Prologue: The Powers That Be
c. 525 AD
A man chopped wood outside the low-roofed stone hut where he lived with his wife. A rough wind buffeted him, but he kept at his work. The more wood he chopped now, the warmer the hut would be during the cold winter that was sure to blow down from Scotland. The night was coming on fast, and he had a huge pile of wood that still needed to be chopped. As he worked, he kept a wary eye out. Between each blow of the axe, he raised his head and scanned the ridges of the nearby hills and the dark spaces between the trees.
There were whispers of war on the wind.
And, of course, there were the usual robbers that preyed on vulnerable folk who lived away from a village.
But the man found it safer to live away from other people.
Wait, what was that? The man stopped chopping and leaned on his axe. He fixed his gaze on the trees. Something moved among them. A man? Certainly. A robber? No. Robbers ran in packs.
He watched as the tall figure came closer. Despite the weather, he didn’t seem hurried. He wore a dark blue cloak with the hood over his head, but the man could make out the long gray beard.
“Merlin,” the man grumbled as he threw down his axe and folded his arms across his chest to await the visitor.
“Hail, Waelwulf.” Merlin raised his staff in greeting as he approached the wooden fence that surrounded the hut, the plot of grass in the front, and the vegetable garden in the back.
“Stay right there,” Waelwulf said, but Merlin had already pushed open the fence and come inside the yard. He put down his hood, revealing a head of long gray hair.
“I expected more of you, Waelwulf,” Merlin said.
“I don’t know what you mean.”
Merlin sighed as if they had had this conversation before. They had. “You have been given a gift. Why don’t you use it? With Uther dead, you could be of service to the young Pendragon. I know you have seen the Sword in your visions.”
Waelwulf jabbed a finger to his chest. “These visions, this gift is a curse. This… this power you say I have has brought me nothing but heartache.”
“The powers that be are of God,” Merlin said.
“If God gave me this power then why am I being tormented by it?”
“It’s the devil that torments you.”
Waelwulf paced the yard. “And what of Morgana. Your sister. Are you going to tell me her powers are of God too?”
“All power, yes,” Merlin said. He lowered himself slowly onto a stump, stretching out his heavy, booted feet in front of him. His cloak fell away, revealing the jeweled hilt of a dagger. “Morgana has chosen a dark path. And she will be held to account. But right now, you are no better than she. For you do nothing. In the end, Darkness and Nothing are one.”
Waelwulf stared at the old man for a long time.
“So, will the young king have his Sword?” Merlin asked.
“Tonight,” Waelwulf said. “I will summon the visions again.”
“Good,” Merlin said, standing. “Farewell till morn.”
There was a rustle in the air, and it seemed to Waelwulf as though Merlin was being gathered up in his own cloak. The next moment, the old man was gone and there was only a large falcon with grey-blue wings soaring through the sky.
Waelwulf picked his axe up off the ground and turned to finish his work. But he found that all of his wood had already been chopped.
1: Sleep Disturbed
After school, Sam slipped into the empty auditorium under the pretense of using the quiet space to do her homework. The real reason why she was there was to take a nap. Over the past month and a half — ever since Ethan had vanished into thin air, her sleep in her own bed at home had been afflicted with strange dreams.
She would see herself standing in the middle of a grassy field when, suddenly, thorns and brambles would spring up out of the ground all around her. She would face off with what she had begun to call the Pale Army — a crowd of people with snow white faces, silver or white hair, and fingernails and teeth sharpened to needle points. In another dream, she was wearing a crown and riding some kind of flying beast. She would have called it a dragon, but the beast was bigger than any dragon she had ever seen. Perhaps, most disturbing of all was the dream where she would spend an eternity in an underground cave trying to wake up a woman who had been frozen into a huge slab of ice.
So the second to last row of the auditorium right underneath the balcony had become her solace. The dreams couldn’t find her there. The seats were soft and cushy. She spread her homework out on either side of her so it would look like she was working if one of the teachers walked in. Then she leaned back in the seat and went to sleep.
This was precisely what she was doing when she heard a voice whispering through her sleep.
“Wake up, wake up, wake up.” It sounded like a taunt.
Sam stirred and turned her head away from the sound, sending out a subconscious wish that her dreams would not finally find her secret sleeping place.
The taunt came again. “Wake up, wake up, wake up.”
Sam stirred again. And this time she felt warm breath on her face. She opened her eyes —
— and found herself staring into the mouth of a shark.
A scream caught in her throat as she scrambled backwards out of the seat and ran down the row behind the one where she had been sleeping. She only stopped when she realized she was leaving her backpack and all her homework behind.
She stopped and turned around, sleep finally leaving her. She realized that what she had awakened to was not a shark’s smile. It was a girl who had a shark’s smile — one that Sam suddenly found familiar. She had seen this girl with Felicia at the The Rink.
That day seemed so far away now. But Sam found herself thinking that at last something significant was happening. If she could talk to anyone about her crazy dreams, she imagined it would be Felicia.
“Did Felicia send you?” Sam asked the girl who still wore the shark grin. She had long, dark, curly hair, and eyes the size of walnuts.
“Yes. No,” the girl said. “I’m here to kill you.”
Sam thought about this. While she tried to come up with a reasonable response, she realized that Shark Face was holding two silver daggers, one in each hand.
“Well, don’t stand there,” she said. “I like a good chase before a kill.”
She laughed. Like this was funny.
Shark Face backed away into the aisle, and Sam didn’t wait for another invitation. She dashed down the row of seats and scooped up her homework which, thankfully, hadn’t become too scattered. She snatched her backpack off the floor and sprinted for the auditorium entrance.
