Damia smiled. No longer under her command, these Borderkind were still loyal.
“Orders, Commander?” Old Roger asked.
She saw that he looked not at her, but past her, and Damia turned to see that the remnants of her battalion had gathered on the field of battle. They had been scattered by the latest Atlantean push, but now they mustered behind her once more. The battle raged a hundred yards ahead, and it appeared Atlantis had gotten the upper hand.
Damia Beck raised her sword, a smile on her bloody face.
The wounded outnumbered the dead. Collette feared for her brother, but the pain and anguish around her would not allow her to wallow in her own concerns. The idea of being left behind did not suit her, but if she had to stay here in camp, then she wanted to be useful. Helping with the injured was the best way she could think of to do that. As a high school girl she had volunteered at a local hospital, which combined with far too many medical shows on TV to provide her with all she knew about medicine. Still, when she offered her help, a field surgeon put her to work immediately. She could clean and dress wounds and check on patients’ pulses. Already she had held down a soldier while the doctor amputated his leg below the knee. He’d mentioned something about cauterizing wounds. She wasn’t looking forward to that.
But she had to do something.
Someone shouted her name. She turned to see one of the healers—an ironic word on the battlefield—beckoning to her as two soldiers carried another on a blanket stretched between them.
Collette ran over as they set the blanket down. The healer slapped thick shears into her hand and Collette got to work immediately cutting away the heavy leather breastplate covering the soldier’s chest. There came a cough and a spatter, and when she looked she saw blood bubbling from the soldier’s lips. That crimson smear on her mouth made Collette realize the soldier was a woman. Not even a woman. Her eyes were ocean blue, her skin soft and alabaster white, save where the blood speckled it. Her cheeks still had a bit of baby fat. The girl could not have been more than seventeen.
The young soldier coughed again, breath ragged, and her eyes found Collette’s. Blood dripped from her left nostril and ran down her cheek. The surgeon tore away her tunic. Collette had wondered where she had been cut or stabbed, but there was no open wound. Instead, the girl’s entire right side had become a mottled mess of purple and black, blood welling under the bruised skin. Her small breasts rose and fell with her tortured breathing, but on the right side she was swollen. Between her breasts and lower, her skin had pulled taut over ridges underneath.
The girl had been beaten by something inhuman or perhaps crushed underfoot. Collette studied her eyes again and saw the desperation there, the pleading for some kind of solace. She knew she ought to lie to the young soldier, tell her everything would be all right, that the surgeon would save her. But already the healer was drawing the torn scraps of her tunic up to cover her nakedness. There would be no surgeon for her.
Collette held the girl’s hand and watched her eyes as she died, hoping she provided some peace in that moment but unsure if the soldier could even see her or feel her touch.
She tasted salt on her lips and realized she was crying.
The girl’s hand was limp. Collette placed both of the soldier’s arms over her chest. A shadow loomed over her and she looked up to find King Hunyadi blocking out the sun.
“Damn them,” Hunyadi said.
Collette swallowed, coughed to clear her throat. “We’re all damned today.”
The king didn’t argue. He had his helm and armor off and one of his shirtsleeves had been torn away. Blood and dirt smeared his bare arm and a long gash had been cut just below the shoulder.
The surgeon appeared behind him. “Collette, could you clean His Majesty’s wound, please?”
She nodded. Wordlessly she went to fetch a bowl of fresh, warm water and a clean rag. First she washed out the wound as best she could, then applied a rough cream that she assumed was some holistic antibiotic ointment. By then the surgeon had reappeared and quickly stitched up the king’s wound.
Hunyadi donned his armor and helm, tested his grip on the hilt of his sword, and thanked them both. The king took a look around at the wounded. Through the opening in the face of the helm, the anger and sadness in his eyes were plain. He turned and shouted a command and a page rushed over with a horse. Hunyadi mounted the sleek black beast and rode down to war once more.
Collette watched him diminish as he rode downhill. While she stood there, Julianna came up beside her, wiping blood from her hands.
“Are you sick of this yet?”
“Of blood? Oh, yeah. Never liked blood, even when it isn’t my own,” Collette replied.
