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The Crown of Gilded Bones: Chapter 6


Twinkling lights blanketed the ceiling of the crypt when I opened my eyes. My lips parted as I dragged in deep gulps of…fresh, clean air. That wasn’t the ceiling or lights I saw. They were stars. I was outside, no longer in the crypt.

“Dammit,” a man to my right swore. “She’s awake.”

My body immediately reacted to the sound of the voice. I reared up—

Pressure pressed down all over my body, followed by a sharp, stinging wave. My jaw clamped shut against the cry of pain as my head lifted off a flat, hard surface. Ivory bones entwined with thick, dark roots lay across me from my chest to my knees.

“It’s okay. She’s not getting free.”

My gaze swept in the direction of the voice. Commander Jansen stood to my left, a silver wolven mask hiding his face. He angled his body toward mine. Beyond him, I saw the crumbling remains of a stone wall bathed in moonlight, and then nothing but darkness beyond. “Where am I?” I rasped.

His head tilted to the side, his eyes nothing but shadows inside the thin slits of the mask. “You’re in what remains of the city of Irelone. This,” he answered as he swept his arms out widely, “is what is left of the once-great Castle Bauer.”

Irelone? That sounded vaguely familiar. It took a couple of moments for my mind to clear enough for the old maps with their faded ink, created before the War of Two Kings, to form. Irelone… Yes, I knew that name. It had been a port city to the north and east of where Carsodonia was now. The city had fallen before Pompay during the war. Good gods, that meant…

I was in the Wastelands.

My heart thundered in my chest. How long had I been asleep? Hours or days? I didn’t know where the Crypt of the Forgotten Ones had been in the Skotos Mountains. For all I knew, the crypts could’ve existed in the foothills of the mountains, a half a day’s ride north of the outer reaches of the Wastelands.

Throat dry, I lifted just my head to look around. Dozens of the so-called Protectors stood in the center of what could’ve been the castle’s Great Hall at one time and around the edges of the decaying structure, all hidden behind gleaming bronze masks. It was the kind of sight conjured from the depths of the darkest nightmares. Was Alastir among them?

In the darkness beyond the ruins, a single torch flared to life. “They’re here,” a masked man announced. “The Ascended.”

Air halted in my throat as several more torches caught fire, casting an orange glow over heaps of fallen stone and earth that had refused to house new life in the hundreds of years that had passed. Shadows formed, and I heard the sounds of hooves and wheels on packed earth.

“Believe it or not,”—Jansen drew closer, placing his hands on the stone as he leaned over me—“I wouldn’t wish your fate upon anyone.”

My gaze shot to his as anger coated my insides. “I’d be more worried about your fate than mine.”

Jansen stared down at me for a moment and then reached into the pocket of his pants. “You know,” he said, lifting his hand now filled with a bundle of cloth, “at least you knew when to keep your mouth shut when you were the Maiden.”

“I’m going—” He shoved the wad of fabric into my mouth, securing the ends behind my head and effectively silencing my threats. Nausea churned at the taste and the spike of helplessness I felt.

He arched a brow at me before pushing away from the stone slab, his hand falling to the hilt of a short sword. His shoulders tensed, and I wished I could see his expression. He turned from me as others drew swords. “Keep alert,” he barked. “But do not engage.”

The masked men moved out of my line of sight as the creak of carriage wheels ceased. I couldn’t allow myself to think beyond the next second, that very moment, as I watched the torches drift forward, thrust into the ground around the broken remains of Castle Bauer. My heart pounded. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I twisted my head to the side, hoping to dislodge the bindings, but they didn’t move.

Panic swelled as a dark shadow drifted closer to what remained of the steps, then climbed them slowly. A cloaked figure in black and red stood in the middle of the half-fallen walls. I stopped moving, but my heart continued throwing itself against my chest.

This couldn’t be happening.

