The third instalment in Jennifer L. Armentrout’s Flesh and Fire series is out this week, and you can read the whole first chapter right here.
The throbbing pain in my throat was fading, and I no longer felt the flames of red-hot agony burning through my body.
Despite the warmth and humidity of Dalos, the City of the Gods, I was now cold—colder than I’d ever been. I thought maybe I was fading because my vision was flickering in and out. I tried to focus on the open doors of the circular chamber I’d awakened in after the Shadowlands siege—in a cage and chained.
I had thought I’d seen a large wolf standing there. A wolf more silver than white.
A wolf I’d known in my heart and soul was him: the Asher, the One who is Blessed, the Guardian of Souls, and the Primal God of Common Men and Endings. The ruler of the Shadowlands.
He’d never confirmed that he could shift forms, but I knew it was my Primal of Death. And when I saw the wolf, I’d thought he’d come for me. That I would see him, touch him one last time, have the chance to tell him once more that I loved him. That I’d get to say goodbye on my terms.
But I didn’t see him in the doorway now.
He wasn’t there.
What if he’d never been there?
The arms around me tightened, making my sluggish heart race. Kolis, the false King of Gods, still held me, likely reeling from the realization of who was in his embrace—who he’d fed on. “Is it truly you?” Kolis’s voice was no louder than a sigh. Tears dampened my cheeks. Were they mine? His? “My love?”
I shuddered. Gods, Ash had been wrong when he said I may feel fear but am never afraid. Because the sound of Kolis simply speaking brought an avalanche of terror. It didn’t matter that it was only Sotoria’s soul inside me. That I wasn’t her, and she wasn’t me. He terrified both of us. Two leather-clad legs suddenly appeared in my line of vision. My gaze lifted, moving over the shadowstone daggers strapped to his hips. Light brownish-blond hair brushed the collar of a black tunic. The Primal of War and Accord had been facing the doors. The traitorous bastard who’d brought me to Kolis must have seen Ash if he’d been there. Right? In his wolf form, he was massive—larger than any wolf I’d ever seen.
Unless he’d never been there in the first place, and I’d hallucinated him.
My chest hollowed, and…oh, gods, the swell of sorrow was an unbearable pressure, threatening to crush me.
“Your Majesty.” Attes twisted sharply toward us. “She’s not well,” he said. “She’s close to death. You have to be able to feel that.”
“You need to take those embers before she passes,” another voice urged, one that carried a soft lilt. The Revenant, Callum. One of Kolis’s works in progress. “Take them—”
“The embers are the least of your concerns,” Attes interrupted, speaking directly to Kolis. “She is about to die.”
There was no response from the false King. He just…gods, he just held me, his large body trembling. Was he in shock? If so, that made me want to laugh. Which meant I, too, was likely in shock.
“If she dies with the embers, they die, too—along with everything you’ve been working toward,” Callum insisted, drawing my attention to him. He was blurry at first but then came into focus. The Revenant was golden all over: his hair, his skin, and the elaborately painted mask shaped like wings that swept down from his forehead to his jaw on either side. “Take them, my King. Take them and Ascend as the Primal of Life and—”
“She will be lost,” Attes cut in. “Your graeca will be beyond your reach.”
It meant life in the old Primal language. It also meant love. But I thought perhaps it had a third meaning. Obsession.
Because what Kolis felt for Sotoria couldn’t be love. Love didn’t create monsters.
“That is not her,” Callum hissed, his eyes narrowing behind his painted mask. “Do not listen to him, Your Majesty. This is a—”
Callum suddenly jerked forward, blood spraying the cage bars. His mouth slackened as he looked down at the shadowstone hilt protruding from the center of his chest.
My gaze shot to Attes. Only one dagger remained strapped to his body. He’d thrown that blade.
“Damn it.” Callum stumbled and then hit the gold-streaked floor. Dead. But I didn’t think he’d stay that way. However, I couldn’t remember why at the moment.
My chest spasmed. Shadows descended over my sight like a veil. Icy panic seized me as I fell into darkness, the brief moments of relief dissipating. No sound. No scent. No sight.
I didn’t want to die. Not now.
I jolted, hauled from the darkness. Images of what I saw pieced themselves together: the golden divan I’d been asleep on, the chain connected to the band I barely felt around my neck, the golden bars of the cage I was in, and the shadowstone dagger that had been in Callum’s chest, which now lay on the floor. The Revenant was rising, standing. How long had I been unconscious? I looked past him, beyond the golden throne, and farther out to the open doors.
