At some point, just as the Inner Circle began to feel even a little hope that things might go in their favor, Fate decided to step in and make itself known.
Azriel could winnow and fly without exhausting himself too quickly, Cassian had was carrying Mor on his exercises and could remain in the sky most of the time, Mor herself had made massive progress with Nesta (who now only ignored her!), and Rhysand had taken up Azriel's job of checking in with spy networks around Prythian.
Amren was in high spirits even before Rhys share with her the image of Feyre bathed in the light of the sun while Ianthe looked on red-faced. For that old monster to smile and laugh- it was a miracle in itself.
They dared to hope- they dared to dream that maybe, just maybe, there was a version of their tale that ended with everyone standing together in the townhouse alive and whole and with Hybern defeated.
… and then the first blow came.
Four days after the Summer Solstice, as Rhys endured an awkward (and mildly hostile) lunch with the Archeron sisters, he stiffened. Cassian was beside him, bating Nesta, and he threw a shield over the females as Rhys' skin exploded in black scales. They were crawling up his neck as he snarled and dug into the table with those horrific talons, ripping through wood as easily as if it were tissue paper.
Cassian shoved the table away (gently sliding Nesta and Elain out of the path) and planted himself in front of his friend as he tried to calm him. If he transformed into that beast, he could very well destroy the House of Wind before Rhys' rational mind overtook the monster.
Bit by bit, Cassian managed to talk Rhysand down before anything more than the table was ruined.
Then he found out what set him off:
Tamlin struck Feyre.
It was a worktable flung across the room by his power- but that prick dared to strike the High Lady of Night. In her sudden panic and confusion Feyre had reached for the bond- for her mate- and for the first time since bringing her to Night, Rhysand was overwhelmed with the panic and pain of that female he loved.
Nesta and Elain were sent out of the room long before Mor and Azriel arrived to find out what the hell had happened, and Rhys was there to relay Feyre's assurances that she would be alright. Though, if he stopped them from slaughtering Spring or if they stopped him, he'd never know.
But if Tamlin so much as looked sideways at Feyre, they would go in there and bring her back home. It was no longer a matter of having faith in her- they would never stop loving and trusting their friend- it was a matter of history. Of what Tamlin's family had taken from them already, and of what he'd taken from Feyre all those months they'd been together after Under the Mountain.
The day Tamlin (or his magic) struck Feyre should have been the worst they had to endure before she winnowed back home to Night…
But then, four days later, the Inner Circle was plunged into an entirely different kind of Hell.
It started during breakfast, as Mor wandered across Velaris towards the Townhouse to mooch eggs and bacon off of her cousin. She'd long since trained Rhys to keep a full spread on his table, lest she or the Illyrians wake up feeling peckish. She made it to the end of the street before Cassian's shouting was audible.
"ARE YOU COMPLETELY INSANE YOU CAULDRON-DAMNED PRICK? DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA-"
He went quiet as someone spoke.
"-DON'T TELL ME TO BE QUIET! NOT AFTER THIS! NOT AFTER YOU MAKE-"
A shield rose up around the Townhouse and the street fell silent once more.
Unfortunately, Mor knew she would be allowed inside… and she also knew what must have happened for Cassian's temper to be unleashed.
He knew Feyre was High Lady.
She headed quickly for the Townhouse, not even bothering to acknowledge the curious faces that stared out from the windows. Cassian had woken half the block before Rhys muted the residence. Mor put a hand on the doorknob and the shield rippled, admitting her.
"-AND WHAT? YOU DECIDED THAT WAS A SECRET THAT SHOULD BE KEPT WHEN WE'RE GOING TO FUCKING HYBERNWITH BOTH HEADS OF THIS COURT?! DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO WOULD HAVE TAKEN YOUR THRONE IF YOU TWO DIED?!"
Mor closed the door behind her, but remained in the hallway and out of Cassian's line of fire.
Rhys' voice was patient, but hard, "The same person you thought would take it if I died. We were all on the same mission Cass, it isn't like Feyre or I stowed away in the raiding party. You knew I was High Lord, it didn't matter if-"
"IT MATTERED! IT ALWAYS MATTERED! IT WILL NEVER STOPMATTERING!"
"She wanted to tell you all when everyone could be happy about it, not when it just complicated the attack plan! After Hybern, at dinner that night, we were going to tell you."
"INSTEAD WE WERE HALF-SLAUGHTERED AND SHE ENDED UP IN THE HANDS OF THAT MONSTER WHO CALLS HIMSELF LORD OF SPRING! HE'S THE REASON OUR MOTHER AND SISTER ARE DEAD, HAVE YOU FORGOTTEN THAT?!"
Mor winced. Cassian wanted a fight, and he was doing whatever it took to get a rise out of Rhysand. No one told Cass what Feyre truly was to the Night Court. They didn't want to worry him as he was recovering, then they simply hoped that Feyre might return beforeanyone had to reveal the truth of her position…
…which made the rest of the Inner Circle exactly like the High Lord and Lady of Night. The same motivations, the same reasoning, and the same bullshit excuses.
"Cassian, you know that isn't fair," Rhys sighed.
"FAIR?! I WOULD HAVE GIVEN MY LIFE TO PROTECT FEYRE-"
"And you wouldn't have done that before? What would you have done if she was just our friend? When Hybern closed that noose around our throats, destroyed your wings, and handed her over to Tamlin like some kind of prize- what would you have done differently? Would you have just shrugged and said 'Well, she's just a friend, so you keep her'?" Rhys waited for an answer.
