Mar 21 2014 3:00pm
Shadow Grail: Victories (Excerpt)
Check out Shadow Grail: Victories, the fourth and final book in the Shadow Grail series by authors Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill. Victories is available April 22nd from Tor Teen!
Spirit White and her friends Burke, Loch, and Addie are also forced to deal with the terrifying truth behind the facade of Oakhurst Academy: all of the legends are true.
Queen Guinevere, King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table really had existed. With the magic of Merlin, they were able to imprison their greatest foe, Mordred, before he could plunge the world back into the Dark Ages. But Mordred is now free, in charge of Oakhurst Academy, and determined to finish what he started so long ago.
Pursued by Shadow Knights, the reincarnated remnants of Mordred’s original army, Spirit’s small band undertakes a quest to recover the Four Hallows, objects of immeasurable power. Memories of a past life have begun to surface, one in which Spirit wields a legendary sword. She comes to realize that these memories are the true key to Mordred’s defeat. Can Spirit and her friends manage to recapture the magic of Camelot in time to save their fellow students and prevent the end of the world?
The black van bumped along the road, jarring Spirit’s spine with every lurch. Burke was at the wheel, driving toward a destination that wasn’t even a point on a map. The instructions he was following were a list of distances and landmarks: they’d crossed from Montana into North Dakota hours ago, but for all any of the four of them knew, their destination might be the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.
It’s Saturday morning, Spirit thought wearily, feeling drunk from lack of sleep, as she gazed out the side window at the unchanging vista of fields and trees and distant mountains. It was spring—almost April—but the landscape looked barren to her. It was nothing like the place she’d grown up. Her life was nothing like the one she’d had the last time she’d looked out a car window counting the weeks to summer.
Her life? It was an unreal nightmare, the stuff of B movies. Except it was happening, and it was almost uniformly horrible.
A year ago, Saturday had been a day to hang out with friends, to tease her younger sister, to make elaborate kitchen experiments with Dad or go on adventures with Mom. But that was before the— Don’t call it an accident now, call it what it was. Murder. Murder. Before the Shadow Knights murdered her family. Before everything changed.
Six months ago, she’d just been told she was going to go to a place called Oakhurst because there was nowhere else for her to go with all her family dead. From the beginning, Spirit had known there was something wrong with Oakhurst. Yeah, maybe the fact that someone was trying to kill us off might have been the hint. But that was simplifying things; the facade that Oakhurst had kept up was too good. The whole horrible scope of how badly things were wrong had taken a while to figure out. In fact, it hadn’t been until a week ago that she really understood, when she’d gotten the last clues to put it all together.
She’d been told when she arrived that Oakhurst wasn’t a normal orphanage, but a school for magicians. Which had been unsettling, and scary, but could have been kind of cool if the people in charge hadn’t been pitting every student against every other student, in a kind of just-sub-lethal Hunger Games.
But then she found out that if you had magic, Oakhurst’s headmaster tracked you down and killed your family, and then made it look as if they’d wanted you to be sent there. Loch’s father had died in a hotel fire, Muirin’s in an automobile accident, Addie’s in a plane crash, Burke’s in a home invasion. Hers, in another car crash. The method didn’t matter. Only the results. That you got sent to Oakhurst, where the headmaster could decide if you were worth the effort of teaching. Because if he decided you weren’t—well, the Hunger Games stopped being sub-lethal.
And I thought all along he’d made a mistake about me, that I didn’t have magic. But he hadn’t. She looked down at her hands. There was still a pale mark on the left one where her school ring had been. The stone changed color when it recognized your magic, and hers never had.
Until last night.
And now I know I’m a Spirit Mage, and I know my School of Magic is the School of Spirit, but that’s all I know. They taught four Schools of Magic at Oakhurst. Dr. Ambrosius made everyone forget there were five.
She didn’t know why, but considering everything else, it almost didn’t matter. Dr. Ambrosius wanted to bring everyone with magic to Oakhurst so he could either recruit them— or kill them. Because in his world, there were only flunkies and enemies, and he wasn’t just a magician. And his real name wasn’t Ambrosius.
His real name was Mordred. The Mordred. Centuries ago, he’d lost a war for a kingdom. His enemies had locked him in a prison they’d hoped would last forever—but just in case it didn’t, his jailers had cast a second spell, binding all of them to be reborn over and over until the threat was ended forever. To become Reincarnates, unaware of who they’d been until Merlin—or Mordred—awakened their memories.
Merlin. Mordred. Arthur. Guinevere. Names out of a storybook until Spirit and her friends discovered it wasn’t a story—it was something they were all living. Because Dr. Ambrosius was Mordred, and once he’d escaped his prison, he gathered an army of Shadow Knights to serve him, and spent decades hunting the Grail Knights who were the only challengers to his power.
