And I knew this wasn’t easy for Kieran. Before, he had been able to tell how Casteel was doing because of the bond. He didn’t have that now. He just had all the what-ifs I had.
“Kieran?” I asked as we made our way down the narrow tunnel.
I swallowed, my throat dry. “Are you…are you doing okay?”
He didn’t answer right away, and I thought the hand he held the torch with trembled. “No.”
I briefly closed my eyes.
“No,” I whispered.
We traveled the windy underground tunnels, mostly in silence after that. There were no jokes, no real conversation at all. We passed the area of the partial collapse hours before we had the first time, and I moved ahead of him when we saw the pinprick of light. I worked my way out, and then we crossed the barren land. Making our way, I made sure it was I who stepped under the shadow of the winged women. The ground didn’t tremble. What I believed were the Consort’s guards remained under our feet. The city of Dalos shimmered in the distance as we walked toward the shadowstone Temple.
The first thing I noticed was there was no slumbering stone draken. “Where is….?”
“There.” Kieran’s steps slowed as I followed his gaze to the Temple stairs. A man with black hair streaked with silver stood in the center of them, dressed in black pants and nothing else. “You think that’s Nektas?” he asked, his voice low. “In his mortal form?”
“Maybe.” Shards of diamonds crunched under my boots.
“The wolven is correct,” the man spoke, and my brows lifted. The draken’s hearing was extraordinary. “You have returned several members less than the last time. That does not bode well.”
I stiffened as I stopped many yards from the Temple.
“If you are seeking Nyktos, you are not in luck,” Nektas continued. “He has joined his Consort once more in sleep.”
“I’m not here to see Nyktos,” I said, taking in the fine ridges all along his back. They looked like…scales.
“I understand.” A heartbeat of silence. “Or is it that you now understand the power you wield?”
Wanting to know how the draken was aware of my epiphany, I glanced at Kieran. He sent me a look that said he knew I was about to ask a rather irrelevant question.
I fought the urge and won. “I understand.”
His head tilted, but he still did not look at us. “Before you speak, you must be sure, for these words cannot be rescinded. Once you summon the flesh and fire of the gods, to protect and serve you, to keep you safe, they will be cast in fire and carved in flesh.”
My mouth dried. “I’m sure.”
“What makes you so sure?”
“The Blood Crown took what is mine. They took everything from me, and they will continue taking everything.”
“And?” he queried quietly. “You seek to use us to take everything from the Blood Crown, then? To destroy them, the cities they protect themselves in, and those who stand between you and them?”
I pressed the marriage imprint against the pouch that held the toy horse. “I seek the aid of the draken to fight the Revenants and the Ascended—to fight beside Atlantia. I do not seek to destroy the cities or kill those caught between them and me. For the most part, the people of Solis are innocent.”
“You seek to fight with the guards of the gods at your side, but you do not expect cities to fall?” He barked out a short laugh. “You are not ready for war.”
“You misunderstand,” I stated carefully. “Or I misspoke. I do not seek to do those things, but I understand that they may be necessary. I am ready for war. I would not be here if I wasn’t. But I do not plan to soak the lands with blood and leave nothing but ruins behind.”
There was a beat of silence. “Then you plan to take what is owed you and bear the weight of two Crowns?”
I forced my hands to loosen. “Yes.”
His head bowed slightly. “And will you help bring back what was ours to protect? What will allow the Consort to wake?”
Kieran sent me a glance of concern, and I really had no idea what Nektas was speaking of or what would happen if the Consort awakened. But I asked, “What is it that I need to help bring back?”
I opened my mouth, but it took several moments for me to find the ability to speak. “Malec?”
“Malec is lost to us. He was lost to us long before any of us realized.”
Confusion swept through both Kieran and me. “I don’t understand,” I started. “Malec is—”
“Malec is not your father,” Nektas said. “The blood that courses through you is that of Ires, his twin.”
Shock rolled through me as I stared at the draken’s back. Isbeth…she hadn’t confirmed that Malec was my father…and she had spoken of Malec in the past tense, as if she believed that he was gone. Oh my gods, Isbeth didn’t know where Malec was, and…
“Ires was lured from Iliseeum some time ago,” Nektas said. “Drawn into the realm with my daughter while we slept. We have not been able to look for Ires. Not without being summoned, and he…he has not called for us. But we know he lives.”
My thoughts raced, settling on the painting I’d seen in the museum of Nyktos and the two…the two large cats. “Oh, gods…”
“What?” Kieran looked at me.
I swallowed, almost afraid to ask. “Could Ires shift forms?”
“He, like his father, could take other forms. While Nyktos preferred that of a white wolf, Ires was often fond of taking the shape of a large gray cat, much like Malec.”
“Fuck,” Kieran whispered.
I…I could only stand there while it felt like my heart had dropped out of my body. “I saw him,” I uttered. “We both did.”
The muscles along Nektas’s back rippled and flexed. “How?”
“He was…he was caged by the one who took Casteel,” I said. I had only briefly considered that the creature I’d seen in the cage had been Malec, but at that time, we’d believed Malec to be a deity. Not Nyktos’s son. Not a twin. “The Blood Queen,” I rasped, reeling. “She…she says she’s a god because Malec Ascended her.”
“A god?” A rough, dark laugh left the ancient draken. “A god is born. Not created. What she is…she, like the Revenants, are an abomination of all that is godly.”
Casteel…he had been right.
Nektas’s hands closed into fists. “Then your enemy is truly an enemy of ours.”
Shaken by the revelation, I pressed the heel of my palm to my chest. How had Isbeth lured a god? Had Malec shared something with her? “Your daughter? Do you know if she lives?”
Nektas did not answer for a long time. “I do not know. She was young when we went to sleep, into statas. She was barely on the cusp of adulthood when Ires woke her.”
“What is her name?” Kieran asked.
“That’s a pretty name,” I said, briefly closing my eyes. I wished I hadn’t. I saw the too-thin man behind the bone bars, his features mirroring the chaos of his mind. I saw the far-too-intelligent eyes of the cat. My father. And I had left him there. I shuddered.