Prisoner of Night (The Black Dagger Brotherhood #16.5) – J. R. Ward

WHERE IS IT! GODDAMN you, where’s itat!” Duran spit blood out of his mouth and spoke over the ringing in hisears. “I’ll never tell you—” Chalen the Conqueror swung his open palm again, nailing Duran’s lacerated face like a bat hitting a fastball. But it didn’t hurt as much as the other shit they’d been doing to him in this castle’s great room. They’d already pulled out his Йngernails, broken all of his toes, and whipped his back until strips of his own Мesh Мapped against his ribs. At the moment, he didn’t have the strength to keep himself on his feet, but no worries there—two guards, with grips locked under his pits, were holding him up off the floor. As his head Мopped back into its lolling hang, he shook it to get the sweat and blood out of hiseyes. In the hissing, kicking light of the hearth, the male in front of him was stocky of build and ugly of feature, an oak stump with a bulldog’s muzzle and a hungry bear’s bad fucking attitude. “You are going to tell me the location.” Chalen took Duran by the throat with one of his meat hands. “And you’re going to do it now.” “Sorry, not . a big talker—” The conqueror grabbed onto the lower half of Duran’s face, squeezing so hard his jaw split and the inside of his mouth was forced between the hard-and-sharp of his molars. More blood welled, spilled, fell on his bare chest.

“Why are you protecting the very male who put you here?” Chalen’s opaque eyes searched Duran’s expression as if he were trying to extrapolate a map of Maryland in the features. “All you need to do is tell me where that facility is. Your father has something that belongs to me.” Duran waited for that grip to release. When it did, he spit more blood out. “I’m not . protecting him.” “Then whatare you doing?” “Making sure you don’t cheat me of what’s mine.” Duran smiled, aware he must look deranged. “You kill him . I don’t get to. When it comes to revenge, sons win over business partners.

” Chalen crossed his strong-man arms over his barrel chest. He was dressed in weapons, whatever clothes he had on underneath the holsters of gunsand knives largely hidden by metal. No daggers, though. He’d never been Black Dagger Brotherhood material and not just because he was a mutt according to his lineage: Even among black market thieves, there wasa code of conduct. Not for Chalen. He had no code. Not in the Old Country, and not during his last century here in the New World. There was only one male who was worse. No wonder the two of them had made so much money together in the drug trade. “I will break you,” Chalen said in a low voice.

“And I will enjoy it.” Duran laughed in a wheeze. “You have no idea what I’ve already been through—” Chalen swung that palm wide again, the crack so heavy Duran lost his vision, everything going checkerboard. And then there was a drop in blood pressure, his brain emptying of oxygen, Мoaty disassociation riding in, a foggy savior buffering the suffering. The sound of chains moving and gears shifting brought him back to reality. A section of the sweaty stone wall rose by inches, the great weightascending like a gate, revealing a corridor . Revealing a male who was naked but for a black hood that covered his head. “I will make you pray for death,” Chalen said. “And when you give me what I need, you will think back to this moment. When you could have saved yourself from so much.

” Duran exhaled in a gurgle. His body was on fire, the pain burning through his veins, turning him into a semi-living, kind-of-breathing, sort-of-conscious incubator for agony. But fuck Chalen. “Do what you will,” he mumbled. “I’m not going to give you a goddamn thing.” “I will make you wish you were never born.” As the hooded male came forward, Duran was dragged over and slammed face-Йrst down onto a table, his torso bent parallel to the Мoor. Turning his face to the side, he smelled the spoiled meat and rancid fatembedded in the fibers of the planks. “Already there, asshole.” Chalen’s face appeared at table level, their eyes meeting.

“He just gave you to me, you realize. He didn’teven take my money. Just delivered you here and dropped you like garbage.” “No one ever accused my father of giving a shit.” “You need to know who you’re dealing with—” “I hope you stay and watch this.” As Chalen frowned, Duran smiled through the blood again. “I want to be looking at you when it happens. All of it.” “There will be no mercy.” “I don’t want that.

