Then a wave of people rushed the Great Hall, Ascended and mortal, commoner and Royal alike, all running toward us. The gowns and tunics of some were a deeper red now, faces either leached of color or splattered with crimson. Some fell before they made it to the steps, arrows and…knives embedded deep into their backs. Others toppled down the stairs in their panicked run.
We were about to be overrun.
I didn’t even reach for my dagger. I couldn’t fight them. They weren’t the enemy.
“Shit,” Vikter growled, spinning toward me as Tawny stood frozen. My eyes met his, and I knew what was about to happen. My heart dropped. “Protect the Maiden!” he shouted.
Grabbing hold of Tawny by both her arms, I tugged her against me and wrapped my arms around her, holding her as tightly as I could. Vikter’s arms went around me. Guards pressed in, and because of how close I held Tawny to my body, they were forced to form a barricade around both of us.
“I’m scared,” Tawny whispered against my cheek.
“It’s okay,” I lied as I forced my eyes open, even though I wanted to close them. My heart slammed against my ribs. For a brief second, I prayed to the gods. I sent up a prayer that Hawke was nowhere near here. That he’d left to blow off some steam and had gone into the city. “Brace your—”
It was like being hit by falling rocks.
Bodies slammed into the guards from seemingly every direction, pushing them into Tawny and me. Hilts of swords cracked into ribs and other bones. Elbows knocked against flesh. Vases shattered. People broke. The crush of the crowd, of the hundreds who had fled the Great Hall and now returned was too much—
It was as if a massive wave rolled across the floor, tearing free one guard and then another and another until I felt Vikter’s grip loosen. And then he was gone, and something—someone—hard hit me, crashed into Tawny and me. She was ripped away, carried off with the wave of screaming, shrieking people as they ran from whatever it was that had scared them.
That was my last thought as the room seemed to turn upside down. My feet left the floor, and I experienced a boneless, airy moment. I saw the painted gods on the ceiling, then terror-stricken faces and blood and foam. I came back down, slipping and cracking my knees on the hard floor.
I tried to push up, knowing I couldn’t stay down. “Tawny!” I screamed, looking for her, but all I saw was red…everywhere.
A knee connected with my ribs, knocking the air out of my lungs. A booted foot landed on my back, slamming me to the floor. Pain shot down my spine. I scrambled blindly over spilled food, crushed roses, and gods…oh, gods, over wet and warm bodies as I tried to stand. Something caught my skirt, causing me to fall forward.
I came face-to-face with Dafina, and it seemed like time stopped as I stared down at her one beautiful blue eye open and glazed over. That mask of hers, just as gaudy as Loren’s, more red than any other color now that it was drenched in blood. I reached forward, wanting to wipe the blood from the crystals—
I saw Loren then, curled into herself behind Dafina, her arms over her head. I scrambled forward, grabbing her arm. Her head jerked up. Alive. She was alive.
“Get up,” I said, pulling on her as I struggled to stand, but something held me down. I looked over my shoulder and wished I hadn’t. It was a body. I grabbed my skirt, ripping it. I turned back to Loren as the faintest scent of something sulfuric, something acrid reached me. My stomach dropped. “Get up. Get up. Get up!”
“I can’t,” she cried. “I can’t. I can’t—”
Screaming as someone fell over me, I grabbed Loren by her dress, her arm, her hair—anything I could grab onto and pulled her over Dafina. My senses had cracked wide-open, and terror and pain came from her, came from everywhere. I gained my footing, hauling Loren to her feet. I saw a pillar and headed for that.
“See the pillar?” I asked Loren. “We can stay there. We can hold onto it.”
“My arm,” she gasped. “I think it’s broken.”
“I’m sorry.” I shifted my grip so it was around her waist.
“I need to get Dafina,” she said. “I need to get her. She shouldn’t be left like that. I need to get her.”
A knot lodged in my throat as I kept pulling Loren toward the pillar. I couldn’t think of Dafina and that mask and that one beautiful remaining eye. I couldn’t think about the bodies I crawled over. I couldn’t. “We’re almost there.”
Someone fell into us, but I held on—Loren held on, and we were almost there. Just a few more steps, and we’d be out of the crush. We’d be—
Loren jerked, and something wet and warm sprayed the right side of my face and my neck. Loren’s arms loosened, and I caught her, her sudden weight pulling at the tender skin around my ribs. “Hold on,” I told her. “We’re almost there—” I looked down, peered at her because she was falling, and I couldn’t hold her.
