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Chapter Fifty-Seven: The Couple That Slays Together…

Posted in Book Three, and Of Astral and Umbral

 

Chapter Fifty-Seven: The Couple That Slays Together…

 

Nalithor and I strode through Sihix’s forest at a steady pace and headed vaguely in the direction of its border with Yiltanys. After finishing breakfast we had dressed in attire more suitable for an excursion through underbrush. Nalithor’s behavior intrigued me, but I was hesitant to tease him further. We did, after all, need to get some actual work done.

‘Still, he’d better not cut his hair.’ I suppressed a snort and crossed my arms instead.

“There’s more corruption here,” Nalithor spoke, drawing me from my thoughts. “The border is still quite far off. Shall we take a look to see if there’s a source near here?”

“We may as well,” I replied with a smile. “I’m a little sad you have your sight back, you know. I was getting used to being your eyes when needed.”

“But we will get our work out of the way faster, this way.” Nalithor shot me a mischievous smirk. “The faster we deal with our duties, the sooner we can indulge in more pleasurable matters, wouldn’t you agree?”

“Ah… I suppose you have a point there,” I murmured.

Nalithor smiled and then turned away to examine the trees closest to us. I watched him in silence, taking in the way he moved. The scars left by Eoraso didn’t appear to be troubling him physically or mentally. I couldn’t help but worry, especially after he’d shown me what happened. The darkness left in his veins by my attack seemed so strange, yet it was most certainly mine.

I bit back a sigh and moved to examine the opposite side of the path. I couldn’t let my concern get in the way of work, and he’d opted for a style of clothing that didn’t give me a glimpse of any of his scars. There was no way for me to check on him without asking him to strip outright.

‘Few trees in the terrestrial Sihix Forest have lost their light,’ I studied the glowing crystalline trees before me. Each one was of translucent black crystal and danced with tri-colored energies that matched the Lari’xan’s eyes. Some of the trees, however, had been dulled. The black, violet, and zaffre aether that shone in most had been fully replaced by oily brown in others.

Fingertips trailing down my spine made me shift to look over my shoulder. An amused smile spread across Nalithor’s face and he simply studied me for a moment. I didn’t know what to make of his expression, so I returned my attention to the trees. As worried as he had been about merging with his other self, it seemed as if everything was fine. I no longer felt the itch to make things right, and he seemed to be coping well enough.

‘Though, he did wake me up a few times with the squeezing.’ I glanced at him again when he tugged at my hair. “Mmm? What is it?”

“You had leaves stuck in your hair.” Nalithor chuckled and lifted his fingers to show several small leaves fanned between them. He let the leaves fall to the ground and gave me a soft smile. “It’s clear on your face that something is worrying you, Arianna.”

“I was wondering if you’re still having trouble with the puppy,” I answered with a smirk, watching as he flushed a little. “That’s a yes, then. Anything I should be worried about?”

“Honestly. ‘Puppy’?” Nalithor sighed and ran a hand back through his hair. “That part of me was certainly younger, yes, but—”

“Mmhmm, young and inexperienced. Puppy fits.” I linked my hands behind my back and turned to face him, smiling. “If there’s anything—” Pausing, I glanced off to our West and scented the air briefly. Humans. I pivoted and shot Nalithor a smirk over my shoulder. “Come along, hubby-puppy. Something interesting has wandered close.”

“Hub—” Nalithor cut himself off with a frustrated sound and hurried after me. When he fell into step with me, his face was a much darker red then his initial flush. It seemed like I’d found the perfect way to fluster him. “You shouldn’t tease me in such a way.”

“Who says I’m teasing?” I asked innocently. “You are much easier to fluster than before, though. Should I be worried that the puppy is a little too dominant in there? I wouldn’t want it to affect your…ah…performance.”

Nalithor growled and swatted at me with his tail but I danced out of reach and stuck my tongue out at him. Before he could formulate a verbal retort, I shot off through the trees like an arrow. He almost caught me but I sprang upwards into the canopy and ran along the branches. Soon enough, he caught the scent I’d detected and stopped trying to catch me. Instead, he fell into place alongside me.

‘They aren’t Sihix’s,’ Nalithor commented, his tone threatening. ‘What would one of the tribes be doing so close to Sihix and Yiltanys?’

