Two. It was two. I could gladly, willingly, fanatically believe in a Cauldron and Fate if they would take care of me. I believed in two. Two.
I reached for the second lever, but a blinding pain racked my hand before I could touch the stone. I hissed, withdrawing. I opened my palm to reveal the slitted eye tattooed there. It narrowed. I had to be hallucinating.
The grate was about to cover the inscription, barely six feet above my head. I couldn’t breathe, couldn’t think. The heat was too much, and metal sizzled, so close to my ears.
I again reached for the middle lever, but the pain paralyzed my fingers.
The eye had returned to its usual state. I extended my hand toward the first lever. Again, pain.
I reached for the third lever. No pain. My fingers met with stone, and I looked up to find the grate not four feet from my head. Through it, I found a star-flecked violet gaze.
I reached for the first lever. Pain. But when I reached for the third lever …
Rhysand’s face remained a mask of boredom. Sweat slipped down my brow, stinging my eyes. I could only trust him; I could only give myself up again, forced to concede by my helplessness.
The spikes were so enormous up close. All I had to do was lift my arm above my head and I’d burn the flesh off my hands.
“Feyre, please!” Lucien moaned.
I shook so badly I could scarcely stand. The heat of the spikes bore down on me.
The stone lever was cool in my hand.
I shut my eyes, unable to look at Tamlin, bracing myself for the impact and the agony, and pulled the third lever.
The pulsing heat didn’t grow closer. Then—a sigh. Lucien.
I opened my eyes to find my tattooed fingers white-knuckled beneath the ink as they gripped the lever. The spikes hovered not inches from my head.
I had won—I had …
The grate groaned as it lifted toward the ceiling, cool air flooding the chamber. I gulped it down in uneven breaths.
Lucien was offering up some kind of prayer, kissing the ground again and again. The floor beneath me rose, and I was forced to release the lever that had saved me as I was brought to the surface again. My knees wobbled.
I couldn’t read, and it had almost killed me. I hadn’t even won properly. I sank to my knees, letting the platform carry me, and covered my face in my shaking hands.
Tears burned just before pain seared through my left arm. I would never beat the third task. I would never free Tamlin, or his people. The pain shot through my bones again, and through my increasing hysteria, I heard words inside my head that stopped me short.
Don’t let her see you cry.
Put your hands at your sides and stand up.
I couldn’t. I couldn’t move.
Stand. Don’t give her the satisfaction of seeing you break.
My knees and spine, not entirely of my own will, forced me upright, and when the ground at last stopped moving, I looked at Amarantha with tearless eyes.
Good, Rhysand told me. Stare her down. No tears—wait until you’re back in your cell. Amarantha’s face was drawn and white, her black eyes like onyx as she beheld me. I had won, but I should be dead. I should be squashed, my blood oozing everywhere.
Count to ten. Don’t look at Tamlin. Just stare at her.
I obeyed. It was the only thing that kept me from giving in to the sobs trapped within my chest, thundering to get out.
I willed myself to meet Amarantha’s gaze. It was cold and vast and full of ancient malice, but I held it. I counted to ten.
Good girl. Now walk away. Turn on your heel—good. Walk toward the door. Keep your chin high. Let the crowd part. One step after another.
I listened to him, let him keep me tethered to sanity as I was escorted back to my cell by the guards—who still kept their distance. Rhysand’s words echoed through my mind, holding me together.
But when my cell door closed, he went silent, and I dropped to the floor and wept.
I wept for hours. For myself, for Tamlin, for the fact that I should be dead and had somehow survived. I cried for everything I’d lost, every injury I’d ever received, every wound—physical or otherwise. I cried for that trivial part of me, once so full of color and light—now hollow and dark and empty.
I couldn’t stop. I couldn’t breathe. I couldn’t beat her. She won today, and she hadn’t known it.
She’d won; it was only by cheating that I’d survived. Tamlin would never be free, and I would perish in the most awful of ways. I couldn’t read—I was an ignorant, human fool. My shortcomings had caught up with me, and this place would become my tomb. I would never paint again; never see the sun again.
The walls closed in—the ceiling dropped. I wanted to be crushed; I wanted to be snuffed out. Everything converged, squeezing inward, sucking out air. I couldn’t keep myself in my body—the walls were forcing me out of it. I was grasping for my body, but it hurt too much each time I tried to maintain the connection. All I had wanted—all I had dared want, was a life that was quiet, easy. Nothing more than that. Nothing extraordinary. But now … now …
I felt the ripple in the darkness without having to look up, and didn’t flinch at the soft footsteps that approached me. I didn’t bother hoping that it would be Tamlin. “Still weeping?”
I didn’t lower my hands from my face. The floor rose toward the lowering ceiling—I would soon be flattened. There was no color, no light here.
“You’ve just beaten her second task. Tears are unnecessary.”
I wept harder, and he laughed. The stones reverberated as he knelt before me, and though I tried to fight him, his grip was firm as he grasped my wrists and pried my hands from my face.
The walls weren’t moving, and the room was open—gaping. No colors, but shades of darkness, of night. Only those star-flecked violet eyes were bright, full of color and light. He gave me a lazy smile before he leaned forward.
I pulled away, but his hands were like shackles. I could do nothing as his mouth met with my cheek, and he licked away a tear. His tongue was hot against my skin, so startling that I couldn’t move as he licked away another path of salt water, and then another. My body went taut and loose all at once and I burned, even as chills shuddered along my limbs. It was only when his tongue danced along the damp edges of my lashes that I jerked back.
He chuckled as I scrambled for the corner of the cell. I wiped my face as I glared at him.
He smirked, sitting down against a wall. “I figured that would get you to stop crying.”
“It was disgusting.” I wiped my face again.