A Soul of Ash and Blood: Chapter 61

PRESENT X

“Neither Kieran nor I could figure out how you had these gifts. It just didn’t make sense to us. Nothing I’d found on Ian or what was said about who you believed your parents to be indicated anything like that,” I said as I sat beside her, keeping my voice low.

Kieran slept beside her in his wolven form, as did Delano, who was at the foot of the bed. I didn’t want to wake either of them.

“I hadn’t fully figured out yet that you’d used your abilities on me. I had an inkling then, but not until we spoke about it.” I leaned over, fixing the strap on her slip. “And when I did? It blew me away that you’d do that for me.”

I swallowed thickly. It still blew me away that she’d taken that risk, and it had been just as risky as what she’d done for Airrick in the Blood Forest.

“I don’t know if you picked up on what I was feeling during that time. I was a…” A low, rough laugh left me. “I was a fucking mess of guilt and worry, and this desperation I didn’t fully understand then. I just knew I couldn’t allow you to remain under the Blood Crown’s control. That you deserved a shot at a real life.”

Pressing a kiss to her temple, I stayed there for several long moments, the bridge of my nose pressed against her cheek, until I heard footsteps approaching from the hall outside.

“What are you doing here?” Emil’s voice demanded from beyond the chamber.

Kieran stirred at once, lifting his head as I frowned, straightening. At the foot of the bed, Delano’s ears flattened. He jumped down, his claws rapping softly off the floor. A low growl started to rumble from his chest. I rose, grabbing the dagger from the nightstand.

A grunt came, followed by the sound of someone hitting a wall. Kieran moved, planting two massive paws on the other side of Poppy’s legs so he stood over her as I stepped forward, flipping the dagger. Holding the blade between my fingers, I cocked my arm back as the door swung open, revealing a glimpse of a pale-haired figure in black—

Millicent walked in, the hem of her tightly fitting tunic snapping at the knees of her black tights. She drew up short, pale blue eyes narrowing. “Please don’t,” she said. “I would really appreciate not having to do the whole dying and coming back to life thing at the moment.” Her attention shifted to the growling wolven before her and then the one on the bed. “Or having to regrow limbs. That shit sucks. Growing skin and bone isn’t fun. It’s painful, in case anyone is wondering.”

“I’m not wondering.” I didn’t lower the blade as my gaze shifted to the hall. I could only see half of Emil. A golden-brown-haired fucker had him pinned to the wall. My brother. “But I’m guessing Naill located you two.”

“Actually,” came Naill’s disembodied voice from the hall, “I did, and then I didn’t. Found one but not the other—”

“You know,” my brother drawled, “none of that is important right now.” Letting go of Emil, Malik turned and faced the chamber.

I tensed. Malik didn’t look well-rested. His golden-brown hair was swept back into a knot at the nape of his neck. His eyes were just as shadowed as Poppy’s, and he had a fading bruise on his jaw. He, too, wore black, but his linen shirt was wrinkled and torn across the chest. I was confident the breeches were the ones he’d worn the last time I’d seen him.

“Heard you were looking for me,” Malik said, crossing his arms as Emil flipped him off over his shoulder. “And yet, when I came here, I was told that I could not see you—by Naill, Emil, Hisa, and some other random-ass female wolven—”

“And yet, you are here,” I cut in. “Both of you.”

“Yeah, we are.” Malik’s golden gaze flicked to the dagger I held. “Is that necessary?”

“What do you think?” I answered as Kieran growled low in his throat. I lowered the dagger, but I sure as fuck wasn’t putting it down.

Malik started forward. “You have got to be fucking kidding—”

“What is wrong with her?” Millicent demanded, bending sideways to see around Kieran.

Every muscle in my body locked up. “Nothing is wrong with her.”

“Liar, liar,” she sang, slowly straightening. “No one sleeps through a five-hundred-pound wolven standing over them and growling.”

Kieran’s ears flattened.

“What’s wrong with her?” Millicent repeated. “Is she…okay?”

“None of that is any of your business,” I said.

Her head whipped toward me. “None of my business? That’s my sister.”

“You share her blood, but you’re a stranger to her—one who thought it would be better if she was dead,” I reminded her.

“I never said that.”

“You said you failed at killing her.” I bit out the words. “That gives the impression you wanted her dead.”

