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Red Queen: Chapter 28

The shield explodes to life above us, a giant purple dome of veined glass like the one in the Spiral Garden. Not to protect us—but to protect the crowd. Sparks of lightning pulse through the monstrous ceiling, teasing me. Without Arven, the lightning would be mine and I could fight. I could show this world who I am. But that is not to be.

Cal shifts, putting out his arm. The air ripples around him, distorted by the waves of heat rolling off his body. He angles himself toward the others, protecting me.

“Stay behind me as long as you can,” he says, letting his own heat push me back. The flame maker sparks, and fire crackles between his fingers, growing up his arms. Something in his shirt keeps it from burning, and the fabric doesn’t smoke away. “When they break through the wall, you’ll have to run. Evangeline’s weakest, but the strongarm’s slow. You can outrun him. They’ll try to drag this out, to make it a show.” Then softly, “They won’t let us die quickly.”

“What about you? Osanos will—”

“Let me worry about Osanos.”

The executioners move steadily, like wolves stalking prey. They spread out across the middle of the arena, each one ready to advance. Somewhere, metal scrapes and a piece of the arena floor slides away, revealing a sloshing pool of water at Lord Osanos’s feet. He smiles, drawing the water up to him in a menacing shield. I remember his daughter Tirana dueling Maven in Training. She destroyed him.

All around, the crowd jeers. Ptolemus roars with them, letting his famed temper take over. He smacks at his armor, ringing it like a bell. At his side, Evangeline spins her knives, sliding them over her knuckles with a grin.

“This won’t be like before, Red,” she crows. “No tricks can save you now.”

Tricks. Evangeline knows my abilities better than most; she knows they weren’t tricks. But she believes. She ignores the truth for something easier to understand.

The Haven son, Stralian, grins to himself. Like his sister Elane, he is a shadow. When he flickers out of being, disappearing in the bright sunlight, Cal moves faster than I thought possible, swinging out his arm in a wide arc like he’s throwing a haymaker punch.

A roar of flame follows his arm, burning up the sand, separating us from them. But the fire is surprisingly weak. The sand will barely burn.

I can’t stop myself from glancing back at Maven, wanting to scream at him, only to find he’s still staring at me with that insufferable crooked smirk. Not only has he taken away my abilities, but he’s limiting Cal as much as he can.

“Bastard,” I curse under my breath. “The sand—”

“I know,” Cal snaps, igniting more bits of the ground with a wave of his hand.

Directly across from us, the line of flame separates for a second, followed closely by a bitter scream of pain. On the other side of the dying fire, Stralian fades back into sight, batting flames from his arms. Osanos douses him with a lazy gesture, putting out the fire with a wave of water. Then he turns his startling blue eyes on us, on Cal’s wall, and in a single motion, draws water across the weak fire like a lapping wave. The water hisses and spits, flash-boiling into thick clouds of steam. Trapped by the glass dome, the steam settles through the arena, shrouding us in a ghostly white fog. It swirls and spins, enveloping us in a white world where every shadow could be our doom.

“Be ready!” Cal shouts, a hand reaching for me, but Ptolemus charges out of the steam in a roar of flesh and steel.

He hits Cal around the middle, knocking him to the ground, but Cal doesn’t stay down long enough for Ptolemus to stab out with his knives. The blades dig into the ground seconds after Cal leaps, his hands on Ptolemus’s armor. The steel melts beneath his touch, drawing a scream from the berserker. I can only run as Cal tries to cook a man in his own armor.

“I don’t want to kill you, Ptolemus,” Cal says through the screams of pain. Every knife, every shard of metal Ptolemus raises to stab Cal melts away from his intense heat. “I don’t want to do this.”

Three sparkling blades cut through the steam, barely flashing blurs. Too fast to melt in midair. They hit Cal’s back, stinging through his shirt before melting away. He yells in pain, losing focus for a second as three spots of silverblood stain his shirt. The knives were too small to cut deep, but they weaken him still. Ptolemus takes his chance and in the blink of an eye, his knives meld into a single monstrous sword. He slashes, meaning to slice Cal in two, but he dodges in time, earning a scratch across the belly.

