The darkest night, p.21

The Darkest Night, page 21

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night
 


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CHAPTER TWENTY-ONE

 

  Ashlyn awoke with a gasp, ice-cold water dripping from her face. A moment passed, her ragged breaths the only sound, before she oriented herself. Her shirt was plastered to her skin, nearly ice. Her watery gaze was hazy at first, but the room soon came into view. Stone walls, dark, scuffed. Bars on one side that looked into a narrow stone hallway. Chains hung in the far corner.

  Don't panic, don't panic. Next she saw a familiar thinly lined face. At one time, McIntosh would have been a welcome sight. Now, she felt hate pour through her.

  Tossing the now-empty bucket aside, he sat on a wooden stool in front of her. She was cuffed to a chair, arms stretched behind her, she realized, and tried to pull free. The cold metal dug into her skin, but the cuffs didn't open.

  "Where am I?" she demanded.

  "Halal Foghaz. " His voice was rougher than usual. Scratchy.

  Prison of the Dead.

  "Some of the worst criminals in Budapest's history were kept here until they revolted and slaughtered their guards. The place was closed down. Until a few weeks ago. "

  Her eyes narrowed to tiny slits.

  "Relax," he told her. He was pale, his eyes rimmed with red. He coughed. "I'm not the dragon you always feared when I read you those fairy tales. "

  The reminder of the years they'd spent together didn't soften her. "Let me go. Please. " Droplets of water trickled into her mouth, droplets that were fused with dirt and she didn't want to think about what else. Grains scratched at her gums. "What did you do to the men, the warriors? Where are the other women?"

  "I'll answer your questions in good time, Ashlyn. Right now, I want you to answer mine. Okay?" He coughed again. At least he sounded reasonable. Not like the crazy fanatic she'd encountered in the fortress.

  She shivered in cold. "Okay. " But then she could say no more, voices crashing into her mind. She stiffened.

  She thought she heard McIntosh sigh, thought she heard him utter, "I see you're in no shape to answer questions now. I'll be back when the voices quiet. " She thought she heard footsteps, the bars slam shut. And then she heard only the voices.

  There were so many, so many. Prisoners, killers, murderers, thieves. Rapists. Oh God. A man was raping another man, and the victim was screaming in pain and humiliation.

  "Maddox," she whimpered. Her hands were locked together by those cold metal links, so she couldn't even cover her ears. So loud, so loud, so loud. "Maddox. " His image formed in her mind, strong, determined. His violet eyes were tender, his lips soft from kissing her. Dark hair hung over his forehead.

  I'm here, he mouthed. I'm here. I will protect you always.

  Instantly the voices slowed, quieted. They didn't vanish completely, but they were no longer debilitating. She blinked in surprise. How? That had never happened before. Was Maddox close by?

  His face shimmered, faded as hope swelled inside her chest. As his image vanished, however, the voices grew louder. Louder. Eyes widening, she pictured him again. Again, the voices slowed. Again, they became manageable.

  If the situation hadn't been so dire, she would have grinned. I can control it on my own. I can control it! The knowledge was astounding. Amazing. Wondrous. No more hiding away. No more avoiding heavily populated areas. No more!

  Uh, Darrow. Hate to be the downer at this party, but you're trapped. With a hunter. Remember?

  As if hearing her internal dialogue, a voice chuckled gleefully. I know how to escape. You want in on the action or do you want to stay in this shithole? All we gotta do is a little digging.

  The man from the past wasn't talking to her, but to another prisoner. Their conversation caught her attention, causing her ears to twitch. Never releasing Maddox's image, she listened to instructions about exactly where to go. Soon she was grinning.

  "Thank you," she whispered when the voices stopped their chatter.

  "Yeah, yeah. You're welcome," a new voice said. Present, not past.

  Smile collapsing, she narrowed her gaze and searched the cell. She was alone, yet something. . . thickened the air. Hummed with power and energy. "Who's there?"

  "You want to know how to break a curse or what?" A woman's voice. A declaration, not truly an inquiry. "I thought I heard you asking about that before. "

  Ashlyn felt a tingle of heat trail from one shoulder to the other, as if someone ran a fingertip over her skin. Then a warm breeze danced in front of her. Still she didn't see anything. Whatever she was dealing with, she knew it wasn't human. An immortal? One of Maddox's gods?

  "Yes," she answered on a trembling breath. "I did. "

  "Cool. I can totally help with that. "

  Cool? Totally? From a potential goddess? Where were the thous and thys? "Will you help me escape, too?"

  "One thing at a time, kitten. " Something shimmered in the corner, then long white hair came into view. Next she saw a tall woman with the body of a supermodel - a body clad in a red crop-top and a black skirt so short it barely covered the line of her panties. Tall, inky boots. Then, finally, a face materialized and Ashlyn found herself beholding the incarnation of loveliness. Features so perfect, so sublime and majestic they could only belong to a god. "Your friend, captor, whatever, mentioned fairy tales, yes?"

