Home > Spring (Evermore Academy #2)(16)

Spring (Evermore Academy #2)(16)
Author: Audrey Grey

“Welcome to the Evermore Academy Selection ceremony,” the Master of Ceremonies drones. “This time-honored tradition spans centuries and features mortals from the finest stock. Each one hails from the wealthiest, most powerful echelons of human society. And each match benefits not only the Evermore they’re paired with to protect, but your court as well. With the right shadow, you gain access to their invaluable connections in the mortal world.”

I fight the urge to duck as a few shadows cut their eyes at me, snickering beneath their breath. They know what I know: My connections include a barren farm in the Tainted Zone, a group of orphans, and two stubborn, tough-as-nails aunts.

Not exactly invaluable, unless one needs to know how to make the perfect pitcher of sweet tea or sew a hem.

Don’t worry about that. You’re Valerian’s shadow. This is all for show.

A low thrum of applause stirs the courtyard as Cronus beckons Hellebore to the stage.

The Spring Court Prince seems to grow taller with every step he takes toward the microphone. If he were mortal, he’d undoubtedly be a politician or an actor. He feeds off the adoration of the crowd. Devouring it in greedy gulps.

“At Whitehall Academy,” he begins, “the Selection ceremony is one of our proudest traditions. It’s also one of the most dangerous. We believe that to properly claim something, the prize must be won with violence and power.”

My stomach hollows out as his words take hold, each one burrowing deep inside my chest and triggering alarm bells.

Violence and power.

The bloody Nocturus battle between Valerian and Rhaegar comes to mind. When I thought Rhaegar was going to kill Valerian—

I drag in a calming breath, but it does little to ease my growing fear. I can’t go through that again. What if Valerian is hurt? What if whoever knows his true name is here?

The Winter Prince would be powerless.

“And what better way to test those powers than hold a Wild Hunt?” Hellebore continues, his smug gaze lingering on me. “I know that’s what your academy called the final trial you all passed last year, but the true, ancient Wild Hunt of our ancestors is very different.”

He lifts something up. Wrapped in purple velvet, the item is roughly the size of a basketball. Gasps slip from the crowd as he removes the cover.

It takes a moment to realize the smooth, spiraling item is a horn. My body reacts viscerally, every muscle tensing as one word echoes through my skull.

Run.

“When I blow this horn, the hunt begins. The hellhounds will rise from the depths of the Fae underworld, as they’ve done since the beginning of time, and stalk any mortal not wearing this mark.”

He summons one of the mortal attendants serving inside the pavilion. She doesn’t even blink as he drags down the neckline of her blouse to reveal the strange symbol scrawled across her chest in . . . blood.

A jolt of panic constricts my vision.

Valerian’s head whips in my direction. He mouths, I’ll find you.

I give a brief nod, trying to look brave. But I know he can hear the heartbeat roaring in my ears, can probably feel the blood rush making my limbs feel heavy and my head spin.

Everything’s happening too fast.

The tinkle of delicate metal clinking fills the courtyard. I claw to the surface of my panic just in time to make out the golden chains being passed around to the Evermore students.

Mother-freaking chains.

“The rules are simple.” Hellebore holds up his chain to show off the two thick circlets of metal on either end, one small enough to fit a wrist, the other just large enough to go around a neck. “Once you have a shadow chained into submission, they are yours. Finders keepers.”

“And the hounds?” someone questions from the Summer Court tent to my left.

Drugged nearly stupid by the cocktail of panic and fear poisoning my blood, I nearly don’t recognize the Fae female speaking. Nearly—until the picture Valerian gifted me breaks through my desperate haze.

The Summer Queen . . . and my mother. Sort of. Not that I feel even a sliver of emotion looking at this regal Fae Queen.

Hellebore glances over at her in a way that makes me instantly think they would be enemies, if not for the alliance between Spring and Summer. “The hounds are ravenous, Queen Larkspur. By the ancient law of the hunt, they are allowed three mortals.”

The wave of panic I’ve been drowning under lets up as another emotion takes over: fury. Once again, the Fae are proving just how dangerous they are to our world, our survival.

I glance over at the new shadow recruits in the middle. They look horrified, a few crying quietly.

Screw this. Shoving past the others, I step out from our group and lock eyes with Hellebore. Ruby hisses in my ear and tries to yank me back into the crowd, but I ignore her. “This is bullshit and you know it.”

I swear the Fae-hole grins, as if this whole thing was a game to get me to react. “Excuse me?”

Ruby has resorted to pinching the back of my neck and cursing. Valerian and Eclipsa are glaring at me, both trying to force me to stay quiet, but right now, I’m so pissed, I despise them just for being a part of this deranged system. “No, you’re not excused. We’re not here for your entertainment. We’re human beings with families and hopes and dreams . . .”

Silence. Frick. As if they care about any of that. I suddenly see myself through their eyes. Hands on my hips, dress barely covering my ass. My sprite attacking the back of my head like it wronged her in another life.

