The darkest night, p.6

The Darkest Night, page 6

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  Punch. Grunt and duck. Punch.

  Maddox landed a hard blow to Aeron's cheek and the man staggered to the side with another grunt. But a second later, Aeron retaliated, lashing out with a strong left across his jaw. Maddox's teeth rattled and blood filled his mouth, the taste metallic but sweet, quenching part of the spirit's thirst.

  He was grinning as he kneed Aeron in the stomach. The warrior doubled over, wheezing. More. He needed to inflict more damage. Before Maddox could elbow him in the head, Aeron bolted forward with a savage growl, wrapping his arms around Maddox and tackling him to the ground. They rolled in a bid for dominance. Fists flew; knees knocked. Elbows slammed.

  Maddox hissed when Aeron caught him in the mouth again. He lost his smile, the inside of his cheek split. Another trickle of blood slid down his throat.

  "This what you wanted?" Aeron barked.

  He chop-blocked his friend in the throat, causing the other man to gasp and his skin to quickly color blue. "Is that what you wanted?" With Aeron struggling to breathe, he threw four more punches, all in the face. Crunch. Eye socket. Crunch. Nose. Crunch. Jaw. Crunch! Temple. No more Violence today, he chanted futilely with each strike. No more Violence.

  Are you sure? the spirit beguiled.

  Maddox's eyes narrowed as he threw another punch.

  Kill him.

  "No!" he shouted, only then realizing he hadn't tamed the demon at all. Not even a little. He stilled, panting for air, not knowing what else to do. He couldn't go to Ashlyn like this, hungry for blood and even more on edge than he'd been.

  "Oh, yes. " Cut and bruised, Aeron snarled low in his throat and slammed his fist into Maddox's right eye. Pain exploded in his head as the man's rings nicked a vein. His vision was momentarily blackened. Something warm and wet gushed down the slope of his face and finally, finally, the sadistic voice quieted.

  Perhaps he needed the spirit beaten into submission. Happy to oblige, he splayed his arms wide, welcoming the next blow.

  Aeron did not disappoint. The warrior kicked him in the stomach and Maddox sailed backward. The moment he hit the ground, Aeron was on top of him, strangling him, knees pinning his shoulders. Satisfaction blanketed the man's face, but there were demons in his eyes, ugly demons, tormenting demons, so much more menacing than the tattoo on his neck.

  "Want more?" Aeron snarled.

  "More. "

  Punch. Maddox's head flew to the left. Punch. His head flew to the right. Punch. The cartilage in his nose cracked.

  Hit me. Harden Harder! With every blow, the spirit slunk deeper and deeper. Wrath against Violence, he mused, and Violence was cowed. The thought of vanquishing Violence was almost a sexual high. He smiled, thinking this must be how Reyes felt. Happy in pain, desperate for more.

  His teeth sliced into his tongue as another blow was delivered. His tongue swelled. Now I won't be able to kiss Ashlyn, he thought.

  You don't need to kiss her to fuck her, the demon lashed out, rearing its ugly head just long enough to send a lance of fury through him.

  Enough! He wanted to kiss Ashlyn. Wanted her taste in his mouth as she writhed against him. And he would have it. That's all he had thought about while sucking back flames during the endless night.

  Another punch.

  "Aeron! What are you doing?" Maddox heard Lucien demand from across the hall.

  "Giving Maddox what he needs. " Punch.

  "Stop. "

  "No. " The next blow sank deeper and harder into his temple, rattling his brain.

  "Don't stop," Maddox said as Aeron backhanded him. A little more and the spirit might stay hidden for the rest of the day.

  "Stop," Lucien repeated. "Now. Or tonight I'll take you into hell with Maddox. "

  The punches instantly ceased. It was a threat Lucien could easily uphold.

  Aeron was panting; Maddox was, too. He almost reached out, grabbed Aeron's wrist and forced the man to start again. He wanted, needed, more. He would take no chances. If he had to be beaten until he was too weak to do anything but crawl, he would let himself be beaten.