As she banged into the heavy door with her whole body, she felt a sharp ping on her shoulder. She looked down. Her jacket sleeve was torn, but the skin beneath was unbroken. A dagger stuck quivering in the door. Sam didn’t know if Shark Face had missed or was just taunting her. And she didn’t wait to find out.
She let the auditorium door slam shut behind her and sprinted down the hall. She figured she must have been asleep for a couple of hours because all the classroom lights were turned off. She could hear chatter coming from the direction of the teacher’s lounge. But she probably wanted to avoid any teachers too.
She turned the corner heading for the main entrance of the school.
A loud bang sounded behind her, and Sam looked over her shoulder imagining Shark Face bursting out of the auditorium and overtaking her within seconds. She was so busy looking behind her that she didn’t see the water fountain up ahead. She crashed right into it. Homework went flying. Books and papers from her unzipped backpack scattered across the floor. She lost her balance and tumbled onto the tiles.
Shaken, she scrambled on her hands and knees trying to gather all of her stuff. She heard footsteps behind her, and willed herself to move faster.
Algebra assignment. Well, I could have left that.
She was reaching for her science lab manual when leather boots came into view. “Looks like you need some help.”
Not Shark Face. Sam looked up. A boy was standing there. Sixteen, maybe seventeen. He had brown skin and long black hair that hung down to his shoulders. The most striking thing about him was his eyes — pale green, glimmering like sunlight beneath Caribbean waves. He scooped the lab manual up and then grabbed Sam’s backpack from where it had slid beneath the water fountain.
“Thanks,” Sam said, getting up off the floor. She couldn’t remember seeing him around school before, so she wondered why he seemed eerily familiar.
“You think you can steal my prey?” Shark Face’s voice sounded loud and dramatic as it echoed through the empty halls. Sam and the boy turned to look as the self-proclaimed hunter rounded the corner and narrowed her eyes at them. Sam wondered if her mind was playing tricks on her or if Shark Face was really doing the slow motion stalk walk like Kate Beckinsale in an Underworld movie.
“Looks like you could use some getting away,” the boy said.
Sam nodded in agreement.
The boy ran off the way he had come. Sam followed. He led her right past the teacher’s lounge (but they didn’t seem to notice) and out of the side door the teachers used. They came out under a portico. The evening rays were sharp and bright against a clear November sky. Sam zipped up her jacket against the brisk, chilly air.
“She’s going to keep this up,” the boy said. “Come on, I’ll take you home.”
Sam looked over to find the boy sitting on a polished black and chrome motorcycle. He was still holding her backpack. She started to protest, but the side door was thrust open, and Sam saw Shark Face stepping out from the glass. “Okay,” she said, her heart beating a little faster. She had never ridden on a motorcycle before.
3: Shades of Green
“Hold on to me,” the boy shouted as he kicked the motorcycle into gear and shot out of the driveway and onto the street. Sam felt the wind tugging at her and she tucked her arms tight around the boy’s waist. The cold wind brought tears to her eyes as the boy’s silky black hair tickled her face.
They whizzed past street lamps, houses, cars, trees, till they glided to a stop in front of Sam’s pale brown, stucco-sided house — the only two-story house on the block.
“Here we are,” the boy said.
Sam swung off the back of the motorcycle feeling exhilarated and shivery. Her legs wobbled and she grabbed onto the handlebars to keep from falling. Her fingers tangled with the boy’s. Despite the cold air, his hand was unusually warm.
“Sorry. Maybe I shouldn’t have gone so fast,” he said as he handed her her backpack.
“No, it’s fine. Thank you,” Sam said. She was standing on the curb. The boy smiled, tilting his head to look into her eyes. “I like your shade of green,” he said.
Sam smiled back. “I like yours.” His eyes were a pale, translucent green, like Caribbean waters. “Um, I don’t know your name.”
“True, you don’t. My name is Sadhu. And that girl who was trying to kill you back there is Dabria. Her name means angel of death.” He said this like he had just told her that lollipops were sweet.
“What does your name mean?” Sam said.
Sadhu hesitated. Sam thought maybe he didn’t know, or maybe he did know and he didn’t want to tell her. “I could just Google it, you know.”
“True, you could,” Sadhu said slowly. “Don’t laugh, but it means righteous or virtuous.”
Sam didn’t laugh. She started to wonder what her own name meant. She didn’t know.
“Look, I have to go,” Sadhu said. “See you again soon, Elizabeth.”
No one calls me that, Sam thought as she backed away from the curb. Sadhu revved his motorcycle and streaked away. How does he know my middle name?
Sam turned and walked up the path that cut through the yard and led to the front door. She paused as a chill shivered through her body. She realized that she hadn’t told Sadhu where she lived. And yet he had known.
Weariness overtook adrenaline as Sam climbed the stairs to her room. She hadn’t gotten her nap in the theater, and she’d had to run for her life. It almost felt like one of her dreams had invaded her reality. And she didn’t feel like facing another night of absurd terrors.
She paused at the door to her room and looked down the hall to the door that had been—was still—Ethan’s. It had been six weeks since he had vanished from the living room. At first, it was easy to pretend he was coming back soon. But a week passed, two weeks passed, and then Thanksgiving rolled around. All of Mom’s family from Chicago and all of Dad’s family from North Texas came down. The cover story Ember had provided of Ethan being at a boarding school had proven useful. (Of course, the extended family wondered what kind of school didn’t allow for holiday breaks, but blaming the “school” gave everyone a way to channel their concerns.)
