The dragon bellowed, trapped in dark boughs. I cut its roar short with another coil of trees and vines that snapped around its throat, clamping its jaws together.
My wings pounded the air. They were still sore and cracked, but they’d healed enough that I could force myself to fly. I folded them behind me, angling them to glide through the gale. The winter wind carried me, and the freezing air stung my lungs with every breath.
With adrenaline surging, I touched down behind Moria.
Torin’s blood stained the snow, and I yanked her off him by her hair. She whirled to face me, her bloody fangs bared and her body glistening with blood. With the force of a Dark Cromm queen, I slammed my fist hard into her throat. She fell backward, flat into the snow. Torin tried to sit, but blood spilled from his throat.
I tried to summon a vine from the frozen earth to wrap around Moria, but the plants were trapped beneath the ice. Moria gripped her throat, her eyes bulging as she struggled to breathe.
“Torin,” I screamed through gritted teeth, “the ice!”
His eyes flashed with understanding. Pale blue magic skimmed across the landscape, and the ground began to rumble. Holding his bleeding throat, Torin split the ice, and a great crevasse opened in the earth, revealing the dead grass four feet below.
Clutching her throat, Moria tumbled into the hold and onto the frozen grass. I stepped to the edge of the ice and peered down at her. She was still gasping for breath.
“Demon,” she croaked.
My thoughts went silent, my mind a haunted, quiet midnight, until a single incandescent thought lit up the darkness: kill the queen.
Moria tried to lift herself from the chasm, the Sword of Whispers gleaming at her hip. Time seemed to slow as an ancient power skimmed over my body, one that smelled of the forest and fresh grass. My body vibrated with life, and my skin buzzed. And when my chest had filled with a golden light, I arched my back and flung my magic at the queen.
A spiked, thorny vine raced from the grass, impaling her through her ribs. I exhaled a long, shaky breath, staring at my work.
Moria’s body hung suspended in the air above the ravine, her blood dripping over the frosty grass.
Shadows whispered through me. Mab hadn’t wanted to release me until I was strong enough to kill the monsters. And now?
I was a monster.
I whirled, my pulse roaring at the sight of Torin’s lacerated throat. He’d sat up in the snow for a moment, but he was losing blood. He slumped to the ground, and I knelt beside him, clamping my hand over his throat to stanch the flow.
Torin had taken a sword to the heart for me, and I could risk freezing at his touch.
“Torin,” I shouted, holding his throat, “you’re safe from her. Moria is dead. Use your magic to heal yourself.”
He met my gaze for a moment, and electricity passed between us. His cold power skimmed over me, but it didn’t freeze me. I kept my hand on his throat, feeling the cool thrum of his magic pulsing along my skin.
As he healed himself, Torin’s jaw sagged with the realization that we were touching. He replaced my hand with his. “You touched me. Ava,” he said sharply, “you shouldn’t even be here. I told you not to come.”
I swallowed hard. “The curse is gone, Torin.”
He stared at me. “How could you possibly know that?”
“Because Queen Mab told me what she wanted. It took me a little while to put it all together, but it all makes sense now.”
The earth trembled again, and shadows seemed to lengthen around us, growing thicker. Above us, the iron-gray sky seethed and writhed, churning with storm clouds.
A roar rumbled over the horizon, and from the clouds of white snow, a dark figure stalked closer, a shadow against a landscape the color of bleached bones. Her cloak swept around her lanky body like dark smoke, and her hood obscured her face. She swept closer to the tree line, disappearing into the forest, but I could feel her malign power from here.
Modron was hunting us. “What did you think would happen?” she shrieked. Her voice sounded dissonant and layered, like ten agonized people screaming at once. “What did you think I’d do when the Seelie exiled me? When King Finvarra had enough of the truth? Did you think I would go quietly?”
Torin stood. His throat was healed now, a dark red line all that remained of his wound. He staggered over the snow to Moria’s corpse and took his sword. Whispers echoed through the air, a haunting sound, like a chorus of the dead.
Torin gripped the hilt of his sword. We stood here, separated from Modron by the crevasse.
Unease crept up my spine at the sound of a deep rumbling beneath the earth, like a volcano erupting.
“You should get out of here,” Torin called out. “Fly.”
“Not a chance. But I’m going to see what’s happening.”
