excerpt of Demon's Fall
The merchant had trapped the angel in a cage so small she was forced to wrap her wings around herself. She had drawn up her knees and buried her face in her arms so that only her hair could be seen. It held the sheen of pearl, and promised silken softness.
Kenan started to reach between the bars, but a whip suddenly stung his fingers.
"No touching!" The merchant coiled the whip back under his arm, but Kenan had no doubt that it would flick out again at any hint of another transgression.
"How much?" he asked.
The merchant studied him, calculating a price.
"She's going to waste away soon anyway," Kenan said. "She clearly hasn't the will to live on in that cage." Her arms were thin and her feathers dull and matted.
"Angels are a rare find," the merchant countered. "How often do you see one in the market?"
"That's because nobody in Hellsgate wants one. How about a trade?" Kenan tossed him a coin and was gratified to watch the merchant nearly drop his whip while fumbling to catch it.
On one side of the coin was the proud profile of a handsome woman; on the other, a name—Shellay Dew Maraden. She had been a harder conquest than most. The merchant examined the coin, turned it over, then bit it lightly. His eyes brightened. "A tasty soul." He nodded toward the angel. "Take her."
Kenan knelt and undid the latch, which was coated with sticky sin to keep her inside. The cage door swung open, but the angel didn't move. "Come on," he said.
She didn't respond.
He sharpened his voice. "Come out, gutter-wing."
She lifted her head just enough for him to see the gleam of an angry eye.
"You won't get any cleaner in there," he said reasonably.
After a moment she crawled out of the cage, dragging a chain behind her. It was attached to a black iron collar around the angel's neck, and on the other end to a cuff. The merchant snapped his whip twice, picking up the cuff and then setting it at Kenan's feet.
The angel reached for it and the merchant lashed at her. She snatched her hand back and cradled it to her chest, transferring her glare to him. Kenan hastily picked up the cuff before she attacked the merchant, as she seemed inclined to.
"You can lead her with that," the merchant said. "Her wings have been clipped, so she won't fly away."
"Many sales," Kenan said in polite farewell.
The angel came to her feet slowly. She was nearly his height, and the grimy shift she wore came only to her knees. Her face was smudged, but he could tell that her skin was pale under the dirt and drawn too tight against her cheekbones. Her eyes were gray and still angry. Good, she'd kept her spirit. It might be all that kept her standing—she looked too weak otherwise.
He set off at a brisk pace, ignoring the other merchants' wares on display in the market. It was a clear day, and besides the usual plethora of stalls, peddlers had spread out a patchwork of blankets on which to sit and display their wares. It wasn't easy to avoid stepping on them.
They wove through a herd of children playing some game involving much shrieking, then through a makeshift tent hung with a labyrinth of cloths. The chain Kenan held stayed slack, so he knew she stayed behind him. She wavered only once, when they passed in front of a stall selling pies. He smiled to himself. The smell of food must have gotten her attention.
He slowed once they were past the worst of the crowds. So did she, so much that the cuff jerked in his hand and he turned to see that she had stopped, her fingers wrapped around the chain that linked them.
"What is it?" he asked.
"Where are you taking me?" Her voice was a rusted alto, but her posture spoke of unbent steel. She was not moving on until she had her answer.
"Home," he said.
"You can wash up there. Eat something, too."
She shook her head impatiently. "No—why did you buy me?"
"Didn't you hear the merchant? Angels are rare in Hellsgate."
"So you're a collector."
He thought of the coins in his belt pouch. "Of sorts." He didn't collect to keep, although he might hold on to an angel's soul as a novelty.
Her hand fell from the chain. "Who are you?"
"Kenan," he said.
"That's hardly an answer."
"Are you asking my full name?" he asked mildly.
"Of course not!" True names were powerful things, keys to souls, and never casually requested. "I meant—you're a demon?"
He nodded. "No horns nor tail, but Hell-born all the same." Small wonder she was uncertain here, in a city where both demons and mortals abounded. And his true form was a human shape.
Her lip curled. "Shouldn't you be tempting mortals instead?"
"How do you think I got these?" He shifted his belt pouch so that the coins inside clinked. Her eyes narrowed. "The fun part is trading them to other demons here in Hellsgate."
"And buying angels?"
"It's a first."
She came closer to him, her eyes steady on his and her wings half-opened. The rust was gone from her voice, and her words came low and intense. "You must free me."
