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A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 70

THE DARK ONE

The howling.

About an hour into our return trip to Haven Keep, the wolven’s sharp, high-pitched yips and keening, powerful howls whipped the woods between Berkton Manor and New Haven into a frenzy. Perched high above us in the pines, birds took flight, scattering into the air. Small creatures scurried under bushes and boulders. From the deeper, darker parts of the forest, the Craven answered with wails.

I’d heard the wolven’s alarm call a hundred times in my life, but this raised every hair on my body and caused the nape of my neck to prickle.

Because I knew.

I didn’t know how. It made no sense for me to know, but every fiber of my being knew that something had happened to Poppy.

My head snapped to Kieran. “Go.”

He didn’t hesitate. He slowed his horse and jumped off, shifting into his wolven form mid-run. He was nothing more than a fawn-hued blur as I caught the reins of his horse. Pitching forward on Setti, I rode hard through the maze of pines as the flurries picked up, coming down faster and harder.

Wind stung my cheeks as we leapt over boulders and fallen trees, my heart pumping. I didn’t feel the icy dampness or the jarring landings as Setti’s hooves kicked up snow and soil. The horses’ panting breaths joined mine. The relief that it had been Alastir who’d come instead of my father was long gone as I pushed Setti and the other steed hard. Now, I felt only mounting dread.

Something had happened to Poppy.

The inexplicable knowing only increased with each passing minute and hour. Had she escaped? Had she fallen ill despite me cleaning her wound? Had someone harmed her?

If anyone had touched an inch of her skin, they would die. No matter who they were. Their life was already over.

When the pines began to thin, I knew I was close. Slowing Setti and the other horse, I leapt from the saddle and hit the ground running. I darted through the trees, flying over rocks and thick branches littering the slick, snow-covered ground. My boots slipped several times, but I didn’t slow. Some sort of primal instinct warned me there was no time to waste.

The faded gray stone of Haven Keep appeared through the pines, and I dug in, pulling on every bit of elemental strength I had in me. I burst from the tree line, racing across the courtyard—past the anxious, pacing wolven, past blurred faces. I only slowed when I spotted Naill running out of the keep’s doors.

“Where is she?” I demanded.

His eyes were wide—wider than I’d ever seen them, the whites stark against his skin. “Kieran took her upstairs, to your chambers.”

I spun, heading for the entrance to the stairs. “How bad?”

Naill was just a step behind me. “It’s…it’s bad.”

My chest hollowed as I wrenched open the door, and the scent of her blood hit me. “Those responsible?”

“The ones that still live are in the cells,” Naill answered as I rushed the steps. “We tried to stop them, but we were fucking outnumbered. She fought back, and she…fuck, she saved Delano’s life down there. I swear to the gods she did. And I don’t even know why.”

Neither did I. I shoved open the door and hit the outdoor hall of the second floor. The scent of her blood was even stronger. “I want them kept alive. They are mine to deal with.”

“Understood.”

“I left Setti and Kieran’s horse in the woods,” I told him. “There are Craven—”

“I’ll get them.” Naill turned, grasping the railing as he leapt onto it. He crouched. “Cas, I’m…I’m sorry. We failed you.”

“No, you didn’t,” I growled as the chamber door swung open, and Elijah appeared. “It was I who failed.”

Hands clenching, I stalked past the noticeably subdued Elijah and came to a complete stop.

Kieran was by the crackling fire, cradling Poppy in his lap. He had a hand pressed against her stomach. Red seeped through his fingers and splattered the floor. And Poppy…her eyes were closed, her skin far too pale. For a moment, I thought she—oh, fuck, I thought she was already gone. But then I saw the dagger clenched in her hand.

Kieran’s head lifted, his features somber. “Cas…”

I knew that look.

I heard the finality in his voice.

I refused to acknowledge either as I strode forward, unclasping my cloak and letting it fall to the floor. Aware of Elijah closing the door, I tugged off my gloves, tossing them aside. I reached for her as Kieran rose and took her in my arms.

She made no sound. Did nothing as I turned, my heart thundering. I could feel how chilled her skin had grown beneath her clothing. I inhaled sharply at the fresh, jagged tears across her arm and beneath her shoulder. A wolven had clawed her.

Sickened, I brought her to the floor beside the fire, shifting her so she rested on her side. Kieran followed silently, once more placing his hand on the wound—one far too close to her heart.

