Crowned: A Reverse Harem Urban Fantasy Romance (The Gaia Chronicles Book 4)

1.

Four pairs of eyes watch me expectantly. Waiting for me to deliver our fate.

Earth’s.

“Terra...” Sol speaks, his voice confident and sure. But I’m rendered speechless, the weight of what we’re facing suddenly too much to bear.

“Kitten,” Cael’s voice is softer, a gentle coax. “Are you—”

“I’m fine.” I shake my head clear of the overwhelming thoughts. “Just give me a minute.” Turning from them, I brace the counter and take a deep calming breath. All along I’d known there was more to Gaia’s story; her past. But even I hadn’t anticipated this. How could I when I knew so little of how Earth came to be?

My eyes flutter shut, a soft sigh escaping my lips when I feel Ross move behind me. “Terra, what did you see?”

“Tartarus.” The word cuts through the air like a blade. “He wants to tear a hole in the seam between Earth and the Underworld. He wants...” the words die but someone speaks.

“He wants to raise Hell on Earth.”

I turn slowly, my cloudy gaze sliding to Sol’s, and nod.

“Tartarus? But that’s impossible.” Cael leaps up dragging a hand through his hair. “He’s bound to the Underworld. Just as Gaia and Eros are bound to Elysia.”

“Were...” Sol hisses, and we all look at him. “Gaia fell.”

“And Tartarus found a way too,” I say around a grimace.

“He’s here?” Cael’s mouth hangs open, disbelief in his eyes. “You’re telling us that the God of the Underworld is walking freely on Earth?”

“I know what I saw.” I wrap my arms around myself. Ross’ heated gaze sears my skin, but I can’t bring myself to look at him. At any of them.

“But I don’t—” Cael starts again but Endo silences him. “Let’s give Terra space to tell us what she saw.” He motions to one of the empty stools and I slump into it.

“It was different to when I dream,” I say. “More like a flashback. I was there, with the Oracle.”

The guys draw closer but don’t crowd me. Ross stays over by the door, and Cael and Endo take up positions around the other side of the island. Sol lingers on the periphery, disbelief rolling off him.

I focus, calling the memory to the surface. Gaia with the Oracle. But the words clog my throat. They aren’t going to like what I have to say. Even though I think, deep down, we all know where this is headed.

Inhaling a sharp breath, I let my eyes run over the four of them: Earth, Air, Fire, and Water. Gaia’s Chosen. My protectors. Strong. Brave. Loyal. They have given their existences to her; to Earth. But she knew they couldn’t save Earth from this.

“Terra, please...” Endo’s voice is filled with so much pain I want to go to him, to hold him and tell him everything will be okay. But I’m not sure it will be any more.

Not now I know the truth.

“The Oracle saw the fall of Earth.”

Someone gasps, Cael I think. Sol curses underneath his breath; Ross stares into space, scratching his jaw; and Endo looks crushed.

“It’s not... it’s not possible,” he chokes.

“It’s what the Oracle saw. Tartarus will tear down the seam between Earth and the Underworld—”

“So, it’s all for nothing?” Cael’s face pales. “Gaia falling. Us being banished for the last nineteen years. You. It’s all pointless?”

“Cael,” Sol scolds. He rounds the island and looks me dead in the eye. “There’s more, isn’t there? Something you’re not telling us.” His hard glare bites into me.

Damn him and his ability to see right through me. Even with my mental barriers firmly in place, Sol can read me like a book.

I nod, unable to say the words, tears pooling in my eyes.

A beat passes, and another. We’re locked in a stalemate. But then realization dawns in his eyes. “No,” he rasps. “No fucking way.”

“What?” Cael says, at the same time as Endo asks, “Huh?”

“Gaia knew how to end it, didn’t she?”

“I think she knew, yes.” I nod, letting him process the truth.

“She did? Well that’s good, isn’t it?” Hope floods Cael’s voice but quickly diminishes when he catches Sol’s grim expression. “It’s not good.” He drags a hand down his face.

“That’s why she didn’t want us to follow her. She knew we’d become attached to you. She knew we wouldn’t want to put you in harm’s way. And she knew,” he swallows hard. “She knew there was no way on Earth we would let you sacrifice yourself.”

All hell breaks loose as Cael and Endo pounce on Sol demanding an explanation. I slink off the stool and move to the back door. Ross’ eyes follow me, but he doesn’t try to stop me as I slip outside. None of them do. They’re too busy arguing over the latest revelations.

The missing piece in the puzzle we’ve been trying to figure out.

Their frustration, anger, and disappointment swirls around them, heavy and suffocating. Even Ross is in the thick of it now, arguing with Sol about the next steps. But it doesn’t matter. I know the next steps. Nothing they try to conjure up can stop this. That’s what Gaia knew; that’s what she was armed with when she forbade them to leave Elysia.

I saw it as clear as day.

