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Chapter no 60 – JASE

Vow of Thieves (Dance of Thieves, #2)

The floor pitched. Screams bounced off walls and lights flickered. The earth growled and grated like a monster sharpening its teeth and knocked me to the ground again and again. Bodies bounced into mine, and then finally … the shaking stopped. I couldn’t see. Gray dust choked the air, but I heard moans. That meant some were still alive.

“Kazi!” I yelled.

I felt a hand on mine. “I’m here,” she answered. “I’m okay.”

I heard Synové cursing. “You oaf! You landed on my bow! It’s broken!” Gunner coughed. Someone else grunted.

That shaking hadn’t been from soldiers firing on the vault. It came from someplace deeper—from thousands of pounds of ammunition blowing up in the Darkcottage cellar.

I got to my feet. As the dust cleared, the first thing I looked at was the vault door. It was intact, not a single bend or buckle. I turned and looked down the tunnel entrance. There were no fallen rocks, no cave-ins. Others were beginning to stand, the same shocked wonder I was feeling showing in their faces, their eyes wide as they looked around. I ran to the bunk room, then the study, sickroom, kitchen—things were strewn everywhere, but the walls and ceilings had held. Rhea was already moving through the rooms checking on everyone. They all seemed to be okay.

It held.

The damn vault held.

I leaned over, my hands on my knees, and blessed the Ancients and Aaron Ballenger with every prayer inside me.

The horses whinnied from the hall where they had been stabled, and Tamryn and Kwan went in to tend and calm them. Others were beginning to set order back to the vault too. I found my mother in the kitchen just as she

was getting to her feet along with Judith. “We’re all right,” she said. She put her hand on her belly. “The baby too. You all made it back?”

“All of us.”

 

 

The wonder was followed by elation, and then by sobering silence. All noise beyond the vault had ceased. The quiet was unsettling. It seemed we had done what we set out to do, but now the question sank in: What was left out there, if anything? We listened for a few minutes. The vault door blocked out most sound anyway, but there weren’t even the muffled vibrations that sometimes hummed against the door. Nothing.

I felt my father nudging my shoulder. Stop doubting. Go with your gut, Jase.

“We have to go,” I said. “Before they have a chance to regroup. We need to get to town and finish this.”

More plans were set. Remaining ammo counted, weapons reloaded, and launchers aimed as we opened the vault door once again. It yawned wide, growling over small stones, like an old man waking from sleep.

We were met with more eerie silence. I went out first. Soldiers’ bodies lay sprawled through the tunnel, covered with a thick layer of grit and ash. They almost looked like macabre, twisted pieces of stone themselves. I stopped at the T and looked in both directions. The king’s mercenaries were strewn as far as I could see. Apparently they’d swarmed the tunnel in the last seconds in their effort to overtake and kill us. Not one of them stirred. Blood trickled from some of their noses, like the blast had shaken their insides loose.

I looked at Gunner and nodded. Let them come. If the mercenaries who were in the protection of the tunnel had died from the blast, I didn’t expect to encounter trouble outside of it.

Gunner posted the dogs at the door as protection for those who had to stay behind, and waved the others to follow. There was no hesitation. They streamed out, refusing to be sequestered anymore, maybe needing to feel the sun on their gray faces. Maybe just needing to see what was left. Grit crunched beneath our boots, and the sharp smell of smoke hung in the air.

As we neared the end of the tunnel, Kazi slipped her hand into mine and squeezed it as if trying to bolster me for what lay ahead.

We turned at the last juncture and walked toward the end of the tunnel, but most of it wasn’t there. Anything that had extended past the mountain was blown away. We stepped around giant blocks of stone that had been tossed like bales of hay. We hadn’t even reached the end yet, but through the stony opening I hardly recognized what I saw. The landscape was transformed. Cave’s End was gone. Completely gone. All of it except for one jagged piece of the cave roof that looked like a sharp fang biting the sky. The back fortress wall. Gone. The grounds that had still borne some wintery green just minutes ago were completely gray with grit just like the mercenaries. At first I thought it was snow floating to the ground, but then I realized it was ash. A few tendrils of smoke rose from the rubble.

We stepped all the way out of the tunnel and then I saw the rest of Tor’s Watch and what had happened to it.

Patrei? You all right?” Wren and Synové asked almost simultaneously.

How long had I been staring?

I took in the randomness of the destruction.

Kazi stepped forward as if she was confused herself. With the giant sloping roof of Cave’s End gone, we had an open view of all of Tor’s Watch.

