Jane stood motionless in a white room, her eyes glued to several video monitors. She jumped and turned at the voice of her adjustment angel. For a heavenly being, he was short, bald, and quite surly.
"You should go enjoy heaven, it's not healthy to stay in this room," Rodolfo said. He looked nothing like a Rodolfo.
But it was her room, the room that let her see what she knew she should let go of and close the door to. There were two monitors in particular that her eyes had been riveted to for months. On one, the image rarely changed, and at times she wondered if it was up-to-date - if it was working.
Cole sat with his head in his hands, a bottle next to him. She'd watched him lose himself so many times inside that bottle. The den was littered with dozens of paintings, all of her bleeding to death. He'd gotten a vision too late, and thought the pup had died, too. He'd searched for her body, but it had already been taken by a wild animal.
When he'd returned, he'd painted the vision over and over, as if it were penance, as if painting it just one more time would bring her back to him. After that, while he'd been strong enough to shift into his wolf form, he'd huddled in the bed and whimpered for days. As he stopped eating enough to shift, he'd turned to alcohol as his last option to mute the pain.
He was useless to the pack like this. The only remaining sign of his alpha status was the black tribal tattoo around his arm. The beta had all but taken over while her mate mourned. Their baby was still out there, and Jane was the only one who knew about it.
Her eyes flicked to the other screen: her baby wolf with the panther therian and now the witch. Jane's life had been a strange one: born human with vampire blood, tormented by the bloodsuckers, rescued by a werewolf, and made into his mate. The magical blood that had damned her had later set her free in Cole's arms. And now here she was, in the land of the dull. Her former incarnations were something she couldn't process or think about at the moment. She was too attached to this most recent lifetime. All she cared about right now was getting back to the man she loved and their pup.
"Please, I have to go back. You have to send me back." She'd had this conversation with the angel daily, sometimes multiple times a day.
"I've told you a thousand times," Rodolfo said, "You can reincarnate, but your memories won't hold together. It's a gamble if you'll remember anything worth knowing. And the time line is off. Being reborn now won't help your pup and your mate."
Jane's hands clenched and unclenched at her sides. He was such a wanker. She wanted nothing more than to punch him in the mouth, but violence wasn't allowed here. "Why give us a room like this?"
"We let people say goodbye in their own time. I shouldn't have indulged you so long. Sometimes we just have to take the room away."
The idea of losing the window into her old life put her in a full panic. Jane's face was tear-stained by the time she found her voice again. "Please. Please send me back."
He ignored her plea, instead staring at the monitors, a thoughtful expression on his face. Such a smug bastard. As her adjustment angel, he was there to help her get her bearings in heaven and to act as her tour guide.
Except for the official tour, she'd only spent a little time outside her mansion. It was what she'd always been told Christian heaven was like. The reality of it made her shudder. There were streets of gold and lots of worshiping and prayerful meditation. Everyone wore glistening white gowns, and the birds would never shut the hell up with their happy songs. Her surroundings were perfect, idyllic. But it was so... boring and empty.
A couple of times when she'd been walking beside the ridiculously clear river, she'd caught the gaze of someone who she could have sworn shared her misgivings. But nobody questioned. She knew why. If heaven was as it had been described down to details like golden streets, was hell's description equally accurate? And what would happen to them if they asked questions? Would they be sent there?
She'd managed to pry the knowledge out of Rodolfo. Hell was where she'd been. Jane supposed it was all about perspective, because heaven was inside the warmth of Cole's arms. This was hell.
In heaven, everybody had their own mansion. It was frivolous and pointless. Husbands and wives lived next door to each other and waved and said hello on occasion, but the intimacy they'd shared in their human lifetime was gone. It never got dark. There was no weather. No one slept. No one had sex. They ate sometimes, but that was the only genuine pleasure. Still, it felt muted against the backdrop of too much agonizing perfection.
And some dark part of her longed for the struggle.
She scrubbed the tears off her face with her arm. "They need me."
The angel turned, as if perhaps she'd suffered enough to satisfy some quota only he was aware of. "There is a way." His voice was beguiling, going up a register on the last word.
A devil's bargain was something struck in a seedy motel or in some murky corner behind a dumpster. If the devil didn't have literal horns, he'd at least be wearing a black coat and have two days worth of beard growth, and a lit cigarette hanging out of his mouth. But wasn't the devil a fallen angel? And if he could fall, this Rodolfo character couldn't fare much better.
