Read an Excerpt From It Ends in Fire

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Only those from the most powerful magical families can attend Blackwater Academy, but new student Alka has them fooled. Now it’s time to take down the oppressive wizard ruling class from the inside…

We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from It Ends in Fire, a new young adult fantasy by author Andrew Shvarts—available now from Little, Brown Books for Young Readers.

Alka Chelrazi is on a mission:

1. Infiltrate Blackwater Academy
2. Win the Great Game
3. Burn Wizard society to the ground

As a child, Alka witnessed her parents’ brutal murder at the hands of Wizards before she was taken in by an underground rebel group. Now, Alka is deep under cover at the most prestigious school of magic in the Republic: Blackwater Academy, a place where status is everything, where decadent galas end in blood-splattered duels, where every student has their own agenda. To survive, Alka will have to lie, cheat, and kill to use every trick in her spy’s toolkit. And for the first time in her life, the fiercely independent Alka will have to make friends, to recruit the misfits and the outcasts into her motley rebellion.

But even as she draws closer to victory—to vengeance —she sinks deeper into danger as suspicious professors and murderous rivals seek the traitor in their midst, as dark revelations unravel her resolve. Can Alka destroy the twisted game… without becoming a part of it?

 

 

ONE
Now

It’s half past noon and there’s no sign of the wagon, so the bandits are all starting to get restless. I am, too. For the past two hours we’ve been sitting crouched in the undergrowth of Dunraven Forest, hid- den among the tall ferns just off the dirt highway. It’s a nice enough day: sunlight streams through the canopies of the towering oaks, and somewhere nearby, a redbird is singing its jaunty tune. But my calves hurt, my back’s sore, and if this wagon doesn’t show soon, I’m in for a world of trouble.

“Getting late, Alka,” Drell says. He’s the leader of the bandits, a burly bruiser with a mouthful of gold teeth and a tattoo of a skull on the back of his bald head. I spent a solid week casing the taverns of New Finley, sizing up all the cutthroats and low lives, before I settled on him. Drell acts gruff and smells like sour beer, but he’s not all that bad for a highwayman. He thinks things through, listens when I talk, and hasn’t made even a single advance on me. “You sure your tip was good?”

“I am,” I say, even though I very much am not. Whispers said the carriage would pass through here in the morning, and here we are edging into the afternoon.

“All right.” Drell rests his hairy hand on the pommel of the cut- lass sheathed at his hip. “I hope so. I like you plenty, Alka, but the boys aren’t going to be happy if you wasted their time.”

“The boys” are precisely what I’m worried about. Doing a job like this meant putting together a team. There’s Lenard, lanky and pale, scowling my way as he holds his crossbow; Phaes, a scarred Sithartic mercenary with a bandolier of knives around his chest; and Griggs, a hulking Velkschen who carries a giant axe.

I could probably kill them all, if it came down to it. But I’d rather not put that to the test.

Lenard breaks the tension with a sharp inhale. “It’s coming,” he growls, and nocks his crossbow. “Positions.”

Thank the Gods, he’s right. I can hear it now, the clip-clop of hooves, the crunch of wagon wheels on dirt. We all hunker down, holding our breath, drawing our weapons. Well, they draw their weapons. I don’t have any, not that they can see. As far as Drell and his “boys” know, I’m just a traveling grifter with a lead on a job, a tavern flirt looking for a bit of gold.

They have no idea what I’m capable of.

The trees by the roadside rustle as the wagon rolls into view. It’s fancy, all right, an ornate wooden carriage with a rounded roof and gilded wheels, pulled by two stocky, spotted horses. A coachman sits at the front of the wagon, his face hidden behind a wide-brimmed hat, and the sword at his side says he doubles as a bodyguard. The windows are shuttered so I can’t see inside, but the seal on the wagon’s side tells me everything I need: a growling tiger framed against a red sun. The Dewinter family crest. My target.

Drell shoots me a nod. It’s time. I take one deep breath, collecting myself, and then I push through the ferns, right into the road. “Help!” I yell, throwing up my hands. “Please, sir! Help!”

The coachman jerks on the reins, and his horses rear back as the carriage skids to a hard stop. “Gods!” he snarls. “Who the hell are you?”

