenly feel something descend around my throat.
I grab at it, but there’s nothing there. Or at least, there’s nothing there in the dream.
I go to speak, but my voice won’t come out. I wheeze instead.
I feel like I’m being dragged backward.
“Please, save me before it’s too late. I have one day left. I have—”
The dream suddenly shatters. It’s as if someone has taken a baseball bat to a painting.
I am wrenched back into the real world. And that’s when I realize there’s a hand on my throat. Sorry, not a hand – a chain.
I stare up into the face of the darkling from the basement just as it opens its mouth and its jagged yellow teeth draw close to my neck.
I was right before. The fight wasn’t over. The darkling was simply waiting for the final match.
I can’t scream. I can’t even open my lips. There’s no strength in me. Fear charges through my heart, sending adrenaline catapulting through my body, but there’s nothing it can do.
The darkling simply tightens the chain.
I begin to black out. This nausea spills through me. It is one that is tinged with a sense of utter defeat.
It’s finally happened – I’ve been kidnapped. And there’s nothing I’ll be able to do. There’s nothing….
I think I hear something. It’s coming not from the door, but from the window.
The next thing I know, the glass cracks. It shatters out everywhere. I’m only aware of it because I’m using the last of my energy to ensure my eyes are open.
The darkling screams. It does not release its grip on my throat.
It shifts around. It sends a charge of magic toward the window.
I have no clue what’s there. Is this some kind of security system? Or perhaps a teacher has come to save me?
Maybe… maybe it’s even John?
I open my mouth. I can’t say anything else. His name slips from my lips. “John….”
I hear a grunt. It sounds kind of unhappy, to be honest.
The darkling screams again. Whatever it does, it does not let go of me.
I start to tune in to the rest of my body. That’s when I’m aware of a grip around my wrist. But the darkling isn’t holding me. It’s….
I crunch up, and with some of the last of my strength, I stare down at my wrist. There is a yellow circle charging around it. It looks almost exactly like the transport spell I encountered back down in the basement.
I… I’m going to be spirited away.
Magic starts to pick up around me.
“Let her go,” someone screams.
I’m aware of the fact the voice is male, but that’s it. I can’t track anything. My own magic is being fed into the transport spell. My back arches.
I hear another grunt.
The darkling tries to fight whoever is there, but the darkling is a sitting duck if it’s not going to move from my side. That is a fact that is proven as something smashes into it. It sounds like it’s a chunk of wall.
Dust hails around me. But it does nothing. It simply interacts with the magic crackling over my body.
I’m going to… I’m going to transport. It’s only a matter of seconds.
“Fight it,” someone growls. “You can never be transported without your permission. The spell has to use your magic. Don’t let it use any more.”
I tell myself that’s John’s voice. Because in my head, that’s the only thing that makes sense. But it sounds like Arthur. It feels like him, too.
John might encourage me, but Arthur always tells me exactly what I need to know.
I… I don’t think I can fight this spell. I have no option but to try.
Just as my back arches even more and I feel my magic being stolen from me, I curl my hands into fists.
I hold on – with everything I have.
I start to see flashes in front of me. I see Arthur. I see the castle. I look down, and I see my arms. They’re covered in magic. My magic. This is the power of a Grail.
I start to reach forward to take it.
I’m back on my bed. The visions break around me. I’m starting to lift up. My hair flutters around my body. My covers are picking up, too. They’re wafting up against my legs.
That orange-yellow circle around my wrist is glowing as brightly as it ever has before.
I’m about to be transported.
“Dawn, please,” Arthur screams.
Because it’s not John. I finally recognize Arthur’s voice.
I turn – as best as I possibly can as I float off my bed in a stream of pure power. I stare at him.
He stares back.
He’s somehow got a soul blade in his hand. It’s glowing in his grip, and it frames his gaze. Real need stares back at me – a need deeper than any I have ever seen in my life.
“Hold on,” he screams.
It’s like he’s asking me to hold on to a mountain and drag it to the sea.
Too much power is leaking from me. I can’t stop it.
I close my eyes again. I’m back in front of that castle.
I take a step toward it.
“No,” Arthur bellows. “Don’t give it any more magic. Block it off. You cannot transport without your permission,” he cries once more.
… I can’t transport without my permission.
I… I don’t really have the brainpower to even understand what that means. I have no clue what he’s asking me to do. All I can feel is the energy rushing through me.
This is what I was born for. I don’t need to think about my power. That’s not the point. I just have to do what I’m told. I just have to….
I think I feel something brushing past my arm. It’s only for a few seconds. It forces me to open my eyes.
It was Arthur’s hand. He doesn’t get the chance to grab me. The darkling screams, reaches around, and punches him across the jaw. Arthur is sent tumbling back. He smashes into my dresser.
“Arthur,” I stammer.
“Fight it,” he cries.
I close my eyes. This time, I don’t give in to my magic. I try to put the brakes on it.
I’ve been teaching myself to cast magic, no matter what, so it’s a real brain shift to put the brakes on it.
I have to dig as deep as I possibly can.
“If you transport, it’s all over,” Arthur says breathlessly.
I can hear as he punches to his feet. He growls, and he continues to fight the darkling.
Its chain is still wrapped around my throat. It starts to loosen. It clearly can’t pay attention to me, the transport spell, and Arthur at the same time.
Arthur can fight the darkling, but I have to save myself from the spell.
I’ve been taking the back seat too much today. Back when I was down in the basement, I questioned why I was the one assisting John to draw. Why don’t I have the power to attack on my own? Where’s my sword? Where’s my fight?
The answer is, it’s right here right now.
I am lifted up even higher. More magic circles around and around my wrist. It’s pushing into my body. It feels like it’s going to carve me down to the bone.
It’s enough to terrify me, but it’s not enough to shake my will.
I shove into my magic. I try to stop it – try to throw a blanket on it. When that doesn’t work, I practically slam the door shut in its face.
But nothing changes until I take myself back to that vision of the castle.
It’s when I turn around from it and close that door that I finally feel my magic stopping.
“That’s it,” Arthur screams at the top of his lungs.
The darkling screams, too. I can tell as it launches itself at Arthur because the chain becomes slack.
As soon as I slam that door on my magic, the float spell cuts out. I fall back down onto my bed. It shakes. Pillows tumble off onto the ground.
I open my eyes and stare at the chain around my throat. I grab it.
“Rip it off now,” Arthur screams.
I yank it. Arthur’s still fighting the darkling, and that must be disrupting the creature’s magic, because it’s relatively easy to unwind the chain from my throat. I push it off me, and it clanks onto the floor.
I shouldn’t have any energy, but I swing my legs over the bed.
I finally see Arthur in full. There’s a cut down his arm. His white shirt is all rumpled. It’s ripped across the other shoulder. It hangs off him loosely. It’s also splattered with blood. His blood. It crackles here and there with this memorable pale blue magic.
The darkling screams again. It rushes at him. It whips its chain up, but rather than send it toward Arthur, I know it’s going to go after me. I push myself off the opposite side of my bed and roll. The chain loops toward my throat, but I manage to kick it off.
“Don’t let it catch you again,” Arthur cries.
“Just pay attention to the fight,” I stammer back.
“Thanks for the tip.”
I can’t believe that he has the time to be snide to me during this battle. But that there is the difference between Arthur and John.
Arthur grunts again. The darkling comes at him, but he brings his sword up high. He sends magic blasting into the tip. It produces some kind of barrier. The darkling throws itself at it, then the barrier pushes it back.
I can’t just lie here on the floor. I have to help. I shove up to my knees. Arthur immediately slices his gaze toward me. “Stay exactly where you are. If you come close, it might try to transport you again. The mark is still on your wrist.”
I stare at my wrist. He’s right. That yellow circle remains. That’s when I realize it looks almost exactly like the transport circle back down in the basement.
What the hell happened? How did it transfer onto my skin?
“I’ve got this. Just stay there, Dawn,” Arthur screams again.
He really does have this. The darkling snarls and goes to punch him. There’s so much magic playing over the darkling’s body that it looks as if it will burn Arthur to a crisp. But rather than dodge, Arthur just takes the hit. He pulls his sword up, pumps magic into the tip, and uses it to blast the attack back. Both his force and the creature’s force meet, and they send a shockwave smashing into the walls.
My room is being torn apart.
A little magic blasts off course, and it smashes into the wall behind me. Plaster hails down everywhere. I scream, clutch my head, and lurch to the side.
