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Chapter 36

The sounds of a teeming crowd reverberated against the passageway. My armed escort didn’t bother with drawn weapons as they tugged me forward. I wasn’t even shackled. Someone or something would catch me before I moved three feet and gut me where I stood.

The cacophony of laughter, shouting, and unearthly howls worsened when the hall opened into what had to be a massive arena. There had been no attempts to decorate the torch-lit cavern—and I couldn’t tell if it had been hewn from the rock or if it was formed by nature. The floor was slick and muddy, and I struggled to keep my footing as we walked.

But it was the enormous, riotous crowd that turned my insides cold as they stared at me. I couldn’t decipher what they were shouting, but I had a good-enough idea. Their cruel, ethereal faces and wide grins told me everything I needed to know. Not just lesser faeries but High Fae, too, their excitement making their faces almost as feral as their more unearthly brethren.

I was hauled toward a wooden platform erected above the crowd. Atop it sat Amarantha and Tamlin, and before it … I did my best to keep my chin high as I beheld the exposed labyrinth of tunnels and trenches running along the floor. The crowd stood along the banks, blocking my view of what lay within as I was thrown to my knees before Amarantha’s platform. The half-frozen mud seeped into my pants.

I rose on trembling legs. Around the platform stood a group of six males, secluded from the main crowd. From their cold, beautiful faces, from that echo of power still about them, I knew they were the other High Lords of Prythian. I ignored Rhysand as soon as I noticed his feline smile, the corona of darkness around him.

Amarantha had only to raise a hand and the roaring crowd silenced.

It became so quiet that I could almost hear my heart beating. “Well, Feyre,” the Faerie Queen said. I tried not to look at the hand she rested on Tamlin’s knee, that ring as vulgar as the gesture itself. “Your first task is here. Let us see how deep that human affection of yours runs.” I ground my teeth and almost exposed them to her. Tamlin’s face remained blank.

“I took the liberty of learning a few things about you,” Amarantha drawled. “It was only fair, you know.” Every instinct, every bit of me that was intrinsically human, screamed to run, but I kept my feet planted, locking my knees to avoid them giving out.

“I think you’ll like this task,” she said. She waved a hand, and the Attor stepped forward to part the crowd, clearing the way to the lip of a trench. “Go ahead. Look.” I obeyed. The trenches, probably twenty feet deep, were slick with mud—in fact, they seemed to have been dug from mud. I fought to keep my footing as I peered in farther. The trenches ran in a maze along the entire floor of the chamber, and their path made little sense. It was full of pits and holes, which undoubtedly led to underground tunnels, and— Hands slammed into my back, and I cried out as I had the sickening feeling of falling before being suddenly jerked up by a bone-hard grip—up, up into the air. Laughter echoed through the chamber as I dangled from the Attor’s claws, its powerful wing-beats booming across the arena. It swooped down into the trench and dropped me on my feet.

Mud squelched, and I swung my arms as I teetered and slipped. More laughter, even as I remained upright.

The mud smelled atrocious, but I swallowed my gag. I turned to find Amarantha’s platform now floating to the lip of the trench. She looked down at me, smiling that serpent’s grin.

“Rhysand tells me you’re a huntress,” she said, and my heartbeat faltered.

He must have read my thoughts again, or … or maybe he’d found my family, and—

Amarantha flicked her fingers in my direction. “Hunt this.”

The faeries cheered, and I saw gold flash between spindly, multi-hued palms. Betting on my life—on how long I would last once this started.

I raised my eyes to Tamlin. His emerald gaze was frozen, and I memorized the lines of his face, the shape of his mask, the shade of his hair, one last time.

“Release it,” Amarantha called. I trembled to the marrow of my bones as a grate groaned, and then a slithering, swift-moving noise filled the chamber.

My shoulders rose toward my ears. The crowd quieted to a murmur, silent enough to hear a guttural kind of grumble, so I could feel the vibrations in the ground as whatever it was rushed at me.

