“Then it must be huge.”
“I’m more than just a number,” she pointed out. “Besides, it’s not only the number that’s bothering you; it’s the fact that I was with others after we’d met, and you couldn’t bed just as many.” Bite your tongue!
“Why couldn’t you have settled down with one? I know that some Sorceri wed for life.”
“Would you have preferred to find me in love with another male, happy, with ten children? Why, that would make me a virtuous woman! Would you kidnap a virtuous female for your own selfish needs? Would you separate her from her beloved husband and children?”
He bit out a sound of frustration.
“If our sexes were reversed, everyone would’ve expected me to take lovers. I would have been applauded for it. You would have been revered for your purity. And if I were a demon male like you, I would have bedded thousands, searching for my mate. You know”—she made air quotes—“attempting.”
That’s what demons called it when they had sex just to see if a female would break their demon seal. Though a demon could usually scent a female and know she was his mate, the only way to be a hundred percent sure was through intercourse.
Baring his fangs, Thronos grated, “Have you been attempted by many demons, then?”
“I’ve never been with one.” He parted his lips, no doubt to call “untruth,” so she explained, “Like Vrekeners, the Sorceri stupidly think demons are savage. I didn’t know better until Sabine fell for Rydstrom. By the time I realized demons could be wildly attractive, I was locked into celibacy for a year.”
“You find demons wildly attractive? I thought you were drawn to the more polished, slick liar sort.”
Right now she was drawn to seven-foot-tall males who simmered with pent-up lust and untapped carnality. “Hmm. Physically, I like—”
“I’m about to need my hands.”
Without question, she wrapped her legs around his waist and her arms around his neck yet again. He’d just latched onto the side of the mountain when the path disintegrated beneath them, rousing the dragons once more.
Behind the crumbled stone was . . . an opening. A tunnel no more than five feet in height had been revealed.
Despite his claustrophobia, Thronos clutched Melanthe with one arm, then swung his legs in, scrambling to get as far inside as possible. His horns hit the low ceiling, the jagged rock abrading the tops of his wings.
“How are you doing with this tight spot?” she asked.
He thought she muttered, “I figured swaying trees were.” Meaning that night on the Order’s island.
He winced to recall his behavior. But he’d believed she was different then—
A dragon shoved its snout into the opening, its breath stirring up grit, making it difficult to see. Effectively trapping them.
No other choice but forward! Red light spilled from some opening farther in; he made for it with haste, fearing the beast would fire on them.
It reached in, pawing, disturbing rocks. Thronos covered Melanthe with his wings as the ceiling began to rain stone and sand. Piles of it heaped around Thronos’s legs as if from an upended hourglass.
Panic threatened to take hold, but he fought it. They had to get out before the tunnel was choked, burying them alive. As Thronos slogged onward, his throat felt just as choked.
The farther inside, the hotter the air was. That red glare grew as they neared. When he reached it at last and paused in the arched opening, he saw a larger cavern, filled with bubbling lava. A sole raised path bisected it, one that appeared to lead straight into hell.
Kicking free of the piles of stone weighted around his legs, he launched himself off the edge. He glided down to the path, then set Melanthe on her feet.
As he shook sand from his hair, he gazed back at the tunnel.
Completely caved. Only one way to go.
He turned back to the path. Ahead, more streams of lava wound along it. A metal bridge in the distance glowed red hot. “I think we’re in one of the armies’ lairs.”
“Then we need to find a way out, before anyone sees us.”
“I scent food cooking from one direction,” he said, “and corpse rot from the other.”
“So there’s a camp and a burial area? Let’s head toward the latter. It’d be less populated, less guarded.”
As they walked in silence, he kept his hand on her arm, in case he needed to shield her in a hurry. With each step away from that cave-in, his unease faded.
“When you find yourself going through hell, keep going, right?” she asked, casting him a look from under her lashes. Again, he didn’t recognize the look, but he thought it was . . . flirtatious.
He tried to focus, lest he get them captured or killed, but he couldn’t stop replaying their interaction under his wings—and how she’d run her finger down to his breeches. He’d been a heartbeat away from taking her hand and making her feel what she was doing to him. He’d imagined how he would groan her name as she outlined his shaft through the leather. He’d barely defeated the urge to lick sweat from her neck.
Finding this realm’s portal had become even more important, because his sense of right and wrong seemed to be eroding. He could no longer trust himself to heed the laws of his people.
He was the prince of the Vrekeners, a general of knights. Yet how easily she had him falling under her spell! He’d known she was using her wiles on him, but that hadn’t lessened the effect of her charms.
Until he could return home, he needed to steel himself against her, a task that would be even more difficult after his discovery today.
Whenever he’d felt that electricity sparking between them, the pain from his old injuries had ebbed under the heat of excitement. . . .
She cast him a quizzical look. “What are you thinking about?”
Her lips curled, and she left him to his thoughts.
All his life, he’d speculated how she would react to his scars. He’d been astonished to learn that she had no issues with him physically—merely issues with, well, everything else.
Even she admitted that their chemistry crackled.
From thousands of lofty perches, he’d gazed down upon Lorean wickedness. Watching an offendment was almost as bad as committing one, so he’d always turned away, but those glimpses had taught him much. He’d seen immortals addicted to intoxispells, begging to do anything for more.
Thronos had never understood addiction before. Now he wondered what he wouldn’t do for more of this sizzling interplay with his mate.
Might he stop insulting her?
Perhaps he should go even further and court her. As a boy, he’d done so and found success. She’d liked to be given presents. Good thing he’d snagged that medallion from the temple.
When they’d run from the dragon, Thronos had stretched out his talon for it. Now he had it hidden in his pocket.
