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The War of Two Queens: Chapter 16


“If this is some sort of trap,” Kieran warned, “you won’t like what happens.”

“It’s not.” Her head finally lifted, and I saw that she was young. Gods. Not much older than I. Her eyes were a pretty cornflower blue. They were wide and eager like Framont’s.

Cracking open my senses, I reached out to her. I didn’t feel fear. I didn’t know what I felt. It wasn’t…nothing. It was just an emptiness that wasn’t very different from what I felt when I tried to read an Ascended.

“Why would you agree to take us to them now?” I asked.

“Because it is time,” she said softly.

My heart tripped as I stared at her, more than a little unnerved by the response—by all of this. “Show me.”

The Priestess rose and walked past the others still on the floor, her head bowed. Vonetta and Naill left the Ascended above with Valyn and the soldiers who’d been waiting outside. They joined us, along with Hisa and Emil, who’d arrived just as we started leaving the sanctum. All of them had their swords out as we entered the empty chamber and stepped through the narrow, tall break in the wall that became visible.

Torches lined the wall, casting an orangey glaze along the steep, earthen steps and wide-open chamber at the foot of them. Beyond them, nine tunnels connected to the opening, each lit by the faint glow of fire.

“It’s like a hive,” Hisa murmured as she scanned the circular space and the many openings.

The only sound was that of the Priestess’s robes whispering across the packed dirt that gave way to stone as she took a tunnel to our right, and that corridor branched into two more. Halfway through them, we met up with the others, who I had a feeling might’ve been a bit lost based on the earthy bursts of relief I felt from them. The temperature dropped significantly as we descended farther underground to the point where I found it difficult to believe that any mortal could survive long in this kind of cold. The air was dry, but it chilled the skin and sank into the bones. My fingers began to ache from it.

The Priestess reached for one of the torches on the wall. Naill stepped in close to her, keeping his sword poised in case she did something foolish.

But all she did was walk forward and then touch the torch to another. The joining of flames cast a brighter light upon the wall. I stopped. So did Kieran. The rock had marks carved into it—rock that was a reddish-pink color.

He reached out, tracing his fingers over a carving, following the shape—

The Priestess touched another torch with the one she held and set off a chain reaction. An entire row of torches flamed to life, filling the air with the pungent scent of flint. The underground system was suddenly bathed in rippling firelight.

“What in the gods’ names?” Kieran uttered, staring ahead.

I brushed past Vonetta, stepping down into a wide, circular opening. Water or something must have run through the cavern before, carving jagged formations out of the ceiling and depositing what appeared to be some sort of reddish mineral all along the spiraling and bizarre formations stretching down.

“Stalactites,” Naill said, and several gazes turned to him. He nodded toward the ceiling with his chin. “That’s what they’re called.”

“That sounds like a made-up word,” Emil said.

Naill arched a brow. “It’s not.”

“You sure about that?” Emil challenged.

“Yes,” Naill replied flatly. “If I were to create a word out of thin air, I would choose something more…interesting.”

Emil let out a short laugh. “More interesting than stalactites?”

“Careful,” Vonetta warned as what sounded like twigs snapped under my steps when I walked forward. “I don’t think those are rocks or branches on the floor.”

I looked down. There were chunks of something ivory in color, shards here and there, mixed with slender, longer, and darker-colored—bones. They were definitely bones.

Oh, gods.

Kieran made a sound of disgust as he toed aside a piece of rag, revealing what appeared to be a partial jawbone. “These didn’t come from animals.”

“Animals do not serve the True King,” the Priestess said, drifting forward.

Stomach churning with anger, I started to speak, but what the Priestess walked past caught my attention.

It was like the ground had erupted, and snake-like roots spilled across the floor of the cavern from a deep, dark hole. The roots wormed their way through the discarded bones—bones that were too small. I carefully made my way forward, avoiding the scattered remains as much as I could. Something was on the roots and under them. Something dry and rusty-hued. And it was everywhere, splattered across the floor and pooled in thick, dried puddles. It was what had stained the walls and the bizarre rock formations that pinkish-red.

Kieran’s arm brushed mine as he crouched, running a finger through the substance. His jaw clenched as he looked at me. “Blood.”

