Chapters 1 and 2
The basketball court was a million miles away from the Asters’ recent near-fatal mission in the North American Underworld. Nathan flew through the air as he landed the dunk. His team cheered as he dropped to the ground.
“Good one, Nate!” Finn shouted from across the concrete court. Nathan grinned as he jogged backwards into a defensive position. It didn’t take long for his team to regain the ball again, and not much longer for Nathan to have it in his possession. He was already moving towards the basket, knowing he could pull off an amazing single play if he wanted to. But instead, he drew two players towards him, just to give Finn the opportunity to land a three-pointer without anybody near him. He didn’t cheer the way the rest of the team did when Finn scored the basket. All he did was smile and give his friend a high-five when they passed each other to get back into position.
Nathan loved the simplicity of playing a sport with friends. Being fierce and active and without any lives depending on the choices made. Going down a few points was the only consequence here, and Nathan was glad of how it turned his brain off. How, for a moment, he wasn’t reminded of the horrors he and his fellow Asters had survived only four weeks earlier.
Wiping the sweat off his forehead, the skin underneath the sweatband around his wrist tingled. It did that every now and again; the black, swirling lines that formed a tattooed bracelet on his skin prickling. As if the representation of Nathan’s magic of Flora was willing him to use his powers.
Up until a month ago, Nathan had never had that sensation before. Like his magic was building up inside of him, needing to be let out every once in a while. He’d drain it when he could; when no humans were around to see him use his magic. That was why he was wearing the sweatband over his Band now. He couldn’t risk it glowing and having the humans around him on the basketball court ask questions about a seemingly ordinary tattoo that suddenly lit up and glowed a bright green colour.
Not that it would glow as long as Nathan didn’t actively use his powers. Still, he didn’t want questions about his Band at all. Nathan preferred to avoid the conversation completely, so he didn’t have to come up with a lie about his ‘tattoo’ for those who took an interest in it.
Only Finn and Charlie knew of the true significance of it. They were the only other people on the court who weren’t entirely human. Or rather, they were more than just human. They weren’t Asters like Nathan; only he and four others actually wielded magic. Nathan was one of only five Asters in the world. Finn and Charlie were Affinites, humans with an affinity for a specific skill that forewent talent and training.
It was up to the Asters and Affinites to keep the humans of the world safe from the Dark Kings that ruled the seven territories of the Underworld, right underneath their feet.
Though, Nathan hoped that he wouldn’t have to deal with any of them any time soon. The Asters had a close encounter with the North American King only a month ago. A too close encounter. Sky and Sophie had been locked up, about to be killed as a show of power, and Lian would have died if Nathan hadn’t managed to save him in the nick of time. Despite that, the Asters had succeeded in their mission; King Mitrik had retreated into the depths of the North American Underworld, and his Disciple army had fled his capital. That King wasn’t expected to come out and make another play for greater power or to conquer the Surface of the earth any time soon.
Nathan gritted his teeth as he thought back to that mission. He eyed the opponent in front of him, who was bouncing the ball slowly, teasing him, baiting him. Nathan flexed his fingers. The boy made his move. He faked a right and dribbled towards the basket. He was about to go in for the shot when Nathan made his defensive move.
The boy shouted, caught off balance by Nathan’s too-brash action. Foul, the boy claimed. Two free throws for them. Nathan wasn’t going to fight him on it. The boy was right.
He scored only one of the two chances he got, and the play went on. Nathan shook himself mentally. It was no use getting worked up by the memories of his last mission. It was definitely not useful to out those frustrations during a simple, friendly basketball match in the park.
Nathan found himself getting lost in the game again, enjoying the waves of attack and defence, the plays they did, the baskets they scored. By the end of it, he’d completely lost track of the score, and found that he didn’t care.
It wasn’t often that he was just one of the guys, and could play without worrying about anything. It also wasn’t often that he was without his Aster family. Most of the time they were all together on Saluverus, the Aster and Affinite home island in the Norwegian Sea in Europe. And they’d be training almost every day. They needed to be fit and sharp for when they were sent out on missions. Some of which were planned, and some were emergencies. They always needed to be ready. It rarely ever happened that the Asters were told they could go home for longer than a weekend.
