Without Isana's warning, Amara would surely have died.
Her eyes were scanning what lay before them, looking for the two men who had shadowed her and Bernard after the presentation at the amphitheater. A shrill scream of horror drew Amara's eyes to the far side of the grotto, where she saw Fleet Tribune Mandus, his throat opened, the cut hopelessly deep and precise, fall to his knees and slump to his side to die on the floor.
When Isana cried out her warning, Amara had her back to the assassins. She spun and managed to dart aside from the nearest man's first, sweeping cut. Two of the men were falling upon Bernard and Isana, and burdened as he was with his sister, Bernard would never be able to defend himself.
Amara called to Cirrus, and her fury came rushing down into the grotto at her call. She hurled a raw gale at the two men, catching them in midair. She flung one of them over the side of the walkway and he fell toward the pool. The other managed to get his hand on an outthrusting branch of one of the trees and flipped himself neatly down to the ground beside Bernard. The assassin turned to Amara's husband, sword in hand, but Amara had delayed him for the few critical seconds that would have made the attack a success.
"Giraldi!" Bernard bellowed. He turned and all but threw Isana into the grizzled soldier's arms. Then the Count of Calderon seized one of the heavy hardwood chairs, and with a surge of fury-born strength, swung the sixty-pound chair into the assassin, driving the man hard into a rocky wall of the grotto.
Amara turned to throw her hand out and force her own attacker back with a blast of wind, but the man hurled a small cloud of salt from a pouch at his belt, and Amara felt Cirrus buck in agony upon contact with the substance, the fury's concentrated power dispersed, temporarily, by the salt.
The average hired cutter did not venture forth with a pouch of salt at hand and ready to throw-which meant that the man had come for Amara, specifically.
The assassin advanced with the speed of a professional fighter and sent two quick cuts at her. Amara dodged the first cleanly, but the second blow slid over her hip and left a long, shallow cut that burned like fire.
"Down!" Bernard thundered. Amara threw herself to the ground just as Bernard flung the heavy hardwood chair. It struck the assassin with a dull, crunching sound of bones breaking upon impact and drove the man hard against the trunk of a tree.
The assassin bounced off the tree trunk, seized the chair, and flung it out over the grotto and into the pool. Though his rib cage was horribly deformed by the power of the blow Bernard had dealt him, the man's expression never changed-an odd little smile beneath wide, staring eyes.
Amara stared at the assassin in shock as he lifted his sword and came at her again, hardly slowed by the blow that should have killed him. She started to back away, but felt empty air beneath her heels and instead spun and leapt, arms reaching out to seize an overhanging tree branch. The assassin's sword whipped at the air behind her, missing, and with a snarl of fury the man lost his footing and plunged into the pool below them.
Behind Bernard, the first assassin rose from the blow her husband had dealt him, and though his left arm dangled uselessly, broken in many places, he came forward with his sword, wearing the same staring, mad smile as the other man.
Bernard put the dining table between himself and the assassin, then drew back a booted foot and kicked it at him. It struck the assassin and knocked him off-balance, and in the second it took him to recover it, Bernard raised a hand and clenched it into a fist, snarling, "Brutus!"
Bernard's earth fury, Brutus, came to his call. The stone arch heaved and rippled, and suddenly the rock stretched itself into the shape of an enormous, stone hound. Green gemstones glittered where a dog's eyes would be, and Brutus's mouth opened to show rows of obsidian black fangs. The fury rushed forward toward the assassin, ignored several blows from the assassin s sword, and clamped his jaws down on the man's calf, locking him in place.
Without an instant's hesitation, the assassin swept his blade down and severed his own leg just below the knee to free it from Brutus's grasp. Then he rushed Bernard again, awkward and ungainly, blood rushing from the wound. He let out an eerie cry of ecstasy as he did. Bernard stared at him in shock for half a second, then the man was on him. Brutus tossed its great head and threw the severed leg aside, but it would take the fury endless seconds to turn around. Amara gritted her teeth but was effectively trapped, hanging there from the branch. She could climb up, then to the ground again, but by then it would be over-and Cirrus would not recover in time to let her fly to Bernard's aid.
