The Darkest Night


CHAPTER ONE


CHAPTER ONE


Every night death came, slowly, painfully, and every morning Maddox awoke in bed, knowing he'd have to die again later. That was his greatest curse and his eternal punishment.


He ran his tongue over his teeth, wishing it were a blade over his enemy's throat instead. Most of the day had already passed. He'd heard the time seep away, a poisonous tick-tock in his mind, every beat of the clock a mocking reminder of mortality and pain.


In little more than an hour, the first sting would pierce his stomach and nothing he did, nothing he said, would change that. Death would come for him.


"Damned gods," he muttered, increasing the speed of his bench presses.


"Bastards, every one of them," a familiar male voice said from behind him.


Maddox's motions didn't slow at Torin's unwelcome intrusion. Up. Down. Up. Down. For two hours he had worked out his frustration and anger on the punching bag, the treadmill and now the weights. Sweat ran from his bare chest and arms, riding the ropes of his muscles in clear rivulets. He should be as exhausted mentally as he was physically, but his emotions were only growing darker, more powerful.


"You should not be here," he said.


Torin sighed. "Look. I didn't mean to interrupt, but something's happened."


"So take care of it."


"I can't."


"Whatever it is, try. I'm in no shape to help." These last few weeks very little was needed to send him into a killing haze where no one around him was safe. Even his friends. Especially his friends. He didn't want to, never meant to, but was sometimes helpless against urges to strike and to maim.


"Maddox - "


"I'm at the edge, Torin," he croaked. "I would do more harm than good."


Maddox knew his limitations, had known them for thousands of years. Ever since that doomed day the gods had chosen a woman to perform a task that should have been his.


Pandora had been strong, yes, the strongest female soldier of their time. But he had been stronger. More capable. Yet he had been deemed too weak to guard dimOuniak, a sacred box housing demons so vile, so destructive, they could not even be trusted in Hell.


As if Maddox would have allowed it to be destroyed. Frustration had bloomed inside him at the affront. Inside all of them, every warrior now living here. They had fought diligently for the king of the gods, killed expertly and protected thoroughly; they should have been chosen as guards. That they hadn't was an embarrassment not to be tolerated.


They'd only thought to teach the gods a lesson the night they'd stolen dimOuniak from Pandora and released that horde of demons upon the unsuspecting world. How foolish they had been. Their plan to prove their power had failed, for the box had gone missing in the fray, leaving the warriors unable to recapture a single evil spirit.


Destruction and havoc had soon reigned, plunging the world into darkness until the king of the gods finally intervened, cursing each warrior to house a demon inside himself.


A fitting punishment. The warriors had unleashed the evil to avenge their stinging pride; now they would contain it.


And so the Lords of the Underworld were born.


Maddox had been given Violence, the demon who was now as much a part of him as his lungs or his heart. Now, man could no longer live without demon and demon could no longer function without man. They were woven together, two halves of a whole.


From the very first, the creature inside him had beckoned him to do malicious things, hated things, and he'd been compelled to obey. Even when led to slay a woman - to slay Pandora. His fingers clenched the bar so tightly his knuckles nearly snapped out of place. Over the years he had learned to control some of the demon's more vile compulsions, but it was a constant struggle and he knew he could shatter at any moment.


What he would have given for a single day of calm. No overpowering desire to hurt others. No battles within himself. No worries. No death. Just... peace.


"It's not safe for you here," he told his friend, who still stood in the doorway. "You need to leave." He set the silver bar atop its perch and sat up. "Only Lucien and Reyes are allowed to be close to me during my demise." And only because they played a part in it, unwilling though they were. They were as helpless against their demons as Maddox was his.


"About an hour until that happens, so..." Torin threw a rag at him. "I'll take my chances."


Maddox reached behind his back, caught the white cloth and turned. He wiped his face. "Water."


An ice-cold bottle was soaring through the air before the second syllable left his mouth. He caught it deftly, moisture splashing his chest. He drained the icy contents and studied his friend.


As usual, Torin wore all black and gloves covered his hands. Pale hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face mortal females considered a sensual feast. They didn't know the man was actually a devil in angel's skin. They should have, though. He practically glowed with irreverence, and there was an unholy gleam in his green eyes that proclaimed he would laugh in your face while cutting out your heart. Or laugh in your face while you cut out his heart.


To survive, he had to find humor where he could. They all did.


Like every resident of this Budapest fortress, Torin was damned. He might not die every night like Maddox, but he could never touch a living thing, skin to skin, without infecting it with sickness.


