The moment I’d heard the King of Afterworld was coming to Otherworld—this time for sure—I’d turned to my work schedule and crammed it up with enough things to do that I would have no reason to be anywhere near Brume Villa for the whole day. I was sure the others could tell the king all about everything that had happened. They didn’t need me there.
It wasn’t that I had a beef with the king. Quite the opposite, really. My plan was to avoid him for as long as I could for the sake of my own sanity.
Of course, my plan was derailed almost as soon as I started in on my work when Zane sent me a rapid fire string of texts threatening my beautiful wings unless I could find Nox and bring him to the villa where the king had arrived. Apparently, Nox didn’t have his phone on him yet again, and unlike me, he was needed at the meeting, since he was the only one who’d seen the evil queen of Underworld.
And since I was the only winged friend they could order around, of course I got stuck with looking for Nox.
Sighing, I rubbed my palm over my face before sliding away from my desk. Standing up, I stretched my arms above my head while being careful and keeping my wings folded. I’d knocked over way too many things with my wings, and I’d learned my lesson. Mostly.
“There goes my plan of hiding out,” I muttered, shaking my head as I walked over to the window and leaned out, hoping I’d miraculously spot Nox on the grounds and not have to go looking for him. Of course, I wasn’t that lucky, so I leaped out the window, flapping my wings to keep from crashing headfirst onto the ground.
As I flew, I scanned the path to his cabin, really hoping I wouldn’t be interrupting Nox and Harlan. I’d almost done it once, but those two were loud, and I’d found myself flying off in the opposite direction, my skin blazing hot at the things I’d heard. I wasn’t a prude by any means, but those two were in a league of their own.
I breathed a sigh of relief when I spotted them, hand in hand and strolling down the path. It was clear they were headed for the villa, but at the rate they were going, they wouldn’t get there for another ten minutes, and Zane would have my hide if I didn’t hurry them along.
“Just tell them they’ve been summoned, and you can leave,” I told myself, banking hard to land close to them.
Harlan was talking softly to Nox when I landed, and I closed the distance between us, glaring at Nox as I spoke. “There you are! When will you start keeping your phone on you? Zane texted. King Tharion is here, and you’ve been summoned. Damien thought you should explain the infected souls’ situation since you talked to them all.” There, that should do it, right? I was itching to get away, and I rolled my eyes when Nox pulled his phone out of his pocket. Seriously, why was I friends with this man?
“I do have my phone,” he mumbled, eyeing his phone. “I just accidentally put it on silent.”
I shook my head, muttering under my breath about making me come all this way for nothing. Harlan, the sap, merely smiled fondly at his mate. I paid for getting distracted by his sappiness when Nox threw an arm over my shoulders and started leading me toward the villa. Fuck, I didn’t want to go there. I didn’t want to see him.
But it wasn’t like I could tell that to Nox. The last thing I wanted to do was reveal my pathetic crush on a man that I had no business crushing on. It was a secret I’d managed to hold on to for all these years, and I intended to keep it that way. This wasn’t the first time I’d be in the same room as the king of Afterworld, and I’d manage just like I had all the other times.
Still, I found myself chattering almost nervously as Nox tugged me along, talking about whatever that came to mind just to keep myself from thinking about who I’d be seeing in a few short minutes.
It was only when Nox suddenly stopped walking that I trailed off, realizing something was off.
Harlan was at Nox’s side in an instant, steadying him with a grip on his arm as he asked, “What is it?”
“A portal,” Nox growled, worry flashing through his eyes. “I knew there was something!”
“Uh, care to share with the class?” I asked hesitantly. The worry on his face was starting to worry me too, especially when he started pacing.
“I kept thinking it couldn’t be this easy. That a ward, no matter how strong it was, couldn’t be the answer we’d been looking for. That there had to be something we were overlooking.” He stopped walking suddenly, turning to look at Harlan. “Harlan, what if there was a portal inside the Chasm? Would they be able to get out that way?” he demanded, and I had a sinking feeling in my chest. A part of me had known the ward couldn’t be a permanent solution, but I’d been hoping it’d give us some extra time to figure out a plan of action.
Harlan shook his head, his eyes turning to the top of the Chasm’s tower. “No matter how much magic they’ve collected in there, they won’t have enough to build a portal strong enough.”
“But what if the portal was already there?” Nox asked, and I shook my head. Oh no, no, no. He couldn’t mean that, could he?
“Already there?” Harlan asked, confusion clouding his face. “Why would there be a portal in the Burning Chasm?”
Nox glanced at me, and I knew he was thinking the same thing. “The demon realm,” I murmured, and all thoughts of staying away from a certain king disappeared. “We need to tell Damien,” I said instead, worry for my family overtaking everything else.
