The darkest night, p.24

The Darkest Night, page 24

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night
 


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CHAPTER TWENTY-FOUR

 

  "He sooo does not owe the gods. He owes me. But I swear this is totally my last favor to you. I put him to sleep. Don't waste any time. "

  Ashlyn froze as Anya's voice penetrated her mind. No, not yet, her body whined. I need more time with him.

  "Choice is yours, chica. I'm signing off. "

  And she did. Anya's hum of energy died, leaving the room deflated.

  Shaking, Ashlyn pushed from the bed and sneaked from the room - but not before giving Maddox one last wistful glance. She hated to leave the decadence of his arms, but wouldn't risk losing this chance.

  "This is for the best," she told herself. "He's not going to die again. Not when I can save him. "

  For fifteen minutes, she roamed the halls of the fortress, knocking on bedroom doors. No one answered. Not even Danika. All the while the halls echoed with the sound of someone shouting profanities. She heard chains rattling. Aeron, she realized and shuddered. He scared her.

  Finally, she found one of the immortals. The silver-haired angel who'd taken her from Danika's room and hidden her in another. Torin. Disease. He was lying on a bed, a red towel wrapped around his neck. His skin was pale, he'd lost a little weight and the lines around his eyes and mouth were taut with pain. But he was breathing.

  She didn't wake him. She did approach the side of the bed to whisper, "I wish I could touch you, hold your hand and thank you for hiding me that day. I was able to reach Maddox and hold him that night. "

  His eyelids fluttered open.

  Startled, she jumped backward. Their gazes met and she relaxed. There was gentleness in his green eyes, and she liked to think he would have said, "Welcome home," if he'd been able. "I hope you get better soon, Torin. "

  He might have nodded, but it was hard to tell.

  Her nerves on edge, she continued her search.

  Finally, she located a group of them. Her heart hammered in her chest as she studied them, unnoticed. They were working out, bench-pressing and squatting more weight than five humans combined could have done. The one named Reyes was pounding away at a punching bag. Sweat poured down his bare chest, ribboned with flecks of blood.

  He was the one who always wielded the sword. She tried not to hate him for it.

  "Ahem," she said, drawing everyone's attention.

  All of them paused, peered at her. A few narrowed their eyes. She lifted her chin. "I need to talk to you," she said, aiming the words at Reyes and Lucien.

  Reyes went back to his punching bag. "If you're going to try to talk us out of killing Maddox tonight, save your breath. "

  "I'll listen to you, sweet," the tallest of the group said. Paris was his name. Blue eyes, pale skin, brown and black hair. Pure sex, Maddox had said, and she believed him. The words had been delivered as a warning to stay away.

  "Quiet," Lucien said. "If Maddox heard you, he'd go for your head. "

  A blue-haired man faced her. "Want me to kiss them for you?"

  Kiss them? She'd only seen him once before. In the foyer, right after the bombing, but he hadn't struck her as a kisser. He looked as if he wanted to kill them.

  Reyes growled, "You shut up, too, Gideon. And don't cozy up to her. She's taken. I'll have to hurt you. "

  "I'd hate to see you try," the now-grinning man said.

  She blinked. How odd. His words said one thing, his tone quite another. Well, whatever.

  "You're right," she told Reyes. "I don't want you to kill Maddox tonight. I want you to - " oh God, are you really going to say this? " - kill me instead. "

  That got everyone's attention. They stopped what they were doing, weights dropping, the treadmill grinding to a halt, and stared at her, gaping.

  "What did you just say?" Reyes gasped out, wiping sweat from his brow.

  "Curses are broken through sacrifice. Preferably self-sacrifice. If I sacrifice myself, dying in place of Maddox, his curse will be broken. "

  Silence.

  Thick, heavy silence. She only wished it were comfortable.

  "How can you be sure?" Lucien asked, those odd eyes somber. "What if it doesn't work? What if Maddox's death-curse isn't broken and you've died for nothing?"

  She gathered her courage, wrapping it around her like a blanket in the winter. "At least I will have tried. But, uh. I kind of have it on the highest authority that this will work. "

  "The gods?"

  She nodded. Well, Anya had never verified that little tidbit. Ashlyn had just assumed.

  Again, silence.

  "You would do that?" Disbelief filled Paris's electric eyes. "For Violence?"

  "Yes. " Thinking of the pain she would endure terrified her, but she didn't hesitate with her answer.

