Kadence eyed her surroundings, as if studying them was exactly what she’d come to do. Rather than stone and mortar, the walls of Lucifer’s palace were comprised of flames. Crackling, orange-gold. Deadly.
His throne was comprised of bone, ash and more of those flames. Off to the side was a bloodstained altar. A lifeless body still lay across it—minus a head. The head would reattach all too soon, however, so that the torturing could begin anew. That was the way of it here.
No soul would escape. Even in death.
She hated everything about this place. Plumes of black smoke wafted from the blazes, curling around her like fingers of the damned. So badly she wanted to wave her hand in front of her nose, but she did not. She wouldn’t show weakness—even with so small an action.
Did she dare, she knew she would find herself drowning in the noxious fumes. Lucifer loved nothing more than exploiting vulnerabilities.
Kadence had learned that lesson well. The first time she had visited, she’d come to inform both Hades and Lucifer that she had been appointed their warden. As one who embodied the essence of subjugation and conquest, there was no one better to ensure that demons and dead alike remained here.
Or so the gods had thought, which was why they’d chosen her for this task.
She had not agreed, but refusing them would have invited punishment. Many times since accepting, however, she’d thought perhaps punishment would have been better. Having stones thrown at her, bloody carcasses left on her doorstep in warning…they hardly compared to spending her days sleeping in a nearby cave—not a true sleep but a watchful one, her mind’s eye drifting over the different demon camps. Could hardly compare to spending her nights surveying a wall of rock.
As the Guardian watched.
That, however, was not such a hardship.
For many years, his attention had unnerved her, for he was unlike anyone she had ever met: half man, half beast, all…edge. But then she’d come to find comfort in his detached gaze. He protected her from demons and souls who slipped through the gate, attacking everyone in their path. No matter the harm to himself.
She could do no less for him.
I sold my soul, he’d said. For what? she wondered. What had he received in return? Did he consider the trade a good one? She’d wanted to ask him, but had recalled how uncomfortable he had been with her questions about the wall. He would not have welcomed a discussion about something so personal.
And that was probably for the best. Only her job mattered right now. How could she not have known demon High Lords were determined to escape forever?
Had Lucifer somehow blocked her visions of this realm? He was the only one strong enough to do so. If so, what did he hope to gain? Were she to ask, he would merely lie, that much she knew.
She’d never felt more helpless.
No, that wasn’t true. During her first visit, Lucifer had sensed her trepidation—and he’d since used every opportunity to nurture it. A fire-coated touch here, a wicked taunt there. Every time she had come here to report an infraction, she had wilted under his attentions.
That had disappointed the gods. They would have called her home, she was sure, had they not already bound her to the wall, an act that had been meant to help with her duties, not hinder them. But not even the gods had known just how deeply the bond would go. Rather than simply sensing when the wall needed fortification, she’d realized it was her reason for living.
Her blood now sang with its essence.
The first time one of the demons had scratched it, she’d felt the sting and had gasped, shocked. Now, it no longer shocked her, though she still felt every contact. When a soul brushed it, her skin felt tickled. When the inferno licked at it, she felt burned. So why had she not sensed these latest ministrations?
Oh, she’d felt her body draining of strength, little by little, pains shooting through her seemingly for no reason, but her visions had been calm. Well, as calm as such visions could be, considering what she was forced to witness on a daily basis.
Now, at least, she knew why she’d hurt. Bound as she was to this dark underworld, that crack in the outer wall was literally killing her.
You are losing focus. Concentrate! Distraction could cost her. Dearly. And the outcome of this meeting was more important than any that had come before it.
From outside the palace she could hear the crazed laughter of the demons, the moans of the tortured and the sizzle of flesh pouring from bone. And the smell…it was a hell all its own.
It was difficult, remaining stoic amidst such vileness. Especially now. The High Lords must have been working on the wall for weeks. Because if her side was cracked, she shuddered to think of the damage on Hell’s side. At the very least, she should have seen the demons approach. But again, her visions had remained calm.
Enough of this. Clearly, she could not concentrate.
“Lucifer,” she called again. “You heard my demands. Now heed them. Or I will leave and you will miss this opportunity to bargain.”
The pound of footsteps suddenly echoed and the flames several feet in front of her parted. Finally. In strolled Lucifer, as carefree as a summer day.
