Being a member of the Elite Hunter Command imperils Joy in more ways than one. In their latest clash with Othersiders, the army of monsters nearly wiped them out. Apex City is safe for now. But within the city barriers, Joy must wage a different kind of war.
The corrupt and powerful PsiCorps is determined to usurp the Hunters as chief defenders of Apex City, and Joy is now squarely in their crosshairs. Unused to playing political games, she has very few people she can truly trust—not even Josh, her first friend in Apex City, who broke up with her when it became too dangerous for a Psimon to be dating a Hunter.
Then Josh comes to Joy for help. He fears that Abigail Drift, the head of PsiCorps, will soon use him in her twisted experiments designed to empower PsiCorps and render Hunters superfluous—a scheme that’s already killed off dozens of Psimons. Joy manages to smuggle Josh to safety, but he cannot evade Drift forever
As Joy faces ever more powerful Othersiders, she is helped by the most surprising ally imaginable—the same Folk Mage she once met in battle on the train to Apex City. But can Joy trust the most cunning and treacherous of all Othersiders?
In the thrilling finale to Mercedes Lackey’s New York Times bestselling trilogy, Joy must risk everything to end a brutal war before she loses all she’s ever loved.
Release date: September 11, 2018
Publisher: Little, Brown Books for Young Readers
Print pages: 304
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A year ago, I was a different person, just one of the Hunters at the Monastery on the Mountain. A Hunter who kept our area free of monsters, under the tutelage and direction of my Masters. A Hunter who’d lived in a place so different from Apex and the other big cities it might just as well have been on another planet.
A year ago, I’d never given a thought to Apex, except once in a great while when I’d watched some important news vid, or someone decided to play something that had been sent out to us turnips by the mail-car that came once a week on the supply train. I’d never thought I would leave the Monastery, and never wanted to.
A year ago, the Elite had been an untouchable legend to me, mysterious heroes I wasn’t entirely sure were real.
A year ago, I had never faced a Folk Mage on my own.
My Masters always told me that a lot can change in a year. Well, now I was in Apex, I was one of the Elite, and it didn’t look as if I was ever going to go home again. I didn’t even recognize the person I saw in the mirror anymore.
A mere two months ago I hadn’t been sure Apex was going to survive. I’d been even less sure that I was going to. Because two months ago, the Othersiders had hit us at the Prime Barrier around Apex with everything they had, and they very nearly ran over the top of us. It would have been the Diseray all over again, at least as far as the capital city had been concerned.
We’d won in the end, but the two Battles of the Barrier had nearly flattened the Elite. I still could scarcely believe we’d not only survived it but had driven them back.
Of course it would have been too much to ask that the Battles of the Barrier had finished the Othersiders. Far from it. We got a month of respite, and then they were at our throats again. Except now the Othersiders were concentrating on targets away from Apex: smaller cities, towns, even villages, but by chopper, all within a couple hours of Apex at most.
So far as the Cits of Apex were concerned, everything was back to normal. The Hunters and the Psimons had driven the monsters away, and there had never been the slightest danger that their safe and ordered lives were about to come crashing down around them.
If I thought about it at all, it would make me crazy. On the Mountain, we all lived our lives with a healthy sense of paranoia and self-preservation. Here…the Cits were oblivious.
Be that as it may, the army and the Elite were still getting hammered. Callouts every day and every night, never less than two in twenty-four hours, sometimes six, even eight on the horrible days. The Elite were split into a day and a night shift, twelve hours on, twelve off—except any of us could get called out even when we were asleep, if things were bad enough. No one had died—yet. But now I remembered fondly the days when I was “just” a Hunter of Apex and got a day off if I had two strenuous Hunts in a row. And the days when I’d been a Hunter on the Mountain—when we had all the resources of each other and the Masters at the Monastery—seemed a far-off dream.
Today the callout was a town fifteen minutes by chopper from the Prime Barrier, not even a fortified one. At this point, I didn’t even remember the names of the towns we were defending anymore. This was a grain-farming center, that much I knew. They’d had walls and heavy defenses at one point, but they must have figured they were safe, that the Elite could handle anything that got close to them, because those walls and defenses had been taken down years ago.
