A wave of heat swept down, prickling the skin at the back of Grin’s neck, scorching him. Cheval cursed in French. Grin reached out and took her hand, then released it quickly. Tethered by their hands, they’d only end up falling.
He glanced over his shoulder and saw Li moving slowly, coming down the steps backward. He had both hands up and fire streamed from his fingers, liquid flame that roiled in the spiral staircase and melted the glass windows. Something popped and bubbled in those flames, and whatever chased them began to scream as it burned.
“Faster,” Grin snapped.
“Any faster and I shall fall.”
From below, around the spiral, Grin heard Oliver shout. He reached out and grabbed Cheval by the arm, not worrying about being gentle. She stumbled, but he hoisted her up a moment and then set her down, even as he kept going.
She called after him but he did not slow. Cheval would be hesitant to alter her form on those glass stairs. The kelpy’s body would be unwieldy in that spiral enclosure, and her hooves would slip too easily.
“Grin, what’s going on?” Blue Jay shouted.
“Not a sodding clue!”
He didn’t wait for Li or Blue Jay to catch up. Scrambling, sliding, leaping, he went round the spiral and discovered that the stairs did not go all the way to the ground floor of the library. Oliver, Frost, Kitsune, and the Nagas had spilled out into the largest chamber they’d encountered. High-ceilinged like a ballroom, its walls were covered with what might have been ancient Atlantean writing, sigils and words scrawled into every surface, including the floor and ceiling. Lights floated in the middle of the room like buoys bobbing in the sea.
The lights weren’t alone.
Eels filled the chamber, long things with prehistoric faces and snapping jaws full of needle teeth. They darted and swam through the air. As Grin leaped the last few stairs and landed in a crouch on the ground, long arms ready to fight, he saw Frost make a pass of his hand and freeze two of the eels dead. They fell to the stone floor and shattered.
Kitsune growled and reached up to grab at an eel as it lunged for her face. The Sword of Hunyadi whispered through the air and Oliver slashed the eel in two, then spun to hack at another.
Grin saw immediately there were too many of them to fight in an enclosed space. Several others were slithering through the arched door on the far side of the chamber and beyond them a pair of figures—sorcerers, no doubt—stood silhouetted. Frost flowed through the room on a draft of frigid air. Ice formed on the walls. The eels slowed. Snow whipped in a churning whirlwind of blizzard and then froze right in front of the door, sealing the sorcerers—and any other eels—out for the moment.
Two of the eels darted down from the ceiling toward Grin, blotting out the floating lights. He narrowed his eyes, waited for his moment, and reached out and snatched one of them by its middle. He had no time to stop the other. Instead, he fed it his left forearm, jamming flesh and bone into its jaws as hard as he could, trying to keep it from being able to bite down hard.
Dropping to the ground, he beat them both against the floor. Long sliver teeth tore into his left arm. But he swung the eel in his right hand down again and again and it split open, spilling wretched viscera. With his right hand free, he pried the teeth of the other eel off of his arm, then used both hands to rip its jaws open, tearing half its upper body in two.
He heard Cheval cry his name.
Spinning, he saw her jump to the bottom of the stairs. The light from outside the windows—the perfect sky above Atlantis—made her beauty even more ethereal. But the fear and fury on her face made her terrible as well. The others were still fighting the eels, but Cheval ran toward him.
“I told you to wait!” Grin snapped.
“I’m not going to let anyone else die to protect me. I cannot survive more grief,” she replied. Her eyes locked on his a moment, then glanced past him.
Grin saw the eels reflected in her gaze. He turned as they swept in. Ice flowed across the room and brought one of them down, but there were just too damned many. As he reached up to bat one away, another swept in from the side and sank its jaws into his abdomen. He shouted in pain and began to pry it off, tearing its teeth away, puncturing its eyes with his fingers.
Even as he did, sensing his weakness, others swarmed him. Grin ducked his head, knowing it was futile. They were too fast and too savage. He would not get out of this chamber alive, would not leave Atlantis. The eels would strip the flesh from his bones.
Then Cheval was there. She moved so swiftly he caught his breath watching her as she tore two of the eels from the air and ripped them open. A third surged toward her throat. Cheval stopped it, but her left hand grasped its lower jaw and those needle teeth clamped down. It tossed its head up, wriggling as her fingers went down its gullet.
