As John stepped free of the underground tunnel, he was momentarily blinded by brightness. And then his eyesight adjusted. Oh, my God. It's beautiful.
The vast lobby was rainbow vivid, so colorful he felt like his retinas couldn't take it all in. From the green and red marble columns to the multihued mosaic floor to the gold leafing everywhere to the—
Holy Michelangelo, look at that ceiling.
Three stories up, paintings of angels and clouds and warriors on great horses covered an expanse that seemed as big as a football field. And there was more… All around the second floor there was a gold-leafed balcony that had panels inset with similar depictions. Then there was the grand staircase with its own ornate balustrade.
The proportions of the space were perfect. The colors luscious. The art sublime. And it wasn't Donald Trump rent-a-royalty. Even John, who didn't know anything about style, had this funny sense that what he was looking at was the real deal. The person who had built this mansion and decorated it knew his stuff and had the money to buy top-drawer everything: a true aristocrat.
"Sweet, isn't it? My brother D built this place in 1914." Tohr put his hands on his hips as he glanced around, then cleared his throat briskly. "Yeah, he had fabulous taste. The best of the best for him."
John measured Tohr's face carefully. He'd never heard that tone of voice come out of the man before. Such sadness…
Tohr smiled and urged John forward with a hand to the shoulder. "Don't look at me like that. I feel like an unwrapped sausage when you do."
They headed for the second floor, walking up dark red carpeting so lush it was like stepping on a mattress. When John got to the top, he looked over the balcony at the lobby's floor design. The mosaics coalesced into a spectacular depiction of a fruit tree in full bloom.
"Apples play a role in our rituals," Tohr said. "Or at least, they do when we observe them. Not a lot of that's been going on lately, but Wrath's convening the first winter solstice ceremony in a hundred or so years."
That's what Wellsie's been working on, right? John signed.
"Yeah. She's handling a lot of the logistics. The race is hungry to get back to the rituals, and it's about time."
When John didn't look away from the splendor, Tohr said, "Son? Wrath's waiting for us."
John nodded and followed, going across the landing to a set of double doors marked with some kind of seal. Tohr was just lifting his hand to knock when the brass handles turned and the interior was revealed. Except no one was on the other side. So how had the things opened?
John glanced in. The room was cornflower blue and reminded him of pictures from a history book. It was French, wasn't it? With all the curlicues and fancy furnishings—
John suddenly had trouble swallowing.
"My Lord," Tohr said, bowing and then walking forward.
John just stood there in the doorway. Behind a spectacular French desk that was way too pretty and way too little for him, there was a massive man with shoulders bigger than even Tohr's. Long black hair fell straight from a widow's peak, and that face… the hard composite of it spelled out do-not-fuck-with-me. God, the wraparound sunglasses made him look positively cruel.
"John?" Tohr said.
John went to Tohr's side and hid a little. Yeah, it was a pansy thing to do, but he'd never felt smaller or more dispensable in his life. Hell, next to the power of the guy in front of them, he was almost convinced he didn't actually exist.
The king shifted in his chair, leaning onto the desk.
"Come here, son." The voice was low and accented, the r stretching out quite a while before its word ended.
"Go on." Tohr gave him a nudge when he didn't move. "It's all right."
John stumbled over his feet, making it across the room with absolutely no finesse. He halted in front of the desk as if he were a rock that had rolled to a stop.
The king rose and kept rising until he seemed tall as an office building. Wrath had to be six-foot-seven or more, and the black clothes he wore, particularly the leathers, made him even larger.
"Come behind here."
John glanced back to make sure Tohr was still in the room.
"It's okay, son," the king said. "I'm not going to hurt you."
John moved around, his heart beating like a mouse's. As he tilted his head and looked up, the king's arm stretched out. The insides of it, from wrist to elbow, were covered with black tattoos. And the designs were like the ones John had seen in his dreams, the ones he'd put on the bracelet he wore…
"I'm Wrath," the man said. There was a pause. "You want to shake my hand, son?"
Oh, right. John reached out, half expecting his bones to be crushed. Instead he just felt steady warmth as they made contact.
"That name on your bracelet," Wrath said. "It's Tehrror. Do you want to go by that or John?"
John panicked and glanced back at Tohr, because he didn't know what he wanted and didn't know how to communicate that to the king.
