hearts of fire Page 26

“Ah.” Meresin shifted nervously. This whole place filled with echoes from his past.

“Tie the straps tight! I don’t want him changing his mind before we’re done. Are you ready for glory, Meresin? You’re going to suffer horribly, but just think…so much power at your fingertips.”

Sweat dripped down his face, not all of it from the heat.

“You kept the table,” he said, hating the silence. Dru had moved a short ways away, staring wide-eyed at the array of weaponry Amriel had created. Some blades shone with the light of fire, or the pale glow of ice. A handful crackled with the lightning he carried within himself.

“I don’t get rid of things, boy. You never know when you’ll need them again. And like I said before, I knew you’d be back one day.”

Meresin frowned, and a wave of nausea passed through him. “But…you weren’t going to help me.”

Amriel snorted. “Bull. I needed to see how badly you wanted it. I needed to be sure you had the right reasons. I may not align myself with the dark or the light, but I have my own sort of code.” He flipped open the straps, the forge light dancing in his eyes.

“Come on. We’ll undo it the way we did it. I’ll separate you and the element, and you’ll be on your way. Good as new.”

“It can’t be that easy.” Dru moved to stand beside him, the comforting brush of her hand against his forearm. “If it were that easy, he would have been sent here when he first left Hell. Uriel was concerned he wouldn’t make it. You make it sound like nothing.”

Amriel’s eyes narrowed, and his voice took on a strange, cultured tone. “It’s hardly nothing. It might have occurred to you, little vampire, that your mate is terrified. Why should I make it harder for him to do what needs to be done? Do you want me to tell him what this will feel like?”

She arched an eyebrow and blinked at the forgemaster, visibly startled.

“Maybe he should know,” she finally said.

“And maybe you should do your job, and let me do mine. Keep him awake and stable. You’re blood-bonded. I can smell it on you. So use it to keep him calm. I don’t want any of us electrocuted, and you can see how much metal is in here.” Dru nodded silently, still staring strangely at Amriel. The forgemaster, however, turned his attention to Meresin again.

“Come on. The table. You remember.”

He did. Meresin stepped tentatively toward it. As he stared at it, the table seemed to grow bigger, until it was all he could see. His breath caught, and his heart pounded. A soft sound drew his attention, and when he glanced up, he caught the briefest flicker across Amriel’s face—an expression, an emotion he knew as well as his own.

“Hellfire,” he growled. “Dru, it’s a trap! Run!”

Amriel’s lips split in a grin as Dru vanished in a blur, moving away with all the preternatural speed of her kind. Meresin tried to summon his lightning, but it was slower than it should have been. Though the power flowed through his veins and rose to the surface, it packed none of its usual punch. He sucked in shallow sips of air and understood what the difference was. It wasn’t fear for himself—that was something so normal during his years in Hell he’d grown accustomed to it. No, this was terror for Dru. He could see the flicker of her shape dashing from place to place in the forge, trying to find a way out. Meresin reached back and drew his sword.

Amriel laughed, and as he did his skin vibrated, becoming blurry until it separated from him and vanished. When the laughter stopped, it wasn’t Amriel looking back at him.

“Lucifer,” Meresin said. Now he understood the oppressive power thrumming through the room, the reason his instincts had been screaming at him to run. Some part of him had known. The confrontation had always been inevitable.

But tonight, the risk in losing was higher than he could have imagined.

“You should have gotten on the table like a good little minion,” Lucifer said with a lazy smile. “But you never were. We’ll do this the hard way, then. Amriel did warn me. I watched him fold the lightning into you as he would with a blade. Do you remember? Probably not. He called it down, and it went right to you. It was why I chose you…the lightning recognized its kin. How you screamed as it bound itself to your body.”

“What did you do with Amriel?” Meresin snapped. “Why are you here?”

The golden King of Hell sighed and drew a beautiful sword from between his own wings. Lucifer was just the same as Meresin remembered him, the most beautiful being Above or Below until you saw the abyss in his eyes. To look too long would drive even one of his Fallen brothers mad.

