From Blood and Ash

Page 36

For the briefest heartbeat, I stood transfixed as it tore its hand free and then slammed it down again, higher, pulling itself up the wall.

“My gods,” I whispered.

The Craven let out a screeching wail, tearing me out of my stupor. I took aim, firing the arrow directly down into its skull. The impact knocked it off the wall—

A shout to my right jerked my head around. An archer fell forward, bow slipping from his hands as a Craven gripped him by the shoulders, sinking its jagged teeth into the guard’s neck.

Good gods, they had reached the top.

Spinning around, I nocked an arrow and quickly let it go. The arrow didn’t deliver a fatal blow, but the impact knocked the Craven free from the guard, sending it back to the ground below. It wasn’t the only one that fell. The guard tumbled backward into nothing but air. I swallowed a cry, telling myself that the man was already dead before the loud, fleshy smack caused me to briefly squeeze my eyes shut.

The Craven’s minds may be rotted, but they had enough sense to go for the archers. Vikter had once said that the only thing that rivaled their thirst for blood was their survival instincts.

A high-pitched scream jolted me into action. To my right, another Craven had reached the edge of the Rise, seizing an archer. The guard dropped his bow and embraced the Craven, pushing forward.

He fell to the ground outside the Rise, taking the Craven with him.

A round of fiery arrows lifted once more into the air, reaching high above the wall. They came down, striking mortal and monster alike. Over the sound of unearthly howls and screams, hooves pounded off cobblestone and dirt, but I still stared at where the archer had fallen, his body swarmed by Craven.

The guard had sacrificed himself. This unnamed, unknown man had chosen death over allowing the Craven to reach the other side of the Rise.

Blinking back sudden tears, I gave a wordless shake of my head as battle cries erupted, forcing me into motion. Rising just enough to see over the ledge, I looked over my shoulder as more guards on horseback spilled out from the gate, brandishing sickle blades. They split into two directions, attempting to seal off access to the Rise. As soon as they cleared the entrance, the gates closed behind them.

A Craven launched itself at a guard, powering through the air like a large jungle cat would. It slammed into the guard, throwing him from his horse. They hit the ground.

“Dammit,” I hissed, taking aim at the Craven, who was now halfway up the Rise.

I caught him at the top of his patchy-haired skull, knocking him from the wall. I quickly nocked another arrow, searching out the Craven who were at the Rise. They were the clear threat.

It quickly became obvious that these Craven were different. They looked less…monstrous. Still, their appearance was nothing short of nightmare fodder, but their faces were less hollow, their bodies less shriveled. Were they newly turned? Possible.

The battle below was lessening, bodies falling on top of one another. Catching sight of Vikter as he thrust his sword through the head of a fallen Craven, I dropped down to one knee so I could peer over the wall. The cloak parted, exposing nearly the entire length of my leg from my calf to my thigh to the chilled air.

There was only a handful of Craven remaining, half of them feeding on and tearing into wounded guards, unaware of anything around them. I could see no more near the Rise. Setting an arrow against the bow, I took aim at one who had torn through armor and into the cavity of a stomach, exposing thick, ropey innards. Bile clogged my throat. The guard was already dead, but I couldn’t let the Craven continue desecrating the fallen man.

Focusing on the blood-and-gore-smeared mouth, I sent the arrow flying straight into it. The contact snapped the Craven back. Whatever satisfaction I felt was tempered by sorrow. The mist had begun to dissipate, revealing the carnage left behind. So many had fallen tonight. Too many.

The stone cold under my bare knee, I reached for another arrow as I searched—

“You must be the goddess Bele or Lailah given mortal form,” a deep voice said from behind me.

Sucking in a sharp breath, I spun around on my knee, the cape and gown whirling around my legs. My arrow locked and ready, I aimed at—


Oh, gods…

My stomach tumbled with relief and dismay as I stared down. He stood under a beam of moonlight as if the gods themselves had blessed him with eternal light. Inky blood dotted his broad, high cheekbones and the straight line of his jaw. His wide, expressive lips were parted as if he were only able to take the thinnest breath, and those strange, beautiful eyes seemed to almost glow in the moonlight.

He held his blood-soaked sword at his side. His leather had been clawed, showing how close he’d come to falling.

Hawke had been beyond the Rise, and like Vikter, as a Royal Guard, that wasn’t required. But he went out there, nonetheless. Respect blossomed in my chest, warming me, and I reacted without thought, reaching out with my senses to see if he was injured.

