“Bring him,” the King said, and then hands were gripping Lucien’s aching arms, yanking him roughly to his feet, his boots snagging and tripping him as he was hauled forward. He swallowed hard, willing his roiling stomach to settle, his heart to stop pounding, but his body rebelled against the onslaught of the King’s overpowering, disgusting magic. It was ancient, and venomous, a slithering poison that crawled over Lucien’s skin, clawed into his flesh, shredding him of his power, his hope, no matter how he resisted.
“Strong,” the King remarked, “for a seventh son.” He smiled, the gesture twisting his ruddy face into a garish horror. He was so close now, Lucien could see through the glamour, his mechanical eye clicking rapidly as he took in the King’s true form, a ghoulish monstrosity swirled in dark magic, like some nightmare sprung from the depths of hell. “Is your mate as strong as you, little fireling?”
Lucien clamped down hard, catching his angry retort between his teeth. He could not afford to slip up now, not with Elain’s life in the balance, and their best hopes of rescue dragged off to the dungeons. He breathed deep and focused, coaxing his magic to curl up inside him, seeking to corral it out of reach of the King’s greedy clutches.
“Let’s find out,” the King said, and the door to the throne room opened on a silent wind, and Elain, oh gods, there was Elain, shining and beautiful, a vision Lucien could have drowned in. His eyes riveted on her lovely face, her warm brown eyes pooling with love and tears, and he whispered her name like a prayer, wishing he could run to her, snatch her up and whisk her far, far away.
But he was trapped, helpless to stop this nightmare, and he cursed himself soundly as he took in the tearstained flush of her cheeks, the lip she was biting to keep it from quivering, the bruise dusting her jawline, her tangled hair, as though some bastard brute had grabbed and twisted it. Her dress was torn in several places, bloodied at the sleeves, and she was chained, her delicate wrists wrapped in those awful magic-devouring chains that could lay low even a High Lord’s power.
If Lucien had had the tears to cry, he would have wept at the sight of her, relief and terror and sorrow warring inside him. He knew he should be stronger, should be stoic, pretend indifference as Tamlin had Under the Mountain, find some clever way around this situation. But his cleverness had gotten them here in the first place, and had his hands been free, he might have grabbed a dagger and plunged it into his own gut, for it would hurt less than the throbbing, aching despair he was in now.
Lucien cursed himself for ever crossing the Wall, for tempting trouble into Elain’s village, for involving her or her folk in this nightmare. He should have let the humans slaughter him, shove him full of ash bolts, or sell him off to the mortal queens, rather than subject Elain to one moment of this horror.
“Lucien?” Elain said, her voice high and plaintive, her loving concern for him bursting through his despair with that one sweet utterance, and if that wasn’t the most agonizing part of all.
“How charming. For a human, she is lovely,” the King drawled.
Lucien snapped, “Her being human has nothing to do with it.” There would never be anyone as beautiful as Elain -- human, faerie, or goddess. He hated the thought of the King even looking at her, much less enacting some evil scheme, and his instincts all screamed at him to immolate this whole fucking castle, blast the King with his hottest fire, burn and burn until every monster in Hybern was ashes and dust. His arms shook in his shackles, desperate to fling themselves outwards, stab and punch and fight.
But he could do nothing. Nothing. He was useless.
I’m always useless.
“Nonsense, little lordling. Her being human has everything to do with it,” the King said, his creepy soulless eyes roving over Elain’s curves appreciatively.
A low growl escaped from Lucien, and the King whirled on him, lifted a finger. Lucien could only gasp out a weak “Fuck — you,” before he was slammed to the ground, pain barking through his nose and teeth. He went limp, not even able to struggle, for the King’s magic had twisted around him like a vice, shoving itself like a gag between his teeth, strangling the air out of his throat. He lay for long moments, struggling for air, while Elain’s panicked shriek rang endlessly in his ears.
