Easton doesn’t believe in love. He believes in Death. Darkness. Sin. As a reaper for Hell, it’s all he’s known for over four hundred years. When he gets slapped with the job of training the boss’s daughter, an angel who knows nothing but joy, he knows he’s in for a world of trouble.
Though he’s made it clear he wants nothing to do with her outside of work, Gwen would do anything to get closer to the dark and wounded reaper—even taint her angelic image and join the ranks of her father’s team of reapers. But in all her planning, she forgot to factor in one thing—how far the demons Easton doomed to hell would go to get revenge.
When the dangers of the Hell threaten Gwen, Easton will do whatever it takes to save her. But as the darkness closes in on them both, will he be able to save himself?
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By Tara Fuller, Kari Olson, Heather Howland
Entangled Publishing, LLCCopyright © 2015 Tara Fuller
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"All in." The imp shoved his pile of makeshift chips across the boulder we were using as a table, breaking the silence between us. I probably should have been thinking about the cards between my fingers. Or even the soul I'd reaped an hour ago currently huddled in the corner behind us waiting to meet his fate. Instead, I let him stew. I watched the cave walls around us heave and buckle like a living thing and listened to the screams of the damned play a sick soundtrack set on repeat for eternity. We were only steps away from the entrance to Hell. The demons impatiently rattling the iron gates behind us didn't let you forget that. The pocket of sweltering stone that served as neutral ground for a creature like Cyril was nothing more than the foyer to Hell.
A low rumble rolled up the imp's throat, and I reluctantly returned my attention to the poker game, tapping my cards against the table. Cyril's eyes twitched with impatience. I was going to win. I always won. Yet every day, the ignorant little addict sat across from me, a gleam of hope in his cold, yellow eyes. And every day I dragged his torture out longer than necessary. It was only fitting. This was Hell, after all.
I eyed the pile of stones on the table. "You sure you want to do that?"
"Why are you ssstalling? Afraid you'll losssse, reaper?"
Something dark and muddy oozed from a gaping wound on his scarred chin, but Cyril ignored it in favor of smoothing back the stringy excuse for a patch of hair on his balding head. Jesus ... a normal person would have lost their lunch over the mere sight of him, at the very least had to suppress a gag. I simply raised a brow and studied his shitty poker face. After four hundred years of delivering the dark and damned to the pits of Hell, faces like Cyril's didn't shake me anymore. Things like innocence and beauty were a hell of a lot more shocking in my line of work.
"We play this game every week, and every week, I hand you your ass," I said. "What makes you think today will be any different?"
Cyril snorted and wiped his wrist across his mouth. When he pulled it away, a sizzling black slime dripped from the playing cards in his hand, eating through the paper like acid. Before they could be damaged beyond recognition, he slapped his cards down, face up with a triumphant grin.
"Two pairsss," he hissed.
I flipped over my cards. "Full house. Sorry, Cyril. I win again."
Pulling my ash-coated boots off the table, I gathered the little smooth stones and dumped them into my pocket. They were worthless to me, but it would drive him absolutely crazy. For a demon like Cyril, whose blood hummed with the need to gamble, every loss was agony.
He slammed his puke-green fists onto the table and screeched, "No! You cheat!"
"Never," I replied, grabbing my most recent reap by the collar and heaving him onto his feet. "I'm just that good. Now be a good imp and carry this over for daddy."
I shoved the shivering soul and he stumbled, seeming to come out of the daze he'd been trapped in since his death.
"Wait ... this isn't real." He patted his chest, hands skimming over the place where his wounds had been. "I don't feel dead. Feel me. I'm still here."
I raised a brow. "You mean the body? That, friend, is a special gift, courtesy of Hell. How else did you expect them to torture you for an eternity?"
