The scent of Death hit me as we crossed the threshold of the church. The richness of roses with just enough of chrysanthemum’s bite to undercut lilies’ cloying sweetness. Shadows clung to the corners of the room, skittering away from the brilliant sunshine flooding in from the stained glass windows.
I froze and raised an arm to block Raphael.
“Amarantha. So long apart and you hesitate to greet me?”
I sighed and walked forward.
A cloaked form rose from a crouching position beside the body. He turned to face us, uncaring that his movements trailed the hem of his cloak through the pool of blood. His hair blazed against the starkness of his black cloak, the blend of russet and gold reminiscent of the dawn and a twisted counterpoint to the crimson at his feet. The billowy poet’s shirt he wore couldn’t hide the supple grace of his muscles as he moved. He wore it untucked over black leather pants so soft and worn they looked like cloth.
His beauty hit my gut like a fist. A thousand years I hadn’t seen him and I still hadn’t found another to rival him. Even the Morning Star’s beauty paled beside him and Lucifer was known for his bad-boy pretty looks.
I stopped three feet away. “Thanatos.”
His mouth curved in a humorless smile, his ice blue eyes severe. “So careful, my Amarantha. Do you not remember, the forced taking of maidens was never my gambit?”
Pain clenched around my heart. Pain that I thought I had left behind already. I did remember. The problem being I remembered far too much.
I asked, my heart in my throat turning my voice husky. “Do you forgive me?”
His body stiffened and the surrounding air turned icy.
I battened down disappointment and deliberately lightened my tone.
“Right then. In that case, we’re moving along. Can you show us his last moments?”
His eyes were far too knowing, as if he knew that I still carried a torch for him after a thousand years. “And what will you give me in return, my Amarantha?”
“What will you accept, Thanatos?”
He shook his head and laughed low in his throat. “Ah, no. Offer me something, my Amarantha and I will tell you if it will suffice. We shall not play this game again, you and I. It shall not be I dictating to you the terms of your surrender but your voluntary submission to me.”
I bit my lip.
Submission. The cornerstone of our discontent, something I could never give him and what he couldn’t be happy without.
His gaze fell to my mouth and his jaw set. “What will it be, Amarantha? The longer you tarry, the more his memories will deteriorate.”
“Will you accept blood?”
“You know there’s only one way I’ll take your blood, Amarantha, and it’s not from your wrist.”
I took three steps forward and rested my palms on his chest. His heart beat steady under my palm, its beat quickening just enough to be detectable.
He looked down at me, his eyes inscrutable and his mouth flattened in a grim line.
I lifted myself up on tiptoe and bit down hard on my lower lip as I raised my mouth to his. His arm came around me and hauled me up against his body. His mouth settled more firmly on mine. His tongue flicked against my lower lip, licking away the blood before he deepened the kiss.
Male voices started speaking, the sound muffled to a low murmur. I pushed against him, distracted, but he tightened his embrace and brushed his tongue against mine. Thanatos filled my senses with his scent, his taste, his aura and the unmistakable feel of his arousal. I closed my eyes and reached up to curl my arms around his neck.
Not willing to simply accept what I was willing to give, he swept in and tore down all my defenses. His hand fisted in my hair, tugging my head back so he could plunder at will.
Desire coiled in my core and my knees went weak. He’d always been my greatest weakness and I couldn’t resist him the way some women couldn’t resist chocolate.
He whispered my name against my mouth. “Amarantha.”
I snapped back to myself and looked up at him in barely concealed horror. Not again. It was supposed to be a simple kiss. Maybe not quite so simple with the blood, but it was supposed to be a transaction and nothing more.
The look he gave me was pure lazy sensuality, his eyes gleaming as if he knew my thoughts.
“It’s never going to be simple between us, my Amarantha. But I will allow you your temporary escape in return for the sweetness of your blood kiss. Not quite what I want, but it will have to be enough for now.”
I braced my hands against his chest and took a step back. His mouth curved in a small smile. We both knew that the distance between us was only because he allowed it.
“Show me the memory, Thanatos.”
