The darkest night, p.19

The Darkest Night, page 19

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night
 


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CHAPTER NINETEEN

 

  Never, in all his life, had Maddox been so sated. Not in all his thousands of years.

  Thrice he'd made love to Ashlyn and now she was sleeping next to him, tucked into his side, breath traipsing over his ribs. After hard and fast, then slow and tender, she'd claimed she needed a reminder of what hard and fast was like before deciding which she liked better.

  He'd been shocked, awed and humbled by her words, for he'd shown her the worst, the beast, the part of himself that he despised, but she had not run screaming. Hadn't cried. No, she had asked for more.

  He grinned at the memory. A true, unrestrained grin, he thought, amazed. When the spirit had demanded Maddox mark her, he'd been helpless to do anything but obey. So he had bitten her and drawn blood. Everything virtuous inside of him had screamed in protest, ashamed. But she had liked it; she truly had not minded, had even bitten him in response. And now he felt free. He did not have to fear his reactions with her. He did not have to fear.

  She was everything he had never known he needed, everything he could never live without. She had. . . tamed him. She had charmed the spirit. He'd told her his plan to keep her, and he'd meant it. She belonged with him, now and always.

  Slowly he traced a fingertip over her spine. She murmured in her sleep and burrowed deeper against him. Her breast pressed against his underarm, spearing him with heat. What a treasure she was. He'd gone into the forest looking for a monster, but found salvation instead.

  With Ashlyn, Violence was not truly violent. Instead, the spirit was made into something beautiful. Dark, yes. Always dark. But sensually so. Not evil, but needy. Not destructive, but possessive. Two days ago, he would not have thought such a thing was possible.

  Ashlyn. Demon tamer. He chuckled softly, careful not to wake her. After their excess, she needed to conserve her energy. He had plans to ravish her lat -

  Below them, a door slammed. A man cursed. Maddox recognized the raspy baritone instantly. Reyes had returned.

  Maddox's mood instantly thundered from contentment to anger. They had unfinished business, he and Reyes. A warning was in need of delivery. Something to show the warrior that any attempt to hurt Ashlyn would come with consequences.

  Maddox rolled from the bed, pausing to make sure he had not disturbed his woman. Her eyes remained closed, lashes casting shadows over her rosy cheeks.

  Quietly he dressed. T-shirt, pants, boots. Daggers. She's ours. No one hurts her. The spirit wanted vengeance, as well, and was seething under his skin, in his blood, spreading flames, blistering. . . melting. . . but Maddox did not lose control.

  I am angry, yet I am dictating my own actions, he thought, baffled. I decide. It was strange. Wondrous and exhilarating. And he owed this newfound control to Ashlyn.

  With a backward glance at her sleeping form, he stalked from the room. The spirit's mood blackened with every step away from her, but still it never managed to regain command.

  Maddox found Reyes in the foyer, but the warrior was not alone. The rest of the Lords were also there, every one of them cut and bleeding and covered in black soot. There were also men Maddox did not recognize -

  No, surely not, he thought, blinking.

  "Sabin?"

  No one paid him any heed. Sabin - dear gods - was too busy peeling off his shirt and studying a deep gash in his side. Lucien had his arm wrapped around. . . Strider. Cameo sat on the floor with her knees drawn up to her chest. Her dark hair was singed at the ends and the left side of her face was burned. Gideon and Amun were propped against the wall, as if they couldn't stand on their own.

  Seeing the warriors after so many years was like a blow to the stomach. What were they doing here? Why had they come?

  Paris groaned, drawing his attention. The warrior's forearm was broken so badly the bone peeked through the skin. Aeron was. . . Maddox frowned. Aeron was cuffed to the banister and cursing loudly. Blood dripped from his forehead, a crimson river. "Kill. I must kill," he said, voice thick and layered with malevolence. "I need their blood. Hmm, blood. "

  Just as the Titans had vowed, Wrath must have taken over. That meant the need to slay those four women now consumed him. Would he have to be chained from now until the Lords found a way to save them - or until they were dead?

