hearts of fire Page 22

“Not far behind us. If you looked, you might only see a shadow. But they’re there.”

“Damn it,” she whispered. Her tension flowed out of her and through him, humming through the place where their skin touched. “If we make a run for it—”

“Soon. Stay calm.”

It was odd to be the one saying it, but right now, he was completely in control of himself. Maybe it was just his relief that the confrontation he’d been dreading was imminent. More likely it was the woman beside him. After last night, the connection to her only had grown stronger. Was it because she’d had her teeth in him? That was considered the height of intimacy for vampires. Whatever it was, he was centered in a way that was rare for him. Collected in the way Dru always seemed to be. Focused, the way Dru—

His eyes widened as he understood what, exactly, he was feeling. “What are you doing?”

“Trying to stay calm and think about what we need to do. Why?”

He could feel her heartbeat, slow and steady, setting the rhythm for his own.

“Stop that!” he hissed.

Her voice was peevish. “Why? You want me to freak out? You just told me to stay calm! Which is interesting, coming from you.”

“No! I just…never mind.”

He could see her incredulous expression out of the corner of his eye.

“You’re being weird, even for you, Meresin. Can we concentrate on the important things right now? Like getting away?”

It was obvious she didn’t understand, which was all the more frustrating. Using the effect she had on him was one thing. Needing it, depending on it even when he didn’t realize he was drawing from her energy, was another. At this rate, he was never going to really be free. He pulled his hand from hers with a stiff little jerk, but it didn’t help. All he felt was a twinge of misery at the loss of her touch.

There was a sudden breeze, unnatural for this place, and on it was soft, unearthly laughter. Dru’s gaze burned into him, but he kept his eyes ahead. The mists were coming up fast. A mocking voice drifted to him.

“Meresinnnnnnn…I see you…”

He could feel Dru tense beside him. “Was that…real? Or was it just the mist?”

“No,” he replied. “It’s real.”

The voice was one he knew well. Of course they’d send Torrin. Why not? His fellow demon lord was the architect of so many of his nightmares. And Meresin’s old jailer would no doubt have been thrilled to come. Torrin was the master of the hellpits, and if he could be said to love anything, it was his work. Meresin had only lashed out at him once, the first time he’d been punished for disobeying, and he’d quickly been taught that he was never to do that again.

“I’m going to pick you up in a minute,” Meresin said. “We need to get into the mist. Whatever happens, we have to get in there. If we get separated for any reason, mind your steps. You don’t want to end up in the water. Pick a spot, stay still, and I’ll find you.”

“Okay.” He could hear the steel in her voice, so different from the light, teasing tone she often took with him. This was the fighter underneath. He tried to be glad of it, glad of the bone-deep determination that flowed off her and through him. Instead, he thought of Torrin’s greedy eyes on her, and of some of the things he had heard the demon lord brag about doing to the unfortunates assigned to the pits.

Just like that, it wasn’t about him anymore. It was the first time he’d been truly afraid for someone other than himself. Ever. And it was like getting kicked in the gut. Weakness. He was disgusted with himself. But it was the price he had paid for saving her, and he was going to have to find a way to deal with it. Quickly, he tried to give Dru instructions.

“Whatever you see, don’t believe. None of it is real. It’s just memory,” he said. “And this place brings out the dark things from the past.”

“Got it.”

“Will you both fit in your cage? I bet you will, once I cut your wings off.”

Meresin fought back a shudder at Torrin’s taunt.

“Speaking of dark things,” Dru said quickly, “can anything in there hurt us?”

“Only if you think they can.” He didn’t have time to give her much in the way of guidance. It had been so long since he’d come here that he wasn’t exactly sure what to expect himself. Still, Dru could fight. He just hoped she could fight hard enough.

“You’re going to see things, hear things from your past, Dru. Probably painful things. If you don’t focus on what you know is real, you’ll lose yourself. Remember me, and why we’re here.” He hesitated. “Remember last night. Can you do that?”

