“Poppy!” Casteel gripped my arm as I clutched at my head, tore at my hair as those claws kept digging in. Panic filled his eyes as wet warmth gushed from my nose, from my ears. “No. No. No.” He pulled me to his chest as he twisted toward her. “Please. I beg you. Stop. Please, godsdamn it. Stop! I’ll do anything. You want Atlantia? It’s yours—”
“You are not the true heir,” she cut him off. “You cannot give me what I want.”
“She can’t give it to you if you kill her,” he shouted as my teeth bled. “You want to control her? You want me, then. Take me. I won’t fight you. I swear. I won’t. Just stop. Please.” His voice cracked.
Consciousness was slipping away as I fell further and further into the soul-shredding pain. I could barely hear their words or understand them. I was losing the ability to make…thoughts, but I heard that—heard Casteel begging, and through the torrential pain, I shook my head. I took those screams roaring through me and all those frayed slivers of thought to form one word, over and over. “No. No. No,” I whispered and screamed as all the light went out around me because I would rather be dead. I’d rather be—
“You’re killing her. Please,” Casteel pleaded. “Please, stop.”
“You. Oh, you have always been my favorite pet. And when she wakes, she’ll know how to keep you alive,” she replied, her voice fading and draining away until I wasn’t sure that what I heard was real. “Malik. Retrieve your brother.”
And then there was nothing.
My head throbbed endlessly, and there was a metallic taste in my mouth when I opened my eyes. Fragments of sunlight drifted through the thick branches of an elm.
“Poppy?” Kieran’s face leaned over mine. My head…my head was in his lap. “You there?”
I swallowed, wincing at the pain. “I think so.” I started to sit up. “Where are we?”
“In the woods just outside of Oak Ambler,” Hisa answered as Kieran helped me up. I rubbed my aching head as I squinted. Hisa’s features were stark.
I kept looking as my mind slowly cleared away the fog. Delano sat beside Naill, who stood with a hand over his heart. Emil and Vonetta knelt beside the…beside a prone body. “Tawny?”
“She’s alive.” Emil looked up quickly, his eyes haunted. “But she’s been wounded.” He stepped aside, and I saw the darkness staining the rose color of her gown around the shoulder. “The bleeding has stopped, but…”
Vonetta pulled the collar of Tawny’s gown aside, and I inhaled a shaky breath. Her veins stood out under the rich brown skin, thick and black. “I don’t know what this is.”
I rose, unsteady. My clothing was stiff with blood. Some was mine, but most of it had belonged to Ian. “I can help her.”
“I think you should just sit back down for a little bit.” Kieran was on his feet beside me.
Pressing a hand to my head, I kept looking and kept…searching the patchy memories. The sound of crunching, breaking bones came back to me. “Lyra?”
Kieran shook his head.
My heart started thumping as I slid my hand to my sore throat. Isbeth. “Where is Casteel?”
Vonetta turned back to Tawny, her shoulders tight—too tight.
A tremor rippled through me. The hum in my chest pushed and expanded, and my heart—my soul—twisted because I already knew. Oh, gods, deep down, I already knew the answer. I cracked as I drew in a too-shallow breath.
I stumbled around in a circle. My eyes locked with Kieran’s as I felt my broken heart crack even more. “No,” I whispered, stepping back and then toward Tawny. I needed to help her, but I bent, doubled over. “No. He didn’t.”
“Poppy,” Kieran whispered. “There was nothing we could do. Cas…he handed himself over. We had to leave. Isbeth said Tawny was a gift—a sign of her goodwill. One that she said she hoped you would return.”
“No.” Tears rushed my eyes as I tried to make myself go to Tawny. My stomach dropped as I jerked straight and looked at my left palm. The imprint was still there. I closed my hand and then my eyes, and I saw Ian…I saw him falling. I heard her laughing. I heard him begging. “No. No.” I gripped the hair that had come free, pulling until I felt my scalp burn. I could hear Casteel saying: “I was nothing more than this thing without a name.” That was what she’d done to him. What she would try to do again. “No. This wasn’t supposed to happen.”
“Poppy,” Delano said, and I hated how he said my name, how softly he spoke it. I hated the sorrow pouring into the air around him, soaking my skin. I shook my head, twisting toward Vonetta.
“We’ll get him back,” Vonetta promised, but she…she couldn’t make that promise. “We will, Poppy.”
Kieran inched closer, his hands at his sides. “Look at me, Poppy. “
Still shaking my head, I backed up. I couldn’t catch my breath. I couldn’t breathe again as my chest throbbed with eather. The pain tore through me—the pain and fear because Ian was gone, and I knew what would happen to Casteel. I knew what they would do to him—I knew what she would do because I knew what she had already done to him, to Malik, and to Ian.
My gaze fell on Tawny, and I…
Throwing back my head, I screamed as the rage erupted from me. Over and over, I saw Ian falling. Over and over, I heard Casteel shouting—begging for her to stop. Lightning ripped through the sky, heating the air. A deafening boom of thunder exploded, rattling the trees and sending birds flying in every direction. Hisa and the guards froze. Delano pressed back, bumping into Naill. They began to back up slowly—away from me as my fury charged the air, whipping up a storm. And in the distant parts of my mind, I realized it had always been me. It hadn’t been the gods that’d caused the storms. It hadn’t been Nyktos. The blood rain had been them, but this…this was me—the violent stir of energy colliding with the world around me. It had always been me—this absolute power.
But I…I wasn’t me.
I wasn’t the Queen of Flesh and Fire.
My chest rose and fell as my fingers spread wide. I was vengeance and wrath given form, and in the moment, I was exactly what Alastir and the Unseen feared. I was the Bringer of Death and Destruction, and I would tear down the walls they sought to protect themselves with. I would rip apart their homes, scorch their lands, and fill their streets with blood until there was nowhere to run or hide.
And then I would destroy them all.
Streaks of silver-white energy crackled off my skin as I turned back to the edges of the woods, toward the city.
“Poppy. Please—” Vonetta shouted, leaping in front of me.
I threw out my hand, and she skidded through the tall grass. I stalked forward, the wind whipping overhead. Leaves snapped and fell. Trees bent under the weight of the rage pouring out of me, their limbs slamming into the ground all around me.
“Poppy!” Vonetta’s scream was caught in the wind. “Don’t do this!”
I kept walking, the ground trembling under my feet, the image of Ian collapsing, of Lyra being struck down, playing over and over to the sound of Casteel begging—begging her.