"Don't tell me the moon is shining; show me the glint of light on broken glass." Anton Chekhov


Sunday, December 22, 2013

Epilogue...8 Weeks Later

Lily wrapped a warm woolen scarf around her neck, then grabbed one of the many jackets hanging in the small mudroom beside the kitchen.  Shrugging into it, she slipped out the back door and stood for a moment in the clean, cold air of the French countryside.  As she walked the meandering paths of her mother’s flower and herb gardens, she smiled at the raucous sounds of the party that followed her up the gentle slope to a wooden bench under an ancient Sweet Chestnut tree.

     Leaning into a slight hollow in the gnarly, rough bark Lily looked out over the landscape.  The glow from a perfect half-moon made the night seem like a scene from a fairy tale.

     Hearing a soft footfall, she turned, then smiled at Katy, her elven beauty enhanced by the moonlight.  Tucking her hands in the crook of Lily’s elbow, Katy rested her head against the other woman’s shoulder and sighed happily.  “I’ve missed this place.”

     “Me, too.”  She lightly poked Katy with her elbow.  “I’ve missed you.  How’s it going with dissolving the Cantrell empire?”

     “Without your grandfather’s help, Dom would have just walked away from the whole thing.  If Taurin hadn’t returned his medallion I don’t know how we could’ve proved that Dom’s father wasn’t around anymore.”  She laughed softly.  “Bit hard to tell his corporate executives their CEO was a demon from Hell.”

     In a simple, well-planned maneuver, the figure of Jamieson Cantrell was seen boarding his private jet shortly after Halloween, leaving Seattle in the early morning hours for a quick flight back to San Francisco.  Tragically, over the Pacific, the plane had exploded with no survivors.  Dom and Mickey had planned it perfectly, using the medallion to escape after lighting the fuse.

     “There are dozens of lawyers handling sales and deals and all that financial stuff.”  She giggled. “Though most of the time Dom just wants to stay in bed.”

     Quietly Lily said, “I was wrong about him, Katy.  It’s so obvious he adores you.  I’m sorry I misjudged him.”

     “Don’t be sorry.  In the beginning it was all about revenge.”  She lifted her head and smiled at Lily.  “But it didn’t take long for me to turn him from the dark side.”

     They were laughing when the soft murmur of voices made them look over their shoulders.  The click of a shutter told them that Jean Michel, Lily’s father, had arrived with his camera.  “Ah, my princesses, how beautiful you are in the moonlight.”  He came around the tree and snapped several more shots, then cheerfully scolded Katy, “You were supposed to bring my girl back to the house, not stay out here with her.”

     Solemnly, Katy stood and faced Lily.  “Dearest Lily, your cher père wants to take group photos.  You must come back to the house immediately.”  Then her eyes went past Lily and she said softy, “My ride's here.  I’ll meet you at the house—”

     “Later,” growled a deep voice as Dom prowled up the slope.  Without taking his eyes off Katy, he smoothly lifted her into his arms and walked away, Katy’s muffled laughter wafting on the air as they melted into the darkness.

     Shaking his head, Jean Michel sat down next to his daughter.  “Her man might be rough around the edges, but no one could ever care for her more.  It’s good to see her so happy.”  He wrapped an arm around Lily’s shoulders and pulled her close.  “And you, mon ange, are you happy?”

     “Very happy.”

     “Daniel is the one, yes?”

Lily grinned and nestled against her father’s side, his large, comfortable presence warming her heart.  “Yes, Papa, he’s the one.  I hope you approve.”

     Jean Michel was quiet as he pondered her words.  His world revolved around his family, the sunflowers and his photographs.  As he sat in the cool night air, his mind raced with images of the woman beside him, from the first moments of her life, squalling and red-faced, to her scraped knees and gangly limbs, through her heartbreaks and triumphs.  She was strong and independent and he loved her unconditionally.  It would take a very special man to be worthy of her.

     Used to her father’s long, pensive silences, Lily let her thoughts wander in the quiet of the French countryside, the silvery glow from the moon adding a gentleness to the dips and rises of the familiar terrain.

     After Taurin had brought them back, Lily had insisted that Dom and Katy stay in the spare bedroom, at least for a few days.  On the second morning, Mickey had appeared in the kitchen and just in time for breakfast, he cheerfully explained between mouthfuls that his medallion had been returned to him.  Later, when Dom said he couldn’t figure out how to declare his father dead so he could unload his businesses, it was Mickey who came up with the plan.  Before leaving, Mickey had ordered the four of them to France for Christmas.  No excuses, no begging off, no exemptions.  Be there, or face the wrath of the family.

     Daniel spent a few days in San Francisco, packing things to ship, putting the house in the hands of a realtor, then had settled in at the bookstore, and into Lily’s life with no effort at all.  He was knowledgeable about the books, charming and friendly with the customers, and with Katy traipsing around the globe with Dom, it had been incredibly helpful to have him around.  For that and other reasons, Lily mused happily.

