Chapter no 49

Empire of Storms

Falkan dropped to his knees, pine needles scattering, blood dribbling between his tan fingers.

Nesryn made to rush to him, but Sartaq blocked her with an arm. “Don’t,” he warned.

Nesryn shoved his arm out of her way and ran to the injured man, kneeling before him. “You followed us here.”

Falkan lifted his head, pain lining his eyes. “I listened last night. At your fire.”

Sartaq snarled, “No doubt as some rat or insect.”

Something like shame indeed filled Falkan’s face. “I flew here as a falcon—saw you go in. Then saw her creep up the hill after you.” He shuddered as he glanced to where Kadara had finished ripping apart the spider and now sat atop the tower, studying him as if he were her next meal. Nesryn waved toward the bird to hop down with their saddlebags.

Kadara pointedly ignored her. “He needs help,” she hissed to Sartaq. “Bandages.”

“Does my ej know?” was all the prince demanded.

Falkan tried and failed to remove his blood-soaked hand from his side, panting through his teeth. “Yes,” he managed to say. “I told her everything.”

“And what court paid you to come here?”

“Sartaq.” She’d never heard him speak that way, never seen him so furious. She grabbed the prince’s arm. “He saved our lives. Now we return the favor.” She pointed to the ruk. “Bandages.”

Sartaq turned those livid eyes on her. “His kind are assassins and spies,” he snarled. “Better to let him die.”

“I am neither,” Falkan panted. “I am what I said: a merchant. In Adarlan, growing up, I didn’t even know I had the gift. It—it ran in my family, but by the time magic vanished, I’d assumed I hadn’t gotten it. Was glad for it. But I must not have matured enough, because when I set foot in these lands as a man, as this …” A gesture to his body. To the twenty years he’d given up. He winced against what the movement did to his wound. “I could use it. I could change. Badly, and not often, but I can manage it, if I concentrate.” He said to the prince, “It is nothing to me, this heritage. It was my brother’s gift, my father’s—I never wanted it. I still don’t.”

“Yet you can change from bird to wolf to man as easily as if you trained.”

“Trust me, it’s more than I’ve done in my—” Falkan groaned, swaying.

Nesryn caught him before he could eat dirt, and snapped at Sartaq, “If you don’t get him bandages and supplies right now, I’ll give you a wound to match.”

The prince blinked at her, mouth falling open.

Then he whistled through his teeth, sharp and swift, while he strode for Kadara, his steps clipped.

The ruk hopped from the tower to land upon one of the owl statues anchored into the archway walls, stone cracking beneath her.

“I am no assassin,” Falkan insisted, still shaking. “I’ve met a few, but I’m not one.”

“I believe you,” Nesryn said, and meant it. Sartaq hauled the packs off Kadara, searching through them. “The left one,” she barked. The prince threw her another look over his shoulder, but obeyed.

“I wanted to kill her myself,” Falkan panted, his eyes glazing, no doubt from blood loss. “To see if … that might return the years. Even … even if she is not the one who took my youth, I thought maybe there was some … joint system between them, even across oceans. A web, as it were, of all that their kind has taken.” A bitter, strained laugh. “But it seems my death blow was taken, too.”

“I think we can all forgive Kadara for doing it instead,” Nesryn said, noting the black blood splattered over the ruk’s beak and feathers.

Another pained laugh. “You are not scared—of what I am.”

Sartaq strode over with the bandages and salve. And what seemed to be a jar of a honey-like substance, to likely seal the wound until they could reach a healer. Good.

“One of my friends is a shifter,” Nesryn admitted—just as Falkan fainted in her arms.



They were airborne within minutes of Nesryn cleaning out the gash down Falkan’s ribs and Sartaq indeed packing the wound with what seemed to be some sort of leaves and a coating of honey. To keep infection away and stave the blood loss as they swiftly soared back to the aerie.

She and the prince barely spoke, though with Falkan propped behind them, the ride didn’t afford much opportunity. It was a tight, perilous flight, Falkan’s dead weight occasionally listing far enough to the side that Sartaq had to grunt at holding him in the saddle. There were only two sets of

buckles, he’d told Nesryn when they climbed onto the saddle. He wasn’t wasting either of their lives on a shifter, life debt or no.

But they made it, just as the sun was setting and the three peaks of the Dorgos were aglow with countless fires, like the mountains were crusted in fireflies.

Kadara loosed a shrill scream as they neared the Mountain-Hall of Altun. Some sort of signal, apparently, because by the time they landed, Borte, Houlun, and countless others were gathered, armed with supplies.

No one asked what happened to Falkan. No one wondered how he’d gotten out there. Either under order from Houlun not to pester them or simply from the chaos of getting him off the ruk and into a healer’s care. No one, except Borte.

