Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(13)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(13)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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

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

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

Delano.

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

“Poppy.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Keep still, Poppy.”

“I’m trying.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kieran snorted. “You have no idea.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Fuck,” he growled, moving once more.

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

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

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

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

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

The masked man spun and ran.

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

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

“A little?” I whispered.

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

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

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

“I love him,” I whispered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

A savage grin appeared. “Yes.”

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

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

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

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

Six days.

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

“Of course, not.” He sighed.

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

   
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