The darkest night, p.4

The Darkest Night, page 4

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night


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CHAPTER FOUR

 

  "Who are you and how do you know Maddox?"

  "Let me go!" Ashlyn wiggled and squirmed, trying to free herself from her captor's iron grip. Her ankle throbbed, but she didn't care. "They're killing him in there. " Oh God. They were killing him, stabbing him over and over again. There'd been so much blood. . . such terrible screams. She gagged, remembering.

  The voices might still be gone, but she felt more tormented than ever.

  "Maddox will be fine," the man told her. Maddox had broken his nose - she'd seen it - but it had snapped back into place almost immediately. There wasn't even a trace of blood on his face. Now he removed one of his arms from her waist, only to caress her temple and gently brush aside a lock of hair. "You'll see. "

  "No, I won't see," she all but sobbed. "Let me go!"

  "Much as I hate to deny you, I have to. You were causing him undue torment. "

  "I was causing him undue torment? I wasn't the one stabbing him. Now let me go!" Not knowing what else to do, she stilled and gazed up at him. "Please. " He had brilliant blue eyes and skin as pale as milk. His hair was a captivating blend of brown and black. He was handsome beyond anyone she'd ever seen before, too perfect to be real.

  And all she wanted to do was escape him.

  "Relax. " He smiled a slow, seductive smile. Practiced, even to her untrained eye. "You have nothing to fear from me, gorgeous. I'm all about the pleasure. "

  Fury and fright, sorrow and frustration gave her strength and bravery; she slapped him. He'd just watched a man stab Maddox, and he'd done nothing to stop it. He'd just watched a man stab Maddox, and he dared to flirt with her. She had everything to fear from him.

  He lost his grin and frowned down at her. "You hit me. " There was surprise in his tone.

  She slapped him again. "Let. Me. Go!"

  His frown deepened. He rubbed his cheek with one hand and held her still with the other. "Women do not hit me. Women love me. "

  She raised her palm, ready to deliver another blow.

  Sighing, he said, "Fine. Go. Maddox's screams have stopped. I doubt you can upset him now, dead as he surely is. " His arm fell away from her.

  Ashlyn didn't give him time to change his mind. Suddenly free, she leapt into motion, racing down the hall despite the pain in her ankle. When she entered the room and saw the blood-soaked bed and motionless body, she skidded to an abrupt halt.

  Dear God.

  Maddox's eyes were closed; his chest was utterly still.

  A sob burst from her, and she covered her mouth with a shaky hand. Red-hot tears filled her eyes. "They killed you. " She raced to the bed and cupped Maddox's jaw in her hands, tilting slowly. His eyelids didn't flicker open. Breath didn't seep from his nose. His skin was already cold and pale from loss of blood.

  She was too late.

  How could someone so strong and vital have been destroyed so callously?

  "Who is she?" someone said.

  Startled, she turned. Maddox's murderers stood off to the side, talking amongst themselves. How could she have forgotten them? Every few seconds, they glanced in her direction. None of them spoke directly to her. They continued their conversation as if she didn't matter. As if Maddox didn't matter.

  "We should take her to the city, but she's seen too much," a harsh voice said. The coldest, most uncaring voice she'd ever heard. "What was Maddox thinking?"

  "All this time, I've lived with him and I never knew what he suffered," an angelic-looking blond with green eyes said quietly. He was dressed entirely in black and wore gloves that stretched to his biceps. "Is it always like this?"

  "Not always, no," the one who had wielded the sword said. "He's usually more accepting. " His black gaze was hard, his tone tormented. "The woman. . . "

  Murderer! Ashlyn inwardly cried, wanting to attack him. All her life, her ability had revealed more bad than good, forcing her to listen to centuries of hateful accusations and even shrieks of terror. And the one man who'd given her any measure of peace, they'd brutally slain.

  Do something, Darrow. She scrubbed her burning eyes with the back of her wrist and straightened to shaky legs. What could she do? They outnumbered her. They were stronger than she was.

  An extremely tattooed man frowned over at her. He had military-cropped brown hair, two eyebrow rings and soft, full lips. He also had more muscles than a world champion power-lifter. He would have been handsome - in a serial-killer kind of way - if not for those tattoos.