Amarantha clicked her tongue, and I whipped my head to her. Her brows rose. “Run,” she whispered.

Then it appeared.

I ran.

It was a giant worm, or what might have once been a worm had its front end not become an enormous mouth filled with ring after ring of razor-sharp teeth. It barreled toward me, its pinkish brown body surging and twisting with horrific ease. These trenches were its lair.

And I was dinner.

Sliding and slipping on the reeking mud, I hurtled down the length of the trench, wishing I’d memorized more of the layout in the few moments I’d had, knowing full well that my path could lead to a dead end, where I would surely— The crowd roared, drowning out the slurping and gnashing noises of the worm, but I didn’t dare a glance over my shoulder. The ever-nearing stench of it told me enough about how close it was. I didn’t have the breath for a sob of relief as I found a fork in the pathway and veered sharply left.

I had to get as much distance between us as possible; I had to find a spot where I could make a plan, a spot where I could find an advantage.

Another fork—I veered left again. Perhaps if I took as many lefts as I could, I could make a circle, and somehow come up behind the creature, and— No, that was absurd. I’d have to be thrice as fast as the worm, and right now, I could barely keep ahead of it. I slid into a wall as I made another left and slammed into the slick muck. Cold, reeking, smothering. I wiped it from my eyes to find the leering faces of faeries floating above me, laughing. I ran for my life.

I reached a straight, flat stretch of trench and threw my strength to my legs as I bolted down its course. I finally dared a look over my shoulder, and my fear became wild and thrashing as the worm surged into the path, hot on my trail.

I almost missed a slender opening in the side of the trench thanks to that look, and I gave up valuable steps as I skidded to a halt to squeeze myself through the gap. It was too small for the worm, but the creature could probably shatter through the mud. If not, its teeth could do the trick. But it was worth the risk.

As I made to pull myself through, a force grabbed me back. No—not a force, but the walls. The crack was too small, and I’d so frantically thrown myself through it that I’d become wedged between it. My back to the worm, and too far between the walls to be able to turn, I couldn’t see as it approached. The smell, though—the smell was growing worse.

I pushed and pulled, but the mud was too slick, and held fast.

The trenches reverberated with the thunderous movements of the worm. I could almost feel its reeking breath upon my half-exposed body, could hear those teeth slashing through the air, closer and closer. Not like this. It couldn’t end like this.

I clawed at the mud, twisting, tearing at anything to pull me through. The worm neared with each of my heartbeats, the smell nearly overpowering my senses.

I ripped away mud, wriggling, kicking, and pushing, sobbing through my gritted teeth. Not like this.

The ground shook. A stench wrapped right around me, and hot air slammed into my body. Its teeth clicked together.

Grabbing onto the wall, I pulled and pulled. There was a squelch, and a sudden release of pressure around my middle, and I fell through the crack, sprawling in the mud.

The crowd sighed. I didn’t have time for tears of relief as I found myself in another passageway, and I launched farther into the labyrinth. From the continuing quieted roars, I knew the worm had overshot me.

But that made no sense—the passage offered no place to hide. It would have seen me stuck there. Unless it couldn’t break through and was now taking some alternate route, and would spring upon me.

I didn’t check my speed, though I knew I wasted momentum by smashing into wall after wall as I made each sharp turn. The worm also had to lose its speed making these bends—a creature that big couldn’t take the turns without slowing, no matter how dexterous it might be.

I risked a look at the crowd. Their faces were tight with disappointment, and turned away entirely from me, toward the other end of the chamber. That was where the worm had to be—that was where that passage had ended. It hadn’t seen where I went. It hadn’t seen me.

It was blind.

I was so surprised that I didn’t notice the enormous pit that opened before me, hidden by a slight rise, and it was all I could do to not scream as I tumbled in. Air, empty air, and— I slammed into ankle-deep mud, and the crowd cried out. The mud softened the landing, but my teeth still sang with the impact. But nothing was broken, nothing hurt.

