Read The First Four Chapters Online
“All men while they are awake are in one common world. But each of them, when he is asleep, is in a world of his own."
“Was hell good for you?”
Seth looked up from beneath the strands of his blood soaked auburn hair, to snarl at the sound of a voice he hadn’t heard in centuries.
Lord of all things dark and deadly.
He would respond to the stupid question, but his mouth had been bolted shut by the demons who’d been torturing him for the last...
Ah hell, who could count that high? And why would anyone want to when every single heartbeat drove home a pain so foul he no longer remembered living without it? Indeed, over the centuries, pain had become its own source of pleasure.
Yeah, I’m even more fucked up than Noir.
With the bolt in place, he couldn’t speak. Not that he would. He’d never give any of them the satisfaction of hearing him beg or cry out. Only one person had ever made him do that and, even after a millennia, his adoptive father’s mocking condemnation still echoed in his ears.
Screw them. He wasn’t a child now, and he’d die before he ever humiliated himself again by asking for something he knew he’d never receive.
But he would have insulted Noir if he’d been able to. As it was, all he could do was glare his hatred at the ancient being and wish he possessed his full powers so that he could rain down utter misery on all of them.
Almost seven feet in height, Noir made the demons around them tremble in fear. His immaculate black suit and crisp white shirt looked out of place in the cold dark room- A room with walls that were splattered and stained with Seth’s blood.
Noir reached up and patted him on the cheek like he was a dutiful puppy. “Mmm. I have to say hell doesn’t appear to agree with you. I’ve seen you look at least a little better than this sorry state.”
“Fuck you,” Seth said, but his words were indistinguishable. The bolt kept him from moving his mouth or tongue. All that did was shoot an excruciating jolt of pain through him.
Like he needed that.
Noir arched his black brow. “Thank you? I can’t imagine why you’d be thanking me for this misery. You are a sick bastard, aren’t you?”
Seth ground his teeth. The playful light in Noir’s black eyes told him that the pig only said it to piss him off.
It worked. Not that Noir had to make the effort. The mere fact that... Seth couldn’t think of an insult bad enough to describe what he thought- Noir lived was enough to grate his last nerve.
Noir glanced around at the others. “Leave us.”
Could that tone be anymore commanding?
Oh yeah, wait. We were talking about Noir. Of course it could.
And the ancient god didn’t have to say it twice. The demons immediately vanished, terrified that Noir’s wrath would deliver to them the same “hospitality” he’d shown Seth. After all, Seth had once been Noir’s most beloved pet- one he’d lavished with gifts in between the abuse.
The dark god had never been able to stand the demons who served him.
Hell, I’d run too if I could.
Seth envied them that freedom as his naked body hung lankly from the ceiling, with his hands shackled over his head. He’d been in this position for so long that his wrist bones protruded through the open cuts the manacles had worn through his flesh.
He was sure it had to hurt, but that pain blended in nicely with all the others so that he couldn’t tell where one ache began and another throb ended. Who knew torture could have benefits?
Once they were alone, Noir returned to stand in front of him with a snarl that was as impressive as it was cold. “I have a proposition for you. Are you interested?”
Not even a little. He’d had his fill of bargains. No one could ever be trusted to hold up their end of them. Let Noir go roast his nuts in a fiery hellhole somewhere.
The gods knew, in this place, Noir wouldn’t have far to go to find one.
Seth looked away.
Noir tsked. “You know you have no choice except to obey me, slave. I own you.”
And that ate on him even more than the flesh devouring vermin the demons had salted his wounds with. Damn you all. His own family had sold him to Noir when he’d been nothing more than a child. It was something no one ever allowed him to forget.
As if he could.
Noir buried his hand in Seth’s hair and yanked his head back. That action caused the bolt to dig deeper into his throat and tongue.
The sudden pain of it made his eyes water in protest as his old wounds were reopened and blood poured into his mouth.
Maybe this time I’ll drown from it. But he knew the sad truth. He was immortal. Death would never save him from this misery, anymore than it had spared him from the rest of his violent past.
His only way out was Noir’s ever missing mercy.
Noir tightened his fist against Seth’s skull, wrenching his hair even more. “I have need of your special services.”
I have need of your rank heart in my fist.
The bastard smiled as if he could hear that thought. “If you fail me this time, I can assure you that your next stint here will make this one seem like paradise. Do you understand?”
Seth refused to respond.
Noir snatched a handful of hair out as he released him. Pain seared his scalp, causing the vermin in his body to bite even more ferociously as they scrambled toward the fresh blood.
Seth’s breathing turned ragged as he locked his jaw even tighter to keep from groaning out in utter relentless agony. He squeezed his eyes shut and fought the wave of unconsciousness that threatened to take him under. They only made it worse on him when he passed out.
Don’t do it, asshole. Focus...
Damn you, stay awake!
He gripped his restraints as his vision swam.
Noir gave him an acidic smile that didn’t reach his eyes. “You will do me proud and get what I require, or...”
He didn’t finish the threat. He didn’t have to.
They both were more than aware that Seth would do anything to keep from returning to this sorry state of existence. In spite of all his bravado, he knew the bitter truth.
He’d been broken by their cruelty.
And he would never be the same.
There was nothing left inside him except a hatred so profound, so deep, he could taste it. That bitter hatred mixed with the steel of the bolt, and blood- it was all he’d had for nourishment these centuries past.
Noir’s smile turned genuine. “I knew you’d come around eventually.” He snapped his fingers.
The manacles on Seth’s hands broke free. He fell from the ceiling to land on his legs. But centuries of abuse and non use kept them from supporting his weight.
He crumpled to the ground where he lay so weak, he couldn’t even lift his head. No part of his body worked anymore. It’d been too long since he last used his muscles.
Noir kicked him in the stomach hard enough to turn him over, onto his back. Curling his lip, he raked Seth with a sneer. “You’re disgusting, you pathetic dog. Get cleaned up.” Then he vanished into the darkness.
Seth lay on the floor, his mouth still bolted closed. Blinking hard, he stared at his blood on the walls around him. The shadows there seemed to make the blood stains dance. And in the flickering, he saw the outline of his naked ravaged body.
All this because he’d once made a bargain with the only person he’d ever called friend.
I will never again be so stupid.
Because no one had helped him. Not once. Not in all this time. Not a single entity had come to offer him any kind of compassion or solace... not even an apology.
A sip of water...
It, too, was a lesson he would remember.
Whatever Noir asked of him, he would do. Without question. Without mercy. Anything to keep from returning here and being hurt anymore.
Just one minute of peace... please. Was that really too much to ask?
His resolve set, he braced himself for the new onslaught of pain and slowly pushed himself up on trembling limbs as he felt his god powers finally returning. With every heartbeat he grew stronger. Still, they wouldn’t go to full strength.
Noir had never allowed that. Either he or Azura would drain Seth whenever his powers became too strong.
But he had enough that he could finally clothe himself and stand upright, even if it was on unsteady feet. And when the demons returned, he gave them the payback they deserved.
They begged him for clemency. But he had none left. Not after they’d ruthlessly violated every part of him to the point he couldn’t remember a time when his body hadn’t throbbed from their torture. Minute by minute, for countless centuries, they had brutally stolen any lingering shred of humanity he might have once possessed.
Nothing would ever take that away and he would never, ever again trust another soul. No matter what. May the gods help whoever Noir wanted him to go after.
For he would take no pity on them whatsoever.
Hell had many connotations, each one as unique as the individual who defined it. To one person, the idea of being trapped for eternity in a Michael Bolton video was the epitome of horror. To another, it was being stuck in an elevator with someone talking too loud on a cell phone, and not being able to gut that person for their rudeness.
To Lydia Tsakali, hell was the darkness surrounding her that echoed with the screams of the damned being tortured. It wasn’t just their loud misery or their pleas for mercy to the ones who didn’t care that made it so bad, it was the memories those screams evoked. The haunting terror of something she never wanted to think about again. Long buried, those flashbacks of that one night in her life, and the raw emotions they exposed, still had the ability to bring her to her knees.
Don’t think about it.
How could she not? That night had been the last time she’d had a family who loved her. Then, like now, she’d only been able to see the oppressive black that had made her eyes ache. The darkness had pressed so hard against her that she’d feared herself blind as well as mute. And when she’d finally breached the dark to see light, all she’d found was blood and terror . . .
You’re not a pup anymore.
