The darkest night, p.13

The Darkest Night, page 13

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night


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CHAPTER THIRTEEN

 

  Ashlyn stared at the splintered door that had just been slammed in her face by Maddox, trapping her inside another bedroom. Another prison. Oh! That man was infuriating. He'd tenderly, wildly pleasured her in a way that should have embarrassed her - had embarrassed her until that first wondrous lave of his hot tongue - and then he'd become a warrior again, hard and harsh and determined.

  Yet still she'd desired him.

  He'd threatened to lock her away with another innocent woman - a woman he had already locked away. Shameful behavior, to be sure.

  Still she'd desired him. Had even bitten his earlobe and tried to tempt him to finish what they'd started in that shower. But he'd resisted, escorting her down the hallway and into this room, where he'd dumped her without a kiss or even a word.

  And still she foolishly desired him.

  She wanted him to hold her, to cuddle her as she'd always dreamed someone would. She wanted him to talk to her and get to know her. And then she wanted him to freaking make love to her! All the way, this time. Nothing held back.

  This desire she had for him was too strong and she didn't understand it. He was ruthless and cryptic and temperamental. He was spawned from hell itself. But he was also kind, caring and the best thing to ever happen to her body. Oh yeah. And he was silence. As if she could forget about that. Damn it!

  "Who are you?" a female voice suddenly asked.

  Pulled from her musings, Ashlyn whipped around. Danika and three other women, ranging in age from late seventies to twenty-something, peered over at her with equal measures of concern and fear. Dear God. Maddox had four women locked away? Was this to be an immortal's harem?

  Well, you do have the costume.

  Danika stepped forward. "She's the sick one. The one I - " she coughed " - healed. "

  "Thank you for that," Ashlyn said softly, not sure what else to say to this stranger who wasn't a stranger.

  Danika nodded in acknowledgment. "You look better. " Her gaze raked over Ashlyn before slitting with suspicion. "Miraculously better, to be honest. "

  "I wish I could explain it, but I can't. Once the nausea passed, my strength returned. Seems those 'small pebbles' did the trick, after all. "Ashlyn studied her, as well. "You look better, too. You've lost that lovely green tint. "

  "Well, that was the first time I ever rode a man to fetch painkillers. " Danika anchored her hands on her hips. "So what brings you to Castle Spook? Were you kidnapped, too?"

  Ashlyn wasn't given time to answer.

  "Who are these people?" a slightly older version of Danika asked. "What are they? Danika said one of them has wings. "

  If they didn't already know, she wasn't going to be the one to break it to them.

  With barely a pause, the oldest of the group asked, "Do you know a way out?"

  All of the women closed in on her as they spoke, encircling her. They peered at her hopefully, as if she held all the answers and could save them from the vilest of fates.

  She held up her hands, palms out. "Everyone slow down. " Kidnapped, Danika had said. Why would Maddox have done such a thing? "Are any of you hunters or bait?" Every time Maddox said those two words, there was disgust in his voice.

  "As in, do we hunt treasure? Bait a hook?" Danika's face scrunched in confusion, but there was a hard glint in her green eyes. "No. "

  "As in, I have no idea. I was hoping someone here would know. " Voices of the past began to edge their way into her mind. One conversation after another. "No. No, not again. " She felt herself pale, heat evaporating from her skin, leaving only a cold, trembling shell. Breathe. Just breathe.

  "I think she's getting sick again," Danika said, concerned. "Can you make it to the bed?" she asked Ashlyn.

  "N-no. I just want to sit. "

  Suddenly a pair of hands settled on top of her shoulders, easing her to the floor. Ashlyn went willingly, her legs becoming too weak to hold her up. Shuddering, she drew air into her lungs.

  They're going to kill us.

  We have to escape.

  How? Hysterical laughter.

  If we have to jump out the window, then we jump. They want to infect us with some sort of disease.

  We jump, we die.

  We stay, we die.

