Chris Howard - Saltwater Witch Comic
Saltwater Witch - Chris Howard

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19

House Rexenor



Ephoros looked down at Kassandra with his endless-cave-like eyes, his deep voice making the water shiver. “I will first find your father, if he is there, and then the book.”

“And the key to release your brother, if you can,” she added and slipped the bracelet off her wrist, dropping it into his wide nearly transparent palm. The links came together like a drop of gold. “Ochleros helped us. He is a slave to Tharsaleos through the mistakes my family made. We have to free him.”

“Yes. I may seek the key that frees him first so that we can search the Nine-cities together.” Ephoros cut his rumble short and spun along the back wall, opposite the door, guarding her with one arm at the same time. Kallixene had just started to scowl at his sudden movement when someone knocked sharply. Menophon paused a few seconds, then pushed in the big elliptic door, banging it into Ephoros’ shoulder.

“My lady, the teacher is awake.”

Kallixene nodded and gestured Kassandra outside. The three of them kicked into the courtyard, following Menophon. Ephoros straightened up to a decently monstrous size once he had moved beyond the door.

Kassandra felt the suspicion in him. He clearly didn’t like the crowd of seaborn gathered in Kallixene’s courtyard. They made it too difficult to protect her.

She looked up at him with the pale blue glow of courtyard lights and the sun from the distant surface, some of it haloing him and partly pouring through his transparent humanoid form.

“What if the king has thought of this and has set a trap for you, or taken the book somewhere else?”

“I will find it.”

She stared into his wise old eyes for a second and then turned to Mr. Henderson. Her science teacher would undoubtedly need assistance after waking up underwater.

At least fifty seaborn from House Rexenor had now gathered in the courtyard, some chatting with Mr. Henderson, who seemed unusually at ease in his new surroundings, although the excitement and curiosity made his voice go shrill. He hit them with a handful of questions as soon as he understood they weren’t going to hurt him. His voice kept rising over the murmuring and she heard him make exclamations like “Fascinating!” and “How strange.”

But “the teacher from the surface” was only an added feature. Word had spread. The remnants of Rexenor had come to see her, the Wreath-wearer, wide-eyed and cautiously hopeful.

They watched her warily, some bowing their heads when her eyes met theirs. Many just stared or turned to their neighbors in the crowd, remarking something about “the girl with her guardian.”

As if Kassandra couldn’t hear them.

Suddenly self-conscious, she curled in her fingers and toes, very aware that everyone else in the sea had a fine web of skin between each. And she no longer had her bracelet that marked her as seaborn. They wore strange clothes, tight shirts that came down to their knees and leggings. Some even had webbed boots. Kassandra wore a tee shirt and denim shorts and was barefoot. She was supposed to be a princess, one of the royal house. Heir to the throne of all the seaborn.

She looked like a beggar.

She stopped and watched Mr. Henderson. The Rexenors called him “philosopher.”

And he was a natural. He was spinning slowly, even faced her at one point, but didn’t look up, his gaze fixed intently on a really old man with long gray braided hair.

Mr. Henderson didn’t seem terribly hurt or even terribly affected by waking up underwater with the ability to breathe. He answered the old man’s question casually and turned to another in the crowd.

There was something else, something different about him. Then she noticed he had lost his glasses. He also stood very tall in the water, the tips of his shoes on the tiled yard, half-ringed by the seaborn, one of whom, a woman with her auburn hair in three braids, was just finishing an answer to one of his questions.

Amazingly, Mr. Henderson already seemed to be at home. Kassandra stuffed her guilt deep, shook her head, forced a smile, and turned back to her grandmother.

Kallixene had pulled away, speaking quietly to a soldier in heavy-plated armor. It was similar to the armor worn by the guards at the gate, except this man’s had been dented and broken in places. Seaweed hung like thick mats of spider webs off his helmet and from his arms. Yellow mud caked the plates of armor, dissolving into sulfurous clouds at his feet. The man—he really wasn’t that much older than she was—knelt on one knee with a bowed head, and then kicked straight up to lean in close, whispering to Lady Kallixene. She had one hand on his shoulder, nodding.

Every Rexenor not speaking or listening to Mr. Henderson had their eyes on Kassandra, and she swung her gaze between her grandmother and Ephoros to make it appear as if she wasn’t trying to avoid meeting theirs.

But she was.

She saw something in them she recognized, a longing for home.

It scared her. What did they want from her? She didn’t know anything about homes, families, cities, House Rexenor or Alkimides. The Rexenors her age and younger stared at her with big lonely eyes, heavy with hope.

She turned to the window into Kallixene’s sitting room, pretending to face Ephoros but really watching the reflections of the Rexenors in the dark pane.

Like the world spinning around her when she traveled through the pipes, a sudden idea struck her, made her dizzy. She staggered forward, threw out her hands to catch herself.

Lady Kallixene is my grandmother. Lady Kallixene can take me away from Clement’s. There was something to hope for. Her father may be trapped there, his death sealed in the false souls of the Olethren, but if she lived through this, she would be free of St. Clement’s—forever.

Kassandra turned to the courtyard full of Rexenors.

Even the adults seemed afraid to draw near her. Mr. Henderson was certainly more approachable—open and smiling—and they ringed him in discussion. Kassandra looked past the open gate into the dim streets and houses and little shops, wondering what it would be like to grow up here.

I can braid my hair in threes and wear long shirts and flat webby shoes. I can live hereI just need to free my father. Matrothy won’t hurt me ever again. Deirdre and Autumn won’t hurt me. What about Jill and Nicole? Can I take them with me?

Kassandra would be coming home. That made her kick higher in the water. The feeling of strength and invulnerability—that feeling that had settled inside her right after she had met Ephoros—seemed pale and so long ago compared to what she felt now.

She made fists and it felt as if she could crush the bones of the Olethren with them. All of them. I’m going to come live here with my grandmother, and I’m going to get my father back, and that book, and release Ochleros so we can all fight King Tharsaleos. And I’m bringing my friends with me.

Like Odysseus reaching the shores of Ithaca after ten years of war and ten long years of being manipulated by others, She was home.

Something touched her thoughts. She felt someone looking at her, not one of the Rexenors from the gathering, but someone who could put some force behind her gaze. She circled, and Lady Kallixene beckoned.

Kassandra cupped her hands, kicking, and pulling the water behind her—with Ephoros following. She looked from her grandmother to the muddy soldier, who bowed to her, and although he tried not to stare, she felt the effort it took him to keep his eyes moving, from her to Kallixene. Apparently, she made him nervous. They were about the same age, but he was a Rexenor soldier. He had the same haunted lonely eyes—and he knew who she was without an introduction.

He bowed to her again.

“The Olethren are nearing the mouth of the Mississippi River, my lady.”

“That fast?” There was a rough edge of panic in Kassandra’s voice. She whirled to Ephoros. “But my father.”

Ephoros bent forward, understanding. “I will go now,” he said, sending shivers through the water. “And seek him in the Nine-cities. If he is there, I will find him and return. I will find the Telkhines book and free my brother from the slavery set on him by the king. Lady Kassandra, you have my promise.”

Kassandra reached out and touched the top of his hand—half as big as her whole body. “Please be careful, Ephoros.”

He nodded to her, bowed to Lady Kallixene, and drifted to the arched courtyard entrance. The Rexenors kicked out of his way, a frightened scattering of color, mostly blue. He glided through the gate and then down into the village.

Kassandra watched him vanish in the shadow of a sheer cliff face. She looked up. So did the young soldier.

“Why didn’t he just swim up?”

“There are protections in place against such movement,” said Kallixene with a slight rise in her eyebrows as if she had been wondering the same thing. “No doubt, something of his power could break it.” She pointed up. “Our shield is weak compared to the force that protected the fortress in the North, and King Tharsaleos and his war-bard managed to break that.”

Her grandmother cleared her throat, waving away the past. “We have the future to think about.”

Kassandra locked eyes with Kallixene, there was a moment of tension, and then a slow genuine smile rose to her grandmother’s lips. She understood something about Kassandra’s uncomfortable situation, a lone Alkimides, dressed like a thinling, a pauper among thinlings even. But heir to the throne of all the seaborn.

“Come. I will introduce you to your paternal House, and you will introduce me to your teacher. Then we will plan for the Olethren.”

She led her past the closed door to her sitting room so that the two of them floated in front of the wide dark window.

“House Rexenor!” She called over the murmuring of the crowd, and they spun in the water toward her.

“The word has reached your ears or you would not be here. My granddaughter, Lady Kassandra, the daughter of Lord Gregor and Lady Ampharete of the Alkimides, has been a prisoner of King Tharsaleos all of her life. The king sent her above the waves, into the heart of the land, far from the nurturing ocean.”

Every face turned to Kassandra, and every eye studied her. A few of the old soldiers only had one.

She clamped her mouth shut and curled her hands in. She was red enough. Nothing about my hands. Not the hands or feet.

And her own name stood out glaringly. The original mythical Kassandra was gifted with the ability to tell the future but cursed to have no one believe her. She prophesied the death of King Agamemnon but he didn’t listen to her warnings. No one did. And when the king arrived home after ten years’ war against Troy, sure enough, the queen killed him. Not that he didn’t deserve it.

Kassandra felt the blood heavy in her hands, her heartbeat radiating through her body. She hoped they didn’t know the story and the origin of her name as well as she did.

Her grandmother continued the introduction for ten minutes, telling the gathered seaborn and Mr. Henderson about Ampharete’s struggles, the murder of Pythias, her son’s journeys to the seas in the East, seeking to build up the defenses of the Rexenor fortress, of his capture and enslavement by King Tharsaleos.

“Lady Kassandra wears the Wreath of Poseidon, as you can see, and she has escaped her prison, that school, escaped the king for now. She has come seeking her teacher.” One corner of Kallixene’s lips bent up, as near a smile as she probably gave anyone. “We will give her the strength of our hand in return.”

There was a pause like the silence of the abyss.

Kallixene drifted a few more inches in the water. “We will give it to her.”

A Rexenor woman in her twenties swam away from the crowd, letting her feet drift down to the stones. She shot Kassandra a really nasty look and then turned it on Lady Kallixene.

The woman reminded Kassandra of Nicole, but a little older. She had long black hair, braided into threes, deep reddish-brown eyes, fury in them like windows into a volcanic interior. She wore a tight black top, nothing about her pale and flowery. The black material angled in at her throat and left her shoulders bare—muscular shoulders.

Kallixene nodded. “Yes, Phaidra?”

Given the floor, the woman immediately turned on Kassandra.

“Is it true, the Olethren have been awakened for you? That they will follow your path to the earth’s end? And that your presence here draws them to us?”

Oh, shit.

“I—” she started, holding back the urge to call up her armor and sword. It made her feel powerful, but this woman’s fierceness melted away any hope of defense.

Of course, I have other methods. She let her anger stir to life, even gave it a bit of stoking.

Phaidra’s gaze dropped a little to take in what Kassandra—the Alkimides princess—was wearing, and then drifted back to meet eyes, bringing along the scorn they had just picked up.

Kassandra met her look. Don’t make me mad, Phaidra.

Fists tightening, she lifted her head higher and drew in a deep breath. She called up a storming anger. It was ready to roll uncontrollably forward, blind and destructive. She felt her face tighten, her brows tilting into each other, forming a wrinkle above the bridge of her nose.

“They are marching to the school in Nebraska where I grew up. Not here. That means they have been awakened to kill something I hold dearer than my life or the existence of the Wreath itself.” A trace of a thank-you for Andromache’s and Praxinos’ formal language teaching flashed by in her thoughts. “Because I will stand between the Olethren and their prey and let myself and all the Wreath-wearers perish before I’ll let their rot and death and clutching fingers touch my father, Lord Gregor Rexenor.”

She gave Phaidra a challenging glare. Then she spent a second congratulating herself.

Then she noticed the blaze in Phaidra’s eyes had doubled.

“You—!” Phaidra sputtered. “What do you know of Gregor, you stupid girl from the surface? What do you know of the ocean? Or any of this?” She waved her hand to indicate the gathered seaborn and the village beyond. “You wear the Wreath. It’s plain. It is your intention or any possible attachment you could have to the sea that strikes me wrong. Would you defend the life of a man you never knew?”

Kallixene swam in, shifting to ancient Greek. “And you, daughter, only knew as little more than an infant. As Telemachos knew only the contrived madness of Odysseus, a father weary of war in the moments before he departed for Troy, and returned not for twenty years.”

Holy shit! Aunt Phaidra?

While most of Kassandra’s thoughts were tied up on the woman doubting her, she spent one thread trying to figure out what her grandmother had just said. She knew all the names, Telemachos was the son of Odysseus. He was a baby when his father went off to war against Troy, and twenty years old when he returned.

Phaidra kicked into the water a few feet, shouting at her mother. “By that small piece I cling with every grain of my thought and strength. What of Gregor does she have to hold? Nothing. She never knew him. She is an outsider here.”

“Do you think she doesn’t know what a father is? She wears the Wreath and so knows of her ancestors. We all create what we can out of the sorrows and history we can pull together and hold onto.”

“But out of nothing?” Phaidra snorted doubtfully.

“Sometimes it is out of the complete lack of the thing you value that the stronger purpose emerges. Having the smallest memory as the harbor in which to anchor your grief has given you enough to crush any desire to pursue the possibility of your brother being alive. I am equally at fault, for I held my memories of my son in place of the hope that he was still among the living. Having nothing, the fleeting thinness of the air above, which is incapable of holding the teeth of an anchor, drove this girl—my granddaughter—to seek what we have and more, the smallest of footholds, a memory, a conversation, anything, even the hope of saving Gregor.”

Phaidra crossed her arms obstinately. She lifted a finger off her muscular biceps to indicate Kassandra, and her gaze landed on her like prey-birds. “She’s a scared little girl. Your fear is as clear to me as the gift of Poseidon. What are you going to do? Spit on the army of the dead before fleeing like a goby on the flats?”

The shock dumped Kassandra’s mouth open. She started to get her response ready, but Kallixene’s angry voice cut through her reply.

“Do you know where this girl stood one night ago? On the floor of the abyss north of the Nine-cities where the lithotombs are anchored. She spoke with one of the deathless ones enslaved there and learned that Gregor is alive and a prisoner of King Tharsaleos. Even as she set out on her journey, the king ordered Gregor moved from the abyss. We think the king has sent Gregor to the school where Lady Kassandra grew up, as a lure and trap for her. That the Olethren are moving toward the Mississippi River confirms this.”

That silenced Phaidra for the moment, but Kassandra still had her inferno-like wrath at full height with no place to contain it.

She unleashed it on the woman, her voice lethally sharp.

“I’ll go and defend my father against the Olethren with or without your help. If you want to cower down here in the dark, you have my permission.”

Phaidra’s eyes went wide. Her teeth came unclamped, but only for a heartbeat. She bared them, pulled up her fists, and whirled into a fighting stance.

Kassandra stiffened, closed her eyes a moment, and then opened them. Her toes pressed against the tiles and when she brought her focus back to the courtyard full of seaborn, the pale green and blue armor plates wrapped her body and the sword arced into a point a few feet from Phaidra’s face.

The weariness that always followed served only to temper her anger—but only a little. She glared back from under the brow ridges of her helmet.

Show me what you got, Aunt Phaidra. I dare you.


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20

You Can Only Lose Once



The currents of the wreath roared around her, tugging curls of water on her ankles—and up to that point Kassandra thought it was all inside her head. The whirling forces distracted her only a moment.

It was the surprised murmuring of the seaborn—and their fear that broke through her anger. She let her focus move away from Phaidra in quick shifts, flicking to the faces of the Rexenors.

“Why are they shocked?” she whispered to Praxinos and Andromache, keeping her sword up. “I just wished my armor on.”

Praxinos didn’t understand. Wished?

