- The Darkest Passion
Now, there wasn’t a more confident woman alive. How the two had reached this point and made things work, Strider wasn’t sure. He was just glad he wasn’t the one in a committed relationship. He liked women—even the un-naughty ones. Oh, did he like women. But relationships? Not so much.
He’d had a few girlfriends over the years, and at first, he’d loved it. Loved the commitment, the exclusivity. When they’d discovered his penchant for winning, however, most of them had tried to work it to their advantage.
“Bet you can’t make me fall in love with you.”
“I doubt you can convince me that we’re meant to be together forever.”
He’d played that game too many times before, winning hearts he’d no longer had any interest in winning. Now, he enjoyed them once—maybe twice—fine, maybe three times—and then it was goodbye old, hello new.
“What’s this about breaking early?” Sabin ushered Gwen to the altar and leaned his hip against the stone. He guided her in front of him, again wrapped her in his arms and held her tight against his chest, her head resting under his chin.
Strider shrugged. “I was thinking.” Rather than examining the stones for symbols or messages as he’d been ordered.
Sabin had been Strider’s leader his entire life. Yeah, Lucien had been commander of the elite army while they’d lived in the heavens, but it had been Sabin that Strider had looked to for advice and guidance. Still did. The man would have beheaded his own mother if it meant winning a battle. Not that any of them had a mother. They’d been born fully formed. But Strider valued that kind of commitment.
“Did I hear someone say it was break time?” Kane, keeper of Disaster, asked with a grin of his own as he rounded a corner. His hair, which was a mix of brown, black and gold, as well as his eyes, which were a mix of brown and green, gleamed in the amber sunlight.
Had he always been that colorful? Strider wondered. They’d been together forever, but Strider didn’t think he’d ever seen the man so…happy. Almost glowing. Maybe the temple agreed with him.
A gust of wind suddenly rose among the trees. A branch snapped off and flew toward the men. Of course, it smacked Kane in the back of the head. Used to such catastrophes, his stride didn’t even slow. Maybe the temple didn’t agree with him.
Strider chuckled. That wouldn’t be the last of Kane’s woes, he was sure. Rocks tended to fall and ground tended to crack whenever the warrior arrived at the scene.
Behind him, gravel crunched under boots and Strider turned again. Amun, Reyes and Maddox, the last of their group, were closing the distance.
“Break?” Amun said, his deep voice almost raw from disuse. He was dark from head to toe and as the keeper of Secrets, he rarely spoke, too afraid he would reveal devastating truths the warriors wouldn’t be able to recover from. But as he’d recently spilled many of those secrets, anyway, to calm Gideon from a rage, he’d been a bit more talkative.
The change did Strider’s heart good.
“Guess so,” he replied.
Sabin rolled his eyes. “Look what you’ve started.”
“What’s wrong with a break? I’m tired. And gods know we’re not making any progress.” Maddox was, perhaps, their most dangerous member. Or rather, had been. Before he’d met his Ashlyn. Now, there was a gentleness to his violet eyes that none of the other Lords possessed.
Too bad that gentleness only extended to the delicate Ashlyn. Maddox was paired with the demon of Violence and when that boy erupted… Ouch. Strider had been on the receiving end of the man’s need to hurt and maim a time or two. And yes, Strider had won, even then, dishing more punches and slices than he’d received. He just couldn’t help himself.
“We’ve searched the grounds, x-rayed the stones hoping to find something inside them, and spilled our own blood hoping to draw the Unspoken Ones out with a sacrifice.” Reyes, as dark as Amun but far more tense, splayed his arms, still cut and bleeding from his latest offering. Or from self-torture. One never knew with Reyes. “What’s left for us to do?”
Everyone looked to Sabin.
“They were the ones who told us Danika was the All-Seeing Eye. I don’t understand why they won’t help us out again,” the warrior said, his own frustration clear.
The All-Seeing Eye could see into heaven and hell. She knew what the gods were planning, what the demons were planning, as well as the outcome of all those plans—but not necessarily at the right time. Details came to her in spurts, out of sequence.
Sabin spun in a circle, calling, “All we want to know is where the other two artifacts are. Is that too much to ask?”
“Just help us, damn it,” Kane shouted, getting into the spirit.
“Otherwise, I’ll rip each stone from this island and toss them into the sea,” Maddox added.
“And I’ll help him,” Strider vowed. “Only I’ll piss on them first.”
