Manon Blackbeak stood at attention by one end of the long, dark bridge into Morath and watched her grandmother’s coven descend from the gray clouds.
Even with the plumes and pillars of smoke from the countless forges, the High Witch of the Blackbeak Witch-Clan’s voluminous obsidian robes were unmistakable. No other dressed as the Matron did. Her coven swept from the heavy cloud cover, keeping a respectful distance from the Matron and the extra rider flanking her massive bull.
Manon, her Thirteen in rank behind her, made no movement as the wyverns and their riders landed on the dark stones of the courtyard across the bridge. Far below, the rushing of a filthy, ruined river roared, vying with the scrape of talons on stone and the rustle of settling wings.
Her grandmother had come to Morath.
Or what was left of it, when one-third was nothing more than rubble.
Asterin hissed in a breath as Manon’s grandmother dismounted in a smooth movement, scowling at the black fortress looming above Manon and her Thirteen. Duke Perrington was already waiting in his council chamber, and Manon had no doubt his pet, Lord Vernon, would do his best to undermine and shake her at every turn. If Vernon were to make a move to be rid of Manon, it would be now—when her grandmother was seeing for herself what Manon had accomplished.
And failed to do.
Manon kept her back straight as her grandmother strode across the broad stone bridge, her steps drowned out by the rush of the river, the beat of distant wings, and those forges working day and night to equip their army. When she could see the white in her grandmother’s eyes, Manon bowed.
The creak of flying leathers told her the Thirteen had followed suit. When Manon lifted her head, her grandmother was before her.
Death, cruel and cunning, waited in that gold-flecked onyx stare. “Take me to the duke,” the Matron said by way of greeting.
Manon felt her Thirteen stiffen. Not at the words, but at the High Witch’s coven now following on her heels. Rare—so rare for them to track her, guard her.
But this was a citadel of men—and demons. And this would be an extended stay, if not permanent, judging by the fact that her grandmother had brought along the beautiful, dark-haired young witch currently warming her bed. The Matron would be a fool not to take extra protection. Even if the Thirteen had always been enough. Should have been enough.
It was an effort not to flick out her iron nails at the imagined threat.
Manon bowed again and turned in to the towering, open doors to Morath. The Thirteen parted for Manon and the Matron as they passed, then closed ranks like a lethal veil. No chances—not when the heir and the Matron were concerned.
Manon’s steps were near-silent as she led her grandmother through the dark halls, the Thirteen and the Matron’s coven trailing close. The servants, through either spying or some human instinct, were nowhere to be found.
The Matron spoke as they ascended the first of many spiral stairwells toward the duke’s new council chamber. “Anything to report?”
“No, Grandmother.” Manon avoided the urge to glance sidelong at the witch—at the silver-streaked dark hair, the pale features carved with ancient hate, the rusted teeth on permanent display.
The face of the High Witch who had branded Manon’s Second. Who had cast Asterin’s stillborn witchling into the fire, denying her the right to hold her once. Who had then beaten and broken her Second, thrown her into the snow to die, and lied to Manon about it for nearly a century.
Manon wondered what thoughts now churned through Asterin’s head as they walked. Wondered what went through the heads of Sorrel and Vesta, who had found Asterin in the snow. Then healed her.
And never told Manon about it, either.
Her grandmother’s creature—that’s what Manon was. It had never seemed like a hateful thing.
“Did you discover who caused the explosion?” The Matron’s robes swirled behind her as they entered the long, narrow hallway toward the duke’s council chamber.
Those gold-flecked black eyes snapped to her. “How convenient, Wing Leader, that you complain about the duke’s breeding experiments—only for the Yellowlegs to be incinerated days later.”
Good riddance, Manon almost said. Despite the covens lost in the blast, good rutting riddance that the breeding of those Yellowlegs-Valg witchlings had stopped. But Manon felt, rather than saw or heard, her Thirteen’s attention fix on her grandmother’s back.
And perhaps something like fear went through Manon.
At the Matron’s accusation—and the line her Thirteen were drawing.
Had drawn for some time now.
Defiance. That’s what it had been these past months. If the High Witch learned of it, she’d tie Manon to a post and whip her back until her skin was hanging in strips. She’d make the Thirteen watch, to prove their powerlessness to defend their heir, and then give them the same treatment. Perhaps chucking salted water on them when she was done. Then do it again, day after day.
Manon said coolly, “I heard a rumor it was the duke’s pet—that human woman. But as she was incinerated in the blaze, no one can confirm. I didn’t want to waste your time with gossip and theories.”
“She was leashed to him.”
