|Echo Queen (Echo Trilogy, #2)|
The Sequel to Echo Prophecy
Did you miss the Prologue? You can read it here.
“. . . know this, Heru:
however much time stands between us,
however much distance separates us,
I will find my way back to you.
I will return to you . . .”
—taken from the Hall of Lex, Nejeret Oasis, Old Kingdom, c. 2180 BCE
Sex & Death
“I swear to some god who isn’t you, Marcus,” I said, closing my eyes and relaxing into our suite’s massive Jacuzzi tub. “If you don’t get that cute butt of yours in here right now . . .”
“You’ll do what, Little Ivanov?” Marcus said from the doorway, his low, silken voice and enticing accent heightening my anticipation.
Keeping my eyes closed, I let the corners of my lips curve upward. The things that man can do to me with only his voice . . .
I shook my head ever so slowly and slouched a little lower in the oval tub, the almost-too-hot water scented with the tiniest drop of vanilla essential oil. Over the past week, this tub had become one of my favorite things about our rooms in the Council’s Cairo palace; the Florence Palazzo had been stunning, but its accommodations were definitely cramped by modern standards. Thankfully, the Cairo palace, though nearly as old as the Palazzo, didn’t suffer from the same historical handicap.
I’d only just left Marcus’s side to sink into the water, but even a minute away from the man I was quite literally addicted to, whose bonding pheromones were as vital to my survival as oxygen, was a minute too long. Our bond was both emotional and physiological, and it was both the most wondrous and the most terrifying thing I’d ever experienced.
Marcus’s shoes squeaked faintly on the polished marble floor as he entered the palatial bathroom, which meant he was still wearing shoes . . . which meant he was still fully dressed. Damn.
I sighed and opened my eyes just as he stopped at the foot of the tub. He was staring down at me, his golden irises burning with desire. But he wasn’t showing any intention of shedding his gray slacks or pristine white, button-down shirt, of revealing the sculpted masculine body the clothing tried, and failed miserably, to conceal.
“You’re not actually going to join me, are you?” I stuck out my lower lip, just a bit.
One side of Marcus’s mouth quirked, and he narrowed his eyes. “That depends.”
“On . . . ?”
He inhaled deeply and glanced up at the ceiling. “On what you’ll do to me if I don’t join you.” His eyes settled on me.
I shifted my legs, teasing him with a different view. “I honestly think you should be more concerned about what I won’t do to you . . .”
Something dark glinted in Marcus’s eyes, far different from the playful, predatory intensity that had shone in them only a moment ago, and an unexpected burst of anxiety twisted in my gut. I shifted in the tub, closing my legs and sitting up a little higher.
And again, Marcus’s eyes glinted with darkness. “You really are a little whore, aren’t you?”
I stiffened, and my blood ran cold. Despite all the reserved, almost stony characteristics several millennia had chiseled into Marcus’s personality, he was never cruel to me—a little frightening, perhaps, and sometimes frustratingly tight-lipped and other times shockingly blunt, but never cruel. My anxiety expanded, snaking out to my limbs and electrifying my muscles.
As Marcus stalked around the edge of the oversized tub, an inexplicable instinct screamed inside my head: DANGER! GET AWAY! FLEE!
Marcus knelt beside the tub, a cool smile doing little to soften his hardened, achingly handsome features.
I caught another glimpse of darkness in his eyes; it slid around, lurking just beneath the surface of his black-rimmed golden irises in a hauntingly familiar way, like a ghostly parasite. I’d seen something similar far too often during the months I’d spent trapped in the At, the otherworldly plane where time and space mingled fluidly, as Set’s—my father’s—prisoner. That same darkness had filled his eyes, too. At the time, I’d thought it was Set’s sanity, sliding in and out of place.
My stomach twisted, making me instantly nauseated. Marcus and Set now shared half of Nuin’s power; was it possible that sharing that power had somehow allowed the darkness—Set’s madness—to infect Marcus? Because this was most certainly not normal Marcus behavior.
