Okay, I won’t torture you with an extended introduction. Here it is – chapter 3 of Kingdom of the Cursed!
Dawn fought its way into our tiny shelter. Not that I could tell for certain what time it was. This world seemed to be stuck in a permanent state of twilight. Maybe the swift approach of the next storm was to blame. So far “overcast” was the preferred state of the atmosphere here. As if proving my theory correct, wind screeched in the distance, raising the small hairs along my arms.
There was only a slight shift in the angle of the light and the way Wrath gruffly said, “Time to move,” that indicated it was indeed daytime. I waited for the arrogant prince to mock what happened a few hours ago, but he gave no indication I’d been half‑ naked and writhing against him, taunted with a sinful illusion of our bodies tangling together.
Maybe it was only a dream within a dream.
That hope rallied me up from our makeshift bed. I twisted from side to side, stretching out sore muscles. It wasn’t the worst night’s sleep I’d ever had, but it wasn’t comfortable by any means. A warm bath, a change of clothing, and a good meal were just what I needed.
At the thought of food, my stomach grumbled loud enough that Wrath turned around to look, a slight crease forming between his brows. “We don’t have much farther to travel, but, due to the ter‑ rain, it will likely take until nightfall to arrive at our destination.”
Wrath seemed skeptical about that but kept his troublesome mouth shut.
I stared glumly at the metal corset top and started unbutton‑ ing the demon’s shirt. Might as well get the miserable garment on quickly so we could leave. While I could definitely survive with‑ out food for a while, I’d eventually get a headache if it was too much longer.
Vittoria had been the same way. Our father used to tease us, claiming our magic burned a constant stream of energy that needed replenishing, and how it was a good thing we had a restau‑ rant. Nonna would shake her head and shoo him away before slip‑ ping us sweets.
A different kind of ache took up residence near my heart. No matter how much I tried to shut it down, thoughts of food quickly turned to thoughts of Sea & Vine, our family trattoria.
Which was a swift emotional punch that almost had me dou‑ bling over. I missed my family terribly and I’d only spent one night in the underworld. Time might move differently here, so it was possible just an hour had passed in my world, maybe less.
I hoped Nonna managed to find a safe hiding place for every‑ one. Losing my twin was devastating, my grief still powerful enough to drown me if I let it surface above the fury for too long. If I lost anyone else . . . I shoved those worries into a little trunk near my heart and focused on getting through the day. A new thought slipped in.
“Where’s Antonio?” I watched Wrath carefully. Not that I would read much if he chose to shield his emotions. “You never told me where you sent him.”
He didn’t elaborate and it was probably best to let it be for now. We had more important things to focus on. Like making it out of the Sin Corridor without another prodding of my desires, and then formally introducing me to Pride and his royal court.
There would be plenty of time in the future to speak with Antonio, the human blade one of the demon princes had influ‑ enced to kill my twin. And the young man I used to dream of marrying before I knew the truth of his hatred for witches.
In my haste to get ready, I snapped a button off my borrowed shirt and cringed at the frayed thread. Knowing how fussy my traveling companion was about clothing, I braced myself for a lec‑ ture. I glanced up, an apology on my lips, surprised when Wrath shook his head, cutting my words off before I’d given voice to them.
“Keep it.” He slipped his black jacket on. I drew my brows together and he quickly noted the suspicion I didn’t try to hide. “It’s wrinkled and ruined. I refuse to be seen like that.”
“Your thoughtfulness is overwhelming. I might swoon.”
I inspected his jacket. The luxurious material pulled across his broad shoulders, accentuating the taut muscles and hard lines of his chest. Of course he would prefer to show up half‑naked rather than wear a crinkled shirt in front of any demonic subjects. I almost rolled my eyes at his vanity but managed to keep my expression neutral.
I noticed something I hadn’t last night: he wore both amulets now. The first licks of anger bubbled up, but I shoved the feelings down. I’d had enough testing for one day.
He fastened the button above his trousers, leaving an unob‑ structed visual of his sculpted torso and the barest hint of the leather holster. The demon‑forged blade was not his finest weapon—one look at him and anyone would hesitate to raise a hand.
Wrath’s eyes glinted with rakish pleasure when he saw what had caught my attention. “Would you like me to unbutton it again? Or would you prefer to do that?”
“Get over yourself. I was thinking about how conceited you are, not lusting over you.”
“You wished to get under me last night. In fact, you were quite insistent.”
I notched my chin up. He could sense a lie, so I didn’t bother with them. “Lust does not require liking or even loving someone. It’s a physical reaction, nothing more.”
“I was under the impression you weren’t interested in kissing someone you hate,” he said coolly. “Am I to believe you’d be all right bedding them now?”
“Who knows? Maybe it’s this realm and its wicked machinations.”
