“Poppy, I’m glad you know it was real.” Casteel withdrew his swords. “But we should probably discuss that later, like when we’re not facing an army of the dead?”
“Question,” Delano called out, blade in hand as the top of a skull appeared from the hole nearest him. “How exactly does one kill what is presumably already dead?”
“Like super dead,” Vonetta clarified as the one before her was now halfway out of the hole, a ragged, dull brown tunic draped over the skeleton’s shoulder. Through the torn clothing, I saw a twisted mass of dirt beat behind its ribs.
Casteel moved as fast as bottled lightning, thrusting his sword into the chest of the skeleton and piercing the lump of dirt. The skeleton shattered, sword and all, breaking apart into dust. “Like that?”
“Oh,” Vonetta replied. “All right, then.”
I turned as Kieran shoved his sword into the chest of one. There were about a dozen holes behind us—a dozen skeleton guards halfway out of the ground. Another image filled my mind, one not of my mother but of a woman with silvery-white hair—the one I’d seen in my mind while I stood in the Chambers of Nyktos. She’d slammed her hands into the dirt, and the ground had cracked open, bone fingers digging their way out.
“Her soldiers,” I whispered.
“What?” Casteel demanded.
“These are her—”
Free from whatever hole it had literally crawled out of, one of the skeleton soldiers rushed toward me, lifting its sword. Slipping the dagger free from my chest harness, I snapped forward, thrusting the blade into the mess of throbbing dirt. The skeleton exploded as another took its place. Behind it, another skeleton soldier lifted its sword. Kicking out, I planted my boot in the soldier’s chest, pushing it back into another. Casteel shot forward, stabbing his sword into the dirt heart of the one closest to him. I spun, slamming my dagger into the chest of the skeleton, wincing as the blade nicked bone before hitting the heart.
“Cutting off the head does not work,” Emil shouted, and I turned to see a…a headless skeleton tracking the dumbfounded Atlantian. “I repeat. It does not work!”
Vonetta whirled, thrusting one sword through the chest of a soldier, and her other blade through the headless skeleton. “You,” she said to Emil, “are a mess.”
“And you are beautiful,” he replied with a grin.
The female wolven rolled her eyes as she spun, taking down another as Emil shoved his sword into the chest of one coming at him.
Casteel shoved a soldier back as he jabbed the sword through its ribs. Behind him, a soldier raced toward him. I shot past Casteel, stabbing the creature in the chest—
The ground trembled once more. New geysers of dirt erupted, streaking into the air. “You have got to be kidding me,” Kieran growled.
I spun around, heart thudding as…hundreds of eruptions happened across the barren ground, from the side of the Mountains of Nyktos, all the way to the stone women. These soldiers were faster, tearing out of the holes in a matter of heartbeats.
“Good gods.” Vonetta stumbled back into Emil. He steadied her before they turned to stand back-to-back.
A skeleton soldier ran forward on bony feet, sword raised. Its jaws unhinged, opening wide to reveal nothing but a black void and the sound of screaming wind. The force blew my braid back and tugged at my tunic.
“Rude,” I muttered, nearly choking on the scent of stale lilacs.
Black, oily smoke spilled from the skeleton’s mouth, thickening and solidifying as it poured to the ground, forming thick ropes that slithered forward—
“Oh, my gods!” I shrieked. “Not ropes! Not ropes! Snakes!”
“Holy shit,” Delano gasped as Casteel shoved his sword through the back of the screaming skeleton. “That is so not right.”
“I regret the decision to join you all,” Emil announced. “I regret this decision very much.”
Snakes. Gods. I hated snakes. Bile rose in my throat as I danced out of the way of the serpents. My scream built in my throat as several of the other skeletons howled. More black smoke followed. More snakes.
Twisting, I shoved my dagger into a soldier’s chest. I would have to table what I was seeing and deal with the lifetime of nightmares later.
Casteel took out a soldier as he slammed his boot down on a snake. The smoke-serpent flattened into an oily stain, turning my stomach.
I’d also have to vomit about that later.
“Poppy.” His head jerked up. “I know you said you didn’t think you should use the eather, but I really think now would be a good time to go full deity on these fuckers.”
“Second that,” Vonetta called as she kicked a serpent away from her. It landed near her brother, who shot her a dirty look.
I had to agree as I thrust my dagger into the chest of a soldier. The freaking smoke serpents outweighed whatever risks using the eather in Iliseeum introduced. I sheathed my daggers. Focusing on the hum in my chest, I let it come to the surface of my skin. No, I realized. I summoned it to the surface. Silvery-white light crowded the sides of my vision as it sparked over my skin—
The skeleton soldiers turned toward me. All of them. Their mouths opened as they screamed. Smoke poured from the voids, falling to the ground.
“Oh.” Kieran straightened. “Shit.”
That didn’t remotely articulate what I felt as hundreds of serpents slithered over the earth, around the holes. Cursing violently, Casteel stomped his boot down again. The soldiers moved in unison, sprinting toward me—
In my mind, I didn’t picture the fine webbing. I needed something faster, more intense. Something final. And I didn’t even know why, but I thought of the torches inside the Temple of Nyktos and their silvery flames.
Gods, if I was wrong, I wouldn’t be the only one regretting this, but I pictured the flames in my mind, silvery white and intense. My hands warmed and tingled. My entire body throbbed with heat—heat and power. I didn’t know if it was instinct or if it was because the serpents were so close, but I lifted my hands.
Silver-white flames spiraled down my arms and erupted from my palms—erupted from me. Someone gasped. It could’ve been me. The fire roared, licking the ground and catching the serpents. The creatures hissed and screeched as the flames consumed them. The inferno rolled across the land, hitting the skeletons with a wave of flames. Crackling, fiery light streaked between Casteel and Kieran, washing over the soldiers there and then spread out from me, following exactly what I saw in my mind, burning only the skeletons and serpents, leaving everything else untouched. And then I pulled back the eather, picturing it receding and returning to me. The fire pulsed intensely, straining toward Casteel and the others as if it wanted to consume them, too, but I didn’t want that. The flames turned bright white, spitting sparks high into the air and then fizzling out until only faint wisps of pale smoke remained.
Everyone was staring at me.
“I…I didn’t know if that would work or not,” I admitted.
“Well…” Vonetta drew the word out, her pale eyes wide. “I’m sure I’m not the only one who is grateful that it did.”
I looked down at my hands and then up, finding Casteel. “I guess I am the Queen of Flesh and Fire.”