Thronos breathed deeply for her scent, seeking her sorcery. Her trail was confusing, seeming to lead to both encampments.
The freshest was to Deep Place. With its maze.
Thronos could fly over it, but would those Volars spot him? And if the maze was meant to keep out enemies, there would likely be air mines planted above it.
He descended, hastening by foot to the labyrinth. The ruins were a riot of shapes—pillars, disks, remnants of arches and walls—creating misleading plays of light and an infinite number of hiding places.
Threats could be anywhere. Everywhere. Would he find her mauled body in these ruins? Hear her screams as she was attacked by demons?
His lungs burned; he increased his pace even more.
At the entrance to the maze was a sign inscribed with those foreign glyphs. The markings seemed to vibrate, before growing legible to him.
Behold Deep Place, lair of the Abysmals, possessors of the First Key, guardians of the Second Gate of Hell. Woe to all who enter the bowels of this realm.
Exactly how deep was this den? Vrekeners hated all things deep. He charged forward anyway—
His eyes widened. Melanthe!
Apparently, she was just leaving, looking bored as she strolled from the labyrinth.
Great. Killjoy had freed himself. He was dripping sweat, looking like he’d run or flown marathons to get to her.
The unbidden thrill she felt to see him only worsened her already bad mood.
He hurried toward her, but she kept walking, her portal plans on hold for tonight. Escaping hell wouldn’t be as simple as she’d envisioned.
Sadly, she wouldn’t be able to command him so easily after her sorcery outlays. She’d drained much of her power, though she hoped not in vain.
Thronos caught up to her and reached for her arm, but her withering look made him drop his hand.
“Are you safe?” he asked between breaths.
“How did you get free? Did something attack you?” She was already looking past him, debating her next move.
“Not in the strictest sense. What were you doing in there? Have you lost your mind, going into that lair alone?”
“You just walked in?” He frowned. “Wait. You’ve got two keys. My gods, you’ve been to Deep Place and Inferno!”
Around her neck, on either side of her priceless medallion, she’d strung two ancient-looking keys to a gate of hell—because she’d already stolen both treasures.
Nearly identical, each key was the length of her little finger. At one end was a filigree bow; the other end was flat, notched, and engraved. Overall, they were as dainty and elegant as Pandemonia wasn’t.
Bonus: they too were made of dragon gold. She now wore three pieces of priceless silisk gold.
Lifting the keys had been the easy part. Hidden within each stronghold was its portal. Beside it? A key. She’d thought she would have to go all Italian Job for her mission, but the only security had been manual: hulking guards.
Hulking guards who were now sleeping like little babies.
With her talents, the keys might as well have been under the front doormat. “I stole these with ease,” she told Thronos. “Your ‘lacking’ mate is still a thieving sorceress, remember?”
“So all these brutal demons have been locked in endless warfare, and you managed to do what armies couldn’t over an eternity?” He looked a little . . . awestruck.
She brushed off one shoulder, then the other. “Just let me do like I do.”
Unfortunately, the portals had turned out to be trickier than she’d suspected. Each one was ensconced in stone, with etchings all around the opening. In Deep Place, clouds and vines were depicted, indicating a heaven plane. The one in Inferno was surrounded by dripping fangs, as if the opening were a ravenous mouth.
Should be a no-brainer—I’ll take the heaven plane, Alex—but then, this was Pandemonia. Could be a trick or a test.
Worse, they were old-school portals, basically huge vacuums, which meant she couldn’t dip a toe and then return.
Worse still, she couldn’t steer them. Even though she had the keys, those portals were permanently pointed in one direction like subway tubes—and she had no idea where they led.
“I can’t believe you’ve seized these.” Thronos reached for her chain, raising the keys. He inspected the engraved ends, one depicting dripping fangs and one those vines. “Why do you remain here? Were you . . . had you been coming back for me?” The hopefulness in his tone tugged at something inside her.
She snatched her keys back. “Nope.”
Scowl. “Then why are you still here?”
“Because the portals are more complicated than I expected.” Not because she hesitated to abandon Thronos on a hell plane.
Not at all.
“I don’t want to rush anything.” She might be better off in the Zero-G Glade for another day. She might be better off waiting to create her own portal.
She gazed past him. Dawn was finally breaking. Her crime-playtime was over for the day. In any case, before she made another foray into either camp, she should probably recharge. Remarkably, she hadn’t tapped out her persuasion, but a top-off wouldn’t go amiss.
Without a word, she headed back toward the glade.
“Where are we going?” he asked as they neared the brush.
We? Optimist. “I just burgled the two most valuable possessions in this realm.” She cast a wary glance over her shoulder. “Eventually those demons are going to want them back. I’m returning to the glade.”
“I’d fly you there, but the dragons will be out foraging soon,” he said. “I’ll guide you back.”
“Clearly, I don’t need your help.” No sooner had she said that than they reached a junction where the path forked out three ways, engraved stones marking each. She didn’t remember this from before.
Mental shrug. Eeny, meeny, miny . . . She turned toward the one all the way to the right.
“You don’t want that one.”
She faced him with pursed lips. “Why not?”
“The marker reads: The Long Way. Which doesn’t sound very promising.”
“And the other ones?”
“One reads: To the Frozen Lake. The other: Hell Beast Trail.”
She headed toward the frozen lake, intending to step off the path as soon as things got close to chilly.
He remained by her side. “Melanthe, I need to talk to you about what you told me. About my brother.”
“You’ll find out the truth for yourself soon enough. Everything I’ve told you can be verified.”
“You were young, and it was so long ago. Perhaps you mistook him? Aristo’s talons are silvered—his wings would be like any other knight’s.”
“He used to swig from a golden flask.” When Thronos paled, she said, “Oh, so you remember it? Even if I could forget his face, I’d never forget his gold.”
