Halaman utama The Crown of Gilded Bones: A Blood and Ash Novel
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This IS amazing!!!!! You have to read It!!!!
21 October 2021 (01:53)
I LOVE LOVE LOVE THIS BOOK. My favorite series. I can't wait for the prequels and the 4th book.
14 November 2021 (23:15)
The Crown of Gilded Bones A Blood and Ash Novel By Jennifer L. Armentrout Copyright 2021 Jennifer L. Armentrout ISBN: 978-1-952457-24-1 Published by Blue Box Press, an imprint of Evil Eye Concepts, Incorporated All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced, scanned, or distributed in any printed or electronic form without permission. Please do not participate in or encourage piracy of copyrighted materials in violation of the author’s rights. This is a work of fiction. Names, places, characters and incidents are the product of the author’s imagination and are fictitious. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, events or establishments is solely coincidental. Book Description The Crown of Gilded Bones A Blood and Ash Novel Jennifer L. Armentrout Bow Before Your Queen Or Bleed Before Her… From #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout comes book three in her Blood and Ash series. She's been the victim and the survivor… Poppy never dreamed she would find the love she’s found with Prince Casteel. She wants to revel in her happiness but first they must free his brother and find hers. It’s a dangerous mission and one with far-reaching consequences neither dreamed of. Because Poppy is the Chosen, the Blessed. The true ruler of Atlantia. She carries the blood of the King of Gods within her. By right the crown and the kingdom are hers. The enemy and the warrior… Poppy has only ever wanted to control her own life, not the lives of others, but now she must choose to either forsake her birthright or seize the gilded crown and become the Queen of Flesh and Fire. But as the kingdoms’ dark sins and blood-drenched secrets finally unravel, a long-forgotten power rises to pose a genuine threat. And they will stop at nothing to ensure that the crown never sits upon Poppy’s head. A lover and heartmate… But the greatest threat to them and to Atlantia is what awaits in the far west, where the Queen of Blood and Ash has her own plans, o; nes she has waited hundreds of years to carry out. Poppy and Casteel must consider the impossible—travel to the Lands of the Gods and wake the King himself. And as shocking secrets and the harshest betrayals come to light, and enemies emerge to threaten everything Poppy and Casteel have fought for, they will discover just how far they are willing to go for their people—and each other. And now she will become Queen… About Jennifer L. Armentrout # 1 New York Times and International Bestselling author Jennifer lives in Shepherdstown, West Virginia. All the rumors you’ve heard about her state aren’t true. When she’s not hard at work writing. she spends her time reading, watching really bad zombie movies, pretending to write, and hanging out with her husband, their retired K-9 police dog Diesel, a crazy Border Jack puppy named Apollo, six judgmental alpacas, four fluffy sheep, and two goats. Her dreams of becoming an author started in algebra class, where she spent most of her time writing short stories…which explains her dismal grades in math. Jennifer writes young adult paranormal, science fiction, fantasy, and contemporary romance. She is published with Tor Teen, Entangled Teen and Brazen, Disney/Hyperion and Harlequin Teen. Her book Wicked has been optioned by Passionflix and slated to begin filming in late 2018. Her young adult romantic suspense novel DON’T LOOK BACK was a 2014 nominated Best in Young Adult Fiction by YALSA and her novel THE PROBLEM WITH FOREVER is a 2017 RITA Award winning novel. She also writes Adult and New Adult contemporary and paranormal romance under the name J. Lynn. She is published by Entangled Brazen and HarperCollins. Also From Jennifer L. Armentrout Click to purchase Fall With Me Dream of You (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) Forever With You Fire In You By J. Lynn Wait for You Be With Me Stay With Me A Blood and Ash Novel From Blood and Ash A Kingdom of Flesh and Fire The Crown of Gilded Bones The Covenant Series Half-Blood Pure Deity Elixer Apollyon Sentinel The Lux Series Shadows Obsidian Onyx Opal Origin Opposition Oblivion The Origin Series The Darkest Star The Burning Shadow The Dark Elements Bitter Sweet Love White Hot Kiss Stone Cold Touch Every Last Breath The Harbinger Series Storm and Fury Rage and Ruin A Titan Novel The Return The Power The Struggle The Prophecy A Wicked Novel Wicked Torn Brave The Prince (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) The King (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) The Queen (a 1001 Dark Nights Novella) Gamble Brothers Series Tempting The Best Man Tempting The Player Tempting The Bodyguard A de Vincent Novel Series Moonlight Sins Moonlight Seduction Moonlight Scandals Standalone Novels Obsession Frigid Scorched Cursed Don’t Look Back The Dead List Till Death The Problem With Forever If There’s No Tomorrow Anthologies Meet Cute Life Inside My Mind Fifty First Times Acknowledgments from the Author Thank you to Liz Berry, Jillian Stein, and MJ Rose, who fell in love with these characters and world as much as me. Thank you to my agent Kevan Lyon, and to Chelle Olson, Kim Guidroz, the team at Blue Box Press, Jenn Watson, and my assistant Stephanie Brown for your hard work and support. Mega thanks to Hang Le for creating such beautiful covers. A big thank you to Jen Fisher, Malissa Coy, Stacey Morgan, Lesa, JR Ward, Laura Kaye, Andrea Joan. Sarah Maas, Brigid Kemmerer, KA Tucker, Tijan, Vonetta Young, Mona Awad, and many more who have helped keep me sane and laughing. Thank you to the ARC team for your support and honest reviews, and a big thank you to JLAnders for being the best reader group an author can have, and the Blood and Ash Spoiler Group for making the drafting stage so fun and being utterly amazing. None of this would be possible without you, the reader. Thank you. Table of Contents Book Description About Jennifer L. Armentrout Also from Jennifer L. Armentrout Acknowledgments from the Author Dedication Map Chapter One Chapter Two Chapter Three Chapter Four Chapter Five Chapter Six Chapter Seven Chapter Eight Chapter Nine Chapter Ten Chapter Eleven Chapter Twelve Chapter Thirteen Chapter Fourteen Chapter Fifteen Chapter Sixteen Chapter Seventeen Chapter Eighteen Chapter Nineteen Chapter Twenty Chapter Twenty-One Chapter Twenty-Two Chapter Twenty-Three Chapter Twenty-Four Chapter Twenty-Five Chapter Twenty-Six Chapter Twenty-Seven Chapter Twenty-Eight Chapter Twenty-Nine Chapter Thirty Chapter Thirty-One Chapter Thirty-Two Chapter Thirty-Three Chapter Thirty-Four Chapter Thirty-Five Chapter Thirty-Six Chapter Thirty-Seven Chapter Thirty-Eight Chapter Thirty-Nine Chapter Forty Chapter Forty-One Chapter Forty-Two Chapter Forty-Three Chapter Forty-Four Chapter Forty-Five Chapter Forty-Six Chapter Forty-Seven Chapter Forty-Eight Chapter Forty-Nine Chapter Fifty Discover The Summer King Trilogy Discover 1001 Dark Nights Collection Seven Discover the World of Blue Box Press & 1001 Dark Nights Special Thanks Dedication Dedicated to the heroes—the healthcare workers, first responders, essential workers and researchers who have worked tirelessly and endlessly to save lives and to keep stores open all around the globe, at great risk to their own lives and the lives of their loved ones, thank you. Map To see a full color version of the world map, click here! Chapter 1 “Lower your swords,” Queen Eloana commanded, her hair shining a glossy onyx in the sun as she sank onto one knee. The raw emotion pouring out of her seeped into the Temple floors of the Chambers of Nyktos, bitter and hot, tasting of anguish and a helpless sort of anger. It stretched out toward me, needling my skin and brushing against this…primal thing inside me. “And bow before the…before the last descendant of the most ancient ones. She who carries the blood of the King of Gods within her. Bow before your new Queen.” The blood of the King of Gods? Your new Queen? None of that made sense. Not her words or when she had removed her crown. A too-thin breath scorched my throat as I looked at the man standing beside the Queen of Atlantia. The crown was still upon the King’s golden-haired head, but the bones had remained a bleached white. Nothing like the gleaming, gilded one the Queen had placed at the feet of the statue of Nyktos. My gaze skipped over the terrible, broken things scattered about the once pristine, white floors. I’d done that to them, adding their blood to what had fallen from the sky, filling the thin fissures in the marble. I didn’t look at that or anyone else—every part of my being focused on him. He remained on one knee, staring up at me from between the vee of the swords he’d crossed over his chest. His damp hair, blue-black in the Atlantian sunlight, curled against the sandy-hued skin of his forehead. Red streaked those high, angular cheekbones, the proud curve of his jaw, and ran down lips that had once shattered my heart. Lips that had pieced those broken shards back together with the truth. Bright, golden eyes locked with mine, and even bowed before me, so motionless I wasn’t sure he breathed, he still reminded me of one of the wild and strikingly beautiful cave cats I’d once seen caged in Queen Ileana’s palace as a child. He had been many things to me. A stranger in a dimly lit room who’d been my first kiss. A guard who had sworn to lay down his life for mine. A friend who had looked beyond the veil of the Maiden to truly see me underneath, who’d handed me a sword to protect myself instead of forcing me into a gilded cage. A legend cloaked in darkness and nightmares that had plotted to betray me. A Prince of a kingdom believed to have been lost to time and war, who had suffered unimaginable horrors and yet managed to find the pieces of who he used to be. A brother who would do anything, commit any deed to save his family. His people. A man who bared his soul and stripped open his heart to me—and only me. My first. My guard. My friend. My betrayer. My partner. My husband. My heartmate. My everything. Casteel Da’Neer bowed before me and stared up at me as if I were the only person in the entire kingdom. I didn’t need to concentrate like before to know what he was feeling. Everything he felt was wide-open to me. His emotions were a kaleidoscope of ever-shifting tastes—cool and tart, heavy and spicy, and sweet like chocolate-dipped berries. Those unyieldingly firm and unrelentingly tender lips parted, revealing just the hint of sharp fangs. “My Queen,” he breathed, and those two smoky words soothed my skin. The lilt of his voice quelled the ancient thing inside me that wanted to take the anger and the fear radiating from all the others and twist it, turn it back, truly give them something to fear, and add to the shattered things thrown about the floor. One side of his lips curled up, and a deep dimple appeared in his right cheek. Dizzy with relief at the sight of that infuriatingly stupid—and adorable—dimple, my entire body shuddered. I feared that when he saw what I’d done, he’d be afraid. And I couldn’t blame him for that. What I’d done should terrify anyone, but not Casteel. The heat that turned his eyes the color of warmed honey told me that fear was very much the furthest thing from his mind. Which was also a little disturbing. But he was the Dark One, whether he liked being called that or not. Some of the shock faded, and the pounding adrenaline eased. And when it left, I realized I hurt. My shoulder and the side of my head throbbed. The left side of my face felt puffy, and that had nothing to do with the old scars there. A dull ache pulsed in my legs and arms, and my body felt funny, as if my knees were weakening. I swayed in the warm, salty breeze— Casteel rose quickly, and I shouldn’t have been surprised by how fast he moved, but I still was. In a heartbeat, he’d gone from kneeling to standing, a foot closer to me, and several things happened at once. The men and women behind Casteel’s parents, the ones wearing the same white tunics and loose pants of those lying on the floor, also moved. Light reflected off the golden armbands adorning their biceps as they lifted their swords, shifting closer to Casteel’s parents, protecting them. Some reached for crossbows strapped to their backs. They had to be guards of some sort. A sudden growl of warning came from the largest wolven I’d ever seen. Kieran and Vonetta’s father stood to my right. Jasper had officiated