I’m not going to lie. It’s scary as fuck.
Then again, nearly everything has been scary as fuck since I got to this school, so why not just embrace it?
“Nice of you to join us, Grace,” Cyrus says in a voice so barbed, it feels like he’s flaying my flesh from my bones. “We were just about ready to give up on you.”
“Sorry, I was unavoidably detained,” I tell him as I look straight across the field to Cole, who is lined up directly across from me.
Our gazes meet, and the malevolent glee in his makes me want to scream. But it also gives me the strength I need to not look away. Because no way am I giving that jerk the satisfaction of letting him know just how deeply he’s hurt me. Just how much he’s torn me apart.
Cyrus looks me over, fake concern on his face as he plays for the crowd. “Are you all right, Grace? You look like you’ve had a very rough start to the day.”
My answer is dismissive, and for a breath, something flashes in his eyes: Surprise? Rage? Annoyance? I don’t know and, honestly, I don’t care. This is going to go how it’s going to go, and everything else is just window dressing that I don’t have the energy to analyze…or participate in right now.
“Welcome, students and faculty of Katmere Academy, to the rarest of occurrences—one of your own challenging for inclusion on the Circle. And not just any student, mind you, but the first gargoyle student Katmere Academy has ever had. It is a truly thrilling and auspicious day.”
Everyone cheers in response, but there’s a malicious edge to it that I wasn’t expecting, considering these are the people who cheered for me and the rest of my team a few short days ago. Then again, maybe I’m just imagining it—seeing something that isn’t there because I’m so freaked out.
It’s lonely out here by myself, lonely in this stadium, when the last time I was here I had all the support in the world. But right now, it feels like there’s no one in the entire place who is rooting for me. The lone gargoyle.
Jaxon, Flint, and Eden are injured and awaiting help.
Macy is trying to bring that help.
Mekhi and Gwen are in the infirmary.
Even my uncle Finn was powerless to do much more than clap for me as I entered the arena.
And Hudson is probably outside, trying to keep a low profile now that he’s mortal. Not that I blame him. I have my powers and his, and I still wish I was outside…or anywhere else but on this field.
Still, the last thing I want is to spend the rest of my life locked in a dungeon, praying Cyrus won’t kill me. There’s no one else to do this right now, no one else to challenge Cyrus and Delilah’s power. No one else to do what has to be done.
So what I want doesn’t matter. Only winning matters, because winning is the sole way I’ll be able to stop this mess from unfolding.
Cyrus turns back to the crowd, arms open wide like a carnival barker as he begins to weave them a tale in his very proper British accent.
“The eight of us here”—he turns to look at the members of the Circle behind him—“are very excited to see if she measures up, has what it takes to serve on your ruling body. And I know some of you are probably wondering how this happened, how a girl new to your school and new to our world could possibly be afforded an opportunity like this. Where does Grace Foster get the audacity to believe she deserves to rule?”
The stadium fills with an uneasy silence—and a dark one—as the students and faculty turn to look my way. Again, I can’t help feeling like something isn’t right. Like there’s something more at work here than these people suddenly thrilled at the idea of seeing me taken down.
I mean, I know Jaxon’s not my mate anymore. Ostensibly, so does the Circle and all of Cole’s team. After all, Cyrus hasn’t yet asked me where my partner is for this Trial. But I doubt they announced it to the entire stadium in the time it took me to get in here.
So why do they suddenly hate me so much? What’s happened to turn everything so dark? To make it seem like every person in the arena is suddenly against me? And how does Cyrus know to play on it unless he’s causing it?
“It’s okay,” Cyrus continues as the crowd whispers awkwardly among itself. “It’s okay to ask yourself these questions. Every member of the Circle certainly has.”
He gives his best attempt at a sincere laugh, but it just comes across as creepy. Then again, nearly everything about the man comes across as creepy. I swear, how he managed to father two of the most heroic guys I’ve ever met, I’ll never know.
“But whether it seems strange or not, rules are rules. Challenges are challenges, and we here at the Circle strive to always do the right thing. The rules of inclusion state that anyone who is from a faction with an unfilled seat on the Circle may challenge for inclusion. So we are, on this dark and gloomy day, waiting for the—very late—Grace to prove she is worthy.” He laughs again.
