High in the heavens, Zacharel watched the world below him. Watched as the once genial Paris murdered yet another of his enemy, the Hunters. How many victims that made in the past hour alone, the angel could not say. He’d long since lost count. And even if he paused to do the tally, the answer would have changed a second later as yet another body fell to the slick, blood-coated blades the warrior wielded.
Of course, the panting, sweat-soaked Paris spun to engage two others, his motions fluid, lethally graceful…as unstoppable as an avalanche. At first, he played. A punch, cracking bone. A kick, smashing lungs. Laughing, spouting the worst of curses. Soon none of that was enough for the demon-possessed soldier, and he danced his blades over the tendons in their ankles, hobbling his prey for easier elimination.
Paris had made himself Bait to purposely draw these Hunters to him. They’d come eagerly, happily, intending to steal the vile demon tethered inside him and finally end him. So Zacharel could not fault the warrior for what he did to defend himself, even as several new bodies joined the already mountainous pile enveloped by a sea of crimson and black. And yet, he could not commend the warrior, either.
These were not mercy slayings or even carried out in the name of a cold and calculated vengeance birthed in the bowels of an equally cold rage. No, these were a spew of fire, hate and desperation hotter than anything hell had ever created.
“He is like a poisoned apple,” Zacharel said to the angel beside him. And because Paris was bonded to the demon of Promiscuity, his pruning belonged not to the humans he lived amongst but to the Deity’s angels, who policed different realms of evil. “Poison of this nature spreads slowly but corrupts absolutely.”
Beads of ice fell around Zacharel, as they always fell around him these days, his breath misting in front of his face. Every crystal was to be a reminder of his own crimes, so recently brought to his attention. But unlike Paris, he did not wear misery like a winter coat, hugging it close to his body, relying on it, feeding it, helping it grow. Zacharel cared for nothing, not anymore.
In his quest to destroy the demons that had ruined his life, he had slain “innocent” humans, and this was to be his punishment—to carry his Deity’s displeasure with him always.
“As succulent as others consider this particular apple,” Lysander proclaimed, “they will be willing to taste anything he offers.”
Zacharel moved his gaze to the man who had taught him how to survive on the battlefield. The elite warrior was a muscled tower of unwavering strength. He wore a long white robe, his majestic wings like rivers of molten gold. Zacharel’s ice raged around him, too, though not a single flake dared land on the man. Perhaps, like myriad other creatures, the crystals feared him—and rightly so. In their world, he was judge and jury, his word law.
“Do we remove temptation?” Zacharel asked. For centuries he had acted as Lysander’s executioner.
“I will not order his assassination, no,” Lysander said, resolute. “At the moment, Paris is redeemable.”
Unexpected. Even with the great distance between the heavens and the earth, Zacharel could hear the grunts and groans Paris elicited, the screams of his enemies. The pleas for mercy that would echo into eternity, forever unheeded. And as determined as this Lord of the Underworld was, this was only the beginning.
“What will you have me do, then?”
“Paris searches for his woman, intending to free her from the Titan king’s enslavement. You will aid him, protect him and protect the girl. The moment her ties to Cronus are cut, however, you will bring her here, where she will live out the rest of eternity.”
Even more unexpected. The command smacked of leniency, something Lysander had shown to only one other demon-possessed immortal in all the millennia of his life: Amun, Paris’s friend. And only because Bianka, Lysander’s Harpy mate, had asked.
She must have requested this second favor, as well, for it was widely known that Lysander was powerless against her wiles. But even a besotted groom, tasked as he was with governing the heavens, responsible for all that transpired there, should not have asked another angel to do this deed. Aid a demon? Bring another here to live? Horrifying.
Zacharel offered no objection. And despite the fact that he had never experienced desire himself, he would do his best to cure Paris of his so that, when the inevitable break with the female came, the warrior would not return to his rage.
“Paris will protest her loss.” After everything the warrior had done to find and save her already, everything he would soon do…oh, yes, he would protest—using those dripping blades to make his case.
“You must convince him that he will be better off without her,” Lysander said.
“Will he be?”
“Of course.” There was no hesitation in the pronouncement, lending it an edge of fiery truth. An unnecessary edge, for Zacharel knew Lysander would not, could not, lie.
