Chapter One CHAPTER ONE
THE ENEMY LIES IN wait to bleed my people.
To litter the homeland with our bones.
To bury its secrets.
But first he has to go through me.
I crouch in the brush surrounding Yiyo Peak for a better view of the Chancellor and his men. The sun washes Ghizon in shades of evening. Bleak wasteland stretches before me, scorched and burning. Blackened jpango trees are claws raised in sacrifice to the Ancestors. An armament of uniformed Patrol stand where there was once a field of lush vegetation and wispy grass, onyx glowing on their wrists.
Pangs churn in me—for justice, for the death of my parents, for the terror the Chancellor has caused my Ghizoni people, for the magic on his wrists that isn’t his own. He’d made sure the treachery was scrubbed from the island’s textbooks. But bones whisper from their graves if you listen hard enough.
My gilded arms warm instinctively with power, but I blow out a breath. Easy, Rue. With my Ghizoni people nearly magicless, it’s basically me against thousands of Grays, the Chancellor’s men. I have one shot at this and timing is everything.
Yiyo, the home my people have hidden in for years, sits behind us, perched in the middle of the forest. The Ghizoni and I hide in the foliage around it, clad in armor. I duck down lower behind thick waxy leaves to get a better glimpse of the enemy’s movement. Everything he and his men have touched in the past three days of this siege has been destroyed. The Chancellor paces so rigidly, I expect to see steam rise off him. As if he’d burn every piece of beauty in the world if it would secure his power.
The destruction out here in the wilderness ends abruptly at a barrier as transparent as glass, which forms a dome over us and the mountain. Bri, in her haste to get me here quickly, said he’d broken through the barrier. Thankfully she was wrong. But he’s about to. And it’s the only thing keeping them from us.
It glistens, hanging above us. Thin cracks spiderweb on its surface and my heart ticks faster, my fingers twitching. The Chancellor scans the area and I hide myself behind a smooth-barked tree that’s as wide as I am. Thousands of Patrol surround him. There’s so many of them. So few of us. I swallow and gaze at the trees at my back, but my people are well cloaked, tucked into nooks of branches and wide leaves, in pockets of shadow, waiting, watching. The lines written into their faces are more determination than fear.
The Chancellor’s nostrils flare and he shouts. Because of the barrier, I can’t hear it. But his men raise their arms in unison. I clench, my muscles tightening in angst as I watch them aim magic at the barrier. The cracks on its glossy surface spread. Their arms lower. He yells and they fire again. It’s been going on like this for days. But each “aim and fire” twists the corkscrew in my chest. That dome breaks, then what? I clench my fist.
Outnumbered and all. I picture Moms’s face. There’s no other way. The General’s demise must have reached the Chancellor’s ears while I was in East Row. He is always poised, pensive, stoic. Three days ago, when they started this siege, they were collected, organized. But now, his reddened complexion, his corded throat, say the orders he’s shouting are rooted in exhaustion and frustration, not control. Which I intend to exploit.
I wish I could have seen his face when he learned that hundreds of my people still exist. That some actually got away when he showed up to unify the tribes under him. And that they’ve been hiding inside Yiyo for generations, their magic fractured, a wisp of what it used to be. But even still, resiliently hopeful, strong, and ready.
A twig snaps behind me and I turn to find Jhamal pressing in beside me. He’s no more than a breath away, a wall at my back. The siege glows orange in his ebony eyes.
“They won’t break through,” he says.
They will. I’m sure of it. But I swallow the words. I don’t want his hope to falter. Hope is its own kind of magic. But Jhamal studies my eyes and finds the truth. The lines deepen on his face and I squeeze his hand in reassurance.
He gestures for everyone to come together and hundreds in shining gold armor emerge from the shadows. They surround us, eyes flicking between the two of us.
“It appears the barrier will break today,” Jhamal says, broadening his shoulders, forlorn shadowing his expression.
“It will,” I say. “But we can exploit the Chancellor at his most vulnerable point.”
