Kieran darted around one of the branches as it slammed down, kicking up dirt. “Listen to us,” he shouted, the force of my anger tearing at his clothing. “You don’t—”
I sent him back, his feet slipping out from under him as I screamed. Another pulse of energy reverberated through the forest. The trees in front of me shattered, and I saw the black wall of the smaller Rise surrounding the village outside of Oak Ambler. The guards saw me coming forward—coming for them. Several unsheathed swords of bloodstone as others raced through the gate. In my mind, the silvery webbing fell over the wall and seeped into it, finding those cracks I’d seen in the larger Rise. I latched on to those weak spots and tore the wall apart from the inside. Stone exploded, mowing down the guards.
A cloud of grayish dust blanketed the air as screams of panic rang out, and I smiled. Screams tore through the air, and I felt something gruesome curling the corners of my lips. I stalked forward, silvery-white light crackling between my fingers.
In the thick dust, an immobile shadow took form. It was her. The Handmaiden. She was the only still thing among the smoke, the screams and panicked shouts, her dark hair hanging in a thick braid over one shoulder.
“These people had nothing to do with what happened back there. They are innocent. Stop her.” The young woman lifted the bow, completely unfazed by the gathering energy and the streaks of lightning. Not a single muscle trembled as she took unwavering aim at me. “Or I will.”
I cocked my head, seeing the silvery-white light stretch out toward her—
“Sorry,” she said. “That doesn’t work on me.”
The energy recoiled from the Revenant. I pushed harder, but the eather shrank back, crackling and spitting.
“Keep trying.” The glow of silvery-white light shone brightly across her face. “In the meantime, do you know what will work on you? Shadowstone, which is what each of my arrows is tipped with. I put one of them through your head, you may get back up, but it won’t be anytime soon.”
My chest rose and fell rapidly as I zeroed in on the tip of the arrow. The fading sunlight reflected off the shiny black surface.
“So, I’ll repeat myself,” she continued, walking forward as she raised her voice. “These people have nothing to do with what was done. They are innocent. Stop this, or I will stop you.”
Behind her, people scattered into the dirty streets, rushing toward the Rise. They carried nothing but themselves and screaming, red-faced children. They were just mortals caught between the Blood Crown and me, and I could see from where I stood, that the gate to the city was closed.
And I knew that the Ascended who still remained within wouldn’t open it. They would’ve already done that if any of them had been like…like Ian. I sucked in a broken breath as I stared at the people crowding the gates of the larger Rise, their fear a pulsing mass.
I was not what Alastir and the Unseen claimed.
I was nothing like the deities they feared.
And I sure as hell wasn’t like my mother.
“I’m sorry,” the Handmaiden said, and my gaze snapped back to her as a jagged tremor rocked me. “I really am. I knew Ian. I liked him. He wasn’t like…a lot of the others.”
Despite the grief and the rage tearing its way through me, I focused on her, opening my senses. That ability still worked as it had before because I knew I was reading her emotions. I could taste them—the tartness of uncertainty and the bitterness of sorrow.
“But you need to leave. The Blood Crown has already left here. No one remains who played a role in what happened.”
“Except for you,” I countered.
There was a slight wince. “Did you have a choice when you were the Maiden?”
I stared at the Handmaiden. She could’ve struck me with one of the shadowstone arrows at any point, and I doubted she would’ve missed. But she hadn’t. She stood between me and the villagers outside the city, the poorest among those who called Solis home. Not between me and the Ascended.
My...Coralena had been different, hadn’t she? She’d been a Handmaiden—one of those Revenant things—but she had taken Ian and I away from Isbeth. She’d loved Leopold. I remembered how they’d looked at each other. I thought of the look on this Handmaiden’s face when she’d been summoned to prove what a Revenant was—the wave of hopeless desperation and then the feeling of surrender. Emotions I had been painfully well-acquainted with. And I thought of how Prince Malik had behaved when Isbeth had called her forth. He’d stepped forward and then seemed to stop himself. I wondered how many times she’d been used for show and tell, and then I decided I didn’t care.
It took every ounce of my self-control, but I pulled the energy back to me. The static charge of power faded from the air around me. The wind eased, and the trees stopped groaning behind me. “Where is she taking him?” I demanded, taking a step forward. The Handmaiden’s eyes narrowed. “If you’re thinking about firing the arrow, you’d better aim true,” I warned. “I don’t need eather to fight you. I imagine that regrowing sliced limbs and a head is quite the painful process.”
Her lips twisted in a brittle, thin smile. “Don’t worry. I will strike true.”
I returned her grin. “Tell me where they are taking him. If you don’t, you’d better kill me when you take me down because I will come back. And I will kill you.”
“Do you really think that is a threat? That I fear dying? After doing it as many times as I have?” She laughed, and the sound was as crumbling as the grimace of a smile. “I welcome the final death.”
“Do you welcome the death of the people you seek to protect right now?” I challenged, ignoring the spike of empathy I felt for her. “Because if you don’t fear your end, then maybe you’ll fear theirs.”
Her nostrils flared. “You all are no better than them.”
“You’re wrong. I stopped,” I said. “Would any of them have stopped? Would your Queen?”
She said nothing.
“I have no desire to kill innocents. I want to help the people of Solis—free them from the Blood Crown. That is what we wanted to do,” I told her. “But they killed my brother and took the one person who means the world to me. I will do anything to get him back. No matter how badly it stains my soul.”
“Then you know how to get him back,” she snapped. “Submit to her and take Atlantia in her name.”
I shook my head.
“So, you won’t do anything for him, then?”
“Because once she has what she wants, she will kill him,” I said. “She will kill me.”
“Then I guess you’re screwed.”
“No. Because I won’t let either of those two things happen,” I said. “I’m going to give her what she wants, but not in the way she thinks.”
Curiosity flickered through the Handmaiden, but then her attention shifted just the slightest to my shoulder.
“Poppy,” Kieran called quietly as several archers on the Rise scrambled into their nests.
Her chest rose with a shallow breath. “She’ll take him to the capital. I don’t know where. No one knows where she keeps her…pets.”