Endless winds, perfumed with carrion and sulphur, whispered through pocked cavern walls. The heart of this realm beat arrhythmically, pulsing dark carnelian light and a staggering, dissonant tempo against the construct he wore.
Once an angel, he had always been energy: soulless, deranged and scarred by a thousand years under the tender ministrations of his brother, but the Morningstar’s crude attempts to create abomination from their celestial songs were a failure. How else could the torture of betrayal and deceit feel so much worse? In his mind’s eye, he could see her; the interior view, bloodied and fragmented as it was, tortured him in a way this plane, and the angel who ruled it, could not.
Love, Asmodeus had jeered. A thing of men. Not for us. We have no soul to feel it and weaken. Belial’s teeth ground. Would that that were so. The dark side of the coin felt the same as the light. As fierce. As agonising.
She might have thought she could flee beyond his reach. She would discover she had been wrong.
On the cavern floor, nine pools bubbled with restrained venom. Connected to them, seven circles, of gold and tantalum, mandrake and blood and copper and oil. In the centre, the soul waited. No virgin or innocent blood was needed. Symbolic magic required only essence and focus. Souls — no matter how blackened, twisted, deformed and tortured — were still souls. And even an angel-become-demon had sufficient will to bend the laws of His universe to his bidding.
Belial’s hand, passing over the first pool, spread fire across its surface, steam entwining with leaping flame, golds turning to blue then green and finally amethyst. The soul stared at the approaching fire, anguished eyes wide. The demon stepped through the fire and into the centre, taking position behind the sacrifice. In that clear space between past and present and future, memory and thought and emotion, he summoned the image and held it.
At his feet, the conflagration spiralled upward, choking thick with the bitter odour of burning metal and the dry scent of oil. A scream cut off abruptly as something flowed into his construct, alive and burning still. Acid washed through him and Hell disappeared, colours and shapes stretched impossibly through an infinite spectrum of sensation.
In his mind, the translation was pain.
It beat and clawed, rent and boiled and transformed the liquid in his veins and arteries into poison, the air in his lungs to fire. A universe of unending agony. The darkness was full of malicious shades and there was no air to breathe. In the outermost and far-flung edges of conscious awareness, he laughed. If only Lucifer knew of the exquisite agonies of temporal transition!
The ground, as he materialised over the desert floor, rose up to meet him and drove the breath from his chest on impact. Sight and hearing, smell and taste and touch returned together, demanding attention. The night sky blazed with stars, twinkling sharply in the cold, clear air. Sand and rock gave off dry, vaguely metallic scent and taste, his tongue coated in dust. A rustle and a high-pitched shriek, somewhere close, suggested death still stalked here, centuries from what he knew.
A distant hum grew louder. Getting to his feet, Belial turned, trying to pinpoint the direction and source. A pair of glaring white eyes, blindingly bright, popped over a rise and the noise rose to a painful roar, blasting his ears. Under it, a raucous medley of twisted sound and screaming voices filled the desert night.
From both scapulae, bone erupted, telescoping into hollow humerus, ulna and radius, extending to metacarpus and digit. Feathers multiplied along the length, in rippling darkness.
The first downstroke lifted him high into the air. He watched as the beast below went into a wild spin, eyes pointed at him then disappearing as the body tumbled and clattered into the canyon. He was aloft, the pupils of his eyes slitting and dilating, the landscape bathed in ghostly grey.
She was to the East, in a city of millions.
He perched, brooding, on the thick stone balustrade, ignoring the buffeting crosswinds, watching her move around behind translucent curtains.
Anger had borne him. The sight of her had undone him.
Perhaps, to another, she would not have the same irresistible allure. Perhaps a mortal man could look and see flaws, in the waist-length curls of reddish-blonde, in pale skin scattered with amber constellations, eyes of storm-wrack grey, lashes almost invisible but long and thick enough to cast spiky tracks on her cheek.
The mournful, lost notes of Albinoni’s Adagio seeped out through the glass doors and whispered around him and he scowled at the insistent seduction. Mankind ever confused him, with the depths of their depravities and heights of their soul-fed creativity.
He stepped down. In what remained of his heart, there should have been cold rage. He crossed to the doors, his hand hovering over the brass latch, a thundery, shivery sensation ridiculing his resolve.
He could almost hear the contemptuous drawl of his brother.
Fingers, corporeal, curled around the latch and eased it down. The sheer curtains billowed for a moment, obscuring his vision. He stepped through and closed the door.
With gentle sighs, papers drifted to the floor. At the end of the long, elegant room, she turned, a wayward curl quivering in the draught and settling. The immodest gown clung impossibly close to her curves of her body.
“How did you find me?”
He should have expected it, that lack of fear, that focus on practicalities.
“It wasn’t easy,” he said, walking into the room, his gaze roaming over the furnishings, as if they held interest. “Gillette was quite determined to keep the secret to his grave.”
He smiled at her. “I don’t know why he thought it would end with death.”
A flicker of emotion tightened her features. They smoothed with some effort and she raised a brow. “So, it’s my turn now?”
Yes. Feeling ached in chest and mind. Impossible…but there. Your turn for your betrayal and what you did to —
She didn’t pretend innocence. That was a relief.
“You wouldn’t have believed me then, and you won’t believe me now.”
Her chin lifted in defiance. At the base of that long, graceful throat, her pulse fluttered.
“All right,” she said, her eyes narrowing. “He wanted to kill you. He planned to use me as bait.”
His mouth twitched. “So you sold me out to the Church and waited for the bonfire to be stacked before fleeing?” He shook his head. “I think a note might have been easier.”
“Better for you to face the Church than the devil.”
“He is my brother,” he pointed out, taking a few steps closer to her. In the softly golden light from the scattered table lamps, her eyes were darker, closer to storm-cloud than stormy sea. “Did you think I would have been safer burned alive?”
Her expression shuttered, her lips thinning. “You are Belial, who was once Sariel, second in command to the Throne of Thrones; and now the Angel of the Abyss,” she said, the edge of bitterness in her voice acute. “Why would I think you could be harmed by men?”
Anger came then. But not at her. The construct he wore, lightly as air, wavered and crackled, showering sparks in transformation.
Taller, broader, skin mottling and smoothing to claret. Wings and horns broke free and spread. The smell he hated, brimstone and blood, filled the spacious apartment, gusting against the walls.
She shrank back as he stepped forward, a hand flashing out to envelop her wrist. Drawing her close, he looked down at her, and saw his image in her eyes.
“Is this what you thought?”
Her mouth opened. He ran his nail down her back, feeling her flinch as the tip caught skin as well as cloth. The dress fell, pooling at her feet, revealing her and making a mockery of his closely held memories. Arousal, that thing of men, of beasts, flared deep in his groin and rose through him: a river in flood.
“You couldn’t have trusted me, even a little?”
Tears filled her eyes, shimmering as they bulged at the lids. “You didn’t give me a choice.”
“Then choose now, knowing it all.”
“He still wants to kill you.”
He smiled, and the construct flickered and shrank, wings and horns and the dire smell of the Accursed Plane vanishing.
“He always has.” Against his body, she was pliant and yielding. “He always will.”
He bent his head. Somewhere, so deeply hidden he couldn’t tell if it was body or mind, something loosened with her response. Her arms lifted to curve over his shoulders, her lips parted under his and he tasted her love and despair, wound together.
What had been between them, so long it felt almost an eternity, was still there. A needful and cursed gift of his Father.