Chapter no 14

Empire of Storms

Clothed in battle-black from head to toe, Aedion Ashryver kept to the shadows of the street across from the temple and watched his cousin scale the building beside him.

They’d already secured passage on a ship for tomorrow morning, along with another messenger ship to sail to Wendlyn, bearing letters beseeching the Ashryvers for aid and signed by both Aelin and Aedion himself. Because what they’d learned today…

He’d been to Ilium enough times over the past decade to know his way around. Usually, he and his Bane had camped outside the town walls and enjoyed themselves so thoroughly at the taverns that he’d wound up puking in his own helmet the next morning. A far cry from the stunned silence as he and Aelin had walked down the pale, dusty streets, disguised and unsociable.

In all those visits to the town, he’d never imagined traversing these streets with his queen—or that her face would be so grave as she took in the frightened, unhappy people, the scars of war.

No flowers thrown in their path, no trumpets singing their return. Just the crash of the sea, the howl of the wind, and the beating sun overhead. And the rage rippling off Aelin at the sight of the soldiers stationed around the town…

All strangers were watched enough that they’d had to be careful about securing their ship. To the town, the world, they’d be boarding the Summer Lady at midmorning, heading north to Suria. But they would instead be sneaking onto the Wind-Singer just before sunrise to sail south come dawn. They’d paid in gold for the captain’s silence.

And for his information. They had been about to leave the man’s cabin when he’d said, “My brother is a merchant. He specializes in goods from

distant lands. He brought me news last week that ships were spotted rallying along the western coast of the Fae territory.”

Aelin had asked, “To sail here?” at the same time Aedion had demanded, “How many ships?”

“Fifty—all warships,” the captain had said, looking them over carefully. No doubt assuming they were agents of one of the many crowns at play in this war. “An army of Fae warriors camped on the beach beyond. They seemed to be waiting for the order to sail.”

The news would likely spread fast. Panic the people. Aedion had made a note to send warning to his Second to brace the Bane for it—and counter any wild rumors.

Aelin’s face had gone a bit bloodless, and he’d braced a steadying hand between her shoulder blades. But she had only stood straighter at his touch and asked the captain, “Did your brother get the sense that Queen Maeve has allied with Morath, or that she is coming to assist Terrasen?”

“Neither,” the captain had cut in. “He was only sailing past, though if the armada was out like that, I doubt it was secret. We know nothing else— perhaps the ships were for another war.”

His queen’s face yielded nothing in the dimness of her hood. Aedion made his do the same.

Except her face had remained like that the entire walk back, and in the hours since, when they’d honed their weapons and then slipped back onto the streets under cover of darkness. If Maeve was indeed rallying an army to stand against them…

Aelin paused atop the roof, Goldryn’s bright hilt wrapped in cloth to hide its gleaming, and Aedion glanced between her shadowy figure and the Adarlan watch patrolling the temple walls mere feet below.

But his cousin turned her head toward the nearby ocean, as if she could see all the way to Maeve and her awaiting fleet. If the immortal bitch allied with Morath … Surely Maeve would not be so stupid. Perhaps the two dark rulers would destroy each other in their bid for power. And likely destroy this continent in the process.

But a Dark King and a Dark Queen united against the Fire-Bringer… They had to act quickly. Cut off one snake’s head before dealing with

the other.

Cloth on skin hissed, and Aedion glanced at where Lysandra waited behind him, on the lookout for Aelin’s signal. She was in her traveling clothes—a bit worn and dirty. She’d been reading an ancient-looking book all afternoon. Forgotten Creatures of the Deep or whatever it had been called. A smile tugged at his lips as he wondered whether she’d borrowed or stolen the title.

The lady looked to where Aelin still stood on the roof, no more than a shadow. Lysandra cleared her throat a bit and said too softly for anyone to hear, either the queen or the soldiers across the street, “She’s accepted Darrow’s decree too calmly.”

“I’d hardly call any of this calm.” But he knew what the shifter meant. Since Rowan had gone, since word of Rifthold’s fall had arrived, Aelin had been half present. Distant.

Lysandra’s pale green eyes pinned him to the spot. “It’s the calm before the storm, Aedion.”

Every one of his predatory instincts perked.

Lysandra’s eyes again drifted to Aelin’s lithe figure. “A storm is coming. A great storm.”

Not the forces lurking in Morath, not Darrow plotting in Orynth or Maeve assembling her armada—but the woman on that roof, hands braced on the edge as she crouched down.

“You’re not frightened of … ?” He couldn’t say the rest. He’d somehow grown accustomed to having the shifter guard Aelin’s back—had found the idea mighty appealing. Rowan at her right, Aedion at her left, Lysandra at her back: nothing and no one would get to their queen.

“No—no, never,” Lysandra said. Something eased in his chest. “But the more I think about it, the more … the more it seems like this was all planned, laid out long ago. Erawan had decades before Aelin was born to strike—decades during which no one with her powers, or Dorian’s powers, existed to challenge him. Yet, as fate or fortune would have it, he moves now. At a time when a Fire-Bringer walks the earth.”