“And if I fail to convince him?” He had to ask, needed the penalty riding heavy on his shoulders, driving him to succeed.
Eyes of pitiless navy frosted over, revealing the iron depths of Lysander’s warrior core. “We are lost, for the greatest war the world has ever known now brews. The girl will lead us to our victory—or our enemy to theirs. It’s as simple as that.”
Very well, then. When the time came, Zacharel would take her. No matter how Paris was affected.
Paris would hate him, and would, perhaps, do more than rage. There was no stopping that, not when so much darkness swirled inside him, a rot in his soul, far worse than any spiritual poison. But that wouldn’t stop Zacharel from fulfilling his duty.
PARIS TOSSED BACK THREE fingers of Glenlivet and signaled the bartender. He wanted an entire hand and by right or might, he’d have it. Except soon after the single malt was poured, he realized an entire hand wasn’t going to cut it, either. Fury and frustration were living entities inside him, frothing and bubbling despite his recent fighting.
“Leave the bottle,” he said when the bartender made a move to help someone else. Hell, suddenly Paris doubted every drop of alcohol in a ten-mile radius would do the trick, but hey. Desperate times.
“Sure, sure. Anything you say.” Shirtless Boy Wonder released the bottle and beat feet.
What? He looked that dangerous? Please. He’d washed off the blood, hadn’t he? Wait. Hadn’t he? He looked down. Shit. He hadn’t. Crimson streaked him from head to toe.
Whatever. He wasn’t in a human bar, so no “authorities” would have a beef with him. He was in Olympus, though the heavenly kingdom had recently been renamed Titania. Once only gods and goddesses had been allowed here, but when Cronus reclaimed the realm, he’d changed things, allowing vampires, fallen angels and other creatures of the dark to come and play. A nice little screw you to the previous king, Zeus.
Call the bartender back, Promiscuity said. I want him.
Promiscuity—the demon trapped inside him, driving him. Irritating him. Remember when I wanted fidelity? Monogamy? Paris replied in his mind. Well, we don’t always get what we want, do we?
A familiar growl sounded in his head.
Whaa, whaa, pout, pout. He downed the second alcoholic offering and quickly chased it with a third. Both scorched so good he enjoyed a fourth. The potent alcohol razed his chest, burned holes in his abdomen, and flooded his veins. Nice.
And yet, his emotions remained as dark as ever, the edges of that bone-deep fury and frustration unsmoothed. His inability to save a not-so-innocent woman he should hate—did hate, at least a little—but also hungered for, body and soul, drove him, a constant whip against his flank.
“If I asked you to leave, would you?” a monotone voice said from beside him. A voice accompanied by a blast of arctic air.
He didn’t have to look to know that Zacharel, warrior angel extraordinaire and infamous demon-assassin, had just joined him. They’d met not long ago, when the feathered axman had come to Buda to off Paris’s friend Amun. Had old Zach actually succeeded, two crystal blades would have been drilling into his spine at that very moment.
I want him, the demon said.
Finally. We’re on the same page.
Really hate you right now.
Once upon a time, the demon had spoken to Paris with annoying frequency. Then the stupid sex fiend had stopped, merely urging Paris to bed this person or that person, no matter their gender or Paris’s own feelings toward them. Now, the talking had started up again and it was worse than before, because he wanted everyone, especially the ones Paris felt no desire for.
“Well?” the angel prompted.
“Leave, when I had to beg Lucien to bring me here and I know he won’t be so accommodating next time? No, but I’d damn sure want to know why you gave a crap about my location.”
“I do not care about your location.”
True story. Zacharel didn’t care about anything, a fact you learned real fast in your dealings with him. “That’s my point, so get lost.”
As Paris nursed a fifth whiskey, he studied the smoke-stained mirror in front of him, covertly panning the area behind him. Bejeweled chandeliers hung from the ceiling. The walls were rose-colored marble, veined with glittering ebony, the floor a sparkling stretch of crushed diamonds.
Throughout the room, men and women talked and laughed. From minor gods and goddesses to fallen angels trying to work their way back into their saintly fold. Good luck with that in a bar. Morons. Anyway. There was probably a demon or two sprinkled among the masses, but Paris couldn’t tell for sure.
