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There were five of them, to be precise, each standing about seven feet tall. Their skin reminded me of a salamander’s, smooth with a slightly moist appearance. It was mottled red and black, like marble. They had fangs like saber-toothed tigers, and flames glowed in the hollows of their eyes.
“Fire demons,” I amended. Not that the type mattered too much. I’d fought other creatures from the Underworld, but full-fledged demons? Those were bad. The type was irrelevant. These guys made last night’s fight with Rocky Raccoon seem like a warm-up stretch.
Immediately, those bandits that weren’t actively engaged with us began retreating behind the demons. Those we were fighting struggled to break away, knowing the demons would cover them. One of my men bravely charged a demon. The demon put its hands together, and a huge orb of fire appeared. The demon then threw it at the guy, instantly turning him into a screaming, living torch.
“Shit!” I yelled.
Without even thinking, I pulled all the moisture from the air and hurled it toward the guard. Water materialized around him, drenching him in a tidal wave. It turned the rest of the air oppressively dry, and a few trees withered and collapsed. I’d sucked out their water to make the wave as well. Nonetheless, the flames dissipated, and the guy dropped into wet, smoldering unconsciousness. At least, I hoped he was unconscious and not dead.
My guards attacked in groups and fared a little better that way, able to distract the demons’ attention. Volusian fought well too, but it was quickly becoming apparent that this was not going to end well for us. Picking the demon who appeared to be putting up the best fight, I took out my wand and focused my energy. I sent my will out toward the demon, grabbing hold of him with my mind and letting my senses spread beyond me and this world. The black and white butterfly tattoo on my arm began to burn. It was the symbol of Persephone, goddess of the Underworld, and I used its power to open the gates to that domain.
Down the slope, the demon suddenly looked in my direction, sensing the binding wrap around it. He was powerful, and banishing him from this world into the next was taking more of my strength and power than I expected. Ignoring the attacking guards, he hurled a huge ball of fire at me. Immediately, I dropped my connection to the Underworld and pulled as much water as I could to me. Aside from my companions-whom I was careful to avoid-only the vegetation provided a quick source of water. Plants and cacti crumpled and died in a wide arc around us, but it was what I needed. A wall of water appeared before me, blocking the fireball.
“Damn it, Eugenie,” cried Kiyo. “You can’t keep doing that.”
“I can banish them,” I said. “Just distract them.”
Kiyo grimaced and then transformed into that “superfox” form, a huge beast of primordial strength and power, the Otherworldly ancestor of all foxes. He leapt on the demon who’d attacked me, and I once more attempted my binding. Volusian joined him. Between those two and the guards, the demon couldn’t block me this time. Speaking words of banishment, I pushed him out of this world and into the next, careful to keep myself from getting sucked in along the way. The demon exploded in sparks that quickly dimmed and disappeared.
I nearly fell over. The exertion to do that had been excruciating, and I was pretty sure I couldn’t do it again. We had to get out of there and pray the demons didn’t follow us. “Rurik,” I yelled, hoping the big warrior would hear me. “We need to retreat!”
He gave a quick nod, eyes on the demon he attacked. Between magic and swords, his group was doing a good job of fighting it, but the battle was far from over. He barked out some orders. My group began falling back, fighting our way through the retreat. To my relief, two men picked up the guy who had been burned earlier and helped drag him out. Kiyo and Volusian stayed to cover our retreat, and I tried once again to banish a demon. No luck. So, relying on an old standby, I took out the Glock and began firing silver bullets. They hit the mark, weakening some of the demons and allowing our escape. When we’d reached a certain point, I saw that they were no longer following us. They were based around the camp, as I’d suspected. Demons like those had to be summoned, and they would stay close to their summoner.
We eventually cleared the area and made it back to our horses. Not long afterward, Kiyo-still as a fox-and Volusian joined us. I glanced at Kiyo with a sigh, relieved he was okay and frustrated that it would be awhile now before he could become human again. I wanted to discuss this with him. Instead, I turned to Rurik as we rode away.
“What the hell was that?”
“Fire demons,” he replied.
“I know that! What were they doing here?”
“They were summoned.” He frowned. “Which is unexpected for ruffians like that. Someone who can wield that sort of magic would have no need to live that kind of life.”
My adrenaline-charged heart rate had slowed down, allowing me to get a good look at our group now. We’d managed to cart off two prisoners-a few of the others had been freed by their friends in the demon chaos-which meant we could do some questioning later. For now, they weren’t my chief concern. The guards were. Many of them were burned and wounded, though none as badly as the guy I’d saved. Some of the injured rode on their own; others required help.
“They need healers,” I told Rurik anxiously. He was singed and cut but had emerged unscathed for the most part. It had taken almost an hour to get to the spot we had tethered the horses, and I didn’t want the injured waiting that long.
Rurik didn’t answer right away. He annoyed me and wasn’t as socially graceful as he could be, but he knew military matters and was a good strategist. At last he said, “If we veer west, we can be in Westoria in fifteen minutes.”
“The village we passed through yesterday.”
