I brushed several loose strands of hair back from my face as I turned, careful to not tangle myself in the chains.
Maybe…maybe the Ascended were vamprys, created accidentally by the Atlantians. I could believe that. It seemed too much of an elaborate lie to not be real. And I could believe that Lord Mazeen had been the cause of Malessa’s death. It wasn’t as if he wasn’t capable of such cruelty.
And gods, I believed what Hawke had said about how he’d gotten the brand. Maybe not the part where the Queen had been the one to deliver it, nor what he’d been held for, but the rawness in his voice couldn’t be forced. He’d been held against his will, and he’d been used in ways even I couldn’t comprehend.
Believing that didn’t mean everything else he claimed was true. That the Ascended were feeding off mortals, sequestering them in temples and stealing into homes in the middle of the night to create Craven out of the ones they didn’t completely drain dry. How in the world would they have been able to keep that a secret? People would find out.
People could’ve found out already.
That is if that knowledge is what drove the Descenters to support the fallen kingdom of Atlantia.
I shook my head.
But that would mean that every Ascended was aware of what was happening. That not a single one had refused the Ascension once learning what it would cost. Not even my brother.
Our mother, though, she had refused the Ascension.
My heart tripped over itself.
She’d refused because she’d loved my father. Not because she’d learned the truth and had passed on it. She’d refused because of love, and the Dark One had still killed her.
Unless…unless the Duchess had lied about that. But why? Why would she have lied? The Dark One, Prince Casteel, controlled the Craven.
Except did the Craven appear as if they were controlled by anything but hunger? Never once had I seen them stop in the middle of an attack or display any true level of cognitive thinking.
But if that wasn’t true, if the Dark One couldn’t control them, then did that mean the Ascended were using them to control the populace? To stop them from asking too many questions, and make them willing to hand over their children so the gods wouldn’t become displeased, exposing their cities to a Craven attack?
It almost felt like I’d be struck down for even questioning that. Because Hawke was right. It was a religion.
I started pacing again.
How did the Craven make it to a town that hadn’t seen an attack in decades the moment I arrived with my family unless the Dark One had sent them?
It didn’t make any sense, and all of this back and forth was starting to make my head hurt. Even if some of what Hawke had claimed was true, it didn’t change that they were still responsible for so much death themselves.
It couldn’t all be true, because there was no way my soft, gentle brother would’ve Ascended if he knew what was being done. There was no way.
Hawke was…he was just messing with my head, making me weak-minded and uncertain. I wouldn’t put it past him.
I stopped, staring down at my hands. He was going to return me to the very people he claimed abused him. How horrible was that?
Dampness pressed at the backs of my eyes, but I drew in a deep breath. I would not cry. I wouldn’t shed a single tear for Hawke, for what may have been done to him, and for what he’d done to me. I wouldn’t allow it to break me. Not when he’d already shattered my heart.
The door at the end of the hall opened, and I lifted my head. Delano came into view, along with another man with rich brown skin. His eyes were the same golden brown as some of the others.
“Glad you’re awake,” Delano said. “Didn’t want to disturb you earlier when I checked on you.”
I didn’t even want to think about the fact that he’d been down here while I slept.
“I’m going to open this door, and Naill and I are going to escort you to more comfortable arrangements,” he explained, and my brows rose. “And you’re not going to do anything foolish. Right?”
“Right,” I repeated, hope sparking.
Delano smiled. “That wasn’t even remotely convincing.”
“It really wasn’t,” Naill agreed. “Not that I can blame her. If that was me, I would be thinking this is a good chance for escape.”
Delano’s smile faded. “You need to understand something, Maiden. I’m a wolven.”
“I figured that out already.”
“Then you have to know that the only reason you outran Kieran the day before is because he didn’t want to catch you. I will want to catch you.”
A shiver shimmied over my skin.
“I have impeccable tracking skills. There is nowhere you can run that I would not find you,” he continued.
“Truth is,” Niall said, drawing my gaze to his high, sharp cheekbones, “I’m even faster than he is, and neither of us wants to harm you. That will unfortunately happen if you run because I have a feeling you will somehow turn empty air into a weapon, and we’d have to defend ourselves. I doubt he will make a distinction between us wanting to hurt you and us being forced to by trying to defend ourselves.”
