A light flashes on my helmet. Cook's signal. Finally.
It has been two days since we arrived in Antium. Two days since the Karkauns unleashed their hordes of possessed, white-eyed soldiers upon the city. Two days of bone-shaking attacks and streets crumbled to dust. Two days of men with unnatural strength pelting the city with flaming missiles while the air is choked with screams. Above it all, the buzz of arrows as thousands are unleashed on the forces arrayed outside the city's gates.
I have posed as a sweeper, a slops collector, a squire--all in an attempt to get close to the Blood Shrike. I have tried to use my invisibility, but no matter how much willpower I pour into it, I have been unable to harness it.
Which means the Nightbringer must be nearby. He is the only thing that has kept me from drawing on my magic in the past.
Thus the disguises--not that any of them have helped. The Blood Shrike leads the defense of the city, and she is everywhere at once. In the few glimpses I have had of her, her ringed hand has been clenched around her blood-drenched war hammer.
The light flashes on my helm again, this time with an air of impatience. I back away from the line of men, hurrying off as if to get more water, though the buckets attached to the pole across my back are not even half-empty yet.
A missile hits the wall just behind me, and the explosion slams me to my knees, sending the buckets flying. I shudder, every part of my body hurting, a shrill keen in my ears at the sound of the impact.
Get up, Laia! I scramble for the buckets and run from where other soldiers are falling. The missile has left a smoking crater in the earth below the wall, where a group of soldiers and Scholar slaves had been standing only moments ago. The stench makes me gag.
I make my way across the lower level of the wall, up a set of stairs, to the walkway at the top. I keep my head down. This is the closest I've gotten to the Shrike. I cannot make a mistake now.
The mirror flashes again, this time to my left. Cook is telling me which way to go, and I follow the flash, ignoring cries for water, pretending that I have someplace more important to be.
I spy the Shrike ahead of me, blood-drenched and slumped with exhaustion. Her armor is gouged in a dozen places, her hair a mess. Her ringed hand hangs loose.
When I am thirty feet away, I slow my pace. When I am ten feet from her, I clutch at the pole I hold and sling it down, as if preparing to take water to the soldiers around her.
Skies, she is so close, and she has, for once, put down that damned hammer. All I have to do is get my hands on the ring. The moment I do, Cook will launch her distraction--which she has refused to tell me about, for fear of the Nightbringer learning of it and sabotaging us.
Now the Shrike is a mere few feet from me. My mouth is suddenly dry, my feet heavy. Just get your hands on the ring. Get it off her.
I should have practiced. Cook spent what little time we had trying to teach me the art of pickpocketing, but in truth, I have no idea how to filch a ring. What if it is tight on her? What if I yank at it and it does not come off? What if she curls her hand into a fist? What if--
A tickle on my neck. A premonition. A warning that something comes. I scurry a few feet farther away from the Shrike and dole out dippers of water to grateful men.
The light ahead shifts strangely, a contortion in the air that births a slice of night's shadow.
The Blood Shrike senses it as I do and stands, her hand fisted around her war hammer once more. Then she takes a step back as the shadows coalesce.
It is him: the Nightbringer.
I am not alone in backing away from him, and it is that that saves me from his gaze. All of the soldiers around the Shrike are in as much of a hurry to escape the jinn's attention as I am.
"Shrike." His grating, grinding voice makes me shudder. "Keris Veturia seeks your counsel, for she--"
I do not hear the rest. I am halfway down the stairs, buckets abandoned, mission aborted.
"What the hells?" Cook meets me when I've gotten well away from the wall. I hear the unmistakable whistle of another missile falling.
"We had a plan, girl."
"It didn't work." I yank my helm off, not caring who sees, knowing it will not make a difference anyway--not in this chaos. "He was there. The Nightbringer. Right next to her. He would have seen me." I shake my head. "We have to find another way. We need to lure her to us. But short of holding the Emperor hostage, I don't know what would work."
Cook takes my shoulders and turns me toward the wall. "We are going back there right now," she says. "All we have to do is wait for him to leave. Everything is in place, and we won't--"
An explosion tears through the air just yards away, where a group of Scholar slave children are digging through rubble under the watchful eye of a Martial legionnaire.
