Deliverance Page 12

I press my lips closed and swallow the cry of agony that wants to escape. Some small, savage part of me welcomes the pain. The debt I owe isn’t to Rowansmark, and it certainly isn’t to this tracker, but I spoke the truth when I said I felt responsible for Willow, for Rachel, for every person in Baalboden who suffered because of who I am and what I chose to do. Losing a finger isn’t nearly enough penance, but this wasn’t about absolution. This was about assuming the full burden of leadership. Willow is mine to protect, and I’m through with failing those I love.

The pain subsides beneath a wave of shock that clouds my thoughts and makes me feel sleepy and faintly dizzy. I lean my face against the wall and try to draw in a breath while above me, the tracker says, “Cauterize it, and let’s go.”

“No,” I say, my stomach pitching as I remember the unbelievable pain of being branded with white-hot metal in the Commander’s dungeon.

The man who held down my hand stands, plunges a dagger into the flame of the nearest lantern, and looks at me.

“No,” I say again, and struggle to sit up. My hand throbs in time with my heartbeat, and blood rushes out of me in a steady stream. I try to tuck my wounded arm against my chest, but the man holding the dagger crouches beside me, the edges of his blade glowing orange.

I gulp for air, and brace myself, but I can’t contain my scream as he presses the hot metal against my bleeding flesh. For a moment, I’m back in the Commander’s dungeon, lying on the filthy floor while a member of the Brute Squad sears the Commander’s brand into the side of my neck. Nausea churns through me, and I choke as I try to move away from the source of my agony.

Dimly I realize that Willow is shrieking a nonstop litany of death threats so inventive, I’d admire her resourcefulness if I wasn’t busy trying not to vomit.

“Be quiet,” the head tracker says, “or I’ll cut off his entire hand.”

Willow’s mouth snaps closed, but the look in her eyes promises that the very second he doesn’t have her fully restrained, she’s coming after him.

“Get them up. We’re leaving.” He turns on his heel and marches toward the exit. The trackers on either side of me haul me to my feet. My knees shake, but they hold me.

Beside me, Willow is dragged to her feet as well. She ignores the men holding on to her and looks at me. Her eyes are haunted and furious.

“Nobody stands in my place. Ever.” Her voice is still shaky.

“Let’s go!” the female tracker calls to us. The men assigned to us begin pushing us down the corridor.

My skin feels clammy, and I keep sucking in deep breaths of damp dungeon air as if the oxygen will somehow chase away the lingering pain and nausea that swamp me. I meet Willow’s eyes.

“A true leader protects his people. More than that, family stands up for family.”

Her expression softens for a second. Then she glances at my left hand, at the blackened stub that used to be a finger, and everything about her hardens.

“I protect my family too, Logan.” Her eyes find the back of the head tracker as he organizes his people into two lines on either side of the exit.

Before I can reply, the dungeon door flies open with a resounding crash, and all hell breaks loose.

CHAPTER SIX

LOGAN

Men dressed in the dark-blue uniform of Baalboden’s guards, along with a few who wear the golden talon patch of the Commander’s Brute Squad, pour into the dungeon, their swords already flashing. The trackers respond, moving like a synchronized unit as they pivot into position and engage the intruders. The harsh screech of metal against metal fills the air, and the head tracker yells for his people to defend the gap and keep Willow and me safe. The men holding Willow and me pull us backward until we’re in front of our open cell again, a good thirty yards from the fighting.

Willow laughs as a man in a green-and-brown Rowansmark uniform falls to the floor, his eyes staring at nothing. Seconds later, his body explodes in a cloud of bloody mist that briefly obscures the others fighting there.

More of the Commander’s men enter the dungeon, their faces set with purpose, but still they’re dying faster than the trackers. The Baalboden guards rely on strength and force. The trackers use precision, strategy, and a lethal understanding of the fastest methods to destroy the human body. Sheer strength is intimidating, but strategy only requires an opponent to make a single mistake.

Willow struggles against the men who hold her, but they move in sync to keep her subdued. I tense my muscles, considering the best way to get free of my keepers, but nothing workable comes to mind. My hand throbs mercilessly, and my stomach feels like I could be sick at any moment.

I start calculating the odds and running scenarios just to have something besides the pain to think about. Baalboden guards are dying at a ratio of nearly two to one. Every time a tracker falls, the others pivot to keep a Baalboden man between themselves and the imminent explosion. Willow can say what she wants about the trackers being unable to cause much damage to others with this strategy, but it’s clear that damage isn’t the point. Distraction is, and it’s working in Rowansmark’s favor. If this keeps up, we’re going to end up going to Rowansmark as prisoners with no leverage and no feasible way to defeat the armies that wait for us.

That scenario is unacceptable.

A few more guards rush through the doorway, but they’re immediately fighting for their lives. The trackers, working back to back, have found their rhythm—slash, pivot, parry, kill—and the Commander’s men have neither the expertise nor the space to maneuver into a better position. We need to give the trackers something else to worry about. Fast.

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