Ruthless dragon king Ladon Ormarr must keep his throne—and his people—safe from the cruel High King at all costs. With war on the horizon, he’ll need a miracle to protect his clan. Luckily, the fates have dropped the irresistible Skylar Amon right into his lap.
Or so he thought. Because the last thing this phoenix wants is him.
A phoenix mate is the ticket to securing his throne, but this fiery Amon sister detests Ladon, doesn’t stick to protocols, and regularly offends his warriors and advisers.
Skylar also has no intention of sticking around, nor does she believe in the whole destined-mates thing. But if it means taking out the High King who murdered her parents, she’ll put up with the too-sexy-for-her-sanity Ladon…temporarily.
Their mating bond may make them want to tear off their clothes, but outside the bedroom…well, Ladon is positive the fates hate him. Just as he starts to win over the mercurial phoenix, everything goes to hell when the High King makes his final move. And Ladon will burn down the world to keep the mate he is unwilling to live without.
Each book in the Inferno Rising series is a complete standalone novel set within the same world.
KEEP READING TO SEE AN EXCERPT!
About the Book
The Blood King
by Abigail Owen
August 25, 2020
THE BLOOD KING
An Inferno Rising Novel
© 2020 Abigail Owen
“The time has come.”
At the sound of her mother’s voice, Skylar Amon jerked her head up from the computer screen she’d been staring at. She’d been studying for her next-level pilot’s exam, having completed her final hours needed. But everything in front of her faded as she focused on those words in her mind, a telepathic communication.
Mom is afraid.
That alone petrified Skylar, freezing every thought, every muscle. Their mother was never afraid, always knew what to do. Skylar’s heart stopped cold, then slammed against her chest in an attempt to leave her to deal with this alone.
She knew what her mother’s words meant, what she had to do. Since the moment she and her three sisters were born, their mother had been preparing them for this day.
“Skylar!” So much fear filled her sister Meira’s call, Skylar’s body clenched against the sound of it.
“In here,” she shouted back.
I can’t let the fear in. Fear had no place here. Right now, all she had to do was act.
The screen door banged as Kasia ran into the kitchen from outside. Her pale skin had a greenish tint to it, probably made worse given the contrast to her deep red hair. Her pale blue eyes were wide and wild. “Did you hear that?”
A second later their other sisters, Meira and Angelika, sprinted into the room and they stared at one another. They all knew what those words meant.
“He’s come for us,” Skylar spat through lips almost frozen.
The Rotting King of the Red Dragon Clan. The man who had once deluded himself into thinking he could mate their mother, Serefina, because mating a phoenix would make him the High King, legitimize his reign, and grant him incomprehensible blessings. A tyrant whose every decision, every choice, ended with the exact consequences he wanted.
But Serefina had chosen another—Zilant Amon, the King of the White Clan of dragon shifters. For her sins, Pytheios had murdered Zilant.
Terrified, Serefina had escaped.
What the mad king would do if he discovered their mother was pregnant at all, let alone with four babies, had kept them in constant, vigilant fear.
Four possible phoenixes when there had only ever been one born to any previous phoenix in history? The most likely scenario to enter Skylar’s nightmares, when she allowed it, would be Pytheios using the sisters against one another. Maybe even force one of them to mate him.
Not that it would end well for him.
Nor for whichever sister he forced after his followers found out he was dead.
Running was all they’d ever known. Five centuries of it. Ages of training, preparing, and hiding.
Was it all to end this night?
The shock that had held her immobile, if only for moments, disappeared. She was the strong one of the four of them. She was the fighter.
Kasia was the courageous one. Meira the brains. And Angelika the heart.
But Skylar was the protector. Ever since they were tiny, she’d been the one to pluck her sisters off the ground when they fell down, or take out the bullies, or speak the hard truths.
She could protect them from this, too.
Gods above I hope I can.
“Let’s go.” She ran back out through the same screen door Kasia had just come in, her sisters right behind her.
They sprinted through the small backyard of their unassuming house—rickety white siding that needed replacing, dirt-covered screens, and white sheets drying on the line out back. A house in nowhere, Kansas, USA, where they’d lived quietly for the last twenty years. Out through the gate in the chain-link fence and into the clearing beyond. Skylar stopped in the middle of a field with tall, dry grass almost silver in the light of the full moon—the location her mother had told them to meet if they ever heard those words.
The time had come.
