The Morningstar rested a moonlight-gilded talon against Dante’s chest just above his heart. Pain throbbed at Dante’s temples, swirled through his thoughts like a red-hot poker as he met the fallen angel’s blue gaze. Tension corkscrewed his muscles.
Keep focused. Stay here. Get this done.
The Morningstar lifted a brow. “Two weeks enough time?”
“I’ll take it.”
“Breathe in,” the Morningstar suggested.
Dante drew in a breath of cool, jasmine-scented air. Pain needled his chest as the Morningstar’s talon pierced his skin, sliding its full length into his pectoral muscle, then out. The image of a wasp’s stinger flared in Dante’s mind, then faded. His heart kicked hard against his ribs. Stay here.
Blood welled hot against the wound and Dante watched as the Morningstar traced a pattern in the blood with his finger—a symbol, a sigil—murmuring in a language Dante didn’t know, but the words strummed against his heart like fingers across guitar strings.
“A vow made in blood and fire,” Lucien translated, his voice tight, “a promise to return to Gehenna in two weeks, a pledge freely given, shaped in blood and sealed with fire . . .”
Heat trailed the Morningstar’s finger, burning against Dante’s blood-slicked skin like a lighter’s flame.
“ . . . and if the pledge isn’t honored, if you do not return as promised, then this mark will remind you and compel you. Shall give you no other choice but to return and fulfill your obligation.”
The Morningstar pressed his hot palm against the blood sigil he’d just traced on Dante’s skin. “This will hurt,” he warned in a whisper. “A lot.”
Nodding, Dante tensed his muscles. Took another deep breath. Then a bolt of lightning struck him straight through the heart. Electricity surged through his skull. His muscles locked. He felt his body spasming. The electric smell of ozone and the stink of scorched blood—his own—curled into his nostrils.
Molten chains coiled around his heart and locked into place.
As suddenly as it had begun, the pain stopped. The lightning vanished. Dante felt himself falling, felt hands seize his biceps, hold him steady. Kept him on his feet.
“It’s done,” the Morningstar said.
Dante blinked away the black spots flecking his vision, sucked in a ragged breath. “Christ. I think hurt a lot was a bit of a fucking understatement,” he muttered.
A smile quirked at the corners of the Morningstar’s mouth. “A bit,” he agreed. He dropped his hands from Dante’s arms.
Dante looked down at the sigil seared into his chest. No visible burn, just ridged white skin in the shape of an upside-down pyramid with a smaller reversed triangle hooked to its base with graceful curlicues. A scar. His first.
“You okay, Baptiste?”
Dante turned and looked at Heather, saw the strain on her face, the fear in her eyes, felt her fatigue. “Ça va bien, catin,” he replied. He reached for her hand, folded his fingers through hers. “We’re done here. Let’s go home, yeah?”
A weary smile curved Heather’s lips. “Oh, hell yeah.”
“Wait! You can’t leave.”
The Morningstar’s daughter, Hekate, hurried across the terrace, her sandals pattering against the marble, and brushed between Lucien and her frowning father. “What of my mother, little creawdwr?” She stopped in front of Dante, her violet eyes meeting his, wavy tendrils of moon-silvered hair framing her face. “What of all the others you’ve turned to stone? Our emissaries?”
“Who’s your mom?” Dante asked.
The Morningstar grasped his daughter’s elbow. “Not now. There will be time for this later.”
Hekate yanked free of her father’s hold and said, “My mother’s name is Lilith.”
Dante remembered Lilith—golden eyes, midnight hair, rain-beaded face. Remembered her lies even better.
Your father’s dead, little one . . . Gone to ash. Nothing remains.
Hekate’s pale brows knitted together, her expression disbelieving. As she opened her mouth to protest or argue or—given the sudden frost in her eyes—cuss him out, another voice cut in. A familiar voice. A lecturing voice.
Dante’s hunger shoved its way up, back from below.
“A fate no doubt deserved by our lovely Lilith of Lies. But as for the others, their only intention was to welcome you.”
Golden wings folded behind him, Gabriel strolled from the arched doorway onto the landing terrace, the ends of his whiskey-amber hair curling against the waistline of his blood red kilt, his eyebrows lifted in a stern expression edged with mock regret—like fucking Papa whenever he took off his belt and looped it.
