Sven upholds the promise he made to the Goddess Rithi and slips away from his harem.
The Rogue's Harem
Book Three: The Rogue's Passionate Harem
Part Fifteen: Promise Fulfilled
Note: Thanks to WRC264 for beta reading this.
Chapter Forty-Three: Art's Reminder
Aingeal – Princedom of Kivoneth, The Strifedoms of Zeutch
The feyhound's wicker body crumbled around our souls. I could feel the poor proxy's body unraveling. The supercharge from the diamond hammer had sent too much energy through it. The feyhound wasn't a proper proxy. Smoke rose, wicker bursting into flames.
“What happens to us when it's destroyed?” I asked Ava.
Ava didn't answer me. Instead her soul seized mine and pulled us away. I gasped as I had a glimpse of the feyhound's body erupting into full fire. Flames were around us for a moment and then darkness rushed around me, a bodiless hurtle that—
My eyes opened.
I gasped awake, staring up at the sky. Fire burned and crackled. I sat up, blinking at the shock of being back in my real body. My flesh ached. My wings fluttered. I groaned as I stood up on the slope, struggling to get my bearings. Flames devoured the grass of the hill to my left near a dark form lying dead. It was monstrous. Prince Meinard slain. Then I heard Kora shouting. She raced towards another prone figure.
“Sven?” I groaned, realizing it was our husband on the ground. Kora fell to his side. Clammy, fearful hands kneaded my guts. Moments later, Nathalie and Carsina joined Kora, Nathalie trembling, her breastplate missing.
“Princess!” Greta shouted, charging up the hill towards the top where Ava stood up.
Then I saw another body... Skin black. I gasped at the sight of the crushed golden armor mixed amid the smashed form. Ealaín... A dizzy wave shot through me as I stared down the slope. It hit me that she was dead.
“Cernere's black cunt,” I whispered, the world twisting at strange angles as the blood pounded through my veins. My drunken gaze swept across the bottom of the slope and spotted another fire burning and crackling. It was the feyhound by the corpse and—
Zanyia lay on the ground, her body burnt. The clammy hands squeezed my guts now. Was she dead, too? Was Sven? Did we lose more than Ealaín? No one was coming to Zanyia's aid. Kora was by Sven. She could save our husband, but what about Zanyia?
The pain throbbing my body from my fall vanished. My wings fluttered. I lifted into the air and soared down the slope. Lights gathered to me, the green enhancement spirits bobbed around me. They swirled into a sheath of emerald, drawn by my desperation. I rushed closer and closer to Zanyia.
She lay still. Unmoving.
Purple burst around me, engulfing the horde of enhancement spirits at her body, biting my lower lip. She couldn't be dead, too. Her playful antics danced through my thoughts. She lived with her emotions, embracing them. She didn't hide them. She lived to its fullest.
“Zanyia!” I cried out, hurtling down towards her in the wake of the healing spirits.
The purple engulfed Zanyia. The enhancement spirits, eager to please my will, plunged into Zanyia's body. Dozens and dozens of them filled her. A spasm raced through her body. Her back arched. Her singed tail twitched. The crisping black covering her skin retreated. Pale flesh swept across her skin, growing pink and alive.
I landed beside her, tears spilling down my cheeks. “Zanyia!”
The cat-girl's golden eyes fluttered open. I collapsed to my knees beside her. She wasn't dead. She survived. I seized her and pulled her to my body, burying her face between my breasts. I hugged her tight as my wings fluttered.
“Mmm, this is a wonderful thing to wake up to,” Zanyia said, her hands seizing my tits. Her head rubbed back and forth, a purr rumbling from her throat. “A big pair of boobies to play with.”
I laughed as the tears spilled down my cheeks. We won. We were whole. Mostly.
The illusion of my imperial confidence melted off of me, the art abandoned as I reached my brother's side. Blood soaked his body. He had such terrible wounds to his chest. I had no idea how he kept fighting the Paragon after suffering such horrifying injuries from the transformed Prince Meinard.
“Brother mine!” I gasped, kneeling beside him.
My left hand throbbed as I released the amulet. My robes were still open. I thrust my hand between my thighs as I stared down at Sven. He wasn't breathing. His face was so pale. He couldn't be dead. I couldn't lose him.
“Mistress!” Nathalie gasped, standing over us, her small breasts quivering.
“Rithi, bless my natural paints with your divine love. Let your vision flow through me and restore the art ruined by the cruel acts of the world!” I shouted and thrust my aching hand into my pussy. My juices tingled, brimming with Rithi's artistic power. I had to restore my brother to his perfection.
