(Author’s Note: If you haven’t read Book 1, Fae’s Captive, you’re going to want to do that before starting Road to Winter.)
Fire scorches across my back as I twist away from the witch’s claws. Her venom is particularly potent, slowing my reactions and dimming my vision.
“On your right!” Gareth leaps for her, sword swinging, but she disappears in a black plume and cackles with glee.
“You taste like power, winter king.” Her voice whistles through the trees. “Old, strong roots. Cold wind and the delicious bite of fresh snow.”
I stumble forward, staying upright as I follow my mate’s scent. Her fear is acrid in my nostrils. The vile witch took her as she slept, slipping her past my defenses with powerful dark magic straight from the Spires. I only realized Taylor was gone when the other changeling began to yell.
Gareth keeps close to my back, just like old times. We’re at war again, but now the stakes are even higher. I can’t lose Taylor.
“So sweet to try and save your poor, poor mate.” The voice comes from everywhere and nowhere.
“If you’ve harmed her, I will—”
“No.” A shadow whips to my right. “I won’t harm that one. That wouldn’t do. Don’t you know what she is?”
I sense the attack coming and spin, lashing out with my blade. Contact, but my sword glances off her obsidian skin, the blow jarring up my arm.
“She’s a changeling, foul witch,” Gareth growls and throws out his hand, sending a wild blue fireball crashing into her.
But she’s an Obsidian. Fire cannot harm her. She opens her mouth wide and inhales, swallowing the flames before disappearing again.
Her cackle sounds from behind the next tree. I rush forward and stab the spot, finding only air. Another slash of fire opens across my back, and I whirl as the dark creature dances back, her feet not touching the ground. Gareth rushes her, swinging for her face, but she vanishes before he lands the blow.
“A changeling?” The cackle grows to a cacophony that echoes around us. “Fools.”
There’s only one way to destroy an Obsidian witch, and it almost killed me the last time. But to save my mate, I will fight until my last breath. This sacrifice will be worth it.
“Draw her ahead of us.” I back up to stand next to Gareth. Blood drips down a nasty gash on his face. If he’s not careful, he’ll have another wound to match the jagged scar on his right cheek.
“This one gives even better than the last one we killed.” He spits blood. “It will take all you have. Can you do it?”
“I have to. Be ready.”
He grimaces. “You shouldn’t—”
“Secrets make enemies, my lords.” Her voice whispers right beside me, but when I strike out, nothing is there.
Gareth limps ahead of me, his sword down. He’s exposed. The witch won’t be able to resist. Dirty fighters, they take their prey however they can get it.
Her sharp claws click, each tap like a crack of lightning. Gareth drops his sword and trips, falling onto his knees.
The darkness grows around him.
I close my eyes and breathe in the strange warm air, the hint of brimstone, the flowery scent that pervades these woods. But when I open my eyes, I breathe out winter, snow, and ice. The ground freezes beneath me, shooting out in a ring of frost as I focus on the darkness that circles my second in command.
“Sleep now, warrior. Sleep and know I will take you with me. Back to my cave. You will join my beautiful bones. Your flesh will wilt until I’m ready to feast.” She comes into view, standing behind him, her claws drawn back.
I focus on her as everything inside me unbinds itself, the magic flowing through me in a rush that almost knocks me off my feet. We only have one shot at this, one chance to destroy her before she kills all of us.
She slashes downward, her black claws glinting, and I push my magic to her, unleashing the icy bite of the winter realm in all its beautiful terror.
The witch screeches, but the ice does its work, freezing her stone skin and locking her into a prison of frost. I keep my magic flowing as she fights against the winter’s hold. Beads of sweat coat my body, and my wounds bleed like a mortal’s. I can’t heal myself, not when all my magic is spent to cage the witch. Her struggles slow, her body freezing into a mass of rage and fear. When the ice is thick around her, I hold my magic steady, pulling it deep from within and focusing all of it on her. Just like any stone, freezing makes obsidian brittle, prone to crack and shatter. Her skin provides the perfect armor … until it’s chilled by the heart of the winter realm.
Gareth grabs his sword and rises. “Almost there.” Pulling back, he aims to shatter her.
“I relent!” she screams through frozen lips. “I relent and shall not harm any of your party!”
Gareth pauses and glances at me. I’m fading, my magic stores burning away. My radius of ice blasts outward, coating every tree and flower in sight with frost. I must freeze all the way through to her rotted heart before he can strike. I’m almost there, my ice diving into every dark nook and putrid cranny of her being.