A choked sob escaped the soul's throat, and Cyril scowled with disgust before casting a fearful glance over his shoulder to the gates. Smokelike fingers curled around the bars, and a feral growl echoed off the stone walls that kept us sheltered from the other side. He knew as well as I did what lurked behind those shadows and down the dark corridors ahead. They were the things nightmares were made of. And after thirty-two reaps in less than twenty-four hours, I was in no mood for the sick games the demons inside would want to play.
I was lucky Cyril had been impatient today, lingering at the gaping mouth of the mountain that served as the entrance to Hell, needing the fix he hoped I'd provide. Normally he would have lured me into the city, where, when the furnace whistle blew, the flash of heat could melt flesh from bone. A place where sanity was nothing more than a flickering light at the end of the tunnel. A flickering light you hoped like hell you could get back to.
I wasn't even past the gates, and this place was already worming its way inside my mind. Stealing my memories. Picking apart the worst ones and bringing them to life. Like the image of two girls standing against the far wall of the cave, brought to life to make me squirm. Embers glowed from their once-smooth black hair, burning holes through their already-tattered dresses. Their necks were raw and torn from the fresh burn of a rope, and the coppery scent of blood was thick in the air.
"Helfen Sie uns, Bruder." Ava's voice cracked, and Seline fell to her knees. Her small, trembling hand reached for mine.
I held my sisters' gaze, as I always did, for seven seconds, then looked away. They weren't real. I wasn't sure where my sisters' souls resided, but I knew it wasn't here. They had been too pure in life to be condemned to this kind of hellish forever. I could only hope they were living out eternity behind the gates I wasn't worthy to touch.
I stared at my boots, taking a moment to seal up the wall around my heart. Hearing Ava's voice had made a crack just big enough for tiny slivers of pain to seep through to strangle the freshly beating heart that crossing through the gates of Hell provided. Gritting my teeth, I squeezed the scorching scythe at my side, letting the blade usually reserved for reaping souls slice into my palm to replace the pain inside with something more manageable. If I'd been the kind of man my mother had once believed I was, I would have stood in that cave and cracked myself wide open to every horrific memory of my former life. But that was just it. I wasn't the man she'd thought I was. I'd never been that man. I was a coward. I'd paved roads in blood for my family trying to erase it. But it hadn't worked. It didn't erase the fact that I'd failed them, that they'd died because I couldn't ... didn't protect them.
I forced down the storm of panic and pain swelling in my throat as blood began to drip between my fingers. Each drop throbbed as it escaped the skin Hell had given me. It was pain that I needed, that I deserved, and as it spread across my palm, the calm finally came.
Cold. Numb. Necessary.
"Best two out of three?"
The imp's voice snapped me out of my thoughts. I collected myself and pushed up from the stone I'd been using as a seat, ignoring the sound of Seline's sobs.
"Sorry, Cyril." I twisted my scythe around in its holster. "I've got work to do. A deal's a deal."
"Now, Cyril, you want me to come back and play, don't you?"
He nodded warily, weighing his options: lose the small bit of companionship I offered, or risk torture when he crossed the gates. He knew as well as I did that after making those demons salivate for an hour, there would be no bartering with them. They would take the soul and then they would make Cyril pay for making them wait. I should have felt guilty, but that would require feeling. I didn't do feeling. Not anymore. He finally reached a clawed finger out to beckon the soul in front of him. The man I'd had to practically scrape from the floor of a prison cell looked back and forth between us both. He held up his hands and took a step back.
"No, no, no, no! I am not going with him."
"You think old Cyril here is something to fear?" I shook my head. "You really should have made better decisions while you had the chance. This time tomorrow you'll be praying for his company."
"I'm sorry!" he wailed. "I take it all back. Give me another chance. I'll do anything!"
"What you're asking for is above my pay grade. I'm not God. Besides ..." I peered past him at the horde of demons waiting on the other side, salivating with the need to inflict pain. "It's already been written. You belong to them now."
