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“You sure you want some? These are only for idiots too stupid to bring proper field rations.”

“Just give me.”

He dumped a few of the precious candies into her shockingly chilled palm before he could change his mind about feeding her, then shook as many as he could fit into his mouth. Again, his eyes closed in ecstasy. Cinnamon. There was no better taste. Even females couldn’t compare. Unless they tasted like cinnamon, but he’d never met one who did. Not naturally, at least.

“Where we going, anyway?” Ex grumbled.

He swallowed. “None of your damn business.” He said it pleasantly, yet left no room for argument.

Truth was, he was taking her to Budapest. Only, he was taking her the long way. Through forest and desert and anything else that struck his fancy. Anything that would break her down, weaken her and force her to rely on him. Not to mention, get her boyfriend off his trail.

Right now they were on the newly risen island of the Unspoken Ones, making their way to the temple, but staying away from civilization.

After all, he’d been on his way to visit the Unspoken Ones when Ex and her friends had interrupted him, and he saw no reason to change his plans on her account. Besides, this way he had the added benefit of showing Ex what a true monster was.

They’d frighten her, she’d realize Strider wasn’t as bad as she’d thought and be grateful he’d kept her safe. Soon she would trust him to always see to her protection. She would open up and tell him everything he wanted to know about her and her Hunter pals. Since he obviously didn’t have the stomach to kill her—now, at least, and that still dropped him right into a shame spiral—he might as well use her. And then betray her. Just as she’d betrayed Baden.

When Strider finished with her, when she trusted him completely, he might just send her back to her people. After they knew how disloyal she had been to them, that is. Then they could kill her.

To gain her trust, though, he couldn’t be too nice to her. Not in the beginning at least. She would become suspicious. Besides, he wasn’t that good an actor. He hated this woman, and the thought of being nice to her grated his every nerve.

“Got any water?” she asked in that whining, complaining voice.

Gra-ted. “Yeah.” He grabbed one of the bottles of water he’d brought, twisted off the cap and drained most of the contents while she watched. A whimper escaped her, and he squeezed the bottle a little too hard, crackling the plastic.

“Well? Are you going to share or not?”

With a forced shrug, he tossed her what was left. “That has my cooties,” he informed her.

“Good news is, I’m up-to-date on all my shots.” She drained the contents in seconds, then peered over at him, clearly irritated with what little he’d given her.

“Be grateful I gave you any at all,” he said with feeling.

“Evil bastard.”

“Murderous bitch.” Stop. This isn’t the way to win her over. Who cares if she becomes suspicious thanks to sweet behavior?

Win her over, Defeat commanded. Win. Win. Win.

Great. His demon saw winning her as a challenge. It was a challenge he hadn’t needed, but there was no way around it now. He had to convince her to—he almost growled—like him.

Motions clipped, Strider dug through the backpack until he found the dehydrated meat he’d brought. He pulled out a bag of it, as well as another bottle of water, and tossed both to the girl.

She caught them easily, realized what they were and grumbled, “Thanks.”

“You’re…welcome.” Ugh. That hadn’t been fun to say. Actually tasted like ash on his tongue.

Silent, he watched her as she ate. Dirt smudged her face, and there were tiny scratches along her jaw. Bugs had bitten her neck, leaving swollen, pink circles. Her clothes were wet with perspiration and just as dirty as her face.

Why didn’t any of that detract from her loveliness?

She probably made a deal with the devil. Like Legion. Unlike Aeron, he wasn’t willing to die to save her. “How long have you been dating your man?”

Dark lashes lifted, and then gunmetal eyes were peering into his soul. “Why do you want to know?”

“Simple curiosity.”

“Fine. I’ll tell you. But answer a question for me first.”

“Sure.” That didn’t mean he’d answer honestly.

“Do you have a girlfriend?”

“No.” Truth. No reason to lie about that.

“Didn’t think so,” she said with a smugness that irritated him.

Strider popped his jaw. What? She didn’t think he was good-looking enough to catch a female? She didn’t think anyone could tolerate him for long periods of time? Well, she was mistaken. He didn’t have a girlfriend because he didn’t want one. His demon fed off the challenge of winning their hearts, but once that was accomplished, the demon’s attraction was gone.

And then, of course, the females would try and challenge him in other ways. Ways he hated. Bet you can’t spend the entire day with me and enjoy yourself. Bet you won’t call me every night for the next week. It was just better for everyone involved if he kept things temporary.