Death, in the form of a red-winged monster determined to claim the phoenix as his own, was upon them.
“Where’s Mom?” Skylar whispered, searching the fields with a desperate gaze. She should be here by now.
No sooner had the words passed her lips than a woman suddenly appeared in the field. She hit hard, crumpling to the ground. Skylar gasped as she immediately recognized the long silver handle of a knife illuminated by the moonlight. The blade was buried in their mother’s back.
No. Oh, gods, no.
Pytheios had already attacked? He must’ve caught their mother alone at the diner where they all took shifts. Where Skylar should’ve been working tonight.
This is my fault.
“Get up. Get up. Get up,” Skylar chanted under her breath.
Only her mother continued to lie there, unmoving.
“Mother!” Kasia’s voice pierced the sweltering night air.
Serefina Amon raised her head, her black curls, so like Skylar’s own, matted to the sweat on her forehead at the effort that small movement took, her expression a mask of dread and determination.
Could she even get them out of here with that injury? She needed to, quickly. The house where they lived was located only ten miles from the diner. Pytheios would be here any second.
Skylar took a step forward but jerked to a stop when her mother gave a miniscule shake of her head. That’s all it took. That one tiny movement, and Skylar knew what was coming.
Their mother—their immortal mother who always had time on her side—was dying. This night, one phoenix would turn to ash, and another would rise to take her place. The only question was, would one rise? Or would all four of them?
Before that moment, though, Skylar knew her mother would send them away. Without her. That was the plan. Had always been the plan.
No. I’m not ready. I’m not strong enough to keep us all safe without you.
Serefina focused on her children—each as different from the other as the moon from the sun, all a reflection of both their darkly beautiful mother and her ancestry, born of the red dragon king and the previous phoenix, and their blond-haired, pale-blue-eyed white dragon king father.
A cry of agony burst from Serefina’s lips as she forced the crackling energy inside her to manifest into flames spilling over her body, igniting the source of her powers. All around her, the grass burned, tinder to her flames, catching quickly. Her body began to shift—long, glorious feathers bursting from her arms for the first time in her life. A sight Skylar had never wanted to witness. The one time a phoenix ever turned into the bird was when she passed her powers to her daughter, either in death or by choice to willingly give them up.
Serefina seemed to heave a breath into her body, then her voice sounded in Skylar’s mind…all their minds. “I love you all, and I am so proud of you. You are women worthy of our phoenix legacy, but don’t let history control you. Find your own way in this world.”
A colossal roar reverberated across the land. Pytheios, in his true form, lured by the flames, was coming for them.
Kasia, Meira, and Angelika all ducked, covering their ears. Skylar didn’t duck. She crouched, assuming a fighting position, then looked to her mother.
Her face a mask of anguish, Serefina directed her gaze to the youngest of her quadruplets.
Skylar turned her head to look at Angelika, too. Tears streamed down her sister’s face. Her pale blond hair whipped in the wind. “I love you,” Angelika mouthed. Skylar had to close her eyes, torn apart. Torn every which way. When she opened them again, her sister was gone. Sent to another place, a safer place, by her mother’s will alone.
The flames covering her mother’s body ebbed slightly, but she pushed through, focusing next on Meira. More angular and serious, with her bouncy strawberry-blond curls at odds with her personality, she held her body rigidly, dark eyes closed as though unable to watch their mother’s last moments.
Just like Angelika, in a silent instant, Meira was gone, too.
Breath coming in panting bursts Skylar could hear even above the crackling roar of flames, her mother had almost completed the shift, her features turning more delicate and yet sharper. At the same time, her feathers had already taken on a gray hue, turning to ash before Skylar’s eyes.
Serefina shook her head, as if clearing it, then looked up.
Skylar stared back, trying to will strength into her mother’s body. She knew what came next, but she silently sent her mother a promise. I’ll make sure my sisters never come to harm, and, by the fates, I will destroy Pytheios for doing this to us.
In an instant, Skylar disappeared into that space, the in-between. Every sense shut down, and she was surrounded by pressure and darkness and utter silence.
But only for moments.
With a whoosh of returning sound, her feet suddenly stood not in the brown grassy field but on solid rock. All around her was granite, mighty columns framing what appeared to be a doorway.
A cave. Where had her mother sent her?
“No. It can’t be possible.”
Skylar whirled at the sound of a man’s voice, crouching into a defensive posture once more, her hands up. Ready to fight.
