The darkest night, p.8

The Darkest Night, page 8

 part  #1 of  Lords of the Underworld Series


The Darkest Night

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  Maddox stepped into his bedroom, unsure of what he'd find. A sleeping Ashlyn? A freshly bathed, naked Ashlyn? A ready-to-fight Ashlyn?

  A ready-for-pleasure Ashlyn?

  To his irritation, his heart drummed erratically inside his chest. His palms were sweating. Fool, he chastised himself. He was not a human, a servant to fear, nor was he inexperienced. And yet, he wasn't exactly sure how to handle this woman, this. . . punishment.

  What he didn't expect to find was an unconscious Ashlyn, sprawled on the floor, a puddle of crimson - blood? - around her, soaking her hair and clothes.

  Darkness shuddered through him. "Ashlyn?" He was at her side in the next instant, crouching down, gently rolling her over and scooping her into his arms. Wine, only wine. Thank the gods. Droplets splashed her too-pale face and dripped onto him. He almost smiled. Just how much had she drunk?

  She weighed so little he would have been unaware he held her if not for the low-voltage tingles seeping from her skin into his. "Ashlyn, wake up. "

  She didn't. In fact, she seemed to slip deeper into unconsciousness, the movement behind her eyelids ceasing.

  His throat was tight, and he had to force the next words out. "Wake up for me. "

  Not a moan, not a sigh.

  Worried by her lack of response, he carried her to the bed, ripping off her wet jacket in the process and tossing it aside. Though he didn't want to release her, he lay her on the mattress and cupped her face in his hands. Her skin was ice-cold. "Ashlyn. "

  Still no response.

  Was she. . . No. No! Lead balls settled in his stomach as he flattened his palm over her left breast. At first he felt nothing. No gentle beat, no hard slam. He nearly belted out a curse to the heavens. Then, suddenly, there was a weak patter. A long pause. Another feeble patter-patter.

  She was alive.

  His eyes closed briefly, his shoulders sagging in relief. "Ashlyn. " He gently shook her. "Come on, beauty. Wake up. " What in the name of Zeus was wrong with her? He didn't have any experience with inebriated mortals, but he did not think this right.

  Her head lolled to the side; her eyelids remained closed. Her lips were tinted a pretty but unnatural blue. Sweat trickled down his temples. She was not simply inebriated. Had the night in that cell sickened her? No, there would have been signs before now. Had Torin inadvertently touched her? Surely not. She wasn't coughing or covered in pockmarks. What, then?

  "Ashlyn. " I can't lose her. Not yet. He hadn't gotten enough of her, hadn't touched her as he'd dreamed, hadn't talked to her. He blinked in surprise. He wanted to talk with her, he suddenly realized. Not just sate himself inside her body. Not just interrogate her. But talk. Get to know her and find out what made her the woman she was.

  All thoughts of killing her vanished; thoughts of saving her took their place, strong, undeniable.

  "Ashlyn. Speak to me. " He shook her again, helpless, not knowing what else to do. Cold continued to radiate from her, as if she'd been bathed in frost and dried in an arctic wind. He gripped the covers, pulled them up and tunneled them around her, trying to envelop her in warmth. "Ashlyn. Please. "

  Even as he watched, bruises formed under her eyes. Was this to be his punishment instead? Watching her die slowly and painfully?

  The sensation of helplessness intensified. As strong as he was, he couldn't force her to respond. "Ashlyn. " This time her name was a hoarse entreaty. He shook her yet again, hard enough to rattle her soul. "Ashlyn. "

  Damn this. Still nothing.

  "Lucien!" he roared, gaze never leaving her. "Aeron!" As far away as he was from them, he doubted they could hear. "Help me!" Had Ashlyn called for help? Bending down, Maddox meshed his mouth against hers, trying to breathe his strength into her. Warmth. . . tingles. . .

  Her blue-tinted lips parted and she moaned. Finally. Another sign of life. He almost howled in relief. "Talk to me, beauty. " He smoothed the wet hair from her face, disconcerted to find his hands trembling. "Tell me what's wrong. "

  "Maddox," she rasped. Still her eyes remained closed.

  "I'm here. Tell me how to help you. Tell me what you need. "

  "Kill them. Kill the spiders. " She spoke so quietly, he struggled to hear.