I smeared my cream across his forehead, my juices tinged pink. Blood oozed from cuts in my palms. I had gripped the Biomancer's phylactery hard enough to slice my hand open on the facets. I didn't even feel the pain. I didn't even care as I waited, staring at my brother, aching for the magic to heal him.
“Please, Rithi,” I whimpered, a frantic beat pounding my heart, pumping ice through my veins. I shivered, staring at his face. “I can't lose you, brother mine. Not now. We're free. We did it! You avenged Katriana. Our parents! Come back to me!”
My soul drifted from my body. I left all that pain behind. The darkness moved around me. I felt... a freedom. I didn't have to choose to leave Kora. I would uphold my bargain with Rithi and not have to deliberately break my sister's heart.
She would suffer. Grieve. They all would. Nothing I could do about it.
The Astral Realm awaited. That vast afterlife where the Gods dwelled. I smiled, or thought I did. There were so many stories about the place. So many different tales. It was supposed to be endless. Infinite. The idea made my mind ache, but something that vast must be brimming with adventure.
Maybe I could even find Ealaín's soul and discover what trouble we could get in together.
The darkness moved around me. I was ready for eternity.
I can't lose you, brother mine, Kora whispered.
I frowned, the darkness slowing.
Not now. We're free.
Her voice grew louder and louder.
We did it! You avenged Katriana. Our parents!
The darkness reversed around me. I felt something seize my soul, dragging me back. My... vitality gripped me.
Come back to me!
Rithi flowed around me. Kora was healing me. Saving my body. I wasn't quite dead yet. My soul still had the tiniest connection back to my flesh. That tiny string was growing thicker and thicker by the moment, a rope dragging me to my flesh.
I sighed and smiled. Of course Kora would save me.
Arms embraced me, soft and feminine. A presence engulfed me, a piece of a Goddess's power. Rithi held me, channeled by my sister to save me. “Remember our promise.”
I swallowed, trembling. I would have to hurt my sister now. My soul plunged back into my body. The Goddess released my essence as my awareness sank into my flesh. I felt my heart pumping, my fingers twitching, my eyes fluttering.
“...mistake...” an ethereal voice whispered as the Goddess withdrew from me. Not Rithi's voice, someone else's.
My eyes opened to Kora's trembling, blue eyes staring down at me, one of her braids of golden hair hanging off her right shoulder. It swayed with her as her nostrils twitched. The emotion surged through my sister's expression. Her joy stabbed a knife into my heart.
I had to destroy her happiness to save her and my other women.
“Brother mine!” she gasped and hugged me tight, pressing into my blood-soaked armor.
Her tears rained down on my face as her lips kissed. Her mouth was so hot. So loving. I shuddered, wanting to surrender into this moment. I felt the amulet through a hole in my armor. The phylactery hadn't been destroyed. I didn't have to give her up yet. I had a few more moments with her.
I hugged her back. I pulled her tight, kissing her with such passion. I closed my eyes, surrendering to this wonderful moment. My lips worked against hers. My tongue danced with hers. I loved my sister for the last time.
I savored the sweetness of her lips.
The passion of her love.
Her tears rained across my face. I crushed her body against mine. I didn't want to give her up. I wanted to stay in this moment forever. I sat up, holding her. She clung to me, still kissing me. Nathalie fell to her knees, throwing her arms around us, her lips kissed my cheeks, searing hot.
“Sven!” Ava gasped. She and Greta fell to their knees on the other side, their arms hugging me. My princess nuzzled her hot lips into the kiss I shared with my sister.
Wings fluttered. “My husband!”
Aingeal landed nearby. Zanyia uncoiled from the faerie's lush body. They flowed to us and hugged me from behind. Even Carsina came in, my newest sex slave, one I had hardly gotten to know. I reveled in all of them.
I trembled. It was over. We had this one moment. We won. It only cost us Ealaín.
Chapter Forty-Four: Promise Fulfilled
A strange daze gripped me. Everything felt unreal. Events had happened so fast. In the space of a few minutes, Ealaín had perished and my father... My father was dead. It hurt more than I thought it should. All the hatred, the disgust, I felt for the man dwindled. He was gone. It was hard to loathe him any longer when memories of the gentler man he used to be rose in my mind.