  Even his cheeks were painted with violent images of war and weapons.

  His eyes were the same shade of violet as Maddox's, but they lacked any hint of warmth or emotion. Blood dripped down his nose as he rubbed his chin with two fingers. "We have to do something with the girl. " That cold, emotionless voice again. "I don't like her being here. "

  "Even so, Aeron, we aren't to touch her. " This speaker had inky hair that was like a dark halo around his head and different-colored eyes - one brown, one blue. His face was a mass of scars. At first glance, he was hideous. At second, there was an almost hypnotic quality to him, enhanced by the scent of roses drifting from him. "Tomorrow morning she'll be in the same condition she is now. Breathing and clothed. "

  "Just like Maddox, taking away our fun. "

  The wry voice came from behind her and she yelped, spinning. The beautiful pale-skinned man stood in the doorway. He watched her, hunger in his eyes, as if he were picturing her naked and liked what he saw.

  A tremor started at the top of her head and worked its way down, all the way to her toes. Bastards, every one of them! Her feral gaze scanned the room and narrowed on the bloody sword that had been carelessly tossed onto the floor. The very sword that had sliced through Maddox as if he were nothing more than a thin layer of silk.

  "I want to know who she is," the cold, tattooed one - Aeron - said. "And I want to know why Maddox brought her here. He knows the rules. "

  "She must have been one of the humans on the hill," the angel said, "but that still doesn't explain why he brought her into our midst. "

  She would have laughed if she hadn't felt on the verge of a total breakdown. I should have listened to McIntosh. Demons did live here.

  "Well?" Aeron prompted. "What do we do with her?"

  Each of the men faced her again, and Ashlyn dove for the blade. Her fingers curled around the hilt and she straightened, pointing the tip in their direction. The sword was heavier than she'd thought and her arms instantly began to shake under its weight, but she held firm.

  Her companions merely regarded her with curiosity. Their lack of fear didn't faze her. Though she'd only known Maddox a short while, there was something wild inside her that mourned his loss and demanded she avenge his death.

  Maddox. His name whispered through her mind. He was gone. Forever. Her stomach clenched painfully. "I should kill you, all of you. He was innocent. "

  "Innocent?" someone scoffed.

  "She wants to kill us. Hunters have come for us, then," Aeron said with disgust.

  "A Hunter would not call Maddox innocent. Even in jest. "

  "Bait would not be above it. Remember, every word out of their mouths was a lie, though their faces were always guileless. "

  "I watched Maddox slay four men on my monitor, which he wouldn't have done if they had been innocent. And I doubt a coincidence brought a guiltless female to the forest at the exact same time. "

  "Think she has any skill with a sword?"

  Snort. "Of course not. Look how she's holding it. "

  "Brave little thing, though. "

  Ashlyn gaped at them, hardly able to keep up with the conversation. "Does no one care that a man was murdered here? That you were the ones who murdered him?"

  The black-clothed angel laughed, actually laughed, but there was anguish in his green eyes. "Believe me. Maddox will thank us in the morning. "

  "If he doesn't kill us for being here in the first place," someone retorted.

  To her astonishment,
several of the men chuckled. All shook their heads in hearty agreement. Only the one who had rendered the fatal wounds remained silent. He continued to stare at Maddox's body, his expression wracked with agony and guilt. Good. She wanted him to suffer for what he'd done.

  The sensual one, the one who thought no woman could resist him, leveled his gaze on her, and she was treated to another slow, seductive smile. "Put the sword away, sweet, before you hurt yourself. "

  She held tight, determined. "Come and take it from me, you. . . you. . . animal!" The words flew from her mouth, a challenge she couldn't hold back. "I may not have any skill with swords, but if you come near me I will hurt you. "

  There was a sigh. A laugh. A muttered, "What kind of female can resist Paris?"

  "I say we lock her in the dungeon. " This from the one named Aeron. "No telling what she'll do otherwise. "

  "Agreed," the others echoed.