A stray thought flitted through his brain. How many gifts of jewelry have other males given her? To reward her for sex? His grip tightened around her arm, his horns aching to mark her again.
Just because he had a goal of treating her better didn’t mean he could achieve it. Wrath still lived within him. . . .
“Strange that we haven’t seen a soul,” she said, frowning at his grip.
He eventually eased it. “There’s nothing of value to guard. Plus, they’re probably still on the battlefield.”
After what felt like leagues, the trail forked, the two branches heading in opposite directions.
“Which way to the corpse rot?” she asked him.
He waved to the right, and they kept moving.
As they neared the burial area, the stench became overwhelming. Another cavern opened up, larger than the initial one. It’d likely been chosen for its size because it was filled to the ceiling with a mountain of bones, decapitated bodies, and horned skulls.
The mound had a creeping, rippling coat of rats. The skittering mass darted in and out of the remains, as if along paths.
When Melanthe’s eyes went wide at the gruesome sight, he tugged her back. “There’s no exit. Let’s head the other way.”
“Are you trying to protect my innocent eyes?” This seemed to amuse her. “I was just nine when my parents’ heads dropped off their bed and rolled toward me like wayward toys. When I was eleven, I used a shard of my sister’s skull to scoop up her brain matter and put her back together again. I haven’t been innocent since my life became entangled with Vrekeners.”
If his knights truly had hunted the two Sorceri girls, the attacks would have been unending. A living hell.
“Not to mention Omort’s court,” she said. “I can never unsee the things I witnessed there.”
“I wish that I could have spared you that,” he said honestly.
“You could have spared me some. Last year when you set that trap for me, I’d been in Louisiana to retrieve my sister, so she could take her dose of morsus. She was dying. Because of you, I had to flee, getting completely turned around in a strange city. I was lost and frantic. Because of you, I couldn’t rescue Sabine. When the portal door shut on your leg, I’m sure you were suitably pissed on your side. On my side, I kicked your leg around, cursing it. Until I heard Omort from the shadows—in my room—grating, ‘And you dare return without her.’ ” She visibly shuddered. “I’ve never been closer to death than I was then. Never. So thanks, Thronos.”
“I couldn’t have known that.” One year ago, she’d almost been murdered by her brother. The idea of Melanthe dying while Thronos was helpless to protect her . . .
Would he have sensed the loss, even across worlds?
She regarded his face. “I’ve tried to live my life. And you jeopardized it. It’s a miracle that I’ve survived this long. Speaking of which . . .” She crossed to the burial mound, reaching for something. She hauled a battered sword out from the bottom. A few bones and skulls tumbled down like a mini rock slide.
She laid the sword flat over one of her shoulders. “You ready?”
He nodded, and they set out once more, his thoughts in turmoil. Never been closer to death.
Because of him. No, he couldn’t have predicted what his actions might bring about—because it’d never occurred to him that Melanthe was a prisoner of Omort.
Had he assumed the worst about her in every instance?
Back at the fork, they chose the other direction. The path began dividing regularly, some routes leading down, some up, connecting to landings or more caverns. Along the landings were recesses of differing sizes.
“I can’t believe we’re in a subterranean demon den,” she murmured. She didn’t sound unnerved by this, more intrigued—as if the two of them were on a hell safari.
His instinct continually urged him to take the higher path, but he didn’t think there’d be an entry point at the top of this lair, so he tried to keep them on one level.
The noise and scents grew into a tumult as they neared the demon encampment, situated in one of those larger caverns. Cautiously they found a vantage on a raised landing, where he and Melanthe could take stock of most of the camp. It was occupied by dozens of different types of demons: fire, ice, pus, storm, shadow, pathos, and more. All appeared to be returning from that battle.
Thronos found it strange that members of such varied demonarchies were working together. Was the other army as diverse?
Here, warriors regenerated from injuries, some regrowing flesh, some entire limbs. Others ate, drank, or whored. Thirty or so harried demonesses serviced the males, with lines forming.
And my mate thinks me related to these brutes? He ground his teeth at the thought, turning away from the iniquitous scenes.
Melanthe, however, appeared quite comfortable with what she was witnessing. And she seemed to be listening for something.
“Come, sorceress,” he muttered. “I scent an exit nearby.” At last, a way out of this literal hellhole.
She didn’t follow him. “Just a minute. I’ve been reading their minds, getting the lay of the land.”
“This war has been going on since before even the oldest demons were born, so thousands of years. Each night, the armies march out to do battle. They break each morning because the dragons fly from their hive to come scavenge the plateau. If the demons are returning now, I guess dawn happened while we were down here?”
“It must have. Those dragons on the mount were probably waiting to feed on the fallen.” As if they’d been trained. Crafty beasts. It was a wonder there were any bodies in that burial mound at all.
“The dragons have been abnormally hostile of late,” Melanthe continued. “The demons fear the last female has died, leaving a pack of aggressive killer males. It’s only a matter of time before they attack the demons. Oh, oh, this just in . . . We’re in a lair called Inferno. It’s protected by that moat of lava outside and is home to the Infernals. They fight the Deep Place warriors, also known as the Abysmals. Deep Place is equally difficult to breach. There’s only one entrance, and you have to navigate a maze of ruins to reach it.”
“Portals. The Infernals have the First Gate of Hell and the Second Key. But the Abysmals have the Second Gate and the First Key. In other words, they each have a gate of hell and a key that doesn’t work on their own portal. Each side fights to protect its portal and to seize the other’s key. Both armies are desperate to leave, but none can teleport here. They have no idea how the keys and portals got mixed up. Some believe the eternal war is a punishment for something.”