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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 4

“Good gods,” I croaked, pressing away from this—this thing before me.

“Did I startle you?” Jansen/Beckett asked in the young wolven’s voice—coming from a face identical to Alastir’s great-nephew.

“You’re…you’re a changeling.”

He nodded.

I couldn’t stop staring at him, my brain unable to reconcile the knowledge that it was Jansen before me and not Beckett. “I…I didn’t know they could make themselves look like other people.”

“Most of the changeling bloodlines that are left are only able to shift into animal form or have…other skills,” he said. “I’m one of the very few who can do it and hold another’s form for long periods of time. Want to know how?”

I really did, but I said nothing.

Lucky for me, he was in a talkative mood. “All I need is something of them on me. A strand of hair is typically enough. The wolven are incredibly easy to replicate.”

No part of me could comprehend how anyone could be easy to replicate. “And would they…know that you’d done this? Taken on their appearance?”

Still smiling with Beckett’s boyish features, Jansen shook his head. “Not usually.”

I couldn’t even begin to process what it would be like to take on another’s identity or how someone could do so without the other’s permission. It felt like a great violation to me, especially if done to trick someone…

Realization swept through me in a wave of fresh anger. “It was you,” I seethed. “Not the real Beckett who led me into the Temple. You.”

“I’ve always known a clever girl lived behind the veil,” he remarked and then shifted once again into the features that belonged to him. It was a feat no less shocking than the time before.

The knowledge that it hadn’t been the young, playful wolven who’d led me into a trap brought forth a decent amount of relief. “How? How did no one know? How had I—?” I cut myself off. When I read his emotions in the Temple, they had felt just like Beckett’s.

“How did you or our Prince not know? Or even Kieran or Jasper? When changelings assume the identity of another, we take on their characteristics to the point where it’s extremely difficult to decipher the truth. Sometimes, it can even become hard for us to remember who we truly are.” A troubled look crept across his features but vanished so quickly that I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. “Of course, our Prince knew I was a changeling. As do many others. But, obviously, no one expected such a manipulation. No one was even looking for one.”

“Is Beckett okay?”

Jansen looked away. “He should have been. He was given a sleeping draft. That was the plan. For him to sleep long enough for me to take his place.”

My heart twisted. “But that didn’t happen?”

“No.” Jansen briefly closed his eyes. “I underestimated how much potion a young wolven needed to remain asleep. He woke when I entered his room.” He leaned back, scrubbing a hand down his face. “What happened was unfortunate.”

Bile crept up my throat. “You killed him?”

“It had to be done.”

Disbelief stole my breath as I stared at the changeling. “He was just a kid!”

“I know.” He lowered his hand. “It wasn’t something any of us enjoyed, but it had to be done.”

“It didn’t have to be done.” Tears crowded my eyes. “He was a kid, and he was innocent.”

“Innocents die all the time. You spent the entirety of your life in Solis. You know that to be true.”

“And that makes it okay to harm another?”

“No. But the end justified the means. The people of Atlantia will understand that,” Jansen countered. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could understand the murder of a child. “And why do you even care? You stood by and witnessed people being starved, abused, and given over to the Rite. You did nothing.”

“I didn’t know the truth then,” I spat, blinking back tears.

“And does that make it okay?”

“No. It doesn’t,” I said, and his eyes widened slightly. “But I didn’t always stand by and do nothing. I did what I could.”

“It wasn’t enough.”

“I didn’t say it was.” I drew in a ragged breath. “Why are you doing this?”

“It is my duty to stop any and all threats to Atlantia.”

A hoarse laugh of disbelief left me. “You know me. You’ve known me for years. You know I’m not a threat. I wouldn’t have done anything in that Temple if I hadn’t been threatened.”

“That is what you say now. One day, that will change,” he said. “Strange how small the world is, though. The whole purpose of assuming the role I did was to ensure an open pathway between Casteel and you. I spent years living a lie, all so he could capture the Maiden and use her to free his brother and gain back some of our stolen land. I had no idea what you were or even why you were the Maiden.”

“And him marrying me felt like a betrayal to you?” I surmised.

“Actually, no,” he replied, surprising me. “He could still accomplish what he intended. Probably would’ve been even better positioned to do so with you as his wife and not his captive.”

