Inferno of Darkness – J. L. Weil

I thought I had known pain before, felt the sting of loss, but nothing compared to being separated from Ashor—my mate. It was a constant ache that ate away deep within me like a nasty parasite resistant to any cure. A disease I had to learn to live with or the darkness of his loss would consume me. Perhaps I had always been broken, always had a slice of darkness. Perhaps that was why Ashor was my match in every way possible. I might never get the chance to know. Blood blanketed my fingers, dribbling thick and warm down my arms. White-hot pain lanced at my back, and I felt the skin break, mangled and oozing. The sharp metallic taste assaulted my nostrils and coated the back of my throat. I nearly gagged on it. “Again,” a silky voice ordered. I cringed at the sound of Kali’s voice—the Queen of Darkness. It made me want to behead her, and not a clean cut either. I wanted the bitch to feel every inch I sawed off her head, slowly and painfully, horns and all. It was a night I could never forget.

I was back in the Hall of Darkness, but it was me who was flogged by darkness, slashed over and over again—not Ashor. Coward. Weak. Liar. Coward. Weak. Liar. The demons within the court chanted. They moved in, their shouting growing louder as they closed in around me. They pinched my skin.

Nibbled on my flesh. Pulled at my hair. Sliced at my body with their razor-tipped nails. Tore at my clothes, leaving me exposed and defenseless. The torture was endless, morphing from one torment to the next, each as horrible as the last. It was not until I woke in the dead of the night, drenched in sweat and trembling, that the misery subsided. Well, not really. It was always there. Memories were not easy to forget, especially traumatic ones. But it was during those early mornings when the moon passed the torch to day that I realized these nightmares weren’t mine.

They were Ashor’s. And that was so much worse, knowing that my nightmares were his reality. It had to end. I had to stop it. There was no other choice. He might be a demon prince, and my feelings about him were confusing and neurotic, but he had saved me. He was mine. If only I had an idea of the challenges I would face, or the impact my bond to the Prince of Darkness would have on the future of worlds, not just mine or his, but those beyond both the mortal and the underworld. Releasing Ashor from the clutches of Hell might come at a high price, one I was not sure either of us could live with. But could we live without each other? D 1 rip.

Drip. Drip. I glanced down, seeing blood dripping onto my vanity, shattered glass scattered over the tabletop and my lap. The constant sound of my blood splattering filled the emptiness of my room. It paralleled the emptiness inside me. The glass bottle had shattered under my fingers, and I should have had some sort of reaction, felt something other than the dull throbbing at the back of my skull. At the very least, I should have been rushing to the bathroom for a cloth, soap, and water to clean up the mess. But I didn’t move. Instead, I lifted my eyes and stared at the pale-faced girl in the mirror. Her eyes were rimmed with gold that melded into the vibrant shade of aqua, cheeks were flushed, and lips poised into a tight line.

There was a hardness about her, an edge, as if any second she might jump over the cliff and plunge into the dark depths below. Over the last few weeks, I had rolled through the stages of grief, moving from shock to denial, then to pain and guilt, which brought me to rage. This stage seemed to hit me the hardest. I could not seem to move on to the next phase. I was just so fucking angry all the time. But it was the Crown of Darkness glittering like the ocean at night that changed me wholly. The crown was made with dark magic and here in the mortal realm was not a tangible object. My fingers could pass through the peaks, and no one else could see it— no one else except for Angel. Exhaling, I pulled my gaze away from the mirror and glanced back down at my hand. The bleeding had already stopped, leaving me with just the silence.

And the pulsing in my head. I wasn’t concerned about the cut on my hand. It would heal soon enough and had already started to stitch itself back together. Demon blood was handy in instances like this. What I was concerned about was the storm brewing inside me. Something would have to give. Shoving out of the chair, I flung open my bedroom window and stuck my head outside. The biting air of winter nipped at my cheeks, but I welcomed the cold, even if it was a painful reminder of him. I didn’t want to think his name. Thinking about the demon who was my mate only fueled the anger I so desperately wanted to rid myself of.

