Hello! Alexis Duran here. In this lull before New Year’s Eve, I hope you’ll treat yourself and enjoy all of Loose Id’s Truth or Dare offerings this week. For my story, I’ve taken the protagonists from my soon to be released (January 5!) m/m fantasy: Curse of Salar and placed them in a rather harrowing version of the game.
Two rules to establish here: One, no one can be “dared” into telling the truth and Two, the punishment for lying or backing out of the dare is that the lovers will be eternally separated. Bummer!
TRUTH OR DARE: Shadow of the Serpent by Alexis Duran
A Masters and Mages interlude
Captain Rayn Nevar climbed the broken steps into the temple without hesitation, despite the uneasy feeling inspired by the looming statues of the serpent god Ka’alar that guarded the entrance. The temple’s remoteness, tucked deep within a narrow ravine, had protected it from the destruction enacted after the overthrow of the mages, centuries ago.
Leave it to Dezra to uncover this abysmal place and call me here.
Rayn chafed under Dezra’s imperious summons at the same time he welcomed any excuse to be by the prince’s side, and hopefully in his bed.
But by the looks of the severe temple carved into the face of the cliff, lounging about in a soft bed was an unlikely outcome.
As Rayn stepped between the columns, he plunged into darkness. Sunlight did not penetrate the cool interior of the cliff. Blinking into the gloom, he waited for his eyes to adjust. Burning cedar mingled with the mineral tang of damp earth, and beneath those, the sweet scent of perfumed oils sparked memories of lovemaking.
Rayn was about to call Dezra’s name when torches emerged out of the shadows at the far end of the large room. To his disappointment, monks appeared, clad in formal indigo robes. He’d hoped he might be alone with Dezra.
The monks seemed to be expecting him. One made brief eye contact and without a word, they both turned and walked back into the low-ceilinged tunnel from which they’d come.
Rayn sighed and followed them. So a tiresome ritual awaited him. Dezra was always after Rayn to learn and accept the ways of the serpent. Rayn, having seen the destructive side of the soul-hungry god, politely but firmly demurred.
He ran his fingers along the rough stone wall as he walked, his vision reduced to the flickering torches and the men who held them. The oppressive darkness sparked his most paranoid imaginings. Taking steadying breaths, he braced himself for whatever awaited, hand tightly gripping the hilt of his sword.
His fingers slipped from the wall as he stepped out of the tunnel into a vast chamber. The ceiling was still low, but the space spread out into shadows and Rayn couldn’t see where it ended. Before him a ring of columns circled a black pool. Red flames reflected on its smooth surface.
Another monk stood at the lip of the pool. He wore a silver robe, indicating the highest level in the order. A mage.
As Rayn drew closer, he recognized M’lan, the healer from Rakkan.
“M’lan! Where’s Dezra?” Rayn’s voice shattered the silence.
The healer’s brown eyes appeared black in the firelight. He gazed solemnly at Rayn without speaking while the two monks melted away into the darkness. When the soft scuff of their sandals against stone faded to nothing, he spoke.
“Are you ready?”
“Ready for what?” Rayn demanded and again his voice was thrown back at him like a thunderclap.
“Dezra didn’t tell you?” M’lan quirked an eyebrow, his expression bemused.
A whisper tickled Rayn’s ear. “I was afraid you wouldn’t come.”
Startled, he jerked and turned around.
Dezra stood behind him. The prince lifted his gaze to Rayn’s face, flashes of amber visible through thick lashes. Firelight caressed his golden hair and played across his wide lips. Rayn’s pulse quickened, but some instinct restrained him from seizing Dezra and engulfing him in a ferocious kiss.
They’d been apart for three agonizing weeks. To add Rayn’s torment, Dezra wore a gauzy shift that although long enough to brush his bare feet, clung to his slim body, shaping his fine muscles. He might as well have been naked, but the thin veil created a seductive obstacle Rayn longed to rip aside.
“Why wouldn’t I come?” he remembered to ask. “What sort of mystical nonsense are the two of you conjuring?”
Dezra’s golden eyes gleamed in response, his lips tightening. “I know you hate anything to do with the worship of Ka’alar.”
“Your demon of a god nearly took you from me. Nearly killed you both.” Rayn glared at the prince and the monk in turn. “You’re right. I want nothing to do with him.”
M’lan spoke softly. “Then the game is over before it begins. Ka’alar wins.”
All color drained from Dezra’s face and he hastily stepped forward to clasp Rayn’s hands. “I couldn’t possibly explain in a message, but I need your help. More desperately than ever.”