Torin was possessed by the spirit of Disease.


He hadn't known a woman's touch in over four hundred years. He'd learned his lesson well when he'd given in to lust and caressed a would-be lover's face, bringing about a plague that decimated village after village. Human after human.


"Five minutes of your time," Torin said, his determination clear. "That's all I'm asking."


"Think we'll be punished for insulting the gods today?" Maddox replied, ignoring the request. If he didn't allow himself to be asked for a favor, he didn't have to feel guilty for turning it down.


His friend uttered another of those sighs. "Our every breath is supposed to be a punishment."


True. Maddox's lips curled into a slow, razored smile as he peered ceilingward. Bastards. Punish me further, I dare you. Maybe then, finally, he would fade to nothingness.


He doubted the gods would concern themselves, though. After bestowing the death-curse upon him, they had ignored him, pretending not to hear his pleas for forgiveness and absolution. Pretending not to hear his promises and desperate bargaining.


What more could they do to him, anyway?


Nothing could be worse than dying over and over again. Or being stripped of anything good and right...or hosting the spirit of Violence inside his mind and body.


Jackknifing to his feet, Maddox tossed the now-wet rag and empty water bottle into the nearest hamper. He strode to the far end of the room and braced his hands above his head, leaning into the semicircular alcove of stained-glass windows and staring into the night through the only clear partition.


He saw Paradise.


He saw hell.


He saw freedom, prison, everything and nothing.


He saw... home.


Situated atop a towering hill as the fortress was, he had a direct view of the city. Lights glowed brightly, pinks, blues and purples illuminating the murky velvet sky, glinting off the Danube River and framing the snowcapped trees that dominated the area. Wind blustered, snowflakes dancing and twirling through the air.


Here, he and the others had a modicum of privacy from the rest of the world. Here, they were allowed to come and go without having to face a barrage of questions. Why don't you age? Why do screams echo through the forest every night? Why do you sometimes look like a monster?


Here, the locals maintained their distance, awed, respectful. "Angels," he'd even heard whispered during a rare encounter with a mortal.


If they only knew.


Maddox's nails elongated slightly, digging into the stone. Budapest was a place of majestic beauty, old-world charm and modern pleasures, but he'd always felt removed from it. From the castle district that lined one street to the nightclubs that lined the next. From the fruits and vegetables hawked in one alley to the living flesh hawked in the other.


Maybe that sense of disconnection would vanish if he ever explored the city, but unlike the others who roamed at will, he was trapped inside the fortress and surrounding land as surely as Violence had been trapped inside Pandora's box thousands of years ago.


His nails lengthened farther, almost claws now. Thinking of the box always blackened his mood. Punch a wall, Violence beckoned. Destroy something. Hurt, kill. He would have liked to obliterate the gods. One by one. Decapitate them, perhaps. Rip out their blackened, decayed hearts, definitely.


The demon purred in approval.


Of course it's purring now, Maddox thought with disgust. Anything bloodthirsty, no matter the victims, met with the creature's support. Scowling, he leveled another heated glance at the heavens. He and the demon had been paired long ago, but he remembered the day clearly. The screams of the innocent in his ears, humans bleeding all around him, hurting, dying, the spirits having devoured their flesh in a rapturous frenzy.


Only when Violence had been shoved inside his body did he lose touch with reality. There had been no sounds, no sights. Just an all-consuming darkness. He hadn't regained his senses until Pandora's blood splattered his chest, her last breath echoing in his ears.


She had not been his first kill - or his last - but she had been the first and only woman to meet his sword. The horror of seeing that once-vibrant female form broken and knowing he was responsible for it... To this day, he had not assuaged the guilt, the regret. The shame and the sorrow.


He'd sworn to do whatever was necessary to control the spirit from then on, but it had been too late. Enraged all the more, Zeus had bestowed a second curse upon him: every night at midnight he would die exactly as Pandora had died - a blade through the stomach, six hellish times. The only difference was, her torment had ended within minutes.


His torment would last for eternity.


He popped his jaw, trying to relax against a new onslaught of aggression. It wasn't as if he were the only one to suffer, he reminded himself. The other warriors had their own demons - literally and figuratively. Torin, of course, was keeper of Disease. Lucien was keeper of Death. Reyes, of Pain. Aeron, of Wrath. Paris, of Promiscuity.


Why couldn't he have been given that last one? He would have been able to journey to town anytime he wished, take any woman he desired, savoring every sound, every touch.


