The Darkest Secret – Gena Showalter

STRIDER, KEEPER OF THE DEMON of Defeat, burst through the towering front doors of the Budapest fortress he shared with a growing cast of friends—brothers and sisters by circumstance rather than blood, but all the closer for it—fighting a rush of undeniable pleasure. He’d freaking done it, man. Done. It. After chasing his enemy cross-continent, bargaining away one of the four godly relics needed to find and destroy Pandora’s box—and yeah, he was gonna get spanked hard for that—then, after being eaten alive by insects and at one point (cough) walking into a chick’s knife (cough), he’d finally won. And damn if he wasn’t ready to celebrate. “I’m king of the world, bitches. Come in here and bask in my glory.” His voice echoed through the foyer, expectant, eager. No one returned the greeting. Still. Grinning, he shifted the unconscious female draped over his shoulder into a more comfortable position. More comfortable for him. She was the enemy he’d been chasing, as well as the chick who’d oh, so impolitely introduced his pancreas to the freaking hilt of her blade. He could hardly wait to tell everyone that he’d done what they hadn’t.

He’d bagged and tagged her, baby. He called, “Daddy’s home. Somebody? Anybody?” Again, there was no response. His grin dulled a bit. Damn it. When he lost a single challenge, he battled crippling pain for days. When he won, though…gods, it was almost a sexual high, energy buzzing in his veins, heating him, priming him. That kind of enthusiasm called for a playmate. And, hell, twelve warriors and their menagerie of female companions lived here, yet no one had waited around to welcome him home? Even though the grounds were now gated, monitored and someone had had to punch him in, like, five minutes ago? Didn’t that just figure. But he deserved it, he supposed.

Seven days had passed since he’d last texted or phoned. Technically, though, that wasn’t his fault. He’d been a wee bit preoccupied, what with subduing his bundle of anything but joy. And on his last update, he’d been told the danger here had passed and everyone could return, so he’d stopped the I-have-to-know-how-everyone’s-doing flurry of calls. So, fine. No biggie. The fact that no one wanted to play actually did him a solid. Now he could take care of a little business. “Thanks, guys. You’re the best.

Really.” And you can all suck it! Strider surged forward. To console himself, he imagined his prisoner’s expression when she woke up and found herself trapped in a four-by-four cage. Now that’s the good stuf . Then his gaze snagged on his unfamiliar surroundings, and the last vestiges of his grin fell away. He stopped abruptly. He’d been gone only a few weeks, and he’d thought most of the others had been, too, but in that time someone had managed to turn the run-down monstrosity they called home into a showpiece. Once comprised of crumbling stone and mortar, the floor was now brilliant white marble veined with amber. Equally deteriorated walls were now vividly polished rosewood. Before, the winding staircase had been cracked; now it gleamed, not a flaw in sight, an unblemished gold railing climbing to the top.

In the corner, a white velvet-lined chair was pushed against reflective paneling, and beyond that, priceless artifacts—colorful vases, bejeweled trinket boxes and aged spearheads—were perched behind glass cases. None of which had been there before. All these changes, in less than a month? Seemed impossible, even with Titan gods popping in and out at will. Maybe because those gods were more concerned with murder and mayhem than interior decorating. But maybe…maybe while Strider had been congratulating himself on a job well done, he’d entered the wrong house? It had happened before. And talk about awkward. There was no way to explain the cut, bruised and soot-covered baggage he was hauling around. Not without a little jail time. Explaining the blood splatter on his clothing would be a real treat, too. Nah, he decided a second later.

This was the right place. Had to be. Along the staircase wall hung a portrait of Sabin, keeper of Doubt. Naked. Only one person had the balls to taunt badass Sabin with something like that. Anya, goddess of Anarchy and dealer of disorder, who just happened to be engaged to Lucien, keeper of Death. Odd pair, if you asked Strider, but no one had, so he’d kept the opinion to himself. Besides, better silence than the loss of a favorite appendage. Anya didn’t take kindly to anyone second-guessing her. About anything.

