- The Darkest Secret
STRIDER, KEEPER OF THE DEMON of Defeat, burst through the towering front doors of the Budapest fortress he shared with a growing cast of friends—brothers and sisters by circumstance rather than blood, but al the closer for it—
fighting a rush of undeniable pleasure.
He’d freaking done it, man. Done. It. After chasing his enemy cross-continent, bargaining away one of the four godly relics needed to find and destroy Pandora’s box—
and yeah, he was gonna get spanked hard for that—then, after being eaten alive by insects and at one point (cough) walking into a chick’s knife (cough), he’d final y won. And damn if he wasn’t ready to celebrate.
“I’m king of the world, bitches. Come in here and bask in my glory.” His voice echoed through the foyer, expectant, eager.
No one returned the greeting.
Stil . Grinning, he shifted the unconscious female draped over his shoulder into a more comfortable position. More comfortable for him. She was the enemy he’d been chasing, as wel as the chick who’d oh, so impolitely introduced his pancreas to the freaking hilt of her blade. He could hardly wait to tel everyone that he’d done what they hadn’t. He’d bagged and tagged her, baby.
He cal ed, “Daddy’s home. Somebody? Anybody?”
Again, there was no response. His grin dul ed a bit.
Damn it. When he lost a single chal enge, he battled crippling pain for days. When he won, though…gods, it was almost a sexual high, energy buzzing in his veins, heating him, priming him. That kind of enthusiasm cal ed for a playmate. And, hel , twelve warriors and their menagerie of female companions lived here, yet no one had waited around to welcome him home? Even though the grounds were now gated, monitored and someone had had to punch him in, like, five minutes ago?
Didn’t that just figure.
But he deserved it, he supposed. Seven days had passed since he’d last texted or phoned. Technical y, though, that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a wee bit preoccupied, what with subduing his bundle of anything but joy. And on his last update, he’d been told the danger here had passed and everyone could return, so he’d stopped the I-have-to-know-how-everyone’s-doing flurry of cal s.
So, fine. No biggie. The fact that no one wanted to play actual y did him a solid. Now he could take care of a little business. “Thanks, guys. You’re the best. Real y.” And you can al suck it!
Strider surged forward. To console himself, he imagined his prisoner’s expression when she woke up and found herself trapped in a four-by-four cage. Now that’s the good stuff. Then his gaze snagged on his unfamiliar surroundings, and the last vestiges of his grin fel away. He stopped abruptly.
He’d been gone only a few weeks, and he’d thought most of the others had been, too, but in that time someone had managed to turn the run-down monstrosity they cal ed home into a showpiece. Once comprised of crumbling stone and mortar, the floor was now bril iant white marble veined with amber.
Equal y deteriorated wal s were now vividly polished rosewood.
Before, the winding staircase had been cracked; now it gleamed, not a flaw in sight, an unblemished gold railing climbing to the top. In the corner, a white velvet-lined chair was pushed against reflective paneling, and beyond that, priceless artifacts—colorful vases, bejeweled trinket boxes and aged spearheads—were perched behind glass cases.
None of which had been there before.
Al these changes, in less than a month? Seemed impossible, even with Titan gods popping in and out at wil .
Maybe because those gods were more concerned with murder and mayhem than interior decorating.
maybe while Strider had been congratulating himself on a job wel done, he’d entered the wrong house?
It had happened before.
And talk about awkward. There was no way to explain the cut, bruised and soot-covered baggage he was hauling around. Not without a little jail time. Explaining the blood splatter on his clothing would be a real treat, too.
Nah, he decided a second later. This was the right place.
Had to be. Along the staircase wal hung a portrait of Sabin, keeper of Doubt. Naked. Only one person had the bal s to taunt badass Sabin with something like that. Anya, goddess of Anarchy and dealer of disorder, who just happened to be engaged to Lucien, keeper of Death. Odd pair, if you asked Strider, but no one had, so he’d kept the opinion to himself. Besides, better silence than the loss of a favorite appendage. Anya didn’t take kindly to anyone second-guessing her. About anything.
“Yo, Tor Tor,” he shouted now.
Torin, the keeper of the demon of Disease. Dude never left the fortress. He was always here, monitoring camera feed, ensuring the home remained invasion-free, as wel as playing on his computers and making their miniature, by-invitation-only army a shitload of cha-ching.
