Chapter no 71

Empire of Storms

They didn’t get to Leriba. Or to Banjali. They didn’t even get close.

Lorcan felt the push on his shoulder that had guided and shaped the course of his life—that invisible, insistent hand of shadow and death. So they went south, then west, sailing swiftly down the network of waterways through Eyllwe.

Elide didn’t object or question when he explained that if Hellas himself was nudging him, that the queen they hunted was likely in that direction. Wherever it would lead. There were no cities out there, only endless grasslands that skirted Oakwald’s southernmost tip, then marshes. The abandoned peninsula full of ruins among the marshes.

But if that was where he was told to go … The dark god’s touch on his shoulder had never steered him wrong. So he’d see what he’d find.

He did not let himself dwell too long on the fact that Elide carried a Wyrdkey. That she was trying to bring it to his enemy. Perhaps his power’s summons would lead them both to it—to her.

And then he’d have two keys, if he played his cards right.

If he was smarter and faster and more ruthless than the others.

Then the most dangerous part of all: traveling with two keys in his possession, into the heart of Morath, to hunt down the third. Speed would be his best ally and only shot at survival.

And he’d likely never see Elide or any of the others again.

They’d at last abandoned their barge that morning, cramming whatever supplies would fit into their packs before setting off through the rippling grasses. Hours later, Elide’s breathing was ragged as they ascended a steep hill deep in the plain. He’d been scenting brine for two days now—they had to be close to the edge of the marshes. Elide swallowed hard, and he passed her the canteen as they crested the summit of the hill.

But Elide halted, arms slackening at her sides.

And Lorcan himself froze at what spread before them.

“What is this place?” Elide breathed, as if fearful the land itself would hear.

As far as the eye could see, flowing into the horizon, the land had sunk a good thirty feet—a severe, brutal crack from the edge of the cliff, not hill, on which they stood, as if some furious god had stomped a foot across the plain and left an imprint.

Silvery brackish water covered most of it, still as a mirror, interrupted only by grassy islands and mounds of earth—and crumbling, exquisite ruins.

“This is a bad place,” Elide whispered. “We shouldn’t be here.”

Indeed, the hair on his arms had risen, every instinct on alert as he scanned the marshes, the ruins, the brambles, and thick foliage that had choked some of the islands.

Even the god of death halted his nudging and ducked behind Lorcan’s shoulder.

“What do you sense?”

Her lips were bloodless. “Silence. Life, but such … silence. As if …” “As if what?” he pushed.

Her words were a shudder of breath. “As if all the people who once lived here, long ago, are still trapped inside—still … beneath.” She pointed to a ruin—a curved, broken dome of what had likely been a ballroom attached to the spire. A palace. “I don’t think this is a place for the living, Lorcan. The beasts in these waters … I do not think they tolerate trespassers. Nor do the dead.”

“Is it the stone or the goddess who watches you telling you such things?”

“It’s my heart that murmurs a warning. Anneith is silent. I don’t think she wants to be anywhere near. I don’t think she will follow.”

“She came to Morath, but not here?”

“What is inside these marshes?” she asked instead. “Why is Aelin headed into them?”

That, it seemed, was the question. For if they picked up on it, surely the queen and Whitethorn would sense it, too—and only a great reward or threat would drive them here.

“I don’t know,” he admitted. “No towns or outposts exist anywhere nearby.” Yet this was where the dark god had led him—and where that hand still pushed him to venture, even if it quaked.

Nothing but ruins and dense foliage on those too-small islands of safety from whatever dwelled beneath the glassy water.

But Lorcan obeyed the nudging god at his shoulder and led the Lady of Perranth onward.



“Who lived here?” Elide asked, staring at the weather-worn face of the statue jutting from a near-collapsed stone wall. It teetered on the outer edge of the little island they were standing on, and the moss-speckled woman carved there had no doubt once been beautiful, as well as a bit of support for beams and a roof that had since rotted away. But the veil she’d been carved wearing now seemed like a death shroud. Elide shivered.

“This place was forgotten and wrecked centuries before I was even born,” Lorcan said.

“Did it belong to Eyllwe?”

“It was a part of a kingdom that is now gone, a lost people who wandered and merged with those of different lands.”

