I couldn’t even think about that at the moment. “But Nyktos had two children,” I said, remembering the painting of the large, gray cats. “They only had one child between the two of them?”
“I still do not understand how Malec is her father, then,” Kieran stated, and I was right there with him.
“Where is Malec entombed?” Casteel asked.
His mother walked over to where his father sat. “I do not know what the area would be called now, as so much of that land has changed in the years since. But it would not be hard to locate. Trees the color of blood, the likes of which grow at the Chambers of Nyktos and now flourish across the Skotos Mountains, will mark the land that entombs him.”
I gasped. “The Blood Forest outside of Masadonia.”
Casteel looked at me and then at Kieran. “You know something I’ve always wondered? Why the Blood Crown sent you to live in Masadonia when it would have been safer for you to be in the capital.”
As did I.
“Because her blood would’ve been too much of a lure to the Ascended, and she would’ve been placed with someone the Crown trusted,” his father said, and my stomach twisted with nausea.
“I’ve had serious doubts about the Blood Crown’s judgement, but if they trusted the Teermans, that shows a lack of awareness that is startling,” Casteel replied, smoothing his fingers down the center of my palm.
“But they never fed from me,” I said. “As much as I can remember.”
“No, they abused you instead.” His tone hardened. “I’m not sure I see much of a difference between the two.”
“I’m sorry to hear that,” Queen Eloana said, lowering her now-empty glass to a table by the settee.
“I…” My stomach tumbled some more as something occurred to me. “Is it possible that Ileana or Jalara learned where Malec was entombed?”
King Valyn inhaled deeply, and every part of me tensed even further. “I imagine they did. It’s the only plausible explanation as to how Malec is your father.”
I stared at them.
Casteel’s fingers stilled against my hand. “Are you implying that the Ascended raised him? Because I never heard them mention him.”
“They would’ve had to have gotten to him before he died,” his father said. “But even if it took only a century or two to learn that he was entombed there, it would’ve taken a lot of Atlantian blood to bring him into any state of consciousness. And even then, he would’ve been…not of the right mind. I doubt he would recover from such a thing in hundreds of years.”
I pressed my other hand against my mouth. The implications were so horrifying, I couldn’t speak.
“And when did you all suspect that he had risen?” Casteel asked softly.
“When we saw her at the Chambers. Saw what Alastir claimed for ourselves,” his mother said. “We would’ve talked to you immediately, but…”
But there hadn’t been time.
A wild sense of panic rose in me, thinning each breath I took. I fought past it as my heart thundered against my chest. None of this changed who I was. None of this changed who I would grow into. At the end of the day, these were just names and stories. They were not me.
I breathed a little easier.
“The only way to know for sure if Malec has risen is to go to the Blood Forest,” Kieran stated. “And that would be damn near the definition of impossible with all the Craven there and how deep within Solis it is.”
“And what would be the point?” I asked, glancing at the wolven. “It would only confirm what we already know to be true.”
Kieran nodded after a moment.
“Why the blood tree?” I asked, looking over at Casteel’s parents. “Why do they grow where my blood spills and Malec is or was entombed? Why did they change in the mountains?”
“The…the trees of Aios once bore crimson leaves,” Queen Eloana answered. “When the deities ruled over Atlantia. They changed to gold when Malec was dethroned.”
“And we think that when Casteel Ascended you, it changed something in you. Perhaps…unlocking the rest of your abilities or completing some kind of cycle,” Valyn explained. “Either way, we believe the trees changed to reflect that a deity was now in line for the throne.”
“So…they’re not a bad thing?” I asked.
A faint smile tugged at Queen Eloana’s lips as she shook her head. “No. They have always represented the blood of the gods.”
“And that is why I did not become an Ascended? Because of the blood of the gods, or that I…I was never truly mortal?”
“Because you were never truly mortal,” King Valyn confirmed. “Who your mother is? What she is? She would’ve had to be of elemental descent or of another bloodline, perhaps one that died out as far as we knew. And she would’ve had to be old—nearly as old as Malec.”
I nodded slowly, realizing that there was no way Coralena was my birth mother unless she was somehow fully aware and party to what the Ascended were doing. I doubted that was the case, as I couldn’t see any Atlantian being okay with that.
Or surviving long enough in the capital if the Blood Crown had moved me away from there because I would’ve been too much of a lure.
“It is possible,” Kieran began, looking past me to Casteel. “Isn’t it? That another Atlantian was held by the Blood Crown?”
“They were usually half-Atlantians, at least that I saw or heard of,” Casteel answered, his voice rough. “But it’s not impossible that I just never knew or that…she was held at a different location.”
If that were the case, then was my birth mother…forced into pregnancy? Raped by a deity out of his mind and somehow manipulated into the act?
My hands trembled, and this time when Casteel released me, I pulled my hand free. I rubbed my palms over my knees.
“I hate asking this,” Casteel whispered, even though everyone in the room could hear him. “But are you okay?”
“I feel like vomiting,” I admitted. “But I won’t.”
“It’s okay if you do.”
A strangled laugh left me. “I also feel like I could very well become the Bringer of Death and Destruction that the masked Unseen called me.” I looked at him then. “I want to destroy the Blood Crown.” Tears filled my eyes. “I need to do that.”
Queen Eloana watched as his gaze searched mine. He nodded. He didn’t speak, but there was a silent vow there.
It took me a few moments to find my ability to talk again. “Well, at least you can stop calling me a goddess. I am just a…deity.”
A heartbeat passed, and a wide smile broke out across Casteel’s face. Both dimples made an appearance. “You will always be a goddess to me.”
Feeling my cheeks warm, I sat back. A hundred or more questions roamed through my mind, but two came to the forefront. “Have you heard of any prophecies supposedly written in the bones of the Goddess Penellaphe that warn against a great evil that will destroy Atlantia?”
Casteel’s parents stared at me as if a third arm had grown out of my forehead and waved at them. It was his mother who snapped out of her stupor first. She cleared her throat. “No. We don’t have prophecies.”