Chapter no 13

Empire of Storms

It had been a long while since Dorian had seen so many stars.

Far behind them, smoke still stained the sky, the plumes illuminated by the crescent moon overhead. At least the screams had faded miles ago. Along with the thump of mighty wings.

Seated behind him in the one-masted skiff, Prince Rowan Whitethorn gazed over the calm black expanse of the sea. They’d sail south, pushed by the prince’s own magic, to the Dead Islands. The Fae warrior had gotten them quickly to the coast, where he’d had no qualms about stealing this boat while its owner was focused on the panicking city to the west. And all the while, Dorian had been silent, useless. As he had been while his city was destroyed, his people murdered.

“You should eat,” Rowan said from the other end of the small boat.

Dorian glanced toward the sack of supplies Rowan had also stolen.

Bread, cheese, apples, dried fish … Dorian’s stomach turned.

“You were impaled by a poisoned barb,” Rowan said, his voice no louder than the waves lapping against their boat as the swift wind pushed them from behind. “Your magic was drained keeping you alive and walking. You need to eat, or else it won’t replenish.” A pause. “Didn’t Aelin warn you about that?”

Dorian swallowed. “No. She didn’t really have the time to teach me about magic.” He looked toward the back of the boat, where Rowan sat with a hand braced on the rudder. The sight of those pointed ears was still a shock, even months after meeting the male. And that silver hair—

Not like Manon’s hair, which was the pure white of moonlight on snow.

He wondered what had become of the Wing Leader—who had killed for him, spared him.

Not spared him. Rescued him.

He wasn’t a fool. He knew she’d done it for whatever reasons were useful to her. She was as alien to him as the warrior sitting at the other end of the boat—more so.

And yet, that darkness, that violence and stark, honest way of looking at the world … There would be no secrets with her. No lies.

“You need to eat to keep up your strength,” Rowan went on. “Your magic feeds on your energy—feeds on you. The more rested you are, the greater the strength. More important, the greater the control. Your power is both part of you and its own entity. If left to its own devices, it will consume you, wield you like a tool.” A flash of teeth as Rowan smiled. “A certain person we know likes to siphon off her power, use it on frivolous things to keep its edge dull.” Dorian could feel Rowan’s stare pin him like a physical blow. “The choice is yours how much you allow it into your life, how to use it—but go any longer without mastering it, Majesty, and it will destroy you.”

A chill went down Dorian’s spine.

And maybe it was the open ocean, or the endless stars above them, but Dorian said, “It wasn’t enough. That day … that day Sorscha died, it wasn’t enough to save her.” He spread his hands on his lap. “It only wishes to destroy.”

Silence fell, long enough that Dorian wondered if Rowan had fallen asleep. He hadn’t dared ask when the prince himself had last slept; he’d certainly eaten enough for a starved man.

“I was not there to save my mate when she was murdered, either,” Rowan said at last.

Dorian straightened. Aelin had told him plenty of the prince’s history, but not this. He supposed it wasn’t her secret, her sorrow to share. “I’m sorry,” Dorian said.

His magic had felt the bond between Aelin and Rowan—the bond that went deeper than blood, than their magic, and he’d assumed it was just that they were mates, and hadn’t announced it to anyone. But if Rowan already had a mate, and had lost her…

Rowan said, “You’re going to hate the world, Dorian. You are going to hate yourself. You will hate your magic, and you will hate any moment of peace or happiness. But I had the luxury of a kingdom at peace and no one depending upon me. You do not.”

Rowan shifted the rudder, adjusting their course farther out to sea as the coastline jutted to meet them, a rising wall of steep cliffs. He’d known they were traveling swiftly, but they had to be almost halfway to the southern border—and traveling far faster than he’d realized under the cover of darkness.

Dorian said at last, “I am the sovereign of a broken kingdom. My people do not know who rules them. And now that I am fleeing…” He shook his head, exhaustion gnawing on his bones. “Have I yielded my kingdom to Erawan? What—what do I even do from here?”

The ship’s creaking and the rush of water were the only sounds. “Your people will have learned by now that you were not among the dead. It is upon you to tell them how to interpret it—if they are to see you as abandoning them, or if they are to see you as a man who is leaving to find help—to save them. You must make that clear.”

“By going to the Dead Islands.”

A nod. “Aelin, unsurprisingly, has a fraught history with the Pirate Lord. You don’t. It’s in your best interest to make him see you as an advantageous ally. Aedion told me the Dead Islands were once overrun by General Narrok and several of Erawan’s forces. Rolfe and his fleet fled— and though Rolfe is now once more ruler of Skull’s Bay, that disgrace might be your way in with him. Convince him you are not your father’s son—and that you’ll grant Rolfe and his pirates privileges.”

“You mean turn them into privateers.”

“You have gold, we have gold. If promising Rolfe money and free rein to loot Erawan’s ships will secure us an armada in the South, we’d be fools to shy from it.”

Dorian considered the prince’s words. “I’ve never met a pirate.”

“You met Aelin when she was still pretending to be Celaena,” Rowan said drily. “I can promise you Rolfe won’t be much worse.”

“That’s not reassuring.”

A huffed laugh. Silence fell between them again. At last, Rowan said, “I’m sorry—about Sorscha.”

Dorian shrugged, and hated himself for the gesture, as if it diminished what Sorscha had meant, how brave she’d been—how special. “You know,” he said, “sometimes I wish Chaol were here—to help me. And then sometimes I’m glad he’s not, so he wouldn’t be at risk again. I’m glad he’s

in Antica with Nesryn.” He studied the prince, the lethal lines of his body, the predatory stillness with which he sat, even as he manned their boat. “Could you—could you teach me about magic? Not everything, I mean, but

… what you can, whenever we can.”

Rowan considered for a moment, and then said, “I have known many kings in my life, Dorian Havilliard. And it was a rare man indeed who asked for help when he needed it, who would put aside pride.”

Dorian was fairly certain his pride had been shredded under the claws of the Valg prince.

“I’ll teach you as much as I can before we arrive in Skull’s Bay,” Rowan said. “We may find someone there who escaped the butchers— someone to instruct you more than I can.”

“You taught Aelin.”

Again, silence. Then, “Aelin is my heart. I taught her what I knew, and it worked because our magics understood each other deep down—just as our souls did. You are … different. Your magic is something I have rarely encountered. You need someone who grasps it, or at least how to train you in it. But I can teach you control; I can teach you about spiraling down into your power, and taking care of yourself.”

Dorian nodded his thanks. “The first time you met Aelin, did you know

… ?”

A snort. “No. Gods, no. We wanted to kill each other.” The amusement flickered. “She was … in a very dark place. We both were. But we led each other out of it. Found a way—together.”

For a heartbeat, Dorian could only stare. As if reading his mind, Rowan said, “You will find your way, too, Dorian. You’ll find your way out.”

He didn’t have the right words to convey what was in his heart, so he sighed up at the starry, endless sky. “To Skull’s Bay, then.”

Rowan’s smile was a slash of white in the darkness. “To Skull’s Bay.”

Yrene made sure to be on time the next morning. She hadn’t sent word ahead, but she was willing to gamble that Lord Westfall and the new captain would be waiting at ten. Though from the glares he threw her way last night, she wondered if he doubted she’d return at all.

Let him think what he wanted.

She debated waiting until eleven, since Hasar and Renia had dragged her out drinking—or rather, Yrene had watched them drink, sipping at her own glass of wine—and she hadn’t crawled into her room in the Torre until nearly two. Hasar had offered her a suite at the palace for the night, but given the fact that they’d narrowly escaped Kashin joining them at the quiet, elegant taproom in the bustling Rose Quarter, Yrene was not inclined to risk running into him again.

Honestly, whenever the khagan ordered his children back to their various outposts, it would not be soon enough. They’d lingered after Tumelun’s death—which Hasar had still refused to even mention. Yrene had barely known the youngest princess, the girl having spent most of her time with Kashin among the Darghan on the steppes and the walled cities scattered around them. But in those initial days after Tumelun’s body had been found, after Hafiza herself had confirmed that the girl had jumped from the

balcony, Yrene had the urge to seek out Kashin. To offer her sympathies, yes, but also to just see how he was doing.

Yrene knew him well enough to understand that despite the easy, unruffled manner he presented to the world, the disciplined soldier who obeyed his father’s every order and fearlessly commanded his terrestrial armies … beneath that smiling face lay a churning sea of grief. Wondering what he could have done differently.