Although Jane and the angel were in clean surroundings - too clean if you asked her - the warning light flashed in her mind. Even so, she latched onto the lifeline he'd tossed. She didn't care what she had to do - accept some awful punishment, walk across hot coals - if there was the smallest hope of being reunited with Cole and their child, she'd do it.
"You would never be able to return to heaven, of course," he said, laying the trap.
She fought back the sarcastic retort rising in her throat. No way to return to this? Oh, sign her up for the exit door, please. She'd take an eternity stuck in hell where at least there were challenges, things to do, something worth fighting for, instead of the maintenance of the unmarred status quo.
"There is no guarantee he'll want you," he continued.
"Why wouldn't he want me?"
"You'll be a demon, a succubus."
Jane swallowed around the lump forming in her throat. On the one hand, the idea of being such a powerful being, of never being able to be killed or be someone else's victim again, was heady. But she knew there must be things he wasn't telling her. There seemed to be a nudge-nudge, wink-wink in there she wasn't grasping.
"What's the catch?"
"You don't think that's the catch? My, my Miss Tanner, how you ever ended up here is a great mystery."
"Mrs. Riley," she said, annoyed.
"Last I checked, werewolves don't get married, so you are Miss Tanner according to our books and scrolls."
She rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Demon me up. I need to get back to my mate and child."
The angel smiled. Not a friendly smile.
Cain was in his tent draining the life from a woman when he felt another of his kind enter the world, fresh and new. He shoved the girl to the floor and stood, alert, looking around for his pants.
"Well, you just got a reprieve. I suggest you stop following strange men home from here on out," he said, spotting his pants behind the large cushion he and the girl had been sprawled on.
The woman's eyes were still glassy, the lust he'd induced in her not yet abated. She looked like she was going to cry, desperate for him to keep touching her.
Oh for God's sake. "Enough," he said. He hadn't been hungry. He wasn't sure why he did this. On the outside he was a happy hedonistic incubus, but inside, empty. And all the demon gluttony in the world wouldn't solve it. But now wasn't the time for self-pity. He had a new demon to initiate into his world.
The anger boiled inside him. Fucking angels. They turned demons and left them to fend for themselves with no knowledge of what to do or how to survive - messes for Cain to clean up.
The memory of his own turning - eight thousand years old as it was - still burned fresh in his mind. Nobody had been there to help him. He'd had to figure it all out on his own. The only thing they'd given him was directions to his newly-created dimension, intel they chose not to share with any other new demon. No, that was the burden they'd always make Cain bear, finding them and bringing them to safety.
He glanced down at the woman on the cushion with disdain. She crawled toward him, reaching for him.
"Stop it, we're done," he said. When she still seemed hypnotized by his erotic thrall, he reached for a glass of water and threw it in her face. That brought her back to her senses.
"Yeah. That's right. I'm an asshole. Stop going home with pretty monsters, you stupid trollop."
Sure, he'd used the thrall, but not until he'd already had her by more natural means. If she hadn't followed him out of the bar like some lost puppy, he might have left her alone. Probably not. But maybe. There was that thin hope. She'd still followed him of her own free will outside into the darkness with no witnesses. That was stupid, and Cain felt compelled to punish stupidity.
She reached for the brandy and was about to chuck it at him in her temper tantrum over the idea that she wasn't the most important thing in his world after only an hour in her company. Oh no she didn't. That was the good stuff.
"Sleep," he commanded. She slumped onto the cushion and the alcohol dropped safely out of her hands and onto the soft, fluffy fabric.
On his way out of the tent, he scooped her up and passed her off to another demon, ordering her to be returned to her town. Beyond that, she was on her own. If some other nasty got her, well, that's what happened when you went home with dark and alluring strangers. Let that be a lesson.
Considering the fact that he'd just pulled her memories of the night with the order to sleep, she'd be right back in that bar acting stupid again tomorrow night. Maybe he'd just kill her. Such a waste of DNA. No one needed her to reproduce. It would be his gift to humanity. Survival of the fittest was yesterday's story. How about survival of the smartest for a change?
He grabbed a blanket on his way out of the dimension. He never knew the state the new demon would be in. They could be in shock or traumatized. It always pissed him off the way they were brought to him. Could the angels not make the transition more humane? Were they not supposed to be the good guys?
As evil as demons were purported to be, at least they took care of their own, which wasn't any different from humans who cared little for other species besides themselves. So why did humans get so many chances?
Cain's dimensions had multiple portal points allowing them to enter the human world easily. Portal charms could be used if necessary to open a portal where one didn't exist, but Cain didn't like to do it too much. He worried that it unsettled the magic.
