Aidan Collins thinks he knows what it means to go to war--he's wrong. Yet, for his sins, all he's gained is a temporary stalemate. Trapped in a rebel city behind a wall of ice, King Arthur's army regroups and takes its first tentative steps towards self-governance. But winter can't last forever, and wars can't be won by hiding. To find desperately needed allies, Aidan, King Arthur, Aidan's lover Lee, and a mismatched group of rebels and criminals, must undertake a desperate mission across the dangerous Canadian wilderness, a trip that no one has survived in over four hundred years. Even if they succeed, the true evil that rules the United States will still need to be confronted.
Along with the terrible truth that one of them must die if that evil is to be defeated.
CONTENT ADVISORY: This story is the third in a serial trilogy. As such, it should be read after books one in the serial (Awakening Aidan) and two (Awakening Arthur).
Unlike every other office in the country, the office of the Prime Minister of the United States of America was very spacious. The decadently thick leather armchair, which rested behind the large oak desk, was obscenely comfortable, with a matching, equally luxurious leather couch pressed up against the far wall. The small library to the right of the couch was filled floor to ceiling with any book a leader of men might need to occupy himself with, from dry magical treatises to the most bawdy of romances. And, if reading wasn't something a particular prime minister was interested in, across from the library was a fully stocked bar. There was even a small crystal ball that linked directly to the prime minister's personal kitchen, open twenty-four hours so not even a midnight craving need draw him from his office's confines. Since the building of the White House over two hundred years ago, every single new prime minister, without exception, had been stunned into an awed silence when confronted with such elegant and unusual accommodations for the first time.
Connor McCree was no exception.
His green eyes widened behind thin gold-framed glasses as the sheer opulence of his new office assaulted his senses. Surely all of this could not possibly be for him alone, could it? And yet, aside from the four uncomfortable looking wooden chairs placed side by side in front of his new desk, there was nothing in the room that seemed to encourage prolonged company. Even the bar had only a single stool. And while he was no stranger to luxury--the McCrees were one of the oldest families in America and had served as ministers from the state of Massachusetts since the founding of the country--all of this seemed a bit...much. Especially for a room he wasn't even supposed to live in. Then again, he had only been prime minister for--he checked his watch--forty-seven minutes. Perhaps there was a reason his office was so much more extravagant than the living quarters he had been somewhat hastily led through by his new butler.
The click of said butler closing the doors as he left drew Connor out of his thoughts, and with a practiced self-control men twice his age lacked, he pushed aside his awe and confusion. At twenty-five, he was the youngest prime minister in history, chosen less than an hour after the previous prime minister stepped down. While self-doubt was a useless indulgence he rarely participated in, he couldn't help feeling like he needed to prove himself. Especially considering the reason the previous prime minister vacated his position.
Connor made his way over to his desk, placing his briefcase off to the side before taking a seat in the luxurious chair. He fought the urge to close his eyes and sink into its embrace. It was a battle easily won, especially considering the large piles of neatly stacked paper waiting for him to attend to. He smiled slightly to himself; even the leader of a bureaucracy couldn't avoid the paperwork, it seemed.
Eager to sink his teeth into his new position, he wasted no time in reading through the first set of reports. They were, unsurprisingly, from the Minister for Ohio, begging the new prime minister to reopen the northeastern section of his state. He sympathized with the man. After all, it wasn't his fault the False King had chosen the minister's state to launch his ill-fated rebellion from, and it certainly wasn't his fault that so many gullible fools had been taken in by the vile terrorist who had dared to take the name of Arthur as his own. The minister's fourth son was one of those fools, and even though it was slightly unbecoming to show remorse over the death of a traitor, he couldn't begrudge the man wanting to lay his child's body to rest. It was a desire he wished he could help the man fulfill, but just because there was a new prime minister didn't mean the facts on the ground had changed.