“Then why? Because I’m…because I have a drop of god’s blood in me?”

“A drop?” Jansen laughed. “Girl, I know what you did in that Temple. You need to give yourself more credit.”

My temper spiked, and I welcomed it, holding onto the rage. It was far better company than the welling grief. “I haven’t been a girl in years, so do not call me one.”

“My apologies.” He bowed his head. “I would be willing to bet you have far more than a drop. Your bloodline must’ve remained very clean for you to exhibit those kinds of godly abilities.” He moved suddenly, grasping my chin. I tried to pull free, but he held me in place. His dark eyes swept over my face as if he were searching for something. “Strange that I never saw it before. I should have.”

I reached up, gripping his forearm. The manacle on my wrist tightened in warning. “Remove your hand from me.”

“Or what, Maiden?” His smile kicked up a notch as my anger flared hotly. “There is nothing you can do to me that will not result in you harming yourself. I just said you were always clever. Don’t make a liar out of me.”

Helpless anger prodded at the deeply rooted desperation I felt at not being able to defend myself. “Let go of me!”

Jansen released his grip and rose suddenly. He glanced over at the pile of bones beside me as I dragged in deep breaths. My heart pounded way too fast. “I knew it wouldn’t be wise for me to linger in Masadonia,” he said. “So, I left shortly after you did. I met up with Alastir on the road to Spessa’s End. It was then that I learned what you were.”

My fingernails pressed into my palms. “So, Alastir knew what I was?”

“Not when he first saw you.” He nudged something with his toe, kicking it across the dusty floor. It was the dismembered hand. My stomach roiled. “I remained hidden until it was time and then assumed Beckett’s identity.”

“You stood by when we were nearly overtaken by the Ascended armies. People died, and you just stood by?” Scorn dripped from my tone.

His gaze snapped back to mine. “I’m not a coward.”

“You said it.” My smile was thin. “Not me.”

He didn’t move for a long moment. “Watching those armies descend on Spessa’s End wasn’t easy. Staying hidden was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But unlike those false Guardians, I am a Protector of Atlantia, a true Guardian of the realm. I knew my purpose was far greater than the potential fall of Spessa’s End or even the death of our Prince.”

“True Guardian?” I thought of the women who had descended from a long line of warriors—women who had leapt from the Rise surrounding Spessa’s End and wielded swords more fearlessly than I’d ever seen the commander do. I laughed harshly. “You’re pale and pathetic compared to the Guardians.”

Pain erupting across the side of my cheek and face was the only warning that he’d moved—that he’d lashed out. A metallic taste filled my mouth.

“I understand that things must be very confusing and stressful for you,” he said, his tone heavy with false sympathy as he rose and took a step back. “But if you insult me one more time, I will not be responsible for my actions.”

An icy-hot feeling flowed over my skin. My cheek throbbed as I turned my head back to him and met his gaze. “You will die,” I promised, smiling at the red blush of anger staining his cheeks. “It will be by my hand, and it will be a death befitting a coward like you.”

He shot toward me. This time, darkness came with the biting pain, one I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried.

Gritting my teeth against the pressure of the bindings around my wrist, I slowly inched my hand to the left as I stared at the spear on the skeleton’s chest. Fresh blood dripped onto the stone, and I stopped, breathing raggedly.

I waited, having learned that with each inch gained, the bindings loosened a little. Gaining that knowledge had been a painstakingly slow process.

Focusing on deep, steady breaths, I rested the side of my head against the wall as my entire arm throbbed. I had no idea how much time had passed since I’d lost consciousness. It had to be hours. Maybe longer as my pangs of hunger had gone from sporadic waves to a low, steady gnawing ache in my gut. And I was cold—every part of my body felt chilled.

My gaze crept over the stone coffins. Why had they been given the honor of a proper resting place while the ones against the walls hadn’t? That was only one of the many questions I had. Granted, it wasn’t nearly the most important one, but I’d rather think about that than wonder why I was still alive.

Jansen had claimed that I was a threat. And maybe whatever had awakened in me at the Temple was. Perhaps I was a threat. But why keep me alive? Or was this what they’d planned all along? To just shove me into this crypt and leave me here until I died of hunger or starvation, becoming nothing but another dusty pile of bones against the wall.

