Sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A program for bright high schoolers seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus…
We’re excited to share an excerpt from Legendborn, a contemporary YA fantasy from author Tracy Deonn—publishing September 15th with Margaret K. McElderry Books.
After her mother dies in an accident, sixteen-year-old Bree Matthews wants nothing to do with her family memories or childhood home. A residential program for bright high schoolers at UNC-Chapel Hill seems like the perfect escape—until Bree witnesses a magical attack her very first night on campus.
A flying demon feeding on human energies. A secret society of so called “Legendborn” students that hunt the creatures down. And a mysterious teenage mage who calls himself a “Merlin” and who attempts—and fails—to wipe Bree’s memory of everything she saw.
The mage’s failure unlocks Bree’s own unique magic and a buried memory with a hidden connection: the night her mother died, another Merlin was at the hospital. Now that Bree knows there’s more to her mother’s death than what’s on the police report, she’ll do whatever it takes to find out the truth, even if that means infiltrating the Legendborn as one of their initiates.
She recruits Nick, a self-exiled Legendborn with his own grudge against the group, and their reluctant partnership pulls them deeper into the society’s secrets—and closer to each other. But when the Legendborn reveal themselves as the descendants of King Arthur’s knights and explain that a magical war is coming, Bree has to decide how far she’ll go for the truth and whether she should use her magic to take the society down—or join the fight.
I’m leaving. Now.
That seems right. Good. Best, even.
Beside me, Dustin is leaving too. “I need to go.” He shakes his head, like he can’t fathom why he hadn’t left the party already. I find myself nodding in agreement. Tor told us to leave and we should do as she says. We’re on the gravel path now, the lot a few minutes’ walk through the trees.
I trip on a branch, lurch to the side, and catch myself against a trunk, hands slapping against jagged pine bark. The quick, stinging pain from my already-scratched palms cuts through the smokiness of Leave and the lingering spice of Now, until both words dissipate. Instead of pressing on me like a weight, the command flits gnatlike around my skull.
Dustin is long gone.
I gulp oxygen until my thoughts feel like my own again, until I’m in my body enough to feel the sweat-damp cotton T-shirt clinging to my back and chest.
Memories rise like bubbles through oil, slow and sluggish, until they explode into rich Technicolor.
Selwyn. His bored expression. His mouth spilling words into the night like a cold wind until they swept away my intention to stay and replaced it with his command that I leave. His will wrapped around my memory of the flying creature and ground it down into a pile of dust and fractured images, then rearranged that pile into something new: an unremarkable blank space above the campfire with no creature in sight. But that new memory doesn’t feel real; it is a thin, flimsy layer created from silver smoke with the truth visible and concrete underneath.
He gave us both false memories, but now I remember the truth. That’s impossible—
A voice sends me ducking behind a tree. “It’s just these four. The rest made it to the parking lot.” It’s Tor, the blond girl who’d yelled at everyone. “Can we make this quick? I have a date with Sar. Drinks at Tap Rail.”
“And Sar will understand if you’re late.” Selwyn. “This one was nearly corporeal. I had to wipe those last two kids’ memories just in case.”
I stifle a gasp. They’re both still there at the clearing twenty feet away. Whatever they’re doing, they’re working together. Tor and Selwyn are visible between trees, circling the campfire, looking up. The murky green shape is still there in the sky, flashing in and out. The four drunk football players must have been absolutely plastered, because they’re only now coming up for air. They sit back, chests heaving, faces bloodied, expressions disoriented. One of them moves to stand, but Selwyn is at his side in the blink of an eye. His hand drops like an anvil on the drunk kid’s shoulder, pressing the larger boy down so hard and fast that I hear his knees crack when they hit the earth. The athlete screams in pain and curses, falling forward onto his hands, and I muffle my own cry.
“Dude!” another boy shouts.
“Shut up,” snaps Selwyn. The wounded boy struggles in Selwyn’s grip, but Selwyn holds him down without effort, without even looking. Selwyn’s gaze hasn’t left the flickering thing moving above their heads. After several pained breaths the boy releases a low moan. “The rest of you, over here with him.” The other three boys exchange glances in silent debate. “Now!” he barks, and they scurry together on hands and knees to sit next to their injured friend.
In that second, I realize I have a choice. I can go find Alice and Charlotte. Alice will be worried sick. I can leave, like Selwyn told me to. I can put my wall up again, this time against whatever is happening here with these kids I don’t know from a school I’ve barely started. I can hide my curiosity, just like After-Bree, just like my grief. Or I can stay. If this isn’t just a trick of grief, then what is it? Sweat streams down my forehead, stings my eyes. I bite my lip, weighing my options.
“As soon as I get them out of the way, it’s going to bolt,” Selwyn cautions.
“You don’t say?” Tor says dryly.
“Snark later. Hunt now.” Hunt? My breaths quicken.
“Pot, kettle, black… ,” Tor huffs, but reaches over her shoulder for something I can’t see.
Any choice I had evaporates when silver smoke appears from nowhere. It writhes and coalesces around Selwyn’s body like a living thing, wrapping his arms and chest, blurring his body. His amber eyes gleam—actually gleam—like dual suns, and the ends of his dark hair curl upward, topped by bright flames of blue and white. The fingers on his free hand flex and contort at his sides, as if they’re pulling and churning the air itself. Impossibly, he is both more terrifying and more beautiful than before.
