“With me, nothing is as it seems. It’s usually much, much worse. And then− What do you mean I only get one epigraph? I get as many as I please. Only pre-eviscerated people have ever said things like that to me.”
−Sabine of the Sorceri, Queen of Illusions, anointed princess of Rothkalina
“That sorceress might be an evil bitch, but she’s my evil bitch. And I’ll have no other.”
−Rydstrom Woede, fallen king of Rothkalina
Gray Waters Lunatic Asylum, London
“Whenever you have a sorcerer betwixt your thighs, your powers tend to disappear,” Sabine told her sister as she scanned the faces of the frenzied, caged humans. “It’s merely a fact of life.”
“Maybe in the past,” Lanthe said as she dropped the unconscious guard she’d been toting by his belt. “Things are going to be different with this one.” She busily tied the man’s hands behind his back–instead of breaking his arms, which had the same result and didn’t waste rope. “You still haven’t seen her?”
Her–the sorceress they came to release from this place–if she agreed to convey her powers to Lanthe in exchange for her freedom.
Sabine slinked down the darkened corridor. “I can’t tell when they huddle like this.” She plucked a cell door off its hinges and tossed it away, her heels clicking as she entered the cage. Up close, she could tell the inhabitants all looked very … mortal.
Naturally, they cowered from her. Sabine knew the exotic picture she presented with her garments and face paint.
As though she’d donned a mask, her eyes were kohled black in a swath from the sides of her nose to her temples.
Her clothes were constructed more of strips of leather and chain metal than of cloth and thread. She wore a metal bustier and mesh gloves that ran the length of her arms, ending in forged fingertip claws. Situated among her hair’s riotous braids was her elaborate headdress.
Typical garb of the Sorceri females. In fact, if one’s apparel didn’t weigh more than the wearer, then one was underdressed.
By the time Sabine was exiting the next cell down, Lanthe had finished with the knots “Any luck?”
Sabine tore free yet another cage door, peered at pale faces, then shook her head.
“Do I have time to check the smaller cells in the basement?” Lanthe asked.
“If we’re back at the portal in twenty minutes we should be all right.” Their portal back to their home of Rothkalina was a good ten minutes away through dank London streets.
Lanthe blew a jet black plait from her forehead. “Watch the guard and keep the freed inmates inside this hall and quiet.”
Sabine’s gaze flitted over the unconscious male sprawled on the squalid floor, and her lip curled in disgust. She could read the minds of humans, even when they were blacked out, and the contents of this one’s were giving even Sabine pause.
“Very well. But hurry with the transfer,” Sabine said. “Else we’ll attract our foe.”
Lanthe’s blue eyes gazed upward out of habit. “They could be here at any second.” She hastened to the stairwell once more.
Their lives had become a droning cycle: Steal a new power, flee enemies, have power stolen by a smooth-talking Sorceri male, steal a new power. … Sabine allowed it to continue.
Because she’d ruined Lanthe’s innate ability.
When her sister was gone, Sabine muttered, “Look after the guard. Very well …”…
Lifting the man by his collar and belt, she tossed him in front of the exit doors. Some of the denizens grew wild at the violence, howling, pulling their hair. The ones who’d been eyeing the main exit scuttled back.
Shush the humans, easy enough. She sauntered to the guard and stepped up onto his back, opening her arms wide. “Gather round, mad human persons. Gather! And I, a sorceress of dark and terrible powers, will reward you with a story.”
Some quieted out of seeming curiosity, some in shock. “Hush now, mortals, and perhaps if you are good, obedient pets, I’ll even show you a tale.” The cries and yells she’d ignited were ebbing. “So sit, sit. Yes, come sit before me. Closer. But not you–you smell like urine and porridge. You, there, sit.”
Once they’d all gathered before her, she crouched on the guard’s back. She gave them a slow smile as she readied for her story, tugging up her skirt to fiddle with her garters, then adjusting her customary choker.
“Now, for this evening, you have two choices. You can hear the story of a mighty demon king with horns and eyes as black as obsidian. In ages past he was so honest and upstanding that he lost his crown to cunning evil. Or, we have the story of Sabine, an innocent young girl who was forever getting murdered.” Who would one day be that demon’s bride…
“Th-the girl, please,” one resident whispered. His face was indistinguishable through the curtain of his matted hair.
“A discerning choice, Hirsute Mortal.” In a dramatic voice, she began, “Our tale features the intrepid heroine, Sabine, the Queen of Illusions–“
“Where’s Illusions?” a young woman paused in gnawing her own forearm to ask.
Excellent–these were going to be narrative interrupters. “It’s not a place. A ‘queen’ is someone who is better at a particular mystickal skill than anyone else.”
Sabine could cast chimeras that were indistinguishable from reality, manipulating anything that could be seen, heard, or imagined. She could reach inside a being’s mind and deliver scenes from their wildest dreams–or worst nightmares. No one was her equal.
“Now the ridiculously beautiful and clever Sabine had just turned twelve, and she adored her soon-to-grow light-skirted sister, Melanthe, aged nine. Sabine had loved little Lanthe with her whole heart since the first time the girl had cried for her ‘Ai-bee’ over their own mother. The two sisters were born of the Sorceri, a dwindling and forgotten race. Not very exciting story fodder, you might think. Compared to a vampire or even a Valkyrie,” she sniffed. “Ah, but listen on and see …”
She raised her hand to weave an illusion, drawing from within herself and from her surroundings–the mad energy of the inmates, the lightning-strewn night beyond the asylum.
When she blew against her opened palm, a scene was projected onto the wall beside her. Gasps sounded, a few stray whimpers.
“The first time young Sabine died was on an eve much like this, in a decrepit structure that trembled from thunder. Only instead of a rat-infested asylum, it was an abbey, built into the peak of a mountain, high in the Alps. The dead of winter was upon the land.”
The next scene she cast showed Sabine and Lanthe hastening down a murky stairway in their nightgowns and coats. Even as they rushed, they hunched their heads at each new batting of wings outside. Lanthe silently cried.
“Sabine was filled with anger at herself for not listening to her instinct and taking Melanthe away from their parents, from the danger they attracted with their forbidden sorcery. But Sabine had been reluctant because the two girls–though born of immortals and both gifted with powers–were still children, which meant they could be killed and wounded as easily as mortals, their injuries as lasting. Yet now Sabine had no choice but to leave. She sensed her parents were already dead, and suspected the killers were loose somewhere in the shadowy abbey. The Vrekeners had come for them–“
“What’s a Vrekener?”
Sabine inhaled deeply as she gazed at the ceiling. Mustn’t murder audience, mustn’t murder … “Winged avengers of old, demonic angels,” she finally answered. “A dwindling race as well. But since memory, in our little corner of the Lore, they had slaughtered evil Sorceri wherever they could find them, and had been hunting Sabine’s family for all of her life. For no other reason than because her parents were indeed quite evil.”
With a flick of her hand, Sabine changed the scene, showing the two girls stumbling into their parents’ room. By bolts of lightning flashing through soaring stained glass windows, they saw the bodies of their parents, curled together in sleep.
The headless bodies, freshly decapitated.
In the image, Sabine turned away and vomited. With a strangled scream, Lanthe collapsed.
Another illusion showed Vrekeners emerging from the shadows of the chamber, led by one who wielded a scythe with a blade forged not of metal but of black fire.
