The darkest night, p.15

The Darkest Night, page 15

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  Damn, damn, damn.

  Time had gotten away from him. Maddox had become completely absorbed as he'd placed traps along the hill: pits to fall into, trip wires, nets. Should have done it long before today, but they hadn't wanted to hurt any of the deliverymen bearing supplies or the women who came looking for Paris.

  Every time Maddox had thought he was done, Lucien had given him another task.

  Now it was eleven-thirty, and there was no time to see Ashlyn. No time to kiss or hold her. If he decided to see her again, he thought darkly. After his outburst today, he'd be a fool to ever approach such an innocent again. Still, he wanted to be near her. Craved it. Surely there was a way. So far, he'd kept himself under control around her.

  But what happened when she pushed him past the edge of reason? When, not if. What would he do when the spirit erupted, as it inevitably would?

  "May the gods smile on us this night," Lucien muttered.

  Maddox, Reyes and Lucien raced through the intricate hallways of the fortress toward Maddox's bedroom. Always better to chain him early. Less chance for destruction that way. His stomach already ached.

  Reyes had already grabbed the sword - the very one Maddox had used to slay Pandora all those years ago. It hung at the warrior's side, glinting in the moonlight that seeped through the windows, taunting Maddox even now.

  He passed Lucien's bedroom and brushed his fingertips over the door. Ashlyn was inside. What was she doing? Was she thinking of him?

  They rounded a corner, closer. . . closer. . . I'm not ready, the spirit whined. A first, since the bloodlust always sated it. Maddox wasn't ready to die, either. Not this time.

  Footsteps echoed, an ominous war beat.

  He passed the last window in the hallway, the largest. It looked over the hill, down onto the snowcapped trees. What he would have given to run through those trees, to feel the snow drift over his skin. What he would have given to take Ashlyn out there, right now, and make love to her on the cold, hard ground, where she'd be bathed in moonlight like a wood nymph. No violence. Just passion.

  "Perhaps we can convince these Titans to release you from this curse," Lucien said, dragging him from his musings.

  For the first time in hundreds of years, he felt a stirring of hope. Maybe, despite everything, the Titans would release him if he asked. They had once craved peace and harmony for the world. Surely they - You know better. Look at what they were making Aeron do.

  Maddox's hope fell away from him in little pieces, like leaves from a winter tree. Already the Titans had proven themselves cruder than the Greeks had ever been. "I do not think I want to risk it. "

  "Maybe there is an alternative to the gods," Reyes said.

  If so, they would have found it by now, but he didn't say that aloud. A few seconds later, the trio entered his bedroom, shoving the thick wooden door out of the way.

  Dread heated Maddox's blood as he climbed onto the bed. He lay down. The fresh cotton sheets were cold, scentless, and bore no trace of Ashlyn. Still, he had the memory.

  Last time he'd lain here, he'd held her in his arms, comforted her. Breathed her in. Contemplated making love to her. Savored her taste in his mouth.

  His dread increased as Reyes chained his wrists and Lucien his ankles. "When this is over," he said, "check on Ashlyn. If she is well, leave her in the room with the other women. If not, lock her in another room and I will care for her in the morning. But no more dungeons. No more cruelty. Feed her, but do not give her wine. Understand?"

  The two men shared another of those tense looks they'd exchanged earlier and stepped away from the bed, out of spitting range.

  "Reyes," Maddox said, a warning. "Lucien," he added, a curse. "What's going on?"

  "About the woman," Lucien began, refusing to face him. There was a poisoned pause.

  "I'm trying to remain calm," he said, even as a black haze shuttered over his vision. "Tell me you have not done anything to her. "

  "We haven't. "

  He released a breath, his eyesight returning to normal.

  "We haven't done anything to her," Lucien continued, "but we're going to. "

  The promise hit Maddox's ears then registered in his mind a moment later. He bucked against the chains. "Let me loose. Now!"

  "She's Bait, Maddox," Reyes said quietly.

