After years of denying her abilities, Noon Onyx, the first woman in history to wield waning magic, has embraced her power. She’s won the right to compete in the prestigious Laurel Crown Race—an event that will not only earn her the respect of her peers but also, if she wins, the right to control her future.
However, Noon’s task is nearly impossible: retrieve the White Heart of Justice, a mythical sword that disappeared hundreds of years ago. The sword is rumored to be hidden in a dangerous region of Halja that she is unlikely to return from. But Noon’s life isn’t the only thing hanging in the balance. The sword holds an awesome power that, in the wrong hands, could reboot the apocalypse—and Noon is the only one who can prevent Armageddon from starting again…
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I can’t be with you anymore. That’s what she’d said. Six words that had become sixty then six hundred then six thousand . . . sixty thousand . . . six million . . . reverberating in his head, bouncing around inside his brain, driving him absolutely mad. There were no other words. No other memories. Only that last one of her. Standing at the edge of the oozy stew of the destroyed keep’s moat, flanked by two Angels, one preternaturally beautiful, the other full of purpose. The same purpose he’d had until those six words stripped him of it.
Flying out, he’d barely cleared the wreckage of the keep. His heart beat against the walls of his massive chest, and his monstrous wings beat against the infinite, empty sky, but the beats were slow and grew slower still. Slower. Until finally . . .
He made it across the river and then dropped like a ten-ton stone, crashing into the brush, breaking tree limbs and a wing. He lay there amongst the blackening scrub refusing to shift back into human form.
Man’s thoughts were unwelcome.
In time, the rogares came. Water wraiths. He killed them all. And then sickened by the smell of blood and meat he couldn’t—wouldn’t—consume, he left his nesting place. By then, the wing had healed, but unnaturally, so that flying straight was impossible. For days, he traveled in circles, never getting far. It wasn’t just the wing. The yearning to return to her was nearly unbearable. The emptiness inside of him an abyss.
Was she still in the Shallows? If he could just . . .
But then he remembered the Angels. And the look on her face when she’d said the six words. And the feelings in her signature. She’d need more than mere weeks for them to abate. She might need months. Hopefully, not years. Years meant nothing to him, but they did to her. And then the reminder that her time was more precious than his drove his yearning to a new level of ferocity. Ruthlessly, he tamped it down. He realized then that it might be best to return to man’s thoughts. After all, she was a woman.
And he wanted her back.
T’was so, he stroke me with a slender dart,
Tis cruell love turmoyles my captive hart.
—OVID, AMORES 1.2, as translated by Christopher Marlowe
Glashia calls Noon the ballista.” Waldron Seknecus’ low voice rumbled through the Gridiron, a deep, cavernous underground space used by the upper years at St. Lucifer’s for sparring. “Because of how she fights now. Watch.”
He was speaking to three other spectators: my father, Karanos Onyx, executive of the Demon Council and the man who would ultimately employ all of the magic users who trained here at St. Luck’s; Friedrich Vanderlin, an Archangel who was the dean of Guardians over at the Joshua School, the Angel academy we shared a campus with; and a woman who looked unsettlingly familiar to me, though I couldn’t remember when we’d met or who she was. I cleared my mind and concentrated on my opponent, Ludovicus Mischmetal, who preferred the moniker “Vicious” for short. He was a second year Maegester-in-Training at Euryale University. We were competing against one another in the New Babylon MIT rank matches, which St. Luck’s was hosting this year.
All second-year MITs were required to compete. The top-ranked MITs from each school would then be eligible to compete in the Laurel Crown Race. The object of the race was to bring back an assigned target. Targets were either rogare demons or priceless artifacts that needed to be recovered. Participation in the Laurel Crown Race was voluntary, but the MIT who returned to New Babylon with his (or in my case, her) target before any of the others, won the coveted Laurel Crown. Winning the Laurel Crown often set a future Maegester up for life because winners could choose where they wanted to spend their fourth-semester residency. And ofttimes, those residencies turned into permanent positions. Everyone else would receive offers, but it would be the Council that decided which of those residency positions they accepted.
Last semester, we’d been given our first field assignment. It was an assignment that had been full of rogare demon attacks and other lethal situations. That assignment had lasted a mere three months and I’d barely survived it. My residency would last for twice as long, so I was well aware of how important the residency venue would be. Winning the right to choose where I spent next semester, not to mention who I would be working for, would go far in preserving not just my happiness, but also my life. The Maegester who was judging the match, a middle-aged man with thinning, ginger-colored hair and a near-permanent frown, called out for us to begin.
I’d watched Vicious spar with other MITs. He was smart.His infliction of pain would be very calculated, very precise.There was nothing personal about his desire to beat me. He just wanted to win the match so that he could retain his current Primoris ranking at Euryale and compete for the Laurel Crown. Of course, I was similarly motivated.
Vicious gave me a curt bow, his long, black, razor-cut bangs briefly falling forward before he shook them back and used his waning magic to fire up a weapon, a flaming broadsword. It hissed and spit with fury in the damp air of the Gridiron as Vicious raised it toward me in an opening invitation to spar.
As a sparring partner, Vicious looked fairly intimidating. His front teeth were shiny, silver, and sharply pointed (likely, his real ones had been knocked out in fights) and he was much larger than me. He wore the usual black leather training pants and vest, but he’d elected to go shirtless underneath the vest. I guessed it was an intentional show of muscle, literally. He flexed his forearms and grinned at me, his message clear: I might be a woman playing a man’s game, but he wasn’t going to spare me any blows.
