- The Darkest Passion
Damn. Where was Gideon when you needed him? As the keeper of Lies, that boy knew when someone spoke true—or not. Strider had been apprehensive since the beasts had appeared, but now he wondered, what was their angle? The question churned his apprehension into straight-up fear.
“Now, the reason for our appearance,” she continued. “Your determination to defeat your enemy is admirable, and we have chosen to reward you for it.”
A reward? From these creatures? His formerly tight stomach now did a little dance: twist, twist, knot, twist, twist, knot. Wrong, he thought again.
“So you’ll help us?” Reyes asked. Gullible fool. “Help us defeat the Hunters at long last?”
A laugh. “As you said yourself, we have already helped you. And we did so without seeking anything in return.” Her gaze, so much like a black hole he already felt as if he were falling, shifted, landed on him and pinned him in place. “Did we not?”
Just like that, understanding dawned. Anytime you wanted to hook someone on your drug, you gave them the first taste for free. Their aid had been the drug, and the Lords were now the addicts.
They would have to pay for any further assistance, Strider realized. And pay dearly. Ding, ding, ding. Finally, right.
“Perhaps we can help each other,” Kane suggested, the ground cracking under his feet. He hopped to the side to avoid falling into a black hole of his own.
Her chin lifted in haughty disdain. “We need nothing from you.”
“We’ll see,” Sabin said, tone unconcerned. But Strider could see the wheels turning in the back of his friend’s mind. “Do you know where the Cloak of Invisibility is? And the Paring Rod?”
“Yes.” She offered them another grin, this one loaded like a gun and ready to fire. “We do.”
Yep, I’m hooked.
Win! Defeat repeated.
Strider licked his lips in anticipation, bones already humming at the thought of victory against the Hunters. Finally, the Super Bowl of wins, here for the taking. Once they had those artifacts, they could find and destroy Pandora’s box. That wouldn’t destroy the Hunters, of course, but it would ruin their plans to use the box to draw the demons out of the Lords, killing the warriors.
Man couldn’t live without demon, not anymore. They were two halves of a whole, bonded forever. Defeat was as much a part of him as Stridy Monster.
The demons were equally bound, though they wouldn’t die if man and spirit were parted. However, they would be crazed, forever hungry to feed their depraved needs but unable to quench themselves.
After the Hunters had killed Baden, the demon of Distrust had sprung from his body, tortured, screaming, destroying everyone it encountered. Strider had watched, helpless.
Worse, that demon was still out there, still causing havoc.
That was the reason the Hunters no longer sought to kill him and his friends. They didn’t want the demons free and unable to be captured. But with the box, they could do both.
Yet thanks to Danika, they now knew the Hunters had a new plan of action. Somehow, they had found the demon of Distrust. They had managed to capture it and were trying to force it to possess another body. If they succeeded… Strider shuddered. They wouldn’t have to wait for the box. They could kill the Lords, place their demons inside bodies of their choosing and do whatever they wished.
They claimed they wanted a world without evil, but would they say the same thing if they were in control of all that evil? Hell, no. Power wasn’t easy to give up. As he well knew. No way he’d be able to give up his. He liked winning—and not just because of his demon.
“So what do you want from us?” Sabin asked, cautious now. “In exchange for those artifacts?”
Strider almost grinned. Sabin didn’t like miscommunication. He wanted the facts laid out so everyone knew what they were getting into.
The Unspoken One laughed, and it was a far crueler sound than before. Maybe because this time, she mocked with that laughter. “Think you it is that simple? That you give us a token and in return we give you that which you desire most? How wrong you are, demon. You are not the only ones who seek what we have to offer. Behold.”
Above the altar, the air thickened, coagulated, and colors sparked to life before bleeding together and forming what seemed to be a movie of some kind. Strider strained to decipher the images—then tensed as Galen came into view. His blond hair, his handsome features, his white feathered wings. As usual, he wore a white robe, as if he truly were an angel rather than a demon-possessed warrior like the rest of them.
Beside him was a tall, slender female. She was pretty in a sturdy sort of way, with sharp features, dark hair and pale skin. He’d seen her before, he thought, flipping through mental files of ancient Greece, ancient Rome and everywhere else he’d been throughout his very long life, but coming up blank. He pored through more recent times, but again—oh, shit, there. Danika, he realized. Danika had painted her. An enemy.
