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Chapter no 79

Empire of Storms

Lorcan’s breath singed his throat with every inhalation, but he kept running through the marshes, Elide laboring beside him, never complaining, only scanning the skies with wide, dark eyes.

Lorcan sent out another flickering blast of his power. Not toward the winged army that raced not too far ahead, but farther—toward wherever Whitethorn and his bitch-queen might be in this festering place. If those ilken reached them long before Lorcan could arrive, that Wyrdkey the bitch carried would be as good as lost. And Elide … He shut out the thoughts.

The ilken flew hard and fast, heading toward what had to be the heart of the marshes. What the hell had brought the queen out here?

Elide flagged, and Lorcan gripped her under an elbow to keep her upright as she stumbled over a bit of pockmarked stone. Faster. If the ilken caught them unawares, if they stole his revenge and that key …

Lorcan sent out burst after burst of his power in every direction.

Keys aside, he didn’t want to see the look on Elide’s face if the ilken got there first. And they found whatever was left of the fire-breather and her court.

 

 

There was nowhere to go.

In the heart of this festering plain, there was nowhere to run, or hide.

Erawan had tracked them here. Had sent five hundred ilken to retrieve them. If the ilken had found them on the sea and in this endless wasteland, they’d no doubt be able to find them if they tried hiding among the ruins.

They were all silent as they gathered on a grassy hill at the edge of the ruins, watching that black mass take form. Deep in the ruins behind them,

the chest still waited. Untouched.

Aelin knew the Lock couldn’t help—other than to waste their time by opening its container. Brannon could get in line to complain.

And Lorcan … somewhere out there. She’d think on that later. At least Fenrys and Gavriel had remained, rather than charging off to fulfill Maeve’s kill order.

Rowan said, eyes pinned on those swift, leathery wings far on the horizon, “We’ll use the ruin to our advantage. Force them to bottleneck in key areas.” Like a cloud of locusts, the ilken blocked out the clouds, the light, the sky. A dull, glazed sort of calm swept over Aelin.

Eight against five hundred.

Fenrys quickly tied back his golden hair. “We divide it up, take them out. Before they can get close enough. While they’re still in the air.” He tapped his foot on the ground, rolling his shoulders—as if shaking off the grip of that blood oath roaring at him to hunt down Lorcan.

Aelin rasped, “There’s another way.” “No,” was Rowan’s response.

She swallowed hard and lifted her chin. “There is nothing and no one out here. The risk of using that key would be minimal—”

Rowan’s teeth flashed as he snarled, “No, and that’s final.” Aelin said too quietly, “You don’t give me orders.”

She saw as much as she felt Rowan’s temper rise with dizzying speed. “You will have to pry that key out of my cold, dead hands.”

He meant it, too—he’d make her kill him before he let her use the key in any capacity beyond wielding the Lock.

Aedion let out a low, bitter laugh. “You wanted to send a message to our enemies about your power, Aelin.” Closer and closer that army came, and Rowan’s ice and wind licked at her as he tunneled down into his magic. Aedion jerked his chin toward the army approaching. “It seems Erawan sent his answer.”

Aelin hissed, “You blame me for this?”

Aedion’s eyes darkened. “We should have stayed in the North.” “I had no choice, I’ll have you remember.”

“You did,” Aedion breathed, none of the others, not even Rowan, stepping in. “You’ve had a choice all along, and you opted to flash your magic around.”

Aelin knew very well that her eyes were now flickering with flames as she took a step toward him. “So I guess the ‘you’re perfect’ stage is over, then.”

Aedion’s lip curled off his teeth. “This isn’t a game. This is war, and you pushed and pushed Erawan to show his hand. You refused to run your schemes by us first, to let us weigh in, when we have fought wars—”

“Don’t you dare pin this on me.” Aelin peered inside herself—to the power there. Down and down it went, to that pit of eternal fire.

“This isn’t the time,” Gavriel offered.

Aedion threw out a hand in his direction, a silent, vicious order for the Lion to shut his mouth. “Where are our allies, Aelin? Where are our armies? All we have to show for our efforts is a Pirate Lord who might very well change his mind if he hears about this from the wrong lips.”