The chill in my blood seeped into my bones despite the hot water lapping against my skin. “Marcus? Are you feeling o—okay? Wha—”
Tutting me, Marcus reached out and caressed the side of my face with the backs of his curled fingers. There was no comfort in the touch, no sensuality, and there was none of the electric pleasure that resulted from our bonding. It was almost like the man kneeling beside the tub wasn’t Marcus, not really. It didn’t make any sense, and at the same time, it made me want to scream and cry and run away.
Bile rising, I fought the urge to panic. Whatever warnings my subconscious was shrieking in the back of my mind, this was Marcus, after all. He wouldn’t hurt me. He loved me. It took a colossal effort not to flinch away from his touch, not to hide behind closed eyes, not to shiver, not to scream. I stared at him, my neck stiff and my eyes wide.
“The power is beginning to show in your eyes,” he said, and I started to tremble. His accent had changed; he now sounded very aristocratic and very British. He didn’t sound like Marcus at all. “Poor Alexandra . . . you cannot hold it forever. In time, it will erode your body until your bones are little more than dust.”
My breaths came faster, and I gripped my thighs so hard that my nails cut into my flesh. “How—what are you talking about? Marcus, are you—”
“Oh . . .” Marcus pulled his hand back and raised his dark eyebrows. “The love of your puny little life is in here, of course, and he’s not too happy.” His lips spread into a razor-sharp grin. “But he’s not in control right now.”
I shook my head. He sounded like Set . . . exactly like Set. It was impossible. Then again, a lot of impossible things had been happening lately.
Clearing my throat, I whispered, “Who are you? Set?”
The man who both was and wasn’t Marcus flashed me a brilliant smile. “Not quite, Alexandra, though as far as you’re concerned, yes.”
My heart hammered against my breastbone. “What—how are you—”
He waved his hand dismissively. “Insignificant.”
I had to swallow several times before I could find my voice and ask the only thing that really mattered at this moment. “What do you want?”
“Isn’t it obvious?” This time, only one eyebrow rose. “I’m here to reclaim the power you’ve stolen from me.”
“I didn’t steal it—Nuin gave it to me,” I said, somehow managing to keep my voice even. I had absolutely no idea what was going on, but I really didn’t think antagonizing this “not quite Set” being who was somehow possessing Marcus would go over well.
“It matters not.” One second, his hand was on the edge of the tub, the next it was encircling my neck. He moved faster than I’d ever seen Marcus move, and I’d seen him move inhumanly fast on multiple occasions. This was something else.
My heart rate quadrupled, but shock held me frozen in place. I felt as fragile as a porcelain doll.
His eyes scanned my body through the water. “Such a pretty, delicate little toy . . . I’d hate to break you before I’ve even had a chance to play.” He paused, letting his words sink in, and met my eyes. The tainted darkness had completely overtaken the gold in Marcus’s irises. “If the bond still functioned while I was present, there’d be a way . . . I could let you live, and the method of extracting the power from you would be immensely pleasurable for us both.” He frowned, then raised one shoulder in a halfhearted shrug. “But it is clear to me now that such a thing is impossible. Pity . . .”
I shook my head. “Please . . . don’t—”
Clenching his jaw, he took a deep breath through his nose and tightened his grip on my throat. Before I could react, he shoved my head under the surface of the water.
I fought his hold, kicking and scratching at anything I could reach. The top of my foot made contact with the faucet and I cried out underwater, inhaling sharply. As bathwater filled my lungs, I coughed and sputtered, but it did no good.
Set-Marcus was drowning me.
And because of our bond, if I drowned, whatever was possessing Marcus would effectively kill us both. I’d watched Marcus die in an alternate timeline nobody but me remembered. I refused to let him die again.
Instinctively, I stilled, and Nuin’s power exploded from my every cell, surrounding me, transforming me.
The world fell away, leaving only a sense of warmth and comfort and eternal well-being. Gone was my warm bathwater. Gone was Marcus’s death grip on my neck. Gone was the impending threat of death.