فصل 18

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CHAPTER

18

Amren was standing at the foot of my bed.

I jolted back, slamming into the headboard, blinded by the morning light blazing in, fumbling for a weapon, anything to use—

“No wonder you’re so thin if you vomit up your guts every night.” She sniffed, her lip curling. “You reek of it.”

The bedroom door was shut. Rhys had said no one entered without his permission, but—

She chucked something onto the bed. A little gold amulet of pearl and cloudy blue stone. “This got me out of the Prison. Wear it in, and they can never keep you.”

I didn’t touch the amulet.

“Allow me to make one thing clear,” Amren said, bracing both hands on the carved wooden footboard. “I do not give that amulet lightly. But you may borrow it, while you do what needs to be done, and return it to me when you are finished. If you keep it, I will find you, and the results won’t be pleasant. But it is yours to use in the Prison.”

By the time my fingers brushed the cool metal and stone, she’d walked out the door.

Rhys hadn’t been wrong about the firedrake comparison.

Rhys kept frowning at the amulet as we hiked the slope of the Prison, so steep that at times we had to crawl on our hands and knees. Higher and higher we climbed, and I drank from the countless little streams that gurgled through the bumps and hollows in the moss-and-grass slopes. All around the mist drifted by, whipped by the wind, whose hollow moaning drowned out our crunching footsteps.

When I caught Rhys looking at the necklace for the tenth time, I said, “What?”

“She gave you that.”

Not a question.

“It must be serious, then,” I said. “The risk with—”

“Don’t say anything you don’t want others hearing.” He pointed to the stone beneath us. “The inmates have nothing better to do than to listen through the earth and rock for gossip. They’ll sell any bit of information for food, sex, maybe a breath of air.”

I could do this; I could master this fear.

Amren had gotten out. And stayed out. And the amulet—it’d keep me free, too.

“I’m sorry,” I said. “About yesterday.” I’d stayed in bed for hours, unable to move or think.

Rhys held out a hand to help me climb a particularly steep rock, easily hauling me up to where he perched at its top. It had been so long—too long—since I’d been outdoors, using my body, relying on it. My breathing was ragged, even with my new immortality. “You’ve got nothing to be sorry for,” he said. “You’re here now.” But enough of a coward that I never would have gone without that amulet. He added with a wink, “I won’t dock your pay.”

I was too winded to even scowl. We climbed until the upper face of the mountain became a wall before us, nothing but grassy slopes sweeping behind, far below, to where they flowed to the restless gray sea. Rhys drew the sword from his back in a swift movement.

“Don’t look so surprised,” he said.

“I’ve—never seen you with a weapon.” Aside from the dagger he’d grabbed to slit Amarantha’s throat at the end—to spare me from agony.

“Cassian would laugh himself hoarse hearing that. And then make me go into the sparring ring with him.”

“Can he beat you?”

“Hand-to-hand combat? Yes. He’d have to earn it for a change, but he’d win.” No arrogance, no pride. “Cassian is the best warrior I’ve encountered in any court, any land. He leads my armies because of it.”

I didn’t doubt his claim. And the other Illyrian … “Azriel—his hands. The scars, I mean,” I said. “Where did they come from?”

Rhys was quiet a moment. Then he said too softly, “His father had two legitimate sons, both older than Azriel. Both cruel and spoiled. They learned it from their mother, the lord’s wife. For the eleven years that Azriel lived in his father’s keep, she saw to it he was kept in a cell with no window, no light. They let him out for an hour every day—let him see his mother for an hour once a week. He wasn’t permitted to train, or fly, or any of the things his Illyrian instincts roared at him to do. When he was eight, his brothers decided it’d be fun to see what happened when you mixed an Illyrian’s quick healing gifts with oil—and fire. The warriors heard Azriel’s screaming. But not quick enough to save his hands.”

Nausea swamped me. But that still left him with three more years living with them. What other horrors had he endured before he was sent to that mountain-camp? “Were—were his brothers punished?”

Rhys’s face was as unfeeling as the rock and wind and sea around us as he said with lethal quiet, “Eventually.”

There was enough rawness in the words that I instead asked, “And Mor—what does she do for you?”

“Mor is who I’ll call in when the armies fail and Cassian and Azriel are both dead.”

My blood chilled. “So she’s supposed to wait until then?”

