Had her arms not been pinned, she would have clawed his face off right then. She struggled, trying every technique she’d ever learned to dislodge him, but he didn’t move an inch.
A low, nasty laugh. “Don’t like that word?” He leaned closer still, that tattoo of his swimming in her muddled vision. “Coward. You’re a coward who has run for ten years while innocent people were burned and butchered and—”
She stopped hearing him.
It was like being underwater again. Like charging into Nehemia’s room and finding that beautiful body mutilated on the bed. Like seeing Galan Ashryver, beloved and brave, riding off into the sunset to the cheers of his people.
She lay still, watching the churning clouds above. Waiting for him to finish the words she couldn’t hear, waiting for a blow she was fairly certain she wouldn’t feel.
“Get up,” he said suddenly, and the world was bright and wide as he stood. “Get up.”
Get up. Chaol had said that to her once, when pain and fear and grief had shoved her over an edge. But the edge she’d gone over the night Nehemia had died, the night she’d gutted Archer, the day she’d told Chaol the horrible truth . . . Chaol had helped shove her over that edge. She was still on the fall down. There was no getting up, because there was no bottom.
Powerful, rough hands under her shoulders, the world tilting and spinning, then that tattooed, snarling face in hers. Let him take her head between those massive hands and snap her neck.
“Pathetic,” he spat, releasing her. “Spineless and pathetic.”
For Nehemia, she had to try, had to try—
But when she reached in, toward the place in her chest where that monster dwelled, she found only cobwebs and ashes.
Celaena’s head was still reeling, and dried blood now itched down the side of her face. She didn’t bother to wipe it off, or to really care about the black eye that she was positive had blossomed during the miles they’d hiked from the temple ruins and into the forested foothills. But not back to Mistward.
She was swaying on her feet when Rowan drew a sword and a dagger and stopped at the edge of a grassy plateau, speckled with small hills. Not hills—barrows, the ancient tombs of lords and princes long dead, rolling to the other edge of trees. There were dozens, each marked with a stone threshold and sealed iron door. And through the murky vision, the pounding headache, the hair on the back of her neck rose.
The grassy mounds seemed to . . . breathe. To sleep. Iron doors—to keep the wights inside, locked with the treasure they’d stolen. They infiltrated the barrows and lurked there for eons, feeding on whatever unwitting fools dared seek the gold within.
Rowan inclined his head toward the barrows. “I had planned to wait until you had some handle on your power—planned to make you come at night, when the barrow-wights are really something to behold, but consider this a favor, as there are few that will dare come out in the day. Walk through the mounds—face the wights and make it to the other side of the field, Aelin, and we can go to Doranelle whenever you wish.”
It was a trap. She knew that well enough. He had the gift of endless time, and could play games that lasted centuries. Her impatience, her mortality, the fact that every heartbeat brought her closer to death, was being used against her. To face the wights . . .
Rowan’s weapons gleamed, close enough to grab. He shrugged those powerful shoulders as he said, “You can either wait to earn back your steel, or you can enter as you are now.”
The flash of temper snapped her out of it long enough to say, “My bare hands are weapon enough.” He just gave a taunting grin and sauntered into the maze of hills.
She trailed him closely, following him around each mound, knowing that if she fell too far behind, he’d leave her out of spite.
Steady breathing and the yawns of awakening things arose beyond those iron doors. They were unadorned, bolted into the stone lintels with spikes and nails that were so old they probably predated Wendlyn itself.
Her footsteps crunched in the grass. Even the birds and insects did not utter a too-loud sound here. The hills parted to reveal an inner circle of dead grass around the most crumbling barrow of all. Where the others were rounded, this one looked as if some ancient god had stepped on it. Its flattened top had been overrun with the gnarled roots of bushes; the three massive stones of the threshold were beaten, stained, and askew. The iron door was gone.
There was only blackness within. Ageless, breathing blackness.
Her heartbeat pounded in her ears as the darkness reached for her.
“I leave you here,” Rowan said. He hadn’t set one foot inside the circle, his boots just an inch shy of the dead grass. His smile turned feral. “I’ll meet you on the other side of the field.”
He expected her to bolt like a hare. And she wanted to. Gods, this place, that damned barrow only a hundred yards away, made her want to run and run and not stop until she found a place where the sun shone day and night. But if she did this, then she could go to Doranelle tomorrow. And those wights waiting in the other half of the field . . . they couldn’t be worse than what she’d already seen, and fought, and found dwelling in the world and inside of herself.
So she inclined her head to Rowan, and walked onto the dead field.
Each step toward the central mound had Celaena’s blood roaring. The darkness between the stained, ancient stones grew, swirling. It was colder, too. Cold and dry.
She wouldn’t stop, not with Rowan still watching, not when she had so much to do. She didn’t dare look too long toward the open doorway and the thing lurking beyond. A lingering shred of pride—stupid, mortal pride—kept her from bolting through the rest of the field. Running, she remembered, only attracted some predators. So she kept her steps slow and called on every bit of training she’d had, even as the wight slunk closer to the threshold, no more than a ripple of ravenous hunger encased in rags.