He flicked a glance behind me. “You’ll want to be touching me for this, whoever you are.”
“There’s more than audio?”
“He was blinded before he was killed. I can place us in his mind for the moments before his death and perhaps his other senses will provide additional information.”
Thanatos extended a hand and Raphael took it. Honey gold skin against snow pale.
He cupped my cheek with his other hand and the world fell away.
Worry pressed at the corners of my mind. Worry and fear. Cold sweat slid down my spine. Ice settled in my bones, already always cold because of Time’s harrying.
I looked down to see my gnarled, age-spotted hands shaking so hard I had to erase the last sentence I typed in onto my phone.
No. This wasn’t me.
I reached into my core and remembered, pulling forth enough of my memories to maintain my sense of self.
Losing yourself was always a danger when you entered a person’s consciousness and more so when it was a dying person’s last memories. Placing yourself within a dead person’s memories, that was foolhardiest of all. It was common for those who tried such a thing to be sucked into the dead person’s body, forcibly assimilated by the physical in search of the intangible. If not careful, you could find yourself with a whole new body. Unfortunately, since usually humans died for a reason, you could find yourself going the way of the previous soul in a hurry.
The doors of the church opened and the sharp acridity of sulfur wafted in. John Miller raised his head. Panic seized his breath. An explosion of light. Pain. And then there was nothing but darkness. John Miller shook so hard his muscles were on the verge of cramping.
He straightened his back and looked straight ahead, something I did not really expect from his fear before.
“What do you wish from me, demon?”
A low laugh. Dark and sultry, the sound wrapped around him like a courtesan’s perfume and curled deep. He tensed as arousal bit deep into unwilling flesh.
“I want the names of the Watchers under your care, good reverend.”
“No.” His hands gripped the phone so hard the plastic let out a squeak of protest.
A phantom hand wrapped around his cock. “Come now. I can make this hard for you or very, very hard. Is your silent god truly worth your devotion?”
“Heavenly Father, I pray you sanctify me. King of kings, I beseech your protection against temptation. Lord of the Hosts, I entreat that you cast out all forces of evil, within and without…”
A phantom hand cinched around his throat, cutting off his prayer. “Useless as it may be, I find blind devotion to be so very irritating.”
The hand around his cock tightened. Pain erupted as sharp nails scored his skin.
“Now, I will ask you once more, nicely. Where can I find the remaining Watchers?”
“My Lord, my Father, my Sovereign of all that is good and holy..” John Miller forced the words out as soon as the hand loosened enough for him to speak.
The voice sighed.
Just as the first wave of pain hit, I felt a tug on my spirit. More than happy to leave, I caught hold of the thread binding me to my body and slid back.
“Well. That was certainly different.” Raphael’s voice. Dry, with an edge.
I forced my eyes open. It felt like I’d been hit with a truck. Twice.
I blinked. I lay on a pew atop the cushions and my head was pillowed on Thanatos’ thigh.
Not good. I didn’t want to be this vulnerable around him.
Thanatos laid a land on my stomach and pinned me in place. “Don’t move just yet. Your spirit has not fully settled.”
“I’m not a newborn godling, Thanatos, that my spirit would shake free so easily.” I kept my words light but I knew that he was right to keep me prone. That one twitch let me know I was in no condition to be too careless.
“That lie is truly insulting in its transparency.” His voice was harsh.
“What does he mean?” Raphael crouched beside me.
I stared at him. “Nothing of import to you, I’m certain.”
His brows drew together and his gaze lifted. “Since she’s being contrary, perhaps you’ll tell me.”
“The ties holding her to this earthly shell are weakening due to the body’s aging. If she is not careful, her essence could slip free.”
“That is bad?”
Thanatos exhaled. “Only if you consider having to wait two decades or more before she can finish whatever the two of you are doing bad.”
Raphael’s gaze snapped to mine. “What? Why would that be necessary? Your spirit cannot stand alone?”
Thank you, Thanatos, for letting the cat out of the bag. I was hoping to keep that secret a while longer.
