Julianna flinched and put on a frightened look. It was not pretense, though normally she would not have allowed them to see her fear. She took a few steps back and raised her hands.
The Yucatazcan guard sighed and glanced at her apologetically, rolling his eyes a bit at the Atlantean’s hostility. He didn’t even bother trying to hide the look from his prisoners. Perfect. Let them see that these two ordinary young women presented no threat at all.
The guard carried the tray in a few feet and then knelt, setting it down on the floor.
Out in the corridor, the other member of the king’s guard unlocked Oliver’s cell with his own Atlantean escort looking on. Julianna held her breath. Some days, their cell had been closed and locked again before the guards opened Oliver’s, but other times they had been lax. She and Oliver and Collette had been waiting for this.
Silently, she said a prayer for the man she loved.
The guard opened Oliver’s door and stepped inside the cell. Oliver rushed him, slamming the tray of food up into the guard’s face and, in a single motion, twisting the man around to face the open doorway. As the guard began to shout, Oliver wrapped his hands around the man’s throat, choking him.
The Atlantean escort raced into the cell, sword drawn. Oliver did not wait for barked commands or threats. He ran at the Atlantean, driving the Yucatazcan guard forward with such force that the swordsman could not pull his blade away in time, and the Yucatazcan was impaled.
Upon instinct, the second Atlantean began to move to help the first. The moment he did, Collette attacked the guard who had brought their tray. The man tried to defend himself, but she had learned to fight years ago. Collette feinted with her left, then shot out her right hand, palm flat, and broke his nose. Then she punted him full-force between the legs.
That left only the two Atlanteans still standing, and both of them were trying to get at Oliver. Julianna raced out into the corridor just as the second Atlantean started to realize his mistake. Julianna collided with him, driving him bodily into Oliver’s cell. He stumbled into Oliver and the other Atlantean, who were now grappling for the sword.
Collette came out behind Julianna, slamming the door.
“Oliver!” she shouted. “Come on!”
Julianna started into his cell, but Oliver looked up, panic on his face. They’d known it would be difficult. After being imprisoned so long, the only advantage they had was surprise. But that had lasted only seconds and in Oliver’s expression Julianna saw that it hadn’t been enough. The Atlanteans were too fast.
They weren’t all going to get out.
“Close the door!” Oliver shouted. He tore the helmet off of the dead Yucatazcan guard and began beating one of the Atlanteans about the head with it, still struggling over the sword.
Collette froze outside the door. “Oliver, no!”
But Julianna knew they were out of time. She slammed the cell door and turned the key, then tossed the ring of keys down the corridor. In all her life, she’d never done anything more difficult than locking Oliver in that cell.
But she didn’t hesitate.
This might well be their only chance to leave the dungeon alive. She grabbed Collette and pulled her along beside her. Together, they ran. If they could get to Frost, they could still come back for Oliver, but only if they were quick.
Julianna forced herself to focus. Oliver had not felt the chill in his cell that she and Collette had noticed in theirs. That meant Frost had to be imprisoned nearer to them. She and Collette hurtled down the corridor and reached the archway that led to the stairs. The gate at the top would be locked, but it didn’t matter. They weren’t going up.
Frost’s cell had to be behind theirs, meaning that there must be a second corridor in the dungeon. Julianna ducked her head through the archway and looked to the left. An arched hallway ran parallel to the one where they’d been imprisoned. Only a few sconces burned down that way. But there was a breeze that made her shiver and raised gooseflesh on her arms.
“This way,” Julianna said, turning to Collette.
“We can’t just leave him.”
Shouts reverberated through the dungeon, bouncing off of the walls. She cursed silently, glancing around. Heavy footfalls were pounding along the corridor they’d just left. The Yucatazcan guard had recovered from Collette’s attack.
A quick glance up the stairs told Julianna they still had a few seconds left. But that was all. Whatever guards were standing sentry at the gate up there, they would hear the Yucatazcan and raise the alarm in a moment.
She bolted along the darkened corridor and Collette followed. The cold air enveloped them as they slipped into the shadows between the splashes of light provided by the sconces. Then she heard the shouts grow louder. Collette grabbed her and the two of them pushed themselves against the wall, hidden in the shadows.
