Jennifer L. Armentrout is revisiting Poppy and Casteel’s epic love story in the newest instalment of her Blood and Ash series but, this time, Hawke gets to tell the tale. You can read the first three chapters right here.
A sweet but stale scent drifted out from the dark corridor. My head jerked toward the sound of light, fast footsteps as I reached for my hip, drawing the bloodstone dagger.
A vampry darted between the sandstone pillars, rushing into the lamplit hall of the seemingly unending vault beneath Wayfair Castle, nothing more than a flash of streaming dark hair, alabaster skin, and crimson silk.
There was no hesitation. Neither Kieran nor I had given any of them leeway since entering the underground.
I released the dagger, sending it flying across the hall. The bloodstone blade struck true, embedding deeply in the vampry’s chest, cutting off the annoying, godsawful shriek as it knocked the Ascended back. A web of fissures rapidly appeared in the Ascended’s flesh, spreading across its cheeks and down its throat. Skin cracked and then peeled back, lifting from bone and turning to dust. Within a heartbeat, my dagger clanged off the stone floor beside nothing more than a pile of silk.
“Cas.” It came out as a sigh, and my lips curved into a smile despite the frustration filling the breathy word.
I couldn’t help it when Poppy called me that. Hearing it sometimes made my chest tight yet made me feel light as air. Other times, it made me hard as fuck. But it always brought out a smile.
“The Ascended didn’t attack us,” Poppy said.
“It was running at us.” I went to where the dagger lay and picked it up.
“Or running from us,” she suggested.
“That’s one way to look at it.” Cleaning the blade on the leg of my pants, I sheathed the dagger and faced her—and damn if I didn’t feel a catch in my godsdamn breath.
Every inch of Poppy showed that she’d just fought a terrifying battle. Blood and grime smeared her cheeks, hands, and her clothing, not to mention what covered her bare feet. The braid she’d forced her unruly hair into had mostly come undone, and the strands gleamed like bold, red wine in the dim light of the gas lamps, spilling over her shoulders and down her back.
And still, she was so damn beautiful to me.
Not a goddess but a Primal—the Primal of Blood and Bone. Of Life and Death. Shock rippled through me, nearly causing me to stumble. It had been doing that every couple of minutes since she went all Primal on the Blood Queen. I imagined it would be a long damn time before it stopped happening.
“But the last thing anyone who doesn’t want to end up a pile of dust should do is run in your direction.” I bowed at the waist. “My Queen.”
Poppy blinked slowly, clearly unimpressed by my chivalry. That brightened my smile, and her full lips twitched as she fought back a grin, revealing a hint of sharp canine.
Lust punched straight through me as my chin dipped, and my eyes locked with hers. Every time I caught a glimpse of her fangs, I wanted to feel them in my flesh. Correction. I wanted to feel them in my flesh while I was buried deep inside her.
A throat cleared. “May we continue?” a raspy, flat voice asked. “Or would you two like a private moment?”
Poppy’s cheeks warmed, flooding her face with color that had been absent since we’d arrived at Wayfair. My gaze shifted to the speaker.
The massive mountain of a male with his black-and-silver-streaked hair raised a brow.
Fucking Nektas, the eldest and inarguably most dangerous of the draken, was starting to piss me off.
Holding his stare, I checked my desire for my wife. Not because of his presence. And not even because we were down here searching for her father. But because of Poppy.
Something wasn’t right.
I rejoined her and the ever-alert Delano, who had been sticking close in wolven form. “You ready?”
Nodding, she started walking again, the stone floor likely icy against her bare feet. I’d offered to carry her.
The look she’d given me ensured I didn’t ask again. That hadn’t stopped Kieran from making the same offer, though. He’d received a similar look of warning—the kind that made you want to cup your balls. Lucky for us, Poppy likely preferred us with those parts undamaged.
I didn’t take my eyes off her as we continued.
Out in the Bone Temple, before she unleashed unholy hell on the Blood Queen, I’d watched in unfettered horror as pure light exploded her armor. And I’d been unable to do a damn thing. I’d only ever felt such fear one other time; when the bolt had struck her in the Wastelands, and I’d watched her life slipping from her. I’d felt that same terror earlier when I saw the blood running from her mouth. She’d changed, even if only for a few seconds, her flesh becoming a kaleidoscope of light and shadow with an outline of wings taking shape and arcing behind her. It reminded me of the winged statues guarding the City of the Gods in Iliseeum.
I’d then watched her destroy Isbeth.
No one among us would miss the woman, but the Blood Queen had been Poppy’s mother. At some point, the realization that she had taken her mother’s life would hit her, bringing out a lot of messy, complicated emotions.
And I would be there for her.
So would Kieran.
He walked on her other side, doing the same as I was. Every couple of moments, he glanced down at her, a mixture of concern and awe flashing across his blood-streaked features.
He was a fucking mess.
So was I.
Our clothing and what remained of our armor was shredded from the battle. I knew blood splattered my flesh—some of it mine, some from the dakkais. The rest was dried specks from those who’d been struck down—those who had died but hadn’t stayed dead.
I glanced to where Delano prowled silently behind us. While most of the wolven and the others were currently moving through Carsodonia in search of the Ascended and looking for my brother, he had chosen to follow Poppy.
There was a strange, unnerving sensation I couldn’t shake as Delano lifted his head and pale, luminous blue eyes met mine. I wondered if the life restored to those who’d fallen in battle had been a gift that could be stripped away at any moment. I had no real reason to feel that way. According to Nektas, the act of restoring life to so many was not only known to the Primals of Life and of Death but also aided by them.
Besides, that feeling of unease could be sourced back to a shit ton of things. We were currently moving about the enemy’s nest, and while none of the mortal servants or Royal Guards who remained at Wayfair had put up a fight when we entered, and there had only been three Ascended underground so far, none of us were comfortable here. Wayfair wasn’t ours. It never would be.
Another thing preying on my mind at the moment was my brother, who was somewhere out there, chasing after Millicent, who happened to be Poppy’s sister. And none of us knew where Millicent stood in regard to their mother.
Then again, from my personal experience with Millie, I didn’t think she knew where she stood on anything half the time.
There was also the fact that Poppy’s Primal grandparents were no longer sleeping, and from what I could figure out, one of them could enter the mortal realm whenever they felt like it.
And then there was Callum, that golden fuck of a Revenant who still needed to be dealt with, which brought me to what probably should be the most disconcerting item of all. Yes, we’d defeated the Blood Crown, but the real battle awaited. We had only prevented Kolis, the original and true Primal of Death, from taking full corporeal form. Still, he was free, he was awake, and he wasn’t the only one. All those things were hardcore pressing issues, but…
My gaze returned to Poppy’s profile, and my chest tightened again. The thin, jagged scar on her cheek and the one cutting across her forehead and eyebrow stood out more starkly than they ever had. She was pale—paler than she’d been when she came to at the Temple. And shouldn’t it be the opposite? Shouldn’t her skin have become flushed? Other than the passing blush earlier, it hadn’t, and that worried me most of all.
Poppy turned her head in my direction. Our gazes met. Her irises were the color of dewy spring grass laced with vibrant streaks of silver—eather. Was it just me, or had those luminous lines gotten brighter in the time it took us to arrive at Wayfair? Her full lips curved up in a reassuring smile, and I knew immediately that she’d picked up on my concern, either because I was projecting it, or she was simply reading me—reading all of us around her.
I reached out and took her hand. More pressure clamped down on my chest. Her hand, so much smaller than mine, was cold. Not icy, but also not warm.
“Are you feeling all right?” I asked, my voice low yet echoing through the cavernous hall. Poppy nodded. “Yes.” Her brows knitted as her eyes searched mine.
“Are you?” “Always,” I murmured, glancing at Kieran.
