Hunter spun downward, impaled by the Rage Demon’s blade. Agony. She guessed the pain of dying was cold, not hot. Freaky. But then, everything would soon be so much more, she knew. Regrets swamped her but didn’t hold. She’d die, but others wouldn’t.
Saved Markee from this. And Trouble. But Torment, what of him?
Her thoughts fractured and she cried out, more in surprise than from the chilling pain—or absence of it. A green light burst all around her, as if she’d blinked out of her tortured body, just like those television shows where the person heads toward the light.
Only, I’m not headed for the light. I’m tagged for darkness. Hell, to be exact.
What have I gotten myself into now?
Suddenly she landed smack on grassy, sweet-smelling but hard ground. The sword in her chest was missing, though, and so, she realized immediately, was the Rage Demon.
Getting her breath back, she quickly shook her head. Nothing made sense, but she planted her trembling hands on the turf anyway and made it slowly to her feet—and froze.
A child in a flowing blue gown was walking toward her. Where her small bare feet touched, flowers opened and the grass darkened to a richer green. Her impossibly long blonde hair spilled around her slender body like a cloak, trailing behind her in the high grass.
The young child, Bridget.
How she knew wasn’t clear, but every fiber of her body vibrated like a tuning fork. Bone-deep, Hunter accepted this figure’s presence as if she’d always believed in her existence. Hunter’s future rose before her eyes as the dirt was removed to reveal something beautiful that should have happened, if Hunter had been brave enough to make it so.
It was hard to catch her breath, but Hunter went to her knees and dared to face the child.
A mask of sadness settled over the girlish features and just before she reached Hunter, she lifted her hand as if in entreaty and the green, sweet-smelling world swept away as if it had never been real, but painted in watercolors that smeared as tears filled Hunter’s eyes.
Pain—agony, really—burst along every inch of Hunter’s body.
She was bound upside down on a cross. Her hands stretched out tight to the wood and were nailed with what felt like two inch wide pieces of metal. Her feet were crossed and one nail secured them both. Nothing else held her there.
The mere idea was so chilling she couldn’t handle it, and she shook with fear, which made the anguish grow worse. Her chest ached, and from the warm trickle easing along her neck, she guessed her sword wound was back. Compared to the impalement on a cross, though, the death blow was almost trivial.
Hell. I’m in hell for real now.
Slowly more of her torture crystallized. She was in an enormous marble hall, much like you would see in Rome, only this one was lit throughout by black men dressed in dull gray loincloths and nothing else. Each held an impossibly large bowl filled with flames above his head. The flames danced along the walls as the bowls shook, from the strain of their weight, she assumed. Each man’s face was in shadow but she could see the white of their teeth—almost as if they were grinning. It was so odd she had trouble understanding they were really there, until it dawned on her that they weren’t smiling, they were grimacing in pain.
She shivered again, realizing that at their feet were the burned remains of what could only be the man before them—one who didn’t keep the bowl above his head.
Squeezing her eyes shut did no good. All she saw was her own torture, her own death played out over and over in a kaleidoscope of horrifying detail.
Black marble covered every surface she could see from her perch, shimmering with gold and sparkling from the gems embedded in intricate designs over the floor and the walls. The men weren’t the only ones in the enormous room either, she finally realized.
Lucifer sat casually watching her from a golden throne so opulent it hurt her eyes to focus on. By his side two demons stood at the ready, while slaves knelt with fans as if he were some kind of Egyptian pharaoh. The fallen angel sat in his average form, that of a normal man who no one would notice in a crowd, but that simply made it worse.
Has he been there this whole time?
More horrifying, though, for her, was that behind him she began to hear the screams of women, maybe or men—and the rough grunts of sex, or more likely rape. Both demons leered at her body. One reached down and stroked himself through his slacks.
She slammed her eyes closed.
He will do that. They will do that. They can do anything. Anything—forever.
No regrets. No regrets.
Her eyes opened on their own.
The Lord of Lies smiled. Terror ripped through her, deeper than the nails in her hands and feet, but she kept her eyes open.
“You have such a lack of imagination,” Lucifer murmured, but Hunter heard him as if he were whispering in her ear, not sitting a hundred feet from her on his golden throne. “You believe that I will punish you in such a way when that is merely a reward to my men, not a true penance for all you have failed to do.”
It wasn’t a question. Still, she found she wanted to answer, to say anything, anything at all to appease him.
She’d betrayed her friends, but worse, she’d betrayed oaths she’d made to him in exchange for mastery of her magic. She knew to never make a promise she couldn’t keep—and never had—until her love for her friends had outweighed her fear of this demon.
Her punishment would last an eternity.
“I will, of course, give you to them,” he said, after a moment of letting her dangle in her own misery. “But that is no less than you deserve and it will come when I have exhausted myself from watching my men flay the flesh from your bones. It will grow back, of course. That is one benefit of being here. I can have them repeat that entertainment for me every day, if I wish. Or perhaps pulling your bones from your skin? That is always an amazing feat. My dear, there are such possibilities. The human form is by far the most amazing instrument to torture.”
He spoke as if he were discussing whether pork chops or meat loaf would be better for dinner.
She didn’t respond, but then, she knew there was nothing to say. I’d prefer you simply let me go and give me a free pass this time. Just won’t do, will it?