That suited me fine. Sparing me blows wouldn’t win me the match.
I unhooked the cloak I’d worn to keep warm until the match started and let it drop to the floor. I faced Vicious in similar black leather training pants, but I wore a black leather bustier instead of a vest. Since my hair had been singed to shoulder length, my demon mark—that splotchy, dark, discolored spot of skin above my heart—was now prominently displayed. Like Vicious’ muscle flexing, my decision to bare my mark was calculated. Last year at this time only my parents had ever seen the mark. Now I exposed it intentionally. It never failed. Even though my opponents knew I had waning magic, the sight of a demon mark on a woman’s bosom always gave them pause. And a single second was all it took for the judge to award a point to me for their hesitation. Of course, most of them realized their mistake soon after and then redoubled their efforts and aggression toward me, but no matter. As expected, Vicious’ gaze swept to my left breast and his eyes widened. Score: Onyx, one. He narrowed his eyes and advanced, clenching the end of his broadsword. The judge wouldn’t take away points, but Vicious wasn’t going to win any by gripping his weapon so tightly. It was made of fire and magic and points were awarded to students who exhibited magic mastery by wielding their weapons effortlessly, with finesse and style.
I fired up my own weapon, a poleax. Shaping the weapon with magic took less than a second, but really it had taken over a year. When I first came to St. Luck’s I’d been conflicted, inexperienced, and—let’s face it—completely inept. But over the last twelve months I’d gone from the girl who had never met a demon before, didn’t know how to fight or use her magic, to a woman who had battled countless rogare demons, meted out punishment to a select few, and even executed one in cold blood. That had been exceedingly difficult, but I hadn’t shied away from what had to be done. The demon had killed innocent Hyrkes—humans with no magic—and would have continued doing so if I hadn’t executed him. So when I coolly shaped a fiery poleax out of thin air and twirled it around in my hand as if it were no more than a kid’s baton, it looked impressively easy only because for so long it hadn’t been.
I kept my eyes averted from my weapon. In the dark underground space of the Gridiron, fire was blinding. Surrounding me were three stories of blackness, interspersed with an occasional stone column. Two thousand years ago, St. Lucifer’s used to be a fort. Not many of the original buildings remained, but this lower level had survived. The Gridiron that we fought in now had likely been used for the same purpose for millennia—training Maegesters to fight. It looked like a miniature coliseum, one that had been buried by time. The light from our weapons flickered against the stone columns and our breath puffed out in small gray bursts as Vicious and I circled each other.
Our signatures—the magical aura that waning magic users have and can sense in one another—flared with expectation. It was a battle response I was used to.
I waited for Vicious to make the first move. I almost always let my opponent make the first move. I knew from my training that smaller fighters could sometimes make up for their lack of size through speed, but I’d been born touched by Luck’s heavy hand. I didn’t need speed; I had strength—the strength of my magic.
Vicious made the first move, but instead of stepping toward me or slashing at my neck as I’d anticipated, he waved his sword in front of my face. Instinctively my gaze locked on it for the briefest moment, but a second was all it took. Blinded to anything but Vicious’ magic, I was unaware of where his left hand was until I felt the ringing slap of his palm on my right cheek. My head snapped toward my shoulder. That side of my face now stung as if a hundred hornets had landed there. But anger quickly displaced pain. He’d slapped me. Not punched me, as he would have done with every other opponent he’d been paired with, but slapped me, like the girl he obviously thought I still was. My signature flared. Damn, I’d misjudged Vicious. I’d thought he wouldn’t spare me any blows but he had. And now he was likely at least two points ahead because he’d managed to briefly blind and stun me. Livid, I threw a spray of blistery waning magic at his face. He easily deflected it and laughed, the low rumble infinitely irritating due to the almost never-ending echo down here.
“I heard you’re St. Luck’s Primoris,” Vicious said. “You know you wouldn’t have advanced this far with your ranking if Ari Carmine were still a student here. Pity he disappeared during your last assignment.”
Vicious’ emphasis on the word disappeared was because he, and mostly everyone else, thought that Ari had been killed during our last assignment, and Vicious, like many of the other MITs, had heard that Ari and I were close. He just didn’t know how close. His words were an attempt to unsettle me emotionally. Unfortunately, his wide unaimed verbal shot was working. Score: Vicious, three; Onyx, one.
Everything Vicious said was true. I probably couldn’t have beaten Ari in a sparring match, and he had disappeared during our last assignment. But what Vicious didn’t know was that Ari hadn’t disappeared because he was dead; he’d disappeared because he’d been hiding a bigger secret than I’d been when we’d first enrolled at St. Luck’s. Ari didn’t just have a drop of demon blood like the rest of us future Maegesters, he had an entire body full of it. He’d been a demon masquerading as a human with waning magic. Lamentably, Ari Carmine had also been my lover—and the man I’d loved with all my demon-marked heart. So even the mention of his name still hurt . . . and infuriated me.
