Chapter no 17

Empire of Storms

Manon Blackbeak watched the black skies above Morath bleed to rotted gray on the last morning of Asterin’s life.

She had not slept the entirety of the night; had not eaten or drank; had done nothing but sharpen Wind-Cleaver in the frigid openness of the wyvern’s aerie. Over and over, she had honed the blade, leaning against Abraxos’s warm side, until her fingers were too stiff with cold to grip sword or stone.

Her grandmother had ordered Asterin locked in the deepest bowels of the Keep’s dungeon, so heavily guarded that escape was impossible. Or rescue.

Manon had toyed with the idea for the first few hours after the sentence had been given. But to rescue Asterin would be to betray her Matron, her Clan. Her mistake—it was her own mistake, her own damned choices, that had led to this.

And if she stepped out of line again, the rest of the Thirteen would be put down. She was lucky she hadn’t been stripped of her title as Wing Leader. At least she could still lead her people, protect them. Better than allowing someone like Iskra to take command.

The Ferian Gap legion’s assault on Rifthold under Iskra’s command had been sloppy, chaotic—not the systematic, careful sacking Manon would have planned had they asked her. It made no difference now whether the city was in full or half ruin. It didn’t alter Asterin’s fate.

So there was little to be done, other than to sharpen her ancient blade and memorize the Words of Request. Manon would have to utter them at the right moment. This last gift, she could give her cousin. Her only gift.

Not the long, slow torture and beheading that was typical of a witch execution.

But the swift mercy of Manon’s own blade.

Boots scuffed on stone and crunched the hay littering the aerie floor. Manon knew that step—knew it as well as Asterin’s own gait. “What,” she said to Sorrel without looking behind her.

“Dawn approaches,” her Third said.

Soon to be Second. Vesta would become Third, and … and maybe Asterin would at last see that hunter of hers, see the stillborn witchling they’d had together.

Never again would Asterin ride the winds; never again would Asterin soar on the back of her sky-blue mare. Manon’s eyes slid to the wyvern across the aerie—shifting on her two legs, awake when the others were not.

As if she could sense her mistress’s doom beckoning with each passing moment.

What would become of the mare when Asterin was gone?

Manon rose to her feet, Abraxos nudging the backs of her thighs with his snout. She reached down, brushing his scaly head. She didn’t know who it was meant to comfort. Her crimson cape, as bloody and filthy as the rest of her, was still clasped at her collarbone.

The Thirteen would become twelve.

Manon met Sorrel’s gaze. But her Third’s attention was on Wind-Cleaver, bare in Manon’s hand.

Her Third said, “You mean to make the Words of Request.”

Manon tried to speak. But she could not open her mouth. So she only nodded.

Sorrel stared toward the open archway beyond Abraxos. “I wish she had the chance to see the Wastes. Just once.”

Manon forced herself to lift her chin. “We do not wish. We do not hope,” she said to her soon-to-be Second. Sorrel’s eyes snapped to her, something like hurt flashing there. Manon took the inner blow. She said, “We will move on, adapt.”

Sorrel said quietly, but not weakly, “She goes to her death to keep your secrets.”

It was the closest Sorrel had ever come to outright challenge. To resentment.

Manon sheathed Wind-Cleaver at her side and strode for the stairwell, unable to meet Abraxos’s curious stare. “Then she will have served me well

as Second, and will be remembered for it.” Sorrel said nothing.

So Manon descended into the gloom of Morath to kill her cousin.



The execution was not to be held in the dungeon.

Rather, her grandmother had selected a broad veranda overlooking one of the endless drops into the ravine curled around Morath. Witches were crowded onto the balcony, practically thrumming with bloodlust.

The Matrons stood before the gathered group, Cresseida and the Yellowlegs Matron flanked by each of their heirs, all facing the open doors through which Manon and the Thirteen exited the Keep proper.

Manon did not hear the murmur of the crowd; did not hear the roaring wind ripping between the high turrets; did not hear the strike of hammers in the forges of the valley below.

Not when her attention went to Asterin, on her knees before the Matrons. She, too, was facing Manon, still in her riding leathers, her golden hair limp and knotted, flecked with blood. She lifted her face—

“It was only fair,” Manon’s grandmother drawled, the crowd silencing, “for Iskra Yellowlegs to also avenge the four sentinels slaughtered on your watch. Three blows apiece for each of the sentinels killed.”

Twelve blows total. But from the cuts and bruises on Asterin’s face, the split lip, from the way she cradled her body as she bent over her knees … It had been far more than that.

Slowly, Manon looked at Iskra. Cuts marred her knuckles—still raw from the beating she’d given Asterin in the dungeon.

While Manon had been upstairs, brooding.

Manon opened her mouth, her rage a living thing thrashing in her gut, her blood. But Asterin spoke instead.