I remembered my time from my childhood when my mother still lived. He was warm then, loving. Something died in him with Mother. What filled him was cold ambition. It drove him to such terrible acts, twisted him long before he became that insectoid thing lying dead down the hill.
I stumbled up to the Altar of Souls. I glanced down at the amulet in my hand. The phylactery quivered in my grip, smeared with Kora's blood. Her life blended into the ruby's scarlet hue. I felt the soul of a wicked man held in the matrix of crystal.
I set the amulet on the adamant anvil, the smallest part of the vast machine extending down into the hill beneath our feet. Krab, my divine ancestor, had constructed something amazing beneath my feet. A vast network of conduits focused on this one point.
“Do it,” Sven growled as my family gathered around the altar.
Carsina handed over the hammer.
“End the Las-damned bastard's existence,” Sven said, such loathing in his voice.
The hammer in Ava's hands flared with brilliance. The ground rumbled beneath my feet. Light flickered in the depths of the Altar of Souls. The amulet trembled atop it. It quivered, the light spilling around it, wrapping it up and gripping it. I shook my head. The time had come.
My women all stared at the altar with such wrapped attention. They stood around it, the flashing, flickering, strobing energy dancing through the heart of the altar spilled over them, somehow brighter—realer—than the sunlight falling on their shoulders. It illuminated their faces, made silhouettes of them.
I drank it in. This final moment. For a moment, Ealaín stood with them, her body a wraith conjured from my imagination. She stared at me, nodding her head. She knew what I had to do, her face twisted with pain.
It would be so much easier if she was alive and here to protect my women. But Aingeal had her powers while Nathalie, Greta, and Zanyia would protect Ava and Kora. They had their armor. Their powers. They didn't need me.
It hurt. I wanted to rip out my heart. I wanted to pluck it still-beating from my breast. I would clutch it in my bloody hand. I wanted to cast out this pain. It would make this so much easier. I made my deal. The phylactery was about to be destroyed. I had to slip away while they all had their focus on the altar.
I gathered the shadows, pulling them around me. I made myself fade, blending in with the dancing umbral on the ground. The darkness wrapped around me. I felt something trembling through me. I seized more of the shadows than I could before. I didn't make myself fuzzy and hazy, but I vanished. I hid myself so completely I couldn't even see my flesh.
There was something interacting with my armor. Something... My sister. I felt a touch of my sister. When she healed me, she had a cut hand. Her blood had mixed with the healing spell and... She transferred something to me.
A final gift to help me escape.
I was such a coward as I turned around and marched down the hill. This was the easiest way. To disappear from their lives. I wanted to take Zanyia, Ava, Aingeal, Nathalie, Greta, and even Carsina with me, but I didn't deserve any of them if I could give one of them up.
I wanted to look back one last time—I itched to return to them—but a clean severing of our relationship. They would have each other. They would support each other, and I would find something else. Out there in the world. Far away from Zeutch. They would hate me, but I could handle that. They would be so angry with me. Despise me.
But not as much as I despised myself.
I reached the bottom of the hill. The surviving soldiers had fled, leaving behind their dead. Some of their horses wandered around the grass. I approached one on silent steps. Light burst brilliant behind me, flooding across the plains. The horse neighed, snorting nervously.
I seized a bridle. I mounted the warhorse, shifting on the shadow. I closed my eyes, drew in a deep breath.
“Goodbye, sister dear,” I whispered. “I love you all.”
I heeled my horse and galloped towards my new life.
The machinery consumed my focus. The entire hill hummed as my soul worked the mechanism, directing the massive forces contained within the hill. It held it, a vast reservoir, a massive battery of power gathered from the world. My awareness flitted around inside the hill, making adjustments here, tweaking something there.
It all made so much sense to me. This was the purpose of the hill, to focus all this energy. It gathered in the altar. It spilled over the gem. I rose my awareness from the machinery. I blinked, staring down at the phylactery. I felt the Biomancer's soul quivering in it.
He knew what was about to happen.
I frowned and understood how the phylactery worked. It was a magical machine created to be a vessel for a soul, a mystical box. That was all that magic was, manipulating the foundations of the world, the vast energies that were used to forge it, the order Krab laid down when the Gods created it. Some people could just tap into it with training, others with natural abilities.
I studied the phylactery, understanding how it worked so I could destroy it. The gem had a small spigot on it that the soul could reach out of, too small for it to escape, but enough for Kora to manipulate and use against the Paragon in the fight. The craftsmanship was superb. It was designed to last, to store the soul for nearly eternity. The energy built up in it was used so efficiently to keep the soul trapped in here instead of heading to the Astral Realm. My senses slid over it, searching for just the perfect spot and...