Flashes of their huge ghostly wings appeared, and the double rows of horns on their heads gleamed. They were so towering that she had to crane her neck up to meet eyes across the room. All but for one. He was a mere boy, younger even than Sabine. His gaze was transfixed on little Lanthe, curled unconscious on the floor–one of the adults had to hold him back from her.
Sabine and Lanthe’s situation grew clearer to her. This band of Vrekeners hadn’t stalked them only for punitive reasons.
“The leader tried to convince Sabine to come peaceably with them,” she told her audience. “That he would put the sisters upon the path of goodness. But Sabine knew what the Vrekeners did to Sorceri girl children, and it was a fate worse than death. So she fought them.”
Sabine began the last illusion, letting it play to the end …
Her entire body shook as she began to weave her spells around her enemies. She made the Vrekener soldiers believe they were trapped in a cavern, ensnared underground where they couldn’t fly–their worst fear.
For the leader, she held up her palms, a gesture of supplication directed to his mind. Once linked, she greedily tugged free his nightmares, which she then offered up in a display before him, forcing him to relive whatever would hurt him most.
These scenes made him sink to his knees, and when he dropped his scythe to claw at his eyes, she snatched his weapon from him. Sabine didn’t hesitate to swing it.
Hot blood sprayed across her face as his head tumbled to her feet. Once she swiped the sleeve of her gown over her eyes, she saw that her illusions were fading, the Vrekeners able to see where they truly were once more. Lanthe had woken and screamed for Sabine to watch out.
Then time … stopped.
Or seemed to. Sounds dimmed, and everyone in the room slowed, all staring at Sabine, at the blood arcing from her jugular as she collapsed. One of these males had slashed her throat from behind, and all the world went red.
“Abie?” Lanthe shrieked, charging for her, dropping to her knees beside her. “No, no, no, Abie, don’t die, don’t die, don’t die!” The air around them heated and blurred.
Whereas Sabine had her illusions, Lanthe’s innate sorcery was called persuasion. She could order any being to do as she pleased, but she rarely gave commands–they often ended in tragedy.
Yet when the males rounded on her, Lanthe’s eyes began to glitter, sparkling like metal. The terrible power she’d feared to use she now wielded over them, without mercy. “Do not move … Stab yourself … Fight each other to the death.”
The room was heavy with sorcery, and the abbey began groaning all around them. One of the stained glass windows shattered. Lanthe told the boy to jump through it–and not to use his wings on the way down. Eyes wild with confusion, he obeyed, the thick glass slashing over his skin. He never yelled as he plummeted to the valley floor.
When all were killed, Lanthe knelt beside Sabine again.
“Live, Abie! Heal!” Gods, Lanthe was pushing, trying to command her.But it was too late. Sabine’s heart no longer beat. Her eyes were blank with death.
“Don’t leave me!” Lanthe screamed, pushing harder, harder … The furniture began to shake, their parents’ bed rattling … More shifting … a thud as a head rolled to the floor. Then a second one.
The power was unimaginable. And somehow, Sabine felt her body restoring itself. She blinked open her eyes, alive and even stronger than before.
“They ran from that place, out into the world, and never looked back,” she told her enthralled audience. “All that Sabine would have from that night was the scar around her neck, a tale to tell, and the blood vendetta of a Vrekener boy who’d somehow survived his fall. …”
Lost in thought, Sabine absently realized that the guard had awakened and was squirming under her boot heels. She reached down and snapped his neck before she got so caught up with the story that she forgot to do it.
One woman clapped her hands in glee. Another breathed, “God bless ‘n keep you, miss.”
Sabine might as well be an agent of fate for these people on this eve. Not an agent for good, nor for bad. Just serving fate–which could be either.
After all, the next guard hired might be worse to them.
“What about the second time she died?” a brazen female asked. Her head was shaved bald.
“She was fighting to defend Melanthe and herself from yet another Vrekener attack. They captured Sabine, then flew her to a height, dropping her to a cobblestone street. Yet her sister was there once more to heal her broken body, to snatch her from the arms of death.”
As if it had happened yesterday, Sabine could still recall the sound of her skull cracking. That one had been so close. …
“The third time, they chased her into a raging river. The poor girl couldn’t swim, and she drowned–“
“Then take it, you bitch!” a woman shrieked from downstairs, interrupting the flow of the story once more. Ah, the Queen of Silent Tongues was yielding to Lanthe.
Sabine’s skin prickled as the air began to sizzle with power. The sorceress jailed downstairs was surrendering her root ability. Lanthe would be able to talk telepathically to whomever she addressed, within a certain distance.
“No, don’t fret,” Sabine told her antsy humans. “Have you read any of the halfpenny novels, the ones with bank robberies? That’s all my accomplice is doing now. Except she’s stealing something equivalent”–she made her voice dramatic–“to your soul!”
At that one woman began crying, which pleased Sabine because it reminded her why she so rarely took humans as pets.
“Who killed her the next time?” Brazen Mortal asked. “Vrekeners?”
“No. It was other Sorceri bent on stealing her goddesslike power. They poisoned her.” The Sorceri so adore their poisons, she thought bitterly.
But then shefrowned at the memories. “It did things to the young girl’s mind, this repeated dying. Like an arrowhead forged in fire, she was made sharp and deadly from constant pressure and blows. And she began to covet life as no other before her. Whenever she felt hers was in danger, a mindless fury swept through her, the need to lash out undeniable.”
When some of their eyes widened, Sabine realized her pensiveness had made the cell appear to be choked with mist. She often unwittingly displayed illusions that mirrored her thoughts and emotions, even when dreaming.
As she swiftly cleared the air, another patient said, “Good miss, wh-what happened after the poisoning?”
“The sisters just wanted to survive, to be left alone, to amass a fortune in gold through just a bit of sorcery. Was that too much to ask?” She gave them an “honestly?” look.
“But the Vrekeners were unrelenting, tracking them by the girls’ sorcery. Especially the boy. Because he hadn’t reached his immortality by the time he made that leap, he didn’t regenerate. He’d been broken, scarred and deformed from his injuries forever.”
They’d since learned his name was Thronos and that he was the son of the Vrekener Sabine had beheaded all those years ago. “Without the use of sorcery, the girls were starving. Sabine was now sixteen and old enough to begin doing what any girl like her would.”
Brazen Mortal crossed her arms over her chest and knowingly said, “Prostitution.”
“Wrong. Commercial fishing.”
“Noooo,” Sabine said. “Fortune-telling. Which promptly earned her a death sentence for being a witch.”
She fingered the white streak in her red hair, the one she hid from others with an illusion. “They didn’t always burn witches at stakes. That’s a fallacy. No, sometimes a village had burned its quota, so they killed secretly, burying a group alive.” Her tone grew soft. “Can you imagine what it was like for the girl to breathe earth? To feel it compacting in her lungs?”
She gazed over her silent audience. Their eyes had gone wide–she could hear a pin drop.
“The humans expired quickly, but not so for Sabine,” she continued. “The girl withstood the reaper’s call for as long as she could, but felt herself fading. Yet then she heard a ringing voice from above, commanding her to live and to rise from her grave. So Sabine mindlessly obeyed, digging against others’ dead flesh, blindly stretching, desperate for another inch closer to the surface.”
From behind them, Lanthe’s voice intoned, “At last, Sabine’s hand shot up from the muddy ground, pale and clenched. Finally, Melanthe could find her sister. As she hauled Sabine out of her grave, lightning struck all around and hail pelted them–like the earth was angry to lose her catch. Since that fateful night, Sabine doesn’t care about anything.”