“Don’t come close to the darkling,” Arthur warns. “That’s exactly what it wants. And don’t let that chain touch you,” he adds.
The chain goes to wrap around my ankle. It’s moving like some kind of tentacle.
I scream, kick it back, and fall to my ass. I roll again when it tries to go for my throat.
I shouldn’t have any energy left, but I do.
Magic, on the other hand, is different.
I’m actively keeping it locked behind that door.
I haven’t had the time to think it through – to understand the imagery going on in my mind. But why would that castle with the soul-splitting scream be the equivalent of my magic? Because it was only in slamming that door closed that I managed to block off my force.
I have to roll again. The chain is coming at me even faster.
As it slices to the side, it suddenly changes direction. It goes for my middle. It almost catches me, but I manage to roll again at the last moment.
There’s a real limit to how long I can keep this up.
I am sweating, and I’m shaking hard. My whole body has had enough today. What with that terrifying scream and all the darkling fights, I just want to give in.
I can’t. Arthur won’t let me. As he continues to fight the darkling, every single time I slow down, he growls at me to keep dodging.
He’s like the most effective drill sergeant in the entire world.
The darkling hisses.
It suddenly concentrates on Arthur in full. Maybe it realizes that it can’t capture me until it deals with him. It calls the chain back to its hand. There’s a clunk as it falls into its grip. The chain charges with magic. The Darkling whips it down into Arthur’s sword.
Arthur tries to hold on to the blade, but he can’t. It’s pulled right out of his grip. It sails through the room.
It heads toward the window. I have no clue what will happen if Arthur is separated from his soul blade. Will he lose it forever? And will that in turn force him to lose a section of his soul?
I freak right out. Before I even think of what I’m doing, I rush forward. I catapult off the bed. I move like I never have before – because nothing has ever mattered more than this.
I get in the way of the soul blade and catch it just before it can sail through the window.
For half a second, I stand there, panting, surprised by what I managed to do. I was always the uncoordinated one in school. I’ve never caught a ball in my life. Now I snatch the sword right out of the air.
But I don’t have the chance to gloat.
Now I’m holding the blade, the darkling twists its head toward me. It screams. With no warning, it whips its chain at me.
“Dawn,” Arthur roars. There’s real need behind his voice. Need that shouldn’t be there.
He hates me, I try to tell myself. He’s at the center of the mess with the prisoner in the ministry. Oh yeah, and he’s a Pendragon. But right now, none of that matters.
I don’t know what I’m doing. I have zero clue how to use a soul blade, but I still lift it up. I hold it.
I can’t let magic push into it. But apparently, it doesn’t need it.
The darkling attacks. It whips the chain around, and it smashes into Arthur’s blade.
I expect to be thrown off my feet, but I’m not. I manage to withstand a single blow. Sure, it feels like someone has just hit me with a semitrailer, but I’m not torn apart.
I won’t be able to withstand another blow, though. Just as I suck in a shaking breath, the darkling whips the chain back.
That’s when I feel Arthur moving behind me. He loops one arm around my middle and locks his other hand on the blade hilt.
Magic rushes through him. It sinks into the blade, but to do that, it pushes through me.
My breath is taken away – stolen forever.
My mind is pulled back – back into every dream. Back into the kiss, then back further.
This is a moment of total power. Of total surrender, too.
The chain comes down. It smashes into the sword. But it does not wrench it from our grip. Nor does it slice it in half.
Arthur mutters something, and a spell sinks down into the blade. Magic suddenly blasts out.
Just as the chain falls, the spell smashes into the links. There’s some kind of reaction. Fire spurts from one link to the next.
The chain jerks around this way and that.
The darkling screams.
“Do exactly as I say, got it?” Arthur stammers.
“Got it,” I stammer back.
I expect that he’s going to shove me out of the way. You know, put me behind him to protect me. That’s not what he does. He keeps me exactly where I am. And he doesn’t shift my fingers from his sword.
The darkling recovers quickly. Though there are still a few wisps of smoke rising off the links of the chain, they soon disappear. It screams. I’m treated to the sight of its mouth opening wide. While I can see its glimmering yellow teeth, I can’t see anything beyond that. It’s as if light won’t dare penetrate its shadowy gullet. Maybe it’s managed to swallow an eternal night down there.
The chain smashes into the sword. But again, the darkling can’t wrench it from my grip.
Arthur mutters another spell. A new blast of light shoots out from the tip of the blade. This is even more brilliant than before. It’s pale blue – but at the same time, it has this hot red pulsing energy that zigzags through it like lightning.
The darkling has a chance to scream. The attack strikes it right in the chest. It’s thrown back. It pounds into my poor dresser. It breaks. Clothes start to spill out of it. Not one or two – but hundreds.
They scatter over the floor. Crackles of magic dart between them.
“Just do what I say, Dawn,” Arthur stammers again. “We can down it – but only if we work together.”
I don’t say anything. I just feel the pressure of his breath against my back, and I half close my eyes. I concentrate. This is not my power – but his.
The darkling gets back to its feet. It moves quickly this time. I’ve seen it in this mode before. This happened back down in the basement when I fought with John.
It’s about to get seriously agile and hard to track.
But rather than dart back, Arthur just keeps his eyes locked forward. He never loses his grip on his sword.
He suddenly spies an opportunity just as the darkling leaps toward the ceiling. “Now,” he roars.
Moving my hand over the sword, he slices the blade up and down. A blast of magic thrusts out of it. It smashes into the darkling’s chain. It is obliterated. There’s no chain reaction. There’s just one great big explosion. It happens near that pile of clothes, and they’re destroyed, too. Smoke fills the room.
Rather than bat it away, Arthur mutters something under his breath, and a little charge of wind suddenly appears around our faces. It pushes the smoke back. It makes the light of the explosion play up my cheeks. It illuminates his hand and the side of his face, too. I see his determined gaze. It’s locked forward. It doesn’t seem as if there’s anything in this entire world that will ever be able to shift it again.
“One more attack,” he says. And I’m wrong, because there is something that can shift his gaze. Me, specifically. He looks down at me, and I see things I shouldn’t.
There are emotions there that I told myself Arthur can’t feel for me. But they’re…
“Now,” he snaps quickly.
I jerk my attention forward. I have to close my eyes. I focus.
The darkling comes after us. Somehow, its body is glowing. It looks twice as large as it was before.
As it pushes toward us, I feel my left wrist start to play up. More force crackles around it. It’s desperately trying to transport me in one last-ditch effort.
“Hold on,” Arthur roars.
So I freaking hold on.
The darkling appears right in front of us. It goes to grab my wrist, but together, we slice the sword down. Magic spills out of it. It smashes into the darkling, and right there, right in front of me, it’s cut in half.
But this time, it doesn’t scatter into dust.
Twisting the sword around, Arthur impales it right through the middle. A different charge of magic sinks down through the blade.
I see my arms. They start to glow.
This is not a prelude to me being transported, however.
Something charges into the blade. The darkling screams.
And then… it’s pulled apart. At least I think it is. It vibrates in the air. The image of it just starts to be washed away as if it never was. At the end, there’s this blast of light, then a slight wind.
I stand there, shaking against Arthur, staring at what just happened. Slowly, I turn my head up to face him.
He turns his head down to face me.
I expect that he’ll smile at me. I expect that he’ll shoot me the needy look he did earlier. I expect he’ll even reach out to me.
I don’t get anything of the sort. He drops the sword, shoots me a deadly look, and walks toward the door.
It happens so quickly that I don’t know what to do.
“Arthur?” I stammer.
I expect him to walk out. It certainly looks like he wants to. He doesn’t. He does something to the door. He knocks his knuckles on it several times, frowns, then seems to be satisfied with something. He turns. He closes his arms around his middle then leans back against the door. His expression is deadly.
I actually find myself swallowing.
I’m still holding the sword. My fingers tighten around it.
He looks from it, up to me, then over to my wrist. “How stupid are you, Dawn?”
This is such a sudden change that it’s even harder to keep track of than when the darkling ripped me out of my dream. “Sorry… what?”
“I’m asking how stupid you are, Dawn?”
“I… was just attacked in my sleep. I—”
“You have a transport symbol over your wrist. Exactly what were you doing with John?”
The way he says John… there’s a real edge there.
I try to fight it, but my cheeks redden a little.