As it was, he could never venture far. Nor could he trust himself around females for long periods of time. If the demon overtook him or if he could not return home before midnight and someone found his dead, bloody body and buried him - or worse, burned him...


How he wished such a thing would end his miserable existence. He would have left long ago and allowed himself to be roasted in a pit. Or perhaps he would have jumped from the fortress's highest window and smashed his brains from his skull. But no. No matter what he did, he'd merely awaken once again, charred as well as sore. Broken as well as sliced.


"You've been staring at that window for a while," Torin said. "Aren't you even curious as to what's happened?"


Maddox blinked as he was dragged from his thoughts. "You're still here?"


His friend arched a black brow, the color a startling contrast to his silver-white hair. "I believe the answer to my question is no. Are you calm now, at least?"


Was he ever truly calm? "As calm as a creature like me can be."


"Stop whining. There's something I need to show you, and don't try to deny me this time. We can talk about my reason for disturbing you along the way." Without another word, Torin spun on his booted heel and strode from the room.


Maddox remained in place for several seconds, watching his friend disappear around the corner. Stop whining, Torin had said. Yes, that's exactly what he had been doing. Curiosity and wry amusement pushed past his lethal mood, and Maddox stepped from the gym into the hallway. A cold draft of air swirled around him, thick with moisture and the crisp scents of winter. He spied Torin a few feet away and stalked forward, quickly closing in.


"What's this about?"


"Finally. Interest," was the only response.


"If this is one of your tricks..." Like the time Torin had ordered hundreds of blow-up dolls and placed them throughout the fortress, all because Paris had foolishly complained about the lack of female companionship in town. The plastic "ladies" had stared out from every corner, their wide eyes and let-me-suck-you mouths taunting everyone who passed them.


Things like that happened when Torin was bored.


"I wouldn't waste my time trying to trick you," Torin said without turning to face him. "You, my friend, have no sense of humor."


True.


As Maddox kept pace, stone walls stretched at his sides; sconces glowed, pulsing with light and fire, twining shadow with gold. The House of the Damned, as Torin had dubbed the place, had been built hundreds of years ago. Though they had modernized it as best they could, the age showed in the crumbling rock and the scuffed floors.


"Where is everyone?" Maddox asked, only then realizing he hadn't spotted any of the others.


"You'd think Paris would be shopping for food since our cabinets are nearly bare and that's his only duty, but no. He's out searching for a new woman."


Lucky bastard. Possessed as he was by Promiscuity, Paris could not bed the same woman twice, and so he seduced a new one - or two or three - every day. The only downside? If he couldn't find a woman, he was reduced to doing things Maddox didn't even want to contemplate. Things that left the normally good-tempered man hunched over a toilet, heaving the contents of his stomach. Though Maddox's envy abated at such moments, it always returned when Paris spoke of one of his lovers. The soft brush of a thigh... the meeting of hot skin... the groans of ecstasy...


"Aeron is... Prepare yourself," Torin began, "because this is the main reason I hunted you down."


"Did something happen to him?" Maddox demanded as darkness shuttered over his thoughts and anger overtook him. Destroy, obliterate, Violence beseeched, clawing at the corners of his mind. "Is he hurt?"


Immortal Aeron might be, but he could still be harmed. Even killed - a feat they had all discovered in the worst possible way.


"Nothing like that," Torin assured him.


Slowly, he relaxed and gradually Violence receded. "What, then? Cleaning a mess and throwing a fit?" Every warrior here had specific responsibilities. It was their way of maintaining some semblance of order amid the chaos of their own souls. Aeron's task was maid service, something he complained about on a daily basis. Maddox took care of home repairs. Torin played with stocks and bonds, whatever those were, keeping them well-moneyed. Lucien did all the paperwork and Reyes supplied them with weapons.

Somewhere in the vastness of this forest were men with strange abilities no one seemed able to explain. Exactly what they could do, she didn't know. She only knew that she needed help. Desperately. And she'd risk anything, everything, to speak with those powerful men.


She couldn't live with the voices anymore.


Ashlyn had only to stand in one location to hear every conversation that had ever taken place there, no matter how much time had passed. Present, past, any and all languages, it didn't matter. She could hear them in her mind, translate them, even. A gift, some assumed. A nightmare, she knew.


Another chill wind beat against her and she leaned against a tree, using it as a shield. Yesterday, when she'd come to Budapest with several colleagues from the World Institute of Parapsychology, she'd stood in the center of town and begun hearing tidbits of dialogue. Nothing new for her...until she'd deciphered the meaning of the words.