  He brushed his fingers over her cheek as he glanced around the room. "There are no spiders, beauty. "

  "Please. " A crystal tear squeezed past her lid. "Won't stop crawling on me. "

  "Yes, yes, I'll kill them. " Though he didn't understand, he continued to trail his hands over her face, then her neck, then down her arms, stomach and legs. "They're dead now. They're dead. I promise. "

  That seemed to relax her a little. "Food, wine. Poison?"

  He paled, felt the color leach from his face until he was likely as white as Ashlyn. He hadn't thought. . . hadn't considered. . . The wine had been made for them, the warriors, not for humans. Since human alcohol did little for them, Paris often mixed in droplets of ambrosia he'd stolen from the heavens and hoarded all these years. Was the ambrosia like a poison to humans?

  I did this to her. Maddox thought, horrified. Me. Not the gods. "Argh!" He slammed his fist into the metal headboard, felt his knuckles crack further and fill with blood. Unappeased, he punched the headboard again. The bed rattled and Ashlyn moaned in pain.

  Stop; don't hurt her. He forced himself to still, to breathe slowly, all the while willing himself to calm for the thousandth time that day. But the urge to brutalize was so dark, so bleak. So intense, it was nearly uncontrollable. Except for that brief time following his fight with Aeron, he'd been on edge all day and this only pushed him further. Any moment he might cross the threshold and cause irreparable harm.

  "Tell me how to help you," he repeated.

  "D-doctor. "

  A human healer. Yes, yes. He'd have to take her into the city, for none of the Lords had any medical training. There had never been a need for it. What if this doctor wanted to keep her overnight? He shook his head. That, he couldn't allow. She could tell the Hunters what she'd learned here, what she'd seen - how best to defeat the warriors. What bothered him most, however, was the fear that someone could take her, hurt her, and he would not be able to save her.

  He would have to bring a doctor here.

  Maddox brushed another soft kiss on her cold, cold lips. Again there was a jolt - this one more muted than the last, as weak as Ashlyn herself. His hands curled into fists. "I'll find you a doctor, beauty, and bring him to the fortress. "

  She moaned, and her long lashes finally fluttered open. Amber pools of pain stared up at him. "Maddox. "

  "I won't be long, I swear it. "

  "Don't. . . go. " She sounded on the verge of tears. "Hurt. Hurt so bad. Stay. "

  The need to give in and the need to fetch help warred inside him. In the end, he could not deny her. He strode to the door and shouted, "Paris! Aeron! Reyes!" The sound of his voice echoed off the walls. "Lucien! Torin!"

  He didn't wait for them, but stalked back to the bed. He intertwined his fingers with Ashlyn's. Hers were limp. "What can I do to ease your pain?"

  "Don't let go. " She gasped out a shallow breath. Red striations streamed from the corners of her mouth. Was the poison spreading?

  "I won't. I won't. " More than anything, he wanted to draw the pain away from her and into himself. What was a little more suffering to him? Nothing. But she was. . . what? He didn't have an answer for that.

  Groaning, she clutched her stomach, rolled to her side and curled into a ball. Maddox used his free hand to brush her hair behind her still-damp ear. "Is there anything else I can do?"

  "Don't know. " She watched him, expression glassy. "Going to. . . die?"

  "No!" He hadn't meant to shout, but the denial had escaped on a burst. "No," he repeated more softly. "This is my fault and I won't let you. "

  "On purpose?"

  "Never. "

  "Why then?" she breathed. Groaned again.

  "Accident," he said. "That wine w
asn't meant for your kind. "

  Whether she heard him or not, she gave no indication. "Going to - " she gagged, covered her mouth with her hand " - vomit. "

  He grabbed the empty fruit bowl and held it out. She pushed herself to the edge of the bed and emptied her stomach. He clasped her hair back, away from the line of fire.

  Was purging herself good or bad?

  Ashlyn fell back onto the mattress just as Reyes and Paris raced into the room. Both men looked confused. "What?" Reyes demanded.

  "What's wrong?" Paris asked. He was sweating, the lines of strain deeper around his eyes.