“I needed her dead, we all needed that, and you know why. But that’s neither here nor there now, is it?” Her fingers twitched at her sides. “But I never wanted her dead.”

Her choice of words caused me to stiffen. “Is there a difference?”

“Cas,” Malik snarled. “She is not going to hurt—”

“No one is talking to you,” I snapped. “So, how about you shut the fuck up?”

Malik’s eyes narrowed, but there was no mistaking how his pupils constricted, or the look he gave me. I’d seen that a thousand times when we were boys and I annoyed him.

“Besides the fact that I can’t do shit to a Primal,” Millicent began, “I have no desire to harm her.”

“She killed your mother.”

“Mother?” Millicent laughed, the sound high-pitched and maybe a little crazed, causing Delano to tense. “Yeah.” Her laughter faded as she clasped her hands together. “That was our mother, but if you think I’m going to seek revenge, you must think I’m an idiot.”

“Well…” I drew out the word, smirking as Malik growled. “I wouldn’t say an idiot, but a little off balance? Yes.”

“I would be offended if that wasn’t true,” she remarked, her fingers beginning to twist together. She shook her head, looking at the ceiling. “I’m not a stranger to her. I spent time with her when she was a child.” Her gaze went back to where Kieran stood, no longer growling. “She probably doesn’t remember that. Probably blocked it out. Either way, she didn’t know, but I…I watched over her. She was always in the underground chambers…” She trailed off, the knuckles of her fingers turning white.

“Your father has been freed,” I said after a moment.

Millicent’s eyes closed, the skin tightening around them. Behind her, Malik had gone silent, his focus fully on her. “Good.”

A heartbeat passed. “He asked about you.”

Her eyes flew open as her chest rose but did not fall.

“We told him you were okay,” I said.

The breath she released was a ragged one. I looked at Millicent then—really looked at her. There was no dark color in her hair. It was a blond so pale it was nearly white and hung in curls to the middle of her back. There was no black or red mask painted on her face, nor was there anything painted on her arms. Freckles dotted her upturned nose and covered the high cheekbones of her oval face. She was leaner, but her mouth, strong brow, and stubborn chin? A jolt of shock hit me, just as it had when I’d first seen her free of the ink and paint. She looked so damn much like Poppy.

Millicent had asked me if Poppy rambled liked her. That and their appearance weren’t the only things they shared. I looked at her hands, how she twisted her fingers just like Poppy did whenever she was anxious or uncomfortable.

I glanced at Kieran, then refocused on Millicent. I was torn. Technically, Poppy hadn’t completed her Ascension, and I bet that made her somewhat vulnerable. I didn’t want to take any risks, especially with Poppy, but I thought about what I’d said to her while she slept. And about all the shit Millicent had likely gone through being raised by that bitch of a mother. I saw Malik, still watching her. I knew firsthand what he’d gone through before he started to play Isbeth’s game, and I knew he only did that because of her.

Millicent.

Poppy’s sister.

And Poppy had lost so much. Vikter. Her brother. The two people who were her parents. Time spent with her biological father. Time with Tawny. I didn’t know what kind of relationship Poppy would want with Millicent. There’d been no time to really discuss it, but I couldn’t stand in the way. Even if it disturbed me to know my blood had been used to attempt to Ascend Millicent into her godhood.

“Why did you run?” I asked. “Why did you flee the Temple?”

“Maybe that’s none of your business,” Malik shot back.

Since it was something I’d say if our roles were reversed, I ignored him.

“I thought…” Millicent blinked rapidly. “When I saw the silver light, the realms split open, and…and that draken come through, I thought it was her at first.” Her lashes lowered. “The Primal of Life. And even when I realized it wasn’t her, I knew…I know she awakened.”

I frowned. “Why would you run because of that? She’s your grandmother,” I said, and yeah, that still sounded weird.

Millicent’s eyes flicked to me. “No one hates Revenants more than the Primal of Life, and it’s not because we’re abominations—”

“You’re not an abomination,” Malik interjected.

She smiled, but there was nothing to it. No emotion. “Yes, we are. But with the Primal of Life, it’s personal, and I…I ran because I thought…” A heavy exhale left her as she focused on what she could see of Poppy. “I thought she would take me out.” One shoulder lifted. “I was afraid.”

