Embrace the Light (Godstone Saga #5) Read Online Jocelynn Drake

Categories Genre: Fantasy, M-M Romance, Paranormal, Romance Tags Authors: Series: Godstone Saga Series by Jocelynn Drake
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Total pages in book: 1
Estimated words: 108689 (not accurate)
Estimated Reading Time in minutes: 543(@200wpm)___ 435(@250wpm)___ 362(@300wpm)
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Read Online Books/Novels:

Embrace the Light (Godstone Saga #5)

Author/Writer of Book/Novel:

Jocelynn Drake

Language:
English
Book Information:

A Tragic Story Comes to Light.
At last, Caelan and his companions are heading to see a long-time ally of Erya.
But New Rosanthe soldiers have already moved into the city, and nothing is quite as it seems.
Even as old betrayals reveal new enemies, Caelan’s main goal remains the God of Wisdom and the truth.
The only problem is that time is running out and the Dead God is waiting to claim him.
Books in Series:

Godstone Saga Series by Jocelynn Drake

Books by Author:

Jocelynn Drake



A game to pass the time.

~Lore, God of Wisdom

ONE

Caelan Talos

Bullets pinged off their SUV as they sped along the narrow dirt-and-gravel road. Caelan sat sideways, one hand gripping his seat while the other was braced on the driver’s seat in front of him. He was bent low, his knee knocking against Drayce’s with every bump and jerk of the car. He attempted to lift his head to look out the rear window, but Drayce’s hand immediately clamped on his skull and pushed his head lower.

“Keep your head down, you lunatic!” Drayce snapped.

“Can’t you and the gods do something about them?” Adrian called out from his place behind the wheel.

“What exactly would you like me to do?” Caelan grumbled.

Steal their time, Nyx suggested.

Burn them, Caris said, sounding far too pleased to be participating.

Snap their necks, the Goddess of Life offered up.

Lightning! Lightning! Kaes chanted.

No, none of that. Go back to sleep, Caelan growled mentally. Why the fuck did Adrian have to wake the horde of gods in his head? He wanted to kick the man’s seat, but distracting him in the middle of a high-speed chase would be bad. And why the fuck are you all so bloodthirsty?

Boredom.

Caelan suspected the God of Time might very well be telling the truth about that.

“Well, something would be appreciated, because the road is starting to get a lot worse, and I’m not so sure it won’t suddenly end,” Adrian replied.

Okay, so maybe his new bodyguard had a point. Getting across the border into Ilon had been a bigger disaster than any of them had anticipated. Ilon had officially closed their border to all travelers, giving the flimsy excuse of international tensions. What bothered Caelan was that Ilon hadn’t specifically listed New Rosanthe as the source of that tension.

By the time he’d returned to Stormbreak, Ilon had withdrawn their diplomats and emissaries from all countries. They’d also asked all foreign diplomats to leave Ilon. At least it had been a polite request rather than simply dropping all Erya emissaries on a boat and kicking them out of the country.

As a result, they’d had no choice but to issue an advisement that all Erya citizens leave the country as well. Without representation and a working consulate, they couldn’t offer protection to their people there.

At the suggestion of Rayne and General Morgan, Caelan had waited a week in Stormbreak to see if they could reach the prime minister and get official permission to enter the country. The week was nerve-wracking, but they’d needed time to recover from the events on the Isle of Stone. And just maybe, it had given him a chance to do normal king-type things like make some decisions about treaties, negotiations, and progress that was planned for the new year.

They were in the final month of the year, and the solstice celebrations were just kicking off. Families were gathering close for the long winter nights.

Instead, they were racing along a bumpy rural road in Ilon with New Rosanthe soldiers on their heels.

Thanks to Adrian, they’d sneaked across the border at dawn, but they were discovered about an hour later by a patrol of Empire soldiers, and that was after managing to skirt some Ilon border patrolmen.

The back window shattered, spraying glass across the two rear seats and sending Drayce crashing over Caelan to protect him from the shards.

“Rayne!” Eno shouted from the front passenger seat. Caelan’s advisor had elected to sit in the bench seat closet to the trunk so he could spread out a bit. Not that anyone could blame him. Rayne’s long legs had been stuck in the cramped SUV for close to three full days now.

“I’m fine!” Rayne immediately shouted.

“Drayce?” Caelan asked when his lover refused to allow him to lift up enough to check that Rayne was indeed okay.

“He’s good,” Drayce murmured in his ear. “He was already bent down when the glass broke.”

“Speaking of,” Rayne called out. “How is that even possible? I thought this SUV was taken from the royal motor pool. The windows should be bulletproof.”

“They are. Or were,” Eno answered.

“New Rosanthe has been experimenting with some new piercing rounds. These assholes must have lucked into a few cases of them,” Adrian added. “Yet another reason to lose them as quickly as possible.”

“Well, I’d love to do something, but I can’t aim any magic at them if I can’t see them,” Caelan complained.

Drayce growled softly, the sound rumbling far deeper than it should have for someone with a chest as narrow as his. It was a nice reminder that Drayce was also part grumpy, overprotective dragon, and every second that he didn’t shift into that dragon and flambé the pursuing Empire soldiers was a small miracle in itself. “Fine, but don’t get your head shot off. I’ll be really pissed.”

His lover shifted so he wasn’t covering Caelan with his own body, allowing Caelan to rise. Before Caelan eased upward, he grabbed Drayce’s hand and pressed a quick kiss to the inside of his wrist. He knew what it cost him to let Caelan put himself in danger, because Caelan felt the same way anytime Drayce jumped into a potentially deadly situation.

“Flirt,” Drayce mumbled.

Caelan flashed him a smirk as he sat up and peered cautiously over the seat. The rear window was only partially shattered, making it difficult to see through the crackled glass. There were two jeeps behind them with men hanging out the sides, firing automatic weapons. Bullets zipped around them and hammered the metal of their car. Getting an exact target would be impossible.

I could do it, Tula whispered through his mind. He could already feel the power of the Goddess of Life reaching out and latching on to the eight souls that were following them. It wouldn’t take much to just squeeze the life out of them. Or even command a couple of them to turn their weapons on their comrades.

A sick feeling sloshed through Caelan’s stomach. He was tired of the senseless killing. Yes, these soldiers threatened their lives, but they were following orders. They probably didn’t even know what the Emperor and Safa planned. There was no way they would have followed those orders if they’d known setting the Goddess of the Hunt free meant killing them all.

No, he replied, slamming down his control over her gift once again. No more killing if I can help it.

We’ll see how long that lasts, one of the gods snorted. Sadly, he couldn’t even be sure from which direction that thought came. Maybe it was echoed by all of them.

Caelan ducked his head and squeezed his eyes shut. He needed to concentrate. There had to be something he could do that wouldn’t automatically spell the end of the New Rosanthe men.

Nyx was obviously out, which left the Dead God in a pout. Tula was also out. Her every urge was to snap their bodies like twigs, and she wasn’t offering up the ability to send them off to sleep. Kaes was out as well. Caelan wasn’t sure that he could aim a lightning bolt with the needed accuracy to hit a moving vehicle. It would be just his luck to strike their own car.

That left Caris, the Goddess of Fire.

Who gave an excited squeal in his head and a snap of her fan. To his surprise, he thought he could also sense Nyx’s warm amusement. Did the God of Time really care for his fiery goddess?

Another time. Now wasn’t the moment for dealing with gods and drama.

The only problem with Caris was that he’d not attempted to use his power from the Goddess of Fire yet. He had no idea if he could control it without setting their own vehicle on fire. But it wasn’t like he had another option.

Sucking in a deep breath, Caelan popped up and reached his hand over the seat toward the opening in the rear window. His hand immediately became engulfed in dancing flames. “Rayne, get on the floor!”

His advisor swore and dropped, the seat jolting as his body hit it. Caelan directed a blast of flames out of the car and into the engine block of the jeep closest to them. Tires squealed and the vehicle jerked wildly, running off the road as the shouts of the men filled the air.

Caelan pulled his hand back, closing off the power so that the flames disappeared.

“What the fuck!” Adrian shouted, their vehicle swerving as he struggled to stay on the road.

“That was toasty!” Eno laughed.

“I feel like a broiled chicken,” Rayne complained.

“But are you okay?” Caelan demanded.

“I’ll survive,” his advisor grumbled. “The other vehicle?”

“Give me a sec.” Caelan had ducked and sucked in several deep breaths. That had left him feeling drained and more than a little light-headed. He needed a moment to center himself before trying to take out the other car.

“The first one is out of commission,” Eno stated.

“Okay. I’m ready. Rayne?”

“Go!” Rayne shouted and Caelan jumped up. He extended his hand outward again, fire sliding along his fingers, then shooting out the back of the vehicle. The cloth covering the seats was scorched and the glass in the broken window melted away like ice in the midday sun. The scent of burning fabric and stuffing filled the air of the vehicle and Caelan coughed, trying hard not to breathe.

When the sound of screeching tires reached his ears, Caelan released the power of the Goddess of Fire and fell against his door, panting hard. The world was spinning around him, and something was tugging at his consciousness, pulling him toward a swirling darkness. He would not pass out. He absolutely refused. The last time he’d lost consciousness when using the gifts of the gods was with Kaes. There had been no problems with Tula or Nyx.

Help him, Tula, Caris snarled. Pouting isn’t going to keep your chosen one alive.

Are you fucking shitting me? The thought crossed Caelan’s mind without being directed at any specific god. Tula had made it possible for him to use the power of the gods without it being too much of a drain on him. And now she was pouting in the corner because of what? He’d gone with Caris’s gift rather than slaughtering several soldiers?

“Cael? Cael, speak to me. Are you okay?”

Drayce’s voice slowly penetrated the fog wrapping around his thoughts while a cool hand pressed to his sweaty cheek.

Drayce’s hand was cool? He was never cool to the touch.

“I’m okay,” Caelan answered when he could get his tongue working. “Just…need to catch my breath.”

“He’s hot. Like with a bad fever,” Drayce announced.

A second hand was suddenly pressed to his forehead and Caelan forced his eyes to open. Rayne was leaning forward from the rear seat, his blessedly chilly touch resting on his forehead and concern drawing lines across his face. “He is hot. Extremely hot.”

“Side effect of the Goddess of Fire?” Eno asked.

“Possibly. I’ll see if I can bring his temperature down.”

“Well, we’ve lost our tail for now,” Adrian interjected. “Both vehicles are totally out of commission, but they’ll be calling support.”

Eno grunted, and there was a squeak in the direction of his seat as if he’d turned to face forward. “I’ll find us an alternate route to switch off on. They’re going to be searching for us on the main roads to Brightspire.”

“Camp,” Caelan groaned and then sighed happily as a cooling feeling swept through his body from Rayne’s hand.

See! At least someone cares about my well-being, Caelan snarked in the direction of Tula.

The Goddess of Life huffed, but there was an added feeling of the darkness and fatigue being pushed aside.

Thank you, Lady Tula, Caelan murmured, trying to at least sound genuinely grateful in his head.

“I’m okay now,” Caelan stated, lightly patting Rayne’s hand on his forehead.

“You’re sure?” Rayne demanded. The healing power withdrew, but Rayne didn’t immediately remove his hand.

“All good now.” Caelan blinked and pushed himself up until he was sitting straighter. He glanced around to find that the glass was completely missing from the rear of the car and a cool wind was whipping through, helping to remove the lingering scent of burnt fabric. Luckily, the weather was considerably warmer in Ilon than in Stormbreak. He turned his gaze on Rayne and lifted both eyebrows. “What about you?”

“A bit singed, but I’ll recover quickly enough,” Rayne answered, offering up a reassuring smirk.

“You said something about camping. You want to find a place to camp?” Drayce prodded.

Caelan nodded. He shoved a hand through his hair, slicking back sweat-drenched tendrils from his eyes. “I do. We need to make a better plan. Or possibly several plans. I knew chances were high for us to encounter New Rosanthe, but I wasn’t expecting them to be at the border. I thought it was going to be more like covert forces sneaking through Brightspire.”

“So did I,” Rayne muttered.

“Can we contact General Morgan and tell her to send some troops to cut a path through the Empire?” Adrian asked.

“No, unfortunately, we can’t,” Caelan grumbled.

“Ilon’s government has made zero requests for assistance,” Rayne added. “If our troops were to cross the border, it would make Erya no different from New Rosanthe. Just another invading force, regardless of what our intentions are.”

“Well, that sucks,” Drayce mumbled under his breath.

“Pretty much,” Caelan agreed. He nudged Drayce with his knee, drawing his lover’s eyes over to him. Caelan smiled warmly and Drayce relaxed, the tension that had pulled his shoulders tight slipping away.

He really was okay, but it was a clear wake-up call that all the gods in his head needed to be working from the same playbook. They couldn’t start going on strike simply because they didn’t care for their teammates. Caelan might have hoped that Caris could be something of a buffer against Tula’s negative influence, but with the Goddess of Fire came new problems that he was simply not prepared to deal with.

“Find a place off the beaten path for us to camp for the night. Away from cities and potential prying eyes. We need to spend some time looking at the maps. There has to be a way into the capital that won’t attract too much attention,” Caelan instructed.

“On it!” Eno called out. He was tapping away on his phone, pulling up the digital maps they’d all downloaded.

Yes, they were finally in a place where their phones would be of use. In Zastrad, there had been zero cell signal because they didn’t use that kind of technology. And on the Isle of Stone, they apparently used a different kind of tech for their phones, because Caelan could never get his to work.

At least email did. He’d exchanged email addresses with his grandfather, Haru, and a dozen other members of Clan Omari. The rest of their team had done the same. It was still a long way off, but steps were being made to open up communication between Erya and the Isle of Stone. Caelan had just gotten a chunk of family that he’d never known existed. There was no way he was going to let them go now.

He did see some incredibly long and painful conversations in his future about whether to reveal the name of his father and his own personal heritage, though.

“Cael,” Drayce said, pulling him from his random thoughts of dragons. “Do you think Ilon has already fallen to the Empire like Damardor or Uris-Oladul?”

“I don’t know,” he whispered.

As much as he worried about the safety of the people of Ilon, there was a bigger, darker question nagging at him.

Was he too late to claim the power of the godstone?

TWO

Adrian Westergren

Adrian tipped his head back and laughed as he watched Drayce get caught up in another headlock. Eno grinned at him and made a point of mussing his pale-blond hair while Drayce growled and swore.

It was hard to believe Drayce was a dragon. He and Eno had been playfully tussling for the past twenty minutes as Caelan and Rayne cleaned up from their dinner. Not once did Drayce use his dragon’s strength to break free of Eno’s hold. There was no hint of fire or ripple of black scale along his slender frame. If Adrian had not seen it with his own eyes, he wouldn’t have believed it.

“Is that hard to do?” Adrian called out.

“What? Get caught?” Eno replied before Adrian could clarify. “Not really. He seems to be quite good at it.”

Drayce grunted and finally pulled his head free from Eno’s grasp. He rubbed his neck and threw the warrior a dark look. “Screw you! I would have got it the next time.”

“No, I mean for Drayce to not use his dragon strength,” Adrian interjected.

The smaller man’s expression immediately brightened, and a wicked grin spread across his lips. “Oh, you mean like this?” In the blink of an eye, Drayce darted over to Eno and hefted the significantly larger man onto his shoulder like he was carrying a sack of potatoes. A yelp leaped from Eno, his legs kicking in the air as he tried to keep himself balanced on Drayce’s narrow shoulder.

Drayce easily turned to face where Adrian was seated on the ground with his back against a fallen log. “When I first moved to Erya, I’d screw up all the time and carry stuff I shouldn’t be able to. It was only after hanging around Caelan for a year that it became more natural. We’re both about the same height and weight, so I figured whatever he could lift, that’s what I could lift.”

“Eno is not on that list, so put him down,” Rayne said in a dry-as-dust tone.

With one last evil grin, Drayce carefully set Eno on his feet. The larger man tossed him a dirty glare, wandered over to the other side of the campfire, and dropped to the ground. Drayce snickered and stretched out halfway between Adrian and Eno.

“I spent years in my human form while living in Erya. No shifting. No fire. No flying.” He gave a shrug, his eyes locked on the dancing flames not far from his feet. “The truth is, I mostly forgot about being a dragon. Every day, I’d wake up, look in the mirror, and see a human.”

“Except for all those game controllers you broke,” Caelan added. The king crossed the camp, returning from packing a bag of food away in their SUV. “Every time you got pissed at that racing game, you’d snap one of my controllers in half.”

Drayce winced and extended both of his hands toward Caelan, beckoning him forward. “I said I was sorry, and I always replaced them.”

A snort jumped from Caelan, but it didn’t stop him from lowering to the ground right next to his…boyfriend? Was it right to call the man dating the king his boyfriend? It seemed far too informal. Rayne probably knew a better, more official term for Drayce’s position in Caelan’s life, but Adrian had no interest in the dissertation on the history of the term he’d likely receive.

They’d spent a good chunk of the day heading away from Ilon’s capital and wandering through the smallest towns they could find. While Caelan remained trapped in the SUV with Rayne and Eno, he and Drayce would slip into stores and start up conversations with the locals, trying to get a feel for what had been happening in the country over the past several months.

From the sounds of things, the people of Ilon were just as lost as they were. The smaller towns outside of the capital weren’t hearing much from the government and had seen only hints of the Empire. But New Rosanthe’s presence had grown significantly in the past month. No one was quite sure what it meant.

That didn’t seem to be a hard thing to figure out: nothing good.

The presence of the Empire was always bad, and these people were lying to themselves if they thought for a second that this could possibly turn out to be a positive thing.

By late afternoon, they located a lonely section of woods several miles away from the nearest house or farm. They pulled more than a mile off the road and made camp in a clearing surrounded by trees so their campfire couldn’t be spotted.

“You know, of all the camping we’ve done so far, I think I like this spot the best,” Drayce announced to the group.

Caelan made a scoffing noise in the back of his throat. “As compared to what? Zastrad and the Ordas?”

“That’s not much of a hard choice, considering Zastrad was freezing and trying to kill us the entire time,” Rayne grumbled.

“And the Ordas was just trying to kill us,” Eno finished.

That would explain why this group had fallen into setting up camp with such ease. Even the king went about putting up the tent with Drayce as though he’d done it a hundred times.

Adrian lurched upright, his hands resting on his bent knees. “You all stayed in the Ordas? Seriously? I thought that place was insanely dangerous.”

“It is,” Rayne said firmly.

“Everything is trying to kill you. Everything,” Drayce added. He launched into an insane tale of crossing through the Ordas on foot with a pack of mountain lions hunting them down and the feeling of trees watching their every step. Yes, Adrian could happily live his entire life without ever needing to step foot inside that death trap.

“Speaking of camping in the Ordas,” Eno drawled. He paused and rubbed his chin, one eyebrow raised in Caelan’s direction. “Shouldn’t you be putting up a protective barrier so we can all get some sleep?”

The king smirked over at him. “I was going to let Rayne do it. He can always use the practice. I’ve had plenty.”

“Maybe Adrian would like to see the power of his king,” Rayne countered.

Adrian quickly held up both of his hands. “I’m good. After seeing Your Majesty take out a dragon, I’m in no hurry to witness any more magic from you.”

Drayce’s face clouded over and he grabbed a handful of Caelan’s hair, forcing him to tilt his head back to look up at him. “I worry about you.”

Caelan’s expression softened into a sweet smile, and he brushed a kiss along Drayce’s jaw. “Don’t. I’m safe now. That’s all that matters.”

Drayce huffed and tightened his arms around Caelan. “Yeah, yeah.”

The momentary silence was broken by a sigh from Rayne as he pushed to his feet. He moved to the middle of the campsite. The flickering firelight danced across his face, casting shadows in the hollows of his cheeks and brightening his eyes behind his glasses.

“Don’t forget: You don’t have to step into the fire like this show-off!” Drayce called out, nudging Caelan with his elbow.

Rayne shocked them all by lifting one hand and flipping Drayce the bird. They all exploded with laughter. Drayce rocked over onto his side, holding his stomach.

“Hey! I saved your life!” Drayce cried over more belly laughs.

The king’s advisor ignored him as he held two hands in front of his chest. Within seconds, a ball of green energy crackled between his palms. Adrian wordlessly watched as Rayne pushed the ball out so that it enveloped the entire campsite. He’d felt only the smallest tingle as the green energy pushed through him, and then it was gone.

“I’ve extended the shield to include our vehicle,” Rayne announced as he lowered his hands to his sides. Eno started to rise, his hands extended toward Rayne as if he meant to catch him, but the man just smiled and easily returned to his spot beside him.

Adrian looked at the faint green glow that now formed a dome around them and the camp. “This will keep attackers out?”

“Attackers, animals, bullets, knives, and generally anything that might want to kill us in our sleep,” Drayce listed.

One corner of his mouth lifted in a smirk as he inspected the barrier. That was handy. It meant they could all sleep instead of setting up a rotation of guards. Sleep would be good since they had no idea what waited for them in Brightspire.

“Let me see if I’ve got this right. The king is bonded to four gods. Rayne has been gifted some power—”

“Only a small amount when compared to Caelan,” Rayne interjected.

“And Drayce got…wings?” Adrian continued.

“A blessing,” Caelan corrected. “I don’t think it’s technically on the same level as what Rayne received from Tula.”

“But my wings are the freaking best,” Drayce boasted, and Adrian couldn’t argue that point. Drayce was lethal as a dragon, and more so now that he could be airborne again. From what Eno had told him, though, Drayce was pretty damn lethal with a sniper rifle and a pair of pistols.

“With all of that at our disposal, what’s to stop us from just blowing straight into Brightspire and claiming the godstone out from under New Rosanthe’s nose? You kicked the Empire’s ass in Stormbreak, and you had only two gods at your fingertips at that time, right?”

“It is a good point,” Eno murmured.

Rayne groaned and slipped his fingers under his glasses to rub his eyes.

“Shit, you’ve done it now,” Caelan mumbled, shooting Adrian a little grin.

“First thing you need to remember is that we were in our own kingdom when Caelan took steps against New Rosanthe. We were already at war with the Empire,” Rayne began with a harsh rigidity to his words. “However, we are now in Ilon, one of the oldest allies of Erya. If we attack New Rosanthe while we are in Brightspire, we stand a chance of destroying any kind of positive relations we have with Ilon.”

“Even if Ilon has been invaded by the Empire?” Caelan asked.

Rayne lifted both of his hands in a helpless manner. “We don’t know what has happened in Brightspire. We’ve had zero communication from the government in over a week. As much as I’m loath to even suggest it, New Rosanthe might have struck a deal with the Ilon government, might be welcome guests here. If we strike against the Empire, we would be the aggressors.”

“But does that even matter in the race to claim the godstone and stop Safa?” Eno inquired.

Caelan’s expression grew grim. “It matters for as long as it possibly can. I don’t want to throw more of Thia into chaos if it can be helped. Stealth would be our best option. I would, of course, like to speak to the prime minister and find out what exactly is happening in Ilon. It might be a matter of offering them assistance without the Empire discovering it.”

“And if Ilon has chosen to side with the Empire in this war?” Adrian prodded.

The king’s eyes darted over to Rayne, who was frowning.

“Then it would not be wrong for us to treat them as we would Damardor or Uris-Oladul,” Rayne replied. “As enemies of Erya.”

Adrian glanced over at Caelan to find the king staring into the fire while Drayce gripped one of the king’s hands in both of his. The idea of losing Ilon to the Empire didn’t sit well with Adrian. He could only imagine the feeling was worse for Caelan. It wasn’t a failure on his part, though he could guess the king would feel that way. As Rayne had said, Ilon was the oldest ally of Erya. How could they turn to side with New Rosanthe?

“If we’re going for stealth, our best option would be to split up before we try to enter Brightspire,” Adrian suggested.

Caelan’s head snapped up and his eyebrows rose toward his hairline. “Really?”

Drayce bumped his shoulder. “You are kind of recognizable. I mean, Andy recognized you immediately, and Shallow Edge was in the middle-of-nowhere Caspagir. We’re heading to Brightspire, Ilon. The capital of the entire country. Those people are going to know you.”

The king narrowed his eyes on Drayce. “You’re trying to shave my head again, aren’t you?” Caelan shrugged. “Fine. Do it. If it makes it that much harder for people to recognize me, do it.”

A loud gasp jumped from Drayce’s throat, and he grabbed two handfuls of Caelan’s hair. “Don’t you dare say that! Your hair is too pretty to cut.”

“It was your idea!” Caelan argued.

“Yeah, but I was saying that to get a rise out of you. No cutting your hair. Especially now that you’ve got the cool purple streak in the front. Gives you an edgy, I-don’t-give-a-shit look.”

Adrian scrubbed a hand over his face to keep from laughing at them. Caelan proceeded to bat Drayce’s hands away while the other man made noises about the preciousness of Caelan’s hair. There was something up with that purple streak. It had appeared during his trek through Zastrad and anytime someone mentioned it, the king instantly appeared uncomfortable. Yet, he never talked about it.

“The problem isn’t just the appearance of the king,” Adrian broke in after a couple of seconds. The camp fell silent except for the crackle of the flames. Full dark had enveloped the woods, which made the green glow of the protective barrier that much brighter. It was like being in their own little world. “Because of the closeness of Erya and Ilon for years, the King’s entire entourage will be recognizable. Especially to New Rosanthe soldiers as well as guards within Brightspire.”

“But you’re not,” Eno stated with a nod. “I see what you’re saying. You and Cael enter the city through one of the boroughs while the three of us go in separately.”

“What? Like as decoys?” Drayce inquired.

“It would probably be best if you don’t attract any attention. But if you are spotted, you’re more likely to be followed by soldiers since they’ll be searching for the king with you,” Adrian said.

“But if they spot you…” Caelan murmured with a nod toward Adrian.

He shrugged and offered up his most carefree smile. “No one is going to give me a second glance. I’m just another guy, another businessman come to Brightspire for Ilon goods. The only way someone might recognize me is if I’m wearing a Royal Guard uniform.”

“Have you been to Brightspire before?” Rayne asked.

“Once, and that was years ago,” Adrian replied. “But the city is centuries old. I can’t imagine it’s changed that much in the past decade or so. I know the general layout.”

Caelan waved one hand in his direction. “That’s better than me. I’ve never been to Brightspire.”

“At least we have working cell phones again. We can text each other where we are so we can meet up later,” Drayce pointed out.

“Then we head to Brightspire tomorrow,” Adrian murmured.

“Our goal will be to locate the godstone,” Caelan instructed.

“I’d say our best place to start is the Shrine District. They’ve got cathedrals, temples, and shrines dedicated to all the old gods there.” Adrian paused and rubbed his jaw. “If I was gonna hide the godstone, wouldn’t the best place be among all the other edifices built for the gods?”

“Is it that big of a hiding place? There are only six gods,” Drayce scoffed, and Adrian grinned at him. “What?”

“The people of Ilon honor all the old gods,” he answered.

“What—” Drayce began, but Caelan cut him off.

“Ilon’s scholars have dedicated a lot of time to the study of the history of Thia, which means they haven’t erased quite as much as the other countries. As part of Thia’s history and Ilon’s art, they have built shrines to both the major and the minor gods.” Caelan lifted his eyes to Adrian and smiled. “I’ve seen pictures of the Shrine District. It’s beautiful.”

“And tied for second place for the largest district. The first largest is University Hill. Second is the Shrine District and the Artists Quarter.”

“What’s the smallest?” Eno asked.

“Parliament Plaza,” Rayne mumbled, sounding like a man who’d been frustrated by the workings of Ilon’s government more than once.

Drayce leaned forward, crossing his legs in front of him and placing his elbows on his knees. “What about us? Where should we head?”

“If you want the latest gossip and to get the vibe of the city, I’d head for the Bazaar. It’s where you’re going to encounter the biggest crowds of people as well as those who are coming in from outside Brightspire. It’s where everyone goes to get the latest dirt.”

“And why do I feel like it’s also the best place to get smuggled goods?” Rayne drawled with a smirk.

Adrian grinned right back at him. “I have no idea what you’re talking about. Like I said, I was only there the one time, and that was just a bit of innocent fun with a couple of friends.”

“I doubt you know the meaning of the word innocent,” Rayne mumbled, but his smirk had turned into more of a smile. Adrian doubted Rayne knew the meaning of the word either—but then, what good was an innocent advisor to the king?

Folding his hands behind his head, Adrian stretched his legs and stared at the flickering fire in front of him. The conversation became background noise as his mind drifted to the memory of the hectic chaos of the Brightspire Bazaar. The region was a number of narrow streets filled with eclectic shops carrying different sorts of interesting items, both legal and slightly illegal.

All the streets spiderwebbed off the enormous square in the center that housed the giant building for the proper bazaar. Inside it was a mix of temporary and permanent shops, offering everything from food to handicrafts to services to imports and even doctor’s offices. Anything you could possibly want was in the Bazaar. The air had been rich with spices, cooked meats, and exotic perfume. Every color of the rainbow dazzled the eyes.

And then there were the people.

Everyone in Brightspire came to the Bazaar. No one was too rich or too poor to wander among the shops and stalls. Every language that could be imagined was spoken there.

To a fifteen-year-old kid, the Bazaar had been pure magic.

Haru would have loved it.

Adrian was almost startled at the thought of the dragon, but as soon as it came to him, he could feel the smile tugging up one side of his mouth. The sunset-colored dragon would have been in heaven in the Bazaar. He would have zipped from one stall or shop to the next, wanting to taste and touch all the interesting items. He would have eagerly spoken to every vendor, every customer, aching to soak in the experience so very different from his own home.

A sharp pang cut through his chest. He wanted to take Haru to the Bazaar. He wanted to trail after the dragon, grinning like a fool as he watched him experience everything he possibly could. Haru’s giddiness was infectious.

And maybe he wanted to watch Haru create chaos among the stalls, ruffling feathers everywhere he went, while Adrian was the only one to know that a dragon was loose among them. There was no denying that he had a twisted sense of humor.

But as clearly as he could imagine Haru loose in the Bazaar, a sharper image filled his mind. The last time he’d seen Haru.

Adrian grabbed his last spare shirt from the drawer and tucked it into his bag. They were leaving for the boat in a few hours. Just enough time for him to make a last check of his room to make sure he didn’t forget anything. He hadn’t spread out his meager belongings too much, but they’d stayed at the Omari compound far longer than any of them had anticipated. Items naturally migrated and fell into the cracks.

He turned at the sound of his door softly sliding open. His eyes widened as Haru, in his pristine white robes, slipped through the narrow opening before closing it. The dragon’s handsome face was unexpectedly stern. His dark eyebrows were sharp slashes above his dark-blue eyes while his full lips were pressed into a hard line.

“What are you—”

Haru’s hand slammed into his shoulder and pushed, forcing Adrian to scramble backward step for step with Haru until he finally hit the far wall. Adrian sucked in a ragged breath, his entire body bathed in the heat radiating from the dragon.

For several seconds, he didn’t say anything at all. They just stood there, staring at each other. Adrian’s eyes moved so slowly over that perfect face, memorizing every line and curve. When he fell asleep at night, he wanted to be able to recall the sharp slant of his nose, the peaked bow of his upper lip, the various fractals of blue that made up his eyes. He wanted to remember the lush fringe of eyelashes that formed dark crescents on his pale cheeks.

Haru leaned close, and Adrian was hit with the haunting scent of jasmine. He breathed deep, trying to mark his lungs the same way his flesh had been. The smoothness of Haru’s cheek caressed Adrian’s bristled one. His hot breath danced across his ear, and that low voice filled his mind.

“You’re not free of me yet. I will come find you. I swear it,” Haru growled, his words something between a promise and a dare.

Adrian wanted to say something scathing or teasing. He wanted to laugh in Haru’s face to show that he didn’t take anything the dragon said seriously.

But as Haru pulled away, he paused and those midnight-blue eyes locked on Adrian’s parted lips. Sharp tingling started and he froze, unable to breathe or move. He waited for Haru to close the few inches between them and steal the kiss he so clearly wanted. Gods, Adrian couldn’t deny that he was aching to know what it would feel like to have the dragon ravage his mouth, to feel that always-sharp tongue tangling with his own.

Before either of them could cave, Haru was gone.

Adrian blinked, catching barely a blur of white as he slipped out of the door, leaving Adrian alone in his room with only the memory of his heat and the tingle that had spread from his lips to encompass his entire body. He slid to the floor, light-headed and confused.

What the fuck had happened?

The encounter couldn’t have taken more than thirty seconds, and yet Adrian felt the reverberations down in his soul.

Even now, nearly two weeks later, every millisecond of that moment was burned into his brain, and he wanted more. As stupid as it may be, he wanted Haru to keep his promise. He wanted the dragon to find him. He wanted that damn kiss that had been left hanging in the air between them.

Gods, he was an idiot.

“Wow.” Caelan chuckled, drawing Adrian from his thoughts. “I have no idea what you’re thinking about, but with a grin like that, it’s definitely not logistics.”

Adrian’s muscles jerked, and he blinked to find himself sitting at a campsite in Ilon and not in the guest room on the Isle of Stone, debating whether to chase after a certain crazy dragon.

“Dude, with a smile like that, he’s got to be thinking about a who, not a what,” Drayce cackled.

Heat flooded Adrian’s cheeks and he shook his head. Man, he knew better than to let his mind wander, especially now. He needed to pay attention and stay focused at all times.

The blond leaned toward him, his grin turning wicked. “Who are you thinking about? Someone in Stormbreak? Another guard?”

It was on the tip of his tongue to say that it was no one Drayce knew, but that would be a lie and there was no point in lying.

“Don’t worry about it,” he grumbled and then turned his attention over to Caelan. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I swear it won’t happen again.”

Caelan waved off the apology. “I find I like the idea of you having someone on your mind. You have a reason to keep fighting, to survive.”

“I’ve sworn to give my life to the protection of you and Erya.”

The king shocked him by shrugging one shoulder. “A noble thought, but you’d be surprised at how much harder you fight when it’s for the person you want to hold in your arms one more time.”

Okay, so maybe the king had a point. Adrian might not want to agree with him, but he couldn’t argue with the longing in his heart. He’d never held Haru, never touched his cheek, never kissed his lips. And now that the path before them looked so incredibly dark and uncertain, Adrian found himself fighting for those things and so much more.

THREE

Drayce Ladon

Brightspire was enormous.

As much as he hated to admit it, Brightspire was even bigger than Stormbreak Point if you didn’t count the hundreds of thousands of acres of farmland that surrounded the Erya capital.

It was already late afternoon when he, Eno, and Rayne managed to sneak into town through the Bazaar district. Sneak didn’t feel like the right word, though. They really did just drive straight into the city. They’d dropped Caelan and Adrian off at a smaller town outside of the capital, where they planned to grab one of the buses running into Brightspire.

It looked as if all their covert efforts and plans were for nothing. Neither New Rosanthe nor Ilon were checking cars entering the capital. There were no roadblocks or checkpoints. As far as he could tell, it was business as usual.

And Brightspire did a lot of freaking business. For a late afternoon on a Saturday, the roads were still packed with cars, trucks, and vans entering the city.

While there were multiple roads—including a giant six-lane highway—into the capital, all vehicle traffic had to enter from the east since three-quarters of Brightspire was surrounded by the waters of Shallow Glass Lake. That seemed like a creepy name for a lake, but who was he to judge? He was born on the Isle of Stone, where eighty percent of the island was jagged, ice-covered mountains. That name wasn’t exactly warm and inviting.

As they crossed the last bridge over the Whitgami River into the city, it became startlingly clear where the city got its name. Dotted throughout the vast skyline were at least two dozen sharp spires jutting into the air like spearpoints. They were all different, from cool-gray stone to glass to what appeared to be glittering gold winking in the late-day sun. If the sky had been cloudy, they could have served as a network of tent poles holding up the heavens.

Drayce had always considered Stormbreak to be a modern city with its numerous skyscrapers within the old city walls, but it paled in comparison to the shiny newness of Brightspire. There were signs of classical old buildings with marble columns and elegant, sweeping arches, but they were mixed in with strange architecture made of twisted steel and colored glass.

“This place is freaking huge,” Drayce groaned. He released his hold on the passenger seat in front of him and flopped back, bouncing lightly on the cushion. A steady cool breeze whipped in through the melted window, ruffling his hair and rattling some bags in the cargo area.

“That could work to our advantage, giving us a variety of options if we need to hide. It will take longer for either Ilon or the Empire to root us out,” Rayne said and pointed to an approaching exit ramp. “Take this one here. It’ll deliver us to the edge of the manufacturing district.”

Drayce jerked his head from where he’d been staring out the window at the signs flashing by offering up expert dental care and energy drinks to give you that end-of-the-day boost. “I thought we were going to the Bazaar.”

“We are, but the manufacturing district is adjacent to the Bazaar. In addition, Parliament Plaza is only a few blocks from there. I want to see how close we can stroll to the government buildings.”

“And check for any signs of New Rosanthe,” Eno tacked on.

“Exactly,” Rayne agreed with a nod. “If the Empire’s goal is the godstone, they will want to gain control of two key points—government and the Shrine District.”

“Just like they did in Stormbreak,” Drayce muttered while a knot formed in his stomach. Caelan and Adrian were heading straight for the Shrine District and potentially into the waiting arms of the Empire.

Drayce leaned to his left and slipped his cell phone from his pocket. He tapped the screen to find that no new texts had arrived in the ten minutes since he’d last checked. While they could all exchange texts now, it had been agreed that messages should be kept to sharing critical information. Drayce checking to make sure that Caelan was still safe didn’t fit the criteria, so he shoved his phone into his pocket again.

He didn’t need to worry. Adrian was a skilled fighter and a sneaky former thief. Caelan…fuck…Caelan had the power of four gods at his fingertips. According to what Adrian had told him, it sounded like Caelan could take out all of the New Rosanthe army with a wave of his hand.

What was he worried about?

Everything. Literally everything.

If it could go wrong, it did and had since they’d left Stormbreak for the first time more than six months ago. He didn’t like the idea of not being there to protect Caelan’s back when the next thing blew up in their faces.

But Adrian was right. At this point, Rayne and Eno were far more recognizable than they had been in Zastrad or even parts of Caspagir. Drayce was beginning to fear people would know him after his years of being Caelan’s shadow.

This morning, they’d all dug through the clothes they’d packed, opting for more casual street attire, which was no different from what Drayce wore every day. Hats were pulled on and tugged low to obscure their faces. When they dropped Adrian and Caelan off, a quick shopping run was made for more hats, sunglasses, and even a couple of scarves. Drayce didn’t think he could’ve been more shocked than when Rayne had picked up several sets of earrings. He’d placed two small gold hoops in his right ear and a single silver stud in his left.

But then Eno had knocked him speechless when he’d taken one of the hoops from Rayne’s ear and placed it in his own.

“I don’t know whether I’m more stunned that you both have your ears pierced or that you’re that disgustingly cute,” Drayce moaned when they were all seated in the car again.

Rayne had touched his right ear, a flush lightly painting his cheek. “Remnants from a more rebellious time in my life. I always assumed the holes would close up. I guess it’s a good thing they didn’t.”

Drayce shook his head. He’d shed his usual cap and opted for a dark plaid trilby matched with a pair of fake, black-rimmed glasses and a loose silk scarf around his neck. He couldn’t think of anything more different from his usual style unless he’d donned one of Rayne’s bespoke suits.

At least they looked less like their normal selves.

Using an app on his phone, Rayne directed Eno through the busy streets toward the Parliament building and the other government offices. When they were a couple of blocks away, Eno slipped into an open parking spot on a street filled with brick townhomes. The street was quiet and a bit rundown. Hopefully no one would notice the SUV with the missing rear window and the Erya license plate.

Sadly, they needed to walk just a block to find trouble. The street leading to the massive Parliament building was blocked…by New Rosanthe soldiers. That was a very bad sign. Not only did New Rosanthe have control of the Ilon border with Erya, but it appeared they had control of the country’s government as well.

“I don’t understand,” Eno grumbled as they turned away from the roadblock and headed along a parallel street. “There are zero signs of fighting. No damage. No broken buildings or torn-up streets. Entire blocks of Stormbreak were destroyed when the Empire attacked.”

“The lack of damage is good for the people of Brightspire,” Rayne replied softly.

“But did they seriously give up control of the city without a fight?” Eno snapped, his voice growing in volume with every stomp of his foot on the pavement. “How could they roll over and hand themselves over to the Empire?”

“Shhh!” Rayne hissed, grabbing his arm. “We don’t know what happened here. Maybe New Rosanthe doesn’t have control of the government, despite how it looks. Chancellor Croft quickly left the Towers as New Rosanthe moved into Stormbreak. There’s a chance that the Prime Minister Jasper Feroz has done the same.”

“Or maybe hearing of Queen Amara’s death was enough to convince Ilon to do what the Empire wants,” Drayce mumbled.

Drayce followed behind Eno and Rayne as they hurried down the sidewalk, away from the checkpoint and to the SUV. Except their vehicle was no longer an option. As they turned the corner, they found three Ilon soldiers—not police officers, actual soldiers—inspecting the car and talking amongst themselves.

That didn’t feel like a good situation in the slightest.

Eno moved into the lead and kept walking straight rather than turning right toward the SUV. They didn’t glance at the soldiers or speak. They could have been three friends out for a walk or coworkers or…anything. But for whatever reason, they were just suspicious enough that one of the soldiers called out for them to stop.

This was bad. As much as they needed to get in contact with the Ilon government to find out what was going on, it needed to be on their own terms. Not getting hauled in by the army. Drayce had been there once with Caelan in Sirelis. It might have all worked out in the end, but that was only because Rayne had dated the crown prince. As far as he knew, Rayne didn’t have any past lovers or even fuck-buddies to fall back on Brightspire.

“We can’t be taken,” Rayne said in a low voice between clenched teeth.

“You and Eno go straight. Head for the Bazaar and get lost there. I’ll lead them away,” Drayce ordered.

“What—” Eno started to argue, but Drayce was already turning toward the soldiers. He lifted both hands, flipping them off while flashing his cockiest grin. “Emperor Suen sucks donkey balls! Long live King Caelan!”

With a cackle, he took off at a brisk jog down the street and away from where he estimated the Bazaar was. Eno and Rayne ran in the opposite direction though he swore he heard one or both of them swearing at him under their breath.

Yeah, maybe this was dangerous, but they were forgetting that he was a dragon. There were a few things he could do that they didn’t know about, and he preferred to keep it that way. If no one saw him doing these things, it didn’t count as breaking his oath, right? Not that he’d sworn an oath to his new clan leader Omari Nori to not reveal his true self. It was just understood that he’d continue to keep things under wraps for now.

Drayce glanced over his shoulder to find that two of the three soldiers were chasing him. That left one after Eno and Rayne. He’d hoped that all three would pursue him, but Eno and Rayne could easily handle one soldier.

Mentally chuckling to himself, Drayce sped up, darting down one street and up another. He was utterly lost, but he’d fix that once he escaped his tail and could stop somewhere to catch his breath. For now, his main goal was to remain in this lovely neighborhood with old, tall brick buildings. Each of them appeared to be at least six or seven stories high and were arranged so that there were ample narrow alleys.

Few people were on the sidewalks, and he wove between them with ease. The soldiers called out, ordering him to stop. They shouted a few threats, but thanks to the other people on the street, they hadn’t yet drawn their weapons.

When he’d finally broken their line of sight by darting into a new skinny alley littered with trash and old boxes, Drayce did the one thing he’d never permitted himself since moving to the continent. He called on his dragon strength while in his human form. He ran a couple of steps up the wall and pushed off, bouncing himself across the alley into the opposite wall. Catching it with one foot, he continued to ping-pong back and forth, working his way up as far as his momentum would carry him.

On the last bounce, he shifted his hand just enough to summon up dragon claws that dug deep into the brick. He hung there for a second, six stories up in the air, his breathing ragged but still feeling ridiculously giddy. Beneath him, the two soldiers ran past. They never looked up. But why would they? There were no fire escapes on this side of the building. No ladders. No way for a normal human to climb the sheer wall.

Drayce was barely holding in a final giggle when pulled himself up the last several feet to the roof. As his sneakers landed, his cell phone vibrated in his pocket. He grabbed it, expecting to see a call or text from Rayne or Eno. Instead, it was from Caelan.

What did you do?

His heart skipped a beat. How in the world did Caelan even know he was up to anything?

With a slight tremble in his fingers, he typed out “Nothing” and sent it. The message was marked read and the call instantly came through from Caelan.

“Hey,” he drawled, trying to sound completely innocent.

“What did you do?” Caelan repeated in his ear, though it did sound like his friend was relaxed and not angry in the least.

“What do you mean? I’m not doing anything…really…”

Caelan snorted. “I don’t believe you at all.” He suddenly lowered his voice to a harsh whisper. “Caris has been giggling nonstop for nearly ten minutes. All I can get out of her is your name. What did you do?”

Drayce’s eyes widened, and his heart definitely stopped for a full second before racing ahead like a thing gone mad. Oh, shit. This connection to the Goddess of Fire was more intense than he’d expected, and she was directly tied to Caelan. That was bad. So bad.

“Oh…umm…nothing…”

“Drayce,” Caelan growled.

Okay, now he was getting pissed, but it was probably his worried pissed, and Cael didn’t need any distractions right now.

“I’m okay. Everything is okay. The Empire has the Parliament and government buildings surrounded. We might have also run into some Ilon soldiers. I escaped, but I need to check in with Rayne and Eno to make sure they’re good.”

“You’re safe?”

“Yup, not a problem at all.”

“Then why was Caris giggling?”

Drayce swallowed and rubbed his head. A curse left his lips when he realized he’d lost his new hat in the chase. That had been a cool hat. He’d thought about making it his new thing. Oh, well. “I might have used a tiny bit of dragon strength to climb a building. No big deal, and no one saw me.”

A low groan rumbled into his ear. “It’s like you take pleasure in scaring me. A giggling…you know…is not a good thing usually.”

“I know, but I swear I’m good. Everything is fine. Don’t worry. Where are you?” Drayce asked, trying to redirect Caelan’s thoughts.

“On the bus. We’re not far from our destination now.”

“Okay, you and Adrian be careful. One of us will check in with you soon.”

“Got it. Watch your back.”

Drayce hummed happily. “Love you, too.”

A noise he couldn’t quite describe escaped Caelan. “Idiot,” the king murmured, and in that word was a wealth of warmth and love. He ended the call, and Drayce might have continued to hum to himself as he shot off a quick text to Eno and Rayne demanding their location.

Plopping down in the center of the flat roof, Drayce gazed around at the skyline in front of him. The immediate neighborhood looked to be mostly town houses and apartment buildings. All residences and all a bit eclectic based on what he could see of the styles and colors through the different windows. He liked the overall unique feel of the city, but it didn’t compare to Stormbreak.

Returning to the Erya capital after being away for so incredibly long had felt good. It felt like coming home—something he’d never had while living among his kind on the Isle of Stone. If he returned now, though, he was sure Clan Omari could become that for him one day.

Not that it was ever going to happen. He was never going to leave Caelan. Stormbreak was his home for now, but his real home, the place he truly belonged, was at Caelan’s side.

The week they’d spent waiting in Stormbreak after their return had been nice. There had been plenty of questions about where he’d been and why he’d seemed so thin. The lost weight was mostly fixed now, and he’d gotten good at dodging questions.

Tomas, the captain of the Royal Guard, had immediately pulled him aside and had him fitted for a Royal Guard uniform. While he wasn’t officially a member because he’d never completed the training, he was close enough. The argument was that it raised fewer questions about why he was constantly following the king. Caelan had even threatened a few times to make him a lord like Eno and Rayne, but there hadn’t been enough time to draw up the paperwork. Everyone who saw the king on a daily basis just understood that he had two personal bodyguards—Lord Eno Bevyn and scrawny, scrappy Drayce Ladon.

But it was still coming. The title, the official position in the king’s court, all the duties that came with being the bodyguard.

Unless Caelan decided to announce to the world that they were dating.

Did the king’s boyfriend have royal duties? Oh shit, would he have to cut ribbons and hold babies for pictures now?

He couldn’t remember the last time he’d held a baby. And what if he cut someone with those big gold scissors? Or worse…dropped a baby?

Thankfully, Drayce’s phone vibrated in his hands, jolting him from the darkening whirlpool of thoughts sucking him down.

The text was from Rayne, and it was simply an address.

Drayce rolled his eyes. Fucking Rayne. All business. How in the world did Eno put up with his shit?

And how do I know your dumb asses didn’t get captured and this isn’t a trap? Drayce typed.

He waited nearly a minute before the three dots briefly appeared indicating that one of them was typing. But it wasn’t a message. Eno had sent a selfie of him and Rayne in front of what appeared to be a shop that sold colorful scarves. Eno had the biggest, goofiest grin while Rayne did not appear amused in the least. But there was no denying that Rayne’s head was resting on Eno’s shoulder. Gods, was he looking at the couple’s first selfie together?

Cackling like a loon, Drayce saved the pic and responded that he was on his way. He then texted the picture to Caelan with the caption: Idiots in Love.

With the address added to his GPS, Drayce climbed to the street and set off. He moved slower, peeking around every corner for any sight of Ilon soldiers, Empire soldiers, or even cops.

It took him the better part of half an hour to reach the street filled with shops just outside of the larger Bazaar building. And it was not because he got lost…twice. Or that he stopped at a tiny hat store to purchase a new trilby to replace the first one.

The address turned out to be for a tiny café with enough room for three small round tables and wobbly wire chairs. Rayne and Eno were seated so close together they were touching from shoulder to knee. A couple of cups filled with coffee were in front of them, but they seemed forgotten as they spoke softly while keeping their eyes on their phones.

Drayce dropped into the open seat opposite them and grinned. “Did you order me anything?”

“Here you go, sir,” a pleasant woman’s voice said as a mug with foam and some sort of sprinkles was placed in front of him. “Triple caramel latte with cocoa sprinkles. Enjoy!” Drayce barely saw the woman twirl away from the corner of his eye. His gaze was locked on his drink.

“Oh my gods, you do love me,” Drayce moaned before picking up his drink and consuming half of it.

“Any trouble?” Eno inquired.

Drayce shook his head. “Nah. Lost them easy enough. You?”

“We ducked briefly into the Bazaar and lost him in the crowd,” the bodyguard replied in a low voice. “The cell signal is shit in there. We popped out to contact you.”

Drayce licked a bit of foam off his lip and set his nearly empty mug down. The combination of heat and caffeine were already working their magic on his mind, sharpening and focusing his thoughts. “What’s going on here? Ilon and New Rosanthe soldiers in Brightspire. That ain’t good.”

“Ilon’s soldiers are likely here because of the Empire, either to enforce whatever deal was made or to eject the invaders,” Rayne murmured. He put his phone facedown on the table and picked up his drink. He took a small sip and set it aside again.

“So, should we be avoiding the Ilon soldiers or not?” Drayce asked.

“Yes, for now at least.” Rayne sighed and shook his head. “We don’t know what deal the government struck with the Empire or even if there is one. They could be easily angered by our presence and throw us in prison rather than allow us to help them. I thought I’d have more workable information by now.”

“I’ll understand if you can’t answer this question,” Eno started and leaned closer to Rayne and dropped his voice so that Drayce could barely hear him when he demanded, “Don’t you have spies here who can provide you with some info?”

The smile that lit Rayne’s face when he regarded his mate left Drayce feeling uncomfortable, like he should leave the couple to their own world. Or maybe it was a look of joy that Eno understood how his boyfriend’s world worked. Either way, he’d never seen Rayne smile quite like that at anyone.

As if suddenly remembering Drayce was present, Rayne cleared his throat and stared at his coffee. “I do, actually. It’s part of the reason we waited a full week before leaving. He has people in place, but communication has been spotty. He was in Stormbreak when we arrived. The idea had been to meet and plan, but things turned cold and silent with Ilon faster than I anticipated, so he left for Brightspire almost immediately upon our return.”

“Does Cael know him?” Eno asked.

Rayne’s expression twisted. “He knows of him, but I’ve never formally introduced them. I’ve only spoken to him in person twice. Our communication is generally limited to coded messages.”

Drayce leaned forward so he could whisper. “Have you heard from him since we reached Ilon?”

Rayne shook his head. “No, but that’s not necessarily out of the ordinary. Communication between us has always been slow out of a need for caution. The information he tends to gather is for long-term planning. Not the kind of insane missions that we’ve been on recently. But when he does contact me, I believe he will be able to give us a full summary of what’s been happening here.”

Pursing his lips together, Drayce made a raspberry noise that earned an arched eyebrow of disdain from Rayne. While Mr. Spy was going to be a great help to them eventually, he was a bust right now.

“Not to call out the obvious, but has anyone tried reading the paper or online news?” Drayce asked, though he couldn’t criticize since he’d not done it yet.

“I’ve been skimming headlines for days,” Rayne replied a bit tartly. “The main news organizations have nothing about changes in power or even New Rosanthe. There have been notices of street closures around Parliament Plaza. A citywide curfew has also been put in effect indefinitely starting at seven p.m. The only people allowed on the streets are emergency workers and law enforcement. No exceptions.”

Drayce grabbed his phone and pushed the button on the side to get the screen to light up. It was nearly five. They were running short on time. They needed to either get out of the city or find a place to hunker down for the night.

“Anyone heard from Cael or Adrian?” Eno inquired.

“No,” Rayne quickly answered.

Drayce tapped the texting app, opening it to the last thing he’d sent Caelan—the selfie of Rayne and Eno. It hadn’t been marked Read yet. “We talked about forty minutes ago. He was still on the bus but getting close.”

Rayne grunted and started tapping away on his phone. “I’ll warn him and Adrian of the curfew. We’ll find a hostel or an inn in this district, then send them the address.”

“It may be best for them to stay in the Shrine District,” Eno countered.

The advisor nodded without looking up from his screen. “True, but I want them to know where to find us if there are problems.”

Drayce hated the idea of them sleeping in separate locations, and not just because he preferred to sleep with one leg tossed across Caelan’s and his face pressed to Cael’s shoulder. He simply rested easier knowing that if there was a problem, he was right there to protect his lover.

At least Caelan had Adrian with him.

But if the new guy tried to sleep with Caelan like that, Drayce was going to shift into his dragon and fucking eat him.

FOUR

Caelan Talos

The Shrine District was unlike anything Caelan had ever seen. Certainly unlike what he’d been expecting. In Stormbreak and throughout Erya, there were small shrines and statues erected in honor of Tula and the Life Stone.

Zastrad had images of the broken godstone and Nyx’s black and purple everywhere, but the Zastrians were devout death worshipers. There was no mention or reference to any of the other gods. Not even the Goddess of Life.

In Caspagir, there was no mention of the God of Storms. Just the presence of the color blue everywhere. It was all the more haunting because it was often the exact shade of blue of the Wind Stone.

Meanwhile, the Isle of Stone had zero reference to the Goddess of Fire or the Fire Stone.

Ilon was the odd exception. Brightspire held shrines, temples, and cathedrals to all the gods as far as he could tell.

Caelan had followed Adrian off the bus along with several other passengers. Most of them could be listed among the elderly with their steel-gray or snowy-white hair and faces mapped heavily with wrinkles. They didn’t take a second glance at him or Adrian but shuffled toward what looked to be a busy main avenue that was blocked from vehicular traffic. They moved forward, getting lost in the foot traffic created by what appeared to be tourists snapping pictures of the different structures.

“I don’t understand,” Caelan breathed as he stepped onto the main thoroughfare. His wide eyes jumped from structure to structure and statue to statue, soaking in the incredible sights that filled his view.

Adrian stepped close enough to bump his shoulder against Caelan’s. He leaned his head over so that he could keep his voice at a whisper as he said, “Think of it as a graveyard rather than a series of churches.”

Caelan’s head snapped up. “What?”

The corner of his bodyguard’s mouth kicked up, and there was a bit of mocking mirth in his eyes. “The gods are all dead and gone, right? All that really remains is the Godstone.” He jerked his chin toward the buildings across from them. “These are just monuments to what existed so long ago. Part graveyard. Part museum.”

Caelan’s heart settled in his chest as he understood what Adrian was trying to tell him. The people didn’t believe the gods were still among them, granting favors and honoring prayers. This was like visiting a museum dedicated to the gods.

Do you need to make us sound like fossils? Caris pouted in his mind.

No one could mistake your fiery brilliance for a dusty fossil, Nyx purred. You must remember; humans are simple and must think in simple terms.

Caelan fought the urge to roll his eyes. At least Nyx was getting along with the Goddess of Fire.

There was a sharp sound in his mind, and he wasn’t entirely sure if it was simply a snap of Caris’s fan or a thwack from where she’d smacked Nyx with said fan. Our Caelan is not simple.

At least he still held the favor of one of the four gods.

“This way. It’ll probably be the best place to start,” Adrian directed, thankfully pulling Caelan’s attention away from his disgruntled tenants.

He followed a couple of steps behind his guard as the man casually strolled among the late-day crowd. Caelan bit the inside of his mouth as he watched him lift his phone here and there, snapping pictures of different statues and fountains they passed along the way. Adrian was quite good at appearing to be the distracted and relaxed tourist.

“I’m beginning to believe that you truly earned the title of master thief,” Caelan teased when they stepped clear of a knot of people.

Adrian’s dark eyebrows lifted and he smiled, but Caelan didn’t miss the look of worry that clouded his hard gray eyes. Caelan widened his own grin and bumped the man. Who the fuck was he to make moral judgments? They’d sneaked across the border and into Brightspire. That alone gave Ilon ample cause to declare war on Erya.

“Not something I ever expected to hear you…praising?” Adrian said, though it came off more like a question.

“Trust me, I find that I very much need someone of your skills right now. Mine and Rayne’s seem to be getting us nowhere.”

Adrian snorted and some of the new tension slipped from his shoulders. “I wouldn’t count Laurent out yet.”

No, Caelan definitely wasn’t doing that. Rayne still had tricks up his sleeve, starting with the spymaster they were waiting to hear from. But Caelan didn’t believe in putting all his eggs in a single basket. The former thief at his side was turning into the perfect resource.

“May I ask how you got into that line of work?” Caelan inquired. He kept his tone casual, but he didn’t miss how Adrian’s muscles stiffened slightly.

“Oh, I would never call it work,” Adrian replied with a forced laugh. He paused and licked his lips, his eyes darting around the street. No one was particularly close to them, and it didn’t look as if anyone was paying them any attention.

