My first winter at Crystal Wing Academy brings frigid weather, intense magical classes, and...a hunter.
After defeating the nightlace vine eager to kill every outling on campus, I'm feeling kinda cocky. But nothing ever goes smoothly for me, does it?
The good news first. I've not only figured out how to ride an aldakor, I've convinced the naiad living in the moat I can be trusted. You might say I've got an in with magical creatures. And I've found a new best friend who's awesome, even if she's keeping secrets.
The bad news? Donovan's bespelled. If I don't break his curse, we're doomed. And, in my class, Magical Horticulture of the Night: Adding the D to Deadly, I accidentally freed a beatleycarne, unleashing the deadliest prankster known to the fae world. Need to catch that baby and lock it up fast before the Academy collapses around me.
Seems like I'm fighting one crisis after another. Then someone unexpected emerges from my past. And the person responsible for the nightlace murders? She wasn't working alone, and the wizard isn't finished with me yet.
With the beatleycarne wreaking havoc on my life, Donovan bespelled, and someone determined to kill me, I need to harness every strand of power I can find. Because a battle's coming and only one wizard will emerge the victor.
A Crystal Wing Academy Novel
© 2020 Marty Mayberry
I was about to dig up an entombed beatleycarne. A slimy, squishy, plant-slug combo that, per our class syllabus, released a substance vital to Seekers.
Nobody could beat Professor Grim for spicing up an evening.READ MORE
I’d initially signed up for this class to learn more about nightlace, a vine that had been stalking and killing outlings like me. Born of non-magical parents, outlings were despised by many at the Academy though, until recently, no one had hunted us for years.
My advisor, Cloven, would’ve let me drop the class after I’d exposed the true murderer, but I’d decided to stick with it. Most of the time, it was fun.
Tonight’s excursion was still up for debate.
“Beatleycarnes are a root-goblin hybrid,” Professor Grim shrieked. “Exceedingly rare, they’re one of our more stealthy, devious plants.”
I’d even gotten used to our Professor’s screaming. He couldn’t help how he spoke; it was part of his former Grim Reaper persona. While he’d traded in his job harvesting souls to teach Magical Horticulture of the Night: Adding the D to Deadly at the Academy, he’d held onto some of the trappings of his former profession. Like his sickle. And his shredded robe. Only reaping souls had been set aside.
Cupid had been enlisted to collect them instead. No idea who’d taken over shooting love arrows, but it wasn’t gonna be me.
Achieving a Level Five in my Unraveler skapti was enough to keep me busy.
“Beatleycarnes grow in caves found only on the Cliffs of Navarrene,” he said. “And tonight, we shall exhume them.”
“Exhume, huh?” Moira whispered behind me. “Sounds…delightful.”
Walking beside me, my roommate, Patty, snorted.
Five of us strode north behind Professor Grim on a wooded path weaving through the eastern Academy forest, our breaths created white puffs that dissipated in the chilly night air.
Bryce, Patty’s boyfriend, hustled beside the Professor, debating the merits of catching tranas with butterfly nets versus our bare hands. After capturing them for our last assignment, we’d taken them to the greenhouse lab and descaled them. I shuddered and blocked the memory of that out. In my nightmares, blue trana gook still coated the underside of my fingernails.
There used to be eight students in our class. Drea had been murdered by Alys, who’d been bespelled to shift into a nightlace cluster and kill every outling on campus. The Seekers had flitted her to the Council for trial, and we hadn’t heard a thing about her since.
Which left me, Patty, Bryce, Moira, Eben…
…and he who really shouldn’t be named.
“No D tonight,” Patty said forlornly.
So much for not naming him.
“Probably just as well he’s not here,” I said. Whenever I ran into my boyfriend, a part of my soul died.
Or was I supposed to call him my ex-boyfriend now, since he’d been bespelled by his older brother, King Niles, to forget I’d ever existed?
“I know it hurts to be around him,” she said.
How could it not? I’d moved forward, into the future, while Donovan remained frozen in my past.
