The person who’d gotten stronger and better as the competition went on. She’d thought it was his training, but . . . it was because he’d been using the Wyrdmarks and the beast they summoned to steal the dead Champions’ strength.
He dragged a hand across the floor before the darkness, and greenish lights sprung up from where his fingers passed before being sucked into the void like wraiths on the wind. One of his hands was bleeding.
She didn’t dare to breathe as something stirred in the darkness. There was a click of claw on stone, and a hiss like an extinguished flame. And then, stepping toward Cain on knees that bent the wrong way—like an animal’s hind legs—the ridderak emerged.
It was something out of an ancient god’s nightmares. Its hairless gray skin was stretched tightly across its misshapen head, displaying a gaping mouth filled with black fangs.
Fangs that had ripped out and eaten Verin and Xavier’s internal organs; fangs that had feasted on their brains. Its vaguely human body sank onto its haunches, and it slid its long front arms across the stone floor. The stones whined under the claws. Cain raised his head and stood slowly as the creature knelt before him and lowered its dark eyes. Submission.
Celaena only realized she was trembling when she made to step away, to flee as far and as fast as she could. Elena had been right: this was evil, plain and simple. The amulet pulsed at her neck, as if urging her to run. Her mouth dry, her blood pounding in her veins, she stepped back.
Cain whirled to look at her, and the ridderak’s head shot up, its slitted nostrils sniffing twice. She froze, but as she did so, a massive wind shoved into her from behind, making her stagger into the room.
“It wasn’t meant to be you tonight,” Cain said, but Celaena’s eyes remained on the beast, who began panting. “But this opportunity is too good to go to waste.”
“Cain,” was all she could say. The ridderak’s eyes . . . she’d never seen anything like them. There was nothing in them but hunger—endless, ageless hunger. The creature was not of this world. The Wyrdmarks worked. The gates were real. She pulled the makeshift knife out of her pocket. It was pitifully small; how could hairpins make a dent in that creature’s hide?
Cain moved so quickly that she could only blink before he was behind her, her knife somehow now in his hand. No one—no one human—could move that quickly; it was as if he were no more than shadows and wind.
“Pity,” Cain whispered from the doorway, pocketing her knife. Celaena glanced to the creature, to him, and then back. “I’ll never get to know how you wound up down here in the first place.” His fingers wrapped around the door handle. “Not that I care. Good-bye, Celaena.” The door slammed shut.
The greenish light still seeped from the marks on the floor—marks Cain had etched with his own blood—illuminating the creature who stared at her with those starving, relentless eyes.
“Cain,” she whispered, backing into the door as she fumbled with the handle. She twisted and yanked. It was locked. There was nothing in this room but stone and dust. How had she let him disarm her that easily? “Cain.” The door wouldn’t budge. “Cain!” she shouted, and banged on the door with a fist, hard enough to hurt.
The ridderak stalked back and forth on its four long, spidery limbs, sniffing at her, and Celaena paused. Why didn’t it attack immediately? It sniffed at her again, and swiped at the ground with a clawed hand—striking deep enough to take out a chunk of stone.
It wanted her alive. Cain had incapacitated Verin while he summoned the creature; it liked its blood hot. So it would find the easiest way to immobilize her, and then . . .
She couldn’t breathe. No, not like this. Not in this chamber, where no one would find her, where Chaol would never know why she disappeared, and would forever curse her for it, where she’d never get the chance to tell Nehemia she had been wrong. And Elena—Elena said someone wanted her in the tomb, to see . . . to see what?
And then she knew.
The answer lay on her right—the right passageway, the passage that led to the tomb a few levels below.
The creature sank back onto its haunches, poised to spring, and in that moment, Celaena came up with the most reckless and brave plan she’d ever concocted. She dropped her cape to the floor.
With a roar that shook the castle, the ridderak ran for her.
Celaena remained before the door, watching as it galloped at her, sparks flying from its claws as they struck stone. Ten feet away, it leapt straight toward her legs.
But Celaena was already running, running straight at those black, rotting fangs. The ridderak jumped for her, and she hurtled over the snarling thing. A thunderous, splintering boom erupted through the chamber as the ridderak shattered the wooden door. She could only imagine what it would have done to her legs. She didn’t have time to think. She landed and whirled, charging back to where the creature had crashed through the door and now sought to shake itself free of the pile of wood.
