The ice fogged over, and a crack splintered through the air. The magic was pulsing its way out of her, snapping its jaws at every breath she took.
“You are in control now,” Rowan said from the shore. “You are its master.”
She was halfway there. She took one more step toward Luca, and the ice cracked further. His chains rustled—impatience, or fear?
She had never been in control. Even as Celaena, control had been an illusion. Other masters had held her reins.
“You are the keeper of your own fate,” Rowan said softly from the shore, as if he knew exactly what was flowing through her head.
She hummed some more, the music wending its way from her memory. And somehow . . . somehow the flame grew quiet. Celaena took a step forward, then another. The power smoldering in her veins would never go away; she was far more likely to hurt someone if she didn’t master it.
She scowled over her shoulder at Rowan, who was now striding along the shore, examining some of the fallen blades. There was a hint of triumph in his usually hollow eyes, but he turned away and approached a small crevice in the cave wall, feeling for something inside. She kept walking, the watery abyss deepening. She had mastered her mortal body as an assassin. Mastering her immortal power was just another task.
Luca’s eyes were wide as she came at last within touching distance. “You have nothing to hide, you know. We all knew you could shift, anyway,” he said. “And if it makes you feel any better, Sten’s animal form is a pig. He won’t even shift for shame.”
She would have laughed—actually felt her insides tighten to bark out the sound that had been buried for months, but then she remembered the chains around his wrists. The magic had quieted down, but now . . . melt through them, or melt the ice where they were anchored and let him drag the chains back? If she went for the ice, she could easily send them right to the bottom of this ancient lake. And if she went for the chains . . . Well, she could lose control and send them to the bottom, but she could also wind up burning him. At best, branding him where the manacles were. At worst, melting his bones. Better to risk the ice.
“Erm,” Luca said. “I’ll forgive every awful thing you said earlier if we can go eat something right now. It smells awful in here.” His senses had to be sharper than hers—the cave had only a faint hint of rust, mold, and rotting things.
“Just hold still and stop talking,” she said, more sharply than she’d intended. But he shut up as she eased to the spot where Rowan had frozen the chains. As carefully as she could, she knelt, spreading her weight out evenly.
She slid one palm against the ice, eyeing the chain’s path to the hanging length swaying in the water beneath.
Swaying—there must be a current. Which meant Rowan had to be constantly sealing the ice . . . The cold bit into her palm, and she eyed Luca on the fur blanket before she turned back to the anchor. If the ice broke, she’d have to grab him. Rowan was out of his damned mind.
She took several long breaths, letting the magic calm and cool and gutter. Then, hand pressed flat against the ice, she crooked an inner finger at her power and pulled out a tiny, burning thread. It flowed down her arm, snaked around her wrist, and then settled in her palm, her skin warming, the ice . . . glowing a bright red. Luca yelped as the ice splintered around them.
“Control,” Rowan barked from the shore, pulling free a discarded sword from where it had been knocked into the little crevice in the wall, its golden hilt glinting. Celaena clamped on the magic so hard it suffocated. A small hole had melted where her palm had been—but not all the way through. Not big enough to free the chain.
She could master this. She could master herself again. The well inside of her filled up and she pushed back, willing only that thread to squeeze free and into the ice, burrowing like a worm, gnawing away at the cold . . . There was a clank of metal, and a hiss, and then— “Oh, thank the gods,” Luca moaned, hauling the length of chain out of the hole.
She spooled the thread of power back into herself, into that well, and was suddenly cold.
“Please tell me you brought food,” Luca said again.
“Is that why you came? Rowan promised you snacks?”
“I’m a growing boy.” He winced when he looked at Rowan. “And you don’t say no to him.”
No, indeed, no one ever said no to him, and that was probably why Rowan thought a scheme like this was acceptable. Celaena sighed through her nose and looked at the small hole she’d made. A feat—a miracle. As she was about to stand and help Luca navigate the way back to shore, she glanced at the ice once more. No, not the ice—the water beneath.
Where a giant red eye was staring right at her.
The next four words that came out of Celaena’s mouth were so vulgar that Luca choked. But Celaena didn’t move as a massive, jagged, white line gleamed unnervingly far from that red eye.
“Get off the ice now,” she breathed to Luca.
Because that jagged white line—those were teeth. Big, rip-your-arm-off-in-one-bite teeth. And they were floating up from the depths, toward the hole she’d made. That was why there were no skeletons—only the weapons that had failed the fools who’d wandered into this cave.
“Holy gods,” Luca said, peering from behind her. “What is that?”
“Shut up and go,” she hissed. On the shore, Rowan’s eyes were wide, his face strained beneath his tattoo. He hadn’t realized this lake wasn’t empty.
“Now, Luca,” Rowan growled, his sword out, the blade he’d swiped from the ground still sheathed in his other hand.
It was swimming toward them, lazily. Curious. As it neared, she could make out a snaking body as pale as the stones on the bottom of the lake. She’d never seen anything so huge, so ancient, and—and there was only a thin layer of ice keeping her separated from it.
When Luca started trembling, his tan skin going pale, Celaena surged to her feet, the ice groaning. “Don’t look down,” she said, gripping his elbow. A patch of thicker ice hardened under their feet and spread—a path for the shore. “Go,” she told the boy, giving him a light shove. He started into a swift shuffle-slide. She let him get ahead, giving him time so she could guard his back, and glanced down again.