"You know that's not-"
"You knew she was my mate and you did absolutely everything you could to protect her. Where would you have drawn the line for someone who was just a friend? At what point would you have given up on her? Hell, if you'd met her just that day- what would change?"
"She isn't just some random female who-"
"If she was," Rhys pushed, "what would change? Cassian, you would never let anyone face those monsters when you were physically capable of stopping it. Nothing would have changed no matter what Feyre was to us all- a stranger, a friend, my mate, or your High Lady."
Cassian growled, but Mor could tell the battle was won. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath from the entry way.
Cauldron-damn the fool, but Rhys was right.
Nothing would have changed if they knew the truth. Not a single, solitary thing. They loved Feyre as fiercely as they loved one another, and though they'd pushed harder to protect her as Rhys' mate- to protect him from the loss of something so precious so soon after finding it- the truth was that if she were just another innocent along for the ride, they would have done the same thing.
"The problem isn't the secret, it's that there was a secret in the first place." Rhys sighed as he made Cassian's argument for him, "I understand that, and I'm sorry. It was just as important to Feyre and I that you all survived, and she thought splitting your focus could get you killed. Changing the game at the eleventh hour… I agreed with her. I still agree with her. Hybern was a disaster but- but we all survived Cass. It was more of a gift than Feyre or I ever thought we'd be granted. If Feyre makes it home- when she makes it home- maybe it will be a sign of what's to come. A sign that… that this war could end in our favor after all."
"That's a bullshit dream," Cassian spat, "and you're an idiot if you believe it."
Mor heard the sound of wood against wood as a chair was pushed back from the table. A few hard footsteps later and Cassian was in the hallway. His dark glare struck her harder than any blow- the sheer rage in his eyes was world-ending. Mor stepped aside and let the Illyrian walk past her and out of the townhouse.
Though the door closed no harder than usual behind him, the sound still made Mor wince.
"Don't bother saying anything," Rhys mumbled from the dining room, "I know the routine by now. I'm a piece of shit for not telling anyone Feyre was High Lady… Or I'm a piece of shit for not going straight to Spring to get her back… Or I'm a piece of shit for nearly murdering my best friend… Or I'm a piece of shit for not going to get Feyre four days ago when Tamlin hit her… You know what Mor? I'm beginning to think I'm just a piece of shit in general."
He'd won the fight against Cassian, so why did Rhys sound so utterly defeated?
Mor left the entryway at long last and walked slowly to the dining room. Rhys was sitting there, poking at his scrambled eggs with the edge of a spoon, whittling them into smaller and smaller chunks. He was wearing a rich ebony tunic- meaning he intended to go to the Court of Nightmares.
"Feel like playing a villain?" She slid into a chair on the far end of the table from him- both giving Rhys space and making it clear she wasn't leaving.
"It gets harder every time," he mumbled. "The decisions, the masks… but I have to protect this wretched place. I'm already the High Lord who opened Velaris to attack. I won't be the one who loses Night entirely."
"We know why you kept Feyre's title a secret, and you know why we're angry."
Rhys nodded at his food.
"Why didn't you go to Spring to bring her back?"
"Because… because we need the intel."
"Lie." Mor didn't need to touch her power to read it.
"We needed Spring to-"
He stared at his eggs for a long time, "Because I want Tamlin to suffer for everything he cost us, and Feyre needs him to pay for what he did to her- the neglect and imprisonment-"
"Lie." Mor crossed her arms.
Rhys closed his eyes and sighed, "Because she wanted to go- or at least when she realized it was the only way to get us out she did. She wanted to do something brave and I swore to her a long time ago that I would never be like Tamlin. I will never stand in her way."
"Truth." She picked up a muffin from one of the platters and tore off a chunk to eat, "Why did you want to kill Cassian?" Her heart skipped at beat at even the mention of that horrific day.
"Because I thought he was already gone."
Mor considered it, then ate another bite, "Expand on that."
"Because I thought he was already gone and… and it's what Cassian would have wanted… But he wasn't gone, and I didn't-"
"Why didn't you get Feyre when Tamlin threw the table at her?" She actually had to tap into her power for that one. Rhys never explained his reasoning to any of them.
Rhys rolled his shoulders and a bit of darkness rose from his skin- the only hint of panic and rage that he was willing to show, "Because I don't just love Feyre, I trust her… She knows home is always here, and whenever she speaks to me I can feel how much she misses you all… If she's still there, it's because she thinks she needs to be. She's started promising she'll return soon and after that- since she hasn't returned, it means she isn't ready yet. She's losing herself in all of this, she let Tamlin hurt her so that his people would be forced to see him for what he is. I understand why she's still there I just…" he closed his eyes again, "I want her home… but I also trust her to know when to come back."
Mor ate more of her muffin while Rhys spoke. When he was done she only shrugged, "To summarize- you tried to protect us by keeping Feyre's new title secret, you had faith enough in your mate to let her do what she feels she needs to do, you wanted to honor your friend after exhausting any possibilities that he'd survived Hybern at all, and that mate you have faith in- you also trust her and support her decisions." She stood and offered Rhys an exasperated half-smile, "Yeah, you're a real piece of shit. Go ahead, play villain in the Court of Nightmares, it'll make you feel as wretched as you already are."
