We are taking book requests on our companion website. You can request books here. Make sure, you are following the rules.

The War of Two Queens: Chapter 41


Poppy

 

The Craven stumbled through the thick mist, its coal-red eyes mindless with hunger, and its sallow, patchy, gray skin clung to its skull for dear life.

“That…” Casteel twisted sharply, his movements as graceful as any dancer’s at the balls once held in Masadonia. His bloodstone sword sliced through the air with a hiss, cutting through a Craven’s neck. “Is an old one.”

Old was an understatement.

I had no idea when this Craven had been turned. Its skin was as bad as its clothing. Its mouth dropped open, baring jagged sets of fangs. Howling, the Craven raced toward me. I firmed my grip on my wolven-bone dagger—

A sleek, russet-hued wolven exploded from the mist, landing on the Craven’s back and taking it down.

“Oh, come on,” I grumbled. “I had that one.”

A cedar and vanilla imprint reached me through the notam. Vonetta’s laugh drifted through my thoughts.

My eyes narrowed on her. You’re not even supposed to be here, Regent.

Her laugh got louder, stronger as she tore into the Craven’s chest with her claws, going straight for its heart.

My lips curled. “That’s gross.”

“There’s definitely more for you to stab.” Emil caught a Craven, shoving it back into the damp, grayish bark of a blood tree. “Because they’re like…everywhere. Take your pick.”

I spun as a shriek blasted the air. I made out the shapes of at least a dozen more Craven in the mist.

Three days in the northeastern region of the Blood Forest, and this was the first time we’d come across a horde this size. We’d seen a few Craven here and there—at most, half a dozen. But today—or was it tonight? It was hard to tell this deep in the forest, where the sun couldn’t penetrate, and snow flurries were a constant companion—it was like we had come upon a nest of them.

I jumped to the side as Naill struck down one that seemed to rise from the ground. “I can’t be the only one who thinks this many Craven is odd,” I said, bracing myself as the ones in the mist flowed forward, their low-pitched whines rapidly increasing in sound—and annoyance.

“You’re not,” Casteel agreed, unsheathing his second bloodstone short sword as he joined me.

Kieran, in his mortal form, threw a dagger, impaling a Craven to a nearby tree as we, along with Naill and Perry and half a dozen wolven, formed a circle. “Maybe we’re getting close to the ruins or even where Malec is entombed.”

That was what I had been thinking as I kicked out, knocking a Craven back into Delano’s path. He shoved his blade through the Craven’s chest as I turned, jabbing my dagger into another’s heart. I hadn’t wanted to use the locater spell until we reached the ruins, so I hoped this meant that we were nearing that location.

Stepping forward, I narrowly avoided Sage and another wolven as they loped past me, corralling the Craven into a tighter circle. I caught one who was more skeleton than flesh, holding my breath as I thrust the dagger into its chest.

“You know, I could help,” Malik drawled from the center of our circle, where he leaned against a wagon, holding our horses’ reins. We hadn’t given him much choice when it came to accompanying us into the Blood Forest. While I trusted that he would not return to Carsodonia, that trust only went so far. He needed to remain with us.

Casteel darted, spinning as he lashed out with both shortswords, slicing through two Craven’s necks. Flashing golden eyes met mine. “Did you hear something?”

“Nope.” I followed, catching one of the shortswords that Casteel tossed in my direction.

Sage forced another group of Craven forward. I spun, cutting through the neck of one and jabbing my dagger through the other’s chest. Kieran brushed past me, striking down another.

“I would just need a weapon,” Malik continued as I whirled, catching sight of Perry cleaving a Craven in half with a bloodstone axe—an actual axe—as I leapt over a cluster of rocks. “Any weapon. I’d even take a sharpened stick at this point.”

“Funny how I keep hearing something.” Casteel leapt over Rune, a large black and brown wolven who’d joined us. The wolven snagged one of the Craven as Casteel landed, thrusting his sword forward. “And the nagging-as-hell voice keeps repeating the same thing.”

Can I have a sword?” Kieran tossed a limp Craven aside. “Can I have a dagger? A stick—?”

“Real fucking mature,” Malik snarled.