I gritted my teeth and hurled the poleax directly at Vicious’ head. Onyx, two. I knew Vicious’ reflexes were good enough to avoid a direct hit. Sure enough, he dodged the shot by lunging to his right and falling to the floor while swinging his broadsword in an arc toward my middle as he fell. By the time he landed, the sword would have slashed through both my ankles—Vicious, four—if I hadn’t leapt to avoid the amputating burn. My poleax exploded in a shower of sparks as it collided with one of the columns on the far side of the room and Vicious let go of his sword. It lay harmlessly spitting on the Gridiron’s stone floor until it went out, plunging us into darkness.
Both Vicious and I, and every other Maegester in this room, could easily have lit a fire to restore our sight. But no one did. Vicious and I didn’t need light to “see” one another. We could sense each other through our signatures. Vicious’ signature felt like some sort of rock aggregate. There were some hard bits like nickel and then there was a whole lot of what felt like sand and grit to me. Dense filler. Formidable, but something I could probably withstand, even if he came at me directly from the front. I stood still, waiting. Vicious could feel me too, but signatures just gave us a sense of where the other was, like heat coming from a fire pit.
Vicious threw a volley of fireballs toward me. One after the other their fiery blasts lit up the room in increasingly shallow arcs, culminating in two final, furious, straight shots directed right at my head and chest. I blocked them all almost without thinking and redirected them into the darkness beyond the stone pillars surrounding us. After that, Vicious charged. It was inevitable. They all did. It was what we were here for after all. He rushed toward me, the fiery broadsword reformed. This time I fired up a similar weapon and we began the match in earnest, circling each other, dodging, lunging, thrusting, pivoting, feigning near misses so that the next moves would be direct hits. In a matter of minutes we were both winded, injured, and burned. Vicious had dislocated my kneecap and given me a black eye, and my sword had cut a two-inch gash on his forehead, a ten-inch slash down his inner thigh, and a slight nick on his neck. If I’d pressed harder with my blade or if I hadn’t allowed my magic to cauterize the cuts, it was possible that Vicious would be dead by now. He knew it and I could feel in his signature that it pissed him off. Probable score: Vicious, seven; Onyx, ten. The match was far from over.
“Let’s have a go without fire, Onyx,” he said.
I barked out a laugh. “Why would I agree to that? I’m winning.”
Without warning, Vicious punched me. I should have seen it coming, what with his request to do away with our magic and start scrapping like beasts. Problem was I’d expected it earlier and my reflexes were a fraction too slow. His fist connected with my mouth, knocked my head backward, leaving a sharp, searing pain in my upper lip that quickly morphed into a mind-numbing ache. I tasted blood and spit something hard onto the stone floor of the Gridiron.
My tooth. No wonder Vicious wanted to “have a go without fire.” He knocked my tooth out and he hadn’t even used his magic to do it. My signature heated up. Had this been last year, I would have started getting scared. Scared that I couldn’t control my magic. Scared that my fire might burn something unintended. Scared I’d be bullied, lose, hurt someone . . . or worse. No more. Now my rising temper only meant this match would soon be over.
I looked up at Vicious and grinned at him. In my current condition, my smile was likely the ghastliest and bloodiest it had ever been. Vicious shook his head in mock sympathy and tsked.
“Don’t worry,” he said. “I know a good Hyrke dentist I can recommend.” He clicked a nail against his sharp, silvery teeth and formed a new weapon, a huge glowing fireball. He held it delicately with his right hand and deftly tossed it in the air, catching it easily. He then wound up as if to pitch it. As he stepped forward, his left hand moved toward my cheek. This time I was ready. I caught it before it could connect. Drawing inspiration from his horrible moniker, I viciously wrenched his wrist, twisting it in an intentionally unnatural angle. I put all of my weight and magic into the move and jerked until I felt a sickening crunch. At the same time I blocked his fireball with a waning magic ball of my own, but mine wasn’t fiery—it was dark. My dark magic blast hit Vicious, knocking him off his feet and into the air. He collided with the nearest stone pillar and slid to the floor, barely conscious.
I walked over to him. I wanted to tell him I was sorry. That I hoped I hadn’t broken his wrist and that I always tried to win the matches with a minimum amount of magic.
But this was the Gridiron. Apologies were unnecessary and unwanted.
So all I said was, “Don’t worry, I know a good Mederi.”
Vicious looked up at me from the floor. His voice was slurred and thick. “You should have been a Mederi, Onyx. You’re an abomination. A woman with waning magic?” He made a sound of disgust as he tried to get up. I didn’t offer to help. “At least my injuries can be healed by a Mederi.” He made a sound that was part laugh, part cough and hauled himself to his feet. “No Mederi can grow your tooth back,” he said, pointing at my now-battered face.
I raised my eyebrows. “Huh,” I said, my swollen lips likely producing an ugly grimace. “Well, you’ve obviously never met my brother, Nightshade.”
I gave the judge a perfunctory bow, picked up my tooth and cloak, put the former in my pocket and the latter around my shoulders, and limped over to the stone bench where Seknecus and the others sat.
Seknecus’ signature was as hard as ever. But not in a harsh, hostile kind of way. Rather, to me, it felt strong and supportive. Karanos’ signature was well cloaked and his face was expressionless. Friedrich looked pleased, although I couldn’t figure out why. He and I didn’t get along. Last semester I’d lost control of my magic and had accidentally destroyed an irreplaceable statue of Justica, the Demon Patron of Judgment, Punishment, and Mercy, which had been in the Joshua School’s possession for centuries. (I’d also told Friedrich and the Joshua School to shove it, that I didn’t need or want a Guardian Angel, thank you very much, so we were still battling over whether I should be allowed one now that I wanted one and, if so, who it should be.)
