- The Darkest Passion
Amid murmurs of agreement, Strider and the others pushed to their feet. Knives were palmed by Kane and Reyes. Guns were clutched by Gwen and himself. No, no, no. He crossed the small distance to stand in front of her and plucked the modified Sig Sauer from her fingers.
“I’ll take that,” he said.
“Fine.” She smiled sheepishly, then waved her clawed fingertips. “I’ll do better without it, anyway.”
“We all will.”
Sabin hugged her tight. “I’ll help you summon your Harpy after Maddox gives us some direction. Maddox?”
Maddox walked to the center of the group and knelt in the sand. He drew a misshapen circle. “We’re on another island. We’re here, and they’re here.” His fingertip danced through the golden grains. “The Unspoken Ones must have given them extra fortifications, because I found steel traps here, here and here.”
Again, Sabin translated for Maddox and Reyes, who hadn’t spent the last few thousand years with the silent warrior. “Sleepy there,” he said, pointing to the motionless Hunter, “was patrolling the perimeter of their camp with three others.”
“If we split up, we can surround them and close in, a different warrior taking out each of the remaining guards while giving the others no room to run and hide.” Strider would love nothing more than to pick them off himself, one by one, but there wasn’t time.
“Excellent,” Sabin said with a nod. He outlined who was to go where. “I don’t care if you have to scoot on your stomach. Don’t let them see you. They’re expecting us, as Sabin said, so the greater a surprise we manage to be, the better our chances of success. And once you spy their camp, don’t move until you hear my signal. I want to let my demon at them before we attack.” Doubt could turn even the bravest of warriors into thumb-sucking babies. “Move as swiftly as you can. Let’s reach them before they realize we’ve already eliminated one of their own. If they haven’t already.”
Grinning, Strider saluted and was off. For the most part, he loved this part of his life. Loved the challenge of battle, loved the rush of victory. Adrenaline always pumped through his veins, driving him faster, making him stronger. Like now. He dodged tree limbs and jumped over stones, all the while merging with the shadows.
Need a triumph, his demon whined.
Some Lords could hear their demons clearly; some simply felt their other half’s desires. Strider only heard his before and after a battle. Perhaps that was because that was when Defeat was the strongest—and the most worried.
I’ll get you one. Promise.
What are you, Doubt? Yeah, I’m sure.
Every so often, the sun would peek through the canopy of treetops and spill onto the ground like a spotlight. Out of habit, he spun until he once again met with shadows. Sadly, he wasn’t one of the ones to run into a guard. Finally, though, he reached his destination and slowed. He was careful to avoid anything that might crunch beneath his boots. Then, hearing the murmur of unfamiliar voices, he lay down as ordered and inched his way to a bush bordering the Hunter camp.
All he saw was a wall of rocks, but there were gaps between several of those rocks, gun barrels peeking from them. Then he heard the whispers.
“Rick hasn’t returned yet.”
“He’s only five minutes late.”
“Maybe he got lost.”
“Please. The Lords of the Underworld are out there. Rick’s already dead.”
“Yeah, you’re right. I know you are. They have no morals, no conscience, so killing an innocent man wouldn’t faze them. But damn, I really liked him.”
“We shouldn’t wait for them to come to us. We should attack them. Obviously we’ve got a god or two on our side. Our hideout appeared out of nowhere. Our guns and traps, too. Why else would we have been brought here with the Lords if not to finally destroy them?”
Good question. These Hunters were supposed to be a gift, yet they’d been armed and sheltered. Or maybe the battle was the gift. Not to the Lords, but to the Unspoken Ones. Maybe they enjoyed watching bloodshed.
One man must have stood, because suddenly Strider could see the top of his head. “Shut your fucking mouths, all of you. We’re dealing with demons, the plague of our lives. We have to stay on alert.”
Fanatics, Strider thought with disgust. They wanted someone to blame for their troubles. Understandable, he supposed, but wrong. Humans had free will. More often than not, that free will was the source of their troubles. They decided what they would eat, how much they would drink and who they would sleep with. They decided whether or not to do drugs or get in a car destined to crash.
“What if—what if they’re too strong and we die out here?”
“They want revenge for what we did to Lies, I know it. They’re going to cut off our hands like we cut off his.”
Strider fought a grin. Doubt was doing his job. Any second now and Sabin would—
Sabin’s whistle echoed.