It was all-consuming, much like my desire for revenge on the demons who’d destroyed my ability to love. Opening my mouth, I screamed into the howling winds, releasing the fury building inside me. When I was done, I listened with my demon hearing as the icy air whisked away the echo of my pain. For a few more moments, I gazed out over the snow-dusted fields across the street from my home. Each flutter of snow that had fallen over the last month was like reopening a fresh wound, leaving me raw and exposed to the world. But nothing was worse than the night—the twinkling of stars. It would be easy to say that my life went back to normal. Well, as normal as life could be for me. I’d never had a mundane or dull existence. When you were half demon, those average days weren’t in the cards for someone like me—a Divisa.

There was no going back after what I’d experienced. There was only existing. Every day was a struggle. I liked to torture myself and sneak up on the roof to just lie there. It was the only time I actually got a few hours of uninterrupted sleep. My demon blood kept me from freezing to death; that and the heated blanket I wrapped around myself. Travis caught me out here shortly after I’d returned from my stint in the underworld. The disapproval had been written all over his face. “Are you kidding me, Lex?” he had scolded, and then promptly climbed through the window to join me. “Do you know how dangerous it is out here? The roof is blanketed in ice and snow.

” He had a valid point, but the spot I’d chosen to sit was covered by a little gable that shielded the shingles underneath it. I had also cushioned the roof with a thick blanket. “Not to mention, it’s cold as balls out here.” He proceeded to shiver, running his hands up and down his arms as his breath clouded in front of his face. My brother and I shared many similarities, mostly in looks. His sandy-blond hair was disheveled like he’d spent the past hour raking his hands through it. Our personalities were night and day though. He never took anything seriously and always looked like he was part of some joke none of us were in on, but I could always count on him. So I had just tugged my legs up to my chest and rested my chin on the top of my kneecaps. “It’s the only place I can sleep,” I told him.

He draped an arm around my shoulders and scooted closer to me. “After witnessing that place firsthand, I can understand that.” No one liked to talk about the Court of Darkness. Not because they didn’t want to or weren’t curious, but because they were afraid I would fall apart. Again. It was a legitimate fear. I rested my head on his shoulder. “Thanks, Travis.” That had been the last time he expressed his worry about me going out on the icy roof. If he happened to pass my bedroom in the middle of the night, or if he saw me from the driveway after coming home from Emma’s house, he would come to sit with me and not say a thing.

It was exactly what I needed, just to know he was there. My dad was another story. He didn’t know what to do about me, how to help me. I tried to explain this wasn’t something he could fix, but he was my father. And my pain was his. If he knew what was really going on inside me, he’d probably have me committed. When it came to Dad and Chloe, I did my best to mask the truth from them. They had already been put through so much, especially raising two half demons. It was past time Dad got to be happy. I wouldn’t take that from him.

It took weeks for my family to stop looking at me as if they expected me to freak out at any minute. But could I really blame them? I had given them every reason to worry about me. I’d been a wreck since my trip to the underworld. And that was putting it mildly. Between the countless tears and the strange stirrings inside I didn’t want to admit were there, I was a hot mess—unhinged. Just when I thought there wasn’t any more fluid in my body for my eyes to shed, another tear would escape. But a month had come and gone. Christmas along with it, not that I had celebrated. My favorite holiday, the one on which I couldn’t wait to rush downstairs and unwrap all those shiny new packages, was nothing but a blur of colored lights. I hadn’t left the house.

I didn’t shop. I didn’t make cookies. I didn’t blare Christmas carols through the house. I was Lexi Scrooge this year. Ho. Ho. Hell. Panting, I curled my fingers against the windowsill as the wind rushed over my face, drinking in the crisp scent before slamming the window shut and sinking down to the ground. I concentrated on the flow of my breathing. In and out.

