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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 39


The following morning, I stood in the foyer of the Temple of Nyktos beside Casteel, fiddling with the chest strap I’d found among Casteel’s weapons. I’d also helped myself to the iron dagger I’d found in the depths of the chest, and it was now secured to my harness. The bloodstone dagger was strapped to my thigh. Neither of us wore the crowns, having left them in the bedchamber. We stood with Kieran and his sister, Emil, and Delano. Naill was sitting this one out, opting to spend time with his father. As I watched Delano adjust the strap holding his swords to his sides, I hoped he’d found time to let Perry know that he had returned to the capital.

“Kieran and I are pretty confident that the tunnel that leads to the mountains is the one underneath,” Casteel said. “It’s a narrow one with nothing really exciting.”

By really exciting, I assumed he meant the lilac-filled cavern.

“You guys did really weird things as kids.” Vonetta stood between her brother and Emil, her arms crossed. Two short swords were secured at her hips. She’d swept her long braids back from her face, and they hung down her back. “Just thought I’d share that.”

I grinned.

“I didn’t even know there were tunnels.” Emil glanced at the jet-black floors.

“There are.” Hisa strode forward, two guards flanking her. “They’re accessed by the crypts.”

Crypts.

I shuddered.

“Sorry.” Casteel gently squeezed the back of my neck. “The good news is that it’s nothing like what you were kept in.”

“It’s okay,” I told him, and it would be. It wasn’t like we’d be spending any amount of time in them.

Carrying a heavy ring of keys, Hisa continued toward a narrow door. Turning the key as she twisted the handle, the door creaked open.

Faint light lit our way down a staircase that made awful sounds under our weight. The temperature dropped at least five degrees with each step, and the familiar musky scent turned my stomach.

Hisa proceeded forward, passing several stone tombs. Casteel stuck close to me, his hand slipping to my shoulder. He was right. The crypt was clean and well-kept, flower garlands piled on the lids of the tombs.

“Are you sure about this?” Hisa had stopped in front of another door as she thumbed through the keys.

“We are,” I answered.

She nodded and then proceeded to unlock the second door. “These tunnels were once used to move goods from different areas of the city, and then they were solely used to transport the dead,” she told us, and Emil’s lip curled. “But they haven’t been accessed in several decades. I have no idea what kind of shape they’re in.

“It’s unlikely that there has been any type of collapse,” she continued. “But hopefully, the route you seek is still open.”

“From what I remember, it’s a pretty straight path with only a few turns.” Casteel picked up a torch. Delano stepped forward, striking flint against the top. Sparks gave way to fire. He handed the torch to Kieran. “It should only take an hour to reach the mountains.”

“And then?” I asked as he picked up another torch. Flames flared to life.

“That, I don’t know.” Casteel looked at Kieran. “We never went farther than the mountains.”

“The mountains are tall but not particularly wide through this area,” Hisa said, frowning. “We’re at the foothills here, so I imagine it would be a half-day’s journey. Farther north or south, it would probably take several days.”

“How far have you traveled into the mountains?” Vonetta asked, and I thought it was probably a good idea that we’d stuffed the bag strapped to Emil’s back with as much food as possible. Each of us carried our own canteens. It wasn’t a lot of water, but we would have to make it last.

“To where the mist mingles with the clouds in scouting missions. I know we reached the mist faster here than in other areas,” she answered. She glanced at the door. “If I had any idea what waited in that mist…” She trailed off with a shake of her head. “Please, be safe. All of you.” To Casteel and me, she added, “The people want to get to know their Queen and become reacquainted with their King.”

“And they will,” Casteel promised.

Hisa blew out a deep breath as she opened the door, and a void of darkness beckoned. “We will wait for your return.”

I watched the commander join the guards toward the entrance of the crypts. “Thank you all for doing this with us.”

Vonetta grinned. “It’s not like any of us would turn down an offer to see Iliseeum.”

“Only because none of us have any common sense,” Emil said.

“That, too.” Delano grinned.

“I, for one, am glad that I’m surrounded by those who have more loyalty and thirst for adventure than common sense,” Casteel remarked. “And now for the rules.”

“Yawn,” Vonetta tossed out.

I laughed. “Well, these rules will hopefully keep everyone alive. Casteel and I talked some things over this morning—”

“Is that what you two were doing?” Kieran asked.

“Yes,” I snapped, cheeks flushing because that wasn’t all we’d been doing. “Anyway, if anyone sees a hint of mist, back away and let me go first.”

“I didn’t exactly agree to this,” Casteel muttered.

“Yes. You did. The mist cleared for me in the Skotos Mountains. I would think it would do the same thing here,” I said. “That way, none of you will walk into it and suffocate to death.”

“Yeah, I want to avoid that,” Emil said.

“And if we encounter anything, I should probably hold off on using the eather,” I said, remembering what Kieran had said about the gods being able to sense when eather is used. “I don’t know what it will do in Iliseeum, if it will be any different or if the gods can sense it. I’m not sure that’s how we want to wake Nyktos.”

“How are we going to wake him?” Delano asked.

“Well,” I glanced at Casteel, “we thought we’d cross that bridge when we came to it.”

Vonetta lifted her brows. A moment passed. “That sounds like a wonderfully detailed plan.”

Casteel smirked. “Aren’t you glad you signed up?”

“Totally,” Vonetta replied, sounding so much like her brother.

“Ready?” Casteel asked, his eyes meeting mine.

I wasn’t exactly sure, but there was no point in delaying this, so I nodded, and we followed Casteel into the nothingness.


Time was a strange thing in the tunnels. With no light but that of the torches, we only knew hours had passed when hunger stirred. We stopped only to meet that need and handle personal ones in earthen rooms I convinced myself weren’t full of six-legged insects. We could’ve been in the twisting, cramped tunnels for hours—or longer—and I didn’t think we’d know.