Somehow, during last month's final battle with the forces of the False King, the entire city of Cleveland and all the land and water surrounding it in a five mile radius had been covered in a sphere of solid ice. Everyone inside, traitor and loyal soldier alike, had perished instantly and yet, so far, no one had been able to figure out a way to break through the ice sphere. He quickly flipped through the latest report from the agents of the Department of Magic and Sorcery who had been working on a way to banish it, but there had been little progress. The agents were hopeful the spring thaw would melt the sphere, but that was still at least four and a half months away. Normally, there wouldn't be much urgency to uncover a graveyard of traitors, no matter how many of their own had died there as well, but precedent and propriety tended to be thrown out the window when artifacts like Excalibur were involved.
He still experienced echoes of outrage after learning the legendary blade had been stolen by terrorists. It had taken him by surprise at the time, the depth of his anger. He'd always respected the stories of Arthur and Merlin, but he had never taken them to heart the way so many had. He'd never revered them. Perhaps he never truly believed in them until he saw Excalibur with his own eyes during the False King's treasonous crystal ball broadcast. Then proven to him again when the former prime minister himself had confirmed its authenticity to parliament before quietly turning the full force of the United States government to recovering it as quickly as possible. That the full force of the government had failed to get it back after a short war and a month of slinging spell after spell at a ball of ice was the main reason the prime minister had stepped down. Secret or not, a failure of that magnitude made the entire country look weak, even if only to those in the know, and it was a mistake Connor was determined not to make.
He had just finished penning a brief scroll containing a sympathetic, but firm, refusal to the minister, when sudden movement from across the room caught his attention. He looked up, frowning, only to freeze when he saw that a small section of his library wall seemed to have swung outward, revealing a dark hole and what looked like a set of stairs.
Connor immediately reached for the crystal ball on his desk to summon security, but before he could so much as graze it with his fingers he was overcome with a strange feeling of almost overwhelming curiosity. He frowned again. He wasn't a particularly curious person by nature, especially not about potentially dangerous secret passages, and yet he still found himself leaving his chair and making his way over to the newly opened doorway. Closer, he could see the brick walls of the passage illuminated by both the light from his office and, farther down, what looked like torches of blue witch-light set into the wall at even intervals. His frown deepened.
Torches like that hadn't been used for centuries.
Connor spared little time thinking about this minor mystery, for now that he was standing in front of the door and could see the staircase leading downward, he couldn't stop himself from placing his foot on the first step and starting down. It was almost like someone had attached a rope to the center of his stomach and he could no more resist following its pull than he could cease breathing.
He walked for a long while, which was understandable. His office was on the sixth floor of the White House, and he knew instinctively that any secret passage could only end in some sort of equally secret subbasement. As he walked, he wondered about the strange pull and his uncharacteristic curiosity, but he couldn't summon up the proper fear or outrage. Intellectually, he hated not being in control of himself, but he couldn't connect that knowledge with any of the appropriate feelings that should accompany it. In fact, now that he thought about it, he couldn't really feel anything.
Well, except for the growing sense of wrongness that seemed to pollute the air the farther down he went, like raw sewage or the taint of an open grave.
Connor struggled, then, trying to stop, or at least slow his descent into whatever unclean depth that could produce such a disgusting feeling. But it was useless. The tug remained and so did his need to follow it.
At the bottom of the stairs was a simple wooden door with a thick metal ring for a handle. Every one of his self-preservation skills were screaming at him not to open it, and he was utterly unsurprised to see his hand close around the ring of its own accord before pulling the door open.
The room on the other side was dimly lit, but Connor could still make out two uneven rows of thick, metal tables set upon wheels and, across the room, a large dais upon that rested one of the biggest and most ornate beds he had ever seen. Shelves lined the rest of the room, holding glass jars and beakers filled with various colored liquids, along with several strange, sharp tools that made Connor's stomach twist uneasily.
It was the man standing several feet away from door who drew most of Connor's attention, however.
