“I could have killed you so easily, so many times.” He ran the back of the talon across her throat, letting the threat hang between them.
“Instead, you sent your knights to do it!”
“These lies again?”
Did Lanthe ever lie? Of course. In the noble pursuit of gold, she pulled out all the stops. She also lied to avoid trouble. Those outside her new family might get an earful now and again. But few things irritated her more than disbelief when she was actually telling the truth.
“You foul Sorceri pride yourselves on falsehoods!”
Foul Sorceri . . . Someone like you. “I’m so sick of you! You’d think after five hundred years that you could take a hint. I will never want you like you want me!”
“WANT?” His claw-tipped hand slashed the tree, his fury bubbling over—as if she’d hit an exposed nerve. “Do not ever mistake my interest in you! Fate has saddled me with you, cursing me with a female I find lacking in all ways!” His voice continued rising with every word. “Instinct compels me to pursue you, to protect you. Otherwise I’d take your head myself! I want you like a man with a badly set limb wants his bone rebroken. It’s a bitter necessity. You are the bitterest necessity.”
His words didn’t hurt Lanthe. She’d been scorned by men before. Why would she care what a scarred, maddened Vrekener thought of her?
She didn’t care at all. He mattered not at all.
When she just blinked up at him, he seemed to rein in his fury. “What either of us wants is immaterial. I’ve taken you because that’s what fate decreed. You’re mine by the laws of the Lore, the laws I uphold.”
“And you always follow the laws? You act like Vrekeners are so righteous? I’ve seen more evil in your kind than in most Sorceri I’ve met.”
“Now I know you lie! You resided with Omort!”
With each Accession, a warrior for ultimate good, or ultimate evil, was born. Lanthe’s half brother had been that warrior a few Accessions ago, bringing evil to the Lore for centuries. After her mother, Elisabet, had given birth to him, she’d been cast out in shame by the noble family of Deie Sorceri. By the time Lanthe and Sabine’s father had come into the picture, Elisabet had been . . . troubled.
This Accession, twin girls had been born for ultimate good, daughters of Rydstrom’s brother, Cadeon, and Cadeon’s Valkyrie wife, Holly. Lanthe was a doting auntie to them.
“You remained with Omort,” Thronos grated, “during his reign of child sacrifices, orgies, and incest.”
Omort had hosted orgies and made a willing concubine of his half sister Hettiah, who’d died the same day he had. Toward the end of his reign, when Omort had demanded sacrifices, he’d yelled, “Something young!”
Until that one fantastical day when Lanthe had challenged Omort, she’d been helpless to stop him. She would be haunted forever by the things she’d seen him do. Take it up with management.
“I did remain with him,” Lanthe admitted. “For ages.”
“Then what evils do you think Vrekeners have perpetrated to measure up to that fiend’s?”
“Torture, murder, thievery. Even you know your kind steals Sorceri powers.” The fire scythe his father had wielded wasn’t good only for parent beheadings; it also drained powers from its victims, a process Sorceri derisively termed neutering.
It was rumored that some “benevolent” Vrekener had ordered the knights to siphon sorcery, instead of taking lives. Yet in the last century, the knights had begun doing both—so that those abilities could never be reincarnated. . . .
“We harvest and store them, preventing them from being used for evil.”
“To us, a root power is like a soul. You’re stealing souls!”
“Sorceri steal each other’s powers, like cannibals feeding! How many have you stolen?”
She didn’t answer, was guilty as charged. She’d had no choice, since hers kept getting poached by smooth-talking Sorceri males. How many times had she fallen for one’s seduction, only to discover he’d used sex to lower her guard?
But she never stole from decent-minded Sorceri, the ones who only wanted to be left alone to drink, fornicate, gamble, and worship any gold they’d swindled, swiped, or conjured.
“Yet you had to steal, didn’t you?” Thronos bit out. Fat drops of rain pummeled them, batting against his wings. “Since yours were continually robbed?”
