“That’s the other reason I never tried to communicate with you—I knew you’d never believe me.”
On edge, Thronos didn’t reply. He just scented other immortals. They must have overrun even this farthest edge of the island.
Earlier, when he’d finally picked up the vessel’s scent, he’d begun cutting across a forest to reach it, which was proving to be more of a risk than he’d expected.
He needed to concentrate on their escape, but now that he was thinking more clearly, he couldn’t stop replaying Melanthe’s words from the night before. Why would he be her nightmare all these years? Why would she fear when a cloud crossed the sun?
Unless she’d actually been attacked.
“Why did you say that about my line?” she asked. “Being tainted?”
Melanthe didn’t know this, but Thronos had briefly met her mother when he was eleven. And it had scared the hell out of him. “I’ll answer as soon as you admit it’s true.”
She didn’t bite, instead saying, “Speaking of communication, did you ever think about contacting me when I was in Rothkalina?”
“You know that demon realm is out of my reach. The portals have been guarded by armies for the last two reigns.”
“You could’ve sent a message to a letter station at one of the portal gates.”
“What should I have written? Dear Harlot, rumor has it that you are very happy with your new life in Rothkalina with your beloved brother Omort. I hear that you have all the gold you could ever want, and I know how much you always enjoyed a good blood orgy. Well done, Melanthe! By the way, would you like to meet for a rational discussion about our future?”
“Well. I did have a lot of gold.”
Do not strangle her!
In a matter-of-fact tone, she said, “I’m just pointing out the sole true detail about your pretend letter. Oh, and you should know . . . if you keep calling me harlot, sooner or later I’m going to have a rage blackout, and then I’ll wake up to find you—awfully sadly—dead.”
“You threaten me? A powerless, physically weak sorceress?” he sneered. “I must amend my treatment of you forthwith.”
“You’ve turned into a sarcastic, unbalanced, judgmental dick.” To herself, she muttered, “Man, can I pick ’em.”
“If you take issue with the term harlot, then perhaps you shouldn’t have slept with half the Lore.”
“Half?” she scoffed. “Three-quarters for the win!”
How could she sound so bloody uncaring, when he was insulting her character?
“Besides, I don’t take issue with the term as much as the fact that you feel you can judge me. I despise judgmental people.”
“As do most creatures who deserve to be judged.”
“You got me. I’m a ho fo sho.”
What did that mean? “You speak like a human.”
She nodded, as if that hadn’t been an insult as well. “I watch a lot of TV.”
Yet another thing they didn’t have in common. “Naturally, you choose pointless pastimes.”
“I did so much reading in my first couple of centuries—when I was in hiding from Vrekeners—that I figure I can skate a little now.”
“I marvel that you had time for anything other than your conquests.”
“So I’m a TV-watching harlot who deserves to be judged?” She gave a disheartened sigh. “Thronos, you have to know that I’ll never be what you need me to be.”
He scanned the ground for movement within the stands of trees. “I was told this long ago. I also heard that I’d never survive the injuries I sustained. Then they said I’d never fly again. Yet I did, and I do. Once I get you to my home, you will become what I need.”
“I like myself!” she cried. “Did you never consider becoming what I need, Thronos?”
“I’m confused about your preferences. Should I emulate a drunken fey? Or a slick-tongued sorcerer who beds anything that moves?” Or maybe she preferred them like her first: a leech.
Don’t think of that memory. . . . “In the Skye, I will make you understand the value of loyalty, honesty, and fidelity to a single male.”
“You just confirmed what we’ve always heard: that Vrekeners kidnap and brainwash bold, independent Sorceri females, turning them into blank-eyed slaves to their men.”
“It isn’t like that! Sorceri young are happy among us, accepted as our own.” As soon as they were disempowered.
“Uh-huh,” she said. He was beginning to recognize that was her way of indicating untruth. “They’re trapped in a dismal floating realm filled with grim, self-righteous killjoys. They are in our version of hell.”
