The king looked at his son for a long moment. He looked at the captain and Aedion, so quiet and so tall—beacons of hope for their future.
Then he looked again at his son, on his knees before the throne, on his knees for her, and said, “No.”
Chaol thought he had not heard it, the word that cleaved through the air just before the guard’s sword did.
One blow from that mighty sword.
That was all it took to sever Sorscha’s head.
The scream that erupted out of Dorian was the worst sound that Chaol had ever heard.
Worse even than the wet, heavy thud of her head hitting the red marble.
Aedion began roaring—roaring and cursing at the king, thrashing against his chains, but the guards hauled him away, and Chaol was too stunned to do anything other than watch the rest of Sorscha’s body topple to the ground. And then Dorian, still screaming, was scrambling through the blood toward it—toward her head, as if he could put it back.
As if he could piece her together.
Chaol hadn’t been able to move a muscle from the moment the guard cut off Sorscha’s head to the moment Dorian, still kneeling in a pool of her blood, stopped screaming.
“That is what awaits traitors,” the king said to the silent room.
And Chaol looked at the king, at his shattered friend, and drew his sword.
The king rolled his eyes. “Put away your sword, Captain. I’ve no interest in your noble antics. You’re to go home to your father tomorrow. Don’t leave this castle in disgrace.”
Chaol kept his sword drawn. “I will not go to Anielle,” he growled. “And I will not serve you a moment longer. There is one true king in this room—there always has been. And he is not sitting on that throne.”
But Chaol went on. “There is a queen in the north, and she has already beaten you once. She will beat you again. And again. Because what she represents, and what your son represents, is what you fear most: hope. You cannot steal it, no matter how many you rip from their homes and enslave. And you cannot break it, no matter how many you murder.”
The king shrugged. “Perhaps. But maybe I can start with you.” He flicked his fingers at the guards. “Kill him, too.”
Chaol whirled to the guards behind him and crouched, ready to fight a path out for himself and Dorian.
Then a crossbow snapped and he realized there had been others in the room—hidden behind impossibly thick shadows.
He had only enough time to twist—to see the bolt firing for him with deadly accuracy.
Only enough time to see Dorian’s eyes widen, and the whole room plunge into ice.
The arrow froze midflight and dropped to the floor, shattering into a hundred pieces.
Chaol stared at Dorian in mute horror as his friend’s eyes glowed a deep, raging blue, and the prince snarled at the king, “Don’t you touch him.”
The ice spread across the room, up the legs of the shocked guards, freezing over Sorscha’s blood, and Dorian got to his feet. He raised both hands, and light shimmered along his fingers, a cold breeze whipping through his hair.
“I knew you had it, boy—” the king started, standing, but Dorian threw out a hand and the king was blasted into his chair by a gust of frozen wind, the window behind him shattering. Wind roared into the room, drowning out all sound.
All sound except Dorian’s words as he turned to Chaol, his hands and clothes soaked with Sorscha’s blood. “Run. And when you come back . . .” The king was getting to his feet, but another wave of Dorian’s magic slammed into him, knocking him down. There were tears staining Dorian’s bloody cheeks now. “When you come back,” the prince said, “burn this place to the ground.”
A wall of crackling black hurtled toward them from behind the throne.
“Go,” Dorian ordered, turning toward the onslaught of his father’s power.
Light exploded from Dorian, blocking out the wave, and the entire castle shook.
People screamed, and Chaol’s knees buckled. For a moment, he debated making a stand with his friend, right there and then.
But he knew that this had been the other trap. One for Aedion and Aelin, one for Sorscha. And this one—this one to draw out Dorian’s power.
Dorian had known it, too. Known it, and still walked into it so Chaol could escape—to find Aelin and tell her what had happened here today. Someone had to get out. Someone had to survive.
He looked at his friend, perhaps for the last time, and said what he had always known, from the moment they’d met, when he’d understood that the prince was his brother in soul. “I love you.”
Dorian merely nodded, eyes still blazing, and lifted his hands again toward his father. Brother. Friend. King.
As another wave of the king’s power filled the room, Chaol shoved through the still-frozen guards and fled.
Aedion knew everything had gone to hell as the castle shuddered. But he was already on his way to the dungeons, bound from head to toe.
It had been such an easy choice to make. When the captain had been about to take the fall for both of them, he’d thought only of Aelin, what it would do to her if her friend died. Even if he never got to see her, it was still better than having to face her when he explained that the captain was dead.
From the sound of it, it seemed the prince was providing a distraction so the captain could flee—and because there was no way in hell the prince would let his father go unpunished for that woman’s death. So Aedion Ashryver let himself be led into the darkness.
He did not bother with prayers, for himself or for the captain. The gods had not helped him these past ten years, and they would not save him now.
He did not mind dying.
Though he still wished he’d gotten a chance to see her—just once.
Dorian slammed into the marble floor, where the puddle of Sorscha’s blood had now melted.
