There, looking up at her, were the symbols she’d seen near the bodies. And in the margin, written by someone centuries ago, was the explanation: For sacrifices to the ridderak: using the victim’s blood, mark the area around it accordingly. Once the creature has been summoned, these marks guide the exchange: for the flesh of the sacrifice, the beast will grant you the victim’s strength.
Celaena fought to keep her hands from trembling as she flipped through the pages, searching for anything about the marks under her bed. When the book yielded nothing, she returned to the summoning spell. A ridderak—that was the name of the beast? What was it? Where had it been summoned from, if it wasn’t—
The Wyrdgates. She pressed the heels of her palms into her eyes. Someone was actually using the Wyrdmarks to open a portal to summon this creature. It was impossible, because magic was gone, but the texts said Wyrdmarks existed outside of magic. What if their power still worked? But . . . but Nehemia? How could her friend do such a thing? Why did she need the Champions’ strength? And how could she keep everything hidden so well?
Yet Nehemia could easily be a cunning actress. And maybe Celaena had wanted a friend—wanted someone as different and outsiderly as she was. Maybe she’d been too willing, too desperate, to see anything but what she wanted to see. Celaena took a steadying breath. Nehemia loved Eyllwe—that was certainly true—and Celaena knew there was nothing Nehemia wouldn’t do to keep her country safe. Unless . . .
Ice moved through Celaena’s veins. Unless Nehemia was here to start something bigger—unless she didn’t want to make sure the king spared Eyllwe at all. Unless she wanted what few dared whisper: rebellion. And not rebellion as it was now, with rebel groups hiding out in the wilderness, but rather rebellion in the sense of entire kingdoms rising up against Adarlan—as it should have been from the start.
But why kill the Champions? Why not target royals? The ball would have been perfect for that. Why use Wyrdmarks? She’d seen Nehemia’s rooms; there were no signs of a demon beast lurking about, and nowhere in the castle where she could—
Celaena’s eyes rose from the book. Blocked by the giant chest of drawers, the tapestry still rippled in a phantom breeze. There was nowhere in the castle to summon or hide a creature like that, except for the endless, forgotten chambers and tunnels running beneath it.
“No,” she said, standing so fast that it was all Fleetfoot could do to leap out of the way as her chair toppled over. No, it wasn’t true. Because it was Nehemia. Because . . . because . . .
Celaena grunted as she pushed the chest to the side and folded the tapestry back from the wall. Just as it had two months ago, a cold, damp breeze leaked through the cracks, but it smelled nothing of roses. All of the murders had occurred within two days of a Test. That meant tonight, or tomorrow, something would happen. The ridderak, whatever it was, would strike again. And with the marks that she’d found painted under her bed . . . there was no way in hell she’d wait for it to show up.
After shutting the whining Fleetfoot out of the bedroom, Celaena covered the passage entry with the tapestry, wedged a book in the doorway to keep from getting locked in, and only once wished she had a weapon beyond the candlestick she carried and the makeshift knife in her pocket.
Because if Nehemia had truly lied to her like that, and if Nehemia was murdering the Champions, then Celaena had to see it herself. If only so she could kill her with her bare hands.
Down and down she went, her breath thick in the frigid air. Water dripped somewhere, and Celaena looked longingly at the middle archway as she approached the crossroads. There was no thought of escape now. What would be the point, when she was so close to winning? If she lost, she’d sneak back here before they had a chance to ship her off to Endovier again.
Celaena studied the left- and right-side passages. The one to her left only led to a dead end. But the one on the right . . . that was the passage she’d taken to Elena’s tomb. There she’d seen countless other passageways leading to unknown places.
She stepped closer to the archway and froze when she saw the steps that descended into the murky darkness. The centuries-old dust had been disturbed. Footprints led up and down.
Nehemia and her creature must have been creeping around down here, just floors below everyone else. Hadn’t Verin died just after he taunted her in front of Nehemia? Celaena clutched her candlestick tighter, and pulled her makeshift knife out of her pocket.
Step after step, she began her descent down the stairwell. Soon, she could no longer see the top landing, and the bottom never came any closer. But then whispers filled the corridor, slithering off the walls. She quieted her steps and shielded her candle as she neared. It wasn’t the idle chat of servants, but someone speaking rapidly, almost chanting.
Not Nehemia. A man.
A landing approached below, opening into a room to her left. A greenish light seeped out of it onto the stones of the stairwell, which continued on past the landing and into darkness. The hair on her arms rose as the voice became clearer. It didn’t speak any tongue that she recognized; it was guttural and harsh, and grated against her ears, as if it sucked the very warmth from her bones. The man panted as he spoke, like the words burned his throat, and finally he gasped for air.
Silence fell. Setting down her candle, Celaena crept toward the landing and peered inside the room. The oaken door had been thrown open, a giant key turned in its rusting lock. And inside the small chamber, kneeling before a darkness so black that it seemed poised to devour the world, was Cain.
The person who’d gotten stronger and better as the competition went on. She’d thought it was his training, but . . . it was because he’d been using the Wyrdmarks and the beast they summoned to steal the dead Champions’ strength.
He dragged a hand across the floor before the darkness, and greenish lights sprung up from where his fingers passed before being sucked into the void like wraiths on the wind. One of his hands was bleeding.
