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By Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams, Laura Stone
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2014 Paige Cuccaro
All rights reserved.
My sixth sense wormed under my skin, burrowing beneath the hairs at the back of my neck, warning me. But my sleepy mind pouted, wanting to fight the tug from oblivion, trying to ignore the unrelenting question that crystallized in my drowsy thoughts. Did something just move in the corner?
My eyes blinked open, struggling to make more of the shadows cast upon a curtain of blackness. There was nothing to see. Yet still, my instinct wouldn't quiet, crawling over my body like an army of ants, refusing to allow me to look away.
Then it moved again.
My breath caught and held. I lay frozen, too shocked and scared to move a muscle. Slowly, I lifted my head just enough to peer deeper into that corner. Outside, a night owl hooted among the chirps of morning birds, and dawn hinted on the breeze, pushing back the night.
I narrowed my eyes as a body took shape in the darkness: a man, tall, dressed in faded jeans and a dark T-shirt. He edged from the deepest shadows into the dim light then stopped, watching me from no more than eight feet from the foot of my bed.
A manic kind of fear tightened across my chest, paralyzing me. My mind raced with a clamor of instincts: scream, run, hide. I did nothing, staring at the man, willing him to vanish like a bad dream.
Shadows masked his face, but the blond curls of his hair seemed to cast their own soft glow. Long arms hung at the sides of his lean, muscled frame. In his right hand a sword gleamed, its point nearly touching the floor.
Outside, a gentle wind pushed clouds from the moon, lifting shadows, finally revealing his face. I blinked again, not trusting my eyes.
"Tommy?" I whispered the name on an exhale, terror mixing with disbelief.
The boyish-faced man flashed a smile, blue eyes twinkling. "Hey, Emma. Long time no see."
"No. You're dead," I whispered again, swallowing against the fear drying my mouth.
"Yeah. I noticed that." His smile turned lopsided, less flashy and more genuine.
He'd died nearly two years ago, murdered right in front of me, stabbed through the heart by a demon. It was a common death for illorum, God's half-angel warriors. We weren't born illorum. We were born nephilim, half angel, half human, although most people like us don't even know what they are. But Tommy and I were different. We knew what we were because we'd been attacked by demons and used an illorum sword to defend ourselves. The angels considered this a sign that we joined to battle against all evil and called us, and the hundreds or thousands or who came before and after us, illorum. Now, death by demon was pretty much a daily risk.
"You're a ghost?" I asked. I'd seen weirder things.
He shrugged, glancing down at his sword and then back at me. "Don't know, really. Just wanted to talk with you, and here I am."
I pushed up in bed, still not sure I could trust my senses. Eli stirred beside me, and I froze for a solid minute, waiting for him to wake up or settle back into sleep.
Tommy waved off my concern. "Don't worry about it. He can't hear me."
I kept my voice to a whisper. "Why not?"
"Don't want him to."
"Good for you. What about me?" I stared at Eli. "We can't talk in here."
Tommy looked at the sleeping angel. "He can't hear you, either. I exist on a different plane, one where his kind isn't welcome. When we speak, your voice comes through on this plane, too. Eli is deaf to all of it now."
I tried not to let my guilt show. Eli's deep breaths picked up again, and I bunched my pillows at my back, hands trembling as I turned to the ghost at the foot of my bed.
Maybe I was still asleep, dreaming. It was a real possibility. What if this was my subconscious way of dealing with my guilt over Tommy's death? Maybe. I mean, Tommy had been a good friend. He'd protected me when I was first marked as an illorum. He'd shown me the ropes, kept me alive. It'd been his sword I used to kill my first demon. The damned thing had burned the illorum mark on my wrist, a sword with the crossed skeleton keys over the blade beneath the hilt. All illorum had the mark.
But I trusted Tommy, or at least I had, and that familiarity lifted a small measure of my fear. "It's good to see you. Are you okay? What happened after you ... after you died? Where did you go? Where have you been?"
He shrugged and glanced over his shoulder at something I couldn't see. "Don't know. My memory's kind of Swiss cheese. I just needed to tell you something."
"What?" I shifted, folding my legs yoga style, and readjusted the blanket and sheet.
"It wasn't your fault," he said. "It wasn't your fault that I died."
My chest pinched, and the pain of that day swamped over me as raw and heart-wrenching as it had nearly two years ago. He'd been so worried about me, worried the demon I'd been battling had gotten the best of me while he fought off two on his own. He'd turned to check on me, let down his guard, and a demon ran a sword through his back straight into his heart.
I didn't think it was my fault. I knew it was. I'd been twenty-three at the time, ignorant and clumsy. I'd been a distraction, and I'd cost him his life. Two years hadn't changed my mind on that fact.
Tears stung my eyes and burned at the back of my throat. I couldn't look at him. "Tommy, I'm so sorry—"
He stepped closer at the edge of my vision. "It was my fault, Em. Do you hear me? I got cocky. Careless. My mind was already out of the game, thinking I was almost done."
