A new threat from the past is rising, and only a handful of heroes remain to fight…
We’re thrilled to share an excerpt from Dark Heir , the second volume in C.S. Pacat’s YA fantasy Dark Rise series—out now from Quill Tree Books.
A new threat from the past is rising, and only a handful of heroes remain to fight. Pursued by dark forces, Will and his allies must leave the safety of the Hall and travel to the heart of the ancient world, making new and dangerous alliances, and revealing the shocking secrets of the past.
But Will is carrying a dark secret of his own—his true identity. Drawn to the beautiful and deadly James St. Clair, Will is pulled ever deeper into the web of the past, and finds himself tempted by the darkness within. As the ancient world threatens to return, can Will and his friends fight their fate? Or will the truths they learn tear their world apart?
Will jerked away from the Tree, guiltily.
Elizabeth’s legs were planted and her hands were fists. She was staring at him furiously.
She had never resembled her sister. Katherine had been beautiful, with the gold ringlets and wide blue eyes of a porcelain doll. Elizabeth had flat dun hair. Her eyebrows were dark, pulled down into a terrible frown. Underneath her furious gaze was a tense dread, as if she was halfway to guessing what had happened.
He needed to tell her that her sister was dead. He couldn’t stop remembering Katherine’s chalk-white face spidered with black veins, the feel of her cold stone body under his hands, and the overwhelming peaty smell of the gouged earth, like the land’s blood. Will, I’m frightened.
He tried to think of what he would want to hear, if their positions were reversed. He didn’t know. He didn’t have much experience of comfort. He knew Elizabeth valued the truth. So he gave it to her.
“She’s dead,” said Will. “She died fighting the Dark King.”
The Tree still glowed with light as he spoke. It felt as though surely it should flicker. Katherine would have delighted in this place. She had loved beautiful things. But she had never had the chance to see it. The Hall he had brought her to had been dark and dead.
But he wasn’t. He had told the truth, if not his part in it. He was conscious of the others in the room watching, hearing the story for the first time. Careful, careful.
“She guessed where I was going,” said Will, “and she followed me out of the Hall. She found me at Bowhill.”
She’d found him in the cratered earth, with Simon’s blood on his hands. He hadn’t been thinking clearly. Maybe if he had—
“She was brave. She was trying to do what was right. She drew the Blade to fight the Dark King. It was the Blade that killed her.” He said, “Nothing can survive once the Blade is drawn.”
There was so much he couldn’t tell her. He couldn’t tell her that her sister had drawn the Blade on him. You are him. The Dark King. He couldn’t tell her that her sister had died in pain and afraid.
I tried to stop her and I couldn’t. She didn’t believe me when I begged her not to pick up the sword.
“I laid her body in my mother’s farmhouse and sent for your uncle. He came with your aunt to bury her.”
He had waited with James at the inn in Castleton until Katherine’s family had come, her uncle and two men Will didn’t recognize stepping out of a hired carriage. He’d watched them from a distance, making certain they couldn’t see him. They had gone into his mother’s cottage and borne Katherine out under the gray sky, a funereal procession.
It had felt like the end of another life. From his first sight of her, standing on Bond Street looking for a carriage, she had been part of the dream of what might have been—of warmth and hope and family. And on that ruined peak he had thought, that is a dream I will never have again.
“Why did you live?” said Elizabeth. Her eyes were red, and her fists were tight.
The hair rose on his arms. “What?”
“Why did you live? If nothing can survive when the Blade is drawn.”
Her relentless child logic cut right into him. Her face was set in stubborn lines. He remembered that she’d seen through him that night too. I knew you’d sneak out. You’re a sneak. He spoke carefully.
“I can touch it,” said Will. “I’d touched it once before. On a ship.” He couldn’t say why. The others were in the room listening.
She said, “You’re lying. You did something.”
“Elizabeth,” said Violet gently, stepping forward. “Will told you what happened. He would have stopped it if he could. Any of us would have.”