  With the thought, hatred spilled through Maddox. Hatred for the Titans, for bringing his friend to this point. Hatred for the Greeks for their initial curse, the Hunters for their relentless pursuit and, most of all, his younger self for opening the box on that disastrous night.

  "What's going on?" Maddox demanded. That he did not simply attack proved just how much Ashlyn had changed him. "Did you set off one of our traps on the hill?"

  A few of the warriors glanced up at him, though most ignored him. "No," Sabin muttered. "Those we avoided. "

  "Bomb," Reyes said, not bothering to look up. He was in the process of removing his boots - boots that were practically melted to his feet. He was smiling.

  "One of ours?" Maddox insisted, not trusting a word out of Sabin's mouth.

  "Hardly. I know better than to blow myself up. " Reyes sighed, finally deigning to look at him. There was confusion in his eyes. "Why aren't you railing on me?"

  Quick as a snap, Maddox unsheathed a dagger and hurled it end over end toward the warrior. In a blink, he'd unsheathed the other one and hurled it at Lucien. The blades sailed over each man's left shoulder and lodged in the wall behind them. "Have no doubt, if you ever plan something like that again, I will kill you. "

  Lucien's gaze was flat. He appeared calm, and yet Maddox sensed something bubbling under that serene surface. His features were strained, as if he were a block of ice that had been hammered at one too many times. Was he ready to crack? "You should be glad we failed to find her. I am. The Hunters played us like violins, drawing us to a specific location and greeting us with bombs. "

  Bombs. A new war truly had begun, then. Maddox descended the rest of the steps, teeth grinding together. He stepped around a bucking Aeron and was punched in the thigh for his efforts. That was better than being stabbed, he supposed.

  "So why is Sabin here?" He did not face the man in question. "Did he bring the Hunters?"

  "Apparently, the Hunters were already here. Sabin followed them and now wants us to help him find dimOuniak. " Reyes tossed his ruined boots aside. Raw, oozing blisters covered his bare feet.

  "Sorry to spring our old friends on you. " Gripping his broken arm, Paris slammed it against the wall, popping the bone back into place. He winced, paled. "But it's amazing what decisions you'll make when your brains are splattered over a nightclub dance floor. "

  Lucien flattened his palm on the wall and leaned over, grimacing. "By the time we gained our bearings, the Hunters were gone. They had not left a trail and we didn't know if they would be lying in wait at Sabin's hotel. Here, at least, we knew we'd all be safe, since Torin has us under surveillance. "

  "They knew what they were doing, and had obviously been preparing for a long, long time," Reyes said. "What I want to know is why they didn't stick around to chop off our heads while we were incapacitated. "

  "They're planning something else. " Paris rolled his shoulder. "Have to be. "

  Everyone turned to Sabin.

  He shrugged. "They're out for blood. Expect anything. "

  Reyes nodded. "We should gear up and find them before they try anything else. "

  Sabin cleaned his face with his T-shirt, saying, "I remember a time when you would rather have split with your friends than attack Hunters. "

  "No," Lucien told him. "We split with friends who wanted to destroy the entire city and everyone in it. We split with friends who attacked one of our own. "

  Eyes stark, Sabin spun away.

  Maddox gazed around the foyer, studying the weary group one by one. "Where is Torin?"

  A deadly stillness came over Lucien. "He hasn't returned from the cemetery?"

  Cemetery? Torin had ventured outside the fortress?
What else had Maddox missed while he was dead? "I don't think so. I did not hear him come in, but I was. . . occupied. "

  Frowning, Sabin withdrew a walkie-talkie. "Kane. Do you read?"

  Nothing.

  "Kane. "

  Again, nothing. A little panicked now, Sabin repeated, "Kane. Answer me"

  Nothing.