“Since you’ll soon see the truth of my words for yourself, there’s no sense in arguing about it.”
“Because you’re taking me to Skye Hell? You think I’ll be happy among you? Accepted as your own?”
“I said other Sorceri were,” he pointed out. “Not you. You don’t deserve happiness. You deserve the full force of my revenge.”
“Revenge? After that night in the abbey, I never tried to hurt you, Thronos. I’ve just lived my life. I wish to all the gods that you could learn to live yours without your bitterest necessity.”
His rage had been so intense the night before, he only vaguely remembered calling her that. But he couldn’t regret it. Considering his still-seething wrath, his words could have come out much worse. His actions as well.
As he soared over one mountain peak, heading for another, his gaze shot downward.
Fire demons had gathered in wait. For him, their enemy. Their hands were aglow, filled with flames.
They attacked, streams of fire burning through the fog and rain. Thronos’s wings had been swooping, gaining altitude; at once he brought them closer, arcing his body down, gathering speed to elude their strike.
Against his chest, she cried, “Don’t drop me, Vrekener!”
If he could dive down behind the mountain ahead . . . He picked up speed. Almost there—
A trap. They’d driven him into a broadside from another waiting group. Fire began to crisscross in all directions, flames zooming through the air toward them. A kill zone.
There was nowhere to fly, trails of fire showering all around him.
Impact. A sphere of flames, large as a cannonball, struck him in the wing. Like a hammer of the gods, it sent him reeling into another group’s volley.
His wings were fireproof, but the flames clung to his scales, as if he’d been doused with oil.
“Thronos!” Melanthe screamed in pain. The fire was wrapping around him to lap at her. “My legs!”
When he smelled her seared skin, he had no choice but to separate her from the fire. He did all he could; he wrapped his wings around her body, covering her as he dove evasively. The speed might help him shed the flames.
No way to stop his descent. The base of a mountain rushed closer, fringed with jagged boulders. His mate screamed again, this time in terror.
Had the fire subsided? At the last second, he opened his wings, sculling them forward like oars in thick water. “Ahh!” he yelled against the pain as he scooped air, slowing their descent into the boulders.
Another fire grenade blasted him square in the back, exploding flames all over them, accelerating his velocity even more.
He gritted his teeth, knowing he had only one chance of keeping Melanthe unharmed: fold her within his wings and take the impact on his back.
He turned in the air, praying to every deity in the heavens. . . .
Lanthe hadn’t stopped screaming. Heat had scorched her until Thronos blanketed her body, but then they’d dropped.
Her stomach plunged as they fell, yet she could see nothing from the cocoon of his wings.
All she knew was that they were going to crash—hard. When even he tucked his head at the last instant, fear robbed her of breath.
They hit, the craggy ground punching them like a giant fist. The force of impact sent them bounding into the air once more, a flaming skipping stone.
Vertigo overtook her, confusion. She heard bones snap! Not hers?
They crashed down again and again. Then something pierced the cocoon directly by her face; a jut of rock tore through the skin of his wing, the momentum ripping flesh away.
They came to an abrupt stop, like the finale of a fatal car pileup.
Thronos made no sound. Unconscious?
Dizzy and panicked, Lanthe scrambled away from him. She shoved against his imprisoning wings, making him groan in pain.
Freed, she stumbled to her feet, staggering on the stony terrain. She shook off her dizziness, taking stock of her own injuries. Burns only.
Thronos had taken the full brunt. Flames still flickered on his back, hissing in the light rain. He’d broken bones, and that one wing lay wasted.
Which she didn’t care about. Because he’d put her in that situation in the first place. It was his duty to mitigate the fuckup!
She gazed around warily. Why had those fire demons targeted one Vrekener? Yes, Thronos was a Pravus enemy, but fire demons often acted as lackeys, hired guns.
They’d be coming for him, and she needed to be gone when they did. She spied a natural path through the field of boulders, had just taken her first step when she heard another groan.
