فصل 58

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CHAPTER

58

We immediately returned to Velaris, not trusting the queens to go long without noticing the Book’s absence, especially if the vague mention of the sixth alluded to further foul play amongst them.

Amren had the second half within minutes, not even bothering to ask about the meeting before she vanished into the dining room of the town house and shut the doors behind her. So we waited.

And waited.

Two days passed.

Amren still hadn’t cracked the code.

Rhys and Mor left in the early afternoon to visit the Court of Nightmares—to return the Veritas to Keir without his knowing, and ensure that the Steward was indeed readying his forces. Cassian had reports that the Illyrian legions were now camped across the mountains, waiting for the order to fly out to wherever our first battle might be.

There would be one, I realized. Even if we nullified the Cauldron using the Book, even if I was able to stop that Cauldron and the king from using it to shatter the wall and the world, he had armies gathered. Perhaps we’d take the fight to him once the Cauldron was disabled.

There was no word from my sisters, no report from Azriel’s soldiers that they’d changed their minds. My father, I remembered, was still trading in the continent for the Mother knew what goods. Another variable in this.

And there was no word from the queens. It was of them that I most frequently thought. Of the two-faced, golden-eyed queen with not just a lion’s coloring … but a lion’s heart, too.

I hoped I saw her again.

With Rhys and Mor gone, Cassian and Azriel came to stay at the town house as they continued to plan our inevitable visit to Hybern. After that first dinner, when Cassian had broken out one of Rhys’s very old bottles of wine so we could celebrate my mating in style, I’d realized they’d come to stay for company, to dine with me, and … the Illyrians had taken it upon themselves to look after me.

Rhys said as much that night when I’d written him a letter and watched it vanish. Apparently, he didn’t mind his enemies knowing he was at the Court of Nightmares. If Hybern’s forces tracked him there … good luck to them.

I’d written to Rhys, How do I tell Cassian and Azriel I don’t need them here to protect me? Company is fine, but I don’t need sentries.

He’d written back, You don’t tell them. You set boundaries if they cross a line, but you are their friend—and my mate. They will protect you on instinct. If you kick their asses out of the house, they’ll just sit on the roof.

I scribbled, You Illyrian males are insufferable.

Rhys had just said, Good thing we make up for it with impressive wingspans.

Even with him across the territory, my blood had heated, my toes curling. I’d barely been able to hold the pen long enough to write, I’m missing that impressive wingspan in my bed. Inside me.

He’d replied, Of course you are.

I’d hissed, jotting down, Prick.

I’d almost felt his laughter down the bond—our mating bond. Rhys wrote back, When I return, we’re going to that shop across the Sidra and you’re going to try on all those lacy little underthings for me.

I fell asleep thinking about it, wishing my hand was his, praying he’d finish at the Court of Nightmares and return to me soon. Spring was bursting all across the hills and peaks around Velaris. I wanted to sail over the yellow and purple blooms with him.

The next afternoon, Rhys was still gone, Amren was still buried in the book, Azriel off on a patrol of the city and nearby shoreline, and Cassian and I were—of all things—just finishing up an early afternoon performance of some ancient, revered Fae symphony. The amphi-theater was on the other side of the Sidra, and though he’d offered to fly me, I’d wanted to walk. Even if my muscles were barking in protest after his brutal lesson that morning.

The music had been lovely—strange, but lovely, written at a time, Cassian had told me, when humans had not even walked the earth. He found the music puzzling, off-kilter, but … I’d been entranced.

Walking back across one of the main bridges spanning the river, we remained in companionable silence. We’d dropped off more blood for Amren—who said thank you and get the hell out—and were now headed toward the Palace of Thread and Jewels, where I wanted to buy both of my sisters presents for helping us. Cassian had promised to send them down with the next scout dispatched to retrieve the latest report. I wondered if he’d send anything to Nesta while he was at it.

I paused at the center of the marble bridge, Cassian halting beside me as I peered down at the blue-green water idling past. I could feel the threads of the current far below, the strains of salt and fresh water twining together, the swaying weeds coating the mussel-flecked floor, the tickling of small, skittering creatures over rock and mud. Could Tarquin sense such things? Did he sleep in his island-palace on the sea and swim through the dreams of fishes?

Cassian braced his forearms on the broad stone railing, his red Siphons like living pools of flame.

I said, perhaps because I was a busybody who liked to stick my nose in other people’s affairs, “It meant a great deal to me—what you promised my sister the other day.”

Cassian shrugged, his wings rustling. “I’d do it for anyone.”