A few faeries peered in, leering from high above the gaping mouth of the pit. I whirled around, scanning my surroundings, trying to find the fastest way out. The pit itself opened into a small, dark tunnel, but there was no way to climb up—the wall was too steep.

I was trapped. Gasping for breath, I fumbled a few steps into the blackness of the tunnel. I bit down on my shriek as something beneath my foot crunched hard. I staggered back, and my tailbone wailed in pain. I kept scrambling away, but my hand connected with something smooth and hard, and I lifted it to see a gleam of white.

Through my muddy fingers, I knew that texture all too well. Bone.

Twisting onto my hands and knees, I patted the ground, moving farther into the darkness. Bones, bones, bones, of every shape and size, and I swallowed my scream as I realized what this place was. It was only when my hand landed on the smooth dome of a skull that I jumped to my feet.

I had to get out. Now.

“Feyre,” I heard Amarantha’s distant call. “You’re ruining everyone’s fun!” She said it as if I were a lousy shuttlecock partner. “Come out!” I certainly would not, but she told me what I needed to know. The worm didn’t know where I was; it couldn’t smell me. I had precious seconds to get out.

As my sight adjusted to the darkness of the worm’s den, mounds and mounds of bones gleamed, piles rolling away into the gloom. The chalkiness of the mud had to be from endless layers of them decomposing. I had to get out now, had to find a place to hide that wasn’t a death trap. I stumbled out of the den, bones clattering away.

Once more in the open air of the pit, I groped one of its steep walls. Several green-faced faeries barked curses at me, but I ignored them as I tried to scale the wall, made it an inch, and slid to the floor. I couldn’t get out without a rope or a ladder, and plunging farther into the worm’s lair to see if there was another way out wasn’t an option. Of course, there was a back door. Every animal’s den had two exits, but I wasn’t about to risk the darkness—effectively blinding myself—and completely eliminate my small edge.

I needed a way up. I tried scaling the wall again. The faeries were still murmuring their discontent; as long as they remained that way, I was fine. I again latched onto the muddy wall, digging into the pliable dirt. All I got was freezing mud digging beneath my nails as I slid to the ground yet again.

The stench of the place invaded every part of me. I bit down on my nausea as I tried again and again. The faeries were laughing now. “A mouse in a trap,” one of them said. “Need a stepping stool?” another crowed.

A stepping stool.

I whirled toward the piles of bones, then pushed my hand hard against the wall. It felt firm. The entire place was made of packed mud, and if this creature was anything like its smaller, harmless brethren, I could assume that the stench—and therefore the mud itself—was the remnant of whatever had passed through its system after it sucked the bones clean.

Disregarding that wretched fact, I seized the spark of hope and grabbed the two biggest, strongest bones I could quickly find. Both were longer than my leg and heavy—so heavy as I jammed them into the wall. I didn’t know what the creature usually ate, but it must have been at least cattle-sized.

“What’s it doing? What’s it planning?” one of the faeries hissed.

I grabbed a third bone and impaled it deep into the wall, as high as I could reach. I grabbed a fourth, slightly smaller bone and set it into my belt, strapping it across my back. Testing the three bones with a few sharp tugs, I sucked in my breath, ignored the twittering faeries, and began climbing my ladder. My stepping stool.

The first bone held firm, and I grunted as I grabbed the second bone-step and pulled myself up. I was putting my foot on the step when another idea flashed, and I paused.

The faeries—not too far off—began to shout again.

But it could work. It could work, if I played it right. It could work, because it had to work. I dropped back to the mud, and the faeries watching me murmured their confusion. I drew the bone from my belt, and with a sharp intake of breath, I snapped it across my knee.

My own bones burned with pain, but the shaft broke, leaving me with two sharp-ended spikes. It was going to work.

If Amarantha wanted me to hunt, I would hunt.