“So,” he said. “How long have you been dating your man?”

“Seven months.”

Seven months? In human years—something akin to dog years—that was a very long time. “So why haven’t you guys gotten married?”

She shrugged as she stuffed the last piece of jerky into her mouth.

“Let me guess. You wanted to, but he didn’t?”

“Actually,” she said stiffly, “he wanted to, but I didn’t.”

Interesting, and unexpected. “Why didn’t you? Just using him for sex?”

The flush returned to her cheeks, softening her features, making her more than beautiful. Making her appear vulnerable…sweet. “Something like that,” she muttered.

There was a tightening in his chest. One he didn’t understand and didn’t want to contemplate. You aren’t attracted to this woman.

“Not to change the subject—and by that I mean I’m ready to change the subject. Do you remember killing me?” she asked.

“Yes.” All those centuries ago, he’d slammed his blade into her stomach, raging over what she’d done to Baden. Then, when she’d doubled over, he’d taken her head. “Mind telling me how you’re alive?”

She ignored him. “No guilt for your actions?”

“Hell, no. Do you feel guilty for what you did to my best friend?”

“Hell, no.”

He hadn’t thought so. And that…bothered him. It shouldn’t have bothered him. He knew who and what she was—for the most part. Snuffing out evil was her ultimate goal, and she’d considered Baden evil. Would it have killed her to pretend remorse, though?

Frowning, he zipped up his bag and stood. “Time in. Again,” he barked. Then cringed. He hadn’t meant to sound so harsh.

Ex didn’t rush to obey. In fact, she stared up at him for a long while, hands rubbing up and down her calves.

“Up,” he said more gently, tugging at the rope. But there was too much give in that rope. Somehow she had managed to cut it, even though he’d never seen her fingers near it. And she certainly hadn’t been gripping a knife. Not one that he’d been able to see, at least.

“Time out.” Grinning, she kicked out her leg with more force than someone her size should have been capable of, swiping his ankles together and knocking him to the ground. Like a bolt of lightning, she streaked off.

Catch, catch. Win, win, Defeat shouted as Strider leaped to his feet and darted after her. You’re losing. You must win.

As he sprinted, he reached for the Cloak he’d strapped to his chest, hiding it there because he’d known the last thing Ex would want to do was feel him up. Only, it wasn’t there.

That…bitch! Somehow, she’d stolen it. Just like with the rope, he had no idea how she’d done it. He only knew he had to catch her. Before she reached her boyfriend.

SO LOUD…so terrible. Amun was somehow on his feet, gripping a blade. William and Aeron were on each of his sides, pinning him in to protect him. A new horde of demons surrounded them—they’d already fought the first and second lines of defense—some small, some big, but all of them determined. Their thoughts…totally focused on blood and pain and death.

Taste, they thought. Hurt. Kill. They swiped at the warriors with their claws, biting at them with poisoned fangs, kicking and hitting, laughing and taunting.The battle itself had been raging for hours. Maybe days. Perhaps years. Each man was exhausted, cut, bleeding, shaking, at the edge, probably in agonizing pain, and every time they killed a demon, three more took its place. But they refused to give up.

Amun tried to help them, but every time he moved, every time he reached out to slash one of the creatures, a new voice entered his mind and grew in volume, new images flashing inside his head—rapes, more tortures, more killings—nearly driving him to his knees.

Through it all, Lucifer sat upon his throne, watching, grinning, Legion at his feet. Every so often, he would pet her head as if she were a favored dog. And when she would try and rise, desperate to help Aeron, the prince of darkness would dig his claws into her scalp and hold her down until she whimpered her surrender, blood trekking down her temples.

“I don’t know how much more I can take,” Aeron gritted out.

“Arm…hanging…by…thread,” William replied. He wasn’t exaggerating, either.

Must help them, Amun thought. The air was hot, draining what little remained of his strength. And the smoke…gods, all he wanted to do was cough. Cough until he finally hacked up enough intestine to die.

Although, that might not be necessary. The scent of death clung to every inhalation, stinging his nostrils, promising a reckoning. Very, very soon.

Push through. Ignore the voice, the images. Only reason the two warriors were still standing, despite the poison probably working through them from those demon bites, was that they’d drunk the rest of the Water of Life.