Alastir’s words came back to me at that moment. “You are dangerous now, but you will become something else entirely later.”
Unease exploded in my gut, dispersing the silver cords in my mind. These people deserved whatever I dealt to them. What Alastir had said didn’t matter. If I killed them, it wouldn’t be because I was unable to control myself. And it wasn’t because I was unpredictable or chaotically violent like the deities were supposed to be. I just wanted them to taste their emotions, for that ugliness to be the last thing they felt. I wanted that more than—
I wanted that too much, when I shouldn’t want it at all.
I didn’t enjoy killing, not even the Craven. Killing was merely a harsh reality, one that shouldn’t be desired or enjoyed.
Unsettled, I sucked in dry air and did what I had to when I was in a crowd or around someone who projected their emotions into the space around them. I shut my senses down, forcing the silvery webbing of light from my mind. The hum in my chest calmed, but my mind didn’t. I’d stopped myself. That’s all I needed to know to prove that what Alastir had said wasn’t true. I wasn’t a chaotic, violent entity incapable of controlling myself.
Kieran came to my side, angling his body so he could see me and everything happening around us. He unhooked his cloak. “Are you okay?”
“I’m not a monster,” I whispered.
He stiffened. “What?”
Swallowing hard, I shook my head. “N-nothing. I…” I watched King Valyn strike down another masked man. He and his son fought with the same kind of gracefully brutal force. “I’m fine.”
Kieran draped the soft material over my shoulders, startling me. “You sure about that?”
“Yes.” My gaze flicked to his as he secured the button just below my neck. It was then that I remembered I wore nothing but the thin, bloody slip. He pulled the halves together. “Thank you. I’m…I’m going to sit this one out.”
“I want to thank the gods,” Kieran muttered. “But now you really have me worried.”
“I’m okay.” My gaze followed Casteel as he spun, knocking a sword from a Protector’s hand. The blade clattered on the stone floor as Casteel drew his sword back, prepared to deliver a fatal blow. Moonlight glinted off the man’s facial covering—a silver mask.
“Casteel, stop!” I shouted. He halted, his chest rising and falling with his heavy breaths as he leveled his sword at Jansen. Later, I would marvel over the fact that he had stopped without hesitation. Without question. I walked forward. “I made him a promise.”
“Thought you were sitting this one out,” Kieran stated as he kept pace with me.
“I am,” I told him. “But he’s different.”
Casteel stiffened at my words and shot forward so quickly that I thought he might deliver the fatal blow anyway. But he didn’t. He gripped the front of the silver mask and ripped it aside.
“Son of a bitch.” He tossed the mask to the floor.
Jansen’s eyes darted between Casteel and his father. “She will—”
“You need to shut the fuck up,” Casteel snarled as he stepped to the side.
I stalked forward, the stone cool under my bare feet as Kieran followed. As I passed Casteel, he pressed the hilt of his sword into my palm, and his bloodied lips touched my cheek.
“Poppy,” he said, and the sound of his voice punched a small hole in the wall I had built around my gifts. Everything he felt in the moment reached me. The hot acidity of rage, the refreshing, woodsy feeling of his relief, and the warmth of everything he felt for me. And given what he’d experienced before, the bitterness of fear and panic.
I shuddered as I stared at Jansen. “I’m okay.”
Casteel squeezed my hand that now held his sword. “None of this is okay.”
He was right.
It really wasn’t.
But I knew what would make it a little okay, right or wrong.
I pulled free from Casteel. “What did I promise you?” I asked Jansen.
The Royal Guard commander reached for his fallen sword, but I was faster, thrusting the sword out. Grunting, he staggered back, dropping to his knees. Glaring up at me, he folded his hands over the blade as if he could actually stop what was about to happen. “I told you that I’d be the one to kill you.” I slowly pushed the blade into his chest, smiling as I felt his bones break under the pressure of the sword as it met softer tissue. Blood bubbled out of the corner of his mouth. “I keep my promises.”
“As do I,” he rasped, the life fading from his eyes as his hands slipped from the blade, the skin of his palms and fingers torn open by the sharp edges.
As do I?
Without warning, something jerked me back with such force that fiery pain erupted in my chest. I lost my grip on the sword. The movement was so sudden, so intense, that I felt nothing for a moment as if I’d become detached from my body somehow. Time stopped for me, but people were still moving, and I saw a flash of Jasper as he leapt onto a Protector’s back, his teeth clamping down on the masked man’s throat. Something fell from the man’s hand. A bow…a crossbow.
Slowly, I looked down. Red. So much red everywhere. A bolt protruded from my chest.
Stunned, I looked up, my eyes locking with Casteel’s. There was barely any amber visible as the kind of horror I’d never seen before settled into his features. His shock blasted through my protective walls, overwhelming my senses.
I opened my mouth and tasted an awful metallic taste in the back of my throat. Viscous liquid bubbled up with each breath I tried to take, spilling over my lips. “Casteel…?”
Pain surged through my entire body, all-consuming and total. The agony came in wave after wave, shortening each breath I took. I’d never felt anything like this. Not even the night at the inn. All my senses shorted out, shutting down my gift. I couldn’t feel anything beyond the searing misery burning through my chest, my lungs, and every nerve ending.
Oh, gods, this kind of pain brought a razor-edged terror with it. A knowledge that I couldn’t escape. I felt slippery, wet, and cold inside. I took a breath as I reached for the bolt. Or tried to. Whatever air I sucked in, I choked on, and what made it past my throat crackled and bubbled in my chest. My fingers slipped on the smooth surface of the bloodstone bolt, and my legs—they just disappeared. Or seemed to. My knees buckled.
Arms caught me, stopping my fall, and for a heartbeat, the scent of lush spice and pine overshadowed the iron-rich smell of blood pumping from the wound. I lifted my head.
“I’ve got you. It’s okay. I’ve got you.” Wide, dilated, amber eyes locked with mine—wild. His gaze was wild as he quickly glanced down at my chest. When he refocused on my face, he said, “You’re going to be okay.”
I didn’t feel okay. Oh, gods, I didn’t feel right at all.
Movement stirred the air as Kieran appeared at our side, his normally dusky skin so, so pale. He placed his hand on the base of the bolt, trying to stanch the blood.
The touch was torment. I twisted, trying to move away. “It…it hurts.”
“I know. I’m sorry. I know it hurts.” Casteel glanced at Kieran. “Can you see how far it went in?”