Lanthe would be a Sorceri superstar, no longer preyed upon by the likes of Portia and Ember!
Wait a minute. Surely Thronos had to worry about the havoc she could wreak up there? “I don’t get it, Thronos. How do you think you’re going to keep me captive? You don’t have a collar, and my persuasion is recharging with a vengeance. . . .” She trailed off, comprehension dawning. “Oh, dear gods. Y-you planned to take my power.”
For the briefest instant, had he winced?
She fought for breath, feeling like he’d punched her in the chest. His face blurred as her eyes watered. “You’d steal my soul? Turn me into a mindless breeder for you?”
“I would not do that to you!”
“And you wonder why I don’t want to have children with you! Would you take their souls, too?” She made a fist above her heart. “Press a fire scythe to their chests?” As she began backing away from him, sorcery whorled around her.
“No!” He looked like the idea appalled him. “I did consider doing that to you, but immediately decided against it.”
Her voice shook with fury when she said, “I’m done with this. With you. Done.”
When he strode toward her, she commanded him, “Freeze in place.” She was astonished at how easily she wielded her persuasion, her sorcery flowing unhampered. Maybe her nervousness had affected it.
After all, every time she’d used it in the past, she might have been calling Vrekeners down upon herself and Sabine. No chance of that now.
Though Thronos fought the command, he was forced to obey it. “Gods damn it, Melanthe, don’t use your sorcery on me! You can’t comprehend what it’s like for me to lose control of my body and mind.” When she merely raised her brows, he said, “Don’t do this now. We’ve been moving in the right direction. You can’t deny the change between us.”
“Because I didn’t know what you were plotting! I command you to remain in this glade for twenty-four hours. That ought to give you some time for contemplation.”
Incredulous, he bit out, “You don’t believe I’ve done enough of that? And where will you go? To steal a key by yourself?”
“Precisely.” If she reached both demon lairs before dawn, the armies would still be locked in conflict. Not only could she follow the sounds of their skirmishes, she would encounter few demons within their respective dens.
Of course, with her sense of direction, she should be lost directly.
Even if she somehow made it to the Abysmals’ stronghold, it was fronted by a maze of ruins. Yet she expected to find her way into and out of them? She couldn’t find her way out of a human mini-mart.
As if he read her mind, Thronos said, “How will you know where to go? If you follow that path back toward Inferno, you’ll have to cross the pest zone.”
Or she could follow the path away from Inferno for a time, then cut north (or south, or whatever) to reach the plateau. Inferno would be on one side, Deep Place on the other.
She’d thread the needle, get the lay of the land, and decide her strategy. “I have a plan.”
He shook his head hard. “You’re going to get yourself killed.”
“I’ll be fine. I’ve managed all these years without you.” Of course, she’d always had Sabine to protect her.
“You’ve managed, but you’ve never been in hell.”
“Debatable.” Perhaps Lanthe could finally protect herself, take off the training wheels to become a badass like her sister.
Lanthe remembered a time centuries ago, when she’d asked Sabine, “Why are you so much bolder and braver than I am?”
Sabine had told her, “Illusion is reality, Lanthe. If you look or act all-powerful for long enough, guess what you’ll become.”
Lanthe squared her shoulders. “One last thing. I’m sorry to have to tell you this—actually, I’m not sorry at all—but your brother is the one who stabbed me with a pitchfork and brained Sabine. He and his men are the ones who hunted us.”
“Aristo? What are you talking about? You’ve never encountered my brother.”
“I peeked into your head and saw your recollection of our first meeting after your fall. I saw your brother’s face, but it certainly wasn’t the first time.”
While Thronos gaped at her words, she said, “Now, hand over that medallion.” She couldn’t believe she’d been so wrapped up in him that she’d all but forgotten about it.
He reluctantly removed the piece from his pocket, handing it over as ordered. “How did you know?”
“Did you think I wouldn’t sense this gold?” She ran the pads of her fingers over the gleaming smoothness. Red gold. In her hands.
It was the size of a pocket watch, with the finest engravings across the surface, depicting . . . flames. Seeing it reminded her of her dream on the island, of a woman saying, Set worlds aflame.
Lanthe looped the chain around her neck, telling Thronos, “I kept waiting for you to make a gift of this. Now I realize you probably meant to use it against me.”
“That isn’t true. I did intend to give it to you.”
“What do you think my reaction would’ve been like? How might I have expressed my gratitude? Maybe you’ve learned a Sorceri lesson: never put off till tomorrow what you can revel in today.”
“If you leave me here like this, I won’t be able to protect myself.”
“Then I command you to remain in this glade for twenty-four hours unless there is a threat to your life.”
“Damn it, Melanthe! Can you not imagine what this is like for me, to feel the force of your sorcery again? It makes my skin crawl!” His muscles swelled as he strained against her commands. “There is no more horrific feeling. When I jumped through that window . . . and I couldn’t fly . . .” His voice grew hoarse. “To see the ground rushing closer, and I couldn’t move my wings. I just wanted . . . to move my wings. Look into my thoughts right now—see that memory!”
To do so would be like looking back over her shoulder—when she should be running away. She’d done that twice with him, and rued both times.
With an inward curse, she gave a light probe into his mind.
She saw the ground rushing closer. She heard his instinct screaming inside him to save himself. She felt his roiling emotions when his body refused to obey—when he realized he was about to die.
“Do you know why I never yelled on the way down?” he asked quietly. “Because fear had robbed me of breath.”
She withdrew from his thoughts as swiftly as she’d entered them. Tears pricked her eyes, but she willed herself not to cry.
“Now you understand what it feels like, to act in opposition to instinct—to the very will to survive! But I’d relive that night again if it would make you stay here with me.”