In a pained rasp, Thronos called her name.
Don’t look back at him, don’t look back. The last time she had, she’d been tormented by what she’d seen for all her days.
Against her will, she found herself turning.
His matte gray eyes were awash in misery as he grated, “Do not run . . . from me.”
The world seemed to shrink down, morning turning to midnight in her head. All at once she was back in the mountainside abbey, on the night her parents had been slain, the night Lanthe had first used her powers to save Sabine’s life. . . .
“Wake, Lanthe.” Sabine clutched her hand, wresting her from her bed. “Don’t make a sound.”
“What is it, Ai-bee?” Lanthe whispered sleepily.
“Just hurry.” As if to herself, she said, “I warned Mother and Father to move us from here, but they refused to listen.”
Sabine hated their troubled mother and distant father. She blamed the pair for everything: not providing food or shoes or new dresses. She railed against them for their constant sorcery outlays that put the entire family at risk: If even Lanthe insists that you’re using too much . . .
Lanthe knew the two weren’t as good as other parents seemed to be, but her heart was filled with love—why not give it to them?
“And now Vrekeners are in the abbey,” Sabine murmured.
Here? “Mayhap they aren’t here to fight.” Thronos was her secret best friend; he would never let his kind attack her family!
“They’re here to kill our parents and abduct us. As they always do with Sorceri.” They’d heard the tales. Sorceri who broke the laws of the Lore were executed, while their children were fostered in stern Vrekener families.
Even with Sabine by her side, Lanthe was terrified as they stole through the abbey, lightning striking all around the mountain.
They stumbled into their parents’ room. Mother and Father were curled together in sleep. Towering stained-glass windows allowed in the glow of lightning, distorting it. She blinked. For a second, she’d thought her parents appeared . . . headless.
When the scent of blood hit Lanthe, her legs buckled.
Their bodies were decapitated; the heads lay at unnatural angles, inches from their necks.
Sabine threw up; Lanthe collapsed with a scream, her vision going dark as she hovered on the verge of unconsciousness.
Mother and Father were dead. Never to return.
Mother with her gaze frenzied as she beheld her precious gold. Father with his lost look whenever he beheld his crazed wife. Both dead . . .
Lanthe dimly comprehended that the room had filled with Vrekeners, their wings flickering in the lightning-filled night. The leader held a fire scythe with a blade of black flames.
Then she saw Thronos. His eyes were wide, and he was trying to reach her, but one of the men held him back.
How could Thronos have led these killers here? After all the time they’d shared?
After my confession just this morning . . . ?
To Sabine, the leader intoned, “Come peaceably, young sorceress. We do not wish to hurt you. We wish to put you on the path of goodness.”
Sabine, the Queen of Illusions, gave a chilling laugh as she called up her power. Her amber eyes started to glimmer like shining metal, stark against her fire-red hair. “We know what you do to Sorceri girls. You plan to turn us into biddable, grave crones like your sour-faced women. We’d rather fight to the death!” She began creating her illusions; at once, the soldiers hunched down, as if they believed the ceiling was pressing down on them.
Even betrayed like this, Lanthe wanted to ask Sabine to spare Thronos, but her lips moved soundlessly. Mother and Father are dead.
Had her parents ever even awakened tonight?
Sabine raised her palms toward the leader, using her sorcery to make him see his worst nightmares. He fell to his knees, dropping his scythe to claw at his eyes.
With a smile, Sabine snatched up his weapon. She swung for his neck, was still smiling when blood spurted across her beautiful, ruthless face.
Thronos gave a grief-stricken yell as the Vrekener’s head rolled to Sabine’s feet.
Was the leader Thronos’s father?
Lanthe’s sight was dim, but she thought Sabine’s illusions were . . . fading? Her sister would be facing these foes alone, all bent on avenging their leader.
Lanthe found her voice just as a Vrekener sidled up behind Sabine.
“Ai-bee, behind you!”