  Edging toward the door, Ashlyn shook her head and gripped the sword more tightly. "I'm leaving. Do you hear me? I'm leaving! And mark my words, justice will be served. Every single one of you will be arrested and executed. "

  "Maddox can decide what to do with her in the morning," the one with the mismatched eyes said calmly, ignoring her.

  As if Maddox could decide anything now.

  Her chin trembled. And then her eyes widened as each of his killers stalked forward, determination in their every step.

  Don't hurt me. Please, don't hurt me.

  A pause. A snap.

  An anguished cry.

  My arm! Huge, gut-wrenching sobs. You broke my fucking arm! Ashlyn's own arm throbbed in sympathy. I didn't. . . do anything. . . wrong.

  The voices had returned in full force.

  She huddled on the floor of a dark, dank cell, shivering and scared. "I just wanted to find someone who could help me," she whispered. Instead, she'd fallen straight into a Grimm's folk tale, but with no happy ending in sight.

  I will. I will. Just. . . need. . . a. . . moment.

  The one-sided conversation had been rolling through her mind for an eternity, it seemed, now a discordant concerto of anger, desperation and pain. Above it, however, a single voice rose: Maddox's. Not a voice of the past, but a memory. A burst of screams.

  "You left the Institute for this. " She shook her head in grief and disgust, wanting to convince herself this day had been nothing more than a nightmare. That a man had not been slain right in front of her. Stabbed. Repeatedly. But she knew the truth. His shouts. . . God, his shouts. His rage at being chained and beaten, his torment. . . worse than anything she'd ever heard from another human being.

  Tears rained down her face. She couldn't get his image out of her head - not his image before he died and not his image after. Harshly handsome face almost savage in its intensity. Facial bones blurred and sunken. Violet eyes bright. Violet eyes closed. Tall, tanned and muscled body. Broken, bloody, lifeless body.

  She whimpered.

  After shoving her into this cell, Maddox's killers had promised to bring her blankets and food. The vow had been delivered ages ago, but no one had returned. She was glad. She didn't want to see them again. Didn't want to hear them, didn't want to talk to them. She'd rather endure the cold and the hunger.

  Shivering, she tugged her jacket tight at the collar. She was thankful she still had it, that the men, those barbaric monsters, hadn't taken it from her during the seemingly endless trek from topside to underground.

  Just then, something scampered across her fingertips, squeaking happily, and she jerked. Oh God, Oh God, Oh God. She scooted into the nearest corner. Mouse. A hairy little rodent that would eat anything, and where there was one. . .

  Stomach churning, she swept her gaze through the cell. Not that it did any good. The room was too dark, and she wouldn't have been able to see a hand - or a monster - if it were right in front of her face.

  "Stay still. " Deep breath in. "Stay calm. " Deep breath out.

  I'll tell you anything you want to know, but please don't hurt me again, Broken Arm said, sobbing his way back into her thoughts. I didn't mean to sneak inside. There was a long pause. Okay, yes, yes. I did. I meant to, but I only wanted to see who had taken residence here. I'm not a hunter, I swear I'm not.

  Ashlyn's ears twitched, and she pressed deeper into the rocky wall. Hunter, the man had said. Maddox's killers had called her a hunter. What did they mean? Bounty hunter? She frowned and rubbed her swollen, aching ankle. Who could ever think that of five-foot-five, average Ashlyn?

  "Doesn't matter. You have to find a way out of here, Darrow. " She had to tell the authorities what had happened to Maddox. Would they believe her? Would they even care? Or had the men here somehow bewitched them as they'd done the rest of the townspeople - angels, indeed - allowing them to do anything they wanted, whenever they wanted?

  A sob gushed from her lips; a tremor raked her. No one should have to die that slowly, that painfully. Dignity gone. Cries unheeded.

  One way or another, Maddox would be avenged.

  Maddox screamed.

  Flames licked him from head to toe. Blistering, melting away his flesh, reducing him to nothing but bone. No, not even bone, he mused in the next instant. The flames had reduced him to ash. But he was still aware. . . always aware. He still knew who he was, still knew what he was, and that he would have to return to the fire tomorrow.

  The agony was nearly more than he could bear. Plumes of smoke thickened the air, scattering soot in every direction. Disgustingly, he knew that soot belonged to him. Was him.