“How did everyone else do today?” I mumbled, not out of meekness but because it was hard to enunciate with a fat lip. Seknecus knew what I was really asking. Was I still ranked Primoris? Would I be competing in the Laurel Crown Race?
So far, I’d beaten all but one of the MITs I’d sparred with. The matches hadn’t been easy, especially the ones with the other MITs from St. Luck’s. Sasha (a distant cousin of mine who had only contempt for me) had burned off the end of my hair. Brunus (a cruel, repulsive MIT whose signature always reminded me of rotten cabbage) had broken my nose. Unfortunately it hadn’t stopped me from experiencing the noxious stink of his signature during the rest of our match. Tosca I could have easily killed—if I had the stomach for it, which I didn’t. But I’d become very adept at hiding my revulsion to violence. In the Gridiron, posturing and presentation were part of the ranking system. If you looked weak, the judge assumed you were weak.
Brunus was the one MIT out of all of the second year MITs in New Babylon who had bested me. This year, his hatred of me had only increased. His naked animosity toward me had propelled him into a fighting form he might never have achieved otherwise. He’d been so aggressive and brutal during the rank matches leading up to ours that he’d actually killed one of his opponents, an MIT from Gremory Tower—Martius Einion, the only child of a poor, elderly Host couple who lived on the outskirts of Etincelle. Then, after trying and failing no less than seven times during our rank match to kill me, he’d passionately (and madly) declared that he’d rather die than watch me win the Laurel Crown. It was revolting to know that he had scored enough points throughout his matches to possibly overtake me today.
“Congratulations, Onyx. Brunus lost his match. You’re still St. Luck’s second year Primoris. If you elect to compete, you’ll be starting with the rest of the racers a week from today.”
I nodded, hiding my relief and satisfaction, and glanced at the rest of my audience. Karanos was contemplating Vicious with narrowed eyes. He was likely still assessing Vicious’ capabilities and trying to figure out where to best place him.
Friedrich’s head was bent close to the vaguely familiar woman. They finished speaking and met my gaze. Friedrich positively beamed. Had he forgiven me for destroying Justica’s statue already? Since destroying it, I’d tried to meet with him at least half a dozen times to discuss how I could make amends, but each time I was told, “When suitable reparations have been determined, you will be notified.”
The woman simply stared. It was unnerving—and not just because most stares are. It was unnerving because her taupe-eyed contemplative stare was one I’d been subjected to many times before. My Guardian Angel from last semester, Raphael Sinclair, had the same eyes. Suddenly I knew who she was and where I’d seen her before.
This was Rafe’s mother, Valda Sinclair.
She rose from the bench and walked over to me. Even after having sent a man who was nearly twice my size crashing into a stone pillar not two minutes prior, my instinct was to stay alert. I suddenly felt as if the match wasn’t over.
Karanos’ gaze shifted to Valda and he frowned.
“I want to ask her a question, Karanos,” she said dismissively, which spoke volumes about her position in the Divinity. “If you win the Laurel Crown Race, where do you want to serve your residency?”
I paused. Not because I was thinking about my answer. I knew exactly where I’d choose to work next semester if I won. For years, all I’d wanted was to become a Mederi—a woman whose magic was waxing instead of waning; a woman who could grow and heal with her magic instead of burn and destroy. But I’d learned to accept my waning magic. And while I didn’t love it, I was proud of my achievements and I no longer longed to be something I wasn’t. I had a new dream. One that was much more compatible with my waning magic than my last dream, but one which was not typically held by Laureates—Laurel Crown winners. I fought not to clear my throat. Glashia’s Artifice class had taught me better than that. Laureates didn’t worry what anyone else thought of their ambitions. They pursued their goals without reservation.
“I want to serve as a sentry on board the Alliance,” I said.
Valda’s eyebrows arched. Seknecus and Friedrich looked up. Even my father turned toward me. For once, he wasn’t expressionless. In fact, a number of emotions played across his face: surprise, disappointment, and then derision . . . or possibly bemusement. The Alliance was my roommate Ivy’s family flagship. It was a big double-decked vessel that took supplies, equipment, and passengers up and down the Lethe to the various outposts. Currently, the ship’s captain was making do with cannons and worn-out spells as a defense. I knew for a fact from speaking with Ivy that he could benefit from having a Maegester on board. Problem was Maegesters, especially Laureates, didn’t work for Hyrkes. They worked for demons.
“You want to win the Laurel Crown so you can work for a Hyrke riverboat captain?” Friedrich asked, clearly perplexed.
“That’s right,” I said, keeping my chin up and meeting their stares.
Karanos harrumphed (another remarkable show of emotion) and pulled two sealed envelopes out of his pocket. He handed them to me.
“Your residency offers. Neither is conditioned upon your winning the Laurel Crown. So, if you don’t win, or choose not to race, you’ll likely be placed in one of these positions.”
I looked down at the envelopes. One was the color of clotted cream with crisp corners and a leaden seal bearing the image of a gaol. The other was a dirtier, more tattered version of the first with a crimson seal bearing the image of a waterfall.