Things had indeed turned awkward and awful between Yrene and Kashin, but … she still cared. Yet she had not reached out to him. Had not wanted to open that door she’d spent months trying to shut.

She’d hated herself for it, thought about it at least once a day. Especially when she spied the white banners flapping throughout the city, the palace. At dinner last night, she’d done her best not to crumple up with shame as she ignored him, suffered through his praise, the pride still in his words when he spoke of her.

Fool, Eretia had called her more than once, after Yrene had confessed during a particularly grueling healing what had occurred on the steppes last winter. Yrene knew it was true—but she … well, she had other plans for herself. Dreams she would not, could not, defer or yield entirely. So once Kashin, once the other royals, returned to their ruling posts … it would be easier again. Better.

She only wished Lord Westfall’s own return to his hateful kingdom didn’t rely so heavily upon her assistance.

Biting back a scowl, Yrene squared her shoulders and knocked on the suite doors, the lovely-faced servant answering before the sound had even finished echoing in the hall.

There were so many of them in the palace that Yrene had learned the names of just a few, but she’d seen this one before, had marked her beauty. Enough that Yrene nodded in recognition and strode in.

Servants were paid handsomely, and treated well enough that competition was fierce to land a spot in the palace—especially when positions tended to remain within families, and any openings went to those within them. The khagan and his court treated their servants as people, with rights and laws to protect them.

Unlike Adarlan, where so many lived and died in shackles. Unlike the enslaved in Calaculla and Endovier, never allowed to see the sun or breathe fresh air, entire families torn asunder.

She had heard of the massacres in the mines this spring. The butchering. It was enough that any neutral expression vanished from her face by the time she reached the lavish sitting room. She didn’t know what their business was with the khagan, but he certainly looked after his guests.

Lord Westfall and the young captain were sitting precisely where they’d been the previous morning. Neither looked happy.

Indeed, neither was really glancing at the other.

Well, at least none of them would bother to pretend to be pleasant today.

The lord was already sizing Yrene up, no doubt marking the blue dress she’d worn yesterday, the same shoes.

Yrene owned four dresses, the purple one she’d worn to dinner last night being the finest. Hasar had always promised to procure finer clothes for her to wear, but the princess never remembered the next day. Not that Yrene particularly cared. If she received the clothes, she’d feel obligated to visit the palace more than she already did, and … Yes, there were some lonely nights when she wondered what the hell she was thinking by pushing away

Kashin, when she reminded herself that most girls in the world would kill and claw their way to an open palace invitation, but she would not stay here for much longer. There was no point.

“Good morning,” said the new captain—Nesryn Faliq.

The woman seemed more focused. Settled. And yet this new tension between her and Lord Westfall …

Not her business. Only if it interfered with her healing.

“I spoke to my superior.” A lie, though she technically had spoken to Hafiza.


Not one word from the lord so far. Shadows were smudged beneath his brown eyes, his tan skin paler than yesterday. If he was surprised she’d returned, he revealed nothing.

Yrene scooped the upper portions of her hair and tied it back with a small wooden comb, leaving the bottom half down. Her preferred style for working. “And I should like to get you walking again, Lord Westfall.”

No emotion flickered in the lord’s eyes. Nesryn, however, loosed a shuddering breath and leaned back against the deep cushions of the golden sofa. “How likely is it that you will succeed?”

“I have healed spinal injuries before. Though it was a rider who took a bad fall off his horse—not a wound in battle. Certainly not one from magic. I shall do my best, but I make no guarantees.”

Lord Westfall said nothing, didn’t so much as shift in his chair.

Say something, she demanded, meeting his cold and weary stare.

His eyes slid to her throat, to the scar she had not let Eretia heal when she’d offered last year.

“Will it be hours every day that you work on him?” Nesryn’s words were steady, almost flat, and yet … The woman was not a creature who took well to a cage. Even a gilded one such as this.

“I would recommend,” Yrene said to Nesryn over a shoulder, “that if you have other duties or tasks to attend to, Captain, these hours would be a good time for that. I shall send word if you are needed.”

“What about moving him around?” The lord’s eyes flashed at that.

And though Yrene was predisposed to chuck them both to the ruks, she noted the lord’s simmering outrage and self-loathing at the words and found herself saying, “I can handle most of it, but I believe Lord Westfall is more than capable of transporting himself.”

Something like wary gratitude shot across his face. But he just said to Nesryn, “And I can ask my own damn questions.”

Guilt flashed across Nesryn’s face, even as she stiffened. But she nodded, biting her lip, before she murmured to Chaol, “I had some invitations yesterday.” Understanding lit his eyes. “I plan to see about them.”

Smart—not to speak too clearly of her movements. Chaol nodded gravely. “Send a message this time.”

Yrene had noted his worry at dinner last night when the captain had not appeared. A man unused to having the people he cared for out of his sight, and now limited in how he might look for them himself. She tucked away the information for later.

Nesryn bid her farewells, perhaps more tersely to the lord, and then was gone.

Yrene waited until she heard the door shut. “She was wise to not speak aloud of her plans.”


His first words to Yrene so far.

She jerked her chin toward the open doors to the foyer. “The walls have ears and mouths. And all the servants are paid by the khagan’s children. Or viziers.”

“I thought the khagan paid them all.”

“Oh, he does,” Yrene said, going to the small satchel she’d left by the door. “But his children and viziers buy the servants’ loyalty through other means. Favors and comforts and status in exchange for information. I’d be careful with whoever was assigned to you.”

Docile as the servant girl who’d let Yrene in might seem, she knew even the smallest snakes could contain the most lethal venom.

“Do you know who … owns them?” He said that word—owns—as if it tasted foul.

Yrene said simply, “No.” She rooted through the satchel, pulling out twin vials of amber liquid, a stub of white chalk, and some towels. He followed every movement. “Do you own any slaves in Adarlan?” She kept the question mild, uninterested. Idle chatter while she readied.

“No. Never.”

She set a black leather journal upon the table before lifting a brow. “Not one?”

“I believe in paying people for their work, as you do here. And I believe in a human being’s intrinsic right to freedom.”

“I’m surprised your king let you live if that is how you feel.” “I kept such opinions to myself.”

“A wiser move. Better to save your hide through silence than speaking for the thousands enslaved.”

He went still at that. “The labor camps and slave trade have been shut down. It was one of the first decrees that my king made. I was there with him when he drafted the document.”

“New decrees for a new era, I suppose?” The words were sharper than the set of knives she carried with her—for surgery, for scraping away rotting flesh.

He held her gaze unflinchingly. “Dorian Havilliard is not his father. It was him I served these years.”

“And yet you were the former king’s honored Captain of the Guard. I’m surprised the khagan’s children aren’t clamoring to hear your secrets about how you played both so well.”

His hands clenched on the arms of the chair. “There are choices in my past,” he said tightly, “that I have come to regret. But I can only move on— and attempt to fix them. Fight to make sure they do not occur again.” He jerked his chin toward the supplies she’d set down. “Which I cannot do while in this chair.”

“You certainly could do such things from that chair,” she said tartly, and meant it. He didn’t respond. Fine. If he did not wish to talk about this … she certainly didn’t wish to, either. Yrene jerked her chin toward the long, deep golden sofa. “Get on that. Shirt off and facedown.”

“Why not the bed?”

“Captain Faliq was here yesterday. I would not enter your bedroom without her present.”

“She is not my …” He trailed off. “It would not be an issue.”

“And yet you saw last night how it might present an issue for me.”


“Yes.” She cut him off with a sharp look toward the door. “The couch will do.”

She had seen the look Kashin had given the captain at dinner. She’d wanted to slide off her chair and hide beneath the table.

“You have no interest where that is concerned?” he said, wheeling himself the few feet to the couch, then unbuttoning his jacket.

“I have no plans to seek such a life for myself.” Not when the risks were so high.

Execution of herself, her husband, and their children if Kashin should challenge the new khagan, if he should stake a claim on the throne. Being rendered infertile by Hafiza at best—once the new khagan had produced enough heirs to ensure the continuation of the bloodline.

Kashin had waved away those concerns that night on the steppes, had refused to understand the insurmountable wall they would always present.

But Chaol nodded, likely well aware of the costs of wedding into the bloodline if your spouse was not the Heir selected. As Kashin would never be—not with Sartaq, Arghun, or Hasar likely to be chosen.

Yrene added before Chaol could inquire further, “And it is none of your concern.”

He looked her over slowly. Not in the way that men sometimes did, that Kashin did, but … as if he was sizing up an opponent.

