“Rhysand really gave this sword to me of his own free will?” Nesta asked Cassian the next morning as they hiked the mossy, rock-strewn side of the towering mountain known as the Prison. It was exactly as she’d pictured it in her trance—and even more horrible in person. The very land seemed abandoned. Like something great had once existed here and then vanished. Like the land still waited for it to return.
“Rhys said if we’re going into the Prison, we should be well armed,” Cassian said, his dark hair tossed by the cold, wet wind off the thrashing gray sea beyond the plain to their right. “And this is the best place he can think of for us to try out the sword you Made.”
“So if it goes badly, at least it will kill me, not anyone else?” Nesta couldn’t keep the sharpness from her tone. Rhys had winnowed them here, depositing them at the base of the mountain, as no magic could pierce its heavy wards. Nesta hadn’t been able to look him in the eye.
“You’re not going to be killed. Either by that blade or anything in there.” His jaw tightened as he surveyed the towering gates far above. He’d put many of the current inmates inside, and Nesta had heard Feyre’s harrowing tales of visiting the Prison on several occasions. Little frightened her sister—that Feyre found it to be petrifying didn’t help the twisting sensation in Nesta’s gut.
“You remember the rules?” Cassian asked as they neared the gates of bone, intricately carved with every manner of creature.
“Yes.” Hold Cassian’s hand the entire time, don’t speak of Amren, don’t speak of anything regarding the Trove or the court or Feyre’s pregnancy, don’t speak of the creatures he put in here, don’t do anything except walk and stay on high alert. And get that Harp out before it could unleash chaos.
The bone gates groaned open. Cassian tensed, but kept climbing upward. “Looks like we’re expected.”
Down into the darkness, into hell itself, they walked.
Nesta clutched Cassian’s hand, her rope to life in this lightless place. One of Cassian’s Siphons flared with red light, bloodying the black walls, the doors they sometimes passed.
Cassian moved with the fluidity of a trained warrior, but she noted his gaze darting around the path they walked, which plunged into the earth. The entrance to the hidden hall she’d seen in her scrying had been far, far below
—between an iron door with a single rune upon it and a little alcove in the stone.
Soft noises whispered through the rock. She could have sworn nails scraped behind one door. When she glanced at Cassian, his face paled. He noticed her stare and patted his left pectoral—right above the thick scar there. Indication of who was imprisoned behind that door. Who ran their nails over it.
Her blood chilled. Blue Annis.
Cobalt skin and iron claws, he’d said. Annis savored eating her prey.
Nesta swallowed, squeezing Cassian’s hand, and they continued downward.
Minutes or hours passed, she didn’t know. In the gloom, the heavy, whispering air, time had ceased to matter.
Nausea roiled through her. Amren had been in this place for thousands of years, thrown in by fools who had feared her in her true form, that being of flame and light who had laid waste to Hybern’s army.
Nesta couldn’t imagine spending a day in this place. A year.
She didn’t know how Amren hadn’t gone mad. How she’d found the strength to survive.
She’d treated Amren badly. The small thought wedged into her mind. She had used her, exactly as Amren said, as a shield against everyone. And Amren, who had survived millennia in this awful place, alongside the worst monsters in the land … Amren found her abhorrent.
Misery burned like acid.
Something pounded through the rock to their left, and Nesta flinched.
Cassian squeezed her hand. “Ignore it,” he murmured.
Down and down, into a place worse than hell. And then she spied an alcove burned into her memory, behind her eyelids. And—yes, beside it was that iron door with the sole rune on its surface.
“Here.” Nesta jerked her chin toward the bald stone. “Through the rock.”
When Cassian didn’t reply, she twisted to him.
His focus lay fixed on the iron door. His golden-brown skin had gone ashen.
His lips mouthed the name of the being behind it.
“You’re sure …” Cassian swallowed. “You’re sure this is the place?”
“Yes.” Nesta didn’t grant them time to reconsider as she outstretched her free hand and stepped up to the stone.
Her fingers passed through the rock. As if it didn’t exist.