Sabine sighed. “It’s not true that she doesn’t care about anything. She cares about nothing very much.”
Lanthe glared, her eyes shimmering a metallic blue from her recent infusion of power.
“How amusing, Sabine,” she said, laying the words directly into Sabine’s mind.
Sabine jumped. “Telepathy. Outstanding. Try to retain it.” Gods, she was relieved to see Lanthe acquire another power. Her sister’s persuasion had been exhausted keeping Sabine alive.
It seemed that all those deaths had made Sabine even more powerful while weakening Lanthe–in both ability and resilience.
“That sorceress also had the power to talk to animals,” Lanthe continued. “Guess what you’re getting for your birthday!”
“Oh, bully.” One of the least sought powers of all Sorceri. The problem with communicating with animals was that there were rarely enough within earshot to be helpful. “I can only hope a plague of locusts is milling about when I need them.” To her audience, Sabine said, “We’re finished here.”
The long-haired male asked, “Wait, what happened after that burial?”
“Things got much, much worse,” Sabine said dismissively.
The crying female cried harder. “H-how could it get worse than dying so much?”
Sabine dryly answered, “They met Omort the Deathless. He was a sorcerer who could never know death’s kiss, and so he was instantly smitten with the girl so well acquainted with it.”
Lanthe met her eyes. “He’ll be wondering where we are.”
“But he knows we’ll always return.” Omort had controls in place for the sisters. Sabine gave a bitter laugh. Had they actually once thought they’d be safe with him?
Just then, Sabine heard the sound of wings outside.
“They’ve come.” Lanthe’s eyes darted to the chamber’s high window. “We run, run for the tunnels beneath the city, and try to find our portal above.”
“I’m not in the mood to run.” The building began to rock–or it appeared to–with Sabine’s anger.
“When are you ever? But we have to.”
Though Sabine and Lanthe were nearly as fast as the fey and were notoriously dirty fighters, the Vrekeners’ sheer numbers were unstoppable. And the sisters possessed no battle sorcery.
Lanthe’s gaze swept over the room, searching for escape. “They’ll catch us even if you make us invisible.”
With a flick of her hand, Sabine wove an illusion. Suddenly she and Lanthe both looked like patients. “We’ll create a stampede of humans and run out into the night with them.”
Lanthe shook her head. “The Vrekeners will scent us.”
Sabine blinked at her. “Lanthe, have you not smelled my humans?”
The Tongue and Groove Strip Club, Southern Louisiana
“A lap dance for the sexy demon?”
With a firm shake of his head, Rydstrom Woede turned down the half-clad female.
“With a lap like yours, I’ll make myself at home,” another told him. “For free.” She cupped one of her breasts upward and dipped her tongue to her nipple.
That got him to raise an eyebrow, but still he said, “Not interested.”
This was one of the low points of his life, surrounded by strippers in a neon-lit Lore club. He was on edge in this ridiculous place, feeling like the worst hypocrite. If his ne’er-do-well brother found out where he’d been, he would never hear the end of it.
But Rydstrom’s contact had insisted on meeting here.
When a pretty nymph sidled up behind him to massage his shoulders, he picked up her hands and faced her. “I said no.”
The females here left him cold, which confounded him–since he needed a woman beneath him so badly. His eyes must have darkened, because the nymph quickly backed away. About to lose my temper with a nymph?
Lately, Rydstrom had been a constant hair trigger’s turn from succumbing to rage. The fallen king known for his coolheaded reason, for his patience with others, felt like a bomb about to explode.
He’d been experiencing an inexplicable anticipation–a sense of building, a sense that something big was going to happen soon.
But because this urgency had no discernible source or alleviation, frustration welled in him. He didn’t eat, couldn’t sleep a night through.
For the last couple of weeks, he’d awakened to find himself thrusting against the pillow or the mattress or even into his own fist, desperate for a soft female below him to ease the strangling frustration he felt.
Gods, I need a woman.
He stared down into an untouched glass of demon brew. Yet he had no time to woo a decent one. Just another conflict battling within him.
The kingdom’s needs always come before the king’s.
So much was at stake in the fight to reclaim his crown–from Omort the Deathless, a foe who had been impossible to kill. Now Rydstrom searched for a way to truly destroy Omort forever. Backed by his brother Cadeon and Cadeon’s gang of mercenaries, Rydstrom doggedly tracked down one lead after another.
The emissary he was to meet tonight–a pus demon named Pogerth–would be able to help them.
Just then, a demoness dressed in black leather with cheap makeup on her horns gave Rydstrom a measuring look as she passed, but he turned away.
He was … curious about wicked females, always had been, but they weren’t his type–no matter what Cadeon occasionally threw in his face when they fought.
No, Rydstrom wanted his queen, his own fated female, a virtuous demoness to stand by his side and grace his bed.
For a demon, sex with one’s female was supposed to be mind-blowing compared to the random tup. After fifteen centuries, he’d waited bloody long enough to experience the difference.
He exhaled. But now was not the time for her. So much at stake. Rydstrom knew that if he didn’t defeat his enemy this time, his kingdom and his castle would be forever lost.
My home lost. His hands clenched, his short black claws digging into his palms; strippers traipsing by his table gave him a wide berth.
Omort and his followers had desecrated Castle Tornin. The sorcerer had set himself up as king and welcomed Rydstrom’s enemies, granting them asylum. His guards were revenants, walking corpses, the dead raised to life, who could only be destroyed once their master died.
Tales of orgies, sacrifices, and incest in Tornin’s once-hallowed halls were legion.
Rydstrom would die before he lost his ancestral castle to beings so depraved, so warped he considered them the most revolting beings ever to walk the earth.
Gods help anyone who crosses me this eve. A ticking bomb–
At last, Pogerth arrived, teleporting inside the bar. The pus demon’s skin looked like melted wax and smelled of decay. The gauze he wore under his clothes peeked out at the collar and cuffs of his shirt. He wore rubber boots that he would empty outside in regular intervals, as was polite.
When he sat at Rydstrom’s table, it was to a squishing sound. “My lord and master seeks a prize so rare it’s almost fabled,” he began without preamble. “In return for it, he’ll deliver something just as fantastical.” Switching to the demon tongue, he asked, “What would you be willing to do for a weapon guaranteed to kill the Deathless One?”
* * * * *
The Kingdom of Rothkalina
When a severed head bounced wetly down the steps from Omort’s throne dais onto the black runner, Sabine casually sidestepped, continuing past it.
The head belonged to Oracle Three Fifty-Six–as in the number of soothsayers that had been in office since Sabine had come to Tornin.
The scent of blood cloyed as revenants mindlessly cleaned up the matching body.
And Omort, her half brother and king of the plane of Rothkalina, was wiping off his bloody hands–which meant he’d torn the oracle’s head from her neck in a fit of rage, piqued no doubt by whatever she’d foretold.
Standing tall and proud in front of his ornate gold throne, he wore a raised armor guard over his left shoulder and a dashing cape on the right. Atop his pale hair sat the intricate headwear that served as both a crown and an armor helmet.
He looked suave and sophisticated, and utterly incapable of yanking a woman’s head off her body.
“Something to comment about this, Sabine? Growing soft?”
She was the only one who dared defy him in any way, and the creatures at court quieted. Lining the halls were members of many of the factions who allied with the Pravus, Omort’s new army.
