“I’m not sure I want to do this, Max,” she said, stepping into his arms.
Power pulsed through his veins at her nearness. He’d made love to her for hours today, using their bond to store much-needed reserves for the battle ahead. Every time she climaxed, magic burst through him, enhancing and doubling before returning to her, creating a cycle that made them feel invincible together.
“But we aren’t invincible,” she argued against his unspoken thoughts. “And I can’t lose you. Your life isn’t worth the risk. I can survive in a world with the Triumvirate. I can’t survive in a world without you.”
“This is what you wanted.”
“Not anymore.” Her lush mouth thinned with determination. She was so beautiful, her eyes a brilliant green surrounded by thick, ebony lashes. “For a long time, my desire for vengeance was the only thing I had in my life. My only reason for living. You’ve changed that, Max.”
His hand pushed into the super-short strands of her hair and cupped the back of her head. “Tonight is our best chance to vanquish the Triumvirate for the entire year.”
The world was filled with joy and love, with celebration and happiness, with the prayers of the believers and the hope of the nonbelievers. Mortals felt the change, although they didn’t understand how real it was. The Triumvirate’s powers would be diminished, a tiny advantage Max and Victoria desperately needed.
“Forget this year, and the next,” she said with tears in her eyes. “Don’t you see? I love you too much. Vanquishing the Triumvirate won’t bring Darius back, and even if it could, it still wouldn’t be worth it. That part of my life is over. You and I have a new life together, and it’s more precious to me than anything.”
“Kitten.” Max’s throat clenched tight. He hadn’t thought it possible to love her more than he did, but the sudden ache in his chest proved him wrong. For centuries she’d sought a way to avenge Darius. Now she was willing to give up that quest. For him.
The grating voices of the Triumvirate swirled around them, rattling the protective bubble that shielded them from the snow. The force required to affect their warding spell was enormous, and Max inhaled sharply as Victoria was prompted to add her strength to his.
A shiver coursed down the length of her tense frame. Max felt it and soothed her with his touch, stroking along the curve of her spine.
“We can do this,” he murmured, grimly determined.
Her hands fisted in his shirt. “Yes.”
Max pressed a quick hard kiss to her forehead. She released him and took a place beside him, her fingers linking with his.
Before them in a line stood three hooded figures, their eyes glowing red from within the shadows of their cowls, their height well over seven feet tall, their frames rail thin but possessed of phenomenal power.
“Perhaps we’ll take you this time, pretty kitty,” one rasped at Victoria, laughing. His face was white as chalk and heavily lined, as if the skin were slowly melting off the underlayer of bones.
“Not on my life,” Max challenged softly.
“Of course not,” another cackled. “What would be the fun otherwise?”
The Triumvirate’s unified front and appearance magnified the feeling that one faced a veritable army when they opposed them. While other demons and hellhounds were routinely discarded and removed from the Source’s favor, these brethren had been immutable in the Order of Evil for centuries. Most magickind had come to see them as a fixture as permanent as Satan. They simply were and would always be.
In a lightning-quick movement, Victoria crouched and extended her arm, expelling a fiery ball of magic to hit the brother in the center. Almost instantly, two retaliatory strikes shot toward her from the left and right, the strength of the blows enough to rock her back on her feet despite the wards around her.
Max lunged forward, both hands out, returning fire. Victoria again attacked the one in the middle, resulting in the Triumvirate taking simultaneous hits.
If not for Darius’s gift to her, Victoria would be unable to do more than stand beside Max and strengthen him, as she’d done the night Darius had been killed. But now she carried the strength of the fallen warlock inside her. Darius’s power thrummed through her blood and enabled her to fight like a witch with Familiar augmentation. Max hoped that would be enough to save them both.
The Triumvirate retaliated as one, advancing one step at a time, sending volley after volley of ice-cold black magic to batter Max and Victoria’s defenses.
But they did not retreat. As they struggled to keep the wards in place and return fire, sweat dotted their brows despite the raging blizzard. The Triumvirate howled their fury, seemingly unaffected by the assault against them.
Victoria glanced at Max, saw the set of his jaw and the corded veins in his temples as he poured gray magic out of his fingertips in crackling arcs of energy. He focused on one brother, his shoulders curling inward with the force with which he projected the power inside him.
As the insidious streams penetrated dark robes and charred moon-pale skin, the targeted brother screamed in agony. His siblings rushed to his aid, concentrating their attention on Max. Victoria continued to attack in the hopes of attracting fire in her direction. But in the face of the possible loss of one, the Triumvirate took her hits with admirable resilience.
The wards around Max began to ripple and bend, bowing to the greater might levered against the exterior. Blood trickled from one of his nostrils and his pain invaded her chest like a white-hot spear. Victoria wept, her stomach clenching with mindless terror. Memories of the night she’d lost Darius mingled with the horror of the present moment, creating a nightmare unparalleled.
The Triumvirate was too strong. Max would die.
Victoria screamed, unable to bear losing him.
Centuries alone . . . Afflicted by grief . . . Then Max had entered her life. Changing everything. Changing her. Making her whole again. Soothing her restlessness. Loving her despite her faults.
How will I live without you?
Then, with alarming swiftness, a solution presented itself in her mind, offering a slender ray of hope.
She could repeat the spell Darius had used, transferring the bulk of her power to Max. He would be stronger then, able to save himself and get away.
Summoning every drop of magic she possessed, Victoria began to incant the spell she’d never forgotten. Could never forget because they’d been the last words Darius had spoken.
Pulled by an invisible thread, her power drew up and gathered, the sensation dizzying in its strength and strangeness. Her lips moved faster, the words flowing more freely.