New York Times bestselling author Keri Arthur brings her Dark Angels series to a breathtaking conclusion as half-werewolf, half-Aedh Risa Jones treads a knife’s edge between the salvation of the human race and its total annihilation.
The search for the last key to the gates of hell has begun, and half-werewolf, half-Aedh Risa Jones is in more danger than ever—and one misstep could prove ruinous. It's only a matter of time before Madeleine Hunter, the dangerous head of the vampire council, begins her hunt for complete domination. And for Risa, that comes with an alarming ultimatum: hand over the last key to Hunter or, one by one, her loved ones will die.
Now, it’s a race against time for Risa to save those she loves, and to stop Hunter's apocalyptic plan to open the very gates of hell.
INCLUDES A BONUS EXCERPT OF KERI ARTHUR’S FIREBORN
About the Author
Read an Excerpt
The Raziq were coming.
The energy of their approach was very distant, but it blasted heat and thunder across my senses and sent me reeling. But even worse was the sheer and utter depth of rage that accompanied that distant wave. I’d known they would be angry that we’d deceived them, but this . . . This was murderous.
Up until now, the Raziq had used minor demons to kidnap me whenever they’d wanted to talk to me—although their version of talk generally involved some kind of torture. This time, however, there would be no talking. There would be only death and destruction.
And they would take out everyone—and everything—around us in the process.
It was a horrendous prospect given that we were still at the Brindle, a place that not only held aeons of witch knowledge but was also home to at least two dozen witches.
I reached for my sword. Even though we couldn’t fight in this place of peace, I still felt safer with Amaya’s weight in my hand. But she wasn’t there. Just for an instant, panic surged; then I realized I’d left her behind, among the ruins of our home. In the aftermath of my father’s destruction, I’d been desperate to see whether Mirri—who’d been under a death sentence, thanks to Father’s magic—had by some miracle survived, and I hadn’t given Amaya a second thought.
“We cannot stay here.” The familiar masculine tones broke through the fear that had been holding me captive.
My gaze met Azriel’s. He wasn’t only my guardian but my lover, the father of my child, and the being I was now linked to forever in both life and afterlife. When I died, I would become what he was—a Mijai, a reaper warrior tasked not only with protecting the gates to heaven and hell, but also with hunting down the demons who broke through hell’s gate to cause havoc here on Earth.
Of course, reapers weren’t actually flesh beings—although they could certainly attain that form whenever they wished—but rather beings made of energy who lived on the gray fields, the area that divided Earth from heaven and hell. While I was part werewolf and therefore flesh, I was also part Aedh. The Aedh were energy beings who at one time lived on the fields as the reapers had, and also had been the traditional guardians of the gates. My father had been one of the Raziq—a group of rebel Aedh who were responsible for both the destruction of the Aedh and the creation of the three keys to the gates—and he was also the reason the keys were currently lost.
Or rather, only one key was still lost. I’d found the first two, but both had been stolen from under my nose by the dark sorceress who’d subsequently opened two of hell’s three gates.
Things hadn’t quite gone according to plan for her when she’d opened the second one, however, because she’d been captured by demons and dragged into the pits of hell. I was keeping everything crossed that that was exactly where she’d remain, but given the way luck had been treating us of late, it was an even-money bet she wouldn’t.
“Risa,” Azriel repeated when I didn’t immediately answer him. “We must not stay here.”
But where the hell were we going to go that was safe from the wrath of the Raziq? There was nowhere safe. Maybe not even hell itself—not that I particularly wanted to go there.
I briefly closed my eyes and tried to control the panic surging through me. And yet that approaching wave of anger filled every recess of my mind, making thought, let alone calm, near impossible. If they got hold of me . . . My skin crawled.
It took a moment to register that my skin was actually crawling. Or at least part of it was. I glanced down. The wingless, serpentlike dragon tattoo on my left forearm was on the move, twisting around like a wild thing trapped. Anger gleamed in its dark eyes and its scales glowed a rich, vibrant lilac in the half-light of the room.
Of course, it wasn’t an ordinary tattoo. It was a Duan, a creature of magic that had been designed to protect me when I walked the fields. It was a gift from my father, and one of the few decent things he’d actually done for me since this whole key saga had begun.
Unfortunately, the Duan was of little use here on Earth. It shouldn’t even have been able to move on this plane, let alone partially disengage from my skin, as it had in the past.
“What’s wrong now?”
I glanced at Ilianna—my best friend, flatmate, and a powerful witch in her own right. Her warm tones were rich with concern, and not without reason. After all, she’d only just managed to save the life of her mate, Mirri, from my father’s foul magic, and here I was again, threatening not only Mirri’s life but Ilianna’s, her mom’s, and those of everyone else who currently stood within the walls of this place. Because not even the magic of the Brindle, as powerful as it was, would stop the Raziq. It had been designed to protect the witches from the evil of this world. It was never meant to be a defense against what came from the gray fields.
“The Raziq hunt us.” Azriel’s reply was flat. Matter-of-fact. Yet his anger reverberated through every inch of my being, as fierce as anything I could feel from the Raziq. But it wasn’t just anger; it was anticipation, and that was possibly scarier. He drew his sword and met my gaze. If the ominous black-blue fire that flickered down the sides of Valdis—which was the name of the demon locked within the metal of his sword, and who imbued it with a life and power of its own—was anything to go by, she was as ready to fight as her master. As ready as Amaya would have been had she been here. “We need to leave. Now.”
Ilianna frowned. “Then go home—”
“We can’t,” I cut in. “Home’s gone.”
It had been blown to smithereens when I’d thrust Amaya’s black steel into my father’s flesh and had allowed her to consume him. It was an action I didn’t regret, not after everything the bastard had done.
“Yes,” Ilianna replied. “But the wards your father gave us should still be active. I placed a spell on them that prevents anything or anyone other than us from moving them.”
“Even from what basically resembled a bomb blast?”
She hesitated. “That I can’t guarantee.”
“A half guarantee is better than nothing.” Azriel’s gaze met mine again. “If they aren’t active, then we stand and fight. The Raziq still need you, no matter how furious they might currently be.”
Yes, but they didn’t need him. And they would destroy him if they could. Still, what other choice did we have? No matter where we went, either here or on the gray fields, others would pay the price. I hesitated. “Will the Brindle’s magic react if we transport out from within its walls?”
“Normally, yes,” Kiandra, the Brindle’s head witch, replied. She stood near Mirri and Zaira, Ilianna’s mom, her gaze bright and all too knowing in the shadowed room. “But given the events of the last few days, I have woven specific exceptions into our barriers.”
“Thanks.” We were going to need them. I swallowed, then stepped toward Azriel.
“Call me,” Ilianna said. “Let me know you’re okay.”
