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Reyes stood on the roof of his Budapest fortress, five stories up, his feet balanced precariously on the highest ledge. Above him, moonlight seeped red and yellow from the sky, blood mixed with fickle gold, dark mixed with light, wounds freshly cut in the endless expanse of black velvet.
He gazed down at the gloomy, waiting void beneath him, the taunting ground opening its arms as if begging to embrace him. Thousands of years, and I'm still reduced to this.
Frigid wind blustered, ruffling his hair in every direction, tickling his bare chest, the hated butterfly etched up onto his neck and the remembered lifeblood splattered there. Not his blood, though. No, not his, but his friend's. Every stroke of hair against that phantom evidence of life and death was like kindling thrown into the fire of his blazing guilt.
So many times he'd come here, wishing for things that could never be. So many times he'd prayed for absolution, relief from his daily torment and the demon inside him responsible
relief from his utter dependence on self-mutilation.
His prayers had never been answered. Would never be answered. This was what he was, what he would always be. And his agony would only increase. Once an immortal warrior to the gods, he was now a Lord of the Underworld, possessed by one of the many spirits formerly locked inside dimOuniak. From favor to dishonor, beloved to despised. From happiness to constant misery.
He ground his teeth. Mortals knew dimOuniak as Pandora's box; he knew it as the source of his eternal downfall. He and his friends had defiantly opened it all those centuries ago; now he and his friends were the box, each holding a demon inside himself.
Jump, his demon beseeched.
His demon: Pain. His constant companion. The tempting whisper in the back of his mind, the dark entity that craved unspeakable evil. The supernatural force he battled every damned minute of every damned day.
"Not yet." A few more seconds of anticipation, of knowing most of his bones would shatter on contact. He grinned at the thought. The razor-sharp bone shards would cut his injured, swollen organs and those organs would burst like water balloons; his skin would rip from the excess fluid and this time the lifeblood that drained would be his own. Agony, such blissful agony, would consume him.
For a little while, anyway.
Slowly his smile faded. Within dayshours, if he failed to hurt himself badly enoughhis body would heal itself, totally and completely. He would wake up, whole again, Pain once more a commanding force inside his mind, too loud to be denied. But oh, for those few blessed ticks of the clock before his bones began to realign, before his organs began to weave back together and his skin to reconnect, before blood once more pumped through his veins, he would experience nirvana. The ultimate paradise. Rapture of the sweetest kind. He would writhe in the exquisite pleasure the pain brought with ithis only source of pleasure. The demon would purr with utter contentment, so drunk on the sensation it was unable to speak, and Reyes would experience such blissful peace.
For a little while. Always, only, a little while.
"I do not need another reminder about how fleeting my peace is," he muttered to drown the depressing thought. He knew how quickly time passed. A year sometimes felt like nothing more than a day. A day sometimes felt like nothing more than a minute.
And yet, both were sometimes infinite to him. Just one of the many contradictions of life as a Lord of the Underworld.
Jump, Pain said. Then, more insistently, Jump! Jump!
"I told you. Just a few seconds more." Once again Reyes glanced at the ground. Jagged rocks winked in that bleeding moonlight, the clear puddles surrounding them rippling in the wind. Mist rose like ghostly fingers, summoning him closer, wonderfully closer. "Plunging a blade into your enemy's throat kills him, yes," he told the demon, "but then it's over, done, and you have nothing left to anticipate."
Jump! A snarled command, impatient and needy, a child throwing a tantrum.
Yes, sometimes demons really were like whiny human children. Reyes shoved a hand through his tangled hair, a few strands ripping from his scalp. He knew of only one way to shut his other half up. Obedience. Why he'd even tried to resist and savor the moment, he didn't know.
"Maybe this time you'll be sent back to hell," he muttered. A man could wish, anyway. Finally, he splayed his arms. Closed his eyes. Leaned
"Come down from there," he heard a voice say from behind him.
Reyes's eyelids popped open at the unwelcome intrusion, and he stiffened. He rebalanced but didn't turn. He knew why Lucien was here, and he was too ashamed to face his friend. While the warrior understood what he dealt with because of his demon, there would be no understanding what he'd done.