I felt the barest hint of the anguish that lingered in him. The battle had eased it, giving him an outlet in the same way my touch would. Temporary, but still effective. He wasn’t injured.

“You are…” His stare was intense and unblinking as he sheathed his sword at his side. “You’re absolutely magnificent. Beautiful.”

I jolted, shocked. He’d said that I was beautiful before once he saw my face, and he sounded like he’d meant it then. But now? He’d spoken words which too often meant nothing and too rarely meant everything. And he said them in such a manner that there was a tight, tense curling sensation low in my stomach even though he had no idea who he spoke to. My heavy hood remained in place.

I needed to get away.

I glanced behind him, searching for the easiest path to escape. I swallowed hard. Hawke may not have realized yet that I was the girl who’d been at the Red Pearl, but there was no way I could let him know it was me up here now. I had no idea what he would do if he realized I was the one on the Rise.

“The last thing I expected was to find a hooded lady with a talent for archery manning one of the battlements.” The dimple made an appearance in his right cheek, and I felt the tug low in my stomach.

Why did he have to have such a…charming grin? It was the kind I knew numerous others had fallen prey to.

I doubted any of them regretted that fall.

I knew I didn’t.

He extended his gloved hand. “May I be of assistance?”

Swallowing a snort, I lowered the bow, shifting it to one hand. I stayed silent in case he recognized my voice, motioning for him to back up. With an arch of one dark brow, he placed the offered hand over his heart and took a step back.

Hawke bowed.

He actually bowed, with such elaborate flourish that a laugh crept up my throat. I managed to squelch it as I placed the bow down on the lower ledge, propping it against the wall. Keeping my gaze on him, I scooted to the ladder and slowly climbed down, not giving him my back.

The sounds of fighting had all but ceased down below. I needed to get back to my room, but there was no way I could enter the castle the way I’d come out, not with Hawke here. That would rouse suspicion. I slipped the bow under my cloak, hooking it to my back. I flinched as it rested against the still-healing welts.

“You’re a…” He trailed off, an odd look settling into his features. I couldn’t decipher what it was. Suspicion? Bemusement? Something entirely different? His eyes narrowed.

Below, the heavy gates groaned as they reopened for the wounded and dead to be recovered. The Craven would be burned where they lay. I moved to exit the battlement—

Hawke smoothly blocked my path, and my heart turned over heavily as my hands tightened into fists. I forced my fingers to relax. The playful light in his eyes had faded. “What are you doing up here?”

Whatever patience his curiosity had brought was gone. Brushing past him, I knew I would have to go to the ground and lose him in the crowd as people began to leave their homes to take stock of the losses.

I didn’t make it far.

Hawke caught me by the arm. “I think—”

Instinct sparked, seizing control. I spun and twisted under the arm that held mine, ignoring the faint burn along my back. The shock flickering over his face brought a savage smile to my lips. Popping up behind him, I dipped low and kicked out, sweeping his legs out from under him. He dropped my arm to throw out his hands, stopping his fall.

His curse rang in my ears as I took off, racing out of the battlement and onto the inner ledge of the Rise. The closest stairs were several yards—

Something caught my cloak. The force spun me around and jerked me back against the wall. I started to pull away but didn’t make it more than a few inches. Looking down, I saw a dagger embedded deep in the wall, catching my cloak. Stunned, my mouth dropped open.

Hawke stalked toward me, his chin lowered. “That wasn’t very nice.”

Well, he wasn’t going to think this was very nice either.

I gripped the handle of the dagger, wrenching it free. Flipping it so I held it by the blade, I cocked my arm back—

“Don’t,” he warned, stopping.

I threw the dagger directly at his annoyingly handsome face. He spun, just as I knew he would—

He caught the dagger by the handle, plucking it out of the air like it was nothing, and that was…impressive. And I was jealous. No way could I have done that. I didn’t even think Vikter could.

Eyes glittering like chips of gold, he tsked softly and started toward me once more.

Pushing off the wall, I started running again, seeing the stairs up ahead. If I could make it to them—

A dark form dropped down in front of me. My feet skidded, and I slipped, losing my balance. Damn slippers and their smooth, soft sole! I went down hard on my hip, swallowing the cry of pain as it lanced up my lower back. At least I hadn’t landed on my back.

Hawk rose from a crouch, the dagger held at his hip. “Now that really wasn’t nice at all.”

How had he…? My gaze flicked to the narrow ridge of the wall above. He’d run along that? It couldn’t be wider than a few inches.

He was insane.

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