He could remember a meadow in the Alps of the mortal realm, where he’d played as a boy—but he couldn’t recall what he’d been doing ten nights ago.
When his thoughts wandered, they always turned to the demon plane of Pandemonia. He knew he’d been there for some reason, narrowly escaping with his life. There’d been dragons, hellhounds, and demon hordes.
In his daydreams, Thronos mused on the realm’s paths, like The Long Way. He’d avoided it—as most would.
Unless one was looking for something. . . .
Thronos could remember with precise detail every glyph he’d read there—from Behold a temple unequaled to The pest that WAS—but he couldn’t determine how he’d traveled into the belly of a beast.
Nor how he’d come to be in the lair of a sea god.
Asides from all these gaps, Thronos felt like he’d forgotten something critical, and that memory churned so close to the surface—maddeningly—like a word on the tip of his tongue that refused to reveal itself.
His chest ached with a loss so marked that he sometimes thought he’d go insane. He felt as if the glass shard that had so grievously wounded him in his boyhood had again lodged itself beside his heart, but he couldn’t remove it. When he was alone, his claws constantly found his chest and flayed his skin—
“When will it be time?” Jasen asked.
Thronos glanced up, nearly startled by the male’s presence.
“For war?” Jasen prompted. “I understand you’re hesitant because of your queen.”
“I don’t have a queen,” Thronos grated, wondering if his knight had suffered head damage as well.
“You said the same when I asked if she had survived the explosion. My liege, I’m a simple soldier—I don’t understand pretext as you do. Are we to behave as if she never existed? By your actions, it seems you want to forget she ever lived—but why?” Jasen scrubbed his hand over his face, looking genuinely upset, while Thronos was baffled—and angered—by this outburst.
“We know she wasn’t involved in the attack,” Jasen continued. “A few even spied the queen at the lever. Only because of her did we have the alarm in the first place, and then she warned everyone. It could be argued that she saved our species.”
Thronos grasped for patience, saying slowly, “I don’t know what you’re talking about. I—have—no—queen.”
“Very well, my liege.” Jasen sounded rocked with disappointment. “I won’t mention it again.”
“See that you don’t. See that no one does!” Thronos regretted his tone immediately. He knew he was on edge, his ire ever at the ready. Yet moments later, he could never recall what he’d been angered about. “As for Cadmus and his warmongering, no longer are we hidden and immune to harm. We live in an indefensible outpost. We must approach this coolly. Jasen, if we war, we risk not only defeat—but our very extinction.”
He was about to pinch his aching temples, but then lowered his hand. Eyes were on him. He needed to look like a competent leader. “Until we find a place to call home, we should focus on nothing but that.”
What if we took the long way home . . . ?
Thronos cut off the idea before it even fully formed. Too far-fetched.
“Have you considered seeking asylum with another faction?” Jasen asked. “One within our alliance?”
“I’ve thought about asking Rydstrom the Good of the rage demonarchy for refuge in the Grave Realm.” The badlands of Rothkalina, filled with outlaws and dragons. After Pandemonia, dragons no longer gave Thronos pause.
This seemed to surprise Jasen.
“I corresponded with him recently.” Though Thronos didn’t remember about what, or even what had been said. All he remembered was that he’d come away with the idea that Rydstrom was irritating but honorable.
The vaguest memory arose. He could hear a muted voice, a female saying, We’re going to go found a Vrekener offshoot colony in a different realm.
At the memory, Thronos fought the urge to take his head between his hands and squeeze till something cracked. My mind, my mind . . .
“What do we do for now, my king?”
With effort, Thronos kept his tone even. “We recover. We plan.”
Jasen opened his mouth, then closed it. Thronos knew what question the knight had been trying to pose all week—but he didn’t know how he’d answer.
“My liege . . . will you tell me how you came to be on that mountain?” Jasen finally dared to ask. “Hundreds saw you simply appear.”
As Thronos had fallen, he’d desperately wanted to reach his people. Air had shrilled over him, his heartbeat booming in his damaged ears. Suddenly a wave of dizziness had overcome him, so fierce he’d had to close his eyes. When he’d opened them, he’d been standing amongst the others.
I traced for the first time.
Over the last week, he’d debated revealing his talent. If he had the ability, others would too.
After his journeys, he’d begun to suspect their blood might be demonic. Hadn’t he recognized that strange script in Pandemonia, as if from a genetic memory? Hadn’t he felt at home in that plane’s harshness? Why was he still so drawn to its untamed and tumultuous lands?
The ability to trace could be a priceless talent in any upcoming war. But his people had recently lost their king and then their kingdom; Thronos didn’t believe it was the time for them to learn of their demonic origins.
After arriving at the outpost, he’d given himself just one night to explore his new talent. He’d envisioned the temple of gold. That dizziness had struck him; an instant later, he’d traced there. As he’d run his fingers over the bricks, the feel of that invisible shard in his chest had returned with a vengeance.
When he’d flown over an eerily silent battle plateau and a river of lava, deeper went the glass.
And then, arriving in the forest glade—the oasis where he’d rested between his trials—he’d been nearly debilitated by the pain in his chest.
With a bellow, he’d traced back to the outpost, resolving never to return.
He’d only made it until the next night, drawn back to Pandemonia. . . . “I will tell you this, Jasen,” he said at length. “You alone for now.”
“If you want to reach something badly enough, you will.”
Jasen’s eyes lit with excitement. “Very good, sir.” Before he left, he turned and said, “I’m glad that you are our king.”
Thronos wanted only to be a worthy one.
No, that wasn’t true. He wanted something else, craved it with a blistering intensity. Yet he couldn’t identify what it was.