  Reyes's arms were bleeding again, his hand swollen, and he held two blades, clearly ready for battle. His gaze took in the scene and his confusion intensified. "Need help with the death-blow?"

  "No! The wine. . . the ambrosia Paris puts in it. I left it for her. " The confession spilled from him, dripping with guilt and desolation. "Save her. "

  Paris wobbled, but managed to remain upright. "I don't know how. "

  "You must! You've spent countless hours with humans!" Maddox barely leashed a deafening roar. "Tell me how to help her. "

  "I wish I could. " He mopped his moist brow with the back of his hand. "I've never shared our wine with others. It's ours. "

  "Go and ask the other humans if they know what to do. If they don't, tell Lucien to flash into the city and find a doctor to bring here. " Death was the only one of the warriors who could move from one place to another with a single thought.

  Reyes nodded and spun on his heel.

  Paris said, "I'm sorry, Maddox, but I'm at my limit. I need sex. I heard your call from the front door and came here instead of leaving. Shouldn't have. If I don't get into the city soon I'll. . . "

  "I understand. "

  "Make it up to you later. " Paris stumbled out and disappeared around the corner.

  "Maddox. " Ashlyn moaned again. Sweat trickled from her temples. Her skin was still laced with blue, but was now so pallid he could see the tiny azure veins that swam underneath. "Tell me. . . a story. Something. . . mind off. . . pain. " She closed her eyes, those lashes casting shadows on her cheeks again.

  "Relax, beauty. You should not be talking. " He raced to the bathroom, emptied and cleaned the bowl and swiped a towel. He wet it down and returned, setting the bowl beside the bed - just in case. Her eyes were still closed. He thought she might have fallen asleep, but she tensed as he bathed her face. He settled behind her, unsure of what to say.

  "Why did. . . friends stab you?"

  He didn't discuss his curse, not even with the very men who suffered alongside him. He should not discuss it with Ashlyn. Anyone but her, in fact, but that didn't stop him. Looking at her, seeing her grimace from pain, he would have done anything to distract her. "They stab me because they must. Like me, they are damned. "

  "That. . . explains nothing. "

  "That explains everything. "

  Several minutes ticked by in silence. She began squirming, as if preparing for another round with the bowl. He had made her ill; he owed her anything she desired. He opened his mouth and let the tale of his life spill from him. "Here is a story for you. I am immortal, and I've walked the earth since the beginning of time, it seems. "

  As he spoke, he felt her muscles loosen their vise-grip on her bones. "Immortal," she echoed as if tasting the word. "Knew you were more than human. "

  "I was never a human. I was created a warrior, meant to guard the king of gods. For many years, I served him well, helping to keep him in power, protecting him even from his own family. But he did not think me strong enough to guard his most precious possession, a box formed from the bones of the dead goddess of oppression. No, he commanded a woman to do it. She was known as the greatest female warrior, true, but my pride was stung. " Thankfully, Ashlyn remained relaxed. "Thinking to prove a mistake had been made, I helped release the demons inside upon the world. And in punishment, I was bonded to one. " He wound his arm around her waist and gently rubbed her stomach, hoping the action would soothe her.

  She expelled a slight breath. Of relief? He hoped. "Demon. I suspected. "

  Yes, she had. He still didn't understand why she admitted it so readily.

  "But you're good. Sometimes," she added. "That's why your face changes?"

  "Yes. " She thought him good?

  Filled with pleasure, he continued his story. "I knew the moment I had been breached, for there was a shock inside me, as if parts of me were dying, making room for something else, something stronger than myself. " It had been the first time he had ever understood the concept of death - and little had he known just how intimately he would soon come to understand it.

  Another delicate sigh escaped her. If she actually understood what he was saying now, he couldn't tell. At least she wasn't crying, wasn't writhing in pain.

  "For a while, I lost touch with my own will and the demon had total control of me, forcing me to do - " All manner of evils, he mentally finished, visions of blood and death, smoke and ash and utter desolation filling his mind. He could barely tolerate the knowledge himself and would not taint Ashlyn with it.

  To the very second, he recalled how the spirit's hold on him loosened, like a dream-haze clearing, the black smoke in his mind wafting away in a sweetly scented morning breeze, leaving behind only its hated memory.

