Ruined (Ruined, #1)
THE WHEELS OF the carriage creaked as they rolled across the dirt road. The noise echoed through the quiet forest.
Em crouched behind a tree, tightening each finger individually around her sword. A squirrel darted across the road and disappeared into the thick brush. She couldn’t see the princess or her guards yet.
She glanced over her shoulder to find Damian hiding in a squat behind the bush, his body perfectly still. He didn’t even appear to be breathing. That was Damian—incredibly fast or incredibly still, depending on what the situation called for.
Aren was in a tree on the other side of the road from Em, precariously perched atop a branch with his sword drawn.
Both boys stared at her, waiting for her signal.
Em pressed her hand to the tree trunk and peered around it. The sun was setting behind her, and she could see wisps of her breath in the air. She shivered.
The first guard rounded the corner on his horse, easily spotted in his bright yellow-and-black coat. Yellow was the official color of Vallos, the princess’s home, but Em would have made them wear black. She would have insisted that several guards scout the area around the carriage.
Apparently the princess wasn’t that smart. Or maybe she felt safe in her own country.
Em barely remembered what safe felt like.
She shivered again, but not because of the cold. Every nerve in her body was on high alert.
The carriage rolled down the road behind the first guard, pulled by four horses. There were five guards total. One in front, two on either side, and two in back. All of them were perched on top of horses, swords dangling from their belts. The princess must have been inside the carriage.
Six to three. Em, Damian, and Aren had faced much worse odds.
The guard in front said something to one of the men behind him, and they both laughed. The spot of blue on their chests wasn’t clear from this distance, but Em knew what it was. Soldiers who had killed at least ten Ruined wore blue pins. For every ten killed, they received another pin.
The man in front had at least three.
She looked forward to wiping that smile off the guard’s face.
Em returned her attention to Damian. She barely nodded.
He stood slowly, a dagger in one hand and a sword in the other. He lifted the dagger and narrowed his eyes at his target.
The blade sailed through the air.
Em jumped up. Damian’s dagger sank into the throat of the guard at the side of the carriage; a scream ripped through the air. He toppled off his horse, and the other guards quickly dismounted, swords drawn. The horses neighed loudly, and one of them ran, hooves clomping as it disappeared into the trees.
Aren jumped from his tree and landed on top of two guards, his sword cutting through the air and finding his target.
Damian sprinted for the man trying to block the side door of the carriage. The guard’s face was twisted in horror, his fear palpable.
That left only one man—the one in front—and he was staring straight at Em. She clenched her sword tighter as she raced toward him.
He grabbed something off his back. She barely had time to process the bow before the arrow was hurtling straight for her. She darted to one side, but the arrow sliced across her left arm. She gasped at the quick shot of pain, but she didn’t have time to let it slow her down.
She broke into a run as he reached for another arrow. He aimed and she dashed out of the way, narrowly missing the second one.
Damian appeared behind him. He drove his sword into the guard’s back. The man gasped and fell to his knees.
Em whirled around to find Princess Mary jumping out of the carriage, sword in hand.
A burst of relief exploded in Em’s chest as she surveyed the princess. They had the same dark hair and olive skin. Mary had green eyes while Em’s were dark. And Mary had small, delicate features, making her pretty in a way Em never would be. But from a distance, most people wouldn’t be able to tell them apart.
Em lifted her sword as Mary rushed toward her, but the princess stumbled back suddenly, pulled by an invisible force. Her fingers sprang apart, her sword clattering to the ground.
Aren stood behind Mary, his gaze fixed on her as he used his Ruined magic to keep her in place.
Em had no magic. But she was better than almost anyone with a sword.
She shook her head at Aren, and he released his hold on Mary. She didn’t need his help. Em took a small step back, allowing the princess to retrieve her sword.
She wanted to beat the princess, in every sense of the word. She wanted to see Mary’s face when she realized Em had bested her.
The anger trickled in at first, hesitant, like perhaps fear was the better emotion right now. But Em embraced the anger, let it swirl and grow until it tightened around her chest and made it hard to breathe.
Em attacked first, and Mary raised her sword to block Em’s. The princess kept watch on Damian, but Em knew neither of her friends would jump in to help again unless it was absolutely necessary. They knew she needed to do this herself.
Em lunged at Mary again, spraying dirt into the air. Mary raised her sword and Em ducked, letting the blade sail above her head. She bolted to her feet, slicing her sword across Mary’s right arm.
The princess gasped and stumbled, and Em took advantage of the moment of weakness. She launched her sword against Mary’s, knocking it out of the princess’s hand.
Em took a step forward, aiming the tip of her blade at the princess’s neck. Her hands shook, and she gripped her sword tighter. She’d imagined this part of the plan a hundred times, but she hadn’t counted on the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.