Celaena’s fire was still crackling, the rain still pounding beyond the cave mouth. But the forest had gone quiet. Those little watching eyes had vanished.
She uncoiled to her feet, spear in one hand and a stake in the other, and crept to the narrow cave entrance. With the rain and the fire, she couldn’t make out anything. But every hair on her body was standing, and a growing reek was slithering in from the forest beyond. Like leather and carrion. Different from what she’d whiffed at the barrows. Older and earthier and . . . hungrier.
Suddenly, the fire seemed like the stupidest thing she had ever done.
No fires. That had been Rowan’s only rule while trekking to the fortress. And they had stayed off the roads—veering away entirely from the forgotten, overgrown ones. Ones like the path she’d spied nearby.
The silence deepened.
She slipped into the drenched forest, stubbing her toes on rocks and roots as her eyes adjusted to the dark. But she kept moving ahead—curving down and away from the ancient path.
She’d made it far enough that her cave was little more than a glow on the hill above, a flicker of light illuminating the trees. A gods-damned beacon. She angled her stake and spear into better positions, about to continue on when lightning flashed.
Three tall, lanky silhouettes lurked in front of her cave.
Though they stood like humans, she knew, deep in her bones from some collective mortal memory, that they were not. They were not Fae, either.
With expert quiet, she took another step, then another. They were still poking around the cave entrance, taller than men, neither male nor female.
Skinwalkers are on the prowl, Rowan had warned that first day they’d trained, searching for human pelts to bring back to their caves. She had been too dazed to ask or care. But now—now that carelessness, that wallowing, was going to get her killed. Skinned.
Wendlyn. Land of nightmares made flesh, where legends roamed the earth. Despite years of stealth training, each step felt like a snap, her breathing too loud.
Thunder grumbled, and she used the cover of the sound to take a few bounding steps. She stopped behind another tree, breathing as quietly as she could, and peered around it to survey the hillside behind her. Lightning flashed again.
The three figures were gone. But the leathery, rancid smell swarmed all around her now. Human pelts.
She eyed the tree she’d ducked behind. The trunk was too slick with moss and rain to scale, the branches too high. The other trees weren’t any better. And what good was being stuck up a tree in a lightning storm?
She darted to the next tree, carefully avoiding any sticks or leaves, cursing silently at the slowness of her pace, and— Damn it all to hell. She burst into a run, the mossy earth treacherous underfoot. She could make out the trees, some larger rocks, but the slope was steep. She kept her feet under her, even as undergrowth cracked behind, faster and faster.
She didn’t dare take her focus off the trees and rocks as she hurtled down the slope, desperate for any flat ground. Perhaps their hunting territory ended somewhere—perhaps she could outrun them until dawn. She veered eastward, still going downhill, and grabbed on to a trunk to swing herself around, almost losing her balance as she slammed into something hard and unyielding.
She slashed with her stake—only to be grabbed by two massive hands.
Her wrists sang in agony as the fingers squeezed hard enough that she couldn’t stab either weapon into her captor. She twisted, bringing up a foot to smash into her assailant, and caught a flash of fangs before— Not fangs. Teeth.
And there was no gleam of flesh-pelts. Only silver hair, shining with rain.
Rowan dragged her against him, pressing them into what appeared to be a hollowed-out tree.
She kept her panting quiet, but breathing didn’t become any easier when Rowan gripped her by the shoulders and put his mouth to her ear. The crashing footsteps had stopped.
“You are going to listen to every word I say.” Rowan’s voice was softer than the rain outside. “Or else you are going to die tonight. Do you understand?” She nodded. He let go—only to draw his sword and a wicked-looking hatchet. “Your survival depends entirely on you.” The smell was growing again. “You need to shift now. Or your mortal slowness will kill you.”
She stiffened, but reached in, feeling for some thread of power. There was nothing. There had to be some trigger, some place inside her where she could command it . . . A slow, shrieking sound of stone on metal sounded through the rain. Then another. And another. They were sharpening their blades. “Your magic—”
“They do not breathe, so have no airways to cut off. Ice would slow them, not stop them. My wind is already blowing our scent away from them, but not for long. Shift, Aelin.”
Aelin. It was not a test, not some elaborate trick. The skinwalkers did not need air.
Rowan’s tattoo shone as lightning filled their little hiding spot. “We are going to have to run in a moment. What form you take when we do will determine our fates. So breathe, and shift.”
Though every instinct screamed against it, she closed her eyes. Took a breath. Then another. Her lungs opened, full of cool, soothing air, and she wondered if Rowan was helping with that, too.
He was helping. And he was willing to meet a horrible fate in order to keep her alive. He hadn’t left her alone. She hadn’t been alone.
There was a muffled curse, and Rowan slammed his body against hers, as if he could somehow shield her. No, not shield her. Cover her, the flash of light.
She barely registered the pain—if only because the moment her Fae senses snapped into place, she had to shove a hand against her own mouth to keep from retching. Oh, gods, the festering smell of them, worse than any corpse she’d ever dealt with.
