She crawled away from Cain, her blood and saliva pooling onto the ground.
Someone stepped beside Dorian, and from her intake of breath, he knew it was Nehemia. She said something in Eyllwe, and walked to the very edge of the ring. Tucked close to the folds of her cloak, nearly concealed there, her fingers were rapidly moving—tracing symbols in the air.
Cain stalked to where Celaena panted, her face white and red. She eased herself into a kneeling position and stared without seeing at the ring, at everyone, at something beyond them, perhaps.
She was waiting for him. Waiting for him to—
Kneeling on the ground, Celaena gasped for breath, unable to find her way out of the hallucination and back into reality. Here, the dead surrounded her, waiting. The shadow-thing that was Cain stood nearby, watching, his burning eyes his only distinguishing feature. Darkness rippled around Cain like shreds of clothing in the wind.
She would die soon.
Light and darkness. Life and death. Where do I fit in?
The thought sent a jolt through her so strong that her hands fumbled for anything to use against him. Not like this. She’d find a way—she could find a way to survive. I will not be afraid. She’d whispered that every morning in Endovier; but what good were those words now?
A demon came at her, and a scream—not of terror or of despair, but rather a plea—burst from her throat. A call for help.
The demon flapped back, as if her scream had startled it. Cain motioned it forward again.
But then something extraordinary happened.
Doors, doors, doors all burst open. Doors of wood, doors of iron, doors of air and magic.
And from another world, Elena swept down, cloaked in golden light. The ancient queen’s hair glittered like a shooting star as she plummeted into Erilea.
Cain chuckled as he stepped toward the panting assassin and raised his sword, aiming at the assassin’s chest.
Elena exploded through the ranks of the dead, scattering them.
Cain’s sword came down.
A gust of wind slammed into Cain so hard he was sent sprawling to the ground, his sword flying across the veranda. But, locked in that dark, horrible world, Celaena only saw the ancient queen barrel into Cain, knocking him down, before the dead charged. Yet they were too late.
Golden light erupted around her, shielding her from them, making the dead step back.
Wind mightier than anything the onlookers had witnessed still roared through the veranda. They shielded their faces as the wind howled.
The demons bellowed and surged again. But a sword rang, and a demon fell. Black blood dripped from the blade, and the lips of Queen Elena were set in a feral snarl as she lifted her sword. It was a challenge; a dare to them to try to pass, to tempt her rage.
Through fading eyes, Celaena saw a crown of stars glittering atop Elena’s head, her silver armor shining like a beacon in the blackness. The demons shrieked, and Elena stretched out a hand, golden light bursting from her palm, forming a wall between them and the dead as she rushed to Celaena’s side and cupped her face in her hands.
“I cannot protect you,” whispered the queen, her skin glowing. Her face was different, too—sharper, more beautiful. Her Fae heritage. “I cannot give you my strength.” She traced her fingers across Celaena’s brow. “But I can remove this poison from your body.”
Beyond them, Cain struggled to his feet. Wind slammed into him from all directions, keeping him trapped in place.
From the far end of the veranda, a gust of wind sent the head of the staff rolling in her direction. It clattered to a stop, still a few tantalizing feet away.
Elena put a hand on Celaena’s forehead. “Take it,” said the queen. Celaena strained to reach the remnant of the staff, her vision flashing between the sunny veranda and the endless dark. Her shoulder shifted slightly, and she stifled her scream of pain. At last, she felt the smooth carved wood—but also the pain from her aching fingers.
“Once the poison is gone, you will not see me. You will not see the demons,” said the queen, sketching marks on Celaena’s brow.
Cain looked to the king as he retrieved his sword. The king nodded.
Elena held Celaena’s face in her hands. “Do not be afraid.” Beyond the golden wall of light, the dead shrieked and moaned Celaena’s name. But then Cain—bearing the shadowy, dark thing that dwelled inside of him—stepped through the wall as if it were nothing, shattering it completely.
“Petty tricks, Your Majesty,” Cain said to Elena. “Just petty tricks.”
Elena was on her feet in an instant, blocking Cain’s path to Celaena. Shadows rippled along the edges of his form, and his ember-like eyes flared. Cain’s attention was on Celaena as he said, “You were brought here—all of you were. All the players in the unfinished game. My friends,” he gestured to the dead, “have told me so.”
“Be gone,” Elena barked, forming a symbol with her fingers. A bright blue light burst from her hands.
Cain howled as it bit into him, the light slashing his shadow-body into ribbons. Then it was gone, leaving the swirling crowd of the dead and damned, and Elena still before them. They charged, but she blasted them back with that golden shield, panting through her gritted teeth. Elena then dropped to her knees and grabbed Celaena by the shoulders.
“The poison is almost gone,” Elena said. The world grew less dark; Celaena could see cracks of sunlight.
Celaena nodded, pain replacing panic. She could feel the coldness of winter, feel her aching leg and the warm stickiness of her own blood all over her body. Why was Elena here, and what was Nehemia doing at the edge of the circle, her hands moving about so strangely?
“Stand,” Elena said. She was becoming translucent. Her hands drifted from Celaena’s cheeks, and a white light filled the sky. The poison left Celaena’s body.
Cain, once again a man of flesh and blood, walked over to the sprawled assassin.
Pain, pain, pain. Pain from her leg, from her head, from her shoulder and arm and ribs . . .