Among them were the centaurs, the Invidia–female embodiments of discord–ogres, rogue phantoms, fallen vampires, fire demons with their palms aglow … more beings than could be named.
Almost all of them would love to see her dead.
“So hard to find good help these days,” she sighed. Sabine could scarcely be expected to feel sympathy for another. For far too many times she’d dragged herself up from a pool of her own blood. “Which is a shame, brother, because without her we are as good as blind.”
“Worry not, I will find another seer directly.”
“I wish you all the best with that.” Soothsayers didn’t grow on trees, and already they were wading deep into the recruiting pool. “Is this beheading why you summoned me?” Sabine’s tone was bored as she gazed around her. She studiously avoided the mysterious Well of Souls in the center of the court, taking in other details of the opulent throne room.
Her brother had drastically changed it since the rule of the mighty Rydstrom. He’d replaced the demon’s austere throne with one made of blazingly bright gold. Tonight, blood lay splattered over the gleaming metal–from the oracle’s squirting jugular. Been there. …
On the walls, Omort had hung his colors and his banners emblazoned with his talisman animal: an ouroboros, a snake swallowing its own tail, to represent his deathlessness. Anything simple, he’d made lavish. And yet, this place still didn’t suit the outwardly sophisticated Omort.
According to legend, the premedieval Castle Tornin had been created by a divine hand to protect the well, with six bold towers encircling it, and the central court. Though the stones that made up the fortress were rugged, they’d been placed flawlessly. Tornin was perfectly imperfect.
As rough-hewn as its former king was reputed to be.
Omort drew back his cape before sitting. “I summoned you half an hour ago.”
“Ah, just so. I recall that now.” She and Lanthe had been watching DVDs in Lanthe’s solar-powered room.The sisters probably logged seven hours a day watching movies. Alas, cable wasn’t forthcoming.
As she passed the Viceroy centaur, Sabine peeked down and asked him, “How’s it hanging? Low and to the left, I see. Your left, my right.” Though his fury was undisguised, he would never challenge her. She had far too much power here.
She gave him a wink to remind him of just that, then continued to Omort, “I was going to be here on time. But I had something very urgent to take care of.”
“Did you really?”
“No.” And that was all she’d say on the matter.
Omort stared at her in fascination, his yellow irises glowing. But when she removed her own cape, he seemed to shake himself, casting a disapproving look at her garments–a scanty bandeau top of gold weave, a leather micro-skirt, claw-tipped gauntlets on her hands, and thigh-high boots.
After raking his gaze over her body, Omort settled on her face. She’d drawn her bold scarlet eye paint in the shape of wings that spread out from her lashes up over her brows all the way to her hairline.
In ages past, Omort had wanted to make it law that females of value were to obscure their faces with a traditional silk Sorceri mask instead of mere paint mimicking one, and to cover their bodies entirely.
He’d swiftly learned how Sabine felt about that idea.
“Actually, Omort, I just came to drink my medicine.”
“You’ll get your dose later,” Omort replied, waving a negligent hand.
How easy it was for him to dismiss. He wasn’t the one who needed it to keep from dying a horrific death.
“For now, we have something more important to discuss–“
Hettiah, Omort’s half sister and Sabine’s arch-nemesis, arrived then, hastening up the dais steps to stand beside Omort’s throne–her rightful place, since she was his concubine as well as his relation. She must have run here as soon as she’d heard Sabine was at court, frantic to make sure Sabine didn’t steal Omort from her.
Hettiah was woefully confused on two points: Omort was Sabine’s for the taking, and she would never be taking.
Omort ignored Hettiah utterly, keeping his eyes on Sabine.
“Important to discuss… ?” she prompted.
“My spies have long been searching for Groot the Metallurgist and monitoring the activities of his most trusted followers.”
Groot lived in hiding from Omort, one of only two half siblings outside Tornin who still survived.
“I’ve just learned that he sent an emissary to meet with none other than Rydstrom Woede.”
At last, an intrigue! “Rydstrom and Groot, our two most dangerous enemies allying. This is bad news.”
“Something must be done. One of the spies heard the emissary promising a sword forged to kill me.”
Everyone at court stilled–including Sabine.
Omort exhaled wearily. “It won’t, though. It can’t.” He almost sounded regretful. “Do you know how many bombs, spells, spears, daggers, and poisons were supposed to have ended me?”
Indeed, Sabine had seen Omort stabbed through the heart, beheaded, and burned to cold ash. And always he rose from a dirty mist like a phoenix, stronger even than before. His very name meant without death.
“But Rydstrom must believe it will work,” he said. “The infamously coolheaded demon was seen storming from the meeting, and heard calling his brother Cadeon as he got into his car to speed away toward New Orleans.”
“Rydstrom must be on his way to meet him.” Cadeon the Kingmaker, a ruthless mercenary. He was rumored to be able to put any king on a throne–except his brother. For centuries, the two had worked together to reclaim Tornin.
Which was now her home. Get over it, demons. Not moving.
Hettiah cleared her throat. “My liege, if the sword can’t kill you, then why worry about it?”
“Because the belief is nearly as dangerous,” Sabine answered impatiently. “The sword could be seen as a rallying point, used as a propaganda tool.” Already little rebellions erupted over the countryside, the demons continuing to clamor for their deposed king.
Clamoring still–after nine centuries.
Sabine often wondered how he’d earned such fervent loyalty. “So it’s clear I can’t let the brothers meet,” she said. “I’ll intercept Rydstrom before he can reach the city.”
“And then?” Omort said quietly. “What will you do with him?”
“And then I’ll kill two birds with one stone,” she answered. “This is the prophecy beginning.” Just in time for the Accession.
Every five hundred years, that great immortal war took place, and they were on the cusp of it right now.
Her gaze flickered over the mysterious well in the center of the court, strewn with sacrifices–bloody and unidentifiable body parts. Her future depended on unlocking its power. And the demon was the key.
Or, rather, his heir was.
When she faced Omort, his brows drew together, as if he’d thought she would balk at bedding a demon. In fact, she was eager to get this over with–and then to seize the power that was there for the taking.
At last, something to want, to need.
Hettiah asked, “What if the demon resists you?”
Sabine’s lips parted. “Have you looked at me lately, Hettiah?” She turned in a circle, a move that left Omort leaning forward on the edge of his throne, and Hettiah sending her murderous glances.
Hettiah wasn’t without power. In fact, her ability was neutralizing others’ powers. She could erase illusions as easily as Sabine could cast them. Lanthe had nicknamed her Hettiah the Buzz Kill or Aunty-Matter.
“Don’t underestimate the demon,” Omort finally said. “He’s one of the most iron-willed beings I’ve ever encountered. Don’t forget that I faced him–and yet he lives.”
Sabine exhaled, trying to keep a rein on her notorious temper. “Yes, but I have unique attributes that make this demon’s seduction in the bag.”
“You also have a detriment,” Hettiah sneered. “You’re a freak among the Lore.”
It was true she was unique–a virgin seductress. Sabine chuckled at Hettiah’s statement, then her expression instantly turned cold when she faced her brother. “Omort, put a muzzle on your pet, or I’ll make her one from her intestines.” She rapped her silver-tipped claws together, and the sound rang out in the chamber.
Hettiah lifted her chin, but she’d paled. Sabine had in fact plucked an organ from her. On several occasions. She kept them in jars on her bedside table.
But Sabine refrained from this as much as possible, because whenever she fought Hettiah, it seemed to overly excite Omort.