The one with the gaol seal looked like it might be from the Office of the New Babylon Gaol. Its demon patron was Adikia. In Halja, once sinners were tried and convicted, they no longer had any rights. They were either executed or sent to gaol to serve out their sentences under the patronage of Adikia, who was also known as the Patron Demon of Abuse, Injustice, and Oppression. I repressed a shudder. And who knew where the envelope with the waterfall seal was from? Likely some outpost lord who thought a female Maegester might make a good sheriff.
“And if you do win,” Karanos continued dryly, “you might change your mind and accept one of these offers voluntarily.” He cleared his throat. For once, what Karanos thought was abundantly clear. He found the idea of a Laureate working for a Hyrke riverboat captain wasteful and self-indulgent.
It smarted just a bit that there were only two envelopes. I couldn’t help remembering that last year’s Laureate had received over twenty offers from various patrons.
All the more reason to win the race. Because if I didn’t, the Demon Council would be able to place me in either of these residencies whether I wanted to go or not.
Or somewhere even worse.
Climbing up out of the bowels of Rickard Building where the Gridiron and our other dungeon-like training areas were took time. The only exits were high, twisty, ancient iron staircases, anchored solely at the top and bottom, which circled in tight, dark loops for four stories or more. I alternately limped and hopped, step by step, clutching the railing with my right hand while holding a lit fireball in my left. By the time I made it to the top, I was sweating and exhausted. I immediately doused the fireball and headed straight for the outer door with one goal in mind: find Raphael Sinclair. Angels weren’t quite as good at healing as Mederies were, but Rafe would easily be able to heal all of my injuries except the lost tooth.
I shoved the heavy steel door of Rickard open and let it bang against the building’s stone wall as I stepped gratefully into the clear, crisp evening air of Timothy’s Square. I stood there for a moment, panting and surveying the square, looking for Rafe.
St. Luck’s shared a campus with the Joshua School, an Angel academy. Timothy’s Square was in the center of both schools and was often the site of various outdoor social events. Tonight was Friday and it was the Festival of Frivolity. To one side of the square was a giant bonfire, all glowing red and crackling. A group of students stood around it, drinking, talking, eating, and laughing. Ashes from the fire rose into the air like reverse confetti combining with the myriad stars splashed across the dark, indigo sky.
In the center of the square was a gathering of booths, tents, and kiosks—a collection of vendors granted a temporary license to sell their wares, confections, and libations for the next twenty-four hours. And on the other side of them were the snow demons. They weren’t real—although plenty of demons in Halja were. They were made out of snow; they weren’t patrons of snow. There were dozens of them. Immediately, I recognized several: Lilith (Luck’s mate—even carved out of snow she appeared fiery and defiant as she charged two-thousand-year-old enemies astride a huge barghest brandishing a sabre made out of ice); Estes (Patron Demon of the Lethe, the mighty river that cut Halja west to east, depicted as a giant merman complete with a trident as large as Luck’s lance must have been); Ionys (Patron Demon of Wine, carrying no less than half a dozen liquid peace offerings in his clawed hands); and Cliodna (Patron Demon of Waves and Waterbirds, portrayed as a long, lithe, snowy white swan). Each of them had been sculpted out of snow earlier today by St. Luck’s and Joshua School students eager to compete for some ludicrous prize like an icicle or a snowflake.
But even I had to admit that a contest for something so trivial sounded pretty good right now. I limped through the crowd, keeping my hood up and my face averted. Everyone at school knew I had waning magic now—and that I knew how to use it, which meant I often came to class bruised and sometimes bloodied, but the lost tooth was new. Call it vanity but I just didn’t feel like talking to anyone until I found Rafe. He’d said he would meet me here after the sparring session. We weren’t allowed Guardian Angels for the rank matches, and even if we were, the Joshua School still hadn’t okayed our partnership. Truth was, after I’d destroyed that priceless statue of Justica, Rafe had remade it, but in my image, not Justica’s. I grinned remembering, but my lip split anew so I stopped.
Buffered from the slight wind by the crowd, I passed the booth where the Angels were selling hot apple cider. I’d wander over later to see if it was ensorcelled or not, and if so what the spell did to the drinker. Some of the Angels’ ensorcelled drinks were fun and some . . . were not. I was just about to check the inside of one of the larger tents when someone grabbed my shoulder. Still jumpy from my earlier fight, I dropped my hood and pivoted, my hand held at waist level, palm side up, ready to hold an instantly forged fiery weapon. Luckily I stopped short of actually shaping the weapon because my “attacker” turned out to be Ivy Jaynes, my Hyrke roommate.
The look on her face told me how bad mine must look.
“Vicious was more vicious than I anticipated,” I said grimacing, which caused Ivy to gasp.
I pulled it out of my pocket and showed it to her. She stared at it and then met my gaze. “You need a Mederi.”
“For now, I just need Rafe. Have you seen him?”
She shook her head. “Why don’t you wait inside,” she said, gesturing to the tent I’d been about to enter, “I’ll go find him. Fitz is in there. He was picked to be St. Luck’s ‘Lord Lawless’—can you believe it?” She shook her head, clearly amazed at her cousin’s unerring ability to find the gravitational center of any gathering of lunatics, dilettantes, or dramatists.
