Every night death came, slowly, painfully, and every morning Maddox awoke in bed, knowing he'd have to die again later. That was his greatest curse and his eternal punishment.
He ran his tongue over his teeth, wishing it were a blade over his enemy's throat instead. Most of the day had already passed. He'd heard the time seep away, a poisonous tick-tock in his mind, every beat of the clock a mocking reminder of mortality and pain.
In little more than an hour, the first sting would pierce his stomach and nothing he did, nothing he said, would change that. Death would come for him.
"Damned gods," he muttered, increasing the speed of his bench presses.
"Bastards, every one of them," a familiar male voice said from behind him.
Maddox's motions didn't slow at Torin's unwelcome intrusion. Up. Down. Up. Down. For two hours he had worked out his frustration and anger on the punching bag, the treadmill and now the weights. Sweat ran from his bare chest and arms, riding the ropes of his muscles in clear rivulets. He should be as exhausted mentally as he was physically, but his emotions were only growing darker, more powerful.
"You should not be here," he said.
Torin sighed. "Look. I didn't mean to interrupt, but something's happened. "
"So take care of it. "
"I can't. "
"Whatever it is, try. I'm in no shape to help. " These last few weeks very little was needed to send him into a killing haze where no one around him was safe. Even his friends. Especially his friends. He didn't want to, never meant to, but was sometimes helpless against urges to strike and to maim.
"Maddox - "
"I'm at the edge, Torin," he croaked. "I would do more harm than good. "
Maddox knew his limitations, had known them for thousands of years. Ever since that doomed day the gods had chosen a woman to perform a task that should have been his.
Pandora had been strong, yes, the strongest female soldier of their time. But he had been stronger. More capable. Yet he had been deemed too weak to guard dimOuniak, a sacred box housing demons so vile, so destructive, they could not even be trusted in Hell.
As if Maddox would have allowed it to be destroyed. Frustration had bloomed inside him at the affront. Inside all of them, every warrior now living here. They had fought diligently for the king of the gods, killed expertly and protected thoroughly; they should have been chosen as guards. That they hadn't was an embarrassment not to be tolerated.
They'd only thought to teach the gods a lesson the night they'd stolen dimOuniak from Pandora and released that horde of demons upon the unsuspecting world. How foolish they had been. Their plan to prove their power had failed, for the box had gone missing in the fray, leaving the warriors unable to recapture a single evil spirit.
Destruction and havoc had soon reigned, plunging the world into darkness until the king of the gods finally intervened, cursing each warrior to house a demon inside himself.
A fitting punishment. The warriors had unleashed the evil to avenge their stinging pride; now they would contain it.
And so the Lords of the Underworld were born.
Maddox had been given Violence, the demon who was now as much a part of him as his lungs or his heart. Now, man could no longer live without demon and demon could no longer function without man. They were woven together, two halves of a whole.
From the very first, the creature inside him had beckoned him to do malicious things, hated things, and he'd been compelled to obey. Even when led to slay a woman - to slay Pandora. His fingers clenched the bar so tightly his knuckles nearly snapped out of place. Over the years he had learned to control some of the demon's more vile compulsions, but it was a constant struggle and he knew he could shatter at any moment.
What he would have given for a single day of calm. No overpowering desire to hurt others. No battles within himself. No worries. No death. Just. . . peace.
"It's not safe for you here," he told his friend, who still stood in the doorway. "You need to leave. " He set the silver bar atop its perch and sat up. "Only Lucien and Reyes are allowed to be close to me during my demise. " And only because they played a part in it, unwilling though they were. They were as helpless against their demons as Maddox was his.
"About an hour until that happens, so. . . " Torin threw a rag at him. "I'll take my chances. "
Maddox reached behind his back, caught the white cloth and turned. He wiped his face. "Water. "
An ice-cold bottle was soaring through the air before the second syllable left his mouth. He caught it deftly, moisture splashing his chest. He drained the icy contents and studied his friend.