Demons were as sneaky as they were evil. They could skulk around in their own scales, proudly showcasing their horns, claws, wings and tails—and getting decapitated by warrior angels like Zach. Or they could possess someone else’s body and skulk around in their skin.
Paris had thousands of years of experience with the latter.
“I will leave, as you so succinctly suggested,” Zacharel said, “after you answer another question for me.”
“All right.” Something else Paris knew from experience: angels were freakishly stubborn. Better to hear the guy out, otherwise he’d find himself with a new shadow. He turned, facing the dark-haired stunner with eyes the color of jade, and sucked in a breath. Never ceased to amaze him, how magnetic these celestial beings were. No matter their gender—or how mind-numbingly dull their personalities—they drew and held your attention, every damn time. For some reason, Zacharel did so with more intensity than most.
But the magnetism wasn’t what caught Paris’s attention this time. Majestic wings arced over the angel’s broad shoulders, a turbulent fall of winter clouds with streams of gold winding and curling throughout, snowflakes raining from the tips like glitter in a globe.
“You’re snowing.” Captain Obvious, that’s me.
“I can answer you, or I can ask my question and leave.” Dressed in the long white robe that was customary for his kind, Zacharel should have looked innocent and prissy. Instead, he looked like the Grim Reaper’s evil twin: emotionless, as frigid as the snow he shed and ready to kill. “Your choice.”
No thought necessary. “Ask.”
“Do you wish to die?” Zacharel said it as simply as he’d said everything else, mist crystallizing in front of his mouth, creating a dreamlike haze and reminding Paris of the breath of life. Or death.
Definitely ready to kill, Paris mused. “What do you think?” he asked, because honestly? He didn’t know the answer anymore.
For centuries he’d fought to live, but now, now he constantly threw himself into the fire and waited to be burned. Liked being burned. What kind of sick prick had he become?
Unflinching, the angel held his gaze. “I think you want one particular woman more than you want anyone—or anything—else. Even death…even life.”
Paris pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. One woman in particular: the not-so-innocent one.
Her name was Sienna Blackstone. Once a Hunter and always his enemy, for Hunters were an irritating army of humans who hoped to rid the world of Pandora’s demons. Then fleetingly, she’d been his lover. Then dead, gone. Then she’d been brought back from the grave, her soul merged with the demon of Wrath. Now, she was out there. Somewhere. And she was suffering. Cronus had enslaved her, thinking to use her demon to punish his adversaries, and now that he’d lost control of her, he thought to torture her into submission.
Paris might dislike the things Sienna had done to him, and yeah, as he’d already admitted, part of him might even hate the woman herself, but even she did not deserve the cruel, vicious—eternal—punishment being meted out.
I will find her, and I will save her. From Cronus…from himself. Right now, Paris simply couldn’t get past the fact that she was suffering. Once that part of the equation was dealt with, he would stop thinking about her. He had to stop thinking about her.
“So I want her,” he ended up saying to the angel. Sienna was not up for discussion. “BFD.”
“I will pretend I know what that means.” Zacharel shook his wings, more of that pure, glistening snow raining down. “As for you, I think that, despite your own desires, your demon wants anything with a pulse.”
“Sometimes even a pulse isn’t a requirement,” he muttered, and damn if that wasn’t the truth. Sex, as he’d taken to calling his dark companion, wanted anyone and everyone—but only ever once. With the exception of Sienna, Sex would not allow Paris to harden for the same person twice.
Why could he have Sienna again? No damn clue. “But again, so?”
“I think, even though you crave this particular woman, you slept with your friend Strider’s future wife. He is the demon of Defeat, and your actions made his courtship of the Harpy very difficult.”
“Hey. You’re entering dangerous territory here.” Not that Paris had anything to apologize for.
The one-nighter had happened weeks before Strider and Kaia hooked up. Or had even thought about hooking up. Therefore, Paris had done nothing wrong. Technically. And yet, he now knew what Kaia looked like naked, and Strider knew that he knew, and that meant all three of them knew Sex tossed out na*ed images of the girl every time they were together. A consequence Paris loathed, but couldn’t stop.
Zacharel’s dark head tilted to the side in a reflective pose, all the more mysterious because of the mist that continued to form with his every exhalation. “I meant only to point out that you have clearly moved on to other conquests and that you are hardly discriminating in your choices, which makes me wonder why you still pursue your Sienna.”