Read an Excerpt
Guinevere, High Queen, sat like a statue on the bare back of one of the famous white horses that had been her dowry on the day she had wed Arthur. Only the knights of the Table had ever been permitted to ride them, for they were bred to carry kings.
But there were no more than a handful of Arthur’s knights left now.
When Arthur fell at Camlann—and it seemed to all as if the day were lost—it had been Guinevere who had taken command of his army—and they had been eager to have someone, anyone, lead them. That, Mordred had not expected—that she, of all people, would appear on the battlefield in borrowed armor at the head of a vast army. From the moment Arthur had sent her into exile, she had been preparing for this day. But she had come too late to save her husband and lord. Camelot had fallen.
She had given her dying husband into the care of the Lady of the Lake. She had taken his sword from his death-cold fingers.
And she had followed the fleeing Mordred and his army with all her host.
Mordred had broken Arthur’s army at Camlann, and the years of fighting that had preceded it had stripped Britain of knights and fighting men. But Guinevere’s army did not ride clad in mail and wearing steel. It was made up of Druids and monks, nuns and sorceresses—the Old Ways and the New Faith coming together to oppose an enemy who would destroy all that was. And beside Guinevere rode The Merlin.
Nimue had been the first of Mordred’s allies to desert him, and with the breaking of the spell she had put upon him, The Merlin was freed. When he had learned of Arthur’s death, his wrath had been terrible to see.
Across all of Britain the two armies rode, one pursuing, one fleeing. And slowly, one by one, Mordred’s allies and vassals deserted him. Arthur had died in the springtide. It was autumn when Mordred was brought to bay.
This was the end.
The trees were leafless, now, and the wind was cold. Behind Guinevere stood her husband’s army and her own, each man and woman waiting with a deadly implacable patience to witness the end of the man who had destroyed everything they had worked so long to build. Before her stood the ancient oak tree that Mordred had once meant to be The Merlin’s eternal tomb.
She would gladly have slain the black snake who destroyed her happiness and her husband’s kingdom, but Mordred was so imbued with the powers of Death Itself he could not die. No earthly weapon could slay him—but he could be bound, as he had intended The Merlin to be bound. And since his own magics had prepared the ancient oak, it was all the more fitting that the tree be the vessel to hold him.…
Guinevere heard muffled shouting and the clink of chains. She looked to her right. Here came the Bishop of England in his red and white robes, carrying a golden cross atop a long pole. Beside him walked the Archdruid of Eire, barefoot, with spirals of woad covering every inch of his skin, his only garment a tabard of white bull’s-hide. Behind them walked the White Horse Woman—whom Guinevere’s ancestors had worshipped—the Lady of Apples, priests and holy people of every faith Britain held.
Before them walked The Merlin.
And behind them came Mordred, dragged by the last of Arthur’s knights. His hands were bound with iron and silk and ivy, his mouth had been sewn shut, his body was weighted down with a hundredweight of silver chains, each link carved with runes of blessing and protection. But his eyes were unblinded, and they flashed with fury.
The Merlin began to chant.
The knights pushed Mordred toward the oak—not with their hands, but with stangs made of sacred oak.
And when his body touched it, Mordred began to sink into the tree as if its wood were softened wax. He struggled, eyes wild with anger and power. Still, the knights thrust him backward, and still The Merlin chanted. In a moment more it would be done.
Then to her horror, Guinevere saw that Mordred had torn loose the sinews that had sewn his mouth shut. He roared out a single terrible word. The knights pushing him forward fell to their knees, their screams drowned in those of the holy ones who had come to see justice done.
But The Merlin had not fallen—and he shouted three syllables she did not understand, and did not want to. There was a flash and a roar. Brightness. Darkness. Guinevere cried out, fighting to control her panicked mount.
When she could see again, the oak’s bark was seamless. The Merlin still stood before the oak, but his face was gray with terrible pain and weakness now, and he leaned heavily upon his staff for support. There was no sign of Mordred.
The Merlin staggered forward, summoning his failing strength. As he pointed at the oak, words of fire wrote themselves into the wood.
Oh Thou who wouldst meddle in the affairs of Light and Darkness, Touch Not the Sacred Oak sealed by Merlin’s Own Hand, for herein lies imprisoned the traitorous son of the Great Bear: Medraut Kinslayer the Accursed. Flee, lest his undying evil take you for its own!
The Merlin turned at last, to look at Guinevere. “It is finished,” he said, in a voice flat with exhaustion.
