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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 14


Commander Forsyth stopped as a flock of birds suddenly scattered into the sky, then turned slowly. All along the Rise, guards quieted, looking up as a shadow glided over the pines. Shouts of alarm rang out as the draken broke through the tree line, becoming visible.

With scales the color of ash, Nithe was roughly the size of Setti, a little bigger than the steed. He extended wings the shade of midnight, slowing his descent. A deep roar came from him, like a crack of thunder, sending the guards and the commander into a frenzied retreat.

“Too late for that,” Emil murmured.

I didn’t look away.

I wanted to.

But I made myself watch the end result of my will.

A funnel of fire and energy turned the world bright as Nithe swept forward, striking the air above the battlement. For a moment, the commander and the guards were merely twisting, writhing shadows. And then, when the flames receded, they were nothing.

Nithe rose, arcing swiftly as a much larger shadow fell upon us. Reaver dipped low, a third draken following, its greenish-brown body almost as large as Reaver’s. Aurelia flew down the length of the wall, releasing a stream of fire above the Rise, catching the guards before they had a chance to reach any of the stairs. Shouts rose. Screams. I didn’t look away.

Reaver landed before us, his impact causing our horses to take several steps back. He stretched out his neck, releasing a burst of fire that struck the gates. Heat blew back at us as a wall of silver flames swept over the iron and limestone. Reaver moved, stretching his wings as he continued pouring fire upon the gates.

Then the flames waned. Reaver swept his wings back as he lifted into the air, revealing only scorched earth where the gates had once stood.

My gaze fixed on the smoke-filled opening as the draken landed on the Rise, their thick talons digging into the stone as they stared into the city beyond. There was quiet now. No screams. No shouts.

Then horns sounded from the city’s Citadel, the blare shocking in the utter silence. Reaver’s head whipped in the direction, but he waited. So did Nithe and Aurelia. Because we waited.

“Through the smoke,” Kieran said. “Ready yourselves.”

Heart thumping, I reached for the sword at my hip as several shapes appeared in the smoke, but Aurelia let out a soft trill. I halted. Whatever that sound was, it was gentle, not one of warning.

“Hold,” I said, searching the smoke as it slowly lifted, revealing… “Gods.” My breath snagged in my chest as the crowd beyond the gates, within the smoke, was revealed. “Thousands,” I whispered, my throat thickening as tears pricked my eyes. I knew I shouldn’t be so emotional. Now was not the time, but I couldn’t help it.

Kieran reached over, placing his hand on mine. He squeezed. “Thousands,” he confirmed. “Thousands will be saved.”

Potent relief roared through me as they began shuffling forward, some carrying all they could in their arms and on their backs like the ones who had left earlier. Some only cradled their children. Others bore the burden of the older mortals and the ill. The injured with fresh blood and bruised skin. Their steps were hesitant under the draken’s watchful eyes as they approached us slowly. Fear sickened the air, its bitter taste gathering in the back of my throat. Uncertainty followed, tart and lemony as many trembled, catching their first sight of the draken’s shadowy forms, partially obscured by the rising smoke. There was also…something lighter. Fresher. Awe. Then I heard the whispers.

Maiden.

Chosen.

“It’s okay,” I assured them, my voice hoarse. “Walk toward Massene. You will be safe there.”

I wanted to say more, to do more, but I couldn’t take their fear, even though it was so similar to pain. Not all of them.

“Momma! Look!” a young boy cried out, pointing at the draken. His eyes were filled with wonder not fear as he stretched and tugged on his mother’s hand, trying to see as they rushed past us. “Lookit!”

It took a blessed eternity for the last of the mortals to clear the Rise and begin crossing the meadow to enter the woods. Then, I felt that springy brush against my thoughts. Deep in the woods, a murmur of unease sounded from those who’d fled the city. I looked over my shoulder. A piercing howl penetrated the stillness, followed by another and another, rattling the needled branches. Yips and calls rang out in the air as the wolven ran through the trees and past the frightened mortals, where many had frozen where they stood, cowering close to the ground.

“I believe that is all of them, Your Highness.” Emil shifted his hold on the shield.

The sound of pounding hooves, the armies now nearing the Rise, matched the tempo of my heart. My attention rose to where Castle Redrock beckoned in the distance. Where it sat near the cliffs, glinting like burnt blood in the sunlight.