Everything slowed down. Somewhere on one of the levels far above their own, there was a flash of light and a thunderous explosion. Steel rang on steel somewhere else. More screams echoed around the grotto.
Bernard was not slow, especially for a man his size, but he did not have the speed he would need to have a fair chance of combating the assassin unarmed. He lunged to one side as the man swung, putting his body between Isana's and the man's steel blade. The blade struck, and Amara's husband cried out in pain and fell.
The assassin seized Bernard by the hair-but instead of cutting his throat, he simply threw the wounded man aside and raised his sword to strike down at Isana.
Desperate, Amara called to Cirrus-not to push her toward the assassin, but away. She clung to the branch as the weakened wind fury pushed her back. She pushed with all of her strength, then abruptly released the crafting. The branch, bent by the force of the wind, suddenly snapped back. Amara swung on the branch as it did and used its backsweep to propel her, feetfirst back toward the assassin.
She drove her heels into the assassin's chest, all her body rigid to support the vicious blow. She struck cleanly and hard, and the force of the blow snapped the man's head forward and back. She heard bones break, and the assassin fell into a limp mass of bloodied flesh with Amara atop him.
She rolled away from him and seized his sword, crouched on all fours, blood staining her green gown. She stared in shock at the man. The assassin still clung to life, madness burning in his eyes as he let out a final, short, violent cry. "Brothers!"
Amara looked up. Several of the attackers in the grotto had finished their bloody work, and at the dying man's call, the faces of another dozen men with metal collars and lunatic eyes turned toward her. Their path to the exit, a walkway through the trees and a second stone arch, was already filled with more of the men. They were cut off.
"Bernard," she said. "Can you hear me?"
Bernard pushed himself to his feet, his face pale and tight with pain. He glanced back and forth and saw the men approaching and reached for another heavy chair. He let out a choke of pain as he picked it up, and Amara could see a stab wound in the slablike muscles of his back.
"Can you fly?" he asked, his voice quiet. He closed his eyes for a moment, and the chair in his hands abruptly twisted and writhed, suddenly as lithe as a willow branch. The various pieces of the chair elongated and wound and braided themselves together into a thick fighting cudgel as if of their own volition, a massively heavy club that would prove deadly when driven by an earthcrafter's physical strength. "Can you fly?" he asked again.
"I'm not leaving you."
He shot a quick glance at her. "Can you carry my sister out?"
Amara grimaced and shook her head. "I don't think so. Cirrus was hurt. I don't think I could lift myself out yet, much less her."
"I've got her, Bernard," Giraldi said, grimacing. "But you should take her. I'll rear-guard you while both of you get out."
Bernard shook his head. "We stay together. Either of you ever seen men fight like these?"
"No," Amara said.
"There are a lot of them," Bernard commented. Indeed, the nearest band of half a dozen had made their way down the pathway above them and were nearly close enough to rush them. At least a dozen more blocked their escape and slowly closed so that they would attack in time with the first group. Fires burned on some of the upper levels. A pall of smoke tainted the air and concealed the bloody stars.
"Yes," Amara agreed quietly. She hated that her voice shook with her fear, but she could not stop it. "Whoever they are."
Bernard put his back to Amara's, facing the men coming from farther down the slope. "I'll set Brutus on them," he said quietly. "Try to knock them down. We'll try to run through them."
The plan was hopeless. Brutus, though terribly powerful, was anything but swift, and would be of only limited use in close-quarters combat. Not only that, but employing the fury on its own would rob Bernard of the lion's share of the strength the fury could provide him. These men, whoever they were, were capable and madly determined. They would never reach the door.
But what else could they do? Their only other option was to fight back-to-back until they were slain. Bernard's plan offered at least a wisp of hope, strictly speaking, but Amara knew that it was only a matter of choosing between final deeds before the end.
"Ready?" he asked quietly.
Amara ground her teeth. "I love you."
He let out the low, satisfied growl he often uttered after kissing her, and she could hear the fighting grin that stretched his lips. "And I you."
She heard him take a deep breath, just as the men above them prepared to leap down, and he let out a roar. "Brutus!"