“What are you getting at?” He’d considered all this before, during those long watches on the road. It was all horrifying, impossible, but—so much of their lives defied logic or normalcy. The shifter next to him proved that.

“Morath is unleashing its horrors,” Lysandra said. “Maeve stirs across the sea. Two goddesses walk hand in hand with Aelin. More than that, Mala

and Deanna have watched over her the entirety of her life. But perhaps it wasn’t watching. Perhaps it was … shaping. So they might one day unleash her, too. And I wonder if the gods have weighed the costs of that storm. And deemed the casualties worth it.”

A chill snaked down his spine.

Lysandra went on, so quietly that Aedion wondered if she feared not the queen hearing, but those gods. “We have yet to see the full extent of Erawan’s darkness. And I think we have yet to see the full extent of Aelin’s fire.”

“She’s not some unwitting pawn.” He’d defy the gods, find a way to slaughter them, if they threatened Aelin, if they deemed these lands a worthy sacrifice to defeat the Dark King.

“Is it really that hard for you to just agree with me for once?” “I never disagree.”

“You always have an answer to everything.” She shook her head. “It’s insufferable.”

Aedion grinned. “Good to know I’m finally getting under your skin. Or is it skins?”

That staggeringly beautiful face turned positively wicked. “Careful, Aedion. I bite.”

Aedion leaned in a bit closer. He knew there were lines with Lysandra— knew there were boundaries he wouldn’t cross, wouldn’t push at. Not after what she’d endured since childhood, not after she’d regained her freedom. Not after what he’d been through, too.

Even if he hadn’t yet told Aelin about it. How could he? How could he explain what had been done to him, what he’d been forced to do in those early years of conquest?

But flirting with Lysandra was harmless—for both him and the shifter. And gods, it was good to talk to her for more than a minute between forms. So he snapped his teeth at her and said, “Good thing I know how to make women purr.”

She laughed softly, but the sound died as she looked toward their queen again, the sea breeze shifting her dark silken hair. “Any minute now,” she warned him.

Aedion didn’t give a shit what Darrow thought, what he sneered about. Lysandra had saved his life—had fought for their queen and put everything

on the line, including her ward, to rescue him from execution and reunite him with Aelin. He’d seen how often the shifter’s eyes had darted behind them the first few days—as if she could see Evangeline with Murtaugh and Ren. He knew even now part of her remained with the girl, just as part of Aelin remained with Rowan. He wondered if he’d ever feel it—that degree of love.

For Aelin, yes—but … it was a part of him, as his limbs were a part of him. It had never been a choice, as Lysandra’s selflessness with that little girl had been, as Rowan and Aelin had chosen each other. Perhaps it was stupid to consider, given what he’d been trained to do and what awaited them in Morath, but … He’d never tell her this in a thousand years, but looking at Aelin and Rowan, he sometimes envied them.

He didn’t even want to think about what else Darrow had implied—that a union between Wendlyn and Terrasen had been attempted over ten years ago, with marriage between him and Aelin the asking price, only to be rejected by their kin across the sea.

He loved his cousin, but the thought of touching her like that made his stomach turn. He had a feeling she returned the sentiment.

She hadn’t shown him the letter she’d written to Wendlyn. It hadn’t occurred to him until now to ask to see it. Aedion stared up at the lone figure before the vast, dark sea.

And realized he didn’t want to know.

He was a general, a warrior honed by blood and rage and loss; he had seen and done things that still drew him from his sleep, night after night, but … He did not want to know. Not yet.

Lysandra said, “We should leave before dawn. I don’t like the smell of this place.”

He inclined his head toward the fifty soldiers camped inside the temple walls. “Obviously.”

But before she could speak, blue flames sparked at Aelin’s fingertips.

The signal.

Lysandra shifted into a ghost leopard, and Aedion faded into the shadows as she loosed a roar that set the nearby homes tumbling awake. People spilled out of their doors just as the soldiers threw open the gates to the temple to see what the commotion was about.

Aelin was off the roof in a few nimble maneuvers, landing with feline grace as the soldiers shoved into the street, weapons out and eyes wide.

Those eyes grew wider as Lysandra slunk up beside Aelin, snarling. As Aedion fell into step on her other side. Together, they pulled off their hoods. Someone gasped behind them.

Not at their golden hair, their faces. But at the hand wreathed in blue flame as Aelin lifted it above her head and said to the soldiers pointing crossbows at them, “Get the hell out of my temple.”

The soldiers blinked. One of the townsfolk behind them began weeping as a crown of fire appeared atop Aelin’s hair. As the cloth smothering Goldryn burned away and the ruby glowed bloodred.

Aedion smiled at the Adarlanian bastards, unhooked his shield from across his back, and said, “My lady gives you a choice: leave now … or never leave at all.”

The soldiers exchanged glances. The flame around Aelin’s head burned brighter, a beacon in the dark. Symbols have power indeed.

There she was, crowned in flame, a bastion against the gathered night. So Aedion drew the Sword of Orynth from its sheath along his spine. Someone cried out at the sight of that ancient, mighty blade.