At first, there was no reply, only another echo of his voice, and Strider began to worry. Had something catastrophic happened? A total demon wipeout? If so, why was he stil here? Or had Kane, keeper of Al Kinds of Bad Shit, had a crappy week and—
Footsteps pounded, closer and closer, and relief flooded him. He looked up the staircase, and there was Torin, standing on a zebra-print rug Strider also didn’t recal seeing before, his white hair shagging around his devil’s face, his green eyes bright as emeralds.
“Welcome home,” Torin said, adding, “You shithead.”
“You don’t cal , you don’t write, and you want hearts and flowers?”
“Yeah, I do.”
Torin wore black from neck to toe, his hands covered by soft leather gloves. Fashion-wise, those gloves were overkil . To save mankind, though, they were kinda necessary. A single touch of Torin’s skin against another’s, and hel o plague. Guy’s demon pumped some kind of disease in his veins, that single touch al that was needed to spread it. Even to Strider. But immortal as he was, Strider wouldn’t die from a little cough/fever/vomiting of blood. Not like humans, who would be ravaged, perhaps worldwide, the infection becoming nearly unstoppable.
Strider would give the il ness to everyone he touched in turn, though, and as he moderately enjoyed seducing humans, he relied on skin-to-skin action.
“So, everything good here?” Strider asked. “Everyone fine?”
“Now you want to know?”
“Figures. Wel , for the most part, al ’s wel . A lot of the guys are out hiding artifacts, and looking for the last one. Those who aren’t are hunting Galen.” Torin took the stairs two at a time and stopped at the bottom, remaining out of striking distance. As always. His gaze flicked to the female, and amusement expanded his pupils, hiding whatever emotion had been banked there before. “So you’re the next of us to fal in love, huh? Sucker! I thought you’d have more sense.”
“Please. I want nothing to do with this raging bitch.” A lie.
During their seemingly eternal trek, he’d found himself desiring her more and more. And hating himself more and more. She might be sex walking, but she was also death waiting.
Too-pretty-to-be-male lips curved in sheer delight. “That’s what Maddox said about Ashlyn. What Lucien said about Anya. What Reyes said about Danika. What Sabin—”
“Okay, okay. I get it.” Strider rol ed his eyes. “You can shut up now.” While he would admit the girl’s punked-out style appealed to him, he’d never be dumb enough to try and tap that.
He liked his women compliant. And sane.
Liar. You like this one. Just as she is. He wished he could blame his demon for that admission, but…
Even now, simply thinking about her, his body was tensing, readying.
Torin crossed his arms over his chest. “So what is she? A human with a supernatural ability? A goddess?
The guys here did have a propensity for choosing females of “myth” and “legend.” Females far more powerful than their demons. Ashlyn could hear voices of the past, Anya could start fires with her mind (among other things), Danika could see into heaven and hel , and Sabin’s wife, Gwen…
wel , she had a dark side you saw just before you died.
“My friend, what I’ve got here is a bona fide Hunter.” Strider slapped her ass as if a fly was perched there and he couldn’t live another second without smashing it. The action was a reminder that she meant nothing to him. Although why he didn’t tel his friend which Hunter she was, when he’d been so excited before, he didn’t know. Actual y, he did know. Fatigue. Yeah, he was tired, that was al , and didn’t want to have to deal with al the praise. Tomorrow, after a nice long rest, he’d spil everything.
The girl offered no reaction to his slap, but then, he hadn’t expected her to. He’d repeatedly drugged her as he’d dragged her from one corner of the world to the other. From Rome to Greece to New York to L.A. and final y to Budapest, leading her brethren on a merry chase as they attempted to save her.
Something they would never do.
We won! his demon laughed.
Damn right we did. He shivered in delight.
“Hunter?” Al amusement fled his friend’s face, the light dying in his eyes, turning those emeralds into sharp, deadly blades.
“Afraid so.” Hunters. Their greatest enemy. The fanatics who wanted to destroy them. The bastards who considered them evil, beyond redemption, and the scourge of the earth.
The assholes who blamed them for al the world’s heartache. Best yet, they were the militia Strider was going to send to the hottest depths of hel , one soldier at a time.
Or, with grenades, a few hundred at a time. Depended on his mood, he supposed.
“You should have offed her already,” Torin remarked. “Now Sabin wil want to talk with her.”
“Talk” equaled torture in Sabin’s mind. “I know he wil .
That’s why she’s stil alive.” She knew things about the gods pul ing their strings, and could do things, impossible things, like cause weapons to materialize from thin air. Something only angel warriors could do. Or so he’d thought. Problem was, she wasn’t an angel. And not just because she lacked wings. Girl had a temper.