“Please,” I sob, actual tears running down my cheeks, and it’s quite a convincing performance, if I may say so myself. “You have to help me. My family was set upon by outlaws just up the trail. I barely got away. They’re all . . . they’re all . . .” I collapse to my knees, blocking the wagon’s path, and I can see, just barely, my bandits creeping around the wagon, sliding into position. “Oh, Gods! They’re all dead.”

The coachman cocks a skeptical eyebrow my way. I can practically see the gears in his head whirring as he sizes me up. I’m seventeen, but I look younger, standing a little over five feet. My dark brown hair hangs tousled around my shoulders, and I’m wearing a long rose dress with frilly sleeves, caked in mud and torn along the sides.

It’s not enough. “Sorry, girlie,” the coachman says with a shrug. “I’m on business. You want a constable, follow the road to New Finley.”

“That’s at least a day away!” I plead. “Please, sir. I beg you! Have mercy!”

“Mercy doesn’t pay for ale,” he sneers. “Now move out of the way, before I—” but he never gets to finish the sentence because Phaes leans around the side of the wagon, pressing the edge of a dagger to the underside of the coachman’s throat. The coachman startles back, his hand darting toward his sword, but Phaes stops him by pressing the blade up, drawing a trickle of blood as it cuts into the soft stubbly flesh of his neck. “Wouldn’t do that,” Phaes says. “Not if you value your life.”

The other bandits emerge around us: Leland with his crossbow leveled, Griggs with his axe unsheathed, Drell pacing confidently up the road. The coachman’s eyes flit around, and he’s not looking any- where near as worried as I’d like. “This is a robbery, friend,” Drell calls out. “Play along and no one gets hurt.”

I rise to my feet, brushing away my tears with the back of my hand, and the coachman snarls at me with a scowl so deep it could cut stone. “You’re making a mistake,” he says. “A grave mistake.”

Leland tugs on the wagon’s door, and it doesn’t budge. “Locked.”

“Hand over the keys, friend,” Drell says. His voice is calm, gentle, even as it’s clear he means business. “We want your goods, not your life.”

I’d hoped the coachman would make this easy, but he’s not budging, which is impressive for a man with blood trickling down his neck. “My goods,” he repeats, shaking his head. “You have no idea what’s in here, do you?”

Leland jerks on the handle again, just as uselessly, and now Drell finally draws his sword. It’s an expensive curved cutlass from the Kindrali Isles, its blade shining gold in the wan light. “I know you’ve got one last chance to open it,” he says. “And then it gets ugly.”

The coachman’s bleary eyes narrow. “Now you listen to me. I am in the employ of General Grayson Dewinter, his line recognized by the Senate. His daughter is in this carriage. His Wizard daughter. Do you understand what that means, you pissants? Do you have any idea what’ll happen to you if you don’t let us go?”

The bandits glance at me uneasily. “What’s he talking about?” Leland hisses.

“He’s lying,” I say, but my voice chokes up for a moment. “It’s a bluff. The only thing in that wagon is sacks of gold.”

“A bunch of Humbles killing a Wizard? The Senate will never let this go,” the coachman continues. “They’ll hunt you wherever you go. They’ll flay the skin from your bones. They’ll kill your wives, your mothers, your children. This is your last chance.”

“No, this is your last chance,” Drell commands. He understands, even if the other bandits don’t. It doesn’t matter what’s true at this point. We’re in too deep to turn back. “Griggs. Break the door down.” Griggs lets out a grunt of approval and steps forward, pushing Leland out of the way. He hefts his axe back, ready to bring it down in a massive chop.

Then I feel it. A chill in the air, unnatural for a midsummer day. A buzzing sound, like a swarm of locusts. And the carriage grows darker, like the light around it is dimming, like it’s cloaking itself in shadow. The others don’t see it, but I do, and my stomach plunges.

Gathering magic. A coming storm.

Everything goes to hell.

A thunderclap booms from within the carriage and the whole side of it explodes outward, shattering into a wave of jagged shards that tear Griggs into bloody scraps. His axe flies back into the brush, useless, and his body, what’s left of it, hits the trees with a wet splat. Dust floods the air, blinding and stinging. The force of the blast knocks me to my knees, hurls Drell into the woods, and sends Leland staggering, fumbling for his crossbow. There’s movement from inside the ruined carriage, a crackle of light, the sound of scraping metal, and a hot black streak cuts through the air impossibly fast. One moment Leland’s head is on his shoulders. The next, it’s bouncing away into the brush.