  "No. She isn't. " Feeling panicked, as if he were stuck in a nightmare he couldn't awaken from, he told them of her ability and his suspicion that she'd been followed unknowingly. "She's cursed, like we are. Cursed to hear ancient conversations. "

  Lucien shook his head. "You're too enthralled with her to admit the truth. That she may have a strange ability only solidifies my belief that she is Bait, exactly like the voice you heard in your head today. How better to learn about us? How better to discover the best way to defeat us?"

  Maddox strained his neck forward, nearly ripping the tendons. "Hurt her, and I will kill you. That is not a threat, it's a vow. I'll spend the rest of my days seeing to your torture and ultimate death. "

  Reyes tangled a hand in his hair and the inky locks stood up in spikes. "You're not thinking clearly now, but someday you will thank us for this. We're taking her into the city. We're using her to draw out the Hunters. That is the piece of the plan we didn't tell you. "

  Bastards. Betrayers. He'd never suspected his friends, the very warriors who shared in his misery, would be capable of this. "Why are you telling me now? Why are you doing this?"

  Reyes looked away from him, but didn't answer. "We'll do our best to bring her back in the same condition she leaves in. "

  Once again Maddox jerked on the thick chains, using all of his might. He didn't shatter the impossibly strong links - the gods themselves had made these chains - but he did bend the metal headboard. Rage exploded through him, so fervent and sinister he couldn't see, couldn't breathe. Had to get to Ashlyn. Had to protect her. She was innocent, fragile, would never survive if a fight broke out.

  And if the enemy captured her. . .

  He bucked and roared and bucked some more. "Ashlyn!" he screamed. "Ashlyn!"

  "I don't understand how he can be this fierce over one woman," he faintly heard Lucien say.

  "Such devotion is dangerous," Reyes replied.

  He blocked the sound of their chatter. "Ashlyn!" If she heard him, she could run to him, unlock him, and he could protect her. He could - no. She was trapped inside Lucien's room, and he had put her there. He had made sure she couldn't escape. And even if she did make it here, would the two men he'd once considered friends attack her?

  He pressed his lips together and bit down on his tongue. For hours - minutes? seconds? - he fought silently but failed to free himself. Lucien and Reyes watched without a word, never relenting. He cursed them with his eyes, promising retribution.

  Help Ashlyn hide, he prayed. Let her remain hidden until I come for her.

  A sharp pain stabbed his side.

  Midnight had finally arrived.

  He groaned. The spirit churned inside of him, a poisoned hailstorm, a bundle of lightning, a tempest of destruction. Man and demon melded with a common goal. Surviving this, so that they could defend their woman.

  But Reyes rose over him, sword in hand. His face was devoid of emotion. "I'm sorry," he whispered.

  When the blade cut into Maddox's stomach, slicing through skin, organ, bone, he couldn't hold back his screams any longer.

  The door to the bedroom creaked open slowly, and all but Ashlyn and Danika shrank as far away as possible. They grabbed each other's hands. All evening, Ashlyn had been seething with the need to confront Maddox. Danika had wanted to confront Reyes. Instead they had ended up sharing their life stories.

  Rather than freaking Danika out, Ashlyn's past seemed to ease the girl's suspicions. In turn, Ashlyn had been outraged at Danika's kidnapping. How strange to think that in this place of death and fear, Ashlyn had found not only her first would-be lover but also her fir
st real friend.

  An angel stepped inside the room.

  Silver hair produced a halo around his head; his green eyes sparkled like emeralds. A demon should not be so beautiful. But he was covered in black, as Ashlyn would have expected, with a black shirt, black pants and black gloves. Worse, he held a gun in one of his outstretched hands.

  She'd seen him before, in Maddox's room. Last night - was it only last night? - when Maddox had been stabbed. This man hadn't participated, but he had watched. And he hadn't tried to help.

  "Ashlyn," he said, eyes searching for her.

  Fear tightened her throat. He knew her name? Why hadn't Maddox come? Had he washed his hands of her already? Did he now want her dead?

  Trying not to whimper, she pushed Danika behind her. "I'm here," she managed to squeeze out. Part of her expected to be shot that very second.

  She wasn't.

  The man remained in place, though his gaze moved across the room, past the bed and dresser until it collided with hers. "Come with me. "

  She felt rooted to the floor, frozen. "Why?"