Shit, he thought again. Danika had painted this woman in a scene set twentysomething years in the past, yet nothing about her had changed. There wasn’t an age line on her.
She wasn’t human, then.
Today she was dressed in black leather and strapped to a table, but she wasn’t struggling against her bonds. There was determination in her expression, her gaze following— No. Surely not. That couldn’t be… It wasn’t possible… But as Strider watched, he saw a ghostlike creature bouncing from one corner of the room to another. Its eyes were red, its face skeletal, its teeth long and sharp.
No question; it was a demon. A High Lord, like the very being that possessed Strider.
Strider stopped breathing, every muscle in his body clenching his bones.
“Baden,” Amun rasped in that unused voice of his, so much longing in his tone that it actually hurt to hear. There’d been something about Baden, something they’d all gravitated to. Something they’d all needed. They’d loved Baden more than they’d loved themselves. More than they loved each other.
Still did, despite his death.
“No damn way.” Kane shook his head almost violently.
Strider agreed. No damn way. That demon did not carry the essence of their friend. Couldn’t possibly. But there was something familiar about that ghostly being…something gut-wrenching.
“Enter her,” Galen commanded. “Enter her and your torment will end. You’ll finally have a host. You’ll finally be able to feel, to smell, to taste. Don’t you remember how wonderful that is? Finally you’ll be able to destroy, to shred human trust as you were meant to do.”
Shred human trust. As Distrust was meant to do. No, he thought again.
The spirit groaned, and its speed increased. Clearly, it was agitated. Did it know what was happening? Did it want another host? Or was it simply too crazed to understand?
“Please,” the woman begged. “I need you. I need you so badly.”
So. She was willing. That didn’t mean she knew what would happen to her if she got her wish. For the first century—at least—there would be no remnants of the person she was. She would be fully demon and many, many humans would suffer because of that.
“Do it,” Galen continued. “It’s what you want. What you need. All you have to do is touch her and relief is yours. What could be easier?”
Could the demon understand? he wondered again. As keeper of Hope, Galen could make anyone or thing crave a future they never would have wanted without his influence. Even a demon. That’s how he’d formed his Hunters, by convincing them the world would be a better place without the Lords. A utopia of peace and prosperity.
As Galen crooned persuasively, even Strider was affected. He wanted to touch the female. There would be relief…his future would be assured…better…
The demon darted toward the woman, changed its mind, then darted in the other direction. Oh, yes. It understood.
Don’t do it, Strider projected. He wanted his friend back, yes. More than anything in the world. And in some ways, the demon of Distrust was his friend. Essence of Baden or not. But he didn’t want his friend to be housed in the body of his enemy.
“Do it!” Galen snarled. “Do it! Now.”
On and on the spirit circled the room’s ceiling.
Impatient, Galen threw up his hands. “Fine. Forget it. You can spend the rest of eternity the way you’ve spent the last few thousand years. Miserable. Hungry. Unfulfilled. We’re leaving.” He reached out to release the woman’s bonds.
There was another groan, then a growl, and then the spirit was again darting from one corner to another, gaining speed, nothing but a blur. It fell…fell…and finally slammed into the female’s stomach.
Had she not been tied down, she would have hurt herself, so intense was her sudden thrashing. Thrashing that increased with every second that passed. She grunted and groaned, her muscles spasming, her features contorting. Then the screams began.
No. Godsdamn it, no. Strider nearly fell to his knees.
Galen smiled an evil smile of satisfaction. “It’s done. At last. Now all we have to do is wait and see if she survives.”
The door to the room swung open and a group of his followers marched inside. Such perfect timing. They must have been watching nearby on monitors.
“Do we return to the temple, Great One?” the one in front asked.
Galen’s answer was lost as the vision wavered, then disappeared altogether.
Time suddenly seemed suspended, caught in threads of horror and shock.
Sabin was the first to shake himself loose. “What the hell just happened?”
What happened? Hell’s gates had just opened, the repercussions he’d already contemplated suddenly real. If the woman survived, Hunters would now be out for blood, as Strider had feared. They would no longer content themselves with merely injuring the Lords. They would crave death. And if their demons were freed, those demons would be caught, paired with someone new, and Galen could build an army of demonic immortals all under his command.
“Bring the images back,” Maddox commanded. “Show us what followed the possession.”