Devil 04 - the devil you know

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The Devil You Know

Sam Cheever

 

Book 5 in the Dancin’ With the Devil series.

 

Astra Q. Phelps is turning twenty-five in a few months and she’s starting to feel the effects of her Settling, the time when a half angel, half devil Tweener decides whether to embrace her dark nature or her light.

The delectable Dialle, king of the Royal devils, really needs Astra’s help in Hell to deal with an insurrection. But Astra’s Settling pretty much has her thinking of only one thing—S.E.X.!

Sex with Dialle, sex with her yummy partner Emo, sex with a molten-hot dragon slayer she meets along the way, and sex with assorted other randy Royals cavorting among the fires of Hell. It’s a constant struggle just to keep her mind and body pure so she can concentrate on the business at hand, but Astra Q Phelps is definitely up for the challenge. And Good versus Evil has never been this much fun!

 

Publisher’s Note: Books 1-4 in Ms. Cheever’s Dancin’ With the Devil series can be found athttp://www.cerridwenpress.com.

 

 

An Ellora’s Cave Romantica Publication

www.ellorascave.com

 

 

 

The Devil You Know

 

ISBN 9781419931215

ALL RIGHTS RESERVED

The Devil You Know Copyright © 2010 Sam Cheever

 

Edited by Helen Woodall

Cover art by Dar Albert

 

Electronic book publication October 2010

 

The terms Romantica® and Quickies® are registered trademarks of Ellora’s Cave Publishing.

 

With the exception of quotes used in reviews, this book may not be reproduced or used in whole or in part by any means existing without written permission from the publisher, Ellora’s Cave Publishing, Inc.® 1056 Home Avenue, Akron OH 44310-3502.

 

Warning: The unauthorized reproduction or distribution of this copyrighted work is illegal. No part of this book may be scanned, uploaded or distributed via the Internet or any other means, electronic or print, without the publisher’s permission. Criminal copyright infringement, including infringement without monetary gain, is investigated by the FBI and is punishable by up to 5 years in federal prison and a fine of $250,000.  (http://www.fbi.gov/ipr/). Please purchase only authorized electronic or print editions and do not participate in or encourage the electronic piracy of copyrighted material. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

 

This book is a work of fiction and any resemblance to persons, living or dead, or places, events or locales is purely coincidental. The characters are productions of the author’s imagination and used fictitiously.

 

The Devil You Know

Sam Cheever

 

Dedication

 

I’d like to dedicate this book to Martha, who was one of the first and is definitely one of the staunchest Astra Q. Phelps fans I have. Thank you for beating me into writing this book, Martha. If you hadn’t applied that two-by-four upside my head at RomantiCon last year, I probably would have let the series end with book three. As it is, I’m oh so glad I wroteThe Devil You Know, because it truly was the most fun I’ve ever had with my clothes on! Enjoy it, girl!

 

 

 

 

 

Trademarks Acknowledgement

 

The author acknowledges the trademarked status and trademark owners of the following wordmarks mentioned in this work of fiction:

 

Pitchfork: Arizona Board of Regents, for and on behalf of Arizona State University body corporate

 

 

The Devil You Know

 

The Devil you know may break your heart, be cold and without soul.

But acquaintance makes the Devil you know, more friend than deadly foe.

 

The Devil you know might stain your soul, its motives ne’r do well.

But comfort lies with the Devil you know, tho’ it damn your soul to Hell.

 

Prologue

Milestones and Millstones

 

The Devil you know will comfort bring, though chaos be your friend,

The Devil you wish mayn’t solve a thing, and slay you in the end.

 

Sometime around 2060, the world went to war again and opened up a whole new can of worms. Up until then humans thought they had it pretty rough on this Earth, with poverty, crime, disease, your everyday evil forces and the general disintegration of morality.

However, when the laser guns and plasma bombs finished smashing a geographic area comprising about seventy percent of the surface of the Earth into smithereens, something eminently evil used the resulting chaos to slither its way into the world. This evil something hadn’t been seen before by human eyes, but had always been there, in a parallel dimension, watching the show and waiting for its turn to join in the fun. And every once in a while, when Earth’s defenses were particularly low, this something would reach across that barrier and tweak us a little. Which explains things like mosquitoes, liver and onions and reality shows.

Devils and demons were never meant to walk among us. But once they’d found a way to get through, God had no choice but to send his angels in to keep an eye on them. Several minor skirmishes have already been fought between the forces of good and evil, since that time thirty years ago when the first devil snuck through Earth’s defenses. The angels, with the Big Guy at their backs, are winning the battles so far, but the outcome of the war is still uncertain.

About ten years ago God started using Tweeners to help the good side out. The only problem with Tweeners is that, by our very makeup, we are some portion devil. That’s why we understand and know how to defeat the forces of evil. But it is also what has made us a little bit unpredictable to the good guys.

What exactly is a Tweener, you ask? A Tweener is a non-human. We have neither wings nor horns, but generally have both angel and devil in our family forests. Which is probably why we enjoy a higher sensitivity to spectral influence than regular human people.

My name is Astra Q. Phelps. Don’t ask me what the Q stands for because that little piece of info will go with me to the crematorium. I’ve had all printed documentation of the name destroyed and, though a lot of my enemies have tried to dig it out, no one will ever know what it stands for. A girl has to have some secrets. Especially when the truth would cause her some serious embarrassment.

I run a business called the Angel Network, which is the only devil-and-demon locating-and-destroying business in the universe. In other words, I kick serious evil butt for a living. I am a Tweener.

Recently the Celestial Army has been keeping me pretty busy saving the world. Over and over and over and… Well, you get what I’m saying. The human world just has trouble staying saved.

I’ve also been dealing with some pretty intense feelings for a certain gorgeous Royal Devil, who may or may not be the great unifier of prophecy. It’s been a busy and confusing time. But it’s about to get much worse.

My twenty-fifth birthday is just a few months away.

The thing about that twenty-fifth birthday is…well…for Tweeners it’s kind of make or break time. It’s called our Settling and it’s the culmination of our growth period. The time when we become what we will be in life. It’s also the time when the dark side of our nature has the greatest pull.

It is on our twenty-fifth birthday that we decide which way we’re gonna go. Good or bad. Black or white. Gray usually isn’t an option. And outside influences have a lot to do with the outcome. In my case, my influence pool is decidedly murky, given the fact that I hang out alotwith devils.

Really hot devils.

Extremely sexy devils.

Truly, stupendously, ripped, horny, sensual devils.

Incredibly…um… Okay, you get it.

Right.

Anyway, as the fateful date approaches, I can feel the changes boiling just under the surface of my mind.

My skin quivers with it.

My body heats.

And my libido… Well…let’s just say my boyfriend’s threatening to go off planet just to get some much-needed rest.

Of course he doesn’t mean it.

At least I don’t think he does…

 

Chapter One

Crowned!

 

Our randy miss doth pitch a fit, o’er an audience of red,

But in the end she’ll welcome it, to warm her lover’s bed.

 

“Tell me again why we have to have sex in front of twelve hundred people?”

Dialle sighed, tugging on a stray lock of my auburn hair. “Not people, Astra. Devils.”

“Yeah, yeah, whatever. Answer the question.”

His full, soft lips dropped to within a single steamy breath of mine. “Don’t you want to have sex with me?”

I sucked in his essence and my knees wobbled, my happy place clenched with desire and my heart started to do the rumba in my chest. I licked my lips. “That’s not pertinent.”

His lips touched mine, a feathersoft kiss that stole air from my lungs and filled my sexy thong with moisture. “It’s extremely pertinent, my queen.”

My world tilted, wavered and turned muzzy under a wave of lust. I even forgot to yell at him for calling me his queen.

Sighing, I forced myself to focus. “It is not pert…pert…um, what you said.”

Those treacherous lips descended again, pulling my will to resist away and replacing it with a tsunami of lustful inclinations.

My lips met his hungrily. My mind might want to argue, but my damn traitorous body just wanted us to hump, hump, hump like bunnies. As the kiss intensified, I whimpered and ran my fingers up under his shirt.

His golden skin was smooth, hairless and unnaturally heated. His masculine scent folded over me, leaving my mind feeling as if I’d consumed copious amounts of some kind of drug.

The kiss grew hungry, nearly frantic. I tilted my head to capture his mouth more thoroughly and my tongue slid out to tangle with his. His mouth was hot and sweet, like melted butter under my tongue. He tasted of raw, unfettered sensuality.

Pure decadence.

I slid my fingers into the waistband of his tight leather jeans and pulled him close. He gasped as my fingers stretched the soft leather and slid inside, finding him hard and more than ready for me.

I cupped the fat head of his cock in my palm and shivered as a bead of moisture touched my skin. My mind formed a high-definition picture of my tongue licking that bead of sweet saltiness off my palm. I shivered with delight under the visual.

I was lost. Toasted. Sucker punched by my hormone-crazed body. My slut-monkey side had beaten my weakened conscience into tattered, bleeding submission. I would have consumed him then and there, right on the floor of the throne room of the Royal Devil Court, but our skin sparked and it startled me.

I pulled away.

We never used to spark. Only my daemon hickey used to spark, and that, only when we communicated from a distance, or another male came too close.

But lately we’d been creating literal sparks whenever we touched in a sensual way. It was a bit disconcerting to say the least.

I pulled away and licked my lips. His taste lingered on the swollen flesh and my body clenched with desire. “I’m going to have to buy fireproof clothes if that keeps up.”

Dialle’s grin was wicked. “Or you could just go naked all the time.”

“Har! In your dreams, bud.”

“Actually, yes, thathasbeen a central theme in my dreams on many occasions.”

I couldn’t help sharing his smile. Then I remembered the conversation I’d been trying to have before he kissed me. I crossed the room and sat down. When he made a move to join me I held up a hand, palm out, to stop him. “You stay over there. So I can breathe.”

His black eyes sparked with mischief but, for once, he did as I asked.

“Now tell me about this crowning ceremony.”

He inclined his head and dropped his perfect, well-rounded ass onto the arm of a nearby chair. “Since my father has been recalled to Hades, I must serve as king until he returns.”

I nodded. “I’m with you up to that point.” Dialle and I had recently intercepted a plot by King Dialle the First to overtake Saint Peter and breach the Pearly Gates. The happy result of that fight was that King Dialle had been reimprisoned in Hell for the foreseeable future, his “get out of Hell free” pass rescinded by the Big Guy.


Page 2

“I am, of course, the most obvious choice to succeed him—”

“Wait a minute. Themost obviouschoice? Aren’t you theonlychoice?”

He cocked his well-shaped head, the silken black curtain of his hair drifting to rest against one broad shoulder. The strands curled enticingly where they touched the black silk of his shirt. His smooth, golden pecs showed in the deep vee of the unbuttoned shirt. My eyes glazed a bit and I had to do a metaphorical headshake to get my focus back.

The hormonal consequences of my Settling were…well…unsettling.

“Lovely Astra, you of all people should understand that things are never that simple in the devil court.”

I lifted my eyebrows and shrugged. “Right. I forgot for a moment that I wasn’t talking about rational beings.”

“Devilsarerational, Astra. Just not in the same way you are. We have our own rationality.”

“Whatever. Anyway…”

He slid into the seat of the chair he’d been resting against and crossed one long, slimly muscled leg across the other, ankle to knee, man style. I licked my lips as this new position gave me a prime vantage point to his nicely rounded package.

I blinked. Why was I fighting having sex with him again? Oh yeah, twelve hundred horned and horny voyeurs. Got it.

“To become king, I must undergo the crowning ceremony. The words of the ceremony create powerful magics that ensure the loyalty of my subjects.”

I nodded. All that made perfect sense to me. The sex in front of strangers part though, not so much.

“Unfortunately for you, the ceremony isn’t complete until I consummate it with my chosen mate.”

“I’m not your mate.”

“Ah, but you are, lovely Tweener. You bear my mark on your neck and you carry my heart in your pocket.”

Glaring at him, I got up to pace. “The mark was given against my will.”

“I would dispute that assessment, my love. But even if it were true, it would not diminish its meaning…or its effect.”

I stopped pacing long enough to fix him with an angry frown. “This mark was given to me in a weak moment of passion. I had no idea at the time what it entailed. It wasn’t very nice of you to lock me into all of this without even asking if I was interested.”

He lifted his hands out to the sides and cocked his head. “Devil, Astra.”

I sighed. What could I say? He had a point. When you hung out with devils, you kind of had to expect to get screwed.

Fortunately it was usually a frunkin’ fine experience.

* * * * *

 

Dialle sprawled on the throne, his long legs spread wide, one stretched straight and the other bent at the knee. He wore only tight white breeches, which outlined his natural assets beautifully, and soft knee-high boots.

His hairless golden chest glistened in the soft light of the chamber, looking as if he’d been polished for my viewing pleasure.

I stood at the back of the room and wiped sweaty palms on the gauzy gown they’d held me down and forced me into and swallowed hard.

Call me chicken, but I’d rather fight an army of supra-demons than have sex in front of hundreds of devils.

Brawwwkkkk!

I focused on Dialle’s angelic features and the way his glossy black hair slid over his broad shoulders. Licking my lips, I allowed the twinge of lust that sparked easily to life low in my belly to grow with thoughts of our last time together. A full week ago now, due to the restraints of ceremony and my own busy schedule, you know, saving the world and stuff.

No wonder my skin felt as if every nerve ending was on fire. My Settling was fully upon me now, which meant I was a walking, talking hormonal mess. I needed to get me some hard, hot, sexy Royal Devil soon or I might explode.

Several feet in front of the throne was a long, low altar-type construction with velvet padding on top. My eyes kept straying worriedly toward it, wishing it had a couple of walls at least, to provide some modicum of privacy for the act.

It wasn’t the act I was worried about. Certainly not that. It was the observers. It was my staunch, unwavering opinion that some things just shouldn’t be group activities.

Sex was at the top of that list.

Suddenly, Dialle straightened in the throne and stood, looking toward the back of the room, directly at me. I fought the urge to look over my shoulder and held my ground, praying he was watching someone else approach and it wasn’t my time on stage just yet.

I was relieved when someone stepped up beside me, thinking that I’d been given a few moments’ reprieve. And then I was newly terrified when that someone held out his arm and cocked a dark, elegant eyebrow at me.

Torre. Dialle’s brother.

I widened my eyes at him and he rolled his lips, trying not to smile. “When you’re ready, my queen.”

I scowled. “Then I guess we can all leave now.”

He gave me a look that reminded me way too much of my sister, Darma, who unfortunately happened to be his girlfriend.

Sighing, I placed my hand on his arm and we started down the aisle, toward Dialle. “I don’t know why I have to get dragged into Dialle’s coronation.”

“It is the way of our people.”

I made a face and mocked his snotty tone of voice.

Torre just grinned. At least he had a sense of humor. Unlike his surly girlfriend.

“Promise me you won’t look when we…you know.”

Torre glanced at me, his handsome face completely earnest, so earnest in fact that I knew he had to be lying. “I give you my word.”

“Uh-huh.”

The crowd at the back of the room moved forward with us until they stood in a semicircle around the raised couch.

Dialle stood straight and tall on the raised throne platform. His dark eyes swirled with silver lights and sparked with red. He stood with legs apart and hands held down at his sides, fisted with restrained power. I looked into his swirling gaze and felt myself falling away. He was so pretty. So hot. So…

I jerked. “Hey!” I’d felt the edges of his power sliding over my free will.

His perfectly sculpted lips tipped up on the ends. “Welcome to power, my queen.”

I scowled at him and opened my mouth to dispute the title. His voice slammed into me.Don’t say the words, Astra. The court must believe you accept your position at my side or this will fail.

But I’m not sure I do accept the position.

Pain touched his features. It ran so briefly across his face I nearly missed it. But its existence made me regret my words.If I am not ensconced in this throne, the court will settle into pandemonium, Astra. My ability to rule will be severely compromised and violence will break out as usurpers vie for the throne. It will most likely spill out into the human population and in the end, if I do not prevail, you will have someone sitting in this throne who may not share my…sensitivities…as pertains to our role in this world.

I frowned. I knew he was right. But I still didn’t understand whyIalways had to be the one to give up my freedom and any chance at choosing my own future to save the world…yet again. I sighed.Okay, you win.

It is my hope that we’ll both win, my queen.

Yada yada…Outwardly, I forced a smile onto my face and inclined my head. “I serve at your will and pleasure, my king.” The words were like bile in my mouth. And on top of my resistance to subjugating myself to Dialle, even if it was only for the benefit of his court, I was worried that, as I rumbled inexorably toward my Settling, I was immersing myself in the devil court. Surrounding myself with dark worlders at a time when my dark side was fighting for dominance over my light side. It was very likely the most idiotic thing I’d ever done.

My mind was aware of this, but my heart and body couldn’t help noticing the way Dialle’s breeches hugged the nicely rounded package at the juncture of his muscular thighs.

As the music began and Torre stepped forward to begin the ceremony, I licked my lips and tried to focus on the great sex I was about to have.

Funny how your priorities changed when the size of your problems kept growing. Now…after that brief, mental discussion with Dialle, I realized having sex before an audience of hundreds was the least of my problems.

Sometimes it was damn difficult being me.

 

Torre handed me to Dialle and stepped back. “Let us begin.”

The thunderous sound of hundreds of creatures dropping to their knees made me turn. They were all prostrate on the floor, their foreheads touching the plush carpets beneath them.

I could only hope they stayed that way. If they were sucking carpet lint, they couldn’t cast their eyes on my thigh dimples.

From the cavernous reaches of the ceiling above our heads, the magical sound of angels singing drifted down to fill the room. I resisted looking up. The chained angels were my biggest problem with the Devil Court. It was a practice that had served for millennia and, though I’d worked on Dialle for months to get him to release the angels, the politics of the move were so far entrenched into their system that I’d yet to make any headway gaining their release.

But I had the satisfaction of knowing the angels were at least treated well. Unlike they’d been under Dialle’s father, Dialle the First, or the hopefully extinguished King Nerul of the other devil court.

Baby steps.

The music swelled, creating magic on the air that began to work upon my mind. The music generated tingly feelings low in my belly and made Dialle look even sexier than usual.

A seemingly impossible trick.

I licked my lips and clenched my thighs, fearing that my Settling would bring the magics to their culmination much more quickly than anticipated, embarrassing me and maybe even Dialle with their intensity.

Premature magication.

Torre stepped up next to Dialle, lifting his hands. The crowd behind me got to its feet again. Torre began to speak in Hades, a tongue I’d learned at a young and tender age, while bouncing on my devilish mother’s knee.

I mentally translated as he spoke.

“The court of Dialle the First is done. It is the time for a new regime, a fresh course, for the chosen race…”

I snorted softly and both Dialle and Torre glared at me. I just shrugged. When they said outrageous things they couldn’t expect me not to react.

Had they met me?

Torre continued. “King Dialle the Second brings a new vision to the Royal Devil Court. This vision binds us to the new century, to the current time, making us a vital part of this world.”

The creatures behind us stirred and murmurs slid through the crowd.

“We no longer cling to the past, to old ways. Instead we look to the future and embrace the changes which are needed to bring us into the light.”

“Heresy!”

I turned to see who had shouted out as Dialle lifted a hand, palm out, and shot a volt of power into the rug at someone’s feet.

The extremely tall, exceedingly narrow royal had a pinched mouth and angry black eyes. I recognized him as one of the Royal Court. He didn’t flinch as Dialle’s power arrow singed his toes, but after a moment during which the entire room fell into stark, unnatural silence, he inclined his head and lifted his hands as indication that the ceremony should resume.

Apparently he wasn’t devil enough to follow up his verbal challenge with a physical one.

You just made me very hot.I informed Dialle.

He smiled and his black gaze sparked with promise. He inclined his head to Torre and his brother went back to droning on.

I stopped listening and kept a gimlet eye on the crowd. I’ve never been known for having a trusting nature and the outburst had reminded me I’d been standing with my vulnerable backside to a large group of big, bad nasties.

Distracted as I was, it took me a moment to realize the room had fallen into a chant. Spoken in thick, guttural Hades, I didn’t recognize the words at first, but when I did I jerked around to meet Dialle’s black, swirling gaze.

It is time, my queen.

Shit!

His chuckle was a deep rumble in my mind. My panties dampened at the sound.