  Everyone looked at everyone else.

  Lucien ran a hand over his jaw, his features more frazzled than before. "We have to find Torin before someone else does. Gather bandages, Maddox, and meet us upstairs. I want to be out the door in ten minutes. "

  A feminine gasp suddenly rang in his ears. Maddox whipped around, only to see Ashlyn standing at the top of the staircase. Those long locks he so loved spilled down her sides, and her eyes were wide, concerned. She wore one of his shirts and had those black sweatpants bagging over her legs.

  In seconds, he was beside her and dragging her behind him, blocking her from view. He didn't know if he could trust the newest additions to the "family. " Not really. Not anymore. Too much time had passed for him to feel any kind of kinship.

  "I guess I don't have to ask who the human belongs to," Sabin said dryly.

  "What happened to them?" Ashlyn asked, horrified. She peeked around his shoulder. "They're so bloody. And who are the new guys?"

  "A bombing. The men are. . . like us. "

  "Five minutes and a knife," Aeron shouted, jerking at his bonds. "That's all I need. "

  Blanching, Ashlyn grabbed hold of Maddox's arm.

  Reyes stepped up to the now-cursing prisoner and punched him in the face. Once, twice, three times. He punched until Aeron slumped to the ground. Maddox thought he heard Aeron utter, "Thank you," but he could not be certain.

  As the warriors limped upstairs, Maddox kept Ashlyn behind him. When they were alone, he turned to her and trailed a fingertip over her jaw. "Go back to my room. Please," he added. "I'll be there as soon as possible. "

  Determined, she peered up at him through the thick fan of her lashes. "I can help them, and so can the other women. Danika helped me when I was sick, remember? She's good in times of crisis. So am I. "

  He gave a quick shake of his head. "I don't want you near them. "

  "If I'm going to stay here, I have the right to get to know your friends. "

  "Not all of those men are my friends. Those who are, you can get to know another day. Right now, you need rest. "

  "No, I don't. " She anchored tight fists on her hips. "I refuse to lounge in bed all day when I can be productive. "

  "Rest is productive. "

  "No, it's not. "

  "I do not know some of those men, Ashlyn. Not anymore. If one of them were to try to hurt you. . . " Even saying the words sparked a deep rage inside of him.

  "I want to help. I've never been part of a family before. " Suddenly appearing more vulnerable than he had ever seen her, she flicked her gaze to her hands, which were twisting the fabric of her shirt. "All I've ever done is stand off to the side and listen, and all I've ever wanted to do is be a part of something. Let me help your family, Maddox. "

  Something knotted in his chest. He could deny this woman nothing. Not even this. He would watch the men closely, hover over her shoulder if necessary, but he would not stop her from giving aid.

  "Go to my room and gather all the towels you can carry. " He always had an overflowing supply. "Do you know how to find the entertainment room?"

  She shook her head and he gave her directions. When he finished, a delighted smile lit her face. "Thank you. " She rose on her tiptoes and brushed a soft kiss on his mouth.

  He shouldn't have, but he immediately deepened it, backing her against the wall. She made him forget everything but desire. Her flavor flooded him, that unique drug he'd never get enough of. One of her legs lifted and wound around his waist.

  That quickly, passion trembled through him. His cock throbbed and his hand shook with the need to rip away her clothing and discover her naked curves once again. To plunge inside her body as surely as her tongue plunged inside his mouth, hot and wet, meeting him thrust for thrust. She moaned. He swallowed the sound. Delicious.

  "Maddox!" Reyes rumbled from down the hall. "Sometime today. "

  With regret, he tore away from Ashlyn, severing all contact. Safer that way. One touch would lead to one more kiss. One more kiss and he would carry her back to his room, friends - and enemies - forgotten.

  "That was. . . nice," she said, fanning herself.

  His eyelids were heavy as he studied her. Her lips were red, swollen and moist, and she traced her tongue over them as if savoring the lingering taste of him. He had to look away, but his gaze was drawn back in the next instant. Her eyes were bright and golden, fevered. For him.