I found its weakness; the place where I needed to strike.
I raised the hammer up. It was a focus for the energy brimming in the Altar. It was the match for it. I stared at the amulet, letting the power guide my stroke, and slammed my tool down onto the gem with all my strength.
The hammer crashed into the amulet.
The power surged. The entire energy of the hill expended in a moment.
Light exploded around me.
A brilliance engulfed me as the entire hill groaned. The hammer burst into a spray of molten diamond that spilled across the altar. Mixed in were drops of sizzling blood. The ruby fractured with it, releasing what it trapped. Through the heart of the light shining around me, a vast shadow rose. I shuddered as a vast evil spilled into the world.
The malevolent soul of the Biomancer reached for me. It surged around me. It tried to seize my own soul. It tried to rip at me, pulling at my essence. He screamed at me, raging at me for destroying his rebirth.
For a moment, I felt his dreams of a world remade to his perfection. People changed by beetle-like insects, the things that had distorted my father into that thing lying dead on the hill. I shuddered, gritting my teeth, my hands clenching around the crumbling handle of the hammer. I buffeted him. He had no substance. No power any longer.
He was just an umbral spectral. Just the sputtering remains of a mad man.
Without a vessel to inhabit, souls couldn't stay in our world. The vast machine of creation sent those souls to the Astral Realm. He couldn't fight it. He had nowhere to go. He howled his rage as he dissipated like a foul mist before the bright sunlight.
The Altar groaned as its light died.
I gasped, leaning forward, grasping the adamant, panting as I stared down at the shattered remains, diamond mixed with ruby. I shook my head, then looked around at the faces of my family. Kora had such a look of raptured joy on her face, hands clutched to her breasts. She swayed. Zanyia's arm went around her waist, supporting the woman while a purr rumbled from her throat.
“You did it!” Greta cheered. My bedmaid threw her arms around me, her armored form pressing into my side.
I swayed in Zanyia's embrace. I couldn't believe it was over. I felt so surreal. There was nothing hanging between my tits. I didn't feel the chain rubbing at the back of my neck. No faceted gem caressed the inner slopes of my breasts. For weeks I had worn it. What felt like an eternity, and it was gone.
I didn't know what to do. What do I say now. I stumbled away from the purring Zanyia, from my cheering family. The entire world felt shifted, the angle of reality changed so I felt like I stood on a slope, off-balance. I shuddered, reaching the slope of the hill.
I gazed down it. A riderless horse galloped from the altar, fleeing the brilliant explosion of light as fast as it could run. My eyes drifted to the dead soldiers lying where they fell, sticky crimson covering the silver of their armor. I passed the black-robed mage and drew up the scorched side of the hills, the scars left by Nathalie's armor. Swaths of char scarred the slope. I skipped past the man I hated for a year and...
My gaze arrested on Ealaín. I swayed more. “Sven... Brother mine...”
I needed him. I needed his arms around me know. Zanyia hugged me from behind, but she didn't have my brother's strength, his masculine presence. I was dizzy. My poor muse was gone. Rithi sent Ealaín to be my inspiration.
Such pain welled inside of me.
“Sven, please!” I moaned. “Brother mine... I... She's gone.”
“Wait, where is he?” Aingeal asked.
“Where did he go?” Ava gasped. “Wasn't he here when I started?”
“He told you to destroy it, Mistress,” Nathalie said, her voice weak.
I blinked, my entire body shaking. I looked over my shoulder at my family. They looked around the top of the hill, confused. My brow furrowed. Shock knocked me out of my daze. Fear crushed my heart.
“Did... did destroying the gem affect him?” I asked, my entire body trembling.
“No, no, don't say that,” whimpered Greta.
“It didn't,” Ava said. “The power didn't touch anything but the phylactery.”
“Then where did he go?” Aingeal demanded. “Why would he slip off?” She rose up into the air, her wings flapping. She surveyed around, turning. “I can't see him anywhere!”
I trembled as I clung to my shuddering Mistress. I held her tight, rubbing my face into her neck as my world reeled. Master vanishing punched all the joy right out of me. My tail slashed in the air behind me while I held up Kora. This couldn't be happening.
We did all we set out to do. We should get to be happy now! Why was I happier before today? Ealaín dead and Master gone... It didn't make any sense to me. Why would he vanish? Did he leave? Did something grab him? Was it a final revenge of the Biomancer?