  Much too soon, it returned to where he had stood, fused together and became a body, a man - a man that once again caught fire. A body that once again melted bit by grueling bit, pouring flesh from muscle, then flickering orange-gold sparks over muscle before disintegrating altogether. There was another blackened breeze, returning everything to its place so the entire process could repeat itself. Again and again and again.

  All the while, Violence roared inside his head, desperate to escape, no longer sated as it had been at the moment of his death. Blending with that were the sounds of the other condemned souls, screaming as the flames of hell devoured them. Demons, those disgusting winged creatures with glowing red eyes, skeletal faces and thick yellow horns atop their heads, fluttered from one tormented prisoner to another, laughing, taunting, spitting.

  I have one of those monsters inside me. Except mine is worse.

  The other demons knew it, too. "Welcome back, brother," they would jeer before licking him with their fiery, forked tongues.

  Always before, Maddox had wished to fade into nothing when the fire overcame him, never to return to hell or to earth. He'd wished to end his miserable existence and finally stop the pain. Always before - but not tonight. Not this time.

  Tonight, pain was eclipsed by desire.

  Ashlyn's image rose inside his mind, taunting him far more than the demons. You'll find nothing but bliss with me, her eyes seemed to say, lips parting, softening for a kiss.

  She was a puzzle he yearned to solve. His first glimpse of heaven with her warm, amber-rich hair and honey-colored eyes. She was exquisite and lush, and so unequivocally feminine she called to his every masculine instinct.

  Surprisingly, she had fought to stay with him. Had even fought to save him from the others, he'd realized only a few minutes ago. He didn't fully understand why, but he liked the notion anyway.

  He might not have known what he wanted to do with her earlier, but he knew now. He wanted to taste her. All of her. Bait or not. Hunter or not. He simply wanted. After all his suffering, he deserved a sliver of happiness.

  Even in his days as an elite warrior to the gods, he had never desired a specific woman above all the rest. After, he had always taken what he could get, when he could get it. But Ashlyn, he wanted specifically. Ashlyn, he wanted now.

  Where had Lucien placed her? In the room adjoining his? Did she lounge on the bed, naked body wrapped in silks and velvets? That's
how he would take her, Maddox decided then. Not outside as was his custom. Not on a cold, twig-laden ground. But in a bed, face to face, skin to skin, pumping and sliding slowly.

  His body burned with the thought - a burn that had nothing to do with the flames.

  She means us harm. We'll harm her first and be the better for it, the spirit urged.

  Do not dare suggest it, he commanded, trying to eclipse Violence - who, surprisingly, seemed content to discuss Ashlyn calmly now, rather than roar. I am not a monster.

  We are the same, and that woman spells danger.

  Yes, she did. Yet he'd never encountered a woman quite as vulnerable as Ashlyn. Alone in the forest, secrets in her pretty eyes. Killers on her trail. Whether they'd meant to ignore her, kill her or use her to kill him and the other Lords, he would find out.

  In the morning, when Lucien returned his soul to his healed body, Maddox would find and question her. No, he would touch her first, he decided. Kiss her. Taste her entire body as he so desperately wanted to do right now.

  Despite the pain, he found himself grinning with relish. The woman had looked at him with ecstasy in her eyes; she had tried to follow him, to save him. Yes, she had made her own bed. And now she would lie in it. With him.

  Only after the loving was done would he question her. And if he discovered that she truly was Bait - there was a pang in his chest - he would deal with her as he'd dealt with the Hunters.

  "The Titans have overthrown the Greeks," Aeron announced. The knowledge had been bubbling inside him since his return to the fortress an hour ago, but with all the commotion he hadn't had a chance to share. Until now. Things had finally quieted - but he knew the peace would last only until his meaning sank in.

  Frowning, he plopped onto the plush red couch, Maddox's human no longer a concern. If only his words could be dismissed so easily - and what was suddenly making all that noise?

