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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 58

BLOOD IN THE FOREST

Snow began falling as we traveled deeper into the Blood Forest. The blood trees were less dense here, allowing us to spread out a bit more, but we couldn’t pick up much speed unless we wanted to risk injuring one of our horses. The forest floor was a gnarled tangle of thick roots and rock.

I glanced down at Poppy. She was staring at the ground, likely searching for barrats. A wry grin came to my lips. She had been gazing at the trees. They were a lot stranger in this part of the Blood Forest, their limbs and boughs twisted and tangled, the bark glistening in a way that wasn’t at all natural—as Airrick would say.

Poppy had been quiet for most of the trip. All of us had been this far into the Blood Forest, but she’d immediately relaxed against me the moment I mounted Setti behind her. There was still that little breathy inhale that I so enjoyed hearing when I put my arm around her and folded my hand over her hip. I’d contented myself with drawing circles with my thumb and lines with my forefinger, but my hand had stilled.

My senses tingled as I scanned the unforgiving shadows between the tangled trees. My jaw locked. Icy wind whirled through the branches, carrying the smell of rot and decay.

Kieran’s horse suddenly reared up ahead. My grip tightened on Setti’s reins as Kieran calmed his steed, rubbing the horse’s neck. I eased my arm from around Poppy’s waist.

“What is it?” a Huntsman named Noah said from in front of us as I signaled those behind me to stop.

Near Kieran, Phillips lifted a finger to his lips. My eyes narrowed on the trees. Poppy tensed as Setti’s muscles twitched, and he began backing up, whinnying nervously. I moved to calm him, but Poppy beat me to it. She stretched forward, rubbing his mane. The horses all around us started fidgeting.

Something was coming.

Something that scurried on four legs and would likely give Poppy a heart attack.

I tapped Poppy’s sheathed dagger. She needed no other instruction. She nodded, reaching inside her cloak.

Kieran’s head jerked to our left at the same time I caught sight of the reddish-black fur. Neither of us said a damn thing because, well, one less guard was one less to deal with.

The barrat came out of nowhere. A burst of black and red about the size of a boar leapt into the air, slamming into the side of Noah’s horse as Poppy jerked back against me. Startled, the steed reared, throwing the mortal. The barrat, ever the opportunist, was instantly on the man, snapping at his face as the Huntsman struggled to hold on to its oily fur.

Phillips turned in his saddle, bow in hand. He released the nocked arrow, striking the bastard in the neck.

The barrat shrieked as Noah threw him off. The mortal didn’t waste time. He pulled his short sword free, the blade a gleaming crimson as he brought it down, ending the rodent’s suffering. Or ours. I turned my attention back to where it had come from. That wasn’t the only one.

“Gods,” Noah grunted. “Thanks, man.”

“Don’t mention it,” Phillips said, another arrow at the ready.

“If there’s one, there’s a horde,” I said. “We need to get—”

Barrats were suddenly everywhere, racing out of the foliage, surprising even me with how close they’d been. Poppy pressed back against me.

“Shit,” Noah cursed, jumping to a low-hanging branch. He hauled his legs up as a sea of reddish-black fur flooded us.

The chattering and yelping barrats flew past us, rushing between the nervous horses. They disappeared into the thick foliage on our other side.

That wasn’t good at all.

Neither were the tendrils of mist gathering along the exposed roots. The scent of rot increased, and the mist rose and thickened to our left.

“We need to get out of here,” Kieran stated. “Now.”

Finally deciding to stop hanging from a tree, Noah dropped to the ground. The mist was already deep enough that his legs disappeared in it. Withdrawing his sword, he hurried to his horse and grabbed the reins as Setti tensed—

A Craven ran out of the mist faster than the damn barrats, its shredded clothing hanging from its body in tatters. Noah, the poor bastard, didn’t have a chance. Not even with the warning. It was suddenly on him, tearing into the man’s chest with its sharpened nails and his throat with its jagged fangs. I cursed as Noah fell back, dropping his sword as his horse took off.

Then the howls came, the low moan of unending hunger.

“Shit,” I snarled as Luddie spun his horse around, catching the Craven who’d taken out Noah with a bloodstone spear.

“We won’t make it if we run.” Luddie flipped his weapon upward. “Not in these roots.”

He was right.

The mist was already at our waists. It would be over our heads if we tried to make a run for it.

I looked down at Poppy and didn’t hesitate to say, “You know what to do. Do it.”

Poppy nodded.

Swinging off Setti, I landed on one of the thicker roots. Poppy was right behind me, one leg off Setti, dropping to land on the roots. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Airrick raise his brows as he got an eyeful of her dagger.

