فصل 65

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CHAPTER

65

The first test would be the most dangerous—and informative.

Passing through the guards stationed at the edge of the camp—and learning if they’d heard of Ianthe’s demise. Learning what sort of power Ianthe truly wielded here.

I kept my features in that beatific, pretty mask she’d always plastered on her face, head held just so, my mating ring turned facedown and put onto my other hand, a few silver bracelets Azriel had borrowed from the camp priestess dangling at my wrists. I let them jangle loudly, as she had, like a cat with a bell on its collar.

A pet—I supposed Ianthe was no more than a pet of the king.

I couldn’t see Azriel, but I could feel him, as if the Siphon parading itself as Ianthe’s jewel was a tether. He dwelled in every pocket of shadow, darting ahead and behind.

The six guards flanking the camp entrance monitored Ianthe, strutting out of the dark, with unmasked distaste. I steadied my heart, became her, preening and coy, vain and predatory, holy and sensual.

They did not stop me as I walked past them and onto the long avenue that cut through the endless camp. Did not look confused or expectant.

I didn’t dare let my shoulders slump, or even heave a sigh of utter relief. Not as I headed down the broad artery lined by tents and forges, fires and—and things I did not look at, did not even turn toward as the sounds coming out of them charged at me.

This place made the Court of Nightmares seem like a human sitting room filled with chaste maidens embroidering pillows.

And somewhere in this hell-pit … Elain. Had the Cauldron presented her to the king? Or was she in some in-between, trapped in whatever dark world the Cauldron occupied?

I’d seen the king’s tent in Nesta’s scrying. It had not seemed as far away as it did now, rising like a gargantuan, spiny beast from the center of the camp. Entrance to it would present another set of obstacles.

If we made it that far without being noticed.

The time of night worked to our advantage. The soldiers who were awake were either engaged in activities of varying awfulness, or were on guard and wishing they could be. The rest were asleep.

It was strange, I realized with each bouncing step and jangle of jewelry toward the heart of camp, to consider that Hybern actually needed rest.

I’d somehow assumed they were beyond it—mythic, unending in their strength and rage.

But they, too, tired. And ate. And slept.

Perhaps not as easily or as much as humans, but, with two hours until dawn, we were lucky. Once the sun chased away the shadows, though … Once it made some gaps in my costume all too clear …

It was hard to scan the tents we passed, hard to focus on the sounds of the camp while pretending to be someone wholly used to it. I didn’t even know if Ianthe had a tent here—if she was allowed near the king whenever she wished.

I doubted it—doubted we’d be able to stroll right into his personal tent and find wherever the hell Elain was.

A massive bonfire smoldered and crackled near the center of camp, the sounds of revelry reaching us long before we got a good visual.

I knew within a few heartbeats that most of the soldiers were not sleeping.

They were here.

Celebrating.

Some danced in wicked circles around the fire, their contorted shapes little more than twisted shadows flinging through the night. Some drank from enormous oak barrels of beer I recognized—right from Tamlin’s stores. Some writhed with each other—some merely watched.

But through the laughter and singing and music, over the roar of the fire … Screaming.

A shadow gripped my shoulder, reminding me not to run.

Ianthe would not run—would not show alarm.

My mouth went dry as that scream sounded again.

I couldn’t bear it—to let it go on, to see what was being done—

Azriel’s shadow-hand grasped my own, tugging me closer. His rage rippled off his invisible form.

We made a lazy circuit of the revelry, other parts of it becoming clear. The screaming—

It was not Elain.

It was not Elain who hung from a rack near a makeshift dais of granite.

It was one of the Children of the Blessed, young and slender—

My stomach twisted, threatening to surge up my throat. Two others were chained up beside her. From the way they sagged, the injuries on their naked bodies—

Clare. It was like Clare, what had been done to them. And like Clare, they had been left there to rot, left for the crows surely to arrive at dawn.

This one had held out for longer.

