It was almost as if she felt the same kind of loyalty to Thronos that she did to Sabine. But Sabine had never hurt her the way Thronos continued to do.
Even so, Lanthe would drag him out of the zone. All seven feet of him.
“Thronos, you are such a pain in my ass,” she snapped at his unconscious form. “Here I am—saving yours yet again! I want this noted.”
Careful not to cross the markers herself, she reached for his feet, lugging him toward her. The instant she’d pulled his head out of the zone, his eyes shot open, locking on her. “Melanthe?”
She dropped his feet; he scrambled to stand. With his irises fully silver, he jerked his gaze around, as if danger was on the horizon. He scented the air.
Under his breath, he grated, “Not real?” The crazed look on his face had her backing away from him.
Then he turned to her. “Not real.” He eased closer.
“Um, what’s happening, Thronos?”
“You’re here.” In the light rain, he reached for her, cupping her face with hands that shook. His thumbs brushed along her cheekbones. His brows were drawn together, lips thinned.
She’d seen this yearning expression before—after that three-day absence when she’d called him a demon. So long ago, when he’d finally returned to their meadow, his eyes had told her, I’ve been pretty much lost without you.
“I want your future, Melanthe,” he rasped now. “I don’t care about the past. We’ll work out the fucking details.”
Where was this coming from? Why had he changed—
His lips descended on hers. As in her dream, his pained groan rumbled against her mouth. He sounded like he’d die if she didn’t return his kiss.
A claiming kiss. A no-going-back kiss.
Despite her issues with him, she found herself parting her lips beneath his. He groaned again, as if she’d conceded far more than a kiss. When his tongue dipped, her eyes slid shut in bliss.
His lips slowly slanted, his tongue sensuously tangling with hers. For someone with so little practice, he was turning into a devastating kisser. Her hands twined around his neck, her toes curling as they began sharing breaths.
When he drew back, he left her dazed, blinking up at him. “Thronos, I think that’s the best conversation we’ve ever had.”
He didn’t release Melanthe, just kept his quaking hands on her cheeks.
She was brimming with vitality, sorcery, life. He savored the beating of her heart, the coursing of her lifeblood.
Each wondrous breath she took.
Though she’d initially looked stunned—and pleased—her brows were drawing together. “What’s going on with you?” She dropped her hands, ducking from his grip. “You have a seizure, and now you’re thinking clearly? You’ve suddenly realized how stupid it is to obsess about my past?”
“I almost lost you.” He bit out the words, unable to process what had just happened—what he’d seen and felt.
“What are you talking about?”
“You . . . you dragged me out of it.” He opened and closed his fists, needing his hands on her. “Delivered me from it.”
“Hell. I was in my personal version of hell.”
“Hell changed your mind about my past?”
He nodded. “You talked about traps when we first arrived, about repeated labors. I believe I was in a loop of some kind. In each repetition, no matter what I did, I couldn’t save you. You . . . died. You were crushed by stone.”
She arched her brows. “Typical. The harlot got stoned to death.”
His voice hoarse, he said, “Don’t talk like that. Please.” He took her hand in his, never wanting to let it go.
She gazed up at him as if she was measuring the emotions in him—the ones he didn’t bother to hide. How asinine he’d been! He wanted to make a life with her, a marriage and family. To have all those things, he need only look to their future. It was there—for the taking!
Unless he’d already ruined things beyond repair.
“What do the markers say?” she asked.
“Pain confesses all. And Time cares naught.” He now comprehended that what he’d just gone through wasn’t real.
But the lesson had been.
“What does it mean?”
“Time cared naught when it allowed itself to repeat.” With his free hand, he tucked a lock of raven hair behind her ear. “And pain clarified my thoughts about us.”
“That sounds . . . intense.”
You have no idea. “We need to move away from the edge of this zone. If we’d both crossed into it, we could’ve been there for eternity. And I’d rather spend forever with the pest that is.” He brushed the backs of his fingers along her delicate jawline, vowing to all the Lore, to all the gods, that he would protect this woman for eternity.
“You haven’t stopped touching me, Thronos.”
“You’ll have to grow accustomed to that—”
A demon war bugle sounded from not far in the distance.
She gazed over her shoulder. “They wouldn’t be signaling a charge during the day . . .”
“Unless they’re coming for those keys. Let’s put some distance between us and them.”
“Where? We can’t go back. And we don’t know which way this zone’s edge extends.”
He craned his head up to the sky, biting out a curse. “We can’t go up.”
Outlined by bursts of lightning, a pack of Volar demons hovered above. An advance contingent? Their position pinned Thronos and Lanthe against the hell zone.
Their backs were against an invisible wall.
If I take you into the air, they’ll rip you from me,” Thronos grated as the ground began to vibrate beneath their feet.
“More are coming!” Lanthe cried. Just beyond the brush, demon foot soldiers were charging toward them.
“I’ll have to fight them here.”
She’d seen him victorious against a number of ghouls, but demons were cunning.
With reluctance, Thronos released her hand, bringing his wings in tight to strike. “Stay behind me—right at the edge of those markers. The demons won’t go near them.”
She edged back.
“But don’t cross the line, Lanthe—”
The first wave broke from the brush. So many of them!
In a blur, swords arced out, whistling all around Thronos. He struck with both wings. Heads rolled across the ground like horned bowling balls. Jugular blood painted the silver grass red.
More demons advanced. More died. When Thronos’s wings whipped like sails, billowing the air, a fine mist of crimson sprayed over her face.
Any demon who attacked paid with his life. Thronos decapitated with a ruthless efficiency.
But they kept coming. Even the demons at the back started firing on Thronos, lobbing a hail of spears and daggers, fire and ice grenades.