Julianna shook her head. “Not just that. All of it. You’re a legend, Coll. To these people, anyway. I mean, I understand why I’m here. Self-defense classes prepped me for dealing with an asshole in a bar or a perv trying to drag me into an alley, but not for war. I’ve done well managing to stay alive here for as long as I have. But you…you’ve got this incredible destiny and you’re just cooling your heels. I’ve seen what you can do.”
Collette shook her head. “It’s not like that. You think they left me behind because I’m the woman? This whole mission was Oliver’s idea. He’s the one who had to go. And if he was going, I had to stay behind. I still have no idea what, if anything, our destiny is, or what the magic we inherited from our mother is really going to mean. But finding out’s going to have to wait until the war’s over. Right now, these people just need something to believe in. Oliver and I can do the most damage against Atlantis by just acting as symbols.
“I’m here because…”
She saw the flicker of fear in Julianna’s eyes, and Collette realized she could not complete the sentence. They both knew what the next words would be: I’m here because Oliver could die.
Oliver could die.
Collette knew what that would mean for the Lost Ones and the Two Kingdoms, and for herself as the last surviving Legend-Born. She didn’t care. None of that mattered to her.
All she cared about was her brother coming back safely so that they could end all of this. So they could go home. Whatever home became when the war had come to an end.
Where the hell is Smith? Oliver thought.
“Somebody give me a hand!” he shouted, glancing around the library chamber as the Atlantean sorcerers began to force their way through the rubble of the fallen arch and soldiers came in through the other doors.
Kitsune appeared at his side, fur cloak rippling around her. She stared at him with jade eyes. “Bring the prince!”
Frustrated, Oliver glared at her. “I’m trying.”
He let go of the boy’s arms. The prince sat, eyes staring off into nothing as though he’d gone catatonic. Kitsune grabbed his arm and tried to pull. Oliver had found strength and quickness he’d never imagined he had since coming through the Veil and discovering he was half-legend himself, but neither he nor Kitsune could budge Prince Tzajin from his chair.
“We need Smith,” the fox-woman said, glancing around in a frenzy. “He could move the boy.”
“He’s not here,” Oliver said. “Just take him through the Veil. Go right through.”
Kitsune nodded, eyes sparkling as though they were sea glass, like most of this structure. She held out her hands, reaching for the fabric of the Veil the way that only Borderkind could, and a look of horror spread across her face.
“What’s wrong?” Blue Jay asked, dancing in toward them, the blood of Atlantean soldiers on his hands and streaked up his arms. The feathers in his hair were spotted with scarlet.
“I can’t reach the Veil,” Kitsune said.
Blue Jay paled. He reached his hands up just as Kitsune had, to no avail.
“It’s got to be some kind of defensive magic. The sorcerers did something to the building,” Oliver said.
Kitsune nodded, terror growing in her eyes.
“What if it’s not just the library?” Jay asked. “What if it’s the whole island?”
A Naga arrow whistled through the air past them. Grin began cussing out soldiers like he was at a London pub in the wee hours of the morning. Heat and frigid cold strobed through the room as Frost and Li concentrated on the rubble where the sorcerers were breaking through.
Oliver began to panic. He looked down, trying to figure out if the prince had somehow been chained to the chair or the floor. And he froze, staring under the table where Tzajin had been studying.
“Kit,” he said, his voice a rasp.
The fox-woman followed his gaze and she froze as well. “How did that get here? Ty’Lis had it in Palenque.”
Oliver nodded, still staring. The Sword of Hunyadi—the blade Ty’Lis had manipulated him into using to kill King Mahacuhta—lay under the table. Oliver crouched, fascinated, and reached out to snatch the sword up by its handle. The blade was scabbarded. It lay there as though waiting for him.
“What the hell is going on here?”
“There’s only one way that sword could have gotten here,” Jay said. “That’s if Ty’Lis left it for you to find.”
Oliver looked at him. “Oh, fuck,” he whispered. “He knew we were coming.”
Even as he said the words, Prince Tzajin began to gag. The boy retched, but nothing came out. His eyes were glazed, and then they began to bleed. Rivulets of scarlet ran like tears down his face. Blue Jay and Kitsune stepped back, but Oliver took a step nearer, bending toward him.
“What is it? What did he do to you?” Oliver shouted at the prince.