Alone, he made his way to his simple cot, telling himself that he needed to sleep in order to heal. He lay back, the pain in his body flaring even worse at rest.
Sleep proved elusive. He felt he should be somewhere else, anywhere but here. Agitated didn’t begin to describe the turmoil inside him.
His shaft started to harden with insistent pulses, as if it had every expectation of releasing. The pressure only aggravated Thronos’s restlessness.
Perhaps he should make just one more trip. . . .
The lure proved too great to resist. He closed his eyes and pictured the forest glade, then tensed to trace there.
From the coolness of his cabin, he teleported into warmth and sprinkling water. He gazed up at towering moonraker trees, marveling anew at the floating bubbles, the drops that couldn’t seem to decide whether to travel up or down.
Why would he think that? He waved his wing, fanning the bubbles. Such a whimsical gesture, yet for some reason it grieved him. The glass shard was back, gouging through his flesh down to his godsdamned spine. He snatched at his hair, then twisted around to punch the trunk of a moonraker.
Leave this place of pain. Return to the outpost.
He made a vow to himself then: he would not ever come back here—until his mind had healed.
Lanthe sucked in a steadying breath. “I’m ready,” she told the group that had assembled in her room.
Rydstrom had his brawny arms crossed over his chest. Cadeon would have as well if he hadn’t been holding a baby. Holly, also holding a baby, looked worried for Lanthe. Sabine did too, having forgone her illusion of indifference.
Rydstrom said, “It’s too dangerous, Lanthe.” They still wanted to accompany her.
All of them. Well, except for the twins. Though those little badasses would probably think Pandemonia was great fun.
“We’ve been over this,” Lanthe said. “If Thronos sees huge demons, a Valkyrie, and two Sorceri, it’ll put him on the defensive. Face it, we look like a marauding gang. One more time, guys, I will be fine.”
Assuming she could even get to Pandemonia, Lanthe was as prepared as she could be. Sabine had insisted she borrow her ability to talk to animals. If a dragon wanted to chat, Lanthe was ready.
Another loaner? Lanthe wore her sister’s most battle-tested breastplate. As Sabine had grumbled, “You need extra insurance for my halfling niece or nephew.” Lanthe was also wearing more sensible boots (no stilettos this time) and a pair of second-skin leather pants—might as well squeeze into them while she still could!
“You’re not going to simply run into him there,” Sabine said. “What if you miss him?”
Lanthe marched over to her camping backpack. “That’s why I’m staying there.”
Cadeon recovered first. “You? Camping?” He snorted. “Much less camping in hell!”
Lanthe piped her lip and blew a braid out of her eyes. Apparently everyone here had forgotten that she’d already camped in hell. Granted, she hadn’t been alone. . . .
Sabine said, “I was opposed to you going by yourself for just an hour or so! Now you want to go indefinitely? And if you tell me it’s really not that bad there one more time, I might scream.”
“I’ve set everything in motion here that I can. In a few days, I’ll check in for news.”
“And to provide proof of life,” Rydstrom said.
“If I haven’t found Thronos in three weeks, I’ll return to summon him. And, Sabine, it’s really not that bad there.”
When Sabine parted her lips to argue, Lanthe said, “This baby bird’s gotta fly, sis.”
Holly chuckled, then made her face serious once more.
Lanthe gazed at her sister, hating that she worried. But there was nothing she could do about it. “It’s time for me to go. I’m recharged, resolved, and ready to do this—on my own.”
Rydstrom drew Sabine close. “She’s got a point, cwena.” Demonish for little queen, his nickname for her. “There comes a time when you just have to trust. I had to do that with Cadeon.”
“Only took him fifteen hundred years,” Cadeon remarked. Aly blew a bubble and tugged on her pointed ear at the same time, which Cadeon clearly thought was a marvelous feat.
“At least leave the portal open,” Sabine said, “until we can be sure you even got to the right realm.”
In a grousing tone, Lanthe muttered, “Fine. Just so you won’t worry so much.”
“Don’t forget what we talked about, Lanthe,” Rydstrom told her. Now that he knew what Thronos was really like, he was cordially offering refuge in Rothkalina to every Vrekener. Sabine was grudgingly co-offering it.
“Thank you for that.” But Lanthe had another idea. It was so crazy, she hadn’t mentioned it to a soul. . . .
Dreaming of reuniting with Thronos and restoring his memory, she felt sorcery coursing through her. She raised her hands and began to open a rift.
For me—and for our halfling.
Lanthe directed the door straight to the glade (in theory). Squeezing her eyes shut, she inwardly begged that she’d find floating bubbles—and not a giant stomach.
He’d decided to leave, but at the last moment he’d felt as if he was on the verge of remembering something. So pain be damned. He remained in the forest glade.
Thronos knew pain. He could handle it.
The day was beginning its long, slow fade to twilight. Considering this realm’s sluggish passage of time, he’d already been away from the outpost far too long. But leaving this place would be cowardly. And he was no—
Movement behind him? He twisted around.
In the center of this glade, the air blurred. A gap opened, a portal.
Cautiously stepping from it was the most breathtaking female Thronos had ever seen.
Long raven hair. Plump red lips. Eyes as blue as the skies he’d lost when his kingdom fell.
That raw emptiness, that maddening absence began to . . . ease? As if some magnet were pulling him toward her, his feet started to close the distance between them.
But she was dressed as a sorceress, with a metal headdress and breastplate, an unusual gold necklace—and leather trews that lovingly molded to her generous curves. He scrubbed his palm over his mouth, needing to focus; difficult when treated to such a sight.
A sorceress might fear he meant her harm. After Morgana, he supposed he should be suspicious of this one as well.
If he announced himself, would she run back into that portal, lost to him? At the thought, panic seized his chest. Why did he feel like she would run?