Faster than lightning, his hand shot out and she gagged, jolting as he grabbed her tongue between his fingers. She bit down, hard, but he didn’t let go. “Say that again,” he purred.
She choked as he kept pinching her tongue, and she went for his daggers, simultaneously slamming her knee up between his legs, but he shoved his body against hers, a wall of hard muscle and several hundred years of lethal training trapping her against a tree. She was a joke by comparison—a joke—and her tongue—
He released her tongue, and she gasped for breath. She swore at him, a filthy, foul name, and spat at his feet. And that’s when he bit her.
She cried out as those canines pierced the spot between her neck and shoulder, a primal act of aggression—the bite so strong and claiming that she was too stunned to move. He had her pinned against the tree and clamped down harder, his canines digging deep, her blood spilling onto her shirt. Pinned, like some weakling. But that was what she’d become, wasn’t it? Useless, pathetic.
She growled, more animal than sentient being. And shoved.
Rowan staggered back a step, teeth ripping her skin as she struck his chest. She didn’t feel the pain, didn’t care about the blood or the flash of light.
No, she wanted to rip his throat out—rip it out with the elongated canines she bared at him as she finished shifting and roared.
Rowan grinned. “There you are.” Blood—her blood—was on his teeth, on his mouth and chin. And those dead eyes glowed as he spat her blood onto the earth. She probably tasted like a sewer to him.
There was a shrieking in her ears, and Celaena lunged at him. Lunged, and then stopped as she took in the world with stunning clarity, smelled it and tasted it and breathed it like the finest wine. Gods, this place, this kingdom smelled divine, smelled like—
She had shifted.
She panted, even though her lungs were telling her she was no longer winded and did not need as many breaths in this body. There was a tickling at her neck—her skin slowly beginning to stitch itself together. She was a faster healer in this form. Because of the magic . . . Breathe. Breathe.
But there it was, rising up, wildfire crackling in her veins, in her fingertips, the forest around them so much kindling, and then—
She shoved back. Took the fear and used it like a battering ram inside herself, against the power, shoving it down, down.
Rowan prowled closer. “Let it out. Don’t fight it.”
A pulse beat against her, nipping, smelling of snow and pine. Rowan’s power, taunting hers. Not like her fire, but a gift of ice and wind. A freezing zap at her elbow had her falling back against the tree. The magic bit her cheek now. Magic—attacking her.
The wildfire exploded in a wall of blue flame, rushing for Rowan, engulfing the trees, the world, herself, until—
It vanished, sucked out into nothing, along with the air she was breathing.
Celaena dropped to her knees. As she clutched at her neck as if she could claw open an airway for herself, Rowan’s boots appeared in the field of her vision. He’d pulled the air out—suffocated her fire. Such power, such control. Maeve had not given her an instructor with similar abilities—she’d instead sent someone with power capable of smothering her fire, someone who wouldn’t mind doing it should she become a threat.
Air rushed down her throat in a whoosh. She gasped it down in greedy gulps, hardly registering the agony as she shifted back into her mortal form, the world going quiet and dull again.
“Does your lover know what you are?” A cold question.
She lifted her head, not caring how he’d found out. “He knows everything.” Not entirely true.
His eyes flickered—with what emotion, she couldn’t tell. “I won’t be biting you again,” he said, and she wondered just what he’d tasted in her blood.
She growled, but the sound was muted. Fangless. “Even if it’s the only way to get me to shift?”
He walked uphill—to the ridge. “You don’t bite the women of other males.”
She heard, more than felt, something die from her voice as she said, “We’re not—together. Not anymore. I let him go before I came here.”
He looked over his shoulder. “Why?” Flat, bored. But still, slightly curious.
What did she care if he knew? She’d curled her hand into a fist in her lap, her knuckles white. Every time she glanced at the ring, rubbed it, caught it gleaming, it punched a hole right through her.
She should take the damn thing off. But she knew she wouldn’t, if only because that near-constant agony felt deserved. “Because he’s safer if he’s as repulsed by me as you are.”
“At least you’ve already learned one lesson.” When she cocked her head, he said, “The people you love are just weapons that will be used against you.”
She didn’t want to recall how Nehemia had been used—had used herself—against her, to force her to act. Wanted to pretend she wasn’t starting to forget what Nehemia had looked like.
“Shift again,” Rowan ordered, jerking his chin at her. “This time, try to—”
She was forgetting what Nehemia looked like. The shade of her eyes, the curve of her lips, the smell of her. Her laugh. The roaring in Celaena’s head went quiet, silenced by that familiar nothingness.
Do not let that light go out.
But Celaena didn’t know how to stop it. The one person she could have told, who might have understood . . . She was buried in an unadorned grave, so far from the sun-warmed soil that she had loved.
Rowan gripped her by the shoulders. “Are you listening?”
She gave him a bored stare, even as his fingers dug into her skin. “Why don’t you just bite me again?”
