The Darkest Passion – Gena Showalter

“THEY DON’T SEEM TO CARE that they’re dying.” Aeron, an immortal warrior possessed by the demon of Wrath, was perched atop the roof of the Bübájos Apartments in central Budapest, peering down at the humans so blithely going about their evening. Some were shopping, some talking and laughing, and some snacking while they walked. But none of them were dropping to their knees and begging the gods for more time in those feeble bodies. Nor were they sobbing because they wouldn’t get it. He shifted his focus from the people to their surroundings. Muted moonlight spilled from the sky, blending with the amber glow of the street lamps and casting shadows on the paved pathways. Buildings stretched on every side, some of the higher points wrapped in light green awnings, the perfect contrast to the emerald trees rising from their bases. Pretty, as far as coffins went. Humans knew they were fading. Hell, they grew up knowing they’d have to abandon everything and everyone they loved, and yet, as he’d already observed, they didn’t demand or even request more time. And that…fascinated him. Were Aeron to learn he’d soon be separated from his friends, the other demon-possessed warriors he’d spent the last few thousand years protecting, he would have done anything—yes, even beg—to change his fate. So why didn’t the mortals? What did they know that he did not? “They aren’t dying,” his friend Paris said from beside him. “They’re living while they have the chance.

” Aeron snorted. That wasn’t the answer he sought. For how could they live while they had the chance when their “chance” was a mere blink of time? “They’re frail. Easily destroyed. As you well know.” Cruel of him to say because Paris’s…girlfriend? Lover? Chosen female? Whatever she was, she’d recently been shot to death in front of Paris. Still, Aeron couldn’t regret his words. Paris was the keeper of Promiscuity, forced to bed a different human every day or he would weaken and die himself. He couldn’t afford to mourn the loss of one specific lover. Especially an enemy lover, which was what his little Sienna had been.

Aeron hated to admit it, but on some level, he was glad the woman was dead. She would have used Paris’s needs against him and ultimately ruined him. I, however, will ensure his safety always. It was a vow. The king of the gods had given Paris a choice: the return of his female’s soul or Aeron’s freedom from a horrific blood-craze that constantly danced thoughts of maiming and killing through his mind. Thoughts, he was ashamed to admit, he had acted upon. Over and over again. Because of that curse, Reyes, the keeper of the demon of Pain, had almost lost his beloved Danika. In fact, Aeron had been poised to strike that final blow, blade sharpened, raised…falling toward her pretty neck. But just before contact, Paris had chosen Aeron and the craze had instantly left him, sparing Danika’s life.

Part of Aeron still felt guilty about what had almost happened—and about the consequences of Paris’s choice. A guilt that was like acid in his bones, eating away at him. Paris now suffered while he reveled in his freedom. That didn’t mean he would show Paris mercy in this matter, however. He loved his friend too much for that. More than that, Aeron owed him. And Aeron always repaid his debts. Hence the reason they were on this roof. Taking care of Paris, though, was not an easy task. For the past six nights Aeron had carted his friend here amid ceaseless protests.

Paris had only to pick a woman, then Aeron would procure her and ensure the two were safe while they had sex. But each night the choice was made later. And later. Aeron had a feeling he and Paris would sit here and talk until sunrise this time. Had the now-depressed warrior eschewed these weak mortals as Aeron did, he would not currently be wishing for something he couldn’t have. He would not be desperate for it—and denied it for all eternity. Aeron sighed. “Paris,” he began. Then stopped. How should he proceed? “Your mourning must end.

” Good. To the point, just as he preferred. “It’s weakening you.” Paris ran his tongue over his teeth. “As if you’re one to talk about weakness. How many times have you been Wrath’s bitch? Countless. And in how many of those countless instances can you blame the gods? Only once. When that demon overtakes you, you lose all control of your actions. So don’t add hypocrisy to your list of sins, okay?” He didn’t take offense. Sadly, Paris’s claim was irrefutable.

