hearts of fire Page 16

She gave him a thin smile. “I didn’t even know until just now. But Justin did tell me that I need to get out more. He didn’t specify how.”

Uriel’s disapproval was a palpable thing. “It will devastate him if you simply vanish. And the friends who love you,” he said.

The words drew out her guilt with ruthless precision. She flushed and dropped her eyes, wrapping her arms around herself like armor. Meresin’s emotion was so strong and sudden that it took him a few moments to identify it—he felt protective. Possessive. He fought it at the same time that he was opening his mouth.

“It’s likely they’ll be devastated regardless. Dru would rather die fighting than just sit and wait to see whether death comes for her,” he said. “It’s something I’d think you’d understand, Uriel.”

The archangel gave him a long, inscrutable look, and he stared back. He was past being intimidated by white wings. He’d spent too long in the pits—he knew what was to be truly feared. Dru’s voice finally broke the standoff.

“He’s right. This is my life now, too. I can’t just stand by. Justin and I have fought plenty of battles of our own besides the ones we’ve taken on together. I’ve never stood in his way, and he wouldn’t stand in mine. He knows I don’t do flashy exits, and, anyway, I have every intention of coming back. Still, there is one thing…can I talk to you alone for a minute?”

Uriel gave a curt nod and then stepped a few paces away with Dru. The archangel spared him only a single reproachful glance before becoming absorbed in her animated whispering. He closed his eyes and breathed in the night. Whatever she had to say, it didn’t concern him. He was close to leaving this plane, possibly for good. He wanted to try to savor a final few breaths of the beach’s night air, to hear the waves and taste salt on the breeze. He breathed in and out slowly, and in his mind’s eye the image of Dru rose unbidden. She danced across the sand, her hair in wild tangles. She was laughing, and when he got close she would pull him in for the kind of kiss you could drown in. It was a fantasy as well worn as a favorite paperback, and not one he would ever share—but he cherished it just the same.

“Okay, I’m ready to go.”

His eyes snapped open, and Dru stood in front of him, as solemn as he’d ever seen her. It was the only reason he might have said the words that rose to his lips.

“You don’t have to come. Uriel is right. Purgatory isn’t like anywhere you might have fought before. I think the chances of success are less than you imagine. If you stay, you can have more time to spend with…whoever you would spend it with.”

For a split second, he was afraid she would agree, that she would step back and vanish. But instead, she shook her head no. Relief he hadn’t thought he was still capable of flowed through him. He didn’t know whether to be glad of it or afraid.

“I’ve had two thousand years. Come on, Meresin. Let’s do this,” she said.

He gave a short nod, then spoke to the archangel. “Well?”

Uriel, resigned now, said, “I will listen for your call when this is done. Be careful of the dark places, Meresin.” He hesitated, then added, “I hope you find what you need.”

Uriel reached out then, his index finger extended, and drew it downward. A silvery trail was left where his finger had been, and it slowly opened, wider and wider, until there was an arched doorway hovering only a few inches off the sand. Beyond, there was another beach, another moon. It could almost have been the same place…but he knew full well it wasn’t. His stomach knotted, and his mouth went dry. Had he thought this would be easy? He hadn’t been to the shadowlands since the night he’d become what he was. He tried to move forward but couldn’t quite do it.

Coward, he berated himself. You’ve faced down armies of angels, slain terrifying creatures. And you can’t even walk through a door.

Then there was the light pressure of Dru’s hand on his arm, and the world came into focus again. He hoped that none of his fear showed. Her own nerves were evident in the uncertain tremble of her smile, but her voice bolstered him.

“Let’s get this over with,” she said.

And when she moved, he moved with her, stepping through a doorway and walking into the gray, unwelcoming place that would decide their fate, one way or another.

Chapter Twelve

It was like stepping into a black-and-white film.

At first glance, Dru didn’t think Purgatory looked any different than the beach they’d just come from. But the more she saw, the more she noticed the utter lack of color in this place. There were many shades of black and white and gray, but not a hint of anything besides. It was incredibly disconcerting. There was an ocean, ominously dark. A moon, its glow devoid of any warmth. And back in the distance, to her surprise, there was a cluster of structures resembling a town. Not quite like Mirage, but certainly in the same place.

It all felt wrong, though. There was a shadowy cast to everything, and something almost insubstantial about the things she was seeing, as if it was all made of mist and might dissipate at any second.

She slid her foot through the silvery sand. It slipped smoothly through her toes, but at the same time, wispy tendrils rose and vanished from the sand she’d disturbed, like smoke. It was akin to poking at a slightly more solid cloud. She shivered. She might be a vampire, but this was all a little creepy even for her.

“Don’t let it bother you,” Meresin said. He was still reassuringly solid, at least. And despite the paleness of his skin, he didn’t look like he belonged here any more than she did. His eyes were even more startling against the drab color palette.

“I’ll try not to. What is this place? I mean, I know it’s Purgatory, but…what is it?”

“Come on. We’ll need to get a place for the night. The daylight here won’t hurt you, and it’s safer to travel then. We can talk on the way.” He beckoned and headed off toward the town…or whatever it was.

Dru quickly joined him. She didn’t want to be left standing alone on this beach. She had the oddest feeling she wouldn’t stay alone there for long. All of her predator’s senses were screaming warnings, despite the fact that there was no one thing she could point to that was putting her off. The place was desolate.

“Purgatory,” he said after a moment, “is sort of like the border between Heaven and Hell. It’s vast and gray and basically lawless. There have been battles here between the two sides, but not in a long time. No one really wants this place. Not even the ones stuck here.”

“So there are people here,” she said. “You compared it to Erebus before. A place between places, full of wandering souls.”