He built Oakhurst as the means to do that. He eliminated every magician who wouldn’t serve him before they could even begin to threaten him. And who would ever have believed he was doing anything like that, when no one in the outside world had so much as a clue that magic was real?
A day ago, Spirit finally found a way for the five of them to escape from Oakhurst. If escape had been their only goal, there wouldn’t have been any point—but escape was only the beginning of what they were going to have to do.
Save the world. Why is it that’s always what it turns out to be?
Maybe because when it was things like Mordred you were up against, they weren’t going to settle for anything less than the world.
It was Muirin who’d infiltrated the Shadow Knights to discover Mordred planned to trigger a nuclear apocalypse to create a world where Magic, not Science, ruled. They’d fled knowing they were the only ones who had a chance to stop it. A mysterious ally Spirit knew only as QUERCUS had given them a place to go.
But escape had come at far too high a price.
The van hit another pothole, and Spirit groaned faintly.
“Sorry,” Burke said, glancing at her apologetically. “You okay?”
“Thinking about Muirin,” she said. She closed her eyes hard, willing herself not to cry. It wouldn’t do any good. Muirin would still be dead.
Muirin clung to Doc Mac’s arm as the dancers at the Spring Fling swirled around them, oblivious. She looked greenish-pale, and the dark smudges under her eyes had nothing to do with makeup. Spirit saw her lurch and stagger, and only Doc Mac’s grip on her arm kept her from falling.
“Muirin!” Spirit cried.
She pushed through the crowd, shoving people out of her way as she headed for Muirin. She was about halfway there when Muirin saw her. She brought her hand up and made a throwing motion. The car keys came flying through the air, and Spirit snatched them without thought. Muirin silently mouthed one word:
Not everyone with magic was a Reincarnate, but Spirit had been sure about Muirin. Anastus Ovcharenko—Shadow Knight and Mordred’s pet assassin—had called Muirin and Madison Lane-Rider “sisters”—and that made Madison LaneRider Queen Morgause and Muirin Queen Morgaine. Madison was a Shadow Knight, and Muirin had played a long double game, pretending she wanted to join them while remaining loyal to her friends. Maybe Murr-cat had been tempted to swap sides—maybe she’d even come close, and who could have blamed her? The other side had… everything. What did her friends have? But Muirin had stuck with them. Without Muirin’s last-minute warning—without her help—Mordred would have gotten all five of them.
Instead of only one of them.
Burke reached out a hand and closed it over hers. “They will pay for that. I swear it,” he said.
“Do you think—?” she said, hating herself for hoping. She’d seen Muirin fall, shot by Anastus Ovcharenko—Prince Agravaine. But maybe.…
“No,” Burke said quietly. “They’d never have trusted her after she helped us. He shot to kill.”
I won’t cry, Spirit told herself desperately, but despite her best efforts, a tear slid down her cheek.
“It’s no sin to grieve,” Burke said gently.
“We don’t have time,” Spirit answered angrily. “Mordred’s going to nuke the world back to the Stone Age!”
“We have time to mourn for our friend. Mordred moves on Beltane,” Burke said. “That’s May first. It’s only the end of March now.”
“Great,” Spirit said, rubbing her eyes, her throat and heart aching. “Six weeks to save the world.”
Silence hung between them, stretching the tension to the breaking point. “I hope this Internet buddy of yours can help,” Burke finally said, awkwardly changing the subject.
She took the change of subject gratefully, thankful for his kindness. “Me, too,” Spirit answered somberly.
“Are we there yet?” Loch asked, sitting up and leaning forward between the seats. He and Addie were riding in the back. Spirit could have ridden in back too, and maybe even gotten some sleep—QUERCUS had left the van for them, along with the directions to reach their destination—but she’d wanted to be with Burke.
“Don’t make me pull this getaway car over,” Burke said lightly, and despite everything, Spirit smiled.
She’d never had a boyfriend before. She’d never expected to find one at Oakhurst. After her family died, she’d just wanted to shut out the world, and never care about anyone again. But Burke had loved her—as simply and as uncomplicatedly as breathing—from almost the moment he’d first seen her. When she’d realized she was in love with him too, it was too late to turn back and pretend she wasn’t. It was the most wonderful thing in her life. It was the most terrible thing too, because she’d known they were all in danger before the first time Burke had kissed her, and the thought she could lose him the way she’d lost her family was terrifying.
To lose anyone else, really, and she’d already lost Muirin, and she knew it hadn’t really sunk in yet, but it already hurt so much she just wanted to scream until she couldn’t scream any more.
