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"They don't seem to care that they're dying."
Aeron, an immortal warrior possessed by the demon of Wrath, was perched atop the roof of the Bubajos Apartments in central Budapest, peering down at the humans so blithely going about their evening. Some were shopping, some talking and laughing, and some snacking while they walked. But none of them were dropping to their knees and begging the gods for more time in those feeble bodies. Nor were they sobbing because they wouldn't get it.
He shifted his focus from the people to their surroundings. Muted moonlight spilled from the sky, blending with the amber glow of the street lamps and casting shadows on the paved pathways. Buildings stretched on every side, some of the higher points wrapped in light green awnings, the perfect contrast to the emerald trees rising from their bases.
Pretty, as far as coffins went.
Humans knew they were fading. Hell, they grew up knowing they'd have to abandon everything and everyone they loved, and yet, as he'd already observed, they didn't demand or even request more time. And that fascinated him. Were Aeron to learn he'd soon be separated from his friends, the other demon-possessed warriors he'd spent the last few thousand years protecting, he would have done anythingyes, even begto change his fate.
So why didn't the mortals? What did they know that he did not?
"They aren't dying," his friend Paris said from beside him. "They're living while they have the chance."
Aeron snorted. That wasn't the answer he sought. For how could they live while they had the chance when their "chance" was a mere blink of time? "They're frail. Easily destroyed. As you well know." Cruel of him to say because Paris's girlfriend? Lover? Chosen female? Whatever she was, she'd recently been shot to death in front of Paris. Still, Aeron couldn't regret his words.
Paris was the keeper of Promiscuity, forced to bed a different human every day or he would weaken and die himself. He couldn't afford to mourn the loss of one specific lover. Especially an enemy lover, which was what his little Sienna had been.
Aeron hated to admit it, but on some level, he was glad the woman was dead. She would have used Paris's needs against him and ultimately ruined him.
I, however, will ensure his safety always. It was a vow. The king of the gods had given Paris a choice: the return of his female's soul or Aeron's freedom from a horrific blood-craze that constantly danced thoughts of maiming and killing through his mind. Thoughts, he was ashamed to admit, he had acted upon. Over and over again.
Because of that curse, Reyes, the keeper of the demon of Pain, had almost lost his beloved Danika. In fact, Aeron had been poised to strike that final blow, blade sharpened, raised falling toward her pretty neck.
But just before contact, Paris had chosen Aeron and the craze had instantly left him, sparing Danika's life.
Part of Aeron still felt guilty about what had almost happenedand about the consequences of Paris's choice. A guilt that was like acid in his bones, eating away at him. Paris now suffered while he reveled in his freedom. That didn't mean he would show Paris mercy in this matter, however. He loved his friend too much for that. More than that, Aeron owed him. And Aeron always repaid his debts.
Hence the reason they were on this roof.
Taking care of Paris, though, was not an easy task. For the past six nights Aeron had carted his friend here amid ceaseless protests. Paris had only to pick a woman, then Aeron would procure her and ensure the two were safe while they had sex. But each night the choice was made later. And later.
Aeron had a feeling he and Paris would sit here and talk until sunrise this time.
Had the now-depressed warrior eschewed these weak mortals as Aeron did, he would not currently be wishing for something he couldn't have. He would not be desperate for itand denied it for all eternity.
Aeron sighed. "Paris," he began. Then stopped. How should he proceed? "Your mourning must end." Good. To the point, just as he preferred. "It's weakening you."
Paris ran his tongue over his teeth. "As if you're one to talk about weakness. How many times have you been Wrath's bitch? Countless. And in how many of those countless instances can you blame the gods? Only once. When that demon overtakes you, you lose all control of your actions. So don't add hypocrisy to your list of sins, okay?"
He didn't take offense. Sadly, Paris's claim was irrefutable. Sometimes Wrath would seize control of Aeron's body and fly him through town, striking at everyone within reach, hurting them and gorging on their terror. During those instances, Aeron was aware of what was happening, but unable to halt the carnage.
Not that he always wanted the carnage to halt. Some people deserved what they got.
But he did loathe losing control of his body, as if he were merely a puppet with strings. Or a monkey who danced on command. When he was reduced to such a state, he despised his demonbut not as much as he despised himself. Because with the hatred, he also experienced pride. In Wrath. Wresting the reins of control from him required power, and power of any kind was to be prized.
