Skandar and the Chaos Trials

Skandar and the Chaos Trials

by A.F. Steadman
Skandar and the Chaos Trials

Skandar and the Chaos Trials

by A.F. Steadman



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Notes From Your Bookseller

Loyalty and friendship are tested as threats continue to grow on the Mainland and Beyond. Can Skandar and Kenna hold it all together?

Skandar faces his greatest challenge yet in the thrilling third installment of the Skandar series from New York Times bestselling author A.F. Steadman!

To survive their third year of training, Skandar and his friends must complete a series of terrifying trials across the Island’s elemental zones. Friendships, allegiances, and rider-unicorn bonds will be pushed to the limit—only the strongest will make it.

Meanwhile, Skandar’s sister, Kenna, has finally reached the Eyrie. But with a forged bond to a wild unicorn, she is alienated and alone. And when a terrible discovery puts the future of the Island in peril, all fingers point in one direction…

As suspicions grow and dark forces assemble, Skandar must decide where his loyalties lie. How far is he willing to go—for Kenna, and for the Eyrie?

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781665912815
Publisher: Simon & Schuster Books For Young Readers
Publication date: 05/07/2024
Series: Skandar , #3
Format: eBook
Pages: 528
Sales rank: 32,014
File size: 9 MB
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

About The Author
A.F. Steadman grew up in the Kent countryside, getting lost in fantasy worlds and scribbling stories in notebooks. Before focusing on writing, she worked in law, until she realized that there wasn’t nearly enough magic involved. She is the author of the New York Times bestselling Skandar series.

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One: Sally’s Sandwiches

CHAPTER ONE Sally’s Sandwiches
SKANDAR SMITH WAS SEARCHING FOR Scoundrel’s Luck. Again. Some might say it should be impossible to misplace a bloodthirsty unicorn. But those people had clearly never met one who was beginning third-year training at the Eyrie. Over the summer, the behavior of the Fledgling unicorns had become so bad, Skandar was pretty sure they were now completely beyond their riders’ control. And that included Scoundrel’s Luck.

It was the last day of the break before training restarted. Skandar had been searching for Scoundrel for most of the morning: Shekoni saddle balancing on one arm, bridle looped round the other. Now he sat on the Eyrie’s hill, ripping up handfuls of grass in frustration. Scoundrel had been disappearing all summer—Skandar had no idea to where—but they were supposed to be riding into Fourpoint for lunch with the quartet.

On cue, Bobby Bruna came thundering down the hillside on Falcon’s Wrath. She looked quite the ferocious air wielder: with the sleeves of her battered rider’s jacket rolled up, the slate-gray feathers of her mutation visible all the way to her elbows.

Falcon was galloping straight for Skandar, and Bobby waited just a little too long to slow her. Bobby’s mouth twitched as Skandar scrambled to his feet in alarm. Well, that confirmed it—she’d definitely done it on purpose.

“Have you found him yet, spirit boy?” Bobby demanded, ignoring Skandar’s ashen face.

Skandar debated complaining about her dangerous riding, but it was nearly lunchtime, and a hungry Bobby was not a happy Bobby.

Instead, he sighed. “Nope. You go ahead without us.”

“But we’re meeting your sister afterward, remember? Outside the Stronghold.” Bobby dropped her reins so Falcon could snap up a passing rabbit.

Skandar winced as bunny bones crunched.

Bobby ignored him. “We need to leave now if we’re going to get lunch at the unbelievable place I found. It gets busy!”

“I still don’t get why you can’t tell us its name.”

“It’s a surprise,” she said evasively. “Er...since when is he the late one?”

Mitchell Henderson was riding toward them on Red Night’s Delight. Red looked more demon than unicorn—her mane and tail were flaming brightly, along with her eyes and hooves. But Skandar barely noticed because his own unicorn, Scoundrel’s Luck, was trotting happily beside his fiery best friend.

“There you are!” Skandar hugged Scoundrel’s onyx neck—equal parts relieved and scolding. The unicorn tossed his head happily, the white spirit blaze under his horn flashing in the sunlight. The bond rippled with their combined joy at being reunited, though Skandar was less happy when he noticed that Scoundrel’s black coat—which had been shiny yesterday—was covered in a thick layer of dust.

