I skidded to a halt, scythe still stuck to my hand, and when I say stuck, I mean stuck. The damn thing felt welded to my palm.
The hooded figures parted, and a woman stepped through. Her eyes were glazed, her expression serene, and in her hand was the dagger that had killed Peiter. Chanting filled the air.
She ran at me, dagger aimed for my heart.
A pulse of energy ran up my arm, and then I was swinging the scythe to bring the staff parallel to the ground to ward off the crazy woman trying to kill me. She slammed into the shaft, taking me back with the force of her attack. Oh, shit. Oh, shit. I was going to die.
She was strong. Too strong. The point of the dagger moved closer to my body as my arms quivered with the strain of holding the woman at bay.
The chanting grew louder.
I couldn’t hold her off much longer. Why had I gone out tonight? Why had I followed the hot reaper? Why?
The chanting cut off.
The woman froze, then crumpled to the ground in a heap.
I fell back, butt hitting the ground hard enough to jar, and stared at the new figure looming over me. As large as Peiter but less bulky, his hair was shorn short, accentuating his sharp, hawkish features, and right now, those features were tight with shock as he stared at the scythe in my hand.
I was safe. My gut told me this guy wasn’t here to hurt me, and the tension saturating my body began to evaporate.
His gaze flicked over my head to where Peiter was.
“Get up.” He held out a hand. “We need to leave. Now.”
I slid my palm into his without hesitation, allowing him to haul me up.
I turned to Peiter to find two other figures hauling him off the ground. His body was limp. Wings still wrapped in silver netting.
“He’s hurt.” I took a step toward them, and an empty pit opened inside me, a yawning chasm that told me the truth. “He’s … dead …” My gut twisted sharply. “Argh, what … What’s happening?” My palm tingled, my body was flooded with gentle warmth, and the scythe was gone, taking the pain with it. “What’s happening to me?”
The air behind the hawkish guy’s back shimmered with the image of golden wings. “You just took Peiter’s place. You just became a Dominus reaper.”
And then his arms were around me, and the world splintered.
We materialized on rocky terrain by a rickety bridge made of rope and slats of wood. It was suspended over a river of lava. Actual, bubbling red lava. The heat stung my eyes and frazzled my lashes. I looked up at the pale red sky littered with frothy gray clouds.
Where the fuck were we?
Hawkish guy’s grip on my arm tightened, and he hauled me across the ground toward a post that jutted out of a rock. A bell and rope were attached to the post. He yanked on the rope.
I jerked the arm he was holding to get his attention. “Where are we?”
“We’re at the doorway to the Underealm,” he said.
The Underealm? “Oh, God. Am I dead?”
“No.” His grip on my arm slackened a little. “You most certainly aren’t.” There was bitterness in his tone.
I glanced up at his harsh profile, noting his knitted brows, and then followed his gaze to find two other figures standing slightly behind us.
They were carrying a body.
He lay limp and lifeless in their arms, his skin ashen. Hawkish guy was probably wishing I’d died and the reaper had lived. Guilt twisted in my stomach, followed by confusion. Why was I feeling guilty? His death wasn’t my fault.
“I tried to save him.” My voice sounded small and insignificant, and bearing in mind the circumstances and our location, my words seemed pointless. “I did try.”
My companion sighed wearily. “I know you did. I don’t mean to be harsh. Peiter was … He was a friend, and none of this makes any sense.”
“You don’t know what’s happening either, do you?”
He looked down his nose at me, and I noticed his eyes for the first time, a strange amber color, like twin flames in a harsh, austere face. “Oh, I know what’s happened, just not why or how.”
“What did you mean when you said I was now a Dominus reaper?”
His attention was back on the bridge. “You have the scythe. It bonded to you, ergo, you are now a Dominus reaper.”
My stomach fluttered with confusion. “I can’t be. I’m not a … a …”
“Demon?” He offered the option casually.
“That’s obviously a lie.”
His tone wasn’t accusatory, but irritation flared in my chest anyway. “I’m not lying.”
“I didn’t say you were. I believe that you had no idea.” His amber eyes filled with compassion. “I don’t understand who attacked you, or how Peiter was killed, or why his scythe chose you, but it did. Now it’s up to the reapers to figure out why, and it’s my job to hand you over.”
