A second later, her image changed again. To the female he’d bedded earlier today. A second later, her image changed again. To the female he’d bedded before that. Another change. The female he’d bedded last night. On and on she morphed her appearance, until he saw all eight of the supposedly human females he’d taken.
He swallowed a mouthful of dark curses. “How did you know where I’d go?”
“I didn’t. I followed you.” She flicked her hair over her shoulder. “But you didn’t know, did you, and didn’t have any idea. That’s not very soldierly of you, now, is it?”
Stealthily he reached behind him, into the air pocket he kept tied to his waist. His fingers closed around the hilt of a dagger.
“You took me back to my people, and they forced me to wed a warrior. But I ran away the morning after the ceremony and used the cash I’d stashed away to have my slave bands removed. There are people who specialize in that, you know.”
“Your husband will come for you.”
“Yes. He’ll come for you, too.” A tinkling laugh. “Want to know another well-guarded secret of the Phoenix? When we aren’t slaves, we can enslave. Every time you slept with me these past few days, your need for me increased. Didn’t it?”
The anger budded into sharp, jagged rage. She wanted him addicted to her body. He’d been a prisoner before, and he’d vowed never to endure such a hell again. Had vowed to destroy anyone who even tried.
He always kept his vows.
He didn’t give himself time to think about his actions and how low he was about to sink—or the punishment he might face. He didn’t waste time threatening the girl. Threats obviously wouldn’t work with her.
“I’m no one’s slave,” he said.
In seconds, the tip of his dagger was embedded in her chest. Her eyes widened with...not confusion and pain, as he’d expected, but with glee.
“Thank you,” she gasped out. “That was easier than I thought.”
Her knees gave out, and she collapsed to the ground. She lay there, panting for breath, red blood spilling from her, her heartbeat no longer saving her, but killing her, pumping and pumping and pumping the life from her body.
“I’ll catch fire, turn to ash and re-form... I’ll be stronger...and you’ll be forever mine.”
“No,” he growled. No. He wouldn’t believe it.
He swung around, fighting another wave of dizziness and watching as a shadow slunk from the roof of the building next to him and down the wall. Red eyes glowed from the center of the darkness. Another shadow followed, and then another. Then shadows began to slink from the roof of the other building.
So many, more than he could count. Perhaps more than he could fight on his own, but he relished the challenge. To leave was to invite them to hurt the humans nearby.
“The pretty boy has been searching for me, I hear,” an evil voice proclaimed. “He wants to punish me for helping to slay his precious king.”
Thane stepped into the spirit realm and grabbed his sword of fire, the flames producing a crackling yellow-and-blue light far hotter than the ones found in hell, for it was pure. The creatures looked like motor oil that had been mixed with blood and congealed. They were blobs—and they were dangerous.
“I’ll kill you,” he vowed through clenched teeth. The dizziness had magnified rather than faded, and he was having trouble staying on his feet. Falling...falling...no, catching himself, once again leaning against the building.
Each shadow slithered from the buildings, soaring through the air, and aiming for Thane.
He twirled his sword to his left, his right, and arced through the center, slicing several creatures through the stomach. The shadows sizzled and hissed, but none fell from the air. They continued to come at him. He palmed a dagger with his other hand, but the metal did no damage, whisking through and causing the creatures to laugh more heartily.
A breeze blew behind him, and he knew something was trying to sneak up on him.
He flared his wings, knocking several shadows away from him, and hurtled into the air, flipping over the creatures that had thought to take him from behind. More shadows converged. He struck, taking what constituted heads. Rather than fall, however, they vanished.
Thane knew it would be better to remain in perpetual motion, never allowing anyone to get a lock on him. He darted to the side of a building, then to the other side, then to the ground, then to the roof, sword constantly swinging. They followed him. Three times he almost fell. Once he hit his knees, but he managed to bounce back up.
Suddenly Bjorn flew into view, followed by Xerxes. Both men landed at his sides, flanking him. He was so overcome with relief he willingly dropped to his knees.
“You don’t call, you don’t write,” Bjorn said, leaping into motion, his sword of fire already drawn and swinging.