I couldn’t. I couldn’t—couldn’t leave her there—

But if I lingered too long, they’d see. And drawing attention to myself …

Could I live with it? I’d once killed two innocents to save Tamlin and his people. I’d be as good as killing her if I left her there in favor of saving my sister …

Stranger. She was a stranger—

“He’s been looking for you,” drawled a hard male voice.

I pivoted to find Jurian striding from between two tents, buckling his sword-belt. I glanced at the dais. And as if an invisible hand wiped away the smoke …

There sat the King of Hybern. He lounged in his chair, head propped on a fist, face a mask of vague amusement as he surveyed the revelry, the torture and torment. The adulation of the crowd that occasionally turned to toast or bow to him.

I willed my voice to soften, adapted that lilt. “I have been busy with my sisters.”

Jurian stared at me for a long moment, eyes sliding to the Siphon atop my head.

I knew the moment he realized who I was. Those brown eyes flared—barely.

“Where is she,” was all I breathed.

Jurian gave a cocky grin. Not directed at me, but anyone watching us. “You’ve been lusting after me for weeks now,” he purred. “Act like it.”

My throat constricted. But I laid a hand on his forearm, batting my eyelashes at him as I stepped closer.

A bemused snort. “I have trouble believing that’s how you won his heart.”

I tried not to scowl. “Where is she.”

“Safe. Untouched.”

My chest caved in at the word.

“Not for long,” Jurian said. “It gave him a shock when she appeared before the Cauldron. He had her contained. Came here to brood over what to do with her. And how to make you pay for it.”

I ran a hand up his arm, then rested it over his heart. “Where. Is. She.”

Jurian leaned in as if he’d kiss me, and brought his mouth to my ear. “Were you smart enough to kill her before you took her skin?”

My hands tightened on his jacket. “She got what she deserved.”

I could feel Jurian’s smile against my ear. “She’s in his tent. Chained with steel and a little spell from his favorite book.”

Shit. Shit. Perhaps I should have gotten Helion, who could break almost any—

Jurian caught my chin between his thumb and forefinger. “Come to my tent with me, Ianthe. Let me see what that pretty mouth can do.”

It was an effort not to recoil, but I let Jurian put a hand on my lower back. He chuckled. “Seems like you’ve already got some steel in you. No need for mine.”

I gave him a pretty, sunshine smile. “What of the girl on the rack?”

Darkness flickered in those eyes. “There have been many before her, and many will come after.”

“I can’t leave her here,” I said through my teeth.

Jurian led me into the labyrinth of tents, heading for that inner circle. “Your sister or her—you won’t be able to take two out.”

“Get her to me, and I’ll make it happen.”

Jurian muttered, “Say you would like to pray before the Cauldron before we retire.”

I blinked, and realized there were guards—guards and that giant, bone-colored tent ahead of us. I clasped my hands before me and said to Jurian, “Before we … retire, I should like to pray before the great Cauldron. To give thanks for today’s bounty.”

Jurian glowered—a man ready for rutting who had been delayed. “Make it quick,” he said, jerking his chin to the guards on either side of the tent flaps. I caught the look he gave them—male to male. They didn’t bother to hide their leering as I passed.

And since I was Ianthe … I gave them each a sultry smile, sizing them up for conquest of a different kind than the one they’d come to Prythian to do.

The one on the right’s answering grin told me he was mine for the taking.

Later, I willed my eyes to say. When I’m done with the human.

He adjusted his belt a bit as I slipped into the tent.

Dim—cold. Like the sky before dawn, that’s how the tent felt.

No crackling braziers, no faelights. And in the center of the massive tent … a darkness that devoured the light. The Cauldron.

The hair on my arms rose.

Jurian whispered in my ear, “You have five minutes to get her out. Take her to the western edge—there’s a cliff overlooking the river. I’ll meet you there.”

I blinked at him.

Jurian’s grin was a slash of white in the gloom. “If you hear screaming, don’t panic.” His diversion. He smirked toward the shadows. “I hope you can carry three, shadowsinger.”

Azriel did not confirm that he was there, that he’d heard.

Jurian studied me for a heartbeat longer. “Save a dagger for your own heart. If they catch you alive, the king will—” He shook his head. “Don’t let them catch you alive.”