Like a trapped but strangely fascinated animal, I watched him descend the platform and reach for my hand. Placing my palm on his, I grimaced.Are we sure there’s no way around this?

We are very sure, Astra. Relax, I promise you’ll enjoy it.

That’s what I’m afraid of.

Dialle walked me over to the raised platform and turned to the crowd. Lifting our joined hands between us, he opened his mouth and spoke in a voice that reverberated off the walls of the cavernous room and made my special place clench and run with moisture.

“I give you the Court of Dialle the Second.” He turned to look me in the eye. “I offer you my choice of Queens and promise you her pleasure. For according to the traditions of this Royal Court, my queen’s pleasure bears us up and ensures our invincibility against our foes.”

“What? Huh?” Wellthatat least was good news. He had very good motivation to make me happy.

Dialle’s lips lowered to mine. I placed my hand on his chest, fully intending to question this latest revelation. But as we touched, the very air around us sparked and flared, bathing us in vibrant oranges and scorching reds.

Instead of burning at their touch, the flames fired the nerve endings of my skin, so that the whisper-soft touch of Dialle’s fingers against my skin sent me into paroxysms of lust.

 

Chapter Two

Frunk Me to the Moon

 

The royal court doth gather and watch, to see the royals frunk,

The heat of lust doth fire their lust, and daze them as if drunk.

 

I dropped my head back as Dialle’s lips forged a hot trail down my throat. He stopped at the juncture of my neck and shoulder, hovering over the daemon hickey he’d given me at our first joining.

The pale red, tear-shaped devil’s mark thrummed in expectation of his touch, sending fissures of delight through my body, which centered in the weeping spot between my thighs.


Page 3

His lips moved and warm breath bathed the tender, expectant flesh below them as he murmured a series of words in the language of Hades.

The air around us changed, becoming even more infused with magic and electricity, until I felt as if firm spectral hands pulled my body up tightly against his, binding us together like one, sensually charged entity.

Still he murmured over my hickey. The heat level in our little sphere increased. Multihued sparks flew from every spot where our bodies touched and a musky, sexual scent rose from our skin.

My brain grew muzzy from sensual overload and I moaned, grinding my aching pussy into Dialle’s hard thighs. On some level I knew he was enhancing my reactions with magic. My body, never a reluctant participant in matters of lust and love with Dialle, had been fired to a fever pitch, until I was nearly mindless with longing for him.

“My Queen.” Dialle murmured over my tender flesh and his mouth lowered to capture the throbbing flesh of my devil’s mark between his lips.

A razor-sharp arrow of pleasure burst through me and I cried out as it zigzagged through my body, tearing a trail of sexual delight through my flesh and exploding against the throbbing bud of my clit. I fell over the edge and into pure, unadulterated bliss. Just like that I was vibrating with an orgasm like I’d never experienced before. The flames that danced around us speared into me, infusing my body with light and heat and making me brittle with sensation. So that the barest whisper of a touch against my skin sent me into new spasms of sensation and delight.

Dialle found my gasping lips and covered them, his heated tongue snaking out to taste my breath and claim my cries. My hands convulsed at my sides, fingers clenching helplessly against the onslaught. I forced my fingers to unclench and reached for him, sliding my hands over the smooth heat of his chest.

My back arched so that I could grind myself against the long, thick length of his stiff cock. My skin was so sensitized from the magics in the air I imagined I could feel the gentle pearl of moisture on the thick head of his shaft against my belly.

Suddenly, my feet left the ground and I found myself naked, on my back, with Dialle pressing against me.

A deep rumble filled the chamber and other sparks, other flames rent the magic-drenched air. I sensed rather than saw the hundreds of creatures in that room joining in our sexual dance, contributing to the magical sensuality with intricate steps of their own.

Through my magic-clouded vision I saw their forms wavering on the air around us, clothing shed and limbs entwined in ecstasy. I shivered under the powers building in that enormous chamber.

The heated air around us sizzled and popped. The rumble deepened, like thunder over a heat-drenched landscape in summer. No rain, only noise.

Wrapping my legs around Dialle’s narrow hips, I opened myself to him and arched my back, moaning in anticipation of him spearing my weeping pussy with the column of hard, heated flesh that pressed against my belly.

Dialle bit down on my hickey and I screamed. Other screams echoed mine in the room. The walls vibrated and dust dropped from the ceiling high above our heads. Our lust was like a minor earthquake rolling through the room.

This time the pleasure didn’t shoot through me in a narrow beam. It exploded like a laser bomb into my body, saturating every square inch, every hungry, grasping cell to the point of pain.

My muscles clenched around the intensity of the feelings, my toes curled hard against the soles of my feet and my fingers curved into my palms, digging perfects arcs into my skin with my nails.

I was beyond control, beyond sensation, beyond thought. I was pleasure itself. A single vibrating cell infused with almost too much sensation. Pain became pleasure and pleasure became ecstasy.

The couch where we lay moved, rolling beneath us like a ship on an agitated sea.

Dialle’s mouth lifted from my hickey and I cried out.

He slid down my body and captured a rigid, elongated nipple, sucking hard. I tangled my fingers in the dark wave of his hair and held him to my breast. Each pull of his talented tongue and lips on my nipple sent desire spiraling through my hypersensitive flesh. My pussy dampened my thighs in response.

Someone whimpered nearby. I think it might have been me.

Dialle captured the other nipple and, after sucking it, bit down gently on the tender flesh and tugged it upward.

I arched my back, pushing my pussy into his hard flesh with mindless passion. “Now, Dialle! Please!”

Instead he continued down my body, nipping and licking my quivering belly, bringing gooseflesh to the surface with his every touch. The fever grew under my skin. I was so hypersensitized that I could feel every hair on his silken skin as he slid down my body. His ministrations were whisper soft, skittering gently across my tender flesh as if he knew the devastation he was causing under my skin. As he neared my pussy I cried out, spreading my legs shamelessly and reaching to tangle my fingers in the warm silk of his hair.

His hot mouth closed over the pulsing mound and I gasped, plunging quickly into another earth-shattering orgasm. My head rolled back and my mouth opened and I embraced the knifelike release with a full-throated scream that sent visible waves through the magic-infused air around the platform.

Muted in the dense, moist air, other screams joined mine, building and throbbing to an invisible beat which matched the rhythm of my pounding heart.

Beneath Dialle’s talented lips and tongue, my clitoris throbbed its pleasure, giving up soft cream to his pulling lips like happy sighs.

I tugged on his hair and pulled gently. “Now, Dialle. Oh my god! Please…now!”

He rose up, sliding his body along mine as he covered me in heat. Kissing my throat tenderly, he licked his way to my mouth and bit my bottom lip. “Your wish is my command, my queen.”

He drove into me, burying himself deep, and my body clasped him gratefully.

I threw back my head and groaned my delight as he twisted his hips and rocked my world from the inside out. He was so hard that I could feel every inch of his long, thick shaft, every ridge, every vein scraping delightfully across my tender flesh as he moved inside me.

The heat around us built until we were giving off fireworks. Bright, multicolored shafts of flame danced on the supercharged air and fired the nerve endings in my skin until I felt as if I were cocooned in the thick, caressing atmosphere.

The thunder built beyond our heated wall of flame.

As Dialle’s body enthralled mine, his lips feathered over my temple, down my cheek and over to my lips, hungrily capturing them in a breath-stealing kiss.

Desire coiled in my belly, throbbing there as it grew into something I could no longer hold back. When it burst, sending me screaming into unfathomable spasms of delight, the heated air around us sucked inward, coating me in its light, and my screams took on the flavor of pain. My release triggered Dialle’s.

His muscles tightened and he drove into me hard, slamming deep as his cock jerked and spewed inside my grasping pussy. I drank him up, savoring his every touch, every drop he sent deep inside my womb.

Beyond our heated sphere the thunder burst and rolled through the room and then settled into a low rumble, which eventually died completely away.

Dialle collapsed over me, catching his weight on his elbows and rolling his hips gently as my body throbbed in gentle aftershocks around his cock. His kiss was tender and tasted of love. “Thank you, my queen.”

I returned his gentle kiss and reached up to touch his cheek, still lost in our own little sphere. Tingling and sated, I reveled in the warm bristles of his golden cheek against my palm and ran a fingertip across his full, soft lips. Dialle bit down gently on the tip of my wandering finger. I smiled.

The air around us cooled and turned soft again. As it did, the mask that we’d covered ourselves in seemed to drop away and I realized, with an embarrassed jolt, that the room was still filled with Royals and their subjects.

They stood in complete silence, their faces flushed and glistening with moisture. Thankfully they were all dressed.

My cheeks flooded with heat and I pinched my eyes tightly closed. “Get rid of them, Dialle.”

He barked out an order and the air changed, as a soft blanket settled over us. I breathed a little easier with the covering but refused to open my eyes until the rumblings of hundreds of feet leaving the room settled into silence.

Then I felt the whisper soft touch of Dialle’s lips. “They’re gone, Astra.” He moved his hips, sending spirals of pleasure streaming through me as his quickly hardening shaft scraped across the sensitized flesh of my vagina.

Then he arched his back and drove deep.

I gasped and lifted my legs to wrap them around his firm, round buttocks. “Mm. That’s nice.”

“No watchers, no ceremony. We’re alone. This one’s just for you, my queen.”

Small flames licked the air above us. My body warmed and flushed in response to his delicious touch. Dialle’s body picked up the tempo, and my body matched it. The coil of desire he’d managed to disperse only moments earlier started building again.

I sighed as wave after wave of pleasure flowed over me and murmured, “It’s a dirty job…but somebody’s gotta do it.”

* * * * *

 

“You’re all deserting me?”

Flick lifted a shaggy brown eyebrow and quirked his lips in a wry smile. “Are you going to miss me?”

I snorted in a less than ladylike way. “Of course not! But I’m on the cusp here. I might need some spiritual guidance or something.”

It was his turn to snort. “You’re a funny girl, Astra.”

I turned away in disgust and started pacing again. Flick continued to throw white clothing into a white suitcase in his monochromatically white cloud.

Finally, sighing, I gave a thought to sitting down and a chair appeared under my butt. I dropped into it, feeling unaccountably squirmy and uncertain. Something brewed in the center of my chest and made my stomach churn with worry. Something I couldn’t quite put my finger on. I felt something coming my way and I was pretty sure I wasn’t gonna like it.

Whatever it was.

The premonition made it hard to sit still. Standing up, I thought the chair away and resumed pacing.

Flick closed his suitcase with a white click and turned to me. “You’re a mess, Astra.”

I glared at him. “You think? That’s why I need my angel contingent around. This is a terrible time for all of you to desert me.”

Flick shrugged his shoulders. “I’m sorry, Astra. This conference occurs only once every thousand years and it’s mandatory.” He glanced around. “You’re welcome to stay here on my cloud if you want. Until the Settling is over…” He glanced away. A five-hundred-year-old virgin, Flick was hopelessly uncomfortable with all things sexual. And evenhecouldn’t miss the recent spike in my libido brought on by my Settling. I even walked differently these days, with a kind of feline sway and glide, rather than my usual stomp and stalk.

Sighing, I resisted the devilish urge to give over to the skank side of my nature and tweak Flick a little with some outrageous flirting. I mean, let’s face it, as a five-hundred-year-old virgin he had enough problems of his own to deal with.

“Okay. Enjoy your damn conference. Bring me back a t-shirt.”

Flick grinned at me. “Size small…in white?”

“Bleurgh!” I shifted off the cloud and back to my office, where I proceeded to pace some more. I was so immersed in my thoughts that a soft knock on the doorframe of my office door made me jerk around in surprise.

My business partner Emo’s dark, handsome face peered in at me. He stayed in the hallway, his dark eyes filled with wariness, which I knew hid a deep-seated yearning that was making both of us increasingly uncomfortable.

He was a Tweener just like I was, but as a young boy, Emo had been turned by an evil Devil King into a lower form of devil because he wouldn’t kill one of his parents. I had known him strictly in that form, at least as far back as I could remember, since King Nerul had also messed with people’s memories of Emo so that we wouldn’t remember him as the adorable dark-haired little waif he must have been.

As my partner and a short, squat, red guy with blazing red eyes and horns, there hadn’t been any sexual tension between us. At least on my part. But since Nerul had died and Emo had been released from his curse, showing his true, Royal Devil form, I’d been fighting some serious yummy reactions to him.

Which had only exacerbated his longtime um…fondness…for me.

My Settling had made everything ten times worse.

Sometimes, when we stood too close, with his heat and unique, incredible musk enveloping me, I was hard-pressed to remember why I couldn’t just strip him, throw him to the ground and hop on his ditty.

I gave him a wary smile. “Hey, partner.”

Emo’s smile was strained. Royals could smell lust. He was probably getting a snoutful at that moment. “Astra.”

I frowned to hide my hurt feelings at his icy greeting. “What’s up?”

“There’s a troll uprising downtown. It appears they’ve taken an interest in the underwear store at the mall. According to the very frantic manager, who was locked in her office with a few of the clerks who managed to escape when the trolls broke in, they’ve been putting the underwear on their heads and wearing the frilly teddy-bear nighties as leg warmers.”

I cocked an eyebrow at him. “Our jobs are so interesting.”

He nodded, smiling at last. “The manager was sobbing into my ear and was hard to understand, but I think she said the trolls were getting violent because she didn’t have underwear big enough to fit their queen’s head.”

I laughed. “Do you need me?”

A spark flared in Emo’s beautiful black eyes, sending instant shock waves through my overcharged body. But it passed quickly and he shook his head. “I can handle it, boss.”

“Okay. Let me know if you change your mind. I can be there in a heartbeat.”

I watched him leave with a heavy heart. We used to have fun taking on these weird little tasks together. But since my Settling started, he’d been staying as far away from me as he could. I missed our old comfortable, friendly relationship.


Page 4

However, I didn’t ruminate on Emo for very long. The air in my office sparked and thickened and Dialle was suddenly standing there, mere inches from my face. I gasped as his hands closed around my waist and he pulled me up hard against his body. “Hello, Astra.”

His lips found mine and all the air in my lungs combusted as I dragged his scent and his heat into my body, savoring it and rolling it around on my tongue like a fine wine. My body fired with hunger, clenching and weeping as Dialle’s hot tongue warred delightfully with mine.

I slid my hands from his hips, down over his firm, round buttocks and yanked him closer, rubbing my belly against his cock.

Dialle gasped and bit my bottom lip gently. Frissons of stark desire tore through my body.

I whimpered, pulling at his clothes.

With a sigh, Dialle pulled away. “I can’t stay, Astra. I have a problem I need to deal with.”

Licking my lips, I frowned. “So go take care of it. Why’d you come here?”

He ran a smooth fingertip over my bottom lip. I closed my eyes and fought the urge to suck the heated digit into my mouth. “I wanted to say goodbye. I’m going to be gone for a while.”

My eyes popped open. “What? Where are you going?”

He lowered the finger and frowned. “As you might not know, I have subjects on other planes. They’re a wild bunch, undisciplined and used to doing as they please. They’re outcasts of a sort, and up until now they’ve been ignored and left to their own devices. But last night one of them tried to kill me.”

“Shit! Do you want me to kick his ass?”

Dialle’s smile made my pussy clench. He reached toward me, caressing the teardrop-shaped daemon hickey on my neck. Sparks met the touch of his finger against my skin. A tsunami of sensual feeling roared over me, making me shudder with lust.

“I like this new protective instinct toward me, my love.”

I forced myself to turn away, moving to stand in front of the single large window behind my desk. “Don’t get too excited, bud. It’s in my nature to protect. I’d protect you if you were a stranger on the street.”

The air behind me heated and strong hands found my shoulders, sliding to my throat and down, to cup my breasts. Talented fingers tweaked my nipples, bringing them to hard points beneath my soft sweater.

His lips closed over the tender flesh of my neck and I dropped my head to the side, giving him better access. He kissed his way down to my shoulder and then across my nape to the other side. When his mouth closed over the daemon hickey, enveloping it in heat, I was gone.

Dialle sucked on the tender flesh, drawing jolts of pleasure from my sensual core with each strong pull. I cried out, leaning heavily against the warm, smooth skin of his chest. I realized he’d shed his clothes with a thought. A cool draft on my belly told me he’d shed mine too.

His talented fingers left my nipples and slid down my belly, into the moist curls at the juncture of my quivering thighs. The hand closed over my pussy and two strong fingers slid inside. I shuddered, moaning.

Bending me toward the wall, he leaned over me and whispered in my ear. “I’ll miss you, lovely Tweener.” I felt the thick, hard head of his cock against my throbbing entrance and, when he drove deep, I moaned, teetering on the bright edge of my release.

Dialle groaned as my body clasped him and began a leisurely, sensual assault. His hard flesh slid slowly in and out of my body, stopping each time just before the fat head of his cock left my clutching warmth.

As my orgasm built low in my belly, I widened my stance and bent lower, resting my forehead against the cool glass of the window and grasping the windowsill with white fingers. I lifted my ass higher to give him better access. His lips found the sensitive skin of my back, feathering a warm trail up my spine as his hard length branded me from the inside.

His strokes were long and slow, building release like a smoldering fire, rather than a raging inferno. But the result was no less combustible for the tenderness of his assault. My body burned for him. The air around us flamed and roiled from our mating. My pussy was painful with yearning. I felt his every kiss, his every touch, like a lick of fire against my skin.

He reached around my body and laid a strong finger against my clitoris. Without moving the finger, he sent a jolt of power into the tender bud of flesh and my world exploded. Sensation roared through me. My muscles stiffened against the onslaught and stars burst before my eyes. Pleasure rolled over me and my knees buckled. If it weren’t for Dialle’s iron grip around my waist I would have hit the floor.

Somewhere at the edge of my awareness I realized Dialle’s flesh jerked within me. His arms were iron bands around my body as he succumbed to his own violent release. As he spent himself in hot jets that burned deep in my sensual core, his lips formed my name like a tender caress.

I’ll return to you as soon as I can, Astra.

And then he was just…gone.

 

I straightened away from the wall as the televisual sounded a beep to warn me of an incoming transmission. I turned around just as my sister’s face swam online. She didn’t say a word, just lifted an eyebrow at me. “A bit underdressed for the office aren’t you, Astra?”

I looked down and shrieked. Dialle had forgotten to think my clothes back onto me before he left. “End visual!”

A wry smile touched my sister’s lips as her face disappeared from the screen. Taking a deep breath, I looked around for my clothes. Nothing. He’d blipped them into the great unknown.Damn!I hated when he did that!

All I had was my long leather trench coat and an old pair of boots. I headed toward them. “What’s up, Darma?”

“I wondered if you’d heard from Dialle. I guess that question has been answered.”

I frowned toward the back of the televisual, just barely resisting the urge to stick my tongue out at it. “Why do you ask?”

“He took Torre with him off plane. To some insurrection or something. I-I’m worried, Astra.”

My sister had never been in love before. She’s always been the efficient, practical, dependable sort…with the sour temperament that goes along with all that selflessness like crackers with chili. But recently she’d discovered love with Dialle’s brother Torre. It had been a true wonder to watch happen. And, mostly, I was happy that she’d managed to find some poor shlug to drag around by the ear. But she didn’t really know the rules for dating, so I’ve sort of become her dating confident.

A very uncomfortable position to be in. Believe me. You’ve heard the term, “kill the messenger,” right? You should have been there the night I told her she couldn’t be at Dialle’s crowning ceremony.

Pulling the cool leather over my shoulders, I shivered from the memory.

But, true warrior that I am, I took a deep breath and gave her the bad news. “They’ll likely be gone for a while.”

Rigid, angry silence emerged from the televisual. I was really glad I couldn’t see her face at that moment. It would probably turn me to stone.

“Darma?”

“I’m going to find him.”

I dropped my butt into a chair and grabbed the first boot, shaking my head. “You can’t. Don’t even think about it, Darma.”

“Why not? Who’s going to stop me?” She was quickly approaching a level of shrieking that could be used as a weapon all by itself. I grimaced and tugged on the last boot.

“Nobody’sgoing to stop you, Darma. I just meant that Torre wouldn’t want you there…”

A gasp sounded from the blackened communication screen. I hurried on before she exploded the televisual. “Because you’d be in danger. He would want you to stay here and be safe.”