She took a step back towards the door and hesitated, "Rhys- we understand why you do it, and you were right to make each decision but… we don't have to be happy about it. The secrets have to stop. And you have to stop throwing yourself in front of every sword or arrow you find. You've paid too high of a price too many times to keep this up. As angry as all of us are with you, we're also scared foryou."
When Night falls, make sure Feyre Archeron is in his arms.
The words of the Suriel- of Rhys' own mother- echoed in Mor's heart. Rhysand was the one who would pay the greatest price in this war with Hybern, but she wouldn't let him pay it alone. Maybe that horrible day could be pushed back a few years- a few centuries even, if they could convince that prick to stop sacrificing himself at every opportunity.
But if they failed- if the High Lord of Night really did fall in battle- Mor wouldn't let her cousin go thinking he was anything less than someone they all loved.
Rhys' words were cut off as a shockwave rippled through him, fromhim. It crashed over Mor, raced across the streets of Velaris, and flooded the Night Court itself. An overwhelming wall of dread and terror blasted out from Rhysand, accompanied only seconds later by the blackest night Mor had ever seen.
In the center of that tempest of fear and darkness, Rhys put a hand to his heart and took a long, shuddering breath.
The mating bond was silent.
Not gone- that thought alone kept the Night Court whole after his initial shock- but where it should have led to Feyre it led only to something thick and dark.
It was more wretched than anything Rhys had ever felt before.
For three years before she even came to Prythian, Rhys felt Feyre somewhere deep in his soul, perhaps even longer than that. Even before the bond itself snapped into place he had a small corner of his ruined heart carved out just for her, for every bit of hope and light and life that mysterious human girl gave him.
Now it was dark, barren, empty.
Like she'd been cut from existence.
The darkness cleared and he could see Mor shouting at him. His cousin was terrified. She ran to him and it was like she was moving at half speed. She grabbed his arms, begging him to explain- but Rhys heard none of it. All he could hear was a high-pitched ringing, all he could feel was the absence of Feyre.
Something was wrong.
Something was very wrong.
Mor vanished in a wave of blackness that swallowed all of Velaris. This time, when that darkness passed, Rhys was standing in a brilliantly green and damnably mild forest- surrounded by the fetid stench of roses and Spring magic. Buttery sunlight danced between the trees, painting everything an unnatural shade of golden-green.
There was a roar in the distance that cut through the silence in Rhys' mind. He wrapped himself in a shield so thick, light itself had to bend around him. Within the shield Rhys wove the strongest glamour he was capable of, until even Hybern wouldn't be able to detect him.
Tamlin was on the rampage, and as it always was with him he'd given himself wholly to the beast form.
Rhys sniffed at the air and detected that glorious scent of citrus-and-the-sea. It was strong, near enough that he knew he'd missed Feyre by no more than a few seconds. Rhysand ran into those ridiculous trees and followed the scent to a clearing littered with bodies. The Hybern royals were dead, with blood and gore splashed across a large rock. Beside it Ianthe slumped, her hand a purple, ruined mess.
He blasted around the clearing, following Feyre's scent into the trees-
-but then it vanished.
She'd been cloaked- or cloaked herself- so that not even her scent gave away her position. Lucien Vanserra's scent was with hers, and it was drenched in adrenaline.
He was afraid, she was not.
Rhys traced her steps back into that clearing. He sidestepped the others and found an apple that was bathed in the scent of Feyre's mouth. Rhys let his magic stroke the flesh of the apple, sensing what he could not. There was something on it- something akin to the thick darkness at the other end of his mating bond.
The apple- it was laced with something. Something that had muted Feyre to the point where even he couldn't feel her.
Tamlin's roar echoed through Spring again. Rhysand could hear him crashing through the trees, enraged and lost and confused. Feyre was gone- he didn't know why obviously- but he was beginning to suspect.
Her scent was so near- Rhys knew that if he shouted, Feyre would find him. There was no way she was out of Spring yet-
-but not only would he give away his presence, whatever ruse she'd set up- whatever noose was wrapped around Tamlin's throat even now- if he called to her and she came, everything would have been for nothing. No one in all of Spring could even suspect that he was there.
Rhysand had to believe she could find her way on her own. He had to trust her to survive until whatever hid their bond wore off for good.
Disappointment crashed into him and only added to the weight and strain on his soul. There was no ringing in his ears anymore, but a roar not of Tamlin's making sounded from a pocket of his mind… This time it had nothing to do with the beast that prowled beneath his skin.
Rhys forced his thoughts northward to Velaris, and with more than a little regret he summoned those shadows once more and traveled the length of Prythian to the fight waiting for him there.
"Is she hurt? Is she alive?!"
Amren, Mor, and Cassian were bombarding Rhys with questions before he even properly formed. Azriel winnowed into the room while Rhysand was still orienting himself to the new place. After the pulse of fear went out from him across the land, the Inner Circle had converged upon the townhouse with incredible speed.
"She left Spring- Tamlin's on a rampage. He has no idea what happened. Hybern's Dagdan and Brannagh are both dead, Ianthe's been mutilated-"
"Good girl." Amren smiled slightly.