Still. The love-hate tug-of-war disturbed him.
"You might not have meant to, but you've just proven my point," he said, jumping back into conversation. "Weakness births destruction. No exceptions." In Paris's case, mourning was simply another word for distracted. And such distraction could prove fatal.
"What does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with the humans down there?" Paris pointed.
Big picture time. "Those people. They age and deteriorate in a heartbeat of time."
"And let me finish. If you fall in love with one of them, you might have her for the better part of a century. Maybe, if disease or an accident do not befall her. But it will be a century spent watching her wither and die. And during it all, you'll know an eternity without her awaits you."
"Such pessimism." Paris tskedhardly the reaction Aeron had expected. "You see it as a century spent losing that which you are unable to protect. I see it as a century spent enjoying a great blessing. A blessing that will aid you the rest of eternity."
Aid? Absurd. When you lost something precious, the memories of it became a tormenting reminder of what you could never have again. Those memories added to your troubles, distracting youunlike Paris, he wouldn't wrap the word in a pretty bowrather than strengthening you.
Proof: that's how he felt about Baden, keeper of Distrust and once his best friend. Long ago, he'd lost the man he'd loved more than he would have loved even a blood brother, and now, every time he was alone, he pictured Baden and wondered about what could have been.
He didn't want that for Paris.
Forget big picture. Time for a little more mercilessness. "If you're so capable of accepting loss, why do you still mourn Sienna?"
A beam of moonlight hit Paris's face, and Aeron saw that his eyes were slightly glazed. Obviously, he'd been drinking. Again. "I didn't have my century with her. I had but a few days." Flat tone.
Don't stop now. "And if you had been given a hundred years with her before she died, you would now be at peace with her death?"
There was a pause.
He hadn't thought so.
"Enough!" Paris slammed a fist into the roof and the entire building shook. "I don't want to talk about this anymore."
Too bad. "Loss is loss. Weakness is weakness. If we don't allow ourselves to grow attached to the humans, we won't care when they leave us. If we harden our hearts, we won't desire that which we cannot have. Our demons taught us that very well."
Each of their demons had once lived in hell and desired freedom, and so together they fought their way out. Only, they ended up exchanging one prison for another, and the second had been far worse than the first.
Rather than enduring sulfur and flames as they had before, they spent a thousand years trapped inside Pandora's box. A thousand years of darkness and desolation and pain. They'd had no independence, no hope for something better.
Had those demons been stronger, had they not craved that which was forbidden to them, they would not have been captured.
Had Aeron been stronger of will, he would not later have helped open that box. Would not then have been cursed to house the very evil he had released inside his own body. Would not have been kicked from the heavens, the only home he'd ever known, to spend the rest of eternity in this chaotic land where nothing stayed the same.
He would not have lost Baden while warring with Huntersdespicable mortals who abhorred the Lords, blaming them for the world's evil. A friend just died of cancer? Of course the Lords were responsible. A teenage girl just discovered she was pregnant? The Lords had clearly struck again.
Had he been stronger, he would not be caught up in that war once again, fighting, killing. Always killing.
"Have you ever yearned for a mortal?" Paris asked, drawing him from his dark thoughts. "Sexually?"
A quiet laugh escaped him. "Welcome a female into my life one day, only to lose her the next? No." He was smarter than that.
"Who says you have to lose her?" Paris withdrew a flask from the inside of his leather jacket and took a long swig.
More alcohol already? Clearly his little pep talk hadn't done his friend a bit of good.
After swallowing, Paris added, "Maddox has Ashlyn, Lucien has Anya, Reyes has Danika and now Sabin has Gwen. Even Gwen's sister, Bianka the Terrible, has a lover. An angel I had to oil-wrestle, but whatever. We won't talk about that part."
Oil-wrestling? Yes. Best to avoid. "Those couples have each other, but each of those women has an ability that sets her apart from the others of her kind. They're more than human." That didn't mean they would live forever, though. Even immortals could be slain. He'd been the one to pick up Baden's headwithout the warrior's body. He'd been the one to first glimpse that eternally frozen expression of shock.
"Well, hello, solution. Find a female with an ability that sets her apart," Paris said dryly.