The Priestess reached the other side of the cavern and touched her flame to the wall. Once more, a series of torches lit. Light splashed across a narrow opening and another sunken chamber.

And then we saw…

“Good gods,” Hisa rasped, bending at the waist.

I opened my mouth, but I was beyond words. I’d believed the sight of those impaled on the gates, and the murdered girls from earlier, had been the most horrifying things I’d ever seen.

I’d been wrong.

I couldn’t look away from the pale, bloodless limbs—some long and some so, so tiny. The piles of faded clothing, some white and some red, barely holding together dried-out husks where patches of hair remained, and legs and arms curled. Withered. Some dropped side by side in the ceremonial red of the Rite, their clothing fresh, their decay not even begun to take hold. Dimly, I wondered how there could be no smell—perhaps it was the cold or something else.

My heart started pounding as I stared into the sunken…tomb. And that was exactly what this was. A tomb that had been in use for only the gods knew how long, full of remains haphazardly left about.

The Priestess quietly placed the torch into a holder jutting from the wall and then clasped her hands loosely at the waist. “They have all served a great purpose.”

Slowly, almost painfully, I turned to her. The eather pulsed in my chest and swelled, pressing beyond me and brushing against the walls. The air thickened as if filled with choking smoke, but there was no fire. Not outside of what burned inside of me.

“Just like we all do,” the Priestess continued softly, joyfully, and her face lit up as if she spoke of a glorious dream. “As will you, the one whose blood is full of ash and ice.”

I stepped forward, skin sparking with Primal essence, but an arm blocked me. “Don’t,” Kieran seethed. “Don’t waste any energy on her. It’s not worth it.”

My hands closed around air as the Priestess smiled, and her eyes closed. Peace. That was what I tasted from her. Soft and airy like sponge cake. Peace.

The breath I took was full of daggers. “Give her what she so eagerly awaits.”

I stepped back and turned stiffly, walking away. The only sound I heard was that of a sword meeting flesh.

 

 

“Is that all of them?” I asked.

“The Temple is empty,” Valyn answered stoically, staring at the bodies carefully placed on the ground—the too-small bodies wrapped in rags with sunken stomachs and shriveled, pale skin. Bodies treated worse than diseased cattle.

“Seventy-one,” Kieran stated. “There are seventy-one that are…”

Fresh.

Seventy-one that must have been taken in the unexpected last Rite and the one before. That number had to include the second and third sons and daughters. Which meant none had been given over to the Court as was normal for the second-born. It also meant that those who carried that not-so-dormant ember of life had been slaughtered.

Even worse was that the soldiers had carried outside what had to be…hundreds of older remains.

I’d never seen anything like it.

The underground chamber in New Haven, with all the names etched into the walls of those who’d died at the hands of the Ascended, paled in comparison to this.

Because most of these bodies belonged to children. Only a few may have been older, like the ones in the chamber under Redrock. But these were innocent children. In some cases, babes. I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about that floppy, stuffed teddy bear that smelled of lavender.

The back of my throat burned as a knot gathered there, tasting of hot anger and bitter agony that wasn’t just mine. I searched out the source, finding Casteel’s father. His features gave nothing away, but his emotions had broken through his shields and projected outward, crashing through mine.

“That opening in the floor in there?” Naill cleared his throat, taking a step back as if the distance could somehow erase what he’d witnessed. “It looked like some sort of well. It goes deep. Real deep. We dropped some rocks down it. Never heard them land.”

Meaning, there could be more. Bodies that had either been dumped or had fallen into the well. Gods.

Opening my eyes, I looked behind me to where many of the Atlantian soldiers stood in silence, and I knew what I would feel if I let my senses stretch. Horror. Horror so potent, I would never be able to wash it away. They all knew what the Ascended did, what they were capable of, but this was the first time that many of them were seeing it.

“What will we do with this place?” Vonetta asked, her back to the Temple.

“There is only one thing.” I lifted my chin, searching the sky. A few heartbeats later, a purplish-black draken broke through the clouds. The shouts of surprise from those who had remained in the city echoed through the valley as Reaver stretched out his large wings, gliding overhead. “Burn it,” I said, knowing he would carry through, even though he couldn’t hear me. “We will burn it to the ground.”

