The darkest night, p.7

The Darkest Night, page 7

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series

 

The Darkest Night
 


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CHAPTER SEVEN

 

  Ashlyn fell back onto the bed, struggling to control her breathing. Oh God. He'd come back. He hadn't been a dream, hallucination or mirage. Maddox was alive. She'd really been locked inside a dungeon; he'd really risen from the dead. And he'd really stopped the voices.

  When he'd left her in this oddly bare bedroom, she'd searched for a phone, found nothing, then searched for a way out. Again, nothing. Fatigue had quickly settled on her shoulders, nearly crushing her. She'd been unable to fight it, the silence inexorably relaxing, like a beloved drug she'd finally been able to indulge in. So she'd lain down, not caring about the consequences. She'd entertained the notion that maybe, just maybe, all of this was a delusion and when she opened her eyes, she'd find herself in her own home, her own bed.

  Not so. Oh, not so.

  A moment ago, a shock of thrumming power had slammed through her, dragging her kicking and screaming from the most peaceful sleep of her entire life, a sleep wrapped in that blissful silence. And then Maddox had been standing over her, looking down at her with those fathomless purple eyes.

  His face had been, was, a mass of bruises and cuts. Black and blue and bloodied, his left eye swollen, his lip split from top to bottom. At the memory, nausea churned in her stomach. Had those monsters tried to kill him again?

  Again. Ha! She laughed humorlessly. They had killed him. And two of his killers had stood at his side. He'd seemed on affable terms with them, conversing with them as if he had no reason to hate them. How could they still be friends?

  She lumbered from the bed. Her body creaked and ached with every movement, as if she were a doddering ninety rather than a spry twenty-four. She frowned. Too much stress, with no real end in sight.

  The men must have wandered off, because she no longer heard them beyond the threshold. Good. She didn't want to deal with them right now. Or ever. Take care of business, then find a way out of here.

  She trekked to the bathroom, awed by its surprising beauty, considering the sparseness of the bedroom and the starkness of the dungeon. Here she found white-tiled walls and a matching marble floor, a built-in chrome and black vanity overflowing with towels, a porcelain sink, a gleaming claw-foot tub with a raised nozzle - in case a giant decided to shower? she wondered, wide-eyed - and a nearly transparent curtain.

  For some reason, everything was bolted down.

  A tiered light hung from the ceiling, its brass arms stretching in different directions. There were no other decorations, though. No pictures or amenities. Had Maddox removed them, afraid she'd try to steal them?

  Ashlyn snorted. The Institute paid her very well to listen for and learn about all things paranormal; money was not a problem. Besides, whatever she wanted, McIntosh willingly gave her. And if she didn't want to ask him, she ordered from the Internet and had it delivered to her doorstep.

  She blushed, thinking of some of the things she'd recently ordered. Romance novels, which had invariably led to the purchase of a harem girl costume, a black leather bra and panty set, and after reading one particular book about an undercover agent and former female thief, silk scarves and duct tape. Not that she'd ever used any of them.

  With a sigh, she dipped a towel into the now-cold bathwater. Leaving her clothes on, she washed herself as best she could. No way would she strip. Any of the men could return at any moment.

  Yeah, but you'd like it if Maddox returned.

  No, she assured herself, flustered by the thought. She wouldn't. He scared her.

  He brings precious silence.

  Not anymore. He wasn't here, yet the voices hadn't returned. Her head was clear, her own thoughts all she heard. I'm cured.

  No, you're not. You heard voices last night, in the dungeon,

  "Now I'm talking to myself," she said, throwing her hands in the air. "What's next?"

  She studied her reflection in the mirror. Droplets of water dripped from her forehead to her nose, from nose to chin. Her cheeks were bright with rosy color and her dark eyes gleamed. Odd. She'd never been more aware of her own mortality, but she'd also never looked more alive.

  When her stomach rumbled, she recalled the tray of food Maddox had left on the floor. Her feet carried her to it without being ordered, kicking past the clothing she'd scattered when she'd searched the closet for a hidden phone. Black T-shirts, black pants, black briefs.

  Her nipples hardened with the thought of muscled Maddox in nothing but a pair of those briefs. He'd lie on the bed, hard and straining, erection peeking through the top, wickedness in his eyes as he beckoned her over with a crook of his finger.

