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The darkest fire, p.1

  The Darkest Fire, p.1

   part  #0.5 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

The Darkest Fire
 

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The Darkest Fire
CHAPTER ONE

 

  Every day for hundreds of years the goddess had visited hell and every day Geryon had watched her from his station, desire heating his blood more than the flames of damnation beyond his post ever had. He should not have studied her that first time and should have kept his gaze downcast all the times since. He was a slave to the demons, spawned by evil; she was a goddess, created in light.

  He could not have her, he thought, hands fisting. No matter how much he might wish otherwise. This. . . obsession was pointless and brought him nothing but despair. He did not need more despair.

  And yet, still he watched her this day as she floated through the barren cavern, coral-tipped fingers tracing the jagged stones that separated underground from underworld. Golden ringlets flowed down her elegant back and framed a face so perfect, so lovely, Aphrodite herself could not compare. Eyes of starlight narrowed, a rosy color blooming in those cheeks of smooth alabaster.

  "The wall is cracked," she said, her voice like a song amid the hiss of nearby flame.

  He shook his head, positive he had merely imagined the words. In all their centuries together, they had never spoken, never deviated from their routine. As the Guardian of Hell, he ensured the gate remained closed until a spirit needed to be cast inside. That way, no one and nothing escaped - and if they tried, he rendered punishment. As the goddess of Oppression, she fortified the physical barrier with only a touch. Silence was never breeched.

  Uncertainty darkened her features. "Have you nothing to say?"

  She stood in front of him a moment later, though he never saw her move. The scent of honeysuckle suddenly overshadowed the stink of sulfur and melting flesh, and he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes in ecstasy. Oh, that she would remain just as she was. . .

  "Guardian," she prompted.

  "Goddess. " He forced his lids to open gradually, slowly revealing the glow of her beauty. Up close, she was not as perfect as he had thought. She was better. A smattering of freckles dotted her sweetly sloped nose, and dimples appeared with the curve of her half-smile. Exquisite.

  What did she think of him? he wondered.

  She probably thought him a monster, hideous and misshapen. But if she did, she did not show it. Only curiosity rested in those starlight eyes. For the wall, he suspected, not for him. Even when he'd been human, women had wanted nothing to do with him. Sometimes he'd wondered if he'd been tainted at birth.

  "Those cracks were not there yesterday," she said. "What has caused such damage?"

  "A horde of Demon Lords rise from the pit daily and fight to break out. They have grown tired of their confinement here and seek living humans to torment. "

  "Have you their names?"

  He nodded. "Violence, Death, Lies, Doubt, Misery. Shall I go on?"

  "No," she said softly. "I understand. The worst of the worst. "

  "Yes. They bang and they claw from the other side, desperate to reach the mortal realm. "

  "Well, stop them. " A command, laced with husky entreaty.

  In that moment, he would have given up the last vestiges of his humanity to do as she wished. Anything to repay the daily gift of her presence. Anything to keep her just where she was, prolonging the sweetness of her scent. "I am forbidden to leave my post, just as I am forbidden to open the gates for any reason but allowing one of the damned inside. I'm afraid I cannot grant your request. "

  A sigh slipped from her. "Do you always do as you're told?"

  "Always. " Once he had fought the invisible ties that bound him. Once, but no longer. To fight was to invite pain and suffering - not for him, but for others. Innocent humans who resembled his mother, his father and his brothers were brought here and tortured in front of him. The screams. . . oh, the screams. Had the pain and suffering been heaped upon him, he would not have cared. Would have laughed and fought all the harder. But Lucifer, brother to Hades and prince of the demons, knew exactly how to strike to ensure the desired results.

  "I expected differently. You are a warrior, so strong and assured. "

  Yes, he was a warrior. He was also a slave. "I am sorry. "

  "I will pay you to help me," the goddess insisted. "Name your price. Whatever you desire shall be yours. " CHAPTER TWO

 

  Whatever you desire shall be yours, she had said. If only, Geryon thought. He would ask for a single taste of her lips. But he would not risk the suffering of the innocent - why do you bother with them? - simply to sate his craving for the lovely goddess.

  The question that had drifted through his mind had him gritting his teeth. He bothered because without good, there would only be evil. And he had seen too much evil.

