He felt the first sizzle of contact, and then he knew nothing more.
OLIVIA SCREAMED and screamed and screamed. Aeron. Dead. Gone forever. His beautiful warrior’s body had gone limp, had fallen from the sky. A fall that had seemed to last forever, slow and agonizing, taunting her and making her hope that maybe, maybe, he would land softly, and he would be okay. She had only to reach him…
“Please,” she sobbed, racing out of his bedroom and heading outside. But deep down, she knew. Reaching him wouldn’t make a difference. Aeron. Dead. Gone forever.
LEGION HAD JUST FLASHED BACK to the fortress to tell Aeron what she’d done when she felt her bond to him break. And she knew. Knew. Only one thing would break a bond like theirs.
Death.She was alive, so that meant— No. No! Never. She shook her head violently. “Aeron! Aeron!” Without their bond, she couldn’t remain here. She would—
“No,” she screamed, even as she was tugged from the fortress and back into hell.
As the flames enveloped her, she heard Lucifer’s scream echo her own. “No!”
OLIVIA CRIED until she had no more tears left, Aeron’s body clutched in her arms. She barely noticed as the sun fell and rose again. Barely noticed as Aeron’s friends descended. Upon seeing what had become of the warrior, Strider had dropped to his knees and howled. Torin had wept. Lucien had waited to escort his soul, but was never summoned, and no one knew why. Maddox had raged for answers, and most of the others had stood staring in shock and disbelief, pallid, shaking. Even Gideon had stumbled his way outside, and oh, his tears had destroyed her. But the reaction that had slayed her most, the one that had torn her up and left her raw, was Sabin’s.
“Not him,” the warrior had uttered brokenly. “Not this man. Take me instead.”A sentiment she, too, wallowed in.
Like her, they refused to leave the hill. Cameo tried to convince her to rise, to let Aeron go, so that others could hold him and say their goodbyes. She refused. Even slapped those strong arms away from her. Finally, they left her alone, but she knew they waited nearby, watching, wanting their turn.
This couldn’t be the end, she thought, dazed. It simply couldn’t be. No immortal could recover from decapitation. She knew that. But this just couldn’t be the end.
Aeron couldn’t die alone.
The words drifted through her mind once, then a second and third time. Aeron couldn’t die alone.
Aeron couldn’t die alone.
On every level, this death was wrong. Needless, senseless.
Aeron couldn’t die alone—and he wouldn’t.
Hope suddenly bloomed from the darkness of her soul, and though it required every ounce of strength she possessed, Olivia at last released the warrior—no, hold him, never let go—and picked herself up off the ground. Oh, no. He wouldn’t die alone, she vowed.
“Olivia,” one of his waiting friends said, closing in on her, projecting so much sorrow, so much regret, so much pain.
Ignore. Closing her eyes, she splayed her arms and lifted her head to the gleaming sun. Act. “I’m ready to return home. To claim my rightful place in the sky. To be the angel I was created to be.”
Instantly she was caught up in the sky, wings sprouting from her back in one glorious wave. She curled them around herself and looked them over, shocked to see no threads of gold. No longer a warrior, then. Funny. No longer a warrior, yet never in her life had she been more intent on fighting for something.
Aeron wouldn’t die alone.
Lysander was beside her a second later, his expression so tortured he looked as if he were in physical pain. “I’m sorry, Olivia, but it had to be done. It was the only way.”
There was true remorse in his voice, and she nodded to acknowledge it. “You did what you had to do, just as I will.” She didn’t give him time to question her. No, she marched toward the tribunal chamber, ready to face the Council.
AERON SLOWLY OPENED HIS EYES. The first thought to hit him: how was he able to do so? Frowning, he reached up, and wonder of wonders, he had eyes, a nose and a mouth. His head was attached to his body, but strangely enough, there were no scabs on his neck—or tattoos on his arms, he realized with shock when he spotted smooth, tanned skin.
Frown intensifying, he sat up. He experienced no dizziness, no pain, just a cool breeze that wrapped around him as if hugging him in welcome. His gaze moved over his body. Intact. Unharmed. He was lying on a marble dais, and he was wearing a white robe, much like Olivia’s. His legs were also devoid of tattoos.How was that possible? How was any of it possible?
Lysander hadn’t missed. He’d felt the burn.
So what had happened? And where was he? He studied his surroundings. There was a mistlike quality to the air, as if he were trapped inside a dream. There were no houses, no streets, only alabaster column after alabaster column with dewy ivy that climbed the sides.