Cassian yanked her back, but she pushed forward, and her hand, then her wrist, then her arm vanished. And then they were through.
“I had no idea there was anything else in the Prison,” Cassian breathed as they continued down another hallway. No doors lined it, just smooth stone. “I thought there were only cells.”
“I told you,” she answered. “I saw a chamber here.”
The light of the Siphon atop Cassian’s hand revealed an archway and openness—and there it was. Raised symbols carved into the floor cast shadows against the crimson light. The entire round chamber was full of them. And in its center—the golden Harp, covered in intricate embossing, set with silver strings.
It didn’t sing, didn’t speak. It might as well have been an ordinary instrument.
Which was exactly why Nesta tugged Cassian into a halt beneath the archway, not daring to step onto the carved floor. “We need to be careful.” Nesta peered into the vast, empty chamber. “There are wards and spells here.”
Cassian rubbed his jaw with his free hand. “My magic doesn’t skew toward spells. I can blast apart magical shields and wards, but if it’s a trap like Feyre and Amren faced at the Summer Court, I can’t sense it.”
Nesta tapped her foot in a swift beat. “Rhysand’s wards on the Mask couldn’t keep me out. The Mask wished for me to come, so it allowed me through. Maybe the Harp will do the same. Like calls to like, as you all enjoy saying.”
“I’m not letting you go into that room alone. Not if that thing wants to
“I don’t think we have a choice.”
He squeezed her hand, calluses rubbing against her own. “You lead, I’ll follow.”
“What if my presence would go unnoticed, but yours sets off a trap? We can’t risk that.”
His throat bobbed. “I can’t risk you.”
The words slammed into her heart. “I … You can. You have to.” Before he could further object, she said, “You are training me to be a warrior. Yet you’d keep me from danger? How is that any better than a caged animal?”
The words must have struck something in him. “All right.” Cassian unbuckled the great sword he’d carried for her. He looped it around her middle, its weight considerable. She adjusted her balance. “We try it your way. And at the first sign of something wrong, we leave.”
“Fine.” She swallowed the dryness in her mouth.
His eyes glittered, noting her hesitation. “Not too late to change your mind.”
Nesta bristled. “I’m not allowing anyone but us to get their hands on the Harp.”
With that, she stepped to the demarcation line between the hall and the chamber. Bracing herself, she pushed a foot forward.
It was like stepping through mud.
But the wards allowed her through. Nesta took another step, arm extended behind her to hold Cassian’s hand. The pressure of the spells pushed against her calves, her hips, her body, squeezing her lungs. “These are like no wards I’ve felt before,” she whispered, standing still as she waited for any hint of a triggered trap. “They feel old. Incredibly old.”
“They probably predate this place being used as a prison.” “What was it before?”
“No one knows. It’s always been here. But this chamber …” He surveyed the space beyond her. “I didn’t know places like this existed here. Maybe …” He frowned. “Part of me wonders if the Prison was either built or stocked with its inmates to hide the Harp’s presence. There are so many terrible powers here, and the wards on the mountain itself … I wonder if someone hid the Harp knowing that it’d never be noticed with so much awful magic around it.”
Her mouth had dried again. “But who put it here?”
“Your guess is as good as mine. Someone who existed before the High Lords ruled. Rhys told me once that this island might have even been an eighth court.”
“You don’t recognize these markings on the ground?” “Not at all.”
She loosed a long breath. “I don’t think any traps were triggered.” He nodded. “Be quick.”
Their gazes held, and Nesta turned from the raw worry in his eyes as she pulled her hand from his and entered the chamber.
The wards lay heavy against Nesta’s skin with each step across the stone floor to the shining Harp.
“It looks newly polished,” she observed to Cassian, who watched from the archway. “How is that possible?”
“It exists outside the bindings of time, just as the Cauldron does.”
Nesta studied the carvings in the floor. They all seemed to spiral toward one point. “I think these are stars,” she breathed. “Constellations.” And like a golden sun, the Harp lay at the center of the system.
“This is the Night Court,” Cassian said drily.