“Stand down!” a man shrieks, his voice cracking with fear. It’s Phaes, and he’s in the middle of the road, holding the coachman in front of him like a shield, his dagger still pressed against the man’s throat. “Stand down or your man dies!”

There’s a moment of silence, long and tense, and then a figure emerges from the side of the carriage. I can make her out now as the dust clears. Lady Alayne Dewinter. We’ve never met. She has no idea who I am. But I know all about her. For the past three years, she’s all I’ve thought about, her name dancing through my head as I fell asleep every night. Alayne Dewinter, Alayne Dewinter, Alayne Dewinter.

Alayne is a girl my age in a long blue gown, her long brown hair running down her back in beautifully interwoven braids, a gold necklace with a massive ruby glinting at the base of her neck. She’s deep in the Null: her eyes are a sheer black, dark as the night sky, glistening with dozens of dancing points of light like fireflies. Phaes and the coachman are staring at her face, but I’m looking right at her hands, sizing up the Loci in her grips. Wands, matching, one in each hand. Blackwood by the look of them, with sharpened ivory tips and leather grips. Expensive. Professional. Powerful.

My heart is thundering against my ribs, and my breath is caught in my throat. According to my mentor Whispers, Alayne was sup- posed to be an untrained novice who’s never even held a Loci. And yet here she is, carving battle Glyphs.

“I mean it!” Phaes repeats, shoving the coachman forward. “Drop those wands, or your man here dies!”

“Please, m’lady,” the coachman pleads, and now, now, he looks scared. “I had your back, didn’t I? I did as I was told? I’m on your side!”

Alayne’s lips twist up in a cruel smirk, and just like that, the coachman’s fate is sealed. He might well be on her side. But in the end, he’s just another disposable Humble, and she’s a Wizard having a bad day. Her hands flit up, imperceptibly fast, a precise jagged blur as she carves a Glyph into the air in front of her. The coachman barely has time to scream before a lance of cragged stone shoots out from the ground at his feet, plunging into his chest, out his back, and into Phaes behind him. The two men stand there, stunned, gasping, and then the lance explodes, leaving nothing of them but dust and a fine red mist.

Alayne’s shimmering nightscape eyes flit to me. I lean back on my hands, pressing them up against my lower back, sliding them under my gown, towards the leather band around my waist, toward its hidden sheaths. My palms find two hilts and close tight. I’ve got one shot at this, one chance to get out of this alive. Alayne cocks her head to the side, studying me like an insect. And as badly as I want to strike, as badly as my whole body is screaming fight!, as badly as my forearm is tingling, pulsing, burning, I know I have to wait and let her move first.

Alayne’s left arm jerks up, raising a Loci.

Now.

I let out a roar, lunge to my feet, and whip my hands out, unsheathing two short knives, carved from bone, their edges razor sharp, their handles pulsing with magic. My Loci aren’t as fancy as Alayne’s, but they’ll do the trick.

I slip into the Null.

The world melts away around me, and time slows to a crawl. The bright green of the forest, the blue sky overhead, the crimson blood splattering the trees, all of it fades into a gray haze, like the scene around us has been lost in fog. Black ash flits through the air like falling snow. There is no sound in the Null save the thundering of my heart and the deafening roar of magic. For one moment, one lingering vital moment, everything else disappears. There’s just me and Alayne, facing off.

I see her eyes widen with shock as she realizes what I am, but it’s too late. She’s already carved the first two lines of her Glyph, and they hover in the air in front of her at the end of her left Loci, spectral and elegant and the brightest red. A long line slashed down at a forty- five-degree angle, bisected at the halfway point by a vertical cut. Fire Base. And based on the way she’s raising her right Loci, the turn of her wrist, I’m guessing she’s going to circle it for the second form, making it a single blazing blast.

It’s a basic attack Glyph. The kind you’d use when slaughtering a defenseless, cowering Humble. Definitely not what you want against another Wizard. But it’s too late for Alayne. She’s already started cut- ting that Glyph, and if she stops now, it’ll blow up in her face. An expert Wizard could redirect, maybe, find another form off that base, but Alayne’s nowhere near that good. So even though she knows it won’t work, even though she knows she’s doomed, all Alayne can do is lift up her right hand and finish it off.