I saw the wolf again, this time partially hidden by the wide palm fronds swaying in the balmy breeze.
My right hand—no, the marriage imprint that had appeared during my coronation as Ash’s Consort—warmed. The golden swirl across the top and palm tingled, and the embers of life in my chest started to hum, vibrating wildly. A sharp swirl of prickles broke out along the nape of my neck.
Kolis continued to rock as I sensed a storm of gathering power. My skin pimpled, and the tiny hairs on my body rose.
Attes turned to the doors. “Oh, fuck.”
The wolf’s head lowered, its eyes a luminous silver. One large paw pressed against the gold- streaked marble floor, his lips peeling back in a snarl.
A dark mist came from everywhere all at once. Shadows clung to the chamber ceiling where the chandelier’s light didn’t reach, then began pulsing and peeling away from the marble and limestone, slipping down the walls to race across the floor in smoky waves. My already too- shallow breaths snagged as the wolf leapt into the air and the churning mass of darkness. Tiny starbursts exploded all around him, and the center of my chest warmed—
The whirling shadows by the doors expanded and lengthened. Twin, sweeping arcs of shadow and smoke appeared behind the mass, and a shockwave swept through the chamber, making its way to the throne. The golden seat shuddered and then crumbled into nothing. The burst of power reached Attes, tossing him aside before lifting Callum, slamming him into the cage with a sickening crunch of bone.
Several rows of bars shattered. The chamber ceiling cracked and splintered, splitting open. The shadows and smoke solidified in the bright moonlight now pouring into the chamber.
The walls around us exploded, sending chunks of stone flying outward, leaving only a few feet of the structure standing as Ash rose even higher.
For the briefest moment, I saw him in his mortal form, the angles and planes of his face harsh and maybe even a little cruel, his skin a lustrous shade of golden-bronze, his hair reddish- brown in the moonlight falling against his broad cheeks. I caught just a flash of his strong, cut jaw, wide mouth, and full lips that had touched my skin in such decadent ways.
Then he slipped into his true form and hovered above where the throne had been, his flesh becoming a continuous swirl of midnight and thin, throbbing streaks of eather. The fresh, citrusy scent that was all his reached me, comforted me.
Ash was terrifying, his beauty vicious and breathtaking in both forms. And he was mine. “Kolis!” Ash roared, his voice a thunderstorm reverberating through the air.
Without warning, a burst of light cut through the night sky, slamming into the floor before Ash as heat flared in my chest. The funnel of light burned brightly, momentarily blinding me. When my vision returned, I saw…
A crown of ruby antlers gleaming in the moonlight.
Another Primal had arrived.
Hanan, the dark-haired, pale, and angular-featured Primal God of the Hunt and Divine Justice, stood before Ash. He held a spear made of some sort of dull white material that reminded me of bone in his right hand.
“Walk away, Nyktos.” Hanan’s spear began glowing from within. “Before it’s too late,” he warned. But I heard the tremor in the Primal’s voice, he who’d sent the Cimmerian to retrieve Bele instead of coming to the Shadowlands himself. I heard the fear.
Hanan may be a Primal, but he was also a coward.
“Before it’s too late?” Ash’s voice boomed, the power of it leveling what remained of the chamber walls. “It’s already too late.”
White light poured from Hanan as he rose into the air, drawing his arm back. Eather crackled from his spear right before he threw it. My breath caught—
Ash laughed. He laughed as his wings swept out and stretched wide, a violent mass of shadows and moonlight. Power sparked from the splayed fingers of the hand he lifted, and a bolt of stunning light erupted from his palm, hitting the spear in midair. A clap of thunder sounded just as light erupted in every direction.
Then Ash was in front of the Primal, grabbing him by the back of the head. He’d moved so quickly I didn’t see his other hand until Hanan screamed, and I saw Ash jerk his arm back. A bloody, pulsing mass smacked the floor.
Ash lifted Hanan into the air, and someone shouted. I thought it might have been Attes. Seemingly oblivious to it all, Kolis finally stopped rocking and lifted his head.
Ash gripped the Primal under the jaw, tearing—
My lips parted when Ash tore Hanan’s head from his shoulders.
Something fell, and eather pulsed from Ash’s hand.