“I don’t care what he wants. I’m terrified for him. I want to go and protect him!”

Shaking my head, I dropped my butt into my office chair. “He’s not a helpless little babe, Darma.” Though with Darma around he was darn close to it. Though it had been several months since she’d discovered her own powers, she still scowled on the use of magic, and poor Torre, in a confused effort to please his lady love, refused to use his powers when she was around, making him pretty much a walking target around the big, bad nasties. “And he’s got Dialle and an entire army behind him.” I finished.

I was pretty much winging the army part. I didn’t really know how many of his soldiers Dialle had taken with him. I mean…it’s not like we’d had an in-depth conversation before he’d left. My body tingled anew and my cheeks pinked in memory of his last few minutes in my office. But he wasn’t stupid, so I had to assume he’d taken backup. Going into one of the dark planes without some serious muscle behind you would be moronic.

Dialle was a seriously hot Royal Devil. He was sex and yumminess personified. But he was anything but a pretty package with an empty head. He was shrewd and cynical, like a good ruler should be, and he would approach this, his first real test as king, with the utmost care and consideration.

I reached over and flipped the visual back on. My sister’s overly pale face shimmered onto the screen. Her pretty blue eyes looked haunted and I noticed they had small purplish arcs under them. She was really worried. “Look, Darma, Dialle’s a warrior and he’s very smart. He wouldn’t go into this situation without a significant army behind him and he’ll protect his brother with his life. You don’t need to worry about him. Really.” I tried a smile and it seemed to help. She sighed and nodded.

“Okay.”

I took a deep breath, feeling as if I’d done something good.

It didn’t last long.

“But if anything happens to him I’m holding you personally responsible, Astra. And I’m going to come over there and kick your naked ass!”

Her storm cloud of a face disappeared from the screen and I flopped back in my chair, all good feelings gone. “Amazing.” Not for the first time I wondered what poor, sweet Torre saw in the dragon queen.

The outside office door opened and I realized Emo was back. I stood up, intending to go get a report from him, and then remembered I was dressed like a midnight snack. I wondered if I should risk space shifting to my vehicle but quickly decided against it. I wasn’t all that good at space shifting. Once I’d ended up half inside a supra-demon. Shuddering at the memory, I clutched my leather coat close and headed for the door, chin held high.

I kicked demon ass for a living. I made bad guys quake in their cloven hooves. I was badass personified. I am Tweener, hear me roar! Yeah. I could do this. I could face a sweet, sexy partner and get a simple report from him. So what if I was dressed like a street flasher?

Still, my hands shook slightly as I pulled my office door open.

 

Chapter Three

UnSettled

 

A friend for life is truly rare, his loyalty a treat.

A friend in love can strip you bare, and knock you off your feet.

 

I could hear him moving around the office, shuffling papers and sliding drawers open and closed. He would be filing his report from the latest job and organizing his desk. For the last couple of months, since the strain had begun to really show between us, Emo had become scrupulously tidy and almost obsessively organized. I had assumed at first that he was just trying to keep tension to a minimum between us by working extra hard to be a good partner, but it had reached the point lately where I had to wonder if he weren’t compensating for something.

I emerged from the hallway and saw him. He was standing in front of the window, staring down at the street, a mini televisual, his report, I was sure, in one hand. “Hey, partner.”

Emo jumped slightly and turned. His handsome golden face was covered in a fine sheen of sweat and his black eyes swirled with agitation. When he looked at me his lips tightened and then tipped upward in a tortured smile. “Hey, boss.”

“How’d it go?”

He shrugged. I noticed then that he was holding himself very stiffly and worried that he’d been injured. Hurrying forward I reached out and touched the soft knit of his black torso-snugging sweater.

I gasped as I touched him and he jumped away, scowling. My fingers tingled and felt as if I’d burned them. An impossible amount of heat radiated off his body.

I could feel it from nearly a foot away. “Are you all right?”

Emo laughed. It was a bitter sound. A spot of color caught my eye and I looked down, a pretty, pastel swatch of fabric stuck out of his pocket. I reached for it, pulling it from his jeans. It was a small, lacy scrap of silk. Ladies’ panties.

Lifting an eyebrow in question, I grinned. “Souvenir?”

Emo’s body softened slightly as some of the tension slid away. He moved around me, taking great care not to touch me as he passed. “Collateral from the assignment. The Troll Queen was trying to fit them on her head and when I told her to give them back she threw them at me. I’m afraid they stuck to my sweater and I didn’t notice until I was back in the Black Knight and heading back here.” He paced slowly back and forth in front his desk, casting me a quick glance and a grin. For just a split second he looked like the old Emo. My friend.

“They look like they’re about your size, Astra…” He cut himself off and flushed visibly, gulping. “You can have them if you want.” He headed toward the office door.

“Wait!” I walked over and stood in front of him, lifting a hand to touch his forehead. He was burning up. “Emo, you’re sick. You need to get to an unplanned injury unit right away.”

He grabbed my wrist and pulled it away. He held on, not releasing me as I watched his eyes darken further and swirls of red and bright yellow enter them. His square, slightly bristled jaw clenched. “Please don’t touch me.” He ground the words out and trembled.

“Emo, what’s wrong?”

Almost as if he were struggling against some invisible power, he lowered his head and closed his eyes, inhaling deeply and slowly scenting me.

My body reacted to his nearness and the possessive quality of his behavior and warm cream slid from my pussy. I panicked and tried to yank my wrist from his grip. “No. Emo, the Settling!” My temperature spiked to match his and my senses expanded.


Page 5

“Exactly.” He murmured. His yummy scent, familiar yet different, with a slight tang that I recognized with a guilty start as lust, rose around me, exploding my senses and closing off all rational thought.

He lifted my arm above our heads and stepped close, dropping his head to scent my neck. I gasped as our bodies met, heat merged with heat, and I felt the hard ridge of his cock against my belly.

“Emo!”

His lips found my throat. I moaned.

My daemon hickey sparked and spat, sending warnings into the musk saturated air around us.

Emo lifted a finger and covered my hickey, silencing it. His tongue swept the sensitized skin of my throat. My nipples hardened into desperate peaks beneath my leather coat.

His hands slid under my coat…hot skin and cool air slipped across my body…

His eyes shot toward my face. “You’re naked!”

I opened my mouth to explain but no words formed in my mind.

Groaning, Emo yanked me up against his body, grinding himself into me. His lips ravaged mine. His hot, sweet tongue plundered my mouth, tangling hungrily with mine until I could barely breathe, hardly think. Everything was sensation. Heat. Musk. The brush of hungry skin against starving flesh.

Somewhere in the center of my lust-drenched brain reason called to me. I squelched it ruthlessly, allowing my Settling to pull me, limp and compliant, into disgrace and debauchery. My body wrapped around his, my leg twined around the backs of his hard, muscular thighs and my mouth consumed his.

I was lost.

Gone.

Plowed under by lust.

There was no way I was going to pull back from it. Emo was no help at all. He wasn’t even trying to fight the pull of my Settling.

Wait a minute.

This wasmySettling, not his.Hecouldn’t be under its influence.

I gasped and jerked away from him, swiping a shaking hand over my mouth as I backpedaled, putting much-needed space between us.

Emo growled and tried to grab me back. His eyes were no longer even slightly human. They swirled with frantic color and throbbed in a rhythm that matched the surge of blood between my thighs. He panted desperately, beyond reason, and his jeans bulged with clear evidence of his need.

“You and I are about the same age!”

Emo turned away, reason finally sliding in to dull the edge of his raging hunger. “Yes.” His voice sounded strangled, husky from an internal struggle I recognized all too well.

“Oh my god! You’re underyourSettling!”

Emo nodded.

Suddenly everything made sense. Except for one thing. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

He glanced at me, his pupils looking slightly less frantic but still swirling with color. “I’ve tried to. But you’ve been so wrapped up in your Settling…and Dialle.”

I frowned. He was right. I’d been totally self-involved for the last couple of months. A slave to my body’s constant demands. I couldn’t even imagine what he’d been going through. “I’m so sorry, partner.”

He frowned. “Don’t be sorry for me, Astra. I’ve been dealing very well until today.” He looked away, his perfect features clearly showing his shame. But then he frowned. “What the hell are you doing here with no clothes on, Astra? Are you trying to kill me?”

I pulled my long, leather coat around my body and grimaced. “Sorry. It was unintentional.”

“What? You just forgot to get dressed before you came to the office today?” He glared at me.

My eyes slid guiltily around the room. I knew all too well how Emo felt about Dialle. I really didn’t want to tell him what Dialle and I had just done in my office. Turned out I didn’t need to. My guilty face told Emo everything he needed to know.

“Don’t bother lying to me, Astra.” His dark eyes swirled with disgust. “I have to go.”

My hand shot out to stop him but he disappeared. I was left clutching empty air. And feeling as if something irreparable had just been done to my friendship with Emo.

* * * * *

 

I didn’t see Emo for several days. I knew he’d been in and out of the office because he left me safe little notes on my desk along with his reports. Business went on as usual at the Angel Network but my partner and I just didn’t interact.

Emo’s daily notes told me which demons I needed to chase and which ones he was going after so we didn’t accidently bump into each other.

It was very efficient.

And very damn depressing.

After checking my assignment list for the day, I grabbed my coat and headed for the vehicle docking area where I’d left the Red Knight, my gorgeous and talented air vehicle.

The flash elevator carried me to the parking level of my office building in the speed it took to pull in a good-sized breath. The doors slid silently open and I emerged, heading for the single bright-red vehicle surrounded by politically correct grayness. In 2090 paint was almost illegal, as environmental laws continued to get stricter and more repressive. But you could still find painted items, and my beloved leather boots and clothing, in the underground market.

Then you just had to avoid the notice of the enviro-nazis. No easy task when you’re flying around in something that’s bright red.

I took two steps toward the Knight and felt the hair on the back of my neck lift. I tucked just before a thick arm with a set of deadly curved claws swept past where my head had been. I dropped into a crouch and kicked out with one foot, hitting my assailant in a thick, scaly knee.

The bone cracked and the devil screamed in pain. As he buckled toward the ground I jumped up and hit him in the chin with my knee, sending him flying backward to skim across the grungy floor.

A whisper of wind was my only warning that a second attacker had arrived. I leapt sideways, springing off my hands and shooting power from my palms as I sprang back into the air off my feet.

My squat, red attacker flew backward on a stream of deadly power and slammed against the far wall, the sword he’d tried to skewer me with clanging to the floor.

He hung there, pinned by my power for a moment before I pulled it back.

I landed in a defensive crouch and looked around the dimly lit space. Visually I came up negative for more devil soldiers but I didn’t trust my visual senses completely where devils were concerned. Sending out my sensing power, I looked for more black auras.

Other than the two I’d already defeated, the docking area was empty. The devilish attacker I’d skewered on a power arrow was dead, his sightless eyes staring straight ahead and his thick chest smoking around a fist-sized hole.

I headed for the other one, who was flopping around in pain with a broken jaw and knee. Kneeling on his chest I forced the creature to look at me. “Who sent you?”

His black eyes filled with hate.

I reached over and clasped his chin, which hung at an odd angle on his ugly face.

His eyes widened as I slowly twisted the broken bone. His shrieks filled the space. “Why are you here? Did someone send you to kill me?”

He said something that sounded like yes, though he couldn’t move his jaw. I stopped twisting the bone and nodded. “Very good. Now tell me who sent you.”

The eyes glared stubbornly at me.

I reached for his jawbone again.

He made a noise and tried to scoot away.

My hand stopped. “All you need to do is tell me who sent you and I’ll let you go.”

The eyes continued to glare at me. Shrugging, I reached down and placed my hand on his broken knee, leaning over and placing all my weight on it.

The docking area filled the sound of his screams. The flash elevator opened and my neighbor, a shapeshifter named Ralph Peters, stepped out. Ralph and his partner Bob were werewolves, whose company “Werever…Whatever” was into shapeshifter justice. They worked as hired muscle.

Ralph looked at my two attackers and grinned. “You need any help?”

I lifted an eyebrow at him.

He chuckled. “Right. Sorry, I lost my mind. See ya around later? Bob and I are gonna hit The Devil’s Den later. We’d love it if you could join us.”

The Den was a popular nightspot for the magic-using public. “Around eight?”

Ralph nodded, climbed into his silver air vehicle and left, sending dust my way in a backwash of air from under his powerful machine.

I looked down at the devil under my palm. “Ready to talk?”

He sighed, nodding.

“Give me a name.” I lifted my hand and he mumbled something I couldn’t understand. Leaning closer I shook my head. “Try again, you’re hard to understand for some reason.” I couldn’t resist. It was the devil in me.

He focused really hard and came out with, “Dialle.” It sounded only slightly muffled that time as he realized he could say the word without moving his jaw.

I frowned. Surely I hadn’t heard him right. “Did you say, Dialle?”

He blinked, looking relieved. “Yes.”

I glared at him. “You’re lying.”

“No! It’s the truth. King Dialle sent me to kill you!” He grimaced as he forgot and moved his mouth, no doubt sending shards of pain stabbing through his jaw.

I stared at him for a long moment and then stood up. Slowly, I lifted my hand, palm out, and he blinked, throwing up his hands. “No! Argghhh!” He tried to scoot away. “You promised. Ouch!”

“I lied.” A numbing cold slid through me, sweeping away any remorse I might have felt as I pulled my power forward and sent it into his thick chest. The black eyes widened in inexpressible pain for just a beat in time and then dulled and darkened as he died beneath my power. “To Hades with you fool, for God hath tired of you.”

Leaving the bodies there, I turned away and headed toward the Red Knight. Somewhere deep in my core I felt concern for the coldness that was even now keeping me from feeling remorse at killing the devil soldier. Somewhere a warning was sounding a strident call. I knew I was sliding toward my dark side. It was my greatest fear. But as my heart broke at the thought that my Dialle would send assassins after me, I couldn’t quite bring myself to care.

Right at that moment I wanted to kill them all. And it really didn’t matter to me how black my soul became.

* * * * *

 

“Have you heard from Dialle?”

I glanced at my sister’s hopeful face and knew I couldn’t tell her my fears. I simply shook my head. “You heard from Torre?”

She visibly deflated. “No. I thought for sure he’d have contacted me by now.”

“You know they’re in a parallel dimension right? It’s not easy to communicate between where they are and where we are.”

It was kind of a lie. I think. But I was willing to do anything at that point to get the fearful look off Darma’s face. Torre was the first man she’d fallen in love with and she didn’t really know the rules. All she knew was that she had no control over what was happening to her at that moment.

And my sister is all about control.

Over the last few days I’d watched her condense down into a traumatized shell of her former self. And though there were times when we’d been growing up that I’d have given anything to see her lose some of her starch, I was finding that it wasn’t as pleasant an experience for me as I’d thought it would be.

“I know you’re right. But I can’t shake the feeling that something’s wrong. He should have found a way to communicate with me by now.”

I let that thought drift away on a wave of silence. We were walking down the street near Darma’s home, returning from a shopping trip. Not in any way your traditional female, it usually took a cataclysmic event to force me into shopping. But with everybody who usually anchored me off planet and out of my plane of existence—or possibly trying to kill me—I’d been wobbly enough that an invitation for lunch and shopping had seemed, momentarily, like a good idea.

It had only taken a few minutes in my snotty sister’s company to remind me why it was about as far from a good idea as you can get.

“I miss Father and Myra.”

I lifted an eyebrow. “Really?” I mean, I missed our father, Seraphim James Phelps too, but his sister the cranky Archangel with a pretty sizeable stick up her narrow ass was hard to miss.

Darma scowled at me. “Don’tyou?”

I shrugged. Never once had Darma asked me about my Settling. It was as if she was afraid to know which way I was gonna go with it. But having the lighter side of the family off for several weeks at a Heavenly conference was sonotdoing me any good. All I had for influence on the light side was Darma.

Bleurgh!

“I miss Father. It’s hard to miss Aunt Myra.”

Darma didn’t say anything. I couldn’t help feeling that her silence meant she sort of agreed with me.

“Hey, baby! Wanna suck my dick?”

My head jerked around and I spotted two human males leaning against the side of one of the narrow brownstones that were prevalent in Darma’s part of town. It was generally a very nice area, filled with newly updated homes with professional, young families. But occasionally you’d get a bad element moving into one of the homes that hadn’t been updated yet.

These guys looked like they were part of that bad element.

I stopped and turned toward them, my body going rigid with anger. “I’m sure you weren’t talking to me, slimeball.”

The taller one pushed off from the wall and strode toward us, obviously too blinded by testosterone and his own good opinion of himself to realize he was playing with fire. The other guy followed, looking a little more like he had a brain. A worry line ran deeply between his bushy eyebrows.

Darma grabbed my arm. “Just ignore them, Astra. Let’s go.”

I shook her off. “Get behind me, Darma.”

“Oh Hell no, Astra. You’renotgoing to vaporize my neighbors.”

I snorted. “I won’t vaporize him if he says he’s sorry.”

The guy strode up to us, stopping a mere four feet away. His dark eyes flashed with appreciation as he slid his gaze over Darma. Apparently he went for the beautiful but cranky type. “How about the four of us go someplace and get naked?”

I grinned, but there was nothing happy about the expression. “Does that actually ever work for you? I mean, how many women have fallen into your arms when you yelled out for them to get naked and suck your dick?”


Page 6

He shrugged, his bristle covered jaw tightening slightly. “I do okay, bitch. I wasn’t talkin’ to you anyway. You’re too hostile for me.”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. “I’mhostile?” I cast a meaningful look at my sister, who proceeded to point her glare at me instead of the asshole standing in front of us.

He shrugged again. “She has nice tits.”

Thatgot Darma’s attention. Before I knew what she was doing, she stepped forward and jabbed a long, perfectly painted fingernail in the guy’s chest. “Keep your eyes to yourself, jerk. You have no business ogling my tits or any other part of me.”

The guy grabbed Darma’s wrist and yanked her up against his body, burying his face in her neck and sniffing audibly, like a huge hound dog. She tried to knee him in the crotch but he was wise to that trick—obviously we weren’t the first women to receive his dubious attentions—and wrapped an arm around her hips to hold her close, clamping her thigh between his legs.

Darma made a sound of outrage and struggled as the guy proceeded to lick her neck.

Figuring this was as good a time as any to teach Darma why her God-given powers were a valuable asset rather than a liability, I crossed my arms over my chest and scowled at her, initiating a foray into her mental drawers.Use your power, Darma.

I won’t.

Use it or you’re gonna get way friendlier with this guy than you want to.

Can’t you just kick his ass the old-fashioned way?

I could have if you hadn’t become attached to him. Now I can’t fling him across the street without sending you flying too. Just give him a little jolt in the family vault. If you cook his giblets he won’t be able to pester another woman, ever.

Tempting. But I’m not using my powers, Astra.

Suit yourself then. I’ll just wait here while he rapes you.

Bitch.

Pansy ass.

Hag.

I was saved from having to come up with something worse than hag when the second guy decided to make his move. He’d been eyeing me all along but hadn’t been able to crank up the courage to approach me. My initial instincts about the guy being smarter than his friend were apparently accurate. Now, however, when I didn’t do anything to his friend, he decided maybe I was harmless after all.

Oops. His bad.

He took a step toward me and reached for my arm. I let him take it and flashed him a smile that would have frightened anybody who knew me better. Then I reached for his chest and laid a hand over it. “I’ll give you one beat of your wildly racing heart to let go of my arm and call off your friend.”

He lowered those bushy brows at me. “What are you gonna do to me if I don’t?”

I fired just enough power into his scrawny chest to send him flying back to the stoop from whence he’d come. He crashed against the concrete steps with a groan and slid down into a messy pile at the bottom. “I’m gonna do that,” I responded.

Darma’s “friend” suddenly cried out and pulled away from her, his lip bleeding where she’d obviously bitten him. “Bitch!” He lifted a hand and slapped her hard, sending her reeling backward. A thick, red haze filled my gaze. Before I knew what I was doing I was on him, slamming him to the ground. I clutched his throat with one hand and placed the other one on his forehead.

He gagged and gasped under my hand at his throat.