“I sensed something in him since Rithi performed her miracle to save us from the poison,” Mistress Kora said. “Something... reserved in him. When I first embraced him after I was healed, there was something... hesitant in him. For a moment, he looked so full of grief before it vanished as he hugged me. And since then...”
My blood turned into ice water. My skin prickled and my tail stiffened. My arms tightened around my Mistress. “There... was something between him and Ealaín,” I said. “Something they had. I didn't understand it, but there was something in their scents...”
“Is it grief?” Mistress Ava asked, stumbling up beside us. “Is this how he's mourning Ealaín by... vanishing on us.”
“No, no,” Mistress Kora said. “He wouldn't do that. He would pretend to be fine. He'd have to be the strong man. He'd hold us while we cried. He would share in our grief for her in a stoic way almost... almost feeling it through us as he comforted us. He wouldn't run away.”
“Maybe he feels like it's his fault?” Mistress Aingeal asked. She landed nearby, her pink wings fluttering to a stop. The wind ruffled her pale hair, the same strange hue. She shook her head, her purple eyes distant as she peered at Kora and me. “Does he think he let us down? That because he didn't save Ealaín, he failed us or...?”
“If he changed after the miracle,” Nathalie said, her voice so quiet, “maybe... maybe he promised Rithi to watch out for her daughter. Master upholds his word.”
“Is he being all honorable and manly and dumb right now?” Aingeal groaned. “That figures. Idiot. He didn't fail Ealaín. She didn't need him to protect her. Out of all of us, she was the one who least needed protecting. She was his equal in a fight.
“Yeah,” Mistress Ava said. “That sounds just like something he would do.”
My body stiffened. “Let's find out!” I declared, breaking away from Kora. I breathed in deeply, hunting for his scent above the others. Above the death. “He's my Master! He doesn't just get to run off. Right?”
“That's right,” Nathalie said, stepping up beside me, her arms folded before her naked breasts.
Carsina nodded her head. “We chose him. He doesn't get a choice in the matter.
“Yeah,” Greta said. She joined Nathalie and Carsina. “We're his sex slaves. He has to own us and give us orders. He doesn't get any say in it.”
“Yep!” I nodded. I breathed in again as I moved to the altar. To where I remembered Sven standing when the princess began destroying the amulet. I sorted through the various musks of my wives, searching for that masculine aroma of our husband.
My nose twitched. My tail swished. I leaned down, the grass of the hill caressing my wrists and ankles as I padded around. I caught a whiff of him: leather, sweat, confidence. I moved to him, found where he stood, inhaled deeply.
“Got him!” I said. I padded down the hill, breathing in his musk.
I moved faster and faster down the slope, my family following behind me. Master's scent grew easier to follow as he moved away from the other's. It was a clear trail pointed right down the hill, skirting Ealaín, heading for the soldiers I killed. I moved up to a fast scamper, breathing deeply every chance I could, his scent rising above pollen, dirt, and blood.
I reached the base of the hill, loping now, my legs stretching as his scent led me right to the... The swarthy musk of a horse. I paused at the combination of hay and dung and equine sweat. I frowned, my tail swishing. His aroma was intermixed with it and... I looked towards the horizon.
A small horse galloped away. It was almost vanished from my sight.
“He's invisible,” I said in shock. How did he manage that? Master was amazing. “And he's on that horse!”
I broke into a full run, upright, my long legs carrying me across the ground. I tapped Silence for energy, my damaged armor providing it. I ran like the wind propelled me, chasing after my owner.
He had no right to abandon me!
My wings hummed as I soared after Zanyia. She raced fast, chasing after the stallion. It had no rider, but the lamia was certain Sven was on it. I frowned. If the horse was spooked by the explosion, why was it still running? It had gotten a few miles away. The other warhorses didn't just flee in such a straight path back to civilization. They were starting to wander now, calming down.
The cantering warhorse broke into a full gallop. Someone must have whipped it into a frenzy. Sven. What was he doing? A surge of annoyance for my husband rippled through me. I fluttered after it, gaining on the horse as it raced for the start of the farms. Every moment brought me closer and closer to it. Zanyia kept pace beneath me, racing with such nimble grace.
Her armor gave her endurance.
She veered off from me about where we reached the spot where the horse began its gallop. She didn't follow the steed at all, instead racing in an oblique angle from the path, cutting across the fields. I frowned, my gaze darting ahead of her and...