* * *
Spirit shivered in the chill of the Girls’ Locker Room, but as cold as it was, she still wasn’t in any hurry to get changed for class. I never thought I’d miss Mr. Gail and Mr. Wallis, she thought ruefully. But at least I guess I understood them. They might have been horrible, but they weren’t killers.
This wasn’t the way it was supposed to go.
She’d thought—oh she’d been so naïve!—that once the kids had routed the Shadow Knights at the Sadie Hawkins Day Dance, the trouble would be over. Whatever the Shadow Knights had wanted to do on February 2nd, they’d failed. Nobody had died. People had gotten hurt, but nobody had died. They’d proved they could win.
It hadn’t changed anything. And what was even scarier was, it was becoming more and more obvious that the Bad Guys weren’t the secret society within Oakhurst called the Gatekeepers. They weren’t a bunch of faceless Shadow Knights. They were the Oakhurst faculty.
At least the ones who were left. People kept vanishing here, and if you were smart you pretended you didn’t notice.
I’d better get moving, she thought, closing her locker reluctantly. At least she wasn’t the only one here trying to delay the inevitable. She turned to head for the gym.
“Hey, Spirit, ’scuze me—” Trinity Brown started to walk past her, then paused. “You know, when you got here you were, like, a waif. You do realize you’ve gotten all ripped, don’t you?” Trinity chuckled. “Wish I was. Guess I was born to be a string.” She held up her hand in a half wave and walked on.
Spirit blinked in surprise, staring after Trinity. She hadn’t even realized Trinity—who was not a string, merely supermodel-lean—knew her name. It was kind of ironic … now that Oakhurst really was out to kill them, the kids were a lot kinder to each other than they had been when she had arrived in September. One of the first things she’d learned about Oakhurst was that friendships weren’t encouraged.
But I have friends. Good friends. I don’t know what would have happened to me without Loch and Burke and Addie …
She just hoped Muirin was still her friend.
I’d better get going. She looked down at herself. Trinity was right: she was ripped. If I live to graduate, the only job I’d qualify for is superhero, she thought bitterly. Or maybe government assassin. I sure don’t know how to do anything else.
* * *
The class was Systema. It was a kind of Russian martial art that focused on controlling the joints of one’s opponent. What it meant in practice was that they were all supposed to try to kill each other. When Anastus Ovcharenko started teaching the course, they’d worked out on mats. Now they worked out on the bare wood floor. Spirit and Trinity stood at the back of the group of students (not that something like that would save you). Muirin should have been here, too, but these days Muirin didn’t spend a lot of time in her classes—and she saw plenty of Ovcharenko out of them.
He was already there, of course, smiling cheerfully as he waited for the last of them to arrive. Ovcharenko was always cheerful—especially when he was about to hurt somebody. He always picked someone to spar with while the rest of them paired off against each other. He said it was to demonstrate the proper techniques. Spirit was pretty sure it was more about punishment. Dylan Williams (the official ringleader of the rebellion back in February) had been his favorite chew-toy for weeks, but he’d managed to put Dylan in the infirmary yesterday, and Dylan wasn’t here.
I don’t care who he picks today as long as it isn’t me, Spirit thought fervently.
“Now,” Ovcharenko said, clapping his hands together and smiling. “Who wants to dance with Anastus today? Ah! I know! You! Come here—we will have fun together, eh?”
He smiled and nodded encouragingly. Everyone shifted uneasily, until they were all spread out in a ragged line. For one horrified moment Spirit thought Ovcharenko had chosen her after all.
But he was pointing at Trinity.
“You! Little girl! It is Trinity Brown, yes? You will come and dance with Anastus, yes? Come, come. I promise you I will be gentle.”
“No,” Trinity said. She looked terrified—but utterly determined. Spirit glanced at her in shock. “I won’t let you hurt me.”
Ovcharenko smiled and began to walk toward Trinity. “Ah, but pain makes us strong, dorogoi, and we must all do many things we—”
Before Ovcharenko reached her, Trinity turned and ran. For an instant the sound of her bare feet against the wood floor was the loudest sound in the gym.
Then Ovcharenko began to laugh.
* * *
At least Ovcharenko was so amused by Trinity bailing that he hadn’t picked out a new sparring partner, but the session had still been rough. Even my bruises have bruises, Spirit thought tiredly.
Burke was leaning against the wall as she walked out of the gym. Spirit looked around quickly, but there wasn’t anybody in sight. Not that she expected there to be: Burke Hallows was a Combat Mage, and Combat Mages noticed everything.
“What are you doing here?” she asked. The five of them spent as little time together in public as possible. If Oakhurst had been a place where real friendship was discouraged in favor of competition before, well, now it was actually dangerous to show that you liked someone.