Panic was a vise around my throat, making it harder to breathe. I shut it down, though. I couldn’t let myself give in to the fear that had formed a haunting shadow in the back of my mind. I would get out of here—either on my own, or Casteel would find me.

I knew he had to be searching for me. Likely started the moment he woke. And he would tear the entire kingdom apart if necessary. He would find me.

I would get out of here.

But first, I needed a weapon.

Bracing myself for pain, I slowly stretched out my arm. My fingers brushed the dusty handle of the spear. Excitement thrummed as the bindings snapped tighter around my wrist, digging into my flesh. Pain spiked—

Stone slid against stone somewhere in the darkness of the crypt, halting my attempt. Ignoring the intense throbbing in my limb, I drew my hand back to my lap, where fresh blood gathered, soaking my slip. I stared into the shadows, straining to see who had arrived.

“I see you’re finally awake.”

My hands curled into fists at the sound of Alastir’s voice.

A moment later, he passed under the glow of one of the torches. He looked the same as he had in the Temple, except his black tunic, threaded with gold, was sleeveless. “I checked on you earlier, but you were asleep.”

“You traitorous son of a bitch,” I spat.

Alastir stopped between two of the stone tombs. “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. Jansen confessed that he lost his temper and struck you. I apologize for that. Hitting anyone who cannot defend themselves is not part of the oath we took.”

“I don’t care that he hit me,” I hissed, glaring up at Alastir. “I care about how you betrayed Casteel. How you had a hand in the death of your own great-nephew.”

His head tilted, and the shadows hid the jagged scar across his forehead. “You see what I have taken part in as a betrayal. I see it as a messy necessity to ensure the safety of Atlantia.”

Fury burned through my chest and my blood. “Like I told Jansen, I only defended myself. I only defended Casteel and Kieran and Jasper. I would—”

“You would never have done what you did unless you believed that kind of reaction was warranted?” he interrupted. “You were forced to use the power in your blood against others?”

My chest rose and fell heavily. “Yes.”

“Long ago, when the gods of names long forgotten were awake and coexisted with mortals, rules governed the mortals’ actions. The gods acted as their protectors, aiding them in times of crisis, and even granted favors to the most faithful,” he said.

“I couldn’t care less about this history lesson if my very life depended on it,” I fumed.

“But they also acted as the mortals’ judge, jury, and executioner if the mortals’ actions were deemed offensive or unwarranted,” Alastir continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “The problem with that was that only the gods chose what was and wasn’t a punishable act. Countless mortals died at the hands of those gods for offenses as small as raising the ire of a god. Eventually, the younger brethren rose against those gods. But the tendency to react without thought, often fueled by passion or other volatile, unpredictable emotions, and to react with violence, was a trait even the gods fell prey to—especially the eldest among them. It was why they went to sleep.”

“Thanks for sharing,” I snapped. “But you still haven’t explained why you betrayed the Prince. Why you used Beckett to carry this out.”

“I did what I needed to because the gods’ violent trait was passed onto their children,” he stated. “The deities were even more chaotic in their thoughts and manners than their predecessors. Some believed it was the mortal influence, as the gods before them had coexisted with mortals but did not live among them. They remained in Iliseeum, while their children lived in the mortal realm.”

Iliseeum? The Shadowlands? All of this sounded delusional, and my patience was already barely hanging on by a thin thread. I was this close to risking losing a hand so I could grab the spear and launch it at the bastard.

“I don’t know if it was mortal influence or not, but after the gods chose to sleep, the deities became—”

“Too powerful and too dangerous,” I cut in. “I know. I’ve already heard this.”

“But did Jansen tell you what they did to deserve that fate? I’m sure you’ve realized by now that all those entombed here are deities.” He lifted his arms, gesturing toward the sarcophagi and the bodies. “Did he tell you why the elemental Atlantians rose against them, just like their forefathers rose against the original gods? Did he tell you what kind of monsters they became?”

“He was too busy hitting me to get to that point,” I sneered. “So, no.”

“I feel I must apologize for that once more.”

“Fuck you,” I choked out, hating his apology—the apparent sincerity of his words. And he legitimately meant them. I didn’t need my ability to know that.