My bruised wings pounded the snowy air, and I lifted into the skies for a better view. As I carried myself up higher above the tree line, fear spread through my chest.
From the east, where the Avon River flowed, a tsunami was coming for us, roaring over the snow and consuming the forest. The wave was seventy or eighty feet high, a tower of murky water that would kill everyone in its path.
I couldn’t breathe. That monstrous wave would drown us all. It would sweep through the villages, flood the castle. It would carry away every house and farm in the kingdom.
My mind flickered, electrified with panic as I tried to figure out how to stop it.
“There’s a tsunami coming, Torin,” I shouted. “We need a bigger crevasse. Circle it around the castle, the city. We need city walls.”
He acted without question, and the ice split with a loud crack, as if a great god were carving an arc around the city and villages.
I dropped onto the grass beside him. “It’s less than a mile away. If we work together, I think we can build a wall faster.”
I scanned the white landscape but could no longer see Modron. Still, I could feel her magic flowing across the ground.
I pressed my boots into the snow, feeling my connection to the earth. The heartbeat of spring pounded far beneath my feet, and light beamed over my body, a pale gold that spilled from my limbs and fingertips, warming the world around me.
My body vibrated with power, a molten heat that cracked beneath the cold surface. Grass, plants, and roots burst up from the soil, weaving together and shooting toward the heavens.
As my wall grew, Torin sent ice racing over it, making it rock solid. It was several feet thick, a barrier of ice and spring that rose to the stormy skies.
I am the Dark Cromm heir, forged in the mountains of the ash goddess, and I will protect those I love.
My mind erupted with an ancient power like flames dancing on the dark rocks, a night sky tinged red with fire. Miles of twisting vines and brambles shot from the earth as power thundered through my body. I wasn’t Ava anymore. I was a vessel of the ash goddess.
A circle of life rose around the city, and Torin’s ice glazed over the plants, filling in cracks. The magic of Seelie and Unseelie intertwined, as it had in the old days. The image of Mab kept flickering in my mind as plants encircled Faerie. I’d told Torin we belonged together, and here was the evidence.
Spring swept through me, a current of warmth.
As we finished our work, my body trembled, depleted of strength. Nauseous, I tried to stop myself from shaking.
Torin turned, scanning the snowy horizon.
“Modron.” He spat out her name like a curse.
My gaze flicked up, and I saw her emerge from the forest. She was trying to slip away like smoke in the wind. Torin stalked after her.
As he did, the tsunami slammed into the walls, sending a shock through the snowy ground that knocked me to my hands and knees.
I turned, my heart frantic as large cracks began to appear in some of the ice walls. Reaching deep within, I called forth more magic, filling the holes and cracks with moss and roots.
Water rumbled against the walls, making them shake.
I turned to see Torin open another crevasse ten feet in front of Modron.
He didn’t need to ask. We knew each other’s rhythms now, and I knew what to do. With the last steamy hiss of my magic, I summoned a wall of brambles, trapping Modron.
She stumbled as her path was blocked and whirled to face us. “All I ever did was tell the truth,” she bellowed, her voice carrying across the snow “But the Seelie prefer to live with lies. Isn’t that right?”
The whispers of Torin’s sword echoed through the air in a haunted symphony. He carved his blade through Modron’s neck, and the deep gray cloak fell to the earth, empty. Only her head remained, rolling on the snow. I stared at the gruesome sight, clutching my stomach. My reserves of magic were completely spent, and exhaustion burned through me.
I knelt in the snow, and Torin dropped his sword and ran to me. He wrapped his arms around me, and I leaned against him.
“The walls,” I muttered against his chest. But even as the words were out of my mouth, I could feel the thaw in the air. The warmth kissing my skin wasn’t just from Torin. The sun slid from behind the clouds.
“Her magic is gone,” said Torin, his voice husky. He scooped me up, carrying me toward the castle. “The wave is receding.”
I lay against Torin as rays of light gilded the white landscape and gleamed off the icy walls. I glanced above me, watching the dark storm clouds thin and the sky bloom with blue. Our icy walls began to glisten.
“Where are you taking me?” I asked, listening to the rhythmic pounding of his heart.
He breathed in. “Our enemies are dead, my love. The Seelie live for pleasure, not war. And with that in mind, changeling, I have been dreaming for a long time of feeding you apples in my room.”