Two pale hands lifted the hood of the robe, lowering the material to reveal a woman I didn’t recognize, one with hair the color of sunlight, swept back from a face that was all cold angles. She strode forward, the heels of her shoes clicking on the stone. She never once spared a single look at the others. She seemed utterly unafraid of their presence and the swords they held. Her entire focus was on me, and I wondered how either side could share the same space as the other. Could these pretend Protectors’ need to be rid of me, and the desire for the Ascended to reclaim me, be that great? And would the Ascended take me and not attempt to capture all the Atlantians standing among them, all so full of the blood they craved so desperately?

Gods, a sick part of me hoped this was a trap. That the Ascended would turn on them. It would be so very fitting.

 I forced myself to show no reaction as the Ascended passed my legs, her lip curling as she flicked her gaze over the bone and root chains. “What is this?” she demanded coolly.

“It’s to keep her…calm,” Jansen answered from somewhere behind me. “You will need to remove them. The gag? Well, she was being quite rude. I suggest you keep that one on for as long as possible.”

Bastard, I seethed silently, watching the Ascended as she came closer.

“She appears quite calm now.” She stared down at me, at my scars, with eyes that swallowed the night. A breath shuddered out of her. “It is her,” she called out to whoever remained in the darkness as she reached for me. Cold fingers brushed my brow, causing me to flinch. Blood-red lips formed a smile. “It will all be okay now, Maiden. We will take you home. Where you belong. Your Queen will be so very—”

The Ascended jerked back without warning as something wet and warm sprayed my face and neck. She looked down at the same time I did, my eyes and hers widening at the sight of the thick bolt now embedded deep in her chest.

Her lips peeled back, and she let out a high-pitched snarl, revealing jagged fangs. “What in the—?”

Another bolt tore through her head, shattering bone and tissue. The sight was so unexpected and so sudden that I didn’t even hear the shouts at first. All I could do was stare at the spot where she’d stood—where her head had been. Suddenly, something large and white leapt into my line of sight, taking down a masked man.

Delano.

A wealth of relief rose so swiftly within me that I cried out, the sound muffled by the gag. They were here. They’d found me. I cranked my head to the side and back, straining to look as far as I could see. Another wolven raced forward, this one large and dark. It shot across the castle ruins’ floor, its powerful muscles tensing as it launched over one of the half-fallen walls. The wolven disappeared into the night, but a sharp screech from the darkness followed. The wolven had captured an Ascended.

Poppy.”

My head whipped to the right, and I shuddered at the sight of Kieran. He looked nothing like the last time I’d seen him, his skin now a warm shade of brown against the black of his clothing. I started to reach for him, and the action ended in a hiss of pain.

With a curse, he grabbed hold of the gag and pulled it free from my mouth as his pale eyes swept over me. “How badly are you injured?”

“I’m not.” I forced myself to remain still as I ignored the cottony feeling the gag had left behind in my mouth. “It’s these bonds. They’re—”

“The bones of a deity.” Disgust curled his lip as he reached for the one lying just below my throat. “I know what they are.”

“Careful,” I warned. “They have spurs in them.”

“I’ll be fine. You just…don’t move,” he ordered, the muscles of his bare arm straining as he pulled on the first row of bindings.

A thousand questions rose, but the most important one came out first. “Casteel—?”

“Is currently disemboweling some idiot in a godsdamn Descenter mask,” he answered, gripping the bone and roots with both hands. Even though that sounded extremely grotesque, I turned my head to the other side, trying to find him—

“Keep still, Poppy.”

“I’m trying.”

“Then try harder,” Kieran snapped, his eyes narrowing on the ravaged skin of my wrists. “How long have you been in these things?”

“I don’t know. Not that long,” I said. The look Kieran shot me told me that he knew I lied. “Are all of you okay? Your father?”

He nodded as a broad-shouldered male appeared several feet behind Kieran, the man’s blond hair pulled back in a knot at the nape of his neck. Shock trickled through me as the male turned to the side, shoving his sword into a man’s chest as he ripped off the Descenter mask.

