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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 40


We traveled on, wary of the stability of the tunnel. Again, it felt as if we continued on for a small eternity, but the sudden and familiar scent of lilac sent a bolt of hope through me. Pressing through the narrow turn, a pinprick of light appeared in the darkness.

We had reached the end of the tunnel and Iliseeum.

“Mist,” Casteel announced. “I can see it coming through the opening.”

I tapped his shoulder when he didn’t move. “Cas.”

He growled low in his throat but flattened himself against the wall, holding the torch high. As I passed him, I pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.

“That doesn’t help,” he grumbled.

I would’ve smiled, but I saw it—tendrils of thick mist seeping into the opening in the tunnel, drifting toward us. I moved forward, sending up a prayer that Jasper had been right about my ability to pass through the mist and that my suspicion that it would not only allow me to do so but also scatter, making it safe for the others, was true.

The Primal magic rose from the floor of the cavern, forming wispy fingers as it stretched out toward me. I lifted my hand.

“I don’t like this,” Casteel muttered from behind me.

“It shouldn’t hurt her,” Kieran reminded him, but concern bled into his words.

The mist brushed against my skin, the feel of it cool and damp and alive. The eather retracted, lowering to the ground and then disappearing.

I exhaled roughly, looking over my shoulder. “It’s okay.”

Casteel nodded, and I moved ahead. The opening wasn’t all that large, only about three feet high and two feet wide. “You’ll have to crawl through.”

“Just go slowly,” Casteel advised. “We have no idea what is on the other end.”

“Hopefully, not a draken looking to serve up some flame-broiled red meat,” Emil muttered from somewhere in the darkness.

“Well, that put a pleasant image in my mind,” Delano replied.

Hoping for the exact same thing as Emil, I went down on my knees and inched through. “Hold on,” I told them. There was more mist, so thick it was like the clouds had descended to the ground. I reached out tentatively, and the magic scattered and thinned as bright sunlight penetrated what remained of the fog. Squinting at the sudden light after being in the dark for so long, I slid out, my knees and hands skimming from stone to sandy, loose dirt.

One hand going to the blade at my chest, and the other to the wolven dagger on my thigh, I stood and took a step forward.

The ground trembled faintly under my feet. I froze, looking down to see tiny rocks and clumps of sand and dirt shiver. After a heartbeat, the trembling ceased, and I lifted my gaze. The mist had completely disappeared, and I was able to take my first look at Iliseeum.

My lips parted as my hands fell away from my daggers. The sky was a shade of blue that reminded me of the wolven’s eyes, pale and wintry, but the air was warm and smelled of lilacs. My gaze swept over the landscape. “Gods,” I whispered, lifting my chin as my gaze crawled up and up the massive statues carved out of what I assumed was shadowstone. They were as tall as the ones I’d seen in Evaemon, those that had appeared to scrape the sky, and there had to be hundreds of them standing in line, continuing on to the left and right as far as I could see. Maybe even thousands.

The statues were of women, their heads lowered. Each hand held a stone sword that jutted forward. The stone women had wings sprouting from their backs, splayed wide, each touching the wings of the ones standing on either side of them. They formed a chain of sorts, blocking whatever resided beyond. You could only pass through under the wings.

They were beautiful.

“Poppy?” Casteel’s voice neared the opening. “You okay out there?”

“Yeah. Sorry.” I cleared my throat. “It’s safe.”

Within a handful of moments, Casteel and the rest made their way out, coming to stand beside me in silence. They all stared at the statues, their wonder bubbly and sugary.

“Are they supposed to represent the draken?” I asked.

“I don’t know.” Casteel’s hand touched my lower back. “They’re stunning, though.”

They truly were. “I guess we walk ahead and see if what they’re guarding is what we’re looking for.”

We started to cross the barren land, searching for any signs of life. There was nothing. No sound. Not even a breeze or the distant call of a bird.

“This is kind of creepy,” I murmured, looking around. “The silence.”

“Agreed. Perhaps this should be called the Land of the Dead,” Delano said as he walked under the shadowed wing of a stone woman.

A faint tremble stirred the ground under our feet. Casteel threw out a hand. We all stopped. “This happened before,” I told them. “It stopped—”

The ground erupted in several geysers all around us, sending clouds of dirt into the air and spewing small rocks in every direction.