Yrene crossed her arms, distributing her weight evenly between her feet, just as she had been taught and now instructed others to do. A steady, defensive stance. Ready to take on anyone.

Even lords from Adarlan. He seemed to note that stance, and his jaw clenched.

“Shirt,” she repeated.

With a simmering glare, he reached over his head and shucked off his shirt, setting it neatly atop where he’d folded his jacket over the rolled arm of the sofa. Then he removed his boots and socks with swift, brutal tugs.

“Pants this time,” she told him. “Leave the undershorts.” His hands went to his belt, and hesitated.

He could not remove the pants without some degree of help—at least in the chair.

She didn’t let a flicker of pity show in her face as she waved a hand toward the couch. “Get on, and I’ll unclothe you myself.”

He hesitated again. Yrene put her hands on her hips. “While I wish I could say you were my sole patient today,” she lied, “I do have other appointments to keep. The couch, if you will.”

A muscle beat in his jaw, but he braced one hand on the couch, another on the edge of the chair, and lifted himself.

The strength in the movement alone was worthy of some admiration.

So easily, the muscles in his arms and back and chest hoisted him upward and over. As if he’d been doing it his entire life.

“You’ve kept up your exercising since … how long has it been since the injury?”

“It happened on Midsummer.” His voice was flat—hollow as he lifted his legs up onto the couch with him, grunting at the weight. “And yes. I was not idle before it happened, and I don’t see the point of being so now.”

This man was stone—rock. The injury had cracked him a bit, but not sundered him. She wondered if he knew it.

“Good,” she simply said. “Exercising—both your upper body and your legs—will be a vital part of this.”

He peered at his legs as those faint spasms rocked them. “Exercising my legs?”

“I will explain in a moment,” she said, motioning him to turn over. He obeyed with another reproachful glare, but set himself facedown.

Yrene took a few breaths to survey the length of him. He was large enough that he nearly took up the entire couch. Well over six feet. If he stood again, he’d tower over her.

She strode to his feet and tugged his pants down in short, perfunctory bursts. His undershorts hid enough, though she could certainly see the shape of his firm backside through the thin material. But his thighs … She’d felt the muscle still in them yesterday, but studying them now …

They were starting to atrophy. They already lacked the healthy vitality of the rest of him, the rippling muscle beneath that tan skin seeming looser— thinner.

She laid a hand on the back of one thigh, feeling the muscle beneath the crisp hairs.

Her magic seeped from her skin into his, searching and sweeping through blood and bone.

Yes—the disuse was beginning to wear on him.

Yrene withdrew her hand and found him watching, hand angled on the throw pillow he’d dragged beneath his chin. “They’re breaking down, aren’t they?”

She kept her face set in a mask of stone. “Atrophied limbs may regain their full strength. But yes. We shall have to focus on ways to keep them as strong as we can, to exercise them throughout this process, so that when you stand”—she made sure he heard the slight emphasis on when—“you will have as much support as possible in your legs.”

“So it will not just be healing, but training as well.”

“You said you liked to be kept active. There are many exercises we can do with a spinal injury that will get blood and strength flowing to your legs, which will aid in the healing process. I will oversee you.”

She avoided the alternative words—help you.

Lord Chaol Westfall was not a man who desired help from people. From anyone.

She took a few steps up the length of his body, to peer at his spine. At that pale, strange mark just beneath his nape. At that first prominent knob of his spine.

Even now, the invisible power that swirled along her palms seemed to recoil into her.

“What manner of magic gave that to you?” “Does it matter?”

Yrene hovered her hand over it, but did not let her magic brush it. She ground her teeth. “It would help me to know what havoc it might have wreaked upon your nerves and bones.”

He didn’t answer. Typical Adarlanian bullishness. Yrene pushed, “Was it fire—”

“Not fire.”

A magic-given injury. It had to have happened … Midsummer, he’d said. The day rumors claimed that magic had returned to the northern continent. That it had been freed by Aelin Galathynius.

“Were you fighting against the magic-wielders who returned that day?” “I was not.” Clipped, sharp words.

And she looked into his eyes—his hard stare. Really looked.

Whatever had occurred, it had been horrible. Enough to leave such shadows and reticence.

She had healed people who’d endured horrors. Who could not reply to the questions she asked. And he might have served that butcher, but … Yrene tried not to grimace as she realized what lay ahead, what Hafiza had likely guessed at before assigning her to him: healers often did not just repair wounds, but also the trauma that went along with them. Not through magic, but … talking. Walking alongside the patient as they traveled those hard, dark paths.

And to do so with him … Yrene shoved the thought aside. Later. She’d think of it later.

Closing her eyes, Yrene unspooled her magic into a gentle, probing thread, and laid a palm on that splattered star atop his spine.

The cold slammed into her, spikes of it firing through her blood and bones.

Yrene reeled back as if she’d been given a physical blow.

Cold and dark and anger and agony—

She clenched her jaw, fighting past this echo in the bone, sending that thread-thin probe of power a little farther into the dark.

The pain would have been unbearable when it hit him.

Yrene pushed back against the cold—the cold and the lack and the oily, unworldly wrongness of it.

No magic of this world, some part of her whispered. Nothing that was natural or good. Nothing she knew, nothing she had ever dealt with.

Her magic screamed to draw back that probe, move away—

“Yrene.” His words were far away while the wind and blackness and

emptiness of it roared around her—

And then that echo of nothingness … it seemed to awaken.

Cold filled her, burned along her limbs, creeping wider, encircling.

Yrene flung out her magic in a blind flare, the light pure as sea-foam.

The blackness retreated, a spider scuttling into a shadowed corner. Just enough—just enough that she yanked back her hand, yanked back herself, and found Chaol gaping at her.

Her hands trembled as she gazed down at them. As she gazed at that splotch of paleness on his tan skin. That presence … She coiled her magic deep within herself, willing it to warm her own bones and blood, to steady herself. Even as she steadied it, too—some internal, invisible hand stroking her power, soothing it.

Yrene rasped, “Tell me what that is.” For she had seen or felt or learned

nothing like that.

“Is it inside me?” That was fear—genuine fear in his eyes.

Oh, he knew. Knew what manner of power had dealt this wound, what might be lurking within it. Knew enough about it to be afraid. If such a power existed in Adarlan …

Yrene swallowed. “I think … I think it’s only—only the echo of something bigger. Like a tattoo or a brand. It is not living, and yet …” She flexed her fingers. If a mere probing of the darkness with her magic had triggered such a response, then a full-on onslaught … “Tell me what that is. If I am going to be dealing with … with that, I need to know. Everything you can tell me.”

“I can’t.”

Yrene opened her mouth. But the lord flicked his gaze toward the open door. Her warning to him silently echoed. “Then we shall try to work around it,” she declared. “Sit up. I want to inspect your neck.”

He obeyed, and she observed him while his heavily muscled abdomen eased him upright, then he carefully swung his feet and legs to the floor. Good. That he had not just this much mobility, but the steady, calm patience to work with his body … Good.

Yrene kept that to herself while she strode on still-wobbly knees to the desk where she’d left the vials of amber fluid—massage oils pressed from rosemary and lavender from estates just beyond Antica’s walls, and eucalyptus from the far south.

She selected the eucalyptus, the crisp, smothering scent coiling around her as she pried off the stopper from the vial and took up a place beside him on the couch. Soothing, that scent. For both of them.

Seated together on that couch, he indeed towered over her—the muscled mass of him enough to make her understand why he’d been so adept at his position. Being perched beside him was different, somehow, than standing above him, touching him. Sitting beside a Lord of Adarlan …

Yrene didn’t let the thought settle as she pooled a small amount of the oil into her palm and rubbed her hands together to warm it. He inhaled deeply, as if taking the scent into his lungs, and Yrene didn’t bother to speak as she laid her hands upon his nape.

Broad, sweeping strokes around and down the broad column of his neck.

Over his shoulders.

He let out a deep groan as she passed over a knot between his neck and shoulder, the sound of it reverberating into her palms, then stiffened. “Sorry.”

She ignored the apology, digging her thumbs into the area. Another noise rumbled out of him. Perhaps it made her cruel not to comment on his

slight embarrassment, not to dismiss it. But Yrene just leaned in, sliding her palms down his back, giving a wide berth to that horrid mark.

She reined her magic in tightly, not letting her power brush up against it again.

“Tell me what you know,” she murmured in his ear, her cheek close enough to scrape the faint stubble coating his jaw. “Now.”

