Double threat—no choice but to portal! Swallowing back blood, she began to open a rift, a small scalpel cut in this reality. She tried to concentrate on her home of Rothkalina, yet fears of all that could go wrong tangled in her thoughts.
Opening, opening. With a yell, Thronos started sprinting, snagging a sword from a sleeping demon on his way.
When the centaurs charged behind him, Lanthe scuttled backward toward the threshold.
As he ran, Thronos kept his gaze locked on her, even as he made a sweeping downward cut with that sword. Why would he . . . ?
The blade came back bloody; Felix’s head was rolling from his body.
Her jaw slackened, blood pouring from her mouth. The Vrekener’s crazed. She twisted over to her hands and knees, now scrambling through the portal.
Night. Fog and murk. Definitely not Rothkalina.
The overcast day of the prison island flickered into this rainy world like a flashlight’s beam. Before her eyes could adjust, she heard Thronos bellowing for her.
She commanded the portal to seal itself. Just as the seams were about to meet, he dove through them, crashing beside her.
As soon as the rift was no more, territorial growls and hisses sounded from all around them.
In the gloomy dark, Thronos grated, “Have you taken us to hell, sorceress?”
Thronos struggled to get his bearings—while biting back his rage over what he’d just seen.
His female, maimed. By her own kind. He wished he’d had time to liberate all of their heads from their bodies.
Focus, Talos. He scented the air, surveying his new surroundings. They were on a small island of rock encircled by water that looked like mercury. Mist cloaked the night. Some kind of preternatural swamp?
Though he’d traveled to foreign planes in pursuit of his mate, he didn’t recognize this one. She could’ve taken them anywhere. Thronos despised her portals; every time he’d seen one in the past had meant he was about to lose her yet again.
A massive red sea serpent crested above the water to their right, a razor-sharp fin slicing through waves. “Yes. We’ve gone to hell,” he said, just as a green serpent surfaced to the left.
Melanthe would be creating another portal directly. But not to the Skye—he would never give her the directions to his hidden home, in case she somehow escaped him and decided to portal an enemy army there.
“Make another threshold back to the mortal realm,” he ordered her. “Somewhere in Europe.” He knew she couldn’t talk—blood still spilled from her lips. Yet all she had to do was nod, then get to work.
Once they were away from here, he would question her.
How did you make the Pravus sleep, and why not me? For what purpose would you ensorcel Omort? Do you grieve that sorcerer I beheaded?
“Be about it,” he snapped, unused to repeating his orders. When Thronos led troops of his knights on Pravus raids, no one dared disobey him.
She shook her head, her braids bouncing over her slim shoulders.
Denying him? He crouched in front of her, baring his fangs. “Do—it—now.”
—It’ll take me five or six days to renew my threshold ability. I’m in a lag till then.—
He jerked away, grimacing from the feel of her words laid directly into his mind. So that was how she’d commanded them to sleep! Telepathy.
Now that he thought back, he could tell she’d had to feign hesitation under the threat of that blade. She’d had a plan, and she’d been desperate to get that torque removed.
He hated telepathy—a glaring reminder of what she was. But at least she could communicate with him until she regenerated. He knew he could reply the same way, thinking his words rather than uttering them, and she could pick them up with her mind-reading ability. But he refused to allow her entry into his thoughts, had developed mental shields specifically to block her. “How many other abilities do you possess?”
—Alas, only three.— Was she lying?
“If you have power enough for telepathy, then why can’t you open a portal?”
—Just because I’ve walked for miles doesn’t mean one of my eyelids is fatigued.—
She shrugged. —Telepathy is second nature. Cutting a rift into reality . . . not so much.—
She’d said nothing about her most devastating ability. “And your persuasion?” Could she use it only every few days as well? Once she was strong enough for a threshold, she might be able to command him. A double-edged sword. He was in the same position as those Sorceri, could trust her just as little.
The loss of her collar was a grave one.
—Persuasion is unpredictable.— In the rain, she rubbed her chin over one pale shoulder, smearing blood there. Crimson ran down her arm, dripping from her elbow into a rivulet of runoff. —It tends to come online when I’m in jeopardy, so you probably shouldn’t frighten me again.—
He shuddered to think of all the things she could persuade him to do. Could she truly make him forget her? Even as his rational mind thought, Maybe that’s exactly what should happen, his instincts rebelled.
His body rebelled. Would it remember that Thronos was never to take another?
“There must be some way for you to shave days off your . . . lag.” They couldn’t be trapped here. Something about this realm put him even more on edge. Of course he perceived danger all around, yet his main sense was of expectancy.
Because he was with her?
—I have to wait several days, for me to create myself a threshold for me to use. You’re s.o.l.—
So, unless they could find another portal or a Lorean who could teleport, they were stranded. “Where are we?”
—I don’t know.— When the rain intensified, she started shaking even harder. With the amount of blood she’d lost she must be freezing in this weather. And regeneration was punishing on the body.
The wind picked up, bringing traces of scents. His muscles tensed when he smelled lava, corpse rot, and Lorean blood. Copious amounts of it. “Of all the realms, why did you pick this accursed land?”
She slitted her eyes at him, her own blood streaming from the corner of her lips. —No one forced you to come with me! And hitchhikers don’t get to complain about the destination!—
—Sometimes I can’t control what door I open! Especially not under pressure.—
He exhaled a breath. He’d best figure out how to keep them alive in this place. He squinted through the mist, spying what might be a pair of mountains in the far distance. He thought a high plateau stretched between them.
There were two other small islands between here and that coast, but each one was miles away, too far for even an immortal to leap. Without both of his wings, he had scant hope of crossing that span.