“Why’s he so filthy?” Bobby asked, as Falcon skittered sideways—she detested dirt.

“I do hate to interrupt,” Mitchell said sarcastically. “But isn’t anyone going to ask if I’m okay?”

For some reason the entire zip was missing from Mitchell’s green jacket, and it was hanging open to reveal the brown skin of his chest.

Bobby snorted.

“Do not laugh, Roberta. I’m warning you.”

“What happened?” Skandar asked gently.

Mitchell sighed, the flaming hair of his mutation billowing. “Red happened. She’s been setting fire to things all summer—and now she’s widened her targets to include me.”

Skandar frowned. “But she wouldn’t hurt you, would she?” Okay, the quartet unicorns had been getting more chaotic lately, but surely they wouldn’t intentionally hurt their own riders?

“That’s why I took my T-shirt off!” Mitchell said, exasperated. “Did you think I was just a bit hot?”

“I...” Skandar glanced at Bobby, who was biting her hand to stop herself from laughing. “I’m not following.”

“Red scorched the fabric around the zip of my jacket, so I couldn’t do it up,” Mitchell raved. “Then she did the same to my T-shirt, and burned my spare before I could even get it over my head. I can feel through our bond that she finds the whole thing hilarious. She only stopped when I wasn’t wearing anything on my top half at all!”

“I hope Red doesn’t start on his trousers next,” Bobby murmured to Skandar, who tried to hide his grin.

“What are you whispering about?” Mitchell demanded.

Bobby recovered quickly. “Come on, we’re already late for lunch. Flo’s meeting us in Fourpoint once she’s dropped Kenna off. I invited the blacksmith bard, too.”

Mitchell’s eyes widened. “Jamie’s going to be there? This is a disaster.” He gestured to his destroyed jacket, fire pin catching the light as it flapped open in the breeze.

Skandar had an idea. “Why don’t you tie Scoundrel’s lead rope round you?” He passed it up to Mitchell. “Then at least the jacket will stay shut.”

Mitchell eyed the blue rope suspiciously but appeared to realize that if he wanted to make it to lunch on time, there was no other choice. And Mitchell hated lateness.

“You might start a new trend,” Bobby said mischievously.

“Oh, do shut up,” Mitchell snapped, as he fastened the rope round his middle.

Skandar mounted Scoundrel and followed the others down the Eyrie’s hill toward Fourpoint’s main shopping street. Skandar was happy to see that many of its vibrant treehouses—in tones of red, blue, green, and yellow—had been repaired after the elemental destruction during Skandar’s Nestling year. And, in the distance, the Spear of the Silver Stronghold pierced the sky once again.

But many other buildings across the Island were yet to be repaired, and Skandar too still felt a little broken by everything that’d happened in June. On the summer solstice, the Island had been minutes from tearing itself apart with its own unbalanced magic—the result of the Silver Circle killing wild unicorns. Skandar, Bobby, Flo, and Mitchell had managed to work out how to save the Island by winning the bone staff from the First Rider and his Wild Unicorn Queen. But then Skandar had been faced with a nightmare beyond anything he could have imagined. His sister, Kenna, had been bonded to a wild unicorn foal. The Weaver—their mother—had forged Kenna a bond just like her own.

Commodore Kazama, horrified yet fair, had allowed Kenna to remain with Skandar while a decision was made about her future with the wild unicorn. At first Skandar had tried to see the bright side. It had been wonderful writing to Dad, telling him that Kenna was at the Eyrie. But once the dust settled, Skandar had started worrying about the forged bond clasped round his sister’s heart. He’d begun checking on Kenna’s destined unicorn—the dapple-gray—in the Wilderness of his Mender dreams. And the longer Nina delayed in making her decision, the more he let himself wonder if there was a way to get that unicorn—that life—back for Kenna.

“You’re thinking unusually hard about something,” Bobby observed, slate-gray Falcon falling into step beside Scoundrel.

“How d’you know?”