School was a different matter. The first day after Ethan’s disappearance, Sam walked to school alone. She stopped at the corner where she and Ethan usually waited for Pixie to join them. But she only waited a few moments before realizing that she wasn’t ready to talk about Ethan being gone—especially not with his best friend. Thankfully, Pixie was two years older and they didn’t attend the same school (their schools were across the street from each other). So, Sam had been successfully avoiding Pixie since then.
Not that she didn’t feel guilty about that. The proposition was becoming unsustainable.
Sam opened the door to her room. A Halo: Forward Unto Dawn poster stared down at her from above her bed, her raft of nightmares. Sam tossed her backpack onto the mattress. The inflatable replica of the Starship Enterprise that hung from the ceiling swayed in the short-lived wind.
A new laptop sat open on Sam’s desk. She had never had a computer of her own before; her parents had bought this one at the beginning of December. Sam suspected that it was because they thought it would cheer her up. It was a nice gesture. At least she could finally get around to binge-watching every single episode of Doctor Who on Netflix.
Sam sat at the desk, opened a browser, and Googled Sadhu’s name, hoping she was spelling it correctly.
He hadn’t been lying. Righteous, virtuous, princely. Sam started smiling as she read the variant definitions.
“What’s got you so happy?” It was her mother, Amanda, standing in the doorway of her room.
“Nothing,” Sam said quickly. She looked over at her mother, allowing her smile to grow. She saw it reflected back on her mother’s face. She turned back to the computer and typed in her own name.
“Why are you looking up the meaning of your name?” Amanda said.
“It’s just something someone said to me today. I got curious.”
“Oh.” Amanda sat down on the bed behind Sam and watched over her shoulder.
Sam read the meaning of her first name silently, weighing it in her mind. Listener; heard of God. She typed in her middle name and, again, read the meaning silently. God’s oath.
“Well?” Amanda prompted when the silence had stretched too long.
“It’s…nice,” Sam said.
“Your father and I thought Samantha was a beautiful name. And Elizabeth is your father’s mother’s maiden name.”
“When you and Dad adopted Ethan, did he already have a name or did you give him his name?” Sam said.
“I’m sure his mother named him, but we don’t know what that name was. So, we gave him a name. Ethan felt…right.”
Sam searched for the meaning of her brother’s name. She always left out the “adopted” part in her head. It felt weird.
The doorbell rang, interrupting the silence. “I’ll get it,” Amanda said. She kissed Sam on the forehead before leaving the room.
4: Where is Ethan?
The doorbell-ringers turned out to be Ethan’s friends, Pixie Delos and Zach Maxwell.
Sam looked up, not surprised, but not over-eager, to see them crowding her small bedroom. Her mother was standing behind them in the hall, having shown them up. Her expression clearly told Sam that she hadn’t told them anything about Ethan. As Amanda disappeared back downstairs, Sam was on her own.
“Hi,” she said, trying to project calm. She swiveled around in her chair, letting her toes drag on the floor.
Pixie had let her hair grow long since Sam had last seen her, and silky black strands brushed her shoulders. She wore a black and white zip-up jacket with music bars patterned across it. A leather satchel was slung over her shoulder. “Hi,” she said.
Zach nodded a greeting as he leaned against the door jam. Large headphones covered his ears, and Sam could hear Skillet screaming through them. She wondered why he wasn’t deaf already. He was apparently undergoing a growth spurt and his chin cleared the top of Pixie’s head by an inch. The plain white t-shirt he wore under a patched leather jacket hung loosely on his skinny frame. The hem of fraying jeans stopped well above his ankles.
“You’re being selfish,” Pixie said, letting her satchel slip from her shoulder onto Sam’s bed. Whatever was inside clattered.
“I am?” Sam said.
“Guilt trip. Told you not to lead with that,” Zach said as he flipped through the comic books on Sam’s shelf.
Pixie glanced at him, probably wondering how he could possibly hear with the music playing so loud in his ears, then turned back to Sam. “I know you’ve been deliberately avoiding me. I called myself giving you space or whatever, but it’s not fair for you not to tell us where Ethan is.” Sam considered this as Pixie continued. “Akeela said your mom’s been telling people he’s gone to a private school or something, but I know that’s a lie.”
Sam sighed and started picking her nails. “Where do you think he is?” she said.
“Deflection,” Zach said. “Don’t allow it.”
“Fine, I’ll tell you if you guess correctly,” Sam said.
Pixie plopped down on Sam’s bed. “His real parents showed up and wanted to take him back and he went with them.”
“No, thank God,” Sam said. But she almost wished that was the story.
Pixie looked lost. “He died? He ran away?”
“No and no.”
Pixie took a deep breath like she was preparing for a big announcement. “It has to do with those weird visions he was having. Like the one he thought was telling him Joe Wayne was going to die in a fire. They got worse, and now he’s in some psych ward or mental health facility to get himself fixed or something. That’s what happened.”
“We did not send Ethan to a loony bin,” Sam said. As she said this, it occurred to her that even she didn’t know where Ethan was exactly. For all she knew, he very well may have been in one. “But you’re right about the first part.” She sighed and went back to picking her nails. “I don’t know why it’s so hard to talk about. What’s in the bag?”
“Comfort music,” Pixie said, opening the satchel.
“More like bribes,” Zach said, sitting down on the bed beside her.
Pixie started pulling albums out of the bag. “Owl City. Chvrches. Broods. An advance copy of Purity Ring’s new album which is much better than their crappy first one. I’m getting rid of all my CDs before the new year, turning my collection completely digital.”
