He didn't ask how she knew that last part, didn't even seem to register it. "In the prison, we were made to wear collars that robbed us of our strength. But during the breakout, all the Pravus captives had theirs removed. Five starving succubae hunted me. They were so bluidy strong."
Chloe's lips parted. "Did they . . . ?" Please say no.
"Nay. Because allies helped me. But that night was like a straight blade slicing through a raised scar, resurrecting all Ruelle had done to me."
"How did you not kill me that morning? When you scented what I was?"
He finally met her gaze. "My beast would never have let me. It had accepted you. It adores you. Goddamn it, I want to adore you!"
"How could you ever?"
"I'm trying to move forward, to stop living in the past. But you have to understand, I was like a puppet with Ruelle." Again his breaths shallowed. "When I feel the effect of your strew, it unsettles me so deeply. There is no more wretched feeling than ceding your free will."
She couldn't hold back her tears as she said, "Then I'm harming you all over again. I am slicing the scar open!" And they only had one more time before he was bound to her forever. "MacRieve, I can't keep hurting you, can't let you take on my venom. You're going to have to let me go."
He fell to his knees before her, startling her. "Doona say that!" Wrapping his arms around her waist, he buried his forehead against her chest. He clutched her hard, sending new pain cascading through her. "I know I'm wrong in the head! I want to be . . . right. For you." When he nuzzled her neck, she felt more of his hot tears against her skin. "I kept this cottage standing so I would always remember what was done to my family, to me. Now I just want to forget. I thought burning it would fix me." He shuddered against her, the movement like a jackhammer to her aching head. "Help me be right for you, Chloe."
The pain was growing too intense, her vision dimming. "How?" she bit out. "Tell me what to do."
"I must have control of my own mind and body. Can you no' free me? I'll come back to you, woman! Just free me." He took her in his arms, now pressing her face against his chest. "I'll want you forever." His breaths rattled in his chest. "Just let me do it on my own."
"I can't free you. I don't know how. I would!" Those impassioned words drained away her last reserves of energy. Black dots swirled at the edges of her sight. "MacRieve?"
He drew back to gaze down at her face, his eyes widening. "What's wrong, Chloe? Have you hunger?"
"No, I-I don't know what's wrong. There's pain."
"I was too rough with you yesterday." He laid a palm on her forehead, his jaw slackening. "You're burning up? Does aught else hurt you?"
"My head. God, my entire body aches. My . . . bones hurt."
Voice gone low, he said, "Do they feel like they're slowly shattering from the inside?"
"Everything hurts you so badly, you canna distinguish areas of agony. The pain in your head is blinding."
She nodded, the slight movement bringing on a new wave of dizziness. "Please . . ." Words failed her; she went limp in his arms.
Just before her lids slid shut, she saw the building's walls collapse in an eruption of flames. A blast of searing air shot over them.
The cottage was no more.
Will leapt to his feet, Chloe unconscious in his arms, and gave a sharp howl. "No, no! Chloe, stay with me!" Nothing.
His beast was rising, along with Will's panic.
-Protect.- "I want to protect!" he bellowed to no one. He well remembered the symptoms of venom. Why the hell would she have them?
All he knew was that this was somehow his fault.
The witches could help her. Surely. He just had to get Chloe to them. But what if she worsened on the long flight back? Not to mention that mated Lykae did not fly under a full moon. Fuck!
Worry stabbing at him, he whipped around, about to sprint to the keep-
Two succubae were standing not twenty feet away. The pair he'd seen outside the wall at Glenrial.
"Where the bluidy hell did you come from?" One looked to be in her mid-twenties, the other in her late teens. The younger one wore a sword at her hip.
His first impulse was to ward these two away from Chloe. He hated succubae-but he was frantic to heal his mate.
The older one said, "I'm Gisela, Chloe's aunt. Her mother was my sister. This is my daughter, Nieve."
Chloe had family besides Webb? She'd never spoken about her mother much. Not that he'd asked about Fiore-because Will hadn't wanted to be reminded of where Chloe got her succubus nature from.