She didn’t dare to breathe as something stirred in the darkness. There was a click of claw on stone, and a hiss like an extinguished flame. And then, stepping toward Cain on knees that bent the wrong way—like an animal’s hind legs—the ridderak emerged.
It was something out of an ancient god’s nightmares. Its hairless gray skin was stretched tightly across its misshapen head, displaying a gaping mouth filled with black fangs.
Fangs that had ripped out and eaten Verin and Xavier’s internal organs; fangs that had feasted on their brains. Its vaguely human body sank onto its haunches, and it slid its long front arms across the stone floor. The stones whined under the claws. Cain raised his head and stood slowly as the creature knelt before him and lowered its dark eyes. Submission.
Celaena only realized she was trembling when she made to step away, to flee as far and as fast as she could. Elena had been right: this was evil, plain and simple. The amulet pulsed at her neck, as if urging her to run. Her mouth dry, her blood pounding in her veins, she stepped back.
Cain whirled to look at her, and the ridderak’s head shot up, its slitted nostrils sniffing twice. She froze, but as she did so, a massive wind shoved into her from behind, making her stagger into the room.
“It wasn’t meant to be you tonight,” Cain said, but Celaena’s eyes remained on the beast, who began panting. “But this opportunity is too good to go to waste.”
“Cain,” was all she could say. The ridderak’s eyes . . . she’d never seen anything like them. There was nothing in them but hunger—endless, ageless hunger. The creature was not of this world. The Wyrdmarks worked. The gates were real. She pulled the makeshift knife out of her pocket. It was pitifully small; how could hairpins make a dent in that creature’s hide?
Cain moved so quickly that she could only blink before he was behind her, her knife somehow now in his hand. No one—no one human—could move that quickly; it was as if he were no more than shadows and wind.
“Pity,” Cain whispered from the doorway, pocketing her knife. Celaena glanced to the creature, to him, and then back. “I’ll never get to know how you wound up down here in the first place.” His fingers wrapped around the door handle. “Not that I care. Good-bye, Celaena.” The door slammed shut.
The greenish light still seeped from the marks on the floor—marks Cain had etched with his own blood—illuminating the creature who stared at her with those starving, relentless eyes.
“Cain,” she whispered, backing into the door as she fumbled with the handle. She twisted and yanked. It was locked. There was nothing in this room but stone and dust. How had she let him disarm her that easily? “Cain.” The door wouldn’t budge. “Cain!” she shouted, and banged on the door with a fist, hard enough to hurt.
The ridderak stalked back and forth on its four long, spidery limbs, sniffing at her, and Celaena paused. Why didn’t it attack immediately? It sniffed at her again, and swiped at the ground with a clawed hand—striking deep enough to take out a chunk of stone.
It wanted her alive. Cain had incapacitated Verin while he summoned the creature; it liked its blood hot. So it would find the easiest way to immobilize her, and then . . .
She couldn’t breathe. No, not like this. Not in this chamber, where no one would find her, where Chaol would never know why she disappeared, and would forever curse her for it, where she’d never get the chance to tell Nehemia she had been wrong. And Elena—Elena said someone wanted her in the tomb, to see . . . to see what?
And then she knew.
The answer lay on her right—the right passageway, the passage that led to the tomb a few levels below.
The creature sank back onto its haunches, poised to spring, and in that moment, Celaena came up with the most reckless and brave plan she’d ever concocted. She dropped her cape to the floor.
With a roar that shook the castle, the ridderak ran for her.
Celaena remained before the door, watching as it galloped at her, sparks flying from its claws as they struck stone. Ten feet away, it leapt straight toward her legs.
But Celaena was already running, running straight at those black, rotting fangs. The ridderak jumped for her, and she hurtled over the snarling thing. A thunderous, splintering boom erupted through the chamber as the ridderak shattered the wooden door. She could only imagine what it would have done to her legs. She didn’t have time to think. She landed and whirled, charging back to where the creature had crashed through the door and now sought to shake itself free of the pile of wood.
She threw herself through the doorway and turned left, flying down the stairwell. She’d never make it back to her chambers alive, but if she was fast enough, perhaps she could make it to the tomb.
The ridderak roared again, and the stairwell shuddered. She didn’t dare to look behind. She focused on her feet, on keeping upright as she bounded down the stairs, making for the landing below, illuminated by moonlight leaking from the tomb.
Celaena hit the landing, ran for the tomb door, and prayed to gods whose names she’d forgotten, but who she hoped had not yet forgotten her.
Someone wanted me to come here on Samhuinn. Someone knew this would happen. Elena wanted me to see it—so I could survive.
The creature hit the bottom landing and charged after her, so close she could smell its reeking breath. The door to the tomb was wide open. As if someone had been waiting.
Please—please . . .
Grabbing onto the side of the doorway, she swung herself inside. She gained precious time as the ridderak skidded to a halt, missing the tomb. It only took a moment for it to recover and charge, taking off a chunk of the door as it entered.
The pounding of her feet echoed through the tomb as she ran between the sarcophagi for Damaris, the sword of the ancient king.
Displayed atop its stand, the blade shone in the moonlight—the metal still gleaming after a thousand years.
The creature snarled, and she heard its deep intake of breath and the scrape of nails departing stone as the ridderak leapt for her. She lunged for the sword, her left hand wrapping around the cool hilt as she twisted in the air and swung.