Sate the Darkness
Book 20 in Guardians of Eternity
In New York Times bestselling author Alexandra Ivy’s mesmerizing new romance, two outcasts are drawn into a dangerous rescue mission—and into the heart of desire…
Ryshi—half-jinn, half-imp—is the only male who has ever managed to slip through the minotaur labyrinth and lived to tell the tale. He wasn’t so lucky when it came to stealing prized vampire artifacts. Caught and imprisoned, he now has a chance at freedom if he can rescue the gargoyle Levet from that same labyrinth. But he’ll have a minder on his mission in the petite, enticing form of Sofie, the vampire he’s been fantasizing about for a very long time…
Sofie is shunned and feared for her ability to control others’ minds. She didn’t ask for that gift, and she certainly doesn’t want to use those powers to control this gorgeous, sensual demon. Too bad a request from the Anasso isn’t up for debate. To rescue the gargoyle, she and Ryshi have to work closely together, and Sofie is compelled to lower her defenses around him in every way—though she expects him to disappear the moment their task is complete. But now that Ryshi has glimpsed what his future could be with Sofie, he’s ready to fight for her trust, even against the darkness within…
Series: Guardians of Eternity, Book 20
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Levet tried to ignore the whispers of the fairies as he pushed his way through the thick underbrush. They were no doubt admiring his large, gossamer wings that sparkled in the moonlight, he told himself. Or perhaps the muscular perfection of his stout body. He might be small for a gargoyle—okay, maybe more than small. He was only three feet tall, still he was hard in all the right places. Plus his gray, lumpy features were sheer perfection.
No wait. He snapped his fingers. They’d no doubt heard the rumors of his most recent battle against evil. As a knight in shining armor, he was often called upon to save the world. Being a hero meant he was constantly recognized by the lesser creatures.
Never slowing, Levet continued to ignore the whispers. At the moment, he didn’t have time for his flock of admirers. He’d spent the past week attempting to track down Troy, the Prince of Imps, who’d mysteriously disappeared. Thankfully tonight he’d decided to check out the Hunting Grounds, the exclusive demon club outside of Chicago that belonged to Marco, a pureblooded Were. That’s where he’d finally caught the scent of the imp.
Reaching the front door of the cabin that was built on the fringe of the private club, he banged his fist against the smooth wood.
Levet could hear the muffled sound from inside. It sounded like curses. Then a voice called out.
“Troy isn’t here.”
Levet scowled, sniffing the night air. The rich scent of exotic fruit swirled through the breeze. “I can smell you.”
There was more cursing before the door was wrenched open to reveal Troy. The flamboyant imp was absurdly large with the sort of muscles only an orc should possess. He had long hair that shimmered like a river of fire as it tumbled down his back and brilliant green eyes. Currently he was attired in a black lace shirt that clung to his broad chest and white satin pants with fringes on the side.
He was like a rare, glamorous flower who could lure others into his sensual snare.
Tonight, he didn’t appear to be in the mood to ensnare anyone or anything. There was a peevish expression on his pale face and a sharp-edged impatience in his voice.
“Go away,” he snapped.
Levet pursed his lips, valiantly pretending he didn’t notice the rude greeting. “I need a favor.”
The green eyes widened, as if the imp was shocked by his words. “A favor? Are you kidding me?”
“I do not think so.” Levet considered for a moment before giving a firm nod of his head. “Nope. I am quite certain I need a favor.”
“You trapped me in the netherworld, where I was forced to listen to your endless babbling for what felt like an eternity. And as if that’s not bad enough…and trust me it was bad enough…you led me straight into the lair of an ifrit who tried to turn me into a crispy critter.” Troy turned to reveal the seat of his pants that had been cut out to reveal the male’s derrière that was red with several blisters. “My ass is still healing, and I had to have a new weave put in my hair.”
Levet clicked his tongue. It wasn’t his fault they’d nearly been fried by the demon from hell. Okay, maybe the being sucked into the netherworld might have been a teensy tiny bit his fault, but in the end they’d saved the world, hadn’t they? The stupid creature should be proud to have been included in the daring adventure, not whining like a dew fairy.
“You are such a drama drag,” Levet muttered.
“Queen. I’m a drama queen, you…” Troy shook his head, struggling for the proper word. “Pest.”
“Pest?” Levet blinked. “That is the best you can do?”
The sour scent of citrus blasted through the air. “I’m tired, charred, and in dire need of a vacation that is gargoyle-free. Go away.”
“You have not performed my favor.”
“You want a favor? I’m not going to stab you in the heart with a cursed dagger. That’s your favor. Now go away.”
Levet’s wings fluttered. The male was in a mood. It was inexcusable.
“Pooper. Party pooper. Argh.” Troy grabbed the edge of the door, as if he intended to slam it closed.
“Wait.” Levet took a hasty step forward. “I need you to open a portal.”
“This is important.”
Troy rolled his eyes. “Let me guess. You have to save the world from some new disaster?”
Levet sent the male a confused glance. “I just saved the world, remember? I am on vacation. I wish to return to the merfolk castle.”
“Then have Inga open a portal.”