His eyes narrow slightly. He starts to push around the room. He kicks at the smoldering pile of clothes. He mutters something under his breath, and the fire quickly extinguishes. There’s another fire over near the far wall. He swipes a hand at it, and it too extinguishes. Then he slowly turns to me. There’s a lot of pressure in his body, and it’s all in his shoulders.
It looks as if it’s going to snap him like a dry twig.
“One more time, how stupid are you, Dawn?”
I drop his sword.
The anger starts to flood back in. Who is this guy? He looks tender when he’s fighting by my side, but as soon as the danger ends, he’s a jerk. “What are you talking about? I—”
“I’m talking about the fact you stupidly followed John down into the basement. Were you looking for trouble? Because you found it. And you almost got captured.”
There, just for a second, I hear real emotion in his voice. He clearly tries to bury it quickly.
He finds another small patch of fire on the floor, and rather than mutter at it, he kicks it until it disappears.
Then he turns again.
His sword is still down by my feet.
He walks over. I stiffen up. He grabs it, but he doesn’t look at me once. He slings it over his shoulder, but he doesn’t make it disappear.
I stare at it. “Did… Genevieve help you draw that?”
He laughs. “No, you did. Did you forget?”
“But you… you got rid of it after the fight.”
He shook his head. “No. I made it invisible. Two very different things.”
“You… knew something was going to happen, then?” A little bit of suspicion starts to flood into my voice.
He can clearly hear it. He’d turned from me, but now, ever so slowly, he turns back. His expression looks as if he could cut through steel. “Sorry? You think I’m the idiot here?”
“Stop calling me an idiot,” I snap. “I—”
“You have absolutely no idea what’s going on here. You’re running around, falling into anyone’s arms if they’re stupid enough to open them for you.”
I become red-cheeked. He has gone way too far. I stand straighter. It’s my turn to close my arms around my middle. “Where exactly—”
“I’m gonna stop you there. I’m not in the mood. You could have gotten yourself killed, Dawn. Or worse – captured. If that idiot ever tries to drag you into one of his equally idiotic missions again, slap him and move on.”
“You know exactly what I’m talking about. Don’t play stupid. What tear-jerking story did he share with you? Did he tell you that his family fell from fame? Did he tell you that he’s doing all this for them? He had no clue you got marked, did he? He’s never even seen one of those spells before.”
I stare at my wrist again. I’m slowly starting to appreciate the seriousness of this situation. If Arthur hadn’t come when he had… I’d be dead.
I stare at my wrist again. The symbol has almost completely disappeared. I still run my fingers around it.
“You destroyed the root of the spell. The mark itself will disappear on its own. No one will be able to use it to transport you again. I’m not saying that no one will ever be able to transport you again,” he adds quickly. “That’ll be up to you.”
He’s about to call me an idiot again, isn’t he?
We stare at each other for a few seconds.
I’m cold, but I’m still hot with anger.
I slice my gaze back to my bed.
My entire room is trashed.
“You just have to keep your head down. That’s it.” He stands straighter.
“Why? Because it’s gonna be easier for you if I don’t make trouble?”
He clearly doesn’t know what to do with that statement. He settles for smiling snidely. “Yeah, it’s gonna be easier for me—”
“Why would I want to make anything easier for you?”
“Because you might just have forgotten what happened, but I saved—”
“What about the other Grails?”
“What about the Grail in the ministry prison? What about her, ha? I heard that conversation on the phone—”
His sword was over his shoulder, but now his grip slackens. It tumbles onto the floor. “How do you know—”
I just let something big slip. I couldn’t stop myself. This isn’t information that I should be revealing to Arthur. But his arrogant frigging face is drawing the worst out of me. “I know you’ve got a prisoner in the ministry—”
“How do you know she’s a Grail, Dawn?” There’s no force in his voice. In fact, it’s as if his personality has completely changed.
“I just know, okay?”
“How do you know that she’s a Grail, Dawn?” His voice gets a little louder.
“Answer the question, Dawn.”
“I saw her, okay?”
“How could you if—”
He freezes. It’s almost as if he’s answered the question for himself. He takes a step toward me. His cheeks look cold. It’s like they’re gonna drop off his face. “You astral traveled, didn’t you? You can’t do that,” he stammers.
I take a step back from him. How the hell did he figure it out so quickly?
I shake my head. I’m still not even sure I was astral traveling.
“You have no idea what you’ve wandered into. All you have to do is keep your head down,” he says. All the anger is gone. There’s just desperation and deep need now. I don’t understand how his personality can keep running so hot and cold.
I take a step away from him. There’s something behind me. He’s close enough that he can stop me from falling. He doesn’t. So I fall flat on my ass.
And that just brings my anger rushing up once more. I shoot to my feet. I’m way too close to his face. I certainly have absolutely no intention of kissing the bastard. “I get that you Pendragons control everything—”
He laughs emptily. “Sorry, everything? Just what exactly has John been telling you?”
“You can’t deny the conversation I overheard you having. You—”
“Need to leave it all alone, Dawn. It’s the only way you can live through this.”
He says the words live through this, and they slowly sink in.
I take a step back from him. I shake.
I doubt he’ll react to my obvious fear, but he does. “I don’t mean that as a threat. It’s true, though. You have to keep your head down. Stop showing off your powers. Just head to class. And for the love of God, stay away from that idiot John.”
“Why, because you don’t want me making trouble?”
“No, because I don’t want you dragged into other people’s troubles.”
With that, he turns. He heads toward the door. Is he really just going to leave it there?
His words reverberate in my head. He’s completely different from John. John wants my help. Arthur just wants to shove me away and keep me in the dark.
“You’re trying to manipulate me, aren’t you?” I snap quickly.
He reaches the door. He’s just settled a hand on the handle. He lets out a tense breath. “Manipulate you? What the hell are you talking about?”
“You want to keep me dumb. That way you’ll be able to control me. I understand how these things work.”
He turns slowly. “Really? You understand how these things work? Then you must understand John completely. He wants you for a task, Dawn. That’s it.”
My cheeks redden. I can read between the lines on that statement. I take an angry step forward. I curl my hands into fists. “You might think there’s no one like you—”
He laughs. “No, there are plenty of people like me. You, on the other hand – you’re unique.” The way he says that is not a compliment.
“I know you’re up to something. I know you’re going to kill that woman—” My breath becomes trapped in my chest.
He turns slowly now. At first he’s just insulted by my accusation, but then he frowns. “What the hell are you talking about? Kill who?”
“The woman in the ministry. She says she’s got a day left. I’m gonna stop you. Whatever you’ve got planned—”
He just stares at me. I don’t understand his expression. And I wonder if he understands it. “She said that to you?”
There’s no accusation in his voice – just confusion.
I want to hold on to my anger. I desperately do. But my body is reminding me of the fact that I’m alive – and the only reason I am is that he saved me.
“I’m still going to stop you—” I try.
“No, Dawn. You’re going to stay here. You’re going to keep your head down. And you will stay far, far away from my troubles. You got that?” His voice tightens on the words my troubles.
He turns again. He stares at me. There is no filter on his gaze. “Just keep your freaking head down. Okay? If you don’t,” he gestures at the room, “this is going to keep happening. And you might have been lucky thus far, but you won’t keep getting lucky. You can’t win if your only plan is to get fortunate.”
“That’s what Suzanne keeps saying.”
“Yeah, well, Suzanne is mostly an idiot, but she’s right about that. Now—”
“I don’t care about what you tell me to do. I will find out why this school is so rotten. I’m gonna stop it. I’m—”
“You do that, you die, Dawn,” he says, his voice empty.
I mean really empty. It’s like the prospect of me dying actually gets to him – as if it wrenches his heart right out of his chest and locks it away in a box he’ll never be able to reach again.
“Stop threatening me—”
“It’s not a threat. It’s a fact. You’re smart, right? I’ve seen it. I know it,” he whispers. “You can see how screwed this school is. But if you’re really smart, you should understand that there’s nothing you can do about it. So keep your head down,” he repeats once more. It’s like he’s trying to drill those words into my head.
I go to open my mouth to tell him that he will not be able to control me, but I don’t have the force to scream those words out.
I don’t understand why he’s reacting like this.
This isn’t just pure arrogance. It’s….
His phone rings.
He looks at me pointedly, obviously wanting to keep me quiet. Then he answers.
His voice changes, but his body language doesn’t. It still looks as if the weight of the world has just descended on his shoulders.
I strain to pick up what’s being said on the other end of the line, but Arthur’s careful, and he keeps the phone locked against his ear. The closer I get, the more he glowers at me.