No, she was a jackal full grown. More than that, she was a well-trained warrior with over a thousand years of hard combat training behind her. There wasn’t a single soul in Azmodea who could harm her.
You forgot about Noir.
All right. There was one.
What about Azura?
Okay, two . . . But that was all right. She’d had much worse odds more times than she could count. Yeah, but they didn’t have the powers of a primary god.
Mind? Are you trying to turn me coward?
I’m trying to talk sense into you before it’s too late. We haven’t lived this long by being eat up with stupid—not with all the people out to kill us. And for what? Solin? He’ll slaughter you when he finds out you did this.
What kind of idiot are you?
Apparently one with a limitless supply of stupid. If it’d been anyone other than Solin trapped here, she’d have never done this.
But she loved him too much to leave him to this end. He’d taken her in when no one else would. Had trained her and stood by her. Taught her how to survive and how to fight. Without him, she’d be dead.
Even he would call you stupid for this.
And he would, too.
Kindness is a rotten fruit that poisons anyone who partakes of it. Throw it in the face of your enemies and let it ruin them instead.
How many times had he said that to her?
Yet, in spite of the hatred he’d carried in his heart and had voiced repeatedly, he’d raised her like a beloved daughter. Never once had he been stingy with his love, patience, or kindness.
Not with her.
Others . . . they saw a side of him that he very rarely turned in her direction. Thank the gods.
The personality is defined by its inconsistencies, not its consistencies. Another favorite Solin quote. It’s what makes us unique and who we are. The sound of his voice in her head was enough to make her smile in spite of the danger she faced.
I’ve got to find him.
He would come for her if she needed it.
But she knew the truth in her heart that denied what her head tried to tell her. Solin would be there for her always. To her, he was a hero.
Something moved to her left. Lydia froze as her hyper hearing picked up on the slight sound. The surge of adrenaline kicked her other senses into high gear. Her nostrils widened as a new scent hit her. Male. Demon.
Don’t breathe . . . Don’t breathe . . .
Not because she didn’t want it to detect her. But because the stench would be sickening for a human. To a half-breed Were-Hunter it was beyond painful. She clamped her fingers down on her nose to block the odor from getting in.
Still, she could smell it. Don’t gag . . .
What? Did demons bathe in shit? She hated to be so obscene, but really . . . What was it about demons that made so many of them nauseating?
Out of nowhere, he appeared directly in front of her. A smile curved his bulbous lips. “My, my . . . what have we here? Didn’t realize I’d ordered delivery. How nice of you—”
To die for me. She finished his sentence in her head as she grabbed him by the throat, and cut his words off.
But when she moved to stab him, he evaporated from her grasp into a smelly purple fog.
Lydia turned a small circle in the blackness, trying to get her bearings and locate him before he told anyone she was here. She could no longer smell or hear him.
Definitely not good. At least not for her.
A piercing shriek drowned out the cries of the others. She clamped her hands over her ears. Just what I need. Bleeding eardrums.
The shriek grew louder.
It was getting closer.
Something hard struck her back, knocking her down.
Even though the mere thought of it killed her, she dropped her hands from her ears and pulled her other dagger out. Here, demon, demon . . . come get some.
The sound of slithering moved to her right. She ran for it, lashing out in a hope of striking what ever foe was there.
Instead of drawing their blood, she drew her own the minute she slammed into a closed iron door that had blended in perfectly with the darkness.
Sonofa . . . She hissed at the pain exploding through her skull. Blood poured from her nose.
She kicked at the offending door.
To her surprise, it slammed open, rattling on its hinges. Light flooded into her tiny space, temporarily blinding her. She blinked until her eyes adjusted, then frowned at the sight of some luminescent tubing that provided the light from the slick ceiling above her. How weird. It vaguely reminded her of a glowstick, but this fluid was thicker and a vivid and eerie blue.
Now she could see the dank walls that appeared to bleed and breathe. She curled her lip in distaste. What was that?
Bet it’s what smells.
Nah, only demon toe funk could be this abhorrent. And speaking of demons, hers seemed to have vanished completely.
Where are you, you bastard?
Her luck, going for friends.
But that wasn’t her main concern. Where was Solin? She’d tried repeatedly to use her telepathy to contact him, but what ever was holding him had somehow blocked that ability. She couldn’t even reach him through a dream state. Which, given both of their powers, shouldn’t have been a problem.
She hated this feeling of being completely alone. It reminded her of those weeks in her childhood when she’d had no one. The time she’d staggered through the blistering desert looking for water . . .
We’re always alone. You can be in a crowded room and still feel the bite of loneliness. Personally, I find that it bites deepest whenever others are around. Another thing Solin forever harped on.
He was ever the pessimist.
She turned a corner and froze.
The smelly demon was back.
And as she’d feared, it’d gone for friends . . .
A lot of friends. Maybe two or three dozen. And the moment they saw her, their demonic eyes lit up and radiated color even brighter than the glowing tubes. They might as well have drool dripping from their chins.
She wasn’t a coward, but only a fool would face that number without backup. And she wasn’t a fool. After throwing her right dagger at the tallest one, she turned and ran in the opposite direction as fast as she could. She hoped that dagger had made contact and brought down at least one of them. But she wasn’t going to wait around and find out.
Rule one in pursuit: Never look back.
Instead, she put her head down and kept going as fast as she could. She would have turned into her jackal form, but was afraid she might need her opposable thumbs for another invisible door.
She skidded around a corner, into a new hallway. Here the light wasn’t quite as bright, but it was enough to let her see where the walls and doors were.
Unfortunately, it didn’t let her see the floor. Or the thing that tripped her.
For a moment, she flew through the air until she landed face down on the ground. Putrid water splashed against her skin as pain throbbed in her knee, stomach, and cheek.
She pushed herself up and wiped away at the foul water and blood. Even though it hurt, she forced herself to start running again.
She could flee this realm for the time being, and then return again to search later. At least that was the thought until she heard something familiar from behind the door to her left.
“Fuck you and your little dog, too.”
She’d know that acerbic tone and deep Greek accent anywhere. Smiling in spite of her pain, she opened the door, ready for battle.
What she wasn’t ready for was the giant . . . what ever it was that was trying to eat him. A mass of dark green skin with red markings, the demon turned toward her.
And this one did salivate as its yellow eyes pinned her with a salacious stare that gave her dancing heebie-jeebies. Not on your best day, buster!
“Lydia?” Solin asked incredulously. He was beaten so badly that but for his voice, she’d have never been able to identify him. “Child, what are you doing? Get the hell out of here while you can.”
“Not without you.” Since she couldn’t speak with a voice, she sent her thoughts to him.
“I taught you better than that. Survival Rule Number One.”
Save your own ass above all others. She knew it well. But someone following that rule wouldn’t tell a rescuer to flee before freeing them.
Raising her dagger, she rushed at the demon. He moved a lot faster than something his size should be able to. With an impressive twist, he dodged her attack completely and caught her from behind.
She tried to break out of his hold. It was like being drowned in sticky Jell-o. Smelly three-month-old Jell-o.
He laughed at her useless attempts. If that wasn’t bad enough, he licked her cheek. “What a tasty little morsel you are.”
She cringed. For the sake of the gods, haven’t any of you heard of breath mints? Pardon the pun, but Altoids could make a mint down here.
She jerked her head back, slamming it into his nose, and at least this time he satisfied her with a deep groan.
“You’ll be sorry for that.” He lifted her off her feet and threw her down on the floor.
Ignoring the pain that said she’d probably broken something, Lydia flipped herself back to her feet.
“Don’t do this, Dee. Don’t.”
She ignored Solin as she and the demon circled each other slowly.
Right when she went in for another attack, the demon vaporized, just like the other one had done. All he left was his stench. That she’d have gladly done without.
She turned to look for him, but before she could do more than draw breath, he appeared behind her and kicked her into the wall.
More agony tore through her body, dulling her sight.
The demon seized her. “It’s over for you, kitten.” He tightened his grip, squeezing the last of the breath from her lungs.
Her ears started buzzing.
Just as she was sure he’d kill her, she heard a loud shout resonate off the walls. “Release her, demon. Now!”
Definitely not Solin. That deep, gravelly male voice was unique and filled with an unfathomable rage that came from someplace dark inside him. His accent was unlike anything she’d heard before. Lyrically sweet and beautiful, yet at the same time harsh and commanding.