“Careful,” Casteel warned at some point in the never-ending tunnel, holding the torch ahead of him. “The floor feels weak through this section. Stay close to the wall.”

I wasn’t sure how he could tell that, but I did as he requested, pressing my body against the cool stone. The canteen dug into my back as I crept along, Kieran close behind me. My chest tightened as I realized that the tunnel had narrowed once more. I’d never had a problem with enclosed spaces, but I had a feeling I would now. I reached out, gripping the back of Casteel’s shirt without really thinking about it. I’d gotten into the habit of doing so whenever the walls or ceiling pressed in.

“Poppy,” Casteel whispered.

“What?” I focused on the reddish glow beyond him.

“You know what I should’ve brought with us?” he asked.

More food? Maybe a little pouch of cheese? I was hungry again. “No,” I answered.

“Miss Willa’s journal.”

I stopped momentarily, and Kieran bumped into me. Thank the gods, he’d given the torch to Delano, or my hair would currently be on fire. “Really?”

“Yeah.” Casteel continued forward. “We could’ve passed the time taking turns reading from your favorite chapters.”

“Are we talking about the same Willa?” Vonetta asked from somewhere behind me.

“Yes. You see, there’s this extremely popular book in Solis. It’s actually Poppy’s favorite—”

“It is not my favorite, you jerk,” I snapped.

“Please don’t stab him in this tunnel,” Delano called out.

My eyes rolled. “I cannot promise that.”

Casteel chuckled.

“What is in this book? I have a feeling I’d be interested in it,” Vonetta said, and I heard Kieran groan. “What is—?” A loud crack cut off her words, and then the entire floor of the cavern seemed to rumble beneath us.

I spun around just in time to see Vonetta step to the other side of the wall and then disappear in a plume of dust. Horror seized me.

“Netta!” Kieran shouted, his fear sticky against my skin as it mixed with mine.

“I got her!” Emil yelled back. “Sort of.”

Whatever relief I felt from his words was short-lived. Delano moved forward, holding out the torch. The orange glow cast light over the partial collapse and the floor around it. Emil was on his stomach, one arm stretched into the opening. How the Atlantian had been able to move so fast that he’d caught Vonetta was beyond me.

“I’m still here,” Vonetta called out as her brother scrambled to the other side. “I think.”

Casteel caught the back of my shirt as I started toward them. “Too much weight on that section,” he cautioned as Delano scanned the floor. The wolven stepped to the side that remained intact.

He was right, and I hated it because all I could do was stand and watch as Kieran reached inside.

“Give me your other hand,” Kieran ordered. “We’ll pull you out together.”

“If either of you two drops me,” Vonetta’s voice trailed out of the darkness, “I’m going to be so pissed.”

“Netta, if we drop you, I’m going to throw myself in after you,” Emil advised. “And then we’re both going to find out what’s below these tunnels.”

“We’re both going to be dead then,” Vonetta hissed.

“Semantics,” Emil replied. “I’ve got you. Let go of whatever the hell you’re holding onto.”

“I think it’s a root.”

“Thanks for sharing,” Emil said. “Let go of the root and reach for Kieran.”

There was a soft grunt, and then Kieran cursed. “I can’t reach him,” she gasped out.

“Try again.” Emil shifted as if he were trying to position himself to grab her one hand with both of his, which would enable him to pull her up on his own, but I could sense his fear and worry.

My heart lurched. I could totally understand Vonetta’s hesitation. I shifted restlessly, hands opening and closing at my sides.

Casteel folded an arm around me from behind. He squeezed. “She’s going to be fine. They’ve got her.”

I nodded as I glanced to where Delano was looking at the floor once more. His concern tripled, and I had a feeling the section near him wouldn’t remain much longer. Frustration rose within me. What good were my gifts right now? I could harness the eather to ease pain, to heal, and to harm. Why couldn’t I use it now, when help was so desperately needed?

Why couldn’t I? Better yet, who said I couldn’t?

Another crack sent a jolt of fear through me as pieces of the tunnel under Emil began to break. Casteel cursed. If the section went, not only would we lose them, we’d be unable to return.

I had to do something.

I had to try.

Forcing myself to calm enough to focus on the image I was building in my mind. I closed my eyes, pouring all good thoughts into what I was creating. I didn’t want the eather to harm. My chest hummed as I saw the webbing of shimmery light seeping over the floor. I pictured it slipping into the hole and surrounding Vonetta. I saw it lifting her—

Vonetta gasped. My eyes flew open. A silvery glow crept along the walls of the cavern. Kieran pitched forward, reaching into the tear as strings of light lifted Vonetta. He grasped his sister’s hand, pulling her up as I pulled the eather toward me. Emil let go, scuttling back on his belly as Kieran and Vonetta collapsed to the side.

Letting out a ragged breath, I pulled the eather back toward me as I sank against Casteel. The radiance retreated and then disappeared.

“Are you okay, Netta?” Casteel demanded.

“Peachy.” Vonetta rolled onto her back, breathing heavily. She tilted her head back toward Casteel and me. “That…that felt weird.”

“You could feel it?” I asked.

“Yeah, it felt…warm and tingly.” She dragged her arm over her forehead. “Thank you. All of you.”

“How did you do that?” Casteel asked as Emil stood.

“I pictured it. Like you said.” My heart still hadn’t slowed. “And I just hoped it didn’t…you know, break her bones.”

Vonetta halted in the process of rising, her gaze finding mine in the dim firelight. “You didn’t know if it wouldn’t do that?”

“No,” I admitted sheepishly.

She put her hands on her hips. “Gods, I think I need to lay down again.”


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