She hadn’t known he was aware of that. No one would want her worst enemy to know she’d been a dupe.
“Was that how you got caught by the mortals?” He canted his head in that foreboding way. “Were you away from Rothkalina seeking another power?”
“I don’t think you really want to know the answer to that question.”
“Tell me, or I’ll toss you down the mountain myself.” He reached forward, his fingers making a cage over her throat, his expression promising pain.
He was a monster, a world away from the boy he’d been when he fed her and held her—and she’d sighed words she could never take back.
Oh, well, he’d asked for it. “I was seeking something else entirely. After losing a wager with my sister, I had to go without sex for a year. I was on the hunt for a new lover when I got nabbed.”
He gave a curt yell, lifting her by her jaw. She dug her gauntlets into his forearms, but he didn’t seem to feel them. “Wh-what are you doing?”
In the bobbing tree, he held her body aloft, so her gaze was level with his.
Mother of gold, he was going to toss her! She couldn’t stifle a whimper of fear.
His head rushed toward her body. She braced for a vicious strike of his horns. Instead of hitting her, he rubbed the base of one over her shoulder and neck, marking her with his scent.
As if by doing so, he could pry her out of some faceless male’s arms.
The behavior was blatantly demonic.
When he finally pulled back, his eyes gleamed with rage. “You crippled me. For centuries, you cuckolded me over and over again. The pain you gave me in the past wasn’t enough for you? You wish to deliver more?”
Right now? Desperately! She wanted to claw his eyes out, to rake her gauntlets down his scarred face! “Because you deserve it!”
He flung her back down to the limb. “Look what you wrought, Melanthe!”
As she scrambled toward the trunk, he ripped open the front of his shirt, revealing scars she hadn’t seen before, marks jagging along his rigid torso. He pounded a fist over the center of his chest, over the raised scar there. “Does this one look like it was deep? Half an inch closer, and it would have pierced my heart!”
She blinked against the rain, against tears that seemed determined to fall. But not out of pity, out of impotent fury.
“Every second I fly is hellish! Because of you!”
“I’d do it all over again!”
He threw back his head and gave a roar up to the lightning-strewn sky. When he leveled his gaze on her, she shrank under the savagery she saw there. “Gods damn you, sorceress! You have no reason to hate me as I do you!”
“No reason?” she sputtered. “Do you know what it’s like to feel panic whenever a cloud passes over the sun? To hunch down, gasping for breath, pulse racing? You and your scarred face are the star of every nightmare I’ve ever had!”
Melanthe’s eyes blazed with hostility. He stared into them as lightning reflected across those blue depths.
He was his mate’s bogeyman? Fitting.
She was his bane.
Melanthe is misery. He shook his head hard, ignoring the weird ache in his horns, preventing himself from rubbing them over her again. He could barely reason, his thoughts a snarl in his mind.
Control. If he couldn’t maintain it, then she would wind up dead. Which would end his plans for continuing his line.
Without that, and without the chase, what reason would he have to live?
Lose control, lose your mate.
Yet keeping her alive didn’t mean he had to prevent her suffering. So why had he experienced the impulse to shelter her with his body? He needed to remind himself of all he’d lost. Of all his agony.
He’d implied to her that he didn’t remember their childhood time together. In fact, he recalled every moment with a blistering, crystal clarity. Earlier, when she’d stroked his wing with her eyes full of wonder, it’d brought him right back to the first time she’d touched him. . . .
Biting her bottom lip, she tentatively reached in, tracing a pulseline. His wings had flared uncontrollably, embarrassing him, making the back of his neck heat.
“There,” she murmured with a grin. “You’re not so scary, then. What’s it like to fly?”
He took her hand. “I could show you.”
And Thronos remembered those agonizing days after his fall, when he’d fought not to succumb to his injuries. He’d heard his mother’s voice saying, “Don’t you understand what she’s done to you?” He must have been calling for Melanthe. “What her kind have taken from us? Your father is gone.” Then, lower: “And so too will I be.”