“It meant a lot to her, too.” Hazel eyes narrowed slightly. But I casually watched the river. “Nesta is different from most people,” I explained. “She comes across as rigid and vicious, but I think it’s a wall. A shield—like the ones Rhys has in his mind.”

“Against what?”

“Feeling. I think Nesta feels everything—sees too much; sees and feels it all. And she burns with it. Keeping that wall up helps from being overwhelmed, from caring too greatly.”

“She barely seems to care about anyone other than Elain.”

I met his stare, scanning that handsome, tan face. “She will never be like Mor,” I said. “She will never love freely and gift it to everyone who crosses her path. But the few she does care for … I think Nesta would shred the world apart for them. Shred herself apart for them. She and I have our … issues. But Elain … ” My mouth quirked to the side. “She will never forget, Cassian, that you offered to defend Elain. Defend her people. As long as she lives, she will remember that kindness.”

He straightened, rapping his knuckles against the smooth marble. “Why are you telling me this?”

“I just—thought you should know. For whenever you see her again and she pisses you off. Which I’m certain will happen. But know that deep down, she is grateful, and perhaps does not possess the ability to say so. Yet the feeling—the heart—is there.”

I paused, debating pushing him, but the river flowing beneath us shifted.

Not a physical shifting. But … a tremor in the current, in the bedrock, in the skittering things crawling on it. Like ink dropped in water.

Cassian instantly went on alert as I scanned the river, the banks on either side.

“What the hell is that?” he murmured. He tapped the Siphon on each hand with a finger.

I gaped as scaled black armor began unfolding and slithering up his wrists, his arms, replacing the tunic that had been there. Layer after layer, coating him like a second skin, flowing up to his shoulders. The additional Siphons appeared, and more armor spread across his neck, his shoulders, down his chest and waist. I blinked, and it had covered his legs—then his feet.

The sky was cloudless, the streets full of chatter and life.

Cassian kept scanning, a slow rotation over Velaris.

The river beneath me remained steady, but I could feel it roiling, as if trying to flee from— “From the sea,” I breathed. Cassian’s gaze shot straight ahead, to the river before us, to the towering cliffs in the distance that marked the raging waves where it met the ocean.

And there, on the horizon, a smear of black. Swift-moving—spreading wider as it grew closer.

“Tell me those are birds,” I said. My power flooded my veins, and I curled my fingers into fists, willing it to calm, to steady—

“There’s no Illyrian patrol that’s supposed to know about this place … ,” he said, as if it were an answer. His gaze cut to me. “We’re going back to the town house right now.”

The smear of black separated, fracturing into countless figures. Too big for birds. Far too big. I said, “You have to sound the alarm—”

But people were. Some were pointing, some were shouting.

Cassian reached for me, but I jumped back. Ice danced at my fingertips, wind howled in my blood. I’d pick them off one by one— “Get Azriel and Amren—”

They’d reached the sea cliffs. Countless, long-limbed flying creatures, some bearing soldiers in their arms … An invading host. “Cassian.”

But an Illyrian blade had appeared in Cassian’s hand, twin to the one across his back. A fighting knife now shone in the other. He held them both out to me. “Get back to the town house—right now.”

I most certainly would not go. If they were flying, I could use my power to my advantage: freeze their wings, burn them, break them. Even if there were so many, even if—

So fast, as if they were carried on a fell wind, the force reached the outer edges of the city. And unleashed arrows upon the shrieking people rushing for cover in the streets. I grabbed his outstretched weapons, the cool metal hilts hissing beneath my forge-hot palms.

Cassian lifted his hand into the air. Red light exploded from his Siphon, blasting up and away—forming a hard wall in the sky above the city, directly in the path of that oncoming force.

He ground his teeth, grunting as the winged legion slammed into his shield. As if he felt every impact.

The translucent red shield shoved out farther, knocking them back—

We both watched in mute horror as the creatures lunged for the shield, arms out—

They were not just any manner of faerie. Any rising magic in me sputtered and went out at the sight of them.

They were all like the Attor.

All long-limbed, gray-skinned, with serpentine snouts and razor-sharp teeth. And as the legion of its ilk punched through Cassian’s shield as if it were a cobweb, I beheld on their spindly gray arms gauntlets of that bluish stone I’d seen on Rhys, glimmering in the sun.

Stone that broke and repelled magic. Straight from the unholy trove of the King of Hybern.

One after one after one, they punched through his shield.

Cassian sent another wall barreling for them. Some of the creatures peeled away and launched themselves upon the outskirts of the city, vulnerable outside of his shield. The heat that had been building in my palms faded to clammy sweat.