I took off before Nox could say anything else, running the rest of the way since it’d be easier than flying the short distance. My mind was on one thing alone: telling the others before the dark souls made their next move.
And yet, I stopped short in the doorway of the lounge where everyone was gathered, my eyes falling on the man I’d been trying so hard to avoid. He looked just the same as always, just as beautiful. His golden horns gleamed in the light, his russet skin shining with a soft, golden glow. His wings were hidden, but I knew they were there, similar to mine but a thousand times more magnificent. His eyes, pale green and bright, were the same as always, but unlike the other times, they didn’t just pass over me. His gaze froze when it fell on me, and that was when I noticed the difference.
I’d seen him hundreds of times before today, sneaking glances at him when no one was watching. I’d seen his soul a hundred times too, its beauty, its brightness. Yet, somehow, I’d never noticed this before.
Something smacked into my back, and I winced at the pressure on my wings. “Why the hell did you stop?” Nox grumbled, shifting to my side. I couldn’t bring myself to move, and I let out a shuddering breath, my eyes still trained on Tharion, who was looking right back at me.
“He’s my mate,” I murmured, shock clear in my voice.
“What? Who?” Nox demanded, and I could see him scanning the room out of the corner of my eyes.
“The king of Afterworld,” I murmured, wondering how this was possible, how I hadn’t realized this before.
Celeste was supposed to be here with me. They were my twin, and they were also Fate, the one responsible for directing souls on their path, giving them a chance to find their forever with the person who would be their perfect match. I’d never asked them how exactly it worked, how they knew who to pair with who, how they found the one soul that would complete another from the billions of souls that existed, in different realms, in different stages of their lives.
Before I’d come to Otherworld, Celeste had stopped me with a warm hand on my arm, their braids clinking as they’d tilted their head just so. They’d told me they had something urgent they needed to take care of, that they’d join me later, that they knew I could help the Otherworlders on my own if I had to. Then, they’d asked me if they could have my ring.
It was a ring they’d gifted me with a few decades ago, a gaudy piece with a huge onyx stone set in a gold frame. I’d loved it instantly, something about the stone speaking to me. I’d slid it on my finger and never removed it, never felt the need to.
“Wasn’t this a gift? Why do you want it back?” I’d asked them, reluctant to give it back.
They’d smiled that soft, mysterious smile that was more Fate than Celeste, and taken my hand in theirs. “Because you don’t need it anymore, dear brother,” they’d told me, sliding the ring off my finger before I could protest. I hated when they went all mysterious and shit, and I would’ve demanded answers if I hadn’t been running late. Now, I wished I had.
I rubbed my thumb over the bare spot on my finger where the ring had sat until earlier today, my eyes still stuck on the soul collector standing in the doorway of the room. I knew who he was. He was Lionel, the chief of Freya’s Army. A brave and kind soul collector whom I’d seen many, many times before today, in various meetings and get togethers.
And yet, I’d never seen him the way I was seeing him now. I knew I would’ve recognized him, what he was to me, within seconds of seeing him, but somehow, I hadn’t.
I bit my lip when I realized his eyes, deep pools of black, reminded me an awful lot of the stone in the ring that Celeste had taken from me.
My thumbnail dug into the spot I’d been rubbing, and the sharp pain was nothing compared to the one roiling through my gut as I realized there was only one person in this entire universe who could’ve kept me from recognizing my mate, who had done just that with a stupid piece of jewelry.
My own sibling.
So many questions rushed through my mind, scrambling to be the loudest one. Why had they done that? Why had they kept me from finding my mate? Especially when they were happy and content with their own mate? Why had—
“Tharion? Tharion!” I startled as someone shook me, snapping my head to look at Damien, who was leaning forward on his chair, his hand curled around my arm and a concerned look on his face.
I shook my head, forcing myself to keep from looking back at Lionel, lest I got caught up in his gaze again. “I’m fine. Just lost in thought.”
The Keeper of the Chasm, Nox—or ex-Keeper, according to what Damien had been telling me before Lionel’s arrival—slid around Lionel and stepped into the room, another man following him as Lionel stayed in the doorway, his feet seemingly bolted to the floor.
Nox turned back to him, wrapping his hand around his wrist, and murmured something to him, too softly for me to catch. An unfamiliar rush of emotion washed through me as I watched them, and I startled as I realized what I was feeling. Jealousy. I’d never felt that before, and I didn’t think I enjoyed the sensation.
Lionel nodded at Nox and followed him into the room, consciously keeping his eyes trained away from me.
Nox turned to face us, his lips pressed into a thin line, and said, “We might have a problem.”
Well, he isn’t wrong, I thought, eyeing my mate, who seemed to want nothing more than to escape this room, and possibly me.