Her lips had gone blue. Aelin watched her own small chest rise, fall, rise …
Then stop moving all together.
“You died,” Elena whispered. “Right there, you died. You had fought so hard, and I failed you. And in that moment, I didn’t care that I’d again failed the gods, or my promise to make it right, or any of it. All I could think …” Tears ran down Elena’s face. “All I could think was how unfair it was. You had not even lived, you had not even been given a chance … And all those people, who had wished and waited for a better world … You would not be there to give it to them.”
“Elena,” Aelin breathed.
The Queen of Adarlan sobbed into her hands, even as her former self shook Aelin, over and over. Trying to wake her, trying to revive the small body that had given out.
Elena’s voice broke. “I could not allow it. I could not endure it. Not for the gods’ sake, but—but for your own.”
Light flared at Elena’s hand, then down her arm, then along her whole body. Fire. She wrapped herself around Aelin, the heat melting the snow around them, drying her ice-crusted hair.
Lips that were blue turned pink. And a chest that had stopped breathing now lifted.
Darkness faded to the gray light of dawn. “And then I defied them.”
Elena set her down between the reeds and rose, scanning the river, the world.
“I knew who had an estate near this river, so far away from your home that your parents had tolerated its presence, as long as he was not stupid enough to stir up trouble.”
Elena, a mere flicker of light, tugged Arobynn from a deep sleep inside his former residence in Terrasen. As if in a trance, he shoved on his boots, his red hair gleaming in the light of dawn, mounted his horse, and set off into the woods.
So young, her former master. Only a few years older than she was now.
Arobynn’s horse paused as if an invisible hand had yanked its bridle, and the assassin scanned the raging river, the trees, as if looking for something he didn’t even know was there.
But there was Elena, invisible as sunlight, crouching in the reeds when Arobynn’s eyes fell upon the small, dirty figure unconscious on the riverbank. He leaped from his horse with feline grace, slinging off his cloak as he threw himself to his knees in the mud and felt for her breathing.
“I knew what he was, what he’d likely do with you. What training you would receive. But it was better than dead. And if you could survive, if you could grow up strong, if you had the chance to reach adulthood, I thought perhaps you could give those people who had wished and dreamed of a better world … at least give them a chance. Help them—before the debt was called in again.”
Arobynn’s hands hesitated as he noticed the Amulet of Orynth.
He eased the amulet from around her neck and placed it in his pocket. Gently, he scooped her into his arms and carried her up the bank to his waiting horse.
“You were so young,” Elena said again. “And more than the dreamers, more than the debt … I wanted to give you time. To at least know what it was to live.”
Aelin rasped, “What was the price, Elena? What did they do to you for this?”
Elena wrapped her arms around herself as the image faded, Arobynn mounting his horse, Aelin in his arms. Mist swirled again. “When it is done,” Elena managed to say, “I go, too. For the time I bought you, when this game is finished, my soul will be melted back into the darkness. I will not see Gavin, or my children, or my friends … I will be gone. Forever.”
“Did you know that before you—”
“Yes. They told me, over and over. But … I couldn’t. I couldn’t do it.”
Aelin slid to her knees before the queen. Took Elena’s tearstained face between her hands.
“Nameless is my price,” Aelin said, her voice breaking.
Elena nodded. “The mirror was just that—a mirror. A ploy to get you here. So that you could understand everything we did.” Just a bit of metal and glass, Elena had said when Aelin had summoned her in Skull’s Bay. “But now you are here, and have seen. Now you comprehend the cost. To forge the Lock anew, to put the three keys back in the gate …”
A mark glowed on Aelin’s brow, heating her skin. The bastard mark of Brannon.
The mark of the nameless.
“Mala’s blood must be spent—your power must be spent. Every drop, of magic, of blood. You are the cost—to make a new Lock, and seal the keys into the gate. To make the Wyrdgate whole.”
Aelin said softly, “I know.” She had known for some time now.
Had been preparing for it as best she could. Preparing things for the others.
Aelin said to the queen, “I have two keys. If I can find the third, steal it from Erawan … will you come with me? Help me end it once and for all?”
Will you come with me, so I will not be alone?
Elena nodded, but whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Aelin lowered her hands from the queen’s face. Took a deep, shuddering breath. “Why didn’t you tell me—from the start?”
Behind them, she had the vague sense that Manon was quietly assessing.
“You were barely climbing out of slavery,” Elena said. “Hardly holding yourself together, trying so hard to pretend that you were still strong and whole. There was only so much I could do to guide you, nudge you along. The mirror was forged and hidden to one day show you all of this. In a way I couldn’t tell you—not when I could only manage a few minutes at a time.”
“Why did you tell me to go to Wendlyn? Maeve poses as great a threat as Erawan.”
Glacier-blue eyes met hers at last. “I know. Maeve has long wished to regain possession of the keys. My father believed it was for something other than conquest. Something darker, worse. I don’t know why she only began hunting for them once you arrived. But I sent you to Wendlyn for the healing. And so you would … find him. The one who had been waiting so long for you.”
Aelin’s heart cracked. “Rowan.”
Elena nodded. “He was a voice in the void, a secret, silent dreamer. And so were his companions. But the Fae Prince, he was …”
Aelin reined in her sob. “I know. I’ve known for a long time.”
