After witnessing a terrible event that left Kaira changed in unimaginable ways, Chris knows he has to find a way to defy his destiny in this second novel in the suspenseful Ravenborn series.
In the aftermath of the deaths plaguing Islington’s campus, a terrible pall has fallen over the students. Kaira is passed-out sick, and Chris—the only witness to the night Kaira invoked something otherworldly—is questioning his sanity. Everyone is willing to believe the deaths were normal, and without Kaira backing him up, his claims that there was something supernatural at work are getting harder and harder to believe. Even to himself.
Especially because now, the voices he’s locked away are getting louder. Stronger. Violent.
When the god plaguing his mind starts promising Chris a future of bloodshed, Chris knows he isn’t safe. He can’t be trusted. Especially not around Kaira, whom this god swears Chris will kill.
Chris only wants to keep his friends safe. Even at the cost of his own life.
But when the gods of the Underworld are involved, not even death is an escape. It’s just the start of another, darker, journey.
Ethan’s words jolted me back like a bucket of ice water. I sat there, shuddering and numb, my blood sluggish in my veins and my brain a static cloud. But I was there. There, alive in the painted circle on the classroom floor. There, beside Jonathan, who was passed out or dead at my feet.
I was there, and Kaira was not.
“I’ll ask again,” Ethan said, stepping farther into the classroom. His eyes darted around the scene, taking in more than my scattered brain could: the shards of glass, the overturned desks. The body. Only one body. “What the hell is going on, Chris? Why was everyone running and screaming? And what is he doing here?”
Ethan gestured to Jonathan. The professor’s body was sprawled on the ground beside me. He was twisted into a fetal position, his tattooed arms clutching his head like he was trying to keep out the ravens that were no longer there. Like he was hiding from what he’d done. But he wasn’t hiding. He wasn’t moving. Not anymore.
And I didn’t give two shits.
“Did you see her?” I asked. I glanced from Jonathan to Ethan. Calm, composed, bohemian Ethan, standing there in the empty classroom in his pea coat like an actor trying to find his lines. “Did you see where she went?”
Ethan glanced around. His eyes kept snagging on the body beside me.
“Chris . . . what did you do? Did you—”
“Did you see her?” I asked, louder this time. I pushed myself up to my knees, but the ground began to sway as my head swam, so I didn’t go farther. I kept looking around, like maybe the shadows were hiding her, maybe she was under a desk, waiting to surprise us both.
The emptiness—the silence—weighed down on me. It felt exactly like—
“Who?” Ethan asked. His eyebrows furrowed. I didn’t like that look.
“Kaira!” I yelled. I kept searching for her. If she was here, she could explain what I saw. If she was here, she could confirm I wasn’t sleeping. No, no, I knew I was awake. I knew what I’d seen. I’d held her while her eyes turned purple and something else spoke through her lips. I’d watched the ravens burst from her skin and carry her away.
It couldn’t be real.
It was real. What did that make me?
“Chris, what the hell are you talking about?”
In answer, I forced myself to stand, forced myself not to wobble over, to trip on Jonathan’s body. Because it was a body. He was dead.
I couldn’t think about that right now.
Instead, I ran to the window, ignoring Ethan’s question. Shattered glass covered the floor like snow: something had broken into the room. Something had come in, had changed my world forever. A murder of crows, screaming like the lost voices of the Underworld. And that something had transformed Kaira. That something had spirited her away.
She wasn’t out there, wandering in the night. The grounds of Islington spread dark and heavy before me: a few academic buildings with their lights muted, a few streetlamps casting pale circles over the thick snow. Empty. No kids wandering between practice halls. No cars navigating the school’s back roads.
No Kaira, standing in the snow, waiting for me to find her.
No ravens ripping my world apart.
I pressed my hands to the sill, barely noticing the sharp bite of glass under my palms or the warmth of blood suddenly pooling through my fingers. A cold breeze blew past me. But I was warmer. Warmer than I should have been. My hands felt like fire, and my blood beat magma.
“Where are you?” I whispered to the night air.
Ethan came up behind me, his feet crunching on the glass.
“Chris . . .” he whispered, much more tentatively. “What happened here? And why are we looking for Kaira?”
