The darkest night, p.22

The Darkest Night, page 22

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  When Maddox awakened, terror was already gripping him. Ashlyn needed him.

  He was. . . not in the forest, he realized. No, he was in his own bed, his own bedroom, staring up at the vaulted ceiling as he did every morning. But he was not chained.

  How? Why?

  Sunlight streamed through the window, warming him. He'd failed to find Ashlyn and the time for his death had arrived, preventing him from searching further. Reyes, he thought then. Reyes must have dragged him home.

  Maddox bounced out of bed, determined to renew his search. He would find her today, no matter what. We'll destroy the world piece by piece until she's recovered.

  There would be no resting until -

  A woman's cough stopped him midstep. He had been about to hit the hallway running, but now spun around. Ashlyn lay on his bed. Shock slammed into him with the force of a sword through the gut.

  He scrubbed a hand over his face, afraid to believe. Still the vision remained. Relief swamped him, overshadowing the shock, and he ran back to the bed. A wide grin stretched his face as he fell to his knees, thanking the gods, reaching out to gather his woman in his arms.

  She coughed again.

  He froze, realization setting in. His grin disappeared. No! Not Ashlyn. But he studied her more closely. She was pale, too pale, and there were dark circles under her eyes. Little pink splotches marred her pretty skin.

  He could have torn out his own heart.

  He had suspected. . . he had feared. . . and now his worst fear had come true. The Hunters had exposed her to disease. They had probably died, one by one, allowing her to escape and find him.

  Allowing her to come home to die.

  "No!" he roared. He wouldn't let her; she was his life. An eternity roasting in hell was preferable to a single minute on this earth without her.

  Reyes stomped into the room, as if he had been waiting for some sign of life. He was grim and angry as a storm cloud, ready to erupt. "Has she woken yet?" He had so many cuts on his arms it was hard to tell where one began and another ended.

  "No," Maddox replied brokenly.

  The warrior looked her over. "I stayed nearby. She coughed all night. I'm sorry. " Then, in a comforting tone, he added, "Most die within hours of becoming infected, but she's managed to stay alive. Perhaps she'll survive. "

  Perhaps wasn't good enough. Maddox laid a hand over her too-hot brow. Commands began to spill from him. "Get me cool rags. And more of those pills, if we still have Danika's purse. Water, too. "

  Reyes rushed to obey, returning shortly with everything Maddox had wanted. Ashlyn refused to awaken, so he crushed the pills and dumped the powder into her mouth. Next he poured the water down her throat.

  She coughed and gagged, but did eventually swallow. Finally her eyelids flickered open and she squinted against the light. "Home," she said when she spied him, her voice hoarse. "Hurt. Worse than before. "

  "I know, beauty. " Softly he kissed her temple. While he could be infected by Torin, he could not be infected by a human. Not that it mattered. He would have touched and held her anyway. "You're going to get better this time, too. "

  "Boss. . . Hunter. Dead. "

  He nodded in acknowledgment, not wanting to speak what he was feeling about the man's death. Satisfaction.

  "What of Danika?" Reyes asked, stepping forward. "I followed the hole you came through and found the prison and the dead Hunters, but Danika was not inside. "

  "Might be. . . on her way to. . . New York," Ashlyn said haltingly.

  Reyes paled, the color draining from his face as though it were being sucked out by the vacuum Aeron always grumbled about using. "They told you nothing else?"

  "I'm sorry. " She coughed.

  Maddox winced at the terrible, rattling sound. He laid one of the cool, wet rags on her brow. She sighed, closed her eyes. Reyes tangled a hand in his hair, clearly frustrated, needing to pace, needing pain.

  "Go," Maddox told him. "Find her. "

  The warrior glanced at Ashlyn, then Maddox, then nodded. He left without another word.

  Maddox remained with Ashlyn for hours, mopping her brow, forcing her to sip the water. He recalled seeing Torin do this all those years ago, after he'd touched the human woman and the plague had taken root.

  For a time, Maddox thought Ashlyn's will to live was stronger than the disease, for she had not died like the others. That, or perhaps something - someone - was helping her.

  But then her cough had become bloody, her body too weak to sit up. Her throat became so swollen she was no longer able to swallow. How much longer could she last?

