Abraxos continued to lie in the sun, vain and indulgent as a cat. “Warrior heart indeed.”
She eyed the eastern edge, the saddle, the dangling reins. He’d bucked and thrashed the first time they’d shoved the bit into his mouth, but he’d gotten used to it now—at least, enough so that he’d tried to take off the head of only one handler today.
The sun was still rising high, but soon it would start its descent, and then she’d be completely and perfectly ruined. Like hell she would be.
“You had this coming” was all the warning she gave him before she took a running leap, landing on his haunch and then scrambling, so fast he had barely lifted his head by the time she scuttled across his scaly back and into the saddle.
He jerked upright, stiff as a board as she shoved her booted feet into the stirrups and gripped the reins. “We’re flying—now.” She dug her heels into his sides.
Perhaps the spurs hurt or surprised him, because Abraxos bucked—bucked and roared. She yanked on the reins as hard as she could. “Enough,” she barked, hauling with one arm to guide him over the eastern edge. “Enough, Abraxos.”
He was still thrashing, and she clenched her thighs as hard as she could to stay in the saddle, leaning into each movement. When the bucking didn’t dislodge her, he lifted his wings, as if he would fling her off. “Don’t you dare,” she growled, but he was still twisting and bellowing.
“Stop it.” Her brain rattled in her skull and her teeth clacked together so hard she had to retract her fangs so they didn’t punch right through her skin.
But Abraxos kept bucking, wild and frantic. Not toward the eastern edge, but away—toward the lip of the western plunge.
“Abraxos, stop.” He was going to go right over. And then they’d splatter on the stones.
He was so panicked, so enraged that her voice was no more than a crackling leaf on the wind. The western drop loomed to her right, then her left, flashing beneath the leathery, mottled wings as they flapped and snapped. Under Abraxos’s massive talons, stones hissed and crumbled as he neared the edge.
“Abraxos—” But then his leg slid off the cliff, and Manon’s world tilted down—down, down, as he lost his grip and they plummeted into open air.
Manon didn’t have time to contemplate her oncoming death.
She was too busy holding on to the saddle, the world flipping and spinning, the wind shrieking, or perhaps that was Abraxos, as they plunged down the cliff face.
Her muscles locked and trembled, but she kept her arms laced through the straps, the only thing keeping her from death, even as it swiftly approached with every rotation of Abraxos’s ruined body.
The trees below took shape, as did the spiked, wind-carved rocks between them. Faster and faster, the cliff wall a blur of gray and white.
Maybe his body would take the impact and she could walk away.
Maybe all those rocks would go right through them both.
Maybe he’d flip and she would land on the rocks first.
She hoped it would happen too quickly for her to recognize just how she was dying, to know what part of her broke first. They hurtled down. There was a little river running through the spiked rocks.
Wind slammed into them from below, a draft that rocked Abraxos upright, but they were still rotating, still plunging.
“Open your wings!” she screamed over the wind, over her thundering heart. They stayed shut.
“Open them and pull up!” she bellowed, just as the rapids on the stream began to appear, just as she understood that she hated the oncoming embrace of the Darkness, and that there was nothing to do to stop this splattering, this doom from—
She could see the pine cones on the trees. “Open them!” A last, rallying war cry against the Darkness.
A war cry that was answered with a piercing shriek as Abraxos flung open his wings, caught the updraft, and sent them soaring away from the ground.
Manon’s stomach went from her throat right out her ass, but they were swooping upward, and his wings were pumping, each boom the most beautiful sound she had ever heard in her long, miserable life.
Higher he flapped, legs tucked beneath him. Manon crouched in her saddle, clinging to his warm hide as he took them up the face of the neighboring mountain. Its peaks rose to meet them like lifted hands, but he wobbled past, beating hard. Manon lifted and fell with him, not taking one breath as they cleared the highest snow-capped peak and Abraxos, in joy or rage or for the hell of it, gripped clawfuls of snow and ice and set them scattering behind, the sun lighting them up like a trail of stars.
The sun was blinding as they hit the open sky, and there was nothing around them but clouds as massive as the mountains far below, castles and temples of white and purple and blue.
And the cry that Abraxos let out as they entered that hall of clouds, as he leveled out and caught a lightning-fast current carving a pathway through it . . .
She had not understood what it had been like for him to live his entire life underground, chained and beaten and crippled—until then. Until she heard that noise of undiluted, unyielding joy.
Until she echoed it, tipping her head back to the clouds around them.
They sailed over a sea of clouds, and Abraxos dipped his claws in them before tilting to race up a wind-carved column of cloud. Higher and higher, until they reached its peak and he flung out his wings in the freezing, thin sky, stopping the world entirely for a heartbeat.
And Manon, because no one was watching, because she did not care, flung out her arms as well and savored the freefall, the wind now a song in her ears, in her shriveled heart.
The gray skies were just filling with light as the sun slipped over the horizon at their backs. Bundled in her red cloak, Manon sat atop Abraxos, her vision slightly cloudy from the inner lid she’d already blinked into place. Still, she surveyed her Thirteen, astride their wyverns at the mouth of the canyon run.