“Tartarus will tear open the seam between Earth and the Underworld.”

“Tartarus? Impossible,” Gaia scoffed. “He cannot, he would not...”

“I speak only truth, Your Grace. He has found a way to leave the dark plane.”

Gaia staggered back, her hand grabbing the back of the chair to steady herself. “He would betray me, his sister, like this?”

“I have not the answers you seek. I see only what will come to pass.”

“Yes, of course.” Gaia dipped her head in a show of respect. The Oracle was old, almost as old as the High Council. Her powers were revered, and not to be questioned.

“Is there anything to be done? Anything that can stop him?”

“That is something only you can answer.” The Oracle’s lips drew into a thin line as she gave her a pointed look, filling Gaia with more dread. 

Did she mean...? No, surely not?

Earth had faced darkness so many times before. Wars. Natural disasters. Threats of a less earthly kind. But time and time again, her Chosen prevented Earth’s demise, restoring the balance. 

This was different though. Although she didn’t understand the root of her brother’s betrayal, she felt the truth to it as sure as she felt the sun beating down on her skin. Deep down, she knew this was different. Things had been different for some time, building to something bigger. Only she hadn’t expected to hear her brother’s name fall from the Oracle's lips.

Tartarus.

By the gods, it had been an age since she last saw him. But just as she was bound to Elysia, he was bound to the Underworld. It was his duty, as Earth was hers, and Man was Eros’. He wouldn’t relinquish his duty so easily.

Would he?

“I must go,” she rushed out.

“Think this through, Your Grace. For this path you consider, it will change everything.”

Gaia’s lips parted but at the last second, before the words could flow out, she pressed them together, nodding again. Hands clasped in front of her, the Oracle returned it.  Gaia fled the room. She needed to see her brother immediately. For what she was about to do would require his intervention and support, but she would not let Earth fall at the hands of Tartarus.

Even if it meant making the ultimate sacrifice.

I blink, startled when Cael drops into the seat next to me, his ocean-blue eyes settling on my face. “Penny for your thoughts?”

“Sol has a point,” I say quietly, wanting to steer the conversation away from the fact they all know Gaia’s end goal now. “Nothing’s really changed. Tartarus might be behind all of this, but we’re still no closer to identifying his human form.” 

I thought being able to access Gaia’s memories would hold all the answers, but as I replayed the scene over in my head, I realized it was just another piece in a never-ending puzzle. 

“It has to be someone at Atchison. It’s the only thing that makes sense.” Cael says.

“You’re right.” It is the only thing that makes sense. All roads lead to back to this place. “What if this place is important?” I meet Cael’s gaze, the threads of an idea swirling together in my mind. “Kansas is a supernatural hotbed, yes?” 

He nods.

“Well, what if there’s something specifically about Atchison that pulled us all here? What if it has significance for Tartarus somehow?”

Scrubbing his jaw, Cael lets out a frustrated breath. “We won’t let you do it, Kitten. Not until we’ve exhausted all avenues. You get that, right? You get that we won’t just let you sacrifice yourself?” The pain in his eyes guts me, but I don’t say anything. “We need help. We need—”

“Elysia,” I breathe out.

“Yeah, but we’re banished. Eros made it pretty clear that following Gaia was a one-way ticket.”

“What about a messenger?” 

“A messenger?” His brows pinch.

“Another member of the Guard? They come to Earth to help maintain the balance, right?” Another nod. “Well, what if you asked one of them to take a message back to Eros?”

“Kitten, I’m not sure—”

“It has to be worth a shot doesn’t it?” I don’t want to die. Even now, armed with the clarity of Gaia’s memories, I don’t want to sacrifice myself. Especially without knowing the root of Tartarus’ betrayal. But the decision isn’t mine to make; my destiny decided long before I was born into this world.

When Cael doesn’t answer me, I twist my body around and lock my eyes right on his, pleading. “When it comes down to it, I’m not sure I’ll have a choice, Cael,” I say quietly, hoping he’ll understand the meaning behind my words.

His eyes narrow, searching my face, and then widen with realization. “There is always a choice,” he grinds out.

“Is there? Because this feels a lot like destiny to me. And you can’t fight what’s already written in the stars.”

“You can always fight, Kitten.” He reaches for my hand, threading his fingers through mine. “Let’s see what the others think. Maybe they have a plan.”

Or maybe they have killed each other in the process. I raise an eyebrow but let him pull me up.

“She knew we would never allow her to fall unprotected if we knew the truth. Just as we won’t allow you to sacrifice yourself. We’ll figure this out, Kitten. I give you my word.” Determination glitters in his eyes like stars across the ocean. But it doesn’t matter. They can cloak me away in this house, but out there Tartarus will continue to unleash the darkness. One way or another, he’ll smoke me out. This is all a game to him, and currently he holds all the chips.

But maybe we have an ace or two left to play.