“I’m assuming that didn’t happen last time,” Vonetta remarked.

“Nope.” I threw up a hand as clumps of dirt pelted my face and arm, and the ground burst open between Casteel and me.

Another funnel of dirt exploded directly in front of Emil, forcing him back several steps. He coughed. “That was rude.”

The ground steadied as the dust and dirt fell back to the earth. “Is everyone still with us?” Delano asked, wiping at his face.

 We were.

“Careful.” Casteel knelt near the opening between us. “This is one hell of a hole.” He looked up, meeting my gaze and then Kieran’s. He rose slowly. “I have a feeling we may have triggered something.”

“Triggered what?” Emil asked, peering over the edge, squinting. “Wait.” His head tilted to the side. “I think I—holy shit!” Jumping back, he stumbled over his feet, catching himself a second before he landed on his ass.

“What?” Vonetta demanded, reaching for her swords. “Details. They would be helpful at the—”

Between Casteel and I, the bleached bones of a hand appeared, fingers digging into the loose soil.

“What in the world of nightmare fuel is this?” Casteel muttered.

Those fingers were connected to an arm—an arm that was nothing more than a skeleton. The top of a skull appeared. My eyes widened in horror. Dirt poured out of empty eye sockets.

“Skeletons!” Vonetta shouted, unsheathing her swords. “Couldn’t you have said that you saw skeletons in the hole?”

Casteel cursed as another bony hand appeared, this one clutching a sword in its grip.

“Armed skeletons!” Vonetta yelled. “Couldn’t you have said you saw armed skeletons in the hole?”

“Sorry.” Emil unhooked his swords. “I was kind of taken aback by the sight of fully functional, fucking skeletons with weapons. My apologies.”

I stared at the sword—the blade was as black as the statues. The same kind of blades I’d seen in the crypts with the deities. “Shadowstone.” An image of my mother flashed before me, of her pulling a slender, black blade from her boot. “Their blades are like the one my mother had. That had to be a real memory.”

“Poppy, I’m glad you know it was real.” Casteel withdrew his swords. “But we should probably discuss that later, like when we’re not facing an army of the dead?”

“Question,” Delano called out, blade in hand as the top of a skull appeared from the hole nearest him. “How exactly does one kill what is presumably already dead?”

“Like super dead,” Vonetta clarified as the one before her was now halfway out of the hole, a ragged, dull brown tunic draped over the skeleton’s shoulder. Through the torn clothing, I saw a twisted mass of dirt beat behind its ribs.

Casteel moved as fast as bottled lightning, thrusting his sword into the chest of the skeleton and piercing the lump of dirt. The skeleton shattered, sword and all, breaking apart into dust. “Like that?”

“Oh,” Vonetta replied. “All right, then.”

I turned as Kieran shoved his sword into the chest of one. There were about a dozen holes behind us—a dozen skeleton guards halfway out of the ground. Another image filled my mind, one not of my mother but of a woman with silvery-white hair—the one I’d seen in my mind while I stood in the Chambers of Nyktos. She’d slammed her hands into the dirt, and the ground had cracked open, bone fingers digging their way out.

“Her soldiers,” I whispered.

“What?” Casteel demanded.

“These are her—”

Free from whatever hole it had literally crawled out of, one of the skeleton soldiers rushed toward me, lifting its sword. Slipping the dagger free from my chest harness, I snapped forward, thrusting the blade into the mess of throbbing dirt. The skeleton exploded as another took its place. Behind it, another skeleton soldier lifted its sword. Kicking out, I planted my boot in the soldier’s chest, pushing it back into another. Casteel shot forward, stabbing his sword into the dirt heart of the one closest to him. I spun, slamming my dagger into the chest of the skeleton, wincing as the blade nicked bone before hitting the heart.

“Cutting off the head does not work,” Emil shouted, and I turned to see a…a headless skeleton tracking the dumbfounded Atlantian. “I repeat. It does not work!”

Vonetta whirled, thrusting one sword through the chest of a soldier, and her other blade through the headless skeleton. “You,” she said to Emil, “are a mess.”

“And you are beautiful,” he replied with a grin.

The female wolven rolled her eyes as she spun, taking down another as Emil shoved his sword into the chest of one coming at him.