Then he was gone.

Azriel emerged from the deep shadows in the corner of the tent a heartbeat later. He jerked his chin toward the curtains in the back. I began intoning one of Ianthe’s many prayers, a pretty speech I’d heard her say a thousand times at the Spring Court.

We rushed across the rugs, dodging tables and furniture. I chanted her prayers all the while.

Azriel slid back the curtain—

Elain was in her nightgown. Gagged, wrists wrapped in steel that glowed violet. Her eyes went wide as she saw us—Azriel and me—

I shifted my face back into my own, raising a hand to my lips as Azriel knelt before her. I kept up my litany of praying, beseeching the Cauldron to make my womb fruitful, on and on—

Azriel gently removed the gag from her mouth. “Are you hurt?”

She shook her head, devouring the sight of him as if not quite believing it. “You came for me.” The shadowsinger only inclined his head.

“Hurry,” I whispered, then resumed my prayer. We had until it ran out.

Azriel’s Siphons flared, the one atop my head warming.

The magic did nothing when it came into contact with those bonds. Nothing.

Only a few more verses of my prayer left to chant.

Her wrists and ankles were bound. She couldn’t run out of here with them on.

I reached a hand toward her, scrambling for a thread of Helion’s power to unravel the king’s spell on the chains. But my magic was still depleted, in shambles—

“We don’t have time,” Azriel murmured. “He’s coming.”

The screaming and shouting began.

Azriel scooped up Elain, looping her bound arms around his neck. “Hold tight,” he ordered her, “and don’t make a sound.”

Barking and baying rent the night. I drew off the robe, and pocketed Azriel’s Siphon before palming two knives. “Out the back?”

A nod. “Get ready to run.”

My heart thundered. Elain glanced between us, but did not tremble. Did not cringe.

“Run, and don’t stop,” he told me. “We sprint for the western edge—the cliff.”

“If Jurian’s not there with the girl in time—”

“Then you will go. I’ll get her.”

I blew out a breath, steadying myself.

The barking and growling grew louder—closer.

“Now,” Azriel hissed, and we ran.

His Siphons blazed, and the canvas of the back of the tent melted into nothing. We bolted through it before the guards nearby noticed.

They didn’t react to us. Only peered at the hole.

Azriel had made us invisible—shadow-bound.

We sprinted between tents, feet flying over the grass and dirt. “Hurry,” he whispered. “The shadows won’t last long.”

For in the east, behind us … the sun was beginning to rise.

A piercing howl split the dying night. And I knew they’d realized what we’d done. That we were here. And even if they couldn’t see us … the King of Hybern’s hounds could scent us.

“Faster,” Azriel snarled.

The earth shuddered behind us. I didn’t dare look behind.

We neared a rack of weapons. I sheathed my knives, freeing my hands as we hurtled past and I snatched a bow and quiver of arrows from their stand. Ash arrows.

The arrows clacked as I slung the quiver over a shoulder. As I nocked an arrow into place.

Azriel cut right, swerving around a tent.

And with the angle … I turned and fired.

The nearest hound—it was not a hound, I realized as the arrow spiraled for its head.

But some cousin of the naga—some monstrous, scaled thing that thundered on all fours, serpentine face snarling and full of bone-shredding white teeth—

My arrow went right through its throat.

It went down, and we rounded the tent, hurtling for that still-dim western horizon.

I nocked another arrow.

Three others. Three more behind us, gaining with every clawed step—

I could feel them around us—Hybern commanders, racing along with the hounds, tracking the beasts because they still could not see us. That arrow I’d fired had told them enough about the distance. But the moment the hounds caught up … those commanders would appear. Kill us or drag us away.

Row after row of tents, slowly awakening at the ruckus in the center of the camp.

The air rippled, and I looked up to see the rain of ash arrows unleashed from behind, so many they were a blind attempt to hit any target—

Azriel’s blue shield shuddered at the impact, but held. Yet our shadows shivered and faded.

The hounds closed in, two breaking away—to cut to the side. To herd us.

