Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(5)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(5)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

“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.

   
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