Skin Game Page 124

Nicodemus did not move.

Neither did the Genoskwa. But I gathered another hailstone-cannonball onto the end of my staff, just to be sure I was ready if he did.

Michael lowered his sword, the wrathful fire of Amoracchius becoming something less fierce, less hot. “It is not too late. Don’t you see what has happened here? What has been arranged, all the pieces that have been moved to bring you to the only place where your eyes might be opened. Where you might have a chance—perhaps your very last chance—to turn aside from the path you have walked for so long. A path that has caused you and those close to you and the world around you nothing but heartache and misery.”

“Is that what you believe this is?” Nicodemus said in a wooden, uninflected tone. “My chance at redemption?”

“It isn’t a matter of belief,” Michael said. “I need look no further than the evidence of my eyes and mind. It’s why I took up the Sword in the first place. To save you, and those like you, who have been used by the Fallen. It’s why I have been given the grace to take up arms again, this very night—in time to offer you a chance.”

“For forgiveness?” Nicodemus spat.

“For hope,” Michael said. “For a new beginning. For peace.” He swallowed and said, “I can’t imagine anything happening to my daughter. No father should have to see his child die.” Michael’s voice stayed steady, quiet, and sincere. “As different as we are, as much separated in time and faith, you are still a human being. You are still my brother. And I am very sorry for your pain. Please. Let me help you.”

Nicodemus shuddered and dropped his eyes.

I blinked several times.

And for a second, I thought Michael was going to pull it off.

Then Nicodemus shook his head and let out a low and quiet laugh. He stood up again, and as he did, his shadow seemed to accrete beneath him, gathering darkness from all around the room and drawing it into a nebulous pool at his feet.

“Choirboy,” he said, contempt in his tone. “You think you know about commitment. About faith. But yours is as a child’s daydream beside mine.”

“Don’t do this,” Michael said, his tone almost pleading. “Please don’t let them win.”

“Let them win?” Nicodemus said. “I do not dance to the Fallen’s tune, Knight. We may move together, but I play the music. I set the beat. For nearly two thousand years have I followed my path, through every treacherous bend and twist, through every temptation to turn aside, and after centuries of effort and study and planning and victory, they follow my leadership. Not the other way around. Turn aside from my path? I have blazed it through ages of humanity, through centuries of war and plague and madness and havoc and devotion. I am my path, and it is me. There is no turningaside.”

The shadow at his feet seemed to darken as he spoke, to throb in time with his voice, and I shuddered at the sight, at the pride in his bearing, the clarity in his eyes, and the absolute, serene certainty in his voice.

Lucifer must have looked exactly like that, right before things went to Hell.

I was still standing back to back with Michael, and I felt his shoulders slump in disappointment. But there was nothing of remorse or weakness in his voice as his sword swept back up to guard position. “Despite all you have given in their service, you stand alone before Amoracchius now. I am truly sorry for your soul, brother—but this time, you will answer for what you have done.”

“Alone,” Nicodemus all but purred. “Do you think I am alone?”

He gave us his hungry shark-smile, and my stomach went into free fall.

Behind the stone block the Genoskwa smiled as well, and that would have been a hideous thing to see if a second set of glowing green eyes hadn’t opened above the cavernous gleam of the Genoskwa’s beady orbs, along with a faintly glowing, swirling sigil in the center of his forehead—and made the sight truly nightmarish. Even as I watched, curling ram’s horns erupted from the Genoskwa’s skull, and the already enormous creature began to swell, growing in mass, his patchy fur thickening, an extra set of limbs swelling out from his sides. Within a heartbeat or three, the shape of a creature like some enormous bear of a forgotten epoch, except for the extra legs, eyes, and the horns, stood where the Genoskwa had been. Tons of it.

“Ursiel,” I breathed. A Fallen angel so powerful that it had taken all three Knights of the Cross together to take him out the last time he’d appeared. And this time he wasn’t powered by the skinny husk of an insane gold miner, either. “Oh, crap.”

“It gets better,” said another voice.

I looked past where Ursiel and the Genoskwa stood, to find Hannah Ascher mounting the steps to the top of the stage. She’d shed her packs, and walking with a lazy, deliberate sensuality, she stretched her arms overhead as she reached the stage, and her clothing just . . . dissolved, like so much smoke, into a clinging, purplish mist that drifted around her in spiraling tendrils—not so much for modesty as for accent, yet for the most part, covering her most delicate parts with the same coyness as a fan dancer’s feathers. She smiled, slowly, and a second set of glowing purple eyes opened above her own, as a glowing sigil, vaguely suggestive of an hourglass appeared on her forehead.

I knew the symbol.

It had been etched in my flesh for years.

“Lasciel,” I whispered.

“Hello, lover,” said a throaty, playful voice that was not quite Hannah Ascher’s own. “You have no idea how much I’ve missed you.”

Prev Next