“Poppy wouldn’t do that,” I said.

“How was she supposed to know that?” Malik countered from the doorway.

I started to respond, but there was no way for Millicent to have known that. However… “You’re not someone who strikes me as being afraid of death.”

Millicent’s gaze flicked back to me. She said nothing, and I was right. Millicent wasn’t afraid to die, be it final or not. It wasn’t her death she’d been afraid of.

I looked at my brother and cursed under my breath. “She sleeps—in stasis until she fully completes her Culling,” I said quietly, and that was all I said. Neither she nor Malik needed to know there was a chance—a small one—that Poppy could wake with no knowledge of herself.

Millicent jerked. “Is that common?”

“You don’t know?”

She shook her head. “I know what stasis is, how they can go to ground. How long will it last?”

“Not much longer.” I hoped.

Kieran slowly backed off, sinking onto his belly beside Poppy. Delano did the same, returning to the foot of the bed but remaining on the floor.

And Millicent…she stared at the bed. “She looks the same,” she said after a few moments. “I mean, she’s paler than normal.”

I didn’t tell her it had been much worse before. I noticed she was twisting her fingers again. I glanced at Malik. There were things I needed to ask—about how the fuck Revenants were made, and everything with Callum, but now wasn’t the time.

“Do you want to visit with her?”

Millicent’s head jerked toward me. She said nothing, but she nodded. I looked once more at Malik. He’d quietly stepped back into the hall. I needed to talk with him, but…

Kieran rose from the bed and quickly shifted. His eyes locked with mine. “I’ll stay with them.”

“Are you going to put some clothing on?” Millicent asked.

“Do I need to?”

“I mean, it’s your dick hanging out, not mine.” Millicent shrugged and then came forward, eyeing Delano but not Kieran as she sat on the very, very edge of the bed.

I caught Kieran’s eye, and he nodded. I tossed him the dagger. He smiled at Millicent. “Are you afraid of wolven?”

“That’s like asking if you’re not afraid of draken,” she retorted, glancing at Delano. I’d swear the fucking wolven smiled. “Everyone should be afraid of anything with claws and sharp teeth.”

I walked out then, pulling the door after me but leaving it cracked open. Malik didn’t protest. He knew Kieran wouldn’t do anything unless given reason to, and I supposed that also said he knew Millicent wouldn’t give cause.

I glanced to where Emil stood with Naill. “Can you give us a moment?”

Naill nodded, but Emil said, “I kind of want to witness this awkward meet and greet—”

“Emil,” muttered Naill, catching the back of his tunic. “I swear to the gods.”

Malik watched Naill drag the other Atlantian down the hall. “I see Emil really hasn’t changed.”

“What the hell happened to you?” I asked.

He faced me. “I’m not sure what you’re referencing, exactly.”

“Your face.” I crossed my arms. “Looks like you’ve been in a fight.”

“I was. We were, actually.”

“With?”

“Other Revs.” He leaned against the wall. “Those loyal to Isbeth.”

Surprise flickered through me. “And how did that go?”

“Bloody. There are still a few out there, running about, but we took out most of those who would be a problem.”

“And by took out, you mean killed? ’Cause that’s interesting.” I eyed him. “I was under the impression that draken fire was the only thing that could kill them.”

One side of his lips twisted up. “There are things that can kill a Rev.”

“Really?” I wasn’t sure if I believed him. This wasn’t what we’d been told.

“The Primal of Death can, and I assume that means both of them,” he said, referencing Nyktos and Kolis. “Since Kolis created them—and before you ask, I don’t know how he did it. And she can. The Primal of Life.”

“And Poppy.”

Malik’s jaw tightened.

“But neither of you is either of those two things, so how the hell did you kill some of those troublesome Revs?”

A muscle ticked in his temple.

“I get it,” I said when he didn’t answer. “You don’t want me to possess the knowledge of how to kill one, which is idiotic, considering my wife is one of those ways, but mainly because if I wanted knowledge on how to kill Millicent, I wouldn’t have left her in the chamber with Poppy.”

“You didn’t leave her alone with Millie,” he countered. “Not really.”

I stepped closer to him. “Would you have if the roles were reversed?”

