Read Devil’s Kiss Online

Authors: Zoe Archer

Tags: #Romance, #General, #Paranormal, #Fiction

Devil’s Kiss (5 page)

“So, what say you, gentlemen?” Mr. Holliday stepped back and opened his arms wide, a host welcoming guests into luxurious accommodations. “Will you permit me to show you my gratitude by granting each of you your heart’s desire?”
The tiny wisp of light grew agitated and swooped around Mr. Holliday. He glared at it before backhanding the little gleam. It careened into a wall, then slid to the ground, dimming. What was that thing?
“Everything you ever wanted, my dearest Hellraisers.” Mr. Holliday was all polished courtesy again, his voice both calming and smoothly persuasive. “It shall be yours. All I need is your permission.”
Whit searched in himself, trying to reason his way toward understanding what was being offered. Yet he could not make his mind sharpen. He would reach toward a question, a thought, and the thoughts kept slipping away. He brought to mind Zora, how she read him so quickly and with such clarity. He tried to mentally call her up, her precision of thought, her judgment. He could not—she glimmered beyond his reach. All he knew was that the gift being proffered was too great, the persuasive qualities of Mr. Holliday’s voice too seductive to gainsay. Whit could command the odds as he chose—no gambler could ask for more.
What might he win?
Whom
might he win?
He felt the movement of his neck as he nodded, and saw his friends nod, as well. “Yes,” they said in unison.
Mr. Holliday beamed, and the women clapped. “Marvelous. And to seal the bond, I require the smallest token from each of you.” He snapped his fingers.
Five men suddenly appeared, all of them dressed as fine as courtiers, all of them seemingly young and hale, just as Whit and his friends were young and hale. Yet though the men had appeared out of thin air, Whit could not find anything particularly remarkable about their appearance. He tried to look at these newcomers in the face, but every time he did, his gaze simply ... slid away, as if guided.
One of the men came to stand in front of Whit. He held out a hand.
Whit understood. He was to give the token to this courtier.
A voice within him shouted,
No! This is not right.
But that voice grew muddied and dim, driven away by a shadowed tide.
For a moment, Whit deliberated what to give the courtier. He thought of his pocket watch. Nothing he possessed had such worth. Monetarily, it would bring almost nothing, for it was old, dented, hardly the latest in the horologist’s art. Yet the watch’s value was beyond measuring, for it had belonged to his father, and his father’s father. The only true connection he had with his past. He rebelled at the idea of giving it away, even to gain power over chance.
“It needn’t be something so important to you as your timepiece,” said Mr. Holliday. “Something inconsequential will suffice.”
A relief. With a swift tug, Whit pulled a silver button from his coat, then handed it to the man before him. Though Whit could not truly see the courtier’s face, Whit felt the man’s satisfaction as his fingers closed over the button. Throughout the chamber, the scene was enacted four more times. Bram, Leo, Edmund, and John. They all handed over unimportant objects—the ribbon binding Bram’s hair, Leo’s snuffbox, a stickpin from John, Edmund’s handkerchief—and the courtiers who received the tokens pocketed them.
“Wonderful,” said Mr. Holliday. A glow emanated from his black stone ring. It rose up from the ring, then broke apart into five separate lights. Whit did not have time to duck or move aside as one of the lights shot straight toward him, just as the other lights shot toward each of his friends. The light hit him straight in the center of his chest, making him stagger. A cold radiance spread through Whit’s body, seeping outward, until he felt burning ice in every vein, every bone, followed immediately by a surge of energy and strength.
The feeling was intoxicating, galvanizing. Whit became aware of the beat of his heart, the breath in his lungs, his muscles bunching and stretching, his every nerve acutely sensitive. Powerfully alive. The voice inside him, crying out that all this was wrong, went very, very quiet. As though strangled.
“Splendid.” Mr. Holliday’s smile widened until it stretched nearly from ear to ear. “My congratulations, fine sirs. You have made an excellent bargain.” He laughed.
Whit laughed, as well. He could not stop himself. It burst from him without warning and without end. He felt unlike himself. Wild, reckless. Capable of anything.
Bram, Leo, John, and Edmund also laughed. Triumphant. The five friends united in conquest, for they knew that now no obstacles stood in their path. Their voices sounded odd—as though they were instruments played by strange hands.
“Stop!”
Whit jerked as a familiar feminine voice rang out. He turned to see Zora running into the chamber, her skirt swirling, her braid undone so that her hair flew wildly as she ran. As she entered the chamber, she started in surprise, gazing at the elaborately decorated room. She skidded to a halt, gasping for breath, and Whit realized she held a piece of bread in one hand, a knife in the other.
The will-o’-the-wisp flared back to life again, then shot out the same door through which Zora had entered. At the same time, the five courtiers vanished.
Dark eyes wide, Zora stared at Mr. Holliday. Fear tightened her lovely face. And when she looked at Whit, the fear drained away, replaced by profound sorrow.
“Oh,
Duvvel
,” she breathed. “I’m too late.”
 