“The last class of the day is magic practice,” Burke said, as if Spirit needed reminding.
“And I’m still the only student at Hogwarts West without any.”
“You’re lucky,” Burke said gloomily. Then he smiled. “But the real reason I’m here is to grab a minute with my girl.”
He reached out a hand, and Spirit moved gratefully into his arms. The only bright spot in the last two months was Burke. They’d started out playing boy-and-girlfriend as a ruse to keep Breakthrough’s suspicion away. But Burke hadn’t been playing, and neither had she.
Burke hugged her. “Ow,” Spirit said ruefully, and Burke chuckled.
“Sorry,” he said. He started to let go, but Spirit held on.
“Don’t,” she said. “It’s going to hurt anyway. And I—”
“Shhh,” Burke said, kissing the top of her head. “I know.”
Spirit closed her eyes tightly, fighting to keep from ruining this brief moment of happiness with tears. Nobody dared go easy on anybody in Systema—not with Ovcharenko watching all of them. It was fight or …
Well, she wasn’t completely sure of what “or” involved, except that she probably wouldn’t like it much.
But if not for the fact Oakhurst was trying to kill her the way it had killed her family, this would have been the most wonderful time of her life. Burke was nothing like the kind of boyfriend she’d imagined for herself when she’d dreamed about someday dating and falling in love. But she did love him. And she knew he loved her.
And just think, I wouldn’t have met him if I hadn’t come to Thunderdome Academy.
“Do you think we can all get together after dinner?” she asked, deliberately keeping her voice low.
“Loch’s making arrangements,” Burke said against her hair. “I don’t know the details. He hasn’t been able to talk to Muirin, though.”
“Funny thing,” Spirit said snarkily, and Burke snorted.
Despite her mocking words, Spirit was honestly worried about Muirin. For as long as Spirit had known her, Muirin had chafed at the restrictions of life at Oakhurst—the dress code, the dreary school uniforms, the complete lack of social life. Breakthrough’s arrival had changed all that. Madison Lane-Rider had started courting Muirin early, and Muirin had been more than willing to play along. As far as anyone with Breakthrough knew, Muirin Shae was drooling with the desire to become a Shadow Knight and join the international party crowd.
It was a good act.
At least Spirit hoped it was an act. So far Muirin seemed to love the glamour and excitement of playing double agent: the things she’d told Spirit and the others about Breakthrough’s inner workings had saved them more than once. But eventually Muirin was going to have to pick one side or the other … and Spirit wasn’t quite sure which one it would be.
Breakthrough’s offering her money, freedom, glamour—and what can we offer her? The chance to get fed to demons. Not much of a choice.
“We have to get out of here,” she said desperately. Before Breakthrough makes us just disappear. Or worse.
“I know,” Burke said. “I wish I could say—” Suddenly he pushed her away. She opened her mouth to protest, but then she saw movement at the end of the hall. Someone was coming.
They didn’t dare be seen together. If anyone knew about them, Oakhurst would manage to make both of them wish they’d never met.
She turned away, shrugging her bag full of sweaty gym clothes higher on her shoulder. She forced herself not to look back, not to wave, not to smile, as Burke walked away.
At least she could be pretty sure he’d still be here at dinner.
* * *
A few minutes later, Spirit opened the door to her room. She was lucky—having a free hour after Systema meant she didn’t have to shower in the gym like everyone else—but right now the bathroom seemed too far away. She flopped down on the couch, wincing again at the pain of strained and bruised muscles.
I remember when I thought we could win, she thought tiredly. I remember when I thought being here was just an accident—a horrible accident, but an accident.
When Oakhurst had sent for her, they’d told her that her parents had arranged for Oakhurst to take care of her. Only it was just another lie. Her family—just like the families of every other kid here—had been murdered by the Shadow Knights. The bad guys found out you had magic, your family died, you ended up at Oakhurst.
We have to get out of here. They’d all agreed about that after the February dance, but it wasn’t as easy as that. They had no money and no families, and they were in the middle of Montana. And Oakhurst wouldn’t just let them walk away. Until they had a good plan, they had to hide right here, in plain sight, and pretend they didn’t know what was really going on. It was hard, when Breakthrough was trying to subtly—and not so subtly—recruit them. They couldn’t just blow them off.
But Muirin’s taking things too far.
Sitting here worrying about it wouldn’t change anything, and Spirit forced herself to her feet with a groan. If she didn’t rehydrate, she’d feel even worse than she did now. She opened her dorm-fridge and regarded the contents with resigned disgust. When she’d arrived here, you’d been allowed to choose what your fridge was stocked with. Now you took what they gave you—which was bottled water and sports drinks. She grabbed a bottle of Gatorade and flopped back down on the couch. But despite her best intentions, she couldn’t stop worrying.
