“The enchantress spins her tales.”
—The enchantress is DONE with Vrekener bullshit!— She spat blood in his face.
Thronos shot to his feet, lifting her with him. “You provoke me?”
—I wish I’d put you to sleep with the rest of those dicks!—
“Then why didn’t you?”
She averted her eyes.
She frowned at something past him. He glanced over his shoulder, saw several serpents, in a prism’s worth of colors. How many were there?
That was when he noticed that the shape of their little island had changed.
He bit out, “The water’s rising,” just as she said: —I think they like my blood.—
Naturally, Lanthe had spat in the face of the one person who could save her from being serpent chow. The rain was still washing red streams off his chiseled cheeks.
Of all her fears, being food was up there, just under Vrekener attack. Time to make nice with her hated tormentor.
Choking back the pain in her mouth, she faked a flirtatious demeanor. —I seem to have gotten my blood on your face. Bad Lanthe! Hey, I have an idea. Let’s team up!—
He scowled at her as he tested his wings, the lines of his face growing tight with pain. The damaged wing was nowhere near ready to fly. He was like a plane that had lost one engine. When the water lapped at their feet, he said, “It’ll have to be enough to get us to the coast I spied.”
She turned, seeing nothing through the gloom. But the mercury water and rainbow serpents were giving her an idea of where they might be. If she was correct, then danger loomed everywhere. If they encountered rivers of fire and a perpetual demonic war, she’d know. . . .
Lanthe needed the Vrekener’s help to survive this place—and she needed him bullish, convinced he could save her! How to get his adrenaline pumping?
She gazed at his chest. His shirt hung wide, revealing his scarred skin. His muscles were hard and generous. Attractive. No wonder Ember had desired him.
Reaching forward, Lanthe laid a shaking palm over his heart. He tensed, and at once its beat began to thunder. The second time she’d voluntarily touched him as an adult. She cleared her throat, then remembered she couldn’t talk. —Thronos, if you can get us out of this situation . . . —
The water swept closer, the serpents growing bolder.
—I’ll let you touch me.—
He narrowed his eyes down at her. “What you don’t understand is that I’ll be doing whatever I please to you.”
Well. When had he gotten so cocky? Then she recalled that he had been as a boy as well.
He yanked her up into his brawny arms, against that unyielding chest. “You belong to me. By right of pain, I’ve earned you!” Lightning struck, punctuating his statement.
Like she’d belonged to Omort? She’d just been freed of that freak a year ago!
“But it doesn’t surprise me that you’d bargain your body for safety,” Thronos added. “Now, shut up, and put your legs around my waist.”
When in trouble, leave. Seeing no other option, she did as he told her. With her short skirt riding up, he cupped her bare ass, holding her body high on his torso. His hands were rough and hot, like five-fingered brands on her damp skin. Electricity seemed to pass between them.
By the look on his face, she wasn’t the only one who’d felt it.
How in the hell was he supposed to concentrate on getting her to safety when his palms were molded to her lush curves?
His only hope of protecting her was using the islands to reach the coast. He’d just been focusing his mind on the herculean task ahead when the sorceress started talking about him touching her!
He’d shot hard for her, diverting blood from his healing wing and, more importantly, his brain. He hadn’t wanted her to know how easily she affected him, so he’d furtively adjusted his aching shaft.
How many other males had fallen for this enticing creature? For her lies? His old friend wrath erupted inside him. He would use it to fuel his escape from this swamp. “I suggest you hold on.”
She laid her face against his chest, clutching him tighter.
With a yell, he leapt for the nearest island, working his good wing for loft as much as he could. He fell short, landing in the water up to his knees. He lunged to the center of the island just as teeth snapped closed behind them. When an angry hiss sounded, he felt the fetid air from the beast’s mouth.
—Too close, Thronos!—
He focused his gaze on the next island, one even farther away than this one had been. He had his mate at last; all he had to do was keep her safe from dozens of giant swamp serpents.
Setting his jaw, he tensed, then lunged. Midleap he knew they would fall short of the island. A serpent surfaced beneath him; at the last instant, he alighted on its back, using it to vault to his target. They landed safely.
—Serpents are not stepping stones!—
He could do without her critiques. “You have no tongue, yet you won’t shut up.” He locked his gaze on his destination. As he’d spied before, there were two mountains bordering a plateau atop an enormous shelf of land. It ended in a sheer cliff face, as if a giant had cleaved its edges, halving the mountains in the process. Lava oozed down their sides, like glowing orange waterfalls.
The plateau was hundreds of feet above the swamp. If he missed, there’d be nothing to stop them from plunging into serpent-infested waters.
The storm was worsening. Wind gusted with the pounding rain. But this pile of rock had a little more room, so he could at least get a running start. Though the winds carried ill-omened scents from that plateau, he had no choice but to continue.
A horn rang out, echoing from one mountain to the other.
A battle call?
Bloodthirsty yells sounded, metal clanging against metal. Moments later, the night sky lit up, Lorean powers blasting.
He saw fire grenades, ice bombs, and swirling battle magics. Had to be demons. But how many factions of them could there be? “Well done, Melanthe. You took us from one war to another.”
—I think I know where we are. Supposed to be a myth. The source of all demons.—
The source? Realization. “You brought us to bloody Pandemonia?” Plural of pandemonium. Because it was the fabled home plane of hundreds of demon species.
Another hiss sounded behind him. The water continued rising at an alarming rate. No other option but forward. He had to hope that they could skirt the edges of the conflict.
As he backed to the far end of the island, she wrapped her arms tighter around him, digging her gauntlets into his skin.
He took off in a sprint, waiting till the last second . . .
With a bellow, he lunged for his target. Airborne. Three heartbeats later, he knew he wouldn’t make it in this headwind.
Too short, too short.
