The Burning White: Book Five of Lightbringer (Lightbringer #5)

With the easy grace of a squad that’s worked together so long they act like one body, Big Leo diverted the tornado of heavy chain for one instant as Ferkudi barreled past him.

Big Leo couldn’t attack too close to the crowd. Ferkudi had no such compunctions. Again, with arms and luxin spread and all of his considerable bulk at a full sprint, Ferkudi made a flying leap at the portion of the bunched crowd where he guessed the Shadow was.

Ferkudi’s tackle sent at least a dozen people flying—none of them the Shadow, and he went down in a tangle with all of them.

Which only left one way the Shadow could have gone—right back in front of the high table.

Kip saw Ben-hadad, wearing his knee brace but still hobbled by his injury from when they’d fled the Chromeria, standing at the far end of the high table. He had his heavy crossbow loaded and aimed—right at the crowd. But to shoot at the Shadow was to shoot at the crowd beyond it. The frustration was writ all over his bespectacled face.

Ben, Kip knew, felt useless. That all his brilliance was for naught. Couldn’t fight. Couldn’t help his friends who were in mortal peril. Couldn’t shoot unless he got the perfect opportunity—which he couldn’t, with these panicked strangers everywhere.

Then, faster than Kip could think, Ben-hadad swiveled on his good leg so that he was aiming parallel with the table’s front edge. He fired his bolt at nothing Kip could see—

—and blew out the front of every one of the priceless wine jugs lined up on the high table. They jetted rivers of wine onto the floor in front of the high table as if someone had opened spigots on all of them.

Then, in orderly succession, they tumbled and exploded on the floor.

The wide wave of wine washed every which way. Then the wave parted around two barriers, momentarily indistinct, then surrounded and revealed. Wine covered the floor everywhere, except in two, foot-shaped depressions.

Kip nearly unleashed the bolt of magical death he’d gathered in his right hand, until he saw the stunned face of Lady Proud Hart directly in the line of fire behind where the invisible Shadow was standing. The noblewoman was still seated. Hadn’t moved from her place, frozen by shock.

Then there was splashing as the Shadow realized he’d been discovered, and bolted.

Wine-wet footprints marked his passage, but Kip had it now. If this Shadow was too good at his work to be seen in sub-red, then . . .

Kip’s eyes spasmed to an inhuman narrowness as he peered at the world through chi. Faint skeletons grinned at him everywhere through their flesh suits. Metal in cold black and bones like pink shadows; all else was merely colored fog.

In chi, though, the shimmercloak flared with weird energies, magic boiling off it in clouds like a sweaty horse steaming on a cold morning.

The Shadow stopped running, his shoes finally dry enough not to leave footprints. He turned back into the middle of the room, checking that he was unseen, skeletal hands pulling the folds of the cloak in place.

Kip kept moving his head, as if he, too, were blind.

The Shadow drew a short sword, but kept it tucked down, covered by his cloak. He walked toward Kip, secure in his invincibility.

Orholam, he wasn’t giving up, even though they were all on alert now. Kip couldn’t decide if it was overweening pride or terrifying professionalism that the man thought he could still pull this job off against these odds.

Waiting until the Shadow was close, Kip suddenly looked directly at him. “You’ve a message for me,” Kip said. “What is it?”

The Shadow stopped as suddenly as if he’d been slapped. Kip could see the man’s skull dip as he checked himself. No, no, I’m still invisible. It’s a bluff.

“You’ve got a message,” Kip said.

The skeleton-man paused, as if he thought Kip was trying to fool him into speaking and giving his position away. After a moment, he shook his head slightly.

“Ah,” Kip said, gazing straight where the man’s veiled eyes must be. The air began humming with Kip’s gathering power. “Then you are the message.”

The Shadow twitched as he finally accepted that Kip really could see him. He lunged forward, stabbing—

And Kip’s pent-up fury of tentacled-green and razored-blue death blasted into the assassin and threw him across the room.

The danger past, Kip released chi, and was immediately reminded why he hated chi. Drafting chi was like riding a horse that kicked you every time you got on, and every time you got off. In the face.

Kip fell to his knees, his eyes burning, lightning stabbing back into his head, tears blinding him. He squeezed his eyes tight shut, but when he opened them, they were still locked in chi vision, people around the room showing up only as dim shadows and skeletons and metal-bearers.

