Thorn Queen (Page 21)

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I woke up the next morning, lying on top of my covers, with sunlight streaming in through the eastern windows. It was barely sunrise, but already the air was warming up. It was, as the saying went, going to be a hot one. If I truly was connected with the land, I wondered what a heat wave said about my mood. Was it indicative of my preparedness for battle?

I squinted up at the play of sunlight on the stone ceiling, unsure of that question, just like so many lately. With a sigh, knowing I needed to get up, I rolled over and came face-to-face with Kiyo. I yelped in surprise.

His dark chocolate eyes were open, wide awake. I think he'd been watching me while I slept. He smiled that sexy, smoky smile of his, eyes crinkling slightly. He was bare-chested, clad only in navy blue boxers.

“When did you get here?” I asked. “I didn't notice a thing.”

“I know,” he said. “You were sleeping pretty heavy. Didn't even budge when I slid into bed.” He rested a hand on my hip and slid it along my bare leg. I'd fallen asleep in a T-shirt.

Seeing his eyes and feeling his hand on my skin warmed something in me. Surely all would be right in the world-worlds, even-so long as I had Kiyo. There was just something so overwhelmingly strong and secure about him, a steadiness in the midst of that dangerous sex appeal. I reached out and touched the side of his face, a bit surprised at just how happy I was to have him here with me.

“I didn't know for sure that you'd come,” I admitted.

“Eugenie, how can you think that?” He continued stroking my leg, but his other arm pulled me close. “I said I would. I won't let you go into danger alone.”

“I know you don't approve of some of the things I do. Roland doesn't. We had a huge fight.”

Kiyo kissed my forehead, then my nose, and then my lips. “He's worried about you. I am too. But I understand what you have to do here and why you want to help these people.”

I looked at him and felt something lighten up within me, some lonely and aching part that so desperately needed someone to get me. Before, I'd felt like Dorian could. I prayed Kiyo was able to as well. “You do?”

“Yes.” He kissed me again, his mouth warm and searching. The hand that had been on my leg moved up to my breast. “I know what it's like to live in two worlds. You're brave and do what you think is right, and I'm not going to let anything happen to you,” he breathed in my ear. “Neither are any of the people gathered downstairs.”

He moved his mouth back to mine, but I wiggled out. “Wai-what? Who's gathered?”

He gave a half shrug, hands still roving over my body. “Everyone. Rurik's got the guards there. Jasmine's up and cuffed. Even Dorian's here.”

I sat up. “Kiyo! We have to get downstairs then. We can't-ah.”

He'd moved one hand up my inner thigh-up, up, and up. “We've got time.”

“No…we…don't,” I managed as his fingers moved in and out of me. For a moment, I thought of how Dorian had done almost exactly the same thing, but then I shoved the memory away. “They're waiting…”

“Five minutes, Eugenie,” Kiyo murmured. His other hand shoved up my shirt, and he leaned down to kiss one of my breasts, slowly moving on to suck the nipple, harder and harder. I flinched slightly at the feel of his teeth, and he lifted his face up. “I've missed you, Eugenie, no matter what else you think. I've missed you and I love you.” He slid his fingers out of me, and I whimpered at their loss. He smiled. “And I think…I think maybe you missed me too…”

And with no other preamble, he rolled me over to my knees and moved up behind me. I don't know when his boxers came off, but suddenly, he was in me, hard and swollen and grunting with each thrust. I gripped the sheets with my fists, keeping my body arched for him so that he could take me even deeper. His hands clutched my hips, letting him bury himself as far as he could go. I moaned and tipped my head back, my body wanting to take more and more of him into me.

Leaning his body over mine, he reached forward and managed to cup my breasts without breaking his rhythm. His fingers caressed them, thumbs rubbing against the erect nipples. The sensations in my body were dizzying, every piece of me feeling like it was on fire. At last he shifted back to his kneeling position and returned his hands to my hips, giving him the best position to fully take me. His strokes grew even harder and faster, shoving himself into me with such force that I could hear our bodies hitting each other. With a great groan, his nails dug into my hips and his whole body jerked as he came. Hands still tight on my hips, he held himself there for several moments, taking his full release.

Finally, he pulled away and collapsed onto the bed. Flipping over, I sprawled beside him. “Okay,” I gasped. “Now I think I'm ready to fight some demons.”