It was Casteel’s father. He was here. Maybe it was hunger or the residual panic of being seconds away from being in the clutches of the Ascended once more. Perhaps it was everything that Alastir had told me. Either way, tears climbed my throat as I stared at King Valyn. He was here, fighting to free me.

“I think my father is currently venting his anger by tearing through the Ascended with Naill and Emil,” Kieran told me.

“It looks like Casteel’s father is doing the same.” I breathed through the raw emotions coursing through me. I couldn’t believe Valyn was here. It was incredibly dangerous for him to be this far from Atlantia. If any of the Ascended knew it was him dressed in all black, they would swarm him. He had to know the risks, but still he was here, helping Casteel. Helping me.

Kieran snorted. “You have no idea.”

I still had so many questions, but I needed to make sure Kieran knew what they were dealing with. “It wasn’t just Alastir. I don’t know if he’s here, but Commander Jansen is. He’s in a silver Descenter mask.”

Kieran’s jaw hardened as he snapped the binding in two. The ends fell to the sides. “Anyone else you recognized?”

“No.” My heart thudded. “But…Beckett—it wasn’t him at the Temple. He’s—” My voice cracked. “It wasn’t him.”

Kieran gripped the second row of bindings. “Poppy—”

“Beckett’s dead,” I told him, and his gaze shot to mine as he froze. “They killed him, Kieran. I don’t think they planned to, but it happened. He’s dead.”

“Fuck,” he growled, moving once more.

“Jansen took Beckett’s form. He left Spessa’s End with us. Not Beckett. Jansen admitted to it all, and Alastir said he planned to give me to the Ascended.”

“Obviously,” Kieran replied wryly, breaking another set of bones and roots. “What a fucking idiot.”

I laughed, and it sounded hoarse and all wrong amidst the shouts of pain and snarls of anger. It felt just as wrong yet strangely wonderful that I could laugh again. It faded as I stared at the slash of Kieran’s brows. What I said came out as a whisper. “Alastir said I’m descended from Nyktos. That I’m related to King Malec, and that he was there the night my parents died. It was—” Movement beyond Kieran’s shoulder snagged my attention. A masked man raced toward us—

Before I could shout a warning to Kieran, he was there, tall and as dark as the night creeping into the ruins, his blue-black hair windblown. Every part of my being zeroed in on Casteel as his crimson sword plunged through the Protector’s stomach, embedding itself in the wall behind the masked figure. Casteel turned, catching the arm of another. A dark rumble escaped from his throat as he dragged the man toward him. Teeth bared, he snapped his head down on the man’s throat, tearing through skin as he thrust his hand through the man’s chest. Lifting his head, he spat a mouthful of the man’s blood into the Protector’s face.

Casteel tossed the body to the ground and looked up at another man, blood streaming from his mouth. “What?”

The masked man spun and ran.

Casteel was faster, reaching him in the blink of an eye. He shoved his fist into the man’s back and jerked his arm back sharply, pulling out something white and smeared with blood and tissue. His spine. Dear gods, it was the man’s spine.

Kieran’s eyes met mine. “He’s a little angry.”

“A little?” I whispered.

“Okay. He’s really angry,” Kieran amended, reaching for the bindings just below my breasts. “He has been going crazy looking for you. I’ve never seen him this way.” His hands trembled slightly as they folded over the bone and root chains. “Never, Poppy.”

“I…” I trailed off as Casteel spun around. Our gazes locked, and Nyktos himself could have appeared before me, and I wouldn’t have been able to look away from Casteel. There was so much rage in the sharp set of his features and his eyes. Only a thin strip of amber was visible, but I also saw relief and something so potent, so powerful in his stare that I needed no gift to feel it.

The wind lifted the edges of his cloak as he started toward me. A guard flew out from the darkness—one who wore the black uniform of the Rise Guard and had come with the Ascended. Casteel pivoted, catching the guard by the throat as he shoved the blade into the man’s chest.

“I love him,” I whispered.

Kieran paused by my legs. “Are you just now figuring that out?”