  He cast a harried glance over his shoulder. "I'll explain on the way. Now hurry. If they see you, I won't be able to save you. "

  Danika was suddenly in front of her, a bundle of fury. "She's not going with you. None of us are, no matter how many guns you point at us. You and your buddies can go fuck yourselves. "

  "Maybe later," he replied dryly, keeping his sights on Ashlyn. "Please. We don't have much time. Do you want to see Maddox again or not?"

  Maddox. Just hearing his name caused her heart rate to spike. I must be the stupidest girl in the world. She gave Danika a hug and whispered, "I'll be okay. " She hoped.

  "But - "

  "Trust me. " She pulled from the girl's hold and trudged forward. The white-haired angel backed away from her as if she were a stick of dynamite.

  "No one else move," he said, practically cartwheeling in his haste to keep distance between them. "I'll shoot first and ask questions later. " Still watching her, he stopped in the hall.

  When Ashlyn stood in front of him, he added, "Don't touch me. Bad things happen when people touch me. Don't even get close enough to fall into me if you trip. " His tone was deadly serious, his eyes now flat.

  "Okay," she said, confused. Still, she tucked her hands behind her back, just in case she forgot, and waited for him to lead the way.

  He moved a wide circle around her, keeping the gun trained straight ahead, and shut and locked the door. Ashlyn didn't try to rush him. Fear once again held her bolted in place.

  "What bad things?" she couldn't help but ask when he turned back to her.

  He leapt into motion, throwing over his shoulder, "Disease. Agony. Death. " He sheathed the gun at his waist. "My skin cannot touch another living thing without causing a plague. "

  Dear Lord. Whether it was true or not, the idea alone was enough to keep her away from him. She suspected he spoke true, however. Each time she'd seen him, he'd done his best to remain out of the way, removed from everyone around him. Not the actions of an evil man, but a man who cared more about others than he did himself. Her heart softened toward him. Stupid idiot.

  "What's your name?"

  "Torin," he said, seeming surprised that she cared.

  "You don't plan to kill me, do you, Torin?"

  He snorted. "Hardly. If I did, Maddox would cut out my heart and fry it for breakfast. "

  "Okay, that was a little more information than I needed," she said, yet she couldn't help but experience a silly, schoolgirl rush of happiness. Did Maddox care about her, then? Even a little? If so, where was he? Why hadn't he come for her?

  Torin led her through the hallways, quiet, even his footfalls muffled. A few times he stopped and listened, then motioned for her to hide in the shadows. "Keep it down," he told her when she opened her mouth to ask a question.

  "Anytime you're ready to talk, I'm ready to hear about what's going on," she whispered.

  He ignored her. "We're almost there. "

  "Where?" The more she walked, the more she thought she heard. . . what was that?

  A second later, she knew.

  Her stomach cramped, the noise becoming all too clear. Screaming. Agonized, pain-filled screaming. She'd heard that torturous suffering only once before and it had been once too often.

  "Maddox," she gasped out. Not again!

  She was so close now, she could make out the deep timbre of his voice, his and the second voice that sometimes peeked through it, both broken and cracked. She wanted to vomit. Urgency pulsed through her. She almost raced in front of her guide, but held her ground, afraid he'd reach out to stop her. "Hurry, Torin. Please hurry. I have to help him. We have to stop them. "

  "In here," he said, opening a door and stepping out of the way. She raced into the room, already searching for Maddox. She saw an antique chest, a bearskin rug, a canopied bed, but no Maddox. Confused, concern intensifying, she spun around.

  "Where is he?" She had to get to him. Didn't matter what he'd done to her or how he felt about her.

  He shouldn't have to suffer like that.

  "Don't worry about Maddox. You know he'll be fine. Worry about yourself. They were going to take you into the city, and I couldn't let them. Maddox would have murdered us all in our beds. So, for the sake of my life if not yours, be quiet. They don't have a lot of time to search for you. Behave and you might survive. " He shut the door in her face with a soft snick.

  A click echoed as the lock engaged.

  Dread, fear and uncertainty fought for dominance inside of her. She didn't know if Torin had been telling the truth and she didn't care. She had to get to Maddox. Another of his shouts pierced the air and seemed to cut through plaster and rock, wrapping around her.