"That's the plan, coming down. Leave and I'll see that it gets done."
"You know what I meant." There was no hint of laughter in Lucien's voice. "I need to talk to you."
The dewy scent of roses suddenly saturated the air, thick and lush and so unexpected in the late-winter night that Reyes would have sworn he'd been transported to a spring meadow. A human would have found the aroma hypnotic, lulling, almost drugging, and would have done anything the warrior asked. Reyes merely found it annoying. After thousands of years together, Lucien should have known the fragrance held no power over him.
"We'll talk tomorrow," he said tightly.
"We'll talk now. Afterward, you may do whatever you please."
After Reyes admitted his newest crime? No, thanks. Guilt, shame and grief might bring emotional pain, but none would soothe his demon in any way. Only physical suffering offered relief, which was why Reyes had always guarded his emotional well-being so diligently.
Yes, and you've done such a great job at it.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, unsure who had whispered that sarcastic little gem. Himself or Pain. "I'm in a bad place right now, Lucien."
"As are the others. As am I."
"You, at least, have a woman to comfort you."
"You have friends. You have me." Lucien, keeper of the demon of Death, was tasked with escorting human souls to the hereafter, whether the hereafter was heaven or the deepest fires of hell. He was stoic, ever calmmost of the time. He'd become their leader, the man every warrior residing in this Budapest fortress turned to for guidance and aid. "Talk to me."
Reyes didn't like to deny his friend, but he told himself it was better that Lucien did not learn the terrible thing he'd done.
Even as Reyes thought it, he recognized the lie for what it was: a shameful lack of courage on his part. "Lucien," he began, only to stop. Growl.
"The tracking dye has worn off and no one knows where Aeron is," Lucien said. "No one knows what he's doing, if he's the one who slaughtered those humans in the States. Maddox said he called you right after Aeron escaped the dungeon. Then Sabin told me you left Rome and the Temple of the Unspoken Ones in a hurry. Want to tell me where you went?"
"No." Truth. He didn't. "But you may rest assured Aeron is no longer able to slaughter humans."
There was a pause, the rose scent intensifying.
"How do you know for sure?" The question possessed a bite.
"Why don't I tell you what I think happened?" Where Lucien's tone had been sharp before, it was now threaded with expectation. And fear? "You went after Aeron, hoping to protect the girl."
The girl. Aeron had kidnapped the girl. Aeron had been ordered by the new gods, the Titans, to murder the girl. Reyes had taken one look at the girl and allowed her to invade his most private thoughts, color his every action and reduce him to a lovesick fool.
With only a glance she had changed his life, and not for the better. And yet, the fact that Lucien refused to say her name pissed Reyes off royally. Reyes desired that girl more than he desired a hammer to the skull. For Pain, that was saying something.
"Well?" Lucien prompted.
"You're right," Reyes said through tight lips. Why not admit it? he suddenly thought. His emotions were in turmoil and remaining quiet had only roused them further. More than that, his friends could not hate him any more than he hated himself. "I went after Aeron."
The admission hung in the air, as heavy as shackles, and he paused.
"You found him."
"I found him." Reyes squared his shoulders. "I also
Rocks crumbled under Lucien's boots as he stalked forward. "You killed him?"
"Worse." Still, Reyes did not turn. He peered down longingly at the still-waiting ground. "I buried him."
The pounding of footsteps ceased abruptly. "You buried him but did not kill him?" Confusion drifted from Lucien's voice. "I do not understand."
"He was about to kill Danika. I could see the torment in his eyes and knew he did not want to do it. I cut him down to slow him and he thanked me, Lucien. Thanked me. He begged me to stop him permanently. He begged me to take his head. But I couldn't do it. I raised my sword, but I just couldn't do it. So I had Kane collect Maddox's chains and bring them to me. Since Maddox no longer needs them, I used them to lock Aeron underground."
Reyes had once been forced to shackle Maddox to a bed every night, cursed to stab his friend in the stomach six hated times, knowing the warrior would awaken in the morning and Reyes would have to kill him all over again. Some friend I am.