She fell, and I couldn’t believe what I was seeing. I refused to reconcile what I saw as I was jostled to the left and then to the right. There couldn’t be an arrow through the back of her head, the fletching vibrating.
“We were almost there,” I whispered.
A piercing whistle sounded from outside, followed by another and another. Slowly, I lifted my chin and stared out into the shadows of the garden, some deeper and darker than others. They drew closer.
I’d just been out there with Hawke. Had he gotten out in time? Or had he been felled by—
I couldn’t think like that. He must have left. He had to.
Someone grabbed my arm, spinning me around.
“The side entrance.” Commander Jansen’s face appeared in front of me. “We must get to the side entrance now, Maiden.”
I blinked slowly, numbly. “Vikter, Tawny. I must find them—”
“They don’t matter right now. I need to get you out. Dammit,” he cursed as I turned away, desperately scanning the mass of people for those I cared about. He grabbed for me, but my arm was too slippery. He lost his grip as I raced into the churning mass of people.
“Tawny!” I screamed, shoving past an older man. “Vikter! Tawny—”
“Poppy!” Hands grabbed my back, and I spun. Tawny clutched me, her mask gone, and her hairdo half fallen. “Oh gods, Poppy!”
Holding onto her, I looked over her shoulder and met Lord Mazeen’s icy stare. “Good to see you’re still alive,” he said.
Before I could respond, Vikter shoved through, pulling me away from Tawny. “Are you hurt?” he shouted, wiping at the blood on my face. “Are you injured?”
My lips parted. I saw the Duchess behind us, surrounded by guards. Beyond them, I saw the Duke.
Flames crawled and licked up his legs, climbing over his torso and spreading across his arms.
“My gods,” Tawny said. I thought she saw what I did, but then I realized that she was facing the entrance. I turned.
They stood in the entryway and at the broken windows, dozens dressed in the ceremonial garb of the Rite, their faces shielded by silver masks. Wolven. Their facial coverings had been designed with the characteristics of the wolven—ears, snouts, elongated fangs. Those at the entryway were armed with daggers and battleaxes. Those at the windows had been the ones to fire the arrows. There were Descenters, possibly even Atlantians among the masked.
It struck me then.
They had been among us the entire night. I thought of Agnes, of what she had said and how nervous she’d looked, and how Vikter had felt as if there’d been more she hadn’t told us. Had she known and tried to warn me? Not the guards and the commoners who lay injured and dead on the floor. Not the Ascended who’d fallen. Not Loren and Dafina, who’d never harmed a single person.
My hands curled into fists.
“From blood and ash,” one of them shouted.
Another yelled. “We will rise!”
“From blood and ash!” several yelled as they started down the steps. “We will rise!”
Vikter grabbed me as I took hold of Tawny’s hand. “We need to move fast,” he said, nodding at the Commander, who was now beside the Lord.
The Royal Guards surrounded the Duchess and us, pushing back through the masses. Every part of me was sickened as they guided us through the crowd toward the open door, where people were being thrown back. We were escaping, and they were being held in.
“This isn’t right,” I said, and then I yelled it over the screams as I was pulled through the door. “They’re going to be massacred.”
Ahead of me, the Duchess’s head whipped around, and her black eyes met mine. “The Royals will take care of them.”
Normally, I would’ve laughed at that. The Royals? The Ascended, who never seemed to raise a hand, would take care of them? But there was something in her eyes, almost where her pupils would be if I could see them. It was like burning coal.
We went through the doorway, and…and others went out into the Great Hall. They weren’t guards. They were Ascended, male and female, their eyes carrying that same unholy light.
Racing along, I looked over my shoulder as the last of the Ascended swept through the door, her crimson gown like a cape. A Royal Guard closed the door behind her and then stood with his back pressed against it, his short swords crossed.
Guards streamed past us then as we ran through the foyer, around the statues, and I looked at every one of them, hoping and fearing that I’d see Hawke. Each face that passed me was unfamiliar.
And then the screams from the Great Hall ceased.
My steps faltered. Tawny looked back, too. The screams had simply…stopped.
“Come, Poppy,” Vikter urged.
We spilled into the banquet hall. A guard came running over, his face and arm spotted with blood. “They’re at the back entrance, surrounding the whole damn castle. The only way out is through them.”
“No,” The Duchess argued. “We wait them out. Here. This room will do.” She stalked forward. “They won’t make it to us.”