She cried out, more in rage than pain.
Grin ran toward her. Cheval glanced at him. She did not see the eel that knifed through the air toward her back, jaws gaping wide. Grin shouted her name, reaching for her, but his fingers scraped only air. The eel struck her lower spine with a splintering of bone and a rending of flesh. Her belly bulged and then it burst out of her stomach in a splash of blood that soaked the front of her dress, then tore the fabric, boring through her. Burrowing.
Cheval went down on her knees.
Grin heard more screams behind him, but they seemed to come from far away, muffled and inconsequential.
She could still live, he told himself. If we get out of here. If we’re gone.
There was only one way out, now.
Grin grabbed her around the waist—the eel still in her—and ran toward the glass wall overlooking the plaza. The boggart gritted his teeth, dropped his shoulder, and hurled himself and Cheval at the window. It shattered with harsh music and then they were falling, tumbling over one another, twisting down through the air five stories. Grin pulled Cheval toward him, made sure he was underneath her when they hit the stones.
His back hit first. His head struck the plaza. Bones in his skull cracked like a lightning strike. Blackness swept in. As he began to lose consciousness, he felt the eel trapped between him and Cheval twisting, biting at his thick, tough skin. And he felt Cheval’s blood soaking his clothes and the cold touch of her cheek against his own. Deathly cold.
The bright sunlight over the island of Atlantis seared his eyes for a moment, and then he slipped into soothing darkness and knew no more.
Jellyfish swarmed the chamber, coming down the spiral staircase in a wave. Li had burned hundreds of them already, but with the eels now diving toward him, the Guardian of Fire could not destroy them all. A few moments were all the jellyfish needed.
Blue Jay danced in ancient rhythm, swung his arms, summoning his razor-sharp, mystic wings. He sliced an eel in two, then began beating away the jellyfish, cutting them to ribbons as they tried to attack him. Tendrils lashed his face, leaving burning streaks there. He hissed in pain but kept fighting.
A Naga arrow punctured a jellyfish only inches from his eyes and the thing sailed away, impaled. A heartbeat later, one of the Nagas fell hard upon the floor, writhing in agony as the jellyfish covered him, stinging, swarming, killing. The Naga twitched, then lay still save for the undulating jellyfish.
As he fought, Blue Jay glanced around and caught sight of another Naga down, being feasted upon by eels, their bodies waving in the air, as though underwater. A gout of liquid fire engulfed the Naga and those eels, charring them instantly. Then Li raced past Blue Jay, flames and heat flowing from his hands. But he seemed dim, somehow, and the fire weaker. Flickering. Finally burning out.
Cold wind swirled and eddied in the room.
Frost darted around that chamber, lashing out at the things that attacked them. Jellyfish fell to the ground and shattered, frozen solid.
Oliver swung Hunyadi’s sword. His arms and face were streaked with red lashes from the jellyfish, but he’d managed to keep them off of him. Frost moved toward him, helping, keeping the Legend-Born safe as his first priority.
A large section of the glass wall had become a jagged hole, warm island wind and sunshine breezing in. Blue Jay’s stomach clenched with dread, wondering if Grin and Cheval could survive such a fall.
As the room filled with more jellyfish, more eels, he knew.
“Frost!” he shouted.
The winter man and Oliver both turned to look at him.
“We’re screwed. Get the hell out of here.”
Even as the words left his mouth, they were punctuated by a scream unlike anything he had ever heard, mournful and full of surrender. He spun to see that in seconds, Kitsune had been overwhelmed by the jellyfish. They lashed themselves to her face and hair. Some wrapped around her arms. Still others moved beneath her cloak, stinging and struggling there.
Kitsune ran for the shattered window.
Oliver reached out for her as she passed him. Blue Jay saw the way their eyes met, the regret and terror in that glance. The trickster lunged after her as well, but he was too far away. Kitsune seemed almost to dance out through the broken window, for a single breath hanging in midair. Oliver planted a hand on the flat, unbroken glass above the shattered section of window, and it cracked, spiderweb fractures running through the glass as he reached out and grabbed hold of her cloak, that copper-red fur, glittering in the sunshine.
The jellyfish attached to Kitsune stung his hand, several of them in a single moment. Reflexively, he opened his fingers.
