Home > The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(8)

The ​Crown of Gilded Bones (Blood and Ash #3)(8)
Author: Jennifer L. Armentrout

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.”

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