“It would seem her shadowfire was not.” Shadowfire—the mighty power that would have melted their enemies within heartbeats when combined with the mirror-lined witch towers the three Matrons had been building in the Ferian Gap. But with Kaltain gone … so was the threat of pure annihilation.
Even if the duke would suffer no other master now that his king was dead. He’d rejected the Crown Prince’s claim to the throne.
Her grandmother said nothing as they continued onward.
The other piece on the board—the sapphire-eyed prince who had once been in thrall to a Valg prince himself. Now free. And allied with that golden-haired young queen.
They reached the council room doors, and Manon wiped all thoughts from her head as the blank-faced guards opened the black rock for them.
Manon’s senses honed to a killing calm the moment she laid eyes on the ebony glass table and who stood at it.
Vernon: tall, lanky, ever-smirking, clad in Terrasen green. And a golden-haired man, his skin pale as ivory.
No sign of the duke. The stranger twisted toward them. Even her grandmother gave pause.
Not at the man’s beauty, not at the strength in his sculpted body or the fine black clothes he wore. But at those gold eyes. Twin to Manon’s.
The eyes of the Valg kings.
Manon assessed the exits, the windows, the weapons she would use when they fought their way out. Instinct had her stepping in front of her grandmother; training had her palming two knives before the golden-eyed man could blink.
But the man fixed those Valg eyes on her. He smiled.
“Wing Leader.” He looked to her grandmother and inclined his head. “Matron.”
The voice was carnal and lovely and cruel. But the tone, the demand in it …
Something in Vernon’s smirk now seemed too strained, his tan skin too pale.
“Who are you,” Manon said to the stranger, more an order than a question.
The man jerked his chin toward the unclaimed seats at the table. “You know perfectly well who I am, Manon Blackbeak.”
Perrington. In another body, somehow. Because…
Because that otherworldly, foul thing she had sometimes glimpsed staring out through his eyes … Here it was, given flesh.
The Matron’s tight face told her she’d already guessed.
“I grew tired of wearing that sagging meat,” he said, sliding with feline grace into the chair beside Vernon. A wave of long, powerful fingers. “My
enemies know who I am. My allies might as well, too.”
Vernon bowed his head and murmured, “My Lord Erawan, if it would please you, allow me to fetch the Matron refreshments. Her journey has been long.”
Manon assessed the tall, reedy man. Two gifts he had offered them: respect to her grandmother, and the knowledge of the duke’s true name. Erawan.
She wondered what Ghislaine, on guard in the hall beyond, knew of him.
The Valg king nodded his approval. The Lord of Perranth hustled to the small buffet table against the wall, grabbing a ewer as Manon and the Matron slid into the seats across from the demon king.
Respect—something Vernon had not once offered without a mocking grin. But now…
Perhaps now that the Lord of Perranth realized what manner of monster held his leash, he was desperate for allies. Knew, perhaps, that Manon … that Manon might have indeed been part of that explosion.
Manon accepted the carved-horn cups of water Vernon set before them but did not drink. Neither did her grandmother.
Across the table, Erawan smiled faintly. No darkness, no corruption leaked from him—as if he were powerful enough to keep it contained, unnoticed, save for those eyes. Her eyes.
Behind them, the rest of the Thirteen and her grandmother’s coven remained in the hall, only their Seconds lingering in the room as the doors were sealed again.
Trapping them all with the Valg king.
“So,” Erawan said, looking them over in a way that had Manon clamping her lips to keep from baring her teeth, “are the forces at the Ferian Gap prepared?”
Her grandmother yielded a short dip of her chin. “They move at sundown. They’ll be in Rifthold two days after that.”
Manon didn’t dare shift in her seat. “You’re sending the host to Rifthold?”
The demon king flashed her a narrowed glance. “I am sending you to Rifthold, to take back my city. When you have finished your task, the
Ferian legion will be stationed there under the command of Iskra Yellowlegs.”
To Rifthold. To finally, finally fight, to see what their wyverns could do in battle— “Do they suspect the attack?”
A lifeless smile. “Our forces will move too swiftly for word to reach them.” No doubt why this information had been contained until now.
Manon tapped a foot on the slate floor, already itching to move, to command the others in preparations. “How many of the Morath covens do I bring northward?”
“Iskra flies with the second half of our aerial legion. I would think that only a few covens from Morath would be necessary.” A challenge—and a test.
Manon considered. “I fly with my Thirteen and two escort covens.” No need for their enemies to get a good count on how many covens flew in the aerial legion—or for the entirety to go when she’d bet good money that even the Thirteen would be enough to sack the capital.
