Dante Valentine Book 5 - To Hell and BackLilith Saintcrow
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Dante Valentine Book 5
To Hell and Back
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Copyright © 2008
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For Nicholas Deangelo. Peace. Another charm's wound up.
Tempt not a desperate man.
Romeo & Juliet
I was a-trembling because I'd got to decide forever betwixt two things, and I knowed it. I studied for a minute, sort of holding my breath, and then says to myself, "All right, then, I'll go to hell."
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"There is more than one way to break a human," he said, softly. "Especially a human woman."
I hung between sky and ground, the constellations of Hell overhead and sterile rock underneath, the icy inhuman heat of a place far removed from my own world lapping at my skin. I had come looking for my own clean death in battle, and found this instead. This indignity.
The Devil doesn't believe in killing you, if you can be made to serve.
I will not scream. The world narrowed, became a single point of light as the writhing claws slipped below my flesh and the wet sounds of the thing that would break me to his will echoed against stone walls. I will not scream. I will not give in.
I did scream. I screamed until my voice broke itself again as the scar on my shoulder woke with frigid hot pain, my body healing even as he tore at me. I fought as hard as I could. I am no stranger to fighting, I have fought all my life.
None of it mattered. Nothing mattered.
I died there. In Hell.
It was the only way to escape something worse.
Darkness closed velvet over me, broken only by the flame of a scar burning, burning, against my shoulder. I do not know how I wrenched myself free, I only know that I did, before the last and worst could be done to me. But not soon enough.
I heard myself scream, one last cry that shattered into pieces before I escaped to the only place left to me, welcome unconsciousness.
As I fell.
Cold. Wherever I was, it was cold. Hardness underneath me. I heard a low buzzing sound and passed out again, sliding away from consciousness like a marble on a reactive-greased slope. The buzzing followed, became a horde of angry bees inside my head, a deep and awful rattling whirr shaking my teeth loose, splitting my bones with hot lead.
The buzzing faded, receding bit by bit like waves sliding away from a rocky shore. I moaned again, rolled over.
My cheek pressed chill hardness. Tears trickled hot out of my eyes. My shields shivered, rent and useless, a flooding tide of sensation and thought from the outside world roaring through my brain as I convulsed, instinct pulling my tissue-thin defenses together, drowning in the current. Where was I?
I had no prayers left.
Even if I'd had one, there would be no answer. The ultimate lesson of a life spent on the edge of Power and violence-when the chips are down, sunshine, you're on your own.
Slowly, so slowly, I regained my balance. A flood of human thought smashed rank and foul against my broken shields, roaring through my head, and I pushed it away with a supreme effort, trying to think. I made my eyes open. Dark shapes swirled, coalesced. I heard more, a low noise of crowds and hovertraffic, formless, splashing like the sea. Felt a tingle and trickle of Power against my skin.
h, gods. Remind me not to do that again. Whatever it was. The thought sounded like me, the tough, rational, practical me, over a deep screaming well of panic.
What happened to me?
Am I hungover?
That made me laugh. It was unsteady, hitching, tired hilarity edged with broken glass, but I welcomed it. If I was laughing, I was okay.
Not really. I would never be okay again. My mind shuddered, flinching away from ... something. Something terrible. Something I could not think about if I wanted to keep the fragile barrier between myself and a screaming tide of insanity.
I pushed it away. Wrestled it into a dark corner and closed the door.
That made it possible to think a little more clearly.
I blinked. Shapes became recognizable, the stink of dying human cells filling my nose again. Wet warmth trickled down my cheeks, painted my upper lip. I tasted spoiled fruit and sweetness when I licked my lips.
Blood. I had a face covered in blood, and my clothes were no better than rags, if I retained them at all. My bag clinked as I shifted, its broken strap reknotted and rasping between my breasts. I blinked more blood out of my eyes, stared up at a brick wall. It was night, and the wall loomed at a crazy angle because I lay twisted like a rag doll, pretty-much-naked against the floor of an alley.
Alley. I'm in an alley. From the way it smells, it's not a nice one either. Trust me to end up like this.
It was a sane thought, one I clung to even as I shivered and jolted, my entire body rebelling against the psychic assault of so many minds shoving against me, a surfroar of screaming voices. Not just my body but my mind mutinied, bucking like a runaway horse as the something returned, huge and foul, boiling up through layers of shock. Beating at the door I had locked against it.
Oh gods, please. Someone please. Anyone. Help me.
I moaned, the sound bouncing off bricks, and the mark on my shoulder suddenly blazed with soft heat, welling out through my aching body. I hurt everywhere, as if I'd been torn apart and put back together wrong. The worst hurt was a deep drilling ache low in the bowl of my pelvis, like the world's worst menstrual cramp.
I could not think about that. My entire soul rose in rebellion. I could not remember what had been done to me.
The rips in my shields bound themselves together, tissue-thin, but still able to keep me sane. The scar pulsed, crying out like a beacon, a flaming black-diamond fountain tearing into the ambient Power of the cityscape. The first flare knocked me flat against the ground again, stunned and dazed. Successive pulses arrived, each working in a little deeper than the last, but not so jolting.
