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“Can’t you just kill me?” I asked, rubbing my temple. “That would be way more efficient.”


Staring at my king with his bride on his lap, I wondered just what I’d done to deserve this level of punishment. I did not need a mate—hadn’t in thousands of years—and yet, I’d been bombarded with mate business since I’d returned to Tartarus. Caius had somehow found out about the man from the portal, and now I was being hounded to go back. 


To find him.


And as soon as I found out who had spilled my secret, I would eviscerate them until there was nothing left. 


Caius stared up at Reagan, a softness to his expression easing my bitterness a bit. He’d fallen head over heels for that woman, convinced her to be his queen, and they were on their way to their happily ever after. My friends were damn near blissful—so much it almost hurt to look at them, and yet, I could not fathom wanting that for myself. 


Mates made you vulnerable. 


All it would take was one twist of Fate, and everything would be gone.






And yet… I was still here, letting one of my oldest friends try to convince me to return to a world that had the one thing I didn’t want in it. Him.


“Sorry,” he said, not taking his eyes off his bride, “can’t. Would love to help you and all but…”


He wasn’t sorry. He’d never been less sorry in his life, while I was fighting bile racing up my throat. They were so perfect for each other it made my heart squeeze and stomach churn all at the same time. Mostly because there hadn’t been a moment of peace in the weeks since I’d come back.


Assassination attempts, power grabs, betrayal. There had been more bullshit in the last ten weeks than in the last thousand years combined.


Hell, this morning there had already been a bombing of the castle wall to try and get to the portal. I’d been stretched thin, and yet, through it all, steel-blue eyes haunted me. It didn’t matter that I was busy or working or anything else. Every single night I dreamed of them—the way they were so open, so trusting, so… 


A flicker of blue sparks flared from my fingertips as thunder rumbled outside, betraying my unease. I had spent two weeks on Earth feeling eyes on me, and as soon as I met his, I’d finally understood why. 


It had been him.


Now that they were gone, I missed them, which unnerved me enough to make me want to put my head through a wall.






Even with the mother of all hangovers needling my brain after a night of too much Tartarean alcohol, I still couldn’t get those damn eyes out of my head. 


But the man they were attached to always followed suit. Covered in blood, bare-chested, he’d strode toward me like he wasn’t a walking nightmare. Not even deterred by my lightning, he’d still tried to reach me, the single rough word he’d spoken like a brand.




I’d done just the opposite. I’d taken Nog and Ben’s trespassing—and my failure—as a gift, an escape, a way to flee to the safety of Tartarus like a coward. I’d always seen it as a prison, and yet, when it came to realizing I had a mate, it was the safest place I could be. 


“But nothing,” I grumped, rubbing at my temple, praying that the hangover from hell would just go away. This was what I got when I asked Legion to help me drown my sorrows. I should have known it would turn into hangovers and bar brawls. “You just want me to be happy and loved up like you are. No offense, but… gross. I think I’d prefer death. Or a stint in the dungeons. Or shoving lombass skewers under my fingernails.”


Reagan’s laugh mingled with Caius’ as he squeezed her thigh possessively. He’d laughed more in ten weeks than he had in all the time I’d known him. I couldn’t begrudge him that, but… gag.


Yes, death would be preferable to this… guilt. I’d left him behind, ran at the first chance, but I hadn’t missed the way his eyes tightened at my rejection. I couldn’t escape the way his shoulders bunched, the way his lips thinned. I didn’t even know the man, and yet, it tore me up that I’d dismissed him. 


That was the real kicker. I’d taken something pure into my hands and crushed it like I’d done so many times before, but this time…


“I was like you, you know,” Reagan said, climbing from Caius’ lap. “I swore I’d never have a mate. Promised myself that that kind of life wasn’t for me. You see where that got me, right?”


Five thousand years old and you’re getting schooled by an infant. How does that feel?


Like shit. Like absolute shit.


“Where are you going?” Caius asked, his gaze not leaving Reagan for a second, his shadows reaching for her, even though she was only a few feet away. 


A secret smile crossed her lips, and I wondered if I’d ever looked at anyone like that. If I ever would. “You two need to talk about this, and if I’m around, Styx won’t get that disgusted look off her face. Don’t worry. I won’t go far.”


I used to be so hard to read, and now literal children could call me out. Fantastic. Honestly, killing me would be so much easier. I’d lived long enough, right? 


As soon as she slipped from the room, Caius’ black gaze fell on me, and I fought the urge to squirm. 


“Did you know that it has rained more in the last ten weeks than it has in the last hundred years?” Caius asked, steepling his fingers as he practically stared into my soul. “And it’s been reported that the lightning strikes on the grounds have jumped so much, people are afraid to go outside.”


So I had been a little emotional. Was that a crime?


“I also know what happened during Februlune.”


If I could have melted into the floor, I would have.


“It’s fine. I locked myself up—”


Caius emitted the deadliest growl, one that had even me straightening in my seat. “No, you had Legion lock you up because I was occupied, and he was the only one strong enough to do it. You suffered for days because you were proving a point to yourself. How do you think that will end?”