  The voices belonged to these women, Ashlyn realized. Every word they'd spoken in the room was going to play through her head. Damn it, she'd gotten used to the silence.

  Had assumed she'd have peace as long as she stayed out of the dungeon. Hopefully, they hadn't been here long enough to have too many conversations.

  I miss Grandpa. He'd know what to do.

  Well, he's not here, is he? We have to figure it out on our own.

  A buttered roll and a glass of apple juice were shoved under her nose. "Here," Danika said gently. "These might help. "

  Who's talking? Who said that?

  Who are you talking to, Dani?

  Uh, no one.

  Ashlyn accepted both with shaky hands. On and on and on their exchange tumbled. Sometimes, as it had been in the dungeon, the conversations seemed one-sided. She couldn't hear who the women were talking to; she only knew they were talking to someone other than themselves.

  She heard Danika say, If - if I am a healer, will you swear to spare my mother, sister and grandmother? They haven't done anything wrong. We came to Budapest to get away, to say goodbye to my grandpa. We -

  But she didn't hear the comment before it. Or after. Why?

  The men were immortal, but she'd heard immortal creatures speak before. Vampires, goblins, shape-shifters, even. Why not the demons here? They had to be the ones Danika had been speaking to.

  Ashlyn nibbled at the bread and sipped the juice, trying to tune out each new discussion. She hummed. She meditated. The women attempted to engage her, but she simply couldn't respond. There were too many voices vying for her attention.

  One by one, the women gave up. How many minutes or hours passed after that, she didn't know. So many times she almost called for Maddox, but she held the pleas back, biting her tongue until she tasted blood. He had chores to do, he'd said. Besides, she didn't want to be a burden. A nuisance.

  That's what you came here for, she reminded herself. To demand that these men teach you how to control your powers, even if it meant becoming a nuisance to them.

  But that had been before Maddox actually entered her life. Now she wanted him to be her lover (if he would, the jerk), not her nursemaid. Again.

  You hear a. . . a. . . voice? In your mind?

  Yes.

  And it's not your own?

  Maybe, probably. I don't know.

  Blessedly, the murmurings did stop, ending at the moment of Ashlyn's entrance. Relieved as she was, she had to admit she had learned several new tidbits of information. The first and most significant: Danika had heard of hunters - she'd told her family about them.

  "Hunters," Ashlyn said, lifting her gaze. Danika was looking out the room's only window, a window none of the women had been able to pry open. Ashlyn had heard them try and fail. "What are they? Don't lie to me this time. Please. "

  Startled, Danika jumped and turned, hand over heart. "Better again, eh? Why should we trust you? You could be working for those men. They might've sent you here to learn something from us, and when you learn it, they'll storm inside and kill us. "

  "True. " After all, these women only knew she'd been sick and snuggled up to their enemy. "But you saved me. Why would I want you hurt?"

  Danika peered over at her but said nothing.

  "You'll just have to trust that I'm not here to trap you or hurt you. We're in the same situation, you and I. "

  "But what about the angry one? Maddox. You're dating him. "

  Dating wasn't exactly the word she'd use. Ashlyn tried to picture Maddox sitting across from her in some candlelit restaurant, drinking wine and listening to soft music. Her lips lifted in a smile. "Maybe. So?"

  "So, that makes you one of them. "
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  "I'm not," she insisted. "I just got here. Yesterday, in fact. "

  Danika's eyes widened, her golden lashes hitting her equally golden eyebrows. "Now I know you're lying. He cares for you, that much was obvious. A man doesn't show that much compassion to a woman he's just met. "

  Yes, he'd been compassionate. Yes, he'd been kind. Tender. Unerringly sweet. The fiercest man she'd ever met had mopped her brow and cleaned her face. "Again, I can't explain it. I'm not lying. "

  A minute ticked by in silence.