Before her stood a man with hair so white, it almost glowed even in the dim light of the cavern, cropped close to his head, almost military-style, and eyes a glacial blue. Eyes she and her sisters shared. Her father’s eyes. The hallmark of a white dragon shifter.
Only this wasn’t her father. Zilant Amon was dead.
“Who are you?” she asked through stiff lips, her voice harsh. Even now, the scents of fire and ash clung to her skin and her clothes.
“I’m your uncle, Tyrek.” He took a step forward but stopped when she scooted back. He held up both hands. “You must be Skylar. Serefina made me promise—”
“My father’s brother?” Skylar scoffed. “Try again, asshole. He’s dead. Pytheios took out the entire royal family of both the Red and White Clans.”
“Not dead,” the man said. “In hiding these five centuries. Just like you.”
She refused to let up, her posture stiff. “Show me.”
Without hesitation, he turned. He wore a loose outfit, almost like a gi, but with buttons instead of belted, and collarless. She had a clear view of his neck. Sure enough, the intricate design of the Amon crest marked the skin at the nape. A design her mother had made her memorize.
For this day?
“Show me your hand,” she snapped.
Every dragon shifter bore two marks. That of their family on their neck, and that of their king on the back of their hand. If any brand showed—an indication he was loyal to the current reigning king of his clan—she’d kill him where he stood.
Tyrek held up his hand, and Skylar sucked in a breath. No mark, which meant… “You’re rogue?” she asked.
At the same time, she relaxed her posture, dropping her hands. To be rogue was anathema to dragon shifters, which could only mean he was telling the truth. When Pytheios murdered their father, Tyrek must’ve run, the danger of being rogue a lesser evil than facing that red bastard.
The man before her gave a sad smile. “You’re so like your mother.”
She’d sent her here to a man Skylar could trust to protect her. To a dragon shifter, a creature she’d learned to hate. To family.
“Mom,” Skylar choked.
She dropped to her knees as sorrow grabbed hold of her heart and twisted, squeezing until she couldn’t breathe even as sobs wracked her body.
Immediately, Tyrek was there, taking one of her hands in his. He waited through the storm of her tears, an unexpected source of comfort.
“Was it Pytheios?” he asked softly once she quieted.
Skylar nodded, then took a shuddering breath and raised her head, cold determination filling her veins with ice. “I’m going to make him pay. Whatever it takes.”
She had to. Her sisters, wherever their mother had sent them, would never be safe until he was dead.
Why the hell did I come here?
Oh, right. Kasia needs me.
Skylar stayed close to the smoothly curved rock wall as she eased herself down the long, human-sized tunnel the dragon shifters of the Blue Clan used only when in that form. Most of them seemed to prefer flying to their rooms via a massive, hollow center to the mountain fortress inside Ben Nevis, Scotland, where they lived. So the likelihood of being caught was minimal.
After all, she’d been here days without incident.
Still, she remained vigilant, moving slowly, cautiously, the skintight combat-ready gear she wore designed to slide noiselessly, every sense acutely attuned to her surroundings. Any sign she wasn’t alone, any hint of a sound or twitch of her instincts, and she’d make herself scarce, ducking into one of the many rooms—mostly small meeting rooms used for clan business—that lined this hallway.
Helpful that a subtle smoky scent hovered around these shifters, preceding them and warning her with plenty of time to spare. In fact, unless she missed her guess, a group had come through here shortly before her. One man in particular. That underlying note of bourbon and blood surrounding Ladon Ormarr, the new king of this clan, was unmistakable. After only a short while hiding here, she’d recognize his scent anywhere.
Skylar gritted her teeth at the admission. She shouldn’t be paying attention to any of those blue bastards other than playing keep-away.
“Dammit, Kasia,” Skylar muttered under her breath. “This is all your fault.”
Her sister was the only reason she’d set a toe anywhere near this place. How Kasia managed to get herself captured by dragon shifters—clan dragons no less—and brought to one of their strongholds was beyond Skylar.
Their mother had taught them a hell of a lot better than that, and now Skylar had to come out of hiding to fix it.
Getting into the citadel of Ben Nevis had been easy. The Blue Clan had been under attack by other clans of dragons at the time, distracting the sentinels. No one had paid the slightest notice to a woman with dark hair and pale blue eyes—not unlike many of the blue shifters here—amid the rush of battle. While gold and green and blue dragons fought over the lair like starved jackals fighting over a carcass, she’d snuck inside and hidden herself away in one of the abandoned living quarters on the upper levels where royalty should be. From there, she’d searched the mountain, trying to find her sister.