” Duran felt his pants get cut with a knife. “You’re on my list now, too. I’m going to kill my father and you.” Chalen laughed, his fangs showing. The one on the left was not as long, as if part of it had broken oА in someone’s neck. Leg. Face. “That is not your destiny.” “I will make it mine.” Duran began to memorize every pore, each eyelash, all the Мecks in those muddy hazel eyes.

“And I shall not fail.” “Such optimism. I hope it persists as I look forward to ridding you of it. Last chance. Tell me where your father is, and I will let you go.” “I’ll see you in Dhunhd before that happens.” Chalen shook his head and straightened. “Just remember, you could have stopped this . ” 1 Present Day THERE ARE STILL SECRETiSn America. In spite of population density, the internet, modern law enforcement, and the constant intrusion of cell phone cameras, there remain, across this great nation, whole tracts of hill and dale that are largely uninhabited.

Uninvestigated. Unpenetrated by the prying eye. For both humansand vampires. Ahmare, blooded daughter of Ahmat, drove through the night, alone on highways that rose and fell over the heaving earth of the Appalachian Mountains. She was far from Caldwell, New York, by now, a good seven hours into her trip and close to her destination. She had stopped only once, at a roadside gas station to refuel. She had timed herself. Eight minutes from insertion of credit card to reclose of gas cap. A human male who had been doing the same to his motorcycle had looked across at her, his eyes lingering on her body, his sexual hunger obvious under the harsh glow of the fluorescent lights. When he’d sauntered over to her, all cock and swagger, she had debated castrating him both to get him off her back and asa public service.

But she couldn’t aАord the delay—and more to the point, she might fantasize about doing something like that, but she wasn’ta natural born killer. She’d just learned that firsthand. The leering bastard did deserve a corrective event, however, and if she’d been hardwired diАerently, she was exactly the kind of destiny to deliver it to him. Vampires were a far superior species to those rats without tails, so it would be the work of a moment for her to overpower him, drag him behind the gas station, and take out her hunting knife. The trouble with humans, however, was that they were an invasion of non-lethal pests, ants intruding on an otherwise enjoyable picnic. And the last thing she needed was a bunch of—what state was she in now? Maryland?—cops with Southern accents Мashing their lights and pulling her over ten miles down the highway for aggravated assault because the attendant in that little glass box with the lotto ads all over it had positive-ID’d her. Which wouldn’t be tough. There weren’t a lot of six-foot-tall, black-haired, black-clothed females stopping to pump gas at three in the morning. And the security cameras no doubt had the license plate on her Explorer. So, yup, instead of taking action, she’d told the human with the bright ideas that he’d have more success fucking oА than fucking her.

Then she’d gotten back in her SUV and returned to the highway, reМecting that her ability to override her aggression for a greater purpose proved another truism in the long list of diАerences between Homo sapiens and vampires: For the most part, her kind had a higher evolved rationality. Although perhaps that quality wasn’t intrinsic to divergences in the cerebral makeup between the two species, but rather the result of the much longer life spans of vampires. If you lived long enough, you tended to put things in better perspective. Stay focused on your goals. Understand that present sacriЙce yielded tenfold future gain. Which explained why she was going to get her far younger brother out ofa warlord’s dungeon. Overhead, lightning tripped and fell across the velvet black sky, and just as hail struck her windshield like marbles poured out ofa sack, her exit glowed green and white in the headlights. Getting oА the interstate, she traveled over a series of roads that grew narrower and more degraded. By the time she pulled onto a dirt lane ten minutes later, the summer storm was raging, great gusts of wind and lashing rain bending the fat-topped, kudzu-choked trees and releasing them just before they snapped free of their root systems. And there it was.