“Why don’t I give you the lashing you deserve?”
He looked so dead set on it that she blinked. “If you ever take a whip to me, I will skin you alive.”
He let go of her and stalked around the clearing, a predator assessing its prey. “If you don’t shift again, you’re pulling double duty in the kitchens for the next week.”
“Fine.” At least working in the kitchens had some quantifiable results. At least in the kitchens, she could tell up from down and knew what she was doing. But this—this promise she’d made, the bargain she’d struck with Maeve . . . She’d been a fool.
Rowan paused his stalking. “You’re worthless.”
“Tell me something I don’t know.”
He went on, “You would probably have been more useful to the world if you’d actually died ten years ago.”
She just looked him in the eye and said, “I’m leaving.”
Rowan didn’t stop her as she returned to the fortress and packed. It took all of a minute, as she hadn’t even unloaded her satchel and had no weapons left. She supposed she could have ripped the fortress apart to find where Rowan had stashed them, or stolen them from the demi-Fae, but both would require time and bring more attention than she wanted. She didn’t talk to anyone as she walked out.
She’d find another way to learn about the Wyrdkeys and destroy the King of Adarlan and free Eyllwe. If she kept going like this, she’d have nothing left inside to fight with.
She’d marked the paths they’d taken on the way in, but as she entered the tree-covered slopes, she mostly relied on the position of the cloud-veiled sun to navigate. She’d make the trip back, find food along the way, and figure out something else. This had been a fool’s errand from the start. At least she hadn’t been too long delayed—though she might now have to be quicker about finding the answers she needed, and—
“Is this what you do? Run away when things get hard?” Rowan was standing between two trees directly in her path, having undoubtedly flown here.
She brushed past him, her legs burning with the downhill walk. “You’re free of your obligation to train me, so I have nothing more to say to you, and you have nothing more to say to me. Do us both a favor and go to hell.”
A growl. “Have you ever had to fight for anything in your life?”
She let out a low, bitter laugh and walked faster, veering westward, not caring about the direction as much as getting away from him. But he kept up easily, his long, heavily muscled legs devouring the mossy ground. “You’re proving me right with every step you take.”
“I don’t care.”
“I don’t know what you want from Maeve—what answers you’re looking for, but you—”
“You don’t know what I want from her?” It was more of a shout than a question. “How about saving the world from the King of Adarlan?”
“Why bother? Maybe the world’s not worth saving.” She knew he meant it, too. Those lifeless eyes spoke volumes.
“Because I made a promise. A promise to my friend that I would see her kingdom freed.” She shoved her scarred palm into his face. “I made an unbreakable vow. And you and Maeve—all you gods-damned bastards—are getting in the way of that.” She went off down the hillside again. He followed.
“And what of your own people? What of your own kingdom?”
“They are better off without me, just as you said.”
His tattoo scrunched as he snarled. “So you’d save another land, but not yours. Why can’t your friend save her own kingdom?”
“Because she is dead!” She screamed the last word so loudly it burned in her throat. “Because she is dead, and I am left with my worthless life!”
He merely stared at her with that animal stillness. When she walked away, he didn’t come after her.
She lost track of how far she walked and in what direction she traveled. She didn’t really care. She hadn’t spoken the words—she is dead—since the day after Nehemia had been taken from her. But she was dead. And Celaena missed her.
Night swept in earlier due to the cloud cover, the temperature plummeting as thunder grumbled in the distance. She made weapons as she went, finding a sharp stone to whittle down branches into rudimentary spears: the longer one she used as a walking stick, and though they were little more than stakes, she told herself the two short ones were daggers. Better than nothing.
Each step was heavier than the last, and she had enough of a sense of self-preservation left to start looking for a place to spend the night. It was almost dark when she found a decent spot: a shallow cave in the side of a granite ledge.
She swiftly gathered enough wood for a fire. The irony of it wasn’t wasted on her. If she had any control over her magic—she shut down that thought before it finished. She hadn’t made a fire in years, so it took a few tries, but it worked. Just as thunder cracked above her little cave and the skies opened up.
She was hungry, and thankfully found some apples at the bottom of her satchel, along with old teggya from Varese that was still edible, if hard to chew. After she ate as much of it as she could stand, she pulled her cloak around herself and nestled into the side of the cave.
She didn’t fail to notice the small, glowing eyes that gathered, peering through the brambles or over boulders or around trees. None of them had bothered her since that first night, and they didn’t come closer. Her instincts, warped as they had felt these last few weeks, didn’t raise any alarms, either. So she didn’t tell them off, and didn’t really mind them at all.
With the fire and the pounding rain, it was almost cozy—not like her freezing room. Though she was exhausted, she felt somewhat clearheaded. Almost like herself again, with her makeshift weapons. She’d made a smart choice to leave. Do what needs to be done, Elena had told her. Well, she’d needed to leave before Rowan shredded her into so many pieces that she would never stand a chance of putting herself back together.