“I know how to use it,” she said.

The curve of Airrick’s lips was goofy as hell. “For some reason, I’m not surprised.”

My eyes narrowed on the young man.

“They’re here,” Kieran announced, lifting his sword.

And they were.

Unsheathing the short sword, I braced myself as they raced toward us, a horde of pale gray skin, tattered clothing, and bones. I stepped forward, driving my sword through a Craven’s chest.

Spinning, I drew the blade across another’s neck as I caught sight of Poppy. She slammed a hand into a Craven’s shoulder, holding it back as she plunged her dagger into its heart. She turned as I did, grabbing the Craven making a run for Setti without a second’s hesitation. Damn, the way she moved… How sure she was of her movements. Strands of hair fell across her cheek as she twisted at the waist, her features set in determination and utter fearlessness as she left a wake of blackish-red blood through the mist. There was simply nothing…sexier than that. I caught a Craven in the back, piercing its heart. Poppy looked up, her gaze finding mine.

“Never thought I’d find anything having to do with the Craven sexy.” I took the head off the closest Craven. “But watching you fight them is incredibly arousing.”

“So inappropriate,” she muttered, shoving aside a limp Craven.

Laughing under my breath, I danced along a root, cleaving a Craven in half as Kieran swung both of his short swords, lip curled in disgust as rotten blood spewed into the air. Shrieks rose all around us as I swung my sword through a Craven’s neck. I grabbed the torn cloth of one heading toward the group and kept an eye on Poppy. It wasn’t that I didn’t trust her ability. She slammed her dagger into the chest of another. She was fucking magnificent, but her weapon required her to get close to the Craven. I caught sight of Luddie jabbing with his spear as the mist reached our knees. A Craven grabbed for me, his bloodstained teeth snapping at the air. I kicked the fucker back. Kieran turned, bringing his sword down on it as an arrow zinged between us, slamming into the back of another fresher Craven’s head—one recently turned.

I jumped off the root, landing on the ground. Mist scattered. A Craven turned, stringy hair falling from the patchy scalp flapping against the side of her head. She opened her mouth. Gods. I drove the sword into her chest, ending the piercing wail. She fell back, on top of Noah. Spotting his fallen sword, I picked it up. My head snapped toward Poppy.

She tugged her dagger free of a sunken chest and staggered back.

“Princess,” I called out, rising. “Got a better weapon for you.” I tossed her the sword.

Poppy caught it, quickly sheathing her dagger. “Thanks.” She spun, cutting down a Craven.

Godsdamn, she was…

A Craven shrieked, racing toward me. Another was right behind that one. Neither resembling anything living any longer. Both were more bone and thin tissue than anything else. Annoyed that I couldn’t watch Poppy be, well, a total badass, I sliced the head from one and then the other. Mist whirled along the ground as a smaller Craven charged forward. I stiffened, drawing back a step as the small, pale face of…of a child came into view.

“Godsdamn,” I muttered, taken aback.

There was always pity for the Craven, even the ones who’d torn into my flesh with insatiable hunger while the Blood Crown held me captive. I used to wonder who they’d been before that. Farmers? Huntsmen? Villagers? Innocent mortals who had lives, families, and futures of wants and needs stolen from them? I’d long since stopped asking those questions. It was easier to see them as they were now: creatures that had died a long time ago.

But this? A child? And one that couldn’t have been older than the two I’d seen outside the meatpacking warehouse. Perhaps even the age of the little girl who had somehow ended up in the castle wearing a Descenter’s mask and frightened out of her mind. This could very well be her fate unless the Ascended were stopped.

Focusing on the brutal task at hand, I stepped forward and caught the child with my hand under its chin. It snapped and hissed like a feral animal. This would be hard to unsee. To forget. I thrust my sword through its chest. “Godsdamn.”

“The mist is letting up.” Kieran kicked a Craven back, looking past me. “Shit.”

I spun just as Poppy tumbled backward. I started forward as Airrick reached Poppy, shoving her aside. Claws snagged my damn cloak, jerking me back. Cursing, I turned, cleaving off the Craven’s head. Whirling around, my heart lurched. I didn’t see Poppy. Panic took root. If something had happened to her—

She rose from where the mist was the thickest along the ground. With a shout, she thrust her sword through the chest of a hairless, emaciated Craven.

Relief nearly took the air out of my lungs. She was good. More than good as she pulled the sword free and prowled forward, the edges of her cloak billowing around her, scattering more of the thinning mist. She brought her foot down on a wounded Craven’s back, driving it to the ground. With a quick jab, she ended its shrieking with a savage smile.