“Are we going to be awake now?” Addie asked grumpily, sitting up next to Loch. She glanced out the windshield. “Ugh. It looks the same as it did the last time I looked. Where are we going?”
“I don’t know, but we’re making good time,” Burke joked.
They were all concentrating on trivial stuff, or trying to, and Spirit didn’t blame them. Easier not to talk about the danger, the deaths, the fact they weren’t safe, even now. “Wherever it is, we should be there in a couple of hours, tops,” Spirit said, waving the sheaf of directions. “According to this, anyway.”
“I hope wherever it is it involves thick walls and strong doors,” Loch said. “And maybe landmines. Because I’m pretty sure Breakthrough isn’t going to stop chasing us.”
“Not if Mordred wants them to,” Addie said, shuddering. “I wouldn’t want to be the one he got mad at.”
“Except you totally are,” Loch pointed out. “We all are.”
“Yeah,” Burke said reasonably. “But at least we can run for our lives. I wouldn’t want to be one of his henchmen.”
“I don’t think Mark wants to be one of his henchmen right now, either,” Addie said.
“Too bad,” Spirit said venomously. “He had the same choice everyone else got, and he chose Mordred.”
“Yeah, cake or death, great choice,” Loch said. “I’m not excusing him—his so-called ‘security people’ killed our families, as I’m sure we all remember—but he probably never expected the Evil Overlord’s plan to be starting a nuclear war just so he didn’t have to deal with the real world.”
“It doesn’t make sense,” Addie said plaintively. “He’s a magician—we’ve all seen how much power he has. Mordred could probably have taken over a country and made himself king years ago. There are thousands of places where if you walked in and said you could cure disease and make the crops grow and could prove it, they’d fall all over themselves to hand you the keys to the kingdom.”
“So to speak,” Loch said, with a wry smile. “Stubborn and stupid is a bad combination, but he’s just like a lot of CEOs my father dealt with. And remember—Mordred isn’t a Reincarnate.”
Suddenly, some of this made a twisted sort of sense to Spirit. Mordred had been Mordred for centuries. He’d never been anyone else. He still thought like a Dark Age tyrant. After all this time, he was probably crazier than a cageful of bats, too, but everything he was, everything he defaulted to, was the man who’d been born in a time when a state-of-the-art weapon was a steel sword or a powerful magician. Maybe he really didn’t comprehend what a nuclear war would do to the world. Maybe he just thought of it as burned crops, leveled cities, and poisoned wells on a mass scale.
“He’s still Mordred,” Spirit said, realizing. “He’s never been anyone else. Not like the others.”
“Not like us,” Burke said.
Spirit looked at him in surprise. “Us?” she repeated. “Reincarnates?”
“Oh, come on,” Loch said. “The odds are at least one of us is a former Knight Who Says Ni.”
“Besides Muirin,” Addie said quietly.
“Yeah,” Burke said, and after that nobody said anything for a while.
We’re here,” Addie said, pulling the van to a halt.
It was a little after noon. Loch had taken over from Burke, and Addie from Loch: Spirit was the only one who didn’t know how to drive, and seeing the weariness on her friends’ faces that made her feel guilty now. They’d all been awake over twenty-four hours, and to add driving to that.…
“Not where I’d choose to make my last stand,” Loch said, looking around the parking lot and back at the seedy strip motel.
They’d been seeing signs for Omaha for a while—that and Offutt Air Force Base—but where their directions had led them was to a middle-of-nowhere place that was barely a wide spot in the road: gas station, motel, diner. If there was a town anywhere nearby, or even some random houses, they weren’t visible from the Alvo Motor Hotel. There wasn’t even a McDonald’s.
“Well, there aren’t any more directions,” Addie said, waving the last sheet of paper. “But.… We aren’t that far from Omaha.…”
“This is where QUERCUS sent us,” Spirit said reluctantly. “This is where he’ll expect to find us.”
“And what then? What do we do then?” Addie asked, a little shrilly. “Is he going to hand us a magic sword? Or turn us into superheroes? Sure, we’ve got magic—we’ve all got magic—but so do they.”
“I know,” Spirit said softly. Addie had always doubted their ability—her own ability—to fight back, and Spirit really couldn’t blame her. “But I don’t know what else to do.”
“And we’re all just about out on our feet,” Burke said. “We aren’t going anywhere except off the side of the road if we don’t get some rest. If this is our only option, well, it’s our only option.”
“So let’s go see what’s behind Door Number Six,” Loch said.
“Let’s go find out if it’s locked,” Addie said pragmatically.
