Daniel stared at the vague shape of his brother's broad back as they walked silently through a roughly hewn tunnel, so dark it seemed like midnight had solidified around them.
“Sure this is the right direction?” Daniel asked quietly.
“Feel the heat? Yeah, this is the right direction,” Dom muttered.
They cautiously approached a cross tunnel. Though it was nearly impossible for Daniel to see very far, Dom was having no trouble. Looking both ways, he started forward then stopped so abruptly, Daniel plowed into him with a grunt. Around a bend in the left tunnel a pair of creatures shuffled toward them. Tall, with loose flaps of black skin hanging from skeletal frames, the pair froze as if stunned to find others wandering across their path. One hissed before a tongue, long and forked, darted out to taste the air, then with a low, hungry growl, fangs descended. Daniel took a step back when viscous, green globules sizzled and smoked as they dropped onto the stone floor.
Without hesitation, Dom reached back, pulled Daniel forward and had him in a tight choke hold so quickly he wasn’t able to react fast enough to fight. As he began to struggle, Dom whispered, “Trust me.”
As black dots began forming at the edges of his rapidly fading vision, Daniel wondered if trust was even possible. The guy was still a Cantrell, still a demon. Then Lily’s face rose out of the darkness in his mind as she tossed him—a virtual stranger—the keys to her apartment. To trust someone required a great leap of faith. He would give his brother the same chance Lily had given him. He went limp against Dom’s body in apparent surrender.
The two creatures began to sidle toward them, venom dripping like a leaky faucet, their tattered black skin trembling with anticipation. Dom suddenly seemed to expand just as the tunnel filled with a scarlet blaze that caused the fiends to cower. Red fire shooting from his eyes, Dom’s voice went inhumanly deep as he growled, “Mine.”
There was a high-pitched squeal, a susurration of dried membranes, and the tunnel was empty. Dom dropped his arm, releasing Daniel then bent over with his hands on his knees and took great gulps of air as Daniel fell against the stone wall gasping for breath.
“Sorry about that. You all right?” Staying hunched over, Dom lifted his head to look at Daniel.
“I think so,” Daniel muttered hoarsely, rubbing his throat. “What were those things?”
“No idea.” He straightened. “But I’m betting they don’t live down here alone. We need to get out of here.”
As they resumed their trek, Daniel said quietly, “That was some trick, with the glowing eyes and that Darth Vader voice. I’m thinking it’s not so bad having the baddest kid in the sandbox be my big brother.” He glanced over at Dom. “How’d you do that?”
“I don’t know,” he snapped, “it’s not like I come with a manual.” When Daniel laughed, Dom relaxed slightly and murmured, “It’s like getting mad and saying you see red, only with me it’s actually true.” Softly, he said, “The voice was new. I’ve never done that before.”
For several minutes they walked in silence, then Dom asked, “Why did you listen to me back there? When I said to trust me?” He stopped unexpectedly and turned to face Daniel, a scowl on his face. “And what were you thinking, latching on to me in the first place? You shouldn’t even be here.”
Their gazes locked. “I’ve been alone my whole life, then I find out I have a brother and you think I’m just going to let him disappear into the Abyss?” Daniel shrugged. “Guess I figured you might need some help.” He stepped past Dom and began to walk, tossing the next words over his shoulder, “I trusted you because you asked me to.”
Dom followed a few steps behind, his mind in turmoil, his world so out of kilter he felt drunkenly off balance from it. For more years than he could remember he’d been plotting against his father, revenge the only thing driving him forward. Then, in one short week, Katy had shaken him to the core, as had the man who’d chosen to walk with him through Hell. His woman and his brother. He shook his head in wonder and disbelief.
While Dom was ruminating, Daniel was reliving moments with Lily, already missing her smile, her face. Earlier, back at her place, when he’d realized Dom’s plan, he hadn’t spared a thought when tossing Lily out of harm’s way or in diving for his brother. In actuality, he’d expected to land on the hearth with an irate brother beneath him. It hadn’t even entered his mind that he would end up in the netherworld of the Abyss. The instantaneous jolt from Lily’s living room to Hell had completely disoriented him for several seconds until the outraged bellow from Dom brought Daniel staggering to his feet. Just in time to see Dom lunge forward to grasp Razeph; too late, the demon lord vanished in a smoky cloud of brimstone.