They can enslave you with a glance.


One of them has wings and flies when the moon is full.


The scarred one can disappear at will.


As if those whispers had opened some sort of doorway in her mind, hundreds of years of chatter had slammed into her, a blend of old and new. She'd doubled over from the intensity of it, trying to sort the mundane from the essential.


They never age.


They must be angels.


Even their home is creepy - straight out of a horror movie. Hidden on a hilltop, shadowy corners, and damn, even the birds won't go near it.


Should we kill them?


They're magical. They eased my torment.


So many people, present and past, evidently believed these men operated beyond human ability, that they possessed extraordinary skills. Was it possible the men could help her? Eased my torment, someone had said.


"Maybe they can ease mine," Ashlyn muttered now. Over the years and in all corners of the world she'd listened to rumors of vampires, werewolves, goblins and witches, gods and goddesses, demons and angels, monsters and fairies. She'd even led the Institute's researchers to many of those creatures' doorsteps, proving they did, in fact, exist.


The whole purpose of the Institute, after all, was to locate, observe and study paranormal beings and determine how the world could benefit from their existence. And for once, working as a para-audiologist might prove to be her salvation, as well.


Oddly enough, she hadn't led the Institute to Budapest, as was usually the case with a new assignment. She hadn't heard a word about Budapest, in fact, in any of the recent conversations she'd tapped into. But they had brought her here anyway, asking her to listen for any discussions about demons.


She knew better than to ask why. The answer, no matter the question, was always the same: classified.


When she had done as ordered, she'd learned that a few of the locals considered the men living atop this hill to be demons. Evil, wicked. Most, however, considered them angels. Angels who kept to themselves - all but one, that is, who reputedly liked bedding anything female and had been dubbed the Orgasm Instructor by a giggling trio who had spent a "single, glorious" night with him. Angels who, through their presence alone, kept the crime levels low. Angels who poured money into the community and made sure the homeless were fed.


Ashlyn herself doubted such do-gooders were possessed. Demons were invariably malicious, unconcerned with those around them. But whether the men were angels living on earth or simply ordinary people capable of doing extraordinary things, she prayed they could help her as no one else had been able to. She prayed they could teach her how to block the voices or even help strip her of her ability completely.


The thought was intoxicating, and her lips lifted in a slow smile. That smile quickly faded, however, as another blast of wind cut through her jacket and sweater and seeped into her skin. She'd been out here for more than an hour, and she was chilled to the bone. Stopping to rest (again) hadn't been the smartest of plans.


Her gaze climbed the hill. Through a break in the clouds, a sudden ray of amber light poured down and illuminated the massive charcoal-colored castle. Mist curled from the bottom, beckoning her with ghostly fingers. The place looked exactly as the voice had said, she mused, shadowed and spiked along the top, a horror movie come to life.


That didn't deter her. Quite the opposite. I'm almost there, she thought happily, once again trudging uphill. Her thighs already burned from dodging limbs and jumping over elevated roots, but she didn't care. She kept moving.


Until, ten minutes later, she found herself stopping for the thousandth time, unable to walk another step as her shaky, tired thighs morphed into blocks of ice. "No," she moaned. Not now. Rubbing her legs to warm them, she studied the distance again. Her eyes widened when she realized that the castle didn't appear any closer. In fact, it might have been farther away.


Ashlyn shook her head in astonished despair. Damn it! What did she have to do to reach the place? Sprout wings and fly?


Even if I fail, I don't regret coming here. The no provisions and no planning part, yeah, she regretted that, but she'd had to try. No matter how foolish, she'd simply had to try. She would have made the journey na*ed and barefoot if necessary. Anything for a chance at normalcy.


She loved that she helped safeguard the world with her - gag - gift, but the torment she endured was too much. Surely there was another way for her to help. With a little silence, she might be able to think of how. Deep-breathing exercises and meditation only did so much for her peace of mind.


She rubbed her legs more frantically, the ministrations finally melting some of the internal ice and spurring her back into motion. Ök itt. Tudom ök, she heard as she stepped past a hunched, gnarled tree. They're here, her mind instantly translated, I know they are.


Then someone else said, Aren't you a pretty thing?


"Yes, I am, thank you," she said, hoping the sound of her own voice would overshadow the others. It didn't. Deep breath in, deep breath out.


