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Crowned (Beholder #4)
Author:Christina Bauer

Crowned (Beholder #4)

Christina Bauer



Chapter One




It was never a good idea to spy on the gods, as a rule.

That said, I was never one to follow the rules.

All of which was why I now stood in a hilltop ringed with skulls, staring out over a deserted landscape. A shiver of foreboding rolled across my shoulders. This place gave new meaning to the word bleak. Ashen soil stretched off in every direction. Charcoal-colored clouds wheeled overhead. A freestanding archway made from chipped stone loomed nearby. The thing looked like a ruin, but it was actually a magickal gateway called the Skullock Passage. Soon, this archway would also serve as my supernatural keyhole for spying on the gods. Quite possibly, I’d be killed in the process.

Considering my situation, it was a risk worth taking.

I glanced up at the darkening sky.


Almost time to begin.

Any minute now, a slash of blood-red light would appear by the horizon, marking the arrival of the Martyr’s Comet, a heavenly body that showed itself once every two thousand years. Unfortunately, the Martyr’s Comet had all sorts of dark legends surrounding it, such as the prophecy that whoever was the strongest Necromancer alive when the comet appeared, then that same Necromancer had to die when the comet vanished.

This particular legend had changed my life from bad to worse.

First, the bad part. About two months ago, my one-time Mother Superior, Petra, informed me of the Martyr’s Comet prophecy, including the bit about the strongest Necromancer dying. That was certainly bad news; some poor mage was supposedly doomed.

Second, the worse part. Then Petra shared that I was the strongest Necromancer alive and she planned to end my life when the comet vanished. In other words, about three days from now. As I said, worse.

Of course, I’d no intention of dying any time soon. I just needed more information so I could foil Petra’s schemes—hence my spying expedition.

A flicker of light appeared at the horizon. My gaze locked on the spot. Was that the Martyr’s Comet?

I squinted into the darkening sky. The brightness clearly shone white, not red.

Only a shooting star, then.

A weight of disappointment settled on my shoulders. In some ways, I was looking forward to the comet’s arrival. With it, there came additional powers over gateways, especially for mages like me. Tapping into those extra abilities, I’d turn the Skullock Passage into my personal spy-hole.

Take that, Petra.

A small cloud of dust began spinning on the ground nearby. The particles whirled in curlicue shapes that were too perfect to be natural. Magick. My heart lightened. Perhaps my mate Rowan was arriving. I had expected him to magickally transport here any second.

Sadly enough, blue lights sparkled deep within the haze. A weight of dread settled into my bones. Someone was casting a transport spell, only it wasn’t Rowan. My mate was a Creation Caster, so his power came from life and his magick glowed red. This brightness shone blue, which meant the visiting mage was a Necromancer like me.

Damn.

Most likely, Petra was sending yet another messenger my way, asking me to fulfill the Prophecy of the Martyr’s Comet and die willingly on the comet’s last day. Meeting these messengers was never pleasant, but it wasn’t particularly dangerous, either. Petra wouldn’t try to kill me until the Martyr’s Comet was just about to disappear.

Small comfort, really.

Within seconds, a wisp of a girl materialized beside me. She looked about sixteen years old with large brown eyes, pale skin, and raven-dark hair. The image of her skull had been magickally marked onto her face in dark tones. Her clothes were long black robes decorated with a few ties, which was the formal dress for a Sister, the lowest level of initiated Necromancer.

The girl spied me, gasped, and fell to her knees. A small puff of dried earth flew up where she landed. “Greetings, my Tsarina.”

I pinched the bridge of my nose. All Petra’s messengers fell on their knees when they first laid eyes on me. It was rather unsettling. I wasn’t this girl’s Tsarina, and even if I were, bowing and scraping weren’t my idea of fun.

“I’m Elea. Just Elea. What’s your name?”

The girl clasped her hands under her chin. “I am called Petra’s Echo.”

Not again. Petra was forever renaming her followers. So far this week, I’d met Petra’s Consolation, Petra’s Light, Petra’s Patience, and now, Petra’s Echo. It was demeaning to steal away someone’s identity in such a manner. My one-time Mother Superior was turning crueler by the day.

“What’s your real name?” I asked.

“I gave it to you. Being called Petra’s Echo is an honor for me.”

It was an effort not to roll my eyes. Should I fight her on this point? Perhaps. This girl seemed more open and innocent than my past messengers, so I might be able to break past Petra’s brainwashing. Plus, I did have some time before both Rowan and the comet arrived. I decided to test the waters. “How about I call you Echo?”

“Whatever you wish, Tsarina.”

I fought the urge to smile. None of the other messengers had allowed me to de-Petra their names. Maybe I could help this girl.

Echo glanced nervously around, as if Petra might be lurking under a nearby rock. “But make no mistake. Everything that I am today comes from Petra and Petra alone. I owe her my life.”

I sniffed. “That’s not how I remember it happening. As I recall, there was a great battle. On one side, there was the evil mage Viktor. On the other side, there was me and my mate Rowan. During the fighting, I summoned an army of Necromancers back from the dead to help win the day. You have my skull-mark on your face. That means you were one of those mages. Petra played no part in it.”

“Oh, how disrespectful I have been to you, my Tsarina.” Echo leaned deeper into her kneel, stopping only when her forehead slammed against the ground. “You did indeed raise my physical body from the dead. However, Petra has since renewed my soul. I beg you to forgive me. Hear my vow: I promise to worship you as well, my Tsarina.”

“That’s not what I meant.” I knelt beside her. “I wish you wouldn’t worship Petra or me. When you regained your mortal body, it’s true that my death magick reached out to your spirit. But never forget—it was your will that tapped into my spell. You hauled yourself back into the realm of the living. On its own, my skills couldn’t have done that. Power and light dance inside you; those are yours alone. Don’t ever give credit for them to someone else. Not even me.”

Echo angled her head against the dusty earth, stopping when her gaze met mine. “This is all a trick.” Her voice quavered. “You are testing my faith.”