“I wanted you to know that joy, too,” Elena whispered. “However briefly.”
“I did,” Aelin managed to say. “Thank you.”
Elena covered her face at those words, shuddering. But after a moment, she surveyed Aelin, then Manon, still silent and watching. “The witch mirror’s power is fading; it will not hold you here for much longer. Please—let me show you what must be done. How to end it. You won’t be able to see me after, but … I will be with you. Until the very end, every step of the way, I will be with you.”
Manon only put a hand on her sword as Aelin swallowed and said, “Show me, then.”
So Elena did. And when she was done, Aelin was silent. Manon was pacing, snarling softly.
But Aelin did not fight it as Elena leaned in to kiss her brow, where that damning mark had been her whole life. A bit of chattel, branded for the slaughterhouse.
Brannon’s mark. The mark of the bastard-born … the Nameless.
Nameless is my price. To buy them a future, she’d pay it.
She’d done as much as she could to set things in motion to ensure that once she was gone, help would still come. It was the only thing she could give them, her last gift to Terrasen. To those she loved with her heart of wildfire.
Elena stroked her cheek. Then the ancient queen and the mists were gone.
Sunlight flooded them, blinding Aelin and Manon so violently that they hissed and slammed into each other. The brine of the sea, crash of nearby waves, and rustle of seagrasses greeted them. And beyond that, distantly: the clamor and bellowing of all-out war.
They were on the outskirts of the marshes, upon the lip of the sea itself, the battle miles and miles out to sea. They must have traveled within the mists, somehow—
A soft female laugh slithered through the grass. Aelin knew that laugh.
And knew that somehow, perhaps they had not traveled through the mists …
But they had been placed here. By whatever forces were at work, whatever gods watching.
To stand in the sandy field before the turquoise sea, dead guards in Briarcliff armor slaughtered upon the nearby dunes, still bleeding out. To stand before Queen Maeve of the Fae.
Elide Lochan on her knees before her—with a Fae warrior’s blade at her throat.
Aedion had faced armies, faced death more times than he could count, but this …
Even with what Rowan had done … the enemy ships still outnumbered them.
The battling between ships had become too dangerous, the magic-wielders too aware of Lysandra to allow her to attack beneath the waves.
She was now fighting viciously beside Aedion in ghost leopard form, taking down whatever Fae warriors tried to board their ship. Whatever soldiers made it through the shredding gauntlet of Rowan’s and Dorian’s magic.
His father had left. Fenrys and Lorcan, too. He’d last seen his father on the quarterdeck of one of the ships that had been under his command, a sword in each hand, the Lion poised for the kill. And as if sensing Aedion’s gaze, a wall of golden light had wrapped around him.
Aedion wasn’t stupid enough to demand Gavriel take it away, not as the shield shrank and shrank, until it covered Aedion like a second skin.
Minutes later, Gavriel was gone—vanished. But that magic shield remained.
That had been the start of the sharp turn they’d taken, going back on the defensive as sheer numbers and immortal-versus-mortal fighting took its toll on their fleet.
He had no doubt Maeve had something to do with it. But that bitch wasn’t his problem.
No, his problem was the armada all around him; his problem was the fact that the enemy soldiers he engaged were highly trained and didn’t go down easily. His problem was his sword arm ached, his shield was embedded with arrows and dented, and still more of those ships stretched away into the distance.
He did not let himself think about Aelin, about where she was. His Fae instincts pricked at the rumble of Rowan’s and Dorian’s magic surging up, then snapping into the enemy flank. Ships broke in the wake of that power; warriors drowned beneath the weight of their armor.
Their own ship rocked back from the one they’d been engaging thanks to the flood of power, and Aedion used the reprieve to whirl to Lysandra. Blood from his own wounds and ones he’d inflicted covered him, mixing with the sweat running down his skin. He said to the shifter, “I want you to run.”
Lysandra turned a fuzzy head toward him, pale green eyes narrowing slightly. Blood and gore dripped from her maw onto the wood planks.
Aedion held that gaze. “You turn into a bird or a moth or a fish—I don’t rutting care—and you go. If we’re about to fall, you run. That’s an order.”
She hissed, as if to say, You don’t give me orders.
“I technically outrank you,” he said, slashing his sword down his shield to clear it of two protruding arrows as they again swung in toward another ship crammed full of well-rested Fae warriors. “So you’ll run. Or I’ll kick your ass in the Afterworld.”
Lysandra stalked up to him. A lesser man might have backed away from a predator that big prowling close. Some of his own soldiers did.
But Aedion held his ground as she rose on her back legs, those huge paws settling on his shoulders, and brought her bloodied feline face up to his. Her wet whiskers twitched.
Lysandra leaned in and nuzzled his cheek, his neck.
Then she trotted back to her place, blood splashing beneath her silent paws.
When she deigned to glance his way, spitting blood onto the deck, Aedion said softly, “The next time, do that in your human form.”
Her puffy tail just curled a bit in answer.
But their ship rocked back toward their latest attacker. The temperature plummeted, either from Rowan or Dorian or one of the Whitethorn nobles, Aedion couldn’t tell. They’d been lucky that Maeve had brought a fleet whose magic-wielders hailed mostly from Rowan’s line.