A Torch Against the Night (An Ember in the Ashes #2)(4)

I turn on the last three soldiers. They flee.

In seconds, I collect my knives. Laia’s whole body shakes as she takes in the carnage around us: Seven dead. Three injured, moaning and trying to rise.

When she looks at me, her eyes grow round in shock at my bloodied scims and armor. Shame floods me, so potent that I wish I could sink into the ground. She sees me now, down to the wretched truth at my core. Murderer! Death himself!

“Laia—” I begin, but a low groan rolls down the tunnel, and the ground trembles. Through the sewer grates I hear screams, shouts, and the deafening reverberation of an enormous explosion.

“What in the hells—”

“It’s the Scholar Resistance,” Laia shouts over the noise. “They’re revolting!”

I don’t get to ask how she happens to know this fascinating tidbit, because at that moment, telltale silver flashes from the tunnel to our left.

“Skies, Elias!” Laia’s voice is choked, her eyes wide. One of the Masks approaching is enormous, older than me by a dozen years and unfamiliar. The other is a small, almost diminutive figure. The calmness of her masked face belies the chilling rage that emanates from her.

My mother. The Commandant.

Boots thunder from our right as whistles draw even more soldiers. Trapped.

The tunnel groans again.

“Get behind me,” I snap at Laia. She doesn’t hear. “Laia, damn it, get—ooof—”

Laia dives straight into my stomach, a graceless, desperate leap so unexpected that I topple back into one of the wall crypts. I punch straight through the thick cobwebbing over the crypt and land on my back atop a stone coffin. Laia’s half on top of me, half wedged between the coffin and the crypt wall.

The combination of cobwebs, crypt, and warm girl throws me, and I’m barely even capable of stuttering, “Are you cra—”

BOOM. The ceiling of the tunnel we were just standing in collapses all at once, a thunderous rumble intensified by the roar of explosions from the city. I flip Laia under me, my arms on either side of her head to shield her from the blast. But it is the crypt that saves us. We cough from the wave of dust unleashed by the explosions, and I’m keenly aware that if not for Laia’s quick thinking, we’d both be dead.

The rumbling stops, and sunlight cuts through the dust. Screams echo from the city. Carefully, I lift myself away from Laia and turn toward the crypt entrance, which is half-blocked by chunks of rock. I peer out into what’s left of the tunnel. Which isn’t much. The cave-in is complete—not a Mask to be seen.

I scramble out of the crypt, half dragging, half carrying a still-coughing Laia over the debris. Dust and blood—not hers, I affirm—streak her face, and she paws at her canteen. I put it to her lips. After a few swallows, she pulls herself standing.

“I can—I can walk.”

Rocks obstruct the tunnel to our left, but a mailed hand shoves them away. The Commandant’s gray eyes and blonde hair flash through the dust.

“Come on.” I pull up my collar to hide the Blackcliff diamond tattoo on the back of my neck. We clamber out of the ruined catacombs and into the cacophonous streets of Serra.

Ten bleeding hells.

No one appears to have noticed the collapse of the street into the crypts—everyone is too busy staring at a column of fire rising into the hot blue sky: the governor’s mansion, lit up like a Barbarian funeral pyre. Around its blackening gates and in the immense square in front of it, dozens of Martial soldiers are locked in a pitched battle with hundreds of rebels dressed in black—Scholar Resistance fighters.

“This way!” I angle away from the governor’s mansion, knocking down two approaching rebel fighters as I go, and aim for the next street over. But fire rages there, spreading rapidly, and bodies litter the ground. I grab Laia’s hand and race toward another side street, only to find that it is as brutalized as the first.

Above the clang of weapons, the screams, and the roar of flames, Serra’s drum towers beat frenziedly, demanding backup troops in the Illustrian Quarter, the Foreign Quarter, the Weapons Quarter. Another tower reports my location near the governor’s mansion, ordering all available troops to join the hunt.

Just past the mansion, a pale blonde head emerges from the debris of the collapsed tunnel. Damn it. We stand near the middle of the square, beside an ash-coated fountain of a rearing horse. I back Laia against it and duck, desperately searching for an escape route before the Commandant or one of the Martials spots us. But it seems as if every building and every street adjoining the square is aflame.

Look harder! Any second now, the Commandant will dive into the fray in the square, using her terrifying skill to tear a path through the battle so she can find us.

I look back at her as she shakes the dust off her armor, unmoved by the chaos. Her serenity raises the hair on the back of my neck. Her school is destroyed, her son and foe escaped, the city an absolute disaster. And yet she is remarkably calm about it all.

“There!” Laia grabs my arm and points to an alley hidden behind an overturned vendor’s cart. We crouch down and race toward it, and I thank the skies for the tumult that keeps Scholars and Martials alike from noticing us.

In minutes, we reach the alley, and as we’re about to plunge into it, I chance a look back—once, just to make sure she hasn’t seen us.

I search the chaos—through a knot of Resistance fighters descending on a pair of legionnaires, past a Mask fighting off ten rebels at once, to the rubble of the tunnel, where my mother stands. An old Scholar slave trying to escape the havoc makes the mistake of crossing her path. She plunges her scim into his heart with a casual brutality. When she yanks the blade out, she doesn’t look at the slave. Instead, she stares at me. As if we are connected, as if she knows my every thought, her gaze slices across the square.

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