- The Darkest Lie
Defeat sat up again, once more happy and eager.
Happy and eager himself, Strider palmed a blade and a semiautomatic, his favorite weapon combination. One stunned, allowing him to close any distance, and the other destroyed up close and personal.
This, he thought with a grin, was going to be fun.
DEAR…GODS. The heat was unbearable, the smells of sulfur and rot thick in Amun’s nostrils. Thousands of screams assaulted his ears, each more tortured than the last.
Why had he agreed to come here?Oh, yeah. To save Legion. For Aeron.
Like Amun, Aeron and William were seated in the small but sturdy boat Cronus had summoned for them after flashing them here. Of course, they’d had to promise to do the bastard a favor in return for the flashing as well as the boat.
They were currently navigating the River Styx, careful to remain as still and steady as possible. One drop of that liquid upon their skin, and their life force would begin to drain.
“So, why is Lucifer afraid of you?” Aeron asked William, cutting through the silence as he gently rowed.
The warrior, who was reclining at the stern of the boat, plucking at the tip of his blade, merely shrugged. “Just is.”
“There’s always a reason,” Aeron insisted.
“Yeah, but that doesn’t mean I’ll always talk about that reason.”
William made sure to keep his mind blank, Amun noticed, preventing Amun from reading his thoughts.
Such a delightful journey already. And this was only the beginning.
They had to follow the river to where it merged with the four other rivers flowing inside this vast lair. Phlegethon—the river of fire. Acheron—the river of woe. Cocytus—the river of wailing. Lethe—the river of forgetfulness. And they had to do it without disturbing Charon, the boatman of the underworld responsible for carting the dead to whichever section of hell their lost soul had been condemned to. The fires, the endless pits, the persecution caverns.
Until recently, they wouldn’t have had to worry about Charon at all. But upon Cronus’s release from Tartarus, the god king had returned this realm to its original state, including the rehiring, so to speak, of its guardians.
Charon, if Amun’s sources were accurate, was nothing more than a walking skeleton. He viewed living beings as abominations and strove to wipe them out. To the dead, however, he was courteous.
I would help you with the coming trials, Cronus had told them, just before disappearing, but I must return to your fortress ’ere my wife does more harm. Then he’d added, I bid you good luck, for you will greatly need it. You bested Lucifer, Aeron, and now he wants revenge.
That “besting” was the reason Legion was trapped here. She had broken a heavenly law and bound herself to Aeron. Lucifer had planned to use that bond to possess her body and escape the underworld. Only, to save everyone he loved, Aeron had allowed Lysander to take his head and break the bond, returning Legion here and ruining Lucifer’s plans.
Olivia upset that you left her behind? Amun signed, and William translated, his gaze then roving over the dark, misty water in search of another boat.
A muscle ticked below Aeron’s violet eyes. Eyes he, too, was moving over the water. “Yes.”
“How’d you manage it?” William asked, sounding genuinely curious rather than cheekily blithe for once. “I know women, and that one is more determined than most. And, well, you’ve got no backbone where she’s concerned.”
Aeron ignored the jab. “Lysander helped.”
Lysander. An angel. An elite angel, at that. He was Olivia’s mentor, the one who’d killed Aeron, and the only man powerful enough to keep a resourceful female like Olivia from following her man.
“She’ll hate me when this is over,” Aeron added morosely.
Amun caught the bulk of his thoughts. Aeron had nearly called this trip off to prevent such a thing from happening, and that had filled him with guilt. Olivia was his life, his future. He loved her more than he loved himself, more than he loved his friends. She was his everything. But he wouldn’t be the warrior she’d fallen in love with if he’d left Legion here to die. Yet he hadn’t been able to tolerate the thought of bringing innocent Olivia into this dark, evil place.
She’d been here before, and several demons had attacked her and ripped off her wings. The memories still troubled her at times, and Aeron never wanted her to have to relive those helpless moments. So he’d tricked her into staying with Lysander, who now held her captive in the sky.
In spite of everything, part of him wanted to go back for her and bring her here if that’s what she wished. Anything to stop her from hating him.
“Yeah, you’re probably right,” William replied after some thought involving knives, scissors and a tub of honey. He showed no mercy. But then, he never did. “Women aren’t known for their forgiveness. Especially women who’ve been spending quality time with the minor goddess of Anarchy and a bunch of bloodthirsty Harpies.”
Aeron scowled at him, and the warrior just laughed. That laughter caused Aeron’s aggression to spike and his paddling to increase in velocity. Gently, Amun removed the oars from his hands and took over.