You have frightened them. Andromache knew exactly what she had done—and she seemed proud of the fact that she had the power to do it. It is not something a Wreath-wearer does often. Willed on your armor and battle gear is the appropriate way to put it.

Ah, wishing. Praxinos made some agreeing noises. I did not sufficiently appreciate your use of the word. I think I prefer wishing to willing.

At a nod from Kallixene, Menophon stepped forward, giving her a stern look.

Oh no.

Kassandra kicked away from Phaidra before lowering her sword.

“I will testify to the Lady Kassandra’s fearlessness,” Menophon called to the gathering. “She threatened to part my head from my shoulders when I ordered her to hand over her sword, for none shall enter the Lady’s presence armed.”

Kassandra froze, not at first understanding which way the commander of Kallixene’s guard was going. Then she slid the sword into the scabbard around her back. He was obedient to Lady Kallixene, and showed no sign of their earlier disagreement.

“My lady?” Menophon gave Phaidra a curt nod, and the daughter of Kallixene lowered her fists, straightening into her normal ready kill-you-later stance.

Lady Kallixene drifted over and rested her hand on Menophon’s shoulder. “Years have flowed past us into history. Years since we fled our home in the Atlantic. Countless swells have rolled by, and twice times the number of tides as days have passed. Older, we are wiser. But the king has not let his soul go to rot. I think he is working to force my granddaughter to protect her father. And he has awakened the Olethren to kill them both.”

Kallixene gave Phaidra such a forceful look she skidded back two feet over the tiles with a terrified expression on her face.

“This is not an arguable decision. This is not about enmity of the noble houses. This is not a matter for the assembly, but one for which you have already taken oaths to join against. Lady Kassandra is an Alkimides by her mother, but by her father, my son, Lord Gregor, she is a Rexenor. You are bound by your word to defend her as you would defend me, as you would defend any one of us.”

Kallixene indicated the door through which Ephoros had passed ten minutes before.

“Many of you saw the deathless one, Ephoros who came to us as a companion of Lady Kassandra. You also saw him depart. He is headed for the Nine-cities at this moment, to recover the means to destroy the Olethren.”

Kassandra noticed a few frowns, some directed right at her. Kallixene read them too, returning a nod, the corners of her lips tilted up into a forbidding smile.

“You are thinking that this sounds very like the preparations that failed so many years ago.” Kallixene paused. She knew how to make the silence work. “For the most part, you are right. There are similarities, but there are noticeable differences. Lady Kassandra’s mother, Lady Ampharete stood with us then on the fixed battlements built by your ancestors. And on the eve of battle we decided to send Ephoros away to the old ones who still dwell around Rhodes in the Mediterranean Sea. He did not return in time to help defend us from the dead army of Tharsaleos.”

Kassandra tightened her jaw, watching the reaction of the gathered seaborn. Most nodded or made sounds of agreement in response. To her it sounded pretty much like the same failed plan.

“The differences I will point out to you. We no longer live behind fortress walls, but in hiding, and on the move. We are not going to defend our homes, nor must we defeat the Olethren tomorrow or the next day. She laughed sourly at the notion of defeating an undefeatable army. “All we must do is discover where they have hidden Lord Gregor and escape.”

“But they will not stop until we have joined them in death,” a young man burst out, adding cautiously, “My lady.”

“And if you were imprisoned in the same manner, Chenandros, we would spend our lives to free you. My son may not be at the surface school, but we must find out. It is very likely he is. If he is there, we must free him and escape through the rivers.”

Kassandra swam forward, and Kallixene tilted her head to her with a questioning scowl.

“I—I would like to add that another difference is that the Olethren have never fought above the waves, and the king has made a mistake in sending them to Nebraska.”

“Nor have we!” Shouted a few old soldierly looking men and women. Phaidra nodded, joining their group glare.

Kallixene gave them a sweeping wave of one hand. “Time is not something we can treat like the boiling waters from the vents.”

Kassandra blinked a few times. What?

The young soldier who had come with news of the Olethren, glanced over, saw the puzzled look on her face, and made a twirling motion with one finger. She nodded back, understanding. The hot water from deep-sea vents was almost never ending.

Fancy way of saying we don’t have a lot of time.

“The Olethren have nearly reached the headwaters of the Mississippi River. And we must secure some of the details of our strategy. Here is what I have decided so far: Tharsaleos has spies at the school. So, we must send Kassandra there with one or two of us as protectors. This advanced team can begin the search for Lord Gregor in a careful manner, avoiding the king’s agents, while we ready for battle. Every man and woman without familial duties, and one from every family without a child under nine.”

There were some shouts about exceptions to intricate laws that dealt with wartime family duties, many about fighting above the waves, questions about fighting with their wet clothing and armor and the resulting chafing, some concerns about the weight of armor and weapons up in “the Thin”, all of which Lady Kallixene or Menophon answered in turn. The crowd in her courtyard doubled after several of the children were sent around the village as callers, passing the word of battle.

An argument broke out over what to do with Mr. Henderson, with some thinking that he ought to be suited up and given a spear. After brief introductions and some background on the Olethren, he agreed.

Always knew he was crazybut in a good way. That’s what makes him a good teacher.

In fact, Mr. Henderson seemed more excited than he already was when they explained about the wired-together rotting corpses brought back to something like life in order to serve the King of the Seaborn.

“Will wonders never end?” He seemed genuinely intrigued, and he bowed to Lady Kallixene. “I don’t know…what do you say on the day someone saves you from torture, possibly murder, brings you to the bottom of the sea, and gives the gift of breathing underwater to a marine biologist? I guess… I owe you my life. I don’t know the first thing about combat with swords or spears and armies of these dead warriors, or much else I’ve heard so far, but what I can return in terms of service, I give to you.”

Menophon swam forward and put his scarred hand on Mr. Henderson’s shoulder. “Do you swear loyalty to House Rexenor?”

And her favorite teacher, her science teacher, with all the excitement of a man gone back to some favorite era in a time machine, nodded and said, “If it means I get to continue doing this, then absolutely!”

“Accepted,” said Lady Kallixene with a curt bow in return. She turned to Menophon. “See that Michael Henderson is given arms and armor.”

All curiosity and not enough fear, Mr. Henderson kept swinging around to overhear different arguments and demands, trying to keep up with the battle prep.

He made a few attempts at nodding and smiling at Kassandra. She had had a part in getting him into this mess—the girl who had asked about sound traveling through water. That can only lead to trouble, right?

Apparently he didn’t see things the same way. Henderson ended up with a grin, an exaggerated shrug, and his eyebrows jumped in a less-than-serious expression of “What the hell have we gotten ourselves into?”

Kassandra waved back weakly, tried for a smile that she was sure came out thin. Guilt kept poking holes in her thoughts. She wished she could feed it all to the whirlpool force, the Wreath, which was now a constant presence in her head.

Can’t I banish it—flush it—down the whirlpool? Clearly it didn’t work that way. Mr. Henderson is here because he wrote something about my sound-through-water question in his grade book. And he taught his class about the wonders of water. It’s partly my fault Matrothy, Fenhals, and a murdering king became his enemies.

Her grandmother’s voice cut through her thoughts.

“There is an old saying, that you can only lose to the Olethren once. The meaning is clear, that no one survives to fight them another day. We lost once to them, and we have survived. I will remind you now. You can only lose once to the Olethren.”

With that, the crowd broke to organize for battle. Not that it would take much effort. House Rexenor had prepared days before for the final defense of their homes. Menophon beckoned some of the older men and women over to talk strategy.

Kassandra hung out for another hour, chatting uncomfortably with some of the Rexenor girls, all of them younger than she was. They spoke in frightened voices, and wanted to touch her armor, but she couldn’t look them in the eyes. There were few from the village older than twenty but younger than forty, a glaring void of life. No children from the generation annihilated by the Olethren.

She shifted her feet anxiously, and sprang into the water every few minutes, wanting to stay but ready to leave.

Lady Kallixene approached with Phaidra.

“Kassandra, you will return to your school with Phaidra to help you. We will follow as soon as we are able. Do not be afraid. Knowing what we know of the king’s plan, we can defend ourselves. We can walk into a trap knowing it’s there. But you must avoid Fenhals at all cost. Do not let him speak to you. Run away from him.”

“Why can’t I wait and go with you and the rest of the House?” Okay, that sounded whiny, and she shut her mouth.

“Our plan is to make the king’s agents think their plan is succeeding. For that, you must be seen at the school. Also, you can travel much faster than we can. We will follow as soon as we can complete the muster, with the Olethren probably on our heels.”

Kallixene turned to Phaidra. “Search the school for defensive positions, doorways that we can fortify and those that must be barred. Secure as many paths through the water as you can.” Phaidra kept nodding and glancing between her mother and Kassandra.

Lady Kallixene continued giving orders to both of them, but Kassandra didn’t catch all of it. She sank into an entrenched scowling contest with her aunt Phaidra.

Why has my grandmother paired me up with the one who hates me?

“Because she is family and you are the Wreath-wearer. Other than Phaidra, there are few here I trust more with your life,” said Kallixene at once, and Kassandra stared back, her mouth falling open, the sea going still behind her teeth.

What powers do you have?

“None of your business. But if you push me—either of you—you will find out how big and sharp my claws and teeth are. Understand me?”

Phaidra, who had obviously been pinned under her mother’s eyes a thousand times, understood and returned a solemn nod of her head. “Yes, my lady.”

When both Phaidra and Kallixene turned to Kassandra, she didn’t really have a choice other than to mimic her aunt.

“Yes, my lady.”

Kallixene nodded abruptly to Phaidra. “Hurry. Prepare, daughter. I want the two of you at the school as soon as possible.”

Phaidra swam off at an incredible pace. Wish I could swim like that.

Kallixene turned to her. “I assume you have the ability to construct a path to a water source at the school? You and Ephoros did not simply glide down the rivers to the Gulf like a couple of Nine-cities courtiers on holiday?”

Kassandra nodded, looking into the gloomy streets through the village where she had last seen Ephoros.

“Yes, grandmother.”

Kallixene sighed. “Phaidra is strong and she is family. She is proud. She is not the only one who lays some of the blame for our downfall on your mother.”

“But the king did not know she had the Wreath.” Kassandra’s voice rose defensively. “It wasn’t about Lady Ampharete. Tharsaleos sent his armies against House Rexenor because he knew he couldn’t lose. He had the Telkhines book, and my father was his slave.”

“Since our fall, that has been one clear explanation, but there was no way to draw certain conclusions. Until now.”

Kallixene looked at her with a deeper sadness. “If we cannot reach the school before the Olethren, you must flee. Make your way here as swiftly as you can. My son would not want his daughter to die when his own life is already lost. Nor would he wish you to find him only to spend a few minutes before the dead army takes both of you. This is not a final stand. Your life is more important.” Kallixene smiled at her suddenly. “Like Odysseus reaching the shores of Ithaca?”

Kassandra choked on her response. She can read my mind.

Kallixene didn’t answer, or just ignored her. She pointed east, and with a serious tone, said, “Your true home is there. When I see you on the throne in the Nine-cities, with the seaborn crown on your head, then I will know I have helped bring you home. You are the Wreath-wearer, the one who deserves the throne.”

Fifteen minutes later, Phaidra and Kassandra kicked through the gates, high in the water, and the grim, heavy-armored guards saluted as they passed.


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21

The Agent of King Tharsaleos



Kassandra frowned at her own sluggish movements in the water, comparing them to Phaidra’s graceful moves. The ability to slither and dodge the claws and needles of Olivia in Red Bear Lake had given her the impression that she could actually swim.

Phaidra slowed, took Kassandra’s hand firmly with a curt nod, and pulled her through the water at twice the speed she was able to get out of her awkward kicking and paddling.

The sea rushed by her face, and she stared into it like a hawk into the wind. She kicked, watching Phaidra’s motion, trying to copy it and stay in sync. They swam in silence for another hour before Phaidra stopped and studied the deep endless blue. She released Kassandra’s hand.

“How near to the Mississippi mouth must we be to make the path?”

Kassandra clamped her teeth shut, holding her face expressionless. She couldn’t remember the last time she had done this. Ephoros woke her up from a deep sleep, and the next thing she remembered was the cold shower stall in the nine-to-sixteens department, and throwing up saltwater.

“I will try from here,” Kassandra said firmly, trying to sound as if she could have built the path from Kallixene’s courtyard if she had needed to.

Phaidra nodded, licking her lips. “We are still far from the headwaters, but I can taste the dilution of the sea here.”

Kassandra’s focus dropped to look into the black gloom below her, and she immediately wished that she hadn’t. She imagined hundreds of thousands of dead warriors in endless ranks, marching over the sands below. “How close do you think the Olethren are?”

Phaidra looked up instead, opening her mouth and nose into the currents as if trying to catch an elusive scent on a breeze. “They say their stink carries far, but here I sense or taste nothing foul.”

Kassandra tucked her hands into fists to stop them shaking. “If we can taste them we’re too close.”

Phaidra stared back at her, clearly wondering something. She nodded almost imperceptibly and grasped Kassandra’s hand tightly—and even affectionately. No sign of her earlier mood or antagonism. Kassandra picked up the vibe, and was sure her aunt’s first question had nothing to do with what she said next. “Before you take me with you to your school, tell me what I will see when we emerge?”

“The bathrooms. I left the water running in a shower stall.”

“A large room?”

“Not very. It’s covered in tiles and there are smaller rooms, stalls for the toilets. Four sinks. Four showers. I’ve only done this in the middle of the night when everyone’s asleep. There may be girls in the bathroom when we show up.”

Phaidra nodded and gripped her sword. Kassandra waited to see if she was going to draw it before letting her eyes close. She concentrated on the last shower stall in the second floor girl’s bathroom at St. Clement’s.

She had come through the pipes with a drawn sword the first time, but now understood that it was probably not a bright idea. One good jolt in the flow and she could decapitate herself—or others who happened to be taking the trip with her.

She felt a soft tug, the several thousand-mile path stirring to life, but it felt far away, and she wondered if it would fail. Her eyelids fluttered, her teeth ground tight, waiting for the bone-loosening pull under her arms and in her stomach. Phaidra’s hand gripped harder as if she also sensed it.

Then it was there. And it had her.

The draw of the river sucked them into its spiraling course. Kassandra spun, gripping Phaidra’s hand. It didn’t seem like enough of a connection. She reached over and grabbed her aunt’s armored shoulder, pulling her close. The dark tunnel of water shot over their heads.

Kassandra blinked, trying to hold her eyes open. Broad gray streaks of light ribboned past them where the channel pulled them over a submerged mud bank and into the river shallows. What river? Mississippi, or one of its tributaries?

The forces slammed them into each other, and then tried to wrench them apart. Kassandra twirled out of control, flipping behind Phaidra as they shot around a sharp bend in the flow. Her fingers clawed deeper into her aunt’s armor.

Phaidra knew enough about traveling through a vortex to tuck her chin down before attempting to speak. “How far?” She shouted the words, and Kassandra nodded back to acknowledge hearing them.

They rocketed by a bright doorway. Kassandra jerked her head toward it, skewing her helmet over one eye. The force of the pathway punched her shoulders back. Phaidra let out a short broken scream. Kassandra’s legs flew up in front of her, over her head, and she was thankful for the tight fit of the armor. She would have lost her shorts on that one. She flipped around, wrenching her wrist before unlocking her fingers from the scale plates along Phaidra’s shoulder.

Kassandra swung her free hand around, reached out and seized Phaidra by all three braids. The two of them twirled like autumn leaves in the turbulent depths under a waterfall.

Phaidra shouted something, another question probably, but the rush of water was so loud Kassandra couldn’t understand it.

Did they miss the path? Had someone shut off the shower? Questions bounced through Kassandra’s mind amid fleeting bits of doubt—and she couldn’t think straight with Andromache and Praxinos shouting suggestions that intertwined with her own.