But it felt … different from Night Court magic somehow. Nesta paused before the Harp, the wards pressing into her skin as she surveyed its golden frame and silver strings. The Harp sat atop a large rendering of an eight-pointed star. Its cardinal points stretched longer than the other four, with the Harp situated directly in the heart of the star.
The hair on the back of her neck stood. She could have sworn the blood in her body reversed course.
She had the creeping feeling she’d been brought here.
Not by the Cauldron or the Mother or the Harp. By something vaster.
Something that stretched into the stars carved all around them.
Its cool, light hands guided her wrists as she picked up the Harp.
Her fingers brushed the icy metal. The Harp hummed against her skin, as if it still held its final note, from the last time it had been used—
Fae screamed, pounding on stone that hadn’t been there a moment before, pleading for their children’s sakes, begging to be let out let out let out—
Nesta had the sensation of falling, tumbling through air and stars and time—
It was a trap, and our people were too blind to see it—
Eons and stars and darkness plunged around her—
The Fae clawed at stone, tearing their nails on rock where there had once been a door. But the way back was now forever sealed, and they begged as they tried to pass their children through the solid wall, if only their children could be spared—
Light flashed, blinding. When it cleared, she stood in a white-stoned palace.
A great hall, where five thrones graced a dais. The sixth throne, in the center, was occupied by a pointy-eared crone. A golden, spiked crown rested on her head, blazing like the hate in her black eyes.
The Fae crone stiffened, blue velvet robes shifting with the movement.
Her eyes, clear despite her wrinkled face, sharpened. Right on Nesta.
“You have the Harp,” the queen said, voice like crinkling paper. And Nesta knew who she stood frozen before, what crown lay on her thin, white hair. Briallyn’s gnarled fingers curled on the arms of her throne, and her gaze narrowed. The queen smiled, revealing a mouth of half-rotted teeth.
Nesta backed up a step—or tried to. She couldn’t move.
Briallyn’s horrible smile deepened and she said conversationally, “My spies have told me who your friends are. The half-breed and the broken Illyrian. Such lovely girls.”
Nesta’s blood churned, and she knew her eyes were blazing with her power as she snarled, “You come near them and I’ll rip out your throat. I will hunt you down and gut you.”
Briallyn tutted. “Such bonds are foolish. As foolish as you still holding on to the Harp, which sings answers to all my questions. I know where you are, Nesta Archeron—”
Unmoving, solid darkness, slamming into Nesta as hard as a wall. Screams still echoed.
No—no, that was a male bellowing her name.
And she had not slammed into the darkness. She’d collided with the stone, and now lay upon the floor, the Harp in her hands.
“NESTA!” Red light flared, washing like a bloody tide upon the stones, her face, the ceiling. But Cassian’s Siphons could not break through the wards. He could not reach her.
Nesta clutched the Harp to her chest, the last of its reverberations echoing through her. She had to let go. Somehow, in touching the Harp while Briallyn was wearing the Crown, she had opened a pathway between their minds, their eyes. She could see Briallyn, and Briallyn could see her, could sense where she was. She had to let go—
She couldn’t do more than twitch her fingertips as invisible, oppressive weight bore into her, like it’d flatten her into dust upon the ground. Let go, she silently bade it, gritting her teeth, fingers brushing over the nearest string. Free me, you blasted thing.
A beautiful, haughty voice answered, full of music so lovely it broke her heart to hear it. I do not appreciate your tone.
With that the Harp pushed into her harder, and Nesta roared silently. Her nail scraped over the string again. Let me go!
Shall I open a door for you, then? Release that which is caught? Yes! Damn you, yes!
It has been a long while, sister, since I played. I shall need time to remember the right combinations …
Don’t play games. Nesta chilled at the word it had used. Sister. Like she and this thing were one and the same.
The small strings are for games—light movement and leaping—but the longer, the final ones … Such deep wonders and horrors we could strum into being. Such great and monstrous magic I wrought with my last minstrel. Shall I show you?
No. Just open up these wards.
As you wish. Pluck the first string, then.