  The demon had compelled him to kill Pandora, the guardian it hated above all else. Bloodlust at last appeased, it had receded to the back of Maddox's mind, leaving Maddox to deal with the damage.

  "Gods, to go back," he said on a sigh. "To walk away from that box. "

  "Box," Ashlyn said, startling him. "Demons. . . I've heard something about that. " She opened her mouth to say more, then jerked. Crying out, she reached blindly for the bowl.

  Maddox moved faster than he ever had before, leaping from the bed and swiping the bowl in seconds. The moment he held it out, she leaned over and retched. He cocooned her against his stomach through the worst of it, cooing to her like he'd never done to another. Giving comfort was new to him, and he prayed he did it correctly. He'd never even comforted his friends. They were all as private about their torment as he was.

  When Ashlyn finished, he settled her back on the mattress and once more cleaned her face. Then he turned his gaze to the ceiling. "I am sorry for the way I spoke of you," he whispered to the heavens. "But please do not harm her for my sins. "

  Peering back down at her, he felt as if an eternity had passed since he'd first met her, as if he'd known her forever and she had always been a part of his life. A life that would collapse into nothingness if she were taken from him. How was that possible? Only an hour before, he had convinced himself that he might be able to slay her. Now. . .

  "Let her live," he found himself adding, "and I'll do anything you want. "

  Anything? a quiet voice asked, relish in the undertones. Not the voice of Violence, he realized, or any voice he had heard before.

  Maddox blinked, stilled. A moment passed before his shock settled into mere confusion. "Who's there?"

  Startled by his outburst, Ashlyn dragged her red-rimmed eyes to him. "I am," she croaked.

  "Pay no attention to me, beauty. Sleep," he said softly.

  Who do you think I am, warrior? Can you not guess who has the power to speak to you thus?

  Another shocked moment passed before the answer took root. Could it be? A. . . Titan? He had sent pleas to the Greeks for years, and never had he been addressed within seconds. He'd never been addressed at all. And hadn't the Titans called Aeron to the heavens like this, with only a voice?

  Hope - and dread - unfurled inside him. If these Titans were benevolent, if they would help, Maddox thought perhaps he would do anything. If they were malicious, however, and made things worse. . . His hands clenched.

  They'd ordered Aeron to kill four innocent women; they could not be good. Damn this! How should he now interact with this being? Humbly? Or would that be seen as weakness?

>   Anything? the voice insisted. There was a disembodied laugh. Think carefully before you answer, and know that your woman could very well die.

  Maddox glanced at Ashlyn's trembling body, her pain-contorted features, and remembered the way she'd been. The way she'd looked at him with ecstasy and asked him to savor the silence with her. The way she'd stood in front of him and thanked him for food. The way she'd leapt to guard him from his own friends.

  Until then - now - no one had needed him. That she did brought a heady rush and deepened his awareness of her. I cannot let her suffer like this, he thought.

  He would have to take a chance on the Titans. Whatever they truly wanted from the warriors here, whatever their purpose, and whether or not they were indeed using the Hunters and Ashlyn to punish him for his lack of respect, he would take a chance.

  He suppressed a curse, suspecting he was going to suffer as he'd never suffered before. But that didn't change his answer. "Anything. "

  Reyes was panting as he raced toward Lucien's room. He had lost a lot of blood these past few days. More so than usual. But then, the need for pain, that terrible, beautiful pain, had ridden him harder than ever lately.

  He did not know why and could not stop it. He could no longer control it, really. The last few days, he had stopped trying. What the spirit of Pain wanted, the spirit of Pain received. Now, with every day that passed, he lost a little more of his desire to control it. A part of him wanted to embrace it, to finally lose himself. To experience the numb nothingness every flicker of suffering brought.

  That was not the way it had always been. For a time, he had learned to live with the demon, to coexist somewhat peacefully. Now. . .

  He rounded a corner, mottled shards of light seeping through the side window and blurring his vision. He didn't slow. He'd never seen Maddox so torn and frightened. So vulnerable. And over a human, a stranger. Bait. Reyes did not like it, but he counted Maddox as a friend and would help in whatever way he could.

  He would help even though he desperately wanted things back to normal, where Maddox raged and died at night, then acted as if he hadn't a care the next morning. Because when Maddox pretended that everything was all right, it was easier for Reyes to pretend, too.