I pulled the power forward, letting it shimmer on my fingertips. My eyes narrowed in joy as I savored the surge of power warming and rolling its way through my body. My skin began to pulse as I held the energy inside and I licked my lips, enjoying the look of pure fear throbbing in my victim’s eyes.

The scent of urine filled the air.

“To Hades with you fool, for God hath tired of you.”

A cold, soft hand clamped around my wrist and warmth touched my back. Darma’s angry voice filled my ear, her breath tickling across my face. I was dimly aware of her presence, beyond the throbbing of power through my body. “Stop, Astra. Pull it back. He’s not worth the stain on your soul.”

I chewed my bottom lip, doubt sliding in to disrupt my power high. The power started to thin and scatter. I shook my head and gathered it back up. “He needs to die.”

“No, Astra. He needs to live to remember how it feels to be helpless, a victim. Just like he’s made probably countless others feel. He’s a puny bully, Astra. That’s all.”

The power pulsed hard at my fingertips. I was a single breath away from releasing it. The level of power I’d accumulated in my fingers would vaporize the human quivering beneath my thighs.

It was overkill.

On some level my mind realized that.

On some level, buried deep beneath the raging power, I knew I didn’t want to kill the human. I knew Darma was right.

Damn! I hated when Darma was right.

I shook my head. The guy beneath me cried out as a thin stream of power leeched from my fingertips, burning his skin and sending the smoky scent of cooked meat into the air.

“Stop it, Astra!” She pulled on me, trying to drag me away from the creep on the ground. But power-drenched as I was, she had no hope of pulling me away. She stood with an angry rush of breath and I could hear her stomping a foot angrily.

A smile slid onto my face. My power dimmed.

“I’ll tell Myra what you’ve done, Astra. What do you think she’ll do?”

The power scattered and started to slide away. I didn’t try to recapture it. Standing up, I turned to face her.

Her pretty face was nearly purple with rage. Her hands were on her hips and she glared at me from under lowered blond brows.

“You’re gonna tell on me!” My voice held a certain shriekish quality that was decidedly unattractive.

She nodded.

“We’re not five years old, Darma.”

“No we certainly are not, Astra. Which is why I would expect you to show more restraint. He’s just a pathetic bully. You were prepared to vaporize him. Get some perspective, Astra.”

“You’re welcome, dammit!”

As if I’d reminded her of what he’d done, she reached up and touched her pale cheek, which had started to darken to an ugly purple. She shrugged and, then, glancing behind me, her pretty blue eyes widened.

“Bitch!”

I spun and grabbed the pipe the creep swung toward my head and wrenched it easily from his hand. Then, casting my sister a defiant look, I swung it hard at his midsection, enjoying the crunching sound as it connected with his ribs.

He went down hard, gasping for breath. His face was a curious green color.

I dropped the pipe and turned away, striding angrily down the street, toward Darma’s house.

“See, Astra, that’s what I mean, perspective. You didn’t hit him in the head with the pipe, you hit him in the stomach. Extreme pain versus death.” She patted me on the shoulder and grinned. “I think I’m finally wearing off on you.”

I stared straight ahead, my face vibrating with barely contained fury. As my sister preened and skipped along in smug satisfaction, I fantasized about smacking her around.

“I should have kept the damn pipe,” I murmured crankily.

 

Chapter Four

Welcome to Olympus Air

 

An adopted charge doth call our miss, and engage her in a quest,

The dragon queen has fled the coup, abandoning her nest.

 

I need you, mother Tweener!

I jerked awake, glad to have been pulled from another lust-filled dream starring all the wrong people.

Glynus?

Hello, mother Tweener.

What’s wrong?

Our world is under attack. Mother and Father have gone into battle. I’m scared. I haven’t heard from them in several slides of the sun across the sky.

I climbed out of bed and headed for the personal hygiene room to shower.Are you coming to get me?

I’m nearly there.

See you in a few minutes then.

Thank you, mother Tweener.

I climbed into the shower tube. “One hundred degrees, full power, half soap.” The water shot on and I slid under the pulsating jets, sighing happily. Hot, soapy water sluiced over my head and body, warming me and igniting my Settling. I wondered where Dialle was at that moment and considered trying to find him later, after I’d dealt with the Black Dragons’ problem.

I suddenly realized I’d been promoted—somewhere along the way—to being the savior for yet another world. Apparently I wasn’t busy enough saving humankind over and over again, now I had to deal with saving the dragons too.

By the time I’d pulled on a soft, formfitting black sweater and slacks and tugged on some boots, Glynus was back in my mind.

Are you ready to go?

Almost.

I pulled a few clothes into a small bag, which I flung over my shoulder, and did a quick pass through my living space, making sure I hadn’t forgotten anything. It was possible I’d be gone awhile.

Are you on the roof?

Yes.

I headed up to the roof and emerged into a light drizzle under an overcast sky.

Glynus was waiting as patiently as she was able, being young for a dragon and still prone to fidgeting. I was always a little shocked when I saw her these days. She’d grown considerably since the day I’d first acquired her.

She’d been a tiny baby then, capable only of uttering the word “bluerp” and belching smoke. Her inability to speak didn’t last long, however. It ended abruptly when she started parroting any swear wordsIuttered. Within days she sounded like a galaxy sailor on Earth leave.

Her fondness for the words “shit” and “frunk” didn’t win me any motherhood awards from my family and friends. Fortunately her ability to speak words out loud went away as she grew. Now she and I spoke only telepathically, as I did with her mother and father. That saved me some serious embarrassment whenever she came out with some weird Astra-ism that was totally inappropriate for her age and station in life.

It happened frequently.

Glynus was a gawky adolescent now. Though at thirty feet tall and approximately fifty feet long, adolescent wasn’t the word that popped to mind when seeing her. Her wide chest was covered with opaline scales, which sparked with pastel cream, rust and gray light as she moved, and her top line, which would be a deep onyx black when she was full-grown, was a beautiful charcoal gray.

But it was her eyes that were truly arresting. They were a deep violet, fringed with thick lashes as long as my pinky finger.

Glynus was a princess. Next in line for the throne. Her mother the Queen had given her to me to rear among the human population. Hoping her experiences with people would ensure the continuing prosperity of the black dragon race alongside humans.

For all her regal beauty, however, Glynus was still a kid at heart. When I emerged from the stairwell, she started hopping from foot to foot and spewing excitement fire from her nostrils.

I threw myself behind a huge metal box and rolled, narrowly missing being toasted alive.

Oops! Sorry mother Tweener.

I peeked over my protective barrier. “I guess I should have worn my flame retardant jumpsuit, huh?”

She giggled behind a massive paw with six-inch-long curved claws.You can come out now, mother Tweener. I promise I won’t roast you.

I leapt over the box and ran, springing onto her wide back as I used to do when she was younger.

Glynus giggled and lifted her wings with excitement.Hold on, mother Tweener.Her massive wings pounded the air, blowing my hair around my face and nearly driving me right off her back. Debris lifted out of the crevices and corners where it had been caught and flew in all directions. I had to duck as a large dead bird swung toward my head.

I grabbed the base of her wings and held on, lowering myself as we lifted off in preparation for that first powerful gust of air slamming into me.

The ride was a bit rocky until Glynus climbed to a height where she could level off and skim gracefully along the air currents. Then I released my hold on her wings and sat up, enjoying the bird’s-eye view of the world below us.

The nearest air car was miles beneath Glynus’ wings. They looked like bugs buzzing from place to place.

Okay, Glynus. Tell me what’s going on. I need to know what I’m stepping into.

She sighed in my mind.

The Mount has exploded into chaos. The Queen of the Reds is in an uproar because her oldest daughter was attacked and killed. She declared war against us in the belief that we were behind the attack. Of course we knew nothing about it until the skies started boiling with red dragons and blood began to be spilled on our beautiful meadow.

Does your mother have any ideas who might have been responsible for the attack?

Glynus turned and fixed a worried violet eye on me.She and my father cloistered themselves in the throne room and discussed it for hours. When they emerged they declared their intention of visiting the Red Queen. I couldn’t get them to tell me what they’d decided. All they would say was that it was better if I knew nothing.

So they went to see the Reds.

Glynus nodded.That was almost three passages of the sun ago. And I haven’t heard a word of how they fared.She snorted angrily, spewing impotent smoke through her wide nostrils.If the Reds have harmed my parents, they will know war as they’ve never known it before.

Beneath my thighs her muscles tightened and bunched in anger. Her wings slammed the air and our speed picked up noticeably.

I suddenly realized my little girl was growing up. And she had a temper. I was glad I was on her side. Patting her on the shoulder I said the only thing I could say. “We’ll find them, Glynus. And if they’ve been harmed, I’ll fight at your side to avenge them.”

* * * * *


Page 7

 

Unlike the black dragons, who lived in a beautiful meadowland overseen by a giant sparkling waterfall, the red dragons roosted in the stark, jagged rocks high on the opposite side of Mount Olympus. The approach to their queendom was stunning and ruthlessly efficient but decidedly intimidating.

Per royal protocol, Glynus approached the Queen’s caverns directly, without stealth, showing her lack of aggression by her visibility and guileless approach.

As a result, with every mile we came closer to the reds’ caverns, we picked up a couple more guards. Until, as the yawning face of the royal caverns opened up before us, we were a single black dot in a surrounding sea of red. From a distance we probably looked like a giant poppy.

Glynus flew toward the largest cavern, directly in the center of hundreds of smaller caves, and stopped, hovering in midair, as the largest pair of red dragons I’d ever seen converged on the entrance to the Queen’s caves and blocked our approach.

What followed was a harsh, guttural exchange in the dragons’ natural language, which I didn’t understand.

To me it just sounded like a series of barks, coughs and roars.

I got the gist of it though. Basically the guards said, “Halt, who goes there?” and Glynus responded, “Get the hell out of my way or my mother Tweener will kick your fat asses.”

When two enormous pairs of sparkling black eyes focused on me, filled with malevolence, I decided a quick foray into Glynus’ beady brain was in order.What did you say to them, Glynus?

I simply reminded them that you were the legendary dragon fighter.

Glynus’ mother the Queen had anointed me the dragon fighter. I never really figured out why. I’m thinking she needed an extra warrior at the time so she created one.Frunkin' wonderful,I responded. The two giant reds were eyeing me as if they’d like to be the ones to end the legend of the dragon fighter…by ending the dragon fighter.

The one on the right flipped a wing in my direction and demanded something in its guttural tones. Glynus responded in kind, her elegant snout swinging back and forth in a negative head movement.

At leastthatI understood.

She puffed herself up, lifting her wings aggressively, and barked some more orders at the two guards.

They responded by flinging fire at us.

Glynus dropped ten feet in the air to avoid the flames. Apparently forgetting me. I suddenly found myself airborne, without a dragon between my thighs, and looking at a wall of flame.

I screamed as the fire touched my skin and then gasped as a hard, muscular arm snaked around my waist and yanked me backward, against an equally hard chest. I looked down and saw a thick, muscular thigh, clad in stretchy black material, and beneath it, red scales.

Somebody else was joyriding on a dragon. And from what I could see of him. he was yummy. I tipped my head to try to get a glance of him, but the red moved restlessly beneath us and I almost slid off. My Settling sparked as a broad hand spread across my midsection, holding me firmly against his body.

A deep voice rumbled against my ear. “Sit still, woman.” Then he raised his voice and addressed the dragon guards. His words were unintelligible, spoken in the guttural dragon language, but the results were obvious. The two dragons dipped their snouts and lifted their wings, clearing the cavern entrance immediately.

Glynus suddenly surged up in front of us. Her beautiful eyes sparking with anger.Return my dragon fighter to me immediately!

An impossibly deep rumble started under my ear and I realized it was laughter.You’ve been careless with her, Princess. I was merely saving her from being toasted alive before crashing painfully to the rocks below.

One of Glynus’ thick legs slammed downward, as if she were stomping her foot. I recognized the movement. I’d seen it hundreds of times over the two years she lived with me.If your stupid guards had not attacked, I would not have had to take evasive maneuvers, Dragon Slayer.

I peaked an eyebrow. Dragon…Slayer? I was immediately jealous. His title sounded scarier than mine. I tried to crank around and look at him again and finally managed, though I was basically hanging over his arm and out into nothingness to accomplish it.

As I looked up at him, my rescuer looked down at me, grinning. “Hello, Dragon Fighter. My Settling roared. I clenched my thighs together in self-defense and tried to force a disinterested look onto my face.

In my current state that amounted to wiping drool from my chin.

“Hello, Dragon Slayer.”

He grinned and I think I came on the spot. His mouth was wide, with a full, biteable lower lip, and filled with perfect white teeth. His canines were slightly enlarged, like a Royal’s, and his eyes were gold with black flecks. His skin was a deep golden color and his hair was midnight black, cut very short, military style.

The short hair emphasized a strong jaw and densely muscled neck.

A dusky stubble covered his cheeks and jaw. But it didn’t hide the dimples that made an appearance when he smiled.

“Are you all right?”

I blinked. “Huh?”

He lifted a hand to my forehead and frowned. “You’re burning up.”

“Tell me about it.” I murmured.

He frowned just as a stream of fire flashed past his head.

Oh yeah. Glynus.

Return her to me right this minute, Tweener!

Well frunk me to Hades and back on a stick. Another Tweener.

* * * * *

 

You realize we’re swimming in pee, dodging turd sharks right now, Glynus?

She sighed in my mind.Yes, mother Tweener.

That Queen looks mighty pissed.

She does, yes.

What are you gonna do about it?

She glanced at me and smiled, showing several rows of scary-looking teeth.I was hoping you’d take it from here.

Just great! The dragon barges into the enemy camp making demands and flinging accusations around and then she wants me to clean up the resulting mess.

I glanced at the muscle-bound, incredibly yummy Tweener who’d saved me from a fiery death and carried me into the Queen’s caverns on the back of his fiery red steed.

Okay, that might have been a little too much.

The fiery red steed was really a slimy lizard, but the hot factor stays the same.

I forced my mouth closed and licked my lips, doing a drool check. I was glad nobody but me was aware of the series of mini-orgasms my body was flinging at me whenever I looked at…or smelled…or heard…or heardabout…him.

Well, unless they noticed the vibrating and slavering.

Step forward, Tweener.

I blinked and looked at the Slayer. He jerked his head toward the enormous dragon crouching at the back of the cavern.

I widened my eyes in a “Who me?” look and he chuckled, flipping a hand toward the queen again. Sighing internally, I stepped forward.You owe me big time for this, Glynus.

Yes, mother Tweener.

I moved to a spot just outside the swing-span of the queen’s spiked tail and dropped to one knee, bowing my head.Your Highness. Thank you for allowing us to come before you.

The dragon inclined her elegant head slightly. Her massive wings fluttered once, the only sign of her irritation.And I am thanked for my hospitality with accusations and hostility.

I glanced briefly at Glynus.She is young, Your Majesty, and very worried about her parents. I beg you forgive her for her harshness.

The dragon turned long, opal-colored eyes toward my young friend and her lip curled slightly.She is just like her mother, that one. All prickly and aggressive. It is a shame.

I bit my metaphorical tongue and blocked my mind to Glynus. The last thing I needed at that point was for her to distract me with her rantings.Her parents have been missing for several days now, Majesty. Have you seen them?

The elegant creature before me inclined her long head.They came to me three days ago. We spoke of what happened to my heir and they informed me they had nothing to do with it. I found them very convincing.

Then you believed them?

They created doubt in my mind. Enough doubt that I chose not to engage them in war at this time. I am still gathering information and assessing my options.

I felt as if I was conversing with the CEO of a multi-planet corporation.Do you have any ideas about who else might have wanted your heir dead, Majesty?

There are some in my queendom who cherish the throne. Even now they plot to kill me. My Slayer protects the throne.

I barely resisted reminding her that her sexy Slayer hadn’t done much to save her daughter but, glancing quickly at the Slayer in question, I couldn’t quite bring myself to tarnish his rep with his queen.I’d like to question your subjects. See if we can figure out who might have had something to do with your daughter’s death.

The Queen cocked her head at me, narrowing her gorgeous opal eyes.Why?

Because whoever it was might have had something to do with the disappearance of the Black Queen and her mate.

Queen Persuis thought about this for a long moment and then inclined her snout.You will work closely with my Slayer. He will guide you.

I gulped.Um, how closely?

Her startling eyes sparked with humor.He will not leave your side while you are here. It is non-negotiable.

“Frunkin’ wonderful.” I murmured.

You’re toast, mother Tweener.Glynus offered helpfully.

I sighed.You’re tellin’ me?

 

What’s the deal with the other Tweener?We were on our way to another cavern, where Persuis had said we could stay during our time in her queendom. I was trying really hard not to notice the really hot way the Slayer’s firm, round buttocks flexed as he strode confidently along before us. I’d already spent several minutesnot noticinghow well he filled out his tight pants in the front.

The Red Queen was jealous when she learned my mother had sent me to you. So she brought her own Slayer to her caverns and put him in charge of Plinthe.

The young dragon who was killed?

Glynus frowned in my mind.Yes.

Has anybody looked at him for a suspect?

Nay. I do not think so. He has the Queen wrapped.

I nodded.He does have a certain charm doesn’t he?

Glynus snorted, the flames from her nostrils barely missing a nearby tapestry. One of the Queen’s human servants leapt to the side to avoid being toasted. I grinned. Living among dragons certainly had its liabilities.He’s frunkin’ hot, that one is, mother Tweener.

I frowned at her.That’s five coins in the swear jar, Glynus.

Yes, ma’am.Her tone of voice was meek but she didn’t look in the least penitent.But not a penny for the lie jar.

Sighing, I found my traitorous gaze consuming the Slayer’s yummy backside again.No, it certainly wasn’t a lie, Glynus.

 

Chapter Five

Slayed and Flayed

 

In searching for the missing queen, our Lady finds a friend,

Though he’s a little much for her, and may drive her ’round the bend.

 

The Dragon Slayer showed us to a cozy little cavern at the center of the queendom. By the time we got there I realized I’d have to keep him close while in the caverns. I’d never find my way back out of the maze of caverns without him.

A human servant was waiting for us when we arrived at the appointed spot. She took my bag and bowed low to Glynus, speaking in the dragons’ brusque tongue.

What did she say?

I have been invited to tea.

Tea? Dragons do tea?

Glynus sighed in my mind. We’re not uncivilized, mother Tweener.

I snorted, drawing the notice of our yummy tour guide. “Is there a problem, dragon fighter?”

I was visualizing giant teacups held in claws and enormous frosted teacakes made of small animals. I grinned at him. “Glynus is going to tea.”

Glynus frowned at me.

“Have you ever seen a dragon tea?”

I shook my head.

Slayer shuddered, wiping the smile right off my face. “Trust me, you don’t ever want to see one.”

My gaze swung to Glynus and she huffed, flinging smoke rings into the air.

 

When she’d left the cavern I turned to the delectable dragon Slayer. “I guess it’s just you and me then.” My happy place wept at the thought.

He nodded. “You want to question the reds?”

No, I want to throw you to the ground and do the hip-hop on your bebop.“Yes.”

“Where do you want to start?”

“Anyone who saw the king and queen leave that day. The guards on the perimeter maybe?”

He frowned thoughtfully. “That makes sense. You want to know if they saw anything out of the ordinary as they were leaving, such as being joined by someone in their flight?”

“Right.”

He nodded. “We’ll start with the guards’ quarters.” He glanced at me. “Maybe you should let me interview the guards by myself.”

I bristled. “Why in Hades would I do that?”

He cast an appreciative gaze over me, scanning me from head to toe. Heat flared everywhere his hungry gold gaze touched. My Settling blazed into life and I found myself envisioning his glorious body naked and covering mine. Soft lips trailing down my throat, opening to pull an aching nipple into the heated cave of his mouth. Hot, calloused fingers sliding up my sides, cupping breasts heavy with desire. His solid thighs settled between mine, a thick, hard cock nestled at the entrance to my weeping pussy, pressing insistently…


Page 8

“Hello?”

I blinked and discovered, to my extreme embarrassment, that I was staring at the nicely rounded package at the juncture of those muscular thighs. I licked my lips and forced my gaze to lift. His smile was smug. “Are you okay?”

My answering laugh sounded sick and uncertain, even to me. “I’m fine. Let’s go.”