All he knew was that Fiore had died when Chloe was still a baby.
He turned to Gisela, who at least looked sympathetic. Her daughter was presently slitting her eyes at Will. Was that succubus actually carrying a weapon? "Chloe's taken ill." Between gritted teeth, he said, "Do you . . . can you help me?"
Gisela said, "She's very sick, MacRieve."
"How do you know my name?"
"All the Ubus peoples know of you and your brother, of the Woods of Murk." Just as he was about to ask how, she added, "And, I have to admit, I listened to what you told Chloe. I did not know Ruelle, but you have my sincerest apologies in any case."
And pity-he could see it in her eyes! Fury raged inside him. "I doona want your goddamned pity!" With Chloe secure in one arm, he lashed out uncontrollably, slashing at a tree. "I want my mate well!"
Nieve murmured to her mother, "Didn't I say he was crazed?"
Gisela told Will, "She needs to come with us, her family. We might be able to heal her."
"Go with you? You must be bluidy daft! I will never let this creature out of my sight. Do you understand me? Never!"
Nieve said, "Do you want our help or do you want her to perish in your arms?"
"Perish?" I canna lose her! "She's immortal now. She canna."
Gisela said sadly, "I believe Chloe's dying."
He chuffed with fear. My little mate . . . "What will you do?"
"Take her to my home in the Ubus Realm. I'm a healer, and I have medicine there. Our portal lies just over there." She pointed to an area that looked like the rest of the forest.
But now he could scent a difference. The door to that plane was in his fucking forest?
It made sense-that's where Ruelle had come from.
And this pair expected him to allow his mate to travel through that same portal? He'd heard that men who went to the Ubus Realm did not return.
The least of his worries. Could he trust these females with Chloe?
"MacRieve, I have a good idea of what's happened to her." Gisela held out her arms. "Give her to me, and I vow to the Lore that I will do everything in my power to save her."
An unbreakable vow.
"There's not much time," she continued. "If I'm right, then she'll sicken further with each moment we delay. I need my tools to diagnose her."
"Lykae are stubborn, ignorant creatures," Nieve said coldly. "He won't do what's necessary to save her."
Will gazed down at Chloe. She had her wee hand pressed against his chest. Right over his heart. "Why must I give her to you?"
"Our portal guardians will not let you through on the night of a full moon, especially not in your condition"-shirtless, burned, wild-eyed, a heartbeat from turning?-"not unless we have some surety that you won't harm others. Chloe is that surety. You must entrust her to me."
-Trust.- his Instinct advised. But his history told him he should be running with Chloe.
The Instinct won. Will shuddered when he handed her over, wolven sounds erupting from his throat as he and his beast reacted.
Gisela clasped Chloe tightly, maternally. With a glare at Will, Nieve stepped through the portal, her mother behind her.
Though he might never return to his home again, Will was right on their heels, striding through without hesitation.
Where your mate goes, you follow. . . .
Slave auction blocks, harems, chained sex servants . . .
Over the centuries, Will had pictured the Ubus Realm in a thousand sordid lights. As he followed the succubae through the portal, he braced himself, expecting to see all of his worst imaginings.
As with many planes, this was a hidden cubbyhole within the wider world, with the same temperature of the surrounding lands, the same time.
The same moon cycle.
Once they'd cleared the portal guardians-two stony-faced incubi whose feet hadn't been touching the ground-Will snapped his fingers for Chloe. "Hand her to me."
Gisela tucked a curl behind Chloe's ear, then reluctantly returned her to Will's arms. "My home is just there." She pointed out a row of large hilltop homes on the other end of a shop-lined street. The architecture could've been found in any quaint Highland hamlet.
They started toward the hill. He didn't want to take his eyes from Chloe, but he forced himself to pay attention to his surroundings, in case they needed to leave in a hurry.
The shops they passed were no different from those of any typical European town, the street like so many main streets, only without cars or electric lights.
He scented species of all kinds, not just the Ubus peoples. He even smelled . . . another Lykae? A tart scent tickled his nose. Apples? What must be orchards of them. Why the hell would they grow food?