"-and Feyre's power has been suppressed somehow. Probably faebane, but I'm not familiar with the scent. I think Spring is going to be unraveling in the coming days, we'll have to be cautious. Lucien Vanserra may be with Feyre. I'm not sure if he's helping her, holding her hostage, or hunting her. Her scent was masked but she was heading north." Rhysand said.
Azriel took over before Rhys could draw a breath, "Mor, you start Under the Mountain, see if you can find any signs of movement out of the Spring cave and where it might have gone. She's in a hurry and while unlikely, it could drive her there just to put distance between herself and Tamlin. If you're lucky, you'll spot Feyre on the way out of Spring." Mor winnowed before Azriel finished speaking, "Cassian, how long can you stay in the air?"
"On my own? An hour." He'd been flying that morning and was already exhausted, but he'd push himself however long he could.
"Fine, you take the border between Spring and Autumn, I'll cover Spring and Summer. We search the northern side of the border, Rhys will cloak himself in as many glamours and shields as he can and monitor the Spring side. Rely on sight as well as scent, look for anything out of place."
"Spring has their own tunnels to other Courts. Most of them were sealed during Amarantha's invasion. I'll start with those, then check the paths out." Rhys grabbed Cassian and prepared to winnow back across Prythian. He cast an apologetic glance to Amren, "I'll try my best to find someone for you to hunt later."
"Don't worry about me, go get your mate." Amren growled. The males vanished in a flash, leaving her behind in the townhouse. There was nothing she could do- not as long as they were simply looking for Feyre. Her talents were in hunting and slaughter.
"Those pricks could have at least winnowed me to an Illyrian camp for a nice rampage." Amren grumbled as she fell into a chair and waited for word on her friend.
Six days of hunting, of searching, of not finding so much as a trace of where they'd gone.
Six days of hope, disappointment, and fear.
The Inner Circle returned to the Townhouse only when exhaustion forced them, and returned to the wilds without more than a couple of hours rest. Nuala and Cerridwen alone managed the spy network, and they gave Rhysand brief reports whenever he found his way home again.
Spring was falling apart. Every last trap Feyre laid for Tamlin was sprung with breathtaking results. His people turned on him hard and fast, and when Hybern sent a daemati to Ianthe's recovery bed it took hours for the male to dismantle Feyre's instructions (not that the whore of a priestess would ever admit).
Even then, Tamlin wasn't convinced he'd been played by the female he'd stolen. He seemed to truly believe in the early, most critical hours that Dagdan and Brannagh had attacked in some way and she'd fled- or run off with Lucien at last.
It didn't really matter though- the moment Feyre was safe and home Rhysand intended to declare for all of Prythian to hear that she was his mate and the first-ever High Lady. No more secrets, no more room for those monsters in Spring to claim manipulation by Night. When Feyre was home, Tamlin would know clearly that he'd been played for a fool.
Azriel combed the border between summer and Spring for three days- shielded from any curious eyes on either side. When he was done there, he began a tour of the dungeons of every High Lord's seat in Prythian, just in case Feyre had been captured.
Cassian and Mor donned whatever glamours they deemed necessary to infiltrate the lowest dregs of society and hunted some of the most notorious faerie on the continent. Bounty hunters, assassins, mercenaries- anyone who might have been hired to capture and deliver Feyre or Lucien Vanserra was questioned carefully, delicately.
Everyone knew Spring was shattered.
Everyone knew Feyre Cursebreaker had fled for her life after being brutalized by Hybern's twin heirs.
No one knew what became of her afterwards.
Nesta and Elain were all but forgotten in the frantic scramble for Feyre. No one bothered to check on the Archeron sisters, and no one felt particularly rushed to inform them that anything was wrong. Even Cassian sent only short, mildly irritating letters to Nesta and did not expend precious energy on the flight up to the House of Wind.
Early in the morning on the sixth day, as Rhysand rose from another sleepless night, a shiver of cold licked down his spine… One he wasn't entirely sure was of his own making.
He couldn't track the feeling, and the mating bond stayed as dark and silent as ever, but it was her. It had to be. He just had to hope that it was a sign that whatever poison she'd been given was finally wearing off.
The rest of the Inner Circle was in the dining room when Rhys came down at last. Cassian was returning from the hunt, Mor grabbing a bite before heading back out, and Azriel was readying to resume his search, just like Rhysand. Amren was pouring over books to try and find some way to find Feyre faster, but whatever Hybern's goons poisoned her with seemed to render her immune to tracking spells.
"I'm spending the day checking healers near the southern borders of Autumn and Summer," Azriel muttered to his oatmeal, "she might have gone to one looking for an antidote, especially if the poison had any physical effects."
"Here," Rhys held out a small coin that Azriel slipped into his pocket. It would hold enough of a glamour to keep their enemies from noticing the Shadowsinger while he was corporeal.
Mor was digging into roasted chicken with spiced greens- her lunch, even though the sun was still rising. She ate quickly, eager to return to the search, "I'm writing off the tunnels Under the Mountain. Granted, if she was desperate fleeing Spring, she might have gone through there, but she's had nearly a week of hiding… She'll be above ground. I'll take the healers in Summer Az, if you want Autumn." Rhys flipped her another glamoured coin.
Nuala slid out of the shadows and handed a note to Rhysand. She cast an eye across the table, checking to see if any more food was needed before returning to whatever place the twins went when they were invisible.
"Only one ship has set sail from Spring towards Hybern. I killed everyone on board- eventually. Hybern and the human queens- neither of them have her." Cassian took a large bite of steak. He needed protein to rebuild his energy as quickly as possible.
