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Darkest Heart by Juliette Cross (1)

Chapter One

Dommiel

I love the smell of sex and brimstone in the morning.

Of course, I hadn’t had a woman in months or a smoke in two days, so it was a pretty shitty morning.

At three a.m., the watchdogs had finally wandered away from the compound, unable to resist the lure of the night. Debauchery was calling their name, and she was a sexy bitch. No way to deny her when the heart of the demon den starts pumping hard. I should know, since I had been the high demon of New Orleans for over a century, enjoying the pleasures of decadence and excess. But that was a long time ago. Before the world turned upside down.

The high demon in London where I now stood was some asshole named King Henry. What the fuck? Who calls himself King Henry? An over-bloated megalomaniac hoarding goods in the apocalypse so he could lord over the human populace, that’s who. He reminded me of myself once.

I hated him.

The electric fence rimmed with barbed wire was a good deterrent against human thieves. Unless humans hired a high demon who could sift from one place to another, in particular onto the other side of a high-voltage fence without a scratch.

Reaching out with my heightened senses, I found none of my brethren in the immediate vicinity. We needed to move fast. No telling when the guards would return. In a blink, I sifted inside the compound within the shadows of the warehouse. King Henry’s wards did nothing to stop me. The wards would keep out the angels, but not another demon. Convenient for a merc-for-hire.

My raven, and partner in crime, cawed three times. His way of giving me the all clear. I avoided the one streetlight buzzing above. Pulling out my Zippo with the etched phrase “To thine own self be fucking true,” I flicked on the flame once, then out. Twice, then out. And a third time.

A dozen footsteps pounded toward the entrance at my signal, while I opened the gate from the power switch near the warehouse. A party of the human underground resistance marched in with stealth, finding cover in the shadows. They called themselves the Twelfth Night, for some reason unknown to me, and refused to bow down to the demon lord of the day. And they paid well.

The captain of their faction here in London, Cooper, gave me a nod to lead on. Cooper was a man of few words and efficiency. I liked him. We skirted away from the side entrance toward the back. Still no sign of guards. King Henry’s tin soldiers were lazy as fuck. Not one remained behind.

I tried the door. Locked. No problem. Holding the door handle, I summoned my essence. The familiar burn flared in my chest and streamed up my throat. With a puff of air, I blew out a plume of black smoke that snaked its way into the lock.

Snick.

Cooper was the first behind me, watching every move with curiosity. Otherworld powers were nothing new to humans since this Great War between heaven and hell had begun, raging across the planet. Only, this time, Cooper was on the receiving end of the benefits of that power rather than suffering from it, which was the norm for humans caught between the angel and demon power play.

Once inside the cool interior, lit only by a neon-blue bulb in the corner, each soldier moved swiftly to different pallets and started filling their canvas sacks without a word. They were fast and efficient, I’d give them that. I strolled one aisle stacked with cans of corn, peas, beets.

“Beets?” I mused. Who the fuck would want beets?

Coffee,” came the excited whisper of a woman behind me, digging inside a box and stuffing her pack.

Now that got my attention. I stepped up beside her.

“Imported. American,” she added.

Peering into the box, I saw the familiar red packaging of Community Coffee, the heartblood of south Louisiana that was my home for over a century. But no more.

“Baby, you just found yourself gold.”

She smiled and kept packing, while I leaned over and took a bag for myself, stuffing it in my ammo pack.

“Best take a lot of that before—”

A barrage of bullets flew overhead, pinging on the scaffolding and ricocheting off the corrugated steel of the warehouse wall.

“Down! Down!” shouted Cooper.

Every soldier dropped and drew weapons. Hell, at least they were trained to react fast. Rolling over the coffee pallet, I popped from behind and peered out, scanning. No sign of otherworldly beings. King Henry left behind human guards, who apparently didn’t have night vision goggles or just had piss-poor aim. The girl and I should’ve been toast.

Making eye contact with Cooper with my one good eye, I pointed down a side aisle. He nodded and pointed to the one closest to him. We’d loop around toward the front and flank them.

There were three of them, fully armed and creeping toward the area where the Twelvers ducked for cover. I sifted next to the biggest one with the automatic AK rifle and coldcocked him with a heavy uppercut to the jaw.

They always say it’s the little guys you have to worry about. They’re right. The second guard, a skinny dude, knocked me to the ground with a swift kick to the chest. Cooper engaged the other guy. Damn good thing, too. I had my hands full with Karate Kid.

