“Tired already?” he asked. “It’s a pity all of that yapping didn’t amount to much.”
He knew. He knew they’d drugged her. She snarled and lunged. He stepped aside, and her eyes went wide as she hit nothing but air, air, air, until—
He slammed his fist into her spine, and she only saw the blur of the slate tiles before they collided with her face.
“Pathetic,” he said, his shadow falling over her as she flipped onto her back, scrambling away before he could get closer. She could taste the blood in her mouth. This couldn’t be happening—they couldn’t have betrayed her like this. “If I were Grave, I’d be insulted that you’d beaten me.”
Her breath came fast and hard, and her knees ached as she stumbled upright, charging at him. Too fast for her to block, he grabbed her by the collar of her shirt and hurled her back. She kept upright as she tripped, and stopped a few feet from him.
Cain circled her, swinging his sword idly. His eyes were dark—dark like that portal to that other world. He was drawing out the inevitable, a predator playing with his meal before eating it. He wanted to enjoy every moment.
She had to end this now, before the hallucinations started. She knew they’d be powerful: seers had once used bloodbane as a drug to view spirits from other worlds. Celaena shot forward with a sweep of the staff. Wood slammed into steel.
The staff snapped in two.
The iron-tipped head soared to the other side of the veranda, leaving Celaena with a piece of useless wood. Cain’s black eyes met with hers for a moment before his other arm lashed out and connected with her shoulder.
She heard the crack before she felt the pain, and Celaena screamed, dropping to her knees as her shoulder dislocated. His foot met with the shoulder, and she went flying backward, falling so hard that her shoulder relocated with a sickening crunch. The agony blinded her; the world went in and out of focus. Things were so slow . . .
Cain grabbed the collar of her jacket to pull her to her feet. She staggered back out of his grasp, the ground rushing beneath her, and then fell—hard.
She raised the shaft of broken wood with her left hand. Cain, panting and grinning, approached.
Dorian clenched his teeth. Something was terribly wrong. He’d known it from the moment the duel started, and began sweating when she had the opportunity to bestow a winning blow and failed to deliver it. But now . . .
He couldn’t watch as Cain kicked her shoulder, and felt as if he’d vomit when the brute picked her up and she fell to the ground. She kept wiping her eyes, and sweat shone on her forehead. What was wrong?
He should stop it—he should call off the duel now. Let her start tomorrow, with a sword and her senses. Chaol hissed, and Dorian almost cried out as Celaena attempted to stand, but collapsed. Cain teased her—breaking not only her body, but her will . . . He had to stop it.
Cain swung his sword at Celaena, who threw herself backward—but not fast enough. She yelped as the blade sliced across her thigh, clothing and flesh ripping. Blood colored her pants. Despite it, she stood again, her face set in defiant rage.
Dorian had to help her. But if he interfered, they might just proclaim Cain the victor. So he watched, in growing horror and despair, as Cain’s fist slammed into her jaw.
Her knees twisted as she fell.
Something in Chaol began fraying as Celaena raised her bloodied face to look at Cain.
“I expected better,” Cain said as Celaena crawled into a kneeling position, still clutching at her useless piece of wood. She panted through her teeth, blood leaking from her lip. Cain studied her face as if he could read it, as if he could hear something Chaol couldn’t. “And what would your father say?”
An expression flashed across Celaena’s eyes that bordered on fear and confusion. “Shut your mouth,” she said, her words trembling as she fought the pain of her wounds.
But Cain kept staring at her, his smile growing. “It’s all there,” he said. “Right under that wall you built on top of it. I can see it clear as day.”
What was he talking about? Cain lifted his sword and ran his finger through the blood—her blood. Chaol reined in his disgust and anger.
Cain let out a breathy laugh. “What was it like when you woke up between your parents, covered in their blood?”
“Shut your mouth!” she said again, her free hand clawing at the ground, her face twisted with rage and anguish. Whatever wound Cain was touching, it burned.
“Your mother was a pretty young thing, wasn’t she?” Cain said.
“Be quiet!” She tried to surge to her feet, but her injured leg kept her down. She gasped for breath. How did Cain know these things about Celaena’s past? Chaol’s heart pounded wildly, but he could do nothing to help her.
She let out a wordless scream that shattered through the frozen wind as she scrambled to her feet. Her pain lost in her fury, she swung at his blade with the remnant of the staff.
“Good,” Cain panted, pressing her staff so hard that his blade sank into the wood. “But not good enough.” He shoved her, and as she staggered back a step, he brought up his leg and kicked her in the ribs. She went flying.
Chaol had never seen anyone struck that hard. Celaena hit the ground and flipped, over and over and over, until she slammed into the clock tower. Her head whacked against the black stone, and he bit down on his yell, forcing himself to remain on the sidelines, forcing himself to watch as Cain broke her apart, piece by piece. How had it gone wrong so quickly?
She trembled as she raised herself to her knees, clutching her side. She still held on to the remnant of Nehemia’s staff, as if it were a rock in the middle of a violent sea.
Celaena tasted blood as Cain seized her again, dragging her across the floor. She didn’t try to fight him. He could have pointed his sword at her heart at any point. This wasn’t a duel—it was an execution. And no one was doing anything to stop it. They’d drugged her. It wasn’t fair. The sunlight flickered, and she thrashed in Cain’s grip, despite the agony shooting through her body.