Spirit blinked at the brightness of the sunlight as she stepped out of the van. Her shoes—the strappy silver sandals Madison Lane-Rider had picked out as part of her Spring Fling outfit—slid on the asphalt, and she grabbed for the doorframe.
“Easy,” Burke said, putting a hand under her arm.
The coat QUERCUS had left for him in the van hung open; the tuxedo beneath it looked jarringly out of place. They were all still wearing their prom clothes under their coats, but at least Spirit’s dress was short. Addie was wearing an ankle-length velvet gown; it caught on something as she slid out of the driver’s seat, and Spirit heard her snarl as she ripped it free and slammed the door as hard as she could.
“At this point I don’t actually care if the Legions of Hell are in there,” Loch said, slamming the back door of the van, “as long as I can sit down somewhere that isn’t moving.”
“Then let’s go,” Burke said. He released Spirit’s arm and walked up to the door. She saw him take a deep breath as he reached for the knob, then he twisted it and the door opened.
The three of them followed him in. The room behind the door matched the outside of the building: worn and shabby. There were two sagging double beds with flowered polyester bedspreads, a nightstand and a lamp, and a dresser. The mirror was cracked in one corner, and there were burns and stains on the dresser top. One of the drawer fronts was slightly askew.
“I’m going to write a stiff letter to the Michelin people,” Loch said, walking across the room to sit down on the bed. It creaked and lurched alarmingly when he did so. “Hey,” he said, shifting sideways. He picked something up from the bedspread, and held it out so they could all see it. “Looks like we’ve come to the right place.”
Spirit took the oak leaf from his hand. It was fresh and green, like the one they’d found in the van. “Is there anything else here?”
“Not in this,” Addie said, quickly opening and closing the dresser drawers. “Unless there’s a secret message hidden in the menu of the Alvo Diner,” she added, waving a tattered paper menu.
“Nothing here but a Bible,” Burke said, closing the drawer of the nightstand. “Not even a phone book.”
“Who could there be in this entire state that anybody would want to call?” Loch asked. “So, what now?”
“We wait,” Spirit said, pulling off her jacket and sitting down cautiously on the other bed. She’d like to kick her shoes off, but the rug didn’t look particularly clean.
“For a while, anyway,” Burke said. He tossed his jacket on the bed, followed it with his tuxedo jacket, and sat down beside her. She leaned into him gratefully and he put his arm around her. “And this is as good a place as any to talk about what we do next.”
“I didn’t know it was open for discussion,” Addie grumbled. She sat down on the foot of the bed Loch was on, plucking her skirts up fastidiously.
“Everything’s negotiable,” Loch said mockingly. “First rule of business. So Mordred’s going to start a war, and we’ve been designated by Spirit’s mysterious benefactor as the people who get to stop him. This would seem a lot more stupid if Mordred didn’t have magic and can scrub the brain of anybody we tell about his nefarious plans. Of course, he could also just kill them. That’d work.”
“Yeah, that’s the point,” Burke said. “We keep talking about ‘stopping’ Mordred and his Shadow Knights. I think it’s time to admit that ‘stop’ means ‘kill.’ Can we do that? This isn’t like the Wild Hunt, banishing demons back to Hell or sending Elves back to wherever Elves live. This is killing people, evil or not.”
“The good of the many outweighs the good of the few?” Loch asked lightly. But he couldn’t meet Burke’s gaze. “I don’t know if I could kill someone,” he said, staring down at his hands. “Not even knowing.…” His voice trailed off.
“I can. I can’t just sit here and say I don’t want to get my hands dirty knowing what the world will look like if they win.”
Spirit’s stomach lurched as she spoke. The sound of her own voice frightened her—she didn’t sound like anyone she could ever have imagined being. Her heart raced even as she knew she’d meant every word. In her mind was the sound of a gunshot, and Muirin falling. To stop that from happening again? Over and over and over—to millions of people?
She could kill.
“Maybe there’s another way,” Burke said, hugging her against him. “But I think we should be ready.”
“Oh, I’m ready for anything,” Addie said bitterly.
They were all too keyed-up to even think of sleeping. There was a little money left from what QUERCUS had left them for gas, so Loch went out to the soda machine and brought back Cokes. After that, there was nothing to do but wait. Everything Spirit could think of to say sounded stupid or useless when she thought about it, and apparently the others felt the same.
What was there to talk about? Muirin was dead, Mordred’s Shadow Knights were hunting them, and they were here because they were trusting someone Spirit had met in a secret chat room. And the worst part was, there wasn’t anything else they could do.
She was dozing on Burke’s shoulder when the sound of the door opening brought her joltingly awake. Loch was already on his feet, and as Spirit rubbed her face with her hands—she and Addie had washed off their makeup as soon as possible— Burke stood as well.