I blocked out his pleas, brushed the ash from my duster, and raked my fingers through my sweat-dampened hair. After four centuries, I'd learned to endure a lot — flames, torture, the constant choking cloud of despair that polluted the air of Hell. It's what made me the best reaper there was. But this was one thing I couldn't stomach. The begging. It was too familiar, dredged up too many of the ghosts that lurked in the dark, forgotten parts of my mind.
I inhaled a sharp, scorching breath and turned away from his futile attempt at redemption, pulling at the clothes sticking to my skin. The card game with Cyril had kept me down there too long. It was time to get out and rid myself of this godforsaken body and feeling of being ... alive. I didn't want it.
I'd never understood the dead's longing for what they once were. The flesh. The blood. The feeling of life rushing and burning through their veins. The numbness was something I was thankful for. But then again, other reapers had probably fought tooth and nail against the reaper that had come to claim them. I'd welcomed mine.
"You should probably save the begging for when you get inside," I said. "They like it when you beg."
The soul grappled with Cyril and the scythe at my hip burned through my duster, searing the flesh underneath, signaling another death, another soul waiting to be reaped. I closed my eyes and gritted my teeth, forcing myself to accept the pain. The screams of the damned wailed in my ears. I'd never admit it to the disgusting little rot, but I was grateful for his help. There was no telling how backed up I'd be if he didn't help with a transfer from time to time. The winding corridors and sprawling cities of Hell were never-ending. Nearly five hundred years, and it still held horrors I'd yet to see — horrors I'd do anything not to see, including sending an unreliable imp like Cyril in my place.
"You come back, right? Play more gamesss?" Cyril hobbled from foot to foot, casting a nervous glance at the smoke fingers reaching through the gates, clawing at his shoulder. He was one of them, but in this place, loyalty didn't exist. Demon or soul, torture was torture, and they'd unleash it on anyone they could get their claws in. In Hell there was no protection, no structure. Only chaos.
"You can count on it." I tilted my head back and watched the oily, swirling canopy take shape above me, dripping like sludge until I was almost completely enclosed in darkness. Screams rushed around me like a cyclone of terror, and the pull of the dead became too much.
"See you later, Cyril." I glanced back to the sniveling soul the imp had by the collar. "I'd say good luck, but it won't do you any good."
And in the space of one of my renewed, searing heartbeats, I let go. Finally, blessedly, I was numb again.CHAPTER 2
"Where is she?" I whispered as I dipped my fingers into the glistening waters of the reflective pool, stirring up image after image. It was my window to the earth plane, usually reserved for scouting out new souls to help. But I wasn't searching for a new soul. I was searching for one I knew all too well.
"Come on, April ..."
After a moment of searching and coming up empty, I swiped my fingers through the water and settled on the image of a boy tapping his knuckles on the table next to his untouched coffee. I pulled my hand from the pool and looked back over my shoulder to make sure the cloak of cloud and fireflies I'd erected still kept me concealed.
This kind of interest in a human after a job was done was forbidden. We weren't meant to form a bond with them. As angels of joy, our sole purpose was to bless humans with happiness, to eliminate the dark and give birth to light. I'd done those things for Tyler for two years, and found it impossible to stop caring.
The first time I'd visited Tyler had been in the hospital. The clean, deliberate cuts on his wrist had bled through their bandages. He'd slept a lot then, but without rest or relief. For three days, I curled against his body, all hollow valleys and sharp bones, absorbing his pain and giving him peace in return. Sky had said he was a lost cause, that all of my efforts were being wasted on a boy whose only wish was to die. But she hadn't seen inside him the way I did. He was a boy full of broken, bloody pieces that desperately wanted to be mended and made new.
After two years of healing, there was just one piece missing. One tiny but vital piece that would do the work I never could. The piece that would heal his heart.