“Clever,” I muttered. Sven leaped off the horse after probably driving it into a gallop. He used his invisibility with skill.
But now how would we find him? He had to be able to run fast thanks to his armor. He would have endurance. If he could find a way to conceal his scent, to confuse Zanyia's nose... I needed to do something.
Abjuration spirits surged up around me. The balls of blue light bobbed and weaved about me, answering my need. I smiled as I touched them with my will, focusing them on searching out the path before Zanyia.
Purple wreathed the spirits as they danced away from me. They surged out over the field, sweeping across the top of the grass, forming a curtain of energy that they darted around in complex, geometric shapes, covering the ground, searching for anything hidden and...
A shape appeared, a man racing, outlined in purple.
“Got you!” I grinned as the orange-hued spirits appeared before me.
The evocation spirits quivered with eager delight. They drank in my will then darted out ahead of the illuminated figure. They plunged into the earth before Sven and exploded the ground. Tufts of grass and clods of dirt soared into the air in mighty fountains of destruction, ripping up the ground before my husband's feet.
His figure, painted in purple, stumbled to a halt. He threw a look over his shoulder. I imagined the annoyed expression on his face as I swooped down at him, readying more spirits to pen him in and keep him from escaping.
He owed us answers.
Chapter Forty-Five: The Radiant's Inspiration
I sighed as I watched Aingeal swooping down at me. I brushed off the clod of dirt from my shoulder, noting the purple outline around me. I wouldn't escape. This would be so much easier if my women weren't so Las-damned skilled.
Umbral shadows melted off of me, revealing my form. I turned to face Aingeal only to see Zanyia streaking at me at a full run. I only had a moment to set myself before she slammed into me. I grunted, her weight crashing into my body, her arms and legs hugging tight about me, clinging to me in that desperate, passionate way only my lamia slave could. My armor's strength kept me upright from the force.
“Zanyia!” I groaned, voice tight from the impact.
“I'm not letting you go, Master!” Zanyia said. “You own me. You don't get to leave me behind.”
Aingeal landed a moment before I could answer, her hands on her hips, her large, naked breasts bouncing. “What is going on, husband?” she demanded, anger rippling across her face. “Why are you running!”
In the background, horses galloped towards us. My other women had followed my example. They would be here soon. Maybe I could convince Aingeal and Zanyia to let me go. Without their abilities, I would slip away from the other women.
The pain swelled in my heart as I said, “I have to leave Kora.”
“What?” Aingeal asked.
“You're not going anywhere, Master,” Zanyia said, crushing me with her lithe limbs.
“What do you mean, you have to leave Kora?” demanded Aingeal, a look of such confusion on her face.
Hooves slowed. “Leave me?” Kora asked as she reigned up, her pink robes hugging her body. She looked so tiny atop the tall warhorse. “Why would you have to leave me, brother mine?”
I groaned, the pain in her blue eyes stabbing into my heart. I wanted to avoid this. It would be an easier wound, a clean slice instead of a ragged cut, if I had slipped away without having to say these words, but...
I owed it to them to explain. I could see it in their faces as the others reined up. They dismounted, rushing around me. Kora looking stunned, the others assaulting me with questions, demanding answers. I was a coward to slip off without telling them.
I had to be a man and explain why I was breaking their hearts..
“Please, brother mine,” Kora said, her eyes liquid, “why are you doing this?”
I wrenched my gaze from her and settled on Ava. She clutched herself, the wind rustling her strawberry-blonde locks. “Ava... I know you want me to settle down and rule but... what if I can't? What if I need to have adventures?”
“And?” she asked.
“Even if I don't, even if I can do that, even if I can stick around and help, I would be working to putting your princedom to right. That would require a lot of moving around.”
Ava nodded her head. “It will be. I can't possibly hold all the territory my father conquered. We'll have to negotiate with the other princes, release land. The negotiations will probably last years. You're shrewd. I need you.”
“And that means travel, travel, travel.” I glanced back at my sister. “But you need stability to practice your art. Rithi... She...” I took a deep breath. “I'm leaving you, Kora.” I gripped my fists. My words sounded so foolish. I hated myself for every word I said. But I had to make sure it stuck. I had to make sure Kora understood. “We're siblings. What we have isn't right. We can't do this. I can't do this. I can't be around you at all. I never should have taken your virginity. I never should have surrendered to the weakness in my heart.”
Instead of pain, anger exploded across my sister's face.
“Not right!” I shrieked. “A mistake?”