The demon let go and shrank back in terror. That reaction only made her panic more. If something as scary as he was afraid of the newcomer, what chance did she have?
But she wasn’t a coward. If she was going to die, it would be fighting to the last breath.
And she’d take as much of him with her as she could.
Coughing, she turned around, putting her back to the wall to confront this new creature. She wiped the sweat from her eyes and focused them on the door where the stranger stood.
Her jaw went slack as her gaze focused on the massive form that was bathed in that eerie blue light.
Holy mother of all electronics . . .
I’m so dead.
Lydia couldn’t move. She couldn’t breathe as she stared at the . . .
There was no other way to describe him. It was the only thing he could possibly be . . .
Other than a god. And neither Azura nor Noir would ever allow a god in their domain, unless it was their sister, Braith. Gods as a rule didn’t share territory easily. Not even with their family.
No one in their right mind would share territory with a creature this feral.
Dark, deadly, and scary as hell, he was enveloped by an aura of supreme power—one that made the air between them crackle with its preternatural strength and intensity. His was a presence that would make Darth Vader run screaming for his mama. It even raised the hair along her arms and nape. Never had she seen the like and she’d seen some seriously terrifying things in her thousand-plus years of living. He didn’t just enter the room.
He dominated it.
No. He owned it.
Her breathing ragged, she took a moment to study her enemy, hoping to find a weakness of some sort.
Yeah, right . . . It was like trying to find a way to harness a hurricane. And while he was calm right now, she had the distinct impression that he could explode into violence with no more provocation than her arching her brow in a way he didn’t like.
His straight dark auburn hair was severely pulled back from his face, exposing a widow’s peak on his forehead, and held in a small ponytail at the crown of his head. That hair wasn’t one single shade of red, but rather the individual strands were everything from blond to mahogany, to chestnut, to black. Somehow they came together to give the impression of hair the color of dried blood.
Well over six feet in height, he was the most intimidating wet-your-pants-’cause-he’s-going-to- suck-out-my- soul-and-eat-it thing she’d ever seen. And when you took into account the fact that she could surf everyone’s nightmares, that said it all.
His entire face was painted white with sharp, angular red and black lines drawn over it in a way that reminded her of a fierce Kabuki warrior. Then again, given that he was a demon, that might not be paint. It could very well be his skin. The red lines were drawn in such a way as to give the impression of a permanent, sinister sneer and frown. His eyes were ringed by black that went down the side of his nose to form a sharp point right at the tip. Likewise, the black went up from the corner of his eye to his hairline. The dark color only emphasized how pale, cold, and merciless those steel blue eyes were.
Soulless. There was nothing in them except the promise of a brutal death and a pain so profound that those eyes alone would traumatize anyone with an ounce of self-preservation.
Given his massive size, he would have been intimidating on his worst day. Couple that with the burgundy-and-gold spiked armor caked in blood, and the real snarl on his face, and he would send the devil himself to the nearest corner to cower.
Help me . . .
Lydia wanted to take a step back from him, but the wall was right there, stopping her. She had no retreat. The only way out was through him.
Yeah, that ain’t gonna happen. Not even a Mack truck would be able to move him. It would be like trying to run down Godzilla. She let her breath out slowly, waiting for him to attack.
“Don’t you dare hurt her!” Solin growled from where he was chained down on the table. “I swear to the gods, I’ll gut you from asshole to appetite if you so much as breathe on her.”
That succeeded in making one of the demon’s finely arched brows shoot up into a mocking expression. “We’ve already ascertained that there’s nothing you can do, except stain my armor with your blood.” He turned that brutal steel gaze back to her. “Who and what are you?”
Dead would be the most obvious answer. Just let it be quick. She didn’t want to linger in misery. Not for anything.
And everything about the demon said he would enjoy watching her suffer.
He started forward as if to attack her. “Answer me, damn you!”
Who would have thought he could get any scarier?
She’d rather face Freddy Krueger thirty minutes after she’d swallowed three sleeping pills than confront this overwhelming mountain of demon power.
Lydia gripped her dagger hard in her hand and pressed herself against the wall, trying to teleport out.
I’m trapped. Something blocked her powers and held her here like an insect trapped inside a science jar.
The demon was almost on her. “Speak, woman,” he growled low. “Now!”
Solin’s words brought him to an abrupt stop. He narrowed his gaze on Solin’s bleeding body. “Explain.”
The demon twisted his lips into a mocking smirk. “You lie.”
“I have no need to lie. She’s never been able to say a single word, so you can’t torture her for anything useful. Not unless you can read minds or sign language.”
Seth paused to consider the veracity of Solin’s words. Was he lying?
Why would he?
Why not? It was what people did. Many times for no reason whatsoever, and any time they thought they were under assault and wanted to protect their own worthless asses. If he knew nothing else about humanity and the gods, he knew that one simple fact.
No one could be trusted. Ever.
Still, he was curious about her presence. Why would anyone in their right mind come to this forsaken hell realm?
There was only one reasonable explanation he could think of . . .
“What is she to you, dream god?”
Solin refused to look at her. Instead, he glared at Seth with a strength of spirit that would garner respect if Seth was capable of giving such to another. “Nothing. Just a Dream-Hunter sent in to rescue me.”
This time he knew Solin lied. And he was through bleeding and suffering because of the bastard’s steadfast refusal to give him what he needed to free them both. Rage ripped through him as he turned and went to finally kill the imbecile once and for all.
Little did Solin know, this would be a mercy killing.
As he raised his sword to remove Solin’s head, the frightened little mouse launched herself at him with everything she had. The weight of her small body slammed into his with more force than he would have thought her capable of. Grabbing his wrist, she actually tried to disarm him. When that failed, she stabbed him in the arm so deep, she buried the dagger’s blade in all the way to the hilt.
Seth would have mocked her for the assault had he not been so stunned. No one had had the balls to openly attack him when he was unfettered since before his confinement.
What the hell?
She punched his throat—something that would have worked on anyone else. But too many centuries of being tortured had numbed him to physical pain.
Curling his lip, he raised his arm to backhand her.
“Don’t you dare!” Solin strained so hard against his chains that every muscle in his body bulged.
Seth frowned at the dream god’s violent reaction. Solin hadn’t fought like that in weeks. If sheer strength of will could sever chains, Solin would have easily broken free.
He’d been right with his assessment. The woman meant something to Solin . . .
No, he realized as he saw the murderous rage in Solin’s eyes while the god cursed Seth’s being and parentage. She meant everything to him.
This is priceless.
Seth grabbed her hands, spun her around in his arms, and pinned her against his body so that she faced Solin. Furious, she fought him like a lioness protecting her pride.
Interesting . . .
Solin broke off into a string of more profanity as he tried even harder to reach them.
He was willing to die to protect her.
I finally found the key. She was the tool to break Solin once and for all. The gods had finally taken mercy on him and thrown him a bone. A slow smile curved his lips.
Until she slammed her head into his jaw with enough impact that it flashed him back to his centuries of torture. It took everything he had not to break her in half. In that one moment, all he could taste was her blood. It was all he wanted.
Kill her and Solin is useless. He’ll never talk then.
That knowledge was the only thing that saved her life. But she wouldn’t be breathing much longer if she kept this up. In fact, his control slipped even more as she sank her teeth into his hand and bit him until he bled.
Flashing them out of the interrogation hole, he took her to his room. There, he flung her away from him.
She twirled about twice before she caught herself. Her black hair settled down around her shoulders into a silken mantle as she fell into a crouch like some deadly predator about to go for his throat.
He glared at her. “Don’t.”
Lydia froze at that one word that promised her an excruciating death if she disobeyed. Still, she remained in position, ready to attack if he took even one single step toward her.
His cold gaze held hers prisoner as he reached to his arm and jerked her dagger free of the wound she’d given him. She’d been able to drive it between the armor plates and knew from the blood on her own hands that she’d succeeded in wounding the beast.
But other than the bloody dagger he dropped to the floor, he showed no sign of it. He didn’t even grimace from the pain. If anything, he seemed to enjoy it.
I am so screwed.
Who was he?
What was he?
He wiped the blood on his hand across his armored breastplate as if it were nothing. It left an ominous, bright red smear that didn’t quite blend in with the burgundy. “You can’t kill me, Greek. All you can do is piss me off. I suggest, if you want to keep breathing, you don’t do that.”
Forget screwed. This went so far beyond that it wasn’t even mea sur able. This was screwed on steroids.