As she continued to slog forward, different conversations from different time periods drifted into her awareness, stacking one on top of the other in her mind. Most were spoken in Hungarian, some in English, and that made them all the more jumbled.


Yes. Yes! Touch me. There, yes, there.


Bárhol as én kardom? En nem tudom holvan.


One more taste of his lips, and I'll forget him, I just need one more taste.


Ashlyn stumbled over twigs and rocks, the words blending together, growing louder. Louder still. Her heart drummed in her chest and she barely refrained from screaming in frustration. Deep breath in, deep breath -


If you knock on the door, you'll be fu**ed like an animal and I guarantee you'll love every minute of it.


She covered her ears, even though she knew that wouldn't work, either. "Keep going. Find them." More wind. More voices. "Keep going," she repeated, the words chiming in harmony with her footsteps. She'd come all this way; she could make it a little farther. "Find them."


When she'd told Dr. McIntosh, vice president of the Institute as well as her boss and mentor, what she'd learned about the men, he'd given her a brief nod and a brisk "Well done" - his highest form of praise.


Then she'd asked to be taken to the chateau atop this imposing hill.


"Not a chance," he'd said, turning away from her. "They could be the demons some of the locals paint them."


"Or they could very well be the angels most of the locals consider them."


"You're not going to risk it, Darrow." That's when he'd ordered her to pack her bags and readied a car for her departure to the airport, just as he always did when her part of the job - providing the ears - was done.


It was "standard agency procedure," he always claimed, yet he never sent the rest of the workers home. Just her. McIntosh cared about her and wanted her safe, she knew that. After all, he'd seen to her care for more than fifteen years, taking her under his wing when she'd been a scared child whose parents hadn't known how to ease their "gifted" daughter's torment. He'd even read her fairy tales to teach her that the world was a place of magic and endless possibilities, a place where nobody - not even someone like her - had to feel odd.


While he did care, she also knew her ability was important to his career, that the Institute would not be half as effective without her and that as a result, she was something of a pawn in his eyes. That's why she didn't feel (too) guilty for sneaking here the moment his back was turned.


Fingers numb, Ashlyn once again smoothed her hair from her face. Maybe she should have taken the time to ask the locals for the best route, but the voices had been too loud, too incapacitating in the heart of the city. More than that, she'd been afraid an Institute employee would see her and take her in.


Might have been worth taking her chances, though, to avoid this debilitating cold.


There's one way to learn the truth. Stab one in the heart and see if he dies, a voice said, snagging her attention.


Oh, that feels good. Please, more!


Distracted, Ashlyn tripped over a fallen limb. Down she tumbled, landing with a pained gasp. Sharp rocks abraded her palms and scratched at her jeans. For a long while, she didn't move. Couldn't. Too cold, she thought. Too loud.


As she lay there, her strength seemed to drain completely. Her temples throbbed, the voices still bombarding her. Closing her eyes, she pulled the lapels of her jacket tight and managed to crawl to and huddle against the base of a tree.


We shouldn't be here. They see everything.


Are you hurt?


Look what I found! Isn't it pretty?


"Shut up, shut up, shut up!" she shouted. Of course, the voices didn't listen to her. They never did.


Dare you to run through the trees naked.


Éhes vagyok. Kaphatok volamit eni?


A pop and whiz suddenly sounded, and her eyelids sprang open. Next there was a tortured scream. A man's scream, quickly followed by three others.


Present. Not past. After twenty-four years, she knew the difference.


Terror snaked her in an iron grip, squeezing the breath out of her. Even through the chattering of voices, she heard a sickening thud. She tried to stand, to run, but a sudden whoosh of air held her in place. No, not air, she realized a second later, but a blade. Her entire body jerked in surprise as the hilt of a blood-coated knife swayed just above her shoulder, embedded in tree bark.


Before she had time to scramble away, to scream, there was another whoosh. Another jerk. Ashlyn's attention swung to the other side. Sure enough, a second blade was rooted just above her left shoulder.


How - What - The thoughts hadn't yet fully formed when something burst from a nearby thicket. Brittle leaves clashed together in an ominous dance, the snow that had covered them sprinkling to the ground as limbs slapped and shook. Then the something raced past a ray of moonlight and she caught a glimpse of black hair and radiant violet eyes. A man. A big, muscled man was charging toward her at top speed. His expression was pure brutality.


"Ohmygod," she gasped out. "Stop. Stop!"


