There was so much blood.
It had spread to where Lorcan was kneeling, gleaming bright as it soaked into the sand.
It covered her shirt, discarded and forgotten beside him. It even speckled the scabbards of her swords and knives, littered around him like bones.
What Maeve had done … What Aelin had done …
There was a hole in his chest. And there was so much blood.
Wings and roaring and he still couldn’t look up. Couldn’t bring himself to care.
Elide’s voice cut across the world, saying to someone, “The ship—the ship just vanished; she left without realizing we have the—”
Whoops of joy—female cries of happiness. Thunderous, swift steps.
Then a hand gripping his hair, yanking back his head as a dagger settled along his throat. As Rowan’s face, calm with lethal wrath, appeared in his vision.
“Where is Aelin.”
There was pure panic, too—pure panic as Whitethorn saw the blood, the scattered blades, and the shirt.
“Where is Aelin.”
What had he done, what had he done—
Pain sliced Lorcan’s neck, warm blood dribbled down his throat, his chest.
Rowan hissed, “Where is my wife?”
Lorcan swayed where he knelt. Wife.
“Oh, gods,” Elide sobbed as she overheard, the words carrying the sound of Lorcan’s own fractured heart. “Oh, gods …”
And for the first time in centuries, Lorcan wept.
Rowan dug the dagger deeper into Lorcan’s neck, even as tears slid down Lorcan’s face.
What that woman had done …
Aelin had known. That Lorcan had betrayed her and summoned Maeve here. That she had been living on borrowed time.
And she had married Whitethorn … so Terrasen could have a king. Perhaps had been spurred into action because she knew Lorcan had already betrayed her, that Maeve was coming …
And Lorcan had not helped her. Whitethorn’s wife.
Aelin had let them whip and chain her, had gone willingly with Maeve, so Elide didn’t enter Cairn’s clutches. And it had been just as much a sacrifice for Elide as it had been a gift to him.
She had bowed to Maeve. For Elide.
“Please,” Rowan begged, his voice breaking as that calm fury fractured. “Maeve took her,” Manon said, approaching.
Gavriel rasped from where he knelt nearby, reeling from the severing of his blood oath, “She used the oath to keep us down—keep us from helping. Even Lorcan.”
Rowan still didn’t remove the knife from Lorcan’s throat. Lorcan had been wrong. He had been so wrong.
And he could not entirely regret it, not if Elide was safe, but …
Aelin had refused to count. Cairn had unleashed his full strength on her with that whip, and she had refused to give them the satisfaction of counting.
“Where is the ship,” Aedion demanded, then swore at the bloody shirt nearby. He grabbed Goldryn, frantically wiping the blood specks off the scabbard with his jacket.
“It vanished,” Elide said again. “It just … vanished.”
Whitethorn stared down at him, agony and despair in those eyes. And Lorcan whispered, “I’m sorry.”
Rowan dropped the knife, released the fist gripping Lorcan’s hair. Staggered back a step. In the grass nearby, Dorian knelt beside Gavriel, a faint light glowing around them. Healing the wounds in his arms. There was nothing to be done for the soul-wound Maeve had dealt him, dealt Lorcan as well, in severing that oath with such dishonor.
Manon came closer, her witches now flanking her. They all sniffed at the blood. A golden-haired one swore softly.
Manon told them about the Lock.
About Elena. About the cost the gods demanded of her. Demanded of Aelin.
But it was Elide who then took up the thread, leaning against Lysandra, who was staring at that blood and that shirt as if it were a corpse, telling them what had happened on these dunes. What Aelin had sacrificed.
She told Rowan that he was Aelin’s mate. Told him about Lyria. She told them about the whipping, and the mask, and the box.
When Elide finished, they were silent. And Lorcan only watched as Aedion turned to Lysandra and snarled, “You knew.”
Lysandra did not flinch. “She asked me—that day on the boat. To help her. She told me the suspected price to banish Erawan and restore the keys. What I needed to do.”
Aedion snarled, “What could you possibly …” Lysandra lifted her chin.
Rowan breathed, “Aelin would die to forge the new Lock to seal the keys into the gate—to banish Erawan. But no one would know. No one but us. Not while you wore her skin for the rest of your life.”
Aedion dragged a hand through his blood-caked hair. “But any offspring with Rowan wouldn’t look anything like—”
Lysandra’s face was pleading. “You would fix that, Aedion. With me.”
With the golden hair, the Ashryver eyes … If that line bred true, the shifter’s offspring could pass as royal. Aelin wanted Rowan on the throne— but it would be Aedion secretly siring the heirs.
Aedion flinched as if he’d been struck. “And when were you going to reveal this? Before or after I thought I was taking my gods-damned cousin
to bed for whatever reason you concocted?”
Lysandra said softly, “I will not apologize to you. I serve her. And I am willing to spend the rest of my life pretending to be her so that her sacrifice isn’t in vain—”
“You can go to hell,” Aedion snapped. “You can go to hell, you lying bitch!”
Lysandra’s answering snarl wasn’t human.
Rowan just took Goldryn from the general and walked toward the sea, the wind tossing his silver hair.
Lorcan rose to his feet, swaying again. But Elide was there.
And there was nothing of the young woman he’d come to know in her pale, taut face. Nothing of her in the raw voice as Elide said to Lorcan, “I hope you spend the rest of your miserable, immortal life suffering. I hope you spend it alone. I hope you live with regret and guilt in your heart and never find a way to endure it.”