He waited a moment, listening for anyone nearby. And as Yrene’s hands stroked over his neck, kneading muscles that were knotted enough to make her cringe, Lord Westfall began whispering.



To Yrene Towers’s credit, her hands did not falter once while Chaol murmured in her ear about horrors even a dark god could not conjure.

Wyrdgates and Wyrdstone and Wyrdhounds. The Valg and Erawan and his princes and collars. Even to him, it sounded no more than a bedtime story, something his mother might have once whispered during those long winter nights in Anielle, the wild winds howling around the stone keep.

He did not tell her of the keys. Of the king who had been enslaved for two decades. Of Dorian’s own enslavement. He did not tell her who had attacked him, or Perrington’s true identity. Only the power the Valg wielded, the threat they posed. That they sided with Perrington.

“So this—agent of these … demons. It was his power that hit you here,” Yrene mused in a near-whisper, hand hovering over the spot on his spine. She didn’t dare touch it, had avoided that area completely while she’d massaged him, as if dreading contact with that dark echo again. She indeed now moved her hand over to his left shoulder and resumed her glorious kneading. He barely kept in his groan at the tension she eased from his aching back and shoulders, his upper arms, his neck and lower head.

He hadn’t known how knotted they were—how hard he’d worked himself in training.

“Yes,” he said at last, his voice still low. “It meant to kill me, but … I was spared.”

“By what?” The fear had long faded from her voice; no tremor lingered in her hands. But little warmth had replaced them, either.

Chaol angled his head, letting her work a muscle so tight it had him grinding his teeth. “A talisman that guarded me against such evil—and a stroke of luck.” Of mercy, from a king who had tried to pull that final punch. Not just as a kindness to him, but to Dorian.

Yrene’s miraculous hands stilled. She pulled back, searching his face. “Aelin Galathynius destroyed the glass castle. That was why she did it— why she took Rifthold, too. To defeat them?”

And where were youwas her unspoken demand.

“Yes.” And he found himself adding into her ear, his words little more than a rumble, “She, Nesryn, and I worked together. With many others.”

Who he had not heard from, had no idea where they were. Off fighting, scrambling to save their lands, their future, while he was here. Unable to so much as even get a private audience with a prince, let alone the khagan.

Yrene considered. “Those are the horrors allying with Perrington,” she said softly. “What the armies will be fighting.”

Fear returned to blanch her face, but he offered what truth he could. “Yes.”

“And you—you will be fighting them?”

He gave her a bitter smile. “If you and I can figure this out.” If you can do the impossible.

But she did not return the amusement. Yrene only scooted back on the sofa, assessing him, wary and distant. For a moment, he thought she’d say something, ask him something, but she only shook her head. “I have much to look into. Before I dare go any further.” She gestured to his back, and he realized that he was still sitting in his undershorts.

He bit down on the urge to reach for his clothes. “Is there a risk—to you?” If there was—

“I don’t know. I … I truly have never encountered anything like this before. I should like to look into it, before I begin treating you and compose an exercise regimen. I need to do some research in the Torre library tonight.”

“Of course.” If this damned injury got them both hurt in the process, he’d refuse. He didn’t know what the hell he’d do, but he’d refuse to let her touch him. And for the risk, the effort … “You never mentioned your fee. For your help.”

It had to be exorbitant. If they’d sent their best, if she had such skill—

Yrene’s brows furrowed. “If you are so inclined, any donation may be made to help the upkeep of the Torre and its staff, but there is no price, no expectation.”


Her hand slid into her pocket as she rose. “I was given this gift by Silba.

It is not right to charge for what was granted for free.” Silba—Goddess of Healing.

He had known one other young woman who was gods-blessed. No wonder they both possessed such unbanked fire in their eyes.

Yrene took her vial of that lovely-smelling oil and began packing up her bag.

“Why did you decide to come back to help me?”

Yrene paused, her slim body going rigid. Then she turned to him.

A wind drifted in from the garden, blowing the strands of her hair, still half-up, over her chest and shoulder. “I thought you and Captain Faliq would use my refusal against me one day.”

“We don’t plan to live here forever.” No matter what else she’d implied. Yrene shrugged. “Neither do I.”

She packed up the rest of her bag and headed for the door.

He stopped her with his next question. “You plan to return?” To Fenharrow? To hell?

Yrene looked to the door, to the servants listening, waiting, in the foyer beyond. “Yes.”

She wished not just to return to Fenharrow, but also to help in the war. For in this war healers would be needed. Desperately. No wonder she had paled at the horrors he had whispered into her ear. Not only for what they would face, but what might come to kill her, too.

And though her face remained wan, as she noted his raised brows, she added, “It is the right thing to do. With all I have been granted—all the kindness thrown my way.”

He debated warning her to stay, to remain here, safe and protected. But he noted the wariness in her eyes as she awaited his answer. Others, he realized, had likely already cautioned against her leaving. Perhaps made her doubt herself, just a bit.

So Chaol instead said, “Captain Faliq and I are not the sort of people who would hold a grudge against you—try to punish you for it.”

“You served a man who did such things.” And likely acted on his behalf.

“Would you believe me if I told you that he left his dirty work to others beyond my command, and I was often not told?”

Her expression told him enough. She reached for the doorknob.

“I knew,” he said quietly. “That he had done and was doing unspeakable things. I knew that forces had tried to fight against him when I was a boy, and he had smashed them to bits. I—to become captain, I had to yield certain … privileges. Assets. I did so willingly, because my focus was on protecting the future. On Dorian. Even as boys, I knew he was not his father’s son. I knew a better future lay with him, if I could make sure Dorian lived long enough. If he not only lived, but also survived— emotionally. If he had an ally, a true friend, in that court of vipers. Neither of us was old enough, strong enough to challenge his father. We saw what happened to those who whispered of rebellion. I knew that if I, if he set one foot out of line, his father would kill him, heir or no. So I craved the stability, the safety of the status quo.”

Yrene’s face had not altered, not softened or hardened. “What happened?”

He reached for his shirt at last. Fitting, he thought, that he’d laid some part of himself bare while sitting here mostly naked. “We met someone. Who set us all down a path I fought against until it cost me and others much. Too much. So you may look at me with resentment, Yrene Towers, and I will not blame you for it. But believe me when I say that there is no one in Erilea who loathes me more than I do myself.”

“For the path you found yourself forced down?”

He slung his shirt over his head and reached for his pants. “For fighting that path to begin with—for the mistakes I made in doing so.”

“And what path do you walk now? How shall the Hand of Adarlan shape its future?”

No one had asked him. Not even Dorian.

“I am still learning—still … deciding,” he admitted. “But it begins with wiping Perrington and the Valg from our homeland.”

She caught the word—our. She chewed on her lip, as if tasting it in her mouth. “What happened on Midsummer, exactly?” He’d been vague. Had not told her of the attack, the days and months leading to it, the aftermath.

That chamber flashed in his mind—a head rolling across the marble, Dorian screaming. Blending with another moment, of Dorian standing beside his father, face cold as death and crueler than any level of Hellas’s realm. “I told you what happened,” he simply said.

Yrene studied him, toying with the strap of her heavy leather satchel. “Facing the emotional consequences of your injury will be a part of this process.”

“I don’t need to face anything. I know what happened before, during, and after.”

Yrene stood perfectly still, those too-old eyes utterly unfazed. “We’ll see about that.”

The challenge hanging in the air between them, dread pooling in his stomach, the words curdled in Chaol’s mouth as she turned on her heel and left.

Two hours later, her head leaning against the lip of the tub carved into the stone floor of the enormous cavern beneath the Torre, Yrene stared into the darkness lurking high above.

The Womb was nearly empty in the midafternoon. Her only company was the trickle of the natural hot spring waters flowing through the dozen tubs built into the cave floor, and the drip of water from jagged stalactites landing upon the countless bells strung on chains between the pillars of pale stone that rose up from the ancient rock.

Candles had been tucked into natural alcoves, or had been clumped at either end of each sunken tub, gilding the sulfurous steam and setting the owls carved into every wall and slick pillar in flickering relief.

A plush cloth cushioning her head against the unforgiving stone lip of the tub, Yrene breathed in the Womb’s thick air, watching it rise and vanish into the clear, crisp darkness squatting far overhead. All around her echoed high-pitched, sweet ringing, occasionally interrupted by solitary clear notes.