Rhysand's heart was pounding in his chest as he read the note from Nuala. He'd entrusted the twins with a mission of their own after the attack in Hybern. While he was helping manage Azriel's spies, Rhysand put in a request for information… It was just that this was the worst possible time for that information to arrive.
"I'll be visiting the continent. I want to try and find a way into the queen's palace." Rhys braced himself for an argument.
Amren was the first to bite, "We know- as much as we can be certain- that Feyre hasn't left Prythian. There is no point in going to the queen's palace."
"This isn't about Feyre. We need to know what they're up to and we can't afford to delay any longer. You four are looking for Feyre, I might as well be useful somewhere."
Mor was the second to snap, "Rhys- your mate is missing. I agree that we need information on the queens, but we can hold off on that until she's home."
"Can we?" Rhys raised an eyebrow, "Mor, Hybern could attack any day. Feyre shattered Spring beneath his nose- he could be sailing to Prythian right now-"
"Which is why we need to focus on finding Feyre," Mor looked around the table for support- or confirmation that she wasn't the one who was insane at the moment.
Rhys needed them angry- he needed them to let him go without anyone following.
Azriel predictably took Mor's side, "She's right. As your spymaster, I only recommend searching for Feyre right now. We have spies at the ports in the human lands, they'll tell us if the Queens ready to launch their armies. Cassian has been patrolling the sea between here and Hybern- there is no need for you to go to the continent. Not until we find her."
"I need to do something and you all have everything in hand," Rhys said a silent prayer of thanks for the bewildered anger on the faces of his Inner Circle. He agreed with them wholeheartedly, and he was more than happy that they pushed back against his plan.
But he couldn't tell them the truth. Not now- and possibly not ever. Not if he wanted Feyre to forgive him for what he was about to do. Or rather, what he'd started when he gave the order to the twins in the first place. He honestly wasn't sure how she would feel about it.
Cassian saw something in Rhys' eyes that the others didn't. He was too perceptive- something few gave him credit for. "Rhys- you could be the difference between finding her alive or- or-" he couldn't force the words out.
He didn't need to.
Ever since the failed attack on Hybern, ever since they lost Feyre in the first place, thoughts of Rhys' mother and sister were all too near. It was true though- if Feyre was in danger the split second advantage Rhys had over any enemy could be all that stood between life and death. She'd just struck a crushing blow to the male who betrayed the family of the Night Court to their graves. In his rage who knew what Tamlin might do to her? She had no power, no way to reach out to her friends- they needed Rhysand.
"I have to go. I have to do something. I'll be back once I'm sure there's no way in."
Mor stood the same time he did, "Rhys, stop! This is ridiculous! Your priority has to be Feyre-"
"I agree," Rhysand cut her off, "and I am going to find any information that could give us an edge in war so that Feyre and as many of you as possible survive. Scour Prythian, leave no stone unturned, and keep in touch." He winnowed away without another word, leaving three out of four bewildered and frustrated.
Cassian didn't like whatever Rhys was doing, but over even Azriel he could understand the truth of the situation. There was something Rhys needed to handle, and he wanted as few questions about it later on as possible.
There was a thread they'd left loose for far too long, and to save their future, Rhysand was doing whatever he could to find the missing Archeron before their enemies.
"Oy! Back away from the door." A guard kicked the bars of the cell, waking the middle aged man resting against them.
He scrambled out of the way as the cell door was unlocked and a younger man was thrown in. He stumbled and crashed to the floor- but avoided taking any damage to his exposed hands or face. The tunic he wore was nice enough to mark him as a man of means- scarlet embroidered in golden thread. His black hair was a bit too long for polite society. His skin was tanned, his eyes blue, and around his wrist was a braided iron knot- all the hallmarks of a man who hailed from the desert tribes of the south.
"I thank you for your warm hospitality, gents!" The young man called as the guards locked the cell door and stomped off. He smiled and looked over at the older man "I think they like me."
The older man snorted and leaned back against the stone wall of the cell. Only a small square of light trickled in from a window high above and he stretched his bare feet out to soak up what warmth he could from the sun, "It's only you and me in here."
"Isn't it wonderful? I love a quiet dungeon. They're so… homey," the young man brushed some dirt off his tunic and made himself comfortable.
"That wasn't what I meant, and I think you know it." The man kept his smile pleasant. He had no desire to pick a fight, but he wouldn't be played for a fool, "There are four cells in this dungeon, and only mine was occupied."
"I don't like being alone, I asked for company."
"Mercenary warlords don't particularly care what you ask for."
The young one raised his eyebrows, "And what did you ask for, Lord Archeron, that landed you in a cell?"
"I asked for an army."
"Did you lack the coin to pay them?"
The old man laughed, "Far from it. I offered them twice what they were asking."
"And that landed you in a cage?"
"No, they just found out what they were hired to fight and decided I was a better investment dead than alive."
Finally the smile faded from the young man's face and he frowned, "A fight? I'd assumed you were hiring them to guard something." Two something's to be exact- though an entire mercenary army wouldn't be enough to drag Nesta Archeron across the ocean if she didn't want to go.
Especially not now.
"Prythian is waking, lad. There is something dark brewing north of the Wall that will destroy everything I hold precious and the Queens of the mortal lands won't lift a finger to help. I spent my life disappointing three precious angels, it's time I did something they could be proud of."