The wolven broke through the tree line, an army of claws and teeth. Sage cut between Emil and me, her fur gleaming like polished onyx. Arden followed. Vonetta and Delano joined them, leading the wolven into the city.

The breath I took barely filled my lungs as I tightened my grip on Setti’s reins. Beside me, Kieran shifted forward as he withdrew one of his swords. He looked at me. Our gazes met, and he nodded. I unhooked my crossbow.

“It’s time.” I squeezed my knees into Setti’s sides, and his powerful hooves kicked off the ground.

We raced forward, streaking through the cleared gates and into Oak Ambler, into one less city that stood between the Blood Queen and me.

Large shadows fell over us the moment we cleared the Rise. I glanced up to see Reaver gliding above us, flanked by Nithe and Aurelia. They flew at the height of the buildings, their wings nearly grazing the tops of the structures.

And then the sound came.

Horns blared in the distance. Thousands of horses bearing down on the city behind us as the Atlantian armies funneled through the gate, their hooves thundering off the cobblestone streets, and their heavy, short breaths huffing. The wind whipped up by the draken’s wings whistled above us. Distant, faint shouts rang out. I’d never heard anything like it.

My heart pounded sickeningly fast as I held Setti’s reins and the crossbow. The force of the horse’s speed tore at the shorter strands of my hair, blowing them back from my face as we raced through the narrow, winding streets crowded by businesses and ramshackle homes. The buildings were mostly a blur, but I caught a few brief glimpses of people scurrying into narrow alleys—and those who stood in front of their businesses holding wooden swords or clubs and pitiful shields, prepared to die to protect their livelihoods as we rode past them, the wolven leaping over forgotten wagons and carts. We swarmed the lower district of Oak Ambler with one target in mind. Castle Redrock.

The twisting streets widened, becoming less crowded, and the wolven quickly spread out, their claws digging into soil and stone now. Near the inner part of Oak Ambler, the homes were larger and more spaced out, businesses established in newer buildings. Lampposts dotted the streets. Cobblestones gave way to lush lawns and narrow creeks that all sat in the foothills of the glistening, black Temple of Theon and the crimson stone of Castle Redrock.

And the horns—the godsdamn horns—kept blaring.

Ahead, a stone bridge glistened like polished ivory in the sunlight, and on the other side of a wide but shallow creek, the sun glinted off…rows of shields and swords. The mass of guards and soldiers. They’d been waiting. The bulk of the guards and soldiers protected the Ascended’s homes and the wealthiest of Oak Ambler.

Leaving everyone else to fend for themselves.

My mouth dried and my stomach twisted as dread collided with adrenaline, bouncing and spinning off one another until nothing but instinct guided my actions.

“Shields up!” Hisa shouted from behind. “Shields up!”

A volley of arrows shot into the air, oddly reminding me of the birds that took flight from the pines. Everything slowed down—my heart, my body, and the world outside it. Or, everything sped up so fast that it felt slow. The draken above us rose out of reach of the arrows as we rode toward where the Solis soldiers and guards had entrenched themselves on the other side of the bridge, beyond the reach of the arrows that arced and plummeted down, smacking off stone and shield and—

I shut my senses down, locking them far away as the wolven hit the creek. We followed, sending water spraying into the air.

“Shit!” Kieran leaned back as the line of soldiers on the other side of the creek moved into formation, slamming the blood-red shields into the ground, staking them side by side so they formed a wall under a line of swords that would pierce the flesh of the horses and wolven alike.

My gaze found Vonetta and then Delano in the mass of wolven and through the spray of water, ahead of the others and nearly halfway across the creek. They didn’t slow. They showed no fear as they forged on, toward what would be certain injury and possibly even death for some.

I couldn’t allow that.

I glanced up at the draken, and they responded before my will could even finish as a thought.

Nithe cut away from the others, making a sharp turn. He swooped down in front of the wolven. A flash of intense, silvery light followed, and then a stream of fire swept over the line of soldiers.

The screams. The sight of the soldiers as they dropped their shields and weapons, stumbling back and flailing as the fiery energy burned through their armor and clothing, their skin and bone, was horrific. Nithe lifted as a larger funnel of fire rained down, cutting through the second and third line of guards, clearing the path and leaving nothing but a cloud of ash and embers as we crossed the creek. I couldn’t think about what the fine coating of ash settling on my hands and cheeks and the wolven’s fur was made of. That would have to come later.