“Fine. Maybe I was lonely and scared and you offered a distraction.”
I tucked the shirt into my skirts. It was much warmer, and I was excited to leave the metal top behind. I bent to retrieve my serpent belt and fastened it around my waist.
Wrath tracked each of my movements, his golden eyes assessing. Oddly enough, he seemed genuinely intrigued about my answer.
“Why do you care, anyway?” I asked. “It’s not as if you will be sharing my bed.”
“I’m wondering what changed.”
“We’re in the underworld, for one.” His eyes narrowed, detecting even the smallest untruth. Interesting. “Let me clear up any confusion. You’re very enjoyable to look at. And on some occasions where logic fails I may desire you, but I’ll never love you. Enjoy last night’s illusion—a fantasy is all it was and all it will ever be.”
He gave me a mocking smile as he replaced his crown. “We’ll see about that.”
“It would be so tempting to place a wager, but I refuse to sink to your level.”
His gaze smoldered, reminding me of a banked fire on the verge of igniting again. “Oh, I believe you’d enjoy every second of descending to my level. Every slip and plunge of your fall will make your pulse pound and your knees quake. Care to know why?”
“Not at all.”
An annoying half‑smile ghosted across his face. He leaned in close, his voice dropping impossibly low. “Love and hate are both rooted in passion.” His lips whispered across my jaw as he slowly brought them to my ear. My breath caught from his nearness, his heat. He drew back enough to meet my gaze, his attention falling to my mouth. For a moment, I thought he was going to tip my face up to his, run his tongue over the seam of my lips and taste my lies. “Strange how that line becomes blurred over time.”
My traitorous lips parted on a sigh. Before I registered he’d even moved, he swept out of our little shelter. A shiver slid down my spine. It wasn’t the cold that unsettled me; it was the deter‑ mination that flashed in his eyes. As if I’d declared war and he refused to walk away from the lure of battle. It wasn’t clear if he was referring to me never loving him, or never bedding him, but provoking the general of war meant trouble either way.
As I pulled my cloak on, I recalled Nonna’s warnings about the Wicked—how once someone caught a demon prince’s attention he’d stop at nothing to claim them.
The way Wrath had looked at me made me think those stories were true. And despite his earlier proclamation about me being the last creature in all the realms he would want, and the fact I was now promised to his brother, something undeniably had just changed.
Goddess help us both.-
Morning kicked and screamed its way toward noon as if it were a spoiled child throwing a tantrum. Snow squalls appeared, fierce and howling, and left as quickly as they’d arrived. When I thought the weather had finally turned moderate, ice pelted us.
Frozen strands of dark hair stuck to my face, and my cloak suctioned to my body like a second skin. I was cold and miserable in ways I’d never experienced at home on my warm island. Vari‑ ous body parts either burned or stung from the ice, and I’d long since lost sensation in my feet. I hoped I wouldn’t lose a toe or three to frostbite.
Whenever I felt the first tinges of hopelessness creeping in, I gritted my teeth and pushed on, head down, as the gusting wind continued to snap at me. I refused to succumb to the elements this early on in my mission. My sister would never give up on me.
It would take far worse than ice to stop me now.
Perhaps this corridor did more than simply test for sins; per‑ haps battling such vicious elements was a test of grit. Of determination. And uncovering how far one was willing to go for the ones they loved. Both the demons and this realm would discover that answer soon enough.
Wrath either enacted a glamour, or the elements didn’t dare to mess with his princely self. His hair was unaffected, and his clothing remained dry. If his cavalier attitude regarding the journey didn’t annoy me enough already, the way the weather bent to his will was enough to irk me into an early grave. It was wholly unfair that he should look so damnably good while I looked similar to a sodden wreck that washed ashore after several long, hard months at sea.
The few times it wasn’t snowing or hailing or some terrible combination of the two, a thick, chilly mist hung over us like an omen from a nasty winter god. I was starting to think there was a higher power out there who enjoyed toying with travelers.
Time stretched on and on, though the sun never quite made an appearance. There were only various shades of gray tinging the sky. Wrath and I barely spoke after our morning conversation, and I was perfectly fine with that. Soon enough I’d be at House Pride.
After what I estimated to be another hour or two into our journey, I began trembling uncontrollably. The more I tried forcing my muscles to still, the more they rebelled.
Nonna always told us to find the positive in any situation, and now that I was so emotionally and physically drained by the frosty elements, I was spared from being tested by the Sin Corridor.
My shivers quickly grew loud enough to draw Wrath’s attention. He ran a calculating gaze over me, mouth tightening, and walked faster. He barked at me to keep moving. To hurry up. To lift my feet. Higher, faster, move, go, now. He was the mighty general of war and I could easily imagine how much his soldiers hated him for the drills he ran them through.