Merlin—Mordred—magic powers—Shadow Knights—we have to do something, but nobody’s going to believe what’s going on here even if we can get out and tell them.
Shower, Spirit thought firmly. If she didn’t shower before dinner she wouldn’t be able to stand herself—and all those bruises would stiffen up. Shower, she told herself again, pushing herself to her feet.
* * *
She looked longingly at her bed as she walked back into the bedroom. She had half an hour before dinner, but if she lay down she’d fall asleep—and missing dinner would suck beyond the telling. She pulled her robe more firmly around her and sat down at the computer instead. Email it is, she thought with a sigh, tapping her laptop awake. Who knows? Maybe there’ll be another exciting Motivational Message.
But what was waiting for her was worse.
I’ve been drafted? Spirit thought in disbelief, staring at her screen. The email in her inbox notified her she was now on the Dance Committee—along with Maddie Harris, Kylee Williamson, Zoey Young, Christopher Terry, and (oh joy) Dylan. She was replacing Ashley Fowler (you’d think, from the tone of the email, that Ashley had just resigned, instead of vanishing two weeks ago).
As if I didn’t have enough to do! she thought.
It was bad enough she’d heard since the day she arrived at Oakhurst that Dance Committee was a seething cauldron of face-to-face flamewars and infighting—Addie had been on it through the New Year’s Dance, and had told Spirit stories that made her laugh even as she winced in sympathy. And that was bad enough. But being on the Dance Committee would mean she was constantly aware of the countdown to the next dance. Today was March 2nd. The next dance was the Spring Fling on March 22nd. Every dance so far has been the scene of some kind of magical disaster.
She was terrified to imagine what was going to happen at the Spring Equinox.
* * *
Spirit scurried into the Refectory and took her place on the line that wound back and forth among the tables like a mutinous snake. There was a stack of plastic trays on a table near the doorway to the kitchen. When she’d arrived last September, Oakhurst had pretended it was grooming them to take their places as “the movers and shakers of tomorrow” and meals had been all about fine dining and company manners, with china, silver, crystal—and waitstaff. Even breakfast had been a field of etiquette land mines. Now Oakhurst was a school under siege. The food was still several steps up from school cafeteria food, but it was served cafeteria style—on plastic trays, with plastic glasses, paper napkins, and stainless steel flatware. Quiche and pâté were things of the past, and so were menu choices—unless it would absolutely kill you (literally), you had to eat it. The vegans were really suffering, because pretty much everything on the menu included an animal product of some kind. Some of them were still holding out, but a lot of them had caved. You ate what Oakhurst handed out, or you starved.
The line inched forward. Up ahead she could see a woman in the uniform of Breakthrough Security—Breakthrough didn’t even try to blend in anymore—standing against the wall. It was hard to imagine what they needed protecting from in here. And it made Oakhurst seem even more like a prison.
It occurred to her that changing the food service meant Oakhurst didn’t have to keep all the extra staff any more. There was still Housekeeping and Laundry service, but it had gone to weekly now, where before it had been daily. But it all makes sense. Look at how much of the faculty isn’t here anymore. I bet they’ve cut the Maintenance staff down just as far—and I bet Breakthrough doesn’t want to spend its valuable time washing Burke’s socks.…
She could see him about a dozen places ahead of her in line, and knew he’d noticed her come in. But this time he didn’t acknowledge her presence.
She let her mind drift—not much could happen while they were standing in line for dinner—when suddenly she was startled to alertness by a crash and a wordless shout. As she stared around wildly, looking for the source, she saw the front of the line scatter.
Fights had gotten more and more frequent in the last month. There was more student solidarity now than there’d ever been before, but everyone was tense and on edge, and even before Breakthrough got here, Oakhurst had been trying to make them all into enemies. She didn’t know the boys’ names, but they clearly knew each other. The taller one swung at the shorter one. Nobody tried to stop them. She could see six of the Student Proctors in the watching crowd, and there were a dozen Breakthrough Security people here. No one moved.
This wasn’t a case of punching and shoving. Maybe it had started that way, but they were all learning the kinds of martial arts skills that could be used to hurt somebody, and it quickly turned into the kind of fight where both combatants wanted to hurt each other. Really hurt each other. There was a swift flurry of blocks and counters and the other kids moved back even further to give them room. Spirit’s stomach went into knots, but she knew she didn’t dare show how sick this was making her.