  "Fine. " Danika's shoulders lifted in a deceptively casual shrug. "You want to know about hunters, I'll tell you. Not like it's crucial info, anyway. " Inhale, exhale. "When the winged man, Aeron, took me into the city, he spotted a group of men. They were armed like soldiers and they were sneaking around back alleys as if they didn't want to be seen. "

  So far, that told her nothing.

  "Aeron muttered Hunters under his breath and whipped out a dagger. " Anger began to color Danika's soft timbre. The memory obviously wasn't her favorite. "He would have fought them if he hadn't been carting me around. He said so. He also said those men had come to kill him and his friends. " She spoke the last in a deep, dark tone, mimicking Aeron. Ashlyn nearly smiled at the gloom-and-doom inflection. "I wanted them to fight, distract him so I could run. But they didn't. They didn't see us. "

  Ashlyn frowned. Hunters of the immortal. Wasn't that basically what she did for the Institute? She listened to conversations to find - hunt - those who were not exactly human. Stop right there. The Institute studies, observes, renders aid when needed and takes extreme action only when threatened.

  She took comfort in that. The employees were utterly scientific when dealing with the creatures they found, not predatory.

  They were not always so fair-minded with her.

  The first time an attempt had been made against her, it was because she'd stumbled across a recent conversation a coworker had had with a child. He'd lured that sweet, innocent little girl. . . he'd threatened. . . he'd done terrible things. Sickened, Ashlyn had turned him in. He'd retaliated by trying to shoot her. McIntosh, always close by her side, had thrown her down, saving her life.

  The second time, she was nearly stabbed in the back - literally - by a woman intent on keeping her affair a secret. McIntosh had once again acted as her bodyguard, shielding her and taking the slice instead.

  The third and final time, about eleven months ago, she was poisoned. Luck had been on her side. She'd managed to throw up most of it. Ah, sweet memories. To this day she still didn't know why, didn't know which secret she'd divined that someone had been willing to kill to keep.

  McIntosh did everything in his power to protect her. But sometimes that wasn't enough, so she'd learned to rely only on herself and trust no one - which made her sudden eagerness to depend on Maddox all the more confusing.

  "Aeron, uh, was bad-mouthing you, too," Danika said, breaking into her thoughts.

  Ashlyn blinked in surprise. "Me? Why?"

  "Said you were bait, whatever that means. "

  Her shoulders slumped as she said, "Maddox calls me bait, too. I still don't know what that is. " How could she refute something she didn't comprehend? Unless. . . wait. If she was right about hunters stalking immortals, that had to mean bait was the lure. Dangle it in front of an immortal and a hunter could ensnare him in a trap.

  Why that. . . that. . . asshole! She'd come here for help, not to draw him out of his lair so that he could be slain. "Idiot!" she fumed.

  "Don't call me names," Danika snapped.

  "I wasn't talking about you. I was talking about me. " She'd let Maddox kiss her, had let him put his fingers and tongue inside of her, had even been desperate for more. And all the while he'd thought her capable of such a vile, duplicitous act. He probably thought she was easy, too - hence his surprise when he'd discovered she was still a virgin.

  Tears of shame stung her eyes.

  "They tricked you, huh?" Danika asked gently.

  She nodded. Had Maddox wanted her, even a little, or had he simply wanted to seduce her for information about her obviously nefarious plan? She suspected the latter, and it hurt. Cut deep. How many times had he accused her or questioned her with suspicion in his eyes?

  No wonder he'd so easily resisted her bumbling attempt to talk him into finishing what they'd started. No wonder he'd dumped her here. Idiot! she thought again. Yes, that's what she was. Her only excuse was that she didn't have a lot of hands-on experience with men. And this is why! They were bastards. Users and seducers.

  "Tell me about the voice you're hearing," she said to Danika. Anything to get her mind off Maddox - before she burst into sobs of disappointment and resentment.

  Danika's expression iced over. "I haven't mentioned any voice to you. They've been watching us, haven't they? Is there a camera hidden in here or something?"

