Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(15)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(15)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

“I’m going to fix that. I promise. I’m going to fix all of this,” Casteel swore, and over his shoulder, I stared at the night sky—at each diamond-bright star disappearing.

Casteel sank to his knees and lowered me slowly. He angled my body so his chest cradled my right side.

“How bad is it?” Casteel’s father appeared behind him, his familiar features stark as he stared down, his eyes wide.

“We can’t pull it out,” Casteel said.

“No,” Kieran agreed, his voice thick and heavy and somehow tight. Now, the clouds that covered the stars were pitch-black. Kieran’s hand slipped on my chest, and he quickly replaced his palm. This time, it didn’t hurt as much. “Cas, man—”

“It didn’t get her heart,” Casteel cut him off. “She wouldn’t be—” His voice cracked, and I flinched, forcing myself to focus on him. His skin had leached of all color. “It didn’t get her heart.”

“Cas—”

He shook his head as he touched my cheek, wiping under my mouth. “I can give her blood—”

“Cas,” Kieran repeated as King Valyn placed his hand on Casteel’s shoulder.

“You’re going to be okay,” he said to me. “I’m going to take the pain away. I promise you.” The hand on my chin trembled, and Casteel…he rarely ever shook, but his entire body did now. “I promise you, Poppy.”

I wanted to touch him, but my arms felt weighted down and useless. The breath I forced myself to take was wet and reedy. “I…I don’t hurt so…much.”

“That’s good.” He smiled—or tried to. “Don’t try to talk. Okay? I’m going to give you some blood—”

“Son,” his father started. “You can’t. And even if you could—”

Casteel’s lips pulled back over his fangs as he shrugged off his father’s grip. “Get the fuck away from us.”

“I’m sorry,” King Valyn whispered, and then Jasper was there, snarling and snapping, forcing Casteel’s father back. Lightning streaked across the dark sky. “I didn’t want this for you—for either of you. I’m sorry…”

“Cas,” Kieran rasped, pleading now.

Casteel bit into his wrist, tearing the skin. Bright red blood welled, and it struck me then as I watched the streaks of silvery-white lightning slice across the sky that I felt no pain at all now. My body was numb and… “Cold. I’m…cold again.”

“I know.” Fresh blood smeared Casteel’s lips and chin. He lowered his wrist to my mouth as he shifted my head so it rested in the crook of his elbow. “Drink, Princess. Drink for me.”

His blood touched my lips, warm and lush. It reached the back of my throat, but I couldn’t taste it, couldn’t swallow it. There was so much stuff in there already. Panic spread.

“Cas—”

“What?” he thundered.

“Listen to me. Please, Cas. Listen to me. It didn’t get her heart.” Kieran leaned in, clasping the back of Casteel’s neck. “Look at the blood. It got an artery and at least a lung. You know that—”

A flash of intense light exploded over the ruins, momentarily blinding me, followed by a loud boom. Stone cracked. Someone shouted. I heard a scream. The stone floor shuddered as whatever the lightning had struck fell.

“No. No. No. Open your eyes,” Casteel begged. They had closed? “Come on. Don’t do this. Don’t do this to me. Please. Open your eyes. Please, Poppy. Drink.” He curled over me, pressing his wrist against my mouth. “Please. Poppy, drink.”

Casteel’s features pieced themselves back together, but they were hazy as if the lines and angles had been smudged. I blinked rapidly, trying to clear my vision.

“There you are,” he said, his chest rising and falling too fast. “Stay with me. Okay? Keep your eyes open. Stay with me.”

I wanted to. Gods, I wanted to more than anything, but I was tired. Sleepy. I whispered that. At least, I thought I did. I wasn’t sure, but it didn’t matter. I concentrated on his face, on the lock of dark hair, the winged, expressive brows. I soaked in the thick fringe of lashes and the high, angular cheekbones. I studied every inch of his striking features, from the hard curve of his jaw to his full, well-formed mouth, committing them to memory. Because I knew…I knew when my eyes closed again, they wouldn’t reopen. I wanted to remember his face when the world turned dark. I wanted to remember what it felt like to be in his arms, to hear his voice and feel his mouth against mine. I wanted to remember the way he smiled when I threatened him, and how his eyes lit up and warmed whenever I challenged him. I wanted to remember the pride I felt from him whenever I silenced those around me with words or by blade. I wanted to remember how he touched my scars reverently as if he wasn’t worthy of them—of me.

Another bolt of lightning streaked overhead, striking the ground and charging the air. Chunks of stone flew into the sky. Casteel’s father shouted, and I heard a chorus of howls coming from all around. But I focused on Casteel. His eyes were glossy, and his lashes were wet.