“I’m going to fix it, break the spell,” I said.
“With your unraveling skapti.”
“Yup.” I stiffened my spine. Somehow, I’d find a way.
“After we exhume beatleycarnes, we shall extract their lardlets,” Professor Grim yelled, making Patty jump.
Lardlet. The name itself was enough to creep me out, even though I was excited to learn more about magical creatures.
Eben rushed around me and Patty, trampling leafless raspberry stalks spearing out from the sides of the path. He caught up to Bryce and the Professor.
“Actually,” he said in a snooty voice. “Spears work even than nets for capturing tranas.”
By the fae, he was so conceited. I rolled my eyes at Patty who shook her head.
“But…” Bryce frowned. “Tranas are easier to descale when they’re alive. If you kill them, their skin solidifies into a substance resembling concrete, correct Professor?”
Patty grinned. Her boyfriend was so smart.
“Excellent point,” Professor Grim said, tapping his sickle on Bryce’s shoulder. “I’m pleased to see you paid attention in class.”
Beams from the full moon lanced through bare branches overhead, lighting our way and glistening on the dead, ice-encrusted leaves crunching underneath our boots. Soon, we’d reach the cliffs, where we’d use our newly-purchased, solid gold trowels to unearth beatleycarnes.
I snuggled deeper into my down coat with my mitten-clad fingers knotted inside my pockets. The braided ties of my hat bounced on my chest as I half-jogged beside Patty.
“Cloven said I’m close to learning how to draw in the right colored threads.” When I could consistently do that, I’d achieve a Level Two Unraveler skapti. Only three more levels to go after that. With each tiny step forward, my desperation grew. It was common for wizards to take a lifetime to reach Level Five, if they ever got there. Most were satisfied working magic at a Level Three.
Not me. A bespelling like Donovan’s could only be permanently broken by a Level Five Unraveler.
“It’s cool that you’re getting closer,” Patty said. “After you draw in the right threads, you send them toward Donovan and shout unravel, and his bespelling breaks?”
My sigh chugged out of me. “Unfortunately, no.”
“But you unraveled the nightlace bespelling.”
I still had no clue how I’d done it. “Cloven said Levels are fluid. Meaning I might be able to somehow send out a Level Three spell one day then struggle to use a Level Two the next. He thinks I was able to tap Level Four power when I faced the nightlace. That my emotions drove the unraveling.”
“It was a fluke?”
“Yup. I tried with Alys right after unraveling the vines, but it didn’t work. Cloven told me plant bespellings are easier to break, unlike with people.” Which lasted forever. “Once I figure out how to draw black threads in, I have to learn how to load them correctly in my moonstone.” My fingers slid along the knife I wore strapped to my thigh. I’d connected to a moonstone, the stone at the top of the pack, during Stone Selection. The Academy jeweler had set it in a rune-scripted blade. Others’ stones had been mounted in pendants, bracelets, or, in Patty’s case, a ruby in the bronze ring she wore on her right middle finger.
Stepping ahead of me, Patty pushed back a branch and waited for me and Moira to pass before catching up to stride beside me again. “Storing unraveler power isn’t as simple as other skaptis, then. Bummer.”
“White for Bespellers, black for Unravelers.”
That was the magical rule. Other wizards could pull in whatever color they wanted, though cooler colors like blue and green were more difficult to draw in than hot. We stored thread power in our stones then fed the magic back out with a command that would enhance our skapti. But Unravelers couldn’t use white and Bespellers couldn’t use black.
“I have to braid multiple black strands into one thread to store them,” I said. And that was the only guidance Cloven could offer. Braiding threads meant I’d reach Level Three and he didn’t know how to get me to that Level because the braids were unique to Unravelers. If only the last Master Unraveler hadn’t died long ago, taking any chance of my reaching Level Five to the grave with them. “I’m going to do it. Somehow.” No denying the sag of my shoulders, however.
“I’m sorry.” Patty rubbed my arm.