  A pulse hammered at the base of her neck. He found himself reaching out to stroke it, but stopped himself in time. None of that. Not now.

  "Maddox," Lucien called.

  "I said, are you coming?" Reyes shouted.

  "Towels," he said to Ashlyn, then turned on his heel before he talked himself into staying.

  That man fires me up, Ashlyn thought, watching Maddox stride down the hallway. He flew around the corner, disappearing from view. Her heartbeat still drummed erratically.

  Smiling dreamily, she traced her fingertips over her tingling mouth. Good thing Maddox had walked away. A few more seconds of that devastating kiss and she would have allowed him - ha, begged him! - to take her right here, where anyone could watch them.

  She heard a man grunt, another shout profanities, and snapped to attention. No time to moon over Maddox now. She jumped into motion. The air was chilly, a little damp, but invigorating. She loved the stained-glass windows here, the glistening stone that spoke of endurance and the passage of time.

  She'd like to visit the site of the bombing and listen to the conversations that had taken place there. Like to? Darrow, you will. More often than not, she hated her gift. There was no real purpose for it and no job meaningful enough to warrant her constant suffering. For Maddox, though, she'd happily, eagerly, tune in to the voices, over and over again. She didn't like the knowledge that there were men out there, hiding, waiting to kill him.

  When she snuck out to listen for ways to break his death-curse, which she planned to do tonight, she'd find out where the bombing had taken place and go there. If she was lucky, she'd learn where the hunters were hiding and how to save Maddox from dying.

  Probably wishful thinking on both counts, but hope was a silly thing.

  Her gaze snagged on a trail of blood, and her mouth fell open in horror. Only when she realized the injured warriors must have been up here did she relax.

  . . . somewhere. Right?

  The tiny bit of conversation suddenly whispered through her mind, surprising her. The new guys? Ashlyn stopped, one foot in midair. Her ears twitched as she listened, but nothing else assaulted her. Odd. That had been a man's voice, and hadn't been there a little while ago.

  She walked another step. Nothing. Changed directions, another step.

  Yes. I'm betting on it.

  There. Another snatch. Gulping, she continued in that direction. . .

  Come on, this way. . . where are they. . . hopefully still out. . . lost too many with those fucking booby traps. . . took too long to clean the mess. . . do they know. . . fight. . .

  . . . and soon found herself in front of the door that blocked Danika and her family from freedom.

  Ah, hell. Someone - several someones, actually - had sneaked inside. Not the new guys, then. Were they still there? Had they hurt the women? Ashlyn's hand shook as she reached for the knob. Wait. Maybe she should run and tell Maddox.

  The intruders might be hunters.

  She swallowed past the lump in her throat. If they were the very men who'd planted that bomb, they could be planting another right now. She backed away, meaning to alert Maddox. You can't leave Danika and the others here, Darrow.

  "They'll be fine," she
whispered. According to Maddox, hunters only wanted to hurt immortals. Right? Right. She backed up another step. Telling Maddox was the smart thing to do. He could stop them, she couldn't.

  But another step and conversation slammed into her mind.

  Where is she?

  I wish to God I knew.

  Do you think they. . . killed her?

  It's possible. Hell, worse is possible. They're demons. Pause, sigh. Damn it, I should have put more guards on her.

  Her boss, she realized. Dr. McIntosh was here. She should have been relieved to hear him, glad that he'd cared enough to track her down. But. . . he'd had men guard her? How had he infiltrated the fortress?

  Ashlyn, honey. If you can hear this, meet us at Gerbeaud at -

  What if she's locked up? She won't be able to leave on her own.

  Hush. I hear someone coming.

  Then, quiet.

  She scrubbed her fingers back and forth across her brow, trying to start a fire of intelligent thought. Were they still here? What would Maddox do if he found them? What would they do to Maddox? Panic raced through her. Okay, okay. Think, Darrow. Think.

