“Oh, shit,” Emil whispered. “Shit. Shit. Run—”
A deep rumbling sound came from within the statue, causing icy fear to drench my skin. Fissures raced through the stone. Sections both large and small fell away, thumping off the ground.
I was frozen where I stood. No one ran. They too had locked up. Maybe it was out of disbelief or an intuitive knowledge that running wouldn’t save us. This wasn’t a stone dragon.
It was a draken in its true form, rising from where it had been resting against the ground, its large, muscular body shaking off the dust and tiny pieces of stone.
I might’ve stopped breathing.
The deep, rumbling sound continued as the draken swung its head toward us, its thick, spiked tail sweeping across the diamonds. Two vibrant blue eyes locked with mine.
“Stay completely still,” Casteel ordered quietly. “Please, Poppy. Do not move.”
Like I could do anything else?
A low snarled vibrated from the draken as its lips peeled back, revealing a row of large teeth sharper than any blade. The draken lowered its head toward me.
My heart might’ve stopped.
I was staring at a draken—a real, live draken, and it was magnificent and frightening and beautiful.
The draken’s nostril’s flared as it sniffed the air—sniffed me. The snarling eased as it continued staring with eyes so full of intelligence, it awed me. It tilted its head. A soft, whirring trill came from its throat, and I had no idea what that meant, but it had to be better than the snarling. A thin membrane fluttered across its eyes, and then its gaze shifted past me—past where Casteel and the others stood—to the Temple.
A wave of awareness shivered through me, raising the tiny hairs all over my body. Pressure pushed against the nape of my neck, boring into the center of my back. I turned around without really having made a conscious decision to do so. Casteel did the same. I didn’t know if any of the others followed because all I could now see was the man standing on the Temple steps between two pillars.
He was tall—taller than even Casteel. Mid-length brown hair fell to his shoulders, glinting a coppery red in the sunlight. The dusky wheatish skin of his features was all planes and angles, pieced together with the same beautiful mastery as the stone shell that had encased the draken. He would’ve been the most beautiful being I’d ever seen if it weren’t for the infinite coldness of his features and his luminous eyes the color of the brightest moon. I knew who he was even though his face had never been painted or carved.
It was Nyktos.
The King of Gods stood before us, dressed in a white tunic that he wore over loose black pants.
He was also barefoot.
I didn’t know why I focused on that, but I did.
It was also why I was a little behind everyone else who had already lowered themselves to one knee, placing a hand over their hearts and their palms to the ground.
“Poppy,” Casteel whispered, his head bowed.
I dropped so fast I nearly face-planted. The sharp ridges of the diamonds dug into my knee, but I barely felt them as I placed my right hand over my heart and my left palm to the rocky surface. Hot breath stirred the wisps of hair at the back of my neck, sending a bolt of unease down my spine. A rough, chuffing sound followed, reminding me an awful lot of laughter.
“Interesting,” came a voice so laden with power and authority that it pressed upon my skull. “You’ve awakened Nektas and still breathe. That can only mean one thing. My blood kneels before me.”
Silence echoed around me as I lifted my head. There were several feet between the god and me, but his silver-eyed stare pierced straight through me. “It is I.”
“That I know,” he answered. “I saw you in my sleep, kneeling beside the one you kneel behind now.”
“It was when we married,” Casteel spoke, his head still bowed.
“And I gave you two my blessing,” Nyktos added. “Yet, you dare to enter Iliseeum and wake me. What a way to show your gratitude. Should I kill all of you before I learn why, or do I even care enough to discover the reasons?”
It could’ve been everything I’d experienced in my life that’d led to this moment. It could’ve been the bitter fear that punched through Casteel—fear for me and not him. It could’ve been my fear for him and my friends. It was probably all those things that drove me to my feet and loosened my tongue. “How about you don’t kill any of us, considering you’ve been asleep for eons, and we came here seeking your aid?”
The King of Gods came down a step. “How about I just kill you?”
Casteel moved so fast, I barely saw him do so until he was standing in front of me, using his body as a shield. “She means no disrespect.”
“But she has disrespected me.”
My stomach twisted as Kieran’s fingers dug into the diamonds. I knew that not even the wolven would protect me in this situation. I may represent the deities to them, but Nyktos was the god that gave them mortal form. “I’m sorry,” I said, attempting to step to the side, but Casteel moved, too, keeping me behind him.
“Then should I kill him?” Nyktos suggested, and terror turned my blood to ice. “I have a feeling that would serve as a better lesson than your death. I’m sure you’d mind your manners then.”
Real fear for Casteel seized me, reaching deep inside and sinking its vicious claws into my chest. Nyktos could do it with a thought, and that knowledge severed whatever self-control I had. Heat rolled through me, turning the ice to slush in my blood. Anger flooded every part of my body, and it felt as potent as the power in the god’s voice. “No.”
“No?” the King of Gods repeated.
Fury and resolve mingled with the hum in my chest. Eather throbbed throughout my body, and this time, when I side-stepped Casteel, he wasn’t fast enough to block me.
I stood in front of him, hands at my sides and feet spread wide. Silvery-white light crackled over my skin, and I knew I couldn’t stop Nyktos. If he wanted us dead, we would die, but that didn’t mean I would stand by. I would die a thousand deaths before I allowed that. I would—
Without warning, an image flashed in my mind. The silver-haired woman standing before another as the stars fell from the sky, her hands balled into fists. Her words came from my lips, “I will not let you harm him or any of my friends.”
Nyktos’s head tilted to the side as his eyes widened slightly. “Interesting,” he murmured, his gaze flicking over me. “Now I understand why sleep has been so hard lately—why we dream so intensely.” A brief pause. “And you do not need anyone to stand before you in defense.”
His statement shook me enough that the eather fizzled out.
“Though,” he continued, his gaze sliding to where Casteel stood, “it’s admirable of you to do so. I see that my approval of the union was not a mistake.”
The breath that left me was one of ragged relief, but then Nyktos turned away. He started walking up the stairs. Where was he going? I stepped forward, and the god stopped, looking over his shoulder. “You wanted to speak. Come. But only you. No one else can enter, or they will die.”
Heart thundering, I twisted toward Casteel. His features were sharp as crystal-bright eyes locked with mine. A desperate sense of helplessness echoed throughout him. He didn’t want me to enter that Temple, but he knew I had to. “Do not get yourself killed,” he ordered. “I will be very angry if you do.”