I marched at my brother, his face twisted with an expression I had never seen on him. It was almost like contempt, or even disgust, but it wasn't directed at me. It was directed at himself. His eyes grew dull. He shifted, Zanyia turning her head to stare up at him. “You don't believe that one whit. I know you, Sven Falk! You don't hold back. You had no reservations when you took my virginity. You never regretted once what we shared. You reveled in it!”
He shifted but held his gaze. His expression hardened like clay drying beneath the withering heat of the kiln.
“So why are you saying this...?” My words trailed off. “You made a deal with Rithi and... She...” I shook my head. After returning from Faerie, Ealaín talked to me about leaving my brother, hinting that it wasn't right for me to be with him, that my art suffered. Now Sven said that same thing. He wanted to drive me away with these lies.
“Ealaín wanted me to leave you. She kept nudging me in that direction for a while. I just thought she didn't understand you. When she finally surrendered to your passion after we killed the naga, I thought she understood that you were necessary for me, but... You had already bargained with Rithi. During the miracle! Didn't you, brother mine?”
“If I don't let you go,” Sven said, his voice sounding dead, bereft of any hope. What little light remained in his blue eyes died. A purr rose from Zanyia. She nuzzled against him like she was trying to show him differently. “If I don't leave you, Kora, then you all die. You, Zanyia, Aingeal, and Nathalie. Rithi will take back her miracle.” His shoulders bowed, crushed by an unseen force.
Gasps echoed from the other women. Zanyia's purring stopped. She trembled, holding him so tight. “Master...” she whispered. “Oh, Master, that's horrible.”
“And she'll let me live knowing my selfishness got you killed so...” Sven took a deep breath. That hardened expression returned. The self-loathing twisted his features. He spat out, “We're done!”
His words slapped me.
He whirled around in place, Zanyia still clinging to him. He marched away, not bothering to hide, his back straight. The lamia stared at me over his shoulder, her golden eyes wide, her face pale. Even her triangular ears had fallen. Nathalie sobbed nearby.
“Sven,” groaned Ava, her voice thick with pain.
My heart wanted to break. This was terrible. Monstrous. He was destroying himself to save me. Us. He loved us that much that he would rip out his heart. I clutched at my breasts, my own heart screaming in pain.
“No!” I shouted, such anger surging through me, swallowing my agony. “Rithi!”
Ealaín – The Adamant Palace, The Astral Realm
The walls of The Adamant Palace quivered with Kora's rage. Her words echoed through the halls. I lifted my head from the comfort of my mother's embrace. She soothed me in my death. My soul had returned to my home. Rithi stiffened, lifting her head from me.
Kora was a Radiant, a priestess of my mother. She could commune to the Goddess. Every time a priestess prayed, or used divine magic, it echoed through the walls, whispering to my mother. Normally, it didn't shake the foundations.
Kora's righteous anger assaulted The Adamant Palace.
“Fool girl,” Rithi said. Her face tightened. She had the same midnight-hue to her flesh as me and my aoi si sisters.
“It was a mistake,” I told her. “I was wrong about Kora.”
“Quiet, daughter,” Rithi said. “We will not discuss this again.”
When Rithi healed Sven after I died, I told her she needed to release him from his oath, that it was a mistake to pry him from Kora. She bade me to be silence, just like she did now. But I couldn't. I loved them. They were my spouses. I wanted Sven's happiness as much as Kora's. I grew to love the man. He'd won me over.
“I was a fool, Mother.” I looked Rithi in the eyes. “She loves him. He is her inspiration. He is more her muse than I ever was. You can't part them.”
“He seduced you, daughter,” Rithi said. She pulled away from me, leaving me sitting on her bed alone. She rose, staring at the walls. Then she shuddered and gasped as Kora's words resounded with power.
“Rithi, inhabit my art and speak with me!”
Rithi shivered as her priestess invoked her image. My mother closed her eyes and sent a piece of her power to answer Kora's prayer. I trembled, hating myself. How could I not have seen it right away? At first, I thought Sven a distraction. No true artist should devote herself to one passion. Not if she wanted to create a myriad of art that spoke about beauty, love, emotion, hatred, anger, suffering, joy.
How could she be an inspiration to others if she reveled in only one experience? But for Kora, that one experience—that one man—would take her to new things. Would expose her to new ideas and wonders from which she would create new art for the world to enjoy.