She let go of her aunt’s hair, dug her fingers under the armor plates again, and kicked back to the well of light they had passed before hitting the end of the flow. It wasn’t far, but it was tough focusing ahead in the gloom through the slits between her eyelids.

She saw it, a gaping ellipse of white. The sky over Nebraska opened up around them, and they shot from the water.

Phaidra flew out ahead of her. Both of them tumbled across the grass. Kassandra went face first, Phaidra skidding on her back. Then they rolled over, choking water from their lungs.

Kassandra got up on her knees, disoriented, nearly blind from the daylight. She didn’t realize where she was, still thinking of the shower stall as the end point, and when she caught a glimpse of an old emaciated man standing over her, she felt a moment’s outrage. Creeper, what’s he doing in the girl’s bathroom!

“Fenhals!” Phaidra cried just before an attack of coughing seized her.

Kassandra clamped her eyes tight against the sun’s glare, opening them when a shadow passed between her and the sky.

We’re outside. The thought made its way to the front of her bewildered mind. They had shot out of the dripping faucet next to the playground on the girl’s side of St. Clement’s—the one she had nearly killed herself on when she tried to run away from Clement’s.

There was a thin hiss of scraping metal as Phaidra, right next to her, drew her sword, then her aunt was screaming right in her ear, and shoving toward the school.

“Run!”

Kassandra blinked against the light, took two steps and stumbled to the ground. Fenhals’ mouth was wide with shouted words. His hands were up in claws. Matrothy stood behind him, arms folded, mouth sagging, a dull stare in her eyes.

Kassandra had just climbed to her feet when Fenhals snapped his fingers and bellowed a curse. She heard his words, translated them, but had no idea what they meant. He said something about the blue burning heart of

A crack of lightning stung her ears. Her hands went to her face to cover the flash of light, brighter than the sun, and a wave of heat rippled through her armor.

Phaidra shrieked. She flew into Kassandra, bowling her over. They flipped over one another and slid toward the school upside down, armor plates shoveling up lumps of grass and dirt. The smell of burned hair was in the air.

Phaidra rolled over and crawled to her knees, gulping for air. She pushed Kassandra toward Clement’s, and moved into a defensive position against the king’s agent.

Fenhals’ first attack hadn’t killed them. If anything it made them more alert. They jumped to their feet.

Phaidra had her left hand straight out, webbed fingers spread. She held her sword up defensively. Two of her braids swept across her armored back as she twisted into a fighting stance. The third was a short singed stub that stuck out the length of a thumb from under her helmet. Fenhals’ blast had hit her in the shoulder, taking one braid with it.

“I will hold off these two,” said Phaidra hoarsely and coughed. Her gaze didn’t leave Fenhals and Matrothy. “Go.” She screamed the word over Fenhals’ thin-voiced casting.

Kassandra turned and ran. Find my father, find my father. One of the bulkhead doors that led into the basement was open, a tall rectangle of shadow, slashed on one side by a wedge of sunlight.

Fenhals cried the last of a long string of words and released another lightning storm. A crackling tendril of it arced around Phaidra and hit Kassandra’s forearm with a hammer’s force. The sword flew from her fist, ringing as it hit the ground ahead of her. Both her hands were out this time, stopping her headlong slide for the basement windows. Her chin slammed into the dirt, jarring her teeth.

She didn’t look back, but she heard Fenhals shouting again. Getting to her feet, she scooped up the sword, and dove for the doorway into the basement. She hit the wood plank at the threshold, skipped past it, and tumbled down the concrete stairs.

The sword point caught on a step, and she rolled over it, pinning her hand around the grip, grinding her fingers between her armor and the stony edge of the stairs. She let go. Her body came around, feet swinging over her head, her heels scraping along the wall. She landed hard and slid across the basement floor. Her helmeted head banged against the concrete and her hand, knuckles bloody, dropped and slapped the ground.

The sword followed her, skipping and ringing down the steps, point first. Kassandra crab-crawled out of its way, and using the wall for support, clawed her way to her feet.

In one motion, she bent down, grabbed the sword, spun, and ran to get out of view from the top of the stairs.

She crashed into Mrs. Hipkin, running toward the stairs, knocking her to the ground.

“Sorry!” she shrieked and staggered past. “Run, Mrs. Hipkin!” She dashed off and didn’t look back.

Fenhals’ voice carried down the basement passage.

Sword clanking against pipes and file cabinets, Kassandra snaked through the maze of tunnels, a whole network of them underneath St. Clement’s Education Center. Who designs shit like thisShe tried a few doors, but they were locked. Her father could be anywhere. She took a left, heading into darkness. He had to be down here—where else would a psycho-lightning-thrower want to hide him? He wouldn’t be up in the teacher’s lounge or the admin offices, hanging out with the principal, Mr. Cutler.

Matrothy had keys, and knew these tunnels. Yeah, that’s why Fenhals was using her.

Fenhals’ voice echoed down the corridors behind her.

“She went down here.”

Kassandra ran, eyes darting under vent pipes and dodging stacks of cardboard boxes, looking for someplace she could crawl into and hide until Fenhals passed.

Don’t look back.

The corridor was dim, and she couldn’t see any change in the light as she moved through it, but the Wreath was like a bloody neon sign to someone who knew what to look for. I can’t get a decent glow out of it when I need it.

“The girl went this way!” Fenhals yelled.

Who’s he talking to? Matrothy? Is Hipkin on his side?

Kassandra felt a stab of guilt at running down the laundry lady, but only if they were on the same side. Otherwise, she hoped it hurt.

Darting down a short corridor that ended with a metal door, Kassandra jerked it open and jumped into a shallow lightless closet stuffed with paint cans, rollers, and long aluminum poles.

Nasty chemical stink in here.

As quietly as she could, she pulled the door closed and leaned against the back wall, gasping for air, her heart thudding hard. There was the faint crinkling armor when she breathed, the surfaces of the overlapping plates scraping against each other. In the dark it sounded like a thousand spiders crawling up her body. She tried to catch her breath, sucking in paint fumes and the smell of cut grass, her face and fingers tingling.

She lifted the sword to put it away, but there wasn’t enough room in the tiny space, not without making a lot of noise. She lowered it, pressing it against her leg, and tightened her bleeding fist around the grip.

It took several minutes but she finally got her breathing under control. It was forced, and every few breaths she had to draw a deep shuddering one that was difficult to keep silent. Kassandra heard a man’s muffled voice, and then jingling keys.

“She can’t get into the locked rooms,” said Matrothy in a cold steady voice.

“This one then,” said Fenhals. “Hurry. The other one is not far behind.” He sounded winded.

Perhaps casting his lightning at Phaidra has weakened him?

Kassandra dropped her left hand down to the doorknob. If Fenhals was too weary to cast another bolt of electricity, she might be able to get her sword up in time to stab him.

“Stop!” Fenhals shouted.

Kassandra clutched at the doorknob, not caring about the rattling or the scraping sounds of the armor.

The door shuddered. Fenhals threw his shoulder against it. “Lock it!”

She squeezed the knob, trying to twist it, but Matrothy held it firm from the outside. There was a metallic rasp of an inserted key, and then the metal snap of the lock.

The closet was so narrow she couldn’t raise her sword. Kassandra managed to bring up one fist to pound on the door.

She pounded again, stopping to listen for a response.

Something was happening. The noise of a scuffle came through the door, feet scraping along the floor, the dull thud of someone slamming into a wall. Was Matrothy fighting Fenhals? Phaidra?

“He’s going to kill us all!” she shouted encouragingly through the door. “Stop him!”

“Give me those.” A girl’s voice snapped, and then the jingling of keys grew louder, closer to the door.

“Kass? It’s me, it’s Nicole.”

“Nicole?”

The door swung open and she lunged forward into Nicole Garcia.

“So glad to see you.”

Kassandra hugged her left-handed, keeping her sword down as she glanced past her. Matrothy stood dumbly in the corridor, one hand stuck out as if she was still holding the set of keys. Behind her in the main hallway Fenhals’ legs and feet stretched out on the floor from around the corner.

“What just happened?”

“Hipkin told me where to find you,” she gasped, breathless from the fight, but still scowling down Kassandra’s armor, trying to focus on what she was wearing. “The old dude grabbed me. I hit him hard, heel-palm to the face.” Nicole rubbed her hand. “I may have broken something—of his, not mine. I’ll have bruises, though. Then I shoved his head into the wall until he blacked out.”

Kassandra blinked at her. You really are Queen of the World material, Nicole Garcia.

She looked down at the keys in Nicole’s hand, and then patted down her armor. She didn’t have pockets. “Keep those. My father’s here somewhere, probably in one of the locked rooms.”

“Father?” Nicole pushed them into her pocket. She kicked one of Fenhals’ legs. “Who’s this? This isn’t what you were talking about when you said ‘bigger than Matrothy,’ right?”

That yanked her thoughts back to the real problem. “The ‘bigger than Matrothy’ thing will be marching from the river. Come on.”

They raced back down the hall, leaving Fenhals on the floor, battered and unconscious. Matrothy stood dumbly over him.

“Jill’s helping that woman who was with you in the yard. She took her up to our hall.”

“That’s my aunt Phaidra.” Kassandra looked over her shoulder, pleased with the sound of that on her tongue. My aunt.

She also didn’t miss the stunned reaction on Nicole’s face.

Instead of turning down the corridor that ended in the stairs at the foot of one of the bulkhead doors, Kassandra took the narrower tunnel left. In a minute, they reached the stairway to the first floor.

“Hold on.” She stopped. It was too early to be seen in armor around St. Clement’s. She took in a deep breath, let her shoulders drop, and closed her eyes. Then felt the scales fold away, off her body, followed by her hand closing around suddenly empty sword-free air. The basement was cold, and she was soaking wet. The dump of energy and the sudden drop in the temp made her stumble. Nicole grabbed her before she went all the way down.

“Thought that was getting easier.” With another deep breath she said, “I’m okay. Let’s go.”

They climbed to the central hallway on the first floor. Classes had been out for hours, and few of the students and teachers they passed gave them a second look. One or two boys stopped and stared after them, but Nicole scared them off with a glare and a “What the hell are you looking at?”

They ran the rest of the way to the girl’s wing.

Jill was just coming down the stairs from the second floor. “Kass!”

Nicole ran into her as she skidded to a stop.

Jill, flushed with excitement, was speaking twice as quickly as normal, so Kassandra had to lean in and try to read her lips. “She’s up stairs. Phaidra. She’s your aunt! Family! The laundry lady helped me get her upstairs. I’m grabbing her something to eat. Nicole and I saw you outside, next to the door to the basement. He shot lightning at you! And then we ran out to the yard, and the old man and Matrothy went down into the basement to chase you. And I helped the woman with the sword, and Nicole went after Matrothy. Are you hurt? Is that Fenhals? What happened to Mr. Henderson? Is he coming back?”

Kassandra couldn’t get a word in, so she motioned Jill back up the stairs, and the three of them sprang up them, two at a time.

Phaidra limped along the aisle next to Jill’s bed, pacing anxiously, but stopped and looked up when Kassandra entered the hall.

The front of her aunt’s armor was burned black, and she was missing the one braid—still had her other two, though, a very strange sight in the nine-to-sixteens hall. She looked formidable even while stunned and recovering from Fenhals’ attack. All the girls, Deirdre, Autumn, and Cornelia included, huddled down at the end of the room, as far as they could get from the strange woman with the sword.

Scared shitless, all of them. Charisma was sobbing uncontrollably. But so were others, even older girls who had always claimed that they had never feared Matrothy.

Kassandra watched them gathering against the far wall in frightened groups, glancing her way. Sighing, she gathered the courage to talk to them. She didn’t make it more than a couple steps. When she glanced out the window, into the view looking out over the front of St. Clement’s, the strangest sight brought her up short. A pickup truck with twenty people in seaborn armor piled precariously in the back, on the roof, along the fenders, inched up the road, its doors wide with more people standing along the running boards.

Down the road, a line of vehicles piled with more seaborn soldiers followed.

There was a line of blurry shapes in the distance, a dark edge of motion that hovered over the horizon. Kassandra blinked again, uncertain, and then realized what it was.

The Olethren had emerged from the river. Time to fight or take cover.

She forced herself away from the window and raced to the end of the hall, stepping right up to Deirdre Milhorn.

“Listen to me. Something horrible is coming here. It’s an army that will kill anything that gets in its way. I want you—”

“How dare—”

Kassandra slapped her. Hard.

“Shut up.”

Deirdre staggered back, stunned, her mouth gaping, one of her manicured hands covering her cheek.

“Use your pretty pierced ears for once.”

Autumn looked to Deirdre for commands.

Kassandra sighed. No sense waiting to get all geared up—and they had already seen Phaidra’s armor. She backed up a step and closed her eyes. She felt the shudder of power run through her body, and heard the roar of the Wreath off in some recess of her mind. She bit back a gasp, her response to the spine-buckling squeeze of energy from her.

When she opened her eyes directly into Deirdre’s, she saw fear. That is good.

Kassandra glanced at the gaping mouths of the twenty-three frightened girls—everyone accounted for. She had Deirdre’s full attention. Time to put this Kassandra myth to rest.

Autumn’s mouth sagged open. She stared at the scaly armor. Kassandra drew her sword, but didn’t raise it, hitting Deirdre with a glare instead.

“You are the Hall Leader. Matrothy is not in control anymore. It’s you.” She pointed at her. “Take everyone to the school wing, second or third floor—not the first floor. Close the doors and keep them closed. Lock them if you can. Secure them with desks and other furniture. Gather as many students as you can along the way. Go.”

Deirdre nodded slowly. It took her a few seconds to find the rest of her body. It seemed as if Kassandra’s slap had shaken the thoughts right out of her head. Deirdre snapped into readiness and nodded again, this time with some purpose behind her eyes.

Done. Kassandra turned and walked away, and behind her Deirdre—using her standard tone of authority—ordered the girls to the school wing. They filed out as she stepped around Phaidra to get closer to the window.

So much for the Kassandra myth, that she could tell you what would happen in the future but was doomed to have no one believe her. The original Kassandra was just too gentle with the things she saw. She could have predicted tomorrow’s weather, or that Odysseus’ ships would be blown off course, and a hundred other things that would have convinced them that she could see what was on its way. She should have hauled up and slapped King Agamemnon silly. Look, you idiot, your wife’s waiting at home to kill you! You’ve gone off to war against Troy for ten years, left her alone, while you took women from the villages you conquered. You nearly lost the war because of a woman! That’s what the Iliad’s about! Are you totally stupid? It doesn’t take a damn fortuneteller to realize what’s going to happenWhat did you think your wife was going to do? She’s a queen, and a powerful woman. She doesn’t need you! She’s had her share of lovers, and has even joined with the last one to kill you when you arrive home, stupidly drunk with victory. Believe me or notI do not careGo to your death, you maggoty narrow-minded fuckwit! But you’re not taking me there with you.

Kassandra clenched her fists, one around the grip of the sword, and looked down at a steep angle through the window, where the circular drive at St. Clement’s swung up next to the front entrance. There were six cars and two big pickup trucks parked like a wall in front of the stairs, and then she fully understood who had arrived just before the storm.

She turned and put her hand on Phaidra’s shoulder. “Lady Kallixene is here with her army.”


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22

The Storm



It was time to go, but Kassandra had one more idea to explore. Skidding to a stop at the door that led from the nine-to-sixteens hall, Phaidra, Jill and Nicole piled up behind her.

She pointed to the stairs, caught Phaidra’s eye. “If you’re hungry, you can get something from the cafeteria. You go. Start looking for my father. I’ll be right there. I’m getting more help.”

Phaidra scowled at her. “From where?”

“Locally,” she said and pushed through the bathroom door.

