heir of fire- Page 121

   A chill went down her spine, and even the wolves’ hackles ­rose. “But I killed them with my fire and light—”

   “How do you think Brannon won himself such glory and a kingdom? He was a discarded son of nobody, unclaimed by either parent. But Mala loved him fiercely, so his flames ­were sometimes all that held the Valg princes at bay until we could summon a force to push them back.”

   She opened to her mouth to ask the next question, but paused. Maeve ­wasn’t the sort to toss out random bits of information. So Celaena slowly asked, “Brannon ­wasn’t royal-­born?”

   Maeve cocked her head. “Didn’t anyone ever tell you what the mark on your brow means?”

   “I was told it was a sacred mark.”

   Maeve’s eyes danced with amusement. “Sacred only because of the bearer who established your kingdom. But before that, it was nothing. Brannon was born with the bastard’s mark—­the mark every unclaimed, unwanted child possessed, marking them as nameless, nobody. Each of Brannon’s heirs, despite their noble lineage, has since been graced with it—­the nameless mark.”

   And it had burned that day she’d dueled with Cain. Burned in front of the King of Adarlan. A shudder went down her spine. “Why did it glow when I dueled Cain, and when I faced the Valg princes?” She knew Maeve was well informed about the shadow-­creature that had lived inside Cain. Perhaps not a Valg prince, but something small enough to be contained by the Wyrdstone ring he’d worn instead of a collar. It had recognized Elena—­and it had said to both of them, You ­were brought ­here—­all of you ­were. All the players in the unfinished game.

   “Perhaps your blood merely recognized the presence of the Valg and was trying to tell you something. Perhaps it meant nothing.”

   She didn’t think so. Especially when the reek of the Valg had been in her parents’ bedroom the morning after they’d been murdered. Either the assassin had been possessed, or he’d known how to use their power to keep her parents unconscious while he slaughtered them. All bits of information ­to be pieced together later, when she was away from Maeve. If Maeve let her walk out of ­here.

   “Are fire and light the only way to kill the Valg princes?”

   “They are hard to kill, but not invincible,” Maeve admitted. “With the way the Adarlanian king compels them, cutting off their heads to sever the collar might do the trick. If you are to return to Adarlan, that will be the only way, I suspect.”

   Because in Adarlan, magic was still locked up by the king. If she faced one of the Valg princes again, she’d have to kill it by blade and wits. “If the king is indeed summoning the Valg to his armies, what can be done to stop them?”

   “The King of Adarlan, it seems, is doing what I never had the nerve to do while the keys ­were briefly in my possession. Without all three keys, he is limited. He can only open the portal between our worlds for short periods, long enough to let in perhaps one prince to infiltrate a body he has prepared. But with all three keys, he could open the portal at will—­he could summon all the Valg armies, to be led by the princes in their mortal bodies, and . . .” Maeve looked more intrigued than horrified. “And with all three keys, he might not need to rely on magically gifted hosts for the Valg. There are countless lesser spirits amongst the Valg, hungry for entrance to this world.”

   “He’d have to make countless collars for them, then.”

   “He would not need to, not with all three keys. His control would be absolute. And he would not need living hosts—­only bodies.”

   Celaena’s heart stumbled a beat, and Rowan tensed from his spot on the ground. “He could have an army of the dead, inhabited by the Valg.”

   “An army that does not need to eat or sleep or breathe—­an army that will sweep like a plague across your continent, and others. Maybe other worlds, too.”

   But he would need all three keys for it. Her chest tightened, and though they ­were in the open air, the palace, the river, the stars seemed to push in on her. There would be no army that she could raise to stop them, and without magic . . . they ­were doomed. She was doomed. She was—

   A calming warmth wrapped around her, as if someone had pulled her into an embrace. Feminine, joyous, infinitely powerful. This doom has not yet come to pass, it seemed to whisper in her ear. There is still time. Do not succumb to fear yet.

   Maeve was watching her with a feline interest, and Celaena wondered what it was that the dark queen beheld—­if she, too, could sense that ancient, nurturing presence. But Celaena was warm again, the panic gone, and though the feeling of being held disappeared, she still could have sworn the presence lingered nearby. There was time—­the king still did not have the third key.

   Brannon—he had possessed all three, yet had chosen to hide them, rather than put them back. And somehow, suddenly, that became the greatest question of all: why?

   “As for the locations of the three keys,” Maeve said, “I do not know where they are. They ­were brought across the sea, and I have not heard of them again until these past ten years. It would seem that the king has at least one, probably two. The third, however . . .” She looked her up and down, but Celaena refused to flinch. “You have some inkling of its whereabouts, don’t you?”

   She opened her mouth, but Maeve’s fingers clenched the arm of her throne—­just enough to make Celaena glance at the stone. So much stone ­here—­in this palace and in the city. And that word Maeve had used earlier, taken . . .

   “Don’t you?” Maeve pressed.

   Stone—and not a sign of wood, save for plants and furniture . . .

   “No, I don’t,” said Celaena.

   Maeve cocked her head. “Rowan, rise and tell me the truth.”

   His hands clenched, but he stood, his eyes on his queen as he swallowed. Twice. “She found a riddle, and she knows the King of Adarlan has at least the first key, but ­doesn’t know where he keeps it. She also learned what Brannon did with the third—­and where it is. She refused to tell me.” There was a glimmer of horror in his eyes, and his fists ­were trembling, as if some invisible force had compelled him to say it. The wolves only watched.

   Maeve tutted. “Keeping secrets, Aelin? From your aunt?”

   “Not for all the world would I tell you where the third key is.”

   “Oh, I know,” Maeve purred. She snapped her fingers, and the wolves ­rose to their feet, shifting in flashes of light into the most beautiful men she’d ever beheld. Warriors from the size of them, from the lethal grace with which they moved; one light and one dark, but stunning—­perfect.

   Celaena went for Goldryn, but the twins went for Rowan, who did nothing, didn’t even struggle as they gripped his arms, forcing him again to his knees. Two others emerged from the shadows behind them. Gavriel, his tawny eyes carefully empty, and Lorcan, face stone-­cold. And in their hands . . .