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“Get your sword and your weapons, and hurry,” Rowan said to Celaena as she instantly came to her feet, reaching for the dagger beside the bed.

He was already halfway across the room, slinging on his clothes and weapons with lethal efficiency. She didn’t bother with questions—­he would tell her what was necessary. She hopped into her pants and boots.

“I think ­we’ve been betrayed,” Rowan said, and her fingers caught on a buckle of her sword-­belt as she turned to the open window. Quiet. Absolute quiet in the forest.

And along the horizon, a growing smear of blackness. “They’re coming to­night,” she breathed.

“I did a sweep of the perimeter.” Rowan stuffed a knife into his boot. “It’s as if someone told them where every trap, every warning bell is located. They’ll be ­here within the hour.”

“Are the ward-­stones still working?” She finished braiding her hair and strapped her sword across her back.

“Yes—they’re intact. I raised the alarm, and Malakai and the others are readying our defenses on the walls.” A small part of her smiled at the thought of what it must have been like for Malakai to find a half-­naked Rowan shouting orders in his room.

She asked, “Who would have betrayed us?”

“I don’t know, and when I find them, I’ll splatter them on the walls. But for now, we have bigger problems to worry about.”

The darkness on the horizon had spread, devouring the stars, the trees, the light. “What is that?”

Rowan’s mouth tightened into a thin line. “Bigger problems.”

The ward-­stones ­were the last line of defense before the fortress itself. If Narrok planned to lay siege to Mistward, they ­couldn’t outlast him forever—­but hopefully the barrier would wear down the creatures and their power a bit. On the battlements, in the courtyard and atop the towers, stood the demi-­Fae. Archers would take down as many men as possible once the barrier fell, and they would use the oak doors of the fortress as a bottleneck into the courtyard.

But there ­were still the creatures and Narrok, along with the darkness that they carried with them. Birds and animals streamed past the fortress as they fled—­an exodus of flapping wings, padding feet, claws clicking on stone. Herding the animals to safety ­were the Little Folk, hardly more than a gleam of night-­seeing eyes. What­ever darkness Narrok and the creatures brought . . . once you went in, you did not come out.

She was standing with Rowan just beyond the gates of the courtyard, the grassy expanse of earth between the fortress and the ward-­stones feeling far too small. The animals and Little Folk had stopped appearing moments before, and even the wind had died.

“As soon as the barrier falls, I want you to put arrows through their eyes,” Rowan said to her, his bow slack in his hands. “Don’t give them a chance to enthrall you—­or anyone. Leave the soldiers to the others.”

They hadn’t heard or seen any of the two hundred men, but she nodded, gripping her own bow. “What about magic?”

“Use it sparingly, but if you think you can destroy them with it, don’t hesitate. And don’t get fancy. Take them down by any means possible.” Such icy calculation. Purebred, undiluted warrior. She could almost feel the aggression pouring off him.

A reek was rising from beyond the barrier, and some of the sentries in the courtyard behind them began murmuring. A smell from another world, from what­ever hellish creature lurked under mortal skin. Some straggling animals darted out of the trees, foaming at the mouth, the darkness behind them thickening. “Rowan,” she said as she felt rather than saw them. “They’re ­here.”

At the edge of the trees, hardly five yards from the ward-­stones, the creatures emerged.

Celaena started. Three.

Three, not two. “But the skinwalkers—” She ­couldn’t finish the words as the three men surveyed the fortress. They ­were clad in deepest black, their tunics open to reveal the Wyrdstone torques at their throats. The skinwalkers hadn’t killed it—­no, because there was that same perfect male, looking straight at her. Smiling at her. As if he could already taste her.

A rabbit bolted out of the bushes, racing for the ward-­stones. Like the paw of a massive beast, the darkness behind the creatures lashed out, sweeping over the fleeing animal.

The rabbit fell midleap, its fur turning dull and matted, bones pushing through as the life was sucked out of it. The sentries on the walls and towers stirred, some swearing. She had stood a chance of escaping the clutches of just one of those creatures. But all three together became something ­else, something infinitely powerful.

“The barrier cannot be allowed to fall,” Rowan said to her. “That blackness will kill anything it touches.” Even as he spoke, the ­darkness stretched around the fortress. Trapping them. The barrier hummed, and the reverberations zinged against the ­soles of her boots.