If the woman in the doorway was the rescue party, her looks didn’t inspire confidence. She was stray-cat skinny, her frayed jeans and worn parka looked like dumpster treasures, and her brown hair was short and unkempt. Her expression when she looked at them seemed to say she’d expected to see anyone else here but them, but she covered it quickly.
“I’m Vivian,” she said. “I’m here to take you to the one you know as Quercus. Let’s go.”
“Of course,” Loch said fulsomely. “Because we’re so willing to leave with the first person who shows up with the secret password?”
“That’s right,” Vivian said evenly. “What choice do you have?”
“Well,” Loch said, as if he was considering the matter, “we could stay here. Or you could tell us why we should trust you.”
Vivian huffed in exasperation. “Because no matter what you think you know, rich boy, some kids did escape from Oakhurst. I did—twenty years ago. Your parents did, too,” she added, looking at Burke.
“My parents were murdered by Mordred’s Mafya hitman,” Burke said, taking a step away from Spirit and toward Vivian.
“By Agravaine. Yes,” Vivian said, nodding. “But I’m talking about your birth parents, the people who left you in a church, hoping that holy place would protect you, and went willingly to their deaths, knowing they were leading the hunters away from you.”
“You knew my parents?” Burke demanded. “My other parents?”
“No,” Vivian said. “But Quercus did.”
“That’s disturbing,” Loch said after a moment. “Considering he apparently couldn’t protect them.”
“You’re a chess player,” Vivian shot back. “You’re aware of the concept of sacrificing a piece to gain the victory.”
“Funny,” Loch said. “On my planet we call it ‘hanging your friends out to dry.’ And we’ve seen a lot of it from the Shadow Knights lately.”
“Good for you,” Vivian said, sounding even more irritated. “But I don’t intend to stand around here all day dispelling your ignorance. I’m here to take you to Quercus. Now get moving. Or don’t, and wait for them to catch up with you. Your choice.”
Addie glanced from Loch to Vivian, her mouth set in a thin line of resentment. Spirit looked up at Burke. He was frowning, but he looked more confused than angry.
“Come on,” Spirit said with a resigned sigh. “We don’t have a lot of choices. If she was a Shadow Knight, she’d already have tried to kill us. Or something.”
“If—” Addie began. “I—”
“Move it,” Vivian said. “If you want to hang around outside here like idiot bait, I don’t.” She turned around and walked out, leaving the door open.
“Nice lady,” Loch said, but he was already reaching for his coat.
When they got to the van, Vivian was already in the driver’s seat. “Back’s open,” she said.
They looked at each other. “I’ll ride up front,” Loch said. “That way we can find our way back here if we have to.” Loch’s primary Gift was Shadewalking—the ability to move silently and undetected—but he had a secondary Gift of Pathfinding: the ability to always know exactly where he was, and to find his way unerringly from place to place. He climbed into the van on the passenger side, and the rest of them went around to the back. Burke helped Spirit and Addie up into the van and closed the door.
“This is our only vehicle,” Vivian said, over the sound of the engine. “I’ve been in the area since last night. I wanted to make sure they weren’t using Scrying Mages to set up an ambush. We’re good, though. I’m guessing they don’t want any of their people getting a peek at the endgame.” She backed and turned the van, and then they were heading down the road again.
“If the van is your only way of getting around,” Addie said, “and you left it for us, how did you get back here?”
“Hitchhiked,” Vivian said. “If you were expecting G.I. Joe and his secret underwater base, think again.”
“‘Knowing is half the battle,’” Burke muttered, quoting. He sounded worried.
They drove for another hour. Vivian ignored all of their attempts to find out anything about her, about QUERCUS, or about what was going to happen next. They stayed on the back roads, and the countryside looked even more deserted, if possible, than what they’d driven through to get here. If Omaha was somewhere around here, it was doing a good job of hiding.
At last Vivian turned down a narrow side road, and they could see they were approaching something that looked military.
And abandoned. There were faded and splintered No Trespassing signs everywhere. The only fence was a tangle of rusted barbed wire, and nothing was paved. Vivian drove through a gap in the coils and up to a cluster of tarpaper shacks that looked like they’d been deserted since before Spirit had been born: doors open or missing entirely, holes in the roof, siding stripped away to expose the framing beneath.
Spirit’s heart sank. What if this is all some kind of… delusion? What if QUERCUS doesn’t exist? All I have to go on is the Ironkey, and Vivian could’ve made that. She could have been QUERCUS, too. There’s no way to know. And if she’s crazy, if this whole idea of taking out the Shadow Knights is just some kind of… fantasy.…
Vivian pulled up behind one of the shacks. “End of the line,” she said. When everyone was out of the van, she picked up a camo net hanging from the back of the shack and dragged the loose side over the van.