“You know, you can tell me to fuck off,” Caelan said.

A horrible choking sound erupted from Adrian as if he’d sucked down air too quickly. Caelan swallowed his own laugh and rapped Adrian between the shoulders a couple of times as he helped the man catch his breath. This is what happened when he spent too much time away from the Towers, pretending to be a normal person. Drayce was also a negative influence.

“What I meant to say is that you have a right to your privacy,” Caelan continued when Adrian stopped coughing. “I’d rather you say you don’t want to answer than have you tell me things against your will, or worse, lie to me.”

“Oh, I…” Adrian hesitated and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “There’s not much to say. If I lied, it would be only to make it more interesting.”

Caelan smirked. “You know my life and my companions. I’d be content with some boring, if you don’t mind.”

Adrian nodded, but he didn’t quite relax. “The story is the same for most kids who got into trouble. My parents were never home. My dad left when I was a baby and my mom worked constantly to put food on the table.” Adrian shrugged. “I was bored. Or lonely. Or bored and lonely. I don’t know. Some kids dared me to break into this posh house and steal some food. They thought I’d get caught.”

“But you didn’t?” Caelan nudged when Adrian fell silent.

His companion shook his head. “Nope. When I was young, I was scrawny, and I knew how to be patient.” Adrian suddenly stopped and turned to face Caelan, his expression grim. “And before you get any ideas about this being about some kid who was starving, just stop. We all had food at home. It might not have been great, but we didn’t need to steal. This really was about boredom.”

Caelan felt his smile grow even wider. “And maybe about thumbing your nose to the world? Proving that the lonely and forgotten are worth more than the world is taking them for?”

Adrian’s eyes widened, and then he turned away with another forced laugh. “I think that might be a bit deep for a ten-year-old brat.”

But it definitely hit the mark.

“Why’d you stop?” Caelan asked, letting the moment go.

“Tomas caught me.” Adrian flashed a smirk over his shoulder at Caelan, appearing more in control of his emotions again. “You know of a scarier reason?”

Caelan chuckled. “No, Tomas is plenty scary. He—”

Whatever he’d been about to say was cast to the wind as his eyes fell on an enormous tree standing in the center of the lane. It looked as if it was Thia’s oldest oak tree. It was certainly the biggest. The trunk was wider across than most buildings and it stretched up, blotting out the sky with massive limbs covered in dark-green leaves.

Oh my, Tula’s voice wavered in his mind. I’ve watched over this tree from a distance since it was a sprout bursting from a tiny acorn. This is the closest I’ve come to seeing it with my own eyes in centuries.

It is so very beautiful, he murmured in reply, but it was a poor description. It was breathtaking in its size and age. It felt as old as the gods that he carried with him. As old as Thia itself.

The tree was made all the more stunning by the fact that a stone structure wrapped its way around it without ever hindering the growth of a single limb or leaf. The stone nooks and paths created ways for humans to climb up.

Among the leaves fluttered hundreds of colorful pennants and tags. Prayers. The visitors to the massive tree had left prayers and messages to the Goddess of Life.

Would you like to see some of the prayers? Caelan offered. Yes, he’d grown increasingly wary of the goddess since first bonding with her, thanks to both her words and actions, but she couldn’t be all bad, right? Look at how the people honored her? She brought brightness and joy into their lives.

No, but I would like to give them a sign that their goddess hears them and appreciates their love. Move closer to the tree.

There was a low snicker in his mind, but he wasn’t sure if it came from Nyx or Caris. The answering grumble of warning was from Kaes. Following the addition of Caris, the battle lines had been more clearly marked, with Tula and Kaes on one side and Caris and Nyx on the other. Sometimes Nyx grew bold and sided with Tula, though. It was rare and usually resulted in him crawling back to Caris with whispered words of endearments.

“Let’s get closer,” Caelan murmured as he started toward the tree.

As they approached, Caelan smiled to see the sidewalk paving stones inlaid with green stones cut to resemble the Stormbreak Godstone. The sky that could be glimpsed through the branches was growing darker with deep hints of orange and purple as the sun set in the west. The air was warm this far south and held the barest floral hints.

Tingles of energy from the Light Stone danced along Caelan’s flesh. The godstone for the God of Wisdom was close, definitely within the city of Brightspire, but he couldn’t get a pinpoint on its location. It was as if the entire city were blanketed in the power of the God of Wisdom.

The moment Caelan stepped beneath the branches of the trees, energy surged out from within Caelan and buried deep into the ground, rushing forward. There was a shift in the leaves overhead, as though they’d suddenly come to life. Around him, some people gasped in wonder while others applauded. Caelan’s gaze snapped up and he smiled to see hundreds of butterflies fluttering out from the green leaves. Their wings were enormous and brightly tinted blue, green, yellow, and red. The visitors to the tree laughed, snapped pictures, and lifted their hands to see if they could get the magical creatures to land on their fingers.

That was why people loved the Goddess of Life. Was there a more benevolent and gentle sign than the butterfly?

And why wouldn’t they love me? Tula asked, but there was an underlying bite to her tone.

Because few have seen the vengeful, controlling side of the loving mother, Caelan replied. They don’t understand.…

But there were few in this world who would ever get such a clear view of the gods as him.

A flicker of something white caught his attention and he watched as a ghostly white butterfly appeared within the horde. A diaphanous creature that appeared more dream than life lazily made its way to him. Caelan couldn’t help but join in the fun and lift his hand toward it, inviting it to land on his finger.

Just before it could reach him, Adrian’s hand shot up and covered his, shoving it down and away from the white butterfly. “Don’t. It’s a bad omen.”

The ghostly creature flitted away as if he hadn’t been its target, seeming to disappear in a cloud of other butterflies. There was a grumble from the goddess, but he didn’t catch what she said.

“What kind of omen?” Caelan asked.

“White butterflies mean death is coming,” Adrian whispered.

Caelan shoved the thought aside. It wasn’t an omen. Tula was just playing games. The tree, butterflies, and even Tula weren’t the reasons for their arrival in the Shrine District of Brightspire.

Blocking out the gods and their squabbles for the time being, Caelan turned toward Adrian, grateful the man was at least somewhat familiar with the Shrine District.

“Where’s the temple dedicated to Lore?” Caelan inquired. Adrian lifted both of his eyebrows at him, and Caelan nearly sighed at himself. Yes, he had to be the only person who was on a first-name basis with the gods. “The God of Wisdom.”

“Oh! Gotcha.” He turned to the left, stared up the street, and turned the opposite direction, frowning. “I’m not sure. The district is arranged around the five gods.”

“Six,” Caelan automatically corrected.

“No, five.” He jerked his thumb over his shoulder, pointing to the tree. “The Goddess of Life.” He then pointed down the four streets that branched off where the tree rested at the crossroads. “The gods of Death, Storms, Fire, and Wisdom are at the other four points. I just don’t know which street leads to which god.”

Caelan’s heart skipped and he shifted so that he was standing directly in front of his bodyguard, his voice barely above a whisper. “What about Zyros? What about the Goddess of the Hunt? Why doesn’t she have a major shrine or temple dedicated to her?”

Adrian shrugged. “No clue.” He glanced about the square. “Maybe she’s got one of the minor shrines along one of the streets, but she’s not recognized as one of the major gods.”

“That doesn’t make any sense. She’s locked in a godstone,” he hissed. “She’s threatening all of Thia. She can’t be lumped with the God of Luck and the Patron Goddess of Kittens.”

Kaes cackled so loud that Caelan winced. He was half-convinced that Adrian could hear the God of Storms, but the bodyguard continued to watch the other people still milling about the tree.

Serves her right. She’s probably got a crumbling shrine next to the God of Toenail Clippings. The old god laughed.

More likely, she’s sharing a lovely temple with the Goddess of Sharp and Pointy Objects, Caris countered, which helped to quell Kaes’s amusement.

Caelan rubbed his eyes with one hand, some part of him silently praying that these weren’t real minor gods who existed or had existed at one time.

“Look, there’s a visitor’s kiosk,” Adrian announced suddenly. “They probably have a map listing all the various shrines for the tourists.”

“Grab a map,” Caelan ordered. His bodyguard stared at him for a second with an expression of intense indecision, but he finally jogged off to the kiosk he’d pointed out. Caelan, however, didn’t miss the fact that Adrian glanced over his shoulder several times as if he expected his king to sneak off and create mischief the second his back was turned. He had a feeling he had a combination of Eno and Drayce to thank for that lack of trust. Eno probably left him fearing for his life if anything happened to Caelan. And Drayce…fuck, Drayce just had to be Drayce, and that left an impression on a person.

He watched Adrian for a minute and then turned his attention to the rest of the square. It was an amazing place with temples, shrines, and churches of all shapes and sizes. Some of the places seemed bleak and serious where others were colorful and full of a sense of whimsy.

Had there been this many gods and goddesses in the world at one time? He’d been raised to believe there was one goddess left—Tula—and all the other gods were dead. But that was wrong.

If there had been minor gods roaming Thia, what had happened to them?

Do you really need to ask?

To his surprise, it was Caris with the grim question. But the implication was clear. The minor gods were gone because of the Goddess of the Hunt. There had been no mention of other gods falling to Zyros, but this wasn’t a group to be overly concerned about anyone else outside of themselves.

But if she’d destroyed minor gods, how was he supposed to stop her?

With all of our assistance, Tula murmured.

Which is why you’ve got to get the God of Wisdom to help you, Kaes added.

And exactly where do I find the godstone so I can have a conversation with the God of Wisdom? he mentally snapped.

Silence.

Helpful. So fucking helpful.

But then, he had a feeling that the God of Wisdom knew he was there with all the other gods and he wasn’t exactly pleased about it. Ever since the explosion of butterflies out of the tree, the tingle in the air had become sharper, almost cutting. He pulled a little more on Tula’s gift, using it as a shield against the painful touch of the god’s power. It made sense. Another god, another grudge.

It was probably best that he wasn’t marching straight up to the godstone. Some reconnaissance and research might be helpful before presenting himself to the god. Missteps with the Dead God had left him short on time. What would he lose if he pissed off the God of Wisdom? He shuddered at the thought.

Thankfully, Adrian returned with a suitable distraction.

“Bad news,” his bodyguard announced the second he was at Caelan’s side again. “There’s a curfew, and it kicks in soon. We’re gonna need to get off the street unless we want to catch the attention of the city watch.”

Caelan swore under his breath. He’d been hoping for the chance to wander about after night fell, slip among the shadows and escape the notice of so many potentially prying eyes, but they couldn’t risk getting in trouble with the Ilon police. Or New Rosanthe soldiers. He’d almost forgotten that Drayce said that the government district had already fallen into Empire hands. That probably meant that New Rosanthe soldiers were roaming the area as well. The Empire had to suspect that he was here and would be actively searching for him.

He reached into his pocket and grabbed his cell phone. “We need to find an inn or a hotel. Someplace safe for the night. Also share that news with Drayce and the others. They need to find cover as well. If we can’t meet up with them tonight, we can—”

“Adam? Holy shit! Is that really you?” A loud voice cut through their conversation and Adrian groaned, squeezing his eyes shut.

“Adam?” Caelan repeated, but Adrian didn’t get the chance to answer.

A large man slung his arm around Adrian’s shoulders, pulling him in close. He was easily four inches taller than his bodyguard and outweighed him by a good fifty pounds. Nearly all of it muscle. His skin had a darker, swarthy quality to it and a black beard lined his hard jaw. But all his potential scariness was shoved aside by his blinding, wide grin and the laughter in his stunning blue eyes.

“I was right. Freaking Adam! I thought you said you were never coming to Brightspire again!” the stranger laughed, pulling his somewhat flailing bodyguard into a half hug, half headlock.

“I said I was never returning to Brightspire with you.” Adrian grumbled, but there might have been a hint of laughter in his tone. At the very least, he wasn’t reaching for a weapon.

The man laughed a deep belly laugh and squeezed Adrian tighter for a second before releasing him. “I think that had more to do with that woman who threatened to cut—”

“Yeah, yeah, I don’t need the trip down memory lane,” Adrian interrupted, finally freeing himself from the man’s grip. “And it’s Adrian now.” His face was slightly flushed, and Caelan didn’t miss that Adrian wasn’t quite meeting his eyes any longer. This man was clearly linked to Adrian’s disreputable past, and Caelan couldn’t deny that he was more than a little curious.

The man’s bushy eyebrows shot up and his gaze snapped to Caelan. He looked like he might be a tiny bit embarrassed, as if he’d just figured out that he was fucking up something for his old friend.

“Shit. Man. Sorry. I—”

“It’s okay. I know all about Adrian,” Caelan quickly reassured him. He stuck out his hand and grinned at the newcomer. “I’m Cael. I convinced Adrian to accompany me to Brightspire on a business venture. Nothing big, but he said he was familiar with the city. This is my first time here.”

The man’s grin returned and he engulfed Caelan’s hand in his larger one, pumping it briskly. “Diogo Borba. Pleasure to meet you. Adam—I mean Adrian is a great guy. He’s got a knack for finding his way around a city.” Diogo released Caelan’s hand and scratched his jaw with one finger. “But I mean, he’s only been here a couple of times. What you need is someone who’s lived here for a few years. I can give you a hand—”

Adrian hit the man’s shoulder, barely rocking him to the side. “What the fuck! Trying to steal my customer while I’m freaking standing here!”

Diogo cackled and wrapped his arm across Adrian’s shoulders again. “I wouldn’t do that to you. I thought you could use a hand. You know I’m always looking out for you.”

Adrian snorted and rolled his eyes, but this did bring up a unique opportunity.

“Actually, we did just learn the city is under a curfew and we were about to search for a place to crash for the night. If you’ve got some suggestions…” Caelan left the rest of the thought hanging in the air.

“Fucking Empire,” Diogo muttered darkly. He released Adrian and nodded. “Yeah, I got a place for you both to crash. I can give you the lowdown on this Ilon mess too. You’re gonna need it if you’re trying to do any business in this town right now.” He motioned for them to walk with him. “It ain’t anything fancy, but it’s safe and I got a load of meat from the butcher. We can fire up the grill and eat some steaks while we talk.”

“That’s fine, but you know I’ll kill you if you try to fuck us over,” Adrian threatened, and he appeared completely serious.

“Awww…don’t be like that,” Diogo whined. He turned and walked backward so he could face Adrian as he spoke. “When have I ever screwed you over?”

His bodyguard smirked and said one word. “Wandermere.”

Diogo groaned loudly and threw up his hands. “Anytime you get pissy, you bring up Wandermere. It was one time. One!” Diogo waved a single finger in front of Adrian’s face. “And you’ve got to admit that she was hot.”

“True, but she also took a shit-ton of our money. She almost took your balls.”

“Still. Hot,” Diogo repeated with a slightly dreamy look in his eyes. His expression cleared and he grinned. “But we’re all good. Cael seems nice and all, but he ain’t my type.”

Caelan chuckled and held up one hand. “No worries. I’ve already got a boyfriend.” He fought down a little bubble of joy that rose in his chest at the casual use of that word. Right now, he wasn’t King Caelan, but average guy Cael who could have normal things like a boyfriend.

“And he will bite your head off if you fuck with him,” Adrian added, pointing at Caelan with his thumb. In Drayce’s case, the threat was somewhat literal, but Diogo didn’t need to know about that.

Their new companion laughed and shook his head. “All right, all right. Warning received. I’ll behave. We can eat, drink, and get caught up.”

And they would be able to get a good account of exactly what was happening in Brightspire. Just what they needed.

“So…” Caelan drawled, flashing a grin at Adrian. “What really happened in Wandermere?”

Diogo laughed and Adrian moaned. Yes, this could be a very fortuitous meeting.

FIVE

Eno Bevyn

After waiting for a bit in the café, they decided to search for an inn or a hostel or some safe place where they could spend the night. Drayce almost immediately caught sight of the shiny chaos of the Bazaar and whimpered, begging with large puppy eyes to venture inside. Thank the gods Rayne was there. The advisor grabbed the dragon by the shoulder and turned him in the opposite direction without a single word.

“You’re no fun.” Drayce pouted.

Rayne sniffed and stunned Eno wordless by threading his fingers with Eno’s as he led the way down the street. “I’ve been told I’m a lot of fun.”

Eno tightened his hand around Rayne’s slender one and grinned like the fool in love he was. “You’re the perfect type of fun,” Eno murmured in his ear. His lover turned his head and lifted a questioning eyebrow at him. “My fun.”

The smile that spread across Rayne’s lips warmed and squeezed Eno’s heart. Shadows still lingered in Rayne’s eyes even after they left the Isle of Stone and briefly returned to normal life in Stormbreak. It was going to be a long time before Rayne shed the worst of the weight of what happened at Clan Omari, but Eno vowed to remain at Rayne’s side every step of the way. He wanted to better understand this complicated man and keep putting that smile on his lips.

Drayce groaned loudly behind them, a painful reminder that they weren’t alone. This wasn’t a pleasant date or an impromptu trip out of town where they could let the world slip away. They were on a mission to save the world.

“I miss him,” Drayce whined. “I wish I’d gone with the other team.”

“So do we,” Rayne grumbled.

There were a couple of fast steps, and then hands landed on his and Rayne’s shoulders. Drayce had to be walking on the tips of his toes to be able to poke his face between them, an evil grin spreading across his face. “Are you saying that you don’t need a chaperone?” he taunted.

“Only that you’d probably make the world’s worst chaperone,” Eno returned.

“Ooooh…” Drayce said with an exaggerated wince. “That feels like a challenge, and I’m pretty sure we need just one hotel room tonight, right?”

The look Rayne gave could have flash-frozen boiling water. Eno had definitely fucked up. When Drayce was feeling evil, he naturally excelled at making their lives difficult. And tonight, Eno was not getting any sweet private time with his lover.

Drayce released them and dropped back a step. “I’ve got a question, though,” he announced, his tone changing from playful to more thoughtful. “Have you noticed that you don’t see a lot of couples in Brightspire? I mean, since we’ve been walking around, there are a lot of people shopping alone or in big groups, but where are the couples?” Drayce made a noise and Eno glanced over his shoulder to see Drayce slowing up his pace as he scanned the somewhat busy street. “In fact, where are the moms dragging kids along on errands?”

“Ilon culture is significantly different from what you’ll find in Erya or Caspagir. Possibly even on the Isle of Stone.” Rayne stopped walking and turned to stare at Drayce, his head cocked to the side. “Let me ask you a question, and I’ll answer yours.”

“Sure,” Drayce agreed with a quick nod.

“On the Isle of Stone, your name order was different than what we’ve encountered in the past. Omari Nori rather than Nori Omari. Takahashi Souta rather than—”

“Yeah, yeah,” Drayce cut him off, waving a hand at Rayne to halt his words rather than hear his birth name again. “It’s always been like that, for as far back as anyone can remember. It’s because clan comes first in all things. Clan precedes self. Clan before blood. Clan ahead of everything.”

“And if you have no clan?” Eno inquired.

“You’re no one. A ghost. A Phantom who prays for a good death so that they can be reborn into a clan.”

Rayne grunted, sounding as if Drayce’s explanation was exactly as he’d expected, and turned to resume walking. His fingers tightened in Eno’s, and Eno smiled at the reminder that his lover held him close.

“As for your first question, you will see fewer couples of any gender mix because Ilon does not believe in or recognize the state of marriage,” Rayne announced.

“Say what?” Drayce shouted and Eno couldn’t find the words to chastise him, because his brain was repeating Drayce’s demand.

Rayne looked over at Eno and then Drayce, his expression seeming a bit confused as if he couldn’t fathom why they’d reacted in such a manner. “It’s actually quite logical on their part.”

“Rayne’s speaking gibberish,” Drayce declared. He took a few hurried steps around them so that he was now in front instead of behind, giving the advisor what Eno could only call an evil eye. “Did you have a stroke? Do you smell burnt toast?”

With his free hand, Rayne took a swipe at Drayce, but the smaller man darted away. “I’m serious. The country of Ilon has dedicated itself to the principles set forth by the God of Wisdom, believing that it is most important to seek knowledge, gain insight, and to develop a strong common sense. They study history, sciences, and the arts to better understand themselves and the world.”

“Okay, but how does marriage interfere with that?” Eno asked.

Rayne smirked at him. “How doesn’t it? Have you ever been in a relationship that helped your studies or advanced your skills to make you better at your job?”

Eno opened his mouth, but no words came out. No, maybe he’d never dated anyone that made him a better bodyguard per se, but he’d never seen them necessarily as a hindrance. Of course, Rayne was his first true, serious relationship.

It also didn’t help that members of the Royal Guard weren’t permitted to marry while they were active in the guard. It was seen that having a spouse would potentially distract them from their duty to the country, crown, and Godstone.

His lover’s smirk grew even wider, and Eno’s heart lurched painfully in his chest. Was this how Rayne really felt about their relationship? Did he see it as a hindrance to being the best possible advisor to Caelan? Eno would be the first to admit that he’d never given much thought to the idea of marriage. His life was dedicated to the protection of the king. But then, such thoughts were easy to shove aside when his heart wasn’t engaged.

Now he had Rayne and part of him was longing for it all.

“That’s fucked up,” Drayce stated, drawing their attention to him.

“It’s just different,” Rayne countered. “The government isn’t against relationships or dating, but it is largely frowned upon, particularly before a person has left college or university and entered the workforce. As for children, they are also seen as a hindrance to a person’s growth and path to enlightenment. The government doesn’t see a person’s job as being a raiser of children. After about the age of three, all children enter boarding schools where they will spend most of their younger years. Few ever know the family unit like we have in Erya.”

“Drayce said it right. It’s fucked up,” Eno announced. He didn’t like to pass judgment on other cultures. The gods knew they’d worked hard to keep an open mind in Zastrad and their devotion to death, but this felt like an even bigger struggle.

He glanced over at Rayne, his heart pounding in his chest, fearful of what he would see on his lover’s face. Rayne looked conflicted.

“I see where they are coming from in terms of dedicating themselves to their art and work, but…” Rayne paused and shook his head. “I can only draw from my own experiences. I learned a lot from my father over the years—good and bad. I also don’t see the time I spent helping to raise Zephyr as time wasted.”

Drayce clicked his tongue and placed both hands behind his head as he strolled down the street ahead of them. “Insane. Clan is your family. You learn a lot and dedicate yourself to learning the skills of your clan, but it’s also about family. Even if you’re sent to another clan, you still get to see your blood family on holidays and visits.”

An unexpected bit of joy bubbled up in Eno’s chest to hear Drayce so casually talking about the place where he’d grown up. After years of getting vague nonanswers from Drayce about his family, it was interesting to receive real details. The difference in his tone and manner was also striking. There was pride and confidence that he’d never heard from Drayce. It was like watching a missing piece of the man fall into place. Just a shame that Caelan wasn’t there to see it as well.

Rayne shook his head, a strange smile lifting one corner of his mouth. “I was initially invited to study in Brightspire for a couple of years. I almost took it, but a spot unexpectedly opened up for study in Sirelis, so I chose that instead. Travel and study in Caspagir represented a unique opportunity. I thought it would make me more valuable to the crown as compared to Ilon since it’s our open ally.”

Eno stopped walking and jerked Rayne into a hard embrace, squeezing him so tight that Rayne squeaked.

“What the—” Rayne started, his voice muffled against his shoulder.

“I didn’t think I’d ever be grateful for the time you spent in Sirelis or even for the time you dated Shey,” Eno grumbled. If Rayne had studied in Brightspire and been influenced by all these crazy ideas of not dating so he could better study his craft, would they have even had a chance?

Rayne must have followed his train of thought because he hugged him back, chuckling softly. “Even if Brightspire had brainwashed me, I don’t think I would have been able to resist you.”

This discussion wasn’t over, but Eno at least felt a bit better that Rayne didn’t have any lingering doubts about them. With a final squeeze, he released Rayne and turned to find Drayce grinning like a lunatic at them both.

“Oh yeah, you two wouldn’t last a month in Brightspire,” he taunted.

“And you would?”

Drayce snorted. “Not even five minutes.”

They continued through the Bazaar District, comparing and contrasting the different cultures they’d encountered on their travels so far. Eno had never really expected to see so much of Thia in his lifetime. Traditionally, the ruler of Erya didn’t travel all that far from Stormbreak Point. Queen Amara had always chosen to remain close to the Godstone, preferring to let dignitaries and diplomats be her voice in the various capitals of the world. Eno had always assumed that Caelan would be the same after he bonded with the Goddess of Life.

Of course, it had never crossed his mind that they’d be sent to remote locations by the gods on a quest to save Thia. In less than a year, they’d traveled through the Ordas, to Caspagir, Zastrad, the Isle of Stone, and now Ilon. The only significant one missing from that list was New Rosanthe, and that dark shadow lay just at the edge of the horizon. Assuming they could stop the Goddess of the Hunt from breaking free, what would happen next? Did they take the fight straight to New Rosanthe? Would Emperor Naram Suen automatically retreat within New Rosanthe’s borders defeated and broken?

Did any of the countries dare to leave Emperor Suen on the throne so that he could try this all over again?

Eno shook his head. This was why he was glad to be a simple soldier. He didn’t want to be the one responsible for making these decisions. Of course, he was now dating the man who would have a large hand in guiding those future decisions. He might not be able to help Rayne, but he could be there for him as he waded through that morass of weighty information and complicated emotions.

A couple of blocks over from the main Bazaar, they located an inn called the Tranquil Vista Inn, which seemed to be a bit of a stretch. The street it was on was anything but tranquil and there was no vista to be found—only a narrow avenue of tall, closely set buildings and many, many cars.

The exterior was somewhat shabby with faded blue trim and dull brass door handles, but the front steps were swept clean of any trash. It was the right kind of place to be anonymous within the city. Now they just had to pray the place had at least one vacancy.

Drayce led the way up the short three stairs and was reaching for the door handle when a gruff voice barked out an order.

“Hey, there! Halt!”

A chill ran along Eno’s spine, and it was hard not to let his hand inch closer to the blade concealed at his side. The man hadn’t said “Stop!” No, it was “Halt!” Like that of a Royal Guard or…

He slowly pivoted on the balls of his feet, his hands open and out to his sides. His eyes slid across four soldiers in Ilon uniforms. Weapons weren’t drawn yet, but two of the four had their hands resting on the butts of their sidearms, waiting for an excuse to pull them free.

With his hands raised to shoulder level and an easy smile, Rayne took one step forward so that he was in the front. “Good evening, officers. Is there any way that we can help you?”

“Papers,” one of the soldiers snapped.

Rayne’s eyebrows jumped up and he allowed a look of open confusion to fill his face. “I’m sorry. We’ve just come into town to purchase some supplies. We haven’t even gotten lodging for the night yet. We were unaware that papers were required to enter Brightspire.”

“All non-Ilon citizens need permission to travel into and around Brightspire,” the officer growled.

“Isn’t that amazing?” Rayne turned his gaze to Eno, eyes ridiculously wide as he kept up his act of innocence. “Did you know about this new rule?”

“First I’ve heard of it,” Eno mumbled.

“News to me,” Drayce called out from where he was still standing on the stairs.

“Show us your passports,” the officer demanded, and Eno inwardly flinched. They would want to see the entrance stamp in their passports, and it wasn’t there. They’d sneaked across the border since it was currently closed to all Erya citizens.

“Passports? I need a passport to travel in my own country?” Rayne squawked.

Now it was getting hard to keep a straight face. After this was over, he was buying Rayne some acting lessons. He wasn’t convincing at all. Yes, they might have looked the part of the average Ilon citizen, but their accents were off. They sounded like they were from Stormbreak; there was no missing it.

“Passports now!” one of the other officers shouted. Yep, they were getting nowhere fast.

“Drayce!” Eno suddenly snapped, his right hand already reaching for Rayne’s biceps.

“On it,” Drayce replied as his hand shot out, sending a pair of explosive smoke bombs speeding toward the ground right in front of the guards.

Eno’s fingers wrapped around Rayne’s arm, pulling him back as the bombs hit, sending a thick cloud of smoke into the air. The guards shouted, but the sound was cut off by harsh coughing. Rayne immediately moved into the front, his long legs eating up the sidewalk as they ran. People shouted and darted out of their way. Drayce was on Eno’s left, his expression serious.

“Where?” Rayne shouted.

Eno mentally ran through a list of options in his mind. The first and obvious choice was the Bazaar. The building was crowded and offered a lot of great hiding places, but with the curfew in effect, it was going to be clearing out soon. They needed off the fucking streets. Did they head to the Shrine District to try to meet up with Caelan and Adrian? Leave Brightspire completely? It would be easier to hide outside of the capital.

Without waiting for a response, Rayne took a left at the next corner. He was sticking to the busier thoroughfares in the hopes of getting lost in the crowds.

Unfortunately, as they neared the end of the street, another set of soldiers appeared, preparing to block their path. Eno glanced over his shoulder, his heart pounding hard, to find that the original guards were still in pursuit, though a good distance off, thanks to Drayce’s smoke bomb.

“Right!” Drayce shouted suddenly. He ducked behind Eno and darted across the street. A car slid to a screeching stop, missing Drayce by mere inches, but the man didn’t slow. He planted one hand on the hood and launched himself across the vehicle. Rayne followed a couple of steps behind him, and Eno brought up the rear.

Drayce cut down one narrow block and up another. He made turn after sharp turn, dragging them deeper and deeper into the district. The shops fell away and the houses grew more crowded, broken up only by old warehouses and what looked to be manufacturing facilities.

“We…we need…a new plan,” Drayce panted. He pressed one hand to his side as if a stitch were forming.

Eno couldn’t agree more. His daily routine of jogging in the mornings had become a thing of the past since they’d begun this journey. His stamina wasn’t quite what it used to be. But then, running through Brightspire was not a long-term solution. He glanced over his shoulder to find that the soldiers weren’t there, but he’d glimpsed them on the last block. They couldn’t be far behind.

“We could—” Rayne started to suggest something, but his words were interrupted by the squeal of tires as a windowless white van stopped at the end of the street. A second later the side door rumbled open, and a man with dark shaggy hair stood in the opening, waving for them to hurry.

“Get your asses in here!” the stranger called.

Before anyone could say anything, Drayce put on a burst of speed and launched himself into the opening while the other guy moved to the driver’s seat. Well, that took the decision right out of Eno’s hands. He climbed in after Rayne and pulled the door shut while the van roared down the street.

“Dude.” Drayce sighed heavily as he lay on the filthy floor. “You totally saved our asses.”

Eno glanced around to find that the rear of the van was completely empty except for a few cardboard boxes and some loose tools. Both he and Rayne were on their knees, hanging on to the backs of the front seats while the driver deftly maneuvered them through the city, heading even farther away from where they’d been discovered by the soldiers.

“Do you have any idea how hard it was to get ahead of you?” their savior snapped.

“How did you know to help us?” Rayne demanded.

Eno looked over at Drayce. “Who is this guy?”

Drayce lifted his head and shrugged his shoulders. “No idea.”

“You just jumped into a windowless van without knowing the guy?” Eno shouted. He was giving serious thought to never allowing Drayce anywhere near Caelan if these were the kinds of decisions he was going to make.

Drayce groaned and lifted a hand. “One. He wasn’t wearing an Ilon uniform so I thought he might be help. Two. I was pretty sure that I could be scarier than anything that might be waiting in the van. And three,” he paused and dragged in a deep breath. He’d been counting off each point on his fingers. “Don’t you think he resembles you?”

The first two items were pretty good reasons—maybe not great, though. And the last one was ridiculous.

“Who are you?” Rayne asked of the driver before Eno could tell Drayce what he thought of his decision-making skills.

“Davi. I was sent by the Gray Fox to get you.”

“Oh,” Rayne said simply, his shoulders completely relaxing. “In that case, thank you for your help.”

“Rayne!” Eno snapped.

His lover smirked at him. “It’s okay. That’s the spymaster. Davi works for us.”

Eno could only blink at Rayne for a second. They were in Erya hands again. It also meant that they had a shot at getting some real answers.

SIX

Adrian Westergren

Adrian was trying not to hover over the king, but Caelan had fallen asleep on the couch relatively quickly after a meal of steak, potatoes, and beers with Diogo. During all their travels, he’d seen Caelan sleep very little. He’d begun to wonder if the man actually needed sleep, thanks to all the gods constantly keeping him awake.

But after two beers and a thick-cut steak, Caelan had stretched out and drifted off with surprising ease.

Now, Adrian was reluctant to turn away. This was the King of Erya lying vulnerable and helpless in this rundown one-bedroom apartment. He couldn’t just leave him unattended, could he?

“Hey, A! You want another beer?” Diogo called from the kitchen, where he’d gone to clean up the few dishes he’d used for their meal.

“Nah. I’m good. Bottle of water would be best,” Adrian replied. He shoved a hand through his messy hair and forced himself to turn away as Diogo’s footsteps grew louder across the cracked linoleum. “Thanks again for letting us crash here tonight.”

“Not a problem,” his old friend said as he handed over an unopened bottle of water. He motioned toward Cael with his bottle of beer. “He out?”

“Yeah, it was a long journey to get here and—” A thought suddenly stopped Adrian cold and he narrowed his eyes on the big man who was starting to look a touch uncomfortable. “Did you fucking drug him?” Adrian demanded in a harsh whisper. “I swear to the gods if you—”

Diogo held up both hands to fend Adrian off, a couple of fingers wrapped around the bottleneck in his left hand. “Hey, hey! It’s okay. You know me. I’m careful. It was a little sedative. Besides, we both know if there’s anyone who could use forty winks, it’s the freaking King of Erya.”

Adrian’s mouth sort of hung open for a second, his brain locked up against anything he might have said. Diogo knew Caelan was the king. He’d recognized him. Not only that, but he’d freaking drugged him.

Eno was going to fucking kill him. Caelan wasn’t going to get the chance, because the second the bodyguard found out that he took the king to the apartment of a known smuggler and then got him drugged, Eno was going to kill him.

But that was only after Adrian killed his old friend.

“What were you thinking? You knew he was the king, and you still freaking drugged him?” Adrian shouted. He had to be losing his mind. None of this was making sense.

“Shhh! Keep your voice down!” Diogo hurried to his side and placed an arm on his shoulders. “It was just one pill to help him sleep. That’s all. He’ll be up and making royal decisions in a few hours with no problem. I figured this was the only way I could get you to tell me what the fuck you’re doing with the freaking king. Rumor has it you got scooped up while on a job ten years ago and tossed in prison. No one has heard a single peep from you.” Diogo released him and gave his shoulder a small shove. “Next thing I know, you’re wandering the Shrine District with the King of Erya. Tell me that ain’t fucked up.”

“Yeah, yeah, I know.”

Diogo grabbed his shoulder and turned him toward the microscopic balcony where he’d grilled their steaks on the world’s smallest charcoal grill. Somehow Diogo had managed to cram two white plastic chairs out there, though they were practically on top of each other.

“Come on. Outside. We’ll sit, watch the lights of the city, and you can tell me what’s going on.”

Diogo was kind enough to go first through the sliding glass door, allowing Adrian to take the chair closest to the door as well as the closest to the king. “Should I worry about this water being drugged? Or that the apartment is bugged?” Adrian demanded snidely.

“Sit down, ass. Don’t be like that. You know I’ve always got your back.” Diogo patted the empty seat with his massive hand before relaxing in his own.

“As long as there’s an angle in it for you,” Adrian muttered, but he did sit.

His friend rolled his eyes. “Yeah, well, maybe about some things in life, but not when it comes to my home.” He paused and pointed his bottle at Adrian. “I have never done anything that wasn’t loyal to Erya, and you know it.”

Okay, so maybe Diogo did have a point there. His friend was loyal—almost to a fault—to Erya. He was a big supporter of the crown, the Godstone, and all Erya stood for. But then, he was also a big supporter of Diogo and making sure Diogo’s pockets were lined. The man just made sure that his loyalty would never be tested when it came to his finances.

Adrian turned his attention out to the street in front of them. He was pretty sure Diogo had pulled them toward the Bazaar District, but his friend had stayed off the main streets and Adrian hadn’t seen enough landmarks on the trip to give him a feel for their exact location. That and it really had been a long time since he’d last visited the city.

The sun had set while they ate and the sky was enveloped in a dark, burnt-orange glow as the lights of the city hit against some heavy clouds that had moved in. Everything was strangely quiet. No cars on the streets. No sounds of people moving around. But the windows in all the various apartment buildings and homes were lit up. The curfew had forced people indoors during the night hours.

“So, what’s up? How did you get to running with royalty?” Diogo asked in a low voice.

Adrian twisted the cap on his water, cracking open the seal. “Pretty much what you said. I got caught one day. They threatened me with jail or the Royal Guard. I figured what I was doing wasn’t exactly getting me anywhere in life, so I thought I’d try to be a guard.”

Diogo’s plastic chair creaked as he shifted forward suddenly to look Adrian in the eye. “Are you serious?”

Maybe that was the super slimmed-down version of the story, but the highlights were all there. With his sneaking skills, he might have also helped the Royal Guard tighten up their security when it came to the Towers and the ministers’ offices, but that wasn’t the important part.

“Yeah, that’s where I’ve been. I went immediately into training, changed my name, and kept my nose clean these past ten or so years.” Adrian paused and then snorted. “I’m a Royal Guard. I never expected to leave Stormbreak. I’ve been stationed there the entire time. I never thought I’d run into anyone I knew from the old days.”

“Does that mean you were there…that day?” Diogo’s voice had dipped so low and soft Adrian had almost missed the question. But he knew what he was asking, and the memory of it immediately sliced through his heart.

The day Queen Amara Talos had been killed.

Everyone in Stormbreak could remember precisely where they were and what they were doing when the attack was launched on the city.

And as a Royal Guard, Adrian had asked himself a hundred times if anything would have been different if he had been there.

“No, I wasn’t there. It was my day off. I’d run outside the walls to hit a farmer’s market for my mom that morning.” Adrian dropped his eyes to the water bottle and picked at the label a bit, willing his voice to remain low and even. “I got stuck outside the city in the chaos for a couple of days, and then it took me another couple of days to meet up with the Royal Guard, who’d been forced underground in their fight against the Empire. It was crazy for a while. At least until the king showed up.”

He’d been there that day Caelan had walked into the warehouse filled with other soldiers. Adrian had been on the far side of the room, but he was tall enough to just make out the top of the king’s head as he stood next to Drayce, Eno, and Rayne.

That day was burned into his mind. That day he became sure they were getting their city back from the Empire. Something about the way Caelan stood there looking at them all, the straightness of his shoulders, or maybe it was simply something Adrian had wanted to see. It didn’t matter. They’d all found a second life that day when they renewed their vow to the crown.

The funny thing was that he’d been sure he’d never get another step closer to Caelan than that afternoon. Sure, he’d seen him around the Towers with Drayce when Caelan had been a prince, but Adrian had never been high enough among the guards to personally protect Queen Amara. He figured when Caelan seized control of his throne again, new and more experienced guards would be brought in as his personal detail.

Instead, he was traveling with the king as part of a very elite group. And right now, he was the king’s only protection.

There was a thought with the power to chill his heart.

“Your mom?”

“She’s okay. I got her out with some refugees early during the occupation. She went and stayed with my aunt about an hour from Stormbreak. They weren’t having any trouble with the Empire that far from the capital.” He turned his head slightly to look at his friend who was glaring at his beer. “Were you in the city?”

“Nah, I was setting up things here at the time. The news out of Stormbreak was so fucking sporadic. We never knew what was going on. Just sucked. The one thing they kept repeating was that Queen Amara and Prince Caelan were dead, as if they were trying to break everyone’s spirit. It wasn’t until the Empire had been kicked out of the capital that we even heard the first whisper that the prince was still alive.”

That was…strange. The rumors that Caelan was alive had spread like wildfire through the city when he returned, and that was before they managed to liberate it. How could the news not have spread to Brightspire as quickly?

Adrian tucked that information away for later. Maybe Rayne or the king would be able to make sense of it.

“What’s been going on here? They closed the borders and kicked out all foreign citizens,” Adrian said.

Diogo scrubbed a hand through his thick black hair and glared out at the street. “Man, it’s been chaos. I don’t think any of the people who live here understand what’s going on. Ever since the attack on Stormbreak, things have been touchy for Erya citizens here and there ain’t never been any problems like that in the past. The city patrols were singling out anyone who looks like they’re from Erya and harassing them. Then the shop owners and the restaurant owners started doing the same because they were afraid the city patrol was going to come down on them for serving the outsiders. I heard people reported it to the different officials and their answer was always the same: leave.”

“That’s bullshit.”

“Yep.” Diogo tipped his head back and drained the last of his beer. He set the glass bottle on the concrete patio with a tiny tink and reclined in his chair. “I think most people left Brightspire well before the embassy was closed and the diplomats were kicked out. I’ve heard there might be some refugees left out in the countryside close to the border. Things were always worse here in the capital.”

The plastic bottle crinkled in his fist as it tightened. “Why the fuck did you stay if things were so bad here?”

His old friend smirked at him as he lifted one hand and rubbed his thumb against his index and middle fingers. “Money.”

“What?”

“I’ve got a good gig going here. I’ve got a line on a handful of artisans who make me up a bunch of pottery and a few who are working on some unique fabrics. I get the stuff that won’t pass the rigorous quality inspections here, pay pennies for it since it would normally get scrapped. It then gets shipped north to Erya, where it’s sold in a bunch of different shops. I’m making a freaking killing selling Ilon goods.”

“Are you seriously selling rejects in Stormbreak?” Adrian gasped.

“Fuck, no!” Diogo swiped a hand at Adrian’s head, but he ducked out of the way of the meaty paw. “I could never move this shit in Stormbreak. Those people are smart enough to look for the quality stamp. This stuff goes to the little towns and villages in Erya. These people just need to be told that it’s from Ilon or Brightspire and they snatch it up.”

Adrian sank into his chair and dropped his head back. “Freaking con artist,” he muttered under his breath. He’d said that without an ounce of surprise, though.

Of course Diogo was a con artist. All the people Adrian had run with in his past were thieves, con artists, and liars. They were all constantly working an angle. The only rule they had was that they couldn’t con each other. If someone broke that code, they were not only kicked out of their group, but the group then went out of their way to ruin any scam that person tried to run going forward.

“Yeah, yeah. Don’t get all judgy with me, Mr. Royal Guard,” Diogo grumbled with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I ain’t hurting nobody with this one. The goods aren’t that expensive, and the customers get to claim they bought something from Brightspire, which ain’t a lie.”

At the most basic level, it was the truth. The problem was that Ilon was known for putting all its artist-made goods through rigorous checks and approval ratings to make sure that the country maintained the very highest quality of products. The country had a reputation for producing the very best, which was why everything from there was so damn expensive.

Inferior goods leaking out damaged that reputation.

Considering how Erya citizens were being treated by Ilon right now, though, Adrian couldn’t bring himself to feel too bad about that tarnished reputation.

“Have you had any trouble?” Adrian asked, softening his tone. Diogo was right. He had no room to judge considering his own past.

“Nah. I’ve lived here off and on for ten years. I know how to sound like I’m from here, and most people in the neighborhood recognize me. If they knew I was from Stormbreak, most of them have forgotten by now.”

Adrian shook his head and chuckled. “You’re a fucking lunatic.”

“Really? You’re gonna call me that when you’re the one who’s running around with the—”

“Shhh, lower your damn voice!” Adrian said, hitting his friend hard with his elbow. Sending one last glare at Diogo, Adrian shoved to his feet and took a step inside the apartment to find Caelan still stretched out on the lumpy floral sofa. His face was relaxed and his breathing was slow and even in sleep. Nothing had disturbed him. Maybe sleep was good for him.

“Come on. He’s fine. You know I wouldn’t let anything happen to him,” Diogo pressed. At least he kept his voice down a little more than earlier.

And yes, Adrian believed him.

With a sigh, Adrian left the doorway and dropped into his chair. There was a knot of anxiety resting right on top of his heart that wouldn’t leave him. Probably not until he got Caelan safely to Eno, Drayce, and Rayne. Yes, Caelan had the power of four gods coursing through him. The man could easily protect himself, but it was also clear that the gods caused plenty of problems for Caelan on their own. If something happened to set Caelan off, Adrian wasn’t sure he could calm the king. At least, not as well as Drayce could.

“Seriously, though, what are you thinking? You’re going to get yourself killed!”

Adrian leaned close to Diogo and dropped his voice. “And here I thought you were a big supporter of the crown.”

Diogo gave Adrian a hard enough shove to tip his chair over onto two legs. Adrian barely managed to catch himself from completely falling on his ass.

“Prick! You know I am!” Diogo snarled, his face twisted up with anger. “But I also believe in self-preservation. Why am I going to risk my neck for them?”

“Maybe because they’re risking their necks for all of us?” Adrian snapped. “You think Queen Amara wanted to die protecting your sorry ass?”

His friend’s expression crumpled, and his shoulders slumped. “No, but I mean, wasn’t that her job? What she was born for.” He tilted his head toward the sliding glass door and the living room. “Same as him.”

Adrian snorted and slumped in his seat. Now that was a miserable way to think about Caelan’s life. His entire purpose in being was to die for all of them. But first, he had to be tortured by a bunch of crazy gods as he marched to his death. Fuck that shit.

“Look, A, I don’t mean to sound so heartless, but it’s not like he lives all that bad of a life in the Towers, right? And the people appreciate everything he’s done for them. But this kind of crazy, risking-your-life thing, that’s what he was born into. I’m not saying that it doesn’t suck for him too. It’s just that you’ve got a choice. You’re smart. You’re a survivor like me. Why would you put your neck out like this when you don’t have to?”

He lifted his shoulders in a small shrug. “Maybe I want something more than surviving.”

There was no mistaking the cut of disappointment that burned in his chest. A little in his friend, but also in himself. He’d thought the same way not all that long ago, and it was embarrassing to realize. A lot of his mentality had been like Diogo’s. Fuck the world. So long as he was safe and getting a slice of the action, what did the rest of it matter?

“A—”

He waved a hand at his friend, stopping his words. “Don’t worry about it. I get it. There’s some sense in what you say, but I believe in what I’m doing. That’s enough for me.”

“Maybe.” Diogo paused and licked his lips. “But you know, you could always return to the game. You disappeared and everyone knows you didn’t break the code. Didn’t rat on anyone. You could walk away from all this shit and come work with me. It’s an easy gig and good money. We have a long history. You saved my ass plenty of times. I’ve got no problem cutting you in.”

His smile returned, a little weary but there. He was touched. Not tempted in the least. But he was freaking touched that Diogo was trying to watch out for him.

“Nah. I’m good. It might be dangerous, but I’m actually enjoying it. I feel good about myself when I get up in the morning, and I’m seeing some interesting places.”

Diogo lifted his eyebrows, silently begging for a few more details, but Adrian bit down on his tongue to keep the words from spilling out. Diogo would love to hear about what he’d seen on the Isle of Stone. Of course, the man would almost immediately make a run for the coast and steal the first boat he could land his hands on to make for the home of the dragons. He wouldn’t be scared at the threat of claws and massive teeth. He’d face that for the promise of untapped riches that could be sold in Erya. Freaking con artist.

As if by magic, memories of Haru danced through his brain. It was as though every time he thought of the Isle of Stone, that damn dragon crossed his mind. Haru would take one look at Diogo and eat him alive. Maybe not literally, but the dragon would have fun playing with him.

No, Haru was not allowed to meet Diogo.

His friend finally sighed. “Well, just be careful. Watch your back.”

“I will. You do the same. I promise, we’ll be out of here at first light.”

Diogo snorted and pushed to his feet. He stretched his arms over his head and twisted, giving his spine a good crack. “Well, I’m headed to bed. You can sack out with me if you want. It’ll be tight, but we’ve squeezed into worse places.”

Adrian chuckled. “No, I’m fine with the floor. Trust me, I’ve slept in far worse places.”

With a cluck of his tongue, Diogo shook his head and smiled. “Haven’t we all?”

It was a bit of a tight squeeze, but Diogo shuffled past Adrian and into the apartment. Adrian carefully listened to his friend drop his empty beer bottle in the kitchen and wander off to the bedroom without making a stop anywhere near the king. He held his breath, straining to hear the bedroom door close and the apartment fall into complete silence. It was still early in the evening, but Diogo had always been one of those weird ones who preferred to get up stupidly early in the morning.

Adrian had always done his best work at night. Of course, he’d been a thief and an escape artist. He did his best work when no one was around. It had been fun to sneak in past people right under their noses, though.

With the apartment quiet, he directed his attention out to the city. The loss of the sun meant that temperatures were steadily falling, making the air brisk but nowhere near as cold as it was in Stormbreak. The capital should be getting steady piles of snow right now as the storms blew in from the bay. The ice cutters would be working overtime to keep shipping lanes through God’s Throat clear and the waterways from Erya to Caspagir as open as possible.

At this time, the city would be making preparations for the week of winter solstice celebrations. Twinkling green-and-white lights would be hung everywhere along with boughs of holly and pine. It was a time of small gift exchanges and spending time with family. On the last night of celebrations, everyone would head out into the streets singing carols like lullabies to ease the goddess into her deep winter slumber. The myth was that the better Tula slept in the winter, the better the plantings and harvests would be when she woke in the new year.

Of course, everyone believed that the goddess was dead and the tradition was a holdover from the old days before the Gods War. Now people claimed they did it to honor all those who’d passed during the year and ease them into the next life.

Whatever the reason, the solstice celebrations in Stormbreak were always a warm and peaceful time of year.

The way things were going, he doubted they’d be home in time for the celebrations this year. It was a shame Caelan couldn’t be present to preside over his first one as king. The people could have used that as they said good-bye to their queen a final time.

Would they ever see home again?

“So, do you regret it?”

Adrian leaped from his seat and slammed into the metal railing that ran around the edge of the balcony. His heart was still somewhere flying above the city when he twisted to see Caelan standing in the open doorway, a smirk lifting one corner of his mouth and his arms folded loosely over his stomach.

“Geez fuck!” Adrian swore, pressing his hand to his chest to force his heart back down where it belonged. “What the fuck!”

“Sorry about that. Didn’t realize you were so deep in thought,” Caelan apologized. From the smile still trying to peek out, though, he didn’t appear all that sorry about scaring the crap out of his bodyguard. Served Adrian right. Caelan shouldn’t have been able to surprise him.

“No, I’m sorry. I should have been paying better attention. I—”

“Let it go, Adrian,” Caelan replied easily. He motioned for Adrian to follow him inside the apartment.

He moved with him and carefully closed the door again while Caelan went into the kitchen. The king snagged a bottle of water from the fridge and cracked the sealed cap. He was moving around incredibly easy for someone who was supposedly drugged to sleep. Shouldn’t he be a little foggier and more lethargic?

“Your Majesty—”

“Stop with the title crap. We don’t need that right now. And yes, I knew about the sleeping pill in my beer,” Caelan said when he crossed to the living room.

Adrian could feel all the blood drain from his face and his knees wobbled as he moved over to the couch. He dropped to his knees in front of Caelan, his head hung low. “Your Majesty, please forgive me for putting your life in danger and—”

His apology was stopped by a rap on the top of his head. He rubbed the light wound and looked up at Caelan to find him smiling. “Your anxiety about your friend was clear to see. I might have given him a light read and seen he’s safe. It’s like he told you, he truly meant me no harm. He wanted the chance to check on his friend without me hearing it.”

“But you heard it all, didn’t you?” Adrian asked softly, his shoulders slumping.

The king’s grin turned wicked as he sat on the sofa. “Poisons and most drugs don’t work on me. Especially now that I’m officially bonded with the Goddess of Life. It was nothing to pretend to sleep so you could get some unfiltered answers from your friend.” Caelan paused and his smile fell away. Concern rose to replace it in his eyes. “Were you telling him the truth? Are you sure about what you’re doing with us?”

Adrian jerked, his eyes widening at the king’s words. “What?”

“I’m sure none of this was what you were expecting when you agreed to join the Royal Guard. And if Tomas is holding some threat over your head…”

“You know what? Eno’s right. You are an asshole.” Adrian shoved to his feet while Caelan stared at him in shock. He plopped down on the sofa next to the king and glared at him. “Yeah, maybe Tomas fed me a line about this being my last chance, but if I wasn’t cut out for this life, I always knew he’d let me out. He’d help me find another way to go legit. But I like doing this. I like protecting my home. And maybe I wasn’t born royalty, but I’ve got as much right to protect my home as you do.”

A softly huffed laugh lifted from Caelan and he sat back on the sofa, their shoulders lightly bumping. “Yep. You’re right. I apologize.”

Adrian snorted. “Save it. My friend drugged you, so at the very least, I think we’re even.” They sat there for several minutes in a strangely comfortable silence. How in the world had he grown so at ease with the King of Erya? That didn’t make any sense at all. He shouldn’t be comfortable enough to call the man an asshole. His mother would have beaten him black and blue with her house slipper if she’d heard him.

“I don’t understand these changes that are happening in Brightspire,” Caelan whispered. He paused and suddenly shook his head as if the thoughts running around in his brain still weren’t matching up. “Our relationship with Ilon has always been good. Even when we argued about trade agreements or the number of soldiers to send to the Ordas border, it still had the feeling of siblings disagreeing. No real resentment or animosity. But this new attitude toward our people…”

“Could Ilon have come under more pressure from New Rosanthe than you realized? They do share an eastern border with the country,” Adrian suggested, though he would be the first to admit he was talking out of his ass. He did not claim to understand statecraft in the least.

“I don’t know. Possibly. But if that’s the case, why didn’t they tell us? We would have been happy to send more aid.” Caelan dropped his head back and pressed the heels of his palms into his eyes. “I just don’t know. Ilon was the one ally we could always rely on. There are some other problems, but this is all so out in the open by comparison and it leaves me feeling so blindsided.”

“Betrayed,” Adrian murmured in a quiet, hard voice.

Caelan dropped his hands into his lap and nodded. “Yes, but that’s wrong. They have no reason to betray us. There has to be more going on that we don’t see.”

“Your Majesty,” Adrian started slowly. He paused and frowned, doubting whether he should continue.

“Please tell me.”

Adrian cleared his throat. “When I was running around, doing things I shouldn’t, so much of my life depended on people I could trust. A lot of them people no one had any business trusting. If your gut is telling you that you’ve been betrayed, trust your gut. Doesn’t matter their reasons. Everyone has a choice. If they screwed you over, it doesn’t matter the reason why. The only thing that matters is that they can’t be trusted.”

“And Ilon, for whatever reason, has chosen to betray the trust of Erya,” Caelan finished. He sighed heavily. “But did they do it to side with the Empire, or does the prime minister have different plans entirely that have nothing to do with Erya or the Empire?”

“No idea. Sorry. I didn’t get around to asking Diogo anything helpful about the Empire.”

“It’s okay. It’s clear most of his interactions have been with Ilon, and what he told you gave us some good insight into what’s happening here. I’m disturbed by how information is being disseminated around the city and country. Why suppress the news that I’m alive? Why hide information about New Rosanthe’s occupation? For a country that prides itself on wisdom and knowledge, why are they so tightly controlling valuable information?” Caelan paused and sighed. “Rayne has some contacts in town that should be able to shed light on the Empire’s presence.”

Adrian turned his head to look at the king. “Have you heard from them?”

Caelan shook his head. “I texted them when I woke, but I haven’t heard from them yet. There was only a text from Drayce warning us about the curfew and that they were going to find a place to crash for the night.”

Adrian grunted. “Yeah. I got that one too. You think they’re okay?”

The king made a noise in the back of his throat. “Sure. How much trouble could they find?”

Adrian stared at his too-young leader for a second, as if he couldn’t believe the man had uttered those words.

Caelan sighed heavily and closed his eyes. “Yeah, you’re right. We’ll go find them first thing in the morning. We’ll drag them to the Shrine District if we have to. I want to have a peek at the temple for the God of Wisdom and ask about the Goddess of the Hunt. I still can’t understand why she doesn’t have a shrine or a temple. It doesn’t make any sense.”

Whatever the reason, the sick twisting in Adrian’s stomach told him it wasn’t a good one.

SEVEN

Eno Bevyn

Eno struggled to pull his eyes from their unexpected savior as they climbed out of the van neatly tucked into a garage under the town house. The man gave him a cursory glance before leading the way up the wooden stairs to the main floor.

He needed to pay attention to their surroundings. He needed to have a weapon in hand, ready for an ambush and betrayal. Yes, the guy said that he’d been sent by Erya’s spymaster, but they’d been fucked over in the past. Was there any proof that this time was going to be different?

But he couldn’t shake the new tension that was crawling across his skin and twisting his stomach in knots. Drayce’s random comment was playing on repeat in his brain. Davi did resemble him. Something in the face and eyes, maybe. Davi appeared to be just a couple of inches shorter than him, and his build wasn’t quite as wide. Still muscular, but leaner and rangy.

“Did you mean it?” Eno whispered to Drayce. “Do you really think he looks like me?”

Drayce stopped and stared at Eno as if he’d lost his fucking mind. “Are you shitting me? Seriously, you’re joking. He looks like your freaking twin. Are you sure he’s not your missing brother?”

The words coming out of Drayce’s mouth might have just stopped his heart. Thoughts of his lost younger brother had flitted through his brain at odd times since he’d discovered his existence months ago, but between their travels and nearly dying too many times, it wasn’t something he’d been able to pursue. He’d always clung to the hope that just maybe after everything was settled, he could start his search.

Eno turned his attention over to Rayne, who was closely watching him with worried eyes. If anyone knew anything, it would be his lover. He was the only one among them who was regularly in contact with this Gray Fox. Rayne would know if his missing brother was working for Erya’s spymaster, right?

“Rayne?”

“Truly, I’m as puzzled as you are. But Drayce is right. He resembles you a great deal.” Rayne took a step closer to Eno and placed his hand against his neck, his thumb caressing his beard-lined jaw. “I know how much you want to find your brother, but I don’t want you to get your hopes up unnecessarily. I did ask the Gray Fox to look into his whereabouts, but for him to be found here in Brightspire, it’s…unsettling.”

Something about Rayne’s choice of words created a knot in Eno’s stomach. Maybe this was just a strange coincidence. It was best if he didn’t get his hopes up, but Eno had a feeling it was already too late for that.

“Hey! You guys coming, or what?” their savior shouted down at them from the stairs.

“Yeah, sorry,” Eno called back.

He took the lead, his hand resting on the knife at his hip, ready to draw it as they stepped into the kitchen. He could hear Drayce’s lighter step right behind him and could see from the corner of his eye that he’d already drawn a gun.