“You get a dent in your forehead,” she said. Bobby might be loud, but she paid quiet attention to people’s feelings—especially Skandar’s.

“My sister,” he said simply. He wasn’t ready to say anything about reuniting Kenna with her destined unicorn just yet. He needed more information.

“What is Nina playing at?” Bobby exploded. “This whole delaying thing is properly out of character for an air wielder. Just make a decision! What does she think these investigations are going to show? The Weaver hiding in Kenna’s saddlebags?”

Bobby had been furious from the start about the tests on Kenna and her wild unicorn foal at the Silver Stronghold—the Silver Circle’s base. She scoffed whenever Flo said that the new leader of the Silver Circle—Rex Manning—was much nicer than his father, Dorian Manning, had been.

“Well, that’s not exactly hard, is it?” Bobby had snapped eventually. “Rex’s dad almost destroyed the Island last year. Had us arrested for the unicorn murders he was committing.”

Skandar didn’t like Kenna being behind the Stronghold’s shield wall either. An exclusive group for riders with silver unicorns, the Silver Circle was the most powerful organization on the Island. They had a rivalry with spirit wielders that went back centuries.

“The Stronghold is the safest place to do the tests, Skar,” Flo had insisted. “For Kenna and the rest of the Island. Injuries from wild unicorn magic never heal, remember?”

Now, a month or so later, Skandar was happy to accept that Flo had been right. Kenna was regularly summoned to the Stronghold, and nothing bad ever seemed to happen. She’d be questioned about her time with the Weaver, interrogated about her forged bond, and then asked to attempt elemental magic. The sentinels wouldn’t let Kenna ride; she was only permitted to place a palm on her wild unicorn’s neck. So far she hadn’t been able to summon even a spark.

“Do you ever wonder,” Bobby asked Skandar, as they rode side by side, “what Kenna was doing with the Weaver all that time?” She sounded hesitant, less sure of herself than usual.

“Kenna told us that they hardly spoke; the Weaver was focused on preparing to forge her bond,” Skandar said stiffly. “And I believe her.”

“Obviously I believe her too, but...why would Erika Everhart forge a bond for her daughter and then abandon her to skip on up to the Eyrie? It doesn’t feel very...Weavery.”

“No,” Skandar said grimly. “It doesn’t. But I’m sure Kenna’s told us everything she knows. She understands how evil the Weaver is now. She wants to be at the Eyrie training as a unicorn rider—just like we always dreamed.”

Though a wild unicorn hadn’t been what either of them had imagined, had it?

Bobby pointed. “This way!”

The three friends turned off the shopping street and entered a thicket of trees with a collection of restaurants in their branches. Relaxed chatter filled the air along with the clinking of cutlery. The smells were mouthwatering. Skandar’s stomach rumbled as they passed Island Tacos, but he also spotted options for pizza, curry, tapas, falafel, ramen, jerk chicken, and even pancakes.

There was a sudden change in the chatter above: hushed awe in the voices.

“It’s the Eyrie’s silver!”

“Olu Shekoni’s daughter.”

“Look at that unicorn shine!”

Flo Shekoni had arrived. Silver Blade glimmered along the narrow street to meet the rest of the quartet. Silver unicorns were rare and powerful on the Island, and Blade never failed to inspire wonder, however much Flo hated the attention.

Flo caught Skandar’s eye first and smiled reassuringly. “Kenna’s fine—more than fine. When I dropped her at the Stronghold, Rex said this was likely to be the final time she’d be called in for tests.”

Skandar’s heart soared with hope. Maybe the new head of the Silver Circle really was an improvement?

Flo looked at Mitchell, who was reknotting Scoundrel’s lead rope round his jacket. She raised a questioning eyebrow at Skandar.

He chuckled. “I’ll tell you later.”

Blade followed behind Scoundrel, and Flo inhaled deeply. “It all smells so good! My mum always says the food got so much better on the Island after the Treaty.”

Skandar leaned over Scoundrel’s wing, reading some of the menus fixed to tree trunks. He felt a bit daunted. He’d never tried most of the options, and he knew that wasn’t because he was a Mainlander. There hadn’t been the money for eating out when he was growing up.