Struggling to swallow, I remembered the agony of the last double new moon—or “Februlune,” as we called it—and the shame of asking one of my oldest friends to lock me away, the mindlessness as I threw myself against the walls of my cell, trying to get back to the portal. 


In Tartarus, Februlune was basically a holiday and for good reason. With a world filled with shadow shifters, nearly all of us went into heat on the new moon once our mate was found. When you had two new moons at the same time? It was days of hedonistic sex and pleasure, mating and bed play. But only for those with mates, and only for those who didn’t mind tying their lives to someone forever. 


Thousands of years I’d managed to go unscathed.


Thousands of years not feeling that searing ache that would not go away.


Thousands of years, and it was all ruined as soon as I met that steely-blue gaze.


“I’ve made it this far, haven’t I?” It was a shitty comeback, but it was all I could come up with.


“You are holding yourself together with twine and obstinance, and even that is fraying. I know what you went through bef—”

That carefully culled rage I’d been banking flared to life. “No, you don’t,” I hissed, sparks from my fingers showering to the stone floor. “Even after all this time, you still only know the sanitized version. And even if I gave you every detail, you would still not understand.”


He couldn’t possibly.


Something like pity flashed across Caius’ expression before he hid it away. And that’s why I never spoke about my past—not ever. The last thing I needed was Caius’ pity.


Swallowing past the lump in my throat, I let my gaze trail to the window, the whole of Tartarus beyond. “If I go back, it won’t be for him. It will be for me. To get my revenge, to take back what was stolen, to…” My voice left me, as reality crashed in. What was stolen could never be returned to me. The only thing I had to look forward to was revenge, and even that was a long shot. 


“It can’t be for him.”


Because going back to find him would require me to trust, to drop my guard, to open myself up like a monigra pod, exposing the pale flesh below. I didn’t know how to do that, and the last time I’d tried, I’d lost everything.


And then there was the rest of it. Why had he been bloody? Who was he? Why had he been there? How could I be sure he was a good man? How could I be sure he wouldn’t use me for power, wouldn’t enslave me? 


“Why can’t it be both? Why can’t you go back for you and for him?”


I didn’t have an answer—not a good one, anyway. “How can you so blindly believe that Fate would be kind to me?”

She’d never been before.


“If Fate can smile upon the darkest of souls, she can smile upon you, too,” he murmured, halting the very breath in my lungs.


There was no argument for that, no retort. Just acceptance.


“Fine,” I hissed, crossing my arms over my chest as rain lashed the window. “But when this all goes to shit, I reserve the right to tell you I told you so.”


What I didn’t tell him was that I would avoid my ma—him—like he was the plague and pray we didn’t cross paths again.


“I would expect nothing less.”

*  *  * 


Pausing just outside the portal, I surveyed the swirling vortex and the world beyond from the shadows. I’d been there for an hour, watching, waiting, trying to gather the courage to take the first step. 


“And how did I know I’d find you here?” Reagan whispered, her tone soft, caring. 


I fucking hated it.


The best she got was a grunt, but even that got me a smile. Dammit. I’d grown to like her in the past few weeks, and a part of me even trusted her. Just a little. 


She’d grown on me. 


Like a fungus.


“I know—”


“Nothing,” I growled, cutting her off. “You know nothing. You don’t know how I feel, you don’t know what’s going on inside my head. You don’t, okay?” I swallowed, trying to stuff that rage I kept carefully honed back inside its cage. “We are not the same, Reagan.”


She was born to protect. I was born to destroy. She was tied to Caius—I was tied to no one. She had fallen in love, and I didn’t know what that was. She had a loving family, and I…


“I can’t put myself in your shoes, but I can say that I have been tied to someone I didn’t choose. Someone I thought was worse than the devil himself. I don’t regret it now, but then? It felt like I was dying a little every day.”


Her words were meant to be a balm, but they just made it worse. Because in that scenario, I was the devil, wasn’t I? 


“We might not be in the same boat, but it’s the same ocean at least. So at the risk of sounding like a know-it-all child to you, can I give you some advice?”


Unwaveringly kind, she’d give that advice whether I wanted it or not, so I simply shrugged. 


“Keep an open mind. I wasted a lot of time here fighting the bond, fighting Caius, just fighting. Sometimes Fate has better plans for us, yes?”


I didn’t know about that, but Reagan had wanted to be helpful, and so the least I could do was let her believe she had.


“I will.”


She snorted, shaking her head. “No, you won’t. You’ll fight Fate at every turn until you can’t anymore. But when you finally find what you’re looking for and the dust settles, just let yourself be happy, okay? You deserve it.”


I didn’t know about that either, so I said nothing. Reagan bumped my shoulder with her own before turning to leave me to gather my courage in peace. 


And when I finally crossed that barrier, I promised myself three things. 


I would never accept my mate. No poor soul deserved to get saddled with a killer with no remorse.


Somehow, some way, I’d get rid of the power that had poisoned me every single day for five thousand years.


And last? My family deserved to be avenged. If there was a way to punish the gods who banished me, I would do it. I would end them—even if I had to die to do it.


Because Reagan had been wrong. 


I hadn’t earned my happiness.


And I never would.

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