“This way, students,” Professor Grim yelled, his harsh voice jolting me out of my slump. While our boots stomped on the ground, he drifted above the path. Sticks and brittle leaves caught on the ends of his shredded gray robe, skittering behind him like autumn-colored mice.
Goosebumps peppered my skin, but we were safe in the forest now that Alys had been arrested. With luck, the Seekers had sent her to Demon’s Gate Penitentiary, a prison located in the fae world where underage wizards rotted for the rest of their days. A fitting punishment for someone who’d killed two outlings and almost me before she’d been captured.
We emerged from the path and stopped at the base of the forbidding Cliffs of Navarrene. They stretched above us into the darkness, a mass of jagged granite peppered with scraggly bushes. The path we needed to take to reach the cave switchbacked across the face, seeking the top.
Professor Grim set a mean pace, worthy of the gym classes I remembered from when I was a kid living with my mom and going to human school. As I caught my breath, I stomped my feet, hoping to warm them up and bring back sensation.
I took our bag of tools from Patty; my turn to carry. We’d purchased our supplies at the Academy’s hardware store, and they included a sack knitted from yarn spun from sketar witch hair, a solid gold trowel, and the pièce de résistance, a glass jar blown by a half-turned werewolf, outside, during a hurricane.
One of these days, I wanted to watch that werewolf in action.
As for the sketar hair sack, I’d have to ask Ester how they obtained witch hair, because I couldn’t imagine anyone challenging my half-troll guardian to obtain some. She’d let me live with her after Mom dumped me on the front steps of Crystal Wing Academy when I was ten. I’d returned to the Academy at seventeen. She’d run a tight house.
“Beatleycarne lardlets have special, magical properties,” Professor Grim screamed in lecture mode.
“Yeah, slime,” I whispered to Patty, and she giggled.
I stepped in behind her on the hard-packed dirt trail snaking up the cliff, our tool bag clunked against my leg, my breath coming in short pants already.
“You’re going to love this creature,” Patty tossed in a singsong voice over her shoulder. “After we extract the lardlets, we’ll return the beatleycarnes to their original home in the cave. No hauling them back to the greenhouse lab where they’ll go hungry.” She grinned. “Which means no rescue attempts in the night.”
Our first class project had been to capture dandybucklions and milk their anti-venom. Professor Grim had planned to confine them in the lab indefinitely after that, starving them to keep them compliant while he conducted further experiments. Like I’d allow that to happen? Patty, her boyfriend, Bryce, and I had freed the bucklions. In thanks, they’d helped me defeat the nightlace.
“As you’ve learned by studying your textbooks prior to class,” Professor Grim shouted. “Lardlets can only be harvested in December, when the full moon is in eclipse. We won’t have this chance again for years.”
We reached a level stone platform and crossed it, stopping outside a ten-foot-tall oval cave entrance. Arctic wind barreled down the cliffside, stealing our heat and making us cluster together like sheep in a storm. Behind us, the moon shone brightly. Soon, a slice of gray would creep across it, engulfing the light.
“Before we enter the cave,” Professor Grim said. “You’ll need to place your jars in a circle. Please do so and remove the lid.”
After, we gathered around our teacher again, and he waved his sickle toward the cave opening. “Onward, students! We haven’t much time.”
Shuffling forward, we were swallowed by a long, arched stone tunnel. We bumped into each other, and hysterical laughter erupted behind me and Patty. Bryce hooted.
Unable to see a thing, I was tempted to use power to generate my finger glow light but colors blooming ahead told me we’d almost reached our destination.
“Without lardlets,” Grim shouted. “There would be no Serum.”
Serum was used by Seekers to force wizards to spill everything from what they ate for dinner to intentional misuses of magic. A combination of the police, the CIA, and a SWAT Team, Seekers were controlled by the Council, serving as the law enforcement body of the Sídhe. Many were centaurs, though my friend, Tria, had a Seeker skapti and was studying to be one, too.
We exited the tunnel and walked out into a well-lit cave. Stalactites adorned the ceiling and bright pink and yellow flowers clung to all the walls except one, where drippy runoff coated the stone in glistening ink. The substance collected in a narrow pool at the bottom, sheening it with a rainbow slick. Dusky gold mushrooms the size of my fist speckled the dirt floor.