  "I am sorry, goddess. As I said, I cannot help you. "

  Her delicate shoulders sagged in disappointment. "But. . . why? You want to keep the demons inside of hell just as much as I do. "

  Geryon didn't want to tell her his reasons for refusing her, was still ashamed after all these centuries. Tell her, however, he would. Perhaps then she would return to the old ways and pretend he did not exist. As it was, his craving for her was growing, intensifying, his body hardening. Readying. She's not for you.

  "I sold my soul," he said. He had been one of the first humans to walk the earth. He'd been content with his lot and enraptured by his mate, even though she'd been chosen by his family and had not desired him in return. She had grown sick, and he had despaired. He had cried out to the gods for assistance, but they had ignored him. Then Lucifer had appeared before him.

  To save her and finally win her heart, Geryon had willingly given himself to the dark prince - and found himself transformed from man to beast. Horns had sprouted atop his head, and his hands had become claws. Dark, carmine fur covered the skin on his legs, while hooves replaced his feet. In seconds, he'd transformed, more animal than human.

  His wife had healed, as his contract with Lucifer stated, but she had not softened toward him. No, she had left him for another man. His hands fisted, claws digging deep into his palms, as he refocused on the goddess. "Though I wish otherwise, my actions are no longer mine to command. "

  The goddess studied him, her head tilting to the side. He shifted uncomfortably, such scrutiny unnerving given his sickening appearance. To his surprise, revulsion did not darken her lovely gaze as she said, "I will see what I can do. "

  Inner Corridors of Hell

  "Lucifer, hear me well. I demand to speak with you. You will appear before me. This day, in this room. Alone. I will remain exactly as I am. " Kadence, goddess of Oppression, knew to state her wants precisely or the demon prince would "interpret" them however he wished. Were she simply to demand an audience, he might whisk her to his bed, her arms and legs tied, her clothing gone, a legion surrounding her.

  Several minutes ticked by and there was no response to her summons. But then, she'd known there wouldn't be. He enjoyed making her wait. Made him feel powerful. She used the time to eye her surroundings. Rather than stone and mortar, the walls of Lucifer's palace were comprised of flames. Crackling, orange-gold. Deadly.

  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. She spent 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. She spent her nights surveying the wall. Every so often, she had to come to the palace and report an infraction.

  How could I not have known what was happening this time?

  Had Lucifer blocked her visions? If so, what did he hope to gain?

  She'd never felt more helpless.

  No, that wasn't true. During her first visit, Lucifer had sensed her trepidation - and he'd since ceased every opportunity to nurture it. A fire-coated touch here, a wicked taunt there. 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.

  You can do this. The outcome of this meeting was more important than any that had come before it. You can.

  Would the guardian care how much she risked for him?

  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 past few weeks, her body had been draining of strength, little by little, pains shooting through her. Now, at least, she knew why. Bound as she was to this dark underworld, that crack in the outer wall was literally killing her.

  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.

  "I've been waiting for your return," he said in the silkiest of voices. He even grinned, the expression pure wickedness. "What can I do for you, my darling?" CHAPTER THREE

 

  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 half-man, half-monster body should have disgusted her but didn't. Instead, his haunted brown eyes captivated her; his protective nature intrigued her.

  She might never have become interested in the guardian, might have assumed he was like every other hated creature here, but then he saved her life. 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. It should have been afraid of her, should have bowed to her, but had probably sensed her fear and reacted, racing straight for her, hungry for her living flesh.

  She'd frozen, but still it had not reached her.

  The guardian - what was his name? - had intervened, destroying the fiend with one swipe of his poisoned claw. 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 had 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.

  Did he favor her in return? Sometimes when he looked at her she would swear she saw white-hot flames that had nothing to do with the damned.

  Lucifer regarded her silently as he settled atop his throne of swirling, ghostly souls. 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.

  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. "

  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 fight 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. Then he gave a casual shrug to counteract the telltale sign. "So they're compromised. What do you want from me?"

  Always he made things difficult. "The guardian. He can help me stop the ones responsible. "

  Lucifer snorted. "No. I like him where he is. My last guard fell victim to a demon's lies and almost allowed a legion to escape. Geryon is impervious to their wiles. "

  She barely stopped herself from running her tongue over her teeth. Was this a game he played? He needed the wall repaired as much as she did; his refusal grated. Well, not as much, she mused. Unlike her, he would not die if the wall crumbled. "I am your sovereign," she said. "You will - "

  "You are not my sovereign," he growled in another display of anger. A deep breath in and out, and he calmed. "You are my. . . observer. You watch, you advise and you protect, but you do not command. "

  Because you are too weak, he did not say. But then, he didn't have to. They both knew it was true.

