The darkest night, p.10

The Darkest Night, page 10

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  When Aeron and Danika returned to the fortress, flying through the window and landing on the floor of Maddox's bedroom with a gentle tap, Ashlyn experienced a kick of amazement. So. She hadn't imagined it. The man really did have shiny black wings.

  You wanted to meet others like you, Darrow. Well, guess what. You got your wish.

  Immortal, Maddox had told her. Possessed. She'd suspected demons, so it didn't really surprise her that that's what they were. But wings? While trekking the hill, she'd heard about a man who could fly. She hadn't given the words much thought; she'd been too busy trying to block out the voices. Should have known better. Did that also mean one of the men could sift into the spirit world? One could mesmerize with a look?

  She sighed. Maddox had mesmerized her with only a look. She'd been ensnared by him since the first, her constant lust as uncharacteristic as her rash decision to stay here.

  "Here's the Tylenol," Danika said, her voice shaky. "Well, the generic version. " Her skin was tinted green, and she swayed on her feet. She dug into an emerald bag and withdrew a red-and-white bottle.

  Beside her, Aeron straightened his shoulders. His wings snapped closed, rolling behind his back, then disappearing altogether. He bent down, grabbed his shirt from the floor and tugged it over his head, covering the menacing tattoos that decorated his torso. He strode to the window and shut it before turning to Danika, arms crossed over his massive chest. He stood there, silent, observing.

  "Thank you," Ashlyn said. "I'm just sorry you had to go to such trouble to get them. "

  Silent, Danika handed her two pills, which she gratefully accepted. Little aches and twinges still bothered her, and her stomach still fought a determined battle with nausea, though nothing like before.

  Maddox swiped the pills from her hand before she could toss them into her mouth. He studied them and frowned. "Are they magic?" he asked with genuine curiosity.

  "No," she said.

  "How, then, will two small pebbles help take away pain?"

  Ashlyn and Danika shared a confused look. The men would have had to interact with humans over the years. How could they know nothing of contemporary medicine?

  The only explanation Ashlyn could think of was that they'd never paid attention to a sick human before. Besides, only one of the men, Paris, had been seen in the city with any sort of frequency. She remembered that much from the voices.

  Did Maddox keep himself locked away in this castle, then? Ashlyn suddenly suspected he did, and that made her wonder. . . did he ever feel forgotten? Untouched, unloved? Except for the kindness she'd known from McIntosh, she constantly felt that way herself at the Institute, where she was only as good as her ability. What do you hear, Ashlyn? Was nothing else said, Ashlyn? Did they elaborate, Ashlyn?

  Ashlyn realized she wanted to understand Maddox. She wanted to learn about him, comfort him as he'd comforted her. Maddox couldn't know it, and she wouldn't tell him, but every time he rubbed her stomach and uttered those sweet words of reassurance in her ear, she fell a little in love with him. Foolish and wrong, but unstoppable.

  She should tell him about her own ability, but she'd decided against it the moment he'd shown such angry interest. She'd wondered: If Maddox was already angry without knowing the extent of her abilities, would he freak if he knew the truth?

  Most of the people at the Institute had been uncomfortable around her, knowing she could divine their most private discussions simply by stepping into a room. Since she'd decided to stay here, weird place though it was, she didn't want to deal with that discomfort. For once, she wanted to be thought of as the normal one. Just for a little while.

  Around demons, that shouldn't be too difficult.

  She'd spill the truth soon enough. In a few days, perhaps. And maybe then she could learn to keep the voices at bay, even when Maddox wasn't around. Meanwhile, she'd have to find a way to call McIntosh. He deserved to know what had happened to her and that she was okay. She didn't want him to worry.

  Hopefully, he was studying the fortress as she suspected and would see that she was happy. Hopefully, her happiness came before her job in his eyes.

  "Take them," Maddox said, pushing into her thoughts. He placed the pills in her open palm. "If they make her worse," he added, looking sternly at Danika, "I cannot be held responsible for my actions. "

  "Don't threaten her," Ashlyn said with a shake of her head. "I've taken this type of drug before. I'll be fine. "

  "She - "

  "Hasn't done anything wrong. " Ashlyn wasn't sure where she acquired the bravery. She only knew it was there, unwilling to let Maddox bluster and intimidate.