I didn’t reply. I couldn’t. Azriel’s energy had already ripped through us, swiftly transporting us across the fields. We reappeared in the blackened ruins of the home I’d once shared with Ilianna and Tao—although to call them ruins was something of a misnomer. “Ruins” implied there was some form of basic structure left. There was nothing here. No walls, no ceiling, not even a basement. Just a big black hole that had once held a building we’d all loved.
I stepped away from Azriel and glanced up. The sky was filled with stars, and I wondered whether an entire day had passed us by. So much had happened over the past few days that I’d lost track.
Time appeared. The familiar, somewhat harsh tone that ran through my thoughts was heavy with displeasure. Alone should not be.
Sorry. I felt vaguely absurd for even issuing an apology. I mean, when it was all said and done, Amaya was a sword. But somewhere in the past few days, she had become more a friend than merely a means of protection.
I picked my way through the rubble and found her half-wedged into the blackened soil. I pulled her free and definitely felt a whole lot safer. Though it wasn’t as if Amaya or Azriel—or anyone else, for that damn matter—could save me if the Raziq really had decided enough was enough.
“The Raziq have split,” Azriel commented.
Confusion—and a deepening sense of dread—ran through me. “Meaning what?”
The ferocity that roiled through the connection between us gave his blue eyes an icy edge. “Half of them chase us here. The rest continue toward the Brindle.”
“They plan to demonstrate the cost of misdirection, and there is nothing we can do to prevent it.” His expression hardened, and I hadn’t thought that was possible. “And before you say it, I will not let you endanger yourself for them.”
“And I will not stand here and let others pay the price for decisions I’ve made!”
“We have no other choice—”
“There’s always a fucking choice, Azriel. Standing here while others die in my place is not one of them.”
“Making a stand at the Brindle will not alter the fate of the Brindle.”
“Don’t you think I know that?” I thrust a hand through my hair and began to pace. There had to be an answer. Had to be some way to protect the Brindle and everyone within her without either Azriel or me having to make a stand. Damn it, if only Ilianna had had the time to create more protection stones . . . The thought stuttered to a halt. “Oh my god, the protection stones.”
Azriel frowned. “They are still active. I can feel their presence.”
“Exactly!” I swung around to face him. “You need to get them to the Brindle. It’s the only chance they have against the Raziq.”
“I will not—”
“For god’s sake, stop arguing and just do as I ask!”
He crossed his arms and glared at me. His expression was so fierce my insides quaked, even though I knew he would never, ever hurt me.
“My task is to protect you. No one else. You. I cannot and will not leave you unprotected, especially not now.”
Not when there is life and love yet to be explored between us. Not when you carry our child. The words spun through my thoughts, as fierce as his expression and yet filled with such passion that my heart damn near melted. I walked back to him and touched his arm. His skin twitched, but the muscles underneath were like steel. My warrior was ready for battle.
“I know it goes against every instinct, Azriel, but I couldn’t live with myself if anyone at the Brindle died because of me.”
“And I would not want to live without you. There is nowhere that is safe from the wrath of the Raziq.”
“Maybe not—” I hesitated, suddenly remembering what he’d said about the Aedh temples and the remnants of the priests who still haunted that place. They weren’t ghosts, as such—more echoes of the beings they’d once been—but they were nevertheless damn dangerous. I’d briefly encountered one of them when I’d been chasing the sorceress to hell’s gate, and it had left me in no doubt that he could destroy me without a second’s hesitation.
“That is not a true option,” Azriel said, obviously following my thoughts. “And there is certainly no guarantee that the priests will even acknowledge you again, let alone provide any sort of assistance.”
“That’s a chance I’m willing to take.” And it was certainly a better option than letting the Brindle pay the cost for my deceit. “Those who haunt that place weren’t aware of the Raziq’s duplicity, Azriel, but I think they might be now. And you’re the one who told me that if they decide you’re an intruder, they can cause great harm.”
“But the Raziq were once priests—”
“And they’re also the reason the Aedh no longer exist to guard the gates,” I cut in. “This might be the only way both of us are going to survive a confrontation with the Raziq, and we have to take it.”
He stared at me for several heartbeats, then swore viciously. Not in my language, in his. I blinked at the realization that I’d understood it, but I let it slide. Right now it didn’t matter a damn how or when that had happened. All that did matter was surviving the next few minutes.
Because the Raziq were getting nearer. They’d breached the barrier between the fields and Earth and were closing in even as we stood here. I suspected the only reason they hadn’t yet confronted us was simply that we had moved. But that wouldn’t help the Brindle.
Azriel sheathed his sword, then caught my hand and tugged me toward him. “If we’re going to do this, then we do it somewhere where your body is going to be safe while you’re on the fields.”
“Not the Brindle—”
The word was barely out of his mouth when his energy ripped through us again. We appeared in a room that was dark but not unoccupied. The scents in the air told me exactly where we were—Aunt Riley’s. She was the very last person I wanted to endanger in any way. I wasn’t actually blood related to Riley, but after my mom’s death, she and her pack were the only family I had left.
But before I could make any objection about being there, she said, “I’m gathering there’s a good reason behind your sudden appearance in our bedroom at this ungodly hour.”
Her tone was wry, and she didn’t sound the slightest bit sleepy. But then, she’d once been not only a guardian, but one of their best. I guess old habits—like sleeping light—die hard.
“The Aedh hunt us.” Azriel’s voice was tight. He didn’t like doing this any more than I did, though I suspected our reasons were very different. “I need you to keep Risa’s body safe while she’s on the gray fields.”
And with that, he kissed me—fiercely but all too briefly—then disappeared. Leaving me reeling, battling for breath, and more frightened than I’d ever been. Because I was about to face the wrath of the Raziq alone, even if for only a few minutes.
Not alone, Amaya grumbled. Here am.
Yes, she was. But even a demon sword with a thirst for bloodshed might not be enough to counter the fury I could feel in the Raziq.
And why the hell could I even feel that? Had it something to do with whatever Malin—the woman in charge of the Raziq and my father’s pissed-off ex—had done to me that time she’d tortured me? I didn’t know, because Malin had also erased my knowledge of the procedure to prevent my father from figuring out what she’d done. But with him dead, maybe it was time to find out.
“Risa?” This time it was Riley’s mate, Quinn, who spoke.
He was the reason Azriel had brought me here. While Riley may once have been a guardian, Quinn was a whole lot more. He was a vampire who’d once been a Cazador—who were basically the high vampire council’s elite hit squad—and was also what I was: a half-breed Aedh. One who’d undergone priest’s training. If there was anyone here on Earth who could stand against the wrath of the Raziq for more than a second, it would be him.