They’d assembled in two rows of six, Asterin and her pale blue mount directly behind Manon, leading the first row, Sorrel claiming center in the second. They were all awake and alert—and slightly befuddled. Abraxos’s damaged wings weren’t ready to make the narrow Crossing, not yet. So they’d met at the back door, where they’d walked their wyverns the two miles to the first canyon run—walked like a proper unit, in rank and quietly.
The mouth of the canyon was wide enough for Abraxos to leap into an easy glide. Takeoffs were a problem thanks to the shredded muscle and weak spots in his wings—areas that had taken too many beatings and might never be at their full strength.
But she did not explain that to her Thirteen, because it was none of their damn business and it did not impact them.
“Every morning, from today until the War Games,” Manon said, staring into the labyrinth of ravines and archways that made up the wind-carved canyon, “we will meet here, and until breakfast, we are going to train. Then we’ll have our afternoon training with the other covens. Tell no one.” She’d just have to leave early so she could get Abraxos airborne while the others made the Crossing.
“I want us in close quarters. I don’t care what the men say about keeping the mounts separate. Let the wyverns sort out their dominance, let them squabble, but they are going to fly, tight as armor. There will be no gaps and no room for attitude or territorial horseshit. We fly this canyon together, or we don’t fly at all.”
She looked each of the witches and their mounts in the eye. Abraxos, to her surprise, did the same. What he lacked in size he made up for in sheer will, speed, and dexterity. He sensed currents even before Manon did. “When we are done, if we survive, we’ll meet on the other side and do it again. Until it’s perfect. Your beasts will learn to trust each other and follow orders.” The wind kissed her cheeks. “Don’t fall behind,” she said, and Abraxos plunged into the canyon.
In the week that followed, there were no more bodies, and certainly no hint of the creature that had drained those people, though Celaena often found herself thinking over the details as Rowan made her light candle after candle at the ruins of the Sun Goddess’s temple. Now that she could shift on command, this was her new task: to light a candle without destroying everything in sight. She failed every time, singeing her cloak, cracking the ruins, incinerating trees as her magic tore out of her. But Rowan had a bottomless supply of candles, so she spent her days staring at them until her eyes crossed. She could sweat for hours and focus on honing her anger and all that nonsense but not get as much as a tendril of smoke. The only thing that came of it was an unending appetite: Celaena ate whatever and whenever she could, thanks to her magic gobbling so much of her energy.
The rain returned, and with it, the crowd for Emrys’s stories. Celaena always listened while she washed the night’s dishes, to tales of shield maidens and enchanted animals and cunning sorcerers, all the legends of Wendlyn. Rowan still appeared in his hawk form—and there were some nights when she even sat beside the back door, and Rowan sidled a bit closer, too.
Celaena was standing at the sink, back throbbing and hunger gnawing at her belly as she scrubbed the last of the copper pots while Emrys finished narrating the story of a clever wolf and a magical fire-bird. There was a pause, and then came the usual requests for the same old stories. Celaena didn’t acknowledge the heads that turned in her direction as she asked from the sink, “Do you know any stories about Queen Maeve?”
Dead. Silence. Emrys’s eyes widened before he smiled faintly and said, “Lots. Which one would you like to hear?”
“The earliest ones that you know. All of them.” If she was going to face her aunt again, perhaps she should start learning as much as she could. Emrys might know stories that hadn’t reached the shores of her own lands. If the stories about the skinwalkers had been true, if the immortal stags were real . . . perhaps she could glean something vital here.
There were some nervous glances, but at last Emrys said, “Then I shall start at the beginning.”
Celaena nodded and moved to sit in her usual chair, propped against the back door near the sharp-eyed hawk. Rowan clicked his beak, but she didn’t dare look over her shoulder at him. Instead, she dug into an entire loaf of bread.
“Long ago, when there was no mortal king on Wendlyn’s throne, the faeries still walked among us. Some were good and fair, some were prone to little mischiefs, and some were fouler and darker than the blackest night. But they were all of them ruled by Maeve and her two sisters, whom they called Mora and Mab. Cunning Mora, who bore the shape of a great hawk”—that was Rowan’s mighty bloodline—“Fair Mab, who bore the shape of a swan. And the dark Maeve, whose wildness could not be contained by any single form.”
Emrys recited the history, much of which Celaena knew: Mora and Mab had fallen in love with human men, and yielded their immortality. Some said Maeve forced them to give up their gift of eternal life as punishment. Some said they wanted to, if only to escape their sister.
And when Celaena asked, the room falling deathly silent again, if Maeve herself had ever mated, Emrys told her no—though she had come close, at the dawn of time. A warrior, rumor claimed, had stolen her heart with his clever mind and pure soul. But he had died in some long-ago war and lost the ring he’d intended for her, and since then, Maeve had cherished her warriors above all others. They loved her for it—made her a mighty queen whom no one dared challenge. Celaena expected Rowan to puff his feathers at that, but he remained still and quiet on his perch.
Emrys told stories about the Fae Queen well into the night, painting a portrait of a ruthless, cunning ruler who could conquer the world if she wished, but instead kept to her forest realm of Doranelle, planting her stone city in the heart of a massive river basin.