  Tears stung her eyes. She rushed to the door, trying to turn the knob with a shaky hand. It didn't budge. Damn it! She'd be quiet, but she was not staying in this room.

  Ashlyn wheeled around and again surveyed the area, trying to see it through a thief's eyes. Dust covered everything, as if the room had been forgotten for years. No knick-knacks, either. Nothing she could use to smash the lock.

  She moved to the window and swept the drapes aside, instantly gaining a view of the mountain, white and majestic. A balcony led - she looked, gasped. Down, down, down. Only if you fall. Thankfully the double glass windows opened easily. Ignoring the sudden blast of frigid air, she peeked right, then left. A few feet over was another balcony.

  Maddox bellowed, loud and long.

  Palms sweating, she raced to the bed, an idea forming in her mind. A dangerous idea. A stupid idea. "The only idea," she muttered, sweeping up the covers and sheets with a flick of her wrist.

  Dust filled her nose and mouth and she coughed but didn't slow. She tied one end of the sheet to one end of the comforter. "It's been done in movies. You'll be okay. " Maybe. Actors had nets - and stunt doubles. She had neither.

  Another bellow.

  Her stomach churned as she returned to the windows. The oversized T-shirt and sweatpants she wore did little to protect her against the elements, but she stepped onto the balcony without any hesitation and hissed in a breath. The stone was ice-cold against her bare feet and the wind was bitter.

  Fingers shaking, breath misting, she tied an end of the makeshift rope to the balcony railing. Double knotted. Triple knotted. Gave a jerk.

  It held.

  But would it hold her weight? After puking her guts out earlier, she was probably a few pounds lighter, so that was one point in her favor.

  Shaking more violently now, she climbed over the metal bars. Rust left a dirty trail on her clothing. She kept her gaze level. "You have nothing to worry about. There's not a ten-million-foot drop. "

  She descended the blanket. A creak. A rattle. Her heart almost stopped. "Maddox needs you. He might even care about you. Or he might think you're a liar and an evil killer, might not even like you and might have tried to seduce answers fro
m you - but either way he doesn't deserve this. You're the only one in this place who thinks so, so you're it. His only hope. "

  God. I sound like the princess from Star Wars.

  But she was desperate to fill the silence she'd so prized. Otherwise, she'd think about falling and death - or worse, failure. "You're doing good. Keep it up. "

  She lost her voice when she found herself hanging freely. A lump formed in her throat. Please, Lord. Don't let me fall. Don't let my hands sweat any more than they already are.

  She leaned forward, rocking the sheet. . . an inch. Damn. She leaned backward. An inch. Forward, back. Forward, back. Soon she had a nice swing. But the sheet slipped a little - or maybe she did - and she screamed.

  Just a bit more. I can do it. Picking up speed, she continued to rock back and forth. Finally, she was close enough to the second balcony to reach out and grab - damn! She'd missed.

  On the next forward swing, she reached out again. Her fingers hit the rail but failed to catch. Back she flew, slipping another notch.

  Concentrate, Darrow. She reached out again and this time she was able to hook her fingers tightly, not letting go, even when the rope tried to jerk her backward. With a grunt, she threw all of her weight forward, grabbing on to the bar with her other hand and releasing the sheet. Then she made the mistake of looking down.

  The lower half of her body dangled over fifty feet of jagged mountain.

  She couldn't help it; she yelped.

  For several heart-pounding moments, she kicked her legs up, trying to curl them around the bar as she'd done with her fingers. Slipping. . . slipping. . . Finally her knee latched.

  Muscles burned and strained as she hoisted herself up. It was cold outside, yeah, but she was sweating. Her legs rattled as she tried to pry open the window that led into the new room. It resisted. Several minutes of beating and kicking passed before she succeeded. She climbed inside, nearly collapsing with relief.

  The room was dark and dusty, just like the other had been, but she could hear Maddox moaning and fighting once again. Please don't let me be too late. Closer now. . . so close. . .

