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How did they find us so fast?
Behind me, the catacombs echo with angry shouts and the screech of metal. My eyes dart to the grinning skulls lining the walls. I think I hear the voices of the dead.
Be swift, be fleet, they seem to hiss. Unless you wish to join our ranks.
“Faster, Laia,” my guide says. His armor flashes as he hastens ahead of me through the catacombs. “We’ll lose them if we’re quick. I know an escape tunnel that leads out of the city. Once we’re there, we’re safe.”
We hear a scrape behind us, and my guide’s pale eyes flick past my shoulder. His hand is a gold-brown blur as it flies to the hilt of a scim slung across his back.
A simple movement full of menace. A reminder that he is not just my guide. He is Elias Veturius, heir to one of the Empire’s finest families. He is a former Mask—an elite soldier of the Martial Empire. And he is my ally—the only person who can help me save my brother, Darin, from a notorious Martial prison.
In one step, Elias is beside me. In another, he is in front, moving with unnatural grace for someone so big. Together, we peer down the tunnel we just passed through. My pulse thuds in my ears. Any elation I felt at destroying Blackcliff Academy or rescuing Elias from execution vanishes. The Empire hunts us. If it catches us, we die.
Sweat soaks through my shirt, but despite the rank heat of the tunnels, a chill runs across my skin and the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I think I hear a growl, like that of some sly, hungry creature.
Hurry, my instincts scream at me. Get out of here.
“Elias,” I whisper, but he brushes a finger against my lips—shh—and tugs a knife free from the half dozen strapped across his chest.
I pull a dagger from my belt and try to hear beyond the clicking of tunnel tarantulas and my own breathing. The prickling sense of being watched fades—replaced by something worse: the smell of pitch and flame; the rise and fall of voices drawing near.
Elias touches my shoulder and points to his feet, then mine. Step where I step. So carefully that I fear to breathe, I mimic him as he turns and heads swiftly away from the voices.
We reach a fork in the tunnel and veer right. Elias nods to a deep, shoulder-high hole in the wall, hollow but for a stone coffin turned on its side.
“In,” he whispers, “all the way to the back.”
I slide into the crypt, suppressing a shudder at the loud crrrk of a resident tarantula. A scim that Darin forged hangs across my back, and its hilt clanks loudly against the stone. Stop fidgeting, Laia—no matter what’s crawling around in here.
Elias ducks into the crypt after me, his height forcing him into a half crouch. In the tight space, our arms brush, and he draws a sharp breath. But when I look up, his face is angled toward the tunnel.
Even in the dim light, the gray of his eyes and the sharp lines of his jaw are striking. I feel a jolt low in my stomach—I’m not used to his face. Only an hour ago, as we escaped the destruction I wrought at Blackcliff, his features were hidden by a silver mask.
He tilts his head, listening as the soldiers close in. They walk quickly, their voices echoing off the walls of the catacombs like the clipped calls of raptor birds.
“—probably went south. If he had half a brain, anyway.”
“If he had half a brain,” a second soldier says, “he’d have passed the Fourth Trial, and we wouldn’t be stuck with Plebeian scum as Emperor.”
The soldiers enter our tunnel, and one pokes his lantern into the crypt across from ours. “Bleeding hells.” He recoils quickly at the sight of whatever lurks within.
Our crypt is next. My belly twists, my hand shakes on my dagger.
Beside me, Elias releases another blade from its sheath. His shoulders are relaxed, his hands loose around the knives. But when I catch sight of his face—brows furrowed, jaw tight—my heart clenches. He meets my gaze, and for a breath, I see his anguish. He does not wish to deliver death to these men.
But if they see us, they will alert the other guards down here, and we’ll be neck-deep in Empire soldiers. I squeeze Elias’s forearm. He slides his hood over his head and pulls a black kerchief up to hide his face.
