Chapter no 24

A Darker Shade of Magic

Kell had been standing on the bridge, leaning against the rail and trying to make sense of how and why he’d been set up—the false letter, the humble plea, the compelled cutthroats—when he caught the scent of magic on the air. Not a faint tendril, either, but a flare. A beacon of light in a darkened city. And a signature he would know anywhere. Heated steel and ash.


Kell’s feet carried him toward it; it wasn’t until he stepped off the south edge of the bridge that he heard the first scream. He should have stopped right then, should have thought things through. It was a blunt and obvious trap— the only reason Holland would send up a flare of power was if he wanted to be noticed, and the only person in Grey London who would notice him was Kell—but he still broke into a sprint.

Were you followed? Lila had asked him.

No. They can’t follow me here.

But Kell had been wrong. No one in the worlds could follow him … except for Holland. He was the only one who could, and had, which meant that he was after the stone. It also meant that Kell should be running away from the signature and the scream, not toward them.

The voice cried out again, and this time he was near enough to recognize the source of the cry being raked across the heavy air.


Why would Holland go after her?

But Kell knew the answer. It sat like a weight in his chest. Holland would go after Lila because of him. Because in a world with so little magic, every trace stood out. And Lila would have traces—both his magic, and the stone’s

—written all over her. Kell knew how to cover his. Lila couldn’t possibly. She’d be like a torch.

It’s her own fault, thought Kell, even as he ran toward the scream. Her own damn fault.

He raced down the street, ignoring the burn across his ribs and the voice in his head that told him to leave her, to get away while he still could.

A blunt and obvious trap.

He cut down along the river, through an alley, around a bend, and came to a staggering halt on a narrow street just in time to hear Lila’s scream cut off, to see her body sagging forward to the cobblestones. Holland stood over her, but his eyes were trained on Kell.

“There you are,” he said, as if he were happy to see the other Antari. Kell’s mind spun. Lila looked up.

“Run,” he told her, but she just kept staring at him. “Lila, go.” Her eyes focused then, and she staggered to her feet, but Holland caught her by the shoulder and pressed a pistol to the base of her neck.

“No, Lila,” he said in his calm, infuriating way. “Stay.” Kell’s hands curled into fists. “What is this about, Holland?” “You know quite well. You have something that isn’t yours.”

The stone hung heavy in his pocket. No, it wasn’t his. But it wasn’t Holland’s, either. And it certainly didn’t belong to the White throne. Had the power-hungry Danes possessed the talisman, they never would have relinquished it, let alone sent it away. But who would? Who did?

With its power, Astrid and Athos would be nearly invincible, yes, but a commoner could use the stone’s magic to become a king. In a world starving for power, why would anyone go to such lengths to be rid of it?

Fear, thought Kell. Fear of the magic, and fear of what would happen if it fell into the twins’ hands. Astrid and Athos must have learned of the stone and its escape, and sent Holland to retrieve it.

“Give me the stone, Kell.”

His mind spun. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Holland gave him a withering look. His fingers tightened almost imperceptibly around Lila, and power crackled across her skin. She bit back a scream and fought to stay on her feet.

“Stop,” demanded Kell. Holland did.

“Will you make me repeat myself?” he asked. “Just let her go,” said Kell.

“The stone first,” said Holland.

Kell swallowed as he drew the talisman from his coat. It sang through his fingertips, wanting to be used. “You can try and take it from me,” he said, “as soon as you let her go.” Even as the words left Kell’s lips, he regretted them.

The corner of Holland’s mouth curled grimly up. He withdrew his hand, one finger at a time, from Lila’s arm. She staggered forward and spun on him.

“Fly away, little bird,” he said, his gaze still trained on Kell. “Go,” snapped Kell.

He could feel Lila’s eyes hanging on him, but he wasn’t foolish enough to let his own stray from Holland—not now—and he let out a small breath when he finally heard her boots echoing on the street stones. Good, he thought. Good.

“That was foolish,” said Holland, tossing the revolver aside as if it were beneath him. “Tell me, are you are as arrogant as you seem, or only as naïve?”

“Holland, please—”

The Antari’s gaze darkened. “You look at me, Kell, and think we are alike. That we are the same, even, one person on two divergent paths. Perhaps you think our power bonds us. Allow me to correct your misapprehension. We may share an ability, you and I, but that does not make us equals.”

He flexed his fingers, and Kell had the sneaking suspicion that this was going to end badly. Holland had fought against the Danes. Holland had spilled blood and life and magic. Holland had nearly claimed the White throne as his own.

Kell must seem like a spoiled child to the other Antari.

But Kell still had the stone. It was bad magic, forbidden magic, but it was something. It called to him, and he tightened his grip, the jagged side digging into his palm. Its power pressed at his edges, wanting to be let in, and he resisted, keeping a wall between the talisman’s energy and his own. He didn’t need much. He only needed to summon something inanimate—something that would stop Holland without turning on them both.