     Her apartment was messy and comfortable and warmer now, not her place anymore, but theirs.  She had even taken some photos of him on the sly, adding them to the wall in the kitchen.  Daniel had a habit of wandering over to the wall before dinner, lingering over the faces of her family as he quietly sipped his wine.  That night she held her breath as he perused the usual suspects, then choked on the wine when he saw himself mingled with her family.  It was one of her best moments: the look on his face, the realization that he had more than just his brother, that she had done such a wonderful thing for him.

     “Do you truly love him?”

     Startled out of her reverie, she smiled up at her father, then stretched to kiss his cheek.  “Truly.”

     With a sigh, her father slapped his hands on his knees, then stood up, his camera swinging from his neck.  “Your grandfather said you and Katy went to Hell and back for those two men.”  Lily widened her eyes at that revelation.  Jean Michel shrugged.  “Mickey and I have never kept secrets from each other.  That was one of his rules when I married his daughter and a promise I will have from your man as well.”

     “You have it, sir.”  Daniel’s voice was quiet and sure as he stepped around the tree.  Lily got to her feet.  Daniel smiled at her, then held out his hand to her father.  “I’ll promise anything you want, sir.  Well, except for go away and never come back.”  Jean Michel studied him for a moment, then he grinned and took Daniel’s hand in a firm grip, pounding him on the back for good measure.

     “You love her?”  Her father asked, not relinquishing Daniel’s hand.

      Daniel ignored the painful handshake and looked at Lily.  “Beyond reason and with all my heart.  It’s you Lily, it’s always been you.”

     “Then welcome to the family.” Jean Michel smiled broadly. “See you at the house in a few minutes.  I want to get some photos before Christmas Eve is over.”  He started down the slope, sure they hadn’t heard a word he’d just said.  When he reached the path, he turned back for a moment.

     Silhouetted against the night sky, their arms wrapped tightly around each other, the kiss was magical in the moonlight.  Smiling, Jean Michel raised his camera and took the shot.
** THE END ** 

Saturday, December 21, 2013

43. Endgame

Lily bent to pick something up from the stone floor, Daniel, Taurin and three of his men crowding at her back.  Clutching the frayed, broken length of silken cord, she turned toward them and silently raised the small crystal key.  Dangling from her fingers, the key caught the fiery glow from the river, sending glints of hellfire darting across her face as it spun in lazy circles.

“How will we find her now?” Lily whispered, her voice hollow.  “This was all we had to guide us.” 

Daniel shared a look with Taurin, then said softly, “We know they came this far.  We follow the tunnel.”

The man Taurin had sent ahead to scout came soundlessly out of the darkness.  “I found them, sir,” he said to Taurin, “though it’s not good.”  He glanced first at Daniel, then Lily.  “And your friends are in the thick of it.”

“Go,” Taurin barked.  Grimly, they followed the man and within a few minutes the harsh sounds of a vicious fight began to echo through the narrow passageway.  Nearly running, Lily was sure she had never felt such fear in her life when the noise abruptly stopped.  Then, at the mocking sound of Katy’s voice, her relief was so acute, she stumbled.  Daniel grabbed the back of her jacket, wrenching her upright before she hit the hard stone floor.

“Easy,” he said quietly in her ear as he held her steady.  “Now we know she’s alive.”  Lily didn’t miss the emphasis.  Heart racing from the near fall, she leaned against him for a moment, then murmured, “She’s up to something, I can hear it in her voice.”  Turning, she looked up at Daniel.  “And Dom’s alive too or she wouldn’t be so—”

The promise of murder rolled down the tunnel in a roar of outrage, freezing them in place for a startled instant before Taurin hissed orders to his men, Daniel took Lily’s hand, and the small group rushed toward the renewed sounds of violence.

Reaching the entrance, they hunkered down, staying just out of sight in the darkness but with a clear view into the great cavern.  At first Lily was so bemused by the absurdity of chandeliers, tapestries and thick beautiful carpets that she couldn’t focus on the tableau, but at the harsh gasp from Daniel, crouched at her side, she snapped to attention and followed his intent gaze.  A body lay on the floor.  The face, what was left of it, had been repeatedly smashed into the stone, judging by the blood that ran in thick rivulets to soak the carpets in an ever-widening circle around the still form.

“It’s not Dom,” she heard Daniel say under his breath.

No, it wasn’t his brother on the floor.  His brother was standing in front of the body, staring across the cavern toward his insane demon father.  The father who had Katy by the throat.  Daniel felt Lily stiffen beside him and start to rise.  He put a firm hand on her thigh and held her still, shaking his head sharply when she tried to push his hand away.

“Crazy demon lord, deadly black bat things, Hellhound.  You will not move until we know how this is going to play out,” Daniel murmured vehemently in her ear.

“I’m not going to sit here and watch Katy die!” she hissed, again trying to push him away.

“But you think I’ll just sit here and watch you die?” he growled.  Yanking her against him, he pinned her arms beneath his as he trapped her against his body.  “You need to stop and think,” he breathed next to her ear.  “Would Dom let his father kill Katy?  No.  He wouldn’t.  We just need to wait, he’ll have a plan, believe me.” 