“Select a plant, please,” Professor Grim said, waving to the mushrooms. “Before doing anything else, however, you’ll need to remove your gloves and mittens. Bare hands only, students.”
Patty and I stooped down and, after stuffing our mittens inside our pockets, we dumped our tools from our bag, the gold trowels clinking together. Moira settled beside the mushroom beyond Patty.
“As is often the case with hybrid plants,” our Professor said. “They have awareness of the world around them. Before you will be allowed to borrow the plant’s beatleycarne, which is the goblin-like root, you will need to bow and seek the plant’s permission.”
I dipped my head to my mushroom. “Hey, um…Do you mind if I…”
“Oh, holy gobbly-gook beatley-slug…” Sitting on his heels by a plant partway across the cave from me, Eben snickered. He bent at the waist, his hands splaying wide. “Mind if I chop off your carne?”
“Respect, please, Eben,” Professor Grim said, coasting over to tap Eben on the head with his sickle.
Patty rolled her eyes at Eben’s antics.
“Can I please borrow your beatleycarne?” I asked my mushroom, and I swore it nodded. Hoped it was a nod. Otherwise—
“Wake up,” Eben said, poking his mushroom with his trowel. “Hey, Grim, this one’s defective. It’s not responding.”
The plant reeled back from Eben and shot something silver in his direction.
Eben yelped and dove sideways. “Incoming!”
Professor Grim sighed. “Enough, Eben! Molest them at your own peril.”
How could Eben hope to be named the best outling on campus? And why join this class if he wasn’t willing to do what he was told? He’d picked it up the last day of the add-drop period.
“But…but…” Eben gulped, flailing his arms. “It shot something at me. Whatever it was almost hit me.”
“The effect of their darts lasts less than a day,” Grim said. “I promise, while you’ll be unable to move, you will retain full vital functions, including breathing.”
Cringing, I lifted my eyebrows at Patty. If I patted my mushroom and sweet-talked it, could I avoid its darts? To be safe, I bowed again and begged my plant for permission to touch it.
“No hesitation, students. Once you’ve received approval, grab your plant!” As Professor Grim drifted up toward the ceiling, he rubbed his skeletal fingers together with glee. A challenge while holding his sickle.
Donovan had told me Grim kept the sickle because…
Like I’d taken a fist in the chest, my breathing stalled. My shoulders curled forward. Would I ever be able to think about Donovan without pain?
“Fleur?” Patty whispered. “You okay?”
Beyond Patty, Moira watched me with solemn understanding shadowing her eyes. She’d recently achieved a Level Two with her empath skapti, and she was getting too good at ferreting out everyone’s emotional secrets. When my gaze met hers, she darted her attention back to her mushroom.
“Hold tight to your plants.” Professor Grim floated around the room, a dingy gray ghost. Bits of leaves and sticks he’d picked up in the forest rained down, hitting mushrooms that cringed and shot darts. “Don’t let its struggles fool you. It’s no more alive than a blade of grass.”
Last I knew, grass didn’t fire tiny silver spears.
When I latched onto my mushroom’s stem, it wiggled like a sack of worms.
Moira shrieked and released hers. Lurching backward, she fell on her butt.
“It feels so gross,” she cried out. “Can’t we wear our mittens?”
“The oils on your skin will activate the release of the lardlets,” Professor Grim yelled. “Grab it again, Moira.”
Grimacing, she did.
Had to admit, my belly rolled as I held onto my plant. It felt like a slimy sack of eyeballs.
“With your gold trowel, begin digging at your plant’s base,” our Professor said. “Whatever you do, do not pierce the beatleycarne root.”
“Why? Will it try to kill me, too?” Eben asked. He’d gotten up and moved to a different mushroom. Couldn’t say that I blamed him. The other one was spinning in place, though it had stopped flinging darts.
“The beatleycarne are delicate roots,” Grim said. “If you slice their hide, they could explode.”