I don't think anyone really noticed that Kiyo and I had just had sex when we came downstairs. Mercifully, it didn't even rain. If anyone suspected anything, it was Dorian, with that uncanny way he had of reading people. The guards were drawn up in formation outside, but Dorian was in the parlor sipping tea with Shaya while Ysabel all but sprawled on his lap. Girard was there as well, testing the weight of Dorian's old sword while Dorian himself studied the drawing of the new sword.

“Eugenie,” said Dorian, arching an eyebrow. “Don't you look radiant this morning. Why, you're positively glowing.” Ysabel scowled at his praise.

“It's the leather,” I said, tugging self-consciously at my shirt. I'd argued against needing armor, but Shaya had nonetheless obtained a sleeveless top for me made of lightweight leather, good for deflecting blades. It wasn't porn-star leather or anything, but it wasn't something I was used to.

“And this,” Dorian continued, pointing to the drawing, “is exquisite. Thank you.”

“What is it?” asked Kiyo.

“A sword from legends. One to slay evildoers everywhere. Eugenie's having it made for me.”

Kiyo gave me a wordless look that was nonetheless full of questions. “It's a thank-you gift. Dorian's done me a lot of favors lately,” I explained.

“I assure you,” said Dorian straight-faced. “I take as much joy in the giving as you do in the receiving.”

“Okay,” I said hastily. “Are we good to go? I saw the guards out there. I'd like this done sooner rather than later.”

The biggest impediment turned out to be Ysabel, who threw her arms around Dorian and begged him to be careful. He patted her hastily on the shoulder, assuring her he'd be fine. His eyes were impatient, though, and he didn't look back when he strode out with the rest of us. Poor Ysabel. I was almost starting to feel bad for her, despite her hopes that I wouldn't come back. She really was nothing more than a bed warmer to Dorian, and while most of his women knew that, she just couldn't accept it.

Jasmine was ready as well, still bound and looking angry. Volusian was with us, and he had standing orders to subdue her if she tried anything-which I felt pretty sure she would. Unfortunately, I also needed Volusian to fight demons, which meant he couldn't watch her all the time. None of us could, and I was going to have to do some tricky maneuvering to keep the gun on her while still attempting banishing.

Kiyo frowned disapprovingly when he saw her, more so when she had to be helped on to her horse. “This is wrong, Eugenie,” he said softly, once we were all riding. He was going in human form today.

“Which part? Bringing her or keeping her prisoner?”

“I don't like any of it.”

“What happened to you saying you understood the choices I have to make?” I hissed. “Was that just to score sex?”

Dorian had ridden up on my other side. I had no doubt he'd heard the sex comment, but he didn't acknowledge it. “How would you suggest she handle it then? Let the girl go?”

“No,” Kiyo said, giving Dorian a dark glance. “But there are more humane ways of dealing with her.”

“I gave Jasmine her own room and got her better cuffs! What else can I do?” I asked.

“I don't know,” admitted Kiyo.

“Then don't criticize if you can't offer a solution,” said Dorian. “It's easy to want peace and love in hypothetical situations-then reality sets in, and sometimes we have to do what's ugly.”

“I don't recall asking for your input here,” snapped Kiyo.

“As it is, Eugenie, you've got a hard choice ahead.” Dorian was speaking like Kiyo wasn't even there. “What are you going to do when you've finally taken care of this rabble? What will you do with the prisoners?”

I shrugged. “Send them off to work details.”

“Even their leader, Cowan? The one who summons these demons? Surely you don't want him out and about, even if it is digging ditches.”

“Don't listen to him,” said Kiyo. “He's baiting you. There are prisons, even in the Otherworld. You can send him there if he survives.”

“A charming act of mercy, no doubt,” mused Dorian. “One that will terrify future enemies.”

“I'm not going to kill everyone who gets in my way,” I exclaimed. “I'm not my father, no matter how much you want me to be.”

“I wouldn't quite say that's what I want,” chuckled Dorian. “But as a leader, you need to make examples sometimes.”

“Mercy's not a horrible thing,” I argued.

“Storm King never showed any,” said Kiyo.

“Indeed,” agreed Dorian. “And I just want to make sure his daughter doesn't show too much. You aren't the only one who protects her, master kitsune. We all just do it in different ways.”