the marriage between Casteel and me in Spessa’s End. He’d been there when Nyktos showed his approval by briefly turning day to night. But now, the steel-hued wolven’s lips peeled back, baring teeth that could tear through flesh and break bone. He was loyal to Casteel, and yet instinct told me that it wasn’t just the guards he warned. Another snarl came from my left. In the shadows of the blood tree that had sprouted from where my blood had fallen and then grew to a massive height within seconds, a fawn-colored wolven crept into my line of sight, head dipped low, and wintery blue eyes iridescent. Kieran. He stared down Casteel. I didn’t understand why either of them would behave this way toward the Prince, but especially Kieran. He had been bonded to Casteel from birth, meant to obey and protect him at all costs. But he was more than a bonded wolven to Casteel. They were brothers, if not by blood then by friendship, and I knew they loved each other. Right now, nothing about the way Kieran’s ears were pinned back was loving. Unease skipped its way through me as Kieran sank down, the sleek muscles of his legs tensing as he prepared to attack…Casteel. My stomach plummeted. This wasn’t right. None of this was right. “No,” I rasped, my voice hoarse and barely recognizable, even to my ears. Kieran didn’t appear to hear me or care. If he had been acting normally, I would’ve just assumed he was attempting to ignore me, but this was different. He was different. His eyes were brighter than I ever remembered seeing, and they weren’t right because they…they weren’t just blue now. His pupils glowed silvery-white, an aura that seeped out in wispy tendrils across the blue. My head jerked to Jasper. His eyes had changed, too. I’d seen that strange light before. It had been what my skin had done when I healed Beckett’s broken legs—the same silvery glow that had radiated from me minutes earlier. Icy bursts of surprise raced through Casteel as he eyed the wolven, and then I felt…relief radiate from him. “You all knew.” Casteel’s voice filled with awe, something no one standing behind him felt. Even the easy grin was absent from the auburn-haired Atlantian. Emil looked at us with wide eyes, broadcasting a healthy dose of fear, as did Naill, who had always appeared utterly unfazed by everything—even when he’d been outnumbered in battle. Casteel slowly sheathed his swords at his sides. Hands empty, he kept them down. “You all knew something was happening to her. That’s why...” He trailed off, his jaw hardening. Several of the guards moved to the front of the King and Queen, surrounding them fully— A shock of white fur shot forward. Delano tucked his tail back as he pawed at the marble. He lifted his head and howled. The eerie yet beautiful sound raised the tiny hairs all over my body. Off in the distance, the faint sounds of yips and barks answered, growing louder with each second. The leaves on the tall, cone-shaped trees separating the Temple from Saion’s Cove trembled as a rolling rumble echoed from the ground below. Blue-and-yellow-winged birds took flight from the trees, scattering to the sky. “Godsdamn.” Emil turned to the Temple steps. He reached for the swords at his sides. “They’re summoning the whole damn city.” “It’s her.” The deep scar slicing across the older wolven’s forehead stood out starkly. Potent disbelief rolled off Alastir as he stood just outside the circle of guards who’d formed around Casteel’s parents. “It is not her,” Casteel shot back. “But it is,” King Valyn confirmed as he stared at me from a face that Casteel’s would one day become. “They’re responding to her. That’s why the ones on the road with us shifted without warning. She called them to her.” “I…I didn’t call anyone,” I told Casteel, voice cracking. “I know.” Casteel’s tone softened as his eyes locked with mine. “But she did,” his mother insisted. “You might not realize it, but you did summon them.” My eyes darted to her, and I felt my chest wrench. She was everything I’d imagined Casteel’s mother to be. Stunning. Regal. Powerful. Calm now, even as she remained on one knee, even when she had first seen me and demanded of her son—What have you done? What have you brought back? I flinched, fearing those words would stay with me long after today. Casteel’s features sharpened as golden eyes swept over my face. “If the idiots behind me actually laid down their swords instead of lifting them against my wife, we wouldn’t have an entire colony of wolven about to descend on us,” he bit out. “They are only reacting to the threat.” “You’re right,” his father agreed as he gently guided his wife to her feet. Blood soaked the knee and the hem of her lilac gown. “But ask yourself why your bonded wolven is guarding someone other than you.” “I really couldn’t care less at the moment,” Casteel responded as the sound of hundreds—if not more—of paws pounding the earth grew even closer. He couldn’t be serious. He had to care, because that was a damn good question. “You need to care,” his mother cautioned, a thin quiver in her otherwise steady voice. “The bonds have broken.” The bonds? Hands trembling, my wide eyes shot to the Temple steps, to where Emil slowly backed away. Naill had his swords in his hands now. “She’s right,” Alastir uttered, the skin around his mouth appearing even whiter. “I can… I can feel it—the Primal notam. Her mark. Good gods.” His voice trembled as he stumbled back, nearly stepping on the crown. “They’ve all broken.” I had no idea what a notam was, but through the confusion and the blossoming panic, there was something odd about what Alastir had stated. If it was true, then why wasn’t he in his wolven form? Was it because he’d already broken his wolven bond with the former King of Atlantia all those years ago? “Look at their eyes,” the Queen ordered softly, pointing out what I’d seen. “I know you don’t understand. There are things you never needed to learn, Hawke.” Her voice cracked then, thickened at the use of his nickname—a name I’d once believed to be nothing more than a lie. “But what you need to know now is that they no longer serve the elemental bloodline. You are not safe. Please,” she begged. “Please. Listen to me, Hawke.” “How?” I croaked. “How could the bond break?” “That doesn’t matter right now.” The amber of Casteel’s eyes was nearly luminous. “You’re bleeding,” he said as if that were the most important issue at hand. But it wasn’t. “How?” I repeated. “It’s what you are.” Eloana’s left hand balled into the skirt of her gown. “You have the blood of a god in you—” “I’m mortal,” I told her. A thick lock of dark hair tumbled from her knot as she shook her head. “Yes, you are mortal, but you are descended from a deity—the children of the gods. All it takes is a drop of god’s blood—” She swallowed thickly. “You may have more than just a drop, but what is in your blood, what is in you, supersedes any oath the wolven have taken.” I remembered then what Kieran had told me in New Haven about the wolven. The gods had given the once-wild kiyou wolves mortal form to serve as guides and protectors to the children of the gods—the deities. Something else Kieran had shared then explained the Queen’s reaction. My gaze shot to the crown lying near Nyktos’s feet. A drop of deity blood usurped any claim to the Atlantian throne. Oh, gods, there was a good chance I really might pass out. And how embarrassing would that be? Eloana’s gaze shifted to her son’s rigid back. “You go near her? Right now? They will see you as a threat to her. They will rip you apart.” My heart stuttered to a panicked stop. Casteel looked as if he might do just that. Behind me, one of the smaller wolven lurched forward, barking and snapping at the air. Every muscle in my body tensed. “Casteel—” “It’s okay.” Casteel’s eyes never left mine. “No one is going to harm Poppy. I will not allow that.” His chest rose with a deep, heavy breath. “And you know that, right?” I nodded as each breath came too fast, too shallowly. It was the only thing I understood at the moment. “Everything’s all right. They’re just protecting you.” Casteel smiled for me then, but it was tense and tight. He looked to my left, at Kieran. “I don’t know everything that is going on right now, but you—all of you—want to keep her safe. And I’m all about that. You know I would never hurt her. I would tear out my own heart before I did that. She’s injured. I need to make sure she’s okay, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that.” He didn’t blink as he held Kieran’s stare, as the rolling thunder of the other wolven reached the Temple steps. “Not even you. Any of you. I will destroy every single one of you who stands between her and me.” Kieran’s growl deepened, and an emotion I’d never felt from him before poured into me. It was like anger, but older. And it felt like that buzz in my blood had. Ancient. Primal. And in an instant, I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were happening before me. Kieran would attack. Or maybe it would be Jasper. I’d seen what kind of damage a wolven could inflict, but Casteel wouldn’t go down easily. He would do just as he’d promised. He’d tear through all that stood between him and me. Wolven would die, and if he harmed Kieran—if he did worse than that, the wolven’s blood wouldn’t just be on Casteel’s hands. It would mark his soul till the day he died. A wave of wolven crested the Temple’s stairs, both small and large, in so many different colors. Their arrival brought terrifying knowledge. Casteel was incredibly strong and unbelievably fast. He would take down many. But he would fall with them. He would die. Casteel would die because of me—because I called to these wolven and didn’t know how to make it stop. My heart thumped erratically. A wolven near the steps stalked Emil as he continued backing up. Another tracked Naill as he spoke softly to the wolven, attempting to reason with the creature. The others had zeroed in on the guards surrounding the King and Queen, and a few… Oh, gods, several of them crept up behind Casteel. This had slipped into chaos, the wolven beyond control of any of them… I sucked in a sharp breath as my mind raced, breaking free of the pain and turbulence. Something had happened within me to make that drop of god’s blood break the bonds. I superseded their previous oaths, and that had…it had to mean that they now obeyed me. “Stop,” I ordered as Kieran snapped at Casteel, whose own lips were now peeled back. “Kieran! Stop! You will not hurt Casteel.” My voice rose as a soft hum returned to my blood. “All of you will stop. Now! None of you will attack.” It was like a switch had been thrown in the wolven’s minds. One second they were all poised to attack, and then they were sinking onto their bellies, lowering their heads between their front paws. I could still feel their anger, the old power, but it had lessened already, was fading in steady waves. Emil lowered his sword. “That…that was timely. Thank you for that.” A ragged breath left me as a tremor traveled up and down my arms. I almost couldn’t believe it’d worked as I scanned the Temple, seeing all the wolven lying down. My entire being wanted to rebel against further confirmation of what the Queen had claimed, but gods, there was only so much I could deny. Throat dry, I looked at Casteel. He stared at me, his eyes wide once more. I couldn’t breathe. My heart wouldn’t slow enough for me to make sense of what he was feeling. “He will not hurt me. You all know that,” I said, my voice shaking as I looked at Jasper and then Kieran. “You told me that he was the only person in both kingdoms that I was safe with. That hasn’t changed.” Kieran’s ears twitched, and then he rose, backing up. He turned, nudging my hand with his nose. “Thank you,” I whispered, briefly closing my eyes. “Just so you know,” Casteel murmured, thick lashes lowered halfway, “what you just did? Said? It has me feeling all kinds of wildly inappropriate things at the moment.” A weak, shaky laugh left me. “There’s something so wrong with you.” “I know.” The left side of his lips curved, and his dimple appeared. “But you love that about me.” I did. Gods, I really did. Jasper shook out his fur as his large head swung from me to Casteel. He turned sideways, making a rough, huffing sound as he did. The other wolven moved then, coming out from behind the blood tree. I watched them trot past me—past Casteel and the others—ears perked and tails wagging as they joined those descending the steps and left the Temple. Of the wolven, only Jasper, his son, and Delano remained, and the feeling of chaotic tension lifted. A thick lock of dark hair fell over Casteel’s forehead. “You were glowing silver again. When you ordered the