Stopping beside the chick with the veil and the dude with the crimson wings and hot honey gaze, Gabriel touched a hand to his healed throat. “Creawdwr,” he murmured, moss green eyes wary.
“Gabriel,” Dante drawled. “I’m still trying to picture what’d you’d look like on hooks down in the pit. Got a feeling you’d look much like Lucien did.”
Gabriel’s expression hardened and a challenge flared like match-sparked gasoline in his eyes. As he opened his mouth to reply, the Celestial with the red wings laughed, a low and sexy sound like warm silk sliding along naked flesh.
“Now there’s an image to inspire sweet dreams,” the red-winged angel said.
“Keep your opinions to yourself, Eros,” Gabriel growled, folding his arms over his sculpted bare chest.
Dante listened to the slow, strong rhythm of Gabriel’s heart, smelled the blood pulsing beneath his skin. Smelled bitter anger. Drew in a deep breath. And wrenched his gaze away from the artery pulsing in Gabriel’s muscle-corded throat.
No time to feed. Time only to haul ass.
“The Fallen-turned-to-stone issue is one we can deal with when I come back for the meet-and-greet,” Dante said, returning his gaze to Hekate. “But not your mom. That’s settled.”
Fury danced in Hekate’s eyes and her scent—apple blossoms and cool, shaded water—thickened. She opened her mouth, then closed it abruptly. She glared at her father as they shared a silent and heated exchange.
A warm hand touched Dante’s shoulder. He looked up into Lucien’s eyes. “Will you give me a moment?” he asked, casting a glance at Hekate.
Surprise flickered through Dante, but remembering how the Morningstar’s daughter had caught Lucien during his tumble back into the pit, her white wings sweeping through the sulfurous air, he realized that whatever Lucien felt for her was mutual.
“Yeah, sure,” Dante said, exchanging a look with Heather.
A smile brushed Lucien’s lips as he swiveled around to face Hekate. He extended his hand to her. “Come with us,” he said, voice low. “There’s no longer a need to protect your parents. Experience the mortal world you’ve yearned for but always been denied. You can begin with New Orleans.”
The Morningstar stiffened at Lucien’s words, his eyes going black as outrage swallowed their light. He stepped forward, then glanced at Dante.
Dante mouthed: Stay the fuck out of it.
A muscle twitched near the Morningstar’s left eye. Drawing in a deep breath, he paced back a step.
Hekate slipped her hand into Lucien’s without hesitation, her violet, gold-flecked eyes meeting his. “I would like that—very much. But not now, not yet.” She leveled an icy gaze on Gabriel. “I have a few things to tend to first.”
“He had you cast into the pit and put on hooks,” Lucien said. “I hope you’re planning to hurt him. A lot.”
Hekate laughed, the sound like delicate chiming bells, like musical silver. “I hadn’t realized you were a romantic.”
Lucien kissed her hand, then released it. “There’s much about me you don’t know,” he said. “Voice your wybrcathl when you finally cross the gate and I’ll find you.”
“I will,” Hekate promised. Rosy color blossomed on her cheeks.
Turning back to Dante, Lucien said, “I’m ready.”
“We’ll see you out,” Uriel said, nodding at the entry.
“Ain’t necessary,” Dante said. “We can find our own way.”
“I insist,” Uriel said through his teeth.
“Whatever.” Heather’s hand still wrapped up in his, Dante led the way across the arched threshold, walking into the lamp-lit corridor beyond.
“Are those . . . shovels?” Lucien asked.
“Yes,” Heather replied, voice tight. “That’s exactly what they are.”
Something abruptly shifted inside Dante’s head. Scattered his thoughts. White light strobed at the edges of his vision. Scalding pain corkscrewed into place through his left eye as his migraine revved into the red zone. His breath caught in his throat. Wasps droned up from the scorched depths within, carrying voices on their burning wings.
Time to get yo’ ass down in the basement, p’tit.
My little night-bred beauty. You’ll survive anything I might do to you.
She trusted you. I guess she got what she deserved.
How does it feel, marmot?
Like hell, but I’m digging my way out. Dante shoved the pain and voices below, not sure either would stay there, but tamping them down as hard as he could.
As he passed them, Dante looked at the blue-bladed shovels lining both walls like swords bracketed to the marble. Another of his accidental creations, but one he felt indicated the path he needed to walk—one forged from his past, but a past that no longer controlled him, a past he was free to walk away from.