Anyone who’d been raised on the Mountain and in the communities we protected could have told them that removing defenses was a bad move. But there it was again; they were close enough to Apex that some of the complacency had bled over.
The army had gotten there before us; they were based on the west side of Apex, a lot closer to this spot than we were. I was in the last chopper the Elite sent out, riding solo. I’d been the last one in from the previous fight, and I’d literally jumped from a chopper running low on fuel to one waiting for me at HQ.
“Joy,” Kent said over my comm channel, as the new chopper slowed to let me drop off. “Some of the Othersiders have penetrated the town.”
I swore to myself; Kent continued. “We’re to the west. Most of the Othersiders are facing off with the army. There’s supposed to be three Folk Mages here.”
Of course. Since the Battles, we’d never seen Othersiders without at least one Folk Mage with them.
The chopper hovered, and I bailed, hitting the ground and rolling, then to my feet again. “I’m on the ground, east side of town, Kent,” I replied.
“Hammer and Steel were in the chopper before you. I sent them into town. You follow and hook up with them.”
“Roger,” I replied. I did the quick and dirty summons, bringing the Hounds over by opening the Way purely on magic energy, will, and the Mandalas on the backs of my hands. I’d been doing this so much lately that I didn’t even notice the Mandalas burning as I brought the Hounds over. I ran in on foot, with Hounds in front of me acting as scouts, Hounds behind me guarding our backs, and Bya and Myrrdhin right beside me. My original seven were in their Alebrije forms, appearing as weird animals with crazy patterns and colors, the better to be seen at a distance. Hold and Strike, ahead of me, were a pair of wolves, if wolves were made of shadow. They had been Karly’s before she was murdered. Myrrdhin and Gwalchmai, both dark-silver gargoyles with silver eyes, had been Ace’s before he betrayed us all by trying to murder me. I could speak telepathically with all of them except Hold and Strike, but the others would tell them what they needed to know.
We passed the wrecked grain silos, following the paved main road into town. Probably held several thousand people. About half the buildings were “old-style,” built defensively, solid blocks of ’crete with very narrow windows, if they had any windows at all. Unfortunately, the other half of the buildings were wooden and brick structures, and while I am sure they were pleasant to live in, they were…flammable. And dead easy to break into. I just hoped that the Cits here had had the sense to make for the old-style buildings when the attack came.
Because a lot of those other buildings were burning.
In moments, I was deep into the town, and by now the air was thick enough to cut. I could tell by the noise that the army was pounding away at the Othersiders outside the town limits. I was wearing my gas mask and goggles as protection against the smoke, or I wouldn’t have been able to see or breathe. And I was keyed up and alert, with a nice edge of fear. The Hunter that isn’t afraid is soon to be a dead Hunter, as my Masters said. The trick was making your fear into something you could use, rather than letting it use you.
The Hounds and I went in deeper and passed more buildings on fire—most likely the work of some sort of incendiary Othersiders like Ketzels. I kept Dusana with me and sent the others ranging along to either side, including Bya and Myrrdhin. As pack alphas and pack seconds, they would keep the others coordinated.
There was no sign of Cits, but there were drifts of that gray ash the Nagas—four-armed Othersiders that were snake on the bottom and something vaguely human on top—turned into when they were killed, with discarded swords in or near the ash. Hammer and Steel must have caught up with the Othersiders inside the town limits. Fortunately it looked as if the Nagas hadn’t gotten as far as breaking into houses to go after the people sheltered there. And clearly the guys hadn’t had as much trouble with the snake-men as I’d had when I’d first encountered them.
I stopped Dusana for a moment and tried contacting Kent. “Looks like the guys hit Nagas and cleared them out. They’re somewhere ahead of me.”
