Sharp pine needles pricked my skin. The forest around us was wet and damp; my legs were shaking, but it wasn’t from the icy wind blowing through the forest. I sheathed my sword and gaped upwards at Reverie, the floating kingdom we’d fallen from. We shouldn’t still be alive. Without Lucian, we wouldn’t have been. The scent of mold and leaf-litter tingled my nose. Bright green buds were poking through the carpet of dead leaves, but it was too early for spring.
The muscles in my back shifted. I winced in discomfort as the black wings between my shoulder blades, Lucian’s creation, folded away.
I felt the demon shifting around in my thoughts. I’m so tired, he murmured. I think I’m going to hide in the sword for a bit. I nodded, still too stunned to answer.
A hand seized my wrist. I tore my gaze from Reverie and looked instead at Alexander. He held me so tightly that I wondered if he could feel my pulse racing beneath his slender fingers. The intensity in his blue eyes took my breath away. It was as if he could strip me bare and see everything I was thinking. Light dappled through the forest canopy, casting spots of light and shadow over Alexander’s golden hair and fair skin. As I looked at him, time seemed to stand still for just an instant. He really was beautiful. Then he spoke and ruined the moment.
“What just happened?” Alexander asked, his voice shaking. “There’s no way way could’ve…”
He looked at me with a mixture of awe and fear, as if were a powerful mage, instead of a fraud from the Scraps. Which, I guess, he still thought I was. When I arrived in Reverie, I’d been a fraud, just pretending to have magic and cheating my way into the magic academy. I didn’t know what I was now. But as far was Alexander was concerned, I was a rich girl from Argent, the gated citadel in the middle of the Lower Realms. One who could talk to demons. A useful talent for a prince like him, even if it was forbidden.
I wasn’t ready for Alexander’s questions. Not after fighting against one of my possessed classmates, not after falling from Reverie, and not after all the magic it’d taken to free Lucian. I was too tired to lie, so I kept my mouth shut, averting my gaze towards the forest floor. It was so dark and green. I crouched, running my fingertips over the moss and studying a trail of ants.
“Wynter,” Alexander said, kneeling beside me. He brushed his fingers across my upper lip, and they came away sticky with blood. It reminded me of our kiss in the library.
“No one has ever survived a fall from Reverie,” he said, wiping his hands on a white handkerchief he pulled from the inside jacket of his dark gray coat. It was lined with silver trim that glittered when he moved.
“We did,” I replied absently.
“Yes, but how?” He handed me the handkerchief, now stained with blood, and I used it to clean up the rest of my nosebleed. Alexander’s rapier was drawn but held down at his side. I supposed that was a good sign. He hadn’t resolved to stab me yet.
I bit my lip. “I didn’t save us,” I said slowly.
I don’t think you should tell him, Lucian murmured.
Maybe not. But I was so tired of keeping secrets from everyone. And would it be so bad if Alexander did know what I’d done? If anyone in Reverie would accept me releasing a demon, it would be Alexander. Probably.
When I snapped my gaze back to him, Alexander’s eyes searched my face. Whatever he saw there didn’t please him.
“You actually freed it?” he asked, sounding hoarse. “But why isn’t it attacking? Wynter, you can’t—can you control it? Or did you just—”
It? Lucian asked indignantly. Remind your princeling that I just saved his life!
“No,” I said, “I can’t control him, and he’d like me to remind you that he just saved your life.”
He dropped my wrist and backed away with a sharp suddenness. My heart sank. Alexander had been the one to warn me against listening to the voices. Like all mages, he thought the demons were evil creatures, whispering evil temptations and destroying minds.
Hundreds of excuses flitted through my head, like butterflies trapped in a glass jar. But I was too tired to deal with Alexander’s disappointment. Maybe I should’ve lied, even though no lie would’ve been good enough to satisfy him. We were both about to die. Freeing Lucian was the only option, and I didn’t regret it.
Alexander’s face lost all its color, and yet his eyes seemed to brighten and sharpen. Beneath the wariness and the alarm, there was a spark of fascinated curiosity.
“He can…hear me?” Alexander asked.
I nodded. “Lucian hears everything I do.”
Alexander laughed, the noise edged with something brittle and hysterical, and sank to the ground. After a few seconds, he fell silent. I let the quiet stretch between us, glancing over his shoulder into the dark woods. I’d never been this deep in the forest before, and I had no idea how to survive in one. I wondered how far we were from the Scraps. With a sinking feeling, I realized that Alexander probably hadn’t been in a real forest, either. He’d grown up in luxury, surrounded by sculpted gardens, and thought a visit to Argent was slumming it. For a moment I felt a stab of fear. Just because we’d survived the fall from Reverie, didn’t mean we were safe.
