Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Kieran raise an arm and extend a middle finger. I told myself not to look but I knew he was about to shift, and there was something utterly fascinating about that. I couldn’t stop myself. I peeked, keeping my gaze northwards.
Not like that did any good.
Kieran pitched forward, and for a moment, I saw way more than I should have. Then he changed, his skin thinning and darkening. Bones cracked and stretched, fusing back together. Fawn-colored fur sprouted along his back, covering the muscles as they thickened and grew. Claws slammed into the ground, stirring up leaves and dirt. Seconds. It had only taken seconds, and then Kieran prowled ahead of us in his wolven form.
“I don’t think I’ll ever get used to seeing that,” I whispered.
“Which part?” Casteel asked. “The shifting, or Kieran stripping?”
Naill snorted as he righted himself on the saddle, shoving Kieran’s clothing into his bag.
“Neither,” I admitted, my gaze lifting to the trees as we entered the woods. The tops were deformed, the limbs twisted downward as if a great hand had landed over top of them, attempting to push them into the ground. “Are the trees like this always?”
“They were like that when we arrived at the cabin,” Casteel answered, curling his arm around my waist as leaves and thin branches crunched under Setti’s hooves. “But they never looked like that before.”
“What could’ve caused that?”
“A hell of a storm must have come through here,” he said, and when I glanced at Naill, he was looking up at them, too. As far as we could see, the trees were bent and misshapen.
What kind of storm could do that? Unsettled by the sight, I fell quiet as we traveled forward. It didn’t take long for us to reach the mist obscuring the mountains. It was so thick and white that it was like soup. Even though I knew it wouldn’t hurt me, I still tensed as Kieran loped through. I noticed the other wolven then, streaking out of the haunting woods around us and entering the mist with hesitation. I spotted Jasper and Delano as they came to our sides, joining the two horses. Wispy tendrils of mist curled around their legs and bodies.
Delano lifted his head as he prowled between Naill’s horse and Setti, looking up at me. I gave him an awkward wave as I thought of Beckett disappearing into the mist the first time I’d entered the Skotos.
But that hadn’t been Beckett.
Heart heavy, I faced forward, bracing myself to enter the opaque nothingness. My eyes narrowed. The mist didn’t seem as thick as I remembered. Or it moved, swirling and thinning.
“That’s different,” Casteel noted, and his grip around my waist tightened.
The mist scattered as we entered, spreading out and opening a clear path for us. I twisted, looking behind us. The mist came together again, sealing into a thick, seemingly impenetrable mass. Turning around, I spotted several of the wolven ahead, their fur glossy in the sunlight.
Eager to see the stunning display of the golden trees of Aios, I looked up as soon as we cleared what was left of the mist.
“My gods,” Naill whispered.
Casteel stiffened behind me as Setti slowed, the horse shaking his head nervously. Ahead of us, the wolven had come to a stop, as well, their bodies rigid with tension as they too looked up. My lips parted as a wave of shivers erupted across my skin.
Deep crimson leaves gleamed like a million pools of blood in the sunlight.
The golden trees of Aios had all become blood trees.
Under a canopy of glittering ruby instead of gold, we climbed the Skotos Mountains at a harsh pace that left little room to question what had happened to the trees of Aios. Not that either Casteel or Naill had an answer. I could feel their shock and unease just as strongly as I felt the same emotions radiating from the wolven as red instead of gold glistened from the bark of the magnificent, sweeping trees.
We split into groups as before, even though there were only faint wisps of mist seeping through prickly shrubs and curling along the thick moss covering the forest floor on the mountain. Kieran and Delano stayed with us as we moved steadily up. There were no sounds of birds or any animals, and while the branches, heavy with gleaming crimson leaves, swayed above us, there was no echo of wind, either. No one spoke beyond Casteel asking if I was hungry or Naill offering his flask, claiming the whiskey would help keep us warm the farther we traveled. Hours into the journey, we stopped long enough to take care of personal needs, feed the horses, and for both Naill and Casteel to don their cloaks. Once I was basically swaddled in the blanket Casteel had brought from the cabin, we continued on in the mountains that were still beautiful in a quiet, unsettling way. I couldn’t stop staring at the leaves above me and the deep red ones that had fallen to the ground, peeking out from behind rocks and shrubs. It was as if the entire mountain had turned into one massive Blood Forest—one absent of the Craven.
What had changed the golden trees that had grown through the foothills and the entire mountain range after the goddess Aios had gone to sleep somewhere in the mountain? That question haunted me with each hour that passed. I may enjoy dabbling in denial every now and again, but there could be no coincidence between the change that had occurred here and what had happened to me. Three times now, a tree had grown rapidly where my blood had fallen, and in the ruins of Castle Bauer, the roots of that tree had seemed to gather around me—around Casteel and I both, as if the tree had tried to pull us into the ground or shield us. I didn’t know, but I clearly remembered Kieran tearing through the slick, dark gray roots.
Roots that had been identical to the ones that had wrapped around the bone chains.
Had my near-death done this to the trees here? And the deformed woods outside of the hunting cabin? Had the potential loss of my mortality been the storm that swept through the woods and changed the trees of Aios to blood trees? How, though? And why? And had it impacted the goddess who slept here somehow? The one who Casteel and Kieran believed had awoken to stop me from plummeting to my death?
I hoped not.
Despite the uneasy nature of the mountains and the brutal pace, exhaustion dogged me, and I began to sink farther and farther into Casteel’s embrace. Each time I blinked, it became harder to reopen my eyes to the beams of sunlight streaking through the gaps in the leaves overhead.
Under the blanket, I curled my fingers loosely around Casteel’s arm as I shifted my gaze to where Kieran and Delano ran side by side ahead of us. My thoughts wandered as my eyes started to drift closed. I had no idea how long I’d slept after Casteel gave me his blood and we arrived at the cabin. I hadn’t thought to ask, but it felt like I’d slept for a while. But that sleep hadn’t been deep. Not all of it anyway because I had dreamed. I remembered that now. I had dreamt of the night my parents died, and those dreams had been different than the ones before. My mother had pulled something from her boot—something long, slender, and black. I couldn’t see it now, no matter how hard I tried to remember, but someone else had also been there—someone she’d spoken to, who had sounded nothing like the voice I’d heard in the past—the one who had spoken with my father that I now knew belonged to Alastir. This had been a figure in black. I knew I had dreamed more, but it kept slipping out of reach within my tired mind. Was whatever I dreamed old memories that were finally revealing themselves? Or had they been implanted there, becoming a part of my imagination because of what Alastir had claimed about the Dark One?