“Gods,” I muttered, my blood heating despite the death and decay all around us. “Did you see that?”

“I did.” Kieran dragged the back of his sleeve across his cheek, wiping away spots of blood.

One side of my lips kicked up. “It was hot.”

Kieran smirked. “It was.”

Laughing under my breath, I turned and scanned the trees. The mist was almost all but faded now, revealing the ashy-hued bark of the blood trees and their glistening crimson leaves. Luddie speared a Craven with an arrow protruding from its gut. I spotted another struggling in the roots, hissing and growling as snarled, reddish-brown-colored hair hung in clumps. Bony, bloodstained hands clawed at the air as I hopped over a fallen Craven. A slice of sunlight cut through the trees, glancing off the thin, waxen flesh of its cheek and the soulless, crimson eyes. It swiped out at me in mindless hunger. I thrust my sword through its chest.

Withdrawing my blade, I started to survey the damage. We’d taken some losses. Only four guards remained standing. Kieran and Luddie were looking down at a Huntsman whose chest and stomach had been torn open. Looking up, I found Poppy kneeling beside Phillips. The older man had his hands pressed to Airrick’s shredded, bloody chest.

Cleaning my blade on a Craven’s tattered clothing, I sheathed my sword and trained my eyes on Poppy. Her brows were pinched with sorrow as she dropped to her knees beside the brown-haired Airrick, placing the sword beside her. I stepped over a fallen Huntsman’s legs, slowly walking toward them. Poppy’s face had paled. I was used to this kind of death, but…

But she was, too, wasn’t she?

“You saved me,” Poppy said softly.

Airrick’s laugh was weak. Blood trickled from his mouth. “I don’t…think you…needed saving.”

“I did,” she told him, glancing at his stomach. I followed her gaze and immediately wished she hadn’t looked. The Craven had done a number on the young man. There was so much damn blood and gore. “And you were there for me. You did save me, Airrick.”

I knelt on Phillips’ other side as Airrick writhed in pain. Poppy looked up at me with desperate hope as the poor bastard’s chest rose and fell rapidly. I shook my head, telling her what she surely already knew. The only thing we could do now was end his pain with an act of mercy. There was no coming back from this kind of wound.

Poppy briefly closed her eyes, and then she picked up Airrick’s pale hand. Her brow furrowed even more as she pressed the young guard’s trembling hand between hers. She seemed solely focused on the young man, the skin at the corners of her mouth taut—

Something happened.

Airrick stopped trembling. The pain eased from his features. At first, I thought he’d passed, but the man still lived. And he was looking at Poppy again with those wide, awed-filled eyes.

“I don’t…hurt anymore,” he whispered.

“You don’t?” She smiled at him, her hands still wrapped around his.

“No.” Airrick’s head relaxed against the cold ground. “I know I’m not, but I feel…I feel good.”

“I’m relieved to hear that,” Poppy said as a look of peace settled into Airrick’s face.

I started to frown. What in the hell was going on here? I glanced at Airrick’s nasty wound. The man’s guts were half-strewn across his legs. This wasn’t a peaceful death.

“I know you,” Airrick spoke, his breaths slowing, his words no longer thick and garbled with pain. “Didn’t think…I should say anything, but we’ve met.” More blood leaked out of his mouth. “We played cards.”

Her smile spread. “Yes, we did.”

They’d played cards? Had it been when she snuck into the Red Pearl? Or another time when she was somewhere she shouldn’t be? Not that any of that mattered. What was going on with Airrick right now did.

The man clearly felt no pain. Not only that, he looked relaxed and at peace.

“It’s…your eyes,” Airrick said. “You were losing.”

My heart started to pound. A lock of hair had fallen forward, brushing the tip of her nose. What in the fuck was going on here?

“I was.” Poppy leaned over him. “Normally, I’m better at cards. My brother taught me, but I kept being dealt bad hands.”

Airrick laughed—the man whose insides were exposed, laughed. “Yeah…they were bad hands. Thank…” His gaze shifted beyond Poppy, his bloodied lips spreading in a trembling smile. “Momma?”

Airrick took a breath. A moment passed. Another. I stared at Poppy as she lowered his hand to his chest, unable to believe what I had just seen.

She was born in a shroud.

My heart was still pounding as Poppy looked up. “You did something to him.”

“It’s true,” Phillips rasped, the seasoned guard clearly shaken. “The rumors. I heard it, but I didn’t believe it. Gods. You have the touch.”


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