His smile widened slowly, his gaze never leaving mine. “This is going to be fun.”

I frowned, turning toward the opening to the cavern. “Yeah. Whatever.” But as I stomped into the dimly lit passageway ahead of him, dragging my dignity like discarded toilet paper on my shoe, I couldn’t help thinking that he was right. Spending hour upon hour with the yummy dragon Slayer at my side was going to be a truly stimulating experience.

I soaked my panties on that thought and all but came on the spot. He joined me in the passageway, dropping a superheated hand at the small of my back and giving me a gentle nudge. “This way.”

My pussy throbbed and cried. My breath locked into my lungs. I felt a moment of sheer panic. Jesus, Mary, Joseph and their plumber, this was going to be complete agony. I’d be lucky to survive with my soul intact.

 

The smell hit me first. The sounds were almost as bad. Unfortunately we’d arrived at feeding time.

We’d traveled nearly an hour through the maze of caverns before coming to the guard’s quarters. As we neared, the dragon Slayer turned to me and grinned. “Last chance. You can stay here and let me question them.”

I frowned. What was his deal? How bad could it be? I flicked a hand for him to continue on and dropped in behind him. I wasn’t stupid. If this was going to be dangerous I’d let them take him out first, giving me time to pull out some smack down of my own.

I’d mourn the loss of his fine ass…ets later.

I followed him through a large, arched entrance and into an enormous cavern. On the far wall a thirty-foot-high waterfall splashed pleasantly into a small pool of water, whose surface bobbed with something that looked like body parts.

Dragon refrigeration.

Although the waterfall was loud, it couldn’t mask the sound of enormous teeth crunching through bone or claws ripping through flesh.

About a dozen enormous red dragons lounged around the huge cavern, slouching against nests made of straw, feathers and some kind of black mud. Their massive jaws crunched and slavered over their unfortunate food, drooling thick ribbons of saliva and blood that slid down their huge bellies and puddled beneath them on the rock floor.

Bits of fur and flesh peppered the floor around them, mingling with the gore that drooled from their nasty maws.

I could see why they didn’t eat in their nests.

My guide stayed just inside the entrance and called out, speaking in the Red’s language. In the furthest reaches of the cavern an enormous, dark red dragon belched and roared, apparently responding to whatever the yummy Slayer had said.

The Slayer stiffened, his jaw tightening as he perused the path to our victim. We’d have to traverse a half dozen feeding dragons and their disgusting mess to get to him. He turned to me. “Last and final chance.”

I shook my head. “After you.”

Sighing, he shook his head too. “Stubbornandbeautiful. My favorite combination.”

By the time we reached the enormous guard in the back of the cavern I wondered if he shouldn’t have replaced the word “stubborn” with “stupid”. My lovely boots were soggy with disgusting substances and weighted down by sticky gore.

Putrid-smelling bits of flesh and dragon snot dripped down the front of my sweater and my hair stuck to my cheek on one side, sodden with spit.

I glanced at my guide and saw that he was nearly spotless.

With an indignant gasp I realized he’d used me as a human shield. When I glared at him he laughed. “I gave you three chances to stay out in the passageway.”

An enormous belch blew the drier parts of my hair back from my face and a sewerlike stench overwhelmed me. “Bleurgh!”

When it ended, the Slayer stepped from behind me and addressed the mountain-sized creature lounging before us. I, of course, didn’t understand what he said, but whatever it was, the dragon fixed his enormous eyes on me.

The red was the largest dragon I’d ever seen. From my perch way down on the cavern floor, it looked like the mound of his slimy looking belly rose twenty feet in the air. It rumbled threateningly as my gaze lifted toward the car-sized snout higher up. I met the dragon’s emotionless gaze just as a long, snakelike tongue slid out and performed a lazy swipe over his greasy snout, retreating back between the massive jaws with an audible snap.

I shuddered and the dragon grinned, showing bits of gore stuck between its jagged, deadly-looking teeth.

My guide nodded, turning to me. “He says he’ll answer your questions, as long as they aren’t treasonous to his queen.”

“Ask him if he saw the black queen and king leaving the Red queendom three days ago.”

The Slayer turned to the guard and repeated my question in dragonese.

The huge creature nodded his head and his jaw moved as if he were trying to speak the words he was sending mentally to my guide.

Or maybe he was anticipating taking a bite out of yours truly. Despite the evidence of an extensive meal scattered around him, his enormous eyes had a decidedly hungry look.

The Slayer nodded, his gaze intense as he listened. After a moment he turned to me. His face was grim. “He says someone did meet the king and queen on their way back to their queendom.”

Something in his face warned me I wasn’t going to like what I was about to hear. I took a deep breath and asked. “Who met them?”

The dragon belched again, sending sewer air wafting over us. The Slayer took my arm and led me away, toward an enormous window on one end of the cavern, where we were relatively safe from eating mishaps.

He pulled his hand from my arm with a grimace, examining the slime that had transferred itself from my once beautiful sweater to his formerly immaculate palm. Holding it away from his body, he cast a speculative eye over a rare clean spot on my sweater.

“Don’t even think about it!” I warned him.

He grimaced again and held the hand farther from his pristine clothing.

“Just tell me who met the black queen, Slayer.”

“You aren’t going to like it.”

I flipped my fingers for him to continue, suddenly impatient to get it over with.

“She was apparently met by a large contingent of her own solders.”

All the blood ran from my face and my heart skipped a beat. “Frunk me to Hades!”

He nodded and fell into step beside me as I headed quickly toward the door.

“What’s the fastest way to get to Glynus?”

“I know a shortcut. Follow me.” He placed a hand on my back and rubbed. I jerked away and turned to him, he was grinning, examining his now spotless hand. “Ass.”

He laughed and jerked his head toward a nearby passage. “This way.”

* * * * *

 

Glynus was covered in blood and gore.

I screamed her name as the Slayer and I charged into the room, which was filled with female dragons.

She turned her head and looked at me, confusion painting her beautiful eyes.Mother Tweener?

That’s when I realized all of the dragons were covered in blood and gore. I glanced at the Slayer.

He shrugged. “At least you’re dressed for it.”

Shaking my head I hurried over to Glynus.I won’t ask you what you’ve been doing. I’m going to have nightmares for the rest of my life just looking at the results. But we need to get out of here right now.

Glynus shot to her feet, obviously relieved to be sprung from the…er…festivities.Thank Him, Mother Tweener! I thought I’d never get out of here.

We headed for the door. The Slayer was leaning against the archway cut into the rock wall that formed the entrance to the cavern where the dinosaur “tea” was being held. He suddenly jerked upright, one hand shooting toward the sword he wore in a scabbard at his hip.

It was the only warning I got.

I turned and shot a power arrow into the massive red dragon descending on Glynus, enormous claws outstretched in attack.

Not wanting to start a war unnecessarily, I’d kept the voltage low. The result was that the enormous female staggered back a few steps but wasn’t seriously harmed. She caught herself with a single flap of her huge wings and surged back toward Glynus, ignoring me as if I were a pesky bug.

She hit my dragon in the chest and the two massive creatures flew backward, slamming against the wall directly beside the Slayer. He dived away, barely missing being crushed by the two grappling dragons as they rolled sideways.

I advanced on them, unsure what to do. I couldn’t exactly shoot a power arrow into the rolling mass, for fear of hitting Glynus. I reached for her with my mind, worried for her safety.

She was half the size of the dragon trying to kill her.

Can you get away from her so I can zap her?

Glynus chuckled in my mind.You always try to ruin my fun, mother Tweener.

Glynus suddenly roared and clamped her massive jaws over one of the red’s wings, flipping her head to wrench the wing from the other dragon’s body. She created a sizeable gap at the top of the red’s wing.

I blinked.Go Glynus!

The other dragon stumbled backward with a roar of pain. I covered my ears and dived away from the twin jets of fire the red was spewing in her anger. Rolling across the floor, I ended up next to the Slayer.

He looked down at me and winked. “You’ve done a good job with her.”

I grinned. “Thanks.”

He nodded, reaching for my hand. “It might be wise to make our escape now though.” He turned his gaze to the room, where the other tea party goers had shaken off their surprise and were advancing on the two combatants. It wasn’t immediately clear where the other dragons were leaning as far as taking sides…but it was a pretty good bet they’d go with their fellow red over the future queen of their rivals, the black dragons.

Glynus now sported a long, jagged slash in her creamy belly, but she had all four sets of claws buried in the big red’s torso and was driving her backward by pounding her wings hard on the air.

Hey Tadpole, I’m thinkin’ we might want to make our escape pretty quickly here. The troops are getting a bit restless.

Glynus gave one last pound of her wings and roared, bathing the red in fire from her flaring nostrils. As the red brought her fireproof wings up to protect her snout, Glynus turned away and flew toward us.Whatever you say, mother Tweener.

She slowed enough for the Slayer and me to each grab a wing and catapult ourselves onto her broad back, and then flapped her wings and took off toward a high window in the side wall of the cavern. Behind us, the sound of several sets of powerful wings filled the cavern and I knew it wouldn’t be long before we had unwanted company in our flight.

Glynus was heading directly toward the window.I’ll let you do the honors, mother Tweener.

Glad to.

I lifted a palm toward the huge window and sent a power arrow into it, shattering the glass and sending it toward the ground.

Dragons and humans alike scattered away from the deadly rain of glass, Glynus used one wing to briefly shield her face from the spray of particles and the Slayer and I hid our faces, ducking down behind Glynus’ massive head. A moment later the sun burned brightly against the tops of our heads and fresh air swept us, washing away the cloying smell of reptile and death.

We soared away from the caverns, heading to an unknown destination quickly. Amazingly, none of the reds tried to follow us. I found that very strange but, at the moment, couldn’t help being grateful.

I turned to the Slayer. “What wasthatall about?”

He shrugged. “There have always been hard feelings between the two dragon races, maybe somebody just decided to take advantage of the moment to score some points.”

My gaze sharpened on him. “You think the queen was behind that?”

His lips pursed thoughtfully but he didn’t respond. Glynus hit a pocket of air and dropped unexpectedly. His muscular thighs kept him in place and his arm tightened around my waist when I tilted.

I turned my head to look at him.

Licking my lips, I couldn’t help wondering what he would taste like. Just like that my Settling flared and his scent infused me, the heat of his body tugged at me and my sensual core clenched in awareness of him.

He must have seen the change in my eyes or smelled it in the air, because his dark gaze sharpened and the corners of his mouth tipped up.

I felt color flooding my face and turned away, determined to ignore him.

“You know you’re really pretty when you’re not covered in dragon spit and gore.”

I snorted. “Gee thanks.”

His hands were suddenly resting against my hips, sliding down my thighs. “I know a place where you can scour all that away.” His voice was a deep throb on the air beside my ear.

I gasped as he skimmed a hand upward, narrowly missing the vee of my thighs, and flattened it against my belly, pulling me against the hard ridge of his cock at my back. “I’d love to share trade secrets with you.”

I tried to laugh but the sound came out as a moan. The hand on my belly was skimming toward my breasts, as the other hand slid into the crease where my leg met my body.

Hooboy!I grabbed both hands and stilled them. “Tell Glynus where to go.”

* * * * *

 

A few moments later we dropped from the sky onto a wide ledge on the face of the mountain. Glynus skipped to a stop and hopped toward a nearby cave. Just inside the cave’s entrance, she bowed to allow the Slayer and me to slide off.

The Slayer indicated a wide nest within the cave, away from the entrance where it would be protected from the elements. “You can rest there, Glynus.”

My dragon, a very smart creature, narrowed her large, beautiful eyes on the Slayer.I don’t trust him, mother Tweener.


Page 9

The Slayer looked at me and I couldn’t help thinking his gaze was a bit predatory. He seemed to understand Glynus’ concern. “She’ll be fine. I’ll get her cleaned up and fed. Then we’ll decide where to go from here.”

Glynus looked skeptical. I had indeed taught her well.

Arching an eyebrow at his phrasing, I suddenly realized we hadn’t told Glynus about her “problem” yet. I decided it could wait until I scraped dragon spew from my body. The Slayer was right. I needed to regroup before I made any important decisions about the future. I reached out and placed a hand on Glynus’ thick forearm. “I’ll be fine, Tadpole. Get some rest and we’ll talk later.”

Glynus nodded and turned toward the nest, casting the Slayer a warning look.If you need me, I can be there in two beats of your heart, mother Tweener.

Thanks, Tadpole. I can handle this one.

She chuckled in my mind.In your current state, I’m not so sure.

It was the first time she’d made any reference to my Settling. I wondered if I was sending out some kind of invisible signals that the dragon was picking up on.

“Shall we?”

I fell into step behind the Slayer, my traitorous gaze sliding to fixate on the perfect muscular roundness of his buttocks. He led me through a small opening that Glynus would never be able to navigate.

So much for her being there if I needed her.

“Anti-dragon access points?”

He laughed. “You got it. Of course they could blast their way through eventually, but I’d be long gone out of my back entrance by then.”

“You don’t trust the dragons much, do you?”

“I don’t trust anybody much. It’s what’s kept me alive this long.”

The narrow passageway opened up into a much larger space, filled with comfortable-looking furnishings and enveloped in a warm, golden light. He’d done a pretty good job of making livable space out of a cave. The rocky dirt floor was covered with an array of colorful rugs, and tapestries hung from the roughhewn walls to warm and soften the rooms.

A heavy leather divan and two oversized chairs covered in the same rich, chocolate-brown leather were clustered together in the center of the space, facing a wood-burning stove with a thick pipe that carried smoke up through the rock ceiling high above our heads and out, hopefully, into the sky beyond the cave.

On the far side of the cavern was a small food preparation area, and another human-sized door leading in the opposite direction from whence we’d come. “Is that your back door?”

He glanced in the direction I’d jerked my head and nodded. “As well as my personal hygiene area. Come, I’ll show you where you can get cleaned up.

I followed him down a short, low-ceilinged passageway, toward the sound of rushing water. We emerged into a fairly large cavern with a small waterfall and a pool on one end. The cavern felt like a sauna and steam danced above the small pool.

I nearly had an orgasm on the spot thinking about immersing myself in the hot, clean water.

“Since you left your bag back at the caverns, I think I have some clothes that might fit you. There’s soap and shampoo beside the pool, towels stacked there.” He pointed toward a small table stacked with neatly folded cloth in bright colors. It was like an old-fashioned bathroom. I liked it.

I turned to him with a smile. “Thanks, this is great.”

Nodding, he turned away and left. I wasted no time stripping off my ruined clothes and stepping into the pool with them.

The water was hot enough to sting the center of my low back when I stepped into it, but I quickly got used to it and it felt wonderful. The pool was hip deep, and there was a wide, flat rock on one side I could sit on.

I groaned with pleasure and lay on my back for a long moment, just floating on the surface. My hair floated lazily around my head in the hot, mineralized water.

My muscles started to loosen and my mind wandered, at first considering the problems facing Glynus. But those thoughts quickly morphed to the Slayer. I realized with a jolt that I didn’t even know his name. I needed a name if I was gonna fantasize about throwing him to the floor and ravishing him.

Or did I?

My mind formed a picture of him and then set about stripping him naked, imagining the finely sculpted muscles and nicely packaged sexuality of a perfect male creature.

There was little chance he’d fit my mental description, but it didn’t matter, since it was purely an academic exercise. I had no intention of finding out what he looked like naked for real.

I floated happily, a grin on my face, and pictured him bending over me, his full, soft lips touching mine, pulling my breath away and sending spirals of delight to tighten at my sexual core.

My pussy clenched hopefully at the thought, and my nipples peaked. I reached up and covered my breasts with my palms, pulling on my nipples. Pleasure spiked in my belly and moved lower, to pulse in my throbbing clitoris.

I visualized his hot mouth moving from my lips to capture a rigid nipple, sucking it deep into the heated cave of his mouth and favoring it with long, slow pulls that tugged directly on my pleasure core, as if a thread of sensual desire attached the two parts of my passion-charged body.

My tongue came out and swept across my lips, tasting his imagined kisses there. One hand slid across the wet surface of my belly and disappeared in the curls covering my moist core. I touched my pulsing clit and moaned, nearly sinking as my body stiffened in delight.

Placing my free hand on the flat rock under the water’s surface, I regained my balance and renewed attentions to my clit. With every squeeze on the throbbing nub, bright tendrils of sensual expectation flared, until my toes curled and my muscles clenched in anticipation of the building release.

I played his face through my mind, savoring the hard angles of his jaw and the soft outline of his full lips. My traitorous psyche filled in the outlines with hot, knee-melting detail and went further, drawing the silhouette of his broad shoulders, narrow hips and long, muscular legs.

When my mind got to the shoulder-length, silky black hair and long-lashed blue eyes, I realized, with a start, that I was picturing Dialle. He’d nudged into my subconscious and shoved the other guy right out when I wasn’t looking.

I embraced the change, feeling the guilt I’d been ignoring at the back of my subconscious sliding away to leave only delight as my fingers worked their magic and built the pleasure to a tipping point. I thought about Dialle’s scent, his heated touch, how his cock felt sliding deep within my dripping pussy. How he made that little sound in his throat when I pulled his cock deep into my throat…

The sound of the waterfall was thunderous. It gave me the sensation of being in a cocoon, alone, free to do only as I wished.

So when I heard the clearing of a throat it was a shock. Beyond a shock. My eyes flew open and I shrieked, losing my balance on the top of the water. I sank to the bottom like a rock, sucking a mouthful of water down my throat in the process.

I came up spitting and spraying water, embarrassed, humiliated and angrier than I’d ever been. Forgetting for a moment that I was naked, I surged to my feet and faced him, fists clenched at my sides.

The Slayer’s face was completely without expression, and he held a bundle of clothing in his hands. “Sorry, I did call out several times but you didn’t respond. I thought maybe you’d drowned.” Something flashed quickly through his eyes as his gaze slid down my dripping form. Something hot and…hungry.

I pointed angrily to the table. “Just put the clothes down there and leave.”

I knew I was being rude. I was okay with that.

The Slayer stared at me for a beat longer, his gaze fixed politely on my eyes, and then he let it slide slowly down my body. This time the heat that skimmed through his gaze was unmistakable. “Do you need help with your back? I’m pretty sure some asshole wiped a whole lot of dragon spit on that area between your shoulder blades…it might have soaked through your sweater.”

The corners of his sexy mouth tipped up in a devilish smile, but his voice was husky with longing. I let my gaze slide down his body and there was no mistaking the long, hard line of a ridge under his pants. When my gaze lifted upward again, I caught him licking his perfectly sculpted lips, as if he could taste me from where he stood.

I shook my head, not trusting myself to speak.

After another long, tension-filled moment he nodded, settled the pile of clothing on the table and turned away. He probably felt my hungry gaze on his delectable backside as he strode away. I didn’t even try to control myself. He owed me at least that much.

When he was gone I sank back into the water with a groan.

Me and my red face were never going to be able to show ourselves to him again. How embarrassing was it to get caught diddling myself.

Bleurgh!

I grabbed the soap and used it to quickly lather up my hair and body. I’d finish up, get dressed and then sneak out to get Glynus. She and I could be out of there, heading back toward Black territory to deal with her mess before he even knew I was gone.

Having forged a plan that would save me at least a modicum of future embarrassment, I felt a little better.

Though my body still hummed with sexual starvation.

I’d just have to live with that for the time being.

 

Chapter Six

Dealing with the Afterglow

 

Alas young miss doth find herself, in a lair without a ride,

Who will send much needed help, when her scruples start to slide?

 

Glynus was gone.

I couldn’t believe it. I stood there looking at the empty nest and tried calling to her with my mind.

She didn’t respond.

Worry slammed through me and I realized, besides worrying about my dragon, I also needed to worry that I was trapped in the Slayer’s cave with no ride home.

I walked to the entrance of the cave, emerging into the bright dregs of a fading sun, and looked out over the brown, craggy mountain ranges that comprised the Reds’ queendom. Aside from a type of enormous gray-and-black bird with a beak as long as my leg, nothing else stirred outside. No reds, no blacks. No Glynus.

“She’s gone to speak with the Queen.”

I jerked around, the sudden motion nearly toppling me off the narrow ledge at the mouth of the cave.

The Slayer reached out and grabbed a flailing arm before I went over, pulling me up hard against a broad, warm chest.

