Chapter no 78

Empire of Storms

The last leg of the trek the next morning was the longest yet, Manon thought.

Close—so close to this Lock the queen with a witch emblem in her pocket was seeking.

She’d fallen asleep, pondering how it could be connected, but gleaned nothing. They’d all been awake before dawn, dragged to consciousness by the oppressive humidity, so heavy it felt like a blanket weighing on Manon’s shoulders.

The queen was mostly quiet from where she walked at the head of their company, her mate scouting overhead, and her cousin and the shape-shifter flanking her, the latter wearing the skin of a truly horrific swamp viper. The Wolf and the Lion brought up the rear, sniffing and listening for anything wrong.

The people who had once dwelled within these lands had not met easy or pleasant ends. She could feel their pain even now, whispering through the stones, rippling through the water. That marsh beast that had snuck up on her last night was the mildest of the horrors here. At her side, Dorian Havilliard’s tense tan face seemed to suggest he felt the same.

Manon waded waist-deep through a pool of warm, thick water and asked, if only to get it out of where it rattled in her skull, “How will she use the keys to banish Erawan and his Valg? Or, for that matter, get rid of the things he’s created that aren’t of his original realm, but are some hybrid?”

Sapphire eyes slid toward her. “What?”

“Is there a way of weeding out who belongs and who doesn’t? Or will all those with Valg blood”—she put a hand on her sodden chest—“be sent into that realm of darkness and cold?”

Dorian’s teeth gleamed as he clenched them. “I don’t know,” he admitted, watching Aelin nimbly hop over a stone. “If she does, I assume she’ll tell us when it’s most convenient for her.”

And the least convenient for them, he didn’t need to add.

“And she gets to decide, I suppose? Who stays and who goes.”

“Banishing people to live with the Valg isn’t something Aelin would willingly do.”

“But she does decide, ultimately.”

Dorian paused atop a little hill. “Whoever holds those keys gets to decide. And you’d better pray to whatever wicked gods you worship that it’s Aelin holding them in the end.”

“What about you?”

“Why should I wish to go anywhere near those things?”

“You’re as powerful as she is. You could wield them. Why not?”

The others were swiftly pulling ahead, but Dorian remained still. Even had the audacity to grip her wrist—hard. “Why not?” There was such unyielding coldness in that beautiful face. She couldn’t turn away from it. A hot, humid breeze shoved past, dragging her hair with it. The wind didn’t touch him, didn’t ruffle one raven-dark hair on his head. A shield—he was shielding himself. Against her, or whatever was in this swamp? He said softly, “Because I was the one who did it.”

She waited.

His sapphire eyes were chips of ice. “I killed my father. I shattered the castle. I purged my own court. So if I had the keys, Wing Leader,” he finished as he released her wrist, “I have no doubt that I would do the same once more—across this continent.”

“Why?” she breathed, her blood chilling.

She was indeed a bit terrified of the icy rage rippling from him as Dorian said, “Because she died. And even before she did, this world saw to it that she suffered, and was afraid, and alone. And even though no one will remember who she was, I do. I will never forget the color of her eyes, or the way she smiled. And I will never forgive them for taking it away.”

Too breakable—he’d said of human women. No wonder he’d come to


Manon had no answer, and she knew he wasn’t looking for one, but she

said anyway, “Good.”

She ignored the glimmer of relief that flashed across his face as she moved ahead.



Rowan’s calculations hadn’t been wrong: they reached the Lock by midday. Aelin supposed that even if Rowan hadn’t scouted ahead, it would have been obvious from the moment they beheld the waterlogged, labyrinthine complex of wrecked pillars that the Lock likely lay in the half-crumbling stone dome in its center. Mostly because everything—every choking weed and drop of water—seemed to be leaning away from it. Like the complex

was the dark, rippling heartbeat of the marshes.

Rowan shifted as he landed before where they had all gathered on a grassy, dry bit of land on the outskirts of the sprawling complex, not even missing a step as he walked to her side. She tried not to look too relieved as he safely returned.

She really tortured them, she realized, by shoving her way into danger whenever she felt like it. Perhaps she’d try to be better about it, if this dread was at all like what they felt.

“This whole place is too quiet,” Rowan said. “I probed the area, but … nothing.”

Aedion drew the Sword of Orynth from across his back. “We’ll circle the perimeter, making smaller passes until we get up to the building itself. No surprises.”

Lysandra stepped back from them, bracing for the shift. “I’ll take the water—if you hear two roars, get to higher ground. One quick roar, and it’s clear.”

Aelin nodded in confirmation and order to go ahead. By the time Aedion had strode for the outer wall of the complex, Lysandra had slipped into the water, all scales and talons.

Rowan jerked his chin to Gavriel and Fenrys. Both males silently shifted and then trotted ahead, the latter joining Aedion, the former in the opposite direction.

Rowan kept to Aelin’s side, Dorian and the witch at her back, as they waited for the all clear.

When Lysandra’s solitary, swift roar cleaved the air, Aelin murmured to Rowan, “What’s the catch? Where is the catch? It’s too easy.” Indeed, there was nothing and no one here. No threat beyond what might be rotting away in the pits and sinkholes.

“Believe me, I’ve been considering it.”

She could almost feel him sliding into that frozen, raging place—where born instinct and centuries of training had him seeing the world as a killing field, and willing to do anything to eradicate any threats to her. Not just his Fae nature—but Rowan’s nature. To protect, to shield, to fight for what and who he loved.

Aelin stepped close and kissed him on the neck. Those pine-green eyes warmed slightly as they shifted from the ruin to scan her face.

“When we get back to civilization,” he said, his voice deepening as he kissed her cheek, her ear, her brow, “I’m going to find you the nicest inn on the whole gods-damned continent.”

