Bittersweet seraphim, p.14
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       Bittersweet Seraphim, p.14

           Debra Anastasia
 
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Everett didn’t slip to the ground like a dead man should. Instead he faced Emma briefly to show her the bullet he’d caught in his teeth. He was laughing around it. Jack kept firing until his gun was empty. Everett let the bullets he’d caught fall from his hand to the floor.

  “Come to papa, you weak-nutted boner,” Everett announced. “I’m going to screw you in the ass.”

  “You have no idea how taunting works, do you?” Jack caught Emma’s eye and mouthed, “No, you don’t.”

  She figured out what she couldn’t do: F-I-G-H-T.

  She waited. The panel beeped encouragingly:

  Success! Stand back!

  There were even some grinding noises that sounded promising. Jack used the distraction to run at Everett and start swinging. The panel beeped again:

  Not really, loser. One try left.

  Emma would’ve punched the panel if she could’ve. Instead she collapsed to the floor and dragged herself back to God’s path. She needed some clarity. Her blood pounded in her ears, her stomach distending with the hunger. By the time she pulled herself into His comforting reprieve, Jack was taking a horrible beating from Everett.

  His sick smile was familiar by now. He was having a good time as he flung Jack from one edge of the room to the other. Emma barely noticed that her hunger was satiated now that she was in God’s path. All she could do was flinch and yell, begging Everett to stop hurting Jack. In all her time in Hell, she had never felt so helpless. Think, think. She needed the code.

  Everett had somehow beckoned a handful of minions. They seemed reluctant when he demanded they haul Jack to his feet.

  Jack spit out a blob of blood and looked in Emma’s eyes. “You stay there.” He ignored Everett’s threats and orders to the guards, and tried to smile at her.

  “This isn’t how it ends. I didn’t do all this to see you hurt here.” Emma stood and ran to the bars, trying to get closer to Jack. He was swelling up, bruising. His long hair covered part of his face.

  “Keep praying. God won’t forget you,” he said.

  With that, the guards dragged Jack away. His smoke followed, looking droopy, and the door to his lair opened and closed. Emma stepped back just before Everett could get his hands on her.

  He grunted in frustration. “Whatever. I’m going to get you. Do you know what I’ve planned for that asshole?”

  Emma shook her head. She was sure he was going to tell her.

  “Humans can’t die in Hell. Amazing, right? But you already knew that. So I’m going to skin him. Then I’m going to remove each of his organs, one at a time, and burn them in the fires. But the best? I’ll leave his head intact, so he can watch as it happens. And how soon do you think he’ll give you up? Pretty damn soon.” Everett stepped back and grabbed his genitals. “Say hello to your new king: my penis. You’ll be worshiping it until the end of time.”

  Emma shook her head. As soon as Everett closed the lair door, Jack’s screams permeated the air. She sound of his terror etched itself into her soul as she scrambled for a way to save him. Seeing him here was ridiculous. Jack was supposed to be safe. That’s the whole reason she’d come here. It was getting so very hard to make one thought connect to another. Jack’s hollering was obviously involuntary. Emma’s tears covered her cheeks. She knelt and tried to pray, but all she could do was cry and clutch at her heart. She had to try one last time. The code—but if she got it wrong, she was stuck listening to her love die a thousand deaths.

  “Stop it. Stop it. Stop it.” She knew Everett couldn’t hear her, nor would he care. But she had to put her wishes into the world. If she were still an angel, she could protect Jack. Her gaze trained immediately on God’s door. The memory of ripping off her own wings was metallic in her mouth, like blood.

  But they might still be weighing down the scale God had been sitting on when she rescued Him. They must be. The one thing that mattered to God was that one of his children’s souls would be lost if he stood. And He’d refused to tell Emma whose soul was in jeopardy. All she could think about now was her wings. It was a chance. Perhaps the wings were still there, perhaps they could do something on their own.

  She looked at her hands. Her punishment was to be here, in this place, at Everett’s mercy. But screw it. Jack’s screaming had no words, only intense agony. Emma stood. She would stop at nothing. Jack had fought dragons for her. She could walk through fire for him.

