The being that stood atop the lake was a shadow. It must be a reflection, Cassian thought. Smoke and mirrors.
“Where is Briallyn?” Azriel demanded, Siphons flaring like cobalt flame.
“I spend so many months preparing for you,” Koschei crooned, “and you don’t even wish to speak to me?”
Cassian crossed his arms. “Let Eris go, and then we’ll talk.” He prayed Koschei didn’t know of the Made dagger that Eris had again sheathed at his side, that the Crown’s aura of power had blinded even Briallyn to its presence. But if the death-lord got his hands on it … Fuck. Cassian didn’t let himself so much as glance toward the blade.
“You fell for it rather easily,” Koschei went on, “though you took your time making contact. I thought you’d rush in for the kill, brute that you are.” They could make out nothing of him beyond the shadows of his form. Even Azriel’s own shadows kept tucked behind his wings. Koschei laughed, and Azriel stiffened. Like his shadows had murmured a warning.
His Siphons flared again. “Run,” Az breathed, and the pure terror on his brother’s face had Cassian spreading his wings, readying to launch—
But his wings halted. His entire body halted.
Azriel grabbed Eris and shot into the skies, the Made dagger with them.
They had to get it far from Koschei. Yet Cassian could not move.
Cassian’s Siphons glowed like fresh blood, then sputtered out. Azriel shouted his name from high above. Koschei drifted closer to the shore. “You can take him now, Briallyn. You have plenty of time before dawn.”
A small, hunched figure emerged from behind the trees. A crone. A golden crown sat upon her head, right above her arched ears. Hate burned in her eyes.
Koschei said, “Tell my Vassa I’m waiting.” His shadows swirled.
Azriel soared back toward the ground, his Siphons creating a blue orb of power encircling him, but Briallyn had already reached Cassian.
“I have need of you, Lord of Bastards,” the ancient-looking queen seethed. Cassian could say nothing. Couldn’t move. The Crown glowed like molten iron. Briallyn ordered Koschei, “Winnow us.”
The death-lord pointed a long-fingered hand at Briallyn and Cassian.
Flicked his fingers once.
And the world vanished, spinning into blackness and wind.
Nesta’s shield had become a millstone. Her sword, slick with blood, hung from her hand, a leaden, slippery weight.
Every inch of her body burned. With exhaustion, with her wounds, with the knowledge that behind that line she’d drawn in the dirt, through the archway at her back, Gwyn and Emerie were still breathing, still climbing that final piece of the Breaking to the summit.
So she’d killed the Illyrian males who squeezed through those jagged rocks. Who believed they’d find an untrained, helpless female and found death waiting for them before the archway.
Only one remained.
Some inner part of her quaked at the unseeing, battered faces. The blood running from the corpses.
Valkyrie, she whispered to herself. You are a Valkyrie, and once again, you are holding the pass. If you fall, it will be to save the friends who saved you, even when they didn’t know they were doing so.
A glance over her shoulder showed Emerie still scaling the last of the summit, so slow, but so close. Dawn neared, but … they could make it. Win
Nesta again faced the archway. Knew who she’d find.
Bellius leaned against a boulder, sword in hand, shield dangling from the other. “Impressive work for a High Fae whore.”
The male pushed off the rock of the archway, not sparing a glance at the warriors he’d let die for him. “You know, our god—the first of the Illyrians
—held the ground against enemy hordes right where you’re standing.” There wasn’t a scratch on him. No sign of exhaustion despite the climb.
Bellius smirked. “He drew a line in the dirt as well.” He nodded toward it. “Nice little touch.”
Nesta hadn’t known that tidbit of their history. But she revealed nothing. She became blood and dirt and pure determination.
“It didn’t end well for Enalius,” Bellius went on. “He died after defending this spot for three days. Climbed with his guts hanging out to the sacred stone at the top and died there. It’s why we do this stupid thing. To honor him.”
She still didn’t speak. But Bellius’s eyes drifted to the peak above. Displeasure narrowed them. “My crippled cunt of a cousin and that half-breed disgrace this sacred place.”
A flutter of light from the summit washed over Bellius’s features. Nesta’s lips curled. Widened into a smile at Bellius’s growl.
Gwyn and Emerie had touched the sacred stone and been winnowed away by its magic.
“Seems like you didn’t win,” Nesta said to Bellius at last.
Hatred darkened Bellius’s glassy eyes. As if in answer, snow began falling, great clouds twining around the mountain. Rumbling. The snow clung to the rocks this time.
“I never wanted to win.” Bellius’s mouth twitched upward. “I just wanted this.”
He launched at her.