“But she’s turning blue!” Lily struggled to break free of Daniel’s restraining hold, but he would not yield.  She relaxed, hoping to lull him into thinking she had acquiesced, but before she could decide her next move, Dom spoke.

Bitter and terrible, his voice came from a deep, dark place, a place where a small boy found the picked-clean bones of his mother.  A place of retribution and revenge.  “You have until I take my next breath to release her.”

Razeph laughed and shook Katy like a small rag doll.  “Or what?”  He looked at the body of Belrath on the floor and laughed again.  “Leave someone to hold down the fort while you’re out of town and look what happens.  They get delusions of grandeur.”  He glared at Dominic.  “You were to be my heir.”  He flung out his free hand and growled, “This was all to be yours!”

Dom ignored him and began to walk forward.  “We’re done.”

“You can’t be serious,” his father snapped.  “You think to fight me alone when I have two venomous Strelli and the Hound at my back?  And over a meaningless female?”

“He’s not alone,” Daniel said, walking out of the tunnel. 

Dom stopped to look over his shoulder.  “My fight.”

“Wrong.”  Daniel kept walking until he was standing next to his brother.

Scowling, Razeph stared, his eyes darting back and forth between the two men, then his eyes widened in comprehension.  Throwing Katy across the room with a careless toss, he walked to the edge of the dais, towering over them.  “So the thief and the traitor have chosen whose blood to follow.”  He shook his head.  “Poor choice, just as she was.”  Then he laughed, cold and sharp, sliding his forked tongue down the length of his black fangs.  “Shall we dance?” he asked softly.

 “Behind you!” shouted Taurin, running into the cavern, his men on his heels just as Razeph snapped his fingers at the Hound.  The brothers jumped apart, Dom spinning around to see Belrath slowly climb to his feet as Daniel pulled a small cylinder on a leather cord from under his shirt and clamped it between his teeth.  In the commotion, Lily circled the room, dropping to her knees when she reached Katy’s side.

“Katy?”  Lily had seen her fly across the cavern, hit the stone floor and roll into the wall, but it was blackening bruises around her neck that worried Lily the most.  Katy’s breathing was shallow and ragged as if she couldn’t suck in enough air.  Tearing the small pack from her shoulder, Lily ripped it open, wildly searching for the bottle of water she’d stowed inside.  Pulling it free, she unscrewed the cap and carefully tipped a few drops at the corner of Katy’s mouth.  “Katy?  Can you hear me?”

For several long moments there was no response, then the tip of Katy’s tongue carefully licked the water from her lips.  She grimaced painfully when she tried to swallow.  “Throat…hurts,” she rasped.  Lily quickly ran her hands over Katy’s arms and legs, her ribs, her head.  Reassured to find nothing obviously broken, she gave Katy another small dribble of water.  Wincing with each swallow, she took one more drink then looked up at Lily.  “Where’s Dom?  How did you find us?”  Her voice was low and hoarse.  She put a hand to her throat, tears leaving silvery tracks as they ran into the hair at her temples.

“He’s here.  We’re all here.  Don’t talk now, sit up and drink more water if you can.”  She helped Katy to lean back against the stone wall and handed her the bottle.  When Katy’s eyes widened, the bottle frozen halfway to her mouth, Lily looked over her shoulder.

Daniel had been backed into a corner by the Hound; Dom was circling Belrath, both in demon form, claws and fangs dripping with blood; one of the bat creatures, entangled in a large net, struggled futilely to escape; the second, held at bay by Taurin’s men, screeched with fury as it fought to reach its trapped cohort.

And in the midst of the chaos, Razeph sat on his throne, a look of intense satisfaction on his face.

“I’ve got to help Daniel,” Lily said, rising off the floor.  She took a step, then stopped abruptly when Katy slowly tried to work her way up the wall to stand.  “What are you doing?  Sit down!  You’re hurt!”

With a slight groan, Katy got to her feet.  “I’m fine,” she croaked, then spoiled her attempt at bravado by swaying, hastily clutching the fringe of a tapestry to hold herself steady.

“Don’t be ridiculous, you can’t even—”

A piercing, agonizing scream ricocheted around the cavern, the earsplitting explosion of anguish brought a shocked pause to the brawl for a frozen moment.  And in that moment, Lily met Daniel’s eyes across the expanse.  He grinned at her around the whistle he held in his teeth, the Hound writhing in pain at his feet as he took another deep breath and blew a frequency that only the fiend could hear.  Two Wardens snared the disabled Hound, two more taking advantage of the distraction to fling a net over the remaining Strelli, both now trussed and incapacitated.

Dom shot a quick glance at Katy, somewhat relieved to see her standing, albeit more a lean than an actual upright stance, but until he could make sure she wasn’t seriously harmed, he wouldn’t be completely at ease.  Desperate to get to her, he turned back to Belrath, claws ready to rend and tear.  Seeing the fierce urgency and determination on Dom’s face, Belrath held up both hands in a stop gesture.

“Let me ask a question, son of Razeph.”  When Dom gave a sharp, impatient nod, he continued.  “How do you see this playing out?”

Dom shrugged.  “I rip your head off, take my woman and go home.”