Still alive. But not for long.

Evangeline appears through the steam, knives swirling around in a glinting display. Cal dips and dodges her blades, throwing blasts of fire to knock her off course. He duels them both, hitting an insane rhythm that allows him to fight off two magnetrons, despite their strength and power. But blood stains his clothes and new wounds appear with every passing second. Ptolemus’s weapon shifts, from a sword to an ax to a razor-thin metal whip, while Evangeline’s jagged stars keep biting. They’re wearing him down. Slowly but surely.

My lightning, I think mournfully, looking back to Arven at our gate. He’s still there, a black presence to haunt me. A gun hangs at his waist; I can’t even try to fight him. I can’t do anything.

When a massive chunk of concrete sails out of the steam, heading directly for me, I barely have time to dodge. It shatters against the sand where I stood seconds ago, but before I have time to think, another comes hunting, howling through the air. The sky is raining concrete down on me. Like Cal, I find my rhythm, scurrying through the sand like a rat, until something stops me short.

A hand. An invisible hand.

Stralian’s grip closes on my throat, choking me. I can hear him breathing in my ear, though I can’t see him. “Red and dead,” he growls, tightening his hand.

My arm swings out, digging an elbow into what I suppose are his ribs, but he holds firm. I can’t breathe and black spots dot my vision, threatening to spread, but I keep fighting. Through the haze, I can see the Rhambos strongarm prowling, his eyes locked on me. He’ll pull me apart.

Cal still fights the Samos siblings, doing his best not to get stabbed. I can’t scream for him even if I wanted to, but somehow he manages to throw a fireball my way. Rhambos has to jump back, stumbling on his massive feet, buying me a few more seconds. Gasping, choking, I dig my nails back, reaching for a head I cannot see. It’s a miracle when I feel his face and then his eyes. With a gasping scream, I dig in, thumbs to his eye sockets, blinding him. Stralian roars, letting go of me. He falls to his knees, flickering back into being. Silverblood trails from his eyes like mirrored tears.

“You were supposed to be mine!” a voice screams, and I turn to see Evangeline standing over Cal, her blade raised. Ptolemus has wrestled Cal to the ground, the two of them rolling through the sand with Evangeline haunting over them, her knives peppering the ground around him. “Mine!”

It doesn’t occur to me that running headfirst into a magnetron might not be a good idea until I collide into her. We fall together, my face scraping along her armor. It smarts and stings and bleeds, dripping red for all to see. Though I can’t see the screens, I know every one broadcasts the image of my blood through the country.

Evangeline shrieks, lashing out with her dancing blades. Behind us, Cal fights to his feet, blasting Ptolemus away with a blaze of fire. The magnetron collides with his sister, knocking her away seconds before her knives slice through me.

“Duck!” Cal shouts, throwing me to the sand as another slab of concrete flies over us, shattering against the far wall.

We can’t keep this up. “I’ve got an idea.”

Cal spits at the sand, and I think I see a few teeth mixed in with the blood. “Good, because I ran out of them five minutes ago.”

Another block sails by, forcing us to jump apart, and just in time. Evangeline and Ptolemus return with a vengeance, locking Cal into a chaotic dance of knives and shrapnel. Their powers shake the arena around us, calling up more metal from down deep, forcing Cal to watch his footing along with everything else. Shards of pipes and wires poke up through the sand, creating a deadly obstacle course of metal.

One of them stabs Stralian where he kneels, still screaming over his eyes. The pipe goes straight through him, popping out through his mouth to silence his cries for good. Through the wreckage, I hear the arena crowd scream and gasp at the sight. For all their violent ways, all their power, they’re still cowards.

My feet pound through the sand as I circle Rhambos, daring him to attack me. Cal’s right, I’m faster, and though Rhambos is a monster of muscle, he trips over his own feet trying to chase me. He rips the jagged pipes from the ground, throwing them at me like spears, but they’re easy to dodge and he roars in frustration. I’m Red, I’m nothing, and I can still make you fall.