“After what we had to give up to get here, after what we had to do to find you, you owe us,” Xerxes said, swiping at the shadows with short swords.
“The minions of strife,” Bjorn said. “Always picking fights. Let’s give them a spanking.”
They split up, dividing the attention of the creatures, leaping, diving, flying this way and that, flipping, kicking, punching, but only the sword of fire caused any damage. One of the creatures finally managed to wrap itself around his head like a dark blanket, suffocating him.
Screams, screams, so many screams. They scraped at his ears, assaulted his mind. He thought he heard his friends shouting in the background, but...but...the screams, so loud, so loud, and they were his own, he realized, coming from him, from his past, from his present, blending together, bleeding so much, soaking him.
All too soon, scenes from his past sprang up and joined the party. The women he’d bedded and left. The humans he’d killed simply to get to demons. The warriors he’d betrayed after his return from the demon dungeon. The times he’d laughed when he’d wanted to cry.
Then suddenly, a blaze of light erupted and the darkness left.
Thane fell forward, landing on his face. He blinked rapidly, the haze around him slowly thinning, even as blood dripped into his eyes. He saw Xerxes and Bjorn, still fighting the shadow creatures, going low, straightening, taking out ankles and knees to hobble. The two warriors stayed close, shielding Thane as best they could.
Must have landed on the Phoenix, he thought. That had to be her still-warm skin cushioning him—no, not warm, but hot. Too hot. Somehow, in death, she was heating up, about to catch fire, all on her own.
One of the shadows slunk over, staying low, darting out of the way anytime Bjorn or Xerxes struck, and managed to latch on to Kendra’s bare leg. The creature laughed manically—just before Xerxes beheaded it.
The shadow vanished, and Thane saw that a flame had finally sparked at the end of Kendra’s toe. That flame intensified, spread. Soon, her entire foot was engulfed. Her ankle. Her calf.
The enemy thinned and the remaining few realized they couldn’t win and backed up. They attached themselves to building walls and slithered up, up and over the roof.
Thane scrambled away from Kendra’s body. Her thighs were the next to catch flame, then her torso, her arms, her chest. Her face. Her hair. Every inch of her was doused, crackling—and then she was gone, ash floating through the air.
She would re-form. She’d promised that, too. She would be stronger.
He would be her slave.
Every ounce of his being rejected the notion.
Xerxes stomped to Thane’s side. “You all right, my man?”
His voice sounded far away. Thane tried to open his mouth to speak but he didn’t have the strength.
Bjorn took a step toward him, stopped and frowned. He looked down at his wrist, where there was a black scratch, then back to Thane. Confusion gleamed in his rainbow eyes. His frown deepened. His knees collapsed.
Xerxes popped up to race to him, but—
Vanished as if he’d flashed—an ability he didn’t possess. Or, as if someone or something had flashed him.
Thane struggled to sit up. His friends. He had to help his friends. They were the world to him. Meant everything. He was nothing without them. But the dizziness returned, flooding his head, and weakness spilled into his limbs, and he could only lie there, panting—until he blacked out.
NICOLA SAT BESIDE her sister’s hospital bed. So much had changed since the last time they’d done this terrible dance, and yet, Laila still hurtled toward death.
If we’re ever again in that situation, and I have a feeling we will be, I want you to let me go.
No, Nicola had said then.
Never, she said now.
Before, she had been without hope. Now, she was different. Stronger. Smarter. She knew there was a better way. But her sister didn’t, and changing her mind was what mattered right now.
Her precious Laila, she thought, tears beading in her eyes. There were tubes in her sister’s chest and arms. Her skin had already yellowed. She had slipped into a coma the doctors said she would never wake from. She was drugged but not without pain, her features pinched and her muscles tensed.
Every time Nicola repeated what she’d learned from Koldo, Laila’s vitals strengthened—but the moment she stopped talking, those vitals plummeted. Sleep had become Nicola’s enemy.
Zacharel had done what he could to keep Laila alive, but in the end, he’d needed help. So, he’d flown Laila to the hospital. He’d stationed two Sent Ones at Nicola’s sides, and they were now standing in the hallway, giving her some time with her sister. To say goodbye.
Where are you, Koldo?