Now Lanthe kept her weapon poised for—
One second Lanthe had been sprinting; the next she was on her face, sword tumbling in front of her. Something had her! Claws sank into her ankle, piercing the leather of her boot. She screamed and thrashed, but it hauled her back.
Ghoul? Demon? Wendigo? She stabbed her metal claws into the ground, scrabbling for purchase, looking over her shoulder.
His scarred face was bloodied, his towering body tensed. A maniacal glint shone in his gray eyes as his wings unfurled—they seemed to flicker in the dim tunnel. A trick of light.
The bastard had actually braved an underground shaft. Vrekeners never abandon their hunt.
“Release me, you dick!” She kicked out with more force, but she was no match for his strength. Wait, why didn’t he have a collar? Thronos was akin to an angel, a warrior for right.
She knew he’d become a warlord. Had he turned evil over these centuries?
“Let her go, Thronos!” Carrow yelled, charging. She’d parked Ruby somewhere, returning to take on a Vrekener.
For Lanthe. I knew I liked that witch.
Before she could reach Lanthe, Thronos had used one of his wings to send Carrow sprawling. The witch scrambled up again, drawing her own sword.
Lanthe continued to thrash, filled with dread. Thronos was too strong; like Lanthe, Carrow still had her collar.
When the witch charged again, a wing flashed out once more, but Carrow anticipated the move, hunching down to slide under it. She shoved her sword up, piercing the wing, leaving her weapon to hang like a giant splinter.
He gave a yell, releasing Lanthe to pluck the sword free. Blood poured from him, pooling in the gravel.
Carrow lunged for Lanthe, snaring her hand. Before she could get Lanthe up and running, Thronos seized Lanthe’s leg again, wrenching her back—but Carrow and Lanthe kept their hands locked.
It was a losing proposition. Ruby was vulnerable without Carrow. And for all the grief, heartache, and pain Thronos and his kind had dished out to Lanthe over the years, she didn’t believe he could murder her in cold blood.
She chanced another look back. No matter how much he’d looked like he was about to.
His blood-splattered face was as grim as a reaper’s, his lips thinned, his scars whitening. The age-old question arose: did he want to abduct her or kill her? Or abduct her to torture then kill?
No, no, he couldn’t hurt her; Lanthe was his fated mate. Hurting her would hurt him.
The tunnel quaked again. In the distance, Ruby called, “Crow!”
Carrow shook her head, digging in determinedly. “I’ll save you both.”
In a deafening rush, rocks began to tumble down from the ceiling, filling the space between Carrow and Ruby.
“Save your girl!” Lanthe yanked her hand free, allowing Thronos to haul her away. “I’ll be okay!”
Carrow’s stricken face disappeared as he dragged Lanthe into the smoke.
After three weeks of imprisonment at the hands of vile humans, Lanthe had been caught again—by something she hated even more than mortals who enjoyed vivisecting their captives. “Let me go, Thronos!” Her body lurched with each of his limping steps.
Almost at once, he veered into a smaller off-shoot tunnel that she hadn’t seen when speeding past it.
“You’re going the wrong way!” She dug her metal claws in, raking furrows into the ground. When a cloud of gravel erupted in front of her face, she coughed up grit. “Damn it, Thronos, turn back!” Blood continued to pour from his wing, leaving a trail beside Lanthe’s furrows. “We were almost at an exit before!”
She and Carrow had been hoping to reach the shore. Now he seemed to be ascending. Leave it to a Vrekener to make for the high ground.
“Centuries I’ve waited for this,” he grated, never loosening his viselike grip around her ankle.
Another quake rocked the tunnel. When a boulder crashed down beside her, she stopped clawing with her gauntlets, instead crying, “Faster, idiot!”
As if she weighed nothing, he yanked her up from the ground and into his arms in one fluid move. He’d grown taller than any Vrekener she’d ever seen. He must be nearing seven feet in height, looming over her five and a half feet. With his gaze boring into hers, he squeezed her against his chest.