  "I don't know. " Ashlyn raised her knees and propped her chin in the dent between them. "Maybe there's a camera, maybe there isn't. Given how confused they were by Tylenol, I'm not sure any of them would know how to operate one. In any case, that's not how I learned about the voice. "

  Did Danika have an ability similar to Ashlyn's? Ashlyn had never met another like herself, but she was learning to expect the unexpected here. "Tell me the rest. Please. We're in this together. We can help each other. "

  "There's nothing to tell. " Danika stalked through the room, feeling the walls. "I'm going crazy. There, is that what you wanted me to admit? Some guy started talking in my head this morning. We've had some real stimulating conversations. "

  One voice. A man's. Not many voices, male and female. Not Ashlyn's ability, after all. "Tell me," she urged again. Her stomach chose that moment to rumble, a booming concerto in the uncomfortable silence that followed. "What has he said to you?"

  With a scowl, Danika plucked a piece of cheese from the platter perched on the vanity. She tossed it at Ashlyn before commanding her family to help search for cameras. Just in case. "He asked for the 411 on our captors. "

  "Like?"

  "Like their daily routine, what weapons they have and what security system the fortress has. " She laughed, but there was no humor to the sound. "I think it's my mind's crazy way of coping with what's happened. "

  Ashlyn didn't think so. Those questions were too invasive, too specific, the kind of information a soldier would want to gather on his enemy.

  So. . . if it wasn't Danika who wanted data on the men, who was it? And who had the power to ask without benefit of a body?

  "I'm sick of this shit," Paris grumbled. "Just once today, I'd like to stay in town and relax after screwing, rather than rushing back here. Hello, I can't flash like Lucien. " He plopped in front of the TV screen and turned on his favorite Xbox game. Naked mud wrestling. His color was high and the strain had vanished from his features. "What's the meeting about this time? And FYI, I didn't see any Hunters. "

  "That's because all you see are potential bedmates," Aeron replied.

  "And there's a downside to that?" Paris asked, unperturbed.

  "Stop arguing," Lucien said. "We've got some business to take care of, and I don't think anyone's going to like what they hear. "

  Maddox leaned back on the couch and scrubbed a hand down his face. Violence pounded through him, hot and dark. Hotter than usual. Darker than usual. Barely caged. It didn't like being away from Ashlyn. The woman who had tried to lure him to bed. The woman he'd turned away. What kind of idiot turned away a woman such as her?

  She'd wanted him, for gods' sake.

  He'd wanted her just as badly. Still wanted. Wanted her supple body wrapped around his, wanted her mouth on his. Or on his cock. He wasn't picky. He wanted her cries of abandon in his ears, her sweet taste in his mouth.

  He should have taken her when he'd had the chance.

  Instead, he'd deposited her in Lucien's room after removing the barricade - overkill, if you asked him, when there was a perfectly good lock on th
e knob - and cleaned his own. Then he'd found himself summoned to the entertainment room where there was, apparently, nothing but more bad news to pass around.

  "Tell them, Aeron," Lucien said on a sigh.

  Pause. Then, "I've felt the first stirrings of Wrath. Nothing drastic. Yet. " He propped himself against the far wall. He pounded a fist into the stone behind him as if to punctuate his admission. "It's manageable, but I'm not sure how long that will last. "

  "He can smell the humans now, and their scents won't leave his nose," Reyes said.

  Maddox wondered at the fury in the man's tone.

  Paris paled. "Fuck. That was fast. "

  "No one knows that better than me," Aeron replied.

  Maddox suppressed a growl. How much more would he and the others be forced to endure? He'd learned a bit ago that there were other Hunters out there, hiding in town. According to Aeron, they appeared even stronger and more capable than their predecessors.

  Because of what Ashlyn had revealed about her ability, Maddox had to wonder if they were here for her, too. A woman whose job it was to listen for nonhuman creatures would be a valuable tool indeed. The very notion infuriated his demon, made them both want to torture, maim, kill.

