The silver knife pierced directly through Veritas’ heart, and Ian’s spell wasn’t going to be enough to keep her body from collapsing into dust for much longer.
He wanted to rail against the unfairness of it. He wanted to scream obscenities at the sky, and curse the useless excuse for a god who’d fathered Veritas and then left her to fall prey to a demon’s blade. Most of all, he wanted to curse himself, for failing to protect the only woman he’d ever loved.
But Ian couldn’t do any of those things. After he’d finally dispatched the demon—too late, oh, how could he have been too late?—he’d managed to wrap Veritas in a stasis spell just as the final flicker of life had faded from her beautiful eyes. He’d carried her into this abandoned building and placed her on a rickety folding table set near the wall, sending the handful of homeless and drug addicts who’d been sheltering here scrambling for the exit with a flash of green from his gaze.
The rips and bloodstains in his clothing probably hadn’t hurt either, when it came to motivating the squatters to relocate post fucking haste.
A second spell to obscure the room’s entrance ensured that they wouldn’t return anytime soon, because they wouldn’t be able to see the door. And now here he was—hunched over the mortal remains of a fallen demigoddess who had somehow managed to become everything to him. Hours had passed, and Ian knew he was becoming dangerously weak as the power required to hold the two spells continued to drain him, compounding the beating and blood loss he’d suffered in the fight with Dagon’s demon henchman.
His phone was nothing more than a handful of smashed components after the battle. Besides, the last person he’d spoken to was also the very last person he could afford to let anyplace near him right now. Mencheres had called him shortly before the demon cornered them, to engage in yet another fruitless attempt at prying information out of Ian about the secret he’d been keeping.
God help him—if Ian could somehow travel back in time and relive that brief conversation, knowing what would shortly come to pass, he would probably end up spilling his guts to his sire and begging Mencheres for his help. But it was too late for any of that now.
He stared at his blood-spattered hand, splayed over Veritas’ ribcage below the knife. If he could just keep her from crumbling away to nothing, maybe he could come up with some kind of plan. The stubborn little vixen had been as good as immortal when he first met her, rising from her own ashes like the proverbial phoenix after what should have been a true and final death. But then she’d made the foolish mistake of trying to help him, and her bollocking bastard of a father had sentenced her to mortality as a result.
Ian didn’t know if it was physically possible for a mortal to kick the god of the underworld’s arse, but he was sure as hell intending to find out the first chance he got.
So. A plan.
The woman he loved had taken a deadly wound. She was mortal now. He could keep her body from reverting to its true age and shriveling away to dust with magic—for a bit longer, at least—but he couldn’t undo the fatal blow.
There had to be something. But as Ian stared down at the lifeless form beneath his hand, his mind circled endlessly over those four simple facts, unable to escape the ruts of his inevitable failure to save her. Around him, the soothing blues and grays of night gave way to golden dawn through the room’s broken window, further sapping his vampire strength. Desperation began to circle his thoughts like a vulture, warring with the flat denial that had sustained him up until this point.
I can’t let her die. I can’t let her die.
He blinked rapidly, a tremor taking up residence in the hand he was using to hold the stasis spell in place around her body.
You stupid bloody wanker, he castigated himself. She’s already dead.
It was a testament to how drained and distraught he was that he didn’t notice the aura of power encroaching until its bearer was actually inside the room with him. In Ian’s defense, no one should have been able to even find this room, with the obfuscation spell in place… but of course his sire had always seemed to revel in confounding expectations. Especially when it came to things like magic.
“Ian,” Mencheres said, a wealth of emotion in that rich voice.
Ian stiffened, knowing how easy it would be for him to ruin the life of yet another loved one by letting his secret slip. He stood on the cusp of losing control of the stasis spell… on the cusp of betraying his vow never to let Mencheres find out what Ian had done in a moment of abject stupidity.
Mencheres couldn’t help Veritas. Veritas was dead, lying beneath his hand with a silver blade through her heart. Magic couldn’t fix that. Power couldn’t fix that. Death was death, unless the gods themselves decided to get involved—and the only god who cared about Veritas had already abandoned her to this fate.
“Get out, Mencheres,” Ian rasped, feeling distantly surprised at how wrecked his voice sounded.
“No,” Mencheres said quietly. “You don’t need to run from me any more. I know about the deal you made with Dagon, Ian.”
And Ian… buckled. His knees collapsed under the weight of those words, and he cried out as he felt the spell snap. His hand slithered away from Veritas’ skin as he crumpled to the filthy concrete floor.