I walked to the middle of the pit opening, calculated the distance, and plunged the two bones into the ground. I returned back to the mound of bones and made quick work of whatever I could find that was sturdy and sharp. When my knee became too tender to use as a breaking point, I snapped the bones with my foot. One by one, I stuck them into the muddy floor beneath the pit opening until the whole area, save for one small spot, was filled with white lances.

I didn’t double-check my work—it would succeed, or I would wind up among those bones on the floor. Just one chance. That was all I had. Better than no chances at all.

I dashed to my bone ladder and ignored the sting of the splinters in my fingers as I climbed to the third rung, where I balanced before embedding a fourth bone in the wall.

And just like that, I heaved myself out of the pit mouth, and almost wept to be exposed to the open air once more.

I secured the three bones I’d taken in my belt, their weight a comforting presence, and rushed to the nearest wall. I grabbed a fistful of the reeking mud and smeared it across my face. The faeries hissed as I grabbed more, this time coating my hair, then my neck. Already accustomed to the staggering reek, my eyes watered only a little as I made swift work of painting myself. I even paused to roll on the ground. Every inch of me had to be covered. Every damn inch.

If the creature was blind, then it relied on smell—and my smell would be my greatest weakness.

I rubbed mud on me until I was certain I was nothing more than a pair of blue-gray eyes. I doused myself a final time, my hands so slick that I could barely maintain a grasp on one of the sharp-ended bones as I drew it from my belt.

“What’s it doing?” the green-faced faerie whined again.

A deep, elegant voice replied this time. “She’s building a trap.” Rhysand.

“But the Middengard—”

“Relies on its scent to see,” Rhysand answered, and I gave a special glower for him as I glanced at the rim of the trench and found him smiling at me. “And Feyre just became invisible.” His violet eyes twinkled. I made an obscene gesture before I broke into a run, heading straight for the worm.

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I placed the remaining bones at especially tight corners, knowing well enough that I couldn’t turn at the speed I hoped I would be running. It didn’t take much to find the worm, as a crowd of faeries had gathered to taunt it, but I had to get to the right spot—I had to pick my battleground.

I slowed to a stalking pace and flattened my back against a wall as I heard the slithering and grunting of the worm. The crunching.

The faeries watching the worm—ten of them, with frosty blue skin and almond-shaped black eyes—giggled. I could only assume they’d grown bored of me and decided to watch something else die.

Which was wonderful, but only if the worm was still hungry—only if it would respond to the lure I offered. The crowd murmured and grumbled.

I eased around a bend, craning my neck. Too covered in its scent to smell me, the worm continued feasting, stretching its bulbous form upward as one of the faeries dangled what looked like a hairy arm. The worm gnashed its teeth, and the blue faeries cackled as they dropped the arm into its waiting mouth.

I recoiled around the bend and raised the bone-sword I’d made. I reminded myself of the path I’d taken, of the turns I’d counted.

Still, my heart lodged in my throat as I drew the jagged edge of the bone across my palm, splitting open my flesh. Blood welled, bright and shining as rubies. I let it build before clenching my hand into a fist. The worm would smell that soon enough.

It was only then that I realized the crowd had gone silent.

Almost dropping the bone, I leaned around the bend again to see the worm.

It was gone.

The blue faeries grinned at me.

Then, shattering the silence like a shooting star, a voice—Lucien’s—bellowed across the chamber. “TO YOUR LEFT!” I bolted, getting a few feet before the wall behind me exploded, mud spraying as the worm burst through, a mass of shredding teeth just inches away.

I was already running, so fast that the trenches were a blur of reddish brown. I needed a bit of distance or else it’d fall right on top of me. But I also needed it close, so it couldn’t check itself, so it was in a frenzy of hunger.

I took the first sharp turn, and grabbed onto the bone-rail I’d embedded in the corner wall. I used it to swing around, not breaking my speed, propelling me faster, giving me a few more seconds on the worm.

Then a left. My breath was a flame ravaging my throat. The second hairpin turn came upon me, and I again used the bit of bone to hurtle around the bend.