I could’ve sifted behind him and cracked his neck, but where would be the fun in that? Nothing like a good beating to make you feel more alive. After the fourth punch to my face, I decided he’d had a good run.

“My turn.”

Two punches to the gut, one to the eye, a swift crack in the ribs, and a kick in the jaw knocked him to the floor but not out. Tough bastard.

He groaned as he rolled to his side and spat out a gob of blood.

When he reached for a blade, I put the heel of my boot on his hand, pinning it to the pavement, and drew my Smith and Wesson—a specialty, modified by the one and only Bone—the best demon arms dealer and maker in heaven or hell. Even by the neon blue, I could tell the guard’s eyes swirled with the dark essence of a demon master. No doubt, King Henry had given his human minions a bit of his essence to juice them with extra strength.

“Let’s play nice, zombie.”

Karate Kid gritted his teeth and growled like the dog that he was. I clocked him with the butt of my gun. He crumpled to the ground.

Cooper walked over, panting, shoving his bloody blade into the sheath attached to his military belt.

“What did you call him?”

“He’s a zombie. A slave for his master.” I signaled to the others. “Ten seconds to fill your packs, then let’s go. They probably triggered an alarm.”

Within thirty seconds, we were out the back door, through the gate, and beyond the wards behind an abandoned gas station.

“Gather ’round, friends.”

As I’d instructed on the way here, they locked arms. Coffee Girl closed her eyes. She got vertigo on the trip over and lost her dinner in the bushes. I gripped Cooper’s forearm. “Hang on.”

With a crackle, we blinked out. Zipping through that amorphous place between time and space, gray shapes blurred past as otherworlders moved through the Void. We sifted out onto the solid and snowy ground of Hyde Park.

A wave of obvious relief washed over them because I hadn’t doomed them to some dungeon in hell—not that I had one, though I might’ve hinted that I did—and they’d made it out alive and with the goods I’d promised.

We grabbed the gear we’d hidden inside some brush before we’d sifted to King Henry’s compound. I lifted my black leather ammo pack. Cooper passed me a pouch with his right hand and reached out with his left to shake mine.

“Payment as promised.”

He paused midair, apparently forgetting. I followed through and gripped his left with my mechanical hand. Bone’s craftsmanship was remarkable. I was perfectly fine with a hook until Bone suggested this beauty.

“Pleasure doing business with the Twelvers. As always.”

The others milled a few feet away, watching for trouble.

“Hey. What did you mean he was a zombie?”

“You’ve seen humans with clouded eyes? Like black smoke on their irises?”

“Yeah,” said Cooper, glancing over his shoulder. Nervous habit these days, I imagine.

“That means a demon is controlling them.”

Cooper hung his head with a pensive scowl, and I knew he was probably beating himself up over the guard he stabbed.

“Don’t feel sorry for them.” I liked Cooper. He was tough as hell. In a world where humans were becoming an endangered species, he was the kind of man who just might save a few of them. “Just remember, any lower demon you see with the red eyes or zombies like those dudes back at the warehouse means they’re weak. Red-eyed demons are humans who gave up their souls willingly. Zombies were taken. Only those weak in spirit can be controlled. And in this world, we both know what that means.”

I didn’t need to say it. But the old adage, Only the strong will survive was never more true than now.

“Cooper. Let’s go,” urged Coffee Girl, shifting from foot to foot and scanning for trouble.

“Thanks again. I’m not sure why you help us.”

I lifted the pouch and jingled it. “Keep bringing me this, and we’ll continue to do business. I’ll be going underground for a while. I imagine King Henry will want my head after this one.”

This was my fifth hit on one of his warehouses. He must’ve thought this one was well-hidden enough that no one knew about it. But spies are easily bribed. In the apocalypse, there was no real loyalty.

“How will I reach you if the cell towers fail? Sometimes they work. Sometimes they don’t.”

“They won’t fail,” I assured him, stuffing the pouch into my ammo pack.

While the human world crumbled, they retreated to hidden communes, except for those who either dabbled with demons or aligned with angels. The one thing both sides wouldn’t let fall entirely was technology. Sure, any angel or demon had the power to sift anywhere they pleased, but that wasn’t always convenient. So in an age where Wall Street was nothing more than a memory, cell phones and other electronic devices remained up and running. In some places. Some cities were without power, but most demon lords had kept it on. Enough to keep their parties going, anyway. The upside of the apocalypse? No bills. Downside? Nothing was open. I’d kill for a Big Mac right about now.