The sound of rushing water brings me back, making me remember the fifth executioner. The nymph.

I turn just in time to see Lord Osanos part the steam like a curtain, clearing the arena floor. And ten yards away, still dueling hard, is Cal. Smoke and fire explode from him, beating back the magnetrons. But as Osanos advances, the water trailing in a swirling cloak, Cal’s flames recede. Here is the true executioner. Here is the end of the show.

“Cal!” I scream, but there’s nothing I can do for him. Nothing.

Another pipe sails past my cheek, so close I feel the cold sting, so close it makes me spin and fall. The gate is only yards away, with Arven still standing in its mouth, half-shrouded by darkness.

Cal sends a blast of fire at Osanos, but he smothers it quickly. Steam screams from the clash of water and fire, but water is winning.

Rhambos advances, pushing me back toward the gate. Cornered. I let him corner me. Rocks and metal break against the wall behind me, enough to shatter my bones. Lightning, my head screams. LIGHTNING.

But there’s nothing. Just the dark smother of dead senses, suffocating me.

All around us, the crowd jumps to their feet, sensing the end. I can hear Maven above me, cheering with all the rest.

“Finish them off!” he yells. It still surprises me to hear such malice in his voice. But when I look up, his eyes meeting mine through the shield and steam, there’s nothing but anger and rage and evil.

Rhambos takes aim, a long, jagged pipe in hand. Death has come.

Over the din, I hear a roar of triumph: Ptolemus. He and Evangeline step back from a swirling orb of water, and the cloudy figure deep within. Cal. The water boils, and his body strains, trying to break free, but it’s no use. He’s going to drown.

Behind me, almost in my ear, Arven laughs to himself. “Who has the advantage?” he sneers to himself, repeating his words from Training.

My muscles ache and twitch, begging for it to be over. I just want to lie down, to admit defeat, to die. They called me a liar, a trickster, and they were right.

I have one more trick left up my sleeve.

Rhambos takes aim, setting his feet in the sand, and I know what I must do. He hurls his spear with such strength it seems to burn the air. I drop, throwing myself to the sand.

A sickening squelch tells me my plan has worked and the scream of electricity surging back to life tells me I might win.

Behind me, Arven collapses, a pipe speared through his middle.

“I have the advantage,” I tell his corpse.

When I get back to my feet, thunder and lightning and sparks and shocks and everything I can possibly control spits from my body. The crowd screams aloud, Maven above them all.

“Kill her! KILL HER!” he roars, pointing down at me through the dome. “SHOOT HER!”

Bullets dig into the dome, sparking and splintering against the electric shield, but it holds firm. It was supposed to protect them, but it is electric, it is lightning, it is mine, and the shield protects me now.

The crowd gasps, not believing their eyes. Red blood drips from my wounds, and lightning trembles in my skin, declaring what I am for everyone. Overhead, the video screens go dark. But I’ve already been seen. They can’t stop what’s already happened.

Rhambos takes a quivering step back, his breath catching in his throat. I don’t give him a chance to take another.

Silver and Red, and stronger than both.

My lightning streaks through him, boiling his blood, frying his nerves, until he collapses in a twitching pile of meat.

Osanos drops next as my sparks run over him. The liquid orb splashes to the ground, and Cal collapses to the sand, spitting up water with hacking coughs.

Despite the jagged metal spikes punching up through the sand, trying to run me through, I break into a sprint, dodging and vaulting over every obstacle. They trained me for this. It’s their own fault. They helped make their own doom.

Evangeline waves a hand, sending a steel beam flying at my head. I slide beneath it, knees skimming across the ground, before coming up beside her, daggered bolts of lightning in my hands.

She calls up a sword from the swirling metal, forging a blade. My lightning breaks against it, shocking through the iron, but still she duels. The metal shifts and splits all around us, trying to fight me. Even her spiders return to tear me down, but they aren’t enough. She isn’t enough.

