The ​Crown of Gilded Bones

Page 42

But had he failed?


I jerked as my heart jumped. I looked down at Kieran, my skin erupting in tiny bumps. He continued watching Emil with those blue-silver eyes. “Did I—?” I stopped myself. There was no way I had heard Kieran’s voice in my mind. Casteel couldn’t even communicate that way. But hadn’t I heard Delano’s voice earlier? I’d been asleep, though.

“Are you okay?” Emil asked, his concern evident.

“Yeah. Yes.” I quickly bent, picking up the wolven dagger from where I’d placed it on the ground. “I’m ready.”

Quietly, I followed Emil through the thick stand of trees, returning to the firelight of the pavilion. I stopped when Emil lifted a hand for silence. We were still several yards from the pavilion, but I could see Casteel.

He stood in the center of the structure, arms at his sides, his head cocked just a bit, revealing only the striking curve of his cheek and a tilt of full lips. Dressed in all black, he looked like a spirit of the night, one called forth to carry out vengeance.

I slipped the dagger under the fold of my cloak as I saw the Guardians lead about half a dozen men out from the back of the Temple, all of them bound with their hands tied behind their backs. Muscles stiffened as Naill led the last one. Alastir’s scarred face was devoid of emotion as they lined him up with the others.

Hatred seared my soul as he and the others were forced to their knees. My parents. Casteel. His parents. Me. All of us had trusted him, and he had not only planned to hand me over to the Ascended but had also ordered my death. And in a way, he hadn’t failed. I had been killed. Casteel had saved me, and I had awoken as something else.

What Alastir believes about me doesn’t matter, I told myself as I watched Casteel prowl forward, moving toward the nameless men who bled the bitter taste of fear into the air. I hadn’t done anything to deserve what Alastir and they had done. I had only defended myself. My parents had only trusted him. My grip tightened on the dagger.

Casteel was so incredibly fast.

I didn’t even realize what he’d done until the man farthest away from Alastir toppled over. Five more followed like dominos, and I didn’t see the moonlight glinting off his slick sword until it stopped a mere inch from Alastir’s neck. He’d severed their heads. All of them except Alastir. In a few heartbeats.

I sucked in the breath that seemed to leave Alastir’s body. The wolven was so still that it was like he was made of stone.

“You betrayed your King and Queen,” Casteel said, his voice showing no emotion. And I…I felt nothing from him as he held the blood-soaked edge of the sword to Alastir’s neck. “You betrayed me, and you betrayed Atlantia. But none of those are the worst of your sins.”

Alastir turned his head just enough to look up at Casteel. “I did—”

“The unthinkable,” Casteel said.

“The prophecy—”

“Is utter bullshit,” Casteel snarled.

Alastir was silent only for a few moments. “I am sorry for the pain I have caused you, Casteel. I had to do it. She had to be dealt with. I hope you will understand that someday.”

A tremor coursed through Casteel as I felt his temper rise, hot as the molten ore used to forge steel. For a moment, I thought that Casteel would do it. That he would end Alastir’s life right there. And, honestly, I wouldn’t have held it against him. If Alastir had done this to Casteel, I wouldn’t be able to stop myself.

But Casteel did.

With awe-inspiring self-control, he pulled the sword away from Alastir’s neck and lowered it, slowly using the tunic Alastir wore to wipe the weapon clean.

The insult heightened the color on Alastir’s cheeks.

“You are responsible for the years of nightmares that have plagued Poppy, aren’t you?” Casteel asked as he finished cleaning his sword. “And then you befriended her. Looked her in the eyes and smiled at her, all the while knowing that you left her to die a horrific death.”

Alastir stared straight ahead. “I did.”

“Those Craven may have been the ones to tear into her skin, but it was ultimately you who is responsible for her pain—for the scars both visible and hidden. For that alone, I should kill you.” Casteel sheathed his sword. “But I won’t.”

“W-what?” Alastir’s head jerked in his direction. “You…you offer me a reprieve?”

“I’m sorry.” Casteel didn’t sound even remotely apologetic. Emil was right. He was amused. “I think you misunderstand. I said I should kill you, but I won’t. I didn’t say you wouldn’t die tonight.” He looked over his shoulder at the trees.

To where I waited.

Emil nodded as he stepped aside.

I walked forward.

A harsh breath was the only sound as I crossed the distance. Alastir’s eyes widened. Our gazes met and held. A guttural rumble of warning came from behind me. Warm fur brushed my hand as Kieran prowled forward, coming to stand beside me.

Heart strangely calm, I held the dagger under the cloak as Alastir looked up at me in shock. “How…?” His handsome, scarred face contorted as his surprise slipped away, and rage etched his features. His hatred was a tangible entity. “Do it. I dare you. It won’t matter. This doesn’t end with me. You’ll prove me right. You will—”

Swinging my arm in a quick, sweeping arc, the bloodstone sliced deep into his throat, ending the poisonous words in a gurgle.

I knelt, catching Alastir by the shoulder before he fell forward. We were at eye-level now, the shock of the wound replacing the hatred in his eyes. I had no idea what mine showed—if they showed anything.

“I will never think of you again after this night,” I promised, wiping the blade clean on the front of his tunic, just as Casteel had. “I just wanted you to know that.”

His mouth opened, but nothing but blood came out. I rose as I let go of him. He toppled, jerking as his blood spilled freely.

“Well,” Casteel drew out the word. “That will not be a quick death.”

Watching the stone turn black in the moonlight for a moment, I looked at Casteel. “I was wrong before. Some don’t deserve the honor of a quick death.”

One side of his mouth quirked, hinting at a dimple as his gaze flickered over my face. “Such a stunning, vicious little creature.”

I turned as Kieran stalked past me to where the body thrashed on the ground. He planted a massive paw on Alastir’s back, his claws digging in as he lifted his head to the sky. A deep howl pierced the silence of the night, echoing through the valleys and over the sea. Tiny goosebumps prickled my skin. The sound was haunting, seeming to hang in the air even after he lowered his head.

A heartbeat passed.

Down below, near the dark sea, a long, keening howl answered. Farther out, there was another and another. Then, throughout the city, hundreds answered Kieran’s call, their yips and barks only overshadowed by the pounding sound against the ground, the rush of their bodies racing among the trees. The thousands of claws digging into soil and stone.

They came.

Like one of the relentless waves crashing against the rocks below, they came in flashes of fur and teeth, both large and small. They came, and they devoured.

Chapter 14

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