“Let me pass,” said Kell.
Holland only raised a brow. “Please,” said Kell. “I can end this.”
“Can you?” challenged Holland. “I do not think you have it in you.” His gaze went to Kell’s hand, the dark magic twining around it. “I warned you, magic is not about balance. It is about dominance. You control it, or it controls you.”
“I am still in control,” said Kell through gritted teeth.
“No,” said Holland. “You’re not. Once you let the magic in, you’ve already lost.”
Kell’s chest tightened. “I don’t want to fight you, Holland.”
“You do not have a choice.” Holland wore a sharpened ring on one hand and used it now to cut a line across his palm. Blood dripped to the street. “As Isera,” he said softly. Freeze.
The dark drops hit the ground and turned to black ice, shooting forward across the street. Kell tried to step back, but the ice moved too fast, and within seconds he was standing on top of it, fighting for balance.
“Do you know what makes you weak?” said Holland. “You’ve never had to be strong. You’ve never had to try. You’ve never had to fight. And you’ve certainly never had to fight for your life. But tonight that changes, Kell. Tonight, if you do not fight, you will die. And if you—”
Kell didn’t wait for him to finish. A sudden gust of wind whipped forward, nearly knocking Kell off-balance as it cycloned toward Holland. It surrounded the Antari, swallowing him from sight. The wind whistled, but through it Kell could hear a low, haunting sound. And then he realized it was a laugh.
Holland was laughing.
A moment later, Holland’s blood-streaked hand appeared, parting the cyclone wall, and then the rest of him stepped through, the column of wind crumbling around him. “Air cannot be made sharp,” he chided. “Cannot hurt. Cannot kill. You should choose your elements with more care. Watch.”
Holland moved with such smooth swiftness, it was hard to follow his motions, let alone keep up. In a single fluid move, he dropped to a knee and touched the ground and said “As Steno.”
The paving stone beneath his palm shattered into a dozen sharpened shards, and as he stood, the shards came with him, hovering in the air the way the nails had done in the alley. He flicked his wrist, and the shards shot forward through the air toward Kell. The stone against his palm sang with warning, and he barely had time to throw up his hand, the talisman shining in it, and say, “Stop.”
The smoke poured forth and caught the slivers in their path, crushing them to dust. Power shot through Kell with the command, followed instantly by something darker, colder. He gasped at the sensation. He could feel the magic climbing over his skin, and under it, and he willed it to stop, pushed back with all his strength as the smoke dissolved.
Holland was shaking his head. “Go ahead, Kell. Use the stone. It will consume you faster, but you might just win.”
Kell swore under breath and summoned another cyclone, this one in front of him. He snapped the fingers of the hand without the stone. A flame appeared in his palm, and when he touched it to the twisting air, it took it, engulfing the wind in fire. The burning cyclone scorched across the ground, melting the ice as it charged toward Holland, who threw out his hand and summoned the ground up into a shield, and then, the instant the flame was gone, sent the stone wall surging toward Kell. He threw up his hands, fighting for control over the rocks, and realized too late that they were only a distraction for the arcing wave of water that struck him from behind.
The surge from the river slammed Kell to his hands and knees, but before he could recover, it swept him up and coiled around him. In moments, Kell was trapped by the swell, gasping for air before it swallowed him entirely. He fought, pinned by the force of the water.
“Astrid wanted you alive,” said Holland, drawing the curved blade from beneath his cloak. “She insisted upon it.” His free hand curled into a fist, and the water tightened, crushing the air from Kell’s lungs. “But I’m sure she will understand if I have no choice but to kill you in order to retrieve the stone.”
Holland strode toward him with measured steps over the icy ground, the curved blade hanging at his side, and Kell twisted and thrashed, scouring for something, anything he could use. He reached for the knife in Holland’s grip, but the metal was warded, and it didn’t even quiver. Kell was running out of air, and Holland was nearly to him. And then through the wall of water he
saw the rippling image of the ship supplies, the pile of boards and poles and the dark metal of chains coiled on posts by the bridge.
Kell’s fingers twitched, and the nearest set of chains flew forward, wrapping around Holland’s wrist, jarring his focus. The water lost its shape and fell apart, and Kell stumbled forward to the ground, soaking wet and gasping for breath. Holland was still trying to free himself, and Kell knew he couldn’t afford to hesitate. Another set of chains, from another post, snaked around the Antari’s leg and up his waist. Holland moved to throw the curved blade, but a third set of chains caught his arm and drew taut. It wouldn’t hold, not for long. Kell willed a metal pole up from the dock floor and through the air, the bar hovering a foot or so behind Holland.
“I can’t let you win,” said Kell.
“Then you’d better kill me,” growled Holland. “If you don’t, it will never end.”
Kell drew the knife from his forearm and lifted it as if to strike.
“You’re going to have to try harder than that,” said Holland as Kell’s hand froze, the bones held still by the other Antari’s will. It was exactly what Kell was hoping for. The moment Holland’s focus was on the knife, Kell attacked, not from the front, but from behind, willing the metal bar forward with all his strength.
It soared through the air and found its mark, striking Holland in the back with enough force to pierce through cloak and skin and bone. It protruded from Holland’s chest, the metal and blood obscuring the seal scarred over his heart. The silver circle clasp broke and tumbled away, the half-cloak sliding off Holland’s shoulders as his knees folded.
Kell staggered to his feet as Holland collapsed onto the damp street. A horrible sadness rolled through him as he crossed to the Antari’s body. They had been two of a kind, a dying breed. Now he was the only one. And soon, there would be none. Perhaps that was how it should be. How it needed to be.
Kell wrapped his fingers around the bloody metal bar and pulled it free of Holland’s chest. He tossed the pole aside, the dull sound of it clanging down the road like a faltering heartbeat. Kell knelt beside Holland’s body as blood began to pool beneath it. When he felt for a pulse, he found one there. But it was shallow, fading.
“I’m sorry,” he said. It felt stupid and useless to say, but the sharpness had gone out of his anger, and his sadness, his fear, his loss—they had all dulled into a steady ache, one he felt he might never shake as he reached under the Antari’s collar and found a White London token on a cord around his neck.
Holland knew. He’d seen the attack coming, and he hadn’t stopped it. The instant before the metal struck him from behind, Holland had stopped
fighting. It was only a second, a fraction of a breath, but it had been enough to give Kell the edge, the opening. And in the sliver of time after the metal pierced his body, and before he fell, it wasn’t anger or pain that crossed his face. It was relief.
Kell snapped the cord and straightened, but couldn’t bring himself to leave the Antari there, in the street. He looked from the token to the waiting wall and then dragged Holland’s body to its feet.