But no one was waiting to ambush them.

The kitchen was empty except for appliances, the light-gray counters neat and tidy. There was a colorful padded oven mitt next to the stove and a plaid dish towel beside it. A bright-red teakettle was on one of the burners as if waiting to be used to boil water. He half expected to see a woman standing behind the stove, pulling together dinner, her hair swept up into a messy bun while she shouted for the children to set the table. Her spouse would walk in the door, looking weary but grateful to be home, and press a kiss to her cheek as he asked how her day was.

It was a pretty fantasy—but then, everything about this town house seemed more fantasy than fact.

Including the man waiting to greet them in the mint-green front salon.

The Gray Fox was not what Eno would expect when it came to the title of spymaster, but it should have been. The Gray Fox had a slight build and stood at relatively average height. His age could have been anything from late twenties to late forties depending on the styling of his clothes and his bland brown hair.

“I told you I’d find them,” Davi boasted as he strolled into the room ahead of them. He began to flop down on the heavily stuffed hunter-green sofa, but the Gray Fox’s hand shot out lightning quick and snagged his elbow, holding him on his feet.

“Show respect. You stand before the Dauphin and the king’s trusted bodyguards,” the older stranger hissed as he released Davi to bow.

Rayne groaned softly. His lover pinched his nose with his thumb and forefinger, appearing as if trying to gather himself.

“Dauphin? Who—” Drayce started, but Eno cut it off with a sharp elbow to his gut.

“He’s talking about Rayne,” Eno replied softly.

“Dauphin is an infrequently used title for the heir to the throne,” Rayne finished stiffly. He dropped his hand and directed his glare at the Gray Fox, even though it didn’t have the slightest effect on the man’s demeanor. “That information about my new position within the Erya court is supposed to be known to only a handful of people, though.”

The Gray Fox straightened and lifted one corner of his mouth. “It’s the kind of information the crown pays me very well to gather. It’s why you have me. To gather the information no one else can get to.”

He had a point. This was the one who was supposed to know everything he could about everything. Eno just had a feeling that Rayne didn’t like anyone knowing Caelan had named him his heir. Especially after what had happened on the Isle of Stone. They’d had numerous conversations after they’d gone to bed. Hidden away in the darkness with Eno’s arms wrapped around Rayne, his love had confessed that he was feeling more unsure about his ability to follow in Caelan’s footsteps should something happen to the king. Self-doubt was not something Rayne admitted to easily.

Sadly, there was nothing Eno could do to help Rayne. It was something the man would need to work out on his own. Rayne and Caelan were better now, their relationship growing even stronger and more open than it had been. Time was the only thing that would help to erase Rayne’s doubt. Eno hoped they had plenty of it ahead of them.

“That’s the Gray Fox?” Drayce asked. He stepped past Eno and cocked his head to the side. “You’re not exactly what I was expecting. I thought you’d be…I don’t know…more dangerous looking.” Drayce suddenly lifted his hands and waved them at the spymaster. “No offense meant. I’m sure you’re plenty dangerous and all.”

The Gray Fox chuckled softly and shook his head. “If I was dangerous looking, you’d likely remember me. You’d notice me on the street, in the crowd.” He paused and shrugged his slim shoulders. “But if I appear like everyone and no one…”

“Whoa,” Drayce exhaled. He turned toward Eno and gave his shoulder a shove. “That’s it. I wanna be a spy.”

“You’re too loud to be a spy,” Rayne grumbled.

Rayne and Drayce spent a couple of seconds sniping at each other, but Eno barely noticed. His attention was once again locked on Davi. There was something about his eyes. They weren’t the same shade of brown as Eno’s. Davi’s seemed darker, but the shape was the same. So were the nose and the chin. Could he be…?

Just the whisper of the thought made Eno’s heart skip and stumble. This had to be wishful thinking on his part. He’d learned that he had a brother only a few months ago. What were the odds that they’d be meeting so suddenly? And in Brightspire of all places. Wouldn’t his brother be in Stormbreak, or at least in Erya?

He wanted Davi to be his brother, but almost as desperately, he didn’t want him to be. If they were brothers, what would they say to each other? There hadn’t been enough time to work out all the things he needed to say or even how to say them. Did his brother know he existed? If he did, would he have any interest in knowing Eno?

“Davi is my protégé here in Brightspire. And you can call me Vitor, if it makes things easier for you,” the spymaster continued when Rayne and Drayce stopped bickering.

The young man offered up an awkward half bow as if he wasn’t quite sure of the motion or if he even wanted to bow to them.

“Do you have news?” Rayne asked.

Vitor nodded and waved an arm to the sofa. “Sit and we’ll catch up.” He turned his attention to Davi. “Can you get our guests some refreshments?”

Davi grunted and darted toward the kitchen, his steps surprisingly quiet for a man of his size.

“Who is he?” The words jumped from Eno’s tongue before he could stop them. Something in him had panicked at the idea of Davi suddenly leaving his sight. He couldn’t wait any longer. He had to know the truth. As scary as it was, the unknown was starting to feel infinitely worse.

Davi even stopped in the doorway and slowly turned to face Eno. There was something in the narrowing of his eyes, the way his jaw tensed, that made Eno think that the same thoughts were crossing his brain about Eno.

“He’s Davi—” Vitor repeated, but Eno quickly cut him off.

“No, that’s not his name. The same way Vitor isn’t your name.” His tone was sharp and harsh. He’d turned to stare at Davi in the doorway. Rayne took a step closer to Eno and placed a hand on his shoulder, easing some of the tension tightening around his heart. Thank the gods that Rayne was there. His Rayne would always be there to support him. “Is he originally from Erya?”

“No,” Vitor replied, but Eno didn’t trust the answer. There was more to it. There had to be.

“Is he Bodhi? Is he Bodhi Xier from New Rosanthe?” There was the slightest tremble in Eno’s voice, and Rayne’s hold on him tightened.

The pause seemed to stretch out for minutes when it couldn’t have been more than a couple of heartbeats. Eno needed the truth, and he was willing to beat it out of Vitor if he needed to, but right now, he couldn’t tear his gaze away from Davi.

At last, Vitor finally said, “Yes, he was born Bodhi Xier in New Rosanthe. He is your younger brother, Lord Bevyn.”

Everything remained still and silent. No one breathed or moved. And then the world exploded.

Air burst out of Eno’s lungs, and he started to fall to the floor as if his legs had given out. The room spun and dipped. Strong hands grabbed his arm to slow his descent. Drayce was shouting curses. There was a loud slap as Davi…er…Bodhi’s hand hit the wooden doorframe as if he were struggling to keep upright as well.

“That’s my brother!” Davi shouted suddenly, pointing at Vitor with the hand that wasn’t keeping him standing. “That’s my brother! You knew who I was going to fetch, and you didn’t tell me that I was going to get my brother?”

“I didn’t tell you because I didn’t want you to be distracted,” Vitor replied with a surprisingly hard and cold tone that didn’t match his exterior in the least. But then, Eno suspected the spymaster possessed a will of iron. He would need to in order to do his job successfully. “Now, please, the refreshments. I think they are going to be very much needed.”

With a frustrated snarl, Davi shoved off the doorframe and stepped into the kitchen. Eno’s eyes followed him. He started to get up, irrational panic gripping him. If Davi left his sight, he could disappear all over again.

“Stay here. Get your bearings. He’ll be right back,” Rayne admonished.

Eno’s wide eyes snapped to his face as a new thought surfaced. “You didn’t know, right? You always seem to know everything. You weren’t keeping it from me to protect me. You honestly didn’t know that he was working for the spymaster? For the crown?”

Pain slashed across Rayne’s face before he could shove it aside. “I swear upon the crown and the life of my sister, I did not know. After we got Caelan on the throne, I managed to send off one quick message to the Gray Fox about your brother. I gave him what little information we had and told him to do what he could to find him. Caelan also asked Tomas to begin a search in Stormbreak. But I didn’t know he’d been located. I would never keep something like that from you.”

“I didn’t tell him yet, Lord Bevyn,” Vitor added. “Davi has been working for me for just over a year, but it’s only been in the past month that I was able to confirm his true identity. Also, I’m not in the habit of informing Lord Laurent of my network. He deals solely with me, for the protection of everyone.”

Davi stomped into the room with his fist wrapped around the neck of a bottle of whiskey and a stack of bright-blue plastic cups. He dropped the cups on the coffee table and started working on the protective seal on the bottle.

Vitor sighed loudly. “What is this? A frat party?”

“I am not making tea. This is not a tea conversation. This is an ‘I might need to get fucking loaded to handle this’ conversation,” Davi snapped. He stopped working on the plastic seal to point the bottle at Vitor. “You told me I had a brother, but you neglected to tell me that my brother was freaking Lord Eno Bevyn, the king’s damn personal bodyguard!”

Something a little broken and panicked in Davi’s voice had Eno shoving to his feet before his brain even registered the action. He took the bottle out of Davi’s hands and shoved it into Drayce’s. “Open this,” he grunted and jerked his brother into a tight bear hug.

A surprised gust of air left Davi, and then strong arms gripped him in return. Unshed tears burned his eyes as Eno gripped his brother as tightly as he could. His own flesh and blood. He had a fucking brother. Family. Real family. For so long, he thought he’d been alone in the world. His adoptive parents had died a few years ago and his entire life had become about serving the crown.

Yes, Drayce, Rayne, and Caelan had become his new family, but now he had a real brother.

“Ahhh, man, Cael is gonna be pissed that he missed this,” Drayce cried.

“He can pick my brain apart later and relive the moment,” Eno replied in a choked voice over Davi’s shoulder. He had no problem with Caelan reading his mind to experience this moment. He wished the king had been there to share this. Adrian too.

“Do I even want to know?” Davi mumbled.

Eno sighed softly and shifted his hold on his brother to grab him by the shoulders. He stared at him, not quite able to believe what he was seeing. At last, he managed a smirk and shook his head. “No, you really don’t, but I am very glad that I’ve found you.”

“Eno?” Rayne started softly. His name was filled with such hesitance and ache. He knew his lover hated to intrude on this moment, but this was not why they’d come to Brightspire in the first place. They had a god to locate and another god to stop from destroying the world. What’s more, their king was running about in potentially dangerous territory with only one bodyguard. They needed to get back to work.

He flashed Rayne his brightest smile so he would understand that there were no hard feelings. “I know. Duty calls.”

Rayne whispered, “I’m sorry.”

Oh, that wouldn’t do at all. Besides, they could spare one more minute for Eno to do something he might have secretly dreamed of for years. He released Davi and quickly grabbed Rayne’s arm, pulling him in close by wrapping a large hand around Rayne’s hip. “Davi, this is my boyfriend, Rayne Laurent. Rayne, this is my brother…” He stopped when his voice broke, and Rayne shifted a tiny bit closer. After clearing his throat, he continued, “This is my brother, Davi, born Bodhi Xier.”

Davi’s eyes were so wide they could have fallen from his skull. He sort of stared openmouthed at them both. Rayne recovered faster and extended his hand to Davi with a broad smile. “It’s an honor to meet you at last.”

The younger man took his hand and woodenly shook it. “Whoa. This…this is a lot to take in,” he mumbled. “A brother who’s the king’s bodyguard and dating the king’s advisor. And Davi’s fine with me.”

Drayce broke the moment with a loud groan. “Wow. It’s obvious who you’ve got to be screwing to get a proper introduction around here.”

“We all know who you’re screwing,” Eno grumbled.

The dragon flashed his most wicked grin. “Isn’t it great?”

“I can think of a lot of words to describe it, and ‘great’ is nowhere on that list,” Rayne growled.

“Wait. I don’t know,” Davi interjected.

“I’ve got a guess,” the Gray Fox murmured, sounding smug.

And this conversation had gone way too far already. Rayne jerked away from Eno and threw both of his hands into the air. “No! We are not discussing this. That is one thing we are not discussing tonight or ever.” Rayne shoved his fingers under his glasses and rubbed his eyes. “Gods, where’s the whiskey?” he muttered.

Eno pulled Rayne into his arms again and there was no denying how wonderful it felt to have Rayne automatically lean into him. “I’ll get you a drink. Relax,” Eno promised. His voice turned hard and flat when he continued. “Davi, this idiot is Drayce Ladon, best friend of the king as well as bodyguard.”

“Why do I feel like you’ve got great dirt on my brother?” Davi inquired.

Drayce cackled and shook Davi’s hand. “I do. I swear I have the best dirt.”

“Maybe we should discuss Ilon now and the dirt later,” Vitor suggested.

Yes, that was the brutal reminder they all needed to get on task. Cups of whiskey were poured, though Vitor did make tea for him and Rayne. They settled in the salon on the two small sofas and the two chairs that surrounded the round wood coffee table. Eno chose to sit next to Davi on the sofa, but he was pleased when Rayne slipped into the chair on his right. It was so easy to reach out and take his hand. Vitor settled in the chair opposite Rayne, while Drayce sighed happily, stretching out on the lone remaining sofa.

“What can you tell us about New Rosanthe?” Rayne started.

Drayce promptly sat up, his elbows on his knees. “Yeah. Is this an invasion? Because this is the world’s strangest invasion.”

Vitor grunted softly in agreement, his eyes on his tea for several seconds before he finally placed it on the table. He sat up straight, his slender hands folded in his lap. Eno watched him carefully. This man seemed very collected and conscious of the weight his words carried. He didn’t say the first things that came to mind.

“This has been a very strange invasion. I struggle to even use that word,” Vitor admitted. He lifted his eyes to Rayne, his face void of all emotion. “Our information has been incredibly limited despite having a person working inside the government. As far as we can determine, the Empire has seized control of the Parliament and not a single shot has been fired.”

“What?” Eno gasped. He jerked forward, nearly launching to his feet. “Are you fucking kidding?”

“Nope,” Davi said, making a little scoffing noise in the back of his throat. “It was like one day, the Empire wasn’t here, and then the next day, they’d totally blocked off access to the Parliament Plaza. I heard there was a brief encounter with the police, but Ilon’s army moved in, telling the police everything was cool.”

“Cool? How is everything possibly cool?” Drayce demanded.

“We’re not sure, but there has been no fighting. There’s been no significant suppression of the people or removal of rights. There have been just two changes.” Vitor paused and licked his thin lips. “One is the evening curfew that begins at dusk. The other is the arrest of anyone from Erya.”

“And the people of Brightspire are fine with both of those?” Rayne inquired.

“Fuck no,” Davi snapped.

“But they are scared,” Vitor interjected with a cold finality. “The images of what happened in Stormbreak and the death of Queen Amara have been widely shared throughout Brightspire and the rest of Ilon. I believe the citizens of Brightspire are afraid of the same thing happening here. It’s not helped by the fact that no one has seen the Prime Minister since the appearance of the first New Rosanthe soldiers.”

With what Vitor had told them, the actions of the Ilon citizens made a little more sense. If New Rosanthe was holding the Prime Minister hostage, the government might be going along with what the Empire wanted to keep the peace while trying to negotiate his release. Could they use this? If they could free the prime minister, would this regain an old ally and gain them easy access to the godstone when the time came?

Rayne sat back in his chair and rested his elbows on the arms. He tented his fingers in front of him and lightly bounced them off his lips as he thought. Eno had to fight his smile. He knew that look on his lover. That beautiful brain of his was already turning over all the possible implications.

“Oh shit,” Drayce muttered under his breath.

“What?” Davi asked. Rayne lifted a skeptical eyebrow at the dragon as he glared at Rayne.

“I’ve seen that expression before. He’s plotting. He’s contemplating evil things,” Drayce announced, pointing at Rayne’s face. “The last time he made that look, he was trying to convince Caelan to meet secretly with a special trade envoy’s daughter so she could convince her daddy to go along with what the Erya trade commission wanted.”

Rayne rolled his eyes. “You make it sound so underhanded. It was an opportunity for the prince to get a better understanding of trade relations with Damardor.”

Eno had a feeling it had been more complicated than that, but this wasn’t the time to discuss it.

Luckily, Vitor saved them from going over the past. “You think the prime minister is being held prisoner, and that’s how the Empire has stolen control.”

“I do. If we were to set him free…” Rayne started.

Vitor nodded. “It might help get the Ilon army involved in kicking New Rosanthe out, but it will be tricky. Ilon has always been against any kind of significant confrontation. They prefer to handle all disagreements at the bargaining table.”

Eno grunted and flopped back on the sofa. “And they need to understand that New Rosanthe doesn’t give a shit about negotiations. If they can take something by force, they will.”

Rayne lowered his fingers from in front of his face and dropped his hands to his sides. “But if you take away the Empire’s key bargaining chip in the prime minister, Ilon might be willing to use a bit more force. Especially if we can promise that the King of Erya will be on hand to assist in dealing with the Empire.”

“It’s something to consider,” Vitor agreed.

There was one thing they hadn’t discussed yet, and they needed to consider it when it came to New Rosanthe.

“Has Safa been spotted in Brightspire?” Eno demanded.

Davi leaned forward to meet his older brother’s gaze. “The strange woman with the catlike eyes?”

“You’ve seen her?” Drayce gasped.

He winced. “Not me, but my partner has. She’s seen the woman from a distance. Scary as fuck. Walks around like she owns the place.”

Eno nodded. “Stay away from her. You see her, you run in the opposite direction.”

Davi rolled his eyes and looked as if he were about to blow off his comments, but Eno grabbed his forearm, stopping him.

“I am very serious. She slaughtered countless people in Zastrad. We were lucky to get out of there with our lives. The only person who can potentially handle her one-on-one is Caelan,” Eno continued.

“And even then, it’s best if he has some help watching his back,” Drayce tacked on.

“I’m confused, though,” Rayne suddenly stated. He leaned forward in his chair, his eyes locked on Vitor. “How long has New Rosanthe been here?”

“About a month.”

“Has the Empire invaded all the districts of Brightspire?”

Vitor and Davi exchanged a glance, but it was Davi who started shaking his head first. “All of Brightspire is under curfew and there’s no place that Erya people can hide safely, so everyone is feeling the impact. But the only place you can see the Empire forces is in Parliament Plaza. Ilon soldiers and police are monitoring the rest of the city.”

Eno frowned at Rayne. “That doesn’t make any sense. I thought they’d go straight for the Shrine District. Wouldn’t that be…” Eno’s voice drifted off, unwilling to say aloud what he was thinking. He was sure the spymaster knew most things, but had Rayne and Caelan confided in him about the coming Gods War and the godstones?

Prior to arriving in Brightspire, they’d all suspected that the Light Stone that held the God of Wisdom was in the Shrine District. Was the godstone actually hidden in Parliament Plaza?

“We need to speak with Caelan,” Rayne murmured. The king was supposed to be in the Shrine District with Adrian. With any luck, they’d located the godstone and the king was one step closer to bonding with the god well before Safa could get her hands on it.

But Eno wasn’t counting on them being that lucky.

“The other issue might also complicate matters when it comes to dealing with the Ilon government,” Vitor said in a low voice.

Eno frowned at Vitor, but it was the heavy sigh that slipped from Rayne that had his heart clenching. There was something dismal in his expression that had Eno almost afraid to ask. “What other issue?”

Rayne lifted sad eyes to Eno. “Ilon has been stealing children from Erya.”

EIGHT

Rayne Laurent

“What?” Eno roared. That had his lover on his feet and looming over everyone in the room. “Are you fucking kidding me?”

After the loss of his brother for so many years, Rayne could only imagine how sensitive this subject was going to be for him. When he’d first learned of the queen’s suspicion, Rayne had been horrified and suddenly overprotective of his fully grown sister. Well, a touch more than he already had been.

Rayne reached out, lightly wrapped his fingers around Eno’s wrist, and squeezed. “Sit, please. This is…complicated.”

“I’m sorry to say that it’s vastly more complicated than we had previously suspected,” Vitor admitted.

Eno frowned, but he did return to his seat, his angry gaze locked on Rayne, trusting him to supply him with some answers that made sense. Rayne had little hope of it making sense.

“Before we left for Caspagir in the spring, Queen Amara sent me a packet of information—briefings on secret, critical missions that were under investigation or in negotiation,” Rayne began and then had to stop. The queen had known prior to their departure that it was unlikely she was going to survive her confrontation with New Rosanthe and had been making sure her son was as prepared as he could be to step into her shoes.

“When did you see it?”

“Not until we returned to Stormbreak and Chancellor Croft was in custody. I came across the packet while I was preparing notes for General Morgan.”

“It was at that time that I introduced myself to Lord Laurent,” Vitor broke in. “The queen hadn’t given me any instructions to suspend my current missions. I brought Lord Laurent up to date on what I was investigating. It was then that he also informed me of the existence of Bodhi Xier.”

“I’m confused. What’s going on? What did the queen tell you?” Drayce demanded.

“There were strange reports of very young children disappearing around Erya. Mostly from orphanages in large cities such as Stormbreak. But there were also some instances of babies being reported as dying shortly after birth, but then there were no records of the bodies being handed over to the parents for burial.” Eno grabbed Rayne’s hand and squeezed. “When I read the report and got an update from the Gray Fox, I’ll admit that I didn’t immediately think of your brother. I couldn’t understand why he would disappear and not you. I thought maybe he’d been adopted separately.”

“But he was…” Eno whispered.

“I was,” Davi said firmly.

“I don’t understand. Why wasn’t I taken too? Weren’t we together in the orphanage?” Eno’s voice cracked and Rayne tightly clasped Eno’s hand in both of his. The bodyguard was so accustomed to protecting everyone he cared for. It didn’t matter if he’d been only a small child at the time.

“According to our research,” Davi replied with a bit of a proud smirk, “you were already too old. The children who were being stolen are generally under the age of two years. We think the kidnappers are worried that anyone older could potentially remember where they were from.” His smirk faltered and he cocked his head at his older brother. “Vitor said the paperwork he found on you said you were nearly three when you were adopted. I was stolen just ahead of my first birthday.”

“That’s…that’s fucked up,” Eno murmured.

“Seriously,” Drayce agreed.

Vitor shifted in his chair, moving his hands to the armrests as if bracing himself. “It gets worse. I’ve uncovered proof that this has been going on for decades, and this ring of kidnappers hasn’t limited themselves to Erya.”

“What?” The word exploded from Rayne before he could stop it. He was supposed to be the composed one. He’d at least gone into this conversation knowing that children from Erya had been stolen away. It had never occurred to him that this problem was this big or widespread.

“The details are still very sketchy, but I’ve found proof that children have also been stolen from New Rosanthe and Damardor,” Vitor explained.

“Why not Caspagir?” Drayce asked.

Davi shifted forward on the couch so that he could reach the bottle of whiskey. He refilled his cup as he spoke. “We think it might be a problem of distance. It takes a ship two or three times as long to travel from Caspagir to Ilon than it does to come from Damardor. Same with Zastrad or Uris-Oladul. With New Rosanthe and Erya, Ilon already shares a border.”

Rayne had forgotten about the tea Vitor had fixed for him, leaving it to grow cold. He’d lost all interest in it, thanks to the new topic in front of them.

Drayce snagged the bottle from Davi when he was done, pouring himself a cup as well. “How many kids are we talking each year?”

“Our best guess…” Vitor started and paused as if doing calculations in his head. “At least a couple hundred a year.”

“And this has been going on for decades?” Eno roared.

Vitor spread his hands. “You have to keep in mind, they’ve been very cautious. A few from Stormbreak in a year. A few more from Carigset or Tradefalls or Westbury. Not enough for the right people to notice or begin linking the disappearances to all the others. We have been working for years to uncover the information that we have.”

“Add in the fact that it looks like they rotate between the countries,” Davi interjected, motioning with his nearly empty cup. “They’ll hit Erya for a year or two and then move on to New Rosanthe for three years. Then it’s Damardor for a year or two. Five or six years could pass before Erya is hit again.”

“Enough time that authorities will lose interest and focus on other problems,” Rayne murmured.

“But why? Why steal children at all?” Drayce moaned. He tossed back a swallow of whiskey. He winced against the burn, and his voice was a little smoky when he spoke. “This doesn’t make sense.”

“While I never had a chance to discuss it with Queen Amara, I believe it has to do with Ilon’s ongoing population decline,” Rayne explained. He glanced over to Drayce. “Recall earlier that I said Ilon doesn’t support the idea of marriage? All around Thia, the vast majority of children are born to married couples. If you’re not focused on building a family, you don’t have children. The percentage of children born each year in Ilon is incredibly small considering the size of Ilon’s population. And you need a growing or at least steady population to support a country. It’s well known that Ilon’s population has been shrinking for a while now.”

“So, they think it’s okay to steal children from other countries rather than tell their citizens to get busy in the bedroom?” Drayce snapped.

“We speculated that a criminal organization has been bringing them in to be used as a type of underground slave labor,” Rayne said.

“They’ve also taken in a lot of New Rosanthe refugees,” Davi added.

Vitor sighed. “Except there’s a problem with the numbers.”

Rayne had been about to reach for his tea. “What do you mean?”

“Among the stolen children, half have completely disappeared,” the older man stated.

Davi slammed his empty cup on the table in front of him. “Poof! Disappeared off the fucking map. Like they never existed.”

“If six Erya children are stolen, three will appear in an orphanage in Brightspire and the other three will disappear completely. We’ve not found them in any other cities or in the more rural towns. We can’t explain it.” Vitor finished with a weary shake of his head.

“What about the refugees?” Eno demanded.

“The numbers are worse,” Vitor admitted. “Only about a quarter of those taken in during the last surge were resettled in some smaller farming towns. A handful were placed in Brightspire. The rest disappeared completely. No trace of them after they were registered by the government.”

Rayne shoved out of his chair and paced across the room. He needed to move as nervous energy zipped through his body. His brain was jumping to horrible conclusions and he needed to slow down, to check his thought processes carefully. If what he was thinking was correct, they could be in a lot of fucking danger.

But there was no way around it. When he considered the size and complexity of the operation, the length of time it had been ongoing, and then when you added in the lost refugees, there was no avoiding it.

“Rayne?” Eno prodded. The room was silent except for the creak of the couch and the shifting of fabric as Eno got to his feet.

Rayne held up a hand, silencing any more words and possibly holding him at bay. He needed another few seconds. He wanted to be wrong. He needed to be wrong.

But he wasn’t.

Dropping his hand to his side, he turned to find both Eno and Drayce had risen to their feet, watching him with expectant expressions. He shifted his eyes to Vitor, who simply seemed both sad and resigned. As if he knew exactly what Rayne had just pieced together and felt his fear.

“We need to tell the king,” Rayne declared.

Vitor nodded. “It would also be best if he’s kept far from the Ilon government. They have to suspect…”

“What? What’s going on?” Drayce shouted.

“An operation of this size, the disappearance of the refugees, it means the Ilon government is in on the kidnappings and disappearances,” Rayne explained. He paused and shook his head. “When I read the initial reports, it was clear that Queen Amara and even the Gray Fox thought that this was a criminal organization involved in black market child adoptions or possibly human trafficking. But for the government to be involved…”

“It’s hideous,” Eno breathed.

“It causes a high number of problems for Erya, starting with the fact that our closest ally has been stabbing us in the back for decades.”

Drayce dropped heavily on the sofa cushions, his gaze wide and distant, as if he wasn’t really seeing the room. “Cael is not going to take this well.”

That was a massive understatement. It didn’t help that the king’s emotional stability hadn’t been the best recently, thanks to the gods, Drayce’s physical and emotional torture, and Rayne’s own near-death experience. There had been no chance for them to find some balance again. The idea that Erya’s oldest ally had been betraying them and was now potentially aligned with New Rosanthe was going to create a very volatile reaction in their king.

“Do you know the king’s exact location?” Rayne asked the spymaster.

“Forgive me, Lord Laurent. I do not.”

Drayce pulled his phone out of his pocket and thumbed it on. “He texted that he’s got a safe place to crash with an old friend of Adrian’s. They’re still near the Shrine District.”

Eno moved closer and placed a hand on Rayne’s shoulder. “Do you want to get him tonight?”

Rayne immediately shook his head. “The risk of drawing attention to ourselves and him is too great. If he’s safe where he is, leave him. His focus is where it needs to be right now. It will give me the night to consider what information we’ve gathered.”

“But you are going to tell him—”

His head snapped up and he glared at Drayce until the man looked like he was going to sink into the cushions. “Of course I’m going to tell him! My concern is whether he’s going to want to declare Ilon an enemy of Erya right away or try to at least use them as an ally to defeat New Rosanthe first, and then make them pay for their crimes against our people. Right now, our one solid ally is Caspagir. Is that enough to finally defeat Emperor Naram Suen?”

“We’ve got the Isle of Stone too,” Drayce offered up. “You know Omari Nori will instantly rally support for Caelan.”

A small grunt left Rayne, but he made no additional comments. He had not missed the little twitch of Vitor’s eyebrow as he caught Drayce’s mention of the home of the dragons. Few knew the king had traveled to the remote island and he doubted that even Vitor knew what was hidden there. For now, it was best if the spymaster was kept in the dark about those matters.

What Drayce said was right, though. Caelan’s grandfather would happily support Caelan, but did that mean the dragons would support Erya? There was a vast difference between the two, which could have a very large impact on who won this war.

Was it too much to hope that if Caelan defeated Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt, New Rosanthe would retreat within its borders?

“Lord Laurent, if you have no more immediate need of me, I’ll start making some dinner. We can talk more after you’ve had a chance to think,” Vitor announced, pushing smoothly to his feet.

“Yes, thank you.”

As the spymaster disappeared into the kitchen, they settled into their seats. He listened with half an ear as Eno and Davi traded stories of their youth. Davi had grown up in Brightspire, where he was largely trained to work in factories repairing machines. He’d been regarded as a sort of second-class citizen because he was an orphan and hadn’t been given the same schooling opportunities as other children.

Was that what happened to the stolen children who’d arrived in Brightspire? Were they stolen to become a forgotten labor class for the people of Brightspire?

How in the name of the gods was he supposed to convince Caelan to not destroy Brightspire when he learned the truth? Rayne wanted to see much of this beautiful city razed to the ground. But only after they located every child that had been stolen from their home—whether that child was from Erya, Damardor, or even New Rosanthe.

Inwardly he sighed at that idea.

What about those stolen children? Would that adult be happy to know they’d been kidnapped and brought here? What if they loved their life in Ilon? Considered themselves a proud Ilon citizen?

Rayne lifted his eyes to Davi’s animated features as he described some prank he’d played on a childhood friend.

“Davi,” he started suddenly, pulling the man’s startled gaze to him. “How did you feel about learning you were not born in Ilon?”

“Pissed,” the man said with zero hesitation. “I was angry and confused…and maybe a bit relieved. I never felt like I belonged here, and I liked the idea that it wasn’t necessarily my fault. That maybe it was because I wasn’t born here and there was somewhere else that I would fit better.”

Eno wrapped an arm around his shoulders and roughly pulled him close. “That’s because your ass belongs in Stormbreak.”

Davi smiled at his big brother, but it was a little crooked. “Soon.”

“What?” Eno gasped and released him.

“Soon. I promise. I need to stay here in Brightspire and help Vitor and Nina locate the other kids who were taken. We need to gather all the evidence we can to build a case the Ilon government can’t escape.”

Rayne watched a dark storm cloud fall over Eno’s features. “It’s not safe for you here.”

A loud bark of laughter jumped from Davi, and he dropped his head back against the cushion. “Seriously? You’re going to lecture me about safe, Mr. King’s Bodyguard? I heard about that fight in Sirelis. There were some scary-ass videos that came out of that. Were you in the middle of that? Or how about when Erya forces retook Stormbreak? Were you there for that too?”

Eno at least had the good grace to look embarrassed. He probably wasn’t helped by the great belly laughs that erupted from Drayce. The smaller man flopped across the couch cushions, as he chortled hard and loud.

“Holy shit! He’s got your number!” Drayce shouted.

“Hey! You wanna tell him about Mount Langbo?” Eno shot at him.

Drayce fell silent so quickly the quiet was almost deafening. Shining, emerald-green eyes locked on Eno, and Rayne swore Drayce paled. “Man,” he whispered. “Low blow. You know I didn’t mean to…”

“Eno,” Rayne said softly between clenched teeth, but it was utterly unnecessary. His lover was already on his feet and walking around the table. He dropped onto an open spot on the sofa and pulled Drayce into a partial hug and headlock.

Eno leaned his head down so that his nose was pressed to the top of Drayce’s head, his face nearly lost to his messy blond hair. “I shouldn’t have said that. I know you didn’t mean to,” he murmured.

“Sorry,” Drayce mumbled.

With a tender smile, Eno lifted his face and rubbed Drayce’s hair. “Me too.”

“Do I want to know?” Davi suddenly inquired.

“I’m sure your brother will tell you the full story one day over beers,” Rayne replied with a grin.

But today was not that day. Zastrad was still too fresh in their minds. The past several chaotic months were still too fresh. Even when safely in their own bed in Stormbreak, both he and Eno had woken from nightmares, their skin coated with cold sweat as they trembled through the last tendrils of a dream about death, destruction, and loss. They’d all be able to talk about it one day, assuming they survived this disaster, but it wasn’t going to be anytime soon. They needed time for the memories to fade and dull.

Right now, the horrors of Caspagir, Zastrad, the Isle of Stone, and even Stormbreak had to be put behind them. His current concern was helping Caelan navigate the problem of Ilon and its tricky new relationship with New Rosanthe.

Would the Goddess of Fire urge the king to burn the city to the ground?

Or would the Dead God come up with a more insidious suggestion?

NINE

Caelan Talos

The Shrine District did brisk business early in the morning. The grand plaza that held Tula’s tree was already crowded with visitors. Many were snapping pictures and tying yet more prayers to the branches of the tree. There were a few who were lighting incense and placing monetary offerings in the collection boxes. Caelan could only assume the funds went to supporting the upkeep of the shrine to the Goddess of Life.

Warm sunlight broke through banks of clouds to cast the area in golden light. The sky was clearing and giving every indication that it was going to be a beautiful day. Of course, the idea had the God of Storms giving a pouty huff in the back of Caelan’s mind, but he was getting better at ignoring Kaes’s grumpy moods.

Adrian walked beside him, his expression friendly but sort of blank. His body seemed loose, but there was a quiet tension to the man, as if he were ready to spring into action if someone took a step too close to the king.

They’d slipped out a couple of hours after sunrise from Diogo’s place. From the snoring curling out from under the door, it was a safe guess that he was still asleep when they left. A text had been waiting for them that morning on a group chat from Drayce that someone named Nina would be by to pick them up from the Shrine District. Caelan replied for her to be sent to the shrine for the God of Wisdom.

Rayne had also sent a private message directly to him, warning him that he’d received an update that could have a significant impact on their plans.

That was not good. But Caelan couldn’t say that he was overly surprised by this. Everything had gone to shit since they’d first boarded the train for Caspagir.

Following the direction on the map, they moved farther inland toward University Hill. The block ended at a massive building with a broad stone base for the first floor. The second floor narrowed in several feet on either side and was topped with an even narrower long tower that rose above the entire city. That was topped with a bright light.

It was similar to a lighthouse, except the building was far too inland and the glow wasn’t focused in a single direction, but allowed to shine out in every direction.

Adrian stepped closer and leaned his head down so that he was practically whispering in Caelan’s ear. “Is it up there?”

Caelan stared up at the thin beam against the bright-blue sky. “Nope. Though it’s not a bad idea.”

“You’re sure?” Adrian asked and then winced as if he’d realized what he’d said. If anyone could tell whether something was the godstone, it was Caelan.

“Yeah, you can tell by the way it’s not reflecting the radiance of the sun.” He’d seen that only once before. In Stormbreak. When New Rosanthe had destroyed the tower surrounding the Life Stone, killing his mother and exposing the Godstone to the sun and elements. The light had reflected and danced off the different facets of the green crystal, casting the brightness out across the capital.

Caelan shoved that thought aside and lifted a hand to shield his eyes as he continued to gaze at the peak of the tower comprised of pale-tan stone. “I think they might have an actual fire burning up there, but I can’t see any smoke. Maybe fueled by a smokeless oil.” He dropped his hand to his side and forced a smile for Adrian. “Either way, it’s not up there. Let’s check around inside the temple, though.”

With a soft grunt of agreement, Adrian took a step back and allowed Caelan to lead the rest of the way down the street. As they strolled along, Caelan checked the paper map in his hands against the various temples, shrines, and churches they passed. Some were big while others were small enough to pass for studio apartments.

The groupings were a bit unexpected as well. The God of Wisdom’s temple was clearly the main focus of the street, so it wasn’t overly surprising to find shrines to the various gods and goddesses of poetry, literature, drama, and music. But there were also structures dedicated to the gods of wealth, commerce, noble causes, and even the wind.

And still nothing for the Goddess of the Hunt.

They climbed the marble stairs and stepped inside of the temple to find the interior surprisingly dark. Torchlight flickered in the large, open area, creating pockets of light and shadow that were filled with people as they ambled through, talking in hushed voices.

Side by side, Caelan wandered through the first floor of the temple with Adrian. It was decorated heavily with lanterns and lamps, symbolizing the light of wisdom and knowledge that the God of Wisdom represented. Multiple stone tablets hung on the walls, listing the critical tenants of seeking knowledge, history, and experience to gain wisdom—the things the god Lore valued most above all else.

A couple of doors exited from the main area, offering access to the upper levels, but they were all marked off for employees only. It was tempting to try to sneak in, but what was the point if the godstone wasn’t in the temple?

Stepping off to a shadowy, empty corner of the vast open area, Caelan snagged Adrian’s sleeve and pulled him closer. “Watch my back for a moment.”

Adrian snorted. “Like I ever stopped.”

Okay, so his bodyguard had a good point. But what Caelan had meant was that he was going to focus on other things than his own surroundings for a moment. He didn’t tell that to Adrian. He just muttered a soft “Smartass” and closed his eyes.

Rather than speaking directly to the gods, Caelan dug through the layers of energy that flowed in and around him at all times. After nearly a lifetime of being in contact with at least one god, Caelan considered himself an expert at telling the various gods apart. While he might have described it as a tingle to Drayce, the sensation of power he got from each of the gods was different and distinct.

He might have spent the least amount of time with Caris, the Goddess of Fire, but her power was easy to identify—warm and unexpectedly comforting.

But there was a new one he’d been feeling since they’d arrived in Brightspire. The only word he could think to use to describe it was heavy. The power was heavy as if it carried a physical weight. It pressed down on everything, making the air thicker. Caelan felt tired simply walking along the street in this city. Why was the God of Wisdom’s power so exhausting?

All the same, he pushed aside the powers of the various gods now bonded to him and focused on the power pouring out of Lore. It was everywhere, permeating the air, the soil, and the very stone that comprised the buildings.

Yet, there was a stronger feeling of it here in the Temple of the God of Wisdom than there had been out on the street or even in Diogo’s flat. If the godstone had been located anywhere in the temple, he would have been able to sense it.

“It’s not here,” Caelan whispered.

“You’re sure?”

Caelan only had to deliver a look and Adrian was lifting his hands in retreat. “My bad. Stupid question,” his companion replied. “What’s next?”

That was at least a good question. A damn good one. What did they do next? Caelan would have easily bet money that the godstone for Lore was located in his shrine.

Anyone happen to know where the godstone is located? Caelan impulsively inquired of the gods in his mind. It didn’t hurt to ask. Sometimes they surprised him to the positive side of things.

This wasn’t one of those times. None of the gods spoke up, but there was a general feeling of awkwardness and discomfort. Fantastic. No one was interested in talking about Lore, which meant that bad things were likely waiting for him when he did meet up with the god.

“Why don’t we ask the docent?” Adrian suggested with a jerk of his head toward an older woman with her gray hair cut in a neat bob. She was dressed in a uniform of slacks and a button-down shirt made of yellow goldenrod. She greeted everyone as they approached the main center aisle of the temple, offering them a pamphlet with information about the god and the temple.

Caelan had taken one when they first entered and skimmed it, but it had provided nothing helpful in terms of the godstone.

With a nod, Caelan led the way across the temple to the older woman. He offered her a friendly smile. “Good morning. I was wondering if I could ask you about Lore,” he greeted, his voice remaining in hushed tones.

“Of course. I’d be happy to answer any questions you might have about the God of Wisdom,” the woman replied cheerfully in the same soft voice so as not to disturb the other visitors to the temple.

Caelan clung to his smile while he inwardly debated how best to phrase the question. In the end, he figured it was best to just dive straight in. “I was curious about the godstone for the God of Wisdom. Is it located here in the temple?”

The woman’s face immediately clouded over with confusion. Her mouth opened and closed again without her making a sound. She cocked her head to the side, her eyes narrowing. “I’m sorry, but I think you might be a touch confused. There is only one godstone. It’s located in Stormbreak Point, Erya.”

“Yes, and that is the godstone for the Goddess of Life, who is the patron of Erya.” Caelan pushed on, feeling a little more at ease even if her answer wasn’t exactly helpful. It was the answer he would have expected to receive in Caspagir or even on the Isle of Stone. And apparently, the people of Ilon were also ignorant of the existence of the other godstones. He wanted to probe more to be sure. “I was thinking that since Lore is the Patron God of Ilon that there might also be a godstone for him as well here in the city.”

“Oh, I see your confusion.” The docent gave a pleasant chuckle around her sigh of relief. She pressed a hand to her chest and her shoulders relaxed. “I will admit that I have studied Godstone lore for no more than a decade and I am not an expert.” She smiled and leaned closer. “I’m sure the only real experts on the Godstone are the Erya royal family. But aside from them, it is widely believed that the Godstone is the receptacle of the powers of all the gods who ever existed, not just the power of the Goddess of Life. The lovely goddess Tula is the Patron Goddess of Erya simply because the country has achieved greatness and prosperity through its vast farmlands. It really has nothing to do with the Godstone.”

Yeah, that was sort of true.

Tula scoffed rather loudly in his mind. So much for the great wisdom of his people.

Caelan wanted to agree with her, but the only reason he knew half the things he did about the godstones was thanks to hours of conversations with the gods in his head. That was somewhat of an unfair advantage. And one he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

“Ahh, I hadn’t realized,” Caelan murmured, politely bowing his head to the woman. “Clearly it’s time for me to return to the libraries and start researching the godstone.”

The older woman beamed brightly at him. “That sounds like an excellent way to spend your time. Is there anything else that I can help you with?”

Caelan shook his head and thanked her again for her assistance. With Adrian on his heels, he led the way out of the temple for the God of Wisdom and into the early-morning sunlight.

As they descended the stairs to street level, Adrian released a frustrated sigh. “Well, that wasn’t helpful at all.”

“Maybe not as much as we’d hoped it would be, but it is reassuring that everyone doesn’t know about the godstone,” Caelan said softly. “I’d rather all the people of Ilon didn’t know of its existence.”

“Won’t that make it harder to get to? If it’s hidden away?”

Caelan turned his head to gaze over his shoulder at his companion. “This is my fifth one. Only the one in Stormbreak wasn’t hidden away.”

There was no need to say more about how things had ended up with the Life Stone in their home. If there had been some grand plan among the other leaders to help protect Stormbreak and the Life Stone, it had failed miserably. It was a mistake Caelan planned to not repeat when this was all over. Even if he didn’t survive to make that plan, he was confident that Rayne would come up with something to better protect the Godstone and Erya in the future.

Even if it meant exposing all the godstones to the people of Thia once again.

Adrian grunted and jerked his chin slightly toward a woman who was approaching in a pair of dark slacks and plain white top with a bit of lace around the collar. Her brown hair was pulled up in a loose knot on the top of her head and a pair of black-rimmed glasses dominated her slender face. A navy messenger bag was slung across her body and rested against her hip. “Is that the contact they texted about?”

Caelan wordlessly slipped his phone from his pocket and pulled up the text Drayce had sent over with the picture of a woman. It appeared to be a work photo for a possible ID badge with the typical white background and bad overhead lighting.

“I think that’s her,” he murmured. That was good. She would be able to safely take them to where Eno, Rayne, and Drayce were waiting.

Yes, it had been barely twenty-four hours, but he was eager to see Drayce. Every minute that passed without hearing his voice, without being able to reach out and touch him, left Caelan feeling edgy and more unsettled. It was as if something in him was stretching out for the man and retreating in pain when it found only cold, empty air beside him.

“Good morning. You’re friends of Vitor, right?” the young woman greeted when she stopped a few feet away from them. She looked as if she was in her midtwenties and spoke with a warm, friendly voice, but there was something cautious in her gaze and tension that tightened the muscles in her slender shoulders.

“We are. He said that you’d be able to give us a walking tour of the unique Shrine District architecture,” Caelan replied, giving the exact response Rayne had instructed him to.

Nina’s smile widened and her shoulders relaxed a touch. “Of course. I’d be happy to.” She motioned for them to accompany her down the street.

Caelan immediately fell into step next to her while Adrian walked behind them. “Have you heard from them? Is everything okay?” he asked in a soft voice so as not to be overheard by any of the other pedestrians. It didn’t seem as if anyone was following them or even paying them a bit of attention, but they needed to be careful.

“I got a text from Davi this morning.” She pulled out her phone from the front pocket of her bag and tapped the screen until she found what she was searching for.

Caelan’s heart flip-flopped in his chest to see a picture snapped of Drayce pointing a spoon at Rayne over what looked to be the breakfast table. Rayne was glaring at Drayce over his mug of coffee while Eno smirked in the background at both of them. The scene was so heart-stoppingly familiar that he could practically hear Drayce’s and Rayne’s voices as they argued over something inane.

“Good,” Caelan murmured in a rough voice while Nina put the phone away.

“It’ll take us about thirty minutes to reach them. It’s not far, but…”

“No problem,” Adrian said.

“Do we have time for a detour?” Caelan found himself asking before he could stop the words. He was in a rush to join his other companions, but seeing the picture of them healthy and safe had given him a second wind. There were other things he needed to know or at least start digging into.

Nina blinked at him a couple of times, but no words came out. She quickly turned her attention forward again, wrinkles forming on her brow as her thin eyebrows snapped together. “I…I don’t think that should be a problem. I would need to tell Vitor about the change in plans.”

“It would be fine if we could be met,” Caelan added. Actually, it would probably be most helpful if Rayne was there with him. No one researched like Rayne Laurent. The man could find any scrap of information that he might be searching for. “I need information on the history of the gods. Particularly stories prior to the war. The old mythology about all of the gods.”

The woman’s expression darkened further. “There are over one hundred gods catalogued and celebrated within Brightspire.”

Caelan shook his head. He kept forgetting that Ilon recognized all the old gods, even the minor ones who disappeared just prior to the war. “I’m most interested in the major gods, particularly the Goddess of the Hunt and her interactions with the major gods.”

They walked in silence for a couple of minutes, nearing the end of the block that opened into the massive crossroads with Tula’s tree in the center. Caelan could already see that some of the early-morning crowds had thinned out, or possibly headed off for the other shrines of the gods after paying a visit to the Goddess of Life.

From the corner of his eye, he saw Nina grab her phone again and start rapidly tapping out a message. Probably a message to the spymaster about the impulsive king’s desire to completely change their plans. He had no wish to make anyone’s life more difficult or to put anyone in danger, but they needed to find the godstone and right now, he had zero leads beyond the fact that it was somewhere in Brightspire.

“I think our best option would be the Library of Ancient History and Folklore,” Nina announced suddenly. “It has the best collection of old texts, stories, and mythology. The librarians there are experts on the subject and will be able to direct you.” She paused and significantly lowered her voice. “But I wouldn’t start off asking about the Goddess of the Hunt. Most theologists and historians don’t recognize her existence.”

Caelan stopped right in the middle of the sidewalk. “I’m sorry, but what?” His voice was too loud, and he’d captured the attention of too many people on the street, but he couldn’t continue another step until Nina clarified the nonsense that had come out of her mouth.

The myth of the catalyst of the great Gods War that created the Ordas was well-known, wasn’t it?

Or had he been spending too much time with the gods in his head? Had they convinced him that what he knew was actually common knowledge among the people?

There was a feeling of someone patting him gently on the head as Caris’s voice whispered through his mind. Don’t worry about where the knowledge came from. Just trust that it is the truth.

“Ha!” Caelan barked out and inwardly flinched when he realized that he’d said that aloud and not silently for the gods. It was a wonder all his companions didn’t think he was completely mad at this point.

We both know that the truth is a sketchy thing when considering my sources, Caelan sniped. While the Goddess of Fire hadn’t lied to him yet as far as he could tell, Nyx had proved to be far too slippery to be trustworthy. And he’d certainly been burned by Kaes and Tula in the past.

He felt Caris sigh as much as he heard it in his mind. There was a final pat on his head and a feeling of her sort of fading into the background, or maybe just toward her god lover Nyx.

“If the scholars of Ilon don’t recognize the Goddess of the Hunt, how do they think the Gods War started?” Caelan demanded, trying to keep his voice at normal levels.

“I’m not sure. It’s not an area that I’ve spent a lot of time studying.” Nina paused, her dark-brown eyes wide behind her glasses as she leaned close to him and said, “This is ancient history and mythology that we’re talking about. Who really spends a lot of time studying that unless you’re some university professor?”

Caelan sucked in a calming breath and straightened. Okay, she had a good point. He’d been so stuck up to his eyeballs with the gods and their troubles that he forgot that most people had a normal life that included a job, bills, and their favorite television program. Most people weren’t worried about what the gods were getting up to several centuries ago.

Shoving a hand into his hair, Caelan shoved some purple strands back from in front of his eyes. “No, you’re right. I’m sorry. I need to know what’s going on here, and that starts with the distant past.”

If Nina thought there was anything strange about his comment, she wisely kept it to herself and off her face. She gave him a small smile and a nod. “We’ll head to the library from here and I’ll send a message along to our friends. They can meet us.”

“Excellent. We—”

“Where are you off to in such a hurry, Your Majesty?” a voice that was like metal spikes being shoved into his ears called.

Caelan instinctively grabbed Nina’s wrist and pulled her behind him as his eyes lifted to scan the area. They’d just crossed into the center square that held the shrine to the Goddess of Life. People were scattered about in casual groups, but it still took him no time to locate Safa.

She strolled closer, wearing the black-and-gold uniform of a New Rosanthe officer. Behind her were another dozen New Rosanthe soldiers with their weapons drawn and pointed at them.

Adrian immediately took a step forward to place his body between his king and the threat. A chill ran through Caelan as if a bucket of ice water had been dumped over his head. Adrian had never faced Safa, had no clue as to the kind of horrors she was capable of. It didn’t help that Adrian had nothing more than a knife and a handgun on him. Considering the problems Erya citizens were having in Brightspire, none of them wanted to get caught walking around heavily armed, but it now meant that Adrian was vastly outgunned.

Caelan, on the other hand, had a few other tricks at the tips of his fingers. Releasing Nina, Caelan moved up with Adrian and directed a brief glare in the direction of his bodyguard. “Get our new friend to safety. I’ll catch up.”

“I’m not leaving you,” Adrian stubbornly argued.

“She’s bonded to the goddess,” he growled through clenched teeth. At least Adrian had the good sense to look a bit more hesitant, his eyes widening as he swallowed hard.

“Isn’t he a good little bodyguard?” Safa taunted.

Caelan narrowed his eyes on the woman. She didn’t appear as if she’d changed much in the month that he hadn’t seen her. Her features seemed sharper, leaner, as if the power of the goddess was sucking up her vitality, leaving her a more ravenous version of herself.

While Adrian might not be willing to listen to him, Caelan was relieved to find that the gods bonded to him had perked up and were paying attention to the creature facing them.

That’s the one Zyros chose? Caris gave a delicate sniff. Our Chosen One is much better.

Of course he is. Caelan is of royal blood. The Taloses have served me for centuries, Tula countered.

Not to mention that he’s part dragon as well, Caris added crisply.

Wonderful. They were arguing about his pedigree rather than focusing on the problem at hand.

Like the gods would allow some nobody to fight for them, Nyx replied with a snicker in his voice. Oh yes, Caelan knew that dig was just for him.

Can we do this without hurting the innocent people? Caelan inquired, trying to get the gods to focus on something important.

Boring, Kaes complained, helpful as always.

“Still not leaving,” Adrian grumbled under this breath.

“Don’t start anything,” Caelan whispered. They couldn’t be the ones who fired the first shot. He didn’t know what the deal was with New Rosanthe and Ilon, but if they had formed an alliance, he couldn’t make the first move that widened the rift between Erya and Ilon. “What do you want, Safa?” Caelan shouted across the square.

“You mean other than revenge, annihilation of the gods, and the utter destruction of all the cities of Thia?” She paused and shrugged. “Not much, really.” Her smile widened, and Caelan swore her fangs looked like they’d grown longer and sharper. “But those are all long-term goals. I’m happy to begin with your death and work from there.”

“Will the new alliance with Ilon hold if you attempt to kill the King of Erya?” Caelan tapped into the power from the gods, trying to unconsciously sort through them and prepare them so that they were ready in an instant. He had no idea what she was going to throw at them first.

Energy snapped along his nerve endings, leaving him clenching his teeth against the pain of thousands of sharp pinpricks throughout his entire body. The surge was gnawing on bones and twisting up muscles. No matter how hard he tried to keep it all contained, there was still power leakage. Dark clouds were rolling across the sky, blotting out the sun, while a chill wind had picked up, rustling the leaves of Tula’s massive tree. The God of Storms was more than ready to create some chaos.

Safa cackled and shook her head. “What the fuck do I care what Ilon wants? Or Zastrad? Or even those damn dragons?” She extended one talon-tipped hand and pointed at him. “When this is over, you will bow to the goddess, you will bow to me, or you will be dead.” She dropped her hand back to her side and smirked. “Kill them.”

Before the soldiers could pull the triggers on their guns, Caelan had his protective shield up around himself, Adrian, and Nina, protecting them from the spray of bullets.

Adrian lifted his gun, pointing it at the soldiers. “Can I return fire through this?”

“Do you have enough bullets for all of them?”

“Nope.”

“Then I wouldn’t try. Just cover me if anyone gets through.” Adrian grunted in agreement and Caelan closed his eyes. He blocked out the noise of the gunfire and the screams of the innocent people who had come to visit the historical shrines and temples on what had been a peaceful morning. This chaos was only going to bring more law enforcement to their location, making it harder to escape and disappear into the city.

Still holding tight to the power from the Goddess of Life, he stretched out and touched the tree. The roots ran long and deep under the city square, reaching out in every direction under them. He sent Tula’s power rushing down along the roots, pulling them upward. With a shout, he forced them to burst through the concrete and paving stones. There were more shouts and gunfire fell silent to panicked screams.

Caelan opened his eyes to direct the roots around the Empire soldiers. They tried to run and fight them off, but he was faster. The only one he couldn’t catch was Safa. She darted, jumped, and dodged deftly out of the reach of the roots, all while cursing him.

Overhead, the tree erupted in the cries of hundreds of birds. He hadn’t even noticed their presence, but Safa had used her gift from the Goddess of the Hunt to call the enormous flock of birds of prey as backup.

“The shield—” Caelan started to warn Adrian.

“Got it!” the man cut him off. His gun was raised and pointed at the soldiers who hadn’t gotten completely wrapped up.

It had become too difficult to shift his attention between maintaining their protection and trying to capture the soldiers. The deafening flap of hundreds of wings was filling the air, their cries piercing his ears.

I’m here, Caris soothingly whispered just as a firestorm burned across his body.

Caelan let the fire sweep through him, burning through mental barriers and fears before pushing out to erupt in place of the green shield he’d been holding up.

“Holy fuck!” Adrian cried out and he thought he might have heard Nina scream in terror. He wished he could have warned them, but he didn’t have enough brainpower left to do things like that. Everything he had was focused on manipulating all the energy surging through him.

The flames swirled around them like a tornado, leaving them trapped in the eye of the storm. The heat was intense, baking them and drying the sweat as it formed on their skin. He was vaguely aware of Adrian pulling Nina against his body, trying to shield her from the flames.

Overhead the birds attempted to dive-bomb them but were immediately engulfed by the fire and reduced to black cinders.

His only warning was a scream of rage.

Safa plunged through the wall of flames, her fierce face a twisted mask of fury. Her hands were outstretched with her fingers hooked with black claws. She collided with him, and they crashed to the ground. Air exploded from Caelan’s lungs and his hold on the firestorm dropped, causing the flames to disappear.

The woman lay half on top of him, her long, bony fingers wrapped around his throat as she tried to squeeze the life out of him or simply snap his neck. Caelan gasped and choked, trying to replace the air he’d lost while pulling her off him.

“Dead! I want you dead!” Safa seethed through clenched teeth. Her red eyes were wide, like vast deep pools of blood, and her face was an almost ghostly white as the skin stretched over too-sharp cheekbones.

Caelan pulled and fought. He was exhausted from using the power of the gods. Even Kaes had broken loose, sending flashes of lightning and deep, booming explosions of thunder across the sky. Safa’s claws dug into his flesh and blood poured down to pool on his collarbone, soaking into his shirt.

A fist wrapped in Safa’s wild hair and jerked her backward. Those tight hands left Caelan’s throat and he choked in a ragged breath as he watched through watery eyes as Adrian pulled Safa off him. When his bodyguard got a couple of feet of distance between Safa and Caelan, he planted a booted foot right in the center of her chest, sending her flying.

Caelan lurched upward, still coughing and gasping for breath, but everything had stopped. As if the world had been frozen. He whipped his head about, taking in the soldiers still wrapped in the roots, the three who’d gotten free, and the black rain of ash from the dead birds filling the air. Adrian was positioned to throw his body in front of Caelan while bringing up his gun. Safa, on the other hand, looked as if she would land on her feet and launch herself straight at them both.

“You’re fucked,” a bland voice on his left announced.

His heart stopped in his chest when he snapped his head around to find Nyx kneeling next to him. “Shit!” he exclaimed before he could stop himself.

“I’ll give you one of these,” Nyx said.

“One of what? What’s going on?” Caelan scanned the square, half expecting to see the other gods, but there was no one else. Not even Caris. The chaos in his head had even gone strangely silent.

“Nope. Just us. They can’t even hear us. I’ve stopped time. I’m holding you frozen here between the last second and the next.”

“Why?”