After defeating Mitrik, the Small Council didn’t think another King or their Disciples would attempt to challenge them any time soon. So, the Asters had been given holiday time. Nathan had gone back home, and was glad to spend his free time with his mother and with his friends from the San Francisco Affinite Academy. He knew his Aster siblings had done the same. The Asters would only be called back to the island if a King seemed to be stirring up trouble. None of them knew how long it would be before that would happen, but they were counting on a few months of off-duty freedom at least.
Nathan thought about Sophie. He missed her already. He missed her bright smile and her thunderstorm grey eyes. But mostly, he missed her sharp tongue, always ready to put any of her fellow Asters in their place when they deserved it. Nathan couldn’t wait to see her again. He hoped she was having a good time back in London. He hated the idea that a good time also meant her having fun with Jacob, her Affinite boyfriend. Nathan shut out that thought immediately.
“Time!” Finn called, looking at his watch.
Nathan relaxed his shoulders and walked across to the other team, clasping their hands and thanking them for the game. When he reached the boy he’d fouled clumsily, he said, “You good?”
The boy shrugged and grinned, “Ain’t nothing.”
“All right,” Nathan replied with a nod.
The boy pointed at him. “Same time Saturday?”
Finn came up and threw his arm around Nathan’s shoulder. “Want to get your arses whooped again?”
“No chance. We’re coming for you.”
“I’d like to see that,” Finn said.
“See you then,” the boy replied. He turned around and walked back to the rest of his team.
“Let’s go,” Finn said. Nathan followed him to one of the benches that stood on the side of the concrete court. Charlie was already there, reaching into his bag for a different shirt. Finn and Nathan sat down beside him. Nathan grabbed a towel from his bag to wipe the sweat off of his face.
The other members of the team were a few feet away. The small forward of their team called Jeremy said, “Saturday?”
“You got it,” Finn replied.
Jeremy and the other members of the team gathered their bags and left the court. Nathan pulled a clean shirt from his bag and switched it with the one he was wearing. Even though it was mid-February, and quite chilly, it was soaked with sweat. It had been a beautiful day to get outside. The wind had dropped and the sky had been an immaculate, crystal blue. It had been cold in the beginning, but it didn’t take long before the sweat had been running down Nathan’s face. Even now, with just a t-shirt on, Nathan didn’t feel the end-of-winter chill in the air. And he’d needed the cold bottled water Finn offered him.
“Thanks,” he said.
“Been a while since we’ve had you off-duty long enough to do this,” Finn said.
“I’m here now,” Nathan offered. He knew that didn’t mean much. When he wasn’t on duty, he was still expected to be on Saluverus. Missions could come up out of nowhere. Nathan always tried to get the boys to come to the court when he was home, but his visits were often last-minute. He couldn’t expect them to always be available when he happened to be back.
“How are things at the Academy?” he asked.
“Same old,” Finn said. “Got in a few young recruits hungry to get training a few months ago. Can’t remember the last time I was so excited to pick up a sword.”
Nathan frowned. “You love training.”
Finn shrugged. “Love it more if I got a chance to use it.”
“You do realise using it means an all-out war, right?” Charlie said. “When Asters like my man here—” Charlie slapped Nathan on the shoulder, “—can’t stop a King’s uprising themselves.”
Finn offered them a crooked smile. “I’m not wishing for a war, you know.”
“Kind of sounds like you are,” Charlie countered.
“Hey, if the world is all good and safe, you don’t hear me complaining.”
“You literally just complained.”
“Look, just a bit of fuss from Disciples wanting to expand their farmlands is all I’m asking. You don’t need Asters to fix that mess.”
“The fact that that hasn’t happened in a while is also a good thing.”
“Yeah, yeah, I know.”
Nathan smiled at the boys’ talking. He wasn’t one to quickly take part in the to-and-froing that they were doing. In these situations, he was the quiet one. He enjoyed the company; just didn’t take part as vocally as others did. Not that he minded. And not that his friends minded either. It’s what made them good friends.