Even as his father sent a wave of blinding, burning black power crashing onto him, filling his mouth and his veins; even as he screamed, all he could see was that moment—when the sword cut through flesh and tendon and bone. He could still see her wide eyes, her hair glimmering in the light as it, too, was severed.
He should have saved her. It had been so sudden.
But when the arrow had fired at Chaol . . . that was the death he could not endure. Chaol had drawn his line—and Dorian was on his side of it. Chaol had called him his king.
So revealing his power to his father did not frighten him.
No, to save his friend, dying did not scare him one bit.
The blast of power receded, and Dorian was left panting on the stones. He had nothing left.
Chaol had gotten away. It was enough.
He reached out an arm toward where Sorscha’s body lay. His arm burned—maybe it was broken, or maybe it was his father’s power still branding him—but he reached for her nonetheless.
By the time his father stood over him, he’d managed to move his hand a few inches.
“Do it,” Dorian rasped. He was choking—on blood and the gods knew what.
“Oh, I don’t think so,” his father said, digging a knee into his chest. “It won’t be death for you, my gifted son.”
There was something dark and gleaming in his father’s hands.
Dorian fought like hell against the guards now pinning his arms, trying to drag up any ounce of power as his father brought the collar of Wyrdstone toward his neck.
A collar, like the ones worn by those things Chaol had said were in the Dead Islands.
He was screaming it—screaming it because he’d seen that creature in the catacombs, and heard what was being done to Roland and Kaltain. He had seen what a mere ring could do. This was an entire collar, with no visible keyhole . . .
“Hold him still,” his father barked, digging his knee in deeper.
The breath was sucked from his chest, and his ribs groaned in agony. But there was nothing Dorian could do to stop it.
He wrenched his arm from one of the guards—wrenched it free and reached, bellowing.
He had just touched Sorscha’s limp hand when cool stone gripped his throat, there was a faint click and hiss, and the darkness swept in to tear him apart.
Chaol ran. He did not have the time to take anything except what he had on him as he sprinted like hell for Dorian’s rooms. Fleetfoot was waiting, as she had been all night, and he scooped her over a shoulder and hauled her to Celaena’s room and into the secret passage. Down and down they went, the dog unusually obedient.
Three blasts shook the castle, shaking dust from the stones above. He kept running, knowing each blast meant Dorian was alive a bit longer, and dreading the silence to come.
Hope—that was what he carried with him. The hope of a better world that Aedion and Sorscha and Dorian had sacrificed themselves for.
He made one stop, with Fleetfoot still gripped over his shoulder.
With a silent prayer to the gods for their forgiveness, Chaol hurtled into the tomb to grab Damaris, shoving the sacred blade through his belt and stuffing a few handfuls of gold into his cloak pockets. And though the skull-shaped knocker didn’t move, he told Mort precisely where he would be. “Just in case she comes back. In case . . . in case she doesn’t know.”
Mort remained stationary, but Chaol had the sense he’d been listening all the same as he grabbed the satchel containing Dorian and Celaena’s magic books and fled to the passage that would take him to the sewer tunnel. A few minutes later, he was raising the heavy iron grate over the sewer stream. The outside beyond was wholly dark and still.
As he heaved Fleetfoot back into his arms to swing them both around the wall and onto the stream bank beyond, the castle went silent. There were screams, yes, but silence lurked beneath them. He did not want to know if Dorian was alive or dead.
He couldn’t decide which was worse.
When Chaol got to the hidden apartment, Ren was pacing. “Where’s—”
There was blood on him, he realized. The spray from Sorscha’s neck. Chaol didn’t know how he found the words, but he told Ren what had happened.
“So it’s just us?” Ren asked quietly. Chaol nodded. Fleetfoot was sniffing around in the apartment, having made her inspection and decided Ren wasn’t worth eating—even after Ren had protested that the dog might draw too much attention. She was staying; that was nonnegotiable.
A muscle feathered in Ren’s jaw. “Then we find a way to free Aedion. As soon as possible. You and me. Between your knowledge of the castle and my contacts, we can find a way.” Then he whispered, “You said Dorian’s woman was—was a healer?” When Chaol nodded, Ren looked like he was about to be sick, but he asked, “Was she named Sorscha?”
“You were the friend she sent those letters to,” Chaol breathed.
“I kept pressing her for information, kept . . .” Ren covered his face and took a shuddering breath. When his eyes at last met Chaol’s, they were bright. Slowly, Ren held out a hand. “You and me, we’ll find a way to free them. Both Aedion and your prince.”
Chaol didn’t hesitate as he gripped the rebel’s outstretched hand.
“Morath,” Manon said, wondering if she’d heard right. “For battle?”
Her grandmother turned from the desk, eyes flashing. “To serve the duke, just as the king ordered. He wants the Wing Leader in Morath with half the host ready to fly at a moment’s notice. The others are to stay here under Iskra’s command to monitor the north.”
“And you—where will you be?”
Her grandmother hissed, rising. “So many questions now that you’re Wing Leader.”