“It’s good to see you, you know,” Lucifer said, his warm tone at complete odds with the blade he was now brandishing. “I don’t like to lose things. You were like an ill-behaved dog that’s always jumping the fence, Meresin. An unauthorized trip to the wastes here, an ill-planned campaign there.” His eyes hardened. “A little side trip to Heaven to go with your wholesale slaughter of a valuable piece of my army. Even the most treasured pets can become too much trouble after a while.” Lucifer glanced at where Dru was trying desperately to unlatch a dead bolt. “And you never know what sort of trash they’ve been rolling in.”

Meresin was painfully aware of Dru’s rapidly beating heart and shallow, sobbing breaths. Brave as she was, even an ancient vampire couldn’t do more than stand before Lucifer and tremble. He noted where she headed once she gave the dead bolt up as a lost cause, though—for the daggers scattered across a workbench on the far side of the room. Even in her terror, she would arm herself and fight to the end.

Thinking about it took the wind out of him. She could have at least been at home, surrounded by those who loved her, if he had to die. Instead, she was here, scared, in this forsaken place. At the mercy of demons.

“If you want to destroy me, you’ll have to fight to do it,” Meresin said.

“That’s gratitude for you.” Lucifer’s voice was faintly mocking, his smile that of someone who was being unfairly judged but was trying to be understanding about it. “You should be thanking me for the extra time you’ve had. I could have just killed you, you know. I considered it. Pretty seriously. By the way, did you know I’m the one who gave that ridiculous piece of shit vampire the fire sword? Made a special trip to earth just to hand it off personally. My spies seemed to think you were on the edge of a complete breakdown, so I figured, why not? But instead of dying, you did something interesting.” He laughed softly. “I have to admit, I didn’t see the mate thing coming.” He clucked his tongue. “Stupid move on your part. And then to find out that Uriel had been butting his nose in, trying to push the poor lost Fallen to better himself, well, I realized I wasn’t thinking big enough. He’s much too attached to you losers.”

“He’s not attached to me,” Meresin said, beginning to understand where this was heading. The invisible vise returned to clamp around his chest, squeezing the air out of it. He’d been used for so long to inflict pain. He’d allowed it. He’d deserved it, at least for a time. But now, when he had finally begun to drag himself out of the quagmire of his past, he would be pulled back down anyway. He would never be allowed to atone. He would pay, and others would pay, for his greatest mistake until he no longer drew breath.

“Uriel has nothing to do with this,” Meresin said, trying to keep the frantic note out of his voice. “I came to ask Amriel—”

“I know,” Lucifer interjected flatly. “You want all the power gone. Well, you don’t get to give gifts back, Meresin, and your lightning was a gift from me. You were the Angel of Storms, made from the thunder and lightning itself. In time, you might even have acquired some of this power yourself. You were…and are…very young. Instead, you got everything all at once, without having to work for it. You should have been perfect. And you’re this instead.” He shook his head in disgust. “I don’t like that Amriel was right about it. Almost as little as Amriel likes being pinned to the wall with his own weaponry.”

He jerked his head to indicate a dark shape slumped among the swords and shields on the far side of the forge. Meresin hadn’t noticed it before, but that was no doubt by design. Lucifer was a master of deception. Now, though, he could see the true Amriel, barely conscious and pinned firmly to the wall with a variety of sharp implements.

Apparently, even the famed forgemaster’s neutrality hadn’t kept him safe this time.

“What do you mean, I’m this?” Meresin asked. “You knew I would be unstable. I remember now…I remember Amriel trying to warn you that you wouldn’t get what you wanted from me.”

“Wrong. I’m getting exactly what I want from you,” Lucifer said. “Torrin. Hold the woman.”

“No!” Meresin shouted, but Torrin materialized from the shadows in the blink of an eye and placed a dagger to Dru’s throat. The one in her hand clattered to the floor when the torturer hissed at her to drop it.