—We’re going into the drink, Vrekener!—
When the green serpent crested, Thronos worked his wing as hard as he could to reach its back. Ha! Heading for a perfect serpent touchdown; he was getting handy at this.
He landed just as the beast thrashed. The momentum sent them hurtling toward one of those mountains as if they’d hit a thirty-ton springboard.
Thronos heaved his wing, fighting to right himself. The mountainside loomed, rushing at them.
He thought he spied a small cave opening between two lava flows. Could he hit that tiny target? Such a risk! He steered with his wing, down and left.
Down and left, down and left . . .
They bulleted through the opening. He dropped his legs, reversing his wing, touching his feet down.
The momentum had him barreling toward the back wall; he twisted to his side, leaning away, feet sliding sideways in the dust.
They stopped inches from the wall.
Lanthe had been certain of death, convinced their momentum would slam them into the side of a mountain, crushing them or giving them a lava bath.
Instead, Thronos had hit the bull’s-eye, then slid home. She drew back to face him. —Okay. That was a pretty cool move. Way to thread the needle.—
She thought it took him a second longer than usual to scowl down at her. He set her to her feet, steadying her with a big palm over her shoulder.
He jerked his hand away, looking angry with himself. Then he turned to survey the area.
Thanks to the glow of the lava flows just beyond the cave mouth, there was enough ambient light for even Lanthe to see clearly. Each of the cave walls had been hewn smooth, as if to create a canvas for a multitude of etched hieroglyphs. There were pillars to support the ceiling, a raised rock shelf along the back wall, and layers of dust.
She’d been to ancient ruins before. This place seemed so old it made those other ones appear techno.
Thronos cased the perimeter, pausing at intervals to scent the air. What she wouldn’t give for his heightened senses. And his strength, she added when he moved a fallen pillar out of his way, plucking it up as if it were a matchstick.
“You have no idea why we arrived here?” he asked.
She shook her head, trailing after him. In the back left corner of the cave, she perceived something that made the tiny hairs on her nape stand up. There was only one way her senses could trump Thronos’s: recognizing the call of gold.
Yet the wall appeared solid. Looking for a door, she examined some glyphs, brushing away dust. She gave the marks a few pokes with a gauntlet claw, but found nothing.
Even as she walked away, she glanced over her shoulder longingly. Maybe there was a mother lode locked in the mountain, never to be discovered in this hell plane.
The idea left her deflated. Now that the adrenaline of their escape had waned, she was growing dizzy with fatigue and blood loss. Her regenerating tongue was sending waves of pain throughout her mouth and head.
“Do you recognize these markings, sorceress?”
She’d been learning Demonish in Rothkalina, was conversant at least, but she didn’t recognize this. —Proto-Pandemonian, maybe? Or some kind of primitive Demonish?—
Thronos looked even more unsettled than before, shoving his fingers through his thick hair. Something about this cave was affecting him. “You expect me to believe your door to Pandemonia was random?”
—We could have gone anywhere, anyplace in existence. Believe me, it could’ve been worse.—
“Worse than Pandemonia?”
—Absolutely.— Foreign realms were often lethal to some degree, so dangerous that only an immortal could survive there.
Though many in the Lore believed immortals were quasi-deities, others thought they’d been forced to evolve in those foreign dimensions, to become ever more hardy, until one eon they became . . . undying. Then they’d traveled across realities to inhabit the mortal world, attracted to the relative ease of that plane.
So basically, Sorceri had evolved with senses only a little better than a human’s, bodies that were weak compared to other Lore species, and life spans that could end from far more than just a beheading or mystical fire.
Her species sucked at evolution.
“What realm trumps this one, Melanthe?”
—At least there’s rain here.— She started wringing out her hair. —We could have gone to Oblivion, forced to fight other demons for water.—
His wings twitched with irritation. “Other demons?”
—Would you rather we’d landed in Feveris?— Anyone who entered that plane was bespelled with unending, uncontrollable desire.
“Feveris, then?” Had his voice grown huskier? “The Land of Lusts?”
If she’d had more blood left in her body, she might have blushed at his tone.
“Have you been there?” he asked.
She had, just to dip a toe, to see if the rumors were true. Her servants had tied a rope around her waist to drag her back if she got bespelled, a precaution they’d been forced to use. Within minutes, Lanthe had begun stripping for a gnome.
—Maybe.— She’d never forget that perpetually sunny, coastal plane, redolent with the scent of Hawaiian Tropic, island flowers, and sex. Or its twinkling rays of sun . . .
“I’m sure you felt right at home there,” he grated.
She was still smarting from his harlot comment on the prison island. —Maybe YOU influenced me to open this door to Pandemonia, demon! All last night I was captive of a demon, so naturally I opened a threshold to YOUR home world.—
He stalked up to her, yelling, “Do not call me demon!”
She forced herself to hold her ground, then repeated his earlier words: —Sensitive about this, creature?—
“Demons are savage. Vrekeners have grace and a sacred purpose. We are descended from gods!”
—How do you know this?—
“From the Tales of Troth—sanctified knowledge passed on from one Vrekener generation to the next for millennia.”
—I’m going to have to stop you, because you’ve already bored me. In any case, my brother-in-law Rydstrom is no savage. He’s one of the best males I know.—
“Enough of Rydstrom! You sound infatuated with him.”
—He is hot.—
“That’s what you like? Ever superficial, sorceress.”
—And you are ever pathologically jealous.—
“It’s much deeper than jealousy. The males you bedded stole from me. You stole from me.”
—What did I steal?—
“Years and children. I would have killed any other for such a grievous loss.”
—That’s what you’ve wanted from me all this time? Years and children? Even if those years would have been miserable?—
“I accept that our existence together will be bleak. The most I hope for is that we can raise our offspring without killing each other.”