When I emerge from the tunnels and into the bright sunlight, I grimace at the reek of blood. A massive pile of bodies sits a
hundred yards away, at the base of a narrow gap. Through it, I can make out the city of Antium.
And beside the bodies, on her knees with the dark-cloaked Nightbringer standing before her, is the Blood Shrike.
I do not know what the Nightbringer says to the Blood Shrike. I only know that when she cries out, it sounds just like Nan did when she heard about my mother’s death. Like I did when I understood how that jinn beast had betrayed me.
It is a cry of loneliness. Of betrayal. Of despair.
The jinn turns. Looks in my direction. Then he disappears on the wind.
“Girl.” Cook scrambles up behind me, having swept the tunnels at my side to make sure that no one else lingered. The last Scholars have long since disappeared. It is only us now. “Let’s go! They’re coming!”
As more Karkauns make their way through the Gap, the Shrike crawls toward her war hammer, attempting to stand. She lurches around to look behind her at the sky—
—where a plume of white smoke curls into the heavens.
She sobs and sinks to her knees, dropping her hammer, bowing her head. I know then that she is ready to die.
I also know that I cannot let her.
I am already moving—away from Cook, away from the path to safety and toward the Blood Shrike. I throw myself at the Karkaun attacking her, and as he snaps at my throat with his teeth, I shove my dagger in his gut and then push him away. I only just manage to pull my knife free in time to shove it into the throat of another Karkaun. A third attacks me from behind, and I stumble and roll out of the way just as an arrow explodes through his head.
My jaw drops as Cook lets arrow after arrow fly, executing the Karkauns with the precision of a Mask. She stops to snatch up a quiver full of arrows from the back of a dead Karkaun.
“Grab the Shrike!” Cook gets her arm under the Blood Shrike’s left shoulder, and I take her right. We stagger up the Pilgrim Road as swiftly as we can, but the Shrike can barely walk, and our progress is slow.
“There.” Cook nods to a cluster of boulders. We clamber behind it and put the Shrike down. Dozens of Karkauns climb through the Gap. Soon, it will be hundreds. We have a few minutes—if that.
“How the hells do we get out of this?” I whisper to Cook. “We can’t just leave her.”
“Do you know why the Commandant never fails, girl?” Cook doesn’t seem to expect a reply to her bizarrely timed question, because she barrels on. “Because no one knows her story. Learn her story, and you’ll learn her weakness. Learn her weakness, and you can destroy her. Talk to Musa about it. He’ll help you.”
“Why are you telling me this now?”
“Because you’re going to take vengeance on that savage demon queen for me,” she says. “And you need to know. Get up. Get the Shrike up that mountain. The Martials are going to seal off those caves soon enough, if they haven’t already. You need to move quickly.”
A group of Karkauns races up the Pilgrim Road toward us, and Cook rises and shoots a dozen arrows. The Barbarians fall. But more come through the Gap.
“I have another fifty arrows, girl,” Cook says. “Once I’m out, we’re done for. We could fight three or four of those bastards at the most—not hundreds. Not thousands. One of us has to hold them off.”
Oh. Oh no. I take her meaning now. Finally, I understand what she is saying. “Absolutely bleeding—no. I will not leave you here to die—”
“Go!” My mother shoves me toward the Shrike, and though her teeth are bared, her eyes are filled with tears. “You don’t want to save me! I’m not worth it. Go!”
“I will not—”
“Do you know what I did in Kauf Prison, girl?” There is hatred in her eyes as she says it. Before I knew who she was, I would have thought that hate was directed at me. I understand now that it was never for me. It was for herself. “If you did, you would run—”
“I know what you did.” Now is not the time to be noble. I grab her arm and try to drag her toward the Shrike. She doesn’t budge. “You did it to save Darin and me. Because Father and Lis weren’t strong like you, and you knew that they would give us up eventually, and then we’d all die. I knew that the moment I learned of it, Mother. I forgave you the moment I learned of it. But you have to come with me. We can run—”
“Damn you, girl.” Cook grabs me by the shoulder. “Listen to me. One day, you will have children. And you will learn that you would rather suffer a thousand torments than let one hair on their heads be harmed.