No one in the Torre knew who had first brought the various bells of silver and glass and bronze down to the open chamber of Silba’s Womb. Some bells had been there so long they were crusted with mineral deposits, their ringing as water dropped from the stalactites now no more than a faint plunk. But it was tradition—one Yrene herself had participated in—for each

new acolyte to bring a bell of her choosing. To have her name and date of entry into the Torre engraved on it, and to then find a place for it, before she first immersed herself in the bubbling waters of the Womb floor. The bell to hang for eternity, offering music and guidance to all healers who came afterward; the voices of their beloved sisters forever singing to them.

And considering how many healers had passed through the Torre halls, considering the number of bells, large and small, that now hung throughout the space … The entire chamber, nearly the size of the khagan’s great hall, was full of the echoing, layered ringing. A steady hum that filled Yrene’s head, her bones, as she soaked in the delicious heat.

Some ancient architect had discovered the hot springs far beneath the Torre and constructed a network of tubs built into the floor so that the water flowed between them, a constant stream of warmth and movement. Yrene held her hand against one of the vents in the side of the tub, letting the water ripple through her fingers on its way to the vent on the other end, to pass back into the stream itself—and into the slumbering heart of the earth.

Yrene took another deep breath, brushing back the damp hair clinging to her brow. She’d washed before entering the tub, as all were required to do in one of the small antechambers outside the Womb, to clean away the dust and blood and stains of the world above. An acolyte had been waiting with a lightweight robe of lavender—Silba’s color—for Yrene to wear into the Womb proper, where she’d discarded it beside the pool and stepped in, naked save for her mother’s ring.

In the curling steam, Yrene lifted her hand before her and studied the ring, the way the light bent along the gold and smoldered in the garnet. All around, bells rang and hummed and sang, blending with the trickling water until she was adrift in a stream of living sound.

Water—Silba’s element. To bathe in the sacred waters here, untouched by the world above, was to enter Silba’s very lifeblood. Yrene knew she was not the only healer who had taken the waters and felt as if she were indeed nestled in the warmth of Silba’s womb. As if this space had been made for them alone.

And the darkness above her … it was different from what she had spied in Lord Westfall’s body. The opposite of that blackness. The darkness above her was that of creation, of rest, of unformed thought.

Yrene stared into it, into the womb of Silba herself. And could have sworn she felt something staring back. Listening, while she thought through all Lord Westfall had told her.

Things out of ancient nightmares. Things from another realm. Demons. Dark magics. Poised to unleash themselves upon her homeland. Even in the soothing, warm waters, Yrene’s blood chilled.

On those northern, far-off battlefields, she had expected to treat stab wounds and arrows and shattered bones. Expected to treat any of the diseases that ran rampant in army camps, especially during the colder months.

Not wounds from creatures that destroyed soul as well as body. That used talons and teeth and poison. The maleficent power coiled around the injury to his spine … It was not some fractured bone or tangled-up nerves. Well, it technically was, but that fell magic was tied to it. Bound to it.

She still could not shake the oily feel, the sense that something inside it had stirred. Awoken.

The ringing of the bells flowed and ebbed, lulling her mind to rest, to open.

She’d go to the library tonight. See if there was any information regarding all the lord had claimed, if perhaps someone before her had any thoughts on magically granted injuries.

Yet it would not be an injury that solely relied upon her to heal.

She’d suggested as much before leaving. But to battle that thing within him … How?

Yrene mouthed the word into the steam and dark, into the ringing, bubbling quiet.

She could still see her probe of magic recoiling, still feel its repulsion from that demon-born power. The opposite of what she was, what her magic was. In the darkness hovering overhead, she could see it all. In the darkness far above, tucked into Silba’s earthly womb … it beckoned.

As if to say, You must enter where you fear to tread.

Yrene swallowed. To delve into that festering pit of power that had latched itself onto the lord’s back …

You must enter, the sweet darkness whispered, the water singing along with it while it flowed around and past her. As if she were swimming in Silba’s veins.

You must enter, it murmured again, the darkness above seeming to spread, to inch closer.

Yrene let it. And let herself stare deeper, move deeper, into that dark.

To fight that festering force within the lord, to risk it for some test of Hafiza’s, to risk it for a son of Adarlan when her own people were being attacked or battling in that distant war and every day delayed her … I can’t.

You won’t, the lovely darkness challenged.

Yrene balked. She had promised Hafiza to remain, to heal him, but what she’d felt today … It could take an untold amount of time. If she could even

find a way to help him. She’d promised to heal him, and though some injuries required the healer to walk the road with their patient, this injury of his—

The darkness seemed to recede.

I can’t, Yrene insisted.

It did not answer again. Distantly, as if she were now far away, a bell rang, clear and pure.

Yrene blinked at the sound, the world tumbling into focus. Her limbs and breath returning, as if she’d drifted above them.

She peered at the darkness—finding only smooth, veiling black. Hollow and empty, as if it had been vacated. There, and gone. As if she had repelled it, disappointed it.

Yrene’s head spun slightly as she sat up, stretching limbs that had gone a bit stiff, even in the mineral-rich water. How long had she soaked?

She rubbed at her slick arms, heart thundering as she scanned the darkness, as if it might still have another answer for what she must do, what lay before her. An alternative.

None came.

A sound shuffled through the cavern, distinctly not ringing or trickling or lapping. A quiet, shuddering intake of breath.

Yrene turned, water dripping off the errant strands of hair that had escaped the knot atop her head, and found another healer had entered the Womb at some point, claiming a tub on the opposite end of the parallel rows flanking either side of the chamber. With the drifting veils of steam, it was nearly impossible to identify her, though Yrene certainly didn’t know the name of every healer in the Torre.

The sound rasped through the Womb again, and Yrene sat up farther, hands bracing on the cool, dark floor as she stood from the water. Steam curled off her skin as she reached for the thin robe and tied it around her, the fabric clinging to her soaked body.

The Womb’s protocol was well established. It was a place for solitude, for silence. Healers entered the waters to reconnect with Silba, to center themselves. Some sought guidance; some sought absolution; some sought to release a hard day’s worth of emotions they could not show before patients, perhaps could not show before anyone.

And though Yrene knew the healer across the Womb was entitled to her space, though she was prepared to leave and grant the healer privacy to weep …

The woman’s shoulders shook. Another muffled sob.

On near-silent feet, Yrene approached the healer in the tub. Saw the rivulets down her young face—her light brown skin and gold-kissed umber hair nearly identical to Yrene’s own. Saw the bleakness in the woman’s tawny eyes as she gazed at the darkness high above, tears dripping off her slender jaw and into the rippling water.

There were some wounds that could not be healed. Some illnesses that even the healers’ power could not stop, if rooted too deeply. If they had come too late. If they did not mark the right signs.

The healer did not look at her as Yrene silently sat beside her tub, curling her knees to her chest before she picked up the healer’s hand and interlaced their fingers.

So Yrene sat there, holding the healer’s hand while she silently wept, the drifting steam full of the clear, sweet ringing of those bells.

After untold minutes, the woman in the tub murmured, “She was three years old.”

Yrene squeezed the healer’s damp hand. There were no words to comfort, to soothe.

“I wish …” The woman’s voice broke, her entire body shaking, candlelight jumping along her beige skin. “Sometimes I wish this gift had never been given to me.”

Yrene stilled at the words.

The woman at last turned her head, scanning Yrene’s face, a flicker of recognition in her eyes. “Do you ever feel that way?” A raw, unguarded question.

No. She hadn’t. Not once. Not even when the smoke of her mother’s immolation had stung her eyes and she knew she could do nothing to save her. She had never once hated the gift she’d been given, because in all those years, she had never been alone thanks to it. Even with magic gone in her homeland, Yrene had still felt it, like a warm hand clasping her shoulder. A reminder of who she was, where she had come from, a living tether to countless generations of Towers women who had walked this path before her.

The healer searched Yrene’s eyes for the answer she wanted. The answer Yrene could not give. So Yrene just squeezed the woman’s hand again and stared into the darkness.

You must enter where you fear to tread.

Yrene knew what she had to do. And wished she didn’t.



“Well? Has Yrene healed you yet?”

Seated at the high table in the khagan’s great hall, Chaol turned to where Princess Hasar sat several seats down. A cooling breeze that smelled of oncoming rain flowed through the open windows to rustle the white death-banners hanging from their upper frames.

Kashin and Sartaq glanced their way—the latter giving his sister a disapproving frown.

