Home > The Centaur Queen (The Dark Queens #7)

The Centaur Queen (The Dark Queens #7)
Author: Jovee Winters

Chapter 1


Petra and I were tossed violently from the games, as though a large and powerful hand had suddenly yanked us away. Dizzy and disoriented, I frowned as I gazed at the red clay beneath my palms. How had I gotten here? One moment I’d been inside the games, and the next I was here, wherever here was.

Nothing about the games had been normal. Petra and I were trapped inside a world-within-a-world created by the gods for their own warped amusement. A part of me wondered if maybe we’d been thrust into a new challenge without either of us knowing. And yet... I blinked and frowned. And yet there was a niggling thought within me that something had gone terribly awry.

Inhaling deeply, I washed my lungs with the scent of dirt and pine. Getting shakily to my feet, I dusted off my hindquarters and turned to look for my traveling companion. Petra was a few yards behind me, and he too was dusting himself off, wearing the same quizzical frown that I no doubt still wore. I wasn’t often at a loss to describe what was happening around me, but I was without answers right now. Shoving thick strands of hair out of my eyes, I studied our surroundings.

Just a few minutes ago, Petra and I had been discussing the next challenger we were set to face—Fiera, elemental goddess of the eternal fires. We weren’t supposed to duel until tomorrow, though. Perhaps the gods had fooled us yet again, and we were supposed to duel right now. Readying my bow, heart racing, I studied the landscape, expecting to see Fiera standing off to the side, fireball in hand.

But the goddess was nowhere to be seen. Instead there were trees, hundreds of them. We were in a grove of towering behemoths whose branches kissed the sky. I turned in a circle, doubting what I was seeing.

This was Kingdom.

We were back in Kingdom.

“How the blue blazes...” I mumbled. I walked to the first tree and laid my hand against its corrugated bark, scratching at its woodsy thickness with my nail. There was nothing unusual about it. It wasn’t sentient and it didn’t sing or talk, which meant we weren’t in Wonderland. However, the trunks were a shade of deepest brown with large swaths of colorful streaks running down them. Riffling through the catalogue in my brain, I quickly came to the conclusion that these trees—more specifically the eritque arcus lingo—were exclusively native to the western region of Kingdom.

“Bloody hell,” I murmured. We really were out of the games. Mouth gaping in shock, I shook my head. This made no sense. I had many questions, but no one to ask. So instead, I made note of the facts.

Petra and I needed to understand why we’d been thrown out. Had we failed again? True, we hadn’t fallen in love. I admired and even rather enjoyed the satyr’s company greatly, but admiration was a far cry from the rules of the games that demanded we either declare our love and leave, or lose and spend an eternity in purgatory for our hubris in defying the gods.

I looked up, studying the needles of the spindly conifers above. The western region was said to be a thriving, bustling countryside filled to bursting with big game animals to hunt, plenty of wild-sown crops to eat, and some of the rarest types of flowers in all of Kingdom. Pursing my lips, I turned in another small circle before trotting back to the country lane.

Standing in the center of a red-clay dirt trail that diverged in several directions, I paused, waiting to see some sign of life, be it animal or otherwise.

After many long minutes, nothing appeared.

Kneeling, I touched my palm to the ground and cocked my head as I waited several heartbeats in near silence. I couldn’t even feel the vibrations of another soul roaming these lands. From all I’d read, this realm was far less civilized than other parts of Kingdom, but the evidence of life should have been here. Where was the wild game? Where were the trees bursting with fruit and nuts, and thick stalks of wheat shooting up from the ground?

I felt Petra’s approach, but he said nothing, just looked at me as I continued to assess our situation. I had always appreciated my companion’s ability to recognize when I needed silence.

I glanced worriedly at the sky, realizing for the first time that it wasn’t merely blue, but many different colors. Salmon, tangerine, and violet were not unusual to see in the sky. It was the other colors that actually caught my eye. There were patches of phosphorescent blue, green, and black wavering like a desert mirage as they floated away. I knew what they were because I’d seen them before. Those were the remnants of powerful magic running its course.

Rubbing the fine hairs on my forearms that were standing electrifyingly on edge, I shivered. What in the bloody blazes had happened here? This was Kingdom, but a Kingdom I didn’t quite recognize. That thought shot like a cold thrill of adrenaline through my veins, making me feel both hot and cold. I was a creature of knowledge, of facts, and of truths. I’d spent the better part of my life learning all I could of my world and of the lands, people, flora, and fauna that filled it.

My heart beat a terrible treble inside me. Petra and I had failed at the games most miserably, but not because I wasn’t a brilliant bowman—we’d single-handedly beaten all our opponents, save for the conniving Baba Yaga—but because we’d failed to fall in love, which was the only prerequisite to getting out of the cursed realm relatively unscathed. But something strange had happened in that world created by the gods. Something I could hardly even fathom, in truth. I thought myself mad, feared for my sanity even, because Petra and I, we lost. We were cursed, flung into a time dimension outside of reality, doomed to be separated for all eternity.

I screamed his name, feeling empty and so alone, terrified of what came next. I blinked and then—this was the strange part—I’d gone back in time, to him, to our pasture, to a time before we’d reached the end of the challenges and were punished by the gods for our disobedience.

That part had been bad enough, but when I mentioned what’d happened, Petra looked at me as though I’d lost my mind. He said I hadn’t left him, that he and I were talking, and I suddenly went wide-eyed, slack-jawed and silent.

I didn’t believe him until the next day when we squared off with Galeta the Blue, a challenger I’d already faced several gauntlets back. I realized that I hadn’t merely gone back in time, but that time had altered completely, presenting me with a different present and future the previous timeline had afforded me.

Confusion weighed me down, made me anxious and nervous because I could remember with startling clarity every emotion I had felt when the goddess Calypso told us our fate. I could close my eyes and relive the terror of it all, could paint a picture in great detail of all that happened.

I’d felt the panic of being separated from him. One moment I was battling Baba Yaga for not only my life, but that of Petra’s, when one of Fiera’s little fire imps sabotaged Baba, flinging a deadly curse at her. I saw the witch crumple, saw her fall, and saw Petra taken away by deadly, terrifying beings.

I hadn’t known what to think or feel, other than I knew it happened, and I sensed I shouldn’t tell Petra about it. I didn’t want to panic him. Either I’d somehow been granted the gift of seeing the future, or some form of powerful magic had temporarily twisted our reality so that only I could remember what it had once been.

Or worse yet, I was going crazy.

Days passed after that, and I’d convinced myself that I had indeed gone temporarily insane, when it happened again.

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