Levet cleared his throat at the mention of the Queen of the Merfolk. It’d been far too long since he’d been with Inga, and the desire to be reunited had become a ruthless ache in the center of his being.
Others might see a towering ogress with patches of red hair and pointed teeth who had the temper of a rabid hellhound and run screaming in terror, but to Levet she was sheer perfection.
“Non. I desire my return to be a surprise,” he insisted.
Troy stilled, studying Levet as if he’d been struck by a sudden thought. “She won’t open a portal,” he abruptly said.
Levet’s brows snapped together. “Do not be ridiculous. Inga adores moi.”
“Are you sure?” Troy pressed. “You keep running off when she needs you the most. It’s possible she’s done waiting for you.”
The words drilled into Levet with painful force, each one finding a vulnerable spot. It was true he was worried that Inga had become weary of his constant absences. And that perhaps she had decided he was not worth the effort. And Troy was right. When he’d attempted to contact her telepathically, she’d refused to answer.
He wagged a claw in Troy’s direction. “You are a very mean creature.”
Troy shrugged. “Hey, I’m not the one who abandoned the female who I supposedly care about. That’s on you.”
“I did not abandon—”
Bam. The door slammed in his face. Levet stomped his foot before he turned and marched away. Obviously the selfish imp wasn’t going to help. He would have to find assistance somewhere else.
“I did not abandon, Inga. I was busy saving the world. Again,” he muttered as he left the Hunting Grounds and headed back toward Chicago. He was not technically supposed to be at the demon club after a certain incident that included his fireballs landing in the middle of a werewolf wedding and setting the groom on fire. “And once I can explain why I have been absent from the castle I am certain she will understand,” he continued to try and reassure himself. “Oui. Of course, she will.” His wings drooped. “But only if she will speak to me.”
He was wandering aimlessly through a flat field that had recently been plowed by the local farmer when he caught a strange scent. It was definitely demon. But he couldn’t recognize the species. Odd. He possessed the best sniffer in the world.
“Who is there?”
There was a shimmer in the air, as if a portal was opening before a male stepped out to stand directly in front of Levet. Levet blinked. The stranger was huge. Perhaps not as tall as a troll but just as wide with a muscular chest that was left bare to reveal the light coating of fur. He was thankfully wearing leather pants and heavy boots. Levet was seeing all he wanted to see of the creature. He had long brown hair that flowed down his back like a mane, and dark eyes that appeared too big for his face. Most interesting were the horns that stuck out of the side of his head and curved toward the sky.
With a frown, the creature leaned down, as if to study Levet more closely. “Are you, Levet?”
Levet snorted. That was a silly question. “Who else would I be?”
“I’ve been searching for you.”
“For moi?” Uh oh. It was never a good thing when someone was searching for him. Especially a stranger.
“It was not my fault.”
The male looked confused. “What wasn’t?”
“Whatever I am being blamed for.”
“I don’t know what you’re talking about.”
Levet cleared his throat, shifting from foot to foot. “What do you want from moi?”
The demon tilted back his head, as if contemplating the spattering of stars that were flung across the midnight sky.
“The precise details have yet to reveal themselves, but—”
“Oh, there’s going to be a revelation?” Levet interrupted, clapping his hands together as he swiveled his head from side to side. “Where? When?”
The male grunted. Did he have an upset tummy? Levet was feeling a little queasy. But that was because he was hungry. It had been far too long since his last meal.
“Are you sure you’re Levet?” he demanded.
“Is there another Levet?”
Levet widened his eyes. “Certainly not. I am quite unique.”
“That is one way to put it.”
“Who are you?” Levet placed his hands on his hips, his tail twitching. There was something sunny about this unknown creature. No, wait. Shady. Oui. The male was shady.
“Odige,” he said.
“Odige.” Levet searched his memory. He’d been alive a very, very long time but he’d never met an Odige before. “That is an unusual name.”
“Not where I’m from.”
“Where is that?”
“Beyond the labyrinth.”
“I do not know where that is…oh.” Levet abruptly realized that the male was revealing the place of his homeland. “Are you a minotaur?”
The male dipped his head. “I am.”
Levet pressed his hands together, excitement searing away his suspicion of the strange beast. He’d assumed that minotaurs were creatures of mist and legend. Now one was standing directly in front of him.
“I have always longed to meet one of you.”
The male stretched his lips in a tight smile. “Then it’s your lucky day.”
“It is?” Levet bounced on his toes. Having a lucky day seemed like a very good thing. “Why?”
“You are going to meet a lot of minotaurs.”
“Truly?” Levet bent to the side, trying to peer around Odige’s massive girth. “Are they here?”
“No, I’m going to take you to them.”
Levet’s wings fluttered with a soul-deep pleasure. He’d never encountered anyone who could claim that they’d been through the labyrinth to see the minotaur homeland. He was going to be famous. More famous, he silently corrected. He was, after all, the savior of the world.
Then his wings abruptly drooped. He couldn’t go through the labyrinth. He already had plans for the night.
“Oh…wait. I cannot.”
“Yes, you can.”
“Non.” Levet shook his head. “I mean, I am on a very important mission.”