There was more concern than awe in his stare. Without me having to say anything, he inched closer to Poppy.
Something wasn’t right.
Starting with Nektas, who now walked silently on Kieran’s other side. Poppy had asked earlier if what she had become, a Primal that had never existed before, was a good thing or bad. I already knew the answer to that. But Nektas’s response?
That is yet to be known.
Yeah, I didn’t like that at all.
I also didn’t like his expression when he looked at Poppy. It reminded me of how we all looked at Malik—like we weren’t sure we could trust him. No one wanted a draken looking at them like that.
Poppy suddenly stopped at the entrance to a long, shadowy hall. There was a musty scent to this area, one that threatened to send my mind back to darker, colder places. I stopped that before it could happen. Now wasn’t the time for that shit.
Slipping her hand from mine, Poppy faced us. “Okay. Why does everyone keep looking at me?” she demanded, propping her hands on her hips as she lifted her chin. “Has something changed about me that I’m unaware of?”
“Other than your adorable fangs?” I offered.
Her eyes narrowed on me, but I grinned as I saw the skin around her mouth move as she ran her tongue over her top teeth. Then she winced, likely nicking her tongue yet again. “Other than that.”
Kieran said nothing as Delano plopped his ass down, thumping his tail on the stone floor. I wasn’t sure what that was supposed to translate to.
“I imagine they are looking at you with concern,” Nektas answered in that gravelly voice of his.
“Why?” Poppy glanced between Kieran and me. “Aren’t I the last thing any of you should be worried about?”
“Well…” Nektas drew out the word.
Kieran’s head cut sharply in the draken’s direction, his nostrils flaring, and it reminded me of what else Nektas had told us at the Temple. The heavy meaning to his words as he said we’d better make sure that what Poppy had become was something good.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to say you’re the last thing anyone should be worried about,” Nektas continued. “You’re likely the…second thing they should be worried about.”
“What is that supposed to mean?” Kieran demanded.
Nektas gave the wolven a passing glance. “Kolis is our primary concern.” He tilted his head. Long, silver-streaked strands slid over a bare shoulder, revealing the faint ridges of scales. “And she should be your second.”
Poppy frowned. “I disagree. I think my father and your daughter are tied for first place, then Kolis. I shouldn’t even be on the list of things to worry about.”
Nektas opened his mouth.
“I’d be careful how you answer that,” I warned.
Slowly, the ancient draken turned his head to me. Our stares locked. His vertical pupils constricted until they were thin strips of black against vibrant blue.
I arched a brow. “What is?”
“You,” he answered. Delano’s ears flattened in the tense silence that followed the word.
“You stepped in front of her as if you believe she needs your protection.”
I was completely unaware that I had. So had Kieran and Delano. “And?”
Poppy sighed from behind us.
“That is wise of you. Even the most powerful of beings need protection at times,” Nektas advised. “But this is not one of them.”
“I’m not so sure about that.” My hand rested on the hilt of the dagger at my hip. It wouldn’t do shit to a draken, but I would make it hurt.
“This is all really unnecessary,” Poppy began.
“I’m not so sure of that, either.” Sensing that she was edging to my right, I sidestepped her and held Nektas’s stare. “I don’t give two shits who you are. You don’t need to be worried about her at all.”
One side of the draken’s mouth curled up, and another too-long moment of silence passed.
“You are far too much like him.”
“Like who?” Poppy asked.
His pupils dilated. “The one his bloodline is descended from.”
“What the fuck?” Kieran muttered under his breath and then said louder, “Who was that?” A shadow of a smile appeared on the draken’s face. “You mean to ask who is that.”
My brows shot together. “I’m going to need—”
A low rumble cut me off. Delano stood, looking around as the sound increased, becoming deeper. My gaze flew to Kieran. He turned as the very floor beneath us began to tremble. I spun toward Poppy.
Her green and silver eyes were wide. “What?”
Clouds of dust drifted like snow from the high ceiling, coating our shoulders and the floor. The rumble grew as the entire castle shook.
“It’s not me,” Poppy shouted over the noise, throwing up her hands. “I swear.”
My gaze flew to the ceiling, where thin fractures suddenly erupted in the stone. “Shit.” I launched forward. Delano followed as I grabbed hold of Poppy, cracks forming in the pillars and quickly racing down their lengths. Afraid the entire damn castle was about to come down on our heads, my first thought was of her. I shoved Poppy between Kieran and me as Delano pressed against her legs. She squeaked as we caged her in, using our bodies to protect hers in case the ceiling ended up on top of us.
Delano whimpered as something heavy toppled somewhere in the underground lair, crashing down. More dust fell in thick clouds. The rumbling grew louder until nothing else could be heard, and the very realm itself shuddered—
Then it stopped. All of it.
The rumbling. The cracking of stone and plaster. The crashing of what were probably very important things like support beams. It all just ceased as quickly as it had started.
“Um,” came Poppy’s muffled voice. “I can barely breathe.”
I could only see the top of her head beneath Kieran’s and my arms. I wasn’t quite ready to lower them.
“That wasn’t her,” Nektas stated, a bemused expression on his face. “That was them.” “Them?” Kieran repeated, slowly lowering his arms from Poppy.
“The gods,” the draken elaborated. “One of them must’ve awakened nearby.”
One of them must have…
Poppy shot out from under me as fast as an arrow, her eyes still wide but now lit with eagerness. “Penellaphe,” she gasped, her head darting between Kieran and me. “Remember? You said the goddess Penellaphe sleeps beneath the city’s Atheneum!” She shoved Kieran in the arm, causing him to stumble back a step. “Oops. Sorry.”
“It’s okay.” Kieran caught himself, grinning. “And, yes, I did say that.”
She spun toward Nektas. “Can we see her? I mean after we’ve freed my father and located Jadis. You see, I was named—”
“After the goddess who spoke of you so very long before you were born,” Nektas finished. “Who was the first to call you the Harbinger and the Bringer of Death. A prophecy you have fulfilled.”
Her arms slowly lowered to her sides. “Well, when you put it like that…” She pressed her lips together. “I think I’ve changed my mind.”
I never wanted to punch someone more than I did the draken for stealing that brief excitement from Poppy.
Nektas chuckled. “I’m sure she will be interested in meeting you. All of them will be when the time is right,” he said, his face softening in a way I had yet to see from him. “We should get moving in case there are more who slumber in the capital. I do not want to be down here if that happens again.”
He was right. None of us wanted that.
“By the way,” he said, glancing at Kieran and me as we started down the hall once more. “You two are…adorable.”
Kieran’s forehead scrunched as he brushed dust from his shoulder. “I don’t think I’ve ever been referred to as adorable before, but thanks.” He paused. “I think.”
The draken chuckled once more. “All three of you raced to shield her.” He nodded at Delano, who trotted beside Poppy as she led us down another hall, this one narrower. A column had toppled here, leaning against another. “The one person who would survive the collapse of a building.”
I hadn’t even thought of that.
Poppy grinned. “It was kind of adorable.”
Kieran huffed, and I swore I saw a deepening in the color of his light brown cheeks. “And unnecessary in more ways than one,” Nektas went on. “The three of you are Joined, are you not?”
Delano’s ears perked as Poppy’s head swung toward him. Some color returned to her cheeks. His tail wagged. Clearly, he’d communicated something intriguing through the Primal notam. I’d have to ask him about it later.
“Yeah,” she answered. “But I think it’s going to take all of us a while to remember that if I’m okay, then all three of us are.”
“Understatement of the century,” Kieran remarked, drawing a grin from me.
The expression disappeared, though. Because as soon as her blush faded, the paleness of her skin was even more noticeable.
Something isn’t right.