  And she'd willingly go to him.

  Ashlyn nibbled on her bottom lip. Maddox. . . on a bed. . . wanting her. . . Her knees weakened, and her belly quivered. Stupid girl. Apparently, when given a little silence, all she could think about was sex.

  She gathered the tray of food and tottered to the window, where she balanced the edge on the wall and popped a grape into her mouth. The sweet juice ran down her throat, and she nearly moaned before ordering herself to focus on the matter at hand - escape. She'd told McIntosh, and thereby the Institute, about the men and this fortress. McIntosh had even known she wanted to visit. Most likely he'd have guessed by now where she'd gone.

  Would he come for her? Or would he feed her to the wolves for daring to disobey? While he'd always been kind to her, he had never tolerated mistakes from his other employees, much less willful disobedience.

  He will come, she assured herself. He needs you.

  But as she stared out the window, only trees and snow greeted her. Still, she didn't let that disappoint her. He could be anywhere. Standing there, allowing anyone outside to see her, she popped another grape in her mouth and tapped on the glass. I'm here. Do you see me?

  She needed out as soon as possible. With every second that passed, the warriors' madness seemed to take deeper hold of her. She had imagined her jailer in his underwear, for God's sake.

  Hopefully, McIntosh would see her, blow a hole in the front door and snatch her out. Boom. Done. Over. No, wait. Rewind. She didn't want McIntosh inside the walls. He would be no match for Maddox and the others. She was going to have to distract Maddox, maybe knock him out somehow, and run. Out of the fortress and down the hill. The cold and the voices were better than the threat of death she'd found here.

  So, just how was she going to distract the man? Mulling it over, she devoured the rest of the grapes. And when those were gone, she concentrated on the meat and cheese, sipping wine between bites. In a matter of minutes, only crumbs and half a bottle remained. Never had anything tasted so delicious. The ham had been glazed with brown sugar, a succulent feast to her taste buds. The cheese had been smooth, not too sharp, the grapes a perfect contrast. The wine, excellent.

  Okay, so this place did have a few things in its favor.

  Food wasn't a good enough reason to stay, though. What about sex? Of course not, she thought, her stomach giving another of those strange flutters. That was -

  Everything inside her went on sudden alert - the quiet before a debilitating storm. She didn't exactly hurt, but she became aware that something wasn't quite right in her body. One heartbeat passed. Two. She gulped, waiting.

  Then the storm arrived.

  Her blood chilled to ice, yet beads of sweat that were as sharp as broken glass appeared on her skin. Crawling over every inch of her like spiders. She yelped, whimpered, tried to scratch at them. But they wouldn't go away, and now she could actually see them. They were on her. On her, their tiny legs scampering. A scream bubbled in her throat at the exact moment a wave of dizziness slammed into her, so the sound was nothing more than a groan. She had to grip the window to remain standing. The tray fell, clanging.

  All too soon, the dizzying fog became an ache and the ache a piercing knife, slicing its way from her belly to her heart. She swayed, gasping and moaning at the same time. Bright lights flashed in front of her eyes, an array of blinding colors.

/>   What was wrong with her? Poison? Oh God, were the spiders still on her?

  Another pain shot through her and she doubled over. "Maddox," she called, the word weak.

  Nothing. No footsteps.

  "Maddox!" she shouted, projecting his name with all her dwindling strength. She tried to walk to the door, but couldn't force herself to move.

  Again nothing.

  "Maddox!" Why do you want him? He might have done this to you. "Maddox. " She couldn't stop his name from leaving her lips. "Maddox. "

  Black cobwebs snaked around her vision, constricting it, blanketing the too-bright rainbow. "Maddox. " Her voice was a hoarse whisper now, a trembling entreaty.

  Her stomach cramped; her throat was swelling, closing off. And then, suddenly, she couldn't breathe. Every cell in her body screamed and screamed and screamed. Need air. Need to breathe. She fell to the floor, unable to support her own weight any longer. Need to get the spiders off. No strength, no energy.

  The bottle of wine toppled as if in sympathy, the remaining red liquid spilling around her. She lost focus completely, the world crumbling, then disappearing altogether, leaving only darkness.