"I don't know if I'd call Nesta Archeron a 'precious angel'," the young man murmured, "more like 'vicious she-devil'."
"So, you've met her?" Lord Archeron didn't seem too surprised. In fact, he looked almost relieved, "She inherits that temper from her mother. Don't mind her… May I ask which of my daughters hired you to find me? You've obviously met Nesta, but I've failed her far too often for her to care if I fall off the face of this world… Elain, perhaps?" A bit of sadness flickered in his eyes, a pain that only seemed to fuel his determination.
"This isn't the proper place for a chat. Shall we?" The young man held out a hand. After a moment's consideration, Lord Archeron took it.
The world turned into something dark. Violent winds whipped around them and every fiber of their beings screamed against the stench of magic- sharp as citrus and laced with the scent of an ocean breeze. When the darkness cleared the men were seated in a small camp somewhere bright and lush.
They had to be a hundred miles from the mercenaries at least.
"Better," the young man released Lord Archeron and walked over to the far side of the camp. He stumbled slightly and shook his head to dispel dizziness, "Sorry- it's a lot smoother when I'm not worrying about maintaining the glamour and all the dampers. Hiding power is one thing, appearing human is another entirely." The young man waved a hand and a square of canvas fell out of thin air. "My credentials."
Lord Archeron caught the canvas with a shaking hand. Before he even saw the painting on it- a spring rose- his eyes filled with tears. "She's alive?" his voice was barely a whisper as he traced the petals, "My baby's alive?"
"She is," the man sat down and offered Lord Archeron a handkerchief. He didn't accept it, "That one is a couple of weeks old. Full disclosure: I had it stolen."
"When she returned to Prythian I thought- I thought-"
The young man hesitated, "She isn't the girl you remember… but she is alive."
Lord Archeron continued to trace the brushstrokes of her painting, "Was she the one who sent you?"
"If she knew I was here, she'd probably kill me." The young man didn't even smile at that, "But… things have happened, and you are in a lot of danger."
"Who are you?"
"My name is Rhysand and I- I'm her friend." Rhys swallowed hard and reinforced his glamour to hide not only his fae attributes, but also the shaking in his hands. An odd thought struck him- according to the laws of humans and fae both, since Feyre was his mate- the man sitting beside him now was his… his father.
It was centuries since he'd had one of those.
"Tell me what happened- why are you here if she wouldn't want you to come? And why did you have to steal this painting?"
"Because if she had her way, it would have burned by now." Rhys shook his head to clear away the fears that swirled there whenever he thought of Spring, "What did Feyre tell you about Prythian the last time you saw her?"
Lord Archeron looked up at last, "Only that something terrible was happening- a blight that could bring down the Wall."
"Close enough, I suppose." Rhys took a deep breath, "It wasn't a blight, it was a female. A dangerous General of Hybern who tricked and enslaved the High Lords. Only Tamlin- the one who took Feyre from you- was allowed to remain in his Court and defend the Wall… But he fell too, and the General Amarantha claimed him."
"Your daughter walked straight into her stronghold and challenged her for the freedom of Prythian. She won- but Amarantha killed her in retribution. Feyre Archeron- the lone human in a den of monsters- did what no High Lord had been able to do for fifty years… So after a High Lord killed Amarantha, all seven gave a piece of themselves to bring Feyre back in repayment of her bravery."
Rhys was summarizing in the most basic terms, but he figured one day there would be time enough for Feyre to tell her father the tale in full, "She was remade as High Fae- her power exceeds even most High Lords now."
"But she's alive? She's safe?" Lord Archeron grabbed Rhys' hand tight, "Tamlin- the Lord of Spring- he kept her safe, right?"
Lying to Feyre's father made Rhys' stomach churn, but he didn't come to frighten the old man, "She's safe, and she's alive, but Tamlin turned on her. He abandoned her when she needed him most, tried to turn her into a trophy instead of supporting her through the change. She was given refuge in the northernmost territory of Prythian- the Night Court. The High Lord there is known to most as the Lord of Nightmares- a sadist and a monster. But I swear to you that is just a front he uses to protect all that is good in his lands. He and Feyre are trying to stop Hybern from seizing control- they're trying to save humans and fae alike."
Normally Rhys would never speak so candidly about himself or his intentions- but he wasn't speaking to a random stranger. He was reassuring a father that his youngest was safe and warning him against any lies Tamlin or Hybern might spin to lure him in.
That was why Rhys told Nuala and Cerridwen to find the Archeron patriarch: To do whatever it took to stop him from becoming a weapon against Ferye or a hostage in war.
"You should know- Feyre is loved fiercely in the Night Court. Against better judgement she fell in love with the High Lord, obnoxious as he might be. He loves her more than life itself, cherishes her above all others, and made her his Lady of Starlight. The were mates, and accepted the bond a little over a month ago. To put it in human terms- she married the lucky bastard."
He expected shock or even surprise from Lord Archeron, but instead the old man simply asked, "Is she happy?"
"Yes. She found friends who love her deeply- who would give their lives or take any number of them to protect her- even before she married the High Lord."
"And he respects her?" Lord Archeron's voice hardened ever so slightly- the voice of a father.
"Always. She is his equal in every respect, a partner and a friend, never a subject, and never a trophy."