“But no matter, no matter. Outsiders can’t be expected to know all the rules, can they? Normally, members of the Circle themselves would fight, or choose champions from their armies, but your headmaster Finn Foster has rightly pointed out that we’re on school grounds and must abide by the covenant of the school. Therefore, instead of bringing in generals, or sadly watch Grace fall quickly were one of the Circle to enter the Trial, we have agreed to choose our champions from the student body.” Cheers go up in the arena as my opponents wave at the stands.
“And since these are but mere students, the magical safeguards against mortal injury have also been instituted—for everyone except Grace, of course.” His smile stretches wide and reminds me of an alligator as he delivers this bit of good news.
He thinks by not being able to kill an opponent he’s made me weaker—because that’s how someone like him would think. But actually, he’s done me a huge favor. Now that I don’t have to worry about killing anyone, I can come full force with every ounce of power I have and not worry about doing something horrible. I offer him a smile even slyer than his own, not even trying to hide the satisfaction crinkling my eyes as Cyrus falters at my reaction.
But he quickly recovers and continues. “In the interest of being as fair as possible”—I give a snort-laugh that would make Hudson proud—“and to ensure that there is no outside interference on either side, Imogen and Linden have shielded the arena.
“The players inside will be able to hear you cheering for them, but none of your powers can get through to them, which guarantees this is a totally fair Trial—for both sides. Rest assured, no one will be allowed to cheat their way onto the Circle.”
He pauses and lets that sink in, holding my gaze for a reaction. But again, he thinks he’s limiting my chances when he’s only further emboldened me now that I don’t need to worry his team will cheat. Uncle Finn is the only person left here to cheer for me, and he’s certainly not about to help me cheat, so this is no handicap.
I give him, and the whole stadium, a wide smile that has his gaze narrowing and his jaw clenching. But the show must go on, so he forces a condescending smile as he adds, “And no one on the opposing team will be able to get extra help to defeat our little gargoyle, either.”
As I stand here, listening to him go on about how magnanimous he is to organize today—like it’s not a part of the Circle’s fucking charter—I realize for the first time why Hudson originally wanted me to challenge them. Not because he doesn’t believe in me. But because he knows there’s no way his father is going to give me, or anyone else, a fair chance—all his words to the contrary.
My heart beats wildly at the thought. I mean, I knew walking in here that I might not walk out again. But recognizing just how stacked against me this damn Trial is infuriates me. And only makes me more determined to survive. I just hope I have enough cunning and physical strength left to back up that determination.
“And finally,” Cyrus says, the words drawing my attention because it sounds like he is finally tired of hearing his own voice, “to prove the Circle’s impartiality regarding the outcome of this test, Grace will start with the ball, giving her a powerful advantage here at the beginning of the Trial.”
He waits for Nuri to hold up the ball—which she does with an approving wink to me that seems both sweet and completely out of place in this ever-darkening arena—then turns back to the crowd.
Cyrus lifts his arms in a wide arc that sweeps through the air as he orders, “Let the Trial begin!”
A Match Played
I wasn’t expecting to have the ball first—I didn’t think Cyrus would give me anything that even resembles an advantage—and as Nuri walks to the center square with it, I start to panic a little because I’m not sure what to do. Jaxon and I would have just continually passed it back and forth (well, unless he’d managed to fade all the way to the end and win immediately like he’d apparently planned), but now that it’s just me, that strategy is worthless.
Plus, I figured with two of them jumping for the ball at tip-off, I wouldn’t have a chance. So I’d been hoping to let them do some of the initial work as I got to see what a few of the portals might do this time.
Now, though…now I have about fifteen seconds before that ball is in my hands and thirty seconds after that to get rid of it before I start losing pieces of my stone to its out-of-control vibration. Which, now that I think about it, might be exactly what Cyrus had planned—no advantage here after all.
As the fifteen seconds tick by between one long breath and the next, a dozen strategies enter my mind, and I discard them all. I briefly consider using Hudson’s gift of persuasion right away—just end this Trial early and walk the ball in. But sadly, the other team is too spread out. I’m not sure how much time I’ll have once I tap into his power, but surely not long enough to chase them all down and persuade each to take a nap instead of trying to kill me. I can’t even bring myself to consider turning everyone to dust—even if I know the magic of mortal injury will save them. Plus, Hudson’s worked so hard to keep that particular gift a secret, convince Cyrus it’s dormant, and it’s not my right to expose it now.