The Null throbs around us, smoky and dark. I whip up my Loci and with those two bone knives I carve my own attack Glyph into the air in front of me, my blades sinking deep into the skin of the world. A three-stroke triangle for an Ice Base, and a crosshatched hexagon around it for a solid block second form. It’s more complicated than Alayne’s, but it doesn’t matter, because in the Null time moves slow, and in favor of the defender. Alayne’s ball of flame is already forming in front of her, the air around it wavering in the heat, but before it can get to me, I close the hexagon and my Glyph is finished, a perfect hexagonal shield of blue ice hanging in the air, spinning like a coin.

I blink, pulling back into the Real. Color and sound come back in a flash, as does the rush of time. Alayne’s fireball streaks toward me like a meteor, but my ice shield surges to meet it, leaving trails of sparkling frost in the dirt below it. Ice meets fire, and ice wins; the fireball dissolves midair into steam. And my shield hurtles past it, a battering ram of glowing blue that can’t be stopped. Alayne lets out the tiniest shriek as it hits her, and then it passes through her, into her. Her skin turns blue as her blood freezes in her veins. Frost crack- les in her hair. Her terrified expression stays stuck, even as her eyes go glassy and her breath freezes on her lips.

The shield’s mostly dissipated on impact, but a few streaks of ice go whistling off into the forest beyond, shattering against trees and freezing through the brush. Alayne stands there for a moment, a statue, and then topples over and lays still, her Loci still trapped in her icy grip.

I let out my breath in a gasp, collapsing down onto my knees. My whole body is quivering, my knees water. My left sleeve’s been jerked up, and the Godsmark on my forearm is blazing. It hurts, hurts so much, like my whole arm is full of ice, which I guess in a way it was. It hits me in a rush. I won. I actually won. Alayne’s not the first person I’ve killed, but she’s the first I’ve killed like this, the first Wiz- ard, head-to-head, Glyph against Glyph. My first real duel against another Wizard, and I won, walking away without a scratch. I let out a wild noise, somewhere between a laugh and a gasp, and I feel the hot glow of pride swell in my chest. Gods be damned, I actually won. Then I hear a metal click from behind me. It’s Drell. He’s pulled himself out of the brush, a bleeding scratch on his cheek. He’s also picked up Leland’s crossbow, which he’s aiming right at me. And he is very much not laughing.

“She was a Wizard,” he says, staring at Alayne’s body. His voice is flat, stunned, and I can see the crossbow just barely trembling. “She was a Wizard. And you killed her.”

“Yes. I did. I saved our lives,” I try my hardest to sound calm and friendly, even as my eyes fixate on the point of his crossbow’s bolt. “Relax, Drell. Put the crossbow down.”

“And you . . . you’re a Wizard, too,” he says. “What the hell have you gotten me into?”

“Easy, Drell,” I say, and even though I don’t want to hurt him, my hands are drifting toward my Loci. “Listen to me. This is all part of the plan. This is going to be taken care of. No one is going to know you had anything to do with this.”

“‘Part of the plan?’” he repeats. “You knew about this all along, didn’t you? You set this up!” That flat stunned affect is gone. There’s anger now, and a surprising amount of hurt. “You’re one of them! A Revenant! A godsdamned rebel!”

“Drell, please,” I beg, and I really don’t want to hurt him. He’s no saint, not by any means, but he’s a decent man, for a bandit anyway, and it’s my fault he’s out here at all. “Put the crossbow down, and I’ll explain everything. We can both walk away from this.”

“No.” His face curls into a scowl. “Not you.”

He pulls the trigger, and I slip into the Null.

Time slows here, but it doesn’t stop. I can see the twang of the string in Drell’s crossbow as he fires, can see the bolt leave the shaft and come flying toward me. It’s moving ever so slowly, like it’s under- water, but it’ll still hit me in twenty seconds, thirty at best. I whip my knives up and carve the simplest Glyph I can: four notches for a Wind Base, surrounded by a Circle Form for a push. It throbs a faint white, enough for me to see through the ashy haze and make out the look of utter hatred on Drell’s face.