Another volley of arrows went up, angled lower. Reaver cut away sharply, kicking up wind with a snap of his barbed tail. The arrows sliced through the air as Kieran drove his steed toward Setti and leaned over, lifting his shield. My world went dark, and my heart lurched at the sound of arrows hitting Kieran’s shield.

“Thanks,” I gasped.

Kieran gave me that wild grin as he straightened, only to stretch down to grasp a fallen spear scorched by the draken’s fire. “It’s about to get messy, meyaah Liessa.

And it did.

The grounds of the Temple of Theon, the imposing fortress-like Citadel, and the lands between them and the inner Rise surrounding Castle Redrock became a battleground.

Wolven leapt onto soldiers and guards, knocking their shields and swords aside as they took them to the ground, cutting off high-pitched screams. The Atlantian soldiers poured across the land, their white-and-gold mantles a stark contrast to the shadowstone Temple. Their golden swords clashed against iron as they swarmed the Temple’s courtyard.

In the back of my mind, I saw that this was a different kind of slaughter. Oak Ambler’s forces were grossly outnumbered.

The Ravarels had scouts, they had to have some idea of the size of our armies. They had to know how fruitless this was for them. Yet they’d allowed this instead of surrendering.

Emil and Kieran struck out with their swords as we pressed forward, the draken following. Soon, Vonetta and Delano joined us, as did Sage and several other wolven. We crossed the road and began the climb, cresting the tree-heavy hill that Castle Redrock sat upon. Soldiers and guards rushed through the gates of the inner Rise.

“Archers,” Emil shouted, lifting his shield as a volley of arrows came down from the battlement of the inner Rise, slamming into the road and shields and bodies. My breath caught at the yelps as the arrows struck true.

“Take cover!” I shouted at the wolven as Reaver glided ahead, his shadow falling upon the guards as they frantically tried to close the gates on the inner Rise. Nithe and Aurelia followed as several of the archers stationed there turned to the sky.

Some of the wolven bolted for the trees, dodging arrows while others huddled by those who’d fallen. Instinct fueled my actions. I tapped into the eather whirling through my chest. The essence responded at once, flooding my veins and burning away the near-sickening jolts of adrenaline as several of the archers took aim at the wounded wolven and those guarding them.

I didn’t worry about how much using the essence would weaken me or allow myself to consider who the archers on the wall were. This was war. I kept reminding myself of that. This was war.

A silvery webbing of eather formed in my mind, draping over the archers on the wall and moving into them. I didn’t know exactly what it did—what I did—as that metallic taste pooled in my mouth. All I knew was that I wanted it to be quick and as painless as possible. And I thought it was. They made no sound as they collapsed where they stood in the arrow loops, falling backward and forward, dead before they hit the ground outside the curtained wall.

That kind of power…

It stunned me a little as I pulled the eather back, but there was no time to dwell on it. The gates closed while a smattering of guards and soldiers outside rushed toward the wolven.

There were at least four times as many soldiers and guards at the inner Rise, protecting Castle Redrock and the Ascended—who didn’t care about anyone left outside. They’d try to ride it out behind walls as thick as the outer Rise—stone that protected them from invasions and the people they lorded over, allowing the gods knew what to go on behind them.

I thought of the palace at Evaemon, where no wall separated the Crown from its people, and my sense of wonder upon seeing how accessible the Crown was.

A glimpse of fawn caught my attention. I lifted the crossbow, leveling it as Casteel had instructed me on the road to Spessa’s End. I took aim, firing the bolt thicker than an arrow.

It struck true, snagging one of the guards before he could reach Vonetta. She raced past him as he fell backward and then leapt into the air, taking down another guard. I found Reaver in the sky. “Take it down,” I murmured, aiming the crossbow at a soldier streaking across the land, heading for Delano. “Take the inner Rise down.”

I fired, striking the man. His legs went out from under him as the white wolven latched onto the arm of a guard who was swinging his sword down on a wounded wolven. Delano yanked the howling man back, twisting his head sharply. Red sprayed and stained the snowy fur.

“Fall back,” Kieran shouted to the wolven as I reached out to as many of them as I could through the notam. “Fall back!”