Belrath laughed.  “Or, I rip your head off, keep your woman, and stay here ruling this House as I was intended.”  When Dom growled, a low promise of reckoning climbing up his throat as he stepped toward the demon, Belrath smiled impudently and again raised his hands.  “Kidding.”  Then, suddenly dead serious, he said quietly, “Do you have any interest in becoming Lord of this House?”

“None,” Dom said without hesitation.

“Do you have a care for who rules?”


“I have your word?”

“Look, you moron, I was already leaving when those bats dragged me back down here.  I don’t care about this damn House, you, or my bloody murdering father.  I don’t give a shit who runs this hellhole, whether it’s you or some other demon asshole, including the one currently sitting on that throne.”  Dom jerked his head toward his father before leaning close to Belrath.  “Have at it, do what you need to do, usurp the bastard.” Before straightening, he hissed in the demon’s ear, “Just leave me and mine the fuck out of it.”

Belrath held Dom’s angry gaze for a long minute, then he smiled and held out his hand, claws sheathed.  “Then we have an accord.”

Hesitating briefly, Dom searched the demon’s face, then realizing he didn’t care one way or the other if the fiend was being truthful or not, he withdrew his own claws and they shook hands.

A long, insolent laugh began to swell from Razeph, gathering depth and power as it reverberated around the cavern.  Daniel went to stand with Dom, Taurin and his men stood to the side, shielding Lily and Katy.  The Hound and Strelli were bound in a far corner, fearful and silent now, sensing the escalating danger.

“You fools,” Razeph said with a sneer.  “It matters not what meaningless agreement you make.”  Rising from the throne, his impressive height loomed over the small group below the dais.  “I am the Demon Lord of this House!” he roared.  “You will release my minions and obey my commands!”

When no one moved, he narrowed his eyes at the two women, standing at the back of the chamber.  A wicked smile flickered briefly, then he looked at the two brothers.  “I will eat your women,” he hissed, “but only after they have begged for death.”  Daniel threw out an arm, slamming it into Dom’s chest to block him from leaping onto the platform.  “Wait,” he murmured softly.

Taurin stepped forward.  “You have no dominion over these humans.”  His voice rang with authority as he said, “Demon Lord Razeph, from this day forward you are bound to this punishment: Your rule of this House is forfeit to any challenger who defeats you in single combat, or is appointed by your liege.  Upon your defeat, you will be banished to the Deep, there to dwell one hundred years for every year you were gone from this realm.”

“You have no power to enforce punishments here, Warden,” the demon jeered.

“No,” said a soft, deep voice, but I do.”

Jaws dropping, Lily and Katy stared as the most beautiful man they had ever seen entered the cavern from behind one of the tapestries.  Tousled black hair brushed his broad shoulders, while his midnight blue eyes twinkled when he walked gracefully past the women, his smile made warm and friendly by the dimple in each cheek.  Tall, athletic, elegantly dressed in black slacks and a forest green silk shirt, he casually strolled across the stone floor in his bare feet.

Belrath immediately dropped to one knee, bowing his head submissively as his demon form dissipated.  It took a moment for Razeph to comprehend that the Lord of the Abyss was walking toward him.  In a shimmering flash of black sparks, he took on his Jamieson Cantrell persona and fell to one knee.  “My liege,” he murmured, staring fixedly at the ground.

 “Fucked up, Raz,” Lucifer said mildly, stepping onto the platform and laying a hand on Razeph’s bowed head.  As the demon lord began to tremble, Lucifer’s voice lowered, deep and harsh as his blue eyes began to swirl with the fiery colors of flowing lava.  “Bad enough you went behind my back to open a portal,” he said disgustedly, “but really, first rule of bad?”  He leaned over and growled into Razeph’s ear, “Don’t. Get. Caught.”

“My liege, please let me—” Razeph tried to speak, but Lucifer tightened his hand over the demon’s skull, smoke wafting between his fingers.  “Do you think there is anything in my realm that I am not aware of?”  His laugh was terrifying, so fraught with impending retribution that Katy and Lily unconsciously grabbed hands and the brothers took a wider stance, fists clenched in defense.  Sadly, he murmured, “One of my favored, and yet you abused your privileges, took advantage of the freedoms I allowed you.”  He made a sudden flicking motion with his fingers.  “I don’t appreciate having to explain the actions of my children.”  Razeph flew through the air, smashing against the farthest wall with a loud crack.  As if he’d done nothing more than swat a fly, Lucifer turned to the small group standing below him and smiled agreeably, suave and unbearably handsome once more.

He told Belrath to rise, then with a little shake of his head, he admonished, “Belrath, you’re a mess.  Please tell me the other guy looks worse.”  When Dom snorted, he turned his piercing blue gaze on him and laughed.  “Maybe not worse, but certainly no better.”  Next he met Daniel’s gaze.  “And the infamous Daniel Valentine.  You’ve meddled in many a little scheme of mine, boy.”  Noticing the cylinder on the cord around Daniel’s neck, he nodded appreciatively.  “Clever, using the dog whistle.  Risky, but then where’s the fun in being cautious.”