“Enough,” I ordered. Rurik was drawing the group to a halt up front, meaning it was time to go on foot. I was grateful, seeing as I was getting sick of listening to Kiyo and Dorian's pissing contest.

Just like before, we went on foot, the whole experience giving me a strange sense of deja vu, even though the bandits had changed location. I also had odd recollections of the time I'd defeated Aeson. Dorian and Kiyo had been with me then, about as thrilled to be with each other as they were now. Shaya had been there too, but Rurik had nearly had a fit when she offered today, and I couldn't help but recall Girard's words.

I certainly hadn't had an army at my back when we'd gone after Aeson. Rurik sent men with a knack for moving stealthily to scope out the camp and dispatch any enemy scouts. The waiting made me restless, and a tense silence settled over everyone. I glanced at Jasmine, still bound. I wouldn't uncuff her until the last possible moment and still didn't trust her.

“You know what you have to do?” I asked her.

She'd been staring off thoughtfully at the guards ahead, taking in the sloped land and scattered pines. Probably planning her escape, I thought ruefully. Like before, these brigands had chosen the best cover they could find in this barren land. She turned to me, immediately putting on her standard scowl.

“Yes.”

“And you know what'll happen if you try anything?”

“Yes.” Pure malice looked at me from her eyes.

“Good,” I said, shifting my hold on the gun. Her eyes flicked briefly to it, and if it scared her, she made a good show of still looking defiant.

“I hope you hold true to your word,” murmured Dorian, walking up to me.

“Stop poisoning her,” growled Kiyo.

“And both of you let me make my own decisions,” I said.

The scouts returned shortly thereafter, giving us the all-clear. We headed toward the encampment, circling it and descending in full force. Thankfully, no one announced our presence, and we had a brief element of surprise before the bandits mobilized. I unfastened Jasmine's cuffs, hoping I wasn't making a mistake. My right hand firmly held the gun against her back-holding it to her head had seemed a little too cruel-while the left held my wand poised and ready. Kiyo and the other fighters were going in for the hand-to-hand combat while the other magic users and I stayed back and waited-not that I intended to use magic today. I was strictly in shamanic banishing mode.

And there they were. A deep swell of magic permeated the air, and fiery forms materialized on the far side of the camp. I saw Rurik's gaze travel to the spot they'd come from, his attention not on the demons but on what was potentially the demons' summoner. Circling around, he headed toward that area. The demons were my job. I nudged Jasmine with the gun. “Do your thing. Volusian-attack.”

I held my breath, wondering what Jasmine would do. A moment later, I felt magic well up in her, a magic similar to my own but with a slightly different feel. Some part of my brain tried to grasp it, hoping I could learn it for later. The rest of me watched as there was a ripple in the air-an opening to the Underworld. Two forms stepped out from the slash in our world. Much like the water elemental from the other night, these two demons were composed of water, sloshing with each step yet maintaining a solid form. They were bigger than the elemental, though, adorned with horns and glowing yellow eyes.

“Only two?” I exclaimed. “There are five of the others!” Jasmine didn't respond but held up her hand like a conductor drawing a powerful note from her musicians. For a heartbeat, I wondered if the water demons would come charging toward us. They didn't. Their attention turned to the fire demons, their ancient enemy from the Underworld.

Nearby, Dorian was wielding magic of his own, ripping up the earth from underneath the fire demons so that they stumbled and sank into great holes, making them easy prey. “Demons aren't that easy to summon,” he said in her defense, eyes on his handiwork. “In fact, this will be it for the fire demons. There's no way that man can summon any more. I'd be surprised if he's still conscious.”

Well, that was something. Jasmine's servants had two of the fire demons in a deadlock, which meant none of them were going after my people. Volusian was making good work on one of the demons as well, though the other two were rampaging forward. It was time for me to step up.

I drew up the human power I'd used my entire life, the power that was based on will and not emotion like gentry magic. My wand focused it, and I sent it out toward one of the loose fire demons, encircling him and summoning up the strength of Persephone to open up a way to the Underworld and suck him back. He sensed the banishment happening, and I felt his power surge as he tried to fight it. I steeled up my own strength, and what seemed like a land mine suddenly went off near him, showering him in dirt and rock as he stumbled. Thank you, Dorian. The Underworld opened up, and the demon dissolved back to his domain, unable to fight my strength.