  She tiptoed to the door and inched it open. No one was in the hallway. Suddenly Maddox's voice went quiet. Too quiet. She covered her mouth with her hand to prevent a cry. There was muttering -

  ". . . shouldn't have told him. "

  "He needed time to calm down. Now he has it. "

  "He might never calm down. "

  "Doesn't matter. It was the right thing to do. " A pause. A sigh. "I'm eager to finish this and remove at least one burden from our lives. Let's grab the girl and go. "

  Trembling, she pressed herself against the wall and surrounded herself with shadows. Footsteps echoed. A door creaked open, then closed. More footsteps, these moving away from her.

  Ashlyn sprang into motion. She raced into the hall, caught a glimpse of two men rounding a corner and opened the door to Maddox's room.

  She almost vomited.

  He lay on the bed, the bed where he'd held her so tenderly only hours ago, blood pooling around him. His chest was bare and she could see six gaping wounds where a sword had pierced. She could see inside his body. Oh God. She covered her mouth with her hands.

  In a shocked trance, she found herself walking toward him. Not again, she thought. Not again! The brutality was astonishing.

  Why did those bastards keep doing this to him? He was a demon, they were demons, but that wasn't reason enough. "There's no reason good enough," she sobbed. Cruel and heartless, that's what they were.

  Slowly she reached out and smoothed her hand over Maddox's brow. His eyes were closed; blood streaked his face, splattered in a random pattern. No, not random. Ashlyn thought perhaps she saw the shape of a butterfly, all angles and sharp curves.

  Blood even ran down his wrists and ankles where he'd pulled at his bonds.

  Another sob bubbled in her throat and overflowed. Her knees collapsed, and she was suddenly kneeling beside him. "Maddox," she whispered brokenly. "I'm here. I won't leave you. " She gazed about for a key to unchain him, but found nothing.

  Reaching out, she clasped his lifeless hand. He was immortal. He'd awakened from this once. He could do it again. Right?

  Flames licked at him. Burning like acid. So hot. Melting him, destroying him bit by bit. The air was heavy, black and thick as his body disintegrated. So much pain. "Maddox. "

  He heard the voice, familiar, sweet, and he stopped writhing, heat suddenly forgotten. "Ashlyn?" He scanned the depths of the hell he'd returned to but saw only cave after cave of flame. Heard only whimpers and shouts. Had Ashlyn died? Had she been sent here to suffer, too?

  That could only mean Lucien and Reyes had killed her. "Bastards!" Maddox howled. They had killed her, and now he would have to kill them. With pleasure, the spirit growled.

  "I'm here," she said. "I won't leave you. " A sob this time.

  "Ashlyn," he called. He'd bargain with the cruel new gods. He would get her out of here. Whatever was needed. He would agree to stay here forever, even. Anything to set her free.

  "I won't let you go. I'll be here when you awaken. If you awaken. Oh God. "

  His brow furrowed in confusion before melting away once again. Her voice wasn't an echo inside of hell. It was an echo inside his mind. But that made no sense. That was not possible.

  "How could they have done this to you? How?"

  Was she. . . with his body? Yes, he realized a moment later. Yes, she was. He could almost feel her hand clutching his, her warm tears dripping onto his open chest. He could almost smell her sweet honey scent.

  As his charred flesh burned and reformed, burned and reformed, she whispered to him, comforting him. "Wake up again, Maddox. Wake up for me. You have a lot of explaining to do, and I won't let you go until you tell me the truth. "

  He wanted to obey and fought to escape the deep, deep pit in which he found himself, doing all he could to project his spirit back into his body. He wanted to see her, to hold her, to protect her. But the fire enveloped him in a smoldering embrace, trapping him. He gritted his teeth, wrestling, struggling, battling again and again. He would battle all night, if he had to. He would battle until Lucien came for him.

  He would be with Ashlyn again.

  His connection to her was too strong, too deep, too ingrained, to be ignored or denied. In such a short amount of time, she'd somehow become the center of his universe. His only reason for living. It was as if she belonged to him. As if she'd been born just for him.

  Now that he'd found her, nothing would come between them.

  "I'll stay here all night," she said. "I'm not going to let you go. "

  He was smiling as the flames consumed him again.
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