“I’ll be there,” he says in a controlled, cold voice. He ends the call. He stares at me. If gazes could kill, this one wouldn’t. But if his eyes could chain me up so I would never move again, they would.
“The faculty should be on their way. You’ll be given another room. You will stay there,” he says, his voice punching down low, “until the morning. And then?”
When I don’t answer, he takes a step forward.
It isn’t threatening so much as just desperate. Maybe he thinks his expression is angry – and maybe he believes that anger is hiding his true emotion – but I’ve seen through it all now.
I simply draw my hands up. I scratch my elbows and settle my fingers down against them.
“Dawn?” he snaps pointedly.
“In the morning, I’ll keep my head down,” I say emptily. There’s precisely no vocal force in my words, because I don’t believe them. And I’m not going to follow them.
I can tell that all he wants to do is stay there and drill this lesson into my head, but I can also tell that he doesn’t have the time. He’s clutching his phone hard. His fingers slide over the smooth metal. His knuckles are white and tense. “You have no clue—”
His phone vibrates. It’s a text message.
He glances down at it. His cheeks become even stiffer. “Just keep your frigging head down,” he says one last time.
He turns to the door.
I watch him as he goes to open it.
I point down at his soul blade. “Aren’t you going to need that?”
He chuckles. I have no clue what it means. “Shouldn’t be this easy to leave one of those behind,” he mutters to himself. He picks it up. He swings it over his shoulder. It disappears. This time I realize it’s just invisible.
I can actually see the spell winding around it. It doesn’t disappear into some kind of sheath. It’s just sitting there somehow.
He goes to open the door.
“I don’t get it. Why are you holding onto that soul blade? Can’t Genevieve help you draw one whenever you need to fight?”
He stiffens, but he doesn’t answer. He walks out and closes the door behind him.
I am left feeling cold and alone. My gaze slices over the destruction in my room, then quickly twists toward the point where the darkling disappeared.
A flood of fear chases through my gut.
I can’t stay here on my own.
More than that? I have to rush after Arthur. I have to figure out what just happened. I have to understand how someone can be such a jerk and yet so kind at the same time.
And what exactly is he planning to do with that woman in the ministry? Was he genuinely surprised when I pointed out that she was worried that someone was going to kill her?
I palm my head. I swear. Then I go to swear again, but it dies in my throat as my door opens. It’s more accurate to say it’s thrust open. And there is none other than Suzanne.
She takes one look at my room and pales until it looks as if she’s on the edge of certain death. Her lips become thin. They push hard against her teeth.
But before she can launch into whatever diatribe she’s planning, I hear other voices behind her. There are more teachers. One of them is Revas.
He takes one look at the room then chuckles and shoves his hands into his pockets. “And I remember a time when things like this weren’t meant to happen,” he mutters under his breath.
“Revas,” Suzanne snaps. “Watch your tongue.” She turns to me. “And you will come with me.”
I wince. It’s for more than one reason. I suddenly touch my throat. It’s chafed from where that chain was slung around it.
“Looks like she needs to go to the nurse’s office,” Revas jumps in before Suzanne can finish whatever diabolical plan she’s got for me.
She clenches her teeth. “I have noticed that, Revas. Now you can clean up in here.”
With that, Suzanne waves me on.
I look down at myself. I’m still in my pajamas. I scratch my neck. I—
“Simply grab a coat, Miss Cooper,” Suzanne snaps. She points over to the pile of clothes on the side of my room that weren’t destroyed when the darkling was.
I rush over and see a long jacket on top. It looks pretty weird to wear in school, but whatever. At least it will hide the fact I’m in rumpled bedwear.
I rush over, grab it up, and push into it.
I race back to her.
I take one last look at my room.
It’s not just trashed – it looks appropriately like it was the sight of an epic battle.
I don’t even have to close my eyes to remember it. It’s still in my body.
And so is every single word Arthur said.
I have never felt more attracted yet repulsed by someone in my entire life.
And this is only just the beginning.
I follow Suzanne.
I don’t know what time it is, but I’m assuming it’s late at night. That, however, doesn’t stop people from coming out of their rooms. Maybe it was the sound of the fight. I thought these rooms were magically soundproofed or something, but I guess there’s only so many massive thumps vibrating through the floor that people can put up with before they pop their heads out of the door to check the castle isn’t crumbling down around their ears.
I feel self-conscious – as always.
Though Suzanne is hardly the kind to protect me, I still shrink in behind her.
We soon hit a staircase. I’m not surprised when I realize I’ve never seen it before.
She takes me down it, and it leads directly to the nurse’s office.
For whatever reason, Bradley is waiting for me out front. Obviously news has spread. He takes one look at my neck and winces. “You got lucky there. Any lesser practitioner might have fallen unconscious at an attack like that.”
I grab my throat but only lightly settle my fingers on the skin. I certainly don’t push. I can detect a mighty bruise starting to rise up. “Lesser practitioner?”
“Enough of that,” Suzanne snaps. “When you’re done here, call me, Bradley. I will be preparing the room next to mine.”
I try hard not to make a face, but it’s almost impossible. Sorry? I’m going to be put into a room next to Suzanne? She’s gonna be able to monitor me the entire night? Yeah, maybe that’s ostensibly good for my safety, but if I’m right, and she’s the staff member who’s been letting the darklings in, then that spells certain doom for me.
I know I can’t say anything, so I just wait until she walks away.
Bradley smiles, opens the door further, and ushers me in. He points over to the medical bed. I slump onto it. My arms fall between my legs, and my head droops forward.
He simply chuckles. “You’re holding up well, considering how many fights you’ve had today.”
“Today? What, so it’s not even midnight yet?”
He pulls up his sleeve and checks his watch. “It’s 11:55.”
“Great. When is this all going to stop?”
“What? You getting attacked? That’s an easy answer.”
I drop my hand and look at him. “It is?”
“When your enemies get exactly what they want.”
It’s a pretty cold statement. I get it – Bradley doesn’t pull any punches, but he’s still meant to have a good bedside manner. I straighten slightly.
There are a lot of things that I want to discuss with Bradley. For whatever reason, he’s become my number one confidante. And okay – I don’t need to look for the reason. It’s obvious. I can’t trust Arthur. For so many reasons. As for John? I want to… but what if Arthur’s right and John has no clue what he’s doing? Worse – what if John was manipulating me when he took me down to the basement today?
Bradley, on the other hand, doesn’t seem to want a single thing from me.
I edge forward on the medical bed. I kick my legs back and forth, my pajama bottoms peeking out from underneath my long coat. “Do you know what happened?”
“I’ve heard the story.”
“The darkling came straight to my room. I—”
“It’s all right. It won’t happen again,” he says, cutting me off.
He walks over to his cupboard, specifically the one he got freaked out about this morning.
I frown at it. “What’s in there, anyway? I mean, what were you hiding from the principal?”
He doesn’t answer me. He’s working quickly. I’m not that injured, am I?
I let my fingers drag across the skin around my throat again. It’s pretty damn chafed. And that bruise is spreading. I might not know much about strangulation, but I do know that it can lead to inflammation. And that can continue to strangle you long after someone has removed their hands from your throat.
I blink and sit up straighter, a pang of alarm shifting through me. “Am I going to be okay?”
“It’ll be over soon.”
It takes me a few seconds of watching his frantic movements for me to realize that isn’t really the answer I was after.
“Is my throat inflamed or something?”
He doesn’t answer.
The door of the cupboard is open next to him. Judging by the angle I’m staring at, it means I can’t see past it.
All I can see are his shoulders as they hunch up further.
Whatever he’s working on, it seems to be taking a lot of effort. And it’s making him tense.
I slide off the bed. I don’t really know what I’m doing.
I walk behind him.
He stops. “Look, I’m sorry.”
“Sorry about what?”
“I don’t have a choice. It was me or you. I had to pick you. I’ve given way too much to the cause not to.”
I blink. I can’t follow what he’s saying. It doesn’t make any damn sense.
Then he turns around. There’s some kind of yellow loop in his hand.
I’m just not paying enough attention – neither to his expression nor to his words. So I don’t move back.
He pushes forward. He grabs my wrist. He yanks that yellow loop over it.
“Hey—” I splutter.
“It was me or you,” he says one last time.
Suddenly that yellow loop descends into my skin. It’s like a noose. Blood splatters out immediately. I scream and fall to my knees.