Sometimes Wrath would seize control of Aeron’s body and fly him through town, striking at everyone within reach, hurting them and gorging on their terror. During those instances, Aeron was aware of what was happening, but unable to halt the carnage. Not that he always wanted the carnage to halt. Some people deserved what they got. But he did loathe losing control of his body, as if he were merely a puppet with strings. Or a monkey who danced on command. When he was reduced to such a state, he despised his demon—but not as much as he despised himself. Because with the hatred, he also experienced pride. In Wrath. Wresting the reins of control from him required power, and power of any kind was to be prized.

Still. The love-hate tug-of-war disturbed him. “You might not have meant to, but you’ve just proven my point,” he said, jumping back into conversation. “Weakness births destruction. No exceptions.” In Paris’s case, mourning was simply another word for distracted. And such distraction could prove fatal. “What does that have to do with me? What does that have to do with the humans down there?” Paris pointed. Big picture time. “Those people.

They age and deteriorate in a heartbeat of time.” “And?” “And let me finish. If you fall in love with one of them, you might have her for the better part of a century. Maybe, if disease or an accident do not befall her. But it will be a century spent watching her wither and die. And during it all, you’ll know an eternity without her awaits you.” “Such pessimism.” Paris tsked—hardly the reaction Aeron had expected. “You see it as a century spent losing that which you are unable to protect. I see it as a century spent enjoying a great blessing.

A blessing that will aid you the rest of eternity.” Aid? Absurd. When you lost something precious, the memories of it became a tormenting reminder of what you could never have again. Those memories added to your troubles, distracting you —unlike Paris, he wouldn’t wrap the word in a pretty bow—rather than strengthening you. Proof: that’s how he felt about Baden, keeper of Distrust and once his best friend. Long ago, he’d lost the man he’d loved more than he would have loved even a blood brother, and now, every time he was alone, he pictured Baden and wondered about what could have been. He didn’t want that for Paris. Forget big picture. Time for a little more mercilessness. “If you’re so capable of accepting loss, why do you still mourn Sienna?” A beam of moonlight hit Paris’s face, and Aeron saw that his eyes were slightly glazed.

Obviously, he’d been drinking. Again. “I didn’t have my century with her. I had but a few days.” Flat tone. Don’t stop now. “And if you had been given a hundred years with her before she died, you would now be at peace with her death?” There was a pause. He hadn’t thought so. “Enough!” Paris slammed a fist into the roof and the entire building shook. “I don’t want to talk about this anymore.

” Too bad. “Loss is loss. Weakness is weakness. If we don’t allow ourselves to grow attached to the humans, we won’t care when they leave us. If we harden our hearts, we won’t desire that which we cannot have. Our demons taught us that very well.” Each of their demons had once lived in hell and desired freedom, and so together they fought their way out. Only, they ended up exchanging one prison for another, and the second had been far worse than the first. Rather than enduring sulfur and flames as they had before, they spent a thousand years trapped inside Pandora’s box. A thousand years of darkness and desolation and pain.

They’d had no independence, no hope for something better. Had those demons been stronger, had they not craved that which was forbidden to them, they would not have been captured. Had Aeron been stronger of will, he would not later have helped open that box. Would not then have been cursed to house the very evil he had released inside his own body. Would not have been kicked from the heavens, the only home he’d ever known, to spend the rest of eternity in this chaotic land where nothing stayed the same. He would not have lost Baden while warring with Hunters—despicable mortals who abhorred the Lords, blaming them for the world’s evil. A friend just died of cancer? Of course the Lords were responsible. A teenage girl just discovered she was pregnant? The Lords had clearly struck again. Had he been stronger, he would not be caught up in that war once again, fighting, killing. Always killing.

“Have you ever yearned for a mortal?” Paris asked, drawing him from his dark thoughts. “Sexually?” A quiet laugh escaped him. “Welcome a female into my life one day, only to lose her the next? No.” He was smarter than that. “Who says you have to lose her?” Paris withdrew a flask from the inside of his leather jacket and took a long swig. More alcohol already? Clearly his little pep talk hadn’t done his friend a bit of good. After swallowing, Paris added, “Maddox has Ashlyn, Lucien has Anya, Reyes has Danika and now Sabin has Gwen. Even Gwen’s sister, Bianka the Terrible, has a lover. An angel I had to oilwrestle, but whatever. We won’t talk about that part.