Sartaq was still fuming enough that he led his ej to a corner of the hall to begin demanding answers about the shifter. Or that’s what it seemed like, with his set jaw and crossed arms.

Houlun only squared off against him, feet braced on the floor, her jaw as tight as his.

Alone with Kadara, Nesryn set to unbuckling the packs while Borte observed from a few feet away, “That he has the balls to lecture her tells me something went very wrong. And that she is allowing him to do so tells me she feels just a smidge guilty.”

Nesryn didn’t answer, grunting as she hauled down a particularly heavy pack.

Borte strode around Kadara, looking the bird over. Carefully.

“Black blood on her talons, her beak, and chest. Lots of black blood.” Nesryn dumped the pack against the wall.

“And your back is crusted in red blood.”

From where Falkan had leaned against her during the ride.

“And that is a new blade. A Fae blade,” Borte breathed, stepping up to examine the naked blade dangling from her sword belt. Nesryn backed up a step.

Borte’s mouth tightened. “Whatever you know, I want to know it.” “It’s not my call.”

They glanced toward Sartaq, who was still seething, Houlun simply letting him vent.

Borte began rattling off items on her fingers. “Ej sails off on her own for days. Then you go, returning with a man who did not leave with you and who took no ruk. And poor Kadara returns covered in this … foulness.” A sniff toward the black blood. The ruk clicked her beak in answer.

“It’s mud,” Nesryn lied.

Borte laughed. “And I’m a Fae Princess. Either I can start asking around, or—”

Nesryn dragged her to the wall with the packs. “Even if I tell you, you are not to breathe a word of it to anyone. Or be involved in any way.”

Borte put a hand on her heart. “I swear it.”

Nesryn sighed toward the distant, rocky ceiling, Kadara giving her a warning look as if to ask her to reconsider her judgment. But Nesryn told Borte everything.



She should have listened to Kadara. Borte, to her credit, did not tell anyone else. Other than Sartaq, who at last stalked over from Houlun, only to receive an earful and a smack on the shoulder for not informing his hearth-sister where he was going. And worse, for not inviting her along.

Sartaq had glared at Nesryn when he realized who’d told Borte, but she was too tired to care. Instead she only strode for her room, weaving between the pillars. She knew Sartaq was on her heels thanks to Borte’s shouted, “You will bring me next time, you stubborn ass!

And just before Nesryn reached the door to her room, to the sanctuary of a soft bed, the prince gripped her elbow. “I would have words with you.”

Nesryn just shoved into the room, Sartaq stalking in behind her. Shutting the door and leaning against it. He crossed his arms at the same moment she did.

“Borte threatened to ask pointed questions around the aerie if I didn’t tell her.”

“I don’t care.”

Nesryn blinked. “Then what—”

“Who has the Wyrdkeys?” The question echoed between them. Nesryn swallowed. “What’s a Wyrdkey?”

Sartaq pushed off the door. “Liar,” he breathed. “While we were gone, my ej recalled some of the other stories, dragged them up from whatever collective memory she possesses as Story Keeper. Tales of a Wyrdgate that the Valg and their kings passed through—could open at will with three keys when wielded together. Remembered that those keys went missing, after Maeve herself stole them and used them to send the Valg back. Hidden, she says. Throughout the world.”

Nesryn only lifted a brow. “And what of it?”

A cold snort. “It is how Erawan has raised an army so quickly, why even Aelin of the Wildfire cannot take him on without assistance. He must have at least one. Not all, or we’d be calling Erawan our master already. But at least one, maybe two. So where is the third?”

She honestly had not a clue. Whether Aelin and the others possessed an inkling, they’d never told her. Only that their ultimate path, beyond war and death, was to retrieve the ones Erawan held. But even telling him that …

“Perhaps now you understand,” Nesryn said with equal cold, “why we are so desperate for your father’s armies.”

“To be slaughtered.”

“When Erawan is done slaughtering us, he will come to your doorstep next.”

Sartaq swore. “What I saw today, that thing …” He scrubbed his face with shaking hands. “The Valg once used those spiders as foot soldiers. Legions of them.” He lowered his hands. “Houlun has learned of three other watchtowers in ruin—to the south. We’ll fly to the first as soon as the shifter is healed.”

“We’re taking Falkan?”

Sartaq yanked open the door, hard enough that she was surprised he didn’t rip it clean off its hinges. “As piss-poor of a shifter as he claims to be, a man who can change into a wolf that big is too good a weapon not to bring into danger.” A sharp glare. “He rides with me.”

“And where will I be?”

Sartaq gave her a humorless smile before entering the hall. “You’ll be flying with Borte.”

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