She barely moved before he slammed her into her own flames, and she hit the magical wall beneath, as hard and unforgiving as if it were made of stone. The only way into the fortress was through the ward-gates. She swiped with Goldryn, but the blow was feeble. Against the Valg, against this horrible power that the King of Adarlan possessed, the army at his disposal . . . it was all useless. As useless as the vow she’d made to Nehemia’s grave. As useless as an heir to a broken throne and a broken name.
The magic was boiling her blood. The darkness—it would be a relief compared to the hell smoldering in her veins. The Valg prince advanced, and part of her was screaming—screaming at herself to get up, to keep fighting, to rage and roar against this horrible end. But moving her limbs, even breathing, had become a monumental effort.
She was so tired.
The fortress was a hell of yelling and fighting and gore, but Rowan kept swinging his blades, holding his position at the tunnel mouth as soldier after soldier poured in. The scout leader, Bas, had let them in, Luca had told Rowan. The other demi-Fae who had conspired with Bas wanted the power the creatures offered—wanted a place in the world. From the devastation in the bleeding boy’s eyes, Rowan knew that Bas had already met his end. He hoped Luca hadn’t been the one to do it.
The soldiers kept coming, highly trained men who were not afraid of the demi-Fae, or of the little magic that they bore. They were armed with iron and did not differentiate between young and old, male and female, as they hacked and slaughtered.
Rowan was not drained, not in the least. He had fought for longer and in worse conditions. But the others were flagging, especially as soldiers continued flooding the fortress. Rowan yanked his sword from the gut of a falling soldier, dagger already slicing across the neck of the next, when growling shook the stones of the fortress. Some of the demi-Fae froze, but Rowan nearly shuddered with relief as twin wolves leapt down the staircase and closed their jaws around the necks of two Adarlanian soldiers.
Great wings flapped, and then a glowering, dark-eyed male was in front of him, swinging a sword older than the occupants of Mistward. Vaughan merely nodded at him before taking up a position, never one to waste words.
Beyond him, the wolves were nothing short of lethal, and did not bother to shift into their Fae forms as they took down soldier after soldier, leaving those that got through to the male waiting behind them. That was all Rowan had to see before he sprinted for the stairs, dodging the stunned and bloodied demi-Fae.
Darkness had not fallen, which meant she had to still be breathing, she had to still be holding the line, but—
A mountain cat skidded to a halt on the stairwell landing and shifted. Rowan took one look at Gavriel’s tawny eyes and said, “Where is she?”
Gavriel held out an arm. As if to stop him. “She’s in bad shape, Rowan. I think—”
Rowan ran, shoving aside his oldest friend, shouldering past the other towering male who now appeared—Lorcan. Even Lorcan had answered his call. The time for gratitude would come later, and the dark-haired demi-Fae didn’t say anything as Rowan rushed to the battlement gates. What he saw beyond almost drove him to his knees.
The wall of flame was in tatters, but still protecting the barrier. But the three creatures . . .
Aelin was standing in front of them, hunched and panting, sword limp in her hand. They advanced, and a feeble blue flame sprang up before them. They swiped it away with wave of their hands. Another flame sprang up, and her knees buckled.
The shield of flame surged and receded, pulsing like the light around her body. She was burning out. Why hadn’t she retreated?
Another step closer and the things said something that had her raising her head. Rowan knew he could not reach her, didn’t even have the breath to shout a warning as Aelin gazed into the face of the creature before her.
She had lied to him. She had wanted to save lives, yes. But she had gone out there with no intention of saving her own.
He drew in a breath—to run, to roar, to summon his power, but a wall of muscle slammed into him from behind, tackling him to the grass. Though Rowan shoved and twisted against Gavriel, he could do nothing against the four centuries of training and feline instinct that had pinned him, keeping him from running through those gates and into the blackness that destroyed worlds.
The creature took Aelin’s face in its hands, and her sword thudded to the ground, forgotten.
Rowan was screaming as the creature pulled her into its arms. As she stopped fighting. As her flames winked out and darkness swallowed her whole.
There was blood everywhere.
As before, Celaena stood between the two bloody beds, reeking breath caressing her ear, her neck, her spine. She could feel the Valg princes roving around her, circling with predators’ gaits, devouring her misery and pain bit by bit, tasting and savoring.
There was no way out, and she could not move as she looked from one bed to the other.
Nehemia’s corpse, mangled and mutilated. Because she had been too late, and because she had been a coward.
And her parents, throats slit from ear to ear, gray and lifeless. Dead from an attack they should have sensed. An attack she should have sensed. Maybe she had sensed it, and that was why she had crept in that night. But she had been too late then as well.
Two beds. Two fractures in her soul, cracks through which the abyss had come pouring in long before the Valg princes had ever seized her. A claw scraped along her neck and she jerked away, stumbling toward her parents’ corpses.
The moment that darkness had swept around her, snuffing out her exhausted flame, it began eating away at the reckless rage that had compelled her to step out of the barrier. Here in the dark, the silence was complete—eternal. She could feel the Valg slinking around her, hungry and eager and full of cold, ancient malice. She’d expected to have the life sucked from her instantly, but they had just stayed close in the dark, brushing up against her like cats, until a faint light had formed and she’d found herself between these two beds. She was unable to look away, unable to do anything but feel her nausea and panic rise bit by bit. And now . . . Now . . .
