“I’m the fastest climber of the four of us,” he says, excluding me from that grouping.
Obviously, he knows I’m faster.
“It’ll be quicker to go up,” he goes on, sounding like he’s talking himself into that conclusion more than explaining his logic to me.
He starts climbing, and I ask a reasonable question. “What if one of those bird-snakes shoots out and knocks you off? I might have set the bar too high with that fabulous first catch, but I’m not so sure we want to see if I’m a one-hit-wonder or not.”
He curses and laughs at the same time, straining his muscles as he heaves himself up quicker and quicker.
“Climb behind me several feet down. They seem to be attracted to your presence the most,” he says.
“Did you forget my fear of clinging to a mountainside? I was just going to zap up when you got closer.”
The ground rumbles, and I start climbing immediately. The rumbling shifts, and as if cued, the bird-snake shoots through me instead of taking Kai down.
Kai blows out a shaky breath as that scaly tail—the tails are the absolute worst—finishes slithering through me.
“Since you’re my favorite and gave me my first two-person orgasm, I’ll tough it out,” I grumble, closing my eyes as I start climbing slowly, not really needing to actually worry about falling so long as I don’t look down.
His masculine, reluctant chuckle accompanies his usual groan.
“I’m going to need you to stop talking about that, because I’m hard as stone, and you have no idea the temptation I’m battling.”
“My evil vagina is impressed with her powers of temptation,” I deadpan.
Two more bird-snakes pass through me before we reach the top. I zap the rest of the way there once Kai tells me he’s over the edge.
The other three men stand from their seats on the ground, and Ezekiel grimly gestures to the next leg of the trial.
A hellfire tundra awaits us, stretching as wide and far as the eye can see.
And there’s no way across.
“We can go back down and into the forest, but it’s going to exhaust us, and who’s to say we won’t find the same thing on the other end of it?” Ezekiel asks, frustrated.
I look out, only seeing the black forest behind us and nothing beyond it. I’m assuming that’s the Devil’s trick.
“So we wait for a gift from one of the children, in other words,” Jude says on an annoyed breath.
I move to the edge of the fiery lake, bending low. My hand merely passes through the flames, and I try to think of the power I envied so immensely that Lilith wielded.
It crashed through me with such an overwhelming presence before it temporarily dried up the lake of lava then.
“I’m not volunteering to step in it this time,” Kai says bitterly. “I was the last sacrifice.”
Jude curses, moving toward the edge like he’s going to do the same stupid thing Kai did at the last trial.
“Stop!” I shout, and he does, but just barely.
“What if I can duplicate what Lilith did? I remember the power. I recorded the feeling.”
“Recorded the feeling?” Gage asks.
I nod. “It’s how I’ve learned to do things. I record the processes in my mind—like the clothing issue that started in the beginning. I pick apart the powers later. I even drew out acid on command today because I’ve been getting better and better since my last level-up.”
“Lilith has a lot more power than you,” Kai decides to point out.
A wave of envy washes over me again. I’m assuming she did something to me when that power rushed through me, because I’ve really hated her ever since.
“Just for that, you’re no longer my favorite. It goes back to Ezekiel by default.”
Ezekiel’s eyebrows raise, at the same time Gage asks, “How did Kai become your favorite when he was your least favorite?”
Since I already replaced the ripped panties with an exact replica pre-barbarian Kai, there’s no evidence of our detour.
“The most important part of that you should concern yourself with is the fact you’re the only one who hasn’t been my favorite,” I tell him flippantly, studying the fire lake a little more intensely.
My eyes close as I recall that day, making it clear. I separate each intricate part of the power, trying my damnedest to see if I can duplicate it.
“Anything you care to explain?” Jude drawls, distracting me only briefly when my eyes open to see him staring expectantly at Kai.
“Kai showed gratitude. The rest of you could really take a lesson,” I inform them absently.
Ezekiel just laughs and walks away. Gage rolls his eyes. Jude is the only one acting like he’s upset right now.
