We traveled on, wary of the stability of the tunnel. Again, it felt as if we continued on for a small eternity, but the sudden and familiar scent of lilac sent a bolt of hope through me. Pressing through the narrow turn, a pinprick of light appeared in the darkness.
We had reached the end of the tunnel and Iliseeum.
“Mist,” Casteel announced. “I can see it coming through the opening.”
I tapped his shoulder when he didn’t move. “Cas.”
He growled low in his throat but flattened himself against the wall, holding the torch high. As I passed him, I pressed a quick kiss to his cheek.
“That doesn’t help,” he grumbled.
I would’ve smiled, but I saw it—tendrils of thick mist seeping into the opening in the tunnel, drifting toward us. I moved forward, sending up a prayer that Jasper had been right about my ability to pass through the mist and that my suspicion that it would not only allow me to do so but also scatter, making it safe for the others, was true.
The Primal magic rose from the floor of the cavern, forming wispy fingers as it stretched out toward me. I lifted my hand.
“I don’t like this,” Casteel muttered from behind me.
“It shouldn’t hurt her,” Kieran reminded him, but concern bled into his words.
The mist brushed against my skin, the feel of it cool and damp and alive. The eather retracted, lowering to the ground and then disappearing.
I exhaled roughly, looking over my shoulder. “It’s okay.”
Casteel nodded, and I moved ahead. The opening wasn’t all that large, only about three feet high and two feet wide. “You’ll have to crawl through.”
“Just go slowly,” Casteel advised. “We have no idea what is on the other end.”
“Hopefully, not a draken looking to serve up some flame-broiled red meat,” Emil muttered from somewhere in the darkness.
“Well, that put a pleasant image in my mind,” Delano replied.
Hoping for the exact same thing as Emil, I went down on my knees and inched through. “Hold on,” I told them. There was more mist, so thick it was like the clouds had descended to the ground. I reached out tentatively, and the magic scattered and thinned as bright sunlight penetrated what remained of the fog. Squinting at the sudden light after being in the dark for so long, I slid out, my knees and hands skimming from stone to sandy, loose dirt.
One hand going to the blade at my chest, and the other to the wolven dagger on my thigh, I stood and took a step forward.
The ground trembled faintly under my feet. I froze, looking down to see tiny rocks and clumps of sand and dirt shiver. After a heartbeat, the trembling ceased, and I lifted my gaze. The mist had completely disappeared, and I was able to take my first look at Iliseeum.
My lips parted as my hands fell away from my daggers. The sky was a shade of blue that reminded me of the wolven’s eyes, pale and wintry, but the air was warm and smelled of lilacs. My gaze swept over the landscape. “Gods,” I whispered, lifting my chin as my gaze crawled up and up the massive statues carved out of what I assumed was shadowstone. They were as tall as the ones I’d seen in Evaemon, those that had appeared to scrape the sky, and there had to be hundreds of them standing in line, continuing on to the left and right as far as I could see. Maybe even thousands.
The statues were of women, their heads lowered. Each hand held a stone sword that jutted forward. The stone women had wings sprouting from their backs, splayed wide, each touching the wings of the ones standing on either side of them. They formed a chain of sorts, blocking whatever resided beyond. You could only pass through under the wings.
They were beautiful.
“Poppy?” Casteel’s voice neared the opening. “You okay out there?”
“Yeah. Sorry.” I cleared my throat. “It’s safe.”
Within a handful of moments, Casteel and the rest made their way out, coming to stand beside me in silence. They all stared at the statues, their wonder bubbly and sugary.
“Are they supposed to represent the draken?” I asked.
“I don’t know.” Casteel’s hand touched my lower back. “They’re stunning, though.”
They truly were. “I guess we walk ahead and see if what they’re guarding is what we’re looking for.”
We started to cross the barren land, searching for any signs of life. There was nothing. No sound. Not even a breeze or the distant call of a bird.
“This is kind of creepy,” I murmured, looking around. “The silence.”
“Agreed. Perhaps this should be called the Land of the Dead,” Delano said as he walked under the shadowed wing of a stone woman.
A faint tremble stirred the ground under our feet. Casteel threw out a hand. We all stopped. “This happened before,” I told them. “It stopped—”
The ground erupted in several geysers all around us, sending clouds of dirt into the air and spewing small rocks in every direction.
“I’m assuming that didn’t happen last time,” Vonetta remarked.
“Nope.” I threw up a hand as clumps of dirt pelted my face and arm, and the ground burst open between Casteel and me.
Another funnel of dirt exploded directly in front of Emil, forcing him back several steps. He coughed. “That was rude.”
The ground steadied as the dust and dirt fell back to the earth. “Is everyone still with us?” Delano asked, wiping at his face.
“Careful.” Casteel knelt near the opening between us. “This is one hell of a hole.” He looked up, meeting my gaze and then Kieran’s. He rose slowly. “I have a feeling we may have triggered something.”
“Triggered what?” Emil asked, peering over the edge, squinting. “Wait.” His head tilted to the side. “I think I—holy shit!” Jumping back, he stumbled over his feet, catching himself a second before he landed on his ass.
“What?” Vonetta demanded, reaching for her swords. “Details. They would be helpful at the—”
Between Casteel and I, the bleached bones of a hand appeared, fingers digging into the loose soil.
“What in the world of nightmare fuel is this?” Casteel muttered.
Those fingers were connected to an arm—an arm that was nothing more than a skeleton. The top of a skull appeared. My eyes widened in horror. Dirt poured out of empty eye sockets.
“Skeletons!” Vonetta shouted, unsheathing her swords. “Couldn’t you have said that you saw skeletons in the hole?”
Casteel cursed as another bony hand appeared, this one clutching a sword in its grip.
“Armed skeletons!” Vonetta yelled. “Couldn’t you have said you saw armed skeletons in the hole?”
“Sorry.” Emil unhooked his swords. “I was kind of taken aback by the sight of fully functional, fucking skeletons with weapons. My apologies.”
I stared at the sword—the blade was as black as the statues. The same kind of blades I’d seen in the crypts with the deities. “Shadowstone.” An image of my mother flashed before me, of her pulling a slender, black blade from her boot. “Their blades are like the one my mother had. That had to be a real memory.”