The male folded his arms over his chest. The gesture emphasized the fact that he was triple Levet’s size.
“The queen will have to wait.”
Levet folded his arms over his much smaller chest, refusing to be intimidated. “She cannot…oh.” He froze, suddenly suspicious. “How did you know that I was referring to Inga?”
The male waved an impatient hand. “We know a great deal about you.”
“We have been trying to track you down for a long time. That meant following rumors and gossip and various reports of your whereabouts.”
Levet blinked. “Like a stalker?”
Odige ground his teeth. “Like those who have a wish to find you.”
“Hmm.” Levet wasn’t convinced. “Seems suspicious to moi.”
“There is nothing suspicious,” the male growled. “I was sent to retrieve you and that is what I have done.”
Levet narrowed his eyes. “And if I do not wish to be retrieved?”
“I do not understand why you are being so stubborn.”
“I am not stubborn, I am firm in my resolve,” Levet protested. “And my resolve warns me that it is dangerous to travel to unknown destinations with strangers.”
“There is no danger to you,” the male insisted.
“Well you would say that, would you not?” Levet flapped his wings. “Especially if you intended to do me harm.”
The male lifted his hands toward the heavens. “Why me?”
Levet scrunched his snout. “Demons say that a lot around me. I am not entirely sure what it means.”
They exchanged fierce glares, both refusing to be the one to back down. The stare-off might have lasted the rest of the night if Levet hadn’t gotten a cramp in his foot.
“Enough.” Levet flexed his toe claws, attempting to ease the knot.
Odige muttered a curse, holding up one large hand. “What if I swear on my goddess that no minotaur will offer you violence?”
Levet shook his head. “It does not matter. I will have to meet the minotaurs another time. Tonight, I must discover a means to open a portal to the merfolk castle.”
There was a heavy silence, as if Odige was debating whether to squash Levet beneath his massive foot, or perhaps see how far he could toss him across the field.
Instead, he shrugged. “I can do that.”
Levet blinked in confusion. “You can do what?”
“Open a portal.”
“Not to the merfolk castle. It is protected by layers of magic. Only a creature with the ability to create portals and given permission from the queen can penetrate the illusions without a formal invitation. That is why I was in need of Troy.” Levet wrinkled his snout. “The horse-patootie.”
The minotaur shrugged. “It’s no problem for me. I can walk through any shield, no matter what the source of the magic.”
“Truly?” Levet was genuinely shocked. “I did not know that minotaurs possessed that particular talent.”
“We prefer to keep our magical abilities a secret.”
Levet tapped a claw against the side of his snout. “Ah. It is wise to remain secretive. Mystery is also a part of my unique charm.”
Levet stepped back as the male waved his arm in a dramatic gesture. There was the crackle of power before a shimmer rippled around him. Leaning forward, Levet studied the unfamiliar magic. The opening looked more like a gateway than a portal, and there was a distinct scent of ripe wheat and ale. Where was the salty tang and soft ocean breeze?
“Wait.” Levet took another step backward. “This does not smell right.” He was on the point of turning away when a large hand reached down to grab him by the horn. Before he could react he felt himself being hoisted off the ground and with one mighty swing he was being tossed into the gateway like a frisbee. Or perhaps it was more like a sack of potatoes, he conceded as he flapped his wings and windmilled his arms in a futile attempt to avoid landing on his derrière. “Help!”
Spring in Chicago was a volatile time for Styx, the King of the Vampires. The unpredictable weather combined with the breeding season for many demons ensured that there was rarely a night without some disaster that needed his immediate attention. Not to mention the fact he’d just endured yet another near-end-of-the-world event.
Tonight, however he was off-duty. Off with a capital O. And he intended to enjoy every second of his rare respite.
Pretending he didn’t feel like an idiot, he’d swapped his usual leather pants and knee-high shitkickers for a white satin shirt and black silk pants. He’d even allowed his black hair to flow down his back. He would never look civilized. He was a six-foot-five vampire with the bronzed skin and proud angular features of an Aztec warrior. And the very air shimmered with the force of his power. But he was doing his best to have a romantic evening with his mate, Darcy.
The slender, almost fragile female didn’t look like the mate of the most powerful vampire in the world as she walked next to him. And she most certainly didn’t look like a pureblooded Were. Her heart-shaped face was pale and unbearably vulnerable and her blonde hair ridiculously spiked like a human teenager. She was even wearing casual jeans and a sweatshirt that emphasized her youthful appearance.
At the moment, her eyes were squeezed shut as he led her through the maze of marble corridors that were lined with fluted columns. His lair on the outskirts of Chicago was a gilded monstrosity that should have belonged to an aging rocker with questionable taste. Not the Anasso, King of Vampires. In fact, as far as Styx was concerned the estate would have been improved with a match and several sticks of dynamite. Unfortunately, Darcy was convinced that the place suited his position. And Styx was willing to endure any amount of torture if it pleased his mate.
“What are you up to?” she complained as he turned into a short hallway that ended in a lavish set of double-doors.
“Don’t you trust me?” Styx demanded.
“With my life? Without hesitation. With my heart? Always. With the choice of my evening entertainment?” Her lips pinched. “Hmm.”