  He would not hurt Ashlyn.

  Not yet, at least.

  Reluctantly Aeron pushed to his feet and offered Maddox a helping hand. He accepted with the same reluctance and was quickly hefted to a stand. Together, he and Aeron faced Lucien.

  There was no emotion in Lucien's eyes as he perused them. Maddox worked a hand over his battered face, finding cuts that would have needed stitching were he human.

  "Does someone want to tell me what was going on?"

  "We were trying a new sparring technique," Maddox said through swollen lips. For once the spirit remained quiet. He almost felt normal. The realization was so wonderfully stunning, he grinned.

  "That's right. New sparring technique. " Aeron slung an arm over his shoulder. One of his eyes was sealed shut and his lower lip was shredded.

  Within the hour, Maddox knew, both of them would be totally mended. Immortality had its advantages.

  Would Violence return when his body healed?

  Lucien opened his mouth to respond, but Maddox held up one bruised palm. "I will hear no complaints from you. You left Ashlyn in the dungeon. You should thank the gods I'm not going for your throat. "

  "We did what was needed to make her more acquiescent," Lucien said, and there was not an apology in his tone.

  Maddox stiffened, anger washing through him. A remarkably ordinary anger, though. One that didn't compel him to do terrible deeds. Miraculous. "I asked you for two things. Only two: You failed on both counts. "

  "You asked that she remain alive and you asked that she remain untouched. She is both of those things," Lucien pointed out.

  True, but she'd been scared and cold, and for some reason that knowledge cut him deeper than Aeron's fists. She was just so small, so delicate. "I could not see to her needs. You should have. " He had always hated that he lost all ties to reality when midnight struck. He hated that he didn't know what happened here during those twilight hours, hated that he could not protect himself or those close to him.

  For all he knew, the fortress could be attacked by Hunters, burned to the ground, everyone inside slaughtered. Ashlyn could betray him, leading those Hunters inside. But Ashlyn could also be beaten. Ashlyn could be ravaged or killed, and he would not know.

  "Listen, right now your woman doesn't matter," Lucien said. "Much has happened since your latest death. The - "

  A growl vibrated in his throat, his head, his ears, drowning out the warrior's voice. Doesn't matter? "If she becomes sick. . . " The edges of his anger morphed into razor-sharp points, prodding at the spirit. Not subdued completely after all, he realized with an inward curse, even as his body tightened, gearing for war.

  A dangerous haze shuttered over his eyes; his own, all his own, but the demon liked it. Kill him. He means to take what is ours. Yes, he needed to kill. His blood heated to a boil. His skin stretched over his bones.

  "He's not listening," Aeron said to Lucien. A muscle ticked below the man's eye, and he gave Maddox a rough shake before severing contact between them. "Are you listening to me?"

  "Yes," Maddox gritted out.

  "Just how long do you plan to keep the woman here?"

  As long as possible, his mind answered of its own accord.

  As long as needed, he corrected.

  Keeping her in the fortress was dangerous. For her. For him. For the other Lords. He knew that, but he wasn't going to set her free. He had neither the will nor the desire. Nothing was more important than discovering the delights her body promised. Nothing. Would she be hot and wet for him? Would she purr his name? Beg for more?

  Suddenly a fist connected with his nose, whipping his head to the side. Pain exploded in his temple, loosening fury's grip. Arousal, too. Maddox blinked in confusion and frowned over at Aeron. "Why did you do that?"

  "Your face was not your own, but Violence's. " Lucien shook his head, suddenly
in front of him, his expression weary. "You were about to erupt. "

  "Get yourself under control, man. " Aeron expelled an exasperated sigh. "You're like the Sword of Damocles, ready to drop at any moment and slice us all. "

  "That's funny coming from you," Maddox said dryly. He might charge swiftly into seemingly unprovoked bouts of violence, but Aeron had been known to charge into rampages, too, spreading his vengeance as far and wide as possible.

  "Where's the girl now?" Lucien asked.

