hearts of fire Page 21

If it wasn’t for the company, she would have found it extremely depressing. Though as hot a lover as Meresin had been in the night, the light had seen him revert to form—awkward, uptight, and irritable. Why she continued to find all three things attractive, at least on him, was a mystery she wasn’t sure she’d ever solve. If they got out of here in one piece, though, it wouldn’t matter half as much as figuring out how to work around his multiple issues and get him to stay by her side.

Dru heard the door swing open again, and Meresin stepped out into the morning behind her. His nearness immediately soothed her, replacing worry with a warm glow. His presence bolstered her, bringing with it a wave of contentment that would have worried her if she hadn’t been so euphoric. His voice sounded, a dark and decadent growl, and she could almost forget how lonely it was to offer everything to someone, and to receive only scraps in return.

“Well, that’s done. I don’t think we’ll be welcomed back anytime soon.”

“Damn, there go my vacation plans. Is the boss happy now?” she asked, turning with a smile. She refused to show him her worry. He’d only retreat further, and that was the last thing she wanted.

“I don’t think he’s ever happy,” he said, “but he seems to be satisfied.” He rolled his shoulders—a fallen angel in scuffed boots, faded jeans, and a loose T-shirt emblazoned with the name of an electro-punk band. With his spiked black hair and white skin, he could have been a rock star himself. As she watched, his wings appeared, and he gave them a stretch before folding them against his back.

“We did discuss my airsickness, didn’t we?” she asked, eyeing them.

“I know. We won’t be able to go the entire way on foot, though. Amriel’s in those mountains,” he said, jerking his chin toward the sharp peaks in the distance. “Walking the plains for as long as we can is my preference, but that can be iffy. We’ll see how it goes.”

Dru surveyed the mists again, and her skin crawled. “I’m actually okay with flying over all of that if we need to.”

“It’s farther than it looks,” he replied. “The drawback of traveling by day is that we’ll be perfectly visible in the air to anyone watching. It’s better than the drawback of traveling by night, though, which is being eaten by something terrible or being dragged into a hellmouth. So there’s that.”

She waited for him to crack a smile, but none was forthcoming. Finally, she just raised her eyebrows.

“Oh. Great.”

He shrugged and unzipped his duffel to shift some things around. “Not really.”

Dru rolled her eyes and put on her backpack. He’d been distracted since he’d opened his eyes, which wasn’t what she’d been hoping for. With every piece of clothing he’d put on, he’d gotten a little more distant. She clung to the memory of how he’d touched her, how he’d held her like she was something precious to him. Uriel had warned her that Meresin might not have anything left to give. She found that she was worried more about the possibility that he did, but that he’d been this way so long he’d leave it buried out of fear. That if they got through this, she’d be bound to a man who would ensure she was alone for the rest of eternity.

“It’s so quiet out here,” she said, trying to distract herself. “I thought there would be grumpy dead people around.”

Meresin glanced up from fiddling with his duffel, arched one eyebrow, and pointed upward. Dru frowned in the direction he indicated and cringed. Every window was full of gray faces pressed against the glass and staring at them. Mouths moved soundlessly, and she was very glad she couldn’t hear the voices that belonged to them. Some faces were furious, some miserable, but all of them seemed like an excellent reason to get out of here as soon as possible.

“They look about one step away from being brain-eating zombies,” she said. “That is not okay.”

“They don’t like the living,” Meresin said as they headed off down the dirt road that she remembered led into terrifying blackness last night. Then his voice dropped to a murmur that was almost shy. “Especially when they have the audacity to enjoy themselves.”

Dru smiled to herself at the admission. It was a small thing, but she’d take it.

By dingy daylight, the road was as plain as everything else. Not a hundred yards past the final building, though, she saw an enormous seven-clawed footprint stamped into the dirt.

“You know, I think maybe I’d be a bitter almost-zombie if I had to live in a place like this, too,” she said, giving the footprint a wide berth.

“You would never have to be here,” Meresin said so forcefully that she flinched, startled.

“No?”

“No.”

She frowned. “How do you know? It’s not like I have my fate branded on my forehead in invisible letters. I hope.”

That, of all things, amused him. Meresin’s smile was small but genuine, and lent his eyes a hint of the warmth that she’d seen so much of last night. “No. Though it would probably make the Reapers’ job easier.”

“I don’t think I want to make their job easier,” she replied, feeling the odd prickle at the back of her neck that she always did when the soul collectors were brought up. Reapers had one job—to guide newly departed human souls to their eternal destinations. Dru had only ever met one, long ago, and he was personable enough, but they weren’t beings she cared to see. Maybe because it was a reminder that she wouldn’t cheat death forever. No one did.

“You didn’t answer my question,” she continued. “How do you know I won’t end up stuck here playing poker in some crap hotel? I’m no saint. I could go anywhere.”

His smile faded, and she wished there were more things in the world that might keep it there. After thinking a moment, he spoke. “The other night, when you were dying, what did you hear?”

It was a strange question, but he looked serious about wanting to know. “Well, I heard music,” she said, thinking back. She hadn’t dwelled on it—she hadn’t had much time to. But the sound of that wild, sweet song had stayed with her. She found herself smiling. “It was a song I remember hearing as a child, played on a pipe. I’d forgotten it, honestly. But that’s what I heard. And…” She trailed off. It was a little hard to talk around the lump in her throat, and she had dwelled a little on the voice she’d heard. No matter how many centuries passed, it was one she would never forget. Actually hearing it again, though, hurt in a way Dru had thought she’d moved past.

“You heard your mother.” Meresin’s mouth curved in a small, rueful smile. “Don’t act surprised. Most people hear their mothers calling them. It makes sense, if you think about it.”