The dimension was protected, given that the portal recognized the essence of demons like computers recognized thumbprints and only let demons pass. With the exception of Cole - Cary Town, Washington's werewolf pack alpha. Cain had given him a portal charm - several in fact - allowing him and his pack free access to escape the police state forming in their city.
It wasn't that Cain was a big humanitarian or... theriantarian as it were. Cole had helped him once. A witch had bound him in a glass bottle. It was humiliating. All it took to break the spell was shattering the bottle, but she'd put it in a protected place so no matter what he did, he couldn't shatter it on his own.
In an odd twist of fate, Cole had stumbled upon him, and in exchange for a portal charm, freed him. It was one of those things so embarrassing that he'd been willing to do Cole favors for the hush money factor as much as anything.
After that, he'd been a lot more careful to make sure witches weren't on his menu. He should have learned the lesson much earlier on, especially after his brother had been trapped for fifty years in a house by a curse with the most ridiculous reversal clause he'd ever heard.
At least the angels dropped new demons near a portal point so he didn't have to travel for days. They also dropped them in deserted areas.
Since humans had become less superstitious and cities had grown bigger and technology stronger, letting them see too much of the preternatural world was no longer wise. And the angels didn't want their secrets revealed, either - if only because they wanted to be seen as elite and top secret. Perish the thought that someone should have the knowledge of how boring heaven was before they got there.
It was the club everybody thought they wanted in, until they arrived. Like just about any country club, when he thought about it.
This demon was female. A succubus. He found her in a forest in Romania. At one point he would have assumed the woman had been from that area. But he'd learned over time that where they were spit back out had nothing to do with where they'd been from, at least not these days. Once upon a time, they'd been more organized about it. She could be Chinese or Japanese or American. She could be anything. It was good that he was fluent in everything.
She was in the demon form, scaled reddish-brown skin, claws, horns popping out over her shoulders, fangs, and glowing red eyes. Not the best form to catch dinner in. He waited for her to speak first. He'd have to know what language she spoke so he could talk to her and help her shift. She looked up at him and scrambled back, a look of horror on her face. She'd been crying for a while. Who could blame her?
But the horror at seeing him? It was harmful to his ego. It wasn't the usual reaction from females. He was in his prime human hunting form. He'd spent his first thousand years fine-tuning it. No female could resist it. Except this one, apparently.
"Cain?" She said his name as if willing it not to be true.
He hoped this wasn't some woman he'd had for dinner. That would be just awkward.
"In the flesh," he said. "Whatever we had before... we don't sleep with our own kind. So don't get any ideas."
"Ewww, gross. I would never sleep with you," she said.
Okay, so not someone he'd slept with. He hoped. Generally, there was no pillow talk afterward because the woman was dead. There weren't often occasions for him to get critiqued on his technique. He wasn't sure his ego could handle a bad review after all this time.
"Who are you?" he asked, the suspense driving him mad.
"Jane Tanner, Cole's mate."
Fuck. He'd heard Jane had died. Cole never hunted his own food now; it was brought to him. He never left the den anymore. And now, here his mate was, a succubus.
"Jane, listen to me, I am going to help you. I know you must be hungry. But I need you to stay here and try to remain calm. I'll show you how to shift to a form you can feed in as soon as I return."
He knew she didn't trust him, but she also seemed aware he was all the help she had at the moment.
"Don't leave me here." She pushed the words awkwardly around her fangs.
"I won't be long, I promise." He gave her the blanket he'd been clutching and went to kick an ass.
Cain was in full-on demon form when he crossed into what he liked to call the lobby of Heaven. It was as far as he was allowed to go. But oh, he'd seen past the gates to those silly streets and those zombies that stayed there pretending to be happy with their harps and shit. He was fine with just the lobby.
The reception angel took a full step back from behind her podium. "Um..."
"Tell the fucker that just made Jane Tanner into a demon to get his ass out here right now."
The receptionist was a cute blonde thing, looked about twenty. If he had to guess, some human woman who had been elevated. Angels came in two types: created and elevated. Created were unfathomably beautiful. Elevated could be anything. She was cute, but she wasn't created-level cute. Part of him wanted to see if he could tempt her, to make her fall, but then she'd be a guardian, and what would he do with a guardian? Nothing. But it would be fun, at least. Corrupting the innocent always was.
She darted through the gate and returned a few minutes later with a couple of different angels. They were both rather short and bald. Elevated. Those were the worst. So smug and self-righteous. So proud of themselves for attaining the unattainable. Even an eternity without sex seemed to matter little to them, given the power they got to wield, or sort of got to wield.
"Well, which one of you do I have to thank for Jane's turning?"