“No.” Malik’s laugh was dry. “Draken fire and draken blood can kill them,” he shared. “Lucky for us, Millie knew where Isbeth kept vials of it. You either make them ingest it or dip a blade or arrow in it. As long as it gets into their heart or head, they’re done. I got the impression that Reaver was unaware of that—where is he?”

“He took Malec back to Iliseeum.”

“Shit,” he said, brows raised. “He was still alive?”

“Barely, from what I gathered.” I glanced down the hall. “Are there more of those vials?”

His stare sharpened. “There are.”

“And do either you or Millie know if the draken Isbeth got that blood from is being held?” I asked, even though we knew. “That’s Nektas’s daughter—you know, that big-ass draken.”

“I was kind of temporarily dead when he came through,” he said, and my stomach twisted sharply. Malik had died. I’d seen that, too. “So, I didn’t see him in that form, but to answer your question, I don’t. Millie? Possibly. There were many things she wasn’t supposed to know that she found out, but I seriously doubt that draken will be in a good way. So, when you go for her, make sure another draken is with you. They can fuck up a Primal really bad.”

“Noted,” I murmured.

“I’m surprised our father hasn’t arrived yet,” Malik stated.

“We delayed him a bit.”

“Because of Poppy?” When I said nothing, he laughed. “You don’t trust him, either.”

“There’s only one person I irrevocably trust. Not taking chances with anyone else.”

Malik eyed me. “You’re a little overprotective of a being who is literally immortal.”

Just because Poppy was a Primal didn’t mean she was indestructible. I didn’t know a lot about Primals. None of us did. But there were always checks and balances. Besides, I didn’t fear my father attempting to harm Poppy.

It was that slim chance that Poppy didn’t remember who she was when she woke.

“Why do I have a feeling there’s something you’re not telling me?” he asked.

I said nothing to that.

“All right.” Malik smiled, but it didn’t reach his eyes. I realized none of his smiles had since we’d been reunited. “So, what is your game plan here, Cas? You took down the Blood Crown, but there’s been no public address. Only Descenters on the streets, acting as Priests and Priestesses, preaching the goodness of Atlantia and their new King and Queen.”

“Poppy and I are not their King and Queen.”

His brows shot up. “I’m sorry, you two rule Atlantia, correct? You just seized the capital and destroyed the reigning monarch. Does that not make you their sovereign rulers?”

I got what he was saying, but this was another thing that Poppy and I hadn’t had a lot of time to really hash out. “No decisions on that will be made until she’s awake.”

“Okay, then, but they think you two are their new rulers—an Atlantian and a god, by the way. They have no idea she’s a Primal—”

“I know.” I rubbed my temple. “Those are bridges we’ll cross when we get there.”

Malik stared and then laughed. This time, it reminded me of one of his old laughs, and that hit me in the chest.

Hard.

I cleared my throat. “What?”

“It’s just…” Trailing off, he shook his head. “When we were kids, you were always at your lessons on time. I had to be tracked down. You learned what it took to handle land disputes and which crops grew best where, and I forgot everything the moment our tutors were gone. You always would’ve made a better King than me.” His gaze flicked back to mine. “And yet, I get the impression you don’t want to be King.”

“Being King meant accepting that you were dead,” I said, and his mouth tensed. “Or, at the very least, incapable of ruling. So, maybe when I was younger and jealous of what you had, I wanted that, but I don’t now.”

“But you did it anyway,” he said quietly.

“Poppy took the throne,” I reminded him. “She superseded all of us. She is the Queen. I am the King because of her. If she had chosen differently? Our mother and father would still sit on that throne. It would still be yours.” Anger festered. “Hell, it could’ve been yours years before Poppy arrived in Atlantia if you had come home.”

“I couldn’t.” Malik pushed off the wall, anger flaring in his eyes. “I wouldn’t leave Millie alone, and it’s not like you wouldn’t have done the same thing. You just admitted that you’d abdicate the throne for her. And I’m sure you’ve done a whole lot of other shit for her that goes against what is right or wrong. So how about you knock off this self-righteousness a bit, okay? You’re no better than me—”

“I never said I was,” I seethed, stepping toward him. “I spent the last fucking century torn up, thinking about what was being done to you, exactly the kind of horrors they were putting you through. All the while knowing that I…it was my actions that put you there.”

