“You seemed so anxious to relive the past earlier,” Deleo said, “mentioning Shireen.” Her voice caught for a moment on the name, a piece of silk catching on a nail, and then it was gone. “It got me thinking. I was never all that interested in the rest of you, but Shireen was. She was so curious, about you especially. Where you came from. Your real name...”
“Let him go.” My voice was ice. “I mean it, Deleo. If you hurt him, I will end you.”
“Oh,” she breathed. Her lips parted in a smile of delight. “I do love it when you drop your masks.”
“He has no part in this.”
“His part will end the moment you are gone and I take my rightful place as Richard’s chosen. Don’t fight the inevitable, Verus. We both knew where this is going to lead.”
My father was gagged and bound, but he was awake, his eyes fixed on me in the dirty grey light. I needed to get Deleo’s attention away from him and onto me. Force her to the point where she was no longer able to focus on more than one target at a time.
Richard’s words flashed in my mind. ‘Unflinching application of psychology.’
So be it.
I laughed. “Don’t be ridiculous, Rachel. You know you were never Richard’s favorite. I’m sure it was a surprise to you when you realized I was still in the competition for chosen, but was it really such a shock? Of the four of us, you were never at the top of anyone’s list. Certainly not Richard’s.”
Her hands clenched into fists. “Don’t call me Rachel.”
“Shireen was the strongest. Tobruk was the cruelest. I was the cleverest. But you? You were the one most desperate for Richard’s attention.”
“I said be quiet!”
“And even after you did exactly what you thought he wanted, even after you murdered your best friend, that still wasn’t enough, was it? Because he didn’t declare you his chosen. He left, disappeared for ten years, and when he came back he told you that you still weren’t qualified. That he still wasn’t certain whether you or I was the better choice. Me, the one who ran. The weakest of all of us in power, maybe, but looking at the four of us, am I really the weakest? Or is it you, the one who followed her friend into a living hell because she couldn’t even make a decision on her own and then destroyed that same friend when-“
“Shut up!” Lances of poison green light shot from Deleo’s hands, aimed directly at my head. “Shut up, shut up, shut up!”
I dodged and kept dodging, maneuvering myself away from the elevator and back toward the northwest corner and its blocked stairwell. I didn’t have a plan beyond moving her away from my father and hoping that Anne or someone on the other end of the transmitter would hear me and give me some leverage I could use.
She launched a volley of water blades in my direction—small, wickedly pointed things—and I wasn’t able to move far enough to escape. Two impact the chest guard of my armor, spinning me in place, and a third sliced into my upper arm. I clutched it and rolled away from another disintegration beam.
There was no time to think, no time to plan. All I could do was react, sifting desperately through the futures of the battle, here, in the cavernous space of the warehouse and try to pluck out the one that ended with me alive.
Then I saw something as I was frantically flicking from one possibility to another, and it was like everything around me came into focus.
“Rachel,” I said firmly over the sound of her ragged breathing. “Rachel, listen to me.”
She hurled another disintegration bolt at my head, which I ducked, and then followed up with a water blade to my knee that I just managed to dodge. My arm ached, and I could feel blood running down to drip from my fingers, but I could still move, and that was good enough.
“Rachel,” I shouted. “If you keep this up, Cinder will die. Do you understand me? Cinder will die unless you help him.”
“You’re lying!” Deleo flung spell after spell in my direction. Her aim was deteriorating along with her mental state, but I was running out of room to dodge just a quickly. My back was almost to the caved in stairwell.
“I’m not lying,” I yelled back, darting to the left of the stairwell. Deleo moved to cover me, closing the distance between us. “You have to make a choice! Me or him. You can choose, Rachel! You can save him, but only if you stop right now!”
“Why won’t you just die?!” Her eyes were wild, her mouth slack, and I felt a sinking sensation as I recognized that she wasn’t hearing me.
“I’m sorry,” I told her just before the western end of the northern wall fragmented into a pile of rubble as Cinder—hurled with magical force by Caldera from the neighboring roof—impacted the already damaged wall in the corner and rammed through it.
Deleo, her spell already primed and her emotions surging from our fight and my goading words, didn’t hesitate. Spinning, she fired off a disintegration beam at the object flying toward her from the left. She had a moment to see Cinder, to recognize him, and then he was gone, swallowed by the green light of her magic.
She screamed, eyes fixed on the pile of ash where Cinder had once been. “Nooooo!” She fell to her knees, her expression one of abject horror and desolation.
Before she could recover, I hit her with a harvesting rod, and she crumpled silently.
“Dad.” I ran toward him and removed his gag, refusing to look at the tableaux behind me. Trying not to think of what I’d just orchestrated. Nausea welled up inside me, but I forced it down.
“Alex,” my father gasped. He was very pale as he blinked up at me. “What’s-, what’s going on? Who is that woman?”
I used my knife to cut the ropes binding his arms and legs. “Later. We have to get out of here. Right now.”
“But she-, she was-. And that other man-“
“Dad, we have to go.”
Deleo stirred behind me, and I whirled to see her crouched, glowing arm outstretched toward us. Her face was twisted into a mask of bestial rage, and blood ran from a cut in her forehead where I’d hit her.
“Verus,” she said, and her voice was filled with such loathing, it caused something in me to break loose.
I saw what she intended, and I didn’t hesitate.
The bullet took her in the forehead. For a moment, surprise crossed her features, and then she was falling to the floor, limbs lax and eyes falling shut.
She looked very small lying there, and very young.
A small voice came from behind me, and I was abruptly aware of the weight of the revolver in my hand. “What did you do?”
I turned. “Dad…”
“What did you do, Alex?”
I tried to explain, knew even as I did that there was no explanation, nothing that would satisfy him. “She was going to kill you. Just now. She wasn’t going to aim for me.”
His expression when he looked at me… I couldn’t stand to see him seeing me. I looked down at the floor.
“You’re a murderer.”
I flinched. “Dad, please, listen-”
“My own son, a murderer.” He sounded as though he was talking to himself, absent and remote. I looked back at him, worried he might be going into shock. He met my gaze.
“I can’t even stand to look at you,” he told me, and then he walked away.
I made no move to stop him. When Anne ran up the southwest stairwell to find me, I was still standing there, gun loose in my grip, surrounded by those dead at my hand.