I call out to Bradley, but I can’t see him. Because magic is starting to circle all around me.
It’s a transport spell.
There’s nothing I can frigging do. I reach a hand out to him. He winces and turns away.
I scream one name. It’s not John and not Bradley. It’s Arthur.
But he is far, far away.
There’s no one to help me now.
In another second, I’m transported away. The thing I have feared all day finally occurs.
Transportation is one of the most unnerving experiences of my life. I’m picked up off my feet. I start to float. It’s similar to what occurred in my bedroom, but this is way worse. Feelings rush through me. They’re accessing my magic. Arthur might have told me that I can’t be transported without my permission, but I instinctively know that this spell, whatever it is, is different. There’s no way for me to bypass it. As it sinks into my body, it rakes out every single last scrap of magic. I open my mouth. I scream. But it doesn’t echo around the nurse’s office. The next thing I know, I’m not there at all. I don’t think I exist at all. It’s a heady existential point, but it’s one I can’t push past.
I cease to be. For a few seconds, at least. Soon, I slam face-first down onto a dusty stone floor.
My breath is stolen from my chest. My whole body has stiffened up as if I’ve gone into rigor mortis.
I feel magic crackling all over me. It discharges into the floor. I slowly open my eyes. I stare at my hair as the last few crackles spark along it.
I suck in a breath. It pulls rock dust into my lungs, and I splutter. But I don’t lurch up and clasp a hand over my mouth, and neither do I lock one over my stomach.
A delayed scream finally cracks from my lips. I put all my earthly effort into it.
I hear footfall behind me. Then something is slammed closed.
I shove up.
I’m in some kind of stone cell. The gate into it is locked.
I launch toward it, but as soon as I settle my fingers on it, green flames charge around the bars. They shoot into my skin and propel me back. I roll over the floor and tumble until my back strikes the wall.
Blearily, I open my eyes again. Then I crawl forward. “Where am I? What’s going on? Bradley?” I call, even though I know it’s pointless. He’s not here. He’s back in the castle. And I’m….
“What’s going on?” I scream again.
No one answers.
That just leaves me in the cell – alone, shaking, and waiting for it all to end.
Because it will.
I soon crunch down, making as small a target of myself as I can. I pull my knees up. I rest my head on them and lock my arms around my shins.
I rock back and forth. Tears rain down my cheeks.
It doesn’t change my predicament.
No matter how much I cry, no matter how much I blubber, and no matter how tightly I hold my legs, I still remain in the cell.
I wait for footfall – for anyone to come to tell me what is going to happen next. But there’s no one. Nor are there the screams of darklings.
I am simply alone.
I don’t know how long it takes me until I manage to pull my head off my knees. Hours? Days? I doubt it. It can’t be more than 10 minutes. It feels like a frigging lifetime. A lifetime where I curl in on myself and every single weakness I’ve been harboring throughout my existence climbs upon me to suffocate me one last time.
I don’t know what it is that finally allows me to pull my head off my knees. I have no clue what inner strength pushes me to my feet. And I don’t understand why I bring the base of my palm up and dry my cheeks, but I do.
It allows me to stare at the bars once more. I approach them, but I sure as hell don’t touch them. I waft a hand over them. I feel their magic.
I’ve felt it before.
“I’m in the ministry prison, aren’t I?” I whisper to myself.
Though I haven’t seen this particular cell before and the bars aren’t the same, the overall design is.
I don’t wait for anyone to confirm where I am. Whispering to myself, but ensuring there’s no volume in case there’s a surveillance spell around me, I pace around the cell. I soon have its exact dimensions, not that that’s going to help me.
I wave my hand in front of the magic a few times, but I get no closer to figuring out how to escape.
I go back to what Bradley said before he transported me. It was me or him. And he spent too many years sacrificing for the cause.
What did that mean?
What does any of this mean?
I shove a hand against my hairline. My fingers are covered in sweat. It transfers across my skin.
I soon drop my hand. On the way past, it brushes my neck.
It’s still sore as hell. In fact, as I tune in to the rest of my body, I realize I am painful all over.
I ease myself back down to the floor.
I stare at the bars again. I don’t have the magic to get through them. If this is the same prison as that woman is trapped in, then I will never have the magic to get past them. She is presumably a fully functioning Grail.
I don’t want to give up, but at the same time, my body is doing it for me. Fatigue is racing through me.
I inch my way back until I am on the far side of the cell. I push my shoulders against the wall. I close my eyes. I only intend it to be for a few seconds, but my body wants it to be for a lot longer.
I slip into sleep.
I’m not taken by a dream immediately. For about 20 minutes, my body just rests. It replenishes, getting the deep sleep it has craved over the past several days. But as soon as that short period is over, I feel a dream gathering around me. Though I’ve always been pretty lucid in my nighttime escapades, this is different. It feels like my consciousness is unbroken. I know that I’m entering a dream. Except, is it a dream? It’s like my body parts from my current body. Okay, that doesn’t make any sense. It’s like… my psyche is coming out of my head.
I can see myself exactly where I am – my crumpled body, my bruised throat, my overly large jacket. But I can also twist my head and stare wherever I want.
I look down at my hands. They’re not amorphous or anything. I can see them.
“Astral traveling,” I suddenly mutter.
I don’t know much about it. I think I read something about it in a New Age magazine at a dentist once. It’s meant to be where your psyche separates from your body at night and you can travel through the real world. Walls, doors, mountains – no matter can get in your way.
Or at least, that’s the New Age version.
This, whatever it is, is real. But whatever it is, it’s also anchored in magic. And I know for a fact that magic has its limitations.
I turn my head toward the bars again.
“Here goes nothing.” I walk toward them.
I wince, and I push right through.
There is no resistance.
When I’m on the other side, I gasp. I turn back, and I can see my body there. It’s just as limp and unresponsive as ever.
“Damn,” I mutter, amazed at what’s happening.
But then I remind myself of where I am and the kind of perilous situation I’m in.
I settle my mouth into a frown, and I continue forward.
My footfall rings out, but I know no one’s around, so I make no attempt to muffle it. I stare at my hands a lot. I also yank my sleeves down. I’m not surprised to find out that those symbols are glowing all over my arms.
Is this what I should look like normally? If I were to give in to my magic completely – would these marks permanently glow along my skin?
I reach a door. It’s closed. I walk right through.
I turn around, and I realize something’s painted on it.
It’s the number two.
I don’t have to close my eyes to remember what that woman told me the last time I was dreaming. She claimed she was in the third wing, cell eight.
Does this mean that I’m in the second wing?
I can only find out.
I have no clue what the limitations of astral traveling are, but I can bet that if my real body is woken up, then I am going to lose this ability.
I have to act while I still have the chance.
I continue to walk down the hallway.
But that’s when I hear footfall. Voices, too. They’re low, and they’re particularly dark.
I suddenly search around for a place to hide until I remind myself that there is zero point. As long as I don’t speak, they won’t be able to detect me.
I stand right there in the middle of the corridor.
Two men walk past. I can only tell that they’re men because of their builds. They are in large robes. They cover everything. Their hoods are so far down, I can only see the tips of their chins.
“The ceremony is almost ready. Let it begin. And let us rejoice in this chance – this once in a millennia chance.” The guy who says that lifts his hands up. I can see magic crackling along his fingers. I also think I can see a hint of a tattoo.
It looks like it’s some kind of shield.
I don’t move. He walks right through me.
It’s a pretty weird experience for me, and I have to clamp a hand over my mouth not to scream.
But he suddenly freezes.
His friend quickly turns his head to him. “What is it?”
The first guy turns around and stares at where I’m standing. “I believe I just detected a spectral phenomenon.”
“Perhaps. Let the soul dog out.” With that, he turns and continues down the corridor.
I have no clue what a soul dog is, but what if it can catch me while I’m astral traveling?
I don’t wait where I am anymore. I rush.
I want to get to that woman. But what am I gonna do when I reach her?
Should my priority be breaking out?
It is murder trying to figure out what to do. Because it literally will be murder if I don’t manage to get to that woman in time.
My mind is quickly made up for me when I hear a distant howl.
I don’t know why, but it’s particularly sharp to my ears.
“I need to work on getting out of my cell,” I mutter to myself, my voice barely audible.
I turn. I plan to head back to the second wing, but then I realize there’s no point. I can’t really interact with matter in this form. I won’t be able to break myself out.
So maybe there’s some kind of central control room or something?