  Not knowing what else to do, Maddox bundled her up and cradled her in his arms. He did not speak to his friends as he carried her out of the fortress. They did not ask his intentions, probably too afraid he would become violent. He would have. The spirit churned inside of him, worried for her, too, wanting to destroy, to maim, to kill. This time in helplessness and frustration, not fury.

  Down the hill and into the city he raced, the moonlight a mocking reminder of his failure to help her yesterday, too. Save her, have to save her. She never made a sound, too weak now even to cough. The streets were barren, no one outside. Whatever it takes, save her.

  He carried her straight to the hospital, a place he had found yesterday in his fruitless search for her. The building was filled, nearly bursting from its seams, hundreds of humans inside, coughing. Dying. He did not want to leave her, was afraid to trust them with her life. But he did not know what else to do.

  In a crowded, white hallway, he found a gloved and masked man issuing orders. "Help me," he said, cutting into the man's speech. "Help her. Please. "

  Distracted, the white-coated man glanced at Ashlyn and gave a weary sigh. "Everyone needs help, sir. You'll just have to wait your turn. "

  Maddox pinned him with a fierce stare and knew Violence flashed over his face. Knew his eyes burned bright red.

  "You're - you're - one of them. From the hill. " The man gulped. "Lay her there. " He pointed to a bed with wheels at the end of the hall. "I'll care for her myself:"

  Maddox did as instructed, then kissed Ashlyn's soft lips. Still no response. "Save her," he commanded.

  "I'll - I'll do my best. "

  Please let her survive. He wanted to stay with her, guard her, watch over her. Take care of her. More than anything, he wanted her with him. But he walked away from her then, and into the night. Midnight approached.

  In the morning, he would return. Woe to the world - woe to the gods - if she was not here, alive and well.

  Reyes cursed as he searched the airport, nearby hotels. Medical clinics. He'd seen more of the city in two days than in all his centuries living here. He felt like a caged animal, seething with a need to act but ultimately powerless. Danika was still out there. Maybe sick, like Ashlyn. Maybe dying. And he could not find a single sign of her.

  Night had fallen once again, and he was surprised to realize he'd raced to the same alleyway he and Maddox had discovered last night. He could see where Maddox had punched the wall in rage. The stone was cracked and dented.

  Reyes was close to hopping on a plane to New York, but knew he could not stray very far from Maddox's side. When the gods had cursed Maddox to die every night, they had cursed him, as well, tethering him to the warrior as surely as if they'd used iron chains. Why him, rather than Aeron, he did not know. All he knew was that, at midnight, he would be forced to return to the fortress. Always he would return.

  He'd taken off several times before, testing his boundaries, testing the gods' reaction, but always he was pulled to Maddox at midnight.

  "Damn this!" He unsheathed one of his daggers and slashed the tip across his thigh. Fabric tore and blood leaked from the wound. What was he going to do? There was a need inside him, a deep need he'd never experienced before, to save, to rescue. To protect. But only Danika. Only to look into those angel eyes again and feel another flicker of p

  A pleasure he was never supposed to experience.

  But he had experienced it, and now he wanted more.

  The gods would not have ordered Aeron to hunt her down and kill her if she could die from Torin's disease or if Hunters were destined to render the final blow. The thought brought both comfort and anger.

  Perhaps Reyes should release Aeron - whom he had locked in the dungeon before leaving the fortress - and follow him to Danika, for surely Wrath would be able to scent her out so Reyes could free her from the Hunters.

  No, he realized. Reyes would not be able to follow him if Danika were not close by. And if Aeron reached her first she would die, no doubt about it.

  Forget her. She's a human. There are thousands. Millions. You can find another woman who looks like an angel.

  "I don't want to find another," he shouted. But he could not keep Aeron chained forever, and he knew it. "Damn this. "

  Stop acting like a baby, a female voice said inside his mind, surprising; him. Look on the hill and shut the hell up already. You're giving me a major headache.

  His shoulders stiffened. He scanned the area, knife at the ready. He saw no one.

  What are you waiting for? the voice said again. Hurry.

  A god? One of his own kind? Couldn't be Doubt, for the speaker was clearly female. Reyes didn't waste any more time trying to reason it out. He sprinted into motion, and ten minutes later, he stood at the edge of the hill.

  Danika was there. She and a man - Kane, he realized - were lying on the ground, both of them moaning.

  Anger filled him at the notion that she was injured, even as relief poured through him. Shockingly, she looked as if she'd been climbing back up, trying to reach the fortress. Rocks were scattered around the pair as if they'd fallen from the sky, the couple the target.