“Also, your Christmas shopping just got easier,” Zach observed. He was still wearing his headphones, and Sam could feel the vibrations from the sound waves in the floor.
“That’s entirely coincidental,” Pixie said. She turned back to Sam. “Are you going to tell us the truth or not?”
“Yes,” Sam said. “I’ll tell you what happened to him, but that’s all I know. He has his cell phone, but he hasn’t answered any of our calls, hasn’t texted, nothing. The private school thing is just a cover story. Between us, the truth is I don’t know where he is.”
5: Trials of a Young Seer
Ethan stood very still. Arms hung loosely at his sides. He slowed his heartbeat, his breathing. He could feel his pulse undulating in his wrist, his neck.
He was blindfolded, and the lights were out in the room he stood in, which was large and nearly free of furniture. Nothing to help him get his bearings.
He knew his opponent lurked somewhere in the room like a panther in the jungle at midnight. Depending on sight or sound or smell or touch, you wouldn’t know until it pounced. And that was why Ethan wasn’t depending on any of those things, because, for now, his opponent was a demon who didn’t play by the rules. He didn’t know what to call this sixth sense. Instinct? A whisper in the air? A tingle on the skin? A sense that a fist was heaving toward his cheek.
Ethan spun, raising a hand. He caught the fist in his palm, squeezed hard, and twisted it away from him, his body absorbing his opponent’s momentum. Another hand closed on his arm and Ethan did as he had been trained. He leaned into his opponent’s grasp, reaching around and grabbing their shoulder with his free hand.
He pulled hard and was free, but still blindfolded.
The fight came easier now. He could hear as well as feel his opponent. The thrum of anxious energy in the air. The calculation of next moves. The thunderbeat of heart and breath.
Ethan didn’t have to think about his next moves. They came easily, fluidly. Every sense was honed on his opponent. It became as though they were not fighting against each other, but with each other. And when the struggle ended with his opponent on the ground, he almost wished he hadn’t won.
The lights came on and Ethan removed his blindfold.
“You’re getting better,” Ember said, getting up off the hardwood. Ethan wondered how she didn’t seem winded at all. She was barely sweating.
“I think that’s more than better,” Ethan said. “I beat you that time.”
“In three minutes and—” She flicked a wisp of chin-length black hair out of her face and checked her stopwatch. “—thirty-two seconds. If there were three of me, you would have been dead.”
“If there were three of you, I wouldn’t have to do any of the fighting,” Ethan said.
The corner of Ember’s lips quirked up as she turned to leave. It wasn’t exactly a smile, but it was all Ethan could get out of her—something like a smirk of amusement. Ember was a Guardian, part of an ancient order of warriors that stretched back fifteen hundred years to the Knights of the Round Table. Ethan was a little skeptical about that part. Who wouldn’t want to claim ties to Arthurian legend? But Ember had the weapons, the skill, the artifacts, and the knowledge that made it hard to argue with.
Also, apparently, she had the money too. When she had portaled him out of his living room in Houston over a month ago (just hours after he had learned that Guardians even existed), they had arrived in the basement of a huge mansion. The basement served as a garage for a sleek, black, two-door ride that Ember called “the Panther II.” Spanning three stories and west and east wings, there was plenty of space in the structure. From the outside, it looked like a small castle. It was set in the middle of a wide, grassy clearing—several acres across at least—and there was a dirt trail that led up to the front of the house. The clearing was bordered on all sides by forest.
Ethan couldn’t figure out where exactly they were, and Ember wouldn’t tell him. But judging by the weather and the sky, Ethan wanted to believe they were still in Texas.
The training room that he was standing in was on the first floor. It was a huge rectangular space, as big as two small chapels put together. There was a raised, padded platform, like a boxing ring, at one end of the room, but the rest of the floor was hardwood. Weapons hung all along one wall—short swords, daggers, spears, staves, scimitars, misericordes, crossbows, longbows, throwing stars, and more that Ethan hadn’t memorized the names of yet. Ember said they were “practice weapons,” like they weren’t the real thing. But they sure looked real—and felt real too. Ethan had cut himself with a misericorde once.
Ember came back into the room carrying a small, circular electronic device. “One more exercise for today,” she said. She placed the device, one of the trackers she had been using to monitor his vitals whenever he teleported, against his upper arm and waited. Ethan felt the sting of the tiny needle pierce his skin.
Ember held up a picture of a wooded area. It looked like someplace on the property. “Go here. There’s something you need to retrieve,” Ember said as she handed him a key. “You’ll need this. Be back in ten. I’ll be in the control room.”
Ariadne had been surprised when Ethan vanished so suddenly. She knew, based on the intel Mazon had shared with her, that it would happen sooner rather than later. But not this soon. The night he went missing, she remembered seeing him in the little cathedral a few blocks away from his house. But then she had to go fight a demon who looked like he could have been her younger brother. Later that night, her Crystal alerted her to Portal activity in the area. When she investigated further, she found a cloud of residual energy hanging around Ethan’s house.
After fighting off three gargoyle spies hiding in the ravine behind the house, she snuck inside. Sure enough, the smell of sulfur lingered in the living room, and Ethan’s sister was sitting on the couch looking as if she were going to cry. (She didn’t see Ari though; her Nephilim glamor prevented it.)
When Ari informed Mazon of the developments, he was surprised. But what surprised Ari most of all was that Nicolai was surprised. When she had returned to the lake house that night, he had been in a rage accusing his sons of letting the Seer slip between their fingers.