Looking across the cavern, he motioned for Lily and Katy to come closer.  Dom stiffened, but Lucifer just raised a brow at him.  “Women are all that gives meaning to our miserable lives, lordling, I would never harm one.  Trick one maybe,” he smiled at their approach, “but never harm.  And definitely not such lovely creatures as these.”

“First, I’m not a lordling, and second,” he bit out, lifting Katy into his arms when she reached for him, “she’s with me.”  Katy sighed, a sense of rightness rolling over her.  Dom shifted her higher and murmured softly against the shell of her ear, “You okay, Red?”  She closed her eyes and smiled contentedly.  “Am now.”

Daniel put an arm around Lily and pulled her close, then said evenly, “So, now what?”

Taurin stepped forward and handed Lucifer a small parchment scroll tied with a golden cord.  “I trust you’ll see to Razeph’s punishment?”  Tapping the scroll against his thigh, Lucifer stared at Belrath for a long moment, then grinned at the hopeful look on the demon’s face.  “You interested in the challenge?”

Matching the grin, Belrath said enthusiastically, “Hell yes.”

Lucifer stepped off the dais.  Pausing in front of Dom, he gently pressed his fingertips to the bruises on Katy's neck, the marks fading instantly.  Softly, his voice almost wistful, he said to Dom, “You’ve chosen well.  Treasure this gift.”  Next, he took Lily's hand, bowed over it and gallantly kissed her fingers.  Looking thoughtfully into Daniel’s eyes for a moment, he said, “You have a long history with this one, Thief.  Cherish that knowing.

Then, throwing an arm around Belrath’s shoulders, he began instructing him as they made their way out of the chamber, but at the threshold he paused, looked over his shoulder and with a negligent wave of his hand, the creatures bound in the corner of the chamber vanished, and Razeph was jerked upright like a puppet and skewered to the stone wall.  “I’ll be back shortly to discuss your punishment,” Lucifer promised the writhing demon.  Smiling at Taurin, he said pleasantly, “Oh, and Warden, if you please, would you remind Syrus it’s Seven Card Stud, usual time and place, his turn to bring the brew?”  

Taurin acknowledged the request, told his men he would meet them back at Headquarters and as they left the chamber, he turned to find four sets of eyes staring at him in disbelief.  “What?”

“Poker?  Seriously?  With the baddest creature of all time?” Daniel sputtered.

“Makes for an interesting game,” Taurin chuckled.  He shrugged, and with amusement still coloring his voice, he said, “Come, let’s get you people home before you get into any more trouble.”

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

42. Could This Day Get Any Worse?

 “I’m really scared, Dom.” Katy’s voice quivered in his ear.  He'd been struggling to concentrate as the talons dug deeper into his flesh and his mind raced frantically for a means of escape, but her words, her fear, helped him focus.

“I know, baby,” he soothed, “just hang on to me.  It'll be okay.  Someone wants me alive or I wouldn’t have made it this far.”  Dom desperately wanted to reach back, rip the talons out of his back then tear the creature to shreds.  If Katy hadn’t been part of the equation he would have done it already, damn the fiery inferno waiting below.

Katy tried to look over her shoulder, the movement causing his body to shift slightly.  Hissing out a painful breath as a long claw scraped across bone, he groaned.  “Don’t move, Red.” 

She froze, then carefully moved her mouth close to his ear and whispered, “Why is it getting so hot?  I feel like my back is on fire.”

Dom didn’t want her to see the burning river of molten lava seething, bubbling, beneath them, each lazy spiral taking them closer as the winged beast descended with the thermals.

When he didn’t answer right away, Katy asked softly, “Are we going to die?”

“No love, not if I can help it.”  He could feel the heat scorching against her back, against his arms as he clutched her to him.  It wouldn’t be much longer and they’d be at the bridge where he’d been with Daniel.  How fucked up was it that he’d climbed for hours to get out and now in minutes was right back where he started?

He was just wondering if the bat would glide close enough to the bridge for him to drop Katy, when the creature suddenly flapped its leathery wings, increasing its speed.  Katy shrieked and tightened her legs around Dom’s waist when the talons tore out of his back and the creature launched them toward a narrow opening in the rock face.  Free of the fiend, Dom spun as they landed, breaking Katy’s grip so she sprawled across the front of his body.  They skidded several feet along a dark narrow passageway.

Dom couldn’t move or catch his breath from the impact and the pain of rough stone abrading his already lacerated back.  Then Katy scrambled off him and began feverishly patting his cheeks.  “Dom?  Dom?  Oh please be okay,” she murmured.  “Come on, big guy, don’t leave me now just when things are looking up.”  She leaned over, gave him a soft kiss, then said sharply, “Come on, demon boy, don’t wimp out on me.”

When he opened one eye and looked up at her, she grinned, then wildly covered his face with kisses.  “Demon boy?”  He frowned.  “Wimp?”  Her smile was so pure and open and beautiful he shut his eyes against the sight.  He had to get her out of here no matter what it cost him.