“The island is our home,” says a Ghizoni clad in armor with bear-claw insignia perched on his shoulders. “We know these paths better than anyone. We should take cover in the thickest leaves and let them come to us. Ambush them.” He tightens his grip on his curved blade.
“So we line up here,” a girl with a braided topknot says, digging the tip of her shield into the ground, drawing a picture of the plan.
I glance for another view of the Chancellor. The barrier’s thinning with every attack, magic sizzling its dulled surface. Rage is burned onto the Chancellor’s skin. I’m the true threat. The opposition to his power. What if…
“I’m the carrot. Dangle me.”
Their expressions twist in confusion.
I stand. “Listen, we don’t have time to strategize. For three days we’ve been hunkered down in this forest with no clear consensus of a plan, watching his movements, studying him. I’ve got to get out there. Before it’s too late.”
“We’ve learned a lot about his movements these past two days,” the Ghizoni says.
Crack. I suck in a breath, glancing at the barrier. The spiderweb of cracks I’d just seen has doubled in size. “I’m not trying to minimize that and I’m sorry if it came out that way. I’m just saying, the Chancellor wants me.” I hold out my golden arms. “These. And they outnumber us greatly. I’ma fight him one-on-one. That’s our chance. Our only chance.”
Heads turn in silent conversation with one another.
“Jelani,” Jhamal starts. “Don’t do this. What is the full plan? Lay it out.”
All eyes on me.
I step back. “To get out there. To fight.” They’re wasting time. I leave the huddle and creep closer to the task at hand.
My Ghizoni people are like collateral damage to the Chancellor. He’s razing the land where our Ancestors grew their food, the chakusas where my father’s father raised his family and buried our dead, where aunties and their daughters picked kaeli berries for their turning out ceremonies. Anger moves through me in a rush of heat. I don’t want to sit and talk about a plan for another minute. That barrier is going to fall. And I need to be in position to end him.
“And what would you have us do while you’re out there?” someone shouts at my back. I don’t know. I just know they can’t die for this. They’ve suffered enough at the hand of the Chancellor. The Ancestors gave me this magic. My parents died so I’d have it. So I could do this. So I could fight.
I summon heat to my fingertips, keeping to the edge of the tree line so I can see him, but he can’t see me. A flicker of hope thuds in my chest mangled with fear. I can do this. I have to do this.
My people call for me, but I jet off. The Chancellor’s narrowed eyes search for me at the edge of the trees. Patrol snaps to attention. Magic flies through the air, slamming into the glass dome overhead. It shutters.
I can’t stop them from shattering the barrier, but I can be ready when they do. The second before the barriers opens up wide enough for him to step through, I’m going to reveal my position and fire at him before he can fire at me. I’m counting on catching him off guard. I blow out a breath. It’s gon’ work.
A crack cuts through the air and the protective dome above us cracks like an egg. I summon that familiar heat; magic swirls in my hands.
“Jelani,” Jhamal says, his clammy hands curling around my wrist. As if the sweat on his palms is just as much about me as what we’re all up against. The last time we were together, my lips were pressed to his. Aching churns in me for the simplicity of that moment again. The moment of peace and comfort it gave me. Especially amidst so much loss.
I rub his hand on mine and his eyes soften. But the moment is interrupted when a glassy chunk of the barrier falls from the sky like a jagged piece of hail. A rip slides down the side of the barrier, its glass splitting in two.
“It’s going to fall in any moment.”
The Chancellor practically salivates, a crack widening right in front of him. It’s time.
“I have to,” I say, tugging my hand from Jhamal.
“I’ll come with you,” he says.
He doesn’t have magic. He can play defense only.
“No,” I say. “Not if you don’t have to.”
He tucks his lip and nods. I hold on to his fingers as long as I can before letting go and leaving him there.
I step from the clustered jpango, and the Chancellor’s eyes snap to me like a magnet, the cracking glass splintering the image of his face. The gap in the barrier widens, its edges being chiseled away by Patrol’s magic. Delight curls his lips and my fingers twinge with heat.
Minutes. I have minutes.