“Besides, if the demon somehow resists this”–Sabine waved her hands over her figure–“I’ll have a backup plan.” She always had a plan B.
“You’ll need it.” Hettiah smirked.
Sabine blew her a kiss, the ultimate insult among the Sorceri, who stored poisons in their rings to be mixed into drinks–or blown into the eyes of an enemy.
“Capture him tonight, and then … begin.” Omort sounded sickened. Not only was Rydstrom a demon, which most Sorceri viewed as little better than an animal, the fallen king was Omort’s blood enemy.
And the time had finally come for Sabine to surrender her virginal–hymenally speaking–body and her womb to the creature. No wonder Omort had gone into a fury with the oracle.
Part of him lusted for the power Sabine could garner. And part of him lusted for her–or for women who resembled her, like the red-haired Hettiah.
He rose then, descending the steps to stand before her. Ignoring Hettiah’s huff of dismay–and the warning in Sabine’s eyes–he slowly raised his hand to her face.
His bloodstained nails were long and cloudy. When he pinched her chin, she said in a seething tone, “Now brother, you know I dislike it when men touch my face.”
When angered–like now–Sabine’s surroundings appeared to rock and explode as though from an earthquake, while winds seemed to gust in tempests. Omort hesitantly released her as the court attendees nervously stamped about.
“I have the coordinates for the road he’ll be traveling,” Omort said. “Lanthe can open a portal from the dungeon directly to that location, and you can stop him there. It will be a perfect trap. Unless she’s already lost her thresholds power.”
Lanthe could still create portals. But her ability was temporarily weakened each time, so she cold only manage it once every six days or so. Sabine only hoped she hadn’t burned one recently.
“Why don’t you call Lanthe in here and ask her yourself?” Sabine said, making him scowl. For some reason, Omort had always loathed being near Lanthe and had decreed that the two sisters would never be together in his presence.
“Exactly how long do I have to set this snare?” she asked.
“You must intercept him within the next two hours.”
“I go at once.” She had little time to hatch a plot, which irritated her. She adored plotting–devising plans and subplans and contingencies–and half the fun was the anticipation of a trap about to be sprung. She would dream up scenarios for months, and yet now she had only mere hours.
Before she could leave, Omort leaned down and murmured at her ear, “If there were any way around your sleeping with this beast, I would have found it for you.”
“I know, brother.”
She did believe him in this. Omort would never willingly give her up, because he wanted Sabine all for himself and had since the first time he’d seen her. He’d said there was something in her eyes he’d never seen before–the dark knowledge of what it was like to die. Something he could never know.
He covered her bare shoulder with a clammy hand, sounding as if he’d just stifled a groan at the contact.
“Do–not–touch, Omort.” She gritted out the words, making her plaits appear to be striking vipers until he removed his hand. Sometimes she had to remind him that she was as treacherous as the serpents he worshipped.
She turned immediately, giving him her back instead of taking three steps away before turning to exit the chamber. When she passed the well, she darted her gaze to it.
“You won’t fail me?” he called after her. “Rydstrom must not reach his brother.”
“Consider it done,” she called back with utter surety. How hard could it be to capture a demon?
A prize so rare it was fabled …
Rydstrom sped his McLaren down a deserted levee road, his headlights cleaving through the swamp fog. That crazed energy within him, the inexplicable tension, had spiked to a fever pitch.
Omort could be killed.
One hundred miles per hour. One hundred and ten …
With a sword forged by Groot the Metallurgist.
Rydstrom had waited so long for this, he had a hard time believing it was happening now. Although he didn’t trust the demon Pogerth, Rydstrom trusted his ally, Nïx–the Valkyrie soothsayer who’d arranged their meeting.
Nïx had said that this campaign was a chance to kill Omort–Rydstrom’s last chance. Either he would succeed in destroying the sorcerer or he would fail forever.
By all the gods, it was possible. But for payment, Groot had asked for the impossible. Or so it would seem.
One hundred and forty miles per hour. Though Rydstrom had hung up the phone with his brother minutes ago, he was still slack jawed. Cadeon–the most untrustworthy and least dependable being Rydstrom had ever known–had informed him that he was already in possession of the prize Groot demanded in exchange for the sword.
Cadeon had reluctantly agreed to meet Rydstrom at their customary place north of New Orleans with the payment in tow, but Rydstrom still had half an hour to reach him. There was plenty of time for Cadeon to back out–if he hadn’t already.
At that thought, Rydstrom floored the gas, surging to one hundred and sixty miles per hour. Not fast enough. So much at stake.
Yes, Cadeon had already found the prize. But he would not be keen to give it up.
He’ll run. Rydstrom had to get to him before he could.
Long moments passed with him deep in thought over his brother. Knowing Cadeon would let him down, he accelerated even more. One seventy …
Rydstrom would die for his people. Why wouldn’t Cadeon–
Eyes stared back at him in the headlights. Not an animal, a woman.
He slammed on the brakes and swerved, the vehicle skidding out of control.
* * * * *
The screech of tires peeled out into the night as the demon’s sports car began to spin wildly. But somehow he was righting it.
“He’s pulling it back.” Lanthe sounded impressed.
Sabine raised her hands and muttered, “I don’t think so, demon.” Just when he appeared to gain control, she shifted the vision of the road, obscuring the bridge abutment to his sight.
He sped directly into it.
An explosion of sound erupted–the groaning of metal, the shattering of glass. Smoke tendrils snaked upward, and gaskets hissed. The previously shining black car was totaled.
“Did you have to make him crash that hard?” Lanthe asked, piping her lip to blow a black braid from her face. “He won’t likely be in the mood for love now.”
“You were the one in my ear, yelling that he was getting away.”
Earlier, when Sabine had heard the smooth purr of an engine in the distance, she’d made Lanthe invisible, then she’d cast an illusion of a vehicle on the side of the road, stalled with the hood up.
The damsel in distress. Unable to fix her own engine. A ridiculous cliché. But necessary.
When he hadn’t slowed, she’d waved her arms, and still he’d continued speeding along. Refusing to let him slip past her, she’d cast forward an illusion of herself, directly in his car’s path. He’d swerved to avoid her likeness.
“Besides, he’s a demon,” Sabine continued. “Demons are both tough–and lusty.” When his door shot open, she said, “See?” But he hadn’t yet exited.
“What’s taking him so long?” Lanthe asked, switching to telepathy, biting her nails as she silently talked. “What if we draw the Vrekeners?” Even after all these years, those fiends continued to track the sisters’ heavy sorcery.
“We’ve got time yet,” Sabine said, though she was growing impatient to see the male she’d be giving herself to–and anxious to get a glimpse of one of the most well-respected leaders in the Lore.
Of course, Sabine had read all about Rydstrom and knew details of his history. He was fifteen hundred years old. He’d had five siblings, with two sisters and one brother still living. He’d been a warrior long before he’d unexpectedly inherited the crown of Rothkalina.
And she knew details of his appearance: a large male with a battle scar on his face and intense green eyes that would grow black with fury–or desire. As a rage demon, his horns would flow back instead of jutting forward. One of his had been damaged before he reached his immortality.
- And she’d be taking this demon into her body in mere moments, if her plan worked.
If not, she had her poison ring. Under a ruby was a sleeping powder prepared by the Hag in the Basement, their resident poison and potion preparer. Demons were highly susceptible to both.