His hair—too light to be black, too dark to be brown—was streaked with ash, the matte gray matching his eyes. But as he beheld her, his irises turned to that brilliant silver—like lightning. Like his ghostly wings.
“Let me go!” she yelled, slashing at him with her claws.
He dropped her to her feet—just to shove her against the wall. With his rigid body pressed against her, he leaned in, tilting his head creepily.
Was he going to kiss her? “Don’t you dare!” She moved to strike him again, but he pinned her wrists above her head.
A heartbeat later, he took her mouth, dumbfounding her. He slanted his lips more aggressively, burning away her shock.
She bit his bottom lip. He kept going. She bit harder.
He squeezed her wrists until she thought he would snap her bones. She released him, and he finally drew back, smirking with bloody fangs.
“Now it begins.” With his free hand, he swiped his fingers over his bloody mouth, then reached to smear her lips with crimson.
She jerked her head away. Dear gods, he’s been maddened.
Another quake; more rocks joined that huge boulder, blocking the way they’d come.
“Just brilliant!” She was trapped with Thronos, her survival tied to his. She gazed back at those rocks. Had her friends made it out alive?
Reading her worry, he sneered, “I’d be more concerned about your fate.” She faced her enemy with dread. “Which has at last been sealed. . . .”
I have her. Thronos just stopped himself from roaring with triumph. I bloody have her.
With her wrists still pinned, he ripped her mask away, his gaze taking in her face. Her wide blue eyes were stark against her soot-marked skin. Dust coated the wild, raven braids that tangled about her cheeks and neck. His blood painted her plump lips. Even in this state, she was still the most alluring creature he’d ever seen.
And the most treacherous.
He tore his gaze away, focusing on their survival. This ungodsly tunnel would fail soon. Out in the night, dangers would lurk in every shadow. Most species on this island hated his kind.
He released Melanthe’s hands, just to yank her back into his arms.
“Hey! Where are you taking me?”
Earlier, Thronos had scented saltwater and rain-steeped air—must be an exit from this maze. With her trembling body squeezed against his chest, he began running/limping in that direction, blocking out the grueling pain in his lower right leg.
Pain from just one of the injuries she’d given him.
Get her to safety; refrain from murdering her.
In a short while, the smoke started to thin. Fewer rocks fell.
Instead he stopped dead in his tracks, kicking up gravel. He’d caught a scent. Can’t be right.
When he set her to her feet, she demanded, “What is wrong with you? The way back is blocked; we’re almost out!”
But the threat was already in.
“Is something coming? Tell me!” Her sense of smell wasn’t nearly as keen as his.
An eerie howl echoed down the tunnel. Others joined it.
“Are those ghouls?” she asked, a quaver in her voice.
Even immortals beware their bite. The mindless beasts grew their numbers by contagion. A single bite or scratch . . .
The ground vibrated from their approaching footfalls. Must be hundreds of them.
He would have to fight a swarm of ghouls—underground. Did Lanthe comprehend the danger they faced? Had he captured his prize only to lose it?
Never. He shoved her behind him, flaring his wings.
“You brought me this way! You’ve doomed us.” Oh, yes, she understood the danger. To herself, she muttered, “I was so close to escape. As usual, Thronos ruins my plans. My life.” She snapped at him, “My EVERYTHING!”
He swung his head around, baring his fangs. “Silence, creature!” His old familiar wrath blistered him inside—the wrath that sometimes made him wonder if he mightn’t just kill her and spare himself this misery.
Melanthe is misery. He knew this well.
“All my life, I’ve just wanted to be left alone,” she continued. “But you keep hunting me . . .” She trailed off when an eerie green light began to illuminate the shaft. The glow of the ghouls’ skin as they neared.
From behind him, she said, “I wish to the gods that I’d never met you.”
With all his heart, he told her, “Mutual.”
There was no way she and Thronos could get past this throng without a single contagious injury.
