Authors: Sidney Ayers
Tags: #Fiction, #Romance, #Fantasy, #Paranormal
Copyright © 2011 by Sidney Ayers
Cover and internal design © 2011 by Sourcebooks, Inc.
Cover design by Jamie Warren/Loose Change Studio
Cover images © Comstock; Stephen Youll
Sourcebooks and the colophon are registered trademarks of Sourcebooks, Inc.
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any form or by any electronic or mechanical means including information storage and retrieval systems—except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews—without permission in writing from its publisher, Sourcebooks, Inc.
The characters and events portrayed in this book are fictitious or are used fictitiously. Any similarity to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental and not intended by the author.
Published by Sourcebooks Casablanca, an imprint of Sourcebooks, Inc.
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“What do you mean the chest is missing?” Rafael Deleon managed through gritted teeth.
Even though the clacking of boots on the polished black marble grated his nerves, he continued to pace the expansive room. Candlelight flickered and flitted, sending silhouettes darting against the ivory walls.
What about his sister? Jacoba had all but begged to join the guard, even though he’d pleaded with her not to. Unfortunately, Jacoba didn’t need his approval. She won the Fore-Demon Council over, instead.
Dominic Duvane, shrouded in darkness, stood solitary in the corner of the High Council chamber. A forlorn expression was etched across his face, adding to the already foreboding mood. The news was worse than Rafael had imagined.
Dominic drew in a ragged gulp of air. “The guards were ambushed.”
“Who?” He shook his head. He didn’t even need to ask the question. Belial, the bastard prince of northern regions of Hell.
“Belial’s Infernati warriors. Have a seat, my friend.” Dominic motioned to the burgundy jacquard and gilt divan in the far recess of the room.
Rafael’s heart sank. Dominic meant to talk to him as a comrade and not a colleague. This didn’t bode well. He clenched his fists. He couldn’t panic. To do so would show weakness. He needed to be strong—or at least appear so.
“The Infernati swooped in and torched the encampment.” His friend’s gaze grew somber. “I suggest sitting, Rafe.”
Rafael folded his arms and raised his chin. “I’ll stand.” He’d receive the news like a man, not a coward. “Say whatever you need to say, my liege.”
Dominic growled. “I might outrank you, but I’ll be damned if I let you call me
Rafael shrugged. “Too bad we’re already damned, Nic.”
“The chest was to be our salvation.” Dominic blew out an exasperated breath. “Bloody hell, Rafe. Why must you be so stubborn?”
“It runs in the family.”
Dominic grabbed him by the arms, his eyes blazing. “Your sister was captured.”
“She isn’t dead. Our connection isn’t severed.”
Dominic nodded. “Yes, but who knows what tortures Belial has bestowed upon her.” His gaze hardened and he clenched his fists. Jaw ticking, he paced. “I begged her not to join. I stood by you.”
Rafael shook his head. “Coby wouldn’t take no for an answer. Even if the council forbade her, she would’ve found a way.”
Fighting the thought of his beautiful sister, with her magnificent flowing silver hair and enchanting silver eyes at Belial’s mercy, Rafael crossed his arms in front of his chest. “What happened to her?”
“Coby’s a hero.” Dominic’s jaw twitched, the demon blood tears rimming his eyes. “She managed to send the chest away before the guards could take it.”
A soft smile curved his lips. Leave it to Coby to save the chest instead of saving herself. Despite his despair, he was still proud of his twin sister. However, he wasn’t in the mood for Dominic to divert his questions. His gaze grew stern. “Where is she?”
“I guess I shouldn’t hide the truth…”
Rafael arched a brow and leaned against the wall. “Well?”
Dominic sucked in a ragged breath, sending candles flickering. “This hurts me as much as you, you know.”
His friend nodded. “My sources report she’s in Belial’s dungeon.”
Rafael clenched his fists as he held his anguish inside. Grinding his teeth, he paced. Bloody hell. Only a few of the strongest Paladin warriors had escaped that hellhole, but they were never quite the same after.
“Where did she send the chest?” he managed.
“Earth.” Dominic flashed a halfhearted smile, his eyes wide and alert. “Your favorite place.”
He didn’t even want to think about the chest being opened on Earth. Belial already controlled half the underworld—what would happen if he took over Earth too? But Rafael had to save Coby first. The Paladin needed her. She’d been the one the Fore-Demons had prophesied.
“Too bad I’ll be busy vanquishing Belial’s buffoons.” Rafael stood firm, holding his chin proud. “My sister needs me.”