Erawan just inclined his head in agreement. Her grandmother gave her a barely perceptible nod—as close to approval as she’d ever get.
But Manon asked, “What of the prince?” King. King Dorian.
Her grandmother shot her a look, but the demon said, “I want you to personally bring him to me. If he survives the attack.”
And with the fiery queen now gone, Dorian Havilliard and his city were defenseless.
It mattered little to her. It was war.
Fight this war, and go home to the Wastes at the end of it. Even if this man, this demon king, might very well renege on his word.
She’d deal with that later. But first … open battle. She could already hear its wild song in her blood.
The demon king and her grandmother were speaking again, and Manon cleared away the melody of clashing shields and sparking swords long enough to process their words.
“Once the capital is secured, I want those boats on the Avery.”
“The men of the Silver Lake have agreed?” Her grandmother studied the map weighted to the glass table by smooth stones. Manon followed the Matron’s stare to the Silver Lake, at the other end of the Avery, and to its city, nestled against the White Fangs: Anielle.
Perrington—Erawan—shrugged his broad shoulders. “Its lord has not yet declared allegiance to me or the boy-king. I suspect when word reaches him of Rifthold’s demise, we will find his messengers groveling on our doorstep.” A flicker of a smile. “Their Keep along the Western Falls of the lake still bears scars from the last time my armies marched. I have seen the countless monuments in Anielle to that war—its lord will know how easily I can again turn his city into a charnel house.”
Manon studied the map again, shutting out the questions.
Old. The Valg king was so old as to make her feel young. To make her grandmother look like a child, too.
Fool—perhaps her grandmother had been a fool to sell them into an unwitting alliance with this creature. She made herself meet Erawan’s stare. “With strongholds in Morath, Rifthold, and Anielle, that only covers the southern half of Adarlan. What of north of the Ferian Gap? Or south of Adarlan?”
“Bellhaven remains under my control—its lords and merchants love their gold too much. Melisande…” The demon king’s golden eyes fixed on the western country across the mountains. “Eyllwe lies shattered beneath her, Fenharrow in barren shambles to the east. It remains in Melisande’s best interest to continue allying her forces with my own, especially when Terrasen hasn’t a copper to its name.” The king’s stare roamed northward. “Aelin Galathynius will have reached her seat by now. And when Rifthold is gone, she will also find how very alone she is in the North. Brannon’s heir has no allies on this continent. Not anymore.”
But Manon noted the way the demon king’s eyes darted to Eyllwe—just for a flicker.
She looked to her grandmother, silent yet watching Manon with an expression that promised death if she pushed too far. But Manon said to Erawan, “Your capital is the heart of your commerce. If I unleash my legion upon it, you will have few human allies—”
“Last I looked, Manon Blackbeak, it was my legion.”
Manon held Erawan’s burning gaze, even as it stripped her bare. “Turn Rifthold into a complete ruin,” she said flatly, “and rulers like the Lord of Anielle or the Queen of Melisande or the Lords of Fenharrow might very well find it worth the risk to rally against you. If you wreck your own capital, why should they believe your claims of alliance? Send a decree
ahead of us that the king, the queen are enemies to the continent. Establish us as liberators of Rifthold, not conquerors, and you will have the other rulers thinking twice before allying with Terrasen. I will sack the city for you enough to display our might—but keep the Ironteeth host from leaving it in rubble.”
Those gold eyes narrowed with consideration.
She knew her grandmother was one more word away from gouging her nails down Manon’s cheek, but she kept her shoulders back. She didn’t care about the city, its people. But this war could indeed turn against them if the annihilation of Rifthold united their scattered enemies. And delay the Blackbeaks that much more from returning to the Wastes.
Vernon’s eyes flicked to meet hers. Fear—and calculation. He murmured to Erawan, “The Wing Leader has a point, milord.” What did Vernon know that she didn’t?
But Erawan angled his head, his golden hair sliding across his brow. “That is why you are my Wing Leader, Manon Blackbeak, and why Iskra Yellowlegs did not win the position.”
Disgust and pride warred in her, but she nodded. “One more thing.”
She remained still, waiting.
The demon king lounged in his seat. “There is a glass wall in Rifthold. Impossible to miss.” She knew it—had perched atop it. “Damage the city enough to instill fear, show our power. But that wall … Bring it down.”
She only said, “Why?”
Those golden eyes simmered like hot coals. “Because destroying a symbol can break the spirits of men as much as bloodshed.”
That glass wall—Aelin Galathynius’s power. And mercy. Manon held that gaze long enough to nod. The king jerked his chin toward the shut doors in silent dismissal.
