The War of Two Queens (Blood And Ash Series Book 4) IS LIVE!!! And yet again, the latest book in this series is #1 on all of AMAZON KINDLE!! PLUS!! She’s featured on 7th Ave and 34rd Ave in NYC on a BILLBOARD!!! P.S. You can see the picture of it here.
It’s book #4 in this much-loved fantasy romance series. These must be read in order though, so here’s my reading order guide: From Blood and Ash Series Reading Order (and I included comments from our fellow readers to show how much everyone is LOVING these books). PLUS! To celebrate this release, Jennifer (as well as her publisher, Blue Box Press) are sponsoring today’s newsletter, and sent over the first five chapters!
Alyssa: Love this series. Can’t wait to download the book
Laura: LOVE, LOVE, LOVE this series!
Patricia: Jennifer Armentrout is one of my favorite authors! Poppy is one of my favorite characters! She’s ingenious, spunky and has a great sense of humor.
The author says:
The War of Two Queens is finally available in ebook, paperback, and audio (hardcover releases in May)! #TWOTQ is my 65th book published. It’s also one of my favorites I’ve written, bc I’ve been so excited to get to this point in the series.
There are many things I had planned all the way back in 2016/2017 when I first began coming up with the series and couldn’t wait to show, scenes & chapters which have been loosely written since AKOFAF, and it’s finally made it onto the page and into your hands. So there’s this weird, bittersweet feeling of finally getting to this point in the series, where I’m thrilled but also like wow, we finally got to this point in the Poptarts’ journey together. ❤️
Each and every book starts and ends being something I wrote for myself, as it is for most authors. Writing is as much as a lifeline for me as reading can be for others, saving me on more than one occasion, and I’m forever grateful to be able to share these worlds with you. ❤️🗡⚔️
War is only the beginning…
From #1 New York Times bestselling author Jennifer L. Armentrout comes book four in her Blood and Ash series.
From the desperation of golden crowns…
Casteel Da’Neer knows all too well that very few are as cunning or vicious as the Blood Queen, but no one, not even him, could’ve prepared for the staggering revelations. The magnitude of what the Blood Queen has done is almost unthinkable.
And born of mortal flesh…
Nothing will stop Poppy from freeing her King and destroying everything the Blood Crown stands for. With the strength of the Primal of Life’s guards behind her, and the support of the wolven, Poppy must convince the Atlantian generals to make war her way—because there can be no retreat this time. Not if she has any hope of building a future where both kingdoms can reside in peace.
A great primal power rises…
Together, Poppy and Casteel must embrace traditions old and new to safeguard those they hold dear—to protect those who cannot defend themselves. But war is only the beginning. Ancient primal powers have already stirred, revealing the horror of what began eons ago. To end what the Blood Queen has begun, Poppy might have to become what she has been prophesied to be—what she fears the most.
As the Harbinger of Death and Destruction.
AND NOW… the first FIVE CHAPTERS!
The click and drag of claws drew closer as the weak flame above the lone candle sputtered and
then went out, pitching the cell into darkness.
A thicker mass of shadows appeared in the open archway—a misshapen form on its hands
and knees. It halted, sniffing as loudly as a godsdamn barrat, scenting blood.
The smooth bands of shadowstone tightened around my throat and ankles as I shifted,
bracing myself. The damn stone was unbreakable, but it did come in handy.
A low-pitched wail came from the creature.
“Mother—” The thing exploded out of the archway, scurrying forward, its keening moan
becoming an ear-piercing screech. “—fucker.”
I waited until its stench of decay reached me and then pressed my back against the wall,
lifting my legs. The length of the chain between my ankles was only about half a foot, and the
shackles wouldn’t give an inch, but it was enough. Planting my bare feet into the creature’s
shoulders, I got a good, most unfortunate look at the thing as its foul breath blasted me in the
Man, the Craven was not a fresh one.
Patches of gray flesh clung to its hairless skull, and half of its nose was gone. One entire
cheekbone was exposed, eyes burning like hot coals. Lips torn and mangled—
The Craven twisted its head down, sinking its fangs into my calf. Its teeth tore through the
breeches and into flesh and muscle. Air hissed between my gritted teeth as fiery pain burned its
way up my leg.
The pain was more than worth it.
I would spend an eternity taking these bites if that meant she was safe. That it wasn’t her in
this cell. That she wasn’t the one in pain.
Shaking the Craven free, I dragged the short chain over the thing’s neck as I crossed my
feet. I twisted at the waist, pulling the dull bone chain tight across its throat, ending the Craven’s
screams. The shackle clamped down on my throat as I kept turning, cutting off my air as the
chain dug into the Craven’s neck. Its arms flailed on the floor as I jerked my legs in the opposite
direction, snapping the creature’s spine. The spasming became more of a twitching as I hauled it
within reach of my bound hands. The chain between my wrists, connected to the shackle at my
throat, was much shorter—but long enough.
I grasped the Craven’s cold, clammy jowls and brought its head down hard, slamming it
against the stone floor by my knees. Flesh gave way, spraying rotting blood over my stomach
and chest. Bone split open with a wet-sounding crack. The Craven went limp. I knew it wouldn’t
stay down, but it bought me some time.
Lungs burning, I unwound the chain and kicked the creature away from me. It landed by the
archway in a tangled mess of limbs as I relaxed my muscles. The band around my neck was slow
to loosen, eventually allowing air into my burning lungs.
I stared at the Craven’s body. At any other time, I would’ve kicked the bastard into the hall
like usual, but I was weakening.
I was losing too much blood.
Not a good sign.
Breathing heavily, I looked down. Just below the shadowstone bands, shallow slices ran up
the insides of my arms, past both elbows and over the veins. I counted them. Again. Just to be
Thirteen days had passed since the first time the Handmaidens swarmed this cell, dressed in
black and as quiet as a tomb. They came once a day to cut into my flesh, siphoning my blood as
if I were a damn barrel of fine wine.
A tight, savage smile twisted my mouth. I’d managed to take out three of them in the
beginning. Ripped their throats out when they got too close, which was why they’d shortened the
chain between my wrists. Only one of them actually stayed dead, though. The damn throats of
the other two had stitched themselves closed within minutes—impressive and also infuriating to
Learned something valuable, though.
Not all of the Blood Queen’s Handmaidens were Revenants.
I wasn’t sure how I could use that information yet, but I guessed they were using my blood
to make brand-spanking-new Revs. Or using it as a dessert for the lucky.
Tipping back my head against the wall, I tried not to breathe too deeply. If the stench of the
downed Craven didn’t choke me, the damn shadowstone around my throat would.
I closed my eyes. There had been more days before the Handmaidens showed the first time.
How many? I wasn’t exactly sure. Two days? A week? Or—?
I stopped myself there. Shut it the fuck down.
I couldn’t go down that road. I wouldn’t. I’d done that the last time, trying to clock the days
and weeks until there came a point when time simply ceased to move. Hours became days.
Weeks became years. And my mind became as rotten as the blood seeping from the Craven’s
But things were different in the here and now.
The cell was larger, with no barred entrance. Not that there needed to be one with the
shadowstone and the chains. They were a mix of iron and deity bone, connected to a hook in the
wall and then to a pulley system to lengthen or shorten them. I could sit up and move a little, but
that was about it. However, the cell was windowless like before, and the dank, musty smell told
me they once again held me underground. The freely roaming Craven were also a new addition.
My eyes opened to thin slits. The fuck by the archway had to be the sixth or seventh one that
had found its way into the cell, drawn by the scent of blood. Their appearance made me think
there was one hell of a Craven problem aboveground.
I’d heard of Craven attacks inside the Rise surrounding Carsodonia before. Something the
Blood Crown blamed on Atlantia and angry gods. I’d always assumed it was due to an Ascended
getting greedy and leaving mortals they’d fed on to turn. Now, I was beginning to think the
Craven were possibly being kept down here. Wherever here was. And if that were the case, and
they could get out and get aboveground, so could I.
If only I could get these damn chains to loosen. I’d spent an ungodly amount of time pulling
on the hook. In all those attempts, it may have slipped a half-inch from the wall—if that.
But that wasn’t the only thing different about this time. Other than the Craven, I’d only seen
the Handmaidens. I didn’t know what to think about that. I’d figured it’d be like the last time.
Too-frequent visits from the Blood Crown and their cronies, where they spent their time taunting
and inflicting pain, feeding, and doing whatever they wanted.
Of course, my last go-around with this captivity bullshit hadn’t started that way. The Blood
Queen had tried to open my eyes first, coax me to her side. Turn me against my family and my
kingdom. When that hadn’t worked, the real fun had begun.
Was that what had happened to Malik? Did he refuse to play along, so they broke him like
they had been so very close to doing with me? I swallowed dryly. I didn’t know. I hadn’t seen
my brother, either, but they must have done something to him. They’d had him for far longer,
and I knew what they were capable of. I knew what the desperation and hopelessness was like.
What it felt like to breathe and taste the knowledge that you had no control. No sense of self.
Even if they never laid a hand on him, being kept like this, as a captive and mostly in isolation,
preyed on the mind after a while. And a while was a shorter span of time than one might believe.
Made you think things. Believe things.
Drawing my throbbing leg up as far as I could, I looked down at my hands resting in my lap.
In the darkness, I almost couldn’t see the shimmer of the golden swirl across my left palm.
I closed my fingers over the imprint, squeezing my hand tight as if I could somehow conjure
up anything but the sound of her screams. Erase the image of her beautiful face contorted in pain.
I didn’t want to see that. I wanted to see her as she’d been on the ship, face flushed, and those
stunning green eyes with their faint silver glow behind the pupils eager and wanting. I wanted
memories of cheeks pink with either lust or annoyance, the latter usually occurring when she was
silently—or very loudly—debating whether stabbing me would be considered inappropriate. I
wanted to see her lush lips parted, and her skin shining as she touched my flesh and healed me in
ways she would never know or understand. My eyes closed once more. And damn it, all I saw
was blood seeping from her ears, her nose, as her body writhed in my arms.
Gods, I was going to rip that bitch Queen into pieces when I got free.
And I would.
One way or another, I would get free and make sure she felt everything she had ever
inflicted upon Poppy. Tenfold.
My eyes snapped open at the faint sound of footsteps. Muscles tensed in my neck as I slowly
eased my leg straight. This wasn’t normal. Only a few hours could’ve passed since the last time
the Handmaidens had done the whole bloodletting thing. Unless I was already beginning to lose
track of time.
An unsteadiness rose in my chest as I concentrated on the sound of the footfalls. There were
many, but one was heavier. Boots. My jaw locked as I lifted my gaze to the entryway.
A Handmaiden entered first, nearly blending in with the darkness. She said nothing as her
skirts glided past the fallen Craven. With a strike of steel against flint, a flame caught the wick
on the candle on the wall, where the other had burned out. Four more Handmaidens entered as
the first lit several more candles, the females’ features obscured behind winged, black paint.
I wondered the same thing I did every time I saw them. What the fuck was up with the facial
I’d asked a dozen times. Never got an answer.
They stood on either side of the archway, joined by the first, and I knew in my gut who was
coming. My stare fixed on the opening between them. The scent of rose and vanilla reached me.
Rage, hot and unending, poured into my chest.
Then she walked in, appearing as the utter opposite of her Handmaidens.
White. The monster wore a skintight gown that was a pristine, nearly transparent white and
left very little to the imagination. Disgust curled my lip. Other than the reddish-brown hair
reaching a cinched, narrow waist, she looked nothing like Poppy.
At least, that’s what I kept telling myself.
That there was no hint of familiarity in the set of her features—the shape of her eyes, the
straight line of her ruby-pierced nose, or the full, expressive mouth.
It didn’t fucking matter.
Poppy was nothing like her.
The Blood Queen. Ileana. Isbeth. Better known as one soon-to-be-dead bitch.
She drew closer, and I still had no idea how I hadn’t realized that she wasn’t Ascended.
Those eyes were dark and bottomless but not as opaque as a vampry’s. Her touch…hell, it had
blended with the others over the years. But while it had been cold, it hadn’t been icy and
bloodless. Then again, why would I or anyone else ever consider the possibility that she was
something other than what she claimed?
Anyone but my parents.
They must have known the truth about the Blood Queen—about who she really was. And
they hadn’t told us. Hadn’t warned us.
Biting, stinging anger gnawed. The knowledge might not have changed this outcome, but it
would’ve affected every aspect of how we approached dealing with her. Gods, we would’ve been
better prepared, knowing that centuries-old revenge drove the Blood Queen’s special brand of
madness. It would’ve given us pause. We would’ve realized that she was truly capable of
But nothing could be done about any of that right now, not when they had me chained to a
damn wall, and Poppy was out there, dealing with the fact that this woman was her mother.
She has Kieran, I reminded myself. She’s not alone.
The false Queen wasn’t alone either. A tall male entered behind her, looking like a walking
lit candle. He was one golden motherfucker, from the hair to the winged facial paint across his
face. His eyes were a blue so pale they appeared nearly leached of all color. Eyes like some of
the Handmaidens. Another Rev, I bet. But one of the Handmaidens whose throat hadn’t stayed
torn open had had brown eyes. Not all Revs had the light irises.
He lingered by the entryway, his weapons not as hidden as the Handmaidens’. I saw a black
dagger strapped across his chest and two swords secured to his back, the curved handles visible
above his hips. Fuck him. My attention shifted to the Blood Queen.
Candlelight glittered off the diamond spires in the ruby crown as Isbeth glanced down at the
“I don’t know if you realize this or not,” I said casually, “but you have a pest problem.”
A single dark brow rose as she snapped her red-painted fingers twice. Two Handmaidens
moved as a unit, picking up what was left of the Craven. They carried the creature out as Isbeth’s
gaze flicked to me. “You look like shit.”
“Yeah, but I can clean up. You?” I smiled, noting the tightening in the skin around her
mouth. “You can’t wash off that stench or feed that away. That shit is inside you.”
Isbeth’s laugh sounded like tinkling glass, grating on every single one of my nerves. “Oh,
my dear Casteel, I forgot how charming you could be. No wonder my daughter appears to be so
taken with you.”
“Don’t call her that,” I snarled.
Both brows rose as she toyed with a ring on her pointer finger. A golden band with a pink
diamond. That gold was lustrous, shining even in the dim light—gleaming in a way that only
Atlantian gold could. “Please don’t tell me that you doubt I’m her mother. I know I’m not a
paradigm of honesty, but I spoke nothing but the truth when it came to her.”
“I don’t give a fuck if you carried her in your womb for nine months and delivered her with
your own hands.” My hands closed into fists. “You are nothing to her.”
Isbeth went unnaturally still and quiet. Seconds ticked by, and then she said, “I was a mother
to her. She would have no memory of it as she was just a tiny babe then, perfect and lovely in
every way. I slept and woke with her beside me every day until I knew I could no longer take
that risk.” The edges of her gown dragged through the pool of Craven blood as she stepped
forward. “And I was a mother to her when she thought I was only her Queen, tending to her
wounds when she was so gravely injured. I would’ve given anything to have prevented that.”
Her voice thinned, and I could almost believe she spoke the truth. “I would’ve done anything to
stop her from experiencing even one second of pain. Of having a reminder of that nightmare
every time she looked upon herself.”
“When she looks upon herself, she sees nothing but beauty and bravery,” I snapped.
Her chin lifted. “You really believe that?”
“I know that.”
“As a child, she often cried when she saw her reflection,” she told me, and my chest seized.
“She often begged me to fix her.”
“She doesn’t need fixing,” I seethed, hating—absolutely loathing—that Poppy had ever felt
that way, even as a child.
Isbeth was quiet for a moment. “Still, I would’ve done anything to prevent what happened to
“And you think you played no role in that?” I challenged.
“It was not I who left the safety of the capital and Wayfair. It was not I who stole her away.”
Her jaw clenched, jutting out in a godsdamn familiar way. “If Coralena hadn’t betrayed me—
betrayed her—Penellaphe never would’ve known that kind of pain.”