As usual, Torin wore all black and gloves covered his hands. Pale hair fell in waves to his shoulders, framing a face mortal females considered a sensual feast. They didn't know the man was actually a devil in angel's skin. They should have, though. He practically glowed with irreverence, and there was an unholy gleam in his green eyes that proclaimed he would laugh in your face while cutting out your heart. Or laugh in your face while you cut out his heart.
To survive, he had to find humor where he could. They all did.
Like every resident of this Budapest fortress, Torin was damned. He might not die every night like Maddox, but he could never touch a living thing, skin to skin, without infecting it with sickness.
Torin was possessed by the spirit of Disease.
He hadn't known a woman's touch in over four hundred years. He'd learned his lesson well when he'd given in to lust and caressed a would-be lover's face, bringing about a plague that decimated village after village. Human after human.
"Five minutes of your time," Torin said, his determination clear. "That's all I'm asking. "
"Think we'll be punished for insulting the gods today?" Maddox replied, ignoring the request. If he didn't allow himself to be asked for a favor, he didn't have to feel guilty for turning it down.
His friend uttered another of those sighs. "Our every breath is supposed to be a punishment. "
True. Maddox's lips curled into a slow, razored smile as he peered ceilingward. Bastards. Punish me further, I dare you. Maybe then, finally, he would fade to nothingness.
He doubted the gods would concern themselves, though. After bestowing the death-curse upon him, they had ignored him, pretending not to hear his pleas for forgiveness and absolution. Pretending not to hear his promises and desperate bargaining.
What more could they do to him, anyway?
Nothing could be worse than dying over and over again. Or being stripped of anything good and right. . . or hosting the spirit of Violence inside his mind and body.
Jackknifing to his feet, Maddox tossed the now-wet rag and empty water bottle into the nearest hamper. He strode to the far end of the room and braced his hands above his head, leaning into the semicircular alcove of stained-glass windows and staring into the night through the only clear partition.
He saw Paradise.
He saw hell.
He saw freedom, prison, everything and nothing.
He saw. . . home.
Situated atop a towering hill as the fortress was, he had a direct view of the city. Lights glowed brightly, pinks, blues and purples illuminating the murky velvet sky, glinting off the Danube River and framing the snowcapped trees that dominated the area. Wind blustered, snowflakes dancing and twirling through the air.
Here, he and the others had a modicum of privacy from the rest of the world. Here, they were allowed to come and go without having to face a barrage of questions. Why don't you age? Why do screams echo through the forest every night? Why do you sometimes look like a monster?
Here, the locals maintained their distance, awed, respectful. "Angels," he'd even
If they only knew.
Maddox's nails elongated slightly, digging into the stone. Budapest was a place of majestic beauty, old-world charm and modern pleasures, but he'd always felt removed from it. From the castle district that lined one street to the nightclubs that lined the next. From the fruits and vegetables hawked in one alley to the living flesh hawked in the other.
Maybe that sense of disconnection would vanish if he ever explored the city, but unlike the others who roamed at will, he was trapped inside the fortress and surrounding land as surely as Violence had been trapped inside Pandora's box thousands of years ago.
His nails lengthened farther, almost claws now. Thinking of the box always blackened his mood. Punch a wall, Violence beckoned. Destroy something. Hurt, kill. He would have liked to obliterate the gods. One by one. Decapitate them, perhaps. Rip out their blackened, decayed hearts, definitely.
The demon purred in approval.
Of course it's purring now, Maddox thought with disgust. Anything bloodthirsty, no matter the victims, met with the creature's support. Scowling, he leveled another heated glance at the heavens. He and the demon had been paired long ago, but he remembered the day clearly. The screams of the innocent in his ears, humans bleeding all around him, hurting, dying, the spirits having devoured their flesh in a rapturous frenzy.
Only when Violence had been shoved inside his body did he lose touch with reality. There had been no sounds, no sights. Just an all-consuming darkness. He hadn't regained his senses until Pandora's blood splattered his chest, her last breath echoing in his ears.
She had not been his first kill - or his last - but she had been the first and only woman to meet his sword. The horror of seeing that once-vibrant female form broken and knowing he was responsible for it. . . To this day, he had not assuaged the guilt, the regret. The shame and the sorrow.