I looked up into wide, gold eyes framed in inky black lashes. His breath was soft on my face, filled with sensual musk. “It seems I’m destined to always and forever save your cute ass from dropping into the abyss.”

He didn’t step back away from the edge so I couldn’t jerk my arm from his grip. As if I wasn’t already prisoner enough, he slid his other arm around my waist, dropping a heated hand over the place where my butt rounded away from my back.

My Settling kicked in with a vengeance, making my nipples harden painfully and warm cream slide from my overcharged pussy. He dropped his lips to touch my cheek, just under one eye. “It’s a good thing I don’t mind. It’s such a sexy…delicious…ass.” His heated breath danced across my face and my eyes closed as I inhaled his essence, my knees weakening from the effects.

Like the touch of a feather, his lips pressed gently against mine.

I gasped, pulling his musk deep within my lungs. The effect was dangerously disconcerting. He paused, locked in the gentle touch of his soft lips against mine and then gently pressed the hand in the small of my back to bring my hungry body close to his.

I could feel the long, hard ridge of his cock against my belly. My body wept at the feel of him, the taste and smell of him. My mind screamed at me to run as far and as fast as I could, but my slut-monkey side purred with delicious anticipation.

He increased the gentle pressure of his mouth and I groaned, my hands sliding up his back to glide through the short, silky strands of his hair. I pulled him more deeply into the kiss, opening my lips to accept the tender assault of his talented tongue.

He breached my lips with a swipe of his heated tongue and then dived inside to taste and tangle with my tongue.

I felt his groan of desire rumbling against my chest and my body throbbed in response. His hands slipped along my sides and across my back, dragging me tightly against his hard body.

His lips left mine and I sighed.

“Do you have any idea what it did to me to watch you pleasuring yourself in the heated pool?”

My eyes flew open and heat infused my face.

He kissed my cheeks, trailing his lips across my nose, down my jawline and to my throat. I dropped my head back to give him better access. “Don’t be embarrassed. It was the hottest thing I’ve ever seen. All I can think about now is getting inside you, driving my cock deep in that juicy little pussy.”

I bit my lip, swamped in the sensations of his body against mine, his scent in my nostrils and his hands sliding hungrily over the supercharged nerve endings of my skin. His words were creating a whirlwind of feelings in my breast. They excited me. There was no doubt about that, but I’d never indulged in dirty talk before. I usually indulged in the silent form of erotic activity. The silence broken only by the sighs and gasps of sensual delight.

Whatever my mind thought of his words, my body was a definite fan. “What would you do to me…to my body?”

He groaned. His tongue slipped out and tasted the tender skin beneath my chin. He followed the heated swipe with a tiny nibble, sending frissons of delight tearing through my lower belly. “First I’d cover that quivering pussy with my lips, sucking gently among those sexy auburn curls to bring you screaming into release.”

I shivered violently as his lips left my throat and trailed downward, toward myliterallyheaving bosom. “Then wh-what would you do?”

“I’d lick up the sweet cream that flowed from between your lovely white thighs. It would be like the sweetest ambrosia on my lips, making my cock painfully hard.”


Page 10

He nuzzled aside the oversized shirt he’d given me to wear and nipped at the rounded flesh at the top of my breast, tantalizingly close to my rigid nipple, which was begging for his attention. His hot tongue swept the skin he’d bitten, swirling in a circle around the puckered flesh of my nipple without touching it.

I grabbed his head in both hands, intending to force his mouth to my nipple. But he resisted, moving instead to the other breast, where he repeated the same tantalizing but infuriatingly evasive maneuver.

A wave of expectant heat swept my body. I envisioned my hard nipples being sucked into his mouth, savored the thrill of it and willed him with my mind to take them. Finally, I couldn’t wait any longer. “Please!” My voice rasped with passion.

He licked the underside of the breast he was currently torturing. “Please, what, Astra Q. Phelps?”

His tongue swept toward my nipple again. And again stopped just outside the hungry circle of the brown, rigid flesh. My head dropped back. “Ahhh, God! Suck them! Suck my nipples, now!”

Just like magic he complied. He covered the entire nipple with his lips and pulled the tortured flesh into his incredibly hot mouth, sucking hard. A strange combination of relief and enhanced sexual tension jolted through my system, centering in the throbbing bud between my thighs.

He slid a hand down one hip and across my quivering belly, sliding it inexorably toward my pussy. I widened my stance to give him access, my rational mind shutting down as a wave of pure, unadulterated lust swept over me, swamping my will.

He moved his lips to the other nipple and drew the aching flesh between his soft lips. But when his hand covered me, engulfing the tender mound at the vee of my legs in the heat of his thick fingers, I was suddenly nudged from my mindless lust by a jolt of another kind.

My daemon hickey sparked and sent an electrical charge through my body, making me jump away from him with a gasp. Static flashed through my mind, leaving behind the impression of Dialle’s voice, though I couldn’t actually say I’d heard him speak a single word. His scent enveloped me, pulling guilt, like acid, from my chest. I stepped away, lifting my hands as if to ward him off. “Stop. We need to stop this.”

The Slayer cocked his gorgeous head and reached a hand toward my neck.

I flinched as he touched the tear-shaped mark there. “You have been marked?”

I nodded.

He frowned. “I shouldn’t have been able to get within yards of you. There is something wrong with this man’s claim on you.”

I shook my head. Traitorous doubt, ugly and razor sharp, sliced through me. “I can’t discuss this with you. Where is Glynus?”

“I told you, she’s gone to speak with the queen.”

“By herself? That’s much too dangerous. Why did you let her go?” I knew I was just picking a fight to put as much distance as possible between me and what I’d almost done with the Slayer. I didn’t care. Something about the interaction had bothered me. Bothered me deeply. And I needed time to examine it. But that time wasn’t now. I had a dragon to protect and a mystery to solve.

“I tried to stop her but she was most insistent. Short of slaying her…” He grinned at me. “I couldn’t keep her here.”

I strode away from him to pace the entrance to the cave. “Why didn’t you come get me?”

His response was a single raised eyebrow.

Oh yeah, right.“I need to get to the queen. Can you help me?”

A deep-throated squawk filled the air outside the cave. My gaze jerked toward the sound.

The Slayer lifted a hand toward the large red winging its way toward us across the sky. “Your wish is my command, dragon fighter.”

* * * * *

 

“So whatisyour name?” I felt the need to keep the conversation going as we sailed toward the Red Queen’s caverns. The firm thigh pressing into my leg flexed effortlessly as the red tilted into a turn and an iron band of an arm swept around my waist, the large, square hand resting on my hip. My slut-monkey side squealed with delight as the arm, peppered with soft, sun-bleached hair, tightened possessively and the hand sent heat and jolts of sensual awareness stabbing through me.

“You can call me Slayer.”

I shifted nervously, realizing too late that I was shifting against a new hardness against my buttocks. His soft breath sifted against my cheek and I realized his lips were a hair away from my skin.

I jerked sideways, frantic for a distraction. “That’s not your real name.” My voice was an embarrassing screech.

He shrugged and used a slight dip in the air patterns as an excuse to pull me more tightly against his hard cock. “It is the name I go by now.”

I tried to scoot forward on the suspiciously jerky red. I wondered if the Slayer was telling it to fly erratically to keep me off balance. “Come on, how bad can it be?”

He jerked slightly in surprise. “Bad? Not bad, just unimportant.”

The red threw up its head on a roar and we suddenly dropped ten feet in the air. I’d have fallen off if it weren’t for the Slayer’s iron grip. “What in Hades…”

“Frunkin’ hell! Hold on!”

The red lifted its enormous wings and swung sideways as fire rent the air where we’d been.

The Slayer’s heat suddenly disappeared from behind me and I thought, for a brief beat in time, that he’d fallen off the red. But I quickly realized he was standing on the dragon’s wide back, one hand wrapped around a thick cord tied around the creature’s neck and a long, deadly-looking sword in the other hand. He braced himself with a wide stance and lifted the sword, preparing to slash at whatever was attacking us.

A giant head appeared before him and an enormous jaw snapped an inch from his chest, teeth as long as my hand crashing together as he swung the sword.

He sliced a slim ribbon across the creature’s snout and it reared back, roaring in rage. The massive jaws opened and I flung up my hands, putting a protective bubble in place around us just as a raging blue fire flew from the creature’s nostrils.

The huge black dragon dropped from view and Slayer swung out into midair on the cord, stabbing toward the dragon’s throat as it appeared on the other side. Then he swung back and landed behind me on the red’s wide back. It was as if he could read their thoughts, knowing what they would do even before they did it.

The red swung away as the Slayer’s sword made a new, deeper slice across the black’s exposed throat.

I followed up with a power arrow to the thing’s head, right between the eyes.

The black surged upward and away and I took a breath.

Too late I realized the razor-sharp spikes of the black’s tail were swinging upward, toward the red’s soft underbelly. The giant reptile beneath my thighs grunted from the impact and roared as the huge spike at the end of the black’s massive tail pierced its belly.

The red rolled sideways, going into a death spiral, and the Slayer and I fell off its back, dropping into the great abyss yawning beneath us. One minute I was dropping toward the jagged mountains below, and the next a strong arm was wrapped around my waist and I wrenched to a painful stop.

Looking up, I saw that the red had managed to pull itself out of the spiral and was flying jerkily toward a nearby ledge. The Slayer hung from the thick cord around the dragon’s neck. As the mountain ledge quickly neared, I realized we’d be smashed against the rock beneath the ledge when the dragon landed.

The tension vibrating from the Slayer’s body told me he’d realized the same thing.

Mother Tweener!

Glynus! Where are you?

Beneath you, tell the Slayer to let go.

I looked down and saw the beautiful outline of my dragon’s flying form several feet below us. She alternated between coasting, rolling sideways and pounding her enormous wings in an effort to stay with the erratically flying red.

Hurry, mother Tweener!

I glanced toward the mountainside and saw that we were mere seconds from slamming into it. I slapped the Slayer’s arm. “Let go of the rope, Glynus will catch us.”

He looked down and grimaced. “She needs to move closer.”

“There’s no time!” The red had tipped his back claws forward and was pounding air to slow himself down for descent. We were a heartbeat away from being smashed into the rocky mountainside.

I looked up, focused on my target and shot a power arrow into the rope, severing it on the first try. The Slayer swore and wrapped his other arm around my waist. “I hope you know what the hell you’re doing!” he growled in my ear.

We plummeted downward at an intimidating speed.

Beneath us, Glynus flew one way then swung back, her huge eyes wide as she tried to maneuver herself directly beneath us. Stress fire puffed from her nostrils.

I secretly hoped I knew what I was doing too. Glynus didn’t look very certain that she could catch us.You got this, Tadpole?

I think so…

Glynus jerked and rolled, coming up too far to our left. She quickly adjusted when we were a heartbeat away from landing and we hit the slippery edge of her back, nearly sliding sideways and rolling right off again. But Glynus lifted her wing to stop our momentum and we bounced back toward the center of her wide body. I grabbed the large spike just behind her head and held on, while the Slayer tucked his calves around her wings to center himself.

I took a deep breath, prostrating myself alongside the prickly center ridge of her back. My heart beat a frantic rumba in my chest.

The Slayer filled his lungs and expelled a loud breath. “Well,thatwas fun. I don’t think I’ll need caffeine for a week.”

All I could do was nod, my heart felt like it was sitting on my tongue.

Glynus flapped her wings and headed back toward the Slayer’s cave as if nothing had ever happened.

She took extra care in her landing, though, as if she knew we’d had enough excitement for the day. The Slayer and I climbed off Glynus and stood looking at each other. Finally the Slayer said, “Who wants you dead?”

My mouth dropped. “Wha—”

Slayer shrugged. “That black wasn’t after me, and there were only two of us on the red.”

My mouth slammed shut. He had a point.

“And there was something wrong with that black. Did you see his eyes? He looked as if he were in a trance or something.”

Frowning, I realized he was right. The huge lizard’s eyeshadlooked strange. “You might be right. But how do you know it wasn’t after you? You have a very annoying way about you, it’s not impossible to think you probably pissed somebody off somewhere and drove them to murderous inclinations.”

He grinned and reached toward my face, sliding a smooth, warm hand across my cheek and down the side of my neck. My daemon hickey sputtered uselessly as he wrapped a large hand around my throat, caressing the tender skin just under my ear with slightly calloused fingers.

Leaning close, he placed a gentle kiss on my lips and, when he lifted his head he whispered, “That isn’t annoyance you’re feeling, Astra. If you need me to explain that throbbing sensation between your firm, white thighs I’d be happy to.”

I gasped and he slid his tongue between my parted lips, catching me off guard. Before I knew what I was doing I was responding, reaching up to slide my fingers through his hair and wrapping my hand around a muscular, golden forearm.

Glynus cleared her throat.Mother Tweener!

I jumped away from him, flashing my dragon a sheepish smile.Sorry, Tadpole, I haven’t been myself lately.

She snickered.No kidding!

My mental drawers shifted suddenly and Dialle’s voice came to me, faint and broken with static.Astra! Come to me. You and your sister are in da—

As quickly as Dialle’s husky voice filled my head it slid away. My daemon hickey burned briefly and then that faded too.

“What is it, Astra?”

The Slayer’s face was dark with concern.

I shrugged, glancing at Glynus as a feeling of foreboding slid over me. “We have to go.”

Glynus lowered her haunches so I could climb onto her back. The Slayer stepped toward us, lifting a hand to touch my thigh. “Take care, Astra. Someone very powerful is after you. I feel it in my gut. If you ever need my help…”

I nodded, covering his hand with my own. “Thank you, Slayer. For all you’ve done and for your offer to help. I hope you don’t mind if I take you up on it someday.”

He took my hand and lifted it toward his lips. Rather than simply kissing the surface, like a normal male, the Slayer sucked a knuckle into his mouth and, to my vast surprise, bit down hard enough to make it bleed.

“Ow!” I jerked my hand away.

“If you need me, touch that scar and call me with your mind. I will come to you.”

Scar! It was gonna leave a scar! Frunk me to Hades and back! Dialle would kill me and then go after the Slayer.

He stepped away as Glynus moved her wings. She took off rather gracefully for her and soon we were in the air again, winging our way quickly toward home. Before I realized it, I’d pulled the aching knuckle into my mouth and was sucking it to relieve the sting.

Each pull on the tender flesh sent a jolt of pure lust directly into to my aching pussy. After a few mind-blowing seconds I forced myself to stop sucking, through sheer willpower. The Slayer’s deep voice filled my mind, just before the wound left my lips.You can call me if you’re in any type of danger, Astra. I’m happy to save you from that extremely dangerous celibacy you’ve settled yourself under too. In fact I’d relish it…

I slammed my mind closed to shut off his sexy chuckle and settled myself into a good mope.

Glynus let me brood for a while and then asked,Where are we going, Mother Tweener?

Oh. Sorry. I need you to take me home.

What about my parents?

I blinked. Oh yeah. The queen and king. What did I know about that? I knew that they’d come to visit the red queen and had left, safe and unmolested, until they ran into a contingent of blacks and then something waylaid them before they reached their queendom.


Page 11

Is there a dragon in your queendom who wants to overthrow your mother?

What do you mean?

If the red guard is to be believed, your parents left the red queendom safely. But they were met by a contingent of blacks, and they never made it home. They either ran into trouble on the way, or you have a power-hungry black in your midst.

Ah.

Glynus thought about this for a long moment.I guess it could have been Euryice. She’s my fourth cousin twice removed. She believes she is better qualified than I to run the queendom.

That sounds plausible. Does she have the stones to act on it against your mother?

I could feel Glynus frowning in my mind.Stones?

Never mind. I keep forgetting you’re a tadpole.

Euryice is very stonesy. She is enormously stonelike in fact.

Having completely lost control of the subject, I fought a sigh.I think she’s the logical one to look at. Would the other dragons follow her?

A few would, yes.

Okay. We’ll make a quick side trip to your queendom, conquer this Euryice and then you can take me home. I think Darma might be in danger.

She’ll be okay, mother Tweener. She has her magics now.

I snorted in an unladylike fashion.Darma wouldn’t use her magic if it grabbed her uterus and held it hostage. She’s even more anti-magic now than she was before she discovered she had some.

That’s so sad, mother Tweener.

Yeah. Especially when you’re in charge of keeping her narrow, white ass safe in a dangerous world.

My mental drawers shifted and my sister’s strident, unpleasant tones filled my unsuspecting mind.

Astra! Where are you? I think somebody’s trying to kill me!

Speak of the devil…or at least his handmaiden.

I didn’t bother asking her what she meant. She was always imagining that somebody was trying to kill her. With her personality I was pretty sure she was mostly right. I’d seen her bring out the worst in such harmless creatures as sweet, little old ladies. One rosy-cheeked octogenarian actually threw her cup of hot tea at Darma after a small verbal exchange that I was pretty sure had something to do with the idea, presented by my sister, that the elderly are crabby and selfish. I thought I was gonna have to jump in and save Darma from that one. But fortunately the ninety-some-year-old woman couldn’t run very far. She put up a good sprint for a few blocks though.

I’m helping Glynus clean up a mess, I’ll be home in a few hours. Do you think you can hold on until then?

I could feel her glare in my mind.Don’t worry about me. Just make sure your little magical friends are safe. I’ll fend for myself here. I’m only your helpless human sister.

Despite the fact that Darma was the product of an Archangel and a Royal Devil, with her own legacy of magic fizzing, unused, beneath her pale skin, she chose to ignore those facts and pretend she was a simple human. I’d given up trying to find logic in that thinking.

Logic and my sister were not acquaintances. Not even distant ones.

I had my own way of dealing with her. Mostly I just pretended she agreed with me and went about my business. That really pissed her off.

A bonus.

Great! I’ll see you in a few!

I closed my mental drawers on her sputtering. It was easier to ignore her from long distances. I decided right then and there I needed to take more trips.

 

We found Euryice fairly easily. She apparently hadn’t thought Glynus would survive her little tea party and had been openly preparing to take the throne. Fortunately Euryice wasn’t a very creative or brave dragon. With me holding her captive in a set of power cuffs and Glynus driving a good-sized claw into her soft underbelly, she spewed information like an ugly, scaled fire fountain.

As Glynus’ soldiers led her away to be executed, she turned her ugly head and fixed me with her cold black eyes.You think you win in this, dragon fighter, but you will soon learn that things outside your puny control are exploding and changing. You and those you love will soon be swamped under the changing tide of events. She leaned toward me, causing Glynus to take a protective step in my direction.You will die soon, dragon fighter, and your lover will be the cause.The nasty reptile laughed then, before she was jerked away from us.

I watched her go, feeling the dread that had been carving a hole in my chest for a couple of days now burning hotly. My stomach churned and my palms were sweaty. Even in my current oversexed state, I couldn’t miss all the signs smacking me between the eyes.

Dialle was mixed up in something. Some kind of trouble. And as usual it was bleeding over into my world.

Sighing, I turned to Glynus. “Let’s go get your parents, Tadpole, I need to get home.”

 

We found the queen and king stranded in a cavern high in the mountains, their wings broken so they couldn’t fly away, and under guard.

Glynus gathered a small group of loyal guards, who rounded up the Euryice loyalists and killed them swiftly. Then, motivated by a need to get to Darma, and with the benefit of surprise on our side, Glynus and I and our small contingent released Queen Zerphor and her mate Quince.

Thank you, dragon fighter. You are a good friend to my people.Queen Zerphor told me later when we’d gotten them safely ensconced back in her caverns.

I bowed slightly. “I need to ask for one more favor, Queen Zerphor.”

Name it.

I grinned.You aren’t gonna like it.

Her sigh filled my mind as her beautiful black eyes slid toward her mate. Quince’s chuckle rumbled through my mind. Not unpleasantly.

I’m sure of that, dragon fighter, this isn’t the first time I’ve dealt with you. Your life is never easy, and anyone who participates in it must be ready to “roll with the punches”, as your human neighbors would say.

I flushed. “Thank you, Your Majesty. I treasure your friendship. And I’m beginning to think I may really need your help.”

 

Chapter Seven

Going to Hell

 

Our Lady’s sister lands in Hell, a bloody message writ,

To Hell, to Hell our miss must go, to save the cranky twit.

