Dawn arrived in vivid streaks of pink and blue as we followed a tree-heavy path around the Temple of Saion, along with the realization that the pleasure derived from retribution was unfortunately short-lived.
It wasn’t that I regretted taking Alastir’s life or not ensuring that his death was a quick one. It was just that I wished it wasn’t necessary. As the sun rose, I wanted it to be rising on a day not overshadowed by death.
I didn’t realize that I was still clutching the wolven dagger until Casteel quietly pried it from my fingers and slipped it into the sheath at his side.
“Thank you,” I whispered.
His gaze flew to mine, his eyes a glittering shade of topaz. I thought he was about to speak, but he said nothing as wolven rose from among the bushes and trees. There were so many of them, some large, and others small, barely bigger than Beckett. My chest squeezed as I watched them prowl alongside us. All of them were alert, their ears perked.
I couldn’t stop thinking about what they had done to Alastir and the others—the sounds of flesh tearing and bones cracking. Tonight would stay with me for a long, long time. I wondered if such an act upset their digestion.
I didn’t ask, though, because I figured that was a rather inappropriate question.
But right now, I was more focused on putting one foot in front of the other. Every step took energy I was quickly running out of. The exhaustion could’ve stemmed from the lack of sleep as we traveled across the Skotos for the second time, the lack of rest from our first trip, or from everything that had happened from the moment I arrived in Atlantia. It could’ve been a combination of all those things. Casteel had to be equally exhausted, but the good news was that I was once more exposed to sunlight, and my skin wasn’t decaying or doing anything equally disturbing.
So that was a plus.
“You hanging in there?” he asked in a low voice as we approached Setti, the horse’s coat a gleaming onyx in the morning sun. He grazed in the grass.
I nodded, thinking this likely wasn’t the homecoming Casteel had wanted. How long had it been since he’d even seen his parents last? Years. And this was how he had to greet them, with an attack on him, me, and a potential wedge being driven between him and his father.
A heaviness settled in my chest as one of the Guardians led Setti to us. I looked up at the looming Skotos to see a canopy of glistening red.
The landscape of Atlantia had been forever changed, but what did it mean?
“Poppy?” Casteel’s voice was quiet.
Realizing that he was waiting for me, I dragged my gaze from the mountains and reached up, grasping Setti’s saddle. I didn’t find out if I had the strength to pull myself up as I’d done outside the hunting cabin. Casteel lifted me and then quickly followed.
Kieran joined us, having returned to his mortal form, now dressed in the clothing Niall had brought back with us. He mounted one of the horses, and I saw the shadows gathering under his eyes. We were all tired, so it was no surprise that we rode away from the Temple in silence, followed by the wolven. I didn’t see Emil or Naill when we left, nor did I catch sight of Quentyn.
It took some time for us to navigate the cliffs and come upon the field of pink and blue wildflowers. I looked at the trees at the other end of the field but couldn’t see the Chambers of Nyktos from the road. I wondered what kind of shape the Temple was in. Sighing, I faced forward. My heart skipped in my chest as I looked ahead and saw the Pillars of Atlantia once again. The marble and limestone columns were so high they nearly reached the clouds. Shadowy markings etched the stone in a language I couldn’t read. This was the resting place of Theon, the God of Accord and War, and his sister Lailah, the Goddess of Peace and Vengeance. The columns were connected to a wall that was as large as the Rise that surrounded the capital of Solis and continued on as far as I could see.
I still felt that way. It was the skip in my chest. The sense of rightness. I looked over my shoulder at Casteel to tell him as much, but I picked up on the anger brewing inside him. It pooled in my mouth like acid, and his concern was a too-thick cream in the back of my throat.
“I’m okay,” I told him.
“I wish you’d stop saying that.” His grip tightened on the reins. “You’re not okay.”
“Am, too,” I insisted.
“You’re tired.” Casteel looped his arm loosely around my waist. “You’ve been through a lot. There’s no way you’re okay.”
I stared at his grip on the reins. Sometimes I wondered if he could feel my emotions or read my thoughts. He couldn’t, but he knew me better than those who’d known me for years. It was sort of amazing how that had happened in such a relatively short period of time. But right now, I almost wished he didn’t. I blinked back the hot rush of pointless tears. I didn’t even understand why I suddenly felt so emotional, but I didn’t want it weighing on his mind. I started to reach for him but stopped, dropping my hand into my lap instead. “I’m sorry,” I whispered.
I swallowed hard as I lifted my gaze to Kieran’s back. “Just…for everything.”
Casteel stiffened behind me. “Are you serious?”
“What exactly is this everything you’re apologizing for?”
I doubted repeating the word would suffice. “I was just thinking about how you haven’t seen your parents in years, and how your homecoming should’ve been a good one—a happy one. Instead, all of this happened. And Alastir…” I shook my head. “You knew him far longer than me. His betrayal has to bother you. And I was also thinking about the Chambers of Nyktos and wondering how damaged it must be now. I bet the Temple has been there for thousands of years. And here I came and—”
“Poppy, I’m going to stop you right there. Part of me wants to laugh—”
“Same,” Kieran commented from up front.
My eyes narrowed on the wolven.
“The other part of me finds absolutely nothing funny about you apologizing for things you have no control over.”
“I also second that,” Kieran tossed out.
“This conversation doesn’t involve you, Kieran,” I snapped.
The wolven shrugged a shoulder. “Just chiming in with my two cents. Carry on. My father and I will pretend we can’t hear either of you.”
I scowled at him as I glanced to where Jasper rode past us in his mortal form. I had no idea when he’d shifted.
“Look,” Casteel said, his voice low, “we’re going to need to talk about a lot when we’re somewhere private, and I’ve had a chance to make sure your injuries have healed.”
Casteel sighed behind me. “Since you apparently didn’t notice, you were still covered in bruises after you rested in the hunting cabin.”
After he’d Ascended me into…whatever I was now. “I’m—”
“Don’t tell me you’re fine again, Poppy.”
“I wasn’t,” I lied.
“Uh-huh.” He shifted me closer to him, so I leaned into his chest. “What you need to know now is that none of this is your fault. You did nothing wrong, Poppy. None of this is on you. You understand that? Believe that?”