My knees and ankles groaned as I fought to keep from slipping in the mud. Only one more turn, then a straight run … I flipped around the final turn, and the roar of the faeries became different than it had been earlier. The worm was a raging, crashing force behind me, but my steps were steady as I flew down the last passage.

The mouth of the pit loomed, and with a final prayer, I leaped.

There was only open black air, reaching up to swallow me.

I swung my arms as I careened down, aiming for the spot I’d planned. Pain barked through my bones, my head, as I collided with the muddy ground and rolled. I flipped over myself and screamed as something hit my arm, biting through flesh.

But I didn’t have time to think, to even look at it, as I scrambled out of the way, as far into the darkness of the worm’s den as I could get. I grabbed another bone and whirled when the worm plummeted into the pit.

It hit the earth and lashed its massive body to the side, anticipating the strike to kill me, but a wet, crunching noise filled the air instead.

And the worm didn’t move.

I squatted there, gulping down burning air, staring into the abyss of its flesh-shredding mouth, still open wide to devour me. It took me a few heartbeats to realize the worm wasn’t going to swallow me whole, and a few more heartbeats to understand that it was truly impaled on the bone spikes. Dead.

I didn’t entirely hear the gasps, then the cheering—didn’t quite think or feel very much of anything as I edged around the worm and slowly climbed out of the pit, still holding the bone-sword in my hand.

Silently, still beyond words, I stumbled back through the labyrinth, my left arm throbbing, but my body tingled so much I didn’t notice.

But the moment I beheld Amarantha on her platform at the edge of the trench, I clenched my free hand. Prove my love. Pain shot through my arm, but I embraced it. I had won.

I looked up at her from beneath lowered brows and didn’t check myself as I exposed my teeth. Her lips were thin, and she no longer grasped Tamlin’s knee.

Tamlin. My Tamlin.

I tightened my grip on the long bone in my hand. I was shaking—shaking all over. But not with fear. Oh, no. It wasn’t fear at all. I’d proved my love—and then some.

“Well,” Amarantha said with a little smirk. “I suppose anyone could have done that.”

I took a few running steps and hurled the bone at her with all my remaining strength.

It embedded itself in the mud at her feet, splattering filth onto her white gown, and remained there, quivering.

The faeries gasped again, and Amarantha stared at the wobbling bone before touching the mud on her bodice. She smiled slowly. “Naughty,” she tsked.

Had there not been an insurmountable trench between us, I would have ripped her throat out. Someday—if I lived through this—I would skin her alive.

“I suppose you’ll be happy to learn most of my court lost a good deal of money tonight,” she said, picking up a piece of parchment. I looked at Tamlin as she scanned the paper. His green eyes were bright, and though his face was deathly pale, I could have sworn there was a ghost of triumph on his face. “Let’s see,” Amarantha went on, reading the paper as she toyed with Jurian’s finger bone at the end of her necklace. “Yes, I’d say almost my entire court bet on you dying within the first minute; some said you’d last five, and”—she turned over the paper—“and just one person said you would win.” Insulting, but not surprising. I didn’t fight as the Attor hauled me out of the trenches, dumping me at the foot of the platform before flying off. My arm burned at the impact.

Amarantha frowned at her list, and she waved a hand. “Take her away. I tire of her mundane face.” She clenched the arms of her throne hard enough that the whites of her knuckles showed. “Rhysand, come here.” I didn’t stay long enough to see the High Lord prowl forward. Red hands grabbed me, holding tightly to keep from sliding off. I’d forgotten the mud caked on me like a second skin. As they yanked me away, a shooting pain shot along my arm, and agony blanketed my senses.

I looked at my left forearm then, and my stomach rose at the trickling blood and ripped tendons, at the lips of my skin pulled back to accommodate the shaft of a bone shard protruding clean through it.

I couldn’t even glance back at Tamlin, couldn’t find Lucien to say thank you before pain consumed me whole, and I could barely manage to walk back to my cell.

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