Tommy had figured out who his angelic father was, the Fallen who'd seduced his mother. If Tommy could've gotten close enough and killed his father, Tommy would've been free.
That was the agreement made between all illorum and the seraphim angels: find and kill the Fallen who'd fathered you and return to a normal life. Angels were only male, so at least that limited the hunt to one sex. We'd be forgiven for the blasphemy of our existence upon our father's death. No more demon attacks, no more Fallen, and no more of the cool, angelic powers that came with being an illorum. Like pushing the play button on our paused lives, we'd pick up where we'd left off. And Tommy had almost gotten to push that play button. Almost.
"Jesus, Em. You've gotta stop blaming yourself." He sighed and crossed the few steps to the chair of my vanity and plopped into it without a sound, then swiveled to face me. "Listen to me. You're not bad luck or evil. Okay? You've got a destiny, Emma, and you're the only one who can make it happen. You've got a job to do."
I looked away, my face warming. I hadn't told anyone about the doubts running circles in my brain. So many things had gone wrong for the good guys since I'd joined their ranks. We'd lost Tommy and so many other illorum, as well as countless magisters, the angelic trainers. The war between Fallen and seraphim had ignited right before my eyes. Battles broke out everywhere now, seraphim against Fallen, demons battling illorum, and more and more humans became caught in the crossfire.
Most humans remained oblivious to the war raging around them. Angels moved at blurring speeds, their battles as collisions of natural phenomena causing anomalies like pop-up storms, sudden tornados, or freak hail showers. Humans couldn't even see the angelic beings behind the disturbances. How long could humans remain clueless?
"A job to do. Right." I scanned the dim room, finally landing on the back of the vanity chair behind him. "Toss me those shorts."
He did. "Don't remember you being so modest."
The jean shorts nearly hit me in the face, but I caught them just in time. "Thanks. Hate to be the one to break it to you, buddy, but a lot's changed since you ... y'know."
"Checked out?" he supplied.
"Right." I glanced at Eli. He still breathed deeply and steadily, fast asleep. I carefully shifted to my edge of the bed, my back to Tommy so I could shimmy into the shorts. "Whatever my destiny was, it's not anymore. It can't be. Not after what I found out about myself. And whatever my destiny is now ... I don't want anything to do with it."
"Why, because you found out your angelic father isn't just any old fallen angel but a fallen archangel?" he asked.
I felt my face warm. "Among other things." I stood, fastened the top button of the shorts, and pulled my nightshirt straight. Being the daughter of an archangel had made me stronger and faster than the average illorum, but other than that, it pretty much sucked. Kind of like being Hitler's kid ... with superpowers. I was a ticking time bomb that both sides wanted to kill or use.
I walked lightly around the end of the bed, throwing another glance at Eli, making sure he was sleeping. I smiled at my old friend. "Nice to know you're up to speed, wherever you are."
He rolled a shoulder in a lazy shrug and leaned back to prop his feet, dirty sneakers and all, on the corner of my bed. "I know what I need to know. Don't know how. Don't really care."
My brain took notice of how the bed didn't move from the weight of his feet, but my thoughts glazed over it, deciding it wasn't important. "Trust me. You're missing a few details."
My blood ran cold, remembering how I'd let him down in so many ways. If he really knew what I'd done, the choices I'd made, and who I'd hurt, he'd never speak to me. Not that I had anticipated speaking to him again. I mean, he was dead after all. Which really made this whole conversation kind of unfair.
"You didn't kill him." He slipped his sword off his lap, stabbing my bedroom floor with its sharp point. He twirled the big weapon's hilt in his hand, the blade spinning, though it didn't leave the slightest mark on the hardwood. "I know you didn't kill your angelic father, Jukar, like you were supposed to."
I straightened, throat tight, folding my arms over my belly. "I couldn't. I didn't have a choice."
Tommy snorted, and his gaze slid up to meet mine. "Yeah, you did. Just because I was dead at the time doesn't mean I don't know things. Death gives me the inside scoop here, remember? Kind of a cosmic bird's-eye view, from what I remember. Anyway, I know you could've sliced off his head and gone back to your old life. You could've been done with all of this angel and demon and illorum power shit. You could've been normal, the way you said you wanted."
I tucked a strand of hair behind my ear, then reached out to fiddle with the bedpost, not wanting to meet his eyes. "It's complicated."
"Because of Eli?" he asked.
My stomach twisted. I glanced at the sleeping angel in my bed. I couldn't help it. Eli was my magister, or he used to be. He was a seraph who, like countless other seraphim, had allowed himself to be sullied by human interaction to train illorum to hunt, fight, and banish the Fallen, in the hopes of avoiding an all-out war between Heaven and Hell. It hadn't worked. The war was on. And because of me, Eli had become one of the Fallen he'd trained me to hunt.