This wasn’t going to be easy, but if she had learned anything recently, it was that witches were naturally nosy. They couldn’t resist being in on the game, and they would risk life and other people’s limbs in order to not be left out. Kassandra supposed she would just have to tell them the truth. She spun the faucets of the nearest shower to full and stepped into the spray. The water ran over the plates of her armor. She was already cold and hadn’t come close to drying out from the trip to the Gulf.

“Naiads! Parresia, I need you!” she shouted into the water.

“Kassandra,” gasped Limnoria almost immediately. “The Olethren—”

“I know! I need you here, as quickly as you can.”

She jumped back from the water. A confused mass of shouting and cursing followed from the motel bathroom in Mullen. They were bickering over the smell of the Olethren-fouled path to the school, over who would go first, and other less clear but stubbornly disputed positions.

Clicking and choking noises startled Kassandra, and she glanced at the bathroom door, hearing the squawk of the school’s PA system. It was a muffled woman’s voice.

“Attention.” It sounded like Mrs. Vilnious. “—tention. All students must report immediately to their home classrooms. All faculty and administration staff report to the gymnasium.”

Whose side is Vilnious on? Is she trying to get the students out of the way for some other purpose?

Limnoria dropped out of the spray, landed heavily on her feet and staggered into the pink tiled wall, gold gown soaked. She stepped out of the stall, fixing her hair.

“Hello, Kassandra.”

Parresia entered next, landing with bent knees. She straightened imperiously and joined Limnoria. Helodes and Olivia came one after the other.

“Cute bathrooms,” said Helodes, looking around.

“Why have you called us?” Parresia asked after they had all—with dignity—brushed the water from their clothes. “The Olethren are on their way to kill you, girl. You should be miles away from here.”

“I need two things now, and there will be more when they come to me.” She completely ignored Parresia’s question. “We have to find my father. He’s here at St. Clement’s—most likely locked in one of the basement rooms. We need to find him before the Olethren kill us all.” She paused over a troubling question. My name again. Why on earth would my parents name me after someone who was cursed? “One of the teachers has already told all the students to go to their homerooms, but the teachers and the staff will probably need some explanation. Can you make everyone in the rest of the school believe me when I tell them that an army of dead rotting soldiers is coming to kill everyone?”

They blinked at her, mulling that over. Let’s see… girl whose name refers to someone who makes exaggerated claims and isn’t believed… or find a seaborn lord, slave of a king, hidden somewhere in a maze of underground tunnels and locked rooms.

“We’ll help you find your father,” announced Parresia. “Before the Olethren kill us all.”

“Perhaps a mass sleep would be easier than explaining?” Helodes suggested.

“Perhaps,” muttered Parresia, stopping for a second and then nodding. Her gaze swung back to Kass. “What happened with the teacher? Did you find him?”

She told them about her meeting with the seaborn in the Gulf of Mexico, the remnants of House Rexenor, that they had saved Mr. Henderson from torture and probably murder. Rexenor had not meant to harm him, and they had come to defend the school in battle until they found Lord Gregor and got him safely away from Clement’s.

The bathroom went black. The power in the school failed, and Olivia squealed hoarsely.

“The Olethren,” whispered Parresia.

“They’re not here yet.” Kassandra pushed open the door, letting in the sunlight from the hall.

Limnoria slapped Olivia’s hand as they emerged from the bathroom. “Remember. Don’t touch anyone. I mean, anything.”

Kassandra almost laughed. “I sent everyone from my hall to hide in the school wing. They’re probably screaming now that the power’s out.” She looked up at the emergency light high on the wall between the public address box and the clock. One of the bulbs was dull gray, burned out. “Hope the basement is in better order.”

Parresia shook her head, looking beyond her through the windows. “Wait until the sun sets.”

“We have a few hours.” Kassandra turned to the eldest naiad, and couldn’t keep the pleading out of her voice. “Fenhals hid my father here somewhere. You will help me find him?”

Parresia nodded solemnly and jerked her chin at Helodes. “Olivia and I will search the school. You and Limnoria find the students and tell them something convincing. Make them sleep if you have to.”

“Where’s Agatha?”

Kassandra turned to Helodes. “Who?”

A small frown formed on Parresia’s face, and she turned to her sisters. “Find her. She knows what’s about to happen. If I know her she’ll remain to the end.”

“Agatha?” Kassandra asked, remembering Matrothy calling her teacher by her first name.

“Agathameria. Her married name’s Vilnious,” Parresia said with something like a grimace. “The eldest.”

“A little bossy,” said Helodes, filling her in on Parresia’s look. “Years ago, married a trawlerman out of Massachusetts, but came out here last year after he died.”

Kassandra blinked. Vilnious is a naiad?

“Which way to the school wing?” Limnoria sounded annoyed at being put on babysitting duty. “Will everyone be there already, or do we have to round them up?”

Kassandra pointed to the angled brown box sticking out of the wall next to the emergency light. “I think Aga—Mrs. Vilnious called them to their classrooms and the teachers to the gymnasium. Just before you got here. You’ll still have to round some of them up, I’m sure.”

Waving them to follow her, she pulled the hall door open, ran across the landing, and turned left at the top of the stairs. “The school wing sticks out of the back of Clement’s.” She pointed to the stairwell. “First floor, straight across from the main entrance. With luck most of them will already be there.”

Halfway down the stairs, she looked over her shoulder at Limnoria and Helodes. “I doubt Mr. Cutler—he’s the administrator and school principal—or some of the less controllable teachers will be there. They’ll want to see what’s going on.”

Kassandra jumped the last four steps and skidded to a stop, felt a scowl forming on its own at two old men passing the doorway that led from the girls’ wing stairwell.

They were headed back down the first floor toward the main entrance, and there was something a little bit Fenhals-ish about them. They wore fishing boots. One had a hat with hooks and lures stuck in around the brim. It might have been that they were just old men who happened to like fishing, but she wasn’t taking any chances.

No more thoughts wasted on a decision. Her sword was in her hand and she jumped through the doorway.

“Who are you?” Kassandra shouted. “What are you doing here?”

Both the men turned, startled. “Ed Pearson, Miss.” With a thumb over his shoulder, he added, “This’s my brother, Will.”

She nodded impatiently, tilting her sword up. “What are you doing here?”

“Lady Kallixene sent us looking for a man named Gregor,” said Will. Both the men looked at each other and nodded.

Kassandra relaxed, lowering her sword. They looked well-meaning, and they didn’t have the fish-out-of-water motion of Fenhals. “Okay.” Lady Kallixene and her warriors didn’t drive the cars and trucks parked defensively out front—probably didn’t know how to drive a car.

“We were fishing.” Ed jerked his head east, indicating some river or channel of water. “You mermaids and mermen walk out of the water all dressed for battle.”

You mermaids? A moment’s anger flashed through her. Don’t tell me they can see the Wreath, too? No. The armor and sword, stupid. She made a thin attempt at a smile.

“When’s the last time you ferried around a bunch of soldiers from the bottom of the sea, says Will? Twenty-three years in the Navy. Never had the chance, I told him.”

“And Lady Kallixene was very gracious,” said Will. “Paid us… in gold.” He shook his head. “We’d help find this Gregor without payment.”

“Lord Gregor is my father.”

Ed squinted at her, got a better look as if to capture some family resemblance. His brother, Will puffed out his cheeks sympathetically. “Not many fathers around this place. Should make finding him easier.”

She sighed. “Good luck.”

“Swifter finding if we come with you,” said Parresia, stepping around her and taking charge. “We’ll check in the basement first.”

“Watch out for Fenhals. Matrothy too.”

Kassandra left them halfway along the first floor of the central hall, at the stairway that led underneath the school. Parresia, Olivia, Ed, and Will went with a pair of Rexenor soldiers and an old man in a black robe, the one she had seen talking to Henderson in her grandmother’s courtyard. What’s his deal? He looked too old to fight and wasn’t even wearing armor.

The halls were deserted. They didn’t pass anyone else on the way to the wide intersection of the school wing and entryway. Helodes and Limnoria turned into the school wing and Kassandra went left, alone to the main entrance. It was crowded with armored seaborn soldiers.

They leaned against the wall in small groups, sharpening their swords and getting the feel of fighting “up in the Thin.” A couple of them glanced at her as she passed.

A few curious St. Clement’s staff members along with the principal, Mr. Cutler, stood out on the front steps, clustered around Lady Kallixene.

Kassandra wondered what her grandmother had told them—they were making a movie? Without cameras and crew?

Phaidra stood at her mother’s side, but when Kassandra came out, she gave her a nod and went in to ready another group of soldiers to search for Gregor. Nicole and Jill stood off to the side, arms folded, looking angry.

Kassandra stepped between them. “What’s up?”

“Power’s out. Phones are all dead. No cell signal. Completely off the Grid. Nothing from the outside world, and Mr. Cutler doesn’t want us out here—he wants us hiding with the rest of the students.”

“He says it’s dangerous,” added Nicole.

“And we know the school,” said Jill.

Kassandra didn’t answer. She just turned to Mr. Cutler, a balding middle-aged man who always wore short-sleeved collared shirts with plain ties. The last time she had seen him, he was giving Fenhals a school tour. Was Cutler involved somehow? He wasn’t seaborn, she was sure. Who’s in on this? Where had Mrs. Hipkin gone? And Vilnious was a naiad?

She turned to Nicole.

“You still have the keys? I think you two should help find my father.” She lowered her voice so Kallixene and Mr. Cutler wouldn’t hear her. “You really shouldn’t be out here. There isn’t anything you can do against them.” She pointed to the horizon, beyond the battlement of bumper-to-bumper cars and trucks.

Kassandra squinted, tilting her head back, just able to make out individual soldiers, smears of rust over bleached bands of rib bones and knuckly vertebrae. Tattered shreds of black cloth snaked over their skeletal frames. A taller more monstrous soldier of death, one of the eight royal guards Tharsaleos had murdered, marched at the front of the right flank, his helmet glinting. He lifted his right arm, gray dead flesh sagging along his elbow. He lifted something to his broken lipless mouth.

A horn sounded, a long, arching, mournful tone with thorny edges and a hoarse current of power that squirmed through it. The sound was a composite of chilling tones, a dying man’s scream, the weak drumming of a child’s fists on a locked door, and the hiss of air escaping through the fractured hull of a sinking ship.

A second horn blew, higher pitched and abrupt as death. It was as if some abyss mage of immense power had caught the breath trapped in a hanged man’s throat, seized the whistle of a storm wind as it swept the space beneath a gallows, and harnessed the sorrow-laden cry of a lost sailor’s widow, binding them into the single sustainable voice of a war-horn.

Another wailing tone joined the first two and the earth shuddered. A ripple of motion passed under their feet, bouncing the cars and loosening the bricks of the school.

Jill shook like a flag in a squall, her eyes fixed stiffly open, staring at nothing. Nicole caught her before she hit the concrete steps. Mr. Cutler was halfway into a high-pitched laugh that burst from him before he gathered his senses and cut it off. Then he ran—at incredible speed for a man of his shape and size—into the school, his tie flapping around his throat. The other teachers from St. Clement’s backed away from the front doors, twitching and stuttering excuses to leave.

Lady Kallixene moved to the foot of the stairs, pointing at her warriors, directing them into the back-to-back truck beds. A line of seaborn streamed from the school and scrambled over the walled sides of the front steps to the grass. Each one grabbed an enormously long spear from a forest of them leaning against the school’s outer wall. They slung big round shields high on their shoulders. The spear wielders formed into a solid block on the asphalt in front of the fortification of cars and trucks.

Lady Kallixene stood in the center of it all, arms up waving, shouting commands, directing individual soldiers back into the school to recheck all the doors. Another group had already gone through and boarded up windows and laced the faucets with enchantments. She scowled when some of the younger Rexenors, acting as messengers, brought her various notes and answers from the scouting parties, but mostly the same response, they hadn’t yet found Lord Gregor.

Kallixene wheeled suddenly and shot a glare at Kassandra. “Fenhals is loose in the basement. Stay where I can see you.”

Kassandra frowned at her grandmother’s ability to read her thoughts. She turned and kneeled next to Jill, sliding a hand along her cheek. Nicole seemed unaffected by the walking dead, or maybe she had just refused to look at them.

Jill blinked and snapped out of her trance. She sat up, holding her head. “What happened?”

“I think you passed out.”

She nodded and pulled her knees up. “I’m fine. Let me sit for a second.”

Nicole glanced over as if to ask, do you think that’s okay? Kassandra started to shake her head, but ended up patting Jill’s leg and nodding. “You’re fine.”

She swung around at the sudden roar of the Rexenor war cry. She didn’t catch what they shouted, but she watched them practicing defensive moves.

The Rexenor soldiers brought up their shields, pointing their spears skyward and reflexively looking into the heavens until Menophon yelled, “The Olethren cannot fly into the thin air. No need to watch for enemies from above.”

Battling them undersea had clear disadvantages. The Olethren could rise up in the water column and tower over any battle line, dropping from above like weapon-wielding skydivers.

Her brain went right to work on this. What else can’t the Olethren do? What can we use that only works up here on land?

It wasn’t much, but one idea came to her.

“Nicole?”

It took a few stunned seconds for Nicole to hear her. She looked up from Jill.

“There’s a river witch named Limnoria. Find her. She’s in the school wing. Get all the naiads. Tell them I need them now.”

Kassandra edged around to support Jill, and Nicole dashed off through the front doors.

Jill pushed her away. “I’m fine.” She got to her feet, taking a few shaky breaths.

Just in case, Kassandra stood with her, but turned to keep an eye on the approaching army. She called out to the Rexenors, “That’s only the first three of the eight. I heard only three horns.”

“Good. I caught that as well, my lady,” said Menophon, standing on the bricks that walled the right side of the front steps. He had his hands cupped over his face. “I have ears. But I can see very little through this glare.”

Still recovering from the shock of the horn blasts, Jill squinted dizzily up at Menophon, and it took a few seconds more for the scheming expression to surface on her face.

Kassandra watched Jill a moment, and then turned to see Parresia and her sisters gliding down the main hall toward her. The eldest naiad looked frightened. “Kassandra, the Fenhals man is loose in the underground floor, and he has a surfacer woman enslaved to help him.” She said “loose” as if Fenhals was some sort of dangerous wild animal.

“That’s Matrothy.”

Foul creature, said Andromache.

How far away are the Olethren? asked Praxinos.

“Not far now,” she whispered, looking over her shoulder just to make sure.

Lady Kallixene was suddenly at her side, putting a hand on her shoulder, and she felt her strong grip through her armor. “What are they doing here?”

“I asked them to help.” Kassandra glanced into her grandmother’s dark eyes, saw the deep mistrust there, and turned back to the naiads. Kallixene didn’t move, just watched as she pulled away to join the witches.

Parresia, Limnoria, Helodes, and Olivia, huddled together, holding hands as if drawing off each other’s strength and life, stunned by what they saw beyond the ranks of seaborn, a half-mile wide wall of death marching toward the school.

Kassandra grabbed Limnoria’s hand, squeezing it hard to shake her out of it. The witch blinked a few times and turned to Kass.

“How fast can you brew up a storm, Limnoria, a really mean one?”

The naiad nodded in answer before the words reached her dry lips. “It’ll take a bit of time. What do you have in mind?”

“Water ain’t gonna hurt’em, girl,” drawled Olivia. “Their bones are full of water.”

“I know. We need a freezing storm, snow, and ice. Can you do that?”

“Ah.” Limnoria lifted her head back to look at the sky. “Going to slow them down with cold?”

“As cold as you can make it.”

They all looked at Parresia for the final decision. She lifted a few strands of black hair away from her face, pushed them behind one ear. “Do it, Limnoria. We can all combine our strength to help you succeed.”

“Can I help?” Jill asked.

Nicole, standing behind the naiads, nodded with her. “Yeah, we want in.”

Kassandra shook her head. “But you can see if you can find my father. Tell the scouts you have Matrothy’s keys. I don’t know how they’ve been opening locked doors so far. Magic?”