He was crying.

Casteel was crying.

Tears streaked his cheeks, creating glistening tracks in the dried blood as they rolled and rolled…and I knew…I knew I was dying. Casteel knew it, too. He had to. There was so much I wanted to say, so much I wanted to do with him and change. His brother’s future. Ian’s. That of the people of Atlantia and Solis. Our future. Did I ever thank him for seeing past the veil? Or for never once forcing me to stand down? Did I tell him how much he’d changed my life, how much that meant to me, even when I thought I hated him—even when I wanted to hate him? I think I did, but it didn’t feel like it was enough. And there was more. I wanted one more kiss. One more smile. I wanted to see his stupid dimples again, and I wanted to kiss them. I wanted to prove to him that he was worthy of me, of love and life, no matter what had happened in his past or what he’d done. But, oh gods, there wasn’t enough time.

I pushed past the panic and the fading, drowning feeling, the sensation that none of this felt real. My lips moved. I made them, but no sound came out.

Casteel…broke.

He threw back his head and roared. He roared, and the sound echoed around us, through me. Under me, the stone cracked and opened. Thick, ropey roots spilled out, the color of ash. Kieran fell back on his ass as they came down over my legs, over Casteel’s back. A tree grew. It grew so fast. Lightning tore through the sky again, one strike after another, turning night to day as thick, glistening bark stretched high, forming hundreds of branches. Tiny golden buds sprouted, filling the branches. They blossomed, unfurling into blood-red leaves.

Casteel’s head snapped down, his eyes feral and lost as they’d been the morning he woke from the nightmare. He caught one of the roots as it fell over my stomach and stared at it for a moment before he broke it, tossing it aside. “I cannot let you go. I won’t. Not now. Not ever.” His hand moved to my cheek, but I barely felt it. “Kieran, I need you to pull the bolt out. I—I can’t—” His voice shattered. “I need you. I can’t do that.”

“You’re going to…” Kieran rocked forward. “Fuck. Yeah. Okay.” He tore through the roots. “Let’s do this.”

Do…do what?

Kieran gripped the bolt. “Good gods, forgive us,” he uttered. “You’ve got to be fast. You’ll have seconds if you’re lucky, and then…”

“Then I will deal with what comes next,” Casteel stated bluntly.

“No,” Kieran argued. “We will deal with what comes next. Together.”

“Casteel, stop!” his father yelled. “I’m sorry, but you can’t do this!” I heard panic. So much panic filled his voice, it flooded the air. “You know what will happen. I won’t allow this. You can hate me for the rest of your life, but I will not allow this. Guards, seize him!”

“Get them away from me,” Casteel snarled. “Get all of them away from us, or I swear to the gods, I will rip their hearts from their chests. I do not care if a heart belongs to one who gave me life. You will not stop me.”

“Look around you!” his father shouted. “The gods are speaking to us right now. You cannot do this—”

“The gods will not stop me, either,” Casteel swore.

The rolling rumble shook the ground, but it was faster and greater. Howls and yips exploded between blasts of thunder. There were…there were screams. High-pitched wails of pain, and throaty, vibrating growls. Jasper prowled into my line of sight, crouching so he was over my legs, standing between Kieran and Casteel. I caught a glimpse of white fur, circling and circling. The sounds the wolven made—the keening, mournful howls—haunted every too-thin, too-short breath I managed.

“No one is getting close to us.” Kieran shifted forward. “If they do, they won’t be standing for long.”

“Good,” Casteel said. “I’m not going to be much of a…” A veil of darkness slipped over me, and I felt as if I were starting to fall. He faded out and then came back. “…she may be different… Promise me you will keep her safe.”

“I will make sure both of you are safe,” Kieran told him.

The next thing I heard was Casteel’s voice. “Look at me,” he ordered, turning my head toward his. My eyelids were too heavy. “Keep your eyes open and look at me.”

My eyes opened, answering his will, and I… I couldn’t look away as his pupils constricted.

“Keep looking at me, Poppy, and listen.” His voice was soft and deep, and it was everywhere, all around me and inside me. All I could do was obey. “I love you, Penellaphe. You. Your fierce heart, your intelligence and strength. I love your endless capacity for kindness. I love your acceptance of me. Your understanding. I’m in love with you, and I will be in love with you when I take my last breath and then beyond in the Vale.” Casteel lowered his head, pressing his lips against mine. Something wet glanced off my cheek. “But I have no plans to enter the Vale anytime soon. And I will not lose you. Ever. I love you, Princess, and even if you hate me for what I’m about to do, I will spend the rest of our lives making up for it.” He jerked back, exhaling heavily. “Now!”

   
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