When the gold dragons had taken over the place, she’d almost left. Before she could, the blue dragons returned, taking their mountain back—something to do with the death of Uther Hagan, the King of the Gold Clan. Good riddance to the man who’d helped Pytheios murder her father. Skylar had managed to stay hidden through all that, still waiting for her sister.
All her intelligence said Kasia was here.
However, even after Kasia had finally shown her face, Skylar’d had no luck trying to get her on her own, thanks to the thug of a dragon shifter her sister had mated.
Fucking mated. What the hell, Kasia?
Still couldn’t get over that one. Disgust curled through her, entwining with deep-seated concern. Had they broken Kasia’s mind? Her will? Except, by the glimpses she’d had, her sister didn’t act broken. Either way, this had gone on long enough. Skylar was done with patience and waiting. She needed to get both of them out of here to safety. Time to try a different tactic.
Shock and awe.
Maybe more shock than awe. The likelihood of the dragon shifters being awed by her was low, arrogant bastards that they were. They considered themselves top of the supernatural food chain and untouchable. Wrong. Shock, however, she could work with. She needed only seconds once she got close enough to Kasia.
With careful steps and years of being the best pickpocket in her family—stealthy and quick with small hands that made light work—she made her way to where she knew Kasia and her mate would be meeting with the king and his personal guard.
Skylar tucked herself by the door and peeked inside a room set in the natural formation of the cave. A small meeting room with a nondescript conference table and uncomfortable-looking chairs. Sure enough, Kasia and her “mate” sat at one end with Maul, their faithful hellhound, behind her.
Skylar hadn’t been the least surprised to see the massive black dog with her sister. Her mother had arranged for Skylar to go to Tyrek. No doubt she’d taken the same protective steps for Kasia, Meira, and Angelika, wherever she’d sent them. Kasia apparently with Maul. The hellhound had been protecting their family ever since they’d found him as a puppy, so it made sense.
The king’s sister, who Skylar’d heard called Arden, sat beside Kasia, seemingly fast friends. Skylar shook her head at that. The woman was part of the king’s personal guard. A rare female-born, and even more rare female warrior. What was Kasia thinking, befriending the woman?
Around the table sat the rest of the king’s personal guard, who she’d mentally labeled the seven dwarves until she’d figured out their names and roles.
Despite herself, Skylar’s attention was drawn to the king. The tall man sat with his back to her, but she recognized him regardless. Black hair, worn cropped close to his head, broad shoulders that held perpetual tension, the sleeves of his dark blue shirt rolled up, as though he couldn’t quite submit to the bindings of kinghood.
The Blood King of the Blue Clan didn’t scare her.
Even with that long scar running down one side of his face, off to the left of his eye. A wound that had to be terrible not to have gone away with a dragon’s accelerated healing. Ladon Ormarr’s appearance was as brutal as his reputation.
That damned enticingly dark scent of his wended its way to her. She fisted her hands, irritation with herself spiking.
Skylar refused to admit to a certain fascination with the king. Yes, he was striking in a brooding, scary-mother-fucker sort of way, but that should be exactly what turned her off. This was the closest she’d allowed herself to come to him since she’d arrived, and she could practically feel the power vibrating from him. A power that didn’t come from the title, but from the man himself, though she had no idea how she recognized that fact. Gut instinct told her that this was a man who could go toe-to-toe with any threat. Unwanted respect stirred but sat uncomfortably.
Could he handle me, though?
She had a suspicion that he could, and the idea insidiously settled within her as a point of…interest. Another mental shake was needed. She had yet to meet a man who could keep up.
He’s a fucking dragon king. Like Pytheios. Not to be trusted. Definitely not for you.
Skylar pressed her lips together and ignored that stirring of awareness warming her blood, as seemed to happen any time she caught his scent, frustrated as hell that she had to deal with the bothersome sensation at all.
Ladon gazed down the table at the man seated beside Kasia, her sister’s mate, Brand Astarot—a gold dragon, made obvious by his golden-hued eyes and his size. All dragons were big, even in human form, but gold dragons tended to be even taller and broader than the others.
“Brock Hagan is your biggest roadblock to the throne,” Ladon was advising in a voice that put her in mind of smoky bars and back alleys. She hadn’t been close enough to hear him speak yet. Damned if that voice didn’t echo the beast living inside him—a low snarl of sound.