I faced my Goddess as she inhabited the illusion I painted. She appeared with skin of purest black, her hair a white so pristine it almost glowed. It fell around her majestic form. Reality wraped around her, bleeding into rainbow hues, colors I had never seen at all in my entire life, not even while we were in Faerie. She looked so much like Ealaín. I could see it in the shape of her face, of her ears, in the way she stood with all that confidence.
My Goddess manifested before me.
“I won't give up my brother,” I said to Rithi, my chin raised. I wouldn't back down. I wouldn't let her destroy my family. I would fight to the very end. I had my family. I had wed him with Luben's blessing. “I will not be parted from my husband, my Goddess.”
Her head cocked to the side. “Then you will die.”
“I'll die without him,” I snarled. “I'll leave the priesthood. I won't make any more art. I will never dance again. Never paint. Never make love. I won't enrich this world any more, only poison it with my bitter grief. I promise you, that I will be done with it. He is the man I love. He will be the father of my child!
“You will not part us!”
My words resounded. I felt Sven watching me. He had turned from his flight, walking the only path he could. Fleeing was the only way he could save us. But there had to be a better way. Something I I could do. His presence, the presence of my family gave me strength.
“All mortals die,” Rithi said. “I expanded my power to save you. If you will not enrich the world, then it was a waste of my effort. I will return that energy to me and your original destiny will resume, my radiant.”
“Then kill me!” I snarled. My entire body shook as the fury roared through me. “Strike me down with your unjust deal!”
Rithi arched a narrow, snowy eyebrow. “Unjust?”
“You made a deal with my brother that affects whether I live or die, and you don't include me? Then you try to control what inspires me by strong-arming the man I love into abandoning me! Into hurting me!” I folded my arms before me, fixing my Goddess with the hardest stare ever. “What type of artist does that to another, Rithi?”
A muscle twitched my Goddess's cheek. An inhuman rage bled off of her and washed around me. The air bent and warped more, reality distorting beneath her presence. I didn't care. I faced her down.
“I will not let any critic dilute my art!” I hissed. “I won't let your opinion, your will, sully it. I don't care what you do.” I whirled around. “You do not get to dictate my art to me, Rithi! My soul is my own! No one owns it!”
I marched to my brother. He stood there, Zanyia clinging to him. His back straightened. He nodded his head. The respect in his face, in the set of his jaw, touched me. A strange joy rippled through me despite the righteous fury whipping me onward. His arms opened wide.
I hugged him and Zanyia, my face resting on his other shoulder. Zanyia's fierce eyes met mine. A defiant purr rose in her throat. My arms slipped around the both of them. Zanyia brought my brother and me together. I was glad she was here for this.
“Kill us,” Aingeal said as she fluttered down and hugged me from behind.
“Master! Mistress!” Nathalie darted in, throwing herself into Zanyia's back. The young girl buried her face into the lamia's tawny mane.
I looked at Rithi over my shoulder. “Will you keep me from my inspiration? I lost one muse today, I'm not losing another.”
The distortion around my Goddess dwindled. Her stance shifted, shoulders bowing ever so slightly. Her eyes flicked away from me. “Ealaín says she was wrong. She... realized her mistake too late. She is sorry, Kora. You're right. I can't dictate your art. I am not Krab demanding my worshipers follow my plans. I won't keep one artist from her inspiration.
“My apologizes, my Radiant.” Rithi caught my gaze. “I can see that you will create such works of beauty. It will spill out from here. It will change the world in such profound ways. Your love will be expressed. And your grief.”
“Thank you, my Goddess,” I said, my voice cracking. My body shook as the emotion swelled within me
With a nod of her head, her form melted away.
Ava, Greta, and Carsina surged in as the Goddess vanished, reality restoring to normal. They flung themselves into the group hug. Faces shining with tears, twisted with the outflow of emotions, stared up at me. All my women cried out their joy as they held me.
I wanted to join them. Emotions stung the corners of my eyes. My throat tightened. I didn't have to leave them. I didn't have to abandon them. Hurt them. Kora was brilliant. She convinced a Goddess to change her mind. It was so overwhelming. I squeezed my sister so tight to my chest. I smiled at them, blinking my eyes against the tears. How did I get so lucky to have these women? To share my life with them? To be united with them?
I didn't know, but I wouldn't fuck this up. I wouldn't vanish to find my own adventure. I had to be their husband, their Master. Some carried my children. I would be a father. My children needed to have someone to be an example to them.
Like my own father had been.
I cleared my throat and, instead of surrendering to the emotions rippling through me, I said as cockily as possible, “So, we have a princedom to rule.”