He had to use one wing as a constant shield against the sky as more warriors closed in, swarming like ants from a kicked mound. He deflected the volleys, but he was getting slower, expending so much strength. He couldn’t stall them for much longer.
Only a matter of time.
Then he would die, and she’d be captured. Unless she did something. When in trouble . . . Portal!
She had some power, but was it enough to create a gateway to a different world, under pressure, just two days after her last one?
It’ll never happen.
Still, she raised her hand, dispelling sorcery right at the edge of the hell zone. As she labored to split the seam of this reality, Thronos must have felt the energy; he turned to her with his blood-wetted wings splayed, a warning in his eyes: Do not run from me.
She gasped. In the lightning flashes, he looked like a . . . legend.
Like an avenging angel.
Every inch of his skin was coated with others’ blood, his own as well. Gashes sliced his flesh, bisecting ancient scars. Stark against the crimson, his eyes were fully onyx—and locked on Lanthe as he began fighting his way toward her.
A rift was opening, drawing her attention from him! Come on, portal! Come on! Almost big enough for her to step through. Rothkalina, Rothkalina, Rothkalina, she repeated like a mantra.
There was nothing to stop her from leaving Pandemonia. Could she abandon Thronos to save herself? To return to her family?
After that kiss . . .
Look back over your shoulder at him again, and you’ll regret it. Still, at the threshold, Lanthe bit her lip and turned back.
“Don’t!” His voice was rife with pain—as if he already knew she would leave him behind. “Don’t run from me, lamb!”
He hadn’t called her that since they were children. She remembered their last day together as they’d sat beneath his wings. She’d sighed that she loved him. His voice had been thick when he’d replied, “I-I love you too, lamb.”
Damn him! She couldn’t leave him.
Though demons dogged his heels, she bit out a curse and waited for him. I can’t believe I’m doing this!
He looked as shocked as she felt. Yet then he cast her that determined expression of his, the one she now recognized. It meant he believed he was about to beat all odds and triumph.
He continued fighting to reach her, but with his attention divided, his strikes weren’t as efficient. She could see demons circling him in the air—and on the ground. Some lay in wait between Thronos and Lanthe.
He’d never reach her. And malicious gazes had already turned to her. Demons ready to kill. Or worse.
Think, Lanthe! She couldn’t use persuasion on this many, especially not the ones farthest back. She frowned. Did she even need to?
As Sabine had told her: Illusion is reality.
Lanthe yanked off the chain around her neck, holding it in a fist above her head. The pieces clanked loudly. “Look what I’ve got!” A few demons locked their gazes on the shining keys.
Infusing her command with sorcery, she yelled, “Look, Pandemonians, look.” Blue light coiled all around her, until she was radiating as brightly as the lightning above.
More warriors stilled, hushed murmurs floating over the crowd. In the lull, Thronos backed toward her.
She jostled the keys above her. “Do you want these?” Her sorcery was reflected in the eyes of the closest demons. “Or should I simply disintegrate them—with my deadly blue light?” Ha!
Audible gasps sounded.
“I am a great and terrible goddess, the Keeper of Keys and the Queen of Hell.” She pointed at Thronos. “He is the mighty . . . Reader of Words.” (Best she got.) “Cease fighting him!” Another command.
The demons closest to her disengaged at once.
Brows raised, Thronos hastened to her. He mouthed, Reader of Words?
Lanthe wasn’t done yet. She told the crowd, “Though we leave you now, I will return with these keys”—return for more gold—“but only if you achieve peace here.” Geopolitical stability makes for easier treasure transpo. “Understood?” She slipped the necklace back on.
When the unsteady threshold began to waver and shrink, Thronos sprinted for her. Would the space be wide enough for them to squeeze through?
He tucked her against him on his way to the portal. “You awaited me. For the first time, you didn’t run from me!” At her ear, he rasped, “You will never regret this.” Clasping her tight, he dove for the opening at the last second.
The rift sealed behind them as they barreled headlong into a new world.
Ahh!” Lanthe screeched to find herself under a pounding waterfall in waist-high water.
She swiped her forearm across her face, sputtering. Thronos was before her, filling her vision.
He pulled her from the cascade, shaking out his dark hair. “Where are we?” The demon blood that had coated him had been scoured clean.
Turning to survey their surroundings, she blinked against the brightness of the day. The sun was a blazing golden ball in the sky. Past a field of bloodred wildflowers, she saw pink sand and a placid sea the color of new grass. This huge waterfall and pool were the same shade.
I know this pink beach. I know this scent. The air was sultry, smelling of . . . Hawaiian Tropic, flowers, and sex.
Oh, no, no, this couldn’t be!
Yet then the sun began to twinkle. Feveris was usually sunny because its clouds were translucent; when they passed in front of the sun, they made it glimmer like a star. “Oh, my gold, this is Feveris.”
“We’re in the Land of Lusts?” Thronos said in the same tone a human might say, “For real, we’re Powerball winners?”
“This can’t be—I aimed for Rothkalina!”
“How long will it be till we’re robbed of control?” His voice was growing huskier.
“Less than ten minutes. That’s how long I was here before I had my servants drag me back. I’d just wanted to see if the rumors were true.” She lost track of what she’d been saying—because Thronos was smiling.
And it was glorious.
Twinkling sunlight struck his eyes, setting his irises aglow, molten silver. His firm lips curled, revealing more of his even, white teeth and those fangs. She felt the mad urge to tap one of those points—with her tongue. With his face relaxed, his scars seemed to fade.
The first time she’d seen him smile since he was a boy.
Struggling to collect her thoughts, she asked, “Why do you look so pleased with yourself?”
“For one, you’re alive. More, you saved me from a demon army—and waited for me. For the first time! And then you brought us to Feveris. Maybe you wanted to come here with me as badly as I did with you? I think I’m growing on you.”