“Open your eyes, Poppy. Come on.” I pried the dagger loose from her grip, letting it fall to the floor. The fact that she clung to it like that fucking cut me up. My hand shook as I took hold of her chin. “I need you to open your eyes.”

I dragged in a ragged breath as her blood continued pumping between Kieran’s fingers. It was bad. The wound was deep, and no one here could fix it with some balm and a bandage. She was… Fucking gods, she was going to—no, I would not allow it.

Please,” I demanded—begged, really.

The skin around her eyes pinched. Those thick lashes fluttered, then lifted.

“There you are.” I forced a smile because I didn’t want her to be scared. I didn’t want her to see what I knew. I didn’t want her to have this memory to add to her other terrible ones because she would survive this. I knew that the moment I heard the wolven howling.

“It hurts,” she rasped.

“I know.” Shuddering, I held her gaze. “I’m going to fix it. I’ll make the pain go away. I’ll make it all go away. You won’t carry one more scar.”

Her chest moved with a shallow breath. “I’m… I’m dying.”

“No, you’re not,” I snarled, terror crashing into fear. “You cannot die. I will not allow it.”

There was no hesitation. No second thoughts as I lifted my wrist to my mouth and bit down deep. Poppy cried out, and Kieran jerked his hand away from her wound, stumbling back a step as my blood touched my tongue. I tore my flesh open.

I saw a brief look of concern flash across her face.

“I’m going to die an imbecile,” Poppy whispered.

Lifting my wrist, I frowned. “You’re not going to die, and I’m fine. I just need you to drink.”

Kieran had gone rigid. “Casteel, do you—?”

“I know exactly what I’m doing, and I don’t want your opinion or your advice.” Blood trailed down my arm. “And I don’t require either.”

He got the message and stayed silent.

Poppy did not, however. She tried to pull away. “No,” she rasped. “No.”

I held her against me. “You have to. You’ll die if you don’t.”

“I’d rather…die than turn into a monster,” she swore.

“A monster?” I laughed at the absurdity. “Poppy, I already told you the truth about the Craven. This will only make you better.”

She turned her head from me.

The hollowness in my chest spread. “You will do this. You will drink. You will live. Make that choice, Princess.” My voice thickened. “Do not force me to make it for you.”

She shook her head weakly, still struggling to free herself.

Fuck, there was no time to argue with her, to try to convince her of what she didn’t believe. I’d given her a choice. She’d given me none.

“Penellaphe.” I spoke her name as I summoned the eather from deep within. It flowed through my veins and filled my voice with the power of the gods. “Look at me.”

Slowly, her gaze met mine. Her lips parted.

“Drink,” I commanded, pushing hard with the compulsion as I brought my wrist to her mouth. “Drink from me.”

A drop of blood fell from my arm to her lips. It slipped between them, and she jerked slightly. I pressed my wrist to her mouth. My blood seeped in, coating her tongue, coursing down her throat, but I held my breath and waited.

Poppy swallowed.

“That’s it,” I rasped. “Drink.”

Those green eyes locked onto mine as she drank, drawing my blood into her. She didn’t look away as she swallowed again and again, even after I eased up on the compulsion, letting her go. She drank from me on her own, the repulsion of doing so passing the moment she tasted my blood. It wouldn’t be like she expected.

Poppy’s eyes drifted shut as her fingers pressed into my forearm, but I didn’t close mine. I watched her intently, vaguely aware of Kieran quietly leaving the chamber. It was just us as she fed. I focused on her breathing, her pulse. Both strengthened and steadied, her overtaxed heart becoming stronger as I cleared my mind of the fury and terror. I didn’t want her to pick up on any of that. I wanted her to feel safe.

Her steady pulls against my wrist became almost languid, and still she took from me, hungrily, greedily. I let my head rest against the wall. For some reason, I thought of the Stroud Sea, how it had looked to me when I climbed my way out of the tunnels. The sun had hurt my eyes after being held underground for so long, but even with them stinging and watering, I hadn’t been able to look away from the sparkling blue waters. Pence had been right. The Stroud Sea was beautiful.

The image of the water scattered as Poppy squirmed a little against me. From the depths of my memories, another image took shape. Smooth rock. Clearer water drenched in shadows that smelled of lilacs. The cavern.

I swore I felt Poppy’s presence as my last memory of there started to piece itself together. As if she were inside my mind. My breath snagged.

