I pushed past the panic and the fading, drowning feeling, the sensation that none of this felt real. My lips moved. I made them, but no sound came out.
He threw back his head and roared. He roared, and the sound echoed around us, through me. Under me, the stone cracked and opened. Thick, ropey roots spilled out, the color of ash. Kieran fell back on his ass as they came down over my legs, over Casteel’s back. A tree grew. It grew so fast. Lightning tore through the sky again, one strike after another, turning night to day as thick, glistening bark stretched high, forming hundreds of branches. Tiny golden buds sprouted, filling the branches. They blossomed, unfurling into blood-red leaves.
Casteel’s head snapped down, his eyes feral and lost as they’d been the morning he woke from the nightmare. He caught one of the roots as it fell over my stomach and stared at it for a moment before he broke it, tossing it aside. “I cannot let you go. I won’t. Not now. Not ever.” His hand moved to my cheek, but I barely felt it. “Kieran, I need you to pull the bolt out. I—I can’t—” His voice shattered. “I need you. I can’t do that.”
“You’re going to…” Kieran rocked forward. “Fuck. Yeah. Okay.” He tore through the roots. “Let’s do this.”
Kieran gripped the bolt. “Good gods, forgive us,” he uttered. “You’ve got to be fast. You’ll have seconds if you’re lucky, and then…”
“Then I will deal with what comes next,” Casteel stated bluntly.
“No,” Kieran argued. “We will deal with what comes next. Together.”
“Casteel, stop!” his father yelled. “I’m sorry, but you can’t do this!” I heard panic. So much panic filled his voice, it flooded the air. “You know what will happen. I won’t allow this. You can hate me for the rest of your life, but I will not allow this. Guards, seize him!”
“Get them away from me,” Casteel snarled. “Get all of them away from us, or I swear to the gods, I will rip their hearts from their chests. I do not care if a heart belongs to one who gave me life. You will not stop me.”
“Look around you!” his father shouted. “The gods are speaking to us right now. You cannot do this—”
“The gods will not stop me, either,” Casteel swore.
The rolling rumble shook the ground, but it was faster and greater. Howls and yips exploded between blasts of thunder. There were…there were screams. High-pitched wails of pain, and throaty, vibrating growls. Jasper prowled into my line of sight, crouching so he was over my legs, standing between Kieran and Casteel. I caught a glimpse of white fur, circling and circling. The sounds the wolven made—the keening, mournful howls—haunted every too-thin, too-short breath I managed.
“No one is getting close to us.” Kieran shifted forward. “If they do, they won’t be standing for long.”
“Good,” Casteel said. “I’m not going to be much of a…” A veil of darkness slipped over me, and I felt as if I were starting to fall. He faded out and then came back. “…she may be different… Promise me you will keep her safe.”
“I will make sure both of you are safe,” Kieran told him.
The next thing I heard was Casteel’s voice. “Look at me,” he ordered, turning my head toward his. My eyelids were too heavy. “Keep your eyes open and look at me.”
My eyes opened, answering his will, and I… I couldn’t look away as his pupils constricted.
“Keep looking at me, Poppy, and listen.” His voice was soft and deep, and it was everywhere, all around me and inside me. All I could do was obey. “I love you, Penellaphe. You. Your fierce heart, your intelligence and strength. I love your endless capacity for kindness. I love your acceptance of me. Your understanding. I’m in love with you, and I will be in love with you when I take my last breath and then beyond in the Vale.” Casteel lowered his head, pressing his lips against mine. Something wet glanced off my cheek. “But I have no plans to enter the Vale anytime soon. And I will not lose you. Ever. I love you, Princess, and even if you hate me for what I’m about to do, I will spend the rest of our lives making up for it.” He jerked back, exhaling heavily. “Now!”
Kieran yanked the bolt free, and that—that pierced the cold numbness that had enveloped my body. My entire body jerked, and it kept jerking and twitching. Pressure clamped down on my skull, my chest, expanding and twisting—
Casteel struck as fast as the lightning. He pulled my head back and sank his teeth into my throat. Confusion rose. Hadn’t I already lost enough blood? My thoughts were murky, and what Casteel was doing was slow to make sense. He was….
Oh, gods, he was going to Ascend me.
Terror dug its claws into me. I didn’t want to die, but I didn’t want to turn into something inhuman, either. Cold and violent and without a soul. And that’s what the Ascended lacked, wasn’t it? That’s why I couldn’t feel anything from them. There was no soul to fuel the emotions. They were incapable of even the most basic feelings. I didn’t—
Red-hot pain scattered all my thoughts, shocking my already faltering heart. The sting of his bite didn’t ease when he closed his mouth over the wound. It wasn’t replaced by the sensual, languid pull as he drew my blood into him. There was no glorious, seductive heat building. There was only fire on my skin and inside me, burning through every cell. It was way worse than when I’d been trapped in the carriage with Lord Chaney, but I couldn’t fight back now. Nothing worked. I couldn’t move away from the pain. It was too much, and the scream I couldn’t give breath to bounced off my skull and exploded in the sky, in silvery lightning that streaked from cloud to cloud and slammed down onto the ruins of the castle and all around it. The entire world seemed to shudder as crimson leaves drifted from the tree, falling on Casteel’s shoulders, blanketing the length of Kieran’s back and settling in Jasper’s silver fur.
My heart—it faltered. I felt it. Oh, gods, I felt it miss a beat, skipping two, and then sluggishly trying to keep up, to restart. And then it failed. Everything seized in me. My lungs. My muscles. Every organ. My eyes were wide, my gaze fixed as my entire body strained for breath, for relief, and then…death swept in so sweetly, it swallowed me whole. I drowned in its lush, dark spice.
There was no light, no color, and I floated in there for a while, untethered, hollow and cold. I didn’t think. I didn’t feel. I just existed in the nothingness…
Until I saw a speck of silvery light that seemed a world away from me. The illumination throbbed, and with each beat, it expanded. Wispy tendrils seeped out from the edges, stretching across the void. Slowly, I drifted toward it.
Sound came back without warning. A voice so deep and powerful that it found me in the nothing, caught hold of me so I was no longer slipping toward the silvery light. The voice held me captive.
“Drink. Keep drinking,” it ordered. “That’s it. Keep swallowing. Drink, Princess, drink for me…”
The words repeated themselves over and over for what felt like an eternity before they faded away, and I was once again in the stillness. There was no silvery light now. Nothing but a warm and empty darkness with the sweet, comforting scent of…lilacs.