Suddenly he was there, right in her face. Crouching, pinning her in place, sniffing her neck. "They were Hunters," he said in lightly accented English, his voice as harsh and rough as his rugged features. "Are you?" He grabbed her right wrist and peeled back the material of her jacket and sweater. He ran his thumb over the pulse there. "No tattoo, like they had."


They? Hunters? Tattoo? A tremor cartwheeled down her spine. The intruder was huge, hulking, his muscular frame surrounding her with menace. A metallic tang drifted from him, mixed with the fragrance of man and heat and something she couldn't identify.


Up close, she could see the splatter of red on his too-harsh face. Blood? The biting wind seemed to slither past her skin and into the marrow of her bones.


Savage, the look in his violet eyes said. Predator.


Maybe I should have listened to McIntosh. Maybe the men really are demons.


"Are you one of them?" the man repeated.


Shocked to her core, frightened beyond belief, it took her a moment to realize something was...different. The air, the temperature, the -


The voices had stopped.


Her eyes widened in astonishment.


The voices had stopped, as if they were actually cognizant of the man's presence and were as afraid of him as she was. Silence enveloped her.


No. It wasn't utter silence she experienced, she decided a moment later, but rather... quiet. Magnificent, blissful quiet. How long since she'd known such a thing, untainted by conversation? Had she ever?


Wind rustled and leaves smacked together. Snow hummed softly as it drifted through the air, a tranquil melody meant to lull and relax. The trees breathed with life and vitality, branches waving gently.


Had anything ever sounded as magnificent as nature's symphony?


In that moment, she forgot her fear. How could this man be possessed by a demon when he came with such lovely quiet? Demons were a source of torment, not peace.


Was he an angel of mercy, then, as the locals assumed?


Closing her eyes in delight, she drank in that peace, reveled in it. Embraced it.


"Woman?" the angel said, confusion radiating from his voice.


"Hush." Contentment skipped through her. Even at home in North Carolina, in a house that had been built by construction workers forbidden to speak more than necessary, she always heard the echo of deep-rooted whispers. "Don't speak. Just enjoy."


For a moment, he didn't reply. "You dare tell me to hush?" he said finally, angry surprise in his tone.


"You're still talking," Ashlyn admonished, then pressed her lips together. Angel or not, he didn't strike her as the kind of person she should scold. Besides, angering him was the last thing she wanted to do. His presence brought silence. And delicious warmth, she realized as the chill rapidly left her body.


Slowly she cracked open her eyelids.


They were nose to nose, his balmy breath trekking over her lips. His skin glowed like smooth copper, almost otherworldly in the moonlight. All hard angles and fierce planes, his face boasted a sharp blade of a nose and black-as-the-devil's-heart eyebrows.


Those predatory purple eyes bored into her, somehow all the more menacing framed as they were by long, feathered lashes. I'll kill anyone, anywhere, his expression seemed to say.


Demon. No, not a demon, she reminded herself. The silence was too good, too pure and right. But he was not an angel, after all, she decided. He'd brought the quiet, yes, but he was clearly as dangerous as he was beautiful. Anyone who could throw blades like that...


So what was he?


Ashlyn gulped, studied him. Her pulse should not have fluttered just then, and her br**sts should not have ached. But it did. They did. He was like the dragons in the fairy tales McIntosh had read her: too lethal to tame, too mesmerizing to walk away from.


And yet, she suddenly wanted to bury her head in the hollow of his neck. Wanted to wrap herself around him. Wanted to hold on to him and never let go. She even found herself leaning toward him with every intention of giving in to those wants.


Stop. Don't.


Most of her life, human touch had been denied her. At five, she'd been sent to the Institute, where most of the employees hadn't concerned themselves with anything other than studying her ability. McIntosh was the closest thing she'd ever had to a friend, but even he had not hugged or touched her often, as if he feared her as much as he cared for her.


Dating, too, was tough. Men sort of freaked when they learned of her ability. And they always learned. There was no way to hide it. But...


If this man was who - what - she thought he was, he might not care about her little talent. He might let her touch him. And touching him and his heat might very well prove to be as potent a sensation as the silence, yet so much more -


"Woman?" he repeated, the word husky now, wine-rich as it cut into her thoughts.


She froze. Gulped again. Was that...desire flickering in his icy violet irises, completely obliterating that must-kill glaze? Or was the desire she saw born of pain and brutality, her death imminent? A swarm of emotions bombarded her: another clap of fear, morbid awe and yes, feminine curiosity. She had little experience with men, and even less with desire.