Talk about putting the D in Deadly.
“Much too messy,” he added.
Messy was an understatement.
“Dig deeply, students,” he shrieked. “At least ten inches. You don’t want to accidentally cut off your beatleycarne’s base.”
Scraping sounds echoed in the cave.
“Exactly. Like that,” our professor said. “Scoop the dirt out and set it aside in a pile. Eben. Please do not throw it. You’ll need it once we’re finished with our beatleycarnes, to rebury them.”
The side of my trowel nudged against something solid. Squishy-solid, since its flesh gave when I pressed harder.
“Once you’ve located your beatleycarnes, tighten your grip on your mushroom top,” Professor Grim said. “Under no circumstances do you want your beatleycarnes to escape.”
“Why?” I asked. My fingers flexed to the point I worried I’d pop the mushroom cap off like a baby dandybucklion head. A thrill for Moira, not for me.
“Beatleycarnes are the gremlins of the fae. If we don’t return them to the ground, they’ll run wild.”
Sounded like my kind of creature.
Our professor coasted around the room. “Delightful. Thus far, you’ve all done an A plus job exhuming your beatleycarnes.”
Leaning forward, I peered into the hole I’d made in the soft cave floor. If the thick, gooey orange thing was a beatleycarne, then yes, I’d exhumed it. About six inches long and two inches wide, it rippled like an exposed slug.
The Professor hovered in the middle of the cave, watching us. I assumed he was watching. Hard to tell with his hood. But I felt the weight of his gaze. “Now lift your plants from the ground.”
I held it up in front of me like a severed head. It didn’t improve on closer inspection.
Professor Grim swirled around the room, his robe fluttering frantically. “Quickly. Lay your beatleycarnes on your sketar hair bag and latch onto the beatleycarnes base. With the golden trowel, sever the beatleycarne root from the top.”
A quick gouge—and multiple swallows to shove down bile—and my mushroom top separated from my beatleycarne. The carne lay underneath my palm like a well-behaved pup.
“Place your beatleycarnes in the sketar hair bag, pull the drawstring snug, and let’s go! Leave the mushroom tops behind.” Professor Grim coasted over our heads and into the tunnel. “Hurry. The eclipse awaits!”
As I dropped my beatleycarne into my bag, it wiggled. I tightened the string at the bag’s top as the carne spasmed and twisted, poking at the sides.
We hurried into the tunnel, aiming for the ledge outside.
Like everyone else, I carried my bag with my hands thrust in front of me like an offering. From what I could tell with a quick glance—though it was a challenge to see more than Patty half-jogging in front of me—no one else’s beatleycarne moved.
Was the fact that mine was flipping around a good or a bad thing? With luck, it would be easier to extract lardlets from the livelier ones.
“Find your jars, students,” Professor Grim shrieked. “And settle down in a circle around them. Quickly! No wasting time. The eclipse will soon be upon us.” He floated into the middle of the circle while we dropped to our knees, facing our jars and each other.
“Softly lower your bags onto your laps.” Professor Grim’s hood slanted toward the sky, where a shadow already crept across the moon.
“This is so freakin’ cool!” Patty’s eyes gleamed. She held up her hand with her index finger and thumb smooshed together. “I can’t believe we’re this close to Seeker Serum. The raw stuff, that is.”
Fresh Serum was basically harmless. It didn’t become true Serum until it had been refined by technicians in the Seeker’s Guild.
“We’re extracting lardlets tonight,” Professor Grim said. “Raw Serum tapping will take place in our next class.”
Caught up in the excitement, I fiddled with the string keeping my bag closed. My beatleycarne must be eager to release lardlets, because it continued to fidget inside.
As shadows took over the night and the eclipsed ripened, we grew more impatient.
Professor hefted his sickle like a starter at a stock car race holding a checkered flag. “On my command, open your bag, remove your beatleycarnes, and hold them up in the filtered light. Three…two…and…one!”