For that was a cliff at the other edge of the camp. A cliff with a very, very long drop, and unforgiving river below.

And standing at its end, huddled in a dark cloak …

That was the girl.

Jurian had left her there—for us. Where he’d gone … I saw no sign of him.

But behind us, filling the air as if he’d used magic to do so … The king spoke.

“What intrepid thieves,” he drawled, the words everywhere and nowhere. “How shall I punish you?”

I had no doubt the wards ended just beyond the cliff’s edge. It was confirmed by the snarls of the hounds, who seemed to know that their prey would escape in less than a hundred yards. If we could jump far enough to be clear of them.

“Get her out, Azriel,” I begged him, panting. “I’ll get the other.”

“We’re all—”

“That’s an order.”

A clean shot, an unimpeded path right to that cliff’s edge, and to freedom beyond—

“You need to—” My words were cut off.

I felt the impact before the pain. The searing, burning pain that erupted through my shoulder. An ash arrow—

My feet snagged beneath me, blood spraying, and I hit the rocky ground so hard my bones groaned. Azriel swore, but with Elain in his arms, fighting—

The hounds were there in a second.

I fired an arrow at one, my shoulder screaming with the movement. The hound fell, clearing the view behind.

Revealing the king striding down the line of tents, unhurried and assured of our capture, a bow dangling from his hand. The bow that had delivered the arrow now piercing through my body.

“Torturing you would be so dull,” the king mused, voice still magnified. “At least, the traditional sort of torture.” Every step was slow, intentional. “How Rhysand shall rage. How he shall panic. His mate, at last come to see me.”

Before I could warn Azriel to hurry, the other two hounds were on me.

One leaped right for me. I lifted my bow to intercept its jaws.

The hound snapped it in two, hurling the wood away. I grabbed for a knife, just as the second one leaped—

A roar deafened me, made my head ring. Just as one of the hounds was thrown off me.

I knew that roar, knew—

A golden-furred beast with curling horns tore into the hounds.

“Tamlin,” I got out, but his green eyes narrowed. Run, he seemed to say.

That was who had been running alongside us. Trying to find us.

He ripped and shredded, the hounds launching themselves wholly on him. The king paused, and though he remained far off, I could clearly make out the surprise slackening his face.

Now. I had to go now—

I scrambled to my feet, whipping the arrow out with a swallowed scream. Azriel was already there, no more than a few heartbeats having passed—

Azriel gripped me by the collar, and a web of blue light fastened itself at my shoulder. Holding the blood in, a bandage until a healer—

“You need to fly,” he panted.

Six more hounds closed in. Tamlin still fought the others, gaining ground—holding the line.

“We need to get airborne,” Azriel said, one eye now on the king as he resumed his mockingly slow approach. “Can you make it?”

The young woman was still standing at the edge of the cliff. Watching us with wide eyes, black hair whipping over her face.

I’d never made a running takeoff before. I’d barely been able to keep in the skies.

Even if Azriel took the girl in his free arm …

I didn’t let myself consider the alternative. I would get airborne. Only long enough to sail over that cliff, and winnow out when we’d passed the wards’ edge.

Tamlin let out a yelp of what sounded like pain, followed by another earth-shuddering roar. The rest of the hounds had reached him. He did not falter, did not yield an inch to them—

I summoned the wings. The drag and weight of them … Even with the Siphon-bandage, pain razed my senses at the tug on my muscles.

I panted through my gritted teeth as Azriel plunged ahead, wings beginning to flap. Not enough space on the jutting ledge for us to do this side by side. I gobbled down details of his takeoff, the beating of his wings, the shifting angle of his body.

“Grab onto him!” Elain ordered the wide-eyed human girl as Azriel thundered toward her. The girl looked like a doe about to be run down by a wolf.

The girl did not open her arms as they neared.

Elain screamed at her, “If you want to live, do it now!”

The girl dropped her cloak, opened her arms wide.

Her black hair streamed behind Azriel, catching amongst his wings as he practically tackled her into the sky. But I saw, even as I ran, Elain’s pale hands lurch—gripping the girl by her neck, holding her as tightly as she could.