Once again, the great stone hound bounded up out of the earth. It lurched toward the group coming up the rocky shelf, and bayed, its mountainous voice the basso rumble of stones grating together under enormous strain. The first assassin raised his weapon, but the stone hound simply hurtled into him, ducking its head and slamming its shoulder into the man's chest. Blood burst from the assassin's mouth in a sudden froth. Brutus swung his great head and threw the assassin back into a pair of his companions.
One of them screamed and fell from the ledge to land upon his back on a stone standing a few inches out of the surface of the water. He let out a short gasp and slipped limply beneath the pool's surface. The other stumbled, and Brutus plunged over the man, paws landing like sledgehammers, crushing the assassin into a shapeless mass.
Bernard charged in behind Brutus, and Amara darted along in his wake. Behind her, the men on the upper level had paused for a second at Bernard's yell, then leapt forward in what seemed a superhuman grace and disdain for pain or death.
Bernard's cudgel struck down another attacker on the first swing, but she heard the snarl of pain the movement drew from him. Brutus continued his charge, but by then, the assassins farther back in the line had spotted the stone hound. One of the men bounded over Brutus entirely, invisible to the earth fury while airborne, and engaged Bernard. Behind him, other assassins rapidly backed up to the wooden bridge, getting their feet up off the stone of the grotto.
Amara heard a breath behind her and barely had time to turn and parry a heavy slash from the nearest of the attackers behind them. The force of the blow knocked her back into Bernard, whose forward momentum had died as the assassin in front of him menaced him with his blade. Amara parried another blow, her back to her husband's, calling upon Cirrus to provide whatever quickness he could to her limbs. Her riposte was a silver-and-scarlet blur of bloodied steel that struck the man on the neck, just above the steel collar.
Her cut had been too shallow to open the artery in the man's neck, but he let out a shout that sounded more like a sound of pleasure than agony and pressed his attack more furiously than ever.
Bernard let out a shout of effort, followed by a heavy thudding sound behind her. Steel whistled in the air, and Bernard cried out again.
"No!" Amara screamed, terror making her voice shrill.
And then, behind the attackers coming down the walkway at her, Amara saw a man in the somewhat grimy white tunic of a cook or scullion, in contrast to the clean white smocks that the assassins wore. He was of medium height and build, and his hair was long, shaggy, and greying. He landed on the walkway in catlike silence, a worn old gladius in his right hand, and with a single simple, ruthlessly efficient motion drove the blade through the base of the nearest assassin's skull.
The man dropped as if he'd simply fallen asleep. His killer glided forward to the next assassin on the walkway, dark eyes gleaming behind the curtain of ragged hair. The next man in line fell to the same stroke, but dropped his blade to the stone with a clatter of metal, and the next assassin in the line whirled around.
"Fade?" Amara shouted, parrying again.
The slave never slowed. A quick bob to one side stirred some of the hair from around his face, revealing the hideous scarring on one entire cheek, the Legions' brand burned into cowards who had fled the field of battle. Fade's blade moved in graceful, deceptively lazy-looking circles, shattering the assassin's weapon with contemptuous ease, then sheared off the top quarter of the man's skull on the next stroke. Fade kicked the dying man into the one in front of him and simply strode down the rock walkway. His sword arm moved in small, simple, unspectacular-looking movements, shattering blades and bodies with equal, dispassionate ease.
Assassins fell, every single injury a blow to the neck or head, and when Fade's sword struck them they did not move. Ever again.
The last one, Amara's opponent, shot a swift glance over his shoulder. Amara howled her defiance and swung her captured, curved blade with both hands. She struck true, and buried the weapon to the width of its blade in the assassin's skull. The man stiffened and twitched, sword falling from his fingers.
Fade gripped the sword's hilt and ripped it from the assassin's skull, simultaneously sending him falling from the ledge, then murmured, "Excuse me, Countess."
Amara gaped for a second, stunned, then slipped aside to let Fade through. The slave nudged Bernard to one side, into the grotto wall, caught a blow intended for the Steadholder on his blade. Fade moved forward to the wooden walkway like a dancer, swords spinning, blocking, killing. The assassins pressed forward to attack.