“Because, like I said, you’re fucked.” Nyx stared at him for a heartbeat like he was the slowest person on the planet, and then continued, “Oh, we can let this little scene play out, but I’m going to tell you now bullets aren’t going to stop that woman. She’s going to kill your new bodyguard, and there’s a damn good chance she’s going to kill you. I might be wrong. You might escape. But the odds aren’t good. And in case you forgot…” Nyx paused and waved his hand in front of him. He pinched the air right in front of Caelan’s chest and pulled, revealing Caelan’s personal chain of time. It was short. Frighteningly short. “You’re running out of time. In fact, the time you lose speeds up whenever you breathe the same air as this woman.”

“What-what…” Caelan started but he wasn’t even sure what he was trying to ask. How could he be so short on time already? Did he have enough time to bond with the God of Wisdom? Even if he did, there wouldn’t possibly be time for him to defeat Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt. What was he supposed to do?

“Of course, you’ve got your share of the dragon time all saved up. You could use that,” Nyx taunted.

“No!” Caelan automatically snapped. He had a plan for that, but did he have enough time left in his own lifespan to implement that plan?

Nyx made a face. The God of Time wasn’t pleased with him, but he didn’t argue. “So, what’s it going to be? We continue as we are and see how this plays out, saving your little time-out for later? Or do you want to make a hasty retreat now?”

Caelan’s heart lurched painfully in his chest. Halting time like this could give him a significant edge in the fight against Safa and possibly even Zyros, but moving forward meant Adrian’s death. Nyx had been certain about that one thing.

“I get only one?” Caelan whispered, a tremor in his voice.

To his surprise, Nyx seemed to think about it, his black eyes sweeping over him from head to toe. He wasn’t quite sure what the God of Time saw, but at least he was taking the question seriously. “Just one. You’re not ready for more.”

“Then I need it now,” Caelan replied, not willing to mentally debate it. His life wasn’t certain in the next second and there was no way he was going to sacrifice Adrian’s life if it wasn’t guaranteed to at least save lives in the long run.

Nyx grabbed Caelan’s left hand and closed it into a fist like he was closing it around something. Immediately, he could feel a sharp tug as if something were trying to pull away from him. He clenched his fist tighter and put everything he had into holding on to it.

“Don’t let go. Hold on for as long as you can. The moment you release it, time moves forward,” Nyx warned him and then disappeared.

“What the fuck?” Adrian demanded loudly. A similar noise came from Nina behind him.

Caelan blinked and saw Adrian straighten, his eyes jumping over the frozen people.

“Help!” Caelan cried out, lifting his right arm. He couldn’t move. Couldn’t gather the energy to lift himself to his feet. Everything was focused on holding time still. Muscles screamed and pain ripped across his brain. Every cell in his body was crying out in agony.

Luckily Adrian didn’t need any further prodding. He pulled Caelan’s arm behind his neck and they rose to their feet together.

“Hurry. Rayne,” Caelan bit out. He needed to get to Rayne. Holding on to time like this was wrong, and he could feel it destroying little parts of him from head to toe. Even if they escaped Safa and the soldiers, he was going to need Rayne to piece what remained of him back together again.

With Adrian holding him up and Nina helping where she could, they ran and stumbled across the square, maneuvering between the frozen people to disappear into another district. Every step was difficult. Too soon Adrian was practically dragging him along. The world around him was growing darker until he could see nothing. There was only the rapid pounding of his heart in his ears. Each breath grew more ragged. Caelan finally choked. He coughed hard and he could hear the blood splatter thick and heavy on the concrete.

In the end, he wasn’t sure how far they got. He didn’t let go so much as time ripped free of his grip. Caelan screamed, but he was pretty sure the sound only echoed through his mind as he fell into the darkness.

TEN

Drayce Ladon

Drayce held on to his control by his fingernails as he paced from the hallway to the parlor and back again. A frantic call had come in not twenty minutes ago that Caelan was in serious trouble and they were rushing to their location now. Something about Safa and an attack. That was more than enough to send them all into a panic, but there was more about the king coughing up blood and struggling to breathe that left Drayce nearly busting out of his skin to get to his lover.

They had briefly argued about taking Caelan to the hospital, but Rayne insisted they bring Caelan to them. It was safe. It was anonymous. And Rayne would be able to heal Caelan. The Goddess of Life wouldn’t let Caelan go, right? Fuck, Rayne would give his last breath to keep Caelan safe and healthy. They all would.

Fuck. Fuck. Fuck.

They never should have separated. Drayce should have demanded to accompany Caelan and Adrian. They should have expected to run across Safa the second they stepped one foot in Brightspire. Even if he’d had to shift into his dragon and stomp a mudhole in that woman, he would have done it to protect Cael.

A hand landed on Drayce’s shoulder and he instinctively made a fist, preparing to swing when his eyes landed on Eno’s concerned expression. He dropped his hand to his side, but he couldn’t uncurl his fingers.

“Don’t lose control,” Eno said in a low voice.

“I’m fine,” Drayce snapped.

“Really? Take a look at your eyes.” Eno jerked his chin toward a mirror that hung on the wall in the hallway.

Drayce glanced up and jerked to find that his eyes had in fact shifted. While human or dragon, they were exactly the same shade of emerald green, but as a dragon, the pupil was a vertical slit.

“Shit,” Drayce hissed, inwardly flinching at his appearance. He blinked a couple of times and his eyes changed to their normal human round pupils that were now blown wide. “I’m sorry. I don’t know what’s wrong with me.”

Yes, he’d lost control when he thought Caelan had died at the top of Mount Langbo, but Caelan wasn’t dead and he wasn’t going to die. He had control of his powers. There could be no question about it. People got hurt when he lost control. Like Eno.

The hand on his shoulder moved up to grip the back of his neck and pull him in closer. Eno’s nose bumped against the top of his head and Drayce shivered. How could this man stand to be so close to him after he’d nearly killed him once before?

“Eno, I’m so sorry. I won’t…I would never…”

His friend gave him a shake. “Shut up. I know. We’re all worried and scared, but Cael is gonna be fine.”

Eno gave Drayce’s neck a final squeeze, then released him and turned toward the parlor where Rayne and Vitor were somehow managing to sit and sip coffee. Drayce wasn’t insane enough to think that Rayne was in any way calm. He could put on a façade of cool control, but it was a lie.

“Do you think this means Nina’s cover is blown?” Davi asked softly.

Vitor didn’t bother to lift his eyes from where he was scrolling on his phone. “We won’t know until we speak to her.”

Davi grunted. “Are you sending her to Stormbreak?”

Drayce watched closely for any kind of emotional reaction out of the older man, but there was nothing when he replied. “I won’t know until I speak to her.”

Davi looked like he was about to strangle Vitor, but he wisely turned away, shoving both of his hands into his unruly brown hair as he paced to the other side of the room. If Drayce was a betting man—and he was—he was willing to wager that Davi had a thing for this Nina.

It was on the tip of Drayce’s tongue to ask Davi about it, if only to distract them all with a little mischief, when tires squealed in front of the house. Everyone was on their feet in an instant, but Drayce reached the front door first. He jerked it open, his heart already in his throat before he saw Adrian jumping from the back seat and pulling out an unconscious Caelan.

He leaped down the front stairs and held open the rear door, his eyes scanning over Caelan as more of him came into view. Blood smeared his lips while a trickle had dried from his nose. There were even dark tracks running from the corners of his eyes. The red made his ashen skin look all the paler. Was he breathing? He didn’t move, didn’t show a single sign of life as Adrian lifted him from the car.

Eno was a step behind, taking Caelan’s slim body into his arms. Drayce longed to carry him. He was certainly strong enough. But they were the same height, making it awkward and dangerous. Right now, Drayce wasn’t willing to do anything to jeopardize his lover further.

He glimpsed a slender woman in black-rimmed glasses as she jumped from behind the driver’s seat. This must be Nina. That was the only thought Drayce spared her. His entire focus was trained on Caelan as they carried him into the house.

“Upstairs!” Rayne shouted, already moving in front of them.

Eno followed and Drayce was directly behind him as Caelan was carried into a bedroom and laid in the center of the bed Drayce had used the night before. Rayne dropped onto the edge of the bed and took one of Caelan’s hands in his own while placing his other hand against Caelan’s forehead.

No one tried to stop Drayce as he moved to the other side of the bed and grabbed Caelan’s free hand in both of his own. His skin was icy cold. Now that he was lying still on the bed, he could see the rough rise and fall of Caelan’s chest, but it seemed too shallow and sounded too ragged.

“Why isn’t he breathing right?” Drayce demanded.

“Give Rayne a chance to work,” Eno murmured.

Part of him wanted to snap at Eno and Rayne to get this shit fixed now, but Eno was right. Rayne needed to be able to direct all of his attention to saving Caelan. For now, Drayce lifted Caelan’s hand to his lips and pressed kisses to the knuckles while holding his arm to his chest. Drayce had heat to spare. If he could transfer it over to Caelan’s cold body, maybe it would help a little.

Closing his eyes, Drayce prayed to the Goddess of Fire. Maybe she could fix him, maybe she couldn’t, but she was the only one he felt confident would listen to him. He’d met her and she supposedly liked him. Could she do this one tiny favor? Just fix Cael. Fix him and Drayce would give up his wings all over again.

He’d give up his life to see Caelan healed.

Please, don’t let Caelan die.

“What happened?” Vitor asked. He kept his voice pitched soft and low as if he didn’t want to distract Rayne as he worked.

“I’m not entirely sure,” Nina replied. “It all happened so fast, and then we were running.”

“That woman you told me about from Zastrad, Safa, she attacked us with New Rosanthe soldiers,” Adrian started, each word rough like they were being pulled out of a nightmare. “The king put up a barrier to protect us from bullets and then used tree roots to capture the soldiers. When Safa’s birds attempted to attack us, he called up this enormous wall of flames.” Adrian paused and Drayce looked up to see the man shaking his head, his eyes wide. “It was all so insane. There was barely any time to react. One second I was trying to think of how we could escape and the next, Safa was lunging through the flames and crashing into the king. I pulled her off and then…”

“What?” Eno snapped when Adrian didn’t immediately continue.

“I think…I think he stopped time.” His words took on an almost haunted quality that sent a chill along Drayce’s back.

“Stopped time?” Vitor repeated.

“Yeah, that was it. Everyone was frozen while we ran,” Nina confirmed. “We made it across the square and halfway down a block to my car when he coughed up blood and passed out. That was when everything began moving again.”

Drayce couldn’t move, could barely even think. It seemed like he wasn’t the only one. No one was speaking after that bombshell. Since when could Caelan fuck with time? Was that the gift he’d gotten from the Dead God?

Out of all the gods that Caelan had bonded with, the God of Time was the one he talked about the least. He even avoided questions about the god, preferring to deflect to Tula or Kaes or now even Caris.

But things had changed with the addition of Nyx, and it had nothing to do with Caelan’s special new hairstyle.

“It’s like he completely drained himself to cast that spell,” Rayne announced in a low, ragged voice. Drayce’s head snapped up to see Rayne still had his head bent over Caelan, eyes closed in concentration. “Everything is working, but it’s strained. I don’t know how else to describe it. If his lifeforce had a tank of fuel, there’s barely anything left of him. I’m trying…I’m trying to refill him and heal all these strained organs.”

“Can you use mine?” Drayce demanded. “I’m a dragon. You’ve know I’ve got plenty to spare. Can you take some of mine and give it to him?”

There were sounds of surprise behind him, but he didn’t care if Davi, Vitor, or Nina thought the news of his heritage was shocking. The only thing that mattered to him was Caelan’s life.

“I don’t think it works like that,” Rayne whispered. The man paused and licked his lips. “But I’ll think on it. If I can think of a way to do it, I’ll take you up on this offer. Right now, all I can do is pull what I can from the Goddess of Life and pour it back into him.”

Eno stepped up behind Rayne and placed a gentle hand on the top of his head. “Please, be careful. Don’t pour all of yourself into him as well. You know he needs you alive and fighting for his people.”

Rayne managed a small nod.

The bodyguard turned his attention to Drayce. “Come on. Let’s go downstairs and talk about Safa. Let Caelan rest and Rayne work.”

Drayce was about to argue that there was no way he was leaving Caelan’s side, but Rayne beat him to it.

“Let him stay,” Rayne countered. “I think Caelan is aware of his presence. At least, he seems to be resting deeply. I don’t want to disturb that with Drayce moving.”

“Got it,” Eno replied and glanced at Drayce. He smiled and tipped his head toward Rayne. “Keep an eye on him for me.”

Rayne made a noise like he was disagreeing, but Drayce nodded. Yes, he would look after Caelan and Rayne.

The rest of the group filed out of the room, leaving him and Rayne alone with Caelan. But they were gone for only a minute before the woman returned with a warm, damp cloth that she handed over to Drayce.

“I thought you might want to clean away the blood,” she murmured and disappeared out the door.

Sliding closer to the headboard, Drayce released Caelan’s hand and placed it on his chest but made sure that his leg was touching Caelan’s arm. His lover was not allowed to think for a second that Drayce had left him. Very carefully, he proceeded to wipe the blood from Caelan’s pale lips, from under his nose, and then from the corners of his eyes and down his temples.

When he was done, he flipped the cloth and refolded it to a clean section, and wiped it gently across his forehead, smoothing back his hair. “You need to start talking to me, Cael. You think we don’t know some dark shit is going on, but we do. You are not allowed to save the world without us. You are not allowed to leave us. Do you hear me? You’re not allowed to leave us.”

“He hears you. Keep talking,” Rayne instructed. Drayce stared at his companion and thought he spotted the smallest smile on Rayne’s thin lips. Could he hear something or feel Caelan’s emotions like this?

“If you don’t pull your head out of your ass, I’m telling your grandfather,” Drayce threatened. “Do you know how it would look if the King of Erya was scolded by his secret grandfather? And we both know Nori would fly right over here and give you a piece of his mind. That would be a disaster, because you know the second Nori left the Isle of Stone, Haru would be right on his tail. Once Haru hits the continent, we are never going to get him to leave. It’ll be utter chaos, and it will be all your fault.”

A low chuckle from Rayne stunned Drayce for a second.

“What? Can you hear his thoughts? What is he thinking?” Drayce demanded.

Rayne shook his head. His eyes were still closed, but his head was slightly cocked to the side as if he were straining to hear something. “I can’t read his thoughts, but I get flashes of his emotions. You’ve made him…grumpy.”

“Oh, I have not even begun to piss you off, Your Majesty,” Drayce countered, fighting his grin while unshed tears burned the backs of his eyes. A grumpy Caelan was better than this too-still, lifeless Caelan. “We haven’t gotten around to discussing the fact that you decided to replace me with Adrian Westergren. What the fuck were you thinking? The man is a freaking lunatic, and that was before I found out that he used to be a thief. Are you kidding me? You chose an ex-thief to replace me.”

Rayne gasped and Drayce looked up to see Caelan’s eyelashes flutter. His lips parted and moved so very slightly. He’d said something.

Drayce dropped the cloth he’d been rubbing across Caelan’s forehead and grabbed his hand in both of his as he leaned his ear down right by Cael’s lips.

“I didn’t catch that, Cael. What did you say?”

It came out a hoarse whisper. More air than sound, but Drayce heard it as clear as day.

“Idiot.”

A choked sob broke from Drayce’s throat and he pressed his kiss to Caelan’s chin. “Yes, I am.”

Drayce turned his face toward Rayne. The advisor’s eyes were now open, an expectant expression on his face. “He called me an idiot,” he announced in reply to the unspoken question.

Rayne bit his lower lip and nodded a couple of times. “That you are,” he choked out and closed his eyes, concentrating on healing their king.

Settling in closer to Caelan, Drayce proceeded to talk about whatever came to his mind. He kept talking just so Caelan could hear his voice. He said sweet things and he said things aimed to piss his lover off. Every once in a while, he’d see a little flicker of his eyelid or feel the tiniest squeeze of his hand. Enough so he knew that Caelan was there and listening to him.

He talked until his voice turned hoarse and he fell asleep with his head resting against the top of Caelan’s.

When he woke, he didn’t know how much time had passed. He glanced around to find a small lamp lit on a table across the room and the sun was gone from the other side of the shades. A soft grunt left him as he tried to sit up. Muscles everywhere were stiff and sore from how he’d been lying in the bed.

But as he lifted, his eyes met Cael’s bright-blue ones. He was awake and looked like he had been for a while now.

Drayce opened his mouth to shout with joy, but Caelan immediately slapped his free hand across Drayce’s lips. Caelan tilted his head to his other side and Drayce followed the motion. Stretched out on the other side of him, fast asleep, was Rayne. His glasses were slightly askew and his hair was mussed, but the advisor was out of it, each breath slipping from between parted lips.

Drayce giggled behind Caelan’s hand and Caelan rolled his eyes before dropping his hand to his chest.

Careful not to rock the bed, Drayce stretched out on the other side of his lover and smirked. “This is the only time I’m letting you be in bed with another man.”

“You’re so weird,” Caelan whispered, but it sounded like he was fighting back a laugh as well.

“You okay?”

Cael nodded, but his smile wasn’t as steady.

Drayce jerked his chin over toward Rayne. “Is he okay? I don’t know how long he worked on you after I passed out. I know I talked for a few hours.”

His friend nodded again. “He’s okay. I checked. He needs some rest.”

Drayce frowned. If Caelan was awake, they probably needed to gather everyone together and make plans. There was plenty of bad stuff that Caelan didn’t know about, and he had a feeling Caelan had some less-than-great news to share as well. “Should we wake him and gather the others? They’ll want to know you’re up.”

Caelan shook his head. “Eno just poked his head in a minute ago. I told him we’ll talk tomorrow morning. I want to sleep some more.”

Relief ripped through him, and he gave Caelan a shaky smile. “Okay.”

“Do you mind staying with me?”

Drayce was only too happy to snuggle in a little closer. He pressed a kiss to Caelan’s temple and another to the corner of his mouth. “I’m not letting you out of my sight again.”

ELEVEN

Eno Bevyn

“I have questions.”

The statement was out of Davi’s mouth before his butt even hit the chair.

Eno blinked for a second at the man across the table from him, his brain trying to catch up to too many things that had happened in the past several hours.

After Rayne and Drayce were settled on the second floor with Caelan, Eno had completed a sweep of the house to make sure that everything was secure while Nina left to ditch the car in case anyone from Safa’s group or even the Ilon government had spotted them on the road.

Once he was sure the place was safe for their king, he returned to the parlor, where Adrian explained everything that had happened while in the Shrine District, including what little they managed to learn at the temple for the God of Wisdom and Caelan’s sudden ability to stop time.

Eno should have known finding the godstone in Ilon wasn’t going to be that easy. He certainly hadn’t expected it to be such a tangled political mess.

Ilon had been their ally. The country had been their closest ally for decades. No, centuries. They had close trade relations, good cultural exchanges, and always helped each other out when there were problems with the Ordas.

How had things gone so horribly wrong?

When?

Eno could only shake his head at it. This was not something he could solve.

For now, his main concern was Safa and her attack on Caelan. She was walking free around Brightspire and reinforced with New Rosanthe soldiers. That meant she could go wherever the fuck she wanted and create endless amounts of chaos. He’d seen the damage she’d created in Temit, the innocent lives she stole. How many people were going to die in Brightspire because of her?

And would that finally wake up the leaders of Ilon and force them to end their alliance with New Rosanthe?

But all those fears and worries were chased away when Davi sat down opposite him at the small kitchen table. They’d just eaten a quick dinner of sandwiches that no one was in the mood for and Eno had checked on Caelan to find that he was awake, while the others were still asleep. It was better to leave them for now.

Giving him time at last to speak to his brother.

“I…I’ll try to answer whatever questions you have,” Eno replied in a sudden rush of nerves. Sitting so close, Eno took the chance to really look at the man’s features, comparing them to his own since he had no memory of his real mother and father. Yes, they had similarly shaped eyes and jawline. Davi’s hair was lighter in color, and he definitely had fewer wrinkles, but Eno was convinced that most of his wrinkles had shown up in the past six months, thanks to Rayne, Drayce, Caelan, and the gods.

“Have you always worn a beard?” Davi inquired. He was squinting intensely at Eno as if he were also inspecting his face.

Laughter exploded from Eno, and he rocked in his chair. Not the first question he’d been expecting from the man. Eno relaxed and rubbed one hand along his jaw. “No. The beard is new. I grew it while we were crossing Zastrad as protection against the elements and to blend in with the locals. When we returned to Stormbreak, I trimmed it but decided to keep it.”

“Huh,” Davi huffed, sitting back in his chair. He started to cross his arms over his chest, but then seemed to realize that he was about to mirror Eno’s position and dropped his hands to his lap.

“Was that it?”

“No! Of course not. I thought that was the easiest question.”

Eno smirked at his brother. “How did you hook up with Vitor?”

“What?” Davi choked, his eyes going wide as he sat up straight in his chair.

“Vitor. How did you end up working with him?” Eno repeated. He narrowed his eyes on his brother, trying to pick apart his strange reaction, but Davi relaxed again, shaking his head.

“Oh, that.” He sighed and gave a little wave of his hand. “He caught me trying to break into the orphanage where I grew up. I wanted to see my records. The people of Ilon are known for keeping meticulous records about everything. I wanted to know who my parents were, what city I was born in. That kind of stuff.”

“So, at that point, you didn’t suspect that you were from Erya? Or rather, New Rosanthe?”

Davi shook his head. “I still thought I was from Ilon.” He paused and a crooked smirk spread slowly across his lips. “Vitor was already in the building and heading toward the records when I made a big mess of things. The guards were coming for me, and I was trying to escape. He helped to cover for me but got hurt in the process. So, I went back and helped get him out at the same time.” Davi paused and the smile changed to something…softer. “Broke his damn leg. He was laid up for a while and I let him crash at my place.”

Eno rubbed his forehead, directing his eyes to the table. Was there something going on between his brother and Vitor? The man had to be at least fifteen, twenty years older. Unless it was a disguise. But still, Vitor was his boss. And what about Nina? It sounded like Davi had a thing for Nina too.

Nope. Nope. Nope.

This was not his business. Well, maybe a little bit. Davi was his brother. He was allowed to worry about his brother’s well-being. But it was way too early for him to interject his thoughts and opinions into Davi’s life.

“Vitor disappeared one day while I was at work,” Davi continued with his story. “I didn’t hear anything from him for months. I figured he went off to wherever he’d come from. He gave me this bullshit story about looking for a child he’d given up for adoption.” He leaned forward and narrowed his eyes on Eno. “Vitor can convincingly lie about a lot of shit, but I swear that man cannot convince anyone that he ever had a kid.”

Eno snorted. “I guess we all have our limitations.”

“True.” Davi shrugged. “Anyway, he showed up one night and told me that I didn’t have a file. I called bullshit. By then, his leg was healed and he helped me sneak into the orphanage again. We spent the entire night going through the files and breaking into the computers.”

“No file?”

Davi shook his head. “No file. But we found my name on a list with thirty other kids who’d arrived in the past decade from Erya. That’s how I discovered I was one of the kidnapped. I’ve been helping him ever since.”

“That’s…that’s insane.”

Davi placed his hands on the table between them. He stared at them and seemed to hesitate. Eno waited. He had questions too. A lot of them, but he’d just gotten a good chunk of Davi’s story. It was only fair to let the man ask a few questions.

“Have you been looking for me for a long time?” his brother almost whispered.

“Davi…” Eno stopped and shoved a hand through his hair, pain ripping through his chest.

“It’s okay if you haven’t. I mean, you’re the bodyguard for the king. That’s got to be pretty time-consuming. And you were in Zastrad, right? And—”

Eno half lunged across the table, covering both of Davi’s hands with one of his. “I didn’t know you existed.”

“What?”

“I don’t remember anything from before I was adopted. I thought I was an only child. I grew up an only child, living with an older couple who could never have a child of their own. It was about six months ago that I discovered that I was born in New Rosanthe and had a little brother,” Eno quickly explained. Davi jerked his hands in Eno’s and Eno slowly drew back, allowing his fingers to slide across the smooth surface to his side. “The person who told me was trying to make it look like I was a potential spy for New Rosanthe. I think she even wanted to get me to betray Caelan by intimating that she could hurt you if I didn’t cooperate.” Eno paused and licked his lips. “I swear, if I had known about you, I would have moved the heavens to find you.”

Davi lifted his eyes, his smile becoming crooked. “I guess it’s only fair. I didn’t find out that I had a brother until recently. It’s probably for the best that we didn’t know.”

“Why?”

“We both would have spent a lot of time miserable searching for each other.”

Eno snorted. “Okay. Good point.”

“But here we are. Found each other in a relatively short amount of time, and we’ve got years ahead of us to spend—”

“Shhhh!” Eno hissed, wildly waving both of his hands at his brother to stop his words. “Don’t jinx us!”

“Are you serious? Are you that superstitious?” Davi laughed.

“Not normally, but I’ve seen and experienced some really fucked-up shit in the past several months. I try not to do or say anything that would tempt the gods into screwing with my life.”

Davi arched one eyebrow at him and smirked. “Okay. You’ve got a good point. We live for today.”

“Other than the recent craziness, have you had a good life in Brightspire?” Eno asked, preferring to keep their conversation away from death and gods.

His brother relaxed in his chair and gave another one-shoulder shrug. “Not bad. Not great. Just one of those where I’m stuck in a rut with no way of doing anything different. At least, not until I met Vitor.”

Eno chewed on the inside of his mouth. He had no idea how to feel about this Vitor being in his brother’s life. Every warning bell was clanging in his head that this man was dangerous and trouble, but Eno couldn’t say a word. How would Davi react to tales of him crossing the Ordas on foot with only three other people, fighting New Rosanthe soldiers while on the run through Sirelis, and nearly dying from a dragon attack…twice?

Yeah, there was no way Davi would allow him to be anywhere near Caelan if he knew the entire story.

So, if Davi wanted to spend his time helping Vitor, Eno was happy for him. Even if he was also a little scared.

“Now that you know the truth about your heritage…” Eno started and then paused, suddenly unsure if he wanted to know the answer to his question. But he pushed on. “Are you planning to remain in Brightspire? Or do you think that you might be interested in coming to Stormbreak?”

Davi tossed his head back and laughed. “Are you kidding me?”

“What?”

“Of course I want out of Brightspire!” Davi leaned forward so that his chest was nearly touching the table. The overhead light gilded his brown hair, giving some strands a blond shine. “One of the last things our parents did for us before they died was to deliver us to Stormbreak. That’s where they thought we’d be safe. That’s where they wanted us to be. That’s where I want to be.”

“Excellent.”

“But…”

Eno sighed loudly. “How did I know there’d be a catch?”

“I’m not the only kid who was stolen away from Erya. I want to help Vitor find the others. Maybe they’re unhappy here, too. Maybe not. But I feel like they all deserve to know the truth and be given a choice.”

He couldn’t argue with that. Slowly, Eno nodded. “I get it.” He might want his brother in Stormbreak, where he liked to think he would be safer, but his brother had his own life and his own calling he had to heed. Eno respected that as well as his drive to help others like himself.

“Plus, I’m a local. I’ve grown up here my entire life. I can blend better than anyone Vitor might send from Erya. I know countless secrets about this city. I’ve got an edge that can help so many people.”

“What about your family? Do you have any family here?”

Davi shook his head. “I spent most of my life in the orphanage or school. It’s not like in Erya or Caspagir. Kids don’t get adopted here. You get shuffled around to different schools, different areas of focus until you graduate and get sent into the workforce.”

“Friends?”

“Not really. No one I’m particularly close with.”

“I’m sor—”

“Don’t give me any of that shit,” Davi cut him off. “My life isn’t your fault, and I’m not looking for your sympathy. Trust me, I know it could be a lot worse. It wasn’t horrible. I wasn’t abused or starved. The only thing I know is that this shouldn’t have been my life. I should have had an entirely different life in Stormbreak, possibly with my brother. And I’m not the only one like that. There are a shit-ton of people who were stolen from Erya who just might feel the same way.”

Eno held up his hands in surrender. “All right, all right. You’ve got me convinced. I won’t put up a fight, even if I’d rather you be in Stormbreak with me.”

Davi narrowed his eyes on him and straightened in his chair. “Really? Is that where you’re going to be? Because it sounds to me that you’re traveling all around the globe with the king? Am I going to head to Stormbreak only to hear about you in New Rosanthe or over in Caspagir?”

A soft sigh slipped from Eno’s lips. “Honestly, I think the only person in the world who might be more homesick for Stormbreak than me is the king.” Eno closed his eyes against the unexpected burn of tears. “We’ve been traveling for so long. He lost his mother, and he never got a chance to truly mourn for her. He misses his people. He misses his home. I know it even though he never says the words. We all want to go home and for this to be over.”

“But you can’t…”

Eno shook his head. “Not until it’s over. Not until all of Thia has been made safe from the threat of New Rosanthe and the mad goddess.”

“And then you’ll return to Stormbreak,” Davi supplied.

Eno nodded. “Happily.”

“Or…you could always help me for a while.”

Eno’s heart stopped in his chest and he coughed, trying to suck in a little air. “What?”

Davi laid both of his hands flat on the table and leaned forward, a wicked grin on his lips. “Look, I know we’re close to getting all the answers we need to break this kidnapping scheme. If we’re not done when you and the king finish saving the world, you could always come back to Brightspire. You could help me for a while. It probably won’t take more than another year. Two, tops. We’d work together. It would be great. I’m sure the king would give you some time off to help me on this mission. Afterward, we’d go to Stormbreak together.”

Eno could only sit there. He didn’t breathe. Didn’t blink. His brain was too full of his brother’s suggestion. Working with his brother. Saving so many Erya children and returning them home again. Finally getting to know the last blood relative he had in the world.

But living and working in Brightspire with Davi meant leaving Rayne behind. It meant handing over the safety of the king to someone else. For longer than he could recall, those two things were the center of his entire world. How could he walk away from his lover and his duty?

Yes, it might be for only a year or two.

And he had no doubt that Rayne would say that he understood, but his heart screamed at the idea of being away from Rayne for that long.

“Whoa! Geez! Breathe, Eno. I didn’t mean to break you,” Davi said with a cackle.

“Sorry,” Eno suddenly gasped. “I just…I never thought you’d suggest that.”

Davi flashed him a crooked smile and laughing eyes. “I get it. Don’t stress. I know you’ve got a lot of things going. I’m proud of you for being the bodyguard to the king. And you and Rayne; it’s serious?”

“Very.”

“You gonna propose?”

Eno slapped his hand over his heart like he was having an attack. “Can you stop with the shocks? I can’t take it.”

Davi snorted and laughed. “Gods, you’re crazy.” He held up a hand before Eno could snap at him. “Okay. One day at a time. I get it.”

“Are you married?” Eno suddenly asked. Maybe he’d totally read things wrong with Nina and Vitor. His brother could be happily married with kids while acting as a spy on the side.

He quickly shook his head. “Nope.” He didn’t elaborate and Eno didn’t want to dig. Yet.

“Think about it. I’d like to work with you. Spend some time getting to know my big brother.” He paused and shrugged. “But if it has to wait until I move to Stormbreak, I’ll wait.” His grin grew. “Vitor already got me my Erya paperwork stating that I’m an Erya citizen. I also have a passport. He used his personal address. I can go home anytime I want.”

The tears returned and this time Eno had to rub his eyes to get rid of them. His throat burned and he couldn’t talk for a second. Home. He wanted to go home, and he wanted his brother there waiting for him.

He was still rubbing his eyes when he heard Davi’s chair scrape across the floor. There were no sounds of footsteps, but arms suddenly closed around him, wrapping about his shoulders. A cheek rested on the top of his head.

“We’ll be home soon,” Davi whispered.

And Eno desperately clung to that thought. They would all be home soon.

TWELVE

Caelan Talos

For a long time, Caelan couldn’t speak. He didn’t know what to say.

The past hour had been spent sitting in a room with all the people he’d brought with him to Ilon along with Vitor and his crew. Adrian had relayed what they’d learned from his friend Diogo as well as from their visit to the shrine and the encounter with Safa.

Vitor and Davi added what they’d learned about the kidnappings and the clear link to the Ilon government.

Now all he could do was sit there.

He’d counted on the centuries-long alliance with Ilon. This was supposed to be the cakewalk. The easy trip. The one quick and painless thing he faced in this entire debacle.

They’d betrayed Erya.

They’d betrayed Damardor.

And they’d even betrayed New Rosanthe.

“It doesn’t matter,” Caelan finally announced when he could draw an even breath.

Of course, his words managed to knock the air out of the room.

“Are you shitting me?” Drayce shouted. He jumped to his feet from where he’d been sitting on the love seat, next to Caelan. He towered over Cael, his entire body trembling. “They’ve fucked us over. They’re supposed to be our friends, and they fucked us!”

“Is Erya just going to let that stand? You’re going to let them walk all over us?” Adrian added, leaning forward from where he was seated on the couch opposite him.

Rayne shifted in the chair on his right, but Caelan reached out and placed a hand over his, stopping him.

“We weren’t allied with Zastrad when we entered the country, and I still bonded with the God of Time. We weren’t allied with the dragons of the Isle of Stone, but I still met with the Goddess of Fire and won her gift.” He paused and shook his head. “I don’t need the approval of the Ilon government to meet with the God of Wisdom and bond with him. Right now, when we are faced with the risk of utter destruction at the hands of the Goddess of the Hunt, countries and governments don’t matter.”

“I’m not going to pretend to understand any of this god stuff. It’s just insane. But what about after you’ve defeated the goddess and this Safa? What about Ilon then?” The question came from the man who turned out to be Eno’s brother.

Caelan lifted his eyes to Davi. He wasn’t sure what Davi saw, but he took a step backward, his face paling a little in the early-morning light. Maybe it was the new crackle of energy in the air. Or maybe the others could also hear the laughter that echoed through his head from all the gods.

“The leaders of Ilon should drop to their knees and pray I don’t survive the battle. Because if I do, I will make them pay for the decades of pain and anguish they have caused my people,” Caelan swore. Besides, he would have defeated a goddess at that point. Breaking another country’s government couldn’t possibly be all that difficult.

Vitor rose from the seat he’d claimed opposite Rayne and bowed deeply to him. “I promise that by the time you complete your business with the Goddess of the Hunt, I will have all the proof you need of the involvement of Ilon’s government in the kidnapping of our children.”

Caelan nodded and released Rayne’s hand, placing his own in his lap. “Regardless of what you find or don’t find, I want you and all your people out of the country by the time I am in Stormbreak.”

Vitor bowed his head. “It will be done, Your Majesty.”

He then turned his head toward his advisor. “We’ll discuss this further and map out extensive plans. I want this done carefully. I want the information that we find spread throughout Thia. What we’ve learned won’t be lost with us.”

“Yes, Your Majesty,” Rayne agreed with the tiniest smile.

Yes, they were both learning. Caelan was pissed beyond belief and wanted to march straight to Parliament Plaza and destroy every building he saw. But that was the old, impulsive Caelan. The one who made the mistake of talking from his broken heart. He would think this through and discuss it with his trusted advisor. They would do what was best for Erya. No more mistakes.

“Now that we’ve got the whole ‘not grinding Ilon into the dirt’ thing settled, can we talk about the other big thing?” Drayce demanded, his glare directed straight at Caelan. “When the hell did you learn to stop time?”

“I didn’t,” Caelan replied, his tone clipped and sharp. This was not something he wanted to discuss. Ever.

“But—” Drayce began again.

“I didn’t. I can’t. What happened in the Shrine District was a one-time thing. Consider it an unexpected gift from Nyx. It won’t—can’t be repeated.”

“But if Nyx—”

“Drop it. I will not discuss the Dead God,” Caelan cut him off a second time. Only, he used the tone he reserved for when he was the King of Erya. Not simply Caelan. He didn’t like pulling rank on his friends, but talking about Nyx was dangerous territory. It led to things like confessing his own problems with time, and they couldn’t know about that yet.

If not now, then when? Nyx whispered in his ear.

When I say so, Caelan mentally snarled at the god. He knew he was being irrational, but he didn’t care. This secret was too heavy, too deadly to speak of now. He had to wait until he had a better plan.

The silence of the room was suffocating, no one directly looking at him. His refusal to speak of the God of Time wasn’t out of the ordinary at this point, but his unwillingness was growing more glaring by the day.

Not surprisingly, Drayce was the one to attempt to break the ice that had formed in the room. He might have been taken aback by Caelan’s brusqueness, but he wouldn’t let it stop him. He flopped onto the empty cushion and offered Caelan a crooked grin that he was only too happy to return.

“So, if punishing Ilon for being complete dick bags is on hold for now, what’s next? Do we confront the Ilon government about their new relationship with the Empire? Try to find the prime minister? Because you know, I really want to tell them they can go fuck themselves.”

Caelan was fighting very hard to hold on to his laugh. It wasn’t helped when Rayne sighed next to him.

“Your Majesty, if you ever decide to make Drayce your consort, can you at least consider having his tongue cut out first? It would save you a great number of embarrassing incidents and scandals,” Rayne said heavily, though it wasn’t hard to see that he was also trying to bring everything back to normal.

Drayce sucked in a harsh breath, while Caelan’s brain was briefly stuck on the idea of marrying his lover. Why had that never occurred to him? Drayce broke through the logjam in his brain by leaning around him and flipping Rayne off.

“First off, you’re only thinking of the work that would save you,” Caelan murmured. “And second, we both know you’d have to cut off his hands too. Drayce would just learn sign language.”

“Quite right, Your Majesty. Better to not marry him at all,” Rayne agreed dryly.

“Asshole,” Drayce snapped.

Caelan bumped their shoulders together, getting Drayce to look up at him. “Idiot,” he whispered, putting all the love he felt for Drayce into that single word. It worked. Drayce relaxed and melted against him, a smug smile on his face.

He didn’t care if Drayce was impulsive and said things he shouldn’t. He loved the dragon’s protective streak. His heart was enormous and pure. Now that Rayne had planted the thought, Caelan couldn’t think of anyone else he’d rather have at his side for the rest of his life.

He directed one last smirk over at Rayne, grateful for the brief distraction and the dour mood breaker.

“I think we’ll worry about my wedding after yours,” Caelan teased. Rayne coughed, seeming to choke on the air, while Eno tossed his head back and laughed.

“You are all so weird,” Adrian muttered under his breath and shook his head.

“But to Drayce’s question: What’s next? We find the godstone. We can’t defeat the Goddess of the Hunt until after I’ve bonded with the God of Wisdom.” Caelan turned his attention to Vitor, Nina, and Davi. “The godstone is not in the Shrine District as we expected. It’s somewhere in the city, but I can’t get an exact location. What’s the hardest place to get into in all of Brightspire?”

“Parliament Plaza,” Davi answered immediately.

“Even before the appearance of New Rosanthe?” Rayne inquired.

Davi nodded. “It has always had the most restricted access.”

“But it was never impossible,” Vitor interjected slowly.

“He’s right,” Nina agreed. “It wasn’t that hard to get me installed within the government and I’ve been nearly everywhere. The security is good, but I can think of more complicated places to enter in Stormbreak.” Her eyes darted over to Caelan, and a light blush stained her cheeks.

Caelan offered a smile of reassurance. This was her job. She needed to be able to sneak into secure locations without getting caught. He turned his attention to Vitor. “What else?”

“That’s it, really,” Davi said with a shrug. “There’s just your usual banks and museums that have high security to protect wealth and rare art, but that’s it. Nothing that stands out.”

“You’re sure that the godstone is here in the city?” Eno asked. Caelan lifted his gaze to his bodyguard and gave him a look. Eno grinned and held up a hand. “I’m not doubting your ability to sense the gods. Trying to narrow down our options. Is there a place that you feel it more strongly?”

He shook his head. “I felt the first tingle of power when we crossed the bridge over Whitgami River. Once the bus was off the bridge, the energy from the God of Wisdom was sort of everywhere around me. It didn’t get stronger or weaker as we crossed through the neighborhoods heading to the Shrine District.”

“So, the godstone is everywhere,” Rayne murmured.

Drayce snorted next to him. “How is that even possible? It’s not like the godstone can be broken up into tiny pieces, right?”

The gods in Caelan’s head didn’t speak, but there was a shudder that seemed to ripple through all four of them. “No. It can’t be broken up.”

“Then the power seeped,” Rayne whispered.

Caelan’s head snapped to his advisor. “What?”

Rayne frowned and stared ahead of him, but his gaze was unfocused, as if he were lost to his own thoughts. “The power is everywhere. How can it get everywhere without us being able to see it? It’s not above our heads. You’d be able to spot it.” His eyes suddenly jumped to Vitor. “What’s under the city?”

Vitor stiffened and straightened even further in his chair. “I beg your pardon?”

“Under Brightspire, what’s down there?”

Caelan nodded. It made sense. Underground was an excellent place to hide the godstone. They’d already encountered that with the Fire Stone. It had been hidden under what was the abandoned Hayashi manor. Other than being watched by the Takahashi, no one had taken an interest in it, and no one would have guessed that the property protected a godstone.

“I…I don’t know. I don’t think anything is under the city,” Vitor stammered.

“You’re sure?”

“There’s nothing down there,” Davi confirmed.

“Really? You’ve seen it? You’ve been under the city? Walked in the sewers?” Rayne prodded.

“No, but—”

“What about underground parking? How deep does it go?”

“Just one level,” Vitor murmured.

Rayne continued to push, and Caelan watched as both Vitor and Davi’s expressions glazed over. “You’re sure? What about tunnels? A subway?”

“There’s nothing down there,” Davi repeated.

Vitor nodded. “There’s nothing down there.”

Caelan looked at Nina, who shrugged, staring very confused at him. “Really, there’s nothing down there.”

Something about their answer was off. They sounded almost robotic, as if they weren’t thinking about their answer. It was what they were programmed to say.

Caelan glanced over at Rayne to see his brow furrowed.

“What’s going on?” Eno growled. “Have they been brainwashed?”

“What?” Davi gasped. “That’s fucking ridiculous.”

“Forgive me, Lord Bevyn, but that’s impossible for me,” Vitor added.

A soft sigh lifted from Caelan as he pushed to his feet. “No, I’m afraid it’s not.” He crossed to where Vitor was sitting and placed his hand on the man’s stiff shoulder. “Close your eyes. I want you to think about what’s under the city. Imagine you were going to climb into the sewers.”

As Caelan spoke, he gathered up a touch of Tula’s gift and tried to gently press into Vitor’s mind. He didn’t want to go too far, invading his privacy. The man’s brain held countless secrets. Yes, it was for the good and protection of Erya, but Caelan had little doubt that there were some things he was better off not knowing. At the very least, he didn’t need the distraction.

The roadblock snapped up almost immediately in his thoughts. There was nothing else. Just a massive stone wall within Vitor’s mind that screamed that there was nothing under the city. It didn’t feel like it was one of Vitor’s thoughts, but something imposed upon him.

Caelan pulled the power back and moved his hand from Vitor’s shoulder. “How long have you been in Brightspire?”

“On this trip, three weeks,” the Gray Fox immediately replied.

“And you’ve made many trips?”

“Countless. Cumulatively, I’ve probably spent a few years here in Brightspire.”

And Davi had been here almost his entire life. Caelan walked over to the younger man and repeated the test only to find the same wall.

“Davi, think about your favorite food,” Caelan asked. Instantly, the wall disappeared, and he was hit with images of deep-dish pizza. “Think about where you grew up.” The pizza disappeared and he was lost in a sea of faded images of an austere institute crowded with kids in matching uniforms.

He removed his hand from Davi’s shoulder and returned to his spot on the couch next to Drayce. His lover squeezed his knee, a concerned look in his eyes, but he didn’t speak.

“It’s not quite brainwashing,” Caelan started to explain slowly. He paused and shook his head. “I’d wager that it’s a result of exposure to the power of the godstone. Almost like a type of protection. The longer you’re here, the thicker the wall becomes. It convinces a person that there is nothing under the city. You don’t think about going down there. It just doesn’t exist.”

“Will that happen to all of us while we’re here?” Adrian demanded.

Caelan frowned at him. “Very likely. At least to you, Drayce, and Eno.” He smirked over at his advisor. “Rayne and I might escape it since we’re connected to a god or two.”

“Or I might hold out for an extra day or two while you’re left untouched alone,” Rayne murmured.

“So, it looks like we need to move fast in this before the God of Wisdom convinces us that there’s no such thing as an underground when it comes to Brightspire,” Adrian muttered.

“But there is nothing underground,” Davi argued.

“What kind of fucking God of Wisdom convinces people of lies?” Eno snarled, his arms folded tightly over his chest.

A dangerous one.

At the very least, this god was desperate to protect himself, but Caelan couldn’t begin to guess as to what it was. How long had this barrier spell been in effect? He couldn’t tell. It would make sense if it had kicked in once Safa and New Rosanthe appeared. Maybe it was a new development, and Lore was only trying to guard against the reach of the Goddess of the Hunt.

Either way, Adrian was right. They needed to move quickly on this. And it looked like they’d be doing their search to the entrance without the help of their insiders.

But he had a feeling there might be one person who knew something about the godstone.

“We need to find the prime minister.”

THIRTEEN

Rayne Laurent

It was well after midnight when Eno shuffled into the bedroom they were sharing, but that was to be expected. Every moment they weren’t in deep discussion about Caelan, New Rosanthe, and the godstone, the bodyguard was attempting to make up for lost time with his brother. Rayne’s heart ached at the thought of them trying to cram a lifetime of conversations into a couple of days.

And all with the sharp knowledge that they could be heading in different directions very soon.

Eno needed to remain with Caelan as they fought their way to the godstone and finally to the Goddess of the Hunt.

Davi needed to continue his work here in Brightspire, trying to uncover the truth about the lost children.

Rayne had briefly considered suggesting that Davi accompany them, but there was no question that they were heading toward almost certain death. Eno wouldn’t want his brother anywhere near that, even if it meant they got to spend more time together.

His lover huffed a laugh as his eyes skimmed over the array of papers and maps that covered the bed in front of Rayne. “It looks like you’ve been keeping busy. Find anything that will help us?”

A heavy sigh tumbled from him as he started to gather up the papers spread around him. “Not really.”

Eno’s hand reached out and suddenly covered his own, drawing Rayne’s gaze up to his face. “If you want to keep working, I can sack out on the couch.”

“Never. I want you in this bed next to me. Always.” The words were harsh and fierce, trembling with old emotions and new fears.

Eno smiled. “I was suggesting it for only one night.”

“And one night is too long.”

Still holding his hand, Eno cupped Rayne’s face with his free one, pulling him forward into a slow, draining kiss that smoothed over those new fears and stoked the love that burned so brightly between them. Rayne’s lips parted on a happy sigh, letting himself sink into the heat and feel of his lover.

How had this man become his everything? His entire life had been about learning all he could to be the best, most knowledgeable advisor for Caelan. He spent all his energy studying and cultivating his network of contacts and informants.

But then Eno had stepped into his life, and every moment they were together, he could feel himself getting pulled toward this man. He was happiness and security, frustration and fear, lust and hunger. He was a feeling of completeness Rayne hadn’t known he was missing.

His fears had changed over the last several months from not being what Eno wanted to not having enough time, though an eternity wouldn’t be enough time in Rayne’s opinion.

A low groan rumbled up Eno’s chest and the blood rushed from Rayne’s brain to his groin. Their tongues dueled for supremacy, but Rayne was putting up only a token fight. He wanted to submit to Eno’s strength and hungry desires. For just a little while, he wanted to hand himself over and let Eno possess him completely.

Eno pressed closer, placing his knee on the mattress between Rayne’s legs. Paper crinkled under him and he immediately retreated. Not only was he the sweetest of lovers, but he was also very respectful of Rayne’s work.

But right now, Rayne didn’t want respectful. He didn’t want to worry about his work or the crown or even the world ending. He wanted Eno and that was it.

As Eno moved backward, Rayne swiped both hands across the comforter, shoving all the myriad of papers and maps to the floor. Eno stood staring at the mess, his lips parted in shock. Grinning broadly, Rayne wrapped his hands in Eno’s black T-shirt and pulled the man on top of him.

Bedsprings squealed and groaned at the sudden addition of Eno’s mass, causing them both to cringe. The entire house had to have heard that horrendous noise. They both lifted their gazes to each other and giggled.

“Fuck, that was loud,” Eno swore in a low voice.

“Just a bit,” Rayne muttered and then pushed it out of his mind. Eno was half lying on top of him, the feeling of his muscular body and amazing heat teasing him. He needed more. He needed Eno closer.

Tightening his hand in Eno’s shirt, Rayne rolled onto his back, pulling Eno the rest of the way onto him. The bed squeaked and complained. While not as loud, it was still a startling sound that halted them a second time.

Eno braced a hand next to Rayne’s head, his lips pursed in such a way that Rayne was sure the man was trying hard not to laugh. “I don’t remember this bed being so loud last night.”

“That’s because when you came to bed last night, you just fell into it like a beached whale and didn’t move again until morning,” Rayne grumbled.

“Feeling neglected?”

“Never, but I’m smart enough to know we must take advantage of the rare opportunities we have.”

“That’s my brilliant man,” Eno purred. He started to lean down, his weight shifting as his lips drew closer to Rayne’s.

And a bedspring released a high-pitched moan like a banshee.

Eno stopped, his lips mere inches away from Rayne’s, and began snickering. “Rayne—”

“Do not say we can’t!” Rayne hissed. He locked every muscle in his entire body, fighting to keep from moving and making more noise.

“I didn’t say that. My only worry is that we’re going to disturb the entire house.” One corner of Eno’s mouth tilted up in a wicked grin. “I can keep your mouth busy enough to not bother anyone else, but this bed is another matter. I want deep inside of you, Rayne, and that’s not a quiet thing.”

Rayne clenched his teeth to hold in a whimper of need as it shot through his bloodstream. “Floor. Floor. We’ll move to the floor,” he suggested. He pushed at Eno, moving the larger man a few inches off him, ignoring the sounds the stupid bed was making.

“I’m not fucking you on the floor,” Eno grumbled.

“Why not? You’ve fucked me in a bed, tent, a shower, and even the couch in my apartment.”

Eno grinned. “I’m happy to see you covered in rug burn, but I’m worried about either one of us getting up off the floor afterward. These last few months have been hard on us both, and we’re not as young as we used to be.”

“Screw you! Thirty-one is not old!”

That had Eno flopping onto his back, laughter pouring from his lips. “I wasn’t saying that!” he choked out between thick guffaws. “You’re killing me.”

Growling to himself, Rayne rolled out of the bed. This wasn’t fucking happening. It was the first time that he and Eno couldn’t quite get in sync. The bed wasn’t helping matters, but he had a feeling that his lover had his mind elsewhere, which was fine, if a little physically frustrating. Rayne should have been thinking about other things as well. Sex could wait for another time.

Even with the squeal of the springs for warning, Rayne was still surprised by Eno. Strong hands grabbed his arms and turned him around. Before he could even blink, his face and chest were pressed to the wall. A second later, Eno stepped up behind him, his strong body lining up perfectly so that he could feel every hard inch of him.

“You didn’t let me finish,” Eno whispered. His hot breath brushed across his ear and the tip of his tongue stroked along Rayne’s earlobe, sending a shiver through his entire body. “I have something even more fun in mind than the floor.”

Oh, fuck yes. Whatever Eno had in mind, Rayne was willing and ready.

Hands moved to Rayne’s waist and plucked at his shirt, pulling it out of where it was tucked into his pants. Once it was free, hot, rough palms slid up across his bare chest, sending the most delicious frisson of awareness through his body. Nimble fingers pinched his nipples, wringing free a gasp.

Rayne kept one hand pressed to the wall for balance and reached back with the other to grip Eno’s hip, pulling him in tighter. Eno thrust against his ass so that he could feel his hard-on digging into his cheeks. But it wasn’t enough. There were still too many clothes separating them, and Rayne needed Eno inside of him.

Teeth bit on the side of Rayne’s neck and he let out a whine high-pitched enough to provide admirable competition for the bed.

“What do you need, baby?”

Rayne released Eno’s hip to snag one of his hands. He dragged it down to cup his own hard dick straining the front of his jeans. “Fuck me. Fuck me hard.”

Eno’s large hand clamped on him and stroked him roughly through his pants. Pleasure streaked so sharply through his body, Rayne swore he saw stars. He wasn’t going to last. Sweat had broken out across his skin and his dick was throbbing in time with his racing heart. He needed to come now, but he wanted to feel Eno stretching him, filling his body first.

“Eno,” he moaned. He turned his head to press his cheek against the paint of the wall. If he could just cool his body a little bit, he might regain some modicum of control.

“Then we need to get you ready. Give me your glasses,” Eno replied. The man’s controlled, no-nonsense tone stomped on so many of Rayne’s buttons. There was something in his brain that snapped off the second Eno got bossy in the bedroom with him.

With trembling fingers, Rayne plucked his glasses off his face and held them out for Eno. The moment they were in his hands, Eno stepped away and Rayne cried out. He didn’t want to lose this feeling of being crushed into the wall.

“Get undressed. I’ll get the lube,” Eno commanded.

Rayne stood frozen, watching as Eno turned toward their bags. As if suddenly fearful that sex wouldn’t happen unless he followed Eno’s orders to the letter, Rayne ripped his shirt off over his head. He shucked his pants and underwear at the same time. He wobbled a bit when he shifted from one foot to the other, peeling away socks.

When Eno turned back to him with the bottle of lube in hand, Rayne was leaning with his shoulders on the wall, his breathing fast and fractured. His hard dick jutted out in front of him as if it were reaching for Eno. He could only imagine what kind of debauched picture he made as the grin on Eno’s lips widened.

The second Eno was within reach, Rayne grabbed at Eno’s shirt and jerked it up over his head. Eno crashed into him. The combination of their hot skin meeting while the cold wall pressed into Rayne’s spine left him hissing. Every sense was on overload. There wasn’t a coherent thought in his head. It was all blind need and hunger.

Eno twisted his fingers in his hair and captured his mouth in a violent kiss. Their teeth clacked against each other, but Rayne still couldn’t get close enough, taste enough of this mouth. He wanted to devour him, body and soul.

With a sudden snarl, Eno jerked away enough so he could flip Rayne around to face the wall. There was a plastic snap of the cap and Rayne shuddered. At last.

A slick finger rubbed across his hole once before pressing inside. There was a brief burn, and then pleasure rippled through him.

“Don’t tease me. More,” Rayne demanded through clenched teeth.

“Shhh,” Eno murmured, placing kisses along one shoulder. “No matter how you beg me, I will always be careful with you. I will never hurt my sweet Rayne.”

After just a couple of strokes, Eno added a second finger, stretching him. Rayne shifted his stance, trying to take him deeper, but Eno grabbed his hip, holding him still as he continued to slowly work him. No matter what Rayne said or did, his lover remained in complete control.

“Please, Eno. Please…I can’t…” He reached down and closed his fingers around his own leaking dick. He felt so close already.

“I’ve got you,” Eno said gruffly, his voice growing thick with desire. Eno’s fingers left him, and Rayne whimpered. Behind him was the telltale jingle of Eno’s belt buckle and his zipper being opened. Oh gods, Eno was still half-dressed. Why did that suddenly make everything hotter? Rayne was so far from rational thought, nothing mattered anymore.

The lube bottle opened again and then he could finally feel the blunt head of Eno’s cock pressing at his entrance. Rayne moaned, not caring who could hear him in the house, as Eno entered him. He moved so damn slow, allowing Rayne to revel in the feel of every inch of him. When he filled Rayne to the very hilt, Eno held Rayne and pressed his face to his neck.

“I love you,” Eno whispered. “Love you so damn much.”

Rayne squeezed his eyes shut against the sudden burn of tears and swallowed hard. “I’m nothing without you.”

Eno chuckled and slowly pulled back. “You’re my everything,” he replied and thrust hard inside of Rayne.

A howl of pleasure and pain rose in Rayne, and he barely managed to bite down on his arm to muffle the sound as Eno hammered inside of him. His world was burning to just sharp sensations that were combining into a building feeling of ecstasy. Hot sweaty skin, cool wall, Eno’s groans of pleasure in his ear, and the delicious stretch of their bodies moving together. It was too much.

Rayne gave in to the building orgasm, shuttling his hand along his cock. His body tightened around Eno, and lightning struck. His cries were mostly muffled on his arm, but there was nothing to quiet the slap of their skin as Eno pounded into him a few more times before crying out as well.

Arms tightened on him, making it nearly impossible to drag in a breath. Eno held him like he wanted to pull him into his body, and Rayne would have willingly gone. He’d be only too happy to get lost in this man.

“Fuck,” Eno groaned. He pressed his forehead to Rayne’s shoulder while his pants gusted hot breaths across Rayne’s sweat-slicked skin. “I don’t think my legs can hold me.”

“Mine either,” Rayne agreed.

All too quickly, Eno pulled free of his body. He hated to lose that connection, but his lover was already ushering him onto the squeaking bed. Eno grabbed one of their T-shirts from the floor and wiped away the cum that coated Rayne’s hand and was leaking from his body.

When he was at least passably clean, Eno stretched out in the bed next to him and pulled him in close. Rayne rested his head on Eno’s chest and closed his eyes. His lover’s heart raced under his ear, putting a smile on his lips.

“Better than the floor?” Eno teased.

“I wouldn’t know. You’ve never fucked me on the floor. I can’t do a fair comparison.”

Eno snorted and threaded his fingers through Rayne’s sweaty hair. “When we’re home, I’ll fuck you on the floor in the middle of your office. That way every time you look up from your desk, your eyes will go directly to the spot where you shouted my name and lost your mind.”

Rayne laughed and turned his head so he could sink his teeth into Eno’s nipple, earning a sharp yelp. “Evil bastard.”

“Ow!” Eno cried. He squeezed Rayne a little tighter and Rayne released him, pressing a kiss to the abused bit of flesh.

Sighing happily to himself, Rayne closed his eyes and relaxed against his lover, letting himself sink into this moment for a few seconds longer. He needed to find clothes and gather up those papers before he drifted off to sleep, but he wasn’t ready to move yet.

“Did you know Davi is already a citizen of Erya?” Eno inquired, seemingly out of the blue. Of course, Rayne suspected that Davi wasn’t far from Eno’s thoughts right now.

He smiled to himself. “Actually, I did. I asked Vitor last night what paperwork needed to be completed for Davi in the event that he had to make a quick escape from Ilon. Everything has been taken care of.”

Eno snorted. “I should have known. Always two steps ahead.”

“Not even close, but I like that you believe it about my abilities.”