Reaver swept up with a powerful lift of his wings as Valyn asked, “And what of them?”

I turned to the Priests and Priestesses clothed in white. The two Ascended had already been dealt with. I opened my senses wide then. None of them felt guilt or even regret, and those were two vastly different things. Regret came when it was time to face consequences. Guilt was there no matter if one paid for their sins or not. I wasn’t sure if it would have changed anything if they had felt either of those things instead of what I sensed from them.

Peace.

Just as with the Priestess, they were at peace with their actions.

They hadn’t just stood by, doing nothing. They weren’t merely another cog in a wheel they couldn’t control. They were a part of it, and it didn’t matter if they’d been manipulated into their faith. They had been taking children, not to service any god or True King, but to feed the Ascended.

“Put them on their knees.” I walked forward, reaching for the wolven dagger at my thigh. “Facing the bodies.”

Valyn followed as the soldiers obeyed. “You don’t have to—”

“I will not ask any of you to do what I would not do myself.” I stopped in front of the kneeling Framont. His eyes were shut. “Open your eyes. Look at them. All of you. Look at them. Not at me. Them.”

Framont did as I demanded.

A flash of silvery fire lit the darkening sky as Reaver circled the stone Temple, unleashing his wrath. “I want them to be the last thing you see before you leave this realm and enter the Abyss, for that is surely where each of you will find yourselves. I want their bodies to be the very last thing you commit to memory, as it will be the last thing the families who claim their own will ever remember from this day forward. Look at them.”

The Priest’s eyes shifted to the bodies. They weren’t filled with awe this time. They weren’t filled with anything. He stared at them and smiled.

Smiled.

I swung out my arm. Red sprayed the white of my armor as I dragged the bloodstone blade across his throat.

 

 

The receiving hall and banquet chamber of Redrock had become an infirmary by nightfall. Injured soldiers and wolven had been laid out on cots. Banners baring the Blood Crown Royal Crest had already been stripped from the chamber and throughout the castle.

No Oak Ambler guards or Solis soldiers had been merely wounded. No survivable injuries. Those who had surrendered were under guard at the Citadel’s jail, and I tried not to linger on thoughts of exactly how many lives had been lost as I made my way through the now-mostly-empty cots. Just as I tried not to think about what had been under the Temple of Theon—what had been done to the children.

I…I just couldn’t think about it.

So, I’d gone from one wounded to another, healing them. I did it, thinking that since it was an ability that had developed before I Ascended, it couldn’t weaken me too badly.

That, of course, could be dangerously faulty logic, but it gave me something to do that was helpful, while a group went to inform the people of Oak Ambler that they would be able to return to their homes tomorrow.

I planned on speaking to everyone in the morning. All of them. The families. Ramon and Nelly. My steps felt heavy.

“You look tired, meyaah Liessa,” Sage noted as I approached her, the last of the injured. Sprawled out on the cot, her short, dark hair was a spiky mess. A thin sheet was tucked under her arms, covering her body entirely except for the leg that an arrow jutted from. It had been left in to prevent additional bleeding, and I knew it had to hurt something fierce. I’d tried to come to her sooner, but she continuously waved me off until everyone else, including those with much less severe injuries, were treated.

I lowered myself onto the floor beside her, grateful to no longer be wearing the armor. “It’s been a long day.”

“And then some.” She leaned back on her elbows. A fine sheen of sweat dotted her brow. “We’ll have more days like this.” Her gaze shifted away from me. “Won’t we?”

I knew where she looked. They’d brought in a wolven named Effie. He’d been in bad shape, having taken a spear to the chest. I’d known he was gone when I knelt beside him, but a desperate sort of childish hope had driven me to try. My abilities had worked on the Atlantian soldier who had passed. A young male who only Naill and I had seen take his last breath. He’d come right back, a little groggy and disorientated but alive. Not so for the wolven. Or Arden.

I hadn’t misunderstood what Reaver had said. Only the Primal of Life could bring back those of two worlds.

We’d lost five wolven and close to a hundred Atlantian soldiers. We would’ve lost more if their injuries had been left untreated. But still, any loss was too much.