I stare around desperately. What if the dog is coming from the direction of the control room? And what… what if all I have to do is follow it back to the source?
“Come on, come on,” I hiss to myself.
The dog howls again. It’s just as I reach a T-intersection. The corridors down here are stone, and they’re cold as hell. Everything is roughly carved. Though there are the occasional doors, they look like they’ve been pulled from some kind of rusted ship.
You would think that everything would be easy to break – were it not completely covered in magic.
As I twist my head toward where I can hear that howl, I pass a door. It’s crackling with green force.
I pause and stare at it.
Something ignites in my gut. Long before I can head toward the howls again, I shove through that door.
I tell myself I’m never gonna get this opportunity again. I can explore things now that I won’t be able to explore when I have a real body.
As soon as I shove through the door, I see some kind of archive room. There are old wooden shelves, and they’re stacked with boxes.
I frown at them.
I hear that howl again. I’m running out of time.
I rush toward a desk in the middle.
I see an old book.
It’s not open. It’s huge, and on the front cover is the same symbol I saw tattooed on that guy’s arm. It’s a reverse shield. There’s a sword impaling its base.
“What the hell?”
I can let my fingers slide down the book, but I can’t interact with it.
Yet I have to. Something tells me this book is important.
Plus, if I don’t learn how to interact with things, I won’t be able to turn off the magic keeping me in that cell.
“Come on,” I say through clenched teeth. I try as hard as I possibly can to grab the cover. It is murder. And all the while, that dog gets closer.
“Come on,” I scream.
Nothing changes until I remember my dreams. It’s pretty crazy to remember a dream while in a dream, but I have to focus.
And I do. I go back to Arthur. I go back to that castle. I may be terrified on every level of that soul-tingling scream, but I still head toward the castle doorway. I even take a step through it.
It’s only when my mind expands and my imagination tries to assert itself in my dream that I feel my fingers actually interacting with the book. With a grunt, I manage to open it.
And there on the first page, I read a small section of cursive writing.
“When the last Grail is torn down, the throne itself will crumble. The sword will rise once more. And he who grasps it will rule all,” I mutter that out loud.
The words have an effect on me. Immediately my back straightens. It feels like someone has just reached in and grabbed my heart. They’re squeezing it – and they won’t let it beat ever again.
I lock a hand on my chest.
I hear the dog.
It’s right behind the door.
I jerk my head around.
I try not to make a sound, but I’m still interacting with the book. As I jolt against it, it shifts.
The dog suddenly howls. Then I see the most frightening sight of my life. The dog pushes right through the door.
I see its face. It looks like some kind of Doberman. A Doberman that has been completely covered in black-gray magic.
It has these glittering yellow eyes. They lock on me. It continues to push through the door.
“Oh my God,” I stutter.
I remain frozen where I am until I remind myself that I have to move. This is going to be my last chance.
I can still interact with the book. It may not be much of a weapon, but it’s the only thing I can reach for right now. I grab it up with a grunt, and I throw it right at the dog.
I’m surprised when the dog actually goes out of its way to dodge. I’m not sure if that’s because it knows that the book is important, or because it’s actually scared of getting hit. The point is, it gives me time.
And I use every second.
I thrust right through the door. I head back into the corridor. It’s just as I hear the dog shifting around on its claws.
I run forward.
I don’t care about making a sound. All I care about is getting away.
Rather than run in a straight line down the corridor, I weave through walls. It’s crazy. I walk into other people’s cells and see prisoners lying down in robes on their sides. Some of them are so still, I wonder if they’re dead. Then I run into storerooms. There are boxes full of what looks like weapons, but I have no clue.
I even come across an enormous dark room. The cells in this place are different. The bars are crackling with yellow magic. There’s no light other than the magic, but I think I can see things in the cells. Monsters, to be exact.
I do not hang around. I continue to run away.
The dog is right behind me.
This plan is not going to work, I tell myself.
The dog suddenly leaps.
I have a single second to act.
I fall onto my back, roll, and push to my feet. The dog leaps past me, but it’s close now. It reaches in to bite my arm.
I know that if you face a real violent dog, sometimes it’s best to sacrifice your arm rather than any other body part. It’s certainly better than your neck.
My arms at least are still glowing.
I have no choice, so I shove forward. The dog latches its teeth around my forearm.
I go to scream – but there’s no pain. As soon as the dog’s fangs penetrate my flesh – or at least try to – its eyes blast wide. It’s forced back.
It whimpers. It paws the side of its face as if it’s just swallowed acid.
I do not wait around. Nor do I run. I shove toward the dog.
I have no beef with this pooch. That being said, I don’t think it’s an ordinary lapdog.
My point is, it’s not my goal. But I know full well that I have to get rid of it if I’m going to have a chance of getting out of here.
The dog jerks back.
I don’t know what I’m doing, but I skid behind it. I lock an arm around its throat.
It thrashes against me. Its wild yellow eyes stare into mine.
I let magic pulse down my body. This is the first time I’ve really tried to practice in my astral form.
It’s hard – and different from how I practice when I’m awake. But it’s not so hard that I can’t send a powerful charge of magic jolting into the beast.
It yelps once, and its head slackens and falls against me.
It isn’t dead. But it’s going to be out for a while.
I stagger to my feet. I stare down at them, then look at my hands.
Back at the school, I kept waiting for other people to save me.
I bought into the myth that I needed them.
I’m not about to foolishly think that I can do everything on my own, but I just proved to myself that I have the strength to come to my own defense.
I stare at my hands for a few more seconds. Then I turn. The fight has taken me down a long corridor. Right at the end is a door, and it’s different from every other door I’ve faced. It’s a lot bigger, for one. It’s the only modern door I’ve come across. Something tells me that what I am after is within.
It’s time to break out.
I don’t waste any more time. I rush toward that door.
I am keenly aware of the fact that if I am woken up in my cell, I’m gonna lose this opportunity.
I reach the door. I push right through.
There are people inside. They’re wearing long black robes. These ones are slightly different. They’ve got a symbol emblazoned on the back. I wouldn’t say that it’s embroidered. Because it looks as if somebody has somehow made it out of permanent swirling flames.
I’m not good with Latin or anything, and I don’t understand what it says, but I get the impression that it’s the emblem of the ministry.
There are two men and one woman in the room. They are dealing with security cameras. It’s pretty weird to see them all fitted out in their magical robes while dealing with modern technology.
If they’re looking at security cameras, they must’ve seen my fight, but they’re not freaking out and activating alarms or anything.
That’s when I get a little closer to the security footage.
It’s not showing the corridors. It reveals a large black room.
The walls are made of some kind of obsidian. They shine under candlelight.
People are assembling. And in the middle, there’s a prone form.
I immediately recognize the robes. And more than that? The pendant.
It’s the Grail. I can’t see her face, but that doesn’t matter.
I gasp and take a step forward.
The security guard closest to me turns around suddenly. Her eyes open wide. “You guys hear that?”
The other two guards are obviously too involved in staring at the footage to notice. “Hear what?”
“I thought I detected a spectral phenomenon. What’s over there?” She points at me.
I quickly and silently walk away.
One guy frowns, gets to his feet, and swipes his hand where I was standing. There’s a very specific charge of magic in his fingers. I get the impression that if I were to encounter that spell, it would reveal me somehow.
I edge further toward the door. But I’m not about to leave empty-handed.
I stare at the computers the security guards are working on. One of them has to open the cells.
The guy grunts. “There’s nothing there. You’re too jumpy.”
“But Harlequin released the soul dog. He must’ve done that for a reason.”
“Yeah. There’s probably some low-grade ghost around here. Who cares? The soul dog will rip it to shreds in a few seconds then head back to its cage. No problem.” With that, the security guard walks over to his chair and falls into it.
I remain exactly where I am. I turn around.
And that’s when I see that on the wall behind me is a series of switches. Underneath them are labels noting different cell rooms.
It doesn’t take me long until I navigate to the correct one.
I find the second wing.
All the switches are in the down position except for one.
That would be my cell.
I place a hand on the switch.
Is it going to be audible when this switch goes down? Or will they not notice? Hell, is it gonna trip some kind of alarm?
I know I’m running out of time. I turn over my shoulder. I see that footage again.
That woman isn’t moving.
The ritual will soon begin.
“How long until it starts?” one guy asks.
“As soon as the hundred are ready. It shouldn’t take long until she’s dead and her power is released.”
I squeeze my eyes closed. I remember her desperation. I am not going to let her go down.