And like the last time I'd fought these guys, the power required for that banishing took a lot out of me. Surveying the rest of the battle, I saw with pleasant surprise that one of Jasmine's water demons had defeated a fire demon. That water demon had then joined his partner, and it appeared as though they would make quick work of their target. Kiyo and the other soldiers were doing a good job of killing or subduing the rest of the bandits. I turned back to the fire demons, assessing my next strategy.

One was unengaged and starting to move toward my soldiers. This banishment was going to be harsh. I drew up all my strength and repeated the process, calling out to Persephone and reciting the words to send the demon back to the Underworld. It distracted him from my soldiers, and he started lumbering toward me. Fuck.

“He. Is. Coming,” said Jasmine stiffly. I couldn't see her face with my gun to her back but got the impression she was as strained as I was.

“Yeah, I kind of noticed.”

He was pushing back at me with his own strength of will. I clenched my teeth. No, no. I am stronger. I am Storm King's daughter. I needed another distraction to slip him up, but everyone else was busy. Dorian's attention was on the demon that Volusian battled. That demon was moderately stronger than my minion, but seeing that Volusian couldn't really die…well, it made it hard to destroy him. So, neither was gaining ground until Dorian used some of his magic to attack the demon with a nearby chunk of rock, letting Volusian move in for the kill.

My demon was still approaching, and I needed a distraction of my own. Iron didn't dampen my powers anywhere near as much as it did Jasmine's, but it could sometimes affect me a little. I could still work my gentry powers while in contact with it, but it was easier without. In an act I was certain I'd regret, I dropped the gun and immediately called upon my storm magic. I would have given anything to blast this demon with lightning, but that was still beyond my control. Instead, I reached up toward the sky, calling on water and air. To my astonishment, I was able to bind them together. Thick, leaden clouds formed, whirling into a weak funnel cloud that descended on the demon. It was the most powerful force of weather I'd ever-consciously-summoned, and it knocked the demon over. I couldn't maintain my hold on it, and the ministorm dissipated instantly. It was enough, though, and I sent out the banishing before he could respond. It felt like my insides were being ripped out, but I managed it, kicking him out of this world.

Gasping and woozy, I looked around, realizing there were no more demons left-well, no fire demons at least. The water demons, victorious, were still there-and they were charging toward us. Shit. I realized then what I'd potentially unleashed. I cuffed Jasmine on the shoulder, nearly knocking her over, and reached for my gun.

“I warned you not to try anything,” I cried, pointing the gun at her. “Send them away!”

“It's not me,” she exclaimed back. “I can't control them!”

Stepping forward, I got a good look at her face. She was covered in sweat, skin pale. Dorian had said demon summoning was hard, and the full weight of what I'd done hit me. She'd summoned them but no longer had the power to control them. I had no more strength left for banishing, but I could feel Jasmine still trying to work her magic, weak as it now was. It was impossible to sense every part of what someone else was doing with their magic, but I got a strong feel for hers. These creatures were bound to water. They were part of my domain. Doing my best to mimic her, I joined my strength to hers, sending commands through my magic, willing them to leave this world.

They were nearly on us, and I almost laughed at the irony as my own death approached. Then, suddenly, I felt my magic sync up perfectly with Jasmine's. Control of the demons slipped into place, and they froze. Together, she and I ordered them back, and there was a tear in the fabric of space, an opening to the Underworld. It was almost like a banishing, but not quite. The demons were willingly-well, with our urging-returning, and our magic helped them with the passage. A moment later, they dissolved from our world.

After that, I felt like I'd run a marathon. Every part of me ached and was wearied. Yet, as bad as I was, Jasmine was worse. “I guess blood really is thicker than water,” she whispered in a very bad attempt at a joke. She swayed on her feet, eyes rolling back in her head, and then she collapsed. I barely managed to catch her in my own weakened state, but then stronger arms took hold. Kiyo.

He barely had a scratch, and relief poured through me. “Thanks.”

He lifted her easily into his arms. “Are you okay?”

“Fine,” I said, looking down at my sister-who hadn't betrayed me after all. “She's bad, though. Get her to a healer.”