“I’m not that bad.”
“You took me to watch two trolls mud wrestle for our anniversary.”
Styx clenched his fangs. Viper, the current clan chief of Chicago was one of his closest advisors, and a male he considered a friend, but there was no doubt the vampire could be a pain-in-the-ass.
“Viper told me that the Trolls in Mud were a new musical group.”
Darcy snorted. “And you believed him?”
“It made as much sense as Hoobastank or Smashing Pumpkins,” Styx protested not adding that he’d been relieved to discover that it was actually trolls in a mud battle. That was a lot more fun than humans screaming into a microphone.
“Fair enough,” Darcy conceded.
“I did good this time. I promise.”
Styx pushed open the library door and led her inside. It was a beautiful room. The long space was framed with heavy wooden shelves that were loaded with rare books and a large window that overlooked the moon-drenched rose garden. In the center of the Persian carpets that covered the floor was a table that was decorated with candles, a dozen roses, and an ice bucket that was chilling a bottle of Dom Pérignon. There was also a silver serving plate that was currently covered with a linen napkin.
“Open your eyes,” he commanded.
Slowly Darcy lifted the heavy sweep of her lashes, her lips parting in appreciation.
“Wow,” she breathed.
“Very good.” She crossed the carpet to pull the linen off the dinner plate. “Eggplant parmesan. My favorite. Yum.” She sucked in a deep breath, her gaze widening as she caught sight of the massive fireplace where the logs were burning with a bright light. Styx rarely allowed a fire in his presence. Vampires were highly flammable creatures. Then, she pointed toward the empty sheath attached to the wall above the mantle. “Where’s your sword?”
“Gone,” he said, keeping his answer vague.
She turned back with a worried expression. “Levet didn’t sell it on eBay again, did he?”
Styx ground his fangs. The aggravating miniature gargoyle had tried to hock his massive weapon more than once. Idiotic pest.
“No. It’s put away.” Styx moved to wrap his arms around his beautiful mate. “Plus, the doors are locked and I put out word that if I’m interrupted I will rip off heads first and ask questions later.”
Darcy smoothed her hands over his chest, the warmth of her palms searing through the thin fabric of his shirt.
A low growl rumbled in Styx’s throat. The touch from this female was as exciting tonight as it had been fifteen years ago. And would be a hundred years from now. Fate had created him to adore her for all eternity.
“For one night I refuse to be the Anasso,” he murmured, his large hand following the curve of her spine to cup her slender neck. Already his fangs were fully extended in the anticipation of tasting her sweet, addictive blood.
Her lips twitched. “If you aren’t the Anasso, then who are you?”
“Darcy’s mate.” He lowered his head to brush his lips over her mouth. “The male who worships the ground she walks upon. The male who is determined to devote his attention—”
“Um, Styx,” she interrupted.
Styx lifted his head to frown down at her upturned face. “I’m not done telling you how devoted I intend to be. I spent all afternoon practicing the words.”
“Do you smell that?”
He shook his head. “All I smell is your intoxicating scent.”
“It’s…” She sniffed the air. “Granite. Levet?”
Styx’s brows snapped together. “No way. I have my Ravens keeping a very close eye on that…” He struggled to find the words that wouldn’t offend his mate. She possessed an unreasonable loyalty to Levet. “Aggravating creature. He’s not allowed to come within a mile of this lair.”
“Then perhaps it’s another gargoyle.”
Darcy arched a brow. “Excuse me?”
Styx wisely scrambled to ease his mate’s quick temper. “What I mean, is that nothing is allowed in or out of the estate…” His words trailed away as the ground shook as if it’d been hit by a meteor and the moonlight was blocked by a humungous object. “Shit.”
Marching across the room, Darcy pointed out the window. “There. I told you. Gargoyle.”
Styx stared at the massive gray form that was folding it’s ten-foot leather wings against its muscular body. A second later it hunched forward to peer into his library with a fierce expression on the lumpy features.
“That’s not Levet,” he muttered.
“Not unless he’s grown considerably since I saw him a few days ago,” Darcy agreed in dry tones.
Styx struggled to comprehend what he was seeing. Gargoyles were reclusive creatures who rarely left their homeland in France. Then, with a muttered curse, he realized exactly who was currently destroying his garden.
“Aunt Bertha.” He shook his head. Just a few days ago Levet’s relative had been wandering around Chicago, unsure how she’d been transformed into a human shape. During a massive battle against an evil ifrit, she’d reverted back to her original form. He’d assumed that she had returned to Paris. Or continued her travels around the world.
What was that saying? Assuming would make an ass out of a vampire?
Styx dropped a kiss on the top of Darcy’s head. “Eat your dinner while it’s warm. I’ll get rid of Bertha and be right back.”
“I’ve heard that before.”
“This is our night.” Styx moved to the large desk in the far corner. Bending down, he pulled out the sword that had been hidden beneath it. “Nothing is going to ruin it.”
Darcy eyed the huge weapon. “I thought you said the sword was gone.”
“Just because I want a night off doesn’t mean my enemies do.” Styx headed toward the door with long strides. “I’ll be back before dessert arrives.”