She held in the words. Time. She had needed time

“If we’re going to stand a chance,” Rowan said, “we need to get into position.”

Embers sparked at her fingertips. “We do it together.” She tried not to look offended at their raised brows, their slightly gaping mouths. “Magic might not last against them. But steel will.” She jerked her chin at Rowan, at Aedion. “Plan it.”

So they did. Rowan stepped to her side, a hand on her lower back. The only comfort he’d show—when he knew, they both knew, it hadn’t been his argument to win. He said to the Fae males, “How many arrows?”

“Ten quivers, fully stocked,” Gavriel said, eyeing Aedion as he removed the Sword of Orynth from his back and rebuckled it at his side.

Returned to her human form, Lysandra had drifted to the edge of the bank, back stiff as the ilken gathered on the horizon.

Aelin left the males to sort out their positions and slipped up beside her friend. “You don’t have to fight. You can stay with Manon—guard the other direction.”

Indeed, Manon was already scaling one of the ruin walls, a quiver with unnervingly few arrows slung over her back beside Wind-Cleaver. Aedion had ordered her to scout the other direction for any nasty surprises. The witch had looked ready to debate—until she seemed to realize that, on this battlefield at least, she was not the apex predator.

Lysandra loosely braided her black hair, her golden skin sallow. “I don’t know how they have done this so many times. For centuries.”

“Honestly, I don’t know, either,” Aelin said, glancing over a shoulder at the Fae males now analyzing the layout of the marshes, the flow of the wind, whatever else to use to their advantage.

Lysandra rubbed at her face, then squared her shoulders. “The marsh beasts are easily enraged. Like someone I know.” Aelin jabbed the shifter with an elbow, and Lysandra snorted, even with the army ahead. “I can rile them up—threaten their nests. So that if the ilken land …”

“They won’t just have us to deal with.” Aelin gave her a grim smile.

But Lysandra’s skin was still pale, her breathing a bit shallow. Aelin threaded her fingers through the shifter’s and squeezed tightly.

Lysandra squeezed back once before letting go to shift, murmuring, “I’ll signal when I’m done.”

Aelin just nodded, lingering on the bank for a moment to watch the long-legged white bird flap across the marsh—toward that building darkness.

She turned back to the others in time to see Rowan jerk his chin to Aedion, Gavriel, and Fenrys. “You three herd them—to us.”

“And you lot?” Aedion said, sizing up her, Rowan, and Dorian. “I get the first shot,” Aelin said, flames dancing in her eyes.

Rowan inclined his head. “My lady wants the first shot. She gets the first shot. And when they’re scattering in a blind panic, we come in.”

Aedion gave her a long look. “Don’t miss this time.” “Asshole,” she snapped.

Aedion’s smile didn’t reach his eyes as he strode to fetch extra weapons from their packs, grabbing a quiver of arrows in either hand, slinging one of the longbows across his broad back along with his shield. Manon had already stationed herself atop the wall behind them, grunting as she strung Aedion’s other bow.

Rowan was saying to Dorian, “Short bursts. Find your targets—the center of groups—and use only what magic is necessary. Don’t waste it all at once. Aim for the heads, if you can.”

“What about once they start landing?” Dorian asked, sizing up the terrain.

“Shield yourself, attack when you can. Keep the wall to your back at all times.”

“I won’t be his prisoner again.”

Aelin tried to shut out what he’d meant by it.

But Manon said from the wall above them, an arrow now nocked loosely in her bow, “If it comes to that, princeling, I’ll kill you before they can.”

Aelin hissed, “You will do no such thing.”

Both of them ignored her as Dorian said, “Thank you.”

None of you are being taken prisoner,” Aelin growled, and walked away.

And there would be no second or third shots. Only the first shot. Only her shot.

Perhaps it was time to see how deep that new well of power went. What lived inside it.

Perhaps it was time for Morath to learn to scream.

Aelin stepped up to the water’s edge, then leaped onto the next island of grass and stone. Rowan silently came up beside her, meeting her pace for pace. It wasn’t until they reached the next hill that he angled his face toward her, his golden skin stretched taut, his eyes as cold as her own.