“You went after her in London.” Elizabeth’s fisted hands clenched tighter. “You tracked her down.”
“It’s not his fault,” said Violet.
“It is his fault,” Elizabeth said to him, her whole body trembling.
“It is his fault, if it weren’t for him, she wouldn’t have come here. He didn’t care about her, he was sneaking about, trying to get at Simon! He made her come here. He made her follow him!” Her face twisted, and she flung the words at him. “She wouldn’t be dead if she’d never met you!”
Hands in her skirts, she ran out of the room.
“Elizabeth—” said Will, and he made to go after her, but Grace held him back, even as Sarah quickly followed Elizabeth out.
“Let her go,” Grace said. “There is nothing you can say to her. She has lost her sister.”
Katherine had been his sister too, or as close to a sister as he had. But those were words he couldn’t say. He closed his eyes briefly.
“I just—” He’d been so alone in those days after his mother’s death, with no idea what to do. He remembered that first night, curled in the hollow of a tree stump, clutching his bleeding hand. “She shouldn’t be on her own.”
“Sarah will be with her,” said Grace. Unspoken were the words she shouldn’t be with the one she thinks killed her sister.
He knew that. He knew he shouldn’t be the one to go after her. He could feel the wrongness of it. But the Kent sisters were his mother’s daughters her real daughters. He felt the painful wedge where family should be as he looked up at the Tree’s light.
“Elizabeth lit the Tree, didn’t she?”
Violet nodded. “It happened when we fled here, almost by accident. She tripped and put her hand on it, and it started to shine.”
“The girl did this?” said James.
A look passed between Cyprian and Violet: discomfort that James was here, learning their secrets. Will ignored it. He told James the truth, deliberately.
“She’s Blood of the Lady,” said Will. “Like Katherine.”
Grace said, “Like you.”
She still didn’t understand. None of them did. Maybe it was too terrible for them to imagine that Will might be the cuckoo in the nest.
He could feel his mother’s hands around his throat. Don’t you hurt my girls.
“If Elizabeth is Blood of the Lady, she might be your family, a cousin, a sister,” said Grace. “Did your mother ever talk about another child?”
It was cutting too close to the truth. “She never told me anything.”
Not until the end. Will forced himself to turn away from the Tree, curling his fist around the scar on his palm and turning his back on its light. “We’ve seen what you wanted me to see.”
He took a step toward the door, only to find himself stopped, a hand on his shoulder.
“No,” said Grace, holding him back again. “The Tree of Light is not why I brought you here. There is something else.”
Grace nodded. Beside her, Violet and Cyprian looked as surprised as Will felt. But Grace didn’t enlighten them; she simply waited, looking at him expectantly. Finally, after a long silence:
“Will,” she said. “What I have to show you is one of the most private matters of the Hall.”
Grace didn’t elaborate. She didn’t look at James, but he was undeniably the reason she was holding back. The Dark King’s paramour, lounging by the door.
“You mean, ‘Get out’?” inquired James politely, his lips drawing back.
“No. We’re in this together,” Will said, as James’s eyes flashed in surprise. “All of us.”
Cyprian and Violet exchanged looks. Will stared down his friends.
“Very well,” was all Grace said.
Moving to the far wall, she lifted her hands and placed them on the stone. They fitted into smooth imprints, as though many hands before her had touched precisely these points, wearing the stone away.
“This is what I brought you to see,” said Grace. “Not the Tree. But what lies beneath.”
“Beneath?” said Will.
Grace pressed against the wall, and with the grinding sound of old machinery, the stones beneath her feet split open, until she stood at the top of narrow stone steps that led down endlessly.
“I’ve never heard of a room under this one.” Cyprian had taken a step back.
“It is known only to the Elder Steward and her janissaries,” Grace said, and gestured for Will to descend. “One of the Light’s last secrets. A reminder that what we see is only a small part of what is there.”