Kiyo hesitated, not wanting to leave me. Then, he gave a quick nod and loped off in that way that was half-human and half-wild animal. Looking around, I saw that the others were rounding up the remaining rabble. My losses looked light. Rurik was leading a man who seemed to be in the same shape as Jasmine. The demon summoner. Dorian was with Rurik and gave me a quick glance. I knew what was in the look. Kill the summoner or not? I gave a sharp shake of my head. Dorian grimaced and then turned back to help Rurik with his prisoner.

No one seemed to notice or need me, and I sank gratefully to the ground, waiting for my strength to return. I wondered if I'd be able to call up the magic again that I had used with Jasmine. Trying to piece it together seemed like too much work now, and I contented myself with watching my people work.

Then, out of my peripheral vision, I saw movement. I stood up and looked far to my side, toward a stony bluff covered in cacti. A face peered out at me and then ducked back. I knew the face. It was the scarred gentry who'd come to my house the other night. With no further thought, I started to hurry after him. Then, to my astonishment, I paused and did what Rurik would have wanted. A couple of my soldiers were lingering nearby. “Hey, come here,” I called, gesturing. They immediately followed as I set off at a brisk pace, moving as fast as I could to reach the bluff. When I turned around the side of it, I saw no sign of the gentry warrior I sought.

The ground rose sharply here, beginning to turn into foothills reminiscent of the ones near my house in Tucson. The vegetation was thicker, though still a far cry from a true forest. It was mostly cacti, shrubs, and scraggly trees. Going up the small hill was a narrow path, and on impulse, I headed up it in search of my prey. The footsteps of my soldiers sounded behind me, their boots crunching in the gravel.

Who was that guy? And why was he here now? Was he one of the bandits? I hadn't seen him in the fight. Was he some sort of spy, perhaps, which was why he'd come to my house and-

Snick. Snick. Two arrows came out of nowhere as we reached the crest of a hill. Each one hit one of my soldiers in the chest, dropping them to the ground. I came to a screeching halt, waiting for my arrow, peering around the trees for the mystery gentry to reveal himself.

But he didn't.

Art did.

He smiled, stepping forward. “Eugenie, nice to see you again. You've been very busy around here, I hear.” He waved vaguely toward where I'd come from, though my people were nowhere in sight. Eugenie, I thought, you are a fucking moron. Beyond Art, I saw the gentry I'd chased emerge from the cover, along with two others-all wearing leather armor like Jasmine had described. They carried bows and wore red shirts under the armor.

“Roland called me last night and nearly bit my head off about getting you involved in gentry politics.” Art shook his head, amused. “I wonder what he'd say if he only knew just how involved you were-your majesty.”

I was exhausted as hell and devoid of magic. But-I was still human and not without human implements. The gun was still in my hand, and I jerked it up toward him. I needed to distract him until some of my own people came. Fuck. I shouldn't have come rushing up this hill, even if I had had the sense to bring some backup. The question now was, would the rest of my people notice I was gone? Usually, I could hardly step outside the castle's door without a dozen people in tow.

Art tsked me. “Would you really do it? Would you really kill one of your own kind? Or are we even your own kind?”

Magic suddenly filled the air-familiar magic. Shamanic magic. It encircled me like fog, thick and heavy. Forgetting Art, I turned abruptly around, toward the sound of words being chanted-words I knew by heart. Abigail was standing there, wand in hand.

And so help me, she was banishing me.

I felt her will shove up against mine, just as I'd grappled with the demons. The world around me began to tear open as a vortex started to pull my essence apart. I fought it, fought it with every ounce of strength I had-but there was just none left to give.

When it came to traveling the worlds, crossroads and gateways were the way to go. They made for a smooth transition. Or, one could travel like I often did, journeying to some item imbued with your essence, an item that couldn't help but draw your soul to it.

And rarely, if you had the strength, you could tear open a gateway by force and shove your way into another world. That wasn't recommended. It hurt like hell. And essentially, that's what a banishing was-only it wasn't your choice. It was someone ripping you out of the world and shoving you into another.

I felt the fabric of this world open up, felt the unstoppable pull of another. I couldn't fight it. I tried. I kicked, I screamed, but I was too weak. I felt like I was shattering into a million pieces, sucked into a whirlwind and then, I was gone.