“Roger, carry on,” he replied. Static flooded the channel as a plume of magical energy erupted to the northeast, visible as a dense tower of sparkling glitter over the roofs of the buildings nearest me. “I know it looks bad, but I need your eyes and talents and, most of all, your pack right where you are. These bastards could be using their Folk Mages as a distraction from something else in town, and if they are, I want you there to deal with it.” He cursed, then continued. “Two of the Folk Mages are here—fancies, not ferals. The third disappeared just before we got here. Keep your head on a swivel looking for him. They’re using bale-fire.” I shuddered. Bale-fire was kind of like napalm and just as hard to put out. Just as he said that, I heard a distant shriek over his freq and more plumes of magic appeared over the rooftops. I hoped the team could get a handle on the situation.
The smoke was thicker, billowing down the street in dense gray clouds mingled with streaks of black. I tried not to think about people who were going to come out of hiding to find everything they owned had burned up. Hopefully they weren’t burned up. “Yes, sir,” I replied. “Out.”
We rounded the last corner and came out at one edge of an open space with a watchtower in the middle. It was really hard to see, but I thought I spotted two moving figures on the other side of the watchtower. I urged the Pack toward them. A sudden gust cleared the smoke between us; it was Hammer and Steel. Hammer was farther away from us, shooting at something on a rooftop with a shotgun loaded with slugs instead of shot. Steel was closer, and his Hounds were packed up with Hammer’s. I started to shout at him.
And that was when a flash of blue and copper suddenly appeared next to him.
Fear blazed up inside me. It was the third Folk Mage. This one didn’t have a staff; he just thrust out both his hands, and Steel flew across the road, hit the wall of a building, and slid down it. The Folk Mage raised one hand with a fireball in it. It flamed a hideous green. Bale-fire.
“Bya!” I screamed; I couldn’t pull up a spell fast enough to save him. Bya bamphed away from me, appearing beside Steel, and threw up his Shield, just as the Folk Mage hurled the fireball. It splattered against the Shield. The Folk Mage turned to face me. I expected him to be furious. It was a lot more unnerving to see that his face was absolutely expressionless.
I Shielded; my Hounds were already moving, rushing him. I saw a brief moment of surprise in his eyes, then he was gone. Not through a Portal; he bamphed. I had no idea the Folk could bamph. My Hounds plunged through the empty air where he had been.
I ran to Bya and Steel. Steel was just coming around; he raised his head and rubbed the back of it. I helped him sit up, and a moment later his brother was beside us. You are the best Hound ever, I thought at Bya. He lolled out his tongue and grinned smugly at me.
“Give me your flashlight,” Hammer said. I got it off my belt and slapped it into his outstretched hand. He half supported Steel with one hand while he flicked the flashlight at his brother’s eyes, then grunted in satisfaction. “I knew that hard head of yours would come in handy someday,” he said. “Breathe deep.” Steel did so. “Any stabbing pains?”
His brother shook his head slowly, then coughed. “Just got the wind knocked out of me,” he said. “Where in hell did that come from?”
“The third Folk Mage bamphed in next to you,” I said. “He knocked you across the square.”
“Damn smoke. I didn’t see anything,” Hammer muttered.
“It was awful fast and your back was to him,” I replied. “I wouldn’t have seen him if I hadn’t been looking right at you.”
Hammer reached out and patted Bya. “If it hadn’t been for this guy…”
Bya grinned even bigger. Which, in Alebrije form, was kind of unnerving. He has a lot of teeth. Tell him he’s welcome, Bya said into my head. And he owes me a Goblin at the least.
I repeated Bya’s message faithfully. Steel managed a laugh and slowly got to his feet, just in time for all three of our Perscoms to light up with a message from the armorer.
“Team HSJ, come in.”
“Roger, Kent,” Hammer said, speaking for all of us.
“We’re getting our asses kicked out here. We’re already down one army Mage. If you two think you’ve got the worst of it taken care of, leave Joy to clean out the small fry in town and you two rendezvous with me.”
They both looked at me. I nodded, and Hammer replied, “Roger that. On our way.”
Hammer hauled his brother to his feet; their Hounds packed up around them, and they lit out at a trot, disappearing into the smoke. I looked at my Hounds. “All right. Same groups as before, same tactics. Let’s go.”