Cooper gave me a nod and merged with his troop as they slipped away toward wherever they holed up in this city.

I sifted to Bone’s shop on the south side of London. Bone kept no wards. Both sides sought out the expertise of the best supernatural arms maker on earth—or in the otherworld for that matter. And no one messed with Bone.

Ambling through the basement maze of hallways, I ducked through the entrance into a vast workshop with metal hanging on every wall. Shelves of automatic and semi-automatic weapons on one side, swords and blades of all shapes and sizes on the other. This place was nothing but sharp edges that smelled of metal, heat, and gunpowder.

I heard the grinder working in the back. Sparks popped up.

“Bone!” I called as I entered the forging area where a hot furnace piped out red heat.

With a flick of her face shield, she watched me enter from cat-shaped eyes. She smiled and shut off the grinder.

Bone was a slender female, roped with muscular arms but curvy in all the right places. Her long dark hair was plaited in tiny braids over her entire head, a streak of purple coloring the front right braids falling at her temple. Fully tattooed from her collarbone down, she left only her neck and face untouched. The warm, desert-sand hue of her skin was made more beautiful by the intricate, swirling, and jagged images. Though I’d never seen her whole body, I imagined she had ink covering every last inch. Female demons were rare. Female high demons were almost unheard of.

High demons were only those of us who were created from the Fall. All of us were angels once, not that I can even remember what that was like. And I never knew Bone before the Fall. Couldn’t even tell you what her real name was. Didn’t matter. She was Bone now. She reminded me of the exotic beauties of the Creole women of New Orleans where I ruled for so long. She carried a mystical warmth that made most feel at ease. But only a fool would underestimate her. Strong otherworldly power burned behind those hazel eyes.

“Well, well, well. I thought you’d jumped continents.”

“And leave you? Never.”

I gave her my charming smile. With a roll of her amber eyes, she gestured toward a workbench.

“Sit. Let me look at my handiwork.”

That’s what she called the mechanical hand she’d made to replace the left one I’d lost. Using her gifts, she’d fashioned an arm that linked to my thoughts. It worked as well as my real hand. How? No idea. Her magic was something special.

Straddling the bench, I let her examine it carefully, as she liked to do.

“Dammit, Dommiel. Are you punching concrete walls with it?”

“No. Just demons. And stupid humans.”

“Well, stop. Beat them with your flesh-and-blood hand. Not this one.”

She grabbed what looked like a tiny pair of scissors and tweaked something around the motorized thumb.

“You have blood on your shirt, by the way,” she added, still focused on tightening a wire.

“Yeah. Business.”

“Is business good?”

“Business is booming. That’s why I’m here. I need more ether ammo.”

“Make a fist.”

I squeezed the digits together. They curled into a perfect ball.

“Okay. Now be still.” She hopped up, wiping her hands on a rag, then tossed it aside and opened a drawer along her wall of gadgets. She returned, straddled the bench opposite me, and gripped my chin. “Look at me.”

She removed the patch over what was once my right eye and leaned closer. Her expression remained calm and assessing, but I knew what she looked at was ugly as hell.

“Yeah,” I sighed. “Damas left me a pretty present before he left this world.”

She shrugged. “I like it.” She lifted a new black leather patch and affixed it over my eye socket, settling the thin elastic around my head. “Makes you look more dangerous.”

I chuckled darkly. The memory of that demon prince Damas churning bitter anger in my gut. “Glad that fucker is dead.”

She stared close, shifting the patch till it fit just right.

“You know, you don’t have to make excuses if you want to get close to me.” I grinned at her smiling reaction. Bone never smiled. Except for me.

“Still trying to get into my pants?”

“No. Just offering to take off mine if you’re a bit lonely down here in your dungeon.”

She finished and placed her hands on her thighs, sitting back to examine me.

“This isn’t my dungeon, Dommiel. This is paradise.”

“Paradise? I could do better than this if you ever want to get out of here.”

“If I ever want to leave, I’ll let you know. But you need a softer woman to ease that ache you’ve got.” She rose from the bench and crossed to a shelf on the right lined with bins of cartridges of all kinds. When she did, I felt a subtle tingling sensation on my right eye.

I chuckled. Now she was psychoanalyzing me. “Oh, do I?”

She rummaged around on the second shelf, picked up a small box, peered inside, picked up a second, and returned to the bench.