  He wouldn't hurt her, she knew that now - a fact she still had trouble grasping. Beyond the miracle of making the voices stop, this harsh man had tenderly seen to her needs. He hadn't bolted when she'd vomited, as most would have done. He'd stayed with her, caring for her, holding her close, as if she were precious.

  As wonderfully as he might have treated her, however, Ashlyn didn't know what he was capable of doing to someone else. She knew what he looked capable of doing: any dark deed, every evil deed. But there was no way she'd let him hurt Danika, who had also helped her.

  "Ashlyn," he said on a sigh.

  "Maddox. "

  His fingers stilled, splayed on her stomach. Thankfully, he didn't move away. She could have rested in his arms forever. Truly, no one, not even McIntosh, had ever made her feel so special.

  She only vaguely remembered her parents. They hadn't coddled her like this, either. Actually, they'd been more than happy to get rid of their crying, screaming little girl. A little girl who'd constantly begged for the voices to stop, never allowing the people around her to sleep or work or relax.

  She'd known the very day they'd decided to give her away, though she hadn't understood at the time. She'd walked into their bedroom and the entire conversation had unfolded in her mind.

  I can't take care of her anymore. She's too much to handle. I can't eat, I can't sleep, I can't think.

  We can't just abandon her, but damn it. I can't take any more, either. The crying never stops.

  I want a normal life again, you know? Like before she was born. Pause. I did some research and found a place that could help her. I. . . called them. They want to meet her. Maybe, I don't know, maybe they can give her what we can't.

  They'd sent her to Institute the day after her fifth birthday. There, she'd become known as "subject. " Needles, electrodes and monitors became her daily companions, not to mention fear and loneliness and pain. The day she became "Ashlyn" in the eyes of the staff was three years later, when they learned how to use her ability to their advantage.

  That was the day McIntosh had stepped into her life.

  He'd been an ambitious young parapsychologist, quickly climbing the ranks thanks to his vision, drive and sheer passion for his work. He'd accompanied her to every location the voices led her to, had even stood beside her while she listened, writing down everything she uttered.

  Afterward, he would research what she'd heard and tell her of the results - like the time she'd heard about a vampire intent on draining an entire town. The Institute had been able to find and stop him, and eventually study him. Times like that, she had felt special, gifted, like the characters he read about every night.

  "Ashlyn," Maddox repeated. Their gazes locked and his eyes blazed with violet fire. "Say my name again. "

  "Maddox. "

  His eyes closed for a split second, and for that all-too-quick moment he wore an expression of utter rapture. "I like when you say it. "

  She liked the joy he drew from something so simple. A shiver slipped along the ridges of her spine. But in the next flash - that all-too-quick moment now passed - his countenance returned to normal. That hint of pleasure vanished from his features, as if he didn't trust himself with the emotion.

  "Danika will - "

  "Get me some water," Ashlyn finished for him. "For th
e pills. "

  "Yes. I'll get it. " Danika picked up the empty glass from the floor. She stumbled into the bathroom. The sound of running water filled Ashlyn's ears, then Danika was standing beside her again, holding out the glass.

  Once again, Maddox confiscated it. He aimed a suspicious look at Danika, then raised Ashlyn's head and held the cup to her lips. She tossed the pills onto her tongue and swallowed a mouthful of cool, refreshing liquid. Everything slid down her welcoming throat with only the slightest hint of soreness.

  "Thank you," she told them.

  "It's done, then. I'll escort the girl back to Lucien," Aeron finally said, his voice so harsh it nearly rubbed her eardrums raw.

  "The girl' has a name," Danika snapped.

  "What is it? Lippy?" he muttered, grabbing her arm and tugging her from the room. Obviously, the man had no manners and no idea how to treat a woman.

  If Ashlyn really decided to stay here, she'd have to fix that. "Wait!" she called.

  They didn't.

  "Is she going to be okay?"

  There was a slight hesitation. "Yes," Maddox said.

  "Good," she said, her voice echoing off the walls. That was the moment she realized she was alone with Maddox. Of course, that was also the moment she became aware of the awful taste in her mouth. God, she must look like roadkill, and smell worse. Mortification heated her cheeks. "I, uh, need to use the bathroom. "

  "I'll help. " He scooped her up as if she were merely a bag of feathers, and stood. She wrapped her arms around his neck, his strength and warmth flooding all the way to her bones.