  He looked around, scowled and grabbed the TV remote, flicking off the "movie" Paris had just turned on. Titillating moans ceased. The wet slap of man against woman faded from the flat screen. "You have to stop buying that garbage, Paris. "

  Paris swiped the remote from him and switched the fleshfest back on. Thankfully, he punched the mute button. "Not pay-per-view, bro," he said without a hint of remorse. "This one's from my own personal collection. Oil Wrestlers Gone Wild. "

  "You become more human every day," Aeron muttered. "It's embarrassing. You know that, right?"

  "Aeron, you cannot make an announcement like that and simply change the subject. You mentioned the. . . Titans?" Lucien said in his ever-calm voice.

  Ever-calm. Yes, that described Death perfectly. The immortal maintained an iron lock on his temper - on all of his emotions, really - for when it was unleashed, he was a force even Wrath feared. More than a beast, Lucien became a true demon. Aeron had only witnessed the transformation once, but he'd never forgotten.

  "I thought I heard something along those lines, as well. " Reyes shook his head, as if that would help him understand. "What's happening here? First Torin tells us the Hunters have returned, then Maddox comes home with a woman. And now you say the Titans have taken over? Is something like that even possible?"

  "Yes, it is. " Unfortunately. Aeron scrubbed a hand over his chopped hair, the short spikes abrading his palm. How he wished he could next deliver happy news. "Apparently the Titans spent their centuries of imprisonment honing their powers. In recent weeks they escaped Tartarus, ambushed the Greeks, enslaved them and seized the throne. They control us now. "

  There was a heavy silence as everyone absorbed the shocking news. No love was lost between the warriors and the Greeks, the very gods who had cursed them. But. . .

  "You are sure?" Lucien asked him.

  "Very. " Until tonight, all Aeron had known about the Titans was that they'd ruled Mount Olympus during the Golden Age, a time of "peace" and "harmony" - two words spouted by the Hunters who'd risen in Greece all those years ago. "They placed me in some sort of tribunal chamber, their thrones circling me. Physically, they are smaller than the Greeks. Their power, however, was unmistakable. I could almost see it, like a living entity. And on their faces, I saw only uncompromising determination and dislike. "

  Several tense minutes passed.

  "Dislike aside, is there a chance the Titans can release us from the demons without killing us?" Reyes voiced the question they undoubtedly all were thinking.

  Aeron himself had wondered. Had hoped. "I do not think so," he said, hating to disappoint them. "I asked that very question and they refused to discuss it with me. "

  Another silence, this one even more strained.

  "This is. . . this is. . . " Paris trailed off.

  "Unbelievable," Torin finished for him.

  Reyes massaged his jaw. "If they will not free us, what do they plan for us, then?"

  There would be no reprieve from the bad news. "All I know for sure is that they plan to take an active role in our existence. " The one point in the Greeks' favor was that they had ignored the warriors after cursing them, allowing them to have some sort of life - tormented though it was.

  Again, Reyes shook his head. "But. . . why?"

  "I wish I knew. "

  "Is that why they summoned you?" Lucien asked. "To inform you of this change?"

  "No. " He paused, closed his eyes. "They ordered me to. . . do something. "

  "What?" Paris demanded when he failed to elaborate.

  He studied each of his friends, trying to find the right words.

  Torin stood in the corner, his profile to everyone. Distanced, always distanced. But then, Torin had to be. Reyes sat across from him. Tanned like the sun god, the warrior didn't look as though he belonged on earth, much less in the room. He was busy slicing grooves into his lower arm as he awaited Aeron's answer. Every few seconds, Reyes winced. That wince became a satisfied smile as blood trickled, forming tiny crimson rivers over his skin. Pain was the only thing that satisfied him, the only thing that made him feel alive.

  Aeron had no idea how the man might respond to pleasure.

  Paris was sprawled on the couch beside him, hands tucked behind his head as he switched his attention between Aeron and the movie, his demon probably urging him to watch just a little more. A man with his kind of luck should be ugly. At the very least, he should have to struggle to lure a woman into his bed. Instead, he simply looked at a woman with his handsome face and she stripped instantly, willing to be taken anywhere, available bed or not.

  Maddox's woman hadn't, though, Aeron recalled. Why?