I thought it was quiet before, but when the Spring Queen rises from her throne, even the insects stop chirping. Her hair is the same delicate pale rose color of the castle, elaborately braided and pinned atop her head. Bile warms the back of my throat as I spot the live butterflies impaled on the pins.

“Who sponsored this mortal’s enrollment?” The Spring Queen’s voice is lazy and soft, like a sluggish breeze, but something about it makes my skin crawl.

I’m screwed. I learned from Mack that all mortals who apply to Evermore Academy have to have one Evermore sponsor. Nick’s old keeper, a Summer Evermore high in the Summer Queen’s inner circle, sponsored Mack.

But I have none of that.

Murmurs and gasps break the stillness, including my own, as the Summer Queen calls out, “I did.”

Why is she protecting me?

Hellebores chuckles, obviously enjoying this. “Sponsoring insolent shadows and questioning our customs? Careful, Queen Larkspur, or one might think you’ve gone soft toward mortals.”

“Soft? Questioning the deaths of mortals when our very survival may rest upon peace between our worlds isn’t soft, it’s clever. You should try it sometime.”

I might not recognize the bond I shared with my Fae mother, but damn if I don’t feel some sort of kinsmanship already.

My dead-beat Fae dad, on the other hand, has a lot to live up to. The Summer King’s mouth tightens as he glances over at his wife, not bothering to hide his annoyance.

Hellebore grins. “True, most mortals flinch from our rules, yet still, the greedy amongst them willingly give us their children and strike bargains with us, all for the sake of power. I would suggest our kind and theirs are more similar than they’d like to admit.”

Liar. If Mack’s dads knew how dangerous the academy was, they would have found a way to buy out her contract.

“Still,” the Summer Queen stubbornly argues, gaining my immediate respect. “Forcing the shadows of the academy to endure the primal savagery of the Wild Hunt seems rather . . . cruel, even for Faerie. The hunt will drive every Evermore student to their primal state. Many will be crazed by the excitement of the hunt and the dark magic conjured. I fear, beyond what the hounds inflict, more shadows will be injured.”

“The shadows of Evermore Academy have been allowed to forget what we truly are. They’re too comfortable around us, too”—the mofo’s gaze slides to mine—“insolent. This little lesson will be a lasting reminder. But, so that you can’t say the Spring Court isn’t clever, the hounds may only take one mortal. Satisfied?”

The Summer Queen nods.

My gut clenches as Hellebore raises the horn. All the shadows quietly look around, wondering which one of us the hounds will take.

My lips wrench back in a snarl that’s every bit Fae. If they try to hurt Mack, I’ll rip their throats out.

I steal one last look with Valerian. Something dark and predatory glints in his eyes, making him almost unrecognizable. That raw, animalistic savagery pours from every single Evermore, the alarming prickle of danger permeating the air.

Some have already begun to shift. Wings of every kind beat the night. White fangs glisten in place of normal teeth, voices become the snarl of beasts, and footsteps become claws scraping against stone.

The feline glow of nocturnal eyes blink around the courtyard.

“Don’t look at them,” Ruby hisses into my ear. “They’re not your friends right now. When that mofo blows that horn, you run. And you don’t stop running until I tell you it’s safe.”

Oh, hell. As if on cue, Hellebore presses the magical horn to his lips just as the last golden rays of sunlight begin to fade. The haunting wail of the horn blasts across the lush grounds.

The ancient song worms deep into my core, eliciting a mindless, instinctual terror.

Birds startle from the woods in the distance, the noisy swarm darkening the face of the rising moon as they take to the night sky. Heavy mist seeps from the velvety lawn like a thousand angry ghosts awakened from their graves.

My head whips to the sound of baying, the frenzied call of the hellhounds seeming to come from every direction.

Crap. My back and chest are suddenly damp, coated with sweat. Sweat. Aren’t hounds attracted to smell? Did my stupid tendency to perspire when I’m nervous just mark me as the sacrifice?

I work to calm my mind, but it has the opposite effect. The chaotic din of my hammering pulse and wheezing breaths drowns out the world, my own personal soundtrack of horror—because being hunted by hellhounds and chained by frenzied Fae wasn’t fricking terrifying enough.

Hot Series
Most Popular
» Cursed Mate (Shadow Guild: The Rebel #5)
» Devilish Game (Shadow Guild: The Rebel #4)
» Dark Secrets (Shadow Guild: The Rebel #3)
» Wicked Deal (Shadow Guild: The Rebel #2)
» Once Bitten (Shadow Guild: The Rebel #1)
» Storm Forged (Death Before Dragons #6)
» False Security (Death Before Dragons #5)
» Elven Doom (Death Before Dragons #4)
» Tangled Truths (Death Before Dragons #3)
» Battle Bond (Death Before Dragons #2)
» Sinister Magic (Death Before Dragons #1)
» How to Rattle an Undead Couple (The Beginne