  He carried her past the threshold and stopped in the center of the bathroom. Suspecting he meant to stay, she shook her head and fought a wave of dizziness. "I can do it on my own. "

  "You might fall. "

  She might, but there was no way she was going to let him stay with her, watching. "I'm fine. "

  His expression was doubtful, but he said, "Call if you need me. I'll be waiting right outside the door. " He slowly inched her legs down the hard span of his body.

  Her feet hit the floor and her knees almost crumpled. I will not fall, I freaking will not fall. She reached around Maddox and grabbed the doorknob, using it to hold herself steady. "Back up, please," she said.

  He did - but he didn't go happily. When he stood outside, she shut the thick, polished wood in his face.

  "Five minutes," he said.

  She flipped the lock, muttering, "I'll take as long as I need. "

  "No, you will not. In five minutes, I'm coming in whether you're done or not. The lock means nothing. "

  "Stubborn. "

  "Concerned. "

  Sweet. With a half smile, she rinsed off as best she could and used one of the toothbrushes she found in the cabinet to clean her teeth. Twice she almost fell. She made use of the facilities, brushed the tangles from her hair, and decided, after studying her pale reflection in the mirror, that there was nothing more she could do for her appearance without spackle.

  With one minute to spare, she unlocked the door and called for Maddox. Her voice was weak, but he threw open the wood as if she'd shouted. His expression was tense. She closed her eyes against the intensifying dizziness.

  "You pushed yourself too far. " He tsked. Once again he scooped her up. He carried her to the bed and laid her on the softness of the mattress before easing down beside her.

  She peeked at him through her lashes. More than treating her with care, Maddox was the first man ever to lie on a bed with her. The first man to desire her, really.

  She'd tried to date upon occasion, but the voices had bombarded her every damn time. To quiet them, she'd attempted the deep breathing and meditation she'd learned. The men had always assumed she was ignoring them, hyperventilating or having a panic attack and had wanted nothing more to do with her.

  Once, she'd even gone on a date with a colleague from the Institute, thinking he would at least understand her, if not sympathize. The next day, she'd heard his whispered conversation with another coworker. Freak, he'd called her. Couldn't spread her legs with a crowbar.

  After that, she'd given up dating altogether.

  "Feel better?" Maddox asked. He drew her into the curve of his body, exactly where she wanted to be.

  That delicious heat enveloped her and she uttered a contented sigh. She'd searched her entire life, but it had taken a possessed immortal to show her this slice of silent, lust-filled heaven on earth.

  "Better?" he repeated.

  "Much. " She yawned. Warm, safe and clean, pain almost completely gone, she felt exhaustion settle over her, beckoning her to sleep. Her eyelids fluttered closed. She forced them open. She wasn't ready to end this reprieve with Maddox.

  "We have much more to discuss," he said.

  He sounded far away, and she struggled to pull herself out of the drugging lassitude weaving though her from head to toe. "I know. "

  If he replied, she didn't hear. She was sinking deeper and deeper. Gently, he kissed her cheek. His lips were firm but soft, and fire burned between them on contact. Open your eyes, Darrow. Maybe he'll kiss you on the mouth. She tried, really she did. But though the mind was willing, the body was weak.

  "We will talk later," Maddox said softly. "Sleep now. "

  "You'll stay?" How can I need him like this? I haven't even known him a full day.

  "Yes. Now, sleep for me. "

  Helpless to do otherwise, she obeyed.

  "I saw them," Aeron told the others grimly. "Maddox didn't kill them all, and Paris and Reyes must have missed them when they went scouting. There are more Hunters, and they're gathered in the city even now. I think I heard one of them say the word tonight, but I was too high in the air to be sure. "

  For the second time in two days, Aeron was sitting on the couch in the entertainment room, warriors surrounding him. He rarely came here, preferring instead to seek his own entertainment outside. From the outskirts of the city and the safety of the shadows, he'd secretly watch the mortals interact and wonder why they weren't more concerned about their weaknesses.

  Now, he couldn't seem to get away from this chamber.

  Paris had returned and was watching another movie. Reyes was pounding away at the punching bag, Torin was leaning against the corner at the far end of the room and Lucien was shooting pool, having barricaded his bedroom door with timber and nails to liberate himself from guard duty. Only Maddox was absent, but Aeron was glad for that.