Will went down the steps first, his heart beating strangely. Halfway down, he stopped in awe at what he saw.
A translucent light infused the walls, the vaulted ceiling, even the air, as the softly glowing roots of the Tree twined down, a thousand glimmering strands encasing the room in light. A gentle, warm peace suffused the air, as if the wondrous light could nurture and restore, healing all it touched.
“I thought I knew everything about the Hall,” said Cyprian in shocked reverence behind him.
“Did you?” said Grace. “But the Light still has its marvels, even after all this time.”
There was a simple plinth in the center of the room, carved with words in the ancient language. Above it, Tree roots hung suspended, like glowing stalactites. Will came forward, running his fingertips over the words.
“The past cries out,” he read softly, “but the present cannot hear,” and felt a chill pass over him.
There was a small stone casket on the plinth. All his attention fixed on it. The stone casket was so unassuming, and the Tree above so monumental.
He said, “What’s inside?”
“The Elder Stone,” said Grace.
He was barely aware of the others descending the steps behind him. He could feel the sanctity of this place, a place of great power, and yet he couldn’t drag his eyes from the casket.
He took a step toward it. “What does it do?”
“I don’t know. I’ve never seen it.” Grace said it simply.
Shocked, his eyes flew to her face. “You’ve never seen it?”
“It is the Hall’s greatest relic, passed down from one Elder Steward to the next,” said Grace. “None but an Elder Steward has ever opened the casket.”
The air around had its own taste, its own flavor, noticeable even with the humming surround of light from the Tree’s roots. Violet and Cyprian didn’t seem to notice. Even Grace looked unaware. Can’t you feel it? he almost said. Only James was reacting to the stone casket the way he was, his eyes fixed on it, his breathing shallow.
“It’s magic,” James said, and Will wondered if this was how magic always felt, a shivery sensation under his skin, jittery and exhilarating.
Grace gestured to the casket. “She asked that it be given to you.”
“To me?” said Will.
“When the Tree of Light began to shine.”
Of course. The Elder Steward had believed he was Blood of the Lady. She had left the Elder Stone for the one who had lit the Tree, and he would take it under false pretenses, as he had taken everything else.
He could see the others waiting for him. Violet stood closest to the stairs with Cyprian beside her, and James a step farther inside. They were all looking at him with different levels of trust and expectation.
He reached out, and pushed open the lid of the casket.
The Elder Stone sat inside, a piece of dull white quartz about the size of a ha’penny coin. There was nothing special about it. But then the stone began to shine.
Particles of light seemed to float upward from the stone’s surface, and Will felt aching wonder as they coalesced, forming a shape he knew. White robes and long white hair, translucent but visible, streaming with light.
Beside him, Grace gasped, and Cyprian let out a sound, both of them faced with the head of their Order, who they had believed dead, her body burned on the pyre, sparks rising into the night.
The Elder Steward.
She smiled the kindly smile that he knew so well, and the feeling in him swelled until it was painful.
“Will,” she said. “If Grace has brought you to the Elder Stone, it means the Tree of Light has begun to shine.”
She didn’t know. He fought the desire to tell her, to beg her forgiveness, to kneel in front of her and bow his head, so that she could rest her hand on his hair and tell him…
What? That she accepted what he was? That she forgave him? Stupid, stupid. He knew how dangerous it was to want acceptance from a mother.
The girl lit the Tree. He knew he should say it.
His heart was pounding. “Elder Steward,” he said, forcing down the painful yearning he felt. “Is it really you?”
She shook her head gently. “It is only what of me remains in the Elder Stone,” she said. “Just as you speak now with me, so too have I spoken with Stewards of old their voices guiding my hand.”
“You’ve talked with the Stewards of the old world?” said Will.
“In times of great need,” said the Elder Steward, “the Elder Stone is a source of great wisdom but like many magical objects, it diminishes with use and age. It was once a monolith as tall as this room. Now that small piece before you is the only part left.”
