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To the world they are the Grotesques—hideous chimeras and gargoyles of stone. But before they are locked in their granite prisons, they are Kynd—magnificent beings condemned to prowl the nightmares of every realm.
Their tortures will doom them to stone.
The love of a Chosen One could save them.
Hell hath no fury like a woman... who really wants her man. For more than two thousand years, Merrick the Chimera has borne the misery of being the guardian to Hell’s Archway. He has witnessed millions of condemned souls, slaughtered thousands of trespassers, and his enraged despair is pushing him to the brink of becoming what the world expects his Kynd to be.
Go to Hell. A mission the timid Angelia Delacroix must undertake in order to find the ancient Scriptum, even though the fearsome Merrick has been assigned to be her guide.
As their quest leads them deeper into danger, Merrick and Angelia must turn to each other. Can Angelia find the courage to keep the chimera’s battered soul safe? Or will Merrick give in to his torments—dooming himself to his stone fate, and Angelia to the tortures of Hell?
Once, the Kynd existed under God's grace, bearing witness to all things passing. Until the Schism, when God and Lucifer clashed and the Archangel was flung from the Heavens. Refusing to choose sides, the Kynd were damned, too. Forced to take part in the darkest realms without the touch and comfort of another, their honorable name disintegrated into the dust of history. Now they are remembered merely as gargoyles and chimerae, and in their deaths, they become monsters of stone: Grotesques. Their Chosen Ones can save them. But after enduring centuries of solitary madness, who could love something so doomed?
The pose didn’t suit her. Although far be it from Angelia Delacroix to notice she formed the perfect imitation of a long-legged grasshopper. Not when her attention was riveted to the skin-bound book spread open in front of her.
She felt like the member of the bomb squad holding the wire snips: her breath locked in her lungs. And not because the pages of the book were fragile, either. Given its age, the darn thing had defied the ravages of time.
What worried her, and kept her from breathing, was the aura of magic surrounding the thing.
The relic sitting in front of her was volatile as a real bomb. All it would take would be one wrong move, one offensive stumble from her, and the book could do anything.
So, she couldn’t screw up.
As it was, the only reason she sat in the same room with the ancient tome was because she was the only being it allowed to read its pages.
Like the Scriptum had an inkling of its own.
Which made it one scary so and so.
Because, let’s face it, she wasn’t anyone special. Not in this world of faery, vampires, shifters, and ghouls.
She would never forget to add the gargoyles and chimerae to her list of supernatural wonders. When she was younger, she used to fantasize about them, spending countless nights conjuring tales of derring-do for her Grotesque heroes.
Which was fine when you were a little kid. Playing make-believe was as normal as snot dripping from your nose. Even as a teenager, she could be excused when she’d gripped tight to her fascination, practically wallpapering her bedroom with pictures of chimerae.
Except she never outgrew her fascination.
Which made her a loser on all counts. She was a mere human, living in a realm populated by creatures with innate talents that left her wanting.
And feeling pathetically inadequate.
Ugh. Yeah. She’d polish that nugget of loveliness later. Right then, she was preoccupied with sliding her silver reading blade along the pages she was translating. She had come to the running end of an unfinished sentence about her favorite subject: gargoyles and chimerae.
So to her, the Scriptum read like a New York Times best-selling novel: a real page-turner. Hastening to devour more, she flicked the blade to roll the page. Only to slice her finger on the vellum—even though she’d been using her knife.
“Ooh, crap!” She jabbed her bleeding finger into her mouth, her eyes dancing like frantic maids to find something, anything, to dab the blood off the ancient page.
“Oh, God, oh God, how could I be so stupid?” Mortified, she jumped to her feet, tipping her stool so it clattered to the floor behind her.
The droplet of blood spread in a widening circle into the page. Like an atomic cloud.
And just as flipping devastating.
She’d marred the ancient Scriptum. With her stupid human ineptitude, she’d scarred a relic which had remained in near pristine condition for centuries.