The feeling only intensified as we walked, traveling deeper into the underground maze of chambers and halls that Poppy had moved about as a small child. I couldn’t place why I felt the way I did. The pressure remained in my chest and the back of my throat—
Click. Click. Click.
Poppy halted once more. This time, her hands opened and closed at her sides. I dragged my gaze from her to the hall in front of us. Up ahead, a soft glow spilled out into the hall, beating back the shadows.
That sound. We all recognized it. We’d heard it before in Oak Ambler. The rapping of claws against stone.
Nektas started forward, his steps fast and sure as Poppy remained frozen. I touched her shoulder, drawing her attention to me.
“Are you okay?” I asked. This time, I wasn’t talking about how she felt physically.
Nodding, she swallowed as she looked at Nektas. He stopped at the cusp of the light, turning his head back to us.
“You sure?” Kieran asked, his gaze searching Poppy’s.
“Yeah. Yes.” She cleared her throat. “It’s just that…that’s my father, and I don’t know what to think or even say.”
I got it.
Poppy had a father she remembered: Leopold. The man she was about to set free was a stranger to her, even if she had spent time searching him out in her youth—someone who had been held captive for too long. And I was sure she was caught between excitement and guilt, feeling as if she somehow dishonored Leo’s memory, and regret that she hadn’t realized who had been caged beneath Wayfair and at Oak Ambler earlier. It was a lot for anyone to think about. More to act upon.
Cupping her cheek, I turned her face to mine. I smiled, even though the heaviness in my chest and throat expanded. Her skin was so damn cold. “You don’t have to feel or think anything right now. All you must do is make sure he’s freed.” I lowered my voice. “You don’t have to see him at all if you’re not ready. No one will judge you for that.”
Kieran nodded in agreement. “Either way, we’ll be right there with you.”
She glanced between us, then turned her attention to Nektas. I smoothed my thumb along her jaw. A faint tremor went through her, and then she drew in a deep breath. She squared her shoulders, and I knew what she had decided before she spoke. “I’m ready.”
“Of course,” I murmured, dipping to press a kiss to her cool temple. “So brave.”
“I don’t know about that,” she said but nodded. “But I will be.”
Kieran smiled, lifting a hand. “As always.” He touched her other cheek, his eyes widening slightly. Over her head, his gaze shot to mine.
He’d felt how cold her skin was. I gave him a curt nod of acknowledgment.
“I’m ready,” Poppy repeated, pulling away from us. She started walking with Delano at her side.
We hung back just for a second. Kieran spoke, his voice too low for her to hear. “Why is her skin so damn cold?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “But something—”
My gaze cut to him sharply. “You feel it, too?”
“Yeah. In my chest and here,” he said, motioning to his throat.
That didn’t make me feel better about any of this, but now wasn’t the time to figure it out.
We’d told Poppy we’d be beside her, so we both got our asses moving, joining her as she and Delano reached Nektas’s side.
The clicking had picked up.
“I know this isn’t easy for you,” Nektas said, looking down at Poppy. His voice was barely above a whisper. “This won’t be easy for him, either. Ires has always been…” He shook his head. “We should hurry.”
I could tell that Poppy wanted to ask what he had been about to say, but she stepped into the light and turned instead. The scraping of claws against stone stopped. We followed, my heartbeat picking up speed and matching the rate of hers. I lifted my gaze from her to what waited beyond.
A cage sat in the center of a candlelit chamber. Behind black bars, likely constructed of shadowstone, was a large, gray feline with bright green eyes fixed on Poppy—just as they had been in Oak Ambler. There was no doubt in my mind that he’d known who she was to him then. Probably had all those years ago, too.
“My gods,” gasped Nektas, his eyes widening as the skin around his mouth went taut at the sight of Ires.
The god hadn’t looked this haggard when we’d seen him last. Ribs pressed against his dull gray fur coat. His stomach was sunken. Tendons strained in his throat as his head whipped toward Nektas.
Ires reacted upon seeing the draken, jumping weakly at the bars as his still-bright eyes shot between Nektas and Poppy when they entered the chamber.
“Are these wards?” Kieran asked, noticing the markings etched into the shadowstone ceiling and floor, symbols and letters in ancient Atlantian—the language of the gods.
“Yes.” Nektas went to the bars. “No one in the mortal realm should be in possession of this knowledge.”
“Callum,” I surmised, watching Poppy kneel before the cage.
Nektas nodded. “But that’s not the issue right now.” He clasped the bars, drawing Ires’s attention, but only for a moment. “He might be a bit…unstable, especially if he’s been in this state for as long as I fear. He’ll be more animal than anything. We need to be careful.”
No one needed to tell us that as Ires kept jumping at the bars, pressing his sides and head against them as a low noise radiated from him, a sound that was a cross between a growl and a whine.
I crouched behind Poppy, forcing my hands to my knees to stop myself from grabbing her and hauling her back.
“Can you get past these bars?” Poppy asked, her hands twisting together, a sure sign she was anxious. “Or can I?”
“You will probably be able to. Eventually,” Nektas tacked on. “But I can.” He focused on Ires. “You’re safe now. I promise you,” he said to the god, voice thickening with emotion. “I just need you to stay calm. Okay?”
Ires leapt at the bars again.
“I don’t think that’s a yes,” Kieran noted, kneeling beside me.
“It’s okay,” Nektas told Ires once again, but the more the draken spoke, the more the god behaved erratically, pacing and lunging at the bars. “Dammit, he’s going to hurt himself.”
“I can barely…barely pick up anything from him.” Poppy’s worry flooded her tone, and I swore I could feel it gathering in my throat like too-thick cream. “He wasn’t like this before.” “He’s been in this form too long,” Nektas answered. “It’s not like us,” he added, nodding at
Kieran and Delano. “We are of two worlds. He is only of one, and it’s far too easy, even for a god and a Primal, to lose themselves if they stay in their animal form for too long.”
Shit. How long was too long for a god when we were likely talking about hundreds of years? But another thought occurred to me. He’d said if a god and a Primal stayed in their animal form for too long. Did that mean Poppy would…?
I shook my head. Now wasn’t the time to consider that. Rubbing Poppy’s back, I watched Ires pace, hating this for her—for both of them.
“I didn’t know that,” Poppy responded to what Nektas had shared.
“Neither did I,” Kieran added.
“And on top of that, he’s probably felt the other gods awakening,” Nektas explained. “It would feel like an extreme jolt of energy that he would not have been prepared for.”
Kieran rose as Ires pressed against the bars in front of us. “I can try to distract him while you—dammit, Poppy.”
A wicked sense of déjà vu swept through me as Poppy lurched forward. I reached for her, but dammit, she was fast when she wanted to be—and even faster now.
“Poppy,” I shouted as she crouched and thrust her hand through the bars. “Don’t—” Too late.
Her hand was already pressed against the side of Ires’s throat by the time I curled an arm around her waist. Ires swung his head back, lips peeling back over sharp fucking canines. A low growl of warning radiated from him. I started to haul Poppy’s ass back. She would be pissed, but I’d rather her be angry at me than experience exactly what happened when a Primal lost a hand.
“It’s okay,” she said, inhaling deeply. “Just give me a second. Please.”
I didn’t want to, but she’d said please. Still, it took everything in me to keep from grabbing her again. The only reason I didn’t fail was because Poppy succeeded.
Ires shuddered, the low snarl fading as he stood there, panting. I knew what she was doing, feeding good thoughts and emotions into the god. Calming him.
The first time she’d done that to me, I hadn’t known what she could do. The relief—the peace—she had given me had been quick and stunning. A gift. Still, I wanted her pretty hand as far away from Ires as it could get. I liked her hands and the things she was learning to do with them.
Poppy’s eyes were half-closed as Delano pressed against her side, his stare wary, watchful, and pinned on Ires. “It’s okay. Just give him a few seconds.”