Boy needs a lesson. Boy always needs a lesson.
Not this time, Papa. This time I’m handing out the lessons.
Dante set a quick pace for the gate he’d punched into the aerie wall, the walk down the corridor silent except for the pad of Heather’s Skechers and the scrape of Fallen sandals against the marble floor.
When they reached the gate, Dante touched its smooth edge. It no longer glowed orange-white with molten heat, but the stone still felt warm beneath his fingers. “How do I close it?” he asked. “And once I do, will I have to punch it open again?”
“No, you should be able to open it again with just a thought or a touch,” a cool voice said. “But I shall need to teach you how to close it properly, and that will take time and practice.”
“Why?” Dante dropped his hand from the gate and turned around. “It didn’t take either to open—”
The fallen angel wearing the black cassock and priest’s collar met his gaze. A broken memory scraped through Dante’s mind, raking furrows of pain. His focus/vision splintered.
Facedown on a bare mattress, the smell of his own blood thick in his nostrils. The air’s cool breath paints searing pain across his back. His heart thunders in his ears.
“No one lights a lamp to cover it with a bowl or to put it under a bed,” a man’s low voice says, his words both instruction and prayer. “No, he puts it on a lampstand so that people may see the light when they come in.”
“Ain’t hiding an angel inside me, asshole,” Dante whispers for the millionth time. He twists his wrists again and again—on automatic—hoping the cuffs have weakened.
Another slice. Fresh blood spills hot down Dante’s side and soaks into the mattress. He bites into his constantly healing lower lip. Black flecks whirl through his vision.
“For nothing is hidden but it will be made clear, nothing secret but it will be known and brought to light.” Warm breath touches the cup of Dante’s ear. “I see your light hidden within. I shall bring it forth,” he promises. “As God commands.”
His fingers grasp the edges of Dante’s cut skin and yank, peeling it back.
Dante screams . . .
A tide of white silence washed over Dante, tumbling the memory back into the shattered depths below. From far away, he heard someone calling his name. A woman’s voice, steady and soothing and familiar.
“Baptiste. Stay here. Stay now.”
Warm hands cupped his face. Patted his cheek. He smelled lilac and sage.
“Baptiste. We need you here.”
Dante looked into twilight blue eyes, the first caress of evening. “Heather,” he breathed.
Relief glinted in those eyes. “We’re in Gehenna, about to leave, Baptiste. You with us now?”
Dante nodded. “Oui. Yeah. J’su ici.”
“Okay then,” Heather said, her hands slipping from his face. The others regarded him with varied expressions of concern, nervousness, or uncertainty.
“What was I talking about before I—” Dante twirled his hand in the air, index finger pointing at his temple.
The fallen priest cleared his throat, then said, “Closing the gate. You wanted to know why closing it would take time and practice when opening it hadn’t required either.”
Dante trailed a hand through his hair. “Yeah. D’accord. I remember. So spill, how come?”
The Fallen priest studied the gate, lips pursed. “Because you used brute force and raw power to open the gate.” His attention returned to Dante, his blue eyes grave. “And you were lucky. You could have easily torn a hole in the time/space continuum instead, in which case we probably wouldn’t be having this conversation.”
Dante looked at the gate again and whistled low. “Shit.”
“Ditto that,” Heather murmured. “When that shock wave blasted through the cemetery . . .” She shook her head.
“Until I can train you in the proper opening and closing of gates, this one will be masked with an illusion so that no one shall see it for what it is.”
Dante shifted his attention back to the priest-garbed Fallen. “C’est bon. I appreciate that.” Pain throbbed at his temples as he looked the fallen angel over. “You a real priest or is that just for show in the mortal world?”
“I am a real priest,” was the reply. “I am called Father John there and simply Janus here.”
“Wait. So you live in the mortal world?” Heather asked.
Janus nodded. “Off and on. Yes. Some of us do—out of boredom or restlessness or curiosity. This is the first span of time I’ve spent among mortals in centuries.”
“Centuries?” Realization flickered in Heather’s eyes. She tilted her head. “Janus. As in the Roman god?”
A smile brushed Janus’s lips, and he inclined his head in acknowledgment. “A few of my original temples still remain in Rome and elsewhere in Italy.”
