“Something you will accept, graciously.” Valyn silenced the wolven with one look, and it was quite clear exactly where Casteel had gotten that ability from. “This is as much for your benefit as it is for everyone else. Fight this, and I’m sure Jasper, Kieran, or my son will be at your throat in a heartbeat. And at this moment, I cannot promise that I would move to stay any of them.”
Casteel’s chin lowered, and his smile was as cold as the first breath of winter. The tips of his fangs appeared. “It’ll be me.”
Alastir glanced between Jasper and his Prince. Lowering his hands to his sides, his chest rose with a heavy breath. His wintry blue eyes fixed on Casteel. “You are like a son to me. You would’ve been my son if fate hadn’t had something else in store for all of us,” he said, and I knew he was thinking of his daughter. The sincerity in his words, the rawness of the pain he felt sliced into him, cutting deeply, and fell like icy rain, only increasing when Casteel said nothing. How he’d kept that level of pain hidden from me was stunning. “The truth of what is happening here will be revealed. Everyone will know I am not the threat.”
I felt it then as I stared at Alastir. A surge of…determination and steely resolve pumping hotly through his veins. It was quick, but instinct flared inside me, screaming out a warning I didn’t fully understand. I stepped forward. “Casteel—”
I wasn’t quick enough.
“Protect your King and Queen,” Alastir commanded.
Several of the guards moved, surrounding Casteel’s parents. One of them reached behind his back. Valyn spun around. “Don’t!”
Jasper shot forward, shifting in mid-leap as Eloana screamed out a hoarse cry. “No!”
An arrow struck the wolven in the shoulder, stopping him in midair. He went down, slipping back into his mortal form before he slammed into the cracked marble. I stumbled back, shocked as Jasper went still, a pale, gray color sweeping across his skin. Was he—?
My heart froze at the sound of high-pitched yelps and snarls coming from below the Temple. The other wolven—
An arrow zinged through the air, striking Kieran as he leapt toward me. A scream caught in my throat as I lurched toward him. He caught himself before he fell, his back jerking straight and then bowing. The tendons in his neck stood out starkly as my eyes locked with his. The irises were a luminous blue-silver as he reached for the arrow protruding from his shoulder—a thin shaft leaking a grayish liquid. “Run,” he snarled, taking a stiff, unnatural step toward me. “Run.”
I ran toward him, grabbing his arm as one of his legs buckled. His skin—gods, his skin was like a chunk of ice. I tried to hold him, but his weight was too much, and he hit the ground on his back as Casteel reached my side, folding an arm around my waist. Horrified, I watched the gray pallor sweep over Kieran’s tawny skin, and I…I felt nothing. Not from him. Not from Jasper. They couldn’t be…this couldn’t be happening. “Kieran—?”
Casteel suddenly spun me behind him, a roar of fury exploding from him, tasting of icy-hot rage. Something hit him, knocking him away from me. His mother screamed, and my head jerked up in time to see Queen Eloana shoving her elbow into a guard’s face. Bone cracked and gave way as she rushed forward, but another guard grabbed her from behind.
“Stop! Stop this now!” Eloana ordered. “I command you!”
Terror sank its claws into me as I saw the arrow jutting out of Casteel’s lower back—also leaking that strange, gray substance. But he still stood in front of me, sword in one hand. The sound that rumbled out of him promised death. He stepped forward—
Another arrow came from the Temple’s entrance, striking Casteel in the shoulder as I saw Valyn shove a sword deep into the stomach of a man holding a bow. The projectile pierced Casteel’s leg, throwing him back. I caught him around the waist as his balance faltered, but like Kieran, his weight was too much. The sword clattered off the marble as he went down hard, the long length of his body straining as he kicked his head back. The tendons in his neck bulged as I dropped beside him, not even feeling the impact on my knees. Gray liquid poured from the wounds, mingling with blood as his lips peeled back from his fangs. Veins swelled and darkened under his skin.
No. No. No.
I couldn’t breathe as his wild, dilated eyes met mine. This isn’t happening. Those words repeated themselves over and over in my mind as I bent over, clutching his cheeks with shaking hands. I cried out at the feeling of his too-cold skin. Nothing alive felt this cold. Oh, gods, his skin didn’t even feel like flesh anymore.
“Poppy, I…” he gasped out as he reached for me. A gray film crept across the whites of his eyes and then the irises, dulling the vivid amber.
He went still, his gaze fixed on some point beyond me. His chest didn’t move.
“Casteel,” I whispered, trying to shake him, but his skin—his entire body—had…it had hardened like stone. He was frozen, his back arched and one leg curled, an arm lifted toward me. “Casteel.”
There was no answer.
I opened my senses wide to him, desperately seeking any hint of emotion, anything. But there was nothing. It was like he had entered the deepest level of sleep or was…
No. No. No. He couldn’t be gone. He couldn’t be dead.
Only a handful of seconds had passed from the time Alastir had issued his initial command to Casteel lying before me, his body drained of the vibrancy of life.
I quickly looked over my shoulder. Neither Jasper nor Kieran moved, and their skin had deepened to a dark gray color, the hue of iron.
Panic-fueled agony flooded me, entrenching itself in the area around my pounding heart as I slid my hands to Casteel’s chest, feeling for a heartbeat. “Please. Please,” I whispered, tears gathering in my eyes. “Please. Don’t do this to me. Please.”
I felt nothing in him, Kieran, or Jasper. A hum whirred within the very core of my being as I stared down at Casteel—at my husband. My heartmate. My everything.
He was lost to me.
My skin began to vibrate as a dark and oily, soul-deep rage rose within me. It had a tang like metal in the back of my throat and burned like fire in my veins. It tasted like death. And not the kind that occurred here—the final kind.
Fury swelled and expanded until I could no longer contain it. I didn’t even try to stop it as tears tracked down my cheeks and fell on Casteel’s iron-colored skin. The rage lashed out, pounding the air and seeping into the stone. Under me, I felt the Temple begin to faintly tremble once more. Someone shouted, but I was past hearing words.
Leaning over Casteel, I picked up his fallen sword as I brushed my lips over his still, stone-cold lips. That ancient thing inside me pulsed and throbbed as it had done before as I rose above my husband and turned. A sharp wind whipped across the Temple floor, extinguishing the fire of the torches. The leaves of the blood tree rattled like dry bones as my grip on the short sword tightened. I didn’t see Casteel’s parents. I didn’t even see Alastir.
Dozens stood before me, all garbed in white, holding swords and daggers. Familiar metal masks, those worn by the Descenters, hid their faces. Seeing them now should’ve terrified me.
It only enraged me.
That primal power surged, invading all of my senses. It silenced every emotion inside me until only one remained: vengeance. There was nothing else. No empathy. No compassion.