  Those thoughts skidded to a halt as Lucien came into view.

  He was seated on the floor, knees bent and head resting in his upraised hands. His halo of dark hair was in spikes, as if he'd tangled his fingers through it too many times to count. He appeared dejected, pushed past his limits. Reyes swallowed a hard lump.

  If the situation could rock the normally stoic Lucien. . .

  The closer he came, the more the scent of roses thickened the air. Death always smelled like flowers, poor bastard. "Lucien," he called.

  Lucien gave no reaction.

  "Lucien. "

  Again, no response.

  Reyes reached him, leaned down and cupped his shoulder, then gave a shake. Nothing. He crouched and waved a hand in front of the warrior's eyes. Nothing. Lucien's gaze was vacant, his mouth immobile. Understanding dawned. Rather than physically leaving the fortress as he usually did, flashing from one location to another in seconds, Lucien had left spiritually.

  That was something he rarely did, because it left his body vulnerable to attack. Most likely he'd wanted something, even an unresponsive form, guarding his bedroom door while he was out collecting souls.

  I'm on my own, then. Only one thing left to try.

  Standing, Reyes gripped the doorknob to his friend's room, unlocked it and burst inside.

  All four women were seated on the bed, heads bent together, whispering, but they lapsed into silence the moment they spotted him. Each of them paled. One of them gasped. The youngest, a pretty little blonde, stood to obviously shaky legs and assumed a warrior stance meant to block him from her family. She raised her chin, eyes daring him to approach.

  His body hardened. His body hardened every time she was near him. Last night, he'd even smelled her. Sweet powder and thunderstorms. He'd spent hours sweating, panting and so aroused he'd considered fighting Maddox for Ashlyn, thinking it was she who had reduced him to such a state.

  This woman was pleasure and heaven, a feast to his castigated senses. There were no scars on her, no signs of hard living. Only flawless, sun-kissed skin and bright green eyes. Only a full red mouth made for laughing - and kissing.

  If she'd known a single moment of pain, it didn't show. And that drew him. Even though he knew better. His relationships could only ever end badly.

  "Don't look at me like that," the little blond angel snapped, hands balling at her sides.

  Planning to strike him? A laughable concept, that. She had no way of knowing he would enjoy it. That he would want more and more and more, until he was begging her to strike him again. I would do the world a favor if I let the Hunters chop off my head.

  Gods, he hated himself. Hated what he was and what he was forced to do. What he now craved.

  "If you've come to rape us, you should know that we'll fight you. We won't be taken easily. " She raised her chin another notch and squared her shoulders, Such courage from one so small amazed him, but he could not be sidetracked from his current task. "Do any of you know how to heal a human?"

  She blinked at him, losing a little of her bravado. "Human?"

  "A female. Like you. "

  She blinked again. "Why?"

  "Do you?" he insisted, not bothering to answer her. "We haven't much time. "

  "Why?" she repeated.

  Reyes stalked toward her, savagery in every step. To her credit, she did not back down. The closer he came, the more her scent filled his nostrils, heady, alluring. Like the girl herself. Unexpectedly, his anger lessened. "Answer me, and I might let you live another day. "

  "Danika. Answer him. Please. " The oldest of the women reached out a trembling, wrinkled hand and latched onto the girl's arm, trying to tug her back to the bed, away from him.

  Danika. The name rolled through his mind. Rolled over his tongue, too, he realized, speaking it aloud before he could stop himself. "Danika. " His cock jerked in response. "Pretty. I am called Reyes. "

  The girl resisted the old woman, shaking off her hold. She continued to face Reyes. Her eyebrows and lashes were as pale as the hair on her head. She would be pale between her legs, he suspected.

  He couldn't help himself. Despite the need to hurry, he mentally stripped her. Curve after curve greeted him, a banquet to his starved gaze. Large breasts tipped by raspberry nipples. Soft, flat belly. Soft yet strong thighs.

  Reyes no longer allowed himself to bed humans, choosing to take care of himself when the need arose. His passions were too dark, too painful for most women to endure. This one, with her softness and her aura of innocence, would be more hurt and disgusted than most. There was no doubt in his mind. Worse, the women he slept with became drunk on his demon, seeking and inflicting pain as intently as he did.

