Authors: S. M. Reine
Tags: #Romance, #Adult
By SM Reine
Copyright © SM Reine 2012
Red Iris Books
The Darkest Gate
: A person with improved strength and healing that polices relations between Heaven, Hell, and Earth—often violently. The word is Greek for “sword.”
: A witch that has sworn a magical oath to protect a kopis. The word is Greek for “shield.”
stood alone, isolated within a gray void. It was wider than a city and taller than the clouds in the sky, and a garden was trapped between its winding roots.
Bridges of white cobblestone led from one root to the next, and a silent stream frothed underneath. The Tree’s branches stretched into the endless expanse of nothing, glimmering with broad leaves and bioluminescent blossoms. Empty stairs wound along the outside with spikes buried in the aromatic bark for support, and one gold-skinned apple dangled from the highest branch—too high for anyone to reach. The rest had been carefully extricated from the dimension.
Even eternal flora required occasional tending, and their care fell somewhat ironically to Samael. His specialty was death and his preference was to avoid the garden completely, but he couldn’t stay away forever.
Samael passed through the gate, alighted on the plain, and folded his wings behind him. The feathered tips dragged along the grass like an overly long cloak.
As soon as he stepped away from the gate, its mighty humming was replaced by indomitable silence. He knew the stream was nearby, somewhere beyond the crumbling garden walls, but it did not babble. There was no wind through the branches, and no squirrels in the bushes. Nothing dared make a sound.
Samael sought the door into the garden. The entrance liked to move occasionally, and he walked around the gray stone wall for some time before finding it. He was careful to ignore the void behind him as he searched. Gray nothingness hung beyond the precipice of the roots, empty of stars or sunlight, and he did not want to see it again.
He located the door some minutes later. The garden’s entrance was twice his height and had no visible seam until he pressed his hands into the stone. It had been years since anyone had visited, so he had to tear away ivy to enter. The creepers curled around his hands, hungry for his warmth. He flicked them to the grass.
The marks on the bezel flared, and Samael entered.
Inside, the flowers were in full bloom. The river spilled cool water over its banks, as if filled with melted snow, and the grass was lush and springy beneath his bare toes.
He walked down a grassy path bordered by rosebushes, which reached for him with thorny fingers. Branches creaked softly as though muffled by fog. He paused to pinch a few of the buds off with his fingertips, and the roses sighed with relief.
Samael brushed his hands over each plant, occasionally stopping to stare at a weed jutting out of the earth. His gaze was death, but it took his hardest glare to kill those unwanted flora. They were black and thorny, born of ill thoughts and deeds, and they oozed ichor when snapped.
The air grew ever more silent and reverent as he spiraled inward, tracing the dark valleys and scaling the arching bridges toward the Tree. Samael tried to ignore the windows carved into the trunk as he passed, and continued to tidy the tangles of weeds and prune ambitious bushes.
He reached a platform built onto a low branch and stopped to strip creepers off the bark.
That was where he found the girl.
She didn’t acknowledge him at first, and he likewise tried to pretend he did not see her sitting on the gray stone bench overlooking the garden. Unlike the flowers, she didn’t need to be tended by Samael—someone else had that job. He was confident she would be well fed, groomed, and kept in perfect condition. All the children were, at first.
But her name and identity had been stripped away as soon as she had passed through the gate, and with them would have gone her mind. What remained of her consciousness would have been worn like rocks battered under a river of time. Samael had seen it happen a dozen times.
He kept his eyes down as he killed a sprig of thorns buried within the Tree’s bark, but he could not help but peek at the newest child as he worked.
This one was physically unlike the others. She was not fragile, nor doll-like. She had not been selected for her beauty. Her nose was a little too strong, her eyes a little too far apart, her freckles too numerous. Someone had brushed her hair out into a long, coppery sheet of curls down her back. The filmy white gown hid her figure beyond the hint of developing hips. She had been walking through the garden for years. Her eyes were empty.
But Samael was entranced by her—as he always was by the children and wives—and it was difficult to focus on his work.
He kneeled by a patch of growing weeds and dug his fingers into the bark. The weeds bled sticky purple and smelled of iron as he broke the stems, burning his fingers.
The girl rose from the bench, and Samael couldn’t resist the compulsion to look up.
Visions flitted around her head. The occasional flash of metal and a spill of crimson swirled through the child’s mind, and it gave him pause. Those were not ordinary thoughts for such a young girl.
He paused in the middle of his task to watch waking dreams flash over her.
She was thinking of murder. Demons. Hunters and prey and darkness.
He ducked his head and returned to weeding. Even with his eyes averted, he was acutely aware of her presence—she was electricity, magnetic and inviting, and his heart beat too fast in his chest.
Motion caught his attention. The girl lifted her hand to touch a branch. He saw the mark of their Lord on her palm first, and realized that she was holding something second.
A piece of apple.
He dropped the weeds and straightened. “Put that down.”
She turned her empty gaze on him. Her eyes were unfocused and white around the pupil.
She brought the slice of apple to her mouth, closed her broad lips over the fruit, and bit. Juice oozed down her chin and dripped onto her dress. The apple’s meat was gold, but it stained the cloth like blood.
Her jaw worked. The bite slid down her throat.