“You’re lucky you’re spoken for, boy,” the King growled. “Or I would take far more than your eye for your disrespect.” The soldiers stepped forward, peeling Lucien off the floor, wrestling him back onto his knees. Warm slickness dripped from his forehead, his nose, and he swallowed down the coppery taste, realizing that the shackles he wore ought to prevent his healing. He closed his eyes, forcing calm into his muscles, coaxing whatever power he had left into his palms and fingertips, trying to keep it out of the King’s reach. “If your lord father could only see you now, what would he think? A proud Vanserra, bloodied and broken?”
Lucien spat blood on the floor. That was all that Beron Vanserra deserved, and Lucien was no Vanserra, anyway. He kept his thoughts about that locked down, for although the leering Crown Prince had met a glorious end at the hands of Nesta Archeron, Lucien was unsure whether there might be other daemati in the King’s employ.
The King clucked, “That was distasteful. Let’s hope you have more sense than your mate does, girl, especially if you’d like to save him.”
Lucien wanted to curse both the King and himself. Whatever the King wanted her to do, he was certain she mustn’t do it, particularly not to save Lucien’s unworthy hide. But the King extended a hand, and the guards who’d dared put their cursed paws on Elain nudged her forward. “Your destiny awaits.”
Gods, please, don’t.
Elain looked at Lucien then, her desperate sorrow curling around him like a heavy blanket, but then she held her head higher and looked right at the King, meeting his predatory gaze with a dignified expression. Lucien’s knees trembled as she asked, “What must I do?”
The King stretched out a hand to the Cauldron, that unfathomable relic of creation and destruction, its presence so stifling and thick with enchantment that Lucien had avoided even looking at it. But now he took it in fully, cringing before its overwhelming magic, the low thrum of power that rattled his bones. How the King could stand to be so close to it, Lucien couldn’t imagine, for it was all he could do to keep straight and still.
But Elain beheld the Cauldron with a calm determination that he wondered at. Perhaps being human was shielding her, he thought, grasping onto that scrap of hope like a lifeline, that she would be spared the full horror of what was happening by virtue of her muted senses. He opened his mouth to warn her, cry out for her to beware, but the King’s grip on his voice strangled the words in his throat, and he could only watch as Elain stepped closer.
“It’s so very simple,” the King was saying smoothly. “You need only immerse in its waters —“
Lucien screamed soundlessly as a flash of fur and claws leaped onto the dais, roaring and swiping, and he fell back, cursing as he landed awkwardly, his bound hands allowing him no purchase. He was grabbed, hauled away from the rampaging beast, from Tamlin, and his voice abruptly released as the King pivoted, firing blasts of magic that Lucien could only pray wouldn’t harm Elain.
If I do something, it’s got to be now.
Lucien dug deep into his magic, scraping dry every last drop he could muster, grabbing at any shred of power and frantically calculating where to aim it. He couldn’t hope to grapple with the Cauldron itself, and despaired of pitting himself against the King, distracted though he was. Even if the King were killed, what of all the soldiers and monsters, all the wards tangled and shimmering everywhere Lucien looked?
He thought of Feyre, dragged away by soldiers, of Rhys and his warriors felled by the King’s stifling magic, of Nesta kicking and screaming in Jurian’s arms, and wondered what dark dungeon they’d been stashed in, what the King meant to do with them once he’d had his way with Elain. If he could loosen the King’s hold on them all, if they could access their magic —
Tamlin was flung forward, crashing heavily onto the dais, emitting a shriek so piercing and plaintive that Lucien cried out along with him.
“Get up,” he gasped, “get up, Tamlin.”
The great beast rolled over and sprang upwards, its fierce eyes meeting Lucien’s in some silent understanding, and then Tamlin threw himself straight at the King, and Lucien balled up his fists against the shackles, which should have held his magic but didn’t, and he roared out his anguish and rage as he flung out his power in every direction, careening backwards from the sheer force of it. Every ward in his vision sizzled and snapped, his mechanical eye clicking and zooming rapidly as each golden thread grabbed for his attention, and he squeezed his eyes shut against the dizzying onslaught, reaching for the bond to Elain, the only magic left inside him.