I tried to see farther in the darkness. Tried to make out her shape, tried to find a single damned raven. There had been hundreds in the past few weeks, thousands in the last few minutes, so where are they now?
“They took her,” I muttered.
“Who?” Ethan asked. He stood next to me, but he wasn’t looking at the sky. He was looking at me. Like I was crazy. Like I had somehow done this.
Like he was scared of me.
My heart froze.
“The ravens,” I said. The words sounded so stupid on my tongue.
“There aren’t any ravens,” he said.
He spoke in a voice I knew all too well. The voice of someone trying to keep someone else from exploding. The voice of someone talking a madman off a ledge. He wasn’t worried for me.
He was worried about me.
“There were,” I said. “Thousands of them. You have to believe me. They were here and then they took her.”
“I believe what I see,” Ethan replied. “And right now I see something that should have me calling the cops. Jonathan is dead, Chris. What the hell went on in here? Even if there were birds, that doesn’t account for why he’s dead.”
I didn’t understand how his voice could sound so calm, and so close to breaking, all at the same time.
I looked past him then. Over his shoulder and into the room. I really looked. What would Ethan see in here, and what were my memories?
He couldn’t have seen the ravens swirling around the thick black circle painted on the floor. He couldn’t have seen Kaira, begging me to help her before she became something else. He wouldn’t have the memory of Kaira and Jonathan squaring off in the middle of the room as the ravens burst in and turned everything on its head. He wouldn’t see any of that, because there wasn’t a trace of anything supernatural. There weren’t even any feathers to make my case.
Ethan could only see what was left: the shattered glass, the overturned desks, the smeared paint on the floor. He would only see Jonathan and me.
Jonathan, who was dead.
And me, who was the only one around who could have killed him.
My heart suddenly remembered to beat. Now it was making up for it and pumping triple time.
“I didn’t do it,” I said. There was a voice in my head telling me to run. But I couldn’t run—not from Ethan. He was my friend. Kaira’s friend. He needed to believe me. If only so I could believe me.
He glanced back to Jonathan’s body. We both stared for a while. Like we were waiting for it to move. As though this could all be one big prank.
“I checked his pulse,” he whispered. “Nothing. And there aren’t any wounds or signs of struggle.”
It was the birds, I wanted to say. But I didn’t. I held my tongue, partly because he seemed to be trying to think up an explanation. One that didn’t involve me.
“I don’t know what happened,” I admitted. “But I swear to you, Ethan, I didn’t hurt him. I came in here and—”
“Was he dead when you arrived?” Ethan asked, still watching Jonathan’s corpse.
I shook my head. “I don’t really know,” I admitted. “I was too focused on . . .” But I trailed off. Kaira wasn’t here. I hadn’t lied, though—I wasn’t focusing on Jonathan when I came in, when I’d pushed past all the screaming kids. I was too focused on Kaira, on keeping her safe.
“We should go,” he said. His voice had a distant, haunted cast to it. He still didn’t turn to face me.
I nodded slowly. Okay, okay. He didn’t believe me. But if we found Kaira . . .
“You’re right,” I replied. “We should go. You have a car. We can find her.”
“No, Chris. We need to go. Before someone finds him.”
He rounded on me then; his calm facade had finally snapped.
“Kaira isn’t here, Chris!” he yelled. “You are. You and a goddamned body, and if you don’t get your ass out of here, I’m going to call the cops myself and have them arrest you because you’re lingering at a crime scene, and even if you don’t think you did it, you’re talking like an insane person and maybe you’re just too fucking screwed up to remember killing him.”
My breath caught between my teeth.
“If you want me to believe you, you’re going to have to come up with a better story. One that doesn’t involve nonexistent birds and a girl who isn’t around. And you won’t be able to do that if you’re behind bars.”
He started pulling me toward the door, mumbling to himself. Part of me wondered if I should resist; maybe he was taking me to the RA, or to campus security. But I was innocent. Jonathan’s blood wasn’t on my hands.
That was when I realized something that made me stop in my tracks.
My blood should have been dripping down the window, splattering on the floor. I had cut my palms deep. I had felt the blood ooze between my fingers. But when I looked to my hands, they were clean and smooth, the skin unbroken.
