Set in the ever-popular Blood and Ash world but taking place many years before, Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Flesh and Fire series continues this week, and you can read Chapter One right here.
“You are the heir to the lands and seas, skies and realms. A Queen instead of a King. You are the Primal of Life,” Nyktos—the Asher, the One who is Blessed, the Guardian of Souls and the Primal God of Common Men and Endings—rasped. Those lips of his that had whispered heated words against my skin and had also spoken cold, brutal truths were now parted. Wide, silver eyes churning with streams of luminous eather—the essence of the gods—fixed on mine. A sort of awe and wonder softened the cold lines of his high, broad cheekbones, his blade-straight nose, and cut jaw.
Wavy, reddish-brown hair fell against golden-bronze cheeks as he lowered himself to one knee, placing his left hand flat on the throne room floor and his right palm over his chest.
Nyktos was bowing to me.
I recoiled from him. “What are you doing?”
“The Primal of Life is the most powerful being in all the realms, usurping all other Primals and gods,” Sir Holland said. Except he was no longer the man I once knew as a knight of the Royal Guard of Lasania, or a mere mortal. He was one of the Arae—an actual, godsforsaken Fate, neither god nor mortal. Able to see the past, present, and future of all, the Arae weren’t beholden to any Primal Court.
Fates were as terrifying as any Primal, and I couldn’t even begin to count how many times I’d kicked him.
“He is showing you the respect you are owed, Sera,” Holland added as I continued staring at Nyktos.
“But I’m not the Primal of Life.” I stated the obvious.
“You carry the only true embers of life inside you,” Nyktos said, and that deep, softly spoken voice sent a myriad of shivers over my skin. “For all intents and purposes, you are the Primal of Life.”
“He speaks the truth.” The goddess Penellaphe drew closer, coming to stand beneath the open ceiling. The star-strewn sky cast a soft glow over her warm, light brown skin. “Denying it isn’t a luxury which can be afforded.”
“But I’m just a mortal—” My lungs felt as if they’d been filled with tiny holes, and Nyktos was still bowing to me. “Can you please stand or sit? Anything other than kneel? It’s really weirding me out.”
Nyktos’s head tilted, sending several strands of hair against his cheek. “You are the true Primal of Life, just as my father was. As Holland said, it’s a show of respect.”
“But I don’t des—” I cut myself off, my heart thumping and chest squeezing. The eather in his eyes stilled. “Can you just not do that? Please.”
The Primal rose quickly, the wisps of essence in his eyes brightening so vividly they were almost painful to look upon. He towered over me, his stare seeming to peel away the layers of my very being, seeing…sensing what I felt.
I stiffened, my skin becoming hot and prickly. “You’d better not be reading my emotions.”
Nyktos arched a dark brow. “Your accusatory tone is unnecessary.”
“And your response wasn’t a declaration of innocence,” I retorted. Penellaphe’s eyes flared wide.
“No.” His voice had dropped, but it still somehow thundered through me. “It was not.” “Then don’t do it,” I snapped. “It’s rude.”
Nyktos’s mouth opened, likely to point out that I was the last person who should speak on rude behavior.
“You have never been just a mortal, Seraphena.” Holland stepped in smoothly, just as he’d done dozens of times in the past whenever I’d descended into a rant spiral. “You are the possibility of a future for all.”
He’d said a version of that before during training, but it took on a whole different meaning now. “But I haven’t completed any Culling, and you just said that I would…” Closing my eyes, I didn’t finish the sentence.
Everyone here knew what had been said.
Breathe in. My mortal body and mind wouldn’t be able to handle the power of the embers once I began the Ascension. The only chance I had of surviving wasn’t even a hope. Hold. Because it required the blood of the Primal that one of the embers of life belonged to—that and sheer will powered by love.
The love of the Primal I’d spent the entirety of my life planning to kill. It didn’t matter that I’d believed it was the only way to save my kingdom.
The irony of it all made me want to laugh, except I was going to die. Likely in less than five months and before I turned twenty-one, taking the last true embers of life with me. The mortal realm would be hit first and the hardest. Eventually, the Rot would spread beyond the Shadowlands to all of Iliseeum.
I exhaled long and slow, just like Holland had taught me many years ago, when everything became too heavy, too much, and the weight of it all choked the air from me. My impending death wasn’t something new. I’d always known. Whether I failed or succeeded when it came to fulfilling my destiny, I knew I would die in the process.
