If her broken face, shattered fingers, lacerations, and burns did not give away what she was, then the bloodred cloak she wore did.
The Crochan witch, her eyes the solid color of freshly tilled earth, looked up at Manon. How those eyes were so bright despite the horrors written on her body, how she didn’t collapse right there or start begging, Manon didn’t know.
“A gift,” said her grandmother, extending an iron-tipped hand toward the Crochan. “Worthy of my granddaughter. End her life and take your new cloak.”
Manon recognized the challenge. Yet she drew her dagger, and Asterin stepped in close, eyes on the Crochan.
For a moment, Manon stared down at the witch, her mortal enemy. The Crochans had cursed them, made them eternal exiles. They deserved to die, each and every one of them.
But it was not her voice that said those things in her head. No, for some reason, it was her grandmother’s.
“At your leisure, Manon,” her grandmother cooed.
Choking, her lips cracked and bleeding, the Crochan witch looked up at Manon and chuckled. “Manon Blackbeak,” she whispered in what might have been a drawl had her teeth not been broken, her throat ringed with bruises. “I know you.”
“Kill the bitch!” a witch shouted from the back of the room.
Manon looked into her enemy’s face and raised her brows.
“You know what we call you?” Blood welled as the Crochan’s lips peeled into a smile. She closed her eyes as if savoring it. “We call you the White Demon. You’re on our list—the list of all you monsters to kill on sight if we ever run into you. And you . . .” She opened her eyes and grinned, defiant, furious. “You are at the top of that list. For all that you have done.”
“It’s an honor,” Manon said to the Crochan, smiling enough to show her teeth.
“Cut out her tongue!” someone else called.
“End her,” Asterin hissed.
Manon flipped the dagger, angling it to sink into the Crochan’s heart.
The witch laughed, but it turned into a cough that had her heaving until blue blood splattered on the floor, until tears were leaking from her eyes and Manon caught a glimpse of the deep, infected wounds on her chest. When she lifted her head, blood staining the corners of her mouth, she smiled again. “Look all you want. Look at what they did to me, your sisters. How it must pain them to know they couldn’t break me in the end.”
Manon stared down at her, at her ruined body.
“Do you know what this is, Manon Blackbeak?” the Crochan said. “Because I do. I heard them say what you did during your Games.”
Manon wasn’t sure why she was letting the witch talk, but she couldn’t have moved if she wanted to.
“This,” the Crochan said for all to hear, “is a reminder. My death—my murder at your hands, is a reminder. Not to them,” she breathed, pinning Manon with that soil-brown stare. “But to you. A reminder of what they made you to be. They made you this way.
“You want to know the grand Crochan secret?” she went on. “Our great truth that we keep from you, that we guard with our lives? It is not where we hide, or how to break your curse. You have known all this time how to break it—you have known for five hundred years that your salvation lies in your hands alone. No, our great secret is that we pity you.”
No one was speaking now.
But the Crochan did not break Manon’s stare, and Manon did not lower her dagger.
“We pity you, each and every one of you. For what you do to your children. They are not born evil. But you force them to kill and hurt and hate until there is nothing left inside of them—of you. That is why you are here tonight, Manon. Because of the threat you pose to that monster you call grandmother. The threat you posed when you chose mercy and saved your rival’s life.” She gasped for breath, tears flowing unabashedly as she bared her teeth. “They have made you into monsters. Made, Manon. And we feel sorry for you.”
“Enough,” the Matron said from behind. But the whole room was silent, and Manon slowly raised her eyes to her grandmother’s.
In them, Manon beheld a promise of the violence and pain that would come if she disobeyed. Beyond that, there gleamed nothing but satisfaction. As if the Crochan had spoken true, but only the Blackbeak Matron knew she had done so.
The Crochan’s eyes were still bright with a courage Manon could not comprehend.
“Do it,” the Crochan whispered. Manon wondered if anyone else understood that it was not a challenge, but a plea.
Manon angled her dagger again, flipping it in her palm. She did not look at the Crochan, or her grandmother, or anyone as she gripped the witch by the hair and yanked back her head.
And then spilled her throat on the floor.
Legs dangling off a cliff edge, Manon sat on a plateau atop a peak in the Ruhnns, Abraxos sprawled at her side, smelling the night-blooming flowers on the spring meadow.
She’d had no choice but to take the Crochan’s cloak, to dump her old one atop the body once it fell, once the witches gathered around to rip her apart.
They have made you into monsters.
Manon looked at her wyvern, the tip of his tail waving like a cat’s. No one had noticed when she left the celebration. Even Asterin was drunk on the Crochan’s blood, and had lost sight of Manon slipping through the crowd. She told Sorrel, though, that she was going to see Abraxos. And her Third, somehow, had let her go alone.
They’d flown until the moon was high and she could no longer hear the shrieks and cackles of the witches in the Omega. Together they sat on the last of the Ruhnns, and she gazed across the endless flat expanse between the peaks and the western sea. Somewhere out there, beyond the horizon, was a home that she had never known.
Crochans were liars and insufferably preachy. The witch had probably enjoyed giving her little speech—making some grand last stand. We feel sorry for you.
Manon rubbed at her eyes and braced her elbows on her knees, peering into the drop below.