I swallowed heavily, but it didn’t do a whole lot to ease the dryness in my throat. What I was about to do was the very last thing I’d ever wanted to do, but the reality was I’d been left with little other choice.
“There’s no time to explain,” I said. “I have to get onto the fields immediately. People will die if I don’t.”
“Then do it.” Quinn climbed out of bed and walked to the wardrobes that lined one wall of their bedroom. “No one will get past us.”
I hoped he was right, but it wasn’t like I was going to be around to find out. I sat cross-legged on the thick, cushiony carpet, saw Quinn open a door and reach for the weapons within, then closed my eyes and took a deep breath.
As I released it, I released awareness of everything around me, concentrating on nothing more than slowing the frantic beat of my heart so I could free my psyche, my soul—or whatever else people liked to call it—from the constraints of my flesh. That was what the Raziq were following—not my flesh, but my spirit. I hoped they would follow me onto the fields and not wreak hell on the two people I cared about most in this world.
As the awareness of everything around me began to fade, warmth throbbed at my neck—a sign that the charm Ilianna had given me when we’d both still been teenagers was at work, protecting me as my psyche pulled free and stepped onto the gray fields. Here the real world was little more than a shadow, a place where those things that could not be seen on the living plane became visible. It was also the land between life and death, a place through which souls journeyed to whatever gateway was their next destination, be it heaven or hell.
But it was far from uninhabited. The reapers lived here, and so did the Raziq who remained.
And right now it was a dangerous place for me to be. The Raziq could move far faster here than I could. My only hope was reaching the Aedh temples that surrounded and protected the gates.
I turned and ran. The Duan immediately exploded from my arm, her energy flowing through me as her serpentine form gained flesh and shape, became real and solid. She swirled around me, the wind of her body buffeting mine as her sharp ebony gaze scanned the fields around us. Looking for trouble. Looking to fight.
I had to wonder whether even she would have any hope against the Raziq. Because they were coming. The thunder of their approach shook the very air around us.
Fear surged, and it lent me the strength to go faster. But running seemed a hideously slow method of movement, even if everything around me was little more than a blur. I wished I could transport myself to the temples instantaneously, as Azriel had in the past, but I wasn’t yet of this world, even if I was destined to become a Mijai upon death.
The Duan’s movements were becoming more and more frantic. I swore and reached for every ounce of energy I had left, until it felt as if I were flying through the fields of gray.
But even when I reached the temples, I felt no safer. This place was as ghostly and surreal as the rest of the fields, but it was also a place filled with impossible shapes, high, soaring arches, and honeycombed domes sitting atop floating towers. Yet it no longer felt as empty as it had the first time I’d come here. There was an awareness—an anger—here now, and it filled the temple grounds with a watchful energy that stung my skin and sent chills through my being.
I stopped in the expanse of emptiness that divided the temple buildings from the simply adorned gates to heaven and hell. The Duan surged around me, her movements sharp, agitated. I tightened my grip on Amaya as I turned to face the oncoming Raziq. Amaya began to hiss in expectation, the noise jarring against the watchful silence. But none of the priestly remnants appeared or spoke. I had no doubt they were aware of my presence, but it seemed that, for now, they were content to watch.
Leaving me hoping like hell that I hadn’t been wrong, that they would interfere if the Raziq got too violent.
But it wasn’t like I had any other choice now, anyway. They were here.
Electricity surged, dark and violent. Without warning, both the Duan and I were flung backward. I hit vaporous ground that felt as hard as anything on Earth and tumbled into the wall of a building that stood impossibly on a point.
Amaya was screaming, the Duan was screaming, and their joint fury echoed both through my brain and across the fields. The Duan surged upward, briefly disappearing into grayness before she dove into the midst of the Raziq, snapping and tearing at the beings I couldn’t see, could only feel. A second later, she was sent tumbling again.
If they could do that to a Duan, what hope did I have?
Amaya screamed again. She wanted to rend, to tear, to consume, but there were far too many of them. We didn’t stand a chance . . . and yet, I couldn’t give up—not without a fight. Not this time.
I pushed to my feet, raised Amaya, and spit, “Do your worst, Malin. But you might want to remember you still need me to find that last key. And if you kill me, I become Mijai and beyond even your reach. Not something you’d want, I’d guess.”
For a moment, there was no response; then that dark energy surged again. I swore and dove out of the way, and the dark energy hit the building that loomed above me. Its ghostly, gleaming sides rippled, the waves small at first but gaining in depth as they rolled upward, until the whole building quivered and shook and the thick, heavy top began to crumble and fall. I scrambled out of the way only to feel another bolt arrowing toward me. I swore and went left, but this time I wasn’t quite fast enough. The energy sizzled past my legs, wrapping them in heat, until it felt as if my flesh were melting from my bones.
A scream tore up my throat, but I clamped down on it hard, and it came out little more than a hiss. I wasn’t flesh; I was energy. This was nothing more than mind games.
Mind games that felt painfully real.
Damn it, no! If I was going to go down, then I sure as hell was going to take some of these bastards with me.
Amaya, do your worst. And with that, I flung her as hard as I could into the seething mass of energy that was the Raziq. They scattered, as I knew they would, but Amaya arced around, her sides spitting lilac flames that splayed out like burning bullets. Whether they hit any targets, I have no idea, because I wasn’t about to hang around waiting for another bolt to hit me. I scrambled to my feet and ran to the right of the Raziq. Amaya surged through their midst, still spitting her bullets as she returned to me. The minute she thumped into my hand, I swung her with every ounce of strength and anger within me. Steel connected with energy and the resulting explosion was brief but fierce and would have knocked me off my feet had it not been for my grip on my sword. Amaya wasn’t going anywhere; she had a soul to devour, and devour she did. It took barely a heartbeat, but that was time enough for the rest of the Raziq to rally. Again that dark energy swept across the silent watchfulness of the temple’s fields, but this time the invisible blow was broader, cutting the possibility of diving out of its path.
Amaya, shield! I dropped to one knee and held Amaya in front of me. Lilac fire instantly flared out from the tip of her blade and formed a circle that encased me completely.
And just in time.
The dark energy hit the barrier, and with enough force that it pushed me backward several feet. Amaya screamed in fury, her shield burning and bubbling where the Raziq’s energy flayed her. She held firm, but I had to wonder for how long. Not very, I suspected.
Damn it, where were the remnants? The Raziq were the reason we were all in this mess—they were the reason the priests were dead. Did they not realize that? Did they not want to avenge that? I knew Aedh were supposedly emotionless beings, but they were not above pride and they certainly weren’t above anger. Surely the priests had to feel something about their demise.
But what if they didn’t know or care?
Maybe it was time to remind them of their duty to protect the gates.