wolven to stop,” he told me. “Not a lot, not like before, but you looked like spun moonlight.” Had I been? I glanced down at my hands. They looked normal. “I…I don’t know what’s happening,” I whispered, my legs shaking. “I don’t know what’s going on.” I lifted my eyes to his and watched him take a step forward, and then another. There were no snarls of warning. Nothing. My throat started to burn. I could feel it—tears creeping into my eyes. I couldn’t cry. I wouldn’t. Everything had already turned into enough of a mess without me sobbing hysterically. But I was so tired. I hurt, and it went beyond the physical. When I first stepped into this Temple and looked out over the clear waters of the Seas of Saion, I’d felt like I was home. And I knew things would be hard. Proving that our union was real wouldn’t be nearly as difficult as gaining the acceptance of Casteel’s parents and that of his kingdom. We still needed to find his brother, Prince Malik. And mine. We had to deal with the Ascended Queen and King. Nothing about our future would be easy, but I had hope. Now, I felt foolish. So naïve. The older wolven in Spessa’s End, the one I’d helped heal after the battle, had warned me about the people of Atlantia. They did not choose you. And I now doubted they ever would. I drew in a stuttering breath and whispered, “I didn’t want any of this.” Tension bracketed Casteel’s mouth. “I know.” His voice was rough, but his touch was gentle as he placed his palm over the cheek that didn’t feel swollen. He lowered his forehead to mine, and the shock of awareness his flesh against mine brought was there, rippling through me as he slid his hand into the tangled mess of my hair. “I know, Princess,” he whispered, and I squeezed my eyes shut against a stronger rush of tears. “It’s okay. It will all be okay. I promise you that.” I nodded, even though I knew it wasn’t something he could guarantee. Not anymore. I forced myself to swallow the knot of emotion that rose. Casteel kissed my blood-streaked brow and then lifted his head. “Emil? Can you retrieve clothing from Delano’s and Kieran’s horses so they can shift and not scar anyone?” “I’ll be more than happy to do that,” the Atlantian answered. I almost laughed. “I think their nakedness will be the least scarring thing to happen today.” Casteel said nothing as he touched my cheek again, gently tilting my head to the side. His gaze then dropped to several of the rocks still littering the ground at my feet. A muscle popped along his jaw. His eyes lifted to mine, and I saw his pupils were dilated, only a thin strip of amber visible. “They tried to stone you?” I heard a soft gasp I thought had come from his mother, but I didn’t look. I didn’t want to see their faces. I didn’t want to know what they felt right now. “They accused me of working with the Ascended, and they called me a Soul Eater. I told them I wasn’t. I tried to talk to them.” Words spilled out in a rush as I lifted my hands to touch him, but I stopped. I didn’t know what my touch would do. Hell, I didn’t even know what I would do without touching someone. “I tried to reason with them, but they started throwing stones. I told them to stop. I said it was enough, and…I don’t know what I did—” I started to look over his shoulder, but Casteel seemed to know what it was I searched for. He stopped me. “I didn’t mean to kill them.” “You were defending yourself.” His pupils constricted as he caught my stare. “You did what you had to do. You were defending yourself—” “But I didn’t touch them, Casteel,” I whispered. “It was like in Spessa’s End, during the battle. Remember the soldiers who surrounded us? When they fell, I felt something in me. I felt that again here. It was like something inside me knew what to do. I took their anger and I—I did exactly what a Soul Eater would do. I took it from them and then gave it back.” “You are not a Soul Eater,” Queen Eloana said from somewhere not too far away. “The moment the eather in your blood became visible, those who attacked you should’ve known exactly what you were. What you are.” “Eather?” “It’s what some would call magic,” Casteel answered, shifting his stance as if he were blocking his mother from me. “You’ve seen it before.” “The mist?” He nodded. “It’s the essence of the gods, what’s in their blood, what gives them their abilities and the power to create all that they have. No one really calls it that anymore, not since the gods went to sleep, and the deities died off.” His eyes searched mine. “I should have known. Gods, I should’ve seen it…” “You can say that now,” his mother spoke. “But why would you have even thought that this would be a possibility? No one would’ve expected this.” “Except for you,” Casteel said. And he was right. She’d known, without a doubt. And, granted, I had been glowing upon her arrival, but she’d known with unquestioned certainty. “I can explain,” she said as Emil appeared, carrying two saddlebags. He gave all of us a wide berth as he dropped them near Jasper and then backed away. “Apparently, a lot needs to be explained,” Casteel remarked coolly. “But it will have to wait.” His gaze touched on my left cheek, and that muscle throbbed along his jaw again. “I need to get you somewhere safe where I can… Where I can take care of you.” “You can take her to your old rooms at my place,” Jasper announced, startling me. I hadn’t even heard him shift. I started to look over at him but saw skin as he reached for the saddlebag. “That will do.” Casteel took what appeared to be a pair of breeches from Jasper. “Thank you.” “Will it be safe for you there?” I asked, and a wry grin tugged at Casteel’s lips. “He’ll be safe there,” Kieran answered. So shocked by the sound of Kieran’s voice, I turned. And didn’t stop. There was a whole lot of tawny skin on display, but he stood there like he wasn’t naked in front of all who remained. For once, I really had no problem ignoring the fact that he was nude. I looked at his eyes. They were normal—a vivid, striking blue without the silvery-white aura. “You were going to attack Casteel.” Kieran nodded as he took the pants from Casteel. “He most definitely was,” Casteel confirmed. I looked back at my husband. “And you threatened to destroy him.” The dimple in his left cheek appeared again. “I did.” “Why are you smiling? That isn’t something that should make you smile.” I stared at him, stupid tears burning my eyes. I didn’t care that we had an audience. “That can never happen again. Do you hear me?” I twisted to Kieran, who arched a brow as he pulled his breeches up over his lean hips. “Do you both hear me? I won’t allow it. I won’t—” “Shh.” Casteel’s light touch to my cheek drew my gaze back to his as he stepped into me. He was close enough that his chest brushed mine with each breath. “It won’t happen again, Poppy.” His thumb quickly swiped under my left eye. “Right?” “Right.” Kieran cleared his throat. “I don’t…” He fell quiet. His father didn’t. “As long as the Prince doesn’t give any of us a reason to behave differently, we will protect him as fiercely as we will protect you.” We. As in the entirety of the wolven race. That’s what Alastir had meant when he’d said that all the bonds had broken. I had a lot of questions, but I plopped my head on Casteel’s chest. It didn’t feel that great, sending a flare of pain across my head. I didn’t care because when I inhaled, all I smelled was lush spice and pine. Casteel carefully folded an arm around my upper back, and I thought… I thought I felt him shudder against me. “Wait,” Kieran said. “Where is Beckett? He was with you when you walked off.” Casteel drew back slightly. “That’s right. He offered to show you the Temple.” His eyes narrowed as he stared down at me. “He led you here.” A wave of goosebumps pimpled my skin. Beckett. Pressure clamped down on my chest, squeezing tightly as I thought of the young wolven who’d spent the vast majority of the trip here chasing butterflies. I still couldn’t believe that he had led me here, knowing what awaited. But I remembered the bitter taste of his fear that day in Spessa’s End. He’d been terrified of me. Or had he been terrified of something else? His emotions had been all over the place. He’d gone from being normal around me, happy and grinning, to suddenly afraid and anxious, as he had been when he brought me up here. “He disappeared before the others showed up,” I told Casteel. “I don’t know where he went.” “Find Beckett,” he ordered, and Delano, still in his wolven form, tilted his head. “Naill? Emil? Go with him. Make sure Beckett is brought to me alive.” Both Atlantians nodded and bowed. Nothing about Casteel’s tone suggested that the alive part was a good thing. “He’s just a kid.” I watched Delano rush off, quickly disappearing with Naill and Emil. “He was scared. And now that I think about it—” “Poppy.” Casteel placed the tips of his fingers against my cheek, just below a spot that ached. He dipped his head, brushing his lips over the cut. “I have two things to say. If Beckett had anything to do with this, I don’t care what or who he is, and I sure as fuck don’t care about what he was feeling.” His voice rose until all who remained at the Temple could hear him, including his parents. “A move against my wife is a proclamation of war against me. Their fate is already sealed. And, secondly?” He lowered his head even farther. This time, his lips brushed over mine in a featherlight kiss. I could barely feel it, but it somehow still managed to twist my insides into knots. He then lifted his head, and I saw it in his features—the stark stillness of a predator locking onto its prey. I’d seen it before, right before he’d torn out Landell’s heart back in New Haven. Casteel turned his head to the side, looking at the only wolven who remained, now standing on two legs. “You.” Chapter 2 Alastir Davenwell was Casteel’s parents’ advisor. And when King Malec had Ascended his mistress, Isbeth, it was Alastir who had alerted Queen Eloana, breaking the bond between him and the now exiled—most likely dead—King. Only the gods knew how many Atlantians Alastir had saved throughout the years by helping them escape Solis and the Ascended, who used their blood to make more vamprys. Who knew how different things would’ve turned out for my family if they had found Alastir? They could still be alive, living a happy and whole life in Atlantia. And my brother Ian would be there, too. Instead, he was in Carsodonia and was likely now one of them—an Ascended. I swallowed hard, shoving those thoughts aside. Now was not the time for that. I liked Alastir. He had been kind to me from the beginning. But more importantly, I knew that Casteel respected and cared for the wolven. If Alastir had played a role in this, it would cut Casteel deeply. Honestly, I hoped that neither Alastir nor Beckett had had anything to do with this, but I had long stopped believing in coincidences. And the night the Ascended had arrived at Spessa’s End? I had realized something about Alastir that hadn’t sat well with me. It had fallen to the wayside when the Ascended arrived and with everything that had happened afterward, but it took center stage once more. Casteel had once planned to marry Shea—Alastir’s daughter—but then Casteel had been captured by the Ascended, and Shea had betrayed him and his brother in an attempt to save her life. Everyone, including Alastir, believed that Shea had died heroically, but I knew the true tragedy of how she’d perished. However, Alastir also had a great-niece, a wolven that both he and King Valyn hoped Casteel would marry upon his return to the kingdom. It was something he’d announced at dinner, claiming he believed that Casteel had already told me. I wasn’t so sure he truly believed that, but that was neither here nor there. I couldn’t be the only person who found the whole thing…weird. Alastir’s daughter? And now his great-niece? I doubted there weren’t plenty of other wolven or Atlantians that would’ve also been well suited to marry Casteel, especially since Casteel had given no indication that he’d be interested in such a union. None of that made Alastir guilty, but it was strange. Now the wolven looked absolutely thunderstruck as he stared back at Casteel. “I don’t know what you think Beckett did or how it has anything to do with me, but my nephew would never be involved in something like this. He’s a pup. And I would—” “Shut the hell up,” Casteel growled as I peeked around his shoulder. The wolven blanched. “Casteel—” “Do not make me repeat myself,” he interrupted, turning to the guards. “Seize Alastir.” “What?” Alastir exploded as half the guards turned to him, while the others nervously glanced between Casteel and the only King and Queen they knew. The