The Primal embers of life hummed even more intensely in my chest, sending warmth to my hands. I knew what that meant, even before the crown clanged off the golden tile.
Ash had killed another Primal.
Was that how it was done? Ripping out the heart and destroying the head? It was a grotesque and barbaric method.
And disturbingly hot.
The crown of ruby antlers began vibrating as I heard a distant rumble. Beneath it, the tile split open, and the ground started to shake. White light appeared from within the ruby crown, bleeding out until the antlers could no longer be seen. The noise continued, coming from the sky and below, shaking even Kolis. Stone cracked in every direction. The ground outside the ruins of the chamber groaned and then split open. Palm trees shuddered and slid sideways, falling into the gaping fissure.
Hanan’s crown pulsed and then vanished.
A deafening boom hit the air, and I knew…oh, gods, I knew the sound traveled beyond Dalos. It likely hit every land in Iliseeum and beyond, extending into the mortal realm.
But I also knew that somewhere in the Shadowlands, a new ruler of Sirta had risen as the Goddess of the Hunt. Not because Bele was the only god of Hanan’s Court to have Ascended— and at my hands—but because I felt it in the embers of life.
And I knew Kolis had felt it, too.
The chain connected to the band around my neck clinked off the floor when Kolis lowered me. He braced my head with his hand, an act so unnerving in its tenderness that it seized my attention. My heart stuttered, and my gaze locked with his. Icy air whipped through the cage, sending the golden strands of Kolis’s hair across his face as he laid my cheek against the gold tile. I flinched at the unsettling gentleness of his palm sliding over my skin.
A guttural, inhuman growl shook the cage. “Get your fucking hands off my wife.”
Kolis smirked, and my skin iced over. He rose. “Oh, Nyktos, my boy,” he said in his summer voice, glancing to where Hanan’s crown had last been seen, past where Callum lay in a pool of blood, his fingers twitching. “I see you’ve been hiding how powerful you’ve become.” Kolis looked up at Ash. “I’m impressed.”
“Like I give a fuck,” Ash growled. “Rude,” Kolis murmured.
I needed to get up. Had to help Ash and fight beside him. Kolis wasn’t Hanan. False Primal of Life or not, he was still the oldest Primal alive. He was incredibly powerful.
I needed to help Ash.
My limbs felt weighed down, almost like they were attached to the tile. I struggled to roll onto my side, the simple act leaving me short of breath.
Kolis sighed loudly as if he were dealing with a petulant child. “Because we’re family, I’m going to give you the grace your father never extended to me. A chance to walk away from this.”
I frowned, and several strands of pale hair fell across my face. Kolis was just going to let Ash leave after killing another Primal? That made no sense.
Until it did.
Kolis couldn’t kill Ash. If he did, the Primal embers of death would transfer back to him. Kolis would no longer be the Primal of Life or the King.
There’d be no King.
It would throw the realm of the gods into chaos.
“You will return to your Court, and if Bele is still there,” Kolis continued, “you will advise her to appear before me and swear fealty.”
In the distance, silver briefly lit the night sky—rolling flames of eather. Then, in the brief light extending along the horizon, I saw two massive, winged beings crash into each other. Draken.
Oh, gods, was that Nektas? Another? I didn’t even know if Orphine had survived the dakkais attack. I’d seen her fall. I’d witnessed so many fall.
I needed to get up.
“And you will order whatever forces followed you to stand down and leave Dalos’s borders immediately.” In the silence that followed, a muscle in Kolis’s jaw spasmed. “Take this offer, Nyktos.”
Arms trembling from the effort, I managed to lift myself halfway up, but that normally effortless task came at a price. My head swam, and I drew Ash’s attention.
The eather in his eyes crackled as he looked at me, at the surely mangled skin of my throat and the band below Kolis’s bite. He saw the golden gossamer gown I’d been dressed in, and I felt his rage. It fell like icy rain against my skin. I wanted to tell him that I was all right, but my tongue felt too heavy to speak the lie. I wasn’t sure I would be okay.
And I think Ash sensed that.
His chest rose sharply, and his head swung back to Kolis. “I’m going to kill you.”
The false King of Gods tipped his head back and laughed. “Now you’re just being silly.” Ash moved as fast as an unleashed arrow, streaking forward. He came through the opening in the bars, the swirling shadows around him retracting. The air went utterly stagnant and turned thin just before Ash landed on the cage floor a few feet from Kolis. Tendrils of shadows whipped out from leather-clad legs. His eyes became pools of eather.
