Shadow Grail 4 Victories
By Mercedes Lackey, Rosemary Edghill
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill
All rights reserved.
The black van bumped along the road, jarring Spirit's spine with every lurch. Burke was at the wheel, driving toward a destination that wasn't even a point on a map. The instructions he was following were a list of distances and landmarks: they'd crossed from Montana into North Dakota hours ago, but for all any of the four of them knew, their destination might be the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It's Saturday morning, Spirit thought wearily, feeling drunk from lack of sleep, as she gazed out the side window at the unchanging vista of fields and trees and distant mountains. It was spring — almost April — but the landscape looked barren to her. It was nothing like the place she'd grown up. Her life was nothing like the one she'd had the last time she'd looked out a car window counting the weeks to summer.
Her life? It was an unreal nightmare, the stuff of B movies. Except it was happening, and it was almost uniformly horrible.
A year ago, Saturday had been a day to hang out with friends, to tease her younger sister, to make elaborate kitchen experiments with Dad or go on adventures with Mom. But that was before the — Don't call it an accident now, call it what it was. Murder. Murder. Before the Shadow Knights murdered her family. Before everything changed.
Six months ago, she'd just been told she was going to go to a place called Oakhurst because there was nowhere else for her to go with all her family dead. From the beginning, Spirit had known there was something wrong with Oakhurst. Yeah, maybe the fact that someone was trying to kill us off might have been the hint. But that was simplifying things; the facade that Oakhurst had kept up was too good. The whole horrible scope of how badly things were wrong had taken a while to figure out. In fact, it hadn't been until a week ago that she really understood, when she'd gotten the last clues to put it all together.
She'd been told when she arrived that Oakhurst wasn't a normal orphanage, but a school for magicians. Which had been unsettling, and scary, but could have been kind of cool if the people in charge hadn't been pitting every student against every other student, in a kind of just-sub-lethal Hunger Games.
But then she found out that if you had magic, Oakhurst's headmaster tracked you down and killed your family, and then made it look as if they'd wanted you to be sent there. Loch's father had died in a hotel fire, Muirin's in an automobile accident, Addie's in a plane crash, Burke's in a home invasion. Hers, in another car crash. The method didn't matter. Only the results. That you got sent to Oakhurst, where the headmaster could decide if you were worth the effort of teaching. Because if he decided you weren't — well, the Hunger Games stopped being sub-lethal.
And I thought all along he'd made a mistake about me, that I didn't have magic. But he hadn't. She looked down at her hands. There was still a pale mark on the left one where her school ring had been. The stone changed color when it recognized your magic, and hers never had.
Until last night.
And now I know I'm a Spirit Mage, and I know my School of Magic is the School of Spirit, but that's all I know. They taught four Schools of Magic at Oakhurst. Dr. Ambrosius made everyone forget there were five.
She didn't know why, but considering everything else, it almost didn't matter. Dr. Ambrosius wanted to bring everyone with magic to Oakhurst so he could either recruit them — or kill them. Because in his world, there were only flunkies and enemies, and he wasn't just a magician. And his real name wasn't Ambrosius.
His real name was Mordred. The Mordred. Centuries ago, he'd lost a war for a kingdom. His enemies had locked him in a prison they'd hoped would last forever — but just in case it didn't, his jailers had cast a second spell, binding all of them to be reborn over and over until the threat was ended forever. To become Reincarnates, unaware of who they'd been until Merlin — or Mordred — awakened their memories.
Merlin. Mordred. Arthur. Guinevere. Names out of a storybook until Spirit and her friends discovered it wasn't a story — it was something they were all living. Because Dr. Ambrosius was Mordred, and once he'd escaped his prison, he gathered an army of Shadow Knights to serve him, and spent decades hunting the Grail Knights who were the only challengers to his power.
He built Oakhurst as the means to do that. He eliminated every magician who wouldn't serve him before they could even begin to threaten him. And who would ever have believed he was doing anything like that, when no one in the outside world had so much as a clue that magic was real?
A day ago, Spirit finally found a way for the five of them to escape from Oakhurst. If escape had been their only goal, there wouldn't have been any point — but escape was only the beginning of what they were going to have to do.
Save the world. Why is it that's always what it turns out to be?
Maybe because when it was things like Mordred you were up against, they weren't going to settle for anything less than the world.
It was Muirin who'd infiltrated the Shadow Knights to discover Mordred planned to trigger a nuclear apocalypse to create a world where Magic, not Science, ruled. They'd fled knowing they were the only ones who had a chance to stop it. A mysterious ally Spirit knew only as QUERCUS had given them a place to go.
But escape had come at far too high a price.
The van hit another pothole, and Spirit groaned faintly.
"Sorry," Burke said, glancing at her apologetically. "You okay?"