One of them stepped forward, and Cain punched the angel in the nose.
The other ran around the lobby like he was on speed, shouting. "It's the apocalypse! It's the apocalypse! Cain is starting the apocalypse!"
"Oh pipe down. I'm not starting the apocalypse. No one wants your puny real estate."
He looked back at the odious angel who was responsible for Jane's turning. "You dumb ass. She's got a mate down there. How could you do something like that? Werewolves don't share. Did Cole do something to deserve this? Did Jane?"
Ordinarily Cain wouldn't give a shit about other people's problems, but he did owe that debt to Cole, and Jane was now one of his own. His protective urges were surging out of control, and he wished they'd go away. His own kind was his one weakness.
The angel looked at the ground and mumbled. "I left the mating intact when I turned her."
Cain's eyes narrowed. "What does that mean, exactly?"
"It means they're still tied together, and now he's immortal, too. I'm sure she can feed from him because of their bond. She could find other ways to curb the cravings that don't involve sleeping around." He smiled weakly up at Cain who was more than twice the angel's height in full-demon form.
"Oh I don't buy for a minute that you left the bond intact on purpose. You're just lucky it was strong enough. Did you tell Jane any of this?"
The angel backed up a bit. "Uh, no."
Cain felt his eyes start to glow, a low growl tearing out of him. "And why is that?"
"The man upstairs said not to."
The man upstairs.
Cain chuckled, and clapped him on the shoulder. "Well, you better hope the man upstairs deals in technicalities, otherwise you've just fallen and bought yourself a one-way ticket to the lovely and exciting hell, otherwise known as earth. I look forward to our paths crossing."
The angel swallowed hard. The other angel, the one who had been screaming about the apocalypse, had already retreated to hide behind the gate. The receptionist was doing her best to study a list on a scroll. She looked up for a moment and Cain winked at her, unable to help himself. She hurriedly went back to her work.
His assessing glare went back to the angel responsible for the current mess, watching him as he cowered and pulled in on himself as if waiting for the big violence to start. Probably the other angel had gone to get backups - the warrior class. Those angels? They were created. And he didn't feel like slinging it out with them, especially since his noncorporeal trick only worked in the human dimension. And Jane needed him. She was one of his now.
He rolled his eyes and went back to his new charge.
When he returned via the portal point, Jane was huddled in the blanket beside a tree trunk. Most of the tree had broken off in a storm. Her glowing red eyes met his. For all the outward scariness of her demon form, she still seemed fragile. Back when she'd been human, there was a time Cain would have drained her, unable to resist something that screamed prey so loudly. But he hadn't met her until she was already with Cole - if not the werewolf's mate in fact at that point, his mate in spirit. And Cain wouldn't go there, not if he wanted his demon-trapped-in-a-bottle story kept mum.
He sighed as he looked down at her. "Close your eyes, Jane."
"What? Hell no, I'm not stupid." She moved behind the tree trunk as if one broken tree could protect her.
"I can't kill you. I can't fuck you. You're in no real danger from me unless you break my laws. I have a special prison in our dimension for the demons who break my laws. But I don't foresee that kind of trouble from you. Now close your eyes, I'm going to help you change into a form you can feed in."
She looked at him warily, but finally her lids lowered.
"That's right. Now, I want you to think about looking in the mirror and what you looked like before. Hold the image in your mind. Then airbrush it."
One of her eyes quirked open as her face scrunched in confusion. "Airbrush it?"
"You know, envision yourself without any physical flaws. The perfect version of you, like a big, famous magazine took your photograph and airbrushed it."
"I'm not good at visualization," she said.
"Trust me. You are now. Part of the demon package. Just do it."
She closed her eyes again and focused for a few minutes until the change came over her. As her form shifted and became much smaller and more feminine, the blanket she'd had wrapped around her loosened and dropped halfway down her body. At first she didn't notice the modesty compromise.
Her hair, a nice honey color, shimmered about twice as much as normal. Her skin was clearer and more radiant. The scars she'd had were gone. No surprises there, after what the vamps had done to her. And if he wasn't mistaken, she'd just gone up a cup size. He chuckled.
Jane opened her eyes and self-consciously pulled the blanket around her. "Stop ogling me."
"I wasn't ogling. I was merely curious about what changes you'd make to your appearance. This is like attending a birth for me. Let me have my moment."
She rolled her eyes. "I'm hungry."
"I know you are." Cain held out a hand and she took it. He'd teach her everything she needed to know about her new form and her new life, but first he had to get her home to the demon dimension and find her mate.