Because of the thickness of the mist, he could see very little in front of him. However, he began to see what looked to be pinpricks of orange-gold light. A crackling fire, perhaps? Were they close to the River Phlegethon?
He turned just as slow and easy as he paddled to silently ask the others to verify. But as he moved, he spotted several ripples in the water. Ripples that weren’t coming from their boat. His blood heated, and it had nothing to do with the two-hundred-degree temperature.
Amun smoothly locked the oars in their holders and grabbed his guns. Aeron and William caught the significance of his gesture and followed suit.
“What do you see?” William whispered as his gaze scanned the area.
Aeron crouched on his belly, peering intently into the night. A moment passed, silent, taut. “There’s another boat,” he whispered back. “Several yards ahead.”
Amun opened his mind, allowing his demon to search for any incoming streams of conscious thought. All he heard was Must die, must die, must die.
Charon, he realized, just as the other boat came into view. A figure wearing a long, black cloak stood in the center. He had flames instead of hair, and a face that was composed only of bone. Worse, with only the barest (yet still earth-shattering) glance, Amun realized Charon’s eyes were deep black holes where thousands of souls seemed to dance…or writhe in pain.
“Let me take care of this,” William said.
“By all means,” Aeron replied.
William stood, and the vessel rocked. “You know me, old friend. It is I, William the Beloved,” he called. “We mean you no harm. We just want to pass through.”
Old friend? William the Beloved?
Charon lifted both hands and pointed a bony finger at Aeron and William.
Oh, shit. William’s thoughts invaded Amun’s mind. Guess I shouldn’t have bagged his wife last time I was here.
“What does being pointed at mean?” Aeron demanded softly.
“It means we’re on his hit list,” William responded, sounding grimmer than Amun had ever heard him. “Be afraid. Be very afraid.”
Amun, the guardian had ignored. Which made no—The answer hit him, drifting to him from the creature’s thoughts. Charon sensed the demon inside Amun and didn’t care if he entered hell or not.
Just as, this very morning, he hadn’t minded if Galen entered. The memory washed through Amun’s mind.
“You demand payment, this I know,” Galen had said just before tossing a severed human head into Charon’s boat.
Charon had nodded in acceptance, and swept his arm behind him so that Galen could pass. Only, Galen remained in place, jaw hardening. He looked over his shoulder, forward, over his shoulder again.
Again, Charon swept his arm back to usher Galen along.
Galen scrubbed a hand down his face. “I can’t. Not yet. There’s something I have to do on the surface first.” His hands fisted. “Someone I have to kill before the bastard kills me. But I’ll be back. And when I am, you’ll remember that I’ve already paid for my entrance.”
“Uh, Amun, man,” Aeron said, dragging Amun from his troubling vision. “You listening? Any ideas about what we should do? William says we can’t look into the bastard’s eyes without losing our own souls, and we can’t touch him, either. If we do, he’ll be able to compel our gazes to his.”
Charon’s boat was inching forward, Amun saw, and sparks were now igniting over his fingertips. Kill, kill, kill, the boatman was thinking. The obsessive concentration he displayed didn’t bode well.
Options? Payment wouldn’t work, not for them. Aeron was no longer possessed by a demon, and William was merely an immortal. Charon wouldn’t let them pay to pass unless they were dead. Or missing their souls. And the boatman planned to do whatever was necessary to ensure either outcome.
The first thing he planned? Splashing them.
Thank the gods Olivia had supplied them with a vial of water from the River of Life. Found only in the heavens, a single drop could counteract the effects of this water. Only problem was, once they ran out, they were out. There’d be no more. Ever.
Better for one man to use one drop than three men to use three drops. More than that, Amun’s soul was tied to his demon, so Charon wouldn’t want it. Which meant Amun was the only one who could look at and touch the guardian without consequence.
Which meant Amun had to be the one to act.
Have an idea, Amun signed. On my signal, propel our vessel to the shore.
“Great. Someone else will be the hero for a change. But what’s the signal?” William asked.
This. Amun leaped at Charon, throwing them both into the river. Sizzling water enveloped him, practically burning away his clothing and peeling away his skin. But he held tight to Charon, caging the bony creature within his arms. Perhaps the water negated a little of the creature’s ability, because Amun felt no compulsion to gaze at him. Most of his power remained, however. Skeletal hands pushed at him and those hands were a thousand times hotter than the water, like jolts of electricity straight to his heart, causing the organ to stutter to a halt.