Unlike the snow demons, Lord Lawless wasn’t based on anyone—or anything—that had actually lived. He was a character, which made Fitz the perfect choice to play him. Fitz was Ivy’s fun-loving cousin. He was also a Hyrke. When I wasn’t getting beat up and learning how to fight with fiery weapons, I spent all of my time with them. So when Ivy offered to go find Rafe while I hung out inside Lord Lawless’ tent, I gratefully accepted and stepped inside.
There was a long line of supplicants. I took my place at the end and glanced around Fitz’s “castle” for the night. It was opulently furnished with emerald and amethyst silks adorned with thick gold rope and peacock- and ostrich-feather tassels. Toward the back of the tent, Fitz lounged on an overstuffed settee, which had been placed on a raised dais. In front of me, fellow students waited in varying states of inebriation to speak to Lord Lawless. Ordinarily I would have bitten my cheek to keep from laughing—a more apt scenario for Fitz’s Friday night pleasure could not have been scripted by Luck himself—but my mouth was too sore.
The Festival of Frivolity is nearly as old as the Apocalypse. Two thousand years ago, Lucifer’s army trumped the Savior’s in the last great battle, Armageddon. New Babylon—Halja’s only city, and the city within which St. Luck’s was located—was built on top of that ancient battlefield. In fact, St. Luck’s used to be Fort Babylon and we were now standing where portions of Luck’s army used to practice marching.
Both Lucifer and the Savior were killed at Armageddon. But their armies survived. Lucifer’s army, the Host, evolved. His warlords, those with mixed demon and human blood, had children. Along with their blood, Luck’s warlords also passed down their magic. The daughters (usually) became Mederies, or healers, and the sons (usually) became Maegesters, or modern-day knights. Since we aren’t at war anymore, and haven’t been for millennia, being a modern-day knight really meant knowing the law, and how to uphold it, as much as knowing how to fight. That’s why we trained at St. Lucifer’s, a school of demon law. When we graduated, those of us with Host blood would become Maegesters. We would be given jobs where we counseled, judged, and/or executed demons who disobeyed the law. Hunting down and persecuting Hyrke criminals would be left to the Hyrke barristers.
One night of every year, however, shortly after midwinter, everyone got a night off from following our country’s strict rules. Sacrifices weren’t serious, promises weren’t kept, and laws did not have to be obeyed. We called it the Festival of Frivolity. (Although a more appropriate name might have been the Festival of the Drunk and Disorderly. Thankfully some of the more bloody and debauched aspects of the holiday had disappeared during the third century.) As with all Haljan holidays, the festival had a patron, but in keeping with the spirit of the holiday, the patron of the Festival of Frivolity wasn’t a demon. In fact, the patron never had magic, which meant it was always a Hyrke. That patron presided over the festivities, granted boons, heard confessions (whether they were true or not is anyone’s guess), gave out dispensations, and took liberties. In short, there could be no better choice than Fitz to serve as our school’s festival patron, Lord Lawless.
The line moved fast and before long I was next to present myself to him. The student in front of me offered Fitz a broken pencil stub, asked for an A in Amnesty and Absolution, and received the completely fallacious reassurance that not only would he ace that class, he would be forgiven for all of his future sins in perpetuity. When it was my turn, I removed my cloak in a dramatic flourish and bowed, sincerely regretting that my dislocated kneecap prevented me from kneeling. Fitz would have loved it.
“Lord Lawless,” I said in a somber voice while keeping my head bowed, “I am Nouiomo Onyx of Etincelle, second year Maegester-in-Training here at St. Lucifer’s school of demon law, daughter of Karanos Onyx, executive of the Demon Council, daughter of Aurelia Onyx nee Ferrum of the Hawthorn Tribe, and sister to Nocturo Onyx, the Mederi who goes by the name Nightshade.”
About midway through my introduction Fitz yawned exaggeratedly.
“Such a long and boring introduction, Ms. Onyx,” Fitz said, grinning in mock jest. “You know I can’t grant boons to members of the Host. Tonight is for those of us without mag—”
I looked up and Fitz saw my face. Though he was outlandishly dressed in the most ornate king’s cloak I’d ever seen, his expression rapidly changed from farcical to angry to sympathetic.
“Nouiomo Onyx,” he said in a quieter voice, “come forward.”
I stepped up to the bottom of the dais. Fitz leaned down from his makeshift throne until he was close enough to speak to me without anyone overhearing. There were so many other people packed in the tent, most of them talking to others, and nearly all of them heavily intoxicated, that our brief tête-à-tête went largely unnoticed.
“Please tell me Vicious looks worse,” he said, reaching for my hand and giving it a light squeeze. He and Ivy had the same coloring: fiery red hair, a ruddy complexion, and eyes as bright as malachite.
“No, but I won,” I said, giving Fitz my toothless grin. “Which means that I’ll be the MIT that St. Luck sends to the Laurel Crown Races.”
Fitz looked dubious. “Congratulations? I think . . . Are you really going to race? Over a third of the racers are never heard from again.”
I thought of the two letters in my pocket. The unopened invitations from patron demons who wanted me to come work for them next year. And I thought of all the worse places the Council might send me if I didn’t win the race and the ability to choose my own place of residency.
“Yeah, I’m racing,” I said. My voice already sounded tired. I hoped it was because I still needed to be healed after my fight and not because Fitz had just reminded me how dangerous the Laurel Crown Race was.
Fitz studied my bruised face. He looked as troubled as I felt, but opted to complain about the unfairness of the successfully completed rank match instead of dwelling on the lethality of the upcoming race.