  "I stab him," Reyes reminded her. "That means I would have to stab you. Six times. In the stomach. "

  "I know," she said softly. She gazed down at her bare feet. "I see it in my mind every day, and I relive it every night. "

  "Let's say you do break his curse," Lucien said. "You will have condemned him to a life without you. "

  "I'd rather he live without me than die repeatedly with me at his side. He suffers so much and I just can't allow it. "

  "Self-sacrifice. " Reyes snorted. "Sounds ridiculous to me. "

  Ashlyn raised her chin another notch and tried the same logic the goddess had used on her. "Look at the world's most beloved fairy tales," she said. All that magic, all those happily-ever-afters. "Selfish queens always die and the good princesses always win. "

  Reyes snorted again. "Like you said, fairy tales. "

  "Aren't all fairy tales based in fact? You yourself are supposed to be nothing more than a myth. Pandora's box is a story parents read to their children at night," she countered. "That means life itself is a fairy tale. Like the characters, we all live and love and search for a happily-ever-after. "

  They continued to stare at her, something unreadable in their eyes. Maybe. . . admiration? Minutes dragged by, torturously slow. She'd made her decision and if she had to stab herself to carry it out, she would.

  "All right," Lucien said, shocking her. "We'll do it. "

  "Lucien!" Reyes scoffed.

  Lucien peered over at Reyes, and Ashlyn could see hope lighting his severely scarred face. "This will free us, too, Reyes. We'll be able to leave the fortress for more than a single day. We could travel if we wished. We could leave - and stay gone - when we craved solitude. "

  Reyes opened his mouth, closed it.

  "In the movies Paris has forced us to watch," Lucien continued, "good always overcomes evil with an extreme act of self-sacrifice. "

  "Human movies mean nothing. If we do this, we could be cursed even more. Punished for defying the gods' will. "

  "For Maddox, for freedom, why not risk it?"

  "Maddox will not like it," Reyes said, but there was hope in his voice now, too. "I think. . . I think he would rather have the human. "

  That observation warmed her, but she didn't back down. She couldn't - wouldn't - let Maddox suffer like that night after night, knowing there was something she could do. He'd paid for his crimes, plus interest.

  An eye for an eye, she thought. He'd given her peace. She would do the same for him.

  "Sometimes what we want isn't what we need," Lucien said. His voice had dropped and an edge of wistfulness seeped from it. What did he want that he didn't need?

  "All right," Reyes finally said.

  "Tonight," Ashlyn insisted. "It has to be tonight. " She didn't want him to suffer yet again, nor did she want to risk changing her mind. "Just. . . give me as much time as possible with him, okay?"

  Both men nodded grimly.

  Maddox saw to Ashlyn's every need for the rest of the day. He fed her by hand and loved her body so many times he lost count. He talked about his plans for their future together. How her new job could be helping the warriors search for Pandora's box - if she so desired. How they would wed and spend every waking minute together - if she so desired. H
ow they would seek a way to save her from aging so that they could have an eternity together - if she so desired. He would carve her anything she wanted, and she could read him passages from romance novels. If she so desired.

  She laughed with him, teased him, loved him, but there was a quiet desperation about her that he did not understand. A sadness. He didn't press her. They had time. For once, he viewed time as his friend. She couldn't know that she had tamed him. Tamed the spirit. And that now, both existed to please her.

  "What's wrong, love?" he asked. "Tell me and I will make it better. "

  "It's almost midnight," she said, trembling.

  Ah. He understood now. He gazed down at her. They sat on the edge of his bed and he clasped her hand in his. Moonlight bathed her lovely features, illuminating the concern in her eyes. "I will be fine. "

  "I know. "

  "Hardly hurts, I swear. "

  That earned him a soft chuckle. "Liar. "

  Her laughter warmed him, inside out. "I want you to stay in another bedroom tonight. "

  She shook her head, tickling his arm with strands of her hair. "I'm going to stay with you. "

  He sighed. There was such determination in her voice.

  "All right. " He wouldn't permit himself any reaction to the stabbing. He would not make a noise, would not move a muscle. He would die with a smile on his face. "We will - "

  Reyes and Lucien entered the bedroom, more grim than he'd ever seen them. He wondered at their mood, but decided not to question them in front of Ashlyn. No reason to heap anything else on her right now; she was about to watch him be murdered.

  Maddox placed a swift kiss on Ashlyn's lips. She gripped his head, urging him to linger. She was fierce, almost desperate. He allowed himself a moment more. Gods, how he loved this woman.