He hadn’t even seen Mencheres move, but somehow the older vampire was there, his long fingers replacing Ian’s in the instant before he lost contact. Ian felt magic tingle through the air, his spell replaced by his sire’s identical one, only now it had the near-limitless well of Mencheres’ power behind it.
Ian closed his eyes, irrational relief flooding him at the same time as fresh dread. Mencheres knew.
“How?” Ian croaked, still sitting in a heap amongst the trash and discarded needles.
As questions went, it was more than a bit ambiguous. How did you find me? How did you discover I bartered my soul to a demon in a foolish attempt to save your life, when it turned out your life was never in danger in the first place?
Mencheres sighed deeply. His aura enfolded Ian like a pair of sheltering wings—something he hadn’t done since Ian’s early, broken days as a new vampire. Glass crunched a moment later, and strong arms wrapped around him as his sire knelt before him and pulled him into an embrace.
Ian’s eyes flew open, his head whipping toward the form on the table in a sudden panic. But Veritas’ body remained frozen inside the spell. Mencheres was powerful enough to hold it without maintaining physical contact, it seemed.
“I still have her,” his sire assured him. “Don’t worry. And to answer your question, I sent Kira after Vlad’s wife to get the information about Dagon. I was able to track you to a vacant lot nearby using software that Cat arranged to have discreetly downloaded to your phone some time ago.”
“It’s always the women,” Ian muttered. “I ought to take both of the ungrateful wenches over my knee.”
“I would advise against it,” Mencheres said mildly, “since if the ‘wenches’ in question didn’t kill you on the spot themselves, their husbands would arrive soon afterward to finish the job.”
Ian sagged. “I don’t know what to do, Mencheres.”
One of his sire’s hands slid up to cradle the nape of his neck, and Ian realized that he was shaking uncontrollably. He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to get a grip on himself.
Mencheres sighed again. “You have ever loved those closest to you with more passion than good sense. Of all my progeny, I fear you have the biggest heart—as much as you strive to guard it from the world.”
Lacking the strength to do anything else, Ian let his forehead rest against the crisp collar of Mencheres’ shirt. “I couldn’t… just… let you be dead. Not when I had a way to fix it.”
And I can’t let her be dead either, he thought, a little desperately.
“I know. I know, Ian.” The words held a wealth of compassion, but there was pain there, too. “We will speak of it later. Come. On your feet now. Your obfuscation spell fell at the same time as the stasis spell, and the others are almost here. I know you well enough to be reasonably certain you won’t wish for them to walk in on you in this state.”
Ian let Mencheres lever him upright and steady him until he could lock his knees.
“Others?” he asked suspiciously, the instant before a wash of familiar energy brushed against his senses. “Oh. Should’ve bloody known.”
“Yes,” Mencheres replied kindly. “You should have.”
His sire’s supporting arm fell away just as Charles and Crispin appeared in the doorway, scanning the filthy drug den before their eyes fell first on Veritas’ body on the table, and then on Ian, barely upright and swaying on his feet. Charles looked grim, but Crispin’s expression fell into lines of compassion.
“Ian,” he said. “Mate—”
Ridiculous as it was, Ian found himself nearly flattened under a wave of gratitude that his two closest friends were here. Somehow, he managed to cross the trash-strewn floor to them. He clasped Crispin’s upper arm, suddenly desperate to convince them that the body on the table wasn’t what it looked like.
“She can’t be dead,” he said very slowly and clearly, his eyes boring into Crispin’s dark brown ones even as his vision began to waver at the edges. “She can’t be. I simply… won’t allow it, do you hear me?”
His friend’s hands came up to cup his face. It wasn’t until a callused thumb wiped moisture from the delicate skin beneath his right eye that he realized the pink blur hanging across his vision was caused by something other than exhaustion.
“Well, bollocks,” he whispered, with feeling.
A hand closed on his shoulder—Charles. “You need to rest for a few hours, old chap. You’re dead on your feet. We can talk afterward.”
“This is dreadful,” Ian forced out, meaning love. “How do you bear it? How do you bear feeling like this for another person, all the bloody time?”
Charles stepped closer, wrapping Ian in an embrace from behind. “I don’t think it’s something you have a choice in,” he said. “It just happens, and you deal with it the best way you know how.”
“’Fraid he’s right about that, mate,” Crispin said, closing the remaining distance between them to sandwich Ian between them.
“Well, it’s utter pants, and I hate it,” Ian retorted, the words muffled against Crispin’s shoulder. And damn it, now he was trembling again—shaking like a human caught naked in a snowstorm.
