The clock chimed ten, and Celaena, seated at the small desk in her bedroom, looked up from her book. She should be sleeping, or at least trying to. Fleetfoot, dozing in her lap, yawned widely. Celaena scratched her behind the ears and ran a hand along the page of the book. Wyrdmarks stared up at her, their intricate curves and angles speaking a language she couldn’t yet begin to decipher. How long had it taken Nehemia to learn them? And, she wondered darkly, how could their power possibly still work when magic itself was gone?
She hadn’t seen Nehemia since the ball last night, hadn’t dared to approach her, or tell Chaol what she’d learned. Nehemia had been deceitful about her language skills, and how much she knew about the Wyrdmarks, but she could have any number of reasons for that. Celaena had been wrong to go to the ball last night, wrong to believe Nehemia was capable of such bad things. Nehemia was one of the good ones. She wouldn’t target Celaena, not when they’d been friends. They had been friends. Celaena swallowed the tightness in her throat and turned the page. Her heart stopped.
There, looking up at her, were the symbols she’d seen near the bodies. And in the margin, written by someone centuries ago, was the explanation: For sacrifices to the ridderak: using the victim’s blood, mark the area around it accordingly. Once the creature has been summoned, these marks guide the exchange: for the flesh of the sacrifice, the beast will grant you the victim’s strength.
Celaena fought to keep her hands from trembling as she flipped through the pages, searching for anything about the marks under her bed. When the book yielded nothing, she returned to the summoning spell. A ridderak—that was the name of the beast? What was it? Where had it been summoned from, if it wasn’t— The Wyrdgates. She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes. Someone was actually using the Wyrdmarks to open a portal to summon this creature. It was impossible, because magic was gone, but the texts said Wyrdmarks existed outside of magic. What if their power still worked? But . . . but Nehemia? How could her friend do such a thing? Why did she need the Champions’ strength? And how could she keep everything hidden so well?
Yet Nehemia could easily be a cunning actress. And maybe Celaena had wanted a friend—wanted someone as different and outsiderly as she was. Maybe she’d been too willing, too desperate, to see anything but what she wanted to see. Celaena took a steadying breath. Nehemia loved Eyllwe—that was certainly true—and Celaena knew there was nothing Nehemia wouldn’t do to keep her country safe. Unless . . .
Ice moved through Celaena’s veins. Unless Nehemia was here to start something bigger—unless she didn’t want to make sure the king spared Eyllwe at all. Unless she wanted what few dared whisper: rebellion. And not rebellion as it was now, with rebel groups hiding out in the wilderness, but rather rebellion in the sense of entire kingdoms rising up against Adarlan—as it should have been from the start.
But why kill the Champions? Why not target royals? The ball would have been perfect for that. Why use Wyrdmarks? She’d seen Nehemia’s rooms; there were no signs of a demon beast lurking about, and nowhere in the castle where she could—
Celaena’s eyes rose from the book. Blocked by the giant chest of drawers, the tapestry still rippled in a phantom breeze. There was nowhere in the castle to summon or hide a creature like that, except for the endless, forgotten chambers and tunnels running beneath it.
“No,” she said, standing so fast that it was all Fleetfoot could do to leap out of the way as her chair toppled over. No, it wasn’t true. Because it was Nehemia. Because . . . because . . .
Celaena grunted as she pushed the chest to the side and folded the tapestry back from the wall. Just as it had two months ago, a cold, damp breeze leaked through the cracks, but it smelled nothing of roses. All of the murders had occurred within two days of a Test. That meant tonight, or tomorrow, something would happen. The ridderak, whatever it was, would strike again. And with the marks that she’d found painted under her bed . . . there was no way in hell she’d wait for it to show up.
After shutting the whining Fleetfoot out of the bedroom, Celaena covered the passage entry with the tapestry, wedged a book in the doorway to keep from getting locked in, and only once wished she had a weapon beyond the candlestick she carried and the makeshift knife in her pocket.
Because if Nehemia had truly lied to her like that, and if Nehemia was murdering the Champions, then Celaena had to see it herself. If only so she could kill her with her bare hands.
Down and down she went, her breath thick in the frigid air. Water dripped somewhere, and Celaena looked longingly at the middle archway as she approached the crossroads. There was no thought of escape now. What would be the point, when she was so close to winning? If she lost, she’d sneak back here before they had a chance to ship her off to Endovier again.
Celaena studied the left- and right-side passages. The one to her left only led to a dead end. But the one on the right . . . that was the passage she’d taken to Elena’s tomb. There she’d seen countless other passageways leading to unknown places.
She stepped closer to the archway and froze when she saw the steps that descended into the murky darkness. The centuries-old dust had been disturbed. Footprints led up and down.
Nehemia and her creature must have been creeping around down here, just floors below everyone else. Hadn’t Verin died just after he taunted her in front of Nehemia? Celaena clutched her candlestick tighter, and pulled her makeshift knife out of her pocket.
Step after step, she began her descent down the stairwell. Soon, she could no longer see the top landing, and the bottom never came any closer. But then whispers filled the corridor, slithering off the walls. She quieted her steps and shielded her candle as she neared. It wasn’t the idle chat of servants, but someone speaking rapidly, almost chanting.
Not Nehemia. A man.
A landing approached below, opening into a room to her left. A greenish light seeped out of it onto the stones of the stairwell, which continued on past the landing and into darkness. The hair on her arms rose as the voice became clearer. It didn’t speak any tongue that she recognized; it was guttural and harsh, and grated against her ears, as if it sucked the very warmth from her bones. The man panted as he spoke, like the words burned his throat, and finally he gasped for air.
Silence fell. Setting down her candle, Celaena crept toward the landing and peered inside the room. The oaken door had been thrown open, a giant key turned in its rusting lock. And inside the small chamber, kneeling before a darkness so black that it seemed poised to devour the world, was Cain.
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