Finn’s father ran the San Francisco Academy for Affinites. All Affinites across the world were expected to have basic combat training for if a war broke out with one of the seven Kings. Finn was one of the best soldiers in the Academy, his affinity for awareness extremely useful for detecting and sensing attacks coming from the angles he couldn’t see. Being six foot two and athletic with a broad chest and shoulders, Finn had a similar build to Nathan.
Charlie was a different kind of Affinite soldier. He was shorter, and skinnier. But he was fast. His affinity had something to do with his reflexes. He could read an intention and a fake in combat better than almost anyone Nathan knew. Only Sophie was better, but her Aster magic of Health and Knowledge helped her. Charlie’s quick reactions made him extremely skilled in combat, and on a basketball court.
Both Charlie and Finn had been invited to move to Saluverus and train with the other especially skilled Affinite soldiers. Both had refused; Finn wanting to help his father with the Academy, and Charlie not wanting to leave without his best friend.
Taking a sip of his water, Nathan closed his eyes. He enjoyed the sun on his face, however weak its warmth actually was. He listened to the sound of the humans in the park around them. In the distance he could hear the ducks quacking in the pond, the splashing of water as they all raced to that one spot where a few children were throwing pieces of bread for them to eat. He could hear the chatter of people leading their normal lives. For a Thursday afternoon, it was quite busy. As if everyone had taken the afternoon off to enjoy this rare, beautiful late-winter day. Somewhere behind him people were laughing, and there was the sound of running feet hitting the ground as a group of runners sped past.
It had been a long time since his mind felt so clear. In the serenity, his magic also seemed to have quieted down. There was no longer the feeling of it rushing through his blood, willing him to use it. His wrist wasn’t prickling either. For a few blissful moments, Nathan felt completely at peace.
“How’s your brother?” Finn asked.
Nathan opened his eyes. He didn’t need to ask which of his three brothers Finn meant. Only one had lost his father a few weeks ago. “Matu’s all right, considering, well, you know.”
Finn nodded slowly.
“He’s sad,” Nathan added. “It shouldn’t have happened.”
“I never thought a Ceder of Strength could be killed,” Finn said. “I mean strength is right there in the name. You can’t just kill someone like that.”
Asters became Ceders once the next Aster of their magic turned sixteen, and they became the active generation. Asters only ever had one child, their magic passing on through their blood. Nathan’s mother had been an Aster, which now made her the Ceder of Flora. There were instances where Asters didn’t have children, though, or died before having them. Sophie’s mothers could have had a child biologically but chose not to. Sophie was adopted, and a Transfer spell had been used to pass her Aster mother’s magic of Health and Knowledge on to her. That spell could only be used once without Katherine Griffiths losing her magic herself. With that spell, child or no child, the Aster magic would always live on, and would always stay strong.
“He was poisoned,” Nathan revealed. It wasn’t common knowledge. It wasn’t a secret that Diallo Madaki had been killed by Disciples in the Amazon Rainforest mere hours before he was to return to Saluverus with the other Affinites there with him. But the means had not been made public.
“Disciples poison now? I didn’t think they were so sophisticated,” Charlie said. “I might have to put more effort into my biology lessons.”
Nathan shook his head. “It wasn’t the Disciples. He had a snake bite. It paralysed him when they attacked the camp. It was pure bad luck.”
Charlie exhaled loudly. “How does that even happen?”
The three of them were silent for a while. Nathan thought back to when the Asters had been told about Diallo’s death. They’d only just returned from North America, after successfully pushing back an uprising and having King Mitrik retreat into the depths of his Underworld territory. They’d just finished the analysis of the mission with the Small Council when Matu’s mother was brought in. She’d already been told, but she wanted to be there when Matu heard the news.
Nathan closed his eyes. Matu was his oldest brother—Aster brother, by magic. He was the best of all of them; a leader, rational, protective and controlled. He was a brick wall that no one could break. At least, until then. The sadness and anger in his brother in the days after they’d heard the news were something Nathan had never seen in him before. Most of the time, Matu was still the man he always was. But he could lose that grip on his emotions now. That complete control he had, had been diminished. Emotions could get the better of him now.
