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The Webs That Bind

The Webs That Bind

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Book 5 of the Reluctant Assassin series

Zayn's meticulously laid plans for defeating the Lady of Varna unravel as he faces betrayals and realizes the dangers of involving his team in the final confrontation. With the ancient adversary adept at evading demise, Zayn must seek unexpected allies and confront the costs of his past failures to overcome this formidable foe.

Synopsis

Even the best plans fail.

Zayn has spent his whole life preparing for the final confrontation with the Lady of Varna, but as the day grows closer, complications multiply. When he realizes he can no longer trust his cousin, or his patron—nor does he want to get his teammates killed—it means he must finish his quest alone. But the Lady of Varna has been alive for millennia because she has a supernatural knack for avoiding even the most cunning plans. If Zayn is going to solve this impossible conundrum, he's going to have to get help from an unlikely source and accept the price of his failures.

Chapter One Look Inside

Part I – The Wish
Chapter One
On the train from Atlanta to Invictus, August 2017
Prophecy comes in strange places

"Sometimes even the best plans fail."
The words hung in the dim air of the Magtrak elite privacy train car as the North Carolina countryside flew past in a dark green blur.
Zayn, who'd been leaning his head against the cool glass trying not to think about the fact that it was their last year at the Academy, glanced over to his cousin on the opposite seat.
Keelan sat straight and tall as if his inner thoughts had made him rigid. When they'd met up at the station in Atlanta, he'd worn the dark sunglasses of a Watcher, but those were stuffed into his jacket pocket, revealing his brown eyes.
"Sometimes even the best plans fail," repeated Keelan.
The words had a chilling effect on Zayn. Had Keelan somehow listened in on his thoughts?
Zayn pulled himself away from the comfortable armrest, stiffening to match his cousin's posture. He checked the runes along the walls for signs of an active spell, but they were dull gray, signaling that the car was completely devoid of active magic.
"What are you talking about?" asked Zayn.
For a moment, they locked gazes and Zayn's hackles went up, which simultaneously twisted his guts because it felt so unnatural to look at his best friend that way. The intensity of their matched gazes broke when Keelan looked outside at the hazy morning sky above the fields.
"Remember the day of my daddy's funeral?" asked Keelan, his Alabama accent coloring the edges of his words. "When I wanted to do nothing but get away from Varna?"
The memory came back easy for Zayn as if it'd been waiting there for him, but so did other memories from those times. Memories with more at stake to them.
"You were throwing rocks at some old junk," said Zayn, feeling the heat from that day as if he were back in that vine-choked forest. "Called me an ice zombie, or something like that."
Keelan's forehead bunched at the center as if he were working on a mental knot. His mouth twitched before he spoke. "I'm sorry about getting your ass kicked."
"It's okay," said Zayn. "I understood why it happened, plus it got me that job with the Goon. Eventually, anyway."
Zayn glanced at the dull runes and the train car, and thought about the other memories from that time—namely that he'd made a promise to himself in front of Keelan that he would end the Lady of Varna.
Sometimes even the best plans fail.
Was that a coded warning to stay away? Zayn wanted to ask his cousin, but those Watcher glasses were sitting right there in plain view, a reminder of his new responsibilities. Sometime during the summer, Keelan had started wearing them. Zayn had caught a glimpse of him without the glasses when they were BBQing on his deck. A wasp had flown around his head, and he’d knocked them off trying to swat it away without spilling his beer. It was only a glimpse, but his brown eyes had glints of purple to them.
But they weren't purple now. Last year when Watcher Sabrina had come to see him in Invictus, she'd kept her glasses off. Was that the purpose of the runed train car, so they could have a conversation in private? Or was it a warning for him not to make an attempt on the Lady's life?
A strained silence made the next few hours uncomfortable. Zayn watched Keelan fidget in his seat, looking like he was going to say something else, but he never worked himself up to it.
