Jerking awake, I looked around the hotel suite, at first not knowing where I was. A white brute sat at the foot of the bed, cobalt depths respectful for once. He huffed when I narrowed my eyes, jumped off the bed, and padded away.
I sat up then hissed in pain. “Take it easy,” the younger prince said as he walked over. “You threw out your shoulder during the fight yesterday.”
“What fight?” My ribs ached, too.
Kishan handed me a bottle of water spiked with a potion. “You teleported into the middle of our fight with Durga’s guardians. Kels didn’t pass the goddess’s test. When we had to prove our worth, you showed up and knocked them out before bringing us here.” From where I rested, I could tell we were in an apartment closer to a penthouse than an actual hotel room. Kishan reached for my right shoulder; he dropped his hand as I began to recoil. “Can I see if you healed?” There was a gentleness on his face that I would never have thought he possessed.
Nodding, I twisted so that my shoulder faced him. “All I know is that I got into an argument with Puck,” I admitted. “I blocked him and Ash from coming after me.”
“I know. Meghan sent Kelsey a text after Ash left for Court.” He found the focal point for my soreness. “Give me a second.” One finger curled into a claw, he stretched the joint backwards. A growl tore from my throat. “Sorry.” He released me.
“No, that honestly feels better.” I rolled my shoulder. The side of my ribcage was slowly losing its ache, as well. “Thank you.”
As soon as I downed the potion, my glamour rushed into my veins. Kishan smiled with devilish innocence. Realizing I could see what would have become of him in the past in my mind's eye, I blocked that part of my brain and got to my feet.
Ren and Kelsey were discussing something over the coffee table. I snagged a banana from the kitchenette before joining them, Kishan in step at my side. There was a map of an ancient Indian empire spread across the table. One look at Kishan’s stoic face told me exactly whose kingdom it was. I linked my arm through his as I read the Latin bordering on the parchment. It was only a message from one king to another, and Ren hardly even glanced at it.
“Alright, lovebirds, that’s enough fighting when you aren’t married yet.” Kelsey turned a bright shade of red at my words. I swept on: “You’re Durga’s chosen, Kels. How come you couldn’t reach her?”
Looking at the map, she sighed. “I was thinking about taking down Lokesh instead of saving people. They’re related, but one is violent. A warrior goddess does not condone violence.” There was a tinge of bitterness in her voice that I couldn’t believe I heard.
Kishan traced a path from a star –– the castle –– to an X. “Are you okay?” I queried softly. He dipped his head ever so slightly.
“We can always go back. We have Starr this time, and she’s the one who got Fanindra and drove away Lokesh’s invasion in Jersey.” Ren made it sound as if Durga would appreciate me there even more for that. I was probably the most violent person of all of us. Actually, I thought that was the first time he acknowledged me with something other than contempt. “Even if she doesn’t know exactly where they’re hidden, Durga should be able to give us some kind of clue to getting back her gifts.”
The blonde lifted one shoulder indecisively. “I’m just worried about those guardians. Starr was the one who whisked us away.”
“If the idiot goddess really wants to send her soldiers after those of us fighting on her side, she’s going to lose an army in more ways than one.” I turned my gaze on Kelsey and Ren. “Leave them to me. I can promise you they won’t be a problem.” The urge to create a fireball was there; I pushed it deep inside, not wanting to lose control.
Shifting restlessly beside me, Kishan said nothing. “Go with her when the time comes,” Ren agreed to his brother’s unspoken question. “Somebody should watch her back.”
“Especially because I don’t want Puck and Ash killing me for losing my best friend,” Kelsey chimed in, not quite under her breath. I rolled my eyes in spite of how true it was; they really would go after anyone they thought responsible for hurting me, even the rest of my inner circle.
Kishan elbowed me lightly. “Are you good with that?” He was used to being alone in whatever he had to do.
Recalling the battles where he took down a whole barrack’s worth of spell casters by himself, I smirked. “Of course. I would have taken you to help me anyway.” I ignored Kelsey’s minor sigh of relief. As much as I loved working on my own, there were times when I needed a partner. If anyone knew that as well as I did, it was Kishan.
“So what’s the backup plan, once we get in?” Kishan asked. “What if Durga sends us somewhere and we have no way of getting to the manor?”
“You and Ren keep any enemies off me, although I don’t expect her to be that crazy. I can get us out of anywhere.”
The suite warped around us; my vision spun with it. I was vaguely aware of Kishan tucking me into his side. Drawing a Celtic symbol in what I hoped was air, I cast out my senses in an attempt to find Kelsey and Ren. When I couldn’t, I hoped my subconscious brought them along. The teleportation stopped as abruptly as it started, and I doubled over coughing. I guessed my throat was still injured. My skin crawled where Kishan touched my back.
“Get off,” I warned him, not unkindly. Heat rose in my veins.