But it felt different now.
I’d finally had a taste of being something other than a means to an end, a weapon to be used and then discarded. I’d had a taste of realness. I’d finally felt like a fully formed person, not a specter soaked in blood. Not a liar and a monster who could kill without all that much remorse.
But that was who I was underneath it all, and Nyktos now knew that, too. There was no more hiding that truth—or any truths.
My lungs started to burn as tiny bursts of light danced across my vision. The breathing exercises weren’t working. A tremor hit my hands, and panic unfurled in my chest. There was no air—
Fingertips touched my cheek. Warm fingertips. My eyes flew open, locking on features so finely pieced together I should’ve known the first time I saw him that he was more than a god. His touch startled me, not only because it was warm instead of shockingly cold as it had been before he took my blood into him, but because I still wasn’t used to touching. I wasn’t sure I ever would be when it had always been so rare that anyone allowed their skin to contact mine.
But he touched me. After everything, Nyktos touched me.
“Are you all right?” he asked, his voice low.
My tongue was heavy and useless, having nothing to do with my too-tight chest and everything to do with his concern. I didn’t want it. Not now. It was wrong on so many different levels.
Nyktos stepped in close, lowering his head until his lips were mere inches from mine. A shiver followed his hand as he curled his fingers around the nape of my neck. His thumb gently pressed against my wildly thrumming pulse. He tilted my head as if lining up our mouths for a kiss as he’d done in his office before meeting with Holland and Penellaphe. But that would never happen again. He’d told me that himself.
“Breathe,” Nyktos whispered.
It was as if he’d compelled the very air itself to enter my body, and it tasted of his scent— citrus and fresh air. The darts of lights cleared, and my lungs expanded with breath. The shaking continued in my hands as his thumb swept across my pulse, now racing for entirely different reasons. He stood so close to me that there was no stopping the flood of memories—the feel of his mouth against my throat, and his hands on my bare skin. The pain-tinged pleasure of his bite as he fed from me. Him moving inside me, creating the kind of pleasure that wouldn’t be forgotten and warmed my blood even now.
I’d been Nyktos’s first.
And he…he would be my last, no matter what happened from this point forward.
Sorrow crept in, cooling my heated blood and settling in my chest with a different, thicker kind of pressure. At least I no longer felt as if I couldn’t catch my breath.
“She has trouble slowing her heart and breathing sometimes,” Holland shared quietly—and unnecessarily.
“I’ve noticed.” Nyktos’s thumb continued those featherlight sweeps while I inwardly cringed. He probably thought…only the gods knew what he thought.
I didn’t want to know.
Face heating, I backed away from Nyktos’s touch, hitting the edge of the dais. His hand hovered in midair for a few seconds, and then his fingers curled inward. He dropped his arm as I turned to the raised platform. I focused on the hauntingly beautiful thrones sculpted from massive chunks of shadowstone. Their backs had been carved into large and widespread wings that touched at the tips, connecting the seats. I wiped damp palms against the patches of dried blood on my breeches.
“You are both positive that no one else knows what she is?” Nyktos asked.
“Besides your father? Embris knows the prophecy,” Penellaphe answered, referencing the Primal God of Wisdom, Loyalty, and Duty as I pulled myself together. I faced them. This was too important for me to miss while having a mini breakdown. “And so does Kolis. Neither knows more than that.”
The eather stirred once more in Nyktos’s eyes at the mention of the Primal Kolis, who every mortal—including myself until recently—believed to be the Primal of Life and the King of Gods. But Kolis was the true Primal of Death. The one who’d impaled gods on the Rise surrounding the House of Haides just to remind Nyktos that all life was easily extinguished—or so I assumed. And it was a logical assumption. Nyktos’s father had been the true Primal of Life, and Kolis had stolen Eythos’s embers.
I fought the shudder, thinking over the prophecy Penellaphe had shared. The part about the desperation of golden crowns could be related to my ancestor King Roderick and the deal he’d made that’d started all of this. But prophecies were only possibilities, and they were… “Prophecies are fucking pointless,” I muttered aloud.
Penellaphe turned her head to me, raising a brow.
I grimaced. “I’m sorry. That came out worse than I intended.”
“I’m curious exactly how you intended that statement,” Nyktos wondered. I shot him an arch stare. “But I do not disagree.”