Zayn went back to watching the countryside fly past, but his thoughts never left his cousin. He'd spent his whole life with Keelan, getting into trouble together, joining the Halls. But now that their paths were diverging, he didn't know what to say.
It wasn't just Varna. Zayn suspected if they'd grown up in a normal town, that this awkwardness would be the same. As much as he loved his cousin, they had different interests in life after school.
"What's O'Keefe going to have you work on for your final project?" asked Zayn, trying to dispel the mood
Keelan looked up from picking at his fingernail. He blinked a couple of times. Quirked his mouth to one side. "Nothing exciting. What about you?"
"I haven't the faintest idea what Priyanka will get me into this year. I'm just glad that she's still my mentor," said Zayn, regretting it as soon as he'd said it.
Because Keelan was a Watcher, Zayn hadn't told his cousin about everything that had happened last year, including why he'd had the headaches. The only events he’d explained were the same ones that he'd told the Speaker about, which kept strictly to the final battle with the dragon Akhekh.
Keelan frowned, as if he knew Zayn was withholding information. Zayn looked out the window, catching a glint in the sky.
"Hey, I can see the Spire. We're almost to the city," said Zayn, relieved that the trip would soon be over.
Since the Spire was over twice the height of any other building, it could be seen from far distances, especially since the morning cloud cover had cleared away.
"Last year, cuz," Keelan said wistfully as he pressed his face to the window.
"Last year," repeated Zayn. "How'd it go so fast?"
"A lot of things happened," said Keelan, who suddenly looked gravely serious. "Remember when we nearly got killed by that cave full of magic-eating spiders?"
"That was a close one," said Zayn, remembering the claustrophobic feel when they were surrounded in the pool.
"It's weird that you found another colony in the Undercity," said Keelan.
"Not that weird. Plenty of faez for them to snack on," said Zayn.
"They actually don't like faez," said Keelan. "While it makes them grow, they die not long after. It's more like a defensive mechanism, like a bee sting that kills the bee. Otherwise the world would be overrun with giant spiders."
"You're just like your dad when it comes to animals," said Zayn, instantly regretting it when Keelan flinched. He put his hand to his forehead. "Sorry, man. I put my foot in my mouth. You're nothing like Uncle Jesse."
It'd seemed like whatever Keelan had to say was lost to the reference of his father, which was a burden his cousin could never get rid of. It was hard to acknowledge the good parts of a shitty human being, especially one related to them.
When they pulled into the station, Keelan grabbed his arm before he left the runed car. He had a look of quiet desperation in his eyes as if there were many things still unsaid.
"Zayn," said Keelan, his face bunching with emotion. "Whatever happens this year and afterwards, remember that I've always got your back. Always."
"You too," said Zayn.
They hugged briefly before continuing out of the train. When Zayn stepped outside, he could smell the hotdog vendors outside the station, hear them hawking their wares and the impatient honking of taxi cabs maneuvering for customers.
Keelan stepped out next to him, backpack slung over his shoulder, a contented grin lingering beneath his eager gaze. The tension from the car had been dispelled by the onion-scented air and the bustle of the station.
When they stepped out of the glass station building, Priyanka was waiting for them. She wore a white shirt with a black leather jacket over top and dark jeans. Her hair was in a ponytail, and despite being one of the five original patrons, no one noticed her.
"I didn't realize we warranted special greetings," said Keelan.
Priyanka raised an eyebrow. "Sorry, Keelan. You're going to have to go on to the Honeycomb alone. I need to speak with your cousin."
As he headed the other way, Keelan, said, "No problem. I much prefer blowing stuff up with Instructor O'Keefe than putting my life in danger on a regular basis."
The smile on Priyanka's face didn't match the heaviness in her eyes. She led Zayn to a black SUV. He thought she was going to climb into the driver's seat, but she motioned for him to get into the front.
Zayn was expecting an instructor at the wheel, or maybe a fellow fifth year. He wasn't expecting the second most famous man in the world, the patron of the Dramatics Hall, Frank Orpheum.

Main Tropes

  • Urban Fantasy
  • Magical Academy
  • Found Family
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