Casteel shoved a soldier back as he jabbed the sword through its ribs. Behind him, a soldier raced toward him. I shot past Casteel, stabbing the creature in the chest—

The ground trembled once more. New geysers of dirt erupted, streaking into the air. “You have got to be kidding me,” Kieran growled.

I spun around, heart thudding as…hundreds of eruptions happened across the barren ground, from the side of the Mountains of Nyktos, all the way to the stone women. These soldiers were faster, tearing out of the holes in a matter of heartbeats.

“Good gods.” Vonetta stumbled back into Emil. He steadied her before they turned to stand back-to-back.

A skeleton soldier ran forward on bony feet, sword raised. Its jaws unhinged, opening wide to reveal nothing but a black void and the sound of screaming wind. The force blew my braid back and tugged at my tunic.

“Rude,” I muttered, nearly choking on the scent of stale lilacs.

Black, oily smoke spilled from the skeleton’s mouth, thickening and solidifying as it poured to the ground, forming thick ropes that slithered forward—

“Oh, my gods!” I shrieked. “Not ropes! Not ropes! Snakes!”

“Holy shit,” Delano gasped as Casteel shoved his sword through the back of the screaming skeleton. “That is so not right.”

“I regret the decision to join you all,” Emil announced. “I regret this decision very much.”

Snakes. Gods. I hated snakes. Bile rose in my throat as I danced out of the way of the serpents. My scream built in my throat as several of the other skeletons howled. More black smoke followed. More snakes.

Twisting, I shoved my dagger into a soldier’s chest. I would have to table what I was seeing and deal with the lifetime of nightmares later.

Casteel took out a soldier as he slammed his boot down on a snake. The smoke-serpent flattened into an oily stain, turning my stomach.

I’d also have to vomit about that later.

“Poppy.” His head jerked up. “I know you said you didn’t think you should use the eather, but I really think now would be a good time to go full deity on these fuckers.”

“Second that,” Vonetta called as she kicked a serpent away from her. It landed near her brother, who shot her a dirty look.

I had to agree as I thrust my dagger into the chest of a soldier. The freaking smoke serpents outweighed whatever risks using the eather in Iliseeum introduced. I sheathed my daggers. Focusing on the hum in my chest, I let it come to the surface of my skin. No, I realized. I summoned it to the surface. Silvery-white light crowded the sides of my vision as it sparked over my skin—

The skeleton soldiers turned toward me. All of them. Their mouths opened as they screamed. Smoke poured from the voids, falling to the ground.

“Oh.” Kieran straightened. “Shit.”

That didn’t remotely articulate what I felt as hundreds of serpents slithered over the earth, around the holes. Cursing violently, Casteel stomped his boot down again. The soldiers moved in unison, sprinting toward me—

In my mind, I didn’t picture the fine webbing. I needed something faster, more intense. Something final. And I didn’t even know why, but I thought of the torches inside the Temple of Nyktos and their silvery flames.

Fire.

Gods, if I was wrong, I wouldn’t be the only one regretting this, but I pictured the flames in my mind, silvery white and intense. My hands warmed and tingled. My entire body throbbed with heat—heat and power. I didn’t know if it was instinct or if it was because the serpents were so close, but I lifted my hands.

Silver-white flames spiraled down my arms and erupted from my palms—erupted from me. Someone gasped. It could’ve been me. The fire roared, licking the ground and catching the serpents. The creatures hissed and screeched as the flames consumed them. The inferno rolled across the land, hitting the skeletons with a wave of flames. Crackling, fiery light streaked between Casteel and Kieran, washing over the soldiers there and then spread out from me, following exactly what I saw in my mind, burning only the skeletons and serpents, leaving everything else untouched. And then I pulled back the eather, picturing it receding and returning to me. The fire pulsed intensely, straining toward Casteel and the others as if it wanted to consume them, too, but I didn’t want that. The flames turned bright white, spitting sparks high into the air and then fizzling out until only faint wisps of pale smoke remained.

Everyone was staring at me.

“I…I didn’t know if that would work or not,” I admitted.

“Well…” Vonetta drew the word out, her pale eyes wide. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who is grateful that it did.”

I looked down at my hands and then up, finding Casteel. “I guess I am the Queen of Flesh and Fire.”