Kitsune caught Blue Jay’s eyes as she fell. Her mouth worked silently, speaking words none of them would ever hear. She might have said I’m sorry, but he couldn’t be sure.
“No!” Jay shouted.
Oliver stepped back from the gaping, jagged hole in the glass wall.
Blue Jay didn’t slow down. He barreled past Oliver and out into the air above the plaza. The beauty of Atlantis, its muted colors and gentle spires and elegant curves spread out before him, with the green-blue harbor beyond. He caught his breath, wondering if this would be the last thing he ever saw.
The trickster bent, arms outstretched, and summoned his mystic wings once more. They blurred beneath his arms and he felt—as always—the pull of his other form, the bird whose soaring flight was such pleasure to him. But the blue bird could not save Kitsune. Only the trickster could help her now.
It felt like fire. The stings of the jellyfish burned her flesh and their venom raced through her blood. The stones below rushed up to meet her and Kitsune relished their approach, the escape from pain that impact would bring.
With her fingers, she traced the air, feeling it rushing between them.
A hand gripped hers. Her legs twisted and her free arm pinwheeled and she felt herself caught, her descent slowing. New stings pierced her and she wanted to let go, to fall, but the hand would not let go.
“Change!” Blue Jay shouted at her.
Her weight dragged on him. She tried to focus, realized he was moving and dancing on the air, the only way he could stay up without becoming a bird. Those blue wings that blurred, barely visible, under his arms, were not enough.
Reaching down to the center of herself where there was no pain, no fear—where there was only the fox—Kitsune changed. Her flesh rippled. Her fur clung to her, and as it did the jellyfish were shed from her body. She diminished into the fox—her spirit did not diminish with her flesh, however. The jellyfish on her head and forelegs were still there, too.
Blue Jay touched the ground. He reached down and stripped the last of the jellyfish from her, hurling them away, then set her on the stones of the great plaza. Her veins were on fire with venom, her skin lashed and scarred. Kitsune could not rise.
On her side, the fox saw Cheval and Grin locked in a rigid embrace. There were broken limbs, tangled together, where they lay on the ground twenty feet away. The fox turned her eyes upward and looked into the sky above the plaza—surrounded by the architecture of Atlantis—and saw the body of a Naga falling, serpentine body whipping in the wind, toward the ground. It struck hard and did not move.
The sky filled with horrors. Jellyfish and eels, yes, but also several huge air sharks and dozens of octopuses. They poured from the library, but most had already been there, waiting for them to emerge. Razor fish slid across the sky. Octopuses descended, tentacles dredging toward the stone plaza.
They were dead.
The fox wished she could cry, but her pain had taken even that from her.
A sudden eruption of snow and ice burst from the broken window on the fifth floor of the Great Library. A dark figure rode the storm. The blizzard swept toward the ground and she knew that, within the snow and wind, the winter man carried Oliver to safety.
Still alive, Kitsune thought. That was good. Of course, without Smith, they would all die.
She howled, as if to call out for him.
Perhaps Blue Jay understood, for he began to bellow at the sky, screaming the Wayfarer’s name in fury. His voice echoed off of the polished surfaces of the buildings around them.
The side of the library—the place where they’d all gone out the window—became quickly engulfed in fire. The fox let her head loll back and saw Atlantean soldiers moving in from the edges of the plaza, blocking any hope of escape. Not that they had anywhere to go. They were on an island. Several sorcerers joined the soldiers.
Blue Jay swore. He’d always loved the curses of the ordinary world, of hard men and laughing women. It was part of his charm. Now he scowled as he leaped into the air. Only when the tentacles came down did Kitsune understand that the octopuses had reached him. His blue wings blurred the air again as he danced. He slashed the tentacles from the nearest one, but not all. Not all.
Two tentacles wrapped around his left arm. With his right, Blue Jay cut the octopus’s head in two. It flopped to the ground, dead instantly, stinking, rotting innards spilling onto the stones. But those two tentacles dragged Blue Jay down with it.
He planted his boots and got up, struggling to free himself from that entanglement, pulling against the dead thing. The sound of its corpse sliding wetly over the stones sickened her. Kitsune felt as though she no longer lived in her body. The fox began to breathe quickly, raggedly. The fire on her skin, under her fur, had become all that she knew. Somewhere outside of her mind now—or perhaps withdrawn deeply inside—she could only lie there and watch.