In and out. In and out. With each long inhale and exhale, I shoved the anger deeper inside me until I no longer felt as if I would explode. Twenty minutes later, a car pulled up into the driveway. Gravel crushed under tires as headlights beamed through my room. That would be Dad and Chloe. Travis was at Emma’s. He seemed to spend more time there than he did at home. I couldn’t help but think that was because of me. How could I blame him? I was a buzzkill.

Sighing through my nose, I stood up and went to the bathroom to splash water on my face. I twisted my neck to the side, catching a glimpse of the tattoo that graced my nape, a pair of black wings that stretched to my shoulders. I touched the left tip of the wing and frowned at the cool wisp of tingles that radiated into my fingers—darkness. It was a demon mark that claimed me as another’s. But there was more. Something dark ribboned in my veins, and it unnerved me. I hadn’t heard from Ashor, not that I had actually believed I would. Hell didn’t exactly get text messages or have FaceTime capabilities. We had no way to communicate. Even our bond would somehow allow me to… I don’t know… talk to him? In my thoughts, perhaps? But no.

Nothing. Nada. Not a single message from the underworld. Maybe that was what was eating me alive. I had no way of knowing what had happened to Ashor. Where he was. Had the queen exiled him? Was he gravely injured? Had he been able to heal? I knew some powers, like Soren’s, could prevent a demon from healing. The idea was terrifying. But the one question I refused to ask was if he’d survived. I couldn’t go there, couldn’t think of him as truly dead.

A part of my soul would be gone as well. I consoled myself by telling myself I would know if he was gone. The mark would fade. As I stood, looking in the mirror, the black ink etched into my skin was vibrant and pulsed with energy. Ashor Clave, the Prince of Darkness, was very much alive. That was what kept me going. “Lexi!” a soft, feminine voice called from downstairs. “We’re home!” Drying off my hands, I padded across the room, flipping on the hallway light. It was time to put on that false smile and force myself to consume dinner. Food was a chore.

It had lost all taste. Just a substance I needed to keep my body going. Dad and Chloe were in the kitchen unloading Chinese takeout onto the kitchen table. Dad flipped around to grab silverware from the drawer and spotted me leaning in the doorway. “Hey. We brought dinner.” “I can see that,” I said, with a forced smile. It hurt my cheeks. “It’s from that place in town you love,” he added in hopes of brightening my mood, which meant I wasn’t doing a palpable job at faking it. Spring Valley really only had one Chinese restaurant, so it was everyone’s favorite, but I only gave him another small smile.

“Smells good.” I moved into the kitchen, grabbing a few plates and bringing them to the table. “Travis is at Emma’s, so it is just the three of us,” Chloe said cheerfully, setting the open cartons of food onto the table. She sometimes exaggerated to compensate for my shitty mood, as if she was hoping to infuse me with happiness through food or by osmosis. She meant well and cared for me. I couldn’t fault her for that. “He should just move in with her already,” I replied, scooping a forkful of noodles out of the white carton as I took a seat. Dad scooted the chair out beside Chloe and sat down. “Don’t get my hopes up,” he mumbled. My time away had aged him.

More gray hair gathered in his scruffy chin hairs and at the temples, but he was still attractive for a dad. My older brother, Travis, still lived at home, much to my father’s chagrin. And mine. Travis was understanding, sometimes to a fault, yet continued to be a constant thorn in my side. I knew he stayed to look after me, but he seriously needed to start living his own life. Prior to my kidnapping, he had been talking about moving in with Emma, his longtime girlfriend and one of my best friends. He and I were going to have a little chat. Travis could no longer put this on the back burner. If my trip to the underworld taught me one thing, it was not to waste time. You never knew when it was all going to be ripped away from you, including the people you cared about.

And I loved my brother. I wanted him to be happy, and his demon-hunting girlfriend did just that. “I’ll talk to him,” I announced, grabbing an eggroll and a packet of sweet and sour sauce. Dad glanced at me and blinked, an expression of surprise on his features. “I think that would be good.”

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