Feyre's father took a deep breath, "Thank the old gods." He collected himself a moment before sitting up straight, "If war is brewing- if it's safer there- could the High Lord be persuaded to take Nesta and Elain to his Court? They'll put up a fight- especially Nesta- but at least they'd be safer than on the estate. The Lord of Spring's blood money for Feyre bought that place, if he's turned against my youngest then the other two aren't safe there anymore."
Rhys hesitated long enough for Feyre's father to shoot him a worried look, "I'm sorry, we knew Tamlin would be angry with Feyre for leaving him, but we didn't find out that he'd joined the enemy until it was too late… Nesta and Elain are alive but… they were turned. Hybern has an artifact, he joined with the human Queens, and to prove it could make fae out of humans he- he tested it on Nesta and Elain."
"What happened?" Lord Archeron's eyes were wide with fear.
"Elain was changed first. She's- there was trauma and we're still trying to break through. It was recent, and so far she isn't speaking to anyone… Nesta- something happened when she was transformed. She looks High Fae but… She did something to break the artifact's power. I think- I think she stole something from it as she changed. Cassian- the High Lord's friend and Commander- has been keeping an eye on her. They get along- at least in that they seem to drive one another insane. For her that might even be friendship. Cassian thinks she may have stolen the power of Death from it."
"Good," Lord Archeron's voice was hard.
"The High Lord and Feyre managed to rescue them. Nesta and Elain currently reside above the City of Starlight, deep in the Night Court's lands. They are protected by the most powerful magics in Prythian- Hybern cannot reach them there." Rhys stood and held out a hand. He let the human glamour bleed away, revealing his violet eyes and pointed ears. The natural glow of Prythian rolled from his skin, but he kept a firm damper on his power, "I came to take you to them."
"If Hybern or the mortal queens find you they will use you to control your daughters. You are the only living Archeron unaccounted for. I came to bring you to Night."
Rhysand expected some hesitation perhaps, but overall it should have been an easy retrieval. He would winnow Feyre's father back to Velaris and fly away as fast as his wings could take him before Nesta ripped them off. Then he could return to the hunt for Feyre, hope shedidn't rip his wings off either, and plan for war without worrying about stray Archerons running about.
"No." Lord Archeron stood and backed away from Rhys, "You aren't taking me anywhere."
"I'm not your enemy- I work for Feyre, I swear to you that I will deliver you to Nesta and Elain within seconds."
"Don't you dare," he stepped back further out of reach- not that it would matter if Rhys decided he was going.
"My mistress is Feyre Archeron, not the King of Hybern, you can trust me."
Lord Archeron shook his head, "It isn't a matter of trusting you, boy. You thought I was hiring mercenaries to drag my daughters into hiding- so what must they think? Their coward of a father, who didn't raise, provide for, or even protect them- what do they think I'm doing here?"
"TELL ME WHAT THEY THINK."
Rhys ground his teeth, "Don't make me say it."
"They think I'm a coward, hiding far away from danger, don't they?" Reluctantly, Rhys nodded, "If you take me back now that's all they'll ever think. When I came here, the Queens laughed me out of the palace. I decided then that if they won't help us, I would raise an army myself. The humans of Prythian will fight just like their ancestors did. There are three warships within a month or two of launching- more heavily armed than anything to ever sail the seas. I will fill them with every soldier I can find and protect the land my daughters were born to."
A tear slid down Lord Archeron's cheek and he took a shuddering breath, "I have failed them more completely than I thought was possible. I failed their mother's memory. Even if I die at the next mercenary's hive, I will at least be able to face my wife in the world beyond knowing I tried to make amends. Don't take this from me- don't take away the only chance at redemption I have. You don't know what it's like to be weak and worthless- to watch those you love suffer and do nothing to help them. I am my daughter's greatest shame and I won't live like that another day. Don't take away my chance to make my life mean something again."
"You could die-"
"I DON'T CARE!" A snarl lit Lord Archeron's face and for a split second Rhys could see it- how the old man could be Feyre's sire.
Rhysand stared him down for a long time, considering. He swore viciously and Feyre's father relaxed a bit.
"Fine… But here-" Rhys picked up a pebble off the ground and held it in both hands. He focused on the stone and buried in it a command wrapped in every ward and protection he could fit into such a small talisman. When it was done, he tossed the rock to Lord Archeron, "That will keep you safe and link you back to the Night Court. Keep it on your person at all times- waking or asleep. Most humans will find it difficult to remember your name- the ones that do are to be avoided because they are likely spies for the queens. If you are meeting with anyone you'll have to give them a location, not just someone to ask after. The stone is the anchor for a basic personal shield and- if it is ever more than five feet from your heart, it will summon either me or one of two very bloodthirsty males with black wings. When you launch from these shores -"
"RHYSAND! FIND ME!" A scream blasted through the veil of the mating bond and nearly stopped Rhys' heart cold.
An image arrived with her scream- a frozen lake, Eris and his brothers on the approach, a horde of Autumn soldiers waiting to claim her.
No! No no no no no-
Rhys screamed for Cassian, Mor, and Azriel with everything inside of him, "Feyre is in Winter, near the border with Autumn, somewhere with a large lake. Autumn is attacking and I'm too far away to reach her in time- GET HER OUT AND BACK TO VELARIS NOW!"