"Thinking about Muirin," she said. She closed her eyes hard, willing herself not to cry. It wouldn't do any good. Muirin would still be dead.
* * *
Muirin clung to Doc Mac's arm as the dancers at the Spring Fling swirled around them, oblivious. She looked greenish-pale, and the dark smudges under her eyes had nothing to do with makeup. Spirit saw her lurch and stagger, and only Doc Mac's grip on her arm kept her from falling.
"Muirin!" Spirit cried.
She pushed through the crowd, shoving people out of her way as she headed for Muirin. She was about halfway there when Muirin saw her. She brought her hand up and made a throwing motion. The car keys came flying through the air, and Spirit snatched them without thought. Muirin silently mouthed one word:
* * *
Not everyone with magic was a Reincarnate, but Spirit had been sure about Muirin. Anastus Ovcharenko — Shadow Knight and Mordred's pet assassin — had called Muirin and Madison Lane-Rider "sisters" — and that made Madison Lane-Rider Queen Morgause and Muirin Queen Morgaine. Madison was a Shadow Knight, and Muirin had played a long double game, pretending she wanted to join them while remaining loyal to her friends. Maybe Murr-cat had been tempted to swap sides — maybe she'd even come close, and who could have blamed her? The other side had ... everything. What did her friends have? But Muirin had stuck with them. Without Muirin's last-minute warning — without her help — Mordred would have gotten all five of them.
Instead of only one of them.
Burke reached out a hand and closed it over hers. "They will pay for that. I swear it," he said.
"Do you think —?" she said, hating herself for hoping. She'd seen Muirin fall, shot by Anastus Ovcharenko — Prince Agravaine. But maybe....
"No," Burke said quietly. "They'd never have trusted her after she helped us. He shot to kill."
I won't cry, Spirit told herself desperately, but despite her best efforts, a tear slid down her cheek.
"It's no sin to grieve," Burke said gently.
"We don't have time," Spirit answered angrily. "Mordred's going to nuke the world back to the Stone Age!"
"We have time to mourn for our friend. Mordred moves on Beltane," Burke said. "That's May first. It's only the end of March now."
"Great," Spirit said, rubbing her eyes, her throat and heart aching. "Six weeks to save the world."
Silence hung between them, stretching the tension to the breaking point. "I hope this Internet buddy of yours can help," Burke finally said, awkwardly changing the subject.
She took the change of subject gratefully, thankful for his kindness. "Me, too," Spirit answered somberly.
"Are we there yet?" Loch asked, sitting up and leaning forward between the seats. He and Addie were riding in the back. Spirit could have ridden in back too, and maybe even gotten some sleep — QUERCUS had left the van for them, along with the directions to reach their destination — but she'd wanted to be with Burke.
"Don't make me pull this getaway car over," Burke said lightly, and despite everything, Spirit smiled.
She'd never had a boyfriend before. She'd never expected to find one at Oakhurst. After her family died, she'd just wanted to shut out the world, and never care about anyone again. But Burke had loved her — as simply and as uncomplicatedly as breathing — from almost the moment he'd first seen her. When she'd realized she was in love with him too, it was too late to turn back and pretend she wasn't. It was the most wonderful thing in her life. It was the most terrible thing too, because she'd known they were all in danger before the first time Burke had kissed her, and the thought she could lose him the way she'd lost her family was terrifying.
To lose anyone else, really, and she'd already lost Muirin, and she knew it hadn't really sunk in yet, but it already hurt so much she just wanted to scream until she couldn't scream any more.
"Are we going to be awake now?" Addie asked grumpily, sitting up next to Loch. She glanced out the windshield. "Ugh. It looks the same as it did the last time I looked. Where are we going?"
"I don't know, but we're making good time," Burke joked.
They were all concentrating on trivial stuff, or trying to, and Spirit didn't blame them. Easier not to talk about the danger, the deaths, the fact they weren't safe, even now. "Wherever it is, we should be there in a couple of hours, tops," Spirit said, waving the sheaf of directions. "According to this, anyway."
"I hope wherever it is it involves thick walls and strong doors," Loch said. "And maybe landmines. Because I'm pretty sure Breakthrough isn't going to stop chasing us."
"Not if Mordred wants them to," Addie said, shuddering. "I wouldn't want to be the one he got mad at."
"Except you totally are," Loch pointed out. "We all are."
"Yeah," Burke said reasonably. "But at least we can run for our lives. I wouldn't want to be one of his henchmen."
"I don't think Mark wants to be one of his henchmen right now, either," Addie said.
"Too bad," Spirit said venomously. "He had the same choice everyone else got, and he chose Mordred."