“Don’t,” Kolis warned, his chin dropping, “even think it.”
“As I said before,”—static crackled from Ash, and dual bolts of eather erupted from his palms—“too late.”
Kolis moved, becoming nothing more than a blur, but even as fast as he was, nothing was faster than unleashed Primal power. Ash’s bolts slammed into Kolis with shocking intensity, lifting and throwing him back. He crashed into the bars. The gold gave way under the impact.
Shadows swirled across the floor and over my legs as Ash spun, reaching for his waist. I saw the glint of shadowstone when he unsheathed his sword and threw it.
The blade struck Kolis in the chest. The force of the hit threw him back until he had nowhere else to go, and the sword hit the exterior wall, embedding deeply and pinning the false King.
Pounding footsteps thundered across the ruined floor. Guards in golden breastplates and greaves charged the cage, shadowstone swords raised.
Ash turned his head, looking over his shoulder at the newcomers.
The shadows, the very essence of the Primals, poured from Ash, shooting between the cage bars. The dark mist reached the armor of the guards’ boots.
High-pitched, agonized screams tore through the space, shrieks that ended abruptly.
Wisps of night bled into the air around me as Ash knelt by my side, only a hint of his features visible in the swirling darkness.
Despite the dryness and pain, I swallowed, forcing my vocal cords and tongue to work. “That… That was…so incredibly arousing.”
Ash froze for a heartbeat and then laughed roughly. “Keep your eyes on mine,” he said, grasping the band around my throat. “And do not move, liessa.”
My heart…gods, it melted at hearing him say that. It was such a silly thing to think, but it was true.
His churning silver gaze held mine. I heard the sound of metal snapping, and my entire body jerked. Chains hit the floor, causing me to topple over.
Shadows rippled across my chest and waist as Ash’s arms surrounded me, catching me. The essence covered me like a cloak but caused no pain. It never had.
He pulled me to him. His hand, so incredibly cold but also welcome, cradled my head. He pressed me to his chest.
Inhaling his fresh, citrus scent, I shuddered. When Kolis’s fangs had sunk into my skin, I honestly believed I’d never see Ash again. So to hear his voice? To be in his arms? Tears filled my eyes. Having this was overwhelming.
“I’m sorry,” he rasped, quickly moving us from the cage. “I’m sorry I didn’t get to you sooner, but I’ve got you now, liessa, and I won’t let go. I’ll never let go again.”
His apology tore at my heart as he lifted us into the air. This was all on Kolis and his demented actions. It was on Eythos, Ash’s father, for placing the embers and Sotoria’s soul inside a mortal and never telling his son. “None of this is—”
Ash cursed, twisting his body. A startled heartbeat passed.
Something hot and heavy slammed into Ash’s back. He grunted, and the air seemed to reach up and wrap invisible hands around us, rapidly pulling us down. Fear gathered in the back of my throat.
The impact was deafening as Ash hit the floor, still on his feet, taking the brunt of the landing. He staggered, going down on one knee, but he still held me. The shadowy essence around him thinned, and I saw the pain in the tight clench of his jaw.
“It’s okay,” he gritted, his bright, sterling eyes locked onto mine. “I’ve got you—” His head jerked back.
A hoarse scream tore from my throat when the tendons in his neck bulged. Ash held on, rising once more. He didn’t let go. He wouldn’t, just like he promised, despite the agony. No matter the cost.
“Ash,” I whispered.
His eyes went wide, and he stilled for a moment. “Sera,” he rasped.
Then something ripped Ash away from me.
My heart lurched, panic washing over me. There was a moment of weightlessness, and then I hit the floor. My head cracked off the tile, the burst of pain startling before the realm went black.
The feral, brutal roar of Ash’s fury rushed me back into consciousness. The moon. I saw the moon. I turned my head.
Kolis stalked forward, the wide, jagged gash in his chest dripping shimmery blood. Eather shone from his wound and poured from his palms, streaking across the chamber.
Ash was on one knee again but had both hands out now, shielding himself from the golden-tinged ripples of deadly essence.
“You really shouldn’t have done that,” Kolis said, followed by a sigh heavy with displeasure and even a bit of disappointment. “Now, I’m afraid you’ve gone and started a war.”