With her delicately pointed ears, she could hear them now, each step they took as the three of them systematically made their way down the hill. They spoke in low, strange voices—at once male and female, all ravenous.
“There are two of them now,” one hissed. She didn’t want to know what power it wielded to allow it to speak when it had no airways. “A Fae male joined the female. I want him—he smells of storm winds and steel.” Celaena gagged as the smell shoved down her throat. “The female we’ll bring back with us—dawn’s too close. Then we can take our time peeling her apart.”
Rowan eased off her and said quietly, not needing to be near for her to hear while he assessed the forest beyond, “There is a swift river a third of a mile east, at the base of a large cliff.” He didn’t look at her as he extended two long daggers, and she didn’t nod her thanks as she silently discarded her makeshift weapons and gripped the ivory hilts. “When I say run, you run like hell. Step where I step, and don’t turn around for any reason. If we are separated, run straight—you’ll hear the river.” Order after order—a commander on the battlefield, solid and deadly. He peered out of the tree. The smell was nearly overpowering now, swarming from every angle. “If they catch you, you cannot kill them—not with a mortal weapon. Your best option is to fight until you can get free and run. Understand?”
She gave another nod. Breathing was hard again, and the rain was now torrential.
“On my mark,” Rowan said, smelling and hearing things that were lost even to her heightened senses. “Steady . . .” She sank onto her haunches as Rowan did the same.
“Come out, come out,” one of them hissed—so close it could have been inside the tree with them. There was a sudden rustling in thebrush to the west, almost as if two people were running. Instantly, the reek of the skinwalkers lessened as they raced after the cracking branches and leaves that Rowan’s wind led in the other direction.
“Now,” Rowan hissed, and burst out of the tree.
Celaena ran—or tried to. Even with her sharpened vision, the brush and stones and trees proved a hindrance. Rowan raced toward the rising roar of the river, swollen from the spring rains, his pace slower than she’d expected, but . . . but he was slowing for her. Because this Fae body was different, and she was adjusting wrong, and—
She slipped, but a hand was at her elbow, keeping her upright. “Faster,” was all he said, and as soon as she’d found her footing, he was off again, shooting through the trees like a mountain cat.
It took all of a minute before the force of that smell gnawed on her heels and the snapping of the brush closed in. But she wouldn’t take her eyes off Rowan, and the brightening ahead—the end of the tree line. Not much farther until they could jump, and—
A fourth skinwalker leapt out of where it had somehow been lurking undetected in the brush. It lunged for Rowan in a flash of leathery, long limbs marred with countless scars. No, not scars—stitches. The stitches holding its various hides together.
She shouted as the skinwalker pounced, but Rowan didn’t falter a step as he ducked and twirled with inhuman speed, slashing down with his sword and viciously slicing with the hatchet.
The skinwalker’s arm severed at the same moment its head toppled off its neck.
She might have marveled at the way he moved, the way he killed, but Rowan didn’t stop sprinting, so Celaena raced after him, glancing once at the body the Fae warrior had left in pieces.
Sagging bits of leather on the wet leaves, like discarded clothes. But still twitching and rustling—as if waiting for someone to stitch it back together.
She ran faster, Rowan still bounding ahead.
The skinwalkers closed in from behind, shrieking with rage. Then they fell silent, until—
“You think the river can save you?” one of them panted, letting out a laugh that raked along her bones. “You think if we get wet, we’ll lose our form? I have worn the skins of fishes when mortals were scarce, female.”
She had an image then, of the chaos waiting in that river—a flipping and near-drowning and dizziness—and something pulling her down, down, down to the still bottom.
“Rowan,” she breathed, but he was already gone, his massive body hurtling straight off the cliff edge in a mighty leap.
There was no stopping the pursuit behind her. The skinwalkers were going to jump with them. And there would be nothing they could do to kill them, no mortal weapon they could use.
A well ripped open inside of her, vast and unyielding and horrible. Rowan had claimed no mortal weapon could kill them. But what of immortal ones?
Celaena broke through the line of trees, sprinting for the ledge that jutted out, bare granite beneath her as she threw her strength into her legs, her lungs, her arms, and jumped.
As she plummeted, she twisted to face the cliff, to face them. They were no more than three lean bodies leaping into the rainy night, shrieking with primal, triumphant, anticipated pleasure.
“Shift!” was the only warning she gave Rowan. There was a flash of light to tell her he’d obeyed.
Then she ripped everything from that well inside her, ripped it out with both hands and her entire raging, hopeless heart.
As she fell, hair whipping her face, Celaena thrust her hands toward the skinwalkers.
“Surprise,” she hissed. The world erupted in blue wildfire.
Celaena shuddered on the riverbank, from cold and exhaustion and terror. Terror at the skinwalkers—and terror at what she had done.
His clothes dry thanks to shifting, Rowan stood a few feet away, monitoring the smoldering cliffs upriver. She’d incinerated the skinwalkers. They hadn’t even had time to scream.
She hunched over her knees, arms wrapped around herself. The forest was burning on either side of the river—a radius that she didn’t have the nerve to measure. It was a weapon, her power. A different sort of weapon than blades or arrows or her hands. A curse.