“Famous last words,” Darcy called out.
Styx didn’t respond. Mostly because he didn’t have any defense. He couldn’t count how many times he’d promised to be there for his mate only to have some emergency drag him away.
Using the back exit, he entered the garden, halting a judicious distant from the towering demon. Gargoyles were traditionally foul-tempered, stubborn, unreasonable creatures who were quick to use their large size and immunity to magic to their advantage.
Pausing to debate the best means of approaching the beast, Styx was distracted as a sharp chill in the air warned him that a vampire had joined him in the garden. He turned his head to watch a vampire with pale gold hair that reached his waist and ice-blue eyes stride toward him, his leather duster flaring around his six-foot-three frame. Jagr had been a Visigoth chief while he was a human and the feral fury continued to smolder around him.
“Jagr.” Styx pointed his sword toward the looming gargoyle. “Is there anyone else about to drop in uninvited?”
The vampire grimaced. As the head of the Ravens, Styx’s personal guards, he took his duties seriously.
“Not that I could detect. But I didn’t sense the mountain-size gargoyle until it landed.”
Styx shrugged. He didn’t blame his companion. “They have the ability to shield their presence even from other demons.”
Jagr wasn’t pacified. “Do you recognize it?”
“Aunt Bertha. A relative of Levet.”
“I assume that this is a surprise visit?”
“That’s one way to put it.” Styx tightened his grip on the hilt of his sword. “Watch my back.”
Styx didn’t have any doubt that the vampire would eagerly sacrifice his life to keep Styx safe. At one time that would have been a comfort, but now Styx realized that had to be twice as careful. He didn’t want the male’s death on his soul.
Darcy had made him soft, he silently accepted. And honestly, he wouldn’t have it any other way.
“Hello? Bertha?” He called out, inching closer and closer to the creature. “Can you hear me?” There was no response. Wait. That wasn’t true. Styx could feel an odd pressure inside his skull. As if something was trying to crawl into his brain. He hastily backed away. “Shit.”
Jagr was instantly at his side. “What’s wrong?”
Styx lifted a hand to touch his forehead. As if he could ward off the weird sensation.
“In this form I think they communicate telepathically.”
Jagr shuddered. Vampires had a natural ability to use mental compulsion on lesser creatures, but they were careful to create shields to prevent their own minds from being entered. There was no way he could converse with the gargoyle.
Jagr glanced over his shoulder at the nearby house. “Maybe Darcy—”
“Absolutely not.” Styx hesitated before he forced out the words he hoped never to say again. “Go get Levet.”
Jagr’s lean features tightened. “That is going to be a problem.”
“I asked you to keep an eye on him.”
“I did. That’s why I returned in time to see the arrival of your oversized lawn ornament. I thought you should know what I witnessed.”
Styx narrowed his eyes. He already sensed this was bad news. “Tell me.”
“When I finally tracked down the gargoyle he was at the Hunting Lodge attempting to convince Troy to open a portal to the merfolk castle.”
Styx swallowed a growl. If Levet had disappeared through a portal, there was no way to locate him. At least not for a vampire.
“Did Troy open one?”
“No, he slammed the door in the gargoyle’s face.”
“The imp is smarter than I gave him credit for,” Styx drawled. “What happened to Levet?”
“He headed away from the Hunting Lodge. I assumed he was on his way back to Chicago, but as he wandered through an empty field a stranger approached him.”
Styx’s unease deepened. He’d been annoyed by the thought that Levet had disappeared through a portal. Who knew how long it would take to track down the creature? But he should have suspected that was too simple a problem. Levet was a disaster-magnet.
“How strange was the stranger?”
“Very strange.” Jagr confirmed his worst fear. “A minotaur.”
Styx stared at his most trusted guard, wondering if the male had taken a blow to the head.
“A minotaur.” He shook his head. “Seriously?”
Jagr shrugged. “I’ve never seen one in person, but I’m sure that’s what it was.”
Styx had been around for countless centuries and traveled from this world to distant dimensions. And never once had he ever encountered a minotaur. Until this moment he would have sworn that they never left their homeland.
“What’s it doing in my territory?”
“I think he was searching for the gargoyle.”
“Of course he was.” Styx’s mood went from sour to downright rancid. He couldn’t care less what happened to the stupid gargoyle. In fact, he hoped the minotaur ate him for dinner. But the idiot’s aunt was currently perched on his roses and he had no way to get rid of her without the pest. “What happened?”
“He opened a gateway and they disappeared.”
“A gateway?” Styx considered his limited options. “Can one of the fey follow them?”
“Not if the minotaur was going back to his people,” Jagr said. “There’s not a lot of information about the species, but what I’ve read indicate that they have layers of protection surrounding their homeland that have never been penetrated.”
Styx didn’t have the vast knowledge that Jagr did, but he’d done his share of research over the years.
Styx shook his head. “Why the hell would the minotaur be interested in Levet?”
“I don’t know, but he didn’t go willingly.”
“Crap.” Styx reluctantly turned back to the hovering gargoyle. “Levet isn’t here. Go look for him in the labyrinth.” He stepped closer, studying the bumps and lumps of the gargoyle’s face. Was she asleep? Styx waved his sword, trying to catch her attention. “Did you hear? He’s with the minotaurs.”