“Killing me won’t solve your current problem, Malin.” I had to shout to be heard above both Amaya’s screeching and the thunderous impact of the dark energy against her shield. I had no idea where the Duan was, but she was still very much active if her bellows were anything to go by. “As long as there’s one key left, you—as an Aedh priest—cannot be free from the responsibility of caring for the gates. If you so desperately want to close the gates permanently and therefore end your servitude to them, then you’re better off trying to sweet-talk me.”
“Sweet-talk?” The voice was feminine and decidedly pleasant. There was none of the malevolence I could feel in the dark energy, yet it nevertheless sent chills down my spine. Malin could charm the pants off a spider even as she dissected it piece by tiny piece. She’d dissected me once. That time, at least, she’d put me back whole, though not entirely the same. And while Azriel certainly knew what she’d done to me, he wasn’t saying anything. This time, however, I suspected she would not be so generous. “You defy us at every turn, you do not take our threats seriously, and you expect us to simply accept your games of misdirection? Since when did insanity become a thread in your being?”
“I’m guessing it happened the day you lot entered my life.” It probably wasn’t the wisest thing to say, but hey, what the hell? It wasn’t like she could get any angrier. Although the fresh burst of energy that hit Amaya’s shield very much suggested I was wrong. And the fact that she was no longer screaming was an ominous sign her strength was weakening.
Is, she muttered. If there was one thing my sword hated, it was admitting she wasn’t all-powerful. Yours must draw soon.
Her drawing on my strength was the very last thing I wanted right now, but again, until Malin and the rest of the Raziq calmed down a tad, it wasn’t like we had another choice.
Presuming, of course, they would calm down.
“And insanity aside,” I continued, “it doesn’t alter the fact you still need me to find the final key.”
“Not if we’ve now decided it would be better to destroy both the gates that are opened and the one that is not.”
My body went cold. If they did that, then heaven help us all. Hell would be unleashed both on the fields and on Earth, and I very much suspected neither world would survive.
But would the fates and the priestly remnants allow that?
Their continuing silence—at least when it came to the Raziq—very much suggested they might.
“The mere fact you make such a threat shows just how far the Raziq have fallen.” Azriel’s voice cut across the noise and the anger that filled the temple grounds as cleanly as sunshine through rain. Relief made my arms shake, and tears stung my eyes. I blinked them away furiously. It wasn’t over yet. Not by a long shot. It was still him and me against all of them.
“You no longer deserve the name of priests,” he continued, voice ominously flat. “And you certainly no longer have the umbrella of protection such a title endows.”
“Do not make idle threats, Mijai.” Any pretense of civility had finally been stripped from Malin’s voice. It was evil personified; nothing more, nothing less. “We both know you would not dare to violate the sanctity of this place.”
“Not without the permission of the fates,” he agreed. “And that we now have.”
With those words lingering ominously in the air, he appeared.
And he wasn’t alone.
Azriel stood on the far side of the massed Raziq, his casual stance belying the fury in his eyes and the fierceness of his grip on Valdis. In this ghostly, gray-clad world, he shone with a light that was intense and golden, and it cut through the shadows as brightly as the sun.
Behind him stood another eight Mijai. All of them were battle scarred—some more so than even Azriel—and all of them radiated a savage desire to fight. But then, the Raziq were the reason so many of them had those scars. The sorceress may have opened hell’s gates—thereby allowing so many demons to breach the remaining barrier—but it was the Raziq who’d made the keys that had enabled her to do it.
If what Azriel had said was true—and he wasn’t given to lies or exaggeration—then for the first time in a very long time, the powers that be had given the Mijai permission to do something more than merely hunt down the escapees from hell. They’d given them the power to deal with the very people who’dcaused this mess in the first place.
Which—considering they hadn’t stopped what had basically amounted to the genocide of the Aedh—was one big damn step. And one that showed just how tenuous the current situation was to both the gray fields and Earth.
But there was another, more personal, benefit to Azriel’s sudden appearance—it had drawn Malin’s attention away from me, and that meant the thick beam of energy no longer assaulted Amaya’s shield.
Drop can? Amaya asked.
I hesitated, my gaze flickering to the turgid mass of energy that was the rest of the Raziq. They seemed to have gathered behind Malin, and none of them appeared to be paying any particular attention to me—although it was a little hard to be certain given that they were all concealed from my sight. Still, with the shield sucking strength from both Amaya and me, it was better to err on the side of caution and use it only when absolutely necessary.
Besides, while I didn’t doubt either the fighting skills or the determination of the reapers, they were still outnumbered two to one. I needed to keep as much strength on hand as I could, because once the attention of the Raziq was no longer held by the reapers, some of those “spare” Raziq would undoubtedly come after me.
I took a deep breath that really did little to bolster my courage, then said, Yeah, do it.
The lilac flames retreated instantly. I waited, tension rippling through every particle, ready to flee the instant anything remotely resembling an attack headed my way.
Nothing happened. I didn’t relax, however. Just because they weren’t attacking didn’t mean they soon wouldn’t.
“We both know the fates would never sanctify such an action.” Contempt filled Malin’s tone. “This place is sacred. They hold no jurisdiction here.”
“They have always held jurisdiction here.” Azriel’s voice was flat, unemotional. But his need to kill—to avenge not so much what Malin and her crew had done in relation to the keys as what they’d done to me—was so strong I could almost taste it. Yet he held it in check, and I had no idea why if he had the fates’ permission to deal with the Raziq.
Because, he said, the fates would prefer not to shed blood in this place. She is right in that it is sacred. Therefore, the Raziq have one chance to walk away. As much as I hope—pray—they do not, I will not gainsay the will of the fates. Not when I now have so much more at risk.
Meaning me. God, why the hell had it taken me so damn long to realize what I’d been searching so long for had been right in front of me the whole time? Why had I wasted so much time being afraid and not trusting instinct and emotion when it came to him?
That is a question I have often asked myself. Though his mental tones were touched by wry amusement, there was no evidence of it in his voice as he added, “The fates have not seen the necessity of interfering until now, Malin. But your actions endanger us all.”
“My actions will free us. And that is all that matters.”
“As ever, you do not see the bigger picture. You are too bound by your own dreams and desires.”
He made a slight motion with his hand, and the dark energy covering the Raziq trembled and quivered, as if assaulted by a very great force. Then, with little fanfare, it faded, and the Raziq were finally revealed.