  Reyes scooped her up, never wanting to let her go, and nudged Kane with the toe of his boot to wake him. He kept the hilt of his dagger at hand, just in case. He wasn't entirely comfortable having the other Lords back in his life.

  Kane grunted. Opened his eyes. Grabbed for the gun sheathed in his waistband. Reyes kicked it out of his hand.

  "Go ahead and kill each other," Danika said weakly. Her blond hair was matted with blood. In that instant, Reyes thought he knew the dark, consuming violence Maddox must experience whenever he thought of Ashlyn being hurt.

  "How are you hurt?" If Disaster had -

  "Rocks fell," she said, cutting off his furious thoughts. "From a mountain, I guess. He pushed me out of the way to avoid the worst of it and I tripped, hit my head. "

  Reyes relaxed, but only slightly. "Thank you," he said to Kane.

  The man nodded, rubbed his temple as if in regret, and stood.

  "Where's your family?" Reyes asked Danika. He could have remained just as he was for all eternity.

  "Flying somewhere you'll never think to find them. " She wouldn't meet his eyes and struggled against his hold. "Now put me down. "

  Never, he wanted to say. "No. You're too weak to walk. "

  Turning to Kane, he switched to Hungarian so that Danika would not understand. He hoped. "How did you save her? And do not answer in English. " He only prayed Kane understood him.

  "Hunters were on their way to the fortress when Torin and I ran into them," was the reply, also in Hungarian. Of course the man would speak it, Reyes thought. He would not have traveled to Buda unprepared. "We fought, but there were so many. . . He was cut and I was taken. They made the mistake of putting her in the same van they'd stashed me in. The tires blew and the vehicle flew off the road. "

  "And the Hunters are now. . . ?"

  "Dead. "

  Good. Though a part of him yearned to kill them all over again. Something painful. Something slow and lingering. His gaze locked on Danika, searching for any sign of Disease's infection. Her skin glowed healthily and there was no telltale cough. So, she had remained unaffected. For the reason he feared?

  "Why did you come back?" he asked her, reverting to English.

  "He made me," she said, pointing to Disaster. "Is Ashlyn okay? I heard them talking about - " she choked on a sudden sob " - hurting her to draw you guys out so they could find some stupid box. "

  "She has been found," he said, tightening his hold. Her pain was like a hot poker stabbing straight into his chest - and for once he didn't enjoy the sensation. "She's very sick. "

  Danika swallowed. "Will she. . . "

  "Only time will tell. " Reyes motioned for Kane to go ahead of them. The warrior nodded and leapt into motion. "Death waits in town, Danika. You will stay at the fortress until the Hunters are destroyed and the sickness passes. "

  "No. I won't. " She struggled against him, trying to push away from his torso and jerk her legs to the ground. "I want to go home now. "

  "Moving like that simply presses your body against mine. "

  She stilled, and he was both glad and disappointed. He hadn't lied. Her body was warm, fragrant with pine, and every time she had moved, his nerve endings had come alive.

  He started walking up the hill, taking a different path than Disaster. Just in case. Reyes's relief at Danika's safe return was still so vast he shook with it.

  "Am I to be your prisoner again?"

  "Guest, as long as you stay put. " When it was safe, he would set her free, allowing her to live out the rest of her life as she pleased. However long it was. "We've had to lock Aeron in the dungeon. You are not to go down there. Ever. Understand?" He let all of his rage, all of his torment, drip from his voice. "He will kill you without blinking. "

  "Yet another reason I want to go home," she said, shuddering. "Things like this don't happen there. "

  "And where is home?"

  "Like I'm going to tell you. Kidnapper. "

  If he had his way, she'd soon tell him everything there was to know about her. They would spend their short time together in his room, in his bed. His cock jumped to attention as he imagined all that angel hair splayed on his pillow. . . those lush breasts pink and ripe. . . those sweet legs parted. . .

  Perhaps she would never want to leave.

  Ha! Women like her never wanted men like him. He cut himself for pleasure, for relief. He had to. Sometimes, he felt he would die if he didn't. If she knew, she would scoff at him. And that would be for the best. She was better off away from him, away from Wrath.

  When the sickness passed, he would let Danika go. He couldn't go with her to protect her - not that she would want him to - and he couldn't stop Aeron from doing his duty.

  For Reyes, there could be no happy ending.
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