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Take the fire to the eastern front. Wait ‘til the worms are deep in the king. Then release the fire.

“Won’t that cure him, though?” Cactus took the note and read it over before handing it back to Smit.

The healer shook his head. “No, when the lung burrowers have gone on too long, they become too deeply ingrained into the host. They can still be killed, stopped from getting into anyone else, but when they die, the host dies too. If they use the fire right away, most of your people should be safe. If not . . . .” He shrugged, but it wasn’t dismissive, but more of a regretful gesture. “I’m sorry. It is not my place to meddle in the affairs of the other families.”

Ash held a hand out to Smit, grasping the shorter man’s hand and shaking. “Thank you. Be careful, we don’t know who all is in on this plot.”

And there it was, the truth of what we were facing was a plot indeed. A conspiracy to kill my father, which would allow Cassava to take over as ruler and head of our family. She would have me killed, no doubt, Fern and her unborn baby, and anyone else who opposed her. Probably Niah and Griffin too. I glanced at Ash. Would he be killed? I wasn’t so sure. Belladonna would probably try to have him trussed up in her bedroom.

The sound of running footsteps snapped my head up. That was not good. “They know we’re here.”

Ash crooked a finger at me and I moved to grabbed hold of his left arm. Cactus grabbed me from behind, yanking me to a standstill. “If there’s trouble, I’m coming with you.”

Except all he did was slow us down. Ash made a grab for me, but Cactus inadvertently held me back, one arm around my shoulders, the other clinging to my left hand. “Cactus, let me go!”

From outside the room a clatter of weapons being drawn sliced through the air. Ash lunged for us. “Give the princess to me, half-breed,” he snarled.

I spun, struck a leg out sideways and tipped Cactus over my hip, sending him crashing to the floor. He laid there, his mouth gasping open and closed like a landed fish. But we were too late, Cactus had screwed us over whether he realized it or not. I straightened and turned. Four Enders faced us, Maggie had brought back up. They cut between us, in seconds, making it impossible for Ash to use the armband without leaving me behind.

Ash backed up a step so he could pull his sword. “Maggie, we were just leaving.”

“Not without a visit to the queen’s dungeon, my friend.”

Ash stiffened. “Weapons only then, Ender. No abilities.”

Maggie tipped her head ever so slightly. “Let it be.”

I pulled my spear, rolling the shaft in my hand, “To your left, Ash,” I said, sidestepping that direction. He shifted his weight and the tension grew as the six of us weighed each other.

I knew the older Enders would recommend taking it slow in a fight like this, where we were outnumbered. But we didn’t have time. Like I was watching someone else fight, I could see what the other Enders would do a split second before they started to move. Just like when watching them reach for their abilities. I used it to my advantage. The Ender in front of me had my death in mind, and he was aiming to hit me over the head with the club, and then cut my throat, making it look like he hadn’t meant to go that far.

Without another thought, I whipped the spear forward in a downward slashing arc at him. I aimed for his right shoulder, fully expecting him to block the blow, and readying myself for the reverberation along the shaft. He didn’t get his club up in time. Not even close. The blade bit in deep, cutting through his shoulder and clavicle, peeling him open. I jerked the war spear out hard and fast, my heart hammering, blood thrumming through my veins.

Something deep within me knew there was no turning back now; we—I—had drawn blood, had struck a killing blow. As the Ender in front of me fell to his knees, eyes rolling back in his head, I breathed in, and calmness filled me. He’d wanted my death, his was deserved. I was within my rights. But it was the first time I’d hurt someone so badly, and a small part of me curled up and whimpered.

Behind me, Smit let out a groan, but I didn’t pause. The momentum of the blow turned me in a full circle and I let it, my hair whipping out around my face, the blade catching the light.

The second Ender I faced was going to dodge to the right and then swing in low, landing his club in my gut, dagger to my left eye. That’s what I saw, as clearly as if he’d painted me a picture. I moved with him, stepped back and drove my spear forward in a thrust that caught him through the belly. I slid my hand down the spear and pulled it forward with a quick yank, then turned to face the last two Enders with Ash. He’d dispatched one, and now faced Maggie.

I saw the flicker in her eye, the lava burning there and ready to roar up and around us, swallow us whole. Nope, not going to happen on my watch.

I circled around the back of her and swept her legs with my spear. She hit the ground hard, her head bouncing against the stone floor. Her eyes rolled up in her head and I paused, wondering if she was dead or not.

“What in the seven hells of the goddess was that?” Ash yelled at me and I floundered, stumbling back as the glow I’d floated in disappeared.

“What . . .?” I stared at him, not comprehending. Around us, the noise level had suddenly come back. The healers were helping the two Enders I’d fought, trying to staunch their wounds. I swallowed hard. I’d done that. The guts dripping out of one, and the arm nearly severed on the other.

My work. My fighting. My weapon.

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