  At first, Maddox did not answer. He didn't want them to know, for they might go to her. "My room," he finally said, his tone so dark they couldn't mistake his unspoken warning: Visit her and feel the sting of my demon.

  "You left her alone in your room?" Aeron's exasperation reached a new high, and he threw his arms in the air. "Why don't you give her a knife, tell us to line up and let her stab us one by one?"

  "I locked her in. She cannot cause trouble. "

  "She might have picked the lock. " Lucien massaged the back of his neck. "She could be sneaking Hunters inside this very second. "

  "No. I killed them. "

  "There could be more. "

  Lucien was right. Maddox knew Lucien was right. He ground his teeth together, and his battered jaw ached in protest. "I will check and make sure she is where I left her and alone. " He spun on his heel.

  "I'm coming with you. " Determined, Aeron flanked him.

  Lucien followed suit.

  Maddox kicked into motion. If Ashlyn had escaped, had brought Hunters into their midst, the warriors would demand her head.

  He wasn't sure he could give it to them, no matter her crimes. In fact, every cell in his body shouted with the need to protect her. Me? A protector? His blood heated with it, burned.

  When - if - the time came, would he be able to do what was necessary? Maddox didn't know the answer. He liked to think he would, but. . .

  They rounded a corner, and their steps harmonized into a hard battle drum. Thump. Thump, thump, thump. Thump. From the corner of his eye, he saw Aeron shake his arms at his sides. Two small blades fell into his waiting hands.

  The man hadn't lost himself to the demon during their fight, after all, Maddox realized. Otherwise, Maddox would be in tatters right now, his skin nothing more than a fond memory.

  He experienced a twinge of guilt. Had Aeron fought him only to help him?

  "No one touches the girl," he said, his guilt increasing. He should be more loyal to his friends. "No matter what we find, she is mine. Understood? I'll deal with her myself. "

  There was a pregnant pause as each man weighed his response.

  "Fine," Lucien said on a sigh.

  Still Aeron remained silent.

  "It's my room. I can go in alone and leave you out here to - "

  "Fine," Aeron finally snapped. "She's yours. Not that you'll do what you should. Hunters, though, will be executed on sight. "

  "Agreed. " On both counts.

  "What has she done to command such loyalty from you?" Lucien asked, genuine curiosity rather than snide disgust in his tone.

  Maddox didn't have an answer. Didn't even want to think about it. He deserved disgust, though. That, he couldn't deny.

  "I think our friend's forgotten that sex is sex. " Aeron twirled one of the blades with menacing flare. "Who's offering it doesn't matter. This woman is nothing special. None of them are. "

  Suddenly caught in another dark web of anger, all hint of guilt overshadowed, Maddox shot out his leg, tripping Aeron and jumping on top of him before the man even hit the ground. He used the warrior's surprise to his advantage, swiping one of the knives and holding the tip at Aeron's throat.

  But, having realized what was happening midway into his fall, Aeron had the other blade poised at Maddox's throat at the same time. Maddox felt the apex sink past skin, nicking a tendon, but he did not back down.

  "Do you want to die?"

  Undaunted, Aeron arched a pierced black brow. "Do you?"

  "Let him go, Maddox," Lucien said, the calm eye of the storm.

  He pushed the weapon deeper, his gaze never leaving Aeron's. Fire sizzled and crackled between them. "Do not talk about her like that. "

  "I'll talk however I please. "

  He scowled. I like this man. I admire him. He's killed for me, and I for him. Yet he knew, deep down, that if Ashlyn were mentioned in such a derogatory manner again, he would snap. The speaker didn't matter. Nothing mattered except her. He hated that fact. He didn't understand it, but was helpless against it.

  "For whatever reason," Lucien said, "the girl is a trigger. Tell him you won't talk about her again, Aeron. "

  "Why should I?" was the grumbled reply. "Last time I checked, I had a right to voice my opinions. "

  Deep breath in, deep breath out. That didn't help. Maddox could feel himself gearing for another attack. Damn it! I have to get myself under control. This was utterly ridiculous and wholly embarrassing. He'd never had less influence over his own actions.