"Eventually," he said. He could not imagine seducing a chained woman. There was another word for that. "But for now, it's safer for you to be collared."
"Safer?" Her voice rose in indignation, but then she saw the wide circle passersby made around them, and the looks they were giving her.
"Angels are unwelcome in Hellsgate," he said. "But in a cage or on a chain, they'll tolerate you."
She drew her wings about herself. "Let's hurry on."
"As you wish, gutter-wing."
"I am called Jahel," she spat.
"Jahel," he said, pleased at having won this much from her. When he turned to go, she was close behind him.
They headed down a broad street that was only slightly less busy. The traffic was constant, whether human or demon or ox and cart, and it flowed both along the street and into and out of the shops on either side of them. The cacophony of the market faded into the more usual sounds of the city: light chatter, the clip-clop of a horse's hooves on the street, the wind swinging a wooden sign on its post.
Kenan lived at the edge of the city, on the mortal end. As they left the main streets, they saw fewer demons and more humans. It said something of the state of mortals in Hellsgate that even the gray, bedraggled creature trailing behind him elicited stares and whispers. Some fell to their knees. One cried out, "Angxelino!" and dropped a basket of persimmons to hold out his hands imploringly. None dared stop Kenan.
"The desperate soulless," he said.
"Poor mortals," she said, huddling her wings close to her body. "I wish I could help them."
"They'd be as quick as any demon to lock you in a cage and trade you for their souls," he said. "Except the lost ones, I suppose. They have no hope of being restored."
"Demons who tried on mortal flesh and found it not to their liking. But there's no way back. They come to Hellsgate to mingle with demons and pretend they are one again."
"Yes," she said, "there are angels who have forsaken Heaven." She shook her head, clearly believing they had lost their minds with their wings.
He did not think the mortal plane was so distasteful but held his peace.
They turned a corner to an even smaller avenue where the buildings were no longer high enough to shade them and undistinguished by any signs. These were houses, set apart from each other, not crowded shops. His home was at the end, a simple wooden structure without even a window in front. He didn't need anything lavish, not when he was just as often off in the mortal realms as here in Hellsgate. He unlocked the door and held it open.
Jahel hesitated on the threshold.
"Entering a demon's domain won't set any curses upon you," he said.
"No, I—" She looked longingly up at the sky, her wings spreading. "I don't like enclosed spaces." But having admitted her weakness, she took a deep breath, folded her wings, and stepped inside.
It was a small dwelling, and the two of them crowded it. Her wings, which sprang back open as soon as she was inside, took up the space of another two people. But his usual sprawling mess seemed to help her relax. No prison would have a rolled-up rug blocking the door from opening all the way, a teapot on the floor, and cushions on the table.
Kenan decided to let her get clean first. It would disarm her, and give him time to do some tidying himself. "You'll have to wear this backwards," he said, snagging his robe off a nail on the wall and handing it to her. "The well out back draws hot water." He took hold of her arm to usher her to the back door.
She stiffened at the presumption and jerked away. "And I suppose you have to watch me to make sure I won't escape."
He raised his hands in apology for touching her. "No. You can't get far without flying," he said. "And there'll be food here when you're done."
He handed her the leash. She gave him a long, wary look but stepped out into the courtyard, closing the door behind herself to guard her privacy. He was betting that angels were not so different from mortals—trust was more easily earned when given first.
The room felt strangely empty without her, even with all the clutter still there. Kenan stacked things into precarious piles, rediscovering souvenirs from the mortal realms and jars with mysterious contents long forgotten. He cleared enough room for both of them to sit on the bench and eat, and was just setting food on the table when he heard her return.
"You didn't need to bother," she said wryly as she surveyed his efforts.
He turned to give her a glib response, and stopped. She had groomed her feathers and washed her face, revealing delicate features. Angels didn't glow, not really, but she was radiant. The hair that had entranced him so was still damp, some strands pressed wetly against her neck.
He wanted to set his mouth there and taste her.
Angels weren't attractive creatures, at least not to Kenan. They had an air of righteousness and purity, and he could only imagine that those wings got in the way. This one certainly wasn't trying to be seductive, not with wet hair and his robe hanging loosely on her. He was intrigued by her soul, not her body.
So why did he want to pull down the robe and lick all her newly washed skin?
He covered his reaction with casual words. "You clean up nicely, gutter-wing."
