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.”