Broad where Connor was somewhat slender, short where Connor was of average height, the man in the purple robe smiled when Connor met his exotic brown eyes, a sharp contrast to Connor's own more commonplace green. Eyes set into a face Connor was incredibly familiar with.
"Good afternoon, Prime Minister McCree," said the former Prime Minister of the United States, Damon Kent.
As if those words were some kind of signal, all at once the compulsion that held Connor disappeared, and everything he hadn't been feeling suddenly slammed into him with the careful subtlety of a carriage crash; panic and fear, indignation and disgust, confusion and outrage, and a quiet, bone deep relief at having control over his body again.
"Good afternoon, Prime Minister Kent," Connor said evenly. He might have been the youngest prime minister in history, but years as a regular minister had honed his politician's mask to perfection. He was sure none of his riotous feelings were visible in his expression.
"It's very nice to finally meet you face to face," Kent said, his usual bland, but pleasant, expression replacing the smile on his elderly face. "I apologize for not getting the chance to speak with you after you were sworn in, but I was--"
"Being executed?" Connor supplied, raising an eyebrow. It was standard procedure to euthanize outgoing prime ministers to ensure a smooth transition of power. Seeing the former prime minister wearing a strange robe in a secret room beneath Connor's new office was unexpected, to say the least.
Kent smiled briefly. "Otherwise occupied. But I assure you, no execution was performed."
Well, Connor supposed it was a good thing he wasn't talking with a lich, at least. Although, now that the idea was in his head, it would have made sense. The lingering feeling of corruption in the air reminded him a lot of--
"Now, enough of this unpleasant conversation," Kent said, interrupting his thoughts. "How are you settling in? Is the office to your liking? If it's not, you are allowed to make changes."
"The office is fine. Very comfortable." Connor smiled, but behind his mask his mind was racing.
Why did this odd secret chamber reek of necromancy? Was Kent lying about not being a lich? Was Connor about to be sacrificed in some kind of necromantic ritual?
"Good, good." Kent nodded.
The former prime minister studied Connor for a long moment, and he had to fight the sudden urge to squirm. Though his expression never changed, Connor began carefully gathering his magic. The way Kent was looking at him was...off-putting. If he was about to be used in some profane rite, he wasn't going down without a fight. Even if all his instincts were screaming at him not to attack the man who, up until a few hours ago, was Connor's prime minister.
"Well," Kent said after another moment of silence, "I suppose you're wondering what this room is, and why you're here."
Connor slowly turned his left hand so his palm was facing outward, getting ready to shoot off a spell at a moment's notice.
"The thought had crossed my mind, yes."
Kent smiled. "Come now, there's no need for that." He gestured to Connor's hand. "I assure you; you won't come to any harm while you're here."
"You still haven't explained where here is," Connor said, letting a bit of steel slip into his voice. Regardless of what position Kent used to hold, Connor was the prime minister now, and he had every right to demand answers. No matter how much it felt like he didn't. "Or why I was pulled down against my will."
"Your will?" Kent let out a disappointed sigh. "Prime Minister, you've been a minister for a decent number of years now, so you should know that your will--our will--is inconsequential. Our sole reason for existing, our sole desire, is to serve our leader."
"I am the leader--"
"No, you're the prime minister," Kent said calmly. "It is a position that grants you knowledge of secrets known to a very small number of people, but it is not a position of leadership. And, if you think very hard, if you look inside yourself and truly listen to what your mind is telling you, you will find you already know what I just told you to be fact."
"What are you talking about?"
But, even as he asked the question, Connor found he already knew. His instincts, the same ones that had been warning him not to raise his magic against the former prime minister, were now telling him everything Kent had said was true. He frowned. In the past, he had always thought of his instincts as being born from years of education, indoctrination, and experience; the three cornerstones for success in America. But now, standing below the White House in a secret room, he felt for the first time like they were something more. Something, perhaps, that didn't originate within him. Even though the thought was disturbing, he still relaxed his hand and, almost against his will, let his gathered magic slip away back into his body.
