فصل 31

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CHAPTER

31

I laid my options before me.

I doubted the king’s Ravens were stupid enough to be kept talking long enough for my powers to return. And if the king was indeed here … I had to warn everyone. Immediately.

It left me with three choices.

Take them on in hand-to-hand combat with only a knife, when they were each armed with twin blades and were muscled enough to know how to use them.

Make a run for it, and try to get out of the library—and risk the lives and further trauma of the priestesses in the levels above.

Or …

Nesta was saying to them, “If he wants what I took, he can come get it himself.”

“He’s too busy to bother,” the white-haired male purred, advancing another step.

“Apparently you’re not.”

I gripped Nesta’s fingers in my free hand. She glanced at me.

I need you to trust me, I tried to convey to her.

Nesta read the emotion in my eyes—and gave the barest dip of her chin.

I said to them, “You made a grave mistake coming here. To my house.”

They sniggered.

I gave them a returning smirk as I said, “And I hope it rips you into bloody ribbons.”

Then I ran, hauling Nesta with me. Not toward the upper levels.

But down.

Down into the eternal blackness of the pit at the heart of the library.

And into the arms of whatever lurked inside it.

Around and down, around and down—

Shelves and paper and furniture and darkness, the smell turning musty and damp, the air thickening, the darkness like dew on my skin—

Nesta’s breath was ragged, her skirts rustling with each sprinting step we took.

Time—only a matter of time before one of those priestesses contacted Rhys.

But even a minute might be too late.

There was no choice. None.

Faelights stopped appearing ahead.

Low, hideous laughter trickled behind us. “Not so easy, is it—to find your way in the dark.”

“Don’t stop,” I panted to Nesta, flinging us farther into the dark.

A high-pitched scratching sounded. Like talons on stone. One of the Ravens crooned, “Do you know what happened to them—the queens?”

“Keep going,” I breathed, gripping a hand against the wall to remain rooted.

Soon—we’d reach the bottom soon, and then … And then face some horror awful enough that Cassian wouldn’t speak of it.

The lesser of two evils—or the worse of them.

“The youngest one—that pinched-faced bitch—went into the Cauldron first. Practically trampled the others to get in after it saw what it did to you and your sister.”

“Don’t stop,” I repeated as Nesta stumbled. “If I go down, you run.”

That was a choice that I did not need to debate. That did not frighten me. Not for a heartbeat.

Stone screamed beneath twin sets of talons. “But the Cauldron … Oh, it knew that something had been taken from it. Not sentient, but … it knew. It was furious. And when that young queen went in …”

The Ravens laughed. Laughed as the slope leveled out and we found ourselves at the bottom of the library.

“Oh, it gave her immortality. It made her Fae. But since something had been taken from it … the Cauldron took what she valued most. Her youth.” They sniggered again. “A young woman went in … but a withered crone came out.”

And from the catacombs of my memory, Elain’s voice sounded: I saw young hands wither with age.

“The other queens won’t go into the Cauldron for terror of the same happening now. And the youngest one … Oh, you should hear how she talks, Nesta Archeron. The things she wants to do to you when Hybern is done …”

Twin ravens are coming.

Elain had known. Sensed it. Had tried to warn us.

There were ancient stacks down here. Or, at least I felt them as we bumped into countless hard edges in our blind sprint. Where was it, where was it—

Deeper into the dark, we ran.

“We’re growing bored of this pursuit,” one of them said. “Our master is waiting for us to retrieve you.”

I snorted loudly enough for them to hear. “I’m shocked he could even muster the strength to break the wards—he seems to need a trove of magical objects to do his work for him.”

The other one hissed, talons scratching louder, “Whose spell book do you think Amarantha stole many decades ago? Who suggested the amusement of sticking the masks to Spring’s faces as punishment? Another little spell, the one he burned through today—to crack through your wards here. Only once could it be wielded—such a pity.”

I studied the faint trickle of light I could make out—far away and high up. “Run toward the light,” I breathed to Nesta. “I’ll hold them off.”

“No.”

“Don’t try to be noble, if that’s what you’re whispering about,” one of the Ravens cawed from behind. “We’ll catch you both anyway.”

We didn’t have time—for whatever was down here to find us. We didn’t have time—

“Run,” I breathed. “Please.”

She hesitated.

“Please,” I begged her, my voice breaking.

Nesta squeezed my hand once.

And between one breath and the next, she bolted to the side—toward the center of the pit. The light high above.

“What—” one of them snapped, but I struck.

Every bone in my body barked in pain as I slammed into one of the stacks. Then again. Again.

Until it teetered and fell, collapsing onto the one beside it. And the next. And the next.

Blocking the way Nesta had gone.

And any chance of my exit, too. Wood groaned and snapped, books thudded on stone.