His brow creased slightly. “Yes. The souls here all have some issue or other that prevents them from moving on. Death comes for every human, but Reapers don’t bother fighting with souls unless they’re so dark they absolutely must be taken to Hell. Otherwise, if they argue, they get dumped here. Some of them wander back and forth between your plane and this one. None of them are happy. Sometimes they figure it out and move along, but a lot of times they don’t.”

He spoke of it like it was not a big deal, but Dru found it fascinating. She’d grown so used to being alive that death rarely crossed her mind. Even now, it seemed like only a distant possibility. That was probably stupid, but in some ways it was necessary for her. She wasn’t one to dwell on unpleasant possibilities.

“So, this is where the ghosts are,” she said.

“It is,” he agreed. “And other things you don’t want to meet. It’s possible to get dragged off to Hell whether you’re ready to accept the afterlife or not. Hell is good at encroaching.”

A chill slithered down her spine. Still, she liked to listen to him talk like this, his voice smooth and steady. He was more himself here, more comfortable. On some level it struck her as kind of twisted, but then he’d been in Hell far longer than he’d been stuck on earth. In Purgatory, he probably wasn’t a frightening oddity. Just plain frightening, yes, but the otherworld was apparently loaded with things that fit that description.

Meresin’s pace was quick, and she was grateful she had legs long enough to match it. There was no wind, and the air had a flat, almost metallic flavor to it. As they got closer to the buildings, crooked and hulking shapes squatting atop a gentle rise in the land, she could see that there were lights glowing dully in the windows. Pale gray lights.

“This place is eerie,” she said, hitching her backpack up farther onto her shoulder.

He looked at her curiously. “You live in an enormous cave populated by vampires and werewolves,” he said.

“Granted. But no one is actually dead there.”

His lips curved. “Good point.”

The guttural growl was the only warning she had before a hulking demon, its skin gleaming a dark and burning red, slammed into her from her right. The two of them flew through the air to land at the edge of the water, sending up a spray of sand and mist as they skidded to a stop. Her eyes widened as she stared up into the face of a nefari—squat, muscular, ugly, and with a face that was mostly sharp teeth above small, piggy eyes. She was close enough that she could smell its fetid breath. A thin rivulet of drool appeared at the corner of its mouth, then went flying as it snapped at her.

Claws sliced into her skin as they struggled. Battering it with her fists and feet, she tried to push it off as they rolled across the sand. The ocean hissed off to her left, so close she could have reached out and touched it. But even as she slammed a fist into the nefari’s throat and tried to get the upper hand as it gagged, she kept an eye on how far she could go before the water actually touched her. Just the sight of it, so close now, horrified her…there was something gelatinous about the inky substance. No way was that actually water.

There was a flash of light, then a sizzling sound as the nefari threw its head back and howled in pain. Its skin crawled with electricity, and then Dru raised her knees, kicking out and sending the demon flying. It landed with a horrible splat in the ocean, and she rose up on her elbows, panting, just in time to see the nefari being wrapped in gooey black and dragged under. There was screaming, then muffled screeching. Then finally, silence.

She stared at the space where the demon had been until the sight of Meresin’s extended hand distracted her. She took his hand and let him pull her to her feet.

“Thanks,” she said, more shaken than she cared to let on. “For the record, that was gross, and I don’t like it here.”

“I’d be concerned if you felt otherwise,” he said. “And if it wasn’t obvious, don’t touch the, ah, water.”

“Why didn’t it attack you?” Dru grumbled as she walked to pick up her backpack where it had landed. “Aren’t you a more desirable target?” She was trying to catch her breath and not show how rattled she was. She was used to being the scary thing in the dark, not the one fending them off.

“Nefari are pretty stupid, but they’re not completely stupid. That one was just hunting for an easy meal. You look weaker than I do. Plus, they don’t usually try to take down anyone with wings unless there are a lot of them. That one’s a straggler.”

“Great. Now I’m a weakling,” she said, walking back to rejoin him.

“You fight well,” he said, as though this were a major revelation to him. Her cheeks warmed before she could do anything about it. Why was this flattering? She was a powerful night stalker. It would only be news if she couldn’t fight well. Still, this was Meresin. The fact that he was noticing anything about her beyond the obvious was an event.

“Let me ask you something,” she said as they set off again. “You didn’t know how much of a hand I have in running the city. You didn’t know I could fight. What exactly did you think my function was? Purely ornamental?”

That flustered him. “I don’t—I didn’t—you’re very beautiful.”

Dru blinked, her step faltering. She wondered if she’d heard him right. “Well. Um. Thank you,” she said, thrown off by the compliment. “Beautiful isn’t an occupation, last time I checked, but still. That’s sweet.”

He hunched his shoulders in a way she was now very familiar with.

“Don’t get defensive,” she said, her voice softening. “I can call you an a**hole or something if it’ll make you feel better.”

His laugh was warm and low and a little uncertain. “I’d know you didn’t mean it. I don’t think you’re capable of hating anyone.”

She smiled, though her amusement was touched with melancholy that she quickly tried to banish. She’d hated people before. It was a short list, but it existed. She was no saint.

“This is horrible,” she told him. “All this time, you’ve been thinking of me as a Disney princess with fangs.”

His sidelong glance had heat flooding through her from head to toe. “No,” he said. “I didn’t think of you quite that way.”

It amazed her how cool he acted until something, good or bad, provoked him. Meresin was full of passion. It just usually came out in all the wrong ways. Not, however, right this moment.

He went quiet after that, facing forward and keeping any further thoughts to himself. All she could think of was the way it felt to have his hands on her, all of that incredible power and desire focused only on her. It wasn’t productive; she just couldn’t help it. It might have been refreshing to remember that she could feel this sort of impossible, overwhelming attraction, if they hadn’t been trekking into territory filled with things that would happily rip them both to shreds.