  Had delusion set in or was this woman for real? "Yes. "

  "So you already have the answer. Think about the stories. " Frown. A lick of a bright pink lollipop. "What did they teach you?"

  Real enough for me, Ashlyn thought. "To search for a prince?"

  "Ick. Wrong. Think, girlie. I want to get back. "

  Back to where? What was this being's name? And why was she here, helping?

  "I said think, and babe, you don't look like you're thinking. You're sizing me up. You want a piece or something?"

  Of her? "No. Of course not. "

  A shrug. "Then I suggest you get to it. "

  Okay, okay. Thinking. . . It was hard to recall story details when the need to escape weighed so heavily, but somehow she managed it. The prince in Sleeping Beauty fought through thorns and fire to slay the dragon and save his woman. In Maid Maleen, the princess dug through the walls of the tower she had been locked in for seven years, her determination to live and find her prince giving her strength. In The Six Swans, the princess gave up her voice for six years to set her brothers free from a terrible curse.

  Ashlyn had always sighed over those stories, had tucked them deep in her heart to remember when she was alone. She had always secretly wanted a prince to gallop into the Institute and sweep her onto his white steed, riding off into the sunset to a land untainted by old voices. He never had. And that had been for the best, because she'd learned to rely on herself.

  "Well?"

  "Fairy tales teach determination, perseverance and sacrifice. Well, I'm determined, I'll persevere, but what do I sacrifice?" A shudder racked her. Would she be asked to sacrifice her relationship with Maddox? He was everything to her. To save him, though. . . anything. Even - her stomach clenched, churned - that. "I'm not a princess, and my life is hardly a fairy tale. "

  A chuckle. "Well, don'tcha want it to be?" A pause. "Ah, shit. Your enemy approaches. Think about what I said and we'll powwow later. "

  "But you didn't really say anything!"

  A second passed and the air seemed to deaden, all sense of life vanishing.

  "Better now?" McIntosh suddenly asked.

  Ashlyn's eyelids popped open. When had she closed them? McIntosh stood behind the bars. He coughed, this one so strong it doubled him over. He only managed to stay upright by gripping the metal. He looked sicker, paler than when she'd last seen him.

  "Better," she said softly. Had she just imagined that entire encounter with the kind-of-invisible goddess?

  He unlocked the bars and stumbled inside. Coughing, he pocketed the key. He didn't make it to the stool but collapsed on the dirt behind it. One minute passed, two. He didn't move, didn't make a sound.

  "McIntosh? Are you okay?"

 
Finally, movement. He shook his head, as though he needed to dislodge a thick fog. "Picked up a little cold," he said. "Most of the men did. " He rolled to his back and eased to a sitting position, wincing all the while.

  She frowned. "How long have we been away from the fortress?"

  "The better part of the day. "

  A day? So sick, so quickly? "None of you appeared sick before. "

  "Weren't. " He coughed yet again and this time blood trickled from the side of his mouth. "Some are sicker than others. Damn winter germs. Pennington actually died, poor bastard. Well, maybe lucky. " He scooted back until he rested against the bars.

  Died? From a common cold?

  "You need a doctor. "

  Anger flashed in his dark eyes and he made a visible effort to pull himself together. "What I need is that box. Those men are evil, Ashlyn. With their presence alone they spread lies and pain, doubt and misery. They're the reason for war and famine and death. " Coughing again, he reached into his pants pocket and weakly tossed several photos in her lap. "We've fought these bastards for as long as I can remember. Their evil does not stop. "

  She looked automatically. And gagged. Decapitated bodies, a hand attached to nothing, blood flowing like rivers.

  "The men you keep defending did this. "

  Not Maddox, she thought, tearing her gaze away. He wouldn't have done that. He couldn't. "The men I met aren't the source of the world's evil. " She gentled her tone. "They could have hurt me, but didn't. They could have raped or killed the other women, but didn't. They could have stormed Budapest and slaughtered its' people, but they didn't do that, either. "

  His head lolled to the side and for a moment she thought he'd fallen asleep - or died. This was no cold. Couldn't be. Before her eyes, red pockmarks were appearing on his face. "McIntosh?"

  He jerked awake. "Sorry. Dizzy. "

  "Unlock me. Let me help you. " Let me escape.

  "No. Questions first," he said weakly. "Don't trust you anymore. "

  "Unlock me, and I'll tell you anything you want to know. "

  "Told you. Don't trust you. You've been with those monsters. They've corrupted you. "

  "No, they didn't. They helped me. "

  "I helped you. I made sure you were protected from harm. I gave you a life even your parents would have denied you. "

  "Yes, you did help me. " Just not the way she'd needed. He'd helped her because it benefited him. "Now unlock the cuffs and let me help you. "

  A soft sigh escaped him, but ended on a cough. When the fit subsided, he gasped out, "You should have gone home like I told you. But you defied me and your guards failed to report in. By the time I checked your location, it was too late. Wish I had gotten to you sooner, but couldn't just knock on the door. Had to plan. "

  "Checked my location? What plan?"