King’s eyes narrowed on his son. “Alastir has committed no crime that we know of.” “Maybe he hasn’t. Maybe he is completely innocent, as is his great-nephew. But until we know for sure, I want him held,” Casteel stated. “Seize him, or I will.” Jasper prowled forward, growling low in his throat as his muscles strained under his mortal skin. The guards shifted nervously. “Wait!” Alastir shouted, his cheeks mottling as anger pulsed around him. “He does not have the kind of authority required to make demands of the Guards of the Crown.” I imagined the Crown Guard was a lot like the Royal Guard that served the Ascended. They only took orders from Queen Ileana and King Jalara, and whatever Royal Ascended were seated to lord over a city or town. “Correct me if I’m wrong. I don’t think I am, but stranger things have happened,” Casteel said, and my brows puckered. “My mother removed the crown and told everyone here to bow before the new Queen—who happens to be my wife. Therefore, according to Atlantian tradition, that makes me the King, no matter what head the crown rests upon.” My heart tumbled. King. Queen. That couldn’t be us. “You never wanted the throne or the trappings that come with that crown,” Alastir spat. “You spent decades seeking to free your brother so he could take the throne. And yet now you seek to claim it? You’ve truly given up on your brother then?” I sucked in a sharp breath as anger flooded me. Alastir, of all people, knew how much finding and freeing Malik meant to Casteel. And his words had cut deep. I felt from Casteel then what I’d sensed the very first time I ever laid eyes on him—a rawness that felt like shards of ice against my skin. Casteel was always in pain, and even though it had lessened a little with each passing day, the agony he felt over his brother was never far from the surface. He’d just recently allowed himself to feel something other than the guilt, the shame, and the anguish. I didn’t even realize I had moved forward until I saw that I was no longer under the shade of the blood tree. “Casteel hasn’t given up on Malik,” I snapped before I could find my damn dagger and throw it across the Temple. “We will find him and free him. Malik has nothing to do with any of this.” “Oh, gods.” Eloana pressed her hand to her mouth as she turned to her son. Pain tightened her features, and in an instant, soul-deep sorrow rolled off her in potent waves. I couldn’t see it, but her grief was a constant shadow that followed her, just as it did for Casteel. It hammered at my senses, scraping my skin like frozen, broken glass. “Hawke, what have you done?” My focus darted to Valyn as I shut down the connection with Casteel’s mother before it overwhelmed me. A jagged pulse of grief surrounded him, pierced by a surge of peppery, desperate anger. But he locked it down with a strength that I couldn’t help but admire and envy. He bent and whispered in his wife’s ears. Closing her eyes, she nodded at whatever he said. Oh, gods, I shouldn’t have said that. “I’m sorry.” I clasped my hands together tightly. “I didn’t—” “You have nothing to apologize for,” Casteel said, looking over his shoulder at me and finding my gaze with his. What radiated from him was warm and sweet, overshadowing the icy ache a bit. “It is I who should apologize,” Alastir stated gruffly, surprising me. “I shouldn’t have brought Malik into this. You were right.” Casteel eyed him, and I knew he didn’t know what to do with Alastir’s apology. Neither did I. Instead, he focused on his parents. “I know what you’re likely thinking. It’s the same thing Alastir believed. You think my marriage to Penellaphe is yet another fruitless ploy to free Malik.” “It’s not?” his mother whispered, tears filling her eyes. “We know you took her to use her.” “I did,” Casteel confirmed. “But that’s not why we married. That’s not why we’re together.” Hearing all of this used to bother me. The truth of how Casteel and I had gotten to this place was an uncomfortable one, but it no longer made me feel as if my skin no longer fit. I looked down at the band around my pointer finger and the vibrant golden swirl across my left palm. The corners of my lips turned up. Casteel had come for me with plans to use me, but that had changed long before either of us realized it. The how no longer mattered. “I want to believe that,” his mother whispered. Her concern was oppressive, like a coarse, too-thick blanket. Maybe she wanted to believe it, but it was clear that she didn’t. “That is something else we need to discuss.” Valyn cleared his throat, and it was clear that he too doubted his son’s motivations. “As of right now, you are not the King, nor is she the Queen. Eloana had a very impassioned moment when she took off her crown,” he said, squeezing his wife’s shoulders. The way her entire face pinched in response to her husband’s comment was something I felt deep in my soul. “A coronation would have to take place, and the crowning would have to go uncontested.” “Contest her claim?” Jasper laughed as he folded his arms over his chest. “Even if she wasn’t married to an heir, her claim cannot be contested. You know that. We all know that.” My stomach felt as if I were back on the edge of the cliff in the Skotos Mountains. I didn’t want the throne. Neither did Casteel. “Be that as it may,” Valyn drawled, eyes narrowing, “until we discover who was involved in this and have had time to speak, Alastir should be kept somewhere safe.” Alastir turned to him. “That’s—” “Something you will accept, graciously.” Valyn silenced the wolven with one look, and it was quite clear exactly where Casteel had gotten that ability from. “This is as much for your benefit as it is for everyone else. Fight this, and I’m sure Jasper, Kieran, or my son will be at your throat in a heartbeat. And at this moment, I cannot promise that I would move to stay any of them.” Casteel’s chin lowered, and his smile was as cold as the first breath of winter. The tips of his fangs appeared. “It’ll be me.” Alastir glanced between Jasper and his Prince. Lowering his hands to his sides, his chest rose with a heavy breath. His wintry blue eyes fixed on Casteel. “You are like a son to me. You would’ve been my son if fate hadn’t had something else in store for all of us,” he said, and I knew he was thinking of his daughter. The sincerity in his words, the rawness of the pain he felt sliced into him, cutting deeply, and fell like icy rain, only increasing when Casteel said nothing. How he’d kept that level of pain hidden from me was stunning. “The truth of what is happening here will be revealed. Everyone will know I am not the threat.” I felt it then as I stared at Alastir. A surge of…determination and steely resolve pumping hotly through his veins. It was quick, but instinct flared inside me, screaming out a warning I didn’t fully understand. I stepped forward. “Casteel—” I wasn’t quick enough. “Protect your King and Queen,” Alastir commanded. Several of the guards moved, surrounding Casteel’s parents. One of them reached behind his back. Valyn spun around. “Don’t!” Jasper shot forward, shifting in mid-leap as Eloana screamed out a hoarse cry. “No!” An arrow struck the wolven in the shoulder, stopping him in midair. He went down, slipping back into his mortal form before he slammed into the cracked marble. I stumbled back, shocked as Jasper went still, a pale, gray color sweeping across his skin. Was he—? My heart froze at the sound of high-pitched yelps and snarls coming from below the Temple. The other wolven— An arrow zinged through the air, striking Kieran as he leapt toward me. A scream caught in my throat as I lurched toward him. He caught himself before he fell, his back jerking straight and then bowing. The tendons in his neck stood out starkly as my eyes locked with his. The irises were a luminous blue-silver as he reached for the arrow protruding from his shoulder—a thin shaft leaking a grayish liquid. “Run,” he snarled, taking a stiff, unnatural step toward me. “Run.” I ran toward him, grabbing his arm as one of his legs buckled. His skin—gods, his skin was like a chunk of ice. I tried to hold him, but his weight was too much, and he hit the ground on his back as Casteel reached my side, folding an arm around my waist. Horrified, I watched the gray pallor sweep over Kieran’s tawny skin, and I…I felt nothing. Not from him. Not from Jasper. They couldn’t be…this couldn’t be happening. “Kieran—?” Casteel suddenly spun me behind him, a roar of fury exploding from him, tasting of icy-hot rage. Something hit him, knocking him away from me. His mother screamed, and my head jerked up in time to see Queen Eloana shoving her elbow into a guard’s face. Bone cracked and gave way as she rushed forward, but another guard grabbed her from behind. “Stop! Stop this now!” Eloana ordered. “I command you!” Terror sank its claws into me as I saw the arrow jutting out of Casteel’s lower back—also leaking that strange, gray substance. But he still stood in front of me, sword in one hand. The sound that rumbled out of him promised death. He stepped forward— Another arrow came from the Temple’s entrance, striking Casteel in the shoulder as I saw Valyn shove a sword deep into the stomach of a man holding a bow. The projectile pierced Casteel’s leg, throwing him back. I caught him around the waist as his balance faltered, but like Kieran, his weight was too much. The sword clattered off the marble as he went down hard, the long length of his body straining as he kicked his head back. The tendons in his neck bulged as I dropped beside him, not even feeling the impact on my knees. Gray liquid poured from the wounds, mingling with blood as his lips peeled back from his fangs. Veins swelled and darkened under his skin. No. No. No. I couldn’t breathe as his wild, dilated eyes met mine. This isn’t happening. Those words repeated themselves over and over in my mind as I bent over, clutching his cheeks with shaking hands. I cried out at the feeling of his too-cold skin. Nothing alive felt this cold. Oh, gods, his skin didn’t even feel like flesh anymore. “Poppy, I…” he gasped out as he reached for me. A gray film crept across the whites of his eyes and then the irises, dulling the vivid amber. He went still, his gaze fixed on some point beyond me. His chest didn’t move. “Casteel,” I whispered, trying to shake him, but his skin—his entire body—had…it had hardened like stone. He was frozen, his back arched and one leg curled, an arm lifted toward me. “Casteel.” There was no answer. I opened my senses wide to him, desperately seeking any hint of emotion, anything. But there was nothing. It was like he had entered the deepest level of sleep or was… No. No. No. He couldn’t be gone. He couldn’t be dead. Only a handful of seconds had passed from the time Alastir had issued his initial command to Casteel lying before me, his body drained of the vibrancy of life. I quickly looked over my shoulder. Neither Jasper nor Kieran moved, and their skin had deepened to a dark gray color, the hue of iron. Panic-fueled agony flooded me, entrenching itself in the area around my pounding heart as I slid my hands to Casteel’s chest, feeling for a heartbeat. “Please. Please,” I whispered, tears gathering in my eyes. “Please. Don’t do this to me. Please.” Nothing. I felt nothing in him, Kieran, or Jasper. A hum whirred within the very core of my being as I stared down at Casteel—at my husband. My heartmate. My everything. He was lost to me. My skin began to vibrate as a dark and oily, soul-deep rage rose within me. It had a tang like metal in the back of my throat and burned like fire in my veins. It tasted like death. And not the kind that occurred here—the final kind. Fury swelled and expanded until I could no longer contain it. I didn’t even try to stop it as tears tracked down my cheeks and fell on Casteel’s iron-colored skin. The rage lashed out, pounding the air and seeping into the stone. Under me, I felt the Temple begin to faintly tremble once more. Someone shouted, but I was past hearing words. Leaning over Casteel, I picked up his fallen sword as I brushed my lips over his still, stone-cold lips. That ancient thing inside me pulsed and throbbed as it had done before as I rose above my husband and turned. A sharp wind whipped across the Temple floor, extinguishing the fire of the torches. The leaves of the blood tree rattled like dry bones as my grip on the short sword tightened. I didn’t see Casteel’s parents. I didn’t even see Alastir. Dozens stood before me, all garbed in white, holding swords and daggers. Familiar metal masks, those worn by the Descenters, hid their faces. Seeing them now should’ve terrified me. It only enraged me. That primal power