“I’m struggling to wrap my head around the fact that I have a brother and it’s Davi. We’ve talked for hours, but he’s still a stranger to me. I want to immediately send him to Stormbreak, get him out of this mess with Vitor and Ilon, but…I know how I’d feel if some ass butted into my life and started telling me what to do.”

Rayne shifted so that he was leaning up on one elbow to look into Eno’s worried eyes. “I imagine he’s very much like you. He doesn’t want anyone protecting him. Plus, he’s invested in helping find the missing Erya children. You have to respect what he wants to do with his life.”

“I know. I do.” Eno paused, his eyes drifting to where Rayne’s hand was resting on the middle of his chest. He worried his bottom lip with his teeth before he finally admitted, “He asked me to stay here. To help him here. After we got the thing with the Goddess of the Hunt settled.”

Rayne stiffened and he knew Eno felt it, despite his attempts to hide his reaction to this news. Their bodies were plastered together. There was no way Eno missed it. But how could he not react? Eno leaving as Caelan’s bodyguard. Would they ever see each other again?

Did Rayne even have a right to ask him to stay?

Davi was his brother. It was natural for Eno to want to remain with his family.

“Hey,” Eno said gently. He cupped the side of Rayne’s face, tilting his head so they were staring into each other’s eyes. “I’m going to tell him no. Even if it is for only a year or two, I can’t do it. I can’t leave Caelan, and I definitely can’t leave you.”

“But he’s your brother.”

“And you’re the other half of my soul.”

Closing his eyes, Rayne leaned into his touch. “As long as I know you’re coming back, I think I can tolerate a year or two without you.” Rayne quickly opened his eyes and narrowed them. “But no more than that.”

“No. I’m not doing it. We just talked about him doing what he’s passionate about, and I’ve got to do the same. My duty, my purpose, is to protect the king. And my absolute pleasure is being with you. He said he’s coming home to Stormbreak when he’s done. We’ll have our time together then.”

Rayne laid his head on Eno’s chest and released a breath he hadn’t realized he’d been holding. “It’s whatever you need. I’ll always be there for you.”

“I know, Rayne. Thank you.”

They settled into a comfortable silence. Rayne lay with his eyes closed, enjoying the feel of Eno’s fingers in his hair. His breathing was slow and even under his ear, lulling Rayne’s mind into wandering. Eno’s talk about his brother had Rayne’s thoughts drifting to his younger sister, Zephyr.

There were twelve years between them in age, and it was hard for them to be particularly close in a lot of ways. When she was growing up, Rayne was usually away at school. Even during the summers when he should have been home, he was typically away at some internship or other scholarship program. At the time, it had been about building his experience as well as getting away from their parents.

The problem was that it meant that he rarely saw her.

It was only after he’d finished school and started working for the crown that he’d heard from her more. She was entering high school and had frequently texted him to complain about their parents. In the past couple of years, there had been more questions about good schools and what she should do to pursue her dreams of making a living with her paintings.

As time passed, their conversations grew more random and more personal.

But in the past several months, he’d rarely heard from her. When he was out of Erya, communication with home had been spotty or nonexistent. Zephyr also tried to refrain from contacting him when she knew that he was away for his protection.

He missed her, and far more than he’d expected.

He missed her silly, strange, and off-the-wall comments. He missed her sending him pictures of whatever she was working on. He missed her smile.

“What’s wrong, baby?” Eno suddenly asked.

“What?”

“You stiffened and started squeezing me tighter. What’s wrong?”

Rayne huffed a laugh and forced his arms to relax. “Oh…I was thinking of my sister.”

“When did you last talk to her?”

“I had a brief call with her before we left Stormbreak. She was excited that she’d locked in passage on the first spring ship heading for Sirelis. She’s eager to continue her studies.”

“Sounds like her big brother.”

Rayne grunted. “Some, but I think it’s also she’s eager to get away from our parents.”

“That sounds like you too. Why don’t you call her now?”

Rayne shook his head against Eno’s chest. “It’s late.”

“She’s young. I bet she’s still awake.”

“It would also be out of character for me. She’d worry that something was wrong.”

“True. Then tomorrow. You need to call her tomorrow.”

That would also be out of character, but with how things were looking in Ilon with the presence of Safa and New Rosanthe, he wanted to be sure that he got the chance to talk to Zephyr while he was able. Their tomorrows were growing more uncertain, and Rayne was determined to cling to those he loved for as long as possible.

FOURTEEN

Caelan Talos

Caelan flopped back in his seat and rubbed his tired eyes. The words on the pages were starting to blur together. He dropped his hands to his lap and took a minute to look around the library. Sun washed over the entire open space through the massive skylights in the ceiling, filling it with bright golden light.

Both the Royal Library in the Towers as well as the University Historical Library in Stormbreak were these dreary affairs filled with dark-wood bookshelves, winding wrought iron staircases, and shadowy corners to get lost in. Caelan had spent a ridiculous amount of time reading in both places over the years and they’d led him to believe that all libraries were gloomy, as if to protect the books or just to set the right mood.

But the Library of Ancient History and Folklore was sunny and cheerful. Maybe it was their way of saying knowledge casts away the shadows of ignorance and removes the darkness of secrets.

Of course, Caelan had known plenty of secrets to walk in the bright light of day with no problems at all.

Namely, his lover Drayce Ladon, aka Omari Souta, aka a giant freaking dragon.

Or the fact that his own father had stood next to his mother every day of Caelan’s life and neither one of them had thought to mention it.

Or the fact that his father was a dragon and that he was part dragon.

All of it minor details that waltzed through his life for years and no one had said one word to him.

Caelan sighed. Drayce keeping his secret made sense. Revealing that truth had cost him his wings and very nearly his life.

But his mother and father? That was just annoying. He couldn’t see any logic in never revealing the truth to at least him.

It was probably a matter of time. They likely thought they had more time. All the time in the world to sit him down and tell him the truth. Until they stood at the end of all things and realized that telling him the truth before he was supposed to leave for Caspagir would result in him refusing to leave.

“What’s wrong?” Rayne whispered.

Caelan jerked his wandering gaze to the man seated across the honey wood table from him. Stacks of old, leather-bound tomes separated them. Caelan’s annoyance evaporated when he looked at the studious Rayne, glasses glinting in the sunlight and his hair slightly mussed from running his fingers through it as he read. His advisor was dressed casually in jeans, a T-shirt, and a hoodie, but he still managed to somehow have the appearance of a college professor rather than a student.

“Nothing,” he mumbled with a shake of his head.

Rayne narrowed his eyes and lifted one eyebrow in clear skepticism. Caelan fought the urge to roll his eyes at the man. It was irksome that his advisor could read him as easily as he read the pages in front of him. He shouldn’t be too annoyed, though. Rayne’s familiarity with him made their working relationship so strong.

Caelan leaned forward, placing his hands on the open book in front of him. “Really, it’s nothing. My mind wandered to random thoughts. Nothing important.”

His advisor continued to stare at him for another few seconds before giving the tiniest nod. “I’m assuming you haven’t found anything yet.”

A grunt rumbled up his throat and he glared at his book. For a week now, he and Rayne had been hanging out at the Library of Ancient History and Folklore, researching old mythology and stories about the gods to see if they could learn anything about Zyros, the Gods War, or even Lore. Rayne had also been digging into what he could learn about the history of Brightspire and its construction.

Rayne nodded and glanced over at his notes. At least he’d stopped prodding Caelan to ask the gods for information. That had been a week-long disaster. The quartet that currently comprised the peanut gallery in his brain refused to say one peep about the Gods War and what led up to it. There was a lot of simmering animosity and a healthy dose of fear stewing in his brain from them.

Of course, when he was reading the stories, he would receive a new flood of emotions and reactions from snickering and cackling to gasps of horror. In short, the gods were fucking exhausting and not helpful in the least.

You know, hiding the past isn’t going to help me survive what’s coming, he mentally snarled at them yet again. If I’m just marching to my death for your amusement, I’m going to stop now. What’s the point?

None of us wants to see you or your friends die, Caris cooed at him.

Tula snorted. Yeah, Caelan was still well aware that she wasn’t overly fond of Rayne’s independence or the fact that Caelan stopped her powers from seizing control of his mind. Whatever gift she’d given Rayne was apparently not enough to give her a strong foothold in his mind to control him.

We’re not trying to kill you, Kaes added, sounding slightly exasperated, as if this was all in Caelan’s imagination.

Speak for yourself. He still owes me, Nyx grumbled.

You got no less than you deserved, Tula sniped.

Caelan rubbed his temples with one hand and squeezed his eyes shut against the throbbing that had started at the back of his head. Why the fuck did he have to get them going again? Wasn’t it enough that he was entertaining them with reading about themselves?

“Are they feeling chatty?” Rayne inquired softly.

“Yes, but not helpful.”

Rayne lifted the pen from the paper where he’d been making some notes and tilted his head to the side. The sun moved across his glasses, temporarily reflecting so that Caelan couldn’t see Rayne’s jade green eyes. “They’re not what I would have expected. With all of us facing potential extinction and their own existence in danger, I would have thought they’d be more helpful. Offer more guidance.”

He smiled at Rayne’s description. His companion had admitted that he’d believed—like most of Thia—that all the gods were long dead and gone from the world. It wasn’t surprising that his idea of the gods was more benevolent and helpful, like the ideal loving parent.

Unfortunately, these gods couldn’t be further from that image.

“They’re…just humans with incredible powers,” Caelan murmured, which set off a powder keg in his brain. All of them began shouting and arguing at once. He winced and continued talking, ignoring the noise in his head. “They feel emotions and have desires like the rest of us. They can be happy, sad, petty, jealous, helpful, benevolent, wicked as much as everyone else. We can wish they’d be more than all of that, but we can wish that about our own neighbors. That doesn’t mean it’s ever going to happen.”

“True. It’s better to face the reality of our world and work within those limitations rather than wishing for what will never be.”

The gods fell silent, but there was still plenty of bubbling anger and indignation. But, oh, the golden, blissful silence. Four pissed-off gods were tolerable when they all decided to give him the silent treatment. It wasn’t like their chatter was helping anyone.

“Have you found anything yet?” Caelan asked, happy to think of anything besides the gods.

“Not much, but I’m thinking this new text might be helpful.” Rayne paused and flipped back a few pages in the book that was open in front of him. “I found some old stories about how Brightspire had to be rebuilt completely after a horrific earthquake several centuries ago. There was some mention of an underground river that branched off the Whitgami River, and how entire neighborhoods fell into the river.” He skimmed the page for a second and then frowned. “Unfortunately, it’s barely more than a brief mention. I’m hoping there might be another, more detailed recounting of the tale later in the book.”

An underground river that ran under Brightspire was intriguing. It could mean there were also caves dug into the ground under the city, thanks to the rushing water. Those caves could also create a perfect hiding place for the Light Stone and the God of Wisdom. It also fit the pattern set by two of the other godstones. Both the Wind Stone and the Fire Stone were underground. The Dead Stone had been the odd one hidden deep in the caves near the peak of Mount Langbo. Only the Life Stone hovered in the air—a clear target for the world.

A beacon of hope for all the people of Thia, Tula corrected.

Maybe. Or just a reminder that the Goddess of Life was watching over them and not so much in a concerned, motherly way.

“Keep looking. At least it proves that there’s more than dirt under these streets,” Caelan directed. He shifted in his seat and pulled his phone from his back pocket. He tapped the screen to find no new texts were waiting for him.

While he and Rayne were stuck in the library for research, Eno, Drayce, Adrian, Vitor, Davi, Nina, and any other contacts the Gray Fox might have in Brightspire were searching the city for any sign of the prime minister. Vitor was coordinating the effort and sifting through any possible leads that turned up.

Caelan was unwilling to make any moves against the Empire until he knew what was going on with the Ilon government. And for the moment, the Prime Minister of Ilon was still the government.

He’d met Prime Minister Jasper Feroz on a couple of occasions during his lifetime. The man had served as the country’s Minister of the Interior for at least a decade before he was elected to the position of prime minister about six years ago. In Ilon, all elected officials were limited to a maximum of two terms, with a term equaling a total of five years. After that, they had to go after a new job. The idea was to keep fresh blood and new ideas flowing through the government.

Erya operated under a similar idea, with officials limited to three terms and their term periods were four years instead of five.

All in all, Jasper Feroz had only four years left as prime minister. Could an alliance with the Empire give Prime Minister Feroz a way of extending his own rule beyond those four years? Not a bad gig, even though it would mean becoming a puppet for Emperor Naram Suen in New Rosanthe.

The man hadn’t struck Caelan as being particularly conniving, scheming, or oily. At least no more than the next politician. Would he sell out his own people to keep his comfy job?

“What’s your opinion of Feroz?” Caelan inquired quietly.

Rayne didn’t look overly surprised by the question. He put down his pen and plucked his glasses off his nose. With the hem of his T-shirt, he proceeded to wipe his lenses clean while he gathered his thoughts. This was one of the things that he loved about Rayne, though it tended to drive the impatient insane. Rayne never blurted out the first thing that came to his mind when someone asked his thoughts or opinion on a topic. It might take him a couple of minutes to organize his thoughts, but Caelan always knew that he was getting a thorough, well-considered response when Rayne spoke.

“I have met the man in person only twice—once while he was the Minister of the Interior and once after he was appointed to the position of prime minister. The first time was during a welcome banquet that was to kick off a round of new trade talks between Ilon and Erya. The second time was after the first night of celebrations to mark the thirtieth anniversary of Queen Amara’s coronation. Most of my interactions with the Ilon government have been through other ministers and the prime minister’s numerous assistants.”

“And…” Caelan prodded with a growing smirk as Rayne laid the baseline for his opinion.

Rayne carefully slid his glasses back on his face and leaned forward, lowering his voice so that Caelan could barely hear him. “The man is an ass.”

Caelan’s loud bark of laughter was like a gunshot in the silent library. He slapped his hand over his mouth to hold in the rest of his shocked laughter. His eyes watered and he blinked rapidly to keep Rayne in focus. That was not the answer he’d expected to receive at all.

“That is not to say the man isn’t smart or talented,” Rayne quickly tacked on. “He is a career politician and has held a large number of high-level positions during his lifetime. Each of his elections have been won by relatively large margins. He is friendly, outgoing, and charismatic. But he is also loud, boorish, rude, and overbearing. All of those negative qualities grow infinitely worse with the application of alcohol.”

Sitting back in his chair, Caelan rubbed a hand across his mouth as he turned over what Rayne said. Overly friendly, loud, and a bit pushy were Caelan’s impressions—but then, everyone treated him different. At the time, he’d been the Crown Prince Caelan Talos of Erya, the future ruler. People either saw him as a pushover as compared to his mother, or they simply wanted to get on his good side early in hopes that he’d remember them fondly when he ascended to the throne.

He was pretty sure that Rayne tended to get a better taste of the truth, but even that was flavored with a dose of ass-kissing since Rayne did have the future king’s ear.

Caelan dropped his hand to the table. “Do you think it might be a mask?”

“A ruse to get people to lower their defenses and trust him?”

Caelan nodded. “Or at least underestimate him.”

A slow smirk tugged up one corner of Rayne’s lips and his eyes sparked with dark amusement. “That is a definite possibility. I didn’t take him for an idiot or a fool, but I wouldn’t classify him as someone who plans long term. I could be wrong about that.”

Caelan shrugged. “Or maybe we’ve both become so paranoid that we’re constantly looking for things that aren’t there.” He sighed. “Rayne, we’re too young to be this pessimistic.”

“I call it being realistic,” Rayne said with a sniff.

“Is that what your boyfriend would say?”

Rayne attempted to wipe his expression clean, but Caelan knew the man well enough to pick up the tiniest hint of a smile as he picked up his pen again. “My boyfriend loves me exactly the way I am, regardless of whether I’m a pessimist or a realist.”

Yes, that was very true. It took being in the same room with them for five seconds to see that Eno loved Rayne with every fiber of his being. He wouldn’t change a single thing about Rayne, and while Rayne didn’t always show it, Caelan knew that Rayne felt the exact same about Eno.

And it was a painful reminder of why they’d hidden their relationship from him in the first place. Seeing how happy they were, Caelan was all the more reluctant to put either of them in danger. Not just because they were two of his closest friends and had become family to him, but he also wanted to protect their love as much as he wanted to protect his own kingdom. As fucked up as everything was in Thia, he wanted one beautiful thing to be deemed sacred and untouchable. Right now, that was Rayne and Eno’s love.

Scratch that. He wanted two beautiful things.

He also wanted Drayce with him always.

But he wasn’t going to be able to protect shit if he didn’t figure out what the Empire was plotting, where the godstone was located, or how he was supposed to stop the Goddess of the Hunt in the first place.

Tamping down another weary sigh, Caelan sat up and dragged over the book he’d been skimming for the past hour. He’d been reading a story of how Kaes had been born as a set of twins. Things kind of got weird from there and his brain sort of glazed over the details, but the story was an unlikely explanation of why Zyros was pissed at all the gods in the first place.

From the corner of his eye, he spotted a young woman in a lavender top and ripped jeans walking in their direction. An olive-green backpack hung on one slumped shoulder, and her black hair hung in a wild mass of curls about her head. She was just one of the many university-aged people filling the library, carrying about stacks of books. Most appeared to be alone, their concentration locked on their work.

But she was one of the few he’d spotted more than once as she moved around the open space.

He and Rayne had selected a table near a rear corner that allowed Caelan a good view of the entire library as people entered as well as put his back to a wall. When he’d spotted her the first two times, he’d been willing to brush it off as coincidence, but now that she was walking toward them for a third time, he wasn’t quite so positive.

The gods noticed and at least perked up a little, seeming to come out of their collective pout. He had to agree that this was a bit more interesting than digging through yet another book.

To his shock, she walked right up to him. Her smile was crooked, and her eyes were nervous as they darted from him to Rayne and then settled on him. Rayne straightened from where he’d been bent over his book and offered the woman a politely inquisitive look.

“Hi,” she said and gave a seemingly nervous wave. “Sorry to bother you, but I was talking to one of the librarians. He mentioned that you were studying the mythology of the Gods War. I thought you might find this book useful if you haven’t tried it yet.” As she spoke, she placed a folded piece of paper on the table near the book that was open in front of Caelan. “I hope that helps you find what you’re searching for.”

She quickly spun around and walked out of the library.

Caelan glanced up at Rayne to find that his friend was staring at the last spot they could see the student.

“That was…interesting,” Rayne murmured.

“Definitely.”

Caelan picked up the piece of paper and opened it. Written in crisp, clean handwriting was:

Abbott’s Definitive Guide to the Great Gods War: Volume 1

272.006

Caelan flipped the paper so Rayne could read it as well.

“The funny thing is that I did check out this book two days ago. I didn’t read it cover to cover, but I can’t say that I found anything particularly helpful in it. There was no mention of Zyros in it. Abbott blamed the war on a falling out between Tula and Nyx, which I will say they both laughed loudly at.”

Rayne’s eyes followed the paper as Caelan set it on the table, his arms folded over his chest. “I’m more intrigued by the ‘hope you find what you’re searching for’ comment. Maybe she knows that we’re not just seeking reasons behind the Gods War.”

Caelan’s eyebrows jumped toward his hairline and he leaned in to drop his voice even lower. “The godstone?”

“I was thinking Feroz. I don’t think it’s a stretch to believe that others have realized that we’re not from Ilon and that we’re part of the group searching for him.”

A wide grin spread across Caelan’s face. “So…could be help, or it could be a trap?”

Rayne stretched out his hand for the piece of paper. “Would you like me to fetch the book?”

Caelan snatched up the paper and pressed it to his chest. “Absolutely not!” he gasped.

“Your Majesty,” Rayne pressed in a low, hard voice, but that only made Caelan roll his eyes.

“She gave it to me. I get to go. Just because you’re bored—”

“I’m not bored!” Rayne hissed, jerking his hand back. “I’m thinking about your safety.”

“Well, I am bored. I’m going. You stay here.” He pushed to his feet, earning a glare from Rayne. “I promise to make a lot of noise if someone attacks or tries to kidnap me.”

“I’m very tempted to let them have you,” Rayne muttered.

Caelan chuckled to himself as he started to walk along the rows of bookshelves. He glanced at the paper and then up at the numbers on the end of the rows to find the right section. The book was located only about five rows from their table. If Caelan so much as dropped a book on the floor, Rayne would be able to hear him.

He paused and stared down the rows on either side of the one he needed to find that both were empty. So was the one he needed. His eyes skimmed over the numbers, the colors of the various spines blurring together into a fragmented rainbow before he located the thick tome by Mr. Abbott. From his first reading of the book, the man was long winded for not saying much that was helpful or accurate. At least, accurate as far as the gods were concerned.

Prior to touching the book, Caelan quickly inspected the shelf and the surrounding books, but nothing looked like it had been tampered with. With extreme care, he slowly slid the guide from its place, his entire body tensed and ready for an explosion or maybe an attack.

Nothing happened.

Except for the fact that he felt like an idiot.

Groaning softly to himself, Caelan started paging through the book as he strolled to the table he was sharing with Rayne. Halfway through the massive tome he located a scrap of paper with an address and time written in a hastier script. Below that was a single name: Feroz.

When he reached the table, he slapped the paper down in front of Rayne and added the book to the stack already sitting between them.

“Oh. That is very interesting,” Rayne practically purred with glee.

Caelan pulled his phone out of his pocket and sent a text to their group chat.

We got a nibble.

FIFTEEN

Adrian Westergren

“If they were going to have us find a needle in a haystack, why couldn’t they have supplied us with a magnet?” Adrian muttered under his breath as they wandered out of another artist’s shop and down the narrow cobblestone street. The sidewalk was made of colored bricks arranged in an eye-catching array. He wished he could appropriately appreciate it, but after days of handmade everything in stunning designs and bold colors, he’d grown kind of numb to it all.

Especially when it felt like they were no closer to locating the prime minister.

For most of the week, he and Drayce had been canvasing every inch of the Artists Corner. The neighborhood was chockful of quaint shops, studios, and workshops of artists plying their trade whether it was in painting, sculpting, pottery, ironwork, sewing, or things he couldn’t even think of. This district saw a steady flow of visitors and tended to be the most popular in all of Brightspire. The work of the highly trained artisans was sought after, not only by the people of Ilon, but by people all around the globe.

As such, it meant that most of the locals didn’t think too much of some strangers wandering in and out of the shops. They were hoping that it also meant they heard and saw a bit of everything.

So far, he and Drayce had turned up nothing, and it was getting annoying.

The only thing that had changed recently was an increase in decorations to mark the start of the Solstice Celebrations. Today was the first day of the week-long event. The city itself felt a little barren, but he had a feeling it was due to the recent events with the local government. The shops, however, were attempting to put a good face on things with their twinkling white lights, holly boughs, and candles.

Unfortunately, Brightspire’s efforts only made Adrian more homesick. Stormbreak was pure magic during the Solstice Celebrations. The entire city glowed with lights and was almost always lightly dusted with snow. People were happy, greeting each other with an extra bit of cheer. It was a time to appreciate what a person had in their life and pull those loved ones a little closer.

Being here in Brightspire, when Stormbreak needed her king the most, felt so very wrong. But they weren’t going to get home until Thia was safe.

“We do have a magnet,” Drayce said, dragging Adrian’s brain away from grumpier thoughts. An easygoing smile filled his face, and his gait was relaxed, as if he had all the time in the world to mosey along. He was a man who had nowhere to go and nothing to do but waste some time.

“What?”

Drayce turned his face toward Adrian and grinned. “We have our magnet. Cael. He’s been stuck sitting in that library for nearly a week now. Stuck in one place with the only other person as recognizable in Ilon as himself.”

Adrian’s steps slowed at that thought. He’d honestly thought the entire purpose of the king being stuck in the library was to conduct the research he’d mentioned. It hadn’t crossed his mind that he was intentionally making a target of himself.

“Sure, it would be nice if we actually found something useful, but you and me asking questions is stirring the waters,” Drayce explained with an absent wave of his hand through the air. “Getting people whispering. Eventually, those whispers will fall on the right ears.”

He could only stare at the young man with the messy blond hair for a second. This was incredibly insightful on his part. With so many teams out, he’d thought that their goal was to track down the prime minister. He’d not considered that they were hoping the prime minister or one of his aides would come to them.

As it was, Nina was still carefully sneaking about Parliament Plaza in a new disguise, trying to confirm that Feroz was being held hostage. Both Rayne and Vitor were skeptical of it, but it remained an option until they saw proof otherwise.

Drayce suddenly snickered and shook his head. “Oh gods, I can’t do it. The way you’re looking at me.”

“What?”

“Dude, I made the same complaint to Caelan last night and he explained the plan to me. I didn’t know either.”

Adrian groaned and gave Drayce’s shoulder a shove. His companion continued to laugh as he stumbled forward a few steps. “You’re a fucking idiot.”

Drayce whipped around and pointed at him. “Ha! And so are you!”

Yep. He was definitely an idiot too.

But when it came to politics and all this crafty, shady maneuvering, he was happy to leave it to the experts. His job was to be a soldier. He protected his charge and followed orders. He didn’t need more than that to be happy.

“Hey! Check out that place! The food smells good there. Let’s stop and get something to eat.” Drayce pointed at the small pub on the corner with red and black paint on the exterior and big windows that overlooked all the street on the four-way stop. It wasn’t a bad place to sit for a while and watch the people as they passed by.

After several days at Drayce’s side, he’d learned the hard way not to argue with him when it came to filling his stomach. Drayce was a bottomless pit and always in the mood to eat. If he didn’t know Drayce was a dragon, he’d seriously worry that he was going to hurt himself or that he had some kind of tapeworm. A man his size should not be able to hold that much food. It wasn’t so much that he ate a ton in a single sitting, but that he was almost always eating a little something.

Naturally, as he contemplated turning Drayce down, his own stomach decided to speak up and complain.

Drayce cackled at the growl and thrust a hand in the air, knowing he’d won the battle.

They stepped inside to find that the place was mostly empty. There were close to a dozen small tables spread about the place while a long bar lined one wall. Only two people were seated at the bar, and four of the tables had occupants.

His companion practically skipped over to the table closest to one of the front windows and dropped into a seat. It gave them a great view of the area and allowed them to see people as they entered the pub. A server with black hair cut in a sleek bob stopped over, poured them some water, and dropped off a couple of menus.

They both needed only to take a quick glance before they were ready to order. With the server gone, Adrian relaxed, stretching his legs out under the table while his gaze casually surveyed the other people in the place. Something about their easygoing, indifferent air made him think they were all locals grabbing a late lunch or an early dinner.

“This has been fun and all, but it will be so nice to be home at last,” Drayce started. He sank lower in his own chair and sighed as he tipped his head back. He closed his eyes, face pointed up at the ceiling.

“Home?” Adrian repeated with more weight than that question would normally get. His heart had fluttered a little at that statement.

Drayce opened his eyes and looked at him for a second before a rough scoff left his lips. He sat up enough to lean close to Adrian. “Stormbreak,” he whispered.

“So, you don’t think of home as…” The Isle of Stone. He couldn’t say it. Not so much because he was worried about others overhearing, but he didn’t want to think about Drayce leaving Erya and returning to the home of the dragons. Something in him felt that if Drayce left, it would be permanent.

“Nah. Not for a long time. And after I got settled in Erya, I realized that it never felt like home. Not like Stormbreak does.”

The reason for that feeling of home likely lay with a someone rather than it being such a great place. Or at least, a group of someones.

“Do you think you’ll return?”

Drayce shrugged and sat up. He trained his gaze toward the windows, watching the people pass on the sidewalks. “I don’t know. There’s not much to pull me there, but I would like to take Cael back. He’d like to spend more time with his family.”

That sounded like such a couple-type thing to do.

Adrian leaned forward, placing both of his forearms on the table. “What’s it like…you know…dating the king?”

His companion made a face that was kind of like a disbelieving smirk. “Really?”

Adrian shrugged. “Yeah. Is it weird?”

Drayce shook his head and huffed a laugh. “Dude, I’m not dating the king. I’m dating Cael.” He picked up his water and took a sip. “I’m dating my best friend. It’s the greatest thing in the entire world. It’s all the things that made our friendship wonderful and so much more.”

“But it doesn’t change who he is.”

“Yeah, I guess, but I don’t think about it. When we’re together, it doesn’t change how we act around each other or how we talk to each other. When I look at him, he’s just Cael.”

Adrian grinned. “And when he looks at you, he doesn’t see an enormous black dragon?”

That earned him a dark glare and another huff, but this one was clearly annoyed. “No, he doesn’t see that.”

Stretching out his leg, Adrian kicked Drayce’s foot under the table. “Don’t get all bent out of shape. You know I’m teasing.”

“And you know that I could bite your head off if I wanted,” Drayce snarled.

“True, but I don’t think I’d taste as good as that brisket sandwich you ordered.”

“Mmm…brisket,” Drayce hummed to himself, his shoulders instantly untensing. At least Adrian knew how to defang this dragon. Drayce suddenly shook his head and glowered at Adrian as if he’d just figured out he’d been distracted. “Whatever. But I get your point. Yeah, I know who I’m dating, but we didn’t start until I got stuck in the middle of all this.” He held both hands out to his sides as if motioning to the world. “He hasn’t had much of a chance to do his job.” He paused and shrugged. “When we get home, things will change. It won’t be bad, only different. We’ll both have to adapt, but I’m not worried. He’ll still be Cael and I’ll still be Drayce.”

Adrian flopped in his seat and put both of his hands behind his head. “Sorry if my presence is cramping all your alone time.”

His friend rolled his eyes and grinned at him. It was the same smile he’d seen dozens of times in the barracks when Drayce had popped by because his best friend had been sent off on some princely duty and he got left behind. “Gods, you’re such a pain in the ass. You’re a good addition to the crew. It doesn’t hurt to have another person watching our backs. Plus, I needed another person to gang up on Rayne with me. Cael is agreeing with him too much now.”

“Yeah, because nothing gives me greater joy than arguing with that man.”

Drayce reached out and flicked the end of Adrian’s nose. “Whatever. People need to argue with Rayne. Otherwise, he gets too bossy. I think he also gets bored if we agree with him too much.”

“I’m going to tell him you said that.”

A sharp gasp jumped from Drayce’s throat. “You evil bastard!”

Adrian chuckled. It was always like this with Drayce. No matter what his mood was, the man could always make him laugh. Drayce could befriend the grumpiest, meanest person in existence and do it without even breaking a sweat. The guy was simply friendly and outgoing. How could anyone not love Drayce?

Which only made the entire situation with his family—his real, blood relatives—confusing. How could they not love and cherish him? How could they not see him as a critical part of their clan?

He swallowed a sigh and tried to shove those questions down to the dark shadows of his mind. There was a lot about the dragons of the Isle of Stone that he didn’t understand, and probably never would. To this day, he didn’t know if Clan Takahashi was the norm or the exception when it came to dragons. They were nothing like Clan Omari.

And like that, the one person he’d been trying not to think about was rising to the forefront of his mind.

“I’ll admit that I was kind of surprised that Haru didn’t sneak into our party,” Adrian murmured, trying so damn hard to keep his voice casual.

Drayce groaned loudly and gave a shudder. “Thank the gods for that one small miracle.”

That reaction seemed a bit much. Adrian dropped his arms to his lap and frowned. “Why don’t you like him?”

His companion straightened and looked at him as if he’d lost his mind. “What do you mean? Where’d you get the idea that I don’t like Haru?”

“Well, that reaction for starters.”

Drayce waved him off. He opened his mouth to reply but closed it again and smiled as the server returned. They remained silent as she dropped off their plates and refilled their waters. When they were all good, she slipped away, but Adrian doubted that Drayce even noticed. He was practically dancing in his seat as he took a huge bite out of his sandwich.

“You were saying…” Adrian prompted.

Drayce blinked at him with wide eyes. “What was I saying?” His voice was muffled as he spoke around a mouthful of food.

“Haru.”

“Oh! Yeah, I like Haru. He’s great.” Drayce finished chewing and took another drink of water. “He’s dedicated to his clan, and I think he’d do whatever it took to keep Cael safe.”

“But…”

“He’s fucking crazy.”

Adrian rolled his eyes and fought the urge to smack Drayce on the back of the head. “Yeah, I’ve heard you say that before, but what does that mean? Like, he’s dangerous? Or crazy like he’s going to start arguing with the cheese and wear his underwear on his head while creating his own religion of mushroom worshipers?”

Drayce froze with his sandwich inches from his lips and blinked at Adrian a couple of times. “Wow. Just…wow.”

“Drayce—”

“All right, all right, I get it. No, I don’t think he’s the kind to go cheese-arguing crazy. I mean that he’s got zero impulse control and he’s even more outgoing than I am. Whatever crosses his mind or interests him, he’s going to do. He probably drives Nori insane trying to rein him in. The only good thing is that he’s dedicated to his clan, and that’s got to help hold him in check. He’d never do anything to endanger his clan.”

Adrian shrugged and picked up his club sandwich. “And he’s Cael’s cousin. I doubt he’d do anything to endanger Cael or Cael’s reputation.”

“Yeah, that would be a much grayer area for him compared to clan politics. It would probably be best not to let him run wild right now. You know, considering all that’s happening.”

Okay, so maybe Drayce had an excellent point.

And Clan Leader Omari Nori would keep Haru on the Isle of Stone and out of trouble while Caelan was focused on saving all of Thia. Adrian wasn’t going to be seeing Haru anytime soon.

Something in his chest ached at that thought, and he struggled not to rub at the spot. He took a bite of his sandwich, but he barely tasted it. His mind was filled with midnight-blue eyes and a devilish grin on a pale face.

“At least it’s good to know you don’t think he’s dangerous,” Adrian mumbled.

“Haru?” Drayce snorted with laughter. “Nah, not to anyone who isn’t a threat to the Omari or his family. I bet he’s a total cuddler at heart.” Drayce’s next laugh was cut short, and he stared straight ahead for a second before shuddering. “Well, mostly not dangerous.”

Adrian sighed. He knew he was going to regret asking this. “What the fuck does that mean?”

“Oh. Just…” Drayce returned the last few bites of his sandwich to his plate and leaned closer to Adrian, his voice dipping to a whisper. “Dragons tend to be really territorial and violent when they get attached to someone. Kind of possessive and overprotective.”

Adrian gasped loudly and widened his eyes. “No! You don’t say!” Every word ran thick with sarcasm.

Drayce flipped him the bird. “Yeah, yeah. I’m a poster child. I get it.” But he blinked and was serious again. “Now imagine zero-impulse-control Haru attached to someone. That’s a freaking nightmare with wings.”

And that was another excellent point from Drayce.

A big enough one that it sent a chill along Adrian’s spine. Was Haru attached to him?

Why did the thought make his heart speed up even more?

Relief swept through Adrian when Drayce changed the subject to the people walking down the street beyond the window, freeing his mind of the sunset-colored dragon at last. He needed to stay focused on the problem that was in front of them. Haru…Haru wasn’t coming to Ilon or Erya anytime soon. It was likely the dragon would find a new shiny object to focus on, forgetting about Adrian completely.

The server had just taken away their dirty plates when a woman in jeans and an oversized sweatshirt appeared in the doorway. Her red hair was piled into a messy bun on the top of her head and her eyes were wide as she briefly searched the pub. Another server started toward her, but the woman brushed past her and nearly ran to their table and dropped into one of the open seats.

Out of habit, Adrian reached for his knife, but Drayce grabbed his wrist, halting him, while directing a smile at the stranger.

“Lookin’ for someone?” Drayce asked in a light and breezy tone.

“Yes. You.” Dark-brown eyes flicked from Adrian to Drayce. She was panting and a sheen of sweat covered her tanned face. “I heard you were searching for the prime minister. You need to come with me now.”

“Whoa, whoa.” Drayce held up both hands in front of him, his smile still firmly in place. “Who said we had any interest in him?”

The woman frowned at him. “It’s all over the district that you’ve been asking about him. You’re trying to rescue him, right? To get rid of the Empire? You have to come with me.”

Adrian’s heart skipped a beat, but he kept his face impassive, leaving the conversation to Drayce. He was clearly under very specific orders from Rayne or Caelan. They had been searching for days for some kind of information, but this was not how Adrian had expected to have it land in their laps.

“I think we’re getting ahead of ourselves.” Drayce relaxed in his chair and even gave a chuckle that Adrian found to be a nice touch. Just the right balance of amused and indifferent. “We’re tourists visiting Brightspire for fun. We heard rumors that your prime minister was missing. We’re not looking for any trouble.”

The woman leaned closer, dropping her voice to a hissing whisper. “But you have to help me. The prime minister is in danger. They’re going to capture him if you don’t help me.”

“Who are you?” Adrian asked. “You haven’t even told us that.”

She glared at him as if to say “how dare he even ask that” and turned her attention back to Drayce.

“He’s right. You haven’t introduced yourself yet. I’m Duncan and this is my older brother Ollie,” Drayce continued.

Adrian was so fucking tempted to stomp on his foot under the table. Fucking Ollie. Drayce wasn’t allowed to make up names anymore.

“Sh-Sheena,” the woman stammered, and Adrian was pretty sure her name was Sheena as much as his was Ollie. “Now, please, you have to come with me. You have to help me save the prime minister.”

“What about the police? Why don’t you tell the police?”

Sheena stared at them confused for a second before shaking her head. “The police are working with the Empire. They can’t be trusted. We need to go now. If you don’t go with me now, you’ll miss your only chance to meet with the prime minister.”

“Look, Sheena, as much as we would like to help the prime minister, we’re just two normal guys. There isn’t anything we can do.” Drayce sat forward and placed one of his hands on top of hers. “But if you want to give us an address, we’d be happy to head over in a bit. We might be able to gather some friends to help us too.”

Sheena’s mouth fell open and she glared at Drayce as though he were speaking another language. This was not the response she’d been expecting to receive from him, and it left Adrian wanting to giggle. Of course, this was all bad if she was telling the truth.

But if this was a trap, Drayce had definitely outfoxed her.

“We’re out of time,” Sheena tried one last time.

“And I think you’ve got the wrong guys,” Drayce replied with a faux-sad expression. “But if you want to give us an address, we—”

She didn’t stick around to hear the rest of his comment. She bolted up from the chair and hurried out of the pub as quickly as she’d arrived.

“That was fucking weird,” Adrian muttered.

Drayce grabbed his phone and tapped on it, pulling up the messenger. “Totally, but kind of what I was expecting.”

Adrian leaned closed to see him send the same message that Caelan had sent.

We got a nibble.

Nina responded almost immediately. Redhead?

Yep, Drayce typed.

On it.

Adrian assumed Nina was now following the woman as she returned to the people who had sent her.

“What do we do now? Keep walking?” Adrian asked.

Drayce shook his head. “Let’s wait for a little while. I feel like that’s not going to be the end of it.”

SIXTEEN

Drayce Ladon

Drayce nearly cackled like a storybook witch as he shoved his phone into his pocket. He would never say it to Rayne’s face, but the man was a freaking genius.

“Did you see her face?” Drayce crowed as he bumped Adrian’s arm with his elbow. “She looked so fucking confused, like she just couldn’t believe we weren’t racing out the door with a total freaking stranger.”

Adrian huffed a laugh and shook his head. “True. It seems like you’re in on a secret that I’m not.”

Oooooh…yeah.

He at least had the good sense to wince when he glanced over at his companion, but Adrian shrugged.

“I haven’t been with you guys as long.”

“No, man. We weren’t trying to cut you out. Rayne, Cael, and I were talking last night while you, Eno, and Davi were in the kitchen chuckling over beer. Rayne started his deep philosophizing about the motives of the enemy. I didn’t follow most of what he was saying. Something about chess moves and risk-reward analysis. I swear, my eyes were glazing over and his voice was becoming white noise.”

“What’s the point, Drayce?”

“Right. The point is that Rayne said to not do whatever the person wanted when we were finally approached. If they wanted protection, send them to the cops. If they wanted us to accompany—”

“We stay put,” Adrian finished.

“Rayne explained that the unexpected move would force them to change their plans and scramble, increasing their chances of making a mistake or doing something desperate.”

Adrian cocked his head to the side and stared at his nearly empty glass of water. “It does raise the chances of us gaining the advantage. I’ve used similar tricks to get past a person’s defenses to learn information.”

Drayce narrowed his eyes on Adrian. “Why am I now afraid to talk to you?”

His friend grinned at him and slung an arm around his shoulder. “Really, Drayce? Do you think I’d do something so underhanded to learn dark secrets about you or even Cael?”

“You’re a bastard. I’m sorry I didn’t warn you ahead of time. I totally forgot about it until that chick walked in the door and began her spiel. And now I’m not talking to you anymore.”

“Well, before you start giving me the silent treatment, answer me this: Are we at all worried that the person who came in here was telling the truth? How do we know that she isn’t an assistant or aide for the prime minister? Maybe he is in danger.”

Drayce made a scoffing noise. “Of course he’s in danger. We know that already. Doesn’t matter if he’s working with the Empire or not.”

“But I mean imminent danger.”

“That’s why Nina’s following Sheena back to her hiding place. She’ll be able to determine if the lady was telling the truth or trying to lead us into a trap. If the coast is clear, we head in.”

Adrian nodded. “And if it’s not, we’ve got a potential lead to pick apart for information about the Empire.”

“Yep. Not a bad plan, right?”

“True. What do we do now?”

Drayce lifted his arm and glanced at his watch. Only ten minutes had passed since Sheena ran out of the pub. They could stand to wait another twenty to see if she returned with a new story. “Let’s chill for a bit. Maybe she comes back, and maybe someone else will get a nibble today. Davi and Eno have been quiet so far.”

Adrian snorted. “Would you run up to two guys that looked like Eno and Davi?”

“Sure, if I was a little kid or a tiny girl with big eyes.”

“Play up the helpless angle, huh?”

“Hell, yeah. Would you say no to a kid asking for help?” Even as Drayce said it, he was grateful that it was Sheena who’d come to them and not a child. That would have been a nightmare.

Their server returned to their table, asking if they wanted anything else. They both shook their heads and Drayce asked for the bill. They could slowly pay and linger for a few minutes longer. The woman was just turning away from their table when two dark SUVs roared down the street and squealed to a sharp stop outside the pub.

“Fuck!” Adrian shouted, shoving to his feet.

Drayce was a step behind him, but they were already too late to escape as half a dozen men poured out of the vehicles and raced toward them. This was not an option Rayne had listed as a likely outcome for their actions.

As the men ran into the pub, they immediately opened fire, not caring about the innocent people also in there. Screams filled the air and bullets ripped through windows, walls, and tables before embedding in bodies and the thick wood of the bar.

Drayce dove behind a half wall that blocked off a prep station for the servers, while he barely caught sight of Adrian launching himself over the bar. Their server along with two others cowered among the silverware and glasses as bits of drywall and other debris rained on them.

The gunfire suddenly stopped, but Drayce’s ears continued to ring for another few seconds. He could make out the sound of broken glass crunching underfoot.

“Come out and no one else has to die,” one of their attackers barked.

“What do you think, Ollie?” Drayce called out as he slid one of the guns from the holster at the small of his back. He wasn’t carrying as many weapons as he normally did because it was too damn hard to keep everything concealed while the weather was so damn warm.

“I think I’m going to kick your damn ass, Duncan, for dragging me into this,” Adrian shouted.

Drayce fought a snicker and winked at the quietly crying servers. There was no way he was going to let them get hurt by these assholes. He did feel a little guilty about the excitement coursing through his body at that moment, though. It had been too damn long since they’d seen any action.

“Sorry, guys. Ollie says no.” Drayce swung out from his hiding place and squeezed off two rounds, placing the bullets in the chests of two different attackers before slipping into his hiding place again. “Two down!”

He wasn’t sure if Adrian heard him, because his voice was drowned out by more gunfire from their attackers. There was the muffled sound of movement as the attackers searched for cover or another way to get to him.

Drayce quickly glanced about, taking in his surroundings. This was not the best hiding place—temporary cover at best. He was in an aisle that led to the main floor of the pub and ended in a door that looked probably led to the kitchen.

“Is this the kitchen?” Drayce demanded. The server who’d come to his table gave a quick, tear-streaked nod. “Is there another way to get to the kitchen besides this door?”

She nodded again. “Through the back door.”

Shit. With him and Adrian pinned down, it wouldn’t be hard for them to send someone to the rear of the building and through the kitchen. He was a sitting duck, and Adrian wasn’t in a better position trapped behind the bar.

Drayce growled to himself in frustration as he wracked his brain for a solution. Seconds were ticking away, and he needed to act now. If they were going to get out of this alive, they needed to move now.

Fuck. He wished he could shift into his dragon form or at least use some of his dragon strength, but that was a big no-no. Besides, a bullet might not do much damage to a dragon, but it would kill him just fine in his human form. He needed to be careful.

A crackle of glass was his only warning. The muzzle of a gun poked around the corner. Drayce shoved a hand up, grabbing it and pushing it toward the ceiling as the shooter squeezed off the last several rounds. The bullets buried into the plaster and sent chunks of it falling on them. Drayce tried to bring his own gun up to fire, but the bastard knocked it away.

More gunfire filled the air along with shouts, but Drayce couldn’t pay any attention to them as he grappled with the larger man. The man in black outweighed him by at least a hundred pounds and had a good six inches on him. Muscles screamed and burned, everything trembling from head to toe to keep from being overpowered.

He was too weak as a human to beat this man, but if he tapped into his dragon strength, he might not be able to stop the shift once it started. Another sighting of a black dragon outside of the Isle of Stone would be so fucking bad. His new clan leader would not be able to save his ass from a second infraction.

Before he could figure out how to break free, the man jerked and Drayce was splattered with hot blood along one arm. He looked up as the man slumped to the floor, finding he’d picked up some new bullet holes.

“Thanks, Ollie!” Drayce shouted.

“Fuck you, Duncan!” Adrian snarled.

Drayce rolled out of his hiding place to find that Adrian had left his and was currently trapped in a fistfight with one attacker while two more were rushing him. Guns were gone and knives were now clenched in their fists. This was why extra ammo should always be brought to a fight. Drayce fired bullets into one attacker, dropping him easily, but his gun clicked empty when he tried to fire at the remaining attacker.

Shit. He needed to follow his own advice.

Tossing aside his gun, Drayce palmed his own knife and dove into a fight with the other attacker. He dodged one slash through the air and delivered a hard punch to the bastard’s stomach. The air erupted from his lungs, but he still managed to block Drayce’s attempt to slice across his throat.

They went back and forth, trading small cuts until Drayce finally got the opening he needed to slam his blade home in the man’s heart. A harsh, stuttering breath left him, and he collapsed. Drayce quickly turned to see Adrian’s attacker falling to the floor. Blood and sweat covered his friend, but he looked like he was still in one piece.

Drayce hurried past broken and overturned tables to reach where Adrian was leaning heavily against the bar. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah. Yeah, I’m okay,” Adrian panted. “You?”

Drayce grabbed both of Adrian’s shoulders, checking to see if the man needed help standing upright on his own. “I’m good, but we need to get out of here. Report to the others. They might be in danger—”

“Look out!” Adrian shouted. His friend pushed him hard to his left, nearly throwing him across the room. Drayce stumbled and landed hard on his hip. He lifted his head in time to see a stranger shove a long knife into Adrian’s stomach.

“No!” Drayce screamed. He clawed his way to his hands and knees, ready to rip the fucker apart when the world exploded around him. Pain ripped through the back of his head. There was a bright flash of white, but pitch-black darkness soon closed in.

Another scream rose up his throat, but he didn’t think it managed to get past his lips. He was sinking faster and faster into nothing. No matter how he fought and clawed, he couldn’t stop himself.

No.

Adrian.

Cael.

He couldn’t leave them. Not like this.

SEVENTEEN

Caelan Talos

Caelan paced.

It was the only thing that was keeping him holding all the pain, rage, and fear inside of his chest. As long as he kept moving, he wouldn’t fall apart.

Drayce needed him to remain calm and pulled together.

So did Rayne, Eno, Adrian, and all the people of Thia.

He wasn’t allowed to fall apart. He was the King of Erya, the Guardian of the Godstones. He was the chosen champion of the gods.

As he turned back, he paused and let his eyes skim over his companions in the hospital waiting room. Davi, Eno, and Rayne were all seated together on uncomfortable beige chairs as they waited for the nurse to return to take them to Adrian. A doctor had popped out an hour ago to tell them that Adrian had come out of surgery with no complications and was in recovery as they brought him out of anesthesia.

Relief had threatened to knock Caelan’s knees out when he was given that news. Not that he was willing to let anything happen to Adrian. He had been more than prepared to march into the surgery and save the man’s life, but he’d stopped when he was swiftly reassured that Adrian’s condition wasn’t critical.

By the time they got word of the attack from the Gray Fox’s people, an ambulance had already whisked Adrian away and Drayce was missing.

Where the fuck was his Drayce?

The only thing keeping Caelan from ripping Brightspire apart was the knowledge that Drayce was a damn dragon. No one was going to kill Drayce.

But Caelan wasn’t going to relax until Drayce was safely in his arms again.

Rayne suddenly jolted upright and grabbed his phone. He didn’t even look at the screen as he answered the call and marched out of the waiting room so he could talk without anyone else overhearing him. Eno and Davi also jumped to their feet, watching him stride away.

“Eno, follow him. Watch his back,” Caelan ordered. He didn’t think these people would attack them in the hospital, but Caelan wasn’t taking any chances. Rayne’s entire focus was on the call, likely with Vitor. He wasn’t paying attention to the other people. It would be too easy to lose him in this crowded place.

Eno darted away with barely a nod. He fell into step behind Rayne while maintaining a few feet between them to give him some privacy on his call.

A ghost of a smile tried to tease Caelan’s lips when he noticed that Davi immediately moved toward Caelan, placing his body between him and the entrance to the waiting room. Although Davi hadn’t grown up around Eno, he’d inherited the same protective qualities his brother had. Caelan appreciated the sentiment even if he was aching for a fight right now.

“I didn’t ask earlier. Did you and Eno have any troubles today?”

Davi shook his head. “We were being watched, but no one approached us.”

Caelan grunted and returned to his pacing, waiting for news from the nurse or Rayne. He’d be happy with either.

His eyes traveled over the other occupants of the long room as they huddled in small groups, talking just to their own people. Their voices remained at low tones, occasionally punctuated by a shaky laugh or a muffled sob.

This was only his second time inside of a hospital. The first time had been in Stormbreak when he was the Crown Prince. For that visit, he’d been cutting the ribbon on the new wing of the Evrain Talos Hospital. The ceremony took a few minutes, he’d lingered for pictures and handshaking, and then was taken away for another meeting or some other token duty he was responsible for while his mother ran the country.

Growing up, if he suffered some injury—and there had been plenty because he was a magnet for trouble—he was sent straight to his mother so she could heal and lecture him all in a single go. It wasn’t until he’d reached his late teens that he learned how to use the power from the Goddess of Life to heal himself.

Now, standing there, listening to the intermittent announcements over the speakers and watching all the workers in scrubs rushing from one place to another, attempting to save lives, it all felt so…so barbaric and messy. The goddess didn’t require devices and pools of sticky blood to fix someone. Warm, healing magic flowed in and pulled together broken bones, healed injured organs.

This way felt more uncertain, while the power of Tula was…

Absolute, she whispered through his mind.

Is it? We can’t go on and on. All of us must answer to death and the end of time. He could feel her growing irritation and Caelan sighed. I’m not trying to pick a fight or claim you’re not powerful. I’m just saying, isn’t the power of your brother also absolute? When we run out of time, can you undo that? Can you keep us going indefinitely?

To his surprise, Tula’s anger immediately dissipated and the silence stretched, leaving him to believe that she was honestly contemplating his question. She wasn’t brushing him off as this stupid human that needed to obey her.

My power is absolute within the frame of time, Tula corrected.

So even gods had their limitations.

Of course, that answer only made him wonder what the limitations were for the God of Time. Could he not give time to a body that lacked the ability to continue? If there was no heart to beat, it couldn’t live even if it had time?

Nyx chuckled. Oh, you really need to redefine what you call living.

Caelan wanted to follow up on that statement, but he didn’t have a chance. Rayne and Eno returned to the waiting room. Philosophical thoughts of life, death, and the power of the gods were pushed to the back of his mind for another time.

“That was Vitor,” Rayne announced as soon as he was standing in front of Caelan. “He had good news. They’ve located where Drayce is being held. They haven’t been able to ascertain if he’s injured, but they know where he is.”

Caelan breathed a sigh of relief. That was a very good start. If they bothered to take him, it meant they were hoping to use him as bait. It wouldn’t do them any good to kill him.

“Vitor also checked out the address we were given. He thinks it’s trustworthy. The meeting is real.”

He stared at Rayne for a second, his mind whirling. Jasper Feroz wasn’t a prisoner of the Empire. He had sent one of his people to arrange a meeting between them. Caelan had been sure it was another Empire trick.

Well, it could still be a trick.

“I—” Caelan began, but a nurse in pale-blue scrubs entered the room. Everyone stopped and held their breath, waiting to see who she was searching for. A smile formed on her lips when her eyes lit on their small group and she walked over.

“Mr. Westergren is awake now and is asking for someone named Drayce,” the nurse announced in a low voice.

Caelan’s heart clenched. Adrian didn’t know what happened to Drayce or he was at least hoping that he escaped. Swallowing against the sudden rawness of his throat, Caelan said, “He’s a friend of ours. Can we see Adrian now?”

Even as he asked the question, Caelan pulled on Tula’s power, preparing to push his will into her mind. It didn’t matter what she wanted or what was best for Adrian, they were getting back there to see him. If the man hadn’t been in surgery when they arrived, he would have healed him right there in the emergency room and taken Adrian away. But it had already been too late, and it would have created even more chaos if he’d tried to steal the injured man.

“Of course. We just ask that you keep the visit short. His injury wasn’t too severe, but he needs time to recover.”

They agreed with silent nods and followed the nurse through the winding white corridors. In the rooms, Caelan glimpsed beds filled with frail figures and beeping machines. Part of him wanted to send the power of Tula through every inch of this place, healing all the wounds and withering frames. But he wouldn’t get far. He’d be exhausted before he finished with the first few rooms.

Shoving the nagging sense of frustration away, Caelan focused on his main task. He needed Adrian with him to save Drayce and to save Thia. If Thia was protected, all these medical professionals could continue to save lives.

Near the end of the corridor, they filed into the mint-green room to find a sleepy-looking Adrian propped up in the bed. Another nurse was checking his vitals and writing down numbers on her tablet.

“There we go, Mr. Westergren. Your friends are here to visit. You rest, and I’m sure the doctor will have you out of here in a day or two.”

“Drayce?” Adrian immediately asked, his voice low and rough. He stared at them in turn, his focus growing sharper with each passing second.

Caelan moved to Adrian’s bedside and wrapped one of his hands in both of his. “Drayce couldn’t make it, but you’ll see him soon. I promise.”

“Just a few minutes, okay?” the nurse reminded them before slipping out of the room.

Davi followed and closed the door behind her so they could speak more privately.

The second they were alone, Caelan tapped into his healing gift and sent the power rushing into Adrian. The man gasped and then sighed happily.

“Whoa. That’s even better than the painkillers they’ve loaded me up on,” Adrian murmured. His words were slightly slurred.

“Sorry, but I’m going to flush those out of your system as well,” Caelan replied, a half smile lifting one corner of his mouth.

“Can you at least do that last?”

Caelan snorted and nodded. “Yeah, sure.”

“What happened in the pub?” Rayne inquired.

“Sure. Sorry.” Adrian lifted the hand Caelan wasn’t holding and rubbed his head. A little shaft of guilt cut through Caelan. The poor guy was stabbed and had nearly bled out. He was fresh out of surgery, and they were already grilling him for answers. But on the bright side, in another minute, Caelan would have him fixed up like the attack never happened. “Drayce and I were approached by a woman claiming that the prime minister needed our help. She was trying to get us to go with her. Drayce refused and tried to get an address. In the end, she left and I think one of Vitor’s people went to follow her.”

“Vitor had her tracked. It’s where they took Drayce,” Rayne confirmed.

“You found him? Is he okay?” Adrian tried to sit up in bed, but Eno moved quickly to the opposite side and pressed a hand into his shoulder, forcing him to lie still.

“We found him, but we don’t know what kind of shape he’s in. There hasn’t been time to free him,” Eno answered. “We literally found out two minutes ago. Besides, this gives you the chance to go with us.”

“The sooner we all leave this hospital, the better. We have no idea if they’ve figured out Adrian is from Erya. It’s likely they could have reported him or even all of us to the police,” Rayne pointed out.

“Fuck yes, I’m going with you!” Adrian grabbed the edge of his blanket and tried to toss it back as he climbed from the bed.

“I know I make this look easy, but really, this healing thing does go faster if you can lie still.” Caelan sighed loudly.

Adrian winced and settled in the bed again, tugging his thin blanket up to his chin. “Sorry, Your Majesty.”

Davi barked out a sharp laugh from where he stood guarding the door. Rayne might have even chuckled, but he was at least smart enough to cover it with a cough.

“The attack?” his advisor prodded.

“It happened about fifteen or twenty minutes after the woman left. We were getting ready to leave. Six heavily armed guys charged in and started firing before they made any demands. Drayce and I took care of them, but I guess they had more hiding outside or another car pulled up that we didn’t see. One tried to stab Drayce, but I shoved him out of the way.”

“Earning a knife in the belly for your troubles,” Eno finished.

Adrian made a disgruntled noise, and the fingers Caelan were holding tightened. “Yeah, but I didn’t see the guy come in from the kitchen. Drayce’s attention was on me. He missed the guy who came up from behind and hit him on the head with the butt of his gun. One guy tossed him over their shoulder. I think someone hit me, because I don’t remember anything after that.” Adrian cleared his throat and dropped his gaze to his lap. “I’m sorry, Your Majesty. I failed to protect Drayce—”

“Shut up,” Caelan snapped. “You did protect him, and against overwhelming numbers. You nearly got yourself killed.”

“My life for Erya,” Adrian said automatically, repeating part of his vow.

“Yeah, well, I’m not done with your life yet. So, no fucking dying.”

Eno chuckled. “That sounds like a royal command. Guess you’ll just have to go on living.”

Caelan released a tired sigh and pulled Tula’s gift out of Adrian. The long cut that had been sewn together was completely healed and the swelling on his head from where he’d been hit was gone as well. Caelan might have tuned up a couple of other smaller concerns while he was there, putting Adrian in near-perfect health.

