He narrowed his eyes, but conceded a nod. She studied the hollowed-out face, the torn clothes.
Torn clothes, what looked like small cuts along the palms—as if he’d dug in his fingernails. The others had barely been touched, but this . . .
“Rowan.” She waved away flies. “Rowan, tell me you see what I’m seeing.”
Another vicious curse. He crouched, using the tip of a dagger to push back a bit of clothing torn at the collar. “This male—”
“Fought. He fought back against it. None of the others did, according to the reports.”
The stench of the corpse was nearly enough to bring her to her knees. But she squatted by the decaying hand and forearm, shriveled and wasted from the inside out. She held out a hand for Rowan’s dagger, still possessing none of her own. He hesitated as she looked up at him.
Only for the afternoon, he seemed to growl as he pressed the hilt into her open palm.
She yanked down the dagger. I know, I know. I haven’t earned my weapons back yet. Don’t get your feathers ruffled.
She turned back to the husk, cutting off their wordless conversation and getting a snarl in response. Butting heads with Rowan was the least of her concerns, even if it had become one of her favorite activities.
There was something so familiar about doing this, she thought as she carefully, as gently and respectfully as she could, ran the tip of the dagger under the male’s cracked and filthy nails, then smeared the contents on the back of her own hand. Dirt and black . . . black . . .
“What the hell is that?” Rowan demanded, kneeling beside her, sniffing her outstretched hand. He jerked back, snarling. “That’s not dirt.”
No, it wasn’t. It was blacker than night, and reeked just as badly as it had the first time she’d smelled it, in the catacombs beneath the library, an obsidian, oily pool of blood. Slightly different from that other, horrific smell that loitered around this place, but similar. So similar to—
“This isn’t possible,” she said, jolting to her feet. “This—this—this—” She paced, if only to keep from shaking. “I’m wrong. I have to be wrong.”
There had been so many cells in that forgotten dungeon beneath the library, beneath the king’s Wyrdstone clock tower. The creature she’d encountered there had possessed a human heart. It had been left, she’d suspected, because of some defect. What if . . . what if the perfected ones had been moved elsewhere? What if they were now . . . ready?
“Tell me,” Rowan growled, the words barely understandable as he seemed to struggle to rein in the killing edge he rode in response to the threat lurking somewhere in these woods.
She lifted her hand to rub her eyes, but realized what was on her fingers and went to wipe them on her shirt. Only to recall that she was wearing nothing but the soft white band around her breasts, and that she was cold to her very bones. She rushed to the nearby stream to scrub off the dried black blood, hating even that the trace of it would be in the water, in the world, and quickly, quietly told Rowan of the creature in the library, the Wyrdkeys, and the information Maeve held hostage regarding how to destroy that power. Power that was being used by the king to make things—and targeting people with magic in their blood to be their hosts.
A warm breeze wrapped around her, heating her bones and blood, steadying her. “How did it get here?” Rowan asked, his features now set with icy calm.
“I don’t know. I hope I’m wrong. But that smell—I’ll never forget that smell as long as I live. Like it had rotted from the inside out, its very essence ruined.”
“But it retained some cognitive abilities. And whatever this is, it must have them, too, if it’s dumping the bodies.”
She tried to swallow—twice—but her mouth was dry. “Demi-Fae . . . they would make perfect hosts, with so many of them able to use magic and no one in Wendlyn or Doranelle caring if they live or die. But these corpses—if he wanted to kidnap them, why kill them?”
“Unless they weren’t compatible,” Rowan said. “And if they weren’t compatible, then what better use for them than to drain them dry?”
“But what’s the point of leaving the bodies where we can find them? To drum up fear?”
Rowan ground his jaw and stalked through the area, examining the ground, the trees, the rocks. “Burn the body, Aelin.” He removed the sheath and belt that had housed the dagger still dangling from her hand and tossed them to her. She caught them with her free hand. “We’re going hunting.”
They found nothing, even when Rowan shifted into his other form and circled high above. As the light grew dim, they climbed into the biggest, densest tree in the area. They squeezed onto a massive branch, huddling together, as he would not let her summon even a flicker of flame.
When she complained about the conditions, Rowan pointed out that there was no moon that night, and worse things than the skinwalkers prowled the woods. That shut her up until he asked her to tell him more about the creature in the library, to explain every detail and weakness and strength.
After she finished, he took out one of his long knives—a fraction of the marvelous assortment he carried—and began cleaning it. With her heightened senses, she could see enough in the starlight to make out the steel, his hands, and the shifting muscles in his shoulders as he wiped the blade. He himself was a beautiful weapon, forged by centuries of ruthless training and warring.
“Do you think I was mistaken?” she said as he put away the knife and reached for the ones hidden beneath his clothes. Like the first, none of them were dirty, but she didn’t point it out. “About the creature, I mean.”
Rowan slung his shirt over his head to get at the weapons strapped beneath, revealing his broad back, muscled and scarred and glorious. Fine—some very feminine, innate part of her appreciated that. And she didn’t mind his half-nakedness. He’d seen every inch of her now. She supposed there was no part of him that would be much of a surprise, either, thanks to Chaol. But—no, she wouldn’t think about Chaol. Not when she was feeling balanced and clear-headed and good.
“We’re dealing with a cunning, lethal predator, regardless of where it originated and how many there are,” he said, cleaning a small dagger that had been strapped across his pectoral muscle. She followed the path of his tattoo down his face, neck, shoulders, and arm. Such a stark, brutal marking. Had the scars on Chaol’s face healed, or would they be a permanent reminder of what she’d done to him? “If you were mistaken, I’d consider it a blessing.”
She slumped against the trunk. That was twice now she’d thought of Chaol. She must truly be exhausted, because the only other option was that she just wanted to make herself feel miserable.