surged, invading all of my senses. It silenced every emotion inside me until only one remained: vengeance. There was nothing else. No empathy. No compassion. I was me. And yet, I was something else entirely. The sky above was free of clouds, remaining a stunning shade of blue. Blood didn’t rain, but my flesh sparked. Silvery-white embers danced over my skin and crackled as wispy cords stretched out from me, swathing the columns like glistening spiderwebs and flowing across the floor in a network of shimmering veins. My rage had become a tangible entity, a living, breathing force that could not be escaped. I stepped forward, and the top layer of stone shattered under my boot. Tiny pieces of stone and dust broke away, drifting down. Several of the masked attackers moved back as thin fissures appeared in the statues of the gods. The cracks along the floor grew. A masked attacker broke from the line, rushing me. Sunlight reflected off the blade of his sword as he lifted it into the air. I didn’t move as the wind picked up the tangled strands of my hair. He yelled as he brought the hilt of the weapon’s handle down on me— I caught his arm, halting the blow as I shoved Casteel’s blade deep into his chest. Red poured across the front of his tunic as he shuddered, falling to the side. Four more charged me, and I spun under the arm of one as I thrust up the blade, slicing open another’s throat. Blood sprayed as I whipped around, swinging the sword through the metal mask. A sharp, stinging pain raced across my back as I planted my foot in the center of the man’s chest and pushed off as I yanked the blade free of his skull. A hand grabbed me, and I twisted, slamming the blade deep into the attacker’s belly. I jerked the hilt of the sword sharply as I dragged it through the man’s stomach, voicing the rage inside me with a scream. That rage pulsed into the air around me, and a statue near the back of the Temple broke in two. Chunks of stone crashed to the floor. Another ripple of pain flowed over my leg. I turned, sweeping the sword in a high arc. The blade met little resistance. A dagger fell into my hand as a head and mask rolled in opposite directions. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Descenters grab Kieran’s stiff body by the arms. Flipping the dagger in my hand, I cocked back my arm and threw it. The blade struck under the mask, and the attacker pinwheeled backward, clutching at his throat. Movement caught my attention. A wave of masked assailants raced across the Temple. Silvery-white light edged into my vision as I heard a voice—a woman’s voice—whispering inside me. It wasn’t supposed to be this way. In a flash, I saw her, hair like moonlight as she thrust her hands deep into the ground. Some inherent knowledge told me that she was where this Temple now stood, but in a different time, back when the world was an unknown place. She threw back her head, screaming with a kind of pained fury that throbbed relentlessly inside me. Silvery-white light drenched the soil, radiating out from where she touched. The ground cracked open, and thin, bleached-white fingers dug out from the dirt all around her, nothing more than bones. Her words reached me once more. I am done with this, all of this. As was I. I shuddered, the image of the woman fading as I tossed the sword aside. In the emptiness of my mind, I pictured the glittering cords peeling off the columns. They did so before me, draping over a dozen of the attackers like fine webbing. I wanted them to feel as I did inside. Broken. Twisted. Lost. Bone cracked. Arms and legs snapped. Backs broke. They fell like shattered saplings. Others turned away from me, to run. Flee. I would not allow that. They would pay. All of them would taste and drown in my wrath. I would bring this structure down and then rip the entire kingdom apart to ensure it. They would feel what was inside me, what they wrought. Threefold. Rage poured from me in another scream as I stalked forward, lifting my arms. The cords rose from the floor. In my mind, they grew and multiplied, stretching out beyond the Chambers of Nyktos to the trees and the city below. I started to rise— In the chaos, I saw him. Alastir stood near the front of the Temple, just out of reach of the pulsating rage and energy. I didn’t sense fear from him. Just acceptance as he stared at me as if he’d expected this. Alastir met my gaze. “I’m not the threat to Atlantia,” he said. “You are. You have always been the threat.” Pain exploded along the back of my head, so sudden and so overwhelming that nothing could stop the darkness from rushing me. I fell into nothing. Chapter 3 What a pretty little flower. What a pretty poppy. Pick it and watch it bleed. Not so pretty any longer. I came to, gulping in a deep breath of air that smelled of damp soil and old decay. The horrible rhyme echoed in my aching head as I opened my eyes and gasped, choking on a scream. Dark, empty eye sockets stared back at me from a dusty, dirty skull. Heart slamming against my ribs, I shot upright and scuttled back. I made it about a foot when something tightened painfully, sharply jerking my arms and legs. I ground my teeth, stifling a whimper as the skin of my wrists and below my knees burned. Someone had removed my sweater and left me in only the too-thin slip I’d worn under the top. Any concern I might’ve felt over where my sweater and pants had gone, or how the cinched bodice of the slip did very little to hide anything, fell away as I stared at my hands. Bones… Polished, ivory bones were twisted around my wrists. Bones and…and vines. And some part of them dug into my skin. I carefully drew up one leg, chest rising and falling rapidly as I saw the same just below my knees. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they weren’t vines. They appeared to be some kind of root. Dried blood streaked my calves as I reached for the manacle— Fiery pain branded my wrists, stopping me. “Gods,” I hissed through my teeth as I carefully leaned back against something hard, damp, and cold. A wall? Throat dry, my gaze followed the twist of bone and roots to where it connected with the wall. My breath came out in short, uneven pants as I glanced back at the…the thing beside me. Patches of thin, stringy, blond hair hung in clumps from the skull. Only pieces of tattered clothing remained, darkened by age and dirt. I had no idea if it had been male or female, but it had clearly been here for decades—maybe even centuries. Some kind of spear rested against the corpse’s chest, the blade a chalky black. Ice drenched my entire being as I saw the same knotted bones and roots encircling its wrists and ankles. Air lodged in my throat as my gaze lifted to what sat on the other side of the body. More remains, bound in the same manner. And there was another, and another—propped against the entire length of the wall—dozens of them. Oh, gods. My wide gaze darted wildly around. Torches jutted out from gray-black columns in the center of the space and farther back, casting an orange glow across… Horror filled me as I saw several raised stone slabs—long and square boxes situated between two rows of pillars. Oh, gods. I knew what they were. Sarcophagi. Sarcophagi smothered by coiled bone and root chain, the bindings draped over each one. I was in a crypt. And it was clear that I wasn’t the first to be held here. Panic crept up my throat, making it even harder to breathe in the cold, dank air. My pulse pounded sickeningly fast. Nausea rose, cramping my stomach as I searched the shadows beyond the sarcophagi and pillars. I had no recollection of how I’d arrived here or how long I’d— Casteel. An image of him formed in my mind, reaching for me as his skin turned gray and hardened. Pressure clamped down on my chest, grinding my heart. I squeezed my eyes shut against the rush of dampness rising, but it was no use. I still saw him, his back arched and body contorted, his eyes dulling, his gaze fixing. He couldn’t be gone. Neither could Kieran or Jasper. They had to be fine. I just needed to get out of here and find them. I moved to stand— The bindings snapped against my skin, digging in deeper. A hoarse cry parted my dry lips as I fell back against the wall. Inhaling deeply, I lifted my arm to get a better look at the chain. Spurs. The bones had sharpened spurs on them. “Shit,” I whispered, wincing at the sound of my voice. I needed to calm. I couldn’t panic. The wolven…they would hear me, right? That’s what it had sounded like Casteel and the others were saying. That they’d heard or felt my distress before and had answered. I was definitely distressed now. But I’d heard them yelping in pain after Jasper and Kieran were shot. None of them had reached the top of the Temple after that. What if they too were—? I lifted my hands to my face. The chain had enough give to do so without pain. “Stop,” I told myself. They couldn’t have killed all the wolven. They. Namely, Alastir. Anger and disbelief warred inside me as I focused on steadying my breathing. I would get out of here. I would find Casteel and Kieran and the others. All of them had to be okay. Then I would kill Alastir. Slowly and painfully. Holding that promise close to my heart, I forced out a slow, even breath and lowered my hands. I’d been chained before. That time in New Haven had not been as bad as this, but I’d been in bad situations before with Duke Teerman and Lord Mazeen. Like in the carriage with Lord Chaney, who had been bordering on bloodlust, I had to stay calm. I couldn’t cave to panic. If I did, I would lose myself. Like I’d lost myself at the Chambers of Nyktos. No. I hadn’t lost myself when I killed those people. I’d still been there. I just hadn’t…I hadn’t cared to hold back, to curtail whatever power had come alive inside me. I didn’t even feel guilt now. I didn’t think I’d feel remorse later, either. My legs and back stung from the wounds those blades had left behind as I looked at where my bonds connected with the wall. No ring held the chain in place. It wasn’t just fused to the wall, it was a part of it—a growth. What in the hell kind of crypt was this? I couldn’t break stone, but bone…bone and roots were fragile in comparison. Carefully, I twisted my wrist to create tension that didn’t press against my skin. I gripped the other length of bone and root with my other hand— “I wouldn’t do that.” My head snapped in the direction of the male voice. It came from the shadows beyond the lit pillars. “Those aren’t normal bones you’re handling,” the male voice continued. “They’re the bones of the ancients.” My lip curled as I immediately loosened my grip. A deep chuckle rose from the shadows, and I stilled once more. That laugh…it sounded a little familiar. So did the voice. “And because they’re bones of the deities, they carry Primal magic—the eather—within them,” he added. “Do you know what that means, Penellaphe? Those bones are unbreakable, imbued by another who carries the blood of the gods within them.” The voice drew closer, and I tensed. “It was a rather archaic technique crafted by the gods themselves, designed to immobilize those who had become too dangerous—too much of a threat. They say it was Nyktos himself who bestowed the power on the bones of the dead. An act he carried out when he ruled over the dead in the Shadowlands. When he was the Asher, the One who is Blessed, the Bringer of Death, and the Guardian of Souls. The Primal God of Common Men and Endings.” The…the Shadowlands? Ruled over the dead? Nyktos was the God of Life, King of all the gods. Rhain was the God of Common Men and Endings. I had never heard of the Shadowlands before, but with that name alone, it sounded like a place I didn’t want to learn more about. “But I digress,” he said, and I saw the hazy dark outline of a man in the gloom. I squinted, focusing on him, but I…I sensed nothing from him. “You pull on those bindings, they will simply tighten. You keep doing it, they will cut through your flesh and into your bone. Eventually, they will sever your limbs. Don’t believe me, take a closer look at the one beside you.” I didn’t want to look, to take my eyes off the shadowy form, but I couldn’t help myself. I glanced at the body beside me and looked down at its side. The skeletal remains of a hand lay beside it. Oh, gods. “Lucky for you, you only carry the blood of the gods in you. You’re not a deity like them. You would bleed out and die rather quickly. The deities like the one beside you?” the man said, and my attention shot back to him. The shadowy mass was closer now, having stopped at the edges of the fiery glow. “He…well, he grew weaker and hungrier until his body started to cannibalize itself. That process alone most likely took