Another blast of lightning knocks her blades away and sends her sprawling, trying to escape my wrath. She won’t.

“Not a trick,” she breathes, taken off guard. Her eyes fly between my hands as she backs away, bits of metal floating between us in a hasty shield. “Not a lie.”

I can taste red blood in my mouth, sharp and metallic and strangely wonderful. I spit it out for all to see. Overhead, the blue sky darkens through the shielded dome. Black clouds gather, heavy and full with rain. The storm is coming.

“You said you’d kill me if I ever got in your way.” It feels so good to throw her words back in her face. “Here’s your chance.”

Her chest rises and falls, heaving with each breath. She’s tired. She’s wounded. And the steel behind her eyes is almost gone, giving way to fear.

She lunges, and I move to block her attack, but it never comes. Instead, she runs. She runs from me, sprinting at the closest gate she can find. I pound after her, running to hunt her down, but Cal’s roar of frustration stops me in my tracks.

Osanos is on his feet again, dueling with renewed strength, while Ptolemus dances around them, looking for his opening. Cal is no good against nymphs, not with his fire. I remember how easily bested Maven was in his own training so long ago.

My hand closes around the nymph’s wrist, shocking him through his skin, forcing him to turn his anger on me. The water feels like a hammer, knocking me backward into the sand. It crashes and crashes, making it impossible to breathe. For the first time since I entered the arena, the cold hand of fear clenches around my heart. Now that we have a chance of winning, of living, I’m so afraid to lose. My lungs scream for air and I can’t help but open my mouth, letting the water choke me. It stings like fire, like death.

The tiniest spark runs through me, and it’s enough, shocking through the water and up into Osanos. He yelps, jumping back long enough to let me scramble free, slipping through the wet sand. Air sears my lungs as I gasp for breath, but there’s no time to enjoy it. Osanos is on me again; this time his hands are around my neck, holding me under the swirling foot of water.

But I’m ready for him. The fool is stupid enough to touch me, to put his skin against mine. When I let the lightning go, shocking through flesh and water, he screams like a boiling teakettle and flops backward. As the water falls away, draining into the sand, I know he’s truly dead.

When I rise, soaking wet, shaking with adrenaline, fear, strength, my eyes fly to Cal. He’s slashed and bruised, bleeding all over, but his arms rage with bright red fire, and Ptolemus cowers at his feet. He raises his hands in defeat, begging for mercy.

“Kill him, Cal,” I snarl, wanting to see him bleed. Above us, the lightning shield pulses again, surging with my anger. If only it was Evangeline. If only I could do it myself. “He tried to kill us. Kill him.”

Cal doesn’t move, breathing hard through his teeth. He looks so torn, eager for vengeance, consumed by the thrill of battle, but also steadily fading back to the calm, thoughtful man he used to be. The man he can’t be anymore.

But a man’s nature is not so easily changed. He steps back, flames fading away.

“I won’t.”

The silence presses down, a wonderful change from the screaming, jeering crowd who wanted us dead moments ago. But when I look up, I realize they aren’t staring. They aren’t seeing Cal’s mercy or my ability. They aren’t even there at all. The great arena has emptied, leaving no witnesses to our victory. The king sent them away, to hide the truth of what we have done so he can supplant it with his own lies.

From his box, Maven begins to clap.

“Well done,” he shouts, moving to the edge of the arena. He peers at us through the shield, his mother close at his shoulder.

The sound hurts more than any knife, making me cringe. It echoes over the empty structure, until marching feet, boots on stone and sand, drown him out.

Security, Sentinels, soldiers, all of them pour onto the sand from every gate. There are hundreds, thousands, too many to fight. Too many to run from. We won the battle, but we lost the war.

Ptolemus scrambles away, disappearing into the crowd of soldiers. Now we’re alone in a steadily closing circle, with nothing and no one left.

It’s not fair. We won. We showed them. It’s not fair. I want to scream, to shock and rage and fight, but the bullets will get me first. Hot tears of anger well in my eyes, but I will not cry. Not in these last moments.