“This is too much,” Alexander said suddenly. “You—you weren’t—you weren’t supposed to release a demon! Wynter, what if he tries to kill us?”
“If he wanted to kill us, he’d have let us fall,” I said.
“What if it’s something…I mean…” Alexander trailed off. “How do we know we can trust him?”
“Lucian didn’t control our classmate and make her attack us,” I said. “And he didn’t tear apart the Academy floor and make us fall from Reverie. All he has done is save our lives, and I think if we’re going to talk about people we trust, Lucian is a safe bet.”
Alexander buried his face between his hands and mumbled something I couldn’t hear. I felt a pang of sympathy. He must’ve been so confused, but at least, he wasn’t angry. Hopefully, he wouldn’t be angry at all. I didn’t think I had the strength to fight him.
I looked back to Reverie, nestled in the fluffy clouds and draped in the colors of sunset. It looked as beautiful as it always had, only I knew now it was full of dangerous mages and backstabbing politics. The earthquakes, the demon attacks. I took a deep breath and realized the air was thicker here, full of oxygen. I let it clear my head. For a moment, I wondered if I could just go home and leave this all behind me. I belonged on the ground with Briar and Sterling. I could just find a direction, head to the Scraps, and never think of Reverie again. Maybe I could even get Alexander to tell everyone I was dead, so no one would come looking for me.
But then I remembered Tatiana in the hospital, and the wild look in Viviane’s eyes when she attacked me. Someone in Reverie was behind the demon attacks, and the same person had possessed Viviane and nearly torn the Academy apart. Whatever they were looking for, I knew it wasn’t over. Could I really turn my back and let more people get hurt?
I looked back at Alexander and met his sharp eyes.
“I hope Viviane is all right,” I said.
“Me, too,” he sighed.
Viviane was awful to me, but I still wouldn’t have wished any harm on her. It must’ve been terrifying, to be controlled by someone else and forced to hurt people. After I’d burned through the glowing sigils in her arm, she’d collapsed and stammered in confusion. I wondered how much she even remembered.
“I wonder who the target was,” Alexander said. “Was someone trying to hurt Viviane, or someone else? Because she was being controlled with sigils, it had to have been a mage. Probably one that was nearby, too.”
“Like one of our professors?” I asked.
Alexander nodded slowly. “I don’t understand any of this,” he said.
Neither did I. But whatever happened to Viviane was connected to something much larger—something involving demon attacks, earthquakes and potentially a magical charm. I thought of all the girls I’d met at the Academy, the girls who’d had classes with me and slept in the same dormitories with me. I thought of Celeste and Professor Gareth, who had both been so kind to me. Whatever was going on up in Reverie, it was unlikely to stop now, which meant everyone in Reverie was in danger.
I followed Dorian’s nod, my gaze landing on a slender woman. Her thick, brown hair fell in waves over her pale, round shoulders and tumbled over the bodice of her black, satin dress. Somehow, I’d expected something more predatory from Dorian’s alleged nemesis, something like my uncle Gabriel’s story about the monstrous mage-lady who ate children, but Eleanor was beautiful.
“I see you have similar taste in dyes,” I said.
For a few seconds, Dorian looked utterly bewildered. Then, he laughed. “It’s not that. In Reverie, when a parent dies, it’s proper to observe a year-long mourning period. You wear black for the first ten months, and for the last two, you’re allowed to add gray and lilac. My mother isn’t worth nearly that level of devotion, but unfortunately, I have a reputation to uphold.”
“How did she die?” I asked.
“She fell down the stairs and broke her neck. Or something like that.”
He said it as casually as if he’d been discussing the weather.
“You don’t believe she fell?” I asked.
He didn’t sound especially bothered with the possibility that someone might have killed his mother. Maybe he’d done the deed himself. I looked nervously towards Eleanor and wondered how she felt about her mom’s death.
“Should I be worried about Eleanor?” I asked.
“She’s a very dangerous woman.”
“You’re dangerous, too,” I pointed out.
“So I am. But Eleanor is always looking to stab someone in the back. I’d at least do you the courtesy of stabbing you from the front,” Dorian replied.
As if she’d heard him from across the room, Eleanor headed straight to us.
“Don’t you have somewhere to be, Wynter?” Dorian asked.
He was right, so I headed away, drifting into the crowd. Viviane or Alexander. Where were they? There were so many people that it was impossible to find anyone. I’d never stolen jewelry off a person before, but I had an idea of how I wanted to do it. Distraction was key. All I had to do was spill a drink down the front of Viviane’s dress, draw attention to her reaction and steal the necklace right under everyone’s nose. Or if I got lucky, Viviane would go to clean herself up and take it off. But it was still a huge risk. What was so special about this necklace? Why did Dorian even want it, and why risk everything just a game to him.