” Oil-wrestling? Yes. Best to avoid. “Those couples have each other, but each of those women has an ability that sets her apart from the others of her kind. They’re more than human.” That didn’t mean they would live forever, though. Even immortals could be slain. He’d been the one to pick up Baden’s head—without the warrior’s body. He’d been the one to first glimpse that eternally frozen expression of shock. “Well, hello, solution. Find a female with an ability that sets her apart,” Paris said dryly.

As if it were that easy. Besides… “I have Legion, and she’s all I can handle at the moment.” He pictured the little demon so like a daughter to him and grinned. When standing, she only reached his waist. She had green scales, two tiny horns that had just sprouted atop her head and sharp teeth that produced poisonous saliva. Tiaras were her favorite accessory and living flesh her favorite meal. The first he enjoyed indulging, the second they were working on. Aeron had met her in hell. Well, as close to the blistering pit as a man could get without actually melting inside its flames. He’d been chained next door, so to speak, drunk with that cursed bloodlust, determined to slay even his friends, when Legion had dug her way to him, her presence somehow clearing his mind, giving him the strength he so prized.

She’d helped him escape, and they’d been together ever since. Except for now. His precious baby girl had returned to hell, a place she despised, all because an honest-to-the-gods angel had been watching Aeron, skulking in the shadows, invisible, waiting for… something. What, he didn’t know. He only knew that intense gaze wasn’t on him right now, but it would return. It always did. And Legion couldn’t stand it. He leaned back and peered up at the night sky. The stars were vivid tonight, like diamonds scattered across black satin. Sometimes, when he craved even the illusion of solitude, he would soar as high as his wings would take him and then fall, fast and sure, only slowing seconds before impact.

As Paris downed another mouthful of his liquor, the scent of ambrosia wafted on the breeze, as gentle and sweet as baby’s breath. Aeron shook his head. Ambrosia was his friend’s drug of choice, the only thing capable of numbing mind and body for men such as them, but its use was getting out of hand, making the once fierce soldier sloppy. With Galen, leader of the Hunters and a demon-possessed warrior like them, roaming the streets, he needed his friend lucid at the very least. Factor in the angel, and well, he needed his friend in top fighting form. Angels, as he’d recently learned, were demon-assassins. Did this angel want to kill him? He wasn’t sure, and Bianka’s consort, Lysander, wouldn’t tell him. But then, the answer really didn’t matter. He planned to gut the coward, male or female, the moment it grew some balls and appeared in front of him. No one separated him from Legion.

Not without suffering for it. Legion could even now be hurting, mentally and physically. At the thought, Aeron’s hands clenched so tightly the bones nearly fractured. The little darling’s brethren enjoyed taunting her for her kindness and compassion. They also enjoyed chasing her, and gods knew what they’d do to her if they actually caught her. “Much as you love Legion,” Paris began, once again dragging Aeron from the sharply tangled mire of his thoughts. He tossed a stone at the building across from them before draining the rest of the flask. “She can’t meet all your needs.” Meaning sex. Could they not abandon this topic once and for all? Aeron sighed.

He hadn’t bedded a woman in years, perhaps centuries. They simply weren’t worth the effort. Because of Wrath, his desire to hurt them soon outweighed his desire to please them. More, as tattooed and battle-hardened as Aeron was, he had to work for every scrap of affection he received. Females were scared of him —and rightly so. Softening them required time and patience he didn’t have. After all, there were a thousand other, more important things he could be doing. Things like training, guarding his home, guarding his friends. Indulging Legion’s every whim. “I have no such needs.

” And for the most part, that was true. Disciplined as he was, he rarely indulged in pleasures of the flesh. Only time he did so was while alone. “I have everything I desire. Now, did we come here to share our feelings or find you a lover?” With a growl, Paris tossed the empty flask as he’d tossed the stone. It slammed into the building’s wall, plumes of dust and rock filling the air. “One day, someone’s going to fascinate you, draw and ensnare you, and you’ll crave her with every cell in your body. I hope she drives you insane. I hope, for a little while at least, she denies you, leading you on a merry chase. Perhaps then you’ll understand a glimmer of my pain.

