Aedion was watching the locked door, head cocked as if listening to the sounds of the den, as he said to Murtaugh, “Why were you being followed, and who were those men?”
The old man kept pacing. “I don’t know. But they knew where Ren and I would be. Ren has a network of informants throughout the city. Any one of them could have betrayed us.”
Aedion’s attention remained on the door, a hand on one of his fighting knives. “They wore uniforms with the royal sigil—even the captain didn’t recognize them. You need to lay low for a while.”
Murtaugh’s silence was too heavy. Chaol asked quietly, “Where do we bring him when he can be moved?”
Murtaugh paused his pacing, his eyes full of grief. “There is no place. We have no home.”
Aedion looked sharply at him. “Where the hell have you been staying all this time?”
“Here and there, squatting in abandoned buildings. When we are able to take work, we stay in boardinghouses, but these days . . .”
They would not have access to the Allsbrook coffers, Chaol realized. Not if they had been in hiding for so many years. But to be homeless . . .
Aedion’s face was a mask of disinterest. “And you have no place in Rifthold safe enough to hold him—to see to his mending.” Not a question, but Murtaugh nodded all the same. Aedion examined Ren, sprawled on the dark sofa against the far wall. His throat bobbed once, but then he said, “Tell the captain your theory about magic.”
In the long hours that passed as Ren regained his strength enough to be moved, Murtaugh explained everything he knew. His entire story came out, the old man almost whispering at times—of the horrors they’d fled, and how Ren had gotten each and every scar. Chaol understood why the young man had been so close-lipped until now. Secrecy had kept them alive.
All together, Murtaugh and Ren had learned, the various waves the day magic had vanished formed a rough triangle across the continent. The first line went right from Rifthold to the Frozen Wastes. The second went down from the Frozen Wastes to the edge of the Deserted Peninsula. The third line went from there back to Rifthold. A spell, they believed, had been the cause of it.
Standing around the map Aedion had produced, the general traced a finger over the lines again and again, as if sorting out a battle strategy. “A spell sent from specific points, like a beacon.”
Chaol thumped his knuckles on the table. “Is there some way of undoing it?”
Murtaugh sighed. “Our work was interrupted by the disturbance with Archer, and our sources vanished from the city for fear of their lives. But there has to be a way.”
“So where do we start looking?” Aedion asked. “There’s no chance in hell the king would leave clues lying around.”
Murtaugh nodded. “We need eyewitnesses to confirm what we suspect, but the places we think the spell originated are occupied by the king’s forces. We’ve been waiting for an in.”
Aedion gave him a lazy grin. “No wonder you kept telling Ren to be nice to me.”
As if in response, Ren groaned, struggling to rise to consciousness. Had the young lord ever felt safe or at peace at any point in the past ten years? It would explain that anger—the reckless anger that coursed through all the young, shattered hearts of Terrasen, including Celaena’s.
Chaol said, “There is an apartment hidden in a warehouse in the slums. It’s secure, and has all the amenities you need. You’re welcome to stay there for however long you require.”
He felt Aedion watching him carefully. But Murtaugh frowned. “However generous, I cannot accept the offer to stay in your house.”
“It’s not my house,” Chaol said. “And believe me, the owner won’t mind one bit.”
“Eat it,” Manon said, holding out the raw leg of mutton to Abraxos. The day was bright, but the wind off the snowy peaks of the Fangs still carried a brutal chill. They’d been going outside the mountain for little spurts to stretch his legs, using the back door that opened onto a narrow road leading into the mountains. She’d guided him by the giant chain—as if it would do anything to stop him from taking off—up a sharp incline, and then onto the meadow atop a plateau.
“Eat it,” she said, shaking the freezing meat at Abraxos, who was now lying on his belly in the meadow, huffing at the first grasses and flowers to poke through the melting ice. “It’s your reward,” she said through her teeth. “You earned it.”
Abraxos sniffed at a cluster of purple flowers, then flicked his eyes to her. No meat, he seemed to say.
“It’s good for you,” she said, and he went right back to sniffing the violets or whatever they were. If a plant wasn’t good for poisoning or healing or keeping her alive if she were starving, she’d never bothered to learn its name—especially not wildflowers.
She tossed the leg right in front of his massive mouth and tucked her hands into the folds of her red cloak. He snuffed at it, his new iron teeth glinting in the radiant light, then stretched out one massive, claw-tipped wing and—
Shoved it aside.
Manon rubbed her eyes. “Is it not fresh enough?”
He moved to sniff some white-and-yellow flowers.
A nightmare. This was a nightmare. “You can’t really like flowers.”
Again those dark eyes shifted to her. Blinked once. I most certainly do, he seemed to say.
She splayed her arms. “You never even smelled a flower until yesterday. What’s wrong with the meat now?” He needed to eat tons and tons of meat to put on the muscle he was lacking.
When he went back to sniffing the flowers rather delicately—the insufferable, useless worm—she stalked to the leg of mutton and hauled it up. “If you won’t eat it,” she snarled at him, hoisting it up with both hands to her mouth and popping her iron teeth down, “then I will.”