The wolven skirted the wall, backing off as Reaver broke through the glare of the sun, diving sharply above the inner Rise. A funnel of intense fire spilled forth, slamming into the stone. Chunks of rock exploded under its power. Another stream of fire came from above, and then a third as the draken flew over the length of the wall the Ascended hid behind, obliterating the structure so nothing remained between Castle Redrock and the people—as it should be.

As the smoke and debris settled, I nudged Setti forward. The wolven streamed out from the trees, and as silly as it was, I held my breath until we crossed into the splattered stone courtyard. Exhaling raggedly, my gaze swept the soldiers and guards rushing across the yard, moving to the main castle doors, sealed by iron—

Kieran drew his horse to a halt and leaned over, gripping Setti’s reins. My head jerked around just as a greenish-brown draken landed in the courtyard directly before us, her tail whipping out mere inches from our horses’ noses. “Good gods,” he rasped. “They have no sense of spatial awareness.”

They really didn’t.

Aurelia’s large wings swept back as she extended her head forward, letting out a burst of silvery fire at the guards, taking out a huge chunk of them. The draken had to be tiring, and I had no idea how they recovered.

Probably should’ve asked that question.

Several dozen more guards rounded the castle, swarming the courtyard. “I’m calling the draken back,” I said, and Kieran didn’t question why as Aurelia turned her head toward me.

“Go,” I urged. There was no threat from archers, as no arrowslits could be seen in the front-facing towers of Redrock. And any who had been in the inner Rise…well, they were no longer a concern. “Find a safe place to rest.”

She made a rough, deep harrumphing sound but lifted. I saw Reaver and Nithe do the same, but they didn’t go far. Nithe and Aurelia retreated to the massive oaks and the jutting rocks and boulders along the sea-facing cliffs of the courtyard. But Reaver…

He flew up to one of the crimson spires, sinking his talons into the stone, sending a fine mist of dust exploding into the air as he curled his body around the tower. Stretching his neck, he peered down on the courtyard, letting out a deafening roar that caused many of the soldiers to scatter in different directions, and others to stop where they were, covering their heads with their shields.

“Find someplace to rest?” Emil looked over at me, his gold eyes wide. “And he chose that?”

“That wasn’t exactly what I’d had in mind when I said that, but Reaver’s…going to be Reaver.”

Kieran snorted as my gaze lifted to the soldiers who had taken up their stations in front of the wide steps leading to the doors of Castle Redrock. There had to be a hundred at least, shields held side by side and spears at the ready. They didn’t move as the wolven prowled forward, over what remained of the wall.

Behind us, our armies crested the hill and flowed into the courtyard. I caught sight of Valyn, his armored chest splattered with blood. Hisa rode beside him, her chest rising and falling heavily. Relief swamped me at the sight of them.

Kieran guided his horse forward, sword at the ready. “Our fight is not with you. It’s with who is behind those doors. Surrender, and no harm will come to you. Just as no harm has come to those who left the city.”

I turned back to the shields and spears, keeping my crossbow leveled. “We swear that to you.”

The guards and soldiers made no move, but I saw a few lower their spears. Please, I thought. Please, just listen.

From the spire, Reaver let out a smoky breath and a rumbling growl that matched that of the wolven on the ground, who snapped and bared sharp, blood-streaked teeth as they paced before soldiers who had faces far too young to belong to those holding the line. They didn’t need to die today.

A lot of those who already had hadn’t needed to.

Opening my senses to them, I immediately tasted the saltiness of distrust, and the bitter bite of fear as they stared at me—looking upon someone they likely believed to be a false god.

“I was once the Maiden, the Chosen, but no gods chose me,” I told them, hooking the crossbow onto one of Setti’s straps. “The Ascended did because they knew what I was.”

I’d worn white to remind the people of who I was.

It was time I showed them what I’d become.

Allowing the essence of the Primal god to surface was like having the golden chains removed, and the veil lifted. The more I allowed it to happen, the more it felt…natural. I didn’t think this would weaken me because it felt like I was no longer hiding who I was. It was almost a relief.

The hum in my chest pulsed and pounded through my veins. The thrum of power moved to my skin, where a silvery-white aura appeared.