“Stand,” Elena whispered again, and was gone. The world appeared.
Cain was close, not a trace of shadow around him. Celaena lifted the jagged remnant of the staff in her hand. Her gaze cleared.
And so, struggling and shaking, Celaena stood.
Celaena’s right leg could barely support her, but she gritted her teeth and rose. She squared her shoulders as Cain halted.
The wind caressed her face and swept her hair behind her in a billowing sheet of gold. I will not be afraid. A mark burned on her forehead in blinding blue light.
“What’s that on your face?” Cain asked. The king rose, his brows narrowed, and nearby, Nehemia gasped.
With her aching, almost useless arm, she wiped the blood from her mouth. Cain growled as he swung his sword, making to behead her.
Celaena shot forward, as fast as an arrow of Deanna.
Cain’s eyes went wide as she buried the jagged end of the staff in his right side, exactly where Chaol had said he would be unguarded.
Blood poured onto her hands as she yanked it out, and Cain staggered back, clutching his ribs.
She forgot pain, forgot fear, forgot the tyrant who stared at the burning mark on her head with dark eyes. She leapt back a step and sliced open Cain’s arm with the broken end of the staff, ripping through muscle and sinew. He swatted at her with his other arm, but she moved aside, cutting the limb as well.
He lunged, but she dashed away. Cain sprawled upon the ground. She slammed her foot into his back, and as he lifted his head, he found the knife-sharp remnant of the staff pressed against his neck.
“Move, and I’ll spill your throat on the ground,” she said, her jaw aching.
Cain went still, and for a moment, she could have sworn his eyes glowed like coals. For a heartbeat, she considered killing him right there, so he couldn’t tell anyone what he knew—about her, about her parents, about the Wyrdmarks and their power. If the king knew any of that . . . Her hand trembled with the effort to keep from driving the spearhead into his neck, but Celaena lifted her bruised face to the king.
The councilmen began nervously clapping. None of them had seen the spectacle; none of them had seen the shadows in the gusting wind. The king looked her over, and Celaena willed herself to remain upright, to stand tall as he judged. She felt each second of silence like a blow to her gut. Was he considering whether there was a way out? After what seemed to be a lifetime, the king spoke.
“My son’s Champion is the victor,” the king growled. The world spun beneath her feet.
She’d won. She’d won. She was free—or as close to it as she could come. She would become the King’s Champion, and then she would be free . . .
It came crashing down upon her, and Celaena dropped the bloody remnant of the staff on the ground as she removed her foot from Cain’s back. She limped away, her breathing hard and ragged. She’d been saved. Elena had saved her. And she had . . . she had won.
Nehemia was exactly where she’d been standing before, smiling faintly, only—
The princess collapsed, and her bodyguards rushed to her side. Celaena made a move to her friend, but her legs gave out, and she fell to the tiles. Dorian, as if released from a spell, dashed to her, throwing himself to his knees beside her, murmuring her name again and again.
But she barely heard him. Huddled on the ground, hot tears slid down Celaena’s face. She’d won. Through the pain, Celaena began laughing.
As the assassin laughed quietly to herself, head bowed to the ground, Dorian surveyed her body. The cut along her thigh wouldn’t stop bleeding, her arm hung limp, and her face and arms were a patchwork of cuts and rapidly forming bruises. Cain, his features set with fury, stood not too far behind, blood seeping through his fingers as he clutched his side. Let him suffer.
“She needs a healer,” he said to his father. The king said nothing. “You, boy,” Dorian snapped to a page. “Fetch a healer—as fast as you can!” Dorian found it difficult to breathe. He should have stopped it when Cain first hit her. He should have done something other than watch when she had so clearly been drugged. She would have helped him; she wouldn’t have hesitated. Chaol, even, had helped her—he’d knelt down beside the edge of the ring. And who had drugged her?
Carefully putting his arms around Celaena, Dorian glanced toward Kaltain and Perrington. In doing so, he missed the look exchanged between Cain and his father. The soldier pulled out his dagger.
But Chaol saw. Cain raised his dagger to strike the girl in the back.
Without thinking, without understanding, Chaol leapt between them and plunged his sword through Cain’s heart.
Blood erupted everywhere, showering Chaol’s arms, his head, his clothes. The blood reeked, somehow, of death and decay. Cain fell, hitting the ground hard.
The world became silent. Chaol watched the last breath issue from Cain’s mouth, watched him die. When it was over and Cain’s eyes stopped seeing him, Chaol’s sword clattered to the ground. He dropped to his knees beside Cain, but didn’t touch him. What had he done?
Chaol couldn’t stop staring at his blood-soaked hands. He’d killed him.
“Chaol,” Dorian breathed. In his arms, Celaena had gone utterly still.
“What have I done?” Chaol asked him. Celaena made a small noise and began shaking.
Two guards helped lift him up, but Chaol could only stare at his bloody hands as they helped him away.
Dorian watched his friend disappear into the castle, and then returned to the assassin. His father was already yelling about something.
She trembled so badly that her wounds leaked further. “He shouldn’t have killed him . . . Now he—he . . .” She let out a gasping breath. “She saved me,” she said, burying her face in his chest. “Dorian, she took the poison out of me. She—she . . . Oh, gods, I don’t even know what happened.” Dorian had no idea what she was speaking about, but he held her tighter.