A sword whined as it was drawn from its sheath, and the ground reverberated with the pounding hooves of the horse. Closer, closer it came.
A sacrifice—it had been a sacrifice, and now it would be in vain.
More than death, that was what she hated most—the wasted sacrifice of Lady Marion. She clawed at the ground and yanked at the roots, and then—
Tiny eyes in the dark, small fingers at the roots, heaving them up, up. Her foot slipped free and she was up again, unable to thank the Little Folk who had already vanished, unable to do anything but run, limping now. The man was so close, the bracken cracking behind, but she knew the way. She had come through here so many times that the darkness was no obstacle.
She only had to make it to the bridge. His horse could not pass, and she was fast enough to outrun him. The Little Folk might help her again. She only had to make it to the bridge.
A break in the trees—and the river’s roar grew overpowering. She was so close now. She felt and heard, rather than saw, his horse break through the trees behind her, the whoosh of his sword as he lifted it, preparing to cleave her head right there.
There were the twin posts, faint on the moonless night. The bridge. She had made it, and now she had only yards, now a few feet, now—
The breath of his horse was hot on her neck as she flung herself between the two posts of the bridge, making a leap onto the wood planks.
Making a leap onto thin air.
She had not missed it—no, those were the posts and—
He had cut the bridge.
It was her only thought as she plummeted, so fast she had no time to scream before she hit the icy water and was pulled under.
That moment Lady Marion had chosen a desperate hope for her kingdom over herself, over her husband and the daughter who would wait and wait for a return that would never come.
That was the moment that had broken everything Aelin Galathynius was and had promised to be.
Celaena was lying on the ground—on the bottom of the world, on the bottom of hell.
That was the moment she could not face—had not faced.
For even then, she had known the enormity of that sacrifice.
There was more, after the moment she’d hit the water. But those memories were hazy, a mix of ice and black water and strange light, and then she knew nothing more until Arobynn was crouched over her on the reedy riverbank, somewhere far away. She awoke in a strange bed in a cold keep, the Amulet of Orynth lost to the river. Whatever magic it had, whatever protection, had been used up that night.
Then the process of taking her fear and guilt and despair and twisting them into something new. Then the hate—the hate that had rebuilt her, the rage that had fueled her, smothering the memories she buried in a grave within her heart and never let out.
She had taken Lady Marion’s sacrifice and become a monster, almost as bad as the one who had murdered Lady Marion and her own family.
That was why she could not, did not, go home.
She had never looked for the death tolls in those initial weeks of slaughter, or the years afterward. But she knew Lord Lochan had been executed. Quinn and his men. And so many of those children . . . such bright lights, all hers to protect. And she had failed.
Celaena clung to the ground.
It was what she had not been able to tell Chaol, or Dorian, or Elena: that when Nehemia arranged for her own death so it would spur her into action, that sacrifice . . . that worthless sacrifice . . .
She could not let go of the ground. There was nothing beneath it, nowhere else to go, nowhere to outrun this truth.
She didn’t know how long she lay on the bottom of wherever this was, but eventually the Valg princes started up again, barely more than shadows of thought and malice as they stalked from memory to memory as if sampling platters at a feast. Little bites—sips. They did not even look her way, for they had won. And she was glad of it. Let them do what they wanted, let Narrok carry her back to Adarlan and throw her at the king’s feet.
There was a scrape and crunch of shoes, then a small, smooth hand slid toward her. But it was not Chaol or Sam or Nehemia who lay across from her, watching her with those sad turquoise eyes.
Her cheek against the moss, the young princess she had been—Aelin Galathynius—reached a hand for her. “Get up,” she said softly.
Celaena shook her head.
Aelin strained for her, bridging that rift in the foundation of the world. “Get up.” A promise—a promise for a better life, a better world.
The Valg princes paused.
She had wasted her life, wasted Marion’s sacrifice. Those slaves had been butchered because she had failed—because she had not been there in time.
“Get up,” someone said beyond the young princess. Sam. Sam, standing just beyond where she could see, smiling faintly.
“Get up,” said another voice—a woman’s. Nehemia.
“Get up.” Two voices together—her mother and father, faces grave but eyes bright. Her uncle was beside them, the crown of Terrasen on his silver hair. “Get up,” he told her gently.
One by one, like shadows emerging from the mist, they appeared. The faces of the people she had loved with her heart of wildfire.
And then there was Lady Marion, smiling beside her husband. “Get up,” she whispered, her voice full of that hope for the world, and for the daughter she would never seen again.
A tremor in the darkness.
Aelin still lay before her, hand still reaching. The Valg princes turned.
As the demon princes moved, her mother stepped toward her, face and hair and build so like her own. “You are a disappointment,” she hissed.
Her father crossed his muscular arms. “You are everything I hated about the world.”
Her uncle, still wearing the antler crown long since burned to ash: “Better that you had died with us than shame us, degrade our memory, betray our people.”