Darkcottage, the very first Ballenger home, was gone. Thousands of tons of heavy black granite were completely and wholly gone, as if the whole structure had been plucked into the air by a giant hand. A deep crater where the cellar had once been churned with dust.

Above it all, a dark cloud rose into the sky, straight up hundreds of feet like the thick trunk of a tembris, and then the cloud branched outward, still curling, reeling, blocking out the sun.

Next to the crater Greycastle still stood, at least part of it. It was as if it had been sheared in half by a cleaver, the rooms exposed, naked, some of them still filled with furniture, which made no sense at all. Just past it, Riverbend appeared untouched except for shattered windows.

And then my attention turned to the main house, and I heard Titus sobbing behind me. And then others. There was laughter. And more

sobbing. Emotions were as shattered as the landscape.

The main house still stood. It was the first time I had seen the tear through the middle of the house in the light of day, but compared to everything else, it seemed like a miracle it was standing at all. Raehouse, like Riverbend, appeared untouched except for shattered windows.

Some trees were only serrated stumps now, while others still had foliage. Random mercies were sprinkled about as if a drunken angel had passed overhead.

Mercenaries were draped over walls or lay motionless on the ground. “Count up the bodies,” I called. “We need to know how many of them

are left. And gather the weapons.”

I couldn’t dwell on what remained and what didn’t. I would have to absorb it later. Our battle wasn’t over. The worst might still lie ahead. One thing I knew, we were going to take the offense this time. We weren’t going to wait for them to descend on Tor’s Watch again and run us back into the vault. While they were still scrambling and trying to make sense of what had happened, we would descend on them.

Everyone got to work, grabbing anything that was useful. Two hundred dead mercenaries were found. That meant we still faced an army of three hundred. All of the launchers gathered were too damaged and too dangerous to use, but then someone came running from Greyson Tunnel. A whole stash of them had been found.

“Forty,” Mason confirmed. “But they’re empty. No ammo.”

“Bring them,” I said. “Montegue and Banques won’t know they’re empty, just like we didn’t.”

 

 

“Go!”

“Over there!” “This one!”

Gunner, Priya, and Kazi pulled weapons from the back of the wagon and hurried to shove them into everyone’s hands. Synové, Wren, and Samuel helped move them into positions, the strongest in the front.

Ash continued to fall from the sky, dusting our hair and shoulders. The towering cloud cast an uncanny orange light over the landscape.

We had ninety-two in our ranks who could reasonably carry some kind of weapon, or just insisted on carrying one—like Judith. She would be in the rear guard. The very rear guard. Tiago swore his arms were as strong as ever, and he drove the wagon piled with swords, halberds, shovels, and axes

—and empty launchers.

On our quick descent from the mountain, at every switchback I paused to look at the town. The tembris blocked most of it from view, but I couldn’t see any activity. Kazi and I exchanged a glance. I saw the concern in her eyes. Were they regrouping, just as we had feared? We had to hurry.

We knew they had heard and seen the explosion at Tor’s Watch. Their supplies were limited now, maybe less than ours, but we didn’t want Montegue’s soldiers blocking the inroads, concentrating every bit of their firepower on us as we marched in.

“Over there!” Aram raised his launcher, and ninety-one other weapons were raised simultaneously. Nerves were tight and ready.

“Wait!” I said.

A small group headed toward us.

I cursed. “It’s Caemus. What’s he doing here?” One of their group broke loose from the rest and ran to us. It was Kerry.

Patrei! We’re here to help!”

“Now’s not a good time, Kerry,” I called back. Caemus caught up with him.

“Lydia and Nash?” Kazi asked immediately. “They’re all right?” Caemus assured her they were safe and fine back at the settlement.

Before I could say anything else, Caemus began explaining they were just leaving town when the whole sky exploded. He guessed it was Tor’s Watch. “And then, not much later, a whole swarm of those devils came flying past us.”

“Slow down, Caemus. What devils?”

“Those soldiers. They had all kinds of things on the backs of their horses. Bolts of silk. Candlesticks. Sacks of food. Anything they could grab and carry.”

“I saw one with a squealing piglet!” Kerry shouted. “Everyone was running and screaming,” Jurga added. The mercenaries had ransacked the town and left. “How many?” I asked.

Caemus wasn’t sure. “At least two hundred.”

“They’d been grumbling about payment,” Paxton said. “The explosion at Tor’s Watch may have been the final straw. They cut their losses and ran.”

“Were any of the other soldiers shooting at them?” “I only heard a few shots.”

They couldn’t even quash a mutiny? Did the mercenaries not have it in them to shoot their own? Or were they out of ammunition?

The only way to know for sure was to draw their fire.

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