Chapter no 117

Empire of Storms

“Well,” said the thing inside the princess, “it certainly took you long enough.”

The words echoed down the massive chamber, bouncing off stone and gold.

Chaol assessed every shadow, every object they passed. All possible weapons. All possible escape routes.

Hafiza did not move as they neared, walking down the broad avenue between the endless, glittering gold and sarcophagi. A necropolis.

Perhaps one enormous, subterranean city, stretching from the desert to here.

When they’d visited Aksara, Duva had remained behind. Claiming that her pregnancy—

Yrene’s hiss told him she realized the same.

Duva was pregnant—and the Valg had a hold on her.

Chaol sized up the odds. A Valg-infested princess, armed with a knife and whatever dark magic, the Healer on High tied to the throne …

And Yrene.

“Because I see you calculating, Lord Westfall, I’ll spare you the trouble and lay out your options for you.” Duva traced gentle, idle lines over her full womb with that knife, barely disturbing the fabric of her gown. “See,

you’ll have to pick. Me, the Healer on High, or Yrene Towers.” The princess smiled and whispered again, “Yrene.”

And that voice …

Yrene shook beside him. The voice from that night.

But Yrene lifted her chin as they halted at the base of those steep dais steps, and said to the princess, unfaltering as any queen, “What is it that you want?”

Duva angled her head, her eyes wholly black. The ebony of the Valg. “Don’t you want to know how?”

“I’m sure you’ll tell us, anyway,” Chaol said.

Duva’s eyes narrowed with annoyance, but she let out a small laugh. “These tunnels run right between the palace and the Torre. Those immortal Fae brats buried their royals here. Renegades of Mora’s noble line.” She swept an arm to encompass the room. “I’m sure the khagan would be beside himself to learn of how much gold sits beneath his feet. Another hand to play when the time calls for it.”

Yrene stared and stared at Hafiza, who was watching them calmly.

A woman ready for her end. Who now only wanted to make sure Yrene did not think her frightened.

“I was waiting for you to figure out it was me,” Duva said. “When I destroyed all those precious books and scrolls, I thought you’d certainly realize I was the only one who hadn’t gone to the party. But then I realized

—how could you suspect me?” She laid a hand on her full womb. “It was why he chose her to begin with. Lovely, gentle Duva. Too kind to ever be a contender for the throne.” A snake’s smile. “Do you know Hasar tried to take the ring first? She spied it in the wedding trove sent by Perrington and

wanted it. But Duva snatched it before she could.” She held up her finger, revealing the broad silver band. Not a glimmer of Wyrdstone.

“It’s beneath,” she whispered. “A clever little trick to hide it. And the moment she spoke her vows to that sweet, lovesick human prince, this went on her hand.” Duva smirked. “And no one even noticed.” A flash of her white teeth. “Except for keen-eyed little sister.” She clicked her tongue. “Tumelun suspected something was wrong. Caught me poking about in forgotten places. So I caught her, too.” Duva chuckled. “Or didn’t, I suppose. Since I shoved her right off that balcony.”

Yrene sucked in a breath.

“Such a wild, impetuous princess,” Duva drawled. “Prone to such moods. I couldn’t very well have her going to her beloved parents and whining about me, could I?”

“You bitch,” Yrene snapped.

“That’s what she called me,” Duva replied. “Said I didn’t seem right.” She rubbed a hand over her belly, then tapped a finger to the side of her head. “You should have heard how she screamed. Duva—how Duva screamed when I pushed the brat off the balcony. But I shut her up fast enough, didn’t I?” She again brought that knife up to her belly and scraped over the silk fabric.

“Why are you here,” Yrene breathed. “What do you want?” “You.”

Chaol’s heart stumbled at the word.

Duva straightened. “The Dark King heard whispers. Whispers that a healer blessed with Silba’s gifts had entered the Torre. And it made him so very, very wary.”

“Because I can wipe you all out like the parasites you are?”

Chaol shot Yrene a warning glance.

But Duva plucked the dagger off her womb and studied the blade. “Why do you think Maeve has hoarded her healers, never allowing them to leave her patrolled borders? She knew we would return. She wanted to be ready

—to protect herself. Her prized favorites, those Doranelle healers. Her secret army.” Duva hummed, motioning with the dagger to the necropolis. “How clever those Fae were, who escaped her clutches after the last war. They ran all the way here—the healers who knew their queen would keep them penned up like animals. And then they bred the magic into the land, into its people. Encouraged the right powers to rise up, to ensure this land would always be strong, defended. And then they vanished, taking their treasures and histories beneath the earth. Ensuring they were forgotten below, while their little garden was planted above.”

“Why,” was all Chaol said.