With a final squeeze of thanks, he let go of Adrian’s hand and took a step back, crossing his arms over his chest. “What’s the plan? I don’t want to leave Drayce in their hands any longer than necessary.”

Eno nodded. “Agreed. Considering what he can do, I’m surprised he hasn’t broken free yet. He’s either unconscious or possibly hanging out to see what he can learn.”

“We need to bust him out of there,” Adrian grumbled.

“The other thing to keep in mind is that we still have one hour until the appointed meeting,” Rayne chimed in. “Vitor has vetted that location. He feels that it is likely to be the hiding place of the prime minister.”

Caelan smiled slowly at his advisor. “You think we should hit both at the same time.”

“If they are linked to each other, they would not be expecting it,” Rayne replied.

“And if they aren’t, there’s a good chance that we could still learn something of value.” Calean nodded. “At the very least, we’d have Drayce back.”

“You want us to split up?” Eno asked.

Caelan nodded and glanced over at Davi. “Would you be willing to give Eno and Adrian a hand?”

“Seriously?” Davi gasped, his entire face lighting up. “Fuck yeah, I’ll help!”

He turned his attention to Eno, who was looking torn over this development. Caelan could easily imagine that he was thrilled at the idea of working with his brother but less excited about putting his brother in danger.

“Eno, scout the place carefully,” Rayne interjected. “If there are too many guards or you can’t gain some advantage over them, then hold. Wait until Caelan and I can join you.”

“Or if you can reach Drayce, tell him I said ‘toaster,’ ” Caelan added.

Eno stared at him for a second, his brows bunched over his nose. “What? Toaster?”

Caelan grinned. “It’s the code word he came up with. It means he has my permission to shift, and I will take full responsibility for it.”

A low giggle rose from Adrian, and he slapped his hand over his mouth to stop the noise, but his shoulders continued to shake. After a couple of seconds, he lowered his hand again and his eyes sparkled with unshed tears. “I can imagine us running through this building, screaming ‘Toaster! Toaster! Toaster!’ at the top of our lungs. That’s not going to be weird at all.”

Caelan could feel his own grin turning wicked as he nodded. “Trust me, it’ll stop being weird the second several tons of pissed-off dragon appear.”

EIGHTEEN

Rayne Laurent

“I worry that I’ve grown too jaded,” Rayne murmured as they approached the four-story apartment building. The sun had already set, and most of the windows glowed with warm light as the occupants finished with their dinners and relaxed for the night. Tension hummed through his frame. The curfew was still in effect, making traveling through the city right now dangerous all on its own. They needed to move cautiously, hoping that neither the Empire nor the Brightspire police spotted them.

Caelan chuckled next to him as they stood on the sidewalk, staring up at the mundane-appearing structure. “I’m afraid to ask why you say that.”

Rayne’s eyes skimmed over the apartment building, noting that it looked no different than any other place on the quiet residential street. It blended with all the others in that it was painted a bright color and all the balconies possessed overflowing flowerpots or little gardens filled with various herbs. There were colorful rugs, wind chimes, and other bits of art hanging to catch and spin in the wind.

All of it normal.

And somewhere in there was the Prime Minister of Ilon.

“After so many secret meetings in strange locations, I find that I don’t get excited about it any longer.”

Caelan sighed dramatically. “The thrill is gone.” He shook his head. “I’m more worried about you returning to normal life, helping me rule from a throne room all day. Won’t you be incredibly bored?”

“Your Majesty, I am very much looking forward to that so-called boring life.” He was happily anticipating it more and more with each passing day. He’d gotten the tiniest taste of it when they’d returned from Zastrad. While he’d been greatly concerned about Caelan and Drayce, there had been a routine to his day that he missed since they’d first left Stormbreak in the late spring.

And that routine started every morning with rolling over to stare at Eno’s sleeping face. He couldn’t imagine a better way to begin the day. For just a little while, all the worries of the kingdom, his king, and even the gods took a back seat to admiring the beauty and strength of his lover.

“Me too,” Caelan whispered and began walking toward the entrance of the building.

Rayne followed a step behind, a blade held tight in one hand as he continuously scanned the area for anyone who might be lurking in the shadows, poised to attack. The apartment they sought was on the third floor and faced the street. Vitor and Nina were both watching the building and were prepared to warn them if anything appeared suspicious. The last message they received had indicated that all was quiet.

Neither he nor Caelan trusted this situation, but part of him hoped that maybe the prime minister or whoever was in the apartment wouldn’t try to kill them the second they walked in the door. Of course, that didn’t mean Caelan wasn’t prepared, the protective shield ready to go up the second Rayne knocked. There was almost a crackle of pent-up energy in the air, pricking along Rayne’s skin.

The woman who directed him to the book answered the door with what looked to be a relieved smile. She quickly retreated and waved for them to enter. Rayne took one step inside and glanced about, taking in the living room immediately to the right. A man in a white button-down shirt that was open at the collar pushed to his feet. His face was pale, and his thinning gray hair was a bit messy as if he’d been running his fingers through it.

Jasper Feroz.

It was unsettling to see him so unkempt when their previous encounters had brought a prime minister expertly dressed in designer suits and expensive haircuts. But then, it would have been more suspicious if the man wasn’t a touch disheveled. When he spotted no one else, Rayne entered the apartment enough to allow Caelan to follow him.

As the king crossed the threshold, Jasper Feroz bowed deeply. “Thank you so much for coming, Your Majesty,” he said in a low, almost breathless voice.

“It seemed imperative that we talk,” Caelan replied, his tone cool and a bit skeptical.

Rayne watched his friend closely from the corner of his eye, noting that he didn’t so much as dip his head to the prime minister. Was this lack of respect due to the discovery of the government-sanctioned kidnappings or was he convinced that Ilon had willingly aligned itself with New Rosanthe? Either issue didn’t make for a comfortable meeting.

“Yes.” Jasper Feroz sighed. He straightened and bowed his head to Rayne. “It is good to see you again, Lord Laurent.”

“Prime Minister Feroz,” Rayne said, giving his own nod, though nowhere as deep as it should have been considering the man’s government position. As usual, Rayne naturally fell into step with Caelan, following his example.

“Forgive my bluntness, Prime Minister, but what the fuck is happening in Ilon?” Caelan growled.

Jasper didn’t blink at Caelan’s tone, even if Rayne inwardly winced. When it came to rulers, Rayne hated to admit that he was more accustomed to Queen Amara’s cold silence that could bend a room of ministers to her will. He shouldn’t expect Caelan to adopt her style just because he was her son. Regardless of whether his title was Prince or King, Caelan would always be Caelan first.

“Yes, yes. I need to explain. Come in. Sit.” Jasper backpedaled a step and motioned for them to settle on the bright-yellow couch.

Caelan led the way while Rayne continued to search the room. The dark-blue curtains were pulled tightly closed, and there didn’t seem to be anyone else in the apartment that he could hear besides the four of them.

As they sat, Jasper nodded to the woman and she disappeared down the hall, heading toward either the kitchen or possibly the bedroom.

“Your assistant?” Rayne inquired, trying to make it sound casual, but he didn’t care if he succeeded. His only concern was Caelan’s safety.

“Lily?” Jasper replied in a distracted manner, pausing with his butt inches from the seat. He nodded and sat. “Yes. She happened to be with me when the Empire struck and remains by my side as I try to figure a way out of this mess.”

“What exactly happened?”

“They struck while I was in the Shrine District for a small sanctifying ceremony of a newly renovated temple. That-that Safa marched into parliament with a couple dozen of these soldiers and slaughtered half of the elected officials. She also declared they were already holding me hostage. If we didn’t agree to their demands, they were going to destroy Brightspire and slaughter countless citizens like they did in Stormbreak. By the time I reached my car to return to Parliament Plaza, control had been handed over to her.”

“The police?” Rayne asked.

Jasper shook his head. “Under her control. Told to cooperate with the Empire to protect the well-being of the citizens of Brightspire and the rest of Ilon. I managed to talk to one of the district police chiefs. They were told if there were any resistance efforts on the part of law enforcement or citizens, an entire district would be razed overnight and all the people there killed.”

“The military?” Caelan demanded.

“We’ve kept minimal forces near Brightspire. Nearly all have been moved to the Ordas, the border with New Rosanthe, or our major port towns. Calling them back means leaving us vulnerable, and it’s too late.” The prime minister shifted to the edge of his seat and waved a hand at them. “Safa and her forces have fully embedded themselves in the city. They’ve also placed bombs in all the districts. It’s like a choke collar has been wrapped around Brightspire’s neck. Even the smallest move against Safa’s wishes and my people will be hurt.”

“Who broke off all contact with Erya and ordered all Erya citizens out?”

“It was actually both of us. Safa broke off contact first, but I was the one who managed to get the order out that all Erya citizens needed to leave the country. She wanted to hide what she was doing from you, and I didn’t want your people to get hurt. We’ve been friends for so long, and Erya has suffered so much.”

Rayne clenched his teeth to hold in the words that rose up. It was also likely that he was afraid that Erya’s citizens would also carry news of the coup to Stormbreak far too quickly.

Jasper shoved a hand through his hair and scrubbed his scalp. “That was the last thing I was able to do that made any kind of difference. Lily and I have been moving every few days. We get snippets of news here and there from Parliament Plaza. Mostly from representative aides who escaped in the chaos. We’ve got a few people that we trust in the city that have been protecting us and giving us updates on the Empire’s movements and other things.”

“Like how I was in the city,” Caelan murmured.

Jasper dropped his hand to his lap and lifted watery pale-blue eyes to Caelan’s face. “Yes. The fight in the Shrine District. Reports of the fire and-and magic. There have been similar stories in Sirelis and dark whispers out of Zastrad. Your name has been linked to all of it.” Jasper paused and licked his lips. “You’ve been traveling to all the cities with godstones.”

“I have.”

Rayne waited with his breath held, but Caelan didn’t elaborate. He didn’t go on to explain about how they were fighting both the Goddess of the Hunt and New Rosanthe. How he was bonding with the gods and goddesses to save them all.

The prime minister sat back in his chair and swallowed hard as he stared at Caelan. “That’s why you’ve come to Brightspire now. Not because you knew there was trouble with the Empire.”

“We suspected there was a potential problem with New Rosanthe when you summoned your diplomats home and sent ours out of the country,” Rayne answered.

“I’m here to speak with the God of Wisdom. I need access to the Light Stone,” Caelan stated.

“But you’ll first help me get rid of the Empire, right? You fought New Rosanthe in Stormbreak and Sirelis. You’ll help us as well.”

“Stormbreak is my home.” Caelan paused and narrowed his eyes. “And Caspagir is an ally of Erya. They always have been. Of course, I was happy to help them.”

Jasper’s face clouded, and his thin white eyebrows snapped together over his nose. Rayne’s breath became stuck in his chest and his heart picked up. He knew what was coming, and he wished he could will Jasper to pause for half a second, to make him carefully guard his words.

“I don’t understand. Erya and Ilon have been allies for centuries. I sent your people out of the country to protect them,” Jasper argued, his voice growing louder with each word.

“And what about the Erya children you had stolen from their homes and brought to Ilon?” Caelan’s voice was deceptively calm and soft, but it was enough to make Jasper’s breath audibly catch in his throat. The man flinched, his eyes widening slightly.

“I don’t know—”

Caelan’s tone sharpened to a razor’s edge as he cut Jasper off. “Don’t. Don’t deny. Don’t lie to me.” He leaned forward, resting his forearms on his knees. He stared down the prime minister, who swallowed hard. “I’m keeping things civil right now because our countries have a long—and what I thought was trusted—history. But I’ve seen and met the proof that Erya’s trust has been betrayed by you and previous leaders for decades.”

Sweat glistened on the man’s forehead and along his upper lip in the overhead light. His hand trembled as it smoothed through his hair. “Your-your Majesty, please, you must understand, that program, it wasn’t started by me. It’s a relic that was begun long ago. I never approved of it.”

“And you’ve done nothing to stop it. You’ve done nothing by way of restitution or even apologizing to those who were taken from their homes.”

“They were largely orphans—”

“They were Erya’s children!” Caelan roared, launching to his feet. “They were children stolen from the hospital, still warm from the loving arms of their parents!”

Rayne hesitated. Sadly, part of him wanted Caelan to lose his temper and unleash the power of the gods on this man, but it wasn’t right. Yes, Jasper Feroz had done nothing to stop the program, but he also wasn’t the start of it, and killing him wouldn’t fix anything.

Swallowing a sigh, Rayne shoved to his feet as well and turned to face Caelan, placing a gentle hand on his shoulder. “Please, Cael,” he whispered in the king’s ear. “This won’t solve it.”

“No, but I wonder how Damardor would feel if they knew how many children were stolen by people under the orders of the Ilon government. Or even New Rosanthe. The Empire is being quite generous now, but would the emperor continue to be merciful if he knew what you’d stolen?”

“No! Please!” the prime minister gasped and fell to his knees in the center of the room. “Please, Your Majesty. You can’t tell them. It will become a race to destroy us. Please, you must show us mercy. Ilon and Erya have helped each other for so long. The program was only created because our population was growing old and dying faster than children were being born. Our society is not built on archaic notions of family units.”

“So, you’ve turned to stealing a labor force from other countries to support your own people,” Rayne snapped.

“We’re trying to wind down the program and become more reliant on Ilon citizens to grow the population, but our society is slowly dying.”

Caelan leaned forward and twisted his fist in the collar of Jasper’s shirt, pulling him upright so that the older man was forced to stare the king in the eyes. “Where are the missing children?”

“Wh-what?”

“Half the population you’ve stolen from Erya and other countries has been traced to Brightspire and some other major cities, but half has gone missing completely,” Rayne explained. “Where are they?”

“What have you done with them?” Caelan shook him hard, snapping his head up.

“They’re safe! They’re safe! I swear! They’ve been sent to Green Spring. It’s a small town in the east. We’ve sent both refugees as well as the children that have come to us there.”

Caelan snarled and released Jasper. He straightened and wiped his hand on his pants before throwing himself on the couch again. Rayne hesitated for a moment, making sure that Caelan wasn’t going to attack Jasper, then took his seat as well.

“I’ll help Ilon get rid of the Empire, but only after you take me to the godstone,” Caelan bit out.

“What? But the Empire…we need to get rid of them now. They—”

“Safa and New Rosanthe are after the godstone. We have to beat them to it,” Rayne interrupted. He paused and narrowed his eyes on the man. “Unless you’ve already shown them to it.”

“What? No! Of course not! I-I didn’t know that’s what they were after,” the prime minister sputtered. “No one has made a single mention of it to me.”

“Why else would they take an interest in Stormbreak and Sirelis and Brightspire?” Rayne sneered.

This was fucking ridiculous. Rayne couldn’t believe the man was so dense and ineffective. How could he have become the prime minister of Ilon if he didn’t have two working brain cells? Anyone who knew the locations of the other godstones had to see the pattern. And as Prime Minister of Ilon, he had that information.

“I-I thought they were just trying to conquer us all, like they did with Damardor and Uris-Oladul. I didn’t think they even knew about the godstones. The emperor shouldn’t know.” Jasper sat back on his heels and swiped a hand across his sweaty forehead.

“Emperor Suen shouldn’t know, but I get the impression that Safa told him about it to get access to his army.”

Jasper straightened to his knees again and stretched a damp hand out to Caelan. “All the more reason to get rid of New Rosanthe as quickly as possible. You must help me save the city, save Ilon.”

“I’m trying to save all of Thia from New Rosanthe and the Goddess of the Hunt,” Caelan growled.

The prime minister’s head jerked and he blinked at Caelan. “Goddess of the Hunt? There’s no such goddess.”

Rayne’s heart lurched and his breath was briefly trapped in his lungs. Caelan started to argue, but Rayne grabbed his arm and squeezed, stopping his words.

“Are you sure?” Rayne asked slowly.

“Of course I’m sure. There has never been a Goddess of the Hunt. We have shrines to all the gods who ever existed—major and minor. There’s no Goddess of the Hunt.” There was a deadness to his voice as if he were reciting a line that had been memorized long ago.

“Is the godstone underground?” Caelan threw out.

“There’s nothing underground,” Jasper replied in the same tone of voice.

“Fuck,” Caelan swore softly and scrubbed a hand over his face.

Rayne released his king and leaned forward. “But you have seen the godstone? You know where it is?”

“Of course! I’m the only one who has access to the godstone. The only person in Ilon who knows of the existence of the godstone is the prime minister,” Jasper snapped. He pushed to his feet, wobbling a little as he winced and rubbed his knees, and then dropped into his chair.

“What about previous prime ministers?”

He shook his head. “That information is wiped from their memory when they officially leave office.” He gave a dismissive wave of his hand as if it were no big deal. “Something about the godstone keeps the information from sticking.”

Well, at least that was some small relief. Safa couldn’t get access to the godstone through a former prime minister. They just had to keep this one away from the Empire.

“Show me the godstone first, and I won’t inform all the countries of Thia that Ilon has been stealing children for decades,” Caelan bargained in a low voice.

Rayne gasped and barely caught the denial that rose up in his throat. What the fuck was Caelan thinking? He couldn’t possibly agree to keep this vile betrayal a secret. Everyone deserved to know the truth. Even Caspagir needed to know in case their own investigation had come up short. Maybe they were also missing children, thanks to Ilon.

“You will?” Jasper whispered, his eyes becoming wide.

“I’ll give you this one chance to stop the operation and notify the victims on your own rather than bringing this shameful secret to light. But I’ll only do this if you take me directly to the godstone. Afterward, I will deal with Safa and New Rosanthe. I’ll remove them from Brightspire and keep your people safe.”

“I-I…”

“This is your one chance. There will be no other deal.”

After another second of indecision, Jasper nodded, his head hanging. “Okay. I’ll take you to the godstone.”

Caelan didn’t waste another moment. He shoved to his feet and Rayne joined him. His brain was too twisted up in shock to do anything but follow his king. How could Caelan even think to strike such a deal? It didn’t make any sense. Fuck, Eno and Davi were going to be livid when they found out. He couldn’t explain it to them because even he didn’t understand it.

“We have to prepare. My people will be in contact in a day or two. Don’t try to leave. We’ll be watching,” Caelan stated and marched to the door.

Rayne followed closely on his heels down the stairs. They paused near the entrance as Rayne shot a quick text off to Vitor. The Gray Fox immediately replied that the street continued to be clear of anyone who might try to attack them.

“Caelan, I don’t understand,” Rayne blurted out the second they were on the street and walking away from the building. “How could you make a promise like that?”

“I was lying,” Caelan admitted with the tiniest smirk.

“What?” Rayne choked on the air. That was not the answer he’d been expecting.

Caelan stopped and turned to face him. “I was lying.” His jaw tightened before he continued. “But then so was Jasper Feroz. If he’s not going to be truthful with me, why should I give him the same courtesy?”

“Zyros and the location of the godstone,” Rayne whispered. Both comments Jasper had offered had been in the same dead tone everyone gave when asked about what was under the city of Brightspire.

Caelan grunted. “More than that. I feel like everything he said was a lie of some sort. I wasn’t in his mind, but Tula was not pleased with the entire conversation. She kept calling him a liar.”

“He can’t be trusted. He could be working with the Empire.”

“But right now, he is our best chance of getting to the godstone.”

NINETEEN

Eno Bevyn

“You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” Eno grumbled as Davi took them to the address they’d been given. “The Shrine District? Drayce is being held in the Shrine District?”

“Oh, it gets better. He’s not just in the Shrine District, he’s actually being held in the temple for the God of Broken Toys.”

Eno had to stop walking and rub his eyes as his brain struggled to comprehend the words he was hearing. When it came down to rescuing Drayce, he’d been sure they’d be heading to an abandoned warehouse or some secret hideout in a not-so-great part of town.

But no, they were going to the Shrine District filled with temples, cathedrals, churches, and shrines dedicated to all the old, dead gods. As if that wasn’t enough, he was now learning that at one time there was a God of Broken Toys.

Why the fuck…

“Eh, I doubt it’ll be the weirdest place I’ve ever broken into,” Adrian muttered.

And that was the other thing hurting his brain.

Eno dropped his hand and glared at the man who’d been in surgery a few short hours earlier. After Caelan healed him, Adrian had dressed and they’d walked out of there with Caelan doing his brainwashing trick so no one noticed them. “Are you truly up for this?”

“Oh yeah, good as new.” Adrian grinned and patted his stomach where he’d been stabbed. He didn’t so much as flinch or wince.

Eno had to let that go. If Caelan and Adrian said the reformed thief was in proper shape for this kind of adventure, then he was. Their focus needed to be on finding and rescuing Drayce before he could get injured.

“Since you’re the most experienced when it comes to sneaking, how do you want to handle this?” Eno asked, his eyes on Adrian.

“Hey! I’ve done my fair share of sneaking,” Davi hissed.

Adrian patted Eno’s brother on the shoulder and smirked at him. “Let it go, kid. I was a pro at this when you were trying to pick your first lock.”

Davi glared at Adrian and turned that dark look on Eno. “Seriously?”

“Actually, yeah. He’s got almost too much experience at this. He’s already sneaked in and out of a dragon prison.”

“Cakewalk,” Adrian muttered and motioned for them to follow him down the street. “Try sneaking into the Royal Towers in the middle of the afternoon. That took some skill.”

Again, Eno didn’t want to know the details. He could only hope that Adrian took the time to inform them of the shortcomings of their security details so they could be fixed. They trailed after the thief-turned-royal-guard, sticking to the shadows to avoid the notice of police on patrol.

Near one of the smaller shrines, Adrian directed them to a narrow alley that connected to a larger service street that ran behind the temples and was likely used for deliveries. There were fewer lights, allowing them to disappear more effectively.

“Did Vitor and his crew mention how many people were guarding Drayce?” Adrian inquired.

“We can confirm there are at least five with him, but there may be more,” Davi replied. If he was still irritated that he wasn’t the sneakiest of the group, it didn’t show in his voice. What Eno feared more was that Davi was going to see Adrian as a new source of information on effective sneaking. He wasn’t exactly thrilled with the idea of his brother working as a spy. Not that he had any right to argue since he was the king’s personal bodyguard and put his life on the line for the crown every damn day.

Adrian grunted and retreated to a dark doorway situated diagonal to their target. Eno could see one guard sitting on the back stairs leading to the temple. It was a two-story stone structure with a tiny, rounded dome. He’d caught a glimpse of the front before Adrian turned them around, but the gray stones had eyeless teddy bears, wheelless cars, and other broken toys carved into the stone.

There was something naturally sad about the building, but more about the idea of a god being the patron of broken toys. How had he come into being? Did he have a choice over what he was the god of? And if so, why that?

Eno ripped his mind from those maudlin thoughts as a light on the second floor flipped on. Five against the three of them weren’t bad odds, but they had to be careful. They didn’t want Drayce getting hurt if bullets started flying in that small space.

“So…does the king have any problem with things getting bloody?” Adrian drawled. He glanced over his shoulder at Eno, one eyebrow arched while he rubbed his bottom lip with his thumb.

Eno nearly laughed at the question. “No. If your safest option is to kill the kidnappers, do it. They left you for dead and they have the king’s boyfriend. I’m sure Caelan just wants him back safe and sound. How it gets done is up to us.”

“Got it. I’ll take the lead. You and Davi wait here for my signal,” Adrian said and then jogged across the alley to the temple right next to the shrine for the broken toys god.

He made a grab for the former thief but missed. “What fucking signal?” he hissed, but Adrian grinned and flashed him a thumbs up.

Davi snorted and leaned against the wall where Adrian had stood a second ago. “Do all your missions go like this?”

“No,” he growled at his brother. “Adrian is new and far too fucking independent.” But that likely came from the fact that Adrian was accustomed to working alone as a thief.

From their spot, they tracked Adrian as he slipped into some darker shadows and then smoothly over a low wall that separated the other temple’s grounds from those belonging to the God of Broken Toys. He didn’t make a freaking sound, quieter than even the wind. Adrian briefly disappeared from sight and a couple of seconds later, the guard seated on the stairs gasped, grabbing at his throat. A shadow passed over the man, and he disappeared below the wall that obscured their view.

“What the…” Davi whispered.

“I’ll give him that he’s fast and quiet.”

“Like a fucking ghost. I get it. Don’t piss off the thief.”

“Royal Guard,” Eno corrected. Regardless of Adrian’s past, he was now and always would be of the Royal Guard of Eyra. Adrian was prepared to give his life for the crown, the Godstone, and his country.

Nearly a minute passed before Adrian stood up and turned to face them. He held up two fingers and motioned toward the rear door.

“I’m guessing we’re to follow in two minutes,” Davi murmured.

“He’ll try to clear the first floor for us. Drayce will likely be held up on the second floor.”

Adrian didn’t get his two minutes.

In fact, he couldn’t have been in there a full minute when gunshots rang out. From the sound, there had to be a lot more than the remaining four kidnappers it should have been. Eno swore, his heart leaping into his throat as he broke into a run, Davi right on his heels. They’d just gotten the damn man out of the hospital. There was no way Eno was sending him straight back there.

As they ran through the opening in the wall, Eno spotted the dead guard, his neck and chest covered in blood and his eyes staring blindly up at the black night sky. He grabbed the gun that was still in the man’s holster on his hip. Adrian hadn’t even given him the chance to pull his weapon.

Eno would have preferred his sword, but that wasn’t a smart option in this kind of close quarters, and he wasn’t nearly as skilled at throwing knives as Rayne.

He took the lead, charging up the three crumbling stone stairs. Lifting one booted foot, he kicked in the door, sending it flying inward and slamming against the wall. Davi was plastered to the opposite wall for protection, his own gun raised in front of him.

“Just got to be a badass,” Davi laughed.

He barely heard the comment over the sound of the guns and the bullets hitting the walls. There was no one in the small room except for another dead body. His throat was slit and blood soaked into his clothes.

Eno led the way into the temple but stopped sharply at the next doorway to what turned out to be a small kitchenette for the employees of the shrine with the requisite coffeemaker, microwave, and toaster oven for hot lunches. Of course, all those things were now broken and pockmarked with bullet holes. The sunny yellow walls weren’t looking any better as they now contained a number of holes as well. Adrian was crouched below a counter, replacing the magazine in the butt of his gun with a fresh one.

“Problem?” Eno called out.

Adrian’s head popped up and the man calmly rolled his eyes as if he wasn’t trapped. The other side of the counter led to a wide hallway and likely the rest of the shrine for the lost god. “Poor timing on my part. I’m rusty,” Adrian moaned.

“Drayce?”

“My guess is second floor,” Adrian confirmed. “At least two ran down the stairs, but I heard more footsteps. I’d say there’s at least one more up there with him.”

Eno frowned and leaned his shoulders against the wall. Could one of them go back outside and climb up to a second-floor window? No. There was no roof or anything they could grab into. They would need a ladder. Adrian might have been able to do it if he wasn’t already pinned behind the counter.

“How—” Eno started to ask, but Adrian was ready with an answer without needing a question.

“Davi and I will cover you. Come out and make an immediate right!”

“Got it,” Eno barked.

His brother grabbed his arm, pulling Eno’s gaze to his face. He held up a spare gun. “For Drayce.”

Eno took the weapon and shoved it into the waistband of his pants. There was a good chance that Drayce wasn’t going to get the chance to use it. Eno was planning to shout the code word the second he thought Drayce was within range of hearing him.

He glanced at Adrian to find a nervous and slightly crooked smile on his lips. He had to be out of his element now. This thief’s success was marked by not getting caught in gunfire like this.

Ready? Adrian mouthed.

Eno nodded.

Adrian jumped up and began firing wildly down the wide hall, while Davi rolled around the edge of the doorway and joined him. The kidnappers instantly retreated to cover. Eno jumped through the doorway and immediately turned right, putting a wall between him and the bastards who took Drayce. The smaller hallway already possessed one dead body with a gunshot to the forehead and a narrow set of stairs.

The second his foot hit the first step, more answering gunfire broke out and he flattened himself to the stairs. He crawled up to the landing and stopped as someone on the second floor started to fire at him.

“Drayce!” Eno bellowed at the top of his lungs. “Drayce!”

“Eno?” The answer came back a little softer, but it was unmistakably Drayce. Oh, thank fuck!

“Toaster! Toaster! Toaster!” Eno shouted over and over again. There wasn’t an ounce of remorse in him, but there was a shiver of fear. He’d seen and felt what it was like to face Drayce in his dragon form. No matter what kind of reassurances Drayce gave him, that deeper survival instinct with his brain still screamed run.

“Fuck, yes!” Drayce shouted, and Eno swore his voice was somehow deeper.

Shit. Maybe this was a bad idea. Drayce’s dragon was enormous, and he was up on the second floor. If he shifted completely, he was going to bring the entire shrine down on top of them.

Eno hesitated, the wooden stairs biting into his chest and abdomen, as he tried to decide what to do next. Adrian and Davi weren’t going to last much longer. They had to be running low on ammunition. He needed to make a try for Drayce and then maybe they could run for the back door together.

A blood-curdling scream echoed through the second floor followed by the thunder of frantic footsteps running toward him. Eno barely managed to get his gun up and squeeze off two rounds, placing the bullets neatly in the man’s chest. He gasped and fell forward, tumbling the last of the stairs to crumple at the landing. Eno stared at him for a second. It was like he hadn’t noticed Eno was there. Or he hadn’t cared.

More footsteps drew Eno’s eyes up the staircase and a chill ran along his spine. His finger flinched and he almost didn’t stop himself in time. Drayce was standing at the top of the stairs, but it wasn’t quite him. His normally pale skin was darker now and looked almost pebbled. Green eyes glared at the corpse, but the pupils were more like reptilian slits. Long, black talons tipped his fingers and scored the stone walls.

“Motherfucker,” Drayce swore. Licks of fire curled up his lips as he spoke and kissed his cheeks. Somehow Eno pulled his gaze away from the creature that was somehow half man and half dragon to a flickering glow on the second floor. Something was already on fire, and it was likely growing. Smoke was creeping along the ceiling and filling the hall.

Drayce took a step closer and Eno jerked, his shoulders slamming into the wall while the gun whipped back to point at Drayce’s chest.

His friend lifted his hands and smiled, though it was still a cold and wicked thing. “I’m in control. I promise,” Drayce reassured him.

“S-sorry,” Eno apologized but still struggled to lower his weapon. Drayce didn’t seem bothered by it.

“Who’s here?”

“Davi and Adrian. They’ve got to be running low on ammo now. We need to hurry.”

Drayce nodded and stared at Eno. “Toaster, right?”

“Yep. Caelan said toaster. Have a blast.”

“Fuck yes,” Drayce repeated, and this time Eno could feel the resonance of that growl in his chest.

Drayce darted down the rest of the stairs, moving too fast to be more than a blur. A black blur that seemed to be much bigger than his normally slender frame. Eno began to follow but jumped back when flames blasted through the halls and painted the far wall. Men screamed in a mix of pain and panic. Walls groaned and something crashed.

The gunfire had completely stopped. Eno stared along the hall and was surprised to see Davi poke his head into the corridor. He frantically waved Eno to him.

Sucking in a breath, Eno ran, joining Adrian and his brother in the small room off the kitchen near the rear door.

“What the fuck?” Davi demanded.

“Drayce. Holy fuck, that’s Drayce and he is pissed,” Adrian exploded in a rush.

The entire building suddenly shook and groaned loudly. Black smoke was filling the entire place, making it impossible to see or even breathe. Eno grabbed the shoulders of both men and turned them toward the door. “Go! Now! He’s going to demolish the entire place!”

“But, Drayce—” Adrian started to argue.

Eno gave him a harder shove. “He’s fine! Just go!”

They turned to the door and hurried out. Eno kept them moving across the small open space and through the low wall to the opposite side of the alley. They were wheezing and coughing, trying to clear their lungs. The entire shrine glowed with the growing fire that was eating away at the interior. Several loud crashes rose from the building and fear squeezed Eno’s chest. He wanted to believe that Drayce was fine, that he wouldn’t have any trouble withstanding a building crashing on him.

A loud crack echoed and the building tumbled inward. Eno gasped and tried to run to the collapsing shrine. Davi grabbed his wrist before he got more than a couple of steps.

“Look!” Adrian shouted and pointed to a shadowy figure moving across the yard.

Drayce—the real, human Drayce—stepped into the glow of a streetlamp and grinned at them like the lunatic he was. “Miss me?”

Eno groaned and rocked back a step, bumping into his brother, who wrapped an arm around his shoulders. “Asshole. What took you so long?”

His old friend flipped him off, but his expression grew a little sheepish. “My fucking tail got caught and brought the entire place down.”

“Could you do something about the fire?” Adrian asked, waving his hand toward the raging fire that was currently engulfing the remains of the shrine for the God of Broken Toys. “It could spread to the other temples.”

Drayce stared at the man for a second as though he’d lost his mind. “It’s fire. I can’t control it. Who do you think I am? The Goddess of Fire? Dragons start fires. We don’t put them out.”

Eno ignored Drayce’s ridiculous comments and pulled him in for a tight hug. “You okay?” he murmured in his ear.

The man in his arm squeaked. “I was. I think you’re cracking my ribs, big guy.”

He released him but kept an arm wrapped across his shoulders. “I’m serious.”

“Yeah, yeah.” Drayce waved a hand at him, brushing off his comments, but he still leaned his head against Eno’s shoulder. “They roughed me up a little, but nothing bad. I’m fine. And trust me, what I got to do to them more than made up for any pain they caused me.”

Eno squeezed his eyes shut and swallowed his groan. These were the kind of things he didn’t want to think about when it came to Drayce being a dragon. How could he have possibly lived for years under the belief that this squirrely, scrawny person needed protection? Or that he could never protect Caelan?

“Drayce,” Adrian broke in, his voice rough. “I’m sorry. I didn’t—”

“Idiot!” Drayce suddenly barked. “How could you get yourself stabbed like that?” He stopped and blinked at Adrian, as if he was just now remembering that Adrian had been injured and left bleeding in that pub. “Cael?”

Adrian’s hand rubbed his stomach and winced. “Surgery and then the king. But it’s not like I was trying to get stabbed. I was making sure you didn’t get stabbed in the back!” The royal guard instantly deflated, his shoulders slumping. “Instead, you got bashed in the head.”

Drayce left Eno and walked over to Adrian, rubbing his hair. “Yeah, well, it’s a good thing I have a hard head. I’m good, I swear. Thanks for the rescue.”

“Speaking of, we should probably move this rescue along before we’re caught by the fire department and the cops,” Davi reminded them.

“Come on,” Eno said with a sigh. “We need to get out of here. Meet up with the others.”

All the joking left Drayce’s face and those wide eyes snapped to Eno. “Cael? He okay? Why didn’t he come?”

“He’s fine. He figured one dragon was plenty to take care of these guys. He’s waiting for you at our new hideout.”

By now, Rayne and Caelan should have returned from their meeting with the prime minister. Eno was anxious to find out what the fuck was going on in Ilon.

And just maybe, he’d get the chance to wrap his arms around his lover.

TWENTY

Caelan Talos

Brightspire was unnaturally quiet.

But that happened when you put your citizens on lockdown every night.

New Rosanthe did it to maintain tight control.

Caelan hated that he was grateful for it. If the citizens were off the streets, they were less likely to run into Safa. They were less likely to be slaughtered for no reason other than her own amusement.

He didn’t want to see the people of Ilon hurt like the citizens of Stormbreak Point had been. During his last brief visit home, he’d toured the areas that had been damaged in the fighting. In the past five months, all the rubble had been removed and those buildings that could be repaired were nearing completion. Unfortunately, there were too many that had to be completely demolished.

Like the center tower of the Royal Towers.

The massive vines he created still enveloped the Life Stone, blocking it from the view of all. The idea that no one could visit the Godstone and the goddess would have saddened his mother—but then, he never felt far from Tula. She was always right there in his mind.

I was always with your mother as well, Tula whispered.

Like this?

Not quite. We’re closer.

Caelan paused, a frown forming on his lips. Is our bond different?

Yes. It runs deeper. I’ve given more of myself to you in order to stop Zyros. There was a pause and when she spoke again, her voice was softer, more distant, as if she were walking away from him. We all have.

There was no chance to follow up on that comment. A loud screech tore through the night and Caelan turned to the door that led up to the building rooftop. After everything they’d been through recently, Eno and Vitor had decided it was best if they moved safe houses. They were now occupying a two-bedroom loft in a renovated warehouse in the Bazaar District.

While the furnishings were minimal and they were somewhat crowded into the space, Caelan couldn’t complain about the access to the roof. The building was tall enough to offer a fantastic view of the city. Rising up to the west in gold light was University Hill with its collection of libraries, museums, and of course, universities dedicated to a wide variety of studies. To the south, he could catch glimpses of the coolly dignified buildings of Parliament Plaza where Safa and the New Rosanthe soldiers had taken up residence.

Brightspire had a nice skyline, but it was not his own. He missed the twinkling skyline of Stormbreak. He missed it even more from the Royal Towers. The Armory was too close to the bay and wasn’t nearly as tall, offering a poor view.

Maybe Rayne was right. It was time to let go of all old wounds and return home.

Drayce was first through the door, and something tight in Caelan’s chest unclenched. Eno had texted from the road that they’d acquired Drayce and they were all unharmed, but something in him wouldn’t let go of the fear until he could see Drayce’s smiling face.

Not going to rescue his lover had been one of the hardest decisions he’d ever had to make, but he knew it was also one of his smartest. He couldn’t risk putting himself in the hands of New Rosanthe. He had to trust and believe in the skills of his people. And he’d needed to complete his meeting with the prime minister.

Drayce’s eyes scanned the rooftop for only a second before they located Caelan standing next to Rayne. His beautiful face, lit by a bare lamp hanging above the door, split into the most wonderful grin and he started toward him. Brisk steps gradually turned into a jog, closing the distance between them faster and faster until at last, those arms were wrapped around him again.

“Idiot,” Caelan whispered in a choked voice, his face pressed into Drayce’s warm, sweaty neck.

“I missed you too.” Drayce laughed, but the sound came out wobbly and choked.

Caelan closed his eyes and drew in a deep breath. He released it on a chuckle as he was wrapped in the heavy but familiar scent of burning wood, as if Drayce were a walking campfire.

“You shifted, didn’t you?”

Drayce pulled away enough so that he could look Caelan in the eye. “Eno said toaster!”

Caelan smiled and nodded. “I told him to.”

“See! So, I was allowed to shift. Besides, anyone who saw me like that is dead now. Nothing to worry about.”

“Except for the fact that he demolished the shrine to the God of Broken Toys,” Eno called out as he approached with Davi and Adrian.

Drayce snorted. “More like the God of Broken Shrines now.”

“Demolished?” Caelan gasped. He should have known that this wasn’t going to be some neat and tidy mission, but he’d not expected an entire temple to be destroyed.

His lover winced, fingers tightening on his arms. “It was a tiny place. Barely enough room for me to move around. No room to fight in. And then the fire kind of got out of control. And my tail got caught!” He motioned behind him as if he still had the injured tail in question.

Like an idiot, Caelan found himself looking where Drayce mentioned. “Is your tail still hurt? Is any of you hurt?” Even before Drayce could answer his questions, he started running his hands down Drayce’s chest and across his stomach.

A giggle bounced from Drayce’s lips, and he caught Caelan’s hands. “Nope. I’m fine. I swear. No harm done.”

Caelan lowered his hands to his sides and turned away from Drayce to face his other companions. “Is anyone hurt?”

“No, we’re all good. No injuries,” Eno answered.

“Can’t say the same for Drayce’s kidnappers,” Adrian snickered.

Davi nodded and bumped his shoulder against Adrian’s. “Yep. If they weren’t shot, they were flambéed or crushed under the falling building.”

Not pretty, but it got the job done and his people back to him safely.

“What about you? Any problems?” Eno inquired, his gaze darting from Rayne to Caelan and then to Rayne again. His bodyguard seemed like he very much wanted to pull Rayne into his arms and hold him, but he was showing more restraint than he and Drayce had managed.

“No problems, per se,” Rayne admitted slowly.

“What? It wasn’t the prime minister?” Adrian asked.

“No, it was him. Our problem is that we don’t think that he’s particularly trustworthy,” Caelan explained. “He told us he was away from Parliament Plaza when it was attacked and he’s been in hiding for the past month. He says that he can’t bring in any forces to oust the Empire without risking the lives of his people. He doesn’t want a slaughter like what Stormbreak suffered.”

“Bullshit,” Davi snarled. “Everyone knows that Ilon has ample special covert forces that could infiltrate Parliament Plaza and take out the Empire’s men.”

Caelan grunted in agreement. “Even if they couldn’t kill Safa, the regular New Rosanthe troops shouldn’t cause a problem for them.”

“He also claims that Safa and her men have killed at least half the members of Parliament. After she’s done, Feroz could turn that kind of tragedy to his advantage and seize even more power,” Rayne explained.

“And if he’s aligned himself with the Empire in the first place, he could look to Emperor Naram Suen to simply install him as the new puppet dictator of Ilon.”

“How…how could he do that? How could he betray his people like this?” Davi raged, his fists balled and trembling at his sides.

“He’s using the excuse that he doesn’t want the people of Brightspire to suffer like those in Stormbreak,” Caelan murmured.

“Fuck that! We’d rather fight than give in to the Empire!”

“Stop,” Adrian snapped sharply. He took a step closer to Davi, his face twisted with pain and anger. “It’s easy to say you’ll fight when you have no idea what you’re going to face. You weren’t there in Stormbreak when the Empire moved in. They fucking killed Queen Amara and her bodyguard. They killed hundreds of soldiers and just as many innocent civilians. And then even more suffered during the occupation, their homes raided and food supplies dwindling to practically nothing.”

“Are you saying you wouldn’t fight them if you had the chance?”

Adrian shook his head. “No, I would, but I wouldn’t be so quick to throw my fellow citizens into danger without at least first considering their welfare and what they’d suffer.”

Caelan watched Adrian, his heart aching for the man as well as the people he’d been unable to save because he was in Caspagir trying to bond with the God of Storms. But there was no undoing the past. They’d returned as fast as they could, saved as many people as they were able.

“I don’t understand,” Drayce broke in. He piled his hands together on the top of his head and slowly paced around them as he talked. “If this prime minister is sided with New Rosanthe, why didn’t he grab you and Rayne tonight? That’s what Safa wants, right?”

Rayne immediately shook his head. “He likely suspected that he was being watched and knew that we wouldn’t show if there were any Empire soldiers close by. There was just Feroz and his assistant in the apartment when we met. Even if Safa didn’t warn him about Caelan’s abilities, he’s seen the videos out of Sirelis. Feroz wouldn’t have acted against Caelan unless he was one hundred percent sure he would succeed.”

Eno at last closed the final few feet separating him and Rayne. He captured Rayne’s hand in his and Rayne flashed him a small smile. Caelan tore his eyes away and smirked at the ground. He wanted this for Rayne, for both of them. His role as king forced him to keep his eye on the bigger picture, which was saving all of Thia from New Rosanthe and the goddess. But the part of him that was still human and loved his friends desperately wanted to get them back to Stormbreak so they could live happy, normal lives together.

“What’s his plan, then?” Eno inquired.

“He wants me to remove Safa and the Empire from Parliament Plaza,” Caelan replied.

“It was the one thing that he kept pressing for,” Rayne added.

“Safa came close to killing me once. I’ll be better prepared for another encounter, but I’m in no rush to meet her. At least not until I’ve bonded with the God of Wisdom first.”

“Did he tell you the location of the godstone? Is it underground?” Drayce demanded.

Caelan shook his head. “He didn’t say, but he’s promised to take us to it when we are ready.”

“He was rather strange about it, though,” Rayne murmured, sounding like he was talking to himself.

“Sounds like everything out of the bastard’s mouth was strange,” Davi grumbled.

“No, when Cael asked if the godstone was underground, we got the same response that both you and Vitor gave us. There is nothing underground. Same dead tone. Same blank stare.”

“As if he’d been brainwashed,” Caelan whispered.

Davi shuddered and shifted from one foot to the other. “I can hear an echo through my head saying the same thing every time you say that word. It’s freaky, and I swear I never noticed it before.”

“Probably because no one ever talks about it,” Adrian pointed out.

Caelan cocked his head to the side and narrowed his eyes on Davi. “What about the Goddess of the Hunt? Have you heard of her? Has anyone ever mentioned Zyros?”

Davi immediately raised his hands as if to ward off Caelan’s questions. “Seriously, I don’t know anything about the gods. I thought they were all dead and gone. I mean, sure, the God of Wisdom is the Patron God of Ilon, just like the Goddess of Life is the patron of Erya, but as for the other gods, I haven’t paid any attention to them. There could have been a Goddess of the Hunt.”

“Interesting,” Rayne mumbled.

“What? What’s interesting?” Drayce immediately prodded. He wrapped both his arms around Caelan and rested his chin on the king’s shoulder like it belonged there. In Caelan’s opinion, it very much did.

“We mentioned the Goddess of the Hunt to Feroz, and he immediately replied in the same dead tone that he used when talking about the underground. For some reason, the God of Wisdom specifically brainwashed him to not know anything about her.”

Caelan shook his head and shuffled away from their group, part of him instantly missing the feel of Drayce’s arms. He turned toward the waist-high wall that surrounded the rooftop and lightly kicked the brick as he let random thoughts swirl in his brain. He could understand why no one was allowed to know about the location of the godstone. It was an easy layer of defense.

But why couldn’t anyone know about the Goddess of the Hunt?

The fact was, few people, other than the citizens of Zastrad, ever gave much thought to the gods, and when they did, the focus was always on the Goddess of Life. She was the only one who was actively celebrated each year. Each country had their own patron gods or goddesses, but Caspagir, Ilon, and even New Rosanthe celebrated the Goddess of Life each winter as part of the Solstice Celebrations.

The only strange one in the bunch was Zastrad—but then, the people of Zastrad were very much about making their own rules in life and death.

Why was it so important that Zyros was kept a secret from certain people?

The history of Zyros is a painful and ugly one, Caris said in his mind.

Considering that she wants all the gods dead and Thia destroyed, I wouldn’t expect her story to be a pretty one. Caelan closed his eyes and focused his entire being into his words. Please, can you tell me more about Zyros? What happened to her? Why is there such animosity?

You’re close now. And it’s not our story to tell. The Goddess of Fire’s voice had faded to near a whisper, and he struggled to hear her.

I really don’t think she’s going to be willing to talk to me, and Safa would much rather rip my head off than talk to me. There’s no way I’m ever going to find the truth of why we’re all being taken to the brink of death.

A long pause stretched into an almost suffocating silence in his head. He couldn’t remember the last time the gods and goddesses had been so quiet. Even their emotions were muffled for once. He caught hints of anger and indignation from Kaes and Tula, but Caris felt more sad to him anything. And Nyx…fuck, the Dead God was a tangled mess that he couldn’t quite decipher.

The story doesn’t belong to Zyros alone, Caris finally confessed.

Oh. Shit.

There was only one god left for him to meet with before he sought out the Goddess of the Hunt. He’d thought he was going to the God of Wisdom because he knew all the histories of Thia. Naturally, he would have the truth of what happened to the Goddess of the Hunt.

But if he was involved. More than an observer.

Where did he fall in all of this?

Tula and Kaes were murderously against the Goddess of the Hunt.

Nyx was indifferent for the most part. His main focus seemed to be that he simply didn’t want to die.

Caris felt more understanding. She didn’t want to die either and was more than happy to take down Zyros to protect herself, but she was also sympathetic for some reason.

What about Lore?

“Cael?”

He jerked around at the sound of Rayne’s voice pulling him from both Caris and his messy, fragmented thoughts. His heart was racing and a cold sweat had broken out across his skin. Meeting the God of Wisdom was starting to feel…dangerous, but he couldn’t quite explain why. All he knew was that he didn’t want his companions anywhere near the Light Stone.

Unfortunately, he also knew that there was no way they would allow him to leave them behind.

“You okay? Talking to the gods?” Drayce asked.

“Yeah, some. Sort of. Sorry. What were we talking about?” He shook his head hard, trying to dislodge the dark feeling or at least shove it to the back of his mind so that he could examine it later when everyone wasn’t closely watching him.

“We were talking about when we should have the prime minister take us to the godstone,” Rayne replied.

“The sooner, the better,” Caelan automatically said. He had absolutely zero desire to meet the god, but there was no avoiding it. If they could discover what the fuck was going on and why the goddess wanted them dead, they might have a better chance of stopping her.

“For more than one reason,” Drayce muttered. His lover folded his arms over his chest and frowned. “Those idiots who grabbed me didn’t talk a lot in front of me, but they did once. They must have thought I was unconscious.” Drayce shrugged. “Either way, they made a point of saying that they needed to hold me for at least two days. They stressed it.”

“Safa is planning to make a move for the godstone in two days,” Calean whispered.

“You sure?” Davi asked.

Caelan nodded. “Positive. She knows I wouldn’t abandon Drayce. That I’d prioritize rescuing Drayce over my search for the godstone. As long as her people had him, I’d be too distracted to bond with the god.”

“But I’m here now, safe and sound.” Drayce extended both of his hands over his head and laughed. “We can go to the godstone anytime you want.”

“Tomorrow,” Caelan stated firmly. “We have to go tomorrow. I don’t care what time it is.” Caelan looked over at Rayne. “Reach out to the Gray Fox. Tell him to send a message to Feroz. Arrange it. Whatever he has to do. I don’t care. We go see the God of Wisdom tomorrow.”

Rayne bowed his head to Caelan. “Consider it done, Your Majesty.”

Caelan nodded. “Everyone, get some sleep. Check your weapons. Load up on as much ammo as you can comfortably carry. We go into this expecting to encounter Safa and New Rosanthe.”

And possibly even something worse.

TWENTY-ONE

Drayce Ladon

Something was off.

One minute, Caelan seemed focused and ready to act, to take down the Empire, Safa, the gods, anything to save Thia.

But then he’d stepped away and become so very quiet. They’d all thought he was talking to the gods in his head. They’d seen it happen plenty of times during the past several months and had learned to give him his space as they worked things out.

Only this time, something had changed and it wasn’t good. Drayce wanted to know what the fuck the gods were telling Caelan, but he knew better than to push him too quickly. His lover liked to spend time thinking about things, turning them over in his head from every angle. When he finally had a handle on the information and his own feelings, he would talk about it with someone.

Except time was running short, and they were unwilling to allow Caelan to take more risks than absolutely necessary.

Did they have a choice in the matter?

Caelan had nearly killed himself stopping time so that he, Adrian, and Nina could escape Safa and the Empire soldiers. His absolute refusal to discuss the Dead God was terrifying all of them. How far was he going to push himself to protect them? To protect all of Thia?

That was probably the easiest question to answer. Caelan was going to push himself straight into death. He would do so willingly and without hesitation if it meant protecting those he loved.

And whether Caelan approved or not, Drayce planned to follow him.

Of course he’d put up one kickass, insane fight first. He wasn’t going to let Zyros or death steal him away so easily.

As everyone wandered toward the door leading to the lower levels, Drayce ambled over to Caelan’s side and draped an arm across his shoulders. He repositioned his lover so they were staring out across the city, taking in the warm glow while clouds lazily drifted across the sky, blocking out the stars.

“It’s not a bad skyline,” Drayce muttered, leaning his head against Cael’s. “Ours is totally better.”

Caelan suddenly chuckled and leaned heavily into Drayce. “I was just thinking the same thing a few minutes ago.”

“Brilliant minds think alike,” Drayce crooned, wringing another laugh out of Cael.

“I think Rayne would argue with that.”

Drayce snorted. “Whatever. Screw Rayne. He doesn’t know what he’s talking about.”

Caelan slipped out from under his arm and turned so that they were facing each other, both of his hands resting on either side of Drayce’s waist. “Are you really okay? You’re not hurt and hiding it so I won’t worry?”

A wicked grin tugged at Drayce’s lips as an idea started to form in his mind. He grabbed the hem of his shirt and pulled it up over his head. He tossed it aside as Caelan looked at him with his mouth parted in the most enticing O. “You want a closer inspection? I’m fine, but I think you’re only going to believe me if you check for yourself.”

Those amazing pale-blue eyes flicked up to his with a look of wonder and joy. They stepped into each other at the same time, their mouths coming together in a hard, hungry kiss that worked to incinerate any lingering worries he had about Caelan and his future. Right now, there was only that perfect mouth eating at his own and that skilled tongue winding its way around his.

How long had it been since they last kissed?

Hours? Days? Months? Yes, definitely months, and that nonsense had to stop right now. Never again. They were never going so long without kissing.

The feel of Caelan’s mouth moving along his was intoxicating. The tug of soft flesh, the light bite of teeth as they sank into his bottom lip. And the mind-melting wet slide of his tongue slipping along his.

Oh gods, he wanted more.

He shoved his hands under Caelan’s shirt and rubbed them up his back, digging into strong muscles and pulling him even closer so he could feel every inch of his delicious man pressed to him. Caelan moaned into his mouth and dug his fingers into his hot skin. As a dragon, his body temperature normally ran a little higher than humans, but kissing Caelan set him on fire and he still wanted more.

Tearing his mouth away from Cael’s, he kissed and nibbled along his jaw and down his neck, earning a desperate whimper from his lover. Cael’s fingers bit into his shoulders and Caelan widened his stance so that his hard cock was rubbing against Drayce’s hip. Searing need was quickly replacing all coherent thought, let alone common sense. That left the building the second their lips touched.

“Please, Drayce,” Caelan panted. “Let’s go inside. I need…I need you.”

Oh, but he had a much better idea.

Drayce licked along Caelan’s Adam’s apple and chuckled softly, letting his warm breath skim over damp flesh. “Why? This is a better location for some fun.”

“What?” The single word came out sounding as though Caelan were already lost to a lust-filled daze.

He nipped at Caelan’s throat one more time and lifted his head to scan the rooftop, searching for the perfect location. The warehouse they were on was one of the tallest buildings in the area, making it hard for anyone else to see what they were doing. It also didn’t hurt that there were few lights on up there, providing deep shadows to hide in. He didn’t want anyone to see his lover’s pleasure but him. At the same time, Caelan needed a fun adventure in his life.

Well, the kind of adventure that wasn’t going to put his life in danger.

Drayce’s eyes snagged on a pair of folding lawn chairs set off to one side along with a little table. It looked like some of the other tenants of the lofts would come up here for maybe sunbathing or it was a good place for some drinks after work while watching the sunset. Either way, it happily served his purpose.

He grabbed Caelan’s hand and dragged him over to the chairs, snatching up his own discarded shirt along the way. When he reached the chairs, he plucked at Caelan’s shirt, pulling it up over his head.

A gasp was torn from Caelan’s lips and his eyes were wide in the darkness. “You’re not thinking that we—”

“I totally stopped thinking the second you kissed me,” Drayce teased. He leaned in and took Caelan’s mouth in another long, drugging kiss. His sweet lover and best friend didn’t fight it one inch. Those amazing lips parted at the first touch, welcoming him inside as if Drayce was the only thing he wanted in the world.

Bare skin touched, scalding them both and sending a groan rumbling up Drayce’s chest. Gods, he missed this. They’d not had enough stolen moments like this in the past few weeks. Too much to do, too much danger, and too many people always pulling them in opposite directions. But right now, Caelan Talos, King of Erya, belonged to him alone.

Drayce pulled away and gave Caelan a shove toward the chair. “Sit.”

Caelan stared at him for a second, as if unsure of the command, but finally sat. Drayce dropped to his knees, his shoes scraping on the rough concrete of the roof. His jeans helped to protect his knees even as loose bits of gravel tried to bite into his flesh. That was all forgotten when he looked up at a shirtless Caelan watching him with wide eyes and lips parted on quick pants.

He settled between Caelan’s legs and ran his hands up his inner thighs. Caelan moaned and dropped his head back, soaking in the caress.

“Fuck, yes.” Caelan sighed as one of Drayce’s hands pressed into the hard dick straining against the front of his jeans. Drayce grinned as Caelan lifted his hips, thrusting into his touch. No one knew how uninhibited his lover could be when he had a chance to be himself. His own cock was aching and demanding attention, but he was in the mood for something different tonight.

Pulling at Cael’s pants, he slipped the button free and lowered the zipper. Caelan moaned again as his knuckles purposefully brushed along his dick through his briefs.

“Drayce,” Caelan whispered. “You sure?”

“Oh yeah, babe. This is exactly what I want,” he murmured. He gripped Caelan’s hips and pulled him forward just a bit, sliding him down the chair and forcing his legs wide to accommodate him.

Slipping his fingers into the waistband of Caelan’s pants, he pulled his cock out. Caelan hissed and tightly gripped the armrests with both hands. His teeth were clenched and those bright eyes were locked on Drayce, watching him so closely as Drayce stroked him a few times. The King of Erya had a very nice cock. Not overly long, but a delicious girth that was going to stretch his jaw.

Drayce licked his lips and leaned forward to drag his tongue across the head. Above him, Caelan cursed. The chair squeaked and Caelan’s thighs trembled, tightening around him as if trying to trap him.

Oh Cael. There was no way he was going anywhere. At least, not until Caelan was shouting and coming.

He licked him a few times before taking the head into his mouth. Caelan released one of the armrests and threaded his fingers through Drayce’s hair. He twisted and pinpricks of pain spread across his scalp, but he loved it. He steadily worked his way along Caelan’s dick, taking more and more of him with each pass. The blood was rushing to his own cock, and he groaned as Caelan’s dick completely filled his mouth, causing his jaw to ache.

Caelan whimpered and his hips moved, pressing upward just the tiniest bit; then he seemed to catch himself. Drayce made another needy sound and gripped Cael’s hip, pulling him up, urging him to fuck his mouth.

“Yes,” Caelan hissed and started carefully thrusting into Drayce’s mouth. More wonderfully debauched sounds tumbled from his lips, and Drayce was pretty sure he was about to come in his fucking pants. Caelan was losing himself to the pleasure, forgetting about the rest of the world and letting himself enjoy this.

Drayce ran his tongue along Caelan’s length and sucked harder. A sharp cry of surprise left his lover and the fingers in his hair tightened even more.

“Stop! I’m there. I—”

Rather than pulling off and finishing him with his hand, Drayce sucked him harder, speeding up until Caelan was crying out and coming down his throat. His entire body shook and gripped Drayce so very tight while Drayce swallowed him, loving every fucking second.

Heaven. This was heaven.

