Rowan held up a fist, and she halted as he scanned the trees ahead and behind. With expert quietness, he unsheathed one of the blades in his vambraces. The smell hit her a second later—the stench of whatever those creatures were beneath the mortal meat.
“Only one.” He was so quiet she could hardly hear even with her Fae ears.
“That’s not reassuring,” she said with equal softness, drawing her own dagger.
Rowan pointed. “He’s coming dead at us. You head to the right for twenty yards, I’ll go left. When he’s between us, wait for my signal, then strike. No magic—it might attract too much attention if others are nearby. Keep it quick and quiet and fast.”
“Rowan, this thing—”
“Quick and quiet and fast.”
His green eyes flashed, but she held his stare. It fed on me and would have turned me into a husk, she silently said. We could easily meet that fate right now.
You were unprepared, he seemed to say. And I was not with you.
This is insane. I faced one of the defective ones, too, and it almost killed me.
Yes, and wisely so.
But he was right. These were their woods, and they were warriors. This time, it would be different. So she nodded, a soldier accepting orders, and did not bother with farewells before she slipped into the trees. She made her footfalls light, counting the distance, listening to the forest around them, keeping her breathing steady.
She ducked behind a mossy tree and drew her other blade. The smell deepened into a steady reek that made her head pound. As the clouds overhead cleared further, the starlight faintly illuminated the low-lying mist on the loamy earth. Nothing.
She was starting to wonder whether Rowan had been mistaken when the creature appeared between the trees ahead—closer to her than she’d anticipated. Much, much closer.
She felt him first: the smudge of blackness, the silence that enveloped him like an extra cloak. Even the fog seemed to pull away from him.
Beneath his hood, she could only glimpse pale skin and sensual lips. He did not bother with weapons. But it was his nails that made her breath catch. Long, sharp nails that she remembered all too well—how they’d felt when they ripped into her in the library.
Unlike those nails, these were unbroken, the polished black curves gleaming. The skin on his fingers was bone-white and flawless, too smooth to be natural. Indeed, she could have sworn she saw dark, glittering veins, a mockery of the blood that had once flowed there.
Celaena didn’t dare bat an eyelash as the thing turned his hooded head toward her. Rowan still didn’t give the signal. Did he realize how close it was?
A wet trickle of warmth flowed onto her lips from one of her nostrils. She tensed, bracing herself, and wondered how fast he could move and how deeply she would have to slice with her long knives. The sword would be a last resort, as it was more cumbersome. Even if using the knives meant getting in close.
He scanned the trees, and Celaena pressed behind hers. The creature beneath the library had torn through metal doors as if they were curtains. And it knew how to use the Wyrdmarks—
She glanced out in time to see him step toward her tree, the movement deadly elegant and promising a long, painful end. He had not had his mind broken; he still retained the ability to think, to calculate. These things were so good at their work, it seemed that the king had thought only three were necessary here. How many others remained hidden on her continent?
The forest had fallen so still that she could hear a huffing sound. He was scenting her. Her magic flared, and she shoved it down. She didn’t want her magic touching this thing, with or without Rowan’s command. The creature sniffed again—and took another step in her direction. Just like that day at the barrows, the air began to hollow out, pulsing against her ears. Her other nostril began to bleed. Shit.
The thought hit her then, and the world stumbled. What if it had gotten to Rowan first? She dared another glance around the tree.
The creature was gone.
Celaena silently swore, scanning the trees. Where in hell had the creature gone? The rain began again, but the dead scent still clung to everything. She lifted her long dagger to angle it in Rowan’s direction—to signal him to indicate whether he was breathing. He had to be; she would accept no other alternative. The blade was so clean she could see her face in it, see the trees and the sky and—
And the creature now standing behind her.
Celaena pivoted, swiping for its exposed side, one blade angled to sink straight into its ribs, the other slashing for the throat. A move she’d practiced for years and years, as easy as breathing.
But its black, depthless eyes met hers, and Celaena froze. In her body, her mind, her soul. Her magic sputtered and went out.
She scarcely heard the damp thud of her blades hitting the earth. The rain on her face dulled to a distant sensation.
The darkness around them spread, welcoming, embracing. Comforting. The creature pulled back the cowl of its cloak.
The face was young and male—unearthly perfection. Around his neck, a torque of dark stone—Wyrdstone, she vaguely recalled—gleamed in the rain. This was the god of death incarnate. It was not with any mortal man’s expression or voice that he smiled and said, “You.”
She couldn’t look away. There were screams in the darkness—screams she had drowned out for so many years. But now they beckoned.
His smile widened, revealing too-white teeth, and he reached a hand for her throat.
So gentle, those icy fingers, as his thumb brushed her neck, as he tilted her face up to better stare into her eyes. “Your agony tasted like wine,” he murmured, peering into the core of her.
Wind was tearing at her face, her arms, her stomach, roaring her name. But there was eternity and calm in his eyes, a promise of such sweet darkness, and she could not look away. It would be a blessed relief to let go. She need only surrender to the dark, just as he asked. Take it, she wanted to say, tried to say. Take everything.