Ding, ding. And there it was at last, the starting bell. Strider popped to his feet, the muzzles of both his guns outstretched. He aimed both at those gaps between the rocks and squeezed the triggers simultaneously. Pop, pop.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Reyes dart from behind a tree trunk, sprint forward and climb the wall, tossing a knife along the way. There was another scream. Maddox sprinted forward as well, jumping over the wall with a single leap, gunfire ringing out. Only, Maddox hadn’t carried a gun, Strider realized, stomach tightening. He was the target, using his body as a distraction.
Sabin quickly joined him and Kane attempted to do the same—until a bullet somehow ricocheted off a rock and embedded in his shoulder. Figured. Kane cursed loud and long as Strider rounded the wall, disabling as many guns as he could through the holes.
Then a gust of lemon-scented wind ruffled Strider’s hair, and he stilled. Gwen, he thought. And sure enough, he spotted the blur of her hair as she darted up the wall and fell inside the circle. Sabin had clearly made good on his promise. Strider followed on her heels, remaining on the edge of the highest ledge, weapon trained, just in case.
He needn’t have bothered. The Harpy squawked, claws raking, sharpened teeth chomping. Men screamed and collapsed. A few tried to run, to scramble over the rocks. They didn’t get far. As fast as the tiny wings on her back allowed her to move, she easily caught them and snapped their necks.
And just like that, the enemy was conquered.
Yes. Yes! Defeat sang inside his head.
Too easy, he thought. He hadn’t even worked up a sweat. Not that he was complaining. Much. The harder the victory was to achieve, the better the rush afterward. Occasionally, if the victory was sweet enough, his demon writhed in pleasure for days. Hot damn, that was better than sex. Better than anything, really. He’d only experienced such a thing twice, but he craved the next time like a drug.
Reyes and Maddox were bleeding profusely as they meandered through the masses, kicking away weapons. A few feet away, outside the enclosure, Strider heard the crunch of rocks and the snap of a twig. He turned, gun moving with him. He relaxed when he saw Kane settle against a tree trunk, trying to dig the bullet out of his shoulder. Disaster had had to mend himself from similar catastrophes a thousand times before, so he knew how to go about it.
Beside him was Amun, prone and writhing. The big guy must not ever have joined the fray. He’d clearly remained at the sidelines, the memories he’d stolen from that Hunter already overtaking him, demanding his attention.
“Gwen,” Sabin called.
Once again, Strider’s attention veered. A panting Gwen was pressed against the rocks. Blood coated her face and hands. All of the warriors had stepped away from her. All but Sabin. He was the only one capable of calming her down when her dark side overtook her.
As Sabin approached her, Strider joined the others in weaving through the fallen humans. Most were lifeless, silent. A few were moaning. He quickly aimed and fired, ending their misery. Except for one. That one, he crouched beside. There was something about the man…No, kid. Something about the kid that caused him to pause. And with the pause, reluctant compassion sparked to life.
That kid looked up at him through glazed eyes, realized who he was and scowled. “Bastard,” he spat, blood spraying from his mouth. “Don’t think this is the end. I’ll rise from the grave if necessary. I’ll end you.”
Such hatred seemed wrong in someone so young. The boy could be no more than twenty years old and had dark hair and eyes, reminding him of Reyes when they’d lived in the heavens. There were cuts all over his face and holes in his left shoulder and stomach, both of which were gushing blood. They’d decided to kill these Hunters, decided not to take any prisoners, but Strider suddenly found himself regretting that choice.
Which made no sense. If the kid had been able, he would have gutted Strider without hesitation. Still. His strength in the face of defeat was humbling.
With a sigh, Strider removed his T-shirt, ripped the fabric into two pieces and used the first to bind the kid’s shoulder.
“What the hell are you doing?” he ground out.
“Saving your life.”
“When you just tried to end it? No. Hell, no. I don’t want to be saved by a demon.” He tried to scoot away, but was too weak and shaky to get more than a few inches.
“Too bad.” Strider used the other strip to apply pressure to his stomach. “I never give Hunters what they want.”
There was a tense pause. Then a weak, “This won’t change anything.”
“Good. I didn’t want you to get the wrong idea.”
Finally the kid gave up and just lay there as Strider bandaged him. Which was a good thing. The demon had begun to view their interaction as a challenge. “So what’d we do to you to earn your eternal hate?”
Eyelids that had been drifting closed snapped open. “As if you don’t know,” was the snarled reply.
Strider rolled his eyes. “Whatever, dude. Just so you know, we can’t be everywhere at once, and we have enough trouble with our own lives. There’s no way we could have done whatever it is you think we’ve done to those you love.”