  Lucien leaned against the pool table, his hideously scarred face revealing nothing. His arms were crossed over his massive chest, and those disconcerting eyes of his watched Aeron intently. "Well?" Lucien prompted.

  He drew in a breath, released it. "I've been ordered to slay a group of tourists in Buda. Four humans. " He paused, closed his eyes again. Tried not to feel a single shred of emotion. Cold. To get through this, he'd have to be cold. "All female. "

  "Come again. " Paris jolted upright, frowning over at him, television forgotten.

  Aeron repeated the gods' command.

  Paler than usual, Paris shook his head. "I can buy that we're now under new management. I don't like it, I'm confused as hell by it, but hey. I buy it. What I don't get is that the Titans ordered you, the possessor of Wrath, to kill four human women in town. Why would they do something like that?" He threw up his arms. "That's craziness. "

  He might be the most promiscuous man ever to roam the Earth, bedding his partners and forgetting them in the same day, but women of every race, size and age were Paris's lifeblood. His entire reason for existence. He'd never been able to tolerate seeing a single one of them hurt.

  "They did not give me a reason," Aeron answered, knowing a reason would not have mattered. He didn't want to harm those women in any way. He knew how it felt to kill. Oh, yes. He'd killed many, many times before, but always through the undeniable urgings of his
demon - a demon that chose its victims well. People who beat or molested their children. People who took joy from the destruction of others. Wrath always knew when a person was deserving of death, their shameful actions playing through his mind.

  When the women had been brought to his attention, the demon had tried them and found them innocent. And yet, he was supposed to murder them.

  If that happened, if he was forced to spill the blood of the undeserving, Aeron would never be the same. He knew it, felt it.

  "Did they give you a time frame for when the deed must be done?" Lucien asked, still seemingly unaffected. He was Death, the Grim Reaper - Lucifer, he'd even been called, not that the people who had called him by that name were still alive - so Aeron's task was probably nothing to him.

  "No, they didn't. But. . . "

  Lucien arched a dark brow. "But?"

  "They did tell me that if I failed to act quickly, blood and death would begin to consume my mind. They said I would kill anything and everything until the day I complied. Just like Maddox. " They hadn't needed to warn him, though. Wrath had overtaken him numerous times. When the spirit decided it was time to act, Aeron always tried to resist, but the cravings for destruction grew and grew until finally he would snap. Even in the worst thrall of Wrath, however, he had never been compelled to kill an innocent. "But unlike Maddox, my torment will not end with the dawn. "

  Gravely, Paris asked, "How are you to do it? Did they at least tell you that?"

  His stomach twisted, cramped. "I am to slit their throats," he said. How he would love to refuse to obey these new gods. Only the horror of being ordered to do something even worse had kept him silent.

  "Why are they doing this?" Torin demanded, a question they would each ask at least once, it seemed.

  He still did not have an answer.

  Paris stared over at him. "Are you going to do it?"

  Aeron looked away. He remained silent, but he knew, deep in his bones, that nothing could save the females now. They had been placed on the spirit's mental kill-list, no matter that they were innocent, and they would eventually be checked off. One by one.

  "What can we do to help?" Lucien asked, his eyes sharp.

  Aeron slammed his fist into the couch arm. If he did this terrible deed when he already teetered on the brink of depravity, he would crumble. He would lose himself to the spirit completely. "I don't know. We're dealing with new gods, new consequences and new circumstances. I'm hot sure how I'll react once - " say it, just say it" - I've killed the women. "

  "It is possible to change their minds?"

  "We are not to even try," he answered, dejected. "They again used Maddox as an example, saying we would be cursed as he is if we dared object. "

  Paris exploded to booted feet and paced from one wall of the spacious room to the other. "I fucking hate this," he grumbled.

  "Well, the rest of us love it," Torin said dryly.

  "Perhaps you will be doing the women a favor," Reyes said, his attention remaining fixed on his blade as he carved an X on the center of his palm. Crimson drops trickled onto his thigh.

  He was the reason all of the furniture was dark red.

  "Perhaps I will be ordered to take your life next," Aeron replied darkly.

