Ashley clutched her chest. She didn’t know what to do, but she couldn’t run. Not if there was even a possibility of leaving Arwan behind. Who was she kidding? There was no way out even if she did run. She’d probably just die in the—
Ashley froze. Her gaze slowly dropped to her hands, outstretched in front of her with her fingers spread. They looked normal enough. Like her hands. Her normal, everyday hands. Tendons and veins buried under skin. Long, thin fingers. A scar on her left thumb from where she cut herself in the kitchen when she was a kid. Was that how the hands of a dead person looked? Just like normal hands?
The tempo of the drum grew faster, and Ashley’s attention was pulled back to the scene in front of her. She searched the temple’s peak, but whomever, or whatever was there, was gone.
The people turned back toward the temple. Ashley watched them part like the Red Sea as the creature glided toward her over the stone path. Blood still coated one of his arms and dripped from what was left of his fingertips, leaving a trail upon the ground.
The chants were too low to understand at first. Ashley strained her ears to figure out what they were saying. The entire city mumbled in unison to the beat of the drum until the mumbles grew louder, and the word they repeated was clear enough to make out.
Houn. Houn. Houn.
They repeated his name in a low, ominous tone as if trying to instigate him. It was the deity they had come to see.
The bearer of souls.
With his bloodstained hand, Houn reached out to Ashley. A thick drop of scarlet plumped on the curve of his knuckle and swelled until it fell to the dusty earth. Ashley swallowed.
Standing eye to eye with a god was a lot like standing eye to eye with a priest. Physically he wasn’t much larger than her, but what he represented made him seem ten feet tall. She could feel his power radiating on to her. The weight of his energy nearly pushed her back.
Houn slowly dropped his hand. He hadn’t spoken a word. She figured he couldn’t, though she knew by now that nothing was impossible.
He turned and stared at the top of the temple. Ashley followed his gaze, and couldn’t help but glance at the leather sack strapped to his back. There was where he carried the souls.
A man appeared at the top of the altar. He was so far away, but she could make out the shine of his tailored suit and the gloss of his black hair.
Her light burst to life. It was a relief to know at least some of her abilities still worked—until the sick heat rushed through her body, and dark hues of violet shined from her chest. It projected all around her, and she clung to the boulder, scorching her skin.
Her limbs went numb and she sank to the ground. Her head bowed, and on her knees, she held in view a pair of shined dress shoes standing in front of her beside the brass foot of a wooden cane.
Her gaze left the cane, swept up to the creased slacks, and stopped on a two-button jacket. His skin completely intact, Ashley’s mouth fell open as Sarian leered down at her with a heinous grin.
He held out his hand. The soul bearer stood to the side, as if giving allowance to the general of the realm.
Sarian snatched her hand and held it in his with an iron grip. She struggled to pull away, but he pinched her fingers painfully together while his thumb made small circles over her skin.
She wanted to scream but knew it would be useless, so she rose to her feet as his eyes morphed with shades of purple and black.
Sarian was enjoying this. That much was obvious by the way he held his head high, chest pushed out and chin tipped up, arrogance beaming from his face. “You are in my kingdom now, young guardian. There is no safe haven for you here.”
It wouldn’t be long until she found out what exactly he meant. When she did, she was afraid Renato’s worries would be all too justified.
While he led her down the stone path, his fingers snaked over hers. He flashed a serpentine smile, and paused at the temple’s base. The sick heat in her chest wrapped around her lungs. “I had no doubt you would eventually make the right decision, my queen.”