The Yucatazcan ran past at the end of the corridor, but didn’t pause. Instead, he went up the stairs, assuming they’d gone that way as well. How many seconds, Julianna wondered, before he got to the gate at the top and realized that there was no way they could have gotten out that way?
They hurried. At the first sconce, Julianna paused in a pool of torchlight and stared at the door set into the wall. Collette went on a few feet, then stopped to stare back at her, eyes frantic. But Julianna was trying to figure out how far they had come down the hall. She stepped up to the cell door and looked through the grate into darkness.
“Frost?” she whispered.
There was no reply. A frisson of fear went through her, and then she felt foolish. He wouldn’t be able to reply; not really. He was caught in a spell. Julianna heard more shouts, but distant.
“Go,” Collette whispered.
Julianna nodded and they ran on, hurrying to the next cell and peering inside. Quickly they moved on, glancing through the grate in each door in search of Frost. Another gust of frigid wind whipped up and Julianna shivered, her teeth chattering.
“He’s got to be here,” Collette said, her elfin features frantic.
“I know,” Julianna said. “But which one? Where the hell—”
She paused. Further along, just past the next splash of torchlight, a dim blue glow emanated from the grate in a cell door. She hadn’t noticed it before because of the illumination from the sconce. It reminded her of the light from a television, seen through the window of someone else’s home.
“There!” a voice bellowed behind them.
“No,” Collette whispered.
Julianna glanced back to see guards filling the archway at the bottom of the stairs. There had to be half a dozen of them, and she felt sure most would be Atlantean. The Yucatazcan had gone up and brought back help. They should have taken the time to lock him in. Collette should have kicked him harder. So many should-haves, but they had no time for self-recrimination.
Despite the chill, heat flushed her skin as she and Collette began to run. Footfalls like a stampede followed them. Julianna and Collette hadn’t been diligent about exercise the way Oliver had. They were exhausted and malnourished. Their flight was a headlong lunge, barely controlled.
As they passed through that next pool of torchlight, she saw that ice had formed on the stone walls.
“That’s enough,” a voice rumbled close behind them. Julianna felt the pressure of the guard’s presence.
A hand grasped at her hair and she shrieked, tugging herself away. Collette glanced back, reaching out to pull her along.
Then Julianna began to slip. She felt the loss of traction an instant before she realized that the stones laid into the floor had also been covered with ice. Julianna pinwheeled her arms, trying not to fall, but then her feet went out from under her.
Powerful hands caught her, clutching her tightly.
She stared up into the face of an Atlantean guard. His touch felt clammy and repulsive.
“Jules!” Collette shouted. She lunged at the guard, but others swarmed around them, and then they had her as well.
So close. They knew where Frost was, now, but would never reach him.
Despite herself, Julianna forced a smile. “Thanks for that. Slippery when wet. You guys should put up a sign.”
The Atlantean snarled and tightened his grip, twining his fingers in her hair so that Julianna let out a cry of pain.
Then he swung her by her hair, smashing her head into the icy stone wall. Pain blossomed into fireworks in her mind, and she began slipping down into darkness.
Down and down, and then she was alone in the shadows of her soul, and cold. So very cold.
The smell of blood filled Oliver’s nostrils. He sat on the floor, back against the stone wall of his cell, and tried to clear his throat. Even that hurt. His left eye had swollen shut, and the cheek below felt like it had been tenderized. Once the Atlanteans had gotten hold of him, they’d given him the beating he’d known was coming. Knowing didn’t make it any easier. The scent of blood in the cell might have come from the guard he’d killed, but he had a feeling it was his own, soaked into his shirt and still trickling both on his face and inside his mouth.
“Fuck,” he rasped, wishing his face would stop throbbing or that the pressure around his swollen eye would go away. He reached up and gingerly pressed his fingers against his cheek, then hissed in pain.
What was it about people that they had to do that—probe their injuries to see just how bad the damage was? Foolish didn’t begin to describe it. But the temptation was too great to resist.