Nathan knew no one could shut off their emotions the way he himself could. On every mission, Nathan could feel an icy wall descend around him, and everything that made him himself – his quiet, kind self – would fade into the background. Only an Aster warrior remained.
Matu wasn’t like that, but he could push everything that made a situation personal to the side. Even when the Kenyan family he was closest to had been kidnapped in the week before the Queen’s death, he remained rational and calm. Only when his girlfriend had vanished a few days later, had Nathan seen him lose that grip ever so slightly. But it wasn’t ever so slightly now. Nathan worried about the next mission they’d go on. If Matu could keep it together if it got personal, or if he would lose that grip completely. Nathan wondered how Matu would handle stressful situations now. He knew the Asters would meet with Saluverus’ best psychotherapist to make sure they were ready to handle another mission once they got back from their respective holidays. Nathan knew none of them would go on another mission if Doctor Olga Masalis didn’t think they could handle it. Still, Nathan worried.
There would be training—hours of training and simulations. But nothing was the same as the real deal. A real mission. Where decisions could mean success or failure. Life or death.
Finn shoving Charlie’s shoulder snapped Nathan out of his thoughts. “Maybe you should pay more attention in all your classes. You know, in general. Couldn’t hurt for when you actually need to use your brain and not just your swords,” Finn told his friend.
Charlie rolled his eyes and took a sip from his water. Nathan smiled at the two of them. They reminded him of Lian and Sky, his other Aster brothers. Those idiots also rarely paid attention in class and would banter with each other to no end.
Nathan missed them. Even though they spent almost every single day together, Nathan found himself missing their company, their presence. In a week’s time, Lian and Sky would come here, and the three of them would celebrate Lian’s birthday. Nathan could already hear the two of them teasing him about being the youngest. It would only take a few months for Nathan to also reach the age of nineteen, but he knew he wouldn’t hear the end of it until his own birthday in May. And probably not even after that.
Nathan smiled to himself and finished his water. He packed his bag and stood up. “I’ll see you boys at the Academy tomorrow.”
“You got it,” Charlie said.
Nathan picked up the basketball and held it against his side, under his arm.
“Let’s see how suddenly motivated they all will be when a big, badass Aster is watching,” Finn said, grinning.
Nathan rolled his eyes. “Shut up.”
“Make me,” Finn teased.
Nathan made to throw the basketball at Finn. The boy jumped and covered his face with his hands. Nathan smiled at him and walked away, praying this holiday would last long enough that he could have days like this for a long while to come.
It was just after six o ‘clock in the morning when Nathan and his mother, Rose, hiked up the first part of the trail of Point Reyes National Seashore. The sun hadn’t risen yet, but the glow of it just below the sea’s horizon illuminated the dark sky with shades of gold and yellow. It was enough to see the rocky path they’d travelled through the open landscape.
Up here, far away from civilisation, Nathan’s magic laid once again dormant in his veins. There was no one in the national park yet. There were no sounds of humans; no sound from the roads that lay far behind them. All he could hear was the sea, rolling onto the beaches in the distance.
They trekked in silence. Both of them enjoyed the peaceful quiet that came with walking through the park so early in the morning. It had become a ritual to hike here when Nathan was home. For both of them, the park cleared their heads, quieted their minds.
His mother needed it; Nathan knew. She’d been quieter in the last few weeks. It wasn’t surprising. Diallo had been her family, like Nathan’s fellow Asters were his. She’d lost him, too. It would be a mistake to think only Matu and his mother had lost a person they loved. It would be an even bigger mistake to think that Rose was only mourning Diallo. Only weeks before his death, two other Asters of her generation had been killed: Gayle Mendosa’s parents, Cara and Tomas. The South American King had taken them, too. In the span of one month, the Ceders had been reduced from six, to three. There used to be seven, but Lian’s parents had died in a house fire two years earlier, his mother having been the Aster of their generation.
Nathan glanced sideways at his mother. Her face was calm, relaxed. The sky was clear again, just like it had been the previous two days. Rose seemed to enjoy the brisk wind on her face as she walked with her eyes half-closed.