The soldier approaches, his footsteps heavy. I can smell him—sweat and iron and dirt. Elias’s grip on his knives tightens. His body is coiled like a wildcat waiting to strike. I clamp a hand onto my armlet—a gift from my mother. Beneath my fingers, the armlet’s familiar pattern is a balm.
The soldier reaches the edge of the crypt. He lifts his lantern—
Suddenly, further down the tunnel, a thud echoes. The soldiers spin, draw steel, and hurry to investigate. In seconds, the light from their lantern fades, the sound of their footsteps fainter and fainter.
Elias releases a pent breath. “Come on,” he says. “If that patrol was sweeping the area, there will be more. We need to get to the escape passage.”
We emerge from the crypt, and a tremor rumbles through the tunnels, shaking dust loose and sending bones and skulls clattering to the ground. I stumble, and Elias grabs my shoulder, backing me into the wall and flattening himself beside me. The crypt remains intact, but the ceiling of the tunnel cracks ominously.
“What in the skies was that?”
“It felt like a land tremor.” Elias takes a step away from the wall and eyes the ceiling. “Except Serra doesn’t have land tremors.”
We cut through the catacombs with new urgency. With every step I expect to hear another patrol, to see torches in the distance.
When Elias stops, it is so sudden that I barrel into his broad back. We’ve entered a circular burial chamber with a low, domed ceiling. Two tunnels branch out ahead of us. Torches flicker in one, almost too far away to make out. Crypts pock the chamber walls, each guarded by a stone statue of an armored man. Beneath their helmets, skulls glare out at us. I shiver, stepping closer to Elias.
But he does not look at the crypts, or the tunnels, or the distant torches.
He stares at the little girl in the center of the chamber.
She wears tattered clothing and her hand is pressed to a leaking wound in her side. Her fine features mark her as a Scholar, but when I try to see her eyes, she drops her head, dark hair falling into her face. Poor thing. Tears mark a path down her dirt-streaked cheeks.
“Ten hells, it’s getting crowded down here,” Elias mutters. He takes a step toward the girl, hands out, as if dealing with a scared animal. “You shouldn’t be here, love.” His voice is gentle. “Are you alone?”
She lets out a tiny sob. “Help me,” she whispers.
“Let me see that cut. I can bandage it.” Elias drops to one knee so he’s at her level, the way my grandfather did with his youngest patients. She shies away from him and looks toward me.
I step forward, my instincts urging caution. The girl watches. “Can you tell me your name, little one?” I ask.
“Help me,” she repeats. Something about the way she avoids my eyes makes my skin prickle. But then, she’s been ill-treated—likely by the Empire— and now she faces a Martial who is armed to the roots of his hair. She must be terrified.
The girl inches back, and I glance at the torch-lit tunnel. Torches mean we’re in Empire territory. It’s only a matter of time before soldiers happen by.
“Elias.” I nod at the torches. “We do not have time. The soldiers—”
“We can’t just leave her.” His guilt is plain as day. The deaths of his friends days ago in the Third Trial weigh on him; he doesn’t wish to cause another. And we will, if we leave the girl here alone to die of her wounds.
“Do you have family in the city?” Elias asks her. “Do you need—”
“Silver.” She tilts her head. “I need silver.”
Elias’s eyebrows shoot up. I cannot blame him. It is not what I expected either.
“Silver?” I say. “We don’t—”
“Silver.” She shuffles sideways like a crab. I think I see the too-quick flash of an eye through her limp hair. Strange. “Coins. A weapon. Jewelry.”
She glances at my neck, my ears, my wrists. With that look, she gives herself away.
I stare at the tar-black orbs where her eyes should be, and scrabble for my dagger. But Elias is already in front of me, scims glimmering in his hands.
“Back away,” he snarls at the girl, every inch a Mask.
“Help me.” The girl lets her hair fall into her face once more and puts her hands behind her back, a twisted caricature of a wheedling child. “Help.”
At my clear disgust, her lips curl in a sneer that looks obscene on her otherwise sweet face. She growls—the guttural sound I heard earlier. This is what I sensed watching us. This is the presence I felt in the tunnels.