Chi was the worst.

Kip willed his eyes to open to their normal apertures, and mercifully, they did. This time, thank Orholam, chi hadn’t stricken him blind.

Big Leo materialized, standing over Kip, as Ferkudi went over to make sure the Shadow was dead. Ben-hadad and Cruxer limped over, leaning on each other, Cruxer looking better by the step.

Only Winsen hadn’t moved. He still perched on his table in the corner of the room, an arrow still nocked, never having shot. He wasn’t usually shy about shooting in questionable circumstances.

Ferkudi stood back up. The Shadow was, indeed, dead. Very dead. Gory, don’t-look-at-that-mess-if-you-want-to-sleep-tonight dead.

It was a mistake.

Not killing the man, but that he’d obliterated him: Kip had destroyed a shimmercloak.

No one reproved him. No one said he should have done better, as Andross Guile or Gavin Guile would have. Maybe they didn’t even think it.

But he did. He’d been out of control.

It was a reminder that he’d been drafting a lot. In its unfettered strength, green had taken him further than he wanted to go. If nothing else killed him first, it would be green that got him in the end. Indeed, he hadn’t looked at his own eyes in a mirror in a while, fearing what the bloody glass would tell him.

“What the hell, Win?!” Big Leo demanded. “Where were you?”

But the lefty still stood silent, a bundle of arrows held with the bow in his right hand for quick drawing, as if he didn’t even hear them.

Big Leo blew out an exasperated breath, dismissing him. “And what the hell’s with you, Ferk? You say you smell cloves—and then shout Nine Kill Naught?”

“My goof,” Ferkudi said as if he’d said he wanted wine with dinner but then decided he’d really wanted beer. “Saffron. Not cloves. I meant I smelled saffron. Paryl smells like saffron. Superviolet is cloves. Always get those two mixed up.”

“You confused saffron and cloves? They don’t smell anything alike!”

“They’re both yummy.”

Big Leo rubbed his face with a big hand. “Ferk, you are the dumbest smart guy I know.”

“No I’m not!” Ferkudi said, a big grin spreading over his face. “I’m the smartest dumb guy you know.”

“Yeah,” Ben-hadad said, “I’m the dumbest smart guy you know. I smelled saffron half an hour ago, out by the palace’s front doors. Didn’t even think about it. Breaker, my apologies.” He knuckled his forehead. “I think it’s customary to offer my resignation?”

“None of that,” Cruxer said. “This is none of your faults. It’s mine. You’ve all been right. The Mighty’s too small. We’re spread too thin. And that’s on me.” Kip had kept it secret that Teia was infiltrating the Order of the Broken Eye, but he had mentioned that Karris was afraid the Order had people even in the Blackguard itself, which had made Cruxer stop any talk of adding to the Mighty, fearing that whoever they welcomed in might be a traitor.

‘How can you be certain one of us isn’t with the Order already?’ Winsen had asked. ‘I say we add people. Might as well get a few shifts’ rest while we wait to get stabbed in the back.’

As if they weren’t already sometimes nervous about Winsen, what with his alien gaze, total disregard for danger, and overeagerness to shoot.

“You all did your part,” Cruxer continued. “And you all did your parts brilliantly. I mean, except Winsen, who I think might be angling for a Blackguard name. What do you think of Dead Weight?”

The Mighty were all just starting to laugh, delighted, turning toward Winsen, when Kip saw something go cruel and hungry in the little man’s eyes. Win had never taken mockery well.

Win’s obsidian arrow point swept left as the archer drew the nocked arrow fully, pointing straight at Cruxer, who was standing tall, flat-footed.

There was no time for him to evade. Win’s move was as fast as a man stepping in a hole while expecting solid ground. The bowstring came back to his lips in the swift kiss of a departing parent and then leapt away.

He couldn’t miss—

—but he did.

He loosed another arrow and was drawing a third before the Mighty dove left and right. Kip was throwing a green shield in front of himself—I always knew it would be Win. That saurian calm. That unnatural detachment.

Big Leo crushed Kip to the ground, disrupting his drafting and blotting out all vision as he offered his own body as a shield.

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