  "I need to think about this. " Lucien worried two fingers over his roughly scarred jaw. "There has to be something we can do. "

  "Maybe Aeron can just obliterate the entire world," Torin said in that annoyingly wry tone. "That way, all possible future targets will be eliminated and we'll never have to have this discussion again. "

  Aeron bared his teeth. "Do not make me hurt you, Disease. "

  Those piercing green eyes glowed with wicked humor and Torin offered a mockingly feral grin. "Have I hurt your feelings? I'd be happy to kiss you and make you feel better. "

  Before Aeron could leap across the room - not that he could do anything to Torin - Lucien said, "Stop. We cannot be divided. We don't know the magnitude of what we're facing. Now, more than ever, we must stand together. It's been an eventful night and it's not over yet. Paris, Reyes, head into town and make sure there are no more Hunters lurking about. Torin - I don't know. Watch the hill or make us some money. "

  "What are you going to do?" Paris asked.

  "Consider our options," he replied gravely.

  Paris's brows arched. "What of Maddox's woman? I will be better able to tight any Hunters if I spend a little time between her - "

  "No. " Lucien stared up at the vaulted ceiling. "Not her. Remember, I promised Maddox she'd return to him untouched. "

  "Yeah, I remember. Remind me again why you'd promise such a dumb-ass thing. "

  "Just. . . leave her alone. She didn't seem to want you, anyway. "

  "Which is even more shocking than the news about the Titans," Paris muttered. Then he sighed. "Fine. I'll keep my hands to myself, but someone needs to feed her. We told her we would. "

  "Perhaps we should starve her," Reyes suggested. "She'll be more likely to talk in the morning if she's weakened from hunger. ?"

  Lucien nodded. "I agree. She might be more willing to give Maddox the truth if she thinks it will buy her a meal. "

  "I don't like it, but I won't protest. And I guess this means I'm going into town without my vitamin D injection," Paris said on another sigh. "Let's do this, Pain. "

  Reyes was on his feet a moment later and the two strode out of the room, side by side. Torin followed suit, though he gave them a generous head start. Aeron couldn't imagine the pressure of making sure no part of himself ever touched another. Had to be hell.

  He snorted. Life for all the warriors here was hell.

  Lucien closed the distance between them and eased into the leather chair opposite him. The fragrance of roses drifted from him. Aeron had never understood why the Grim Reaper smelled like a spring bouquet - surely a curse even worse than Maddox's.

  "Thoughts?" he asked, studying his friend. For the first time in many, many years, Lucien radiated something other than calm. His forehead was furrowed and there were stress-creases further marring his scarred face.

  Those scars slashed from each of his dark brows all the way to his jawline, thick and puckered. Lucien never talked about how he'd acquired them and Aeron had never asked. While they'd lived in Greece, the warrior had simply returned home one day, pain in his eyes and marks on his cheeks.

  "This is bad," Lucien said. "Really bad. Hunters, Maddox's woman - however she fits into this - and the Titans, all in one day. That cannot be an accident. "

  "I know. " Aeron dragged a hand down his face, his fingertip catching and tugging on his eyebrow piercing. "Do the Titans want us dead, do you think? Could they have sent the Hunters here?"

  "Perhaps. But what would they do with our demons once our bodies were destroyed and the spirits released? And why order you to act for them, if they only meant to have you slain?"

  Good questions. "I have no answers for you. I don't even know how I'm going to do this deed that's been demanded of me. The women are innocents. Two are young, in their twenties, the third is in her late forties and the fourth is a grandmother. She probably bakes cookies for the homeless in her spare time. "

  Curious about them, he had hunted and found them in a hotel in Buda after he'd left Olympus. Seeing them in the flesh had only intensified his horror.

  "We can't wait. We must act as soon as possible," Lucien said. "We can't allow these Titans to dictate our actions in this or they will attempt to do so over and over again. Surely we can come up with a solution. "

  Aeron thought they would have better luck figuring out a way to patch the charred, tattered remains of his soul when he killed those women. And even that seemed hopeless.

  As it was, they sat in silence for a long while, minds churning with options. Or rather, lack of them. Finally Aeron gave a shake of his head and felt as if he had just welcomed a new demon inside him. Doom.
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