Drugging Rydstrom wasn’t Sabine’s preferred plan, but if it came down to it, she would use all means necessary to get him into the dungeon cell they’d prepared for him–one he couldn’t break free from despite his demonic strength.
It was mere feet from them.
Directly within the cell, Lanthe had created the seamless portal that opened up to the road. To conceal it, Sabine had woven one of the largest, most intricate illusions of her life, making the dungeon look just like a part of the scenery along the road.
It seemed an eternity passed before Rydstrom finally lurched from the smoking wreck. She released a breath she hadn’t known she held.
And there he was.
He certainly was big–approaching seven feet tall with broad shoulders. His hair was as black as night. His horns curved out from just past his temples to run along the sides of his head, their shell-like color stark against his thick hair. Indeed, one was damaged, the end broken off.
Though he reeled a couple of steps, he didn’t look too injured. No visible blood.
Sabine arched a brow just as Lanthe silently said, “Your demon’s just . . . fearsome-looking.”
She was about to correct Lanthe and say, “Not my demon.” But the male before them would indeed be hers. For a time. “He is a fearsome male, isn’t he?”
From his appearance, Sabine would have guessed him to be an assassin or cutthroat criminal of some sort. How odd, since he was supposed to be a bastion of reason, a wise leader who liked to solve conflicts and discover solutions to complex puzzles.
Rumor in the Lore held that a lie had never left Rydstrom’s tongue. Which must be a lie in itself.
“Are you going to try to seduce him first or just spring the trap?”
“Seduce him first. He might go demonic over his capture.” She smoothed her hands down her pale blue dress
“You look good,” Lanthe said. “Sweet. Nothing says ‘do-me!’ like pastel.”
“That’s just unnecessary, Lanthe.” Since Sabine hadn’t wanted him to know she was a sorceress, she’d worn an elegant but conservatively boring gown. She’d thought it wouldn’t hurt to appear virtuous, which she assumed a good demon king would prefer.
He had better like her shuddersome new look. Except for her ring, not a single ounce of gold adorned her body. No makeup, either. She’d left her hair unplaited, curling almost to her waist–without a headdress. And it felt wrong.
“Are you sure you want to go through with this?” Lanthe asked. “No second thoughts about taking one on the chin for Team Evil?”
Eyes locked on her prey, Sabine murmured, “Not in the least.”
A goal, a plot, a possibility . . . all lay before her.
Once he staggered back to survey the damage to his car, crunching over glass and debris, the demon whistled in a breath at the sight, but his attention quickly turned away from the wreck.
“Is someone here?” he called. With each second that he shook off the accident, his shoulders went farther back, his chin lifting, his demeanor unmistakably kingly. “Are you hurt?”
Sabine didn’t answer, instead letting his voice roll over her. It was pleasingly deep-toned, with the British-tinged accent common to noble rage demons.
When he loped in her direction, he snagged a cell phone from his pocket and peered at the screen. She heard him mutter, “Bugger me.” No reception out here.
He wore a dark jacket over a thin black sweater that molded over his broad chest. His clothes were simple in cut but expensive-looking. Tailored, of course. No off-the-rack garments would fit his towering build and wide shoulders.
The battle scar on his face carved across his forehead, then jagged down his cheek. He had to have received that injury before the age when he’d been “frozen” in his immortal body–she guessed when he was thirty-four or thirty-five years old–or else it would have healed seamlessly.
The scar gave him a dangerous air that clashed with his royal bearing and rich-looking clothing, as did his horns, his fangs, his black claws …
“I’d do him,” Lanthe said.
“Since you’d do anyone, your comment is meaningless in the definitive sense.”
“You’re just jealous.”
Yes, yes she was.
When he glanced back up, he met eyes with Sabine. His were the most startling green she’d ever seen.
“Go now,” she told Lanthe. “Be ready to shut the portal directly behind us. Once I capture him, report my success to Omort. Loudly. In front of all the fools at court.”
“Will do. Go get ’em, tigress. Rar!”
With Lanthe gone, Sabine devoted her full concentration to him. His gaze narrowed as she made the night appear dreamlike. The stars shone brighter for him, the moon seeming heavier in the sky. Brows drawn in confusion, he started toward her.
She could see him assessing her, his gaze flickering over her long hair, and over the modest gown that fortunately had grown damp in the humid night and clung to her breasts. When he peered hard at the outline of her jutting nipples, he ran a hand over his mouth.
Time to get him through the portal. When she began sauntering along the road away from him, he said, “No, wait! Are you all right?”
She turned to him but continued to step backward toward the trap.
“I won’t hurt you.” The demon hastened after her. “Do you have a car out here?”
“I need your help,” she told him, continuing her damsel-in-distress act.
“Of course. Do you live near here?” Finally, they neared the portal’s edge.
“Need your help,” she said once more, ducking behind what appeared to be a willow by the water’s edge, but was actually an illusion within the dungeon.
He joined her there–and Sabine sensed the portal closing. The trap had worked, and he’d never felt a thing.
“I have to get to the city,” he said. “But then I can come back to help you.”
Before she caught herself, her gaze flitted over the deep scar on his face–the first time she’d seen it this close.
He noticed and seemed to be waiting for her to react.
The scar didn’t bother her as much as it clearly did him. She could use that against him.
All in all, he wasn’t anything like she imagined. He was … better. And if she looked at those intense eyes long enough, she could almost forget what he was. When she arched closer to him, he drew back, suspicion in his expression.
She hastily said, “Help me now.” Grasping one of his big hands in hers, she kissed it with smiling lips, then placed it over one of her breasts.
As if he didn’t realize what he was doing, he cupped her flesh with a growl.
“This is what I need,” she murmured, arching to his rough palm.
“And the gods know that I want to give it to you, right after I’ve settled–“
“I need it”–she took his other hand and placed it on her inner thigh–“now.”
He squeezed her breast and leg too hard, as if he were holding on for dear life. Yet still he seemed on the verge of leaving her. She delved to read his mind, but demons could deflect her probes. She only heard his stray thoughts, and only because they were so strong.
–“Been so long without a woman … can’t have her … responsibilities.”–
Exactly how long had he been celibate? And was this brute truly thinking to deny her? For responsibilities?
The rejection was intriguing.
She knew that demon males loved to have their horns touched, relished having their females steering them sexually. His had straightened and become duskier with his arousal, so she raised her hands and wrapped her fingers around them.
He shuddered as if in ecstasy.
“Kiss me, demon.” She gave a firm tug to lead him down to her, and he finally bowed his head. When their lips met, he groaned from deep in his chest.
–“… connection with her, maybe the connection.”–
Yes, already he sensed what she was to him. Now he’ll come to heel.
He began taking her mouth, twining his tongue against hers slowly. She got the impression that he was endeavoring to be gentle for her. He probably feared he’d scare her off. But when she met his tongue and gave it teasing laps with her own, his hands landed hard on her ass to rock her against his sizable erection.
So the rumors about demon males weren’t exaggerated.
When she felt him subtly thrusting that shaft against her, she thought, This is better.Once males got to this state, they ceased to think.
As she relaxed somewhat, she began to find his kiss enjoyable. He tasted good, his lips were firm, and he knew how to use them. More of his delving kisses, more squeezing and exploring her body.
But when heavily aroused, Sabine unwittingly cast illusions of fire. If he saw them, he could guess her identity. Just when she began to worry that her reaction to him might get that intense, he broke away from her.
“I … can’t do this now. I have to meet someone. Much rides on this.”