Abraxos watched her with those bemused dark eyes as she bit into the icy, raw meat. And spat it everywhere.
“What in the Mother’s dark shadow—” She sniffed at the meat. It wasn’t rancid, but like the men here, it tasted off. The sheep were raised inside the mountain, so maybe it was something in the water. As soon as she got back, she’d give the Thirteen the order not to touch the men—not until she knew what in hell was making them taste and smell that way.
Regardless, Abraxos had to eat, because he had to get strong—so she could be Wing Leader, so she could see the look on Iskra’s face when she ripped her apart at the War Games. And if this was the only way to get the worm to eat . . .
“Fine,” she said, chucking the leg away. “You want fresh meat?” She scanned the mountains towering around them, eyeing the gray stones. “Then we’re going to have to hunt.”
“You smell like shit and blood.” Her grandmother didn’t turn from her desk, and Manon didn’t flinch at the insult. She was covered in both, actually.
It was thanks to Abraxos, the flower-loving worm, who had just watched while she scaled one of the nearby cliffs and brought down a braying mountain goat for him. “Brought down” was a more elegant phrase than what had actually happened: she half froze to death as she waited for some goats to pass on their treacherous climb, and then, when she’d finally ambushed one, she’d not only rolled in its dung as she’d grappled with it but it had also dumped a fresh load on her, right before it went tumbling out of her arms and broke its skull on the rocks below.
It had nearly taken her with it, but she’d managed to grab on to a dead root. Abraxos was still lying on his belly, sniffing the wildflowers, when she returned with the dead goat in her arms, its blood now iced on her cloak and tunic.
He’d devoured the goat in two bites, then gone back to enjoying the wildflowers. At least he’d eaten. Getting him back to the Northern Fang, however, was a trial in itself. He hadn’t hurt her, hadn’t fled, but he’d pulled on the chains, shaking his head again and again as they neared the cavernous back door where the sounds of the wyverns and men reached them. But he’d gone in—though he’d snapped and growled at the handlers who rushed out to retrieve him. For some reason, she hadn’t been able to stop thinking about his reluctance—the way he’d looked at her with a mute plea. She didn’t pity him, because she pitied nothing, but she couldn’t stop thinking about it.
“You summoned me,” said Manon, head high. “I did not want to keep you waiting.”
“You are keeping me waiting, Manon.” The witch turned, eyes full of death and promises of endless pain. “It has been weeks now, and you are not airborne with your Thirteen. The Yellowlegs have been flying as a host for three days. Three days, Manon. And you’re coddling your beast.”
Manon didn’t show one flicker of feeling. Apologizing would make it worse, as would excuses. “Give me orders, and they will be done.”
“I want you airborne by tomorrow evening. Don’t bother coming back if you aren’t.”
“I hate you,” Manon panted through her iron teeth as she and Abraxos finished their grueling trek to the top of the mountain peak. It had taken half a day to get here—and if this didn’t work, it would take until evening to get back to the Omega. To pack her belongings.
Abraxos was curled up like a cat on the narrow stretch of flat rock atop the mountain. “Willful, lazy worm.” He didn’t even blink at her.
Take the eastern side, the overseer had said as he’d helped her saddle up and set out from the back door of the Northern Fang before dawn. They used this peak to train the hatchling wyverns—and reluctant fliers. The eastern side, Manon saw as she peered over the lip she’d just climbed, was a smooth incline after a twenty-foot drop. Abraxos could take a running start off the edge, try to glide, and if he fell . . . Well, it would only be twenty feet and then wind-smooth rock to slide down for a ways. Slim possibility for death.
No, death lay on the western side. Frowning at Abraxos, who was licking his new iron claws, Manon crossed the plateau and, despite herself, winced at the blistering wind that shot up.
To the west was an endless plunge through nothing until the spiked, unforgiving rocks below. It would take a crew of men to scrape off her remains. Eastern side it was.
She checked her tight braid and flicked her clear inner lid into place. “Let’s go.”
Abraxos lifted his massive head as if to say, We just got here.
She pointed to the eastern edge. “Flying. Now.”
He huffed, curling his back to her, the leather saddle gleaming. “Oh, I don’t think so,” she snapped, stalking around to get in his face. She pointed to the edge again. “We’re flying, you rutting coward.”
He tucked his head toward his belly, his tail wrapping around him. He was pretending he couldn’t hear her.
She knew it might cost her life, but she gripped his nostrils—hard enough to make his eyes fly open. “Your wings are functional. The humans said they were. So you can fly, and you are going to fly, because I say so. I’ve been fetching your useless carcass mountain goats by the herd, and if you humiliate me, I’ll use your hide for a new leather coat.” She rustled her torn and stained crimson cloak. “This is ruined, thanks to your goats.”
He shifted his head away, and she let go—because it was either let go or be tossed into the air. He set down his head and closed his eyes.
This was punishment, somehow. For what, she didn’t know. Perhaps her own stupidity in picking a bait beast for a mount.
She hissed to herself, eyeing the saddle on his back. Even with a running jump she couldn’t make it. But she needed to be in that saddle and airborne, or else . . . Or else the Thirteen would be broken apart by her grandmother.