Etta—He took a vicious punch to his chest, and felt ribs crack. Etta—
He tried to imagine her the way she had been on the Ardent, when she’d appeared in the haze of battle; he tried to use that image, like a prayer for strength, to drive his next hit. Yet, when his mind’s eye drew the memory forward, the scene was cracked between the jaws of darkness. Her screams suddenly silenced, the blood running in rivulets over her face. The clean slice of a claw through her ear.
Her body as pale and still as the marble angels that surrounded them.
He surged up from the ground, knocking the Shadow back. The attacker made as if to lunge forward, but halted, dropping to a knee and howling in pain. Behind him, Sophia had slipped to the ground and cut the tendon of his ankle. Nicholas seized the opportunity at the same moment she did, each of them slicing toward the Shadow’s neck.
The body fell to the ground.
Another screech of metal on metal brought Nicholas back around to where Li Min was using her arms, every trembling ounce of strength in her body, to turn the Shadow’s long claw back onto the woman’s body, piercing the soft flesh of her neck.
“I am…forever…” the woman gasped out.
“You are dead,” Li Min corrected, and finished her.
“As are you,” came another voice. Nicholas whirled back toward the entrance of the tomb, his sword following the path of another Shadow as he stepped inside. Two more fell in line behind him. “Little lost one. Do you remember me, as I remember you?”
He knew she didn’t mean to, that it was likely the way the man’s voice licked at the air like a snake’s tongue, but she stepped back, just that small bit. Her hands gripped her dagger hard enough for him to hear her knuckles crack.
Though he knew she would likely despise it, Nicholas felt a fierce surge of protectiveness for the young girl stolen from her family and brought into their darkness, and the young woman who stood before him now, having survived it.
The entirety of his right hand lost sensation, and then the rest of his arm. Nicholas barely caught the sword with his weaker left hand, his gaze narrowing on them, as his heart beat a vicious tattoo of fear.
“Li Min,” Nicholas said quietly. “Take her and go. I’ll catch up to you.”
“No—” Sophia began as Li Min knelt beside her. “Wait, are you—”
“I have the astrolabe,” Nicholas told the Shadows. “Who will fight me for it?”
The flash of Sophia’s white shirt at the edge of his vision told him, if nothing else, that they had gotten out of the cramped space. One of the Shadows broke off to pursue them, only to be summoned back by the flick of the first man’s hand.
Nicholas raised his sword, swallowing the blood in his mouth. I will live. It was not a question, but a necessity. He only needed to create a path to the entrance of the mausoleum, and then he could lose them in the darkness.
The Shadow in front matched his stance, letting the hood fall away from his face.
A voice in the darkness began to whisper, to pulse, to growl. The Shadows recoiled at the sound of it. Two ducked back through the entrance, vanishing with a soft patter of footsteps.
“Liar,” the Shadow said, lingering just a moment more before pulling his hood up and following their path. Nicholas staggered forward, using the walls to support himself as he moved. If the Shadows had gone left, he would go right, and hope it might lead him to Li Min and Sophia. To the Basilica.
But from the depths of the city of the dead, a voice rang out, as brittle and airy as the plaster dust that swirled around him. “Child of time.”
The words scored down his heart, tugged his attention back. He turned, clutching his numb arm to his chest. And though his tired mind was prone to tricks, and his heart weary of them, he could have sworn he saw another figure standing there. The long, pale cloak clasped around his neck flowed down the line of his back, curling at his feet like a cat. It gave his bearing a forceful regality that made Nicholas wish he could summon the strength to turn away again. The distance seemed to close between them, though neither of them moved, and Nicholas saw that his profile was as faultless as if it had been painted by a master’s hand. All at once, the ring on his finger began to sing its song of pain, flaring as the man turned his head more fully, his gaze dropping to it. It was only then, when he caught the whole of the man’s countenance, that Nicholas saw that his features were like that of a demon—like that of Death himself.
He turned and ran as if hell burned behind him.
IT SURPRISED HIM SOMEHOW THAT a city of the dead would be arranged like an actual city, but here he was, running down dark, winding streets that split the rows of tombs and structures into a grid. When, at last, his feet found the edge of a set of stairs, he realized he’d begun to climb toward the surface. He was grateful for the challenge of the steps, the warmth that crept into the air as he rose up through the layers of earth and carved stone, and nearly wept at the first sighting of fat candles perched along the wall of a narrow hallway. It meant he was near the end.
He was even more grateful to find that Sophia and Li Min were already there, waiting for him.
“What took you so long?” Sophia demanded from where she sat on the ground. “Damn you for sending us away!”
Nicholas looked at her as though she’d declared herself recently hatched from an egg. He wiped the stinging line of blood from his cheek, only to find that he was still clutching the sword. His right arm hung uselessly at his side, and he forced himself to quell his fear at the realization, so as not to frighten them. “I worried for you, too, Sophia.”