Thronos swallowed. “Maybe he didn’t mean to hurt you in that haystack.”
“After my hand got stabbed, the next pitchfork jab nicked my ear. Before another one could land, Sabine ran to distract them. If not for her, your brother would have gored me to death. Look, I don’t care if you believe me—”
“I . . . believe you.”
“You do?” In spite of how gut-wrenching that must be. “Then do something about it. You should go to the Skye—and clean house.”
“I intend to. I will make my brother see reason when we return.”
She stutter-stepped. She didn’t know which part of his statement mystified her more—the fact that he still intended her to go with him, or that he planned to rehab Aristo. “I hate to tell you this, but your brother is evil. EVIL. The kind you can’t rehabilitate. Face it, Thronos—in the brother department, we both lost out.”
“Do you expect me to kill Aristo without trying to reach him? I also thought you were evil, but decided not to harm you.”
“He’s not going to turn out like me. You’re setting yourself up for disappointment. Which is your business. I just want to return to my home.” She started forward again. The brush began to thin. In the distance, she could see a field.
He walked backward to keep his gaze locked on hers. “I can’t allow that. We will not be parted. After this long without you, how could I release you now?”
She waved a hand shining with blue energy in front of his face. “You won’t have any choice.”
He glowered at her hand. “Melanthe, just stop and discuss this with me.”
“The same problems as before apply. When you can see past my number, then maybe we’ll talk.”
“So if I could see past it, you’d come with me to the Skye? Then use your power to make me forget the men you’ve been with,” he said, as if he’d just lit on the idea and found it excellent. “If that’s what it takes, then I’ll subject myself to your sorcery once more.”
She clenched her blue fists, hating him for hurting her yet again, hating that he didn’t even understand how he was hurting her. “Should I make you think I’m totally a virgin, or maybe that I only had a couple of fuck buddies? How about one conquest per century?” Voice rising with each word, she yelled, “I hate the way you make me feel!”
“I don’t want to! But I don’t know how to handle this. I can’t just act like I haven’t felt wrath. Like I haven’t been brought to my knees with jealousy. . . .” He trailed off, frowning at a pair of marble markers that bordered the path. Only two lines had been carved on them.
Thronos had already gone across their border.
“What do they say?” she asked, backing away.
He read them, gazing up with bafflement. And then things really got weird.
The markers read:
Pain confesses all.
And Time cares naught.
What did that mean? Enough with this bloody place! What would this zone have in store? The mention of pain didn’t worry him; he knew pain, could handle any physical agony. But what about Melanthe?
The sun was beginning to rise, purple clouds in the background like a halo over her black hair. He’d just taken a step in her direction when he spied movement.
He disbelieved his sight—not far behind her was a tank-sized beast with bloodred eyes, dripping fangs, and bony spikes protruding from its spine.
She did. Eyes wide, she whispered, “Something’s behind me, isn’t it?”
He gave a shallow nod.
The beast’s soot-colored pelt was said to be dense enough to repel swords. And talons.
But if Thronos could reach her and get them into the air . . .
The hound lifted its snout. Catching their scent, it let out a chilling howl. When it charged them, Thronos lunged for her.
He never reached Melanthe. Another beast collided with him from the side, a locomotive of force that nearly knocked him out of his boots.
A second hound.
Thronos crashed to the ground. When his vision cleared, he found one mammoth paw pinning him by the waist. He cast his wing up, talon slashing.
The strike didn’t even disturb the beast’s dense fur.
She was already sprinting in his direction, as if a hound of hell pursued her—because it did. She ran with a feylike quickness.
Melanthe was fast. It was faster.
Thronos launched another strike of his wings, and another, buying time to glance over his shoulder, taking in every detail of their possible escape route.
Behind him was an open field fringed with moonraker trees. To the west, a charred mountain peak loomed over the field. Atop it were dozens of dragons, jostling for territory. Their hive? They clawed the black stone for purchase and loosed great streams of fire. Rocks plummeted.
A pair of dragons took off from that height, heading in the direction of the demon valley. Sparring in the air, they tore chunks of flesh from each other, scales raining down.
Sunrise; feed on fallen. More dragons would follow.
As Melanthe high-stepped past Thronos, she cried, “Stop playing with yours and kill it!”
“Why didn’t I”—he jerked his body left to right to avoid snapping fangs—“think of that?!”
If the beast’s pelt was impervious, it’d have only a few vulnerabilities. As swiftly as he could, Thronos whipped his wings up, talons crossing over the creature’s face. Before the hound could bite down on them, he gave a yell, dug in, then ripped his wings to the sides.
His talons raked across the beast’s eyes, slicing through to the very bone of its eye sockets.
Blood spurted. The beast yelped in pain, blindly stumbling toward the brush. A mistake. Dozens of huge reptilian-looking predators snatched the defenseless hound into the shadows.
With a haphazard swoop of his wings, Thronos half-lunged to his feet, stumbling after Melanthe, pain coursing through his bad leg. He craned his head around. Where was she—
He caught sight of her, eluding the hound on her tail. He stepped forward, nearly planting his foot in resin. “Watch for resin!” This pit was covered with silver reeds, almost indistinguishable from the rest of the ground.
Risking the dragons, Thronos bounded into the air. He wouldn’t be able to reach her before the hound did. So he pulled his wings tight and dove, aiming for the beast itself. At the last second, he rolled to launch a shoulder into the hound’s flank, knocking it off its feet.
While it shook away confusion, Thronos snared its meaty tail, pinning it between his arm and torso, digging his claws in. Gnashing his teeth, using all the strength he possessed, he hauled on the tail as he began to rotate. As if throwing a discus, he spun the beast. Again. And again. With a bellow, he released the thing, sending it flying through the air.