More and more soldiers filled the open temple courtyard beyond the gate. And some dropped their weapons outright, lifting their hands. Backing away.

“You bleeding cowards,” a soldier snarled, shoving to the front. A commander, from the decorations on his red-and-gold uniform. Human. No black rings on any of them. His lip curled as he beheld Aedion, the shield and sword he held angled and ready for bloodletting. “The Wolf of the North.” The sneer deepened. “And the fire-breathing bitch herself.”

Aelin, to her credit, only looked bored. And she said one last time to the human soldiers gathered there, shifting on their feet, “Live or die; it’s your choice. But make it now.”

“Don’t listen to the bitch,” the commander snapped. “Simple parlor tricks, Lord Meah said.”

But five more soldiers dropped their weapons and ran. Outright sprinted into the streets. “Anyone else?” Aelin asked softly.

Thirty-five soldiers remained, weapons out, faces hard. Aedion had fought against and alongside such men. Aelin looked to him in question.

Aedion nodded. The commander had his claws in them—they would only retreat when the man did.

“Come on, then. Let’s see what you have to offer,” the commander taunted. “I’ve got a lovely farmer’s daughter I want to finish—”

As if she were blowing out a candle, Aelin exhaled a breath toward the man.

First the commander went quiet. As if every thought, every feeling had halted. Then his body seemed to stiffen, like he’d been turned to stone.

And for a heartbeat, Aedion thought the man had been turned to stone as his skin, his Adarlanian uniform, turned varying shades of gray.

But as the sea breeze brushed past, and the man simply fell apart into nothing but ashes, Aedion realized with no small amount of shock what she had done.

She’d burned him alive. From the inside out. Someone screamed. Aelin merely said, “I warned you.” A few soldiers now bolted.

But most held their ground, hate and disgust shining in their eyes at the magic, at his queen—at him.

And Aedion smiled like the wolf he was as he lifted the Sword of Orynth and unleashed himself upon the line of soldiers raising weapons on the left, Lysandra lunging to the right with a guttural snarl, and Aelin rained down flames of gold and ruby upon the world.



They took back the temple in twenty minutes.

It was only ten before they had control of it, the soldiers either dead or, if they’d surrendered, hauled to the town dungeon by the men and women who had joined the fight. The other ten minutes were spent scouring the place for any ambushers. But they found only their trappings and refuse, and the sight of the temple in such disrepair, the sacred walls carved with the names of Adarlanian brutes, the ancient urns of never-ending fire extinguished or used for chamber pots…

Aelin had let them all see when she sent a razing fire through the place, gobbling up any trace of those soldiers, removing years of dirt and dust and

gull droppings to reveal the glorious, ancient carvings beneath, etched into every pillar and step and wall.

The temple complex comprised three buildings around a massive courtyard: the archives, the residence for the long-dead priestesses, and the temple proper, where the ancient Rock was held. It was in the archives, the most defensible area by far, that she left Aedion and Lysandra to find anything suitable for bedding, a wall of flame now encompassing the entire site.

Aedion’s eyes still shone with the thrill of battle when she claimed she wanted a moment alone by the Rock. He’d fought beautifully—and she’d made sure to leave some men alive for him to take down. She was not the only symbol here tonight, not the only one watched.

And as for the shifter who had ripped into those soldiers with such feral savagery … Aelin left her again in falcon form, perched on a rotting beam in the cavernous archives, staring at the enormous rendering of a sea dragon carved into the floor, at last revealed by that razing fire. One of many similar carvings throughout, the heritage of a people long since exiled.

From every space inside the temple, the crashing of waves on the shore far below whispered or roared. There was nothing to absorb the sound, to soften it. Great, sprawling rooms and courtyards where there should have been altars and statues and gardens of reflection were wholly empty, the smoke of her fire still lingering.

Good. Fire could destroy—but also cleanse.

She crept across the darkened temple-complex grounds to where the innermost, holiest of sanctuaries sprawled to the lip of the sea. Golden light leaked onto the rocky ground before the inner sanctum’s steps—light from the now-eternally-burning vats of flame to honor Brannon’s gift.

Still clothed in black, Aelin was little more than a shadow as she dimmed those fires to sleepy, murmuring embers and entered the heart of the temple.

A great sea wall had been built to push back the wrath of storms from the stone itself, but even then, the space was damp, the air thick with brine.

Aelin cleared the massive antechamber and strode between the two fat pillars that framed the inner sanctuary. At its far end, open to the wrath of the sea beyond, arose the massive black Rock.

It was smooth as glass, no doubt from the reverent hands that had touched it over the millennia, and perhaps as big as a farmer’s market wagon. It jutted upward, overhanging the sea, and starlight bounced off its pocked surface as Aelin extinguished every flame but the sole white candle fluttering in the center of the Rock.

The temple carvings revealed no Wyrdmarks or further messages from the Little Folk. Just swirls and stags.

She’d have to do this the old-fashioned way, then.

Aelin mounted the small stairs that allowed pilgrims to gaze upon the sacred Rock—then stepped onto it.

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