She threw herself through the doorway and turned left, flying down the stairwell. She’d never make it back to her chambers alive, but if she was fast enough, perhaps she could make it to the tomb.
The ridderak roared again, and the stairwell shuddered. She didn’t dare to look behind. She focused on her feet, on keeping upright as she bounded down the stairs, making for the landing below, illuminated by moonlight leaking from the tomb.
Celaena hit the landing, ran for the tomb door, and prayed to gods whose names she’d forgotten, but who she hoped had not yet forgotten her.
Someone wanted me to come here on Samhuinn. Someone knew this would happen. Elena wanted me to see it—so I could survive.
The creature hit the bottom landing and charged after her, so close she could smell its reeking breath. The door to the tomb was wide open. As if someone had been waiting.
Please—please . . .
Grabbing onto the side of the doorway, she swung herself inside. She gained precious time as the ridderak skidded to a halt, missing the tomb. It only took a moment for it to recover and charge, taking off a chunk of the door as it entered.
The pounding of her feet echoed through the tomb as she ran between the sarcophagi for Damaris, the sword of the ancient king.
Displayed atop its stand, the blade shone in the moonlight—the metal still gleaming after a thousand years.
The creature snarled, and she heard its deep intake of breath and the scrape of nails departing stone as the ridderak leapt for her. She lunged for the sword, her left hand wrapping around the cool hilt as she twisted in the air and swung.
She only had time to see its eyes and the blur of its skin before she drove Damaris through the ridderak’s face.
Pain lanced through her hand as they slammed into the wall and fell to the ground, scattering treasure. Black blood that stank of waste sprayed onto her.
She didn’t move, not as she stared at those black eyes barely inches from her own, not as she saw her right hand held between its black teeth, her blood already oozing down its chin. She just panted and shook, not taking her left hand from the hilt of the sword, even after those hungry eyes turned dull and its body sagged atop hers.
It was only when the amulet throbbed again that she blinked. Everything after that became a series of steps, a dance that she had to execute perfectly or else she’d fall apart right there in that tomb and never get up.
She first pried her hand from its teeth. It burned mercilessly. An arc of gushing puncture wounds encircled her thumb, and she swayed on her feet as she shoved the ridderak off her. It was surprisingly light—as if its bones were hollow, or there were nothing inside of it. Though the world became foggy around the edges, she yanked Damaris from its skull.
She used her shirt to wipe Gavin’s blade clean, and set it back where it belonged. That was why they’d brought her to the tomb on Samhuinn, wasn’t it? So she could see Damaris, and have a way to save herself?
She left the creature where it lay in a crumpled heap atop piles of jewels. Whoever had wanted to save her could clean it up. She’d had enough.
Still, Celaena paused beside Elena’s sarcophagus and looked at the beautiful face carved from marble. “Thank you,” she said hoarsely. Her vision blurring, she left the tomb and staggered up the stairs, clutching her bleeding hand to her chest.
When she was at last safely inside her chambers, Celaena crossed to her bedroom door and leaned there, panting, as she unlocked it. Her wound hadn’t clotted, and blood was still pouring down her wrist. She listened to it drip onto the floor. She should go into the bathing room and wash her hand. Her palm felt like ice. She should—
Her legs gave out and Celaena collapsed. Her eyelids became heavy, so she closed them. Why did her heart beat so slowly?
She opened her eyes to look at her hand. Her eyesight was blurry, and all she could make out was a mess of pink and red. The ice in her hand reached up her arm, down to her legs.
She heard a booming, thunderous noise. A thump-thump-thump, followed by a whine. Through her eyelids she could see the light in the room darken.
She heard a cry—female—and warm hands grabbed her face. She was so cold it almost burned. Had someone left the window open?
“Lillian!” It was Nehemia. She shook Celaena’s shoulders. “Lillian! What happened to you?”
Celaena remembered little of the next few moments. Strong arms lifted her up and rushed her into the bathing chamber. Nehemia strained as she carried Celaena into the bathing pool, where she stripped away Celaena’s clothes. Celaena’s hand burned when it touched the water, and she thrashed, but the princess held her firm, saying words in a tongue the assassin didn’t understand. The light in the room pulsed, and her skin tingled. Celaena found her arms covered in glowing turquoise marks—Wyrdmarks. Nehemia held her in the water, rocking back and forth.
Blackness swallowed her up.
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