The Darkest Torment – Gena Showalter

GUILT COULD NOT change the past. Worry could not change the future. And yet, both followed Baden with relentless determination. One brandished a barbed whip, the other a serrated blade, and though he had no visible wounds, he bled buckets every—damned—day. The constant stream of pain provoked the beast. Upon his return from the dead, the creature moved into his mind. His new companion was far worse than any demon. And he should know! The fiend resented the physical cage…was starved for prey. Kill someone. Kill everyone! It was the beast’s war cry. A command Baden heard whenever someone approached him. Or looked at him. Or simply breathed. The urge to obey always followed… I will not kill, he vowed. He was not the beast, but separate.

Easily said. Harder to enforce. He prowled from one corner of his bedroom to the other and yanked at the collar of his shirt, ripping the soft cotton in an effort to assuage the constant discomfort. His too-sensitive skin needed continuous soothing. Another perk of returning from the dead. The butterfly he’d tattooed on his chest hadn’t helped the pain, quickly becoming an itch he couldn’t scratch. But he couldn’t regret getting the image. The jagged wings and horned antennae resembled the mark of the demon he’d carried before his death; now, the mark represented rebirth, a reminder that he lived once again. That he had friends—brothers and a sister by circumstance who loved him. That he wasn’t an outsider, even if he felt like one.

He drained the beer he held and tossed the bottle against the wall. The glass shattered. He was different now, it was an undeniable truth, and he no longer fit within the family dynamic. He blamed the guilt. Four thousand years ago, he’d allowed the enemy to behead him—suicide by proxy— leaving his friends to continue the war with the Hunters while mourning him. Unconscionable! But he also blamed the worry he’d been coddling like a precious newborn. The beast hated everyone he adored—the men and women Baden owed a blood debt—and it…he…would stop at nothing to destroy them. If ever that urge to lash out overshadowed Baden’s desire to right the wrongs he’d committed… I will right my wrongs. The dead can’t collect their debts. Killlll.

No. No! He beat his fists into his temples, the metal bands around his biceps pinching. He pulled at hanks of his hair. Sweat rolled between the knotted muscles in his back and chest, catching in the waist of his pants. He would rather die—again—than harm his friends. Upon his resurrection, all twelve warriors had welcomed him with open arms. No, not twelve. Thirteen now. Galen, the keeper of Jealousy and False Hope—the one who’d orchestrated Baden’s death—had moved in a few weeks before. Everyone believed the prick had changed his evil ways.

Please. Shit sprinkled with sugar was still shit. Baden would love to hack Galen into tiny pieces. Five minutes and a blade, that was all he required. But his friends had issued a strict hacking moratorium. Baden, no matter his own desires, would obey their rules. Not once had they ever castigated him for his terrible mistakes. Not once had they demanded answers. They’d given him food, weapons and a private room in their massive home. A fortress hidden in the mountains of Budapest.

A knock sounded at the door, earning a growl from the beast. Enemy! Kill! Calm. Steady. An enemy wouldn’t take the time to knock. “Go away.” His broken voice made it sound like every word had swum upstream in a river of glass shards. “Sorry, my man, but I’m here to stay.” Bang, bang, bang. “Let me in.” Hello, William the Ever Randy.

Youngest son of Hades obsessed with fine wine, finer women and the finest hair care. He was a savage, stubborn bastard, his best and worst trait the same: He had no concept of mercy. The beast stopped snarling and started purring like a tamed house cat. A surprising reaction, but also…not. Hades was the one who’d given Baden his new life. The king’s family basically had a Get Out of Torture Free card now. Except the eldest son, Lucifer; his crimes were simply too great. “Now isn’t a good time,” Baden said, fearing the beast would forget the card. “Don’t care. Open up.

” He purposely inhaled deeply…exhaled sharply. As a spirit made tangible, he had no need to breathe, but the once-familiar action pandered to his calm. “Come on,” William said. “Where’s the brave piece of shit who stole and opened Pandora’s box? He’s the one I’m here to see.” Brave? Sometimes. Piece of shit? Always. He and his friends ended up freeing the demons trapped inside the box. Zeus, king of the Greek gods, then punished them with a lifelong curse. And so your body shall become the vessel of your own destruction. Baden was possessed by Distrust.

Tainted and unworthy, the warriors were discharged from the royal army and booted to earth. As predicted, the demons soon destroyed them. Him most of all. More and more, his ability to trust eroded. He spent weeks…months plotting ways to murder those he should only succor. One day, he reached the end of his tolerance. Them or me was the last thought to sweep through his mind as a human swung a sword at his head. He’d picked them—his family. But they hadn’t emerged unscathed. Grief had haunted them.

