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The Darkest Fire

Gena Showalter

CHAPTER ONE

Every day for hundreds of years the goddess had visited hell and every day Geryon had watched her from his station, desire heating his blood more than the flames of damnation beyond his post ever had. He should not have studied her that first time and should have kept his gaze downcast all the times since. He was a slave to the demons, spawned by evil; she was a goddess, created in light.

He could not have her, he thought, hands fisting. No matter how much he might wish otherwise. This… obsession was pointless and brought him nothing but despair. He did not need more despair.

And yet, still he watched her this day as she floated through the barren cavern, coral-tipped fingers tracing the jagged stones that separated underground from underworld. Golden ringlets flowed down her elegant back and framed a face so perfect, so lovely, Aphrodite herself could not compare. Eyes of starlight narrowed, a rosy color blooming in those cheeks of smooth alabaster.

'The wall is cracked,' she said, her voice like a song amid the hiss of nearby flame.

He shook his head, positive he had merely imagined the words. In all their centuries together, they had never spoken, never deviated from their routine. As the Guardian of Hell, he ensured the gate remained closed until a spirit needed to be cast inside. That way, no one and nothing escaped—and if they tried, he rendered punishment. As the goddess of Oppression, she fortified the physical barrier with only a touch. Silence was never breeched.

Uncertainty darkened her features. 'Have you nothing to say?'

She stood in front of him a moment later, though he never saw her move. The scent of honeysuckle suddenly overshadowed the stink of sulfur and melting flesh, and he inhaled deeply, closing his eyes in ecstasy. Oh, that she would remain just as she was…

'Guardian,' she prompted.

'Goddess.' He forced his lids to open gradually, slowly revealing the glow of her beauty. Up close, she was not as perfect as he had thought. She was better. A smattering of freckles dotted her sweetly sloped nose, and dimples appeared with the curve of her half-smile. Exquisite.

What did she think of him? he wondered.

She probably thought him a monster, hideous and misshapen. But if she did, she did not show it. Only curiosity rested in those starlight eyes. For the wall, he suspected, not for him. Even when he'd been human, women had wanted nothing to do with him. Sometimes he'd wondered if he'd been tainted at birth.

'Those cracks were not there yesterday,' she said. 'What has caused such damage?'

'A horde of Demon Lords rise from the pit daily and fight to break out. They have grown tired of their confinement here and seek living humans to torment.'

'Have you their names?'

He nodded. 'Violence, Death, Lies, Doubt, Misery. Shall I go on?'

'No,' she said softly. 'I understand. The worst of the worst.'

'Yes. They bang and they claw from the other side, desperate to reach the mortal realm.'

'Well, stop them.' A command, laced with husky entreaty.

In that moment, he would have given up the last vestiges of his humanity to do as she wished. Anything to repay the daily gift of her presence. Anything to keep her just where she was, prolonging the sweetness of her scent. 'I am forbidden to leave my post, just as I am forbidden to open the gates for any reason but allowing one of the damned inside. I'm afraid I cannot grant your request.'

A sigh slipped from her. 'Do you always do as you're told?'

'Always.' Once he had fought the invisible ties that bound him. Once, but no longer. To fight was to invite pain and suffering—not for him, but for others. Innocent humans who resembled his mother, his father and his brothers were brought here and tortured in front of him. The screams…oh, the screams. Had the pain and suffering been heaped upon him, he would not have cared. Would have laughed and fought all the harder. But Lucifer, brother to Hades and prince of the demons, knew exactly how to strike to ensure the desired results.

'I expected differently. You are a warrior, so strong and assured.'

Yes, he was a warrior. He was also a slave. 'I am sorry.'

'I will pay you to help me,' the goddess insisted. 'Name your price. Whatever you desire shall be yours.'

CHAPTER TWO

Whatever you desire shall be yours, she had said. If only, Geryon thought. He would ask for a single taste of her lips. But he would not risk the suffering of the innocent—why do you bother with them?—simply to sate his craving for the lovely goddess.

The question that had drifted through his mind had him gritting his teeth. He bothered because without good, there would only be evil. And he had seen too much evil.

'I am sorry, goddess. As I said, I cannot help you.'

Her delicate shoulders sagged in disappointment. 'But…why? You want to keep the demons inside of hell just as much as I do.'

Geryon didn't want to tell her his reasons for refusing her, was still ashamed after all these centuries. Tell her, however, he would. Perhaps then she would return to the old ways and pretend he did not exist. As it was, his craving for her was growing, intensifying, his body hardening. Readying. She's not for you.

'I sold my soul,' he said. He had been one of the first humans to walk the earth. He'd been content with his lot and enraptured by his mate, even though she'd been chosen by his family and had not desired him in return. She had grown sick, and he had despaired. He had cried out to the gods for assistance, but they had ignored him. Then Lucifer had appeared before him.

To save her and finally win her heart, Geryon had willingly given himself to the dark prince—and found himself transformed from man to beast. Horns had sprouted atop his head, and his hands had become claws. Dark, carmine fur covered the skin on his legs, while hooves replaced his feet. In seconds, he'd transformed, more animal than human.

His wife had healed, as his contract with Lucifer stated, but she had not softened toward him. No, she had left him for another man. His hands fisted, claws digging deep into his palms, as he refocused on the goddess. 'Though I wish otherwise, my actions are no longer mine to command.'

The goddess studied him, her head tilting to the side. He shifted uncomfortably, such scrutiny unnerving given his sickening appearance. To his surprise, revulsion did not darken her lovely gaze as she said, 'I will see what I can do.'

Inner Corridors of Hell

'Lucifer, hear me well. I demand to speak with you. You will appear before me. This day, in this room. Alone. I will remain exactly as I am.' Kadence, goddess of Oppression, knew to state her wants precisely or the demon prince would 'interpret' them however he wished. Were she simply to demand an audience, he might whisk her to his bed, her arms and legs tied, her clothing gone, a legion surrounding her.

Several minutes ticked by and there was no response to her summons. But then, she'd known there wouldn't be. He enjoyed making her wait. Made him feel powerful. She used the time to eye her surroundings. Rather than stone and mortar, the walls of Lucifer's palace were comprised of flames. Crackling, orange-gold. Deadly.

She hated everything about this place. Plumes of black smoke wafted from the blazes, curling around her like fingers of the damned. So badly she wanted to wave her hand in front of her nose, but she did not. She wouldn't show weakness—even with so small an action.

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