  "I'm not sure how much longer I can go without hurting them. " Aeron rubbed the back of his neck. "Already I see their bloody bodies in my mind and I like it. " There at the end, his voice cracked. A slight change, but there all the same.

  "Does no one have an idea?" Reyes tossed his knife in the air, caught it and tossed it again. "Anything that might save them?"

  Silence.

  "Talking about it is pointless," Torin finally said. "We're only tormenting ourselves, trying to come up with a solution that isn't there. We can't approach the Titans; they'll give us all another curse. We can't set the women free and tell them to hide. Aeron will only be forced to follow them. So, I say let him do it. "

  Reyes glared at him. "That's a little callous even for you, Disease. "

  What would he do if Aeron were ever ordered to kill Ashlyn? Maddox wondered. Cruel as he was learning these new gods were, he suspected they'd issue the command without hesitation. He leapt to his feet with a roar, smashing his fist into the wall.

  All conversation stopped.

  The act felt good, so he did it again. And again. His hands had yet to fully heal from his battle with Aeron, and this didn't help. The spirit must truly feel bonded to Ashlyn, too, because even it wanted to kill something at the thought of losing her. Go get her. She's ours. She belongs to us.

  Almost always before, he and the spirit had disagreed. Man and beast, each against the other. To share a common desire was shocking. He punched the wall again and stone crumbled to the ground.

  "The little woman isn't calming us, I see," Torin said with a short laugh.

  Maddox turned away from him in time to catch Aeron exchange a loaded glance with Lucien. "What?" he snapped at them.

  Lucien held up his hands, all innocence.

  "Nothing," Aeron said. "Just. . . nothing. "

  "How many times do you have to be told? She's Bait, man. " Reyes gave his dagger a final toss, end over end, and the tip embedded just above Maddox's shoulder. "Surely you know that by now. "

  "If you don't, you're a fool," Aeron said, maintaining that conversational tone. "Maybe I'll kill your precious Ashlyn when I kill the others, and break her spell over you once and for all. "

  Just like that, the spirit erupted fully, washing over him, consuming him. No one threatens our woman. No one. Black spots winked over his vision, followed quickly by red.

  "Ah, hell," Lucien said. "Look at his face. You knew better, Aeron. "

  Knocking over tables and kicking chairs, Maddox fought his way toward Aeron. He left a trail of destruction in his wake, even picked up the plasma screen and tossed it to the ground, shattering it.

  "Hey," Paris protested, as his game went silent. "I was winning. "

  Only one word drifted through his mind: kill. Kill, kill, kill. Kill. Woe to anyone who was foolish enough to get in his way. When he reached Aeron, the man had already unsheathed two blades. Maddox didn't bother with a weapon; he would flay the bastard with his bare hands. He wanted blood soaking his fingers, wanted bones scattered on the - Ashlyn's face suddenly flashed through his mind.

  Her head was thrown back, her golden hair wet and cascading down her back. Water droplets slid over her stomach and caught in her navel. Pleasure shuddered through her.

  Reyes and Lucien leapt on him, dragging him to the ground and shoving Ashlyn from his head. He bellowed, a howl so loud he expected glass to shatter. Fists flew - his, theirs, he didn't know. Someone kneed him in the stomach, knocking the breath from his lungs, but he didn't stop.

  Kill. Kill.

  If he'd had fangs he would have bitten, so badly did he crave the taste of blood. He would have drained someone dry. As it was, he brought up a booted foot and kicked somebody in the cheek. Grunted in satisfaction when he heard a howl.

  "Pin his fucking legs. "

  "Can't. Got his arms. "

  "Knock him out, Paris. "

  "Sure. Want me to spew diamonds from my ass while I'm at it?"

  A fist collided with his jaw. His teeth rattled and he tasted the blood he'd craved.