“I guess,” Dru said quietly. It was odd, speaking with him about this when she hadn’t even had a chance to tell Justin about it. Then again, Meresin knew more about the infinite than she or her kind ever would. He might be a demon, but he’d walked in both light and darkness, and was as old as both. It was a sign of how long she’d lived that even with the arrival of angels and demons in her midst, it had never occurred to her to ask about the family she’d lost all those years ago. She’d simply gotten used to having only Justin, along with her makeshift family of friends.

“So…she’s there, then? Wherever there is.”

Dru didn’t understand the tension in his jaw, but he did answer her. “If she called you, then yes. She’s somewhere on that particular plane of existence, probably wondering occasionally why you like being on this one so much. But you’ll show up eventually. Everyone does. Knowing it seems to inspire a lot of peace. And gardening. You’ve never seen so many bloody gardens in every corner of this vast land—well, it’s infinite, really. But, hellfire. Humans die and suddenly they all want to grow things. I’ve never understood it.”

He sounded so disgruntled that she laughed. Imagining her mother gardening, gossiping, and waiting patiently for her slowpoke daughter soothed her in a way that most things wouldn’t have. But Meresin actually knew. It was strange to her, and her life had been pretty strange in its own right.

“That sounds nice,” she said with a nod, and meant it.

“If you like that sort of thing.”

“You don’t, I guess?” she asked.

“I have no family. No parents. No soul, for that matter. If I die, I’m dust. Why would it matter to me?”

That was it, in a nutshell. She wondered if he had any idea how much the tone of his voice, the set of his jaw gave away. He hated being alone. And she couldn’t even imagine what it must be like, watching two of his brothers be granted souls while he remained as he was. Dru didn’t like to think of him vanishing, simply ceasing to be. Knowing that she would go on, knowing what was waiting for her made death hard to fear. But he had none of that assurance. She couldn’t imagine, but she hurt for him. And she was afraid for him.

Hoping to ease the sudden tension, she said, “Well. I guess you didn’t have to deal with the horrors of growing tomatoes in Hell, at least.”

He didn’t seem to find that funny, instead hunching his shoulders. “Nothing grows in the wastes.”

“Oh. I’m…sorry.” Epic fail. She wished she hadn’t asked, even to tease. His time in Hell was still largely a mystery to her, though she appreciated that he’d told her as much as he had. She thought back to what he’d been moaning during his nightmare and wondered again how he’d been tricked so badly, how someone like Meresin could have ever considered Hell a good option. Each of the renegade Fallen in Terra Noctem had a story. Each had been marked for death and saved by Lucifer’s enigmatic serpent-shifter, Leviathan. Meresin had been tormented, but what had he done to deserve death?

I don’t want to go back in the dark. His words had sliced through her like the keen edge of a knife.

“You don’t need to be sorry. All I meant to say was that you’ll have family to guide you when your time comes. You won’t end up here.” He muttered the words and scuffed a foot through dry sand and pebbly stone. “Neither will my brothers, I’m sure.”

She didn’t know what to say to that. Raum and Phenex had…found souls? Been given them? She wasn’t exactly sure. But they were different now. There was a subtle light where there had been none before. Raum had regained his honor. Phenex had rediscovered his music. Both had been guided by love. Maybe it was too much to hope for Meresin to find whatever pieces were missing, too…but she no longer believed it was impossible. Even if he did.

“You could find what they have, Meresin. You never know,” she said.

“Yes I do.”

She considered him for a moment as he stalked along beside her. Then she moved closer and silently slipped her hand into his. His hand tensed, but he didn’t pull away. He slowed, though, and it took him a full minute to relax his hand in hers. Dru kept her expression neutral, unconcerned, and pretended she’d found something fascinating about the road ahead of them.

When he said nothing, but left his fingers threaded through hers, she smiled to herself.

He’s not a lost cause. And whatever he thinks, he’s not alone. Not anymore.

Chapter Sixteen

The river called Mnemosyne wound through Purgatory like a silver snake, shrouded in so much mist that it was almost impossible to see until you were about to stumble into it. When they set out in the morning, it was far enough off that it looked like nothing more or less than a cloud on the ground. By midday, though, Meresin could see the odd shapes that swirled through it. Human shapes. Angelic shapes.

Demonic shapes.

He had only remembered this place in his dreams. And, every time, he’d awakened in a cold sweat. The mists of Mnemosyne were full of regrets and a nightmare for anyone who found themselves in them. Meresin feared them more than Hell. Even before everything had changed at the forge, he had known he was making a mistake. By then, of course, it hadn’t mattered. He’d made a deal with the devil. In life, as in fiction, it wasn’t the sort of thing you just walked away from.

Maybe it was better that he wouldn’t have much more time to think about what he might see. Though he wished, too late, that he’d explained it a little better to Dru. He didn’t think his warnings had been strong enough.

“We’re being followed,” he said. “Don’t turn around.”

Her hand tightened in his, though her step never faltered. He glanced down at her hand, her fingers threaded through his. He should have felt sillier than he did, wandering through Purgatory holding hands with a beautiful vampire. They were no lovesick teenagers, and even if they had been, this wasn’t the place for romance. Still, he couldn’t quite bring himself to pull away. The feel of her skin against his helped him remember that last night hadn’t just been a dream.

The hunger she’d awakened in him seemed to have no limit. Some part of him had known this would happen if he got too close. Even before he’d given her his blood, they’d shared something unusual. Now, he didn’t know how to put even that much distance back between them, and it was likely too late anyway. He’d felt the first flickering of awareness that they weren’t alone several miles back. It had been intermittent at first. Now it was constant.

Whoever stalked them had seen Dru’s hand in his. She had just become as much a weapon as he was…but one that could only be used against him. That was his fault. A hard knot formed in the pit of his stomach.

“Where?” she asked.