“No.” My stare followed Casteel as he unsheathed a dagger from his side and threw it out into the night. A sharp, too-quick scream told me that he’d hit his target. Every part of me buzzed with the need to touch him, to feel his flesh under mine so I could erase the memory of what his skin had felt like the last time I’d touched him. The breath I let out was shaky. “How did you all find me?”

“Casteel knew others in the Crown Guard had to be involved,” Kieran explained. “He made it very clear that if he didn’t find out who, he would start killing all of them.”

My stomach dipped as my gaze shot to Kieran’s. I didn’t have to ask.

“He used compulsion. Ferreted out four of them that way, but only one really knew anything,” he said. “He told us where you were being held and what was planned. We got to those crypts only a few hours after you left, but we didn’t come up empty-handed.”

I was too hopeful to even ask, but I did. “Alastir?”

A savage grin appeared. “Yes.”

Thank the gods. My eyes closed briefly. I hated the betrayal Casteel must feel, but at least Alastir wasn’t out there.

“Poppy?”  Kieran’s hands were on the last of the bone bindings. “I’m going to assume that even if I ask you nicely to sit this fight out, you won’t listen to me, will you?”

I sat up tentatively, expecting pain. Instead, there was nothing but the previous aches. “How long have they had me?”

Kieran’s nostrils flared. “It’s been six days and eight hours.”

Six days.

My chest rose sharply. “They kept me chained to the wall of a crypt full of the remains of deities. They drugged me and planned to hand me over to the Ascended,” I told him. “I’m not sitting this out.”

“Of course, not.” He sighed.

The last bone broke, and then Kieran pulled it away. The moment it was gone, a wave of tingles swept over the back of my head and down my spine, branching out and following the pathways of my nerves. The center of my chest warmed, and I hadn’t realized until that moment that the coldness I’d felt wasn’t only due to the damp iciness of the crypt. It had also been because of the bones. It was like my blood rushed back to parts of me that had gone numb. But it wasn’t the blood, was it? It was the…the eather. The tingling sensation wasn’t at all painful, though; more like a wave of release.

The center of my chest started to hum, the sound vibrating out through my lips. My senses opened wide and stretched out, connecting with those around me. I tasted bitter, sweat-drenched fear and the hot acidic burn of hatred. I didn’t try to stop it. I let instinct—the Primal knowledge that had woken in the Chambers of Nyktos—take hold. I swung my legs off the raised surface as Casteel took down what appeared to be an Ascended, his father fighting alongside him. I stood, feeling a rush of power just from being able to stand after being held down by the bones and roots for so long.

Kieran picked up a fallen sword, his brow furrowing as he stared at the blade. “Here,” he offered the weapon to me.

I shook my head as I took a step, my legs trembling slightly from not holding my weight for so long. The hum in my chest grew, the eather in my blood intensifying as I kept my senses open wide. These people wanted to hurt me. They had. And they had harmed Casteel, Kieran, and everyone else. They’d killed Beckett. None of them deserved to live.

The corners of my vision turned white, and in my mind, the thin, silvery-white cords slipped out from me, crackling off the floor and reconnecting with the others. My anger joined the pounding emotions now flooding my senses. I drew in a deep breath, taking in everybody’s feelings, letting their hatred, fear, and twisted sense of righteousness seep into my skin and become a part of me. Those emotions twined with the cords in my mind. I took it all in, feeling the toxic storm thrumming inside me. There wouldn’t be time for them to regret what they took part in. I would destroy them. I would obliterate them—

Alastir’s words came back to me at that moment. “You are dangerous now, but you will become something else entirely later.”

 Unease exploded in my gut, dispersing the silver cords in my mind. These people deserved whatever I dealt to them. What Alastir had said didn’t matter. If I killed them, it wouldn’t be because I was unable to control myself. And it wasn’t because I was unpredictable or chaotically violent like the deities were supposed to be. I just wanted them to taste their emotions, for that ugliness to be the last thing they felt. I wanted that more than—

I wanted that too much, when I shouldn’t want it at all.