  In the end, she didn't have to make a decision after all.

  The door in front of her opened and McIntosh peeked into the hall. His eyes widened when he saw her. His familiar, plain face comforted her - but for the first time, it also made her uneasy.

  "Ashlyn! You're alive!"

  "McIntosh, I - I - "

  "Shh, not here. " He snaked out an arm and jerked her inside the room, softly shutting the door behind her. The first thing she noticed was Danika and her family, passed out on the floor.

  "Oh my God. " She moved toward them but her boss's grip tightened, keeping her in place. Several other men were casing the room, looking for. . . what, she didn't know. Nor did she recognize them. She'd never seen them at the Institute.

  One of the men coughed, a gut-wrenching gag following, drawing her eye to him. There was blood on his hands. Sweet Jesus. He coughed again, doubling over. He was alarmingly pale and there were bruises under his eyes. Another cough.

  "Be quiet," McIntosh whispered fiercely.

  "Sorry. Throat hurts. "

  "It didn't five minutes ago. "

  "Does - " cough " - now. "

  Ashlyn broke free of her boss's hold and rushed to Danika, crouching beside her. "Is she. . . " She felt for a pulse. Thump, thump. Thank God.

  "Just sleeping," McIntosh assured her.

  Relief sagged her shoulders. "Why would you do something like this? Why did you knock them out?" Even as she spoke, bits of their conversation played through her mind.

  Who are you? Danika demanded. What are you doing here?

  I'll ask the questions. Who are you? her boss asked.

  Prisoners.

  Were you looking for the box, too?

  Ashlyn's heart sank at the query.

  Box? Danika's confusion was clear by her tone.

  Did they tell you where it is? McIntosh's excitement rang loud.

  He must have grabbed her, because she grated out, Let go of me.

  Did they?

  Reyes! Reyes, help!

  Shut up, or I'll be forced to silence you myself.

  Reyes!

  There must have been a struggle because Ashlyn could hear huffing breath, grunts of effort, Danika's family gasping and then crying, and then suddenly silent. More conversation about drugging the women and using them as bait later if necessary.

  Hunters, she realized, closing her eyes in horror. She'd suspected yesterday when speaking with Danika, but had promptly dismissed the thought, reminding herself how good and noble the Institute was. To be honest, a part of her had assumed no one would be able to keep such a secret from her. But these men were hunters. No denying it now. Opening her eyes, she fixed them on her boss.

  Nausea churned in her stomach. He'd known about the box all along. He'd been searching for it, but hadn't told her. Oh God.

  He'd lied to her. She'd devoted her entire life to a cause that didn't exist. McIntosh had read her fairy tales all those years ago, told her she was special, that she had a higher calling. She'd thought she was making the world a better place. Instead, she'd helped him destroy people, maybe innocents. A sense of betrayal washed through her, so strong it nearly dropped her to her knees.

  "You don't study the creatures I find for you, do you?" she asked softly. "Hunter. "

  "Of course I do," he said, offended. "I'm a scientist, after all. Not every Institute employee is a Hunter, Ashlyn. You're proof of that. Ninety percent of our work is merely observation. But when we uncover evil, we stamp it out. No mercy. "

  "What gives you the right?"

  "Morality. The greater good. Unlike the demons here, I am not a monster. Everything I do, I do for the safety of mankind. "

  "How did I not know?" she gasped out. "How did I not hear?"

