hearts of fire Page 25

I love you, her voice whispered through his head. I probably always will.

The door in front of him opened before he could even begin to grapple with the strange, fiercely possessive feeling that surged through him…and there, frowning at him with resignation, was Amriel.

He had once been an angel, some said, though Meresin had never seen any real proof of it. Others said Amriel had been made just as he was, one black wing, one white, and placed at the forge from the beginning. What was certain was that he was as tall and broad as the strongest angels and demons, with a young face, wild, curly hair, and a beard that disguised whatever beauty he might possess. He wore no shirt, only a pair of loose-fitting black breeches and tall boots, and unlike his supposed brethren, his skin was as warm as the fires he stoked.

“You,” he said simply, his voice gruff. “I knew you’d be back one day.”

He didn’t look happy about it, either. Meresin wasn’t quite sure what to say, so they just stood there for a long moment, staring at each other. Amriel’s dark eyes, the blue of the midnight sky on earth, glittered. Finally, the forgemaster spoke again.

“I can’t help you. What is made can’t be unmade. Not here. Now go bother someone else, demon.”

He started to shut the door, but before Meresin could think better of it, he slammed it back open with his hand and leaned in to glare at Amriel.

“I’m no demon anymore. And I know you can help me, or I wouldn’t have been sent here.”

Amriel’s eyebrows lifted, not at all intimidated. “Not a demon? Your wings say otherwise.”

“I…left Hell. Two years ago.”

Amriel glanced behind him. “And took up with vampires, I see. Interesting choice.”

“My only choice, if I wanted to live,” Meresin said curtly. “I didn’t want this. You knew I didn’t, but you helped Lucifer anyway. You owe me this.”

Amriel burst out laughing, though there was a hard glint in his eyes. “Do I? You know what I remember? A frightened boy who didn’t know what he wanted. Who was waiting for someone to tell him what he wanted. Well, you got that in spades. And if you think I was going to risk my forge in a fight with your master, the lightning’s gone to your brain. That night, I chose to keep my forge. I chose wisely. You didn’t.”

Meresin’s cheeks heated. Was that really how he’d seemed back then? He knew that it was. And that he couldn’t change what had been.

“I was the Angel of Storms,” Meresin said quietly. “I screwed up. Badly. I’ve spent thousands of years paying for it, too. But the power you gave me is going to kill me if I don’t do something. Please. Please, Amriel.” It was, he realized, the first time he’d admitted his failing without anger or resentment. He was just stating the truth. A weight lifted from him, letting him breathe easier. A soft breeze picked up and ruffled his hair, smelling of a far-off ocean. He tilted his head into it without thinking, and all his remaining anger over his fate melted away.

“I deserve another chance,” he said, and something that had hardened deep inside of him cracked and crumbled.

“And why’s that?” Amriel asked. “You betrayed your kind. You’re a traitor. If you’re telling me right, you’re a traitor twice over now.”

“Because he’s proven himself loyal and brave. Because he belongs with my people. And because no matter what he used to be, he’s loved.” Dru’s voice sounded strong and clear behind him. It bolstered him more than he could have imagined to see her facing down Amriel like the warrior she was, chin up with a fierce glare. “Uriel sent him here for a reason,” she said. “I don’t think it was to have you slam a door in his face. You’re too skilled not to know how to undo this.”

“Well.” Amriel breathed out heavily, tension in the lines of his broad shoulders. “Uriel sent you. And this is your mate, to top it off. You could have mentioned that.”

“Would it have made a difference?” Meresin asked.

Amriel shrugged. “You never know. Information helps.”

“Then you should also know that Lucifer knows we’re here. A pair of demons chased us into the mists by the Mnemosyne.”

Amriel blanched. “Damn. I hate it when they come here. All right, boy. All right. I’ll see what I can do. The forge is already hot.”

“You can help me then?” Meresin said, hardly able to believe it. This hadn’t been for nothing. He wouldn’t just end, the way he’d always feared.