I snap back to the Real. A gust of wind bellows out from me, a forceful focused blast. It’s enough to stop the bolt in midair and send it whistling harmlessly away. It’s enough to rip apart the crossbow. And it’s enough to lift Drell off his feet and send him hurtling back- ward into a tree, where his bald head hits the trunk with a loud awful crack.

Shit.

He lies lumped against the base of the tree, feet twitching, his gray eyes wide and his lip trembling. There’s a long streak of blood running down the trunk to the back of his head, which is cracked like a saucer that was slammed down a little too hard. He’s still alive, but he won’t be for long.

“Oh, Drell,” I say, pacing over to him. His eyes flit up to me, practically popping out of his head, and I can see him straining to talk, to will his body to work, to force his lips to move. Is he begging for mercy? Or is he threatening me, insulting me, cursing my name? If his hands could move, would he wrap them around my throat?

Doesn’t matter, I suppose. Either way, he deserves better. With a weary sigh, I hunker down next to him and slip into the Null to carve one last Glyph, a circle for life with a crescent around it. Then I snap back to the Real and blow with my lips, just the tiniest bit. The Glyph dissolves into dust, sparkling green dust that dazzles like stars and floats gently across Drell’s face, washing over him, sinking into him.

It’s a Glyph used to help children fall asleep, to give a moment of tranquility and calm. Drell’s chest heaves as he draws a deep breath, and his eyes droop shut. His head slumps sideways onto his shoulder and he lays there, still, at peace.

A gentle death. It’s the least I could do.

With a deep swallow, I rise back to my feet and turn away. I can’t afford to feel sad for him, can’t afford to feel anything. Not now, not when I’m this close. I close my eyes, breathe once, twice, three times, and bury all that feeling deep down.

Were at war, Whispers would say. And all wars have casualties.

Right then. Back to the mission. With everyone dead, I have a little more time than I’d planned, but sooner or later someone else will come riding up the trail. I make my way back to the carriage, to Alayne’s frozen corpse. It’s the first chance I get to take a really good look at her, and I understand why she was the target Whispers picked. We definitely look alike. My skin’s a shade darker than hers, a light tan from my Izachi mother, and her eyes were a pale brown while mine are a sharp green. But we’ve got the same lean features, the same sharp chin, the same smattering of dark freckles. We could pass for sisters, easily. Could have, anyway.

I step over her and lean into the broken hole in the side of the carriage. There’s still one thing I need before I burn this whole clearing to the ground. Alayne’s suitcase rests on the cushioned seat where she’d been sitting, and I crack it open. There’s clothes . . . books . . . a few elegant jewels . . . and . . .

There it is. On the bottom. A crisp envelope, expensive-looking, with elegant script on the front and a glowing wax seal. The seal’s already been cracked, of course, so I flip it open and pull the letter out. The paper has an image at the top, a towering castle framed against a full moon, with five symbols around it: a crown, a sword, a quill, a chalice, and a scale. But my eyes flit to the text below.

Lady Alayne Dewinter,

It is my great honor to invite you to attend the Blackwater Academy of Magic for our upcoming term in the Fall of 798 MA. All uniforms and materials will be provided, though you may bring your own Loci. If you wish to attend this term, please meet us on Autumnal 9th at the Lauderdale Docks, and provide this letter to gain admission to the ferry. Your family has earned a place within our esteemed halls, Lady Dewinter, and I greatly look forward to making your acquaintance.

Yours sincerely,
Headmaster Magnus Aberdeen

My hands are actually shaking. This is what it was all for. Ten years of training. Ten years of blood and sweat and pain. So many lives taken. So much given up, so much lost, all for this moment.

Blackwater Academy is the most elite school of magic in the Republic. Any Wizard who’s anybody graduated its halls. Senators, generals, and high clerics, the wisest scholars and most powerful leaders, the nobles who’ve made the world such a godsdamned mess. Blackwater Academy is the true seat of power in the Republic of Marovia, maybe in the world, where entire generations are molded into a powerful, unbending, uncompromising aristocracy. Blackwater Academy is where Wizards are made.

And I’m coming for every last one of them.

 

Excerpted from It Ends in Fire, copyright © 2021 by Andrew Shvarts.

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