  She strode with purpose and hardly flinched as she reached for the door handle. It had not been locked last time. Her body began to shake, and the primal part of her brain bucked. Her human body knew to stop itself, so her brain had to be willing to override.

  It seemed to be willing until the first licks of invisible fire ate her skin like fuel. Then she could feel her brain crumpling like burned paper, turning black and ashy. Only her heart could move her now. Jack. He was so close, yet being tortured. No. Not her Jack. Not while she still lived. Emma pushed herself through the flames. Her air became tainted with the dying. There was no smoke, just the hottest, melting flames. It took all her life, courage, and love to touch the door.

  Her skin cooled, and Emma cried the tears of a young girl, where pain was liquid. But she opened the door. She realized, as she shuffled, that she’d remained on her feet. She was stronger than last time. She staggered into God’s old cell like she was on a boat in a cyclone.

  All of her senses were jumbled, but once her eyes adjusted to the dark, she found hope. Her wings were still on the weighted scale. She turned to the meter on the wall. The soul was still in balance. Now what? She was a human. Those were angel wings. But unless she could use them as a weapon somehow, she was still stuck. Emma realized her ears were no longer filled with the dull roar of the flames when Jack’s anguish announced itself again. So very loud. Then she heard Everett’s voice. “You think you’re tough, asshole? How about I make you cry in front of her? She can see what kind of man you are.”

  Emma closed the door quietly, hoping the movement would go unnoticed. Let Everett think I’ve escaped. She could hear Everett’s anger and frustration despite the closed door. She exhaled. Her decision was made: defy God’s wishes for the soul in jeopardy and steal back her wings…somehow.

  “I’m sorry, Father. I have to try everything.” Emma climbed up on the bed and lay carefully on top of her wings. She closed her eyes to the sounds of more grunts of pain from Jack and anger from Everett. She needed to think like an angel.

  She waited and thought. Just having her wings under her cleared her thoughts. The feathers. The feathers have power. She reached underneath her arm and pulled a feather out. She examined it briefly and then thought, Knife. She tossed the feather, and it solidified in the air, glinting with silver, and embedded itself in the wall. The bit of stone surrounding it turned gold, as if being poisoned with goodness.

  I’ll just take handfuls of feathers, and maybe I can hit some of the minions through the bars. Or disable the keypad. She sat up to get some handfuls when it started. It was a familiar feeling. She’d lost and gained her wings a total of three times. This version was diluted a bit, but the joy made her gasp and smile. God’s love turning tangible cannot be denied. It was a wedding day, a birth, and a death all at once.

  Emma peeked over her shoulder. Her wings were attached. Her flouncy French maid’s costume lengthened into a long satin gown. She hugged herself. “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.” Emma hoped it wasn’t a glitch. Just taking feathers was no longer an option. Her wings had attached. She looked at the meter. She had to get up. And the anonymous soul in jeopardy would slip away. Jack’s screaming grew even louder.

  She made her choice. She stood, and the little flickering light, so much like a candle, faded away. It was a simple, emotionless action, but Emma wanted to mourn the soul God had been so devoted to. She sent up a quick prayer for the departed, then shook her head and went for the door. She yanked it open and flew through the fire as fast as her wings would take her. The plagues were speed bumps, but she weathered them quickly.
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  She returned to the bars and craned her neck to see Everett standing with a stupid look on his face. He sensed her and stood aside so she could see the small, huddled man at his feet in the doorway of the lair. Jack was still breathing, but the skin was gone completely from his chest and arms. He was only tendons and muscle. His face twisted in mind-melting pain. She yanked on the bars. They didn’t budge.

  Everett laughed. “Look at that. You have wings but still can’t get out? Isn’t that precious? Look, boys! We can pin her wings to the walls like a freaking butterfly. Love it!” He had to hold his knees with the hilarity.

  “Jack, tell me the code. Please.” Emma got on her knees by the bars.

  He was too far away to touch, but his eyes locked on hers as he shook his head. “Never.”

  Everett bent down as well. “Awww…You wuv him. Take his face off, boys.”