And just in time.

One of the hounds broke free from Tamlin in a mighty leap. I ducked, bracing for impact.

But it was not aiming for me. Two bounding strides down the stone ledge and another leap—

Azriel’s roar echoed off the rocks as the hound slammed into him, dragging those shredding talons down his spine, his wings—

The girl screamed, but Elain moved. As Azriel battled to keep them airborne, keep his grip on them, my sister sent a fierce kick into the beast’s face. Its eye. Another. Another.

It bellowed, and Elain slammed her bare, muddy foot into its face again. The blow struck home.

With a yelp of pain, it released its claws—and plunged into the ravine.

So fast. It happened so fast. And blood—blood sprayed from his back, his wings—

But Azriel remained in the air. Blue light splayed over the wounds. Staunching the blood, stabilizing his wings. I was still running for the cliff as he whirled, revealing a pain-bleached face, while he gripped the two women tightly.

But he beheld what charged after me. The sprint ahead. And for the first time since I had known him, there was terror in Azriel’s eyes as he watched me make that run.

I flapped my wings, an updraft hauling my feet up, then crashing them down onto the rock. I stumbled, but kept running, kept flapping, back screaming—

Another one of the hounds broke past Tamlin’s guard. Came barreling down that narrow stretch of rock, claws gouging the stone beneath. I could have sworn the king laughed from behind.

“Faster!” Azriel roared, blood oozing with each wing beat. I could see the dawn through the shreds in the membrane. “Push up!”

The stone echoed with the thunderous steps of the hound at my heels.

The end of the rock loomed. Freefall lay beyond. And I knew the hound would leap with me. The king would have it retrieve me by any means necessary, even if my body was broken on the river far, far below. This high, I would splatter like an egg dropped from a tower.

And he’d keep whatever was left of me, as Jurian had been kept, alive and aware.

“Hold them high!”

I stretched my wings as far as they would go. Thirty steps between me and the edge.

“Legs up!”

Twenty steps. The sun broke over the eastern horizon, gilding Azriel’s bloody armor with gold.

The king fired another arrow—two. One for me, one soaring for Elain’s exposed back. Azriel slammed both away with a blue shield. I didn’t look to see if that shield extended to Tamlin.

Ten steps. I beat my wings, muscles screaming, blood sliding past even that Siphon’s bandage. Beat them as I sent a wave of wind rising up beneath me, air filling the flexible membrane, even as the bone and sinews strained to snapping.

My feet lifted from the ground. Then hit again. I pushed with the wind, flapping like hell. The hound gained on me.

Five steps. I knew—I knew that whatever force had compelled me to learn to fly … Somehow, it had known. That this moment was coming. All of it—all of it, for this moment.

And with barely three steps to the edge of that cliff … A warm wind, kissed with lilac and new grass, blasted up from beneath me. A wind of—spring. Lifting me, filling my wings.

My feet rose. And rose. And rose.

The hound leaped after me.

“Bank!”

I threw my body sideways, wings swinging me wide. The rising dawn and drop and sky tilted and spun before I evened out.

I looked behind to see that naga-hound snap at where my heels had been. And then plunge down, down, down into the ravine and river below.

The king fired again, the arrow tipped with glimmering amethyst power. Azriel’s shield held—barely. Whatever magic the king had wrapped around it—Azriel grunted in pain.

But he snarled, “Fly,” and I veered toward the way I’d come, back trembling with the effort to keep my body upright. Azriel turned, the girl moaning in terror as he lost a few feet to the sky—before he leveled out and soared beside me.

The king barked a command, and a barrage of arrows arced up from the camp—rained down upon us.

Azriel’s shield buckled, but held solid. I flapped my wings, back shrieking.

I pressed a hand to my wound, just as the wards pushed against me. Pushed as if they tried and tried to contain me, to hold Azriel where he now flapped like hell against them, blood spraying from those wounded wings, sliding down his shredded back—

I unleashed a flare of Helion’s white light. Burning, singeing, melting.