“I know what you’re thinking,” she said, “and you can just forget it.  I didn’t come all this way to leave without you.”  Her heart in her kiss, she gave it to him freely and without reservation.  He tried to resist, but at the first touch of her tongue across his lips he moaned in surrender, pulled her across his body and wrapped his arms around her, desperately returning the kiss as fear and rage and desire surged through him.

After reassuring each other they were still alive, Katy untangled herself and crawled behind Dom, helping him sit up so she could look at his back.  His shirt was shredded and bloody, though the long rips in his skin were healing already and looked more like new scars than raw wounds, and the abrasions from sliding over the stone floor looked like nothing more than bad scrapes.  “You heal really fast, Dom,” she said quietly, running a gentle finger down one of the fresh scars.

“Yeah, it’s the demon part.  I’ve never been sick a day in my life.”  He stood up, then pulled Katy to her feet, looking her over thoroughly, running his hands from head to scuffed boots to assure himself she wasn’t injured.  “You’re all right?  Not hurt where I can’t see?”

“I’m fine, just too hot and sweaty.”  Fanning her face with both hands, she turned away from the opening and the heat, peering down the dark tunnel.  “Do you feel that cool air, or am I just imagining it?”

He took her hand and began to walk carefully into the darkness.  “I feel it.”  He didn’t tell her that cool air this deep in the Abyss was unlikely to be anything short of bait to lure him in.  It didn’t matter who--or what--was behind this.  He would bargain with his own life to get Katy out of Hell.  And surprisingly, despite his usual way of taking care of things alone, he found himself hoping Daniel and the Wardens might show up to help.

A short hike later, they came to an arched entryway leading into a vast cavern.  Katy stared, dumbfounded, at the opulent space.  Enormous crystal chandeliers filled with thousands of candles were suspended from thick gold chains placed high in the curved dome of the ceiling, lighting the immense area with a soft, almost intimate glow.  Tapestries hung on the rough-hewn walls by the hundreds, dozens of beautiful Persian carpets covered the stone floor.  And a throne, more grandiose than anything in the human realm, stood on a large dais across the cavern.  Sculpted from a single block of obsidian, it dominated the chamber with its imposing size and though the tortured figures carved across its surface were hideous, it was the way the ebony glass seemed to devour the light that was most frightening.

“What is this place?” Katy asked, her whisper a tiny echo of sound in the cavernous space.

Cursing, Dom tried to pull her back the way they’d come, but only managed two steps before a deep, arrogant voice arrested him.

“Oh, please stay, my Prince.  I’ve been anticipating this meeting so much.”

Dom turned around, though kept Katy behind him as he entered the cavern.  Narrowing his eyes, he took the measure of the creature who had appeared in the middle of the chamber.  Tall and well-built, with short black hair combed back from his chiseled face, his smile--curling the sensuous lips of an unforgivably cruel mouth--never reached eyes black and cold as the dark throne at his back.  He was dressed in faded jeans, a worn purple tee shirt that said I Am the Grateful Dead in bold white letters across the front, and red Converse high tops.  The incongruity was chilling.

“Who are you?” Dom demanded.

Pressing a hand on his chest, the man affected a hurt expression.  “Your father never mentioned me?  Not once?”

Shrugging, Dom said, “Won’t know until you tell me who you are.”  Then anger flared as he snapped, “And cut the crap.  Trust me, I’m not in the mood for bullshit right now.”

Rage burned in his eyes for a moment, then he bowed insolently.  “I am Belrath.  Once I was your father’s second, his right arm, his enforcer and trusted confidant.”  He raised his head, and glaring in open hostility, he snarled at Dom, “And true heir to this House.”

Dom stared at the demon as pieces began to fall into place.  How could he play this to his advantage?  Get Katy out of here alive?  He had to stall, trust that Daniel would come, hope that Lily wouldn’t rest until she found Katy, believe the Wardens wouldn’t forsake a half-demon who’d spent his life plotting revenge.  He felt Katy clutching the back of his tattered shirt.  The only good thing he’d ever done was love this small, ferocious woman and look how that had turned out.

“Let me guess,” Dom sneered.  “You took over after my father disappeared.  Now he’s back and you don’t want to be second best again.”  He smirked, deliberately antagonizing the wannabe demon lord.  “Oh no, wait.  That would be third best, after me now, of course.”

Belrath rushed forward, fury darkening his face.  “Ah, but what would your father give to save his son?  Are you worth his kingdom, I wonder?”  Before Dom could laugh at the ridiculous assumption his father gave a rat's ass about him, Belrath caught sight of Katy peeking around Dom’s arm and stopped abruptly.  Locking eyes with her, he smiled with an avid hunger.  “What have we here?” he crooned softly, approaching with the sinuous grace of a lethal predator.  “Something luscious to nibble on?”

Red instantly suffused his vision.  Dom vaguely registered pain scoring his muscles, barely felt his tendons stretching and flexing.  He would drown the world in scarlet, revel in the pain and death of anyone who dared touch what was his.  The wide-eyed shock on the creature who threatened her meant nothing to him.  Only tearing the bastard apart would satisfy him now.