  Jack began to struggle as two of the minions reluctantly positioned themselves. And then she knew. Emma knew the code. There was one thing that seemed impossible in Hell, especially for her Jack. But with her wings firmly secured, Emma knew it could be done. She rushed to the panel and typed the letters: B-E-L-I-E-V-E. The second she hit the E, she flew to the gate and waited. She smiled a victorious smile as the gate began to creak and groan, slowly lifting.

  Everett and the minions stopped tormenting Jack as he swore loudly. “Damn you, Emma.”

  The gate opened painfully slowly, but she had their attention, so that’s all she needed. She stepped back a bit and Everett made a greedy, come-here gesture with his hands. Before the gate was open enough to allow him through, Emma reached over her shoulders and pulled two handfuls of feathers from her wings. When she threw them, they whistled through the air, sounding like angry harps. They stuck true in every target, and the gold began to spread. Concentrated goodness poisoned the evil each feather had embedded in.

  She’d made sure two feathers would lodge in Everett’s chest and another three in his groin. His screams were much louder than Jack’s. And the minions were pinned to the floor or walls. They looked desperately for a way to dislodge themselves as the feathers began to smoke with glitter and light. Emma took a running start as soon as the gate was open enough to fit under. She wasn’t sure where to go next, but far from Everett felt right. She swooped low and gathered Jack in her arms, grateful that she was angel again and strong enough to lift him.

  His arms hung limply, and he whimpered as she touched his bare, bloody muscles. Her tears formed again. She was grateful to have him but overwhelmed by his sacrifice for her, and so very sorry for his pain. She took the caves of Hell at high speed, making random lefts and rights until Jack whispered for her to stop.

  She landed as gently as possible and set him down. He collapsed to the floor. The thought of his bare muscles touching rock made her cry again. She knelt next to him and one of her tears, glistening with gold, slipped from her chin and landed on his chest. A small dot of skin appeared.

  “I can heal you!” Emma sat back and focused. She held her hands over his body and pictured the golden energy of a seraph. His skin regenerated, fresh and new, flowing over his muscles until he was whole again. She evaporated his pain, replacing it with the intense love she felt for him.

  She covered her mouth with her hands when he was whole and whispered, “Thank you, thank you, thank you.” She knew God had allowed this to happen. He’d let her have her power back in Hell. She pulled Jack off the floor and into her arms, cuddling him. She wrapped her wings around his body and hers, forming a feather-filled cocoon.

  He opened his eyes. “Is this a dream? Did I pass out?”

  Emma leaned down and touched his face. “No.” She kissed him over and over.

  “Are you sure?” He stretched out his arms and touched his chest, sitting up as he did so.

  Emma kept him in the cocoon, but sat back and let him assess the situation. He must’ve been out of his mind with pain, and yet he never gave her up. “Do I normally wear clothes in your dreams?” she asked him.

  “Pretty child, it’s real?” He laughed then, a sound filled with relief. “You’re real?”

  She nodded and touched his chest.

  He scrambled to his knees and pulled her into a welcoming kiss, full of all his talent—and victory.

  Chapter 23

  Vittorio smiled a deranged smile as he paraded his granddaughter into the chamber. His old, bony hand squeezed way too tight, but Seriana refused to complain. Or cry. Emma had sacrificed so much. She could too.

  The cage was in the center of a small arena, surrounded by old theatre seats arranged in the round. Vittorio nodded as a half minion with dark, greasy, long hair followed her into the cage, and it was locked behind them. Seriana held her head high as the room filled with other rowdy half minions. After a few minutes Vittorio silenced them with one long finger in the air. He didn’t need a microphone. His voice was plenty loud now that he had the floor.

  “I’ve removed the other cages. There’ll be only one mating.” He took a sly look at Seriana. “For now.”

  The crowd rumbled their disapproval, and Vittorio snapped his fingers. “Have you forgotten, young ones?” He walked to a huge covered box. He pulled the black velvet from it with a flourish. Inside, a beast jumped at Vittorio. The old man stepped back just in time.