Skylar shivered, then frowned and buried any hint of fear under what she had to do. Fear had no place here. Or had that not been fear? She scrunched her nose in distaste at the alternatives…interest, or, gods forbid, attraction.
I’d almost rather it be fear.
“But?” Brand asked.
Ladon didn’t move, and she couldn’t see his face to gauge his expression. “I would rather not lose my only allied king, or the phoenix, or both. It’s too dangerous. You’re too valuable.”
Anger tightened inside her, and Skylar clenched her fists. He was using Kasia, just like their mother had warned. Just like Uncle Tyrek had warned before she’d left the safety of her hiding place among a band of rogue dragon shifters holed up in the Andes Mountains to come here.
Damn dragon shifters. Power hungry. Assuming they were the pinnacle of the supernatural food chain. Sneering down on any other paranormal creatures apparently wasn’t enough. Any and every man who took the throne of one of the six dragon clans was not to be trusted when it came to what she and her sisters were. They would want a phoenix for their own selfish purposes, do or say anything to claim one.
“What do you suggest, then?” Brand demanded.
“We take the throne,” Ladon said.
Take the Gold Clan with only a handful of gold dragons as backup? As far as she could tell, most of that clan’s fighters were either dead or currently in a dungeon cell in this mountain.
Skylar rolled her eyes. Did these shifters think of nothing but who sat on a throne and who and what they had to use or kill or fuck to get them there?
“Killing more of my people?” Brand asked. “Why would they accept me as king after that?”
“There has to be a middle ground,” Kasia insisted.
Everything inside Skylar slowed and stilled. Why did her sister even care? Wasn’t she a captive in this situation?
“Such as?” Ladon asked.
This was as good an opportunity as any. Shock and awe time.
Skylar stepped into full view inside the door. “I’d love to hear this myself.”
In her periphery, she was vaguely aware of the king jerking around to face her, but Skylar was too busy glaring at Kasia and her new mate to pay him much heed. The men around Ladon’s table all jumped to their feet, low reverberations of warning filling the room, echoing off the rock walls.
“Skylar?” Kasia choked as she rose unsteadily to her feet, her skin leaching color, leaving her now-pale face in stark contrast to her dark red hair.
“Holy shit.” Kasia’s mate had to reach out to keep his chair from tipping over as he stood as well.
Maul raised his massive head from his paws and whined, a sound Skylar recognized as both a warning and a reprimand. He didn’t want her here? Too damn bad. Her sister needed her.
Ladon Ormarr stood as well, his gaze intent, penetrating even, though he said nothing. This close, she realized he had a cleft in his chin, which only added to his brutal looks. She shook off her strange awareness of him above all the others in the room.
A dragon king. So freaking wrong.
Arden was the only person to calmly remain seated, looking back and forth between Skylar and Kasia. “Who’s Skylar?”
Meanwhile, Ladon raised his head, sniffing the air. Phoenix smelled of smoke, like dragons, but with a sweeter underlying note. Would he scent the difference?
“Who are you?” He reiterated his sister’s question, but softly. Again, that shiver skated over her at the deep tumble of his voice, the command there.
“What are you doing here?” Kasia overrode his question before Skylar could answer.
“I’m here to save you from yourself.” She flung the accusation at Kasia more harshly than she intended.
Kasia scowled. “Dammit, Sky. I mated Brand by choice.”
“Not what I heard.” No way that could be true. They’d blackmailed her or brainwashed her. No other explanation made sense.
Granted, the year since her mother’s death had shown Skylar a different side to dragon shifters. Living with them after over five hundred years of running from their kind and despising all dragons would not have been her choice of hidey-hole, but that had been different. Those shifters had been in the American colonies, loners fighting against the laws and traditions of the clans—fighting the rule of the dragons in this very room.
Kasia flung out an arm. “I don’t give a shit what you heard. We’re supposed to stay apart—”
Skylar cut her off. “We were supposed to stay apart so we could be safe from dragon kings and the clans. You went and mated one.”
Another growled warning filled the space as Ladon’s warriors and advisors took offense to her words and the venom in her voice. She didn’t give a flying leap about their delicate sensibilities. Skylar advanced into the room. If she could get close enough, she could send Kasia away, somewhere safe. Her own escape would be more difficult, but they could hash that out later.
Ladon stepped into her path.