Nicole dug them out of her pocket, and Kassandra pointed at two Rexenor guards inside the school’s lobby. “Wait until they’re ready to go and follow them. Tell them I said you are allowed to go.” She gave Jill and Nicole a stern look. “Be careful. You saw what Fenhals can do.”

A couple steps down from them, but in earshot, Lady Kallixene said nothing, just turned to resume her command.

“I can feel the start of a storm…” Limnoria, eyes closed, swiveled to the north. “There. Gray, not very much, but it can be the seed that becomes a trunk with many branches. I just need to lure it here.”

“If the weather doesn’t slow them,” Kassandra said. “At least it will darken the sky and make it easier for the seaborn to see what they’re fighting.”

“You’re sure that’s a good thing?” Jill asked, too frightened to look beyond the ranks of Rexenors. Both of them noticed the soldiers trying to see properly, straining against the glare.

Jill caught Kassandra’s arm, nodded as if to say, I’ve seen enough, and looked back at the entrance of St. Clement’s, eager to get going. Facing Fenhals, even with his ability to throw lightning at her, seemed the less perilous choice.

The Rexenors, eyes squeezed down to paper-thin squints, looked out across the fields stretching from the school. With their vision accustomed to the dimness of the ocean floor, the afternoon sun in Nebraska nearly blinded them. They tried everything, including shutting their eyes to cut out the light, holding their hands over their faces and blinking through the semi-transparent webbing between their fingers.

Without warning Jill shrieked excitedly, “I know what they need!” and raced into the school, taking a right toward the girl’s wing with another shriek of “I’m going to steal everyone’s sunglasses!”

Ten minutes later, the Rexenors formed up again, some of them able to see, apparently indifferent to the lime green and pink-rimmed sunglasses.

One particularly stern and scarred soldier surveyed the approaching army in silence through fuchsia cat-eye glasses with little white poodles glued to the arms. He saw what was coming, and he bared his teeth at it.

Another soldier beside him cupped his hands around the sides of a pair of Ray-Bans, studying the army of the drowned dead, with their bones wired together—the wiring acting like tendons and sinew, holding the rot and skeletal frame together. Many of the dead were covered in deepsea growths, knots of barnacles and craggy with sponge and coral. He spoke a long string of words, too low to make out, and then in a louder voice, “Pou dēta nun zōn ē thanōn aggelleta?

“Think it’s a line from Sophocles.” Kassandra translated it aloud, mostly to herself. “Where is he living then…or is he dead?”


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23

The Dead Army



The Olethren, the vast army of the drowned dead controlled by the King of the Seaborn, marched slowly, unstoppably toward St. Clement’s Education Center. Solid ranks of rotting soldiers flowed forward in rough formations like choppy waves swarming over a shallow beach.

They moved like a vast machine of bones and armor plates, soulless eyeholes and rattling teeth.

As each rank of the dead stepped from the river with wet moss and eelgrass hanging off their limbs, they made a thunderous noise. A hundred-thousand skeletal feet slammed into the soft turf, shaking the earth and killing anything that lived beneath them.

The grass faded from green to brown in seconds, curled like ribbons in a fire, and then death drained all color from the blades as bone pounded them into powder. Another hundred-thousand stepped up behind the first, adding to the roar of creaking cartilage and armor, an immelodious mixture of a thousand hacksaws cutting copper pipes and the dull, lung-emptying thud of someone beating a hanging rug with a baseball bat.

Even the air seemed to fear their hunger, and it soared away, back to the school, carrying the stink of the Olethren before it.

Back from her sunglasses run, Jill almost fainted again, and Nicole dragged her inside the school to get away from the coming battle, shuddering, muttering something at the edge of hysteria.

Even Kassandra was ready to bolt.

Phaidra returned, and looked as if she had her strength back, having found something to eat, sweet crunchy disks called, “chalk-something-chip cookies.”

She smiled grimly as Jill and Nicole dashed through the entrance. Phaidra stopped to give the naiads a look, and then stepped under the darkening sky, calm and alert.

She put a hand on Kassandra’s shoulder, studying the approaching army. “Your two friends went to look for Gregor. Don’t they know it is dangerous? Fenhals is more powerful than we thought.”

“Nicole and Jill can take care of themselves.” Kassandra jerked her thumb at the doorway. “Nicole’s taken Taekwondo since she was five. She knocked out Fenhals after he spent his strength on you and me. Most importantly, Nic has Matrothy’s keys, and they know the school better than anyone searching now.”

“Good. I’ll tell mother,” said Phaidra, and then nearly jumped out of her armor when the horns of the dead blared again. She had been inside at their first blowing, and hadn’t heard their full force.

“The Olethren are here.” Kassandra said in a weary whisper to the past Wreath-wearers. She bit her lip nervously as Andromache shouted sword drills, and Praxinos, keeping a level head, asked her about the sorcerers or abyss mages among House Rexenor.

Kassandra didn’t know there were any.

Some of the finest among all the seaborn. Second to the Telkhines themselves in the arts. But that was a long time ago.

She folded her arms against an unexpectedly cold wind coming from the river. Looking over the Rexenor line, she picked out a few odd ones, a couple guys, one old woman, none of them wearing armor. They were dressed in dark blue, gray, or black, their skinny legs encased in black leggings. They definitely looked out of place with the heavily armored soldiers, but they didn’t look as if they knew they looked out of place.

Abyss mages?

Kassandra stared harder, leaning forward, focused on one of the old guys.

Small white and gray spots appeared and vanished on the material across the man’s shoulders. She realized it wasn’t some magical property of his clothing.

She looked up at the sky. “It’s snowing.”

Many of the seaborn looked up with death grins. It was a good omen, water from the sky, even if it was frozen. It was something they could grasp. It made the Thin less thin.

The Olethren marched steadily forward, ignoring the weather.

Kassandra relayed everything going on to Andromache and Praxinos, a straight line battle formation, coming at them in one giant wave. Many of the dead were more than just skeletons, with hard coral-growth shells, almost as if a crab’s carapace had formed organically like armor over their bodies. Kassandra answered their questions, about a thousand of them, and had many of her own.

The wait was painful. The army moved closer, one foot after the other. What was left of their skullish faces became clearer, teeth clicking hungrily. The front ranks of dead raised their swords. The stink of wet algae and rotting human rolled off them like a surging tide of sewage. A few of the Rexenor front guard vomited under their shields, but held their spears firm.

She noticed some of the Olethren were ancient, armored, fleshless skeletons wired together, claws clutching axe handles. These were easier to face than the recent recruits with their pale, black-flecked, worm-holed skin, colorless eyes, ribbons of connective tissue whipping in the wind.

The rattling monster of an army marched into the spears of the Rexenor front guard, and the battle began. The Rexenor war cry ripped through the snow-laden air, and metal and bone hammered into each other.

The phalanx held its ground in front of the trucks. Their knees were shaking, but the hedge of steel dividing the flow of dead like water against the sharp prow of a ship. The Rexenors standing in the truck beds, on the roofs of the cars and along the walls of the front steps, swung their swords, chopping through forearm bones and deflecting spear thrusts.

Kassandra jumped along the right wall with Phaidra, trying to save two Rexenor soldiers. Skeletal hands had grabbed their ankles, dragged off the steps and into the dead army.

She stabbed down with her sword and sheared off a skull at the base of the neck. Phaidra got one of the Rexenors by the hand and yanked him back from death. The other one screamed once before three Olethren ripped his body apart, armor scales flying like confetti.

Kassandra took a step back, legs shaking, her sword wobbling in her grip, lucky she didn’t cut the fingers off her other hand.

Oh hell, this is real.

Rexenor swordsmen filled the space along the right wall. One of the old abyss mages stood over the line. He arched his back, swung his arms up, and with clawed fingers in the air, cried a long, run together chain of words.

Like a fisherman casting a net, his hands shot forward and a spray of webbing a hundred feet long rocketed over the dead army, ensnaring them, dragging them to earth, squirming and clawing at each other.

Having driven back the Olethren, the old mage, now bent with exhaustion, trying to catch his breath. Kassandra watched him a few minutes later climbing into the red truck to take up his position in the front.

The dead walked over each other, building up their height against the defenders, crushing the bones of preceding ranks into the ground, using them as steps. They beat against the Rexenor line with rusted weapons, clawed at anything in front of them. Few of the dead carried shields, but with one hand free, their hooked fingers became another weapon that clutched at armor and hooked the shield straps of the Rexenor warriors.

Something at the St. Clement’s entrance caught Kassandra’s eye.

Mr. Cutler edged his way into view through the front doors, apparently getting over some of the fear that had sent him inside. He was still shaking, teeth clicking, especially when the dead blew their horns—and that was with his hands jammed over his ears.

The weather turned bitter, chunky black storm clouds tumbling in from the northeast. Snow fell thick, first in wet sloppy drops that slowly turned into lighter cottony flakes. The naiads stood like statues at the top of the steps, snow and ice piling up on their shoulders and in their hair.

Kassandra went on tiptoes to take in the ocean of dead warriors. The snow’s not enough. It’s not even slowing them down, not even close to freezing any of them in place.

Failure. What had her father said when she heard his voice coming from the lithotomb? Fail and die. That was it. She looked at the endless army of walking dead, unbothered by the snow and ice. Fail and die.

And she desperately wanted to be in the basement searching for him. She looked down, ordering her feet to move, tightening one fist around her sword. Her grandmother’s direct order overrode her counter assault, but she chiseled away at it, and it would soon be in pieces on the steps, unable to stop her from acting.

Kassandra looked up at the doorway, Mr. Cutler standing beside it, gaping, and she thought, if she could just turn and run in without looking at her grandmother, she couldn’t call her back. The Lady of Rexenor had to be too busy directing the battle.

Kallixene’s voice rose over the din, calling for the phalanx in the front to fall back in an orderly fashion. They clambered backward into the truck beds, helped up from behind by their companions. The one’s in the back rows, first into the trucks, held their ground, ramming spear points at the dead army from between those who hacked away with swords.

Lady Kallixene shot Kassandra a stern look, and then her gaze swung to the top of the steps. She pointed a long, bony finger at Mr. Cutler before he could scuttle off. “Keep the front doors open in case we need to retreat and hold them off from inside the school. Close them before we’re inside and I’ll take your head myself.”

She turned back with her sword drawn before he could answer. Her front ranks were falling, weary with battle against a foe that never tired. A messenger ran up with the same news: they still hadn’t found Gregor.

Someone called Kassandra’s name.

Kassandra spun, looked through the school entrance, up along the windows above her. She re-gripped her sword, held it low, standing on tiptoes to look over the heads of the Rexenor fighters along sides of the entrance stairway. Then followed the windows along the front of school, all the way out to the girl’s wing.

She couldn’t focus on anything at ground level, just too much motion.

“There!” Lady Kallixene shouted, pointing at the wall just before the building angled away from the central structure.

“They’ve opened a door to the basement!” Phaidra shouted over the roar of battle and brought up her sword.

Kassandra slapped a Rexenor soldier on the shoulder and pointed. Phaidra did the same. She felt her grandmother’s eyes on her back, the force of it coming right through her armor. No way am I turning around to meet her gaze.

They’re all fighting for my father—and they’re fighting for me. I can’t let the Olethren destroy everything without paying them back. I can’t just stand here and watch.

The direction was suddenly clear, but if she faced Lady Kallixene she wouldn’t be allowed to go.

Kassandra didn’t turn or mention what she was about to do to Andromache or Praxinos. She did a couple leg springs, tightened her grip on the sword, and immediately followed Phaidra over the side wall of the steps, charging into the dead army along with six more Rexenor soldiers, chopping a path along the school to the bulkhead door that led up from the basement. The door was wide open, banging against the outside wall, and right in front of it, a woman fought the dead, screaming her name.

Kassandra could just make out solid gray material, something not rotting, something that did not belong to the Olethren, but to the living.

“Kass…dra!”

“Mrs. Vilnious?” She didn’t recognize the voice. Whose voice would be recognizable while being dragged off by ranks of rotting dead warriors? Mrs. Hipkin? Who would have come up from the basement?

Then it hit her. The door was locked from the inside. Someone had opened the door to let the Olethren into the basement.

“Fenhals did it!” she shouted.

Jill and Nicole were down there. Kassandra flew into a rage, throwing the sword in wide arcs like a machete, the blade cutting through the dead in figure eights. She jumped on the bones of the vanquished, and rammed the point through a skeleton’s ribcage, cutting diagonally up through vertebrae, taking the arm on the opposite side. Andromache would have been horrified at her lack of form.

Behind them a woman’s commanding voice cut through the battle noise, Lady Kallixene directing a team of warriors with spears over the wall to keep the space along the building open. They kicked off the snow and launched a follow up strike in the first team’s wake.

One of the Rexenor soldiers, a woman with three light brown braids, reached the door first and pushed against it, trying to close it. She had to hack off a jammed skeletal leg before the door lock caught.

Several of them tugged at the handle. The door wasn’t opening. By that time, three more Rexenors ahead of them had recovered the woman in gray, who was still screaming “Kassandra!” and clawing at the air.

It was Matrothy.

Fenhals had fed her to the Olethren and opened the way for them into the basement. Was he immune? Kassandra pushed the question around, fitting it with everything she had picked up about the dead army’s abilities. The king had to secure his own city against the army. There was no way Fenhals could stop them. This had been risky.

As the Rexenor soldiers carried the director of the girl’s department back through their ranks, Kassandra jumped in behind them, throwing her sword around like a lumberjack gone mad, hacking off reaching claws of bone at the wrist, cutting through neck vertebrae and sea-rotted collar bones.

If they were going to risk their lives for Matrothy, she damn well wasn’t going to allow them to be struck down while doing it.

The Olethren who had lost their weapons extended knobby skeletal fingers to pull soldiers to the ground, to be trampled and crushed. Phaidra rescued one of her mates who had stumbled, tripping over the mounds of bones, the remains of the Olethren they had broken on the charge to the bulkhead door.

Phaidra, a sword in her right hand, drew a dagger with her left and fended off the dead warriors, cutting through grasping claws at the elbow. More of them lurched forward, armless, biting and snapping at anything alive.

Kassandra spun, her sword swing short, the tip grating along rib bones that made her arm shiver. Spears from the Rexenors above them on the steps held back the dead while the rescue party clambered over the low wall to safety.

Standing on the St. Clement’s steps, above the dead, Kassandra bent over and couldn’t stop her hands shaking. Fear had caught up to her. She didn’t seem to have anything left inside—no courage, no rage, nothing to hold it off.

Kallixene grabbed her and got right in her face. “The whole point of this is to keep you alive!” She pointed at the top step next to the naiads. “Stand over there. Don’t move.”

Matrothy, hanging limp in the grips of her Rexenor saviors, stared up at Kassandra as they hauled her toward the entrance, blinking like a child, something gentle and very different from anything she had ever seen in Director Matrothy—a woman staring at the shores of a world she never thought she would see again. Her face had changed, smoothed out. She clutched at Kassandra’s armored sleeve, pulling her closer.

“You… saved mine.” Her voice was cloudy and soft. It sounded like the voice of another person. The tone was higher, almost girlish compared to Matrothy’s hard squawk.

They took her inside the school with one more cry from, “Kassandra…saved mine!”

She stared after director, the roar of the battle filling the world. Who was Matrothy? I’ll probably never find out. It was pretty clear the woman had gone irrecoverably mad, fed to the Olethren by Fenhals, the Thalassogenês who didn’t like the sea, the agent of King Tharsaleos.


* * *


Fenhals had his own problems, and spent no thought on whether his plan to discard the Matrothy woman had succeeded. It didn’t matter now that the door had been locked again.

Over ten of the Olethren, two wielding axes, staggered after him along the basement corridor, chopping through heating ducts. He had let them in, but he had misjudged their strength and numbers and drive to find Gregor Lord Rexenor.