“Where are we?” Burke asked, looking around.
“Nebraska,” Vivian said. “I don’t suppose any of you know history, but a long time ago—before any of us was born—the US was expecting to go to war with Russia.”
“I have heard of the Cold War,” Loch said dryly.
“Then you know they figured on fighting it with missiles,” Vivian said. “Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles—ICBMs. They launched from silos. There were hundreds of them— thousands—all over the country. The areas they were located in were called ‘missile fields.’ About thirty years ago, they started decommissioning the missiles. They were obsolete. But there isn’t much you can do with a former missile silo.”
“Except call it home,” Burke said.
“Got it in one. Come on.”
She led them into the shack she’d parked behind. It was completely trashed—broken windows, holes in the roof, leaves, glass, and unidentifiable trash on the floor. There was an old steel desk in one corner, turned on its side. The linoleum floor had been ripped up in places, and underneath was a concrete slab. Addie held her skirt up carefully, and Spirit wished she was wearing something sturdier on her feet than sandals.
Vivian led them into the second room. It was dark—there were black plastic garbage bags taped over the windows—and in the middle was a large hole in the floor. It looked to Spirit like one of those big storm drains—the opening was more than three feet across, and there were steel rungs set into one side.
“Who wants to go first?” Vivian said.
“None of us,” Addie said fervently.
“I’ll go first,” Loch said. “You next,” he said to Addie. “Be careful in those shoes.”
Addie made a face.
Loch walked over and just jumped in. Spirit yelped in dismay until she saw he’d grabbed one of the rungs before he could fall. “There’s lights at the bottom,” he called up, then they heard the scraping of his shoes on the rungs as he climbed quickly down.
“Showoff,” Burke muttered. “I’ll lift you in,” he said to Addie.
Her face was grim, but she nodded. He picked her up as if she weighed nothing, and lowered her carefully until she could grab the rungs. She looked up at him, nodded, and began to descend.
“Maybe you should go next,” Burke said to Vivian.
“Maybe I should stay up here to make sure you two don’t bolt,” Vivian said. Burke just shook his head and turned to Spirit. “Ready?” he asked.
She forced herself to nod. He picked her up and held her over the opening in the floor the way he had Addie. The sense of emptiness under her feet, the knowledge that Burke’s grip on her arms—and hers on his—was the only thing that kept her from falling—maybe to her death—was terrifying. She forced herself to let go and reach for one of the rungs in front of her. It was cold and a little slick under her hands. She kicked until she had her feet placed securely, took a deep breath, and Burke let go.
It’s just a ladder, Spirit told herself. You’ve climbed a lot of ladders.
But not blind, and not in the dark. She forced herself to feel for the next rung, and began her careful descent. When she’d gone down a few feet, the light from above was blocked as Burke followed her into the shaft, and a few seconds later she heard Loch call up that he’d reached the bottom.
It seemed like a long way down. When she got there, she saw the bottom of the shaft was lit by wire-covered lights on the walls. In the wall there was a metal door standing open. It looked like it belonged on a submarine. Loch and Addie were standing just inside.
“I know what this is,” Loch said, as she walked in. The room was fairly large—maybe twenty feet long—and the ceiling was so far up Spirit couldn’t see it clearly. “It’s a launch bunker. It’s where the missile crews would wait for orders to launch—see? There’s the computers and the monitors,” he said, pointing at a bank of equipment on one wall. It looked like something out of an ancient Science Fiction movie.
“Their regular tours were only twelve hours, but in the event of actual war they would’ve had to stay down here for days. So there’s a whole apartment down here.” Loch gestured toward a battered couch on the wall opposite the computers. On that wall there were two doorways that clearly led to other rooms.
There was no one else here.
“How is it you know these things?” Addie asked.
“I’m a guy,” Loch said, shrugging. “I thought it was kind of cool. You know, in an Armageddon, nuclear holocaust, Planet of the Apes way.”
There was a thump from outside, and Burke walked in. “Whoa,” he said, looking around.
“Best secret clubhouse ever,” Loch said, deadpan.
“I thought we were supposed to stop a war, not start one,” Burke answered.
“You are,” Vivian said. She pulled the metal door closed behind her. From the way she moved, it was heavy, but it moved silently. There was a wheel in the middle of it on the inside, just like in every submarine movie Spirit had ever seen.
“Where’s QUERCUS?” Spirit demanded. “We’re the only ones here, aren’t we?”
“I need to tell you a story,” Vivian said, not answering her directly. She pulled off her jacket and walked over to the couch.
“If this is some kind of trick.…” Burke rumbled threateningly.