It was the first time I’d actually seen them, and they were—like most Aedh—almost terrifyingly beautiful to behold. The ten men were uniformly tall, with broad shoulders, muscular physiques, and faces that were as close to perfection as creation ever got. The nine women had the bodies of Amazons and the faces of angels, and they all had golden hair that glowed as fiercely as the wings on their backs in the diffused light of the fields. Their eyes—which varied from lilac, like mine, to vibrant blues or the richest of greens—were so filled with power it was almost impossible to meet their gaze for any great length of time. But there was little in the way of life or warmth in their expressions. All that could be seen was either remote condescension or utter contempt or—in Malin’s case—outright animosity and hate.
For an unemotional being, she sure did seem to be displaying a whole lot of emotion.
Malin laughed. The bitter sound echoed uneasily across the temple’s grounds. “And I suppose that little demonstration is meant to cower us?”
Azriel’s answering smile was cold. Ferocious. “It was meant as nothing more than it was—an unveiling of evil.”
“Reaper, I grow bored of you.”
And with that, she attacked. Not Azriel. Me.
I swore and dove out of the way, but the bolt was too fast, my reaction—and Amaya’s—too slow. The energy hit with all the force of a hammer. It pinned me, flayed me, ate at me, until it felt as if there were thousands upon thousands of tiny maggots boring into my skin.
I screamed, but the sound was lost to Amaya’s screech of fury—a sound that was accompanied by a more masculine roar. The energy flaying me abruptly cut off, even as energy flared from Amaya’s sides and encased me in a protective shield of lilac. I didn’t immediately move; it was all I could do to drag in air, tonot scream in pain as Malin’s energy continued its munching even as it dissipated.
Up! Amaya’s screech was as painful as those fading remnants. Move must!
I forced my eyes open, saw five Raziq barreling toward me, and swore—though the words came out little more than a harsh scrape of sound. Beyond the five, in an incandescent cloud that sizzled and cracked with such force that it shook the surreal buildings and burned the air, Azriel and his reapers fought the other thirteen Raziq.
Malin was nowhere to be seen.
Runs. Amaya’s mental tones were scathing. Coward much.
Malin didn’t strike me as a coward. If she was running, then she was running to something rather than from us.
I had a bad feeling I needed to stop her from reaching whatever it was she was running for. But before I could do that, I had to deal with the Raziq coming at me.
I pushed to my feet, my breathing harsh and sweat trickling down my spine. I might not be flesh in this world, but my energy form seemed to react in the exact same way. Maybe it was simply a form of muscle memory—my being reacting in the only way it knew how.
Drop the shield, I said. We can’t risk the constant pull at our strength.
Stronger we should be, she muttered, as the purple haze of energy retreated.
Yes, we should, but to get stronger I needed time to relax and regroup—and that wasn’t going to happen anytime soon. Not until I dealt with the Raziq and the keys.
Even then, there was no guarantee of a long and happy life, simply because I still had to find the sorceress, and I was still left with Madeline Hunter. And she, in many ways, was the worst of the lot. She wasn’t only one of the leaders of the high vampire council and the head honcho of the Directorate, but also—quite literally—a monster wearing human flesh who apparently had a direct line of communication to the god she worshipped.
She was also, unfortunately, a monster I worked for.
But Hunter was a problem for another day. I had to survive this one before I started worrying about anything—or anyone—else.
Count to three, then move sharply left, I said, then raised Amaya and flung her hard.
The approaching Raziq scattered left and right, as I figured they might. Amaya jagged left and flames shot from her sides. They swiftly ensnared one of the Raziq, bringing him down even as they cocooned him. He writhed, screamed, fought, all to little effect. Amaya chuckled, the sound triumphant as she consumed her prey.
Bolts of energy shot toward me. I ran, swerving around to the right, the bolts nipping at my heels. Sparks spun around me, fierce and bright in the gray.
Amaya arrowed around and slapped back into my palm. I raised her above my head and leapt high, twisting in midair and slashing wildly at the nearest Aedh as I flew over him. I hit the ethereal ground, rolled to my feet, and spun around, my sword held at the ready. The Aedh I’d struck had stopped.Completely stopped. He wasn’t moving, wasn’t reacting. Wasn’t doing anything.
Then light began to gleam from the top of his head, a sliver of brightness that gradually lengthened, growing ever wider as it crept down his neck and then his spine, until he was no longer whole but two separate halves.
We’d split him asunder.
Deserved more, Amaya commented, her mental tones indignant as the two halves of the Aedh began to disintegrate. Consume should have.
Even you can’t eat them all.
I snorted, then jumped sideways as several more bolts of energy came at me. I threw Amaya to scatter them again, then ran like hell, my gaze sweeping across the temple’s grounds. I spotted Azriel and relief filled me. He was still standing, still fighting, though his torso bore several wounds that gleamed with ruddy fire. Others had obviously not been so lucky. The reaper numbers were down to six, but the Raziq had suffered greater losses—only eight now stood. Though that meant the odds were more even, it certainly didn’t ease the tension curling through me. It wasn’t over yet—not by a long shot. As long as even one of them lived, neither of our worlds would be safe.
Amaya thudded back into my grip, heavier than before. She’d obviously consumed another Aedh. The back of my neck crawled with awareness. I swung around, Amaya raised high. Bright steel met energy, and the resulting explosion sent me tumbling backward.
I was still rolling when a rope of energy hit me, winding itself around me, then pinning me in place. I couldn’t move, couldn’t raise Amaya. She hissed and shot flames out from her sides; they crawled across the line of energy holding me captive, spitting and sizzling as she battled to free us both.
It wasn’t going to be soon enough. The remaining two Raziq of the original five who’d been sent after me were coming. Not only could I see them, but I could feel their determination to make me pay—suffer—before they bent me to their will. And I knew that once again they intended to unravel the threads of my being—only this time, when they put me back together, they would ensure I could do nothing other than obey them. Fear bloomed, thick and fast, its taste so bitter that bile rose in my throat and threatened to choke me. I swore and struggled against the bonds holding me captive, desperate to get free.
Two serpentine forms—one winged, one not—shot out of the ether. Azriel’s headed for the two Raziq, while mine swept me up, rope and all, and carried me away from the battlefield and out of immediate danger.
The Duan will take you to Malin, Azriel said. She is up to no good.
Malin is more than I can handle alone, Azriel.
Perhaps, he agreed, but rest assured she will not find you so easy to kill now—not after inserting her own DNA within you.
When the hell did she do that?
When she tore you— The rest of the sentence was ended by a grunt. Pain flickered down the mental lines, and I knew he’d been wounded again.
Damn it, Azriel, you need—
To finish what I started here, he cut in, tone fierce. As much as I might wish otherwise, I have been tasked with ending the Raziq. I cannot—dare not—do otherwise.
