I trusted neither gods nor the Fae with one of the only two hallowed weapons capable of ending an immortal life. Any Fae who got their hands on it could amass an army and go to war against their queen, and many of them despised the human who’d been chosen as their ruler’s successor. “Perhaps the sword is right where it needs to be and this power is awakening so I can keep it safe.”
Kat said dryly, “Or perhaps it’s merely coincidental and our world’s gone as mad as it seems while we bumble about foolishly trying to ascribe patterns to chaos.”
I laughed. There was that.
“The wish, Dani. Have you any idea what AOZ meant?”
I’d tried to figure it out on the ride here, reflecting on the moment I’d picked up the spelled item. I’d responded primarily with raw emotion, secondarily with actual thought. AOZ might have sorted through a dozen half-formed desires and selected whichever one he thought might bite me in the ass the hardest. I shook my head and said grimly, “No clue. Kat, what do you think about this god business? I read the Book of Invasions a long time ago and found it to be…” I try not to insult anyone else’s beliefs. I dangle first and let them finish, see how they go about it. I’ve learned diplomacy. It doesn’t come easy to me so I like to practice when I can.
“Pure tripe?” she said with a wry smile.
“At the very least heavily redacted, with enormous poetic license taken,” I agreed. “Do you think these gods might be the reality of the stories of the ancient Fomorians, awakened by the Song?”
“It’s certainly a theory worth exploring. According to the Book of Invasions, the Fomorians battled the Tuatha De Danaan, were widely regarded as monsters, and were driven into the sea, never to be seen again. But the timetable of those events was severely condensed, to reconcile history with Christianity, forcing the entire period from creation of the world to the Middle Ages to fit within the events of the Bible. I’ve long suspected those events happened far longer ago than we can imagine. History is murky business, rewritten again and again until the original story is lost to us. That’s why it’s critical we translate our ancient scrolls. They’ll be closer to truth than anything scribed in the past few thousand years, influenced by political and religious agendas. We’ve been hearing stories from all over Ireland. People in rural areas have encountered beings they claim have Faelike powers. Were you able to sense AOZ with your sidhe-seer senses?”
I shook my head grimly. “No. My gut got nothing. My brain registered empirical evidence that made me believe he wasn’t human.”
She nodded again and rose, gathering her notes. “I’ll meet with the Shedon, pass on the news, see what they know.”
I kicked back in the chair, propped my boots on the table, grabbed the latest stack of translations and began to read.
* * *
“Nothing,” I muttered several hours later. “Bloody nothing.”
“We have no way of determining what the books and scrolls are about before we begin to translate them. Most of them have no titles,” Bridget said mildly, head bent close to a tiny journal in her hands. In her late forties, streaks of gray feathered her short dark hair. The day shift of translators had settled in at the long, wide table with me shortly after I’d begun reading.
“True,” agreed seventeen-year-old Fallon, whose specialty was ancient dialects. She’d come to us five months ago, bearing a sealed letter from a sister-house in Wales beseeching us to train her, as she’d recently developed latent powers they’d no experience with. Chameleonlike, she’d begun melting into her surroundings, the strength of five men infused her petite frame, and I suspected from how quickly and silently she could move that she might one day be able to join me in the slipstream. Glossy chestnut hair swept her shoulders, framing a face wide through the cheekbones that tapered to a broad jaw before narrowing sharply to a pointed chin. Aquamarine eyes narrowed with frustration as she added, “And we suspect Rowena took the most important books. Saints know where she hid them.”
Bridget said, “The council delegated a team to begin exploring the Underneath next week. Perhaps we’ll find a stash there. Anything discovered underground will get translated first,” she assured me.
Two years I’d been waiting to hear those words—we were finally going to turn our attention to the unexplored realm beneath the fortress. Like a Janus head, the abbey was split into halves: The Upstairs, which held fascinating mysteries of the mostly nondeadly kind, and the Underneath, rumored to hold secrets too powerful, too terrible, for anyone to know. The council had long been wary of the Underneath. The Sinsar Dubh was once contained in that subterranean maze.
Rowena had forbidden anyone to enter the Underneath but I’d been there, once, years ago, tailing her past her many wards and traps, lingering to kill the Fae she’d been nibbling on for who knew how long, to increase her power and extend her life span. I’d caught glimpses of countless snaking passageways, heavily locked and warded doors, vaulting caverns, and I’d only been on a single level. I’d passed dozens of curved stone stairwells, spiraling down to seemingly bottomless pits.
I’d hungered to explore it further once she was gone, but I’d committed to our order and toed the council’s line, which was: Si vis pacem, para bellum—if you want peace, prepare for war. We’d focused on locating the most powerful sidhe-seers, testing and training them while we monitored Ireland, the world beyond.
We knew it wasn’t over and wouldn’t be so long as the wall between our world and Faery was down. Our races coexisted in a powder keg where the slightest spark could make everything blow. If Mac were unable to gain control of the immortal race, we’d be right back where we started, slaughtering each other in our quest for control of the world.
“Who’s heading the team?” I asked Bridget.
“Enyo,” she said.
I approved the choice. Born in a war zone in Lebanon, Enyo had been a soldier long before she’d found us. Smart, driven, and hungry for challenge, she was the perfect choice. I looked forward to spending time with her while we explored.
I bristled with anticipation. I would be on that team.
I glanced at the clock above the fireplace, noted the time, and shoved back in my chair to head back to Dublin for an appointment I’d made that morning, at the same time Bridget—who I’d not realized had gotten up and was now behind me—leaned over my shoulder to add another page to my stack for when I returned.
Or rather, her forearm brushed my left shoulder.
Raw, high voltage exploded from my arm with a thunderous BOOM and my skin crackled with energy. There was the sudden stench of burning hair followed by popping sounds, met with a high-pitched scream that terminated as swiftly as it had begun. Then there was the racket of furniture crashing to the floor, and what sounded like one of the old, massive bookcases behind me splintering, and chilling, wet splats.
Then the stillest of silences.
Half out of my chair, I froze, hands splayed on the table.
Fallon was staring past me, mouth gaping on a silent O, eyes wide with shock and horror.
I couldn’t make myself move for a long moment, just stood there, muscles flexed to move but not obeying my command. My legs were noodles again, my hands shaking.
I’d felt the enormity of what had flared to instant life inside me. I’d seen what it had done to my bedroom wall this morning.
Perhaps it had simply knocked her out. I hadn’t intended any harm, quite the opposite. Nor had I flung my hand as I did with Jayne, or even moved it at all.
She’d merely brushed the bare skin of her forearm against the bare skin of my shoulder.
“Fallon?” I begged with my eyes: Say it’s not true. Say she’s okay.
The Apprentice began to hyperventilate, gulping air, unable to make a sound. Shoulders shaking, tears spilled from her eyes.
I slumped back into my chair, doubled over and puked violently, retching the contents of my stomach on the floor until nothing but a thin stream of bile dribbled from my chin.
I didn’t need to look behind me to know Bridget was dead.
Secluded in a marker stone not only deadlier but much smarter, too
CONFRONTED BY EXTREME EMOTION, I box it and take action; do something, anything, whatever most immediately needs to be done.
My heart was screaming: You killed Bridget, you’re a liability, dangerous to your friends, run away and hide because you’re a monster and, as your mom liked to say so often at the end—the world would be better off if you’d never been born.
My brain said with cool efficiency: You made this mess, clean it up.
I stumbled into my chair, knocking it over, yanked it back up and locked my knees and began to collect parts and assemble them in a small, neat arrangement.
Normally, as soon as I see Rae, I catch her up in my arms. My deadly, killing embrace.