Kent smiled again. "I think you know. Or, you know enough." He tilted his head to the side, an eager gleam shining in his dark eyes. "Would you like to know more?"
His instincts, or whatever they were, were telling him to say yes. He briefly thought about resisting, but what would be the point? He wanted to know the secrets Kent had been hinting at. Besides, whatever his instincts truly were, they had never let him down. They were, in fact, what led him to become the Prime Minister at such a young age.
But this should still feel wrong.
"I would," Connor said, ignoring his thoughts and following his instinct.
"Excellent." Kent grinned briefly, the dim lighting and the shadows from his hood deepening the lines in his face, giving them a sinister cast. "Follow me."
Kent led him through the strange room and through a wooden door in the far wall into a hallway lit with the same dim lighting. He followed Kent through the twisting turns of the hall, occasionally passing a closed door or two as they walked, before they stopped seemingly at random and went through yet another identical door.
The room they entered was obviously a meeting room, with, right in the center, a long, wooden table polished to a mirror sheen surrounded by chairs, and little else. It was dimly lit, as every room down there seemed to be, and so it took Connor a moment to notice the man resting against the wall in the shadows of the far corner.
When the man noticed Connor looking at him, he pushed himself off the wall with catlike gracefulness and walked slowly into the light. At first glance he was somewhat unimpressive. With his short, dark brown hair, receding hairline, average height, and plain face, he could have been any one of a hundred people Connor would pass on the street without sparing them a second thought. It was only when Connor noticed the efficient, calculated way he moved and saw the curve of firm muscle where his black turtleneck clung to his arms and chest that he reevaluated the man. Unassuming, yet dangerous. He could be only one thing, really.
But why have an entire secret labyrinth below the White House just to house a single hunter?
Hunters were somewhat of an open secret. Neither agents nor border soldiers, they were specially trained to track down and destroy terrorists and other undesirables who managed to elude the local DMS. The only thing about them that could possibly warrant such an elaborate level of secrecy was their ability to siphon magic directly from another person, an ability thought to cause the people who possessed it to lose their sanity and become mindless killing machines. A necessary lie, to keep the populace from realizing they could utilize a powerful ability best kept solely in government hands. Yet even for that secret, these underground chambers seemed to be a bit of an overkill.
"Ah, Mr. Alexander," Kent said as the man came to a stop on the opposite side of the table. "Punctual, as always."
"There's very little excuse for not being on time," Alexander said in a flat voice interwoven with a soft Kentucky accent. Connor found it strangely soothing. "Especially when I'm not allowed to leave these illustrious halls."
The sharp words belied the pleasant smile that accompanied them, but Kent seemed not to notice. Alexander didn't seem surprised by the lack of reaction, and quickly turned his attention back to Connor.
"So, you must be the new prime minister, then?" he asked. He gave Connor a quick once-over, and the prime minister fought the urge to make sure his auburn hair was still perfectly parted to the side. "A little young for an apprentice, or do you all start out so fresh-faced and innocent?"
Even though his eyes never left Connor, it was obvious his words were directed towards Kent. Before he could answer, however, Connor spoke up.
"I can assure you, hunter, I'm more than capable of fulfilling the duties of my office," he said coolly. "Or are you disparaging the system which chose me as the best candidate?"
Criticizing the government, to the prime minister no less, was an act of blatant disloyalty, which carried a wide variety of unpleasant punishments. He let the implied threat hang in the air. Or he intended to, but the effect was lost when Alexander laughed.
"You didn't tell him, did you?" he asked.
"It hadn't come up yet, no," Kent answered. He sighed briefly. "I had hoped to wait for our master to arrive, but I suppose there's little harm in getting this out of the way."
Before Connor could decide which one of those confusing statements he wanted to address first, Kent continued.
"Noah Alexander, meet Connor McCree, the new prime minister and my eventual replacement."
"Connor McCree, this is Noah Alexander, our master's personal hunter." Kent paused, a hesitation so fleeting it was barely noticeable, before adding, "And lich."