 
Zora did not consider herself one of the faithful, yet she had prayed without cessation as she had run to the site of the ruin. Her legs had ached, her side had burned—she was far more familiar with riding a horse than running—yet she had forced herself on, determined to prevent disaster from happening. Hope had withered when she found the
gorgios
’ five horses impatiently stamping at the base of the hill. She had charged up the slope, even though all of her senses told her it was a place to be shunned. A miasma clung to the ruin, cold, malevolent. She had found no sign of the men wandering amongst the shattered marble and toppled stone. Zora had clung to the slightest shred of fortune that perhaps they had grown bored and wandered off on foot in search of other amusements.
Then she had found the doorway leading into the hill, and hope had died.
Men’s voices had drifted up to her as she debated for half a moment. She felt it, the strong, dark power over that place, and it hummed through her body like dread. All the fairy tales she had heard and dismissed as
hokibens
, nonsense, they came back to her in a rush. She recalled one, a favorite of hers as a girl, where a princess journeyed through the underworld to rescue the enchanted prince. The princess had faced awful peril, many trials against a powerful foe. In that story, though, as in all the other tales, goodness triumphed over evil. Zora had to believe she would do the same.
With her heart pounding painfully, she had drawn her knife, pulled the bread from her pocket, and descended the ancient stairs. She did not know what to expect. A crude stone chamber. The relics of an ancient shrine.
Instead, she now found herself in the most ornate room she had ever seen. It was the kind of room
gorgios
liked and the Rom avoided, full of heavy, golden furniture and walls covered with elaborate carvings that resembled rotting vegetation. A choking prison of a room, gaudy and too bright. She couldn’t believe what the tapestries hanging on the walls showed, either. Things she knew were physically, if not morally, impossible. In addition to the images of women engaged in licentious pursuits, there were actual strumpets everywhere, hanging like vines off of sofas—and off of men.
Her
man. He wasn’t
hers
, but she couldn’t help but think of him as such.
Whit and his friends were here, in this awful chamber. Waves of sinister energy flowed out from them like contagion. Even Whit radiated this malignant force, and she shriveled inside to see it in him. Whit looked exactly the same, but he was changed, deeply changed.
A man dressed in black wore a ghastly smile. No, he was not a man, but
Wafodu guero
himself. Zora never believed there could be an embodiment of evil. She thought it a story told to children or the gullible, looking for something or someone on whom they could blame their misdeeds. Yet here it was. Here
he
was. And she stood in the same chamber with him as breath burned in her lungs and throat. She felt the truth of her body recovering from its sprint, and this convinced her that she was painfully, miserably awake. The look on his face was triumphant.
She had been too slow.
“Why,
pireno
?” She turned to Whit, and her blood froze to see the fever burning in his blue eyes. Even beneath the glare of the chandeliers, he remained as arrestingly handsome as he had beside the campfire, maybe even more so, all the clean lines of his face, the strength of his form completely revealed. Now that masculine beauty held a great wickedness, a wickedness greater than before, for this was not one man’s wasteful pursuits, but the loss of his soul. A loss he did not yet comprehend.
“Because
I want
,” he answered her in his rich, deep voice. His eyes raked over her, bold, intent—utterly altered from the way he had looked at her back at the encampment. He was the same, but a different man gazed at her from behind Whit’s eyes. The trollop hanging on him giggled.