Incredible blue eyes gave her pause—deep blue and so intense they stole the thoughts from her mind. She hadn’t been close enough to see them like this, or to be under his direct influence.
What am I doing? So what, his eyeballs are pretty?
With a sneer, she ran her gaze down him, sizing him up. Then she lifted a single eyebrow, in deliberate insult, making her finding him wanting obvious.
“You’re not going near her,” he said.
She crossed her arms, unimpressed. She had abilities she was about to rely on to get Kasia out of here. All he could do was shift, and that was doubtful in a room this size. He’d need more space. “You’re not going to stop me.”
“Who the hell are you?” His lips flattened.
Awwww…the poor king didn’t like repeating himself if his frustration was any indication.
Skylar smiled in grim delight. “I’m Kasia’s sister.”
“Fuck me,” Dopey exclaimed, his bald head shiny under the lights.
The rest of Ladon’s guard stirred, but she kept her gaze on the king, who focused on her in a way that made everything else shrink into insignificance, fading into the background like white noise, leaving only the two of them to face off.
Mimicking her posture, he crossed his arms and smiled back. “You shouldn’t have revealed your presence to me, little firebird.”
Those blue eyes took on a hungry expression that sent an answering, inappropriate, inexplicable heat rushing through her, both the look and her reaction resulting in a reverberation of shock that pounded through her like an avalanche.
She returned his watchful stare with a narrow-eyed glare of her own, trying to cover her reaction. “And why not?” she challenged.
“Because now you’re mine.”
Silence settled over the room so thickly it turned deafening. Skylar snorted to cover her sharp inhale. “Like hell.” She leaned around him to address Kasia directly. “I’m getting you out of here.”
The corner of the eye close to the scar twitched. “I can’t let you do that.” Ladon clamped a hand down on her arm.
“Bad idea, Ladon—” Kasia’s warning came too late—a warning for the king, not Skylar.
Before Kasia finished talking, Skylar rotated her hand in his grasp to grab his wrist in return. At the same time, she turned her hips, a move that shifted both his grip and his angle in relation to her, pulling him off-center and sideways. Needing him down fast, she followed up with a kick to the back of his knee. That should’ve put him on the floor, except his knee wasn’t there when she struck.
Ladon released his hold and spun out of her reach. She backed up quickly, needing to reset and reassess. Damn, he was fast for such a big man.
Ladon held out a hand to stay the men around the table who all appeared ready to step in and help subdue her. “I’ve got this.”
“Keep telling yourself that.” Good. He was still underestimating her.
“I don’t want to force you,” he said, circling her slowly. “But I can’t let you leave.”
“You don’t have a choice.” Skylar prowled to the left, studying the way he moved, determined not to admire the powerful grace of his body, anticipating his attack.
Ladon lunged for her, and she blocked, then followed with a knee to his ribs. His grunt at the contact was music to her ears, but she’d gotten too close. He flipped her around and got an arm around her neck.
Luckily, he held her up against his body. Using his grip as leverage, she slammed her head backward, right into his nose.
“Fuck.” His grip loosened.
She shot a hand straight up in the air, then stepped back in to him, spun, and brought that arm down over both of his, breaking his hold and trapping his arms under hers. At the same time, she brought her other elbow across, intending to smash it into his face.
But he bodily lifted her with both limbs still stuck under her own. He tossed her back, away from him, then glared across the space between them. Ladon wiped his elbow under his nose, leaving a crimson streak of blood on the sleeve of his otherwise pristine button-down shirt, as well as across his face. “You’ve been trained.”
“No shit.” Dragon shifters were bigger, stronger, and faster. Her mother had been no dummy.
He shot across the space, using the speed most shifters could claim, and she jumped back, blocking his hand. Then struck for his face, only to have him block her in return.
They went at it, setting up a rhythm, almost a dance, as they struck, blocked, and parried, trying different moves on each other in rapid succession. Ten moves in, Skylar knew she couldn’t beat him. The man had incredible strength on his side, but he was also fast and a phenomenal fighter, one who’d obviously spent a lot of time perfecting his abilities. His technique was flawless, whereas she relied more on instinct and the element of surprise, an advantage she’d lost by now.
He wasn’t striking to disable her; he was merely trying to capture her. That meant he wasn’t bringing his A game. Worse, the skill he displayed was a big freaking turn-on. How her traitorous body could be reacting to him right that instant infuriated Skylar. Lust was the last thing she should be dealing with.