Dominic shook his head. “No, I’m afraid not. You’ve been ordered to retrieve the chest.” His black eyes grew stony serious. “I’ll save Coby.”
“Ridiculous!” Rafael stormed. He gritted his teeth and clenched his fists. “She’s my sister. I need to rescue her. Why should you go?”
Dominic drew his lips into a straight line, his nostrils flaring. “Because I…” He wrenched himself around. “I ordered her to attend to the chest, so the Fore-Demons assigned me to her rescue. It’s
“She’s my blood. That should trump duty.” Rafael steepled his fingers. Why must the Fore-Demons do this? They knew how much he cared for his twin.
“They make their decisions for a reason, Rafe.” Dominic turned to face him, blood tears threatening to spill. “In the end, everything will fall into place. I’ll see to it.”
“Where on Earth is the chest?”
Rafael grimaced. He remembered the last time he’d traveled to Earth for such a large mission. He’d been sent to quell an outbreak of Infernati possessions during the early eighteen hundreds. And those clergymen thought they’d done all the work. Earth wasn’t all bad, if you could ignore the mortals and their easily tempted ways.
Not that temptation didn’t serve a purpose. As a Paladin Demon, he was taught only to tempt when times were dire. The Infernati, however, chose to be a bit more overzealous with the skill. Money, sex, drugs, and alcohol, to name a few. He’d learned his lesson with temptation—a skill he wanted to live without.
“You know what happened the last time I was sent to Earth for such a large mission.”
Dominic shrugged. “I’m sure you’ll remind me. You always do.”
“Miss Amanda Newell.”
The other demon rolled his eyes. “So you slept with a human. Demons do that all the time.”
No matter how hard he tried to forget the past, it always came back to haunt him. The time he used temptation for his own good. “She died because I tempted her. I killed her.”
“That was two hundred years ago. Times have changed on Earth. Why, they even have horseless carriages now.”
Rafael rolled his eyes this time. “I know what the world is like. I haven’t completely closed myself off. Even with all their technology and fancy cars and airplanes, one thing remains the same.”
“Humans are still human.”
When Lucia Gregory became a cosmetologist, she never expected this. Here she was, sitting over a bubbling footbath, scraping the calluses off Mrs. Gunderson’s bunion-ridden feet and sandblasting her thick, yellow toenails.
Thank goodness for the soothing scent of lavender foot scrub and the protection of latex gloves. This wasn’t what she had in mind, at all. But when your nail tech calls in sick again, what can you do? Grin and bear it. Bearing it was easy. The grinning part she still needed to work on.
“There you go, Mrs. Gunderson,” she said, a wide smile pasted on her face. “You’re all set.” With a quick pat of the towel, Lucia—Lucy to her friends—dried the woman’s feet. Feet that shouldn’t be seen in public.
“Oh dear, you’ve got it all wrong.” Her voice, high and whiny, would make fingernails on a chalkboard sound like a symphony.
“Standard pedicure, Mrs. G.” Lucy ripped off the rubber gloves, powder flying, and threw them into the wastebasket.
Mrs. Gunderson huffed and crossed her arms. “Suzie always gives me a paraffin bath.”
“That’s a deluxe pedicure,” she replied, pointing up to the pricing chart that hung on the wall.
“Suzie ain’t ever charged me extra.”
Suzie ain’t here, damn it!
“Okay, Mrs. G.”
The door jingled open. Lucy turned her head. In sauntered her 1:30 customer. Then again, was she really even a customer? In some circles, she’d be called a best friend.
“Hey Lucy, I’m home!” Serah said in her worst Ricky Ricardo accent.
Lucy stifled the urge to roll her eyes. Yeah, Serah’s jokes were lame, but she still loved her. “What up, Serah Bear?”
“I need a wax.” She paused. “Oh, I also came across the coolest chest at the antique store.”
Mrs. Gunderson shook her foot and huffed. “Where’s my paraffin?”
She wasn’t ready to have a full-blown argument with a woman who could use her feet as weapons of mass destruction, so Lucy called over to her second-in-command, who lounged in a dryer seat reading the latest in celebrity dirt. “Frankie, hook Mrs. Gunderson up with a paraffin bath, please. My appointment just came in.”
Tossing his magazine, Frankie huffed. “Appointment, my flaming ass. She visits us more than a government official visits a high-priced harlot.” The mixture of effeminacy and southern flair rolled from his mouth like honey.