  "That's for ruining my game. " Paris. "Bunny was about to spread oil on Electra. "

  "I'll kill you. I'll - " Ashlyn's pleasure-drenched image flashed once again. Her eyes alight with passion. Her head thrown back as she enjoyed his mouth on her, licking every drop of her femininity.

  He stilled, realization slamming into him. What was he doing? What the hell was he doing? He didn't want blood and death on his hands. He didn't. He wasn't a monster. He wasn't Violence.

  Suddenly he was ashamed of his actions. He should have had more restraint. He knew better.

  Panting, he tried to sit up. The men tightened their grips. He relaxed, not forcing the issue. No more, he vowed. No more attacking my friends.

  We have to protect Ashlyn, Violence growled.

  A desire to protect? From the demon?

  We will, just not this way. Not like this. The more he gave in to the spirit, the more he became Violence. When had he stopped fighting against it so fervently?

  Sometimes, when he was alone, he liked to think that if he'd been born a human, destruction would have been the furthest thing from his mind. He would have married, had a loving wife and laughing children who played at his side while he carved. Carving furniture - chests, dressers, beds - had once been a pleasure for him.

  Since he had destroyed everything he'd ever created, he'd given up the hobby.

  "He's stopped moving," Reyes said with surprise.

  "I can't see the spirit anymore. " Aeron. Confused.

  "Hey. We didn't even have to chain him. " Paris.

  "This is a first. " Torin. Still laughing.

  They released him and stepped away in unison. Maddox shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts and piece together what had just happened. He had been consumed by Violence, yet he hadn't murdered everyone in his path. Nor had his friends been forced to bind him to impede him.

  Gingerly, he sat up and glanced around the room. Total destruction greeted him. Wood splinters, ripped foam cushions, black TV shards. Yes, he'd been consumed.

  His brows puckered in confusion. Usually he had to be knocked out and chained. Or beaten so badly he could only wait in bed until Pain and Death came for him. Yet thoughts of Ashlyn had soothed him completely.

  How?

  "Good now?" Reyes asked him.

  "Yes. " The word was raw, hoarse. Someone must have choked him.

  He pushed to his feet and stumbled to the couch. No cushions, not anymore, but he didn't care. He fell onto the hard springs. They squeaked under his weight.

  "Good thing Torin knows how to invest," Paris said, glancing around as he sat beside Maddox. "Looks like it's time to splurge on new furniture. "


  "Where were we?" Lucien asked, getting them back to the business at hand. There was a cut on his forehead, one that hadn't been there a few minutes ago.

  A wave of guilt swept through Maddox. "I'm sorry," he said.

  Lucien blinked at him in surprise, but nodded.

  "The women," Reyes grumbled, settling at Maddox's other side. "I say we give it more time. Unlike some of us - " he sent a pointed look in Maddox's direction " - Aeron has his spirit under control right now, whether it's stirring or not. "

  "I agree. " Lucien walked to the overturned pool table, the scent of roses drifting from him.

  A nice smell, but not as good as Ashlyn's, all honey-warm and spiced with secrets and moonlight. Ashlyn. . . Thinking about her again caused his body to harden, to ready. Should have taken her when he'd had the chance, he thought again. Should have penetrated that tight, wet sheath.

  "Uh, I'm happy to sit close to you and everything, but I had no idea you would like it so much," Paris muttered.

  For the first time in hundreds of years, Maddox felt a blush creep into his cheeks. "It's not for you. "

  "Thank the gods," was his friend's reply.

  "Speaking of gods, Maddox, now might be a good time to tell the others about the voice you heard," Lucien prompted him.

  Maddox didn't want to burden them but knew there was no other choice. "Very well. Someone came to me, in my head, commanding me to send every one of you to a cemetery tonight at midnight, unarmed. "

  Lucien motioned to Aeron. "You know these new gods better than any of us. What do you make of this? Does it sound like something the Titans would do?"