  Maddox could not believe what he was seeing. "This is. . . this is. . . not possible. " He scrubbed a callused hand over his eyes, but the sight did not change.

  "Obviously, it wasn't Ashlyn I smelled. " Reyes slammed a fist into the wall. Dust puffed into the air, bits of rough stone tumbling to the floor.

  Torin merely laughed.

  Paris sucked in a reverent breath. "Come to daddy. "

  There, in the far corner of Lucien's bedroom, were four women. Holding hands, they huddled together for strength and support. Each trembled in fear, gazing at the men through wide, panicked eyes.

  No, Maddox realized. Not all of them trembled. A pretty blonde with freckles regarded them with fury in her green eyes. Her jaw was clenched, as if she were biting her tongue to keep from shouting obscenities.

  "What are they doing here?" he demanded.

  "Do not take that tone," Aeron snapped. "You started it with your pretty piece of Bait. "

  Growling low, Maddox closed the distance between them. One of the women whimpered. "I thought we had covered this," he said. "You watch what you say about her or you suffer. "

  Aeron did not back down. "You've known her, what? A few hours? You've barely spoken to her. She should be begging for mercy right now, and we should know all her secrets and what the Hunters. , if there are more out there, are planning. "

  "She tried to save me when I was stabbed. She tried to save me from you only a few minutes ago. "

  "An act. "

  Probably. He'd told himself that very thing, but he couldn't seem to make it matter. Not then, not now. Frustrated with himself rather than Aeron, he backed down this time. He faced Lucien. "Why are they here?" he asked, composed but no less disbelieving.

  Or rather, as composed as he was capable of being at the moment.

  Lucien glanced at Aeron, who motioned to the hall with a tilt of his chin. Understanding, the warriors filed out. Each hummed with expectation. Lucien was the last to exit and was quick to close and lock the door.

  Maddox peered at his friends, most projecting the same disbelief he felt. Nothing like this had ever happened before. None of them had ever brought a woman here, even Paris (that he knew of), and now there were almost as many females on the premises as warriors. It was surreal.

  "Well?" he prompted.

  Aeron explained how the Greeks had been overthrown by the Titans, those leaders from thousands of years ago, and that these new sovereigns wanted - no, commanded - him to execute those four innocent women. Were he to resist, he would be driven mad with bloodlust. Were he to ask to be released from the deed, he would be cursed as Maddox was cursed.

  Maddox listened, stunned. Shock and dread washed through him, all but swimming laps in his bloodstream.

  "But why would the new king of gods tell Aeron to - " The answer slid into place and he pressed his lips together. I did this, he realized. I'm responsible. I dared the gods yesterday evening, insulted them, even. This had to be their way of retaliating.

  He flicked Torin a dismayed glance. The warrior was staring at him with a hard glint in his green eyes. Then he turned away and flattened his gloved hands on the mirror hanging just above his head. His reflection was bleak. Only yesterday, the two of them had claimed they didn't care if the gods punished them. They'd thought nothing could be worse than their current situation.

  They'd been wrong.

  "We cannot allow Aeron to do this deed," Lucien said, interrupting Maddox's dark thoughts. "He's at the breaking point already. We all are. "

  Reyes once again punched the wall, grunting from the force. There were angry red cuts on each of his forearms and they burst open on impact, splattering flecks of blood onto the silver stone. "These Titans had to know what would happen if Aeron obeyed. " He bared his teeth in a scowl. "They had to know what a precarious edge of good and evil we're all balanced on. Why would they do this?"

  "I know why," Maddox replied grimly.

  All eyes flew to him.

  Shame weighed heavily on his shoulders as he recounted what he'd done. "I never expected this to happen," he finished lamely. "I didn't know the Titans had escaped, much less that they had taken over. "

  "I don't even know what to say. " Aeron.

  "I do. Fuck. " Paris.

  Maddox's head fell back and he stared up at the ceiling. I thought I was goading the Greeks, he wanted to shout. They would have done nothing. They would have continued to ignore him.

  "Do you think Ashlyn is a punishment from the Titans, as well?" Lucien asked.