“Yo, Tor Tor,” he shouted now. Torin, the keeper of the demon of Disease. Dude never left the fortress. He was always here, monitoring camera feed, ensuring the home remained invasion-free, as well as playing on his computers and making their miniature, by-invitation-only army a shitload of cha-ching. At first, there was no reply, only another echo of his voice, and Strider began to worry. Had something catastrophic happened? A total demon wipeout? If so, why was he still here? Or had Kane, keeper of All Kinds of Bad Shit, had a crappy week and— Footsteps pounded, closer and closer, and relief flooded him. He looked up the staircase, and there was Torin, standing on a zebra-print rug Strider also didn’t recall seeing before, his white hair shagging around his devil’s face, his green eyes bright as emeralds. “Welcome home,” Torin said, adding, “You shithead.” “Nice greeting.” “You don’t call, you don’t write, and you want hearts and flowers?” “Yeah, I do.

” “Figures.” Torin wore black from neck to toe, his hands covered by soft leather gloves. Fashion-wise, those gloves were overkill. To save mankind, though, they were kinda necessary. A single touch of Torin’s skin against another’s, and hello plague. Guy’s demon pumped some kind of disease in his veins, that single touch all that was needed to spread it. Even to Strider. But immortal as he was, Strider wouldn’t die from a little cough/fever/vomiting of blood. Not like humans, who would be ravaged, perhaps worldwide, the infection becoming nearly unstoppable. Strider would give the illness to everyone he touched in turn, though, and as he moderately enjoyed seducing humans, he relied on skin-to-skin action.

“So, everything good here?” Strider asked. “Everyone fine?” “Now you want to know?” “Yeah.” “Figures. Well, for the most part, all’s well. A lot of the guys are out hiding artifacts, and looking for the last one. Those who aren’t are hunting Galen.” Torin took the stairs two at a time and stopped at the bottom, remaining out of striking distance. As always. His gaze flicked to the female, and amusement expanded his pupils, hiding whatever emotion had been banked there before. “So you’re the next of us to fall in love, huh? Sucker! I thought you’d have more sense.

” “Please. I want nothing to do with this raging bitch.” A lie. During their seemingly eternal trek, he’d found himself desiring her more and more. And hating himself more and more. She might be sex walking, but she was also death waiting. Too-pretty-to-be-male lips curved in sheer delight. “That’s what Maddox said about Ashlyn. What Lucien said about Anya. What Reyes said about Danika.

What Sabin—” “Okay, okay. I get it.” Strider rolled his eyes. “You can shut up now.” While he would admit the girl’s punked-out style appealed to him, he’d never be dumb enough to try and tap that. He liked his women compliant. And sane. Liar. You like this one. Just as she is.

He wished he could blame his demon for that admission, but… Even now, simply thinking about her, his body was tensing, readying. Torin crossed his arms over his chest. “So what is she? A human with a supernatural ability? A goddess? A Harpy?” The guys here did have a propensity for choosing females of “myth” and “legend.” Females far more powerful than their demons. Ashlyn could hear voices of the past, Anya could start fires with her mind (among other things), Danika could see into heaven and hell, and Sabin’s wife, Gwen… well, she had a dark side you saw just before you died. Painfully. “My friend, what I’ve got here is a bona fide Hunter.” Strider slapped her ass as if a fly was perched there and he couldn’t live another second without smashing it. The action was a reminder that she meant nothing to him. Although why he didn’t tell his friend which Hunter she was, when he’d been so excited before, he didn’t know.

Actually, he did know. Fatigue. Yeah, he was tired, that was all, and didn’t want to have to deal with all the praise. Tomorrow, after a nice long rest, he’d spill everything. The girl offered no reaction to his slap, but then, he hadn’t expected her to. He’d repeatedly drugged her as he’d dragged her from one corner of the world to the other. From Rome to Greece to New York to L.A. and finally to Budapest, leading her brethren on a merry chase as they attempted to save her. Something they would never do.