She nodded, but he found it wasn’t enough.

“Promise me,” he said. Somehow, it was vitally important that she not forget him. It was the most important thing, which made no sense. But he didn’t have any time to think his reaction through.

“I promise,” she said, and though she sounded serious, he could tell she didn’t yet grasp how difficult her time in the mists would be. But then, no one ever did. “Why are they following us?” she asked. “Why are they hunting you?”

“Because Lucifer told them to, I expect. But even more simply, because they want to. And because they can. Now get ready. Set. Now.”

He yanked her against him and leaped, rocketing upward with a single flap of his powerful wings even as he gathered her in his arms and held her close. Torrin’s haunting laughter echoed behind him as he gave chase. In the skies, though, Meresin would always have the advantage. It was what he’d known all his life. He arced and plunged downward, banking steeply right when he heard the rustle of wings just behind him. Too late, he realized that Dru was slowing him more than he’d expected. He’d never carried anyone and hadn’t realized what it would mean to his speed.

There was a whistle to the side of his head, and bright pain bloomed along the back of one of his wings. Torrin’s voice might be mocking, but his purpose was deadly serious. He really meant to cut off his wings…again. That was one way of ensuring he returned to Hell, but the sensation was an agony he had no intention of repeating.

His pain fueled his fury, but for once, he managed to keep it in check. If he lashed out, he might hurt Dru. It would be better to get away—if Torrin even dared to chase them into the mists, he would soon be lost in his own private Hell. The demon would be as susceptible to the dark power there as anyone. And alone, Torrin would fall far more easily. Demons only went through in groups, with good reason.

He only had Dru. He just hoped that was enough to save them both.

Meresin hissed in a breath and pushed himself harder. The wall of mist was just ahead, the whitish tendrils beckoning. Even now, he could hear the whispers calling them. Some of the voices, he recognized. They were still preferable to the one behind him.

“Where’s your lightning, you little bitch? You haven’t made it to Amriel yet, and guess what? He can’t help you! Accept what’s coming to you, freak. Fight back!”

It was one of Torrin’s favorite things, prisoners who fought him. All the better to punish them afterward. So many of Meresin’s old instincts clamored for him to drop Dru, to turn and face Torrin head-on. She’d be fine…she was a vampire, broken bones healed quickly, the old, familiar voice cajoled. She would live, and he could get the kill he’d imagined so many times. The revenge.

He had begun to loosen his grip when the image of Dru’s face rose in his mind, the same as it was on the night she’d nearly died. He remembered the life ebbing from her, the way she’d gone limp in his arms. For just a moment, he was back beside the church, struggling with the decision of whether or not to let her go. And then the Reaper had been standing beside him, with eyes that said, “Well?” He hadn’t told her that. He hadn’t wanted to talk about it…or how the sight of that Reaper had made him feel.

His arms tightened reflexively around Dru just as there was another flash of pain across his wing. He sucked in a breath and snapped back to himself, finally seeing the first sinuous tendrils of mist swirling around them. No wonder his head was filling with unpleasant memories. He tried to concentrate on the present, though he could feel the past thickening the air around him. Behind him, Torrin gave a furious roar and managed to get in one more blow before falling back. Even as his old jailer gave up the chase, Meresin faltered, dropping quickly from the sky and losing all sense of his surroundings.

Dru went completely limp in his arms, and he couldn’t hang on. There were voices…so many voices. He was sliding back into the past as she fell from his arms into the mist.

Chapter Seventeen

When she opened her eyes, she was alone.

Dru gasped and sat up quickly, feeling the faint ache that meant her bones had recently knitted themselves together. Again. She inspected herself, saw nothing amiss apart from a spot of blood on the ragged fringe of her jean shorts. It was a relief to find herself okay. The relief faded quickly, however, replaced by slow, creeping dread.

She was in the mists. And she was alone.

