Air halted in my throat as several more torches caught fire, casting an orange glow over heaps of fallen stone and earth that had refused to house new life in the hundreds of years that had passed. Shadows formed, and I heard the sounds of hooves and wheels on packed earth.
“Believe it or not,”—Jansen drew closer, placing his hands on the stone as he leaned over me—“I wouldn’t wish your fate upon anyone.”
My gaze shot to his as anger coated my insides. “I’d be more worried about your fate than mine.”
Jansen stared down at me for a moment and then reached into the pocket of his pants. “You know,” he said, lifting his hand now filled with a bundle of cloth, “at least you knew when to keep your mouth shut when you were the Maiden.”
“I’m going—” He shoved the wad of fabric into my mouth, securing the ends behind my head and effectively silencing my threats. Nausea churned at the taste and the spike of helplessness I felt.
He arched a brow at me before pushing away from the stone slab, his hand falling to the hilt of a short sword. His shoulders tensed, and I wished I could see his expression. He turned from me as others drew swords. “Keep alert,” he barked. “But do not engage.”
The masked men moved out of my line of sight as the creak of carriage wheels ceased. I couldn’t allow myself to think beyond the next second, that very moment, as I watched the torches drift forward, thrust into the ground around the broken remains of Castle Bauer. My heart pounded. I couldn’t believe this was happening. I twisted my head to the side, hoping to dislodge the bindings, but they didn’t move.
Panic swelled as a dark shadow drifted closer to what remained of the steps, then climbed them slowly. A cloaked figure in black and red stood in the middle of the half-fallen walls. I stopped moving, but my heart continued throwing itself against my chest.
This couldn’t be happening.
Two pale hands lifted the hood of the robe, lowering the material to reveal a woman I didn’t recognize, one with hair the color of sunlight, swept back from a face that was all cold angles. She strode forward, the heels of her shoes clicking on the stone. She never once spared a single look at the others. She seemed utterly unafraid of their presence and the swords they held. Her entire focus was on me, and I wondered how either side could share the same space as the other. Could these pretend Protectors’ need to be rid of me, and the desire for the Ascended to reclaim me, be that great? And would the Ascended take me and not attempt to capture all the Atlantians standing among them, all so full of the blood they craved so desperately?
Gods, a sick part of me hoped this was a trap. That the Ascended would turn on them. It would be so very fitting.
I forced myself to show no reaction as the Ascended passed my legs, her lip curling as she flicked her gaze over the bone and root chains. “What is this?” she demanded coolly.
“It’s to keep her…calm,” Jansen answered from somewhere behind me. “You will need to remove them. The gag? Well, she was being quite rude. I suggest you keep that one on for as long as possible.”
Bastard, I seethed silently, watching the Ascended as she came closer.
“She appears quite calm now.” She stared down at me, at my scars, with eyes that swallowed the night. A breath shuddered out of her. “It is her,” she called out to whoever remained in the darkness as she reached for me. Cold fingers brushed my brow, causing me to flinch. Blood-red lips formed a smile. “It will all be okay now, Maiden. We will take you home. Where you belong. Your Queen will be so very—”
The Ascended jerked back without warning as something wet and warm sprayed my face and neck. She looked down at the same time I did, my eyes and hers widening at the sight of the thick bolt now embedded deep in her chest.
Her lips peeled back, and she let out a high-pitched snarl, revealing jagged fangs. “What in the—?”
Another bolt tore through her head, shattering bone and tissue. The sight was so unexpected and so sudden that I didn’t even hear the shouts at first. All I could do was stare at the spot where she’d stood—where her head had been. Suddenly, something large and white leapt into my line of sight, taking down a masked man.
A wealth of relief rose so swiftly within me that I cried out, the sound muffled by the gag. They were here. They’d found me. I cranked my head to the side and back, straining to look as far as I could see. Another wolven raced forward, this one large and dark. It shot across the castle ruins’ floor, its powerful muscles tensing as it launched over one of the half-fallen walls. The wolven disappeared into the night, but a sharp screech from the darkness followed. The wolven had captured an Ascended.
My head whipped to the right, and I shuddered at the sight of Kieran. He looked nothing like the last time I’d seen him, his skin now a warm shade of brown against the black of his clothing. I started to reach for him, and the action ended in a hiss of pain.
With a curse, he grabbed hold of the gag and pulled it free from my mouth as his pale eyes swept over me. “How badly are you injured?”
“I’m not.” I forced myself to remain still as I ignored the cottony feeling the gag had left behind in my mouth. “It’s these bonds. They’re—”
“The bones of a deity.” Disgust curled his lip as he reached for the one lying just below my throat. “I know what they are.”
“Careful,” I warned. “They have spurs in them.”
“I’ll be fine. You just…don’t move,” he ordered, the muscles of his bare arm straining as he pulled on the first row of bindings.
A thousand questions rose, but the most important one came out first. “Casteel—?”
“Is currently disemboweling some idiot in a godsdamn Descenter mask,” he answered, gripping the bone and roots with both hands. Even though that sounded extremely grotesque, I turned my head to the other side, trying to find him—
“Keep still, Poppy.”
“Then try harder,” Kieran snapped, his eyes narrowing on the ravaged skin of my wrists. “How long have you been in these things?”
“I don’t know. Not that long,” I said. The look Kieran shot me told me that he knew I lied. “Are all of you okay? Your father?”
He nodded as a broad-shouldered male appeared several feet behind Kieran, the man’s blond hair pulled back in a knot at the nape of his neck. Shock trickled through me as the male turned to the side, shoving his sword into a man’s chest as he ripped off the Descenter mask.
It was Casteel’s father. He was here. Maybe it was hunger or the residual panic of being seconds away from being in the clutches of the Ascended once more. Perhaps it was everything that Alastir had told me. Either way, tears climbed my throat as I stared at King Valyn. He was here, fighting to free me.
“I think my father is currently venting his anger by tearing through the Ascended with Naill and Emil,” Kieran told me.
“It looks like Casteel’s father is doing the same.” I breathed through the raw emotions coursing through me. I couldn’t believe Valyn was here. It was incredibly dangerous for him to be this far from Atlantia. If any of the Ascended knew it was him dressed in all black, they would swarm him. He had to know the risks, but still he was here, helping Casteel. Helping me.