We won! his demon laughed. Damn right we did. He shivered in delight. “Hunter?” All amusement fled his friend’s face, the light dying in his eyes, turning those emeralds into sharp, deadly blades. “Afraid so.” Hunters. Their greatest enemy. The fanatics who wanted to destroy them. The bastards who considered them evil, beyond redemption, and the scourge of the earth. The assholes who blamed them for all the world’s heartache.

Best yet, they were the militia Strider was going to send to the hottest depths of hell, one soldier at a time. Or, with grenades, a few hundred at a time. Depended on his mood, he supposed. “You should have offed her already,” Torin remarked. “Now Sabin will want to talk with her.” “Talk” equaled torture in Sabin’s mind. “I know he will. That’s why she’s still alive.” She knew things about the gods pulling their strings, and could do things, impossible things, like cause weapons to materialize from thin air. Something only angel warriors could do.

Or so he’d thought. Problem was, she wasn’t an angel. And not just because she lacked wings. Girl had a temper. Strider wanted to know how much she knew and how she did what she did. More than that, he hadn’t been able to do his job—aka dispose of Hunter trash—when he’d been alone with her. Every time he’d tried, he’d looked at her beautiful face and hesitated. The hesitation had given way to desire, and he’d started battling urges to kiss her rather than “off” her. Sabin wouldn’t let him get away with that shit. Sabin would ride his ass until he acted.

Strider would have no choice but to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the park. Because… His hands curled into fists. Because this woman, this walking atrocity… His teeth gritted, and his jaw clenched so tightly the ache shot through his temples and straight into his brain. He experienced the same reaction every time he considered what she’d once done. This woman had helped decapitate his friend Baden, once keeper of the demon of Distrust. Strider could never forget or forgive that fact. The savage beheading had taken place thousands of years ago, but the pain inside him was as fresh as if it had happened this morning. Along with his friend, a piece of his own soul had died that day, and as the girl had learned during their trek to this fortress, a good portion of his heart had withered, too. Mercy wasn’t something he possessed. Not anymore.

Most especially not for her. He thought he’d killed her in vengeance already, all those centuries ago. Recalled the slash of his blade, the crimson tide of her blood and the metallic stench of death wafting on the air. The sound of her body slamming into rock, her last gurgle of breath. Yet here she was, alive and well and driving him flipping insane. Maybe he had killed her. Maybe she’d been reborn. Or maybe her soul had been stuffed inside another body. Or maybe this chick was more immortal than he was and had somehow healed after the beheading. He didn’t know, didn’t care.

All that mattered was that she was Hadiee of ancient Greece. Well, she called herself Haidee now. From Hade-ay to Hay-dee. Evidently she’d changed the spelling and pronunciation for “modernization.” Not that he gave a shit. He called her Ex, short for Demon Executioner, and that was that. The proof of her crimes rested in her eyes. Those wintry, callous gray eyes. In the pride that dripped from her voice every time she spoke of that fateful night—I just loved the way his head rolled. Didn’t you?—and the stark tattoos etched into her back.

Tattoos that kept score. Haidee 1. Lords 4. She deserved everything he and Sabin would do to her. “I’m taking her to the dungeon,” he said, and he’d never heard such a combination of relish and regret in his own voice before. Once again he started forward, throwing over his shoulder, “If you’d be a sweetheart and let Doubty-Poo know…” “No can do, Stridey-man. There’s, uh, something you gotta see.” A blast of fear mixed with dread and grim expectation accompanied the words. Strider halted, one foot raised midair. He straightened, still-sleeping baggage nearly sliding to the ground.

Slowly he turned, adjusting Ex, and faced Torin, his own sense of dread sprouting as he spied his friend’s now pallid skin. White dusted with tiny rivers of blue. “You said everything was fine. What’s wrong?” Torin shook his head. “No way to explain until you’ve seen. And I said everything was fine for the most part. Now come on.” “The girl—” “Bring her. She’ll be guarded, you’ll see.” A wave of Torin’s hand, and he was racing up the stairs, taking them two at a time.