“They must have been very talented, to have made such beautiful buildings.”

Lorcan grunted in agreement. It had been two days of inching across the marshes—no sign of Aelin. They had slept in the shelter of the ruins, though neither of them really got true rest. Elide’s dreams had been filled with the pale, milky-eyed faces of people she’d never met, crying out in supplication as water shoved down their throats, their noses. Even waking, she could see them, hear their cries on the wind.

Just the breeze through the stones, Lorcan grumbled that first day. But she’d seen it in his eyes. He heard the dead, too.

Heard the thunder of the cataclysm that had dropped the land right from underneath them, heard the rushing water that devoured them all before they could run. Curious beasts from sea and swamp and river had converged in the years following, making the ruins a hunting ground,

feasting on one another when the waterlogged corpses ran out. Changing, adapting—growing fatter and cleverer than their ancestors had been.

It was thanks to those beasts that it took so long to cross the marshes. Lorcan would scan the too-still water between those islands of safety. Sometimes it was clear to wade through the chest-deep, salty water. Sometimes it was not.

Sometimes even the islands were not safe. Twice now, she’d spotted a long, scaled tail—plated like armor—sliding behind a stone wall or broken pillar. Thrice, she’d seen great golden eyes, slitted down the pupil, watching from the reeds.

Lorcan had hauled her over a shoulder and run whenever they realized they were not alone.

Then there were the snakes—who liked to dangle from the wraithlike trees draining an existence from the islands. And the incessant, biting midges, who were nothing compared to the clouds of mosquitoes that sometimes hounded them for hours. Or until Lorcan sent a wave of his dark power into them and they all dropped to the earth in a dark rain.

But every time he killed … she felt the earth shudder. Not in fear of him

… but as if it were awakening. Listening. Wondering who dared walk across it.

On the fourth night, Elide was so tired, so on edge, she wanted to whimper as they curled into a rare sanctuary: a ruined hall, with part of its mezzanine intact. It was open to the sky, and vines choked the three walls, but the stone stair had been solid—and was high enough off the island that nothing might crawl out of the water to prey upon them. Lorcan had rigged the base and top of the stairs with trip wires of vines and branches—to alert them if any beasts slithered up the steps.

They didn’t dare risk a fire, but it was warm enough that she didn’t miss one. Lying beside Lorcan, his body a solid wall between her and the stone to her left, Elide watched the flickering stars, the drowsy buzz of insects a constant drone in her ears. Something roared in the distance.

The insects paused. The marsh seemed to turn its attention toward that feral, deep roar.

Slowly, life resumed again—though quieter. Lorcan murmured, “Sleep, Elide.”

She swallowed, her fear thick in her blood. “What was that?”

“One of the beasts—either a mating call or territorial warning.”

She didn’t want to know how big they were. Glimpses of eyes and tails were enough.

“Tell me about her,” Elide whispered. “Your queen.” “I doubt it’ll help you sleep any better.”

She turned onto her other side, finding him lying on his back, watching the sky. “Will she truly kill you for what you’ve done?” A nod. “Yet you risk it—for her sake.” She propped her head up with a fist. “Do you love her?”

Those eyes, darker than the gaps between the stars, slid to her. “I have been in love with Maeve since I first laid eyes on her.”

“Are you—are you her lover?” She had not dared ask it, hadn’t really wanted to know.

“No. I offered once. She laughed at me for the insolence.” His mouth tightened. “So I have made myself invaluable in other ways.”

Again, that roar in the distance that silenced the world for a few heartbeats. Was it closer, or had she imagined it? When she glanced back at him, Lorcan’s eyes were on her mouth.

She said, “Perhaps she uses your love to her own advantage. Perhaps it’s in her best interest to drag you along. Maybe she’ll change her mind when you seem the most likely to … leave.”

“I am blood-sworn to her. I will never leave.”

Her chest hurt at that. “Then she can rest assured knowing you’ll pine after her for eternity.”

The words came out sharper than she intended, and she made to look at the stars, but Lorcan gripped her chin, faster than she could detect. He peered into her eyes, scanning them. “Do not make the mistake of believing me to be a romantic fool. I do not hold any shred of hope for her.”

“Then that does not seem like love at all.”

