The warded and protected Territories were being annihilated by some unseen force.
Act, Talos. Move! He tensed to fly—
A white flash fire roared from the Hall itself, engulfing him just as his wings reflexively shielded his body. The mystical flames consumed both wings; the explosive percussion hurtled him down to the vale.
Which had disappeared.
The island had . . . disintegrated.
Thronos plummeted amid the fiery rubble. Blood poured from his ringing ears. Wind snapped what was left of his still-burning wings. They were useless.
My lands, my people. He was helpless to do anything for them.
He couldn’t fly. Could only fall.
He knew he had fallen as a boy. Though he didn’t remember why, he hadn’t used his wings all the way down.
Once more I fall.
His back was turned to the world below—so he could keep his eyes on the sky. Time seemed to slow.
Traces of malevolent sorcery eddied around crimson and purple clouds. Lightning fractured those clouds, illuminating all the debris raining down around him.
Scorched plaster. Burning books. A charred cradle.
For mere days, he’d been king. Now his realm had died.
You’ve lost something else, something even dearer. His heart twisted. What could possibly be more treasured than a kingdom?
What was it he’d lost?
He finally dragged his eyes from the heavens and gazed below him. The water rushed ever closer. Blue and white flames soared from the gulf. Thronos had no shield from the heat. When he hit, he would be incinerated.
His life had been long and unfulfilling, his dream of finding his mate unrealized. Perhaps he was meant to have died after his first fall. Perhaps fate sought to right that misguided mercy now.
He turned to the nearby mountainside and spotted . . . Vrekeners. Thousands of them. They’d gathered on a plateau above the gulf to watch their home perish.
Thronos had never named a successor. His people were more vulnerable than they’d ever been. For them, he had to survive.
Wasn’t there a way? He couldn’t remember it!
What couldn’t he remember?
Once more I fall. . . .
On a mountaintop far across the gulf from the gathered Vrekeners, Nïx the Ever-Knowing and Morgana, the Queen of Sorceri, watched the Skye fall.
One female had allowed it; one had caused it.
Nïx’s lightning crackled all around her—and the bat she carried. Morgana’s usurped powers were so volatile that the color streams of her sorcery had morphed to a permanent black.
As the two immortals bore witness, they sparked off each other like negatively charged ions.
“I foresaw the Queen of Persuasion desperate to stay with King Thronos,” Nïx said, never looking away. The water was already aflame with soaring plumes of otherworldly fire.
Morgana too kept her gaze trained. “As soon as I left her and Sabine in Rothkalina, Melanthe probably created a portal back. To nothing.” Black swirls danced from her lips, as if a contagion was trying to escape her body. “If the Vrekener survives, the memory of his wife will not—”
The giant monoliths crashed into the flames, displacing miles of water, generating towering tsunamis.
“I suppose the mortals will know of this now,” Morgana said, tone inscrutable. “Of us.”
“Not quite yet. . . .”
From the gulf, the sea god Nereus rose up like a mountain himself, visible only to the immortal pair. With a monstrous inhalation, he sucked all the flames into his lungs.
Then he brandished his divine triton, raising it over his head to subdue the waves. The tsunamis paused, their terrible surge arrested in midswell—
Yielding to his command, they gradually subsided, slipping to acquiescence.
The surface was still, the fire defeated. Before Nereus sank to the depths once more, his smoldering gaze lingered on Morgana.
She frowned, but that was the least extraordinary thing she’d seen this day.
A reviled realm—the bane of her entire life—had perished by fire and been entombed in the sea. Her heart was glad.
The Valkyrie soothsayer turned to the sorceress queen. “For better or worse, it’s begun. . . .”
1. Portal to Vrekener outpost
2. Adjust directions, portal to outpost
3. Adjust directions again, portal to outpost
4. Offer demon mercenaries gold to scour Canadian forests for difficult-to-find Vrekener outpost
5. Offer witches gold to scry for Thronos
6. Contact Loa, re: Hail Mary option—send gold deposit
7. FIND NÏX
8. Keep from losing your ever-living shit because he needs you
9. Contact oracles and witches in more worlds—offer gold
10. Save up power for tomorrow
“What have I told you about chasing after boys?” Sabine drawled, sashaying into Lanthe’s substitute suite.
