- The Darkest Secret
Behind him, there was a rustle of clothing, a feminine moan.
Strider whipped around in time to see one of the angels lifting Ex into his arms and carrying her toward the unclaimed bedroom next to Amun’s.
He almost rushed forward and ripped her away from the heavenly creature. He’d dealt with an angel before—
Lysander, leader of these warriors and the worst of the worst when it came to do-gooders—and knew such beings wouldn’t understand the depths of his hatred for the woman.
They would see Haidee as an innocent human in need of sweet, tender care. But Amun was far more important than any Hunter’s treatment, so Strider remained in place.
“Just so you know, she’s worse than a demon,” he said, a lethal edge sharpening the truth in his tone.
“So if you want to protect your charges, you’l guard her like you’re guarding Amun. But don’t kil her,”
he added before he could stop himself. Not that they would have. Stil . A guy had to state his wants up front, so there would be no confusion later. “She has…information we need.”
The angel paused in his stride, head turning to Strider with unerring precision. Like Torin, his eyes were green. Unlike Torin, there were no shadows in them. Only clear, bright flames, crackling, intense…ready to strike like a bolt of lightning.
“I sense her infection.” His voice was deep, with the barest hint of smoke. “I wil ensure she does not leave the fortress.
And that she continues to live. For now.”
Infection? Strider knew nothing about an infection, but again, he didn’t care. “Thank you.” And hel , had he ever thought to thank a demon assassin for anything? Wel , besides Aeron’s Olivia.
With a shake of his head, he wiped Ex and everything else from his thoughts and marched forward, trailing behind Torin.
At the end of the hal way, the last door on the right, Torin paused, drew in a sorrowful breath, and twisted the knob.
“Be careful in there.” Then he moved aside, al owing Strider to breeze past him without a single moment of contact.
First thing Strider noticed was the air. Thick and dark, he could almost smel the brimstone…the bodies charred to ash. And the sounds…oh, gods, the sounds. Screams that scraped at his ears, muted, yet in no way forgettable.
Thousands upon thousands of demons danced together, creating a dizzying chorus of agony.
He stopped at the foot of the bed, peering down. Amun writhed atop the mattress, clutching his ears, moaning and groaning. No, Strider realized a moment later. Those moans and groans weren’t coming from his friend. They were coming from him. Amun was silent, his mouth open in an endless cry he couldn’t quite release.
His dark skin was clawed to ribbons, those ribbons tattered and dried with blood both old and new. As an immortal soldier, he healed quickly. But those wounds…they looked as if they’d scabbed over, only to be ripped apart again.
And again. And his butterfly tattoo, the mark of his demon, had once wrapped around his right calf.
Only now, that tattoo moved. Sliding up his leg, undulating on his stomach, breaking apart to form hundreds of tiny butterflies, reconnecting into one, then disappearing behind his back.
Shaking, Strider studied his friend’s face. Amun’s lashes were fused together as if stitched, and the sockets underneath were so swol en he could have smuggled golf bal s in there. Oh, gods. Sickness churned in Strider’s stomach, pushing bile into his throat. He knew what that swel ing meant, recognized the pattern blunted nails had left behind.
Amun had tried to pluck out his own eyes.
To stop the images forming behind them?
That was the last coherent thought Strider had. The last thought he control ed.
The darkness shrouded him completely, burrowing into him, fil ing his mind, consuming him. There were knives strapped al over his body, he recal ed. He should palm them, use them. Slice, oh, how he would slice. Himself, Amun. The angels outside the room. Then the world. Blood would flow, an ever-thickening crimson. Flesh would peel like dried, rotted paint, and bone would snap in two, tiny shards fal ing to the floor, merely dust to be swept away.
He would drink the blood and eat the bones, but they wouldn’t be what sustained him. No, he would live off the shrieks and squeals his actions provoked. He would bathe in terror, exult in grief. And he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh.
He laughed now, the chil ing sound like music to him.
Defeat wasn’t sure how to react. The demon cackled, then whimpered, then sank to the back of Strider’s mind. Afraid?
Something strong and hard banded around his forearms and jerked him backward, dragging him kicking and shouting out of the darkness and into light. Such bright light.
His eyes teared, burned. But with the tears, with the burn, the images in his head washed clean and withered to cinder. Somewhat.