What am I going to do?
Die, no doubt. But not without one hell of a fight.
Seth saw the sanity return to her eyes. Feline topaz eyes that literally glowed with her intrepid spirit. He’d never seen anything like them. And they were what had told him Solin was a liar. The Greek Dream-Hunters, those who protected sleepers from nightmares and other predators of the unconscious, all had vivid blue eyes.
Never had he seen eyes akin to hers.
“Can you speak?” He wanted to know if Solin had lied about that as well.
She shook her head slowly.
At least she could understand him. That was something. Not much, but something.
She started moving her hands in a graceful dance. It was beautiful to watch. And it took him a minute to realize it was her language.
“I don’t understand you.”
This time she flicked her nails at him. That gesture of obscenity, he got. “Back at you.”
Now she moved her hands rapidly and with obvious anger. No doubt she was cursing him as much as Solin had.
Damn, she was beautiful. Not in a classic, perfect way, like a goddess or demon. Her eyes were too large for her oval face. So much so, they almost overwhelmed it. And her nails were ragged as if she chewed on them from a nervous habit.
But her lips . . .
Plump, full, and bright pink, they were perfection. The merest thought of them, stirred his body into total rebellion. It made him ache to possess the very thing he should be killing.
No wonder Solin was so protective of her. If she was his woman, he’d kill anyone who came near her, too. How could you not? It was a primal instinct to protect the things that mattered to you.
Not in your case.
True. He was an animal who cared for nothing except himself. It was all he knew. He didn’t live life. He endured it. Noir had driven that point home and nothing would ever dislodge it again. His entire existence was basic survival. There was no higher functioning in his mind. None. He did what he was told.
He had no other choice.
And right now, he had a god to break.
“You will stay here,” he told the woman. Then he returned to question Solin for what would hopefully be the last time.
Lydia stopped moving as she found herself alone.
Where was the demon?
More to the point, where was she?
Like the rest of the realm she’d been in, the room was dark, with the only light coming from that eerie blue tubing on the ceiling that strangely reminded her of blood. A damp chill clung to the air, making the place even more depressing.
The strangest part though, was the absence of a door. Not a single trace of one. Nor a window either. She walked around the room, double checking. Sure enough. The only way in or out was teleportation. Something she still couldn’t do.
Trapped, she saw a large canopied bed in the far corner. Fur blankets were draped over it, but it didn’t appear to be slept in. In fact, it had a layer of dust over it. The walls were the same damp stone that made up the hallways she’d been down.
There was a fireplace, but no fire to chase away the deep chill in the room that cut all the way to her bones. Next to that was a large, extremely neat, Baroque wood desk. A laptop, of all weird things, rested on top of it. That was the only personal item in the room.
Curious, she walked over to it, intending to turn it on. But the instant she touched it, the top slammed down, barely missing her fingers.
What the devil?
She tried to open it, but it refused. It was as if the thing was alive and knew she wasn’t supposed to use it. Yeah . . .
But at least she wasn’t being tortured.
What am I going to do?
Pick up her dagger, which she did, and wait. She grimaced at the amount of blood on it. It looked like she’d hit an artery. And he hadn’t even reacted to her stab. Obviously, he was an immortal. One who liked to be in pain.
I am so dead.
What else would he do with her, other than kill her?
The obvious answer to that terrified her even more than the thought of dying. I won’t be raped. She might not be able to kill him, but she could geld him and that she would definitely do if he laid a hand on her.
With that thought foremost in her mind, she went to the corner and sat on the floor with her back against the wall. Now she was ready for him and she would renew their battle whenever he returned.
Seth paused at Solin’s belligerent tone. So that was the woman’s name.
Lydia. It was pretty . . . like a song. But he wasn’t a poet.
He was death, and she was nothing but a pawn to get what he needed. Narrowing his gaze, he went to the table that held Solin in place by chains. All too well, he knew how much it hurt to be pinned that way.
How humiliating. There was no worse feeling than to be at the mercy of someone else and to not be able to fight back or even protect yourself. To lay there with no clue as to when the next round of torture would begin.
To have no dignity.
No hope of escape . . .
Deep inside, a part of him felt sorry for Solin.
Don’t you dare! his mind snarled at him. It was that very thing that had gotten him punished to begin with. And if he didn’t get what he needed, he would be there again.
No one ever came for you. He must never forget that. No one had ever tried to help him. He’d never had a single ounce of compassion from anyone.
Not even his own mother. The memory of her brutality was as fresh today as it’d been when he was child, cursing her for intentionally leaving him to die.
But Lydia had come for Solin. She’d risked her life trying to help him. Jealousy plowed through his heart. What about Solin was so special and deserving that he warranted such concern and loyalty? Such personal sacrifice?
How dare you proclaim that pathetic backwash as my divine offspring! How dare you name him after me, you bitch! You both sicken me. Get it out of my sight before I gut you both. Those had been the last words his father had said to him. It was what everyone since had seen him as. Nothing but worthless garbage to be used and discarded.
And that set fire to his temper.
He closed the distance between them and grabbed Solin by the hair. His nostrils flaring, he forced Solin to meet his gaze. “Tell me what I want to know or I’ll kill her.”
Solin looked down at the blood on Seth’s armor. “How do I know you haven’t already?”
Seth sneered at the question. It was his own blood staining his armor, not Lydia’s. Blood brutally taken from him because he had yet to break the Greek.
Only Solin had the ability to end Seth’s suffering and the stubborn bastard wouldn’t. Damn him for it.
So he tormented the Greek in turn—not nearly as badly as Noir had him, but enough to make Seth feel better. “What would be the fun in that? It’s more torturous for you to know that I have her at my disposal. I can do anything I want with her and there’s nothing you can do to stop me. Nothing.”
Solin exploded into a string of profanity so foul, it was a wonder his mouth didn’t spontaneously combust.
Seth tightened his hand in Solin’s hair. “If you want her safe, tell me where the key is.”
“I don’t know.”
“Bullshit! I know for a fact that you’re the only one who has access to it.”
Solin shook his head in denial.
Seth wanted to crush his skull. Noir was growing more impatient by the heartbeat. If Solin didn’t break soon, Noir would return him to his hole and bolt his mouth shut again.
This time, it would be permanent and he’d never be granted another reprieve from it.
May the gods help Solin then. Noir would never take the pity on him that Seth had. As badly as the idiot thought he was suffering now, it was a walk in paradise compared to what was coming for him.
He knew from personal experience that the worst place to be was between Noir and what ever it was Noir wanted.
C’mon, you stupid bastard. Give me what I need to save us all. “One word from you and I’ll let you both go.”
“Not the word I wanted.” Growling, Seth released him. This was the same as it’d been for two weeks now. And he was through with being Noir’s scapegoat. With being blamed and punished for Solin’s obstinacy. Given what they were doing to him, he might as well be pinned to the table beside Solin.
But no more.
“Fine. I’ll go question Lydia. Let’s see what she knows.”
Solin let out a scream so loud and pain-filled that it had to come from the deepest part of his soul. “Don’t you hurt her. Don’t you dare! I’ll get you whatever it is you want if you’ll release her.”
For once he believed him. The emotion in Solin’s voice and eyes was too real to be faked, and that scream . . .
It was one born of desperate love. Seth had absolutely no concept of that word. But he’d seen mothers who had died protecting their young. Of men who sacrificed themselves for friends, family, and women.
Did Lydia really mean that much to Solin?
“Would you give me your life for hers?”
Solin didn’t hesitate with his answer. “Yes.”
Fascinating. What could make a god want to die to keep another safe? “Do you think she’d do the same for you?”
“She came for me.”
Those words stung him. Solin was right. She’d risked everything to try and rescue the dream god. “You love her?”
Solin didn’t answer. Rather he did the one thing he’d never done throughout any of his torture.
He begged. “Please, please don’t hurt her. I swear if you keep her safe, I will bring the key to you and put it in your hands.”
Relief coursed through him as he finally heard the words that would save his ass and spare him more degradation.
Provided Solin wasn’t lying to him. Did Lydia really mean so much?
Trust was not in his nature. Whenever he’d made that mistake, the repercussions had been shoved down his throat and stomped into his stomach. The only thing he had faith in was other people’s willingness to lie and screw him over.
But in this, he had no choice. He had to have that damn key. Sooner rather than later.
