Descent (Kissed by Death) - Tara Fuller

Chapter 1


“All in.” The imp shoved his pile of makeshift chips across the boulder we were using as a table, breaking the silence between us. I probably should have been thinking about the cards between my fingers. Or even the soul I’d reaped an hour ago currently huddled in the corner behind us waiting to meet his fate. Instead, I let him stew. I watched the cave walls around us heave and buckle like a living thing and listened to the screams of the damned play a sick soundtrack set on repeat for eternity. We were only steps away from the entrance to Hell. The demons impatiently rattling the iron gates behind us didn’t let you forget that. The pocket of sweltering stone that served as neutral ground for a creature like Cyril was nothing more than the foyer to Hell.

A low rumble rolled up the imp’s throat, and I reluctantly returned my attention to the poker game, tapping my cards against the table. Cyril’s eyes twitched with impatience. I was going to win. I always won. Yet every day, the ignorant little addict sat across from me, a gleam of hope in his cold, yellow eyes. And every day I dragged his torture out longer than necessary. It was only fitting. This was Hell, after all.

I eyed the pile of stones on the table. “You sure you want to do that?”

“Why are you ssstalling? Afraid you’ll losssse, reaper?”

Something dark and muddy oozed from a gaping wound on his scarred chin, but Cyril ignored it in favor of smoothing back the stringy excuse for a patch of hair on his balding head. Jesus…a normal person would have lost their lunch over the mere sight of him, at the very least had to suppress a gag. I simply raised a brow and studied his shitty poker face. After four hundred years of delivering the dark and damned to the pits of Hell, faces like Cyril’s didn’t shake me anymore. Things like innocence and beauty were a hell of a lot more shocking in my line of work.

“We play this game every week, and every week, I hand you your ass,” I said. “What makes you think today will be any different?”

Cyril snorted and wiped his wrist across his mouth. When he pulled it away, a sizzling black slime dripped from the playing cards in his hand, eating through the paper like acid. Before they could be damaged beyond recognition, he slapped his cards down, face up with a triumphant grin.

“Two pairsss,” he hissed.

I flipped over my cards. “Full house. Sorry, Cyril. I win again.”

Pulling my ash-coated boots off the table, I gathered the little smooth stones and dumped them into my pocket. They were worthless to me, but it would drive him absolutely crazy. For a demon like Cyril, whose blood hummed with the need to gamble, every loss was agony.

He slammed his puke-green fists onto the table and screeched, “No! You cheat!”

“Never,” I replied, grabbing my most recent reap by the collar and heaving him onto his feet. “I’m just that good. Now be a good imp and carry this over for daddy.”

I shoved the shivering soul and he stumbled, seeming to come out of the daze he’d been trapped in since his death.

“Wait…this isn’t real.” He patted his chest, hands skimming over the place where his wounds had been. “I don’t feel dead. Feel me. I’m still here.”

I raised a brow. “You mean the body? That, friend, is a special gift, courtesy of Hell. How else did you expect them to torture you for an eternity?”

A choked sob escaped the soul’s throat, and Cyril scowled with disgust before casting a fearful glance over his shoulder to the gates. Smokelike fingers curled around the bars, and a feral growl echoed off the stone walls that kept us sheltered from the other side. He knew as well as I did what lurked behind those shadows and down the dark corridors ahead. They were the things nightmares were made of. And after thirty-two reaps in less than twenty-four hours, I was in no mood for the sick games the demons inside would want to play.

I was lucky Cyril had been impatient today, lingering at the gaping mouth of the mountain that served as the entrance to Hell, needing the fix he hoped I’d provide. Normally he would have lured me into the city, where, when the furnace whistle blew, the flash of heat could melt flesh from bone. A place where sanity was