Cassian’s shout didn’t even echo.
Clinging to his neck, Nesta scanned the mist. Cassian hung back from it, wings beating in place as he searched for his brother. “Hold on,” he hissed before he launched into a drop, using the momentum to swoop into the mist.
Blue light flared below—ahead. Azriel’s Siphons. “Fuck,” Cassian spat, and shot lower.
Trees thrust upward, sharp as swords, and he swerved around them, wings within an inch of shredding on those spikes. Nesta’s heart thundered, but she wouldn’t shut her eyes against the death all around, not as Cassian dropped beneath the mist’s curtain and they beheld what Azriel faced.
Cassian turned so swiftly Nesta barely had time to brace herself, and then he was flying back the way he’d come, through the mist. “Where are you going?” she demanded. “There are two dozen soldiers there!”
“Autumn Court soldiers,” Cassian clarified, wings pumping so hard the wind ripped at her eyes. “I don’t know what the fuck they’re doing here, or if Eris has royally fucked us over, but one of them shot an ash arrow through Az’s wing.”
“Then why are we flying away?”
“Because I’m not landing with you in the middle of that.”
“Put me down!” she shouted. “Put me down wherever and go back to him!” He didn’t, surveying the bog below for the right place. She slammed a hand on his muscled chest. “Cassian!”
“I know what each second costs me, Nesta,” he said quietly.
“Put me down in a fucking tree, then!” She pointed to one that they narrowly avoided.
He spotted an area he deemed safe enough: a solid stretch of grassy land, the remnants of a tree rising from its midst. He set her in the tree, as she’d suggested, perching her on the highest, sturdiest branch. It groaned and swayed beneath their weight. “Stay here,” he commanded, waiting until she’d wrapped her hands around the branch and was clinging like a child who’d climbed too high. “I’ll be back soon. Do not climb down. No matter what you may see or hear.”
“Go.” She was utterly useless in a fight, she knew. She would only distract him.
“Be careful,” he warned, as if he weren’t the one about to head into danger, and then he was gone. Nesta clung to the tree branch so hard her entire body trembled, the silence of the bog wrapping around her like a leaden blanket.
Oorid devoured Cassian’s swift wingbeats within seconds, so she couldn’t even hear him as he disappeared into the mist.
Cassian aimed toward where his senses told him Az still fought. His eyesight sure as fuck didn’t help him—the mist seemed thicker now.
The Autumn Court was here. Were these Eris’s missing soldiers, or had he played them all for fools? Had Beron somehow learned of their plans?
He flew, swift as he could, praying Az had held them off, even with that ash bolt through his wing. The restraint of the ash bolt on Az’s power was the only reason the soldiers weren’t already dead—why Azriel’s Siphons had been a flicker and not an incinerating wall against soldiers who were far less skilled.
Cassian descended into cool calm, willing each of his Siphons awake. He fed his power into them, and they refracted it back, confirming that they
were ready, he was ready, for the bloodletting to begin.
Azriel’s blue Siphons flared ahead, a smear of cobalt in the mist, and Cassian shot higher into the sky, until that blue was a flutter beneath him.
He stopped flapping entirely so the warriors wouldn’t hear any wingbeats.
Then he spread his wings silently and slid into a free fall. Mist bit at him, the heavy air slapped his face, but he drew a blade and the knife at his thigh in silence.
The mist broke five feet above the skirmish.
The soldiers didn’t have time to look up before Cassian was upon them. Blood sprayed and males screamed, power bouncing off the red of
Cassian’s Siphons. Az battled it out with six soldiers at once, left wing limp and bleeding, his own Siphons blazing. The ash bolt had rendered Az’s power nearly useless. But the Siphons had been blazing as a signal—for Cassian.
The sight of Az’s injured wing made his head begin roaring. Cassian killed and killed and did not stop.
Cassian and Azriel had been gone for too long.
Nesta’s limbs were beginning to lock up from the effort of clinging like a bear cub to the tree. She knew she had scant minutes until her body rebelled and let go.
There was no sound, no flash of light. Only the silent bog and the mist and the dead tree.