A searing heat blasted through the air and the night seemed to rip apart as a male form appeared directly in front of Bertha. He was large. Even bigger than Styx with long hair that shimmered with a metallic, platinum sheen in the moonlight. His eyes were a smoldering ebony. But it was the fire that danced over his skin and the heavy pulse of power beating through the garden that captured Styx’s full attention.
“Get that sword near Bertha and I’ll burn this city to the ground,” the male growled. “Along with you and your clan.”
Styx grimaced. He didn’t have any trouble identifying the intruder. Levet had spent the past few days boasting that his aunt had captured the attention of a god. And there was only one god who walked around with flames.
“What does she want?”
The god folded his arms across this chest. “Levet.”
Styx didn’t bother to repeat the obvious fact that Levet wasn’t there. He was beginning to suspect that Bertha had sensed her nephew was in danger and now expected him to somehow rescue the stupid creature.
He turned back to Jagr. “We need that gargoyle.”
Jagr spread his hands. “The only way into the minotaur homeland is through the labyrinth. No one can get in or out.”
Styx pressed his fingers against his right temple. It was throbbing with the threat of a looming migraine. Hard to believe his night was about to get even worse. After all, his romantic evening with his mate had been interrupted. His rose garden was being squashed by a seven-foot gargoyle. And he was being threatened by an angry god who could destroy him with disturbing ease. Now, he had to somehow find a way to rescue his personal pain-in-the-ass from beyond the labyrinth.
“There’s one.” He had to force the words past his stiff lips.
Jagr frowned before shaking his head in horror. “No. No, no, no.”
“I need Ryshi,” he growled.
The lair in the Kunlun Mountains in Tibet was isolated even by vampire standards. The series of caves were impossible to reach without days of climbing on foot and protected by thick layers of illusion. Inside they were barren of all but the most essential needs. A few pieces of furniture, a collection of opera soundtracks, and a vast cavern where Sofie spent her nights chiseling works of art into the rock walls.
Most creatures would consider the stark surroundings more a prison than a home, but Sofie cherished the sense of peace. She’d made the choice to be alone a long time ago and she never regretted that decision.
She didn’t like people. Unless they were dinner. And she liked demons even less.
Unfortunately, her personal preference for solitude was a source of utter indifference to the Anasso. As he proved when he stepped out of a portal created by some unknown fey creature at the base of the mountain and called for her to join him. Even if Sofie wanted to ignore the command—and blessed goddess she wanted to ignore it—the tremors shaking through the ground was creating fissures large enough to destroy her lair.
Only one creature possessed that sort of power. The Anasso.
Exchanging her loose satin gown for a pair of jeans, and heavy sweater and thick boots, Sofie used the tunnel system she’d dug out of the stone to make her way down the towering mountain, stepping out of a hidden cave to stand directly in front of Styx.
He was wearing his usual leather pants and coat with a massive sword strapped across his back. As she approached he easily towered over her slender frame. Not a surprise, the king probably towered over most demons, but she’d always been small for a vampire. With her blond hair cut in a pixie style and her crystal blue eyes that were rimmed with a bright silver, she was often mistaken for a fey creature. Or a human. The image was only intensified by the crescent shaped scar with a small circle that was carved into the middle of her forehead.
The mark of a witch.
Sofie didn’t mind. She preferred to be underestimated. It gave her a distinct advantage in any unwelcome battle.
“Styx.” She offered a respectful bow of her head. “I assume you weren’t in the neighborhood and decided to drop in?”
The male deliberately glanced around the rugged landscape that was eerily silent.
“Is anyone ever in this neighborhood?”
“Not if I can prevent them.”
He pursed his lips, but thankfully he didn’t offer yet another tedious lecture on the dangers of isolating herself. For once, he came straight to the point of his visit.
“I need your help.”
Sofie narrowed her gaze. “Help with what?”
“Not what. Who.”
“I don’t understand.”
Sofie hissed, suddenly wishing she’d stayed in the privacy of her caves. So what if the damned mountain collapsed on her? She’d rather be buried under rock than be plagued by the memory of Ryshi. The half jinn/half imp male had given her nightmares for the past ten years.
Not that it would have changed her fate, she ruefully acknowledged. Styx would just have dug her out of the rubble and forced her to do what he wanted. The Anasso was nothing if not stubborn.
“No.” She took a step backward. “No way.”
Styx tightened his jaw, his expression grim. “I’m sorry, Sofie, but you’re the only one capable of controlling him.”
He was referring to her unique ability to lock her mind with another demon and hold them captive. It wasn’t a compulsion that could bend the creature to her will. Or the talent of implanting false memories. Once she had a grip on another’s mind, they couldn’t travel more than a few feet away from her. Not until she released them.
“I thought he was locked in your dungeon?”
Styx nodded. “He is.”
“Then why do you need me?”
“I want to retrieve a creature who’s been taken into the labyrinth. Ryshi is the only one I know who has managed to navigate his way in and out of the maze.”