“Talented as Yrene may be,” Chaol said carefully, aware that many listened even without acknowledging them, “we are only in the initial stages of what will likely be a long process. She left this afternoon to do some research at the Torre library.”

Hasar’s lips curled into a poisoned smile. “How fortunate for you, that we shall have the pleasure of your company for a while yet.”

As if he’d willingly stay here for a moment longer.

But Nesryn answered, still glowing from hours again spent with her family that afternoon, “Any chance for our two lands to build bonds is a fortunate one.”

“Indeed,” was all Hasar said, and went back to picking at the chilled tomato-and-okra dish on her plate. Her lover was nowhere to be seen—but neither was Yrene. The healer’s fear earlier … he’d been able to almost taste it in the air. But sheer will had steadied her—will and temper, Chaol supposed. He wondered which would win out in the end.

Indeed, some small part of him hoped Yrene would stay away, if only to avoid what she so heavily implied they’d also be doing: talking. Discussing things. Himself.

He’d make it clear to her tomorrow that he could heal just fine without


For long minutes, Chaol remained in silence, marking those at the table, the servants flitting by. The guards at the windows and archways.

The minced lamb turned leaden in his stomach at the sight of their uniforms, at how they stood so tall and proud. How many meals had he himself been positioned by the doors, or out in the courtyard, monitoring his king? How many times had he laid into his men for slouching, for chattering amongst themselves, and reassigned them to lesser watches?

One of the khagan’s guards noticed his stare and gave a curt nod.

Chaol looked away quickly, his palms clammy. But he forced himself to keep observing the faces around him, what they wore and how they moved and smiled.

No sign—none—of any wicked force, whether dispatched from Morath or elsewhere. No sign beyond those white banners to honor their fallen princess.

Aelin had claimed the Valg had a reek to them, and he’d seen their blood run black from mortal veins more times than he cared to count, but short of demanding everyone in this hall cut open their hands …

It actually wasn’t a bad idea—if he could get an audience with the khagan to convince him to order it. To mark whoever fled, or made excuses. An audience with the khagan to convince him of the danger, and perhaps make some progress with this alliance. So that the princes and princesses sitting around him might never wear a Valg collar. Their loved ones never know what it was to look into their faces and see nothing but ancient cruelty

smirking back.

Chaol took a steadying breath and leaned forward, to where the khagan dined a few seats down, immersed in conversation with a vizier and Princess Duva.

The khagan’s now-youngest seemed to watch more than participate, and though her pretty face was softened with a sweet smile, her eyes missed nothing. It was only when the vizier paused for a sip of wine and Duva turned toward her quiet husband on her left that Chaol cleared his throat and said to the khagan, “I would thank you again, Great Khagan, for offering the services of your healers.”

The khagan slid weary, hard eyes toward him. “They are no more my healers than they are yours, Lord Westfall.” He returned to the vizier, who frowned at Chaol for interrupting.

But Chaol said, “I was hoping to perhaps be granted the honor of a meeting with you in private.”

Nesryn dug her elbow into his in warning as silence rippled down the table. Chaol refused to take his stare from anywhere but the man before him.

The khagan only said, “You may discuss such things with my Chief Vizier, who maintains my daily schedule.” A jerk of the chin toward a shrewd-eyed man monitoring from down the table. One glance at the Chief Vizier’s thin smile told Chaol the meeting wasn’t going to happen. “My focus remains on assisting my wife through her mourning.” The gleam of sorrow in the khagan’s eyes wasn’t feigned. Indeed, there was no sign of the khagan’s wife at the table, not even a place left out for her.

Distant thunder grumbled in the thick silence that followed. Not the time or the place to insist. A man grieving for a lost child … He’d be a fool to push. And coarse beyond measure.

Chaol dipped his chin. “Forgive me for intruding in this difficult time.” He ignored the smirk twisting Arghun’s face while the prince observed

from his father’s side. Duva, at least, offered him a sympathetic smile-wince, as if to say, You are not the first to be shut downGive him time.

Chaol gave the princess a shallow nod before returning to his own plate. If the khagan was set on ignoring him, grief or no … perhaps there were other avenues to convey information.

Other ways to gain support.

He glanced to Nesryn. She’d informed him when she’d returned before dinner that she’d had no luck seeking out Sartaq this morning. And now, with the prince seated across from them, sipping from his wine, Chaol found himself casually asking, “I heard that your legendary ruk, Kadara, is here, Prince.”

“Ghastly beast,” Hasar muttered halfheartedly into her okra, earning a half smile from Sartaq.

“Hasar is still sore that Kadara tried to eat her when they first met,” Sartaq confided.

Hasar rolled her eyes, though a glimmer of amusement shone there.

Kashin supplied from a few seats down, “You could hear her screeching from the harbor.”

To Chaol’s surprise, Nesryn asked, “The princess or the ruk?”

Sartaq laughed, a startled, bright sound, his cool eyes lighting. Hasar only gave Nesryn a warning look before turning to the vizier beside her.

Kashin grinned at Nesryn and whispered, “Both.”

A chuckle escaped Chaol’s throat, though he reined it in at Hasar’s glare.

Nesryn smiled, inclining her head in good-willed apology to the princess.

Yet Sartaq watched them closely over the rim of his golden goblet.

Chaol asked, “Are you able to fly Kadara much while you’re here?”

Sartaq didn’t miss a beat as he nodded. “As often as I can, usually near dawn. I was in the skies right after breakfast today, and returned just in time for dinner, thankfully.”

Hasar muttered to Nesryn without breaking from the vizier commanding her attention, “He’s never missed a meal in his life.”

Kashin barked a laugh that had even the khagan down the table glancing their way, Arghun scowling with disapproval. When had the royals last laughed since their sister’s passing? From the khagan’s tight face, perhaps a while.

But Sartaq tossed his long braid over a shoulder before patting the flat, firm stomach beneath his fine clothes. “Why do you think I come home so often, sister, if not for the good food?”

“To plot and scheme?” Hasar asked sweetly.

Sartaq’s smile turned subdued. “If only I had time for such things.”

A shadow seemed to pass over Sartaq’s face—and Chaol marked where the prince’s gaze drifted. The white banners still streamed from the windows set high in the walls of the hall, now caught in what was surely the heralding wind of a thunderstorm. A man who perhaps wished he’d possessed extra time for more vital parts of his life.

Nesryn asked a touch softly, “You fly every day, then, Prince?”

Sartaq dragged his stare from his youngest sister’s death-banners to assess Nesryn. More warrior than courtier, yet he nodded—in answer to an unspoken request. “I do, Captain.”

When Sartaq turned to respond to a question from Duva, Chaol exchanged a glance with Nesryn—all he needed to convey his order.

Be in the aerie at dawn. Find out where he stands in this war.

A summer storm galloped in off the Narrow Sea just before midnight.

Even tucked into the sprawling library at the base of the Torre, Yrene felt every shudder of thunder. Occasional flashes of lightning sliced down the narrow corridors of the stacks and halls, chased by wind that crept through the cracks in the pale stone, guttering the candles in its wake. Most were shielded within glass lanterns, the books and scrolls too precious to risk open flame. But the wind found them in there, too—and set the glass lanterns hanging from the arched ceilings swinging and groaning.

Seated at an oak desk built into an alcove far from the brighter lights and busier areas of the library, Yrene watched the metal lantern dangling from the arch above her sway in that storm wind. Stars and crescent moons had been cut from its sides and filled with colored glass that cast splotches of blue and red and green on the stone wall before her. The splotches bobbed and dipped, a living sea of color.

Thunder cracked, so loud she flinched, the ancient chair beneath her creaking in objection.

A few feminine yelps answered it, then giggles.

Acolytes—studying late for their examinations next week.

Yrene huffed a laugh, mostly at herself, and shook her head as she focused again upon the texts Nousha had dug up for her hours ago.

Yrene and the Head Librarian had never been close, and Yrene was certainly not inclined to seek out the woman if she spotted her in the mess hall, but … Nousha was fluent in fifteen languages, some of them dead, and had trained at the famed Parvani Library on the western coast, nestled amid the lush and spice-rich lands outside Balruhn.

The City of Libraries, they called Balruhn. If the Torre Cesme was the domain of healers, the Parvani was the domain of knowledge. Even the great road that linked Balruhn to the mighty Sister-Road, the main artery through the continent that flowed from Antica all the way to Tigana, had been named for it: the Scholars’ Road.

Yrene didn’t know what had brought Nousha here all those decades ago, or what the Torre had offered her to stay, but she was an invaluable resource. And for all of her unsmiling nature, Nousha had always found Yrene the information she needed, no matter how outlandish the request.