  "Aeron, you have to be tired of cleaning blood off the floors," Lucien said. "Think how much there will be if Hunters are even now trying to invade our home and we do not stop them from getting inside. Tell him. "

  Aeron hesitated only a moment before removing the knife from Maddox's neck. "Fine," he spat. "No talk of the girl. Happy now?"

  Yes. Maddox relaxed instantly and eased to his feet. He even held out his empty hand to help Aeron stand, but Aeron brushed him aside and stood on his own. Paris had once called Maddox "The Mood Swing"; he had been joking at the time, but Maddox was starting to believe the truth of his words.

  "I'm not going to say it, but you know what I'm thinking, right?" Aeron asked dryly.

  Yes. He knew. He was as bad as Paris - if not worse.

  "Children," Lucien muttered, rolling his eyes.

  "Mommy," Aeron replied, but there was no heat in his tone.

  Maddox closed his eyes for a moment, concentrating, trying to make himself believe. Ashlyn is just a woman. She means nothing but temporary satisfaction. The shadows and pain he'd glimpsed in her eyes meant nothing. They would not soften him, much less bewitch him. Not anymore. He had to start thinking of her as he did the others.

  Any more of this absurd fighting, and he would have to dig his dignity out of the garbage.

  Hell, maybe the gods had finally decided to chastise him and had sent Ashlyn to drive him crazy, to cause him pain and suffering. To punish him. Maybe he was no longer to yearn for eternal death at night. Maybe he was to yearn for eternal death all day long.

  "Good?" Lucien asked.

  Not even close. He might be calm now, but he was worse off than ever. Still, he nodded and stalked down the hallway without another word, up the stairs and into his wing of the fortress. Better to get this over with.

  When Lucien and Aeron once again flanked him, Aeron said, "My blade. "

  "It's nice," he replied, purposely misunderstanding. He did not return it.

  Aeron snorted. "I didn't realize you were hard up for a weapon. "

  "If you want to keep yours, take better care. "

  "The same could be said of your head. "

  Maddox offered no response. The closer he came to his bedroom, the more he could smell Ashlyn's honey scent. A scent that was all her own. Not from soap or perfume, but from her. His body hardened painfully, his cock filling with heat and need. He'd been waiting for a sip of that honey forever, it seemed. She's just like other women, remember? Nothing special, he reminded himself.

  He flicked a glance at his companions. They appeared oblivious to the sweet fragrance in the air. Good. He wanted Ashlyn, all of her, to himself. Nothing special, damn you.

  When they reached the threshold, each of them paused. Aeron tensed and readied his remaining blade. A hard mask covered his face, as if he were preparing himself to do whatever was necessary. Lucien, too, produced a weapon - a . 45, cocked and ready.

  "Look before you attack," Maddox said thro
ugh clenched teeth.

  They nodded, neither sparing him a glance.

  "On three. One. " His ears twitched as he listened. No sound emerged from inside. Not the splash of bathwater or the gentle rattle of dishes on the tray. Had Ashlyn really escaped? If she had. . .

  "Two. " His stomach knotted in anger and fear, and the scabs there burned. His fingers tightened around the hilt of the knife. He might just leave the fortress, might search the ends of the earth for her.

  Nothing special indeed.

  "Three. " He twisted the lock and pushed open the door. Hinges creaked. All three men stormed inside, silent, prepared for anything. Maddox scanned the room, taking in every detail. Floors - no footprints. Window - still closed. Platter of food - untouched. Some of his clothes had been tossed out of the closet and were now strewn around the floor.

  Where was she?

  Aeron and Lucien fanned out as he inched along the closet wall, alert, watchful. He jumped into the small space, blade raised. Found nothing.

  The covers shifted on the bed and a soft, breathy moan drifted through the air.

  "Weapons down," Maddox commanded in a fierce whisper, blood sizzling from the sound of that feminine sigh.