“Whatever you’re going to do with these bars…” Kieran said to Nektas, a dagger in hand— one I knew he wouldn’t hesitate to use. “I suggest you do it quick.”
“Working on it.” Nektas stepped back from the bars.
A tremor went through Ires. His fur stood on end, and Poppy kept her hand on him as he lowered to his belly. His ears twitched. A bright blue flare came from our right, lighting the chamber—draken fire. Nektas hadn’t shifted. I figured we would’ve been aware of a huge-ass draken in the chamber if he had. I was curious, but I didn’t dare take my eyes off Ires and Poppy.
Ires began trembling as the scent of heated metal filled the air. Silvery light appeared in his eyes, spreading. His fur retracted and faded as patches of golden skin appeared. Muscles shrank, and bones cracked into different positions. Long, russet-colored hair appeared—hair damn near as long as Nektas’s. I folded my other arm around Poppy, holding her tightly as her father struggled through the transition. It appeared as if he were fighting it. Or maybe the animal in him was. The process likely took less than a minute, but it looked painful, unlike when Kieran and the others shifted. It was as if he felt every claw sink back into his nailbeds.
Another ripple of shimmering light swept over him, and then, a male appeared in the cage where the large feline had been. He was on his knees, his upper body tucked into his lower half. Through clumps of unwashed hair, he stared at Poppy’s hand resting on what turned out to be his shoulder.
Poppy lifted her hand, her fingers curling inward as she drew her arm back. She tightly gripped the arm I’d put around her waist. “Hi,” she whispered.
The god’s bright green eyes locked with Poppy’s. Eyes that were almost identical to hers. The silvery glow in his, just behind the pupils, was faint. Much of his face was hidden, but what I could see was all sharp angles and sunken planes. He shook.
“I don’t know if you…if you remember me at all,” Poppy began. She was trembling, too. I held onto her. “But my name is Poppy—well, it’s Penellaphe, but my friends call me Poppy. I’m your…” She trailed off, her breath catching. I ran my hand over her side, squeezing her.
Ires was silent as he stared at her, seemingly unaware of Kieran and me, even Delano, who was practically standing on us both. Ires’s breathing was heavy and quick, bony shoulders rising with each inhale.
“Ires,” Nektas said quietly.
His head jerked as he looked down the length of the cage. Nektas had not only melted a huge portion of the bars, he now stood inside the cell with Ires.
“I’m here now,” the draken continued, softer than I would’ve thought him capable of as he kept his hands at his sides. “I’ve come to take you home.”
Another shudder went through Ires, and his eyes drifted shut. Nektas carefully inched closer. “I’m going to see if I can find something for him. A blanket or something,” Kieran said, voice gruff.
“Thank you.” Poppy turned her head, pressing her cheek against my chest. There was a shimmer of dampness beneath her eyes. Gods, if she was picking up on his emotions now, I couldn’t even begin to imagine what she felt from him.
Actually, I could.
He was feeling everything and nothing right now. Relief but also confusion, likely due to starvation, and the gods only knew what else they’d done to him. He had to be terrified. I had been both times, fearing my rescue was a dream. He likely worried that he’d wake up and none of us would be here. That it would just be her. Them. Taunting him. Terrorizing him. He’d be terrified it wasn’t an illusion and be afraid he’d hurt those trying to help him.
“This isn’t a dream,” I said.
Ires’s chin jerked, and his eyes met mine through the tangled curtain of hair.
I nodded as I brushed my fingers under Poppy’s eyes, wiping away her tears. “This is real.
It’s over. She’s dead. Isbeth. You are free of her—from this.”
A ragged breath left Ires. He swallowed. I saw his lips move, but there was just a raspy sound as he seemed to struggle to get his body and mind to communicate so he could speak. Gods only knew when he’d spoken last.
Kieran returned, handing what appeared to be one of the black and crimson cloth banners to Nektas.
The draken nodded his thanks, then knelt beside Ires. Gently, he draped the cloth over Ires’s shoulders. The material seemed like it would cause the god to collapse, but after a moment, a too-thin hand appeared, and frail fingers curled around the edges of the banner. He held the material to him, and while that was only a small act, it was something.
“I know,” came a hoarse whisper. Ires lifted his other hand, reaching it through the bars. “I know…who you are.”
Poppy rocked back, her body stiffening against me before she pitched forward. “Okay,” she whispered, her voice cracking. She worked an arm free and brought her hand to his. Their fingers threaded through each other’s. Her shoulders relaxed. “Okay.”
Dipping my head, I kissed the back of hers as Ires weakly squeezed her hand. Father. Daughter. It didn’t matter that they were strangers.
“Where is…where is she?” Ires rasped, still holding onto Poppy’s hand. “My…other girl.” “Millicent?” Poppy swallowed thickly. “She’s not here, but…”
“She’s fine. She’s with my brother.” I had no idea if Malik had found her yet or even if it was a good thing for either of them if he had. That was a whole different mess that Ires didn’t need to know about.
A heavy exhale left the god as he slowly turned his attention to Nektas. “I’m sorry—”
“There’s no need for that right now,” Nektas cut him off. “I need to get you back home. You are not well.”
Kieran glanced at me questioningly, and I shook my head.
“But there…is. I didn’t know this…would happen. I…I would never have brought her with…me if I thought—” He coughed, shaking. “I’m sorry.”
Jadis. They were speaking of Nektas’s daughter. Damn.
“She’s…” Air wheezed in and out of Ires as his hand slipped from Poppy’s, falling limply to his side. She stretched forward, grasping the bars. “I know where…she is. The Willow…” He took a shallow breath.
“The willow?” Nektas asked, the lines of his face tensing.
“Willow Plains,” Poppy exclaimed. “Are you speaking of the town there?”
“Yes. She is…she is there. I’m sorry. I’m so…damn tired. I don’t know…” Ires caved in on himself. He went down, barely caught by Nektas.
“No!” Poppy shot to her feet, grasping the bars. “Is he okay?”
“I believe so.” Nektas placed a palm against the unconscious god’s forehead.
“I can help him,” Poppy said, already reaching through the bars once more. “I just need to touch him. I can heal—”
“This is not something another can heal. He’s fine,” Nektas quickly added. “He just passed out.”
“How is passing out fine?” Poppy demanded. “That doesn’t sound fine to me.”
“He’s obviously been unable to feed in any way for too long.” Anger thinned Nektas’s lips even as he reassured Poppy. “He is far too weak.”
“Are you sure that’s all it is?” Her worry twisted my insides, choking me.
Nektas cradled the limp god to his chest. “He just needs to be home, where he can go to ground. That can’t happen here,” he explained. “Not with the shadowstone.”
“Okay. All right.” Poppy took a deep breath, letting go of the bars. “I think he might be speaking of Willow Plains. It’s east of the capital, a bit to the north. It’s where most of the soldiers are trained. There are a few Temples there, and if they’re anything like—” She took a step back, lifting a hand to her head.
“What is it?” I was already at her side, hands on her arms.
“I don’t know.” Her brow furrowed. “I was just dizzy for a moment.”
“You’re pale.” I glanced at Kieran. “She’s even paler, isn’t she?”
Kieran nodded. “She is.”
“Probably because my head’s been aching,” she told us. “It started a little bit ago.”
“Why didn’t you say anything?” I asked, forcing my voice to remain calm, even though that was the last thing I felt.
“Because it’s just a headache.” She drew out the words.
“Just a headache?” I repeated dumbly. “Do Primals get headaches?” I looked at Nektas. “If so, that seems messed up.”
“They can,” the draken answered. “But there’s usually a reason for it.”
Wasn’t there always a reason for a headache?
