hearts of fire Page 24

“And in the bad times?” she asked softly.

“I lived in a locked cage, suspended above a hellpit full of things worse than your darkest nightmares. They would stick their fingers, claws, tentacles inside to try to get at me sometimes. Others, I could just hear them breathing, very nearby. Still, it was slightly better than when they opened the cage. Torrin—the one who was chasing us into the mists—is an adept torturer. I was taught, time and time again, that doing anything but what I was told would have dire consequences. Sometimes I begged to die.” His smile was brittle. “Funny that I’m trying so hard to live these days, I guess.”

“You’re stronger than they are,” Dru said. She hurt for him, so badly. The hints he’d given her about his prior existence couldn’t hold a candle to the horrible reality. She wanted more than anything to hold him, to soothe away every hurt that had ever been given him. But he shrank from her when she tried to touch his arm.

“I’m not worth your pity, Dru. Or your love. You’d be better off treating this bond of ours as an unfortunate accident and moving on with your life, if we get that chance.”

She hated the self-loathing in his voice. “You’re worth so much more than you think, Meresin.”

His eyes flashed, his voice hardening. “Damn it, Dru, aren’t you listening? I tried to beg forgiveness from Heaven. I led an army of low demons into what was meant to be a siege of an angelic garrison—and instead of fighting, I killed my own soldiers. All of them! I’d spent a month in that hellpit not long before, and I knew, if they put me down there again, I would break. I flew to the borders of Heaven, and I begged to be let in. I tried to call on my brothers. On anyone. But there wasn’t a sound…not even when Lucifer came to get me himself.”

He looked so utterly defeated. No wonder he was so bitter, so angry. Still, she tried to see past the emotion and find anything that might give him some hope. He didn’t think he was worth anything, that much was sure.

“When you tried to call on your brothers in Heaven, was it like when you called Uriel?” she asked.

“No. I couldn’t…I couldn’t do it. It didn’t work.”

“But it worked on the beach. Meresin, Uriel was testing you for a reason. He was probably trying to prove you still had it in you. That you’re not lost!”

She didn’t really expect him to latch onto that, but his flash of anger surprised her.

“Damn Uriel and his tests! They mean nothing. He knows what happened that day. I’d done too much, hurt too many to go back, and this,” he snapped, holding up his hands crackling with lethal electricity, “was just the icing on the cake. I’m unforgivable, and both of us should just accept it, deal with it, and move on. Hanging onto these stupid what-ifs doesn’t do anyone any good.”

Dru fisted her hands at her sides, only barely resisting the urge to slap some sense into him. “Maybe the problem isn’t Uriel, or Heaven. Maybe you don’t get to think about being forgiven until you quit hating yourself.”

His laugh was a sharp, ugly bark that held no humor. “You said I don’t get to tell you how to feel. That applies both ways. All I want is relief from the storm, Dru. That’s all. I want to survive. I never asked for this.”

“This,” she said, the word twisting like a knife. “You mean me.”

He seemed to realize he’d hurt her, but she knew him too well to think he’d take it back. Instead, he stepped away and stared into the distance, anywhere but at her. “It wasn’t your fault, either. It was just an accident. But mistaking your pity for love does neither of us any good.”

“You ass,” she snapped, stung by what he’d said as much as what he hadn’t said. “I’m two thousand years old. Do you really think I’m that reckless? Or so stupid that I don’t understand the difference between love and pity? I made Caius. I loved him. It ended poorly. So not only did I decide that I wasn’t making any more vampires after that, I never took another vampire as a lover again, either.”

That appeared to give him pause. “Why?”

A simple question, but one that only Justin knew the answer to. And now, so would Meresin. “I may not carry the title of queen, but I didn’t avoid all the baggage that comes with that kind of power. Caius used me. There are plenty of other vamps who would do the same. I don’t want that hanging over a relationship, so I don’t have relationships. Humans are sweet, and fleeting, and it’s easy to make them forget you. This way, no one gets hurt. It seemed very simple, and it was.” She glared up at him. “It was simple until you showed up.”