“You’re not getting a weapon.” Casteel kicked off a moss-covered boulder, catching a Craven in the back as I shot forward, bringing the sword down on another’s neck—a small one. Too small. “You’re not getting a weapon. Not even a blunt object such as a rock.”

felt Malik’s eyes roll. “Thought you believed me when I said I wanted to fight the Blood Crown?”

I arched a brow at Casteel as Vonetta dragged a Craven forward by its ankle.

“Believing you want to destroy the Blood Crown is one thing,” Casteel said as I dispatched the Craven Vonetta had by the ankle.

“How am I supposed to help you fight the Blood Crown with no weapon?” Malik demanded.

“Use your charming personality?” Naill quipped.

The edges of my heavy cloak spun as I turned, dipping low as Casteel’s sword hissed above my head. “We’ll cross that bridge when we get to it,” Casteel said, grabbing my arm as I rose. He pulled me in for a quick kiss. My stomach dipped in a most pleasant way as he then twisted, thrusting his sword through a Craven’s chest. Letting go, he looked over his shoulder to where his brother stood. “So, until then, let’s try shutting the fuck up.”

Kieran shot me a grin as I knocked back a strand of hair that had fallen into my face. “Doubt that’s going to happen,” he said.

“Nope.” I jumped forward as a Craven grabbed hold of Sage’s tail, jabbing the wolven dagger into the base of the poor soul’s skull, severing its spinal column.

“What in the actual hell?” Emil started, glancing down at his hand. “Are these blood trees leaking? What is this?”

“I’ll give you one guess.” Perry shoved Malik back as a Craven broke rank, charging them. “It’s in the name.”

“Fucking disgusting,” Emil muttered, wiping the rust-colored substance from his palm on his thigh.

I wasn’t sure if the trees were really oozing blood, but it definitely wasn’t normal sap, and I decided I wouldn’t dwell on that.

“Heads up,” Naill yelled. “To our right.”

Casteel and I turned at the same time. Through the thick mist, I saw several more shadowy forms. “There has to be dozens more,” Casteel said as the wolven growled low in their throats.

Blowing out an aggravated breath, I looked at Casteel. “I know we’re talking about me holding off on using the eather, but this is getting really—”

The leaves above us rattled as a fierce wind whipped through the small clearing, scattering the mist and kicking up the scent of rot and decay. I tipped my head back as Kieran snapped forward, grabbing the front of a Craven’s tunic and slamming his blade into its chest. An even darker shadow fell over us, blotting out what little light made it through the trees.

“About damn time,” Kieran muttered, dipping to tap his sister’s back, who was a second away from rushing the new group of Craven.

Reaching out through the notam, I called the wolven back. Several howls responded as they leapt out of the mist, rushing past us into the circle. Casteel wrapped an arm around my waist, hauling me clear off my feet and against his chest.

“Careful,” he murmured in my ear.

Several branches sheared off and fell like arrows around as Reaver descended among the blood trees, his wings spread out wide before snapping back.

Kieran stumbled to the side. “Fucking gods, every time.” Wintry-blue eyes flashed. “Tell me he doesn’t do that on purpose.”

Since telling him that would be a lie, I said nothing as Reaver extended his long neck and roared. Silvery fire streamed forward, momentarily blinding as the flames cut through the mist and rolled over the Craven. The fire took them out at once, dozens gone in a matter of seconds, leaving nothing but ash and fading mist behind.

“Nice of him to finally join us,” Emil remarked, earning a smirk from Kieran and a narrow-eyed glare from Reaver as his horned head snapped in Emil’s direction. The Atlantian held up his hands. “I meant I’m happy to see you.”

“You think he found anything?” Casteel asked as he brushed a wayward strand of hair back from his face.

“I hope so,” I said, sheathing the dagger as Casteel took his sword back. Reaver had taken to the air the day before, scouting for any sign of the ruins Eloana had sent word of. “We’re already at three days. That means at least three more to get out of here. Another day to reach Padonia.”

“We’ll be fine,” Casteel assured me, hooking the two clasps that had come undone on my cloak. “We’ll get out of here and to the Bone Temple in time.”