Tzajin’s head lolled back, his mouth gaping open. Oliver saw something moving down there in his throat.
He staggered back, just as the first of the jellyfish flew out of the prince’s throat. The kid kept gagging, choking as they forced their way out of him. His body convulsed. The jellyfish stung him with its gossamer tendrils, streaking Tzajin’s face and neck with red lashes. Oliver drew Hunyadi’s sword and hacked it in half.
But others followed. A second and third and then a vomitous flood of jellyfish erupted from the prince’s throat. As he scrambled backward, Oliver heard the boy’s jawbone crack from being forced open so wide.
Prince Tzajin had been left for them to find. Ty’Lis had used him as both bait and trap. The boy could not survive this.
“Go!” Oliver shouted at Blue Jay and Kitsune, but they were already moving. He turned to the others, gaze locking on the winter man, and suddenly all of their prior resentment seemed unimportant. “Frost, the prince isn’t leaving this room. We go now, or we die with him!”
Li spun and burned half a dozen jellyfish in mid-flight. They popped and burst like blisters. But whatever Ty’Lis had done to Prince Tzajin, there seemed an endless supply of the creatures being born from his gullet.
“This way!” Frost shouted, and he started through the soldiers that crowded the doorway out to the atrium at the heart of the library. They were going inward, instead of toward any exit, but no way were they going to take on the sorcerers if they could avoid it.
Cheval went out the door right in front of Oliver, snapping a soldier’s neck as she went.
On the landing, beautifully sculpted from Atlantean sea glass, they both stopped short. Beyond the balustrade they saw hundreds more of those jellyfish and at least a dozen octopuses floating in the atrium, just waiting for them.
“What now?” Cheval cried.
Soldiers stood at the top of a staircase to the left.
“We get the hell out of here,” he said.
His other blade had been returned to its sheath. He fought, instead, with the Sword of Hunyadi. In his left hand, he held the scabbard, and he swung it as he ran at the soldiers, striking one in the head even as he used Hunyadi’s blade to parry the attack of another.
The Borderkind joined him, bludgeoning and stabbing and burning the soldiers as they took the stairs. Blue Jay hurled two soldiers armed with curved, gleaming, ritual daggers over the banister and they screamed as they fell.
Oliver lost track of how many steps they’d descended. The octopuses and jellyfish and whatever other deadly things slid through the atrium could not really attack them while they were in the midst of the soldiers of Atlantis. He focused on just staying alive and moving downward, step by step.
Ty’Lis had left him the sword to send a message of mockery and triumph.
Oliver intended to use it to gut the son of a bitch.
“When I see the Wayfarer again, I shall kill him,” Cheval Bayard said, her accent thickening with rage.
Leicester Grindylow muttered a curse in agreement. They had raced down corridors and broken down doors and, by sheer luck, discovered a twisting spiral staircase encased in glittering glass with views of Atlantis out of the window panes. The steps were narrow and steep and the glass walls smooth, but Grin and Cheval and their companions descended with reckless abandon. Every second put them in greater peril.
Cheval’s silver hair flew behind her as she slid down the wild corkscrew of the staircase. They must have gone down several stories by now but had not come to a landing or a door, and Grin wondered if the spiral went all the way to the bottom.
How the hell had he come to this? His life had been so simple, once upon a time. A bit of mischief, a lot of beer, tending bar now and again…it had been a good life. But then the bloody Atlanteans had sent the Myth Hunters out after the Borderkind, and Grin had to make a decision—fight or hide. Sitting about drinking a pint, watching the world go by, was no longer an option.
He’d never been much for hiding.
Now here he was, watching out for Cheval, whose every glance broke his heart. Oh, he’d no romantic illusions. Lovely as she was, her fragility had been the thing that drew him to her. Damsels in distress. He’d always been a damned fool for them.
Grin kept his right hand on the wall and leaped down the stairs six or seven at a time, slipping and falling on his rear more than once, keeping his weight backward so he would not topple ass over teakettle. Several of the Nagas were ahead of them, and he had a feeling the others were lying dead back in that chamber where the boy who had once been Prince Tzajin had turned into a sorcerous trap. The Nagas slid down the stairs in pursuit of Frost, Oliver, and Kitsune. Blue Jay and Li followed Cheval and Grin.