Was he serious? “Make love to me,” she whispered, now sidling closer to him. “Here. Under this tree, in the moonlight. I’m aching for you.” And that might actually be true.
“No. I have obligations.” His voice was rough, his thoughts in turmoil, blasting past his own blocks.
–“… she’s so lush … cock’s throbbing for her … horns straightening … No! The kingdom’s needs always come before the king’s.”–
Yes, Rydstrom was supposed to be patient and wise. Apparently, she could add selfless to that list.
When he backed away, her lips parted in wonderment. He’s going to deny me. She’d offered up her body, all but begged him to take it, and he’d declined.
How surprising. The only thing Sabine loved as much as a good juicy plot was a surprise. He’d resisted her–his own female. “Then you leave me no choice, Rydstrom.”
Just when he frowned, no doubt wondering how she knew his name, she began withdrawing her illusion. The road and the moonlit night gradually disappeared, revealing the sealed and locked cell. As he twisted around, his eyes narrowed with recognition.
“You’re Omort’s sister, Sabine, the Queen of Illusions.”
“Very good, Rydstrom.”
The brows-drawn look of desire from before vanished. Now he appeared disgusted with her. “Show me your real form.”
“This is.” She smoothed her palms over her breasts and lower. “I’m so pleased by how much it arouses you.” But it hadn’t enough. …
Clearly struggling to control his temper, he asked, “Why have you done this to me, Sabine?”
She motioned toward the bed now revealed in the center of the cell–the one with chains at the head and foot. “Isn’t it obvious?”
“No, it’s not obvious.” Rydstrom glanced from the bed back to the sorceress before him.
Thoughts ran riot in his mind–suspicions arose and were dismissed. A bed and chains. She’d failed to seduce him to willingly bed her. Was she now intent on taking what she’d wanted?
When he felt a confusing surge of lust at the idea, he realized she must already be enthralling him. Of course she was. He’d seen the road disappear, had seen the bridge abutment move. She had unthinkable power, and for some reason she’d targeted him.
He surveyed the dimly lit space. She’d lured him directly into a large dungeon cell. And one he recognized, because he’d kept prisoners here when he was master and king of Castle Tornin.
She’s trapped me in my own goddamned dungeon.
When he faced her once more, she met his gaze. Her eyes were unusual–with light amber irises surrounded by a ring as dark as coffee. He couldn’t seem to look away from them. “You’ve brought me back to Tornin, so I assume you’re working with Omort.”
“That’s correct.” Her voice was a purr.
I’m in my own dungeon, a prisoner of my worst enemy. Between gritted teeth, he said, “And when will I get to face him?”
“You will not. You need not. All you need is me.”
“Explain to me exactly what you plan,” he demanded, cursing his reaction to her. He’d never responded so strongly to any woman before her. He’d been kissing her, lost in pleasure, actually thinking, She might be my queen.
Rydstrom had worried what such a beauty would think about his scar, about how much larger he was than she. For her, he’d tried to gentle his touch and kiss. All the while she’d been luring him into a trap.
“I plan,” she began matter-of-factly, “to become pregnant with your heir.”
His lips parted. Her very words made his shaft shoot hard as steel as every primal demon instinct inside him seemed to stir to life. This female with her plump breasts and sweet lips desired his seed, wanted to mate with him.
She’s spellbinding me. She must be.
He’d studied Omort’s family, had read about hundreds of his half siblings. Omort had murdered most of them after stealing their powers. But a few he kept close.
What have I read about this sorceress? She was aptly called the Queen of Illusions. Rydstrom had just fallen prey to one of remarkable detail. Though she looked to be in her early twenties, she would have to be centuries old.
She was reputed to be even more diabolical than Omort.
Grappling for patience, he grated, “Sabine, let’s discuss this like rational beings.” Rational was the last thing he felt. “What do you hope to gain?”
“With me in control of your heir, the last of rage demon rebellions will be quelled.”
The idea that the rebels amounted to even a thorn in Omort’s side was heartening. Rydstrom had thought that the sorcerer’s sadistic regime had broken any true momentum. “There are two flaws to your plan.”
“Enlighten me, demon.”
“First, my body won’t … give up seed.” A rage demon could take release in sex, but could never spill his seed until he’d claimed his female, and the seal was finally broken. “Not for any but my fated one–“
“I am yours.” Her eyes held his, and he realized that she, at least, believed what she’d said. Omort had oracles, basically his own Nïx at his beck and call.
Sabine could know more than I do …
Rydstrom shook his head hard, even as his mouth went dry. In fifteen hundred years, he’d never felt so attracted to another female. What if she were his? To find his queen after waiting so long? To find her as Omort’s sister? “No, fate isn’t that cruel.”
She quirked a brow at that. “Fate is indifferent.”
“What are the odds that my woman is related to my worst enemy?”
“Omort’s sire lived for millennia and begot hundreds of daughters.” She sidled around him. “Five centuries ago, a soothsayer told Omort that his own half sister, the Queen of Illusions, would be your fated mate, and that she would bear your heir in a time of war. After the foretelling, Omort searched for me specifically because of what I am to you. And then I merely waited here at Tornin for the right time.”
“Why now? Why do this now?”
She tilted her head. “I was going to seduce you slowly. But we learned of a plot between you and Groot. I had to prevent you from joining forces with your brother, Cadeon the Kingmaker.”
Did Sabine know the specifics of their plans? Tonight, Rydstrom had told his brother that should Omort learn of his quest to get the sword, he would stop at nothing to thwart them. Rydstrom hadn’t known his enemy had a sorceress like this aiding him.
“What do you know about a plot?”
“More than you think,” she replied. “I always know more than men think.”
Did she know that there was at last a weapon to kill Omort? That Rydstrom had been intent on speeding to meet Cadeon so they could go barter with the psychotic Groot for the weapon? She must.
Cadeon would be at their meeting place right now, wondering where in the hell his older brother was. The brother who was never late, who never missed a meeting.
“Even if you are fated to be mine, Sabine, I’ll never have you.”
“Oh, you’ll have me.” Her lips curled in a knowing, sexual grin that made his heart pound. “Again and again until this deed is done.”
Again and again. Taking her soft body, learning that perfect pale flesh … No! Resist her.
“Tell me the second flaw.” She lowered herself to the large bed, sitting gracefully on the side. Her mane of glossy red hair tumbled forward, and her scent swept him up. “You’ve raised my curiosity.”
He inwardly shook himself. “For my heir to be legitimate, you have to be my queen by marriage.”
“I know.” She ran her fragile-looking hand over the sheet. “We will wed.”
She talked of marrying him as if it were an afterthought, while his mind was reeling.
Because he was drawn to her as no other woman before. And there was only one way to determine if she was truly his.
“You’ll give your vow to me, demon. And I’ll accept it.”
The vow–the recitation that would bind a rage demon king to his queen. No ceremony, no witnesses, just a pact between two to become one. He would vocalize his claim on her, and if she accepted his right to her, then she would forever be his queen. “My people will never recognize a marriage coerced by sorcery–or a conception fueled by your notorious potions.”
“Rydstrom, let’s just be frank here. Considering your reaction to me”–she delicately pointed to his erection–“do you really think I’ll need to use sorcery on you?”
He clenched his jaw, unable to deny what was so obvious. “Of course you’d kill me after our babe is born?”
Our babe. He’d never said the phrase in his life. Even she tilted her head at the words.