Just before the hill lay a grassy field. Will did a double take.
A lacrosse game was under way?
Lads about twelve years of age were playing an aggressive, no-holds-barred game. Will blinked when he spied more than one young succubus taking part as well. Parents were cheering from the sidelines.
Nieve noticed his bemusement. "What? Ubus can't play sports? Humans didn't corner the market on lacrosse."
For the last nine centuries, if he'd thought about Ubus children, he'd imagined them in some dimly lit school training to ruin lives and prey on the unsuspecting. . . .
Fountains lined the edge of the field. Picnickers laughed. Bairns flew kites.
Nieve said, "We're not much different from Lykae."
"We've quite a big difference between our kinds. So why are those Ubus spreading out banquets of food?"
Nieve frowned at him. "Why wouldn't they?"
Gisela said, "As with vampire young, our children eat food from the earth right up until they freeze into their immortality-females usually in their twenties, males in their thirties. Before then, that need is dormant."
Just as Chloe's had been.
Nieve was still frowning. Then her eyes went wide. Under her breath, she hissed, "He is vile, Mother. Who thinks like that?"
"Outsiders rarely understand our ways," Gisela murmured back. "Just remember, he's one of the twins."
What did that mean? He shifted Chloe in his arms, drawing her closer to his chest.
Nieve shot over her shoulder, "I'll bet you expected chained slaves and whip-carrying masters? Orgies on the street?"
Exactly what he'd expected. Judging by the banners hung over the street, the next public gathering was . . . the Cider Fair.
He felt a trickle of embarrassment that flared into anger. This Nieve witch did not need to push him on this day. "How could I expect anything different? My encounters with your ilk informed my opinions!"
Gisela cast him an apologetic look. "Yes, well, any Ubus in your realm were most likely . . . exiles from ours. Or the offspring of them."
"What?" He hadn't heard her correctly.
"Centuries ago, if any of the nobility were convicted of an unconscionable offense, they were cast out."
"Into my family's lands?" Inhale, exhale. Doona kill Chloe's blood kin.
Nieve said, "There were not that many."
"It only took one!" Picnickers turned to stare at him. Children looked up at him with owl eyes-and they looked no different from Lykae bairns.
He tightened his grip on his mate, gazing down at her. Chloe, I've been so bluidy stupid.
"Let's discuss this inside," Gisela said.
He held his tongue as they climbed the hill to her house.
He crossed the threshold. The second succubus home he'd ever been in.
This was vastly dissimilar to Ruelle's. Here were trappings of obvious wealth-crystal, a gilded chandelier, plush rugs, intricate woodworking. The colors were understated. It was, he was loath to admit, a home he could live in.
As he followed the two females up the stairs, medicinal scents grew stronger.
"Here's my office." Gisela ushered him into a room with a single bed, surrounded by shelves of vials and bottles that rivaled any olden apothecary's shop. Incense burned, yet it wasn't cloying.
Gisela indicated he should lay Chloe on the bed. Will took a seat beside her, fighting back his beast and his own protectiveness to allow a succubus to examine Chloe.
"I'm going to draw her blood." Gisela's tools looked antiquated but clean. She pushed up Chloe's bracelet, then made a small incision in her wrist, dripping blood onto a waiting dish. "I sense power in this bracelet. I need to know what it does."
"It keeps her hidden from enemies." He scrubbed his palm over the back of his neck. Go on, then, Will. "It keeps her from conceiving."
Gisela nodded. "I believe that was a wise decision on her part. At least until she can figure out her new life."
Hadn't been Chloe's decision. He'd foisted it on her. Slaoightear.
Nieve crossed her arms over her chest. "I'll say. She's probably keeping her options open. We don't know for certain that you're her fated male."
"Fated," he choked out. "You're saying Ubus have . . . mates?" Wouldn't that get in the way of their trolling for countless victims to violate?
Nieve gave him a look that said duh. "We're as committed as mated Lykae. Most of those parents you saw at the field are incubus and succubus couples."
"That's no' even possible." If they were both energy sucks, they would need an outside source. "Two negatives doona make a positive."