I tighten my fingers around the switch. Without a grunt, and with every last scrap of energy I frigging have, I flick it.
Nobody turns around. There’s no alarm. There’s nothing. I open my eyes wider, just waiting for that to change, but it doesn’t.
I head back toward the door.
I stare up at the ritual room. I go to leave. I don’t. I need to figure out where that ritual room is.
I get a little closer, and I realize that the name of the room is written right underneath the footage.
Fourth wing, space one.
I repeat that in my head, and I turn.
I don’t have time to run back to my body, so I just close my eyes.
I’ve always had the ability to wake myself up when I have to. I concentrate.
It doesn’t take much longer. Soon I find myself returning to my body as I wake.
It is a frigging chaotic, confusing experience. For a few seconds, I can’t do anything but blearily lie there and blink. Then I remind myself of what’s going on.
That woman is in danger, and I’m her last hope.
It’s now or never.
I shove up.
I stare over at the bars. They aren’t green anymore. I’ve done it.
But I won’t have much more time.
I push forward. I open the cell gate. It creaks, but it does not resist me.
“It actually worked,” I mutter under my breath. I face the corridor.
I shove forward.
I ignore my bruised throat. I ignore any sign of weakness.
This is it.
If I close my eyes, all I can do is hear that woman screaming – begging me to save her. Because if she falls, there’ll only be three pillars left.
I go back to what I read in that book.
Once the throne falls, the sword will be revealed. And he who grabs the sword will rule all.
A cold chill tumbles down my stomach. It sinks further and harder into my gut until I feel like it’s going to completely undermine me.
I run faster.
I soon reach that door that leads out of the second wing. I try it experimentally. It opens easily.
I push through.
I’m a lot quieter. I also keep an ear out.
When I don’t hear voices, I push down the corridor.
When I was running earlier, I saw a set of stairs. I head toward it.
It leads up. I soon find another staircase.
“This is it,” I mutter under my breath. “I’m coming for you, whoever you are. There’ll be no more blood on the magic community’s hands.” That growl cracks out of my lips.
I shove forward.
I cannot run up this set of stairs and burst out into the corridor above. There are too many people around. As soon as I get to the top step, I have to shrug back down. I have to remind myself that I’m not astral traveling anymore.
There are voices, and though I can’t pick up what’s being said, I can feel the undercurrent of excitement.
It’s almost like they’re about to go to a football match. There is no acknowledgment that a woman is about to be killed.
I become colder than I ever have before. So cold that I think I start to lose all my faith in humanity.
When the voices stop and people move away, I push up the last step.
I’m shaking now.
I have to be ready to do anything, I tell myself. Anything at all.
But first, I have to get into the ritual room.
I figure the only way I’m going to do that is if I steal a robe.
I slink down the corridor.
I see somebody walking into a room just ahead of me. Their hood’s pulled down over their face, and they don’t glance my way.
I creep over to the room.
I settle a breath in my chest.
I can do this. I have to. I’ll knock them out just as I knocked out that dog. Then….
I can’t think too far ahead. Because if I were to think too far ahead, I would point out to myself that I am just one Grail. I’m about to go up against one hundred practitioners.
There’s no chance this is going to work.
I can’t listen to reason right now.
I push into the room.
There’s a guy in a robe. He has his back to me.
It’s now or never.
I shove forward. I let magic push out, but it’s nowhere near as much as I had access to when I was astral traveling.
I’ve forgotten that fact. The skills I have while I’m dreaming are not the skills I currently have while I’m awake.
My eyes have a chance to widen, but it’s too late to back out of the move. I grab the guy roughly around his throat. I go to wrench him to the side, but with a grunt, he locks his hand on my arm.
He twists me around. He throws me over his shoulder, and I fall onto a coffee table. It cracks underneath me.
This is where the old Dawn would have just remained there. She would’ve been winded, and she would’ve been down for good. But screw that. I kick my legs over my head. I land and shove forward.
I ignore my pain. Hell, I ignore everything.
Or at least, I want to.
But I can’t ignore a single word that cracks out of the guy’s lips. “Dawn?”
I freeze. My fist is up, and it’s covered in magic.
But it has nowhere to go – because that’s Arthur.
With a trembling hand, he pulls his hood down. His face is completely cracked with emotion. It almost looks like it’s grief. “I told you not to…. How did you even…?” He can’t get his words out.
My fist is still there, frozen. I might not be nearly as impressive as I am when I’m astral traveling, but I still have a little magic. It’s the equivalent of a gun. And just like a gun, I don’t pull it down. It’s still cocked.
Because Arthur is in one of those dark robes. Which means he was about to join the ritual.
“How the hell did you get here, Dawn?” he hisses. He jerks toward me. Fear fills his gaze as he faces the door.
He goes to grab my arm, but I take a step back from him. My brow descends in anger and fear. “Why are you dressed that way, Arthur? I know what’s going on here. You’re all about to kill that Grail. You—”
He rushes over to me.
I do not drop my fist.
“How the hell did you get here?”
I want to ignore the fear – even the compassion – in his voice. But I can’t. Panic is spreading across his face like wildfire.
“The nurse. Bradley Stanza. He locked something around my wrist. The next thing I knew, I was in some kind of prison cell. I… astral traveled and managed to get out. But you need to answer my question. You’re dressed up—”
“Stanza?” His face twitches. “Bastard. I should’ve kept my eye on him. Idiot.” He actually slaps his cheek. Then he looks at me. “You need to get out of here. Now.”
“Don’t tell me what I have to do. You’re dressed—”
“Yeah, I’m dressed like one of them. Because I guess I am one of them. But I have no intention of killing Wilhelmina.”
“The woman you’re trying so desperately – and foolishly – to protect. What was your plan? To take my robe? No one would’ve fallen for it. What were you going to do? Take on 100 practitioners? You might be strong, but you’re nowhere near that strong.”
I hate the fact that he’s laying my stupid plan out at his feet and trampling all over it.
I still keep my hand lifted, but my arm is starting to shake.
“You have to come with me. This changes everything. We need to get out of here.” He goes to grab me.
“I don’t want to say this, and I don’t want to make a call about whose life is more important, but you are more important. At least to me,” he mutters.
It’s quiet, and I know I shouldn’t hear it, but I do.
I drop my hand.
He scoops in close and grabs it up.
He pulls me toward the door. He shoves his ear against it.
“I still don’t believe you, Arthur,” I say, but my voice is weak.
“I don’t really care what you believe as long as you get away from here now. I will deal with that nurse when I get back to the school,” he says, a real growl parting his lips.
He goes to open the door, but I suddenly wince away from him. It isn’t because I’ve had a change of heart.
My wrist is playing up again.
“Dawn.” He turns around and places his hands on my shoulders. He stares right into my eyes. He obviously thinks that he has to hammer home his message. “You don’t understand who you are. And I would’ve preferred that you never found out. But—”
I wince again. This time it must be obvious that my wrist is bothering me because I hold it as if it’s broken.
His gaze jerks down to it again. “The transport arc is still on you. Shit.”
I’ve never heard him swear before – not like this.
He jerks forward. He grabs up my wrist. Pain’s shooting up my arm.
I’m about to transport again, aren’t I? This time is different, though.
“Damn it all to hell,” he snarls.
“I can’t stop it. I can feel it accessing my magic. I can’t—”
“Just hold on.” He collapses his arms around me.
He actually… Arthur Pendragon draws me into an embrace.
But he’s not hugging me. He gets as close as he can to me just as the transport magic picks up. I’m lifted off my feet, and he is too.
He loops his arms hard around my back. He buries his head against my shoulder. “Just hold on.”
Hold on? I’ve never really had anything solid to hold on to before.
Now I do.
But even Arthur can’t help me anymore.
We’re transported away.
I expect that I’ll arrive back in that prison.
I arrive instead in a dark room. It’s similar to one of the ones I saw when I was running crazily through the prison.
Arthur immediately jerks away.
His eyes open wide as he stares around him. “God. Dawn. You have to—”
I hear a chain being dragged over the floor. I jerk my head toward it.
My eyes are starting to adjust. It means it takes barely any time at all for me to detect that darkling. “It looks… it looks like the same one we fought—”
“It is. We keep banishing it, but it keeps coming back here. Crap, I didn’t even realize it was being controlled by the ministry. I should’ve figured it was one of Harlequin’s.”
