“That would’ve been disastrous!” She looked half enraged, half wary.
He reached forward to brush his thumb over her bottom lip. “I want to get us back to where we were before we got interrupted.”
“A male wanting sex from me.” She jerked away from him. “How novel.”
“You know I want more than just sex.” He grabbed her upper arm, drawing her close once more. “I want everything from you.”
Her lips parted, but then she seemed to collect herself. “Just because Sorceri don’t dwell on regrets doesn’t mean we set ourselves up for them either. What you want to happen between us just . . . can’t. We’re too different. Our families and factions would never accept this.”
“Maybe a relationship between another sorceress and a Vrekener would prove impossible. But we’ve been through too much. We’ve earned each other. You can’t deny that. If you took away all the strife surrounding us, could you accept me?”
She didn’t reply, wouldn’t meet his gaze.
“Look at me, Melanthe.”
When she eventually faced him, he stared into her eyes, seeing that same vulnerability he’d beheld when he’d been about to claim her.
He thought he was beginning to understand it. . . .
In Pandemonia, he’d discovered his mate yearned for love. She’d never found it with another—and she clearly wouldn’t settle for anything less. She’d told him she would give her heart only to the right male.
I’m that male.
Looking at her now, he comprehended that she felt vulnerable—because her heart was already in play. He believed he could make Melanthe fall in love with him, claiming something from her all his own.
“Let me go, Thronos.”
“And if I say never?” In that moment, he realized exactly how he should handle her sorcery in the Skye. The solution was so blindingly obvious, he almost slapped his forehead.
With a groan of frustration, she kicked his shin; he cupped her nape, pulling her close for an overdue kiss—
A metal net descended over them.
He yelled, splaying his wings, snaring himself in the weighted lines.
“Oh, gods, it’s like the tentacles!” She dropped to the ground, cringing away from the mesh. “Get it off, get it off!”
“Trying!” When he clawed the metal, sparks erupted. Mystically protected.
Just as he scented foreign creatures over the sparks, Melanthe cried, “Stheno sentries!”
Before he could reach her, she’d been snatched out from under the net. He lunged for her, thrashing to get free, until one of the towering creatures propped Melanthe up like a doll to hold a trident at her neck.
They were surrounded by a dozen vicious Sthenos, nine-foot-tall gorgons with crimson sea snakes for hair. Each sentry carried a trident.
“Release us,” Melanthe commanded, blue light emanating from her eyes and hands. Nothing. “Release us now!”
The largest Stheno, and obvious leader, said, “Your powers will not work on us, sorceress. We have been divinely shielded.”
Time to fight, then. His gaze flicked as he calculated his next several moves—until the Stheno holding his mate threatened her with more than a trident.
Sea snakes coiled down to drape over one of her graceful shoulders, their fangs bared, forked tongues twitching.
Melanthe swallowed. “Their poison . . . I might not recover from it.”
He froze, holding up his hands.
The leader said, “You’ve erred by trespassing in Sargasoe, kingdom of Nereus.”
“The sea god?” Melanthe asked.
“The deity Nereus, our lord and master. You will attend him in his keep, where he holds feasts of celebration. Depending on His Highness’s mood, you will either be guests—or the entertainment.”
The Sthenos had bound and blindfolded their captives, making the descent from towering cliff to sea level even more perilous for Lanthe. She wanted to tell them that she could never, ever find her way back to Nereus’s keep. But they hadn’t exactly been chatty.
—What is this god like?— Thronos asked her on their unending trek along a beach.
Lanthe supposed the Vrekener was getting over his telepathy hang-up. —Nereus is a party-hearty trickster, like a cross between Pan and Loki. He’s notorious for his games and manipulations.—
—What happens if we’re “entertainment”?—
—Probably something that’ll make you want to take a boiling shower and scrub your skin with steel wool. Let’s just put it this way: I don’t think I’ll be able to twerk my way out of this.—
—Don’t know what twerk means, Melanthe.—
Sigh. —I’ve heard that Sargasoe is a hidden realm on the human plane.— Like Skye Hall. —The goal should be to get Nereus to transport us from here.—
Without sacrificing too much of themselves . . .
