“You’re mistaken. The gift is mine. Now your eternal torment can be ensured.”
She stepped toward him—to attack?—but stopped herself and offered another smile. “So. How’s Maddox? Dying, I hope.”
Maddox had been the one to kill her. The warrior had been lost to his demon, Violence, and had stabbed her, over and over again. “You’ll be disappointed to know he’s well. He’s even expecting a child.”
Breath hitched in her throat. “Is he now? How wonderful.” She exhaled, and with the release, a dam seemed to break inside her. “That bastard! He doesn’t deserve to be happy! He killed me, allowed my box to be stolen, and now no one knows where it is. It’s our ticket out of here, but nooo. Even I can’t find it. He ruined everything and now his dreams are coming true? You think I didn’t know that he always wanted a family? I knew! But he was supposed to die! He was the one who—”
“Oh, get over yourself already.” Baden tossed Aeron a see-what-I’ve-had-to-endure look. “Gods. You’re just as much of a bitch now as you were then.”
Silence. Panting. Her eyes narrowed on the redhead. “Feeling invincible now that you have a friend to protect you?”
“Hardly. I’m invincible either way.”
They continued to bicker, but Aeron tuned them out, his attention locked on part of Pandora’s impassioned speech. Finding the box, dimOuniak, would free them from this realm? Truth or lie, he didn’t know. What he did know? If he could escape, he could search for Olivia, as he’d wanted.
Would she be able to see him?
Yes or no, he didn’t care. He would be able to see her.
That box is mine.
OLIVIA STOOD in front of the Heavenly High Council, life and death in their hands for the second time. For days she’d pleaded her case, refusing to give up or leave, but they’d continued to reject her, too satisfied with the outcome. Aeron was dead, as they’d wanted, and Legion returned to hell. Her home. Something Lysander hadn’t fully explained to Aeron.
She splayed her arms, her wings, and turned, letting them see her. All of her. Aeron’s blood had been cleaned from her robe, but not her hands. She hadn’t let her hands even graze the material. She wanted those in charge to see what they had wrought.Her gaze locked with every member, perched as they were atop their thrones. They were beautiful, each of them. Strong and proud and pure. They felt justified. They felt exonerated. They did not flinch under her probing stare.
Do not waver. You are confident, aggressive. “By punishing him,” she called, “you have punished me. Eternally. I fell, yes, but you allowed me to return. I am once again like you. An angel. That means my soul is as pure as yours. Therefore I ask you—what have I done to earn such a punishment?”
At last, a murmur arose.
Hope bloomed once again.
“What do you mean?” one of the males asked her.
“Allowing you to return here was not meant to be a punishment, but a privilege.”
“I love Aeron. I cannot be happy without him.”
“You can,” one of the females said. “You just need time to—”
“No! No time. I deserve to be as joyful as I have made thousands of others, and I have told you what that will entail.”
This time, there were no murmurs. Only silence. Heavy silence. Defeating silence. Still she didn’t bow her head or apologize for her impudence. She wouldn’t back down. Not about this. If they would not give Aeron back to her, she would die with him.
He would not die alone.
Confident. “If you leave things as they are, a good man slain, you will be no better than the ones you protect the humans against.” They would be like the demons. She left that unsaid, but her meaning was clear.
“Good men are slain all the time, Olivia. That is the price of free will.” Another of the females, her tone softer now, bearing a hint of compassion.
Aggressive. “We punished Aeron for his choices. Why can’t we reward him, as well? For that is what truly sets us apart. Our compassion, our kindness. Our love. Love he himself has demonstrated to a humbling extent. He gave up his life for mine. Does that sacrifice not outweigh his crime? Has he not proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that he’s worthy of redemption?”
Murmurs again. And then, finally, a sigh.
“Perhaps something can be arranged….”
THE DAYS PASSED in quick succession, one fading into another. Aeron spent all of his time with Baden. They talked, laughed, cried and caught up, all the while dissecting possible locations for Pandora’s box. His determination to find that box was stronger than ever. Not to stop the Hunters—though that would be a wonderful bonus—but for Olivia.
He found that he didn’t need to sleep, and he didn’t need to eat. He merely existed in the endless white, his resolve unwavering.So far, they’d developed a few good theories. The box was hidden in plain sight. Perhaps stored in a realm like this one, no one able to flash inside. Perhaps buried at the bottom of the sea. Who had taken it, though, and why, they still hadn’t figured out.