What had she been thinking, leaning toward him like that? He might have viewed her touch as an invitation. Might have touched her in return.


Why didn't the mere thought send her into hysterics?


Perhaps because she might be wrong. Perhaps he wasn't a dragon after all, but the prince who stayed the dragon to save the princess. "What's your name?" she found herself asking.


A tension-filled second ticked by, then another, and she assumed he wouldn't answer. Lines of strain bracketed his rough features, as though being near her was a chore. Finally he said, "Maddox. I am called Maddox."


Maddox... The name slipped and slid through the corridors of her mind, a seductive chant that promised unimaginable satisfaction. She forced herself to smile in greeting. "I'm Ashlyn Darrow."


His attention deviated to her lips. Despite the snow, beads of sweat broke out over his forehead, glistening. "You should not have come, Ashlyn Darrow," he snarled, losing all hint of the desire she'd both fancied and feared. But he traced his hands up her arms, surprisingly gentle, and stopped at the base of her nape. Gingerly his thumb tripped over her throat, lingering on the wildly thumping pulse.


She sucked in a breath and swallowed it, his fingers moving with the motion. An unintentional yet wholly erotic caress that liquefied her entire body. Until, a moment later, his grip tightened, almost hurting.


She gasped out a raspy "Please," and he released her completely.


Ashlyn blinked in surprise. Without his touch, she felt... bereft?


"Dangerous," he said, this time in Hungarian.


She wasn't sure if he meant himself - or her. "Are you one of them?" she asked softly, not switching languages herself. No reason to let him know she spoke them both.


Astonishment darkened his gaze, and a muscle ticked in his jaw. "What do you mean? One of them?" English this time.


"I - I - " The words refused to form. Fury was blanketing his features, more fury than she'd ever seen another person project. It radiated from every contour of his hard body. She drew her arms around her middle. No, not a prince after all. A dragon, definitely, as she'd first assumed.


Remaining on his knees, he inched away from her. He drew in a measured breath and slowly released it, the air misting around his face. His hand hovered over the opening of his boot, as if he couldn't decide whether to reach inside or not. Finally, he said, "What are you doing in these woods, woman? And do not lie to me. I'll know it, and you will not like my response."


Ashlyn somehow found her voice. "I'm looking for the men who live at the top of this hill."


"Why?" The single word was spat.


How much should she reveal? He was one of the men with strange abilities, had to be. He was too vibrant, too powerful to be solely human. But more than that, his mere presence had somehow chased the voices away, something that had never happened to her before. "I need help," she admitted.


"Do you?" There was a conflicting mix of suspicion and indulgence in his expression. "With what?"


She opened her mouth to say...what? She didn't know. In the end, it didn't matter. He stopped her with a quick shake of his head. "Never mind. You aren't welcome here, so your explanation is moot. Return to the city. Whatever you came here for, you will not receive."


"But - but..." She couldn't allow him to send her away. She needed him. Yes, she'd only just met him. Yes, the only things she knew about him were his name and the fact that he threw daggers with expert precision. But she was already horrified at the thought of losing the silence. "I want to stay with you." She knew desperation seeped from her, but she didn't care. "Please. Just for a little while. Until I learn how to control the voices myself."


Instead of softening, he seemed infuriated by her plea. His nostrils flared and a muscle ticked in his jaw. "Your babbling will not distract me. You're Bait. You have to be. Otherwise you would be running from me in fear."


"I'm not bait." Whatever bait was. "Swear to God." She reached out and gripped his forearms, the flesh firm and solid, unbelievably hot and utterly electrifying underneath her hand. Tingles speared her arm. "I don't even know what you're talking about."


Quick as a snap, he slashed out a hand and caught the base of her skull, jerking her forward into a beam of moonlight. The action didn't hurt her. On the contrary, she experienced another electrical jolt. Her stomach quivered.


He didn't speak, just studied her with an intensity that bordered on cruelty. She studied him, too, shocked as something began to flash... swirl... materialize under his skin. A face, she realized with macabre awe. Another face. Her heart skipped a beat. Can't be a demon, can't be a demon. He made the voices stop. He and the others have done wonderful things for this city. It's just a trick of the light.


While she could still see Maddox's features, she could also see that shadow of someone - something - else. Red, glowing eyes. Skeletal cheekbones. Sharp-as-daggers teeth.


Please be a trick of the light.


But the more that skeletal countenance stared at her, the less she could pretend it was an illusion.