“No. As my Third, Mor is my … court overseer. She looks after the dynamics between the Court of Nightmares and the Court of Dreams, and runs both Velaris and the Hewn City. I suppose in the mortal realm, she might be considered a queen.”

“And Amren?”

“Her duties as my Second make her my political adviser, walking library, and doer of my dirty work. I appointed her upon gaining my throne. But she was my ally, maybe my friend, long before that.”

“I mean—in that war where your armies fail and Cassian and Azriel are dead, and even Mor is gone.” Each word was like ice on my tongue.

Rhys paused his reach for the bald rock face before us. “If that day comes, I’ll find a way to break the spell on Amren and unleash her on the world. And ask her to end me first.”

By the Mother. “What is she?” After our chat this morning, perhaps it was stupid to ask.

“Something else. Something worse than us. And if she ever finds a way to shed her prison of flesh and bone … Cauldron save us all.”

I shivered again and stared up at the sheer stone wall. “I can’t climb bare rock like that.”

“You don’t need to,” Rhys said, laying a hand flat on the stone. Like a mirage, it vanished in a ripple of light.

Pale, carved gates stood in its place, so high their tops were lost to the mist.

Gates of bone.

The bone-gates swung open silently, revealing a cavern of black so inky I had never seen its like, even Under the Mountain.

I gripped the amulet at my throat, the metal warm under my palm. Amren got out. I would walk out, too.

Rhys put a warm hand on my back and guided me inside, three balls of moonlight bobbing before us.

No—no, no, no, no—

“Breathe,” he said in my ear. “One breath.”

“Where are the guards?” I managed to get out past the tightness in my lungs.

“They dwell within the rock of the mountain,” he murmured, his hand finding mine and wrapping around it as he tugged me into the immortal gloom. “They only emerge at feeding time, or to deal with restless prisoners. They are nothing but shadows of thought and an ancient spell.”

With the small lights floating ahead, I tried not to look too long at the gray walls. Especially when they were so rough-hewn that the jagged bits could have been a nose, or a craggy brow, or a set of sneering lips.

The dry ground was clear of anything but pebbles. And there was silence. Utter silence as we rounded a bend, and the last of the light from the misty world faded into inky black.

I focused on my breathing. I couldn’t be trapped here; I couldn’t be locked in this horrible, dead place.

The path plunged deep into the belly of the mountain, and I clutched Rhys’s fingers to keep from losing my footing. He still had his sword gripped in his other hand.

“Do all the High Lords have access?” My words were so soft they were devoured by the dark. Even that thrumming power in my veins had vanished, burrowing somewhere in my bones.

“No. The Prison is law unto itself; the island may be even an eighth court. But it falls under my jurisdiction, and my blood is keyed to the gates.”

“Could you free the inmates?”

“No. Once the sentence is given and a prisoner passes those gates … They belong to the Prison. It will never let them out. I take sentencing people here very, very seriously.”

“Have you ever—”

“Yes. And now is not the time to speak of it.” He squeezed my hand in emphasis.

We wound down through the gloom.

There were no doors. No lights.

No sounds. Not even a trickle of water.

But I could feel them.

I could feel them sleeping, pacing, running hands and claws over the other side of the walls.

They were ancient, and cruel in a way I had never known, not even with Amarantha. They were infinite, and patient, and had learned the language of darkness, of stone.

“How long,” I breathed. “How long was she in here?” I didn’t dare say her name.

“Azriel looked once. Into archives in our oldest temples and libraries. All he found was a vague mention that she went in before Prythian was split into the courts—and emerged once they had been established. Her imprisonment predates our written word. I don’t know how long she was in here—a few millennia seems like a fair guess.”

Horror roiled in my gut. “You never asked?”

“Why bother? She’ll tell me when it’s necessary.”

“Where did she come from?” The brooch he’d given her—such a small gift, for a monster who had once dwelled here.

“I don’t know. Though there are legends that claim when the world was born, there were … rips in the fabric of the realms. That in the chaos of Forming, creatures from other worlds could walk through one of those rips and enter another world. But the rips closed at will, and the creatures could become trapped, with no way home.”

It was more horrifying than I could fathom—both that monsters had walked between worlds, and the terror of being trapped in another realm. “You think she was one of them?”

“I think that she is the only one of her kind, and there is no record of others ever having existed. Even the Suriel have numbers, however small. But she—and some of those in the Prison … I think they came from somewhere else. And they have been looking for a way home for a long, long time.”