Meresin considered her for what felt like a long time, an inscrutable expression on his face. At least this time, when he spoke, the heat had gone out of his voice, replaced by a weary curiosity.

“If you wanted simple, what possessed you to go anywhere near me?”

He looked so utterly wretched standing there that it was difficult not to go to him and put her arms around him. What held her back was knowing he wouldn’t accept it. Not even now, when they’d been as close as it was possible to be. She tried to come up with a good answer, but in the end, all she had was the truth.

“Because in all my life, I’ve never wanted anyone as much as I want you. I knew I was going to love you. And whether or not you believe it or accept it, I probably always will.”

He shuddered, and for a moment Dru thought she might actually get a genuine response, not just a defense. But when he dropped his eyes and hunched his broad shoulders, her heart sank.

“Let’s just go.” The light flickering around him had died down, replaced by what looked like bone-deep weariness. His wounded wing was no longer at quite such an odd angle, and his wounds had stopped bleeding. Even the bruise on his cheek appeared to be fading. Instinctively, she sought out the connection she had with him, using their blood bond because she wanted reassurance that he was all right. She needed to make him feel how much she cared about him, even if he couldn’t or wouldn’t return it.

“Don’t,” he said softly, in a tone that hurt more than a shout ever could have. “You need to be with someone who can give you more than a future that ends in dust. Who has a heart to give. I’m not that man.”

He picked up his battered duffel bag from the ground and walked off. Silently, Dru moved to join him. She was tired of fighting. All she wished for was a blanket to wrap herself in, and the comforts of home. Even her backpack would be nice, though it had vanished. But all she got was Meresin, such as he was—and at the moment, he was determined not to be much company. All around them, the mists whispered, and a clammy chill worked its way down her spine. If she focused too long at any one spot, faces would appear, figures of people she’d known long ago. Things left undone with mortals who had been gone for ages. None, however, came close to affecting her like Caius had. And she worried that if she thought about him too much, he would simply return.

“Be gone,” she heard Meresin whisper beside her, and she swiveled her head just in time to catch sight of a breathtakingly beautiful angel with darkness in his eyes stalk back into the mist and vanish, but not before casting a knowing smirk over his shoulder.

“You’ll have everything you ever wanted,” the angel said, then dissipated.

“Who was—”

“Lucifer,” he said, not even waiting for her to finish. “Here, I see the mist thinning out ahead. We’re not far from the foot of the mountain.”

They emerged into the dingy light, wisps of mist clinging to them like reaching claws. “I can’t fly yet with my wing,” he said. “We may be able to make it by nightfall on foot. It’s going to be close. But there’s a path.”

He could have been talking to a stranger, not the woman he’d given his virginity to just last night.

“Is your wing going to be all right?” she asked.

“Mmm,” he said. “I fell on it. It’s healing.”

She sighed inwardly, wishing he would tell her where the claw marks came from, knowing he wouldn’t. That subject, like many others, appeared to be closed. He’d been right about one thing—if she’d wanted simple, she should have run in the other direction the first time she’d seen him.

And if she’d wanted a true partner, she should have done the same thing.

Dru shoved aside the self-pity, knowing it would be back with reinforcements later. If nothing else, it was good to know that even now, she still had a heart to give. Even if no one wanted it.

His hand brushed hers, an accident that made her entire body sigh before he moved away, eyes downcast. She did love him. Her encounter with her memories of Caius had brought that home in a way nothing else could have.

He was worth fighting for. She just wished he understood that about himself.

Weary, heartsick, and homesick, she steeled herself for another sundown and whatever it might bring. Together, she and Meresin headed for the mountain, and whatever waited for them there.

Chapter Eighteen

They reached the forge just as night was falling, black as pitch. Up here, even the lights burning in the windows of the simple cottage and the forge itself did little to beat back the encroaching darkness.

