She knocked his hand away. “You’re needed inside. Leave the barrier to me.”
“You don’t know if it’ll work—”
“It will work,” she snarled. “I’m the expendable one, Rowan.”
“You are heir to the throne of—”
“Right now, I am a woman who has a power that might save lives. Let me do this. Help the others.”
Rowan looked at the ward-stones, at the fortress and the sentries scrambling to help below. Weighing, calculating. At last, Rowan said, “Do not engage them. You focus on that darkness and keeping it away from the barrier, and that’s it. Hold the line, Aelin.”
But she didn’t want to hold the line—not when her enemy was so close. Not when the weight of those souls at Calaculla and Endovier pressed on her, screaming as loudly as the soldiers inside the fortress. She had failed all of them. She had been too late. And it was enough. But she nodded, like the good soldier Rowan believed she was, and said, “Understood.”
“They will attack you the moment you set foot outside the barrier,” he said, releasing her arm. Her magic began to boil in her veins. “Have a shield ready.”
“I know” was her only answer as she neared the barrier and the swirling dark beyond. The curving stones of the gateway loomed, and she drew the sword from her back with her right hand, her left hand enveloped in flame.
Nehemia’s people, butchered. Her own people, butchered. Her people.
Celaena stepped under the archway of stones, magic zinging and kissing her skin. Just a few steps would take her outside the barrier. She could feel Rowan lingering, waiting to see if she would survive the first moments. But she would—she was going to burn these things into ash and dust.
This was the least she owed those murdered in Endovier and Calaculla—the least she could do, after so long. A monster to destroy monsters.
The flames on her left hand burned brighter as Celaena stepped beyond the archway and into the beckoning abyss.
The darkness lashed at Celaena the moment she passed beyond the invisible barrier.
A wall of flame seared across the spear of blackness, and, just as she’d gambled, the blackness recoiled. Only to strike again, swift as an asp.
She met it blow for blow, willing the fire to spread, a wall of red and gold encasing the barrier behind her. She ignored the reek of the creatures, the hollowness of the air at her ears, the overwhelming throbbing in her head, so much worse beyond the protection of the wards, especially now that all three creatures were gathered. But she did not give them one inch, even as blood began trickling from her nose.
The darkness lunged for her, simultaneously assaulting the wall, punching holes through her flame. She patched them by reflex, allowing the power to do as it willed, but with the command to protect—to keep that barrier shielded. She took another step beyond the stone gateway.
Narrok was nowhere to be seen, but the three creatures were waiting for her.
Unlike the other night in the woods, they were armed with long, slender swords that they drew with their unearthly grace. And then they attacked.
She did not look them in the eyes, nor did she acknowledge the bleeding from her nose and the pressure in her ears. She merely called in a shield of fire around her left forearm and begin swinging that ancient sword.
Whether Rowan lingered to see her break his first order, then his next, then his next, she didn’t know.
The three creatures kept coming at her, swift and controlled, as if they’d had eons to practice swordplay, as if they were all of one mind, one body. Where she deflected one, another was there; where she punched one with flame and steel, another was ducking beneath it to grab her. She could not let them touch her, could not let herself meet their gaze.
The shield around the barrier burned hot at her back, the darkness of the creatures stinging and biting at it, but she held firm. She had not lied to Rowan about that—about protecting the wall.
One of them swept its blade at her—not to kill. To incapacitate.
It was second nature, somehow, that flames leapt down her blade as she struck back, willing fire into the sword itself. When it met the black iron of the creature, blue sparks danced, so bright that she dared look into the creature’s face to glimpse—surprise. Horror. Rage.
The hilt of the sword was warm—comforting—in her hand, and the red stone glowed as if with a fire of its own.
The three creatures stopped in unison, their sensual mouths pulling back from their too-white teeth in a snarl. The one in the center, the one who had tasted her before, hissed at the sword, “Goldryn.”
The darkness paused, and she used its distraction to patch her shields, a chill snaking up her spine even as the flames warmed her. She lifted the sword higher and advanced another step.
“But you are not Athril, beloved of the dark queen,” one of them said. Another said, “And you are not Brannon of the Wildfire.”
“How do you—” But the words caught in her throat as a memory struck, from months ago—a lifetime ago. Of a realm that was in-between, of the thing that lived inside Cain speaking. To her, and—Elena. Elena, daughter of Brannon. You were brought back, it said. All the players in the unfinished game.
A game that had begun at the dawn of time, when a demon race had forged the Wyrdkeys and used them to break into this world, and Maeve had used their power to banish them. But some demons had remained trapped in Erilea and waged a second war centuries later, when Elena fought against them. What of the others, who had been sent back to their realm? What if the King of Adarlan, in learning of the keys, had also learned where to find them? Where to . . . harness them?
Oh gods. “You are the Valg,” she breathed.
The three things inside those mortal bodies smiled. “We are princes of our realm.”
“And what realm is that?” She poured her magic into the shield behind her.
