Chapter Twenty-Two

Mornings in Hell normally consisted of a lavender sky, an ashy wind, and the intermittent sound of thunder over the Rain Fields. But on this morning, Hellen's senses were tuned in only to the portal. Making sure it was open and ready to accept travelers. For these were very important travelers, and she wanted to make sure they got home safely.

"I'm going to send you and Ladd through first," Hellen told Kate. "As this is my first time working with a portal of my own design, I want to use caution."

Kate stood beside Ladd, her hand in his. "Of course." Her eyes were bright as she offered Hellen her other hand. "Thank you, Hellen. I know this wasn't easy tapping into the power of the one who went before you. But it'll be good to be aboveground, as you call it, again." She smiled in an almost intimate way. "It's hard to go so long without seeing Nicky. I miss him big-time. No doubt he's worried, and angry."

It was in that moment that Hellen realized what a good female Kate Everborne was. Hellen had seen the vampire with Ladd and understood her care and love, but there was something within her gaze as she shook Hellen's hand that spoke of hope and a possible friendship.

Hellen had never had a friend other than her sisters. She wondered what that bond felt like, how it grew, how it changed over time as one female supported the other. She imagined it was lovely. But she couldn't mourn the loss of hope. It was impractical, an emotion that wouldn't serve her well.

"Remain close together," Hellen told them, pushing her mind to focus. "And get ready to go home."

She closed her eyes and summoned the power that hovered-waited-at the very edges of her mind. It instantly responded to her call, humming and purring like an animal waiting to spring.

"Do you feel it?" Hellen called out, her words echoing inside the rock.

"Yes," Kate said, her voice a vibration now as she hovered between the two worlds.

"See you soon, Hellen," Ladd called.

The words gripped at her soul, but she forced them out. The surge of heat and energy blasted through her and she sent the pair up, into the hellfire and back onto Earth.

For a moment, she just stood there inside the rock with her eyes clamped shut. Her breathing was labored, and she wasn't sure if it was because of the energy she'd just exerted or the sacrifice she was about to make.

"They're gone."

Erion's voice moved over her like a sweet breeze. How was she going to do this? How was she going to manage this?

Her eyes opened just as Erion caught her up in his arms and kissed her. For a full ten seconds, she let him, even moaned into his warm mouth as she breathed in his scent.

"My female is one powerful demon," he whispered against her lips. "I can't wait to bring you home, beautiful. I can't wait to see you in my bed, your red curls spread out on my pillow."

She drew back her head and died inside.

His diamond eyes held the hope of life and love within them. He grinned, wicked and sexy and yet sweet and true. He was in love with her. Eberny was right. If given the choice, he would tear himself apart, destroy himself, trying to be both Ladd's father and her mate.

She wouldn't allow that.

He pulled out something from behind his back and drew it up between them. Instantly the scent filled the air within the rock. "For you, demon girl."

Tears pricked her eyes, but she warned them to stay back.

"Where did you get this?" she asked, staring at the fireflower in his hand.

"Off your bed," he told her, his nostrils flaring, his gaze pinned to hers. "After you left this morning, it closed and gave off the most incredible scent." He kissed her softly. "It reminded me of you."

The pain that filled her-every inch, every muscle, every bone, and every cell-was nearly debilitating in its strength. She took the flower from him and gripped it tight. She would never let it go, never let it die-she'd use all the magic within her to make it so.

Erion seemed to realize something and he drew back and glanced around. "Where are your sisters? Have you already sent them? Or maybe they've gone themselves."

Her breath took shelter inside her lungs. "They've decided to stay, Erion."

He turned back to face her, his eyes soft with understanding. "I'm so sorry, love."

The tears were hovering inside her chest. They bubbled up like acid, desperate to climb higher-desperate to find release. "It's okay," she managed. "They came to realize that Hell can be a very different place now. It can be a true home for them."

His gaze flickered with sudden tension, and she wondered if she'd said too much.

"You can visit," he said, his arms tightening around her. "They can visit."

Hellen closed her eyes, forced herself to summon the heat within her, then call to the energy around her and demand the power she had claimed. It came quickly on the heels of her last burst of magic, and she was glad.

Do it. Do it now before you change your mind.

"Hellen?" Erion's voice was wary. "Something's not right."

She opened her eyes. They were still inside the rock but surrounded by the blazing light of her pale green hellfire. It was exactly where she wanted them.