We split up. I kept expecting more big surprises, but everything else we encountered was relatively small. Clots of Redcaps with their wicked two-foot-long knives, a single Ogre (which looked like a shrunken version of the two-eyed giant called a Magog and carried a big wooden club for a weapon). I finally found out what it was Hammer had been shooting at: Harpies. I really wished that Knight and his winged Hounds were with us; I couldn’t even see the Harpies, much less shoot at them.
I listened to them calling and screeching at each other up on the rooftops, veiled in smoke, and cursed. “I wish I was any good at casting illusions,” I said to Dusana. “I could make the image of something small and helpless out in the street and—”
You don’t need an illusion, Dusana interrupted.
Bya snorted. Of course you don’t, he concurred. Give me a moment.
I’d seen him change from Alebrije form to greyhound before, but as he shimmered and glowed for a moment, I didn’t know what to expect. When the glow faded, I was astonished to see a human toddler in Bya’s place.
Is this convincing enough? he said anxiously. I’ve never had the chance to practice this form.
I got over my surprise and looked him up and down critically. “It wouldn’t convince another human, but I think you’ll fool the Harpies,” I told him. The shape he had taken was a little crude; the face was blobby, the hair too coarse for a small child, and the limbs were too stubby. But the Harpies weren’t going to notice any of that. My astonishment was more that he could actually shape-shift into human form at all. It was one more thing my Hounds could do that I had never heard of anyone else’s doing.
As long as those stupid birdbrains are fooled, he replied with a snort. Then he waddled out into the middle of the street, plopped down in the dust, and started to cry.
Needless to say, he got the Harpies’ attention immediately.
I might not have been able to see them through the smoke, but I could certainly hear them. Not only were they noisy fliers, but they kept screaming at each other. Dusana and I pressed ourselves back into the shadow of a doorway and waited as Bya sobbed convincingly. His imitation of a child crying was really excellent. My heart was pounding, more with excitement than anything else. This took me right back to my days on the Mountain when I used to shoot down Harpies all the time.
The Harpies couldn’t resist Bya’s performance, and it wasn’t long before they swooped down into the street to nab him. There were three of them, practically colliding with one another in their eagerness to snatch up the tasty morsel.
That was when he turned the tables on them.
Quick as a shot, Bya morphed into Alebrije form, snatching the legs of two of them with tentacle-like arms and chomping down on the tail of the third. They screeched and flapped, beating him over the head with their wings. He probably couldn’t have held them for very long, but he didn’t have to; I got three shots off within a minute and nailed all of them. Unlike Minotaurs, they had no resistance to bullets. Dusana jumped into the street quickly enough to suck the manna off the last of them.
About that time, the other three sets of Hounds came back to us. We have not sniffed in every doorway and under every bush, Myrrdhin said for all of them, but we are certain there are no more enemies here to Hunt, unless someone opens a Portal.
Bya regarded his second-in-command thoughtfully. If they do that, they will do so in the middle of town, he said. I think that is what that Mage intended to do, and he was not expecting us to be there.
I licked my lips, aware of how dry they were. “That would account for why he didn’t just kill Steel on the spot,” I said. I got my canteen out of my pack, pulled off my gas mask, and took a long drink. “He was expecting the place to be clear of us, and he reacted without thinking.” I quickly put the mask back on; just the whiff of smoke I got while I was drinking was enough to make me cough.
Then we should go back to the middle of town and hide, Bya said, nodding. Just in case.
We made our way back to that watchtower and found doorways and overhangs to give ourselves some concealment. I crouched down behind a ’crete barrier intended to keep something from running straight at the door behind me and breaking it down. We did things like that all the time back home. Of course, it wouldn’t stop a Gog, but then, there wasn’t a lot that would.
I was about to feel guilty about being able to sit there and rest, when Gwalchmai alerted and a wave of Nagas poured through the streets straight toward us. It got…very busy.
By the time we were done with them, I was soaking wet with sweat, and the only thing keeping me standing was the wall at my back.