Heaven? Had he somehow been made into an angel? He reached around and felt his back. No. No wings. Disappointment rocked him. As an angel, he would have been able to search for Olivia, to be with her.
Olivia. Sweet, sweet Olivia. His chest ached and his hands itched to touch her. He would miss her every day of his…life? Death? Utterly and without waning. Where was she now? What was she doing?
The deep voice hit him, and he shook in recognition and shock.
Though thousands of years had passed since he’d heard that raspy timbre, he knew who it belonged to instantly. Baden. Once his best friend, but centuries deceased. Aeron pushed to his feet and turned, unsure of what he’d find. How…?
Baden stood only a few feet away.
Aeron battled through the shock. His friend looked the same as when he’d been alive. Tall, muscled, bright red hair that shagged around his face. Brown eyes, sun-darkened skin. Like Aeron, he wore a white robe.
“How are you…how are we…?” Still the questions wouldn’t form, so great was his astonishment.
“You’ve changed. A lot.” Baden grinned, revealing straight white teeth, and rather than answer, he raked Aeron with his gaze. “But gods, I’ve missed you.”
And then they were running toward each other, wrapping their arms around each other. Aeron held tight. He’d never thought to see this man again. Yet here he was, holding his best friend close.
“I’ve missed you, too,” he managed to choke past the hard lump in his throat.
A long while passed before they pulled back. Aeron still couldn’t believe this was happening. That he was here, with Baden. Touching him, seeing him.
Last time they’d been together, before Baden’s beheading, Aeron had wanted to set the man on fire. Or rather, Wrath had wanted him to do so. Baden had torched an entire village, certain they plotted his murder, and Aeron’s demon had yearned to repay him in kind, fire for fire, even though guilt had ravaged Baden, perhaps even leading to his “trust” in Hadiee, the Bait who’d led him to his slaughter.
Now Aeron felt…nothing but kinship. No menace of any kind. No urge to grab a match. There were no images inside his head, either. No screams in his ears. Actually, he didn’t sense Wrath at all.
That made no sense. He still had his head, so Wrath had to be inside him. Right?
“Where are we?” he asked. “And how are we here?”
“Welcome to the afterlife, my friend. Created by Zeus after our possession, just in case our demons killed us. He didn’t want our tainted souls able to reach him. And yeah, I know it would have been nice to know we had a place to stay, but the old bastard never breathed a word.” Baden pivoted and waved his hand over their surroundings. “I call it Bad’s Land. Get it? Baden.”
“Yes, I get it.”
“Still no sense of humor, I see. We’ll have to work on that. Anyway, I know it’s not much to look at and the place is boring as shit, but it’s better than the alternative.”
The alternative? “So I really am dead?”
His shoulders slumped, a paltry motion for the sense of crushing loss suddenly plaguing him. No chance to search for Olivia, then.
And no Wrath, he realized with a sharp inhalation. His demon had been taken from him, released when he died. He was alone. Truly alone, for the first time in centuries.
He was…saddened. Yes, saddened. There at the end, they’d reached an accord.
“Are you and I the only ones here?”
“No. There are a few others, but they keep their distance from me. I don’t know why. I’m as sweet as a sugar cookie. Not that I’ve gotten to enjoy one lately,” Baden grumbled. “Pandora, though…” He shuddered. “She also resides here and she does not keep her distance. Unfortunately.”
Again Aeron battled back his shock. Pandora. The woman who’d been given charge of dimOuniak, the box holding all the escaped demon High Lords captive. The woman who had taunted him and his friends with her elevated status, reminding them over and over again that the gods had overlooked them.
Once he’d despised her. Now…so many years had passed since he’d even thought of her, he couldn’t dredge up the hate. Was he overjoyed to know she was here and nearby, however? Hell, no.
“Why haven’t you killed her?” he asked. “Again.”
“He’s not strong enough,” a female said from behind them.
In unison, they spun. Pandora rested against one of the columns, arms crossed over her chest.
Seeing her, even though he’d been warned of her presence, was like being punched in the face with brass knuckles. Aeron looked her over. Like him and Baden, she was tall and muscled, though on a much smaller scale. Her brown hair hit her chin and trapped her face. A face too harsh to be pretty. Her eyes were gold. Too gold. Too bright. Otherworldly. And filled with disdain.
The same look she’d always given him in the heavens.
Ah. There was his old sense of loathing, rising inside him, filling him. Even in death he was to have an enemy, it seemed.
“Must be my birthday,” she said with a cruel smile. “One by one the men who sent me here have decided to join me.”