centuries.” Centuries? I shuddered. “You must be asking yourself what he could have done to warrant such a horrid punishment. What did he and the others lining the walls and in their coffins do?” he asked. And, yeah, a part of me wondered just that. “They became too dangerous. Too powerful. Too…unpredictable.” He paused, and I swallowed hard. It took no leap of logic to assume that those against the wall and before me were deities. “Too much of a threat. Just like you.” “I’m not a threat,” I snarled. “You’re not? You killed many.” My fingers curled inward. “They attacked me for no reason. They hurt—” My voice cracked. “They hurt the wolven. Their Prince. My—” “Your heartmate?” he suggested. “A union of not only the hearts but also of the soul. Rare and more powerful than any bloodline. Many would consider such a thing a miracle. Tell me, do you think it’s a miracle now?” “Yes,” I growled without hesitation. He laughed, and yet again, something tugged at the recesses of my memories. “You will then be relieved to know that they are all safe. The King and Queen—those two wolven, even the Prince,” he said, and I might’ve stopped breathing. “If you don’t believe that, you can trust the marriage imprint.” My heart stuttered. I hadn’t even thought of that. Casteel had told me that the imprint faded upon the death of one of the partners. That was how some had learned of their heartmate’s demise. Part of me didn’t want to look, but I had to. A hollowness filled my stomach as my gaze shifted to my left hand. It trembled as I turned it over. The golden swirl across my palm glimmered faintly. Relief cut so swiftly through me that I had to clamp my mouth shut to stop the cry from rising up from the very depths of my being. The imprint was still there. Casteel was alive. I shuddered again, tears scorching my throat. He was alive. “Sweet,” he whispered. “So very sweet.” An uneasy sensation crept over my skin, stealing bits and pieces of the relief. “But he would’ve been greatly injured if you hadn’t been stopped,” he said. “You would’ve brought the whole Temple down. He would’ve fallen with it. Maybe you would’ve even killed him. It is possible for you to do that, you know? You have the power within you.” My heart skipped a beat in my chest. “I would never hurt him.” “Maybe not intentionally. But from what I’ve gathered, you seem to have very little control over yourself. How do you know what you would’ve done?” I started to deny what he’d said, but I tipped my head back against the wall, unsettled. I…I wasn’t sure what I had become in that Temple, but I had been in control. I had also been full of vengeance, just like the strange flash of the woman I’d seen in my mind. I had been prepared to kill those who ran from me. I’d been prepared to tear apart the entire kingdom. Would I have done that? Saion’s Cove was full of innocent people. Surely, I would’ve stopped before it got to that point. I was lying to myself. I’d believed that Casteel had been gravely injured, if not killed. I wouldn’t have stopped. Not until I’d sated that need for vengeance. And I had no idea what it would’ve taken for that to happen. The air I breathed turned sour, and it was an effort to file that realization away to stress over later. “What did you do to him? To the others?” “I did nothing.” “Bullshit,” I snapped. “I fired no arrows. I wasn’t even there,” he replied. “What they did, was use a toxin derived from the shadowshade—a flower that grows in the most eastern regions of the Mountains of Nyktos. It causes convulsions and paralysis before hardening the skin. Quite painful before they enter into the deep sleep. The Prince will take a bit longer than normal to awaken from what I hear. A few days. So, I imagine tomorrow, perhaps?” A…a few days? Tomorrow? “How long have I been out?” “Two days. Maybe three.” Good gods. I didn’t even want to think about the damage done to my head that would have knocked me out for that long. But the others hadn’t been struck as many times as Casteel. Kieran would likely be awake now. So would Jasper. And maybe the other— “I know what you’re thinking,” the male cut into my thoughts. “That the wolven will feel your call. That they will come for you. No, they won’t. The bones nullify the Primal notam. They also negate any and all abilities, reducing you to what you are at your very core. Mortal.” Was that why I felt nothing from this man? That wasn’t exactly what I’d wanted to hear. Panic threatened to dig its claws into me once more, but the shadowy form moved closer, stepping into the glow of the torch. My entire body went rigid at the sight of the man dressed in all black. Every part of me rebelled at what I saw. It didn’t make sense. It was impossible. But I recognized the dark, buzzed hair, the hard-set jaw, and thin lips. Now I knew why his laugh sounded so familiar. It was the commander of the Royal Guard. Commander Jansen. “You’re dead,” I breathed, staring up at him as he drifted between the pillars. A dark eyebrow rose. “Whatever gave you that impression, Penellaphe?” “The Ascended discovered that Hawke wasn’t who he said he was shortly after we left.” What Lord Chaney had told me in that carriage resurfaced. “They said the Descenters infiltrated the highest ranks of the Royal Guard.” “They did, but they didn’t catch me.” One side of Jansen’s lips curved up as he strolled forward, his fingers skating over the side of a coffin. Confusion swirled through me as I stared up at him. “I…I don’t understand. You’re a Descenter? You support the Prince—?” “I support Atlantia.” He moved fast, crossing the distance in less time than it took a heart to beat. He knelt so we were at eye-level. “I am no Descenter.” “Really?” His superspeed sort of gave that away. “Then what are you?” The tight-lipped smile grew. His features sharpened, narrowed, and then he changed. Shrinking in height and width, the new body drowned in the clothing Jansen had been wearing. His skin became tanner and smoother. In an instant, his hair darkened to black and became longer, his eyes lightening and turning blue. Within seconds, Beckett knelt before me. Chapter 4 “Good gods,” I croaked, pressing away from this—this thing before me. “Did I startle you?” Jansen/Beckett asked in the young wolven’s voice—coming from a face identical to Alastir’s great-nephew. “You’re…you’re a changeling.” He nodded. I couldn’t stop staring at him, my brain unable to reconcile the knowledge that it was Jansen before me and not Beckett. “I…I didn’t know they could make themselves look like other people.” “Most of the changeling bloodlines that are left are only able to shift into animal form or have…other skills,” he said. “I’m one of the very few who can do it and hold another’s form for long periods of time. Want to know how?” I really did, but I said nothing. Lucky for me, he was in a talkative mood. “All I need is something of them on me. A strand of hair is typically enough. The wolven are incredibly easy to replicate.” No part of me could comprehend how anyone could be easy to replicate. “And would they…know that you’d done this? Taken on their appearance?” Still smiling with Beckett’s boyish features, Jansen shook his head. “Not usually.” I couldn’t even begin to process what it would be like to take on another’s identity or how someone could do so without the other’s permission. It felt like a great violation to me, especially if done to trick someone… Realization swept through me in a wave of fresh anger. “It was you,” I seethed. “Not the real Beckett who led me into the Temple. You.” “I’ve always known a clever girl lived behind the veil,” he remarked and then shifted once again into the features that belonged to him. It was a feat no less shocking than the time before. The knowledge that it hadn’t been the young, playful wolven who’d led me into a trap brought forth a decent amount of relief. “How? How did no one know? How had I—?” I cut myself off. When I read his emotions in the Temple, they had felt just like Beckett’s. “How did you or our Prince not know? Or even Kieran or Jasper? When changelings assume the identity of another, we take on their characteristics to the point where it’s extremely difficult to decipher the truth. Sometimes, it can even become hard for us to remember who we truly are.” A troubled look crept across his features but vanished so quickly that I wasn’t sure I’d seen it. “Of course, our Prince knew I was a changeling. As do many others. But, obviously, no one expected such a manipulation. No one was even looking for one.” “Is Beckett okay?” Jansen looked away. “He should have been. He was given a sleeping draft. That was the plan. For him to sleep long enough for me to take his place.” My heart twisted. “But that didn’t happen?” “No.” Jansen briefly closed his eyes. “I underestimated how much potion a young wolven needed to remain asleep. He woke when I entered his room.” He leaned back, scrubbing a hand down his face. “What happened was unfortunate.” Bile crept up my throat. “You killed him?” “It had to be done.” Disbelief stole my breath as I stared at the changeling. “He was just a kid!” “I know.” He lowered his hand. “It wasn’t something any of us enjoyed, but it had to be done.” “It didn’t have to be done.” Tears crowded my eyes. “He was a kid, and he was innocent.” “Innocents die all the time. You spent the entirety of your life in Solis. You know that to be true.” “And that makes it okay to harm another?” “No. But the end justified the means. The people of Atlantia will understand that,” Jansen countered. I couldn’t fathom how anyone could understand the murder of a child. “And why do you even care? You stood by and witnessed people being starved, abused, and given over to the Rite. You did nothing.” “I didn’t know the truth then,” I spat, blinking back tears. “And does that make it okay?” “No. It doesn’t,” I said, and his eyes widened slightly. “But I didn’t always stand by and do nothing. I did what I could.” “It wasn’t enough.” “I didn’t say it was.” I drew in a ragged breath. “Why are you doing this?” “It is my duty to stop any and all threats to Atlantia.” A hoarse laugh of disbelief left me. “You know me. You’ve known me for years. You know I’m not a threat. I wouldn’t have done anything in that Temple if I hadn’t been threatened.” “That is what you say now. One day, that will change,” he said. “Strange how small the world is, though. The whole purpose of assuming the role I did was to ensure an open pathway between Casteel and you. I spent years living a lie, all so he could capture the Maiden and use her to free his brother and gain back some of our stolen land. I had no idea what you were or even why you were the Maiden.” “And him marrying me felt like a betrayal to you?” I surmised. “Actually, no,” he replied, surprising me. “He could still accomplish what he intended. Probably would’ve been even better positioned to do so with you as his wife and not his captive.” “Then why? Because I’m…because I have a drop of god’s blood in me?” “A drop?” Jansen laughed. “Girl, I know what you did in that Temple. You need to give yourself more credit.” My temper spiked, and I welcomed it, holding onto the rage. It was far better company than the welling grief. “I haven’t been a girl in years, so do not call me one.” “My apologies.” He bowed his head. “I would be willing to bet you have far more than a drop. Your bloodline must’ve remained very clean for you to exhibit those kinds of godly abilities.” He moved suddenly, grasping my chin. I tried to pull free, but he held me in place. His dark eyes swept over my face as if he were searching for something. “Strange that I never saw it before. I should have.” I reached up, gripping his forearm. The manacle on my wrist tightened in warning. “Remove your hand from me.” “Or what, Maiden?” His smile kicked up a notch as my anger flared hotly. “There is nothing you can do to me that will not result in you harming yourself. I just said you were always clever. Don’t make a liar out of me.” Helpless anger prodded at the deeply rooted desperation I felt at not being able to defend myself. “Let go of me!” Jansen released his grip and rose suddenly. He glanced over at the pile of bones beside me as I dragged in deep breaths. My heart pounded way too fast. “I knew it wouldn’t be wise for me to linger in Masadonia,” he said. “So, I left shortly after you did. I met up with Alastir on the road to Spessa’s End. It was then that I learned what you were.” My fingernails pressed into my palms. “So, Alastir knew what I was?” “Not when he first saw you.” He nudged something with his toe, kicking it across the dusty floor. It was the dismembered hand. My stomach roiled. “I remained hidden until it was time