“Sometimes,” Naill began as he hoisted himself onto his horse, “I do believe Emil has a death wish.”
“Same,” Casteel muttered, and I rolled my eyes.
Emil returned with a very beautiful gray mare that he’d been assured was even-tempered. Setti gave his approval by nudging the mare with his nose as I thanked Emil. “Does she have a name?”
“Storm,” he answered as Casteel checked the straps on the saddle. “Named by the innkeeper’s daughter.”
I grinned as I stroked the fine hairs of the mare’s neck. “It’s nice to meet you, Storm.”
Casteel raised his brows at me from the other side of the horse, but at least he wasn’t ripping Emil’s heart out.
Telling myself that this wasn’t a bad idea, I hoisted myself onto Storm’s back. My stomach flipped and flopped all over the place. I had no idea if Casteel somehow saw my nervousness, but he took the reins, holding them for a bit. Once I got used to the movement and being alone, I took them. Since we weren’t doing anything beyond a quick trot, I felt rather confident that I wouldn’t fall off.
Though, both Casteel and Kieran stayed close to me, riding to my left and right.
“What are you thinking about for the coronation?” Casteel asked as we rode through a wooded area. “Typically, it’s an all-day celebration—a feast along with a ball.”
A feast? Ball? Excitement bubbled up in me. For so many years, I’d wanted nothing more than to join the balls held at Castle Teerman, fascinated by the sounds and laughter, the dresses and artful makeup, and how the anticipation permeated the crowds. It was a reckless sort of happiness. I…I wanted that. To be in a pretty dress, have my hair done, my face painted, and to…to dance with Casteel.
But balls took weeks to plan, and I imagined coronations took even longer. And we didn’t have days to spare to plan such an event.
“I would enjoy a ball,” I said. “But I don’t think we have time for that.”
Casteel nodded. “I think you’re right.”
“Is it something that can be done later?” I wondered. “I mean, after we’re crowned officially and have dealt with the Blood Crown and everything with that?”
A dimple appeared in his right cheek. “Poppy, you will be Queen. You will be able to do whatever you want.”
“Oh,” I murmured as Delano chuckled. I could…I could do whatever I wanted? I blinked as I focused on the road ahead. Anything? That was a unique feeling. A shocking one. I exhaled raggedly. “Then I would—”
An arrow whizzed past my head. I gasped, jerking to the side as Casteel reached over.
“Grab her reins,” he bit out, encircling an arm around my waist.
Cursing, Kieran leaned over, grabbing Storm’s reins as Casteel dragged me onto Setti. Another arrow flew over our heads.
“Motherfuckers.” Naill grunted. Over his shoulder, I saw him glance down at his arm.
“Are you okay?” I shouted as Casteel wheeled Setti to the side, angling himself so his body shielded mine.
“Barely a flesh wound,” the Atlantian growled, baring fangs. “Won’t be able to say the same for those dead fucks.”
I twisted in the saddle. All I saw were bronze masks.
Dozens of them stood in the road, some armed with bows, and others with swords. Gyrms. The skin of their bare chests carried the grayish pallor of something that had never lived.
Then I saw nothing but wolven, streaking over the paved road and through the reedy grass, taking down those who held bows. Their screams were cut short as teeth sank deep into throats. Naill flew past us, shoving his sword deep into the chest of a Gyrm as Vonetta leapt over a fallen Unseen, crashing into the back of another. Several Gyrms breached the wolven, racing toward us as Emil rode past us, throwing a dagger. The blade pierced a mask, sending the Unseen falling backward. There wasn’t even time to feel disappointment over what was happening—that this signified that there were still Unseen hell-bent on preventing me from taking the Crown.
That as Alastir had promised and had proven the night in Saion’s Cove, it hadn’t ended with his death.
“Hold on.” Casteel twisted sharply, swinging his leg off Setti’s back. I held on as he jumped from the horse. He landed without stumbling and then lowered me to the ground. Grasping the back of my head, he tipped his head down. “Kill as many as you can.” Then his mouth was on mine, the kiss quick and raw, a clash of teeth and tongues.
The moment he let go, I reached for the wolven dagger and spun just as Kieran led Setti and Storm off the road—and hopefully out of harm’s way.
Unstrapping his short swords, Casteel stalked forward. “You assholes interrupted a very charming conversation.” He leaned to the side so fast that an arrow aimed for him flew harmlessly beyond him. “And that was incredibly rude.”
Dagger in hand, I shot toward the closest Gyrm. I dipped low as it swung its sword. Popping up behind the creature, I thrust the blade deep into its back and then jumped back to avoid the inevitable gross poof. I whirled around as Delano relieved a Gyrm of its head with his sword. An Unseen rushed from the trees, weapon held high. I waited and then snapped forward, twisting as I kicked out, catching him in the knee. Bone cracked and gave. A muffled scream came from the man as I spun, slamming my dagger into the side of his neck. I jerked, dragging the wickedly sharp blade as I did. The man toppled forward. I turned, scanning those still standing and seeing none in a silver mask or any that carried the bone chain with them.
It was clear that they had no intention of taking me alive.
Another rushed from the trees. It wasn’t a Gyrm. He was smarter—darting to the left and then the right. He swung the sword around as I danced to my right, slamming the blade into a nearby tree. “If I get blood on my new clothing,” I warned as I sprang forward, shoving the dagger into the man’s chest, “I’m going to be very upset.”
“I’ll get you new clothing,” Casteel said, gripping an Unseen’s shoulder as he thrust his sword into his gut.
I jumped back. “But I like this tunic.”
“Holy shit,” Emil grunted from several feet away, facing the woods.
Turning around, my stomach dropped. At least two dozen attackers drifted from the thick shadows of the trees, half Unseen and half Gyrms. The wolven and the others were making quick work of the ones on the road, but there were many, and one of ours was likely to get hurt or worse.
And I didn’t want that.
There would be time later to wonder how the Unseen had learned that we’d be on the road to Evaemon. And at some point, I might think back on how easily and quickly I’d decided to tap into the hum of power building in my chest. About how I didn’t stop to fear whether or not I’d be able to control myself. I just reacted, allowing instinct to take over.
Maybe later, I would even think back to the conversation I’d had with Casteel—the one where I had said I’d give those who stood against me a second chance, and how this was the exact opposite of what I’d said.
Then again, these men and creatures were actively trying to kill me, so maybe not.
I opened my senses wide and let the other side of my gift out, the half that took life instead of giving it. It was a lot like when I healed someone, but in reverse, I realized. My skin began to vibrate as the taste of metal filled the back of my throat. The hot, acidic burn of anger from the Unseen and the stark, frightening nothingness from the Gyrms reached out to me, and I took it—the hatred and even the void, letting it enter my veins and pour into my chest where it joined the eather. Under me, I felt the ground begin to faintly tremble as my gaze swept over those in masks. The primal power of the gods invaded my every sense.