Every breath echoed her thoughts. Every breath was gobbled up by Oorid’s oppression.
She’d seen Cassian face Hybern soldiers. Two dozen from the Autumn Court should be nothing. But why were they here?
Her legs shook so badly she nearly lost her grip on the branch. She knew she presented an utterly pathetic picture, laid out along the branch precisely as Cassian had left her, legs wrapped around it, ankles crossed over each other, fingers digging into the dry, silvery wood.
Carefully, she pushed herself up, her arms tingling with the numbness of clenching tight for so long. Her legs buckled with relief, too, as she released their grip, letting them hang in the air. She scanned the general direction Cassian had gone. Nothing.
He’d fallen in battle before—she’d seen him gravely injured. The first time in Hybern, when he’d tried to crawl toward her as she went into the Cauldron. The second time against Hybern’s forces, when he’d been gutted and Azriel had held his entrails in with his bare hands. And the third time against the King of Hybern himself, when she had asked him, ordered him, to use her as bait, the distraction while she drew the king away from Feyre and the Cauldron.
After so many brushes with death, it was only a matter of time until it stuck.
Her mouth dried out. Azriel had been struck with an ash arrow. What if the soldiers had injured Cassian similarly? What if they were both in need of help?
She could do nothing against two dozen soldiers—against a single soldier, if she was being honest—but she couldn’t endure sitting in a tree like a coward. Not knowing if he lived. And she had magic. Had no idea how to use it, but … she had that, at least. Maybe it would help.
She told herself she was concerned for Azriel, too. Told herself she cared about the shadowsinger’s fate as much as Cassian’s. But it was Cassian’s dead face that she couldn’t bear to imagine.
Nesta didn’t let herself reconsider as she again laid herself out on the branch, wrapping her arms around it as she blindly lowered her leg, seeking the branch just beneath—
There. Her foot found purchase, but she didn’t let it bear her full weight. Still clinging to the branch, fingernails digging into the dead wood hard enough that splinters sliced beneath them, she lowered herself onto the one below. Panting, she knelt again, and once more lowered her foot, finding another branch. But it was too far. Grunting, she brought her leg back up and carefully placed her hands on either side of her knees, focusing upon her balance, just as Cassian had taught her, thinking through every motion of her body, her feet, her breathing.
Fingertips screaming at the splinters piercing the sensitive flesh beneath her nails, she dropped her legs until they hit the branch below. The branch under it was closer but thinner—wobblier. She had to lay herself flat on it to keep from teetering off.
Branch by branch, Nesta descended until her boots sank into the mossy ground, and the tree loomed like a giant above her.
The bog stretched all around, miles of black water and dead trees and grass.
She’d have to wade through the water to reach him. Nesta focused on her breathing—or tried to. Each inhale remained shallow, sharp.
Cassian could be hurt and dying. To sit idle wasn’t an option.
She scanned the shoreline five feet ahead for any hint of shallower water to wade through to the nearest mossy island, covered in flesh-shredding thorns, but the water was so black it was impossible to determine if it was shallow or if it dropped to a bottomless pit.
Nesta focused on her breathing again. She knew how to swim. Her mother had made sure of it, thanks to a cousin who had drowned in childhood. Murdered by faeries, her mother had claimed. I saw her dragged into the river.
Had it been a kelpie? Or her mother’s own fears warped into something monstrous?
Nesta made herself approach the edge of the black water.
Run, a small voice whispered. Run and run, and do not look back.
The voice was female, gentle. Wise and serene.
She couldn’t. If she were to run, it would be toward him, not away.
Nesta stepped to the water’s edge, where grass disappeared into blackness.
Her face stared back at her from the stillness. Pale and wide-eyed with terror.
Run. Was that voice merely all that remained of her human instincts, or something more? She gazed at her reflection as if it would tell her.
Something rustled in the thorns of the island, and she snapped up her head, heart thundering as she scanned for that familiar male face and wings.
But there was no sign of Cassian. And whatever was in that bramble … She should find another island to head for.
Nesta surveyed her reflection again.
And found a pair of night-dark eyes looking back through it.