  "I'm not an expert on them, but I do not think so, no. There would be no reason to concern themselves with our weapons. Useful as they are in battling Hunters, they'd be futile in a war with the gods. "

  Paris woohoo-ed, and everyone shot him a surprised glance. He shrugged sheepishly. "Got my game back on with the mini-TV I'd stashed in case something like this happened. "

  Maddox rolled his eyes.

  "Let's assume for the moment that the voice belongs to a Hunter," Lucien said, bringing them back to the main topic. Again. "That means we're now dealing with a Hunter who has a formidable ability. And since it's doubtful he's working alone, we have to wonder if his friends have similar powers. "

  Aeron said, "We're stronger than mere mortals, special powers or not. We can take them. "

  "Yes, if we can outwit them. Remember Greece? The Hunters were not as strong as we were but they managed to hurt us time and time again. Now a trap has most likely been set in the cemetery. " Maddox eyed each of them in turn. "I can't go - I'll be dead - but everyone else can. You can turn their trap against them and kill them. "

  Lucien shook his head. "At midnight, Reyes and I will be here, with you. That leaves Paris and Aeron, since Torin can't leave, either. We can't send the two of them to fight a battle when we don't know the odds. "

  "Let's leave now, then," Maddox said. He hated leaving the fortress, but he would do it. To protect Ashlyn, he would do anything. If this new breed of Hunter meant her harm. . . "There are seven hours until midnight. That's plenty of time for me to fight and return. "

  Everyone blinked at him in silent surprise. He'd never offered to go into the city before.

  "Someone has to stay here and protect the women," Reyes finally said.

  "I agree. " He couldn't, wouldn't, leave Ashlyn alone, defenseless. What if she became sick again? What if Hunters were able to breach the fortress and hurt her?

  "Well, I don't agree. " Lucien gave them both an apologetic smile. "Killing the Hunters is more important than guarding the women. "

  Since they'll be dead soon, anyway. He didn't have to say it when they were all thinking it.

  Reyes's hands fisted. Maddox ground his teeth together.

  "Someone stays behind to guard," he said, "or you fight without me. " Aeron might be Wrath and Lucien might be Death, but no one fought like Violence. Taking him into battle all but guaranteed their victory. .

  "We'll go without you," Lucien said, finality in his tone.

  So be it. He wasn't leaving Ashlyn unprotected. The fortress was well-fortified, yes, but it couldn't stab an opponent, rendering him ineffective. It couldn't sweep her away from danger and into safety's arms. "Tell me what you intend to do, then, to ensure victory. "

  A pause. Lucien and Aeron exchanged a tense look. Before he could comment, Lucien bent down and picked up a long, rolled-up paper that had fallen to the floor during Maddox's tirade. He strode to the couch and unrolled it, anchoring it on the edge. "Would've been nice to do this on the coffee table," he muttered. "Even the pool table. As thorough as you are, though, you overturned and cracked both. "

  "I have already apologized," Maddox said, guilt increasing. "And tomorrow I will repair them. "

  "Good. " Lucien pointed to the paper. "As you can see, this is a printed map of the city. Earlier, when we were planning and you were otherwise occupied, we decided to set a trap in this abandoned area. " His finger circled a bumpy-looking stretch of land to the south. "There are hills and no houses, which makes it the perfect place to strike. We'll wait there and let the Hunters come to us. "

  "That's it? That is your plan?"

  "Well, that and kill them. " The fragrance of roses became stronger as Lucien's eyes glittered menacingly. "It's a good plan. "

  "They may not come. They may be at the cemetery. "

  "They'll come," Lucien insisted.

  "How do you know?"

  He paused, glanced at Aeron once more. "I have a gut feeling. "

  Maddox snorted. "Your gut could be wrong. We should at least secure the hill before you go so that no one sneaks up while you're gone and I'm dead. "

  "Fine," Lucien said with a sigh. "Let's get to work. "
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