“I’m sorry,” I said, my heart twisting as I thought about what Casteel had once told me. Nearly half of the wolven had died in the War of Two Kings. They had only begun to reclaim those numbers. I didn’t want to lead them into that many deaths again.

Her gaze cut to me. “I’m sorry, too.”

Chest heavy, I shoved at the long sleeves of the white top. They kept slipping down. “Naill?” I glanced over my shoulder. “I need your help.”

“Of course.” He lowered himself beside me, far more graceful than I, and he still wore his armor. Weariness I felt in my soul etched into the lines around his mouth as he carefully gripped the arrow. He knew the drill by now. “Let me know when.”

I met Sage’s eyes. “This will hurt.”

“I know. This isn’t the first time I’ve been hit by an arrow.”

My brows rose.

A grin appeared. “It involved a dare that went horribly wrong. Long story. Maybe I’ll tell you about it later?”

“I would like that.” I was very curious about a dare that involved an arrow. “I will take the pain as fast as I can, but…”

“Yeah, I’m going to feel it when he pulls it out.” Sage dragged in a deep breath. “I’m ready.”

Placing my hands on either side of the arrow, I summoned the eather and got down to business. “Now.”

Naill yanked the arrow free with a quickness born of experience. Sage’s entire body spasmed, but she made no sound. Nothing until I heard a sigh of relief and the jagged hole in her thigh stitched itself together, the skin now a bright, raw pink.

“That was”—Sage’s round eyes blinked—“intense.”

“Better, though?”

“Unbelievably so.” She gingerly curled her leg and then straightened it. “I’ve watched you do this, over and over. And still, it’s…intense.”

I smiled faintly, rocking back. “I’m no Healer, so I don’t know how much of the wound heals immediately. I would take it easy for the next couple of days.”

“No running around or dancing…” She trailed off, her eyes widening as her gaze fixed over my shoulder. “What the…?”

Naill and I followed her gaze. My mouth dropped open as the Atlantian made a choked sound.

Walking through the hall was a tall blond wearing what appeared to be a sheet knotted at the hips—barely knotted. With each long-legged step, the sheet appeared mere centimeters from slipping away.

“Reaver,” I whispered, a little rattled by the sight of him.

Naill made that sound again.

“That’s the draken?” Sage asked, and I realized she must not have seen him in his mortal form before.

“Yep.”

“Really?” She eyed him. “Yum.”

Naill looked down at her, his jaw slack. “He can breathe fire.”

“And that’s a bad thing?”

Thankfully, Naill didn’t answer because Reaver had reached us. He nodded at the other two and then bowed slightly in my direction, causing the sheet to slip a little more.

“We need to find some clothing for you,” I said, remembering what I had asked of Kieran. I doubted Reaver would fit into anything the Duke had worn. “Like as soon as possible.” Then I thought of the other draken. “We need to find a lot of clothing.”

“You people and your concerns about nudity is tiresome,” Reaver replied.

“I have absolutely no problem with nudity,” Sage announced. “Just thought I’d share.”

Reaver grinned.

And my heart gave another shaky skip because I hadn’t been wrong when I’d thought the upward curve of his lips took all those interesting features and made them into something stunning.

I gave my head a shake. “Is everything okay?”

“It is.” Reaver faced me. “I wanted to let you know that Aurelia and Nithe returned to Thad,” he said, referencing the remaining draken who had stayed back at the encampment. “They will return to Redrock tonight when it’s less likely they’ll be seen by mortals.”

“Good thinking.” I hadn’t thought of that. “Will you…?” I rose, and a whoosh went through me. The floor stumbled. Or I did. “Whoa.”

Naill was immediately by my side, his hand on my arm. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Just a little dizzy.” I blinked the bright, flashing lights from my eyes in time to see that Sage had also stood. “You should still be sitting. I’m fine.”

She watched me, making no move to sit.

“It’s been a long day,” I reminded her. I was tired. We all were.

“Have you eaten?” Reaver asked, drawing my attention to him.

I frowned. “I haven’t had a chance since morning. Been kind of busy.”

“You should make time for that,” he advised. “Now.”