‘Let alone between them.’ I glanced at my nylziis in thought, examining his distinctly not-Vorpmasian clothing. It seemed perhaps Human…no. Elven? Beshulthien? Whatever it was, I wasn’t sure if I liked it yet. Though, the leather did hug his ass quite nicely.

‘Behave.’ Nalithor shot me a sideways look, his mouth curling into a smirk. ‘Our prey doesn’t appear to be moving. They should at least be drawn to enter one of the forests.’

‘Perhaps they’re paralyzed with fear?’ I suggested.

‘I don’t smell fear.’

‘Mmm, perhaps we should change that?’

‘Wait until we’ve determined their purpose.’

I stuck my tongue out at him but chose to oblige. Obeying him now just meant that I had more leeway to tease him as far as I was concerned. I smiled to myself. It was so much more fun to tease him now that he had more pronounced reactions. Finally I could turn the tables and be the one teasing him, not the other way around.

‘Well, he’ll probably just tease me more,’ I considered, watching as Nalithor sprang past me by several yards with a serious look on his face. ‘Though, that’s fine too.’

Moments later, Nalithor dropped to the ground ahead of me and I soon followed. We were close enough to Sihix’s edge that we could see the glow of Yiltanys filtering through the trees. Even there, Sihix’s suppression of my senses maintained their grip. A glance at Nalithor indicated that there was no such restraints on Nalithor. My nylziis was much more agitated than I was.

‘Do you think they’re living in the crater?’ I leaned up against Nalithor’s side and listened as he took a steadying breath. He glanced at me and then slipped one of his arms behind my back. ‘Or did they come from somewhere north of here?’

‘I can’t imagine anything living in the crater.’ Nalithor’s eyes narrowed and he paused as if listening to something. ‘They seem to be arguing about something. We should listen in before making ourselves known.’

‘You sure we can’t skip to, you know, the stabby part?’ I turned to press my chest up against him and grabbed his jacket. A smirk settled onto his mouth as he studied my expression. ‘Come on, they’re just tribal Humans, right? No one will miss—’

‘We will listen in, and perhaps talk to them, first.’ Nalithor’s firm tone sent a shiver down my spine. ‘Behave, Arianna. You’re not allowed to kill anyone unless they attack us first.

‘For now.’

‘Fine.’ I sighed and released his jacket.

‘I’ll find some way to entertain you later.’ Nalithor reached down and gave my ass a firm squeeze before striding toward the tree line ahead.

Nalithor’s footsteps made no sound and wisps of shadow played around his legs as he walked. He leaned back against one of the trees, in its shadow, and turned his head to listen to the Humans. I bit back a scoff and followed, taking my place by his side at the base of the gargantuan tree.

My nylziis was right—the Humans did appear to be arguing about something. I understood words here and there, but their dialect was so strange that I couldn’t make out most of their conversation. A small frown tugged at my lips the longer I listened. Some of their group took on tones that indicated they were pleading, but the others didn’t sound like nasty brutes. They sounded remorseful.

‘Have you ever heard of the Aledacian Forests taking in sacrifices?’ Nalithor murmured, reaching down to pull me against him. The tightness of his grip made me wonder what he was planning to do.

‘Sacrifices? No.’ I reached up to run my hands down Nalithor’s torso but stopped with an agitated sigh and yanked on his jacket. ‘This is in the way.’

‘They’re arguing about which forest to sacrifice their men to,’ Nalithor spoke, causing me to stop tugging. A low chuckle rumbled in his throat. ‘Shall we confront them and see what this is about? We did want to take a look at Yiltanys, after all.

‘Humph. Do as you like.’ I crossed my arms. Nalithor shot me a mischievous look and reached down to grasp the base of my tails, making me stiffen and bristle. ‘Hey! I didn’t mean—’

‘You should shift into your Adinvyr form.’ Nalithor slowly ran his hand down my tails until he couldn’t hold multiple anymore. ‘It wouldn’t do for them to think you’re one of Ee’nir’s priestesses. While they shouldn’t be acquainted with the Rylthra…there is no guarantee that these Humans haven’t had dealings with them.’