 

Glynus dropped me at home and, after thanking me for helping her find her parents, left with a promise to stay in touch. I immediately called Darma on my televisual and was moderately concerned when she didn’t respond.

I headed to the Red Knight and climbed inside, programming Darma’s address into the machine’s flight computer.

As I flew toward my sister’s home I looked around at the city below the Knight. It still showed the scars from recent riots, brought on by the Serpent’s attempt to take over the human world by dropping a poisonous magic veil over everything. The veil had made magic users crazy and humans even crazier, creating violence and destruction on an epic scale.

I still shuddered when I thought of it.

Dialle, Darma and I had barely managed to beat Satan back before he’d finished his work and brought the veil completely down, locking it over the Earth for all time. It would have meant the end of humans and a permanent turn toward the dark side for the magical world.

With my Settling bearing down on me, I’d almost forgotten how bad the dark side of my magics could be. I’d embraced the darkness, in fact, for whole moments at a time. Or rather, embraced the sheer pleasure that darkness could bring me. Before it burned away all light from my soul and turned me into a soulless monster like the Serpent.

The scarred earth and torn buildings far below were a stark and welcome reminder of why I had to fight my dark side with everything I had.

My destiny was in the light.

I was surer of that now than ever before.

But that didn’t make it any easier to resist the siren song of dark magics. Unrestrained power can be intoxicating.

I stopped the Knight if front of Darma’s house and sent it skyward with a command, engaging the locks as it hovered above the neighborhood.

Turning to Darma’s home, I took note of the open door with the splintered frame. A horrible sense of déjà vu slid its cold fingers down my back. The last time I’d found Darma’s door ajar like that, it had taken a whole contingent of angels to pull my sister back from the brink of death.

Pulling my knives from their hidden sheaths in my boots, I pulled my power forward and kept it shimmering just below the surface, to be pulled free if I needed it. I didn’t know what I was facing yet.

If it was a human foe or a lesser demon or devil, my knives would suffice. If my foe had more magical tricks beneath his or her sleeve, I’d need every bit of power I owned to get the upper hand.

The problem with playing for the light side is that you kind of had to play fair or you quickly found yourself toe to tippy toe with oily darkness. Then you weren’t playing for the light side anymore.

The other side isn’t constrained by silly things like rules and scruples.

Darma’s place was trashed. Furniture was smashed and walls had holes surrounded by scorch marks, telling me that somebody had laid out some serious power arrows in the small space.

But even more worrisome to me was the blood spattering the walls, from the entranceway all the way into her main living area.

Written on one large wall, in the main area of Darma’s house, were the words,Gone to Hell, not coming back,written in blood and signed with my sister’s name.

My pulse picked up and my knees went weak. She’d asked for my help and I’d blown her off to help Glynus.

Now she might be dead—or worse, she might be alive and in Hell.

I was a terrible sister.

Grabbing the cross around my neck I closed my eyes and sent out a plea to my father. After a moment he shimmered into view, but he wasn’t really there. His tall, leanly handsome form wavered softly on the air in front of me, ethereal and insubstantial. A thick lock of blond hair fell across his forehead, making him look uncharacteristically disheveled.

It was his soul form.

He frowned as he glanced around the room. “Astra, your sister asked you for help. Why has she been taken from her home by force?”

Oh-oh, he’d used his father voice instead of his benevolent angel voice.

I forced my shoulders not to lift in a dismissive shrug. Something in his sparkling blue eyes warned me he wasn’t in his happy place. “She contacted me and I came looking for her. This is what I found. I was hoping you knew something.”

Nice how I left out the middle part of the contacting and coming part, eh?

His frown deepened and his angelic complexion turned red. A rumbling sound filled the space between us. Apparently he could read between the lines of my life and see the missing parts.

Was he growling?

“Father?”

He looked heavenward, trying for calm. “I’m teaching this damn seminar on angelic ethics in the world of carnal temptation.” He lowered his bright blue gaze on me. It was filled with self-loathing. “You can imagine the ribbing I’m taking.”

I grimaced. My father, Archangel James Phelps, had been God’s right-hand man before he fell into carnal temptation with a Royal Devil Princess and begot two Tweener daughters. Yours truly and the missing Darma.

Probably not a good choice to lecture others on the subject.

Or the perfect choice, depending on your perspective.

“Ouch. Whose idea was that?”

He sighed. “I told Him it wasn’t a good idea but He insisted.”

Shaking my head I gave him my best look of pity. It didn’t seem to make him feel better.

Imagine that.

His form started to shimmer on the air. “I have to get back. I’ll send your Aunt down to help you.”

Oh god no! Not my cranky Aunt Myra.I reached for him, realizing too late that there was nothing to grab. “Wait! Just like that? You’re leaving Darma to her fate? Father!”

He shimmered back, looking only slightly ashamed. “She’s not dead or even nearly dead. I would have been told. But you need to find her and get her out of the plane she’s on.”

He started to shimmer away again. “Wait!” He frowned at me but didn’t shimmer away. “The plane she’s on? Where the Hel—um—heck is she?”

Lifting a golden eyebrow, he glanced toward the wall bearing the words written in blood. “You were right the first time, Astra. She’s been dragged to Hell. But she’s currently in an outer circle. If you can reach her quickly you can get her out before things get really ugly. If you don’t get her out let me know right away and I’ll have to intervene. I’d rather not do it at this point. I think you and Myra can get to her and I don’t need any accusations of favoritism right now.”

Horror washed over me. “But what about my Settl—”

He shimmered away and disappeared completely with a small pop on the air.

I stomped out of Darma’s home, called the Knight back and slid into a cool black leather seat. Programming the office into the directional computer, I sat back and pouted.

Just frunkin’ great! I was standing on the wobbly razor edge of my Settling and I was going to immerse myself in the dark world even more deeply. I was doomed, screwed without the fun, completely forked.

I was goin’ down.

Literallyandfiguratively.

* * * * *

 

I tried calling Emo on the Knight’s televisual with no luck. He was either avoiding my calls or too busy slaying something to talk to me. I was more disappointed by this than I should have been. My reasonable side told me he was busy doing the job I’d hired him to do. My sentimental, girly side told me he was really mad at me.

I hated my damn girly side.

When I got to the office I found it empty. No Emo.

I took a moment to skim through the reports Emo had left me and discovered that he was probably fighting off a pair of snake demons at that moment.


Page 12

I itched to join him.

But before I could even entertain the idea, the air in my office changed and the scowling form of my Aunt Myra was standing there. She was wearing the full-on regalia of a guardian angel. Shimmering white robes with silver belt and slippers. Her wings were folded against her back.

“Hey, Auntie.”

The scowl deepened. “Show some respect to your elders, Astra.” When I didn’t fall to my knees in abject apology she went on. “Are you ready?”

I shrugged. “I’m not sure what to pack, how to dress.”

“Dress for trouble and pack weapons.”

I looked down at myself and shrugged. I was dressed as I usually dressed, formfitting clothes that limited my foes’ ability to grab and hold on. My clothes were pretty much all black, so the blood and guts didn’t show as much.

I checked my boots and found that my knives were still tucked safely within them. Reaching a hand to the small of my back I felt the longer, swordlike weapon nestled safely there and I wore my belt of platinum crosses.

I was armed pretty much as usual.

“You look fine.” She reached out and grabbed my wrist before I could wrench it away. I tried to yank away from her before she got hold of me but she was way too fast.

In the blink of an eye, I found myself standing on a grassy hill, surrounded by trees and large rocks. In the distance the ground rose to sharp peaks, the grass giving way to hard scrabble earth and rocks.

Other than a slight smoky tang to the air it looked just like Earth. Frowning, I turned to her. “I thought we were going to an outer circle of Hell.”

“That’s where we are. You didn’t think the seventh circle would look like the first one, did you?”

“Well no…but I figured I’d be able to tell I was in Hell.”

A power arrow zinged past my head and splintered the wide trunk of a nearby tree. “Happy?” My aunt asked me as she turned to address the creature who’d attacked us. He was tall, leanly muscled and painfully handsome, with shoulder-length black hair and wide black eyes.

A royal devil.

When he lifted his hand to send another arrow our way, Myra raised her hands and held them in front of her, palms out. The power pinged harmlessly off her outstretched hands and shot back toward him.

He dived sideways to avoid being skewered by his own arrow, and I sent a fiery jolt of my own in his direction. He took the shot in the side and cried out, rolling behind a large boulder before I could follow it up with a killing shot.

I pulled my power forward and used it to mask my visual presence, a power I’d been working on recently, mostly to distract myself from the constant need to hump like a bunny, courtesy of my Settling.

As the world around me fell behind a shimmering yellow curtain of power, I walked toward the boulder. I was only a couple of feet away from it when my opponent’s head slid out from behind the boulder. He looked right through me, frowning at the slight waviness of the air in front of him.

Before he could figure out what the waviness meant, I grabbed him around the throat and flung him to the ground, pulling his arms around to his back and sitting on his legs.

Myra popped into view in front of him, glaring down at us. “Where is she, devil?”

He was so busy trying to see what was holding him down that he ignored her question at first. I let the obscuring veil slide away and he gasped.

I grinned. “Yup, snagged by a girl. Loser.”

One of Myra’s pretty silver slippers snaked out and connected with his jaw. I grimaced at the harsh crunching sound it made. Peering at the dainty-looking things again I wondered if she had the toes packed with lead.

“Damn, Auntie, I need a pair of those slippers.”

She just glared at me. Both of us knew I was deliberately trying to goad her. To what purpose, even I didn’t know. It just felt right.

“Where is Darma, vile son of the serpent?”

The unapologetic devil beneath me lifted his head and smiled at her. Blood ran in a thin ribbon down his handsome golden brow to drip on the ground beneath. A large bump had risen to mar the perfection of his royal features.

I really needed some of those slippers.

He lifted his head and sniffed, turning to me with wide eyes.

Oh-oh. He’d smelled my Settling on me.

Twisting his arms painfully behind him, I leaned closer. “Don’t even think about it.”

Royal Devils gained power as well as pleasure from sex. Their entire hierarchy was built on a sexual base of power, fed by sex, strengthened by it and destroyed by the lack of it.

As a creature of part Royal Devil descent, I’d always felt strongly the pull of my sexual side. But until my Settling I’d been able to control it.

Now I mostly just anticipated humping anything that moved, twitched or vibrated.

It was humiliating.

I was even starting to notice the way the scum of the underworld beneath my buttocks felt against my hungry skin.

So I smacked him. Hard. And then smacked him again.

Unfortunately it only made him hornier.

I smelled it on him.

And I realized as my panties dampened that I’d kind of liked it too.Shit!

Another gift of my Settling.

“I want to know where my sister is, you black-hearted underbottom dweller, or I’ll vaporize you on the spot.”

He turned his head completely around on his neck and grinned up at me.

“Eww!” I said. I had to keep remembering I was in an upper circle of Hell. The rules were different there.

“She’s with my master. You won’t get her free. He wants her for himself. But you and I could have some fun before I kill you.”

“Har! Have you noticed who has who…er…whom here?”

Just like that, the arms I was holding behind his back thinned, elongated and skimmed free from my hands. I jerked and tried to space shift but quickly discovered that he had one iron-fingered hand wrapped around my wrist and had flung a chain toward my Aunt Myra’s ankle with the other hand before either of us had time to squeak in alarm.

When he released me I realized he’d clamped an angel’s chain around my wrist. Both chains were attached to a wide belt made of gold he wore around his waist.

He immediately tugged on my chain, which had created a strange weakness in my limbs as soon as it had been clamped on, and I fell against a chest that I hadn’t noticed was so broad and hard before. His black eyes swirled with power as he tipped my chin, forcing me to meet his power-saturated gaze.

The immediate result was more weakness, less ability to resist.

“You were foreseen, lovely Tweener. My master will be pleased that you have come so quickly and were so easily captured.” He leaned down and caught my bottom lip between strong, white teeth, biting down hard enough to draw blood. His tongue swirled out and swept the blood away and he moaned softly, closing his eyes as if savoring the taste. “Delectable.”

My body softened under a wave of pure lust and my knees buckled. He caught me around the waist with a husky chuckle, pulling me upright again. “Patience, my sweet. We’ll have time when I get you to the castle. I’m sure he’ll let me keep you to myself for a while as a reward for capturing you.”

My stomach roiled with disgust. Beneath my body’s weakness, my mind still clung to a thin stream of reason, which allowed me to overcome his magics and my own damned Settling and recognize the danger Myra and I were in.

I glanced at her. What I saw made my blood run cold.

In general, chained angels didn’t fare well at the hands of their devil captors. The chains that connected them to their hosts were built of black magics, which was the antithesis of the light magics that created an angel.

Black magics were like acid to the celestial army. It ate away their strength, their will, their ability to function and fight their fate.

And an angel of Myra’s power would suffer doubly, even fourfold from its effects. Already I saw its poison in the gray pallor of her skin and the shakiness of her hands. She leaned heavily against a large rock and seemed to be panting with the effort to breathe.

In desperation I reached out to her with my mind.Angel?I was relieved to find I could still communicate telepathically with her.

She shook her head slightly, glancing toward our host.Later, Astra!

She turned away as the Royal slid a large hand down my throat and cupped one of my breasts, the nipple peaking hungrily into his palm. Pain slid across her pretty blue eyes before she could hide it from me. I knew her well enough to know it was pain for me, not herself.

I thanked the Big Guy she’d turned away when the Royal’s hand continued over the soft roundness of my belly and into the moist vee between my thighs. My body swayed toward him even as my mind screamed in rebellion of this treatment.

That was when I decided that, no matter what happened to me, I would kill the bottom dweller who was currently pawing me. And his master too.

Nobody touched Astra Q. Phelps without permission from the Astra Q. Phelps dating committee of one. That’s me.

And despite what my body was telling him, my mind hadn’t—and would never have—given him permission to touch.

I’d kill him happily for that alone.

* * * * *

 

The castle our captor referred to was a dark blotch in the side of a black mountain that looked as if it had been burned into cinder and hardened into coal.

The black walls lifted high into a yellow, sulfurous sky, its jagged roofline peppered with the thick, deadly-looking bodies of hundreds of watchers, whose job it was to watch the skies and ground for angelic forays into Hell. The angels occasionally came down looking for the un-damned, whom the devils had dragged down for sport or to use as slaves.

I counted the watchers and took note of their attitudes as our host, whose name we’d learned was Mordat, hauled us toward the huge black doors at the front. An enormous pair of dragons guarded the doors, an enormous red and a slightly smaller black. Their midnight eyes sparked with speculation as they landed on me.

I held the black one’s eye for a moment longer than strictly wise, trying to assess its vulnerability. Black dragons tended to be slightly more aggressive than their red counterparts, and more opinionated.

Reds prided themselves on being moderate creatures. Since they had no strong personality traits or convictions, they were fairly easy to sway, making them easy marks to be lured by evil.

I figured, of the two, the black would give me the most trouble, despite his slightly smaller size. Myra caught my eye and gave me a small nod.

She agreed with my assessment.

Once we were through the doors of the castle, I started trying to figure out where they might be keeping Darma. On one side of the large, stone-floored foyer, a wide staircase led downward. The stench and cold, musty air coming from the stairwell told me it probably led to the dungeons.

Normally I would assume that was where they’d keep her. But since Mordat had so helpfully informed us that the Master fancied my acid-tongued sibling, I had to assume she was locked in an upper room somewhere. Easy to reach and pleasantly coiffed and perfumed for maximum enjoyment.

The poor slob didn’t know what was headin’ his way when he tried to savor that little morsel.

Hopefully he had scales for skin.

I had hoped our host would take us directly to his Master, but he was apparently one of those kids who didn’t like to share his toys. He handed Myra’s chain to a lower-form devil and gave it instructions to take her to the dungeons.

My aunt and I shared a look.I’ll find you later,I told her.

She nodded and let the devil drag her toward the musky stairwell. I watched her go with a heavy heart. Her gown was already turning brown and her wings hung tattered at an odd angle. Her tiny slippers skimmed wearily along the ground.

I needed to get her out of there fast. Just being in an outer circle of Hell was draining to a member of the Celestial Army. Having the chain around her ankle only exacerbated the destruction.

The chain around my wrist tightened as Mordat pulled. “Come, lovely slave. I feel the need to taste your treasures before presenting you to the Master.” His perfect lips tipped upward in an evil smile. “I may keep you to myself for a few days before telling the Master I’ve found you.” He yanked hard on the chain and I fell against his broad chest. His nostrils flared. “You smell edible.” His lips touched mine and a frisson of heat ripped through me. I fought against a brain meltdown as his hands slid over my buttocks and his heated tongue swept out to encircle my chin, trailing upward, over the tip of my nose, where he bit gently. “Every inch of you is yummy. I’m going to have so much fun.” His breath was like heated musk on my face, filled with the threat of sexual events to come.

My body warmed to the threat, opening for it, panting for it. I reached deep into my psyche, searching for the light side I knew was buried in there. No luck. I’d done too good a job burying it.

Failing that, I told myself I wasn’t looking forward to being plundered. As warm cream ran from between my thighs I knew it was going to be a hard sell.

We hurried down marble-walled hallways and up several sets of stairs lit only by smoky, oily lamps hanging from the walls.

As we climbed high into the castle I cast out with my mind, searching for Darma. I kept my mental forays short, in case Mordat could catch them through the chain joining us. Although I felt a few ripples in my communications channel, Darma didn’t respond.

I wasn’t discouraged though. In fact, the more deeply Mordat took me into the mountain, the more certain I was that my sister was tucked away somewhere in that very mountain with me.

All I had to do was find her.

We’d arrived in front of a heavy wooden door and, with a flip of his hand the door flew open before us. Mordat pulled me through and slammed it shut behind us with another wave of his hand.

He dragged me through lushly decorated rooms, filled with silks and gilded furniture, and flung me toward an enormous bed, landing on top of me almost before I’d finished bouncing twice.


Page 13

His lips covered mine and my Settling roared up to meet him, completely unrestrained.

He growled against my mouth as my powers tangled with his, spinning us into a vortex of heat and sensual awareness that almost sucked me completely under. His clothes disappeared and he ground an enormous, rock-hard cock against my belly, his tongue spearing between my lips to steal my thoughts.

My traitorous hands slipped to glide along the soft smoothness of his perfect buttocks, on an impulse diving down between them to explore the tightly puckered spot there.

He gasped as I drove a finger into him and spread his heavy thighs, giving me better access. I consumed his lips and ruthlessly captured his tongue, falling completely under the spell of my lust.

Something tugged on the edges of my consciousness. Warning bells clanged. I ignored them and reached between us to clasp his enormous cock in one fist.

“Pump me, little Tweener. Yes…oh dark lord, yes!”

Mordat’s mouth left mine and traveled downward, seeking a painful nipple beneath my soft sweater. I arched upward, hungry for his touch.

I was lost.

Gone.

Then my daemon hickey sparked and Dialle’s voice burst into my mind. “Astra! Where are…” And he was gone again.

But it was enough. I had some clarity again. Lifting my hand, I sucked my sore knuckle and felt a new power surging through me.

I’m coming, Astra.

The air behind Mordat shimmered and suddenly the Slayer stood there, grinning at me from over Mordat’s naked shoulder.

I peaked an eyebrow at him and gave Mordat a shove backward, using every ounce of power I could summon. No easy feat with the cloaking effects of the chain draining them.

The Slayer caught him and Mordat’s black eyes widened just before the Slayer sliced through his throat with a long, deadly knife, dropping him to the floor at his feet.

The golden chain that trailed between us hit the ground as he died.

I lay there, face flushed, body thrumming with unfulfilled lust, legs spread wide, and looked up at the gorgeous creature who’d just rescued me.

He stared down at me, his eyes filled with answering need.

The air between us sizzled.

His nostrils flared as he scented my lust.

I whimpered, unable to stop myself, and the Slayer took a step toward the bed.

I reached for him.

He reached for me.

And my head exploded.

 

Chapter Eight

Hidden…In Plain Sight

 

A voice in Hell doth beckon her, to a room atop a tower,

But when she stands within that room, the outlook turns most dour.

 

Astra! Astra, is that you?

I rubbed hard on my temples.Inside voice, Darma. You nearly exploded my sinuses.My sister always did have impeccable timing.