I stopped glaring at him like I wanted to stab him.
“I understand the sentiment,” Penellaphe said with a bemused expression. “Prophecies can often be confusing, even to those who receive them. And, sometimes, only bits and pieces of a prophecy are known by one—the beginning or the end—while the middle is known to another and vice versa. But some visions have come to pass, both in Iliseeum and in the mortal realm. It’s hard to see this since the destruction of the Gods of Divination and the passing of the last of the oracles.”
“Gods of Divination?” I’d heard of the oracles, rare mortals who had lived long before my birth and were able to communicate directly with the gods without having to summon them.
“They were gods able to see what was hidden to others—their truths—both past and future,” Penellaphe explained. “They called Mount Lotho home and served in Embris’s Court. The oracles would speak to them, and they were the only gods truly welcomed by the Arae.”
“Not the only gods welcomed,” Holland corrected softly.
Penellaphe’s rosy blush momentarily distracted me because there was definitely something going on there.
“Penellaphe’s mother was a God of Divination,” Holland continued. “That is why she was able to share a vision. Only those gods and the oracles could receive the visions the Ancients— the first Primals—dreamt.”
“I don’t have her other skills—the ability to see what is hidden or known,” Penellaphe added. “Nor have I received any other visions.”
“The consequences of what Kolis did when he stole the embers of life were far-reaching. Hundreds of gods were lost in the shockwave of energy,” Nyktos explained. “The Gods of Divination took the hardest hit. They were all but destroyed, and no other mortal was born an oracle.”
Sorrow crept into Penellaphe’s expression. “And with that, what other visions the Ancients dreamt, and may only be known to them, have now been lost.”
“Dreamt?” I lifted my brows.
“Prophecies are the dreams of the Ancients,” she explained.
I pressed my lips together. Most of the Ancients, being the oldest of the Primals, had passed on to Arcadia. “Uh. I did not know prophecies were dreams.”
“I don’t think that piece of knowledge will help change Sera’s opinion of them,” Holland said wryly.
Nyktos huffed out a dry laugh.
“No, I imagine not.” Penellaphe smiled, but it faded quickly. “Many gods and mortals have been born without hearing or seeing even one prophecy or vision, but they were far more common at one time.”
“The vision you had?” I asked. “Do you know which Ancient dreamt it?”
She shook her head. “That is not known to those who receive them.”
Well, of course not. But it didn’t matter since the Ancients had entered Arcadia ages ago.
“Prophecies aside, I Ascended Bele when I brought her back to life.” Bele wasn’t a Primal—at least not technically. Her brown eyes had turned the silver of a Primal, and the gods here in the Shadowlands believed that she would now be more powerful, but none knew exactly what it all meant. “That was felt, right?”
“It was,” Penellaphe confirmed. “It wasn’t as strong as when a Primal enters Arcadia, and the Fates raise another to take their place, but every god and Primal would’ve felt the shift of energy that occurred. Especially Hanan.” Worry pinched her brow. As the Primal of the Hunt and Divine Justice, Hanan oversaw the Court that Bele had been born into. “He will know that another has risen to a power that could challenge his.”
“But there is nothing that can be done about that.” Nyktos crossed his arms over his chest. “No,” Penellaphe agreed softly. “There is not.”
“Only those present when you brought her back know you Ascended Bele.” Nyktos looked at me. “Neither Hanan nor any other Primal knows the full extent of what my father did when he placed the embers of life in the Mierel bloodline.”
A whoosh went through my stomach at the reminder of the even bigger shock and blow that had been dealt. I didn’t know how to come to terms with learning that I’d lived countless lives that I couldn’t remember. That I had been Sotoria, the object of Kolis’s love—his obsession— and the very thing that had started all of this.
I’d thought the stories of the mortal girl who’d been so frightened upon seeing a being from Iliseeum that she had fallen from the Cliffs of Sorrow were just some bizarre legend. But she’d been real. And Kolis had been the one who’d scared her so badly.
How could I be her? I ran from no one and nothing—well, except serpents. But I was a fighter. A—
“You are a warrior, Seraphena,” Holland had said. “You always have been. Just like she learned to become.”