With a dramatic flip of her brunette curls, Serah put her hands on her hips and whipped off her Dolce frames, her sapphire eyes sparkling. “Do not!”
Frankie mimicked Serah and sashayed back and forth. “Do too, hon.”
“Yeah, whatever, Frank.” Serah gave Frankie an over-dramatic glare. “You know you want me. When you gonna get back in the closet, big boy?”
“The apocalypse could come, and I’d still wave my rainbow flag. Sorry, toots,” Frankie smirked.
Mrs. Gunderson shook her edema-swollen cankle in front of Lucy’s face. “Can someone just dip my feet, please?”
Frankie sighed. “Right away, Mrs. Gunderson.” Glaring, he swiveled to face Lucy. With a point of his always manicured finger, he mouthed, “You owe me—big time.”
He assisted Mrs. Gunderson from the foot spa and led her to the private room where the paraffin bath was located. Poor Frankie. She did owe him. He could have tomorrow off. That always worked.
Serah shook her head. “Why are all the cool ones either gay or already married?”
“Because that’s life,
.” Lucy ambled toward the shampoo bowls and reached up to the shelf where they kept the wax. “So do you want me to tame those wild bushes or what?”
Serah ran her fingers against her eyebrows. “Are they that bad?”
“Whoever said the Amazon was the biggest rainforest in the world hasn’t had the opportunity to explore the wild recesses of your brows.”
“Whatever!” With a roll of her eyes, Serah whacked Lucy’s arm. She plopped into the chair and leaned back. “Work your magic, girl.”
“Sit back,” Lucy said as she swirled the wooden spatula in the gooey mass of wax.
Taking the spatula, she spread a layer of wax in between Serah’s eyes. Those eyes always made her jealous, all sapphire and sparkling. Lucy’s hazels did nothing special at all. Smacking the wax strip down, Lucy smirked. With a firm grip, she ripped the strip off.
“Sorry.” Gazing down at the strip, she inspected her handiwork. Success!
Serah chuckled. “No, you’re not.”
“Got me there.” Lucy lined her brow with another thin layer of wax. “So you got another dusty old antique for your collection, eh?” With the same gusto as before, she yanked the strip off.
Lucy’s friend yelped. “I should’ve had Frankie wax me.”
“Too bad he’s already got his hands dipped in wax elsewhere.”
Serah drew in a deep breath. “I swear you enjoy torturing him.” She leaned back more as Lucy prepared to deforest the other eyebrow. “As for the chest, it has an inscription carved in old Latin.”
Latin—Lucy’s least favorite subject in high school. Not because she failed, but because she was able to pronounce and read the language better than any of the nuns in Catholic school. And she wasn’t afraid to correct them either.
Talk about getting your habit caught in a knot.
“So you want me to read it?”
“Yeah, remember how bad I was at Latin?”
How could she forget? Imagine that, someone of Italian descent who wasn’t able to decipher a lick of Latin. Lucy pulled off the strip, a little gentler this time. “It probably says, ‘When in Rome, get the hell out.’”
“Ha-ha! Funny.” Serah’s gaze searched hers. “Something about that chest draws me to it.” She heaved a sigh. “If only I could open it. It’s locked.”
Grabbing a pair of tweezers from the shelf, Lucy shook her head. “You got ripped off. A locked box with no key?”
“I bought it as a conversation piece, but when I got home I just had to look inside.” Serah winced as Lucy plucked the remaining hairs. “Are you almost done?”
“Yeah.” Lucy shoved a mirror at her. “How’s that?”
“Perfect. So you’ll look at it?”
Lucy arched a brow. Serah’s odd interest in this chest piqued hers. “Umm… if it’s locked, how will we open it?”
“I meant the inscription, you dork.” Serah thrust the mirror at her and bounced from the chair. “I think it will tell us how to open the chest.”
Taking a deep breath, Lucy nodded. “Yeah, okay. Meet me here at nine.”
“Thanks girl. I owe you one.”
“Yeah, sure.” She’d just add another item to the long list of things Serah still owed her for.
After two hours of sweeping the floors and cleaning the stations, Lucy flopped down into the dryer seat. Taking a swig of warm Coke, she grimaced. Where was the Captain Morgan when she really needed it? She picked up the tabloid Frankie had been reading earlier and thumbed through the pages. So-and-so’s hidden baby bump, someone caught at the beach with someone else, the drunken socialite who went commando and bared all to the paparazzi, the professional bowler who had fifteen mistresses. Each week, everything was the same. Only the names had changed.