A hole ripped through the wards. Barely wide enough.

We didn’t hesitate as we sailed through, as I gasped for breath. But I looked back. Just once.

Tamlin was surrounded by the hounds. Bleeding, panting, still in that beast form.

The king was perhaps thirty feet away, livid—utterly livid as he beheld the hole I’d again ripped through his wards. Tamlin made the most of his distraction.

He did not glance toward us as he made a break for the cliff edge.

He leaped far—far and wide. Farther than any beast or Fae should be able to. That wind he’d sent my way now bolstering him, guiding him toward that hole we’d swept through.

Tamlin cleared it and winnowed away, still not looking at me as I gripped Azriel’s hand and we vanished as well.

Azriel’s power gave out on the outskirts of our camp.

The girl, despite the burns and lashings on her moon-white skin, was able to walk.

The gray light of morning had broken over the world, mist clinging to our ankles as we headed into that camp, Azriel still cradling Elain to his chest. He dripped blood behind him the entire time—a trickle compared to the torrent that should be leaking out. Contained only by the patches of power he’d slapped on it. Help—he needed a healer immediately.

We both did. I pressed a hand against the wound in my shoulder to keep the bleeding minimal. The girl went so far as to even offer to use her lingering scraps of clothing to bind it.

I didn’t have the breath to explain that I was Fae, and there had been ash in my skin. I needed to see a healer before it set and sealed in any splinters. So I just asked for her name.

Briar, she said, her voice raw from screaming. Her name was Briar.

She did not seem to mind the mud that squelched under her feet and splattered her bare shins. She only gazed at the tents, the soldiers who stumbled out. One saw Azriel and shouted for a healer to hurry for the spymaster’s tent.

Rhys winnowed into our path before we’d made it past the first line of tents. His eyes went right to Azriel’s wings, then the wound in my shoulder, the paleness of my face. To Elain, then Briar.

“I couldn’t leave her,” I said, surprised to find my own voice raw.

Running steps approached, and then Nesta rounded a tent, skidding to a halt in the mud.

She let out a sob at the sight of Elain, still in Azriel’s arms. I’d never heard a sound like that from her. Not once.

She isn’t hurt, I said to her, into that chamber in her mind. Because words … I couldn’t form them.

Nesta broke into another sprint. I reached for Rhysand, his face taut as he stalked for us—

But Nesta got there first.

I swallowed my shout of pain as Nesta’s arms went around my neck and she embraced me so hard it snatched my breath away.

Her body shook—shook as she sobbed and said over and over and over, “Thank you.”

Rhys lunged for Azriel, taking Elain from him and gently setting my sister down. Azriel rasped, swaying on his feet, “We need Helion to get these chains off her.”

Yet Elain didn’t seem to notice them as she rose up on her toes and kissed the shadowsinger’s cheek. And then walked to me and Nesta, who pulled back long enough to survey Elain’s clean face, her clear eyes.

“We need to get you to Thesan,” Rhys said to Azriel. “Right now.”

Before I could turn back, Elain threw her arms around me. I did not remember when I began to cry as I felt those slender arms hold me, tight as steel.

I did not remember the healer who patched me up, or how Rhys bathed me. How I told him what happened with Jurian, and Tamlin, Nesta hovering around Elain as Helion came to remove her chains, cursing the king’s handiwork, even as he admired its quality.

But I did remember lying down on the bearskin rug once it was done. How I felt Elain’s slim body settle next to mine and curl into my side, careful not to touch the bandaged wound in my shoulder. I had not realized how cold I was until her warmth seeped into me.

A moment later, another warm body nestled on my left. Nesta’s scent drifted over me, fire and steel and unbending will.

Distantly, I heard Rhys usher everyone out—to join him in checking on Azriel, now under Thesan’s care.

I didn’t know how long my sisters and I lay there together, just like we had once shared that carved bed in that dilapidated cottage. Then—back then, we had kicked and twisted and fought for any bit of space, any breathing room.

But that morning, as the sun rose over the world, we held tight. And did not let go.

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