He'd sworn to do whatever was necessary to control the spirit from then on, but it had been too late. Enraged all the more, Zeus had bestowed a second curse upon him: every night at midnight he would die exactly as Pandora had died - a blade through the stomach, six hellish times. The only difference was, her torment had ended within minutes.
His torment would last for eternity.
He popped his jaw, trying to relax against a new onslaught of aggression. It wasn't as if he were the only one to suffer, he reminded himself. The other warriors had their own demons - literally and figuratively. Torin, of course, was keeper of Disease. Lucien was keeper of Death. Reyes, of Pain. Aeron, of Wrath. Paris, of Promiscuity.
Why couldn't he have been given that last one? He would have been able to journey to town anytime he wished, take any woman he desired, savoring every sound, every touch.
As it was, he could never venture far. Nor could he trust himself around females for long periods of time. If the demon overtook him or if he could not return home before midnight and someone found his dead, bloody body and buried him - or worse, burned him. . .
How he wished such a thing would end his miserable existence. He would have left long ago and allowed himself to be roasted in a pit. Or perhaps he would have jumped from the fortress's highest window and smashed his brains from his skull. But no. No matter what he did, he'd merely awaken once again, charred as well as sore. Broken as well as sliced.
"You've been staring at that window for a while," Torin said. "Aren't you even curious as to what's happened?"
Maddox blinked as he was dragged from his thoughts. "You're still here?"
His friend arched a black brow, the color a startling contrast to his silver-white hair. "I believe the answer to my question is no. Are you calm now, at least?"
Was he ever truly calm? "As calm as a creature like me can be. "
"Stop whining. There's something I need to show you, and don't try to deny me this time. We can talk about my reason for disturbing you along the way. " Without another word, Torin spun on his booted heel and strode from the room.
Maddox remained in place for several seconds, watching his friend disappear around the corner. Stop whining, Torin had said. Yes, that's exactly what he had been doing. Curiosity and wry amusement pushed past his lethal mood, and Maddox stepped from the gym into the hallway. A cold draft of air swirled around him, thick with moisture and the crisp scents of winter. He spied Torin a few feet away and stalked forward, quickly closing in.
"What's this about?"
"Finally. Interest," was the only response.
"If this is one of your tricks. . . " Like the time Torin had ordered hundreds of blow-up dolls and placed them throughout the fortress, all because Paris had foolishly complained about the lack of female companionship in town. The plastic "ladies" had stared out from every corner, their wide eyes and let-me-suck-you mouths taunting everyone who passed them.
Things like that happened when Torin was bored.
"I wouldn't waste my time trying to trick you," Torin said without turning to face him. "You, my friend, have no sense of humor. "
As Maddox kept pace, stone walls stretched at his sides; sconces glowed, pulsing with light and fire, twining shadow with gold. The House of the Damned, as Torin had dubbed the place, had been built hundreds of years ago. Though they had modernized it as best they could, the age showed in the crumbling rock and the scuffed floors.
"Where is everyone?" Maddox asked, only then realizing he hadn't spotted any of the others.
"You'd think Paris would be shopping for food since our cabinets are nearly bare and that's his only duty, but no. He's out searching for a new woman. "
Lucky bastard. Possessed as he was by Promiscuity, Paris could not bed the same woman twice, and so he seduced a new one - or two or three - every day. The only downside? If he couldn't find a woman, he was reduced to doing things Maddox didn't even want to contemplate. Things that left the normally good-tempered man hunched over a toilet, heaving the contents of his stomach. Though Maddox's envy abated at such moments, it always returned when Paris spoke of one of his lovers. The soft brush of a thigh. . . the meeting of hot skin. . . the groans of ecstasy. . .
"Aeron is. . . Prepare yourself," Torin began, "because this is the main reason I hunted you down. "
"Did something happen to him?" Maddox demanded as darkness shuttered over his thoughts and anger overtook him. Destroy, obliterate, Violence beseeched, clawing at the corners of his mind. "Is he hurt?"
Immortal Aeron might be, but he could still be harmed. Even killed - a feat they had all discovered in the worst possible way.