Over the next few weeks, Nicolai disappeared for long periods of time, apparently checking his sources, spies, and God-knows-who-else for information. Now, he had returned, apparently no closer to discovering Ethan’s whereabouts than Ari was. (Or the boys for that matter—they had been looking too.)
Upon his return, Nicolai had spent long hours in his study and only came out to meet with an Archangel who had become a frequent visitor. Ari could never get close enough to eavesdrop, even with her enhanced hearing. She couldn’t risk the Archangel detecting her and blowing her cover. She needed to hang on to her somewhat good standing with Nicolai at least for a few more weeks.
An hour ago, Nicolai had left the lake house to go into the city. Ari followed him. Here, amidst the skyscrapers and the crowded sidewalks, she could blend in and not worry about Nicolai sensing her presence. She carried her bow and arrows and had her katana strapped to her back. A touch of glamor, and human eyes failed to notice the celestial weapons.
Ari still hadn’t figured out exactly what Nicolai was. Some type of angel breed she didn’t know about? Cherubim? Seraphim? Godling? Several paces ahead, the stream of people seemed to part around him. He never slowed his gait, never paused to say excuse me. His tall, thin, but powerfully-built frame was dressed in a brown suit with gold pinstripes (a favorite style of his). On nearly every finger, he wore a gold-banded ring, every gemstone a different color.
Up ahead, he turned into a recess in a brown marble building. Ari hesitated then swung into the recess after him. Glass doors, unmarked, rose in front of her. She hadn’t seen any signage on the outside of the building, but the words Aberdynne Research were marked out on the side of the glass desk in the lobby. Nicolai was leaning across the desk, talking to the receptionist, a plump Asian woman with dyed gold hair. There was another glass door between Ari and the lobby. She waited to hear what Nicolai was saying.
“I heard Dr. Swann had something new for me today.”
“Yes, a new shipment came in three nights ago,” the receptionist said in what Ari thought was an unnecessarily perky tone.
“And has it undergone the treatment I prescribed?”
“Yes. It was completed this morning.”
“Good. I would like to inspect it, if I may,” Nicolai said, unfailingly polite.
“Sure, go ahead. Dr. Swann was expecting you to come in soon.” The receptionist motioned to another unmarked door on the far side of her desk. There was a keypad mounted on the wall beside the handle.
Nicolai headed toward the door as Ari stepped into the lobby. She glanced around and caught sight of a picture on the wall. The caption read, “Dr. Alexander Swann, Founder and Lead Researcher.” One look at his face told Ari that the man was a cloaked Dark Angel. (And this was why she couldn’t figure out Nicolai. One day, he was fraternizing with Archangels. The next, with Dark Angels. Did no one believe in taking sides anymore?)
Ari turned just in time to see Nicolai punching in an access code for the door. She quickly memorized it, waited a minute after Nicolai had gone through, and then ran to the door, punched in the code, and passed through.
Behind the door was a quiet hallway, lined with a series of boring-looking doors. The floors were green carpet, quieting the sound of her boots. Nicolai was nowhere to be seen.
Ari started down the hall, wondering if Nicolai had slipped into one of the rooms. She thought it was odd that the offices—if that’s what they were—had no windows and no signage indicating who or what was behind each door. Listening carefully, she heard fingers tapping away at keyboards in a few of the rooms. She kept going until she came to an elevator. She could hear it rumbling and noticed that the lighted arrow and panel indicated that someone had just taken the elevator four floors down. Ari thought it odd that a downtown building would have four stories of underground real estate. She pressed the button for the elevator and waited.
Once inside, she immediately detected Nicolai’s scent. She was on the right track. But when she reached toward the panel to press the floor button, she drew up short. There were no buttons that indicated that the elevator went down. The LED panel read “First Floor”, and all of the buttons were numbers counting up.
Ari looked closer. There was a seam beneath the control panel, possibly indicating a hidden compartment. Ari pressed her fingers against the cold metal. Nothing happened. She looked around the elevator for some kind of lever or switch that could open a hidden compartment. She noticed nothing of that nature. But she did notice a tiny black circle in the ceiling, possibly a camera. She wondered what kind of security the building had and if someone was watching her right now.
The jury was still out on whether glamor worked on electronic devices.
Sighing, she slipped an arrow from her quiver, notched it in her bow, and fired. The arrow hit the black circle dead-center, shattering it. A red diode blinked out. Ari caught the arrow as it fell and slammed the point into the seam beneath the control panel. The metal casing cracked and fell away. Sure enough, it had been hiding another set of buttons that indicated six floors below ground. Ari pressed the button marked “4”.
The elevator bucked and started to descend. Ari stepped to the side of the car, another arrow at the ready. She wondered what she would say or do if Nicolai met her on the other side.
The elevator dinged and the doors slipped apart, opening onto another, wider hallway, bathed in bright fluorescent light. Another picture of Dr. Alexander Swann was hanging on the wall opposite the elevator doors. Somehow, he managed to be smiling like a family pediatrician and a serial killer all at once. There was a row of other photos underneath his, but Ari ignored them.
She stuck her head out of the elevator. Like the hallway four floors above, there was a series of plain, unmarked doors, but unlike the first floor, there were wide observation windows between each door. A gentle hum of machinery and conversation ebbed through the hall. The squeak of shoes on the white and gray linoleum floor alerted Ari to the approach of a lab coat-wearing young man who was looking down at a clipboard and clicking a pen against the bottom of his lip as he walked. Ari watched as he turned down another hallway and disappeared from view.