  Several seconds ticked by before either man obeyed. Only then did Maddox approach the bed, slowly. . . sweating. . . For some reason, he was trembling like a fragile human. He suspected the image he was about to see would undo him.

  He was right.

  He found a sleeping beauty. Ashlyn. Angel. Destruction.

  Her amber hair was splayed over his snow-white pillow. Her lashes, two shades darker than her hair, cast spiky shadows over her dirt-smudged cheeks. She hadn't bathed, hadn't eaten. She must have tumbled to sleep soon after he'd left.

  "Pretty," Aeron said, reluctant admiration in his tone.

  Exquisite, Maddox silently corrected. Mine. Her lips were red and puffy, deliciously swollen. Had she chewed them from worry? He watched the slow rise and fall of her chest, found himself reaching out - don't touch, don't touch - helpless to prevent the action. But he fisted his hands just before contact. His body was once again rock hard, need simmering inside of him. A dark need, frightening in its intensity and still so much more powerful than Violence had ever been.

  How did she elicit such a response from him simply by breathing?

  Touch her. Who wanted it? Him? The demon? Both?

  Didn't matter. Just one caress, then he'd leave. He'd shower and return when she was rested - and he'd have himself under firm control by then. Surely he would.

  Finally, opening his hand, his fingertips brushed the side of her cheek. A whisper-soft caress. Her skin was silky smooth, electrical. He tingled on contact, his blood instantly heating another degree.

  Her eyelids popped open, as if she, too, had felt the jolt.

  She jerked upright, hair cascading down her shoulders and back. Her sleep-rimmed eyes searched, locked with his, widened. "Maddox. " She scrambled backward until she was smashed against the metal headboard. Chains rattled from the sides of the bed, the chains that bound him every night. "Maddox," she repeated, scared, awed. . . happy?

  He, Lucien and Aeron stepped backward in unison. He knew why he moved - he'd seen his downfall in her pretty eyes the moment their gazes met - but he didn't know why the others had reacted that way.

  "Wh-what are you doing?" she gasped out. "And what happened to your face? You're bleeding. " He heard concern and it shook him deeply. Would she always affect him so?

  She glanced at the others and gave a choked whimper. "It wasn't enough for you to kill him last night, you had to beat him up today, too? Get out, you. . . you. . . murderers! Get out right now!"

  She leapt from the bed and stood in front of Maddox, wobbling slightly as she held out her arms to ward them off. Protecting him? Again? Eyes wide, he met the equally astonished gazes of the others.

  Her actions were those of an innocent. . . or someone pretending to be innocent. Even so, Maddox found that he wanted to touch her again. In. . . comfort? He shook his head. Couldn't be. Had to be pleasure. That made sense. He was a man; she was a woman. He desired.

  But would that desire grow darker, as he feared?

  He gripped her arm and pulled her behind him. He shared a confused look with Lucien, then turned to face her. Before he could utter a single word, she rushed out, "Are you going to take me into the city now? Please. "

  And never see her again? "Eat," he commanded, harsher than he'd intended. "Bathe. I will return soon. " To his friends, he barked, "Let's go. " He stalked into the hall.

  They lingered only a moment before following. After closing and locking the door, Maddox leaned his forehead against the cold stone wall beside it, measuring every molecule of air he drew in and forced out of his lungs as he tried to soothe his riotous heartbeat. This has to stop,

  "You've brought trouble into our midst," Aeron said, remaining at his side. "And was she actually trying to protect you from us?"

  "Surely not. " But that was the second time she'd done so, and he was more confused now than before.

  He straightened and scrubbed a hand down his face.

  "Let me go, Maddox," Ashlyn called through the door. More than it had yesterday, her voice appealed to him. Soft, lilting. Erotic. "I was wrong to come here. I was. If it will help, I'll promise not to tell anybody. "

  "I know I've brought trouble," he told Aeron.

  His friend arched a brow in that insolent expression Maddox was coming to loathe. "No apology?"