Sofie wasn’t surprised that the male had managed to do the impossible. He was a notorious thief who’d eluded capture for centuries. There was no place he couldn’t enter.
“Then send him. Why include me?”
Styx arched a brow. “Do you honestly think that I would trust the thief on his own? As soon as I opened the door to his cell he would disappear in a cloud of smoke.”
Sofie shivered. She didn’t like the thought of the male roaming the world without restraint. Not when he blamed her for his decade spent in Styx’s dungeon.
“Nothing can leash a jinn.” He held her wary gaze. “Except you. I wouldn’t ask if there was any other options.”
His words held an edge of sincerity, but Sofie’s talent also allowed her to detect when another creature was lying to her.
“That’s not true,” she murmured. “At least not entirely.”
A rueful smile twisted his lips as if he belatedly remembered her skill. “It’s true that you’re the only one who can help with the thief. But I’m not opposed to forcing you out of your lair.” He waved a hand toward the mountain range that was still coated in snow even though spring had supposedly sprung. “It’s fine to desire privacy, but this extreme isolation isn’t healthy.”
“It’s what makes me happy.”
“You can’t avoid the world forever.”
She stared at him in confusion. “Why not?”
His lips parted, but clearly deciding that he was wasting his time trying to convince her that the world wasn’t an utter trashfire, he gave a resigned shake of his head.
“Complete this task for me and you can return to your self-inflicted prison.”
“Do I have a choice?”
Sofie clenched her hands into tight fists. She wanted to beat them against the nearest boulder. Instead, she tilted her chin to a defiant angle.
“Then let’s get this over with.”
Ryshi sprawled on the narrow cot, twirling the tip of his finger to create wisps of smoke in the air. It was one of his few means to break the monotony of the long nights spent in his cramped cell. Not as fun as infuriating the guards who brought him his meals, but it was better than nothing.
The days were better, of course. The vampires had been careful to place a dampening spell in the cells, which meant that he couldn’t use his magic, but he was half jinn. That meant he could shift into his incorporeal form and float his way out of the lair. From there, it was a simple matter to use his imp magic to create portals that would take him any place in the world.
Eventually he was going to have to stop pretending to be a prisoner, he acknowledged with a faint sigh. It was slowing down his efforts. But for the moment, he was willing to choose caution over speed. The vampires were convinced he was safely locked away, so they had no reason to protect their lairs against a thief, and no reason to suspect him even if they did notice there had been a trespasser.
Besides, he’d enjoyed the knowledge that the leeches assumed they’d managed to capture him when he could disappear in a puff of smoke any time he wanted.
Time, however, was ticking away. He didn’t want to waste any more by having to return to this cell each night. And there was a niggling voice in the back of his mind that warned the vampires were touchy about their security. If they discovered he could easily move in and out of their dungeons, he might find himself trapped in a place that he couldn’t escape.
An unacceptable risk.
As if the goddess had read his mind, there was the sound of heavy footsteps entering the dungeon. Ryshi recognized those size thirteen boots slapping against the stone floor. This wasn’t just another guard. It was the Anasso.
Rising to his feet, Ryshi ran his fingers down the long tunic he wore over the loose silk pants. Then, lifting his arms over his head, he stretched out his lean supple muscles. He’d inherited his slender form from his imp father, as well as his long, copper hair. The liquid ebony of his eyes, however, had come from his jinn mother along with his skills of shifting to smoke.
He was leaning nonchalantly against the wall of his cell when the door was thrust open and Styx stepped inside.
“Ah. It’s the big man himself,” Ryshi drawled. “What an honor. Shall I bow or do you prefer for your sycophants drop to their knees and kiss your ass?”
The Anasso bared his fangs in warning. “You try to kiss my ass and I’ll chop off your head.”
“Always so violent.” Ryshi studied his nails, as if unaware of the power thundering through the air. “I blame a lack of vitamin D.”
Styx muttered a curse, but he resisted the urge to stab Ryshi with his big-ass sword.
“I have a task for you.”
Ryshi buffed his nails on his tunic. “I’m listening.”
“I need you to enter the labyrinth.”
Well…that was a surprise. Ryshi had only revealed his ability to slip in and out of the minotaur homeland in an attempt to keep the vampires from locking him away. He’d assumed they would realize his worth as a thief and send him on a mission to pay for his sins. Instead, the idiots had tossed him in their dungeons.
Now he wondered if his boast was about to come back and bite him in the ass.
“A dangerous request,” he pointed out.
Styx narrowed his eyes. “It’s not a request.”
“That doesn’t make it any less dangerous.”
“You would rather remain locked in this cell?”
Ryshi rolled his eyes. The male was no doubt a powerful creature, but he was as subtle as a raging troll. He had no concept of all the delicious grays between white and black.
“I’m setting the baseline for our negotiations,” Ryshi informed the leech.
Styx scowled. “What negotiations?”
“You need something from me. I get something from you.” Ryshi spoke slowly. “That’s how it works.”
A layer of ice suddenly coated the cell. The Anasso wasn’t subtle, but he also wasn’t stupid. And he was clearly in no mood for Ryshi’s mockery.