I pressed my fingers into my temple. I knew Eythos and Keella, the Primal of Rebirth, had done what they believed best. They’d captured Sotoria’s soul before it passed to the Vale, preventing Kolis from bringing her back to life. Their actions had thus started a cycle of rebirth that had ended with my birth. But it felt like another violation. Another choice stripped away from her. Not me. We might have the same soul, but I wasn’t her. I was…
You are just a vessel that would be empty if not for the ember of life you carry within you.
Nyktos’s words had been harsh when he’d spoken them, but they were the truth. From birth, I had been nothing more than a blank canvas primed to become whatever the Primal of Death desired, or to be used in whatever manner my mother saw fit.
I sat on the edge of the dais, fighting the pressure as it threatened to return to my chest. “I saw Kolis not that long ago.”
Nyktos’s head jerked toward me.
I cleared my throat, unable to remember if I had told him this or not. “I was in the audience when Kolis arrived at the Sun Temple for the Rite. I was in the back and had my face covered, but I swear he looked directly at me.” I forced a swallow. “Do I look like her? Like Sotoria?”
Penellaphe’s hand went to the collar of her taupe gown. “If Kolis had seen you and you’d looked like Sotoria, he would’ve taken you right then.”
The ragged breath I exhaled left a misty cloud behind as a sudden bone-deep chill entered the chamber. My gaze shot to Nyktos.
His skin had thinned, and deep, dark shadows blossomed beneath his flesh, reminding me of how he’d appeared in his true form. His skin had been a kaleidoscope of midnight and moonlight, his wings much like a draken’s but made of a solid mass of eather—power.
He looked like he was about to go full Primal again. “Sotoria didn’t belong to him then, and Seraphena doesn’t belong to him now.”
I could count on one hand how many people called me by my full name, and none of them spoke it like he did. As if it were a prayer and a reckoning.
“I don’t know what Sotoria originally looked like,” Holland said after a few moments. “I didn’t follow her threads of fate until after Eythos had come to ask what—if anything—could be done about his brother’s betrayal. All that I do know is that she didn’t appear the same with each rebirth. But it’s possible that Kolis sensed traces of eather in you and believed you were a child of a mortal and a god—a godling or a god entering their Culling.”
I nodded slowly, forcing my thoughts past the whole Sotoria thing. I had to. All of that was just too much. “But what I did has already drawn their attention. It’s not like we can pretend it hasn’t happened.”
“I know,” Nyktos remarked coolly. “I expect I will have numerous unwanted visitors.”
“Being his Consort will offer you some level of protection,” Penellaphe said, looking at Nyktos. “Until then, any Primal could make a move against her. Even a god. And it would be unlikely you’d have the other Primals’ support if you retaliated. The politics of our Courts?” Penellaphe sent me a sympathetic grimace. “They are rather archaic.”
That was one way to describe them. Cutthroat was another.
“But a coronation won’t be without its risks,” Penellaphe added. “Most of the gods and Primals from all nine Courts, including yours, will show for the ceremony. They should follow the customs, which prohibit…conflict at such events. But as you know, many like to push that line.”
“Do I ever…” Nyktos muttered.
The goddess winced. “Kolis doesn’t make a habit of joining such festivities, but…”
“He knows something is here. He already sent his dakkais and draken, as I’m sure you know.” Nyktos pinned Holland with a hard stare, and the Arae arched a dark brow. “Kolis hasn’t shown in the Shadowlands since he betrayed my father, but that doesn’t mean he can’t. I assume that if you know whether he can or cannot enter the Shadowlands,” he said to Holland, “it’s something you won’t be able to answer.”
“Unfortunately, you would be correct,” Holland confirmed, and I wondered if knowing and not being able to say anything was more frustrating than having no knowledge at all.
Probably not, considering how annoyed I was.
Despite the temperature of the room returning to normal, a chill broke out across my skin as I thought of what could come. “What will happen if Kolis enters the Shadowlands?”
“Kolis can be unpredictable, but he’s no fool,” Nyktos said. “If he can enter the Shadowlands and comes to the coronation, he won’t try something in front of the other Primals and gods. He believes he’s the fair and rightful King of Gods, and he likes to keep up the façade, even though the Primals know better.”
“But if he—” I started.
“I won’t let him lay a finger on you,” Nyktos swore, his eyes flashing.
My heart tripped. While that was a nice vow for him to make, I knew it stemmed from the knowledge that I carried the embers of life in me. And because Nyktos was decent. Protective. Good. “Thanks, but I’m not worried about what will happen to me.”
Nyktos’s jaw hardened. “Of course, not.”