Considering how the world had gone topsy-turvy, I couldn’t really argue, so I ended up in the kitchens with a draken dressed in only a sheet hanging on for dear life, sharing a plate of sliced ham that must’ve been left over from the day before.

Come to find out, draken did eat actual food. Thank the gods.

With Naill feeling confident that between Reaver and I, we were more than capable of handling ourselves, he’d gone off to check in with Hisa. It was quiet. Probably because I was stuffing my face.

And where was Kieran to not witness this and comment on how much I was eating?

I hadn’t felt this hungry since the first time I’d been to Castle Redrock.

But thinking of everything that still needed to be done tamped down my appetite. I needed to talk to the people. The families of the poor children. The imprisoned soldiers. The list went on. It was…a lot.

A lot of responsibilities that I had no experience with.

I looked around the kitchens, trying to imagine what the space looked like with cooks at the counter, steam rolling off the stoves, and people rushing to and fro. And then that made me wonder if the servants had any clue about the Ascended. Had they been completely blindsided? Or had some helped ferry in mortals, preparing them instead of roasted ham?

Gods, that was a dark thought.

“Does it not make you feel odd to be eating in here—eating their food? Like we took their city and now we’re taking their food?”

Sitting beside me on the counter, Reaver cocked his head. “I hadn’t even thought of that.”

“Oh.” I stared at a chunk of ham. Perhaps that wasn’t an entirely normal concern to have. It probably wasn’t. But I knew why I was thinking about that instead of where my mind wanted to go. I stopped fighting. “I can’t stop thinking about the girls under here and those children. I can’t unsee either thing. I can’t understand how those who served in the Temple were at peace—how anyone, mortal or Ascended or whatever, can do those kinds of things.”

“Maybe we’re not supposed to,” Reaver said, and I glanced at him. “Maybe that’s what truly separates us from them.”

“Maybe,” I murmured. “Framont—the Priest—spoke of a True King of the Realms, as if the children had been killed in service to him.”

“The True King of the Realms is Nyktos, and he would not approve of such a thing.”

“Didn’t think so.” I finished off the piece of ham and reached for a linen. “I don’t think he was talking about Nyktos, though. But maybe…Malec?”

Reaver’s brows shot up. “That would be unfortunate if he believed that.”

I grinned, but it quickly faded. Several moments of quiet passed between us, and in that time, I saw Arden and Effie. The soldiers and mortals whose names I didn’t know. “People died today,” I whispered.

“People always die.” He reached over and picked up an apple from the bushel. “Especially in war.”

“That doesn’t make it any easier.”

“It just makes it what it is.”

“Yeah.” I wiped my hands. “Arden died today.”

He lowered the apple. “I know.”

“I tried to bring him back to life.”

“I told you it wouldn’t work on anyone of two worlds.”

“I had to—”

“You had to try anyway,” he finished for me, and I nodded. He took a bite. “She doesn’t like limitations either.”

“Who?”

“The Consort.” Turning the apple, he went to work on the other side.

“I have no problem with limitations.”

Reaver slid me a long look. “I haven’t known you for long, but I know you don’t like limitations. If you did, you wouldn’t have gone on and tried to restore life to another wolven, even after knowing you couldn’t.”

He had me there.

Reaching for the tankard, I took a drink. “I’m guessing the Primal of Life probably isn’t thrilled with me restoring life, huh?”

He laughed, the sound hoarse and untried.

“What’s so funny?”

“Nothing.” Reaver lowered the apple. “Nyktos would be conflicted over your actions. On one hand, he would never not be happy about a renewal of life. On the other, he would worry about the nature of things. The course of life and death and how such an intervention alters the balance—the fairness.” The corner of his lips tilted up, softening the sharp features. “When it comes to the Consort and choice to act or not, she would weigh the concerns, toss them aside, hope no one was paying attention, and just do it.” Dusky lashes lifted as he gave me a sideways glance. “Sound familiar?”

“No,” I muttered, and Reaver chuckled, the sound just as rough as the laugh. “Why does the Consort sleep so deeply when Nyktos doesn’t?”

Reaver looked down at his apple, not speaking for several long moments. “It’s the only way to stop her.”


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