Casteel nodded as he stalked toward me, his eyes a heated amber. “I know you’re the Queen of my heart.”

Blinking, I lowered my hands as he stopped in front of me. “Did you seriously just say that?”

One dimple appeared as he clasped the back of my head and lowered his head to mine. “I sure as fuck did.”

“That was so…cheesy,” I said.

“I know.” Casteel kissed me, and there was nothing ridiculous about that. His tongue parted my lips, and I welcomed his taste.

“This is a little awkward,” Vonetta observed.

“They do this all the time,” Kieran sighed. “You’ll get used to it.”

“Better than them fighting,” Delano remarked.

Casteel grinned against my lips. “You’re extraordinary,” he murmured. “Don’t ever forget that.”

I kissed him in response, and then unfortunately, pulled free. “We should probably get moving. More could come.”

“Let’s hope not,” Emil said, sheathing his swords.

“Everyone okay?” Casteel asked as we started walking. “No snake bites?”

Luckily, everyone was fine, but as we neared the shadows of the stone women, I said, “Maybe I should go first.”

Delano bowed, extending an arm as Vonetta shook dust from her braids. “Be my guest.”

My grin froze as I tentatively stepped into the shadow of a wing. The ground did tremor, but it was the holes, filling back with dirt. The landscape was once again flat and whole. “Okay,” I breathed. “That’s a good sign.”

Casteel was the first to join me and then the others. We continued on, passing under the wing. The sandy dirt hardened under our feet. Patches of grass appeared, giving way to a lush meadow of bright orange flowers.

“Poppies,” Delano whispered.

Lips parting, I looked over at Casteel. He shook his head in slight disbelief. The flowers we walked through could’ve just been a coincidence, but…

My steps slowed as we realized we were coming to the crest of a gently sloping hill and were finally able to see what the stone women and those skeleton soldiers had been guarding.

A sweeping Temple sat in the valley. Pillars constructed of shadowstone lined the wide, crescent-shaped steps and the colonnade. The structure was massive, nearly double the size of the palace in Evaemon, even without the additional wings. It rose against the blue sky in soaring towers and spires as if the fingers of night were reaching up from the land to touch daylight. Smaller shapes were situated around the temple, possibly mounds or statues. I couldn’t make out what they were from this distance, but it wasn’t the only thing that had been protected. It was what rested in the hills and valleys miles beyond the Temple.

It was Dalos, the City of the Gods.

Warm beams of sunlight reflected off the diamond-bright sides of buildings sprawled across the hills. Crystalline towers rose into the sky in graceful arcs, parting the wispy, white clouds sprinkled over the city and extending beyond them, glittering as if a thousand stars had kissed them. An awed silence fell over us as we gazed upon the city.

Several long moments of silence passed before Emil spoke, his voice thick. “I have to believe that this is what the Vale looks like.”

It really could be. Nothing could be more beautiful.

“Do you think anyone in the city is awake?” Vonetta asked quietly.

My heart skipped a beat. “Could there be?”

Casteel shook his head. “It’s possible, but we…we won’t find out.” His gaze touched mine. “Remember Willa’s warning.”

I swallowed, nodding. “We can’t go into the city,” I reminded everyone. “Maybe gods are awake there, and that’s why we can’t.” I looked at Emil. “Or maybe Dalos is a part of the Vale.”

Clearing his throat, Emil nodded. “Yeah.”

If gods were awake in the city, I had to wonder if they were unaware of what was happening past the Mountains of Nyktos. Or if they simply didn’t care.

“You think that’s the Temple where Nyktos may sleep?” Delano asked.

Kieran inhaled deeply. “We might as well find out.”

We started down the hill, the grass reaching our knees. The air smelled of fresh lilacs and…something I couldn’t place. It was a woodsy scent but a sweet one. A more-than-pleasant smell. I tried to figure it out but couldn’t by the time we reached the bottom of the hill.

The grass became white soil that reminded me of sand, but there was no beach that I could see, and it was brighter than sand. It sparkled in the sun and crunched under our—

“Are we walking on diamonds?” Vonetta stared at the ground, disbelief echoing from her. “I think we’re actually walking on diamonds.”

“I have no words for this,” Casteel commented as Delano bent and picked up a piece. “But diamonds are birthed from the joyous tears of the gods—of gods in love.”