Talk about a buzz kill.

I sat up and pushed at my clothing.Yeah. I’m here. Where are you? We’re coming to get you.

We?I could easily hear the hope in her voice.Is Torre with you?

Shaking my head I glanced at the Slayer. He had settled back against the wall and was smiling at me.

No. I brought someone else to help us. I don’t know where Dialle and Torre are.

We have to find them!

Lacking the strength to argue with her I simply nodded.We need to get out of here first and save Myra from the dungeons.

The dungeons? What’s she doing down there?

Looking for you.

But I’m not in the dungeons.

All-righty then.We needed to cover all our bases, Darma. If you had been in the dungeons, Myra would have found you, wouldn’t she?

I’m locked in a room at the top of the castle. There’s this guy, I think he might be from the Royal court, he’s been drooling all over me.

I grinned.Does he still have all his man parts?

Huh? I don’t know, Astra! You ask the strangest questions…he’s not a eunuch if that’s what you’re asking.

Zing! I should have known better. Humor flies right over my sister’s head.

I grabbed the golden chain off the floor and wrapped it around my waist, figuring it might come in handy. Then I pushed myself to my feet and headed toward the door.Tell me as much as you can about your location.I jerked my head toward the door and the Slayer opened it, peering out into the hallway before sliding outside. I followed him out.

I’m on the top floor. There are two guards on my door. I’ve tried to leave the room and they won’t let me.

Seeing a stairwell at the end of the hallway where we stood, I touched the Slayer’s arm and nodded toward it.Ok, we’re climbing. What will we find at the top of the stairs? Is there only one door up there?

No. There were several doors. I’m in the room at the very end of the hall, the one with the double set of golden doors.

The Slayer and I had reached the top of the stairs. We couldn’t climb any higher. The hallway we peered into was empty and had several doors off it.

As Darma had said, the doors at the end of the hall looked to be covered in gold.

I see the doors but there are no guards on it.

Hold on.My mind went silent for a moment. Soft static was the only indication I had that my sister had returned.They’re still out there. You must be on the wrong floor.

“What’s wrong?”

I looked at the Slayer, frowning. “She says there should be guards outside the doors and there aren’t any.” I walked to a window and leaned out, looking up and down. “We’re on the top floor. This should be the right place.”

“Unless we’re in the wrong tower.”

Realization flooded me. Sighing, I shook my head.Darma, which tower are you in?

I don’t know, I can’t see any other towers from this window.

I looked at the Slayer. “Something’s not right. She says she can’t see any other towers. The way the windows and towers are placed she should be able to see at least one other tower from where she is.” I looked at the golden doors at the end of the hallway and started toward them.

The Slayer fell in behind me as I concentrated my power and shot a power arrow into the doors. They flew open and we strode through, barely slowing to make sure there was nothing waiting for us inside.

I had a suspicion. And if I was right, it didn’t bode well for my sister.

As I’d suspected, the room was empty. I strode to the window, looking outside.Darma, where exactly are you in the room?

Right now I’m standing next to the window.

I glanced toward the Slayer. He was leaning against the doorframe across the room, his arms crossed over his chest. He peaked an eyebrow at me.

Describe the room to me.

What? Are you crazy, Astra? This is no time to talk decorating tips. Come and get me out of here before that creepy guy comes back!

Darma! Work with me here, please! I’m standing in the room where you said you were and you’re not here. I need to make sure we’re talking about the same room.

That’s crazy!

Maybe not as crazy as you think, Darma.I’d experienced a similar thing before, when I’d gone to the Church of the Twined Hands during the investigation that had brought Dialle and me into the same sphere.

The top floor of the church had been a gateway to another dimension, connecting to an identical room in that dimension. If what I suspected was true, we were a lot farther from Darma than I’d thought, and, with dozens of other dimensions to consider, there was no way to know where she was.

Darma sighed dramatically in my mind, the long-suffering sister.The floors are stone, the walls are stone, the furniture is not stone but it might as well be. I think I have a blister on my ass from sitting on this divan.

I cast my eyes on the room’s only furniture, aside from the bed.What color is the divan?

Mustard yellow, with burgundy fringe on the bottom and dark wine colored pillows.

Bingo. I started toward the Slayer.Stay put, Darma. It might take me longer than I’d thought to find you.

But what do I do if he comes back?

Use your powers.

Astra, I told you…

Grow the hell up, Darma! Use your powers. It might be the only thing that keeps you alive until I can find you!

I brutally severed our mental communications and stopped before the Slayer.

“What’s going on, Astra?”

“My sister’s not here. She’s in another dimension.”

His sexy golden eyes narrowed. “Thatdoescomplicate things.”

I glared at him. “You think?”

His wide lips curved in a smile. Reaching out, he swept his thumb over my lips. “Are you aware that you use hostility as a defense when you’re unsure of yourself?”

My mind immediately dismissed his observation as I opened my mouth to excoriate him for it. Yeah, I totally missed the irony too.

Before my acid tongue could kick into gear, he leaned down and placed his mouth over mine. His kiss infused my body with heat, bringing every nerve ending in my skin to life in an explosion of sensation. His hands slid around my waist and he pulled me up hard against his body, so that I could feel the long, firm length of him against my belly.

I shivered and felt my knees soften under the sensual onslaught. Just like that, all the problems I had on my plate disappeared under a wave of lust.

Damn Settling.

The Slayer’s big hands skimmed over my hips and around to cup my buttocks. My hands closed behind his neck, pulling him closer to my hungry lips. I inhaled his heated breath, nibbled on his exquisitely soft lips and generally settled in to infuse myself with his essence.

Some small part of my mind realized that he was distracting me from my task.

That he was dangerous for his ability to do just that.

And that I needed to push him away and clear my mind so I could find my sister and figure out what was going on.

But my body had shot well past caution and was heading toward instant gratification at breakneck speed. My slut-monkey side had bitch-slapped my reasonable side into silent submission. And my devil side was stomping all over the dazed and supine form of my angel side.

I was a sexual locomotive heading down a steep incline. And the Slayer was the stop at the bottom.

Waiting for me to land.

Static buzzed inside my mind but I ignored it.

Voices flashed in bits and pieces, lost beneath the cravings of my body. A familiar scent wafted over me, setting off alarms in my sex-dazed mind even as I forced them away from awareness.

I grabbed the Slayer’s shirt and ripped it open, sending buttons skittering across the floor around our feet.

He skimmed his hot hands up under my sweater and slid them over my bra, releasing the screaming hard peaks of my nipples from their lacy jail and bending his head to suck one tender bud into his hot mouth.

I nearly came on the spot from the feel of his heated mouth on my nipple.

I dropped my head back and groaned, skimming my hands over his smooth chest. I took his nipples between my thumbs and forefingers and tweaked them gently, feeling the vibrations of his resulting moan against my breast.

My daemon hickey sparked hard, and I jumped.

But the Slayer bit down on my nipple and the pain distracted me again, drawing me back into his sensual sphere. He slid a hand down my belly, causing my vagina to clench in anticipation, and pushed past the stretchy band of my soft pants.

I cried out as his fingers found the starving bud of my clitoris and widened my stance to give him room. His talented fingers tugged and rubbed me to new heights of desire, sending me to the razor edge of release.

Frantic suddenly for the taste of him, I grabbed his chin and yanked it upward, covering his mouth hungrily with my own just as his thick, hot fingers slipped inside my body.

I started to come, had rolled, in fact, over that first peak and was heading down the wonderful slope toward delightful culmination, when the air around us changed and something bright and deadly sizzled past, exploding the wall behind the Slayer in a spray of dust and rock shards.

The Slayer jumped back, his hands coming up to defend himself, and I turned, my body screaming over being denied its pleasure and my mind in a sex-induced fog.

“Step away from him, Astra, so I can kill him.” Dialle’s voice was thick with emotion, rich and husky as I remembered it.

He stood several feet away, his pupils swirling with the colors of rage. He wore slim, formfitting black pants and a white pirate shirt, which was open to his waist and billowed around him in a power-induced wind.

His silky black hair danced around his square jaw in the same breeze.

His beautiful, sculpted lips were a tight line and a muscle in his throat and jaw jumped as he tried to hold back his anger.

He stood with his lean, muscular legs spread in a warrior’s stance and his arms held away from his body, ready to do battle.

He looked absolutely scrumptious. I licked my lips, suddenly realizing how much I’d missed him.

My daemon hickey sparked and spat angrily and I jumped, gasping at the pain. Gradually my mind started to clear and I realized I’d been under some kind of spell.

The Slayer had been either the cause or simply the lucky recipient.

I put a clamp on my instinctive anger because I wasn’t at all sure the Slayer hadn’t been as much a victim as I was.

My Settling was becoming a force all its own.

And it was possible I could no longer control it.

“Dialle.” I lifted a hand toward him and took a step in his direction.

“Step away, Astra.” His voice was cold and saturated with anger. I shivered under the sound of it.


Page 14

“No. Dialle, this might not be his fault… My Settling…” Whatever I might have been ready to say drifted away as he turned his swirling midnight eyes in my direction.

His perfect golden features could have been made of stone. They were hard with anger and I realized the anger was directed just as much at me as it was the Slayer.

“I will deal with you later,my queen.” The words were bitten off like bitter fruit and spat into the air between us. “Now move away from this pile of excrement so that I can kill him, and then you and I will have a long, clarifying discussion.”

I frowned. I was pretty sure I didn’t want to have that particular discussion with him. I squared my shoulders and stepped directly in front of the Slayer. “No.”

The wind buffeting Dialle increased to the point that he was standing at the center of a veritable wind tunnel. His eyes narrowed on me and I saw that they were almost completely red, swirling madly as he fought to keep his temper under control. “Are you actually standing there protecting your lover from me, Astra?”

“Dialle, he’s not my lover!”

The Slayer made a sound and I fought the urge to turn and shush him. Dialle lifted a single elegant eyebrow in derision.

“I find you all but frunking right before my very eyes and you have the unmitigated gall to tell me you aren’t lovers?”

I glared across the space at him, suddenly reluctant to discuss the embarrassment of my un-Settled position in front of the Slayer. But after a moment, when I realized that Dialle was not going to get the point and let me off the hook, I finally said, “Are you forgetting my little…problem…Dialle?”

He continued to stare at me, his cold expression not changing even the tiniest bit. But I noticed some of the angry color had left his eyes and the wind in the room had died to the point that it no longer battered the Slayer and me with its intensity.

Finally Dialle gave me a single nod. “Am I to believe that you were helpless against your Settling, Astra?”

I bit my lip, not sure myself exactly what I was helpless against, but for now it seemed the wisest course to go with my stupid Settling. “I’m not proud of it but yes.” I was happy that my voice didn’t waver. I even sounded moderately certain.

Dialle continued to stare at me.

I heard movement behind me and the Slayer cleared his throat.

Dialle lifted a hand and a power arrow skimmed past me again, close enough to burn my arm with its heat.

The Slayer dived behind the divan as more chunks of wall burst around him.

I closed the space between Dialle and me, flinging myself into his arms to stop him from killing the Slayer.

Big mistake.

As soon as we touched all the breath left my body and the sexual tide started to rise in me again.

Dialle wrapped a hard, strong arm around my waist and held me tight for a beat in time. He left one hand free, no doubt so he could fry the Slayer if he got the chance, and looked down into my eyes. “Astra.” For the first time the anger fled his gaze long enough to show me the pain hiding behind it. His lips parted and he looked as if he might lower his head and kiss me.

I reached up and touched his jaw, smoothing a finger over the slight stubble there. “I’m sorry, Dialle. I need to try to explain.” Amazingly, and infuriatingly, tears filled my eyes. I blinked angrily, hating to appear weak.

The mask slid over his eyes again and he released my waist, stepping away from me as if he couldn’t bear to touch me. “We will discuss this later.”

The air in the room changed and my hand throbbed. I slid it behind my back, suddenly remembering the Slayer’s mark.

The last thing I wanted Dialle to see at that moment was that mark. “He’s gone.” I told Dialle.

I wasn’t sure if I was relieved or pissed that the Slayer had left me holding the proverbial bag. What I did know was that I still had a whole passel of problems to solve, and now I had a new one.

Sighing, I turned away and started walking toward the door.

“Astra!”

I shook my head without turning. “I have to save Darma and Myra, then I need to figure out what’s going on. A sudden memory had me stopping dead in my tracks. A red, scaly face with a broken jaw flashed before my eyes and I heard a gravelly voice say, “King Dialle sent me to kill you.” The audio reel in my head switched to another track, and I heard Euryice the traitorous black dragon say, “Youwill die soon, dragon fighter, and your lover will be the cause.”

I turned, my gaze locked on to Dialle’s hostile face. I wasn’t sure how to ask the question that needed asking so I just came right out with it. “Did you send assassins to kill me?”

I watched his impossibly handsome face very carefully for any signs that he was guilty of the charge. I saw a surprised widening of his black eyes before they narrowed in a frown, but the emotion that flashed across his features didn’t look like guilt to me. I wasn’t sure what it was.

“Of course not, Astra. Why would I want to do that?” He walked toward me with long, ground-eating strides, clasping my arms in a hard grip. “Why are you asking me that? Has someone tried to kill you?”

I laughed. I couldn’t help it. Whohadn’ttried to kill me over the last few days?

I said as much to Dialle and his frown deepened to a scowl. After a few beats his expression cleared and I thought I read understanding of some kind there. “You must come with me. I can protect you until we figure out what’s going on.”

I started to shake my head but didn’t quite manage it. I soon found myself locked in space and time, unable to move, my ears ringing with complete silence, as Dialle shifted us away from the castle on the edge of Hell, to a new place in Hades that was probably eminently worse.

Just like that I found myself driving inexorably closer to the culmination of my Settling, surrounded by devils and devilry, deep in the heart of the purest evil in the universe. Skirting the scalding fires of Hell.

Yeah, my life just sucked.

And I was so totally screwed.

 

Chapter Nine

Haunted by the Past

 

A King must ever show his serfs, the power at his hands,

So another who would steal his crown, might think twice about his plans.

 

We landed in a stone corridor that was lit only by fiery sconces on the wall. The thick stench of burning oil and sulfur permeated the heated air. The air in the corridor was so hot, in fact, that it was hard to breathe.

I immediately felt weakness stealing over me as my light side cringed from the dark stain of evil hanging in the air. I had to assume that Dialle had taken me into one of the deeper circles of Hell.

If nothing else, the smell of sulfur in the air was not a good sign.

I grabbed Dialle’s arm as he started to stride away from me. “I have to get Darma and Myra out of that last dimension. I must go back there.”

He shook off my arm and started down the corridor.

There was nothing for me to do but follow.

“Right now Myra’s probably safer where she is. We’ll go back and get her as soon as we can.”

I frowned. It hadn’t escaped my notice that he hadn’t said anything about Darma. I figured that was because my sister wasn’t Dialle’s favorite person.

“Myra won’t last long in that dungeon, Dialle. She’s been chained.”

He stopped outside a wide wooden door and frowned at me. “She’ll be fine. Just stay close to me and keep your mouth shut when we get inside, Astra. I’m in extremely sensitive negotiations and I don’t need you frunking things up.”

I glared at him but said nothing. The door opened and Dialle and I stepped through. My skin started to crawl as soon as I entered the room.

It was filled with dark worlders. But that wasn’t what bothered me. It was the humans that made my skin crawl. The place was filled with the dregs of humanity, the ones who’d walked on the wrong side of a dark, twisted road throughout their lifetimes and found the fires of Hell waiting at the end of it. These were the most evil, corrupt and irredeemable types, the worst of the worst.

And worse than that, if they were in that room, I realized that meant the room was in one of the innermost circles of Hell.

In addition to the human debris, demons stood and sat around the enormous space, slavering gargoyles pacing and drooling around their feet at the end of short chains. Trolls, black fairies and harpies lounged among Royal Devils on long, back divans, and lesser devils rimmed the perimeter, their beady eyes sliding over the room’s inhabitants dully.

I knew why they were there. They were fodder in case things went badly.

Ranged in rows all along the back of the room were Dialle’s Royal Guard, dressed in their scarlet-colored, gold-embossed uniforms and fully armed. There must have been at least a hundred of them there.

I wondered what Dialle was negotiating.

Astra?

Apparently our mental drawers had been opened again. I turned and realized with a start that, while I’d been checking out the room’s inhabitants, Dialle had been walking away from me, his long, determined strides quickly carrying him toward the front of the cavernous room. I felt hot, fetid breath against the back of my neck and turned to find a rock demon staring down at me. His wide, gray, craggy features were fixed in a lustful expression. As I glowered at him, he reached out and touched my cheek with a thick, cool finger that was rough all over like sandstone.

I slapped at his big hand and then gasped in pain, pulling my wounded digits back to cradle them against my chest.

The demon opened its roughhewn lips and laughed, the sound rumbling through the room like an avalanche. It slid a surprisingly pink tongue out and waggled it suggestively at me.

“Get away from me you rocky horror show.” I couldn’t believe the creature had the stone gonads to make a move on me, Dialle’s chosen queen. Right in front of Dialle and the rest of the assemblage in that room.

In fact, I realized as I looked around, that there was a general lack of the necessary fear and respect that Dialle would need to be successful in his negotiations. Whatever they were.

The faces that returned my perusal ran from arrogant to downright bored.

Interesting.

I left the demon rumbling happily behind me and headed toward Dialle. My own personal royal devil king waited with a glare on his handsome face and a heavy throne waiting just under his hard, sexy butt. He held a hand toward me and I noticed there was a second, smaller throne next to his.

So, why is my throne smaller than yours?

I am the king.

But I thought you needed me to keep your kingdom strong.

Yes. That is true.

Then my throne should be bigger than yours.

Don’t be absurd, Astra.

I’m not being absurd, I’m being logical.

Stop causing trouble. I have much larger problems to address right now.

Larger than my own personal happiness? I can’t imagine. I seem to remember being told that my happiness determines the health of your court.

I stopped in front of him and looked at the hand he’d extended to settle me into my tiny little throne, which I now noticed had fewer jewels on it than his did.I can’t sit in this, not only is it too small, but it’s downright stingy on the jewels. This thing’s like a slap in the face.I crossed my arms over my chest and glared at him.I’m feeling decidedly underappreciated.

Astra!

His tone told me I’d pushed him as far as I could for the moment. I grinned and he rolled his eyes.Sit and listen. I need your insights on what occurs here today.

I allowed him to hand me into my measly, ridiculous throne before he sat in his enormous, well-appointed monstrosity.

I glanced at him. He took a deep breath, settling himself into some semblance of calmness.

Time for the pièce de résistance.If you value my insights so much, it seems odd that you’d put me into such a ridiculous throne.

“Hades!” he exploded. His handsome face darkened with rage and his eyes swirled with angry color. His hands fisted on the arms of his ornate throne.

Around us the inhabitants of the room jerked and blinked, and the room erupted in flame. The temperature in that cavernous room rose quickly under Dialle’s temper. Drapes burst into flames and the divans started smoldering. Lounging bad guys leapt quickly to their feet to avoid singed buttocks and charred bollocks.

I watched the assemblage behind a heat curtain that started somewhere beyond the throne area and spread toward the back.

Lesser devils started to pant and look around in fear, considering bolting. Their beady gazes kept sliding back to Dialle as if assessing whether they’d rather take their chances with him, or stay in that room and fry.

The stone walls actually began to run with moisture as if they were melting and several of the humans had already dropped to their knees, covered in sweat. Their faces were purple and their gazes blank, as if they were one bead of sweat away from death.

Even the dark worlders, Hell dwellers all, who, let’s face it, were used to fire, were starting to look a little peaky.

I rolled my lips to keep from smiling. Nobody looked bored or belligerent anymore. As the temperature in the room climbed, their focus on Dialle rose too.

There. Now you have their attention, Dialle.

He turned to me, his features still hard with anger. I watched as his pretty eyes softened in realization and his lips opened in surprise. As he turned away, shaking his head in disbelief, his lips trembled with the smile he didn’t want me to see.

Dialle let the heat level drop but kept it smoldering just below the surface, easily felt by even the most impervious of the room’s inhabitants.

I sat back in my tiny throne and let myself feel a little smug.

Dialle’s first words ripped that smugness right out of me.

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