After licking him clean, Drayce allowed Caelan’s dick to slowly slip from his mouth. He laid his cheek against his lover’s thigh and stared up at him, enjoying the sight of his flushed face and parted lips in the pale light. The fingers still tangled in his hair caressed his scalp and played with his messy strands. When Caelan gathered himself enough to gaze at Drayce, his smile was crooked and he seemed so relaxed.

Caelan lifted up enough to pull the chair out from under his butt and shove it aside. Drayce tried to scramble away, but Caelan held tight to him as he dropped his knees in front of him. Their lips met in a hungry kiss that had Drayce melting into him. Caelan’s tongue ran through every inch of his mouth as if trying to gather up the taste of himself mixed with Drayce.

It was only when a hand started to pull at his pants that Drayce broke off the kiss.

“It’s your turn,” Caelan growled, trying to pull his hand free from where Drayce had captured it.

“Later.”

His old friend jerked back a little, his brow furrowing. “Really?”

Drayce hummed as he kissed the corner of Caelan’s mouth. “Yep. I was thinking that I’d push inside of you after everyone fell asleep.”

“Yes. This plan works too,” Cael easily agreed and Drayce laughed.

But the laugh turned into a groan when he tried to climb to his feet and his knees protested the movement. Caelan rose with him and tucked himself away, fixing his pants while Drayce set the chair on its legs. They both pulled on their shirts, giggling softly like idiots. Drayce flopped into the seat and pulled Caelan onto his lap, squeezing a surprised squawk out of his friend.

Wrapping his arms around Cael, Drayce pressed his face into his neck and reveled in the feel of having him in his arms. This was nice. They had too little of this. Just the two of them, snuggled together, the world spinning without them for a while.

“I love you,” Drayce murmured against his sweaty skin.

“I love you, too,” Caelan replied. Since Caelan first snarled those words at him in the prison, he’d made a point of telling Drayce every day. Sometimes it was as a text when they were separated, but the words were always there, and they still had the power to make Drayce’s heart flip in his chest.

“I’ve been thinking about something, though,” Caelan started slowly.

Why didn’t this sound good?

Drayce nearly sighed out loud, mentally preparing himself to knock some sense into Caelan. He was going to utter something related to protecting him and how it was for the best when it most definitely wasn’t.

He lifted his head, the words balanced on his tongue, when Caelan turned his head to meet his gaze.

“Marry me?”

Drayce choked on the air. He coughed and gasped like a fish out of water. His heart was attempting to explode in his chest and his brain had been reduced to mush because there was no way he’d heard what he thought he’d heard.

Caelan shifted in his lap and leaned Drayce forward so he could pound the flat of his hand on his back. “Drayce? Are you okay?”

“Yeah…I…what?” Drayce choked out between coughs.

“I asked you to marry me,” Caelan repeated, his voice growing more nervous and tentative. Caelan blinked and a tear streaked down his cheek. “I love you. I want us to be together for the rest of our lives. There’s no one else for me. There never will be. I will never love anyone else the way I love you.”

“Yes. Fuck, yes. Oh, hell yes.” His arms tightened around Caelan, and he pulled him in for a hard kiss that was more teeth than anything because they were both smiling like idiots. His entire body trembled and he couldn’t possibly squeeze the man in his arms tight enough. He wanted to shift and shoot into the air, roaring to all of Brightspire that he was now engaged to the greatest person of all time.

When they separated, Drayce reached up and cupped his cheek, wiping away a happy tear while still blinking away the burning in his own eyes. “You’re amazing. I swear I will work hard and be the best fucking Consort. I will never embarrass you or start some international disaster. I—”

Caelan’s bright laugh cut off his words. “I know who the fuck I’m marrying. I want you to be you. Don’t ever change, Drayce.” He leaned forward and bumped their noses together. “Besides, international disasters are why we have Rayne.”

Drayce snickered. “I’m telling him you said that.”

Caelan straightened and shook his head. “I doubt he’ll even hear it after you shout to the world that we’re engaged.”

Gods, this man knew him so well. And best of all, he accepted everything he knew and loved it.

“True. True. True.” Drayce tightened his arms on Caelan and snuggled his face against his neck again. There was no getting close enough. Part of him wanted to carry Caelan inside and christen this moment with hot, sweaty, headboard-breaking sex, but right now, he didn’t want to move. He was happy just holding him and keeping this news to themselves.

One thought wiggled through his brain, though.

“Why now? Have you been thinking about this for a while?”

Caelan stiffened and sat up so he could meet Drayce’s gaze. “I have thought about it for a while, but…”

“What? Dude, you said you loved me and you’re willing to deal with my high potential for scandals. There’s no way I could be mad at you.”

Caelan rolled his eyes, his smile reappearing at last. “With everything that has happened, with how dark the road ahead of us seems, I need this. I need something to look forward to, something to fight for. I know it sounds horrible. I’m fighting for all of Thia. I’m fighting for all the people of Erya. But recently, it’s not enough.” He paused and lifted those big blue eyes to Drayce’s face. “When I think about you, when I think about having a future with you, I feel like I can do anything. I’m happy to face anything and everything, so I can have you.”

A large lump grew in Drayce’s throat, and he struggled to swallow. He’d never been someone’s reason to fight before, but he was happy to be Caelan’s. If it kept him alive, he was thrilled to be his reason.

“Good. I like that. We’ll fight together and when this is over, we are going to have the biggest, flashiest wedding Stormbreak has ever seen. All the Omari dragons will come. We’ll even drag Queen Noemi and Prince Shey to the wedding. It will be fucking epic.”

“Love it. Love everything about it. We—” Caelan broke off and turned his head to violently cough. He gasped for air and clutched at his chest.

“Cael? You okay?”

Caelan sucked in a harsh breath only to start coughing again. The king shoved out of Drayce’s lap and managed two unsteady steps before falling to his knees. His hand was pressed to his heart and Drayce could feel the blood rushing to his toes. Something was wrong. Seriously wrong.

“No, not yet,” Caelan whispered, but Drayce didn’t think he was talking to him.

Kneeling next to him, he grabbed both of Caelan’s shoulders, helping him stay upright as he gasped for air. His entire world was crumbling in his hands, and he didn’t know what to do. “What’s wrong? What can I do?”

“Get Rayne.”

TWENTY-TWO

Caelan Talos

Tick tock, Your Majesty. Tick. Tock.

Nyx’s voice somehow reached above the ragged beats of his heart in his ears.

Why now? Why couldn’t you let me have this moment?

I did. The moment was over, and you really don’t have time for many more.

Caelan strained to hear any arguments from the other gods. Something from them pointing out that they needed him alive to fight Safa, to stop the escape of the Goddess of the Hunt. Someone somewhere pointing out that his fucking job wasn’t done yet. But there was only silence.

Drayce had picked him up and draped him across his back before sprinting across the roof and down the stairs. His voice echoed off the walls as he shouted for Rayne, panic making his cries high-pitched and sharp. Caelan wanted to apologize, wanted to reassure him, but his entire focus was on drawing air into his lungs and willing his heart to keep beating.

A heart attack? You’re trying to kill me with a fucking heart attack?

My first choice was letting you be eaten by a dragon, but there’s only one around and he’s interested in just one kind of eating, Nyx mocked.

Caelan ignored the Dead God and tried to dig into where he had access to the powers of the gods. He could simply pull on his gift from the Goddess of Life to heal himself. He didn’t need to rely on Rayne.

Except, every time he reached for it, the power slipped through his fingers.

No! You can’t do this! I have more time! he screamed at all of the gods.

Frantic noises reached his ears. At some point, he’d closed his eyes and he couldn’t get them to open again. Everything was sound and pain. Pounding footsteps. Raised voices. Drayce’s voice broke as he explained what happened while he was placed on a soft surface. Eno reassuring. Rayne’s cool control.

Fuck this. He was not going out like this. He couldn’t be out of time.

Instead of reaching out to Tula, he made a grab for the Dead God.

The dark world dissolved, bringing into focus the black and purple marble floors he’d kneeled on when he met Nyx for the first time. The Dead God lounged on the white leather couch, his pocket watch opening and closing with a snick in his left hand. That fucking smirk twisting his lips up while black eyes laughed at him.

“I’m not out of time,” Caelan immediately snarled.

“Oh, but it’s so close. I thought you could use a wake-up call.” Nyx snapped the cover of his watch closed and shoved it into his pocket. “I heard the cute plans you were making for the future. At first, I thought you were toying with that sweet boy since you knew that you didn’t have long to live.” Nyx paused and chuckled. “Really, I was quite impressed at first. I didn’t think you had it in you to be that cruel.” His face transformed into something ugly as anger dug deep lines into his brow. “But then I realized you meant it all. You think you’re going to survive all this shit and go on to have some ridiculous happily ever after.”

“I will,” Caelan screamed, balling his fists at his sides as he took a step toward the god. “I will fucking have it.”

Nyx pushed to his feet so that he could tower over Caelan, but Cael refused to back down a single inch. “How? How, O Great and Wise King, are you going to cheat death and extend your time? Finally going to use the dragon time you stole?”

“No!”

“Then how about your friends? They’ve got time to spare. I bet if you told them about the mess you’re in, they’d be happy to donate a little time.”

Panic ripped through Caelan and he gripped the lapels of Nyx’s jacket in both hands. The fabric was icy cool to the touch, but that wasn’t what sent a shiver through him. It was raw fear that threatened to swallow him whole. “No!”

“I say we ask them. Let them decide what they want to do with their time.”

Caelan opened his mouth to shout at Nyx, but the Dead God pulled free of him and waved his hand through the air. The first stunned gasp had Caelan whipping around to find Drayce, Rayne, Eno, and Adrian standing a few feet away, their eyes wide and mouths hanging open.

“Cael?” Eno said.

Drayce launched himself across the space separating them, wrapping him up in tight arms. But his first words weren’t demanding to know what happened. He already knew. “Shit. The Dead God.”

“What?” Rayne gasped.

“Cael, what’s going on?” Drayce demanded.

“Allow me to explain,” Nyx practically crowed.

The Dead God waved his hand again and Caelan was ripped from Drayce’s warm arms. He was pulled across the space and forced to stand next to Nyx, who was smirking at his companions.

“As that one said, I’m Nyx, the God of Time. Not the Dead God.” He punctuated that with a glare at Drayce before turning his attention to the others. “You see, your king has misbehaved and forgotten that he made a deal with me.”

“I haven’t forgotten any—”

Nyx reached over and tightly gripped his lower jaw in one hand, his fingers digging into his cheeks so he couldn’t speak. “Proposing to your boyfriend over there? Making plans for a future you don’t have? Sounds forgetful to me. Or maybe just arrogant.”

He shoved Caelan’s face away, leaving Cael to rub the pain away while avoiding the eyes of his friends.

“What deal? What’s going on?” Rayne demanded.

“What’s the god talking about, Cael?” Eno chimed in.

The irritation evaporated from Nyx’s voice, and he was nearly purring when he explained, “When your king decided to rudely wake me, he pissed me off. So I took his time. All of it.” He reached into his pocket and casually drew out his watch. “We made a deal the day he died. I would take half his time and he could come back to try to finish his work with what little time he had left. He even has the power to take time from others to replace what he’s missing, but he hasn’t done it. And now, he’s running low on time. He’ll never make it to facing Zyros like he is.”

“No,” Caelan choked out. He knew he was short on time and he’d been wracking his brain for options, but it couldn’t be this short. He’d hoped he’d find a solution before they left Ilon, but part of him was preparing to die when he faced the Goddess of the Hunt.

“Cael? Is this true?” Drayce asked so softly.

He slowly turned toward Drayce, his chest painfully clenching around his heart. “It is. I gave up half my time so I could return to stop Zyros. It’s why this appeared.” He reached up and pulled down some of his purple-colored locks to hang in front of his eyes. “A constant reminder of the deal I made. I’ve been trying to come up with a solution or a trade these past months, but I’m not stealing an innocent person’s time.”

“Except for that one dragon’s,” Nyx corrected.

“He was trying to kill Eno and Rayne!” he automatically snapped and shook his head, shoving aside the pain. “I’m saving that. I have a plan to use it when fighting Safa and Zyros.”

“You’re not going to live long enough to have that fight!” Nyx roared at him.

“Then don’t steal it. Just take what we freely offer.” Rayne spoke the words so calmly, as if he were offering a stick of gum, not years of his life. What could be his very last years.

It was like a knife was slicing through his soul, causing his chest to cave in.

“No,” he whispered when he could even draw a breath.

“Cael—” Eno started this time, but Caelan wouldn’t hear it. He was at the very end of his control.

“No! This is why I didn’t tell you,” he shouted as he swung to face them. “I knew you’d do this, and I won’t have you sacrificing your time for me. I don’t want you dying for me!”

“Then we’ll give five years each,” Rayne suggested. “Between the four of us, that’s twenty years. Twenty years is a good life, and we’re all relatively young. We can spare five years.”

Except time didn’t move like that. He’d seen that when he faced Safa. His time moved faster when they were together because of the threat she posed to him. And they were all heading into a battle with that woman.

“Do you? Do you really have that kind of time? When you’re heading into a war with New Rosanthe and a fucking goddess?” Rayne paled and Adrian took an unsteady step backward. The Royal Guard had been silent since he appeared, his eyes locked on the God of Time until now. “What if you’re destined to die in the next few months during battle with Safa or even Zyros? You give me your ‘five years,’ and you drop dead this second.”

Rayne’s head instantly snapped around to stare into Eno’s stricken gaze. They clasped hands and leaned into each other. Not a word was said, but after a couple of seconds Rayne nodded and turned his attention to Caelan. “We’ll still do it. We’ll give everything we have to support you and save you. It’s our honor.”

Something inside of Caelan howled in pain. He was proud to know such amazing people, but he loved them all with every fiber of his being. He refused to let them die like this.

“No. I won’t accept it. Not a year, a month. Not even one second of your time.”

Adrian stepped forward and dropped to his knees directly in front of Caelan. “My life for Erya. My blood for the crown. My soul for the Godstone. That’s the vow I spoke years ago, and I am prepared to deliver on it. Please, Your Majesty, take all of my time so you can live up to your vow to protect Thia as the Guardian of the Godstones.”

Tears slipped down Caelan’s face as he gazed at the top of the man’s bent head. Adrian had steadily found a place for himself in their group. He was one of them. Maybe Caelan wasn’t as close to him as he was with Rayne, Eno, and Drayce, but he wasn’t about to sacrifice this man’s life.

He extended one trembling hand and placed it on the top of Adrian’s head. “No.”

“Please, Cael.”

It was the first time Adrian had ever used his name. If he addressed him, it was always with his title. He couldn’t let him die like this.

“He seems more than willing enough to me,” Nyx drawled as he slid up next to Caelan. The Dead God knocked Caelan’s hand away and reached out toward Adrian, pinching the air as if he were trying to pluck a single hair off his head. A purple-tinged chain rose into the air and Adrian loudly gasped.

“No!” Caelan roared. Raw, furious energy surged through Caelan, crackling like rolling thunder across a black sky. He lunged at the Dead God, twisting the lapels of his jacket in his fists. With another shout, he heaved Nyx across the room and into the sofa where he crashed into the back and knocked it over.

He stomped over to Nyx, his hands held out to his sides, energy snapping between his fingers. His entire body was electrified. The feelings of weakness and pain were long gone, replaced with rage and a swirling maelstrom of power.

Nyx’s hand gripped the edge of the sofa cushion, and he pulled himself up. His face slowly appeared, a wicked grin stretched across his thin lips. A dribble of blood slipped from his bottom lip. Some part of Caelan’s brain was shocked to find that gods could bleed, but the rest of him was sure that it wasn’t enough.

“That’s a good start,” Nyx growled. “But is that the best you’ve got?”

Caelan turned his right hand and opened his fingers. His sword materialized in his palm with a crack. “Not even close.”

He rushed Nyx and the God of Time launched himself over the sofa at Caelan, a long black staff appearing in his hand. Their weapons clashed again and again, bright-white sparks mingled with pale-lilac sparks. The Dead God was fast, but Caelan was faster. He didn’t know where the energy came from, but he didn’t question it and didn’t let it go. Nyx had brought his family here with the intention of stealing their time, and he’d die here fighting the Dead God before he let that happen.

They rushed around the marble room in little more than a blur. Caelan constantly kept his body between his family and Nyx, not allowing the God of Time within a few feet of them. Every one of Nyx’s movements was graceful and fluid, as if he were made of a single willow branch that swayed with the wind, but the look of concentration on his face was intense. It should have been some small reassurance that he was pushing the god. Nyx wasn’t toying with him.

After several minutes, the Dead God succeeded in knocking his sword loose from his hand, sending it spinning across the room. The blade slammed into the marble floor, becoming embedded. He tried to bring his staff down on Caelan, but he blocked it with his arm.

Pain ran like tiny tremors through his bones, but Caelan held his ground. He gathered the ball of energy that sparked and snapped in his chest and blasted it at Nyx. The Dead God flew through the air yet again, crashing into the wall. Those dark eyes sparked and his smile returned along with a low, creepy laugh.

“Enough!” Caelan shouted. “My time is not out. I’m still here and I will do your dirty work, but you will stay away from my family. You’ll not touch their time.”

Nyx waved one hand through the air and extravagantly bowed to him. “As you wish, Your Majesty. But don’t forget: Tick. Tock.”

Caelan balled his hand into a fist, his arm still stinging from the impact of the staff. “I know. If I am left with no other choice, I’ll use the dragon time that I stole, but not yet. There has to be another way.”

“Oh, there is.” Nyx chuckled low as he walked toward Caelan. “But you’re not ready yet.” The Dead God glanced up, eyes narrowed and the evil smirk in place. He rushed Caelan, but he was ready. He opened his right hand again and his sword broke free of the marble to streak through the air. The second the hilt touched his palm he was lifting the sword, the edge of the blade stopping just as it touched Nyx’s throat.

“But you’re getting there,” the God of Time purred. “So close. I can’t wait to see you when you’re ready. You’re going to be so much better than the last time we tried this.”

Caelan wanted to ask what the fuck he meant by that last statement, but the world was already falling away. Darkness consumed him.

TWENTY-THREE

Rayne Laurent

Rayne’s legs gave out, and he found himself sitting in a chair. He blinked and looked around to find they were all in the living room of the loft. Caelan was stretched out on the couch while Eno, Drayce, and Adrian were spread about the open space. Davi had left the loft shortly after their rooftop meeting to talk with Vitor and Nina about their next plans. He could only guess the man hadn’t returned yet.

As soon as his eyes locked on Caelan, Rayne shoved out of the chair and landed on his knees next to the sofa. He placed one hand on Caelan’s chest and another on his forehead. Tula’s healing gift flowed out of him and into the man, but it was utterly unnecessary.

Caelan’s heartbeat was normal. His breathing was normal. He couldn’t find a single thing wrong with him. The king was merely sleeping very deeply.

“Rayne?” Eno demanded as Rayne lifted his hands from his dearest friend.

“He’s fine.”

“You’re sure? Everything is fine?” Drayce’s questions were fired at him as sharp as knives. Rayne glanced up to find Drayce standing at the end of the couch near Caelan’s feet, his body poised like he was preparing to launch himself at Caelan.

“I’m sure. He’s fine. He’s sleeping.” Rayne paused and rubbed his own eyes, his brain still struggling to comprehend everything. “After what we saw, I have a feeling he needs it.”

“Do you want me to move him to a bedroom?” Eno offered.

“Yes, please. We need to talk, and I’d rather not disturb him.” Rayne pushed to his feet and moved away from the couch so his lover could scoop Caelan’s smaller form up. Drayce began to follow him, but Rayne stopped him. “Drayce…stay, please. We need to talk.”

Drayce glared at him, everything in his expression showing so very clearly how much he hated this idea. Rayne understood his need to go with Caelan and watch over him, but if Drayce accompanied Eno, there would be no getting Drayce out of the bedroom until Caelan was awake again.

“If you’re about to give me shit about our engagement, you can just cram it. I don’t want to hear it,” Drayce growled.

“We have a lot to talk about, and that is only one of the items on the list.”

When Drayce continued to glare at him, Rayne huffed. He took three quick steps to close the distance between them and yanked Drayce into a fierce hug, squeezing a surprised yelp out of him.

“The fact that you think I wouldn’t be absolutely thrilled for you and Cael is insulting,” Rayne grumbled in Drayce’s ear. “I want you both to be happy.”

Drayce gripped him tightly, fingers digging into his back. “Thanks. I thought you’d want Cael to marry someone, you know, who wasn’t likely to start a war because of something he said.”

A heavy sigh tumbled from deep in Rayne’s chest and he released Drayce, moving his hands up to his shoulders. “You focus on making him happy. I’ll worry about stopping any wars you may inadvertently start.”

Drayce blinked wet eyes at him, his smile bright and crooked. “I like this deal.”

“So, what the god said was true? You’re engaged to the king?” Adrian inquired.

Rayne returned to the chair he’d been sitting in while Drayce accepted a congratulatory hug from Adrian and some friendly ribbing. Yes, maybe he was concerned about Drayce taking on the role of Consort. He’d need a serious crash course in royal politics.

Drayce had to have more than a little experience in politics, though, considering who his father was and what he’d already survived with the dragons. Maybe he only needed a bit of polish.

But what he’d said to Drayce was completely true. The one thing he wanted for Caelan was to be happy. It seemed that the main problem they faced was how long that happiness was going to last. A lifetime was looking to be less and less likely.

Eno returned a couple of minutes later. He must have overheard Drayce and Adrian’s banter because he hugged Drayce, offering his own warm words of congratulations.

Unfortunately, the happy mood dissolved far too quickly as they faced the great revelation handed to them by the Dead God.

Caelan was running out of time.

“How could he keep this from us?” Eno complained as he dropped on the end of the couch closest to Rayne. No one had to ask what he was talking about. The deal Caelan had been forced to make with Nyx was on all their minds.

Rayne shook his head. “I’m not surprised. I’m sure we would have all done the same. Cael knew the second we discovered what happened that we’d offer our own time to replace his.”

Drayce grunted, sitting next to Eno. “I don’t like it, but I understand it. If it was me, there’s nothing that would make me take his time. Since the day he was born, it has been pounded into his head that he must protect the people of Erya, and that first line in the sand will always be protecting us.”

Adrian lounged in the chair opposite of Rayne and dropped his head against the back with a low groan. “I can’t believe I’m even going to ask this, but is there a way around the king? Can any of us talk directly to the God of Time and offer some of our time without the king knowing it?” When he lifted his head to look at them again, there was a pained wince digging lines across his forehead. “Gods, why does this sound almost like treason when I say it out loud?”

“It’s not treason,” Rayne snapped. “It’s saving the king’s life, which is our job.”

Eno leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees. “Then how do we talk to the gods? Prayers are a pretty idea, but has anyone ever gotten a clear response that way?”

“Can’t you talk to the Goddess of Life directly?” Adrian asked, his gaze locked on Rayne.

“I’m sure I can talk to her, but I don’t necessarily know that she’s listening. She’s never directly communicated with me. Only Caelan.” Rayne stared at Drayce, who immediately threw up his hands as if trying to ward off Rayne’s next comments. “You’ve at least seen the Goddess of Fire. She’s spoken directly to you.”

“Just the one time,” Drayce argued, holding up his index finger. “And that was when Cael was with me. Since that time, she’s never said a word to me.”

Eno scrubbed a hand across his face and through his hair. “Tula and Caris could potentially carry a message to the Dead God.”

“That’s assuming either of them would be willing to serve as a messenger for us,” Drayce muttered. “I didn’t get the impression that Caris was willing to be anyone’s messenger, even if it meant talking to her boyfriend, Nyx.”

That was a very good point.

“Maybe we have to face the fact that we must leave this in Caelan’s hands,” Eno interjected, his voice low and heavy. “He has already said that he would use the dragon time if he had no other choice. I know he’s not happy about it, but he’s aware that we all need him alive to stop Safa and Zyros.”

Rayne folded his arms tightly across his chest and slumped a bit in his chair. He hated this idea. He hated it with every tiny molecule of his being. But he also couldn’t argue with Eno. The truth was that unless Caelan changed his mind about siphoning a bit of their time off them, there was absolutely nothing they could do about it.

He closed his eyes against the memory of Drayce carrying a nearly unconscious Caelan into the loft, the king’s lips pale and starting to turn blue. His heartbeat had been erratic and he’d struggled to breathe. When Rayne had tried to heal him, his powers had been completely useless. It was as if he could feel something wrong with his friend, but there was nothing for the energy to latch on to in terms of mending. Never in his life had he felt so helpless and useless.

And to think, just minutes earlier Drayce and Caelan had been planning for marriage. It made Rayne want to hug the dragon all over again.

No, Caelan had to have a plan. He had to have some scheme in mind or some angle he was trying to work out. There was no way that Caelan would make such a beautiful plan with Drayce if he was planning to die in the coming days or weeks.

Caelan’s silence on this matter had to mean he was trying to keep them safe from something. Probably keeping them out of the Dead God’s sphere of interest. Nyx had been far too eager to snatch up their time.

“At the risk of stating the obvious, this fucking blows,” Adrian grumbled.

“You think?” Drayce snarled.

Eno reached over and wrapped an arm around his shoulders, pulling him in close for a half hug. “Deep breath, little dragon. It’s not like we’re going to stop trying to help him. We just need to trust Caelan as well.”

“Oh, my fuck! You are not allowed to call me that again,” Drayce groaned, shoving ineffectively against Eno.

While they bickered, the reality of the situation started to sink into Rayne’s mind: The king was planning to marry a dragon.

If Erya formed an official alliance with the Omari and other dragons of the Ilse of Stone, would Drayce then reveal his true heritage to the people?

Even if he didn’t, it did mean that the king’s consort wasn’t a normal human but a dragon.

Of course, even if they never married, Drayce would have still served as the king’s personal bodyguard.

Either way, the outcome was the same: fucking dangerous.

Rayne swallowed a weary sigh and shoved those tangled thoughts to the back of his mind. Those worries were best saved for after the defeat of Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt.

“Since we’re piling on the worries, is anyone else a little scared about how Caelan managed to…you know…” Adrian started and then his voice slowly drifted off.

“What?” Rayne prodded.

Adrian winced, his eyes darting between them. It was Drayce who managed to fill in the blank.

“You mean how he kicked the Dead God’s ass?” the young man cackled.

Adrian slapped a hand over his face and Eno shoved Drayce away with his moan. If they’d been hoping to get the aid of Nyx, a comment like that was not going to help if he could hear them.

“Yeah, that’s what I meant,” Adrian mumbled.

“It was fucking awesome!” Drayce crowed.

“How?” Rayne asked.

Drayce jerked to a stop midcelebration and furrowed his brow at Rayne. “What?”

“How did he do it?” Rayne clarified.

“With the power of the other gods, right?” Drayce’s gaze jumped from one to the other, but as it traveled around the room, Drayce’s confidence seemed to wane.

“But he’s never done that before.” Rayne crossed his left leg over his right and tapped the fingers of his right hand on the arm of the chair. “Anytime he’s used the powers of the gods in the past, it’s been very specifically linked to them. Storms for Kaes, protection and healing for Tula. With Nyx, he stole a dragon’s entire lifetime.”

“And with Caris comes fire,” Drayce murmured.

“Exactly, so what was the thing with summoning the sword?” Adrian demanded. “I’m assuming that you haven’t seen that.”

Eno shook his head. “No, that was a first. So was the strength, speed, and those white sparks.”

“He couldn’t have bonded with another god and not told you, right?”

Rayne started to deny the possibility, but the words were caught in his throat. Caelan had already attempted to keep the secret of the deal with Nyx. Were there other secrets they couldn’t even begin to guess at?

“He couldn’t have. There aren’t any other gods alive,” Drayce argued.

“Are you sure? A year ago, you would have said there were no gods alive at all, and now he’s met with four of them. And the Shrine District is proof that a fuckton more existed at one time,” Adrian replied, waving a hand in the general direction of the neighborhood of temples. “Who’s to say that more of them aren’t wandering about and we don’t know about it?”

“It’s unlikely there are more gods, and it’s even more unlikely that Caelan has bonded with one of them,” Rayne stated. He gripped both arms of the chair tightly, clenching his fingers in the soft fabric as a way of grounding himself against the panic and fear attempting to ball up in his chest. “This is likely a sign that Caelan is growing more accustomed to the power he has access to. He’s learning to use it more effectively. We need to keep in mind that since leaving Stormbreak this last time, he has been in significantly better health. The king has been stronger and suffered from less fatigue and fewer headaches.”

“Exactly!” Drayce chimed in. “Cael is fine. He’s strong. He’s totally got this.”

It was chilling when Drayce so adamantly agreed with him. Were they lying to themselves?

Quite possibly.

And what had Nyx meant by his parting comments?

I can’t wait to see you when you’re ready. You’re going to be so much better than the last time we tried this.

Was it already too late to save their friend?

TWENTY-FOUR

Eno Bevyn

Eno sat at the small kitchen table, staring at the tumbler of amber whiskey in front of him. All the lights were turned out around the loft, and the place was silent except for the shower. Davi was cleaning up before crashing for the night. Drayce had crawled into bed with Caelan a while ago. Adrian was stretched out on the couch, an arm across his eyes. Rayne was in the bed they’d share tonight, but Eno wasn’t insane enough to believe he was asleep.

No, after their encounter with the Dead God and their recent revelations about Cael, it would be surprising if any of them managed to sleep tonight.

It all came down to one simple fact: Caelan Talos was dying.

Placing his elbow on the table, Eno dropped his forehead into his hand and sighed. He’d always thought it would be the gods that did it.

Kaes didn’t seem too bad. Especially after Caelan stopped passing out every time he accessed the God of Storms’ powers.

The addition of Tula wasn’t supposed to be bad. Caelan was always supposed to bond with her and she made him stronger. Except for the part where his emotions grew more erratic and he developed these hideous headaches. And the hand twitch he tried to hide.

After the Dead God and the appearance of the purple streak in his hair, Caelan became…haunted. They’d all thought it was due to shock from Drayce’s secret, but now Eno wondered if it was more heavily linked to the countdown clock that hung over his head.

Everything appeared to change when he bonded with the Goddess of Fire. The headaches, hand twitch, and general lethargy were all gone. It was like getting the old Caelan back. He was stronger, focused, and confident. They’d all believed they’d reached a turning point with Caelan and the gods. No one had voiced a single word of dread when it came to their king bonding with the God of Wisdom.

But now, he was sure they’d witnessed Caelan enjoying that final burst of strength before death claimed him. The last taste of sweetness before the end.

How were they supposed to save him?

Nyx had stolen half of his life. There was no cure for missing time. No magic spell they’d ever encountered. Not even the Goddess of Life could conjure up more time.

Eno closed his eyes against the swell of self-loathing. It should have been him that fell to his knees in front of Cael, offering up all of his time. Not Adrian. He’d been Caelan’s personal bodyguard for years. He’d protected him, guided him. He’d risked his life for him. This was the moment when he was supposed to step forward and hand it all over for him. It was an honor to die for a king.

But he hesitated.

Because of Rayne.

Not that he thought Rayne would stop him. It was his own selfishness. He didn’t want to leave Rayne. He wasn’t ready to give up all they had, the life he was still hoping they could live when this was over. He wasn’t ready to give all of that up and say good-bye to the only man he’d ever loved so completely.

And then there was Davi. He’d finally found his brother after being separated for a lifetime. Why did he have to give it all up already?

Looking back now, he’d do it. He’d sacrifice it all for Caelan except for two hours. He’d beg the Dead God to give him one last hour to say good-bye to his brother. One more hour to hold Rayne and tell him over and over again how loved he was.

But he would give up his life for Cael.

In the grand scheme of the gods and humans, he knew that it would be Caelan who would save them all, not him. Caelan would stop the Goddess of the Hunt, defeat New Rosanthe, and restore peace to Thia. He’d return to Stormbreak Point and be one of the greatest rulers Erya ever had. He needed the chance to make that a reality.

I offer up my time for Caelan. You can have it all if you just give me one more night. Let me say good-bye to my brother. Let me hold Rayne one more time, and you can have all the rest that I have. Give it to Caelan and let him save Thia, Eno silently prayed to Nyx.

Rayne would understand.

He hoped that his brother could one day as well.

Of course, that was assuming the God of Time was listening to him in the first place. Didn’t matter. He was going to live tonight as if it were his last night.

Footsteps scuffing across the hardwood floor had Eno jerking upright and scrubbing a hand across his face. A moment later, Davi walked into view rubbing a towel against his wet hair. He’d pulled on a sleeveless T-shirt and a pair of shorts after his shower. His brother lurched to a stop and blinked at him.

“I thought you’d be in bed already,” Davi murmured, keeping his voice pitched low so he didn’t disturb Adrian.

Eno picked up his glass and tilted it toward him. “Join me in a drink?”

Davi draped the towel across his shoulder and smirked. “Sure.”

“Grab a glass.”

His brother crossed to the white cabinets and pulled out another tumbler while Eno drew the new bottle of whiskey close. He’d only gotten as far as pouring his own glass but hadn’t taken a sip yet. His mind was too occupied, and the numbing bliss of alcohol wouldn’t fix anything.

When Davi slid the empty glass in front of him, Eno poured him two fingers and screwed the lid back on.

“How’d the meeting go with Vitor?” he inquired when his brother sat in the chair across from him.

“Good.” Davi grabbed his glass and tossed half of it down in a single swallow. He winced and smiled. “I know he sent a message to the king and Rayne. Everything is arranged for late tomorrow afternoon, just before the changing of guard shifts at Parliament Plaza.”

Eno grunted. He wasn’t overly surprised to hear that they were heading to that part of town. Right into the heart of Safa’s domain. It was either a trap or she knew all along the best way to get to the godstone. The one question that remained was: What was keeping her from bonding with the god already? Had the God of Wisdom rejected her?

If that was the case, her last hope for saving her goddess was to kill Caelan.

“Feroz has given the meeting place, and Vitor is getting people in place to watch it to make sure an ambush isn’t lined up ahead of time. I’ll be part of the team that’s following you to the meeting place. Nina and I are familiar with Parliament Plaza. We know all the good hiding places and vantage points. We’ll have your backs.”

Lifting his glass to his lips, Eno took a small sip while staring at his brother. The whiskey wasn’t bad and had a nice burn that warmed his chest. “You’re following? You’re not trying to join our team so you can sneak a peek at the godstone?”

He’d fully expected Davi to try to weasel his way into the team to accompany the king. Who didn’t want to see an actual godstone?

Eno had to admit, though, that he had to be one of the few people in the world who wished he’d never see another one within his lifetime. He’d seen more than enough to know that there was nothing good that came from them.

Davi’s grin became lopsided and his eyes dropped to the table. “Let’s not go crazy and assume that I hadn’t considered it. A lot.”

Eno chuckled. Okay, that sounded a little more normal to him.

“Vitor might have threatened to break my legs if I even tried it, and that guy isn’t the type to make threats like that lightly. He’d follow through on that shit.”

“While I’m not thrilled with the idea, this one time I might have to agree with him.” Eno sighed and looked at his tumbler. He turned the glass with his thumb and index finger, watching the amber light catch and toss it around the room. “Even without the presence of the Empire, the gods aren’t something you need to fuck with. It’s better if they never notice you. You just gotta trust me on this one.”

Warm fingers closed on the wrist of his empty hand and squeezed. Eno glanced up to find Davi’s worried gaze locked on his face. “I do trust you. I’m curious, but I’m sure anyone would be. I’m also not stupid or suicidal. I don’t want anywhere near these gods if I can help it.”

“Good. Good.” Eno exhaled and nodded. It was like a massive weight he’d not even noticed had been lifted from his chest. He didn’t have to worry about Davi. His focus could remain on Caelan and the rest of his family.

Davi’s hand slid away a few inches but remained on the table. “Have you…have you ever seen one of the gods? More than a godstone, but an actual god.”

A shiver ran through Eno, and he didn’t try to hide it. As it passed, he slammed back the last of his whiskey and reached for the bottle again. He poured himself another shot but didn’t drink it. It was enough to just hold it.

Seeing the God of Time was something he wasn’t likely to forget within his lifetime. The image of him would follow him through his nightmares for as long as he was alive. Tall and impossibly thin in a black suit trimmed in purple. Dark eyes set against rust-colored skin and a wicked grin that seemed to twist like an open wound across his face.

“I did. Once,” Eno mumbled. He shook his head and tried to distance himself from the rush of ugly emotions that were trying to swamp him. “It wasn’t an experience I ever want to repeat. It’s…it’s kind of amazing to think that Caelan has already met and talked to so many of them. That he can hear them constantly in his head.”

And somehow through it all, Caelan continued to smile and laugh with them. He reassured them when their path felt so dark and hopeless. He’d even found a way to fucking fall in love and win the man who owned his heart. Not that it took much effort. Drayce was so completely lost over Cael. There would never be anyone else for him.

He glanced up at his brother and offered the tiniest smile. “I don’t want that for you. Stay away from the godstone.”

Davi nodded. “Not a problem. Nina and I will be following from a distance, making sure no one tries to come up behind you.”

“Thanks.”

Silence settled between them as they both sat there staring at their drinks. They’d not been able to have a lot of time, but they’d managed to swap a number of incredibly random stories. There simply wasn’t time to get into the deep, darker history of disappointments and regrets that pockmarked every person’s life. Eno wanted to know everything about his brother, but there was a good chance that he’d never get that opportunity.

The best he could do right now was to try to protect him.

“Can I ask you to do one favor for me?” Eno said softly.

“Sure. Of course.”

Eno’s gaze bounced up to meet Davi’s before darting away again, one half of his mouth lifting in a self-mocking smile. “You’re not going to like it, but I want you to hear me out.”

“Not the best start,” Davi teased. He leaned back in his chair and folded his arms over his chest, an indulgent look on his face.

“After we get inside Parliament Plaza, I want you to immediately leave Ilon and go to Stormbreak,” Eno said clearly.

“No,” Davi replied automatically, but Eno held up a hand to keep him from saying more.

“Please, let me finish. I know that it’s important for you to track down all the stolen children. I don’t want you to stop that. I agree that it’s important. But no matter what happens next with Caelan and the godstone, war is coming. It’s going to rip through Brightspire and probably the rest of Ilon since it’s clear they’ve sided with New Rosanthe. I want you as far from the fighting as I can get you.”

“All the more reason I’m needed to help the Erya citizens trapped here.”

“Until you tell them otherwise, they think they’re from Ilon. If you want to help Erya, you can do it best and safest from Stormbreak. When the fighting breaks out, you’re not going to be able to do any effective research.”

Davi glared at him for a second, then dropped his eyes to the table. “Vitor has already said something similar. He wants Nina and me to leave tomorrow night.”

“What are his plans after tomorrow?” A small spark of hope started to spread in Eno’s chest. Davi might care about his brother, but Eno knew that right now, Vitor’s word held more weight with the man. That was fine. It wasn’t like Eno had been around to build up that trust with Davi.

“Unless Rayne or the king asks him to remain in Brightspire, he’s planning to return to Stormbreak.”

“Go with him. Please.” Eno leaned forward, reaching toward his brother. “You know you can always return and continue your work after the fighting is over. If we’re lucky, Cael will crush both Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt in the next few days. This will all be done soon. If I just know that you’re in Stormbreak…”

Davi tipped his head back and groaned. “Really? Do you think you’ve been my older brother long enough to go using that much guilt?”

“I will use every weapon I can lay my hands on if it means I can keep you even a tiny bit safe over the coming days, weeks, and possibly months.”

“Fine. I’ll go,” Davi grumbled.

Eno released a heavy sigh of relief, dropping his head down to the table. Gods, he was fucking light-headed. If he could remove his brother from the potential warzone, it was one less thing he had to worry about.

He shoved upright and reached into his pocket, pulling out a folded piece of paper. He slid it across the table and smiled at his brother. “I don’t know what Vitor has arranged for you, but I’ve contacted Tomas Soto, head of the Royal Guard. He can help you, whether it’s getting a place, or suggestions on how you can help out Erya. You can live in my place in the Royal Towers if you want.”

Davi lifted an eyebrow at him while he opened the paper. His eyes skimmed the names and contact information he’d pulled together for him. It was likely that the Gray Fox already had him covered, but Eno wanted to be sure that Davi had nothing to worry about once he reached Erya soil.

“The Royal Towers, huh? That is tempting,” Davi murmured. He folded the paper up and shoved it into his pocket. “Vitor does have arrangements in place for Nina and me, but I always appreciate having my own plans. You know, just to be on the safe side.”

“Trust me, I understand that.”

Davi picked up his glass and held it out toward Eno. “To a short war that sees the demise of the Empire.”

Eno lifted his glass. His brother blurred as unshed tears threatened to spill. “And us being quickly reunited in Stormbreak,” he added in a voice suddenly low and rough.

They clinked their tumblers together and tossed back the last of their whiskey in a single swallow. Eno squeezed his eyes shut, pretending it was the burn of the alcohol getting to him and not the idea that this might be the last drink he ever had with his brother.

“All right, bed now,” Davi snapped. He stood with his glass and snatched Eno’s out of his hand. “Before you turn me into a bawling baby. You’re going to be fine. I’m going to be fine. When you return to Stormbreak, you’re going to owe me the best fucking steak dinner I’ve ever had.”

Davi walked over to the sink and placed both tumblers in it while Eno pushed to his feet. As Davi crossed back, Eno pulled his brother into a tight bear hug. And the best part was that Davi didn’t argue or complain. He just hugged Eno as if this could be their last meeting.

Whatever happened when the sun rose, Eno would have no regrets when it came to his brother.

“I love you, Davi.”

“I love you too, Eno.”

Afterward, Eno silently cut through the loft apartment and slipped into the dark bedroom that held his lover. In the thin light that leaked in from under the door and around the curtains, he could make out the long line of Rayne’s slender body under the covers as he lay on his side.

Eno undressed as quietly as he could. Rayne’s breathing was slow and even. Eno hoped that he’d managed to fall asleep, and he had no intention of disturbing him.

Very carefully, he slid under the covers only to have Rayne immediately turn over to face him.

“You talked to your brother?” Rayne whispered.

Eno huffed out a laugh as soon as his heart returned to his normal beat. His lover had scared the crap out of him. “Yes, I talked to him. I gave him the contact information. He said that Vitor had him covered, but this allows me some peace of mind.”

Reaching out, he pulled Rayne closer so that his head was resting on his chest. They’d slept like that plenty of times over the past several months, but this time was different. Rayne also wrapped his arms around him, gripping him so very tight. It felt as though he were afraid Eno was going to be ripped away from him suddenly.

Like he was going to die in that instant.

“Did you pray to the God of Time?” Rayne inquired, his lips brushing Eno’s shoulder with every word.

Eno froze and huffed out a bitter laugh. Of course Rayne knew. The man knew him better than anyone else. He could guess his every move well before even Eno figured it out.

He opened his mouth to apologize, to make excuses, but he stopped himself. There was no need. Rayne knew exactly why he’d done it.

“Did you as well?” Eno asked roughly.

Rayne’s fingers tightened to the point of biting into his flesh and his shoulders shook in a silent sob. “I started to…” Rayne said and broke off. His hot tears dropped onto Eno’s bare skin, and he tried to gather him even closer.

“Rayne—”

“I started to, but then I realized that it was exactly what you would do. What Drayce did the second he was alone in the bedroom with Caelan. What Adrian even did when he was alone. You all prayed to the god to trade your time to Caelan.” He stopped and sucked in a ragged breath. “It made me wonder, what if we all did and the Dead God listened? When Caelan got up tomorrow, he would be alone.”

Oh, fuck.

Eno was chilled to his soul. The thought had never crossed his mind, but Rayne was right. He had no doubt that Drayce had offered his time up to the Dead God when he was alone. Adrian had already attempted it once. Why not try it again when Caelan wasn’t around to stop him?

“I couldn’t go through with it,” Rayne sobbed against his chest. “I don’t want to wake up tomorrow without you. If you leave now, I want to go with you, but I also can’t leave him alone, Eno. He can’t do this alone.”

With his own ragged cry of pain, Eno’s heart shattered. He didn’t want to leave Rayne either. He didn’t want Caelan to face the gods and the Empire alone. They needed to be together for what was ahead, but they had too few options when it came to giving Caelan more time to do what needed to be done.

“No, you’re right. He needs you,” Eno said in between kisses pressed to the top of Rayne’s head. “He needs you right there with him. He can’t be alone.”

“He needs you too. And Drayce. And Adrian.”

There was nothing he could say. Rayne was right. They should all be there with Caelan as he made his final march to fight Safa and possibly even the Goddess of the Hunt. But that fight wasn’t going to happen if he ran out of time.

“I love you, Rayne. I have loved you for years,” Eno whispered into his hair. “The best part of my day was always seeing you for the first time. I would spend hours thinking of things to say to you just so I could hear your voice. I also spent a lot of time wondering if you thought I was an utter idiot.”

Rayne’s head instantly popped up. In the darkness, Eno could only see a faint outline of his face, but he could feel Rayne’s piercing green eyes on him. “Never! I have never thought that about you.”

“I’ll never be as smart as you.”

“I have book smarts. I have a brain stuffed with hundreds of years of history and nonsense. You know warcraft and how to effectively protect our king. There is nothing more important.” Rayne swore and pressed his forehead to Eno’s shoulder. “I should have prayed to Nyx instead of you. You can keep Cael safe. What can I do that’s of any use?”

Eno cupped Rayne’s cheek and forced him to look up again. “He fought a fucking god, Rayne, and won. I can’t compete with that. He doesn’t need a bodyguard anymore. He needs you. He listens to you because you’re the voice of his heart and his conscience.”

“I love you,” Rayne murmured against his lips.

They kissed slowly, savoring every touch, every taste. Eno closed his eyes and let himself get lost in everything there was to Rayne. He wanted this. If this was his last night, he wanted his last memories, his last moments to be filled with Rayne. He wanted to be consumed by their joy and wrapped in their love.

For this one moment, there were no gods.

No war.

No one else.

Just Rayne and their love.

And Eno had no regrets.

TWENTY-FIVE

Caelan Talos

“I renounce the throne!” Caelan roared as he marched out of the bedroom and into the kitchen.

“What?” Rayne choked out, nearly spilling his coffee as he set it on the table.

Five sets of wide eyes snapped to Caelan, faces turning pale as they froze in place around the room.

“Did you think I wouldn’t hear about it? Did you think the Dead God wouldn’t take great pleasure in waking me this morning with news that my dear friends all offered up their lives?” Caelan snarled.

Even as he spoke, Nyx was wheezing in the back of his mind as if he were laughing so hard he couldn’t catch his breath. Caris was officially irritated with Nyx, and the other two gods were annoyed with the racket he was making.

“What if he’d listened to you? I would have been alone!” Caelan shouted only to have his voice break at the end.

Drayce shoved to his feet, arms out as if he meant to wrap Cael up in a hug, but Caelan stopped him with a hard push to his shoulder. “We’re trying to protect you. That’s our job.”

“Your job is to help me. Dying right now doesn’t help me!”

“Rayne?” Eno demanded, his voice rough and low, but Caelan caught it.

Rayne hung his head and gave a small shake of his head.

The advisor was the only one who didn’t pray to me, Nyx whispered. But, oh, he wanted to. I think that still counts as trying to abandon you.

“Fuck off!” Caelan snarled and shook his head, glaring at his friends, who appeared stunned by his outburst. “Not you. Nyx. But yeah, fuck all of you for trying to leave me.”

“Your Majesty, we weren’t trying to leave you but give you more time so you could save Thia,” Adrian argued from where he stood in the kitchen, a white mug tightly gripped in one hand.

“Do not call me that.” Caelan pointed one trembling finger at the bodyguard. “I give up my crown. What’s the fucking point of being king if not one of you is willing to obey my wishes?”

While he was distracted, Drayce managed to close the distance between them, wrapping him up in strong arms that crumbled the last of Caelan’s angry reserves. His entire body shook as he hugged his fiancé back. Tears he’d been fighting tumbled free.

“What if he’d listened to you? Any of you?” Caelan choked out, his mouth pressed to Drayce’s shoulder. “I can’t do this without you. I need all of you with me for this.”

“But you can’t do anything if you run out of time before we even reach the godstone,” Drayce argued. He released Caelan only to cradle both cheeks in his hands, wiping away the tears with his thumbs. “I don’t want to die. I want to have our big fucking wedding and spend the rest of my life making you happy while driving Rayne fucking insane.”

“Thanks,” Rayne muttered.

“You’ll have Eno to kiss it all better,” Drayce tossed out, then turned his full attention to Caelan. “But you, your grand destiny, your task of saving the world, that’s bigger than me. It’s bigger than what we want. If I can give my life to help save you and Thia, I’ll do it happily.”

A raw chasm spread through Caelan’s chest, and he silently screamed. It wasn’t fair. How could he be presented the only things he’d ever wanted in this world while at the same time marching him toward a fate that was likely to kill him and the people he loved most in this world? At the very least, couldn’t someone have given him a choice? Couldn’t someone have asked him if he wanted to save the world while possibly sacrificing his family and his own life?

He would have still said yes, but at least he could have come to terms with a fate that had been otherwise forced on him.

“No more,” Caelan declared in a ragged voice. “I agreed to use the dragon time I stole, and I will.”

“We were skeptical,” Eno admitted.

Caelan slipped free of Drayce and glared at the taller man, and Eno glared right back at him. Yeah, being a former king and possessing great god-fueled powers did nothing to put a dent in Eno’s stubbornly dark looks.

“We were all there. You made that agreement with Nyx under duress. We didn’t believe you, and I’d be shocked if the Dead God believed you,” Eno continued.

I really didn’t, Nyx chimed in. But I am holding you to it.

“Wait! What the fuck is going on?” Davi demanded, lifting his voice to a shout. “What’s he talking about offering your life up?” He took a step closer to Eno, his eyes narrowed. “Did you try to sacrifice your life? Is that what last night’s talk was all about? You thought you were going to die?”

“Caelan made a deal with the Dead God, and he’s running out of time. If he dies before he can defeat Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt, all of Thia is fucked,” Eno quite neatly summarized. “Yes, I offered what life I had left to the God of Time to give to Caelan so he can save our world.”

“Asshole!” Davi barked, pointing a finger at his brother.

“Enough!” Rayne bellowed as he launched to his feet. He ripped off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose. He rubbed his eyes with his thumb and forefinger. “You are not giving up the throne, and you will use the time you’ve collected.”

Caelan snorted. “The Dauphin has spoken, and the king must obey.”

Rayne delivered his most withering look and shoved his glasses back in place. “Because this Dauphin refuses to be king. I am your advisor, and I advise you to fight with every resource you have. If we can serve you best at your side, that is what we will do. And if we can serve you best by giving up our lives, that is what we will do. It is not just for you. We are doing it to save Erya and all of Thia.”

His heart gave an uneven thump in his chest and his throat was raw with unshed tears, but Rayne was right. When he’d woken to the maniacal laughter of Nyx crowing about how all his friends had tried to offer up their lives rather than continue with him, he’d been consumed by hopeless rage. He didn’t want them to die. He wanted—no, needed—them to be the ones who survived and helped to piece the world together after the fighting was over.

Caelan grabbed the front of Drayce’s shirt, pulling him in for another hug while rubbing his cheek against Drayce’s shoulder. He wanted to be wrapped in the warm, smoky scent of his dragon. Even if Drayce wasn’t right next to him, he wanted to close his eyes and still smell him.

“I know,” Caelan whispered. “You’re right. When I woke and discovered what you’d done, I felt…abandoned. Alone. And I can’t do this alone.”

Drayce swore loudly in his ear and hugged him tightly. “You are never alone. No matter what happens, we will always be with you.”

Closing his eyes, Caelan soaked in the warmth of his lover. The room filled with the sound of shuffling feet and scraping chair legs as his friends drew close.

And then he couldn’t breathe.

“Fuck!” Caelan groaned as both Eno and Rayne wrapped arms around them and hugged them. “Fuck! Can’t breathe!” Caelan cried in a muffled voice against Drayce’s shoulder.

“Breathing is for the weak,” Drayce snickered, though he was also sounding squished.

Caelan opened his eyes to see Adrian standing just on the outside of their group, a lopsided, awkward grin on his face. He managed to get an arm free and snag a handful of the man’s shirt, pulling him into their pile. “Come on. You’re an asshole too!”

“No! I didn’t agree to group hugs!” Adrian cried out as Eno looped an arm behind his neck.

“Too late! You’re one of us now.” Drayce laughed.

Yes, this was his family. He might have another one on the Isle of Stone who was related by blood and occasionally grew scales, but this was his first family.

When they separated, Caelan found Davi standing on the other side of the room, his arms folded across his chest as he stared a hole into his older brother.

“Davi, I’m sorry—” Eno started, but his younger brother scoffed and waved a dismissive hand at him.

“Forget it. I understand. Doesn’t mean I have to like it, but I do understand.” Eno crossed to him, and Davi immediately smacked him on the side of the head. “Shut up. Don’t get yourself dead.”

Drayce cackled. “Finally! Someone to hit Eno on the head so he can understand what it feels like.”

Naturally, Rayne lightly smacked Drayce on the back of the head as he returned to his seat and his coffee.

His lover suddenly gasped and twisted both of his fists in Caelan’s shirt. “Hey! If I’m your Consort, does that mean I outrank Rayne?”

Rayne snorted. “Consort over Dauphin? Hardly.”

It was a struggle not to laugh, but Caelan managed somehow. “No. Until I have a child, Rayne is the next in line for the throne. If I die after we’re married, you’ll always have the title of King’s Consort, but it won’t ever give you the throne.” He arched a brow and smirked at his lover. “I hope you weren’t hoping to gain the crown this way.”

Drayce chuckled. “As if. We both know we’re dying together. No fucking way I’m outliving you. Bodyguard before Consort.”

Rayne groaned. “Enough death talk for now, please.”

“How about talk about killing? Can we talk about killing Empire soldiers?” Drayce countered.

“How about breakfast?” Caelan interjected. It already looked like Rayne was about to say he was contemplating the murder of a certain King’s Consort. “Dauphin, make my breakfast as penance for you and all these assholes refusing to listen to their king. Please.”

Rayne shifted his annoyed glare from Drayce to him as Cael had planned, but it softened slightly as the corners of his stern mouth twitched. “On two conditions. First, you stop calling me Dauphin. I’m your advisor.”

“Fine.” Caelan sighed.

“Second, you tell me you have another plan if you’re so determined to not use the dragon time for yourself.”

Caelan sighed, the last of his amusement draining away. He pulled out a chair at the table and dropped into it while the others settled nearby. “I didn’t tell you earlier because it is a bit of a long shot and unlikely to work,” he hedged.

He looked up to see Rayne’s eyes narrow on him as if the man were attempting to read his mind. When it came to Rayne, there was a damn good chance of it. His advisor finally huffed and threw up his hands. “You want to steal Safa’s time.”

“I do. She’s the one who deserves to die in all of this. For the people she’s killed and for all those who could be killed if she continues to pursue this course,” Caelan countered. “But I’m not sure I’ll be able to, considering she’s bonded to a goddess. Nyx hasn’t been incredibly helpful on the matter.”

“It’s basic math, though. Right?” Drayce asked. “You’ve got four gods and she’s got one. Four beats one.”

“When it comes to the gods, I’m getting the impression they don’t exactly follow those basic rules,” Adrian replied. Caelan had to agree with him. Basic logic seemed to be tossed out the window the moment any of the gods were involved, and for once, none of them were daring to argue with him over that thought. Not a great sign.

“You sure we’re going to encounter Safa today?” Eno inquired.

That was the one thing Caelan felt confident about in all of this mess.

He grunted softly. “Yes. She’ll be there. Either waiting somewhere in Parliament Plaza or even at the godstone itself. She’ll be waiting for me. I’m the only thing standing between her and her goddess’s freedom.”

“Okay. Then you steal her time, killing her and stopping the Goddess of the Hunt,” Rayne listed.

“Or I use the time I stole from the dragon on the Isle of Stone so I can keep fighting.”

“Either way, we’ll have the God of Wisdom there to help as well,” Adrian added.

Caelan nodded, but he couldn’t look any of his companions in the eye. A cold knot twisted in the pit of his stomach. Meeting with Lore meant learning the truth about what happened to Zyros and the start of the Gods War. He would finally discover why all the gods were locked away in the godstones.

Maybe even why he was on this path now and where it would ultimately lead. But shadows were already forming in his mind, thanks to the unrelenting silence from the other gods when it came to Lore and even the Goddess of the Hunt. Would he really prove to be the help they were all counting on?

TWENTY-SIX

Caelan Talos

Parliament Plaza was exactly what Caelan had expected it to be. It was the one place that Brightspire lost a bit of its soul and originality, trading it in for austere and rigid government buildings all arranged in tight squares and hard right angles. Each building was made of white stone and marble with windows at regular intervals and unnecessary columns.

Even the surrounding greenery was trimmed and shaped within an inch of its life, as if it would offend the gods or the Parliament members should a leaf or branch be out of place.

It wasn’t so much that it was ugly or even boring. There was a peace and tranquility to the tightly controlled setting. Everything about it shouted order, and maybe that was also supposed to scream safety.

Caelan’s issue was that as they got closer and closer to the meeting place they’d arranged with Jasper Feroz, the more it felt like they stood out among the sparse number of people on the sidewalks and driving down the streets.

They were casually dressed in jeans and T-shirts. It was by sheer luck that the temperature was cooler than it had been, allowing for baggy hoodies that didn’t appear out of place. The only one who was a bit awkward was Eno in his long black leather duster. It was the one way they had to hide his damn sword.

Adrian and Drayce both carried guns and ammunition, while Rayne was loaded with enough knives and daggers that it was kind of amazing that he didn’t clank with every step. Caelan also had a couple of knives stashed on him, but his sword was at the loft.

As they walked through their plan, he practiced the trick of summoning his sword—something he’d quite unexpectedly discovered while fighting Nyx. He still wasn’t entirely sure how he’d accomplished it, but that didn’t matter. His only concern was whether he’d be able to do it at any time.

“Left at the next corner,” Rayne directed in a low voice, a couple of steps in front of him and Drayce. Adrian was walking beside Rayne while Eno lagged several feet away as if he weren’t with their group.

Caelan fought the urge to search for Davi and Nina. They were close, keeping a watch on their progress, but he didn’t know from what vantage point. Were they following via the rooftops? Or strolling the sidewalks with them?

