She was so tired.
The fortress was a hell of yelling and fighting and gore, but Rowan kept swinging his blades, holding his position at the tunnel mouth as soldier after soldier poured in. The scout leader, Bas, had let them in, Luca had told Rowan. The other demi-Fae who had conspired with Bas wanted the power the creatures offered—wanted a place in the world. From the devastation in the bleeding boy’s eyes, Rowan knew that Bas had already met his end. He hoped Luca hadn’t been the one to do it.
The soldiers kept coming, highly trained men who were not afraid of the demi-Fae, or of the little magic that they bore. They were armed with iron and did not differentiate between young and old, male and female, as they hacked and slaughtered.
Rowan was not drained, not in the least. He had fought for longer and in worse conditions. But the others were flagging, especially as soldiers continued flooding the fortress. Rowan yanked his sword from the gut of a falling soldier, dagger already slicing across the neck of the next, when growling shook the stones of the fortress. Some of the demi-Fae froze, but Rowan nearly shuddered with relief as twin wolves leapt down the staircase and closed their jaws around the necks of two Adarlanian soldiers.
Great wings flapped, and then a glowering, dark-eyed male was in front of him, swinging a sword older than the occupants of Mistward. Vaughan merely nodded at him before taking up a position, never one to waste words.
Beyond him, the wolves were nothing short of lethal, and did not bother to shift into their Fae forms as they took down soldier after soldier, leaving those that got through to the male waiting behind them. That was all Rowan had to see before he sprinted for the stairs, dodging the stunned and bloodied demi-Fae.
Darkness had not fallen, which meant she had to still be breathing, she had to still be holding the line, but—
A mountain cat skidded to a halt on the stairwell landing and shifted. Rowan took one look at Gavriel’s tawny eyes and said, “Where is she?”
Gavriel held out an arm. As if to stop him. “She’s in bad shape, Rowan. I think—”
Rowan ran, shoving aside his oldest friend, shouldering past the other towering male who now appeared—Lorcan. Even Lorcan had answered his call. The time for gratitude would come later, and the dark-haired demi-Fae didn’t say anything as Rowan rushed to the battlement gates. What he saw beyond almost drove him to his knees.
The wall of flame was in tatters, but still protecting the barrier. But the three creatures . . .
Aelin was standing in front of them, hunched and panting, sword limp in her hand. They advanced, and a feeble blue flame sprang up before them. They swiped it away with wave of their hands. Another flame sprang up, and her knees buckled.
The shield of flame surged and receded, pulsing like the light around her body. She was burning out. Why hadn’t she retreated?
Another step closer and the things said something that had her raising her head. Rowan knew he could not reach her, didn’t even have the breath to shout a warning as Aelin gazed into the face of the creature before her.
She had lied to him. She had wanted to save lives, yes. But she had gone out there with no intention of saving her own.
He drew in a breath—to run, to roar, to summon his power, but a wall of muscle slammed into him from behind, tackling him to the grass. Though Rowan shoved and twisted against Gavriel, he could do nothing against the four centuries of training and feline instinct that had pinned him, keeping him from running through those gates and into the blackness that destroyed worlds.
The creature took Aelin’s face in its hands, and her sword thudded to the ground, forgotten.
Rowan was screaming as the creature pulled her into its arms. As she stopped fighting. As her flames winked out and darkness swallowed her whole.
There was blood everywhere.
As before, Celaena stood between the two bloody beds, reeking breath caressing her ear, her neck, her spine. She could feel the Valg princes roving around her, circling with predators’ gaits, devouring her misery and pain bit by bit, tasting and savoring.
There was no way out, and she could not move as she looked from one bed to the other.
Nehemia’s corpse, mangled and mutilated. Because she had been too late, and because she had been a coward.
And her parents, throats slit from ear to ear, gray and lifeless. Dead from an attack they should have sensed. An attack she should have sensed. Maybe she had sensed it, and that was why she had crept in that night. But she had been too late then as well.
Two beds. Two fractures in her soul, cracks through which the abyss had come pouring in long before the Valg princes had ever seized her. A claw scraped along her neck and she jerked away, stumbling toward her parents’ corpses.
The moment that darkness had swept around her, snuffing out her exhausted flame, it began eating away at the reckless rage that had compelled her to step out of the barrier. Here in the dark, the silence was complete—eternal. She could feel the Valg slinking around her, hungry and eager and full of cold, ancient malice. She’d expected to have the life sucked from her instantly, but they had just stayed close in the dark, brushing up against her like cats, until a faint light had formed and she’d found herself between these two beds. She was unable to look away, unable to do anything but feel her nausea and panic rise bit by bit. And now . . . Now . . .
Though her body remained unmoving on the bed, Nehemia’s voice whispered, Coward.
Celaena vomited. A faint, hoarse laugh sounded behind her.
She backed up, farther and farther from the bed where Nehemia lay. Then she was standing in a sea of red—red and white and gray, and—
She now stood like a wraith in her parents’ bed, where she had lain ten years ago, awakening between their corpses to the servant woman’s screaming. It was those screams she could hear now, high and endless, and—Coward.
Celaena fell against the headboard, as real and smooth and cold as she remembered it. There was nowhere else for her to go. It was a memory—these were not real things.
She pressed her palms against the wood, fighting her building scream. Coward. Nehemia’s voice again filled the room. Celaena squeezed her eyes shut and said into the wall, “I know. I know.”
She did not fight as cold, claw-tipped fingers stroked at her cheeks, at her brow, at her shoulders. One of the claws severed clean through her long braid as it whipped her around. She did not fight as darkness swallowed her whole and dragged her down deep.
The darkness had no end and no beginning.
It was the abyss that had haunted her steps for ten years, and she free-fell into it, welcomed it.
There was no sound, only the vague sense of going toward a bottom that might not exist, or that might mean her true end. Maybe the Valg princes had devoured her, turning her into a husk. Maybe her soul was forever trapped here, in this plunging darkness.