Soft, pale gray grass spread out beneath her, and she could hear water running somewhere nearby. A river? There was something familiar about the sound of it that danced just out of her reach. It was hard to get her thoughts together, so instead she let her eyes wander. Just grass and mist, and no color at all. It was almost pretty. Almost. A sense of dread hung over this place, though, an oppressive misery that made it hard to move. Every step was like wading through molasses. She just wanted to sit down. Think. Remember…

Worry unfurled deep in her belly. She tested her memory: Meresin, the wild trip to Purgatory, making love last night…it was all still in her head. She sighed, grateful, and began to move. Maybe this wouldn’t be as bad as Meresin had warned. He’d told her to stay put, but after a few minutes of restless pacing, she decided to investigate a slightly larger space. She would hear him, after all. It was so quiet here.

It was the worst sort of quiet she’d ever had to experience. She couldn’t shake the feeling that something was listening. Then, ever so faintly, she heard the sound of Meresin’s voice.

“I was wrong! I want to come back, I… If they catch me, they’ll kill me. Please! Why aren’t you listening to me?” His voice was anguished, and the pain in it echoed deep in her own chest. She headed toward the sound, glad to have a direction. Though when his voice came again, it seemed to be coming from an entirely different location.

“I killed them all. I killed them so I could come back. I know I should never have gone, but I can still fight…I can fight better than I ever could before. Please! Open the gates!”

“Meresin?” she called, her caution vanishing as his voice rose. Where did he think he was? Somehow, though, she knew. In his mind, she would bet he was shouting at Heaven’s gates, and he wasn’t being allowed back in. Had that happened? Was this why he was so certain he couldn’t be redeemed? Most likely, but she also thought he might have missed one simple thing she’d seen with his brothers whose wings had turned back. Redemption had entailed something much more personal, and much more difficult than simply asking for it.

There was a tormented shout. “No! I don’t want to go back in the dark!” It was the same thing he’d said during his terrible nightmare last night. And then…silence. Fear welled in her throat. Had he been hurt? He had told her nothing could hurt you here unless you believed it.

She’d heard no doubt in his voice just now.

“Meresin!” She spun in a circle, hoping for some clue about the direction she needed to go. But everything looked the same, grass and mist and nothingness. Then a voice sounded right behind her.

“Dru?”

She went still. She hadn’t heard that voice in two thousand years, but she still knew it as well as her own. You didn’t forget your first—your only—love.

Slowly, she pivoted, all her questions swept away in her sudden, overwhelming need to see his face. For an instant, she was sure he couldn’t be there. He’d died. She’d killed him. And in that moment, the memory of it was sharp, piercing—the way it had been during the years immediately after it had happened.

Yet still, somehow, he was just…there.

“Caius,” she said. He smiled. It was brilliant smile, the kind that lit up his entire face. She’d always been powerless before it. Although it had taken her a long time to figure out what had been hiding behind it. Even now, the pleasure at seeing him twisted like a knife in her heart.

Like the knife she’d driven into his heart.

“Dru,” he said again, and his voice was as warm as the golden glint of his hair. He wore a simple toga, one that still showcased the muscular body beneath. She’d known that body as well as her own, once. Oddly, it did nothing for her now. There was only sadness. He’d had so much promise. And all the destruction he’d caused…all her fault for not knowing. Not understanding what he truly was.

A monster.

“You’re dead,” she said, her voice barely a whisper as she faced him. His eyes glinted with humor, so at odds with the sick feeling in the pit of her stomach.

“Do I look dead to you?” he asked. “I’ve been waiting.”

He stepped forward, and her legs refused to move. Shapes swirled around the two of them, ghostlike…but he seemed so solid. She let her eyes move over the birthmark on his shoulder, the slight cowlick at the crown of his head. The beloved cleft in his chin. Little things, familiar things. And his chest, which she had last seen as a bloody ruin, was intact. Could it be? She didn’t want to believe it. It was impossible.