I picture my magic slicing through him, ripping his stolen power from his bare hands. I close an eye to gauge my vantage point, the split second I’ll have.
I straighten. I just need one clean shot. One. I swallow. Magic pools in my wrists as the Chancellor holds a hand at the ready, waiting to signal his men. Bits of glass fall to the ground like snow.
The crack widens.
My heart beats in my throat.
Magic jitters through me and I tremble for fear I might burst. Everything my father died for, my mother was sacrificed for, amounts to this moment. This man.
The final pieces of the barrier fall, shattering like glass. A cloud of dust surrounds us from the impact. I cough, lifting my hands. Weapon and shield in hand, Jhamal suddenly frees himself from the brush, armored in a gold breastplate lined with bits of fur, and sticks to my heels.
No! Dammit, Jhamal.
With no time to yell at him I turn back to the task at hand.
“Aim,” I say, squeezing an eye shut, the Chancellor’s head in my sights.
His men’s arms raise in unison, all pointed at me.
I root my feet, hold in a breath. “And fire.” My magic flies straight for his face. His eyes widen in anticipation and he shifts aside at the last second. My magic darts past, grazing his face, leaving his cheek red-streaked.
Close, so close. We could win this. I raise my shaky hands, suck in a breath for fear if I breathe too deeply, the pressure will shatter me in a million pieces. Patrol fires back and a cloud of crackling energy streams at me overhead. I retreat back into the cover of the trees. Their magic slams into the blackened wood, lighting up the edge of the forest like a firework display.
I zip through the branches, over a stump, and book it to the farther end of the forest so I can attack them on their flank. I find the perfect spot and aim at the sides of their faces. Glass rains around us, my sliver of an advantage buckling like a dam as magic barrels from my fingertips toward the Chancellor. Hope swells in me like a balloon. I clench my fists as streaks of light zip past the trees, through the air, and slams into them like dominoes.
A few falter, their heads turning my way, now aware of my new position. The Chancellor fumes, reforming his men up. I aim for him again and heat tugs through me like live wire. I bite my lip until I taste copper, watching my magic fly through the air straight toward him. Yes, yes, that’s it. I bite into my knuckle.
“Raise,” he shouts, and Patrol raises their arms. “And fi—”
His expression widens with fear when he spots my magic barreling toward him. He jerks the man beside him in front of him as a shield. My magic slams into the man squarely in the face. The Chancellor tosses him out of the way, his jaw mean. He points in my direction, shouting at his men. The small advantage I’d had is disappearing like fresh rain on dry soil.
“Ahhh!” Desperation rips through me as I urge my magic to burn through me, firing in succession as fast as I can. I manage to hit a few Patrol who fall over and don’t move.
“Charge!” The Chancellor orders his men and their ranks break, running toward me. The cloud of dust thickens under their stampede. I blink but the haze of dust stings my eyes. The glass has stopped raining, but panic has a hold of me.
I look for a target, something to fire at, but it’s harder to see. Something sharp grazes my back and I turn to find flames flying through the air at me. Run! I take off toward the tree line, skimming for anything to use as a shield. The sound of glass crunching underfoot crushes my confidence. A fireball pummels through the air and I jump sideways, its heat warming my face. I spot Jhamal dodging fuzzy strands of magic behind his shield.
“Jhamal!” But he doesn’t turn in my direction. Can he even hear me over all the screaming? More Ghizoni emerge from the forest, vengeance rooted in heartbreak behind their battle cry. No, they have to go back! Another blow flies at me and I dodge, covering my head. Jhamal runs toward me and a swirl of magic chases him.
“Get down!” I charge his way, push him down, and kick off the ground. Up. Up. Air whips beneath me and my wrists connect with the magic midair. It sizzles then fizzles out. I land hard.
“Jhamal, you okay?” I ask, panting.
He nods, gripping my hand and I tug him up to his feet. He falls in behind me, back-to-back.
“You need a shield!”