I opened my eyes, heart racing as I looked down at Poppy. “Enough,” I rasped. The color had returned to her flesh. “That’s enough.”

Poppy…gods, as gloriously stubborn as ever, was latched on to my wrist. Clearly, she didn’t believe she’d had enough. She pulled on the punctures I’d created, and those greedy drags hit every sensory point in my body.

“Poppy,” I groaned, pulling my wrist from her.

She started to follow but then relaxed against me, her eyes closing again. The way she looked reminded me of when she’d fallen asleep as I told her about my scars. Sated. Peaceful. Happy.

I tucked that rebellious strand of hair back, my fingers sifting through the silken tangles as I let my head rest against the wall once more. Admittedly, I got a little lost in just holding her in the quiet. I wasn’t even sure how much time had passed, but I wouldn’t forget the calm moments even if the world outside demanded I do so.

“Poppy,” I called out to her. “How are you feeling?”

“I’m not cold,” she answered after a moment. “My chest…it’s not cold.”

“It shouldn’t be.”

“I feel…different,” she added.

A small smile tugged at my lips. “Good.”

“I feel like my body…isn’t attached.”

“That will go away after a few minutes,” I told her. Feeding caused a high. It wasn’t the only thing it did, but as long as she remained as she was, the effects would pass. “Just relax and enjoy it.”

“I don’t hurt anymore.” Poppy was quiet for a few moments. “I don’t understand.”

“It’s my blood.” That strand had already made its way to her cheek. I really liked that piece of hair. I brushed it back. Poppy shivered, and a scent other than her blood reached me. I ignored it. “The blood of an Atlantian has healing properties. I told you that.”

“That…that is unbelievable,” Poppy murmured.

“Is it?” I reached over her, picking up her arm. “Were you not wounded here?”

She looked, but nothing but dried blood and dirt marred her flesh.

“And here?” I moved my hand so my thumb swirled around her upper arm, right below the shoulder. “Were you not clawed here?”

Once more, her gaze followed where I directed. Wonder filled her. “There’s…there are no new scars.”

“There will be no new scars. That is what I promised,” I reminded her.

“Your blood…” She swallowed. “It’s amazing.”

I was glad she thought that now. Later? Likely a different story.

Poppy’s gaze snapped back to mine. “You made me drink your blood.”

“I did.”

Her nose scrunched. “How?”

“It’s one of those things that occur during maturity,” I explained. “Not all of us can…compel others.”

“Have you done it before?” she asked. “On me?”

“You probably wish you could blame your prior actions on that,” I stated dryly. “But I haven’t, Poppy. I never needed nor wanted to.”

Confusion settled, causing her to purse her lips. “But you did it now.”

“I did.”

Her eyes narrowed. “You don’t even sound remotely ashamed.”

“I’m not,” I admitted, fighting a grin. “I told you that I would not allow you to die, and you would’ve died, Princess. You were dying.” A cold, harsh slice of pain cut through my stomach. “I saved your life. Some would suggest a thank you as the appropriate response.”

“I didn’t ask you to do it,” she said, and I’d never been more grateful to see that stubborn chin of hers lift.

“But you’re grateful, aren’t you?” I teased.

Poppy pressed her lips together.

Amusement rose. “Only you would argue with me about this.”

“I won’t turn—”

“No.” I sighed, lowering her arm to her stomach. “I told you the truth, Poppy. The Atlantians did not make the Craven. The Ascended did.”

Poppy stared at me, her chest rising sharply, and I thought I saw it then. A smidgen of acceptance before she looked at the exposed wooden beams of the ceiling. “We’re in a bedchamber.”

“We needed privacy.”

Her brow pinched. “Kieran didn’t want you to save me.”

“Because it’s forbidden.”

“Will I turn into a vampry?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it because she was beginning to accept the truth.

“What about that is funny?”

“Nothing.” I grinned. “I know you still don’t want to believe the truth, but deep down, you do. That’s why you asked that question.” I glanced at the door as I heard footsteps approach, then retreat. “To turn, you would require far more blood than that. It would also require me to be more of an active participant.”

The breath she took was soft. “How…how would you be more of an active participant?”

My smile spread. “Would you rather I show you instead of telling you?”

“No,” she said, even as her desire increased.

I closed my eyes. “Liar.”

Poppy fell quiet again, and I knew I should get her cleaned up and then into bed so she could rest. Alone. There were things I needed to take care of. People I wanted to kill. Slowly. Painfully.