I was shivering beneath the fur-lined leather, my breath clouding in front of me.

Down and down we went, and time lost its grip. It could have been hours or days, and we paused only when my useless, wasted body demanded water. Even while I drank, he didn’t let go of my hand. As if the rock would swallow me up forever. I made sure those breaks were swift and rare.

And still we went onward, deeper. Only the lights and his hand kept me from feeling as if I were about to free-fall into darkness. For a heartbeat, the reek of my own dungeon cell cloyed in my nose, and the crunch of moldy hay tickled my cheek—

Rhys’s hand tightened on my own. “Just a bit farther.”

“We must be near the bottom by now.”

“Past it. The Bone Carver is caged beneath the roots of the mountain.”

“Who is he? What is he?” I’d only been briefed in what I was to say—nothing of what to expect. No doubt to keep me from panicking too thoroughly.

“No one knows. He’ll appear as he wants to appear.”

“Shape-shifter?”

“Yes and no. He’ll appear to you as one thing, and I might be standing right beside you and see another.”

I tried not to start bleating like cattle. “And the bone carving?”

“You’ll see.” Rhys stopped before a smooth slab of stone. The hall continued down—down into the ageless dark. The air here was tight, compact. Even my puffs of breath on the chill air seemed short-lived.

Rhysand at last released my hand, only to lay his once more on the bare stone. It rippled beneath his palm, forming—a door.

Like the gates above, it was of ivory—bone. And in its surface were etched countless images: flora and fauna, seas and clouds, stars and moons, infants and skeletons, creatures fair and foul—

It swung away. The cell was pitch-black, hardly distinguishable from the hall—

“I have carved the doors for every prisoner in this place,” said a small voice within, “but my own remains my favorite.”

“I’d have to agree,” Rhysand said. He stepped inside, the light bobbing ahead to illuminate a dark-haired boy sitting against the far wall, eyes of crushing blue taking in Rhysand, then sliding to where I lurked in the doorway.

Rhys reached into a bag I hadn’t realized he’d been carrying—no, one he’d summoned from whatever pocket between realms he used for storage. He chucked an object toward the boy, who looked no more than eight. White gleamed as it clacked on the rough stone floor. Another bone, long and sturdy—and jagged on one end.

“The calf-bone that made the final kill when Feyre slew the Middengard Wyrm,” Rhys said.

My very blood stilled. There had been many bones that I’d laid in my trap—I hadn’t noticed which had ended the Wyrm. Or thought anyone would.

“Come inside,” was all the Bone Carver said, and there was no innocence, no kindness in that child’s voice.

I took one step in and no more.

“It has been an age,” the boy said, gobbling down the sight of me, “since something new came into this world.”

“Hello,” I breathed.

The boy’s smile was a mockery of innocence. “Are you frightened?”

“Yes,” I said. Never lie—that had been Rhys’s first command.

The boy stood, but kept to the other side of the cell. “Feyre,” he murmured, cocking his head. The orb of faelight glazed the inky hair in silver. “Fay-ruh,” he said again, drawing out the syllables as if he could taste them. At last, he straightened his head. “Where did you go when you died?”

“A question for a question,” I replied, as I’d been instructed over breakfast.

The Bone Carver inclined his head to Rhysand. “You were always smarter than your forefathers.” But those eyes alighted on me. “Tell me where you went, what you saw—and I will answer your question.”

Rhys gave me a subtle nod, but his eyes were wary. Because what the boy had asked …

I had to calm my breathing to think—to remember.

But there was blood and death and pain and screaming—and she was breaking me, killing me so slowly, and Rhys was there, roaring in fury as I died, Tamlin begging for my life on his knees before her throne … But there was so much agony, and I wanted it to be over, wanted it all to stop—

Rhys had gone rigid while he monitored the Bone Carver, as if those memories were freely flowing past the mental shields I’d made sure were intact this morning. And I wondered if he thought I’d give up then and there.

I bunched my hands into fists.

I had lived; I had gotten out. I would get out today.

“I heard the crack,” I said. Rhys’s head whipped toward me. “I heard the crack when she broke my neck. It was in my ears, but also inside my skull. I was gone before I felt anything more than the first lash of pain.”

The Bone Carver’s violet eyes seemed to glow brighter.