—Do you think you can ensorcel him?—
—If he can shield the Sthenos from my power, there’s not a chance. And he’d likely kill me for trying.—
Thronos fell silent, seeming lost in his own thoughts.
Though Lanthe’s skin was gradually healing during their long walk, she was drained from keeping up with the fast Sthenos. Their lower halves were fat snake coils, kind of like Cerunnos, except Sthenos gorgons were all females. Plus they had hypnotically wavering snakes for hair. Oh, and brass hands and claws.
Whenever Lanthe tripped in the shifting sands, her Stheno personal guard would heft her up, those claws digging into her arm.
After the belly of the beast, this was nothing. Right?
A blast of ocean wind buffeted her. When Lanthe tottered and got clawed yet again, she snapped, “Watch the claws, bitch!”
—Melanthe?— She could all but see Thronos raising his eyebrows. Just because he was cool and collected didn’t mean she had to be. He’d had his tantrum—his mantrum—on the Order’s island, and it was now her turn.
—I have no more fucks to give. Okay, Vrekener?— She’d hit her limit. She was sick of portaling, sick of getting captured, sick of being food or potential food.
—We’re going to escape once more. Worry not.—
—Why are you so calm?—
He was quiet for long moments. —It’s my nature. What you saw those first nights and days was not . . . me.—
She’d figured calm was his default setting. So to all his other attractive attributes, she could add not psycho.
Finally, their entourage slowed, entering some kind of echoing space. A sea cave?
They descended for what must be miles. When pressure made her ears pop repeatedly, she realized they were deep beneath the ocean. No flying for Thronos, even if he got free.
She felt sympathy for him. His fear of depths was like her fear of heights. She couldn’t imagine how difficult this must be for him.
Probably as difficult as she would find the Skye. Still, she asked: —You okay with this?—
In other words, he wasn’t, but he would handle it.
In Pandemonia, she’d told him about crazy stuff going down with Sorceri kids, and he’d confidently said, “We can handle it.”
She and Thronos did work well together.
Gods, she did not need to conclude that the Vrekener would be a good father. Her biological clock cried, The best. None better!
Suddenly Lanthe heard gears whirring, cogs clicking, as if a gate was opening. They entered a warm, damp area, and the gears whirred once more. Behind them, a seal closed with a hiss. The scent of brine pervaded everything.
Off went the blindfolds. Thronos swung his head around to face her, as if he’d been hungry for a single look.
—I’m okay. Still standing.—
When he gave a grim nod of encouragement, she dragged her gaze from him to survey Sargasoe, the legendary lair of Nereus.
This hall had been carved from rock with glittering coral-pink and blue striations. A sheen of water poured down all the walls, but it seemed to be by design.
The area was lit with . . . sconces—basically raised glass bowls where luminescent jellyfish shuttled in circles. Rippling reflections abounded, as they did underwater, making the walls seem to sway.
“Forward,” the leader commanded, the Sthenos slithering behind them.
As Lanthe and Thronos trudged deeper, huge sections of the stone floor would shift and retract, revealing the sea. The construction of this place was spectacular.
Mirrors abounded. Shadows and light danced for dominance. Glowing eyes peeked out from darkened passageways.
This totally looked like the lair of a capricious deity notorious for his games.
She also sensed a permanent portal down here. How to get Nereus to let them use it?
Their group eventually entered what must be an underwater gallery of sorts. There were enormous rounded windows at intervals, the way paintings might line a museum wall.
When Lanthe passed the first, her eyes went wide. Ships were piled up, as if in a junkyard. She turned to Thronos. —Are you seeing this?—
—It makes sense that a sea god’s home would have a vortex.— A mystical magnet. —We’re in an abyss; everything sinks to this level.—
At the next window, she squinted out into the dark, seeing gems the size of footballs scattered all over the sand. Schools of mercreature sentries glided by. They were humanoids to a degree, but instead of legs, the mermaids sported fishtails, the mermen collections of tentacles.