But she was warm and alive, safe in my arms, and I wasn’t ready to leave.

I would pay for that, sooner rather than later because Poppy’s breathing had changed. Her pulse had quickened. The other effects of my blood that I’d foolishly hoped would pass her by were now hitting her.

“Are…Naill and Delano okay?” she asked, her voice thicker, lusher.

“They will be fine,” I told her. “And I’m sure they’ll be happy to know you asked about them.”

Poppy didn’t respond to that. Perhaps she had, and I just didn’t hear her over my pounding pulse. I inhaled deeply and swallowed a groan. Her scent surrounded me, and I felt her heated stare on me. I could fucking feel exactly where her mind was going.

“Poppy,” I warned.

“What?” she whispered.

I gritted my teeth. “Stop thinking what you’re thinking.”

“How do you know what I’m thinking?”

Opening my eyes, I lowered my chin. “I know.”

Poppy stared back at me, her skin flushed as she shivered. Her hips wiggled, and I about cursed as my arm tightened around her. Wasn’t sure how that helped. It didn’t. Not when her ass was snug against my cock.

“You don’t know,” she denied, watching me through half-hooded eyes. She bit down on her lip and moaned. “Hawke.”

Fucking gods.

Poppy took that exact moment to stretch like a feline. Her back bowed, pressing her breasts against the shirt. “Hawke.”

“Don’t,” I bit out, stiffening. “Don’t call me that.”

“Why not?”

“Just don’t.” Not after this. Not after…oh, fuck.

Poppy’s hand was on the move, sliding up the length of her torn shirt. My mouth dried as I watched her fingers curl around her breast and press into the plump flesh.

“Poppy,” I forced out. “What are you doing?”

“I don’t know.”

That was an utter, complete lie.

Her eyes were closed as her back arched. She drew her thumb over the tip of her breast. “I’m on fire.”

“It’s just the blood,” I said, hearing how thick my voice was as I watched her. “It’ll pass, but you should…you need to stop doing that.”

To the surprise of no one, least of all me, Poppy didn’t listen.

She drew her thumb over the hardened nipple I could see clearly through the coarse, thin shirt. And she liked how it made her feel. Her breath was sharp.

Desire rippled through me as she shifted, pressing her thighs together—thighs I could clearly recall pressing against my shoulders as I tasted her.

“Hawke?”

A taut bolt of pleasure cut through me. “Poppy, for the love of the gods.”

Her eyes opened as her hand left her breast. There was a moment of reprieve, but then her fingers were on the move again, sliding down her stomach, and any relief vanished.

“Kiss me?” Her sultry whisper taunted me.

Every muscle in my body tensed. “You don’t want that.”

“I do.” The tips of her fingers reached the loose band of her breeches. “I need it.”

“You only think that right now.” What I would’ve given to hear her say that any other time. “It’s the blood.”

“I don’t care.” Her hand slipped lower. “Touch me? Please?”

Need shredded me as I groaned. “You think you hate me now? If I do what you’re asking, you’ll want to murder me.” My lips tipped up. On second thought… “Well, you’ll want to murder me more than you already do. You don’t have control of yourself right now.”

The skin of her brow creased. “No.”

“No?” I repeated, watching her hand inch its way down.

“I don’t hate you.”

A low rumble came from me. It wasn’t just need that seized me. So much desire did that I’d grabbed her wrist before I even realized what I was doing. I wanted to replace her hand with mine—my fingers, my lips, my tongue. My cock thickened.

“Hawke?” she whimpered.

I stretched my neck. “I plotted to take you from everything you knew, and I did, but that is nowhere near the worst of my crimes,” I bit out. “I’ve killed people, Poppy. There is so much blood on my hands that they will never be clean. I will overthrow the Queen who cared for you, and many more will die in the process. I am not a good man, but I am trying to be right now.”

“I don’t want you to be good.” She gripped my tunic. “I want you.”

I shook my head. I wouldn’t do this. Poppy tugged on the hand I held. Drawing in a shallow breath, I leaned over her. “In a few minutes, when this storm passes, you’ll return to loathing my very existence, and for good reason,” I told her, our mouths inches apart. “You’re going to hate that you begged me to kiss you, to do more. But even without my blood in you, I know you’ve never stopped wanting me.” The words came out of me in a heated rush. “But when I’m deep inside you again, and I will be, you won’t be able to blame the influence of blood or anything else.”

