Page 23

I took a step and the ground softened under me, sucked at my feet. I sidestepped and eyed the distance between us. There was no way I could leap it. There was no way I could do this except to kill him.

His eyes were wild, more white showing than a wild horse running scared. Was he scared? Or—

“Then do it, Ender. Unless you are afraid of an old man?” he snarled.

Perhaps he wasn’t as afraid as I’d thought. The lines of power curled around him, deeper and yet brighter than any other time I’d seen him connect to the earth. Wild and out of control. A part of me wondered if that was how the lines looked on me.

I saw his intention. He would rip the Spiral itself apart, destroying what had been created thousands of years ago, unseating Bella in her tenuous hold of the throne.

He gave me no choice and I hardened myself to what I was about to do.

“Peta, now!”

She shot forward, her wicked claws slashing through both his hamstrings, cutting him down and breaking his concentration.

It wasn’t enough, though. My father was a powerhouse, legendary in his strength. The ground rumbled and the Spiral shivered as it began to break apart. I hefted my spear. One throw, I wouldn’t get another chance like this.

My father flung a hand toward me and the speed of the power was such that I couldn’t sidestep him. Vines shot up around me, faster than any lightning bolt as they wrapped around my legs, arms, and neck. I slashed at the vines while they slowly strangled me.

I couldn’t think, couldn’t even reach for my connection to the earth, the panic was so strong. This was my father. How could this be happening now, when I’d finally forgiven him?

A flash of color, red and tawny brown, caught my eye as Red dove from above, his claws outstretched, a scream erupting from him as he slammed into my father’s face. Blood and feathers flew into the air, the sound of flesh tearing blindingly loud in my ears.

Basileus screamed, the vines softened, and I ripped them from me. My father swung his fists at Red, before he grabbed him around the neck. “You stupid bird, I should have roasted you along with the other two.”

Good goddess, had he killed Karhu and Hercules?

Red went limp in his hand and I felt his despair as if it were my own. He might have shifted his bond to me, but it was for one reason only.

A familiar would never be able to attack their charge. It was impossible. And so he’d done the only thing he could, and gave himself to someone else. To me.

My father bore down on Red’s thin neck, a crack resounding through the air. The bond between Red and me shimmered, and dulled. I ran at them, sliding across the ground to tackle Basileus. I hit him in the midsection, flipped him over backward. Blood from the wounds on his face splattered my arms, the world slowed. Red flopped to the side, boneless.

I slapped a hand against my father’s neck, and his pulse slowed under my fingers.

His eyes cleared, and his lips trembled. He looked around him, saw his hawk and let out a strangled cry. He gently lifted Red and cradled him to his chest. “Oh, my friend. My friend, forgive me,” he whispered as Red’s life faded. I scooped the bird from him with my free hand and lifted him to my face, pressing my cheek against his.

“Red, I can heal you.” I offered, already knowing his answer. Because it was the answer Peta would have given.

“No. Let me be free with him. Let us fly together . . . as we were meant to.” He closed his eyes and was gone. The bond between us dissipated, and I felt its loss, even though it had only been minutes he’d been mine.

As the feeling of being connected to Red blew away on a whisper of unseen wings, grief roared through me in its wake. I wasn’t sure I could do what was being asked of me. I wasn’t sure I could end my father’s life. He took Red’s lifeless body from me and tucked the bird once more to his chest.

“He is right. Let me be free of this madness, Lark. Let me go.”

Bella approached from behind, tears streaming down her face. “Lark, is there any other way?”

I stared at my father, wanting the answer to be different. Wanting desperately not to have to make this choice. There was no power in this world that would cure a broken mind, a madness bound up in Spirit and fear, in death and manipulation.

“No. He is right. There is no other way.”

Father held his hand out to Bella. “You are the queen our family needs, Belladonna. Do not forget it.”

He took her hand and pressed it to his face. “Forgive me for my weakness, daughter.”

She fell to her knees and pressed her face against his. “Father.”

I closed my eyes, the only privacy I could give them to say their goodbye.

“Lark, do not hesitate,” he said. I opened my eyes, the tears making it difficult to see clearly.

“I won’t.”

“I don’t mean only with this, but in your life. Don’t hesitate, child. Fear has held you back, the desire to fit in so strong in you, it is blinding. You were never meant to fit in.” He brushed a hand along my cheek. “You were meant to burn brighter, to lead the way through the darkness our world faces.”

Keeping one hand on his neck, I slipped a dagger from my belt and glanced at Bella. “Are you staying?”

“I will not let you do this alone.”

She put her hand over mine as I clenched the dagger. Our people slowly gathered around us, crying softly, tears slipping down cheeks as they saw . . . what? The love of a family destroyed, coming together in the last second. Perhaps.

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