Then she was heading for the Thirteen. The golden-haired one held up an arm, and Elide slipped beneath it, entering a sanctuary of wings and claws and teeth.
Lysandra stormed to tend to Gavriel, who had the good sense not to flinch at her still-snarling face, and Lorcan looked to Aedion to find the young general already watching him.
Hatred shone in Aedion’s eyes. Pure hatred. “Even before you got the order to stand down, you did nothing to help her. You summoned Maeve here. I will never forget that.”
Then he was striding for the beach—to where Rowan knelt in the sand.
Asterin was alive.
The Thirteen were alive. And it was joy in Manon’s heart—joy, she realized, as she beheld those smiling faces and smiled back.
She said to Asterin, all of them standing among their wyverns on a dune overlooking the sea, “How?”
Asterin brushed a hand over Elide’s hair as the girl wept into her shoulder. “Your grandmother’s bitches gave us one hell of a chase, but we
managed to gut them. We’ve spent the past month looking for you. But Abraxos found us and seemed to know where you were, so we followed him.” She scratched at some dried blood on her cheek. “And saved your ass, apparently.”
Not soon enough, Manon thought, seeing Elide’s silent tears, the way the humans and Fae were either standing or arguing or just doing nothing.
Not soon enough to stop this. To save Aelin Galathynius.
“What do we do now?” Sorrel asked from where she leaned against her bull’s flank, wrapping up a slice in her forearm.
The Thirteen all looked to Manon, all waited.
She dared to ask, “Did you hear what my grandmother said before … everything?”
“The Shadows told us,” Asterin said, eyes dancing. “And?”
“And what?” Sorrel grunted. “So you’re half Crochan.”
“Crochan Queen.” And heir to Rhiannon Crochan’s likeness. Had the Ancients noted it?
Asterin shrugged. “Five centuries of pure-blooded Ironteeth couldn’t bring us home. Maybe you can.”
A child not of war … but of peace.
“And will you follow me?” Manon asked them quietly. “To do what needs to be done before we can return to the Wastes?”
Aelin Galathynius had not beseeched Elena for another fate. She had only asked for one thing, one request of the ancient queen:
Will you come with me? For the same reason Manon had now asked them.
As one, the Thirteen lifted their fingers to their brows. As one, they lowered them.
Manon looked toward the sea, her throat tight.
“Aelin Galathynius willingly handed over her freedom so an Ironteeth witch could walk free,” Manon said. Elide straightened, pulling from Asterin’s arms. But Manon continued, “We owe her a life debt. And more than that … It is time that we became better than our foremothers. We are all children of this land.”
“What are you going to do?” Asterin breathed, her eyes so bright. Manon looked behind them. To the north.
“I am going to find the Crochans. And I am going to raise an army with them. For Aelin Galathynius. And her people. And for ours.”
“They’ll never trust us,” Sorrel said.
Asterin drawled, “Then we’ll have to just be our charming selves.” Some of them smirked; some of them shifted on their feet.
Manon said again to her Thirteen, “Will you follow me?”
And when they all touched their fingers to their brows again, Manon returned the gesture.
Rowan and Aedion were sitting silently on the beach. Gavriel had recovered enough from the shock of the oath’s severing that he and Lorcan were now standing atop the bluff, talking quietly; Lysandra was sitting alone, in ghost leopard form, amongst the waving seagrasses; and Dorian was just … watching them from the apex of a dune.
What Aelin had done … what she’d lied about … Some of the blood on the ground had dried.
If Aelin was gone, if her life would indeed be the cost if she ever got free …
“Maeve doesn’t have the two keys,” Manon said from Dorian’s side, having crept up silently. Her coven lingered behind her, Elide ensconced within their ranks. “In case you were concerned.”
Lorcan and Gavriel turned toward them. Then Lysandra. Dorian dared to ask, “Then where are they?”
“I have them,” Manon said simply. “Aelin slid them into my pocket.”
Oh, Aelin. Aelin. She’d worked Maeve into such a frenzy, made the queen so focused on capturing her that she hadn’t thought to confirm if Aelin held the keys before she vanished.
She’d been dealt such a wicked, impossible hand—and yet Aelin had made it count. One last time, she’d made it count.
“It’s why I couldn’t do anything about it,” Manon said. “To help her. I had to look uninvolved. Neutral.” From where he sat on the beach below, Aedion had twisted toward them, his keen Fae hearing feeding him every word. Manon said to all of them, “I am sorry. I’m sorry I couldn’t help.”
She reached into the pocket of her riding leathers and extended the Amulet of Orynth and a sliver of black stone to Dorian. He balked.
“Elena said Mala’s bloodline can stop this. It runs in both your houses.”
The golden eyes were weary—heavy. He realized what Manon was asking.
Aelin had never planned to see Terrasen again.
She had married Rowan knowing she would have months at best, days at the worst, with him. But she would give Terrasen a legal king. To hold her territory together.
She had made plans for all of them—and none for herself. “The quest does not end here,” Dorian said softly.
Manon shook her head. And he knew she meant more than the keys, than the war, as she said, “No, it does not.”
He took the keys from her. They throbbed and flickered, warming his palm. A foreign, horrible presence, and yet … all that stood between them and destruction.
No, the quest did not end here. Not even close. Dorian slid the keys into his pocket.
And the road that now sprawled away before him, curving into unknown, awaiting shadow … it did not frighten him.