I couldn’t breathe. My rage and grief were choking me, trying to rip out of me.
Oh my God, what would I tell his wife?
Hugh straightened, groaning, spat blood to the side, and crouched by Ted. His face was a bloody mess. On the floor seven people lay dead or dying. In the corner Nick looked at all of it, impassive.
Hugh surveyed the scene and looked at the wound gaping across Ted’s gut.
“I like this better—more satisfying all around. Gives us a few moments to bond before you pass on. I have a secret to tell you about one of your former employees.” Hugh turned on his feet and put his arm around Ted, moving his face so he would see me. “That one. She really hates cages, by the way. You’ll like this.”
He leaned closer to Ted and whispered into his ear. Ted’s eyes bulged.
“Life is full of surprises, isn’t it?” Hugh smiled.
He straightened and closed his eyes. Magic condensed around him. A pale blue glow licked his shoulder. His wounds knitted closed. His nose reset itself. He shrugged and walked up to my cage, blood dripping from his sword.
“It never lasts. They die too quickly on me. Give me the keys, Kate. You fought a good fight, but it’s over.”
“No.” Before I would’ve left the cage to fight him so I could save them. Now there was no need. Now they were dead. Mauro was dead.
“Was he a friend?” Hugh glanced at the big knight’s body. “So sorry. Give me the keys.”
“I’m going to kill you,” I told him. “If I don’t, Curran will.”
“That’s why I like you. It’s always the hard way.” Hugh turned on his foot, his boot sliding on the blood, and walked over to Ascanio. “What do we have here?”
I didn’t think I had enough stamina left to be scared. I was wrong.
He glanced at Steinlein’s corpse. “That would be his handiwork. I detest amateurs. The kid is a shapeshifter and a teenager. His regeneration factor is through the roof. I mean really, how difficult is it to heal this?”
Don’t touch him. Don’t . . .
Hugh held his hands out and began to chant under his breath. Magic moved, slow and sluggish at first, then faster and faster, winding around Hugh and raining on Ascanio’s body. The crushed ribs crawled under the boy’s skin, re-forming.
Hugh stopped chanting. The flow of magic stopped as if cut by a knife and I almost cried out.
Ascanio lay on the table, pale and smeared with blood. He looked so young. So young, just a child dying slowly on the metal table.
“So what will it be, Kate?”
Hugh held his hand out and Ascanio’s wounds began to knit themselves closed. “Yes?” He closed his hand into a fist. The healing stopped. “Or no?”
“Don’t.” Robert’s voice vibrated with urgency. “Don’t take the bait.”
“Yes?” Fractured shards of ribs slid into place.
Ascanio had trusted me to keep him safe. I had promised Aunt B. I’d promised her on her grave that I would look after her people.
“Or no?” The flesh stopped moving.
“Perhaps you’d like me to do it in reverse?” Hugh raised his eyebrows.
“No.” The word escaped before I could catch it.
“Don’t!” Robert’s voice snapped like a whip.
Hugh grimaced, his face jerking with effort. Ascanio’s bones crunched. Oh God.
“Make up your mind,” Hugh said. “Because I’ll splinter every bone in his body. He’ll be soft like a rag doll by the time I’m done.”
I couldn’t let Ascanio die. It wasn’t in me.
It felt like the words cut my mouth on their way out. “Heal him and I’ll open the cage.”
“This is a mistake,” Robert said.
I held up the keys. “You have my word. Heal the boy and I’ll open the cage.”
Hugh turned to Ascanio and raised his hand. Magic built around him like a wave about to break. A steady blue glow slowly flared around his body.
The magic plunged onto Ascanio’s body in a deluge. He cried out.
Ted struggled to say something. His big body shook. The tough old bastard refused to die.
Hugh ignored him, his magic streaming from him into Ascanio.
Ted’s voice was a hoarse rattle, as if an anvil rested on his chest and he couldn’t draw enough air. “Your . . . mission . . .”
Ascanio’s rib cage expanded back, the bones moving slowly back into his chest.
“. . . is . . .”
Ted gasped. Blood poured from his mouth. “Aborted.”
Ted’s legs convulsed. He gripped the edge of the desk, holding himself upright by sheer will. “Central, acknowledge.”
“Acknowledged,” Maxine’s voice said in my head. Robert looked around, startled. Hugh stopped and raised his head. Everyone in the room must’ve heard it. “Knight-crusader Nikolas Feldman, you are hereby ordered to return to regular duties.”
I knew only one Feldman. Greg, my deceased guardian.
Ted’s hand slipped. He sagged to the ground. Blood gushed out of his mouth.
Nick stepped forward. The twin thorn vines shot out of his body and punched Hugh in the chest, sweeping him off his feet. The preceptor of the Order of Iron Dogs flew and crashed to the floor outside the room. Nick ripped a green shield off the wall, revealing a switch and punching it. A metal portcullis slid in place, separating Hugh from the rest of us.
They had a portcullis! I almost choked. Okay, so I didn’t know it was there; the other knights may not have known either. But Ted knew. He could’ve locked Hugh out at any time.
Hugh rolled to his feet and screamed, a howl of pure fury.
Uath ran down the stairs. “We have to go.”
Hugh stabbed at the portcullis with his hand. “I want this broken.”
“There’s no time,” she said.
He spun to her, his face contorted.
Uath shrank back. “A National Guard platoon is incoming. They’re less than a mile out.”
“Two squads. Eighteen soldiers and a mage unit. We can wipe them out but it will take too much time. By the time we’re done, half of the city will be on us.”
Hugh looked at the ceiling.
“Sir,” Uath said. “Should I take up a defensive position?”
Hugh’s anger imploded. His face slid into icy calm. “No. Move our people out.”
Uath ran back up the stairs.