People were shrieking, fleeing. And I knew his shields would not hold—

“GO!” Cassian roared. I lurched into motion, knowing he likely lingered because I stayed, that he needed Azriel and Amren and—

High above us, three of them slammed into the dome of the red shield. Clawing at it, ripping through layer after layer with those stone gauntlets.

That’s what had delayed the king these months: gathering his arsenal. Weapons to fight magic, to fight High Fae who would rely on it—

A hole ripped open, and Cassian threw me to the ground, shoving me against the marble railing, his wings spreading wide over me, his legs as solid as the bands of carved rock at my back—

Screams on the bridge, hissing laughter, and then—

A wet, crunching thud.

“Shit,” Cassian said. “Shit—”

He moved a step, and I lunged from under him to see what it was, who it was—

Blood shone on the white marble bridge, sparkling like rubies in the sun.

There, on one of those towering, elegant lampposts flanking the bridge …

Her body was bent, her back arched on the impact, as if she were in the throes of passion.

Her golden hair had been shorn to the skull. Her golden eyes had been plucked out.

She was twitching where she had been impaled on the post, the metal pole straight through her slim torso, gore clinging to the metal above her.

Someone on the bridge vomited, then kept running.

But I could not break my stare from the golden queen. Or from the Attor, who swept through the hole it had made and alighted atop the blood-soaked lamppost.

“Regards,” it hissed, “of the mortal queens. And Jurian.” Then the Attor leaped into flight, fast and sleek—heading right for the theater district we’d left.

Cassian had pressed me back down against the bridge—and he surged toward the Attor. He halted, remembering me, but I rasped, “Go.”

“Run home. Now.”

That was the final order—and his good-bye as he shot into the sky after the Attor, who had already disappeared into the screaming streets.

Around me, hole after hole was punched through that red shield, those winged creatures pouring in, dumping the Hybern soldiers they had carried across the sea.

Soldiers of every shape and size—lesser faeries.

The golden queen’s gaping mouth was opening and closing like a fish on land. Save her, help her—

My blood. I could—

I took a step. Her body slumped.

And from wherever in me that power originated, I felt her death whisper past.

The screams, the beating wings, the whoosh and thud of arrows erupted in the sudden silence.

I ran. I ran for my side of the Sidra, for the town house. I didn’t trust myself to winnow—could barely think around the panic barking through my head. I had minutes, perhaps, before they hit my street. Minutes to get there and bring as many inside with me as I could. The house was warded. No one would get in, not even these things.

Faeries were rushing past, racing for shelter, for friends and family. I hit the end of the bridge, the steep hills rising up—

Hybern soldiers were already atop the hill, at the two Palaces, laughing at the screams, the pleading as they broke into buildings, dragging people out. Blood dribbled down the cobblestones in little rivers.

They had done this. Those queens had … had given this city of art and music and food over to these … monsters. The king must have used the Cauldron to break its wards.

A thunderous boom rocked the other side of the city, and I went down at the impact, blades flying, hands ripping open on the cobblestones. I whirled toward the river, scrambling up, lunging for my weapons.

Cassian and Azriel were both in the skies now. And where they flew, those winged creatures died. Arrows of red and blue light shot from them, and those shields—

Twin shields of red and blue merged, sizzling, and slammed into the rest of the aerial forces. Flesh and wings tore, bone melted—

Until hands encased in stone tumbled from the sky. Only hands. Clattering on rooftops, splashing into the river. All that was left of them—what two Illyrian warriors had worked their way around.

But there were countless more who had already landed. Too many. Roofs were wrenched apart, doors shattered, screaming rising and then silenced—

This was not an attack to sack the city. It was an extermination.

And rising up before me, merely a few blocks down, the Rainbow of Velaris was bathed in blood.

The Attor and his ilk had converged there.

As if the queens had told him where to strike; where in Velaris would be the most defenseless. The beating heart of the city.

Fire was rippling, black smoke staining the sky—

Where was Rhys, where was my mate—

Across the river, thunder boomed again.

And it was not Cassian, or Azriel, who held the other side of the river. But Amren.

Her slim hands had only to point, and soldiers would fall—fall as if their own wings failed them. They slammed into the streets, thrashing, choking, clawing, shrieking, just as the people of Velaris had shrieked.

I whipped my head to the Rainbow a few blocks away—left unprotected. Defenseless.

The street before me was clear, the lone safe passage through hell.

A female screamed inside the artists’ quarter. And I knew my path.