I sighed. “No. It cannot. I can only do that when I am at home in the Netherworld. If I wish to take on living flesh, I must do it the old-fashioned way.”
He frowned. “Why would they place such a burden on you if you are such a minor goddess that you cannot even clothe spirit in flesh?”
Thanatos stiffened under me. He slid his arm under me and helped me to a sitting position, his touch firm but gentle.
“Didn’t we have this discussion? There wasn’t much of a selection. Sorry to disappoint, but what you see is what you get.”
“Do not dare put down my wife, Amarantha. I will allow many things from you, but this is one I will not tolerate. You were our first choice, before all the others. There will be no suggestion of anything else.”
I glanced at him in surprise.
He wasn’t looking at me. He pinned Raphael with a glare. “I will hear no complaints from you.”
The other god shook his head minutely. “That was no complaint but worry.”
He looked at me, a wrinkle appearing between his brows. “I thought your current guise was a whim. I assumed you would be able to shed this skin and manifest should you need to. This changes things.” He flicked a look at Thanatos. “Knowing that you’re bound to Death also changes things.”
My husband’s arm tightened around me. “How?”
“I will be much more mindful of her safety, for one.”
“And for the other?”
“Guys. I’m sitting right here. Please don’t talk about me like I’m an inanimate object.”
Raphael inclined his head. “I apologize.”
I didn’t wait for Thanatos to apologize. It would be faster trying to get blood from a stone.
“All I got from that lovely experience just now is that our adversary smells of sulfur. Did anyone else catch anything more useful?”
“He called it a demon and it smelled of sulfur. Could it be…”
I shook my head. “No. It’s not Lucifer.”
“You sound very sure.” His tone made it a question and not a statement.
“I know Lucifer and that’s not him or any of his underlings. Besides, he is beloved of Alexandros and his brothers. He Fell on their directive. He would not betray them thus.”
“The Devourer of Worlds.”
I looked up at my husband. “The Devourer of Worlds? What leads you to say that?”
“I didn’t just smell sulfur. I smelled something else. Something indescribable but which I have encountered once before. It was when I witnessed the death of a planet. There was this presence, a sensation of almost unbearable pressure, the air was suffused with this smell and then the planet was no more.”
There were some times when I forgot how much older Death was. He wasn’t a god created by the humans. He was here first, before any of us and he would outlast all of us. The only thing that could snuff him out would be the death of the universe itself.
His lips compressed and his eyes turned grim. “If the Devourer of Worlds has his eye on this planet, the battle we face may be beyond us.”
His back, already ramrod stiff, tensed further. “You did not think I would let you face this alone, did you, wife?”
I stared back at him, not quite certain what to say. It wasn’t as if we’d seen each other in a thousand years. More than enough time to declare a marriage null and void and more than enough time for him to lose whatever affection he once held for me. Besides, having Death on hand to fight the Devourer of Worlds wasn’t exactly what you’d call a dream team concept.
Raphael rose to his feet and leaned against the pew. “You know of our adversary. Do you know how to defeat him, then?”
“It all boils down to the evolution coefficient, doesn’t it?”
Thanatos nodded. “Yes. The Devourer cannot take a world that has ascended or is in the process of ascending. Once a world descends and the balance is tipped, then an opening is revealed to him.”
“But we’re not descending. We might be very slow about it, but the evolution coefficient has definitely been rising. As I pointed out to Raphael, we would be in violation of the pact between us and Gaia should that be the case.”
“The balance is always most precarious before a rise in the consciousness. With all that’s been in the global awareness lately, we are due for a jump, but that will also come at a cost.”
“One misstep and he has his in.”
Raphael looked between me and Thanatos and shook his head. “This is turning out to be quite more than I thought I was signing up for.”
“Not quite your cup of tea, Raphael?” He arched a challenging brow and his tone carried the faintest hint of mockery.
“Quite the contrary. I haven’t had quite this excitement in eons.”
A male voice came from behind us. “I’m relieved to see that you all seem to be enthusiastic about the situation. You’re going to need that energy.”
I sighed. Fan-fucking-tastic.