"Nothing like that," Torin assured him.
Slowly, he relaxed and gradually Violence receded. "What, then? Cleaning a mess and throwing a fit?" Every warrior here had specific responsibilities. It was their way of maintaining some semblance of order amid the chaos of their own souls. Aeron's task was maid service, something he complained about on a daily basis. Maddox took care of home repairs. Torin played with stocks and bonds, whatever those were, keeping them well-moneyed. Lucien did all the paperwork and Reyes supplied them with weapons.
"The gods. . . summoned him. "
Maddox stumbled, shock momentarily blinding him. "What?" Surely he had misheard.
"The gods summoned him," Torin repeated patiently.
But the Greeks hadn't spoken to any of them since the day of Pandora's death. "What did they want? And why am I just now hearing about this?"
"One, no one knows. We were watching a movie when suddenly he straightened in his seat, expression dead, as if there were no one home. Then a few seconds later he tells us he's been summoned. None of us even had time to react - one minute Aeron was with us, the next he was gone. "
"And two," Torin added with barely a pause, "I tried to tell you. You said you didn't care, remember?"
A muscle ticked below his eye. "You should have told me anyway. "
"While you had barbells within your reach? Please. I'm Disease, not Stupid. "
This was. . . this was. . . Maddox did not want to contemplate what this was, but could not stop the thoughts from forming. Sometimes Aeron, keeper of Wrath, lost total control of his spirit and embarked on a vengeance rampage, punishing mortals for their perceived sins. Was he now to be given a second curse for his actions, as Maddox had been all those centuries ago?
"If he does not return in the same shape he left, I will find a way to storm the heavens and slaughter every godly being I encounter. "
"Your eyes are glowing bright red," Torin said. "Look, we're all confused, but Aeron will return soon and tell us what's going on. "
Fair enough. He forced himself to relax. Again. "Was anyone else summoned?"
"No. Lucien is out collecting souls. Reyes, is gods-know-where, probably cutting himself. "
He should have known. Even though Maddox suffered unbearably each night, he pitied Reyes, who could not live a single hour without self-inflicted torture.
"What else did you have to tell me?" Maddox brushed his fingertips over the two towering columns that flanked the staircase before beginning to climb.
"I think it will be better if I show you. "
Would it be worse than the announcement about Aeron? Maddox wondered, striding past the entertainment room. Their sanctuary. The chamber they'd spared no expense creating was filled with plush furniture and all the comforts a warrior could desire. There was a refrigerator crammed with special wines and beers. A pool table. A basketball hoop. A large plasma screen that was even now flashing images of three naked women in the middle of an orgy.
"I see Paris was here," he said.
Torin did not reply, but he did quicken his steps, never once glancing toward the screen.
"Never mind," Maddox muttered. Directing Torin's attention to anything carnal was unnecessarily cruel. The celibate man had to crave sex - touch - with every fiber of his being, but he would never have the option of indulging.
Even Maddox enjoyed a woman upon occasion.
His lovers were usually Paris's leftovers, those females foolish enough to try to follow Paris home, hoping to share his bed again, not knowing just how impossible such a thing was. They were always drunk with sexual arousal, a consequence of welcoming Promiscuity, so they rarely cared who finally slid between their legs. Most times, they were all too happy to accept Maddox as a substitute - even though it was an impersonal joining, as emotionally hollow as it was physically satisfying.
It had to be that way, though. To protect their secrets, the warriors did not allow humans inside the fortress, forcing Maddox to take the women outside in the surrounding forest. He preferred them on their hands and knees, facing away from him, a swift coupling that would not rouse Violence in any way or compel him to do things that would haunt him forever and still another eternity.
Afterward, Maddox would send the females home with a warning: never return or die. It was that simple. To allow a more permanent arrangement would be foolish. He might come to care for them, and he would definitely hurt them, which would only heap even more guilt and shame upon him.
Just once, though, he would have liked to linger over a woman as Paris was able to do. He would have liked to kiss and lick her entire body; he would have liked to drown in her, completely losing himself, without fearing his control would snap and cause him to wound her.