“What?” I still don’t understand enough about banishing. How can we have defeated this thing three times already only for it to keep coming back? The last time we defeated it, it certainly looked as if it was down for good.
But I’m not making this up – it’s the same freaking darkling.
Arthur backs into me. He reaches behind him and pulls his sword out.
It glimmers. It’s the only light in the entire room.
“You just have to do exactly as I say,” Arthur says.
He always says that when we begin a fight. But this time, he doesn’t get to repeat that mantra.
The darkling does not hang around. With a scream, it launches forward. It slashes the chain toward Arthur.
He slashes his own sword to the side.
But the darkling is quicker. And somehow, it is much, much more powerful. It wrenches the blade right out of Arthur’s hands.
“What?” Arthur stammers.
I have a chance to see his face open wide with fear.
Then the creature roars.
The chain suddenly and abruptly changes direction. By the time it smashes into Arthur’s side, it’s crackling with violent yellow force.
“Arthur,” I scream.
It’s too late. He’s dumped down on the floor right in front of my feet. Then his head rolls to the side.
He isn’t dead – I can still see his chest moving rhythmically up and down. But he’s down and out.
“Arthur. Arthur,” I scream.
It doesn’t change anything. I paw at his suddenly pale face. That just wastes time.
Time I very much do not have.
The darkling takes another step toward me. It drags its chain behind it.
It opens its mouth. It screams.
I hear something in that scream – something that’s perilously close to the cry I hear in that castle in my mind.
I jerk to my feet.
If I just stay by Arthur’s side, then I’m leaving us both open to an attack.
If this darkling had attacked me when I’d first gotten to the school, that’s what I would’ve done. Not much time has passed, but for me, an eternity has.
I bring my hands up.
I might not have full control of my magic. That doesn’t matter. Whatever magic I can scrounge, I will use. And whatever confidence I can find, I will use, too. My hope, my destiny, my powers as a Grail – I will call on absolutely everything I freaking can.
Because if I don’t, we’re both dead.
The darkling stops for a single second. Then it forces itself forward in a flurry.
I dodge backward.
I’m light on my feet.
I need to push away from Arthur. I know how these darklings think. Arthur’s not going to be this creature’s target now. I am. The further I can get away from Arthur, the less likely he is to be swept up in an attack.
I actually flip. I don’t know where the move comes from. I was always horrible at gymnastics. But it’s a good somersault. It’s solid, and as I land up on my feet, a blast of magic ensures that my balance is perfect.
The darkling simply swipes the chain to the side again. I can see it going for my middle.
I flip right over the top of it.
I don’t know how I’m being so agile, considering my injuries. No – I do. The prospect that Arthur could be hurt has changed everything.
The darkling screams again. It goes to attack. I just roll to the side.
I get the impression I could do this all day. But I won’t get that chance.
The darkling charges the whip. It starts to spin.
The whip now looks like a rotor from a helicopter. If it so much as touches me, I know it’s going to cut me in half.
The darkling screams once more. Then a charge of magic shoots toward me.
I don’t have the chance to dodge this time. I have to form a shield. I thrust my arm forward, and I push all of my strength into the move. I believe in my magic until it rushes around me. It’s nowhere near as strong as Arthur’s soul blade, but that doesn’t matter. I take the attack. I’m driven down to my knees, but at least I’m not decapitated.
I scream, and spittle flies out of my lips.
The darkling whips me once more. I have to bring up my other hand. I form a shield as best as I can, but I’m driven further down onto my knees.
… Maybe I don’t have the power to fight this creature after all? Maybe hope is never enough? Maybe no matter how hard you scrounge, you can never fight a destiny as cruel as this?
The darkling looms above me. It slices the whip down once more.
I tell myself this is going to be it. I’m gonna break. I was always going to break. Brave words can only ever get you so far. You cannot face the certainty of death with a snide remark.
But just at the last moment, as the chain slices toward me, I close my eyes.
I go back to that castle.
I don’t know what it means. Nor do I understand why I’m attracted to it yet fearful of it.
I can hear the soul-crushing scream within. It sounds like a force like no other – a destructive power that must be kept trapped for the good of all.
Yet it is that destructive power that I need now more than anything.
In my mind’s eye, I face the castle.
I’ve taken a step inside it before. But I’ve never rushed in and closed the door.
Now I have no choice but to.
Just as the chain whips down and strikes my arm, and just as it breaks through my magic, I do that. I force myself into the castle in my mind, and I close the door.
Time… it fractures. But only for a second. I’m fully aware of the fact that the darkling is still going through with its attack. I’m fully aware of the fact that my body is starting to give up from underneath me. I will be thrown to the side. Then the chain will whip right through my flesh and bones.
But that does not occur. For, at the last moment, when all hope is lost, magic takes its place.
I feel this force rushing forth from within me. It’s unstoppable. It’s coming from somewhere I had no clue existed. It’s deep, deep within me. And it is a strength unmatched.
The darkling screams.
The chain smashes into my arm. But this time? I catch it.
That is not all I do. Somehow, I place a hand on my chest, my body knowing exactly what my mind does not. And I pull something right out of my sternum.
There’s the sound of a sword being pulled from a stone. I feel something shuddering within me – a deep energy, an unfathomable force.
A blazing blade is in my grip. It’s unlike any other soul weapon I have ever seen. It is much, much brighter.
Symbols blaze over the tip. Light dances around it. It sings like a million swords slicing through the air.
The darkling hisses and jerks back, but it’s too late – for its chain, at least.
Knowing exactly what to do, I slice the blade down. I don’t have to funnel magic into it – because the sword is fundamentally my magic in the first place. It smashes right through the blade. It’s atomized.
No – it’s destroyed.
I now see the distinction between banishing one of these creatures and actually dispatching them.
The chain is lifted up, and every link is broken. But more than that, the links between the magic itself are shattered.
I hear this earsplitting crack.
The darkling screams.
It jerks away from me, but it’s too late.
I twist the sword around. I slice out. My hair fans around my face, my jacket lifting up and flaring around my hips. I close my eyes. I see myself inside that castle – trapped within my magic.
There are worse places to be.
Just as my magic smashes into the darkling, I open my eyes, and it’s to the sight of it being destroyed, once and for all.
It will never come back to this realm.
Its magic is shredded. And then the magic itself is burnt up. There’s an enormous blast of light. I just stare at it – I don’t even bother to glance away.
It pushes to the four corners of this dark room.
Then there’s a blast of wind. It almost picks me up, but I manage to stick my feet down into the ground.
Then the wind subsides, the glow diminishes, and I’m left there.
I’m not even panting. I just stare down at the blade.
This is my soul blade, isn’t it?
This is a manifestation of my magic. And it’s a power like nothing else.
I hear Arthur stirring.
I don’t know what to do with my blade, but clearly it knows what to do with itself. My eyes close of their own accord. I’m back in that castle. I open the door, and I walk right out. I close it.
In the real world, I open my eyes, and the blade disappears from my fingers.
It happens before Arthur manages to open his eyes.
He blearily looks at me, and he slides his gaze around the room. His memories clearly return, and he bolts up. “Where the hell is it?”
I don’t even know what to say to him.
“It….” Do I tell him that I managed to dispatch it? Will he even believe me?
“I dealt with it.”
“What do you mean you dealt with it?”
I stare at my hands. “I defeated it.”
I glance at his sword. I don’t say anything. But he makes an assumption – one I do not bother to correct.
He blanches. He reaches over and grabs his sword up. “You managed to defeat it with this?”
He turns around. It’s obvious that the darkling is gone. So he reaches in and grabs my hand.
“We need to get out of here,” he stammers.
He looks at me, sadness filling his expression. “She’s likely already dead.”
I stand there, as stiff as a steel pole. “What?”
He draws up his wrist. The move is dejected. “It’s already one AM. She… she’d be dead by now. I’m sorry.”
I won’t let him pull me away. I shake my head. “No. She asked me to save her. She—”
He turns and looks at me. I swear I see right into his soul. “You can’t save everyone in this world. That’s the first lesson you’re going to learn.”
“And what’s the second lesson, Arthur?” I whisper, tears raining down my cheeks.
“That all power comes at a cost.”
With that, Arthur pulls me away.
I failed to save Wilhelmina. I might’ve defeated that darkling, but it doesn’t matter.
The magical world is still slipping down into hell.
I don’t know who I can trust. And I have no clue what will happen next.
But Arthur Pendragon still tightens his fingers around mine and pulls me away.
The end of Grail’s Dawn Book One.