“And what do you know of love?” He was so close—had neared without her realizing it.

“I think love should make you happy,” Elide said, remembering her mother and father. How often they had smiled and laughed, how they had gazed at each other. “It should make you into the best possible version of yourself.”

“Are you implying I am neither of those things?”

“I don’t think you even know what happiness is.”

His face grew grave—thoughtful. “I do not mind … being around you.” “Is that a compliment?”

A half smile cut across his granite-hewn face. And she wanted … wanted to touch it. That smile, that mouth. With her fingers, her own lips. It made him younger, made him … handsome.

So she reached up with trembling fingers and touched his lips. Lorcan froze, still half above her, his eyes solemn and intent.

But she traced the contours of his mouth, finding the skin there soft and warm, such a contrast to the harsh words that usually came out of it.

She reached the outer corner of his lips, and he turned his face into her hand, resting his rough cheek against her palm. His eyes grew heavy-lidded as she brushed a thumb over the hard plane of his cheekbone.

Elide whispered, “I would hide you. In Perranth. If you … if you do what you need to do, and need somewhere to go … You would have a place there. With me.”

His eyes snapped open, but there was nothing hard, nothing cold, about the light shining in them. “I would be a dishonored male—it’d reflect poorly upon you.”

“If anyone thinks that, they would have no place in Perranth.” His throat bobbed. “Elide, you need to—”

But she rose up slightly, replacing her mouth where her fingers had been.

The kiss was soft, and quiet, and brief. Barely a grazing of her lips against his.

She thought Lorcan might have been trembling as she pulled back. As heat bloomed across her cheeks. But she made herself say, surprised to find her voice steady, “You don’t need to answer me now. Or ever. You could show up on my doorstep in ten years, and the offer would still stand. But there is a place for you, in Perranth—if you should ever need or wish for it.”

Something like agony rippled in his eyes, the most human expression she’d seen him make.

But he leaned forward, and despite the marshes, despite what gathered in the world, for the first time in ten years, Elide found herself not at all

afraid as Lorcan caressed her lips with his own. Not afraid of anything as he did it again, kissing one corner of her mouth, then the other.

Such gentle, patient kisses—his hands equally so as they stroked the hair back from her brow, as they trailed over her hips, her ribs. She lifted her own hands to his face and dragged her fingers into his silken hair as she arched up into him, craving the weight of his body on hers.

Lorcan’s tongue brushed against the seam of her mouth, and Elide marveled at how natural it felt to open for him, how her body sang at the contact, his hardness against her softness. Lorcan groaned at the first caress of his tongue against her own, his hips grinding against hers in a way that made heat scorch through her, made her own body undulate against his in answer and demand.

He kissed her deeper at that request, a hand sliding down to grip her thigh, spreading her legs a bit wider so he could settle fully between them. And as all of him lined up with her … She was panting, she realized, as she ground herself against him, as Lorcan tore his mouth from hers and kissed her jaw, her neck, her ear. She was trembling—not with fear, but with want as Lorcan breathed her name over and over onto her skin.

Like a prayer, that was how her name sounded on his lips. She took his face in her hands, finding his eyes blazing, his breathing as ragged as her own.

Elide dared to run her fingers from his cheek down his neck, right beneath the collar of his shirt. His skin was like heated silk. He shuddered at the touch, head bowing so that his inky hair spilled onto her brow, and his hips drove into hers just enough that a small gasp came out of her. More, she realized—she wanted more.

His eyes met hers in silent question, her hand pausing over the skin above his heart. It was a raging, thunderous beat.

She lifted her head to kiss him, and as her mouth again met his, she whispered her answer—

Lorcan’s head snapped up. He was instantly on his feet, whirling toward the northeast.

Where a darkness had begun to spread across the stars, wiping them out one by one.

Any bit of heat, of desire, winked out of her. “Is that a storm?”

“We need to run,” Lorcan said. But it was the dead of the night—dawn was at least six hours off. To cross the marshes now … More and more stars were gobbled up by that gathering darkness.

“What is that?” It spread farther with each heartbeat. Far out, even the marsh beasts stopped roaring.

“Ilken,” Lorcan murmured. “That is an army of ilken.” Elide knew they weren’t coming for her.

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