Deep within the Alps, mortal realm
ROUGHLY FIVE CENTURIES AGO
Crawling along a meadow on her hands and knees, Lanthe scoured the grass for berries or dandelions—anything to dull her hunger pangs as her stomach seemed to gnaw on itself.
Her older sister, Sabine—or Ai-bee, as Lanthe called her—would soon be back from the nearby human village, where she’d gone on a desperate food run. Lanthe had wanted to accompany her, but Sabine said nine was too young.
So Lanthe waited in this meadow, her favorite spot below the high mountain abbey where she lived with Sabine and her parents. A fir-tree forest surrounded the small clearing, and a placid lake reflected the sky like a mirror. Her dress hem continually danced with swaying wild-flowers.
Here, she could coax rabbits to share dandelions with her, naming the creatures and talking to them. Other times, she’d spend hours lying in the grass, gazing up at puffy white clouds to spot shapes.
But today was cloudless. Which was why she frowned when a shadow passed over the sun.
She shielded her eyes to peer upward—and saw . . . wings. Deadly wings. They belonged to a boy, one who looked as shocked as she was.
He was a Vrekener! An enemy to her kind.
As she scrambled to her feet, their eyes met. His had gone as wide as hers. They stared, right up until the moment he flew headfirst into a tree.
Spell broken, she hiked up her dress and ran for her life. Before she’d made the cover of forest, he dropped in front of her, spreading his wings.
She gasped, momentarily stunned by the sight of them. Vrekener wings were jagged—more dragon than dove—with a tapering flare at three points along the bottom. The flares farthest from the body on either side were tipped with talons. Scary talons.
She whirled around to flee in the other direction, skirting the lake. Though she was as fast as a fey, he again caught up with her, corralling her with those wings. On the inside, they were gray, with lines of light forking out all over them.
Lanthe and the boy stared at each other, his gaze flicking over her face. Whatever he saw there made him exhale a sharp breath. Puh.
No use running. And no one would ever hear her scream. Her parents were all the way up in the abbey, a pair of recluses. Would Sabine find Lanthe’s mangled body down here?
Not if I use my sorcery. At the thought, she began to tremble. Lanthe didn’t want to call on her powers. It seemed every time she did ended in disaster. But she would against a Vrekener.
Even if he was the most handsome boy she’d ever imagined.
Looking to be a year or two older than she was, he had vivid gray eyes, tanned skin, broad cheekbones, and sandy brown hair that tumbled over his forehead and around his horns. Those jutting spikes were smooth and silvery.
He had even, white teeth, with a pair of fangs! She had the mad urge to tap one of those points with the pad of her forefinger—
“I smell magics on you,” the Vrekener said, narrowing those gray eyes. “Are you a little Sorceri?”
There was no denying her species, so she raised her hands threateningly. Power easily leapt to them, swirls of dazzling blue light sparkling in her palms. “I am the Queen of Persuasion, a great and terrible sorceress,” she said in an ominous voice, even while fighting the urge to bite her fingernails. “If you come any closer to me, Vrekener, I will be forced to hurt you.”
He didn’t seem bothered whatsoever by her show of sorcery. As if she hadn’t spoken, he said, “Or maybe you’re a little lamb. From the sky, you look like one, crawling around in a white frock and eating flowers.”
She drew her head back, sputtering, “Wh-what?” Was he jesting with her?
Yes, his eyes gleamed with amusement. While she was fearing for her life—and threatening his—he acted as if he’d just stumbled upon a new playmate.
One he’d been longing for.
“What’s your name, sorceress?”
She was so startled she found herself saying, “Melanthe. Of the Deie Sorceri family.”
He sounded out her name. “Mel-anth-ee.” Then he pressed his hand over his chest. “I’m Thronos Talos, Prince of the Skye.” His tone was filled with importance.
“Never heard of you,” she said, casting a glance over her shoulder toward the abbey. If Sabine caught this boy here with Lanthe, her overprotective big sister would kill him with her fantastical powers.
Lanthe didn’t like things to be killed, not even handsome Vrekeners.
As the Queen of Illusions, Sabine could make her victims see anything she chose, changing the appearance of their surroundings. She could also reach into a person’s mind, draw forth his worst nightmare, then present it to him.
Unlike Lanthe, Sabine never hesitated to use her powers. . . .
