Sophia was awake and sitting upright, having positioned herself against the wall. Her dark eye fixed on him as she struggled to hold up a half-eaten loaf of bread. Nicholas accepted it with ravenous relief, tearing off a chunk for himself. He chewed and swallowed absently, his attention shifting from the much-needed food to the small figure at the base of the stairs.
With the sword Nicholas had taken in Carthage in one hand, a dagger in the other, Li Min kept one foot braced on the bottom step and her eyes fixed upward, toward the entrance.
“What is that?” he whispered, coming to stand beside her. The screams tore at his nerves; his hands curled at his sides, slick with sweat. “Who is that?”
Surely not…the Ironwoods?
“We are being hunted,” Li Min said. Her eyes looked black in the low light. “Eat and put on the clothing I’ve brought you. We will not be leaving in the near future, but when we do move, it will be quickly.”
Nicholas ignored her, taking two steps up to better hear the fighting outside—the wet sound of flesh and the piercing yelps somehow permeated even the thickest of stone tombs. “What—who—is out there? You know, don’t you?”
Li Min wiped the sweat from her brow, glancing back at Sophia. With a start, Nicholas saw that Sophia had already changed into a plain white shirt and fawn-colored breeches, and had busied herself with trying to lace up a leather waistcoat. Two pairs of scuffed black boots had been tossed onto another pile of clothing at the center of the room—his, he assumed. The Chinese girl wore a billowy white shirt as well, only she had found thin hose for herself, and a red pleated doublet to be layered over both and secured in place with a heavy leather belt. They would all be traveling as men, then.
“For the love of God, tell us whatever you know,” he said. “Please.”
“You wouldn’t believe it,” she murmured. “If it is what I think…”
“I believe we are possibly about to be savagely killed, so the time for thoughtful hesitance has sadly passed,” Nicholas said. “Do you know who they are?”
“I do. They have been hunting you for as long as I’ve tracked you. They left a trail of bodies behind them—guardians and travelers alike—all dead, the same as that Linden man in Nassau.”
Nicholas’s whole body stilled.
“There is an evil here that reeks of age and decay,” Li Min said, turning to look at him. “They will not stop until they have what they’re looking for.”
“And how do you know that?” Sophia demanded. “Did you use your nose for that as well?”
“I know,” Li Min said quietly, cradling each word as if afraid to release them, “because I used to be one of them.”
“Pardon?” Sophia said mildly.
“There is not enough time to explain,” Li Min said. “They are the Shadows nurtured by the Ancient One. Stolen from their families as children, their humanity ripped from them with bloody training and manipulation. They are here for one purpose alone: to serve him. To find what he seeks above all else.”
Sophia scrabbled along the ground until she found the knife she usually kept tucked into her low boots. She swung it out toward Li Min.
“No,” Li Min said, kneeling before her again, letting the tip of the blade press against her heart. “I escaped as a child. My mother was a guardian, as was my sister. I was born able to travel, so the Shadows took me to fill their ranks and murdered my family. Witnesses to their existence dig their own graves, you see.”
“Then how did you escape?” Sophia asked, still not lowering the blade.
“I was always the smallest, the weakest,” Li Min said quietly. “The Ancient One felt I was undeserving of the privilege of serving him. One night, when the elder Shadows were teaching night stalking, I was chosen to serve as prey. As bait. Whoever killed me would receive his radiant blessings.”
Nicholas reeled back in horror.
“But it was a moonless night,” Li Min said, the words tumbling out of her. “I slipped away. They never found me again. They have not, at least, until now.”
I sought Ching Shih out to learn from her, she had said. To manifest my strength.
“It’s all true, then,” Nicholas said, fighting not to touch the ring on his hand, to ignore the way it scalded him deep down, at the seat of his soul. “From the shadows they come, to give you a fright…. Why does this…why does this…Ancient One, you said? Why does he want the astrolabe?”
“Because he believes that he will be granted complete immortality if he consumes its power; he will be impervious to harm and time’s ravages,” she said. “He has prolonged his life by taking the power of the copies, but they were not nearly enough to sate him. He fills the heads of the Shadows with promises that they, too, will live forever and inherit the world. They are acolytes as much as they are his servants.”
Sophia shook her head, as if she could fling the story away. “No. No. That Jacaranda was full of it. Alchemists? Hogwash and horsefeathers!”
But Nicholas was nodding, rubbing his face. Forcing himself to accept this, the way Etta would, in order to move on.
“You believe me?” Li Min asked. “Truly?”
He met her gaze in the low light. It was the first time he had detected true vulnerability in her voice. A hopefulness threaded with disbelief. “It aligns with what we already knew, and you’ve no reason to lie to us. But I imagine few would believe it without this evidence in front of them. Have you never spoken of this before, then?”