The Valg prince in the center seemed to reach toward her without moving an inch. She sent a punch of flame at him, and he curled back. “A realm of eternal dark and ice and wind,” he said. “And we have been waiting a very, very long time to taste your sunshine again.”
The King of Adarlan was either more powerful than she could imagine, or the most foolish man to ever live if he thought he could control these demon princes.
Blood dripped onto her tunic from her nose. Their leader purred, “Once you let me in, girl, there shall be no more blood, or pain.”
She sent another wall of flame searing at them. “Brannon and the others beat you into oblivion once,” she said, though her lungs were burning. “We can do it again.”
Low laughter. “We were not beaten. Only contained. Until a mortal man was foolish enough to invite us back in, to use these glorious bodies.”
Were the men who had once occupied them still inside? If she cut off their heads—that torque of Wyrdstone—would the creatures vanish, or be unleashed in another form?
This was far, far worse than she had expected.
“Yes,” the leader said, taking a step toward her and sniffing. “You should fear us. And embrace us.”
“Embrace this,” she snarled, and flung a hidden dagger from her vambrace at his head.
He was so swift that it scraped his cheek rather than wedging itself between its eyes. Black blood welled and flowed; he raised a moon-white hand to examine it. “I shall enjoy devouring you from the inside out,” he said, and the darkness lunged for her again.
The battle was still raging inside the fortress, which was good, because it meant they hadn’t all died yet. And Celaena was still swinging Goldryn against the three Valg princes—though it grew heavier by the moment, and the shield behind her was beginning to fray. She had not had time to tunnel down into her power, or to consider rationing it.
The darkness that the Valg brought with them continued to strike the wall, so Celaena threw up shield after shield, fire flaming through her blood, her breath, her mind. She gave her magic free rein, only asking it to keep the shield behind her alive. It did so, gobbling up her reserves.
Rowan had not come back to help. But she told herself he would come, and he would help, because it was not weakness to admit she needed him, needed his help and—
Her lower back cramped, and it was all she could do to keep her grip on the legendary blade as the leader of the Valg princes swiped for her neck. No.
A muscle twinged near her spine, twisting until she had to bite down a scream as she deflected the blow. It couldn’t be a burnout. Not so soon, not after practicing so much, not—
A hole tore through the shield behind her, and the darkness slammed into the barrier, making the magic ripple and shriek. She flung a thought toward it, and as the flame patched it up, her blood began to pound.
The princes were closing in again. She growled, sending a wall of white-hot flame at them, pushing them back, back, back while she took a deep breath.
But blood came coughing out instead of air.
If she ran inside the gates, how long would the shield last before it fell to the princes and their ancient darkness? How long would any of those inside last? She didn’t dare look behind to see who was winning. It didn’t sound good. There were no cries of victory, only pain and fear.
Her knees quaked, but she swallowed the blood in her mouth and took another breath.
She had not imagined it would end like this. And maybe it was what she deserved, after turning her back on her kingdom.
One of the Valg princes ripped a hand through the wall of flame separating them, the darkness shielding his flesh from being melted off. She was about to send another blast at him when a movement from the trees caught her eye.
Far up the hill, as if they had come racing down from the mountains and had not stopped for food or water or sleep, were a towering man, a massive bird, and three of the largest predators she had ever seen.
Five in all.
Answering their friend’s desperate call for aid.
They hurtled through the trees and over stones: two wolves, one black and one moon-white; the powerfully built male; the bird swooping low over them; and a familiar mountain cat racing behind. Heading for the darkness looming between them and the fortress.
The black wolf skidded to a halt as they neared the darkness, as if sensing what it could do. The screaming in the fortress rose. If the newcomers could destroy the soldiers, the survivors could take the tunnel and flee before the dark consumed everything.
Sweat stung Celaena’s eyes, and pain sliced into her so deep that she wondered if it was permanent. But she had not lied to Rowan about saving lives.
So she did not stop to doubt or consider as she flung the remnants of her power toward Rowan’s five friends, a bridge of flame through the darkness, cleaving it in two.
A path toward the gates behind her.
To their credit, Rowan’s friends did not hesitate as they raced for it, the wolves leading the way, the bird—an osprey—close behind. She poured her power into the bridge, gritting her teeth against the agony as the five rushed past, not sparing her a glance. But the golden mountain cat slowed as he charged through the gates behind her, as her chest seized and she coughed, her blood bright on the grass.
“He’s inside,” she choked out. “Help him.”
The great cat lingered, assessing her, and the wall, and the princes fighting against her flame. “Go,” she wheezed. The bridge through the darkness collapsed, and she staggered back a step as that black power slammed into her, the shield, the world.
The blood was roaring so loudly in her ears that she could barely hear when the mountain cat raced for the fortress. Rowan’s friends had come. Good. Good that he would not be alone, that he had people in the world.
She coughed blood again, splattering it on the ground—on the legs of the Valg prince.