Stumbling back, she couldn’t peel her helpless stare from her blunder.
Fear snatched her breath as droplets of sweat stung her armpits and prickled the small of her back. Aro, her vampire boss, would be…enraged.
See? Pathetic. Aro would never lay a fang on her. Not when her father was Vampyre, one of the ruling Triumvirate.
Okay, so he wasn’t her real father. But she’d been raised since infancy as Anton’s own, and it was no secret to the vampire realm. Inept human she might be, but Angelia moved freely within her father’s world.
No vampire in their right mind dared touch her.
Right. Taking a deep breath to calm her panic, she bent to put her stool back onto its three feet. Then bolted upright, her hand clutched to her heart like a clichéd heroine wrapped tight in her corset and long skirts.
Singing expanded inside her head.
“Holy rum raisin ice cream.” The Scriptum hummed. The voices stuck to her pulse, pulling and twisting along her veins as they sang. They magnified inside the amphitheater of her skull to the point she thought the bone would fissure and sound would blast forth like footlights—to illuminate the ceiling over her head.
Her knees buckled, as if she knelt in supplication to the concerto. Tears tumbled down her cheeks. Trembling, she reached forth, as though Jesus himself stood in glowing magnificence in front of her, and she sought the privilege of touching his modest robes.
The voices flew ever higher, and Angelia’s heart strained to devour every truth, every glorious exultation…until the pounding lump of muscle stuttered, fluttered, and fibrillated.
As her vision tunneled, the Scriptum shrank into a tiny pinprick before disappearing, just like scenes in old movies ended.
Angelia cashed out like an empty register, her body folding to the flagstone floor.
* * * *
Like a gift, the Scriptum lay open upon the table above the unconscious woman. A single lamp spilled buttery light on both, assigning the rest of the narrow room to shadows where the intruder lurked a few moments longer, waiting. Watching, despite the fact most of his attention was on the book, which looked no different from any other relic he’d stolen during his life.
Old. Valuable not because it was made of anything precious, but because its worth lay in what he was going to get out of it.
Power . Unlike anything he’d ever experienced.
In exchange for this book—if he could get it into the right hands.
But the man understood greed as a supreme motivator, and he would deliver the Scriptum into the right hands.
Come hell or high water.
Well, the hell would come. But not the high water.
The soulless man let his lips twist into a smile he felt nowhere within himself; an odd reflex to something sublime he couldn’t emotionally fathom.
He nudged the unconscious woman’s wrist with the toe of his black moccasin.
She was not beautiful.
Definitely not vampire, or fae.
Which explained why it was she he was stealing this book from in the first place.
The man suspected enough about the Scriptum to know that few would most likely be able to touch it, let alone decipher its mystery.
But this brown paper bag of a female?
If he didn’t have this matter of stealing the book pressing upon him, he would do her justice.
The man uncurled his fingers from the bowie blade riding his hip.
He would not cut her as he so desired to do. Yet, how remarkable she would be if only he could slide his sharp knife from one cheekbone to the other. Give her a puppet smile that would permanently grace her unexceptional face.
Only the anticipation of the payment awaiting him stayed his hand, and he stepped back from his inborn urge to carve beauty where it was lacking. He turned his attentions to the relic, to the object that, should he succeed at delivering it into the guts of Hell, would gift him an eternity of joyful sculpting.
He bothered not with wondering why the woman had been studying blank pages. That wasn’t where his interest lay. The soulless man stepped over the woman to reach her worktable and closed his gloved hands over the Scriptum.
He was surprised by its heft.
For such a small, unassuming object, it seemed as though weighted with the things not written upon its blank pages.
The man yanked and lifted the tome, then slid it into a silk bag, which he then placed inside his backpack.
As he stepped back over the unconscious woman, his hand once again drifted to his hip, to his bowie knife.
Just one quick sweep of his blade.
He would not. He could not.