My gaze shifted to the Temple, and I thought of Nyktos and the Consort that he was so protective of. No one even knew her name.

“You all are staring at diamonds,” Kieran stated, his wariness pressing against my skin. “Meanwhile, I’m just waiting for you all to realize what this giant-ass statue is.”

I looked at what Kieran stared at, and my stomach dropped. The mounds I’d seen from the top of the hill weren’t several small statues but one very large one of…of what appeared to be a slumbering dragon at the steps of the Temple, just off to the right. It looked like the sketches I’d seen in books containing fables, except its neck wasn’t nearly as long, and even with the wings carved to be tucked against the body, it was so much bigger.

“Whoa,” Vonetta murmured as we neared the statue and the steps of the Temple.

“Let’s take slow steps,” Casteel advised. “If this is Nyktos’s resting place, his guards may be nearby—and not stone ones.”

Draken.

“If this thing comes to life, I am out of here,” Emil grumbled. “You will never see an Atlantian run faster.”

A wry grin tugged at my lips as I slowly approached the statue, marveling at the sculpture. From the nostrils to the frill of spikes around the beast’s head, to the claws and the horns on the tips of its wings, every intricate detail had been captured. How long would it have taken someone to carve something this large? I reached out, running my fingers over the side of the face. The stone was rough and bumpy, surprisingly—

“Poppy.” Casteel snagged my wrist. “The whole proceed-with-caution thing also included not randomly touching things.” Lifting my hand to his mouth, he pressed a kiss to my fingers. “Okay?”

I nodded, letting him guide me away. “The stone was really warm, though. Isn’t that kind of—”

A crack of thunder sounded, reverberating through the valley. I looked down, half-expecting the ground to open up.

“Uh.” Kieran started to back up as he stared behind us. “Guys…”

I whipped around, my lips parting as a piece of the stone shattered over the side of the beast’s face and fell away, revealing a deeper shade of gray and—

An eye.

An actual open eye of vivid blue with an aura of luminous white behind a thin, vertical pupil.

“Oh, shit,” Emil whispered. “Shit. Shit. Run—”

A deep rumbling sound came from within the statue, causing icy fear to drench my skin. Fissures raced through the stone. Sections both large and small fell away, thumping off the ground.

I was frozen where I stood. No one ran. They too had locked up. Maybe it was out of disbelief or an intuitive knowledge that running wouldn’t save us. This wasn’t a stone dragon.

It was a draken in its true form, rising from where it had been resting against the ground, its large, muscular body shaking off the dust and tiny pieces of stone.

I might’ve stopped breathing.

The deep, rumbling sound continued as the draken swung its head toward us, its thick, spiked tail sweeping across the diamonds. Two vibrant blue eyes locked with mine.

“Stay completely still,” Casteel ordered quietly. “Please, Poppy. Do not move.”

Like I could do anything else?

A low snarled vibrated from the draken as its lips peeled back, revealing a row of large teeth sharper than any blade. The draken lowered its head toward me.

My heart might’ve stopped.

I was staring at a draken—a real, live draken, and it was magnificent and frightening and beautiful.

The draken’s nostril’s flared as it sniffed the air—sniffed me. The snarling eased as it continued staring with eyes so full of intelligence, it awed me. It tilted its head. A soft, whirring trill came from its throat, and I had no idea what that meant, but it had to be better than the snarling. A thin membrane fluttered across its eyes, and then its gaze shifted past me—past where Casteel and the others stood—to the Temple.

A wave of awareness shivered through me, raising the tiny hairs all over my body. Pressure pushed against the nape of my neck, boring into the center of my back. I turned around without really having made a conscious decision to do so. Casteel did the same. I didn’t know if any of the others followed because all I could now see was the man standing on the Temple steps between two pillars.

He was tall—taller than even Casteel. Mid-length brown hair fell to his shoulders, glinting a coppery red in the sunlight. The dusky wheatish skin of his features was all planes and angles, pieced together with the same beautiful mastery as the stone shell that had encased the draken. He would’ve been the most beautiful being I’d ever seen if it weren’t for the infinite coldness of his features and his luminous eyes the color of the brightest moon. I knew who he was even though his face had never been painted or carved.

It was Nyktos.


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