  "We will finish this tomorrow," he said. Tomorrow. . . He could hardly wait.

  He lay down on the cotton sheets and scooted to the headboard. Reyes shackled his wrists, Lucien his ankles. "At least turn away when they begin," he said to Ashlyn.

  She smiled a sad smile and crouched beside him. She stroked his cheek, softly, a butterfly caress. "You know I love you. "

  "Yes. " And he had never been so glad of anything in his life. This woman was his miracle. "And you know I will love you forever and afterward. "

  "Listen, Maddox. . . Don't blame anyone but me for this, okay. You've suffered enough, too much, and as the woman who loves you, it's up to me to save you. Know that I do it willingly, because you mean more to me than my own life. " She kissed him again, briefly this time, and stood. She turned to Lucien and Reyes. "I'm ready. "

  His brows drew together in confusion, dread on its heels. "Ready for what? What would I blame you for?"

  Reyes unsheathed his sword, the blade whistling against the air. Maddox's dread increased. "What's going on? Tell me. Now. "

  No one said a word as Reyes approached Ashlyn.

  Maddox strained against his chains. "Ashlyn. Leave the room. Leave the room and do not return. "

  "I'm ready," she whispered again. "Should we go to another room?"

  "Ashlyn!" Maddox snarled.

  "No," Lucien said. "You said you wanted the ultimate sacrifice, remember? He has to watch and understand what you're doing for him. "

  Her eyes met Maddox's, pooled with unshed tears. "I love you. "

  In that moment, he realized exactly what they planned. He bucked and fought for freedom. He shouted profanities even Paris would not utter. All the while, hot tears streamed down his cheeks. "No. Do not do this. Please, do not do this. I need you, Ashlyn. Reyes, Lucien. Please. Please!"

  Reyes hesitated. Swallowed.

  And then he stabbed Ashlyn in the stomach.

  Maddox screamed, straining so forcefully the metal links cut all the way to the bone. If he kept it up, he would lose his hands and ankles. He did not care. Only one thing mattered, and she was dying in front of him. "No! No! Ashlyn!"

  Blood poured from her stomach, wetting her shirt. She pressed her lips together, somehow remaining silent and upright. "I love you," she repeated.

  Reyes stabbed her again. With each new cut, Maddox felt his ties to midnight slacken, as if invisible chains that had bound him for thousands of years were slowly lifting away. And he wanted them back! He wanted Ashlyn.

  "Ashlyn! Reyes! Stop. Stop. " He openly sobbed, helpless, furious. Dying himself, though he felt stronger than ever. "Lucien, make him stop. "

  Death lowered his gaze, saying nothing.

  At the third thrust of the blade, Ashlyn did fall. She did scream. No, that was him. She only whimpered. "Doesn't. . . hurt," she gasped out. "Like you said. "

  "Ashlyn. " Her name trembled from his lips, the plea desperate. Raging. Violent. "Oh, gods. No. Ashlyn. Why are you doing this? Reyes, stop. You must stop!" He could not say it enough.

  Her eyes met his again, and there was so much love in them he was humbled. "I love you. "

  "Ashlyn, Ashlyn. " He jerked and the chain sank deeper, cut harder. "Hold on, beauty. Just hold on. We'll patch you up. We'll give you Tylenol. Do not worry, do not worry. Reyes, stop. Do not do this thing. She is innocent. "

  Reyes did not heed him, but stabbed her again and again. Her eyes closed. And then he paused. Gulped. Looked up at the heavens and then over at the still-silent Lucien.

  "Don't take her! Please don't take her. "

  Finally the sixth blow was delivered.

  "Ashlyn!"

  Blood flowed around her now-lifeless body, a crimson pool. Tears continued to rain from Maddox's eyes. Still he struggled. Still the ties to midnight waned. "Why? Why?"

  Blessedly, Lucien unlocked him. His hands and feet were barely attached as he collapsed onto the floor and crawled, leaving a trail of blood behind. He gathered his woman in his arms.

  Her head lolled to the side. Dead. She was dead, while he felt the weight of the death-curse turn to mist inside his body, evaporating as if it had never been. "No!" He sobbed, great wrenching sobs. Though breaking the curse had once been all he'd cared about, he would rather endure a thousand more than lose this woman. "Please. "

  "It is done," Reyes said grimly. "Let us hope her sacrifice was not in vain. "

  Maddox buried his face in Ashlyn's hair and rocked her in his arms.
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