Meresin locked eyes with Dru. Hers were large and frightened, and in his chest he could feel the wild gallop of her heart. He wanted to soothe it, but he couldn’t even soothe his own.

“I’ll kill you,” Meresin snarled at Lucifer. “I swear I will!”

Lucifer smirked, looking like a debauched and beautiful noble with the firelight glinting off his fine features and golden hair. “Idiot. How? With your superior swordsmanship? You were always shit with a blade. With your lightning? How do you think Amriel keeps so many elemental weapons in one place without the forge blowing? He’s got enough wards and charms woven into this shack to make a wizard drop dead the second he walked through the door. Or are you so stupid you haven’t noticed that your battery is a bit…low?”

Meresin finally understood, and cursed.

“So rude. Now then,” Lucifer said, twirling his blade gracefully. “I want you to call Uriel here. And don’t try to tell me you can’t. I told you, I’ve been watching you.”

“Why?”

Lucifer rolled his eyes. “For a f**king tea party. I’ve brought all sorts of demons who’d like to see him. We can have cakes and sweets and his head on a pike.” Then his eyes narrowed, and Meresin could see the flare of temper that all in Hell quickly came to dread. It meant death. Often on a very large scale.

“He won’t answer,” Meresin said. “He won’t help me.” Before today, he would have been more secure in that. But after what Dru had said, he was no longer sure what Uriel would do.

Lucifer sighed. “Torrin, cut her.”

Dru moaned as Torrin sliced a thin line into the tender flesh at the side of her neck. The sight of her pain, and of the blood beginning to run down her neck, was more than he could bear. He didn’t give a damn about himself anymore—but Dru didn’t need to pay for his sins. Dru shouldn’t have to bleed at the hands of a monster like Torrin, or be used as a tool just as he had been for most of his life. A stabbing pain hit him deep in his chest, a rush of fury unlike any he had ever known, even in the days when fury was all he’d had.

“Again?” Lucifer asked. He could have been commenting on the weather.

“No,” Meresin growled. And despite the wards and charms to constrain his power, he could feel the storm rising, a howling monster of wind and lightning that filled him, heating his skin, stronger than any he’d ever brought forth before. Still, he kept it at bay with a strength of resolve that would have shocked him only days ago. This would be his final fight. He could feel that, though he hoped that he retained enough life at the end to sustain Dru’s. This would take all he had and then some, burning him out like a star. And still, it would take more than just him to triumph. He could feel the presence of the other demons outside, lords and low demons alike. They’d all come to take down an archangel, one of the greatest prizes to be had in their endless war.

He stared at Dru, outwardly serene even as her blood flowed. She was the most beautiful thing he’d ever seen, brave and fierce. She’d fought for him when everyone else had given up. She was his peace when there was none to be found. She’d deemed him worthy until he’d finally grown to believe it. And he would gladly give his life for hers. Their eyes locked, just for an instant, and he reached out to her in the way that only mates could. He couldn’t tell her what he wanted to with words, so he tried to let her feel it.

“Stop making cow eyes at one another, or I’ll cut them out,” Lucifer snarled.

Dru looked away, but not before he saw her heart in her eyes. It gave him the strength he needed.

“I’ll call him,” Meresin told Lucifer, outwardly calm even as his inner storm threatened to break through and wreak havoc. He let his eyes slip shut, hoping he would open them again, and tried to manage the almost impossible task of holding back one part of himself while letting go of another. It was only the knowledge that Dru’s life hung in the balance that gave him the power to manage it, though he was already trembling with the effort as his wings flared.

At first, though he reached into the darkness, there was nothing. No light, no life. Nothing he might connect to. But he could remember how it felt to finally reach Uriel the other night on the beach. He remembered the glorious power that rippled through the air, the sweet song that was both call and celebration. And as his memory sparked to life, so did his ability. His lips curved in a smile as the names flooded back to him—Michael, Gabriel, Uriel, Raphael, Selaphiel, Jegudiel, Raguel. And finally, after all this time, he could feel their attention turn to him, one by one. They were listening.