A cage, he thought. And then commanded. A cage.

The stone hummed in his hand, and black smoke began to pour between his fingers, and—

But Holland didn’t wait.

A gust of wind ripped through the air and slammed Kell forcefully into the door of a shop behind him. The stone tumbled from his grip, the wisps of black smoke dissolving back into nothing as the talisman hit the street. Before Kell could lunge for it, the metal nails of another door shuddered free and sang through the air, driving into his coat and pinning him to the wood. Most of the nails found fabric, but one of them found flesh, and Kell gasped in pain as the spike drove through his arm and into the door behind him.

“Hesitation is the death of advantage,” mused Holland as Kell fought in vain against the metal pinnings. He willed them to move, but Holland willed them to stay, and Holland’s will proved stronger.

“What are you doing here?” asked Kell through gritted teeth.

Holland sighed. “I thought it would be obvious,” he said, stepping toward the stone. “I’m cleaning up a mess.”

As Holland made his way toward the talisman, Kell fought to focus on the metal pinning him. The nails began to tremble as his will pushed against the other Antari’s. They slid free an inch—Kell clenched his jaw as the one in his arm shifted—Holland’s attention wavering as he knelt to fetch the stone from the ground.

“Don’t,” warned Kell.

But Holland ignored him. He took up the talisman and straightened, weighing it in his palm. His will and attention were both centered on the stone now, and this time when Kell focused, the nails holding him shuddered and slid free. They drew themselves out of the wall—and out of his coat and his flesh—and clattered to the ground just as Holland held the stone up to the nearest lamplight.

“Drop it,” ordered Kell, clutching his wounded arm. Holland didn’t.

Instead, he cocked his head and considered the small black stone. “Have you figured out yet how it works?” And then, as Kell lunged forward, Holland’s thin fingers folded over it. Such a small gesture, slow, casual, but the moment his fist closed, black smoke poured between his fingers and swept around Kell. It happened so fast. One moment he was surging forward, and the next his legs froze mid-step. When he looked down, he saw shadows swirling around his boots.

“Stay,” commanded Holland as the smoke turned to steel, heavy black chains that grew straight out of the street and clanged as they locked around Kell’s ankles, bolting him in place. When he reached for them, they burned his hands, and he pulled back, hissing in pain.

“Conviction is key,” observed Holland, running his thumb over the stone’s surface. “You believe that magic is an equal. A companion. A friend. But it is not. The stone is proof. You are either magic’s master, or its slave.”

“Put it down,” said Kell. “No good will come of it.”

“You’re right,” said Holland, still clutching the stone. “But I have my orders.”

More smoke poured forth from the talisman, and Kell braced himself, but the magic didn’t settle, didn’t take shape. It swirled and curled around them, as if Holland hadn’t yet decided what to do with it. Kell summoned a gust of air, hoping to dispel it, but the wind passed straight through, billowing Holland’s cloak but leaving the dark magic untouched.

“Strange,” said Holland as much to himself as to Kell. “How one small rock can do so much.” His fingers tightened around the stone then, and the smoke coiled around Kell. Suddenly it was everywhere, Blotting out his

vision and forcing its way into his nose and mouth, down his throat, choking him, smothering him.

And then it was gone.

Kell coughed and gasped for breath, and looked down at himself, unhurt. For an instant, he thought the magic had failed.

And then he tasted blood.

Kell brought his fingers toward his lips, but stopped when he saw that his entire palm was wet with red. His wrists and arms felt damp, too.

“What … ,” he started, but couldn’t finish. His mouth filled with copper and salt. He doubled over and retched before losing his balance and collapsing to his hands and knees in the street.

“Some people say magic lives in the mind, others the heart,” said Holland quietly, “but you and I both know it lives in the blood.”

Kell coughed again, and fresh red dotted the ground. It dripped from his nose and mouth. It poured from his palms and wrists. Kell’s head spun and his heart raced as he bled out onto the street. He wasn’t bleeding from a wound. He was just bleeding. The cobblestones beneath him were quickly turning slick. He couldn’t stop it. He couldn’t even get to his feet. The only person who could break the spell was staring down at him with a resignation that bordered on disinterest.

“Holland … listen to me,” pleaded Kell. “You can …” he fought to focus. “The stone … it can make …”

“Save your breath.”

Kell swallowed and forced the words out. “You can use the stone … to

break your seal.”

The White Antari raised a charcoal brow, and then shook his head. “This thing,” he said, tapping the silver circle at his shoulder, “is not what’s binding me.” He knelt before Kell, careful to avoid the spreading blood. “It’s only the iron.” He pulled aside his collar to reveal the mark scorched into the skin over his heart. “This is the brand.” The skin was silvery, the mark strangely fresh, and even though Kell couldn’t see Holland’s back, he knew the symbol went all the way through. A soul seal. A spell burned not only into one’s body, but into one’s life.