‘Nomads. Right.’ I sighed and let my form shift. Nalithor’s smirk grew, earning a defiant look from me. Whatever he was thinking, it didn’t seem like this was the time for it. We had work to do, blood to spill, heads to remove.

‘Good girl.’ Nalithor ruffled my curls before moving away from the base of the tree and walking toward the arguing Humans. As he stepped out from the trees, his voice took on a quality that could freeze blood in one’s veins. “Well, well, what have we here?”

Several of the Humans shrieked and scrambled back, looking between Nalithor and the forest with confusion. Even though I couldn’t fully understand their dialect, the source of their confusion was clear. They thought Nalithor belonged to the forest, and couldn’t fathom how he had left it. Intrigued, I followed Nalithor and stopped beside him again. The Humans stared at us with wide eyes, several of whom pointed at my trousers and chattered at each other.

‘Interesting, an early form of the common tongue,’ Nalithor murmured, rubbing his chin as he watched the frightened Humans. Half the group sat on the ground and looked between us and the scared ones. ‘Can you understand them, Arianna?’

‘Only bits and pieces,’ I answered, glancing at him. ‘Their sacrifices seem rather calm. Volunteers, or drugged?’

‘It’s too soon to say.’ Nalithor took a few steps forward. ‘Keep an eye out for anything troublesome. I’ll speak with our prey and determine if you’re allowed to slaughter them.’

‘As you wish, Master, I answered with heavy sarcasm. The twitch of his tail made me smirk to myself as I turned to look north between the gap in the two forests.

Above our heads, the branches of Yiltanys and Sihix intermingled to create an undeniably gorgeous archway. A few hundred feet to our south, the ground gave way to the crater’s rim. Dozens of boulders and chunks of earth floated high into the sky, peppered with pieces of both forests. To the north, all I could see was the “tunnel” created by Sihix and Yiltanys’ close proximity.

‘It’s beautiful…but I can see how corruption would spread between the two.’ I pursed my lips and allowed my vision to shift, then sighed. Sure enough, every inch of Yiltanys was coated in the oily brown goop. It slid along the branches and dripped from many of the surfaces, tainting Sihix and the ground below alike. The corruption found the low point in the soil and ran toward the crater like a stream.

What baffled me most was that creek of corrupted magic. The Humans were sitting in it, yet it didn’t cling to them. It didn’t enter them. Nothing. It was like the Humans were impervious. A frown tugged at my lips when Nalithor approached the sacrifices. The corruption moved as if to shy away from him, diverting its path much like the corruption in the Vulei River.

‘But this is different corruption,’ I thought, reaching out to prod at the corrupt aether. Like with Nalithor, it shied away from my power. A small sigh left me. Sihix was blocking too many of my senses for me to properly judge the aether. I had enough control to determine it was different from Vulei, but I couldn’t sense anything else from it.

Were it not for my sight, I wouldn’t have noticed it at all.

‘Shall we share the slaughter?’ Nalithor’s sonorous purr made me pivot sharply to look at him. The deadly smile on his face, the elongating darkness around him, and that intimidating posture of his made me hesitate for a brief moment. That moment was all it took for him to close the distance between us and grip my chin. He pulled me upward, his dangerous smile growing. ‘What’s the matter? Are you going to give them all to me?’

‘Which ones shall I take, then?’ I replied to his taunt with a growl, earning a broader smile. ‘Of course I’m not going to just stand by and let you have all of the fun! If they need to die, then—’

‘Mmm? So Sihix is restraining my ayraziis that much? Nalithor trailed his fingers along my jaw, his eyes holding an intensity that made me go quiet again. ‘He should learn not to interfere with another man’s woman. You are mine. I will not tolerate his interference—Lari’xan or not.

‘You and I will slaughter the Humans who aren’t sacrifices.’

‘Leave the sacrifices alive?’ I asked for confirmation, earning a brief nod before he pulled away from me. ‘Care to share what we’re executing them for?’

‘For fun, mostly,’ Nalithor began as he drew his spear, ‘they haven’t done anything, yet. However, they were planning to rape the sacrifices before giving them over to the forests.

‘They invited us to take part.’

‘Then torture seems appropriate, don’t you think?’ I inquired, summoning Eoraso. The blade hummed in my hand before surrounding Nalithor and I both in wisps of its power. Darkness flowed from Nalithor’s spear and joined the dance of elements, sending a shiver of anticipation through me.