  "The explosion. Distract the creatures to get you back. GPS. In your arm. "

  Oh God. They had detonated that bomb because of her. Guilty tears stung her eyes. My fault. They all could have died because of her. "I don't understand about the GPS. " She could barely get the words past the hard lump in her throat.

  "Not birth control like we told you. Chip. We've always been able to track you. "

  Her mouth fell open as another hot flood of betrayal washed through her. Betrayal and hurt and fury, all blending with her guilt. How dare they! Never had she felt more violated. She wanted to cry; she wanted to scream. For once in her life, she wanted to kill.

  Guess I was bait after all, she thought almost hysterically. However unintentionally, she'd led the hunters straight to Maddox's doorstep.

  "We let one of our guys be captured yesterday," he said, his eyes glazed and far away. "He led the demons to a club. We left them there when we could have taken them. For you. " He gave a weak smile before hunching over from another round of coughing. When he quieted, she saw that red branched from his eyes like molten rivers of poison.

  "Unlock me, Dr. McIntosh. Please. I've aided you all these years. Don't leave me here to die. "

  He didn't respond for several seconds. Then, surprising her, he lumbered to his feet. He hobbled to her and knelt behind her. Grip weak, he undid the cuffs. The metal fell to the ground with a thump, and she was free.

  She moved from the chair and crouched beside him. He was breathing heavily, struggling for every shallow intake of air. He didn't look like he'd survive the hour. Despite her anger, despite all he'd done, she felt pity rise up inside her. "Where are the other women?" she asked gently, choosing information over escape.

  A pause. A wheezing exhalation. "Should be on a plane to New York. "

  "Where in New York?"

  He closed his eyes, seeming to drift.

  "McIntosh! Stay awake and talk to me. "

  His eyelids flickered open and closed, his body growing more and more pliant. "They'll be. . . traded for box. You'll see one day," he whispered. "Better place without them. " He opened his eyes again and focused on her. "Pretty thing. Father would be proud. " His sentences were no longer coherent, just disjointed pieces of thought flowing from his mind in no particular order. His eyes closed again, and this time they stayed closed. "What's wrong with me?"

  "I don't know. " Her voice trembled. "You need a hospital. "

  "Yes. " But he died a heartbeat later, head falling to the side, body going completely limp.

  Ashlyn covered her mouth with her hand. McIntosh was dead. He had betrayed her, yes, and a part of her hated him for that. But the little girl inside her still craved his approval.

  Trembling, tears again burning her eyes, she pushed to her feet. She didn't take the key from his now-open hand because she didn't need it. She planned to use the same escape route the prisoner had used.

  But first. . . Go on. It'll hurt, but you have to do it. Hand shaky, she picked up the stool McIntosh had been sitting on earlier and slammed it into the metal bars until one of the legs snapped off. She used the jagged edge to scratch desperately at her arm. She winced, nearly cried out. Blood flowed, and she whimpered at the pain. Finally she reached the GPS chip. She dug it out and tossed it on the floor, hiding it in the dirt.

  Hurry, Darrow. Hurry. She couldn't risk running into any more of the Institute's employees up top. Most were probably sick, like McIntosh had said, but that didn't mean the ones who were well would let her waltz out. Bringing the prisoner's voice to her mind, she stumbled to the cell's only toilet and twisted the bolts that fastened it to the wall. Some didn't want to budge and she had to force them, nearly breaking her fingers as she did so. When the last fell onto the dirt, she kicked the toilet aside.

  A man-made hole stared up at her, a hole someone had dug straight to the outside world. She didn't want to crawl through the tight, black space, but with only one backward glance at McIntosh's prone body, she entered the opening. Total darkness surrounded her.

  "Don't panic," she said, the prisoner's voice echoing hers in her mind. Her exhalations ricocheted from the muddy walls. A rat scampered past her fingers.

  She hissed in a breath.

  Forever she crawled, her legs burning from exertion. Wouldn't have been so bad, but it was an uphill climb. Chunks of dirt fell on her, even filled her mouth, coated her tongue. Keep going. Just keep going.

  She felt like the princess in Maid Maleen just then, fighting her way free. The thought brought her mind back to that strange conversation she'd had with the goddess. Or hallucination. Ashlyn would never again wish to be inside a fairy tale.

  A light appeared at the end of the tunnel, small but visible. Relief flooded her, and she quickened her movements. A second later, she found a small opening. Even a child couldn't fit through. "No. No!" She clawed and clawed and clawed.

  After an eternity, she caught a glimpse of moonlit sky.

  Arms nearly sagging in relief and fatigue, she pulled herself up onto the cold, hard ground. She stood, her knees knocking. Snowcapped trees towered all around her. She shivered, Maddox's baggy clothes doing litt
le to keep her warm.

  A man screamed, a tortured sound.

  She stiffened. Maddox. Maddox! Midnight must have arrived. She looked around, spotting the fortress on the horizon, but the scream hadn't come from that direction. When she heard him again, she kicked into gear despite her exhaustion, following the sound. Another scream. A roar.

  "I'm coming. I'm coming. "

  As she ran, Ashlyn began to cough.
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