Nuriya eyed it uncertainly.

“I wish to take you somewhere first,” Cyrus explained.

“Where?” Nuriya asked, no longer hiding the fear in her voice.

“Follow and you shall see, my love.” Taking her hand, he pulled her to the trapdoor. He stooped down and creaked open the door, and then, picking her up again, descended into the hole.

Where is Horatio? I felt leery going down without him. He was supposed to be here by now. In any case, it was hard to miss that hole in the floor. He would know where we had gone.

I approached the trapdoor and gazed down to see the two of them disappearing into gloom. As I hurried down, there was a strange musky smell. Reaching the bottom, I found myself emerging in a dank dungeon, lit by torches. The walls were bare—made of stone—except for the far wall, which was covered entirely by a long red curtain. There wasn’t anything polished about the place except for another luxurious bed, identical to the one upstairs, placed in the center.

Nuriya gazed around. A rather strange place to bring a bride on her wedding night.

“What is this?” Nuriya asked.

Cyrus hushed her.

The firelight danced across Nuriya’s face. Her forehead had broken out in a sweat. I could practically hear the question running through her mind: Where’s Benjamin?

I wished I could somehow let her know that I was right here, just waiting…

Finally, it happened. After laying her down on the bed, he propped himself up on the mattress and the bottom half of him slowly manifested.

Her eyes bulging in her sockets, Nuriya screamed.

Way to kill the moment.

Cyrus appeared displeased by this, to say the least. How dare Nuriya not be delighted to discover she’d just married a scorpion mutant!

She scrambled off the bed and bolted for the door, but Cyrus’ eight legs caught up with her too fast. He grabbed hold of her and gathered her in a crushing hold before dragging her back to the bed. Apparently she was incapable of escaping by vanishing herself.

“It’s all right,” he said, taking a deep breath—as if to calm his own annoyance as much as Nuriya’s fear. “It’s me. Just me,” he whispered, leaning down to catch her trembling lips in his. “And you’ll come to love me for what I am… as well as for what you will become.”

Now was the time to strike. Now, or it might be never. My eyes shot toward the stairwell. I hoped to see Horatio, who was supposed to come equipped with weapons for me, but still he wasn’t there. Where the hell is he?

My eyes raked over the chamber for any kind of weapon that I could use, but all I spotted were the burning torches. I moved for the nearest one to me, but before I reached it, Cyrus darted with Nuriya toward the other side of the room and stopped in front of the long red curtain. He drew it open. I froze.

The curtain had been covering the entrance to another torchlit chamber, much like the one I stood in now. Except in the center was a pool of bright orange liquid, and behind the pool, crouched in the shadows, loomed the dark outline of… a black scorpion. A real, full-bodied scorpion. A scorpion larger than a horse. Its tiny eyes gleamed as they turned in their sockets, and its orange-red tipped stinger—the same color as Cyrus’—rose above its head.

If my sister had been here to see this creeper, she would have had a heart attack. Poor Nuriya certainly looked close to it.

The liquid in the pool, however, was almost more disconcerting than the scorpion itself. It looked identical to what I’d seen Cyrus drinking. Perhaps he had not been drinking his own venom after all… In which case, would damaging his stinger even help? Would we need to target both Cyrus and the scorpion?

“Meet the queen of scorpions,” Cyrus announced, proudly gesturing toward the creature. “The very first scorpion ever to be captured by my great-great-grandfather.”

“H-how?” Nuriya gasped, close to hyperventilating.

“My uncle used to tell me tales as a boy of the exploits of my great ancestor. One of the stories involved his creating this beauty, Neema.” He cast another loving glance at his pet.

He should hook up with her instead.

“Nobody believed that she could still be alive, after all that time, even after being freed from captivity and released into the wild. They underestimated just how potent a breed my great-great-grandfather had created. I, on the other hand, did believe… I hunted her down and found her.”

He scuttled with Nuriya closer to the venomous pool. “You know,” he said thoughtfully, running his palms down Nuriya’s back, “Neema’s venom is so powerful, it is infectious to certain species… transformative, even. A gentle dip in a pool of her poison can sometimes even mutate shapeshifting species of our kind permanently. It merely depends on how strong the bather is.”

Nuriya’s breath hitched and she struggled once again to break free.

“I was lucky to be born from a strong bloodline,” he went on, “just as you are lucky.”

I couldn’t wait any longer. Shooting for a torch, the only thing in this chamber I could possibly use as a weapon, I spotted Horatio in the stairwell. Finally. He was half translucent, and to my relief, he had brought half a dozen swords.

I rushed over and grabbed a blade from him, forced to assume a solid state.

Nuriya’s scream pierced the chamber.

When I whirled around, it was to see Cyrus bending over the pool, holding Nuriya’s head under. Cursing beneath my breath, I raced over to him, raising the sword and aiming it at the base of his stinger. But before I reached four feet from him—even though I made no sound—he spun around abruptly, as if he had eyes at the back of his head.

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