Chapter no 15

Empire of Storms

The sea seemed to pause.

Aelin tugged the Wyrdkey from her jacket, letting it rest between her breasts as she took a seat on the overhanging lip of the stone and peered out into the night-veiled sea.

And waited.

The sliver of crescent moon was beginning to descend when a deep male voice said behind her, “You look younger than I thought.”

Aelin stared at the sea, even as her stomach tightened. “But just as good-looking, right?”

She did not hear any footsteps, but the voice was definitely closer as he said, “At least my daughter was right about your humility.”

“Funny, she never implied you had a sense of humor.”

A whisper of wind to her right, then long, muscled legs beneath ancient armor appeared beside hers, sandaled feet dangling into the surf. She finally dared to turn her head, finding that armor continued to a powerful male body and a broad-boned, handsome face. He might have fooled anyone into thinking he was flesh and blood—were it not for the pale glimmer of blue light along his edges.

Aelin bowed her head slightly to Brannon.

A half smile was his only acknowledgment, his red-gold hair shifting in the moonlight. “A brutal but efficient battle,” he said.

She shrugged. “I was told to come to this temple. I found it occupied.

So I unoccupied it. You’re welcome.”

His lips twitched toward a smile. “I cannot stay long.”

“But you’re going to manage to cram in as many cryptic warnings as you can, right?”

Brannon’s brows rose, his brandy-colored eyes crinkling with amusement. “I had my friends send you a message to come for a reason, you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure of it.” She wouldn’t have risked reclaiming the temple otherwise. “But first tell me about Maeve.” She’d had enough of waiting until they dumped their message into her lap. She had her own gods-damned questions.

Brannon’s mouth tightened. “Specify what you need to know.” “Can she be killed?”

The king’s head whipped toward her. “She is old, Heir of Terrasen. She was old when I was a child. Her plans are far-reaching—”

“I know, I know. But will she die if I shove a blade into her heart? Cut off her head?”

A pause. “I don’t know.” “What?”

Brannon shook his head. “I don’t know. All Fae may be killed, yet she has outlived even our extended life spans, and her power … no one really understands her power.”

“But you journeyed with her to get the keys back—”

“I do not know. But she long feared my flame. And yours.” “She’s not Valg, is she?”

A low laugh. “No. As cold as one, but no.” Brannon’s edges began to blur a bit.

But he saw the question in her eyes and nodded for her to go on.

Aelin swallowed, her jaw clenching a bit as she forced out a breath. “Does the power ever get easier to handle?”

Brannon’s gaze softened a fraction. “Yes and no. How it impacts your relationships with those around you becomes harder than managing the power—yet is tied to it as well. Magic is no easy gift in any form, yet fire

… We burn not just within our magic, but also in our very souls. For better or worse.” His attention flicked to Goldryn, peeking over her shoulder, and he laughed in quiet surprise. “Is the beast in the cave dead?”

“No, but he told me that he misses you and you should pay him a visit.

He’s lonely out there.”

Brannon chuckled again. “We would have had fun together, you and I.”

“I’m starting to wish they’d sent you to deal with me instead of your daughter. The sense of humor must skip a generation.”

Perhaps it was the wrong thing to say. For that sense of humor instantly faded from that beautiful tan face, those brandy eyes going cold and hard. Brannon gripped her hand, but his fingers went through hers—right down to the stone itself. “The Lock, Heir of Terrasen. I summoned you here for it. In the Stone Marshes, there lies a sunken city—the Lock is hidden there. It is needed to bind the keys back into the broken Wyrdgate. It is the only way to get them back into that gate and seal it permanently. My daughter begs you—”

“What Lock—” “Find the Lock.”

Where in the Stone Marshes? It’s not exactly a small—” Brannon was gone.

Aelin scowled and shoved the Amulet of Orynth back into her shirt. “Of course there’s a gods-damned lock,” she muttered.

She groaned a bit as she eased to her feet, and frowned at the night-dark sea crashing mere yards away. At the ancient queen across it, readying her armada.

Aelin stuck out her tongue.

“Well, if Maeve wasn’t already poised to attack, that’ll certainly set her off,” Aedion drawled from the shadows of a nearby pillar.

Aelin stiffened, hissing.

Her cousin grinned at her, his teeth moon white. “You think I didn’t know you had something else up your sleeve for why we took back this temple? Or that this spring in Rifthold taught me nothing about your tendency to be planning a few things at once?”

She rolled her eyes, stepping off the sacred stone and stomping down the stairs. “I assume you heard everything.”

“Brannon even winked at me before he vanished.” She clenched her jaw.

Aedion leaned his shoulder against the carved pillar. “A Lock, eh? And when, precisely, were you going to inform us about this new shift in direction?”

She stalked up to him. “When I rutting felt like it, that’s when. And it’s not a shift in direction—not yet. Allies remain our goal, not cryptic

commands from dead royals.”

Aedion just smiled. A ripple in the murky shadows of the temple snagged her attention, and Aelin heaved a sigh. “You two are honestly insufferable.”

Lysandra flapped onto the top of a nearby statue and clicked her beak rather saucily.

Aedion slid an arm around Aelin’s shoulders, guiding her back toward the ramshackle residence within the compound. “New court, new traditions, you said. Even for you. Starting with fewer schemes and secrets that take years off my life every time you do a grand reveal. Though I certainly enjoyed that new trick with the ash. Very artistic.”

Aelin jabbed him in the side. “Do not—”

The words halted as footsteps crunched on the dry earth from the nearby courtyard. The wind drifted by, carrying a scent they knew too well.