Poppy stared as I pulled her hand from between those lovely thighs and lifted her palm to my mouth. I kissed the center, eliciting a gasp from her.

A heartbeat passed.

Maybe two.

Then, the blood-fueled lust began to clear, just as I said it would.

I let go of her hand when she pulled at my hold. Seconds ticked by. Minutes.

“I never should’ve left,” I said, now that I was sure she had a somewhat clear mind. “I should’ve known something like this could happen, but I underestimated their desire for vengeance.”

“They…they wanted me dead,” she said.

“They will pay for what they did,” I promised.

She moved a little, but nothing like before. “What will you do? Kill them?”

“I will, and I will kill anyone who thinks to follow their path.”

Poppy swallowed. “And me…what are you going to do with me?”

I looked away from her, so fucking tired. “I already told you. I will use you to barter with the Queen to free Prince Malik. I swear, no more harm will come to you.”

Poppy started to speak, but her entire body seemed to jerk. “Casteel?”

I froze.

“Kieran…Kieran said the name Casteel.”

Had he?

I hadn’t noticed. I’d been too preoccupied with saving her. I sensed her pulse picking up, and instead of anger or panic, there was actual relief as one last lie came crumbling down. She was finally accepting what she already had to know.

“Oh, my gods.” Her hand folded over her mouth. “You’re him.” Her hand slipped to curl around the collar of her torn shirt. “That’s what happened to your brother. Why you feel such sadness about him. He’s the Prince you hope to use me to get back. Your name isn’t Hawke Flynn. You’re him! You’re the Dark One.”

Only past pain stopped me from reacting to being called the Dark One. “I prefer the name Casteel or Cas,” I stated. “If you don’t want to call me that, you can call me Prince Casteel Da’Neer, the second son of King Valyn Da’Neer, brother of Prince Malik Da’Neer, but do not call me the Dark One. That is not my name.”

Poppy was still for a second, and then her anger and sorrow boiled over. I let it. And took it. The punch to my chest. The stinging slap across my cheek. She pushed at my shoulders as she screamed. I let her until I saw the dampness gathering in her eyes. I couldn’t sit by and do nothing about that.

“Stop it.” I grasped her upper arms, pulling her to my chest. “Stop it, Poppy.”

“Let me go,” she demanded, trembling so bad I feared she would break if I let her go.

That she would shatter this time, and there would be no one to blame but me. So, I held her tightly to me. I pressed my head to hers. “I’m fucking sorry,” I whispered. “I’m sorry.”

Not a single tear escaped Poppy, but she shook, beyond hearing me. I started to pull back, easing my hold. Her heart was racing. “Poppy?”

She twisted again, rolling onto her side as she gulped air. “Let me go.”

“Poppy,” I repeated, pressing my fingers to her pulse. I swore. “Your heart is racing too fast.”

“Let me go!” she shouted so loud and fiercely it carried weight, had its own power.

I dropped an arm but didn’t let go completely. No mortal’s heart could beat like that continuously. She had to calm, but she was beyond that. Fuck. She planted her hands on the floor, her body still shaking. This was too much for her—too much for anyone. I knew what I would have to do. It would be yet another reason for her to hate me, but I’d rather her curse my very existence than be dead. I started to pull her back to me as she suddenly whipped my way. “Poppy.”

She pushed against my chest—

The breath I took was stolen.

She…she hadn’t pushed against my chest. That wouldn’t have caused the sudden, stunning, red-hot agony there. Pain that took my breath.

Poppy’s wild, wide eyes locked with mine. Slowly, I looked down.

A dagger jutted from my chest.

Disbelief thundered through me. Poppy had stabbed me. Just as I’d told her to do under the willow if I did something she didn’t like.

She jerked her hand off the hilt of the dagger and scuttled back. “I’m sorry,” she whispered.

Dragging my stare from the dagger, I saw the tears she’d been fighting spill over. I’d only seen her cry for Vikter. For someone she cared about. “You’re crying,” I rasped, tasting blood. My blood.

Pure, unadulterated horror filled her beautiful eyes. She shot to her feet, backing away. Her entire body shook. “I’m sorry,” she repeated.

I choked on a laugh as I pitched forward, slamming my hand against the floor. That laughter cost me, causing my chest to burn. “No,” I gasped. “No, you’re not.”

Poppy shook her head. A sound came from her as she turned, ripping open the door. And then she did something I didn’t think she’d ever really done before.

She ran.


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