Strider blinked into focus. He was trembling violently, glazed with perspiration, his palms bleeding because he had grabbed his knives. Was stil holding them. Only, he’d squeezed them by their blades, cutting through tendon into bone. The pain was severe but manageable as he opened his fingers and the weapons clattered to the floor.
One of the angels stood behind him, another in front of him.
They were glowing from within, like twin suns just freed from a too-long eclipse; he fought to breathe, managed to suck in one mouthful of oxygen, then two. Thank the gods. No brimstone, no ash. Only the scent of beloved—and hated—
morning dew. Hated because, with the fresh, clean scent, reality was brought into Technicolor focus.
That’s what Amun had to endure?
Strider had been given a taste, only a taste, yet his friend suffered with the gloom and soul-shattering urges al day, al night. No one could maintain his sanity when constantly buffeted against that kind of wickedness. Not even Amun.
“Warrior?” the angel in front of him prompted.
“I’m myself now,” he rasped. A lie. He might never be the same again.
He looked over the angel’s shoulder and saw Torin. They shared a horrified moment of understanding before he returned his attention to the angel and the situation at hand.
“Why the hel are you just standing here? Someone chain him. He’s tearing himself apart.” Strider’s throat was raw, grinding the words into broken glass. “And for fuck’s sake, get him on an IV. He needs sustenance. Medicine.”
The two angels shared a look similar to the one he’d shared with Torin, only theirs was fraught with knowledge only achieved through battle and heartache, before one returned to his post at the wal and the other entered returned to his post at the wal and the other entered Amun’s bedroom.
The one at the wal said, “He has been on an IV before.
Several times, actual y. They do not last. The needles always find a way free, with or without his help.
The chains, however, we can do. And before you demand we clean him and care for him, I wil tel you that we have. We brush his teeth for him. We bathe him. We clean his wounds. We force-feed him. He is taken care of in every way possible.”
“What you’re doing isn’t enough,” Strider said.
“We are open to any ideas you have.”
Of course, he had no response to that. He might be in control of his thoughts again, but as Torin had promised, the need to kil , to truly hurt the innocent, hadn’t fled completely. It was there, like a film of slime on his skin.
He had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to scrub himself clean, even if he removed every layer of flesh he possessed.
How was Amun going to survive this?
IN BRIEF MOMENTS OF LUCIDITY, Amun knew who he was, what he used to be and the monster he’d become. He wanted to die, final y, blessedly, but no one would take mercy on him and deliver the finishing blow. And no matter how hard he tried—and oh, did he try—he couldn’t seem to inflict enough damage on his own body to do the deed himself.
So he fought, trying to expunge the black images and disgusting impulses constantly bombarding him, yet at the same time hold them inside. An impossible chal enge, and one he would soon lose. He knew it.
There were too many, they were too strong, and they’d already burned away his immortal soul, the last tether that had bound them to his wil .
Not that he’d ever had control.
He’d fight with every fiber of his being, though. Until the very end. Because when those images and impulses, those demons, were loosed on an unsuspecting public…
A shudder rippled through him. He knew what would happen, could see the destruction in his mind.
Could taste the sweet flavor of devastation in his mouth.
And like that, this newest moment of clarity evaporated like mist. So many images swam through his head, a deluge of memories, and he didn’t know which belonged to him and which belonged to the demons—or their victims. Beatings.
Rapes. Murders. Rapture in the face of each. Pain.
Trauma. Death. Paralyzing fear that consumed as it destroyed.
Just then, he only knew that fire smoldered around him, melting his skin, blistering his throat. That thousands of tiny, stinging bugs had managed to dig their way into his veins, and they were stil feasting on him. That the smel of rot fil ed his nose, and had infused his every cel . That—
Dead bodies were piled around him, on top of him, smashing and burying him, he suddenly realized. He was trapped, suffocating.
Help! he screamed inside his head. Someone help me! But no one ever came. Hours passed, perhaps days. His frantic struggling waned until he could only smack his lips. He was thirsty. Oh, gods, was he thirsty. He needed something, anything, to wash away the ash caked inside his mouth.
Stil no one came. This was his punishment. He was to die here. Until he came back to life to suffer some more.
Desperation renewed his struggle to free himself—but that only made things worse. There were too many bodies, the weight of them drowning him in a ceaseless sea of blood, rot and despair. There was no hope of escape. He truly was going to die here.
But then his surroundings changed again, and he was looking down on that mountainous, decaying pile, grinning and holding another body to toss on top.