فصل 74

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CHAPTER

74

I gripped my sense of self in the face of the black maw of the Cauldron. Gripped it with everything I had.

Amren only said, “I’m sorry I lied to you.”

I could not remove my hand. Could not pry my fingers away. I was being shredded apart, slowly, thoroughly.

I flung my magic out, desperate for any chain to this world to save me, keep me from being devoured by the eternal, awful thing that now tried to drag me into its embrace.

Fire and water and light and wind and ice and night. All rallied. All failed me.

Some tether slipped, and my mind slid closer to the Cauldron’s outstretched arms.

I felt it touch me.

And then I was half gone.

Half there, standing silently next to the Cauldron, hand glued to the black rim.

Half … elsewhere.

Flying through the world. Searching. The Cauldron now hunted for that power that had come so close … And now taunted it.

Nesta.

The Cauldron searched for her, searched for her as the king now sought her.

It skimmed across the battlefield like an insect over the surface of a pond.

We were losing. Badly. Seraphim and Illyrians were bloodied and being hauled out of the sky. Azriel had been forced to the ground, his wings dragging in the bloody mud as he fought sword to sword against the endless onslaught. Our foot soldiers had broken the lines in places, Keir screaming at his Darkbringers to get back into position, plumes of shadows flaring from him.

I saw Rhysand. In the thick of those breaking lines. Blood-splattered, fighting beautifully.

I saw him assess the field ahead—and transform.

The talons came first. Replacing fingers and feet. Then dark scales or perhaps feathers, I couldn’t get a look at them, covered his legs, his arms, his chest. His body contorted, bones and muscles growing and shifting.

The beast form Rhys had kept hidden. Never liked to unleash.

Unless it was dire enough to do so.

Before the Cauldron swept me away, I beheld what happened to his head, his face.

It was a thing of nightmares. Nothing human or Fae in it. It was a creature that lived in black pits and only emerged at night to hunt and feast. The face … it was those creatures that had been carved into the rock of the Court of Nightmares. That made up his throne. The throne not only a representation of his power … but of what lurked within. And with the wings …

Hybern soldiers began fleeing.

Helion beheld what happened and ran, too—but toward Rhys.

Shifting as well.

If Rhys was a flying terror crafted from shadows and cold moonlight, Helion was his daytime equivalent.

Gold feathers and shredding claws and feathered wings—

Together, my mate and the High Lord of Day unleashed themselves upon Hybern.

Until they paused. Until a slim, short male walked out of the ranks toward them—one of Hybern’s commanders, no doubt. Rhys’s snarl shook the earth. But it was Helion, glowing with white light, who stepped forward to face the male, claws sinking deep into the mud.

The commander didn’t so much as wear a sword. Only fine gray clothes and a vaguely amused expression on his face. Amethyst light swirled around him. Helion growled at Rhys—an order.

And my mate nodded, gore dripping from his maw, before he lunged back into the fray.

Leaving the commander and Helion Spell-Cleaver to go head-to-head. Spell to spell.

Soldiers on either side began fleeing.

But the Cauldron whipped me away as Helion unleashed a blast of light toward the commander, its quarry not to be found on that battlefield.

Come, Nesta’s power seemed to sing. Come.

The Cauldron caught her scent and hurtled us onward.

We arrived before the king did.

The Cauldron seemed to skid to a halt at the clearing. Seemed to coil and reel back, a snake poised to strike.

Nesta and Cassian stood there, his sword out, Nesta’s eyes blazing with that inner, unholy fire. “Get ready,” she breathed. “He’s coming.”

The power Nesta was holding back …

She’d kill the King of Hybern.

Cassian was the distraction—while her blow found its mark.

Time seemed to slow and warp. The dark power of the king speared toward us. Toward that clearing where I was neither seen nor heard, where I was nothing but a scrap of soul carried on a black wind.

The King of Hybern winnowed right in front of them.

Nesta’s power rallied—then vanished.

Cassian did not move. Did not dare.

For the King of Hybern held my father before him, a sword to his throat.

That was why he had looked to the sea. He’d known Nesta would land that killing blow the moment he appeared, and the only way to stop it …

A human shield. One she’d think twice about allowing to die.