It is not right that you should bleed for her, came a voice. It simmered through my veins, familiar as my own shadow. I glanced past Ethan, to where the falcon perched atop Jonathan’s broken body. It is not right, when her blood is yours to spill.
Get out of my head, I thought to the bird. When I blinked, it was gone, nothing more than a memory. Worse than a memory. A curse.
Maybe I was going insane.
Maybe they should put me behind bars.
“Hurry up,” Ethan demanded. “It’s like you want to be caught.”
“We have to find her,” I repeated. I felt like a broken record. But wasn’t that about right? The whole world was broken. Why should I be any different? At least if I found Kaira, we could be broken together.
• • •
Islington no longer felt like home.
As Ethan guided me out of the academics concourse and down the long, snow-swept road, I couldn’t escape the feeling of being lost. This place—once the closest thing I’d ever had to feeling like I belonged—was no longer mine. The shadows were deep, and even the welcoming glow of the arts building up ahead couldn’t pierce the darkness that seemed to linger everywhere. I wanted to break free from Ethan’s grip, to run screaming Kaira’s name through the woods and the shadows that had taken her.
The trouble was, I couldn’t move. If not for Ethan pulling me along, I would have stood still, a statue of ice. Moving meant operating in this new world. And that meant believing what I’d seen. Or the alternative: I was going insane.
“You’re going to tell me everything that happened,” Ethan said as we walked. “What were you doing in there? And what happened to Jonathan?”
I wanted to squeeze out the images that pushed through the backs of my eyes—Kaira, running into the room and leaping over the circle, punching Jonathan just as the window exploded with black wings and razor beaks. Everyone screaming. Everything screaming. Before the silence. Before . . .
I am not Kaira, vessel of the Aesir. My name is Freyja.
“What the hell is going on?”
But it wasn’t Ethan asking. It was me. And when I looked at him, I knew without a doubt that he had even fewer answers than I. If anything, he just looked scared. Scared that he wasn’t the only one questioning my sanity.
We didn’t stop until we were in the arts building. Normally, stepping in there would have felt like finding sanctuary. Tonight it was just a reminder of the demons I wasn’t able to escape. Kaira’s tarot card paintings still hung on the walls, the images connected by webs of silver thread. I’d stared at them for hours over the last few days, read her artist’s statement over and over. Trying to figure out why she had such a pull on me, why this shadowed girl with streaks in her hair was an orbit I couldn’t escape. I’d learned nothing. Only that she had been hurt—something she’d already told me—and that her past was as dark and clouded as mine.
Ethan tugged me along.
“Come on,” he urged.
I didn’t ask where he was taking me. I just let him pull me down the hall and up the stairs, until we were in a room I’d never stepped foot in before. Black-and-white photographs were pinned on the walls of the tiny studio; a single desk littered with papers and canisters sat beneath a small window.
“What is this?” I asked. My hackles rose the moment the door clicked shut behind us. It felt like a trap.
“My studio,” he replied. I said nothing else, but he followed up quickly with, “All senior photographers get one. There aren’t many of us.”
I wanted out. I needed out. Kaira was out there. She needed me. I needed her. Before I was convicted for something I didn’t do. Before Ethan turned on me. Turned me in.
But where is she? Where would she be? Or is she already dead and gone?
Somehow, though, I knew she was alive. I could feel her. Like a spark of warmth in the distant tundra, a barely perceptible beacon. She was there. And I would find her.
Ethan made a noise in his throat and dragged me over to the chair, forced me to sit. With the bare bulb above us, it felt like an interrogation chamber.
“Talk,” he said.
I opened my mouth. No words came out.
He made another noise and then cleared a space off his desk, sitting down and pulling off his beanie. He worried it between his hands. His eyes didn’t leave mine.
I’d known Ethan for a few weeks. I mean, I’d known of him for longer, but it wasn’t until Mandy’s death that we’d really become friends. I’d seen him stress out over paintings and laugh over Kaira’s bad jokes and fawn over the loving glances of his boyfriend, Oliver. But I’d never seen him like this. He’d always been a little lighthearted, even when stressed, like he took himself so seriously it was almost a joke. Tonight, though, he didn’t just look worried; he looked pissed.