Yet the wight remained within its mound, even as she came near enough to drag into the barrow, as if it were . . . hesitating.
She was just passing the barrow when a pulsing, stale bit of air pushed against her ears. Maybe running was a good idea. If magic was the only weapon against wights, then her hands would be useless. Still, the wight lingered beyond the threshold.
The strange, dead air pushed against her ears again, a high-pitched ringing wending itself into her head. She hurried, grass crunching as she gathered every detail she could to wield against whatever assailant lurked nearby. Treetops swayed in the misty breeze on the other end of the field. It wasn’t far.
Celaena passed the central mound, cracking her jaw against the ringing in her ears, worse and worse with each step. Even the wight cringed away. It hadn’t been hesitating because of her, or Rowan.
The circle of dead grass ended a few steps away—just a few. Just a few, and then she could run from whatever it was that could make a wight tremble in fear.
And then she saw him. The man standing behind the barrow.
Not a wight. She glimpsed only a flash of pale skin, night-dark hair, unfathomable beauty, and an onyx torque around his strong column of a neck, and—
Blackness. A wave of it, slamming down on her.
Not oblivion but actual dark, as if he’d thrown a blanket over the two of them.
The ground felt grassy, but she couldn’t see it. Couldn’t see anything. Not beyond, not to the side, not behind. There was only her and the swirling black.
Celaena crouched, biting down on a curse as she scanned the dark. Whatever he was, despite his shape, he wasn’t mortal. In his perfection, in those depthless eyes, there was nothing human.
Blood tickled her upper lip—a nosebleed. The pounding in her ears began to drown out her thoughts, any plan, as if her body were repulsed by the very essence of whatever this thing was. The darkness remained, impenetrable, unending.
But someone was breathing behind her. Was it the man, or something else?
The breathing was louder, closer, and a chill air brushed her nose, her lips, licking along her skin. Running—running was smarter than just waiting. She took several bounding steps that should have taken her toward the edge of the field, but—
Nothing. Only endless black and the breathing thing that was closer now, reeking of dust and carrion and another scent, something she hadn’t smelled for a lifetime but could never forget, not when it had been coating that room like paint.
Oh, gods. Breath on her neck, snaking up the shell of her ear.
She whirled, drawing in what might very well be her last breath, and the world flashed bright. Not with clouds and dead grass. Not with a Fae Prince waiting nearby. The room . . .
This room . . .
The servant woman was screaming. Screaming like a teakettle. There were still puddles just inside the shut windows—windows Celaena herself had sealed the night before when they’d been flapping in the swift and sudden storm.
She had thought the bed was wet because of the rain. She’d climbed in because the storm had made her hear such horrible things, made her feel like there was something wrong, like there was someone standing in the corner of her room. It was not rain soaking the bed in that elegantly rugged chamber at the country manor.
It was not rain that had dried on her, on her hands and skin and nightgown. And that smell—not just blood, but something else . . . “This is not real,” Celaena said aloud, backing away from the bed on which she was standing like a ghost. “This is not real.”
But there were her parents, sprawled on the bed, their throats sliced ear to ear.
There was her father, broad-shouldered and handsome, his skin already gray.
There was her mother, her golden hair matted with blood, her face . . . her face . . .
Slaughtered like animals. The wounds were so vulgar, so gaping and deep, and her parents looked so—so—
Celaena vomited. She fell to her knees, her bladder loosening just before she vomited a second time.
“This is not real, this is not real,” she gasped as a wet warmth soaked her pants. She couldn’t breathe, couldn’t breathe, couldn’t—
And then she was pushing to her feet, bolting away from that room, toward the wood-paneled walls, through them like a wraith herself, until—
Another bedroom, another body.
Nehemia. Carved up, mutilated, violated and broken.
The thing lurking behind her slid a hand over her waist, along her abdomen, pulling her back against its chest with a lover’s gentleness. Panic surged, so strong that she slammed her elbow back and up—hitting what felt like flesh and bone. It hissed, releasing her. That was all she needed. She ran, treading through the illusion of her friend’s blood and organs, and then—
Watery sunlight and dead grass and a heavily armed silver-haired warrior whom she sprinted toward, not caring about the vomit on her clothes, her soiled pants, the gasping, shrieking noise coming out of her throat. She ran until she reached him and fell to the green grass, gripping it, shredding it, retching even though she had nothing left in her but a trickle of bile. She was screaming or sobbing or not making any sound at all.
Then she felt the shift and the surge, a well opening beneath her stomach and filling with burning, relentless fire.
Agony cleaved her in a pulse, her vision jumping between crystal clarity and the muted eyesight of mortals, her teeth aching as the fangs punched out and retracted, ebb and flow, immortal and mortal, mortal and immortal, shifting as fast as a hummingbird’s flapping wings—
With each shift, the well deepened, that wildfire rising and falling and reaching up, up . . .
She really did scream then, because her throat burned, or maybe that was the magic coming out, at last unleashed.