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.”