Disbelief battled with disgust. “And yet you still betrayed her, sending her to Masadonia?
To Duke Teerman, who—”
“Don’t.” She stiffened once more.
She didn’t want to hear this? Too bad. “Teerman routinely abused her. He let others do the
same. Made quite a sport of it.”
She actually flinched.
My lips peeled back over my fangs. “That is on you. You don’t get to blame anyone else for
that and relieve yourself of guilt. Each time he touched her, he hurt her. That’s on you.”
She drew in a deep breath, straightening. “I didn’t know. If I had, I would’ve cut his
stomach open and fed him his own entrails until he choked on them.”
Now that, I didn’t doubt.
Because I’d seen her do it to a mortal before.
Her tightly sealed lips trembled as she stared down at me. “You killed him?”
A savage rush of satisfaction hit me. “Yeah, I did.”
“Did you make it hurt?”
“What do you think?”
“You did.” She turned away, drifting toward the wall as the two Handmaidens returned,
silently taking up their posts by the door. “Good.”
A dry laugh left me. “And I’ll do the same to you.”
She sent me a small smile over her shoulder. “I’ve always been impressed by your
resilience, Casteel. I imagine you got that from your mother.”
Acid pooled in my mouth. “You would know, wouldn’t you?”
“Just so you know…” she said with a shrug. A moment passed before she continued. “I
didn’t hate your mother at first. She loved Malec, but he loved me. I didn’t envy her. I pitied
“I’m sure she’ll be glad to hear that.”
“Doubtful,” she murmured, righting a candle that had tilted. Her fingers drifted through the
flame, causing it to ripple wildly. “I do hate her now, though.”
I couldn’t care less.
“With every fiber of my being.” Smoke wafted from the flame she’d touched, turning a
dark, thick black that brushed against the damp stone, staining it.
That wasn’t even remotely normal. “What in the hell are you?”
“I am nothing more than a myth. A cautionary tale once told to Atlantian children to make
sure they didn’t steal what they didn’t deserve,” she said, looking over her shoulder at me.
“Are you a lamaea?”
Isbeth laughed. “Cute response, but I thought you were smarter than that.” She drifted to
another candle, straightening it, as well. “I may be no god by your standards and beliefs, but I am
no less powerful than one. So, how am I not just that? A god?”
Something tugged at my memories—something I was sure Kieran’s father had once said
when we were younger. When the wolven Kieran loved was dying, and he’d prayed to gods he
knew were sleeping to save her. When he prayed to anything that could be listening. Jasper had
warned him that…something that wasn’t a god could answer.
That a false god could reply.
“Demis,” I whispered hoarsely, my eyes widening. “You’re a demis. A false god.”
One side of Isbeth’s lips curled up, but it was the golden Rev who spoke. “Well, apparently,
he is rather clever.”
“At times,” she said with a shrug.
Holy shit. I’d believed that the demis were as much a myth as the lamaea. “Is that what
you’ve always been? A poor imitation of the real thing, hell-bent on destroying the lives of the
“That’s a rather offensive assumption. But, no. A demis is not born but made when a god
commits the forbidden act of Ascending a mortal who was not Chosen.”
I had no idea what she meant by a mortal that was Chosen, and I didn’t get a chance to
question that because she asked, “What do you know about Malec?”
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the golden Rev’s head tilt. “Where is my brother?” I
“Around.” Isbeth faced me, clasping her hands together. They were free of jewels except for
the Atlantian ring.
“I want to see him.”
A faint grin appeared. “I don’t think that would be wise.”
She inched toward me. “You haven’t earned it, Casteel.”
The acid spread, hitting my veins. “Hate to disappoint you, but we’re not playing that game
Isbeth pouted. “But I loved that game. So did Malik. Admittedly, he was much better at it
than you ever were.”
Fury pounded through every inch of my body. I launched off the floor as the rage was given
sound. I didn’t make it very far. The bonds at my throat jerked my head back as the shackles on
my ankles and wrists clamped down, yanking me against the wall. The Handmaidens stepped
Isbeth held up a hand, waving them back. “Did that make you feel better?”
“Why don’t you get close?” I growled, chest rising and falling as the band at my throat
slowly loosened. “That will make me feel better.”
“I’m sure it would, but you see, I have plans which require me to keep my throat intact and
my head still on my shoulders,” she replied, smoothing a hand over the chest of her gown.
“Plans can always change.”
Isbeth smirked. “But this plan also requires you to remain alive.” She watched me. “You
don’t believe that, do you? If I wanted you dead, you’d already be that.”
My eyes narrowed on her as she tipped her chin in a curt nod. The golden Rev stepped out
into the hall, returning quickly with a burlap sack. The stench of death and decay immediately hit
me. Every part of my being focused on the bag the Rev carried. I didn’t know what was in there,
but I knew it was something that used to be alive. My heart started pounding.
“It appears that my once amicable and charming daughter has grown quite the…violent
streak with a knack for showmanship,” Isbeth remarked as the Rev knelt, untying the sack.
“Penellaphe sent me a message.”
My lips parted as the golden Rev carefully tipped the sack, and a…godsdamn head rolled
out. I immediately recognized the blond hair and square jaw.
“As you can see, it was a very interesting message,” Isbeth stated blandly.
I couldn’t believe I was staring at the Blood King’s head. A slow smile spread across my
face. I laughed—deep and hard. Gods, Poppy was…damn, she was vicious in the most
magnificent way, and I could not wait to show her just how much I approved of it.
“That’s…gods, that’s my Queen.”
Surprise widened the golden Rev’s eyes, but I laughed until my empty stomach cramped.
Until tears stung my eyes.
“I’m glad you find this entertaining,” Isbeth remarked coolly.
Shoulders shaking, I tipped my head back against the wall. “That is the best godsdamn thing
I’ve seen in a long time, to be honest.”
“I would suggest you need to get out more, but…” She waved dismissively at the chains.
“That was only a part of the message she sent.”
“There was more?”
Isbeth nodded. “There were quite a few threats included with it.”
“I’m sure.” I chuckled, wishing I’d been there to see it. There wasn’t a single part of me that
doubted it had been Poppy’s hand who’d ended Jalara’s life.
The Blood Queen’s nostrils flared. “But there was one warning in particular that interested
me.” She knelt in a slow slide that reminded me of the cold-blooded serpents found in the
foothills of the Mountains of Nyktos. The orange and red, two-headed snakes were just as
venomous as the viper in front of me. “Unlike you and my daughter, Malec and I were never
granted the privilege of the marriage imprint—proof that either of us lived or died. And you
know that not even the bond shared between heartmates can alert the other of death. I have spent
the last several hundred years believing that Malec was dead.”
Every ounce of humor vanished.
“But it appears I have been mistaken. Penellaphe claims that not only is Malec alive, but that
she knows where he is.” The Rev’s head cocked again as he focused on her. Isbeth appeared
unaware. “She said she would kill him, and the moment Penellaphe starts believing in her power,
she very easily could.” Her dark eyes fixed on mine. “Is it true? Does he live?”
Damn, Poppy really wasn’t messing around.
“It’s true,” I said softly. “He lives. For now.”
Her slender body practically hummed. “Where is he, Casteel?”
“Come on, Isbitch,” I whispered, leaning forward as far as I could. “You should know there
is literally nothing you can do that will make me tell you that. Not even if you brought my
brother in here and started cutting off pieces of his skin.”
Isbeth eyed me quietly for several long moments. “You speak the truth.”
I smiled broadly. I did speak the truth. Isbeth thought she could control Poppy through me,
but my stunning, vicious wife had checkmated her ass, and there was no way in hell I would
jeopardize that. Not even for Malik.
“I remember a time when you would’ve done anything for your family,” Isbeth said.
“That was a different time.”
“Now you will do anything for Penellaphe?”
“Anything,” I promised.
“Because of the opportunity of what she represents?” Isbeth suggested. “Is that what truly
consumes you? After all, through my daughter, you usurped your brother and your parents. You
are now a King. And because of her bloodline, she is the Queen. That would make you the
I shook my head, unsurprised. Of course, she would think that what I felt had everything to
do with power.
“You plotted for how long to claim her?” she continued. “Perhaps you never planned to use
her to free Malik. Maybe you don’t even really love her.”
I held her stare. “Whether she ruled over all the lands and seas or was the Queen of nothing
but a pile of ashes and bones, she would—will—always be my Queen. Love is too weak an
emotion to describe how she consumes me and what I feel for her. She is my everything.”
Isbeth was silent for several long moments. “My daughter deserves to have someone care for
her as fiercely as she cares for them.” A hint of faint silver glimmered in the center of Isbeth’s
eyes, though not as vivid as what I saw in Poppy’s. Her gaze dipped to the band around my
throat. “I never wanted this—this war with my daughter.”
“Really?” I laughed dryly. “What did you expect? For her to go along with your plans?”
“And marry your brother?” The light in her eyes intensified as I snarled. “Goodness, the
mere idea of that gets to you, doesn’t it? If I had killed you when I had you the last time, then he
would’ve aided her Ascension.”
It took everything in me not to react—not to attempt to rip her heart from her chest. “You
still wouldn’t have what you wanted. Poppy would’ve figured out the truth about you—about the
Ascended. She already was, even before I came into her life. She never would’ve let you take
Isbeth’s smile returned, though tight-lipped. “Do you think that all I want is Atlantia? As if
that is all my daughter was destined for? Her purpose is far greater. As was Malik’s. As is yours
now. We are now a part of the greater plan, and all of us, together, will restore the realm to what
it was always meant to be. It has already begun.”
I stilled. “What in the hell are you talking about?”
“You’ll see in time.” She rose. “If my daughter truly loves you, this will pain me in ways I
doubt you’ll ever believe.” She turned her head slightly. “Callum?”
The golden Rev stepped around Jalara’s head, careful not to brush against it.
My gaze snapped to him. “I don’t know you, but I’m going to kill you, too, one way or
another. Just thought I should let you know that.”
He hesitated, his head cocking to the side. “If you only knew how many times I’ve heard
that,” he said, a slight smile forming as he withdrew a slender shadowstone blade from the strap
across his chest. “But you’re the first I think might actually succeed.”
The Rev snapped forward then, and my world exploded in pain.
Through the maze of the pines outside the walled city of Massene, I caught sight of a silver and
white wolven pacing ahead.
Arden kept low to the thick bushes cluttering the forest floor and soundlessly moved as he
neared the edges of the Pinelands. The long and wide region of swampy woods bordered both
Massene and Oak Ambler and stretched all the way to the coast of the Kingdom of Solis.
The land was full of insects that smelled of decay and fed from any visible patch of skin
with the hunger of a Craven. There were things to be found slithering along the mossy ground if
one looked long and hard enough. And in the trees, crude circles made of sticks or bones,
vaguely resembling the Royal Crest of the Blood Crown, except that the line was at a slant—
diagonal—as it pierced the center of the circle.
Massene sat nestled against what was known as the Dead Bones Clan territory.
We hadn’t seen any sign of the mysterious group of people who’d once lived where the
Blood Forest now stood and apparently preferred to feed on the flesh of anything living—
including mortals and wolven—but that didn’t mean they weren’t there. From the moment we’d
entered the Pinelands, it’d felt like a hundred pairs of eyes tracked us.
For all those reasons, I was not a fan of the Pinelands. Although, I wasn’t sure if it was the
cannibals or the snakes I disliked the most.
But if we were to seize Oak Ambler, the largest port city this far east, we would have to take
Massene first. And we’d have to do it with only the wolven and a small battalion. They had
arrived ahead of the larger armies led by…his father, the former King of Atlantia, Valyn
Da’Neer. All but one draken traveled with those armies. But I hadn’t summoned the draken,
awakening them from their slumber, only for them to burn through cities and people.
General Aylard, who led the newly arrived battalion, had been most displeased to have
learned that and our plans for Massene. But I was the Queen, and two things were paramount to
Free our King.
And not make war like before, upending lives and leaving cities to become nothing more
than mass burial sites. That wasn’t what he would want. That wasn’t what I wanted.
Massene was larger than both New Haven and Whitebridge, but smaller than Oak Ambler—
and not as well guarded as the port city. But they weren’t helpless.
Still, we couldn’t wait any longer for Valyn and the other generals to arrive. The Ascended
who lived behind those walls had been leading mortals into the woods, feeding from them, and
leaving them to turn. The Craven attacks were becoming more frequent, and each group larger
than the one before. Worse yet, according to our scouts, the city had gone quiet during the day.
But at night…
There were screams.
Then they had killed three of our wolven patrolling these woods the day before, leaving only
their heads on spikes at the Pompay border. I knew their names—would never forget them.
Roald. Krieg. Kyley.
And I could no longer wait.
Twenty-three days had passed since he’d given himself over to a monster who’d made him
feel like a thing. Since I’d last seen him. Saw his golden eyes heat. Witnessed the dimple form
first in his right cheek and then his left. Felt the touch of his flesh against mine or heard his
voice. Twenty-three days.
The armored plates on my chest and shoulders tightened as I leaned forward on Setti,
gaining Naill’s attention as the Atlantian rode to my left. I kept my grip on the warhorse’s reins
firm, just as…he had taught me. I opened my senses, connecting with Arden.
A tangy, almost bitter taste filled my mouth. Anguish. And something acidic—anger.
“What is it?”
“I’m not sure.” I glanced to my right. Shadows had gathered across Kieran Contou’s beigebrown features, the once-bonded wolven and now Advisor to the Crown. “But he’s upset.”
Arden stopped the restless patrol as we approached, his vibrant blue gaze swinging to me.
He whined softly, the sound tearing at my heart. Arden’s unique imprint reminded me of the
salty sea, but I didn’t try to speak to him through the Primal notam since the wolven wasn’t yet
comfortable communicating that way. “What’s wrong?”
He nodded his large silver-and-white-streaked head toward the Rise of Massene and then
turned, prowling through the trees.
Kieran held up a closed fist, halting those behind us as he and Naill moved ahead,
navigating the heavily clustered pines. I waited, reaching for the pouch secured to my hip. The
small wooden horse Malik had carved for…his sixth birthday pressed against the marriage
imprint on my palm.
The once-heir to the Atlantian throne. He had been taken captive in the process of freeing
his brother. And both of them had been betrayed by the wolven he’d once loved.
The sadness I’d felt at learning that Shea had done such a thing was now overshadowed by
the grief and anger that Malik had done the same. I tried not to let the anger grow. Malik had
been held captive for a century. Only the gods knew what had been done to him or what he’d had
to do to survive. That didn’t excuse his betrayal, though. Didn’t lessen the blow it dealt. But he
was also a victim.
Make his death as quick and painless as possible.
What Valyn Da’Neer had asked of me before I left Atlantia sat heavily on my heart. It was a
weight I would bear. A father shouldn’t have to strike down his own son. I hoped it didn’t come
to that, but I also couldn’t see how it wouldn’t.
Kieran stopped, his emotions sudden and intense, slamming into me in bitter waves
Rattled by his reaction, my stomach knotted with dread. “What is it?” I asked, seeing that
Arden had stopped once more.
“Dear gods,” Naill uttered, jerking back on his saddle at whatever he saw, his deep brown
skin taking on a grayish pallor. His horror was so potent it scratched against my shields like
When there was no answer, trepidation grew, encompassing my entire being. I eased Setti
forward between Kieran and Naill, to where the Massene Rise gates were visible through the
At first, I couldn’t make sense of what I saw—the cross-like shapes hanging from the
Dozens of them.
My breathing turned ragged. Eather thrummed in my tightening chest. Bile crept up my
throat. I jerked back. Before I lost my balance and toppled from the saddle, Naill’s arm snapped
out, catching my shoulder.
Those shapes were…
Men and women stripped bare, impaled at the wrists and feet to Massene’s iron and
limestone gates, their bodies displayed for any to look upon—
Dizziness rushed me. Their faces weren’t bare. They were all shrouded in the same veil I
had been forced to wear, held in place by gold chains gleaming dully in the moonlight.