He glared at Solin. “You have three days to return. If I don’t have the key then, I’ll send you her remains.” Stepping back, Seth snapped his fingers.
The chains melted away.
Solin lay there, panting and weak. Just like he’d done when Noir had finally freed him. A part of him was remorseful for his part in it. He hated to see someone else in pain. But better it be Solin than him. At least he hadn’t bolted Solin’s mouth shut. He rubbed the back of his hand under his chin as a phantom pain reminded him of how much that had hurt. Nor had he violated the private parts of Solin’s body. The stupid bastard thought he knew what torture was. He had no idea how gentle Seth had been compared to the others who called this hell home.
Solin should be down on his knees in gratitude.
Seth held his hand out and returned Solin’s clothes to him. “Three days, Olympian. Do not fail me.” Then he used his powers to send Solin back to the mortal realm he’d stolen him from.
How he wished he could go with him. But Noir had taken his ability to leave the moment he first brought him here. He could only pull others out of the human realm or return them.
But right now, that didn’t matter.
Seth let out a relieved breath at the thought of handing the key of Olympus to Noir. It would make his overlord happy. Or at least as happy as the miserable son of a bitch could be.
Maybe then he’d be forgiven and allowed to remain without chains.
And with luck, Solin would be back in a few hours.
In the meantime, he wanted to understand what about the woman was so special that a god like Solin would give his life for her.
Was Solin out of his mind for putting her safety above his own? People lied and they betrayed. Especially where love was involved. It was only a tool the strong used against the weak.
He knew that better than anyone.
I love you. He sneered at the thought. Cheap, meaningless words bandied about by selfish asses incapable of understanding the meaning of it.
Lydia was just like all the others. She would turn on Solin.
And he would do the god a favor.
He would prove it.
When he returned to his room, Seth expected to find the woman alert and crouched, ready to tear into him again. Instead, she sat in the corner with her arms crossed over her knees and her head lying atop her forearms. The soft, gentle snore let him know that she was sound asleep.
How could that be?
He hadn’t been able to do more than nap since he’d been freed. And even those came in very short spurts. Spurts where he jerked awake at the slightest sound or merest stirring in the air. Real or imagined.
Yet here she was in the middle of enemy territory, and . . .
You’re such a fool.
Most of all, she was a curiosity wrapped by enigma and contradiction. Why? Why would she risk her life and body for someone else? Why would she come here?
Before he even realized what he was doing, he’d closed the distance between them and knelt on the floor by her side. His armor creaked ever so slightly from his movement. Her long black hair spilled around her shoulders and legs, forming a shining weblike mantle. In that position, she looked even more frail and tiny than she had before . . . Like a little dark rose on his floor. And she smelled like beauty. Most demons had an odor to them, but not her.
She smelled like the summer sunshine he hadn’t seen since he was a boy . . . back in the days when he’d believed in beauty and decency. When he’d looked forward to a future he’d stupidly believed would be bright.
Back before his innocence had been so violently torn from him, and then thrown in his face.
Hesitant, but too curious to stop, he touched a lock of her hair that dangled by her side. The softness of that one fat curl startled him. It was like touching a rose petal. At least this was what he remembered them feeling like.
Slowly, he lifted it to his nose so that he could breathe in the pleasant, sweet smell that seemed to be a part of her. Oh yeah . . . It made him think of a home he’d never known or had.
He closed his eyes to savor the scent as it ran through his blood like fire. Against his will, his thoughts turned to what she might look like naked. How she’d feel beneath him as he tasted her tanned skin and took her.
No, better yet, on top of him. Yeah, that was the image he coveted. With this soft hair tickling his skin while she rode him like no one ever had before. Slow and tender. With gentle kisses that didn’t draw blood.
Like he meant something to her.
Don’t be stupid. Since when did you become an old woman? Sex was sex. It was a meaningless animalistic act that the body needed from time to time. Only an absolute imbecile would drag emotion into it.
And since when was sex ever tender? Especially for something as disgusting as he was? Hell, he was lucky any female would lower herself to screw him.
Lydia would never do so.
That thought stung deep. But it was true. The first thing he’d done after his strength came back was find a demon lover to sate what he’d missed most—the only pleasure Noir hadn’t taken from him. He’d needed release in the worst sort of way. But the she-demon’s pale gray skin had been cold and dry, her touch rough and demanding as she’d clawed and bit him until he bled. She’d even knocked loose some of his teeth. And her hair had been rough and brittle. Nothing like the warm softness of his little flower.
Open your eyes, sšn.
As if she heard his innermost wish, she let out a low sigh and rubbed her cheek against her folded arms. She blinked once, then jerked as she realized he was right beside her. She immediately scooted away from him with panic in her topaz eyes. To his dismay, her actions caused her hair to fall out of his grasp. Her entire body tensed for battle, as if she expected him to break into violence for no reason whatsoever.
“I . . .” he caught himself before he promised not to hurt her. He refused to give her that power.
Better to be feared. Always.
So instead, he moved to confront her.
Lydia pushed herself up after he rose only to realize it didn’t really matter. He still towered over her and made her feel as if she’d fit into his pocket. May the gods help her if he did turn violent. It wouldn’t be much of a fight on her part. She’d already done her best and stabbed him, and he’d pinned her so fast and easily that it still staggered her. But she would fight. So long as she breathed, she wouldn’t give in without one.
That being said, he made no moves toward her at all.
She stared at the demon, wishing she had some way to question him. If only she had her powers. Then she could send out her thoughts.
As it was . . .
Her best action remained staring her hatred in his general direction.
She tried signing to him again. But all that did was cause him to frown. Something made twice as sinister by the black and red lines on his white face.
“Is that how you speak?” he asked her.
He cursed under his breath.
Using Charade movements instead of sign language, she tried to tell him that if he could return some of her powers, she’d be able to talk to him.
His frown deepened. “What? The ceiling? What about it?”
She let out a frustrated breath and tried to think of another way to illustrate her powers. She waved her arms around like smoke.
He grimaced in distaste. “This is annoying.”
The demon had no idea.
She stopped as she tried to think of something else to try. There had to be a way she could write . . .
Before she could blink, he manifested in front of her. The sheer size of him, and shock at his sudden appearance in her face, made her gasp. At a distance, he’d been fierce. Up close like this, she could literally feel his powers. They were like an electrical current in the air that made the hair on the back of her neck rise.
He absolutely dwarfed her and it wasn’t due to the armor bulking him up. He was this large.
Those blue eyes scorched her with a coldness so frigid, it was a wonder she didn’t have frostbite.
In the next heartbeat, he wrapped one well-muscled arm around her and pulled her into his arms. His eyes glittered an instant before he lowered his lips to hers.
For the merest nanosecond, she was stunned by the warm softness of his lips. The gentleness of his embrace as he swept his tongue against hers in the sweetest kiss she’d ever known.
Until she remembered he was a demon who’d been torturing Solin. Her fury igniting, she bit his lip with everything she had.
He pulled back with a curse.
“You bastard!” Lydia froze, wide-eyed, as those words flew out of her mouth instead of the empty breath she normally spoke. Shocked, she clamped her hands over her lips and throat.
Had that really been her? Was that what her voice would sound like? It was alien and foreign, and . . .
The demon’s eyes turned deadly as he wiped the blood away from his lips with the back of his hand. “You’re lucky I don’t kill you for that.”
But that wasn’t her greatest concern. What had he done to her? How could he have given her a voice when no one else had been able to do it?
Not even Solin.
With a sinister snarl curling his upper lip, he licked the area where she’d bitten him. “You can speak now.”
“How?” The sound of her own voice made her jump.
He rubbed his thumb over his bottom lip, then grimaced at the pad that was coated red from his still-bleeding wound. It matched the red lines bisecting his face. “I have all kinds of powers. That’s just one of them.”
“Is that why you kissed me?”
His gaze turned even more glacial. “Not at all. I had yet to have my lip busted open today so I thought I’d better see to it. Thank you so much for being kind enough to oblige me.”
His sarcastic humor caught her off guard. For a moment, she didn’t see him as a terrifying demon. He almost seemed . . .
Disturbed by that thought, she looked around nervously. “What other powers do you have?”
Her question brought the scary right back to him—with interest. When he spoke, he growled out his words like the demon he appeared to be. “Pray you never find out.”
Fine. If he wanted to play that game . . .
“Why did you bring me here?”
His gaze drifted in the direction of the bed.