The child’s irises unfogged.
She had hazel eyes. God help him.
Intelligence appeared next, all too quickly. She must have been eating the fruit of the Tree for days for such a small bite to have such a drastic effect. How long had she been aware that she was in the garden? This was wrong, it was all wrong.
The child considered Samael, from his expansive wings to the hair that fell to his elbows. “Help me,” she said, breaking the muffled silence. It was not a plea. It was a demand.
She was radiant and fierce and filled with fire. Samael realized, with sudden surety, that someone had made a terrible mistake in sending her to the garden.
He glanced around to see if they were being watched. Their Lord was certainly there—He was always
—but omnipresence didn’t mean that He was always paying attention, especially in recent years. “You shouldn’t speak.” Samael’s soft words faded into the groans and creaks of the growing Tree.
He backed up as she approached him. Her steps were swift and sure, and his back bumped into the Tree.
Her hands gripped his sleeve. Blood smeared on white linen. “I can’t be here.” Her voice was like a fist clenching deep in his heart. “Have mercy.”
The word hung between them.
Samael was torn between adoration and fear. He was her servant—they all were—and he couldn’t ignore the request. But their Lord would be furious that they had spoken, and helping the children was
All he could think to ask was, “Why?”
Her eyes blazed, as if the question were an insult.
“My name is Elise. I need to get home.”
He closed his eyes and shuddered.
A name, she had a name. Such sweet sin. He loved her as soon as the word passed her lips, and Samael knew he was damned.
“Yes,” he whispered. “Of course.”
iotr Blodnieks did
not look like he was the best at anything. He had a gentle smile, soft features, and a tiny beard under his bottom lip that resembled a paintbrush. His narrow shoulders and sharp joints made him appear awkwardly and gangly instead of lean and fast. At twenty-one years old, he hadn’t yet grown into his adult muscles.
Regardless of appearance, Piotr’s name was stamped on Hell’s history books as the greatest living kopis. He was best known for singlehandedly slaughtering a centuria of demons in the Ukraine. And nobody would ever know it by looking at him.
Nobody aside from the dozen kopides he had just beaten in a sparring match, anyway.
Hamengku groaned on the ground, cradling his shattered knee, while Piotr wiped blood off of his hands with a white towel. “Will he be okay?” he asked his friend, Malcolm, in Russian.
Malcolm helped Hamengku to the sidelines. “Oh, certainly, given a couple weeks of healing.” He switched to his native English. “Isn’t that right?” The loser glared at him without a hint of understanding in his eyes. Most people waiting around the fighting ring didn’t share a common language. “Right! No hard feelings, then? Who’s next?”
The kopides who had lost their sparring matches muttered amongst themselves. The other men only shifted uneasily.
Two weeks prior, they had all been summoned to an empty warehouse in Wales by a delegate from the Council of Dis. Over three hundred invitations were sent out, and thirty men arrived to compete for the line of succession. But no one could defeat Piotr. He was, in Malcolm’s words, “a bloody machine.” The Council’s delegate—a petite witch with curly brunette hair—had supervised the fight from her seat on a nearby crate, and she looked bored.
She wasn’t the only one who was getting antsy. The shared bravado rapidly dwindled as Piotr felled one kopis after another.
“Oh, fine. Let me try,” said a man named Brandon when his friend, Shawn, nudged him forward.
They cleared the floor again. Malcolm mopped up a puddle of sweat with a bloody towel, then stood back.
Piotr and Brandon exchanged blows. The air was filled with the sounds of knuckles meeting face.
Malcolm hollered, and his cheers encouraged the others to join him.
Nobody noticed the side door, or the two people who entered and stood at the back of the crowd.
The fight was short. After a few minutes, Brandon backed off with blood streaming from a cut in his forehead, and held up his hands to indicate that he was done. The other men booed. “You’re too fast, man,” Brandon said. “I’ve got to catch a flight tonight. I don’t want a concussion.”
Piotr turned a confused look to Malcolm, who translated. “Looks like you’re stuck being undefeated, mate. Better hope you’re immortal!” He laughed and clapped the greatest kopis on the shoulder. “It’s hard being at the top!”
A quiet, confident voice broke through the laughter. “I’ll fight him.”
One by one, the kopides turned around to search for the speaker, and their eyes fell on the pair at the back of the room.
The first was a man over six feet tall, dark-haired and blue-eyed, who seemed like he would have preferred to be anywhere except the warehouse. He rubbed his hand over his eyes with a low curse.
His companion was a full head and shoulders shorter. She was lean with muscle, and her red-brown hair was chopped so short that she could have passed for a boy if not for her breasts.
She was also—clearly and undeniably—the one who had spoken. She was the only woman in the room aside from the Council’s witch.
“Aspides don’t fight,” Malcolm said.
The girl pulled off one of her motorcycle gloves and bandaged her knuckles without responding.
“She’s not an aspis, you idiot. Does she look like a witch?” snapped the man at her back. He raked a hand through his hair. “Dear Lord, Elise, do you really think…”
Piotr came to stand beside Malcolm, as did Brandon and Shawn. They formed a wall of muscular bodies.
The tall man trailed off.
Malcolm folded his arms. “Human girls aren’t eligible for these fights, either.”