Another serpent swam by. Were they getting more numerous? This one flicked its forked tongue in the air directly beside their island. The tongue was as long as Thronos’s leg. Rows of razor-sharp teeth glinted in the night.
When the skies opened up and rain thundered down, Melanthe shuddered beside him. The paler her skin grew, the more those bruises on her finely-boned face stood out.
Without thought, he started moving his good wing over her—but stopped himself, stifling any unwanted sympathy for her. “It seems you would want to work together with me, sorceress. You can’t fly, so how will you escape this predicament? Or were you planning to remain here with the serpents for the better part of a week?”
She gave a marked glare at his injured wing.
“It will heal in hours.” And then he’d find a secure shelter for them.
—You’re acting like we’re in a partnership, like I’m not your prisoner. We are NOT a team. I hate you! I plan to ESCAPE you, dumbass.—
“I expect nothing less. But until your next futile attempt, you’re going to answer some questions for me. Who was that sorcerer to you?”
—An ex. Congratulations, you decapitated an old ex.—
She rolled her eyes. —I grieve that you didn’t snatch his gold armor on the way out. He was no friend or ally of mine.—
“Then why would you have slept with him?” Her sexual habits confounded him!
Lose control, lose your mate. Biting back fury, he said, “Why did you ensorcel Omort?”
Her eyes darted as a purple fin sliced the water nearby. —I commanded him to use no sorcery in the fight with Rydstrom.—
Everyone in the Lore knew that Rydstrom the Good had slain Omort the Deathless, reclaiming his kingdom of Rothkalina; but Thronos had wondered how the rage demon king had circumvented Omort’s vast powers. “Why would you favor Rydstrom, betraying your own brother and . . . lover?” he grated, scarcely able to utter the word.
Her face screwed up with revulsion. —Lover??? He was everything vile! Not to mention that he was my BROTHER. Oh, that’s just not— The thought ended abruptly; she turned to throw up again, heaving, but only blood came out. —I’d rather die!—
Did he dare to believe her? Surely disgust that violent couldn’t be contrived.
She swung a glare at Thronos, eyes sparking with rage. —I will kill you in your sleep for saying things like that to me!—
“Why should I, or anyone else, believe you weren’t his concubine? It’s common knowledge that Omort liked to mate his sisters, and you lived under his protection for centuries!”
—You want to know the truth about what life was like under his protection? Horrifying. We lived with his insanity, saw it made manifest every day! He routinely threatened to kill me, came close so many times.—
“Again, you lie. If you hated what was happening, then why wouldn’t you abandon him? I know that you and Sabine were free to come and go. And why would he want his own sister dead?”
She turned away, her gauntlets balled into fists. —Go to hell.—
“You’ve already taken me here. Now answer me!”
He grabbed her shoulders. “Feel the serpent’s breath?”
She struggled in his arms, weak as a babe. —He poisoned Sabine and me with the morsus.—
“What is that? I’m not as versed in cowardly poisons as you Sorceri are.” They loved deploying their poisons as much as they loved drinking and gambling, deeming themselves “toxinians.”
—The morsus kills from withdrawal. If we left him for more than a few weeks, we’d die of pain. He had the only antidote, doling it out at intervals, so long as we didn’t displease him.—
It sounded too strange to be true, which had Thronos leaning toward belief. Only a sorcerer would do that to his own family. “Why should I believe you?”
—A) I don’t care if you believe me or not because you don’t matter. B) Your friend Nïx will verify everything I’ve told you.—
He . . . believed Melanthe. Which meant Thronos’s old friend wrath was placated a degree. The sorceress hadn’t been a delighted participant in those atrocities.
Though she was lacking in so many other ways, Thronos decided then that she would suffice as a wife. “I do believe you in this, which means I will be marrying you. You’ll be pleased to know that torture is now off the table.”
Her eyes flickered. —As if I’d ever accept you as my husband! You have no right to abduct me! You’re no different from Omort. Taking away my choice, my life. And we killed Omort at the first opportunity.—
—The only reason we went with him in the first place was that he promised to protect us from Vrekeners!—
“Not from me. I’ve seen you only a handful of times over these years. I dogged your heels, but always when I closed in, you escaped through sorcery. If there was a splinter group who targeted you, I had no knowledge of it.”
—How could you not know what your own men were doing?—
He felt her probing his thoughts, trying to read his mind. He put up his shields within an instant, but apparently that was all she’d needed; she gasped.
—You truly didn’t know! Allow me to fill you in. Not two years after the abbey, your knights of good flew Sabine to a height and dropped her for fun. I saw her head crack open on the cobblestones. I barely pulled her back from the dead.—
Vrekeners were the curse of evildoers; they did not commit evil.
She read his expression. —Don’t believe me? Why do you think I grew to be so afraid of heights? Because I’ve seen what happens to a body when it lands! And then, not a year later, your kind were upon us again.—
Her gaze went distant. —We hid in a hayloft. But these huge winged males swept up after us, your knights. Laughing, the leader picked up a pitchfork and stabbed the hay.— She flexed her right hand. —Sabine jumped from the loft, running to distract them from me. They chased her into a river. She couldn’t swim and drowned!— Melanthe faced him once more, leaning in aggressively. —I found her on a bank three towns away, and debilitated my power to bring her back.—
“You expect me to believe that my own men tried to gore my mate to death when she was a helpless little girl? Ah, but it gets better. Only Sabine’s selflessness saved you? How false that rings!” Melanthe was lying. She had to be.
—I don’t expect you to believe that. Just like I don’t expect you to believe that we weren’t isolated cases. That your knights brutalized other Sorceri even worse.—