“And then it was dark. A different sort of dark than this place. But there was a … thread,” I said. “A tether. And I yanked on it—and suddenly I could see. Not through my eyes, but—but his,” I said, inclining my head toward Rhys. I uncurled the fingers of my tattooed hand. “And I knew I was dead, and this tiny scrap of spirit was all that was left of me, clinging to the thread of our bargain.”

“But was there anyone there—were you seeing anything beyond?”

“There was only that bond in the darkness.”

Rhysand’s face had gone pale, his mouth a tight line. “And when I was Made anew,” I said, “I followed that bond back—to me. I knew that home was on the other end of it. There was light then. Like swimming up through sparkling wine—”

“Were you afraid?”

“All I wanted was to return to—to the people around me. I wanted it badly enough I didn’t have room for fear. The worst had happened, and the darkness was calm and quiet. It did not seem like a bad thing to fade into. But I wanted to go home. So I followed the bond home.”

“There was no other world,” the Bone Carver pushed.

“If there was or is, I did not see it.”

“No light, no portal?”

Where is it that you want to go? The question almost leaped off my tongue. “It was only peace and darkness.”

“Did you have a body?”

“No.”

“Did—”

“That’s enough from you,” Rhysand purred—the sound like velvet over sharpest steel. “You said a question for a question. Now you’ve asked … ” He did a tally on his fingers. “Six.”

The Bone Carver leaned back against the wall and slid to a sitting position. “It is a rare day when I meet someone who comes back from true death. Forgive me for wanting to peer behind the curtain.” He waved a delicate hand in my direction. “Ask it, girl.”

“If there was no body—nothing but perhaps a bit of bone,” I said as solidly as I could, “would there be a way to resurrect that person? To grow them a new body, put their soul into it.”

Those eyes flashed. “Was the soul somehow preserved? Contained?”

I tried not to think about the eye ring Amarantha had worn, the soul she’d trapped inside to witness her every horror and depravity. “Yes.”

“There is no way.”

I almost sighed in relief.

“Unless … ” The boy bounced each finger off his thumb, his hand like some pale, twitchy insect. “Long ago, before the High Fae, before man, there was a Cauldron … They say all the magic was contained inside it, that the world was born in it. But it fell into the wrong hands. And great and horrible things were done with it. Things were forged with it. Such wicked things that the Cauldron was eventually stolen back at great cost. It could not be destroyed, for it had Made all things, and if it were broken, then life would cease to be. So it was hidden. And forgotten. Only with that Cauldron could something that is dead be reforged like that.”

Rhysand’s face was again a mask of calm. “Where did they hide it?”

“Tell me a secret no one knows, Lord of Night, and I’ll tell you mine.”

I braced myself for whatever horrible truth was about to come my way. But Rhysand said, “My right knee gets a twinge of pain when it rains. I wrecked it during the War, and it’s hurt ever since.”

The Bone Carver bit out a harsh laugh, even as I gaped at Rhys. “You always were my favorite,” he said, giving a smile I would never for a moment think was childlike. “Very well. The Cauldron was hidden at the bottom of a frozen lake in Lapplund—” Rhys began to turn for me, as if he’d head there right now, but the Bone Carver added, “And vanished a long, long time ago.” Rhys halted. “I don’t know where it went to—or where it is now. Millennia before you were born, the three feet on which it stands were successfully cleaved from its base in an attempt to fracture some of its power. It worked—barely. Removing the feet was like cutting off the first knuckle of a finger. Irksome, but you could still use the rest with some difficulty. The feet were hidden at three different temples—Cesere, Sangravah, and Itica. If they have gone missing, it is likely the Cauldron is active once more—and that the wielder wants it at full power and not a wisp of it missing.”

That was why the temples had been ransacked. To get the feet on which the Cauldron stood and restore it to its full power. Rhys merely said, “I don’t suppose you know who now has the Cauldron.”

The Bone Carver pointed a small finger at me. “Promise that you’ll give me her bones when she dies and I’ll think about it.” I stiffened, but the boy laughed. “No—I don’t think even you would promise that, Rhysand.”

I might have called the look on Rhys’s face a warning. “Thank you for your help,” he said, placing a hand on my back to guide me out.

But if he knew … I turned again to the boy-creature. “There was a choice—in Death,” I said.

Those eyes guttered with cobalt fire.

Rhys’s hand contracted on my back, but remained. Warm, steady. And I wondered if the touch was more to reassure him that I was there, still breathing.