There was the briefest hesitation, something odd that flickered in the depths of Amriel’s eyes. It made the hair at the back of Meresin’s neck prickle, though he chalked it up to nerves. Gaining the lightning had been excruciating. Removing it, if that’s what Amriel planned, would be at least as bad.

“It won’t be easy. But almost anything done can be undone. Even you.”

“And the price?” Meresin asked, though he almost hated to hear the answer.

“I ask nothing,” he said. “This should never have been done. Sometimes righting a wrong is payment enough. Now then…”

He stalked past Meresin toward the squat building, and now there was indeed smoke coming from the chimney. Meresin simply stared after him, waiting for some catch, some demand. But there was nothing. Just Amriel stalking into the forge.

“Wow,” Dru said softly, perfectly capturing his own feeling in a single word. He felt himself stretching out, reaching for her in the way that only the two of them could share. There was a brief, sweet instant of connection, and he heard Dru’s indrawn breath. She closed her eyes. Then he sensed her pushing back, pulling away with all the control he’d once had over his own power until he was alone again. Somehow, after having brushed against her essence and been denied, the solitude was even worse than before.

“This is it, then,” she said, not acknowledging what had just happened. “We made it.”

“We did,” he said. Hellfire, she was beautiful there in the dark, like some goddess of the moon. He waited for her to come to him, the way she had each time before. But she kept her distance, no matter how he silently willed her closer. He flexed his wings, frustrated. But unlike so many other times, the storm he carried within didn’t ignite into fury.

It was strange that with the anger gone, there was only confusion in the space it left behind. He wasn’t sure why everything inside had quieted. All the wild power he’d ridden on for millennia was now simply waiting. And so was Dru. He just didn’t know what they were waiting for.

“Did you mean what you said?” she asked. Meresin frowned, unsure of what she was asking at first.

“Mean what?”

“That you deserve a second chance,” she replied. “I hope you did. Because you do.”

He gazed down at her, unexpectedly touched. “Dru—”

“I’m not saying that just because of how I feel about you,” she said hurriedly, interrupting him. “I want you to know that. Whatever happens, you do deserve more than what you’ve had, Meresin. And there are a lot more people who care what happens to you than you think.”

He snorted. “Name three. Besides yourself.”

She tilted her head and tucked a lock of hair behind her ear. “Levi. Murmur. And Uriel.”

“The Uriel who tried to kill me? The Uriel who said I needed to come here or be hunted down and destroyed?”

“The Uriel who showed you that you still know how to connect with your angelic side. Even if it was under duress. The same one who forced you to help yourself because that’s the only way you’ll do anything.”

He paused. She had a point, he guessed. It had even felt good to be able to call out to the light again. And it was very likely he never would have made it here if the decision had been his alone. Still…

“Dru, before I fell, I went to Uriel and asked for help. I loved the skies that were my duty, but I hated the solitude. But he wouldn’t hear of making changes. I would do what I was made for, he said, and I would get used to it. Not unkind, exactly, but unbending. All he sees are rules, all he cares about is order. He made his judgment about me a long time ago, and he isn’t going to change it.”

She was shaking her head at him by the time he finished, and he couldn’t understand why until she spoke, her voice touched with bemusement.

“Not breaking rules, huh? This is the same archangel who runs herd on a group of fallen angels turned mercenary, right? The one who visits vampires now, and bends rules left and right to make sure you and your friends don’t wreck earth while you’re saving it? He took a very personal interest in a couple of redemption stories, too. So I don’t know, but I think the Uriel you knew way back when might have changed some in the meantime. You did.”

He stared at her, unsure of what to say. He just hadn’t considered it that way. Of course, he’d been busy hating Uriel, along with basically everyone else. His own views had become just as rigid as the ones he’d once railed against. It wasn’t a picture of himself he cared much for.