‘Mmm… Too time consuming.’ Nalithor readied his spear before shooting me a playful look. ‘Let’s see if you can kill more of them than me.’

Without waiting for a response, Nalithor was off with a wild grin plastered on his face. The caress of his power brought a smile to my lips. His lust for bloodshed and the righteous anger he felt toward the Humans didn’t disguise his lingering desire for me.

I adjusted my grip on Eoraso before disappearing into the shadows. The sacrifices murmured in surprised tones and looked around for me, oblivious to me brushing past them. When I reappeared, I swung Eoraso through the throat of two Humans standing beside each other. I shot a smirk over my shoulder at Nalithor. ‘I got here first. Looks like you’re going to have to make up for lost time.

‘Hubby-puppy.’

Nalithor faltered, giving me the time to kill four more Humans. They collapsed, gushing blood from the few precise but lethal wounds I inflicted. After a moment of consideration, I beheaded them as well before moving on to my next prey. A low growl and the scent of my nylziis was the only warning I received to move, and I stepped aside with a laugh. Nalithor exploded past me and impaled two Humans on his spear, eliciting delicious screams from their mouths.

“Awww, you should find a way to keep them from gurgling so soon,” I commented, turning away from the sight and settling my eyes on the remaining Humans. “It’s no good if their screams and terror aren’t drawn out.”

“They don’t deserve our extended attentions.” Nalithor made a sweeping motion with his spear, dislodging the dying men. He shot me a sideways look that made me smirk back at him. I wouldn’t be intimidated. “Let’s see if you can keep up while using such a dainty weapon.”

“Ahhh, dainty weapon you say?” My darkness lashed out and grabbed Nalithor’s next targets by the throats, yanking them out of his reach. “Now, now. You’re going to have to be faster than that.”

I tossed the Humans into the air and leapt up after them, soon slicing both in half with two quick motions of my sword. When I landed, I turned to shoot Nalithor a sweet smile and plucked his next prey from him. A rumbling growl left him, and next he charged me.

Laughing, I sprang backwards and threw the two Humans into his path. He cut them down with ease and continued after me. I darted around the clearing between forests, killing prey and yanking yet others out of Nalithor’s reach. Every now and then I tossed one to him when he seemed to be growing too frustrated.

“Get back here!” Nalithor growled at me. He sank into a deep crouch for a fraction of a second before launching himself toward me. I grinned and dispersed into shadows just before he could reach me, leaving him grasping nothing but wisps of aether.

A few of the remaining Humans attempted to flee while they thought Nalithor was distracted with chasing me, but their hope quickly turned into dread when both of us appeared to either side of them. My sword tore through the neck of one and Nalithor’s spear cut through three that were standing close together.

“You shouldn’t play with our prey, Arianna.”

“I wasn’t playing with our prey—I was playing with you.”

I swayed back, allowing a crude club to miss me, then lashed out with a firm kick to my attacker’s gut. Bones crunched beneath my boot and the Human doubled over in agony. A smile slid across my lips as I listened to the man whimper. I adjusted my grip on Eoraso and moved to execute the bastard, but Nalithor was faster than me. The Human’s head rolled off his shoulders to land at my feet, earning a small sigh from me.

“Your games kept our kill count even, at any rate,” Nalithor commented, allowing his spear to disappear. “I suppose we should call for Sihix and see what he wants to do about these ‘sacrifices’.”

“You are covered in blood.” I strode over to Nalithor and pulled his hair over his shoulder, tugging at it. “We should probably find somewhere to take a bath before your hair gets stained.”

“And our clothes.”

“Humph, I’ll have you out of your clothes soon enough. I’m not concerned about that.” I ran my fingers through Nalithor’s hair, brushing it back over his shoulder. For whatever reason, he had opted to remain without a braid for the day. It was a change, but one I had to admit that I liked.

“Planning to hunt me next?” Nalithor smirked.

“We both know you’re the one hunting me.” I reached up and swiped my thumb across his cheek, amused. “You really did get blood everywhere, though.”

“As did you.” Nalithor trailed his fingers down the side of my torso and then sighed, shooting a look over my head. “I suppose we should deal with them first.”