” “If that’s what’s necessary to repay the favor you did me, then I’ll gladly endure such a fate. I’ll even beseech the gods for it.” Aeron couldn’t imagine ever wanting a female, immortal or human, so much that it disrupted his life. He wasn’t like the other warriors, who constantly sought companionship. He truly was happiest when he was alone. Or rather, alone with Legion. Besides, he was too proud to chase after someone who didn’t return his ardor. But he’d meant what he said. For Paris, he’d endure anything. “Did you hear that, Cronus?” he shouted to the heavens.

“Send me a female. One who will torment me. One who will deny me.” “Cocky bastard.” Paris chuckled. “What if he actually sends you this unattainable female?” Gods, that amusement pleased him. It was so like the old Paris. “Doubtful.” Cronus wanted the warriors focused on defeating Galen. Which had been his obsession ever since Danika had predicted the god king would die by Galen’s hand.

As the All-Seeing Eye, Danika’s predictions were always accurate. Even the bad ones. But there was a silver lining: those visions could be used to elicit change. At least in theory. “But what if?” Paris prompted when his silence dragged on too long. “If Cronus answers my plea, I’ll enjoy the ride,” Aeron lied with a grin. “Now, enough about me. Let’s do what we came here to do.” He sat up and peered down at the street, scanning the thinning crowd. To preserve the roads, cars weren’t allowed in this part of town, so everyone had to hoof it.

That’s why he’d picked this location. Pulling a female out of a moving vehicle wasn’t something he enjoyed. This way, Paris had only to make his selection and Aeron would spread his wings and fly the warrior down. One glance at the gorgeous blue-eyed devil, and the chosen female would stop and gasp. Sometimes a smile was all that was needed to convince her to strip, right there in public, where anyone lurking in the alleyways could watch. “You won’t find anyone,” Paris said. “I’ve already looked.” “What about…her?” He pointed to a plump, scantily dressed blonde. “No.” No hesitation.

“Too…obvious.” Here we go again, he thought with dread, but gestured to another woman. “And her?” This one was tall and perfectly curved with a short cap of red hair. And she was dressed conservatively. “No. Too mannish.” “What the hell does that mean?” “That I don’t want her. Next.” For the ensuing hour, Aeron pointed out potential bedmates and Paris shot them down for various —ridiculous—reasons. Too pristine, too rumpled, too tan, too pale.

The only rejection that mattered was “I’ve had her before” and as many as Paris had had, Aeron heard that one a lot. “You’re going to have to settle on one eventually. Why not save us both the hassle, close your eyes and point. Whoever you’re pointing at will be our winner.” “I’ve played that game once before. Ended up—” Paris shuddered. “Never mind. It’s not good to wander down that particular memory trail. So no. Just no.

” “What about—” His words halted abruptly as the woman he’d been eyeballing disappeared in the shadows. She hadn’t faded from view, as was natural. Normal. She had simply ceased to exist, there one moment, gone the next, the shadows somehow tugged to her as if they’d been jerked on a leash. Aeron jumped to his feet, wings automatically pushing from the slits in his bare back and expanding. “We have a problem.” “What’s wrong?” Paris, too, sprang to his feet. Even though he wavered slightly from the ambrosia, he was still a soldier and palmed a dagger. “The dark-haired female. Did you see her?” “Which one?” That answered Aeron’s question.

No, Paris hadn’t seen her. If he had, the warrior wouldn’t have needed to ask of whom Aeron spoke. “Come on.” Aeron snaked his arms around his friend’s waist and leapt from the building. Wind blasted through Paris’s multicolored locks, whipping several strands against his face as the ground loomed closer…closer still… “Be on the lookout for a woman with shoulder-length black hair, straight as a pin, roughly five-ten, early twenties, black clothing. Most likely she’s more than human.” “Kill?” “Capture. I have questions for her.” Like how she’d disappeared like that. Like why she was here.

Like who she worked for. Immortals always had an agenda. Just before they hit concrete and stone, Aeron flapped his wings. He slowed just enough to land upright with only a mild jarring. He released his charge, and they instantly branched in separate directions. After thousands of years of fighting together, they knew how to proceed without first outlining every move. As Aeron sprinted down the alleyway to his left, the direction the woman had been heading, he folded his wings back under their slits. He spotted several people—a couple holding hands, a homeless male draining a bottle of whiskey, a man walking his dog—but no dark-haired female. He reached a brick wall and spun. Damn this.