“Is that where you live?” the Vrekener asked, interrupting her thoughts. Was he following her gaze to the mountaintop?
“No! Not at all. We live far away from here. I walk leagues to get to this meadow.”
“Really?” He clearly disbelieved her, but didn’t seem angered by her lie. “Strange that I sense sorcery from that direction. Lots of it.”
Vrekeners tracked Sorceri by scent—and by power outlays. Lanthe would have to get her parents to use more caution. Or try to. They were consumed with creating ever more gold. “I don’t know what you mean.”
He let it go. “So what’s persuasion?”
She glanced down at her palms, startled to see how much sorcery she wielded. Did she really mean to hurt him? He didn’t seem as threatening anymore.
Pursing her lips, she called back her power. “I can make anyone do anything I tell them to do. It’s called persuasion, but it should be called commanding.”
Years ago, when she’d first used it, she’d crossly told Sabine to shut her mouth. For an entire week, no one had understood why Sabine hadn’t been able to open it. Her sister had almost starved.
“That sounds impressive, lamb. So you’re as powerful as you are pretty?”
Her cheeks heated. He thought she was pretty? She gazed down at her frayed dress. Though faded nearly white from repeated washing, it used to have color. Sorceri loved color. Her feet were bare because she’d outgrown her boots. She didn’t feel very pretty.
“I’m sure you get called beautiful all the time,” he said confidently.
No. She didn’t. She rarely encountered anyone besides her family. If Sabine complimented her, she’d remark on Lanthe’s ability, not her looks. And sometimes her parents didn’t seem to see her at all—
The boy started striding toward her.
“Wait, wh-what are you doing?” She tripped back until she met a tree.
“Just making certain of something.” He leaned his face in close to her hair, and then he . . . he scented her! When he drew back, he wore a cocky grin, as if he’d just won a prize or discovered a new realm.
For some reason, that grin made her feel as if she’d run all the way up the mountain. Her heart pounded, and she couldn’t seem to catch her breath.
“You smell like sky. And home.” He said this as if it was significant—a weighty and undeniable truth.
“What does that mean?” Gods, this boy confused her.
“To me, you smell like no one else in the world ever has, or ever will.” His gray irises glowed silver with emotion. A breeze ruffled his sandy brown hair. “It means you and I are going to be best friends. When we grow up, we’ll be . . . more.”
She focused on the words best friends, and ached with yearning. She’d always wanted a friend! She loved Sabine, but her sister was twelve and usually had grown-up stuff on her mind, like how to get warm clothing for the coming winter, or enough food to feed four.
Lanthe supposed someone had to be concerned with those things—since their parents were always preoccupied. When Lanthe had been a baby, she’d called for Ai-bee over their own mother.
But Lanthe could never be best friends with a Vrekener, despite how intriguing she found him. “You should go, Thronos Talos,” she said, just as her stomach growled, embarrassing her and deepening his amusement.
“You might be a great and terrible sorceress, but you can’t eat sorcery, can you?” He spread those spellbinding wings. “Will you stay here if I go find food for you?”
“Why would you do that?”
His shoulders went back, his silvery eyes alight—as if with pride. “That’s my job now, lamb.”
She sighed. “I don’t understand. We’re enemies. We’re not supposed to be like”—she waved from herself to him—“this.”
He winked at her. “I won’t tell if you don’t.”
Four months later
Thronos . . . told.
And then Lanthe made him pay for it.
“Sorceri are licentious, gambling, paranoid hedonists; their love of wine-swilling and carousing is matched only by their delight in thievery. For Sorceri powers to go unchecked would be disastrous.”
—THRONOS TALOS, KNIGHT OF RECKONING, HEIR TO THE SKYE
“Meaningless sex is like eating the worm at the bottom of a tequila bottle: fun in the moment, but not something you’d want to repeat over and over.”
—MELANTHE OF THE DEIE SORCERI, QUEEN OF PERSUASION
An island, somewhere in the Pacific Ocean
As Lanthe sprinted down a shaking, smoky tunnel, she focused on her friends ahead: Carrow, a witch, and Carrow’s newly adopted daughter, Ruby. The witch was holding the seven-year-old girl in her arms as she ran headlong for an exit out of this godsforsaken maze.
Lanthe followed, gripping her sword with a gauntleted hand, her metal claws digging into the handle. She tried to smile for Ruby, who was frowning back at her.
