He pulls me in front of him, and when I keep my body apart, he sighs.

“I don’t know what’s wrong with me,” I whisper. “I feel like—like I can’t find an equilibrium.”

“You’ve been carrying too much weight for too long. All this time, Laia, you’ve led, you’ve made difficult decisions—and perhaps you weren’t ready to. There’s no shame in that, and I’ll gut anyone who tells me different. You did the best you could. But let go now. Let me carry that weight for you. Let me help you. Trust that I’ll do the right thing. Have I steered you wrong yet?”

I shake my head. My disquiet returns. You should believe in yourself more than this, Laia, a voice within says. Not every decision you’ve made has been a bad one.

But the ones that mattered—the ones where lives hung in the balance—those decisions were wrong. The weight of it is crushing.

“Close your eyes,” Keenan says. “Rest now. I’ll get us to Kauf. We’ll get Darin out. And all will be well.”


Three nights after we leave the cellar safe house, we stumble upon a half-dug mass grave of Scholars. Men. Women. Children. All tossed carelessly within, like offal. Ahead of us, the snow-capped peaks of the Nevennes Range blot out half the sky. How cruel their beauty seems. Do they not know the evil that has taken place in their shadow?

Keenan quickly urges us past, moving even after the sun is up. When we’re well away from the grave and traversing a high, forested bluff, I catch a glimpse of something to the west, in the low hills that lie between us and Antium. Tents, it looks like, and men, campfires. Hundreds of them.

“Skies.” I stop Keenan. “Do you see that? Aren’t those the Argent Hills? It looks like an entire damned army out there.”

“Come on.” Keenan pulls me onward, worry driving his impatience and igniting my own. “We need to take cover until nightfall.”

But the night only brings more horrors. Hours into our journey, we come so suddenly upon a group of soldiers that I gasp, nearly giving away our position.

Keenan pulls me back with a hiss of breath. The soldiers guard four ghost wagons—so called because once you disappear inside, you might as well be dead. The wagons’ high, black sides prevent me from seeing how many Scholars are within. But hands clutch at the bars on the back window, some large and others far too small. More prisoners are loaded into the last wagon as we watch. I think of the grave we passed earlier. I know what will happen to these people. Keenan tries to pull me onward, but I find I am unable to move.


“We can’t just leave them.”

“There are a dozen soldiers and four Masks guarding those wagons,” Keenan says. “We’d be slaughtered.”

“What if I disappeared?” I look back toward the wagons. I can’t stop thinking of those hands. “The way I did in the Tribal camp. I could—”

“But you can’t. Not since …” Keenan’s reaches out and squeezes my shoulder in sympathy. Not since Izzi died.

At the sound of a shout, I turn back to the wagons. A Scholar boy claws at the face of the Mask who drags him forward.

“You can’t keep doing this to us!” the boy screams as the Mask tosses him in the wagon. “We’re not animals! One day, we’ll fight back!”

“With what?” The Mask chuckles. “Sticks and rocks?”

“We know your secrets now.” The boy throws himself against the bars. “You can’t stop it. One of your own smiths turned against you, and we know.”

The sneer drops off the Mask’s face, and he looks almost thoughtful. “Ah yes,” he says quietly. “The rats’ great hope. The Scholar who stole the secret of Serric steel. He is dead, boy.”

I gasp, and Keenan puts a hand over my mouth, holding me steady as a I flail, whispering that I cannot make a sound, that our lives depend on it.

“He died in prison,” the Mask says. “After we extracted every bit of useful information from his weak, miserable mind. You are animals, boy. Less than that, even.”

“He’s lying,” Keenan whispers, pulling me bodily from the trees. “He’s doing it to torment that boy. There’s no way the Mask could know if Darin was dead.”

“What if he’s not lying?” I say. “What if Darin is dead? You’ve heard the rumors about him. They’re spreading further and further. Maybe by killing him, the Empire thinks they can crush those rumors. Maybe—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Keenan says. “As long as there’s a chance that he’s alive, then we have to try. Do you hear me? We must keep going. Come on. A lot of ground to cover.”


Nearly a week after leaving the cellar safe house, Keenan comes trudging back to camp—this one beneath the gnarled, leafless boughs of an oak tree. “The Commandant has gotten as far as Delphinium,” he says. “She slaughtered every free Scholar.”

“What about slaves? Prisoners?”

“Slaves were left alone—their masters no doubt protested the loss of property.” He looks ill as he says it. “She cleared out the prison. Held a mass execution in the city square.”

Skies. The darkness of the night feels deeper and quieter somehow, as if the Reaper walks these trees and every living thing knows it but us. “Soon,” I say, “there will be no Scholars left.”