I nodded, but it would take close to three days to reach the Bone Temple. I nibbled on my lower lip as a flare of dull pain shot through my jaw. We needed to find Malec and get back to Padonia with some time to rest. To prepare.

“Don’t worry.” Kieran stepped in close to us, his gaze catching mine as he picked up my braid, tossing it over my shoulder. “I know that’s easier said than done,” he continued as a shimmery light swept across Reaver’s body. “But we’re good. We got this.”

Casteel pressed a kiss to my temple as he looked to where a mortal stood where the draken had crouched seconds ago. “Naked Reaver time,” he murmured.

Everyone was pretty much used to that. While most of us studiously avoided looking below the face, Sage practically sat front row and made no qualms about sizing him up, no matter what form she was in.

“About a day’s ride north,” Reaver announced as Naill tossed him his clothing. “There are some ruins of what appeared to be a small town.”

 

 

It took a little less than a day for us to reach the ruins. How Reaver had seen them from the sky was beyond me. Nothing but stone foundations and crumbling, half-standing walls were left.

“This has to be it, right?” Vonetta asked as Casteel gripped my waist, helping me down from Setti. His act was sweet, considering I no longer needed the assistance.

“It has to be.” I turned to Reaver. “You saw nothing else?”

“I traveled to the shores,” he answered, hopping up onto a wall and crouching. “There was nothing but this. The ruins are large. The forest thickens from here, but this was no small village.”

“Thickens more than this?” Emil gestured at the tightly clustered trees.

Reaver nodded as a flurry of snow swirled across the decaying structures.

Kieran unhooked the satchel, bringing it over to me as Delano, now in his wolven form, and the others spread out through the ruins, keeping watch. “You think this is a good spot?”

“Honest?” I placed the satchel on a wall, opening it. “I hope so.”

He chuckled as Perry came closer, and Malik slowly dismounted—under Naill’s constant watch. “I wonder what used to be here.”

“No idea.” Casteel’s brows furrowed as he scanned the ruins. “It could have fallen while he slept and became lost to time.”

A shiver danced over my skin as I pulled out the parchment and a slender piece of charcoal. To think that a town full of people—possibly hundreds if not more—could have been wiped completely from history was unsettling.

Casteel picked up a small rock, placing it on the parchment to hold it in place. “Thanks,” I murmured, writing Malec’s name when something occurred to me. “What was Malec’s last name?”

“O’Meer,” Casteel answered.

I eyed Reaver. “That can’t be his real last name, is it?”

Reaver slowly turned his head toward me. A long moment passed. “No, it is not.”

“Does he even have a last name?”

“Nyktos did not, but…” The wind lifted the pale strands of his hair. “If he were to be recognized by a surname, it would be Mierel.”

“Mierel,” I repeated, the press of charcoal against parchment leaving a smudge. “Is that the Consort’s last name?”

A pause. “It once was.”

Casteel’s gaze met mine, and then I wrote it out. Malec Mierel. The eather hummed in my chest.

“What next?” Casteel asked, his chest brushing my arm.

I reached into the pouch at my hip, bypassing the toy horse I really needed to return to Casteel. I pulled out the diamond ring, placing it on the name. “I just need my blood now.”

“That reminds me,” Casteel murmured, unsheathing his dagger. “I owe you a very large diamond.”

I grinned as I reached for the dagger. “You do.”

Casteel held the dagger. “I don’t want to watch you cut yourself.”

“You’d rather be the one to draw blood, then?” I asked.

“Not in this fashion.” He gave me a heated look that caused my face to warm. “But I would rather do it than watch you inflict pain upon yourself.”

“That is strangely sweet.”

“Key emphasis on strange,” Kieran said as he leaned back, crossing his arms. Vonetta and Emil crept closer.

“Ready?” Casteel asked. When I held up my hand and nodded, he bent his head and kissed me. He nipped my lip as the quick prick of pain traveled across my finger. “There you go.”

Feeling myself flush even hotter, I held my finger over the ring and parchment, squeezing until blood beaded and dropped, splashing first the ring and then staining the paper.

“I really hope there’s more to it than that,” Vonetta murmured.