Tonight, the woman had not looked pleased when Yrene had approached her in the mess hall, apologies falling from her lips for interrupting the librarian’s meal. Yrene might have waited until the morning, but she had lessons tomorrow, and Lord Westfall after that.

Nousha had met Yrene here after finishing her meal, and had listened, long fingers folded in front of her flowing gray robes, to Yrene’s story— and needs:

Information. Any she could find.

Wounds from demons. Wounds from dark magic. Wounds from unnatural sources. Wounds that left echoes but did not appear to continue to wreak havoc upon the victim. Wounds that left marks but no scar tissue.

Nousha had found them. Stack after stack of books and bundles of scrolls. She’d piled them on the desk in silence. Some were in Halha. Some

in Yrene’s own tongue. Some in Eyllwe. Some were …

Yrene scratched her head at the scroll she’d weighted with the smooth onyx stones from the jar set on each library desk.

Even Nousha had admitted she did not recognize the strange markings— runes of some sort. From where, she had no inkling, either, only that the scrolls had been wedged beside the Eyllwe tomes in a level of the library so deep beneath the ground that Yrene had never ventured there.

Yrene ran a finger over the marking before her, tracing its straight lines and curving arcs.

The parchment was old enough that Nousha had threatened to flay Yrene alive if she got any food, water, or drink on it. When Yrene had asked just how old, Nousha had shook her head.

A hundred years? Yrene had asked.

Nousha had shrugged and said that judging by the location, the type of parchment, and ink pigment, it was over ten times that.

Yrene cringed at the paper she was so flagrantly touching, and eased the weighting stones off the corners. None of the books in her own language had yielded anything valuable—more old wives’ warnings about ill-wishers and spirits of air and rot.

Nothing like what Lord Westfall had described.

A faint, distant click echoed from the gloom to her right, and Yrene lifted her head, scanning the darkness, ready to leap onto her chair at the first sign of a scurrying mouse.

It seemed even the library’s beloved Baast Cats—thirty-six females, no more, no less—could not keep out all vermin, despite their warrior-goddess namesake.

Yrene again scanned the gloom to her right, cringing, wishing she could summon one of the beryl-eyed cats to go hunting.

But no one summoned a Baast Cat. No one. They appeared when and where they willed, and not a moment before.

The Baast Cats had dwelled in the Torre library for as long as it had existed, yet none knew where they had come from, or how they were replaced when age claimed them. Each was as individual as any human, save for those beryl-colored eyes they each bore, and the fact that all were just as prone to curl up in a lap as they were to shun company altogether. Some of the healers, old and young alike, swore the cats could step through pools of shadow to appear on another level of the library; some swore the cats had been caught pawing through the pages of open books—reading.

Well, it’d certainly be helpful if they bothered to read less and hunt more. But the cats answered to no one and nothing, except, perhaps, their namesake, or whatever god had found a quiet home in the library, within Silba’s shadow. To offend one Baast Cat was to insult them all, and even though Yrene loved most animals—with the exception of some insects— she had been sure to treat the cats kindly, occasionally leaving morsels of food, or providing a belly rub or ear scratch whenever they deigned to command them.

But there was no sign of those green eyes glinting in the dark, or of a scurrying mouse fleeing their path, so Yrene loosed a breath and set aside the ancient scroll, carefully placing it at the edge of the desk before pulling an Eyllwe tome toward her.

The book was bound in black leather, heavy as a doorstop. She knew a little of the Eyllwe language thanks to living so close to its border with a

mother who spoke it fluently—certainly not from the father who had hailed from there.

None of the Towers women had ever married, preferring either lovers who left them with a present that arrived nine months later or who perhaps stayed a year or two before moving on. Yrene had never known her father, never learned anything about who he was other than a traveler who had stopped at her mother’s cottage for the night, seeking shelter from a wild storm that swept over the grassy plain.

Yrene traced her fingers over the gilt title, sounding out the words in the language she had not spoken or heard in years.

“The … The …” She tapped her finger on the title. She should have asked Nousha. The librarian had already promised to translate some other texts that had caught her eye, but … Yrene sighed again. “The …” Poem. Ode. Lyric—“Song,” she breathed. “The Song of …” Start. Onset


The Song of Beginning.

The demons—the Valg—were ancient, Lord Westfall had said. They had waited an eternity to strike. Part of near-forgotten myths; little more than bedside stories.

Yrene flipped open the cover, and cringed at the unfamiliar tangle of writing within the table of contents. The type itself was old, the book not even printed on a press. Handwritten. With some word variations that had long since died out.

Lightning flashed again, and Yrene rubbed at her temple as she leafed through the musty, yellow-lined pages.

A history book. That’s all it was.

Her eye snagged on a page, and she paused, backtracking until the illustration reappeared.

It had been done in sparing colors: blacks, whites, reds, and the occasional yellow.

All painted by a master’s hand, no doubt an illustration of whatever was written beneath it.

The illustration revealed a barren crag, an army of soldiers in dark armor kneeling before it.

Kneeling before what was atop the crag.

A towering gate. No wall flanking it, no keep behind it. As if someone had built the gateway of black stone out of thin air.

There were no doors within the archway. Only swirling black nothing. Beams of it shot from the void, some foul corruption of the sun, falling upon the soldiers kneeling before it.

She squinted at the figures in the foreground. Their bodies were human, but the hands clutching their swords … Clawed. Twisted.

“Valg,” Yrene whispered. Thunder cracked in answer.

Yrene scowled at the swaying lantern as the reverberations from the thunderhead rumbled beneath her feet, up her legs.

She flipped through the pages until the next illustration appeared. Three figures stood before the same gate, the drawing too distant to make out any features beyond their male bodies, tall and powerful.

She ran a finger over the caption below and translated:

Orcus. Mantyx. Erawan. Three Valg Kings.

Wielders of the Keys.

Yrene chewed on her bottom lip. Lord Westfall had not mentioned such things.

But if there was a gate … then it would need a key to open. Or several. If the book was correct.

Midnight chimed in the great clock of the library’s main atrium.

Yrene riffled through the pages, to another illustration. It was divided into three panels.

Everything the lord had said—she had believed him, of course, but … it was true. If the wound wasn’t proof enough, these texts offered no other alternative.

For there in the first panel, tied down upon an altar of dark stone … a desperate young man strained to free himself from the approach of a crowned dark figure. Something swirled around the figure’s hand—some asp of black mist and wicked thought. No real creature.

The second panel … Yrene cringed from it.

For there was that young man, eyes wide in supplication and terror, mouth forced open as that creature of black mist slithered down his throat.

But it was the last panel that made her blood chill. Lightning flashed again, illumining the final illustration.

The young man’s face had gone still. Unfeeling. His eyes … Yrene glanced between the previous drawing and the final one. His eyes had been silver in the first two.

In the final one … they had gone black. Passable as human eyes, but the silver had been wiped away by unholy obsidian.

Not dead. For they had shown him rising, chains removed. Not a threat. No—whatever they had put inside him …

Thunder groaned again, and more shrieks and giggles followed. Along with the slam and clatter of the acolytes leaving for the night.

Yrene surveyed the book before her, the other stacks Nousha had laid out.

Lord Westfall had described collars and rings to hold the Valg demons within a human host. But even after they were removed, he’d said, they could linger. They were merely implantation devices, and if they remained on too long, feeding off their host …

Yrene shook her head. The man in the drawing had not been enslaved— he’d been infested. The magic had come from someone with that sort of power. Power from the demon host within.

A clash of lightning, then thunder immediately on its heels.

And then another click sounded—faint and hollow—from the dim stacks to her right. Closer now than that earlier one had been.

Yrene glanced again toward the gloom, the hair on her arms rising.

Not a movement of a mouse. Or even the scrape of feline claws on stone or bookshelf.

She had never once feared for her safety, not from the moment she had set foot within these walls, but Yrene found herself going still as she stared into that gloom to her right. Then slowly looked over her shoulder.

The shelf-lined corridor was a straight shot toward a larger hallway, which would, in three minutes’ walk, take her back to the bright, constantly monitored main atrium. Five minutes at most.

Only shadows and leather and dust surrounded her, the light bobbing and tilting with the swaying lanterns.

Healing magic offered no defenses. She’d discovered such things the hard way.

But during that year at the White Pig Inn, she’d learned to listen. Learned to read a room, to sense when the air had shifted. Men could unleash storms, too.