At the next corner, four of them turned while Eno kept going. He was to stop at a newsstand another block down, grab a drink, and circle back, looking for anyone who might be watching them.

When they neared the appointed alleyway where they were supposed to meet the prime minister, Caelan tried to reach out with his gift from Tula, just to get a feel for whether Feroz was alone. Unfortunately, between the heavy concrete, the high number of people already in Brightspire, and possibly even the presence of Lore, he couldn’t get a clear picture.

All the same, Caelan kept a tight hold on the power, prepared to wrap himself and his companions in a protective shield should this be an ambush.

Reaching up, Caelan tugged on the front of his hood, using it to block his face a little more. A few strands of purple hair hung in front of his eyes as if mocking him, but he wasn’t in the mood. He wasn’t out of time. He had enough to do what needed to be done.

Halfway down the alley, a man stuck his head out from around a dumpster, peering toward them. He was wearing a slouchy black beanie and an oversized windbreaker. Jasper Feroz looked like someone’s grandfather had raided their teenage grandson’s closet, managing to appear both ridiculous and horrifying.

When the man caught sight of them, he frantically waved them forward, his face glistening with sweat that was likely brought on more from panic than the heat.

“I think we need to try this another time,” Jasper announced as soon as they were within range.

“What are you talking about?” Rayne snapped.

“My assistant went by the rear entrance I was planning to use, and she said that all the Ilon guards have been replaced with Empire soldiers.” He clenched his hands in front of his chest, wringing them over and over again. “I thought we could at least get through the first checkpoint using Ilon sympathies. They’re my people. They would have let us in.”

Caelan shook his head. “It doesn’t matter. We knew they’d all be New Rosanthe soldiers. We’ll fight through if we must.”

“I didn’t agree to this to get shot with you today!” Feroz snarled.

Adrian stepped forward, grabbed the front of the prime minister’s shirt, and shoved him backward into the dumpster. The metal bonged with the impact, and the prime minister gasped. “You won’t get shot so long as you don’t double-cross us.”

“Wh-wh-what? I-I wouldn’t—” he stammered, his wide eyes jumping from Adrian to Caelan to Rayne as if he wasn’t quite sure who to plead with.

“Where’s the entrance to the godstone? Where are we headed?” Caelan demanded, not willing to listen to the man’s nonsense any longer. Postponing their trip to meet with Lore was out of the question. It didn’t matter if Safa was making her move now or later; they couldn’t afford to wait.

“My office. There’s a secret passage to the godstone, but it’s accessible only through my office,” Jasper replied.

Rayne glanced over his shoulder at Caelan, one eyebrow raised. That was going to be the hardest place to get to within the building, but it also made the most sense if the prime minister was the only person who was supposed to know about the godstone in the first place.

“Should we wait for nightfall? The darkness would give us more cover, and there would be less people walking around the buildings,” Rayne suggested.

“There will still be Empire soldiers and security systems to get through,” Caelan muttered. “Innocent bystanders will get out of the way the second the chaos breaks out.”

Drayce snorted. “It seems like you have a lot less concern for these innocent bystanders.”

Caelan turned his hardened gaze on Jasper Feroz, who shrank against the filthy dumpster. “It’s hard to sympathize with people who have lied to us and used us for decades.”

“Do you think Kaes could afford us some extra cover?” Rayne asked.

God of Storms? Caelan prodded the god in question.

Kaes grunted as if Caelan had woken him up from his afternoon nap, but Cael wasn’t fooled. He knew the god had been hanging on their every word, his essence practically vibrating with excitement at the idea of getting to jump into the action.

What’s he got in mind? Is the bookish one wanting a little squall? Or death and destruction?

Caelan nearly sighed out loud at the question. There was no middle ground with the gods. He turned his attention to Jasper instead of Rayne. “Do we need electricity to open the secret passageway?”

“I-I don’t think so. It’s incredibly old. I think it’s based on levers. Why?”

How about power outages, people scared in their homes? You know, just shy of the ‘end of days’ pandemonium you prefer.

You’re lucky I like you, kid.

Caelan rolled his eyes. It’s not about liking me and all about enjoying the anarchy you create.

Kaes cackled wildly as the feeling of his energy built in Caelan’s chest, as if the god were growing the storm around his heart first before releasing it into the atmosphere.

Caelan glanced over at his companions to find them all watching him. He offered up a reassuring smirk. “Give me a minute to prime the storm, and then we can move. Rayne, figure out the most direct route to our target.”

“Understood.”

“What? We need to go through a back entrance and sneak through a couple of the connecting buildings. It’s the safest route,” Feroz argued.

Rayne immediately cut him off and launched into reasons why they would be taking the route Caelan demanded, but Cael didn’t hear a word of it. He was already sinking into the power of the God of Storms as it swirled in him.

Of all the gods, Kaes’s powers not only felt the most familiar, but they were also the ones he enjoyed the most. The God of Storms tapped into all of his darker emotions and suddenly made them okay. He was no longer ashamed of his anger, hatred, and rage. He embraced them. For the first time in months, he felt like he could breathe again, as if the rope that had wrapped around his throat had loosened and he could break free.

Let it all out, kid. Let’s make them pay for their betrayal. The God of Storms’ voice dropped, below a low rumble of thunder in his head.

Caelan chuckled with him as he thrust his arms into the air. The energy bundled in his chest shot into the air. Wind whipped through the alley, sweeping like angry ghosts through the city while black tar clouds poured across the sky, separating Brightspire from the heavens.

He opened his eyes to see a thick branch of lightning stretched out between the clouds followed immediately by a rock-splitting boom of thunder. Movement at the end of the alley jerked Caelan’s attention from the sky to see Eno rushing toward them.

“Problem?” he demanded and pointed at the sky.

Caelan grinned and shook his head. “Just giving us some added coverage.”

“And probably scaring the shit out of any Empire soldiers who saw those videos of Sirelis,” Drayce snickered.

“Let’s hope,” Rayne mumbled.

“What-what are you? You’re not even human anymore!” Feroz shouted.

Caelan lifted one of his hands to reveal sparks of electricity dancing between his fingers as if he were holding infant lightning. “Funny enough, turns out I never was completely human to start.” He looked over at Rayne and Adrian. “Do we have a route?”

“I know it. I’ll take the lead.” Adrian moved to the end of the alley where Eno was still standing.

Caelan fell into step with him, the wind sending his hair down in front of his eyes. He reached out and patted Eno on the chest as he passed him. “Keep a close eye on Feroz.”

“Got it.”

He wasn’t sure if he was more afraid of the prime minister betraying them or simply making a run for it to save his skin. Even if they lost him, there was a good chance they’d be able to find the secret passage without him, but Caelan preferred to have him on hand so they could make sure he didn’t pass any messages to New Rosanthe.

The storm was now squatting low over the city with churning clouds and one explosion of thunder after another, while flashes of lightning created an almost strobe-light effect. The rain had yet to break free, but the air was heavy with the sharp scent of water and burnt ozone. Sidewalks and streets were largely empty. Here and there they’d catch a shadowy figure running for cover against the coming onslaught.

Adrian jogged for two blocks, glancing back a couple of times to check to make sure the rest of their group was still on his heels. He might not have been in Brightspire for a long time, but he moved like he was intimately familiar with the city.

“You were here longer than you let me believe,” Caelan said.

A smirk tilted up one half of his mouth. “Nope.” He lifted his right hand and tapped his temple with his knuckle. “Photographic memory for places. Once I walk a place, drive a place, or even see a map, I’ve got it memorized for life.”

Now that was a very handy skill for a thief to have.

“I’m so glad you decided to work for us,” Caelan chuckled.

Adrian didn’t get the chance to reply. He brought them to a sharp halt as they came to a cross street that was incredibly wide, leading straight up to the prime minister’s main offices. A tall stone arch rose over their heads and stretched across the street. Under the arch, New Rosanthe soldiers had set up stone barricades large enough to stop anything short of a tank from entering. Caelan counted half a dozen soldiers with automatic weapons held in relaxed hands but easily brought up to mow down anyone who approached.

Caelan placed a hand on Adrian’s shoulder, pulling the man back a step so he could move in front of him.

“Your Majesty,” he hissed, but he obeyed the silent order.

Shifting the God of Storms’ power to the shadowy parts of his mind, he reached for Tula’s gift. I want in their minds. I want them to be mine.

Now you’re just trying to make me happy, Tula replied in a surprisingly playful tone.

Consider this practice for when we catch up with Safa.

He could feel her intense pleasure as her power slithered out of him and through the ground toward the soldiers. But before it could sink into them, it slammed into a barrier, sending a wave of harsh vibrations through his brain. Caelan hissed and stumbled a step. Several hands grabbed him, steadying. He thought he heard them asking him questions, but his mind was too full of Tula’s violent curses.

Lore, she snarled.

Now that was very interesting. The God of Wisdom had taken the opportunity to crawl into the minds of the Empire soldiers and set up his own barriers, blocking out the Goddess of Life.

“I can’t take control of their minds,” Caelan admitted. “Guess we’ll have to do this the old-fashioned way.”

“Oh, good. You have a use for us after all,” Eno mocked.

Caelan opened his eyes and stepped out of Drayce’s supportive hands to throw a repressive look at his other bodyguard. “Watch it, or I’m going to start using you as a human shield.”

“Not funny, Your Majesty,” Rayne growled.

Caelan huffed and shook his head. As if he’d ever do that to Eno.

Rayne placed a hand on his shoulder and squeezed. “Why don’t you get us a little rain? We’ll handle the rest.” As he released Caelan and strode by, his advisor palmed a pair of silver throwing knives. They glinted in a flash of lightning while his hard expression showed a coldness that froze even Caelan. New Rosanthe would find no mercy today.

Retreating, Caelan grabbed one of Jasper’s arms and grinned at the shrinking prime minister as he released the tiny restraint he still had on the storm.

With the next boom of thunder, the sky opened up in sheets of cold rain. His companions strode around the corner with Rayne in the lead. Caelan dragged Jasper along so he could watch knives flying toward the soldiers, unerringly finding their marks again and again. Men went down, choking on blood and screaming as daggers protruded from their eyes. Drayce and Adrian cut through anyone Rayne couldn’t get to in the next second.

They hurried forward, past the barrier and the dead soldiers and into the main courtyard. Caelan looked over to see Rayne’s glasses covered with water, his eyes squinting against the blur and darkness.

“Eno, stay close to Rayne until we can get inside,” Caelan barked.

“Got it! Drayce, Adrian, cover the king!” Eno ordered.

Rain pummeled the ground, creating deep pools across the elegant paving stones. Trees swayed and branches creaked ominously as they were stretched too far. A chill spread through Caelan as wet clothes clung to his skin.

But he barely noticed as more soldiers began to pour out of the building directly in front of them. One of the soldiers guarding the road must have gotten off a warning before they could stop him.

Fuck. They had no cover, except for what he could create.

“Stop!” Caelan shouted and immediately moved in front of their group, wrapping them in a green shield. Bullets bounced off the barrier, but they couldn’t stay here. The longer they lingered, the more reinforcements would surround them.

With a smirk, he reached out to the Goddess of Fire.

I was starting to feel neglected, Caris murmured in a pout that reminded him too much of Nyx.

Forgive me, Goddess. I have a feeling everyone will get a turn today.

Even as he was speaking to her, a wave of flames burst into existence, crashing over the soldiers who’d entered the square. Men screamed in pain, their cries bouncing off the walls of the various government buildings, but they didn’t last long. Quickly, they were all silenced and the only sound was the near-constant rumble of thunder and the drum of the rain.

“Let’s go!” Drayce shouted.

“Wait!” Caelan countered. He removed the flames and reached into the storm. “Stay close,” he whispered while pouring his own anger and pain into the storm. With a clench of his fist, lightning bolt after lightning bolt slammed the ground and buildings. Trees exploded in sparks and after less than a minute, the city fell dark.

“Whoa. Power’s out,” Adrian murmured.

Caelan wanted to chuckle as he fought to pack away all his dark emotions and calm the worst of the storm. But there was no calming it. He could only let the storm wear itself out. At the very least, he wasn’t feeding it any longer. There were truly innocent people in Brightspire who didn’t deserve to be hurt.

“Hey, Cael,” Drayce started. “Toaster?”

“No toaster this time.”

“Please,” Drayce pleaded, grabbing his arm. “It’ll be so fun. Come on. Toaster.”

Caelan shook his head. He’d never be able to see another toaster and not grin. “No. You’ll take out the entire building, and we need it standing. Maybe later.”

Drayce bussed a kiss across his wet cheek. “I’m totally holding you to that.”

With the way cleared, Adrian and Drayce took the lead as they ran toward the front of the building. Eno kept one hand on Jasper while sticking close to Caelan, ready to strike. Their footsteps splashed through the growing puddles that were taking on a pinkish hue.

The open doorway led to a cavernous dark foyer that looked like it was covered in marble. Pounding footsteps echoed down the halls, growing closer as more soldiers moved to intercept them.

“What’s the fastest route to your office?” Caelan demanded.

“Elevator straight ahead to the fifth floor,” Jasper answered, pointing at the darkness in front of them with a shaking finger.

“Power’s out,” Adrian drawled. “Besides, who would want to jump into a death box? Soldiers would mow through us before the doors opened. Stairs?”

“Next to the elevators,” Jasper answered.

“Go!” Caelan barked.

They made a run through the darkness, the wet soles of their shoes slipping across the marble floor. Emergency lights flickered on around the building, casting the halls in a murky, dim yellow light that helped to create deep shadows and illuminate the exits.

But it also made them easier to spot. Gunshots rang out as they reached the stairs. Adrian ripped the door open, grabbed Feroz, and shoved him inside, following a step behind. Drayce started in next, but a cry of pain jumped from his throat as he was tossed against the wall. He clutched his shoulder, wincing. Even in the poor light, Caelan could see the bright red seeping through his fingers.

Fuckers shot his fiancé.

Caelan grabbed Drayce and shoved him at Rayne. “Heal him on the stairs.”

“Cael!” Drayce shouted, but Rayne was already pulling him inside.

Eno remained hovering at Caelan’s elbow, firing rounds into the hall where the soldiers were hiding. Caelan reached out toward Nyx, and the God of Time laughed.

I knew you’d need me, Nyx purred.

Take it all, Caelan whispered.

A blast of purple-tinged energy snaked along the corridor, slipping inside of one person after another. Caelan couldn’t tell if they were soldiers or innocent government workers in the wrong place at the wrong time. Sadly, he couldn’t bring himself to care. Too many of them wanted to kill them. One of them had shot Drayce.

Tightening his fist, Caelan tugged on the energy from the Dead God, pulling the time from their bodies. The chains rose up and glimmered darkly in the air for a second, then dropped to the floor in a chorus of bright chings.

Caelan opened his hand and held it out toward the loose time, calling it all to him. Mine.

He would make good use of the stolen time later.

With their backs covered on the first floor, Caelan and Eno cut into the stairwell, where they found Rayne and Drayce seated on the first-floor landing.

“I’m okay!” Drayce announced as Caelan moved closer.

“The bullet went straight through. I’m healing the worst of it,” Rayne continued.

“The first floor is cleared for now, but we need to keep moving. They’ll be searching each of the floors to find us,” Caelan directed, trying to ignore the tension that unraveled in his chest. Drayce grinned at him as if a bullet hole in his shoulder was no big deal, but his lover knew Caelan would lose his shit the second Drayce was injured.

The second Rayne had Drayce’s shoulder healed enough that he could properly use the arm in a fight, they were climbing the cement stairs. The smooth concrete walls were painted white and helped to reflect some of the emergency lights that were placed every few feet. It was tempting to block the doors as they reached each new floor so no one could enter the stairwell behind them, but he didn’t want to trap innocent workers who might be trying to escape should the fighting continue to escalate.

By the fourth floor, the prime minister was on his hands and knees, gasping for air and covered in sweat. Caelan might have been a bit winded, but he was beginning to worry that Feroz was going to have a heart attack before he made it up the last flight of stairs.

Kneeling next to the man, Caelan placed his hand on his shoulder and allowed some healing energy to flow into him, checking to make sure his heart wasn’t giving out. “Which way do we go when we leave the stairs?”

“It’s…it’s a…right and another right. Double…double doors at the end of the hall,” the older man panted.

“Thanks!” Caelan pushed to his feet and called ahead. “Adrian, Drayce. Take a listen at the top. See if you can determine how many are waiting for us.”

The two darted ahead while the rest of them lingered behind, waiting for Feroz to catch his breath enough to continue. Unfortunately, the sound of a metal door banging open and shouts soon echoed up the concrete stairwell. More soldiers were pouring in from the first floor and heading up.

Eno swore and took up position in the rear to cover them. The gun he’d used earlier was gone, and his bodyguard had pulled his massive broadsword. Not a great idea in here. There wasn’t nearly enough room for him to swing that thing, and the bullets would kill him before he could even get close.

“Let’s try this first,” Caelan suggested. Standing next to Eno, Caelan stretched out a hand and sent a blast of fire down the stairs. It slithered like a giant earthworm, filling all the available spaces. Men shouted, their footsteps now retreating to the lower levels. He didn’t know how many of them he managed to kill, if any at all, but at least he’d bought them some breathing room.

“Are you trying to cook us?” Drayce called from the fifth-floor landing.

Caelan rolled his eyes and motioned for Eno to head up with him. When they reached the others, Feroz was mopping his sweaty forehead with his sleeve as he leaned heavily against the wall. Drayce and Adrian were at the door, which was cracked open, revealing more dim light.

“Can’t see anyone, but I can hear them. Probably a dozen,” Adrian stated.

“I’ll go through first with a shield in place and push through their forces. You concentrate on getting to the prime minister’s office and opening the secret passageway,” Caelan ordered.

For once, no one argued with his decision to take the lead. It made the most sense. He could most easily take out the New Rosanthe soldiers while they moved to their ultimate target.

Heart hammering in his throat, the door was jerked open on a count of three and Caelan stepped into the hall, the shield automatically springing into place. Bullets bounced off the shield. A cannister smoke bomb clattered along the marble floor to stop near his feet, the wicked thing hissing out a steady stream of thick, gray smoke that choked the air and stung his eyes. Throwing out a hand, Caelan summoned up a blast of wind from the storm that continued to rage outside. Glass shattered and soldiers cried out in surprise, while the sudden gust cleared the smoke from the hallway.

Unwilling to risk the lives of his friends any further or waste more time, Caelan released Nyx’s power across the fifth floor, ripping away time from all the people that stood against him. Little rings of time clinked and bounced while bodies fell lifeless. All while the God of Time cackled in triumph. He might bitch that Caelan wasn’t sharing what he gathered, but he seemed to like the idea that Thia was being brutally reminded of his existence.

“Let’s go,” Caelan barked at his companions. He walked past the elevators and glanced to his left and right to see a scattering of more than a dozen bodies in New Rosanthe uniforms littering the marble tile.

“Holy shit,” Adrian breathed as he slid to a halt next to Caelan.

“We need to hurry. Reinforcements will be coming soon.”

“Yeah. Yeah, of course,” Adrian muttered and shouted at the others. There were some more mumbled words, mostly from Jasper Feroz, but Caelan didn’t listen to them. He stared at the dead he’d created. There was no guilt or sorrow over what he’d done.

No, there was only rage.

Emperor Naram Suen had brought them to this point. Safa had created this mess. Possibly even Prime Minister Jasper Feroz had a hand in this as well. New Rosanthe had no business in Ilon. They had no business making deals with someone who was trying to free the Goddess of the Hunt. If not for them, these men could have gone on to live happy, normal lives in their homes.

Instead, they died in a foreign country, leaving behind loved ones who might never fully understand why they had to die.

Caelan brought up the rear of the group. He slammed the double doors shut behind him just as Feroz let out a loud gasp.

“The secret passage has already been opened!”

They all turned to stare at a dark doorway in between two floor-to-ceiling bookshelves.

“Shit!” Drayce snarled. “Do you think it was Safa?”

“I’m sure it was,” Caelan grumbled. He shoved away from the doors and motioned toward them. “Blockade the doors so the Empire can’t follow us.”

Eno, Drayce, and Adrian immediately grabbed up the sofa, chairs, a coffee table, and even a couple of filing cabinets, stacking them in front of the doors. New Rosanthe soldiers would eventually be able to break through, but it would take them time. Caelan wanted to get as big a head start on them as he could possibly get. Particularly now that it looked like Safa was racing ahead of them.

Caelan glanced around the office. Only one emergency light burned in the large room and it was above the doors, leaving most of the space in deep shadow. Papers were spread everywhere, and books were pulled down off the shelves. The computer monitor had even been shoved to the floor.

“Did you tell Safa of the doorway in your office?” Caelan narrowed his eyes on Jasper as he backpedaled. He moved behind his desk as if the hunk of wood could potentially protect him from Caelan’s anger.

“Wh-what? How could I have done that? I’ve never spoken to her,” the prime minister stammered.

“There have been plenty of opportunities for you to pass messages to her in the past several weeks. Maybe even before New Rosanthe arrived in Brightspire.”

“I am no traitor to my people!” Jasper shouted.

“No, just a traitor to all the other countries who viewed you as a friend,” Rayne murmured. His advisor had a knife clenched in one fist as he edged closer to the secret passage and peered into the darkness.

To Caelan’s shock, Jasper huffed out a low laugh and shook his head. “Never gonna let that go, are you?”

“How could we?” Rayne snapped. “You stole our children for your own purposes. You betrayed Erya after centuries of trust.”

Jasper chuckled again while sliding open one of the drawers in his desk. A second later, he lifted a handgun and slowly pointed it around the room. Caelan froze, his eyes following the pistol while being painfully conscious of how close Rayne was to the weapon. He started to pull together Tula’s power to place a protection spell over Rayne, praying that it would hold under such close range.

“Trust is a thing so easily shattered,” Feroz murmured. “I wish I could be there to see how you explain this to world, but then you’ll never survive your encounter with Safa. Glory to the Goddess.”

Before Caelan could draw a breath to shout, Jasper lifted the gun to his temple and pulled the trigger.

TWENTY-SEVEN

Caelan Talos

“What the fuck!” Drayce shouted.

Caelan couldn’t say anything. He couldn’t move, couldn’t even think. Rayne was even standing frozen with his back pressed to the bookshelf and blood splattered across his face.

Adrian and Eno gathered themselves first and raced to the prime minister’s side. They both kneeled, but they didn’t stay there long.

Eno stood, shaking his head. “Dead.”

Yeah, Caelan wasn’t surprised. The man had just shot his brains out. Why…why would he fucking do that? Was suicide really better than facing the anger of the world when it was revealed what Ilon had done? It wasn’t as if he alone was going to be held accountable. Caelan couldn’t say that with any kind of certainty, though. He had no idea what was going to happen when all of Thia discovered Ilon had been kidnapping children.

But this…

“He set you up,” Rayne stated in a low, harsh voice.

“What?” Adrian stood, wiping his hands on his pants.

“This.” Rayne motioned toward the dead body with slightly trembling fingers. “He set Caelan up. There will be proof that we stormed the prime minister’s offices with the prime minister. We’ve killed dozens of New Rosanthe soldiers, and now the prime minister is dead while alone in the room with us.”

“But the Empire is the invader here!” Drayce argued.

“And Ilon didn’t ask for our help,” Rayne countered.

“The suicide?” Eno asked.

Rayne lifted his arm and wiped the blood from his face with the sleeve of his shirt. “They could argue we forced him to it. That he was left with no choice. That he killed himself rather than submit to our demands. There are any number of arguments that could be made. All of it will temper our kidnapping accusations.”

“What about that ‘Glory to the Goddess’ bullshit at the end?” Adrian demanded. “Who was he talking about? The Goddess of Life?”

Rayne shook his head, his voice coming out tight when he replied, “I think…I think he meant the Goddess of the Hunt.”

“It doesn’t matter,” Caelan stated, and all eyes snapped to him.

“What? Of course it matters!” Rayne shouted. “They are going to slander you. They are—”

“It doesn’t matter,” Caelan repeated. “We still have to meet with the God of Wisdom. We have to stop Safa. We have to stop the Emperor of New Rosanthe and the Goddess of the Hunt. None of this can matter until we’re sure Thia won’t be destroyed.”

“You’re right. Forgive me, Your Majesty,” Rayne suddenly said and bowed his head.

Caelan released a long, slow sigh and glanced at his companions. They were wet, bloody, and filthy. And they still had to face Safa. Part of him wanted to leave them behind as he continued on to the Light Stone, but they’d be trapped in this room as New Rosanthe, and possibly even Ilon soldiers, fought to break in.

But facing Safa felt more dangerous than remaining behind.

Maybe it was selfish, but he also wanted them with him as he met with one last god. Caris had hinted that Lore knew the whole truth of who Zyros was and why the war had started. He wanted to be able to tell them all why they were fighting and risking their lives.

Drayce clapped his hands together, startling them all. “Well, we ready to kick Safa’s ass and get this shit settled?”

Rayne groaned first, dropping his head back against the bookshelf. “Asshole.”

Caelan snickered, which broke the last of the tension, causing the rest of them to laugh. Oh, it was utterly inappropriate as they stood in the room with Jasper Feroz’s corpse, New Rosanthe gathering more forces, and an insane, goddess-bonded woman waiting to rip them apart, but then, nothing had been normal about their lives since they’d boarded the train for Caspagir.

“He’s right. We need to get moving. New Rosanthe will be through the door all too soon,” Caelan said.

Rayne pulled his flashlight from his pocket and flipped it on. He leaned into the thick darkness of the secret passage and passed the beam around for a few seconds. “Stairs. Straight down and a lot farther than five stories.”

Drayce moaned, “More stairs?”

“Of course. We’re at the top of the building. Where else were we going to go?” Adrian muttered.

Drayce threw up his hands. “I don’t know. The godstone is full of magic. I was hoping the door would lead to somewhere without more stairs.”

Caelan ignored them both and joined Rayne at the doorway. “Can you see a way to close the door behind us?” He turned on his own flashlight and began searching with Rayne. There was little more than a small concrete landing that barely fit the both of them.

“There!” Rayne suddenly shouted. “There’s a pedal on the floor.”

“Okay.” Caelan leaned into the room and called his companions to descend the stairs. As soon as Eno, Drayce, and Adrian were through, Rayne stepped on the pedal. The passageway was filled with the sound of metallic clicking and heavy wheels rolling as the bookshelf that formed the door moved smoothly back into the place, barring the way into the chamber.

Blackness engulfed the stairwell, broken only by five sharp flashlight beams. Caelan clipped his to the front of his shirt, leaving his hands free as he started his descent behind Eno while Rayne brought up the rear. Drayce was in the front, his voice seeming to echo up the narrow concrete passage.

“What is it with the godstones and stairs? Every time we go to see a god, there are always all these stairs,” Drayce bitched.

“There were no stairs to get to the Wind Stone,” Eno reminded him.

Drayce scoffed. “Yeah, but Cael and me got arrested. That’s as bad as stairs.”

“Are you shitting me? That was in Sirelis, right? Caspagir arrested the king?” Adrian demanded.

Caelan groaned softly at the memory. Not one of his finest moments, and it was made all the worse by the fact that Prince Shey had been there when he was released.

“Yeah, but it’s not like they knew they were arresting the King of Erya. They thought they caught some Empire spies,” Drayce explained. “But we climbed stairs to get to the Life Stone. We climbed a fucking mountain and stairs to get to the Death Stone. And we went down stairs to reach the Fire Stone.”

“But there weren’t a lot of stairs for the Fire Stone,” Eno argued.

“And no volcano! The Goddess of Fire deserves a volcano,” Drayce continued.

Caris flicked open her fan as she hummed happily to herself. Such a perfect angel, she murmured.

You can’t have him, Caelan grumbled before he could stop himself. He might like the Goddess of Fire more than the other gods, but that did not mean he wanted her taking an interest in Drayce.

A tap on the top of his head had him jerking and rubbing the spot. Silly man. Only because he’s perfect is he worthy of you. But if you don’t properly appreciate him, I will steal him away.

Not a problem. Besides, don’t you have your hands full already with a certain God of Time?

Caris’s happy hum turned into more of a purr. He could feel her attention drawing away from him as she went in search of her god.

Yes, let them be distracted for a bit. He needed to focus on the dangers that lay ahead.

The air in the stairwell was stale and musty. It seemed to even be growing more damp and thicker as they traveled farther. Everything was silent except for the sound of their footsteps and the constant chatter rising from Drayce.

But Caelan barely noticed it over the crackle of energy from the God of Wisdom as it sparked and pricked at his skin. They’d easily gone more than five flights and should be below the street level of Brightspire. The power from the god was noticeably stronger now, as if they’d walked into a fog bank of his power.

“Whoa…” Drayce suddenly gasped. “Anyone else smell that?”

“What?” Caelan snapped. The tiny pinpricks along his skin were already putting him on edge. He didn’t need surprises from Safa or Lore.

“Books. I swear, I smell books. Like I just stepped into a library,” Drayce answered and drew in a deep breath.

“Yeah, I smell it too,” Adrian agreed, dragging in a deep breath as well. Eno grunted in agreement.

Caelan didn’t smell anything. He turned toward Rayne to see his advisor frowning and shaking his head. Either they needed to go another few steps or they were being naturally protected by Tula.

How worried should I be? Will Lore try to control my friends? Caelan demanded of Tula.

When it comes to Lore, you should always be worried, she replied.

Can you protect them? Caelan asked and inwardly flinched, which only made the goddess chuckle. Yeah, he knew exactly what he was asking. He wanted Tula to safeguard the minds of his friends from Lore, but that likely meant giving her access to their minds. The one thing he’d been trying to protect them from since Zastrad.

Which of us do you think is worse? Tula mocked.

It’s not a matter of worse. It’s a matter of common goals. I don’t know what the God of Wisdom wants. I do know that you want me to defeat Safa and the Goddess of the Hunt. I can only do that with my friends protecting my back. Fuck with them, and you can’t get what you want, Caelan snarled at her. His hands were clenched so tightly at his sides they were shaking. He hated this idea with every fiber of his being, but he’d also seen how Lore had brainwashed so many people of Ilon. He didn’t want that to happen to his companions.

Tula huffed, but there was a hint of amusement to the sound. I’ll behave myself. You’re too close to the end of things, and we can’t afford to have you distracted by these little humans.

What do I do?

Just touch their heads and that will be enough for me to protect them from Lore.

Rayne?

The low laugh was back. No, I have just enough of a claim on him to protect him.

That was not reassuring in the least, but Caelan had to let it go for now. They needed to continue, and he needed to be sure his friends were as safe as he could make them. Reaching his hand forward, he laid it on the top of Eno’s head directly in front of him. Eno sucked in a harsh breath and shivered under his touch.

“What—” he started.

“Okay?” Caelan asked, lifting his hand away. He could see a small green halo appear around Eno’s head and then disappear.

“Yeah. I—” he broke off and sniffed the air. “The smell is gone. It’s just dank air again.”

“Good. Move to the side. I need to do the same to Adrian and Drayce.” Eno pressed to the concrete wall on his right, allowing Caelan to carefully slide past him on the too-narrow stairs.

“Cael?” Rayne called after him.

“Some added protection from the God of Wisdom. Just a precaution,” he replied as he reached Adrian and touched his head. The Royal Guard shivered and the halo appeared only to dissipate a couple of seconds later.

When he touched Drayce, the man yelped in pain while Tula snickered.

Bitch, Caris snarled in his mind.

You promised to behave, Caelan snapped at her.

Tula sighed loud enough that it felt like everyone outside of his head could hear her. It was a little pinch. Nothing to make such a fuss about.

Caelan cupped both of Drayce’s cheeks and tipped his head so he could look in the man’s bright emerald-green eyes. “Are you okay?”

“Yeah, it’s passing. Felt like you drove a metal spike into my brain for a second.”

Caelan pulled Drayce’s head forward and pressed a kiss to his brow while pushing more of Tula’s healing gift into his body, soothing all remnants of the pain, but there was nothing to be found except for the new shimmering green barrier circling Drayce’s mind.

“Should I be concerned that you didn’t bother with me?” Rayne called out.

“No. Tula says she’s got you covered already.”

“I’m not reassured,” Rayne muttered.

Neither was Caelan, but he kept that to himself. He stepped in front of Drayce and took over the lead. “Just give a shout if you smell books or something feels off.”

They continued only another flight before Caelan managed to nearly fall down the stairs. Drayce snagged the back of his shirt, holding him in place. The evenness of the stairs had shifted from smooth concrete to ragged rocks.

Regaining his balance, Caelan grabbed his flashlight and shined it around. The concrete walls were gone, replaced with uneven stone and impossibly high ceilings. They were in a cave. An enormous, underground cave.

“Is it just me or does anyone else hear water? Like a lot of it,” Adrian asked.

“I hear it too,” Rayne immediately said. “It’s faint. Must have been covered up by the sound of our footsteps.”

Caelan resumed the trek, but the stairs ended after one more flight and they were left in what appeared to be a large antechamber that became wider and wider the farther they walked. They fanned out a little more as they continued forward. The air was growing colder and wetter, while the sound of the water as it lapped on stone grew louder.

“Man, I’m really starting to not like this place. It reminds me too much of Mount Langbo,” Drayce muttered.

“And if you’ll recall, you were the scariest thing in that mountain,” Eno replied.

Caelan bumped his arm into Drayce’s. “I’m sure you’re the scariest thing in this cave too.”

Drayce’s face whipped around, his eyes narrowed against Caelan’s flashlight and his eyebrows drawn together over his nose. “Does that mean toaster is a possibility down here?”

Caelan glanced up at the ceiling that was lost to the darkness. They certainly had the room for Drayce to shift into his dragon form without crushing them or collapsing the cave on top of them. “I see it as a distinct possibility, but let’s wait for now.”

His lover exhaled and nodded, seeming to relax a bit more now that he knew he could shift if the danger grew too great.

They continued to walk on for another half hour by Caelan’s best guess. No one was talking other than to occasionally warn each other about some uneven footing. The sound of the water grew louder until they were at last forced to stop as they were blocked by what appeared to be an underground river.

“It’s the branch from the Whitgami,” Rayne murmured. He moved forward and lifted up his flashlight, moving it across the wide swath of fast-moving, dark water.

“What? Isn’t that the river we crossed to enter Brightspire?” Eno asked.

“Yes, while we were doing research in the library, I encountered some old stories that a branch of the Whitgami River ran under the city of Brightspire, but I’ll admit that I wasn’t expecting anything quite this large.”

“What now? Cross it?” Drayce inquired.

Caelan joined Rayne at the water’s edge, cautious of the slick rocks and helped illuminate as much of the other side of the river as they could. Their lights just barely reached the other bank, but nothing beyond that.

“There’s no proof that Safa and any soldiers with her crossed it,” Eno said. He moved along the edge to the west. “There are a couple of scrapes here along the rocks. I think they followed the water.”

Rayne turned toward Caelan. “Are you getting any sense of the godstone?”

He shook his head, his teeth clenched at the reminder of the pinpricks. He drew more of Tula’s power about him like a protective cloak. “Nothing distinct. It’s all one big cloud.”

“The God of Wisdom has been down in the caves a long time, his energy soaking into the rocks and then the soil.” Rayne grunted. “It’s no wonder you can feel him throughout the entire city.”

Kaes and Caris had both been underground, but the Wind Stone had an opening to the world through the lighthouse, while Caris had been out in the middle of nowhere on the Isle of Stone. No one was around to notice the presence of her power until Caelan showed up.

“Let’s follow the river and see where it leads us,” Caelan decided, motioning for Eno to continue in the direction he was heading. “And keep your distance from the water.”

“Why? Did you see something?” Drayce asked, moving several feet away from the riverbank.

“No.” Caelan left it at that. It wasn’t so much that he saw anything moving with the black waves, but a feeling that rose up in his chest. From the stairs to the cave, there had been a sense that they were utterly alone in the world. But the moment they reached the edge of the river, he couldn’t shake the feeling that they were being watched. And whatever it was, that thing was very excited to have them there.

Excited in a teeth and claws kind of way.

Caelan lifted his watch up to the beam from his flashlight to find they’d been walking for close to a few hours. He was beginning to think they should have packed more provisions. He wasn’t sure how long they’d walked through Mount Langbo before encountering the Death Stone, but this was already feeling longer. They had to have crossed all of Brightspire by now and be nearing the edge of Shallow Glass Lake. Unless they were now under the lake…

A shiver ran through Caelan, and he shoved the thought aside. He did not want to be under the lake. He didn’t want to be underground and in the fucking dark any longer. Rolling his shoulders, he tried to loosen the muscles that felt impossibly tight. His entire body was a spring that had been coiled too tight for too long. He was ready to snap if they didn’t find the godstone or even Safa soon.

“Stop!” Eno commanded in a harsh whisper. “Cover your flashlights!”

Caelan immediate placed his hand over the light with his left hand while holding his right out to his side, ready to summon his sword.

But the cave didn’t turn pitch black as he’d expected. A faint glow of light flickered past the next bend in the cave and gilded the black waves of the river. They were close to their destination at last, or at the very least, where Safa had stopped with her soldiers.

“Slowly. Eno and Adrian lights only,” Caelan commanded. It made it a little harder to move in the darkness, but he didn’t want them giving away their approach too soon.

They hurried off, trying to keep their steps as quiet as possible while hoping the sound of the water covered their movements. Eno remained in the lead with Adrian nearly on his heels. Drayce and Rayne closed ranks on either side of Caelan, ready to protect him.

“What the…” Adrian exhaled as they reached the turn and peered around the ridge of rocks shielding them from view.

Caelan inched closer and stared at the scene before them, but he had nothing more intelligent to add. He’d expected to see more cave with maybe torches and a giant canary-yellow godstone in the center.

What he got was a small town.

Torches and bowls filled with oil flickered brightly, pushing back the darkness to reveal an old wooden bridge that spanned the river. On the other side of the bank, there were wooden buildings that looked more like crumbling warehouses. There were a handful of smaller buildings, all crudely made and appearing as if they’d been down in the cave for several decades at the very least.

The only thing that appeared relatively new or even maintained was the large dock on the river. The sturdy creation had two motorized pontoon boats tied to it along with a sizable fishing boat.

How…how was this even possible?

Clearly the prime minister’s office wasn’t the only entrance to the caves, but where did the river lead? Did it climb to the surface past the Shallow Glass Lake to what…reach the ocean?

This didn’t make any sense.

Caelan let his eyes skim over the town again, only to have them finally snag on what he’d been searching for. The Light Stone.

The godstone of Ilon stood in the center of the village, the elegant facets catching and reflecting the torchlight so that it looked almost like gold against the velvety shadows of the cavern. Such a beautiful thing and it felt like a waste to have it locked away underground when it should have been at the top of one of the city’s spires.

About a dozen New Rosanthe soldiers were patrolling the area with a couple on their side of the riverbank and a few on the bridge itself, while the others circled the godstone. Caelan was about to speculate where Safa was when she strode out of the largest building.

She didn’t approach the godstone as he expected. She walked right past it and stopped near the riverbank. Tilting her head up slightly, it seemed as if she was sniffing the air. A slow grin spread across her wide mouth, revealing the tips of fangs, and Caelan’s blood ran cold.

“Come out, little prince!” she called, her harsh voice echoing off the stone walls and carrying down the long tunnels. “I know you’re here. I’ve been waiting for you.”

He didn’t hesitate. There was no point in hiding or denying they were there. She knew it, and they had no intention of running. His goal was to bond with the God of Wisdom, and he was not leaving until that was completed.

With a reassuring pat to Drayce’s shoulder, Caelan stepped away from his companions and strolled around the final turn to stand on the opposite side of the riverbank from Safa. Behind him, the sound of his friends’ footsteps on the rocks echoed through the cave.

The New Rosanthe soldiers all lifted their guns, aiming at them, but they didn’t move beyond that. They were simply waiting for Safa’s command.

Caelan smiled at Safa and then let his eyes drift up to the godstone sparkling in the darkness. He released some of his hold on Tula’s power, allowing Lore’s energy to wash over and through him. She hadn’t bonded with the god. Not yet. He would feel if she had.

“I’m surprised,” he started, looking at the woman again. “I thought you would have claimed your prize already.”

“Tempting, isn’t it?” She motioned with one hand over her shoulder. “So close. The knowledge of countless ages. The history of all the civilizations that existed before either of us. All of it right there.”

“But he rejected you, didn’t he?” Caelan taunted.

Her snarling grin didn’t waver as his jab missed its mark. “No, I was waiting for you. I wanted to see your face when you discovered you failed. I want to see your horror when you learn the truth.”

Caelan clenched his teeth against the uneasiness that sloshed through his stomach. The truth had become this ominous thing hanging over his head for months now. Did she know something that he didn’t? The gods were hiding something from him, something big enough that none of them were willing to speak a word about it.

But it didn’t matter in the end. Safa was a threat to Thia.

Zyros was a threat to Thia.

He would do whatever it took to eliminate those threats to protect his home and people. This truth everyone was so afraid wasn’t important.

“But we don’t need all these other spectators. Your horror is enough for me.” She waved her hand at them. “Kill the rest. Leave the King of Erya alive.”

Gunfire and knives instantly filled the air. Caelan and his companions ducked behind large rocks for cover as they slowly picked off one New Rosanthe soldier after another. Safa retreated to the godstone, standing just a few feet behind it as she used it as a shield.

Impatience mounting, Caelan rolled out from cover, Nyx’s power already in hand. He stretched out and grabbed the time of each of the soldiers and pulled. Each one jerked and fell like puppets who had their strings cut.

“Bastard,” Safa snarled as she lunged out from her hiding place. “Kill them!” she screamed again. He started to reach for her life chain when half a dozen alligators the size of small dragons erupted from the river waters and surged up onto the bank. Mouths filled with sharp teeth open wide and tails whipping wildly, they ran at them.

Caelan sucked in a breath to shout “Toaster” but a ground-shaking roar filled the cave, threatening to destroy his eardrums. A giant black dragon filled the cave. Its massive wings of fire stretched above their heads and brushed the ceiling. Two feet came down on a pair of alligators, instantly crushing them while a third was chomped in Drayce’s jaws.

For a second, Caelan could only stare in horror at sight of Drayce holding off the alligators as they continued to pour out of the river.

A hand clamped on Caelan’s arm, freeing him from his paralysis. He looked over at a sweaty and pale Rayne. “Run to the godstone! We’ll hold them off!”

Caelan’s heart screamed “No!” as he nodded and shoved away from the boulder he was using as protection. He stumbled a couple of times to get his feet under him, but caught his balance and bolted to the bridge, leaping over the bodies of the dead soldiers along the way.

His feet pounded across the wooden bridge. Something snapped and the bridge shuddered. He spared a quick look to see that an alligator had bitten through one of the brittle support beams to get at him, but the bridge still held. His heart skipped and raced on. He couldn’t stop now. This could all end if he killed Safa or touched the godstone.

As he reached the other side of the river, Safa was waiting for him, hands open at her sides, her talon-tipped fingers slightly curled. Caelan called his sword to him, and the familiar hilt instantly rested heavy in his palm. The same energy he’d felt when he’d attacked Nyx crackled through his frame.

Safa’s eyes widened briefly as if in surprise, but she didn’t hesitate to launch herself at him. He blocked one swipe of her claws with his blade and deftly dodged the second. Drayce’s roars continued to rattle the cave along with the intermittent sound of gunfire. Caelan couldn’t spare a glance in their direction. They could handle themselves. Rayne could heal them.

Over and over again, Caelan blocked Safa’s blows while he circled and backpedaled toward the godstone. He remained patient, learning her pattern even as sweat slipped down his brow and along his spine despite the chill in the air. Muscles burned, but even after the long walk and the fight, he wasn’t tired. Energy crackled through him, building to some explosion, but he didn’t know how to release it. He could only channel it into his every movement.

But it wasn’t enough.

He clenched his teeth against a scream as his bones threatened to snap under the pressure. He reached for the gods, demanding to know what was happening, but they were silent. He couldn’t even sense them watching him. It was as if for the first time in months, he was truly alone.

When he could no longer take it, he thrust out his left hand at Safa as she threw herself at him yet again. A blast of white energy slammed into her chest, sending her sailing a couple of dozen feet into the air toward the riverbank. She landed hard and rolled another few feet until she was right at the water’s edge.

Caelan’s vision crinkled and went dark as he fell to his knees. Everything was swaying and losing focus.

No! No! No! He couldn’t pass out. Clenching his teeth, he scrabbled and clawed at the ground, shoving back to his feet. He glanced at Safa’s body. He thought he saw her move, but she was still lying on her chest. She wasn’t dead. Not yet.

He’d finish her after the godstone.

He had to get to the godstone.

The first step was unsteady, but he got his bearings a little more with each following step until he reached the brilliant golden glow of the Light Stone.

Lifting his shaking and bloody left hand, Caelan sighed. At last, they would finally get the truth.

He placed his hand against the cool, slick surface of the godstone, and it shattered.

TWENTY-EIGHT

Caelan Talos

Caelan stumbled back, landing hard on his ass, but he barely noticed. His eyes were locked on the cascade of golden shards falling to the ground. The godstone broke.

It was gone.

No.

How was this even possible?

It had to be a trick. An illusion. The gods had swept him away to the middle of the ocean, a dense forest, and marbled rooms when they met for the first time. None of it had been real. This couldn’t be real.

He jerked his gaze away from where the Light Stone had stood only to find that he was still in the cave. Safa still lay on the bank, surrounded by the corpses of the New Rosanthe soldiers sent to aid her.

On the other side of the river, a massive black dragon was fighting off the last of the alligators along with Rayne, Eno, and Adrian. Everything was exactly as it should be, except the godstone had shattered.

A rising glow of golden light drew his gaze and had him shielding his eyes. When the cave grew dim again, Caelan lowered his hand to find a tall man standing over him with long, black hair gathered together in a series of braids down his spine. His features were sharp and almost hawklike while piercing black eyes stared down at him.

The slow smile that stretched his thin lips was like watching a knife slice across his face, pulling open a fresh wound.

“I have been waiting so long for you,” the man announced in a low, deep voice.

“L-Lore?” Caelan stammered. It was the only person it could be. The God of Wisdom. He tore his eyes away and stared at the ground, anywhere else for proof that he was in an illusion, but everything was the same except for the sparkling bits of crystal that littered the ground. “Is this real?”

A hand grabbed his arm and jerked him to his feet. “This is real. I’m the God of Wisdom. I don’t deal in illusions.”

Caelan looked up at the smiling god, but there was no warmth in his expression. Not that he would have called Nyx particularly welcoming when they first met, but something was off. This all felt so very wrong.

What’s going on? The godstone can’t be broken, right? he demanded of the pantheon in his head.

Tick. Tock.

A shiver ran through Caelan and he stomped down on it. He had time. He had plenty of time stored up he could steal for his own use, and Safa was alive as well.

“Don’t worry about them. I bet they’ve had nothing useful to tell you since they sent you on this errand,” Lore murmured.

“They told me I needed to save Thia,” Caelan replied.

Lore released his arm and tossed his head back on a laugh. It was harsh and as sharp as his features, slicing at his ears and leaving him wincing.

“They said that you could tell me the truth of what happened. Why did the war start with Zyros? Why does she want to destroy everything and everyone?”

The God of Wisdom’s laugh stopped abruptly, but the lack of sounds was just as disorienting. But the sound of his name being called seemed to put the world to rights again.

Footsteps pounded across the wooden bridge, and he turned to see his friends racing toward him. The dragon and alligators were gone. Safa had pushed to her hands and knees, her face pale and hair hanging down in front of her eyes, but there was still a look of pure hatred filling her features.

“Good. An audience. I do love sharing my knowledge with others,” Lore whispered.

Caelan glanced over his shoulder, holding out one hand to his companions. “Stop. Just…just stay there.”

“But Safa?” Eno demanded.

“No. Don’t. Just stay, please,” he replied, fighting desperately to keep the tremble out of his voice.

“The godstone…” Rayne choked out.

Caelan could only nod. The fact that Rayne and the other could see its broken pieces meant that it was all real. This wasn’t an illusion.

He needed them to stay where they were. There had been a niggling feeling in the back of his mind for months now, since first meeting Tula, that he was walking into a trap. Now, standing with Lore, Safa, and the broken godstone, he could feel the trap surrounding him. It hadn’t snapped shut yet, but even the smallest breath could trigger it. He didn’t know whether he could get his friends out still, but he could try.

Lowering his hand to his side, Caelan sucked in a steadying breath. It would be okay. They needed to know what happened, to know why they were all there in the first place.

He lifted his gaze to find Lore watching him so very closely. There was something menacing in that stare. He tried to remind himself that none of the gods were warm and fuzzy, but this felt different.

“Will you tell us what happened?”

Lore blinked and some of the coldness thawed from his features. His narrow shoulders relaxed an inch, and his smile even felt a little less threatening. Now that Caelan didn’t feel like he needed to defend himself, he took in the god’s attire. He would have expected something…well, something like what Rayne wore. Neat and proper, as if the man spent his entire existence inside of a library.

But the God of Wisdom’s clothes were worn and a bit dirty. His pants and shirt were made of a durable material in shades of brown and green, but there were patches on the knees and another on one elbow. A leather satchel was hanging across his chest and rested against his right hip. While on his left hip was a long knife with a razor-sharp edge.

“Thousands of years ago, the gods walked freely on Thia. At that time, there was no Ilon, Erya, Caspagir, or any of the kingdoms that you know now. The world was filled with nomadic tribes that followed the passing seasons and the migrating herds.” Lore paused and his head tilted to the side as he narrowed his gaze on Caelan. “There were a few exceptions. A large tribe had gathered to the north and was settling on a bay that would one day become Stormbreak Point.” His eyes lifted past Caelan’s shoulder. “The dragons stayed up in the mountains, but they were already forming their clans.”

Tick. Tock.

Caelan flinched. He glanced toward Safa, but quickly drew his gaze back to Lore. He needed to hear this. Needed to know why his life had been thrown upside down. Why his mother had been killed.

“Few among the humans even realized they encountered gods on a regular basis. We were generally good at blending in,” Lore said with a smirk. “Some of us watched them, trying to learn more about their ways. Others ignored them completely, content to mingle among our own kind. And then there were some that felt the need to play with the humans.” The last sentence was barely more than a growl.

“Tula,” Caelan muttered before he could catch himself.

Lore huffed a laugh. “Not at first. No, she preferred to be worshiped by all. She wanted shrines and altars among all the tribes. She needed to be loved by all.”

“Did that include the gods? Did she need to be loved by all the gods as well?”

The god’s nose wrinkled and his mouth twisted. “Not quite. She would have preferred to have all the other gods adoring her and obeying her every whim, but she was particularly interested in one god, who had no interest in her.”

“Zyros?”

Another harsh bark of laughter left Lore and Caelan quickly covered his ears rather than have the sound slice through his brain. Lore placed a hand on his head and stared up at the ceiling for a moment, seeming lost in a thought while choking out a few more broken laughs.

“Zyros? No. She wasn’t a god,” Lore murmured. He sniffed and shook his head as if knocking his thoughts back in order. “Zyros was human. A huntress. Fierce, brilliant, and loyal. She was the best of her tribe. One day, she would have been the chief of her tribe and led them to greatness.”

Something had changed in Lore’s tone. With each mention of the Goddess of the Hunt’s name, his tone softened. A cold fist closed around Caelan’s heart, and he suddenly didn’t want to know the rest of this story.

“But Zyros had the unlucky fate to meet one of the gods while hunting, and against her will, she fell in love.” Lore looked at Caelan, his smile a twist of bitter sadness. “She fought it for as long as she could, but ultimately lost. And everyone knows nothing good comes from loving a god. It’s even worse when that god loves you in return.”

Caelan swallowed hard. Moreso if that particular god had already caught the eye of Tula.

“Zyros became obsessed with her god. Despite his reassurances that she was everything that he wanted, she worried that she needed to be worthy of his love. She was terrified of growing old and weak.” Lore clenched his teeth, his smooth brow furrowing. “So, she made offering after offering to the Goddess of Life, begging Tula to help her be worthy of the god’s love.”

“Fuck,” Caelan mumbled and scrubbed a hand over his face. This was definitely where things went to shit.

“Tula claims it was all a jest. A game to pass the time.” The hard ugliness had returned to his voice, twisting the words into knots. “She gathered several of the other gods together and they each agreed to send Zyros on a series of quests. Each time Zyros completed an impossible task, she would be bonded to the god, gaining some of their power.”

“No!” Caelan stumbled back a step and fell. The world tilted and his blood ran cold. He couldn’t feel anything but biting, arctic cold.

Lore grinned and kneeled, one knee and hand pressed to the stone floor as he leaned in close, not letting Caelan escape his black gaze. “Yes, and Zyros completed each task because Tula promised that at the end, Zyros would become a god just like her love. None of them believed she would complete the tasks. But none of them understood her fierce determination, her unbreakable spirit.”

No, the other gods didn’t understand Zyros the way the man who loved her did. Lore always knew what she was capable of. Caelan could imagine Lore pleading with Zyros to stop, to give up these quests, but fierce determination and pride would have kept her going. She wouldn’t have wanted anything to separate her from her love.

“Tula was the last to bond with Zyros,” Lore continued with a curl of his upper lip. “The power shattered her mind. Killed the last of the human in her. And when she opened her eyes, Zyros was the mad Goddess of the Hunt.” Lore stopped and huffed out a laugh. “She nearly killed Tula before the Goddess of Life made her escape with the help of Kaes. Zyros went on to slaughter countless other gods across Thia, stealing bits of their essence to create a patchwork of power of her own.”

Caelan closed his eyes and swallowed hard against the rawness in his throat. Sadness swirled in his chest, but it was almost immediately lost to the swell of rage that was burning away everything else.

You were jealous that Lore loved Zyros. You couldn’t fucking stand it, so you had to torture her, he snarled at Tula, not caring if she could even hear him. You made it into a petty game, thinking that you could watch her slowly die, but she beat you. She fucking beat you at your own game.

She wasn’t worthy of him! Tula screamed so loud Caelan could feel his ears starting to bleed. He cried out in pain and clutched his head in both hands, trying to roll into a fetal position to protect himself, but there was nowhere he could go.

You did this.

“You all did this!” Caelan shouted as loud as he could. His eyes opened and he glared at the God of Wisdom. “You all did this. The other gods played a cruel game on a woman they didn’t bother to understand. And you,” Caelan panted, his teeth clenched at Lore. “You didn’t stop them. Maybe you couldn’t stop Zyros, but you didn’t do enough when it came to stopping the other gods. I bet you could even see what was happening, the course she was taking, and you still didn’t stop it. Why? Why would you let this happen if you loved her?”

“Because I didn’t want to lose her!” Lore roared at him. The explosion of energy faded as fast as it appeared, and Lore dropped back to sit on his heel. His voice became barely more than a whisper. “When she completed the first couple of tasks and I saw the powers she gained, I knew it was possible for her to ascend, to become a goddess. And then, we could be together forever.”

“You did this,” Caelan repeated softly. “How many people died because of a jealous game? Because you couldn’t be happy with what you had.”

“More than you can begin to imagine,” Lore snarled at him. “Zyros was tearing Thia apart. She had to be stopped.”

“So, you created a trap that ended up trapping all of you together.” Caelan’s eyes snapped to the remains of the godstone and his breath became stuck in his throat. “But the trap is broken. You’re free. You’re all free.”

Lore shoved to his feet and brushed his hands together, dusting off bits of dirt and rocks. “Because I’m tired of this stalemate. My love is tired of waiting.”

Tick.

“What the fuck am I supposed to do against Zyros? How am I supposed to take on a goddess like her?”

Tock.

“You finish the game they started.” Lore reached down with his left hand and grabbed Caelan’s arm, jerking him up to his feet and twisting him around. His shoulders hit Lore’s chest and he found himself facing his friends just a couple of dozen feet away.

Lore’s grip shifted to his hair and a metallic shing echoed into his left ear.

The blade left the holster.

The world slowed and he couldn’t move. His eyes were locked on Drayce, watching them widen in horror. The blade pressed to his throat and cut deep. Pain burned in an instant, but it was nothing compared to the explosion in his chest when Lore stabbed him through the heart.

Drayce’s scream seemed muffled and distant, while Lore’s whisper was a shout that echoed through his soul.

Finish what they started. Join us in Green Spring.

He was suddenly falling. Lore was gone. He hit the ground and fresh pain sent a shock through his chest, but it wasn’t as strong as the first strike. The world was already fading, growing fuzzier by the second. His friends’ shouting was muffled. The hands grabbing him did nothing to ease the cold or to push back the darkness.

Nyx had killed him twice before, but this time was different. The darkness was deeper and colder. He was falling away from everything. Why had he gone through all of this? He’d bonded with four gods only to have them abandon him at the end? Had they sacrificed him as an apology to Lore for fucking him over?

Cael, don’t leave me.

Drayce. He could hear Drayce. He couldn’t leave him. They were supposed to get married. To build a life together.

Cael, you gotta fight this. You’re stronger than death now.

Eno.

Please, Your Majesty. We need you.

Adrian.

Wake up, Caelan. Protect your family.

Rayne.

Caelan released the last of his hold on his old life and reached for the energy that had been growing and tangling with his soul. It had buzzed and shredded little bits of him for months now, weakening and killing him while weaving into his very essence.

He’d tasted it when he lost his temper with Nyx.

It had nearly killed him when he used it against Safa.

And now he had to embrace it.

A scream was ripped from him again as the world exploded into piercing white light.

Caelan blinked several times, trying to get his eyes to focus. When the brightness receded, he found himself standing where the godstone had been, his sword clenched in his right hand. He touched his throat to find the deep, ugly slash was gone. There was no pain at all. If anything, he felt disconnected and edgy. Power snapped and arced through every molecule of his body. Images and fragmented memories collided in his brain.

Lifting his gaze, his eyes settled on four faces he knew. His friends. His family. The only people who truly knew him. Loved him.

“Cael,” Drayce said brokenly. He was on his knees, seeming unable to move a step closer. His eyes were wide while tears streaked down his pale, dirty cheeks. “You were dead…again.”

“How are you alive?” Rayne asked in a shaking voice.

Caelan lifted his empty hand and stared at the palm. Energy overflowed from every pore. He was different now. He was…

“I’m not,” he whispered. “I think…I think I’m a god now.”

Yeah, that just happened.

The story is not finished yet!

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