Carrow—or Crow, as Ruby called her—and Lanthe had attempted to turn their dire escape into a fun-filled adventure for her. Snarky and adorable Ruby clearly wasn’t sold.
Charging into the tunnels had seemed like such a good idea at the time, a way out of the Order prison they’d all been jailed in—and an escape from other immortals. After tonight’s cataclysmic overthrow, Loreans stalked the fiery halls, hunting for prey. Carrow’s estranged husband, who might or might not be evil, hunted for her.
Another quake rocked the tunnel, grit raining down over Lanthe’s black braids. Unfortunately, Lanthe had her own stalker—Thronos, a crazed, winged warlord who’d been obsessed with capturing her for the last five hundred years.
But Vrekeners feared enclosed spaces; anything underground was a forbidding landscape, much less a failing tunnel. He’d never follow her into this subterranean maze.
Explosions sounded somewhere in the distance, and the tunnel rumbled. Seemed like such a good idea. She gazed up, saw the immense ceiling supports bowed from strain. No wonder. New mountains were sprouting from the earth all over this prison island, courtesy of Lanthe’s fellow Sorceri.
A boulder dropped in her path, slowing her progress. Rock dust wafted over her like a grainy curtain, spattering her face and Sorceri mask. Carrow and Ruby grew indistinct in the haze. The two turned a corner, out of sight.
As Lanthe increased her speed, she gave a frustrated yank on her torque, a treat from the humans for all their immortal captives. The indestructible collar prevented them from using their innate abilities, neutralizing strength, endurance, and healing.
Some of the prisoners—all of the most evil ones—had had theirs removed this night. Lanthe still wore one, which wasn’t fair, since few would consider her “good.”
Without that torque, she would have been able to command stronger beings to protect her and her friends. She would have been able to read an opponent’s mind, run with supernatural speed, or create a portal to step through—away from this island nightmare forever.
Away from Thronos.
Lanthe hiked up her metal breastplate—not ideal for running for one’s life. Nor were her metal mesh skirt and thigh-high stiletto boots. Still she sped forward, wishing her thoughts would stop returning to her age-old foe.
During their captivity, she’d had the shock of her life when guards had dragged Thronos by their cell. He’d let himself be seized by the Order and taken to her prison—Lanthe knew it. With malice in his eyes, he’d grated to her, “Soon.”
When Carrow had asked about that, Lanthe had been sparing of the details: “Would you believe that Thronos and I were childhood friends?”
Later, Carrow had pressed, so Lanthe had admitted, “He’s broken because of me. I ‘persuaded’ him to dive from a great height. And not to use his wings.” Most of his skin had been slashed and scarred, the bones of his wings and limbs fractured—before his immortality had taken hold, before he could regenerate.
What more could Lanthe say? How to explain the bond she and Thronos had shared? Until he’d betrayed her fragile trust . . .
Well, Carrow, Thronos led his clan to my family’s secret lair one night. His father killed my parents, lopped their heads right off with a Vrekener fire scythe. My fierce sister Sabine retaliated, taking the father’s life. When she was nearly murdered, I gave Thronos wounds that would last an eternal lifetime, then left him to die.
Alas, since then, things have gone downhill.
“Air’s getting fresher!” Carrow called from somewhere ahead. “Almost there!”
At last, the smoke was clearing. Which meant Lanthe needed to catch up. Who knew what could be awaiting them out in the night? Thousands of immortals had escaped.
Had this many enemies ever been so concentrated in one inescapable place?
She readied her sword. A vague memory arose of holding her first one. Mother had absently handed each of her daughters a golden sword, telling them, “Never depend solely on your powers. If you and your sister want to survive to adulthood, you’d best get handy with one of these. . . .”
Now Lanthe kept her weapon poised for—
Pain on her ankle?
Body reeling forward?
One second Lanthe had been sprinting; the next she was on her face, sword tumbling in front of her. Something had her! Claws sank into her ankle, piercing the leather of her boot. She screamed and thrashed, but it hauled her back.
Ghoul? Demon? Wendigo? She stabbed her metal claws into the ground, scrabbling for purchase, looking over her shoulder.
Her own nightmare.
His scarred face was bloodied, his towering body tensed. A maniacal glint shone in his gray eyes as his wings unfurled—they seemed to flicker in the dim tunnel. A trick of light.
The bastard had actually braved an underground shaft. Vrekeners never abandon their hunt.