She reminded herself that he still planned to kidnap her. He’d considered stealing her soul! He was going to serve her up on a platter to his brother. She replayed how he’d tossed her into that tree and lifted her by her jaw. And his comments.
Someone like you. I’d take your head myself. I should drop you.
If she allowed him to treat her this shittily, then she was no better than he was. When in trouble . . . She turned from him and walked away.
“Melanthe leaving me—not exactly new! I’m sick of pursuing you! All my life you’ve turned from me again and again. Begone, then. Good riddance!”
As she strode off, she heard him cursing her, but hardened herself against him. The sooner she got to the lairs, the sooner she could be back in Rothkalina. She might make it to the castle in time for dinner!
She found the overgrown path they’d traveled upon, then headed away from Inferno. In theory.
For the next hour, she followed the trail, the forest brush growing sparser. Each time thoughts of Thronos flickered into her mind, she told herself: Don’t think about his fall, Lanthe.
She came upon a fork in the trail, with another inscribed rock marker that she couldn’t read. She could go straight or turn left. Imagining the marker read Go left to thread the needle, she turned in that direction, readying for danger.
When nothing happened, she trudged on.
And on and on—for what felt like eternity. Surely day would soon break. She was beginning to think time moved differently on this plane—not uncommon for demon realms. At last, the skirmishes grew louder.
Don’t think about his fall.
Oh, who was she kidding? Thronos hadn’t fallen. She’d lashed out and hurt the one innocent Vrekener among that group. Yes, she’d been a traumatized girl, but he hadn’t deserved the horror she’d meted out.
She’d just admitted to herself that she’d been . . . wrong, when she emerged into a large field, the underbrush giving way to craggy terrain.
For a moment she thought the sun was rising, then realized she was seeing displays of demon power over the plateau. Fire missiles soared. Ice splintered from frozen bombs, hail arcing across the night. Battle magics cascaded like Disney fireworks.
She’d threaded the needle! On one side of her were rivers of lava. Miles across from them were ruins. Both lairs had sentries fronting them, or as Lanthe liked to call them guides.
So which should she enter first? Eeny, meeny, miny . . . She headed toward Inferno.
Sabine would never believe her little sister had found her way here—well, anywhere. Lanthe couldn’t wait to tell her, to talk to her about all the things she’d learned and felt.
She’d also have to come clean about how close she and Thronos had been.
Thronos. With his heartbreaking eyes and tragic memories. With his determined expression.
With his toe-curling kiss and stubborn jealousy.
None of which she cared about because she was going home. No more dwelling on Thronos—just because she’d hurt him didn’t give him the right to damn her to the Skye!
By the time she felt the heat of the lava, her guilt had waned under the weight of resentment. Sorcery began sparking from her skin. Thronos had abducted her, expecting her to give up her entire life for his. She was done being captured, done enduring mistreatment, done muzzling her sexuality.
Melanthe of the Deie Sorceri was an empowered sorceress on the prowl. Even hell should tremble!
When those sentries approached with swords drawn, she smiled. “Well, hello, boys.” With a wave of her hand, she mesmerized the pair, commanding them to lead her into the cavern, protect her with their lives, and tell others that she was their leader’s female.
Then she bade them to take her to the key.
For most of the night, Thronos had grappled against her sorcery.
He didn’t know what shocked him more: the revelation about his brother, or that Melanthe had bespelled him—without hesitation.
But her persuasion would be useless against demons, or the pest! If she perished, he would . . .
He would what? Vrekeners simply didn’t go on without their mates.
Ages ago, after he’d healed from the worst of his injuries, his own mother had found solace in suicide, unable to live without his father.
Thronos’s brows drew tight. By that reasoning, so long as Melanthe’s life was in danger, then so too was his.
At once, he felt her command fading. In minutes, he’d freed himself from her invisible bonds.
His head swung upward. If he took to the air, he couldn’t see markers warning of danger zones. Chance I’ll have to take. He swooped his wings, shooting into the sky with his usual grinding pain. He hovered over the canopy, tracking her by her sorcery and her entrancing scent.
While he trailed her, he replayed all the things she’d told him about Aristo. Over the centuries, Thronos and Aristo had grown apart, seeing little eye to eye. There wasn’t a Vrekener alive who reviled Sorceri more than Aristo. His brother’s voice echoed in his head: “They murdered my father and crippled my younger brother. Death to every last one of them!” Aristo had even threatened the Sorceri wards within the Air Territories, until he’d seen how unpopular a move that would be.
Melanthe’s accusation was possible, logistically speaking. It’d taken Thronos years to heal, to learn how to walk and fly again. He’d been in his teens before he’d been able to travel long distances. Consumed with locating her, he’d had no interest in politics.
Had he suspected things were amiss? In the last century or so, worrying accounts had made their way to him, but his mind had remained focused on the search, and he’d easily discounted them.
Because they’d all concerned the King of the Skye.
And now his mate had added her own account. Yes, Thronos had learned her tells. When she’d told him about Aristo, she’d been leaning forward aggressively, eyes wide. His wings hadn’t twitched.
No wonder she was desperate to avoid his home. He had to convince her that he could keep her safe. He had no doubt of it; a Vrekener protecting his mate was stronger than any others of his kind.
And no male would fight more savagely for his female.
But once Thronos caught up to her tonight, what would stop her from commanding him again? What if she ordered him to forget her, as she’d threatened on the island? Before, he’d questioned if that mightn’t be a boon.
Now the idea made his heart pound with dread, sweat beading on his forehead.
The closer he got to the demon strongholds, the louder the skirmishes grew. In the sky over the plateau, Thronos saw more Volar demons locked in combat. So members of the same demonarchy had become enemies?
If what Melanthe said was true, then those creatures were his demon brothers. Of course, if what she said was true, then the Volars would be preferable to Aristo.