When painful pins and needles started pricking my body all over, I distracted myself with a new game. Perhaps it was the Sin Corridor encouraging me, but I envisioned all the ways Wrath could slip over a cliff and splatter himself on craggy rocks. I saw it all so clearly . . .
. . . I’d race after him, pulse pounding as I followed the broken branches and destruction left in his wake, his big body crashing violently into everything on its way down. Once I caught up to him, I’d drop to my knees, frantically searching for a pulse. Then I’d swirl my fingers through his warm blood, drawing little hearts and stars in the gore.
He glanced over his shoulder, brows tugged close. “What are you smirking at?”
“I’m fantasizing about painting the world with your blood.”
“Explains the overly indulgent look.” The twisted heathen grinned and the Sin Corridor swiftly ceased pushing me from gluttony to wrath. Before I unleashed myself, he said, casually, “Have I ever told you your anger is like my own personal aphrodisiac?”
No, he had not. But of course the demon ruling over war would be aroused by conflict. I inhaled deeply, attempting to cool my temper and the wrath I was still being prodded toward. “If you wish to keep your favorite appendage intact, I suggest not speaking.”
“Once you finish thinking about my impressive appendage, I suggest moving faster. We’ve got a long way to travel. And you look half‑dead as it stands.”
“Your talent for making a woman swoon is second only to your charm, Prince Wrath.”
His nostrils flared and I did an abysmal job keeping the amusement from my face. Which only made his scowl deepen. Wrath didn’t taunt me again for another few hours, but it wasn’t from brooding. He was driven, tense. I had a strong suspicion he was more worried than he let on. I did my best to keep up with him, concentrating on the end goal instead of the miserable present. We worked our way down the treacherous pass, time mov‑ ing in excruciatingly slower increments. I started slipping more, catching myself right before I tumbled over the edge.
Wrath glared at me, rallying my anger enough to press on if only to spite him. I wasn’t sure how long it took for me to notice, but awareness tingled at the back of my muddled senses. Wrath had scouted a good distance ahead, ensuring the terrain was passable, when I’d felt the slight prickle of unease turn into a steady prodding I could no longer ignore.
I stopped walking, and the sound of snow crunching continued for a good half‑beat after before falling eerily quiet. I slowly swept my gaze around. Evergreens lined this part of the pass, the branches weighted and bowed from thick snow, making it impossible to see past them into the darker section of woods. Overtaxed tree limbs creaked and groaned. More snow crunched.
I exhaled, my breath mingling with the mist. The haunted atmosphere was caused by the sound of broken branches falling. I turned back around and froze.
A giant, three‑headed doglike creature gazed at me, heads tilted, and three sets of ears perked. Its fur was as white as the falling snow and its eyes were glacier blue. Those strange eyes stared into mine, its pupils dilating then contracting.
I didn’t so much as breathe too deeply for fear of inciting an attack. Its fangs were twice the size of dinner knives, and they appeared just as sharp. The creature snuffed the air, its wet nose nearly touching my throat as it brought its middle head near.
I swallowed a scream as it took a step closer, those icy eyes lighting with . . .
Before I could cry out for help, each set of its jaws snapped open and shut as if it wanted to bite me, but changed its mind, much to its shock and mine. It shook its heads, eyes glazed, and stepped away. A predator acknowledging a larger threat. I fell into the embankment and stared, dumbstruck as it slunk backward into the woods, its gaze never leaving mine as it softly snarled.
I didn’t breathe again until it disappeared from sight. So much for making a fearless impression on the underworld. “Blood and bones. What was that?”
“If you’re finished playing with the puppy, I’d like to continue our journey.”
I swiveled my head in the demon’s direction. Wrath stood a few paces away, his powerful arms crossed and an annoying smirk on his face. No assistance, no offer of help. Only mockery at a sit‑ uation that could have turned ugly very rapidly. Typical demon.
“That was the size of a small horse!”
“Refrain from saddling it up like one. Unlike my brothers, they don’t enjoy being ridden.”
“Hilarious.” I pushed myself to my feet and swiped at the snow on my cloak. As if I wasn’t cold and wet enough before. “I could have been mauled to death.”
“There are a number of solitary lesser demons who call the woods and outlying lands home. Hellhounds are the least of your concern. If you’re finished with the dramatics, let’s move. We’ve wasted enough time.”
Of course the demon would call a three‑headed hellhound a puppy and say I was being dramatic over the encounter. I trudged past him, muttering every obscenity I could recall. His dark chuckle set my feet moving faster, lest the Sin Corridor get any more wicked ideas.
We traveled on, thankfully with no more wildlife encounters. Our biggest challenge was the relentless storm. I silently vowed I’d never fantasize about snow being romantic again.