“A boon in exchange for my life.” Her voice is a wail, her black form frozen in a sea of white ice. “Please, my lords. A boon for your mate! Spare my life.”
“Leander?” Gareth still holds his sword high, ready to splinter her into nothing more than shards of black glass. It’s the only way to kill her.
If he doesn’t strike now, we won’t have another chance. I can’t let her go, not when my mate’s life is on the line.
“A boon for your mate! I swear on the Spires!” Thunder cracks through the trees.
A promise like that cannot be broken, not in this world or any other.
“My lord?” Gareth vibrates with aggression, ready to strike the final blow.
“No.” I release my magic. Or at least I try to. When I’ve drained it like this, it holds onto me like a tether, tugging me away from myself and into the otherworld. I fight its pull, but the effort takes me to my knees. This is the danger, the thorn on the rose of magic.
I glare at the witch. “One wrong move, foul one, and I swear to the Ancestors I’ll find some other way to end your miserable life.”
“I gave my word.” She shakes off the outer layer of ice but doesn’t dare move too much. “My word is just as good as yours.”
I gulp in breaths and try to calm the fury of my heart. My eyes close. The magic calls to me, promises me rest, promises to reveal secrets that only the greatest magic-wielders have ever discovered. It’s a lie, I tell myself. Magic is wily and cruel at its heart, but it speaks to me so sweetly that I almost falter.
“Steady, Leander. Your mate. Remember your mate.” Gareth’s voice comes to me as if from a long distance.
“I am your mate, your true one,” the magic dances around me. “Come and I will teach you forgotten ways. Things no other immortal knows. You will truly be a king then, never to be defeated.”
Its whisper is like the kiss of silk. I want to know the deepest ways of magic. Maybe I could go with it, just for a moment. Just for a glimpse of what lies in the otherworld.
“Yes.” The voice turns into a dainty fairy made of blue embers. “Only for a moment. Take my hand and you will know the treasured secrets that can save your kingdom.”
I raise my hand, though it seems to carry an almost unbearable weight.
“Leander.” Another voice, this one soft and sweet.
“Shh, take my hand.” The fairy reaches for me.
“Leander, please.” A gentle touch across my forehead, and the sweet voice comes again, “I need you.”
“Don’t listen,” the fairy hisses.
“Leander. It’s me, Taylor. Please wake up.”
“Taylor.” I step back from the fairy. “My mate needs me.”
“Your mate,” the fairy snarls and snakes into a looping swirl of pure magic. “Your downfall. The downfall of your world.”
“What? What do you mean?”
The magic laughs and fades, the blue embers disappearing. “You will only know if you come to the otherworld. If you let go and take my hand.”
“I can’t let her go.”
“Then you shall learn what I mean soon enough.” The magic evaporates, and I open my eyes.
“Leander.” Taylor strokes my cheek.
The mate bond roars back to life inside me, and I sit up and pull her into my arms.
I cup her face with my palm and kiss her.
She squeaks with surprise, but I can’t go another second without this connection. I’m too rough, too fierce, but I can’t stop this. She grips my tunic and holds on as I run my fingers into her hair. Her lips—at first hard and closed—soften as I tease them with my tongue. Her eyes flutter closed, and I caress the seam of her mouth, urging her to open for me.
When she does, a low purr rumbles through my chest, and I delve my tongue into her slowly, touching and tasting the sweetness of my mate. Where she is hesitant, I am hungry, starved for her touch. I take her mouth like I want to take her body, feeling every bit of her, making her mine and leaving my mark.
She melts in my arms, pressing against me as I stroke her tongue and squeeze her silky strands between my fingers. My cock is so hard it almost hurts, and the need to claim her fully beats like war drums in my veins. When I slant my mouth over hers even more, she moans in her throat. I’m balancing on a razor’s edge, and that sensual sound threatens to send me careening headlong into mating her.
“My lord?” Gareth clears his throat.
I can’t relinquish her, not now. Not when she’s in my arms, her soul grazing the edges of mine. I clutch her to me, the primal instinct to shield her from any other male taking over. She’s not marked, not fully mine. That means she isn’t safe. Some other male could try and take her. I growl and my fangs begin to lengthen.
Taylor pulls away, her eyes widening. She tries to scramble off my lap, but I hold her still.