I ignored that. “What will Kolis do if he realizes you’re shielding someone who carries the embers of life?” I demanded. “Or discovers that I carry Sotoria’s soul? What will he do to the Shadowlands? To those living here? I want to know what my presence will cost you.”
“Your presence will cost me nothing.” Shadows deepened once more beneath Nyktos’s flesh.
“Bullshit,” I said, and the silver of his irises shifted to iron. “I don’t need to be protected from the truth. It’s not like I’ll be so frightened by it that I’ll run off a nearby cliff.” Holland sighed.
“That’s good to know,” Nyktos replied dryly. “But I am more concerned about you running in a very opposite direction.”
I lifted my chin. “I don’t know what you mean.”
“Bullshit,” he parroted, and my eyes narrowed. He was right. I absolutely knew what he meant.
“Kolis already knows that there is something here with the power to create life,” Penellaphe interjected, ignoring the furious glare Nyktos sent her. “But as Nyktos said, Kolis is no fool. He sent the dakkais as a warning. A way of showing Nyktos that he is very much aware.”
“But that was after I brought Gemma back,” I said. Gemma was one of the third sons and daughters given over during the Rite to serve the Primal of Life and his Court. A tradition honored and respected throughout all the kingdoms in the mortal realm.
An honor that had become nothing but a nightmare under Kolis’s rule.
Gemma had been one of the few that Nyktos had secreted away from Kolis’s Court with the aid of gods like Bele and others and then sheltered in the Shadowlands. He gave them sanctuary. A sliver of peace.
The things my mere existence threatened.
Gemma hadn’t gone into detail about what her time spent in Kolis’s Court had been like, but she hadn’t needed to for me to know that being Kolis’s favorite for a while wasn’t anything pleasant. Whatever had been done to her was bad enough that when she’d spotted one of the gods from Kolis’s Court in Lethe, she had panicked. So afraid of being sent back to him, she had run into the Dying Woods—where certain death awaited her.
“He hasn’t responded to what I did to Bele,” I continued. And then added, “As far as I know.”
“Only because I imagine that act caught him off guard,” Penellaphe mused. “Neither he nor anyone else would’ve expected that.” She glanced at Nyktos. “He hasn’t summoned you?”
“Is that the truth?” I demanded.
Nyktos nodded. “I can only delay in answering his summonses. I can’t deny them.”
“He’s likely cautious right now,” Penellaphe said. “And I imagine he’s also very curious, considering exactly what could be hidden away in the Shadowlands, how it could be possible for embers of life to exist, and how he could make use of whatever this source of power is.”
“Aid him in whatever twisted ideal of life he believes he’s creating,” Holland tacked on.
“You know what he’s been doing to the Chosen who have gone missing?” Nyktos’s gaze sharpened on him. “These things called Revenants?”
“I know that what he calls Revenants are not the only mockery of life he’s managed to create.” Holland’s dark gaze locked on Nyktos. “And you’ve already seen what he’s had a hand in creating. What some of the gods of his Court have been doing in the mortal realm.”
Nyktos’s brows pinched together, and then he glanced at me. “Your seamstress.”
It took me a moment to realize he meant my mother’s seamstress. “Andreia Joanis?” Before I found her dead, I’d seen the god Madis near her home in Stonehill, a district that faced the Stroud Sea. Her veins had darkened, staining her skin as if ink filled them, and her eyes…they had been burned. Nyktos had been following Madis that night, and he’d ended up there. He too had believed she was dead. “She came back to life or something. Sat up and opened her mouth. She had four fangs I do not recall her ever having before.”
Holland barked out a short, guttural word in a language I didn’t recognize as he turned his head, spitting on the ground.
My brows flew up. “Come again?”
“Craven?” Nyktos’s eyes narrowed as he recognized whatever Holland had said.
The Fate nodded. “It is what becomes of a mortal when their life force—their blood—is stolen from them, and the loss isn’t replenished. It does not matter who the mortal was before. The act rots them, in body and in mind, turning them into amoral creatures driven by an insatiable need for blood. Craven.”
Nyktos had gone still. “The act of killing a mortal while feeding has been forbidden since the dawn of time.”
“And that outcome is why,” Holland said. “It is a balance.”
I threw up my hands. “How in the hell is turning a mortal into something like that a balance?”