But ahead …

I clawed and patted the wall as I plunged farther into the pit floor. My magic was a husk in my veins.

“We’ll still catch her, don’t worry,” one of them crooned. “Wouldn’t want dear sisters to be separated.”

Where are you where are you where are you

I didn’t see the wall in front of me.

My teeth sang as I collided face-first. I patted blindly, feeling for a break, a corner—

The wall continued on. Dead end. If it was a dead end—

“Nowhere to go down here, Lady,” one of them said.

I kept moving, gritting my teeth, gauging the power still frozen inside me. Not even an ember to summon to light the way, to show where I was—

To show any holes ahead—

The terror of it had my bones locking up. No. No, keep moving, keep going—

I reached out, desperate for a bookshelf to grab. Surely they wouldn’t put a shelf near a gaping hole in the earth—

Empty blackness met my fingers, slipped between them. Again and again.

I stumbled a step.

Leather met my fingers—solid leather. I fumbled, the hard spines of books meeting my palms, and bit down my sob of relief. A lifeline in a violent sea; I felt my way down the stack, running now. It ended too soon. I took another blind step forward, touched my way around a corner of another stack. Just as the Ravens hissed with displeasure.

The sound said enough.

They’d lost me—for a moment.

I inched along, keeping my back to a shelf, calming my heaving lungs until my breaths became near-silent.

“Please,” I breathed into the dark, barely more than a whisper. “Please, help me.”

In the distance, a boom shuddered through the ancient floor.

“High Lady of the Night Court,” one of the Ravens sang. “What sort of cage shall our king build for you?”

Fear would get me killed, fear would—

A soft voice whispered in my ear, You are the High Lady?

The voice was both young and old, hideous and beautiful. “Y-yes,” I whispered.

I could sense no body heat, detect no physical presence, but … I felt it behind me. Even with my back to the shelf, I felt the mass of it lurking behind me. Around me. Like a shroud.

“We can smell you,” the other Raven said. “How your mate shall rage when he’s found we’ve taken you.”

“Please,” I breathed to the thing crouched behind me, over me.

What shall you give me?

Such a dangerous question. Never make a bargain, Alis had once warned me before Under the Mountain. Even if the bargains I’d made … they’d saved us. And brought me to Rhys.

“What do you want?”

One of the Ravens snapped, “Who is she talking to?”

The stone and wind hear all, speak all. They whispered to me of your desire to wield the Carver. To trade.

My breath came hard and fast. “What of it?”

I knew him once—long ago. Before so many things crawled the earth.

The Ravens were close—far too close when one of them hissed, “What is she mumbling?”

“Does she know a spell, as the master did?”

I whispered to the lurking dark behind me, “What is your price?”

The Ravens’ footsteps sounded so nearby they couldn’t have been more than twenty feet away. “Who are you talking to?” one of them demanded.

Company. Send me company.

I opened my mouth, but then said, “To—eat?”

A laugh that made my skin crawl. To tell me of life.

The air ahead shifted—as the Hybern Ravens closed in. “There you are,” one seethed.

“It’s a bargain,” I breathed. The skin along my left forearm tingled. The thing behind me … I could have sworn I felt it smile.

Shall I kill them?

“P-please do.”

Light sputtered before me, and I blinked at the blinding ball of faelight.

I saw the twin Ravens first, that faelight at their shoulder—to illuminate me for their taking.

Their attention went to me. Then rose over my shoulder. My head.

Absolute, unfiltered terror filled their faces. At what stood behind me.

Close your eyes, the thing purred in my ear.

I obeyed, trembling.

Then all I heard was screaming.

High-pitched shrieking and pleading. Bones snapping, blood splattering like rain, cloth ripping, and screaming, screaming, screaming—

I squeezed my eyes shut so hard it hurt. Squeezed them shut so hard I was shaking.

Then there were warm, rough hands on me, dragging me away, and Cassian’s voice at my ear, saying, “Don’t look. Don’t look.”

I didn’t. I let him lead me away. Just as I felt Rhys arrive. Felt him land on the floor of the pit so hard the entire mountain shuddered.

I opened my eyes then. Found him storming toward us, night rippling off him, such fury on his face—

“Get them out.”

The order was given to Cassian.

The screaming was still erupting behind us.

I lurched toward Rhys, but he was already gone, a plume of darkness spreading from him.

To shield the view of what he walked into.

Knowing I would look.

The screaming stopped.

In the terrible silence, Cassian hauled me out—toward the dim center of the pit. Nesta was standing there, arms around herself, eyes wide.

Cassian only stretched out an arm for her. As if in a trance, she walked right to his side. His arms tightened around both of us, Siphons flaring, gilding the darkness with bloodred light.

Then we launched skyward.

Just as the screaming began anew.

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