My nostrils flared on the ragged breath I exhaled. I didn’t care what he wanted, did, or thought.
“He’d have us pinned to the walls in the Hall, and both of us enjoy breathing and having all our body parts. So, please, be nice,” Delano said, unlocking the door. “Because even though losing my hand or certain death would be terrible, I abhor the idea of having to strike a female.” He stepped into the cell. “Even someone as apparently dangerous as you.”
I smiled at him, and it wasn’t exactly a nice expression. It came because I was glad that they knew I was dangerous.
But I also wasn’t stupid. I wouldn’t be able to run from them. I knew that. There was no point in me getting myself hurt just to make things difficult. Even I could recognize that.
I lifted my wrists, rattling the chains.
Delano eyed me as he fished out a key from his tunic pocket and unhooked the shackles. They slipped, clanging off the hard-packed ground.
Naill turned away first, his head cranking toward the entrance, and then Delano followed suit. And there I was, my eyes fastened to the sword attached to Delano’s waist, and my hands unbound.
“Shit,” Naill said, and that drew my attention.
Delano let out a low rumble of warning that made my skin crawl. “What the fuck are you doing down here, Jericho?”
My breath caught as I saw the tall form drift out of the shadows.
“Taking a stroll,” he said.
“Bullshit,” Naill spat. “You’re down here by yourself. You’re here for her.”
I tensed as Jericho looked over at me. “You’re wrong,” he said. “And you’re right.”
Footsteps came from the entrance, and I heard Delano curse again.
“I am here for her,” Jericho said. “But I’m not alone.”
No, he wasn’t. There were six men with him, all staying close to the shadows.
“You’re being incredibly stupid,” Naill pointed out, blocking the door.
Jericho stared at me through the bars. “Perhaps.”
“I know you think you’re owed your pound of flesh. She cut you.”
“Twice,” I chimed in.
Delano sent me a look that said I wasn’t helping.
Jericho sneered. “Don’t forget the hand.” He lifted his left arm. “There’s that.”
“That’s on you,” Delano answered. “Not her.”
“Yeah, well, can’t take it out on the Prince, now can I?” Jericho said, and I frowned, having thought it had been Hawke who’d taken his hand.
“Do you understand he will have your head if you harm her? All of your heads?” Delano said. “He said no one is to hurt her. You try to do what you want to do, all of you will die. Is that what you want, Rolf? Ivan?” He rattled off the names of those who were hidden. “He will see this as a betrayal, but you still have a chance to walk away from this with your lives. You won’t if any of you take a step forward.”
None of them moved to leave.
One advanced, an older man with brown eyes. “She’s the fucking Maiden, Delano. She was raised as an Ascended, by the damn Queen herself, practically. The Ascended took my son in the middle of the godsdamn night.”
“But she did not take your son,” Naill replied.
“I get that the Prince wants to use her to free his brother, but you and I both know, Malik is most likely dead,” Jericho tossed out. “And if he’s not, it probably isn’t a good thing. He’s got to be so fucked up by now that he has no idea who he is.”
“But if we send her back to the bloodsucking Royals, we send one hell of a powerful message,” another argued. “It will shake them. We need that advantage.”
“And we want it,” the one who was called Rolf said. “You have to. Those bastards killed your whole den, Delano. Your mother. Your father. Your sisters weren’t so lucky. They waited a while before they killed them—”
“I know exactly what was done to my family,” snarled Delano, and I felt my stomach twist. “But that does not change the fact that I will not allow you to hurt her.”
“She was standing next to Duke and Duchess Teerman,” a voice came, sending a chill down my spine. “She stood there when they told my wife and I that our son was to be given to the gods. She just stood there and did nothing.”
I stumbled back a step when the man who spoke stepped out of the shadows. It was Mr. Tulis. So jarred by his appearance, I couldn’t do anything but stare at him.
He looked at me then, with hatred in his eyes. “You cannot tell me you didn’t know what they were doing. You cannot tell me that you had no idea what happened to our children!” he shouted. “What was happening to the people who went to bed and never woke up? You had to know what they were.”