A storm of rage replaced the disbelief as Setti’s reins slipped from my fingers. Eather, the
Primal essence of the gods that flowed through all the many different bloodlines, throbbed in my
chest. Far stronger in me because what was inside me came from Nyktos, the King of Gods. The
essence merged with icy-hot fury as I stared at the bodies, my chest heaving with too-shallow,
too-quick breaths. A thin metallic taste coated the inside of my mouth as I looked behind the
horror on the gate, to the tops of the distant spiral towers, each a stained ivory against the rapidly
Above, the pines began trembling, showering us with thin needles. And that anger, the
horror at what I saw, built and built until the corners of my vision turned silver.
My gaze shifted to those who walked the battlements of the Rise, on either side of the gate
where the bodies of fellow mortals were so cruelly displayed, and what filled my mouth, clogged
my throat, came from within me. It was shadowy and smoky and a little sweet, rolling across my
tongue, and it came from a place deep inside me. This cold, aching hollowness that had woken in
the last twenty-three days.
It tasted like the promise of retribution.
I tasted death as I watched the Rise Guards stop mere feet from the bodies to speak to one
another, laughing at something that was said. My gaze narrowed on them as the essence pulsed
in my chest, and my will rose. A sharp gust of wind, colder than a winter’s morning, rolled
across the Rise, lifting the hems of the veils and whipping around the guards on the wall, sending
several sliding back toward the edge.
They stopped laughing then, and I knew the smiles I couldn’t see faded.
“Poppy.” Kieran leaned from his saddle, clasping the nape of my neck beneath the thick
braid. “Calm. You need to find calm. If you do something now before we know exactly how
many are on the Rise, it will alert them to our presence. We must wait.”
I wasn’t sure I wanted to calm, but Kieran was right. If we wanted to take Massene with
minimal loss of life—those innocents who lived inside the walls and were routinely turned into
Craven and hung from the gates—I needed to get control of my emotions and abilities.
And I could.
If I wanted to.
In the past weeks, I’d spent a lot of time on the Primal notam, working with the wolven to
see how much distance we could put between us and still be able to communicate. Other than
Kieran, I’d had the most success with Delano, whom I could reach deep within the Wastelands
through the notam. But I’d also focused on harnessing the eather so that what I pictured in my
mind became my will and was carried out by the energy instantaneously.
So I could fight like a god.
Fisting my hands, I willed the eather away. It took every part of my being to stop myself
from allowing the promise of death to flow out from me.
“You okay?” Kieran asked.
“No.” I swallowed. “But I’m in control.” I looked at Naill. “Are you okay?”
The Atlantian shook his head. “I can’t understand how anyone is capable of doing such a
“Neither can I.” Kieran looked past me to Naill as Arden backed away from the tree line. “I
think it’s good that we can’t.”
I forced my attention to the battlements along the top of the wall. I couldn’t look too long at
the bodies. I couldn’t allow myself to really think about them. Just like I couldn’t allow myself to
think about what he was going through—what was being done to him.
A featherlight brush against my thoughts came, followed by the springy-fresh imprint of
Delano’s mind. The wolven was scouting the length of the Rise to gain information on exactly
how many were guarding it. Meyaah Liessa?
I swallowed a sigh at the old Atlantian phrase that roughly translated to my Queen. The
wolven knew they didn’t have to refer to me as such, but many still did. However, where Delano
did it out of what he felt was a show of respect, Kieran often called me that to simply annoy me.
I followed the imprint back to Delano. Yes?
There are twenty at the northern gates. A beat of silence passed. And…
His grief tainted the bond. I briefly closed my eyes. Mortals on the gate.
The essence throbbed. How many?
Two dozen, he answered, and violent energy pressed against my skin. Emil is confident he
can take them out quickly, he said, referencing the often-irreverent Elemental Atlantian.
My eyes opened. Massene only had two gates—one to the north, and this one, which faced
the east. “Delano says there are twenty on the northern gates,” I shared. “Emil believes he can
“He can,” Kieran confirmed. “He’s as good with a crossbow as you are.”
I met his stare. “Then it’s time.”
Holding my gaze, he nodded. The three of us lifted the hoods on our cloaks, hiding the
armor Naill and I wore.
“I really wish you had some sort of armor,” I told Kieran.
“Armor would make it more difficult for me if I need to shift,” he stated. “And at the end of
the day, no armor is a hundred percent effective. There are weak spots—places those men on the
Rise know to exploit.”
“Thanks for reminding me,” Naill muttered as we quietly rode toward the edge of the pines.
Kieran smirked. “That’s what I’m here for.”
I shook my head as I searched for Delano’s imprint, not allowing myself to think of the lives
that my order would soon end. Take them out.
Delano quickly responded. Gladly, meyaah Liessa. We will soon join you at the east gate.
“Be ready,” I said out loud as I turned my focus to those on the Rise before us.
I lifted my stare to the moonlight-drenched battlement. Three dozen individuals who
probably had no choice but to join the Rise Guard stood there. There was little opportunity for
most in Solis, especially if they weren’t born into families steeped in the power and privilege
given by the Ascended. Those who lived so far from the capital. Much like most eastern locales,
with the exception of Oak Ambler, Massene wasn’t a glittering and wealthy city, mainly
consisting of farmers who tended crops that fed most of Solis.
But those who laughed and chatted as if those impaled to that gate did not affect them? That
was a whole different breed of apathy and just as cold and empty as an Ascended.
Just like with Delano, I didn’t think of the lives about to be cut short by my will.
Vikter had taught me that ages ago. That you could never consider the life of another when
they held a sword pointed at your throat.
There was no sword at my throat now, but there were things much worse held to the throats
of those inside the Rise.
I summoned the eather, and it responded at once, rushing to the surface of my skin. Silver
tinted my vision as Kieran and Naill lifted crossbows, each outfitted with three arrows.
“I’ll take those farther down the Rise,” Kieran said.
“I’ll get those to the left,” Naill confirmed.
Which left the dozen by the gates. The eather swirled inside me, pouring into my blood,
somehow hot and icy at the same time. It flooded that hollow place inside me as every ounce of
my being focused on those by the gate.
By the poor, veiled mortals.
My will left me at the exact moment the image of what I wanted filled my mind. The snap of
their necks, one after another in quick succession, joined the snap of released arrows. There was
no time for any of them to scream, to alert those who may be near. Kieran and Naill quickly
reloaded, taking out the others before the ones whose necks I’d broken even began to fall.
But they joined those struck by arrows, falling forward into the nothingness. I flinched at the
sound of their bodies hitting the ground.
We rode out, crossing the clearing as another cloaked figure joined me on horseback,
coming from the left of the Rise. A snow-white wolven followed Emil, keeping close to the wall
as I quickly dismounted.
“Those sons of bitches,” Emil growled, head tilted back as he looked up at the gates. “The
“I know.” Kieran followed me as I went to the chain securing the gate.
Anger brimmed from Emil as I clasped the cool chains.
Arden stirred restlessly near the horses’ hooves as Emil quickly dismounted, joining me.
Naill pulled them forward as Delano brushed against my legs. I took them in my hand and closed
my eyes. I’d discovered that the eather could be used in the same manner as draken fire. While it
would not kill a Revenant—or have any effect on them, really—it could melt iron. Not in large
quantities, but enough.
“We need to hurry,” Kieran said quietly. “Dawn is approaching.”
I nodded as a silvery aura flared around my hands, rippling over the chain while Emil peered
in through the gate, searching for signs of other guards. I frowned as the glow pulsed, and pieces
of the metal appeared to darken—thicken almost as if it were tendrils of shadow. Blinking, the
wisps disappeared. Or were never there. The light was not the greatest, and even though I was a
god, my eyesight and hearing remained annoyingly mortal.
The chain fell apart.
“Nifty talent,” Naill remarked.
I sent him a brief smile as he and Emil quickly and quietly moved the gate forward.
The Pinelands came alive as the gate opened, twigs snapping as the wolven prowled forward
in a sleek wave of several dozen, led by Kieran’s sister.
Vonetta was the same fawn color as Kieran, not nearly as large as him when in wolven form,
but no less fierce. Our gazes briefly met as I found her imprint—white oak and vanilla. Be safe, I
Always, came the quick reply as someone closed the gates behind us.
Turning from her, I fixed my gaze on the silent, stone, one-story barracks several yards back
from the Rise. Beyond them and the fields of crops, the outline of small, squat buildings could be
seen against Cauldra Manor and the looming horizon that was already becoming a lighter blue.
Opting for the short sword instead of the wolven dagger, I withdrew it from where it was
secured to my back, handle tilted downward, as we raced forward under the darkness of the pines
lining the wide, cobblestone road. We halted before the barracks, the wolven crouching low to
I pressed into the scratchy bark of a pine as I peered into the windows of the gas-lamp-lit
barracks. A few people moved about inside. It was only a matter of time before they took note of
the fact that no one was on the Rise.
Kieran joined me, his hand landing on the tree above mine. “We probably have around
twenty minutes before dawn arrives,” he said. “The Ascended should already be retiring for the
I nodded. There were no Temples in Massene, or a Radiant Row like in Masadonia, where
the wealthy mortals lived side by side with the Ascended. In Massene, all the vamprys lived
within Cauldra Manor.
“Remember,” I said, tightening my grip on the sword. “We harm no mortal who lowers their
weapon. We harm no Ascended who surrenders.”
There were murmurs and soft snarls of agreement. Kieran turned to Naill and nodded. The
Atlantian slipped forward and then moved with blinding speed, reaching the side of the barracks.
He dragged the edge of his sword along the building, creating an ear-aching grinding sound
against the stone.
“Well,” Emil drawled. “That’s one way of doing it.”
A door flung open, and a guard stepped out, blade in hand. His head whipped from side to
side, but Naill had already disappeared into the pines.
“Who goes there?” the guard demanded as several more spilled out from the barracks. The
man squinted into the darkness. “Who’s out here?”
I pulled away from the pine.
“Does it really have to be you?” Kieran questioned in a low voice.
“The actual answer is no.”
“No, it’s not.” I eased past him.
Kieran sighed but made no move to stop me. “One of these days, you will realize you’re a
Queen,” he hissed.
“Not likely,” Emil remarked.
I walked out of the pines, my senses open. The men turned to me, not having realized yet
that no one was on the Rise.
“Who I am is not important,” I said, feeling the ripple of surprise that came with their
realization that a female stood before them. “What is, is that your city has been breached, and
you’re surrounded. We are not here to take from you. We’re here to end the Blood Crown. Lay
down your weapons, and you will not be harmed.”
“And if we don’t lay down our swords to some Atlantian bitch?” the man demanded, and
tart unease and anxiety radiated from a few of the men behind him. “What then?”
My brows rose. These guards were aware that a small portion of the Atlantian armies had
been camped out at the edges of Pompay. They weren’t, however, aware that a draken was
Or that the Atlantian Queen was also with the encampment and currently the bitch they were
The words burned to say, but I spoke them. “You die.”
“Is that so?” The man laughed, and I stifled the rising disappointment, reminding myself that
many mortals had no idea who they served. Who the real enemy was. “Am I or my men
supposed to be afraid of a pitiful army that sends overgrown dogs and bitches to fight their
battles?” He looked over his shoulder. “Looks like we’ll have another head to put on the pike.”
He faced me. “But first, we’ll make real good use of that mouth and whatever is under that cloak,
won’t we, boys?”
There were a few rough laughs, but that tartness increased from others.
I tilted my head. “This is your last chance. Lay down your swords and surrender.”
The silly mortal swaggered forward. “How about you lay down on your back and spread
Hot anger pressed against my back as I turned my gaze to him. “No, thank you.”
“Wasn’t really asking.” He took one more step. That was as far as he made it.
Vonetta sprang out of the darkness, landing on the guard. His shout ended with a vicious
clamp of her jaws on his throat as she took him down.
Another charged forward, raising his sword at Vonetta as she dragged the foul-mouthed man
across the ground. I shot forward, catching his arm as I thrust my blade deep into his belly. Blue
eyes set in a far-too-young face widened as I yanked the sword back out.
“Sorry,” I murmured, shoving him away.
Several of the guards lurched toward Vonetta and me, only to realize that we were not who
they should be worried about—a moment too late.
The wolven came out of the pines, swarming the guards in a matter of seconds. The crunch
of bone and sharp, too-short screams echoed in my head as Kieran drew his blade across a
“When will mortals stop referring to us as overgrown dogs?” he asked, pushing the fallen
guard aside. “Do they not know the difference between a dog and a wolf?”
“I’m going to say no.” Emil stalked past the one who’d gone at Vonetta, spitting on the dead
man. He looked up at me. “What? He was going to knife Netta in the back. I’m not about that.”
I couldn’t really argue against that as I turned to the soldiers near the back, the ones I’d felt
the unease from. Five of them. Their swords lay at their feet. The sickly bitterness of fear coated
my skin as Delano stalked forward, blood-streaked teeth bared. The stench of urine hit the air.
“W-we surrender,” one chattered, shaking.
“Delano,” I called softly, and the wolven halted, growling at the men. “How many Ascended
“There are t-ten,” the man answered, his skin as pale as the waning moonlight.
“Would they be returning to Cauldra Manor?” Kieran asked, coming to stand beside me.
“They should already be there,” another said. “They’ll be under guard. They have been since
the Duke became aware of your encampment.”
I glanced at Naill, who led Setti and the other horses forward. “Did all of them take part in
what was done to those on the gates?”
The third one—an older man than most on the Rise, in his third or fourth decade of life—
said, “None of them resisted Duke Silvan when he gave the orders.”
“Who were those they chose to kill?” Kieran asked.
Another wave of disappointment swelled, weighing heavily on my chest. I wanted to—no, I
needed to—believe that there were other Ascended like…like Ian, my brother, even if we shared
no blood. There had to be.
“They did it at will,” the first guard, the one who’d spoken his surrender, shared. He looked
close to vomiting. “They just picked people out. Young. Old. Didn’t matter. Ain’t no one who
was causing trouble. No one causes trouble.”
“The same with the others,” another younger guard said. “Those, they led out beyond the
Kieran focused on the mortal, his jaw clenched. “You know what was done to them?”
“I do,” the eldest of them said after the others spoke. “They led them out there. Fed from
them. Left them to turn. No one believed me when I said that was what happened.” He jerked his
chin at the ones beside him. “They said I was crazy, but I know what I saw. I just didn’t think…”
His gaze went to the gates. “I thought maybe I was crazy.”
He just hadn’t considered what all the Ascended were capable of.
“You were right,” Kieran replied. “If it brings you any relief to know that.”
Sensing that the knowledge did very little, I turned to Naill, sheathing my sword. “Make
sure they remain in the barracks. Unharmed.” I gestured at Arden. “Stay with Naill.”
Naill nodded as he handed Setti’s reins to me. Gripping the straps on the saddle, I hoisted
myself up. The others followed suit.
“Did you speak the truth?” the eldest asked, stopping as we guided the horses out from the
barracks. “That you’re not here to take from us?”
“I did.” My grip firmed on Setti’s reins. “We’re not here to take. We’re here to end the
Dipping under a guard’s outstretched arm, the edges of the cloak fluttered around my legs as I
spun, thrusting the sword deep into the man’s back. I twisted sharply, ducking as someone threw
a knife in my general direction. Delano leapt over me, digging into the guard with his claws and
teeth as I popped up.
None of the guards outside of Cauldra surrendered.
The pinkish rays of dawn streaked across the sky as I whirled, grunting and kicking out,
pushing a guard back. He fell into Vonetta’s path. Stalking toward the barred doors, I brought the
sword down, clanging off another as Emil came up behind him, dragging his blade across the
man’s throat. Hot blood sprayed the air. Kieran jabbed out with a dagger up under the chin of
another guard, clearing the path before me.
There was so much death here. Bodies scattered about the bare courtyard as blood pooled on
the dull ivory steps and splattered the exterior walls of the manor. Summoning the Primal
essence as I lifted a hand, bright silvery light funneled down my arm and sparked from my
fingers. The eather arced across the space, slamming into the doors. Wood splintered and gave
way, exploding into fine shards.