But then she slowly smiled–and it was beguiling and took his breath away. Had she noticed? “Well, I wouldn’t be a very good evil sorceress if I allowed you to live.”
“Then there’s one thing I can assure you. You will never get my vow from me.”
“Then, Rydstrom, I can’t let you have me without it.”
At that, everything became clear. She would tease him, sexually tormenting him until he gave up the words. Why did the thought make blood surge to his groin?
This creature taking him to the brink, over and over.
Imagining the power struggle between them, the complication of it . . . Fantasies arose in his mind, thoughts he usually buried at once. Secrets long kept–and forever denied. “Then all you’re doing is wasting my time,” he said, but his voice was roughened.
“What makes you so confident that I can’t make you say or do anything to be inside me?”
Because so much is at stake. Never had Rydstrom been this close to all he wanted.
He had to escape to get to his brother before he did something monumentally selfish. Cadeon was a cutthroat mercenary who had just come into possession of what he’d yearned for most in the world. “You couldn’t tempt me from my duty before–and I didn’t even know who you were then.” Bravado, Woede.
She stood, her shoulders back. “You haven’t seen everything I have to tempt you with,” she said, pulling a ribbon at her bodice. The gown slid over her pert nipples down her narrow waist and shapely legs to pool at her feet.
All that remained on her exquisite body was a sheer scrap of white silk covering her breasts and the tiniest panties he had ever seen.
His lips parted, and his cock felt like it could rip through his pants. With her eyes flashing, she raised her chin, well aware of her effect on him and prideful of it.
If this female weren’t so evil, she’d be glorious.
In that instant, he decided, I’ll claim her as my war prize when I escape.
And he would use her to get free.
The demon ran a shaking hand over his mouth, then seemed to catch himself doing it.
With his gaze raking Sabine’s body, Rydstrom began stalking toward her with slow, menacing steps. His eyes were growing black once more, but with desire or rage or both?
She assumed that he would try to escape, would likely seek to use her as a hostage, unless she could seduce him to forget himself. She thought she still had a chance–he couldn’t hide his body’s reaction to her. Yet the conflict was plain on his face.
Rydstrom didn’t know whether to claim her or kill her. “What do you hope to gain from this?”
“I told you.”
“No, you personally. Your kind looks down on mine. Why would you ever want to wed a demon, to bear one a child?” He narrowed his gaze. “Is Omort holding something over you to compel you to do this? Has he imprisoned a family member? A … lover?”
Sabine could tell how much he hoped that she was being forced into this. “No, he has no one that I hold dear imprisoned. I was quite eager to fulfill this duty.” And to begin the prophecy.
Foretold centuries ago, it stated that if the Queen of Illusions bore the heir of the fallen king of the rage demons, that prince would unlock a source of inconceivable power. If she didn’t, the Pravus would fall to its foes.
“Eager?” he bit out.
Earlier the demon had inhaled deeply, exercising more patience than Sabine had seen in a male in ages. But she sensed that with the possibility of her coercion gone, Rydstrom had just given up reasoning with her and had reached the end of his patience.
She could see him shutting down. A muscle ticced in his scarred cheek, and his eyes glowed fully black. In a flash of insight, she realized she was seeing a side of Rydstrom that few had encountered before.
“You have no idea what you’re playing with,” he said, his tone cruel.
“You won’t win this.”
“No? Just imagine it, Rydstrom. I can give you whatever you want. I’ll fulfill every secret desire you have.”
“What do you know of my secret desires?” Had his voice roughened? Again she probed his mind but couldn’t get through.
When he was directly before her, he made no move to touch her. This close to him, she felt so small next to his great height. She could perceive the heat coming off his body.
Without warning, his hands shot to her camisole, fisting the material. She stifled a gasp as he ripped it off her, exposing her breasts to him.
Collecting herself immediately, she asked in a femme fatale voice, “Do you think them pretty?”
As he peered hard at them, his brows drew together in answer.
“Won’t you touch them? You’ve waited all your life to pet your female like this.”
Just when she thought he would succumb, he wrapped her hair around his fist. He yanked her close until he was staring directly down at her.
“A little girl like you shouldn’t toy with a demon like me,” he said with another yank, until her hands flew to his broad chest. “You’re going to lose, and when you do, I’ll make you pay for this.”
“Is that so–“
He cut off her words with a brutal kiss. It was so different from the first time when he’d been striving to please her. Now he seemed intent on punishing her. But she liked how bold and firm his kiss was. She liked that he didn’t fear her, though many males did.
She felt herself getting caught up, lowering her defenses. When she moaned, he seemed to be losing himself as well, a growling sound breaking from his chest.
Grazing his torso with her bared breasts, she murmured against his lips, “Rydstrom, put your hands on them. You know you want to feel me once more.”
With a defeated groan, he covered her flesh. The heat and texture of his palms shocked her. A warrior’s hands, callused from his sword hilt. As he kneaded her, he took her mouth again, flicking her tongue with his.
When he pinched one nipple–hard, angrily–she gave a cry, anticipating pain; instead, pleasure flooded through her body.
What a surprise.
He pinched the other one until both peaks were plump and swollen. Then he grazed his flattened palms over them, up and down, his callused skin rasping her tender flesh.
He drew his head back. “Your eyes are turning blue.” A timbre of pure masculine satisfaction marked his tone. “You like my touch, female.”
I do. They were strangers, he knew nothing about her, but the way he stroked her was perfection.
Her breasts grew heavy under his ministrations, her sex damp. She’d waited so long for this. For him. She was so close to finally knowing what it would be like to have a man moving inside her. “More, demon.”
He turned her so that her back was against his chest. Still fondling her breasts, he leaned in to run his face against hers, his breaths hot at her ear. When his big shaft prodded her, he ground it against her.
One of his hands trailed down her belly toward her sex. Her hips rocked up in invitation, but he teased his fingers at the line of her panties.
“Mmm. Touch me there.” She trembled with anticipation as his hand slowly inched inside her panties. Illusions of fire began to appear, but she extinguished them … barely.
Finally his fingers smoothed through her small triangle of curls. He hissed in a shocked breath to find she was shaven everywhere below it. His voice gravelly, he said, “So soft . . . will I find you wet, sorceress?”
When he dipped into her slick folds, she moaned with pleasure. His body tensed against hers, and he muttered a harsh curse. “You’re ready for me.”
He spread her moisture to her swollen clitoris, then rubbed it with two fingers, circling again and again. There was no hesitation–he was deliberate, but agonizingly slow.
“It wouldn’t take much to make you come on my hand.” As he fingered her flesh more aggressively, her eyes slid shut on a wordless cry. She was on the brink, scarcely noticing him raising the arm he held her with–
Until it was constricted around her neck in a chokehold, cutting off her air.
She dug her nails into his arm. He didn’t budge. Can’t breathe … can’t …
“I can play dirty, too.” He let up his grip just enough for her to catch a gasping breath. “Scream for a guard.”
“Don’t need to … one’s here.”
An illusion of a masked guard appeared from the shadows with his sword raised, swinging for the demon’s neck. Rydstrom released her, shoving her away to defend himself.
Once clear, Sabine flipped her ring open, loosing her sleeping powder, then crept behind Rydstrom. As she let the illusion fade, she whispered, “Behind you.”
When the demon twisted around, she blew the powder up into his eyes. “If you’re going to act like an animal, then you’ll be kept like one.”
He gave her a blind look of pure hatred. “You little bitch!” Then he crashed to the floor.