“How is that-” I didn’t finish the question. I would never understand how the Otherworld folded upon itself, how yesterday Westoria had been an hour and a half from the castle and now it was right around the corner. I also didn’t understand how everyone but me seemed to always know what direction to go.
Rurik assured me they’d have healers in the village, so I followed his lead. As soon as we turned, we found ourselves in the Rowan Land. Ten minutes later, we were back in the Thorn Land, and another five brought us to Westoria.
“Un-fucking-believable,” I muttered. I really never would learn this land’s layout. Only Kiyo the fox was close enough to hear my profanity, and I didn’t know if he understood or not.
Our approach was noticed just like before, and I paused before entering the village in order to say the words that would send Volusian away for now. I didn’t want to terrify the townspeople more than I already did.
Of course, when we’d left last time, their terror had been replaced by hope and faith. Today, once we told our tale, that optimism faded to disappointment and fear of a different kind-fear that their queen couldn’t defend them. If they couldn’t look to their wonderful new monarch for protection, what hope did they have? I tried to ignore those disillusioned faces as best I could. Otherwise, I thought I might snap back that fire demons were hardly an everyday occurrence for a king or queen. I doubted Dorian or Maiwenn would have done much better.
Instead, I directed my attention to those who had fought for me and been injured for it. The burned man was still alive but in very bad shape. Davros, the mayor, assured me they had a healer who could bring the guard back to a stable condition. The healing took awhile, so I accepted Davros’ invitation to sit and have a drink in his home once again. They’d already gotten my well up and working, and he seemed very pleased to be able to offer me water.
“There were no girls there,” I told him. I sat in a plain wooden chair. Kiyo lay on the floor at my feet, his furry body pressed up to my leg.
Davros snorted. “Of course not, your majesty. I told you that girl ran off. It’s easier on her parents to believe otherwise. We certainly appreciate your, uh, efforts to clean out those villains, however.”
I grimaced. “Yeah, well, the fire demons were kind of unexpected.”
“There have been rumors for some time, your majesty, that there were some very strong fire users among them. It’s part of what’s made their raiding so problematic.”
I widened my eyes. “Oh? That might have been useful information earlier.”
He cowered at the tone in my voice. “Begging your pardon, your majesty. None of us could have imagined their power was that great.”
I questioned him further on where the bandits might go now and if he’d heard any other stories about their magic users. If we faced these guys again, I didn’t want any more surprises. We spoke until Rurik came to get me, telling me that most of the wounded were in traveling shape but that the severely injured man would stay behind for further recovery. There seemed no point in remaining after that, so we set out for the castle.
The ride back wasn’t too different from our last ride from Westoria. There was a dark mood over the group, and I was probably the worst. We’d set off counting on an easy victory and had more or less gotten our asses kicked.
It was late when we finally arrived, the sun having set and cooled the weather to a comfortable eighty degrees. Time in Tucson tended to run a little later than here, which meant it was well into the night back home. So much for the date with Kiyo. That saddened me further, and I wandered out to a stretch of garden-by which I meant rocks and cacti-that extended beyond the castle. I settled down on a patch of grass that Shaya had been painstakingly trying to grow. As someone who controlled and spoke to plant life, I think this barren landscape killed her sometimes.
I’d been sitting there and ruminating for about an hour when Kiyo joined me. His fox form had finally lifted.
“Don’t take it so hard,” he said, putting an arm around me and guessing what had me worried. “There was nothing you could have done differently.”
“I suppose. I just feel bad now. Like, I still don’t want this place. Not at all. But here it is, and then I feel horrible and guilty because even if I try, I can’t do anything for it. I pushed the thinking off on Shaya, and then I failed at the fighting part-the one thing I can usually do. Argh.” I buried my face in my hands. “It’s so confusing. I never wanted to deal with this.”
Kiyo pulled me close, and I rested my head against his chest. “It’s okay,” he said. “We’ll get through this.”
“We? You’ve got enough to worry about without this.” I was in one of those glum moods where everything seemed hopeless. How could he possibly have time for me with a new baby on the way?
“We,” he said firmly. “And as much as I hate to say it…you just being here is going to help the land.”
“It’s tied to your life, right? You affect it, strengthen it just with your presence. It’s why that meditation you do soothes it.”
“Maybe. But I’ve been meditating for months, and there have still been droughts and famines.”
“You’re still helping it, whether you know it or not. Your thoughts, moods…it’s all connected.”
“Wonderful. It must be doing just great tonight then,” I muttered.
In the moonlight, I saw him gesture around us. The sky was clear, and there was no breeze. There was a dry, stagnant feel to the air. It seemed unhealthy. Like you could feel the energy being sapped from everything.
I sighed and lay back on the grass. “If I stay the night, will it help?”
“Probably.” He lay beside me. “No Red Pepper Bistro then.”
“Yeah. And I was so looking forward to their Salmonella Burrito Special. I guess there’s always tomorrow.”
I turned toward him. “Oh, I don’t like that.”
“I promised Maiwenn…” He couldn’t finish.
“It’s fine. I understand.” I did. I just didn’t like it. Were we ever going to have some semblance of a normal dating life?