I loosened the string and separated the folds. Inside, my sluggy beatleycarne now lay sedately across the bottom, finally behaving like the others. I gripped it as gently as possible but my fingers sunk into its surface. Like a slimy bean bag, things inside slithered.
“Ho, baby,” I said with a grimace. “Come to Mama!”
Patty swallowed and, her face shriveling, pulled out her beatleycarne.
Leaving our bags on our laps, we lifted our slugs into the air, where they were bathed in eclipsed moonlight. Beneath my plant’s dull orange skin, muted orbs in green and blue flickered. Was this a chemical reaction to the moonlight?
“Now place the head of your carnes over the mouth of your jar and squeeze tight,” Professor grim yelled. “Remember, you can’t hurt them.”
Gremlin of the fae, huh? Mine acted as passive as a sloth.
I leaned close to Patty. “Which end is the bottom? Can’t tell.”
“The darker end,” she hissed, her face lined with crinkles as she put all her effort into squishing her beatleycarne.
Darker? The entire plant resembled dead pumpkin blush. One end had a narrow line across it, however. Assuming that must be where the lardlets emerged, I stuffed that end into the top of my jar, sealing the rim with beatleycarne plumpness.
I leaned forward, squeezing my hands around the smooshy body.
A thump beside me drew my eye. Another thump and a round, gleaming ball the size of a walnut plopped into Patty’s jar, joining the other. Shimmering with blue and green light, they slithered around the inner surface.
“This is so much fun!” Patty said. Her glance darted to my empty jar. “Squish it harder, Fleur!”
I curled my fingers, digging them into the fleshy body. Tighter. Nothing was happening! Had I dug up a defective beatleycarne?
A lardlet shot out with a moist pop, but I’d pointed the wrong end into the jar. The gooey, glistening lardlet landed on my thigh, and a whitish, slimy teardrop slid down the side of the oval ball. It scurried sideways, bailing from my leg like a kid off a diving board.
How could it move? It had no legs.
I snatched up the lardlet and held tight.
“Students,” Professor Grim called out, drifting toward Bryce. “Do not—”
I yelped as my beatleycarne bucked and thrashed and lost my one-handed grip. My carne plopped onto the ground and, quicker than I could shriek by the fae, it scrambled from our circle, heading for the side of the ledge.
“Do not let it get away,” Professor Grim shouted. He pointed his sickle at the beatleycarne, and I expected a laser beam to shoot out.
I jumped to my feet, as did Eben.
“Smoosh it,” he yelled, waving his beatleycarne overhead. A lardlet popped out and smacked on the ground beside him. “Grab it. Kill it. Stomp it flat.”
We gave chase, me flailing behind Eben. So that was his plan. Show me up by catching my beatleycarne. No way!
“I’ve got it. I’ve got it!” Eben said, smacking his boots around my beatleycarne but missing. For a slug, that baby could move.
Eben and I bumped into each other, and I tumbled forward, groaning when my body bit into the unforgiving ledge. I scrambled across the stone, straining to grab my beatleycarne.
It slipped through my fingers and flung itself off the cliff.
“Oh, dear,” Professor Grim said, his voice barely above a whisper for the first time ever. “Simply dreadful.” His sickle drooped, and the tip smacked on the ground. “Now you’ve done it.”
Crawling forward, I peered over the side. A cluster of boulders waited below, and evergreen tree tips speared upward, part of a dark green blanket spreading away from the cliffside for miles. In the distance, I made out the pencil-thin edge of the Academy roofline.
Vertigo sucked me down and made my head spin.
No beatleycarne in sight, however. It had to be dead. Nothing could survive that fall.
I inched away from the drop-off and flopped on my back, holding up my hand. “At least I didn’t lose my lardlet.”
“Wait!” Professor Grim rushed me, his skeletal fingers outstretched. For the first time ever, he’d ditched his sickle. “Something isn’t right. It’s changing color. Be careful not to—”
Searing pain flashed across my hand. Like lightning, it arced down my arm and hit my chest, a spear aiming for my heart.
I screamed as Professor Grim shouted my name.