Our father was blood-splattered, leaner than the last time I’d seen him. “Nesta,” he breathed, noting the ears, the Fae grace. The power sputtering out in her eyes.

The king smiled. “What a loving father—to bring an entire army to save his daughters.”

Nesta did not say anything. Cassian’s attention darted through the clearing, sizing up every advantage, every angle.

Save him, I begged the Cauldron of my father. Help him.

The Cauldron did not answer. It had no voice, no consciousness save some base need to take back that which had been stolen.

The King of Hybern tilted his head to peer at my father’s bearded and weather-tanned face. “So many things have changed since you were last home. Three daughters, now Fae. One of them married quite well.”

My father only gazed at my sister. Ignored the monster behind him and said to her, “I loved you from the first moment I held you in my arms. And I am … I am so sorry, Nesta—my Nesta. I am so sorry, for all of it.”

“Please,” Nesta said to the king. Her only word, guttural and hoarse. “Please.”

“What will you give me, Nesta Archeron?”

Nesta stared and stared at my father, who was shaking his head. Cassian’s hand twitched, the blade rising. Trying to get a good shot.

“Will you give back what you took?”

“Yes.”

“Even if I have to carve it out of you?”

Our father snarled, “Don’t you lay your filthy hands on my daughter—”

I heard the crack before I realized what happened.

Before I saw the way my father’s head twisted. Saw the light freeze in his eyes.

Nesta made no sound. Showed no reaction as the King of Hybern snapped our father’s neck.

I began screaming. Screaming and thrashing inside the Cauldron’s grip. Begging it to stop it—to bring him back, to end it—

Nesta looked down at my father’s body as it crumpled to the forest floor.

And as the king had predicted … Nesta’s power flickered out.

But Cassian’s had not.

Arrows of blinding red shot for the King of Hybern, a shield locking around Nesta as Cassian launched himself forward.

And as Cassian took on the king, who laughed and seemed willing to engage in a bit of swordplay … I stared at my father on that ground. At his open, unseeing eyes.

Cassian pushed the king away from my father’s body, swords and magics clashing. Not for long. Only long enough to hold him off—for Nesta to perhaps run.

For me to finish what I had let my family give their lives for. But the Cauldron still held me there.

Even as I tried to come back to that hill where Amren had betrayed me, had used me for whatever purpose of her own—

Nesta knelt before our father, her face a void. She gazed into his still-open eyes.

Closed them gently. Hands steady as stone.

Cassian had shoved the king deeper into the trees. His shouts rang out.

Nesta leaned forward to press a kiss to our father’s blood-splattered brow.

And when she lifted her head …

The Cauldron thrashed and roiled.

For in Nesta’s eyes, limning her skin … Uncut power.

She gazed toward the king and Cassian. Just as Cassian’s bark of pain cut toward us.

The power around her shuddered. Nesta got to her feet.

Then Cassian screamed. I looked toward him. Away from my father.

Not twenty feet away, Cassian was on the ground. Wings—snapped in spots. Blood leaking from them.

Bone jutted from his thigh. His Siphons were dull. Empty.

He’d already drained them before coming here. Was exhausted.

But he had come—for her. For us.

He was panting, blood dribbling from his nose. Arms buckling as he tried to rise.

The King of Hybern stood over him, and extended a hand.

Cassian arched off the ground, bellowing in pain. A bone cracked somewhere in his body.

“Stop.”

The king looked over a shoulder as Nesta stepped forward. Cassian mouthed at her to run, blood escaping from his lips and onto the moss beneath him.

Nesta took in his broken body, the pain in Cassian’s eyes, and angled her head.

The movement was not human. Not Fae.

Purely animal.

Purely predator.

And when her eyes lifted to the king again … “I am going to kill you,” she said quietly.

“Really?” the king asked, lifting a brow. “Because I can think of far more interesting things to do with you.”

Not again. I could not watch this play out again. Standing by, idle, while those I loved suffered.

The Cauldron crept along with Nesta, a hound at her side.

Nesta’s fingers curled.

The king snorted. And brought his foot down upon Cassian’s nearest wing.

Bone snapped. And his scream—

I thrashed against the Cauldron’s grip. Thrashed and clawed.