  That was the worst of it; he still wasn't sorry.

  "Forget the woman for now," Lucien said, waving a hand through the air. He squared his shoulders. "You've seen her. She is well. She doesn't appear to have let Hunters in - yet. Now we have a more pressing concern to discuss. What I tried to tell you earlier is that the gods - they are not who you think they are. "

  "Maddox, we need to talk to you," a harsh voice called, cutting off whatever response he might have made.

  Lucien threw up his arms in exasperation and Maddox pivoted. Reyes approached, Paris and Torin at his sides. Two were scowling, the other grinning like the madman he was.

  "Your woman has to go," Reyes growled. "I smelled her all night long, and I can't stand another second of that thunderstorm scent. "

  Thunderstorm? Ashlyn smelled like honey. Still, his jaw clenched at the thought of another man being so aware of her. "She stays," he said curtly.

  "Who is she, why is she still here and when can I see her naked?" Paris asked with an eyebrow wiggle.

  "Someone should kill her," Reyes countered.

  "No one touches her!"

  Aeron closed his eyes and shook his head. "Here we go again. "

  "Unlike Reyes, I don't mind her presence," Paris said, rubbing his hands together. "I only mind your unwillingness to share. I'd like to - "

  Maddox shoved Paris before the man could finish the sentence. "Do not speak another word. I know what you would like to do to her, and I will die first. "

  Now Paris frowned, pale skin dusting with angry color. "Back off, asshole. I haven't had a woman today, so I'm in no mood for this kind of bullshit. "

  Torin remained in the corner, watching, grin spreading. "Anyone else find this highly amusing? It's even better than listening to the brokers when stocks plummet. "

  Maddox struggled to rein in his temper and shove Ashlyn to the back of his mind. Where she belonged. As a female, as a human, as possible Bait, she was the last person who should rouse this sort of protective reaction in him.

  Should, should, should. Argh! End this. Finally. Soon. Now.

  "Enough!" Lucien shouted.

  Everyone quieted and stared at Lucien in surprise. He was not usually a shouter.

  "Were there Hunters in town?" he asked Paris and Reyes.

  Reyes shook his head. "We didn't find any. "

  "Good. That's good. Perhaps Maddox did indeed kill them all. " Lucien nodded in satisfaction. "But Maddox do
esn't know about the gods yet. We need to tell him. What's more, Aeron and I. . . did something last night. "

  Instantly Aeron's body went rigid. "We said we wouldn't tell them. "

  "I know. " Lucien sighed, clearly at the end of his patience. "I changed my mind. "

  "You cannot simply change your mind!" Aeron roared, leaping in front of Lucien.

  "I can and I did," was the reply. Not exactly calm, but close, only edged with steel.

  "What's going on?" Maddox stepped between them and pushed them apart. For once, he was not the one throwing accusations and fists. "I'm ready to listen. You mentioned the gods. I know Aeron was summoned. I was too distracted to ask for details before. What did they want from him?"

  "Later," Torin said to Maddox, but he didn't take his eyes off Lucien. "What'd you do, Death?"

  "Spill," Reyes commanded.

  Lucien's attention never wavered from Aeron. "After their reaction to Ashlyn, we need to make sure they don't accidentally stumble upon our secret. What do you think will happen if they do?"

  For a long while, Aeron did not reply. Tension filled the air, grave, sinister. Finally, Aeron nodded. "Fine. Show them. But get ready to war, my friend, because they aren't going to be happy. "

  "Someone had better explain," Reyes demanded, looking between them.

  "An explanation will not be good enough. I need to show you. " Lucien started down the hall. "This way. "

  Prophetic words, Maddox thought. He cast a questioning glance at Torin, who had uttered something similar only last night. Know what's going on? he mouthed.

  No, was the silent reply.

  Nothing good, that much he could guess. Lucien had never acted this mysterious. Confused, intrigued, concerned, Maddox glanced at Ashlyn's door before following his friends.
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