Kieran lifted a hand to Poppy’s cheek. “Skin’s colder.” His jaw flexed. “Real cold now.” Poppy glanced between us. “What? I don’t feel cold.”
I touched her other cheek as she poked the skin of her chin. My stomach dipped. Cold didn’t even begin to describe the iciness of her flesh. Then it hit me. “Do you need to feed?”
“I don’t think so,” she said, brushing our hands away. “And if my skin feels cold, it’s because we’re underground.”
“I don’t think it’s because we’re underground,” Kieran said.
I agreed with that. “You were cold before we even came down here.”
Poppy gave us both an exasperated look. “Guys, I appreciate the concern, but it’s not necessary. We have more important things to worry about.”
“Disagree,” I stated. “No one is more important than you.”
“Cas,” she warned, eyes narrowing—eyes that were now shadowed. Faint purple bruised the skin beneath them.
“Did she sleep?” Nektas asked.
Her frown deepened. “Uh, last night.”
“I’m not talking about that kind of sleep.” Nektas shifted the unconscious god in his arms.
“Have you entered a deep sleep? A stasis at the end of your Ascension?”
“No.” Her nose scrunched.
“She slept for a bit at the start, but that was because…” Kieran looked at Ires, then clearly changed his mind about how much detail he’d go into, even though the god was out cold. “No, she hasn’t slept like that.”
“Well, damn.” There was a grim twist to Nektas’s mouth. “So, you’re telling me that you went through the Ascension and completed the Culling without going into stasis?”
“Yeah. I mean, I did pass out there for a few moments,” Poppy said. “But you already know that.”
“I really don’t like where this conversation is heading,” Kieran muttered. Neither did I.
“This is inconvenient timing,” Nektas grumbled.
I tensed. “What is?”
“What’s likely to happen any moment now,” he said.
“You need to give us some more detail,” I said, frustration burning its way through me.
“I’m fine,” Poppy insisted, turning to Nektas. “Can we please get him out of this cage?”
Nektas nodded. “I’m planning to do just that, but I think you should probably sit down.”
“You should listen to him,” Kieran urged, his stare intense. The shadows were even darker beneath her eyes.
“Please don’t worry about me,” Poppy said. “I feel totally—” She sucked in a sharp breath as she pressed her hand to her temple.
“Is it your head?” I grasped her shoulders, turning her toward me as a sharp slice of fear cut through my chest and stomach.
Her eyes were squeezed shut. “Yeah, it’s just a headache. I’m—” Her legs went out from under her.
“Poppy!” I caught her around the waist as Kieran lurched forward, bracing the back of her head. “Open your eyes.” I cupped her cheek—gods, her skin was far too cold. Shifting my arm under her legs, I lifted her to my chest. “Come on. Please—”
“She’s not going to wake, no matter how much you beg.”
“What the fuck does that mean?” Kieran whipped his head toward Nektas.
“It basically means I was wrong in my assumption that she’s fully completed the Culling.
She’s gone into stasis to finish it,” Nektas explained. “I’m surprised it took this long for it to happen—or that she even woke up earlier. I suppose the eather is strong in her. That’s why—”
“I don’t give a fuck about the eather in her,” I snarled. “What’s happening to her?”
“You should care about the eather in her, especially since you’ve Joined with a Primal. But that’s neither here nor there at the moment,” Nektas responded too damn calmly. “She’s in stasis, just like her father. It happens when Primals, even gods, finish their Culling. Or when they’re weakened and unable to recoup their strength. You would know if she were injured or in danger in any way.”
“What do you mean by that?” Kieran turned, his gaze falling to Poppy as Delano whined, pacing nervously at my side. “How would we know?”
“The very land itself would seek to protect her,” Nektas said. “She would—”
“Go to ground,” I murmured, remembering the roots that had come out of the ground, attempting to cover her when she was mortally wounded in the Wastelands. We hadn’t understood what was happening then.
“She sleeps,” Nektas repeated. “That is all.”
That was all? I looked down at Poppy. Her cheek rested against my chest. Except for the bruises under her eyes and her cold skin, she did look like she simply slept. “How—?” I cleared my throat. “How long will she sleep?”
“That I cannot answer. And, yeah, I know that doesn’t make either of you happy,” he said as Kieran growled. “It could be a day or a couple of days. A week. It’s different for everyone, but it’s likely her body is now catching up with the whole process. She’ll awaken once she fully finishes the Culling.”
Kieran cursed under his breath, rubbing a hand over his hair. I stared at Poppy, the pressure in my chest tightening. Had this been what both Kieran and I sensed through the bond we’d forged during the Joining? That she was on the verge of going into stasis? And she could be out for days? A week?
“Gods,” I bit out, feeling fucking helpless and hating every moment of it.
“Get her someplace comfortable and wait it out. That is all you can do,” Nektas said. “I’ll take care of Ires.”
Somewhere comfortable? Here? I shared a look with Kieran. Poppy wouldn’t be comfortable anywhere in Wayfair, but what choice did we have?
“We’ll find a place,” Kieran assured, slipping into the role he always did. The logical one. The calm and supportive one when shit went south. But I knew that was far too often a façade. I started to turn.
“There is just one thing you should be aware of,” Nektas added, stopping all of us in our tracks. “The stasis that comes at the end of a Culling can have…unexpected and lasting side effects.”
A fist seized my heart. Trepidation rose. “Like what?”
“Loss of memory. Lack of knowledge of who they and those around them are,” he explained.
That invisible fist…
It fucking crushed my heart.
Kieran’s entire body jerked back a full step. “It’s possible she…” The calm began to crack.
“She won’t know who she is? Who we are?”
“It is, but it is very rare. I can only think of twice that it has happened,” Nektas said, tension bracketing his mouth. “You just need to be aware of the possibility.”
And what if it became a reality? Kieran’s stare met mine. I swallowed. “And if it does happen?”
Nektas didn’t answer for a long moment. “Then she will be a stranger to herself and you.” Kieran’s eyes closed.
Mine couldn’t. I looked down at Poppy. She was my heart—my everything. I couldn’t even consider her not knowing who she was—not knowing us.
“Talk to her.” Nektas’s voice had softened. “That’s what Nyktos did when she was in stasis.
I don’t know if she heard him, but I think it helped.” His head tilted as he looked down at Ires. “I know it helped him.”
I nodded, turning from the draken. I knew I should’ve asked when or if he’d be back. I imagined he would be. His daughter was in this realm, but given the single-minded bastard I was, my only priority was to get Poppy somewhere comfortable. I wasn’t thinking about Nektas and his daughter. Nor Poppy’s father, or the Crown we’d just overthrown—the kingdom we’d conquered, yet only in the most technical sense. All those things were important, but none of them mattered.
I carried Poppy back through the underground maze and to the first floor, my heart calm and steady because it followed the rhythm of hers. I kept reminding myself of that as Kieran walked ahead and Delano stuck close to my side. Other than that, the surroundings were a blur. All I knew was that Kieran and a member of the castle staff had a hushed conversation, and I thought I heard Emil’s voice as we climbed a narrow set of stairs. I didn’t know how many floors we went up. There were only whitewashed stone walls and a few windows until we entered an empty hall lined with heavy, black drapes. A door opened ahead, and I followed Kieran into a darkened chamber. He went straight to two large windows framing a bed and grabbed the brocade curtains, tearing them from their rods.
“This is a guest room,” Kieran explained, tossing the drapes aside. “It hasn’t been used in a while, but it has been recently cleaned.”
A faint breeze drifted in through the windows as I looked around. The chamber was outfitted with several couches and chairs, and there appeared to be access to a bathing chamber. It would do. Kieran followed me as I carried Poppy to the bed. He grabbed hold of a cream-hued blanket and pulled it back. I didn’t want to let her go. It was like I was physically incapable of doing so. My arms trembled as I laid her down.