Finally reaching Torin's quarters, he blocked those thoughts from his mind. Time spent wishing was time wasted, as he well knew.
He glanced at his surroundings. He'd been in this room before, but he did not remember the wall-to-wall computer system or the numerous monitors, phones and various other equipment lined throughout. Unlike Torin, Maddox eschewed most technology, for he had never quite gotten used to how quickly things seemed to change - and just how much further each new advancement seemed to pull him from the carefree warrior he'd once been. Though he would be lying if he claimed not to enjoy the convenience such gadgets provided.
Survey complete, he faced his friend. "Taking over the world?"
"Nope. Just watching it. It's the best way to protect us, and the best way to make a little coin. " Torin plopped into a cushioned swivel chair in front of the largest screen and began typing on the keyboard. One of the blank monitors lit up, the black screen becoming intertwined with grays and whites. "All right. Here's what I wanted you to see. "
Careful not to touch his friend, Maddox stepped forward. The indistinct blur gradually became thick, opaque lines. Trees, he realized. "Nice, but not something I was in dire need of viewing. "
"Hurry," he countered.
Torin flicked him a wry glance. "Since you asked so nicely. . . I have heat sensors and cameras hidden throughout our land so that I always know when someone trespasses. " A few more seconds of tapping and the screen's view shifted to the right. Then there was a swift flash of red, there one moment, gone the next.
"Go back," Maddox said, tensing. He wasn't a surveillance expert. No, his skill lay in the actual killing. But even he knew what that red slash represented. Body heat.
Tap, tap, tap and the red slash once again consumed the screen.
"Human?" he asked. The silhouette was small, almost dainty.
"Male or female?"
Torin shrugged. "Female, most likely. Too big to be a child, too small to be a grown man. "
Hardly anyone ventured up the bleak hill at this time of night. Or even during the day. Whether it was too spooky, too gloomy or a sign of the locals' respect, Maddox didn't know. But he could count on one hand the number of deliverymen, children wanting to explore and women prowling for sex who'd braved the journey in the last year.
"One of Paris's lovers?" he asked.
"Possibly. Or. . . "
"Or?" he prompted when his friend hesitated.
"A Hunter," Torin said grimly. "Bait, more specifically. "
Maddox pressed his lips together in a harsh line. "Now I know you're teasing me. "
"Think about it. Deliverymen always come with boxes and Paris's girls always race straight toward the front door. This one looks empty-handed and she's gone in circles, stopping every few minutes and doing something against the trees. Planting dynamite in an attempt to injure us, maybe. Cameras to watch us. "
"If she's empty-handed - "
"Dynamite and cameras are small enough to conceal. "
He massaged the back of his neck. "Hunters haven't stalked or tormented us since Greece. "
"Maybe their children and then their children's children have been searching for us all this time. Maybe they finally found us. "
Dread suddenly curled in Maddox's stomach. First Aeron's shocking summons and now the uninvited visitor. Mere coincidence? His mind flashed back to those dark days in Greece, days of war and savagery, screams and death. Days the warriors had been more demon than man. Days a hunger for destruction had dictated their every action and human bodies had littered the streets.
Hunters had soon risen from the tortured masses, a league of mortal men intent upon destroying those who'd unleashed such evil, and a blood feud had erupted. The battles he then found himself fighting, with swords clanging and fires raging, flesh burning and peace something of lore and legend. . .
Cunning had been the Hunters' greatest weapon, however. They had trained female Bait to seduce and distract while they swooped in for the kill. That's how they managed to murder Baden, keeper of Distrust. They had not managed to kill the demon itself, however, and it had sprung from the decimated body, crazed, demented, warped from the loss of its host.
Where the demon resided now, Maddox didn't know.
"The gods surely hate us," Torin said. "What better way to hurt us than to send Hunters just when we've finally carved out a somewhat peaceful life for ourselves?"
His dread intensified. "They would not wish the demons, crazed as they would surely be without us, loose upon the world. Would they?"