I drifted to the wall and stood there, scanning the crowd. Finally, I found Alexander and headed towards him. My heart raced. Just ask him to dance. It wouldn’t be that difficult. Alexander saw me and ended his conversation with a blonde woman wearing a purple gown. I took a deep breath.
“Good evening,” I said.
Now that I knew he was a prince, it made talking to him much more awkward.
“Good evening,” he said.
“Would you like to—”
“Dance?” he asked. “With you?”
Maybe Dorian had been wrong. Maybe Alexander would humiliate me in front of all these people.
“Yes,” I replied.
He put an arm around the small of my back and drew me in closer. “Can I tell you a secret?” he whispered. “I hate dancing.”
“Me too,” I said.
“Why don’t we talk instead?”
“Um…sure,” I said.
Without warning, Alexander grabbed my wrist and pulled me along behind him. I stumbled at first, but then followed him out of the ballroom and down a long, dark corridor. This was a trap of some kind, but I didn’t know how to avoid it.
We reached the end. I pulled my wrist away, but Alexander’s hand shot out, corning me against the wall. He was even more handsome from close up, and his blue eyes were staring directly into mine with an intensity that took my breath away. I tried to say something, but all my thoughts scattered and fell apart.
“This is what you wanted, isn’t it?” he murmured.
“What are you talking about?” I asked nervously.
“You get all dressed up, attend a fancy ball, and hope to seduce a prince into a dark corner. Don’t think you’re the first to try.”
I sucked in a quick breath. I looked at his broad shoulders and then away.
“Why would I want to seduce you?”
“Why wouldn’t you? Unless you honestly think you’ve got what it takes to become a mage.”
“I passed the test, didn’t I?”
“Did you?” he asked. My breath hitched. Did he know I’d cheated? Had he seen the device?
“Besides, you’re not that plain looking, even if you do come from the Lower Realms. I’m surprised, however, you don’t smell like trash.” He leaned in close, sniffing slowly at my neck.
Asshole! I pushed him off, shaking, but he caught my wrist and spun me into his arms.
“Relax,” he whispered, “I’m just using you to rile up Viviane. It takes her down a peg, I don’t like her getting too sure of herself. It’s a little game we play. Ah, there she is, right on schedule.”
I broke free of his embrace, just in time to see Vivian come around the corner. I stepped away quickly from Alexander, leaning against the far wall.
“There you are,” Viviane’s voice drifted to us. My gaze dropped to her throat; there was the necklace. I was furious with the way Alexander had treated me, and I wanted nothing more than to run back to the safety of the main gala. But I’d come for the necklace, and it was right in front of me. It would be easier to steal away from the party.
“Whatever are you two whispering about?”
“I was just telling Wynter how dangerous magic is,” Alexander replied.
Viviane’s green eyes widened. “Why, that reminds me! I never finished telling you what happened to the last mage from Argent. I think it’s terribly tragic.”
Something bad was coming. I just knew this was going to be some terrible, morbid story. But I played along anyway.
“What happened?” I asked.
“Well,” Viviane said, “He was a prodigy at the Academy, until the day he went mad. Couldn’t handle the pressure. He started hearing voices, talking to himself. Finally, he slit a noblewoman’s throat. I heard he tossed pieces of her dismembered body off the edge, before leaping to his death. People say you can still hear them calling to each other at night on the outskirts of Reverie.”
“That’s not true,” I said uncertainly.
Viviane sighed and shook her head. “You really don’t know anything, do you?” she asked. “You’re hopeless.”
“It doesn’t matter how much I know,” I said. “It matters only what I’m willing to learn.”
“That was almost profound,” Viviane replied. “Did you steal it from my uncle? He likes to make people think he’s profound.”
Hisses struck my ears. At first I thought I’d triggered the device accidentally, but the noise was coming from down the hall.
“We should head back,” Alexander said.
“You might be right,” Viviane said. “Mother is so overprotective sometimes. Just a moment, I need to finish my drink first.”
She stepped closer to me, until we were face to face, and then she slowly emptied her champagne glass down my dress. I gasped as the cold, sparkling liquid dripped beneath my corset.
“There,” she smirked. “All done.”
This summer I’ve spent a lot of time on the couch reading, and here are some of my favorites.
I set up a giveaway for this one, click here to win a free copy!
I’m currently working on book two of our new magic academy series, “Academy of Falling Kingdoms.”
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What about you – what are you reading?
We’ve teamed up with a bunch of bestselling fantasy writers to organize this summer bookfest.
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You can also click the book covers below and go straight to each book’s download page.