  Even if all he wanted from Danika was a kiss, she would not be able to handle it. He might not be able to handle it. The thought of bruising her, of making her bleed, of ruining her, left a hollow ache inside his chest.

  "I. will ask one more time. Are any of you healers?" he barked, suddenly eager to escape Danika and her taunting innocence.

  She blanched at his harshness, but still did not retreat. "If - if I am a healer, will you swear to spare my mother, sister and grandmother? They haven't done anything wrong. We came to Budapest to get away, to say goodbye to my grandpa. We - "

  He held up a hand and she fell silent. Hearing about her life was dangerous; already he wanted to wrap her in his arms and comfort her for a loss that had obviously shaken her. "Yes, I will spare your lives if you save her," he lied.

  If the Titans could be believed, Aeron would soon break, becoming crazed for blood and death. He would exist for no other purpose than killing these women. Giving them a little peace of mind during their final days was merciful, Reyes rationalized. Final days.
He didn't like the reminder.

  Danika's shoulders relaxed slightly, and she cast a determined glance at her family. Each woman was shaking her head no. Danika nodded.

  Reyes frowned, not understanding the byplay between them. Did she, too, lie? Finally, Danika turned back to him. He forgot his confusion as their gazes locked. Or he simply didn't care about the answer. Her angelic beauty was more enthralling than Pandora's box, promising absolution it couldn't possibly deliver. And yet, a part of him wished that it could. Just for a moment.

  She closed her eyes, released a long, heavy breath and said, "Yes. I'm a healer. "

  "Come with me, then. " He didn't take Danika's hand, too afraid of what would happen if he touched her. Afraid of a mere human? Coward. No, smart. If he did not know what she felt like, he could not miss the sensation when she was dead.

  What if Lucien thought of a way to save her? What if -

  "Come. " Refusing to waste any more time, Reyes pivoted and strode from the room, forcing Danika to follow. He locked the other women inside, then sprang into motion, trying to maintain a healthy distance between himself and the angel.

  Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod, Danika Ford chanted in her mind. Her heart was trying to fight its way out of her chest, banging on her ribs as if they were a door with frozen hinges. Why did I do this? I'm not a healer.

  She'd taken an anatomy class in college, yeah. She'd taken a CPR class in case Grandpa had a heart attack in front of her, sure. But she wasn't a nurse or a doctor. She was just a struggling artist who'd thought a vacation would help heal the grief and sorrow brought on by her grandfather's death.

  What was she going to do if this hard, steely-eyed soldier - clearly that's what he was, a soldier - wanted her to perform surgery of some sort? She wouldn't do it, of course. She couldn't put someone's life in jeopardy like that. But anything else. . . maybe. Probably. She had to save her family. It was their lives in jeopardy now.

  Ohmygod. Trying to find a measure of tranquility, she studied her captor's back as he paced in front of her. He had tanned skin and black-as-midnight eyes. He was tall with the widest shoulders she'd ever beheld. She'd seen him once before, and he hadn't smiled then, either. There'd been pain in his eyes, then and now. There'd been fresh cuts on his arms, then and now.

  Ohmygod, ohmygod. She didn't even think about running away from him. He'd only catch her, and then he'd be pissed. Maybe attack. And that was scarier than braving a haunted house at Halloween with chainsaws, coffins and all. Alone.

  Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. She wanted to talk to him, to ask him what would be expected of her, but she couldn't find her voice. There was a baseball-sized lump in her throat, preventing speech. She didn't know why she'd been kidnapped, nearly didn't care anymore. She just wanted to leave this drafty, creepy castle with its freaky, overly muscled owners and fly home to the safety of her apartment in New Mexico.

  Suddenly stabbed by a sense of desolation and homesickness, she almost sobbed. Would this soldier keep his word if she helped? She doubted it, but hope was a silly thing. She'd do her best, no matter what, and she'd pray for a miracle.

  Too bad she couldn't convince herself a miracle would happen. You'll probably get knifed by the big brute if anything goes wrong.

  Ohmygod, ohmygod, ohmygod. If she failed, there was no question in her mind that she and her family would die - very soon.
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