Heat scorched her cheeks. “You can forget it. Unless you’re into necrophilia, it ain’t ever gonna happen.”
She steeled herself for the probability of his attack. “I’d kill myself before I let you touch me.”
Seth went completely still at those words as they struck him harder than a blow and took him straight into the past. You rotten piece of filth, you’re beneath me. She didn’t say that, but her tone and indignation implied it. Suddenly, he was a young man again, being laughed at for his ineptitude.
Not good enough even to keep.
He felt now, just as he’d done then. Raw and sore from a truth he couldn’t help. He hadn’t asked to be born, and he damn sure hadn’t asked to be immortal. He’d tried to be decent. Once. And what had it gotten him?
Tortured for centuries.
His anger ignited and it took everything he had not to strike her and knock her from that gilded pedestal where she looked down her patrician nose at him.
But the one truth he knew better than anyone—the truth that had been spoon-fed to him until he’d gagged on it—was that words were far more painful than physical strikes. They were always what lingered long after the cuts healed and the bruises faded.
Verbal blows cut to the soul and ate at the heart for eternity.
“Don’t flatter yourself, woman.” He raked a sneer over her body. “I’d rather masturbate with flea-infested sandpaper than touch you.”
Lydia was momentarily stunned by his crude and vivid insult. No one had ever said anything like that to her before. “Then why am I here?” Nothing else made sense.
He answered her question with one of his own. “Why did you come for Solin?”
Why did he think? “Because he was in trouble and he needed someone to help him.”
“You would risk your life for him?”
She scoffed at his ridiculous question. “I think that answer is obvious. I’m here, aren’t I?”
That seemed to confuse him all the more. “But why?”
His scowl deepened even more. “Why would you risk your life to protect his?”
She realized that he honestly had no concept of what she was talking about. It was as if they were speaking entirely different languages again. “Is there no one you protect?”
Proud, he straightened his stance. “Myself.”
“And . . .”
Vivid emotions played across his features. Surprise, thoughtfulness, shock, and finally he just looked even more confused. “No one. Sentient creatures are treacherous at best, cruel at worst. None are worth a drop of my blood or sweat.”
Well. That was that, then.
He was a demon, through and through. No soul. No ability to value or love anyone except himself. Why would she expect anything else here? “Then that tells me all I need to know about you, doesn’t it?”
He arched a thick painted black brow. “What does it tell you?”
“That you’re a bastard.”
He didn’t smile, but she could tell that insult bitterly amused him. “Aren’t we all?”
“No.” She lowered her voice into an adamant tone. “No, we’re not. Not by a longshot.”
He curled his lips into a sinister sneer that had probably given countless people nightmares or strokes. “Then you’re a fool. Solin has already left you. He didn’t even look back for you when I freed him.”
Yeah, right. She knew better. “You’re lying to me.”
He held his hands up to form a mist. There in the middle of it, she saw the room Solin had been in. A room that was now completely empty. “You see? He’s gone and yet you remain, even though he knows I’ll most likely torture and kill you for being here.”
The demon was lying about her . . . She refused to finish that thought in case he was in her head. Solin would never do such a thing. She knew that for a fact. “Then he had a good reason for leaving me.”
“Yes, he traded your freedom for his.”
She shook her head in denial. “I don’t believe you. Not a single word and not for a single nanosecond.” And she didn’t, even though her animal instincts said he was telling her the truth. She had faith in Solin.
She would always have faith in him.
Seth was amazed by her steadfastness to someone he was sure didn’t deserve it. The only thing he held that much belief in was the willingness of others to hurt or sacrifice him for their own whims, personal gains, and pleasures.
How could anyone her age be so stupid and blind?
Suddenly, he heard Noir calling for him. But for her presence, he’d wince. He knew what his overlord wanted and he knew how the bastard would react when he disappointed him with his report.
This was going to leave a mark . . .
But he had no choice. To make Noir wait would only worsen his punishment.
Sighing in resignation, he manifested food for the woman on top of his desk. There was no point in making her starve when he didn’t know how long he’d be gone this time.
His gut tightened into a knot that choked him. Not from fear, but dread.
Lydia started to ask where he was going, but he left too quickly.
Grateful for his absence, she tried again to find some way out of here. There were no windows. No closet. Just this one room and nothing else. How weird . . .
“What do I do when I have to go to the bathroom?”
Not that she had to right now, but . . .
A loud swoosh behind her made her jump sideways. She turned around to see a door in the wall. Her heart pounding, she ran to it, hoping it led to a hallway.
What was there actually startled her more. It was a huge, gleaming bathroom with a marble steam shower and a claw-foot tub. The bright decadence seemed out of place with the austerity of the bedroom. Obviously this was where the vain bastard spoiled himself.
She rocked the door back and forth as she considered its appearance. Was that how things worked here? You asked and . . . “I want to leave.”
C’mon. Don’t do this to me. You know you want to let me out of here. She tried again. “Where do I leave? What do I do when I have to leave?” Maybe the key was in the phrasing.
But again she was disappointed when no door appeared.
You didn’t really think it would be that easy, did you?
A jackal could hope.
Speaking of which, she tried to turn into one. But even that innate ability was taken from her. She was as good as human.
How horrible. Not that being human was bad, but she didn’t like the feeling of vulnerability. She liked having her powers. All she had left right now were her heightened senses.
At least you have something.
Oh, goodie. Lucky me! Maybe tomorrow I’ll win Shirley Jackson’s Lottery.
Yeah, that would be her luck.
“But I do have a voice now.” She couldn’t resist saying that out loud. It was so strange to be able to speak after a lifetime of silence.
The last time she’d spoken . . .
She flinched at the horror that had cost her her voice. Her mother had stolen it from her to keep her safe. In the end, she wished her mother had let her scream and die with the rest of them.
It would have been a far kinder fate. Especially if the demon did to her what he’d done to Solin.
Wanting distraction from the past that hurt too much to even contemplate, and the future that wasn’t looking any better, she returned to the bedroom, where the warm pleasant scent of food beckoned her to the desk.
She pulled back the ornate silver lid to find a strange assortment. Fried bananas? Ironically, she loved them. Could he have picked that out of her brain? That thought actually scared her. She didn’t like the idea of anyone reading her thoughts.
The other dishes made a little more sense—pastries and some kind of fried meat pie. There was also an abundance of fresh fruit and wine. Enough to probably feed her for days.
It all looked scrumptious, which begged one question. “Is it poisoned?”
With a demon, there was no telling. Though to be honest, if he wanted her dead, he certainly didn’t have to resort to that. He could most likely kill her with his thoughts. And definitely with his hands.
Surely the food was safe.
Taking the empty plate, she filled it, then sat down to eat in the lair of her enemy.
Seth despised that one word with a furious passion. It ranked right up there with eye-gouging, gutting, and castration.
He wasn’t afraid of Noir. Merely, he knew what the bastard was going to do to him when he answered, and he dreaded the coming pain.
Just don’t geld me . . . Sex was the only source of remote pleasure he could have here. Sadly, he’d hate to lose it.
“I’m close, my lord.”
Noir hissed like a snake that was gearing up to strike. “Close? Is that not what you told me two days ago?”
No, I told you to leave me alone to question him, King Moron, and you sent me on so many effing errands that I haven’t had more than an hour to question him in over forty-eight hours.
Seth ground his teeth to keep from saying those words that would have him castrated. He forced himself to keep his gaze trained on the floor at Noir’s feet. If he looked up, Noir might pluck his eyes out. But what he really wanted to do was beat the shit out of him.
If only he could. Without his powers, he wouldn’t get in a single punch before Noir would have him pinned. And because he’d tried that enough times, he knew exactly the punishment for that particular stupidity.
“I have finally found a way to break him. I will have it for you very soon.”
Instead of placating Noir, it sent him off into a homicidal rage. “Tell me truthfully, does it hurt to be that stupid? I just have to know. Really? I would think by now you’d have learned what I do to failures.”
Seth braced himself as pain exploded throughout his entire being and his armor vanished. As soon as he was naked, Noir blasted him through the stone wall behind him. He landed in a painful heap on the floor where he tried to catch his breath, but it was impossible to breathe through the throbbing agony. Noir rapidly closed the distance between them and pulled him up by his throat, choking him in an iron grip. There was no missing the evil gleam in Noir’s eyes that said this wasn’t about punishment.
It was all about pleasure.