"Do you want to die?" Maddox - or the skeleton? - demanded, the words so guttural they were barely more than an animalistic growl.


"No." He could kill her, but she'd die with a smile. Two minutes of silence were worth more to her than a lifetime of noise. Scared but determined, and still tingling because of his fever-touch, she raised her chin. "I need your help. Tell me how to control my power and I'll leave here and now. Or let me stay with you and learn how it's done."


He released her, then reached for her again, then stopped and fisted his hand. "I do not know why I am hesitating," he said, even as he eyed her mouth with what might have been longing. "Midnight is closing in, and you need to be as far away from me as possible."


The moment the last word left him, he frowned. A second later, he barked, "Too late! Pain is searching for me." He inched away from her, that skeletal mask still flashing behind his skin. "Run. Go back to the city. Now!"


"No," she said with only the slightest tremble. Only a fool ran from heaven - even if that piece of heaven possessed a transparent face straight from hell.


Cursing under his breath, Maddox jerked the two blades from the tree and pushed to his feet. His gaze lifted skyward, past snow and treetops to the half moon. His frown became fierce, angry. One step, two, he backed away.


Ashlyn used the tree as leverage and stood. Her knees knocked together, nearly collapsing under her weight. Suddenly she could feel the icy wind again, could hear the whisper of chatter closing in on her. A cry of despair rose inside her.


Three steps, four.


"Where are you going?" she asked. "Don't leave me here."


"No time to take you to shelter. You'll have to find it on your own." He wheeled around, giving her a view of his wide shoulders and stiff, retreating back, before throwing over his shoulder, "Do not return to this hill, woman. Next time, you will not find me so generous."


"I'm not going back. Wherever you go, I'll follow." A threat, yes, but one she intended to uphold.


Maddox stopped and whipped to face her, baring his teeth in another fearsome scowl. "I could kill you here and now, Bait, as I know I should. How would you follow me then?"


Bait again. Her heart drummed erratically in her chest, but she met his stare dead on, hoping she appeared stubborn and determined rather than simply petrified. "Believe me, I'd rather you do so than leave me alone with the voices."


A curse, a hiss of pain. He doubled over.


Losing her bravado in the face of concern, Ashlyn raced to him. She splayed her fingers over his back and searched for injury. Anything that crumpled this hulking beast had to be excruciating. He shoved her away, however, and she stumbled from the unexpected force.


"No," he said, and she would have sworn he spoke with two separate voices. One a man's. The second... something so much more powerful. It boomed like a thunderstorm, echoing in the night. "No touching."


"Are you hurt?" She righted herself, trying not to reveal just how badly his actions cut. "Maybe I can help. I - "


"Leave or die." He spun and leapt forward, disappearing into the night.


Chatter crashed into her mind, as if it had merely been awaiting his departure. Now it seemed louder than ever before, blaring after the precious silence.


Langnak ithon kel moradni.


Stumbling in the same direction Maddox had taken, Ashlyn covered her ears. "Wait." She moaned. Shut up, shut up, shut up. "Wait. Please."


Her foot tangled with a broken limb and she toppled again to the ground. A sharp ache tore through her ankle. Whimpering, she dragged herself to her hands and knees and crawled.


Ate ìtéleted let minket veszejbe.


Couldn't stop. Had to reach him. Wind beat against her, as sharp as the daggers Maddox carried.


On and on the voices clamored.


"Please," she cried. "Please."


A fierce roar split the night, shaking the ground, rattling the trees.


Suddenly Maddox was beside her again, drowning out the voices. "Foolish Bait," he spat. More to himself, he added, "Foolish warrior."


Crying out in relief, she threw her arms around him. Holding tight. Never wanting to let go - even if he did still wear that eerie skeletal mask. Tears streamed down her cheeks, crystallizing on her skin. "Thank you. Thank you for coming back. Thank you." She buried her head in the hollow of his neck, exactly as she'd wanted to do earlier. When her cheek brushed his bare skin, she shivered, those warm tingles rushing through her once more.


"You'll come to regret this," he said, sweeping her up and over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes.


She didn't care. She was with him, the voices gone, and that was all that mattered.


Maddox sped into motion, maneuvering around those ghostly trees. Every so often, he grunted as if in pain. Snarled as if in a rage. Ashlyn begged him to set her down so that she could spare him the burden of her weight, but he squeezed the inside of her thigh, a silent command for her to shut the hell up. Finally she relaxed against him and simply enjoyed the ride.


If only that joy could have lasted.