“To give those Maeve did not consider important a fighting chance should Erawan return.” Duva clicked her tongue. “So noble, those renegade Fae. And thus the Torre grew—and His Dark Majesty indeed rose again, and then fell, and then slept. And even he forgot what someone with the right gifts might do. But then he awoke once more. And he remembered the healers. So he made sure to purge the gifted ones from the northern lands.” A smile at Yrene, hateful and cold. “But it seems a little healer slipped the butcher’s block. And made it all the way to this city, with an empire to guard her.”

Yrene’s breathing was ragged. He saw the guilt and dread settle in. That in coming here, she had brought this upon them. Tumelun, Duva, the Torre, the khaganate.

But what Yrene did not realize, Chaol instead saw it for her. Saw it with the weight of a continent, a world, upon him. Saw what had terrified Erawan enough to dispatch one of his agents.

Because Yrene, ripe with power and facing down that preening Valg demon … Hope.

It was hope that stood beside him, hidden and protected these years in this city, and in the years before it, spirited across the earth by the gods themselves, concealed from the forces poised to destroy her.

A kernel of hope.

The most dangerous of all weapons against Erawan, against the Valg’s ancient darkness.

What he had been brought here to retrieve for his homeland, his people. What he had been brought here to protect. More precious than soldiers, than any weapon. Their only shot at salvation.


“Why not kill me, then,” Yrene demanded. “Why not just kill me?” Chaol hadn’t dared ask or think the question.

Duva rested her dagger upon her belly again. “Because you are so much more useful to Erawan alive, Yrene Towers.”



Yrene was shaking. In her bones, she was trembling. “I am no one,” Yrene breathed.

That blade—that blade sat atop that womb. And Hafiza remained still and watchful, ever calm, beside Duva.

“Are you?” the princess crooned. “Two years is an unnaturally swift pace to climb so high in the Torre. Is it not, Healer?”

Yrene wanted to vomit as the demon inside Duva looked upon Hafiza.

Hafiza met her stare unflinchingly.

Duva laughed quietly. “She knew. She said as much to me when I spirited her out of her room earlier. That I was coming for you. Silba’s Heir.”

Yrene’s hand slid to her locket. The note within.

The world needs more healers.

Had it been Silba herself who had come that night in Innish, who had sent her here, with a message she would later understand?

The world needed more healers—to fight Erawan.

“That was why Erawan sent me,” Duva drawled. “To be his spy. To see if a healer with those gifts—the gifts—might indeed emerge from the Torre. And to keep you from learning too much.” A little shrug. “Of course, killing that brat-princess and the other healer were … mistakes, but I’m sure His Dark Majesty will forgive me for it when I return with you in tow.”

Roaring filled her head, so loud Yrene could barely hear herself as she snapped, “If you mean to bring me to him, why kill the healer you mistook for me? And why not kill every healer in this city and spare yourselves the trouble?”

Duva snorted, waving that dagger. “Because that would raise too many questions. Why was Erawan targeting your kind? Certain key players might have started pondering. So the Torre was to be left alone—in ignorance. Dwelling here, removed from the north, never leaving these shores. Until it’s time for my liege to deal with this empire.” A smile that made Yrene’s blood ice over. “As for that healer … It had nothing to do with how she resembled you. She was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Well, the right time for me, since I was frightfully hungry and I couldn’t exactly feed without being noticed. But to drum up some fear in you, to make you

realize the danger and stop working on that Adarlanian fool, stop prying too far into such ancient matters. But you did not listen, did you?”

Yrene’s hands curled into claws at her sides.

Duva went on, “Too bad, Yrene Towers. Too bad. For every day you worked on him, healed him, it became clear that you, indeed, were the one. The one my Dark King covets. And after Duva’s own palace spies told her that you had healed him fully, once he was walking again and you proved beyond doubt that you were the one I’d been sent to find …” She sneered at Hafiza, and Yrene wanted to rip that expression right off her face. “I knew outright attack would be complicated. But luring you down here … Too easy. I’m rather disappointed. So,” she declared, flipping the knife in her hand, “you will be coming with me, Yrene Towers. To Morath.”

Chaol stepped in front of Yrene. “You are forgetting one thing.” Duva lifted a groomed eyebrow. “Oh?”

“You have not won yet.”

Go, Yrene wanted to tell him. Go.

For that was dark power starting to curl around Duva’s fingers, around the hilt of her dagger.

“What’s amusing, Lord Westfall,” Duva said, peering down at them from atop the dais, “is that you think you can buy yourself time until the guards come. But by then, you will be dead, and no one would dare question my word when I tell them you tried to kill us down here. To take this gold back to your poor little kingdom after you wasted your own upon ordering those weapons from my father’s vizier. Why, you could buy yourself a thousand armies with this.”