“Tell me it wasn’t you,” he said. His voice was colder than the snow outside. It didn’t sound like a request. With the light and the silence and the tone, I knew it was a command.
The knot in my chest loosened in an instant, dropping to my feet with a thud.
“The circle. Jonathan. Tell me you were in the wrong place at the wrong time.”
I knew without a doubt that he would report me if he thought I was to blame. I shook my head, the first tinge of feeling finally returning to my shell-shocked limbs. I had to convince him of something not even I was convinced of. I had to sound sane. None of this was sane. The birds . . . Kaira . . .
“I didn’t do anything,” I said. It felt like pleading. “I swear, Ethan. I saw Kaira run into the room. She was angry, yelling something. I followed her. That’s why I was there. I don’t know . . . I don’t . . .”
“Kaira wasn’t in there, Chris, and I didn’t see her run out,” Ethan said. “Just you. And Jonathan. What am I supposed to believe? That some birds magically came in and—”
“They took her!” I yelled, half standing in my chair. Ethan didn’t flinch. He stared me down and waited for me to sit again. I did. If only because I was shaking too hard to stand.
I took a deep breath. It was clear he wasn’t going to buy the story that I knew . . . that I thought . . . was true.
For some reason, my mind jumped back to the day I was hit by a car, to the time I learned when to hold my tongue. Learned to say the truth that the person wanted to hear so they could twist it into whatever narrative they wanted. No one believed I had died after being hit, or that I was brought back to life. My parents thought I was just begging for attention. But they did believe I was nearly hit, that I should stop playing by the road. And they believed I had an overactive imagination. That was enough to make them believe part of my story, to make them fill in the spaces they needed. It let me get by.
I didn’t tell them, in the wake of my sister’s death, that the gods told me she had died to pay off my life-debt. That if I hadn’t been hit by that car and brought back to life, she would still be around. I knew they would think I was insane.
Just as I knew Ethan would think I was insane if I tried to push what I knew in my gut to be true.
So I looked at my feet, tried to look confused and scared. Neither emotion was hard to pull off. Neither was a lie.
“I honestly don’t know what I saw,” I said. “I followed Kaira in there. She . . . I don’t know what happened. The window exploded and I thought it was birds, but I don’t know anymore. Maybe it was just shadows. Maybe someone threw a rock in. All I know is, Kaira was there, and then . . .” Then she became something else, something inhuman. Something with violet eyes as dark and unfeeling as space itself. “Jonathan was dead when it all cleared. I wasn’t even near him at the time. Look, I know this sounds crazy, but—”
“No,” he interrupted. “Having to finish three different paintings on the same day sounds crazy. Applying to Islington knowing it’s going to make your life hell is crazy. This is a fucking fairy tale.”
“You have to believe me.”
“I don’t have to do anything.” I glanced up at him, but he wasn’t even looking at me. He was staring into the corners of the room, one foot tapping nervously. “Here’s what I see, Chris: We took you to dinner, and rather than go to a movie after like we planned, you asked to be taken back to campus. Where I later find you in a room with a dead body and a circle like we saw before. Just like the circle around Jane’s body. Which, come to think about, you didn’t seem too surprised by when we found it. And when I find you tonight, all you can do is blabber about Kaira being taken, which is stupid, because we’re in the middle of the woods and there’s no one around to take her and she definitely didn’t sneak out that window. So, to me, unless you can explain this away, it looks like you’ve had a hand in all this. Like maybe these deaths weren’t so random or unexplained all along.”
It was a death sentence. Hearing him say it . . . God, it sounded insane. If the roles were reversed, would I believe him? If I hadn’t actually seen it with my own eyes? If I hadn’t experienced everything I had?
What if she had never been in there? What if I walked in there and saw Jonathan dead and had some sort of nervous breakdown?
What if I—
“Please,” I choked, forcing down that train of questioning. “I can’t explain what happened. But I swear it wasn’t me. I wouldn’t hurt Jonathan. I wouldn’t hurt any of them. You know me, Ethan.”
“Actually, I don’t.” Ethan’s words were like a guillotine, cutting off my rambling plea and any hope of winning him over. “I only know that you started hanging out with us when all this started happening. Which doesn’t look very good either.” He looked down to his hat then. “Jesus, Chris. What have you gotten yourself into?”