“I know you have silver.” A rabid hunger underlies the creature’s little-girl voice. “Give it to me. I need it.”
“Get away from us,” Elias says. “Before I take off your head.”
The girl—or whatever it is—ignores Elias and fixes her eyes on me. “You don’t need it, little human. I’ll give you something in return. Something wonderful.”
“What are you?” I whisper.
She whips her arms out, her hands gleaming with a strange viridescence. Elias flies toward her, but she evades him and fastens her fingers on my wrist. I scream, and my arm glows for less than a second before she is flung backward, howling, clutching her hand as if it is on fire. Elias pulls me to my feet from the dirt where I am sprawled, pitching a dagger at the girl at the same time. She dodges it, still shrieking.
“Tricky girl!” She darts away as Elias lunges for her again, her eyes only for me. “Sly one! You ask what am I, but what are you?”
Elias swings at her, sliding one of his scims across her neck. He’s not fast enough.
“Murderer!” She whirls on him. “Killer! Death himself! Reaper walking! If your sins were blood, child, you would drown in a river of your own making.”
Elias reels back, shock etched into his eyes. Light flickers in the tunnel. Three torches bob swiftly toward us.
“Soldiers coming.” The creature whirls to face me. “I’ll kill them for you, honey-eyed girl. Lay their throats open. I already led away the others following you, back in the tunnel. I’ll do it again. If you give me your silver. He wants it. He’ll reward us if we bring it to him.”
Who in the skies is he? I don’t ask, only bring up my dagger in response.
“Stupid human!” The girl clenches her fists. “He’ll get it from you. He’ll find a way.” She turns toward the tunnel. “Elias Veturius!” I flinch. Her scream is so loud they probably heard her in Antium. “Elias Vetu—”
Her words die as Elias’s scim rips through her heart. “Efrit, efrit of the cave,” he says. Her body slides off the weapon and lands with a solid thump, like a boulder falling. “Likes the dark but fears the blade.
“Old rhyme.” He sheathes his scim. “Never realized how handy it was until recently.”
Elias grabs my hand, and we bolt into the unlit tunnel. Maybe through some miracle, the soldiers didn’t hear the girl. Maybe they didn’t see us. Maybe, maybe—
No such luck. I hear a shout and the thunder of bootsteps behind us.
Three auxes and four legionnaires, fifteen yards behind us. As I race ahead, I whip my head around to gauge their progress. Make that six auxes, five legionnaires, and twelve yards.
More of the Empire’s soldiers will pour into the catacombs with every second that passes. By now, a runner has carried the message to neighboring patrols, and the drums will spread the alert throughout Serra: Elias Veturius spotted in the tunnels. All squads respond. The soldiers don’t need to be sure of my identity; they will hunt us down regardless.
I take a sharp left down a side tunnel, pulling Laia with me, my mind careening from thought to thought. Shake them off quickly, while you still can. Otherwise . . .
No, the Mask within hisses. Stop and kill them. Only eleven of them. Easy. Could do it with your eyes closed.
I should have killed the efrit in the burial chamber straightaway. Helene would scoff if she knew I’d tried to help the creature instead of recognizing it for what it was.
Helene. I’d bet my blades she’s in an interrogation room by now. Marcus—or Emperor Marcus, as he’s now called—ordered her to execute me. She failed. Worse, she was my closest confidante for fourteen years. Neither of those sins will come without cost—not now that Marcus possesses absolute power.
She will suffer at his hands. Because of me. I hear the efrit again. Reaper walking!
Memories of the Third Trial jolt through my head. Tristas dying upon Dex’s sword. Demetrius falling. Leander falling.
A shout from ahead returns me to myself. The field of battle is my temple. My grandfather’s old mantra comes back to me when I need it most. The swordpoint is my priest. The dance of death is my prayer. The killing blow is my release.