"Yeah, cake or death, great choice," Loch said. "I'm not excusing him — his so-called 'security people' killed our families, as I'm sure we all remember — but he probably never expected the Evil Overlord's plan to be starting a nuclear war just so he didn't have to deal with the real world."
"It doesn't make sense," Addie said plaintively. "He's a magician — we've all seen how much power he has. Mordred could probably have taken over a country and made himself king years ago. There are thousands of places where if you walked in and said you could cure disease and make the crops grow and could prove it, they'd fall all over themselves to hand you the keys to the kingdom."
"So to speak," Loch said, with a wry smile. "Stubborn and stupid is a bad combination, but he's just like a lot of CEOs my father dealt with. And remember — Mordred isn't a Reincarnate."
Suddenly, some of this made a twisted sort of sense to Spirit. Mordred had been Mordred for centuries. He'd never been anyone else. He still thought like a Dark Age tyrant. After all this time, he was probably crazier than a cageful of bats, too, but everything he was, everything he defaulted to, was the man who'd been born in a time when a state-of-the-art weapon was a steel sword or a powerful magician. Maybe he really didn't comprehend what a nuclear war would do to the world. Maybe he just thought of it as burned crops, leveled cities, and poisoned wells on a mass scale.
"He's still Mordred," Spirit said, realizing. "He's never been anyone else. Not like the others."
"Not like us," Burke said.
Spirit looked at him in surprise. "Us?" she repeated. "Reincarnates?"
"Oh, come on," Loch said. "The odds are at least one of us is a former Knight Who Says Ni."
"Besides Muirin," Addie said quietly.
"Yeah," Burke said, and after that nobody said anything for a while.
* * *
"We're here," Addie said, pulling the van to a halt.
It was a little after noon. Loch had taken over from Burke, and Addie from Loch: Spirit was the only one who didn't know how to drive, and seeing the weariness on her friends' faces that made her feel guilty now. They'd all been awake over twenty-four hours, and to add driving to that....
"Not where I'd choose to make my last stand," Loch said, looking around the parking lot and back at the seedy strip motel.
They'd been seeing signs for Omaha for a while — that and Offutt Air Force Base — but where their directions had led them was to a middle-of-nowhere place that was barely a wide spot in the road: gas station, motel, diner. If there was a town anywhere nearby, or even some random houses, they weren't visible from the Alvo Motor Hotel. There wasn't even a McDonald's.
"Well, there aren't any more directions," Addie said, waving the last sheet of paper. "But. ... We aren't that far from Omaha...."
"This is where QUERCUS sent us," Spirit said reluctantly. "This is where he'll expect to find us."
"And what then? What do we do then?" Addie asked, a little shrilly. "Is he going to hand us a magic sword? Or turn us into superheroes? Sure, we've got magic — we've all got magic — but so do they."
"I know," Spirit said softly. Addie had always doubted their ability — her own ability — to fight back, and Spirit really couldn't blame her. "But I don't know what else to do."
"And we're all just about out on our feet," Burke said. "We aren't going anywhere except off the side of the road if we don't get some rest. If this is our only option, well, it's our only option."
"So let's go see what's behind Door Number Six," Loch said.
"Let's go find out if it's locked," Addie said pragmatically.
* * *
Spirit blinked at the brightness of the sunlight as she stepped out of the van. Her shoes — the strappy silver sandals Madison Lane-Rider had picked out as part of her Spring Fling outfit — slid on the asphalt, and she grabbed for the doorframe.
"Easy," Burke said, putting a hand under her arm.
The coat QUERCUS had left for him in the van hung open; the tuxedo beneath it looked jarringly out of place. They were all still wearing their prom clothes under their coats, but at least Spirit's dress was short. Addie was wearing an ankle-length velvet gown; it caught on something as she slid out of the driver's seat, and Spirit heard her snarl as she ripped it free and slammed the door as hard as she could.
"At this point I don't actually care if the Legions of Hell are in there," Loch said, slamming the back door of the van, "as long as I can sit down somewhere that isn't moving."
"Then let's go," Burke said. He released Spirit's arm and walked up to the door. She saw him take a deep breath as he reached for the knob, then he twisted it and the door opened.
The three of them followed him in. The room behind the door matched the outside of the building: worn and shabby. There were two sagging double beds with flowered polyester bedspreads, a nightstand and a lamp, and a dresser. The mirror was cracked in one corner, and there were burns and stains on the dresser top. One of the drawer fronts was slightly askew.
"I'm going to write a stiff letter to the Michelin people," Loch said, walking across the room to sit down on the bed. It creaked and lurched alarmingly when he did so. "Hey," he said, shifting sideways. He picked something up from the bedspread, and held it out so they could all see it. "Looks like we've come to the right place." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Shadow Grail 4 Victories by Mercedes Lackey, Rosemary Edghill. Copyright © 2014 Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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