The Rite hadn’t changed in the centuries since. Early each spring, it still went on, hundreds of warrior-novices deposited across the mountains and forests surrounding the peak, the territory off-limits during the rest of the year to prevent any of the novices from scouting ahead for the best routes and traps to lay. There were varying qualifiers throughout the year to prove a novice’s readiness, each slightly different depending on the camp. But the rules remained the same.

All novices competed with wings bound, no Siphons—a spell restraining all magic—and no supplies beyond the clothes on your back. The goal: make it to the summit of that mountain by the end of that week and touch the stone. The obstacles: the distance, the natural traps, and each other. Old feuds played out; new ones were born. Scores were settled.

A week of pointless bloodshed, Az insisted.

Rhys often agreed, though he often also agreed with Cassian’s point: the Blood Rite offered an escape valve for dangerous tensions within the Illyrian community. Better to settle it during the Rite than risk civil war.

Illyrians were strong, proud, fearless. But peacemakers, they were not.

Perhaps he’d get lucky. Perhaps the Rite this spring would ease some of the malcontent. Hell, he’d offer to participate himself, if it meant quieting the grumbling.

They’d barely survived this war. They didn’t need another one. Not with so many unknowns gathering outside their borders.

Ramiel rose higher still, a shard of stone piercing the gray sky. Beautiful and lonely. Eternal and ageless.

No wonder that first ruler of the Night Court had made this his insignia. Along with the three stars that only appeared for a brief window each year, framing the uppermost peak of Ramiel like a crown. It was during that window when the Rite occurred. Which had come first: the insignia or the Rite, Cassian didn’t know. Had never really cared to find out.

The conifer forests and ravines that dotted the landscape flowing to Ramiel’s foot gleamed under fresh snow. Empty and clean. No sign of the bloodshed that would occur come the start of spring.

The mountain neared, mighty and endless, so wide that he might as well have been a mayfly in the wind. Cassian soared toward Ramiel’s southern face, rising high enough to catch a glimpse of the shining black stone jutting from its top.

Who had put that stone atop the peak, he didn’t know, either. Legend said it had existed before the Night Court formed, before the Illyrians migrated from the Myrmidons, before humans had even walked the earth. Even with the fresh snow crusting Ramiel, none had touched the pillar of stone.

A thrill, icy and yet not unwelcome, flooded his veins.

It was rare for anyone in the Blood Rite to make it to the monolith. Since he and his brothers had done it five centuries ago, Cassian could recall only a dozen or so who’d not only reached the mountain, but also survived the climb. After a week of fighting, of running, of having to find and make your own weapons and food, that climb was worse than every horror before it. It was the true test of will, of courage. To climb when you had nothing left; to climb when your body begged you to stop … It was when the breaking usually occurred.

But when he’d touched the onyx monolith, when he’d felt that ancient force sing into his blood in the heartbeat before it had whisked him back to the safety of Devlon’s camp … It had been worth it. To feel that.

With a solemn bow of his head toward Ramiel and the living stone atop it, Cassian caught another swift wind and soared southward.

An hour’s flight had him approaching yet another familiar peak.

One that no one but him and his brothers bothered to come to. What he’d so badly needed to see, to feel, today.

Once, it had been as busy a camp as Devlon’s.

Once. Before a bastard had been born in a freezing, lone tent on the outskirts of the village. Before they’d thrown a young, unwed mother out into the snow only days after giving birth, her babe in her arms. And then taken that babe mere years later, tossing him into the mud at Devlon’s camp.

Cassian landed on the flat stretch of mountain pass, the snowdrifts higher than at Windhaven. Hiding any trace of the village that had stood here.

Only cinders and debris remained anyway.

He’d made sure of it.

When those who had been responsible for her suffering and torment had been dealt with, no one had wanted to remain here a moment longer. Not with the shattered bone and blood coating every surface, staining every field and training ring. So they’d migrated, some blending into other camps, others making their own lives elsewhere. None had ever come back.

Centuries later, he didn’t regret it.

Standing in the snow and wind, surveying the emptiness where he’d been born, Cassian didn’t regret it for a heartbeat.

His mother had suffered every moment of her too-short life. It only grew worse after she’d given birth to him. Especially in the years after he’d been taken away.

And when he’d been strong and old enough to come back to look for her, she was gone.

They’d refused to tell him where she was buried. If they’d given her that honor, or if they’d thrown her body into an icy chasm to rot.

He still didn’t know. Even with their final, rasping breaths, those who’d made sure she never knew happiness had refused to tell him. Had spat in his face and told him every awful thing they’d done to her.

He’d wanted to bury her in Velaris. Somewhere full of light and warmth, full of kind people. Far away from these mountains.

Cassian scanned the snow-covered pass. His memories here were murky: mud and cold and too-small fires. But he could recall a lilting, soft voice, and gentle, slender hands.

It was all he had of her.

Cassian dragged his hands through his hair, fingers catching on the wind-tangled snarls.

He knew why he’d come here, why he always came here. For all that Amren taunted him about being an Illyrian brute, he knew his own mind, his own heart.

Devlon was a fairer camp-lord than most. But for the females who were less fortunate, who were preyed upon or cast out, there was little mercy.

So training these women, giving them the resources and confidence to fight back, to look beyond their campfires … it was for her. For the mother buried here, perhaps buried nowhere. So it might never happen again. So his people, whom he still loved despite their faults, might one day become something more. Something better.

The unmarked, unknown grave in this pass was his reminder.

Cassian stood in silence for long minutes before turning his gaze westward. As if he might see all the way to Velaris.

Rhys wanted him home for the Solstice, and he’d obey.

Even if Nesta—


Even in his thoughts, her name clanged through him, hollow and cold.

Now wasn’t the time to think of her. Not here.

He very rarely allowed himself to think of her, anyway. It usually didn’t end well for whoever was in the sparring ring with him.

Spreading his wings wide, Cassian took a final glance around the camp he’d razed to the ground. Another reminder, too: of what he was capable of when pushed too far.

To be careful, even when Devlon and the others made him want to bellow. He and Az were the most powerful Illyrians in their long, bloody history. They wore an unprecedented seven Siphons each, just to handle the tidal wave of brute killing power they possessed. It was a gift and a burden that he’d never taken lightly.

Three days. He had three days until he was to go to Velaris.

He’d try to make them count.