“If his opinion of me had changed, he would have said so,” he protested. It sounded weak to his own ears, though, and Dru seemed to know it.

“No, because he’s as big a hardhead as the rest of you sometimes. But he shows he cares without saying it, in his own high-handed, angelic way. And you’re not that easy to deal with, anyway.”

Meresin considered that, then pushed it away. It made some sense, but he had no time to deal with these things right now. Maybe after, if there was an after. But if Dru was right, it changed things. He didn’t quite know how, but it did.

“Maybe I’ll talk to him,” he finally conceded. “After.”

“Fair enough,” she replied. For a moment, it seemed she might step into his arms, the way she’d done that night at the church. He found himself wishing for it. If she was right about Uriel, then everything he’d assumed all this time might be wrong. Maybe he had a shot at being more than dust eventually. The possibilities, which he’d long believed off-limits to him, were so overwhelming he didn’t know where to begin.

Then he looked up to find Dru watching him with wistful affection before stepping away, and he knew exactly where he would start if he was given the chance.

“Come on,” he said, curling his fingers into his palms so he didn’t reach for her. But when she gave him a small, nervous smile and a nod, he let himself relent. Before she could do more than squeak, he’d dragged her into his arms and crushed her to him, burying his face in her hair and allowing himself the simple pleasure of holding her. She stiffened, then relaxed into his touch.

This… He breathed in her scent, feeling her heart beat in time with his. This was all I really wanted. The feeling was refreshingly new, as were the words he was compelled to say to her.

“Thank you,” he said. “Thank you for helping me, Dru.”

She gave him a squeeze. “Well, you’re welcome. I’m not sure I did much.”

She couldn’t possibly know how much she had given him. And he thought he might actually tell her, if the stars aligned correctly. For now, he settled for understatement. “You’ve done plenty,” he said, brushing her hair away from her face, then skimming the backs of his knuckles down her jawline. “You’re the only vampire I know who would have come this far.” He smiled. “Or put up with so much.”

She tipped her head to one side. “I’m pretty special that way,” she said, her mouth quirking into a small smile that quickly vanished. “We should do this. I’m actually terrified, so before one of us loses our nerve…”

He nodded, reluctantly letting her go.

“All right,” he said. “Let’s see what Amriel can do.” Then he headed toward both the forge and his future—whatever that might be.

Chapter Nineteen

Amriel watched them come, stepping aside so they could enter the hot and glowing room lined with racks of weapons of the sort that humanity could only imagine. Meresin stepped inside first, and immediately his chest constricted. He remembered this place. The heat. The straps around his wrists and the one in his mouth to bite down on. One of his hands shook, and he grabbed it with the other one, hoping it wasn’t noticeable. Fire danced in the forge itself at the center of the room. Already, sweat had beaded on his brow.

Only Amriel was at home here, his eyes picking up the red glow of the fire. He looked very nearly demonic.

Dru stepped in behind Meresin, and Amriel shut the door. Meresin heard the bolt slide home with a neat little snick, locking them in.

“I don’t think that’s necessary,” he said, hoping his voice wasn’t as shaky as he felt. His senses, his instincts had all gone haywire in here. Everything in him screamed to run as far away as possible, and gooseflesh prickled over every inch of his skin. He had to force himself to be still. A glance at Dru told him that even she was uneasy. But then, she had good reason. This was not a place that had been meant for mortals, or even former mortals.

Purgatory was a land of the dead. And what had happened to Meresin, what would happen to him, were the sorts of things only seen in the wildest nightmares in the human realm.

Amriel’s suspicion seemed to have eased, and the man was almost relaxed as he went to drag a long wooden table out from the wall. It was scarred and ancient, fitted with leather straps that still looked new. Of course, from everything Meresin had heard, they hadn’t been used since…him.

“The lock,” Amriel said, “is because you said you have demons after you. It’s not an ordinary lock, and I don’t want to be interrupted. They’d break it eventually, but it buys us time. In case.”