“I knew,” I went on, “that I could drift away into the dark. And I chose to fight—to hold on for a bit longer. Yet I knew if I wanted, I could have faded. And maybe it would be a new world, a realm of rest and peace. But I wasn’t ready for it—not to go there alone. I knew there was something else waiting beyond that dark. Something good.”

For a moment, those blue eyes flared brighter. Then the boy said, “You know who has the Cauldron, Rhysand. Who has been pillaging the temples. You only came here to confirm what you have long guessed.”

“The King of Hybern.”

Dread sluiced through my veins and pooled in my stomach. I shouldn’t have been surprised, should have known, but …

The carver said nothing more. Waiting for another truth.

So I offered up another shattered piece of me. “When Amarantha made me kill those two faeries, if the third hadn’t been Tamlin, I would have put the dagger in my own heart at the end.”

Rhys went still.

“I knew there was no coming back from what I’d done,” I said, wondering if the blue flame in the carver’s eyes might burn my ruined soul to ash. “And once I broke their curse, once I knew I’d saved them, I just wanted enough time to turn that dagger on myself. I only decided I wanted to live when she killed me, and I knew I had not finished whatever … whatever it was I’d been born to do.”

I dared a glance at Rhys, and there was something like devastation on his beautiful face. It was gone in a blink.

Even the Bone Carver said gently, “With the Cauldron, you could do other things than raise the dead. You could shatter the wall.”

The only thing keeping human lands—my family—safe from not just Hybern, but any other faeries.

“It is likely that Hybern has been quiet for so many years because he was hunting the Cauldron, learning its secrets. Resurrection of a specific individual might very well have been his first test once the feet were reunited—and now he finds that the Cauldron is pure energy, pure power. And like any magic, it can be depleted. So he will let it rest, let it gather strength—learn its secrets to feed it more energy, more power.”

“Is there a way to stop it,” I breathed.

Silence. Expectant, waiting silence.

Rhys’s voice was hoarse as he said, “Don’t offer him one more—”

“When the Cauldron was made,” the carver interrupted, “its dark maker used the last of the molten ore to forge a book. The Book of Breathings. In it, written between the carved words, are the spells to negate the Cauldron’s power—or control it wholly. But after the War, it was split into two pieces. One went to the Fae, one to the six human queens. It was part of the Treaty, purely symbolic, as the Cauldron had been lost for millennia and considered mere myth. The Book was believed harmless, because like calls to like—and only that which was Made can speak those spells and summon its power. No creature born of the earth may wield it, so the High Lords and humans dismissed it as little more than a historical heirloom, but if the Book were in the hands of something reforged … You would have to test such a theory, of course—but … it might be possible.” His eyes narrowed to amused slits as I realized … realized …

“So now the High Lord of Summer possesses our piece, and the reigning mortal queens have the other entombed in their shining palace by the sea. Prythian’s half is guarded, protected with blood-spells keyed to Summer himself. The one belonging to the mortal queens … They were crafty, when they received their gift. They used our own kind to spell the Book, to bind it—so that if it were ever stolen, if, let’s say, a High Lord were to winnow into their castle to steal it … the Book would melt into ore and be lost. It must be freely given by a mortal queen, with no trickery, no magic involved.” A little laugh. “Such clever, lovely creatures, humans.”

The carver seemed lost in ancient memory—then shook his head. “Reunite both halves of the Book of Breathings and you will be able to nullify the powers of the Cauldron. Hopefully before it returns to full strength and shatters that wall.”

I didn’t bother saying thank you. Not with the information he’d told us. Not when I’d been forced to say those things—and could still feel Rhys’s lingering attention. As if he’d suspected, but never believed just how badly I’d broken in that moment with Amarantha.

We turned away, his hand sliding from my back to grip my hand.

The touch was light—gentle. And I suddenly had no strength to even grip it back.

The carver picked up the bone Rhysand had brought him and weighed it in those child’s hands. “I shall carve your death in here, Feyre.”

Up and up into the darkness we walked, through the sleeping stone and the monsters who dwelled within it. At last I said to Rhys, “What did you see?”

“You first.”

“A boy—around eight; dark-haired and blue-eyed.”

Rhys shuddered—the most human gesture I’d seen him make.

“What did you see?” I pushed.

“Jurian,” Rhys said. “He appeared exactly as Jurian looked the last time I saw him: facing Amarantha when they fought to the death.”

I didn’t want to learn how the Bone Carver knew who we’d come to ask about.

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