She would have dismissed her, wouldn’t have thought twice about it, if it hadn’t been for that look in Keelie’s eyes as she fell, fighting with every last scrap of strength to save her Petrah. Or for Abraxos’s wing, sheltering Manon against icy rain.
The wyverns were meant to kill and maim and strike terror into the hearts of their enemies. And yet . . .
And yet. Manon looked toward the star-flecked horizon, leaning her face into a warm spring breeze, grateful for the steady, solid companion lounging behind her. A strange feeling, that gratitude for his existence.
Then there was that other strange feeling that pushed and pulled at her, making her replay the scene in the mess hall again and again.
She had never known regret—not true regret, anyway.
But she regretted not knowing the Crochan’s name. She regretted not knowing who the new cloak on her shoulders had belonged to—where she had come from, how she had lived.
Somehow, even though her long life had been gone for ten years . . .
Somehow, that regret made her feel incredibly, heavily mortal.
Aedion let out a low whistle and offered Chaol the bottle of wine between them on the rooftop of Celaena’s apartment. Chaol, not feeling at all like drinking, shook his head.
“I wish I had been there to see it.” He gave Chaol a wolfish smile. “I’m surprised you’re not condemning me for saying that.”
“Whatever creatures the king sent with Narrok, I do not think they were innocent men,” Chaol said. “Or really men at all anymore.”
She had done it—had made such a statement that even days later, Aedion was still celebrating. Quietly, of course.
Chaol had come here tonight planning to tell Aedion and Ren what he knew of the spell the king had used and how they might destroy it. But he hadn’t yet. He still wondered what Aedion would do with that knowledge. Especially once Chaol left for Anielle in three days.
“When she gets home, you need to lie low in Anielle,” Aedion said, swigging from the bottle. “Once it comes out who she was all these years.”
And it would, Chaol knew. He was already preparing to get Dorian and Sorscha out of the castle. Even if they had done nothing wrong, they had been her friends. If the king knew that Celaena was Aelin, it could be just as deadly as if he discovered that Dorian had magic. When she came home, everything would change.
Yes, Aelin would come home. But not to Chaol. She would come home to Terrasen, to Aedion and Ren and the court that was regathering in her name. She would come home to war and bloodshed and responsibility. Part of him still could not fathom what she’d done to Narrok, the battle cry she’d issued from across the sea. He could not accept that part of her, so bloodthirsty and unyielding. Even as Celaena, it had been hard to swallow at times, and he had tried to look past it, but as Aelin . . . He’d known, since the moment he figured out who she was, that while Celaena would always pick him, Aelin would not.
And it would not be Celaena Sardothien who returned to this continent. It would take time, he knew—for it to stop hurting, to let go. But the pain wouldn’t last forever.
“Is there . . .” Aedion clenched his jaw as if debating saying the rest. “Is there anything you want me to tell her, or give her?” At any moment, any time, Aedion might have to flee to Terrasen and to his queen.
The Eye of Elena was warm at his neck, and Chaol almost reached for it. But he couldn’t bring himself to send her that message, or to let go of her that completely—not yet. Just as he couldn’t bring himself to tell Aedion about the clock tower.
“Tell her,” Chaol said quietly, “that I had nothing to do with you. Tell her you barely spoke to me. Or Dorian. Tell her I am fine in Anielle, and that we are all safe.”
Aedion was quiet long enough that Chaol got up to leave. But then the general said, “What would you have given—just to see her again?”
Chaol couldn’t turn around as he said, “It doesn’t matter now.”
Sorscha rested her head on the soft spot between Dorian’s shoulder and chest, breathing in the smell of him. He was already sleeping deeply. Almost—they had almost taken things over the edge tonight, but she had again hesitated, again let that stupid doubt creep in when he asked her if she was ready, and though she wanted to say yes, she had said no.
She lay awake, stomach tight and mind racing. There was so much she wanted to do and see with him. But she could feel the world shifting—the wind changing. Aelin Galathynius was alive. And even if Sorscha gave everything to Dorian, the upcoming weeks and months would be trying enough for him without having to worry about her.
If the captain and the prince decided to act on their knowledge, if magic was freed . . . it would be chaos. People might go as mad from its sudden return as they’d gone from its departure. She didn’t want to think what the king would do.
Yet no matter what happened tomorrow, or next week, or next year, she was grateful. Grateful to the gods, to fate, to herself for being brave enough to kiss him that night. Grateful for this little bit of time she’d been given with him.
She still thought about what the captain had said all those weeks ago—about being queen.
But Dorian needed a true queen if he was to survive this. Someday, perhaps, she’d have to face the choice of letting him go for the greater good. She was still quiet, and small. If she could hardly stand up to Amithy, how could she ever be expected to fight for her country?
No, she could not be queen, for there were limits to her bravery, and to what she could offer.
But for now . . . for now, she could be selfish for a little longer.
For two days, Chaol continued to plan an escape for Dorian and Sorscha, Aedion working with him. They hadn’t objected when he’d explained—and there had even been a hint of relief in the prince’s eyes. They would all go tomorrow, when Chaol left for Anielle. It was the perfect excuse to get them out of the castle: they wanted to accompany their friend for a day or two before bidding him farewell. He knew Dorian would try to return to Rifthold, that he’d have to fight him on it, but at least they could both agree that Sorscha was to get out. Some of Aedion’s own belongings were already at the apartment, where Ren continued to gather resources for them all.