Malik went rigid. “Cas—”

“If I hadn’t been so foolishly obsessed with proving myself, I wouldn’t have gotten captured. You never would’ve had to come for me. That is an inarguable fact. It wasn’t Shea who put you there. It was me, so I drowned in that guilt until I learned to exist with it.” My nostrils flared as my lips flattened against my teeth. “And look, I don’t blame you for doing what you needed to do to survive, playing whatever fucked-up game you had to. I don’t blame you for staying because of Millicent. And the shit with Poppy when she was a child? I’m not going to even think about that because it makes me want to fucking choke you. But you know what I can’t understand? Your silence. You could’ve sent word to me. You could’ve let me know you were surviving.”

Malik held my stare, his jaw working.

“You had to know what I was doing these last several years to free you,” I told him, hands clenching. “All the people I’ve killed? Those I’ve harmed? Those who died to free you? But no. You just let me exist all these fucking years fearing, believing I would be too late. That you would be dead or beyond help, consumed by the guilt—” I cut myself off, taking a step back, and it took me a moment before I could trust myself to speak again. “Why didn’t you send word?”

“It’s not…” Malik swallowed, head still shaking. “I thought about it, Cas. A hundred times. A thousand.”

“Then why?” I asked, voice hoarse. “You could’ve told me that you’d joined them. You could’ve said anything.”

“That’s not true, and you know it.”

“Bullshit.” I started to turn before I did something I’d thoroughly enjoy at the moment but might regret later.

Malik moved fast, blocking the door. “You want to have this conversation now? Then we’re going to have it. If I sent word and told you that I’d joined the Blood Crown, would you have believed me? Or would you have thought it was some sort of farce?”

My head snapped back to him.

“Would it have stopped anything you did?” he demanded, the centers of his cheeks flushing with anger. “And if I told you about her? Would you have even believed I’d found my heartmate? Back then? Because I know you wouldn’t have. You didn’t really believe in it. Neither did I. So, you would’ve still done what you’ve been doing.”

“Maybe you’re right,” I spat, and fuck, maybe he was. “But there had to be other options, Malik. You could’ve said anything, starting with the truth—”

“I didn’t want you coming after me!” Malik shouted, shoving me. “I didn’t want you anywhere near the capital—”

“But I already was!” I yelled, pushing him right back. “Not saying anything sure as fuck didn’t prevent it.”

“I know that. Gods, do I fucking know. But I was fucked, Cas. Damned if I did, damned if I didn’t,” he said, chest rising and falling. “Because I knew if I told you the truth about what Isbeth was trying, you would’ve dropped your plans to free me. You wouldn’t have gone for her. Instead, you would’ve come straight to the capital.” He jabbed his finger at the doors. “And if I told you that I’d joined the Blood Crown, you still would’ve come straight to the capital under the pretense of doing the same thing. And if you had? What do you think Isbeth would’ve done?”

“You knew her better than me,” I snapped. “You tell me.”

Malik’s smile was a cruel twist. “You’d be dead.”

I barked out a harsh, short laugh. “Doubtful.”

“Oh, you really think that?” His laugh mirrored mine. “I think you’re forgetting the original plan, the one where Isbeth had no need of you. It was supposed to be me who Ascended Poppy when the time was right.”

My head cranked to the side, lips peeling back as I grabbed Malik by the collar of his shirt and slammed him into the wall.

“Growl at me all you want, Cas, but the truth is, Isbeth had no need of you before you went off and decided to take the Maiden. She hadn’t planned on that. She’d just adapted her plans, but if you had come for me before that? She would’ve made me kill you.” Malik swept his arms up, knocking mine aside. Then he was right in my face. “Isbeth knew about Millie—what she is for me. And trust me when I say she took every opportunity to use that as leverage. She would’ve made me choose, Cas. Millie or you.”

I stiffened.

“And I wouldn’t have relied on whatever motherly bond she might have had.” His stare held mine. “Because they can dish out worse things than death, as you are well aware. So I think you know what I would’ve chosen.”

I did.

I turned from him, shoving a hand through my hair. Because I knew exactly what I would’ve done if the situation were reversed. Fuck.

“I hated it,” Malik added quietly. “Knowing you were out there, risking your life to free me. I wanted nothing more than for you to return home and forget about me—”

“I never would’ve been able to do that.” I faced him.