I glanced down. My Duan wasn’t taking me to the gates—which was where I’d half expected Malin to be—but rather over the external temple buildings and into the inner sanctum. It was a place that would have rejected my presence—and probably killed me outright—if not for the bracelet I now wore. It was black string twined with a silverish thread, and it had an almost ghostly glow. My father had given it to me to chase the sorceress, and its presence on my wrist was the only reason I had access to both his private quarters and the more sacred areas of this place.
I guess that was two good things he’d done for me.
Malin’s a Raziq, I commented. And you have permission to deal with them.
But she is not mine to end—the fates were clear on that, if nothing else.
The fates, as usual, were being damned unhelpful. I took a deep breath, trying to calm the fear that sat like a stone in the middle of my being. Damn it, I didn’t want our child to grow up without his father!
He won’t. I am injured, but nowhere near expiry.
Well, make sure you stay that way! The bright structures below were less impossibly shaped than before, yet even more ethereal. There was no sign of Malin, however. But what has Malin inserting her DNA in me got to do with it being less likely that she can kill me?
You are now a creation of three races—werewolf, Aedh, and reaper. It gives you strength and power not only in your world and mine, but here, in the one place Malin thinks she has no equal.
I frowned. But I can’t do what she—
You can, he cut in again, if you apply yourself and believe. She may have had aeons to understand and use the power of this place, but she is no longer the more powerful.
And what of the remnants? Will they help me if you happen to be wrong and it all goes to hell in a handbasket?
The remnants have not yet intervened because they have had no need to. But they assisted you the last time you were here and they will do so again, if you actually call. They can no more ignore you than I can.
I snorted. That remark can be taken two ways, reaper.
And both would be true. There was a brief edge of amusement in his mental tones. Now, go. I must concentrate.
The mental line shut down, but I could nevertheless feel his presence; it was a soft buzz of electricity that would flare to life the minute either of us wished it.
The Duan began spiraling down. Soon we were gliding through canyons that were deep but not shadowed, thanks to the incandescence of the sturdy buildings that soared high above us.
Eventually, the Duan slithered to a halt at the base of a building that was egg shaped and had a lustrous pearl-like sheen. The sheer force of energy radiating off it made my soul shiver in fear. This place, whatever the fuck it was, was both ancient and powerful. More powerful than anything or anyone I’d ever come across—even the gates to heaven and hell themselves.
The Duan raked a claw through my body, cutting the cords that bound me without hurting me. I scrambled to my feet as the bindings fell away, then raised Amaya. She was hissing like a banshee, and the sound echoed uneasily across the silence.
Have said before, calling banshee an insult, she muttered. Am better.
Yeah, you are, I agreed. Sorry.
She preened at that, and her noise died down to a background scratch. I scanned the building from left to right, but the surface appeared unbroken by either windows or doors. There had to be some way of getting in, though. After all, the Duan had been following Malin’s trail and this was where we’d stopped.
With little in the way of options, I stepped forward and pressed a hand against the building’s luminous side. Warmth pulsed under my fingertips. It felt like a heartbeat, and instinct suggested this place was oddly alive and aware. I shivered and hoped like hell this was one of those occasions when instinct was wrong.
As the pulsing got stronger, light began to flare softly across the building’s warm surface. Ripples of energy rolled away from my touch, growing ever stronger, until the whole building seemed to shimmer. Then a black crack appeared to the right of my fingertips. It bloomed rapidly across the surface, until it had formed an inky stain the size of a basketball.
In, Amaya said. Hunt we must.
I’m not going to fit—
Will, she cut in. Believe.
Azriel had urged the same thing, but it was kinda hard to do when the world kept sending you into a tailspin. But again, it wasn’t like I had a lot of other choices, not if I wanted to stop Malin from doing whatever she intended to do inside this place.
I gripped Amaya tighter, closed my eyes, and imagined myself arrowing through that circle.
Energy tingled through me; then there was a brief sense of movement. I opened my eyes and saw darkness. Complete and utter darkness. Not even Amaya’s flames were able to break the depressing weight of it. But I could feel her warmth in my hand, and that was at least some comfort.
I glanced over my shoulder and noticed that the Duan was still outside, her serpentine form flowing back and forth across the entrance hole I’d created, her agitation evident in every lilac inch.
No come, Amaya said. Outside must stay.
“Well, that’s damned inconvenient,” I muttered, although it wasn’t entirely surprising. The Duan hadn’t been able to enter my father’s quarters, either. “Any idea where the hell we’re supposed to go in this ink?”
Something, Amaya said. Hides.
My grip on her tightened. Is it Malin?
Tell not, she said. Black heavy.
Left. Find will.
Yeah, I thought grimly, but will it be us finding her, or her finding us? And how the hell was I supposed to fight in this goddamn ink?
You will tell me if I’m about to crash into something, won’t you? I said, and flowed forward cautiously.
Something suspiciously like a chuckle ran across the rear of my thoughts, although she didn’t actually answer. I held her out in front of me, so that if I didrun into something, she’d at least hit it first. We moved through the ink for what seemed like hours, but maybe that was a side effect of having absolutely no sensory input, and no clue as to what might lie underneath night’s cloak.
Here, Amaya said eventually. Stop.
I did so and once again scanned the blackness around us. I still had no sense of anything or anyone . . . and yet, there was an oddly different feel to the air here. It felt . . . anticipatory.
Damn it, I needed to see!
Then lift, Amaya said.
Lift what? I took a step forward. Movement stirred the ink, and it wasn’t mine.
I took several more steps forward. Again there was an answering echo of movement, and a deep, oddly unclean energy began to stir around us. It stung my being, the sensation unpleasant. I can’t lift this, Amaya.
Try can, she muttered, displeasure heavy in her mental tones.
I took a deep breath and released it slowly. Azriel might have implied that I could use the power of this place if I applied myself and believed, but the whole trouble with that was the fact that I had no idea where to begin.
In mind, Amaya said. Will do.
Meaning all I had to do was imagine? That sounded entirely too easy, especially considering absolutely nothing else on this goddamn quest had been. But I resolutely closed my eyes and imagined the ink was nothing more than a suffocating fog. Then I pictured a breeze coming through and scattering that fog, revealing what lay underneath. I fixed the image firmly in mind, put as much belief into it as I possibly could, and literally willed it to happen.
For several heartbeats, nothing did. Then a strong breeze began to play through my particles and there was an odd sort of shift, as if the whole place had somehow moved. I opened my eyes and saw darkness.
But it wasn’t the ink of before.
There were shadows out there now—some humanoid, some reptilian or animal, and some that bore striking similarities to the Aedh. And there were all sorts of flora, round spheres that resembled planets in miniature, and many other things that had absolutely no resemblance to anything I’d ever seen before. It was almost as if this place was some sort of monument to all the things that lived and breathed, as well as all those that didn’t.
Creation’s reference library, perhaps?
But why in the hell would Malin come here?