One swept the other’s feet out from under him. The one who fell grabbed his opponent and pulled him down. Both bounced to their feet a moment later. Their clothing was torn. That’s an automatic demerit, Spirit thought half-hysterically. Both boys were bleeding now. She tried to keep herself from looking to Burke, but she couldn’t help seeing him. He was standing motionless, head down, as if he was utterly weary, too tired to even think about interfering. Or maybe too intimidated.
Once he would have been one of the first guys breaking up a fight. The thought made Spirit feel like crying. Muirin always called Burke a “Boy Scout,” but Burke was one of the most simply good people Spirit had ever known. Hanging back this way had to be killing him. But we’re all trying not to be noticed. And there’s a bigger fight coming. An important one. He knows he has to save himself for it. Whatever it ends up being.
She’d barely formed the thought when there was an ugly cracking sound, loud in the silence. One of the boys screamed. He fell to his knees clutching at his shoulder. His arm hung limp and useless at his side. His opponent grabbed one of the chairs.…
But now—finally—the security people moved in. Two of them grabbed the one with the chair. The other two picked up his victim. They dragged them quickly toward the Refectory doors. There must have been someone watching right outside, because the doors opened quickly. Two new security guards came in as the other four went out.
There was a moment of stillness. Then the line began to re-form. Slowly. And nobody wanted to get too close to anyone else.
* * *
Spirit picked up her tray and stepped away from the serving counter. As she walked back into the Refectory (looking for her assigned seat, they all had assigned seats now, too) she saw the doors open again.
They’re supposed to be locked by now, unless … Oh.
Muirin came sauntering in, looking like she was doing them all a favor by gracing them with her presence. Spirit stared. Muirin was wearing a black vinyl jacket over a hot pink mesh t-shirt, and a denim miniskirt with black fishnet stockings and black knee-high boots. Nothing could be further from the Oakhurst Dress Code. She’d even gone back to dyeing her hair a couple of weeks ago. Muirin had flaming red hair most girls Spirit knew would kill for. It was short (because it had been blue when she’d gotten here, and Oakhurst made her cut it) and now it was streaked with black.
“See what you can get if you play by the rules? Fewer rules!” Muirin sang, walking over to Spirit and striking a pose right in front of her. Her mouth was twisted in a mocking sneer, and it was pretty hard to miss the fact that she was wearing green lipstick and more eye shadow than the Oakhurst Code would ever have allowed. Anybody would think she and Spirit were enemies. It was a great act. At least, Spirit hoped it was an act.
Except for a few brief meetings, when Muirin passed on some piece of Breakthrough gossip, or a warning about a new school policy, Spirit had seen little of Muirin since the February dance. Addie and Muirin had been friends before Spirit came to Oakhurst, and Muirin was avoiding her too. Or … not “avoiding” so much as spending all her time with her new best friends—all of whom happened to be important Breakthrough people.
Muirin said she was spying on Breakthrough to protect them. Spirit hoped that was the truth.
“Hi, Muirin,” she said unenthusiastically. “I didn’t think—” I didn’t think you’d be here at all.
“Demerits are a thing of the past!” Muirin singsonged tauntingly. She blew Spirit a theatrical air-kiss and turned away, walking with an exaggerated hip-swing. Ovcharenko had come in while Spirit was in the kitchen, and Muirin made a beeline for him.
“That’s because none of us is going to live to graduate,” Loch said quietly from behind Spirit. Spirit did her best not to yelp. Loch’s main Gift was Shadewalking—it wasn’t invisibility, exactly, but it was close. He brushed against her as he passed, and Spirit felt a tug at her pocket. Loch had just passed her a note. It must be about the meeting tonight. She’d see what it said later. When it was safe.
They’d all done their best to pretend they didn’t want to know each other anymore. She didn’t know who Addie was hanging out with these days—if anyone—but Loch’s new “friends” were a bunch of boys Lachlan Spears might have known back in the real world; he hung with some of the ultrarich trust-fund kids. Spirit didn’t really hang with anyone, and acted shy and intimidated. It was an act—like Loch’s, like Burke’s, like (she hoped) Muirin’s. They were all acting these days.
As she sat down at her table, she saw Muirin giving Ovcharenko some serious face time. Ugh. He’s almost old enough to be her father. That’s just creepy. That was another thing Spirit hated about the way things were now. When Breakthrough had showed up here, Ovcharenko had started making a big play for Muirin, even though he was years older than she was. At first Muirin had discouraged him—but that was a thing of the past now. She didn’t know how Muirin could stand it.
Of course, consider the alternative, she thought, as she picked up her fork.
Copyright © 2013 by Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill