- The Darkest Craving
In that moment, a sickening realization dawned. Tink had taken the ring, and she’d taken the demon, and she now planned to take Kane’s place.
She was going to die in his stead, simply to give him a few days, maybe a few weeks, without the demon.
“No!” Kane screamed. “No! Don’t you dare!”
But it was too late.
Malcolm had already been in the process of striking. The fire pierced her chest, and her scream of pain shattered every corridor of his heart.
“No!” he cried. “No!”
The sword slid out of her and Kane saw a gap the size of his fist.
Tink collapsed. And Malcolm vanished.
Kane dropped to his knees and roared up at the sky.
* * *
IN A DAZE, when the shock of what he’d witnessed had worn off, but not the horror, never the horror, Kane crawled to his wife, gathered her in his arms and cradled her precious body against his chest. He held her for what seemed an eternity, but it couldn’t have been more than an hour.
There was no blood on her or him. The sword had cauterized the wound, and it wasn’t right. He should be covered in her blood, should have tangible evidence of the pain she had endured. He should have to wear it, a constant reminder of the disaster he had allowed—even without the demon living inside him. He needed to see his shame. His grief. His failure. Something, anything, but this...nothingness.
Nothingness. Yes. That’s all he had now.
His wife, his love, was gone. For nothing! Didn’t she know he could not have peace without her?
Tears must have been brewing at the back of his eyes because they suddenly spouted out, like rivers of anguish. He sobbed like a baby, and he didn’t care who saw him. Guards and Opulens came up to him and tried to talk to him, to learn what had happened, but he snarled and sent them running away.
“How could you do this?” he demanded of Tink. But he already knew the answer, didn’t he. She’d loved his life more than her own. “How?”
He brushed his fingers through the softness of her hair—her blond hair? Yes. Blond. Even her features had changed. She looked like Petra, and he had a moment of hope, thinking Petra had died and not his wife. But then her hair and features changed again, and he found himself peering down at someone he didn’t recognize.
When she changed a third time, and the strange image remained for an hour, then another, realization hit him and all hope withered. This was Tink, the blonde in the painting, and she was dead.
She had drained the Phoenix, acquiring the girl’s ability to shift identities, that was all. Because, now that the shifting had stopped, whatever spark had tried to ignite had been extinguished.
His Tink was dead, and she wasn’t ever coming back.
He howled up at the sky.
He had his freedom now, but the price had been too high.
He wanted to lash out, to kill someone, destroy something, but he couldn’t bear to release his Tink. So he sat there, even as the sun disappeared behind clouds and rain poured. He sat there as day turned to night.
Malcolm appeared a few feet away, his skin pallid, his lips compressed into a hard line.
A growl rose in Kane’s throat.
“I know I’m the last person you wish to see right now, but I must tell you what I’ve learned. I...went to my leader, told him what I’d done. He has assured me you will survive the removal of your demon, just as the girl wished.”
Well, what do you know? Kane could release his wife, after all. He stood, his hands fisted. “I might survive, but you won’t.”
The Sent One raised his chin. “Hear me out, warrior.”
“How could you kill her? You are forbidden from taking human life, and she was half human.”
“The moment she accepted your demon, I stopped seeing her that way.”
“That doesn’t change your rules.”
“No, nor does it change my circumstances. I was going to be punished either way.”
But the warrior wasn’t finished. “I was wrong when I told you that you would be emptied out. Your cup wasn’t spilled over. Water was poured inside, slowly displacing the oil. Now, you’re filled with the water...with love. I’m...sorry for your wife’s death.”
“Doesn’t matter now.” He withdrew two daggers.
The Sent One sighed. “You don’t want to fight me.”
“You’re right. I want to murder you.” He launched one of the daggers, aiming for Malcolm’s neck, but he vanished, and the weapon soared past him, embedding in a tree. Then, he reappeared.
Kane threw the other dagger, and the Sent One performed the same move.
He advanced. They’d settle this with their hands, then.
“Your woman.” Frowning, Malcolm tilted his head to the side as he looked beyond Kane’s shoulder. “She’s on fire.”
Kane spun, seeing flames dance at the end of her big toes. Once again, hope ignited as he realized what was happening. If she had retained Petra’s abilities, she could rise from her own ashes.
