Several of the guards moved to the front of the King and Queen, surrounding them fully—
A shock of white fur shot forward. Delano tucked his tail back as he pawed at the marble. He lifted his head and howled. The eerie yet beautiful sound raised the tiny hairs all over my body.
Off in the distance, the faint sounds of yips and barks answered, growing louder with each second. The leaves on the tall, cone-shaped trees separating the Temple from Saion’s Cove trembled as a rolling rumble echoed from the ground below. Blue-and-yellow-winged birds took flight from the trees, scattering to the sky.
“Godsdamn.” Emil turned to the Temple steps. He reached for the swords at his sides. “They’re summoning the whole damn city.”
“It’s her.” The deep scar slicing across the older wolven’s forehead stood out starkly. Potent disbelief rolled off Alastir as he stood just outside the circle of guards who’d formed around Casteel’s parents.
“It is not her,” Casteel shot back.
“But it is,” King Valyn confirmed as he stared at me from a face that Casteel’s would one day become. “They’re responding to her. That’s why the ones on the road with us shifted without warning. She called them to her.”
“I…I didn’t call anyone,” I told Casteel, voice cracking.
“I know.” Casteel’s tone softened as his eyes locked with mine.
“But she did,” his mother insisted. “You might not realize it, but you did summon them.”
My eyes darted to her, and I felt my chest wrench. She was everything I’d imagined Casteel’s mother to be. Stunning. Regal. Powerful. Calm now, even as she remained on one knee, even when she had first seen me and demanded of her son—What have you done? What have you brought back? I flinched, fearing those words would stay with me long after today.
Casteel’s features sharpened as golden eyes swept over my face. “If the idiots behind me actually laid down their swords instead of lifting them against my wife, we wouldn’t have an entire colony of wolven about to descend on us,” he bit out. “They are only reacting to the threat.”
“You’re right,” his father agreed as he gently guided his wife to her feet. Blood soaked the knee and the hem of her lilac gown. “But ask yourself why your bonded wolven is guarding someone other than you.”
“I really couldn’t care less at the moment,” Casteel responded as the sound of hundreds—if not more—of paws pounding the earth grew even closer. He couldn’t be serious. He had to care, because that was a damn good question.
“You need to care,” his mother cautioned, a thin quiver in her otherwise steady voice. “The bonds have broken.”
The bonds? Hands trembling, my wide eyes shot to the Temple steps, to where Emil slowly backed away. Naill had his swords in his hands now.
“She’s right,” Alastir uttered, the skin around his mouth appearing even whiter. “I can… I can feel it—the Primal notam. Her mark. Good gods.” His voice trembled as he stumbled back, nearly stepping on the crown. “They’ve all broken.”
I had no idea what a notam was, but through the confusion and the blossoming panic, there was something odd about what Alastir had stated. If it was true, then why wasn’t he in his wolven form? Was it because he’d already broken his wolven bond with the former King of Atlantia all those years ago?
“Look at their eyes,” the Queen ordered softly, pointing out what I’d seen. “I know you don’t understand. There are things you never needed to learn, Hawke.” Her voice cracked then, thickened at the use of his nickname—a name I’d once believed to be nothing more than a lie. “But what you need to know now is that they no longer serve the elemental bloodline. You are not safe. Please,” she begged. “Please. Listen to me, Hawke.”
“How?” I croaked. “How could the bond break?”
“That doesn’t matter right now.” The amber of Casteel’s eyes was nearly luminous. “You’re bleeding,” he said as if that were the most important issue at hand.
But it wasn’t. “How?” I repeated.
“It’s what you are.” Eloana’s left hand balled into the skirt of her gown. “You have the blood of a god in you—”
“I’m mortal,” I told her.
A thick lock of dark hair tumbled from her knot as she shook her head. “Yes, you are mortal, but you are descended from a deity—the children of the gods. All it takes is a drop of god’s blood—” She swallowed thickly. “You may have more than just a drop, but what is in your blood, what is in you, supersedes any oath the wolven have taken.”
I remembered then what Kieran had told me in New Haven about the wolven. The gods had given the once-wild kiyou wolves mortal form to serve as guides and protectors to the children of the gods—the deities. Something else Kieran had shared then explained the Queen’s reaction.
My gaze shot to the crown lying near Nyktos’s feet. A drop of deity blood usurped any claim to the Atlantian throne.
Oh, gods, there was a good chance I really might pass out. And how embarrassing would that be?
Eloana’s gaze shifted to her son’s rigid back. “You go near her? Right now? They will see you as a threat to her. They will rip you apart.”
My heart stuttered to a panicked stop. Casteel looked as if he might do just that. Behind me, one of the smaller wolven lurched forward, barking and snapping at the air.
Every muscle in my body tensed. “Casteel—”
“It’s okay.” Casteel’s eyes never left mine. “No one is going to harm Poppy. I will not allow that.” His chest rose with a deep, heavy breath. “And you know that, right?”
I nodded as each breath came too fast, too shallowly. It was the only thing I understood at the moment.
“Everything’s all right. They’re just protecting you.” Casteel smiled for me then, but it was tense and tight. He looked to my left, at Kieran. “I don’t know everything that is going on right now, but you—all of you—want to keep her safe. And I’m all about that. You know I would never hurt her. I would tear out my own heart before I did that. She’s injured. I need to make sure she’s okay, and nothing is going to stop me from doing that.” He didn’t blink as he held Kieran’s stare, as the rolling thunder of the other wolven reached the Temple steps. “Not even you. Any of you. I will destroy every single one of you who stands between her and me.”
Kieran’s growl deepened, and an emotion I’d never felt from him before poured into me. It was like anger, but older. And it felt like that buzz in my blood had. Ancient. Primal.
And in an instant, I could see it all playing out in my mind as if it were happening before me. Kieran would attack. Or maybe it would be Jasper. I’d seen what kind of damage a wolven could inflict, but Casteel wouldn’t go down easily. He would do just as he’d promised. He’d tear through all that stood between him and me. Wolven would die, and if he harmed Kieran—if he did worse than that, the wolven’s blood wouldn’t just be on Casteel’s hands. It would mark his soul till the day he died.
A wave of wolven crested the Temple’s stairs, both small and large, in so many different colors. Their arrival brought terrifying knowledge. Casteel was incredibly strong and unbelievably fast. He would take down many. But he would fall with them.