The ground around us starts to shake, and the guys go silent as it shakes harder and harder.
“Please fucking tell me you’re doing that,” Gage says on a quiet breath.
Something is pouring out of me, but I sure as hell am not shaking the ground.
“Not me,” I groan.
Just as they start to take cover, a massive beetle spews from the lake, spanning at least twenty yards as it floats atop the fiery surface. It spits and foams at the mouth, and it gnashes its crooked, spiky teeth close to Gage.
A beetle that likes hellfire instead of burning? No thank you.
Gage flips back, and in the next instant his hand shoots out. The beetle freezes, and Gage lunges, connecting with the beetle’s leg that he grips with both hands.
A scream tears through the air as the beetle’s massive body starts to shrivel, the fight slowly leaving the beast.
“Stop!” I shout, and Gage does, looking at me like I’m crazy.
“We can ride it across. It’s subdued with whatever you just did that is making it wilt like a rotten piece of fruit, but it’s still floating.”
The guys all exchange a look, and then they quickly start climbing it. Kai is the only one left on land, and he kicks his foot out hard, knocking the beetle off the land what little bit it was beached.
Then he runs and leaps. Jude catches his hand, pulling him up the rest of the way. I zap myself up there with them, and we slowly float down the fire. The center of the beetle escapes the licking flames, and they stay there, away from harm.
There’s just enough of a current to slowly drag us in the right direction.
“How do you pass an impassible lake without a consequential gift from the Devil’s children?” Ezekiel asks as he lies down.
“You wound a hell’s belly monster just enough to ride it on the premeditated current,” Jude answers, looking over at Gage as he clenches and unclenches his fists, still wired from whatever he just did.
“Riddles,” Kai states flatly.
“The riddles are subtle?” I ask on a sigh. “I expected a super creepy echoing voice to pop in and ask us questions that we had to get right before we could pass on to the next phase.”
Ezekiel snorts as he tosses his tux jacket off the side of the beetle. It turns to ash instantly when it hits the flames, and he adds the tie to the flames next.
“Why must they overcomplicate these things? How do we know when there’s a riddle or just an obstacle?” I ask. “Lamar said the riddles would be the most important.”
“They will be. They’ll be the trick to life or death, clearly,” Jude says, gesturing at the beetle under us, and looking at me like I’m an idiot.
“In that case, I really hope you’re all old enough to be wise and not just paranoid, so we can see the riddles before it’s too late next time,” I tell him, a fuck-you grin on my face.
Ezekiel laughs as he lies down, putting his side against mine as he untucks his dress shirt. Fortunately, I feel no overwhelming urge to go whole.
I’m getting better at this.
Gage loses the same unnecessary items, but he also strips off his dress shirt as well, leaving the white tank underneath to outline his very hard and distracting body.
“What’s Hera’s way of delivering gifts?” I ask them, since there’s nothing else to do but chat.
“She takes something from you before she gives you something in return,” Kai answers from somewhere. “You have no say in what she takes.”
“Lovely. Let’s hope she doesn’t help out, because I don’t think I’d like what she’d want from you.”
“That’s more Cain’s style. It’s why he doesn’t help us. He prefers to be given something in exchange for his help, and it’s usually on the sexual favor side. Have you ever seen us with men?” Gage points out.
“The twins?” I muse.
“A fucked up version of yin and yang with their own twist,” Ezekiel answers. “They could hurt you or allow you to fuck them. It depends on what course of action they used the last time. You’re always gambling with agonizing pain or possible pleasure when you deal with them.”
“They have no sexual preference, but again, we do,” Kai points out. “Which is why Lilith and Hera are the ones to approach us.”
“So Hera has approached you?” I ask, trying not to sound as worried as I feel for whatever reason.
“She tried at the beginning of the first trial. Lilith intercepted her,” Jude states, staring in front of us like he’s searching for an end to come into sight.
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