Was she like Lucien? Able to whisk herself to any location with only a thought? Scowling, he kicked back into motion. He’d search every alley in the area if need be. Only, halfway down, the shadows around him thickened, consuming him, choking out the golden glow of the street lamps. Thousands of muted screams seemed to seep from the gloom. Tortured screams. Agonized screams. He stopped, lest he slam into something—or someone—and palmed two blades. What the hell was— A woman—the woman—stepped from the shadows, only a few feet away from him. She was the only light in that sudden, vast expanse of dark. Her eyes were as black as the gloom around her, her lips as red and moist as blood.

She was pretty, in a feral kind of way. Wrath hissed inside his head. For a moment, Aeron feared Cronus had actually listened to him after all and sent a female to torment him. But as he stared over at her, there was no heat in his veins, no flutter in his heartbeat, as he’d heard the other Lords expound on whenever one found a female he just “had to have.” She was like any other to him: easily forgettable. “Well, well, well. Aren’t I a lucky girl. You’re one of them, a Lord of the Underworld, and you came to me,” she said, her voice as raspy as smoke. “I didn’t even have to ask.” “I am a Lord, yes.

” There was no reason to deny it. The townspeople recognized him and the others on sight. Some even thought they were angels. Hunters recognized them on sight, as well, but were all too quick to renounce them as demons. Either way, the information could hardly be used against him. “And I did come looking for you.” At his easy confirmation, her features revealed a hint of surprise. “A great honor, to be sure. Why were you looking?” “I want to know who are you.” Better question—what was she? “Maybe I’m not as lucky as I thought.

” Those lush red lips dipped into a pout and she pretended to wipe away a tear. “If my own brother doesn’t recognize me.” Well, he now had part of his answer: she was a liar. “I don’t have a sister.” She arched a black brow. “You sure about that?” “Yes.” He hadn’t been born to a mother and father; Zeus, King of the Greek gods, had simply spoken him into existence. Same with all the Lords. “Stubborn.” She tsked, reminding him of Paris.

“I should’ve known we’d be just alike. Anyway, it’s so nice to finally catch one of you alone. Who’d I get? Fury? Narcissism? I’m right, aren’t I? Admit it, you’re Narcissism. That’s why you plastered your body with tattoos of your own face. Nice. Can I call you Narci?” Fury? Narcissism? None of his brothers carried those demons. Doubt, Disease, Misery and many others, yes, but not those. He shook his head—only to remember that other demon-possessed immortals were out there. Immortals he’d never met. Immortals he was supposed to find.

As he and his friends had been the ones to open Pandora’s box, they’d always assumed they were the only ones cursed to house its evil. But Cronus had recently corrected that false assumption, gifting the Lords with scrolls bearing the names of others like them. Apparently, there had been more demons than warriors, and with the box nowhere to be found, the Greeks—the gods in power at the time—had placed the remaining demons inside the immortal prisoners of Tartarus. A discovery that did not bode well for the Lords. As Zeus’s former elite sentries, they’d locked many of those prisoners away—and criminals often lived only for vengeance. Something Wrath had taught him well. “Hello,” the woman prompted. “Anyone home?” He blinked down at her, cursing himself. He’d allowed himself to be distracted in the presence of a possible enemy. Fool.

“Who I am is none of your concern.” That was information that could be used against him. Especially since lately, Wrath was so easily provoked the most innocent of statements could send it—and therefore Aeron—into that murderous craze, placing this town and all of its citizens in danger. He blamed the angel stalking him. Except he couldn’t blame the angel when Wrath began snarling inside his mind, clawing at his skull, desperate to act. To hurt. The demon’s keenest ability was, and had always been, sensing the sins of anyone nearby. And this woman’s, he suddenly realized, were vast. “I’ll take your sudden black expression as a no. You’re not Narci, and no one’s home.