Alexander flashed a charming smile. "Call me Noah, please. Mr. Alexander was my daddy."
Alexander held out his hand and Connor reacted. It wasn't instinctual, since his instincts were telling him to shake the offered appendage in good faith. His training and his experiences, however restrained they had been mere moments before, could see nothing past the word lich and the hand that was closer to his body than any undead had the right to be, and they were what he reacted to.
Connor scurried away, grateful for the length of desk between him and the creature, as he raised his hands, palms out. He'd never fought a lich before, and he knew he couldn't kill one without also destroying its phylactery--the object that housed its soul--but he figured burning it to a pile of ash would give him enough time to figure out what to do next.
Connor coaxed the magic inside him to the surface and with an elegant twist of his wrists his hands burst into flame. He let himself feel a brief moment of satisfaction for his exemplary control over an element he normally had little affinity towards, before thrusting his hands out in front of him and shooting two lines of fire towards the lich.
In hindsight, he probably should have remembered that liches can still use magic.
The fire slammed against the lich's shield, and this time Connor's training and his instincts were in agreement. He dropped the barrage of flame, but where his instincts would have kept him frozen his training had him falling back on the type of magic that came most naturally to him.
Lightning--regular, blue lightning, not the more savage purple deathbolts--flew from his hands, though not towards the still-raised shield. The lightning bolts hit the ceiling, then bounced off into the wall behind the creature before sailing towards its exposed back.
His aim was true, but there was no lich to be struck.
Almost faster than Connor could see, the undead sprang across the table and grabbed Connor's arms, pulling them so they stretched out to his sides before shoving him hard into the wall. Connor yelped in pain as his back slammed into the hard wood. He looked up into the face of the creature, its lips pulled into a silent snarl, and knew he was about to die.
"Noah!" Kent snapped. "Release him at once!"
The lich ignored him and started to crush Connor's wrists with unnatural strength. Connor squeezed his eyes shut and let out a noise halfway between a scream and a growl as he felt the bones in his wrist grinding together.
Then, suddenly, the pain was gone, and so were the lich's hands.
Connor opened his eyes.
Sitting in the chair directly in front of him with a blank expression on his face was the lich.
Despite himself, Connor started, his head snapping towards the new and unfamiliar voice just in time to see another man step fully into the room.
He was tall and slender, with long, black hair flowing over his shoulders, framing a pointed face with bone white skin. A white, long-sleeve button-up hung loose on his body; a contrast to the tight, black pants clinging almost indecently to his legs. A pair of pale, ice-chip blue eyes lazily surveyed the room.
"Children," the man said, shaking his head. His voice was smooth, laced with the cultured tones many politicians liked to affect, yet not as practiced or clipped as Connor was used to hearing. "I can't even leave you alone for five minutes before you're at each other's throats."
The man pouted at the lich as he made his way to the head of the table, absently rubbing the small silver ring on his left middle finger. He pulled out the chair in front of him, but instead of sitting he turned towards Connor, his expression brightening.
"You parted your hair to the left!" A wide grin stretched across his face, exposing perfectly straight teeth even whiter than his skin. "I'd hoped you would. So many interesting possibilities come with the leftward part."
Connor blinked, wondering briefly if he'd stumbled into some sort of hallucination. He glanced at the lich, sitting silently in its chair, showing no sign it had just been trying to kill him; then to Kent, who had backed away from the table and was waiting patiently with his hands loosely clasped in front of him; then back to the man. No, definitely not a hallucination. Connor had never been one for spinning imaginary fantasies, and this was well beyond anything he could come up with, even if he had come down with some fast-acting illness.
"What in the ancient hells is going on here?" Connor demanded, relieved he was able to keep his voice from shaking.
The man frowned, his earlier childlike enthusiasm blown out like a candle. "Did no one tell him?" he asked, looking back and forth between the other occupants of the room.
"We were just getting around to it, but there were a few potholes we neglected to properly smooth over," the lich drawled, shooting Connor a meaningful glance.