Chalen the Conqueror’s century-old stronghold in the New World. Either that or a Disney antagonist had jumped out of a movie to get away from all the damn singing and set up shop in this sweaty forest to kick puppiesand scare children. The stone fortress had high walls with thin slits to shoot out of and defensible positions all along its rooМine parapet. The entrance even had a bridge that could be drawn up from a murky moat and locked into place. All that was missing were the alligators—and there was a good possibility they weren’t missing. Oh, look, they were waiting for her. As she stopped the Explorer in the gravel parking area, two males stepped forward out of the shadows on the castle side of the lowered bridge. They didn’t appear to notice the storm, and the lack of visible weapons on them was nothing she was fooled by. They were a pair of cold-blooded killers. Everyone who worked for Chalen was.

She removed her gun and her knife and hid them under her seat. Then she slipped on a windbreaker and turned to the duАel bag that had ridden shotgun with her for the trip. A nauseous swell made her swallow her gag reМex back into place, but she grabbed the handlesand got out. Locking up, she took her keys with her. The storm pushed against her like an assailant, and she held her ground as she walked through the puddles and the mud. As lightning Мashed, she noted the black vines that grew, tangled and leaМess though it was July, up the castle’s slick stone flanks like the clawing hands of Chalen’s many dead. Was he haunted by his deeds? she wondered. Did he care about the ruin he’d brought to so many? Ahmare crossed the planks that were slick and smelled like creosote. Peering over the edge, she couldn’t see anything moving in the stagnant water. She stopped in front of the guards.

They were wearing mouthpieces that pulled back their lips, exposing their fangs like daggers holstered in their mouths. She expected to get frisked, but they didn’t move toward her. Frowning, she said, “I’m here to see—” The castle’s great portal opened by lifting up, the creaking and grinding of gears so loud that the metal-on-metal screeches drowned out even the thunder. Neither of the guards spoke to tell her to enter, but then again, they couldn’t. All of Chalen’s guardsand staff had their larynxes removed. Stepping into the torch-lit interior, she found herself in a great hall, smelling ripe mold and old earth sure as if the place were a crypt. No rug underfoot. No tapestry on the damp stone walls. No warmth in spite of the Йre that raged in the room-sized hearth. There was only a rough-hewn table, long, narrow, and stained, with a set of benches and a single throne-like great chair at one end.

Up above, a chandelier of oil lanterns swung on its chain ever so slightly, the genesis of the movement unclear. Inside her skin, inside her soul, every part of her was screaming for her to get out. Run. Never come back. Forget she even knew how to find the place— Something was dripping, and she narrowed her eyes at the shadows in the far corner, expecting to see bodies hung up on meat hooks, well into the process of exsanguination. No such thing. Only a leak that had formed thanks to a conspiracy between cracks in the mortar and the driving rain. There was also a closed door that had a pointed arch at the top and ugly hinges that must have been fashioned by the huge, dirty hands ofan ogre. She should have brought her weapons in with her. She hadn’teven been searched.

Abruptly, an image from childhood came to mind, like an innocent entering a slaughterhouse: her brother just months old in her arms, staring up at her with wide eyes, his little button mouth pursing and smiling. Back then, their mahmen had been alive and well, cooking at the stove, and their father had been at the kitchen table, reading a newspaper with the headline “NIXON IMPEACHED.” Ahmare had been decades out of her transition and in a human degree program for nursing. There had been fear over her mahmen safely delivering the second young, but all of that had resolved with the successful birth, and the family’s fortune, though meager in terms of material things, had seemed as vast and enduring as history itself if you measured wealth by love and loyalty. How had she ended up here? How had her brother— Chains moving through antique gears brought her head around. A section of the stone wall was rising up, revealing, inch by inch, a draped figure covered head to toe in black. “He will see you the now,” an electronic voice said. The scent suggested it wasa female. There was something wrong, however. A smell that was off .

Gangrene. Rotting flesh under that robing. And she was speaking with the aid ofa voice box unit. “I am ready,” Ahmare said. “This way.” The female indicated the corridor behind. “Follow me.” Falling in with the female, Ahmare tracked the movements underneath the robes. There was a limp and a dragging shuffle, as if one foot, or perhapsa whole leg, were a useless dead weight. What the hell had been done to her brother here? she thought.

