And there, in the center of it all, perched a nightmare of a castle. Dark stone crumbled. Withered ivy with dagger-sharp tips climbed the walls, every leaf reminding him of a spider. The roof knifed into several points, a body staked through the heart and hanging from each, dripping blood onto the glass panes of every window. There were several balconies guarded by multiple gargoyles of every size.
Gargoyles that would, apparently, come to life.
Writhing shadows, slick and oily in appearance, hovered around the entire structure, but they didn’t touch a single stone. They maintained a generous distance, as if a rod of iron held them in place. The moment they heard the starting bell, whatever that was, Paris suspected they would burst free and attack whoever happened to be nearby.
“She’s inside,” he told his companions. “I know it.” He wanted to go in, guns blazing. Was desperate to go in, guns blazing and knives slashing, but he couldn’t. Not yet, not yet. Information had to come first.
Death was in the details.
“That’s great, wonderful, but why am I here again?” William asked, scratching his head. He consumed the space at Paris’s left, dressed for the runway rather than the front lines. Silk suit, no weapons. A bottle of conditioner in his pocket. Yeah. Conditioner. Again. For split ends. A little jaunt into hell had “damaged some of the precious strands,” so he now carried his “necessary daily treatment” everywhere.
Annnd hearing his voice caused Sex to purr like a kitten. It was disgusting.
“I’m still recovering from agonizing physical and mental trauma,” William added. The warrior had barely escaped from his encounter in hell, true, but being crushed by boulders and clawed by flesh-hungry fiends was hardly agonizing.
“Just, I don’t know, consider this your punishment for abandoning Kane,” Paris said. How many gargoyles would he have to battle? He did a quick head count. Fifty-nine from the front. Probably a similar number waited in back. Half of them were as big as dragons, but some were as small as rats.
As William could probably tell him, size didn’t always matter. Which of the creatures would cause the most damage?
“I didn’t abandon him. Per se.” William brushed a piece of lint from his shoulder. “I was pummeled by falling rock and woke up in a motel in Budapest. In my compromised mental state, I thought some demon damsel in heat had taken one look at my amazing body and rescued us, but then Kane thought to remove her from my rugged animal appeal, and so he dragged her out to get coffee, not yet realizing he was simply energizing her for the mattress marathon to come. A marathon with me, in case I wasn’t clear on that point.”
Paris didn’t bother rolling his eyes. Clearly William was Viola’s male counterpart. Wasn’t that a nice little bouquet of roses?
“Actually, you’re here because you owe Paris a favor.” Zacharel flanked Paris’s other side, the snowstorm now brewing above him. The change had happened the moment he’d stepped into this realm. He still wore his robe, but blades were now strapped all over his muscled body. He was definitely warrior-appropriate. “More than that, you are avoiding your girlfriend.”
William gasped with outrage. “First, I don’t owe anyone a favor. Second, I don’t have a girlfriend, you pansy-ass winged piece of shit.”
“Don’t you?” A blink, all innocence. Zacharel didn’t seem to care about the name-calling. “What is young Gilly to you, then?”
Gilly. A human with a crush on William. The warrior claimed they were just friends and nothing more, but if anyone could see secret longing in someone’s gaze, it was Paris. And William definitely had a lot of secret longing going on for that girl. Shockingly, though, he hadn’t done anything about it. Had only coddled and babied her, which was why Paris hadn’t gutted him. Gilly had been through enough in her short life without William turning his lethal charm on her.
Dangerous as a lightning strike, as lethal as a pair of crisscrossing short swords, William whispered, “You’re about to find out how your liver tastes, my friend.”
“I have tasted it already,” Zacharel said, his voice its usual monotone. The snowflakes began to fall in earnest, tiny at first, but growing in diameter. An arctic wind blustered around him. “It was a bit salty.”
How the hell was a guy supposed to respond to that?
Apparently William didn’t know, either, because he gaped at the angel. Then, “Maybe if you added a little pepper?”
O-kay. It was official. William had an answer for everything.
“Enough,” Paris said. Just then, he had his inner darkness on a leash. That could change at any moment. This was the closest he’d ever come to saving Sienna. To seeing her again, to touching her, and urgency had him in a vise grip. Which was stupid. He knew it was stupid.