The soft rap on the back door broke Lucy’s thoughts. Glancing at the clock, she sighed. Punctual as always. Serah was never late. Throwing the tabloid trash on the stand next to the dryer, Lucy bounded from the seat and walked toward the door.
There stood Serah, her arms wrapped around a huge chest. It had to be at least three feet wide and just as tall. How she managed to lug the thing would remain a mystery to Lucy. She looked like she would tip over at any minute. She unlocked the door and let her friend in.
“Whoa! You carried that all the way from your car?”
Nodding, Serah toddled into the shop. “The chest isn’t as heavy as it seems. I think it’s empty. Where can I put it?”
“I suppose here,” Lucy said, pointing to the reception desk. “Let me clear it off.” She picked up the display of hair products and set everything on the floor next to the desk.
Serah took in a deep breath and grunted as she tried to set the old chest on the desk.
Lucy rushed over and grabbed the other end.
“Let me help.” Tingles of electricity traveled from her fingers through her arms and chest down to her legs and feet. Her toes twitched. Her hand fell away, and the chest landed on the desk with a deafening thud.
Serah’s mouth fell open. “Hey, that cost me a lot of money!”
“Your box just electrocuted me!” Lucy retorted, her fingers still tingling.
“It did not.” Serah crossed her arms in front of her.
She gazed down at her fingers and gasped.
What the freaking hell?
“I see, so I am supposed to be gentle with your box, while it’s allowed to send jolts of electricity through my body. Look!” Lucy thrust her hands toward her, showing Serah her singed fingertips. “Well?”
“Maybe it’s hair dye from earlier.” Serah threw her head back in laughter. “And stop calling it
. It weirds me out.”
“Whatever. Let me see this
so I can set sail with Captain Morgan. It’s been a long day.”
Serah shrugged. “Fine by me, if I can stow away.”
“The captain says, ‘Aye aye. The more the merrier.’” Lucy hunched over the chest and rubbed her fingers across the lid. Tingly, but not as tingly as before. Wiping two hundred years of dirt and dust from the chest, she had her first look. Along with the fading inscription, weird symbols dotted the lid. Then she discovered a title etched deep into the sturdy oaken chest. A box with a title? Strange, indeed. Almost as strange as the hieroglyphics decorated all over the lid.
” Lucy said. Now if that wasn’t a title to try and scare someone away, she didn’t know what was.
“Arca what?” Serah’s blank expression filled her face. “What’s that mean?”
“It means Chest of the…” Lucy thought long and hard about the last word, and then Dante’s
came blazing back at her. “Damned.”
Lucy nodded. “Yes, damned. It was probably designed by some over-devout monk wanting to scare mankind into repenting for their sins. I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a ‘Made in Rome’ stamp on the bottom.”
Serah wasn’t amused. “Whatever. Just read the inscription.”
Lucy wiped away more grime and traced her fingertip over the words. Stronger tingles zipped through her body. “It must be equipped with a security system. Every time I touch it, I get zapped.”
“Doesn’t happen to me,” Serah replied nonchalantly.
“Guess it’s my electric personality.” She leaned over the chest and began translating the inscription.
“At the beginning of the total eclipse of the winter moon, shall this chest be opened only by one of demon blood. They shall call forth the legions of the underworld. By the power of this one demon will Earth be theirs.”
Lucy shook her head. “Yep, it’s a hoax. I hope you get your money back.”
“Oh my God!” Serah exclaimed, oblivious to Lucy’s words.
Bemusement filled Lucy. Her gaze narrowed. “Oh my God, what?”
“There’s supposed to be a total lunar eclipse tomorrow night!” Giddy laughter burst from her lips. “This will be so cool!”
It was as if they were kids again and this was their first sleepover. Only they weren’t kids. Lucy was pushing thirty and Serah wasn’t far behind.
Rolling her eyes, Lucy shook her head.
Here comes another one of Serah’s harebrained ideas.
“Even if what the inscription says is real, what part of ‘Only by one of demon blood’ do you not understand?”
“There’s a demon inside me,” Serah replied.
Oh brother, Serah and her demons. “But you usually shut the bitch up with chocolate.”
“Even so, wouldn’t it be fun to at least try and open it?”
“Whatever,” Lucy replied with a shrug. “If you want to wait until tomorrow for me to translate the inscription better, that’s fine.”
“Demons in a box, how cool.”
“Yeah, cool. Too bad demons don’t exist.”