As Flo, Mitchell, and Bobby chatted about foods he’d barely heard of, Skandar threaded his fingers through Scoundrel’s mane. The black unicorn rumbled softly, his stomach vibrating under Skandar’s legs. And somehow, not knowing about different kinds of foods seemed to matter a lot less. Scoundrel didn’t care about any of that stuff.

“Well, if it isn’t the blacksmith bard!” Bobby’s loud cry made Skandar look up.

Please don’t call me that,” Jamie moaned, as he approached the four riders.

“You look really nice, Jamie,” Flo said.

Gone was the blacksmith’s leather apron with pockets of clanking tools; gone were the smears of ash from working at the forge. He was even wearing a collared green shirt.

“Oh yeah, d’you think? Thanks,” Jamie said distractedly, running a hand through his golden-brown hair. His mismatched brown and green eyes found Mitchell, who’d frozen halfway through dismounting from Red’s back.

“Need a hand there?” Jamie asked, the ghost of a smile on his lips.

Mitchell released the front of his Taiting saddle and thumped to the ground. “N-no, I’m good, I’m fine, I’m excellent,” he stuttered, pushing his brown glasses back up his nose and desperately adjusting his jacket.

Jamie’s gaze came to rest on the blue lead rope round Mitchell’s middle.

Mitchell’s flaming hair grew brighter. “Erm, yes, long story. It was Red; she—”

“TA-DAHHH!” Bobby shouted. They’d reached a place called Sally’s Succulent Sandwiches. Bobby was jabbing a finger at the menu on its tree trunk, beaming. Flo and Skandar glanced at each other, confused.

Mitchell was outraged. “Are you telling me that your grand plan for this lunch—this lunch you made people attend half-dressed—is a sandwich shop?”

“It’s not a sandwich shop, Mitchell. Sally’s is a sandwich delicatessen. A sandwich restaurant—if you will.” Bobby stared lovingly at the menu.

“Sally’s is class,” Jamie agreed. “I come here quite a lot, to be fair.”

“Well, naturally, there’s nothing wrong with sandwiches,” Mitchell said quickly.

Skandar and Flo dismounted so they could read the menu.

September Menu: Sally’s Succulent Sandwiches

Water zone tuna with anchovy mayo

Earth zone mixed-vegetable deluxe

Fire zone spicy chicken and bacon

Air zone wasabi with zingy prawn

Sandwich of the month:

The Emergency Sandwich by Bobby Bruna


“You are kidding me,” Skandar said, already laughing.

“Bobby, how did you get Sally to agree to this?” Flo asked, clearly worried there’d been blackmail involved. For Bobby’s emergency sandwiches were well known to her quartet. Butter, cheese, raspberry jam, and Marmite.

Mitchell’s mouth was hanging open. “But your sandwiches are a health hazard.”

“Sally said they’ve been really popular,” Bobby announced proudly. “Come on!” She looped Falcon’s reins through one of the metal rings provided for rider customers and climbed the shop ladder three rungs at a time, leaving the others to follow.

Inside the treehouse, a woman stood behind the counter. “Well, if it isn’t our sandwich of the month creator,” she cooed as the quartet approached. She had curly black hair, a rainbow-colored apron, and a smiley—slightly pink—face.

“Hi, Sally!” Bobby was bouncing on her toes, her olive skin flushed with excitement. “Five Emergency Sandwiches, please.”

“Umm, Bobby, I was actually hoping to get the one with mayo,” Skandar said quickly.

“Fire zone chicken for me,” Mitchell said.

“I’d like the zingy prawn,” Flo added guiltily.

Sally tutted. “You’re missing out. The Emergency is our top seller.”

“But does anyone ever order it twice?” Mitchell muttered to Skandar.

In the end, Jamie agreed to try Bobby’s sandwich if she promised to stop calling him the blacksmith bard. Jamie had never wanted to follow in his parents’ footsteps and become a bard, despite having sung his truesong back in June.