Though her body remained unmoving on the bed, Nehemia’s voice whispered, Coward.
Celaena vomited. A faint, hoarse laugh sounded behind her.
She backed up, farther and farther from the bed where Nehemia lay. Then she was standing in a sea of red—red and white and gray, and—
She now stood like a wraith in her parents’ bed, where she had lain ten years ago, awakening between their corpses to the servant woman’s screaming. It was those screams she could hear now, high and endless, and—Coward.
Celaena fell against the headboard, as real and smooth and cold as she remembered it. There was nowhere else for her to go. It was a memory—these were not real things.
She pressed her palms against the wood, fighting her building scream. Coward. Nehemia’s voice again filled the room. Celaena squeezed her eyes shut and said into the wall, “I know. I know.”
She did not fight as cold, claw-tipped fingers stroked at her cheeks, at her brow, at her shoulders. One of the claws severed clean through her long braid as it whipped her around. She did not fight as darkness swallowed her whole and dragged her down deep.
The darkness had no end and no beginning.
It was the abyss that had haunted her steps for ten years, and she free-fell into it, welcomed it.
There was no sound, only the vague sense of going toward a bottom that might not exist, or that might mean her true end. Maybe the Valg princes had devoured her, turning her into a husk. Maybe her soul was forever trapped here, in this plunging darkness.
Perhaps this was hell.
The blackness was rippling now, shifting with sound and color that she passed through. She lived through each image, each memory worse than the next. Chaol’s face as he saw what she truly was; Nehemia’s mutilated body; her final conversation with her friend, the damning things she’d said. When your people are lying dead around you, don’t come crying to me.
It had come true—now thousands of slaves from Eyllwe had been slaughtered for their bravery.
She tumbled through a maelstrom of the moments when she had proved her friend right. She was a waste of space and breath, a stain on the world. Unworthy of her birthright.
This was hell—and looked like hell, as she saw the bloodbath she’d created on the day she rampaged through Endovier. The screams of the dying—the men she’d cut apart—tore at her like phantom hands.
This was what she deserved.
She went mad during that first day in Endovier.
Went mad as the descent slowed and she was stripped and strapped between two blood-splattered posts. The cold air nipped at her bare br**sts, a bite that was nothing compared to the terror and agony as a whip cracked and—
She jerked against the ropes binding her. She scarcely had time to draw in a breath before the crack sounded again, cleaving the world like lightning, cleaving her skin.
“Coward,” Nehemia said behind her, and the whip cracked. “Coward.” The pain was blinding. “Look at me.” She couldn’t lift her head, though. Couldn’t turn. “Look at me.”
She sagged against her ropes, but managed to look over her shoulder.
Nehemia was whole, beautiful and untouched, her eyes full of damning hatred. And then from behind her emerged Sam, handsome and tall. His death had been so similar to Nehemia’s, and yet so much worse, drawn out over hours. She had not saved him, either. When she beheld the iron-tipped whip in his hands, when he stepped past Nehemia and let the whip unfurl onto the rocky earth, Celaena let out a low, quiet laugh.
She welcomed the pain with open arms as he took a deep breath, clothes shifting with the movement as he snapped the whip. The iron tip—oh gods, it ripped her clean open, knocked her legs out from underneath her.
“Again,” Celaena told him, the word little more than a rasp. “Again.”
Sam obeyed. There was only the thud of leather on wet flesh as Sam and Nehemia took turns, and a line of people formed behind them, waiting for what they deserved as payment for what she had failed to do.
Such a long line of people. So many lives that she had taken or failed to protect.
She had not walked past the barrier expecting to defeat the Valg princes.
She had walked out there for the same reason she had snapped that day in Endovier.
But the Valg princes had not killed her yet.
She had felt their pleasure as she begged for the whipping. It was their sustenance. Her mortal flesh was nothing to them—it was the agony within that was the prize. They would draw this out forever, keep her as their pet.
There was no one to save her, no one who could enter their darkness and live.
One by one, they groped through her memories. She fed them, gave them everything they wanted and more. Back and back, sorting through the years as they plunged into the dark, twining together. She did not care.
She had not looked into the Valg prince’s eyes expecting to ever again see sunrise.
She did not know how long she fell with them.
But then there was a rushing, roaring below—a frozen river. Whispers and foggy light were rising to meet them. No, not rising—this was the bottom.
An end to the abyss. And an end to her, perhaps, at last.
She didn’t know if the Valg princes’ hissing was from anger or pleasure as they slammed into that frozen river at the bottom of her soul.
Trumpets announced his arrival. Trumpets and silence as the people of Orynth crowded the steep streets winding up to the white palace that watched over them all. It was the first sunny day in weeks—the snow on the cobblestone streets melting quickly, though the wind still had a final bite of winter to it, enough so that the King of Adarlan and his entire massive party were bundled in furs that covered their regalia.