  The man was too unpredictable today, not to mention too wrapped up in his human. Aeron snorted. Not him. Never him. While he liked to study that foolish species, he had never joined them. Even the pretty blonde had not tempted him. Humans were too weak, and his demon constantly urged him to destroy them in ways that mirrored their own sins.

  A rapist would lose his cock. A wife-beater would lose his hands. More and more, Aeron liked what he did, liked meting out his own form of vengeance. Which was why he was so close to the edge.

  The girl, though. . .

  When they had returned from the city, he had deposited her in Lucien's bedroom, her curves imprinted in his mind but his body completely unaffected. She did nothing for him. None of those puny humans did. They were too easily broken, too easily scared. Too easily taken from those who loved them. But he still did not want to hurt her.

  "How do you know they are Hunters?" Lucien asked him. His features were strained, his wall of calm showing signs of crumbling as he nailed the eight ball into the corner pocket.

  "They had guns and knives strapped to their bodies, and I saw the mark of infinity on one of their wrists. " Branding themselves was foolish, if you asked him. Like putting a neon sign around their necks that read Shoot here.

  "How many?"

  "Six. "

  "Well, this sucks. " Paris dropped his head in his hands. He wore a pair of unfastened jeans and nothing else. Aeron had spotted him in the city, pounding into a woman in a shadowy corner of a building, and had told him to
finish quickly and hurry home. Promiscuity must have taken the request to heart. "Where there's six, there's six more and where there's six more and so on and so on. "

  "Damned Hunters," Reyes snarled, hitting the bag with more force.

  Pain was in a dark mood. Darker than usual, Aeron qualified. "I do not wish to pack up and leave this time. This is our home. We have done nothing wrong. " Yet. "If they've come to fight, I say we fight them. "

  "They haven't challenged us. " Lucien scrubbed two fingers over his jaw, a habit of his. "Why?"

  "They came up the hill. That is challenge enough. And what about Maddox's girl? The Hunters could be waiting for her signal. "

  "She's more a complication now than ever," Torin muttered. "I still wonder what role the gods are playing in this. "

  Aeron plucked at the silver loop in his eyebrow. "We'll have to tell Maddox. "

  Torin shook his head. "It won't matter to him. You've seen the way he is with her. "

  "Yes. " And he was still disgusted by it. What kind of warrior turned on his friends for a woman who would ultimately betray him?

  Lucien laid down his cue and tossed a ball into the air. Catch. Toss. Catch. "We'll be watching and we'll let the Hunters up the hill this time. I don't want innocents killed during the battle. "

  Reyes gave the punching bag a mean right. "I don't want Hunters here. Not in our home. Let's parade Maddox's human around town, using their Bait as our Bait. They'll follow us, meaning to save her and attack. We'll draw them into a trap, away from the townspeople, and obliterate them. "

  Everyone regarded him sharply. "If we're seen," Aeron said, "the city will turn on us. It will be Greece all over again. "

  "They won't see," Reyes insisted. "Torin can monitor the area with his cameras and radio us to let us know the moment someone approaches. "

  Aeron thought about it, then nodded in approval. The Hunters would be distracted while trying to save Ashlyn, leaving the warriors to pick them off one by one. More important, Aeron wouldn't have to clean their blood from the walls.

  He glanced at Lucien, who looked resigned. "Very well. We will use the girl. "

  Paris rubbed the back of his neck and Aeron thought he meant to protest. Surprisingly, he didn't. "I guess all we have to do now is figure out how to keep Maddox from handing us our asses when he finds out. "

  Danika peered at her mother, her sister and her grandmother. Their familiar faces regarded her with hope and curiosity, dread and fear. She was the youngest, but she'd somehow become their leader.

  "What happened?" Her mother wrung her hands together. "What did they do to you?"

  What should she tell them? Danika doubted they'd believe the truth: that she'd performed CPR, helped save a woman from dying and then found herself being flown - flown! - into the city by a winged man, where she gathered her purse, listened to Aeron as he commanded another warrior to go home - a warrior who had had a fortyish woman pinned against a wall, screwing her brains out - and then come back here. All in about thirty minutes. And to top it all off, there was the voice that had mysteriously popped into her head earlier this morning, but she didn't even want to think about that.