After hundreds of years, Maddox had come to accept the curse. Restraining him, however, had been a necessity. As the keeper of Violence, Maddox tended to attack without warning. Even his friends. And as strong as the warrior was, he would have rent man-made metal in seconds. So they'd commandeered links forged by the gods, links no one, not even an immortal, could open without the proper key.
Like Maddox, Aeron had beenwashelpless against them. In the beginning, Reyes had resisted using them on his friend, not wanting to take even more of the warrior's freedom. Sadly, as with Maddox, employing them had become a necessity.
"Where is Aeron, Reyes?" Underneath the question was a command laced with the authority of a man used to getting what he wanted, when he wanted. A man who ensured there were severe consequences for any type of delay.
Reyes wasn't frightened. He simply hated to disappoint this warrior he loved like a brother. "That, I will not tell you. Aeron doesn't wish to be freed." And even if he did, I do not think I would free him.
There lay the crux of Reyes's guilt.
Another pause slithered between them, this one strained and expectant. "I can find him on my own. You know I can."
"You have already tried and failed or you would not be here." Reyes knew that Lucien could flash into the spirit world and follow a person's unique psychic trail. Sometimes, though, the trail faded or became tainted.
Reyes suspected Aeron's was tainted, as the warrior was not the man he used to be.
"You're right. His trail ends in New York," Lucien admitted darkly. "I could continue my search, but that would take time. And time is something none of us can spare right now. Already two weeks have passed."
How well Reyes knew that, for he'd felt every day of those weeks like a noose tightening around his neck, one worry stacking upon another. Hunters, their greatest enemy, were even now searching for Pandora's box, hoping to use it to suck the demons out of each and every warrior, destroying man and locking away beast.
If the warriors wished to survive, they had to find the box first.
Chaotic as life now was, Reyes was not ready to end his permanently.
"Tell me where he is," Lucien said, "and I'll bring him to the fortress. I'll bolt him inside the dungeon."
Reyes snorted. "He escaped once. He could escape again. Even from Maddox's chains, I'm thinking. His bloodlust gives him a strength I've never encountered before. Better he stay where he is."
"He's your friend. He's one of us."
"He's warped now, and you know it. Most of the time, he is not aware of his own actions. He would kill you if given the chance."
"He'll destroy her, Lucien."
Her. Danika Ford. The girl. Reyes had seen her only a few times, talked to her even less, but still, he craved her with every ounce of his being. Something he didn't understand. He was dark, she was light. He was anguish, she was innocence. He was wrong for her in every way, and yet, when she looked at him, his entire world felt right.
He knew beyond any doubt that the next time Aeron reached her, the warrior would savagely murder her. There would be no stopping him. Not again. Aeron had been ordered to kill Danikaand her mother and her sister and her grandmother and was as helpless against the gods and their powers as everyone else. He would do it.
Reyes's temper flared and he had to glance at the rocks below to calm himself. Aeron had resisted the gods' dark task at first. He was No. He had been a good man. But with every day that had passed, his demon had grown stronger, louder inside his head, until finally it overtook his mind. Now Aeron was the demon inside him. He was Wrath. He obeyed. He slew. Until those four women were destroyed, he would live only to hunt and kill.
Except, inside Danika's temporary apartment those fourteen days, four hours and fifty-six minutes ago, there had been a small part of Aeron that had known the crimes he committed. A small part that hated who and what he had become and desired death above all things. Desired an end to the torment. Why else would Aeron have asked Reyes to kill him?
And I refused him. Reyes couldn't bring himself to hurt another warrior. Not again. Still. What kind of monster left his friend to suffer? A friend who had fought for him, killed for him? Loved him?
There had to be a way to save both Aeron and Danika, he thought for what, the thousandth time? He'd spent countless hours pondering, but still did not see a solution.
"Do you know where the girl is?" Lucien demanded, cutting into his musings.
"No, I do not." Truth. "Aeron found her, I found Aeron, and that's when we fought."