“After,” he managed to croak.
Was that…disappointment clouding her expression? Surely not.
“Very well,” she said. No emotion. “After. But Geryon, I must warn you. There is a chance we will not survive.”
“What do you mean?”
“After we have repaired the wall, we must hunt and kill the demons who would destroy it. Are you sure you wish to wait?”
Hunt and destroy the demons. Of course. The answer was so clear, he was embarrassed that he had not thought of it. By killing the High Lords, they would be committing a crime, and they would be punished. Perhaps be put to death.
“So…your kiss?” she prompted softly.
Had he not known better, he would almost think her…eager.
But he did know better. Agreeing to Lucifer’s bargain had been difficult. Or so he’d thought at the time. This was a thousand times more so. “After,” he repeated. He would earn that kiss, and hopefully, she would not ever think back on it and consider him unworthy.
She nodded, and once again looked away from him. “Then let us begin our work.”
FOR HOURS G ERYON WORKED at repairing the outer wall, pleading with Kadence all the while to remain behind. Demons were dangerous, he said. Demons liked their prey alive and fresh, he said. What he did not say was that she was fragile, breakable. No, he did not need to say it; she read the thoughts in the ever-growing concern in his eyes.
Through it all, she refused to allow him to be alone. She had not bartered something that would surely earn her the wrath of the gods, only to send him on a mission he could not hope to win without her.
While the demons were not hers to command, she could force them to bow to her. She hoped. Besides, she might appear fragile and breakable, but she possessed a core of iron.
Something she’d finally proven to Lucifer earlier. As well as herself.
As a child, she had been an indomitable force. A whirlwind that trampled anything and everything in her path. It had not been intentional. She’d simply followed the quiet urgings inside her head. Dominate. Master.
Do you really wish to think of this now?
No better time, she supposed. Only other thing to think about was why Geryon had not wanted to kiss her when she’d offered. Why he’d actually looked alarmed. A few ideas came to mind: he did not really want to kiss her—but why then would he have requested one? Or he resented her for asking for his aid—this was the most likely—and last, he was simply desperate for a woman, she was the only one available, yet he had to force his body to react first.
She could have helped him rather than simply pondering, but he had shooed her away every time she tried. When she joined him anyway, he’d threatened to leave her if she did not stop. So here she was, doing nothing. Useless.
I am not weak, damn it. Even though, for the most part, I have acted like it.
When, as a child, she’d realized she had chipped away at her own mother’s strength of mind, turning the once vibrant goddess into a lifeless shell, she had retreated inside herself, afraid of who and what she was. Afraid of what she could do, unintentional though it was.
Sadly, with those fears came others, as if she’d opened a doorway in her mind and placed a welcome mat out front. Fear of people, places, emotions. For centuries she had acted like the mouse Lucifer had called her.
Underneath the fears, however, she was still the goddess she’d been born to be: Oppression. She conquered. She did not cower. Please, do not let me cower. Not any longer.
“I have done all I can for the outer wall,” Geryon suddenly said.
Kadence had been perched on a nearby rock, and now stood. Her robe fell to her ankles, swaying.
“Once I pry the gate’s boulders apart—” boulders that blocked the cavern from a yawning pit “—we must hurry. We will only have a small slit to pass through, but we cannot let that slow us.”
Or someone—or thing—could escape. “I understand,” she said, closing the distance between them.
“There will be no ledge for us to stand upon. We must hold on to the boulder and work our way down the pit.”
Only after she nodded did he shove and push, creating the aforementioned slit.
Instantly flames and scaled arms reached out. Screams permeated the air. Geryon entered first, commanding all to recede. To her surprise, the demons darted away, the flames died, and the screams quieted as she came through, her body swinging from the natural world into the spiritual one. Part of her wanted to believe they had done so because they’d been afraid of her. The other part of her knew they’d feared Geryon’s wrath.
She held onto the boulder with every bit of her strength as Geryon closed the slit. To let go was to freefall into Hell, a fiery pit just waiting to gobble them up.
“Ready, goddess?” He inched his way toward her. He had swung to the left of the gate, and she the right. “Ready?” he insisted, reaching for her. To protect her? Aid her?