The receiving hall, adorned with crimson banners and bearing the Blood Crown’s crest
instead of the white-and-gold that hung in Masadonia, was empty.
“Underground,” Kieran said, stalking to our right. Blood dotted his cheeks. “They would’ve
“And you know how to get there?” I caught up to him, reaching out with my senses to
ensure that he wasn’t hurt.
“Cauldra appears like New Haven.” He dragged his hand over his face, wiping away the
blood that wasn’t his. “They’ll have chambers underground, near the cells.”
It was almost impossible not to think of the cells under New Haven that I’d spent time in.
But Kieran was right as he found the entrance along the hall on the right.
He kicked in the door, revealing a narrow, torch-lit stairwell. He sent me a wild grin that
caused my breath to catch because it reminded me of…of him. “What did I say?”
My brows pinched as Delano and Vonetta streaked past us, joined by a blackish-gray
wolven I recognized as Sage. They entered the stairwell before us. “Why do they do that?”
“Because you’re the Queen.” Kieran entered.
“You keep telling her that.” Emil fell into step behind me. “And you keep reminding her…”
I rolled my eyes as we hurried down the musty-scented stairs that stroked a memory that
refused to wiggle free. “I may be the Queen, but I’m also a god, and therefore harder to kill than
any of you. I should go first,” I told him. To be honest, none of us had any idea what would kill
me, but we did know that I was basically immortal.
I felt a skip in my chest. I would outlive everyone in this manor, some who had become
people I cared about. Those I called friends. I would outlive Tawny—who would eventually
wake from the injury the shadowstone blade had caused. I couldn’t allow myself to believe
anything else, even though I knew, deep down, that it couldn’t be good for someone to sleep that
I would outlive Kieran and…and even him.
Gods, why was I even thinking about that right now? Don’t borrow tomorrow’s problems.
That was what he’d said once.
I really needed to learn how to follow that advice.
“Harder to kill doesn’t mean impossible to kill,” Kieran shot over his shoulder.
“Says the one not in armor,” I snapped back.
He let out a rough laugh, but the sound was lost in the sudden, shrill shriek that caused tiny
bumps to spread across my skin.
“Craven,” I whispered as we rounded the curve in the stairwell, and Kieran stepped into a
faintly lit hall. He stopped directly in front of me, and I bounced off him.
So did I.
“Good gods,” Emil murmured.
The cells were full of Craven. They pressed against the bars, arms outstretched, and lips
peeled back, revealing their four jagged fangs. Some were fresh, their skin only now taking on
the ghastly shade of death. Others were older, those with sunken cheeks, torn lips, and sagging
“Why in the hell would they have Craven in here?” Emil asked over the pained, hungry
“They probably let them out from time to time to terrorize the people,” I said numbly. “The
Ascended would blame the Atlantians. Saying they turned the Craven. But they’d also blame the
people, claiming they angered the gods somehow and this was their punishment. That the gods
let the Atlantians do this. Then the Ascended would say they spoke to the gods on their behalf,
assuaging their anger.”
“People believed that?” Emil eased past several of the bloodstained hands.
“It’s all they’ve ever been allowed to believe,” I told him, looking away from the Craven.
The sounds of pawing and scratching led us past the cells—beyond what we’d have to deal
with later—and down another hall, through crates of wine and ale. We found the wolven just as
they tore through the double wooden doors at the end.
A vampry came flying out of the chamber, a stream of sable hair and fangs bared—
Delano took her down, latching onto the vampry’s throat as he dug into her chest with his
front paws, tearing through clothing and skin.
I turned away, but there was nowhere to look as the two female wolven did the same with
two more that attacked. And then there were only pieces left.
“That looks like it would give them an upset stomach,” I said.
“I’m trying not to think about that,” Emil murmured, fixing his stare on the Ascended who
stood within the chamber, frozen with their weapons all but forgotten in their hands. “I bet
they’re trying not to think of that either.”
“Any of you want to meet the same fate?” Kieran asked, extending his sword to the chunks
on the floor.
There was no answer from within, but as more wolven filled the hall behind us, the
Ascended dropped their weapons.
“We surrender,” a male bit out, the last to throw his sword aside.
“Nice of you to do that,” Kieran drawled as he kicked the swords out of their reach.
And it was. Nice of them. But it was also too late. There would be no second chances given
to any Ascended who’d taken part in what had been done to those on their gates and what was
happening in this city.
I did my level best not to step on what remained of the Ascended on the floor as I entered
the chamber, flanked closely by Vonetta and Delano. I sheathed the sword and lowered my hood.
“Congratulations,” the same male spoke. “You took Massene. But you will not take Solis.”
The moment he opened his mouth, I knew this had to be Duke Silvan. It was the air of selfassured superiority. He was an icy blond, tall and well-formed in his fine satin shirt and
breeches. He was attractive. After all, very few things in Solis were valued higher than beauty.
When he looked upon me, he saw the scars, and that was all he saw.
And all I saw was the blood that stained their expensive clothing. It marked each tailored
shirt and bodice.
I stopped in front of the Duke, staring into pitch-black eyes that reminded me of her. The
Blood Queen. My mother. Hers weren’t this dark, pitiless, empty, and cold. But she had the same
eerie spark of light—though much deeper—that didn’t require light to hit their faces at the right
angle to see. It wasn’t until that very moment that I realized the trace of light in their eyes was a
glimmer of eather.
It made sense for them to carry a trace. The blood of an Atlantian was used to Ascend them,
and all Atlantians carried eather in their blood. It was how the Ascended achieved their near
immortality and strength. Their speed and ability to heal.
“Do any Ascended remain?”
Duke Silvan’s sneer was a work of art. “Fuck off.”
Beside me, Kieran’s sigh was so impressive, I would’ve thought it rattled the walls.
“I’ll ask one more time,” I said, counting quickly. There were ten. Or parts of ten, anyway,
but I wanted to be sure that was all of them. “Are there any more?”
A long moment passed, and then the Duke said, “You will still kill us, no matter how I
“I would’ve given you a chance.”
The Duke’s eyes narrowed. “For what?”
“To live without taking from mortals,” I said. “To live among Atlantians.”
He stared at me for a moment and then laughed. “You really think that’s possible?” Another
laugh parted his pale lips. “I know who you are. I’d recognize that face anywhere.”
Kieran stepped forward.
I held up a hand, stopping him.
The Duke smirked. “You haven’t been gone long enough to forget how mortals are, Maiden.
How they are so damn gullible. How much they fear. What they will do to protect their families.
What they will believe to protect themselves. You really think they will simply accept the
I said nothing.
Emboldened, he stepped closer. “And you think the Ascended will do…what? Trust that you
will allow us to live if we do whatever it is you want?”
“You trusted the Blood Queen,” I said. “And her name isn’t even Ileana. Nor is she an
Several sharp inhales sounded, but the Duke showed no sign that what I’d said was news to
“So,” I continued, “I imagine anything is possible. But as I said, I would’ve given you
another chance. You sealed your fate when you ordered those people to be impaled on your
His nostrils flared. “The veils were a lovely touch, weren’t they?”
“Very lovely,” I replied as Delano emitted a low growl.
“We didn’t—” one of the other Ascended started, a male with deep brown hair.
“Shut up,” the Duke hissed. “You will die. I will die. All of us will.”
His head jerked back to me.
“What matters is how you die,” I stated. “I don’t know if bloodstone is a painful death. I’ve
seen it up close and personal, and it appears to be so. I’m thinking if I sever the spine, there
would only be a second of pain.”
The Duke swallowed as his smirk faded.
“But what was far more painful was how the ones in pieces died.” I paused, watching the
corners of his mouth tighten. “Answer my question, and your death will be quick. Don’t? I will
make sure you feel as if it lasts a lifetime. That’s up to you.”
He stared, and I practically saw the wheels turning in his mind, searching for a way out of
“It’s a terrible thing, isn’t it?” I stepped closer to him, and the essence pulsed in my chest.
“To know that death is finally coming for you. To see it right before you. To be in the same
chamber with it, for seconds, minutes, longer, and know that you can do nothing to prevent it.”
My voice lowered, became softer and colder…and smoky. “Not a single thing. It’s horrifying, the
inevitability of it. The knowledge that if you still have a soul, it is surely bound for only one
place. Deep down, you must be so afraid.”
A small, visible shudder coursed through him.
“Just like those mortals you led outside the Rise, tore into, fed off, and left to turn. Just like
those in the cells and those on the gates.” I searched his pale features. “They must have been so
terrified to learn that death had come for them at the hands of those they believed protected
He swallowed once more. “There are no more Ascended. There never has been. No one
wants to rule at the edge of the realm.” His chest rose with a deep breath. “I know who you are. I
know what you are. It’s why you’re still standing, alive to this day. It’s not because you’re a
god,” he said, his lip curling. “It’s because of the blood that courses through your veins.”
My spine stiffened. “If you say it’s because of who my mother is, I will not make your death
The Duke laughed, but the sound was as cold and harsh as that space inside me. “You think
you’re a great liberator, don’t you? Come to free the mortals from the Blood Crown. Free your
Everything in me stilled.
“Kill the Queen—your mother—and take these lands in the name of Atlantia?” The spark of
eather was in his eyes then. The corner of his lips curved up. “You will do no such thing. You
will win no war. All you will accomplish is terror. All you will do is spill so much blood that the
streets flood with it, and the kingdoms will drown in rivers of crimson. All you will liberate is
death. All that you and those who follow will find here is death. And if your love is lucky
enough, he will be dead before he sees what’s become of—”
Unsheathing my bloodstone dagger, I thrust it into his chest, piercing his heart and stopping
the poisonous words before they could penetrate too deeply. And he felt it—the first splintering
of his being, the first tearing of his skin and bone. And I, for one, was grateful for that.
His soulless eyes widened in surprise as fine lines appeared in the pale skin of his cheeks.
The cracks deepened into a web of fractures that spread down his throat and under the collar of
the tailored satin shirt he wore. I held his stare as the tiny ember of eather went out of his black
And, only then, for the first time in twenty-three days, did I feel nothing at all.
Nearly a month had passed, and the constant ache throbbed so intensely it hurt. I clamped
my jaw shut against the scream birthed from the cavern that had become my heart, one of
frustration and ever-present helplessness and guilt. Because if I had controlled myself, if I hadn’t
There were so many ifs. So many ways I could’ve handled things differently. But I hadn’t,
and that was one of the reasons he wasn’t here.
The fluffy and buttery mound of eggs and strips of fried meat before me lost their appeal as
the scream built in my throat, pressing against my sealed lips. A bone-deep sense of desperation
rose and swiftly gave way to potent fury. The center of my chest hummed, the ancient power
pulsing with barely leashed rage.
The fork I held trembled. Pressure seized my chest, closing off my throat as eather pulsed
and swelled, pushing against my skin. If I screamed, if I gave in to all the pain and rage, the
sound of desperation and anguish would become wrath and fury. The scream choking me, the
power building inside me, tasted of death.
And a small part of me wanted to let it out.
Fingers several shades deeper than mine closed over my hand, stilling the tremor. The touch,
something that had once been so forbidden, jolted me from the dark path, as did the faint charge
of energy that passed between us. Slowly, my left hand was turned so the shimmery golden swirl
of the marriage imprint was visible.
Proof that he and I were still together, even if separated.
Proof that he still lived.
My gaze rose, colliding with the striking winter-blue eyes of a wolven.
Concern was evident in the sharp angles of Kieran’s handsome face and the tension
bracketing his mouth. He looked tired, and he had to be. He hadn’t been sleeping well because I
had hardly been sleeping.
The fork trembled again—no, it wasn’t just the fork or my arm that shook. The dishes
vibrated, as did the table. Down the hall, the hanging white-and-gold Atlantian banners that had
replaced the ones belonging to the Blood Crown shuddered.
Kieran’s gaze flicked past the empty chairs in the Cauldra banquet hall, to where the lighthaired Atlantian, General Aylard, stood guard at the pillared opening.
I sensed the same thing now as I had when he first introduced himself. Distrust brimmed
beneath his impassive features, tasting of vinegar. It wasn’t a surprising emotion. Many of the
older Atlantians were cautious of me, either because I had been raised by their enemies, the
Ascended, or because I was many things they hadn’t expected.
A scarred Maiden.
An unwanted Princess who’d become their Queen.
I couldn’t exactly hold their wariness against any of them, especially when I made the entire
“You’re starting to glow,” Kieran warned in a whisper that I could barely hear, sliding his
I looked down at my palm. A faint silver sheen emanated from my skin.
Well, that explained why the general now stared.
Lowering the fork to the plate, I steadied my breathing. I forced my mind past the
suffocating burst of pain that always accompanied thoughts of him as I slipped my hand under
the table to the small pouch secured to my hip and reached for the glass of mulled wine with the
other. I washed away the sour taste with spice as Aylard turned slowly, his gloved grip remaining
on his sheathed sword. The white mantle draped over his shoulders settled, drawing my gaze to
the gold-embossed Atlantian Crest. The same crest now lining the walls of Cauldra—a sun and
its rays, a sword and arrow at the center, crossed diagonally so both lengths were equal. Briefly
closing my eyes, I finished off the wine.
“Is that all you’re going to eat?” Kieran asked after a few moments.
I placed the empty glass on the table as I glanced at the open window. Broken pieces of a
foundation jutted up from bushy yellow wildflowers. Massene was not well kept. “I ate.”
“You need to eat more.” He rested his elbows on the table.
My eyes narrowed on him. “And you don’t need to be concerned about what I’m eating.”
“I wouldn’t have to be if you didn’t leave bacon untouched on your plate—something I
never thought I’d see.”
I lifted my brows. “It sounds like you’re suggesting I ate too much bacon before.”
“Nice try at deflecting. But, ultimately, a failure,” Kieran replied. “I’m doing what you and
Cas asked of me. I’m advising you.”
The breath I took stung. His name hurt. I didn’t like to think it, let alone say it. “I’m
confident that my daily food intake was not what either of us was thinking when we asked you to
be our advisor.”
“Neither was I. But here we are.” Kieran leaned in so only a handful of inches separated us.
“You’re barely eating. You’re barely sleeping. And what just occurred? The glowing? The
making the entire building shake? You seemed completely unaware of it, and it’s happening
more often, Poppy.”
There wasn’t an ounce of censure in his tone, only concern, but I still squirmed because it
was true. The essence of the gods was coming to the surface when I wasn’t using it to take away
pain or heal. It happened when I felt something too strongly—when the sorrow and rage made
my skin feel too tight, pushing at the fragile seams that held me together.
I needed to keep it together. I needed control. I couldn’t lose it. Not when the Kingdoms of
Atlantia and Solis were counting on me. Not when he needed me. “I’ll try harder to control it,” I
“This isn’t about you controlling your abilities.” Kieran’s brows knitted. “It’s about letting
yourself not be okay. You’re strong, Poppy. We—”
“I know.” I stopped him as memories of nearly the same words whispered through me,
spoken from other lips that had blazed a heated path along every inch of my skin.
You don’t have to always be strong with me.
I snapped forward, picking up a slice of bacon. I shoved half of it into my mouth, nearly
choking myself. “Happy?” I asked, a piece plopping to the plate.
Kieran stared. “Not exactly.”
“Sounds like that’s your problem.” I chewed, barely tasting the crispy meat.
A huff that sounded like a laugh drew my attention to the large, purplish-black draken
resting near the pillared entryway of the banquet hall. Smooth, black horns started in the middle
of the flattened bridge of his nose and ran up over the center of his diamond-shaped head. The
first couple of horns were small so as not to obstruct his vision, but as they traveled up his head,
they lengthened into sharpened points that jutted out from thick frills.
Every time I looked at Reaver, it was a shock. I didn’t think I’d ever get used to seeing such
a magnificent, frightful, and beautiful being.
Twenty-three draken had awakened. The youngest, three in total, remained at Spessa’s End
to stand guard there, as decided by the draken. Out of the twenty that traveled with the armies,
none were as large as Reaver. Instead, they were about the size of Setti, their scales not nearly as
thick as Reaver’s and more susceptible to the sharp edge of an arrow. But they would still make
quick work of any army.