“Yeah. I don’t have what it takes to fix what’s in here.” She set the two boxes on the bench and poked the left side of my chest. Probably the only person I’d ever let actually poke me without drawing back a nub.

“Ain’t nothing left to fix in there. Hey, what’s up with this patch?”

Her catlike eyes flared bright, and she nearly smiled again. With a swift move, she was up and across the room on my right side, moving out of my periphery. “Keep looking straight ahead.”

I did till I couldn’t see her anymore, though I heard her lift and throw something. Suddenly, that tingling sensation sparked to a sting. I snatched the object that had been hurdled at my head before it hit me, wrapping my fingers around cold steel. I looked down at the wrench in my hand.

She returned with a satisfied grin on her face. “The patch looks like a regular leather patch, but I’ve enhanced it with threadlike sensors that detect movement. That way, if any asshole tries to attack you from your blind side, you’ll be ready for him.”

“Hell, Bone. I was in love with you already. Now you had to go and do this?”

She waved me off as if her serious skills meant nothing and pointed at the boxes in my hand. “Two cartridges of ether ammo for a .44 Magnum, Smith and Wesson.”

“You’re sexy as hell when you talk ammo and guns.”

She rolled her eyes. “Oh, I’ve got something else I thought you might like.”

She disappeared down an aisle behind me and returned with a rectangular black box, opening it to reveal four slender daggers, their size easy for throwing but hefty enough for one-on-one combat. Bone knew me so well.

“They’re laced with ether ammo.”

“You little minx. You are trying to seduce me.”

“I’ve got a belt that has hidden interior sheaths, for easy access and hidden concealment.”

Closing the box and setting the daggers on top, I reached for my ammo pack and pulled out the pouch Cooper had just given me.

“How much do I owe you, beautiful?”

“The usual. Four drakuls for the ammo. The daggers are a gift.”

“A gift? And the patch?”

Bone didn’t give gifts.

She shrugged. “Just thinking you may need a little something more out there.”

“Oh, yeah? Why’s that?”

“Bellock is looking for you.”

I scoffed. “What does that Neanderthal want with me?”

I already had an inkling. Since his former master was killed on the night of the Blood Moon when the war began, he’d surely found another. Hard to believe it had only been a few months since that night. The ancient prophecy dragged the armies out of hell to confront those of heaven on the rolling fields of Dartmoor. In a clash of thousands—red-eyed demons, sword-wielding angels, black-scaled spawn, and multi-clawed beasts—descending on one another and ripping a hole in both worlds. The gates opened wide, creating a hell of earth where battle-and-blood or run-and-hide were the only two options for every creature left alive.

“If I had to guess, I’d say he wants to send you to Erebus.”

Erebus. The deepest pit of Hell where the truly damned go and never return. Well, almost never. That demon hunter Jude did. But he had help.

“Do I look like an angel to you?”

Bellock was an Angelus Retonsor—angel clipper. They hunted angels down and cut their wings, smudging out their power of Light.

“No.” She laughed. “You do not look like an angel.”

I handed over the four drakuls—silver medallions laced with otherworld power and the only currency used since the world went to shit. They were stamped with a roaring dragon on one side and a falling angel on the other. Paper money was a human invention that was meaningless to demonic and heavenly hosts. Drakuls invigorated any otherworlder with strength he or she may have lost in battle. No one knew who had sacrificed their own power to create this apocalyptic currency. No one cared. But everyone wanted it. Then I remembered and tossed over another drakul.

“Can you add in a pack of brimstone?”

“Sure.”

I packed away my ammo and the new set of daggers and the pack of brimstone when she tossed them to me. They weren’t regular cigarettes. They heightened a demon’s awareness and instincts, with a subtle tug toward the sensual senses as well. It helped someone like me, who should never let his guard down. I headed for the door.

“Dommiel.”

I shouldered my pack at the entrance with a glance back. “Yeah.”

“Take care of yourself.”

“Don’t worry about me, beautiful. I’ll be back so you can doctor me up again.”

With a wink, I headed back through the underground maze to the surface. As soon as I stepped out into the alley, an otherworldly pull wrenched my gut. I hadn’t felt that sensation in a while. Not since before the night of the Blood Moon when this whole shit-show began.

Genevieve called to me. Our blood vow meant I had to answer. The truth was, she was probably the only creature on this godforsaken planet I felt any sense of loyalty to.

“I’m coming, pretty Vessel.”

I sifted out of London, following the beacon to her.