“Why would I bother?” Vivian demanded angrily. “If I’d wanted you dead, all I’d have to do would be make one phone call while you were waiting for me to show up. I get that you don’t trust me—I spent two years at Oakhurst before I figured out what was going on. I know what it’s like.”
Spirit moved over to Burke and took his hand. She didn’t know what to think. She didn’t believe this was a trap, not really, but when she’d decided to trust QUERCUS’s escape plan, she’d been counting on there being something more substantial at the end of it than an abandoned missile silo. Set against the resources of Oakhurst, of Breakthrough, this was… nothing.
“How did you find out?” Addie asked unexpectedly. “About Mordred, and… everything?”
“I’m a Water Witch like you,” Vivian answered. “One day several of us were practicing down at the pool. One of my teammates hit me with a waterspout. It knocked me off my feet. I fell into the pool, hitting my head on the way in. I pretty much drowned before someone pulled me out. And after that, I… remembered.”
“You’re a Reincarnate,” Spirit said.
“If I hadn’t been, I’d be dead,” Vivian said. “I’d known Mordred… before… but I didn’t recognize him at first. None of us do, I think, even after we remember. He isn’t a Reincarnate—Merlin’s spell made sure of that. But he possessed some biker named Kenny Hawking. That’s the body he’s wearing now.”
“That part we’d pieced together ourselves,” Addie said. “But—”
“Merlin? Spell?” Loch interrupted.
“Look, if I don’t tell this in order you’ll be even more confused than you are now. Long story short: I knew who I was, I figured out who he was, I ran like hell and went looking for Merlin. It helped that Mordred hadn’t gathered as many of his Shadow Knights as he has now. I wouldn’t have been able to escape if I’d had to do it today.”
Spirit shuddered. They’d only gotten away from Oakhurst with a lot of help, and being away from Oakhurst didn’t mean safe.
“And you found Merlin,” Spirit said. “QUERCUS. QUERCUS is Merlin, isn’t he?”
Vivian nodded. “Yes. But let me start at the beginning. It’s a long story. Make yourselves comfortable.”
Addie sat down on the couch beside Vivian. There were two chairs in front of the computer console. Loch took one, and Spirit took the other. Burke remained standing, his arms folded across his chest.
“You probably know something about King Arthur and Camelot and all that, but what you know isn’t the way it really was. There were two great Queens who ruled over the land: the Bán Steud and the Cú Dubh.”
“The White Mare and the Black Hound,” Addie said. Certainly Oakhurst had crammed their heads with enough languages that a little Gaelic wasn’t much of a stretch.
“Yes. In those days the Power ran hot and free in the pillars of the earth, and it was the birthright of many, and so Guinevere, the White Mare’s Daughter, and Morgause, the Black Hound, were both women of power. Britain was Guinevere’s by ancient right, and Morgause meant to take it from her.”
“Sounds like Mists of Avalon to me,” Loch said. “Where does Arthur come into it?”
“He was the brother of Morgause and the uncle of Mordred,” Vivian answered. “Morgause had always meant to rule Britain through either her brother or her son, but she lost Arthur to Belcadrus—to the army, you would say—and after a time he became Diuc Bán Tir, Duke of Britain. When Arthur passed beyond her influence, Morgause concentrated all her arts upon her son. Mordred became a black necromancer, steeped in the darkest sorceries, but his uncle knew nothing of this, because Mordred concealed his true nature, believing he would be named Arthur’s heir—as much as Arthur could have an heir, since he wasn’t king.”
“But, uh, Duke of Britain?” Loch said, glancing apologetically at Spirit and shrugging. “That’s the same thing, right?”
Vivian shook her head. “Britain had more kings than—than Justin Bieber has fangirls. But it had no true king—High King— because for generations none of the White Mare’s daughters had chosen to wed.”
“I thought Arthur married Guinevere,” Burke said, frowning as if he suspected Vivian of trying to trick him.
“He did,” Vivian said impatiently. “Guinevere was the White Mare’s Daughter, and only marriage to her could confer the High Kingship. Arthur waited years, refusing to marry, and at last his patience was rewarded, for in the darkest hour of his battle against the Saxons, Guinevere came to him on the battlefield, bringing with her the white horses of Britain. The tide was turned, Arthur won the victory, and The Merlin came to Camelot to make the wedding. Mordred knew he could not conceal his true nature from The Merlin, nor could he hope—now—to be named Arthur’s royal heir. He spoke fair words—as they said in those days—and went far from the court.”
“I know how this story goes,” Loch said impatiently.