They erupted in a collision of animosity and resentment, a whirling clash of ripping fangs and tearing claws.  Dom took no notice of the cuts and gashes he received from the older, more experienced demon.  His only focus was protecting Katy and trying to stay alive until help arrived.  The fight filled the cavern with grunts and snarls, blood splashed on the tapestries, soaked into the carpets.  And still they fought, the echoes of their battle thundering off the walls as if an entire army were at war within the cavern.

Katy was stunned when Dom had suddenly gotten…bigger. He’d grown—at least seven feet or more—and his muscles looked like solid rock under his skin.  But his fangs.  She hadn’t expected that, or how beautifully they curved, long and sharp, just below his bottom lip.  Watching how he moved, fascinated by his deadly control, she finally had to shake her head and turn away from the distraction.  She needed a weapon.  There had to be something in this chamber that would help them escape.  Besides, if Dom thought for one minute they wouldn't be leaving together, she just might need a weapon to convince him otherwise.

     Timing her move, she ran toward the throne when the two fighters rolled across the floor away from her.  Hidden from sight behind the towering throne was a huge wooden door.  Katy tried to turn the large iron ring that seemed to be the handle, but it wouldn't budge, then a sudden roar of pain drew her to the side of the throne just as Dom dropped to one knee, blood pouring down his chest from a deep slash across his neck.  Belrath slowly advanced, a look of victory in his cruel smile.  Katy knew she was out of time.  Somehow she had to distract the demon.

Frantically looking around, she suddenly had a thought as her eyes settled on the throne.  She didn't even want to touch the thing, but determined, she hurriedly climbed up into the seat.  It was so broad she couldn’t reach the armrests and her feet seemed miles from the ground as she peered over the edge.  She had never felt so small and ineffectual in her life.

Katy took a deep breath. “Hey,” she shouted across the cavern, “what do you think?  I could get used to this.”

Belrath looked away from Dom, then hissed in outrage to see her seated on the throne.  Changing course, he began to stalk toward her.  “You dare?” he growled.  “You dare to sit on the ancient throne of my House?”  Katy kept her eyes focused on the enraged face of the demon, not daring to let her gaze waver as Dom silently rose up behind him.

“I think it might be time for a female to rule the House,” she taunted.

As he lunged forward with an unearthly scream, Dom took him down, the unexpected force of his weight driving the demon into the ground.  He took a savage pleasure at the sharp crack of the demon’s nose when his head smashed into the floor.  Snarling, he grabbed a fistful of hair and bashed his face into the stone until the creature went still, a large pool of blood spreading over the floor.

 Frowning at the small gasp of fear from Katy, Dom sighed and rolled to his back, his chest heaving as he tried to catch his breath.  If he’d wanted to drive her away, seeing him for the first time in his demon form should have done it.  Hell, he didn’t even know he had a demon form until a few minutes ago.  As the urge to kill Belrath subsided, he felt his fangs retract and his muscles and bones return to normal.  Slowly getting to his feet, he finally raised his head, steeling himself for the shock and disgust he expected to see on Katy’s beautiful face.

     His father held her by the throat, a malicious smile of triumph on his face as he tightened his hand around her fragile human neck.  Katy grasped his wrists, her legs flailing as she dangled several feet off the ground.  In his true identify, the ancient demon lord Razeph was the stuff of nightmare.  Over nine feet tall with a massive build, twin horns jutted thickly from his temples, sweeping back over his head for nearly two feet before narrowing to arrow-sharp tips.  His skin resembled hide, scaly and gray, and long, black fangs curved below his wedge-shaped jaws while his eyes danced with an oily shimmer as he toyed with Katy.  Two of the bat creatures stood behind him trembling with excitement as they watched Katy struggle to breathe.   The Hound, nearly as large as a pony in his natural form, sat quietly at the demon lord’s side, eagerly awaiting his master’s bidding.

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

41. Time Begins To Run Out

 Daniel tried to drag Lily away from the dangerous rim, but she struggled against his hold, staring in shock and horror as her best friend disappeared into the Abyss.  Taurin and several of his men also watched, faces tight with dread.

“Daniel,” Lily choked out his name.  Turning, she lifted her head to meet the stark disbelief in his eyes that she knew were reflected in her own.  “Daniel,” she whispered, as if that was the only word she could manage.  He pulled her close, still reeling from the high of surviving the climb to the sudden desolation of seeing long, black talons rip into his brother’s back.

While they held each other, Daniel absently took in his surroundings.  The large stone tower rose out of the barren, rocky landscape and perched like a gargoyle on the edge of the Abyss.  Black as the midnight wings of evil, it reeked of cruel menace and hopeless despair.  Daniel couldn’t stop the shudder that crawled down his spine, remembering a time, long ago, when the darkness had tried to claim him, and if not for Taurin’s intervention for that small boy he once was…

At the thought of Taurin, Daniel turned his head and caught the Warden’s eye.  Taurin murmured something to one of his men, then crossed the short distance toward them.  Daniel jerked his chin over his shoulder.  “Who’s that?  The guy talking to the giant?”