Nesta didn’t hesitate as her fingertip curled over the first string, grasping and then releasing it. A musical laugh filled her mind, but the weight lifted. Vanished.
Nesta heaved a breath, shoving upward, and found herself free to move as she wished. The Harp lay still in her hands, dormant. The very air seemed lighter. Looser. Like opening another doorway had shut the one to Briallyn.
“NESTA!” Cassian thundered from across the chamber.
“I’m fine,” she called out, shaking off her lingering tremors. “But I think someone very wicked used this last.” She stared into the darkness above. “I think they used it to … to trap their enemies and their enemies’ children into the stone itself.” Was that what had been happening to her just now? The Harp had been pushing her into the rock, fusing her soul with it? She shivered.
Cassian demanded, “Are you hurt? What happened?”
She groaned, rising slowly. “No. I … I touched it and it held a memory. A bad one.” One she’d never forget. “And we need to leave. It showed me Briallyn, wearing the Crown. She saw me here.” The words tumbled out as
Nesta waded back through the ward-heavy cavern, feeling that center spot, the star at its heart, like a physical presence at her back. Those vast, light hands seemed to pull at her, trying to make her return, but she ignored them, explaining to Cassian what she’d heard from the Harp, and what she’d seen in the vision with Briallyn.
Cassian’s breathing remained uneven. He didn’t relax one muscle until she stepped back into the tunnel hallway. Until his hand was again around hers. He didn’t even bother to look at the Harp, or comment on Briallyn. He only surveyed her for any sign of harm.
It was as intimate as any look he’d ever given her. Even when he was buried deep inside her, moving in her, his gaze had never been so openly raw.
She tucked the Harp into her side and couldn’t stop the hand she lifted to his cheek. “I’m fine.”
He pressed a kiss into the heart of her palm. “I don’t know why I doubted you.” He pulled from her touch. “Let’s get the hell out of here.” Dark promise laced the words—and she knew what they’d be doing as soon as they dumped the Harp off to become Rhysand’s problem.
Her cheeks heated, something like pleasure going through her. That he would pick her, them—that he wanted the reassurance of her body that much.
She interlaced her fingers through his, squeezing as tightly as their hands could be pressed together. He squeezed back, and tugged her down the passageway, away from the site of pain and long-forgotten memory. The sword bounced against her thigh, and she said, breaking the silence, “I named it Ataraxia.”
He glanced over his shoulder at her. “That sword? What’s it mean?”
“It’s from the Old Language. I found it in a book the other day in the library. I liked the sound of it.”
“Ataraxia,” he said as though he were trying out the weapon itself. “I like it.”
“I’m so glad you approve.”
“It’s better than Killer or Silver Majesty,” he threw back. His grin was brighter than the glowing Siphon atop his left hand. Her pulse raced.
“Ataraxia,” he said again, and Nesta could have sworn the blade hanging from her belt hummed in answer. As if it liked the sound of his voice as much as she did.
They neared the end of the tunnel, but Nesta paused him with a tug on his hand. “What?” he asked, scanning the cavern. But she rose onto her toes and kissed him lightly. He blinked with almost comic shock as she pulled away. “What was that for?”
Nesta shrugged, her cheeks heating. “Gwyn and Emerie are my friends,” she said quietly. She tucked away her horror that Briallyn had eyes on them. “But …” She swallowed. “I think you might be, too, Cassian.”
Cassian’s silence was palpable, and she cursed herself for laying bare that wish, that realization. Wished she could wipe away the words, the stupidity—
“I’ve always been your friend, Nesta,” he said hoarsely. “Always.” She couldn’t bear to see what was in his eyes. “I know.”
Cassian brushed his mouth over her temple, and they exited the tunnel at last, entering the main path of the Prison, its heavy gloom.
Nesta whispered, finally daring to say it, “And I’ve always—”
Cassian threw her behind him so fast the rest of the words died in her throat.
“Run.” His heartbeat—his pure terror—filled the air. “Nesta, run.”
She whirled toward what he faced, his Illyrian blade gleaming ruby in the light of his Siphon. As if a blade could do anything.
The door to Lanthys’s cell lay open.