They died. They never came close to touching him.
In the space of four or five seconds, Fade slew nine or ten men, left a legless casualty on the stone behind him for Brutus to crush, and kicked another off the walkway and into the pool below. On the far side of the walkway, he dropped into a crouch, swords ready, eyes scanning all around him.
"F-fade?" Bernard rumbled.
"Bring Isana," the slave snapped to them. "Countess, take the lead." He dropped the curved sword and glided back over the bridge to get a shoulder beneath Bernard's arm and assist the dazed Count to his feet.
"Fade?" Bernard said again, his voice weak and confused. "You have a sword?"
The man did not answer Bernard. "We have to get them out of here, now," he told Amara. "Move and stay together."
Amara nodded and managed to gather up the Steadholder and stagger along behind the swordsman.
"What are you doing here?" Bernard asked. "I thought you were in the capital, Fade?"
"Be quiet, Count," Fade said. "You're losing blood. Save your strength."
Bernard shook his head, then suddenly jerked, tensing. "I-isana!"
"I've got her," Giraldi grunted.
Bernard blinked once, then nodded and bowed his head, hobbling along only with Fade's help.
Corpses and blood littered the restaurant. The collared assassins had spared none they could reach. Elderly men and women, even children lay where they had fallen, wounded, dead, or dying. Fade led them to the street outside the restaurant, where the nightmarish results of the attack seemed intensified. Many had managed to flee the restaurant, though their wounds had been mortal. Wounds that sometimes looked minor could prove fatal within a moment or two, and many who thought that they had escaped the slaughter had only survived long enough to die on the street.
People screamed and shouted, rushing back and forth. The signaling horns and drums of Ceres' civic legion were already converging on the spot. Other folk lay on the ground, curled up into a tight ball, sobbing in incapacitating hysteria, just as Isana was. Amara realized, with a sickening little burst of illumination, that whatever had incapacitated Isana had done it to those folk as well.
They were all watercrafters, the only folk who might possibly save the lives of many of the wounded. They had all been struck down, and though others struggled to close wounds and stop bleeding, they had little more than cloth and water to work with.
Blood had spread into a scarlet pool, half an inch deep and thirty or forty feet across.
And then the great chimes in Ceres's citadel began to ring in deep, panicked strokes, sounding the alert to the city's legions. Horns began to blow the Legion call to arms.
The city was under attack.
"Bloody crows," Amara whispered, stunned.
"Move!" Fade snarled. "We can't let her-"
Then the slave suddenly glanced up. He dropped Bernard and threw himself at Giraldi and Isana, hand outstretched.
An arrow, a black shaft with green-and-grey feathering flickered through the air and slammed completely through Fade's left hand. A broad, barbed arrowhead erupted from his flesh.
Without blinking, he pointed with his sword to a nearby rooftop, where a shadowed figure quickly vanished from view. "Countess! Stop him!"
Amara seized Fade's blade from his hand, called to Cirrus, and flung herself into the sky. She streaked toward the rooftop and saw the dark figure, bow still in hand, crouching to climb down.
Rage and fear made it impossible for Amara to think. It was on pure reflex that she cast Cirrus out in front of her, the sudden rush of wind throwing the cloaked figure from the rooftop to fall twenty feet to the ground. The archer landed with a sickening, crunching sound and let out a high-pitched scream of pain.
Amara darted down into the alley, alighting on the stone almost atop the fallen woman, and struck downward as the woman raised the bow. The sword shattered the wood, and the woman fell back with another cry.
Gripping the sword tight, Amara drove it down at the archer's throat and set the point against her skin so that it was drawing a bead of blood. She could see by the light of a nearby furylamp, and so she ripped the hood from the woman's head.
It was Gaele-or rather, it was the mask Kalare's head spy, Rook, wore when she was serving the Cursors in the capital, a spy within the midst of Kalare's enemies.
The woman met Amara's eyes, her features pleasant but plain, and her face was pale. Her leg was twisted beneath her at an unnatural angle.
And she was weeping.
"Please," she whispered to Amara. "Countess. Please kill me."