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“Sure as hell fooled me. If you’re not a demon, then what the hell are you?”
“A Synestryn queen.”
Eric blinked. “Those exist?”
“I rule this area absolutely. All of my kind who dwell here obey me. As will you.”
He laughed. He couldn’t help it. “You really shouldn’t say such things until you get to know a person. Makes you look like an idiot.”
One second he was sitting at the table. The next, he flew across the room, coming to a hard stop as his body slammed into the cave wall. His head bounced off, rattling his brains around in his skull. He stayed where he landed, not even sliding down an inch. His feet dangled over the ground, swiftly losing feeling as the pressure holding him in place increased and cut off his blood flow.
Treszka lifted her skirts and glided over to where he sprawled, completely immobile. “And you, Slayer, should not defy a queen who possesses more power than you can imagine. It makes you look like food.”
She flicked her wrist and his head jerked to the side, baring his neck. He watched in helpless horror as she tugged on her hair, pulling it back, away from her forehead. The long strands hung there by a flap of skin that had been covering what could only be called a maw. The opening in the top of her head was a grotesque black hole surrounded by half a dozen long, sharp teeth. She bowed her head, giving him a better view, and he wished like hell he’d been born blind. One bulbous eye positioned above the maw blinked at him. It was the same black iris and white pupil as her other eyes, but this one was lidded by thick, rubbery flesh with no lashes. Tears leaked from it as it regarded him.
As he watched, completely immobile, she lowered that mouth to his throat and sank her sharp teeth in his flesh.
He tried to fight her hold, tried to slow his pounding heart so it wouldn’t willingly pump blood into her mouth, but nothing he did worked. With each passing beat of his heart, he fed her, strengthening her while he grew weaker.
As he became dizzy from blood loss, his eyes fluttered shut. All he could feel was the sharp sting of her teeth and the cold brush of that rubbery eyelid on his skin. Not long after that, he felt nothing as he sank into unconsciousness.
Lyka surveyed the damage that had once been her home.
What used to be a peaceful woodland settlement nestled in the Ozark Mountains was now just . . . carnage. The rustic log cabins her people lived in were charred and broken. Several of them looked like they’d taken blows over and over from a battering ram. All that was left were splinters and the belongings of her pack mates strewn about like so much leaf litter.
The ground was rough with furrows dug in by the feet of hundreds of Synestryn. Those that had died had been burned off by the sun, but their primitive swords remained as a testament to how many enemies her people had faced.
It was a wonder that any of them survived.
All around her, fallen leaves and evergreens colored the area, but in the center of the clearing there was only black.
The blood of their enemy had tainted the ground, staining it and poisoning it for years to come. Nothing would grow here. Nothing would flourish here. The peaceful setting so in tune with nature would never again be the same.
Off to one side were several fresh graves dug in haste by Andreas and his men upon their return. The dirt was mounded up over those who’d been lost. There had been no time for tombstones, so all that marked their graves now were thick wooden stakes carved with the names of the dead.
A flood of anguish and grief washed over her so suddenly she didn’t see it coming. The shock of the devastation was beginning to wear off, leaving behind something much more jagged and agonizing.
Her chest tightened until she couldn’t breathe. She pulled in pitiful gasps of air, only to let them out in high whimpers of pain. The wind swept the noise of her grief away as if it had never been, but the marks it left on her were permanent scars of loss that would never fade.
She crouched where she stood, hearing the charred earth beneath her feet crunch with the shift of her weight. She hugged herself, praying the storm of emotion would pass and she’d once again be able to function.
She’d come here to find her brother and the children. Despite her Theronai side, she was one of the best scent trackers her people had. If anyone could find a trail leading from this place, it was her.
Tears streamed down her cheeks and clogged her nose, rendering it useless. She had to find some way to get a grip, but wave after wave of pain kept barreling into her.
So many lives torn apart. So many dead. How could she just push that aside like it had never even happened? These people were her friends, her family. She hadn’t even gotten to say good-bye to them, and now they were gone.
She didn’t know how long she stayed like that, crouched in the forest, surrounded by devastation and death. Her feet had long since gone to sleep. The skin under the luceria around her neck was wet with tears, as was the collar of her shirt. The angle of the sun had changed, and shadows had begun to elongate as the day neared its end.
Still, she couldn’t move. She should have been here. She should have fought beside her people and helped fend off the attack. Instead she was trapped inside the nice, safe walls of Dabyr while her loved ones died.
A soft whisper of comfort brushed through her mind. A second later, Joseph appeared through the trees, heading right for her.
She’d left Dabyr alone, but she’d known he would follow her. Eventually. She just hadn’t thought he’d find a way to leave his post so soon.
She wanted to be angry at him for intruding, but the sight of his tall, strong body getting closer gave her a much-needed distraction from her grief. He really was beautifully built, with just the right amount of muscle to give him an air of competence without being bulky or overblown. His wide shoulders and long limbs were just the kind of advantage a man like him would need when fighting demons. And despite all the office work he did, his hands still bore the mark of a swordsman. Calluses from hours wielding a weapon, broad palms and strong, thick fingers and forearms.
Now that she knew what his hands felt like on her—all hot and tingly—she wondered how she’d ever gone so long evading his touch.
She sniffed and tried to stand. Her legs had gone numb, making the move impossible.
Joseph was at her side in an instant, lifting her to her feet by her arms. His hands lingered on her shoulders while his gaze settled on her neck.