“The balance here demands that the life taken is then restored to serve as a reminder to the gods that their inability to control themselves has consequences. Maintaining balance isn’t always as simple to understand as it is when, say, the Primal of Life restores a mortal’s life.” His eyes fixed on mine. Hard. All-seeing. “Another’s life must be forsaken in their place.”
I sucked in a sharp breath, my stomach hollowing. “The night I brought Lady Marisol back to life, my stepfather, the King of Lasania, died in his sleep.” I hadn’t even considered that it had anything to do with my actions. “Good gods. I killed my stepfather?”
“No,” Nyktos cut in, his eyes narrowing on the Fate. “You didn’t.”
I stared at Nyktos. How could he be so sure of that? Because it sure sounded like I had.
“It was not intentional,” Holland said. “But it was her time. You intervened, upset the balance, and it had to be righted.”
“By whom?” I demanded. “Who decides how balance is restored?”
Holland looked back at me.
I stiffened. “You?”
“Not him,” Nyktos answered. “The Arae in general. They are like…cosmic cleaners.”
I had no idea what to say to that. Or how to feel—well, other than guilty. And I should feel that because while King Ernald hadn’t exactly been the greatest leader, he hadn’t been bad. Except I really didn’t feel anything but passing shock and a touch of shame. Like when I killed and knew I would barely think of it later.
And that disturbed me.
I disturbed myself.
But I couldn’t dig deeper into that at the moment because that hadn’t been the only life I’d restored. “And if a god is brought back? Does balance demand the death of another god?” “Luckily, no,” Nyktos said. “It has only ever applied to mortals.”
“That doesn’t sound entirely fair,” I muttered. It was a relief to know that I hadn’t killed another god, but I had sentenced a nameless, faceless mortal to death when I brought Gemma back. “Would have been good to know that.”
Holland eyed me. “Would that have changed your actions?”
I snapped my mouth shut. I couldn’t answer that.
“But now you know what you already knew. Some lessons will always be painful to learn.”
His smile was sad and gentle. And, thankfully, brief. “Either way, if this Andreia had not been killed, she would’ve left her home and attacked the first person she came into contact with— man, woman, or child.”
“Did Madis do that to her?” Nyktos asked.
“I believe Madis was attempting to…rectify what one of Kolis’s creations left behind.” Holland tipped his chin slightly. “And that is all I can say about those matters. I do not know much more. But revealing anything else could be considered interference.”
“And he’s already walking a very fine line,” Penellaphe reminded us, but mostly Nyktos, whose glare had narrowed on the Fate. “But at this moment, what Kolis is doing isn’t our greatest concern, nor should it be yours.”
I wasn’t sure I agreed with that.
“You asked what Kolis would do to get to the embers of life. He would find a way to obtain them. Perhaps he wouldn’t use his cruelest methods to do so”—her brilliant blue eyes dimmed, becoming haunted—“but if he were to realize who you once were, he would stop at nothing to have you.”
“Penellaphe,” Nyktos warned.
“It’s the truth,” she said, turning to him. “You cannot hide that from her. You may not be able to even try to do so.”
“You have no idea what I am capable of doing when necessary,” Nyktos told her.
“True,” she said, her voice gentling. “But you know exactly what Kolis is capable of. As do I. He would burn through the Shadowlands to obtain his graeca.”
In old Primal language, graeca meant life. But as Aios had said, it was also interchangeable with the word love.
Gemma had been the first I’d heard use the word graeca. She’d said that Kolis had often spoken of his graeca and that she believed it was related to whatever he was doing with the missing Chosen who returned as something different and not quite right. Something cold. Lifeless. Hungry.
I barely suppressed a shudder. “And what would he do to Nyktos if he attempted to shield me from Kolis?”
“You do not need to worry about that.” Nyktos twisted toward me.
“Are you serious?” I exclaimed. “We’re talking about the same person who killed your mother and father. Who impaled gods on the wall of your Rise to remind you that all life was fragile.”
“It’s not like I’ve forgotten that.” Bright wisps of eather flared in his eyes again. “Whatever he will or won’t do doesn’t change anything. I will handle Kolis.”
I shook my head, my frustration growing. “He could kill you—”
“No, he cannot,” Holland interrupted. My head swung to him. “As I’ve said, there must always be balance. In everything—even among the Primals. Life cannot exist without Death, and they should not be one and the same.”