“Yes.” Finally, I will know his touch. Surely it will not be as divine as my body expects. Nothing could be. But just before contact, he moved behind her, then away from her, all without touching her. She sighed in disappointment and tightened her grip on the wall, balancing her feet on a rocky protrusion as best she could.
“This way.” He motioned toward this side’s crack with a tilt of his chin.
“All right. And Geryon? Thank you. For everything.” Usually she whisked herself to Lucifer’s palace without ever opening the gate, too afraid of this. Not today. She couldn’t. For she could not whisk Geryon. Or anyone else, for that matter. The ability extended only to herself.
“You are welcome.”
As she passed, she waved one hand over the now-closed slit. Because there was no longer a guardian stationed out front, the extra fortification would be needed—despite the fact that providing it weakened her, forcing her to leave a piece of herself behind.
As fragments of her power adhered to the stones, she was careful to maintain distance from them. Supposedly Geryon was the only one who could touch the handles of the gate without consequence. Well, besides Hades and Lucifer. Anyone else, the stones heaped untold pain and horror upon.
She had never dared test the supposition.
A thought occurred to her, and she tilted her head, studying her companion. Without Geryon at the gate, who would open the stones to allow damned souls inside?
Perhaps Lucifer had already appointed another Guardian. Perhaps? She chuckled without humor. He had. He couldn’t leave the gates unguarded, even if he had known Kadence would refortify it.
The knowledge that Geryon would not be the man she saw every day…saddened her. For when the wall was safe—she would not allow herself to believe she would fail in this mission—Geryon could leave, but she would be stuck here.
Do not think about that now. She would cry. If she cried, her vision would blur and if her vision blurred, she would have trouble knowing where to place her hands. Her still sweating hands.
She glanced around. The air was smokier here, she noticed, hotter. So hot, in fact, that the sheen of sweat spread up her arms, her neck, even her face. Beads formed, and those beads began trickling down her temples, blurring her vision.
“Geryon,” she said, nearing a panic.
“I am here, Kadence.” In the next instant, he was climbing over her and positioning himself behind again. The scent of decadent, powerful male enveloped her, chasing away the pungent odor of decay. “Are you all right?”
“Yes,” she whispered, but gods, what had she gotten herself into?
“MOVE WITH ME,” Geryon told Kadence. “Can you do that?”
“Yes. Of course.” Could she? Maintaining a firm grip, she used the jagged stones to edge along, ever conscious of the seemingly endless void awaiting her should she lose her balance—but far more aware of the male still behind her, caging her in, keeping her steady. “Perhaps the wall is not as damaged as I feared. A goddess can hope, at least.”
“Yes, a goddess can hope.”
How she yearned to rub against him, to drink in his strength, belong to him if only for a moment, but she did not, too afraid of distracting him. Or startling him. Or giving him too much of her weight and causing him to fall.
A rock tumbled from the small ledge on which she had just placed her foot, and she yelped.
“Do not show your fear in any way,” he said. “The demons and the flames feed on it, will try to increase it.”
“They are alive? The flames, I mean.”
“Some of them, yes.”
Dear gods. How had she not known? “I did not imagine the climb would be difficult. I wish I could flash us.”
“The ability to move from one location to another with only a thought.”
“You have this ability?”
“And you can go anywhere?”
“Anywhere I have already been. To flash somewhere I have not is…dangerous.”
He thought for a moment. “Have you been to the bottom of this cavern?”
“No.” He had to wonder why she, one of the keepers of Hell, had not physically visited every inch. She had thought herself so clever, merely sending her mind through to watch. But she realized her mistake now.
“Then I ask that you do not try to flash. You might misjudge the distance and end up in a spot without a ledge.”
Or underground, but she did not tell him that.
“That is a handy power to possess. I envy you.”
Poor man. He’d been stuck at the gates of Hell for countless lifetimes. “If you could flash to anywhere in the world, where would you go?” Once they’d destroyed the demons trying to escape, perhaps she would take him there. She would not be able to remain with him, of course, but seeing his happiness could fuel her fantasies for years to come.
He grunted. “I do not wish to lie to you, goddess, therefore I will not answer your question.”