Dread increasing, Strider followed, Ex bouncing on his shoulder. If she’d been awake, she would have lost her breath, over and over again, grunting from the pain of having her stomach repeatedly slammed into his bone. She also would have fought him with a skill matched by few. Too bad the drugs had been so potent. A good fight would have settled his nerves. What was so important that Torin didn’t want him taking a few minutes to lock an abominable Hunter away? His thoughts splintered the moment he hit the landing. All he could do was gape. Angels. So many angels. No wonder the house had been redecorated.

Divine intervention and all that. Angels did like them some pretties. They stood along the wall, the only space between them filled by the arch of their wings. White feathers laced with gold, the wings of warriors. Their scents perfumed the air, a collage of orchids, morning dew, chocolate and champagne. They ranged in height, though none were shorter than six foot three, and though they wore girly white robes, their muscle mass rivaled Strider’s. Most were male, but all were demon assassins trained to hunt, to destroy, and when warranted, to protect. Since they didn’t rush at him, ripping swords of fire from the air, as he knew they were very capable of doing, he assumed they were here for the latter. He studied them, searching for answers. Twenty-three in total, but not one of them glanced in his direction.

They kept their eyes straight ahead, their stances taut, their hands anchored behind their backs. Not a sound did they make. Not even the rasp of breath. Physically, they…entranced him. And yeah, it was embarrassing as hell to admit that, even to himself. But the sheer magnetism of them was stunning. Hypnotic. A drug for his eyes. They possessed all different shades of hair. From the darkest of midnight to the palest of snow, but his favorite was the gold.

So pure, so fluid, a king’s ransom that had been melted and mixed with the dazzle of summer sun. Rich, vibrant. Almost…alive. No way he’d be teasing any of them about such prissy locks, though. They might not be attacking him, might not even be looking at him, but death radiated from them. Someone cleared his throat. Strider blinked, Torin coming back into focus. His friend occupied the center of the hallway. Probably had the entire time, only Strider had lost sight of anything but the angels the moment he’d spied them. Yep.

Em-bar-rass-ing. “Why?” was all he asked. Torin understood. “Aeron and William took Amun into hell on a rescue mission. And yeah, they got Legion out of there. She’s alive, healing, but Amun…” Strider filled in the rest and wanted to punch a hole in the wall. The keeper of Secrets had new voices in his head. He’d been with Amun for thousands upon thousands of years. Eons, what seemed countless millennia. He knew the warrior’s demon absorbed the darkest thoughts and deepest mysteries of anyone nearby.

Things long buried, horrific, gruesome. Unwanted, humiliating. Soul-changing. And if Amun had been in hell, where demons roamed in their purest form, his head was now churning with all kinds of evil. Malevolent whispers, wicked images, both drowning the essence of who he was. Or rather, who he’d been. “The angels?” Strider gritted out. Yeah, he knew it was rude to discuss the beings as if they weren’t there, but he simply didn’t give a shit. He didn’t love many people, but he loved the other demon-possessed residents of this fortress. Even more than he loved himself, and that was a whole hell of a lot.

“They wanted to kill him, but—” “Fuck no!” he roared. Anyone touched his friend, and they’d lose their hands—followed by their limbs, their organs and, when he tired of torturing them, their lives. He hefted Ex off his shoulder and into his arms before easing her to the floor and stalking forward, already reaching for a blade. Defeat sensed his need to destroy and laughed. Win! “Stop.” Torin raised his arm to ward him off, even as he backtracked to maintain distance. “Let me finish, damn it! They wanted to kill him, were supposed to kill him, but they haven’t. Won’t.” Yet hung in the air like a noose around his neck. Strider chose to ignore that noose—for the moment—and stopped, already panting and sweating with the force of his instant and white-hot rage.

Win? his demon whined. No challenge has been issued. Therefore, he could back off without consequences. Oh, he thought he heard, a whole lot of disappointment in the undertone. “Why are they here, then?” he snapped, demanding an answer now. Or else. Green eyes grew shadowed as Torin shifted from one foot to the other. His mouth opened and closed, the right explanation eluding him perhaps. “Amun didn’t just absorb new memories. He absorbed demon minions.