“Come on,” Meresin said. “Hopefully he’ll let us inside, at least.” They were the first words he’d said to Dru in more than an hour, and he wasn’t surprised when she didn’t answer. She’d laid her heart bare…and he’d brushed it off with as little commentary as possible. He’d seen the hurt in her eyes, though, and knowing he’d put it there had been like a thorn in his boot all the way up this mountain. It was a constant, sharp pain, impossible to ignore. But unlike a thorn, there would be no dislodging Dru from his thoughts. I love you. His heart pounded even at the memory of it. What did she expect him to say? He had nothing to give her. And the damned woman refused to take her words back. So he guessed she would just keep loving him. Whether he liked it or not.

Which sounded like something she would do.

Far below, strange things moved about the plains, making the ground shake occasionally and sending small rocks raining down over the edge of the cliff upon which Amriel had built his home. It was odd after all this time, that he remembered this place so vividly. Though at least this time he was here trying to do the right thing. The last time, everything had seemed far more ominous. And he’d been terrified.

Amriel’s home had a sort of ramshackle charm. It was one story, more of a cottage than anything, and stuck out like a sore thumb because of its color—it was a bright sky blue with lemon-yellow shutters, the colors of a summer sky. The forge was housed in a sprawling wooden building with a stone chimney emerging from the middle of the roof. Bits of copper and other metals jutted from the roof as well, devices to catch the elements so that Amriel could bind them to the weapons he made. Up here was the only place in Purgatory where actual weather occurred. It was because Amriel knew how to call and use it.

Just how that knowledge had come to him was a secret that the forgemaster wasn’t inclined to share. And since his weapons were in high demand on both sides of the eternal battle, no one pressed him on it.

Meresin’s memories of the man slowed his steps as he approached the door. He’d come all this way, and he had no idea how to ask for what he needed. Amriel was notoriously sensitive about his work. Sensitive and strange. And though Meresin remembered the house and forge, his memories of the forgemaster were far foggier. He remembered a gruff voice. A beard. Warnings.

“I can do what you ask, Lucifer. But I don’t think you’re going to get what you want.” He’d looked at Meresin then, young and terrified because he’d already come too far. “You sure about this? It’s your hide.” Then Lucifer had drawn his sword, and the threats he’d issued had caused the forgemaster to keep the rest of his advice and opinions to himself.

“Are you supposed to knock?”

He turned to watch Dru approaching, her long, platinum hair coiling around her shoulders. Considering how determined he’d been to convince her that their bond could never be anything more than an inconvenience, he was awfully eager to have her close. Seeing her in another lover’s arms had done something to him. Even hearing his own name on her lips, watching her banish the memory of the other man she’d given her heart to, he’d felt a white-hot rage that he’d only barely been able to control. A single word had risen in his mind, and it lodged there: mine.

He knew her mother would be waiting to welcome Dru one day with baskets of tomatoes and green things galore. And love. Dru had a family, and a future, in this world and the next. What could he add but a layer of despair? Even without his lightning, he would be a pissed-off loner with a laundry list of complexes. Well, with luck, they’d find out what she thought of that soon enough. She was so stubborn, it would go easier if she made the decision to walk away herself. And then he could have all the soulless alone time he wanted. Which sounded…terrible, actually.

“Fuck,” he muttered.

“That’s kind of uncalled for.” Her tone was sarcastic, but as she stepped closer, he could see the concern in her eyes. She was the only one who ever looked at him that way. He remembered the feel of her hands stroking his hair, soothing him back to sleep in the night. But she didn’t know why he’d awakened…it hadn’t been because of a nightmare. For once, he’d slept in peace. No, he’d startled awake because of the strange, wonderful sensation of having his arms around her. It was the first time in memory he hadn’t felt all alone.

Dru walked toward him, hugging herself and watching him with a puzzled expression. What did his face give away? He didn’t want to know. But the closer she got, the more everything inside him went still.