“Well, I think it’s ridiculous that they won’t let Rafe cast some protective spells over you prior to a match. How is that realistic? Maegesters are always paired with a Guardian Angel in the field. Why shouldn’t the rank matches reflect that?”
During Armageddon, the Angels had been our enemy. But two thousand years had taught (most of) us how to get along. Now, the descendants of Armageddon’s warring sides worked together all the time. We’d learned that our magic was complimentary. While a Maegester’s magic was inherited, an Angel’s magic came from their faith, as well as their constant study and rigorous discipline. Angels were Halja’s spellcasters. They had to memorize myriad spells in order to practice their magic.
I shrugged. “They want to assess our magic, not our Guardian’s.”
Fitz laughed. “Besides, who could beat you and Rafe together, right?”
“Right,” I said slowly, looking around the tent. I knew who I was looking for. I’d said I’d come here looking for Rafe, but I was also looking for someone else. It was the same person I looked for on campus nearly every hour of every day—Ari.
Why? Because I was still in love with him, that’s why.
Rochester, my former professor and sparring coach, had once told me I had a “soft spot” for demons. At the time he’d only meant that I shouldn’t be so reluctant to kill the law-breaking ones. But now the memory of those words taunted me. Forget about a request to ace one of my classes—or even a request to beat every other MIT in the Laurel Crown Race—what I really wanted was for someone to knock my “soft spot” out the way Vicious had knocked my tooth out. But I was careful not to let my emotions show. Not only had the Gridiron taught me not to, but I didn’t want to ruin Fitz’s good night. After all, it wasn’t every night that Fitz got to play Lord Lawless. In lieu of the Hyrke trade of making a frivolous offering in return for a fictitious boon, I granted Fitz a liberty. He said he wanted a kiss from me—on the cheek—but I was in no condition to honor his request, so I’d have to pay up later. Then, with a wink, he dismissed me from court.
I limped back to the tent’s opening. A few other students offered to help me, but they’d had so much spiked cider I thought it more likely they would fall than me so I declined. After waiting a few more minutes I decided Ivy and Rafe must have gotten stuck somewhere and I slipped out, leaving Lord Lawless to dispense unjustice alone.
I opted to explore the cold side of the square first—the side with the snow demons instead of the bonfire—and hobbled around toward them. Up close, I not only recognized which demons had been carved but what frivolous offerings had been left to them. I was happy to see that no one had left anything truly offensive. Tonight might be the Festival of Frivolity, but tomorrow would be just another day. Some demons didn’t take kindly to being the butt of a joke. (In fact, some demons didn’t take kindly to anything. But thankfully no one had carved those demons out of the snow.)
Instead of the usual bowl of blood, the offering in front of the snow carving of Lilith was a bowl full of miniature sugar lilies. Estes had been given a pile of fish bones and Cliodna, assorted paper birds: avocets, sheathbills, and snipes, jacanas, plovers, and lapwings. Ionys just had a pile of empty cider and wine cups in front of his snow carving.
I walked over to the bowl of sugar lilies, stole one out of the dish and popped it into my mouth. In return I left my bloody tooth, perversely pleased at how disgusting it looked against the sugar lilies. Ironically, Lilith would probably appreciate my gift. The tooth had been a true sacrifice after all—and what demon would quibble about whether they received blood, bone, or tooth?
I turned toward the fire, thinking I would look there next for Ivy and Rafe when I saw him—not the Angel I was looking for, but the Angel I’d avoided all last semester. Peter Aster.
He looked the same. Long, bone white hair tied back with a black leather strap. An angular, almost beautiful face—and that grim, disapproving look.
“What happened to your hair?”
Was he taking lessons from my father? No hey, how have you been for the last six months? No sorry I almost let your boyfriend (now ex-boyfriend) die. Honestly, his asking me about my hair after the way our friendship had ended made Karanos’ insistence on avoiding small talk look positively cheerful.
“Sasha de Rocca burned off the end of it.”
“And your face? What happened?”
Unfortunately his tone conveyed more horror than concern. Peter Aster had once been my best friend. We’d grown up in Etincelle, the small village across the Lethe from New Babylon where all the rich kids with magic grow up. Peter’s estate abutted ours. A long time ago, I’d even dreamed of marrying him. No more. Even though I wasn’t with Ari anymore—and even if Ari was a demon (and, truth be told, he wasn’t just a demon; he was a drakon, a rare subset of winged demons born to human mothers)—I could never forgive Peter for almost letting him die.
But that was six months ago and Peter had broken no laws and he’d kept his distance from me since. Until now.
“Ludovicus Mischmetal happened,” I said.
“Vicious,” Peter spat out the name.
We stood on the dark side of the square, eyeing each other up. Finally, I asked him what I’d been thinking.
“What do you want, Peter?”
At one time, it had been me. But not really. He hadn’t wanted Noon, the woman with waning magic; he’d wanted Nouiomo Onyx, as she should have been born, with the waxing magic of a Mederi. For years, we’d searched for a way to reverse my magic. But last year I’d elected to live my life as Luck had intended, with the magic I’d been born with. Peter hadn’t taken my decision very well. And if it weren’t for the fact that he’d almost let Ari die, I would have tried to make amends.
“Actually,” Peter said, “I came to ask you what you want.”