As if it were that easy. Besides "I have Legion, and she's all I can handle at the moment." He pictured the little demon so like a daughter to him and grinned. When standing, she only reached his waist. She had green scales, two tiny horns that had just sprouted atop her head and sharp teeth that produced poisonous saliva. Tiaras were her favorite accessory and living flesh her favorite meal.
The first he enjoyed indulging, the second they were working on.
Aeron had met her in hell. Well, as close to the blistering pit as a man could get without actually melting inside its flames. He'd been chained next door, so to speak, drunk with that cursed bloodlust, determined to slay even his friends, when Legion had dug her way to him, her presence somehow clearing his mind, giving him the strength he so prized. She'd helped him escape, and they'd been together ever since.
Except for now. His precious baby girl had returned to hell, a place she despised, all because an honest-to-the-gods angel had been watching Aeron, skulking in the shadows, invisible, waiting for something. What, he didn't know. He only knew that intense gaze wasn't on him right now, but it would return. It always did. And Legion couldn't stand it.
He leaned back and peered up at the night sky. The stars were vivid tonight, like diamonds scattered across black satin. Sometimes, when he craved even the illusion of solitude, he would soar as high as his wings would take him and then fall, fast and sure, only slowing seconds before impact.
As Paris downed another mouthful of his liquor, the scent of ambrosia wafted on the breeze, as gentle and sweet as baby's breath. Aeron shook his head. Ambrosia was his friend's drug of choice, the only thing capable of numbing mind and body for men such as them, but its use was getting out of hand, making the once fierce soldier sloppy.
With Galen, leader of the Hunters and a demon-possessed warrior like them, roaming the streets, he needed his friend lucid at the very least. Factor in the angel, and well, he needed his friend in top fighting form. Angels, as he'd recently learned, were demon-assassins.
Did this angel want to kill him? He wasn't sure, and Bianka's consort, Lysander, wouldn't tell him. But then, the answer really didn't matter. He planned to gut the coward, male or female, the moment it grew some balls and appeared in front of him.
No one separated him from Legion. Not without suffering for it. Legion could even now be hurting, mentally and physically. At the thought, Aeron's hands clenched so tightly the bones nearly fractured. The little darling's brethren enjoyed taunting her for her kindness and compassion. They also enjoyed chasing her, and gods knew what they'd do to her if they actually caught her.
"Much as you love Legion," Paris began, once again dragging Aeron from the sharply tangled mire of his thoughts. He tossed a stone at the building across from them before draining the rest of the flask. "She can't meet all your needs."
Meaning sex. Could they not abandon this topic once and for all? Aeron sighed. He hadn't bedded a woman in years, perhaps centuries. They simply weren't worth the effort. Because of Wrath, his desire to hurt them soon outweighed his desire to please them. More, as tattooed and battle-hardened as Aeron was, he had to work for every scrap of affection he received. Females were scared of himand rightly so. Softening them required time and patience he didn't have. After all, there were a thousand other, more important things he could be doing. Things like training, guarding his home, guarding his friends. Indulging Legion's every whim.
"I have no such needs." And for the most part, that was true. Disciplined as he was, he rarely indulged in pleasures of the flesh. Only time he did so was while alone. "I have everything I desire. Now, did we come here to share our feelings or find you a lover?"
With a growl, Paris tossed the empty flask as he'd tossed the stone. It slammed into the building's wall, plumes of dust and rock filling the air. "One day, someone's going to fascinate you, draw and ensnare you, and you'll crave her with every cell in your body. I hope she drives you insane. I hope, for a little while at least, she denies you, leading you on a merry chase. Perhaps then you'll understand a glimmer of my pain."
"If that's what's necessary to repay the favor you did me, then I'll gladly endure such a fate. I'll even beseech the gods for it." Aeron couldn't imagine ever wanting a female, immortal or human, so much that it disrupted his life. He wasn't like the other warriors, who constantly sought companionship. He truly was happiest when he was alone. Or rather, alone with Legion. Besides, he was too proud to chase after someone who didn't return his ardor.
But he'd meant what he said. For Paris, he'd endure anything. "Did you hear that, Cronus?" he shouted to the heavens. "Send me a female. One who will torment me. One who will deny me."