She had just stepped into the hall to begin her search for Nicolai when an unearthly scream ripped through the hall, quickening her heart and setting her blood boiling.
Ethan held the photo of the location in the woods. Over the weeks of training with Ember, he had learned to activate his teleporting ability at will. Previously, he had only teleported twice, both at times when either he or Sam or they both were in danger. Then, it just happened. He had vanished from one location and appeared in another—first traversing a distance of a few yards and then a distance of several miles—in the blink of an eye.
Now, if he concentrated hard enough, he could force himself to teleport.
Ethan looked at the photo and tried to focus, but too many thoughts flitted through his mind. He wondered what his extended family had thought when they had arrived at his family’s house for Thanksgiving and found he wasn’t there. He wondered how his parents had explained his absence.
And Pixie, and Zach, and Akeela. He felt guilty about not letting them know what was happening with him. He knew Pixie would probably be harassing Sam about his whereabouts.
A simple phone call would have cleared everything up, or at least provided a satisfactory cover story. But ever since Ethan had portaled into Ember’s mansion, he’d had no cellphone reception. (Luckily, he’d actually had his phone on him when he went through the portal. He was pretty sure Ember would have rather he left it behind.) Ember said the lack of a signal was necessary for maintaining the secrecy of their location. Which meant to Ethan that Ember had some control over the non-existent cell service. Also, Ethan thought demons would have much better ways of tracking them down than following the GPS signal from his cell phone.
Nevertheless, Ethan had periodically sent texts to Sam’s number. Each of them bounced back with the notification, Message could not be delivered. But the typing and sending made him feel better. It was a diary of sorts which no one would ever read.
Ethan pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent off another message. I beat Ember in a fight today. But she won’t admit it. Working on my teleporting now. He hit SEND and waited the two seconds it took for the error notification to pop up on the screen. He scrolled through the previous messages—six weeks’ worth, at a rate of about one every other day. He hoped Sam wasn’t feeling too lonely.
Shoving the phone back in his pocket, Ethan refocused on the forest photo. He wondered where the place was actually located. He was sure it was close by, somewhere on the estate property, or just on its forested border. Ember struck him as protective; she wouldn’t ask him to teleport too far away.
Ethan took a deep breath and shut his eyes. He reached for the place in the photograph with his mind and his body, willing himself to travel there. He felt the heat tickling the edges of his vision. The white hot spark that heralded the moment of transport. The burning pinprick of needles rippling across his skin. He welcomed it. The first few times he had teleported deliberately, the burning sensation was painful, but now it was a pleasant sting.
All at once, the white heat swirled around him, overtook him, ate him up…
…and spat him out in a wooded grove.
Ethan hit the ground hard, falling face down into a carpet of twigs and crunchy dead leaves. He opened his eyes and blinked away the residual brightness. He had to learn to stick his landing a little better.
8: Cross of Stone
Ethan got up, brushing leaves and dirt from his hair. In his right palm, he realized happily, that he was still holding on to the key Ember had given him. Carrying objects with him as he teleported had, at first, been touch-and-go. The general rule was that anything touching his bare skin automatically came along for the ride. But there had been a few objects that had not survived teleportation, so he knew he had some work to do there. Thankfully, each time he’d arrived at a new location, his clothes had arrived with him.
But now: What was he to do with the key? It was bigger than any house or car key, and all silver. Ember had said he would need to find something. But what kind of lock would need a key to open it here in the woods?
Ethan walked around the little clearing. It was cool, but not cold. The evergreens blocked out most of the evening sun’s rays and stymied the winds. Ethan checked around tree trunk after tree trunk, looking for some indication of a hidden door or a buried chest.
Finding nothing, he returned to his original arrival spot. It had to be here somewhere, whatever it was. He started walking back and forth, from one side of the grove to the other, shuffling leaves aside with his feet. It was on the fourth or fifth pass that he realized something was different.
The ground beneath his feet didn’t feel right. It didn’t feel as heavy as the rest of the ground. Ethan walked more slowly now, testing the ground as he went.
A square of earth that felt completely hollow made itself apparent.
Using a fallen branch, Ethan cleared away the dead leaves from the spot, uncovering an area of packed dirt about four feet across.
He got down on his hands and knees and examined the dirt.
It was nothing. Just dirt.
But there was something underneath it, he was certain. He could teleport back to the mansion and get a shovel without Ember knowing. He was well past her ten-minute limit anyway.
Just as he was settling on doing this, something harder and rougher than dirt scraped the side of his palm. He scrabbled at the dirt in the middle of the square, nails chipping and nearly bleeding.
After an inch or two of digging, he uncovered a flat grey stone with curved edges. A square cross (or an x depending on how you looked at it) was carved into the center of the stone, deep grooves spiraling out from it. In the very center of the cross was a keyhole.
Ethan stuck Ember’s key in. It fit.
He tried to turn it. Nothing happened.
Maybe he hadn’t put it in right. He took it out and slid it in again.
This time, the key slipped in all the way, so deep Ethan couldn’t pull it out again. The key hole seemed to close up over the key, but Ethan couldn’t tell in the dimming light.
He put his hand over the stone, trying to feel any difference. Nothing.
And then something sharp and metallic shot up from the stone and pierced his palm.
Momentarily blinded by pain, Ethan bit down on his lip to keep from crying out causing a burst of blood to bloom in his mouth.
Shivering, he lifted his hand from the stone. He had to pull it directly up. It felt as though a nail had been driven through it.
When his hand was clear of the stone, he realized that a sharp, glassine spike, about six inches long, was pointing straight up from the stone in the place where the keyhole had been. The spike appeared to be hollowed out, and now his blood was running down into it, a tiny red river encased in diamond.