and then assumed Beckett’s identity.” “You stood by when we were nearly overtaken by the Ascended armies. People died, and you just stood by?” Scorn dripped from my tone. His gaze snapped back to mine. “I’m not a coward.” “You said it.” My smile was thin. “Not me.” He didn’t move for a long moment. “Watching those armies descend on Spessa’s End wasn’t easy. Staying hidden was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. But unlike those false Guardians, I am a Protector of Atlantia, a true Guardian of the realm. I knew my purpose was far greater than the potential fall of Spessa’s End or even the death of our Prince.” “True Guardian?” I thought of the women who had descended from a long line of warriors—women who had leapt from the Rise surrounding Spessa’s End and wielded swords more fearlessly than I’d ever seen the commander do. I laughed harshly. “You’re pale and pathetic compared to the Guardians.” Pain erupting across the side of my cheek and face was the only warning that he’d moved—that he’d lashed out. A metallic taste filled my mouth. “I understand that things must be very confusing and stressful for you,” he said, his tone heavy with false sympathy as he rose and took a step back. “But if you insult me one more time, I will not be responsible for my actions.” An icy-hot feeling flowed over my skin. My cheek throbbed as I turned my head back to him and met his gaze. “You will die,” I promised, smiling at the red blush of anger staining his cheeks. “It will be by my hand, and it will be a death befitting a coward like you.” He shot toward me. This time, darkness came with the biting pain, one I couldn’t escape no matter how hard I tried. Gritting my teeth against the pressure of the bindings around my wrist, I slowly inched my hand to the left as I stared at the spear on the skeleton’s chest. Fresh blood dripped onto the stone, and I stopped, breathing raggedly. I waited, having learned that with each inch gained, the bindings loosened a little. Gaining that knowledge had been a painstakingly slow process. Focusing on deep, steady breaths, I rested the side of my head against the wall as my entire arm throbbed. I had no idea how much time had passed since I’d lost consciousness. It had to be hours. Maybe longer as my pangs of hunger had gone from sporadic waves to a low, steady gnawing ache in my gut. And I was cold—every part of my body felt chilled. My gaze crept over the stone coffins. Why had they been given the honor of a proper resting place while the ones against the walls hadn’t? That was only one of the many questions I had. Granted, it wasn’t nearly the most important one, but I’d rather think about that than wonder why I was still alive. Jansen had claimed that I was a threat. And maybe whatever had awakened in me at the Temple was. Perhaps I was a threat. But why keep me alive? Or was this what they’d planned all along? To just shove me into this crypt and leave me here until I died of hunger or starvation, becoming nothing but another dusty pile of bones against the wall. Panic was a vise around my throat, making it harder to breathe. I shut it down, though. I couldn’t let myself give in to the fear that had formed a haunting shadow in the back of my mind. I would get out of here—either on my own, or Casteel would find me. I knew he had to be searching for me. Likely started the moment he woke. And he would tear the entire kingdom apart if necessary. He would find me. I would get out of here. But first, I needed a weapon. Bracing myself for pain, I slowly stretched out my arm. My fingers brushed the dusty handle of the spear. Excitement thrummed as the bindings snapped tighter around my wrist, digging into my flesh. Pain spiked— Stone slid against stone somewhere in the darkness of the crypt, halting my attempt. Ignoring the intense throbbing in my limb, I drew my hand back to my lap, where fresh blood gathered, soaking my slip. I stared into the shadows, straining to see who had arrived. “I see you’re finally awake.” My hands curled into fists at the sound of Alastir’s voice. A moment later, he passed under the glow of one of the torches. He looked the same as he had in the Temple, except his black tunic, threaded with gold, was sleeveless. “I checked on you earlier, but you were asleep.” “You traitorous son of a bitch,” I spat. Alastir stopped between two of the stone tombs. “I know you’re angry. You have every right to be. Jansen confessed that he lost his temper and struck you. I apologize for that. Hitting anyone who cannot defend themselves is not part of the oath we took.” “I don’t care that he hit me,” I hissed, glaring up at Alastir. “I care about how you betrayed Casteel. How you had a hand in the death of your own great-nephew.” His head tilted, and the shadows hid the jagged scar across his forehead. “You see what I have taken part in as a betrayal. I see it as a messy necessity to ensure the safety of Atlantia.” Fury burned through my chest and my blood. “Like I told Jansen, I only defended myself. I only defended Casteel and Kieran and Jasper. I would—” “You would never have done what you did unless you believed that kind of reaction was warranted?” he interrupted. “You were forced to use the power in your blood against others?” My chest rose and fell heavily. “Yes.” “Long ago, when the gods of names long forgotten were awake and coexisted with mortals, rules governed the mortals’ actions. The gods acted as their protectors, aiding them in times of crisis, and even granted favors to the most faithful,” he said. “I couldn’t care less about this history lesson if my very life depended on it,” I fumed. “But they also acted as the mortals’ judge, jury, and executioner if the mortals’ actions were deemed offensive or unwarranted,” Alastir continued as if I hadn’t spoken. “The problem with that was that only the gods chose what was and wasn’t a punishable act. Countless mortals died at the hands of those gods for offenses as small as raising the ire of a god. Eventually, the younger brethren rose against those gods. But the tendency to react without thought, often fueled by passion or other volatile, unpredictable emotions, and to react with violence, was a trait even the gods fell prey to—especially the eldest among them. It was why they went to sleep.” “Thanks for sharing,” I snapped. “But you still haven’t explained why you betrayed the Prince. Why you used Beckett to carry this out.” “I did what I needed to because the gods’ violent trait was passed onto their children,” he stated. “The deities were even more chaotic in their thoughts and manners than their predecessors. Some believed it was the mortal influence, as the gods before them had coexisted with mortals but did not live among them. They remained in Iliseeum, while their children lived in the mortal realm.” Iliseeum? The Shadowlands? All of this sounded delusional, and my patience was already barely hanging on by a thin thread. I was this close to risking losing a hand so I could grab the spear and launch it at the bastard. “I don’t know if it was mortal influence or not, but after the gods chose to sleep, the deities became—” “Too powerful and too dangerous,” I cut in. “I know. I’ve already heard this.” “But did Jansen tell you what they did to deserve that fate? I’m sure you’ve realized by now that all those entombed here are deities.” He lifted his arms, gesturing toward the sarcophagi and the bodies. “Did he tell you why the elemental Atlantians rose against them, just like their forefathers rose against the original gods? Did he tell you what kind of monsters they became?” “He was too busy hitting me to get to that point,” I sneered. “So, no.” “I feel I must apologize for that once more.” “Fuck you,” I choked out, hating his apology—the apparent sincerity of his words. And he legitimately meant them. I didn’t need my ability to know that. His brows lifted, and then his expression smoothed out. “The deities built Atlantia, but they almost destroyed it in their greed and through their thirst for life—their unquenchable desire for more. Always more. They knew no limits. If they wanted something, they took it or created it. Sometimes, to benefit the kingdom. A lot of the internal structure you see here exists because of them. But more often than not, their actions only benefited them.” What he said reminded me an awful lot of the Ascended. They ruled with their desires at the forefront of each thought. I stared up at him. “So, I’m a threat that must be dealt with because I’m descended from a deity, who may or may not have had anger-management issues?” A strangled laugh parted my lips. “As if I have no autonomy and am just a byproduct of what is in my blood?” “That may sound unbelievable to you now, Penellaphe, but you’ve just entered into the Culling. Sooner or later, you will start to show the same chaotic and violent impulses as they did. You are dangerous now, but you will become something else entirely eventually.” An image of the strange woman with the moonlight hair flashed before me. “Worse yet, at the heart of you, you are mortal—far more easily influenced than an Atlantian or a wolven. And because of that mortality, you will be even more prone to impulsive choices.” The woman faded from my mind as I stared at him. “You’re wrong. Mortals are far more cautious and protective of life.” He arched a brow. “Even if that was the case, you descended from the ones born of the flesh and fire of the most powerful gods. Your abilities are strikingly reminiscent of those who, if angered, could quickly become catastrophic, their tempers all-consuming. Families were decimated because someone offended one of them. Towns laid to waste because one person committed a crime against them. But all paid the price—men, women, and children,” he told me, and unease grew under my anger. “Then they began turning on one another, picking each other off as they fought to rule Atlantia. And in the process, they eradicated entire bloodlines. When the descendants of Saion were killed, the ceeren rose against the deities responsible. They didn’t die because they fell into depression, nor did their bloodline simply become so diluted that it eventually died out. Another deity killed them. Many of those bloodlines died at one deity’s hand—the one that so many believed was different.” Anger tightened the lines of his mouth. “Even I did at one time. How could I not believe that he was different? After all, he’d descended from the King of Gods. He couldn’t be like the others.” “Malec?” I guessed. Alastir nodded. “But a lot of people were wrong. I was wrong. He was the worst of them all.” Tensing, I watched him come forward and lower himself to the stone floor before me. He sat with a heavy sigh, resting an arm on a bent knee as he studied me. “Not many people knew what Malec was capable of. What his godly powers were like. When he used them, he left very few witnesses behind. But I knew what he could do. Queen Eloana knew. King Valyn did.” His cool blue eyes met mine. “His abilities were a lot like yours.” I sucked in a short breath. “No.” “He could sense emotion, like the empath bloodline. It was believed that their line branched off from the one that birthed Malec, having mingled with a changeling line. Some believe that was why the gods favored the empaths. That they had more eather in them than most,” he continued. “Malec could heal wounds with his touch, but he rarely did it because he was not only descended from the God of Life, he was also a descendant of the God of Death. Nyktos. The King of Gods is both. And Malec’s abilities had a dark side. He could take emotion and turn it back on others, like the empaths. But he could do so much more.” There was no way. “He could send his will into others, breaking and shattering their bodies without touch. He could become death.” Alastir held my gaze as I shook my head. “I like you. I know you may not believe that, and I understand if you don’t. But I am sorry because I know that Casteel cares for you deeply. I didn’t in the beginning, but I know now that your relationship is real. This will hurt him. But that is the blood you carry in you, Penellaphe. You are descended from Nyktos. You carry the blood of King Malec inside you,” he said, watching me. “I belong to a long line of people who swore an oath to protect Atlantia and her secrets. That was why I was willing to break my bond with Malec. And it is why I cannot allow you to do what he almost succeeded in.” It was hard for me to fully comprehend that I carried any godly blood in me. Obviously, I couldn’t deny that I wasn’t just half-Atlantian and half-mortal. One of mixed heritage couldn’t do what I had done. Not even an elemental