Yeah, it’s going to be a really long night.
Lydia walked a circle in the bedroom that she’d memorized every detail of, right down to the design of the cracks in the floor. She’d eaten and then started pacing for what had to be hours and hours . . .
If not a whole day.
Frustration made a bitter lump in her throat. How could she—
The air stirred behind her.
She turned, ready to fight.
The demon was finally back. But something was wrong. The jackal in her could sense it even though he stood there as proud and fierce as he’d been before.
Tense and nervous, she waited for him to do or say something.
Like her, he didn’t budge as they sized each other up. The weight of that frigid, frightening steel gaze sent a shiver over her . . .
What was he going to do?
Seth held his breath as he silently debated what action to take. It was stupid to be here while wounded. He knew that.
His room had always been the one place in hell he could retreat to that was safe from everyone except Azura and Noir—there was no way to keep them out.
But with her here . . .
What are you bitching about? You’ll be abused regardless. At least she didn’t have her powers. There was only so much pain she could give him.
With the others . . .
It would be limitless, especially after his payback.
I have no place else to go.
He would have rather locked her up before he passed out, but Noir had drained him completely after he’d finally grown tired of beating him. Seth was so weak now. So sick. It was a wonder he’d made it back here at all.
Don’t fall, damn you, you worthless piece of shit. Don’t you dare show a weakness. He was steadfast in spirit. But his body refused to cooperate. Against his will, his legs gave out and he hit the floor so hard, he was surprised he didn’t break the stone. He tried to stay conscious. To crawl toward his bed.
His body wouldn’t even give him that much. It was too tired and too sore.
Against everything he tried, the darkness took him under.
Lydia stepped back as she watched him lying on the floor in a giant metal armor heap. Was it a trick?
Why would it be? What could he gain by falling down in front of her?
Still . . . demons in Azmodea were treacherous. Evil. One never knew what viciousness they were capable of. Not until it was too late and they were on you.
Ever cautious and curious, she crept forward, ready to bolt if he grabbed her.
It wasn’t until she knelt down that she saw the blood seeping into his like-colored hair, as well as on his armor and face. In several places, the blood ran from underneath the steel plates and dripped onto the stone floor.
He’d been beaten. Viciously. No, savagely. The blows had smeared the white paint and the red and black lines on his face, showing her that it was makeup after all and not his skin tone.
What do I do?
There was no one to call for help. And in the back of her mind was the fear that if he died, she’d die too. No one knew where she was. Probably not even Solin.
Just how badly was he injured? The answer was obvious—bad enough that something as lethally ferocious as he, wasn’t conscious. Given what she’d seen of him, that seemed to be an impossibility.
Yet here he lay as still as a dead man. And there was already a pool of blood forming underneath him.
She reached for the buckles on his armor and began removing the heavy pieces. And they were heavy—like lifting lead planks. How could he walk around in them and not fall over? No wonder he was so massively huge. He’d have to be to support it all.
Beneath the armor he wore a black, thinly quilted suit that must be padding to keep the metal from bruising his skin. Carefully, she peeled it back to examine his wounds.
As she exposed his neck, she made an unexpected discovery. There was a curious tattoo of a beautiful, multicolored swallow. The tail of it started at the hollow of his throat and swooped down along his collarbone with its wings spanning from just over his shoulder to right above his nipple. A nipple that had a vicious scar running through it as if someone had pierced it, then ripped the piercing out. She cringed at the very thought and compulsively reached for her own breast.
Gah, that had to hurt.
Trying not to think about it, she continued to study the tattoo. For the most part the swallow was blue, but the wings were also red, yellow, green, and white. The bird’s tail was split, and in between the two streaming tail feathers was what appeared to be a broken, dark red heart.
How very strange. That whimsical bird didn’t match his evil persona at all. It was something an optimist or dreamer might want.
Not the right hand of evil itself.
But she didn’t have time to contemplate that now. As she kept going, she uncovered a well-muscled, tawny body whose absolute perfection was marred again and again by countless scars, cuts, and bruises. Bruises that lay over other bruises, and scars and injuries that bisected each other. There were also numerous bite marks where the biter had left a dental impression so clear a dentist would envy it. And by those, she could tell at least three different beings had attacked him.
Her stomach tightened at the physical manifestation of a lifetime of utter misery. Good grief, how many times would someone have to be beaten to carry this amount of damage?
Honestly, she couldn’t choose between them as to which one would have caused him the most pain. Although the one under his chin did look particularly nasty.
Even worse than the vicious, jagged scars were the deep fresh gashes and welts left by a barbed whip. That must be what had caused him to collapse. She sucked her breath in sharply. Someone had torn him up good and by the looks of it, they’d enjoyed it. She saw the defensive wounds on his forearms and biceps where he’d tried to keep the lashes from hitting other parts of his body and had failed.
Obviously the demon wasn’t at the top of the food chain here. Which begged the question of who would have done this to him.
What had he done to make them want to hurt him so viciously?
With no answers, she stripped him down to the long black shorts he wore beneath his armor and padding. They reminded her of bicycle shorts and they hugged his lean hips and muscular thighs.
Lydia tried to keep her gaze from the bulge there that told her his muscles weren’t the only part of him that was huge. The gods had definitely been kind to him in that area.
But it was so difficult not to stare. He had the kind of body that a woman didn’t see every day. The kind that you wanted to drape yourself over and just feel the warm hardness of it against your own skin. And while he was most likely evil to his core, there was no denying the fact that he was exquisitely formed.
No, he was so lickably delicious that she could almost understand why he’d been bitten into. But the other marks . . .
Those she didn’t understand at all.
She returned her attention to his head, where blood seeped from a nasty gash just above his left ear. He was still unconscious.
And bleeding all over. She couldn’t even begin to catalogue the list of injuries.
Her gaze dropped to his arm where she’d stabbed him. He had so many wounds there, she wasn’t sure which one was hers. That thought nauseated her. No wonder he hadn’t reacted to it. She’d most likely stabbed him in a bruise.
Or another wound.
And though she didn’t exactly like or trust anyone, she didn’t want to hurt them either. Not even him. It pained her that she’d added to his damage and she hated herself for that weakness.
She shouldn’t care about his pain in the least. He’d certainly taken no mercy on Solin. So why then did she ache to see him so ravaged?
Because I’m not a soulless demon like him. She found no joy or humanity in abuse or meanness.
Her stomach churning in sympathy, she went to the bathroom to run a basin of warm water so that she could clean and bandage his injuries.
The bandages she had to tear out of his bedsheets.
It took some time, but she very carefully cleaned and wrapped each wound. Once she was finished with his body, she dumped the water, cleaned the basin, and then ran more so that she could tend to his face and head.
As she washed the harsh makeup from his features, she slowly uncovered the truth of her “demon.”
He was beautiful. Absolutely stunning.
There was no other word for it. He would have been as pretty as a woman but for the rugged cut of his masculine jaw and the sharpness of his cheekbones, both of which were dusted by a day’s growth of auburn whiskers. No wonder he wore the makeup. It would be hard to terrify the demons of this place looking like he did, even as tall and ripped as he was.
Not to mention, she was pretty sure he used it to conceal the bruises on his forehead, cheeks, and jaw.
Before she realized what she was doing, she ran her finger over his soft lips, remembering how good they’d tasted until . . . She winced as she saw the mark where she’d bitten him, too.
Obviously, the last thing he’d needed was more pain. And she’d stupidly thought he was joking when he said that he hadn’t had his lip busted open today.
“I’m so sorry,” she whispered, wondering if he’d ever had a moment of happiness in his entire life. By the condition of his body, she’d say no.
How long had he lived in this hell realm?
One minute would be too long.
Her throat tight, she washed the blood from his hair. Hair that drew up into perfectly tight auburn spiral curls the minute she wet it.
So it wasn’t straight after all. Those curls were incredibly soft and boyishly charming, like you would see on a collectible doll. Who would have thought?
Now that she had him bare and clean, the only thing scary about him was how flawlessly handsome he was. How inviting. It was almost impossible not to stare at him.
He’s still the one who tortured Solin . . . the one who would have killed him had you not stopped him.
True. His looks didn’t change the cruelty of his actions. No matter what, he was her enemy. And he would always remain so.
If you were smart, you’d stab him through the heart and kill him while you can.
Her dinner knife was only a few feet away.