Will looked down and saw to his horror that each particle of light floating upward to form her image took a piece of the stone with it. The Elder Stone was disappearing by the second. Soon it would be gone altogether—
“Yes,” she acknowledged with a sad smile. “We don’t have much time.”
He pushed down all the words that he wanted to say, the need for her guidance, the fear that he didn’t know what he’d become without her, the ache rising in his throat.
“I did what you asked.” He kept inside himself how it felt to push a sword through someone’s chest. “Sinclair can’t raise the Dark King. I’m… I made sure of that.”
But the Elder Steward shook her head, her expression grave. “Sinclair is a greater threat than you know.”
“I don’t understand,” said Will.
The Elder Steward was so bright, the light streaming through and around her. But her eyes on him were grave.
“You must go to the Valnerina,” said the Elder Steward. “The Black Valley in the Umbrian mountains. In a town called Scheggino, you will find a man named Ettore Fasciale. Only with Ettore can you stop what is to come.”
“What could be a greater threat than Sinclair returning the Dark King?” said Will.
The Elder Steward shook her head, her eyes troubled. For the first time since Will had known her, frustration entered her voice as if she struggled against constraint.
“I have sworn never to speak of what lies in the Black Valley. But this I can tell you. You must find Ettore. If you do not, all you have faced will seem but a skirmish in the great battle that lies ahead.”
Valnerina. The Black Valley. The name made him shiver. He imagined the Dark King unleashing raw terror and destruction. Himself standing atop a pile of the dead—or was it Sinclair, surmounting a throne, looking out at the ruins of a once-green land?
“Already Sinclair’s forces move toward you,” said the Elder Steward. “And with the wards down, there is no way to hold him out. You must not be here when he arrives.”
“You mean—leave the Hall?”
“Sinclair cannot be allowed to capture any of you. For you each have a part you must play, and the stakes are too great for any one of you to fail.”
She seemed to smile down on him.
“The Tree of Light shines for you, Will. Do not be afraid.”
That was too much, even for him. “I’m not the one who—”
Grace’s hands closed over his own, shutting the casket.
“No—!” said Will as the Elder Steward vanished, his pounding heart the only sign she had been there at all.
He felt as if she had been snatched from him. He turned on Grace, then saw her face was streaming with tears, though she looked back at him with that unbending pragmatism.
“Do not waste the last remnants of the Stone,” said Grace. “She has told you what you must do.”
Cyprian’s expression mirrored Grace’s, wide-eyed and trembling as if he had received a religious visitation. Violet looked hollowed out, her hand on her sword hilt. Even James looked rattled, his usually insouciant expression ribboned with shock.
“Wait for us in the gatekeep,” Grace said to the others.
She turned to Will as the others ascended the stairs. He was still looking down at the closed stone casket that held the last fragment of the Elder Stone. The Elder Steward had looked so real, yet she had been an illusion. She always had been—he had to keep reminding himself of that. She had never really been his mentor; she had trained him by mistake, just another Steward tricked by the Dark King.
Grace looked at him calmly. “Do you waver in your duty?”
“You know I’m not the one who lit the Tree.”
“You’re the one who stopped Simon.”
“Who killed Simon,” said Will. The words sounded flat, even to his own ears.
“She entrusted that task to you,” said Grace. “Not to the girl.”
“The girl lights the Tree while I kill people.” It just came out. He was too shaken by what had happened. He wasn’t being careful.
“The Dark must be fought,” said Grace. “That takes killing as well as light.”
All those hours of practice, the Elder Steward guiding him patiently, attempting to help him bring the Tree back to life. Her faith in him had never wavered, even as doubt had gnawed at his insides.
“We each have our role to play,” said Grace.
And what is mine? he didn’t say.
He knew what he’d see when he climbed the stairs to the Tree Chamber, the familiar words carved over the door, now filled with new meaning.
He is coming.
Excerpted from Dark Heir, copyright © 2023 by C.S. Pacat.