Authors: Lee French
Spirit Knights book 3
by Lee French
As usual, many people are responsible for this book. Two different Joshes contributed a great deal to this particular volume. One, the best editor I’ve ever worked with, is entirely aware of his role. The other, a good friend and gaming buddy, has no idea.
A special thank you to the staff and students at Capital High School and Marshall Middle School for being excellent and welcoming.
Yes, there will be a fourth installment in this series. Claire’s story is nowhere near complete.
Table of Contents
Claire opened her eyes in a dark little room. Leaving the realm of the Heart of the Palace and founder of the Spirit Knights, a millennia-old dead guy named Caius, meant she could finally go to bed after the longest day ever. Her bedroom at home awaited her, she only had to get there.
She patted her chest where Caius had just fused her locket with her flesh, finding it tender but not painful. Once upon a time, her late father had crafted the locket to save her life, and now it connected her to the magical realm of the Spirit Knights, a fact some of her fellow Knights—all men—couldn’t handle.
“Time to sleep,” Enion chirped. The small silver dragon lay draped around her neck, his forelimbs wrapped around his tail so he resembled an oversized necklace.
“Yeah.” Standing, Claire yawned and stretched her arms. She touched the wall in front of her and willed it to open. The stone obeyed her, folding outward to create an archway tall and wide enough for a linebacker. Bright light poured in from the Thoroughfare, a corridor designed to connect everything in the Palace, the magical realm of the Spirit Knights.
“She’s back,” a man announced.
Someone grabbed her and hauled her out of the tiny room. He and another man, both Knights she hadn’t met yet, secured her arms before she had a chance to struggle.
“Let go,” Claire snarled. She struggled to free herself without success. Each broad-shouldered man outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds, all of it muscle. Her combat boots couldn’t find any purchase on the smooth stone of the thoroughfare to slow them down.
Though she didn’t know either of their names, she did know the wizened, little old man they hauled her in front of. Elder Yun, the oldest living Spirit Knight, had wrinkles on his spotted wrinkles and filmy eyes hidden beneath sparse, white eyebrows. His walking stick seemed intended to prevent him from shriveling up and blowing away if anyone sneezed at him.
Behind him, Djembe stood tall and proud with his arms crossed. His sneer dared Claire to do or say anything to give him an excuse to pummel her.
“After you tossed me aside earlier, effectively demonstrating a lack of judgment and respect, we’ve decided you need to be tested,” Elder Yun wheezed.
“Tested? For what? I just talked to the Heart!” Granted, she’d just told him to go to hell, but he’d accepted her and declared her a true Knight.
“Quiet,” Djembe growled.
Though she had better things to pay attention to, Claire noticed Djembe’s head twitched. She ignored that and stomped her boot against the Knight on her right, trying to hit his instep. He blocked it while wrenching her arm. One more little jerk and he’d break it. Claire squealed and raised onto her toes to relieve pressure. Though she’d heal in the Palace, a place apart from Earth and suffused with magic, the injury itself would hurt. The tiny dragon draped around her neck stayed still and quiet.
“For being instrumental in causing the death of a fellow Knight and for suspicion of carrying the taint of witchery, you will face an Ordeal.” Elder Yun shuffled aside and pointed at a dark doorway Claire hadn’t faced before. Light and color faded in front of it. The edges writhed with black, grasping tendrils.
Going through something bad enough to be named “Ordeal” sounded like the last thing Claire wanted to deal with today. Yesterday, a spirit possessed her best friend, a corrupted Phasm tainted her mentor, and they all tried to kill her. Her mentor even managed to succeed for a few seconds this morning. She’d been awake for far too long, and if Caius’s opinion didn’t grant her some indulgence, she had no idea what could.
Even though it might help her case with these jerks, she had no intention of telling them Justin had been tainted for a day. Once she’d freed him by killing that Phasm, he once again became deserving of all the dignity she could offer him. Besides, he’d adopted her. She couldn’t tattle on her new dad.
Scrambling for any reason to get these guys to slow down or be talked out of this, she came up blank. While adrenaline had covered up her bone-deep weariness, it did nothing for her ability to think. She did, however, realize what day it was. Marie would be preparing for Claire’s first family holiday meal since her parents died six years ago, and Claire ought to be helping.
“It’s Thanksgiving. Can’t this wait until after?”
“Americans,” Djembe spat. The Ethiopian Knight snared a fistful of her black hair and forced her to look at him. “No, it can’t wait for you to find a way to squirm out of your responsibilities.” With the help of the other two Knights, he threw her at the gaping maw of darkness.
The tendrils wrapped around her limbs and dragged her in. Spinning and tumbling, she fell in pitch black for what seemed like a long time. With nothing to see or hold, her stomach churned and she feared they’d lied about this being a test. Only Enion’s warm presence around her neck kept her certain she hadn’t survived yesterday to be killed outright today by a bunch of dumb jerks.
Finally, she hit the ground and cried out with sharp pain in her arm. She rolled onto her back and cradled her left arm to her chest. Dry, grainy dirt puffed into the air, making her cough and stinging her eyes. Weird greenish light came from everywhere and nowhere, somehow casting flickering shadows in every direction. Enion stood protectively over her, expanded to his full, fifteen-foot high size as always happened in the Palace’s metaphysical environments.