A wave of surprise fell like freezing rain, rippling over those before me. “I am not the Harbinger. I carry the blood of the King of Gods in me, and those who reside in these walls do not speak to any god—or for them. They are your enemy. Not us.”

No one moved.

And then…

Shields and spears clattered off the stone steps as they surrendered.

The wave of relief I felt was so potent, it was a little dizzying. Pulling the eather back in, I rubbed the side of Setti’s neck and then swung my leg over the saddle, dismounting. Emil and Kieran quickly followed as I walked forward, my thighs aching from how tense I’d been the entire time.

Under the watchful eyes of the wolven and Reaver, the men stared as I approached them. A few had lowered themselves to their knees, placing trembling hands across their chests and on the ground. Others stood as if in a daze.

“All I need to know right now is where the Ravarels and the Ascended are located in the castle,” I said.

“The chambers.” A young man wearing the black of a Rise Guard quavered as he spoke. “They would’ve gone into the underground chambers.”

 

 

As Vonetta, along with several others, went to secure the Temple of Theon—and hopefully locate the children—I descended into the chambers under Castle Redrock with Kieran, Emil, and some of the wolven, while Valyn searched Redrock with Hisa and several of the soldiers.

I didn’t look past the crimson banners bearing the Royal Crest and the hallway that led toward the Great Hall. I couldn’t. The last thing I needed to be reminded of was where Ian had taken his last breath.

And where I’d last seen Casteel.

So, we went straight for the hall the Handmaiden had led us through the last time we were here. The Rise Guard who’d spoken up outside led the way, while my mind lingered on what I’d seen in one of the underground chambers.

The cage.

My father.

I knew it was highly unlikely that he was still there. I didn’t even understand why Isbeth had brought him with her in the first place, but I doubted she would’ve left him behind.

“Keep walking,” Emil advised coolly when Tasos, the guard, slowed as we traveled down the narrow stairwell.

“S-sorry.” Tasos picked up his pace as Arden, in his wolven form, nudged him. “It’s just that there should be guards here.” He swallowed. “At least ten of them.”

I glanced at Kieran. That was odd. “Could they have joined the fight outside?”

“No. They were given orders to block the stairwell,” Tasos told us. “It’s the only way into the underground chambers from the inside.”

Is it possible they moved to the section we snuck through? Delano’s question whispered through my thoughts as we rounded a bend in the stairwell.

And then the stench hit us.

The sickly-sweet scent of death.

“What is…?” Tasos trailed off as we stepped into the narrow, torch-lit hall.

“Hell,” Kieran muttered as I reached for the wolven dagger on my thigh out of habit instead of going for the swords.

Red. So much red. It streaked across the stone floor, splattered the walls, and pooled under the bodies.

“Well,” Emil drawled as he looked down at a fallen bloodstone sword. Several of them were scattered about. “I’m assuming these are the guards.”

“Yeah,” Tasos croaked as he stood there, arms stiff at his sides.

“Would the Ascended have done this?” Emil asked, glancing back at me.

Tasos’ head cut sharply in his direction, his surprise an icy burst in the back of my throat. It was clear that he had no idea what the Ascended were.

“I don’t see why they would’ve done this.” I walked forward, not even trying to avoid the blood. It would be impossible. Emil, as always, followed closely behind.

Kieran knelt by one of the fallen guards. “I don’t think this was the work of a vampry.”

“Vampry?” Tasos whispered.

There wasn’t enough time in the realm to explain what the Ascended were. None of us bothered.

“Look at this.” Kieran picked up a limp arm as Delano joined them. The black uniform was torn and ripped, revealing skin that hadn’t fared much better.

I stiffened. Even in the flickering torchlight, I recognized the wounds. I saw them on my body. Jagged bite marks. Four sets of fangs. I turned, scanning another body. My stomach roiled, and I swallowed hard. The man’s chest had been clawed into, revealing ropey pink muscle and tissue.

Tiny hairs rose all over my body as I unsheathed the wolven dagger.

Arden’s ears flattened and he let out a snarl that reverberated through the hall as he prowled forward, one step and then two. At the same moment, Kieran’s head snapped in the direction of where the hallway split. Delano’s lips peeled back as he growled low in his throat.

They sensed it before we saw it—wispy tendrils creeping out from the corridor ahead and spilling into the hall.

The mist.

And only one thing could be within it. The same thing responsible for these wounds.

The Craven.


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