I trekked through the deadly jungle—home to wild beasts, native cannibals, and poisonous fog.
Pine needles and twigs scrunched under my feet in the eternal shade. Scarce sunlight penetrated the thick foliage. The air smelled of moisture, bitter blossoms, and sulfur. Strange birds chirped, insects cried, and animals bellowed, each one sounding creepier than the former ones. I prowled on, the darkness of my magic trailing after me.
Akem, the elemental entity, dwelled and ruled here. He allowed only me to roam his realm, but not because he was kind. He wanted something from me, and I had no idea what that was.
I had no memory of my past and I couldn’t form any new memories.
Every morning when I woke up, I forgot all the events and people and places all over again. Through my magic, I’d found a way to inscribe clues on my skin. A primary marking would appear unbidden at my waking, then at my summons, the rest of the markings would surface.
There was one imprint on the back of my hand that I hadn’t inked on myself. My nameless enemies had branded me “the Wickedest Witch in the universe.” They had wiped my memories clean before dumping me on Pandemonium, for reasons I had yet to find out.
I’d recorded the first event on my wrist with my magic: I’d woken up under a black tree in this jungle, not knowing who I was or where I came from. Before I could get my bearings, a two-headed hound and three winged Furies had set upon me.
I’d fought my way out; the red gown I had been clad in had been torn to shreds.
I’d named myself Fiammetta after I stumbled into the City of Nine, which swarmed with monsters, vampires, and an army of criminal militias.
I now lived for one purpose—to find who did this to me and have my revenge against them tenfold.
I’d been stuck on this planet for three years. Every day when I wasn’t battling other species or securing food, I returned to the forest to seek the portal.
Ice light radiated on my skin and my markings displayed a sketched map as I padded between the cannibal trees. I did not worry about them; my ice magic shielded me and kept them at bay. But when I lifted my gaze from the map, the forest had shifted. I was surrounded by thorny trees with black flowers. The smell was pungent. The sprawling vines of the cannibal plants were nowhere in sight.
Akem was toying with me.
The jungle quieted and dimmed. Darkness never bothered me much. I was the mistress of darkness. But I let ice light travel from my fingertips and illuminate the path ahead as a precaution.
My instincts told me I should head north.
Growls broke out and beasts sprinted in my direction. I couldn’t outrun them, so I bolted toward the nearest thorny tree and climbed up as fast as I could.
I reached the middle branch with a few scratches. Before I settled, a spotted female leopard with three horns charged into view. A huge male leopard with black, glossy fur caught up with her. The female leopard swept her tail over her mate’s horns. He sniffed the air, not only at her heat, but for the scent of any invaders.
Luckily, I’d disguised my scent with my ice magic.
My mortal enemies had purged my memories of people and places and events, but they had failed to rip out my inherent knowledge and magic. So, I knew the horned leopards could climb trees. As long as I didn’t disturb them and remained undetected, they would be occupied with each other.
I would wait them out.
The female rolled over onto her belly and swatted the male’s muzzle with her paws as he came upon her. His jaw opened, his mouth on her neck, demanding her surrender.
She didn’t resist as she positioned herself ready for the taking, and the male wasted no time mounting her from behind. Within minutes, he ended his short, rapid thrusts and broke away from her. I let out an inaudible breath of relief. Now they would go on their way and I could keep looking for my portal. I might get lucky today and end my long search.
But the animals started the next coupling and the next. Each time the female moved to a new spot, but always near the tree where I perched, and the male followed her around. Every mating was short, but they kept at it tirelessly.
Were they going to fuck forever?
Days were short on Pandemonium, and if the leopards didn’t end their incessant coupling soon, I would never make it back to my Witch Tower before the last daylight faded. All the beasts came out to play when night fell.
I gazed down at the ongoing mating below me and considered my options. If I killed them, I would upset Akem. I was forever careful about using my magic in his domain. I did not want him to learn too much about me.
Yet I couldn’t afford to let the lovers further inconvenience me. With a resigned sigh, I drew on my ice magic and showered them with hail.
They immediately separated, shook the small ice cubes from their fur, and bawled in fury.
If they discovered me, I would have to battle them, but I could argue my way out of Akem’s wrath by telling him I had been provoked and had to defend myself.
But the animals stopped mid-roar. They twitched their ears and snapped their heads to the right, sniffing the air.
A deafening whooshing sound rumbled through the ground. At the same time, Akem’s Furies shrieked above the thick canopies, signaling the arrival of a worse predator.
My skin tingled from fear, and a thrill pumped through my blood.
Fifty yards away, trees toppled, their branches breaking as they crashed into each other. A thunderous thud rocked the jungle.
The tree I was perching on trembled and I lost my footing, but I shot my hand overhead and managed to grab hold of a branch.
The leopards gave one last warning growl and fled.
Through the space between bushes, I made out a large, lizard-like machine falling from the sky, fire blazing from its tail end.
I swung to a lower branch and jumped, landing in a crouch on the forest floor.
“Defender,” I muttered, and an ice spear instantly appeared in my hand.
I sprang toward the crash site.