"Easy, son." Wrath laughed softly. "You can decide later."
The king's face suddenly snapped to the side, as if he'd focused on something out in the hall. Just as abruptly a smile stretched his hard lips into an expression of total reverence.
"Leelan," Wrath breathed.
"Sorry I'm late." The female voice was low and lovely. "Mary and I are so worried about Bella. We're trying to figure out how to help her."
"You two will find a way. Come meet John."
John turned to the door and looked at a woman—
White light suddenly took the place of his vision, just wiped out everything he saw. It was like being hit with a halogen beam. He blinked, blinked, blinked… And then from out of the infinite nothing, he saw the woman again. She was dark-haired, with eyes that reminded him of someone he'd loved… No, not reminded… hers were the eyes of his… What? Of his what?
John swayed. Heard voices coming at him from a distance.
On the inside of him, in his chest, down deep in the chambers of his beating heart, he felt a splintering, like he'd split in half. He was losing her… he was losing the dark-haired woman… he was…
He felt his mouth go wide, working as if he were trying to speak, but then spasms overtook him, jerking through his little body, flopping him off the soles of his feet, sending him tumbling to the ground.
Zsadist knew it was time to get Bella out of the tub, because she'd been in it for almost an hour and her skin was pruning up. Except then he glanced through the water at the towel he kept pulling into place over her body.
Shit… getting her out with that thing on was going to get messy.
With a wince, he reached over and pulled it off.
Looking away quickly, he slung the wet load to the floor and grabbed a dry one, which he put right next to the tub. Gritting his teeth, he leaned forward and pushed his arms into the water, going for her body. His eyes ended up right on the level of her breasts.
Oh, God… They were perfect. Creamy white with little pink tips. And the water flirted with her nipples, teasing them with rippling kisses that made them glisten.
He squeezed his lids shut, pulled his arms out of the tub, and sat back on his heels. When he was ready to try again, he focused on the wall ahead and arched over… only to feel a quick shot of pain at his hips. He looked down, confused.
There was a swollen bulge in his pants. The it was so hard, a tent had popped out of the front of his warm-ups. Clearly the thing had gotten squeezed against the side of the tub when he'd leaned over, and that was what the stinger was about.
Cursing, he pushed the it around with the heel of his hand, hating the feel of the heavy weight, the way the hard length got tangled in his sweats, the fact that he had to deal with it at all. Except no matter how much he tried, he couldn't get the thing arranged right, at least not without putting his hand inside and working it around, which he was damn well not going to do. Eventually he gave up and left the erection caught at an angle, twisted and hurting.
Served the bastard right.
Zsadist took a deep breath, slid his arms into the water, and wrapped them under Bella's body. He lifted her out, shocked anew at how light she was; then he propped her against the marble wall using the outside of his hip and a hand on her collarbone. He picked up the towel he'd left on the Jacuzzi's edge, but before he put it around her, his eyes shifted to the letters on the skin of her stomach.
Something odd lurched in his chest, a heavy weight… No, it was a descending sensation, as if he were falling down, though he was on a level. He was astonished. It had been so long since anything had broken through the anger or the numbness. He had a feeling he was… sad?
Whatever. She had goose bumps, was covered in them. So now was not the time to get all into himself.
He wrapped her up and carried her to the bed. Shoving the comforter aside, he laid her out flat, taking the damp towel off of her. As he covered her with the sheets and blankets, he caught sight of her belly again.
That weird tilting sensation came back, like his heart had taken a gondola ride into his gut. Or maybe his thighs.
He tucked her in and then went to the thermostat. Facing the dial, looking at numbers and writing he didn't understand, he had no idea what to turn it to. He moved the little pointer from all the way to the left to somewhere right of center, but he wasn't sure exactly what he'd done.
He glanced over to the bureau. The two syringes and the glass vial of morphine were sitting where Havers had left them. Z went over, picked up a needle, the drug, and the dosage instructions, then paused before leaving the room. Bella was so still in that bed, so small against all the pillows.
He imagined her in that pipe in the ground. Frightened. In pain. Cold. Then he imagined the lesser doing what he'd done to her, holding her down while she struggled and screamed.
This time Z knew what he felt.
Vengeance. Icy cold vengeance. So much of it the shit ran straight into infinity.