“Be glad to know, Manon,” her Second rasped with a faint, cocky smile, “that she had to chain me up to beat me.”

Iskra’s eyes flashed. “You still screamed, bitch, when I whipped you.” “Enough,” Manon’s grandmother cut in, waving a hand.

Manon barely heard the order.

They had whipped her sentinel like some underling, like some mortal beast—

Someone snarled, low and vicious, to her right.

The breath went out of her as she found Sorrel—unmovable rock, unfeeling stone—baring her teeth at Iskra, at those assembled here.

Manon’s grandmother stepped forward, brimming with displeasure.

Behind Manon, the Thirteen were a silent, unbreakable wall.

Asterin began scanning their faces, and Manon realized her Second understood that it was the last time she’d do so.

“Blood shall be paid with blood,” Manon’s grandmother and the Yellowlegs Matron said in unison, reciting from their eldest rituals. Manon steeled her spine, waiting for the right moment. “Any witch who wishes to extract blood in the name of Zelta Yellowlegs may come forward.”

Iron nails slid out from the hands of the entire Yellowlegs coven.

Asterin only stared at the Thirteen, her bloody face unmoved, eyes clear.

The Yellowlegs Matron said, “Form the line.” Manon pounced.

“I invoke the right of execution.” Everyone froze.

Manon’s grandmother’s face went pale with rage. But the other two Matrons, even Yellowlegs, just waited.

Manon said, head high, “I claim the right to my Second’s head. Blood shall be paid with blood—but at my sword’s edge. She is mine, and so shall her death be mine.”

For the first time, Asterin’s mouth tightened, eyes gleaming. Yes, she understood the only gift Manon could give her, the only honor left.

It was Cresseida Blueblood who cut in before the other two Matrons could speak. “For saving my daughter’s life, Wing Leader, it shall be granted.”

The Yellowlegs Matron whipped her head to Cresseida, a retort on her lips, but it was too late. The words had been spoken, and the rules were to be obeyed at any cost.

The Crochan’s red cape fluttering behind her in the wind, Manon dared a look at her grandmother. Only hatred glowed in those ancient eyes—

hatred, and a flicker of satisfaction that Asterin would be ended after decades of being deemed an unfit Second.

But at least this death was now hers to give.

And in the east, slipping over the mountains like molten gold, the sun began to rise.

A hundred years she’d had with Asterin. She’d always thought they’d have a hundred more.

Manon said softly to Sorrel, “Turn her around. My Second shall see the dawn one last time.”

Sorrel obediently stepped forward, pivoting Asterin to face the High Witches, the crowd by the rail—and the rare sunrise piercing through Morath’s gloom.

Blood soaked through the back of her Second’s leathers.

And yet Asterin knelt, shoulders square and head high, as she looked not at the dawn—but at Manon herself while she stalked around her Second to take a place a few feet before the Matrons.

“Sometime before breakfast, Manon,” her grandmother said from a few feet behind.

Manon drew Wind-Cleaver, the blade singing softly as it slid free of its sheath.

The sunlight gilded the balcony as Asterin whispered, so softly that only Manon could hear, “Bring my body back to the cabin.”

Something in Manon’s chest broke—broke so violently that she wondered if it was possible for no one to have heard it.

Manon lifted her sword.

All it would take was one word from Asterin, and she could save her own hide. Spill Manon’s secrets, her betrayals, and she’d walk free. Yet her Second uttered no other word.

And Manon understood in that moment that there were forces greater than obedience, and discipline, and brutality. Understood that she had not been born soulless; she had not been born without a heart.

For there were both, begging her not to swing that blade.

Manon looked to the Thirteen, standing around Asterin in a half circle. One by one, they lifted two fingers to their brows.

A murmur went through the crowd. The gesture not to honor a High Witch.

But a Witch-Queen.

There had not been a Queen of Witches in five hundred years, either among the Crochans or the Ironteeth. Not one.

Forgiveness shone in the faces of her Thirteen. Forgiveness and understanding and loyalty that was not blind obedience, but forged in pain and battle, in shared victory and defeat. Forged in hope for a better life—a better world.

At last, Manon found Asterin’s gaze, tears now rolling down her Second’s face. Not from fear or pain, but in farewell. A hundred years—and yet Manon wished she’d had more time.

For a heartbeat, she thought of that sky-blue mare in the aerie, the wyvern that would wait and wait for a rider who would never return. Thought of a green rocky land spreading to the western sea.

Hand trembling, Asterin pressed her fingers to her brow and extended them. “Bring our people home, Manon,” she breathed.

Manon angled Wind-Cleaver, readying for the strike.

The Blackbeak Matron snapped, “Be done with it, Manon.”

Manon met Sorrel’s eyes, then Asterin’s. And Manon gave the Thirteen her final order.


Then Manon Blackbeak whirled and brought Wind-Cleaver down upon her grandmother.

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