  After closer inspection, Seriana realized the beast was a man: a dirty, huge, powerful man. His eyes were crazed, and his growls shook all of her courage.

  “We have this.” Vittorio was more a circus ringmaster than anything else. “This being is the closest we’ve come to a full-blooded minion. His bars are comprised of the bones of our fallen, the only thing strong enough to hold him in.”

  Seriana watched as some of the half-breeds mouthed the words along with Vittorio. They’d heard this speech plenty in the past.

  “He’s not eaten in at least a year, but as you can see, he is adequately prepared.” The beast growled again.

  “Fiaon, disrobe the bitch.” The half-breed in the cage with Seriana approached.

  She whirled and stepped into a fighting stance. “The Hell you will.”

  Vittorio drew close to the cage, clucking. “We had a deal, Seriana.”

  She responded to her grandfather without taking her eyes off the other half-breed. “You just told everyone here that my brothers were in danger again. You don’t keep your promise, I won’t keep mine.”

  He lowered his voice. “This is a volatile crowd, darling. I’ve got to give them hope. You’re my blood, but they’re my vestals to power. Just disrobe and prepare to be mated. That’s not too hard, is it?”

  Seriana looked around the hostile room and swallowed. She could fight the half-breed in her cage, but not the entire army. She shook her head and dropped her fists. She never imagined she’d be doing a striptease in a crowded room, but that’s just what she had to do. When she was completely naked, she refused to cover herself, instead pushing her shoulders back with pride.

  The beast in the next cage began to howl and claw, his arousal poking through the bars in his desperation to get to her. Fiaon slipped a simple white sheet with a hole for her head over Seriana.

  After loud boos at the covering of her nudity, Vittorio tsked at the crowd. “Would you have him kill her before he puts the seed of our world domination in her belly? Are all of you that stupid?”

  Chastised, the crowd quieted. Fiaon stepped out of the white cage and locked the door again. Seriana didn’t know what to expect, but a hush came over the crowd. The experience she was about to endure seemed to hold a religious wonderment for them. A dozen half-breeds approached, all wearing white. They began to push the cages together. The beast in the other cage stopped all movement and stood, just breathing the deep inhalations of a warrior, his eyes intent on his prize: Seriana.

  When the cages were flush against one another, a brave half-breed scaled to the top. The beast didn’t even try to swipe at him as he slid up the two dividers between them. His growl came from deep
within his chest. Seriana could see his eyes now that he was close. They were crystal blue and flashed with pent-up desire. He was covered in battle scars and teeth marks, and he circled her slowly, with every pass coming closer.

  Fear dripped into Seriana’s veins until he was all she saw. The crowded room was haze behind him. The noise of the crowd faded until all she could hear was his breathing as he stalked her.

  “Wet them!” Vittorio’s voice commanded.

  Warm water began pouring from somewhere above her, but Seriana paid it no attention. They were so close now. If she lifted a hand she could touch him. The water came pounding now, a waterfall washing over them, and the beast in front of her became a man as he became clean. His skin emerged and his hair dripped in front of his face. The crowd gasped as she moved slowly and pushed the hair out of his eyes. He was handsome, this man in a cage. His eyes didn’t contain blind fury, as his noises had led her to believe, but pain.

  He parted his lips and licked the water from them. He was terribly thirsty. Seriana made a cup with her hand and caught the water. She brought her hands to his lips and tilted them while he drank. She did it again and again, until he was finally holding her hands in place, his tongue occasionally touching her fingertips.

  She could hear little snippets of her grandfather over the pounding of the water. “See! She tames him! No, this isn’t failure! Only a true bitch can be with him. Watch and see. Watch and see.” The simple kindness of offering water to the beast/man was obviously not what the crowd had been anticipating.

  “Do you have a name?” Seriana whispered.

  He shook his head gently.

  “I’m sorry they keep you here.”

  He stopped drinking but continued holding her hands. “I’m sorry too.” His voice was deep, but soft, and his eyes added depth to his apology.

  “For what?” Seriana was confused.

  He let go of her hands and pulled her wet body against his hard one. “For this.”

  He began to kiss Seriana like he could change the world with her.

 
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