The draken watched us, and I wondered what he was thinking and feeling. Whenever I
attempted to get a read on him or any of the others while around them, I felt nothing. It wasn’t
like the cold hollowness of an Ascended. Either Reaver and the other draken were shielding their
emotions from me, or I simply couldn’t read them.
“Would you like some?” I offered to Reaver, lifting the plate. I hadn’t seen him eat, which
drummed up a wee bit of concern over exactly what he was eating when he took flight,
disappearing from view.
I really hoped it wasn’t people…or cute animals.
But I had no way of knowing. Only Aurelia, one of only two female draken who had
awakened, had been in her mortal form long enough for me to learn the names of about half of
the two-dozen draken who had left Iliseeum. She’d said that my will was theirs before we left
Atlantia and parted ways.
The whole, my-will-was-theirs thing hadn’t exactly been helpful, but I’d learned that it was
somewhat like the Primal notam. Reaver seemed to inherently know what I wanted. Like when
we left to take Massene, and he’d already hunkered down to sleep for the night. I guessed it was
more like the Primal essence in terms of how it responded to what I willed.
Reaver shook his spiked head at my offer of bacon.
“How did he even get in here without bringing the entire building down?” The skin between
Kieran’s brows creased.
“Carefully,” I said as the draken’s attention drifted to the wolven. The vertical pupils
constricted as his blue eyes narrowed once more. I suspected that the draken would take another
swipe at Kieran the next chance he got.
“Shouldn’t Vonetta and the others be returning today?” I asked, directing Kieran’s attention
from the draken.
“Any minute now.” Picking up his glass, he added dryly, “As you already know.”
I did, but he was no longer engaged in an epic stare-down with Reaver, which would surely
escalate. However, anxiety suddenly took flight like a large silver hawk, and it had nothing to do
with the probability of Kieran and Reaver maiming or murdering each other.
It had everything to do with the plans regarding Oak Ambler and Solis. Things I would need
to convince the Atlantian generals to support, even though I hadn’t handled the most intricate
part of those plans myself.
“I have this feeling,” Kieran began, “that you’re still annoyed I advised you against going
I frowned. “Sometimes, I do wonder if you can read minds.”
His full mouth twisted into a smirk as he tapped one finger off his temple. “I just have a
knack for knowing things.”
“Uh-huh.” So did his father, Jasper, but Kieran also frequently seemed to know where my
thoughts went. Which, admittedly, was as annoying to me as me reading his emotions was to
him. “I wasn’t actively annoyed by you advising me against going into Oak Ambler, but I am
“Great,” he muttered.
I sent him a glare. “Why is it when a Prince or a King decides to place themselves in danger
or chooses to lead armies into war, it’s not an issue? But when a Queen wishes to do the same, it
suddenly becomes a thing they must be advised against? Sounds a bit…sexist.”
Kieran placed his glass down. “It’s not a thing. I tried to stop Cas from doing idiotic,
incredibly dangerous acts so many times, it was practically a full-time responsibility.”
A sharp slice of pain cut through my chest. I focused on the unopened bottles of wine the
Atlantian Lord who had captained the ship we’d taken to Oak Ambler had shipped in. Perry had
ferried in many much-needed supplies. Most importantly, the type of wine Kieran had said Valyn
What better way to get someone to agree to what you wanted than to get them liquored up?
“Namely you,” Kieran continued, intruding on my thoughts. “I tried to stop him from taking
“What?” My head jerked toward him.
He nodded. “When he concocted the plan to masquerade as a guard and take you hostage, I
told him, more than once, that it was absolutely insane. That it carried far too many risks.”
“Did one of those risks have to do with the fact that it was wrong to kidnap an innocent
person and upend her entire life?” I questioned.
His lips pursed. “Can’t say that really crossed my mind.”
“That was before I knew you.”
“That doesn’t make it better.”
“Probably not, but I don’t think you mind how he upended your life.”
“Well…” I cleared my throat. “I suppose, in a roundabout, really messed-up way, I’m glad
he didn’t listen to you.”
Kieran smirked. “I’m sure you are.”
I rolled my eyes. “Anyway, as I was saying, I don’t feel that it’s right to ask something of
someone that I’m not willing to do myself.”
“Which is admirable. That will win you the respect of many of your soldiers. Too bad you’ll
likely be captured or end up dead. Therefore, making what you feel irrelevant.”
“That was a bit dramatic,” I said. “Vonetta and the others are risking their lives while I sit
here, listening to you complain about what I’m eating.”
“You’re sitting there listening to me complain about what you’re not eating,” Kieran
corrected. “And now it’s you who’s being dramatic.”
“I think I’ve changed my mind about you being the Advisor to the Crown,” I muttered.
That was ignored. “It’s not like you’re doing nothing.”
There had barely been a moment when I wasn’t doing something, especially since we’d
taken Massene. The Craven in the cells had been dealt with, but I swore I could still smell them
if rain came. The manor was in basic disrepair, the second and third floors virtually
uninhabitable. The only electricity served a handful of the chambers and the kitchens. The
people’s homes weren’t much better, and we’d done our best to make much-needed repairs to
roofs and roads in the last five days, but it would take months, if not longer, to finish it. The
crops hadn’t fared much better. Especially when so many of those who tended them had been led
outside the Rise.
“I just…” Drawing a thumb along the rim of the glass, I leaned back in the chair. I just
needed to be occupied. If I weren’t, then my mind wandered to places it could not go. Places that
had been hollowed out after the failed meeting with the Blood Queen. Cold and angry like a
winter storm. And those holes inside me didn’t feel like me at all.
Or even like a mortal.
They reminded me of Isbeth.
Anger simmered in my gut. I welcomed it because it was far easier to deal with that than
sorrow and helplessness. Isbeth was someone I had no problem thinking about. Not at all. She
was all I could think about at times, especially in those silent, dark minutes of night when sleep
No longer did I find it difficult to reconcile the kindness and gentleness she’d showered
upon me with who she had been to him and countless others. A monster. I had come to terms
with who she was. Isbeth may have conceived me through means that were most likely
unconscionable, but she was no mother to me. Coralena was. Isbeth was nothing more than the
Blood Queen. The enemy.
Feeling Kieran’s all-too-knowing stare upon me, I swallowed thickly. “I’m okay,” I said,
before he could ask the question that often parted his lips.
Kieran said nothing as he watched me. He knew better. Just as he’d known better earlier,
when that icy rage had manifested, rattling the table. However, he didn’t harp on it this time. He
changed the subject. “Valyn and the other generals will be arriving any day now. He will
approve of how we took Massene.”
I nodded. Valyn didn’t necessarily want war. Instead, he had seen it as something inevitable.
Neither he nor any of the older Atlantians were willing to give the Ascended any more chances.
Once they learned about what the Ascended here had done, it wouldn’t help change their minds
regarding whether or not the vamprys could or wanted to change their ways or control their
bloodlust. And it wouldn’t help if the Duke and Duchess Ravarel, those who ruled Oak Ambler,
refused our demands.
Shoulders tightening, I stared into the glass of dark wine. Our demands had everything to do
with going about war differently. It was why we’d taken Massene the way we had. I fully
believed there were steps that could prevent unnecessary loss of life on both sides, especially
since the mortals who fought for Solis most likely had no choice—unlike those who had picked
up their swords and shields to defend Atlantia.
Some in cities like Massene and Oak Ambler would ultimately pay the price of a violent
war, either with their livelihoods or their lives. And then there were the Ascended who were
I drew in a ragged breath, briefly squeezing my eyes shut before my mind could call forth an
image of Ian—of how I’d last seen him. How he died replayed enough at night. I didn’t need to
see it now.
But I believed there had to be Ascended who weren’t evil to their core. Who could be
So that was the basis of our planning. But we knew Oak Ambler wasn’t Massene.
Several days ago, we’d sent Duke and Duchess Ravarel an ultimatum: Agree to our demands
or face a siege. Our demands were simple, but we weren’t counting on them to be reasonable and
accept their fate.
And that was where Vonetta came in, along with Naill and Wren, the elder Rise Guard
who’d witnessed what the Ascended here had been doing. Wren’s extended family—one he
believed might be Descenters who supported Atlantia—lived in Oak Ambler. What they were
doing, what our plans consisted of, came with huge risks.
However, the impending siege of Oak Ambler and all the ways it could fail in the most
spectacular ways possible weren’t our only pressing concerns.
My thoughts found their way to another risk we’d undertaken: Our past plans to enter Oak
Ambler ahead of when we were to meet with the Blood Queen. Somehow, she had known, either
having simply been prepared for the possibility of us attempting to trick them or because
someone had betrayed us. Other than those we trusted, only the Council of Elders had known
about our plans. Did we have a traitor in our midst? Either someone we trusted or someone who
had reached the upper echelons of power in Atlantia? Or was the simplest explanation the
answer? That the Blood Crown had simply outsmarted us, and we’d underestimated them?
I didn’t know, but there was also the issue of the Unseen—the secretive, all-male
organization that had once served the deities. Believing that I was the Harbinger of Death and
Destruction that the prophecy warned of, they’d resurfaced once I entered Atlantia. They’d been
behind the attack at the Chambers of Nyktos and so, so much more. And the threat the Unseen
posed hadn’t ended with Alastir’s and Jansen’s deaths.
I watched Aylard, standing between the pillars. The Unseen were still out there, and there
was no way of knowing exactly who belonged to the group and who aided them.
“Do I want to know what you’re thinking about?” Kieran asked. “Because you look like you
wish to stab someone.”
“You always think I look that way.”
“Probably because you always want to stab someone.”
“I do not.” I glanced at him.
He raised his brows.
“Except for right now,” I amended. “I’m considering stabbing you.”
“Flattered.” Kieran raised his glass, eyeing Reaver. The draken slowly rapped his claws on
the floor. “You often seem to want to stab those you care about.”
“That makes it sound as if I’m…twisted or something.”
“Well…” Kieran lowered his glass, narrowing his eyes at the draken. “Would you like me to
pose for a painting? Then you can gaze upon me even when I’m not around.”
My brows flew up. “Can you not?”
“He started it,” Kieran muttered.
“He’s staring at me.” A pause. “Again.”
“I don’t like it.” Kieran frowned. “At all.”
“You sound like a small child right now,” I informed him, and Reaver huffed out another
laugh. I turned to him. “And you’re not any better.”
Reaver reared back his spiked head, blowing out a smoky breath. He looked affronted.
“You’re both ridiculous.” I shook my head.
“Whatever.” Kieran’s head turned to the entryway at the same moment Reaver’s did.
I looked over, realizing that both had heard another’s approach. How, as a god, I hadn’t been
blessed with better hearing was beyond me.
Vonetta strode past Aylard, her long legs encased in dusty breeches. She had her tight and
narrow, waist-length braids swept up in a knot, highlighting her high, angular cheeks. Except for
her deeper skin tone that often reminded me of lush night-blooming roses, in her mortal form,
she shared similar features with her brother and looked a lot like their mother, Kirha. While
Kieran favored their father, Jasper.
As Vonetta approached us, I wondered who their little sister would take after. The babe had
been born only a few weeks ago, and I wished the siblings were with their family now,
celebrating the newest addition. But instead, they were here with me, near lands ravaged
hundreds of years ago, on the eve of yet another war.
Vonetta wasn’t alone. Emil always seemed to be wherever she was of late.
I bit down on the inside of my lip, stopping my grin. At first, I wasn’t sure that Vonetta
appreciated her Emil-shaped shadow. But that was until I’d seen her coming out of his chamber
in the early morning hours on the day she’d left for Oak Ambler. The soft, sated smile on her
face made it utterly unnecessary to probe any deeper into her emotions.
Vonetta’s steps faltered as she entered the banquet hall, taking note of Reaver. Her brows
lifted. “How in the world did you get in here?”
“See?” Kieran lifted a hand. “Valid question.”
The draken thumped his heavy tail on the floor as he huffed out a breath. I had no idea what
that meant, but he made no move to approach Vonetta or Emil.
Before I could speak, Emil lowered to one knee as he extended an arm wide in an elaborate
bow. “Your Highness.”
I sighed. Many had taken to using that title instead of Your Majesty since it had been used
when the gods were awake.
Vonetta stopped, looking behind her. “Are you going to do that every time?”
“Probably.” He rose.
“That means yes in Emil language,” Vonetta remarked as movement beyond the pillars
snagged my attention.
Aylard no longer stood there now that Emil and Vonetta were present. Instead, a hunched
figure I’d become familiar with the past five days shuffled past the pillars. Emil had taken to
calling her the widow, even though no one knew if she had been married. I wasn’t exactly sure
what she had done in the manor, as I only ever saw her walking about, sometimes in the ruins in
the pines behind Cauldra, which led to Kieran being convinced that she was not flesh and blood
but spirit. I’d heard that Aylard had asked her what she was doing here in the manor on the first
day, and her answer was only that she was waiting.
Weird. But not important at the moment.
I turned to Vonetta. “Has everyone returned? Wren? Naill—?”
“I’m fine,” Vonetta cut in smoothly as she reached over, briefly touching my hand. A soft
burst of energy passed between us. “Everyone is fine and back in the camp.”
I exhaled slowly, nodding.
“She’s been worrying this whole time, hasn’t she?” Vonetta asked her brother.
“What do you think?” he replied.
I almost kicked Kieran under the table. “Of course, I was worried.”
“Understandable. I would’ve worried if it was you roaming the streets of Oak Ambler,
looking for Descenters and warning others of the impending siege if the Ravarels refused our
demands.” Vonetta glanced down at the plates. “Are you finished with that? I’m starving.”
“Yes. Help yourself.” I shot Kieran a look of warning when he opened his mouth. His lips
smashed together in a thin, hard line as his sister snatched up a slice of bacon. I glanced at Emil
and then looked back at Vonetta. “How did it go?”
“It went good. I think.” Vonetta dropped into the chair opposite Kieran, nibbling on the
bacon. “We spoke to—gods. Hundreds? Maybe even more. Quite a few of them were…” She
frowned slightly. “It was like they were ready to hear that someone was doing something about
the Ascended. These weren’t like the ones who don’t question the Rite, believing it an honor or
whatever. These were people who didn’t want to give their children over to the Rite.”
I couldn’t think of the Rite and not picture the Tulis family, begging the Teermans to speak
to gods who still slumbered on their behalf—pleading to keep their last child.
And no matter what had been done for them, the entire family was now dead.
“You were right, by the way. About telling them about you,” she added between bites.
“What I would’ve paid to see their reactions to that news,” Emil mused. “To learn that not
only had their Maiden married the dreaded Atlantian Prince but that she was now the Queen of
Atlantia and also a god.” A faint smile appeared. “I bet many dropped to their knees and started
“Some did,” Vonetta reported wryly.
I winced a little. “Really?”
She nodded. “And since they believe the gods are still awake, the news that you joined with
Atlantia got a lot of them thinking. Even a few said the gods may no longer support the
The curve of my lips matched hers.
“I suppose we should be grateful that they lied about the gods backing Solis instead of
speaking the truth—that the gods had nothing to do with the war and are asleep,” Kieran noted.
“With their lies, they set the expectations of the gods changing their alliances.”
I toyed with the ring on my pointer finger. “It wasn’t my idea, though. That was…that was
his. He recognized that the lies the Ascended told would ultimately be their downfall.”
“Cas did know that,” Emil confirmed. “But that was before he or any of us knew you were a
god. It was your idea to reveal that. Give yourself credit.”
My neck warmed, and I cleared my throat. “Do you think they’ll listen? That they will tell
“I think many will.” Vonetta glanced at her brother and then back at me. “We all know that
telling the mortals what we planned was a risk—one we believed was worth it, even if the
Ravarels learned of our plans.”
I nodded. “Giving the mortals a chance to leave the city before we take it so they won’t be
caught in the middle is worth this dangerous move.”
