“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!