Atlantian was capable of that. But someone descended from Nyktos? From King Malec? The deity who had created the very first Ascended? His actions had led to thousands of deaths, if not more. That was in my blood? I couldn’t believe what Alastir was saying. It sounded as impossible as what Duchess Teerman had claimed about the Queen of Solis being my grandmother. That was impossible. The Ascended couldn’t bear children. “How could I descend from Malec?” I asked, even if it sounded impossible. “Malec had many mistresses, Penellaphe. Some were mortal. Some weren’t,” he told me. “And he had children with some of them—offspring who spread across the kingdom, settling in areas far west from here. It is not at all impossible. There are many others like you—those who never reached the age of the Culling. You are his descendant.” “Others who never reached….” I trailed off, a whole new horror beginning to take shape in my mind. Good gods, were Alastir and Jansen—and who knew how many others—responsible for the deaths of…of children over the course of the centuries? “But it’s not just the bloodline, Penellaphe. We were warned about you long ago. It was written in the bones of your namesake before the gods went to sleep,” Alastir said. My skin pimpled. “‘With the last Chosen blood spilled, the great conspirator birthed from the flesh and fire of the Primals will awaken as the Harbinger and the Bringer of Death and Destruction to the lands gifted by the gods. Beware, for the end will come from the west to destroy the east and lay waste to all which lies between.’” I stared at him in stunned silence. “You are the Chosen, birthed of the flesh and fire of the gods. And you come from the west, to the lands the gods have gifted,” Alastir conferred. “You are who your namesake warned about.” “You…you’re doing all of this because of my bloodline and a prophecy?” A harsh laugh rattled from me. There had been old wives’ tales about prophecies and tales of doom in every generation. They were nothing but fables. “You don’t have to believe me, but I knew—I think I always did.” He frowned as his eyes narrowed slightly. “I sensed it when I looked into your eyes for the first time. They were old. Primal. I saw death in your eyes, even all those years ago.” My heart stuttered and then sped up. “What?” “We met before. You were either too young then to remember or the events of the night were too traumatic,” Alastir said, and every part of me flashed hot and then cold. “I didn’t realize it was you when I saw you for the first time in New Haven. I thought you looked familiar, and it kept nagging at me. Something about your eyes. But it wasn’t until you said your parents’ names that I knew exactly who you were. Coralena and Leopold. Cora and her lion.” I jolted, feeling as if the floor of the crypt had moved under me. I couldn’t speak. “I lied to you,” he said softly. “When I said that I would ask to see if any others had known of them or had potentially tried to help them escape to Atlantia, I never planned to ask anyone. I didn’t need to because it was me.” Heart pounding fast, I snapped out of my stupor. “You were there that night? The night the Craven attacked the inn?” He nodded as the torches flickered behind him. A picture of my father formed in my mind, his features hazy as he kept glancing out the window of the inn, looking and searching for something or someone. Later that night, he’d said to someone who lingered in the shadows of my mind, “This is my daughter.” I couldn’t…I couldn’t breathe as I stared at Alastir. His voice. His laugh. It had always sounded so familiar to me. I’d thought it reminded me of Vikter. I’d been wrong. “I came to meet them, give them safe passage,” he said, his voice growing weary. “She doesn’t know,” my father had told that shadow in my memory that I could never fully latch on to. Images flashed rapid-fire behind my eyes, snapshots of memories—recollections I wasn’t sure were real or fragments of nightmares. My father…his smile had been all wrong before he looked over his shoulder. “Understood,” was the phantom voice’s response. Now I knew who that voice had belonged to. “Your parents should’ve known better than to share what they knew with anyone.” Alastir shook his head again, this time sadly. “And you were right to assume that they were attempting to flee Solis, to get as far away from the kingdom as they could. They were. They knew the truth. But you see, Penellaphe, your mother and father always knew exactly what the Ascended were.” I jerked back, barely feeling the pain in my wrists and legs. “No.” “Yes,” he insisted. But there was no way this was the truth. I knew my parents were good people. I remembered that. Good people wouldn’t have stood by, doing nothing, if they knew the truth of the Ascended. Realized what happened when children were given over during the Rite. Good people didn’t stay silent. They were not complicit. “Your mother was a favorite of the counterfeit Queen, but she was no Lady in Wait destined to Ascend. She was a Handmaiden to the Queen.” Handmaiden? Something about that struck a chord of familiarity. Out of the churning chaos of my mind, I saw…women who were always with the Queen. Women in black who never spoke and wandered through the halls of the palace like shadows. They…they’d scared me as a child. Yes. I remembered that now. How had I forgotten about them? “Her Handmaidens were her personal guards.” Alastir’s brows knitted, and the scar on his forehead deepened. “Casteel knows they were a unique sort of nightmare.” I lifted a hand and froze. Casteel had been held by the Queen for five decades, tortured and used by her and others. He’d been freed before my mother was born, but his brother took his place. But my mother, my gentle, soft, and helpless mother couldn’t have been like that. If she were one of the Queen’s personal guards, nightmare or not, she would’ve been trained to fight. She would’ve— She would’ve been able to defend herself. I didn’t understand. Didn’t know if any of that was true. But I knew what was. “You,” I breathed, my entire being turning numb as I stared at the man I’d befriended. That I’d trusted. “It was you. You betrayed them, didn’t you?” “It wasn’t me who struck down your father. It wasn’t me who betrayed your mother,” he replied. “But in the end, it doesn’t matter. I would’ve killed them anyway. I would’ve killed you.” A harsh laugh erupted from me as rage and disbelief twisted my insides. “If it wasn’t you, then who was it? The Craven?” “There were Craven there that night. You carry their scars. They were led right to the doors of the inn.” He didn’t blink. Not once. “He led them there. The Dark One.” “Liar!” I shouted. “Casteel had nothing to do with what happened.” “I never said Casteel did. I know it wasn’t him, even though I never saw the face behind the cloak and hood he wore when he came to that inn,” Alastir replied. “Other things were at play that night. Darkness that moved outside of my influence. I was there to help your parents. That is what I did back then. But when they told me what you could do, I knew—I knew who you came from. So, when the darkness came to those doors, I let it in.” I didn’t know if I believed him or if it even mattered if my parents had died by his hand or not. He had still played a role in my parents’ deaths, leaving Ian and I and everyone else there to die, as well. Leaving me to be torn apart by claws and teeth. That pain. That night. It had haunted me for my entire life. A breath shuddered out of him. “I let it in and walked away, believing that the dirtiest part of my duty was done. But you survived, and here we are.” “Yes.” The word rumbled out of me in a growl that would’ve surprised me at any other time. “Here I am. Now what? You going to kill me? Or leave me here to rot?” “If only it were that simple.” He leaned on one hand. “And I would never leave you here to die such a slow death. That is far too barbaric.” Did he even hear himself? “And chaining me in these bones and roots isn’t? Leaving my family and me to die isn’t barbaric?” “It was a necessary evil,” he stated. “But we can’t just kill you. Maybe before you arrived—before the Primal notam locked into place. But not now. The wolven have seen you. They’ve felt you.” My gaze sharpened on him. “Why didn’t you change like the others? The way the King and Queen spoke, it was like they had no control over their forms. They had to answer my call.” “It’s because I can no longer shift into my wolven form. When I broke my oath to King Malec, I severed the connection between myself and my wolven side. So, I wasn’t able to feel the Primal notam.” Shock flickered wildly through me. I hadn’t known that. “Are you…are you still a wolven, then?” “I still have the lifespan and the strength of a wolven, but I cannot shift into my true form.” His gaze clouded over. “Sometimes, it feels like a missing limb—the inability to feel the change come over me. But what I did, I carried out knowing full well what the consequences would be. Not many others would’ve done that.” Gods, that had to be unbearable. It had to feel like…I had when they forced me to wear the veil. Part of me was impressed by Alastir’s loyalty to Atlantia and to the Queen. And that said a lot about his character—who he was as a man, a wolven, and what he was willing to do in service to his kingdom. “You did that, but you won’t kill me?” “If we were to kill you, you would become a martyr. There would be an uprising, another war, when the real battle lays to our west.” He was talking about Solis—about the Ascended. “I want to avoid that. Avoid creating even more problems for our kingdom. And soon, you will no longer be our problem.” “If you’re not going to kill me or leave me in here to die, I’m a little confused by what you plan to do,” I bit out. “I will give the Ascended what they were so desperate to keep,” he said. “I will give them you.” Chapter 5 I couldn’t have heard him right. There was no way he planned to do what he’d stated. “None will be the wiser until it’s too late,” he said. “You will be beyond their reach, like all the others the Ascended have taken.” “That…that doesn’t even make sense,” I said, stunned when I realized that he was serious. “It doesn’t?” “No!” I exclaimed. “For several reasons. Starting with how you plan to get me there.” Alastir smiled at me, and my unease grew. “Penellaphe, dear, you’re no longer within the Pillars of Atlantia. You’re in the Crypt of the Forgotten Ones, deep within the Skotos Mountains. If anyone even learns that you are here, they will not find you. We will already be gone by then.” My insides chilled as disbelief rose. “How did you get past the Guardians?” “Those who were unaware of our presence felt the kiss of the shadowshade.” “And those who weren’t?” I asked, already guessing what’d happened to them. “You killed Guardians?” “We did what needed to be done.” “Gods,” I whispered, swallowing the anger and panic that swirled within me. “They protected Atlantia. They—” “They were not the true Guardians of Atlantia,” he cut me off. “If they were, they would’ve struck you down the moment you appeared.” My lip curled as I forced my breathing to remain even. “Even if you hand me over to them, how will I not be Atlantia’s problem if you give me back to the people who plan to use my blood to make more vamprys?” He lifted his weight from his hand and sat straight. “Is that what they plan?” “What else would they plan to do?” I demanded. All of a sudden, I remembered Duchess Teerman’s words at Spessa’s End. She had claimed that Queen Ileana would be thrilled to learn that I had married the Prince. That I would be able to do what she’d never been able to do—destroy the kingdom from within. Before I could allow those words to mix with what Alastir had said about me being a threat, I shoved them aside. Duchess Teerman had told a lot of lies before she died, starting with what she’d said about Queen Ileana, a vampry incapable of bearing children, being my grandmother. She’d also claimed that Tawny had gone through the Ascension, using Prince Malik’s blood. I couldn’t believe that, either. Alastir eyed me silently for a moment. “Come now, Penellaphe. Do you really think the Ascended have no idea that they had the descendant of Nyktos in their grips for nearly nineteen years? Longer?” Ian. My breath caught. He was talking about Ian. “I was told Ian Ascended.” “I would have no knowledge of that.” “But you think Queen Ileana and King Jalara knew that we’re Nyktos’s descendants?” When he said nothing, I fought the urge to launch myself at him. “What does that knowledge change anyway?” “They could use you to make more vamprys,” he agreed. “Or, they know what you’re capable of.