She swallowed her shout as a scaled, massive head stared up at her. Not a dragon or a wyvern, not a serpent or a fish, but something in between. It was missing an eye, the flesh scarred around the empty socket. What in hell had done that? Was there something worse down there, swimming at the belly of the mountain? Of course—of course she’d be left unarmed in the center of a lake lined with weapons.
“Faster,” Rowan barked. Luca was already halfway to the shore.
Celaena broke into Luca’s same shuffle-slide, not trusting herself to stay upright if she ran. Just as she took her third step, a flash of bone-white snapped up through the depths, twisting like a striking asp.
The long tail whipped against the ice and the world bounced.
She went up, legs buckling as the ice lifted from the blow, and then slammed onto her hands and knees. Celaena shoved down the magic that arose to protect and burn and maim. She scrambled and veered aside as the scaly, horned head hurtled toward the ice near her feet.
The surface jolted. Farther out, but getting closer, the ice was breaking. As if all of Rowan’s concentration was now spent on keeping a thin bridge of ice frozen between her and the shore. “Weapon,” she gasped out, not daring to take her attention off the creature.
“Hurry,” Rowan barked, and Celaena lifted her head long enough to see him slide the blade he’d found across the ice, a brisk wind spinning it toward her. Luca abandoned the blanket, shuffle-running, and Celaena scooped up the golden-hilted sword as she followed him. A ruby the size of a chicken egg was embedded in the hilt, and despite the age of the scabbard, the blade shone when she whipped it free, as if it had been freshly polished. Something clattered from the scabbard onto the ice—a plain golden ring. She grabbed it, shoving it into her pocket, and ran faster, as—
The ice lifted again, the boom of that mighty tail as horrific as the moving surface beneath her. Celaena stayed up this time, sinking onto her haunches as she clutched the sword, part of her marveling at the balance and beauty if it; but Luca, slipping and sliding, went down. She reached him in a few heartbeats, hauling him up by the back of his tunic and gripping him tight as the ice lifted again and again and again.
They got past the drop-off, and she almost groaned with relief at the sight of the pale stone shelf beneath their feet. The ice behind them exploded up, freezing water showering them, and then—
She didn’t stop as those nostrils huffed. Didn’t stop hauling Luca toward Rowan, whose brow gleamed with sweat as massive talons scraped over the ice, gouging four deep lines.
She dragged the boy the last ten yards, then five, then they were on the shore and to Rowan, who let out a shuddering breath. Celaena turned in time to see something out of a nightmare trying to crawl onto the ice, its one red eye wild with hunger, its massive teeth promising a brutal and cold kind of death. As Rowan’s sigh finished sounding, the ice melted, and the creature plunged below.
Back on solid ground, suddenly aware that the ice had also been a barrier, Celaena again grabbed Luca, who was looking ready to vomit, and bolted from the cave. There was nothing keeping that creature from climbing out of the water, and the sword was about as useful as a toothpick against it. Who knew how fast it could move on land?
Luca was chanting a steady stream of prayers to various gods as Celaena yanked him down the rocky path and into the glaring afternoon sun, stumbling near-blind until they hit the murky woods, dodging trees mostly by luck, faster and faster downhill, and then—
A roar that shook the stones and sent the birds scattering into the air, the leaves rustling. But a roar of rage and hunger—not of triumph. As if the creature had reached the edge of the cave and, after millennia in the watery dark, could not withstand the sunshine. She didn’t want to consider, as they kept running from the echoing roar, what might have happened if it had been night. What still might happen at nightfall.
After a while, she sensed Rowan behind them. Yet she cared only for her young charge, who panted and cursed all the way back to the fortress.
When Mistward was in sight, she told Luca only one thing before she sent him ahead: keep his mouth shut about what had happened in the cave. The moment the sounds of him crashing through the brush had faded, she turned.
Rowan was standing there, panting as well, his sword now sheathed. She plunged her new blade into the earth, the ruby in the hilt glowing in a patch of sunlight.
“I will kill you,” she snarled. And launched herself at him.
Even in her Fae form, he still was faster than her, stronger, and dodged her with fluid ease. Slamming face-first into the tree was better than colliding with the stone walls of the fortress, though not by much. Her teeth sang, but she whirled and lunged for Rowan again, now standing so close, his teeth bared. He couldn’t dodge her as she grabbed him by the front of his jacket and connected.
Oh, hitting him in the face felt good, even as her knuckles split and throbbed.
He snarled and threw her to the ground. The air whooshed out of her chest, and the blood trickling out of her nose shot back down her throat. Before he could sit on her, she got her legs around him and shoved with every ounce of that immortal strength. And just like that, he was pinned, his eyes wide with what could only be fury and surprise.
She hit him again, her knuckles barking in agony. “If you ever again bring someone else into this,” she panted, hitting him on his tattoo—on that gods-damned tattoo. “If you ever endanger anyone else the way you did today . . .” The blood on her nose splattered on his face, mingling, she noted with some satisfaction, with blood from the blows she’d given him. “I will kill you.” Another strike, a backhanded blow, and it vaguely occurred to her that he had gone still and was taking it. “I will rip out your rutting throat.” She bared her canines. “You understand?”