” “Stop…talking…” He gripped his temples, cool blades pressed against his skin, trying to stop the mental bombardment he knew was coming, another distraction he could ill afford. Useless. Her multitude of sins played through his head at once, like movies on split screens. She had recently tortured a man, had chained him to a chair and set him on fire. Before that, she had gutted a female. She had tricked, and she had stolen. Had abducted a child from his home. Had lured a male to her bed and sliced his throat. Violence…so much violence…so much terror and pain and darkness. He could hear the screams of her victims, could smell burnt flesh and taste blood.

Perhaps she’d had good reason for doing those things. Perhaps not. Either way, Wrath wanted to punish her, using her own crimes against her. First it would chain her, then gut her, then slice her throat and set her on fire. That was the way of Aeron’s demon. It beat beaters, murdered murderers, as well as everything in between. So yes, at Wrath’s urging, Aeron had done those things. Many times. Now, he clenched every muscle in his body, locking his bones in place. Steady.

Can’t lose control. Have to stay sane. But gods, the need to castigate…so strong…a need he liked more than he should have. As usual. “Why are you here in Budapest, woman?” Good. That was good. Slowly he lowered his arms. “Wow,” she said, ignoring his question. “That was quite a display of restraint.” She’d known his demon wanted to hurt her? “So let me guess.

” She tapped a nail against her chin. “You’re not Narci, so you have to be… Chauvinist. Right again, aren’t I? You think a pretty little thing like me can’t handle the truth. Mistake. But no matter. Keep your secrets. You’ll learn, though. Oh, yes, you’ll learn.” “Are you threatening me, female?” Again she ignored him. “Word on the street is Cronus gave you the scrolls and you plan to use them to hunt us down. To use us. Perhaps even slay us.” Aeron’s stomach bottomed out. One, she knew about the scrolls when he and his friends had only just learned of them. Two, she knew she was on that list. Which meant this woman was indeed an immortal—and a criminal—and if she was to be believed, she was also demon-possessed. Aeron didn’t recognize her, which meant he and his friends hadn’t been the ones to imprison her. That meant she’d come before their time in the heavens. And that meant she was a Titan and a greater threat, for the Titans were far more savage than their Greek counterparts. Worse, the now-freed Titans were currently in charge. She might have godly help. “Which demon do you carry?” he demanded, not above using its weaknesses against her. She offered a wicked grin, his hard tone clearly amusing her. “You didn’t share that information with me. Why should I share anything with you?” Infuriating woman. “You said us.” He looked over her shoulder, half expecting someone to leap forward and attack him. All he saw was darkness…and all he heard were more of those muted screams. “Where are these others?” “Hell if I know.” She splayed her arms, her hands out and empty, as if she didn’t think he warranted the use of a weapon. “I’m on my own, just like always, and that’s the way I like it.” Probably another lie. What woman would approach a fearsome Lord of the Underworld without backup? He didn’t relax his guard as he met her gaze. “If you’re here to war with us, know that—” “War?” She laughed. “When I could kill you all while you sleep? No, I’m just here to deliver a warning. Call off the dogs or I’ll wipe your presence from this world. And if anyone can do so, it’s me.” After the things he’d seen in his mind, he believed her. She attacked in gloom, a phantom who delivered no warning. Without a doubt, there was no crime she found too vile. That didn’t mean he was going to heed her demands. “You might think yourself powerful, but you can’t defeat us all. War is what you’ll get if you continue to issue such warnings.” “Whatever, warrior. I said what I wanted to say. You just better pray this is the last time you see me.” The shadows thickened again, enveloping her and leaving absolutely no sign of her presence. Until, right next to his ear, he heard, “Oh, and one last thing. This was my courtesy call. Next time, I won’t play nice.” Then the world around him crashed back into focus: the buildings at his sides, the trash bags littering the concrete, the inebriated male now passed out cold. Finally, Wrath calmed. Aeron remained on alert, eyes scanning, body ready. He listened, heard only the deliberate drags of his own breath, the patter of human footsteps beyond the alley and the song of night birds. Once more his wings expanded and he shot into the air, determined to find Paris and return to their fortress. The other Lords had to be notified. Whoever the bloodthirsty female was, whatever else she could do, she needed to be dealt with. Soon.

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