It took several attempts, but at last she spoke. “Can you put it out?”
“You could, if you tried.” When she didn’t respond, he said, “I’m almost done.” In a moment the flames nearest the cliffs went out. How long had he been working to suffocate them? “We don’t need something else attracted to your fires.”
She might have bothered to respond to the jab, but she was too tired and cold. The rain filled the world, and for a while, silence reigned.
“Why is my shifting so vital?” she asked at last.
“Because it terrifies you,” he said. “Mastering it is the first step toward learning to control your power. Without that control, with a blast like that, you could easily have burnt yourself out.”
“What do you mean?”
Another stormy look. “When you access your power, what does it feel like?”
She considered. “A well,” she said. “The magic feels like a well.”
“Have you felt the bottom of it?”
“Is there a bottom?” She prayed there was.
“All magic has a bottom—a breaking point. For those with weaker gifts, it’s easily depleted and easily refilled. They can access most of their power at once. But for those with stronger gifts, it can take hours to hit the bottom, to summon their powers at full strength.”
“How long does it take you?”
“A full day.” She jolted. “Before battle, we take the time, so that when we walk onto the killing field, we can be at our strongest. You can do other things at the same time, but some part of you is down in there, pulling up more and more, until you reach the bottom.”
“And when you pull it all out, it just—releases in some giant wave?”
“If I want it to. I can release it in smaller bursts, and go on for a while. But it can be hard to hold it back. People sometimes can’t tell friend from foe when they’re handling that much magic.”
When she’d drawn her power on the other side of the portal months ago, she’d felt that lack of control—known she was almost as likely to hurt Chaol as she was to hurt the demon he was facing. “How long does it take you to recover?”
“Days. A week, depending on how I used the power and whether I drained every last drop. Some make the mistake of trying to take more before they’re ready, or holding on for too long, and they either burn out their minds or just burn up altogether. Your shaking isn’t just from the river, you know. It’s your body’s way of telling you not to do that again.”
“Because of the iron in our blood pushing against the magic?”
“That’s how our enemies will sometimes try to fight against us if they don’t have magic—iron everything.” He must have seen her brows rise, because he added, “I was captured once. While on a campaign in the east, in a kingdom that doesn’t exist anymore. They had me shackled head to toe in iron to keep me from choking the air out of their lungs.”
She let out a low whistle. “Were you tortured?”
“Two weeks on their tables before my men rescued me.” He unbuckled his vambrace and pushed back the sleeve of his right arm, revealing a thick, wicked scar curving around his forearm and elbow. “Cut me open bit by bit, then took the bones here and—”
“I can see very well what happened, and know exactly how it’s done,” she said, stomach tightening. Not at the injury, but—Sam. Sam had been strapped to a table, cut open and broken by one of the most sadistic killers she’d ever known.
“Was it you,” Rowan said quietly, but not gently, “or someone else?”
“I was too late. He didn’t survive.” Again silence fell, and she cursed herself for a fool for telling him. But then she said hoarsely, “Thank you for saving me.”
A slight shrug, barely a movement at all. As if her gratitude were harder to endure than her hatred and reticence. “I am bound by an unbreakable blood oath to my Queen, so I had no choice but to ensure you didn’t die.” A bit of that earlier heaviness settled in her veins again. “But,” he went on, “I would not have left anyone to a fate at the hands of the skinwalkers.”
“A warning would have been nice.”
“I said they were on the loose—weeks ago. But even if I’d warned you today, you would not have listened.”
It was true. She shivered again, this time so violently that her body shifted back, a flash of light and pain. If she’d thought she was cold in her Fae body, it was nothing compared to the cold of being human again.
“What was the trigger when you shifted earlier?” he asked, as if this moment were a reprieve from the real world, where the freezing storm and the surging river could muffle their words from the gods. She rubbed at her arms, desperate for any kind of warmth.
“It was nothing.” His silence demanded information for information—a fair trade. She sighed. “Let’s just say it was fear and necessity and impressively deep-rooted survival instincts.”
“You didn’t lose control immediately upon shifting. When you finally used your magic, your clothes didn’t burn; neither did your hair. And the daggers didn’t melt.” As if just now remembering that she still had them, he swiped them from her.
He was right. The magic hadn’t swarmed her the moment she’d shifted, and even in the explosion that had spread out in every direction, she’d had enough control to preserve herself. Not a single hair had burned.
“Why was it different this time?” he pressed.
“Because I didn’t want you to die to save me,” she admitted.
“Would you have shifted to save yourself ?”
“Your opinion of me is pretty much identical to my own, so you know the answer.”
He was quiet for long enough that she wondered if he was piecing the bits of her together. “You’re not leaving,” Rowan said at last, arms crossed. “I’m not letting you off double duty in the kitchens, but you’re not leaving.”
He unfastened his cloak. “Because I said so, that’s why.” And she might have told him it was the worst gods-damned reason she had ever heard, and that he was an arrogant prick, had he not tossed her his cloak—dry and warm. Then he dropped his jacket in her lap, too.
When he turned to go back to the fortress, she followed him.
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