I flipped my Illyrian blade in my hand and winnowed into the burning and bloody Rainbow.

This was my home. These were my people.

If I died defending them, defending that small place in the world where art thrived …

Then so be it.

And I became darkness, and shadow, and wind.

I winnowed into the edge of the Rainbow as the first of the Hybern soldiers rounded its farthest corner, spilling onto the river avenue, shredding the cafés where I had lounged and laughed. They did not see me until I was upon them.

Until my Illyrian blade cleaved through their heads, one after another.

Six went down in my wake, and as I halted at the foot of the Rainbow, staring up into the fire and blood and death … Too many. Too many soldiers.

I’d never make it, never kill them all—

But there was a young female, green-skinned and lithe, an ancient, rusted bit of pipe raised above her shoulder. Standing her ground in front of her storefront—a gallery. People crouched inside the shop were sobbing.

Before them, laughing at the faerie, at her raised scrap of metal, circled five winged soldiers. Playing with her, taunting her.

Still she held the line. Still her face did not crumple. Paintings and pottery were shattered around her. And more soldiers were landing, spilling down, butchering—

Across the river, thunder boomed—Amren or Cassian or Azriel, I didn’t know.

The river.

Three soldiers spotted me from up the hill. Raced for me.

But I ran faster, back for the river at the foot of the hill, for the singing Sidra.

I hit the edge of the quay, the water already stained with blood, and slammed my foot down in a mighty stomp.

And as if in answer, the Sidra rose.

I yielded to that thrumming power inside my bones and blood and breath. I became the Sidra, ancient and deep. And I bent it to my will.

I lifted my blades, willing the river higher, shaping it, forging it.

Those Hybern soldiers stopped dead in their tracks as I turned toward them.

And wolves of water broke from behind me.

The soldiers whirled, fleeing.

But my wolves were faster. I was faster as I ran with them, in the heart of the pack.

Wolf after wolf roared out of the Sidra, as colossal as the one I had once killed, pouring into the streets, racing upward.

I made it five steps before the pack was upon the soldiers taunting the shop owner.

I made it seven steps before the wolves brought them down, water shoving down their throats, drowning them—

I reached the soldiers, and my blade sang as I severed their choking heads from their bodies.

The shopkeeper was sobbing as she recognized me, her rusted bar still raised. But she nodded—only once.

I ran again, losing myself amongst my water-wolves. Some of the soldiers were taking to the sky, flapping upward, backtracking.

So my wolves grew wings, and talons, and became falcons and hawks and eagles.

They slammed into their bodies, their armor, drenching them. The airborne soldiers, realizing they hadn’t been drowned, halted their flight and laughed—sneering.

I lifted a hand skyward, and clenched my fingers into a fist.

The water soaking them, their wings, their armor, their faces … It turned to ice.

Ice that was so cold it had existed before light, before the sun had warmed the earth. Ice of a land cloaked in winter, ice from the parts of me that felt no mercy, no sympathy for what these creatures had done and were doing to my people.

Frozen solid, dozens of the winged soldiers fell to the earth as one. And shattered upon the cobblestones.

My wolves raged around me, tearing and drowning and hunting. And those that fled them, those that took to the skies—they froze and shattered; froze and shattered. Until the streets were laden with ice and gore and broken bits of wing and stone.

Until the screaming of my people stopped, and the screams of the soldiers became a song in my blood. One of the soldiers rose up above the brightly painted buildings … I knew him.

The Attor was flapping, frantic, blood of the innocent coating his gray skin, his stone gauntlets. I sent an eagle of water shooting for him, but he was quicker, nimble.

He evaded my eagle, and my hawk, and my falcon, soaring high, clawing his way through the air. Away from me, my power—from Cassian and Azriel, holding the river and the majority of the city, away from Amren, using whatever dark power she possessed to send so many droves of them crashing down without visible injury.

None of my friends saw the Attor sailing up, sailing free.

It would fly back to Hybern—to the king. It had chosen to come here, to lead them. For spite. And I had no doubt that the golden, lioness-queen had suffered at its hands. As Clare had.

Where are you?

Rhys’s voice sounded distantly in my head, through the sliver in my shield.

WHERE ARE YOU?

The Attor was getting away. With each heartbeat, it flew higher and higher—

WHERE—

I sheathed the Illyrian blade and fighting knife through my belt and scrambled to pick up the arrows that had fallen on the street. Shot at my people. Ash arrows, coated in familiar greenish poison. Bloodbane.

I’m exactly where I need to be, I said to Rhys.

And then I winnowed into the sky.

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