Ethan curled his wounded hand into a fist, but the movement sent waves of pain up his arm and into his shoulder. He would have to take off his shirt and bandage it with that.
But something was happening with the stone. His blood was no longer splashed over it as he expected. It all had run down along the spiraling grooves to the center of the cross where the glassine needle pierced the rock.
Now the stone shifted and retracted into the earth. Ethan felt the ground beneath him rumble, not like an earthquake, but like heavy machine gears churning.
Ethan thought he should leave his spot on the ground. But he was a moment too late.
He caught only a glimpse of darkness as the earth gave way beneath him and he plummeted into the abyss.
9: Circle of Fire
Ethan slammed into soft earth. With his left hand already bleeding and his arm throbbing with pain, ordinarily, he would have been winded. But after six weeks of training with Ember, he was a lot tougher than he had been.
He didn’t feel like he had fallen that far. Thankfully, it wasn’t dark. He had landed in what appeared to be a circular underground room. At regular intervals, white torchlight flickered from the walls. There was a darker space that appeared to be the beginning of a tunnel.
Ethan took off his t-shirt, tore it with his teeth, and wrapped the strip of cloth around his injured hand. He could see clear through the hole in his palm. He was starting to think that his blood had somehow activated a mechanism that unlocked the entrance to this underground room. With his hand bandaged, Ethan went to the wall and pulled one of the torches out of its metal sconce. He examined the white flame. Unlike the hot, red fire of the natural world, and the cold, blue fire of witchcraft, the supernatural white flame was crisp and sharp. It didn’t give off much heat, but it had a tangy, metallic smell.
Holding the torch aloft, Ethan walked around the circular room, looking for any sign of what Ember wanted him to find. But it was only earthen walls and white light torches casting an eerie pallor where they shone. On the side of the room farthest from where he had fallen, he found a staircase leading up. He climbed the packed earth steps and found his head poking up above the ground. At least whoever had built this underground room intended for those who got in to be able to get out.
Ethan climbed back down the steps and decided to see where the tunnel led. The earthen walls closed in around him as he walked, the thick smell of dust that had not been disturbed, probably for ages, clouding his nostrils. The torchlight cast an orb of light around him as he walked. The tunnel seemed to slope gradually downward.
After about ten minutes of walking—with Ethan reminding himself that he could teleport out at any time—the tunnel opened up abruptly. Ethan sensed he was in another open space, like the one at the other end of the tunnel, but one considerably more stuffy without the fresh air from the opening in the ground. It was also darker. The torchlight did little to dispel the shadows.
Ethan carefully began following the curve of the room, his elbow trailing against the wall for guidance. He had gone only a few feet counter-clockwise when his forehead scraped cold metal. He held his torch up and saw that it was another sconce holding an unlit torch.
Two torches were better than one. Ethan tipped his torch over the top of the one in the sconce. As the kindling took, there was a tremendous whump—like the sound the gas stove at home made when his mother re-lit the pilot after the family returned from vacation, only a thousand times louder.
White flames raced out from the torch he had lit, and Ethan thought momentarily that he had set the underground room on fire. Then he realized the fire was only spreading along a line, a line that curved around the room, and was heading straight for him. He stepped away from the wall as the line of fire raced low, level with his waist, then jumped up to the torch he had lit.
Ethan stood in the circle of white fire; the entire room, which turned out to be larger than he had assumed, was awash in a ghostly luminescence. In the middle of the room was a round table, hewn from stone and carved all over with symbols and words in languages unknown to Ethan. He brushed the surface of the table with his hand, feeling the grooves beneath his fingertips where the writing was etched,
He didn’t notice the blood that had begun to seep from his bandaged hand. As he trailed his fingers across the table, one drop and then another fell into the grooves.
The stone table shivered under the touch of blood. A thunderous crack, the sound of a lightning bolt splitting, shook the room.
10: Angel Eyes
Ari followed the sound of the dying scream. She assumed that whatever real research Aberdynne was doing was taking place below the ground floor. As she walked through the seemingly endless halls—all white and spotless—searching for the source of the sound, she stopped to look into the viewing windows of the lab rooms. In most of the rooms, normal, sciency-looking stuff was going on. People in white lab coats were stirring vials, measuring smoky liquids, peering at things under microscopes, and looking at complicated patterns on computer screens.
But behind one window was something truly horrifying. Inside a large glass case, about the size of a child’s coffin, rested what appeared to be a giant scorpion. Its scaly, scarlet exterior was covered in a clear, viscous substance. The most terrifying thing about it was its tail, curved and cruel-looking, and tipped with a vicious stinger. A lab worker stood at one end of the glass container, pressing his fingers against a mounted display. The display appeared to control the conditions inside the case. At one point, the scorpion-like creature thrashed about, its stinger swinging wildly as if in pain. Then it relaxed as the worker changed the conditions to something more favorable.
Ari turned away from the viewing window and nearly stumbled into a man in a grey security guard uniform. She thought immediately that there was something wrong with his face. She tried to sidestep him, but the man quickly blocked her path again.
The man was old, at least in his sixties. Patches of gray hair stuck up on his mostly bald head. The grey uniform he wore was wrinkled. He put one hand on the billy club in his belt. “I can see you,” he said. “You’re not supposed to be here.” He shook one finger as if scolding a child.
“You can see me?” Ari said. She was certain she hadn’t let her glamour slip, and this man did not look like he had the Sight. “How?”