I didn’t enjoy killing, not even the Craven. Killing was merely a harsh reality, one that shouldn’t be desired or enjoyed.

Unsettled, I sucked in dry air and did what I had to when I was in a crowd or around someone who projected their emotions into the space around them. I shut my senses down, forcing the silvery webbing of light from my mind. The hum in my chest calmed, but my mind didn’t. I’d stopped myself. That’s all I needed to know to prove that what Alastir had said wasn’t true. I wasn’t a chaotic, violent entity incapable of controlling myself.

Kieran came to my side, angling his body so he could see me and everything happening around us. He unhooked his cloak. “Are you okay?”

“I’m not a monster,” I whispered.

He stiffened. “What?”

Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “N-nothing. I…” I watched King Valyn strike down another masked man. He and his son fought with the same kind of gracefully brutal force. “I’m fine.”

Kieran draped the soft material over my shoulders, startling me. “You sure about that?”

“Yes.” My gaze flicked to his as he secured the button just below my neck. It was then that I remembered I wore nothing but the thin, bloody slip. He pulled the halves together. “Thank you. I’m…I’m going to sit this one out.”

“I want to thank the gods,” Kieran muttered. “But now you really have me worried.”

“I’m okay.” My gaze followed Casteel as he spun, knocking a sword from a Protector’s hand. The blade clattered on the stone floor as Casteel drew his sword back, prepared to deliver a fatal blow. Moonlight glinted off the man’s facial covering—a silver mask.

Jansen.

“Casteel, stop!” I shouted. He halted, his chest rising and falling with his heavy breaths as he leveled his sword at Jansen. Later, I would marvel over the fact that he had stopped without hesitation. Without question. I walked forward. “I made him a promise.”

“Thought you were sitting this one out,” Kieran stated as he kept pace with me.

“I am,” I told him. “But he’s different.”

Casteel stiffened at my words and shot forward so quickly that I thought he might deliver the fatal blow anyway. But he didn’t. He gripped the front of the silver mask and ripped it aside.

“Son of a bitch.” He tossed the mask to the floor.

Jansen’s eyes darted between Casteel and his father. “She will—”

“You need to shut the fuck up,” Casteel snarled as he stepped to the side.

I stalked forward, the stone cool under my bare feet as Kieran followed. As I passed Casteel, he pressed the hilt of his sword into my palm, and his bloodied lips touched my cheek.

“Poppy,” he said, and the sound of his voice punched a small hole in the wall I had built around my gifts. Everything he felt in the moment reached me. The hot acidity of rage, the refreshing, woodsy feeling of his relief, and the warmth of everything he felt for me. And given what he’d experienced before, the bitterness of fear and panic.

I shuddered as I stared at Jansen. “I’m okay.”

Casteel squeezed my hand that now held his sword. “None of this is okay.”

He was right.

It really wasn’t.

But I knew what would make it a little okay, right or wrong.

I pulled free from Casteel. “What did I promise you?” I asked Jansen.

The Royal Guard commander reached for his fallen sword, but I was faster, thrusting the sword out. Grunting, he staggered back, dropping to his knees. Glaring up at me, he folded his hands over the blade as if he could actually stop what was about to happen. “I told you that I’d be the one to kill you.” I slowly pushed the blade into his chest, smiling as I felt his bones break under the pressure of the sword as it met softer tissue. Blood bubbled out of the corner of his mouth. “I keep my promises.”

“As do I,” he rasped, the life fading from his eyes as his hands slipped from the blade, the skin of his palms and fingers torn open by the sharp edges.

As do I?

Without warning, something jerked me back with such force that fiery pain erupted in my chest. I lost my grip on the sword. The movement was so sudden, so intense, that I felt nothing for a moment as if I’d become detached from my body somehow. Time stopped for me, but people were still moving, and I saw a flash of Jasper as he leapt onto a Protector’s back, his teeth clamping down on the masked man’s throat. Something fell from the man’s hand. A bow…a crossbow.

Slowly, I looked down. Red. So much red everywhere. A bolt protruded from my chest.


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