A burst of magic flies toward us. He pulls us aside, this time, dodging the blow. The Patrolman stumbles in shock at his miss. Jhamal takes advantage of the moment, slamming his knuckles into the Patrolman’s face. Violence erupts in explosions in every direction. I aim and fire toward them, heat pulling through me like a rope tethered to my chest. Magic flies from my hands slamming into someone with a Ghizoni in a headlock. Jhamal and I rotate. I aim and fire. Aim and fire again, until my wrists ache from the recoil.
Something slams into me and the world goes sideways. I stagger. Pain pinches my knees as they slam the ground. The world goes black.
I’m a fragment, a feeling, a thought. I am air.
Smoke stings my nose.
“Ahhh!” Shouts blare in my head.
For several moments the world is silent. Death is all I hear.
I blink and the sky is a blur. I blink again and sounds swell around me. Magic sizzling armor, groans, screams. The battle rages.
“Up, Jelani,” someone says, pulling me up by my arms. “Can you hear me?”
I cup the Ghizoni’s face expecting to see Jhamal, but it’s not him. My hand is warm and sticky. “Th-thank you…” I gesture for his name, blinking his blurry face into focus.
“Thank you, Rahk.”
“You were out for some time.”
“They ambushed us,” he say. I take in the scene around me when an explosion pops overhead. We tuck our heads and run, skirting around fallen bodies, crumpled armor tangled around bleeding Patrolmen.
The battle has turned.
And not in our favor.
What have I done? Why didn’t I tell them to stay in the forest? Or take cover somewhere or… something. My eyes sting. I try to blink the shame away and look for Jhamal.
I-I did not think this through. There are too many of them.
Panic grips my throat. Magic zips past in a streak of light and I halt, stumbling backward. I turn but there’s magic coming from that direction, too. Cornered, bodies barrel into me. I hold my wound with one hand and fire darts of magic at the shooters.
Jhamal sprints toward us. His arm is streaked with red and he holds his elbow.
“Rahk.” Jhamal greets him with some special handshake.
“All the others I was with have fallen,” Rahk says to no one in particular, but his stare is fixed on me. “What should we do?”
Jhamal throws his blade; it swivels and whistles over my shoulder. Somewhere behind me someone groans before hitting the ground. Rahk covers himself with his shield, the ferocity in his eyes dimming. The ground is a sea of carnage and ash on both sides.
“What should we do?” Rahk asks again, his gaze darting between us. Jhamal looks at me too.
“I—” I break out into cold sweat.
“I, uh—” My heart races. “Go back through the forest. We need cover. You all do. Get inside Yiyo Peak. Bar the door shut. I’ll finish them off out here.”
“What?” Jhamal cuts in, but Rahk doesn’t wait to hear. He runs off to grab the others.
“Jhamal, go with them. Defense isn’t enough. Without you all armed with magic, it’s— I missed the moment I needed. Having you out here now is too big of a risk.”
“No.” His jaw flinches and he deepens his stance, his mug mean.
“You have to listen to me!” I grip his arms. “You will die out here, you hear me? GO!” I shove his chest. “Listen to me, dammit!”
His nostrils flare.
He doesn’t move for several moments. We cut down three others, back-to-back, before he pulls me to him, presses his lips to mine, and retreats into the forest.
I sense the Chancellor before I see him.
“It’s finally just you and me then, Jelani.” His eyes flick to my gleaming wrists and I swear he licks his lips. I raise my arms, summoning my magic. A ball of light glows brighter between my shaky hands.
Magic flickers on his fingers, but I react first.
“Ah!” I fire at him.
But the world goes lopsided.
My head is wet and sticky, my fingers red. I blink. Someone pulls me. No, I try to say, but the words only play in my head. I spot Jhamal, running faster than the wind toward me, fury in his eyes. His javelin flies from his fingers and someone holding me lets go. But others grab hold of me. I can’t move. I can’t breathe.
“No!” Jhamal roars, fighting through the army of them growing around me. Their prize. The prey they’ve hunted for so long. Captured. I look for someone, anyone, to help. But all I smell is the mountain where I sent my people—burning.