“I want to go back so badly,” Baden said as they walked through the mist. They did their best thinking this way. “Every so often, at random times, we’re given glimpses of life down there, but they’re never enough.”
“What have you seen?”
“A few of Sabin’s battles with Hunters before he moved to Budapest. Your fortress. The explosion that brought you all back together. Each of the women who’ve helped you. Lucien is a lucky bastard. His woman is my favorite.”
“You’d probably offer him condolences if you actually met Anya.”
Baden laughed. “A troublemaker, is she? But then, aren’t they all.” As his amusement faded, he slapped Aeron on the back. “I think I miss a woman’s softness most of all.”
Thinking of Hadiee? “Why did you do it?” Finally Aeron asked what he’d wondered for centuries. “Why did you allow the Hunters to take your head?”
His friend shrugged. “I was tired, so tired of constantly looking over my shoulder, suspicious about anything and everything. I’d even begun to doubt you.”
“All of you, really.” Baden sighed. “I hated it. I hated that I expected each of you to turn on me when I knew in my heart that it would never happen.”
“You’re right. We never would have hurt you.” They’d loved this man too fiercely. Despite his demon, Baden had been the one each man relied on. The one each man sought for guidance and support.
“And then the woman came,” his friend continued. “I suspected she was Bait, but what made it worse was that I hoped she was. So I did it. I escorted her home, let her seduce me, even though I knew the Hunters would show up. I was…relieved when they finally approached. I didn’t even fight them.”
Like he had ultimately refused to fight Lysander. “Are you happy with the way things ended?”
“To be honest, I don’t know. Pandora is all I have for amusement and as you saw, she isn’t very amusing.”
There was no denying that. “Speaking of Pandora, she seems to have disappeared. I’ve caught no glimpse of her since I first arrived.”
“That’s the way she works. She gives you a few days of peace, lulling you with a false sense of security, and then strikes. But enough of her. Why did you do it?” Baden asked, flicking him a glance. “Why did you allow yourself to be killed? And yes, I know you allowed yourself to die. You’re too good a soldier to have been taken any other way.”
Aeron sighed, the weary sound a mimic of Baden’s. “All these years I’ve feared death, but there at the end, you’re right. I, too, welcomed it. Not because I was tired but because I wanted to save my woman.”
“Ah, a woman. The downfall of us all. Tell me about her. I have yet to be given a glimpse.” Baden rubbed his hands together, ripe with anticipation. “I want to know what kind of creature captivated so leery a man.”
“Yes, Aeron, I want to hear this, too.”
Aeron stilled. “Did you hear that?” He spun, gaze searching wildly for the woman he craved more than life. He found no sign of her.
“I heard,” Baden said, frowning now. “A female voice, right?”
He wasn’t insane, then. “Olivia?” he shouted. He would have sworn his heart began pounding in his chest. “Olivia!”
Several yards away, the air began to shimmer, dappled glitter in a canvas of pearl, and a shape took form. Dark curls. Bright blue eyes. Flawless skin. Heart-shaped lips. Circles of rose painted her cheeks, and glorious white wings were stretched behind her.
Wings. Angel. She’d gone home.
“Can you see me?” Desperate, he kicked into motion. “Can you see the dead?”
“Oh, yes. I can see you.”
When he reached her, his arms banded around her and lifted her up. He held on to her as he’d never held on to another, spinning her. Here, she was here. With him. Never would he let her go.
Her head fell back and she laughed with carefree abandon. That laughter…how it soothed his soul.
“Olivia.” Desperate to taste her, he meshed their lips together. She opened willingly, eagerly, and he fed her kiss after kiss, savoring everything about her. The warmth of her body, the sweetness of her curves. His. And his alone.
“Aeron. There’s so much I have to tell you.”
Trembling, he set her down and cupped her face, never losing contact. “Sweetheart, what are you doing here? How are you here? And I see you’re an angel once again.” My angel.
“Yes. A joy-bringer, no longer a warrior.”
“You were always my joy-bringer, but how… I don’t understand.”
She beamed up at him and traced her fingers all over his face, as if she, too, couldn’t bear to let go. “My Deity is the creator of life, and He has offered you a new one. Just as the Heavenly High Council offered me my old job back—even though they say I’m now better suited for the warrior class. From now on, I will be your personal joy-bringer. They realized you couldn’t be happy without me, and I would have no joy without you.”