“Syrus, and the giant waving his arms around and snarling is the Gatekeeper.  Each Toll House has one.  They control the minions, devise the various trials for the souls, and do whatever the demon lord asks of them, though—”  His words were cut off by an earsplitting bellow from the Gatekeeper, who abruptly turned away from Syrus and stomped into the tower.  The sound was still reverberating off the stone walls when the hoard of creatures being contained by the other Wardens began to scream, then run toward the drawbridge as the portcullis began to lower.

“What going on?” Lily asked, pulling away from Daniel to watch the snarling fiends scramble over one another in their frenzy to get inside before the gate closed.

“The Gatekeeper is trying to stay neutral in a brewing power struggle.  He doesn't want Wardens anywhere near his tower,” said Syrus from behind them.  “And because you and your friend didn’t stay put as I told you, we're here and she’s in the thick of it.  Assuming she's still alive.”

“Wait,” Daniel barked, “don’t for one minute blame Lily for this mess.  They were trying to save Dom and me.”  His eyes narrowed as he took a step forward.  “Seems everyone is having to play Warden these days, except actual Wardens.”

Syrus growled and took his own step forward, he and Daniel within an inch or two of butting heads.  Taurin pushed between them, then glared at Daniel.  “Stand down, Valentine.  You don’t know what you’re talking about.”

“What I do know is that Dom will protect Katy until his dying breath, so before that happens, we need to find them.”  He saw the two Wardens exchange a quick glance.  So did Lily.  “You can find them, right?” she asked.

“The Abyss is a vast world unto itself.  There are tunnels and caverns and near bottomless pits.  They could be anywhere,” Syrus muttered, running a hand roughly through his hair in frustration.  “The Gatekeeper told me Razeph and his second are declaring war on each other.  Apparently while the demon lord was trapped in your realm, Belrath decided he liked being a lord and now won’t relinquish control to Razeph.  Factions are already dividing, taking sides.”  His grim look matched the one on Taurin’s face.

Daniel paced back and forth, his mind racing.  On one of his turns, Lily stood in his path.  “I won’t leave Katy here,” she said softly.  “No matter what happens, or what I have to do, I won’t leave her here.”  He stared at her for a moment, then something occurred to him.  “How did you get here?  I mean,” he pointed to the ground, “how did you find your way to this exact spot?”

She told him about the key they’d gotten from Valeria and the map at Headquarters that showed the way, how they had returned her book to the Library, then come to the Abyss.  He listened intently, then turned to Taurin.  “How were you able to find them after they gave you the slip?”

Taurin opened his mouth, then stopped abruptly.  Whirling toward his men, he shouted, “Back to the Seventh!”  Before Lily could do more than sputter, he grabbed one of her arms, snapped at Daniel to take the other, and within a breathless heartbeat they stood in the reception area, a startled Valeria sitting openmouthed at her desk as the crowd of people suddenly filled the room.

Syrus and Taurin fixedly studied the map while Lily and Daniel studied them.  “What are you looking for?” Daniel asked, his eyes scanning the beautiful display of the entire Ethereal realm glowing on the wall.

“There!”  Syrus jabbed a finger at a dot of blue light, falling like a tiny star into the darkness.  As they watched, the spark continued to drop, ever closer to the River of Tears, but just when Daniel was bracing himself for Dom and Katy’s imminent demise, the little orb hovered for a moment, then inexplicably darted sideways.

“You’ve marked the location?” Syrus asked Taurin.  At his nod, Syrus turned to Lily and Daniel as Taurin gathered his men.  “That key Valeria gave you is a tracking device.  It’s just pure good fortune that she was wearing it today and not you.” 

Ignoring his recriminations and the dark scowl, Lily said, “How quickly can we get there?”

“You’re not going anywhere!” Syrus roared.  “And this time you will do as I say!”

Completely disregarding him, Lily turned to Daniel.  “How’re we going to do this, Valentine?  Because you know I’m not staying behind.”  He couldn’t help the grin that spread over his face at her fierce resolve.  Taking her hand, he walked over to Taurin and waited until he had finished briefing his men.  As they prepared to leave, the Warden turned to speak to Syrus and nearly collided with Daniel and Lily.  He took one look at their faces and threw up his hands.  “No.  No way.  Absolutely not.  No.”

“We’re going with you.  He’s my brother and Katy is as close as a sister to Lily.  If you don’t let us in on this, we’ll find some other way.”  As Taurin started to argue, Daniel said quietly, “Believe me.”

A hiss from Syrus caused Daniel and Lily to turn back to the man.  Looking at the map, he said over his shoulder, “They’re on the move.”  Joining him, they watched the blue dot bob down what appeared to be a long, dark tunnel. 

“We need to go, now!”  Lily said anxiously.  “They’re going deeper into the bowels of that evil place just when his freaking demon father is starting a damn war!”

With a sigh, Syrus said reluctantly, “It’s on your heads then.  Take them with you, Warden.  Time is of the essence.”

“But—” Taurin tried to protest.

“No buts.  Let’s go.” Daniel said, reaching out to clamp his hand on Taurin’s arm, just in case the Warden had plans to leave without them.

Barely muffling a curse, Taurin barked an order at his men.  Before his command had faded from the room, Valeria and Syrus found themselves staring at each other across the empty silence.