His hand reluctantly slid from the cool steel of his blade.
With a stealthy tweak of the doorknob, the man slid into the dimly lit hallway. Skulking along the rows upon rows of dusty manuscripts, he made his way to one of the many dark recesses of the vaulted library, his ropes hanging as quiet and unnoticed as jungle snakes.
With practiced ease, the soulless man pulled himself upward toward the vent at the height of the thirty-foot wall. He disappeared into it as silently as he had emerged, like a spider born from one of the hundreds of billowing webs stretching like banners across the ceiling.
Bound for Hell, with the Scriptum riding safe upon his back.
* * * *
Sometimes it’s a blessing to remain unconscious. At least, to Angelia’s way of thinking anyway. Once she’d come to after having fainted like a wuss, she’d had to endure Aro’s wrath. Which came in the form of silence. He had picked her off the floor with a grip shying just short of breaking her arm, and had her escorted to a “room” at the Triumvirate’s holdings.
For her safety.
She knew exactly why Aro had sent her here. She was to await her punishment for ruining the Scriptum. She sat on a stool in the middle of a ten-foot square cell, thinking the only thing missing from this interrogation scene was the bare bulb overhead.
Running her palms up and down her arms did nothing for her shivering as she remembered her last botched job. The details of which dug their sharp nails into her fragile ego.
She’d been in a similar predicament before, when she’d first joined the Literati.
Well, okay, it was similar only in the sense she’d effed that job up, too.
The Recovery Team wasn’t even out the door before she’d inadvertently bungled the protection magic the Mage had painstakingly conjured to keep them safe. To this day, she didn’t know how she’d done it, but she could remember the faces glaring at her. Each one was covered in soot, like the spell had blown up, turning the faces of her teammates into cartoon characters.
Which was kind of funny. Except no one laughed with her.
Aro had yanked her off the team faster than she could say whoops.
And figuratively chained her to a desk for the next ten years. Until the Scriptum had been unearthed and remained stubbornly shut for six months, even for the Demon Decipherer.
Angelia had again proven how inept she was when she’d gone into the room to ask Aro and the Decipherer a question. Somehow, she’d managed to trip on the flat stone floor and brush her fingers along the Scriptum’s sealed cover as she’d thrown her hand out to catch herself.
Aro and the Demon Decipherer had watched in helpless horror as the great tome teetered precariously upon its binding.
The vampire had a flaming curse on his lips when the book split wide open to finally reveal its secrets.
Well, not quite.
The text on the immaculate vellum promptly disappeared the moment Aro ordered Angelia’s clumsy ass out of the room. Which was the only reason she had been assigned to translate it.
Because the writing didn’t remain for any eyes but hers.
And now those pristine pages were forever marred with a blotch of her pathetic human blood.
Angelia’s insecurities assailed her as she sat on the stool in the cell. As if their weight was too much to bear, she turned in on herself, curling her body around the growing hole of humiliation, the shame that had taken up permanent residence in her gut years ago.
God, Aro was going to fry her for this.
The clank of the heavy steel door had her hopping to her feet, like she was going to kick butt. Or run. A more likely outcome given the strength of her spine.
The same vampire who had escorted her here came into the cell. “They are ready for you, Miss Delacroix.” He bowed his blonde head as if he felt bad about her situation, offering his arm like an usher at a formal wedding.
Angelia took it, even if it was just to hold onto something to keep her hands from shaking. She felt hard muscle under the shirt sleeve and shut her eyes as she sucked up a little comfort from the solidity of it.
“Where are we going?” She peered up at a strong, tight jaw.
Her escort kept his eyes straight ahead. “The Triumvirate wishes to see you.”
Holy Moses, she was in bigger trouble than she thought. Was Aro demanding they give permission for him to release her from the contract?
Her father would be flipping cartwheels while he sang Yes! So, Aro would get at least one vote in the affirmative. Angelia gripped a little tighter to the young vampire leading her down the stone paneled corridor, her stomach churning as her feet turned to slippery clay.
