Casteel nodded as he stalked toward me, his eyes a heated amber. “I know you’re the Queen of my heart.”
Blinking, I lowered my hands as he stopped in front of me. “Did you seriously just say that?”
One dimple appeared as he clasped the back of my head and lowered his head to mine. “I sure as fuck did.”
“That was so…cheesy,” I said.
“I know.” Casteel kissed me, and there was nothing ridiculous about that. His tongue parted my lips, and I welcomed his taste.
“This is a little awkward,” Vonetta observed.
“They do this all the time,” Kieran sighed. “You’ll get used to it.”
“Better than them fighting,” Delano remarked.
Casteel grinned against my lips. “You’re extraordinary,” he murmured. “Don’t ever forget that.”
I kissed him in response, and then unfortunately, pulled free. “We should probably get moving. More could come.”
“Let’s hope not,” Emil said, sheathing his swords.
“Everyone okay?” Casteel asked as we started walking. “No snake bites?”
Luckily, everyone was fine, but as we neared the shadows of the stone women, I said, “Maybe I should go first.”
Delano bowed, extending an arm as Vonetta shook dust from her braids. “Be my guest.”
My grin froze as I tentatively stepped into the shadow of a wing. The ground did tremor, but it was the holes, filling back with dirt. The landscape was once again flat and whole. “Okay,” I breathed. “That’s a good sign.”
Casteel was the first to join me and then the others. We continued on, passing under the wing. The sandy dirt hardened under our feet. Patches of grass appeared, giving way to a lush meadow of bright orange flowers.
“Poppies,” Delano whispered.
Lips parting, I looked over at Casteel. He shook his head in slight disbelief. The flowers we walked through could’ve just been a coincidence, but…
My steps slowed as we realized we were coming to the crest of a gently sloping hill and were finally able to see what the stone women and those skeleton soldiers had been guarding.
A sweeping Temple sat in the valley. Pillars constructed of shadowstone lined the wide, crescent-shaped steps and the colonnade. The structure was massive, nearly double the size of the palace in Evaemon, even without the additional wings. It rose against the blue sky in soaring towers and spires as if the fingers of night were reaching up from the land to touch daylight. Smaller shapes were situated around the temple, possibly mounds or statues. I couldn’t make out what they were from this distance, but it wasn’t the only thing that had been protected. It was what rested in the hills and valleys miles beyond the Temple.
It was Dalos, the City of the Gods.
Warm beams of sunlight reflected off the diamond-bright sides of buildings sprawled across the hills. Crystalline towers rose into the sky in graceful arcs, parting the wispy, white clouds sprinkled over the city and extending beyond them, glittering as if a thousand stars had kissed them. An awed silence fell over us as we gazed upon the city.
Several long moments of silence passed before Emil spoke, his voice thick. “I have to believe that this is what the Vale looks like.”
It really could be. Nothing could be more beautiful.
“Do you think anyone in the city is awake?” Vonetta asked quietly.
My heart skipped a beat. “Could there be?”
Casteel shook his head. “It’s possible, but we…we won’t find out.” His gaze touched mine. “Remember Willa’s warning.”
I swallowed, nodding. “We can’t go into the city,” I reminded everyone. “Maybe gods are awake there, and that’s why we can’t.” I looked at Emil. “Or maybe Dalos is a part of the Vale.”
Clearing his throat, Emil nodded. “Yeah.”
If gods were awake in the city, I had to wonder if they were unaware of what was happening past the Mountains of Nyktos. Or if they simply didn’t care.
“You think that’s the Temple where Nyktos may sleep?” Delano asked.
Kieran inhaled deeply. “We might as well find out.”
We started down the hill, the grass reaching our knees. The air smelled of fresh lilacs and…something I couldn’t place. It was a woodsy scent but a sweet one. A more-than-pleasant smell. I tried to figure it out but couldn’t by the time we reached the bottom of the hill.
The grass became white soil that reminded me of sand, but there was no beach that I could see, and it was brighter than sand. It sparkled in the sun and crunched under our—
“Are we walking on diamonds?” Vonetta stared at the ground, disbelief echoing from her. “I think we’re actually walking on diamonds.”
“I have no words for this,” Casteel commented as Delano bent and picked up a piece. “But diamonds are birthed from the joyous tears of the gods—of gods in love.”
My gaze shifted to the Temple, and I thought of Nyktos and the Consort that he was so protective of. No one even knew her name.
“You all are staring at diamonds,” Kieran stated, his wariness pressing against my skin. “Meanwhile, I’m just waiting for you all to realize what this giant-ass statue is.”
I looked at what Kieran stared at, and my stomach dropped. The mounds I’d seen from the top of the hill weren’t several small statues but one very large one of…of what appeared to be a slumbering dragon at the steps of the Temple, just off to the right. It looked like the sketches I’d seen in books containing fables, except its neck wasn’t nearly as long, and even with the wings carved to be tucked against the body, it was so much bigger.
“Whoa,” Vonetta murmured as we neared the statue and the steps of the Temple.
“Let’s take slow steps,” Casteel advised. “If this is Nyktos’s resting place, his guards may be nearby—and not stone ones.”
“If this thing comes to life, I am out of here,” Emil grumbled. “You will never see an Atlantian run faster.”
A wry grin tugged at my lips as I slowly approached the statue, marveling at the sculpture. From the nostrils to the frill of spikes around the beast’s head, to the claws and the horns on the tips of its wings, every intricate detail had been captured. How long would it have taken someone to carve something this large? I reached out, running my fingers over the side of the face. The stone was rough and bumpy, surprisingly—
“Poppy.” Casteel snagged my wrist. “The whole proceed-with-caution thing also included not randomly touching things.” Lifting my hand to his mouth, he pressed a kiss to my fingers. “Okay?”
I nodded, letting him guide me away. “The stone was really warm, though. Isn’t that kind of—”
A crack of thunder sounded, reverberating through the valley. I looked down, half-expecting the ground to open up.
“Uh.” Kieran started to back up as he stared behind us. “Guys…”
I whipped around, my lips parting as a piece of the stone shattered over the side of the beast’s face and fell away, revealing a deeper shade of gray and—
An actual open eye of vivid blue with an aura of luminous white behind a thin, vertical pupil.