Zora stormed over and pushed the woman off of him. The tart hissed at Zora as she slunk away, but Zora only looked at Whit. “You don’t know what you’ve done.”
His friends chuckled, and the one with black hair rumbled, “We know
exactly
what we’ve done.”
Whit only stared down at her like a shadowed blade. She felt the gulf between them widen. He had done it. Given himself over to a terrible power. He could not possibly understand what this meant, for if he did, surely a man as intelligent as he would never have done it. Trickery of some kind. The Devil was an expert in trickery. Because of his deception, he now possessed five new souls. Including Whit’s.
No, she refused to admit defeat. She whirled to face the creature clad in black satin, the thing with eyes of ice and a ravenous smile. Though her hand trembled, she held her knife aloft in one hand, the bread in the other. She would have no allies here. She was alone. Anger and fear surged through her as she stalked to him.
“Undo it,” she demanded, hoping her voice did not shake too much.
“Undo what?” the wicked creature asked mildly.
“Whatever it is you’ve done to him.” Now her voice was shrill. “To them. Undo it; take it back.”
“My sweet
mushi
,” he said, and it startled her to hear him speak the Romani tongue. He spread his white hands. “They merely accepted gifts of gratitude, and of their own free will.”
“There is always a price,” she fired back. Hoping that the weapon gave her some advantage, Zora brandished her knife. “I demand that you release these men and go back to wherever you came from. Or I shall cut you.”
Wafodu guero
sighed, then gazed disdainfully at the knife. Zora’s hand spasmed. The knife was pulled from her grip by an unseen force. Her weapon flew across the chamber, looking like a child’s flimsy toy, before clattering onto the ground. Zora’s heart dropped.
“Truly, did you anticipate your fragile mortal metalwork might pose some threat to me?” The beast sounded quite amused.
If a weapon could not harm the creature, perhaps ancient belief could. Zora waved the piece of bread as one might wave a torch, feinting toward
Wafodu guero
’s smirking face.
Yet he did not move, did not shrink back. Only sneered. “And
that
is an insult to my power.” He rolled his eyes. “Really, this strains my patience.” Another pointed glance from him, and two half-dressed trollops suddenly leapt upon Zora, grabbing her arms. The useless piece of bread fell to the floor. He kicked it away, and light from the chandelier made the jeweled buckle on his shoe glimmer.
Zora’s muscles screamed in agony as she tried to break free from the women’s hold. The harlots’ plump, soft bodies were deceiving, for the women gripped Zora with a vicious strength, their nails digging through the fabric of Zora’s sleeves to cut into the flesh beneath. They hissed into her ears, their breath heavy and sweet like rotten flowers. Zora drove her heels against the women’s knees and thighs, but they would not release her. No way to get free. She fought on, twisting and pulling as hard as she was able.
“Such a wild little thing,” murmured
Wafodu guero
. He turned to the assembled men, who had been watching the proceedings with bemused interest. “What shall we do with her, eh, lads? So fierce. So lovely.” Casually, he strolled to Zora. She tried to shrink away, to no avail, and he ran one fingertip down her arm.
Zora shuddered at the burning cold of his touch. She wrenched herself to one side, trying to break the contact. The women held her fast, though, one of them gripping the back of her head, so she was forced to endure the loathsome touch. Zora felt defiled.

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