فصل 61

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CHAPTER

61

I’d never worn so much steel. Blades had been strapped all over me, hidden in my boots, my inside pockets. And then there was the Illyrian blade down my back.

Just a few hours ago, I’d known such overwhelming happiness after such horror and sorrow. Just a few hours ago, I’d been in his arms while he made love to me.

And now Rhysand, my mate and High Lord and partner, stood beside me in the foyer, Mor and Azriel and Cassian armed and ready in their scale-like armor, all of us too quiet.

Amren said, “The King of Hybern is old, Rhys—very old. Do not linger.”

A voice near my chest whispered, Hello lovely, wicked liar.

The two halves of the Book of Breathings, each part tucked into a different pocket. In one of them, the spell I was to say had been written out clearly. I hadn’t dared speak it, though I had read it a dozen times.

“We’ll be in and out before you miss us,” Rhysand said. “Guard Velaris well.”

Amren studied my gloved hands and weapons. “That Cauldron,” she said, “makes the Book seem harmless. If the spell fails, or if you cannot move it, then leave.” I nodded. She surveyed us all again. “Fly well.” I supposed that was as much concern as she’d show.

We turned to Mor—whose arms were out, waiting for me. Cassian and Rhys would winnow with Azriel, my mate dropped off a few miles from the coast before the Illyrians found Mor and me seconds later.

I moved toward her, but Rhys stepped in front of me, his face tense. I rose up on my toes and kissed him. “I’ll be fine—we’ll all be fine.” His eyes held mine through the kiss, and when I broke away, his gaze went right to Cassian.

Cassain bowed. “With my life, High Lord. I’ll protect her with my life.”

Rhys looked to Azriel. He nodded, bowing, and said, “With both of our lives.”

It was satisfactory enough to my mate—who at last looked at Mor.

She nodded once, but said, “I know my orders.”

I wondered what those might be—why I hadn’t been told—but she gripped my hand.

Before I could say good-bye to Amren, we were gone.

Gone—and plunging through open air, toward a night-dark sea—

A warm body slammed into mine, catching me before I could panic and perhaps winnow myself somewhere. “Easy,” Cassian said, banking right. I looked below to see Mor still plummeting, then winnow again into nothing.

No sign or glimmer of Rhys’s presence near or behind us. A few yards ahead, Azriel was a swift shadow over the black water. Toward the landmass we were now approaching.

Hybern.

No lights burned on it. But it felt … old. As if it were a spider that had been waiting in its web for a long, long time.

“I’ve been here twice,” Cassian murmured. “Both times, I was counting down the minutes until I could leave.”

I could see why. A wall of bone-white cliffs arose, their tops flat and grassy, leading away to a terrain of sloping, barren hills. And an overwhelming sense of nothingness.

Amarantha had slaughtered all her slaves rather than free them. She had been a commander here—one of many. If that force that had attacked Velaris was a vanguard … I swallowed, flexing my hands beneath my gloves.

“That’s his castle ahead,” Cassian said through clenched teeth, swerving.

Around a bend in the coast, built into the cliffs and perched above the sea, was a lean, crumbling castle of white stone.

Not imperious marble, not elegant limestone, but … off-white. Bone-colored. Perhaps a dozen spires clawed at the night sky. A few lights flickered in the windows and balconies. No one outside—no patrol. “Where is everyone?”

“Guard shift.” They’d planned this around it. “There’s a small sea door at the bottom. Mor will be waiting for us there—it’s the closest entrance to the lower levels.”

“I’m assuming she can’t winnow us in.”

“Too many wards to risk the time it’d cost for her to break through them. Rhys might be able to. But we’ll meet him at the door on the way out.”

My mouth went a bit dry. Over my heart, the Book said, Home—take me home.

And indeed I could feel it. With every foot we flew in, faster and faster, dipping down so the spray from the ocean chilled me to my bones, I could feel it.

Ancient—cruel. Without allegiance to anyone but itself.

The Cauldron. They needn’t have bothered learning where it was held inside this castle. I had no doubt I’d be drawn right to it. I shuddered.

“Easy,” Cassian said again. We swept in toward the base of the cliffs to the sea door before a platform. Mor was waiting, sword out, the door open.

Cassian loosed a breath, but Azriel reached her first, landing swiftly and silently, and immediately prowled into the castle to scout the hall ahead.

Mor waited for us—her eyes on Cassian as we landed. They didn’t speak, but their glance was too long to be anything but casual. I wondered what their training, their honed senses, detected.

The passage ahead was dark, silent. Azriel appeared a heartbeat later. “Guards are down.” There was blood on his knife—an ash knife. Az’s cold eyes met mine. “Hurry.”

I didn’t need to focus to track the Cauldron to its hiding place. It tugged on my every breath, hauling me to its dark embrace.

Any time we reached a crossroads, Cassian and Azriel would branch out, usually returning with bloodied blades, faces grim, silently warning me to hurry.

They’d been working these weeks, through whatever sources Azriel had, to get this encounter down to an exact schedule. If I needed more time than they’d allotted, if the Cauldron couldn’t be moved … it might all be for nothing. But not these deaths. No, those I did not mind at all.

These people—these people had hurt Rhys. They’d brought tools with them to incapacitate him. They had sent that legion to wreck and butcher my city.

I descended through an ancient dungeon, the stones dark and stained. Mor kept at my side, constantly monitoring. The last line of defense.

If Cassian and Azriel were hurt, I realized, she was to make sure I got out by whatever means. Then return.

But there was no one in the dungeon—not that I encountered, once the Illyrians were done with them. They had executed this masterfully. We found another stairwell, leading down, down, down—

I pointed, nausea roiling. “There. It’s down there.”

Cassian took the stairs, Illyrian blade stained with dark blood.

Neither Mor nor Azriel seemed to breathe until Cassian’s low whistle bounced off the stairwell stones from below.

Mor put a hand on my back, and we descended into the dark.

Home, the Book of Breathings sighed. Home.

Cassian was standing in a round chamber beneath the castle—a ball of faelight floating above his shoulder.

And in the center of the room, atop a small dais, sat the Cauldron.

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