His brows lifted, and then his expression smoothed out. “The deities built Atlantia, but they almost destroyed it in their greed and through their thirst for life—their unquenchable desire for more. Always more. They knew no limits. If they wanted something, they took it or created it. Sometimes, to benefit the kingdom. A lot of the internal structure you see here exists because of them. But more often than not, their actions only benefited them.”

What he said reminded me an awful lot of the Ascended. They ruled with their desires at the forefront of each thought.

I stared up at him. “So, I’m a threat that must be dealt with because I’m descended from a deity, who may or may not have had anger-management issues?” A strangled laugh parted my lips. “As if I have no autonomy and am just a byproduct of what is in my blood?”

“That may sound unbelievable to you now, Penellaphe, but you’ve just entered into the Culling. Sooner or later, you will start to show the same chaotic and violent impulses as they did. You are dangerous now, but you will become something else entirely eventually.”

An image of the strange woman with the moonlight hair flashed before me.

“Worse yet, at the heart of you, you are mortal—far more easily influenced than an Atlantian or a wolven. And because of that mortality, you will be even more prone to impulsive choices.”

The woman faded from my mind as I stared at him. “You’re wrong. Mortals are far more cautious and protective of life.”

He arched a brow. “Even if that was the case, you descended from the ones born of the flesh and fire of the most powerful gods. Your abilities are strikingly reminiscent of those who, if angered, could quickly become catastrophic, their tempers all-consuming. Families were decimated because someone offended one of them. Towns laid to waste because one person committed a crime against them. But all paid the price—men, women, and children,” he told me, and unease grew under my anger.

“Then they began turning on one another, picking each other off as they fought to rule Atlantia. And in the process, they eradicated entire bloodlines. When the descendants of Saion were killed, the ceeren rose against the deities responsible. They didn’t die because they fell into depression, nor did their bloodline simply become so diluted that it eventually died out. Another deity killed them. Many of those bloodlines died at one deity’s hand—the one that so many believed was different.” Anger tightened the lines of his mouth. “Even I did at one time. How could I not believe that he was different? After all, he’d descended from the King of Gods. He couldn’t be like the others.”

“Malec?” I guessed.

Alastir nodded. “But a lot of people were wrong. I was wrong. He was the worst of them all.”

Tensing, I watched him come forward and lower himself to the stone floor before me. He sat with a heavy sigh, resting an arm on a bent knee as he studied me. “Not many people knew what Malec was capable of. What his godly powers were like. When he used them, he left very few witnesses behind. But I knew what he could do. Queen Eloana knew. King Valyn did.” His cool blue eyes met mine. “His abilities were a lot like yours.”

I sucked in a short breath. “No.”

“He could sense emotion, like the empath bloodline. It was believed that their line branched off from the one that birthed Malec, having mingled with a changeling line. Some believe that was why the gods favored the empaths. That they had more eather in them than most,” he continued.

“Malec could heal wounds with his touch, but he rarely did it because he was not only descended from the God of Life, he was also a descendant of the God of Death. Nyktos. The King of Gods is both. And Malec’s abilities had a dark side. He could take emotion and turn it back on others, like the empaths. But he could do so much more.”

There was no way.

“He could send his will into others, breaking and shattering their bodies without touch. He could become death.” Alastir held my gaze as I shook my head. “I like you. I know you may not believe that, and I understand if you don’t. But I am sorry because I know that Casteel cares for you deeply. I didn’t in the beginning, but I know now that your relationship is real. This will hurt him. But that is the blood you carry in you, Penellaphe. You are descended from Nyktos. You carry the blood of King Malec inside you,” he said, watching me. “I belong to a long line of people who swore an oath to protect Atlantia and her secrets. That was why I was willing to break my bond with Malec. And it is why I cannot allow you to do what he almost succeeded in.”

It was hard for me to fully comprehend that I carried any godly blood in me. Obviously, I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t just half-Atlantian and half-mortal. One of mixed heritage couldn’t do what I had done. Not even an elemental Atlantian was capable of that. But someone descended from Nyktos? From King Malec?

The deity who had created the very first Ascended? His actions had led to thousands of deaths, if not more.

That was in my blood?