  She'd lived through all of it, and yet it was unbelievable even to her. Besides, the truth would scare them. And they were scared enough. "I think they'll let us go soon," she lied.

  Grandma Mallory started crying, great sobs of relief. Ginger, Danika's older sister, collapsed on the bed with a soft "Thank God. " Only her mother remained unmoving.

  "Did they hurt you, baby?" Tears filled her eyes. "It's okay, you can tell me. I can take it. "

  "No, they didn't," she answered honestly.

  "You still have to tell us what happened. " Her mom gripped her hands and squeezed. "Okay? All right? I've been going crazy, imagining all kinds of things. "

  Realizing they would actually worry more if she left them in the dark, she finally told them what had happened. The warriors had terrified her, yes. And the dark-eyed one had even managed to - God, she hated to admit this - awaken something inside her with that intense stare of his, causing her to plead for his help.

  A plea he'd ignored, the bastard.

  But she had to concede that the men had surprised her as much as they'd frightened her. After all, the black-haired man with the strange purple eyes had treated the sick woman, Ashlyn, like a treasure. He'd held her gently. He hadn't seemed bothered by the vomit in the bowl and the smell in the room. His concern had only been for Ashlyn.

  Oh, to have a man treat her like that.

  She couldn't imagine the hard-looking Reyes softening so much. Or caressing so gently, even while making love. Instantly an image of him, naked and straining, slithered into her mind. With a shiver, she forced a blanket of black over the image. She'd reached for him, begged help from him, and he'd denied her. She would not forget that Reyes wasn't a man to rely on.

  "What if these. . . things don't let us go?" her mom asked on a choked sob. "What if they decide to kill us like they've been talking about?"

  Stay strong. Don't let them see those same fears reflected in you. "They promised to let us live if I helped cure that woman, and I did. "

  "Men lie all the time," her sister said, sitting up. Ginger was twenty-nine years old and an aerobics instructor. Usually calm and reserved. None of them had ever been in a situation like this, and none of them really knew how to handle it.

  They'd led normal lives until now, getting up every morning and going to work, carefree and unconcerned, deceived into believing that nothing bad would happen to them. Before this, the worst thing Danika had ever dealt with was the death of her grandpa two months ago. He'd been a loving man with a zest for life, and she'd felt his loss to the marrow of her bones. They all had. Did.

  They'd thought, hoped, vacationing here would help dull the grief and make them feel closer to a man they'd never see again. Granddad had loved it here, had constantly talked about the magical two weeks he'd spent here before marrying Grandma.

  He had never mentioned a group of homicidal warriors with wings.

  "We've searched the room over and over again," her grandma said. Her weathered face was more lined than usual. "The only way out is the front door or the window, and we can't open either one. "

  "Why do they want to hurt us?" Ginger cried. Her blue gaze was watery, her pale hair damp from her many bouts of tears. Red splotches stained her skin from forehead to chin.

  None of them were pretty criers.

  "They didn't say. " Danika sighed. God, what a nightmare. Right before they'd been taken, she and her family had toured the castle district. She'd never seen anything so lovely as the multihued lights shining from hundreds of years of majestic architecture. She'd yearned for her paints, her canvas, wanting to capture the sights.

  And that's exactly what she'd planned to do at the hotel. Paint.

  But the moment she'd stepped inside her room, a man - a large, scarred man with dark hair and oddly colored eyes - had accosted her. He'd smelled of flowers, she remembered, the scent somehow comforting her even in the midst of the greatest panic attack of her life. The winged man had been there, too, only his wings had been hidden underneath a T-shirt.

  How easily they'd subdued her. Shame still filled her at the thought. Four women against two men, and still the women had lost, had hardly put up a fight. They'd been knocked out and carted here, awakening in this very room.

  "Maybe we should try to seduce a key from one of them," Ginger whispered to her.

  The dark-skinned, black-eyed warrior immediately pushed his way into Danika's thoughts. Every time she'd seen him, he'd been bleeding. Clumsy? He hadn't seemed so, but. . . Perhaps she should have offered to "doctor" his wounds. Maybe he would have been nicer to her. Maybe he would have helped her when she'd asked.

  Maybe he would have kissed her.

  The thought alone excited her, damn it. "No woman should have to barter her body to escape a prison," she said, angry at herself. The i
mage of Reyes swam before her eyes again, and she found herself adding, "But I'll think about it. "
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