Hundreds of them.” “How? How the fuck is that possible? I’ve lived with him for centuries, and he’s never absorbed my demon.” “Nor mine. But ours are High Lords who can bind themselves to humans. Those were mere underlings, and as you know, they can only bind themselves to, what? High Lords. Which they did, to his. He’s…tainted now, a danger far worse than the brush of my skin. The angels are guarding him. Limiting the contact he has with others, ensuring he doesn’t leave and…hurt. Himself, humans.

” Strider scowled. Amun rarely spoke, containing the secrets he unwittingly stole inside himself so that no one else would have to deal with them, fear them or be sickened by them. A grueling burden few could carry. Yet he did it because there was no one more concerned with the well-being of those around him. So, a danger? No. Strider refused to believe it. “Explain better,” he commanded, offering Torin another chance to convince him. Since they’d reunited a few months ago after centuries apart, he knew Torin was used to his smiles and jokes, but Disease didn’t flinch at Strider’s new vehemence. “Evil seeps from him. Just going into his room, you’ll feel its sticky gloom.

You’ll crave things.” He shuddered. “Bad things. And you won’t be able to simply wish the disgusting desires away. They’ll cling to you for days.” Strider still didn’t care and still wouldn’t believe it. “I want to see him.” Only the slightest hesitation, as if the decree had been expected, then Torin nodded. “But the girl…” His words trailed off. Behind him, there was a rustle of clothing, a feminine moan.

Strider whipped around in time to see one of the angels lifting Ex into his arms and carrying her toward the unclaimed bedroom next to Amun’s. He almost rushed forward and ripped her away from the heavenly creature. He’d dealt with an angel before— Lysander, leader of these warriors and the worst of the worst when it came to dogooders—and knew such beings wouldn’t understand the depths of his hatred for the woman. They would see Haidee as an innocent human in need of sweet, tender care. But Amun was far more important than any Hunter’s treatment, so Strider remained in place. “Just so you know, she’s worse than a demon,” he said, a lethal edge sharpening the truth in his tone. “So if you want to protect your charges, you’ll guard her like you’re guarding Amun. But don’t kill her,” he added before he could stop himself. Not that they would have. Still.

A guy had to state his wants up front, so there would be no confusion later. “She has…information we need.” The angel paused in his stride, head turning to Strider with unerring precision. Like Torin, his eyes were green. Unlike Torin, there were no shadows in them. Only clear, bright flames, crackling, intense…ready to strike like a bolt of lightning. “I sense her infection.” His voice was deep, with the barest hint of smoke. “I will ensure she does not leave the fortress. And that she continues to live.

For now.” Infection? Strider knew nothing about an infection, but again, he didn’t care. “Thank you.” And hell, had he ever thought to thank a demon assassin for anything? Well, besides Aeron’s Olivia. With a shake of his head, he wiped Ex and everything else from his thoughts and marched forward, trailing behind Torin. At the end of the hallway, the last door on the right, Torin paused, drew in a sorrowful breath, and twisted the knob. “Be careful in there.” Then he moved aside, allowing Strider to breeze past him without a single moment of contact. First thing Strider noticed was the air. Thick and dark, he could almost smell the brimstone…the bodies charred to ash.

And the sounds…oh, gods, the sounds. Screams that scraped at his ears, muted, yet in no way forgettable. Thousands upon thousands of demons danced together, creating a dizzying chorus of agony. He stopped at the foot of the bed, peering down. Amun writhed atop the mattress, clutching his ears, moaning and groaning. No, Strider realized a moment later. Those moans and groans weren’t coming from his friend. They were coming from him. Amun was silent, his mouth open in an endless cry he couldn’t quite release. His dark skin was clawed to ribbons, those ribbons tattered and dried with blood both old and new.