Their voices swirled together. “Traitor. Murderer. Liar. Thief. Coward.” Again and again, worming in just as the King of Adarlan’s power had wriggled in her mind like a maggot.
The king hadn’t done it merely to cause a disruption and hurt her. He had also done it to separate her family, to get them out of the castle—to take the blame away from Adarlan and make it look like an outside attack.
She had blamed herself for dragging them to the manor house to be butchered. But the king had planned it all, every minute detail. Except for the mistake of leaving her alive—perhaps because the power of the amulet did indeed save her.
“Come with us,” her family whispered. “Come with us into the ageless dark.”
They reached for her, faces shadowed and twisted. Yet—yet even those faces, so warped with hatred . . . she still loved them—even if they loathed her, even if it ached; loved them until their hissing faded, until they vanished like smoke, leaving only Aelin lying beside her, as she had been all along.
She looked at Aelin’s face—the face she’d once worn—and at her still outstretched hand, so small and unscarred. The darkness of the Valg princes flickered.
There was solid ground beneath her. Moss and grass. Not hell—earth. The earth on which her kingdom lay, green and mountainous and as unyielding as its people. Her people.
Her people, waiting for ten years, but no longer.
She could see the snow-capped Staghorns, the wild tangle of Oakwald at their feet, and . . . and Orynth, that city of light and learning, once a pillar of strength—and her home.
It would be both again.
She would not let that light go out.
She would fill the world with it, with her light—her gift. She would light up the darkness, so brightly that all who were lost or wounded or broken would find their way to it, a beacon for those who still dwelled in that abyss. It would not take a monster to destroy a monster—but light, light to drive out darkness.
She was not afraid.
She would remake the world—remake it for them, those she had loved with this glorious, burning heart; a world so brilliant and prosperous that when she saw them again in the Afterworld, she would not be ashamed. She would build it for her people, who had survived this long, and whom she would not abandon. She would make for them a kingdom such as there had never been, even if it took until her last breath.
She was their queen, and she could offer them nothing less.
Aelin Galathynius smiled at her, hand still outreached. “Get up,” the princess said.
Celaena reached across the earth between them and brushed her fingers against Aelin’s.
The barrier fell.
But the darkness did not advance over the ward-stones, and Rowan, who had been restrained by Gavriel and Lorcan in the grass outside the fortress, knew why.
The creatures and Narrok had captured a prize far greater than the demi-Fae. The joy of feeding on her was something they planned to relish for a long, long while. Everything else was secondary—as if they’d forgotten to continue advancing, swept up in the frenzy of feasting.
Behind them, the fighting continued, as it had for the past twenty minutes. Wind and ice were of no use against the darkness, though Rowan had hurled both against it the moment the barrier fell. Again and again, anything to pierce that eternal black and see what was left of the princess. Even as he started hearing a soft, warm female voice, beckoning to him from the darkness—that voice he had spent centuries forgetting, which now tore him to shreds.
“Rowan,” Gavriel murmured, tightening his grip on Rowan’s arm. Rain had begun pouring. “We are needed inside.”
“No,” he snarled. He knew Aelin was alive, because during all these weeks that they had been breathing each other’s scents, they had become bonded. She was alive, but could be in any level of torment or decay. That was why Gavriel and Lorcan were holding him back. If they didn’t, he would run for the darkness, where Lyria beckoned.
But for Aelin, he had tried to break free.
“Rowan, the others—”
Lorcan swore over the roar of the torrential rain. “She is dead, you fool, or close enough to it. You can still save other lives.”
They began hauling him to his feet, away from her. “If you don’t let me go, I’ll rip your head from your body,” he snarled at Lorcan, the commander who had offered him a company of warriors when he had nothing and no one left.
Gavriel flicked his eyes to Lorcan in some silent conversation. Rowan tensed, preparing to fling them off. They would knock him unconscious sooner than allow him into that dark, where Lyria’s beckoning had now turned to screaming for mercy. It wasn’t real. It wasn’t real.
But Aelin was real, and was being drained of life with every moment they held him here. All he needed to get them unconscious was for Gavriel to drop his magical shield—which he’d had up against Rowan’s own power from the moment he’d pinned him. He had to get into that dark, had to find her. “Let go,” he growled again.
A rumbling shook the earth, and they froze. Beneath them some huge power was surging—a behemoth rising from the deep.
They turned toward the darkness. And Rowan could have sworn that a golden light arced through it, then disappeared.
“That’s impossible,” Gavriel breathed. “She burned out.”
Rowan didn’t dare blink. Her burnouts had always been self-imposed, some inner barrier composed of fear and a lingering desire for normalcy that kept her from accepting the true depth of her power.
The creatures fed on despair and pain and terror. But what if—what if the victim let go of those fears? What if the victim walked through them—embraced them?
As if in answer, flame erupted from the wall of darkness.