She was so much smaller than he was. Nathan had been told before that he and his mother didn’t look alike at all. He must take after his father, then. He’d asked his mother about him once. He did look like his human father, she’d told him. But he hadn’t been a man she’d loved. A summer romance, she’d called him, a brilliant summer romance. But he’d been gone long before she knew she was pregnant with Nathan. And without knowing his last name, or any means to get in contact with him, she hadn’t had any way to find him. So, she’d settled for it being just the two of them. So had Nathan. And he’d loved that about them.
“We picked a perfect day for this,” she said suddenly. They’d reached one of the coves of Drakes Estero, and the two of them took a moment to look out over the water. It barely moved. Only a few shallow ripples were visible from the wind blowing across it.
“It is beautiful here,” Nathan said.
Rose looked up at him. She was more than a foot shorter than him. Strands of light brown hair had come loose from her messy bun, and were blowing across her face. “I’m glad you came with me.”
Nathan wrapped an arm around his mother’s shoulders. “I’ll always come here with you. I love it here.”
He could feel his mother smile. She broke away from his arm and told him, “You’ve grown so strong.” She paused. “Stronger than I thought you’d be.”
“What do you mean?”
“I’ve heard of the things you’ve done,” she said. Then added, at the look Nathan gave her, “I can’t help being nosy, you know.”
Nathan smiled. “What have you heard?”
Rose turned back to look at Drakes Estero. “You created a staircase from a rock wall with virtually no vegetation to pull from. You created a cocoon to keep Lian alive from miles away, when he was deep in the Underworld, without knowing where he was. How did you know you could do that?”
Nathan thought back to those two moments. If he hadn’t made the staircase, he, Matu and the seven humans they were rescuing from the North American King’s camp would have been killed. If he hadn’t created the cocoon, Lian would have died. He could barely remember what he’d been thinking or feeling in those moments. He’d barely felt anything; that was what made him so good at what he did. He’d been cold and distant in his mission state, and could think clearly about what needed to happen for them to stay alive. And then an idea had come to mind, and he’d just done it.
“I didn’t know. I just did it because it was the only way to keep us alive,” Nathan admitted. It was almost the truth. He didn’t want to mention how in those moments he’d also felt a surge of power so strong, that it was almost like an out-of-body experience. His magic had been roiling within him, as if being propelled by something outside of himself, relentlessly seeking an outlet. And at the time, their immediate safety was all he’d thought of, so he’d thrown his magic into creating what had come to mind. What he had needed for an escape. And his magic had listened. And he had been able to wield his magic more powerfully than even he thought possible.
“I am impressed,” his mother said kindly.
“You’re not worried?” Nathan asked.
Rose looked up at him, seeming to search his face. “Your magic is a gift, Nathan. I do not believe we are given any more than we can handle.”
“Sophie’s worried,” Nathan admitted. It pained him that she was. He’d seen it in her eyes after their mission in North America. She’d seen what his powers could do, knew that it was more than he’d ever been able to do in the past. And it had all happened months after he’d turned eighteen. Magic never grew more powerful after that age, when it reached the level of their Aster parent. So why had his?
Nathan knew Sophie’s head would be spinning with possibilities. He didn’t want her to think that way; like something was happening to him. Like something was wrong with him. He didn’t want to bring up the subject because he would always avoid arguing with her. He hoped that she would see that he was fine. He still felt like himself. He wasn’t losing control.
“Of course, she worries,” his mother said. “She’s your sister.”
Nathan gritted his teeth at the word. Sophie was family, yes, but not by blood. Lian, Sky and Matu were his brothers, yes, but not in the way their parents and the Small Council had tried to make them ever since they were little. Sophie wasn’t his sister like the boys were his brothers. She was…
“She just wants you to be okay,” Rose added.
Nathan nodded. “I am okay.”
Rose smiled. “Yes, you are.”
“I want us all to be okay.”
The sigh that came from his mother said enough. She knew what he meant. Gayle Mendosa had been born for a reason. She wouldn’t have been bestowed the ancient Queen Aiyana’s magic if they didn’t need it to fight a terrible threat. There was a reason she’d been born with the most powerful magic in history. And now that magic was gone, and the threat would still come.