"Who knows why they do
His gaze flicked to the wall clock and he tensed. "Call Paris. "
"Did. He's not answering his cell phone. "
"Call - "
"Do you really think I would have disturbed you this close to midnight if there were anyone else?" Torin twisted in the seat, peering up at him with forbidding determination. "You're it. "
Maddox shook his head. "Very soon, I'm going to die. I cannot be outside these walls. "
"Neither can I. " Something murky and dangerous shimmered in Torin's eyes, something bitter, turning the green to a poisonous emerald. "You, at least, won't obliterate the entire human race by leaving. "
"Torin - "
"You're not going to win this argument, Maddox, so stop wasting time. "
He tangled a hand through his chin-length hair, frustration mounting. We should leave it out there to die, Violence proclaimed. It - the human.
"If it is a Hunter," Torin said, as if hearing his thoughts, "if it is Bait? We can't allow it to live. It must be destroyed. "
"And if it's innocent and my death-curse strikes?" Maddox countered, tamping down the demon as best he could.
Guilt flashed over Torin's expression, as though every life he was responsible for taking clamored inside his conscience, begging him to rescue those he could. "That is a chance we have to take. We are not the monsters the demons would have us be. "
Maddox ground his teeth together. He was not a cruel man; he was not a beast. Not heartless. He hated the waves of immorality that constantly threatened to pull him under. Hated what he did, what he was - and what he would become if he ever stopped fighting those black cravings and evil musings.
"Where is the human now?" he asked. He would venture into the night, even if it cost him terribly.
"At the Danube border. "
A fifteen-minute run. He had just enough time to weapon up, find the human, usher it to shelter if it was innocent or kill it if circumstances demanded, and return to the fortress. If anything slowed him down, he could die out in the open. Anyone else foolish enough to venture onto the hill would be placed in danger. Because when the first pain hit, he would be reduced to Violence and those black cravings would consume him.
He would have no other purpose but destruction.
"If I don't return by midnight, have one of the others search for my body, as well as Lucien's and Reyes's. " Both Death and Pain came to him each night at midnight, no matter where Maddox was. Pain rendered the blows and Death escorted his soul to hell, where it would remain, tortured by fire and demons almost as loathsome as Violence, until morning.
Unfortunately, Maddox could not guarantee his friends' safety out in the open. He might hurt them before they completed their tasks. And if he hurt them, the anguish he would feel would be second only to the agony of the death-curse that visited him every night.
"Promise me," he said.
Eyes bleak, Torin nodded. "Be careful, my friend. "
He stalked out of the room, his movements rushed. Before he made it halfway down the hall, however, Torin called, "Maddox. You might want to look at this. "
Backtracking, he experienced another slap of dread. What now? Could anything be worse? When he stood in front of the monitors once more, he arched a brow at Torin, a silent command to hurry.
Torin motioned to the screen with a tilt of his chin. "Looks like there are four more of them. All male. . . or Amazons. They weren't there earlier. "
"Damn this. " Maddox studied the four new slashes of red, each one bigger than the last. They were closing in on the little one. Yes, things could indeed be worse. "I'll take care of them," he said. "All of them. " Once more he leapt into motion, his pace more clipped.
He reached his bedroom and headed straight to the closet, bypassing the bed, the only piece of furniture in the room. He'd destroyed his dresser, mirror and chairs in one fit of violence or another.
At one time, he'd been foolish enough to fill the space with tranquil indoor waterfalls, plants, crosses, anything to promote peace and soothe raw nerves. None of it had worked and all had been smashed beyond repair in a matter of minutes as the demon overtook him. Since then he'd opted for what Paris called a minimalist look.
The only reason he still had a bed was because it was made of metal and Reyes needed something to chain him to as midnight drew near. They kept an abundant supply of mattresses, sheets, chains and metal headboards in one of the bedrooms next door. Just in case.
Hurry! Quickly, he jerked a black T-shirt over his head, pulled on a pair of boots and strapped blades to his wrists, waist and ankles. No guns. He and Violence were in agreement about one thing - enemies needed to die up close and personal.
If any of the humans in the forest proved to be Hunters or Bait, nothing could save them now.