The sandwich shop was clearly well liked. They squeezed past Falcon’s blacksmith, Reece, on their way in, who grunted to Bobby in greeting. He was older, with a graying beard, and not particularly friendly. The story was similar with Red’s blacksmith, who’d made armor for four different riders during her career. Unlike Jamie, they weren’t interested in making friends with Fledglings.

There was only one table left on the platform outside. Jamie waved to a particularly raucous group, and a young woman came over, sandwich in hand. She had bright blond hair scraped into a ponytail.

“This is Clara.” Jamie introduced her, respect in his voice. “She’s blacksmith to the Commodore’s unicorn.”

But Clara was looking at Mitchell. “What happened to that?” She gestured to his singed jacket.

Jamie answered to save Mitchell the embarrassment. “He’s a Fledgling at the Eyrie.”

“Ohhh. Third year. You should have seen how rebellious Lightning’s Mistake was at the beginning of Nina’s Chaos Trials; I could hardly get her armor on.”

“So this behavior is normal, then?” Mitchell asked sheepishly.

“Very,” Clara reassured him.

“And a unicorn disappearing whenever he likes?” Skandar asked in a small voice.

“Rarer, but don’t sweat it.”

“Falcon hasn’t changed at all,” Bobby said. “She’s still perfect.”

“It’s not nice to boast, Bobby,” Flo chided.

“What’s the latest with Nina?” Jamie sounded worried.

“The same.” Clara sighed. “She’s gone for hours every day, but I know she isn’t training because she never wears armor. Lightning comes back exhausted. Nina comes back depressed.”

“What’s wrong with her?” Skandar asked—thinking of Kenna and the decision being made about her future.

“No idea.” Clara shrugged, the tools in her apron pockets clinking. She turned in Flo’s direction. “Your dad tried to talk to her, but she’s avoiding him.”

Flo’s dad was Olu Shekoni—the best saddler on the Island. Like Skandar, Nina had a Shekoni saddle.

“If Nina carries on like this, she’s never going to qualify for the Chaos Cup this year.” Clara sounded frustrated. “We’re supposed to be going for the hat trick. Nobody has ever done it!”

Skandar’s stomach clenched. The only other Commodore who’d been close to winning three Chaos Cups had been his mum, Erika Everhart, and her unicorn Blood-Moon’s Equinox. But then Blood-Moon had been killed mid-race on their third try, and Erika had embraced the darkness of her wild unicorn, becoming the Weaver.

“Are you all right, Skar?” Flo asked gently while the others were still talking to Clara. “Are you worried about training starting tomorrow? Mitchell’s sure the instructors are going to tell us more about our Chaos Trials.”

“A little,” he said, not meaning it. All the other Fledglings had been trying to find out as much as they could about the challenges they’d be facing during their third year. Especially as—just like the Training Trial and Nestling Joust—they’d need to pass the Chaos Trials to remain in the Eyrie. According to Skandar’s older friends at the Peregrine Society, the third-year challenges took place in the elemental zones. They changed every year to make them impossible to prepare for.

Of course, that hadn’t stopped Mitchell from studying previous Chaos Trials all summer. But when he’d moved from book research to asking real-life Rookies and Preds to describe their experiences, many hadn’t been keen to talk. Flo worried they were traumatized. Bobby said they were keeping secrets to reduce competition for future Chaos Cups. But Skandar hadn’t really paid attention—he’d been researching something of his own.

“I’m just going to talk to Craig a second,” Skandar said, noticing the bookseller across the platform.

Craig owned Chapters of Chaos. He was a friend to spirit wielders, collecting knowledge from older riders whose spirit unicorns had been executed when their element was declared illegal. And he was also the only other person who knew Skandar’s secret hope of reuniting Kenna with her destined unicorn.

Just before he reached Craig, the memory of Kenna appearing in the self-destructing Eyrie resurfaced, and Skandar froze. Once again, Skandar heard Kenna confronting him with all the lies he’d told her: about his allied element, about their mother. He’d tried to explain that he was a Mender—a spirit wielder who could use dreams to find and bond riders to the unicorn they should have hatched. Tried to say how he’d dreamed of a wild dapple-gray unicorn that had been destined for her. But it had all been too late. Skandar’s stomach turned over as he remembered that distant look on Kenna’s face, the look that’d made him think he’d lost her forever.