Fire exploded in front of me the same instant I stretched to my full height. Kishan whistled long and low. The building that loomed above us absorbed my flame until my energy was gone. “Are you alright, Starr?”
“I will be.” I had to lean heavily against him for a minute to catch my breath. “Where are the others?”
Kishan sniffed the air. “On the far side of the building. Do you know where we were supposed to be going before you stopped it… or whatever just happened?”
Casting out my senses was the better choice than letting him scout around. “No idea, and it doesn’t help that I’m not sure who even did it.” I headed for the building, which was covered in soot yet not burned. Pirate gold eyes appraising the weird structure, Kishan kept one step ahead of me. “Don’t go babying me if we have to fight our way out,” I growled.
“Wouldn’t dream of it.” He grinned in support of his words.
It was official –– all my boys were insane. We stepped over the threshold, but it wasn’t a building we walked into. Trees pressed in around us. Kishan muttered a quick Indian curse that I was surprised to know. My pendant flared with platinum light. Kelsey stumbled into existence on my other side, but Ren was swift to steady her.
“Good to see you, brother.” Ren gave me a once-over. “We can’t stop, can we?”
As if he couldn’t tell by my long stride. “Something is trying to screw with us. The more we move around, the harder it will be for the magic to hit us correctly. And the more likely I am of picking up a trace.” I cast a sidelong glance at Kishan.
Handing his sword to his brother, the black tiger soon dropped to the ground beside me. I was grateful for the chance to save some of his time, but the fear and determination warring on Kelsey’s face was enough to keep Ren from doing the same. I wanted so badly to point out I could protect us both, even if her powers were stashed away with Durga’s gifts, yet a part of me knew how well that would go over. Ren loved Kels, no matter how violently he denied it or tried to convince us otherwise.
That word only made me miss a certain trickster more.
Blocking him from my mind, I stayed on alert for any signs of magic that wasn’t ours. Kishan glanced at me every few steps, the fur on his scruff bristling for no apparent reason.
Well, there was a reason. We just couldn’t see it.
It took a while for the forest to change again, and it only went far enough that the light was less able to filter through the trees. Apparently separation anxiety was more of a bitch than I recalled. Every time the landscape warped around us, even as minutely as a tree moving out of our way, I had a mini panic attack. My pendant drew an invisible bond tightly around the four of us, easing my fear only a tiny bit.
Abruptly, Kishan jerked into my path and pressed against my legs. Ren took that as a sign to tuck Kelsey into his side, radiating an overwhelming urge to protect. I tried to move forward, but when Ren grabbed my wrist and Kishan shoved, I could only back up. I had the same feeling as when I rescued Fanindra, just in a much darker, more primal state. Yet somehow the tug of the princes’ need for defense drowned out the overbearing calls. They were strong enough that they might have compelled me into those approaching shadows, if I were alone. One look at Kelsey’s face, a mix of wonder and horror, told me she felt it, too.
“What is that?” she breathed, awestruck but still thankfully in control.
The black tiger growled. Ren’s skin visibly crawled, ready to shift form. “Ancient magic.”
I was surprised when light burst through the enchanting darkness, shooting right at me. My necklace flared in response, and heat scorched my skin. The light transformed into a golden dragon, brown eyes flecked with silver. With a huge exhale crossed between a sigh and a huff, the ten-foot-tall beast curled its insanely long, scaly body around my protective field. It lowered its head toward us. I narrowed my eyes in challenge.
“Welcome, Starr and Kelsey. Aren’t you going to come in?”
In a blur, Kishan was standing in front of me, glaring openly at the dragon. “They’re not going anywhere with you,” he snarled, muscles coiled for battle.
Behind the dragon, I noticed a clearing that pulsed with evil. I wanted to explore it, even though I knew how dangerous that was.
“You fight on no side but your own.” I was drawn out of my thoughts by Ren’s voice. “A guardian of light should not appear from a blanket of darkness, and yet you have.” Ren started to back Kelsey against me in the hopes we could have a triangle of blades and a center for magic. I was more than familiar with his strategies, especially this one. “If you are here to prevent us from leaving this realm, we will bring your immortal life to a bloody end.”
Should I have been nervous about the uncontrollable, fiery bloodlust that suddenly coursed through me? The dragon began to draw away from us. Both princes tensed that much more, and I felt fire rise up inside me fiercely. More importantly, was it even uncontrollable?
My answer came fast. The darkness lashed out at us, knocking me back a step through a powerful ricochet. Kishan was there to steady me immediately, pirate gold flashing as the shadows descended again, and I was glad to see a platinum flame crash into the dark curtain. The dragon had remained neutral in the past; I wondered what was so dear to it that it sided against me.
A shiver danced up my spine. Flames poured out around us. My ears registered a horrible cracking sound.
“Get Kels out of here!”No sooner did the words fly from my mouth than the barrier shattered around us. I held onto Kishan when the black void engulfed us.