The ​Crown of Gilded Bones

Page 7

I was me.

And yet, I was something else entirely.

The sky above was free of clouds, remaining a stunning shade of blue. Blood didn’t rain, but my flesh sparked. Silvery-white embers danced over my skin and crackled as wispy cords stretched out from me, swathing the columns like glistening spiderwebs and flowing across the floor in a network of shimmering veins. My rage had become a tangible entity, a living, breathing force that could not be escaped. I stepped forward, and the top layer of stone shattered under my boot.

Tiny pieces of stone and dust broke away, drifting down. Several of the masked attackers moved back as thin fissures appeared in the statues of the gods. The cracks along the floor grew.

A masked attacker broke from the line, rushing me. Sunlight reflected off the blade of his sword as he lifted it into the air. I didn’t move as the wind picked up the tangled strands of my hair. He yelled as he brought the hilt of the weapon’s handle down on me—

I caught his arm, halting the blow as I shoved Casteel’s blade deep into his chest. Red poured across the front of his tunic as he shuddered, falling to the side. Four more charged me, and I spun under the arm of one as I thrust up the blade, slicing open another’s throat. Blood sprayed as I whipped around, swinging the sword through the metal mask. A sharp, stinging pain raced across my back as I planted my foot in the center of the man’s chest and pushed off as I yanked the blade free of his skull.

A hand grabbed me, and I twisted, slamming the blade deep into the attacker’s belly. I jerked the hilt of the sword sharply as I dragged it through the man’s stomach, voicing the rage inside me with a scream. That rage pulsed into the air around me, and a statue near the back of the Temple broke in two. Chunks of stone crashed to the floor.

Another ripple of pain flowed over my leg. I turned, sweeping the sword in a high arc. The blade met little resistance. A dagger fell into my hand as a head and mask rolled in opposite directions. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw one of the Descenters grab Kieran’s stiff body by the arms. Flipping the dagger in my hand, I cocked back my arm and threw it. The blade struck under the mask, and the attacker pinwheeled backward, clutching at his throat.

Movement caught my attention. A wave of masked assailants raced across the Temple. Silvery-white light edged into my vision as I heard a voice—a woman’s voice—whispering inside me. It wasn’t supposed to be this way.

In a flash, I saw her, hair like moonlight as she thrust her hands deep into the ground. Some inherent knowledge told me that she was where this Temple now stood, but in a different time, back when the world was an unknown place. She threw back her head, screaming with a kind of pained fury that throbbed relentlessly inside me. Silvery-white light drenched the soil, radiating out from where she touched. The ground cracked open, and thin, bleached-white fingers dug out from the dirt all around her, nothing more than bones. Her words reached me once more. I am done with this, all of this.

As was I.

I shuddered, the image of the woman fading as I tossed the sword aside. In the emptiness of my mind, I pictured the glittering cords peeling off the columns. They did so before me, draping over a dozen of the attackers like fine webbing. I wanted them to feel as I did inside. Broken. Twisted. Lost.

Bone cracked. Arms and legs snapped. Backs broke. They fell like shattered saplings.

Others turned away from me, to run. Flee. I would not allow that. They would pay. All of them would taste and drown in my wrath. I would bring this structure down and then rip the entire kingdom apart to ensure it. They would feel what was inside me, what they wrought. Threefold.

Rage poured from me in another scream as I stalked forward, lifting my arms. The cords rose from the floor. In my mind, they grew and multiplied, stretching out beyond the Chambers of Nyktos to the trees and the city below. I started to rise—

In the chaos, I saw him. Alastir stood near the front of the Temple, just out of reach of the pulsating rage and energy. I didn’t sense fear from him. Just acceptance as he stared at me as if he’d expected this.

Alastir met my gaze. “I’m not the threat to Atlantia,” he said. “You are. You have always been the threat.”

Pain exploded along the back of my head, so sudden and so overwhelming that nothing could stop the darkness from rushing me.

I fell into nothing.

Chapter 3

What a pretty little flower.

What a pretty poppy.

Pick it and watch it bleed.

Not so pretty any longer.

I came to, gulping in a deep breath of air that smelled of damp soil and old decay. The horrible rhyme echoed in my aching head as I opened my eyes and gasped, choking on a scream.

Dark, empty eye sockets stared back at me from a dusty, dirty skull.

Heart slamming against my ribs, I shot upright and scuttled back. I made it about a foot when something tightened painfully, sharply jerking my arms and legs. I ground my teeth, stifling a whimper as the skin of my wrists and below my knees burned. Someone had removed my sweater and left me in only the too-thin slip I’d worn under the top. Any concern I might’ve felt over where my sweater and pants had gone, or how the cinched bodice of the slip did very little to hide anything, fell away as I stared at my hands.

Bones… Polished, ivory bones were twisted around my wrists. Bones and…and vines. And some part of them dug into my skin. I carefully drew up one leg, chest rising and falling rapidly as I saw the same just below my knees. Upon closer inspection, I saw that they weren’t vines. They appeared to be some kind of root. Dried blood streaked my calves as I reached for the manacle—

Fiery pain branded my wrists, stopping me. “Gods,” I hissed through my teeth as I carefully leaned back against something hard, damp, and cold. A wall?

Throat dry, my gaze followed the twist of bone and roots to where it connected with the wall. My breath came out in short, uneven pants as I glanced back at the…the thing beside me. Patches of thin, stringy, blond hair hung in clumps from the skull. Only pieces of tattered clothing remained, darkened by age and dirt. I had no idea if it had been male or female, but it had clearly been here for decades—maybe even centuries. Some kind of spear rested against the corpse’s chest, the blade a chalky black. Ice drenched my entire being as I saw the same knotted bones and roots encircling its wrists and ankles. Air lodged in my throat as my gaze lifted to what sat on the other side of the body. More remains, bound in the same manner. And there was another, and another—propped against the entire length of the wall—dozens of them.

Oh, gods.

My wide gaze darted wildly around. Torches jutted out from gray-black columns in the center of the space and farther back, casting an orange glow across…

Horror filled me as I saw several raised stone slabs—long and square boxes situated between two rows of pillars. Oh, gods. I knew what they were. Sarcophagi. Sarcophagi smothered by coiled bone and root chain, the bindings draped over each one.

I was in a crypt.

And it was clear that I wasn’t the first to be held here.

Panic crept up my throat, making it even harder to breathe in the cold, dank air. My pulse pounded sickeningly fast. Nausea rose, cramping my stomach as I searched the shadows beyond the sarcophagi and pillars. I had no recollection of how I’d arrived here or how long I’d—

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