But then Skandar had said how sorry he was. And Kenna had told him how she’d been so desperate for a unicorn that she’d left the Mainland with the then head of the Silver Circle, Dorian Manning, only to escape him and be taken in by their mother’s promises. Then, with all their mistakes out in the open, the siblings had forgiven each other.

“What is in this?” Craig asked, when he spotted Skandar hovering by his table. He was inspecting the jam and Marmite oozing between his bread.

The question broke Skandar out of his memory. He chuckled. “You don’t want to know.”

“How’s Kenna?” Craig asked kindly, waving Skandar into a chair.

“At the Stronghold again.” Skandar took a deep breath. “Have you found anything?”

Craig shook his head, bun wobbling. “None of the spirit wielders I’ve spoken to so far knows anything about forged bonds, let alone whether they can be broken. They’ve never even tried to break a destined bond—killing a bonded unicorn has been a crime for centuries. And we know what havoc can come from killing a wild unicorn.”

There was a retching sound.

Mitchell was crying with laughter. “I did warn you!”

Jamie had taken a bite from his Emergency Sandwich.

“I think I might save mine for later,” Craig said tactfully, as he stood up to leave. “I’ll keep searching for the answer, but you have to think about how far you’re willing to go with this. Kenna loves that wild unicorn, doesn’t she?” The bookseller’s brown eyes searched Skandar’s own.

“I know, but I—I haven’t even decided whether I’ll say anything,” Skandar said, faltering. “It depends how things turn out for Kenna, you know? I have to keep her safe.”

“Safe is not always the same as happy, Skandar,” Craig warned. “Remember that.”

The quartet waited to meet Kenna Smith at the end of a silver birch avenue. They’d only been there a few minutes when Scoundrel and Red teamed up to incinerate a branch above Falcon, making her screech with indignation. Then, as she shook ash out of her perfectly combed mane, the entry shield in the Silver Stronghold’s wall lifted.

A lone rider appeared, leading a wild unicorn foal.

Skandar locked eyes with Goshawk’s Fury. The staring contest only lasted a few moments before Skandar blinked, shivering despite the warm September afternoon. The wild unicorn’s eyes were filled with endless shadows and immortal suffering. Goshawk’s Fury was condemned to a life lived in death. And Skandar’s bighearted, very much alive sister was bonded to her.

Just like Scoundrel as a Hatchling, the wild foal had grown to the size of a horse in the last couple of months. But that was where the similarities ended. Scoundrel’s horn was black like his shining coat; Goshawk’s was transparent and ghostly, her honey-colored coat already balding and dull. After two years of Eyrie training, Scoundrel’s muscles rippled, his wings full-feathered and powerful. But Goshawk’s bones were visible in places—a couple of knobbly vertebrae along her back, five thin ribs rising and falling as she walked, a hint of a femur as she lifted her front leg. Some of her wing feathers had already fallen out, creating leathery patches, as though they belonged to an oversized bat rather than a great bird of prey.

For Goshawk’s Fury would always be wild. Her bond was forged, not destined. Goshawk had been meant for another rider who’d never made it to the Hatchery on the summer solstice of their thirteenth year. And Kenna had been destined for a different unicorn—the dapple-gray—still out in the Wilderness alone.

As Kenna smiled at Skandar, Agatha Everhart’s warning about Kenna’s wild unicorn bond came floating back to him: Look at what the forged bond did to Erika.... Five allegiances pulling you different ways.... Five ways for the unicorn’s power to take over.

Skandar had always dreamed that Kenna would come to the Island, that they would become Chaos riders together. But what if the Island believed she was too dangerous to be one of them? What if the Eyrie excluded her? What would Skandar do then?

The thought scared him, and his mind turned again to his half-formed plans, the possibility of a different future for his sister. He resolved to sleep in Scoundrel’s stable tonight and find his sister’s dapple-gray through a Mender dream. To make sure Kenna’s destined unicorn was safe.

Just in case.

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