The momentary eye contact was enough to snap Connor out of his daze, and his hands shot up, ready to unleash every spell he could think of at the creature while it was seated and at a disadvantage.
"No, no, we'll be having no more of that," the man said quickly. "Hands down, please."
Connor hesitated. He wasn't sure why, there was a lich less than ten feet away from him after all, and yet he still wanted to heed the man's words.
The man tsked. "I believe I said 'hands down'. Didn't I? I'm sure I did. And yet your hands are still up. So, I'll say it again. Hands. Down."
This time, Connor was unable to resist. He lowered his hands.
"Excellent!" the man said, clapping his hands together once. "Now, why don't we all have a seat?"
Again, Connor couldn't stop himself. He stiffly pulled out the nearest chair and sat down, disgusted and horrified to realize he'd sat next to the lich. Kent sat down across from them, seeming perfectly at ease with the undead and the strange man giving orders. Unlike the rest of them, the man stayed standing.
"What's going on?" Connor asked. They were all facing the man, which put the lich directly in Connor's line of sight. He tried his hardest not to look at it. "Why am I doing everything you tell me to? Who are you? Why is there a lich in the White House?"
The man cocked his head. "Wow, you really didn't get very far, did you?"
"As Mr. Alexander said, we encountered a few issues during our explanation," Kent said calmly.
"Did you start by telling him Noah was a lich?" the man asked. "Was that the very first thing you said?"
Kent nodded, seemingly undeterred by the sharp tone. "After introducing Mr. Alexander, yes."
The man tapped his lip thoughtfully. "Hmm," he muttered. "Leftward part and a bad reaction to Noah right from the start. That puts paid to a number of delightful possibilities. I suppose it's too much to hope that conversation twenty-two is still possible."
He studied Connor for a long moment.
"Yes. Definitely too much. Let's try..."
The man pursed his lips, then smiled. "My name is Mordred Pendragon, and I am your god."
Connor stared at him in disbelief.
"Well, go on!" the man--Mordred--prompted, throwing his hands in the air. "React! Say something! The Third Moment is incredibly important and I need to know what conversation we're having."
Once again, his instincts were telling him he was hearing the truth. Though what that truth was...
"You..." Connor cleared his throat. The compulsion to follow the order was too strong to resist, so he went with the first thing that came to mind. "When you say Mordred...you mean the Mordred? As in, the son of Arthur, Mordred?"
He couldn't believe he was even asking such an absurd question aloud.
"Yes!" Mordred slapped the table. He grinned wildly for a long moment before forcing his features into a slightly less manic expression. "And yes, that's exactly what I mean. Now, ask another question."
Connor's mouth moved the second the demand had been voiced, but he couldn't actually speak. Excalibur was one thing, but this was...
There weren't even words. Connor was sitting at a table with the most infamous person who ever lived; the man who killed King Arthur.
Suddenly, a single lich didn't seem so bad.
Mordred sighed as he shook his head. "Broken already. Such a shame." His ice-chip eyes narrowed thoughtfully as he glanced towards the lich. "Though at least he's not screaming."
The lich shifted. "In my defense," it said, "you were a lot less...whole when I first saw you."
Mordred blinked rapidly. His fingers twitched at his side, keeping time with his eyelids until he suddenly stilled, his face expressionless.
"Quite," he said flatly.
Even through his shock, Connor had no trouble sensing the way the temperature in the room seemed to drop.
"Perhaps, master," Kent said, hesitating slightly on the first word, "you could hold back on framing your statements to the prime minister as orders? I believe the compulsion is mixing with his, understandable, surprise at learning who you are. Giving him a few moments to collect his thoughts might be prudent."
For a moment, Mordred's eyes narrowed further and Kent began to tense--the most overt sign of discomfort Connor had ever seen from the man.
"Prudent," Mordred said slowly, caressing the word. "Prudent, prudent, prudent." He nodded slowly. "Prudent it is."