He remembered attempting to fly once more; his atrophied wings had been unable to support him. The humiliation had burned worse than the unbearable pain. He’d ignored the whispers when his people had dubbed him their “tragic prince,” forever cursed to desire the wicked sorceress who’d nearly murdered him.
He’d told himself it would all be worth it—once he had Melanthe again.
Bile rose in his throat as he remembered seeing her as a woman for the first time. He shook away the memory—lest I murder her.
For centuries, he’d vowed she would be worth all his pain. He craned his head up at the trunk of this tree.
Never forget. . . .
Lanthe woke to the feel of her stomach lurching as her body tumbled from the tree.
She unleashed a scream, fumbling to latch onto a limb; her arms wouldn’t respond, filled with pins and needles. Falling! The drizzly fog was so dense she couldn’t see what was below her—
She landed with an oomph.
Thronos had caught her in his arms. Breathless, she stared up at him as his wings held them aloft.
After the freezing night she’d just spent in the tree, his body was a hot haven. Warmth from his damp chest seeped into her, dulling some of her alarm.
Yesterday she would’ve sworn she could never sleep with a Vrekener nearby. But apparently, she’d been out.
As rain softly fell, his gaze roamed over her, and when his eyes began to glow with something other than rage, she swallowed. Though she was loath to admit it, chemistry sparked between them.
She might be the bitterest necessity, but his instincts were doubtless screaming inside him, commanding him on a loop: MATE FEMALE!
Which was never going to happen. A: She didn’t do males she hated. Just a rule she had. And B? She was in the fertile time of her infrequent Sorceri cycle, could all but look at seed and get knocked up.
She had to trust that he wouldn’t force her. She wished she could probe his thoughts, reading his mind, but her collar prevented it. He’d probably developed mental blocks anyway. . . .
Her gaze was drawn behind him, and her lips parted.
While she’d dozed, he’d clawed slashes into the tree. The marks were all around the same size, lined up and patterned along the trunk.
She’d bet there were roughly five hundred slashes, one for every year he’d gone without his mate. “You’re insane,” she whispered. She’d been around enough crazed males to last an immortal lifetime. She gazed up at this one with wary eyes.
She recalled the things she’d told him last night—I’d do it again! Maybe she oughtn’t to poke the bear so much.
Yet even as he drew his lips back from his fangs, he seemed less frenzied today; still simmering, but perhaps the night had been cathartic for him. “You’re one to speak of insanity, when your line is tainted with it.”
Had he found out about her mother, Elisabet? Or just assumed this because Omort came from Lanthe’s family? She averted her gaze. “I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
“Untruth,” he grated. “Tell me another, and I’ll throttle you.” He shot into the sky.
“Where are you taking me?”
He headed north away from the coast back toward the island’s interior. Or maybe he headed south. East?
He didn’t answer her question, asking one of his own: “If you believed yourself to be targeted by Vrekeners, why not communicate with me in our few encounters?” He sounded almost normal.
“You always looked murderous. I couldn’t be sure that you weren’t on board with their plan to out and out kill me.”
“On board to murder my fated mate?” he said, as if she’d spoken nonsense.
“So you’re saying you had no idea that we were targeted?”
“I know what you’re trying to do, and your divisive tactics won’t work. I sought—and received—the sacred word of Vrekener knights that they would visit no harm upon you or your sister. I will always believe that over the accusations of someone like you.”
“You made them vow that?”
“I knew well that Sabine’s death would destroy you. I wanted revenge against you, not against a broken shell of a mate.”
Though this was surprising to Lanthe, it didn’t change their situation today. “It happened, Thronos. Whether you want to believe me or not.”
“You sound like you believe what you’re saying. No doubt, typical Sorceri paranoia. Your kind are notorious for it. You probably mistook a Volar demon for a Vrekener.”