“I know, but I wanted it.” His shoulders tensed. “I wanted you to go home and live without guilt, because you wouldn’t have needed to feel as if you had to prove yourself if I’d been a better brother—a better heir.”

“Malik,” I started.

“Come on, the only reason you paid attention in our lessons was the same reason you felt you needed to take care of the Blood Crown. Because you knew that once I took the throne, I would’ve started a war and gotten myself killed.”

“No, you wouldn’t have,” I denied. “You didn’t want war.”

“I didn’t want it, but I could’ve been talked into it. You know Alastir would’ve gotten to me,” he said when I shook my head. “He wanted that long before shit went bad with us and Shea. And I would’ve listened. Fuck, I would’ve let him run the damn kingdom as long as I could do what I wanted, which was whatever required the least amount of effort.”

“You don’t give yourself enough credit,” I muttered. “You never did.”

“That’s something else we’ll have to disagree on.” A few short moments of silence fell as we locked eyes. He exhaled slowly. “I’m sorry, Cas.”

“Don’t.”

“I am. I’m sorry for what you had to believe. I’m sorry for all you had to do. For the pain. For all the death.” His voice dropped. “For Shea.”

I closed my eyes.

“I wish the past was different for us,” he said. “But it’s not, and I don’t think either of us would change very much, would we?”

Not if it jeopardized where we were today, as fucked-up as that was. Rubbing the heel of my palm over my chest, I looked at my brother and thought about how I knew I wouldn’t have done a damn thing differently if I were in Malik’s place.

I dropped my hand, sighing. Knowing that and this conversation didn’t erase all the messy-ass feelings we both had surrounding everything. Our lies. Our guilt. Our fuckups. The blood on our hands.

But we were brothers, and I loved the fucker.

I exhaled long and slow, gaze moving to the door. When I spoke, I kept my voice low. “I’m guessing Millicent still has no idea you’re heartmates?”

Malik’s attention shifted to where mine had. He shook his head.

“You going to tell her?”

“I haven’t really even acted upon it,” he murmured.

My brows flew up. I could only assume he meant getting physical and not the kind that left him bloody. “So, I’m guessing that’s a no?”

Malik nodded.

“Why?” I asked.

A wry smile appeared. “Because she hates me.”

“I don’t think that’s true,” I said, crossing my arms. “When you got hurt out there, she—”

“It’s true,” he cut me off. “She hates me and has every damn reason to.”

I didn’t know what to say to that at first. I had no knowledge of her reasons or what he believed them to be. “Poppy hated me at one point.”

“Yeah, but you haven’t done the things I have,” he said, clearing his throat. “Anyway, there is something you should know. It’s about the Revenants and Kolis.”

His change of subject didn’t pass me by, but I let it slide. “What?”

“Callum made sure all of them knew who their creator was, so those who were loyal to Isbeth? That only went surface-deep. They were loyal to Kolis. And the ones we couldn’t find?” Malik’s eyes met mine. “They’re going to be a problem. They’re going to try everything to bring him to full power and stop anyone who attempts to thwart that.”

 

 

Millicent didn’t stay when I re-entered the chamber. Without saying a word, she rose and left. According to Kieran, she’d said nothing while she sat beside Poppy.

She’d only held her hand.

“Everything cool with you?” Kieran asked, picking up a pair of clean breeches. The fact that he’d remained nude by Poppy’s side, not leaving Millie alone, brought forth a smile that was part amused and part, well, proud.

“You heard Malik and me?” I returned to my place beside Poppy.

“Everyone on this floor likely heard you two,” he stated dryly. “At least parts of the conversation.”

I snorted, taking the cup from the nightstand. “Everything is…as good as it can be.”

Kieran pulled up his breeches, fastening the flap. “You think they’ll get better?”

“Possibly.” I took a drink of water, then offered the glass to Delano. He shook his head. “Did you hear what he said about the Revs?” I asked, returning the cup to the nightstand.

“Parts of it.” Bootless, he returned to the bed and sat on Poppy’s other side.

I filled him in, and none of what I’d shared was particularly good news.

But as I’d once told Poppy, I wouldn’t borrow from tomorrow’s problems.

Picking up the hand that Millicent had held, I brought it to my lips. I tabled the shit with Kolis and my brother as I searched for where I’d stopped in my story. We’d been on the road.

To New Haven.

Where everything truly changed.

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