"Thank you for letting me bathe," she said, although the words were grudging.
"It was as much for my nose's sake," he said.
"The cage was lacking in amenities," she said dryly.
He was relieved to hear her make a jest of it. "Why did you come here? There's a reason most angels don't venture into Hellsgate."
Her jaw set stubbornly. Then she gave a little shrug as if to say, Why not? "I was guarding a mortal girl..."
He could guess the rest of the story. "She turned aside your guidance, fell into the clutches of a demon, and now her soul is somewhere in Hellsgate." Angels insisted on guarding mortals' souls and only taking them at the cusp of death instead of claiming them straightaway.
Jahel started. "Yes, but how—" Her smile was rueful. "I suppose angels don't come here for any other reason."
"There's always redemption involved."
"I thought I could find her soul here and return it to her, but as soon as I arrived I walked into a trap. I woke up in that cage." She clenched her jaw at the memory.
"Usually your kind is driven away, not imprisoned," he said. Most didn't want to bother dealing with angels, as they were said to be haughty and impossible to reason with. And no one wanted to start a war. It was easiest to simply avoid them. She was the first one of her kind he'd actually ever spoken to.
"Have many other angels tried to come here?"
"No, most have the sense not to, but a few just can't seem to resist all the souls to be found here." He shrugged. "You're our competition in the great game, after all."
Her wings flared. "That's all it is to you? A game? These are people's souls!"
Kenan reached for placating words but, facing her indignation, found himself speaking frankly instead. "They're not to my taste," he said. "But they're the currency we play by. I have no need for dozens of servants in Hell. I'd get bored, not having to do anything myself." He cocked his head. "Would you prefer I be on a mission to corrupt mortals so that they'll suffer eternal torment?"
Jahel drew her wings back in, shaking her head. "I don't understand you."
"I'm honest about my motives," he said. "Angels all pretend that they're working for mortals' own good, but is it truly better to commit your soul to Heaven? You angels just want to lure humans there because you prefer it."
"Of course it's better to be in Heaven!"
"Better than the Third Path?" It was the way mortals went after death if they chose neither Heaven nor Hell and it was closed to both demons and angels.
She was quiet for a moment. "I don't know."
"But you assume that Heaven is best for all humans."
"Fine, then, call it pride," she said. "But I promised this girl she would be safe, and I don't think ending up in Hell fulfills that oath. I have to save her. Among angels, that's known as honor."
The girl was the key. Kenan asked, "Is she the first mortal you've guarded and lost?"
"Yes," she said miserably.
"Who has her soul?"
"A hellhound," she said.
"She gave her soul to a hellhound?" Hellhounds didn't gather many souls. They were too fierce and intimidating to properly charm mortals.
"She was cast out into the woods. He came to her when she was frightened and angry. His fire may have been welcome in the dark wild."
An irony indeed, finding comfort in demon-fire. "We'll have to recover her soul, then."
"You clearly need help," he said. "You failed when you tried it alone."
She bristled. "I didn't—" She paused and took a deep breath. "Fine, I failed. But I had to try. Why would you help?"
"It's a worthy challenge," he said. "Hellhounds aren't easily bribed, which is why we set them to guard the entrance to Hell. And my talents certainly are useless with them."
She looked dubious. "Your talents?"
"You couldn't guess from my human shape? I'm an incubus."
"Oh," she said. "That's why—" She broke off.
"Why you have a human shape," she said. A blush spread across her fair skin.
The vivid crimson fascinated him. He knew that a mere glance from him could send a mortal's senses blazing. Perhaps angels were equally affected by an incubus's allure.
He tested this theory by leaning close.
She took a step back. "What are you doing?"
"Checking that collar," he said smoothly, closing the distance. "Is it locked? The merchant didn't give me a key." He brushed back her hair, deliberately touching her, then forgot his scheme.
"You'll take it off?" she said, excitement overcoming her nervousness.
"I'm not sure I can," he said, staring at the embossed wax. "There's a holy seal placed on it. No demon can touch it."
"Can't I undo it, then?" she asked.
He caught her wrists before she could reach for the collar. "It's been affixed by sin," he said. It was unheard of to juxtapose the two in such a way.
"Who would have access to both?"
"I don't know." He held his hand above the seal, feeling the wrenching sensation of wrongness that always overcame demons in the presence of blessed objects. "I wish I had asked the merchant more about you."