And what if I did? He’d told her that he couldn’t be killed. She had no reason to assume he’d been lying. His beating and scars, and the fact that he still breathed, told her he’d been honest about that.
Plus, even if she did kill him, she’d continue to be trapped here. That wouldn’t change. Without him, she had no way to leave and no way to communicate with anyone.
He was her only hope for eventual release.
If only she could get a message to someone on the outside. But the more she tried, the more trapped she felt. What am I going to do?
She’d never felt more lost.
An eerie chill went down her spine as she saw her future and it wasn’t pretty.
For now, it was better to tolerate the demon she knew than the others who waited outside this room.
Seth came awake slowly to find himself lying facedown on the hard stone floor. He stared at his gloomy bedroom wall, dreading the moment when the pain would kick in and he’d ache anew. But as he waited for it, he realized that his head was on a soft pillow and the weight on his body wasn’t his armor.
Someone had covered him with his blankets?
What the hell?
Frowning, he started to move only to hear a warm, sweet voice chirp at him.
“Careful! You’ll reopen your back.”
From the shadows, he saw an angel appear. Yeah, one with sharp teeth, he reminded himself. But the current throbbing in his lips wasn’t from her nip, it was from Noir’s vicious backhands.
His head swam as the pain found him and kicked his teeth in. Yeah, this was what he was used to. Utter fucking misery. For a moment, he feared he’d pass out again.
She picked his head up from the pillow with the gentlest touch he’d ever known and helped him drink water from the goblet he’d left with her dinner.
He swallowed carefully, his throat burning from internal injuries, until she pulled the cup away. Then he scowled at her. He’d ask her why she was helping him, but the answer was obvious and undeniable. He was the only way she could get out of here and she knew it.
There was no emotion behind any of her actions. They were solely self-serving.
Like everyone else’s.
But at least she hadn’t taken advantage of his condition to hurt him more. That, in and of itself, was a novelty.
Even stranger was the fact that she’d bothered to tend him at all. His scowl deepened as he focused on the bandage she’d wrapped around his hand and knotted over his knuckles. “I told you, I couldn’t die.”
“Yeah, but you’re not exactly a speed healer, either. I had to do something. You were bleeding all over the floor and the smell of blood was nauseating me.”
Seth ignored that as he pushed himself up so that he could stand on unsteady feet. Dizzy from the blood loss and pain, he felt so weak . . .
Suddenly, Lydia was beside him. She pulled his arm around her shoulders and wrapped one slender arm around his waist to steady him. The warm scent of her filled his head, making his heartbeat race. Better still was the soft curves of her body against his. Curves that made his mouth water and his cock so hard, he could probably use it as a hammer.
“C’mon, let’s get you to bed before you fall down again.”
Those words brought images to his mind of him deep inside her while she arched against him. Of her lips teasing every inch of his body until he was made drunk by it.
Oh yeah, he could already feel her there.
Supple . . .
Don’t be stupid. It wasn’t an invitation, and she most certainly didn’t give a shit about him.
But it was nice to have someone who pretended to care. If only for a minute.
How pathetic am I that something so fake and trivial means so much?
And he was pathetic. Craving a woman who’d rather gut him than bed him.
Don’t let this soften you. There would be hell to pay if he allowed anyone to weaken him.
And that would be different from normal, how?
Disgusted with himself, he moved away from her. “I don’t need your help.”
She held her hands up in surrender. “Fine. Bleed wherever you want to.”
Seth crept to the bed and sat down before he passed out again. He brushed a hand through his hair, then froze as he felt those detested curls he never wore in front of anyone.
That was followed by a fear so foul, it nauseated him more than his wounds. He brushed his hand against the whiskers on his cheek. “Did you wash—”
He winced as he realized she was looking at the real him. The part he never wanted anyone to see. “Why?” He had to struggle to keep the venom out of his voice.
“You had a nasty head injury and a bad bruise on your left cheek. I wanted to make sure no bones were broken.”
So what if they had been? “Would it have mattered?”
She let out a tired breath before she answered. “No, Captain Bad-Ass, it wouldn’t. Sorry I tried to help.”
He didn’t respond as he ran his hand underneath his chin where that repulsive bolt scar marred his skin . . . he could still feel it piercing his mouth and tongue.
It bothered him that she knew what he looked like. No good had ever come from anyone seeing his real features, especially not here. In Azmodea, it was always better to be feared than desired. A very harsh lesson he’d learned the moment Noir had brought him here and drained his powers, leaving him an unguarded victim for all the others until he’d regained enough strength to fight back. It was another reason there was no way into his room except by teleportation.
No one would ever victimize him again.
Except for the two who owned him. There was no way to protect himself from Noir or Azura’s particular brand of brutality.
His stomach churned with the thought of that and the fact that he felt like he was naked in front of her. That made his anger rise even higher.
“Don’t do it again. Ever.”
Lydia rolled her eyes at that overstated growl as his armor and makeup reappeared to cover him. Whatever makes you feel better, babe . . .
An instant later, the remains of her food were gone and replaced by more.
She gave him an arch stare. “I take it you’re hungry.”
He shook his head. “You probably are. How long was I out?”
“I don’t know. You don’t have a clock”—She gestured to the wall—“or window so that I can check time. Offhand, I’d say a day, maybe.”
Still, he didn’t move. He merely sat there like an angry gargoyle, plotting revenge on some poor pigeon.
Ignoring his foul mood, she went to the food, hating the fact that she was starving. She’d been living on the fruit, but that hadn’t been enough to really satisfy her. She was craving protein in the worst sort of way. “You want some?”
Lydia jumped at the fierce shout that reverberated off the walls around them.
Seth’s features tightened into a mask of murder.
The hatred in his gaze seared her. Without a word, he flashed out of the room and left her again.
Seth manifested in Noir’s dismal office that was as dark as Seth’s heart and mood. “You summoned me, my lord?”
He never wanted to hear the damn cursed word again. And he was confused as to why Noir was using it. “I don’t understand.”
Noir backhanded him so hard his head snapped back and his neck made a loud popping sound. For a full minute he saw stars as Noir wrapped his hand in Seth’s hair and yanked him closer, so that he could snarl in his bleeding ear. “Then I shall speak slowly and use small words so that even a pathetic idiot like you can follow.” Noir jerked his head with every syllable to punctuate it even more. “What. Is. Your. Progress? Do you have my key?”
Seth ground his teeth. There was no way to win this. If he told Noir the truth, he’d beat him again.
Please give me my powers for one second, you sorry bastard. That was all he would need to make Noir feel his wrath.
Damn you, Father. Damn you straight to hell! I hope Sesmu is squeezing the blood out of you right now and making you drown in it. More than that, he hoped his father was roasting in the ovens of the Underworld.
But none of that changed his slavery. None of it changed this moment.
Or what was about to be done to him.
And he hated most what he was forced to do. Subjugate himself. “I’m doing my best for you, my lord.”
Noir caught him by his throat and squeezed so hard that he wheezed. “You better tell me why you have no more news than that.”
Seth coughed as Noir’s grip tightened even more. “I—I couldn’t.”
Even though he knew what it would get him, Seth met Noir’s gaze and let him see the full weight of his hatred. “I was left unconscious from your punishment.”
“That’s what you get for being weak, you pathetic dog. If you were a man you’d have been able to take it.”
Only weak because you steal my powers . . .
He grabbed Noir’s wrist and tried to drag it from his throat.
“Do you dare challenge me, slave?”
Seth didn’t answer with the truth. He knew better. But he wanted to. Desperately. “I live only to serve you.”
Noir backhanded him again. “You’d best remember that.”
How could he ever forget? It burned inside him like a bitter furnace.
“Yes, my lord.” He focused his gaze on the far wall to make sure he didn’t look the bastard in the eye and incur a worse wrath.
Noir slapped him. “Are you paying attention?”
It took every ounce of will he possessed not to strike out at his overlord. Don’t do it. Don’t. It wouldn’t be worth the cost.
Still, he wanted to fight back so badly, he could taste it.
“Yes, my lord.”
Noir shoved Seth away from him. “Your time is growing finite, dog. As is my patience. You either give me what I need, or I’ll return you to your pit and let the demons there have you for eternity.”
Then why are you wasting my time by making me appear here when I could be pursuing it? That question burned in his throat. Effing idiot.
“I understand, my lord.”
“I don’t think you do, slave. But you’re about to.”
Copyright © 2011 by Sherrilyn Kenyon