“And now you’re a fucking Catholic priest?” Dante asked. “Gotta hear the story behind that some night, but not tonight. See y’all in two weeks.” Spotting Gabriel behind the others, arms crossed over his chest, eyes hooded, Dante added, “And I’ll definitely be seeing you.”
A chiseled-ice smile stretched Gabriel’s lips. “I’ll be looking forward to it.”
Dante ducked down, intending to slip through the gate, but pain knuckled against his wing tips with bruising force instead, shuddering along his tender shoulder muscles, and stopping him cold. Little bits of marble snowflaked to the gate’s rim.
“Fuck.” He’d smacked his half-folded wings full-tilt into the gate.
“Perhaps you should tuck your wings into their pouches before exiting?” Astarte suggested helpfully.
“I would if I knew how,” Dante replied, straightening. His wing tips throbbed.
“Here,” Lucien said. Turning around, he offered Dante a view of his black wings. “Flex in and down, like so.” His wings compressed together with a soft rustle, then seemed to disappear into his back.
“Flex in and down,” Dante repeated. “D’accord.” Drawing in a deep breath of hyacinth and myrrh scented air, he attempted to imitate Lucien’s movements. On the third nerve-tingling try, he felt his wings contract and kaleidoscope inward, felt their velvety slide beneath his skin. His shoulder muscles spasmed once, then quieted.
Dante blew out his breath. “Damn.”
“It’ll eventually become automatic,” Lucien said, sympathy and amusement lacing his voice. “You’ll even get them both in at the same time.”
“Terrific. Can’t wait,” Dante muttered. As he started to duck through the gate again, a strong-fingered hand gripped his shoulder, stopping him.
Catching a whiff of bitter orange and tree sap, Dante glanced back at the Morningstar. “I need to clear the way,” he said, releasing Dante’s shoulder. He arched a meaningful eyebrow.
From the night-shrouded cemetery beyond the gate, Dante heard the squelch of emergency radios, the murmur of incredulous voices. “Even with Heather, I can move fast enough that no one will ever see us.”
“Won’t be necessary,” the Morningstar said. Bending, he angled himself, body and wings, skillfully through the gate. Dante followed him, and was about to turn around and offer a hand to Heather when he froze, finally comprehending what he was seeing.
The cemetery had been destroyed.
Pale mist twisted around shattered tombs and crumbling crypts. Clung to fallen cypress and oaks. Snaked along fallen and severed statues. Cob-webbed chunks of broken masonry cluttering uprooted stone paths, draped the ruins of the cemetery walls. And in the street beyond, shards of glass hung from windows like jagged teeth. Cars were piled in the road at odd angles, crumpled and dented.
Blue and white and red lights strobed through the night.
Dante’s heart hammered against his ribs. Despite the blood racing through his veins, he felt ice-cold.
What the hell did I do?
“I need to fix this,” he whispered.
A warm hand tucked into his. Dante smelled lilac and evening rain.
“Yeah, you do,” Heather said. “But not tonight.”
“What the . . .? Are those people or ghosts?” A startled voice asked.
“Huh? Where? Christ!”
Several firemen in reflective tape-striped turnouts stood facing them, their eyes shadowed beneath their helmets, bodies rigid with surprise.
Standing on the path outside the tomb, the Morningstar tossed a glance over his shoulder at Heather before returning his attention to the mortals in front of him. “Cover your ears,” he told her.
Heather clamped her hands over ears as suggested.
The Morningstar unfolded his wings with a taut snap. Their undersides glimmered with a wet mother-of-pearl sheen, pale blue and purple. His body gleamed, as though captured sunlight burned beneath his skin.
The Morningstar’s radiance beamed throughout the ruined cemetery, searing away the low mist and bleaching the scene white.
Dante hastily reached for his shades and discovered he’d lost them. Again. Squinting, he shaded his eyes with the edge of his hand. His eyes teared.
“Shit,” Heather whispered.
The firemen lifted their arms to shield their faces from the blazing light.
“What the fuck is that?”
“Shit. Another bomb?”
“Holy fuck! Are those wings?”
The Morningstar’s voice pealed through the dying night. “Sleep.”
The firemen crumpled to the cracked stone path. Dante heard the soft thump of bodies falling throughout the cemetery, heard the clatter of dropped flashlights and equipment.
The Morningstar’s radiance dimmed. He swiveled to face Dante, his skin still glowing with light. His smile made Dante wish for his shades again.