“To destroy creation, of course,” came the amused reply. “Or, at least, the part of it that references the temples and the gates.”
I swung around, my fingers automatically tightening against Amaya’s hilt. Malin strolled out from behind some kind of stone crustacean, her golden wings little more than gossamer wisps in this place and her body even less defined. But the malevolence that oozed from her being played across the shadows and made it hard to breathe.
You don’t need to breathe here, I reminded myself fiercely. You are energy, and of this place now.
Malin laughed, the sound cutting. “You can never be of this place, little Risa. Do not believe the reaper’s lies, because they will get you killed.” She paused, and I had an odd sense that she was smiling—a cool, cold, cruel smile—even if I couldn’t see it. “Of course, it is not likely you are going to survive this encounter anyway.”
“One of us certainly won’t,” I replied evenly. “But then, it’s not actually me you have to fear, Malin. It’s the remnants.”
She was still moving toward me, her pace even, measured. As if she had all the time in the world and absolutely nothing to fear.
I frowned. Something wasn’t right . . . I swung around and raised Amaya. She connected with something solid and sparks flew, briefly highlighting the long length of blade that had almost chopped me in two. Amaya’s flames crawled down its length, but there was nothing and no one holding the other end. Nothing but darkness itself. Amaya hissed, the sound of displeasure.
Cannot eat, she muttered. Of this place.
Of this place? The thought died as awareness surged. I shifted sideways sharply, felt the air recoil as a fist the size of a car smashed down on the spot I’d been standing in a second before.
A fist. Fucking hell, she was bringing the things that were held in this place to life.
“The remnants cannot hurt me,” she said. This time, her voice was coming from the left, even though her shadowy form still approached from directly ahead. “They dare not. Not in this place.”
I flung Amaya at the Malin I could see, then closed my eyes and imagined myself standing behind the one I couldn’t. There was a brief snap of movement; then malevolence hit me like a punch to the gut and it was all I could do not to exhale in pain. I clenched my fist and swung, as hard as I could. Felt the burn of electricity across particle fingertips as I connected with something—or someone. Heard her grunt before the sense of malice was abruptly ripped away.
I’d hit her. I’d actually hit her. And if I could do that, then I sure as hell could do more.
I opened my hand, felt Amaya thud into it, then imagined myself standing behind Malin again. This time, however, she was ready for me. Shadowed lightning arced toward me, the heat of it so fierce every particle burned. I flung out a hand, imagined a shield, and there was one. The lightning hit it and bounced back to its source. Malin swore and disappeared into the shadows again.
Fear surged. I jumped high, flipped around, and swung Amaya as hard as I could. Black steel connected with bloody red and sparks flew, bright fireflies in which I briefly glimpsed Malin’s eyes.
And saw only madness.
She would destroy this place, destroy two worlds, and even all creation itself, if that was what it took to achieve her goal of freedom. I couldn’t fight that. No one could. No one but the remnants, perhaps.
But given that they were conspicuously absent, I had to at least try.
Malin disappeared again. I imagined myself standing to her right and swung Amaya. Once again, red steel connected with black. Malin’s cool smile briefly flashed, and her sword became two, then three, then four and more, each one linking to the next via a fiery thread. I swore and ran backward, attempting to get away from the rapidly multiplying web of metal. Felt the sharp caress of air behind me. I dove away, but not quickly enough. Energy smashed into my particles and knocked me aside, where it pinned me, bored into me, ate at me. A scream tore up my throat, but I bit down on it hard. If she could multiply her weapons, then I damn well could, too.
But nothing happened.
Can’t, Amaya said. Am unique.
“Well, fuck,” I muttered, and imagined instead a fist smashing down on the source of the energy. There was a sharp whoosh of air; then the dark surface underneath me shook as something heavy hit not too far away. The energy gnawing at my particles abruptly ceased, but not the swords. They came at me, a thick rush of red that reminded me of a bloody river. I hoped like hell it wasn’t an omen, that it wasn’t my blood that would soon be running like a river in this place.
I imagined myself away from them, but the net of swords flung themselves at me, cutting off any avenue of escape and surrounding me in a web of needle-sharp steel. Again I tried to transport myself elsewhere, but when I opened my eyes, all I saw was the gleam of swords as their points began to slowly inch toward me.
Flames flared from her steel, hissing and spitting against the duller red of the other swords, but they had little effect. I swore again and slashed at them. Shards of steel went flying, but for every one we shattered, two took its place.
Laughter rolled around me, a bitter, contemptuous sound. “You will die, dear Risa, as your father deserved to die. Slowly, and in great pain.” She briefly appeared out of the gloom. “The swords will suck you dry, then spit your remnants into the endless ether; there will be no rebirth, no becoming a reaper, nothing but darkness and the knowledge that you failed.”
With that, she disappeared again. Steel slid into my foot. I swore, jerked away from its touch, and slashed down on the other weapon. Steel went flying, but once again, two more weapons took its place. More steel slid into my particles, their touch heated, foul. Desperation surged. Damn it, there had to be a way out of this! But the swords had me pinned on all sides . . . all sides but one, I realized suddenly.
I imagined a hole opening up underneath me, and a heartbeat later I was dropping down—fast. High above, steel glimmered, but they weren’t following. They simply continued their slow press inward.
Relief shuddered through me, but I wasn’t entirely sure why, given I still had a psycho bitch to stop. I imagined running after her, closing in on her, and suddenly I was. I raised Amaya and flung her. She made no sound as she cut through the shadows, but Malin nevertheless sensed her. She made a motion with her hand and a net of sliver wrapped itself around my sword and stopped her dead. Amaya screamed, the sound echoing both in my head and through the shadows.
Hurts, she wailed. Burns!
I swore and grabbed her as I ran past. Imagining her net free didn’t work, so I picked it away as best I could as she alternated between cursing and screaming—both in pain and for blood.
Malin was still running ahead of us. I frowned, suddenly wondering why she was actually doing that. I mean, why not simply imagine herself where it was that she wanted to be? Had Azriel somehow restricted her movements when he’d torn her concealing net away?
Movement, to my left. Before I could react, I was sent flying. I sailed through the air and splattered against something cold and solid, then slid in a heap to its base. For several seconds I couldn’t do anything, couldn’t hear anything. My head was ringing, there were stars doing a merry dance all around me, and the darkness seemed to be moving.
I blinked. The darkness was moving.
I cursed and flung myself out of the way, but that shadowed, obelisk form somehow grabbed me, and once again I was sailing though the air. This time I crashed into metal, and the resulting clang was a clarion sound that cut through the darkness and stirred to life something out there in the shadows.
Up, up! Amaya screamed. Move must!