I hope that’s what Jurian wanted.
They’d never been able to openly discuss it, not with Ianthe hovering over him like a spider toying with its wriggling prey, but Jurian had had this, or something like it, in mind, Lucien was almost certain of it. It was the only explanation for why Lucien’s bonds never sapped his magic, why his food was miraculously free of faebane.
Lucien didn’t have time to think on it further, for Tamlin was slammed back down at the King’s feet, whimpering, bleeding heavily, the chain around his neck yanked tight by several soldiers’ hands. The King was tsking at him, scolding, “Now, Tamlin, that really wasn’t wise.”
Tamlin took slow, rasping breaths, his ribcage rising and falling hard with each one, like he was struggling to get air in. “Should I just kill him? Put him out of his misery?” the King mused aloud. “Or leave him like this, to suffer the full consequences of his foolish actions?”
Lucien didn’t know what to pray for. Tamlin’s piercing green eyes were clouding over, his breaths coming slower, and the soldiers on the dais were kicking and stomping on him with impunity, one or two going so far as to brandish their blades. He winced as each of them took a turn, as Tamlin stopped making sounds, blood pooling in his fur.
But the King extended a hand towards Elain, who was watching the scene with tears rolling freely down her face, though the guards’ grip on her arms, and those infernal shackles on her wrists, prevented her from wiping them away. “Come, my dear. No more of that. He’s just a beast, after all.”
“He isn’t,” Elain said stubbornly, and the guards hissed, gripping her more roughly. Lucien clenched his fists, wishing he’d used his magic to blast those males instead, who’d dared put their hands on his mate.
The King smiled indulgently. “Such spirit. You’re stronger than you look, my dear.” He stood up, moving towards the Cauldron. “You will achieve the highest honor that a human such as yourself can attain, to immerse yourself in these magical waters. If you are strong enough, you will —“
“Yes,” Elain said, her eyes firmly fixed on the Cauldron, as though she were answering some unspoken question.
The King frowned, confused by this interruption. “Yes?”
Elain stepped forward. “It is waiting.”
“Well. Well, of course,” the King said, recovering his poise, and Lucien shuddered as Elain took another step towards him, as the King’s large hand curled around Elain’s shoulder.
Don’t touch her, don’t look at her, don’t do this. Gods, don’t do this, if it kills her —
“Don’t,” was all Lucien could manage to grit out.
Elain’s large brown eyes rested on him. “It’s all right, Lucien.”
“It isn’t,” he said pleadingly, twisting uselessly in the shackles. There was nothing right about this. He had done this, put her in harm’s way, handed her over to these most awful of faeries, to be shredded and drowned in the Cauldron —
“Don’t be afraid,” Elain told him.
“Elain,” he wailed, trying to wrench away from the guards, get closer to her, do something. “Please.” He threw a pleading look at the King. “Put me in there instead.”
“Don’t be foolish,” the King snapped at him.
Lucien was shaking like a leaf. He’d been foolish all his life, and now Elain would pay the ultimate price for it. “At least unchain her,” he begged.
The King raised an eyebrow at that. “You’re not going to give me any trouble, are you, my dear?”
Elain looked at him, and smiled. “I am only a humble human, Sire.”
It was not a proper answer, but the King’s lips curled into an unpleasant grin regardless. “At least you know your place.” He gripped the chains around her wrists, twisting until they clattered open, falling to the floor. Lucien grimaced as the King led Elain forward, placing her in front of the Cauldron, which Lucien could now see was filled with dark, churning water.
Don’t, don’t, please, don’t —
Elain trailed her fingertips across the water, which went still and placid, then briefly closed her eyes.
“Pick her up,” the King commanded.