“Agreed,” she confirmed. “So, some didn’t believe the part about you being a god. They
think the evil Atlantians somehow manipulated you,” she said, reaching for the other slice of
bacon as Emil leaned in and did the same. He was faster. “Hey, that’s mine.” She shot him a
glare. “What are you even doing here?”
“Actually, the bacon is—” Kieran began, and I did kick his leg under the table this time. His
head jerked in my direction.
“We can share.” Emil snapped the bacon in two and handed half over to a less-than-grateful
Vonetta. “And I’m here because I missed you that much.”
“Whatever,” Vonetta muttered. “Seriously, why are you here?”
Emil grinned, his amber eyes warm as he finished off his half of the slice. “I’m here because
someone delivered a missive to the Rise,” he announced, wiping his hands on a napkin. “It’s
from the Duke and Duchess Ravarel.”
Every part of me tensed. “And you’re just now sharing this?”
“You had questions about their time in Oak Ambler. Figured I’d let them get answered,” he
reasoned. “Plus, Vonetta was hungry, and I know better than to get between a wolven and food.”
Vonetta whipped toward Emil, nearly coming out of her chair. “Are you seriously blaming
your inability to prioritize on me?”
“I would never do such a thing.” Emil pulled a slip of folded parchment from the breast
pocket of his tunic as he grinned at Vonetta. “And none of that changes the fact that I did miss
Kieran rolled his eyes.
Vonetta opened her mouth and then closed it, sitting back in her chair, and I did what I
probably shouldn’t. I opened my senses. What I tasted from Vonetta was spicy and smoky.
Attraction. There was also something sweeter underneath.
“I need wine.” She started to lean forward, but Emil was, once again, quicker. As he handed
the missive to me, he snagged the bottle of wine and poured her a drink. “Thank you,” she said,
taking the glass and swallowing an impressive mouthful. She looked at me. “So, what does it
The thin slip of folded parchment felt as if it weighed as much as a sword. I glanced at
Kieran, and when he nodded, I opened it. One sentence was written in red ink—a response we all
expected but that still came as a blow.
We agree to nothing.
“Run, Poppy,” Momma wheezed. “Run.”
She wanted me to leave her, but I couldn’t. I ran. I ran toward her, tears spilling down my
“Momma—” Claws caught my hair, scratched my skin, burning me like the time I’d reached
for the hot kettle. I screamed, straining for Momma, but I couldn’t see her in the mass of
They were everywhere, skin dull and gray and broken. And then there was the tall man in
black. The one with no face. I twisted, screaming—
Papa’s friend stood in the doorway. I reached for him. He was supposed to help us—help
Momma. But he stared at the man in black as he rose above the twisting, feeding creatures.
Papa’s friend jerked, stumbling back, his bitter horror filling my mouth, choking me. He backed
away, shaking his head and trembling. He was leaving us—
Teeth sank into my skin. Fiery pain ripped through my arm and lit across my face. I fell,
trying to shake them off. Red streamed into my eyes. “No. No. No,” I screamed, thrashing.
Fire sliced through my stomach, seizing my lungs and my body.
Then the monsters were falling, and I couldn’t breathe. The pain. The weight. I wanted my
momma. Nothingness slipped over my eyes, and I was lost for a little bit.
A hand touched my cheek, my neck. I blinked through blood and tears.
The Dark One stood above me, his face nothing but shadows beneath the hooded cloak. It
wasn’t his hand at my throat but something cold and sharp.
He didn’t move. That hand trembled. He shook as he spoke, but his words faded in and out.
I heard Momma say in a voice that sounded strange and wet, “Do you understand what that
means? Please. She must…”
“Good gods,” the man rasped, and then I was floating and drifting, surrounded by the scent
of the flowers the Queen liked to have in her bedchambers.
What a powerful little flower you are.
What a powerful poppy.
Pick it and watch it bleed.
I jerked awake, my eyes open wide as I scanned the moonlit chamber. I wasn’t there. I
wasn’t in the inn. I was here.
My heart was slow to calm. I hadn’t had such a nightmare in a few nights. Others had found
me—ones where pointed nails painted the color of blood dug into his skin—hurting him.
My closest friend and lover.
My husband and King.
Those nightmares had joined the old ones, finding me if I managed more than a few hours of
sleep—which wasn’t often. I averaged maybe three hours a night.
Throat dry, I stared up at the ceiling, careful not to disturb the thick blankets piled on top of
the wide bedroll. It was silent.
I hated these moments.
The nothingness of night.
The waiting when nothing could occupy my thoughts enough to prevent me from thinking
his name—let alone what could be happening to him. From hearing him beg and plead, offering
anything, even his kingdom, to her.
A tremor coursed through me as I fought back the rising tide of panic and anger—
Movement by my hip jarred me from the rapidly spiraling thoughts. A large, furry head rose
against the moonlight. The wolven yawned as he stretched long, powerful front legs.
Kieran had made it a habit of sleeping near me in his wolven form, which was why he got
very little sleep. I’d told him more than once that it wasn’t necessary, but the last time I’d
brought it up, he’d said, “This is where I choose to be.”
And well, that…that nearly made me cry. He chose to be beside me because he was my
friend. Not because of some obligation. I wouldn’t make the same mistake I had with Tawny,
constantly doubting the genuineness of our relationship because of how we had been introduced.
I also thought he chose to be here, needing the closeness, because he too was hurting. Kieran
had known him his entire life. Their friendship went beyond the bond they’d once shared. There
was love between them. And while I kept my senses to myself when there was no need for me to
read another’s emotions, Kieran sat in silence at times, the sadness swelling out from him and
breaking through my shields.
That sorrow also stemmed from the loss of Lyra. He’d been more than just fond of the
wolven, even if they hadn’t been in a serious relationship. He’d cared for her, and now she was
gone—just like the wolven Elashya, the one he had loved and lost to a rare wasting disease.
Kieran’s head turned toward me, and he blinked sleepy, winter-blue eyes.
“Sorry,” I whispered.
I felt a touch against my mind like a light brush of skin against skin. His imprint reminded
me of cedar, rich and woodsy. You should be asleep, he said, his words a whisper among my
“I know,” I replied, rolling onto my side so I faced him.
He lowered his head to the bed. Another nightmare?
There was a pause, and then he said, You know, there are herbs that can help you rest. Help
you find the kind of sleep where these nightmares can’t reach you.
“No, thank you.” I’d never liked the idea of taking anything that knocked me out, potentially
leaving me vulnerable. Plus, I was already taking an herb similar to what he had taken for
contraception. I’d figured it was wise to see if something was readily available since he wouldn’t
be able to take anything. Luckily, Vonetta had known just the thing—an herb similar to the one
Casteel took, which was ground into a powder and could be mixed with any drink. It tasted like
dirt but stomaching that was far better than the potential of carrying a child.
That was the last thing any of us needed.
Though I suddenly imagined Kieran knitting little sweaters and grinned.
What are you thinking about? His curiosity was fresh and lemony.
There was no way I was sharing that. “Nothing.”
He eyed me as if he didn’t believe me. You need to rest, Poppy. God or not, you’re going to
wear yourself out.
I bit back a sigh as I tugged the soft blanket to my chin, rubbing it. “Do you think this
blanket is made of wolven fur?”
Kieran’s ears flattened. That was a poor attempt at changing the subject.
“I think it was a valid question,” I parroted his earlier words.
You think every question is a valid one. He made a very mortal-sounding huff.
“They’re not?” Flipping onto my back, I stopped rubbing my chin and let go of the blanket.
Kieran nudged my hand. It was his way of letting me know it was okay to touch him in this
form—a way the wolven silently communicated need for affection. I reached down, and like
always, it never ceased to amaze me how soft a wolven’s fur was. I ran my fingers through the
fluff between his ears, thinking Kieran probably believed he enjoyed the touch more than I did.
But touch…touch was such a gift. One so very often overlooked and underappreciated.
Several long moments of silence passed. “Do you…do you dream of him?”
I don’t. Kieran lowered his head to my hip. His eyes closed. And I don’t know if that’s a
blessing or not.
I hadn’t been able to fall back asleep like Kieran had, but I waited until the faint traces of light
crept through the window and across the ceiling to leave the bed. Kieran always slept the deepest
as the sun rose. I wasn’t sure why, but I knew that my absence wouldn’t stir him for at least an
hour or two.
Padding quietly across the stone floor, I secured the wolven dagger to my thigh and then
picked up the ruffled, blue dress robe Kieran had found in one of the other chambers. I slipped it
on over the slip and tights I’d slept in. It smelled of mothballs, but it was clean and luxuriously
soft, made of some sort of cashmere. Tying the sash at my waist, I left the chamber without
bothering with shoes. The thick socks were more than enough since I didn’t plan to leave the
manor this early.
The people of Massene would be moving about at this time, meeting at one of the two shops
that sat just beyond the interior wall of the manor, getting baked pastries and roasted coffee
before leaving to work their crops. I didn’t want to disturb what little time they had to talk to one
another, repairing their broken community. The people here were only slowly adjusting to our
presence—the Atlantian Crests on banners draped in the halls I now walked past and hanging
over the Rise. They were still nervous around the Atlantian soldiers and often stared at the
wolven, caught between terror and curiosity. And when Reaver took flight…
At least the screams and the running for their lives had abated. But when they caught sight
of me, they froze before hastily bowing or lowering themselves to their knees, wide-eyed and
filled with the same conflicting emotions they felt when the wolven drew closer.
I had a feeling that Wren had keyed the people of Massene into my whole godhood thing
since there was no way anyone from Oak Ambler could’ve communicated what had been
whispered to the people there. While I wasn’t upset with him for doing so, I sort of wished he
How they stared made things a bit awkward.
The way they hastily bowed as if expecting grave punishment for failing to do so
immediately made me sad.
Traveling the empty, winding halls of the main floor, I bypassed the banquet hall where the
murmur of either soldiers or wolven drifted out. I continued, passing the lone receiving chamber
and moving to the closed doors on the east side of the manor—which appeared to be the oldest
Cracking them open, I entered the cold, cavernous chamber. The musty scent of old books
and dust greeted me. There was so much dust that neither Kieran nor Vonetta could be in the
chamber for long without experiencing a sneezing fit. I stopped, turning on the gas lamp that sat
on a tea table beside a worn settee the shade of rich chocolate.
Cauldra Manor was as old as Massene was, likely built when the city was a district of
Pompay—much like the still-existing neighborhoods in Carsodonia. I had a feeling that many of
the tomes on the shelves here were just as old.
Mainly because three or four had basically fallen apart when I opened them.
It was, admittedly, a creepy chamber with its heavy tapestries blocking any natural sources
of light, the faded portraits of who I assumed were either Ascended of the past or perhaps
mortals who’d once called Cauldra home, and the array of half-melted candles of various shapes
But I began to think that what truly kept the wolven and Atlantians away was the feeling in
here. The distinct sensation of not being alone, even when you were.
I felt it now as I drifted among the rows of tomes and their dusty spines—the press of
invisible fingers across the nape of my neck. I suppressed a shiver, withdrawing another ancient
book from the shelf as I quickly glanced around the empty chamber. The feeling remained, but I
ignored it as I took the book to the settee and sat.
However, I would take the possibility of being stalked by spirits over lying in bed with only
my wandering thoughts—worrying about him, and Tawny, whether or not I would need to feed,
and if we could truly win this war without leaving the realm worse than what it was.
I carefully cracked open the tome. No Atlantians were listed as far as I could tell, though
much of the ink had faded. Still, what I could read of the paragraphs narrating the lives of those
who’d lived here ages ago was fascinating. The births and deaths had been noted in two columns,
grouped together by surname. Mixed in with announcements of marriages were paltry arguments
over property lines, accusations of livestock thievery, and much more heinous crimes like assault
and murder. Executions were recorded. The manner of death was almost always brutal, and they
were held publicly in what had once been a town square.
A part of me realized that what had drawn me to look through these records, long forgotten
along the lower shelves of the library, was that they reminded me of when I was in New Haven.
When everything I had been learning had been so very confusing to me. But…but he had been
there, vibrant and teasing as I discovered the different Atlantian bloodlines.
Chest squeezing, I flipped through stiff, yellowed pages chronicling a realm that’d existed
long before the Ascended. Long before—
My eyes narrowed on the words before me. What the…? Lifting the book from my lap, I
inhaled way too much dust as I read the passage again and then one more time.
Princess Kayleigh, first daughter of King Saegar and Queen Geneva of Irelone, joined
Queen Ezmeria of Lasania and her Consort, Marisol, to celebrate the Rite and Ascension of the
Chosen, marking the…
The rest of the ink was far too faded for me to read, but three words practically pulsed from
the worn page.
Rite. Ascension. Chosen.
Three things that hadn’t existed before the Ascended ruled Solis.
But that had to be impossible. He had explained that the Ascended had created the Rite as a
means to increase their numbers and to make livestock out of mortals. Except they didn’t feed
from all third sons and daughters. Some carried an unknown trait, which Isbeth had discovered
allowed them to be made into those things—a Revenant. Still, it made no sense for a Rite to be
mentioned in a time so far in the past where the names of the kingdoms had been nearly
forgotten. A time of no Ascended.
My gaze lifted to one of the faded portraits. A time possibly even before the first Atlantian
had been created through the heartmate trials? Setting the book aside, the hem of the dressing
robe whispered over the floor as I hurried back to the shelves, searching for older records—the
tomes which appeared close to disintegrating. Taking one in my hands, I was even more careful
as I opened the book and went through the pages, searching for any mention of the Rite—and
I found it—a passage with just enough ink left to make out a reference to the Chosen, but I
was even more confused. Because when I cross-checked the births in the other ledger, only the
third sons and daughters born of the same family had no death dates—dates only marked by the
month, day, and the age. I was positive that wasn’t due to faded ink.
“How was the Rite possible, then?” I asked the empty chamber.
The only answer was if the Rite had existed and then had stopped, somehow being forgotten
by the time the first Atlantian was born. That was the only explanation, as I knew he couldn’t
have lied about this. Every Atlantian and wolven I’d met believed that the Rite had begun with
As I stared at the ledger, it struck me that these records could be far, far older than I
believed. Possibly written during a time when the gods were awake.
My lips parted. “These ledgers have to be—”
“Older than sin and most kin.”
I jerked at the raspy voice, my gaze swinging to the half-open doors. A shiver coursed down
my spine at the sight of the hunched figure shrouded in black.
It was her. The old woman. The widow…who might not even be a widow.
“But not as old as the first mortal, birthed from the flesh of a Primal and the fire of a
I jolted again. Was that how the first mortal had been created?
The veiled head cocked to the side. “I startled you, I see.”
I swallowed. “A little. I didn’t hear you enter.”
“I’m as quiet as a flea, so most don’t hear me,” she said, shuffling forward. I tensed. The
long sleeves of her robe covered her hands, and as she drew closer, I made out the barest hint of
pale, creased skin beneath the lacy veil. “Strange reading for a time when most are sleeping.”
Blinking, I glanced down at the ledger. “I suppose it is.” I looked back at her, surprised that
she had moved so close so quickly. “Do you know exactly how old these ledgers are?”
“Older than the kingdom and most wisdom,” she answered in that brittle voice that reminded
me of dry branches.
The old woman swayed slightly, and I remembered my manners. Most wouldn’t sit before a
Queen unless given permission. I imagined mortals would behave the same in the presence of a
god. “Would you like to sit?” I asked.
“If I sit, I’m afraid to admit, I’m likely never to get up again.”
Based on how the robes barely moved to show whether she was breathing, I was also afraid
of that. “I don’t know your name.”
“I know who you are, with that glow in your eyes as bright as a star,” she replied, and I did
everything in my power to keep my face blank. “Vessa is what I was once called.”
Once called? I resisted the urge to reach out and touch her, to see if she truly was made of
flesh and bone. Instead, I opened my senses to her, and what I felt was…strange. It was murky.
As if whatever she felt was clouded somehow. But there were faint traces of sugary amusement,
which was also odd. I wondered if her age made reading her hazy.