Breathe. Just breathe. I clung to the thought, shutting my eyes as the world reeled under me. I made it up to hands and knees, my palms against slick greasy concrete as I retched. I don't usually throw up unless poisoned, but I felt awful close.
Too bad there was nothing in my stomach. I curled over on myself, retched some more, and decided I felt better. The mark kept pulsing, like a slow heartbeat. Japhrimel's pulse is slower than mine, one beat to every three my own heart performs, like a strong silt-laden river through a broad channel. It felt uncomfortably like his heartbeat had settled in the scar on my shoulder, as if I was resting my head on his chest and hearing his old, slow, strong heart against my cheek and fingertips. Japhrimel. I remembered him, at least. Even if I couldn't remember myself.
I cursed, in my head and aloud as I found the other brick wall confining this alley. Drove my claws into the wall, my arm quivering under the strain as I hauled myself to my feet. I couldn't afford to call on him. He was an enemy.
They were all my enemies. Everyone. Every single fucking thing that breathed, or walked, or even touched me. Even the air.
Even my own mind.
Safe place. Got to find a safe place. I could have laughed at the thought. I didn't even know where I was. Not only that, but where on earth was safe for me now? I could barely even remember who I was.
A name returned to me. My name. My fingers crept up and touched a familiar wire of heat at my collarbone - the necklace, silver-dipped raccoon baculum and bloodmarked bloodstones, its potent force spent and at low ebb. I knew who wore this j
I am Valentine. Danny Valentine. I'm me. I am Dante Valentine.
Relief scalded me all over, gushed in hot streams from my eyes. I knew who I was now. I could remember my name.
Everything else would follow.
I hauled myself up to my feet. My legs shook and I stumbled, and I was for once in no condition to fight. I hoped I wasn't in a bad part of town.
Whatever town this is. What happened? I staggered, ripped my claws free of the brick wall, and leaned against its cold rough surface, for once blessing the stink of humanity. It meant I was safe.
Safe from what? I had no answer for that question, either. A hideous thing beat like a diseased heart behind the door I'd slammed to keep it away. I didn't want to know right now.
Safe place, Danny girl. I flinched, but the words were familiar, whispered into my right ear. A man's voice, pitched low and tender with an undertone of urgency. Just the way he used to wake me up, back in the old days.
Back when I was human and Jace Monroe was alive, and Hell was only a place I read about in classic literature and required History of Magi classes.
That thought sent a scree of panic through me. I almost buckled under the lash of fear, my knees softening.
Get up, clear your head, and move. There's a temple down the street, and nobody's around to see you. You've got to move now. Jace's voice whispered, cajoled.
I did not stop to question it. Whether my dead lover or my own small precognitive talent was speaking didn't matter.
The only thing that mattered was if it was right. I was naked and covered in blood, with only my bag. I had to find somewhere to hide.
I stumbled to the mouth of the alley, peering out on a dim-lit city street, the undersides of hovers glittering like fireflies above. The ambient Power tasted of synthhash smoke, wet mold, and old silty spilled blood, with a spiked dash of Chill-laced bile over the top.
Smells like Jersey. I shook my head, blood dripping from my nose in a fresh trickle of heat, and staggered out into the night.
The street was indeed deserted, mostly warehouses and hoverfreight transport stations that don't see a lot of human traffic at night. There was a temple, and its doors creaked as I made it up the shallow steps. It could have been any temple in any city in the world, but I was rapidly becoming convinced it was North New York Jersey. It smelled like it.
Not that it mattered right at the moment.
The doors, heavy black-painted iron worked with the Hegemony sundisc, groaned as I leaned on one of them, shoving it open. My right leg dragged as I hauled myself inside, the shielding on the temple's walls snapping closed behind me like an airlock, pushing away the noise of the city outside. The damage to my leg was an old injury from the hunt for Kellerman Lourdes; I wondered if all the old scars were going to open up-the whip scars on my back and the brand along the crease of my lower left buttock.
If they did open up, would I bleed? Would the bleeding ever stop?
Take out all the old wounds, see which one's deepest.
The voice of panic inside my head let out a terrified giggle; my chattering teeth chopped into bits. The door in my head stayed strong, stayed closed. It took most of my failing energy to keep that memory - whatever it was - wrestled down.
Every Hegemony temple is built on a node of intersecting ley lines, the shields humming, fed by the bulge of Power underneath. This temple, like most Hegemony places of worship, had two wings leading from the narrow central chamber - one for the gods of Old Graecia, and one for Egyptianica. There were other gods, but these were the two most common pantheons, and it was a stroke of luck.
If I still believed in luck.
Jace's voice in my ear had gone silent. I still could not remember what had been done to me.
Whatever it was, it was bad. I'm in bad shape.
I almost laughed at the absurdity of thinking so. As if it wasn't self-evident.
