فصل 73

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CHAPTER

73

The Cauldron had been nestled in a craggy overlook.

The Weaver had done her job well. Key guards and posts were little more than wet, red piles of bone and sinew. And I knew that when I saw her again … she would be even more blindingly beautiful.

Amren’s power flared again and again, breaking through wards in our path until we reached Stryga’s wake. Whatever spells the king had laid … Amren was prepared for them. Hungry for them. She shattered them all with a savage smile.

But the gray hill was crawling with Hybern commanders, content to let their underlings fight. Waiting until the killing field had sorted the grunts from the true warriors. I could hear them hissing about who on our side they wanted to personally take on.

Helion and Tarquin were two of the most frequent wishes.

Tamlin was the other. Tamlin, for his two-faced lying. And Jurian. How they would suffer.

Varian. Azriel. Cassian. Kallias and Viviane. Mor. They said the names of my friends like they were horses at a race. Who would last long enough for them to face off. Who would haul the pretty mate of the Lord of Winter back here. Who would break the Morrigan at last. Who would bring home Illyrian wings to pin on the wall. My blood was boiling, even as my bones quaked. I hoped Bryaxis devoured them all—and made them wet themselves in terror before it did.

But I dared look behind us once.

Mor and Viviane weren’t coming to this camp anytime soon. They held off an entire cluster of Hybern soldiers, flanked by that white-haired female I’d seen in the Winter camp and a unit of those mighty bears that shredded apart soldiers with swipes of their enormous paws.

Amren hissed in warning, and I faced forward as we began to scale the quiet side of the gray hill. No sign of Stryga, though she had stopped here, at the base of the hill atop which the Cauldron squatted. I could already feel its terrible presence—the beckoning.

Amren and I climbed slowly. Listening after every step.

The battle raged behind us. In the skies and on the earth and in the sea.

I did not think … even with Drakon and the human army … I did not think it was going well.

My hands bit into the sharp gray rock of the hill’s cliff face, body straining as I hauled myself up, Amren climbing with ease. Nesta had to lure the king away soon, or we’d be face-to-face with him.

Movement at the base of the rock caught my attention.

I went still as death.

A beautiful, dark-haired young woman stood there. Staring up at us, squinting and sniffing.

A smile bloomed on her red—her bloody mouth. She smiled in my general direction. Revealing blood-coated teeth.

Stryga. The Weaver had waited. Hiding here. Until we arrived.

She brushed a snow-white hand over the tattoo of a crescent moon now on her forearm. Rhys’s bargain-mark. A reminder—and warning.

To go. To hurry.

She faced the rocky path half-visible to our left, Ianthe’s jewel splattered with blood where it sat atop her head. Strode right to the guards stationed there, who we’d been climbing the cliff face to avoid. Some of them jolted. Stryga smiled once—a hateful, awful smile—and leaped upon them.

A diversion.

Amren shuddered, but we launched into motion once more. The guards were focused on her slaughtering, sprinting from their posts up the hill to meet her.

Faster—we didn’t have much time. I could feel the Cauldron rallying—

No. Not the Cauldron.

That power … it came from behind.

Nesta.

“Good girl,” Amren muttered under her breath. Just before she grabbed me by the back of my jacket and slammed me face-first into the stone, ducking low.

Right as a pair of boots strolled down the narrow path. I knew the sound of his footsteps. They haunted my dreams.

The King of Hybern walked right past us. Focused on Stryga, on Nesta’s distant rumble of power.

The Weaver paused as she beheld who approached. Smiled, blood dripping off her chin.

“How beautiful you are,” he murmured, his voice a seductive croon. “How magnificent, ancient one.”

She brushed her dark hair over a slim shoulder. “You may bow, king. As it was once done.”

The King of Hybern walked right up to her. Smiled down at Stryga’s exquisite face.

Then he took that face in his broad hands, faster than she could move, and snapped her neck.

It might not have killed her. The Weaver was a death-god—her very existence defied our own. So it might not have killed her, that cracking of her spine. Had the king not tossed her body down to the two naga-hounds snarling at the foot of the hill.

They ripped into the Weaver’s limp body without hesitation.

Even Amren let out a sound of dismay.

But the king was staring northward. Toward Nesta.

That power—her power—surged again. Beckoning, as the Cauldron atop this rock now called to me.

He gazed toward the sea—the battle raging there.

I could have sworn he was smiling as he winnowed away.

“Now,” Amren breathed.

I couldn’t move. Cassian and Nesta—even Rhys thought there was no shot of survival.

“You make it count,” Amren snapped, and that was true grief shining in her eyes. She knew what was about to happen. The window that we’d been bought.

I swallowed my despair, my terror, and charged up the hill—to the crag.

To where the Cauldron sat. Unguarded. Waiting for us.

The Book appeared in Amren’s small hands. The Cauldron was nearly as tall as she was. A looming black pit of hate and power.

I could stop this. Right now. Stop this army—and the king before he killed Nesta and Cassian. Amren opened the Book. Looked at me expectantly.

“Put your hand on the Cauldron,” she said quietly. I obeyed.

The Cauldron’s endless power slammed into me, a wave threatening to sweep me under, a storm with no end.

I could barely keep one foot in this world, barely remember my name. I clung to what I had seen in the Ouroboros—clung to every reflection and memory I had faced and owned, the good and wicked and the gray. Who I was, who I was, who I was—

Amren watched me for a long moment. And did not read from the Book. Did not put it in my hands. She shut the gold pages and shoved it behind her with a kick.

Amren had lied. She did not plan to leash the king or his army with the Cauldron and the Book.

And whatever trap she had set … I had fallen right into it.

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