A flash of silver and steel pierced the inky veil, and another creature—a monster made of fangs and rage and wind—was there, ripping her away. She clawed at him, but he was ice—he was . . . Rowan.
Rowan was hauling her away, shouting her name, but she couldn’t reach him, couldn’t stop that pull toward the other creature.
Teeth pierced the spot between her neck and shoulder, and she jerked, latching on to the pain as if it were a rope yanking her out of that sea of stupor, up, up, until—
Rowan crushed her against him with one arm, sword out, her blood dripping down his chin as he backed away from the creature that lingered by the tree. Pain—that was why the body that morning had been marred. The demi-Fae had tried to use physical pain to break free of these things, to remind the body of what was real and not real.
The creature huffed a laugh. Oh gods. It had placed her in its thrall. That swiftly, that easily. She hadn’t stood a chance, and Rowan wasn’t attacking because—
Because in the dark, with limited weapons against an enemy who did not need blades to kill them, even Rowan was outmatched. A true warrior knew when to walk away from a fight. Rowan breathed, “We have to run.”
There was another low laugh from the creature, who stepped closer. Rowan pulled them farther back. “You can try,” it said in that voice that did not come from her world.
That was all Celaena needed to hear. She flung out her magic.
A wall of flame sprang up as she and Rowan sprinted away, a shield into which she poured every ounce of will and horror and shame, damning the consequences. The creature hissed, but she didn’t know if it was due to the light stinging its eyes or merely frustration.
She didn’t care. It bought them time, a whole minute hurtling uphill through the trees. Then crashing came from behind, that reeking stain of darkness spreading like a web.
Rowan knew the woods, knew how to hide their trail. It bought them more time and distance. The creature stalked them, even as Rowan used his wind to blow their scent away.
Mile after mile they ran, until her breath was like shards of glass in her lungs and even Rowan seemed to be tiring. They weren’t going to the fortress—no, they wouldn’t lead this thing within ten miles of there. Rather, they headed into the Cambrian Mountains, the air growing chilled, the hills steeper. Still the creature followed.
“He won’t stop,” Celaena panted as they hauled themselves up a harrowing incline, almost on all fours. She pushed against the urge to fall to her knees and vomit. “He’s like a hound on a scent.” Her scent. Far below, the thing prowled after them.
Rowan bared his teeth, rain sluicing down his face. “Then I’ll run him down until he drops dead.”
Lightning illuminated a deer path atop the hill. “Rowan,” she panted. “Rowan, I have an idea.”
Celaena wondered if she still had a death wish.
Or perhaps the god of death just liked to play with her too much.
It was another uphill trek to the trees whose bark had been skinned off. And then she made herself a merry fire and burned a torch beside a forgotten road, the light shining through those skinless trees.
Far below, she prayed that Rowan was keeping the creature occupied the way she’d told him to—leading it in circles with the scent on her tunic.
Screee went the whetting stone down her dagger as she perched atop a large rock. Despite her incessant trembling, she hummed as she sharpened, a symphony she’d gone to see performed in Rifthold every year until her enslavement. She controlled her breathing and focused on counting the minutes, wondering how long she could remain before she had to find another way. Screee.
A rotting scent stuffed itself up her nose, and the already quiet forest went still.
Screee. Not her own blade sharpening but another’s, almost in answer to her own.
She sagged in relief and ran the whetting stone down her dagger one more time before standing, willing strength to her knees. She did not allow herself to flinch when she beheld the five of them standing beyond the skinned trees, tall and lean and bearing their wicked tools.
Run, her body screamed, but she held her ground. Lifted her chin and smiled into the dark. “I’m glad you received my invitation.” Not a hint of sound or movement. “Your four friends decided to come uninvited to my last campfire—and it didn’t end well for them. But I’m sure you know that already.”
Another one sharpened his blades, firelight shivering on the jagged metal. “Fae bitch. We’ll take our sweet time with you.”
She sketched a bow, even though her stomach was heaving at the reek of carrion, and waved her torch as if it were a baton at what awaited below. “Oh, I certainly hope you do,” she said.
Before they could surround her, she burst into a sprint.
Celaena knew they were near not because of the crashing brush or the whip of their blades through the air but from the stench that tore gnarled fingers through her senses. Clutching her torch in one hand, she used the other to keep herself aloft as she bounded down the steep road, dodging rocks and brambles and loose stones.
It was a mile down to where she’d told Rowan to lead the creature, a mad flight through the dark. Ankles and knees barking in protest, she leapt and ran, the skinwalkers closing in around her like wolves on a deer.
The key was not to panic—panic made you stupid. Panic got you killed. There was a piercing cry—a hawk’s screech. Rowan was exactly where they’d planned, the king’s creature perhaps a minute behind and slinking through the brush. Right by the creek, where she dumped her torch. Right where the road curved around a boulder.
The ancient road went one way, but she went another. A wind shoved past, going in the direction of the road. She threw herself behind a tree, a hand over her mouth to keep her jagged breaths contained as the wind pushed her scent away.