He was still there, his power letting the men cease their rowing and prepare for what swept toward them. Aelin again looked ahead—toward those black sails blotting the horizon.
The Wyrdkey at her chest murmured in response.
She could feel them—her magic could taste their corruption on the wind. No sign of Lysandra, but she was out there.
The sun was blinding on the waves as Rowan’s magic slowed, bringing them into a steady glide toward the two peaks of the island that curved toward each other.
It was time.
Aelin swung off the railing, boots thudding on the soaked wood of the deck. So many eyes turned to her, to the chains spread across the main deck.
Rolfe stalked toward her, descending from the raised quarterdeck, where he’d been manning the wheel himself.
She picked up a heavy iron chain, wondering who it’d previously held. Rowan rose to his feet in a steady, graceful movement. He reached her when Rolfe did.
The captain demanded, “What now?”
Aelin jerked her chin toward the ships near enough to make out figures crammed onto the various decks. Many, many figures. “We draw them in as close as we can. When you can see the whites of their eyes, you shout at us.”
Rowan added, “And then you lay anchor off the starboard side. Swing us around.”
“Why?” Rolfe asked as Rowan helped her fasten the manacle around her wrist.
She balked at the iron, her magic twisting. Rowan gripped her chin between his thumb and forefinger, making her meet his unflinching gaze, even as he said to Rolfe, “Because we don’t want the masts in the way when we open fire. They seem like a rather important part of the ship.”
Rolfe growled and stalked off.
Rowan’s fingers slid to cup her jaw, his thumb brushing her cheek. “We draw out our power, slow and steady.”
He angled his head, brows lifting. A half smile curved his sinful mouth. “You’ve been spiraling down into your power for days now, haven’t you?”
She nodded. It had taken most of her focus, had been such an effort to stay in the present, to stay active and aware while she was burrowing down and down, drawing up as much of her power as she could without attracting any notice. “I didn’t want to take any chances here. Not if you were drained from saving Dorian.”
“I’ve recovered, I’ll have you know. So this morning’s little display…”
“A way to take off the power’s full edge,” she said wryly. “And make Rolfe piss himself.” He chuckled and released her face to pass her the other manacle. She hated its ancient, hideous touch on her skin, on his, as she clamped it around his tattooed wrist.
“Hurry,” Rolfe said from where he’d returned to his spot at the wheel.
Indeed, the ships were gaining on them. No sign of those sea-wyverns—though the shifter also remained out of sight.
Rowan palmed his hunting knife, the steel bright in the blazing sun. High noon.
Precisely why she’d gone into Rolfe’s office nearly two hours beforehand.
She’d practically rung the dinner bell for the host in the Dead End. She’d gambled that they wouldn’t wait until nightfall, but they apparently feared the wrath of their master if she slipped their nets more than they feared the light itself. Or were too stupid to realize Mala’s heir would be at her most powerful.
“Do you want to do the honors, or should I?” Rowan said. Fenrys and Gavriel had risen to their feet, blades out as they monitored from a safe distance. Aelin held out her free hand, her palm scarred, and took the knife from him. A quick slice had her skin stinging, warm blood heating her seawater-sticky skin.
Rowan had the knife a heartbeat later, and the scent of his blood filled her nose, set her senses on edge. But she extended her bloodied palm.
Her magic swirled into the world with it, crackling in her veins, her ears. She reined in the urge to tap her foot on the ground, to roll her shoulders.
“Slow,” Rowan repeated, as if sensing the hair-trigger that her power was now on, “and steady.” His shackled arm slid around her waist to hold her to him. “I’ll be with you every step of the way.”
She lifted her head to study his face, the harsh planes and the curving tattoo. He leaned in to brush a kiss to her mouth. And as his lips met hers, he joined their bleeding palms.
Magic jolted through her, ancient and wicked and cunning, and she arched against him, knees buckling as his cataclysmic power roared into her.
All anyone on deck saw, she knew, was two lovers embracing.
But Aelin tunneled down, down, down into her power, felt him doing the same with his, felt every ounce of ice and wind and lightning go slamming from him into her. And when it reached her, the core of his power yielded to her own, melted and became embers and wildfire. Became the molten heart of the earth, shaping the world and birthing new lands.
Deeper and deeper, she went.
Aelin had a vague sense of the ship rocking beneath them, felt the faint bite of the iron as it rejected her magic, felt the presence of Fenrys and Gavriel flickering around them like candles.
It had been months since she’d drawn from so deep in the abyss of her power.
During the time she’d trained with Rowan in Wendlyn, her power’s limit had been self-imposed. And then that day with the Valg, she’d broken through it—had discovered an entire hidden level beneath. She had drawn from it when she’d encircled Doranelle with her power, had taken a whole day to tunnel that far, to draw up what she needed.
Aelin had begun this descent three days ago.
She’d expected it to stop after the first day. To hit that bottom she’d sensed once before.
She had not.
And now … now with Rowan’s power joining hers…
Rowan’s arm still held her tightly against him, and she had the distant, murky sensation of his coat scratching lightly against her face, of the hardness of the weapons strapped beneath, the scent of him washing over her, soothing her.
She was a stone plunked into the sea of her power—their power.
There—there was the bottom. The ash-lined bottom, the pit of a dormant crater.