Manon was out of the room before he’d turned back to Vernon. It did not occur to her until she was long gone that she should have remained to protect the Matron.
The Thirteen did not speak until they had landed at their personal armory in the army camp below, had not even risked it while saddling their wyverns in the new aerie.
Sweeping through the smoke and gloom that always wreathed Morath, the two escort covens Manon had selected—both Blackbeaks—steered for their own armories. Good.
Now standing in the mud of the valley floor outside the cobbled-together labyrinth of forges and tents, Manon said to her assembled Thirteen, “We fly in thirty minutes.” Behind them, blacksmiths and handlers were already rushing to haul armor onto the chained-down wyverns.
If they were smart, or fast, they wouldn’t wind up between those jaws.
Already, Asterin’s sky-blue mare was sizing up the man closest to her.
Manon was half tempted to see if she’d take a bite out of him, but she said to her coven, “If we are lucky, we will arrive before Iskra and set the tone for how the sacking unfolds. If we are not, we seek out Iskra and her coven upon arriving and staunch the slaughter. Leave the prince to me.” She didn’t dare look at Asterin as she said it. “I have no doubt the Yellowlegs will try to claim his head. Stop any one of them who dares take it.”
And perhaps put an end to Iskra as well. Accidents happened all the time in battle.
The Thirteen bowed their heads in acquiescence. Manon jerked her head over a shoulder, to the armory under the shoddy canvas tents. “Full armor.” She gave them a slashing grin. “We don’t want to make our grand appearance looking anything but our best.”
Twelve matching grins met hers, and they peeled away, heading toward the tables and dummies where their armor had been carefully and meticulously built these past months.
Only Asterin remained at her side as Manon grabbed Ghislaine by an arm when the curly-haired sentinel strode past.
She murmured over the clank of forges and roar of wyverns, “Tell us what you know of Erawan.” Ghislaine opened her mouth, dark skin wan, and Manon snapped, “Concisely.”
Ghislaine swallowed hard, nodding as the rest of the Thirteen readied beyond them. The warrior-scholar whispered so only Manon and Asterin could hear. “He was one of the three Valg kings who invaded this world at
the dawn of time. The other two were either killed or sent back to their dark world. He was stranded here, with a small army. He fled to this continent after Maeve and Brannon squashed his forces, and spent a thousand years rebuilding his numbers in secret, deep beyond the White Fangs. When he was ready, when he noticed that King Brannon’s flame was dimming, Erawan launched his attack to claim this continent. Legend has it that he was defeated by Brannon’s own daughter and her human mate.”
Asterin snorted. “It would seem that legend is wrong.”
Manon released Ghislaine’s arm. “Get ready. Tell the others when you can.”
Ghislaine bowed her head and stalked into the arsenal.
Manon ignored Asterin’s narrow stare. Now was not the time for this conversation.
She found the mute blacksmith by his usual forge, sweat streaming down his soot-stained brow. But his eyes were solid, calm, as he pulled back the canvas tarp on his worktable to reveal her armor. Polished, ready.
The suit of dark metal had been fashioned like intricate wyvern scales. Manon ran a finger along the overlapping plates and lifted a gauntlet, perfectly formed to her own hand. “It’s beautiful.”
Horrible, yet beautiful. She wondered what he made of the fact that he’d forged this armor for her to wear while ending the lives of his countrymen. His ruddy face revealed nothing.
She stripped off her red cloak and began donning the armor bit by bit. It slid over her like a second skin, flexible and pliant where she needed it to be, unyielding where her life depended on it.
When she was done, the blacksmith looked her over and nodded, then reached below his table to place another object on its surface. For a heartbeat, Manon only stared at the crowned helmet.
It had been forged of the same dark metal, the nose and brow guards fashioned so that most of her face would be in shadow—save for her mouth. And her iron teeth. The six lances of the crown jutted upward like small swords.
A conqueror’s helm. A demon’s helm.
Manon felt the eyes of her Thirteen, now armed, upon her as she tucked her braid into the neck of her armor and lifted the helmet over her head.
It fitted easily, its interior cool against her hot skin. Even with the shadows that hid most of her face, she could see the blacksmith with perfect clarity as his chin dipped in approval.
She had no idea why she bothered, but Manon found herself saying, “Thank you.”
Another shallow nod was his only reply before she swept from his table.
Soldiers cowered from her storming path as she signaled to the Thirteen and mounted Abraxos, her wyvern preening in his new armor.
She didn’t look back at Morath as they took to the gray skies.