“Check with security,” I said—it sounded so close to begging. “About the day Jane died. I was on the phone. There’s a log, and my parents can tell you they were talking to me. I wasn’t there for Jane’s death, and I had no idea what I was walking into tonight. I’m just as innocent as you.”
I paused. A new thought twisted in my gut along with the fear. A different sort of nervousness.
“Wait. Why were you there?” I asked. “You were supposed to be at the movies with Oliver and Elisa.”
He looked away and shoved his hat back on his head. Like he was trying to hide.
“I didn’t feel right.” His words were small and uncertain.
“What do you mean?”
He sighed and looked back to me. “I mean, after we dropped you off, I didn’t feel right about going back out there. Thought it was a blizzard coming or something.”
“You felt it,” I whispered. “The wrongness. Something is going on and you know it.” It felt so stupid saying it, but to my relief, he didn’t laugh.
“That’s an understatement.” His expression hardened. “Why should I believe you, Chris?”
“Because Jonathan wasn’t injured. You said it yourself.” I held up my hands then pulled the collar away from my neck. “And look. No bruising. No blood. How could I have killed a grown man without getting some sort of scratch?”
“You’ve put a lot of thought into that defense.”
“Only because it’s the truth.” I slumped down. “I don’t know what’s happening anymore. I don’t know what’s true. But I know I didn’t hurt him. Or Jane. Or anyone else.” Then, because he still hadn’t answered my question, I turned the questions on him. “Why did you stay on campus?”
He shook his head.
“No. No, this isn’t about me. I said I felt strange. Which anyone would feel if they’d seen . . .” He actually shuddered. “They’re stupid circles, but I can’t get them out of my head. Ever since Jane. It’s like staring into the eye of Death himself.”
“Something is happening,” I pressed. “You know it. I can’t explain it any more than you can. But I’m going to figure it out, Ethan. And to do that, I need your help. We have to find Kaira. She’s”—been taken, transformed into something else—“in trouble. You know it too. And not because of me.”
He didn’t look at me when I said it, and I didn’t feel the same accusation when he finally replied.
“I’ve been worried about her. . . . You swear you had nothing to do with what happened in there?”
I nodded. “I swear on my life.”
Not that that means anything, since you’re living on borrowed time.
“I’m not saying I believe you,” Ethan admitted. “But I’m not going to report you. Not yet. Not unless you give me a reason to.”
“We need to find her,” I said. Now that the panic of him turning me in was fading, the fear of not knowing what happened to her took hold again. “Kaira. She’s—”
“Probably painting,” he interjected. “Unless you’re telling me she jumped out that window and ran off.”
“She didn’t jump. She . . .” I trailed off. He didn’t need to know she became a murder of ravens. “She was there. I swear. And I need to find her; she’ll prove it.”
“Are you on something?” he asked. He leaned in, like he was checking my pupils. “Seriously.”
I pushed him back. “I’m sober. One hundred percent. I know what I saw. She was there.”
Rather than answer, he pulled out his phone and typed in a number and held it to his ear. We sat in silence while the phone rang, my nerves on edge. Was he calling campus security? Should I be running right now? But he didn’t look like he was about to turn me in; I watched his eyebrows furrow deeper. Finally, he perked up.
“Kaira?” he asked. “Oh, sorry Elisa. I didn’t . . . Yeah, I wanted to see if she was around.”
Then he ended the call and leaned forward.
“That was Elisa; she answered Kaira’s phone,” he said. He looked me in the eyes. “You need to start thinking of a better cover story. Because according to Elisa, Kaira’s sound asleep in their bedroom.”
My chest tightened.
“That’s impossible. I saw her . . .”
He held out the phone, Kaira’s number already dialed and ready to be sent.
“You’re welcome to ask her yourself,” he said. “But let me warn you: She’s a monster when woken up.”
A.R. Kahler is the author of the Cirque des Immortels trilogy and the post-apocalyptic YA fantasy series, The Hunted. When he’s not writing or climbing in the rafters, he’s probably outside, staring at the clouds. Visit him online at ARKahler.com and follow him on Twitter at @ARKahler.
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