“Kent to Joy.”
“Joy, copy,” I replied. “We’re clear here for the moment.”
“Good. If you can still stand, and the town is still clear, we need you out here.”
“Roger that,” I said, finding another reserve of energy and pushing myself off the wall. Too bad the Hounds couldn’t feed me physical strength along with the magic they fed me.
Then again, I should be counting my blessings that we’d discovered the Hounds could feed their Hunters magic. Without that boost, we’d have gone under months ago, at the second Barrier fight.
We made our way to the side of town where the fight was still raging. Twisty, maze-like streets such as these were another defense; only Nagas could “charge” through the sharp bends every twenty feet or so. But the narrow streets had trapped the smoke, which was coming from somewhere behind us now. I wondered if something had set the grain elevators on fire. If the Othersiders had settled on a war of attrition with us, taking out some of our food supplies would be a logical thing to do.
Between the streets and the smoke, I couldn’t tell that we’d come to the edge of town until we were just past it. Suddenly a gust of wind blew the smoke away and I found myself looking at the back of another Folk Mage.
There weren’t three Folk Mages, there were four! And not just any Folk Mage—this one was floating about three feet in the air, encased in his Shield bubble, a Shield so damn good and tight that it was keeping the smoke out while still letting him breathe. This was one of their big guns, someone with as much power as any three ordinary Folk Mages put together.
But this wasn’t “my” Folk Mage, the one that had taken an inexplicable interest in me, although his outfit was just as elaborate as the one in lavender wore. His blond hair was shorter than the lavender one’s hair—it barely came below his shoulder blades, and it was fastened into several tails by gold bands. From the back it looked to me as if he was wearing a combination of fanciful armor and ankle-length robes of various shades of gold. The armor was engraved with elaborate designs and inlaid with gemstones. The robes were heavily embroidered with gold bullion and gemstone beads.
My nerves rang with fear, like guitar strings, and my Hounds suddenly clustered themselves around me, adding their Shields to mine. Then he turned.
Like “my” Mage, he was so handsome he was somehow…too attractive. In the uncanny valley where inhuman perfection lives. But his gold eyes lit up with an expression I did not like at all, and his smile mirrored what was in his eyes.
“Well, well, well,” he said in a voice like icy velvet, if such a thing were possible. “The famous shepherd. Save your sheep, shepherd—if you can.”
And before I could react to that, he conjured a Portal, stepped through it, and was gone.
Great, was all I could think, as I reeled from the shock of being recognized. I’m famous among the Folk. This can’t possibly end well.
IT APPEARED I HAD disturbed the mind behind the battlefield strategy, because when I looked out over the battlefield from my vantage at the edge of town, it was obvious things fell apart at the moment he vanished. Portals popped up all over the place. The Othersiders who could retreat were doing so, leaving the rest behind to be slaughtered. By the time I joined up with the rest of the team, their Hounds were harrying the last reluctant Nagas through the final open Portal.
The Hunters were all moving slowly, unlike their Hounds, who were romping about like puppies. I envied the Hounds. I suspect all of us did.
I wasn’t moving very fast myself; once I got over the jolt of adrenaline caused by coming face-to-face with another top-rank Folk Mage, I felt as limp as an old, wrung-out dishrag. But I counted heads and came up with the same number we’d arrived with. Any landing you can walk away from, I guess. Or any battle.
The team was slowly gathering around Kent, while two of the army Mages led several squads of soldiers into the town to make sure the Hounds and I hadn’t missed anything, give the Cits the all clear, and evacuate the injured. “…they’re going to demand walls,” Kent was saying to Archer, as I got within earshot.
Archer rolled his eyes. “They pulled down their walls six years ago,” he pointed out. “It’s their own damn fault that they don’t have any now!”
Kent just shrugged and looked around for something to sit on, as his four Hounds plopped themselves casually down around him, looking sleek and satisfied. “Any objections to waiting for transport while the army gets themselves out of here?” he asked in general.
“They have wounded, we d. . .
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