When I thought our blustery misery was coming to an end, another towering mountain appeared from the mist. I had to lean all the way back and still couldn’t see over the top of it.
I bit back a small whimper. There was no chance I could drag my frozen body up and over that behemoth. My head felt strange, a combination of dizziness and exhaustion. Or vertigo. I con‑ sidered plopping down right there. Maybe a few minutes of rest would help.
Wrath strode ahead, leaving me where I stood contemplating my near‑certain demise. Just like when he’d held a hand to the gates of Hell, he placed his palm against the rock face. Gold light shim‑ mered as he quietly commanded the mountain to do his bidding.
Or maybe he was whispering a threat to a Hell god that owed him a favor.
I was too far away to hear him and I snickered at the thought of his potential demands. I full‑out laughed when a section of moun‑ tain slid back like his own personal door. Of course. A mountain obeyed his every wish. Why wouldn’t it?
Too bad he didn’t order the storm to heel like he should have done with the hellhound earlier. It probably would have tucked its tail between its legs and raced in the opposite direction.
For some reason, the imagery had me doubling over, laughing so hard tears streamed down my face. A second later, I forgot what was so funny. Snow fell in heavier flakes. My pulse slowed, my heart clenched. It felt like I was dying. Or traveling to an isle of— Wrath was before me in an instant, his strong hands wrapping around my upper arms. I didn’t realize I’d been swaying on my feet until he’d steadied me. Even with his assistance, everything kept spinning wildly and I squeezed my eyes shut, which only made it worse.
I opened them again, and tried to focus on one point to ease the sensation.
Wrath’s stern face swam into view.
He looked me over, frowning. If I had the ability to do so, I would have rolled my eyes at his critical assessment of whatever he found lacking. Not everyone was blessed to look like some deviously handsome deity while traipsing through Hell. His lips twitched.
I must have said that last part out loud.
“Perhaps I should carry you the rest of the way. If you’re com‑ menting on my godlike looks, you must be tremendously ill.”
“No. Absolutely not.”
I staggered toward the opening he’d made in the mountain, des‑ perate to get out of the snow. I accomplished two steps into the dark tunnel before my legs were swept out from under me and a warm, muscular arm banded across my shoulders, holding me in place.
I squirmed, humiliated to be carried like a rag doll or child. Wrath was unfazed by my attempts to get free. As the soon‑to‑be Queen of the Wicked, this was not the first impression I wanted to make. Half‑delirious, half‑frozen, and wholly reliant on a demon. Wrath had once said power was everything here, and, even through my delirium, I knew relinquishing mine for a moment would mark me as an easy target.
“Put. Me. Down.”
My head rolled back, landing in the nook between his shoul‑ der and neck. He was deliciously warm. “I meant now.”
“I’m well aware of that.”
The world swayed with each of his steps, grew darker. It was suddenly an effort to stay awake. My skin felt oddly tight. Everything was too cold. Sleep would make all of that go away. And then I could dream. Of my sister. Of my life before I’d ever summoned a demon. And of the time I’d foolishly believed love and hate were nowhere close to being the same emotion.
“I hate you.” My words came out slower than they should have. “I hate you in the darkest of ways.”
“I’m well aware of that, too.”
“My future husband cannot see me like this.”
I felt more than saw him smile. “Knowing you, I’m sure he’ll see much worse.”
“Grazie.” Jerk. I nestled against his warmth and sighed, undermining my own demands to be set down. I’d only rest for a minute. “Do you think I’ll like him?”
Wrath’s steps never faltered, but he held me a little tighter. “Time will tell.”
I dozed off and jerked awake what I hoped was only a moment or two later. Between the darkness of the tunnel and his steady, rhythmic stride, it was difficult to stay alert. Nonsensical thoughts and memories crowded into my head and spilled from my lips. “You said you wouldn’t.”
The rumble of his voice vibrated in my chest. It was oddly comforting. I pressed my cheek against his heart, listening to it beat faster. Or maybe that was wishful thinking. His bare skin blazed against mine. Almost painfully so. “Take care of me. You said you wouldn’t . . .”
He didn’t respond. Not that I expected him to. He was not soft or kind. He was hard and rough and fueled by rage and fire. He understood battle and war and strategy. Friendship wasn’t any of those things. Especially one involving a witch. I was a mission to him, a promise he’d made to his brother, nothing more. That I understood, even if it stung deep down. I had my own goals, my own agenda. And I wouldn’t hesitate to destroy anyone who interfered with my plans.
Sleep finally wrestled me into its embrace and I relaxed against Wrath’s body. Maybe he’d surprise me by sneaking us into House Pride through a secret entrance to avoid any nosy demons. I could only hope he’d grant me some mercy.
From somewhere far away, I could have sworn he whispered, “I lied.”