Another guard had come to let out the two Atlanteans that Julianna had locked in here with him. They’d left Oliver behind, along with the Yucatazcan he’d killed. The corpse lay on the ground, cooling, and he tried to avoid looking at it.
Wincing, he put one hand against the wall and rose. A sharp pain in his side reminded him of the single blow he’d taken to the ribs, and he wondered if any were cracked or broken.
Oliver shuffled over to the cell door, dragging his boot heels to wipe off the dead guard’s blood. In the back of his mind, he felt the dim awareness of the fact that he’d killed a man. It troubled him that he was not more upset by this. Once upon a time, he knew he would have been crippled with the horror of having taken a life. Now it only seemed necessary.
It occurred to him that he had never understood war until now.
A clanking of metal came from down the corridor. Oliver turned to peer to his right and his face brushed against the grate. A hundred tiny needles of pain stabbed him.
Careful not to repeat his mistake, he looked through the grate. A chorus of boot heels greeted him. Then he saw the first of the Atlantean guards and found himself frozen, hands against the door.
Atlantean guards and soldiers passed his cell. Their marching had a thunderous rhythm, like horses drawing a carriage. A grim-faced Yucatazcan paraded Collette past him, her head hanging in defeat, her neck red and swollen.
“Coll?” he said.
She glanced at him, but the guard shoved her through the still-open door of her cell. Collette fell to the stone floor, cursing quietly.
Oliver ought to have been relieved. His sister was still alive. But still he waited to exhale, wondering what had become of Julianna. Had she freed Frost, or had the Atlanteans killed her?
The guards ignored Collette, standing at attention, weapons held at the ready, and that was when Oliver saw her.
Julianna floated along the corridor, dangling from thin, oil-black tendrils that held her aloft like the strings of some horrid marionette. Some of them wrapped around her arms, holding them behind her back, wrists tied together. They encircled her waist and throat, and a single tug might be enough to end her life.
Oliver saw all of this. He saw the bruised and bloodied left side of her face—an injury startlingly similar to his own. Yet he focused on her eyes, which were wide with terror. Her chest rose and fell, and a reedy whisper of air slipped in and out of her lips—all the breath she could draw with the black smoke tendrils around her neck.
His lips silently formed her name.
Behind her came Ty’Lis. The sorcerer bore the physical signatures of Atlantis with his narrow face and greenish-white skin, but his golden hair was striking and he wore his yellow beard in a thick braid. In black robes with crimson trim, he seemed like the devil of some alien Hell.
He held his left hand up and from his wide sleeve flowed the black strings in which Julianna had been tangled.
The sorcerer grinned, showing jagged teeth as green as his skin.
“I swear to God,” Oliver began, his voice a primal snarl that he himself did not recognize.
Ty’Lis held up his free hand, the grin growing wider. A Cheshire Cat grin. A hungry tiger’s grin.
A horrid smell filled Oliver’s nose, eradicating the scent of blood. It was putrid, sewer stink, like the unwashed death-smell of an entire end-stage cancer ward.
In the cell across the corridor, Collette retched.
“I will speak. You will be silent. Otherwise, your lover will die,” the sorcerer said.
Oliver obeyed. In the opposite cell, he thought he heard his sister whimper. But that couldn’t be; Collette Bascombe didn’t cry. Only the destruction of her marriage had ever broken that part of her resolve. He heard her muttering quietly, perhaps a prayer to whatever gods might hear her on this side of the Veil. He hoped that the Atlantean would not think of this as disobedience. His command had been to Oliver.
“I have little time to spare for you, so I will speak plainly. Some attempt to escape was expected, of course. Perhaps you have learned better, now, and perhaps not. Regardless, I won’t kill you. It may be that the High Council will have use for you, yet. However—”
As he spoke, those black tendrils pulled Julianna toward his outstretched hand. He wrapped long talon fingers around her neck. The strings tightened and she wheezed. Where her face had been scraped and bruised, droplets of fresh blood dripped down her cheek. Julianna stared at Oliver. He wished he could just tear away the grate, break down the door, only to touch her.