“Wait, you’re not a reaper?”
His smile was wry. “Hardly.”
There was a touch of haughtiness in his tone now.
“Then, what are you?”
“I’m a Grigori.”
“What’s a Grigori?”
I looked across the bridge to see a figure approaching. He walked casually across the rickety contraption as if it weren’t suspended over death lava. The damn structure didn’t even sway, but my heart was in my mouth for him. That thing was a death trap.
I caught a flash of golden hair, and my pulse sped up. Could it be the reaper who’d saved me from the mouth creature? Nah, I bet lots of reapers had blond hair. The Adonis at the club had blond hair, and why was I thinking about him right now anyway?
Wait … yep, it was the other reaper from the mouth incident. Conah. That’s what Peiter had called him, and he wasn’t walking across the bridge, he was gliding a foot above the slats. No wonder the thing didn’t sway. My pulse quickened as he got closer: fear, anticipation … excitement? No, why would I be excited to see him again? Someone had just died, and that reaction was wholly inappropriate, but my body seemed to have other ideas. I swallowed to moisten my mouth and took a steadying breath to compose myself.
Conah’s stunning blue eyes flared in recognition as they settled on me, and then his attention flew to the Grigori, who was still gripping my arm as if I’d be dumb enough to bolt. Hell, he was the only thing keeping me upright right now. If he let go, I’d probably crumple in a heap, and even if I could run, where would I go?
“Uri? What is this?” Conah asked. “How …” He frowned at me as if attempting to solve a puzzle. “How is the human here?”
“Peiter is dead, Conah,” Uri said.
The guys hidden in the gloom moved forward with Peiter’s body.
Conah’s face froze in shock. “No …” He walked slowly toward his fallen comrade and reached out to stroke his cheek. “Peiter … What is this?” He touched the wound at Peiter’s chest. “What happened?” He turned to us, his blue eyes flashing with anger. “Who did this?”
His anger was like a blaze that heated my skin. I took an involuntary step back, and Uri pulled me closer to his side.
“Frightening the woman won’t help,” Uri said. “Neither of us know who did this. The assailants were hooded, and their signatures were cloaked. I was drawn by the blaze of Peiter’s scythe, except when I arrived, he wasn’t the one wielding it.” Uri tipped his head my way.
Conah’s eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”
“I mean the scythe has bonded to this woman. It chose her.”
“That’s impossible. She’s human.”
I nodded. “Right, that’s what I said. I’m not a reaper. I can’t be.”
Conah stared at me open-mouthed.
Oh, shit, what had I done now? “What?”
“You see what I mean?” Uri said to Conah.
“What?” I looked from Conah to Uri. “What do you mean?”
Conah’s throat bobbed. “You can communicate with us.”
“Um … yes. English is my first language.”
“We’re not speaking English,” Conah said. “And neither are you.”
What was he talking about?
“We’re speaking Enochian,” Uri said. “And so are you. In fact, you and I have been communicating in Enochian ever since I picked you up in the alley.”
Okay, the latter part of that sentence made me sound like a hooker. “I don’t understand. I think I’d know if I suddenly started spouting another language.” I gave a strained little laugh then cut it off with a cough.
Conah shook his head. “This is … I don’t understand this.”
“I need to get back to duty,” Uri said. “Let me know what you discover. I’ll have my watchers scout for these hooded figures.” He pushed me toward Conah. “This puzzle now belongs to you.”
He released me, and when I looked back, he was gone.
Peiter’s large body lay on the ground. Conah’s eyes gleamed with unshed tears. He took a shuddering breath and then leaned down and hauled his comrade into a fireman’s lift.
My throat ached with sorrow, sharp and poignant. “I’m so sorry for your loss.”
Conah’s gaze flicked to me, and he blinked as if my words had taken him by surprise. “Why? You didn’t know him.”
“You don’t need to know someone to feel empathy.”
He frowned. “Of course. Thank you for your empathy.”
He set off toward the bridge
I wasn’t sure if he was being sarcastic. He didn’t sound sarcastic. “Um … is that thing safe.”
“No. No, it isn’t.” He turned to me. “But you have my brother’s scythe, which affords you certain abilities.”
“I can float?”
“Yes, you just have to want to.”