He'd found her crying on a park bench on a Wednesday, shaded by a willow, holding a crumpled letter in her fist. The stains on her cheeks made it look as if her tears were made of ink. He hadn't handed her a tissue, or asked if she was hurt, the way most humans would have. Instead he'd told her her tears were beautiful. She reminded him of a painting he saw once when his mother took him to the Metropolitan Museum of Art when he was in the sixth grade. Her sadness had drawn him in, something familiar that made him feel not so alone. And together they'd done something I had been trying to do for months. They were lighting their own path, up out of the dark, with torches fueled by love.
And today all of the broken pieces would be made whole. Today Tyler was going to tell April he loved her. I should have been content to leave them to their fate, but I wasn't like the others, who looked at each human as nothing more than an assignment, a temporary task. My heart ached to see this through.
If Sky caught me, she'd be furious. If anyone other than Sky caught me, I'd be cast out of the heavens. But it didn't stop me from peering back into the waters and searching until I found the girl with pale, freckled skin and strawberry curls, stretching her hand out to frantically wave down a taxi.
My insides sang with glee, seeing her broken soul stitched together and made new again by love. I smiled and watched a wisp of her purple dress get caught in the yellow door before she sped toward her little corner of forever and the picture clouded once again. I sat back on my heels and stared into the glassy pool. A mirrored version of myself stared back, looking a little lost. Red hair floated around me like flames, and my clear eyes seemed to disappear in its depths.
After this I wouldn't have an excuse to linger with Tyler and April anymore. I was going to have to find a way to let go. I was going to have to find a new challenge. A new way to fill the void within my soul.
Shaking off the strange twinge of discomfort in my chest, I dipped my palm back into the water to find Tyler again. He looked restless. Even across the great expanse of Heaven and earth separating us, I could feel his dread. His anger and sadness and confusion slowly erected a dark wall between us. He'd been afraid to take this leap in the first place. He dug his wallet out and tossed a few bills on the table before grabbing his backpack and slinging it over his shoulder.
"No ... Tyler," I whispered. "Just wait. She's coming."
"Gwen!" Sky, my best friend and partner, shattered my concentration. I quickly swept my hand through the bottomless pool of water to clear away any trace of Tyler and April. "I know you're here somewhere, Gwendolyn. I can sense you. Stop hiding from me!"
I sighed and climbed to my feet, smoothing my hands over my white robe before waving my hand to clear away the cloak of mist. The fireflies scattered across the sky like stars, revealing a very irritated Sky on the other side. She swatted at a firefly and swept past me.
"What were you searching for?" she asked, peering down at her flawless reflection.
She turned, and her clear blue eyes that looked like mine were tired. "Gwen ..."
"He's going to tell her he loves her!" I said. "I had to look. And it's a good thing I did. She's late, and he might leave before she gets there. We have to —"
"No!" Sky held up her hand. Light burned holes through the remnants of cloud that surrounded us. "We've done our part. It's time for them to move on. It's time for you to move on, Gwen. This isn't healthy."
"Standing by and watching him needlessly hurt isn't healthy," I said. "Taking the chance he might slip back into that hole I pulled him out of, that's not healthy."
"Help me see this through and I promise things will change."
She narrowed her gaze, looking skeptical. "How?"
"I'll stop getting attached," I said, already regretting my words. I had never told a lie. I couldn't. I wasn't wired that way. If I told Sky I would change, I'd have to follow through, and she knew it. "I'll learn to leave the jobs behind."
Sky tilted her head back to the lavender-tinged heavens and groaned. "Fine!"
I clapped and threw my arms around her neck for a quick hug. Then I turned away and summoned a portal, stumbling back when light erupted from the floor beneath us.
Sky stepped up beside me, shaking her head. "You're going to get us both in trouble. Tell me you realize that."
"For what?" I asked, innocently. "Doing our job? We're just lending a helping hand for the greater cause."
Sky squinted at me. "What kind of helping hand?"
Excerpted from Descent by Tara Fuller, Kari Olson, Heather Howland. Copyright © 2015 Tara Fuller. Excerpted by permission of Entangled Publishing, LLC.
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