  Very well. She would go about this a different way. "Shall we bargain?" she asked.

  He nodded, as if he'd merely been waiting for the question. "We shall. "

  Gates of Hell

  "I do not understand," Geryon said, refusing to leave his post. He even crossed his arms over his chest, an action that reminded him of his human days, when he'd been more than guard, more than monster. "Lucifer would never have agreed to release me. "

  "I promise you, he agreed. You are free. " The goddess cast her gaze to her sandaled feet, saying no more.

  Did she hide something? Plan to trick him, for whatever reason? It had been so long since he'd dealt with a female, he wasn't sure how to judge her actions.

  She was paler than usual, he noted, the rosy glow in her cheeks gone, her freckles stark. Her golden ringlets tumbled down her shoulders and arms, and he could see soot woven throughout the fine strands. His hands ached to reach out, to sift those tresses through his fingers.

  Would she run screaming if he did so?

  Today she wore a violet robe and matching necklace - a necklace that boasted a teardrop amethyst as large as his fist and as bright as the glistening ice he had not seen in hundreds of years. She had never worn such a thing before; usually she draped herself in white, an angel among evil, with no adornment.

  "How?" he persisted. "Why?"

  "Does it matter?" Her gaze lifted, boring into him with the precision of a spear and cutting just as deep.

  "To me, yes. "

  She gave a little stomp of her foot. "To save the wall, I need your help. Let that be enough for now. " Her fingers beckoned him. "Come. I can show you the damage that has been done. "

  The goddess did not await his reply. She turned away from him and walked to the far corner of the wall. No, not walked. She glided, a dream of falling stars amid shimmering twilight.

  Geryon hesitated only a moment before following her, breathing deeply of her honeysuckle scent along the way. CHAPTER FOUR

 

  To Geryon's surprise, no one jumped from the shadows as he walked; no one waite
d to punish him for daring to leave his post. Was he truly free? Dare he hope?

  The goddess didn't face him when he reached her, but traced a fingertip along a thin, jagged groove in the middle stone. A groove that branched into smaller striations, like tiny rivers flowing from a churning ocean.

  "It's small, I know, but already it has grown from what I saw yesterday. If the demons continue their abuse, it will continue to grow until the rock splits completely in two, allowing legions to enter the human realm. "

  "Were a single demon released upon the unsuspecting world," he muttered, "death and destruction would reign. " Whether or not a punishment would be delivered to him, he would help her, Geryon decided. He could not allow such a thing to happen. Innocence should never be taken from the undeserving. It was too precious. "What would you have me do?"

  She gave a startled gasp. "You'll help me? Even knowing you are no longer bound to the prince?"

  "Yes. " If she spoke true and he was free, he had no place to go. Too many centuries had passed, his home gone. His family, dead. Besides, he might crave the very freedom the goddess promised but he feared trusting her. She might not intend malice, but Lucifer certainly would.

  With the prince, there was always a catch. Free today did not necessarily mean free tomorrow.

  No, he dare not hope.

  "Thank you. I didn't expect - I - Why did you sell your soul?" she asked softly, tracing the crack again.

  There was a beat of silence.

  "What would you have me do?" he repeated rather than answer. He did not wish to admit the reason for his folly and the subsequent humiliation.

  Her arm dropped to her side, and her expression softened. "I am Kadence," she said, as though he had asked for her name rather than instruction.

  Kadence. How he loved the way the syllables rolled through his mind, smooth as velvet - gods, how long since he'd touched a material so fine? - and sweet as wine. How long since he'd tasted such a drink?

  "I am Geryon. " Once, he'd had a different name. Upon arriving here, however, Lucifer had dubbed him Geryon. Guardian of the Damned, it translated to, which was what he was and all he would ever be.

  Some legends, a demon had once jeered at him, proclaimed him to be a three-headed centaur. Some, a vicious dog. Nothing compared to what he was, so he did not mind the stories.

  "I am yours to command," he said, adding, "Kadence. " Tasted even better on his tongue.

 
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