Immersed in their own thoughts, the two men walked quietly for over an hour as the heat escalated and the air became singed with an acrid sting. As they rounded a sharp bend in the tunnel, the way forward was suddenly illuminated with the harsh orange glow of what appeared to be fire.
“What’s that?” Daniel asked.
“I think it’s the River of Tears. If it is, then I know where we are.”
The heat was intense, almost unbearable, though Daniel followed Dom to the mouth of the tunnel. Wiping the sweat off his face with his shirt, he stood at the edge and looked across a surprisingly intricate and lovely arched bridge to the opening of a tunnel on the other side. Then he glanced down. Far below them snaked a wide, undulating river of fiery lava, and bobbing in the waves and currents were all manner of people and creatures, sobbing and screaming, their cries of anguish echoing and reverberating up the steep canyon walls.
“Failing the tests at the Toll Houses dumps you into the River of Tears. From here, you go to your own personal version of Hell.” He gingerly stepped out onto the bridge and walked to the middle. Rolling waves of heat rippled around him, making his body look like a desert mirage.
“How do you know this stuff?” Daniel asked.
Before Daniel could respond to the horror in that offhand remark, Dom looked up. And smiled. Curious, Daniel carefully left the tunnel and went to stand next to Dom on the bridge before raising his head. Above them, nearly lost in the oppressive miasma, was the barest glimmer of a golden light; a mere speck of salvation from the hellish inferno where they stood.
“Can you climb?” Dom asked casually, as if they were contemplating a short hike before lunch.
Daniel turned to look at the lunatic beside him. “Seriously? What do you figure, a couple miles up, with no gear, no ropes, heat that will probably melt the skin off our bones, and a nice splash in the fiery deep if we screw up? Sure, no problem.”
With a small grin, Dom repeated his question. “Can you climb?”
“Yes, I can climb,” Daniel barked, “though I don’t know squat about doing it in Hell.”
“Not many do. In fact, you might be the first.”
Daniel narrowed his eyes. “What do you mean, I might be the first? We will be the first.”
Lowering his head to watch the flotsam tumbling in the river, Dom sighed. “I doubt I can get out, thanks to my father. Being half a demon probably counts for full down here.” He turned to Daniel. “You should be able to get out though. And you could do me one last, great favor if you make it.” He laid a hand on Daniel’s shoulder. “Tell Katy I will never, ever forget her.”
Dom blinked. “No? What do you mean no? I’m going to be stuck in fucking Hell and you’re saying no to me?”
“That’s right. I’m saying no because you’re coming with me.” He angrily jabbed Dom in the chest with a hard finger, then sneered, “What kind of half demon chicken shit are you? How do you know you can’t get out? You’re not even going to try?”
Slapping his hand away, Dom turned to stare down at the river. “I knew this was a one-way trip. The point was to bring my father back here. I’ve done it, the rest doesn’t matter.”
“I’m sure Katy will appreciate hearing that,” Daniel said as he walked toward the wall, calculating his ascent.
“Hearing what?” Dom snapped.
Absently, spotting his first handhold in a fissure of the rock wall, he said, “That she didn’t matter, that she means nothing to you.”
“I never said she didn’t matter! She’s everything!”
Daniel spun around, shouting, “If you can’t do whatever it takes to get back to her, then she doesn’t matter! How stupid are you?”
They glowered at each other, then Daniel turned his back, went to the wall, reached high above his head to slide his hand into the cleft, and pulled himself up into the first leg of the climb.
He smiled to himself when he glanced down a few minutes later and saw Dominic coming up behind him, muttering and cursing. Then he grinned widely at the threats of death and dismemberment that followed him up the chasm. He didn’t care what violence Dom promised as long as he didn’t stay in this hellhole.
Concentrating on the climb, neither man noticed two figures in the mouth of the tunnel staring with rapacious eyes as the brothers made their cautious way upward.