Erion's eyes were fierce, panicked. "What is this? What's wrong? Why aren't we moving?"

"I can't go with you, Erion," she choked out.

His face went ashen. "No."

Her lips trembled. "I can't survive there-not for any length of time. A few days at the most."

"That's not true," he uttered blackly, his jaw clenching. "That can't be true."

"It's why Abbadon wanted the child," she told him passionately. "His foothold on Earth. He could never remain long enough to do any real damage."

"Stop this!" he snapped. "Stop talking and take us up through the portal. Take us home, Hellen!"

"I can't go with you, and you can't remain here."

"Demon girl-"

"Ladd needs you," she continued breathlessly. "Go with him, tell him who you are . . ." Her voice broke with emotion. Tears coated her vision. "Tell him what a wonderful, loving father you want to be."

"I love you, Hellen! Christ! Don't do this. I can't exist without you."

She shook her head, her heart pounding, her guts twisting. "There's no choice."

"There's always a choice," he flung back viciously.

"Ladd or me."

He looked horror-struck.

"I can't hold us here for long," she uttered desperately. "You've got to go."

He gripped her tighter, growled at her. "I'm not leaving without you, dammit!"

Tears streamed down her cheeks. "As you said, there's always a choice." She slammed her eyes shut. "And I'm making this one for you."

With everything she had, every last shred of power she possessed, Hellen ripped herself from Erion's arms and sent him up toward the hellfire. The last thing she heard before she returned to the interior of the rock was his roar of betrayal.

Her body heaving, cries wrenching from her throat, she did what she had to do.

She closed the portal on him forever.

For Synjon Wise, Christmas had come early.

The paven he had been tracking and whose slow and painful demise he had been fantasizing about nearly every minute of every day for the past seven months was standing on the other side of the room in the mutore Erion's very clever dungeon. His legs were shackled, arms too, and the power he had relied on for centuries to defile, maim, use, kill, and scorn seemed completely stripped away.

"Are you looking for revenge, Synjon Wise?" the paven sneered, utterly unimpressed with the position he found himself in.

That would change.

Cruen grinned at the lack of response, took it for emotion, lapped at the chance like a dog. "Your veana's death was not my doing. You have only to look up those dungeon stairs for the culprits."

Synjon said nothing. Not even the mention of Juliet could bring emotion to his blood right now. He was too far gone.

Cruen's gaze flickered with confusion. "The Romans. They are to blame. They took her life, her breath. You will not look upon her face again because of their actions."

Peeling himself away from the wall, Syn moved toward the paven. His eyes held Cruen's, his mouth relaxed against his fangs, and tension released from his body. He saw it all now, his plan of action. Step-by-step, methodical and attainable.

The shackles clanged like warning bells, and Cruen's expression-his standard, quick arrogance-melted away. Though he showed no fear, there was concern in his gaze.

"There is only one thing I want from you," Synjon said, moving closer.

"What is that?" Cruen uttered.

He coiled over him and whispered in his ear, "Your endless misery."

Cruen chuckled. "Go to hell, paven. I've just been. It's lovely this time of year."

Synjon sighed, then in one smooth movement grabbed the paven's ear and sliced off the lobe.

Cruen screamed in pain.

"Don't get your knickers in a twist, old chap," Synjon said coolly. "We're just beginning."

It was glorious to watch the expression on Cruen's face as it shifted from swaggering gleam to horror-filled shock.

Panting, blood dripping from his ear onto the stone floor, Cruen spluttered out, "What do you want?"

"I've already told you," Syn answered, and leaned against the stone wall. "You see, your suffering may bring me back to life. Your slow death could very well be my rebirth. I am compelled to find out."

"You're insane," Cruen said through gritted teeth, his eyes flaring with pain.

"Quite possibly." He brought up his blade again, stained with Cruen's blood. "Shall we try the other ear? Or perhaps a finger?"

Cruen cursed softly, his eyes trained on the blade. "You can't hold me forever. I'm willing to bet that even those bastards upstairs won't allow you to torture me."

Synjon cocked his head. "I'll take that bet. What shall it be?" He pushed away from the wall and walked over to the covered window. He grinned as he gripped the shade. "How about loser takes sun?"

He lifted the metal just an inch. Sunlight streamed through the glass and snaked toward the vampire paven.

"And the winner gets to watch him burn," Syn said, as the warm yellow snake attacked its prey.

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