I find myself flat on the ground, coughing debris from my lungs, trying to wave away the dust.
"Najaam!" A girl cries out. "Najaam!" An answering cry, and then the girl's sobbing as she pulls another child from the rubble. With her eyes on the legionnaire, who is still trying to rise from the blast, the little girl grabs the boy, and they begin to run, both of them limping.
Cook sees me watching and drags me to my feet. "Come on, girl."
"Those two need help," I say. "We can't just--"
"We can and we will," Cook says. "Move. The distraction I arranged will only work for so long, but it will give you enough time to get to the ring."
But I cannot take my eyes off the child, who spins and searches the city around her, hunting for a way out. Her furrowed brow is far too old for her years, and her younger brother--for they are clearly siblings--looks up at her, waiting for her to tell him what they should do. She spots me and Cook, realizes that we are Scholars, and rushes to us.
"Please," she says. "Can you help us get out? We can't stay. We'll die. Mother and Father and Subhan are already dead. I can't let Najaam die. I promised my parents before they--I promised I'd keep him safe."
I pick up the little boy, and Cook is on my heels. "Damn it, Laia!"
"We cannot get that ring by sneaking it off the Shrike at the wall," I hiss at her. "Distraction or not. But we can save these two lives. We can do something. You've seen the tunnels. You know the way out. Get them as far as that. Give them a chance. Because skies know that if they stay in this hellhole, they will die. They'll both die."
"Put the child down, Laia. We have a mission."
"Is that what you told yourself when you left us?" I ask her. "That you had a mission?"
Cook's face goes hard. "You can't help them."
"We can give them a way out."
"So they can starve to death in the forest!"
"So they can have hope!" I scream at her, an eruption born of my guilt over giving up my armlet to the Nightbringer. It is born of my rage at myself for not being able to stop him, frustration at my utter inability to do anything to help or protect or save my people.
"I will get you out," I tell the children. This is one promise I'm going to keep. "Come on. We'll take you through the tunnels. When you come out of them, there will be a forest, and you need to go through it and into the mountains to be safe. You'll have to eat mushrooms and berries--"
The shrill screee of a missile rings out, growing louder by the second. It blazes with fire as it arcs downward, graceful as a falling star.
And it's coming right for us.
"Sissy!" Najaam grabs for his sister, panicking. She yanks him from me and runs.
I turn toward my mother in a panic. "Run!" I say. "Ru--"
I feel an arm around my waist, powerful and familiar and searingly hot. The last thing I hear is a deep, scarred voice, growling as if it was born of the earth itself.
"You are a fool, Laia of Serra."
Then I am flung much farther than any human could throw me, and the world goes white.
XLVIII: The Blood Shrike
I do not know how long it has been since the Karkauns descended. I do not know how many I have killed. I only
know how many of our men have died. I know where our enemies are starting to push through the wall.
My men roll out pitch and rocks and flames. We throw everything we have at the hordes swarming up ladders and attempting to overrun us. With blood and sweat and unending toil, we hold them back. But they die slowly, if at all. And they keep coming.
The men slump against the wall, bloodied and exhausted. We need a victory. We need something to turn the tide.
I am considering this when Dex arrives, looking as much a mess as I feel. His report is as I expected: too many losses, too few gains. We underestimated the Karkauns and overestimated our own strength in battle.
"Harper says the tunnels are full," Dex says. "He's gotten about five thousand Plebeians up the Pilgrim Road already, but there are thousands left to evacuate. They're all coming out just north of Pilgrim's Gap. That land is hard to travel. It's going to take time."
"Does he need men?"
"He has all he needs."
I nod. At least something in this skies-forsaken city is going right. "And the Paters?"
"Their families have fled. Most of them have holed up in their houses."
We need those men out here, fighting. But it would take more men to drag them out, and we don't have the manpower. The legions from Estium and Silas, which should have been pressing the attack on the Karkaun army's rear guard, have been delayed by storms.