Yrene hissed, “You still have us to contend with.”

“I suppose.” Duva pulled something from her pocket. Another ring, crafted from stone so dark it swallowed the light. No doubt sent directly from Morath. “But once you put this on … you’ll do whatever I say.”

“And why should I ever—”

Duva rested the knife against Hafiza’s throat. “That’s why.”

Yrene looked to Chaol, but he was sizing up the room, the stairs and exits.

The dark power twining around Duva’s fingers.

“So,” Duva said, taking one step down the dais. “Let’s begin.” She made it a second step before it happened.

Chaol did not move. But Hafiza did.

She hurled her body, chair and all, the entire weight of that golden throne, down the stairs.

Right atop Duva.

Yrene screamed, running for them, Chaol launching into motion. Hafiza and the baby, the baby and Hafiza—

Crone and princess tumbled down those steep stairs, wood snapping. Wood, not metal. The throne had been painted, and now it shattered as they rolled, Duva shrieking and Hafiza so silent, even as her gag came free—

They hit the stone floor with a crack that Yrene felt in her heart.

Chaol was instantly there, not going for Duva, sprawled on the ground, but for Hafiza, limp and unmoving. He hauled her back, splinters and ropes clinging to her, her mouth gaping—

Eyes cracking open—

Yrene sobbed, grabbing Hafiza by the other arm and helping him heave her out of the way, toward a towering statue of a Fae soldier.

Just as Duva rose up on her elbows, hair loose around her face, and seethed, “You rotting pile of shit—”

Chaol shot upright, sword angled before them while Yrene fumbled for her magic to heal the ancient, frail body.

The old woman managed to raise her arm long enough to grip Yrene’s wrist. Go, she seemed to say.

Duva climbed to her feet, long splinters embedded in her neck, blood dripping from her mouth. Black blood.

Chaol gave Yrene all of one look over his shoulder. Run. And take Hafiza with her.

Yrene opened her mouth to tell him no, but he had already faced ahead again. Toward the princess who advanced one step.

Her dress was torn, revealing the firm, round belly beneath. A fall like that with a baby—

A baby.

Yrene gripped Hafiza under her thin shoulders, hauling her slight weight across the floor.

Chaol wouldn’t kill her. Duva.

Yrene sobbed through her clenched teeth as she dragged Hafiza back and back through that gold-lined avenue, the statues looking on unfeelingly.

He wouldn’t so much as harm Duva, not with that baby in her womb. Yrene’s chest caved in at the low hum of power that filled the room. He would not fight back. He would buy Yrene time.

To get Hafiza out and to run.

Duva purred, “This will likely hurt a great deal.”

Yrene whirled back just as shadows lashed from the princess, aimed right at Chaol.

He rolled to the side, the blast going wide and striking the statue he ducked behind.

“Such theatrics,” Duva tutted, and Yrene hurried, sliding Hafiza toward those distant stairs. Leaving him—leaving him behind.

But movement caught her eye, and then— A statue crashed into the princess’s path.

Duva blasted it aside with her power. Gold showered the room in chunks that thundered atop the sarcophagi, the cracking echoing through the chamber.

“You will make this boring,” Duva tsked, and hurled a handful of darkness toward where he’d been. Yrene stumbled as the room shuddered, but she kept upright.

Another blow. Another.

Duva hissed, rounding the sarcophagus where she’d guessed Chaol was hiding. She fired her power blindly.

Chaol appeared, shield in hand. Not a shield—an ancient mirror.

The power bounced off the metal, shattering glass, even as it rebounded into the princess.

Yrene saw the blood first. On both of them.

Then saw the dread in his face as Duva was blasted back, slamming into a stone sarcophagus so hard her bones cracked.

Duva hit the ground and did not move. Yrene waited one breath. Two.

She lowered Hafiza to the floor and ran. Ran right for Chaol, where he panted, gaping at the woman’s fallen body.

“What have I done,” he breathed, refusing to take his eyes off the too-still princess. Blood slid down his face from the shards of that mirror, but nothing major—nothing lethal.

Duva, however …

Yrene shoved past him, past his sword, to the princess on the ground. If she was down, she could potentially get the Valg demon out, potentially try to fix her body—

She turned Duva over.

And found the princess smiling at her. It happened so fast. Too fast.

Duva lunged for her face, her throat, black bands of power leaping from her palms.

Then Yrene was not there. Then she was on the stones, thrown to the side as Chaol hurled himself between her and the princess.

No shield, no weapon.

Only his back, utterly exposed, as he shoved Yrene away and took the full brunt of the Valg attack.

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