As an immortal soldier, he healed quickly. But those wounds…they looked as if they’d scabbed over, only to be ripped apart again. And again. And his butterfly tattoo, the mark of his demon, had once wrapped around his right calf. Only now, that tattoo moved. Sliding up his leg, undulating on his stomach, breaking apart to form hundreds of tiny butterflies, reconnecting into one, then disappearing behind his back. How? Why? Shaking, Strider studied his friend’s face. Amun’s lashes were fused together as if stitched, and the sockets underneath were so swollen he could have smuggled golf balls in there. Oh, gods. Sickness churned in Strider’s stomach, pushing bile into his throat.

He knew what that swelling meant, recognized the pattern blunted nails had left behind. Amun had tried to pluck out his own eyes. To stop the images forming behind them? That was the last coherent thought Strider had. The last thought he controlled. The darkness shrouded him completely, burrowing into him, filling his mind, consuming him. There were knives strapped all over his body, he recalled. He should palm them, use them. Slice, oh, how he would slice. Himself, Amun. The angels outside the room.

Then the world. Blood would flow, an ever-thickening crimson. Flesh would peel like dried, rotted paint, and bone would snap in two, tiny shards falling to the floor, merely dust to be swept away. He would drink the blood and eat the bones, but they wouldn’t be what sustained him. No, he would live off the shrieks and squeals his actions provoked. He would bathe in terror, exult in grief. And he would laugh, oh, how he would laugh. He laughed now, the chilling sound like music to him. Defeat wasn’t sure how to react. The demon cackled, then whimpered, then sank to the back of Strider’s mind.

Afraid? Be afraid. Something strong and hard banded around his forearms and jerked him backward, dragging him kicking and shouting out of the darkness and into light. Such bright light. His eyes teared, burned. But with the tears, with the burn, the images in his head washed clean and withered to cinder. Somewhat. Strider blinked into focus. He was trembling violently, glazed with perspiration, his palms bleeding because he had grabbed his knives. Was still holding them. Only, he’d squeezed them by their blades, cutting through tendon into bone.

The pain was severe but manageable as he opened his fingers and the weapons clattered to the floor. One of the angels stood behind him, another in front of him. They were glowing from within, like twin suns just freed from a too-long eclipse; he fought to breathe, managed to suck in one mouthful of oxygen, then two. Thank the gods. No brimstone, no ash. Only the scent of beloved—and hated— morning dew. Hated because, with the fresh, clean scent, reality was brought into Technicolor focus. That’s what Amun had to endure? Strider had been given a taste, only a taste, yet his friend suffered with the gloom and soulshattering urges all day, all night. No one could maintain his sanity when constantly buffeted against that kind of wickedness. Not even Amun. “Warrior?” the angel in front of him prompted. “I’m myself now,” he rasped. A lie. He might never be the same again. He looked over the angel’s shoulder and saw Torin. They shared a horrified moment of understanding before he returned his attention to the angel and the situation at hand. “Why the hell are you just standing here? Someone chain him. He’s tearing himself apart.” Strider’s throat was raw, grinding the words into broken glass. “And for fuck’s sake, get him on an IV. He needs sustenance. Medicine.” The two angels shared a look similar to the one he’d shared with Torin, only theirs was fraught with knowledge only achieved through battle and heartache, before one returned to his post at the wall and the other entered Amun’s bedroom. The one at the wall said, “He has been on an IV before. Several times, actually. They do not last. The needles always find a way free, with or without his help. The chains, however, we can do. And before you demand we clean him and care for him, I will tell you that we have. We brush his teeth for him. We bathe him. We clean his wounds. We force-feed him. He is taken care of in every way possible.” “What you’re doing isn’t enough,” Strider said. “We are open to any ideas you have.” Of course, he had no response to that. He might be in control of his thoughts again, but as Torin had promised, the need to kill, to truly hurt the innocent, hadn’t fled completely. It was there, like a film of slime on his skin. He had a feeling he wouldn’t be able to scrub himself clean, even if he removed every layer of flesh he possessed. How was Amun going to survive this?

.

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