He paused at an intersection in the basement hall, hesitating over the decision to go to the school’s boiler room that contained the Rexenor lord’s prison, but it was locked and some angry girl had taken the keys from Matrothy. The director from the school no longer served her purpose and deserved no better fate than to be shoved into the army of death, hundreds of thousands of the dead that would not stop killing until Gregor was devoured.

Breaking door locks was certainly in Fenhals’ power, but time was slipping away, down to seconds before he might be trapped.

With several of the dead hunting anything alive in the St. Clement’s basement, it was time to get as far away from the school as possible. Fenhals ran for the main hall, stumbled over a mop bucket, skidding across the plastic tiles, cursed and scrambled to his feet just as a rusty blade hammered into the floor.

He raced for the stairs, digging around in his pockets as he ran, searching for the right corridor. His old legs jarred on the hard tiles, but they kept him just out of reach of the axe-swinging monster that pursued him.

Fenhals gained some distance at the stairs up to the first floor, shaking, legs wobbling at every second step. He glanced back to see two of the Olethren following him. The others had broken away from the group, tasting or in some other way sensing the soul of their target.

Now was his chance. Fenhals pulled out a trilithon, oiled and covered in silk. It was polished brass and hardly looked used, without any nicks or scrapes. He ran along the first floor hallway, looking for water, anything that spouted water.

His head darted side to side, his gaze flicking through doorways, and then he looked up, startled at a harsh yell.

Four Rexenor soldiers snarled at him from the hall’s end. They drew their weapons and charged him. He overshot a drinking fountain, grabbing the chrome handle left handed to stop his headlong run. He nearly dropped the trilithon, but managed, with shaking fingers, to clip it around the base of the spout.

The pursuing skeletal warrior caught him just as he leaned against the push-bar, releasing a thin arc of clear water. The pathway reached out and sucked him into the stream with the dead soldier pulled through after him, wired-together bone fingers clutching his ankle.


* * *


The noise and death hit Kassandra like a tide, with Rexenors dying around her on the front steps. A crash of thunder rattled the windows of St. Clement’s.

The cold wasn’t doing what it was supposed to, freeze or even slow the Olethren, and her father hadn’t been found.

Fail and die.

The Rexenor soldiers were tiring and dying. They had already lost eleven to King Tharsaleos’ dead army, most of them clawed off the walls and hacked into pieces. Menophon had gone down swinging, bellowing war cries, stabbing and hammering at the dead with his sword. Until one of the Olethren caught him by the jaw, punched its bony fingers deep into his mouth, and dragged him to his death.

The Olethren marched forward, an endless sea of them, thousands stamping the previous thousand into the dirt. They broke against the walls of Clement’s like storm waves against a cliff.

The snow piled up. No rot green and gray, the snow washed all the colors from the dead army. Ice gathered on their shoulder bones, rimed bare skulls and armor.

Even the day was dying, and some of the Rexenor soldiers had thrown off their sunglasses. The bones and rot piled up around the cars and trucks, and the Rexenors fought the dead army eye to eye. Well, to eye socket.

When Kassandra reached the naiads, Helodes was deep in a trance, some sort of energy sharing thing going on with her sister, Limnoria. The witch nudged her and mumbled something like, “help us” with lips she had trouble moving.

Parresia, still tall and majestically straight, stood on Limnoria’s right side with Olivia hunched over in pain, trembling, holding her hand.

Kassandra reached down and took Helodes’ hand.

Their palms snapped together, with a click that was almost magnetic. Kassandra stumbled, lost all the strength in her legs, and dropped to her knees next to the naiads, twisting to end up on her butt, leaning against Helodes’ leg with her elbow sticking out, her right hand over her head holding the witch’s hand.

The weight of her armor melted away. Her sword vanished. The cold wind and ice struck her bare legs, gusts of it whipping her hair around her face and throat.

Kassandra tried to focus on the battle, just a blur of battle gray. She glanced up at the naiads, more of her strength draining out to feed Limnoria’s storm—and the clouds overhead ripped apart, breaking into a cold clear evening sky.

Helodes tried to pull away, Kassandra’s grip and the feed of her power too much to bear. Their hands were locked together. Kassandra looked up to tell her she couldn’t let go, but had trouble opening her mouth.

Sweat dripped off Helodes’ nose and chin. Her lips shivered. The naiads were in bad shape. Curls of steam rose off them, and the snow-covered steps melted away to wet concrete around them.

The storm shifted, going first to soft pillowy flakes, then to hard ice pellets and then it finally stopped. The air shimmered, clear and gray, and a cutting wind scythed through the Olethren, shredding skin, cutting through their exoskeleton coverings. It loosened their teeth, snapped vertebrae, and drowned the sound of their mournful horns.

It still didn’t stop them.

Much.

Kassandra couldn’t keep her eyes open, leaning with all her weight against Helodes.

Armored shapes were rushing up the steps, the noise of battle and Rexenors dying, and through it all, she heard a woman calling her name, screaming it. The voice sounded so far away.

“Kassandra! He’s here!”

She retched, a spasm shoved her chin forward. “My father?”

It was Phaidra’s voice, next to her ear.

“It is your companion, the ancient one, Ephoros.” She yelled the words, but they still sounded tinny and faint. “And there is one more immortal, another, kin to Ephoros by his looks. With enormous claws.”

She tried to smile, but could only manage a whisper. “Ochleros?”

A deep rumbling voice made its way into her thoughts. “Princess?”

Kassandra rolled her head back on her shoulders. She was too weak to hold it up. Her mouth sagged open. “Ephoros.” She begged for more breath to carry her words. “You did it.”

“Ephoros is here,” said the rumbling voice. “It is me, Ochleros.”

Then a much weaker growl from Ephoros. “Your father is not in the Nine-cities. He is here. I have recovered Lord Gregor’s book with my brother’s help. I have not failed you…” He placed his hand over hers, a cold fluid skin covering everything up to her elbow. “…or your mother.”

A jolt of energy shot through her. She was losing the slim connection her senses had with the battle and the roar of the icy wind.

Ephoros curled his massive fist tighter around her whole hand and wrist, and sent the ocean’s spirit through her.

All four naiads screamed, and Kassandra repeated the same panicked thought. We’ve run out of time. Fail and die.

Lady Kallixene shouted, “Fall back! Rexenor! Fall back!”

Then the violent energy that Ephoros poured through her swept every thought away in its currents.


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24

The Wreath of Poseidon



Kassandra opened her eyes underwater, darkness and a rolling current dragging her inconsiderately along a rough stone bed.

The force of the moving water slammed her into the ground, and she tucked her arm against her chest, protecting her face with her other hand.

The water tossed her around, and she let it. It took her a minute to understand where she was.

Her legs flipped over her head, the pull of the sea tightening on her skin, towing her into a central well of darkness.

Words bubbled out of her. “No. I don’t want to go there.”

The floor slid by, her fingers clawing at it, digging her nails in, and she caught a jagged piece of rock that jerked her to a stop.

Kassandra pulled in her legs, and got her toes to grip the gravelly floor. She slipped a couple times, hit the bottom, clawing at it. There was a constant fight against the full rage of water that ripped at her fingers, trying to free them. She pulled one knee up, and a patch of heat shot up her leg.

There was blood in the water, and she tasted it on the next cycle of the vortex. Kassandra levered her body up in the current, dug in again with her feet, and thrust her face above the surface.

A moment later, she was on her feet, looking around.

“I know where I am.” Her voice sounded strange, loud and harsh in her ears.

The place looked familiar, a circular room of wet slate-gray bricks. Apparently Ephoros, the naiads, and every last ounce of her own energy stores had been enough to get her here.

Either that or she was dead. Kallixene’s last shouting words for Rexenor to fall back echoed in her head.

Another glance around and she was certain she had seen this room before. When the anger snapped loose from its leash, when the naiads had tricked her. When she had been dragged to the bottom of Red Bear Lake by Olivia. When the penetrating eyes of Lady Kallixene had landed on hers, transferring power, pushing her deeper into her own mind until she caught a glimpse of this room. The same whirling water. The endless deep black ocean pit in the center.

A roll of water hit her in the hips, and nearly ripped her feet off the ground.

This is the Wreath of Poseidon. That had been her pretty reasonable guess in Lady Kallixene’s sitting room. She was even more certain now. The Wreath wasn’t inside her head anymore. Instead, she was inside it.

The water washed against her thighs, and she grabbed her shorts before she lost them. Straightening, and careful with her footing, she pulled her shirt into a twist in the front, wringing it out, and made her way to the edge, one glance over her shoulder to keep an eye on the water spiraling into a hole at the center of the room.

Grabbing the pool’s stone lip for balance, Kassandra got a good look around. The circular motion of seawater seemed never-ending, but she couldn’t tell where all the water was coming from. It definitely drained into the central pit, but never rose more than about four feet deep.

She felt its pull, wanting her to let go, fall through the center, and never return. She wasn’t supposed to be here… but isn’t that the story of my life, in Nebraska, in St. Clement’s, out of the ocean, always somewhere I’m not supposed be?

Kassandra stepped in a slow, careful circle because she didn’t want to fall back into the currents. The outside wall was a ring of ninety-six facets, not a smooth curve, and a square shadowy doorway opened into each face, leading to who knows where.

“Ninety-six,” she whispered and her own voice hurt her ears. It echoed off the stone, hard and violent, like ricocheting bullets and thunder.

She shut her mouth, even though she wanted to say more. Her voice sounded different, stronger, the pressure and force of the abyss, a voice to rend empires, to start wars… or end one.

“What are you counting?” Praxinos’ voice echoed down one of the tunnels to her left.

She turned to it.

“Tunnels,” she said, wincing at the word so sharp in her ears. “Keep talking,” she added in what should have been a barely audible whisper. It sounded like hammers striking the damp walls.

“How does Rexenor fare? Tell us of the battle with the Olethren,” said Andromache, and Kassandra stopped at the edge of the water, narrowing down the source of their voices to two tunnels.

“I don’t know,” she whispered with her hands over her ears.

“Whe—Where are you?” Praxinos came back with more concern in his voice.

Kassandra climbed up to the walkway around the whirlpool, and stepped into the tunnel as Praxinos’ voice came stuttering out of the dark, water dripping on her from the ceiling. The air, the walls, everything reeked of the sea. The sound of rushing water came from both directions, before her and behind her.

Like hearing the ocean in a seashell.

She walked on, reaching up to touch the ceiling with her fingers. She still had a hand’s length to go. The tunnel brightened, the walls worked in a paler stone. Glancing back, everything was dark.

“Kassandra?” Andromache’s voice sounded worried now—and louder.

“I’m here.” She let the words catch the faintest breath from her throat, but they winged down the tunnel like hawks fighting and screeching over the same prey.

“The tunnel’s getting brighter.” The stones along the ceiling were carved with a perfect fit, and went from gray to white, some kind of marble.

Twenty more steps and suddenly she was standing in light—intense as a summer’s day.

Who designed this thing?

Tiny sparkles of white fire blinked along walls. It was as if the builder had placed finer stone where someone might see it, but beyond that, deep in the interior of the Wreath, it was strictly functional and the rougher blocks would do.

The tunnel ended in a mirror-like sheet of glass, a tight clear rectangle that reminded her of one-way mirrors in some law enforcement detention cell.

Or it could have been the end of the line.

Where are the other Wreath-wearers?

Cupping her hands around her face, she peered through partially mirrored wall into a dim expanse of some ocean’s abyssal plain, rocky outcrops thrusting through a sandy floor and slow clouds of snow, the debris from the distant surface, raining from above.

What the hell is this?

She touched the glass and fell through it into the ocean beyond.

Kicking frantically, Kassandra got her legs up, knees bent, but she still lost her balance, clawing at the floor, stirring up sand around her. Just keep moving, she told herself.

She was still crawling around like an idiot when she found the tombs or resting places, a pale line of glowing cut-out hemispheres that started about ten feet down from the tunnel entrance with its mirror-like door. There was a long row of them, like candle-lit alcoves dug into the cliff face, hundreds of them going off into the gloom.

Getting to her feet, Kassandra turned to look back. This side of the mirror door was a dark shiny rectangle that didn’t show much of the hall on the other side. That held her attention for a moment, and then she was on to the important stuff, the long line of alcoves—what looked like resting places for every past Wreath-wearer.

Cupping her hands, she pulled her body through the water, kicking sand and staggering toward the first grave.

There was just enough ambient light to get around, but she still had trouble getting her bearings.

I’m on the steps in front of St. Clement’s with the king’s dead army on us. I’m inside my own head, and at the same time I’m inside the gift of a god, inside the WreathI’m also somewhere at the bottom of the sea.

Kassandra returned to the long series of alcoves cut into the rock, each one lit up, but without a source, as if the stone itself glowed. Walking was taking too long. She kicked off the ocean floor, paddling straight for the first alcove, and found a woman dressed in a pale green tunic and leggings, asleep on a platform, her arms folded peacefully across her chest.

The woman was older than she was, maybe in her late twenties, with long brown hair arranged in three braids. Two fell on her right side, one over her left. Her fingers were spread slightly, a fine web of skin between each.

Drifting a foot off the alcove floor, twirling her hair in her fingers, Kassandra bent closer to study the woman’s tranquil features—her dark eyebrows, the soft curve of her eyelids, arcs of black lashes, a slightly buttoned nose, the gentle line of her lips.

“She looks like me.”

Her first thought was, is this me after I die?

The woman wore a gold bracelet like hers. It would say “ALKIMIDES” of course, but there was another name, tiny and scratched by hand, above the family name.

The world went quiet, except for a hard thump of her heart.

“Ampharete? Mother?”

Kassandra bent down, afraid to touch her at first, then slipped her hand along the woman’s cheek and lips, her skin warm on her fingers. She was alive, asleep… inside the Wreath of Poseidon.

Ampharete’s eyes shot open.

Kassandra kicked back, arms and legs flailing, scraping her head on the alcove’s ceiling.

Ampharete blinked, focusing on the world around her. She sat up, clutching at the stone bed for support, and noticed Kassandra. Her eyes widened when she got a good look at her face, and then she took in the rest, passing, stopping and returning to her right hand. Then she found Kassandra’s left.

“What happened to your hands?” Ampharete sat up straighter, scowling at the scars where the webbing had been cut away from her fingers. “Who are you?”

Kassandra made fists and pulled them behind her back. “It’s me, mother.”

The woman’s deep blue eyes shot to hers, blurring with tears. “Kassandra?”

Pain slashed across Ampharete’s face. The weight of the revelation crushed her to the floor—and Kassandra could read her expression clearly, like looking in a mirror. It was as if all the oceans on earth died in that one instant to become a desert.

The tremble started in Ampharete’s lips, spreading to the rest of her body. She struggled to climb the stone platform, stuttered something and fell over the edge to the sand below, too weak to hold her body up. Kassandra dropped down after her.

On her hands and knees, Ampharete crawled to her.

Sorrow twisted her face, wrenched her jaw down, and punched out a scream. Her braids coiled around her face in the water, and she fell back on her knees, rocking side to side, holding herself, her eyes pointed up, lost in the blackness of the abyssal heaven.

“I… betrayed you,” she moaned. “It was my weakness… I…So stupid of me to…”

Kassandra stumbled across the sand and threw herself against her mother, put her arms around her. She dug her chin into the woman’s shoulder. Tears squeezed from her eyes and with a shudder that hurt, they flowed freely into the sea around them, clouds of blurry water, not quite as salty as the surrounding sea.

“Mother,” Kassandra sobbed, and some distant part of her realized she was crying real tears. It didn’t seem to matter. “I found you.”

“I’m so sorry, my baby girl.” She held her tight. “All of this is my fault.”

“It doesn’t matter now,” was all Kassandra could think to say.