“I’m sorry I did this to you,” I whisper to Cal. No matter how I feel about his beliefs, he’s the one truly losing here. I knew the risks, but he was just a pawn, torn between so many playing an invisible game.

He clenches his jaw, twisting and turning as he looks for some way out of this. But there isn’t one. I don’t expect him to forgive me, and I don’t deserve it either. But his hand closes over mine, holding on to the last person on his side.

Slowly, he starts to hum. I recognize the tune as the sad song, the one we kissed to in a room full of moonlight.

Thunder rumbles in the clouds, threatening to burst. Raindrops pitter on the dome above us. It shocks and sizzles the rain, but the water keeps coming in a steady downpour. Even the sky weeps for our loss.

At the edge of his box, Maven stares down at us. The sparking shield distorts his face, making him look like the monster he truly is. Water drips down his nose, but he doesn’t notice. His mother whispers something in his ear and he jolts, brought back to reality.

“Good-bye, little lightning girl.”

When he raises his hand, I think he might be shaking.

Like the little girl I am, I squeeze my eyes shut, expecting to feel the blinding pain of a hundred bullets ripping me apart. My thoughts turn inward, to days long past. To Kilorn, my parents, my brothers, my sister. Will I see them all soon? My heart tells me yes. They’re waiting for me, somewhere, somehow. And like I did that day in the Spiral Garden, when I thought I was falling to my death, I feel cold acceptance. I will die. I feel life leaving, and I let go.

The storm overhead explodes with a deafening clap of thunder, so strong it shakes the air. The ground rumbles beneath my feet and, even behind closed eyelids, I see the blinding flash of light. Purple and white and strong, the strongest thing I’ve ever felt. Weakly, I wonder what will happen if it hits me. Will I die or will I survive? Will it forge me like a sword, into something terrible and sharp and new?

I never find out.

Cal seizes me by the shoulders, throwing us both out of the way as a giant bolt of lightning streaks down out of the sky. It shatters through the shield, sending purple shards down on us like falling snow. It sizzles against my skin in a delightful sensation, an invigorating pulse of power to bring me back to life.

All around us, the gunmen cower, ducking or running away, trying to escape the sparking storm. Cal tries to drag me, but I’m barely aware of him. Instead, my senses buzz with the storm, feeling it churning above me. It’s mine.

Another bolt strikes down, pounding into the sand, and the Security officers scatter, running for the gates. But the Sentinels and the soldiers are not so easily frightened, and they come to their senses quickly. Even though Cal pulls me back, trying to save us both, they pursue—and there is no escape.

As good as the storm feels, it drains me, leeching my energy away. Controlling a lightning storm is just too much. My knees buckle, and my heart beats like a drum, so fast I think it might burst. One more bolt, one moreWe might have a chance.

When my feet stumble backward, heels jutting out over the empty chasm that once held Osanos’s water weapon, I know it’s over. There’s nowhere else to run.

Cal holds me tight, pulling me back from the edge in case I might fall. There’s nothing but blackness down there, and the echo of churning water deep down. Nothing but pipes and plumbing and black nothing. And ahead of us, the practiced, brutal ranks of soldiers. They take aim mechanically, raising their guns in unison.

The shield is broken, the storm is dying, and we have lost. Maven can smell my defeat and grins from his box, his lips pulled into a terrifying smile. Even from such a distance, I can see the glinting points of his crown. Rainwater runs into his eyes, but he doesn’t blink. He doesn’t want to miss my death.

The guns rise, and this time they won’t wait for Maven’s order.

The shooting thunders like my storm, ringing out across the empty arena. But I feel nothing. When the first line of gunmen falls, their chests peppered with bullet holes, I don’t understand.

I blink down at my feet, only to see a line of strange guns poking out over the edge of the chasm. Each barrel smokes and jumps, still shooting, mowing down all the soldiers in front of us.

Before I can understand, someone grabs the back of my shirt and pulls me down to fall through the black air. We land in water far below, but the arms never let go.

The water takes me, down into darkness.


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