“You cost me an empire,” he suddenly said. “An empire I want back. I will not lose one soul, nor will I let one go as easily as you seem to think.”
Silence settled between them, long enough that she had time to feel the bite of the nails rubbing the bones in her hands and feet.
Would she even be able to stand again? Walk along the beach at midnight? Or grab a pint with her…what? Friends?
Such ordinary things she used to take for granted now seemed bittersweet and precious. Breathing—without pain—for example, was something she’d never considered before. Why hadn’t she enjoyed every moment of that? Or her quiet mornings when she’d walk down to get a coffee from her favorite shop. The way men would follow her wherever she wanted them to go, even if it was only to get an ice cream. Or stroll along the boardwalk down by the bay with all the other normal, average people. The scent of her body lotion, or the way her shower could stay hot for hours.
Everything hurt now, even the memories.
With an abruptness that startled her, Lucifer stood. Her heart quickened as he strode closer. She swallowed, ready for something horrible. When the Lord of Lies was in this human form, she knew more fear than when he was in his angelic form—with his too brilliant to gaze upon her. For some reason the average guy façade was creepier.
Shivers jerked her wounds against the nails, making their own torment without him lifting a finger. She bit the inside of her cheek to keep from screaming at the pain.
“You wish to be free, don’t you, little one? You regret everything, all those moments in the sun you didn’t cherish,” he said, making her even more fearful because it was as if he was reading her mind.
Maybe he is.
If he could, she couldn’t stop him, but for some reason she felt as if her mind was her own. For being scared shitless, she still had some hope, even if it was small.
“So young… So very, very young to sacrifice so much,” he mused, circling her. Two slaves followed, meekly carrying trays with food and drink, as if he might want to snack while he examined her. The demons remained by his chair, but the uglier, red-faced one had stopped his masturbating.
She kept her focus on a spot high above the throne where a little shiny spark winked out from the black marble. It flickered almost joyfully in the firelight. Maybe it’s a star, a wish upon a star, star.
And I’m losing my mind. Good. Oh, please, please let me lose my mind.
“Are you listening to me, Hunter?” Lucifer asked and stopped in front of her again. “What have you gained by your disobedience?” he demanded, folding his arms over his chest and examining her. “My complete and utter displeasure.”
True. Very, very true.
“This means I can, and I will, do anything to you I wish. The possibilities are so vast, I need time to think of where to begin.”
Dread was like a hard ball in her stomach, sliding down to her throat. Her head was roaring with blood from being hung upside down, but she heard his every word crystal clear.
“When this”—he gestured to her naked body—“is broken, and you have come to heel for my stallions over there, then you will rectify your disgraceful behavior by bringing me the Fire Realm.”
At his words, her heart took off at light speed.
Agni and Moon are safe—more than safe then if Agni has won his people’s freedom from hell.
A rush of terror threatened to swallow her whole. Lucifer meant for her to trap Agni and Moon again.
From somewhere—possibly that tiny speck of light on the wall—she found the strength to shake her head. She would never betray her friends. Never again betray her friends.
He stepped in front of her, eliminating her view of the twinkly spot.
“No, you won’t?” he asked, raising a brown eyebrow as if he didn’t quite believe her.
She didn’t believe herself. She was in hell, where anything could happen to her—and would—and the only person to limit that was the man facing her.
“I won’t betray my friends.”
At her gasped words his face registered shock, then just as quickly, he doubled over in laughter, shaking his head as if she were a child who’d just said the most outrageous thing.
But she hadn’t.
He could do whatever he wanted to her, and nothing, nothing she did or didn’t do would limit that. And it would go on and on, never-ending, no matter what promises he made. He never kept his promises, this she knew as fact. She would suffer. Rape, beatings, even the bone-pulling-out-of-her-skin thing, but agreeing to betray her friends wouldn’t stop that. Nothing would. She couldn’t sign a deal with the devil to get out of torture.
“Friends?” he asked. “Do you really think those people are your friends any longer?”
Maybe not, but it doesn’t change a thing.
She owed each and every one of those people much more than she had ever given them. Circerran for helping her get out of a life of crime and into something that mattered in the world. Beauty and Torque for trusting her. Moon for her friendship, from the first day they’d met. Joey and Jaxon because they saw her as a friend and cared about her—or at least they once had. Tabithia because she was the sister Hunter had always wanted and never had.
The list went on.
Even Torment, with his scary eyes and stern features, was someone she would never betray again.
And Aubrey, innocent-sweet and trusting Aubrey, who’d stood by her when she shouldn’t have.
A tear slipped free and rolled over her skin, hurting worse than the nails in her hands and feet. She’d wanted to do girl things with Aubrey, bar-hop, make the men all stare, go clothes shopping, stay out late and talk—all the things she wanted more of, but now would never have.
Lucifer didn’t need to lay another hand on her, or have his demons rip her apart. Her regrets were doing that.
Dogs barking cut through her misery, so out of place here in the gold and black hall, she blinked to clear her vision. By the way Lucifer spun, the sound startled him as well. She found her twinkling light again after a second of panic that it was gone forever. The way it shone so brightly, it must have been a piece of diamond. Maybe it was stuck in the marble. It was right there, trapped in hell. Like me.