“She hasn’t stirred once,” I heard myself saying as I forced my arms out from under her. I sat beside her, shaking my head. “Her eyelashes haven’t even fluttered.”
“She’ll be okay,” Kieran said as Delano jumped onto the bed and lay down on her other side by her hip, placing his head between his front legs. His gaze was trained on the door. “I don’t think Nektas would lie to us.”
“Does that make you feel better about this?”
Drawing my lower lip between my teeth, I kept shaking my head. So much shit was running through it. “I don’t like being here, in this godsforsaken place, when she’s in this vulnerable state.”
“I will make sure no staff even enters this floor,” Emil said from the doorway.
I looked over at the Atlantian. I’d been right about hearing his voice, but I hadn’t realized he’d followed us. Shit. I needed to get it together. “Thank you.”
Emil’s golden eyes flicked to Delano. “Neither will he.”
I nodded. Poppy looked so damn…lifeless. I briefly closed my eyes, ordering myself to chill the fuck out. She couldn’t be comfortable like this, with weapons strapped to her and her feet filthy with blood and dirt. I glanced over my shoulder at the bathing chamber. “Is Hisa near?” I asked, speaking of the Commander of the Crown Guard.
Kieran nodded. “Want me to see if she can find something for her to wear?”
“Yeah.” Clearing my throat, I ran my hand over the harness at her thigh, undoing the snaps. There was something strangely calming about the task. It made all the roaring thoughts slow enough for me to remember who I was—who we were. “Emil?”
“Yes,” he answered immediately.
“We’re going to be out of commission for a bit, but no one other than our people needs to know why,” I began, slipping the harness and the dagger from her leg. “First thing we need to do is make sure Wayfair is secure.”
“Already on it,” Emil answered. “The wolven were already guarding the premises when you were all below, along with Hisa and the Crown Guard.”
“Perfect.” I watched Kieran take the harness from me, placing it on the nightstand. “We need to find my brother and…and Millicent.”
“Naill went after them,” Emil shared.
“I…” I met Kieran’s stare. “I don’t want either of them near this floor.”
“Understood,” Emil said. There were no jokes or teasing from him. Not now. “And what do you want us to do about the Ascended? We haven’t found any more in the castle, but I have been made aware of several clusters in the manors near the Golden Bridge and within the Garden District.”
Kill them. That was my first response. Make it quick and neat. But as I brushed a smudge of dirt from Poppy’s hand, I knew she wouldn’t want that. Especially since I couldn’t say that any of them were running in our direction. “Keep them in their homes.” The words tasted like ash on my tongue. “Make sure all know the Ascended are not to be harmed until we discuss what to do with them.”
“Will do,” Emil answered. There was a pause. “And what of your father?”
Fuck. I hadn’t even thought about him and the others in Padonia.
“We need to send word to him.” Kieran had knelt at our side. “Let him know the status of everything. We don’t have to tell him about Poppy, though.”
“Agreed.” I exhaled heavily, knowing he would be on his way the moment he received word of our success. I didn’t know if Poppy would be awake by then. I thought about her friend. “Make sure Tawny comes with him.”
“And what of the people of Carsodonia?” Emil asked after a moment. “They are still locked down in their homes, by choice currently, but I don’t think that will last for long.”
No, I didn’t either.
What to do with them was a damn good question. “Many of them have spent their entire lives believing we’re monsters. They’re going to be scared. We will…we will need to address them.”
Kieran nodded his agreement. “I think we’ll have some time before that becomes necessary.”
“We’ll cross that bridge when we’re ready to set it on fire,” I said with a dry laugh, dragging the back of my hand across my chin. “It’s important that we locate Malik. He knows a lot of the Descenters here.”
“They could be of help.” Kieran turned to Emil. “Anything else?”
“Nothing I can think of, but I’m sure I will in about five minutes.” Emil stepped back, then stopped. “Actually, it only took a second for me to think of something else.”
A faint smile tugged at my lips.
“Did you find him?” Emil asked. “Her father?”
“Yes.” I smiled then, wider and a little stronger. “Nektas will take him…home.” “Nektas,” Emil repeated, letting out a low whistle. “He is one big motherfucking draken.” A rough laugh left me. Yeah, he was.
“And I just thought of something else,” Emil said, and Kieran cracked a grin. “There was some kind of…event that occurred at the city Atheneum, almost like an explosion. It’s being checked out now.”
“It’s fine,” I said, counting Poppy’s breaths. “It’s the goddess Penellaphe.”
“Come again?” Emil’s voice pitched high.
“You heard him right,” Kieran said. “The gods are awakening. She was asleep beneath the Atheneum.” He paused. “There may be more coming awake, here or throughout Solis, if they haven’t already.”
“Oh. Okay. That’s a whole bunch of completely normal and expected things to speak out loud,” Emil replied slowly. “I’ll…I’ll let everyone know. And I’m sure none of them will have a single question or potentially overreact to such news.” He started to leave.
“Emil?” I twisted at the waist, looking him over and actually paying attention. I saw him standing there, but I couldn’t get the image of seeing him speared through the chest out of my mind. “How are you feeling?”
“I’m…” Emil looked down at the jagged tears in his armor. He swallowed, then looked past me to Poppy. “I’m glad to be alive. Tell her she has my everlasting devotion and utter, complete adoration when she wakes.”
My eyes narrowed.
Emil winked and then turned to leave.
“Fucker,” I muttered, turning to Poppy. I wasn’t telling her shit.
Kieran chuckled, but the sound was quick to fade. Gods, she’d hate this—us staring at her while she slept. She’d probably stab one or both of us upon waking. I wanted to laugh, but I couldn’t get the sound out.
“She’ll be fine. She’ll wake, and she’ll know herself. She’ll know us.” Kieran placed his hand on my shoulder. “We just need to wait.”
“Yeah.” Thick emotion clogged my throat and tightened my chest.
Kieran squeezed my shoulder and then dropped his hand. He cleared his throat. “What do you think Nektas meant when he was talking about the eather and us having Joined with a Primal?”
I rubbed my chin, needing a moment to recall what he was talking about. “Man, I totally forgot about that. I have no idea. And, of course, he didn’t go into any detail.”
“I’m beginning to think vagueness is a unique ability when it comes to the draken,” Kieran muttered.
A rough laugh left me. “Yeah, but all of us had way more important things on our minds.” We still did.
“Talk to her.” I glanced at Kieran. “That’s what Nektas said.”
But what did I talk to her about? I shook my head as I stared at her face. She looked too damn peaceful, when my entire being felt like it was being ripped apart. I ran the tips of my fingers over her cold cheek. Talk to her. I grazed the scar that started at her temple and thought of the first time I’d seen her unveiled for some reason.
Then I thought about the first time I’d seen her.
I didn’t know if that was what Nektas had meant, but it was something. I forced a deep, steady breath as Kieran straightened the sleeve of her shirt. “Did I ever tell you what it was like when I was in Masadonia?” I said to her, feeling Kieran’s and Delano’s attention moving to me. “I can’t remember, but I don’t think I’ve told you what it was like before I became your guard. Everything I did.” A heavier breath left me this time because I’d done a lot. “And how it all changed—how I changed—because of you.”
I tucked a strand of hair behind her ear. “But where do I start?” I searched my memories. They were hazy at first. But then… “I think I’ll start on the Rise.”
ON THE RISE
A chill reached the Rise, chasing away what remained of the late-season warmth that had lingered far into autumn. The hint of coming snow was in the night air.
That wasn’t the only thing.
I turned at the waist and propped a booted foot on the ledge, looking down at the ramshackle buildings in the shadow of the massive wall enclosing the cesspool of a city known as Masadonia. The homes were all drab shades of gray and brown, stained with dirt and smoke and stacked atop one another, leaving little room for the wagons to travel the streets, let alone enough space for the people to breathe anything but the stench of sewage and decay.