Beside me, Laia pants, her body dragging. She is slowing me down. You could leave her, an insidious voice whispers. You’d move faster on your own. I crush the voice. Besides the obvious fact that I promised to help her in exchange for my freedom, I know that she’ll do anything to get to Kauf Prison—to her brother—including trying to make her way there alone.
In which case, she’d die.
“Faster, Laia,” I say. “They’re too close.” She surges forward. Walls of skulls, bones, crypts, and spiderwebs fade away on either side of us. We’re far south of where we should be. We’ve long since passed the escape tunnel in which I hid weeks’ worth of supplies.
The catacombs rumble and shake, knocking both of us down. The stench of fire and death filters through a sewer grate directly above us. Moments later, an explosion rips through the air. I don’t bother considering what it could be. All that matters is that the soldiers behind us have slowed, as wary of the unstable tunnels as we are. I use the opportunity to put another few dozen yards between us. I cut right into a side tunnel and then retreat into the deep shadow of a half-crumbled alcove.
“Will they find us, do you think?” Laia whispers.
Light flares from the direction we were headed, and I hear the staccato clomp of boots. Two soldiers turn into the tunnel, their torches illuminating us clearly. They halt for a second, bewildered, perhaps, by the presence of Laia, by my lack of a mask. Then they spot my armor and scims, and one of them releases a piercing whistle that will draw in every soldier who can hear it.
My body takes over. Before either of the soldiers can unsheathe their swords, I’ve impaled throwing knives into the soft flesh of their throats. They drop silently, their torches sputtering on the damp catacomb floor.
Laia emerges from the alcove, her hand over her mouth. “E-Elias—”
I lunge back to the alcove, pulling her with me and loosening my scims in their scabbards. I have four throwing knives left. Not enough.
“I’ll take out as many as I can,” I say. “Stay out of the way. No matter how bad it looks, don’t interfere, don’t try to help.”
The last word leaves my lips as the soldiers who were following us come into view from the tunnel to our left. Five yards away. Four. In my mind, the knives have already flown, already found their marks. I burst from the alcove and let them loose. The first four legionnaires go down quietly, one after the other, as easy as scything grain. The fifth drops with a sweep of my scim. Warm blood sprays, and I feel my bile rising. Don’t think. Don’t dwell. Just clear the way.
Six auxes appear behind the first five. One jumps onto my back, and I dispatch him with an elbow to his face. A moment later, another soldier rushes me. When he gets a knee to the teeth, he howls and claws at his broken nose and bloody mouth. Spin, kick, sidestep, strike.
Behind me, Laia screams. An aux hauls her out of the alcove by her neck and holds a knife to her throat. His leer turns into a howl. Laia’s shoved a dagger into his side. She yanks it out, and he staggers away.
I turn on the last three soldiers. They flee.
In seconds, I collect my knives. Laia’s whole body shakes as she takes in the carnage around us: Seven dead. Three injured, moaning and trying to rise.
When she looks at me, her eyes grow round in shock at my bloodied scims and armor. Shame floods me, so potent that I wish I could sink into the ground. She sees me now, down to the wretched truth at my core. Murderer! Death himself!
“Laia—” I begin, but a low groan rolls down the tunnel, and the ground trembles. Through the sewer grates I hear screams, shouts, and the deafening reverberation of an enormous explosion.
“What in the hells—”
“It’s the Scholar Resistance,” Laia shouts over the noise. “They’re revolting!”
I don’t get to ask how she happens to know this fascinating tidbit, because at that moment, telltale silver flashes from the tunnel to our left.
“Skies, Elias!” Laia’s voice is choked, her eyes wide. One of the Masks approaching is enormous, older than me by a dozen years and unfamiliar. The other is a small, almost diminutive figure. The calmness of her masked face belies the chilling rage that emanates from her.
My mother. The Commandant.
Boots thunder from our right as whistles draw even more soldiers. Trapped.
The tunnel groans again.