Time shifted around dizzily inside the Wreath. Hours may have passed while they held on, saying nothing. Ampharete’s weeping slowed, she sang a song under her breath, broken every few minutes by a spasm of fresh tears. She rocked Kassandra on her knees, her face against the back of her neck, buried in her hair.

They woke when Praxinos called out nearby, “Princess?”

“What do you think has happened?” Andromache asked when she didn’t answer.

Kassandra lifted her head, looked around for the old king and queen, stopping on a dimly lit tunnel entrance in the cliff wall opposite the side with the alcoves. The other Wreath-wearers were somewhere over there.

Ampharete grabbed her, not wanting her to break away, whispering, “How did you get here?”

“I think I climbed through—or something pushed me through—the well in the whirling pool’s center.”

Kassandra pointed to the tunnel entrance that led to the circular room.

“You wear the Wreath? You are too young to pass it on.”

“I am the Wreath-wearer.” Kassandra wanted to tell this woman everything. She just wanted to open up her mind and let her have it all, and the words came out faster than she could explain them. “I grew up in Nebraska. I met Ephoros. He came from a tear—which are doorways. Lady Kallixene and her soldiers are helping me defend St. Clement’s from the Olethren.”

“Kallix—Olethren!”

“Clement’s is a school—more like a prison. That’s where King Tharsaleos sent me. Praxinos wanted me to use magic against the army and Andromache taught me how to use a sword so I can fight them. I used both and more. I’m using science. The dead army’s attacking right now, but their bones are full of water. I had this great idea that I got from my science teacher, Mr. Henderson. Water freezes, and if it freezes quickly and in the right way, it can break their bones, hollow but full of water, cracking them open like metal pipes in winter. Four naiads are helping me with the storm, and Ephoros is here and his brother, Ochleros. And father is here at the school, imprisoned still. We can’t find him. Fenhals—he’s an agent of the king—locked him away somewhere.”

“Gregor!” The name burst from Ampharete, almost a question.

“Yeah, I went to the lithotombs with Ephoros and we talked to Ochleros who was a slave of the king then, and he told us that father had been imprisoned there. I knew he was there because the naiads sent me a dream of him. He remade the Telkhines book and then the king caught him. He’s been a prisoner of the king all these years.”

Ampharete blinked, trying to catch up. “And what of Zypheria?”

Kassandra shook her head, her mouth opening, her lungs pulling in more of the sea. “Your maid? I don’t know what happened to her.”

“My soldier. My sister. Zypheria was always stronger. More than a maid. I used all my knowledge to help a Rexenor mage call the porthmeus, and he used old magic to raise an island so that Zypheria could deliver you to the surface, away from the king. I ended my life, gave up the Wreath and passed everything on to you. I stayed behind to hold the door against the Olethren with the few minutes of life left to me. Zypheria fled with you through the tunnels beneath the Rexenor fortress. The old paths cut deep into the mountains and climb to the peaks where there are gates hidden and covered with coral meshes and concealing spells. I gave Tharsaleos’ porthmeus instructions to deliver you to… to… I don’t remember. Elizabeth, I think. She is a surfacer, but she knows who we are.”

Ampharete looked puzzled for a moment, and then shook it off. She continued, “We had always thought the king was unaware that we could use his own agents and slaves, sending them commands. But perhaps he discovered we could do this? He knew of Zypheria and he almost certainly had her put to death.”

So much killing and destruction. Kassandra’s first question shot right to the top. “Then how did I survive?”

Kassandra hugged her mother tighter while Ampharete continued, but with care as if navigating a field of traps. “Tharsaleos must not have suspected you had the Wreath or he would have killed you outright. And you were too young for it to reveal itself to anyone. That part of the plan did not fail.”

“Until now,” Kassandra whispered, and the sound carried around the ocean, snapping and angling off the cliffs in the abyss.

Ampharete let her go, looking over her shoulder. “Someone approaches.”

Kassandra turned, following her gaze. Two glowing human shapes glided from a cave entrance along the opposite wall.

“Princess?” It was Andromache.

“What are you doing here?” Praxinos said, panic in his voice. He stared at her, with eyes narrowed against the glare. “You are the wearer. You cannot…” His voice slowed to a halt. “Unless you have…”

Kassandra started to shake her head. The words “I’m not yet dead” started toward her lips. Then something else had plans for her.

Her hands slapped to her sides. There was a strong tug at her neck, another behind her navel, drawing her body back to the mirror doorway.

Whatever power that had been feeding her ability to remain inside the Wreath had died or had been withdrawn. She flew helplessly to the tunnel entrance, leaving the three awakened Wreath-wearers in their own glows and shadows.

“Something’s happening,” Kassandra managed to get out, and the three wearers bent with their hands over their ears.

“I’m losing my place here, being pulled back.”

She flew through the water backward, went right through the glass doorway into the tunnel, heels catching on the threshold. She tumbled on the stone, landed on her butt, throwing up a few gallons of seawater.

“Kassandra?” Her mother’s cry came through the mirror door, something in her voice trying to pull her back.

“Kassandra!”

Kassandra coughed and swallowed against the burn in her throat.

Behind her, down the dark tunnel, she heard Kallixene and Phaidra, and then a man’s concerned voice. They were calling her, alarmed voices coming sharply through a roar of battle noise, more shouting, and then the rumbling and rush of seawater.

She had no control over the movement of her legs, or she was too weak to stop the robotic steps taking her straight back to the pool in the center of the Wreath.

The voices called again, and she was jogging through the tunnel without a look back. The white marble faded into somber stone. She tried to answer Kallixene and her aunt Phaidra, but could only open her mouth and make gasping noises.

Kassandra was in a full sprint by the time she reached the tunnel’s end, and then it was just three long steps and she was diving off the edge into the spiral of water.

She closed her eyes, holding her hands out defensively. The currents dragged her to the center and pulled her through.


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25

The Maid of Ampharete



Kassandra coughed and sat up, blinding light flashing in her eyes, and a heavy weariness in her body. Someone’s hands gripped her shoulders, propping her up, and someone else was wrapping a wet cloth around her knee—bleeding all over the concrete St. Clement’s steps apparently.

“She’s awake.” It was Phaidra.

Covering her eyes, Kassandra opened her fingers a bit to see the world again. More figures crowded around her, blocking out the sky.

Faces swam into view, Lady Kallixene, Phaidra, and a bunch of soldiers from House Rexenor. Parresia shoved some of the soldiers aside, and there was Mr. Henderson looking totally ridiculous in a helmet, and saying something about how glad he was that he had lost his glasses and had not been able to see the Olethren clearly.

“But the battle.” Kassandra tried to get up. Phaidra shoved her back. “I can hear it.”

“Rest now, my lady.”

The battle was still raging, the grinding of bones and dirt and the creak of rusted armor. “What is that noise?”

“Ochleros is cleaning up. He and some of his kin are dragging the remains of the army of King Tharsaleos back to the sea.”

“Anger in him, like only the immortals can express,” one of the Rexenor soldiers said.

“But what happened?” Kassandra stared up at them, still blinking stupidly. “What happened to the Olethren?”

“Your storm worked, girl,” said Parresia—not very happy, but with that same edge of admiration that Mrs. Vilnious managed to get into her voice when you had just the right answer.

Now that she knew they were sisters, Kassandra clearly saw the similarity. Mrs. Vilnious was very much like Parresia, only grayer and older, and there were other mannerisms she shared with Limnoria and Helodes. And when you didn’t finish your homework, a little bit of sharp-toothed Olivia showed itself.

“You nearly killed us, though,” said Limnoria from behind her, shaking her head and grinning at the same time.

“That army marched many miles through the rivers, and fresh water has a higher freezing point. Their bones were hollow and full of water,” said Henderson. “The way you started with a gradual decrease in temperature sealed their fate. The water in them turned slushy, wouldn’t drain, and when you hit them all at once with a blast of cold that must have been forty or fifty degrees below zero. They…” He paused, searching for a word, but ended up shrugging and going with, “Exploded.”

“I saw the cold coming at us like a rolling tide, a rippling in the Thin,” said Phaidra. “Mother saw it too and called the retreat. In seconds it was on them, smothering them in cold, shattering their bones. That was their end. The Olethren broke into pieces.”

“They flew into the air, fragments of sharp bone flying,” said one of the Rexenor soldiers, lifting his chin, his gaze following some destructive trail that led up the walls of St. Clement’s. “Broke most of the windows in your school. We shielded you six from the rain of bone.”

Six? She frowned. Four naiads, me andEphoros.

“Where is Ephoros?”

As if in answer to her question, the grinding of Ochleros’ cleanup died down, and everyone around her moved back to make room for the demon.

Kassandra climbed unsteadily to her feet, grabbing Phaidra for balance, stepping between Mr. Henderson and Parresia to get to the front. There were others like Ochleros, rolling human-shaped walls of water with huge claws, dragging mountains of bones and weapons and armor into the river, and then presumably all the way down to the sea.

Ochleros, like a rocket-driven cloud, soared over the wide stretch of barren earth that led to St. Clement’s. He slowed, drifted over the vehicles still barricading the entrance, and slid through the air to stand in front of her, his hands pulled into fists the size of compact cars.

“Lady Kassandra,” he rumbled and bowed.

Then his right arm extended, and his fingers unfolded. He pulled in his massive claws until short icy spikes stood up from his fingertips. In the center of his open hand was a large, thick book. Letters in black ink floated in clusters over its surface like tide-taken debris from a shipwreck.

Kassandra reached for it but stopped when she heard the book humming a song. The dull drone turned into a whisper, and a pattern of tones emerged, a song of weeping and pain. The cover thumped and snapped tighter.

“You will have to make peace with the Telkhines before one of their books will allow itself to be read by you, an Alkimides.”

Kassandra reached out and picked it up, taking a quick step forward to keep her balance. The book was heavy, full of water and dense with powers she knew nothing about.

She backed up, put her bare feet together, and bowed.

Ochleros hesitated and then opened his left hand to show her a tiny lump of gold with a small plate, her bracelet.

Kassandra froze, looking up at Ochleros. “Where’s Ephoros?”

“He is dead, Wreath-wearer. The king’s war-bard Theoxena attacked us in the Nine-cities. Her songs weakened him to the point where he could not recover.”

“But…”

“The ocean is a living thing, every drop of it. You know something of this, so your science teacher tells me. My brother has rejoined the life of the sea. He has paid his debt to you and your mother, and is at peace.”

“But I thought… No! I thought he couldn’t…” Dizzy, she started down a blind alley of questions, but ended angry. She heard Andromache and Praxinos shouting questions in her head, and then Ampharete joined them. The rage wanted off its leash.

“Deathless?” Kassandra shouted at Ochleros.

“Deathless, he can die, princess.” He bowed again. “He returned to you what he failed to give your mother.”

“He owed me nothing. I owed him my life.” The weariness hit her again, and Helodes grabbed her before she fell. Kassandra tucked the book under her arm, picked up her bracelet and slipped it on her wrist.

Ochleros rose to his full height and extended his claws. His head bent down to her.

“It is your turn now, Wreath-wearer. Your ancestor, King Polemachos saved me once from the slavery of the Telkhines king. Ephoros was our king and swore his allegiance to Polemachos and all his Wreath-wearing offspring. Time passed, although it is brief for the oceans. Again, I found myself bound to the King of the Seaborn, enthralled and forced into demeaning and cruel labors. Again, an Alkimides helped release me. I am now king. I owe you a debt that is deathless. Only in my dying may I be released from it.”

Ochleros swept a broad transparent hand through the air, indicating the cleanup work in the distance. “Some of my brothers and sisters have carried your dead to your village, Lady Kallixene, for proper rites.” He bowed his head to her, and then turned back to Kassandra. “The remains of the Eight—Epandros and the other royal guards betrayed by King Tharsaleos will be honored properly. They fought valiantly alongside me against Lord Gregor because we had been deceived into thinking him an enemy. The names of all the others, the many thousands that made up the Olethren, I know not. We will honor them by laying them to rest. My brothers and sisters will take them back to the sea and depart when they are done.”

Ochleros bowed once more and folded in on himself, spiraling into a thin cloud that vanished in a small watery bead in the palm of Kassandra’s hand. She stared at it for a second, feeling the curious eyes of everyone around her. She tilted her head back and let it slide into the corner of her eye. A jolt of pain shot through her head, and the bead snapped into her tear duct.

“My lady?” One of the Rexenor soldiers half ran half stumbled from the school, breathless. He bowed to Kallixene and motioned her to come with him “I—”

“What is it? My son has been found?” she said hopefully.

“No, milady.” The soldier glanced at her. “It is the woman we rescued from the Olethren.” His face had gone white.

After surviving the Olethren, what could possibly do that?

“She split…Forehead into pieces…” He stammered something that none of them understood. “She melted. Underneath is another woman.”

“Matrothy?” Kassandra whispered.

The gathering moved inside the school, along the hall to the administration offices. Some drew their swords. Strangely, there were no teachers or anyone else from St. Clement’s in sight. Even the scowling admin ladies behind the counter were gone.

Kassandra followed her grandmother, the water-heavy book tucked under one arm.

The Rexenors had carried the director of the girl’s department past the counter and set her down next to a desk along the back wall.

The woman who sat up, wearing Matrothy’s gray skirt and fishing vest was not Matrothy. She clutched at the clothing, several sizes too big for her. The facade of Matrothy had melted away, leaving a sloppy pool of foamy colors, like various flavors of ice cream set out in the sun too long. Lumps of graying brown hair stuck up through it like a dead rat.

“Zypheria?” Kassandra gasped.

The name burst out of her before she could think. She didn’t know what Zypheria looked like, but she knew this was her mother’s bodyguard and friend. Maybe she felt Ampharete’s influence, seizing some part of her thoughts as Andromache had with sword practice and Praxinos had with ancient Greek lessons.

The woman straightened, holding one hand out in front of her face, fingers spread, staring at them as if she didn’t recognize them—or remembered them but never expected to see them again. Her sandy brown hair was pulled into loose fuzzy braids that twined together down her back. The hollows of her cheeks and the haunted look in her storm gray eyes made her look like a refugee. Some of the original tone remained in her skinny arms, enough to show that they had once been muscular. The webbed fingers of her other hand clutched at the dark skirt and vest, holding them to her body too tightly, as if she had been denied the sense of touch for years.

“Who?” Her voice faded as she stared at Kassandra.

She sounded nothing like Ms. Matrothy. Her eyes focused on the hall and the gathering of seaborn, and then returned to Kassandra. “Who are you?”

Kassandra didn’t answer at once because she was listening to the voices in her head. She blinked and focused on the woman. “Ampharete is crying. She thanks you, Zypheria.”

The woman leaned forward, a little unsteady, to study her as if she had never been able to see what she looked like, only see her through someone else’s eyes. “Lady Kassandra? You look like your mother when she was a girl.” She hardly paused, put a finger to the side of her head. “Lady Ampharete is awake, inside, I mean?”

Kassandra took an awkward step forward, then rushed to the woman and hugged her, pinning her arms to her sides—with the Telkhines book squeezed between them.

“You saved me, Zypheria.” She couldn’t keep the shudder out of her voice.

“No.” Zypheria leaned her head back as if rejecting something. “I failed, my lady. I failed you, child. They caught us. Me in a deep basin west of the Rexenor fortress and you…” She shook her head. “The porthmeus took you from the unfixed rock the Rexenor mage created… Then he failed. The king’s agents caught him.”

Kassandra let go and stepped back. The one answer she needed from Ampharete’s maid, soldier, sister, shot to the front of the line. “How did you get here?” She pointed to the oily colors smearing the floor. “I mean Matrothy…”

“It broke because you saved me, my lady,” she whispered, her voice fragile and fearful, looking at her feet covered in the painted remains of some sorcerer’s stew.

“Matrothy?”