“Oh, Eugenie.” Kiyo wrapped himself against me and brushed the hair from my face. “You’re the only one. You know that, right? The only one I want in this world.” He paused. “Or any other world.”
I laughed, but it was smothered when he pressed his lips to mine. There was almost never warm-up with Kiyo’s passion. He always came on hungry and strong, and to my surprise, I always responded right away with equal intensity. I opened my mouth to his, feeling the thrust of his tongue and brush of his teeth against my lips.
He slid a hand up my T-shirt, squeezing my breast through the thin lace of my bra. His other hand slid along my hip and down the back of my ass, shoving me closer to him, so that we were pressed hip to hip as we lay on our sides. My own hands were tangled in his hair, keeping our faces close as we kissed. Then, growing impatient, I reached down to the edge of his shirt and tugged it up over his head. It broke our kiss momentarily, but it was worth it to have the warm, wonderful skin of his chest exposed. I ran my hands over it, wanting to kiss every part of it, but he had other ideas and took off my shirt in return. I saw it land on a prickly pear when he tossed it away.
His hands moved just as quickly to my jeans, and I leaned back, extending my legs straight out while he pulled them and my underwear off in one motion. I was grateful then for the grass beneath me that Shaya had grown. Gravelly sand would have been a bit harsh on bare skin.
Nonetheless, he was the one I pushed down, forcing him to keep his back flat on the ground. Straddling him and still wearing my lace bra, I undid his belt and tugged his jeans and boxers halfway down, just enough to expose what I needed. I leaned over him, pressing us and our naked skin together, rubbing my hips provocatively without taking him into me. I kissed him as I did, and his hands reached around to unfasten my bra and remove the last of my clothing, leaving me completely naked. In that unforgiving heat, though, I barely noticed.
He was hard underneath me, and I continued writhing my hips, taunting and teasing him more while I grew wetter. The lust in his eyes burned into me, laced with the remnants of the animal he’d been earlier. His hands were still all over my breasts, rubbing and squeezing them. Each touch sent shockwaves through my body. Occasionally, he’d draw me forward so that he could take one breast into his mouth, suckling and stroking the nipple with his tongue.
As he did, I moved one of my own hands down between my thighs and began touching myself, wanting to reach my own climax before he took me-and I knew he would soon. I could see the desire and impatience all over him. Drawing sex out was not in his nature. I much preferred it when a man touched my clit-there was nothing like it in the world-but I had a feeling I’d have to literally take matters into my own hands with the way he looked tonight. Besides, I knew my body well enough to know I could get myself off pretty quickly.
Not quickly enough. Kiyo’s hands gripped my hips, sitting me up slightly and then roughly pulling my body down. I got my hand out of the way just as he shoved into me, penetrating with a strength I hadn’t expected since I was the one on top. I tried to pull off, but his grip on me was firm as he began bucking his hips upward.
“Too soon,” I said, even as my body reveled in the feel of his inside me.
“Never too soon,” he growled back.
I managed to shift myself away, and he slipped out of me. I grinned triumphantly, loving how I could prolong this and torment him. His erection was harder and bigger after being inside me, wet and slick from my body as my hand gripped him hard and began stroking back and forth. He groaned, arching his body up to reclaim what I’d taken away.
He seized me again, this time rolling me over onto my back so that I’d now have to fight the full strength of him. “You are so sexy,” he gasped, lowering his body to mine. The rough ground scratched my skin. “All day, I just think about fucking you.”
He thrust into me again, and I cried out so loudly, I wondered if someone from the castle would hear me and come running. If so, it probably wouldn’t be a big deal to them. With nothing to hold him back, Kiyo gave me his full force, pumping into me and driving deeper and deeper with each thrust. I was still burning and wet from where I’d touched myself, and with each stroke, he managed to heighten that pleasure, driving me increasingly wild.
The muscles in his body were strong and hard, working without rest as he moved furiously, his eyes burning into mine as he took me deeply and forcefully, letting the animal in him do what it wanted. I cried out again, exulting in the harshness mixed with ecstasy as I felt myself grow closer and closer to orgasm. I could see the clench of his jaw and tension within him as he tried to hold back.
“God, I want to come…” he managed through labored breathing. “Want to come in you so badly…” He was waiting, trying to hold out for me to come first.
I clenched my hands against his back, digging my nails into his skin. “Do it,” I hissed. “Come in me. Now…let me feel it….”
It was all he needed to tip him over. His mouth opened in something that was half-moan and half-roar. He still managed to keep moving in and out of me, but the movements were slower, more punctuated as he came and his body found release. At last, he shuddered and pulled out, only to then collapse on top of me. I wrapped my arms around him. Even without an orgasm, my body felt renewed and alive, burning with pleasure at the intensity of what we had just put our bodies through.
He rested his head on my chest, and I continued holding him, neither of us saying a word. At some point, I drifted to sleep like that, only to be woken up about an hour later. It took me a moment to figure out what had happened, until I felt a wet drop hit my face. Then another. Then another. I squirmed and sat up, wiping water out of my eyes.
“What’s wrong?” murmured Kiyo drowsily, stirring slightly.
I looked up into the sky, scattered with both stars and much-needed clouds.
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