“The two of you are so noisy!” Sihix exclaimed, popping out of the shadows beside us. He tilted his head, a crooked grin spreading across his mouth as he spotted Nalithor’s hands on my waist and the blood coating us both. “Well now, this is a pleasant sight.” He paused to put an arm around each of us. “Perhaps I should have you both marry me, hmmm?”

Nalithor and I simultaneously jabbed the Lari’xan in his ribs before putting distance between ourselves and him. I leaned up against Nalithor’s side and shot Sihix an agitated glare, while Nalithor placed a hand against my back and growled. Unfortunately, Sihix seemed more amused than anything.

“Is it normal for Humans to bring sacrifices to you?” Nalithor asked, his voice frigid. Sihix smirked and glanced toward the cowering Humans, remaining silent long enough to cause Nalithor to probe him again. “What have you—”

“The northern tribes have brought sacrifices to us for a long time,” Sihix began in a thoughtful tone as he walked over to one of the corpses. He nudged the body with his foot and then turned to look at me. “You killed their escort. Why?”

“They were planning to violate the sacrifices before leaving—and invited us to join.” Nalithor tightened his grip on me as if to comfort himself. “We should send the victims back to their—”

“That will just get them killed,” Sihix interrupted. He made a brief motion with one hand and enveloped the group of trembling Humans in his darkness. With another lazy gesture, he flung the Humans somewhere into his forest and then turned to look at us. “I will take them in. Returning to their tribe, especially without their escort, is a death sentence.

“We’ve tried to get the tribes to stop sending us ‘gifts’…but it obviously hasn’t worked. They believe that they must keep us pacified. It’s best that they come with me instead of wandering into…that.

We followed Sihix’s gaze to the Yiltanys forest, and I sighed. He had a point there. It wouldn’t do to let corrupted light like that be in charge of creating new servants for the Lari’xan of Light. My bias aside, I knew we needed to fix both forests sooner rather than later. The “how” of the matter was another problem.

“She’s cute when she’s worried,” Sihix remarked.

“Hands off.” Nalithor shifted to glare at the Lari’xan, earning a grin.

“Do you two plan to work while you’re so filthy?” Sihix walked a circle around us, his expression one of pure amusement. “Are you really going to let her get away with calling you ‘hubby-puppy’?”

“But it fits him,” I spoke up, pointing at Nalithor. “The ‘puppy’ side of him and my side of him—”

“But he isn’t your husband.” Sihix smirked.

“Humph. Yet.” I crossed my arms, then glanced to the side at Nalithor when I caught his face flushing again. He appeared at a loss for words. “Do you really think I’m going to let you run off with someone else? You’re mine and I intend for it to stay that way.”

“So, are you saying you choose him? Sihix drawled.

I shifted to shoot him an agitated look. It was obvious that he was trying to taunt me into saying that I wanted Nalithor to be my god—which I did—but I was still concerned about what that could mean for us in the short-term. The Jivyador would likely make our lives hell if I made that decision too soon.

“You shouldn’t try to force her hand,” Nalithor reprimanded the Lari’xan in a tone that made me stiffen. “We both know she hasn’t been Below for long. It…would be impossible for her to make such a decision so soon.”

‘Does he really think that?’ I studied my nylziis’ downcast, averted gaze. He really did excel at upsetting himself. Sighing, I slipped an arm behind Nalithor’s back and rested my head against the side of his torso. “Nalithor will find out my decision when he’s ready for it. For now, we should see about continuing our work.”

“When I’m ready for it…?” Nalithor murmured, confusion tinging his voice.

I rose up on the balls of my feet and patted him on the head, smiling, “Yes, when you’re ready for it. If you keep this up, I may go back to calling you just ‘puppy’. You should know exactly what I mean.”

“But—” Nalithor paused, a look of realization crossing his face. He sighed and caught my hand when I went to pat his head again. “We should still bathe before we finish our work.”

“I’d argue we may as well investigate a little more since we’re already here,” I nudged him with my free hand, then glanced over my shoulder at the smirking Lari’xan. “Don’t you have, I dunno, deity stuff to go do?”