Her former residence was still being repaired, nearly a week after the Territories had fallen.
Lanthe glanced up from her desperate letters and lists, allowing Sabine see her panic, her despondency. Both grew with each minute. “Thronos is not a boy—he’s my husband. And I want him back.”
“You look like hell. Would you like me to weave an illusion over you?”
As if Lanthe could be bothered with her appearance—when every other thought in her head was YOU’RE RUNNING OUT OF TIME TO FIND HIM!
How was Thronos dealing with the destruction of his kingdom? How was he coping with his feelings of loss? What if he thought he had nothing to live for and was careless in some battle? What if Cadmus staged a refugee coup?
“You’re pushing yourself far too hard, Lanthe.” Sabine reclined on a nearby divan. “Since when have you been able to create portals so frequently?”
After Lanthe had failed to locate the outpost that first day, she’d reasoned that Nïx had actually been talking about all of Lanthe’s powers behaving like muscles. She’d been able to shave down the time between her portals to once a day, but that was the limit.
Use, use, use, use, use—and no rest? Accuracy . . . suffered.
“You need to dial down the thresholds,” Sabine warned.
“I haven’t created one today.” Holding off was one of the hardest things she’d ever done.
But she was about to go for broke, to try to reach a realm that could be light-years away.
“That’s only one of the things I’m here to talk about.”
She’d known Sabine would want a sit-down soon. Lanthe heard the whispers in the castle growing louder and more numerous. They said that Thronos had surely perished.
She supposed they had reason to believe that. . . .
As soon as Morgana had left Rothkalina to go watch her handiwork from some vantage like a ghoulish spectator, Lanthe had slashed open a rift to get back to Thronos.
In time to catch the blast.
Sabine had shoved her out of the way, taking the full brunt—a force strong enough to send her flying across the room. Her impact had buckled a tower wall. Luckily Sabine had been wearing scads of metal.
Lanthe hadn’t been able to create another portal until the next day. With a suitcase full of clothes and big hopes, she’d portaled to Canada, using the just-in-case directions Thronos had given her to the Vrekeners’ outpost.
Past Lanthe’s threshold, there’d been nothing but rocks and trees, not a trace of Vrekeners. She’d been greeted by a herd of deer so tame they’d approached her. Clearly, no winged hunters had been in that area stalking them, though Thronos loved venison.
Either she’d gotten the directions jumbled (as she had every other time in her life, in which case, she sucked) or her portal had gone awry (in which case, she sucked).
While she’d been recharging for another futile go at Canada, Sabine and Rydstrom had told Lanthe that even an immortal like Thronos couldn’t survive a fire born of sorcery like Morgana’s. Sabine relayed to her that Morgana had watched it all—after the blast, the islands had simply crumbled into flames and plunged.
“Yes, but Thronos’s wings are fireproof,” Lanthe had argued.
Sabine had said, “Even his wings would be vulnerable to an unnatural fire.”
Lanthe had reasoned, “Someone could have swooped in to save him.”
With grave hesitation, Rydstrom had pointed out, “But hadn’t everyone already evacuated, Lanthe?”
Whatever. Thronos had survived. Period. Lanthe had promised herself that she would never underestimate him again. He was an extraordinary male who would prevail in any situation.
Besides, her husband had one more trick up his sleeve. Granted, he wouldn’t quite know he had it. . . .
“We can talk later,” she told Sabine now. “I’m busy.” She waved at the stack of missives she was penning to witches and oracles all over the worlds.
The afternoon of her first ill-fated Canada trip, Lanthe had gotten one of the castle guards to trace her to the Louisiana chapter of the House of Witches. Carrow and her super-powerful friend Mariketa had scried for Thronos, but some of the Vrekeners’ ancient magics still held. The same cloaks that had hidden them from humans lingered.
The witches couldn’t locate an entire populace.
So Lanthe had dispatched Cadeon’s former band of mercenaries to manually search Canuck forests. “Which ones?” they’d asked.