Valg. A powerful one, if he’d walked through her wall of flame.

Aelin drew Goldryn as Aedion’s own blade whined softly, the Sword of Orynth gleaming like freshly forged steel in the moonlight. Lysandra remained aloft, ducking deeper into the shadows.

“Sold out or shit-poor luck?” Aedion murmured.

“Likely both,” Aelin muttered back as the figure appeared through two pillars.

He was stocky, slightly overweight—not at all the impossible beauty that the Valg princes preferred when inhabiting a human body. But the inhuman reek, even with that collar on his wide neck … So much stronger than usual.

Of course, Brannon couldn’t have been bothered to warn her. The Valg stepped into the light of the sacred braziers.

The thoughts eddied from her head as she saw his face.

And Aelin knew that Aedion had been right: her actions tonight had sent a message. An outright declaration of her location. Erawan had been waiting for this meeting far longer than a few hours. And the Valg king knew both sides of her history.

For it was the Chief Overseer of Endovier who now grinned at them.



She still dreamt of him.

Of that ruddy, common face leering at her, at the other women in Endovier. Of his laughter when she was stripped to the waist and whipped in the open, then left to hang from her shackles in the bitter cold or blazing sun. Of his smile as she was shoved into those lightless pits; the grin still stretching wide when they removed her from them days or weeks later.

Goldryn’s hilt became slimy in her hand. Flame instantly burned along the fingers of her other. She cursed Lorcan for stealing back the golden ring, for taking away that one bit of immunity, of redemption.

Aedion was glancing between them, reading the recognition in her eyes.

The Overseer of Endovier sneered at her, “Aren’t you going to introduce us, slave?”

The utter stillness that crept over her cousin’s face told her enough about what he’d pieced together—along with the glance at the faint scars on her wrists where shackles had been.

Aedion slid a step between them, no doubt reading every sound and shadow and scent to see if the man was alone, estimating how hard and long they’d have to fight their way out of here. Lysandra flapped to another pillar, poised to shift and pounce at a single word.

Aelin tried to rally the swagger that had shielded and bluffed her way out of everything. But all she saw was the man dragging those women behind the buildings; all she heard was the slam of that iron grate over her lightless pit; all she smelled were the salt and the blood and the unwashed bodies; all she felt was the burning, wet slide of blood down her ravaged back—

I will not be afraid; I will not be afraid

“Have they run out of pretty boys in the kingdoms for you to wear?” Aedion drawled, buying them time to figure out the odds.

“Come a bit closer,” the overseer smirked, “and we’ll see if you make a better fit, General.”

Aedion let out a low chuckle, the Sword of Orynth lifting a bit higher. “I don’t think you’d walk away from it.”

And it was the sight of that blade, her father’s blade, the blade of her people…

Aelin lifted her chin, and the flames encircling her left hand flickered brighter.

The overseer’s watery blue eyes slid to hers, narrowing with amusement. “Too bad you didn’t have that little gift when I put you in those pits. Or when I painted the earth with your blood.”

A low snarl was Aedion’s answer.

But Aelin made herself smile. “It’s late. I just trounced your soldiers.

Let’s get this chat out of the way so I can have some rest.”

The overseer’s lip curled. “You’ll learn proper manners soon enough, girl. All of you will.”

The amulet between her breasts seemed to grumble, a flicker of raw, ancient power.

Aelin ignored it, shutting out any thought of it. If the Valg, if Erawan, got one whiff that she possessed what he so desperately sought—

The overseer again opened his mouth. She attacked.

Fire blasted him into the nearest wall, surging down his throat, through his ears, up his nose. Flame that did not burn, flame that was mere light, blindingly white—

The overseer roared, thrashing as her magic swept into him, melded with him.

But there was nothing inside to grab on to. No darkness to burn out, no remaining ember to breathe life into. Only—

Aelin reeled back, magic vanishing and knees buckling as if struck. Her head gave a throb, and nausea roiled in her gut. She knew that feeling—that taste.

Iron. As if the man’s core was made of it. And that oily, hideous aftertaste … Wyrdstone.

The demon inside the overseer let out a choked laugh. “What are collars and rings compared to a solid heart? A heart of iron and Wyrdstone, to replace the coward’s heart beating within.”

“Why,” she breathed.

“I was planted here to demonstrate what is waiting should you and your court visit Morath.”

Aelin slammed her fire into him, scouring his insides, striking that core of pure darkness inside. Again, again, again. The overseer kept roaring, but Aelin kept attacking, until—

She vomited all over the stones between them. Aedion hauled her upright.

Aelin lifted her head. She’d burned off his clothes, but not touched the skin.

And there—pulsing against his ribs as if it were a fist punching through

—was his heart.

It slammed into his skin, stretching bone and flesh.

Aelin flinched back. Aedion threw a hand in her path as the overseer arched in agony, his mouth open in a silent scream.

Lysandra flapped down from the rafters, shifting into leopard form at their side and snarling.

Again, that fist struck from inside. And then bones snapped, punching outward, ripping through muscle and skin as if his chest cavity were the petals of a blooming flower. There was nothing inside. No blood, no organs.

Only a mighty, ageless darkness—and two flickering golden embers at its core.

Not embers. Eyes. Simmering with ancient malice. They narrowed in acknowledgment and pleasure.

It took every ounce of her fire to steel her spine, to tilt her head at a jaunty angle and drawl, “At least you know how to make a good entrance, Erawan.”

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