The man leaned forward as if to share a secret. “They gave me angels’ eyes.” He pulled a radio from his belt. “I’ll have to report you now.”
“No.” Ari grabbed the man’s wrist, squeezing hard to keep him from pressing the button on the radio. “What do you mean they gave you angels’ eyes?”
The guard leaned forward again, his eyes peeled wide. “It was an experiment. Out with the old ones, in with the new!” he said, slapping a palm across his face and then removing it dramatically. “Tada! Now I see all things.” He smiled giddily, like a child.
Whatever Aberdynne had done to this man had also addled his brain, Ari thought. She peered into his eyes and realized that the strangeness in his face came from the fact that his eyes were distinctly not human. The clear irises rimmed in gold were a dead giveaway for the eyes of a messenger angel. Ari wondered where that angel was now. She wondered how many angels—and humans—were being experimented on here.
“Let go of my arm.” The man tried to jerk away, but Ari held him fast.
“I’m not here to hurt anyone,” she said. “I need to find someone. You can help me.”
“Can I?” the man asked.
“Do you know the name Nicolai Malleus?”
The man thought for a moment. “Ah, yes. He is a good friend of Dr. Swann. He is here now. Would you like to see him?”
“Yes. But I would like to see him without him seeing me.”
“You mean you wish to spy on him?” the man said.
Ari nodded slowly. “Yeah.”
The man grinned and pointed up. Ari followed the direction of his finger and stared at the ceiling. “What’s up there?”
“The ventilation tunnels. You can spy on all the labs from up there. That’s where I spend most of my time—watching everyone. That’s how I saw you getting off the elevator.” He pointed to his eyes. “I see all things. See?”
“Take me,” Ari said.
“This way.” The angel-eyed man led her out of the wide hallway into a narrower one. There were no labs there, no scientists. The doors were unadorned. Ari followed her guide to the end of this hall where he pushed open a door. Behind the door was a pair of stairs—one flight leading down, the other shorter one leading up. In the wall beside the flight of stairs that led up was a small door. The guard opened this door.
“This is the way,” he said, indicating a third set of stairs behind the door. “The ducts run parallel to the hallways, with a vent opening into each room. Go back the way we just came, but when you get to the big hallway turn right. Keep going until the next hallway meets the main one—the one where you got off the elevator. As soon as you cross that hallway, you will find the vent that opens onto Nicolai’s lab—well, at least the one he uses the most.”
Ari thought she understood. “What does he do there?”
“Unspeakable things,” the man said.
“Like plucking out an angel’s eyes and putting them in your face?”
The guard winced. “No. Worse than that.” He turned and marched out into the hall, leaving Ari alone in the stairwell.
Ari climbed the tiny ladder that led up into the ventilation tunnels, which were barely small enough for her to crawl through. She had to squeeze her way around tight corners, her head pressed so hard against the top of the tunnels that her neck, which was stuck at an odd angle, began to ache. There was something else too: the closer she got to her destination, the warmer the air in the tunnels became. Ari began to sweat.
When she reached the position the guard had described to her, she saw the reason for the rise in temperature. Through the vent, she looked down into a room filled with machinery. At one end of the room, a huge cavity in the wall served as a furnace. A fire was blazing in it, spewing waves of pure, blinding heat. By the door on the other side of the room—as far away from the furnace as one could get—a man in a lab coat stood against the wall, fanning himself with a folder.
But Ari gave the furnace and the scientist only a passing glance. Something else had seized her attention.
In the middle of the room was an Angel, held fast to a metal chair by what Ari could only guess was chromium wire. The Angel’s head was bowed, and long, tangled golden hair tumbled over her face. Most horrifyingly, the Angel’s white, feathered, gold-tipped wings were stretched wide, held up and apart by a hideous mechanical contraption. Though bound and possibly in pain, a faint heavenly glow clung to the Angel’s body.
Disgust, hot and furious, flared in Ari’s chest. Who would do such a thing?
The door swung open and the scientist stopped fanning himself and stood at attention. Nicolai strode in, his orange-hued cat eyes matching the thin stripes in his suit.
“Are we ready?” he said brushing past the scientist. The heat pouring from the furnace didn’t seem to bother him.
“Yes, everything’s done,” the scientist said, tripping over himself to follow Nicolai. He pulled a handkerchief from the pocket of his lab coat and mopped sweat from his forehead. “Though I must say, the furnace was turned up to seven times its normal output as you requested, but the stones—I mean, the chosai gems—they didn’t melt.
“That’s fine,” Nicolai said. “Natural fire is only the first step. Now, comes the transmogrification. The alchemists of ancient days longed to do this very thing.” He continued to the furnace, putting on gloves as he walked. He reached into the mouth of the cavity, the feverish red glow momentarily engulfing his forearms, and pulled out a black iron tray on which sat two golden cups. In each cup was a large, lovely gemstone—one emerald, one royal purple. Nicolai set the tray bearing the golden cups on a worktable. He pulled a virge, a thin rod which appeared to be made of white stone, from his belt and waved it over the cups. The gems quivered and broke apart, dissolving into a liquid that bubbled and hissed and spat.
Nicolai turned to the Angel lashed to the metal contraption. He reached up and patted her cheek. (She was taller by a foot and he had to stand on his toes to do this.) “Wake up,” Nicolai said.
The Angel didn’t stir for so long that Ari began to think she was dead. But there was a twitch in her finger, and the next moment, she tossed her head, sending her golden locks flying back from her face. To Ari’s horror, where there should have been pearly eyes and gold-rimmed irises, there were only empty sockets, dark and pitiless.