Silver smoke materializes and surrounds the boys. They don’t even blink—because they can’t see it. But I can. And so can Selwyn and Tor.
When Tor takes a step back, I finally see what she’s holding: a dark metal rod curved in an arc. A downward snap and it extends—into a bow. A goddamn bow.
At the sight of her weapon, the taut football players shout and scatter like crabs.
Ignoring them, Tor pulls hard to extract a silver bowstring from one end. Strings the weapon with practiced fingers. Tests the tension. The girl I’d called prissy draws an arrow from a hidden quiver between her shoulder blades and nocks it without looking. Takes a breath—and in one powerful motion, pulls the bow up and the arrow back to her ear.
One of the players points a shaking finger. “What—”
“Where do you want it?” Tor asks, as if the boy had never spoken. Cords of muscle strain at her bicep, in her forearm.
Selwyn tilts his head, assessing the creature. “In the wing.”
Tor aims; the string tightens. “On your signal.”
Three things happen in quick succession:
Tor’s arrow flies.
Selwyn swings toward the boys, spreading his arms wide. Murmurs words I can’t hear.
And the boys stand up. They march around the campfire in a line and walk in my direction.
Tor’s arrow pierces the shimmering mass. For a split second, I see wings in the campfire smoke. Claws. A thud—and it’s writhing on the ground, scattering leaves and dirt, half the arrow sticking up. Whatever it is, it’s not much bigger than a possum. But just as angry as one. I shudder. A feral possum, with wings.
The football players reach me, and I duck out of sight as they pass. My blood runs cold when I see their expressions: mouths slack, eyes unfocused, they move as if drugged.
Is that how I’d looked?
A screech splits the air, yanking my attention back to Selwyn and Tor. A hiss. A voice like metal scraping across glass. “Merlin…”
I blink in confusion. Merlin as-in-King-Arthur?
Selwyn advances on the flickering creature twitching from Tor’s arrow. Five needle-thin points of light appear at the fingertips of his extended hand. He snaps his wrist, and the light spears fly into the ground. The creature screams; Selwyn’s pinned it in place like a butterfly to a board. His low chuckle makes me shiver. “Not just any Merlin.”
The creature hisses again in pained rage. “A Kingsmage!”
A feral grin spreads across Selwyn’s face. “That’s better.” My heart skips. Mage. Magic.
“It’s just a small one, Sel.” Tor pouts, another arrow already notched in her bow.
“Doesn’t matter how small it is,” Sel objects. “It shouldn’t be here.”
The thing struggles against its restraints. A flapping sound.
Sel clucks his tongue. “Why are you here, little isel?”
He says “isel” with a long “e” on the first syllable— and a derisive sneer.
“Nosy Legendborn!” The isel makes a sniffing sound. “Nosy trai—” Sel stomps down on its wing. Hard. The creature screeches.
“Enough about us. Why are you here?”
Sel rolls his eyes. “Yes, we saw that. Found yourself a spark of aggression and blew on it until it became a feast. So intent on gorging yourself you didn’t even see us when we were right beneath you. But so far away from campus? You’re a weak, miserable thing. Barely corporeal. Surely it’d be easier to feed there, closer to your Gate?”
A grating, rhythmic sound comes from the ground where the isel lies trapped. It takes a moment for me to recognize the sound as laughter. Sel hears it too; his lips curl back.
“Yesss,” the isel grates out. “Very funnnnny…”
“Spit it out. We don’t have all night,” Sel warns. “Or should I say you don’t have all night? You’re going to die here—or did you miss that, too?”
“Not myyyyy Gate,” it rasps.
Sel’s jaw clenches. “What do you mean, not your Gate?”
The creature laughs again, the sound atonal and wrong. Sel’s eyes flick to Tor. Still aiming at the isel, she shakes her head, shrugs. Neither one of them knows what it means. “Not my Gate. Not my Gate—”
Without warning, Sel clenches his hand into a tight fist in one hard motion. The glowing pins draw together. There’s a quick flash of light and a bone-shaking scream, and the creature’s flickering shape explodes into green dust.
My feet are glued to the earth. They’re going to find me, I think, because I’m too terrified to run.
“There could be more.” Tor pulls her bow to rest. Sel’s head lowers in thought. “Sel?” Silence. “Did you hear me?”
His eyes cut to hers. “I heard you.”
“Well, we huntin’ or not, Kingsmage?” she huffs.
He turns to face the woods opposite my hiding place, tension radiating across his back and shoulders. He comes to a decision. “We’re hunting.” He mutters a word I don’t understand, and the silver smoke from before returns, swirling around the campfire until the flames die, sending the clearing into darkness. “Move out.”
I hold my breath, but Tor and Sel don’t turn my way. Instead, they step into the section of the woods he’d been scrutinizing. I wait until I hear their voices recede. Even without the fear of what they’d do if they found me, it takes that long to get my trembling limbs under control. Finally, they’re gone.
A beat of silence, two, and the crickets begin singing again. I hadn’t realized they’d stopped.
From a limb overhead, a bird releases a quiet, uncertain chirp. I exhale in kinship. I’m pretty sure I know how they feel: the isel was an impossible monster that somehow fed off humans, but Selwyn is something else… something worse.
Every living thing in the forest had hidden itself from him.
I stand there one more beat, still frozen, and then I run. I run as fast as I can through the trees and don’t look back.
Excerpted from Legendborn, copyright © 2020 by Tracy Deonn.