“It never fades,” said Holland, “but Athos still reapplies the mark now and then. When he thinks I’m wavering.” He looked down at the stone in his hand. “Or when he’s bored.” His fingers tightened around it, and Kell coughed up more blood.

Desperately, he reached for the coin pendants around his neck, but Holland got there first. He dug them out from under Kell’s collar and snapped the

cords with a swift tug, tossing the tokens away down the alley. Kell’s heart sank as he heard the sound of them bouncing into the dark. His mind spun over the blood commands, but he couldn’t seem to hold the words in his head, let alone shape them. Every time one rose up, it fell apart, broken by the thing killing him from the inside. Every time he tried to make a word, more blood filled his mouth. He coughed and clutched at syllables, only to choke on them.

“As … An …” he stammered, but the magic forced blood up his throat, blocking the word.

Holland clucked his tongue. “My will against yours, Kell. You will never win.”

“Please,” Kell gasped, breath ragged. The dark stain beneath him was spreading too fast. “Don’t … do this.”

Holland gave him a pitying look. “You know I don’t have a choice.”

“Make one.” The metallic smell of blood filled Kell’s mouth and nose. His vision faltered again. One arm buckled beneath him.

“Are you afraid of dying?” asked Holland, as if genuinely curious. “Don’t worry. It’s really quite hard to kill Antari. But I can’t have—”

He was cut off by a glint of metal in the air and the ringing sound of it striking bone as it connected with his skull. Holland went down hard, the stone tumbling from his grip and skittering several feet into the dark. Kell managed to focus his eyes enough to see Lila standing there, clutching an iron bar with both hands.

“Am I late?”

Kell let out a small dazed laugh that quickly dissolved into wracking coughs. Fresh blood stained his lips. The spell hadn’t broken. The chains around his ankles began to tighten, and he gasped. Holland wasn’t attacking him, but the magic still was.

He tried desperately to tell Lila, but he couldn’t find the air. And thankfully, he didn’t need it. She was ahead of him. She snatched up the stone, swiped it across the bloody ground, and then held it out in front of her like a light.

“Stop,” she ordered. Nothing.

“Go away.” The magic faltered.

Kell pressed his hands flat into the pool of blood beneath him. “As Anasae,” he said, and coughed, the command finally passing his lips without Holland’s will to force it down.

And this time, the magic listened.

The spells broke. The chains dissolved to nothing around his legs, and Kell’s lungs filled with air. Power flooded through what little blood was left in his veins. It felt like there was nearly none.

“Can you stand?” asked Lila. She helped him to his feet, and the whole world swayed, his sight plunging into black for several horrible seconds. He felt her grip on him tighten.

“Keep it together,” she said.

“Holland …” he murmured, his voice sounding strange and faraway in his own ears. Lila looked back at the man sprawled on the ground. Her hand closed over the stone, and smoke poured out.

“Wait …” said Kell shakily, but the chains were already taking shape, first in smoke and then in the same dark metal he’d only just escaped. They seemed to grow straight out of the street and coil around Holland’s body, his waist and wrists and ankles, pinning him to the damp ground as he had pinned Kell. It wouldn’t hold him long, but it was better than nothing. At first, Kell marveled that Lila could summon something so specific. Then he remembered she didn’t need to have power. She needed only to want a thing. The stone did the rest.

“No more magic,” he warned as she shoved the stone into her pocket, the strain showing on her face. Her grip had vanished for a moment, and when he took a step forward, he nearly collapsed, but Lila was there again to catch him.

“Steady now,” she said, pulling his arm around her narrow shoulders. “I had to find my gun. Stay with me.”

Kell clung to consciousness as long as he could. But the world was dangerously quiet, the distance between his thoughts and his body growing further apart. He couldn’t feel the pain in his arm where the nail had struck— couldn’t feel much of anything, which scared him more than the pressing dark. Kell had fought before, but never like this, never for his life. He’d gotten into his fair share of scrapes (most of them Rhy’s fault) and had had his fair share of bruises, but he’d always walked away intact. He’d never been seriously hurt, never struggled to keep his own heart beating. Now he feared that if he stopped fighting, if he stopped forcing his feet forward and his eyes open, that he might actually die. He didn’t want to die. Rhy would never forgive him if he died.

“Stay with me,” echoed Lila.

Kell tried to focus on the ground beneath his boots. On the rain that had started to fall. On Lila’s voice. The words themselves began to blur together, but he held on to the sound as he fought to keep the darkness at bay. He held on as she helped him over the bridge that seemed to go on and on forever, and through the streets that wound and tipped around them. He held on as hands

—Lila’s and then another’s—dragged him through a doorway and up a flight of old stairs and into a room, stripping off his blood-soaked clothes.

He held on until he felt a cot beneath him and Lila’s voice stopped and the thread was gone.

And then he finally, gratefully, plummeted down into black.

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