Nesta exploded.

All of that power, all at once—

The king winnowed out of the way.

Her power blasted the trees behind him to cinders. Blasted across the battlefield in a low arc, then landed right in the Hybern ranks. Taking out hundreds before they knew what happened.

The king appeared perhaps thirty feet away and laughed at the smoking ruins behind him. “Magnificent,” he said. “Barely trained, brash, but magnificent.”

Nesta’s fingers curled again, as if rallying that power.

But she’d spent it all in one blow. Her eyes were blue-gray once more.

“Go,” Cassian managed to breathe. “Go.”

“This seems familiar,” the king mused. “Was it him or the other bastard who crawled toward you that day?”

Cassian was indeed now crawling toward her, broken wings and leg dragging, leaving a trail of blood over the grass and roots.

Nesta rushed to him, kneeling.

Not to comfort.

But to pick up his Illyrian blade.

Cassian tried to stop her as she stood. As Nesta lifted that sword before the King of Hybern.

She said nothing. Only held her ground.

The king chuckled and angled his own blade. “Shall I see what the Illyrians taught you?”

He was upon her before she could lift the sword higher.

Nesta jumped back, clipping his sword with her own, eyes flaring wide. The king lunged again, and Nesta again dodged and retreated through the trees.

Leading him away—away from Cassian.

She managed to draw him another few feet before the king grew bored.

In two movements, he had her disarmed. In another, he struck her across the face, so hard she went down.

Cassian cried out her name, trying again to crawl to her.

The king only sheathed his sword, towering over her as she pushed off the ground. “Well? What else do you have?”

Nesta turned over, and threw out a hand.

White, burning power shot out of her palm and slammed into his chest.

A ploy. To get him close. To lower his guard.

Her power sent him flying back, trees snapping under him. One after another after another.

The Cauldron seemed to settle. All that was left—that was it. All that was left of her power.

Nesta surged to her feet, staggering across the clearing, blood at her mouth from where he’d hit her, and threw herself to her knees before Cassian. “Get up,” she sobbed, hauling at his shoulder. “Get up.”

He tried—and failed.

“You’re too heavy,” she pleaded, but still tried to raise him, fingers scrabbling in his black, bloodied armor. “I can’t—he’s coming—”

“Go,” Cassian groaned.

Her power had stopped hurling the king across the forest. He now stalked toward them, brushing off splinters and leaves from his jacket—taking his time. Knowing she would not leave. Savoring the awaiting slaughter.

Nesta gritted her teeth, trying to haul Cassian up once more. A broken sound of pain ripped from him. “Go! ” he barked at her.

“I can’t,” she breathed, voice breaking. “I can’t.”

The same words Rhys had given him.

Cassian grunted in pain, but lifted his bloodied hands—to cup her face. “I have no regrets in my life, but this.” His voice shook with every word. “That we did not have time. That I did not have time with you, Nesta.”

She didn’t stop him as he leaned up and kissed her—lightly. As much as he could manage.

Cassian said softly, brushing away the tear that streaked down her face, “I will find you again in the next world—the next life. And we will have that time. I promise.”

The King of Hybern stepped into that clearing, dark power wafting from his fingertips.

And even the Cauldron seemed to pause in surprise—surprise or some … feeling as Nesta looked at the king with death twining around his hands, then down at Cassian.

And covered Cassian’s body with her own.

Cassian went still—then his hand slid over her back.

Together. They’d go together.

I will offer you a bargain, I said to the Cauldron. I will offer you my soul. Save them.

“Romantic,” the king said, “but ill-advised.”

Nesta did not move from where she shielded Cassian’s body.

The king raised his hand, power whirling like a dark galaxy in his palm.

I knew they’d both die the moment that power hit them.

Anything, I begged the Cauldron. Anything—

The king’s hand began to drop.

And then halted. A choking noise came out of him.

For a moment, I thought the Cauldron had answered my pleas.

But as a black blade broke through the king’s throat, spraying blood, I realized someone else had.

Elain stepped out of a shadow behind him, and rammed Truth-Teller to the hilt through the back of the king’s neck as she snarled in his ear, “Don’t you touch my sister.”

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