But what if Petra had been close to the final death?
He watched, desperate, as the flame spread to Tink’s other toes...to her ankles. Her knees. Her waist. Her shoulders...her head. Until she was engulfed.
She began to wither. A pile of ashes formed.
Then, nothing. The flames vanished.
Another hope destroyed.
He tore out hunks of earth. He kicked and punched trees. He—
Was blown backward by an intense wave of heat. He rolled to a stop and jumped to his feet. Beside him, Malcolm did the same. Another fire now raged, this one crackling over the ashes, lifting them, swirling them together.
Please, he thought. Please.
A female form came into view, floating in the center of the flames. Tink’s face took shape, then her hair, and body, and his heart nearly burst from his chest.
She opened her eyes, and the flames died in an instant. Her naked form fell to the ground, and she hmphed, losing her breath.
Breath. She had breath.
It had worked!
Kane dropped to his knees, the rush of relief too much for him.
She held up a trembling arm, twisted it in the light, then held up the other. “I’m really here.” Her eyes widened. “Kane, I’m really here!”
He lumbered to his feet, staggered over to her. He needed to touch her. Like, now. Emotion clogged his throat as he fell at her feet and gathered her in his arms. “I’ve never been so glad to watch someone catch fire,” he said, squeezing her tight. “You reformed, sweetheart. You reformed.”
“But only the Phoenix can do—” Realization dawned on her beautiful face. “The Phoenix! I took from her.”
“Yes.” A miracle of perfect timing. A choice...and a destiny.
“William must have killed her,” Malcolm said. “That’s the only way Josephina would have retained the ability. Which means, it hasn’t faded and it won’t. She’s no longer half human. She’s fully immortal, though it appears her ability is weaker than that of other Phoenix. They usually catch fire moments after the deathblow is struck.”
Kane had thought his tear ducts had dried, and yet, droplets rained down his cheeks. Tink. Fully immortal. His forever. “Thank you,” he said, the words for Tink, for Malcolm and his leader. “Thank you so much.”
Malcolm looked to the sky, paused and might even have smiled. “I have been told to tell you the baby reformed with his mother. Though he is only a few days old, he is specially gifted, and very strong.” After dropping that bombshell, he vanished.
A baby. A boy.
To know this soon...
Kane almost couldn’t process the news. Reverently his hand moved to his wife’s still-flat stomach.
Her eyes were wide and luminous. Then she laughed, joyous. “A baby, Kane.”
“Are you happy?”
“More than I ever thought possible. I always thought my gift and my circumstances were a blessing and a curse, but all along they’ve been a blessing, never a curse. I’m alive, and we’re going to have a baby, a baby that will be free—and you’re free, Kane. You’re free! The demon is dead. He’s no longer a part of you or me.”
He buried his face in the hollow of her neck, breathed her in. “What you did for me...I’ll never be able to repay you. The price you paid...the pain you just endured...” He shuddered. “Don’t you ever do anything like that again. I need you. You’re mine. We belong together.”
“Now and forever.”
He pulled back to peer into her eyes. The stitches had burned from her cheek and the swelling had gone down, but even still, a jagged six-inch line stretched over her skin. The hole in her chest had been filled, but there was a big, puckered scar.
“The injuries happened before you were fully immortal, so the evidence of them will never go away, I bet,” he said.
“Are they bad?” she asked, rubbing the scar on her chest.
“Bad? They’re amazing. Like you. Badges of courage—of your love for me.” He searched the rest of her, groaned. “We need to cover you up.” He tore off his shirt and tugged it over her head, concealing her bare breasts. He removed his pants and handed the material to her, leaving him in his underwear.
She smiled, a big happy smile. “The women are going to be drooling over you.”
“They can drool, but they can’t touch.”
“Because you’re mine,” she said, “just like I’m yours.”
“Forever,” he said.
“Forever,” she agreed.
A forever that would be very busy. “I want this kingdom at peace before our son arrives. I want Cameo and Viola found, and my debt to the Sent Ones paid. I’ll have to help them find the demons that killed their king.”
“Together, we can do anything.”
He kissed her, soft and sweet. “For now, I’m only interested in holding you, feeling your heart beat against mine, and proving you really are alive.”