  His jaw clenched. "Yes. " Of course she was a punishment. He'd thought so earlier - the timing of her arrival, the way she'd haunted his mind and fanned his desires - but he'd assumed the Greeks had been responsible. "The Titans must have led the Hunters straight to us, knowing they would use Ashlyn and how she would affect me. "

  "You did not curse the gods until after Aeron was summoned. What's more, you hadn't yet cursed them when Ashlyn first appeared on my cameras," Torin pointed out. "They could not have known what we would later do and say. "

  "Couldn't they? Perhaps they didn't send her, but they must be using her somehow. " Nothing else explained the intensity of his feelings for her. "I'll take care of her," he added darkly, but every muscle in his body stiffened, begging him to snatch the words back. He didn't. "I'll take care of all of them. "

  Paris leveled him with a frown. "How?"

  Grim, he said, "I'll kill them. " He'd done worse. Why not add this to the list? Because I am not a beast. If he did it, he would be Violence. He would be no better than the spirit inside him, reduced to only one reason for existence: causing pain.

  Yet he'd brought this plague upon their house; he needed to fix it. Could he destroy Ashlyn, though? He found he didn't want to know the answer.

  "You can't kill the four inside Lucien's room," Aeron said, just as grim. "The Titans commanded me to do it. Who knows how they'll react if their orders are not followed exactly. "

  "I can hear you, you sick bastards," a female voice cried from behind the door. "You kill us, and I swear to God I'll kill every one of you. "

  There was another temporary halt to movement and speech.

  Reyes's lips curled in a wry grin. "An impossible feat, but I would almost like to see her try. "

  Feminine fists beat against the frame. "Let us go! Let us go, do you hear me?"

  "We hear you, woman," Reyes said. "I'm sure the dead hear you, as well. "

  That Reyes, the most serious of the bunch, had cracked a joke was disturbing. Only when circumstances were dire did he resort to humor.

  This was a nightmare. After centuries of rigid routine, Maddox suddenly had a woman to interrogate, then destroy before she could be further used against him. He had a friend to save from an unthinkable command. And he had gods to appea
se. Gods he wasn't even sure how to approach.

  These Titans were unknown entities. If he asked for mercy and they ordered him to do something vile - something he refused to do - the situation would most assuredly become worse than it was now.

  "Why don't I touch them?" Torin suggested, turning back to the group. His eyes were as bright and green as the girl's inside the room. While hers had been filled with anger, his were filled with despair. "If they die of disease, no one will have to worry about his conscience. " Except Torin.

  "No," Aeron said at the same moment Paris shouted, "Hell, no. "

  "No disease," Lucien agreed. "Once it starts, it's impossible to control. "

  "We'll keep the bodies contained," Torin said, his determination clear.

  Lucien let out another sigh. "That won't work, and you know it. Disease always spreads. "

  "Disease!" the girl cried. "You're going to infect us with a disease? Is that why you brought us here? You disgusting, loathsome, rotten pieces of - "

  "Hush," another female voice commanded. "Don't incite them, Dani. "

  "But, Grandma, they - "

  Their voices trailed off. The girl was probably being dragged away from the door. Maddox liked her courage. It reminded him of Ashlyn, how she had stood up to him in the cell and demanded he lift his shirt. She had wanted to run - the desire had shone brightly in her eyes - but she hadn't. Just the memory caused his blood to heat and his body to harden. She had even stroked his wound, sparking something to life inside him. Something he hadn't understood.

  Tenderness, perhaps?

  He shook his head in denial. He would fight that emotion until his last breath - which should take place in about thirteen hours, he thought wryly. He did not, would not, have tenderness for Bait, or a divine punishment, or whatever she was.

  Proof - next time he saw her he would take her hard and fast, pounding. . . pounding. . . She would moan and scream his name. Her thighs would tighten around his waist and - No, no. Of its own accord, the image realigned in his head, shifting to please Violence.

  She would be on her stomach, braced on her hands and knees. That lovely hair would cascade down her elegant back and he would grab hold of it, tugging. Her neck would arch; her lips would part on a gasp of pleasure-pain. In and out he would pound, her sheath hot and wet. Tight. Yes, she would be tighter than a fist. His testicles would slap at her legs.

  When I finally have Ashlyn in my bed, I'm going to be gentle. Remember?

  That thought was ignored. She would beg for more, and he would give it to her. He would -

  "This is becoming tiresome. " Aeron pushed him, hard, slamming him into the wall. "You're panting and sweating and your eyes are starting to glow with red fire. About to erupt, Violence?"