The hall they proceeded down had a high ceiling and torches in iron brackets every six or eight feet. Rats ran in a tributary oА to one side, staying thin and long as if they didn’t want to attract attention, shooting over and under each other depending on the north or south of their course. Overhead, cobwebs wafted in drafts like fabric in its last stages of disintegration. The hooded Йgure stopped before another door with a gothic point at itsapex. The hand that reached out was bandaged with dirty gauze, and it wasa struggle for the female to open the heavy weight. “Proceed,” the synthesizer said. Ahmare stepped through and stopped where she was as she was closed in. Up ahead, on a raised dais, an oak throne faced away from her, its high back carved with twisted figures being tortured. “Right on time,” a thin voice said. “Punctuality is so important.

” The dais began to turn with a grind, the throne coming around slowly, and Ahmare tightened her grip on the duffel’s straps. Chalen had come out of the Bloodletter’s war camp centuries before, honed by that sadistic Йghter into a killing machine who was eГcient only when he had to be. Otherwise, it was well-known that he preferred agony over any manner of quick dispatch— Ahmare’s breath caught. And then exhaled in a rush. “Not what you expected?” the murderer said as the dais bumped to a stop. Beneath a cockeyed crown that was missing its head stone in the front, the contorted and pockmarked corpse slouched on the hardwood was in the Йnal stages of dying. Vampires were not like humans when it came to the aging process. Rather than a slow descent into an elderly state, the species went through the transition to maturity at around twenty-Йve, and following that, their bodies stayed in a state of prime physical condition until the very end of their lives. At that point, a rapid degeneration took place, faculties failing in a tumble that led quickly into the grave. Chalen the Conqueror had a matter of weeks.

If not less. A skeletal hand extended out of his black robe and cranked a hold onto the throne’s arm. There was a grunt as he repositioned himself, and as the wrinkled and decaying face grimaced, she imagined what he must have looked like when he’d been in his prime. She had heard the stories of a massive male whose brute strength was surpassed only by his taste for cruelty. It was hard to get there from where he was now. “Old age is not for the faint of heart.” The smile revealed many missing teeth, only one broken fang on the left remaining. “I will caution you of itsapproach when it comes for you.” “I have what you asked for.” “Do you.

Clever female. Let me see.” Ahmare dropped the duАel and unzipped it, making sure that none of her reactions showed. Reaching in, she unknotted the Glad trash bag and put her hand into the black plastic. Gripping matted, blood-soaked hair, she pulled outa severed head, the scent of fresh, raw meat wafting up. Chalen’s laugh was the kind of thing that was going to stay with her. Low, satisЙed . and nostalgic. As if he wished he’d been the one to do the killing. “Clever, clever female,” he whispered.

That bony hand released its grip and pointed at the cold hearth. “Place it there. I have a spot for him.” Ahmare walked over to a spear that been inserted into a hole drilled in the stone Мoor. Lifting the head, she positioned the sharp tip at the base of the skull and shoved down. As she forced the impaling, she had to stare into the face of what she had killed: The eyes were open but sightless, the skin gray, the mouth loose and gruesome. Tendrils of tendons and ligaments, like the skirts of a jellyЙsh, hung down from where she had crudely severed the spinal column. It had been a hack job. She had never killed before. Never beheaded before.

And the eАort required to pop the top off the dandelion, so to speak, had been a sweaty, messy, horrific revelation. As she turned back around, she wanted to vomit. But the human had been a piece of shit, a drug dealer with no morals who had sold bad shit to children. Who had contaminated her brother with a false promise of Йnancial gain. Who made the colossal mistake of setting up and operationalizing a plan to cheat their supplier. Why did you make me do this, she thoughtat her brother. “Tell me what it was like to kill him,” Chalen ordered. There was a rapacious edge to the command, a hunger that needed feeding, a pilot light that burned within the wasted shell that would never, ever bring a pot to boil again. “Give me my brother,” she said grimly. “And I’ll take you through it step-by-step.

.

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