Blackbird Broken (The Witch King's Crown #2) - Keri Arthur

Chapter One

Hell’s Gill looked like any other slot canyon. Situated in the northwest sector of the Yorkshire Dales and sharing a border with the Lake District National Park, it was a narrow five-hundred-meter-long slash in the ground, created over the centuries by the clear, cold waters that still ran at its base. Although not particularly deep, it had become a favorite haunt of cavers and scramblers alike, all of whom had no idea that this was one of the most dangerous places on earth.

Hell’s Gill wasn’t just a slot canyon.

It happened to host the main entrance into Darkside—a reflection of our world that existed on a different plane.

It was also the home of demons, dark elves, and who knew what other nasties.

Though no one these days remembered how, multiple gateways had formed between our plane and theirs. Most of these were considered minor and, until recently, the only demons that came through with any sort of regularity were juveniles seeking to hone their hunting skills. Every gateway was both magically warded and regularly checked, and the witch council in the nearest town was generally responsible for dealing with any incursion.

The magic protecting the main gateway had never fractured. Not since Uhtric Aquitaine—the last Witch King to hold the great sword of power—had closed it after the last major incursion hundreds of years ago, anyway.

Unfortunately, all that was about to change. Three hours ago, Mo—who I called my grandmother even though she was centuries older than that—and I had flown over to King’s Island, where Uhtric’s sword had for centuries been encased in stone, and discovered it gone.

A new king had claimed it.

One we believed was already in league with Darkside.

I peered over the edge of the old stone bridge that spanned the Gill. A pool of dark water lay directly below but narrowed into another gorge several meters further on. Vegetation spilled over the edges of the canyon, hiding much of the sides and the water-smoothed cutaways deeper down. Though I couldn’t see the main gate—aside from the fact it was night, it was basically under the bridge and deep within a cavernous cutaway—I could feel the pulse of protective power that emanated from it. It spoke of fierce storms and deep earth, of cindering heat and the violence of the sea—Uhtric’s magic, still in place, still protecting us.

But for how long?

I looked up and studied the gently rolling hills of the surrounding area. There was no indication the night held any life, let alone any danger, but that didn’t mean something wasn’t out there. Darkside’s inhabitants were very good at concealment.

I gripped my two daggers in my claws, then fluttered down to the main section of the bridge and shifted back to human form. The De Montfort line of witches were not only healers able to both give and take life, we were also the only line capable of taking a secondary form—that of a blackbird. Mo had once said this was part of the reason it had become our duty to guard the king’s sword—few ever suspected or even looked for watchers in the sky. Which, given many demons were winged, really didn’t make much sense, especially when—as birds—we had no real capacity to fight.

Another blackbird soared up from the darkness of the Gill and swung toward me, her dark brown feathers shimmering in the moonlight as the shifting magic crawled over her. Mo landed lightly beside me in human form and shook off the beads of moisture dotting her bright orange coat.

I leaned back to avoid getting smacked in the face by her long plait of gray hair and then said, “Any indication our new king brought the sword here to test it?”

“No, and that’s worrying.” She wrinkled her nose. “I’d have thought it would be the first thing he’d do.”

“Unless he’s well aware we’d be thinking that and has reacted accordingly.”

As if in response to that statement, something stirred out in the deeper darkness of the night. I scanned the immediate area again. The gently rolling hills remained empty, but I couldn’t escape the growing certainty that something was out there—that someone was watching.

“Possibly. The bastard’s been one step ahead of us from the get-go.” Mo strode over to the edge of the bridge. Though her right leg was still in a protective boot after she’d fractured it in a fall down the stairs, it really wasn’t hampering her movements in any way these days. “I’m thinking we need to place a wall across the gateway’s entrance.”