  He raised his chin, his eyes asking her to understand. "Only a few do the actual dirty work. And we never spoke of it on the premises. Nor did we let you into the places we'd been. "

  "All these years. " She shook her head, dazed. "No wonder you barely let me out of your sight. You didn't want me to stumble on information I wasn't supposed to have. "

  "You want information? I can show you pictures of the things these demons have done. Things that will make you vomit. Things that will make you want to scratch out your own eyes, just so you never have to see such an image again. "

  She clutched her stomach. "You should have told me the truth. "

  "I wanted you to stay as removed as possible. I do care about you, Ashlyn. We knew there were two groups of demons. We've been fighting one for years and were always searching for the other. Then one of our female operatives discovered Promiscuity. We brought you to Budapest to listen and learn everything you could about these new enemies. You were never supposed to get close to them. "

  Her life's work had turned out to be something malicious and sick. I was such a fool. "You came to kill these men, but they treat the people of Budapest only with kindness. They donate money as if it's water and keep criminal activity at a minimum. They keep to themselves and hardly venture out. You bombed a nightclub. "

  McIntosh approached her, his expression determined. "We didn't come to kill them. We can't. Not yet. Years ago, it was discovered that to kill a Lord was to release its demon upon the world - a demon who's nothing more than a twisted vessel of destruction, warped from its captivity. No, we're here to capture the warriors. When we find Pandora's box, we can lock away the demons and dispose of the men who house them. You found that out for us, remember?" He reached her and grabbed her shoulders. "Do you know where it is? Did they tell you?"

  "No. "

  "You had to have heard something. Think, Ashlyn. "

  "I told you. I don't know where it is. "

  "Don't you want to live in a world free from evil? Free from lies and misery and violence? You hear more of each in a day than most people do in a lifetime. " He studied her for a long while, frowning. "I've nurtured your talent for years. I gave you a place to stay, food to eat and a life as peaceful as possible. All I asked in return was that you used your gift to find the creatures living among us. "

  "And I've always done so. But I haven't heard anything new about the box," she insisted, sickened.

  His frown deepened. "You must have. You weren't a prisoner like these women. You were freely roaming the halls. " As he spoke, his eyes widened, as if his own words had offered a startling revelation. He released her and reached into his pocket, withdrawing a syringe filled with clear liquid. "Are you working for the monsters now, Ashlyn? Is that what's going on? Were you working with them all along?" The betrayal in his voice would have been laughable if she hadn't been so frightened.

  She backed up a step, then another. Her back hit a brick wall and she tried to jump away. Strong arms banded around her, holding her in place. Not a brick wall, after all. A man. A hunter. She struggled to
free herself.

  "Where's the box, Ashlyn?" the doctor demanded. "That's all I want. Tell me where it is and I'll let you go. "

  Calm down. Stall him. Distract him. When she didn't appear with the towels, Maddox would come looking for her. "You're a hunter, but you don't have a tattoo on your wrist. " Hadn't Maddox said something about tattoos? "Why is that?"

  He held up his arm and pushed the sleeve of his shirt down. An intricate black, sideways figure-eight stared at her. "I simply made sure you never noticed it. My father took me to get it on my eighteenth birthday when I made my vow to continue the family legacy. "

  How had she never known? She felt so stupid. The woman who had thought herself impossible to deceive had been fooled for years. Shame and guilt joined ranks with her betrayal and fear.

  Just keep him talking. "Why the symbol of infinity?" she asked, barely managing to find her voice.

  "Our purpose is an eternity without evil. What better symbol?"

  "But the men here, they aren't evil. They really aren't. They've taken care of me. They've helped me. If you'd just get to know them, you'd - "

  Hate fell over his face like a curtain. "Get to know a demon?" He cracked his jaw. Stepped closer. "Those creatures of the underworld need to be destroyed, Ashlyn. They toppled Athens. The people they killed, the pain they caused. . . "

  "But hurting them makes you as evil as you claim they are. Have you not already killed people to get to them?"

  Without warning his arm whipped out, slamming the syringe into her neck. A sharp pain, a warm rush. She tried to jerk away. Too late. She was suddenly so light-headed she could hardly move. A strange lethargy worked its way through her body, weaving weakness and shadows in her blood, her dizzy mind.

  "Sleep," McIntosh said.

  And she did.
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