“There always is,” Emil told her.

“You remember what my father told you?” Perry asked.

Nodding, I cleared my throat. “I call upon the essence of the goddess Bele—the great huntress and finder of all things needed. I ask that you guide me to what I seek to find, connected by blood, name, and belonging.”

No one spoke. I didn’t think anyone even dared to breathe too deeply as my blood seeped into Malec’s name. And just when I thought I might’ve misspoken a word or something, the parchment where my blood had soaked through ignited.

Vonetta gasped, stepping back into Emil as a lone flame shot into the air, nearly as tall as the trees, and that flame was cold. Icy. The essence in my blood stirred as the flame rippled violently and then shrank to where the parchment was scorched and charred, beginning to burn away until nothing but the ring Malec had given Isbeth was left on the stone wall.

Casteel’s hand fell to the center of my back as Kieran unfolded his arms. A gust of wind came from above and behind us, catching the ashes and lifting them into the air. Panic exploded for a moment, but the ashes joined with the flurries, and thousands of tiny specks brightened until they shimmered like fireflies.

“Whoa,” Naill murmured as the glittering funnel of ash whirled and spun forward, forming a churning cyclone that shot between him and Malik and cut through the trees.

“It’s going too fast.” Kieran jerked back from the wall as Reaver hopped down. Shimmery, silvery light zigzagged through the trees, stretching. “That’s way too fast.”

All of us started forward, the wolven leaping over the ruins to chase the glittering lights—

The sparkling ash dropped suddenly, falling to the ground like luminous snow. The wolven drew up short as the light remained, forming a sparkling path through the Blood Forest. My lips slowly parted.

“It’s kind of beautiful,” Vonetta whispered. Emil’s gaze slid to her as he shook his head.

“Well,” Malik drawled, stepping forward. “I think it worked, in case anyone was wondering.”

Casteel grinned, but the curve of his lips froze as he caught himself. His expression smoothed out, and his jaw hardened again.

Gods, that made me sad.

I reached over, touching his arm. Casteel smiled for me, but it didn’t reach his eyes. “We should follow and do it quickly,” he said. “We have no idea how long this will last.”

Picking up the ring, I placed it in the pouch as Casteel went to Setti.

“Time,” Kieran said quietly to me. “Give him time. Both of them.”

“I know.” And I did, but as we started following the glittering, weaving trail, an odd unease settled in the cold, hollow part of me. A sense of dread I couldn’t place rose, but it felt like a warning. A reminder.

That there wasn’t always time.

 

 

The winding path blanketed the area, shimmering over the ground as it wove in and out of the trees. Casteel rode Setti while I walked with Delano close to my right, feeling too antsy to sit. I wasn’t the only one. Reaver walked ahead, and the wolven were even farther out. Kieran rode beside Casteel, but somehow, Malik ended up walking beside me.

Which was probably why Delano was so close he occasionally brushed against my legs.

“I’m beginning to think this trail will lead us straight to the Stroud Sea,” he remarked, his words leaving misty clouds behind.

“I’m beginning to think the same thing.” We’d been walking for at least an hour, the sparkling trail disappearing behind Emil and Vonetta, who rode at the back.

Several moments of silence passed between us, and I knew without looking that Malik kept glancing at me. I also knew without checking that the quick looks were really starting to anger Casteel.

We’d made our way around several low-hanging branches when Malik asked, “Why haven’t you asked me about that night?”

Acid gathered in my throat, and I had no idea if that was coming from Casteel, Kieran, or both.

“You must have questions,” Malik continued quietly, staring straight ahead. “You likely have things you want to say.”

I laughed, but the sound was dry. “I have a lot of things I want to say, but none of them will change the past.” And what answers he could have for whatever questions I may ask probably wouldn’t do much for my state of mental well-being or Casteel’s. There was one thing, though. I swallowed. “How did Coralena die?”

“You sure you want to know that?” Malik exhaled heavily as he held a limb back. “She was forced to drink the blood of a draken.”

Horror and grief collided as Reaver stiffened ahead, and I immediately regretted asking the question.