“There is no knowing what you will come to face,” she said calmly. “But you will not be alone.”
They were silent for a short while. Eventually Rose said, “Come on,” and the two of them continued their hike, up to higher ground, towards the tree line. All the while Nathan thought about the unknown, inevitable threat. He thought about Finn wanting to use his training in real battle, joking about it. Nathan wished his friend would go his whole life without seeing battle. It was a thrill and it was exhilarating, but it was just as equally terrifying and traumatising.
Being so close to death makes me feel alive, Sky always said. But he was, unlike the rest of them, a thrill seeker. He had been for years. In the periods between missions, Sky always seemed restless. As if he needed to keep training, keep working, to keep his status as the most powerful Aster of his generation. He loved that title, made sure no one ever forgot it. Was arrogant about it. But there was something more behind it. He’d only been like this in the last five years. Before, he trained because he had to, not because he wanted to. It was like a switch was flipped. He’d come back from Australia one day, about four years ago, and it was like he was a different person.
Nathan shook his head. It was quite some time ago now that he doubted anyone remembered the boy Sky used to be. Especially since he now loved being an Aster; loved the action. Nathan knew his brother hid how the missions affected him. How scared he’d been when he thought Lian had died in North America. It was their life: fight and survive for the safety of the world. And then do it all over again. On the outside it might look spectacular. Finn might want a piece of that action. Nathan didn’t want his friend to lose that ease about him. The Asters had learnt to deal with the downs that came with the action, but their job wasn’t easy. It weighed heavily sometimes. Nathan didn’t want it to weigh on anyone else if he could prevent it.
He wished his generation of Asters were enough to keep the previous generation retired. That his mother would never have to go on a mission again. She’d done her part. Her generation had killed Astaroth, the previous King of the South American Underworld. He’d been the most powerful King in history. And his mother, together with her fellow Asters, had killed him. Why should they ever need to be asked to do anything else? They’d done the impossible. It was up to Nathan’s generation to take down Astaroth’s successor. The King who’d killed their future Queen.
But he shouldn’t think about that now. In this moment, he was hiking with his mother. He was on holiday. He tried to clear his mind as they continued their hike. The top of the sun was peeking out over the rolling hills that separated them from the sea, filling the world with its golden light. Nathan let it warm his face.
This was a perfect moment. A peaceful moment. He’d never been here with anyone other than his mother. This was his happy place. The place he could turn his brain off and relax. Nathan didn’t even mind when his magic spiked up. He could feel it sizzle in his veins. The Band on his wrist prickled, too.
The earth underneath his feet felt alive and warm, filled with life. Nathan paused and closed his eyes. He spread his arms out and let his magic become one with the nature around him. He could feel the grass underneath his feet, the scrubby vegetation that covered the rolling hills behind him. He could feel the tree-topped rocky outcrops further along to his left, the sandy coves they dropped down to, and the water of the inlets that lapped onto them. He could feel how one landscape flowed into another so naturally, so calmly, so beautifully. And yet so dangerously, too. He could feel the tide and the current of the Bay and the Gulf beyond, the forces that churned beneath the surface of the water. He felt the dangers there as much as he felt its beauty.
The wind blew stronger. It sent a shiver up Nathan’s spine. There was a sensation in the nature around him that he couldn’t quite place. There was something darker… something that clashed with the serenity of his surroundings.
Nathan opened his eyes and found that his mother was smiling at him. “What?” he asked her.
“It’s nice to see how much you love your magic,” she said. But Nathan couldn’t smile with her. His magic was still swirling around inside of him, but it was no longer because of the connection with the earth. It was something darker, like a warning. Nathan looked around. They were standing at the bottom of a small hill, his mother about ten feet ahead of him. There was no one around them. There were no sounds other than the wind whispering through the shrubs and the trees around them. There was no reason to suspect anything… but there was still that feeling that Nathan couldn’t shake. A dark energy in the earth that hadn’t been there before.
“What’s wrong?” Rose asked.
Nathan frowned, scanning the horizon. “I’m not sure. I just feel…”
Then her phone started ringing. Nathan stopped talking and waited for his mother to look at who was calling her.