Zypheria looked up slowly. “Your mother, the Lady Ampharete, made a pact, a secret covenant with me, that if King Tharsaleos sent his armies and Rexenor was to fall, she would pass on the Wreath to you.”

“But that would mean she would die.”

“She was forced to. Better by her own hand than by the king’s dead army, and the king didn’t know whose daughter you were. If he suspected you were Lady Ampharete’s daughter, you would have been killed. They would have dashed out your brains right then. But he and his agents thought you were mine. The king did not know the Wreath had survived. He thought its power had gone out of the world when he had Lady Pythias murdered.”

“If he didn’t think I had the Wreath why did he have spies at St. Clement’s watching over me?”

“A king always has need of slaves, a porthmeus in every port. He also knew you were an Alkimides, and that some of the slain found at the Rexenor fortress wore Alkimides bracelets. I think he has a deep mistrust of our house, but the Alkimides contains the royal line and he couldn’t start killing us without civil war.” Her gaze went cold. “I know he had no idea you wore the Wreath. He never found out that your mother received it from Pythias.”

One of the Rexenor guards stepped to her side and held out a blanket for Zypheria. She frowned at the gray skirt and vest that enveloped the woman’s scrawny figure. Zypheria looked like a child playing in a giantess’s wardrobe, standing amid the oozing lumps of spongy material and fluid—what the hell is that stuff? Zypheria followed her gaze.

“The king has agents who work and live among the surfacers. Death—for me—would have meant release. As long as I remained alive, the king could get information from me. Use me. They threatened to imprison me in the—” Zypheria’s voice broke as if afraid to say the words. “—in the desert, a prison in Nevada where water is so scarce animals die of thirst.” She shuddered. “I agreed to go,” whispered Zypheria. Her gaze dropped to the floor as if she was ashamed to look at Kassandra. “I agreed to go to this prison in the desert… if only they would free my daughter.” Zypheria pulled in her tears and wiped her face with the back of one hand. “The king saw something in my words or mind, some seed of deception. I did not go to the desert, for he found another way to punish me, far worse than the waterless wastes.”

“Who—What was Matrothy then?”

“A construct, a prison in the form of a human’s shell, devised by the king to torture a particularly rebellious seaborn.” She sighed. It sounded painful. “What is worse than death to a mother? It was always assumed you were my child, even though that was just to trick the king. There are many things that can be done to hurt a mother through her child. What is most cruel? Torture her child before her eyes? What cuts deeper than that, more enduring?” She paused to see if anyone would answer. “Make the mother torture her own child. Make her see what she does to her own baby, and not be able to stop it. That is incomparably more devious and destructive.”

“You!” Kassandra gasped. “I heard your voice. I’ve heard it since I was little. You spoke to me in Red Bear Lake. You spoke to me late in the night, and told me to be brave.”

Zypheria nodded. “Yes. In the lake, Matrothy was particularly susceptible to subversion. I could get around the construct’s control when it was in the water, in the same water as you. I sang to you whenever I could find you in the water in school. Until the ancient one you summoned placed a spell of command on Matrothy, which went through her thoughts to affect me. I could not sing to you after that.”

Holding Matrothy’s old clothes up with one hand, Zypheria swung the blanket over her shoulders with the other. Kassandra stepped in, pulled the book snuggly up under her arm, and helped her cover herself.

“Kassandra! Lady Kallixene! Phaidra!” Jill raced by the administration offices, shoes squeaking to a halt, catching the crowd of seaborn out of the corner of her eye.

“Kassandra?” Jill shouted, out of breath. “Your father. Gregor. He’s here. We found him. Me and Nicole, too. And Mrs. Hipkin. We helped her. She found the door. Those walking dead guys. Come on!” And Jill dashed off, back the way she had come.

Kassandra froze, unable to decide where to move, broke free and waved, smiling at Zypheria’s stunned face.

Without looking back, she raced down the main hall toward the basement stairs, her arms and legs still a little heavy and tingling from going inside the Wreath.

She reached the railing for the stairs just ahead of Phaidra who kept up wearing armor.

Swinging the book under the other arm, she ducked a ventilation shaft, and ran. The corridors were nearly black, only half the emergency lights working.

A broken pile of bones, teeth, and armor signaled a turn up ahead. Someone had smashed one of the Olethren to pieces.

Well done.

Jill turned left ahead, glancing back, her blond hair whipping around her head.

She shouted something that may have been another, “C’mon!” but it was lost down the joining corridor. Phaidra was right behind her when they turned the corner.

Jill and Nicole stood outside a room fifty feet down the pipe-lined tunnel. The emergency lighting was in order, blocks of bright light cutting across the floor and up the opposite wall.

Lady Kallixene and the rest of the Rexenors were twenty paces behind them. Phaidra stopped cautiously at the doorway, but Kassandra jumped right in, walking right over the broken pile of bones on the floor, six of the Olethren, pounded into bone splinters and shreds of old cloth and armor.

A shield, crusty green with corrosion, had been kicked up against a gigantic stone box placed right in front of an even larger orange painted metal boiler tank. Fenhals had brought the entire lithotomb down here somehow. Sure, he could summon lightning, but he obviously had other powers.

One of the Rexenor abyss mages stood to one side, having used his powers to lift the massive stone lid away from the tomb, freeing Lord Gregor.

Kassandra gave the old mage a smile, and stopped about halfway across the room. Then the crowd behind her pushed her forward.

There was a man with black hair and beard, both threaded with gray, bright blue-green eyes like tropical shallows. He looked undernourished, and he trembled with some sickness, but he grinned like a boy at a birthday party, and he was…hugging Mrs. Hipkin.

Kassandra’s mouth dropped open. I knew it! Mrs. Hipkin was seaborn. She had scar tissue between her fingers. One still gripped what looked like an axe-handle, the weapon she had used against the Olethren that came after her—obviously to their loss.

Her father had the scars also—cutting along the insides of his fingers.

Gregor turned to look at the crowd of Rexenors pouring into the boiler room, momentarily suspicious, maybe a little uncertain, then a slow smile grew on his face.

“Phaidra!” He released the St. Clement’s laundry lady, stepping forward, his gaze skipping to the other faces in front of him, Kallixene and others from House Rexenor he recognized. “Mother?”

He stopped when saw Kassandra, standing next to his sister, Phaidra.

“Father?” she stepped closer.

His face lit up. “Kassandra?” He came in low, arms out, picked her up, and squeezed her until she gasped, “Book… ouch.”

His hug trapped the Telkhines book under her arm, pinning one corner against her ribs.

“It was me!” he cried.

“What was?”

“I was the porthmeus. I tried to bring you ashore, but they took you away from me. I didn’t know who you were then. Not until later, when I had time—in prison—to step through every event, and my mind and memories finally came back to me.”

Kassandra held him tighter, about to ask him more, but the questions would have to wait. The rest of his family swarmed around them, crushing Kassandra like a vise. She managed to work her way to Gregor’s side, sliding the book forward, so that he held her with one arm while he kissed Kallixene and Phaidra and hugged most of the others with his other arm.

He kept asking how it had all happened. “How did I get here?” Gregor looked up at the web of pipes and valves in the boiler room. “What are all of you doing here?”

“It is your daughter’s work,” they kept telling him. “She wears the Wreath.”

He gestured to the broken bones on the floor. “And the Olethren?”

“The entire army is ruined.”

His gaze moved among the faces in front of him, looking for someone, and then back to Lady Kallixene’s.

“Where is she?”

Kassandra stumbled, and her father’s full weight landed on her shoulders. She almost dropped the book. One of Kallixene’s guards pushed forward to catch Gregor before he collapsed. Phaidra grabbed him under the arm on Kassandra’s side.

“Where is Ampharete?” His voice came out soft, but with a rough painful edge, as if he was being tortured.

Lady Kallixene shook her head slightly, grimly. He knew. They all saw it in his face.

Gregor’s head swung forward, chin hitting his chest, tears splattering the concrete before the strength left his body.


Back to top     

26

Late Arrival



Kassandra looked up as Zypheria danced over the boulders along the top edge of North Hampton Beach, her sandy brown braids flying in the wind, her arms out for balance. She slowed as she made her way across the sand, slipping her hands into the pockets of her sweatshirt to hide the webbing, something she had gotten used to doing over the last month.

Kassandra stood at the water’s edge, the sea rolling cold over her toes.

Zypheria had spent an hour that morning braiding her hair with gold thread and auger shells, tears rolling down her face the whole time. Kassandra became the ears and eyes of her mother, relaying Zypheria’s questions and repeating Ampharete’s replies. It was like being a translator for two old friends from another country. Half the time she had no idea what they were talking about. And it was weird calling her mother “My lady,” but Zypheria insisted.

Kassandra turned at the edge of the sea, waiting for Zypheria and her father, leaning right to feel the weight of the braids roll along her neck and shoulders, heavy like ropes down her back.

I am seaborn.

She also spent a lot of time talking with her mother and the others in the Wreath, when she could find some time alone. Her favorite place in their new house in New Hampshire—her father recently bought it—was a tall square room that stuck up from the roof and overlooked the Atlantic.

“My lady?” Zypheria bowed to her. “Your father’s just coming down from the house. Have you seen the girls?”

Kassandra lifted her chin, indicating the slim spine of boulders that at low tide formed a blackened slime covered bridge out to a diamond shaped mound of rock three hundred feet from the shore. The island was a taller hill, never fully submerged except with the highest tides.

With the tide ebbing it jutted out of the blue surf, bristling with seabirds.

“Jill’s in the water next to the rocks looking for lobsters.” Kassandra pointed down the beach, to Hampton. “Nicole’s listening to something Mr. Henderson’s written.”

Kassandra’s only friends from school were now her sisters. And the woman who used to beat the crap out of her was now her maid and bodyguard. It was going to take some to get used to.

Zypheria sped off without another word. She had regained much of her strength in the last month. She lived with them—Gregor Rexenor’s new family, or Kassandra’s court in exile—in their giant old Victorian house that stooped over the ocean on a low cliff where the curve of the New Hampshire coast sharpened and headed toward Maine. Michael Henderson lived with them too, and Kassandra was pretty sure there was something going on with the two of them—Zypheria and Henderson. Yeah, her ex-science teacher was going out with her bodyguard.

It just got weirder from there.

They got some news from St. Clement’s the day before, passed along by Mrs. Vilnious. Hipkin had been spying for Tharsaleos, but she didn’t like Fenhals coming into the school and taking over, and had switched sides completely when Fenhals let the Olethren into the basement and left her without a way out. When Nicole, Jill, and their Rexenor escort—which included that old abyss mage—came upon the laundry lady fighting for her life, swinging her axe handle at the dead warriors, and shrieking like a maniac, she had already made up her mind whose side she was on. Mrs. Hipkin remained at St. Clement’s and had taken over Matrothy’s position as the girls’ director.

They had also learned that Fenhals—that pale-eyed scut—had escaped through a brass trilithon on a drinking fountain and vanished in the flow of water. But he was bleeding on the floor when he fled, so not an entirely clean escape.

Mrs. Vilnious had come to visit “her three students” at the house. She had just moved back to the east coast and had taken over the governance of the Merrimack River. To think, the whole time, the Scourge was a river witch.

Maybe that makes sense.

Apparently, while her younger sisters—Parresia, Helodes, and Limnoria—were out front working the weather, Vilnious spent her time luring every student and teacher from Clement’s into the school wing for a “very important assembly.” She put them all in a deep, memory-cleansing sleep. They awoke the middle of the next morning, some in their classrooms at their desks, some in the cafeteria, and most of the teachers sprawled in the comfy chairs in their lounge. There were many sore backs and necks, some desk drooling, and quite a few who complained of nightmares.

Vilnious told them everything went back to normal at St. Clement’s a week after the defeat of the Olethren, except for a few glaring differences. Some of the teachers and staff members had resigned—or simply vanished. Most of the windows in the front of the school had to be replaced. Two parentless girls—wards of the state, Nicolette Garcia and Jillian Crosse, had been adopted from the nine-to-sixteen’s department. Mrs. Vilnious laughed when she told them the administration staff had scratched their heads, wondering how the arrangements for the family placements had been made without their absolute control and authority. The old gardener had also spent a lot of time scratching his head in bewilderment. He spread stories, something about mutant locusts, and then placed an order for eight hundred pounds of grass seed to replace the wide swath of dirt that now stretched from the steps of St. Clement’s all the way out to the river.

Kassandra looked up, sensing someone watching her. Gregor Lord Rexenor, her father, smiled as he approached.

“Here he is now,” Kassandra said to her mother, and Ampharete came back with a long list of advice in her head.

Make sure he’s enrolled you in a good school. I like the one called North Hampton LyceumI do not care how much it costsDon’t let him get away with his miserly Rexenor ways. You may be named after his great-grandfather, but you are an Alkimides princess. The throne of all the seaborn is yours.

“Who am I named after?”

Kassander, the greatest of the Rexenor lords. Who did you think you were named after?

Kassandra smiled—couldn’t help smiling. “No one. I just… I didn’t know.” So, she wasn’t named after the cursed prophetess no one believed.

A Rexenor lord. She like that.

“Sorry.” Her father scooped her into a hug. He had recovered most of his health over the last month. “Had to clear up some banking details. The three of you are officially enrolled in classes. I had no idea attending school would cost so much. I don’t have any of the credit cards from my porthmeus days, but I remembered the numbers to some of the offshore accounts kept by Tharsaleos.” He sighed. “Two more of them are empty now.” He exhaled, half furious, half amused. “We will need it. Those blasted naiads sent me their motel bill. Three thousand four hundred dollars for water. What the hell were they doing with it all, pouring it down the damn drain?”

Kassandra shook her head and laughed, and let it continue when the sound of her own voice mixed with the mournful piping of the seagulls and the rhythmic rush of surf against the sand. She liked the sound.

Then she turned away from her dad, to the Atlantic, and felt the weight of the loss of something inside her, a sense that even with everything she had gained, the return—in some form—of her mother and father, she still had a long way to go. Almost as if there was an emptiness she could only fill when she was in the water.

She bowed her head, just a nod to the Ocean, a signal to let the tides, the rolling waves, every single drop in the one and a third billion cubic kilometers of seawater in the world, know that she would go for a swim later. She couldn’t determine how she knew it—something in the way the surf flattened for a moment, a calm pause in the continuous roar, but she knew that an entire ocean just bowed back to her.

Gregor took her arm, strolled with her down the beach toward Hampton.

His fingers tightened cautiously into a fist. They both turned toward a woman in a black jacket walking slowly and in a half-crouch in their direction. Kassandra couldn’t see the woman’s face because she was bent down, her eyes—behind thin purple-framed glasses, scanning the rocky ground three feet in front her.

The woman stopped, brushed her hair out of her eyes, and knelt to select a particular mottled stone from a pile of them the tides had shoved together. The stone was flat with a wedge-shaped notch carved out of it by some random motion of the waves. She straightened as Kassandra and Gregor passed her, holding up the stone for them see.

“I collect the heart-shaped ones.”

Gregor froze, a shudder running through his whole body. “What did you say?”

“Took your time delivering her, didn’t you?”

Kassandra broke free from her father, moving smoothly into a fighting stance, ready to hurt someone. Who the hell is this?

All three of them stood there for a few moments, staring at each other, and then Kassandra relaxed. The lady with the purple glasses didn’t look dangerous. Kassandra took a couple steps closer to get a better view at the stone in the woman’s hand—it did sort of look like a heart. Then she glanced at her father to catch his reaction. He just looked stunned, but in a way that made it clear he knew who this woman was.

She’s not seaborn.

She held out the heart-shaped stone and Kassandra took it, rolling it over in the palm of her hand.

Then the woman in purple glasses faced Gregor, pointing at him, her tone accusing. “Been waiting a long time, Porthmeus. I’m a patient woman, but you’re really pushing it. You were supposed to fetch her off the unfixed rock and have her here well over a decade ago.”




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