He didn’t know her, not really, had only interacted with her those two times, and yet, looking back, he was certain he’d never felt so connected to anyone in his life. He could still remember the delicate rasp of her voice. Soft and lyrical, washing over him, entrancing him. Could still smell her sweet wildflower scent. Could still feel her soft body pressed against his harder one.
Now he wondered if he would even like her on any level but a sexual one. Would he find her annoying? And what about her—would she still view him as evil, even though she herself now carried a demon?
“Let’s focus, ladies.” That includes you, he added for his own benefit. If he could bypass the outside line of the fortress’s defense completely, he’d be in perfect condition when he got inside. “Zacharel, you will flash me inside the castle.”
“No, I will not.”
He scowled but didn’t bother asking why. As always, his ears picked up the web of truth woven through the angel’s tone. Zacharel couldn’t or wouldn’t flash him; the reason didn’t matter. “William?”
“I’ve only recently begun to flash myself, and yeah, I’m damn good for a beginner—not that I need to tell you that since anyone with eyes would have noticed—but I’m still honing my amazing skills. There’s no way I can cart your carcass anywhere.”
Paris stifled a sigh. No flashing with William, either. “Is the water swimmable?”
“Nope. Not only is the water poisonous, but the fiends inside it have a hankering for flesh.” William motioned to the dilapidated bridge leading to the front entrance, thick, arched double doors covered in spikes with a clear liquid dripping from their tips. “You have to use the drawbridge, and you have to let the guards carry you. There’s no other way.”
“I have never battled a gargoyle before.” Zacharel shook his head, a dark lock of hair tumbling into one emerald eye. Damp from the melting snow, the hair stuck to his skin. He didn’t seem to notice. “But I am certain these will murder Paris before willingly carrying him inside.”
As if he were the only intelligent life form left in existence, William splayed his arms. “And the problem with that? He’ll still be inside, exactly where he wants to be. And by the way,” he added, blinking at Paris with lashes so long they should have belonged to a girl. “Your new permanent eyeliner is very pretty. You’ll make a good-looking corpse.”
Do not react. He did, and the teasing about his ash/ambrosia tattoos would never end. “Thanks.”
“I prefer the lip liner, though. A nice little feminine touch that really makes your eyes pop.”
“Again, thanks,” he gritted.
He wants us!
William grinned. “Maybe we can make out later. I know you want me.”
Tell him yes!
Not another word out of you, or—
“Paris? Warrior?” Zacharel said. “Are you listening to me?”
Zach nodded, apparently not the least offended. “I enjoy your honesty, though I believe you suffer from what the humans call ADD.”
“Oh, yeah. I definitely have attention deficient demon.”
“Now, changing subjects, since I’m not listening to the angel, either,” William said. “Since we’re going with my diabolically genius plan, you’re gonna have to scale down the cliff and step onto the drawbridge.” He tented his hands and drummed his fingers, contemplating the bridge from every angle. “The moment you do, the gargoyles will come to life. They’ll attack you. Oh, and the more you fight them, the harder they’ll bite and claw you. So, if you remain relaxed, they’ll only hurt you a wee bit before they cart you inside to chain to a wall. In theory.”
Wonderful. But this was what his woman had to deal with every day. He could do no less. And if the gargoyles had broken her…
Broken… In, out, in, out, he breathed, oxygen scalding his throat, blistering his lungs. He twisted his head left then right to pop the bones in his neck. His fury bubbled to the surface, riding the waves in his veins. He would save Sienna and torch the castle to the ground—along with every living creature inside it.
Zacharel folded his arms over his massive chest, the snow so thick now that none of the flakes had a chance to melt. His hair now boasted strands of glistening white. “How do you know so much about this place and its protectors, William of the Dark?”
William of the Dark? That was new, yet fitting. “Yeah. How do you?” Paris studied the gargoyles in question. They were hideous. The big ones were winged, with ramlike horns, fangs as long as sabers and probably just as sharp, and daggers for nails—on both their hands and their feet. The small ones just looked hungry. Oh, and infected with rabies.
Another piece of invisible lint was brushed from William’s shoulder. “Maybe I was once co-ruler of the underworld and sought out all the hideaways of Cronus and his followers, intending to blackmail them, and discovered this little love shack. Or maybe I see the future and knew we’d come here one day. Or maybe the gargoyles once served me, calling me Master Hotness.”
Paris read between the lines. “Maybe you once nailed a gargoyle, and she had a big mouth.” If there was a bigger he-slut than Paris, it was William.