I had a feeling she was likely the oldest mortal I’d ever met—possibly even that existed. But
her age meant that she must have seen a lot of what’d occurred in Massene. A lot of what the
Ascended had done.
“What did you do here, Vessa?”
The lace in front of her face rippled gently, and I caught the scent of something vaguely
familiar. A stale scent I couldn’t quite place as she said, “I served,” she said. “I serve still.”
Figuring that she meant the Ascended, I tamped down the surge of anger that rose. The
Royals were all the mortals knew. And living for as long as she had under their rule, the fear of
being seen as disloyal—as a Descenter—would be hard to shake.
I forced a smile. “You no longer have to serve the Ascended.”
Vessa was so unbelievably still. “I do not serve them while I wait.”
“Then who is it you serve?” I asked.
“Who else but the True Crown of the Realms, silly girl?”
“I am neither silly nor a girl,” I said coolly, setting the ledger on the tea table, assuming she
referenced the Blood Crown.
Vessa gave a shaky bow I feared would topple her. “My apologies, Your Highness. I’ve lost
all sense of coyness with age.”
I said nothing for a long moment, letting the insult roll off me. I’d been called far worse and
dealt harsher insults. “How is it that you serve the True Crown, Vessa?”
Between the too-short answers and the longer, rhyming ones, I was quickly losing my
patience. “What is it that you wait for?”
She straightened in short, jerky movements. “The one who was Blessed.”
“One born from a grave misdeed, of a great and terrible Primal power, with blood full of ash
and ice.” Her words rattled her entire body, raising the tiny hairs all over mine. “The Chosen
who will usher in the end, remaking the realms. The Harbinger of Death and Destruction.”
I sucked in a sharp breath at the all-too-familiar words of the prophecy. She must’ve heard
them from the Duke. It was the only explanation.
“You.” The hem of the lacy veil fluttered. “I wait for you. I wait for death.”
Icy fingers pressed against the back of my neck once more as if a spirit had touched me
The old woman lurched forward, black robes flapping like the wings of a crow as an arm
whipped out from the vast folds. A glimpse of silver glinted in the lamplight. I locked up for the
briefest second as potent, acute shock swept through me.
I snapped out of it, the dressing robe fluttering around my legs as I shot to my feet. I caught
her wrist, my finger sinking through the heavy cloth and around the thin, bony arm.
“Are you serious?” I exclaimed, still caught in shock as I shoved away.
Vessa stumbled back, bumping into the tea table. She went down hard, her head snapping
forward. The veil slipped and then fell to the floor. White, wispy hair spilled out from patchy
clumps along a wrinkled scalp.
“Did you just try to stab me?” Incredulous, I stared down at her, my heart thumping heavily.
“When you know what I am?”
“I know what you are.” She planted a pale, skeletal hand against the floor and lifted her
Good gods, she truly was old.
Her face was almost nothing more than skin and skull, her cheeks and eyes sunken in, her
flesh heavily lined, creased, and a ghastly, grayish-white. Lips a bloodless, thin line peeled back
across stained teeth, and her eyes… They were milky white. I took an involuntary step back.
How in the world could she even see me?
But she still clutched the slender dagger, and that was rather impressive considering her
extreme, advanced age.
“Harbinger,” she crooned softly.
“You should stay down,” I warned, really hoping she listened. Something was obviously
very wrong with her—perhaps due to hearing that damn prophecy and the fear that festered
because of it. Or, this behavior could be a byproduct of her age. Probably both. Either way, I
didn’t want to harm an old lady.
Vessa heaved herself up to her feet.
“Oh, come on,” I muttered.
She lunged at me this time, faster than I expected. Gods, the fact that she’d gotten up at all
was, yet again, impressive.
I easily side-stepped her. This time, I grasped both her arms as carefully as I could. Trying
not to think of how brittle her bones felt, I pushed her down, this time onto the settee.
“Drop the dagger,” I said.
“Harbinger!” Vessa yelled.
“Godsdamn it.” I put the slightest pressure on the bones of her wrist, wincing as she gasped.
Her fingers opened, and the dagger fell to the floor with a thud. She started to push up. “Don’t
even think it.”
“Do I even want to know what is happening in here?” Kieran boomed from the doors.
“Nothing.” I glanced at him. Clearly, he’d just risen. He wore only breeches. “Except that
she just tried to stab me.”
Every line of Kieran’s body went taut. “That doesn’t sound like nothing.”
“Harbinger!” Vessa shrieked, and Kieran blinked. “Harbinger!”
“And in case you can’t tell, she believes I’m the Harbinger.” I looked down at the old
woman, half afraid to let her go. “No matter what you’ve heard or were told, I am not that.”
“You were born in the shroud of the Primals,” she screamed, and it was loud. “Blessed with
blood full of ash and ice. Chosen.”
“I don’t think she heard you,” Kieran replied dryly.
I shot him a glare. “Would you like to help, or do you just want to stand there and watch me
get yelled at by an old woman?”
“Is there a third option?”
My eyes narrowed.
“Harbinger!” Vessa shouted. “Harbinger of Death and Destruction!”
Kieran twisted at the waist. “Naill! Need your help.”
“You could just come and get her,” I said. “You didn’t need to call him.”
“Hell, no. I’m not getting anywhere near her. She’s a laruea.”
“You’ve got to be kidding me,” I muttered as Vessa continued struggling. “Does she seem
like a disembodied phantom to you?”
Naill entered, his steps slowing and his brows lifting as Vessa continued screaming. Emil
was right behind him, his head tilting to the side. “Oh, hey,” he said. “It’s the widow.”
“Her name is Vessa, and she just tried to stab me,” I bit out. “Twice.”
“Was not expecting that,” Naill murmured.
“I don’t want to hurt her,” I said. “So, it would be great if you two could take her someplace
“Someplace safe?” Emil questioned as he and Naill came forward, speaking loudly to be
heard over the woman’s screams. “You just said she tried to stab you.”
“You see how old she is?” I leaned back as spittle flew from the woman’s mouth as she
continued shrieking. “She needs to be put someplace where she can’t hurt herself or others.”
“Like a cell?” Kieran suggested as the two Atlantians managed to disentangle us. “Or a
I ignored that as I bent, picking up the dagger. “Place her in a bedchamber that locks from
the outside until you can figure out which of the rooms is hers.”
“Will do,” Naill said, guiding the now-wailing woman from the library.
“Do you think there’s any extra muzzles lying about?” Emil asked as Kieran stepped back,
giving them a wide berth.
I turned. “Don’t you dare put a muzzle on her.” There was no answer, so I twisted to Kieran.
“They wouldn’t, would they?”
He came forward, his gaze sweeping over me. “She should be in a cell.”
“She’s too old for that.”
“And you shouldn’t be roaming around. Obviously.”
I tossed the dagger onto the table. “I can take care of myself, Kieran.” I dragged my hand
over my shoulder, pushing my braid back. “She must’ve heard the Duke speaking about the
prophecy, and it messed with her.”
“No one’s questioning your ability to handle yourself, but there’s no telling how many
others have heard about the prophecy.”
Maybe that was why the people seemed so afraid around me.
“This is why you should have Crown Guards with you.”
“I told you, Hisa, and everyone else who suggested that, that I don’t want a guard following
me around. It reminds me…” I trailed off, tensing. It reminded me too much of Vikter. Of Rylan.
Of him. “It reminds me of when I was the Maiden,” I lied.
“I can understand that.” Kieran stopped beside me, so close his chest brushed my arm as he
bent his head. “But sending her to a bedchamber? You are a Queen, and that woman just tried to
stab you. Do you know what most Queens would do in response?”
“I would hope that most would do as I did—recognize that she is more of a harm to herself
than anyone else,” I countered.
His stare hardened. “You should at least exile her.”
“If I did that, it would be a death sentence.” I flopped down on the settee, surprised it didn’t
collapse under me. “You saw how old she is. I doubt she’ll be an issue for much longer. Leave
her be, Kieran. You wouldn’t feel this way if she’d gone after someone else.”
He didn’t acknowledge how right I was, which was annoying. “Is that an order?”
I rolled my eyes. “Yes.”
“As your advisor—”
“You will say, ‘My, what a kind Queen our people have.’”
“You are kind. Too kind.”
Shaking my head, I looked at the records on the tea table as I shoved thoughts of the old
woman aside. “Do you know how the first mortal was created?”
“That’s a random, unexpected question.” He crossed his arms but didn’t sit. “The first
mortal was created from the flesh—”
“Of a Primal and the fire of a draken?” I finished for him, surprised that the widow had
spoken the truth.
Kieran frowned. “If you know the answer, why did you ask?”
“I didn’t know until now.” It didn’t pass me by that I was called the Queen of Flesh and
Fire, but my brain was already too full of confusing things to consider how or if those two items
were related. “Did you know that the Rite existed before the Ascended?”
“It did,” I said and then showed him the ledgers.
Kieran’s surprise was like a splash of cool water as he dragged a hand over his head. The
hair there was growing longer. “I guess it’s possible that the gods had some sort of Rite and that
the Ascended copied it.”
I thought that over. “Malec would’ve known about it. He could’ve told Isbeth. But did it
stop because the gods went to sleep?”
“That would be a plausible reason.” He folded his arms, giving the chamber a not-toodiscreet glance.
“It has to be related—why the gods took the third sons and daughters,” I said, staring at the
ledgers. “And how they can become Revenants.”
An hour or so past dawn the following morning, I walked across the vine-smothered remains of
one of the buildings situated among the pines that crowded Cauldra Manor. A gust of chilled
wind swept through the decaying pillars, ruffling the pure white fur of the wolven prowling the
length of the crumbling wall of the structure.
Delano had followed when I left the manor, staying only a few feet behind me as he
continuously scanned the ruins that had either been destroyed by time or the last war.
The shudder rolling through me had nothing to do with the cool temperatures. The sharp
swell of pain deep in my chest made it difficult to breathe and blended with the nearly
overwhelming need to escape this haunted place and go to Carsodonia. That was where he was.
That was what the Handmaiden had told me, and I didn’t think the Revenant was lying. How
could I free him if I were here, trapped amid the skeletons of a once-great city? Held captive by
the responsibilities of a Crown I hadn’t wanted?
My gloved fingers trailed down the buttons of the woolen sweater coat to where they ended
at the waist. I reached between the flared halves and closed my hand over the pouch secured to
my hip, clutching the toy horse.
My thoughts calmed.
Near the bushy, yellow wildflowers growing along the foundation, I sat on the edge, letting
my legs dangle off as I eyed the landscape. Waist-high weeds had reclaimed most of the road
that had once traveled to this part of the city, leaving only glimpses of the cobbled streets
beneath. Thick roots had taken hold among the toppled buildings, and the sweeping pines’ heavy
limbs climbed through broken windows in the few walls that still stood. Sprigs of lavender poked
through abandoned carriage wheels, the sweet, floral scent following the wind whenever it blew.
I had no idea how old Duke Silvan had been, but I was sure he’d lived enough years to clean
this part of Massene up. To do something with the land so it no longer resembled a graveyard of
what once had been.
The Chosen who will usher in the end, remaking the realms.
A shiver accompanied the memory of Vessa’s words. As far as I knew, neither Naill nor
Emil had been able to find her chamber, but she was locked away, fed and safe in a room two
doors down from the Great Hall.
“You shouldn’t be out here,” a gruff voice said from above, causing me to jump.
Delano hadn’t been the only one to follow. Reaver had, too, taking to the air as he tracked us
through the pines. He glided so quietly above us that I’d forgotten he was up there, circling.
The voice could belong to no one but him.
Tilting back my head, I looked up a dozen feet or so to where the draken perched on the flat
surface of a pillar. Warmth crept into my cheeks.
Seeing Reaver in his mortal form was already an utterly unexpected experience. But seeing
him completely, absolutely naked whilst crouched on a pillar took the oddness of the situation to
a whole new level.
Reaver was a…blond.
With his somewhat grumpy disposition, I’d conjured up a much darker-haired image of him.
I tried not to stare, but it was hard not to. Luckily, any areas that would’ve been considered
highly inappropriate by most were hidden from view, given how he was positioned. Still, there
was a lot of exposed, sinewy, sand-colored flesh. I squinted. Skin that carried the faint but
distinct pattern of scales.
“You’re in your mortal form,” I said dumbly.
A curtain of shoulder-length hair obscured most of Reaver’s features except for the angle of
his sharp jawline. “How observant.”
My brows rose as I felt Delano brush against my thoughts, his imprint springy and
featherlight. Following that unique sensation, I opened the pathway to him, and his response was
immediate. He is an odd one.
I couldn’t really argue against that at the moment. He probably thinks we’re odd.
He probably wants to eat us, Delano replied as he slid past one of the pillars.
I almost laughed, but then Reaver said, “You are filled with worry. We can all feel it. Even
those on their way here.”
My attention jerked back to him. We. As in the draken. The wolven could sense my
emotions when extremely heightened because of the Primal notam. “Are the draken bonded to
me?” I asked since Nektas hadn’t exactly said they were. Just that they were now mine.
“You are the Liessa. You summoned us. You carry the blood of Nyktos and the Consort in
you. You are…” He trailed off. “Yes, we are bonded to you. I am perplexed by the fact that
you’re only now realizing that.”
The corners of my lips turned down. “I’m not just figuring it out. I hadn’t really thought
that…deeply about it,” I finished lamely. “Can I communicate with you like I do with the
“No, but as you know,” he said, and I blinked slowly, “we will know and answer your will,
as it has always been that way with the Primals.”
“But I’m not a Primal.”
“What you are is not wise,” he responded, and now I really frowned. “You shouldn’t be this
far from the manor.”
“I’m not far.” I could still smell the wood smoke mingling with the lavender.
“These mortals are afraid of you, as you already know,” he continued, and my stomach
twisted. “Fear tends to lead to poor choices.”
“I won’t let anyone get close enough to do me any harm,” I said. “Neither will Delano.”
“One does not need to be near you to harm you,” he pointed out. “As you were told before,
you may be hard to kill, but it’s not impossible. That woman may not have succeeded, but others
could inflict damage.”
My fingers stopped their ceaseless toying with the sweater’s buttons as wind tossed strands
of hair back from Reaver’s face. I finally got my first true look at him.
There was a strange asymmetric quality to him as if his features had been plucked from
random traits. His eyes were wideset and tilted down at the inner corners, giving him a somewhat
mischievous impression that didn’t match the somberness of his vivid sapphire stare. Nor did the
full, distinctively bow-shaped lips seem to belong to the strong, chiseled jaw and light brown
brows that arched in a sardonic, almost taunting way. His cheekbones were high and sharp,
creating shadows below them. Somehow, the hodgepodge of features worked. He wasn’t
classically handsome but so interesting to look upon that he was thoroughly striking. He had a
hint of gauntness to his face that made me wonder if he was still recovering physically from such
a long sleep.
I pulled myself out of those thoughts with a shake of my head. “Exactly what does kill a
“A god can kill another,” Reaver said. “Shadowstone can also kill a god.”
The same material had been used to construct many of the Temples and the palace in
Evaemon. I’d never thought of it as a weapon until those skeletal guards we’d seen after entering
Iliseeum had wielded shadowstone weapons.
It was what had punctured Tawny’s skin in the chaos after everything had gone so terribly
“Through the heart or head,” he elaborated.
Immediately, I saw the arrow the Revenant had pointed in my direction, but the Revenant
had spoken as if she hadn’t believed the shadowstone would kill me. I supposed it was a good
thing she’d obviously thought wrong.
“What happens if a mortal is stabbed with shadowstone?”
“It would kill them,” he said, and air fled my lungs. “But your friend lives. There has to be a
reason for that.”
Reaver had definitely been listening whenever I spoke of Tawny. “What kind of reason
could there be?”
“I wouldn’t know,” he replied, and I tamped down a surge of frustration. “But you are the
first female descendant of the Primal of Life—the most powerful being known. In time, you will
become even more powerful than your father.”
How I could be more powerful than my father was beyond me. Nor did I know why the
female part mattered. Still, I got stuck on those two words.