I tried. I couldn’t. My particles were burning and I just didn’t have the energy. I closed my eyes and imagined myself away from the obelisk. Felt an answering sense of movement, but it was neither fast nor far.
I twisted around, saw the giant obelisk with arms thundering toward me, and forced myself forward, as fast as I could. It still wasn’t enough. Not only was the thing behind me catching me, but Malin had come out of the canyons and was heading toward a single column on which stood a series of miniature buildings and two barely adorned gateways. The temples, and the gates to heaven and hell, I knew without a doubt.
In desperation, I put as much energy as I could into the need to get in front of her, to stop her. There was a sputter of movement, but before I even knew whether I’d succeeded, two bolts of lightning hit my middle and sent me flying backward—straight into the arms of the obelisk.
Malin laughed. “And so, dear Risa,” she said, as she pressed a hand against the stark white stone of the column. “You have the pleasure of watching this place die, and a moment to reflect on your failure before the creature that holds you tears you into infinite pieces.”
“Go fuck yourself, Malin.” In a last, desperate effort to be free, I thrust Amaya into the middle of the obelisk creature. He exploded. The force of it ripped Amaya from my grip and flung me forward. I hit the ground hard and pain bloomed, but I ignored it and rolled forward and up, and ran, with every ounce of strength I had left, straight at Malin.
She pressed her other hand against the column and pushed it. It began to rock, gently at first, then with greater speed.
“No!” She wasn’t going to win. No way in hell was I going to let her win.
I launched myself into the air and desperately arrowed forward. Not at Malin, but at the miniature itself. I grabbed it from its precarious perch, twisted around in the air, and flung it to the side.
Amaya, shield and protect, no matter what happens!
I couldn’t see whether she obeyed. I hoped she did. Hoped I hadn’t completed what Malin had started. I hit the ground, heard the groan as the column reached full tipping point, and looked up to see it hurtling toward me.
I imagined myself out of the way, but there was no sense of movement and nothing but the column filling my vision. I rolled. It was all I could do.
The column crashed to the ground inches from where I lay, and the impact shuddered through every part of my being. Malin screamed, and once again I looked up. This time, it was she who was coming at me, a bloody sword held high above her head and vengeance oozing from every pore.
I had nothing left.
Nothing but one desperate hope.
Priests of Aedh, if you’re out there, if you’re watching and listening, you need to get your asses in here and give me a little help.
The bloody sword came at me. I flung my hands up, imagined a shield, and prayed like hell. Metal hit metal and again the sound rang out like a clarion bell.
She raised the sword and hit the shield again. This time, it cracked. As she raised her sword for a final blow, I twisted and kicked, with all my might, at Malin’s gossamer legs. I didn’t have much strength left, but it was enough to unbalance her. What would have been the death blow skittered off the shield and hit the darkness just to my right.
I scrambled up, clenched my fists, and hit her full in the face. It might not have been a strong blow, let alone a killing one, but damn, it felt good.
She raised a hand as she staggered away, and suddenly there were vines twining up my legs and pinning my arms to my body.
“Now,” she said, as she stalked toward me, her face twisted and ugly with malice. “We end this—”
Enough. The voice was male, and it came from everywhere and yet nowhere. It echoed through the shadows and reverberated through my mind. It held no threat, yet I sensed it could kill without a moment’s hesitation or thought.
And it was a voice I had heard before. It was the remnant I’d spoken to the last time I’d been here in the temple.
“You have no power over me,” Malin snarled. “Begone—”
Her eyes went wide and she froze. The vines that bound me withered away, but without their support I ended up on my ass.
You have caused enough damage to this place, Malin. For that alone, we could end you. His tone was calm, collected, but filled with a sense of regret. We had hoped, until the very end, that you would come to your senses, that the last of the Aedh priests could not possibly want the destruction of all that we hold sacred.
Malin made a muffled retort. Energy radiated off her, but whatever she was trying to do, it had little effect.
But in attempting to destroy the archive of both the temple and the portals, you have shown a malignancy that cannot be tolerated. There was a soft sound, like a sigh of wind. It is with great regret that we are therefore forced to end you.
And just like that, she was gone.
I blinked. “So she’s dead?”
No, because with death comes eventual rebirth. She is scattered, never to re-form, never to know the kiss of the stars or the bliss of being in the presence of the fates.
Wow. Although it wasn’t like the bitch didn’t deserve it. “And the others?”
Even now the reapers finish the last of them. He paused. Your reaper heads this way, but he has no need to fear. We owe you and him a great debt.
“I was just trying to save my world.”
Yet the fate of your world still hangs in the balance.
“Yeah, I know.” I sighed and rose. “Is it safe to recall my sword?”
I held out my hand and Amaya thudded back into it. I sheathed her, then said, “What happens now?”
And now we will ask something else of you.
I blinked again. “What?”
That you take a message to she who bears the Aedh’s child.
I frowned. He could only be talking about one Aedh—Lucian, whom I’d once thought of as a friend, and who turned out to be one of the major players in the whole key-theft saga. He was also the man who’d kidnapped and impregnated my best friend—and had tried to do the same to me. Thankfully, I was already carrying Azriel’s child by that time. “What has Ilianna to do with any of this?”
The child she carries is the future of this place. Her daughter must undergo priest training. The fate of those she holds dear will depend on it. And when she dies, she will come here and guard this place.
“One person cannot possibly—”
She will not be alone. We will train the reapers as well.
You will? a familiar voice said, as the warmth of his particles wrapped around mine and gave me strength.
Yes. For too long we have watched while you fought. It is time we helped.
It would be greatly appreciated, Azriel said, his voice formal.
We cannot, however, intervene in the search for the remaining key. That task still falls to you.
“What if hell doesn’t hold the sorceress? What if she appears in the temple grounds again, or attempts to open the final gate?” I asked.
If we sense her, we will stop her. But if she uses Aedh magic to conceal herself, as she did previously, we may not know of her until it is too late.
“And you can’t undo what she’s done and close the two gates that are already opened?”
No. For that, we would need the blood of their creator.
I closed my eyes and cursed. Maybe it hadn’t been such a great idea to kill my fucking father.
What he tried to do to Mirri he would have done to all of those you cared for, Azriel said. To protect them, you had no choice but to kill him.
Yeah, but now we’re stuck with no way to close the gates and one gate standing between us and hell.
One portal is enough, the voice said. And more can be built once we again have fully trained priests in the temples.
It was a hope. Not much of a hope given all the shit that was still out there, ready to fling itself our way, but at least it was something.
Thank you, the voice intoned again.
And with that, he left.
What People are Saying About This
Praise for Keri Arthur
Winner of the Romantic Times 2008 Reviewers’ Choice Awards for Career Achievement in Urban Fantasy
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