“Yes, I did hear them,” he said in the silkiest of voices. He even grinned, the expression pure wickedness. “You mentioned a bargain? What can I do for you, my darling?”
KADENCE DIDN’T ALLOW herself to shudder.
Lucifer was tall, muscled like a warrior and sensually handsome despite the dark inferno raging in his eyes. But he did not compare to the beast who guarded his domain. The beast whose face was too rough to be considered anything other than savage. The beast whose massive body should have frightened her but only made her feel safe. The beast whose monstrous appearance should have disgusted her but didn’t. Instead, his brown eyes—eyes she’d once considered impassive, but after today, now saw as haunted—captivated her. And, of course, his protective nature intrigued her.
She might never have become interested in the Guardian, might have continued to assume he was like every other hated creature here, but then he’d saved her life that first time. Sadly, even immortal goddesses could be slain—a prospect that had never been clearer as the outer gates had parted to welcome a spirit and a minion slipped free, racing toward her, hungry for living flesh.
She’d frozen, knowing her death was imminent.
The Guardian—what was his name?—had intervened, destroying the fiend with one swipe of his poisoned claw before it had made contact with her. He hadn’t spoken to her afterward, and she hadn’t spoken to him, her belief that he was like all the other creatures in this underworld shaken but not yet completely broken.
She’d begun to study him, though. Over time, she’d become fascinated by his complexities.
He was a destroyer, yet he’d saved her. He had nothing, yet he hadn’t asked for anything in exchange. How rare that was. How strange. How…welcome. She now wanted to do something for him. Anything, as she’d told him. And for one stolen moment, she’d thought he meant to request a kiss. His gaze had fallen to her lips, and lingered. Utter longing had radiated from him.
Please, she had almost begged. Her heart rate had sped up, her mouth had watered. What would he taste like? But then his expression had cleared, he had looked away and shaken his head. No.
Her disappointment had nearly felled her. Push him, however, she would not do. He’d already done so much for her. Still, she couldn’t help but wonder, hope…did he favor her in return? For that stolen moment, she would have sworn she saw white-hot flames in his eyes, flames that had nothing to do with the damned.
“Am I so boring you cannot grant me your attention after you summoned me? Twice.”
The question returned her to the present, and she could have slapped herself. Do you want to lose this match of wits with the prince of darkness? “Boring?” She shrugged. To say yes would be asking him to liven things up. To say no would be telling him she enjoyed him. In his mind, at least. Neither would end well for her.
Lucifer regarded her silently as he settled atop his throne. Instantly, swirling, ghostly souls began writhing between the bones and ash. A bejeweled goblet materialized, already clutched in his hand, and he sipped from it. A drop of crimson slid down the corner of his mouth and trickled onto his stark white shirt. Blood.
Revulsion besieged her, but she kept her expression neutral.
“You are disgusted by me but do not show it,” he said with another of those wicked smiles. “Where is the mouse who usually visits? The one who trembles and stumbles over her words? I like her better.”
Kadence raised her chin. He could call her all the names he wished, but she wouldn’t comment. “Your walls have been compromised, and a horde of demons fights to escape.”
The prince quickly lost his smile. “You lie. They would not dare.”
His agitation was understandable. Without his legions, he would have no one to rule. “You’re right. Your band of thieves, rapists and murderers would not dare disobey their sovereign.”
His eyes narrowed in a show of anger. One he quickly masked by shrugging casually. “So the walls are compromised. What do you expect me to do about it?”
She should not have been surprised. Always he made things difficult. “The Guardian. He can help me stop the ones responsible. But as you own his soul, he must first gain your permission.”
Lucifer snorted. “No. I will not grant it. Not for any reason. I like him where he is.”
Yes. Difficult. “Why?”
“I need a reason? Well, then. Let’s see. Let’s see.” He tapped his chin with a fingertip. “What about, my last guard fell victim to a demon’s lies and almost allowed a legion to escape.”
A lie of his own? The Guardian she knew had been here far longer than she, so she did not know if anyone else had ever stood in his place. “This one could just as easily fall.” Now that was a lie. No one was more determined. There would be no falling. Not for him.
“No.” Lucifer shook his head. “Geryon is impervious to their wiles.”
Geryon. Finally. A name. Greek in origin, meaning monster.