“Wait.” I dropped my hands to my knees. “You mean like a…a Primal of both Life and Death? Is that possible? Because you said should not. You didn’t say could not.”
“Anything is possible,” Holland replied. “Even the impossible.”
Struggling for patience, I stared at him. “That was such a remarkably helpful statement. Thank you.”
“What he means to say is that such a thing, a Primal of both Life and Death, is not meant to exist,” Nyktos said. “It would be unthinkable for the embers of both to thrive in one being. But if they could?” He gave a short laugh with a raise of his dark brows. “The kind of power they’d wield? It would be truly absolute. They could unravel realms in the same breath they created new ones.”
“There would be no stopping such a being,” Holland added. “There could be no balance. Therefore, the Fates ensured long ago that such power must be split and that an absence of either ember would cause a collapse of all the realms. It wouldn’t be like the Rot—a slow death. It would be sudden and absolute for all. Kolis cannot Ascend another Primal to take the place of a fallen. By killing Nyktos, he’d doom himself. He understands that much, at least.”
Yeah, except I had technically done that with Bele, paving the way for her to replace Hanan if he fell.
But knowing that Kolis wouldn’t kill Nyktos was a relief. Still, how could he be sure what Kolis would or wouldn’t do? He couldn’t. Kolis didn’t sound like the most rational Primal.
Frustration surged through me. “What does Kolis even want? What is his goal with these creations of his?”
Holland snorted. “That is a good question.”
“One you know the answer to and can’t share?” I countered.
“I actually don’t know,” he said. “Fates don’t know the inner workings of one’s mind.” Fates also weren’t at all helpful.
“He wants to rule over all—Iliseeum and the mortal realm,” Nyktos answered. “The Courts in Iliseeum would replace the kingdoms in the mortal realm. There would only be him and his sycophants, and mortals would be put in their place—or so he believes. Beneath those greater than them. And I imagine the mockery of life he has been creating is being done in an attempt to aid his cause.”
So Kolis was creating an army of mortals controlled by hunger? Unnerved, I squeezed my knees until I felt the bones beneath my fingers. “That can’t be possible.”
Holland opened his mouth.
“If you say that anything is possible, even the impossible, I might scream,” I warned. The Fate closed his mouth. “Mortals would fight back, even those most loyal to the gods. He’d have to battle an entire realm, and then what would be left for him to rule over?”
“It wouldn’t be easy, and it would end in the kind of death even I would have a hard time imagining,” Nyktos said. “He would be left to rule over a kingdom of bones.”
“But will that knowledge stop him?” Penellaphe asked quietly. “Has it?”
Didn’t appear to have.
But Kolis wouldn’t get what he wanted either. Not after I died. He’d rule over a kingdom of bones.
Unable to sit any longer, I stood and reached for the shadowstone dagger Nyktos had returned to me, only to realize that I’d left it in his office. I faced Holland. “How long does the mortal realm have?” I swallowed thickly. “Once I die.”
“You won’t die,” Nyktos stated as if he had the authority to make such a claim.
“She will,” Holland said quietly. “She will die without the love of the one who Ascends her—a love that cannot be ignored. A love that must be acknowledged.” He looked at Nyktos. “And you have—”
“We heard you the first time,” I snapped as the Primal thrust a hand through his hair.
“But you haven’t,” Holland returned. “You haven’t heard why he cannot save you as he is now.” He tilted his head to Nyktos. “Has she, Your Highness?”
Tension thickened the air as the Primal held the Arae’s stare. “No. She has not.”
Nothing could be gained from Nyktos’s expression. Unease took root. “What are you two even talking about?”
A muscle throbbed in Nyktos’s temple. “I cannot love,” he bit out between clenched teeth, speaking to Holland. “I made sure that would never be a weakness someone could exploit.” Something told me that this was more than just him making such a claim. “And how can you ensure that?”
“Maia,” he said, speaking of the Primal of Love, Beauty, and Fertility. “I had her remove my kardia.”
Penellaphe gasped, her eyes widening with shock. “Good Fates,” she whispered. “I have known none who’ve done that.”
I was obviously missing something and also getting tired of asking questions. “What is a kardia?”
“It’s the piece of the soul—the spark—that all living creatures are born and die with. It allows them to love another not of their blood irrevocably, selflessly.” Penellaphe swallowed. “It must have been terribly painful to have that torn from you. To truly be unable to love.”