Frustration roiled inside her, causing her moves to turn more erratic, less precise. The more frustrated she got, the more he seemed to settle into a cold control.
After he tapped her cheek, as if to say he could put her down if he wanted, she let loose a low hiss. “If you’re going to hit me, then do it, asshole.”
Ladon grinned, a dark predator playing with his prey. “I don’t want to hit my future mate.”
That did it. Skylar went up in flames, her entire body alight with brilliant red-gold fire that lived and danced across her skin, casting beguiling shadows over the walls. Ladon dropped his hands at the sight, his gaze traveling down her body in a way that had her heart skipping a couple beats.
She took advantage of his distraction and lunged, brought forth her fire in a flash of light, and shoved hard with both hands against his chest as she applied the only supernatural gift she’d appeared to inherit from her mother—teleportation. In a blink, he disappeared, leaving a hole of silence in the room.
Ha. Turned out the lame ability to teleport other people—everyone except herself—could come in handy after all.
She didn’t wait to gloat, and the fates were on her side for once. Kasia had stepped in front of her own mate to watch the fight.
Skylar ran at her hard and pushed her sister the same way she’d done Ladon. “Wait for me,” she ordered.
On a gasp, Kasia vanished as well.
Unfortunately, Skylar couldn’t go with her. If she could get to Maul, though, he’d get them both out.
As she pivoted to sprint to the hellhound, Brand flipped her around with a heavy hand on her shoulder, then wrapped his other hand around her neck and lifted her off her feet. “What did you do to Kasia?” he demanded through clenched teeth.
Maul lunged to his feet, letting loose a threatening rumble, but Brand ignored the hellhound.
Skylar clawed at his fingers even as spots appeared in her vision at the immediate lack of oxygen. Her fire doused itself as every part of her fixated on the need to breathe, to survive.
He brought her closer to snarl in her face. “I don’t give a shit if you are her sister. She’d better be alive and close by.”
Maul’s growls filled the room as he prowled forward. Even with her own eyes bugging out, she could see the dog’s red eyes glowing brighter.
“Get your hands off her.” Ladon’s voice cracked through the room, lightning in a bottle, making the hairs on her arms stand up even as she flailed.
Damn. I’ll never get out of here now. The thought pushed through the blackness trying to take over. She should’ve sent the king farther away than one room over.
Kasia suddenly reappeared beside them with zero warning she was coming, not even a disturbance of the air around them. Maul’s growls immediately ceased, leaving only silence. Kasia laid a hand on her mate’s arm. “I’m here, Brand.”
Instantly, he dropped Skylar, and not carefully, as he yanked Kasia into his arms, burying his face in her hair. “You’re going to be the death of me, princess.”
Skylar dropped hard; her disorientation from lack of oxygen had her collapsing to the ground. She rubbed at her neck as she sucked air in, trying to reorient. “Dammit, Kasia,” she wheezed through a painful throat. “Control the mongrel you mated, will you?”
Kasia kissed her mate before she dropped to her knees and put her hands on either side of Skylar’s face. “When are you going to learn to listen first and act second?”
Skylar glared. “I thought that’s what I was doing.”
With their mother gone, if she didn’t protect her sisters, who else would?
“I should take a look at her neck,” a male voice said. Probably Ladon’s Healer.
“I’m fine,” Skylar insisted. Unfortunately, the strong words were ruined by hoarse vocal cords. She added a glare for good measure, and the man approaching her held up both hands in surrender.
Kasia shook her head and raised her gaze to Ladon, who stood at Skylar’s back. She could feel him there and tried to convince herself that her sense of him was more like that of a spider lying in wait in its web, rather than what it actually was.
That term was about to join “moist” on her list of most hated words at this rate.
“I’d like to talk to my sister alone,” Kasia said.
Just talk? Skylar probably would’ve protested, but she was too distracted by a sudden, stark realization that sucked the air out of her lungs a second time, leaving her dazed.
She’d always been able to read people easily. Especially her sisters. For the first time, she was close enough to really take stock of Kasia. Concern bunched her eyebrows together, but that was directed at Skylar. Otherwise, she exhibited no fear. No desperate need to run away. No secret sign that she did, indeed, need help.
“You really mated him of your own free will?” Skylar whispered.
Kasia’s lips curved up in a soft smile. The only confirmation Skylar needed.
“Why would you do that?” she demanded now, louder.