“What is this place?” The pain in Claire’s arm lessened with every moment as her bond with Enion healed it. She patted Enion to make him move so she could see their surrounding without getting up yet. They’d landed in an arched passage with a dirt floor. The stones of the walls seemed old and weathered, unlike the smooth ones in the main Palace. She picked up a handful of dirt and let it stream out of her hand, finding it cold and dead.
“Creepy,” Enion said, his deep voice echoing off the peaked ceiling.
“Yeah. We’re definitely not in Portland anymore. Or the Palace.” Using Enion for support, Claire clambered to her feet. Her arm already felt normal again. “Those jerks. If they’d just let me explain, but no, of course not. Why do all the Knights have to be such bastards? The whole Palace is full of them. Maybe,” she grumbled, “all those corrupted Phasms have a point that it should be destroyed.”
Enion rumbled his agreement. “‘Ordeal’ sounds bad.”
“No kidding.” Claire sighed heavily and dusted the gray dirt off her green, flexible body armor that fit like a wet suit. She checked her dragontooth dagger and found it still safely tucked into the sheath hanging from her black leather belt. “I just want to go home. Where I can sit with Drew and have some turkey and cranberry sauce.”
“Yuck.” Enion bared his teeth in a grimace. “Turkey sounds gross.”
“Weirdo.” She patted his neck and smirked. “C’mon. The Ordeal probably isn’t going to come to us. With how the Knights are, it’ll have to be hunted down and dragged out, kicking and screaming. Because that would be the bull-headed jerk way to set this up.”
Claire’s combat boots sent up puffs of dust with every step. They followed the left-leaning curve of the corridor, peering around every pillar to find nothing but more aged stone blocks. After forever and a half of this, Claire stopped.
“Okay. We have to think. We have to have gone around in a circle already, which means this is probably a lot like the Thoroughfare. That means we have to pick a destination and want to find it. What do you think we’re looking for? Because just focusing on ‘Ordeal’ isn’t getting us there. Knowing the Heart of the Palace like we do, finding the test is probably the first step to passing the stupid thing.”
The dragon shrugged. “Don’t know anything about the Ordeal.”
“But we know what the Knights care about.”
Enion raised a claw in a stern salute. “Courage, strength of will, tenacity.”
“Right. It’s definitely nothing to do with being smart.” Claire knocked on the stone. It felt and sounded like solid rock. “If I were Justin…” She imagined her mentor in the traditional superhero stance, with his cloak billowing in a dramatic breeze. The image made her grin. Justin would approach this straightforward, using the most obvious tool at hand in the most obvious way imaginable.
“He’d charge the wall and stab it.” On first blush, the idea made her laugh. In reality, Justin would probably walk around for a while, just like she did. He always tried to think things through, he just seemed to get impatient and charge into action. Of course, him being a man of action had saved her life more than once already.
Enion rapped on the wall with a knuckle, producing a thick, solid thump. He spread his foreclaw over a single one-foot square stone and shoved. The block rattled against its neighbors without budging. “Pointless?”
“Maybe.” Claire drew her foot-long dagger and tapped on a different block. Brute force might not work, but Caius made the blade, and he’d enchanted it so it affected ghosts. A test designed by him and his Knights would probably rely on having one. “But he’s been a Knight for six years. I’ve been one for a few weeks. His plan is probably more how Knights think than anything I’d come up with.”
Claire sucked in a deep breath and launched herself at the opposite wall. When she hit, she aimed for the crack between two stones and used her momentum to slam her dagger into it. Although she missed the seam, her blade blew several stones back, creating a hole into another greenish, arched corridor. She shoved more stones through to get a better look at the second hallway. “Good news is nothing bad happened. Bad new is it’s exactly the same. Does that mean this was the wrong choice, or is it like my first time meeting the Heart, where I just had to keep trying?”
Enion shrugged and shook his head. “Tenacity?”
“Maybe. I guess giving up would be the opposite of that. Let’s use dragon power instead, because that kind of hurt my shoulder.” She climbed onto Enion’s back, sitting at the base of his long neck and in front of his wings. He had no frills, spines, or horns on his smooth silver neck to hold onto, making her uneasy about this. On the other hand, they’d flown over Portland last night and she never once felt like she’d fall from three hundred feet up.
“Okay, noble steed, let’s smash some walls.”
Enion turned his head and bared his teeth in a feral grin. “Forward?”
Claire chuckled at him. “Just keep going until something changes.”
He muscled his way through the hole, knocking stones aside. Claire looked up and noticed the stones above the hole, the ones she hadn’t touched or otherwise jarred, remained in place despite the obvious lack of mortar holding them together. Enion backed up then sprang into a bounding sprint, distracting her from the oddity. They smashed through the next wall. Then another.
Through the fifth wall, Claire found a vast room instead of a corridor. The ceiling rose in a dome at least a dozen feet higher than Enion’s head. In the center, at least sixty feet away, a tall, broad-shouldered man wearing green-tinted armor stood in a convenient shadow obscuring only his face. Claire recognized the chain shirt, pauldrons, jeans, work boots, and emerald cloak anyway.
His presence made no sense. She squinted, wondering if a Knight interrupted his Thanksgiving to send him here. That would be stupider than tossing her into this dumb test in the first place. Obviously, he could fight better than her. “Justin?”