“It’s Katherine,” she said once she’d pulled her phone from her pocket. She answered the phone. Nathan couldn’t hear what Sophie’s mother was telling his, but the grave look on Rose’s face told him it wasn’t good news.
“Did something happen?” Nathan pushed.
Rose glanced at him once. Then she asked Katherine, “Are they all right?”
Nathan felt his heart tighten. “Did something happen to Sophie?” he pushed.
And then his phone started ringing, too. Frantically, Nathan answered. “Sophie?” he asked into the phone, without even checking who had called.
“Nathan, it’s Axel.”
An icy calm descended upon him, and he forgot about the darkness in the land of Point Reyes. If the Ambassador of Saluverus called, it was never a good sign. Especially with his mother on the phone with another Ceder, a worried look on her face. It definitely wasn’t good. He turned away from his mother and focused on the call.
“Is Sophie all right?”
“She and Jacob were attacked by Disciples in London.”
“In London?” In those busy streets, with hundreds of human eyes on every inch of that place at the same time… Attacks and fights rarely happened in the bigger cities. Always in isolated places.
“They herded her into an abandoned street,” Axel explained. “Cut her off from both sides.”
“Sophie wouldn’t let them get cornered that easily.”
A silence. “She chose the location herself because one of the houses there was a building site. She used a metal pipe and a hammer as weapons.”
Nathan couldn’t help grin at Sophie’s genius. Only Sophie could manipulate her pursuers in such a way that the site of the fight would be to her benefit. And Nathan supposed that Jacob could hold his own there just fine, too. He was an Affinite who trained with the Asters on a regular basis because of his affinity for strategy. Nathan didn’t have to like the guy, but Jacob would have Sophie’s back. Even outnumbered.
“She called Sky for help, though he was in no state to really help,” Axel added.
“What does that mean?”
“He turned up drunk.”
“He turned up…” Nathan couldn’t even finish the sentence. He found he couldn’t blame Sky. They were on holiday, and Sky was always in for a drink, especially when off duty.
“It is not the point,” Axel replied.
“Not the point?”
“Sophie is fine, Nathan. All three of them are,” Axel said. “But it was a close call. The Disciples weren’t wearing any sort of definitive clothing, or wielding territory-specific weapons. And since we know the South American King has attacked on other continents, we can’t be sure it was the European King who issued the attack.”
“So, what does that mean?” Nathan asked, already dreading what he was sure to hear next.
“It means we want all Asters to come back to Saluverus. It is not safe for you to be out in the world separated from each other. It’s too dangerous.”
He knew that this would be the first thing the Council would do; bring the Asters back to the island. “By when?” he asked.
“By tomorrow afternoon, our time.”
Nathan closed his eyes, irrationally thinking about the friendly basketball match he was supposed to be playing on Saturday. And Lian’s birthday that they were going to be celebrating here. “That’s less than twenty-four hours from now,” Nathan muttered more to himself than to Axel.
“It is for your own safety, Nathan, you know that.”
Nathan could barely hear the Ambassador’s voice. Sophie was fine, so his greatest worry was gone. And with his eyes closed, he felt his connection to the earth again. His magic piped up, roaring in his ears. The darkness had grown greater than before. Nathan could feel it in the earth underneath his feet. He opened his eyes, and found that across the open land from him, a band of Disciples was charging towards him. It was such an unexpected sight in what, seconds before, had been an idyllic scene, that Nathan needed a millisecond to adjust mentally.
“Nathan?” Axel’s voice rang down the line. “I need to know you heard me. You will be here tomorrow afternoon, understood?”
Nathan stared at the Disciples coming his way, his mind racing. He and his mother would be trapped by higher ground if they didn’t move now. He turned around to tell her, only to find a terrifying sight in front of him.
“Nathan! Answer me,” Axel demanded.
But Nathan couldn’t answer his Ambassador through the phone. For in front of him stood his mother, with five Disciples standing around her. One of them had an arm around her chest and arms, and a knife at her throat.
“Do not call for help,” the Disciple warned. He pressed the knife against Rose’s skin. “This is between you and me, boy. If anyone else shows up, she’s dead.”