She would be stripped of her duties. Severed from the one thing making her feel a little special in this world of super beings. Cold, familiar fingers of inadequacy clamped around her guts, just as her escort halted in front of a thick wooden door. He leaned forward to open it, revealing the stone gallery where the Triumvirate conducted their interviews.
Oh, man, this is so not good . Angelia stepped into the room, yet no one acknowledged her presence. Not a good sign at all considering the occupants of the room were hypersensitive vampires. They continued arguing as if she wasn’t there at all.
Aro paced, his violet eyes snapping, his fangs barely sheathed.
On the dais abutting the far wall sat two of the Vampyres of the Triumvirate, Godrick and Kristov, who watched him march with bemused expressions on their faces.
The third Vampyre of the Triumvirate, her dear father Anton, remained on Aro’s level. Leaning against the stone buttress nearest the dais, he rested his blonde head on his arm. The lesser vampire ignored Anton, preferring to address the Vampyres on the raised platform.
“She is a sworn member to the Literati, do not forget,” Aro fumed, barely veiling his threat to the ancient members of the Triumvirate. He shook with his insubordination, yet couldn’t seem to help himself. “She has pledged her oath,” he seethed, his fangs lengthening.
“She is merely human!” Anton raged, slicing across the room with his claws unsheathed. The Vampyre veered from his assault at the last second, his control tamped. “She will never survive this mission.” His demeanor deflated as if his body wasn’t like iron.
Angelia barely tracked her father’s averted assault on her boss it happened so fast.
“She is my daughter.” He groaned, not caring to shield the torment of his dilemma from the others in the room. Or from Angelia, whose heart strangled in her breast to see him so defeated.
Angelia clapped her jaw shut and went straight to her father to comfort him.
She had to. He was extremely upset. She could see it in his silver eyes, the centuries weighing heavy in them when usually they sparkled bright.
The sight of them turned her blood to freezing slush.
This meeting was about her and her blunder with the Scriptum. They were convening to decide an appropriate punishment. So, what mission were they talking about?
Anton’s fingers curled around her hand, and for an instant Angelia didn’t know if she felt trapped or comforted. But she held her ground. Whatever retribution was due her, she’d face it. Even if she was glad her stomach was empty so she wouldn’t vomit. Much.
Puking wasn’t exactly a hallmark of bravery, so she took the tight smile her father gave her and let him lead her to a wooden chair situated a little off-center of the room.
To sit? Oh, heck, no. She wanted to bolt.
But that would make her a coward, and she already had a long list of inadequacies chalked up against her. Angelia took the seat her father offered then watched him trudge to the dais like a man heading for the gallows. She gulped past the knot gripping her throat.
Okay, she could do this. She had signed on with the Literati knowing full well what was expected of her. Of course, her father had been beyond livid when she’d done it. He’d threatened to kill Aro as soon as he’d found out she’d daubed her blood to the contract. He’d accused the vampire of treachery and deceit. Even went so far as to say the only reason Aro would want his daughter was because she was human.
A lovely revelation that had stung like a slap. Yet, she’d refused to cry over it. So what if that was the only reason Aro and the Literati wanted her. For once in her life, being human had some merit. And Anton’s fears that she’d be traipsing all over the world, going into places where only her kind could go, remained unfounded.
Angelia hadn’t left her desk for ten years. No Indiana Jones adventures for her. Since her debacle with the Recovery Team, she got the drudgery, the research where the only excitement came from getting off her stool to stretch her back.
The Scriptum had been the first and only assignment where being human was an asset. And that was only because Aro and the other Literati’s greedy little fingers couldn’t pry the cover open.
And I’ve bumbled my one chance to prove my worth.
Her shame and guilt overrode her initial fear like a three-hundred-pound jockey.