“It was quick,” Malik added quietly as Delano crowded me, his head brushing my gloved fingers. “I do not say that to lessen what was done. It’s the truth. Cora was—Isbeth favored her. It was one of the few times she didn’t drag out punishment or death.”

Pressing my lips together, I shook my head. I didn’t know what to say to that. I didn’t know how to feel about it.

“Cas, he…” Malik looked over his shoulder and then focused on me as flurries drifted from the sky. “He mentioned some kind of rhyme you said you heard that night. That wasn’t me.”

My gaze shot to him, my throat drying. Somehow, in the aftermath of everything, I’d forgotten. “I know,” I whispered, my skin chilling even further as the essence pulsed in my chest. “That came after. It wasn’t your voice. It was like…”

It was like the voice I heard in Stonehill, urging me to unleash my fury. To bring death. That hadn’t been Isbeth.

“Poppy?” Concern radiated from Casteel.

I’d stopped walking. Delano pressed against my legs as my heart thumped—

An imprint brushed against my thoughts, one that reminded me of fresh rain. Sage?

We found the end of the trail, her response came. There’s definitely something here. It has a bad feel to it.

My brows rose, and I looked up as Casteel drew Setti to my side. “The wolven found the end of the trail. Sage says where they’re at has a bad feel to it.”

Casteel’s features were hard as he nodded. It only took a handful of minutes for us to join the wolven, where they paced restlessly through broken pillars, in front of a wall of rock that traveled as high as a Rise and was covered in blood trees, nearly stacked one on top of the other. Their unease was a tangible entity, coating my skin.

The trail ended right at the edge of the trees before a rocky hill that was more of a mountain than anything else. I looked down, seeing that the trail was already beginning to fade.

“What the hell?” Casteel murmured as he swung off his horse. “It’s a damn mountain of rock and blood trees.”

“I didn’t see this from the sky at all,” Reaver said, looking up. “This has to be where the forest was the thickest.”

Casteel strode past me, entering the crowded rows of trees. “There’s an entrance in there—in the rock.”

Delano followed as I went to Casteel and peered around him, into…vast nothingness. “Can you see anything?”

“A little. Looks like a tunnel,” he answered, squinting. “Kieran or Vonetta? What do you see?”

Kieran was the first to join us, leaning around me to look inside. “Definitely a tunnel. A natural one, kind of like what’s in the mountains back home. Wide enough for a group to walk through single file.”

I took a deep breath. “We are really going to have to walk in there, aren’t we?”

Sage nudged my hand, her words reaching my thoughts. We go first.

“No,” I said out loud in case anyone else got the same idea. “We have no idea what’s down there.”

That’s why we go first. Delano’s springy imprint reached me.

“Poppy,” Casteel began.

“I don’t want them going into the gods only know what.”

He stepped in close. “Neither do I.”

“But we have way better senses than any of the Atlantians here. Or even you,” Vonetta said.

Kieran nodded. “She’s right. We will know if something’s down there that we need to be careful of before anyone else will.”

“You can all argue all you want,” Malik said. “But it’s pointless. Because something is coming.”

All our heads snapped toward the rock. I saw nothing but darkness—

A sudden gust of wind hit the trees, rattling the branches. The air smelled strange and emitted a low howl, raising the hairs all over my body.

“I really would like a weapon,” Malik announced.

Reaver’s head lifted. The leafy branches stilled above and all around, but that sound…it still came. A moan from inside the tunnel reached us from the darkness.

“What in the gods’ name is that?” Kieran asked, bloodstone sword in hand. “Craven?”

In the darkness, thicker, more solid shadows took form. Shapes that drifted forward.

Definitely not Craven.

They glided out from the trees, draped in black. Their very thin layer of skin had the ghastly, waxy pallor of death. Although these things had some semblance of a face—dark eyes, two holes for a nose, and a mouth—it was all kinds of wrong, stretched so far into the cheeks it was as if a permanent smile had been carved into their faces and then stitched closed. The entire mouth. But they were more skeleton than flesh.

“Aw, hell,” Casteel muttered.

I knew what they were. So did he.

Gyrms.


Comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Options

not work with dark mode
Reset