Only the feeling of her own feet against the wood deck kept her from sinking into that ash, learning what might slumber beneath it.
Her magic whispered to start digging through that ash and silt. But Rowan’s grip tightened on her waist. “Easy,” he murmured in her ear. “Easy.”
Still more of his power flowed into her, wind and ice churning with her power, eddying into a maelstrom.
“Close now,” Rolfe warned from nearby—from another world.
“Aim for the middle of the fleet,” Rowan ordered her. “Send the flanking ships scattering onto the reef.” Where they’d founder, leaving any survivors to be picked off with arrows shot by Fenrys and Rolfe’s men. Rowan had to be alert, then—watching the approaching force.
She could feel them—feel her magic’s hackles rise in response to the blackness gathering beyond the horizon of her consciousness.
“Almost in range,” Rolfe called.
She began pulling up, dragging the abyss of flame and embers with her.
“Steady,” Rowan murmured.
Higher, higher, Aelin rose, back toward the sea and sunlight.
Here, that sunlight seemed to beckon. To me.
Her magic surged for it, for that voice.
“Now!” Rolfe barked.
And like a feral beast freed of its leash, her magic erupted.
She’d been doing well as Rowan had handed over his power to her.
She’d balked and bobbed a few times, but … she had the descent under control.
Even if her power … the well had gone deeper than before. It was easy to forget she was still growing—that her power would mature with her.
And when Rolfe shouted, Now! Rowan knew he had forgotten to his detriment.
A pillar of flame that did not burn erupted from Aelin, slamming into the sky, turning the world into red and orange and gold.
Aelin was ripped from his arms with the force of it, and Rowan grabbed her hand in a crushing grip, refusing to let her break that line of contact. Men around them stumbled back, falling onto their asses as they gawked upward in terror and wonder.
Higher, that column of flame swirled, a maelstrom of death and life and rebirth.
“Holy gods,” Fenrys whispered behind him.
Still Aelin’s magic poured into the world. Still she burned hotter, wilder.
Her teeth were gritted, her head arched back as she panted, eyes shut.
“Aelin,” Rowan warned. The pillar of flame began expanding, laced now with blue and turquoise. Flame that could melt bone, crack the earth.
Too much. He had given her too much, and she had delved too deep into her power—
Through the flames encasing them, Rowan glimpsed the frantic enemy fleet, now hurling themselves into motion to flee, to get out of range.
Aelin’s ongoing display was not for them.
Because there was no escape, not with the power she’d dragged up with her.
The display was for the others, for the city watching them.
For the world to know she was no mere princess playing with pretty embers.
“Aelin,” Rowan said again, trying to tug on that bond between them.
But there was nothing.
Only the gaping maw of some immortal, ancient beast. A beast that had opened an eye, a beast that spoke in the tongue of a thousand worlds.
Ice flooded his veins. She was wearing the Wyrdkey.
“Aelin.” But Rowan felt it then. Felt that bottom of her power crack open as if the beast within that Wyrdkey stomped its foot, and ash and crusted rock crumbled away beneath it.
And revealed a roiling, molten core of magic beneath it.
As if it were the fiery heart of Mala herself.
Aelin plunged into that power. Bathed in it.
Rowan tried to move, tried to scream at her to stop—
But Rolfe, eyes wide with what could only be terror and awe, roared at her, “Open fire!”
She heard that. And as violently as it had pierced the sky, that pillar of fire shot down, shot back into her, coiling and wrapping inside her, fusing into a kernel of power so hot it sizzled into him, searing his very soul—
The flames winked out at the same second she reached into Rowan with burning hands and tore the last remnants of his power from him.
Just as she ripped her hand from his. Just as her power and the Wyrdkey between her breasts merged.
Rowan collapsed to his knees, and there was a crack inside his head, as if thunder cleaved through him.
As Aelin opened her eyes, he realized it wasn’t thunder—but the sound of a door slamming open.
Her face turned expressionless. Cold as the gaps between the stars. And her eyes…
Turquoise burned bright … around a core of silver. No hint of gold to be found.
“That’s not Aelin,” Fenrys breathed.
A faint smile blossomed on her full mouth, born of cruelty and arrogance, and she examined the iron chain wrapped around her wrist.
The iron melted away, molten ore sizzling through the wooden deck and into the dark below. The creature that stared out through Aelin’s eyes furled her fingers into a fist. Light leaked through her clenched fingers.
Cold white light. Tendrils flickered—silver flame…
“Get away,” Gavriel warned him. “Get away and don’t look.”
Gavriel was indeed on his knees, head bowed and eyes averted. Fenrys followed suit.
For what gazed at the dark fleet assembled, what had filled his beloved’s body … He knew. Some primal, intrinsic part of him knew.
“Deanna,” Rowan whispered. She flicked her eyes to him in question and confirmation.
And she said to him, in a voice that was deep and hollow, young and old, “Every key has a lock. Tell the Queen Who Was Promised to retrieve it soon, for all the allies in the world shall make no difference if she does not wield the Lock, if she does not put those keys back with it. Tell her flame and iron, together bound, merge into silver to learn what must be found. A mere step is all it shall take.” Then she looked away again.
And Rowan realized what the power in her hand was. Realized that the flame she would unleash would be so cold it burned, realized it was the cold of the stars, the cold of stolen light.