The grumbling echo of the thunder faded, and only silence remained in its wake.

Silence, and the creaking of the ancient lanterns in the wind. No other click issued.

Foolish—foolish to read such things so late. And during a storm.

Yrene swallowed. Librarians preferred the books remain within the library proper, but …

She slammed shut The Song of Beginning, shoving it into her bag. Most of the books she’d already deemed useless, but there were perhaps six more, a mixture of Eyllwe and other tongues. Yrene shoved those into her bag, too. And gently placed the scrolls into the pockets of her cloak, tucked out of view.

All while keeping one eye over her shoulder—on the hall behind her, the stacks to her right.

You wouldn’t owe me anything if you’d used some common sense. The young stranger had snapped that at her that fateful night—after she’d saved Yrene’s life. The words had lingered, biting deep. As had the other lessons she’d been taught by that girl.

And though Yrene knew she’d laugh at herself in the morning, though maybe it was one of the Baast Cats stalking something in the shadows, Yrene decided to listen to that tug of fear, that trickle down her spine.

Though she could have cut down dark stacks to reach the main hallway faster, she kept to the lights, her shoulders back and head high. Just as the

girl had told her. Look like you’d put up a fight—be more trouble than you’re worth.

Her heart pounded so wildly she could feel it in her arms, her throat. But Yrene made her mouth a hard line, her eyes bright and cold. Looking as furious as she’d ever been, her pace clipped and swift. As if she had forgotten something or someone had failed to retrieve a book for her.

Closer and closer, she neared the intersection of that broad, main hallway. To where the acolytes would be trudging up to bed in their cozy dormitory.

She cleared her throat, readying to scream.

Not rape, not theft—not something that cowards would rather hide from. Yell fire, the stranger had instructed her. A threat to all. If you are attacked, yell about a fire.

Yrene had repeated the instructions so many times these past two and a half years. To so many women. Just as the stranger had ordered her to. Yrene had not thought she’d ever again need to recite them for herself.

Yrene hurried her steps, jaw angled. She had no weapons save for a small knife she used for cleaning out wounds or cutting bandages— currently in the bottom of her bag.

But that satchel, laden with books … She wrapped the leather straps around her wrist, getting a good grip on it.

A well-placed swing would knock someone to the ground. Closer and closer to the safety of that hallway—

From the corner of her eye, she saw it. Sensed it. Someone in the next stack over. Walking parallel to her. She didn’t dare look. Acknowledge it.

Yrene’s eyes burned, even as she fought the terror that clawed its way up her body.

Glimpses of shadows and darkness. Stalking her. Hunting her.

Quickening its pace to grab her—cut her off at that hallway and snatch her into the dark.

Common sense. Common sense.

Running—it would know. It would know she was aware. It might strike.

Whoever it was.

Common sense.

A hundred feet left until the hallway, shadows pooling between the dim lanterns, the lights now precious islands in a sea of darkness.

She could have sworn fingers lightly thudded as they trailed over the books on the other side of the shelf.

So Yrene lifted her chin further and smiled, laughing brightly as she looked ahead to the hallway. “Maddya! What are you doing here so late?”

She hurried her pace, especially as whoever it was slowed in surprise.


Yrene’s foot slammed into something soft—soft and yet hard—and she bit down her yelp—

She hadn’t seen the healer curled on her side in the shadows along the shelf.

Yrene bent, hands grappling for the woman’s thin arms, her build slender enough that when she turned her over—

The footsteps began once more just as she turned the healer over. As she swallowed the scream that tried to shatter out of her.

Light brown cheeks turned to hollowed husks, eyes stained purple beneath, lips pale and cracked. A simple healer’s gown that had likely fit

her that morning now hung loose, her slim form now emaciated, as if something had sucked the life from her—

She knew that face, gaunt as it was. Knew the golden-brown hair, nearly the twin to her own. The healer from the Womb, the very one she’d comforted only hours earlier—

Yrene’s fingers shook as she fumbled for a pulse, the skin leathery and dry.

Nothing. And her magic … There was no life for it to swirl toward. No life at all.

The footsteps on the other side of the stack neared. Yrene stood on trembling knees, taking a steadying breath as she forced herself to walk again. Forced herself to leave that dead healer in the dark. Forced herself to lift her bag as if nothing had happened, as if showing the satchel to someone ahead.

But with the angle of the stacks—the person didn’t know that.

“Just finishing up my reading for the night,” she called to her invisible salvation ahead. She sent up a silent prayer of thanks to Silba that her voice held steady and merry. “Cook is expecting me for a last cup of tea. Want to join?”

Making it seem like someone was expecting her: another trick she’d picked up.

Yrene cleared five more steps before she realized whoever it was had again halted.

Buying her ruse.

Yrene dashed the last few feet to the hallway, spotted a cluster of acolytes just emerging from another haze of stacks, and hurtled flat out toward them.

Their eyes widened at Yrene’s approach, and all she whispered was, “Go.”

The three girls, barely more than fourteen, caught the tears of terror in her eyes, the sure whiteness of her face, and did not look behind Yrene. They did not disobey.

They were in her class. She’d trained them for months now.

They saw the straps of her satchel wrapped around her fist and closed ranks around her. Smiled broadly, nothing at all wrong. “Come to Cook’s to get tea,” Yrene told them, fighting to keep her scream from shattering out of her. Dead. A healer was dead—“She is expecting me.”

And will raise the alarm if I do not arrive.

To their credit, those girls did not tremble, did not show one lick of dread as they walked down the main hall. As they neared the atrium, with its roaring fire and thirty-six chandeliers and thirty-six couches and chairs.

A sleek black Baast Cat was lounging in one of those embroidered chairs by the fire. And as they neared, she leaped up, hissing as fiercely as her feline-headed namesake. Not at Yrene or the girls … No, those beryl-colored eyes were narrowed at the library behind them.

One of the girls tightened her grip on Yrene’s arm. But not one of them left Yrene’s side as she approached the massive desk of the Head Librarian and her Heir. Behind them, the Baast Cat held her ground—held the line— as the Heir Librarian, on duty for the night, looked up from her book at the commotion.

Yrene murmured to the middle-aged woman in gray robes, “A healer has been gravely attacked in the stacks off the main hall. Get everyone out and call for the royal guard. Now.”

The woman did not ask questions. Did not falter or shake. She only nodded before she reached for the bell bolted onto the desk’s edge.

The librarian rang it thrice. To an outsider, it was no more than a final call.

But to those who lived here, who knew the library was open day and night …

First ring: Listen. Second: Listen now.

The Heir Librarian rang it a third time, loud and clear, the pealing echoing down into the library, into every dark corner and hallway.

Third ring: Get out.

Yrene had once asked, when Eretia had explained the warning bell her first day here, after she had taken a vow never to repeat its meaning to an outsider. They all had. And Yrene had asked why it was needed, who had installed it.

Long ago, before the khaganate had conquered Antica, this city had passed from hand to hand, victim to a dozen conquests and rulers. Some invading armies had been kind. A few had not.

Tunnels still existed beneath the library that they had used to evade them

—long since boarded up.

But the warning bell to those within remained. And for a thousand years, the Torre had kept it. Occasionally had drills with it. Just in case. If it should ever happen.

The third ring echoed off stone and leather and wood. And Yrene could have sworn she heard the sound of countless heads popping up from where they bent over desks. Heard the sound of chairs shoved back and books dropped.

Run, she begged. Keep to the lights.

But Yrene and the others lingered in silence, counting the seconds. The minutes. The Baast Cat quieted her hissing and monitored the hall beyond the atrium, black tail slashing over the chair cushion. One of the girls beside Yrene sprinted off to the guards by the Torre gates. Who had likely heard that bell pealing and were already running toward them.

Yrene was shaking by the time quick steps and rustling clothing drew near. She and the Heir Librarian marked each face that emerged—each wide-eyed face that hurried out of the library.

Acolytes, healers, librarians. No one out of place. The Baast Cat seemed to be checking them all, too—those beryl eyes seeing things perhaps beyond Yrene’s comprehension.

Armor and stomping steps, and Yrene clamped down on the weeping relief at the approach of half a dozen Torre guards now stalking through the open library doors, the acolyte at their heels.

The acolyte and her two companions remained with Yrene while she explained. While the guards called for reinforcements, while the Heir Librarian summoned Nousha, Eretia, and Hafiza. The three girls remained, two holding Yrene’s trembling hands.

They did not let go.

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