  The image of Ashlyn, naked and aroused, vanished - and that infuriated the spirit, who attempted to jump through Maddox's skin and attack. Maddox found himself snarling, too, craving another glimpse of her in his mind.

  "Calm down, Maddox. " Lucien's serene voice penetrated the haze. "Keep this up and we'll be forced to chain you. Who will protect Ashlyn then, hmm?"

  His blood chilled, sobering him. They would do it, he knew they would, and chains he could not allow. Not during the day. At night, yes. He was a menace then and there was no other way. I'm a menace now. But if he were bound now, when he was barely hanging on to his sense of self, he might as well admit defeat and stop trying to be anything other than a demon.

  All of the men were staring at him, he noticed.

  "I'm sorry," he grumbled. Something was very wrong with him. This hair-trigger dance with the spirit was utterly ridiculous. Worse, it was embarrassing. They usually fought each other, but not like this.

  Maybe he needed more time in the gym. Or another round with Aeron.

  "Good?" Lucien asked him. How many times would he be forced to ask that today?

  Maddox gave a stiff nod.

  Lucien braced his arms behind his back and regarded each man. "Since that's settled, let's discuss the reason I brought you here. "

  "Let's discuss the reason you brought the women here," Paris interjected, "rather than leaving them in the city. Yeah, Aeron has a job to do, but that doesn't explain - "

  "The women are here because we didn't want them leaving Buda, perhaps compelling Aeron to follow," Lucien said, cutting him off. "And I wanted you to see them so that you wouldn't kill them if you caught them wandering around the fortress. If they manage to get loose, just bring them back to my room and lock them inside. Don't talk to them, don't hurt them. Until we figure out how to free Aeron from this deed, the women are our unwilling guests. Agreed?"

  One by one, the men nodded. What else could they do?

  "For now, leave them to me and relax. Rest. Go about your day. You'll be needed soon enough, I'm sure. "

  "I, for one, plan to drink myself into oblivion. " Aeron scoured a hand down his face. "Women in the house," he muttered, adding as he stalked away, "Why don't we invite the whole city over for a party?"

  "A party would be fun," Torin said, once again amused. "Might help me forget all this hive-inducing male bonding. " And then he, too, was off.

  Reyes didn't say a word. Just unsheathed a blade and stomped down the hall, leaving no doubt about what he planned to do. Maddox would have offered to cut him, to whip him or beat him and spare Reyes the agony of self-infliction, but he'd offered before and always the answer was an abrupt no.

  He could understand Reyes's need to do it on his own. Being a burden was almost as bad as being possessed. They all had their demons - literally - and Reyes didn't want to make it worse for any of them.

  At the moment, though, Maddox might have welcomed the distraction.

  "I'll see you losers later," Paris said. "I'm going back to the city. " Fine lines of strain bracketed his eyes - eyes that were now a dull blue rather than bright with satisfaction. "I didn't have a woman last night or this morning. All this - " he waved a hand toward the door " - has fucked with my schedule. And not in a good way. "

  "Go," Lucien told him.

  The warrior hesitated and glanced toward the door. He licked his lips. "Unless, of course, you'd allow me inside your bedroom. . . "

  "Go. " Lucien gestured impatiently.

  "Their loss. " Paris shrugged and disappeared around the corner.

  Maddox knew he should offer to guard the women. After all, he was probably the reason they were here. But he needed to see Ashlyn. No, not needed. Wanted. Better. He did not need anything. Especially a human with questionable motives who was already marked for death.

  But not knowing what these Titans would do next, he realized he did not want to waste another moment. He would go to Ashlyn even though he hadn't completely subdued the demon. Besides, he might never be calm when it came to that woman. And it was better to do what he wanted with her now, before he was forced to - he could not even bring himself to think it.

  "Lucien," he began.

  "Go," his friend said again. "Do whatever you need to do to get yourself under control. Your woman - "

  "Ashlyn is not up for discussion," Maddox responded, already knowing what Lucien meant to say. Your woman needs to be taken care of as soon as possible. He knew that, too.

  "Just get her out of your system, then do what needs doing so that at least part of our lives can return to normal. "

  Maddox nodded and turned, part of him wondering if his normal life was worth returning to.
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