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Cassian wasn’t entirely certain that he could deal with Devlon and his warriors without throttling them. At least, not for the next good hour or so.
And since that would do little to help quell the murmurings of discontent, Cassian waited until Rhys had winnowed out into the snow and wind before vanishing himself.
Not winnowing, though that would have been one hell of a weapon against enemies in battle. He’d seen Rhys do it with devastating results. Az, too—in the strange way that Az could move through the world without technically winnowing.
He’d never asked. Azriel certainly had never explained.
But Cassian didn’t mind his own method of moving: flying. It certainly had served him well enough in battle.
Stepping out the front door of the ancient wooden house so that Devlon and the other pricks in the sparring rings would see him, Cassian made a good show of stretching. First his arms, honed and still aching to pummel in a few Illyrian faces. Then his wings, wider and broader than theirs. They’d always resented that, perhaps more than anything else. He flared them until the strain along the powerful muscles and sinews was a pleasurable burn, his wings casting long shadows across the snow.
And with a mighty flap, he shot into the gray skies.
The wind was a roar around him, the temperature cold enough that his eyes watered. Bracing—freeing. He flapped higher, then banked left, aiming for the peaks behind the camp pass. No need to do a warning sweep over Devlon and the sparring rings.
Ignoring them, projecting the message that they weren’t important enough to even be considered threats were far better ways of pissing them off. Rhys had taught him that. Long ago.
Catching an updraft that sent him soaring over the nearest peaks and then into the endless, snow-coated labyrinth of mountains that made up their homeland, Cassian breathed in deep. His flying leathers and gloves kept him warm enough, but his wings, exposed to the chill wind … The cold was sharp as a knife.
He could shield himself with his Siphons, had done it in the past. But today, this morning, he wanted that biting cold.
Especially with what he was about to do. Where he was going.
He would have known the path blindfolded, simply by listening to the wind through the mountains, inhaling the smell of the pine-crusted peaks below, the barren rock fields.
It was rare for him to make the trek. He usually only did it when his temper was likely to get the better of him, and he had enough lingering control to know he needed to head out for a few hours. Today was no exception.
In the distance, small, dark shapes shot through the sky. Warriors on patrol. Or perhaps armed escorts leading families to their Solstice reunions.
Most High Fae believed the Illyrians were the greatest menace in these mountains.
They didn’t realize that far worse things prowled between the peaks. Some of them hunting on the winds, some crawling out from deep caverns in the rock itself.
Feyre had braved facing some of those things in the pine forests of the Steppes. To save Rhys. Cassian wondered if his brother had ever told her what dwelled in these mountains. Most had been slain by the Illyrians, or sent fleeing to those Steppes. But the most cunning of them, the most ancient … they had found ways to hide. To emerge on moonless nights to feed.
Even five centuries of training couldn’t stop the chill that skittered down his spine as Cassian surveyed the empty, quiet mountains below and wondered what slept beneath the snow.
He cut northward, casting the thought from his mind. On the horizon, a familiar shape took form, growing larger with each flap of his wings.
Ramiel. The sacred mountain.
The heart of not only Illyria, but the entirety of the Night Court.
None were permitted on its barren, rocky slopes—save for the Illyrians, and only once a year at that. During the Blood Rite.
Cassian soared toward it, unable to resist Ramiel’s ancient summons. Different—the mountain was so different from the barren, terrible presence of the lone peak in the center of Prythian. Ramiel had always felt alive, somehow. Awake and watchful.
He’d only set foot on it once, on that final day of the Rite. When he and his brothers, bloodied and battered, had scaled its side to reach the onyx monolith at its summit. He could still feel the crumbling rock beneath his boots, hear the rasp of his breathing as he half hauled Rhys up the slopes, Azriel providing cover behind. As one, the three of them had touched the stone—the first to reach its peak at the end of that brutal week. The uncontested winners.
The Rite hadn’t changed in the centuries since. Early each spring, it still went on, hundreds of warrior-novices deposited across the mountains and forests surrounding the peak, the territory off-limits during the rest of the year to prevent any of the novices from scouting ahead for the best routes and traps to lay. There were varying qualifiers throughout the year to prove a novice’s readiness, each slightly different depending on the camp. But the rules remained the same.
All novices competed with wings bound, no Siphons—a spell restraining all magic—and no supplies beyond the clothes on your back. The goal: make it to the summit of that mountain by the end of that week and touch the stone. The obstacles: the distance, the natural traps, and each other. Old feuds played out; new ones were born. Scores were settled.
A week of pointless bloodshed, Az insisted.
Rhys often agreed, though he often also agreed with Cassian’s point: the Blood Rite offered an escape valve for dangerous tensions within the Illyrian community. Better to settle it during the Rite than risk civil war.
Illyrians were strong, proud, fearless. But peacemakers, they were not.
Perhaps he’d get lucky. Perhaps the Rite this spring would ease some of the malcontent. Hell, he’d offer to participate himself, if it meant quieting the grumbling.
They’d barely survived this war. They didn’t need another one. Not with so many unknowns gathering outside their borders.