Dezra’s touch sent a tingling sensation along Rayn’s arms, down his spine and into his groin. He stiffened as Dezra’s body pressed against him. If Rayn had any sense left at all, he’d hoist Dezra over his shoulder and carry him away from Ka’alar forever. But sense and his love for Dezra were incompatible.
“What do you want from me that I haven’t already given?”
“Bond with me. Here, in the eyes of the serpent. In order to risk going forward with my training, Ka’alar must see you as my mate, our bond of love inviolable.”
“You wish to marry?” Rayn’s heart skipped several beats, excitement quickly stifled by disappointment. Dezra didn’t want Rayn. He wanted power.
“I do. In the sunlight, with wine and celebration. But here, now, we do this for Ka’alar.”
“For Dezra’s safety,” M’lan added. “You know he’ll continue one way or another. If Ka’alar accepts you, Dezra has a much higher chance of surviving.”
“I want nothing to do with the serpent,” Rayn repeated. He breathed deeply, suppressing his personal turmoil. “But for you, my love, I will do it.”
Dezra lifted Rayn’s hands, kissed his fingers.
“Then we must continue. Ka’alar grows impatient.”
Rayn shuddered. Something large and sleek disturbed the taut surface of the pool as Dezra led him closer, counter to all of Rayn’s instincts.
“The test is this,” M’lan said, his voice suddenly cold and hollow. Rayn didn’t dare look at him, sure he’d see the serpent staring out of the monk’s eyes. “You each have a choice. Truth or dare. Answer Ka’alar’s question truthfully or accept his quest. Lies or failure to act will result in your eternal separation.”
Rayn turned to Dezra. “We can’t go through with this!”
“This is my destiny,” Dezra said, tears glistening in his eyes.
“Truth or dare, Dezra?” M’lan asked.
“Truth,” Dezra blurted out. Behind M’lan, the head of the serpent rose from the water, crimson gaze locked on Dezra.
“Prince Dezra, last mage of the great house of Luzan, before your god and your ancestors, would you sacrifice your love for Rayn Nevar and continue without him, in order to fulfill your destiny?”
Dezra’s tremors rippled against Rayn’s skin. Well, that’s too easy, Rayn thought grimly. Dezra hesitated, no doubt wishing to spare Rayn’s feelings, but knowing a lie meant the end of them.
“No,” Dezra whispered. Rayn’s heart soared and then a thought hit him.
“Wait. You mean I could have dragged you out of here—?”
A tiny smile curved the corners of Dezra’s lips. “Too late. We must continue.”
“Truth or dare, Rayn?” M’lan asked, relentless.
Being a man of action, dare rose quickly to his lips, but another look at the serpent changed his mind. Besides, he didn’t have any secrets worth plundering.
Dezra released an audible breath. Surely he’d expected Rayn to choose wrestling the serpent rather than revealing anything of himself.
“Captain Rayn Nevar, your betrayal of your country has been noted. Premier Gon Skala seeks revenge against the house of Nevar. Given the choice, would you sacrifice your family in order to stand beside Prince Dezra in his quest to retake the throne?”
Rayn’s heart stilled in his chest. Was this true? He stared at M’lan, who was merely a vessel for Ka’alar’s evil words.
“How can I answer something like that?” Rayn thought of his elderly father, so proud of Rayn’s success. His sister and her young daughters on the cusp of womanhood. What would Skala do to them?
“You already know the answer,” M’lan said.
Dezra touched the back of Rayn’s arm, giving him permission to speak the truth.
“No,” Rayn said. His face burned. In order to keep his lover, he had to betray him. Curse the serpent and his wicked ways.
Ka’alar sank beneath the surface. Dezra stepped in front of Rayn and pressed a cool palm against his cheek.
“You made the right choice. The man I love would never sacrifice innocents for his own happiness.”
Rayn sighed and looked Dezra in the eye. “Is it true, what the serpent says?”
“It might merely be a prediction. I’ll do everything in my power to help them.”
Rayn bent down and captured Dezra’s lips in a fierce kiss. A blaze of heat coursed through his body. Please, Ka’alar, don’t take this man from me.
Dezra broke free, but stayed close. “We will face this threat together.”
Gently, he tugged Rayn back toward the sunlight, but Rayn knew Ka’alar and his shadows would forever be entangled in their love.
* * * *
Dezra and Rayn are the protagonists in the upcoming release, Masters and Mages: Curse of Salar by Alexis Duran. Pre-order the novel now at: http://www.loose-id.com/masters-and-mages-3-curse-of-salar.html. Available on 1/5/16.