Nicholas caught her easily enough. “Do you have any sensation in them yet?”
Sophia nodded, clearing her throat and blinking, until finally her gaze hardened again. “I might…need help. Just for a little while longer.”
“I’m amenable to that,” he told her. His shoulder was aching from the stitches Li Min had put in, but he felt stronger just having rested. His right arm, the one that had plagued him in Carthage, protested in pain as it absorbed some of Sophia’s weight, but he tossed that concern aside.
“You won’t tell a soul of this, not even Linden,” Sophia said. “And you’ll carry me on your back, not as some sort of damsel, otherwise I’ll cast up my accounts in disgust.”
“Naturally,” Nicholas said.
“Not a word,” she grumbled.
“Not on my life,” he promised.
Behind them, Li Min was gathering up their bags, pushing her dark cloak back to loop them over her shoulders.
“You’re actually coming?” Sophia asked. “And helping us? It would be so easy to leave us as bait and escape.”
“I may be a mercenary, but I’m not a beast, nor am I an imbecile. I cannot fight them alone. He cannot protect either of you that way, or quickly escape,” she said, “not without dropping you first. And you are incapable of running or fighting should it happen.”
“I wouldn’t drop her,” he said, just as Sophia snarled, “I’ve never run from a fight in my life!”
“If we are leaving,” Li Min said, talking over both of them, “then let us leave this place. I know the way up into St. Peter’s Basilica.”
“The lantern—” Nicholas began.
“No; we move in darkness, as they do,” Li Min said, taking the first few steps up. “Quickly; quickly.”
As it turned out, he did have to set Sophia down to help Li Min lift the cover off the sarcophagus. Almost immediately, the stink of fresh, hot blood assaulted his senses. He heard Sophia gag behind him, her arms tightening around his neck as he bent to pick her up again.
“Do you hear that?” she whispered. When he didn’t respond, she put his head between her hands and turned it to the right.
The air was cool down here, too dry for condensation. A shudder rolled through him, prickling at his scalp, cutting down his spine. Li Min stood off to the side of the grave, her weapons raised, looking up—up to where Miles Ironwood’s body had been stuffed into one of the tomb’s alcoves, his unblinking eyes glowing in the dark. Rivulets of blood raced down the wall to the body of a second man, his body contorted as if his back was broken.
“Holy God…” Sophia breathed out. Nicholas swung back toward Li Min just in time to see the glint of silver, the dark shape that swung down toward the girl’s face.
“Li—!” he began, but the girl was already moving, the shorter of her two swords spinning out, catching the arm with a sickening thwack. A gasp split the air as the Shadow flew back and Li Min stooped for something on the ground. When she stood up again, she threw the longer blade his way, only to have Sophia grab it out of the air and slice at the Shadows behind them; he felt the reverberations as she struck something solid.
“Who’s there?” she bellowed near his ear. “Show yourselves! Show yourselves, you bloody cowards!”
He could see it now—see them. They were a shade darker than the air, until one, a young man with a startlingly pale face, looked up at him from beneath his hood. Nicholas felt himself dissected by the piercing gaze, cut down to his marrow. He took an involuntary step back as ice flooded his system, the backs of his knees bumping into the sarcophagus.
In one smooth movement, he pulled the sword out of Sophia’s hand and lunged forward, stabbing into the Shadow’s throat as Li Min had instructed. A hand lashed out, and he had to jump and twist onto the sarcophagus’s lid to avoid being skewered by the claw.
Sophia released her grip on his shoulders, slamming back against the edge of the sarcophagus. She reached over and pulled the knife off his belt, bracing herself as if to take a blow. Li Min let out a ferocious cry and dove toward the other Shadow, a woman with a shock of red hair. She swung her blade around, swirling the disturbed dust as she spun with it, swinging down to try to take off the Shadow’s head. The other woman was too fast, parrying with a kick hard enough to throw Li Min back a step, but not hard enough to stop her. Rage steamed off the Chinese woman, searing the air, hollowing her cheeks as she opened her mouth and let out another roar.
The furious clanging of their blades should have woken the dead.
A blade lanced down through the darkness, forcing him to drop to the ground to prevent it biting into the juncture of his neck and shoulder. Nicholas lashed a leg out, trying to upend the Shadow, but the man jumped to a nearly inhuman height, flipping back down to catch Nicholas in the face with the full force of his body.
A thousand stars burst behind his eyelids and he was momentarily blinded by the flashing of them. Sophia’s shout made him turn just as the Shadow’s claw would have pierced the inner part of his ear. It caught him over his cheek instead. Nicholas slipped in the pools of blood on the floor, unable to get his feet beneath him.
Damn it all, get up, get up—
He had fought a hundred battles at sea, fended off pirates and boardings. He’d avoided knives to his belly and axes to his neck and he had survived; even the fighters hardened by the sea, he’d survived. But the best-trained of those men were raging, dumb animals compared to this Shadow, who seemed to anticipate his blows before Nicholas decided to try for them.