Though he was now a battle-tested warlord, attacking hotbeds of Pravus in between his searches for her, he was weaponless, about to fight in his least advantageous surroundings. Lanthe’s powers were neutralized; she didn’t even have her sword. She splayed her fingers out of habit—to wield sorcery she couldn’t tap—and awaited an unstoppable attack.
In these seconds, she swept her gaze over Thronos, as she hadn’t been able to do for years.
He had on dark boots and broken-in black leather pants that molded to his muscular legs. His white linen shirt had cutouts in the back—they buttoned above and below the roots of his wings. The humans must have taken his customary trench coat.
She glanced up at his silvery horns. Though many demons had two, Vrekeners usually sported four. But two of Thronos’s had been removed—probably because of how damaged they’d been in his “fall.” The remaining pair were larger than normal, curving around the sides of his head like those of a Volar demon.
He lowered his hands, his black claws curling past his fingertips. As all the muscles in his body tensed for combat, he brought his wings close to his sides. The top joints were so gnarled, she could almost hear their movements catching and grinding.
When he was young, he’d been able to pin his wings down along his back, until they were undetectable under a coat. Now, because of his injuries, those flares jutted by his sides.
His formerly black wing talons had been “silvered” once he’d become a knight—honed, smoothed, and sharpened until they’d turned color.
Few of her kind ever got close enough to a Vrekener to know what those wings truly looked like; well, at least not the Sorceri who’d lived to tell about it. She remembered how startled she’d been to discover what covered the backs—
A tidal wave of contagious, vicious killers flooded toward them, their watery yellow eyes burning with rage. They climbed the walls, scrabbling over each other to reach their prey.
The ghouls were fifty feet away. Forty.
Thronos’s wings rippled, as if with eagerness. Lanthe’s last sight on earth might be a Vrekener’s wings. Not a big surprise.
One of his wings flashed out, then the other.
Beheaded ghouls dropped in place. More than a dozen gaping necks pumped their blood, a syrupy green goo.
Her lips parted. “What the hell?” The silver talons of Thronos’s wings dripped green; they’d sliced through throats like a razor blade.
Eyes wide, she sidled along the wall to get a better look at him. She hadn’t known Thronos was that fast—or that his wings were so deadly.
The scent of ghoul blood fouled the air and made the next line of them hesitate. Never ceasing their wails, they stared down at the twitching bodies of their kind, then up at Thronos, confusion on their faces.
When another wave decided to shoot forward, he used his wings again. Goo splashed the walls, striping the fallen bodies. A pool of green seeped toward her and Thronos.
His wings moved so fast she could barely see them, could only feel their backdrafts over her face. Headless bodies piled up, and Lanthe felt . . . hope.
Back when she’d allied with the Pravus Army, Lanthe had observed soldiers sparring—vampires, centaurs, fire demons, and more. They’d always grunted and yelled when they struck. Thronos was eerily silent. One male against a horde of baying monsters.
Technically he was a demon angel—though Vrekeners vehemently denied any demon blood in their line. Right now, he looked seriously demonic. Watching him like this, she realized that in their confrontations over the last few centuries, Thronos had been pulling his punches.
He might not have wanted to kill his mate, but he could’ve taken out Lanthe’s protector, her sister Sabine. Yet he hadn’t. Earlier, Thronos could’ve killed Carrow without a thought. Instead, he’d spared her life. Why?
As the bodies accumulated and poisonous blood crept toward her boots, Lanthe grew queasy. A quake sent her stumbling against the rock wall. The force shuffled the mound of ghouls, sifting corpses. The sheer number of slain was mind-boggling.
When his next strike felled yet another line of them, no more advanced around the corner. They sounded as if they lay in wait outside the tunnel.
Thronos turned to her, broad chest heaving, his grave face covered in grit and sweat. His collar-length hair was damp, whipping over his cheeks.
She grudgingly admitted that he looked . . . magnificent. For so long, she’d focused on his scars, his weaknesses. She’d underestimated this male.