I frowned at him. “What do you mean what I want? I want what I’ve always wanted—to survive being a student here.”
Peter’s face softened and he stepped toward me. “And who could blame you? This whole”—he waved his hand around in a sweeping motion indicating all of St. Luck’s—“experience has likely been horrible for you.”
My frown deepened. No doubt, parts of it had been. But I could not say that, as a whole, my entire experience here at St. Luck’s had been horrible.
“Noon, last year you came to St. Lucifer’s to hide while I searched for a way to reverse your magic. Now, this year, you’re on your way to becoming the second year Primoris. Forget about your hair or your face, what happened to you?”
I barked out a laugh. Last year I would have stared back, mouth agape, perplexed about why Peter couldn’t understand my coping strategies. This year I was just irritated that he was wasting my time. I was becoming impatient to find Rafe. As the night progressed, my jaw was getting sorer and my headache was getting worse.
“I decided I wanted something different, Peter.”
“You want to be a demon executioner? Noon, you hate to kill.”
It wasn’t just what he said; it was the way he said it. Peter had always been slightly egotistical and more than ambitious, but until six months ago, those traits had always seemed harmless, charming even. Last year, Peter and I had shared a single goal: find an ancient, mythical, powerful spell, which could, in theory, reverse my magic. We had different reasons for wanting it, but each of us had desperately desired that I become what I should have been in the first place—a waxing magic user instead of a waning magic user. I’d wanted magic that could grow and heal, not destroy and kill.
So Peter was right. I did hate killing things. And I didn’t want to be a demon executioner. But he was also wrong. Because, though what he said was accurate, his tone implied that I still hated what I was. And that wasn’t true. Not anymore.
“There are plenty of Maegester positions that don’t involve killing, Peter.”
His eyebrows rose. “Really? How many? One? Two?”
“Actually, there are six.”
“And you’re hoping the Demon Council will place you in one of those positions, when you’ve fought your way to the top?”
“I don’t need to hope. I’m not on my way to becoming the second year Primoris, Peter. I am the second year Primoris. And when I win the Laurel Crown Race, I’ll get to choose where I work next semester.”
I turned on my heels but he grabbed my arm. I felt my signature expand. I tried to shake him off but instead he stepped closer. I didn’t want to—couldn’t—fight with him. Physical sparring between waning magic users and Angel spellcasters was highly discouraged.
“Win the Laurel Crown Race? Become this year’s Laureate?” Peter’s expression was equal parts astonished and angry. “Noon, you can’t be serious.”
I willed my expanding signature to slow. Emotionally, Peter was a tougher opponent than Vicious, but I knew how to control my magic now.
“I am,” I said simply, a few moments later, after I’d calmed down. But Peter wasn’t going to leave off.
“So which demon would you spend your residency with? Which demon out of the six will get the benefit of your services next year if you win?”
“Actually, I won’t be working for a demon next year, Peter. I’ll be working for a Hyrke. I plan on offering my services to the Jaynes family. I hope to secure a position on the Alliance.”
Peter looked less surprised than the group at the Gridiron had looked when I’d told them that I wanted to work for the Jayneses next year. He nodded his head in an ambiguous gesture, considering.
“And you’ll be satisfied sitting second chair to a Hyrke riverboat captain?”
I shrugged and twisted free from his grip. “Why wouldn’t I be?”
Peter grimaced. “Because you’re an Onyx; that’s why. And you’re a Ferrum.”
“What are you saying, Peter? That just because I’m Karanos and Aurelia’s daughter that I’m blood bound to adopt my ancestors’ patrician arrogance?”
“Non procul a proprio stipite poma cadunt.” The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.
I scoffed. “Yeah? Well I prefer ‘vitibus uvae dulces veniunt a fortibus.’” From strong vines come sweet grapes.
“Noon, have you looked in the mirror lately? You don’t look sweet. You look . . . terrifying.”
My signature bubbled and roiled. My palm itched to fire up a weapon. But I kept it all tightly under my control.
“See you around, Peter,” I said, stepping back. I hoped I didn’t.
I turned to go, and put about three feet between us, when his voice stopped me.
“There are other ways to reverse your magic than the one we were first pursuing,” he called to me.
“We went down that road,” I said slowly, turning around. “It was a dead end.”
“No, it wasn’t. You just got . . . sidetracked.” I knew he was talking about Ari. “With your blood, Noon, you deserve a greater role in Halja’s future than the one you’ll have if you work on the river.”
I blew out my breath and glanced around the square. Somewhere nearer to the fire a pack of students were singing. I looked over at the bowl of sugar lilies that had been left for Lilith and remembered my tooth—and all the other sacrifices I’d made.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for the Noon Onyx series
“A original and clever urban fantasy…Excitement and action leap from the pages as Archer’s skill with description pulls readers fully into her magical world.”—Publishers Weekly
“An astounding adventure tale. Archer’s unique world, where Lucifer’s army triumphed at Armageddon, is filled with adherence to strict laws that keep an uneasy peace between races…A really fresh and fascinating series!”—RT Book Reviews
“Spectacular.”—Faith Hunter, USA Today bestselling author
“[A] coming of age/New Adult set in a dark world where demons have won…A lively and engaging fantasy which twisted some elements in a refreshing way.”—Book Pushers
“Archer has created a dark world that will grab your attention from the very start.”—The Reading Café