“Aro, sit,” Godrick commanded quietly. But then, his authority wasn’t to be brooked, so he didn’t have to raise his voice. The chairman of the Literati plunked his butt at the long table, his alabaster fingers drumming on his briefcase.
Angelia cringed inwardly. Inside that briefcase would be her contract, with her stamp of blood on it.
“Angelia Delacroix.” This time the voice that spoke carried a soft undertone. Kristov had always been kind to her.
“Yes?” She sat up straighter, facing the Triumvirate. Her poor father had paled beyond pale, throwing wide the door to her fear so it crept back in subtle as an elephant.
“We are sorry for having kept you in the dark while we weighed our decision.”
Angelia decided to study her boots rather than watch Anton suffer. If she was going to face her punishment with any dignity, she couldn’t look at him. Not if she wanted to keep her backbone, spindly as it was. Because he was her Papa. She’d cave like the weak little girl she was, and he would happily bundle her up in his arms to comfort the both of them.
She knew that. Anton adored her.
Even after his son had been born, Angelia still resided in the same cherished place of his heart.
“Is there anything you can tell us about the disappearance of the Scriptum , Miss Delacroix?”
Huh? Angelia dragged her gaze off her shit-kickers to gawp up at the Triumvirate. The disappearance of the Scriptum?
“She doesn’t know a blasted thing,” Aro griped from behind her.
Angelia turned to her boss, still too stupefied to play catch up.
“She was completely unconscious. And we did a mind sweep.” Aro swept his hand out, indicating the two Literati ghouls who sat like well-preserved, sagacious corpses at the long table with him. “She knows nothing of the theft.”
“The theft?” Angelia’s jaw finally worked just enough for her to say something, but it fell back open as she stared at her boss. This meeting wasn’t about her punishment? She felt the one-two punch of relief and panic. “The Scriptum has been stolen?”
She didn’t need a verbal answer. Anton’s distress hadn’t been about the punishment she was going to receive; it was about this mission. And—ding, ding, ding—she was being assigned to retrieve the Scriptum. Hence, the mission Anton had referred to.
“Miss Delacroix, it is our understanding you are the only one capable of retrieving this artifact. Is this so?”
Angelia turned her attention to Kristov. The only one? “Yeah, I guess. I mean, I’m the only one who can read it.” Which didn’t exactly mean she was the only one who could retrieve it. Did it? Excitement revved in her belly, tingling her skin.
Was this finally it? Was this her chance to prove her worth, to show everyone she wasn’t entirely useless and clumsy? She’d waited a decade for her Indiana Jones crusade and now it seemed as if it was finally going to happen.
She bowed her head so no one would see the flush of anticipation coloring her cheeks.
“You will not be expected to endure this treacherous journey alone, Miss Delacroix, if you should accept the terms of your contract.”
Blah, blah, blah…treacherous journey?
Okay. She needed to get focused here. Indiana Jones and his stunts were fictional—she was about to embark on the real deal.
“You will be escorted through Hell by Merrick the chimera, the Guardian to Hell’s Archway. Is that acceptable to you?”
Angelia didn’t know whether to collapse into her chair from fright or shriek like a teenager at a rock concert.
Taking her straight to Hell. The real Hell. Not the figurative one.
Okay. Right. She could do this. She had been waiting ten years for such a chance and had always known that the places she could pass—where Aro and the rest of the Literati couldn’t—wouldn’t be pleasant.
Hell as a destination had traipsed across her imagination more than once.
But a chimera to guide her? She’d be safer than a glass of holy water at a Literati Convention.
Wait, Kristov had asked her something. She glanced up, not hiding her confusion, or her embarrassment. “I’m sorry. Could you repeat the question?”
“We asked whether your escort would be acceptable to you,” Godrick repeated, his patience a trifle thin. She couldn’t blame him. As much as he respected Anton, he had always wondered how the Vampyre could be so smitten with a dull-witted human.
“Ah, yes. Yes, it’s acceptable to me. I mean, yes. He is acceptable.”