There was always death in the air near the Rise.
My lip curled in disgust as I scanned the rows and rows of homes in the Lower Ward. Lit by torches and a few sporadically placed streetlamps powered by oil instead of electricity, the packed buildings appeared one wind gust away from crumbling in on themselves. Clearly, Duke and Duchess Teerman, the Ascended who ruled Masadonia, believed only the wealthy deserved such luxuries as clean air and space, electricity, and running water.
Masadonia was one of the oldest cities in the kingdom, and I was sure it had once been beautiful when Atlantia ruled the entirety of the mortal realm—before the War of Two Kings, the Blood Crown, and the Rises were erected around cities and villages as prisons to keep out the consequences of the evil that lived within. Before my people retreated east of the Skotos Mountains for the greater good of the realm.
But no real good had come of it.
The Ascended, those who now ruled everything west of the Skotos, were expert revisionists, rewriting history by calling themselves the heroes and damning Atlantians as the villains. They’d managed to convince the mortals they were Blessed by the gods and installed themselves as rulers of what they now called the Kingdom of Solis.
A too-abrupt scream echoed from the shadows of the Lower Ward.
That evil didn’t find its way in. It now lived among the mortals.
My grip tightened on the hilt of the broadsword at my hip as I lifted my gaze to the twinkling lights of Radiant Row, seated at the base of Castle Teerman. Now, the only beauty to be found was beyond the heavily wooded Wisher’s Grove, where the elite of Masadonia lived in large manors on sprawling acres. Most were Ascended. Only a few were mortals who’d benefited from generational wealth. And they were likely aware of precisely what the Ascended were.
One would think the vamprys would take better care of their people, considering they would simply shrivel up and waste away without them. However, as a whole, the Ascended appeared to lack foresight as much as they did empathy. They treated their people like cattle, keeping them alive in shit conditions until it was time to be butchered.
“You never quite get used to the smells or the sounds.” The voice intruded on my thoughts.
“Not unless you grew up in the Lower Ward.”
I turned my head to Pence. The blond-haired guard couldn’t be more than a year or two into his second decade of life. I doubted he’d make it much further if he continued on the Rise. Most of the guards didn’t. “Did you grow up down there?”
In the light of a nearby torch, Pence nodded as he stared at the homes lined up like uneven, jagged teeth. His answer came as no surprise. There wasn’t much opportunity in Solis unless one was born into wealth. You either worked as your parents did, barely scraping by, or you joined the Royal Army hoping to be one of the lucky fools to live long enough to move off the Rise and into something like a position in the Royal Guard.
Pence frowned as several shouts broke out, coming from an area near the Citadel, where coin was spent in gambling dens and houses of pleasure. Only the gods knew what was going on. A deal gone wrong? Senseless, unprovoked murder? The Ascended themselves? The possibilities were endless.
“How about you?” he asked.
“Grew up on a farm in the east.” The lie slipped easily from my lips, and it wasn’t just because I did, in fact, hail from the east—the Far East—but because I was as good at lying as I was at killing.
The crease between Pence’s brow deepened. “Heard you were from the capital.”
“I worked on the Rise in Carsodonia.” Another lie. “But I’m not from there.”
“Ah.” The skin between his eyes smoothed as he returned to stare at the Lower Ward and the plumes of smoke coming from chimneys.
I wasn’t at all surprised that he didn’t press harder about what I’d said. Most mortals rarely questioned anything. Generation after generation was groomed to simply accept what they were told. That was one thing I could thank the Ascended for. It made what I’d come to do much easier.
“Bet Carsodonia looks nothing like this,” Pence said, sounding wistful.
I almost laughed. The capital was just like Masadonia, though even more stratified and worse. But I squelched the sound that wanted to rise in humor. “The beaches along the Stroud Sea are…nice.”
A brief smile appeared on Pence’s face, making him seem even younger. “Never seen the sea before.”
He probably never would.
A gnawing pang radiated through my chest and stomach, reminding me that I needed to feed.
“My brother will, though,” he added with a smile. “Owen is a second son, you know.” Anger replaced the ache, flooding my system, but I kept it in check as I turned my attention back to the Lower Ward. “He’s a Lord in Wait, then?”
“Yeah. He’s at the castle. Been there since he turned thirteen, learning to be a Lord.”
I smirked. “How does one learn to be a Lord?”
“I imagine it’s all about which fork and spoon is the correct one to eat with. Fancy shit like that.” Pence let out a raspy laugh, reminding me that he’d only just recovered from one of the many sicknesses that ran rampant through the Citadel and the Lower Ward. “Probably bored out of his mind learning the histories and how to act right, not realizing how lucky he is.”
“Lucky?” I glanced at him.
“Fuck, yeah. All the second sons and daughters are.” Pence adjusted the hilt of his sword. “He’ll never have to worry about being up on the Rise or going out beyond it. He’s got it made, Hawke. He really does.”
I stared at the fool—no, not a fool. Pence may not be educated—none of the first sons or daughters were unless they were wealthy—but the man wasn’t a fool. He’d just been fed the same bullshit the Blood Crown doled out in spoonfuls. So, of course, he thought his brother was lucky to be given to the Royal Court upon his thirteenth birthday during the godsforsaken Rite— as all second sons and daughters were. They were raised at Court and then, at some point, received the Blessing of the gods. They were Ascended. But I supposed Owen was luckier than the third sons and daughters, those given over at infancy during the Rite to serve the gods in the various Temples throughout the kingdom.
I ground my molars. The faith the people had in the Ascended was strong, wasn’t it? In truth, the Lords and Ladies in Wait didn’t receive jack shit from the gods when they Ascended, and those babes weren’t being raised to serve the gods because the gods had been resting for centuries.
But most of the people of Solis didn’t know that, and if I were being fair, it wasn’t all that hard to understand how the Ascended had so many believing in them. If one only looked at the surface, you wouldn’t doubt the gods had Blessed the Ascended. Not when they appeared to have been gifted strength, longevity, wealth, and power that mortals could only dream of. However, nothing about the Ascended—the Blood Crown and all their Dukes and Duchesses and Ascended Lords and Ladies—was a blessing.
It was all a fucking waking nightmare.
An odd noise came from behind us, a low wail easily mistaken for the wind, but everyone on the Rise was trained to listen for that sound. The warning. We turned at once, facing the moonlight-drenched lands beyond the Rise.
I crossed to the other side of the wall and looked out over the barren lands. Clouds had gathered, blocking most of the moonlight, but my eyesight was far better than the others on the Rise and below, just outside the wall, where the horses whinnied nervously, I saw what that sound warned of. Beyond the row of torches placed about halfway out from the Rise, a thick mist gathered at the edges of the Blood Forest, a lone shadow in the mist.
Pence joined me, scanning the darkened land. He was paler now, but his shoulders were straight as he withdrew the bow strapped to his back. The guard was afraid, but that didn’t make him any less brave.
The Blood Crown didn’t deserve him or the men below, those who began riding forward. Some of them wouldn’t return.
Another low, keening cry echoed from the Blood Forest, and a second shadow appeared in the mist. Then another. The mist didn’t thicken or rise, though. There didn’t seem to be a horde, but three Craven could be dangerous enough.
“Fucking Atlantians,” Pence spat.
My head cut to him, and I had to stop myself from knocking his ass off the Rise—or laughing, considering he cursed those whose blood would be used to Ascend his brother when the time came since the gods weren’t Ascending anyone. The Blood Crown simply used Atlantian blood.