“The two of you fall into that category.” Sihix grinned broadly. “Don’t go wandering into Yiltanys’ domain just yet. There are matters you should deal with in my domain first—and no, not just because I’m a selfish bastard.”

Sihix disappeared into the shadows, leaving Nalithor and I in the silent corridor between forests. A sigh escaped me as I nuzzled my nylziis’ torso. His jacket getting in my way tempted me to rip it off of him but I refrained. Work first.

“You…implied that you’ve already made your decision.” Nalithor’s quiet question made me glance up at him briefly. He looked a little uncomfortable. I tilted my head in consideration for a moment, then tugged on his jacket. Still, he didn’t look at me. Even so, I could hear his heart racing.

“Of course I’ve thought about it,” I answered, tugging on him again. When there was no response, I sighed, let him go, and took a few steps away from him. If he wasn’t ready to discuss it, then he wasn’t ready. “It does look like Yiltanys’ corruption is spreading to Sihix from here. The ‘sludge’ has behavior similar to what we saw with the Vulei River.”

“Arianna…” Nalithor sighed and trailed his fingers down my spine. When I said nothing, he leaned down to kiss my cheek and smiled. “You are always tempting me to do things that would upset my parents and yours. Perhaps it is for the best that we focus on work, for now.

“You said the corruption was similar to what we saw in the river?”

“Mmhmm.” I pouted when he kissed my cheek again. “I noticed it while you were talking to our prey. The sacrifices were sitting in the corruption that’s streaming down the hill to the crater.”

Nalithor straightened but kept a hand on my shoulder while he surveyed our surroundings. I remained silent, unsure of how to take his seeming discomfort with the idea that I would choose him as my god. What did our parents matter, and why would they be upset with him in the first place? If I wanted something, or someone, I was more than content to make it happen regardless of my father’s permission.

‘He’s mentioned them before too.’ I snuck a glance at him while he was busy studying the corruption. ‘I’ll never understand why they’re so adamant about following traditions. Shouldn’t it be enough that we mutually desire each other?’

“Shall we go take our bath?” Nalithor’s question snapped me out of my thoughts. He arched an eyebrow when I glanced at him briefly before turning away from him with a pout. “You did want me out of these clothes, didn’t you?”

Nalithor tugged at the collar of his shirt and jacket, revealing a long stretch of his neck and collarbone. I turned to study him with my arms crossed. He looked more relaxed now despite taking in the corruption around us. Even with my senses dampened, our surroundings made my skin crawl.

“We may as well,” I murmured, glancing up at his hair. “I doubt you want pink hair.”

“That isn’t what you were thinking about.” Nalithor smirked at me as I strode past him. He was right, but my thoughts were no longer on indulging in him. “Shall I punish Sihix for putting you in such a foul mood?”

“As entertaining as that could be, no.” I shook my head and kept walking. “Bath, then more work. I want to take another look at that crumbling temple puppy-you was skulking around.”

“I wasn’t skulk—” Nalithor sighed heavily, and I heard his tail smack into something behind me. “I hope I get used to this nonsense soon. It’s very…disconcerting.”

“I suppose puppy-you is to blame for your seeming discomfort.” I snorted, picking up my pace. The more I thought about it, the madder I became. There were no doubts in my mind that my Nalithor would have been over the moons at the idea that I would choose him.

The “puppy”, however, seemed like he struggled to accept our relationship existed.

“Ah… So that’s what you’re mad about,” Nalithor murmured. “For what it’s worth, I am trying to make that part of me understand. His lingering shock and denial are still quite strong.”

“Shock and denial?” I inquired in a begrudging tone, curious despite myself.

“He doesn’t believe that he’s worthy of your affection,” Nalithor stated, his tone one of irritation. “My fire—not puppy—thinks that I failed you in Dauthrmir, that you or your father should execute me for failing to protect you. He struggled to understand that it isn’t his fault, and that there was nothing he could have done.

“It makes it difficult to accept that you’ve given any consideration to your choice.”

“The ‘puppy’ is going to get whacked on the snout if her interferes.” I shot Nalithor a dangerous look over my shoulder. “I won’t tolerate interference with our relationship. Not from outside sources, and not from a younger part of you that is stuck in the past. If he doesn’t want to piss me off he’ll shut up and take the time to learn from your memories.”