“Oh?” He kissed her mouth. Once, twice.

“With good food, a disgustingly comfortable bed, and a big bathtub.”

Even in the marshes, it was easy to become drunk on him, on the taste and smell and sound and feel of him. “How big?” she murmured, not caring what the others thought as they returned.

“Big enough for two,” he said onto her lips.

Her blood turned sparkling at the promise. She kissed him once— briefly but deeply. “I have no defenses against such offers. Especially those made by such a pretty male.”

He scowled at pretty, nipping at her ear with his canines. “I keep a tally, you know, Princess. To remind myself to repay you the next time we’re alone for all the truly wonderful things you say.”

Her toes curled in her soggy boots. But she patted him on the shoulder, looking him over with absolute irreverence, saying as she walked ahead, “I certainly hope you make me beg for it.”

His answering growl from behind made heat bloom in her core.

The feeling lasted for about a minute, however. Within a few turns into the maze of crumbling walls and pillars, leaving Dorian to guard the entrance and Rowan slipping ahead, Aelin found herself beside the witch— who looked more bored than anything. Fair enough. She’d been dragged here, after all.

Wading as quietly as they could into the towering archways and pillars of stone, Rowan signaled from a crossroads ahead. They were getting close.

Aelin unsheathed Goldryn, Manon drawing her own sword in answer.

Aelin lifted her brows as she glanced between their two blades. “What’s your sword called?”


Aelin clicked her tongue. “Good name.” “Yours?”


A slash of iron teeth as they were bared in a half smile. “Not as good a name.”

“Blame my ancestor.” She certainly did. For many, many things.

They reached a crossroads—one leading left, one right. Neither offering a hint of the direct path to the center of the ruin.

Rowan said to Manon, “You go left. Whistle if you find anything.”

Manon stalked off among the stones and water and reeds, shoulders tight enough to suggest she hadn’t appreciated the order, but she wasn’t dumb enough to tangle with him.

Aelin smiled a bit at the thought as she and Rowan continued on. Running her free palm over the carved walls they passed, she said casually, “That sunrise Mala appeared to you—what, exactly, did she say?”

He slashed a glance in her direction. “Why?”

Her heart turned thunderous, and maybe it made her a coward to say it now—

Rowan gripped her elbow as he read her body, scented her fear and pain. “Aelin.”

She braced herself, nothing but stone and water and bramble around them, and turned a corner.

And there it was.

Even Rowan forgot to demand an answer to what she’d been about to tell him as they surveyed the open space flanked by crumbling walls and punctuated by fallen pillars. And at its northern end … “Big surprise,” Aelin muttered. “There’s an altar.”

“It’s a chest,” Rowan corrected with a half smile. “It’s got a lid.”

“Even better,” she said, nudging him with an elbow. Yes—yes, she’d tell him later.

The water separating them from the chest was still and silver bright— too murky to see if there was a bottom at all beyond the steps up to the dais. Aelin reached for her water magic, hoping it’d whisper of what lay beneath that surface, but her flames were burning too loudly.

Splashing issued across the way, and Manon appeared around an opposite wall. Her focus went to the enormous stone chest at the rear of the space, the stone cracked and overflowing with weeds and vines. She began easing across the water, one step at a time.

Aelin said, “Don’t touch the chest.”

Manon just gave her a long look and kept heading for the dais.

Trying not to slip on the slick floor, Aelin crossed the space, sloshing water over the dais steps as she mounted them, Rowan close behind.

Manon leaned over the chest to study the lid but did not open it.

Studying, Aelin realized, the countless Wyrdmarks carved into the stone.

Nehemia had known how to use the marks. Had been taught them and was fluent enough in them to have wielded their power. Aelin had never asked how or why or when.

But here were Wyrdmarks, deep within Eyllwe.

Aelin stepped up to Manon, examining the lid more closely. “Do you know what those are?”

Manon brushed back her long white hair. “I’ve never seen such markings.”

Aelin examined a few, her memory straining for the translation. “Some of these aren’t symbols I’ve encountered before. Some are.” She scratched her head. “Should we throw a rock at it—see what it does?” she asked, twisting to where Rowan peered over her shoulder.

But a hollow throb of air pulsed around them, silencing the incessant buzz of the marshes’ inhabitants. And it was that utter silence, the bark of surprise from Fenrys, that had Aelin and Manon shifting into flanking, defensive positions. As if they’d done this a hundred times before.

But Rowan had gone still as he scanned the gray skies, the ruins, the water.

“What is it?” Aelin breathed.

Before her prince could answer, Aelin felt it again. A pulsing, dark wind demanding their attention. Not the Valg. No, this darkness was born of something else.

“Lorcan,” Rowan breathed, a hand on his sword—but not drawing it.

“Is that his magic?” Aelin shuddered as that death-kissed wind shoved at her. She batted it away as if it were a gnat. It snapped at her in answer.

“It’s his warning signal,” Rowan murmured. “For what?” Manon asked sharply.

Rowan was instantly moving, scaling the high walls with ease, even as stone crumbled away. He balanced on its top, surveying the land on the other side of the wall.

Then he smoothly climbed back down, his splash as he landed echoing off the stones.

Lysandra slithered around a cluster of weeds and halted with a swift thrust of her scaled tail as Rowan said too calmly, “There is an aerial legion approaching.”

Manon breathed, “Ironteeth?”

“No,” Rowan said, meeting Aelin’s gaze with an icy steadiness that had seen him through centuries of battle. “Ilken.”

“How many?” Aelin’s voice turned distant—hollow.

Rowan’s throat bobbed, and she knew he’d been taking in the horizon and surrounding lands not for any chance of winning the battle that was sure to come, but for any shot at getting her out. Even if the rest of them had to buy her time with their own lives.

“Five hundred.”

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