“Wait,” Lucien blurted. “Elain —“
But the soldiers were hoisting Elain up, lifting her in their blood-stained hands, lowering her into the Cauldron’s dark waters.
“Elain,” he cried out hoarsely, his heart shattering as Elain went under.
Long agonizing moments passed, and nothing happened. The room had gone quiet, watchful, waiting, and Lucien’s heart threatened to burst out of his chest, so hard was it pounding. She could be drowning, she could be dying —
Lucien lunged forward, slipping on the bloody floor, landing awkwardly on his shoulder and left arm, kicking frantically at the soldiers who scrambled to restrain him. He barely registered their hands seizing him, dragging him away from the Cauldron, from Elain, who was disappeared and gone, somewhere deep inside it. He barely noticed as they bound him tighter, snapped the collar around his neck, then handed the chain to someone who’d come to stand beside him.
Not someone. Ianthe.
“Come, darling,” she said, tugging at the chain, like he was a puppy on a leash.
“No,” he howled, jerking away, the collar digging hard into his neck, making him wheeze. Good. He didn’t care if it snapped his neck. It was a way out, at least.
Ianthe seemed to guess the direction of his thoughts, or at least think better of her chances of pitting her strength against his, for she let the chain slacken.
Cauldron damn me, I can’t even die.
Lucien curled forward, letting his sobs overtake him. “Elain,” he cried, his good eye flooding with useless tears, his mechanical eye clicking and shuttering closed.
I promised to protect her.
I couldn’t protect her.
He was useless, worse than useless.
Lucien took deep, ragged breaths, though he didn’t know why he bothered. He deserved to die — no, he deserved worse than that. Death would be too quick an escape.
No, he deserved this torture. He would spend every moment, from now until the end of his miserable life, taunted with Elain’s absence, with the knowledge that he’d failed her, that he’d handed his mate and all Prythian to Hybern. He deserved to spend long years tied to Ianthe’s bed, subject to her sick whims and depredations, and he deserved to be paraded through this monstrous palace, led in chains, displayed for the coward and fool that he was. He hoped the soldiers would kick and stab him, as they’d done to Tamlin, then heal him just enough so they could do it again.
“Elain,” he whispered brokenly, “Elain.”
After what seemed like hours, the King cleared his throat. “Well, that’s that. Another disappointment.” He strode back to his throne, saying, “Ianthe, why don’t you take him and —“
Suddenly Lucien jolted, his whole body flooding hot and tingly, and he jerked his head up to see that the Cauldron had tipped over, its icy waters spilling out across the floor.
Lucien’s heart stuttered as he struggled to take in what he was seeing — a bright glowing light, so intense that he had to avert his gaze, but then he was staring back at it, entranced by the sheer power pouring forth, and he forgot all his sorrow and anguish and shame as the light surrounded him, warmed him, soothed his exhausted aching heart. He didn’t know if it was the Mother Herself, or some figment of his own wild imagination, or a dream, and he didn’t care.
There might have been shouting, or whispers or silence, but Lucien heard nothing, saw nothing except for the light and the being within it. His mind grasped uselessly at any explanation, anything familiar. He felt tugged forward, beckoned toward the light, and he strained to obey, frowning in confusion when he was held fast.
Chains. I’m in chains. He’d quite forgotten.
Next to him, Tamlin shifted and groaned, and if Lucien had been able to look, he might have seen the male struggle to sit up, his long matted blond hair tangled and tinged with blood.
He might have seen the King of Hybern backing away slowly, hands raised in a defensive pose.
He might have seen how the soldiers with any sense were already running, while a few stalwarts brandished ash arrows that were sprouting roots and leaves, thickening into saplings before their eyes.
He might have looked down at his own shackled arms, at the vines snaking out of his pocket where he always kept the seeds Elain had given him for safekeeping, sprouting leaves, weaving themselves around his chains, squeezing and popping the links one by one.
But Lucien could not look anywhere except the light, at the being who was stepping forward, radiating power.