Give me this gift. Let me protect you as I should have protected L-L-L-Lis.” The name bursts from her lips. “As I should have protected your f-fath-fath—”
She snarls at her inability to speak and spins away, nocking her bow, letting arrow after arrow loose.
The Ghost will fall, her flesh will wither.
The Ghost was never me. It was her. Mirra of Serra, risen from the dead.
But if that’s the case, then this is one line of the prophecy I will fight. Mother spins, grabs the Shrike, and heaves her up. The Blood
Shrike’s eyes flutter open, and she leans heavily on my mother, who then shoves her at me.
I have no choice but to catch her, my knees nearly buckling at the sudden weight. But the Shrike rights herself, trying to stay steady on her feet, using me as support.
“I love you, L-L-Laia.” The sound of my name on Mother’s lips is more than I can bear, and I am shaking my head, trying to tell her no through my sobs. Not again. Not again.
“Tell your brother everything,” she says, “if he doesn’t know already.
Tell him I am proud of him. Tell him that I am sorry.”
She rises up from the rocks and darts away, drawing the Karkauns’ fire as she skewers them with more arrows.
“No!” I scream, but she is doing this, and if I don’t move, it will be for nothing. I look at her for one more moment, and I know I will never forget how her white hair snaps like a victory banner, and how her blue eyes shine with fury and determination. She is finally the Lioness, the woman I knew as a child—and, somehow, more.
“Blood Shrike!” I call to her as I turn up the Pilgrim Road. “Wake up
“Who—” She tries to see me, but her ravaged face is drenched with blood.
“It’s Laia,” I say. “You must walk, do you understand? You must.” “I saw white smoke.”
Step by step, we make our way up the Pilgrim Road until we are high enough to see over the bodies and into the Karkaun force, diminished but still enormous. High enough to watch as my mother picks them off one
by one, grabbing the arrows the Karkauns are hailing down upon her, giving us as much time as she can.
And then I do not look back anymore. I just move, half dragging, half urging the Blood Shrike onward and upward. But it is too far and the Shrike is too injured, her clothes soaked with blood, her body heavy with pain.
“I’m so-sorry,” she whispers. “Go—go on without—”
“Blood Shrike!” A voice from up ahead, and a flash of silver. I know that face. The Mask who helped me at Kauf. The one who set me free months ago. Avitas Harper.
“Thank the bleeding skies—”
“I’ve got this side, Laia.” Harper throws the Shrike’s other arm over his shoulder, and together we pull her up the path, then down across a shallow bowl to a cave where a handsome, dark-skinned Mask waits.
“Harp—Harper,” the Shrike slurs in a whisper. “Told you . . . collapse the tunnels. You disobeyed orders.”
“With respect, Shrike, they were stupid bleeding orders,” Harper says. “Stop talking.”
I twist my head around as we enter the cave. From this height, I can see down the hill to the Gap.
To the Karkauns who are now making their way up the path with no one to block their way.
“No,” I whisper. “No—no—no—”
But we are in the cave now, Dex ushering us forward quickly.
“Blast it,” Avitas says. “Laia, come quickly. They’re not far behind.”
I don’t want to leave her, I want to scream. I don’t want her to die alone. I don’t want to lose her again.
When we are at the end of a long passage lined with blue-fire torches, an earth-shattering rumble booms out, followed by the unmistakable sound of thousands of pounds of rocks falling.
And then silence.
I slip down onto the ground beside the Shrike. She cannot see me, but she reaches out her hand and takes mine.
“You—you knew her?” she whispers. “The Cook?”
It takes me a long time to answer. By the time I do, the Shrike has lost consciousness.
“Her name was Mirra of Serra,” I speak, though no one can hear me. “And yes. I knew her.”