As his voice echoed from the rocks, the air seemed to thicken with challenge. The insects in the trees even quieted.
“Whoa—maybe you shouldn’t have threatened to violate their property,” Reyes muttered.
Next, the world around them faded, leaving only the pillars and the altar. Only, every one of the pillars was suddenly upright and the altar was now gleaming white marble scrubbed clean of debris.
Unsure what was happening, each of the warriors stiffened, straightened and grabbed for a weapon.
Strider was proficient with both guns and knives, but usually preferred to slice and dice. Today, however, he’d make use of his Sig Sauer. He kept the muzzle down, but that didn’t mean it was any less dangerous. He could aim and fire in less time than it took to blink.
“What’s happening?” Gwen whispered.
“Don’t know, but be ready for anything,” Sabin warned.
Any other warrior would have shoved the woman behind his back to protect her. Not so with Sabin. Men and women had always been equals to him, and even though he loved Gwen more than life itself and wanted her protected more than he wanted victory, everyone here knew that Gwen was the strongest among them. She’d saved more than one Lord already.
Strider, though, did inch to the front—of her, of everyone. That sense of challenge… He had to be the one to win this thing.
His demon was already chanting. Win…win…must win…can’t lose.
I know, he growled. I will.
He pivoted, gaze roving, searching. Finally, he spotted his prey. A huge man—no, that thing couldn’t be called a man. A huge beast had materialized between two of the pillars.
Even as Strider’s stomach tightened, he took his quarry’s measure. The beast wasn’t dressed, but then, he didn’t need clothing. His skin was furred like that of a horse. Snakes danced and hissed from his head, their thin bodies acting as his hair. Two long fangs protruded over his bottom lip. He had human hands, but his feet were hooves.
Muscle was stacked upon muscle on his torso, and his nipples were pierced by two large silver rings. Metal chains circled his neck, wrists and ankles, and those chains kept him tethered to the pillars.
“Who are you?” Strider demanded. No need to ask what the thing was. Ugly as shit covered it.
He hadn’t expected an answer, but damn if the ensuing silence didn’t irritate him.
Then, beside the beast, between two other pillars, another monster appeared, and Strider blinked at the sudden addition. This one was male, as well, but only the lower half of his body was covered by carmine fur. His chest was a mass of scars. He, too, was anchored in place by chains.
Still. Those chains didn’t detract from the menace radiating from either of them.
“My gods. Look,” Kane breathed, pointing.
A third beast appeared, and this one was female. Like the men, her torso was bare. Her breasts were large, her nipples also pierced, though with diamonds rather than silver hoops. A leather skirt wrapped around her waist and thighs. She stood in profile, and Strider could see the small horns protruding from her spine. The horns he actually liked—they’d give a man something to hold on to when things got rough. Her face, however, was beaked like a bird’s. So bed her? No. She, too, was furred and chained.
In quick succession, a fourth and fifth appeared, both so tall and wide they were like living mountains. They didn’t have snakes for hair, though. What they had was worse. One was bald, yet shadows seemed to be seeping from his skull. Thick and black and putrid. The other had blades. Small but sharp, they spiked from his scalp, each glistening with something clear and wet.
The Unspoken Ones.
Without a doubt. Strider let out a breath. They should have remained the Unseen Ones, as well. ’Cause damn.
No challenge has been issued yet, moron. Thank the gods, he added, just for himself. Would he be able to defeat these things?
The female stepped forward, her chains rattling. The Lords held their ground, and this seemed to please her. She grinned, her too-white teeth sharp as razors. Thankfully, she couldn’t get far, couldn’t reach them, bound to the pillars as she was.
“Once more, you have darkened our doorstep.” Her voice rang with the cries of a thousand souls trapped in hell, desperately trying to escape. They screamed from her, echoing through the temple, their tears practically soaking him. “And once more, we grant you the honor of our presence. But do not think, even for a moment, that your threats moved us. Desecrate our temple, will you? Go ahead. However, I suggest you say goodbye to your cock before you do so.”
Not a challenge, not a challenge, not a fucking challenge. Please don’t let that be a challenge. He had a feeling the woman meant what she’d said. If he whipped out Stridy Monster to relieve himself, he’d lose Stridy Monster. And there was no greater tragedy than that. Ask anyone who’d been with him.
“Uh, our apologies,” Sabin said in an effort to smooth things over.
“Accepted,” she replied easily.
That ease seemed out of place. Wrong.