 I couldn’t believe what Alastir was saying. It sounded as impossible as what Duchess Teerman had claimed about the Queen of Solis being my grandmother. That was impossible. The Ascended couldn’t bear children.

 “How could I descend from Malec?” I asked, even if it sounded impossible.

“Malec had many mistresses, Penellaphe. Some were mortal. Some weren’t,” he told me. “And he had children with some of them—offspring who spread across the kingdom, settling in areas far west from here. It is not at all impossible. There are many others like you—those who never reached the age of the Culling. You are his descendant.”

“Others who never reached….” I trailed off, a whole new horror beginning to take shape in my mind. Good gods, were Alastir and Jansen—and who knew how many others—responsible for the deaths of…of children over the course of the centuries?

“But it’s not just the bloodline, Penellaphe. We were warned about you long ago. It was written in the bones of your namesake before the gods went to sleep,” Alastir said. My skin pimpled.

“‘With the last Chosen blood spilled, the great conspirator birthed from the flesh and fire of the Primals will awaken as the Harbinger and the Bringer of Death and Destruction to the lands gifted by the gods. Beware, for the end will come from the west to destroy the east and lay waste to all which lies between.’

I stared at him in stunned silence.

“You are the Chosen, birthed of the flesh and fire of the gods. And you come from the west, to the lands the gods have gifted,” Alastir conferred. “You are who your namesake warned about.”

“You…you’re doing all of this because of my bloodline and a prophecy?” A harsh laugh rattled from me. There had been old wives’ tales about prophecies and tales of doom in every generation. They were nothing but fables.

“You don’t have to believe me, but I knew—I think I always did.”

He frowned as his eyes narrowed slightly. “I sensed it when I looked into your eyes for the first time. They were old. Primal. I saw death in your eyes, even all those years ago.”

My heart stuttered and then sped up. “What?”

“We met before. You were either too young then to remember or the events of the night were too traumatic,” Alastir said, and every part of me flashed hot and then cold. “I didn’t realize it was you when I saw you for the first time in New Haven. I thought you looked familiar, and it kept nagging at me. Something about your eyes. But it wasn’t until you said your parents’ names that I knew exactly who you were. Coralena and Leopold. Cora and her lion.”

I jolted, feeling as if the floor of the crypt had moved under me. I couldn’t speak.

“I lied to you,” he said softly. “When I said that I would ask to see if any others had known of them or had potentially tried to help them escape to Atlantia, I never planned to ask anyone. I didn’t need to because it was me.”

Heart pounding fast, I snapped out of my stupor. “You were there that night? The night the Craven attacked the inn?”

He nodded as the torches flickered behind him.

A picture of my father formed in my mind, his features hazy as he kept glancing out the window of the inn, looking and searching for something or someone. Later that night, he’d said to someone who lingered in the shadows of my mind, “This is my daughter.”

I couldn’t…I couldn’t breathe as I stared at Alastir. His voice. His laugh. It had always sounded so familiar to me. I’d thought it reminded me of Vikter. I’d been wrong.

“I came to meet them, give them safe passage,” he said, his voice growing weary.

“She doesn’t know,” my father had told that shadow in my memory that I could never fully latch on to. Images flashed rapid-fire behind my eyes, snapshots of memories—recollections I wasn’t sure were real or fragments of nightmares. My father…his smile had been all wrong before he looked over his shoulder. “Understood,” was the phantom voice’s response. Now I knew who that voice had belonged to.

“Your parents should’ve known better than to share what they knew with anyone.” Alastir shook his head again, this time sadly. “And you were right to assume that they were attempting to flee Solis, to get as far away from the kingdom as they could. They were. They knew the truth. But you see, Penellaphe, your mother and father always knew exactly what the Ascended were.”

I jerked back, barely feeling the pain in my wrists and legs. “No.”

“Yes,” he insisted. But there was no way this was the truth. I knew my parents were good people. I remembered that. Good people wouldn’t have stood by, doing nothing, if they knew the truth of the Ascended. Realized what happened when children were given over during the Rite. Good people didn’t stay silent. They were not complicit.

“Your mother was a favorite of the counterfeit Queen, but she was no Lady in Wait destined to Ascend. She was a Handmaiden to the Queen.”