And the Craven had nothing to do with my people. They weren’t the product of our poisonous kiss as the mortals were led to believe. That was just more shit the Blood Crown used to cover up their misdeeds and make sure the people hated Atlantians. They were solely responsible for the creatures that slaughtered indiscriminately in their hunger for blood.
“I really hope my brother Ascends soon,” Pence said, swallowing. “He’ll be safer then, you know?”
Yeah, he would be safer.
He’d also be creating more Craven that could one day kill Pence.
“How old is your brother now?” I knew the Blood Crown didn’t typically Ascend the Lords and Ladies in Wait until they reached adulthood.
“Just turned sixteen.” Pence squinted. “Not sure if he’ll Ascend during the Maiden’s Ascension or if they’ll wait. But it’s coming up. That is if it actually happens.”
I stiffened, forcing my grip on my sword to relax.
Breathing in deeply, I ignored the stench I could practically taste. She was the reason I was in this shithole of a city. Her Ascension was to happen within the year, and it should’ve been the largest one to take place since the end of the war some several hundred years ago.
Should’ve been the key phrase there. Because Pence was smart to question if the Ascension would happen.
My voice was level as I asked, “What makes you think the Ascension won’t happen?”
“Seriously? You don’t think the Descenters will try something?” He sent me a sharp look as he lowered the bow. “They want to usurp the Crown. At the very least, cause trouble. Preventing the Maiden’s Ascension would be one way to do just that.”
“And why would the Maiden’s Ascension have that much impact on the Crown?” I angled my body toward his, doubting he could answer what I or any of my spies had yet to figure out.
His eyes narrowed. “Because the Maiden is Chosen by the gods,” he said with the reverence that often filled the voice of anyone who spoke about the Maiden and the confidence of every single motherfucker who spewed that bullshit. Except Pence’s words included a tone that said he thought me half-idiotic to even ask the question.
It was a good thing I stopped myself from shouting, “Why?” in his face. Why was this Maiden Chosen? The Blood Crown never elaborated beyond her Ascension ushering in a new era. No matter who we questioned or how many Ascended we interrogated, we never learned the reason beyond the belief or how she would be this…this harbinger of a new era.
“I’ve been hearing the Duke’s worried about the upcoming Rite,” Pence said after a moment, his slender face drawn. “I’m guessing there’ve been credible threats. Fear the Dark One will get the Descenters here riled up into doing something.”
The Duke had every right to be concerned about the upcoming Rite. One side of my lips twisted up as I turned from Pence, thinking the guard would likely piss himself if he knew who he stood beside and spoke to.
The so-called Dark One.
The Prince of a fallen kingdom the Blood Crown claimed was hellbent on murder and mayhem. Many believed that, but the false King and Queen hadn’t been able to convince everyone in Solis. The Descenters knew that the Kingdom of Atlantia hadn’t fallen. Instead, we’d thrived and rebuilt in the four centuries following the war, strengthening our armies.
If Atlantia invaded Solis, something many within Atlantia wanted, Solis would be taken. Thousands, if not millions, would die in the process. And that was exactly what would happen if I didn’t get off this fucking Rise and get my hands on the Maiden.
Because unbeknownst to the people of Solis, the Blood Crown had stolen someone very important to Atlantia. Not just their Prince but the heir to the throne. If he wasn’t freed, there would be war. And this time?
This time, there would be no retreat for the greater good of the people.
THE SCENT OF ROT
Six guards had ridden out on horseback to take care of the Craven before they reached the Rise.
It was rare for those who fell outside the Rise to be brought back for burial rites. Sometimes, there was simply nothing left of the body for their loved ones to mourn. Usually, it was all due to the Ascended not wanting the people to know exactly how many were lost while fighting the Craven.
In other words, they didn’t want the people to know how little control they had of the situation.
I tensed as I watched one of the guards dismount just inside the Rise. The man was unsteady on his feet. I inhaled deeply, catching the stale-sweet scent of…rot. Shit. Not liking the look of what I’d seen or smelled, I walked to the edge and waited for the guard to turn.
“Hawke Flynn.” The high-pitched, nasally voice of Lieutenant Dolen Smyth cut through the low chatter of those on the Rise. “You weren’t at roll call this afternoon.”
Pence bowed as was required for one of Smyth’s position. I didn’t. Instead, I tracked the dark-haired guard’s movements as he spoke with several other guards on the ground. “I was there.”
“I just said I didn’t see you,” Lieutenant Smyth snapped, which was utter bullshit. He’d seen me. I knew he had because he’d been eyeballing me like he wanted to see my head on a spike. “So, exactly how were you there, Flynn?”
“I’m not sure how to answer that question.” The guard I was tracking had started walking, leading his nervous horse to the stables. He turned briefly, his profile blanched in the firelight. I recognized him. Jole Crain. He was young. Fuck, he was younger than Pence. “I think it would be a question better asked of a Healer.”
“And why the hell would you think that?” Lieutenant Smyth demanded.
“Because if you didn’t see me…” I began, catching sight of Pence out of the corner of my eye. He looked as if he were attempting to disappear into one of the curved parapets. “Then there appears to be something wrong with your vision.” I turned to the Lieutenant then, smiling tightly. The white mantle of the Royal Guard flapped from his slender shoulders in the wind like a flag of surrender. While Smyth lorded his authority over others like far too many in his position, he’d earned that coveted spot among the Royal Guard. Only the strong and the skilled stayed alive long enough to make it off the Rise. “And I would suggest you have that checked out immediately.”
“There is nothing wrong with my vision.” The blond Lieutenant sputtered, and his normally ruddy cheeks flushed even more in anger.
I reminded myself that throwing his ass off the Rise would not do me any favors. “Then you did see me. Perhaps there is an issue with your memory, then.”
His nostrils flared as he took a step toward me, but then he stopped himself. The knuckles of his right hand turned white from how tightly he clenched the hilt of his broadsword. He didn’t draw it. It was clear he wanted to, though. Whatever instinct the man possessed had prevented him from making an entirely foolish choice. Or perhaps it was smarts. Smyth was as intelligent as he was a bastard.
And I was beginning to think he was perhaps too wise. Too observant.
Because he’d been on my ass from day one, watching my every move and asking too many questions.
“Your disrespect will be reported,” he said finally, his tone pitching even higher than usual. “And we’ll see what Commander Jansen has to say.”
My smile kicked up a notch. “I suppose we will.”
“Just so you know,” he bit out, lifting his pointed chin, “I’ve got my eye on you, Flynn.” “Most do,” I replied, then winked.
Lieutenant Smyth’s shoulders stiffened. It appeared as if he wanted to say more, but disappointingly, he stalked forward, bumping my shoulder as he continued on the patrol path. Chuckling, I looked to where Pence had nearly blended into the shadows of the parapet. “Exactly how big are your balls?” the guard asked.
I snorted. “Normal size, the last I checked.”
“I don’t know about that.” Pence crossed the battlement, dragging a hand through his windblown hair. “Smyth is a prick.”
“I know that.”
“Then you have to know he’s going to do exactly what he said. He’ll go to the Commander.”
“I’m sure he will,” I said, straightening the strap of my baldric as I glanced at where I’d last seen the guard. “Jole Crain has a chamber in the dorms, right?”
“Yeah. He’s on the third floor.” Pence’s brow knitted. “Why do you ask?”
Pence eyed me for a moment. “You aren’t worried at all about the Lieutenant, are you?”
“Not at all.” And I wasn’t.
Lieutenant Smyth didn’t even register on the list of things I was concerned about.
I lifted my gaze to the Citadel’s stone towers, then looked farther out past the edges of the Lower Ward and Wisher’s Grove, beyond the wider, nicer streets and lush manors. My stare fixed on the sprawling, arched walls of Castle Teerman, where the Maiden likely slept peacefully, safe in her stone and glass cage, out of reach.
But not for long.