Ramiel rose higher still, a shard of stone piercing the gray sky. Beautiful and lonely. Eternal and ageless.
No wonder that first ruler of the Night Court had made this his insignia. Along with the three stars that only appeared for a brief window each year, framing the uppermost peak of Ramiel like a crown. It was during that window when the Rite occurred. Which had come first: the insignia or the Rite, Cassian didn’t know. Had never really cared to find out.
The conifer forests and ravines that dotted the landscape flowing to Ramiel’s foot gleamed under fresh snow. Empty and clean. No sign of the bloodshed that would occur come the start of spring.
The mountain neared, mighty and endless, so wide that he might as well have been a mayfly in the wind. Cassian soared toward Ramiel’s southern face, rising high enough to catch a glimpse of the shining black stone jutting from its top.
Who had put that stone atop the peak, he didn’t know, either. Legend said it had existed before the Night Court formed, before the Illyrians migrated from the Myrmidons, before humans had even walked the earth. Even with the fresh snow crusting Ramiel, none had touched the pillar of stone.
A thrill, icy and yet not unwelcome, flooded his veins.
It was rare for anyone in the Blood Rite to make it to the monolith. Since he and his brothers had done it five centuries ago, Cassian could recall only a dozen or so who’d not only reached the mountain, but also survived the climb. After a week of fighting, of running, of having to find and make your own weapons and food, that climb was worse than every horror before it. It was the true test of will, of courage. To climb when you had nothing left; to climb when your body begged you to stop … It was when the breaking usually occurred.
But when he’d touched the onyx monolith, when he’d felt that ancient force sing into his blood in the heartbeat before it had whisked him back to the safety of Devlon’s camp … It had been worth it. To feel that.
With a solemn bow of his head toward Ramiel and the living stone atop it, Cassian caught another swift wind and soared southward.
An hour’s flight had him approaching yet another familiar peak.
One that no one but him and his brothers bothered to come to. What he’d so badly needed to see, to feel, today.
Once, it had been as busy a camp as Devlon’s.
Once. Before a bastard had been born in a freezing, lone tent on the outskirts of the village. Before they’d thrown a young, unwed mother out into the snow only days after giving birth, her babe in her arms. And then taken that babe mere years later, tossing him into the mud at Devlon’s camp.
Cassian landed on the flat stretch of mountain pass, the snowdrifts higher than at Windhaven. Hiding any trace of the village that had stood here.
Only cinders and debris remained anyway.
He’d made sure of it.
When those who had been responsible for her suffering and torment had been dealt with, no one had wanted to remain here a moment longer. Not with the shattered bone and blood coating every surface, staining every field and training ring. So they’d migrated, some blending into other camps, others making their own lives elsewhere. None had ever come back.
Centuries later, he didn’t regret it.
Standing in the snow and wind, surveying the emptiness where he’d been born, Cassian didn’t regret it for a heartbeat.
His mother had suffered every moment of her too-short life. It only grew worse after she’d given birth to him. Especially in the years after he’d been taken away.
And when he’d been strong and old enough to come back to look for her, she was gone.
They’d refused to tell him where she was buried. If they’d given her that honor, or if they’d thrown her body into an icy chasm to rot.
He still didn’t know. Even with their final, rasping breaths, those who’d made sure she never knew happiness had refused to tell him. Had spat in his face and told him every awful thing they’d done to her.
He’d wanted to bury her in Velaris. Somewhere full of light and warmth, full of kind people. Far away from these mountains.
Cassian scanned the snow-covered pass. His memories here were murky: mud and cold and too-small fires. But he could recall a lilting, soft voice, and gentle, slender hands.
It was all he had of her.
Cassian dragged his hands through his hair, fingers catching on the wind-tangled snarls.
He knew why he’d come here, why he always came here. For all that Amren taunted him about being an Illyrian brute, he knew his own mind, his own heart.
Devlon was a fairer camp-lord than most. But for the females who were less fortunate, who were preyed upon or cast out, there was little mercy.
So training these women, giving them the resources and confidence to fight back, to look beyond their campfires … it was for her. For the mother buried here, perhaps buried nowhere. So it might never happen again. So his people, whom he still loved despite their faults, might one day become something more. Something better.
The unmarked, unknown grave in this pass was his reminder.
Cassian stood in silence for long minutes before turning his gaze westward. As if he might see all the way to Velaris.
Rhys wanted him home for the Solstice, and he’d obey.
Even if Nesta—
Even in his thoughts, her name clanged through him, hollow and cold.
Now wasn’t the time to think of her. Not here.
He very rarely allowed himself to think of her, anyway. It usually didn’t end well for whoever was in the sparring ring with him.
Spreading his wings wide, Cassian took a final glance around the camp he’d razed to the ground. Another reminder, too: of what he was capable of when pushed too far.
To be careful, even when Devlon and the others made him want to bellow. He and Az were the most powerful Illyrians in their long, bloody history. They wore an unprecedented seven Siphons each, just to handle the tidal wave of brute killing power they possessed. It was a gift and a burden that he’d never taken lightly.
Three days. He had three days until he was to go to Velaris.
He’d try to make them count.
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