The main chamber was dedicated to a standard Hegemony sundisc, rocking a little on the altar. It was as tall as two of me, and I breathed out through my mouth because my nose was full of blood. I worried vaguely about that-usually the black blood rose and sealed away any wound, healing my perfect poreless golden skin without a trace. But here I was, bleeding. I could barely tell if the rest of me was bleeding too, especially the deep well of pain at the juncture of my legs, hot blood slicking the insides of my thighs.
I tried not to think about it. My right hand kept making little grasping motions, searching for a swordhilt. Where's my sword? More panic drifted through me. I set my jaw and lowered my head, stubbornly. It didn't matter. I'd figure it out soon enough.
When I held my blade again, it would be time to kill. I just couldn't think of who to kill first.
My bag shifted and clinked as I wove up the middle of the great hall, aiming for the left-hand wing, where the arch was decorated with dancing hieroglyphs carved into old wood. This entire place was dark, candles lit before the sundisc reflecting in its mellow depths. The flickering light made it even harder to walk.
My shoulder pulsed. Every throb was met with a fresh flood of Power along my battered shields, sealing me away but also causing a hot new trickle of blood from my nose. My cheeks were wet and slick too, because my eyes were bleeding - either that, or I had some kind of scalp wound. Thin hot little fingers of blood patted the inside of my knees, tickled down to my ankles.
I'm dripping like a public faucet. Gods. I made it to the door and clung to one side, blinking away salt wetness. There they sat in the dusk, the air alive with whispers and mutters. Power sparked, swirling in dust-laden air. The gods regarded me, each in their own way.
Isis stood behind Her throned son, Horus's hawk-head and cruel curved beak shifting under Her spread hand of blessing. Thoth stood to one side, His long ibis head held still but His hands - holding scroll and pen - looking startled, as if He had been writing and now froze, staring down at me. The statues were of polished basalt, carved in post-Awakening neoclassic; Nuit stretched above on the vault of the roof, painted instead of sculpted.
There, next to Ptah the Worker, was Anubis. The strength threatened to leave my legs again. I let out a sob that fractured against the temple's surfaces, its echoes coming back to eat me.
The god of Death regarded me, candles on the altar before Him blazing with sudden light. My eyes met His, and more flames bloomed on dark spent wicks, our gazes flint and steel sparking to light them.
I let out another painful sob, agony twisting fresh inside my heart. Blood spattered, steaming against chill stone. This might be a new building, but they had scoured the floor down to rock, and it showed. My ribs ached as if I'd just taken a hard shot with a jo staff. Everywhere on me ached, especially -
I shut that thought away. Let go of the edge of the doorway and tacked out like a ship, zigzagging because my right leg wouldn't work quite properly. I veered away into the gloom, bypassing Anubis though every cell in my body cried out for me to sink to the floor before His altar and let Him take me, if He would.
I had given my life to Him, and been glad to do it - but He had betrayed me twice, once in taking Jason Monroe from me and again in asking me to spare the killer of my best and only friend.
I could not lay down before Him now. Not like this. There was something I had to do first.
I kept going, each step a scream. Past Ptah, and Thoth, and Isis and Horus, to where no candles danced on the altars. The dark pressed close, still whispering. It took forever, but I finally reached them, and looked up. My right hand had clamped itself against my other arm, just under the scar on my left shoulder, each beat of Power thudding against my palm as my arm dangled.
Nepthys's eyes were sad, arms crossed over Her midriff. Beside Her Set glowered, the jackal head twitching in quick little jerks as candlelight failed to reach it completely. The powers of Destruction, at the left hand of Creation. Propitiated, because there is no creation without the clearing-away of the old. Propitiated as well in the hope
that they will avoid your life, pass you by.
What had been done to me? I barely even remembered my own name. Something had happened.
Someone had done this to me. Someone I had to kill.
Burn it all down, a new voice whispered in my head. Come to Me, and let it burn away. Make something new, if you like - but first, there is the burning. There is vengeance.
Between Isis and Nepthys, the other goddess lingered. Her altar was swept bare, which meant it was probably the end of the month wherever I'd landed. Offerings to Her and to Set were cleared away at the dark of the moon.
Unless they were taken. Which happens more often than you'd think.
I folded down to my knees, each fresh jab of agony in my belly echoed by my dragging right leg and a thousand other weals of smoking pain. My fingers were slippery with blood, and I kept swiping at my face. I tipped my chin up.
My eyes rested on Her carved breasts, the stone knot between them. The shadows whispered and chuckled again, soft little feathery touches against my skin and ruined, flapping blood-crusted clothes.
Her face was a male lion's, serene in its awfulness, the disc above Her head most likely bronze but still lit with a random reflection of candlelight, turning to gold. My eyes met Hers.
"Sekhmet." My aching lips shaped the word.
The prayer rose out of my Magi-trained memory, from a page of text read long ago in a Comparative Religions class at the Academy. Psions are trained to almost-perfect memory, a blessing when you want to remember an incantation or a rune; deadly misery when you want to forget the sheer maddening injustice of being among the living.
Or when you have to forget, to stay sane. When you must push away something so monstrous your mind shivers like a slicboard over water as violation strains to replay itself in the corridors of your brain, the place that should be the most private of all.