“And these ‘hubby’ jokes you’re suddenly so fond of?”

“If you’re not interested, then I’ll stop.”

“That’s not what I—”

“You are mine. I am yours.” I rounded on Nalithor and prodded his chest hard with my finger. When he opened his mouth to say something, I growled at him and grabbed the front of his shirt. “Like I said, we can discuss it when you are ready. That means both puppy and hubby parts of you. And, no, I’m not going to stop calling you hubby-puppy.

“Not until you get your sass and confidence back.”

I released his shirt and stalked off again, shoving my hands into my pockets. There were no words for how aggravated his other self was making me. I had no idea where I was going, but I was too irritated to care. Nalithor followed me in silence for a while, seeming to think it wiser to remain quiet. He was probably right. Perhaps he was chastising the puppy.

“That’s not the way to the baths,” Nalithor remarked after a few minutes. He gripped the back of my jacket and tugged me to a halt. When I looked up at him, I wasn’t certain what to make of his expression. Sadness? Fondness? Frustration? He had far too many emotions written on his face at once.

“Where—” I blinked at him when he backed me into a tree and bent at the waist so his face was level with mine. “Nalithor?”

“I’m sorry for frustrating you,” Nalithor spoke with a small sigh. “Sihix attempting to lure a premature decision from you rubbed me the wrong way.”

“To be fair, I’m pretty sure everything he does rubs you the wrong way,” I replied dryly, earning a small smile in response. “That said, if you think it’d be a ‘premature’ decision, the only one you’re fooling is yourself. I’ve had plenty of time to consider what—and who—I want. That said, I’m not going to press matters since you seem uncomfortable with the idea.”

“That isn’t what I’m uncomfortable with.” Nalithor straightened, ruffled my curls, and then beckoned for me to follow him. “Vorpmasians take tradition quite seriously, Arianna. If I deviate from our ways much further, your father could start a war with Draemir in his frustration. I don’t want to be the cause for a conflict between our fathers.

“Nor do I want my father to disown me for going against our ways.”

“Like he did with your brother?” I asked bluntly, watching Nalithor’s tail twitch.

“Yes, like that,” Nalithor spat. “Bastard deserved it. I wouldn’t want my siblings to think the same about me.”

“Humph, well, at this rate it will be a war of tradition and hunger.” I fell into step with Nalithor, glancing to the side at him when I spot his confused look. “The Jivyador are planning to ban you—and deities like you—from feeding. You, your brother, and whatever other ‘single’ deities are out there will be slowly starved until your hunger forces you to feed on someone.

“That ‘victim’ will become your counterpart.”

“That’s absurd!” Nalithor exclaimed, turning to face me. “I can understand them acting against me, but acting against similar deities—”

“They’re more likely to get away with it if it’s against everyone and not just you.” I tilted my head and examined his expression. The seething rage in his eyes brought a smile to my face. I reached up and cupped his cheek in one hand, smiling. “That’s a good look on you. Do us both a favor and don’t lose that anger again, hmmm?

“The Jivyador want to force your hand—and the Lari’xan can only go for so long without playing along. Sooner or later, you’ll have to decide what you want—and if you will have to toss aside tradition to pursue it.”

I let my hand fall away from his face and watched him in silence. He didn’t seem to know what to say, just stared at me with a mixture of disbelief and adoration in his eyes. That seething rage was still there, but diminished by his feelings toward me. I shot him a smile when he still didn’t say anything.

“At this rate I’m going to eat you up instead of bathing or working,” Nalithor informed me in a serious tone. He placed a hand on his hip and sighed, looking off to his right. “We’re almost to the springs. After we bathe, we can go visit the temple you wanted to examine.

“Do try to ease off on the teasing?”

“The proper response to my teasing is to tease me more,” I countered, tugging his hair briefly. “It’s a little disconcerting when you suddenly stop teasing me so much, you know. Clearly I’m going to have to pick up your slack, hub—”

Nalithor hoisted me over his shoulder, smacked my ass, and took off at a run through the trees. I giggled at him and slipped my tail under his shirt, coiling it around his torso. Even if he had silenced me, for the moment, I wasn’t going to stop teasing him.

I’d get my way sooner or later.

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