Those two words left me uncertain. I swallowed, looking away. Whatever relief I’d felt
when I learned that Malec wasn’t my father had been short-lived. My father was a cave cat I’d
seen as a young child and again in Oak Ambler, at Castle Redrock. But the only father I
remembered was Leopold. Still, anger hummed through my blood, mingling with the eather and
warming those cold, hollow places scattered throughout. I would free him, too. “How long has
Ires been held captive?”
“He left Iliseeum while we slept, after waking one of the draken to accompany him.” The
line of Reaver’s jaw flexed as he stared ahead. “I don’t know why he left or exactly when. I only
became aware some eighteen years ago when the Primal awakened.”
My brows knitted as Delano sank onto his haunches beside me. “Why did Nyktos awaken?”
Reaver’s head swung in my direction. Those ultra-bright eyes were unnerving even with the
distance between us. “I believe it was when you were born. It was felt.”
I hadn’t known that.
He returned his gaze to the sky. “That was when we learned that both Malec and Ires were
gone. As was…Jade.”
It took me a moment to realize that he spoke of Jadis—Nektas’s daughter.
Tension bunched the muscles along his shoulders. “I don’t know why Ires took her. She was
young when we went to sleep. And when she was awakened, she would’ve been untested. It
wouldn’t have been safe for her.”
I felt the strange urge to defend a man I didn’t know. “Maybe he didn’t think it would be
Reaver huffed, and I swore I saw faint wisps of smoke coming from his mouth. “I think…I
think he knew something had happened to his brother and went to look for him. Malec was lost
to us long before we realized,” he said, his words similar to what Nektas had told me. “But
Malec was Ires’s twin. So alike as children, you couldn’t tell them apart. As they grew older,
their differences became clear,” he said, his rough, unused voice turning distant. “Ires was
cautious and thoughtful in everything, while Malec was reckless and didn’t often stop to think of
what he’d done until afterward. Ires was content in Iliseeum, but Malec had grown restless,
visiting the mortal world as the deities slowly built Atlantia. Because both he and Ires were in
born this realm, he could come, but that was not without its limitations. The longer he stayed, the
more his power lessened. Still, he chose to stay, even knowing what he would have to do to stay
That lessening of his power must explain why no Primal notam existed between Malec and
all the wolven like they had with me. “How did he stay strong?”
“He had to feed, Liessa.” One eyebrow rose as Reaver looked down at me. “He had to feed
often. Any blood would do for a god or a Primal, whether it be mortal, Atlantian, or another
god.” A pause. “Wolven. Anything but a draken. You cannot feed from a draken.”
Surprise rolled through Delano and me. Atlantians could feed off mortals, but it did nothing
for them. Apparently, however, the world was one giant buffet when it came to gods and
Primals. However, this piece of news meant…
I had to feed.
“Do you…?” I swallowed hard. “Do you know how often?”
“Probably not as often as Malec once you come into your power. Unless injured. But until
then, you will need to ensure you do not weaken.”
“Wait. I’ve Ascended—”
“Yes, I know that. Thanks for pointing it out,” he interrupted, and my eyes narrowed. “But
you haven’t finished your Culling.”
Delano’s head cocked, and it felt like my brain did the same.
My abilities had begun to change over the last year, as I became of age to enter the Culling.
Before that, I had only been able to feel—taste—the pain of others. But that had grown, allowing
me to read all emotions. My ability to ease pain had also changed to one that could heal injuries.
But after…he had saved me by giving me his blood—thus Ascending me—I had been able to
bring the young girl back to life. So, I’d thought the Culling had run its course. “How do you
“Because I would feel it,” he said, as if that explained everything.
It really explained nothing, not even touching on why I was different than Malec. But those
questions were lost in the realization that I would have to feed. I hadn’t felt the need yet. I didn’t
even know what to think about what would happen if I had to do it before I freed…him. That was
yet another thing I didn’t want to stress about.
Delano nudged my limp hand with the side of his face. I reached over, gently petting the
back of his neck. I wished my hands weren’t gloved so I could feel his fur. I knew that his coat
was thicker and softer than even Kieran’s.
“Why can’t I feed from a draken?” I asked and then wondered if that was a rude question.
“Because it would burn the insides out of most. Even Primals.”
All right, then.
I shook that disturbing image from my mind. “What exactly would weaken a god? Besides
Reaver’s head tilted once again. “You do not know much about yourself, do you?”
My lips pursed. “Well, this whole god thing is relatively new, and, you know, there aren’t
any gods standing around ready to educate me. Nor are there any texts I can simply read.”
He made a harrumphing sound as if those weren’t good enough reasons. “Most injuries
would only weaken you unless they were serious. Then you will weaken more quickly. Using the
essence of the gods can, over time, also weaken you if you haven’t completed the Culling.
Which, as I said, you have not.”
Delano’s ears flattened. That’s not ideal.
No, it wasn’t. Using the eather meant that I could fight like a god, but if it weakened me…
My stomach dipped. “I didn’t know that.”
“I’m shocked to hear that.”
Even Kieran would’ve been impressed by the level of sarcasm in Reaver’s voice. “How will
I know when the Culling is complete?”
I resisted the urge to pick up one of the small rocks and throw it at him. “What good is
having that kind of power if it inevitably weakens me?”
“It is a balance, meyaah Liessa,” he said, and I blinked. I hadn’t expected to hear him call
me my Queen like the wolven did. “Even we have weaknesses. The fire we breathe is the essence
of the Primals. Using it tires us. Slows us down. Even the Primals had their limitations.
Weaknesses. Only one is infinite.”
He would be infinite.
“From what I can remember, it varies how much using the essence weakens from god to
god,” he continued. “But as I said, you carry the Primal essence within you. I imagine it will take
longer for you to weaken that way, but you will know when it happens.” His head turned in the
direction of the camp. “Your wolven comes.”
A sugary ripple of amusement came from Delano as I looked over my shoulder, seeing a
distant figure among the broken stone and tall grass. “If you’re talking about Kieran, he’s not my
The wind lifted the strands of Reaver’s hair away from his face, revealing the bland set to
his features. “Is he not?”
“No.” I ignored the quiet huffing sound that Delano made as I rose. “None of the wolven are
mine.” I glanced up at him. “The wolven belong to no one but themselves. The same goes for
you and the other draken.”
There was a pause. “You sound a lot like…her.”
Noting the softening of his tone, I looked up at him, opening my senses. As before, I felt
nothing. In my chest, the essence of the gods hummed, and the urge to push, to see if I could
shatter his walls was almost as hard to resist as not throwing a rock at him had been. “The
A brief smile appeared, and my gods, it was a breathtaking transformation. The chilly
hollowness to his features vanished, turning him from someone uniquely appealing to a stunning,
otherworldly beauty. “Yes. You remind me very much of the…Consort.”
The way he said that was more than a little odd, but I thought of what Nektas had said. A
reminder that this wasn’t just about him. “Will the Consort really wake upon Ires’s return?”
“And what does that mean for the other gods?” For us, I wanted to add, but I wasn’t sure if I
truly wanted to know the answer to that at the moment.
“I imagine they will eventually wake.”
I wondered why the Consort being awake had anything to do with the other gods. Or if it
really had to do with Nyktos—that if his Consort had to sleep, he chose to be with her, which
caused the other gods to sleep. I was also tired of calling her the Consort. “What’s her name?”
His smile vanished, and his features sharpened as he stared down at me from his perch. “Her
name is a shadow in the ember, a light in the flame, and the fire in the flesh. The Primal of Life
has forbidden us to speak or write her name.”
Disbelief flooded me. “That sounds incredibly controlling.”
“You don’t understand. To speak her name is to bring the stars from the skies and topple the
mountains into the sea.”
My brows inched up my forehead. “That’s a bit dramatic.”
Reaver said nothing. Instead, he rose so quickly I didn’t have a chance to even look away.
Thankfully, I saw nothing I shouldn’t see because tiny silvery sparks erupted all along his body
as he leapt from the pillar and changed. My mouth dropped open as a long, spiked tail formed,
and then purplish-black scales appeared. Thick, leathery wings unfurled from the shimmer of
light, briefly blocking out the muted glare of the sun. Within seconds, a draken swept through the
air, high above.
A springy, featherlight sensation brushed against my thoughts as I stared up. As I said before
and will likely say again, Delano’s voice whispered, he’s an odd one.
“Yeah,” I said, drawing the word out. “What do you think about what he said, though?
About what would happen if we spoke the Consort’s name?”
I really don’t know, he answered as we started across the foundation. Could she be that
powerful? As powerful as Nyktos? Because that’s what it sounded like.
It really did, but none were more powerful than Nyktos. Or his equal. Not even the Consort.
I didn’t like thinking that, but it was what it was.
Delano stayed at my side as we crossed the ruins, carefully making our way through the
wispy reeds and broken stone toward the small group headed our way. Emil and the dark-haired
Perry, whose skin was a warm brown in the sun that broke through the pines, flanked Kieran.
The wolven was the only one who didn’t wear the gold and steel armor—because of…reasons.
Kieran carried something. A small box. As we drew closer, Reaver landed among the
wildflowers, shaking the nearby half-standing walls. His horned head swiveled in the direction of
the approaching group. Emil and Perry wisely gave Reaver a wide berth while Kieran ignored
the draken’s presence.
I knew something had happened the moment I saw the tension bracketing Kieran’s mouth,
but I picked up nothing from him.
His emotions were shielded, and that wasn’t normal at all.
I looked at the others more closely. There was no half-wild grin or teasing glint in Emil’s
golden eyes either. Tart uneasiness drifted from Perry. When Emil didn’t pause to make an
elaborate display of kneeling, the unease tripled.
I glanced at the box again, and everything in me slowed. My heart. My breathing. The
wooden box was no bigger than the length of the wolven dagger sheathed to my thigh but
adorned with blood-red rubies. “What’s that?”
“A Royal Guard brought it to the Rise of Massene,” Emil answered, his knuckles bleached
white from clutching the hilt of his sword. “He was alone. Said he traveled day and night from
the capital. All he had was that small chest. He said it was for the Queen of Atlantia, from the
Queen of Solis.”
The back of my neck tightened. “How did she know we were here?” I looked between them.
“There’s no way word could’ve traveled to Carsodonia that quickly.”
“Good question,” Kieran said. “It would be impossible for her to know.”
But she did.
My gaze flicked to the box once more. “And where is the Royal Guard now?”
“Dead.” An icy blast accompanied Emil’s lingering shock. “As soon as he finished
speaking, he stood right there and slit his damn throat wide open. I’d never seen anything like
“That doesn’t bode well.” Tiny bumps erupted all over my skin as my gaze fell to the
wooden box. A gift? “Have you opened it?”
Kieran shook his head. “The Royal Guard said only your blood could open it.”
I frowned as Reaver stretched his long neck, eyeing what Kieran held.
“He had to be talking about old magic—Primal magic.” Perry’s handsome features were
drawn tight by tension. “If one knew how to use Primal magic, they could create wards or spells
that would work in a way that only responded to certain blood or bloodlines. They could use the
magic for almost anything, really.”
“It’s the same kind of Primal magic that created the Gyrms,” Kieran reminded me.
I suppressed a shudder at the image of the faceless creatures made of eather and dirt that
were conjured forth. The Unseen had created them, but it was now abundantly clear that the
Blood Queen had gained knowledge of the old magic—how to tap into the Primal essences that
created the realms and was around us at all times.
My muscles tensed even further as I stared at the box. Malec would’ve known all about old
Primal magic that was now forbidden. “What am I supposed to do? Cut a vein and bleed on it?”
“Let’s not cut a vein open,” Kieran advised.
“A drop or two of your blood will probably suffice,” Perry suggested as Delano moved
between us, brushing against the Atlantian’s legs. Perry reached down, running his hand along
the length of Delano’s back.
“How do you know so much about Primal magic?” I asked as I reached for the box. Kieran
held on, clearly reluctant to let go. My gaze flew to his, my senses opening. Then I felt
something from him. It was tart in the back of my throat. Unease. A muscle flexed in his jaw as
he let go of the surprisingly lightweight box.
“My father,” Perry answered, and I thought of Lord Sven as I turned, looking for a flat
surface on which to place the box. I found a portion of wall that stood about waist high. “He’s
always been fascinated with the old Primal magic, collecting anything written about it that he
could get his hands on.” There was a rough chuckle. “Spend any amount of time with him, and
he’ll start telling you how there used to be spells that could guarantee a successful yielding of
crops or make it rain.”
“Has he ever tried to use Primal magic?” I sat the box on the flattest section of a nearby
“No, Your Highness.”
A shaky breath left me as I glanced at Perry. “You don’t have to call me that. We’re
“Thank you, Your—” He caught himself with a faint smile. “Thank you, Penellaphe.”
“Poppy,” I whispered absently.
“Poppy,” Perry repeated with a nod. “My father, he wouldn’t dare anger the Arae or even
the sleeping gods by using such magic.”
“The Arae?” It took a moment for the image of Priestess Analia and the heavy tome called
The History of The War of Two Kings and the Kingdom of Solis to creep into my thoughts. I
remembered. “The Fates.”
“Yes,” Perry confirmed.
I remembered Tawny and I once talking about them, and the whole idea of beings that could
either see or control the outcome of the lives of every living creature seemed utterly unbelievable
to both of us. But then again, I hadn’t believed in Seers or prophecies either.
I turned back to the box. “Lord Sven’s knowledge of Primal magic may come in handy.
He’ll be arriving with Valyn, won’t he?”
Kieran stepped in close, his earthy scent surrounding me, reminding me of the woods
between Castle Teerman and the city Atheneum. “I don’t know about this, Poppy.” He touched
my arm. “There could be anything in that box.”
“I doubt she placed a venomous viper in there,” I replied as I tugged the glove off my left
hand, shoving it into the pocket of my sweater coat.
“She could’ve placed any manner of venomous or poisonous things in that box,” he
countered, his voice low. “I don’t like this.”
“I don’t either, but…” I turned my left hand over, revealing the golden swirl across my
palm. The marriage imprint. Then I withdrew the wolven dagger from its sheath. “I need to
know.” I lowered my voice as I met Kieran’s stare. “I have to.”
The hard press of his mouth tightened, but he nodded. Reaver’s shadow fell over us as he
watched. The bloodstone shone a deep red as I quickly dragged the tip of the sharp blade over
my thumb. I gritted my teeth at the brief, stinging pain. Blood welled as I sheathed the dagger.
“Where do you think I should place my blood?” I asked, my hand steady.
“I would try the latch in the center,” Perry suggested, inching closer.
I didn’t hesitate, smearing my blood over the small metal latch shaped very much like a
keyhole—without a hole. I pulled my hand back and waited.
Perry leaned in. “Maybe try—”
Then something happened.
A faint, reddish-black shadow seeped out from the seam as the box cracked open. Emil
cursed…or maybe said a prayer. I wasn’t sure. He lurched forward as Kieran threw out his arm
as if he sought to edge me away, but the rippling shadow quickly disappeared. The Atlantian
halted as the lock unlatched with a click, and the lid cracked open.
My stomach dipped. In the back of my mind, I acknowledged that the sight of such a thing a
year ago would’ve had me backing up and praying to gods I had no idea still slept. I reached for
“Careful,” Kieran murmured, his hand now hovering near mine.
I had a feeling if a viper did spring out of the box, Kieran would catch it with his bare hands.
And I would also scream.
Slowly, I lifted the lid the rest of the way. A pillow of crimson satin appeared within, and
nestled in the center was—
I jerked back, stumbling. Icy shock coated my throat. No one spoke. No one else moved.
Not even Kieran, who stared into the box, his hand still hovering over it. Not even me.
My heart started pounding. My breath quickened. Kieran’s hand trembled and then closed
into a fist.
The wedding band made in Spessa’s End shone a lustrous gold, matching the one I wore.
Always and forever.
The same message was inscribed on both. Neither of us had removed our rings since the
And this one hadn’t been now, either, for it remained on the finger I had placed it on.
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