The next window revealed a submarine with Russian lettering on its hull, and what looked like part of an aircraft carrier. This was too wild!
For all the suffering Lanthe had borne just to reach Sargasoe, she was excited to behold such an exotic place. But what was in store? Nïx’s prediction echoed in her mind: In one realm, hurt. In one realm, leave. In one realm, cleave. In one realm, shine.
So was Lanthe supposed to cleave here? She bit her lip, glancing at Thronos. Cleave was a word with several meanings, one of which was to separate.
She’d already sensed a portal. What if Nereus offered two different rides: one to the Skye and one to Rothkalina?
Was she ready to part from Thronos? Despite all her blustering and denials earlier, the thought made her chest ache. If only a relationship between them didn’t pose so many insurmountable odds.
When they passed a mirror, she turned away, not wanting to see her reflection. Yet suddenly all the injuries over her body began mending. The restraints around her wrists disappeared, and she felt as fresh as if she’d recently bathed. With a gasp, she peered down at herself.
She now wore a black leather skirt, mesh hose, and leather boots. Her top was a halter woven of gold and silver strands—with denser weaves of metal over the front to conceal her breasts. Sleek metal gauntlets covered her hands and forearms, and she detected a mask over her face.
Sorceri formal dress! Her hands flew to her necklace. Still there!
She whirled around to the mirror. Her mask was sapphire blue, accentuating her eyes. Her hair had been twined around a substantial gold headpiece, with wild braids framing her face. No more bob cut in the back—long locks had grown out, left to curl down her back.
She felt more like a sorceress—less like food. She was starting to enjoy Sargasoe’s amenities! She turned to Thronos, and her lips parted.
The Vrekener was . . . drop-dead gorgeous.
His recent injuries had disappeared, and he was dressed in new clothes. Leather breeches and boots. A wide leather belt to highlight his narrow hips.
A crisp, white lawn shirt molded over his muscles and wing stems as if tailored. Which she supposed it had been, by a divine hand.
She was entranced by her tall, built, devilish, demon lover. Or would-be lover. He had the physical attributes to attract any female—but Lanthe also admired how he stood so proud and stalwart, ready to do battle once more.
She and Thronos continued to be challenged; they continued to overcome, protecting each other. Maybe he was right; maybe they were the Vrekener/Sorceri couple who could beat those odds.
“Is this real?” he asked, gazing back at their guards. “Between the loops and Feveris, I’m unsure.”
She was used to magics like these, Thronos not so much. “I think it is.”
“Follow the sounds to the feast,” the Stheno leader said, using her trident to point down the corridor. “Do not entertain ideas of escape. For your kind, there is only one way out of Sargasoe.”
When the cadre turned to slither away, a thought occurred to Lanthe. “Wait! Where are my clothes from before? There was a lock of hair—”
“Your offering has been received,” the leader said, her head snakes wavering. “It’s the reason you live yet.”
“Oh.” And then Lanthe and Thronos were alone. “Hope Nïx didn’t need that back.”
When he canted his head at her, Lanthe realized he hadn’t seen her looking this put-together in forever. “Sooo, what do you think?”
“Your garments are revealing. It won’t bother you to attend a feast half-naked?”
Before Melanthe could answer, a covey of scantily clad sea nymphs began to rise up from one of the floor cutouts. Nereids. The females were all ethereally stunning, and dressed in nothing but short sea-foam skirts.
Each time a nymph emerged from the water and flipped her hair back, she seemed to move in breathless slo-mo.
The Lore held that Nereus had been trapped in Sargasoe either by another power—or by his own agoraphobia. His loneliness had driven him to create a new species of nymph to serve as his concubines and servants.
The females stopped and stared at Thronos, pointing at his wings with admiring looks and giggling flirtatiously behind their hands. Lanthe supposed he could be the first male with wings that they’d ever seen. Not many sky-born Loreans would journey to the bottom of the ocean.