Handmaiden? Something about that struck a chord of familiarity. Out of the churning chaos of my mind, I saw…women who were always with the Queen. Women in black who never spoke and wandered through the halls of the palace like shadows. They…they’d scared me as a child. Yes. I remembered that now. How had I forgotten about them?

“Her Handmaidens were her personal guards.” Alastir’s brows knitted, and the scar on his forehead deepened. “Casteel knows they were a unique sort of nightmare.”

I lifted a hand and froze. Casteel had been held by the Queen for five decades, tortured and used by her and others. He’d been freed before my mother was born, but his brother took his place.

But my mother, my gentle, soft, and helpless mother couldn’t have been like that. If she were one of the Queen’s personal guards, nightmare or not, she would’ve been trained to fight. She would’ve—

She would’ve been able to defend herself.

I didn’t understand. Didn’t know if any of that was true. But I knew what was. “You,” I breathed, my entire being turning numb as I stared at the man I’d befriended. That I’d trusted. “It was you. You betrayed them, didn’t you?”

“It wasn’t me who struck down your father. It wasn’t me who betrayed your mother,” he replied. “But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I would’ve killed them anyway. I would’ve killed you.”

A harsh laugh erupted from me as rage and disbelief twisted my insides. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it? The Craven?”

“There were Craven there that night. You carry their scars. They were led right to the doors of the inn.” He didn’t blink. Not once. “He led them there. The Dark One.”

“Liar!” I shouted. “Casteel had nothing to do with what happened.”

“I never said Casteel did. I know it wasn’t him, even though I never saw the face behind the cloak and hood he wore when he came to that inn,” Alastir replied. “Other things were at play that night. Darkness that moved outside of my influence. I was there to help your parents. That is what I did back then. But when they told me what you could do, I knew—I knew who you came from. So, when the darkness came to those doors, I let it in.”

I didn’t know if I believed him or if it even mattered if my parents had died by his hand or not. He had still played a role in my parents’ deaths, leaving Ian and I and everyone else there to die, as well. Leaving me to be torn apart by claws and teeth. That pain. That night. It had haunted me for my entire life.

A breath shuddered out of him. “I let it in and walked away, believing that the dirtiest part of my duty was done. But you survived, and here we are.”

Yes.” The word rumbled out of me in a growl that would’ve surprised me at any other time. “Here I am. Now what? You going to kill me? Or leave me here to rot?”

“If only it were that simple.” He leaned on one hand. “And I would never leave you here to die such a slow death. That is far too barbaric.”

Did he even hear himself? “And chaining me in these bones and roots isn’t? Leaving my family and me to die isn’t barbaric?”

“It was a necessary evil,” he stated. “But we can’t just kill you. Maybe before you arrived—before the Primal notam locked into place. But not now. The wolven have seen you. They’ve felt you.”

My gaze sharpened on him. “Why didn’t you change like the others? The way the King and Queen spoke, it was like they had no control over their forms. They had to answer my call.”

“It’s because I can no longer shift into my wolven form. When I broke my oath to King Malec, I severed the connection between myself and my wolven side. So, I wasn’t able to feel the Primal notam.”

Shock flickered wildly through me. I hadn’t known that. “Are you…are you still a wolven, then?”

“I still have the lifespan and the strength of a wolven, but I cannot shift into my true form.” His gaze clouded over. “Sometimes, it feels like a missing limb—the inability to feel the change come over me. But what I did, I carried out knowing full well what the consequences would be. Not many others would’ve done that.”

Gods, that had to be unbearable. It had to feel like…I had when they forced me to wear the veil. Part of me was impressed by Alastir’s loyalty to Atlantia and to the Queen. And that said a lot about his character—who he was as a man, a wolven, and what he was willing to do in service to his kingdom.

“You did that, but you won’t kill me?”

“If we were to kill you, you would become a martyr. There would be an uprising, another war, when the real battle lays to our west.” He was talking about Solis—about the Ascended. “I want to avoid that. Avoid creating even more problems for our kingdom. And soon, you will no longer be our problem.”

“If you’re not going to kill me or leave me in here to die, I’m a little confused by what you plan to do,” I bit out.

“I will give the Ascended what they were so desperate to keep,” he said. “I will give them you.”


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