He felt his friends snapping into action- Mor would winnow back to Cassian while Azriel found the lake. They would get her- they had to get her.
"What's wrong?" Lord Archeron was in front of Rhysand within moments as the male stumbled. The connection to his friends went silent for a moment, then-
"I found them, northern edge. Mor- drop Cassian from altitude, then get to the border of Winter and Dawn- do whatever you have to and draw their eye while we get Feyre!"
"Incoming!" Rhys saw through Mor's eyes as she appeared high above the lake where two figures held off Autumn as best they could. Something was wrong, they were losing the fight, then-
Then Mor was crashing into a snow bank in Dawn, and Cassian and Azriel shut their minds to Rhys while they entered the fray.
"WHAT'S HAPPENING?!" Feyre's father shook Rhysand, snapping his attention back.
"Once your ships launch, the stone will take you to the armies of the Night Court, use it as a guide. Anyone friendly to our cause will sense that magic and rally around you- don't be afraid if you find yourself traveling with a winged army on your back. We haven't been able to reach them yet, but they'll sense your departure." Rhys was speaking as quickly as human ears could follow, but he needed to go protect his mate. The bond was silent once more, as though that poisonous darkness had sensed Feyre's breakthrough and hurried to fill the hole she'd pierced in its shield.
"Rhysand you stop right this second and tell me what is happening? Is it Feyre? Is she alright?!" Lord Archeron had seen the color drain from Rhys face and read clearly how he was straining to keep himself nearby.
Rhys reached out and grabbed the man's shoulder, barely remembering to ease his grip so as not to mutilate him on accident. He was scared- more scared than he'd ever been in his life. His breath was fast and ragged as he waited- waited for a sign from his friends that-
"Safe." Cassian only had the energy for one word and the briefest image of Feyre standing at his side. Eris was bloody on the ice, a look of pure shock on his face.
Rhys could guess why when he saw the mark of her title exposed by a shredded sleeve.
He pulled Feyre's father into a crushing hug, "She's safe. She's alright. They found her."
"Found her- you said she was safe before!"
"I lied, I do that a lot when I'm nervous." Rhys stepped back and put a hand over his heart. It was thundering, but also rising faster than he thought possible. Safe. She was safe. Cassian had her. She'd be home soon. "She'd infiltrated Tamlin's Court to steal intelligence about the attack. She vanished a week ago and we've been trying to find her ever since. Cassian- my Commander- has her now- she's on her way home."
Lord Archeron's eyes were wide for a moment. Rather than waste more time with questions, he reached into his tunic and pulled out a white-gold ring on a long chain, "Then go to her and make sure she's alright. If so much as a hair on her head has been harmed, just give me the fae's name and I will make sure my men know there's a king's ransom on it. Here-" he broke the chain and pulled the ring free.
"This has been in my family for three generations. I had to sell it when we- when I sent us into poverty and debt. It was the first thing I bought back when our fortune was returned." He took Rhys' hand and quickly passed the ring into his palm, "This might not be as fine as anything faerie-made, but it is an heirloom passed from father to son."
Rhys willed himself to accept the ring slowly- not snatch it and winnow straight to Feyre.
"Safe." Another report came from Mor with the image of Feyre held tight in her arms. Rhys almost stopped breathing.
When he spoke, it was a whisper, "I will give this to the High Lord."
"Cut the bullshit, you just called that Cassian boy 'my Commander', before he was the High Lord's," Lord Archeron closed Rhys' hand around the ring, "take care of my daughters, and be a husband worthy of someone as good and kind as Feyre. Don't tell them I'm coming- I want it to be a surprise when I show up and blast Hybern's ships out of the water."
Rhys swallowed hard and nodded, "I'll make this my wedding ring. Thank you. And here-" he waved a hand and several trunks of precious gemstones filled the camp, "-use this to pay whatever it takes to get those mercenaries onto your ships. No more prison cells."
"Good luck, son." Lord Archeron gave him a quick squeeze on the arm before stepping back.
"Good luck… father."
With that Rhysand unleashed the damper on his power, traded his human tunic for a trademark black suit, and winnowed straight into the townhouse.
"Home. This is- my home." Feyre's voice filled his ears, his soul. She was facing away from him, speaking with Lucien Vanserra, who looked like he was considering throwing up versus screaming, "This is Velaris. The City of Starlight."
"And you are High Lady of the Night Court." He breathed.
Rhysand barely managed to summon a bit of his trademark snark as he took a slow breath, "Indeed she is."
As angry as they might have been at him for running off that morning, his friends began to smile as Ferye's entire body stiffened. As she scented her mate for the first time in a hellish six weeks.
She turned and just as memories of the past month and a half crashed into her they poured over Rhysand once more. All the fear, all the horror, all the doubting- everything he thought he would lose, every sleepless night, every fear, every nightmare- his smile faded with hers.
Feyre covered her mouth as a broken sob escaped. She fell to her knees, and in an instant Rhysand was there. He pulled her hands away from her face- that perfect, beautiful face he never thought he'd see again. Pure, raw love flooded through him at the sight of those blue eyes and his skin burned as he cupped her face in his hands and brushed away her tears.
"My love," it was all he could think to say as he wrapped his arms around Feyre and kissed her at long last.
As she kissed him back, as her hands slid into his hair and it struck him again that he was actually holding her, Rhys' heart cracked just a bit.
He wasn't letting her go.
He would never let her go.