“Not in my world.” With a blinding speed, Styx was standing directly in front of Ryshi, the tip of his sword biting into the center of his chest. “I tell you to do something and you do it or I stick this big knife through your heart.”
Ryshi smiled. The sword wouldn’t kill him. Then again, it would hurt like a bitch. Something he preferred to avoid.
“Fine. But if you want someone to enter the labyrinth you’ll be shit out of luck if I’m forced to regrow my heart. No one except a minotaur can penetrate the magic.” He deliberately paused. “And me.”
Styx appeared magnificently unimpressed with Ryshi’s logic. “So you claim.”
“Are we going to negotiate or are you going to waste both our time with meaningless threats?”
Styx lifted the sword to press it against Ryshi’s lips. “I swear I’ll cut out that tongue.”
“You wouldn’t be the first.” Ryshi shrugged. “Probably not the last.”
Styx released a low roar, ice swirling through the air as he stepped back and lowered the weapon.
“What do you want?” he demanded.
“To start with, I want my freedom.” Ryshi’s voice hardened, the scent of amber filling the cell. “I spent the past decade locked away for a petty crime.”
Styx made a sound of disbelief. “Petty crime? You broke into the lairs of vampires to steal their belongings.”
“It was a game,” Ryshi smoothly lied. If Styx discovered exactly why he’d been searching through the vampire lairs, the male might actually find a way to kill him. “I never took anything of value.”
“And even after you were warned to stay away, you continued to sneak in.”
Ryshi shrugged. He’d laughed when he’d discovered the warning scrawled outside this massive lair. It’d been like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Ryshi had been twice as determined to enter.
“I like the challenge,” he admitted. “It keeps my skills sharp.”
“And that’s why you’re locked in a dungeon.”
True enough. Ryshi’s arrogance had been his downfall. But it had only been a temporary inconvenience.
“What if I promise that I learned my lesson? Release me and I’ll never bother you again.”
It wasn’t a lie. Ryshi had not only grown sloppy in his searches, but he’d conceitedly assumed that nothing and no one could ever capture him. He intended to be more careful in the future.
“Complete this task and we’ll talk.”
Not exactly a promise. But better than nothing.
“What do you want from the labyrinth?” Ryshi asked.
“A miniature gargoyle has been taken to the homeland of the minotaur. I need him back.”
Ryshi’s mocking smile faded. This was a trick. It had to be. “A miniature gargoyle?”
Styx looked oddly uncomfortable. “It’s a long, tedious story.”
“I’ve got the time.”
Hmm. Ryshi had heard vague rumors of a small gargoyle who’d supposedly saved the world from some mysterious evil, but he’d dismissed them as fairytales. It seemed too weird to be real.
“Let me see if I have this straight. You want me to navigate the labyrinth, track down a miniature gargoyle that I presume has become lost in the maze and return it to Chicago?”
Ryshi folded his arms over his chest. “Any other miracles while I’m out and about? Capturing a unicorn? Digging up a leprechaun?”
“Nope.” Styx shook his head. “Just the gargoyle.”
Ryshi swallowed the demand to know what the hell was going on. Did it matter? Not to him. He had no intention of entering the labyrinth. Not when he could create an elaborate ceremony that would convince the leeches he was headed into the maze. Once he was through a portal he would disappear. As long as he was careful not to be seen, the vampires would presume he was lost among the minotaurs along with the gargoyle.
A perfect solution to his current problems.
“Got it.” He waved a slender hand. “Step aside and I’ll begin preparing for my journey.”
“Not without a chaperone.”
Ryshi froze. “You didn’t say anything about a chaperone.”
The vampire made a sound of disgust. “You didn’t think I would actually trust you to do what I asked without having someone keeping an eye on you?”
“Why Styx, I’m wounded.”
The massive sword was once again pressed against Ryshi’s heart. “You will be if I so much as suspect you’re attempting to flee before you’ve done as I asked.”
Ryshi did his best to disguise his annoyance. A companion was an unexpected annoyance, but it didn’t change his plans.
“So who’s my…oh.” Ryshi’s heart lurched as he caught the icy scent that had haunted him for the past decade. “Sweet Sofie. Why didn’t you say that in the beginning? I have no objections to spending oodles of time with that particular leech.”
For once, he wasn’t lying. The beautiful female had fascinated him from the moment he’d caught sight of her. It didn’t matter that she’d been hunting him. Or that he’d spent the past ten years stuck in this cell because of her. His jinn nature was obsessed with the rare and unique. He had a lair filled with his collection of extraordinary objects. The fact that Sofie was also a lethal predator only added to his tingles of anticipation.
In contrast, Sofie appeared less than enthusiastic as she stepped into the cell and glared at him with her ice-blue eyes.
“Please stop talking,” she muttered.
Ryshi offered a deep bow, allowing his gaze to sweep over her slender curves revealed by the jeans and her soft pink sweater.
“Your wish is my command. I have far more pleasurable ways to communicate…argh.”
Ryshi jerked upright, his hands clenching as he felt Sofie’s presence wrap around his mind. It wasn’t painful, but it was as unnerving as hell.
Sofie turned her head toward her king. “You’re going to own me for this, Styx.”
The large male grimaced. “I hear that a lot.”