"I never saw him before I woke up in the market," she said, then looked away.
She was hiding something, but he didn't press. "Go on and start eating," he said instead.
She moved past him to the table. The belt of her robe had loosened and a narrow window of skin was laid bare to his eyes, pale and smooth and terribly inviting to touch. Desire caught at him. His knuckles wanted to stroke the notches between her vertebrae, one at a time, down to the small of her back, and then to the sweet rise of her buttocks. Then he could delve into her, and find her most private flesh...
He reached out, wrestled against the draw of her skin, then said in as neutral a tone he could manage, "This has come loose," and tightened her belt.
"Thank you," Jahel said, sounding surprised. She sank down onto the bench with such a heartfelt sigh that Kenan wondered how sitting could bring her such pleasure. Then he saw her tuck her feet under the bench to take all her weight off them.
"Were your shoes taken?" he asked.
"What?" She glanced down and self-consciously set the soles of her feet flat on the floor, but couldn't manage it without wincing. "I didn't have any. Angels don't wear them."
He cursed himself for a fool. Of course, they flew everywhere or walked on the clouds of Heaven. "I made you walk through the city barefoot?" A smooth start to his seduction.
She shrugged. "It wasn't so bad."
He wouldn't let her dismiss it so easily. "Your feet must be sore, if you're not used to walking much."
"A touch," she admitted. "But we heal quickly."
He had found a jar of salve amidst the clutter. He dug it out again, heedless of the mess. "This should help."
She put her hand out, but he held the jar out of her reach. "I'll put it on," he said.
"Don't make me crawl under the table."
After a moment she turned and brought her feet up onto the bench. He sat where he could straighten one of her legs and rest her foot on his thigh. He worked the salve in with his thumbs, kneading her sole with increasing pressure until he saw her shoulders relax.
He repeated the massage on her other foot, enjoying the sight of her eyelids dropping. Her skin was amazingly soft, and it was almost disappointing when his hands finally tired.
Her slow, dreamy smile made it all worthwhile. His touch often had that effect. She was easier to handle than he'd expected, but he wasn't feeling his usual disappointment. The true challenge was still to come.
"And the merchant whipped you," Kenan said, recalling. "I'll tend that too."
"It's nothing." She opened her eyes, reclaimed her feet, and stood up hastily. "Look, my feet are already better."
He rose with her and spoke gently. Sometimes women were frightened by the strength of their reactions to him. "Sit down."
Jahel perched on one side of the bench, looking straight ahead to avoid his gaze. Color had blossomed on her cheeks again.
He straddled the other end, facing her, and set the jar between them. "Give me your hand."
After a moment she surrendered it to him, palm upward. He turned it over. There was an ugly welt across her knuckles where the whip had struck her. He dipped a finger into the jar and spread salve over the wound.
Her head had turned toward him. When he let go and made to close the jar, she said, "You, too."
He looked down at his own hand, where the twin to her lash-mark lay. "Just a love tap. He didn't want to scare off a customer."
"You treated me. I should do the same for you," she insisted. She spread her palm under his to hold his hand steady. Then she took her turn with the jar of salve. She went about it slowly enough for him to become all too aware of how only a breath separated them. Her fingers were cool. The heat from his skin must scorch hers.
She didn't let go when she was done. "Why did he hit you?" she asked, absently tracing the outline of his fingers.
Kenan cleared his throat. "I wanted to touch your hair." His voice was deeper than usual. The trick with his seductions was coming up with an excuse for contact and letting them feel his allure, but she was touching him of her own initiative. His allure had worked more swiftly than he'd expected.
She seemed thoughtful, though, not enthralled. "And then you bought me and took me out of that cage."
"Are you sorry I did?"
"No." But her smile was a little crooked. "I'm grateful. If what you wanted was to touch my hair..." She began following the lines of his palm, but blindly, by feel alone. Her gaze had lifted to his so that there no question about what she meant by her next question. "Do you still want to?" That wasn't all she was offering.
He had to force himself not to grab her. Instead he reached out with his free hand and sank it into the cloud-silk of her hair, fine and smooth and ever-shifting. Beneath, he could feel the delicate shape of her skull. He slid his fingers along the curve of her ear, then down the line of her jaw. The rapid flutter of her pulse was visible just above the collar.
He tilted her chin up and kissed her.