All around her were whispering, laughing, otherworldly voices. They called to her—but called a different name, a dangerous name . . .
She glanced skyward, seeing the tip of Cain’s chin before he hoisted her onto her feet and slammed her—face-first—into a wall of freezing, smooth stone. She was enveloped in familiar darkness. Her skull ached with the impact, but Celaena’s cry of pain was cut short as she opened her eyes to the dark and saw what appeared. Something—something dead stood before her.
It was a man, his skin pale and rotting. His eyes burned red, and he pointed at her in a broken, stiff way. His teeth were all sharp and so long they barely fit into his mouth.
Where had the world gone? The hallucinations must be starting. Light flashed as she was yanked back, and her eyes bulged as Cain threw her to the ground near the edge of the ring.
A shadow passed across the sun. It was over. She would die now—die, or lose and be sent back to Endovier. It was over. Over.
Two black boots came into view, then a pair of knees as someone crouched on the edge of the ring.
“Get up,” Chaol whispered. She couldn’t bring herself to look him in the face. It was over.
Cain began laughing, and she felt the reverberations of his steps as he walked around the ring. “Is this all you have to offer?” he shouted triumphantly. Celaena trembled. The world was awash with fog and darkness and voices.
“Get up,” Chaol said again, louder. She could only stare at the white line of chalk that marked the ring.
Cain had said things he couldn’t possibly know—he’d seen it in her eyes. And if he knew about her past . . . She whimpered, hating herself for it, and for the tears that began sliding down her face, across the bridge of her nose and onto the floor. It was all over.
“Celaena,” Chaol said gently. And then she heard the scraping noise as his hand came into view, sliding across the flagstones. His fingertips stopped just at the edge of the white line. “Celaena,” he breathed, his voice laced with pain—and hope. This was all she had left—his outstretched hand, and the promise of hope, of something better waiting on the other side of that line.
Moving her arm made sparks dance before her eyes, but she extended it until her fingertips reached the line of chalk, and stayed there, not a quarter of an inch from Chaol, the thick white mark separating them.
She lifted her eyes to his face, and found his gaze lined with silver. “Get up,” was all he said.
And in that moment, somehow his face was the only thing that mattered. She stirred, and couldn’t stop her sob as her body erupted with pain that made her lie still again. But she kept her focus on his brown eyes, on his tightly pressed lips as they parted and whispered, “Get up.”
She pulled her arm away from the line, bracing her palm against the frozen ground. She kept his gaze when she moved her other hand beneath her chest, and bit down on the scream of pain as she pushed upward, her shoulder nearly buckling. She slid her good leg under her. As she made to stand, she felt the thud of Cain’s steps, and Chaol’s eyes went wide.
The world spun black and mist and blue as Cain grabbed her and shoved her against the clock tower once more, her face smashing into the stone. When she opened her eyes, the world shifted. Blackness was everywhere. Deep down, she knew it wasn’t just a hallucination—what she saw, who she saw, truly existed just beyond the veil of her world, and the poisonous drug had somehow opened her mind to see them.
There were two creatures now, and the second one had wings. It was grinning—grinning just as—
Celaena didn’t have time to shout as it launched into flight. It threw her to the ground, and its claws ripped at her. She thrashed. Where had the world gone? Where was she?
There were more of them—more appeared. The dead, demons, monsters—they wanted her. They called her name. Most of them had wings, and the ones that didn’t were carried in the talons of others.
They struck as they passed, their claws slicing her flesh. They were going to bring her inside their realm, and the tower was the gaping portal. She would be devoured. Terror—terror like she’d never known—took over. Celaena covered her head as they swept upon her, and she kicked blindly. Where had the world gone? How much poison had they given her? She was going to die. Freedom or death.
Defiance and rage mixed in her blood. She swung her free arm, and it met with a shadowy face with burning coals for eyes. The darkness rippled, and Cain’s gaping features appeared. There was sun here—this was reality. How long did she have before another wave of the poison-induced visions took over?
Cain reached for her throat, and she flung herself backward. All that he managed to grab was her amulet. With a resounding snap, the Eye of Elena ripped from her neck.
The sunlight disappeared, the bloodbane seizing control of her mind again, and Celaena found herself before an army of the dead. The shadowy figure that was Cain raised his arm, dropping the amulet upon the ground.
They came for her.
Dorian watched in wide-eyed terror as Celaena thrashed on the ground, waving away things they couldn’t see. What was happening? Had there been something in that wine? But there was also something abnormal about the way Cain just stood there, smiling. Was there . . . was there actually something there that they couldn’t see?
She screamed. It was the most horrible noise he’d ever heard. “Stop it, now,” he said to Chaol as his friend rose from his spot near the ring. But Chaol only gaped at the flailing assassin, his face pale as death.
She kicked and punched at nothing as Cain squatted over her and hit her in the mouth. Blood flowed freely. It wouldn’t stop until his father said something or Cain knocked her truly unconscious. Or worse. He had to remind himself that any interference—even trying to say that her wine had been drugged—might result in her disqualification.