Only that anger was directed at her—perhaps more livid than she’d seen him since Mistward. She bared her teeth in a feral, grim smile. “I know, I know. Just add suggesting to use the Wyrdkey to that tally of all the horrible things I do and say.”

Leathery, massive wings beat the air, and shrieking cries at last began to trickle toward them. Her knees quaked, but she clamped down on the fear, knowing he could scent it, knowing the others could, too.

So she willed herself to take another step onto the sodden, reed-laden plain—toward that ilken army. They’d be upon them in minutes—less, maybe.

And horrible, miserable Lorcan had bought them that extra time.

Wherever the bastard was.

Rowan didn’t object as she took another step, then another. She had to put distance between them all—had to make sure that every last ember was capable of reaching that army and that she didn’t waste her strength by traveling far to do so.

Which meant striding out into the marshes alone. To wait for those things to be close enough to see their teeth. They had to know who now marched through the reeds toward them. What she’d do to them.

But still the ilken charged.

In the distance, far to the right, marsh creatures began to roar—no doubt in Lysandra’s wake. She prayed the beasts were hungry. And that they didn’t mind Morath-bred meat.

“Aelin.” Rowan’s voice cut across water and plant and wind. She paused, looking over a shoulder at where he now stood on the sandbank, as if it’d been impossible not to follow her.

The strong, unyielding bones of his face were set with that warrior’s brutality. But his pine-green eyes were bright—almost soft—as he said, “Remember who you are. Every step of the way down, and every step of the way back. Remember who you are. And that you’re mine.”

She thought of the new, delicate scars on his back—marks from her own nails, that he’d refused to heal with his magic, and instead had set with seawater, the salt locking the scars into place before the immortal body could smooth it over. Her claiming marks, he’d breathed into her mouth the last time he’d been inside her. So he and anyone who saw them would know that he belonged to her. That he was hers, just as she was his.

And because he was hers, because they were all hers … Aelin turned away from him and sprinted across the plain.

With every step toward the army whose wings she could just make out, she watched for those beasts Lysandra riled, even as she began a swift, deadly descent into the core of her magic.

She had been hovering around the middle ledge of her power for days now, one eye on the churning, molten abyss far below. Rowan knew. Fenrys and Gavriel, definitely. Shielding them, drying their clothes, killing the insects that plagued them … all little ways to relieve the strain, to keep herself steady, to grow accustomed to its depth and pressure.

For the deeper she went into her power, the more her body, her mind, squeezed under the pressure of it. That was the burnout—when that pressure won, when the magic was drained too fast or too greedily, when it was spent and still the bearer tried to claw deeper than it should.

Aelin slammed to a stop in the heart of the plain. The ilken had spied her sprinting and now flapped toward her.

Unaware of the three males who crept far out, bows at the ready to push Erawan’s soldiers onto her flames.

If she could burn through their defenses. She’d have to drag up every bit of her power to incinerate them all. The true might of Aelin Fire-Bringer. Not an ember less.

So Aelin abandoned every trapping of civilization, of conscience and rules and humanity, and plummeted into her fire.

She flew for that flaming abyss, only distantly aware of the humidity lying thick on her skin, of the pressure building in her head.

She’d shoot straight down—and push off the bottom, bringing all that power with her to the surface. The drag would be enormous. And it would be the test, the true test, of control and strength. Easy—so easy to spear into the heart of fire and ash. The hard part was bringing it up; that was when the cracking would occur.

Deeper and deeper, Aelin shot into her power. Through distant, mortal eyes, she noted the ilken sweeping closer. A mercy—if they had once been human, perhaps obliterating them would be a mercy.

Aelin knew she’d reached the former edge of her power thanks to warning bells in her blood that pealed in her wake. That pealed as she launched herself into the burning depths of hell.

The Queen of Flame and Shadow, the Heir of Fire, Aelin of the Wildfire, Fireheart …

She burned through each title, even as she became them, became what those foreign ambassadors had hissed when they reported on a child-queen’s growing, unstable power in Terrasen. A promise that had been whispered into the blackness.

The pressure began to build in her head, in her veins.

Far behind, safely out of her range, she felt the flickers of Rowan’s and Dorian’s magic as they rallied the blasts that would answer her own.

Aelin soared into the uncharted core of her power. The inferno went on and on.

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