She shifted into her Fae form, wincing against the pain. She needed the sharper hearing, the strength and healing. Still, the three creatures remained on the forest edge, the darkness spreading. No sign of the two hundred soldiers.

As one, the three half turned to the shadows behind them and stepped aside, heads bowed. Then, stalking out of the trees, Narrok appeared.

Unlike the others, Narrok was not beautiful. He was scarred and powerfully built, and armed to the teeth. But he, too, had skin carved with those glittering black veins, and wore that torque of obsidian. Even from this distance, she could see the devouring emptiness in his eyes. It seeped toward them like blood in a river.

She waited for him to say something, to parlay and offer a choice between yielding to the king’s power or death, to give some speech to break their morale. But Narrok looked upon Mistward with a slow, almost delighted sweep of the head, drew his iron blade, and pointed at the curving ward-­stone gates.

There was nothing Celaena or Rowan could do as a whip of darkness snapped out and struck the invisible barrier. The air shuddered, and the stones whined.

Rowan was already moving toward the oak doors, shouting orders to the archers to ready themselves and use what­ever magic they had to shield against the oncoming darkness. Celaena remained where she was. Another strike, and the barrier rippled.

“Aelin,” Rowan snapped, and she looked over her shoulder at him. “Get inside the gates.”

But she slung her bow across her back, and when she raised her hand, it was consumed with fire. “In the woods that night, it balked from the flame.”

“To use it, you’ll have to get outside the barrier, or it’ll just rebound against the walls.”

“I know,” she said quietly.

“The last time, you took one look at that thing and fell under its spell.”

The darkness lashed again.

“It won’t be like last time,” she said, eyes on Narrok, on his three creatures. Not when she had a score to settle. Her blood heated, but she said, “I don’t know what ­else to do.”

Because if that darkness reached them, then all the blades and arrows would be useless. They ­wouldn’t have a chance to strike.

A cry sounded behind them, followed by a few more, then the clash of metal on metal. Someone shouted, “The tunnel! They’ve been let in through the tunnel!”

For a moment, Celaena just stood there, blinking. The escape tunnel. They had been betrayed. And now they knew where the soldiers ­were: creeping through the underground network, let in perhaps because the ward-­stones, with that strange sentience, ­were too focused on the threat above to be able to contain the one below.

The shouting and fighting grew louder. Rowan had stationed their weaker fighters inside to keep them safe—­right in the path of the tunnel entrance. It would be a slaughter­house. “Rowan—”

Another blow to the barrier from the darkness, and another. She began walking toward the stones, and Rowan growled. “Do not take one more step—”

She kept going. Inside the fortress, screaming had begun—­pain and death and terror. Each step away from it tore at her, but she headed to the stones, toward the megalith gates. Rowan grabbed her elbow. “That was an order.”

She knocked his hand away. “You’re needed inside. Leave the barrier to me.”
“You don’t know if it’ll work—”

“It will work,” she snarled. “I’m the expendable one, Rowan.”

“You are heir to the throne of—”

“Right now, I am a woman who has a power that might save lives. Let me do this. Help the others.”

Rowan looked at the ward-­stones, at the fortress and the sentries scrambling to help below. Weighing, calculating. At last, Rowan said, “Do not engage them. You focus on that darkness and keeping it away from the barrier, and that’s it. Hold the line, Aelin.”

But she didn’t want to hold the line—­not when her enemy was so close. Not when the weight of those souls at Calaculla and Endovier pressed on her, screaming as loudly as the soldiers inside the fortress. She had failed all of them. She had been too late. And it was enough. But she nodded, like the good soldier Rowan believed she was, and said, “Understood.”

“They will attack you the moment you set foot outside the barrier,” he said, releasing her arm. Her magic began to boil in her veins. “Have a shield ready.”

“I know” was her only answer as she neared the barrier and the swirling dark beyond. The curving stones of the gateway loomed, and she drew the sword from her back with her right hand, her left hand enveloped in flame.

Nehemia’s people, butchered. Her own people, butchered. Her people.

Celaena stepped under the archway of stones, magic zinging and kissing her skin. Just a few steps would take her outside the barrier. She could feel Rowan lingering, waiting to see if she would survive the first moments. But she would—­she was going to burn these things into ash and dust.

This was the least she owed those murdered in Endovier and Calaculla—­the least she could do, after so long. A monster to destroy monsters.

The flames on her left hand burned brighter as Celaena stepped beyond the archway and into the beckoning abyss.

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