“No, you don’t. That’s the trouble,” Vivian answered immediately. “Arthur wasn’t king because he won a lot of fights. He was king because he was Guinevere’s husband, and whoever her husband was would be High King. Mordred meant to marry her, and that meant she must break her marriage to Arthur and choose another husband. Choose him.”
Spirit listened impatiently. All of this was ancient history— literally. No matter what the details were, they knew how it ended: with Mordred locked up in an oak tree, and the Round Table doomed to be reborn over and over until Mordred was dead. She opened her mouth to protest. Vivian smirked, as if she’d heard Spirit’s every thought. Spirit flushed, and forced herself to stay silent. But if she doesn’t start telling us something useful soon, I’m going to—
“Years passed,” Vivian went on, as if she didn’t notice Spirit’s impatience. “Acting in secret, Mordred stripped Arthur of his true knights and advisors. Lancelot was tricked into leaving Camelot. The Merlin was imprisoned in an enchanted oak. By then Arthur knew the shape of his doom, but he could see no way to prevent it—he might hold Britain, but both he and the White Mare’s Daughter could die as easily as any other. But Guinevere told him he could prevail by seeming to fall to Mordred’s treachery, and together they formed a plan. Before all the Court, he named her faithless and banished her—so all believed—to Glastonbury Abbey. But she went to Avalon instead, and there she gathered an army that could fight Mordred with sorcery.”
Spirit fidgeted. None of this seemed particularly important now. And no matter how much Vivian said it was the unknown story of Camelot, it all seemed very familiar. Had she dreamed this? Or read it? Either way, she did know how Vivian’s tale ended. Arthur dead, Mordred fled, and Guinevere chases him until she catches him. Tell me something I don’t know. With a real effort, she kept herself from tapping her foot and tried to pay attention.
Finally her frustration became too much. “And Merlin imprisoned him in Gallows Oak because Mordred couldn’t be killed,” she blurted. “But Mordred did something to Merlin. And Guinevere said she and her army would keep watch over Mordred and his allies forever. And that’s where the Reincarnates—the Shadow Knights and the Grail Knights—come from. How does this help us now?”
Burke looked toward her in surprise, but Vivian seemed to have expected Spirit’s outburst. “The spell Mordred cast bound The Merlin’s spirit to his flesh until the end of time. He would never be reborn,” Vivian said.
“But that was centuries ago—and Merlin isn’t dead,” Spirit protested, when Vivian didn’t say anything else.
“Yes,” Vivian said. “Mordred’s spell struck true, but The Merlin was more powerful than he had dreamed. If The Merlin would not be reborn, neither would he die. Centuries passed. The Merlin became a wraith, a spirit. The ancient Gifts we once took for granted passed out of common keeping, and he could not make himself known to anyone. Until a few decades ago.” She smiled as if she was about to tell them an unfunny joke. “First ARPANET, then NIPRNET, then NSFNET… electrical pulses, binary code, something he could influence to give himself a voice again.”
“You are not saying that Merlin has taken over the Internet,” Addie said flatly. “You really aren’t.”
Even Loch was speechless.
“Not ‘taken over,’ ” Vivian said. “He speaks through it.”
“Oh, that—that’s completely different,” Loch said, sounding as if he didn’t know whether to laugh or start yelling. “That’s completely reasonable. Of course there’s a dead Druid in the Internet. It explains everything.”
“The ghost in the machine,” Addie said. She gave a blurt of laughter and looked horrified.
They looked at each other. Loch looked incredulous, Addie looked shocked, Burke actually looked irritated. Spirit had no idea what expression was on her own face, but she felt… boggled. Even finding out magic was real hadn’t been this much of a shock. Merlin was a computer program. It was a cliché and unbelievable at the same time.
“Well,” Burke said after a very long pause. “I guess it isn’t any weirder than being in the middle of a battle between Merlin and Mordred surrounded by a bunch of reincarnated Arthurian knights.”
Loch stared at him in pained disbelief. Burke shrugged.
“So Mordred takes over a biker and Merlin takes over the Internet and our side is losing?” Loch asked.
“Not ‘taken over,’ ” Vivian repeated irritably. “He—”
“Is.… Can I talk to him?” Spirit finally asked.
“I was waiting for somebody to grow a brain,” Vivian muttered. She went over to the bank of computers and began flipping switches. Lights came on, and the room was filled with a low whooshing hum.
It sounds like it’s going to blow up. Or break, Spirit thought.
“Planning to start World War Last?” Loch asked.
“There aren’t any missiles here and I don’t have the launch codes anyway. But I do have Internet.”
It took a while for the equipment to warm up, but when it did, letters appeared on both of the CRT screens.
Shadow Grail: Victories © Mercedes Lackey and Rosemary Edghill, 2014