All of them. Because I suck.
From the divan, Sabine picked up one of the maps that Lanthe had spread over every available surface. “Too busy with your search to inquire after my healing? I’m right as rain, by the way.”
Lanthe felt a twinge of guilt.
“Busy or not, you won’t get rid of me so easily.” Her sister rang for wine.
Powerless Sorceri servants known as Inferi promptly answered the call, then vanished once more.
“Rydstrom made me promise to talk to you because he thinks I’m upset about this tiff between us.” Sabine sipped from a golden goblet. “So here I remain because, weirdly, I keep promises to him. By the way, Morgana wanted me to ask you why the sea god Nereus sent her a coral tube carved to look like a humongous cock. Apparently he mentioned your name in a very naughty gift card.”
“Long story, meager payoff.”
Sabine sighed. “You’re still angry with me. Though surely you know I couldn’t have convinced Morgana to call off her attack. Fearing for your life, I went to her, trying to do just that. She suggested the use of that scry crystal to evacuate you. I did what I thought was right. And I do believe my actions prevented Morgana from simply smiting the Vrekener outright.”
Lanthe put down her pen. “You want credit for that—even though you think he’s dead anyway?”
No, she couldn’t have expected Sabine to defy Morgana any more than she had. But Sabine didn’t seem to regret what the queen had done, even after Lanthe had told her everything about Thronos, about all that she and the Vrekener had been through together.
The pages Lanthe had written of their history had been erased from existence—just like their history had been erased from Thronos’s mind.
Sabine had been shocked to discover that Lanthe truly loved him, and probably had since she was a girl. But she hadn’t embraced the idea of her little sister wed to an enemy Vrekener: “Especially one who doesn’t even have a house, much less a kingdom,” Sabine had said, making Lanthe want to punch her in the tit.
Sabine had been more worked up about Emberine daring to cut off Lanthe’s tongue: “She will pay dearly for that. I plot for her very soul!” Sabine had also raised a fuss over the dragon gold: “I didn’t conceal your necklace from Morgana just so you can throw it away willy-nilly! Let me handle Bettina. I know her pressure points. Consider their declaration of war null and void.”
In an attempt to distract Lanthe from her search, Sabine had invited Cadeon and his family to stay for a few weeks. Lanthe had paused only to press a kiss on each babe’s downy head, greet their parents, and ask Holly if she knew where Nïx was (“No earthly idea”). So Lanthe had gotten back to work.
The entire royal family pitied her. Yesterday Lanthe had gone to Tornin’s library for more maps. Rydstrom and Cadeon had been down in the courtyard, conversing amiably in their deep demon voices and Sith Ifrican accents. With a swaddled babe in each arm, Cadeon had crowed, “I’ve got a trio of females who all adore me. Life is rich, brother!”
Spying Lanthe above, Rydstrom had motioned for Cadeon to keep it down.
They shouldn’t pity her. Because Lanthe was going to fix this. She needed to get her husband back for more than just—
“Are you sending out even more gold?” Sabine said now, setting away her goblet. “Lanthe, you’ve spent a fortune!”
In their childhood meadow, Thronos had tickled Lanthe, teasing her, “You like me far better than gold.”
I do. I really do. “As if you wouldn’t do the same for Rydstrom.”
“But Thronos is a Vrekener. They’re despicable!”
“Those are my subjects you’re talking about!” Lanthe could call them names all day long, but if anyone else did . . .
“I insult our age-old foes, and your eyes glimmer with outrage? Up is down, down is up.”
“Just leave, Sabine. I don’t have time to make you understand.”
“Kicking me out, when I have in my possession a letter from Thronos to Rydstrom, sent before the collapse of the Territories?”
Lanthe’s eyes went wide. “Why didn’t you say anything before?”
“We’ve only just learned of it today, because I allegedly ordered the Vrekener messenger to be waylaid and interrogated—in defiance of Lore law. Which allegedly delayed the letter a bit.” She tugged a folded sheet of parchment from inside her gauntlet. “I make no apologies. Based on the information I had, I was desperate to find you.”