“Get behind me,” I snap at Laia. She doesn’t hear. “Laia, damn it, get— ooof—”
Laia dives straight into my stomach, a graceless, desperate leap so unexpected that I topple back into one of the wall crypts. I punch straight through the thick cobwebbing over the crypt and land on my back atop a stone coffin. Laia’s half on top of me, half wedged between the coffin and the crypt wall.
The combination of cobwebs, crypt, and warm girl throws me, and I’m barely even capable of stuttering, “Are you cra—”
BOOM. The ceiling of the tunnel we were just standing in collapses all at once, a thunderous rumble intensified by the roar of explosions from the city. I flip Laia under me, my arms on either side of her head to shield her from the blast. But it is the crypt that saves us. We cough from the wave of dust unleashed by the explosions, and I’m keenly aware that if not for Laia’s quick thinking, we’d both be dead.
The rumbling stops, and sunlight cuts through the dust. Screams echo from the city. Carefully, I lift myself away from Laia and turn toward the crypt entrance, which is half-blocked by chunks of rock. I peer out into what’s left of the tunnel. Which isn’t much. The cave-in is complete—not a Mask to be seen.
I scramble out of the crypt, half dragging, half carrying a still-coughing Laia over the debris. Dust and blood—not hers, I affirm—streak her face, and she paws at her canteen. I put it to her lips. After a few swallows, she pulls herself standing.
“I can—I can walk.”
Rocks obstruct the tunnel to our left, but a mailed hand shoves them away. The Commandant’s gray eyes and blonde hair flash through the dust.
“Come on.” I pull up my collar to hide the Blackcliff diamond tattoo on the back of my neck. We clamber out of the ruined catacombs and into the cacophonous streets of Serra.
Ten bleeding hells.
No one appears to have noticed the collapse of the street into the crypts—everyone is too busy staring at a column of fire rising into the hot blue sky: the governor’s mansion, lit up like a Barbarian funeral pyre. Around its blackening gates and in the immense square in front of it, dozens of Martial soldiers are locked in a pitched battle with hundreds of rebels dressed in black—Scholar Resistance fighters.
“This way!” I angle away from the governor’s mansion, knocking down two approaching rebel fighters as I go, and aim for the next street over. But fire rages there, spreading rapidly, and bodies litter the ground. I grab Laia’s hand and race toward another side street, only to find that it is as brutalized as the first.
Above the clang of weapons, the screams, and the roar of flames, Serra’s drum towers beat frenziedly, demanding backup troops in the Illustrian Quarter, the Foreign Quarter, the Weapons Quarter. Another tower reports my location near the governor’s mansion, ordering all available troops to join the hunt.
Just past the mansion, a pale blonde head emerges from the debris of the collapsed tunnel. Damn it. We stand near the middle of the square, beside an ash-coated fountain of a rearing horse. I back Laia against it and duck, desperately searching for an escape route before the Commandant or one of the Martials spots us. But it seems as if every building and every street adjoining the square is aflame.
Look harder! Any second now, the Commandant will dive into the fray in the square, using her terrifying skill to tear a path through the battle so she can find us.
I look back at her as she shakes the dust off her armor, unmoved by the chaos. Her serenity raises the hair on the back of my neck. Her school is destroyed, her son and foe escaped, the city an absolute disaster. And yet she is remarkably calm about it all.
“There!” Laia grabs my arm and points to an alley hidden behind an overturned vendor’s cart. We crouch down and race toward it, and I thank the skies for the tumult that keeps Scholars and Martials alike from noticing us.
In minutes, we reach the alley, and as we’re about to plunge into it, I chance a look back—once, just to make sure she hasn’t seen us.
I search the chaos—through a knot of Resistance fighters descending on a pair of legionnaires, past a Mask fighting off ten rebels at once, to the rubble of the tunnel, where my mother stands. An old Scholar slave trying to escape the havoc makes the mistake of crossing her path. She plunges her scim into his heart with a casual brutality. When she yanks the blade out, she doesn’t look at the slave. Instead, she stares at me. As if we are connected, as if she knows my every thought, her gaze slices across the square.