I turned to Tommy, my chin high, meeting him eye to eye. "I love him."
"I know." Tommy dropped his feet to the floor and leaned forward, shifting his sword between his knees, gripping the hilt with both hands. "I knew the second you saw him. I could see it in your eyes. In his, too. I knew you'd make him fall. I tried to warn you."
My gaze narrowed, defiant despite knowing any argument I had was baseless. "That's not fair. It wasn't our fault. The Council of Seven was going to take him away, take him back to Heaven. We'd never see each other again. Their decision would've been final."
"No. You don't know them, Tommy." A bitter laugh stirred up old resentments, fueling my indignation. "They're arrogant and condescending. They say they love humans, but they're like a Supreme Court ruling over all angelic matters, interpreting God's will and imposing law and punishment. No one questions them. Eli couldn't have refused."
"So he took himself out of their jurisdiction. He gave into his feelings for you and fell," Tommy said, his voice calm, unbiased, knowing more than I wanted him to.
"No." I shook my head and reached out to fiddle with the bedpost again. "No. It wasn't like that. He ... we ... we just wanted to say good-bye. He was going to do what they wanted. He was going to leave, but we wanted a little more time together first. That's all. We just wanted to stop fighting our feelings for a second—for one second. But then we kissed, and he held me in his arms, and we couldn't let go."
"You had sex with him."
"And it cost him his grace," Tommy said without an ounce of accusation in his tone. "Now Eli's one of the Fallen, and the Council of Seven and all seraphim have shunned him."
I looked away, guilt squeezing my chest. I resented being made to feel bad for what had come so naturally, what had seemed so right. My jaw tightened, and I turned to pace to the other side of the room. "I love him. We did what we did, and we've accepted the consequences. What more do you want?"
I heard him push to his feet, followed by the metal zing of him sheathing his sword. "Told you. I want you to fulfill your destiny. I want you to have the chance at a normal life that I didn't. You have to do something, Emma. You can't just sit on the sidelines because you think you don't make a difference. You do. Everyone does."
I spun back to him, emotions making my words terse. "I'm the daughter of a Fallen archangel who ignited a new war between good and evil. I got you killed and caused the only man I've ever really loved to fall from grace and be shunned by Heaven itself. Whatever destiny I was supposed to have is pretty much out of reach now."
He laughed and held his hands out to his sides. "You say that like all of this, everything that's happened, wasn't the destiny you were supposed to have."
I let a tight smile turn the corners of my mouth, sure he was making some kind of sick joke. "Right. Awesome destiny."
"Not everyone is meant to be the hero, Emma." He folded his arms over his chest, rocking back on his heels. "For every Churchill, there must be an Oppenheimer, and for every Joan of Arc, there is a First Duke of Bedford."
"I'm destined to be an Oppenheimer?"
"I don't know." He shrugged. "Maybe. But I know there's more ahead, and it won't be easy. But you have to do what you know in your heart you must."
"You mean what I know is right." The problem was I didn't always know the difference between what was right and what I just wanted to be right. I'm not exactly an egomaniac, but I'm no saint, either. I knew what being intimate with Eli would cost him, cost both of us, but I'd done it anyway, because I loved him, and love trumps all. Doesn't it? Or did I just want it to? If we were in love, wasn't being together, honoring that love, the right thing to do, even if it meant going against the laws of Heaven and Earth?
Tommy stepped closer, slipping his hands into the front pockets of his jeans. "I mean do what your heart tells you to do. It's not always about right and wrong. Most things are never that black and white, anyway. Follow your gut, Emma. Do what you know you have to do. But do something. Don't give up."
"What if the difference I make is worse? What if it gets Eli killed this time or ... banished to the abyss?" I couldn't stand even thinking about it. Fallen banished to the abyss are forever changed, tortured until the end of days. It's Hell in every sense of the word. The lucky ones are freed by other Fallen, called up to serve them like indentured slaves. But what comes out of the abyss is often nothing like the creature that goes in.
"If that's your destiny, then so be it." His shoulders hitched high.
I snorted my disagreement. "Screw that. I'm not going to risk hurting Eli any more than I already have."
Tommy glanced over his shoulder suddenly, like he'd heard something, his expression anxious. There was nothing there, but when he looked back to me, he seemed hurried, fidgeting on his feet, his grip shifting on the handle of his sword. "Dammit, Emma, listen to me. The more time you waste trying to stay neutral, the stronger he gets."
"The stronger who gets?"
"I ... I don't know." He huffed, shaking his head like he might somehow rattle the information loose. "He's hidden now, blending in, but not for long. I told you, my brain is like Swiss cheese, except the holes keep moving. I know something, see something, and then the next minute, it's totally gone. But I know you're running out of time."
Excerpted from Hellsbane Hereafter by Paige Cuccaro, Stacy Abrams, Laura Stone. Copyright © 2014 Paige Cuccaro. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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