“Sleep for a while,” Crispin said, “and you can hate it some more when you wake up. Let Mencheres take over the watch for a few hours, and we can talk about what to do next when you’re not about to fall over.”
Ian craned his head around to catch a glimpse of Mencheres, who had settled himself lightly on the edge of the table with his hand resting across Veritas’ forehead. A frown of concentration marred his misleadingly youthful features.
“It’s all right, mate,” Crispin murmured. “You know it’d take a nuclear bomb—at the very least—for him to let anyone near her. He’s known Veritas for millennia.”
Ian closed his eyes and nodded, because he did know that. Mencheres would give the last drop of his considerable power to make sure no further harm came to Veritas while Ian slept. And Ian’s stamina was at an end. He’d used too much energy; lost too much blood. His knees tried to give out again and he didn’t try to fight the bout of weakness, knowing that he was held between two people who would not let him fall.
Darkness swept over him, blotting out the pale light of dawn filtering in from the city outside.
* * *
The first thing Ian became aware of, several hours later, was the now-familiar feeling of being sheltered beneath a protective aura. Mencheres’ power brushed the edges of his senses like feathers ruffling; arching over the room like an impenetrable barrier against the reality of the outside world.
Something else was draped over Ian’s body, as well—something far more tangible. That realization led him to cast his awareness outward to the physical. The smell of leather and Crispin tickled his nose, and he realized that his friend must have placed his long leather coat over him like a blanket.
Ian was lying lengthwise along something uneven and musty, but soft—presumably the dilapidated sofa he’d seen on the far end of the room. The crackheads had probably dragged it here from the nearest rubbish tip so they could be more comfortable. His head was resting on something firmer—a male thigh. Fingers stroked slowly through his hair.
“Charles, mate—” Crispin’s voice came from the vicinity of Ian’s hip, where he was apparently sitting on the floor and using the sofa as a backrest. “—if he wakes up like that, he’s likely to punch you right in the teeth.”
Charles gave a barely audible snort. “Nonsense. I’ll wager he wakes up in far more compromising positions than this on two nights out of every three.”
It would be seductively easy to let his consciousness float back down into sleep, enjoying the oddly secure feeling of resting here with his two closest mates while his formidable sire watched over them, but he recognized an opening when he heard one.
“Right you are, Charles,” he drawled, “though I’d say it’s closer to four nights out of every five.” He pushed himself onto an elbow, fighting the squishiness of the sofa’s broken springs. “If you wanted a walk on the wild side, you should have said. You could even bring Denise along—she’s one of the few people I know who hasn’t pissed me off lately.”
“Arse,” Charles accused.
“Wanker,” Ian retorted.
He cast a quick glance toward the table. Mencheres had been good to his word, as Ian had known he would be. In fact, he was still sitting in more or less the same position as he had been when Ian had lost his fight to remain conscious, though he looked up now, meeting Ian’s eyes.
“If you’re recovered,” his sire said, “then we must discuss what is to be done about this demon.”
“We can help you, Ian,” Crispin added. “We’ve been trying to help your ungrateful arse all along.”
Ian drew in a slow breath and let it out, even though the stench of this place made breathing unpleasant.
“I know you have, old chap,” he said. “And it may yet come to that. Mencheres, I couldn’t tell you about it, because I knew you’d try to wade in and put yourself in danger. I thought if Veritas or I managed to kill Dagon before he could collect his claim, you’d never need to know at all. And if he bested me, you might have to mourn my death—but at least you wouldn’t have the pain of knowing my soul was forfeit… and why.”
“Foolish boy,” Mencheres said, sounding both tired and fond. “You should know better.”
Ian looked away. “Perhaps. But all of this will have to wait. Until recently, Veritas was able to revive from the ashes of her own death, like the old phoenix legends. She is the Ferryman’s daughter by a human woman, and even she doesn’t know what, exactly, that means for her.”
All three of his companions looked at Veritas with new eyes. Ian could practically feel their astonishment at the revelation.
“The Ferryman controls the destination of souls that pass through his realm,” Mencheres said slowly. “Are you implying that he might be persuaded to return Veritas’ soul to the mortal world?”
Ian sat up, catching Crispin’s coat when it started to slide off and handing it back to its owner.
“I’m not implying anything,” he said. “But, Mencheres—now that you’re here to hold Veritas in stasis for me, I think it’s time I paid a little visit to the underworld. I need to find out if it’s possible for a narced-off vampire with an attitude problem to kick a boot straight up the Ferryman’s lily-white arse. That cold-hearted bastard is her father, and I intend to make sure he lives up to the title for once in his miserable afterlife.”