And so had Distrust! The moment Baden’s head fell from his body, the demon emerged, emancipated from his control. No longer was he able to check the worst of the fiend’s impulses. Invisible chains then dragged his spirit into a prison realm created for anyone tainted by the box, his only link to the land of the living a wall of smoke that revealed real-time happenings. He had a front row seat to his friends’ spiral into a pit of agony and despair, unable to do anything but lament. The rest of his time was spent warring with Pandora, the realm’s only other occupant—a woman who detested him with every fiber of her being. Then, only a few months ago, Cronus and Rhea, the former king and queen of the Titans, appeared in the realm. They were Zeus’s biggest rivals, and Baden’s number-one targets. How many times had the pair hurt his friends? He’d taken great pleasure in his escape with Pandora, leaving the other two behind. Bang, bang, bang. “Yo! Baden! The wait is ridiculous.

I’m pretty sure I’m going gray.” He jolted, pissed he’d gotten lost in his head. “Fine. I guess we do this the hard way,” William called. “In three seconds, I kick in your door.” Calm. No hacking. Baden yanked so hard the handle came off in his hand. Oops. “What do you want?” Unlike the tornado he was, the black-haired, blue-eyed warrior leaned one shoulder against the frame, as gentle as a summer rain.

He looked Baden up and down and grimaced. “Dressing for the job we want, not the job we have, I see.” Strong male. Too strong. Threat. As feared, the Get Out of Torture Free card burned to ash. No hacking! But…punching wasn’t hacking. It was pure bliss. Bone against bone. The intoxicating scent of blood would hit his senses, and the musical howl of someone else’s agony would fill his ears.

He pressed his tongue to the roof of his mouth. Who am I? “Go away,” he repeated. William scanned the room. “Drinking all by your lonesome? Tsk-tsk. Is your heart missing the demon?” A few times, he’d thought he…might. The arrival of his new companion had set him straight. Now Distrust had a new host. A woman. Her name was—his brow furrowed. He couldn’t remember.

Whoever she was, she had supported Galen for centuries, helping him commit the most heinous of deeds. A few months ago, the foolish female had willingly accepted Distrust. In other words, she had willingly accepted unceasing paranoia. Who did that? William sighed. “No need to respond. I can see the answer on your face. Don’t you know looking back pulls you back? Fine, fine. I’ll help you focus on the future. No need to beg.” He drew back his fist—and punched Baden in the nose.

“You’re welcome.” He recoiled from the impact, his nose snapped out of place. Though Baden produced no blood, his body simply a husk for his spirit, the taste of old pennies coated his tongue. Delicious. Practically dessert. The beast raged, hungry for more. Glaring at William, he righted the cartilage in his nose. “Oh, no. I’ve provoked you. Whatever shall I do?” A grinning William rolled up his shirtsleeves.

“I know. How about I give you more.” Looking for a fight? He’s found it. The beast…exploded. Every muscle in Baden’s body pumped full of adrenaline while his bones filled with molten lava. Somehow, he doubled in size, the top of his head brushing the ceiling. “I heard Distrust caused your hair to catch fire,” William said. “Pity he’s not here. Flames would make your coming defeat more interesting.” Defeat? I’ll introduce him.

With a roar, Baden swung. Contact! Addictive… He swung again and again, his fist a jackhammer, brutal and unrelenting. William took the blows like a champ, miraculously remaining on his feet. I like this man…kind of. Hurting him hurts me. A glimmer of rational thought. Baden dropped his arm to his side and gripped his camo pants. “Sorry. I’m sorry,” he rasped. “Why?” William’s teeth were smeared with crimson.

“Did you soil your panties while you were giving me those love taps?” Humor. He wasn’t in the mood. “Walk away. Before you have to crawl.” Already the beast pawed at Baden’s gray matter, ravenous for round two. “Don’t be silly.” William waved his fingers. “Hit me again. Only this time, try to do some real damage.” The warrior didn’t understand…wouldn’t understand until too late.

“Go! I’m losing control.” “Then we’re making progress.” William jabbed Baden’s shoulder. “Hit me.” “Do you want to die?” “Hit.” Jab. “Me.” Jab. The beast snarled, and Baden… Baden detonated like a bomb, whaling on William, who made no effort to block or dodge the barrage of blows. “Fight back!” Baden shouted.

“Since you suggested it…” William threw a punch of his own, a crack so powerful Baden reeled backward and slammed into the dresser. Books and decorations the female residents had given him rattled before toppling to the floor. Everything made of glass shattered at his feet. William stalked forward and, without a pause in his step, bent down to swipe up one of the books. He struck, pummeling Baden’s throat into his spine. Pain. His body bowed as the warrior slammed the book into his side. Once. Twice. More pain.

His kidney was puréed. Opponent…even stronger than expected…cannot be allowed to live. Before William could deliver another blow, Baden jerked up a knee. The book flew across the room. He punched William in the jaw. As the warrior stumbled, Baden picked up a shard of glass. By the time he straightened, William had recovered. That fast. The warrior crushed a vase into the side of his head, new shards raining. Different voices suddenly penetrated his awareness.

“Is that Baden? Duuude! That can’t be Baden. He’s three times his usual size!” “He’s going to make a retainer out of Willy’s teeth!” “I call dibs! On Baden, not the retainer. If my man ever kicks it, I get to hook up with Hulk-smash first!” In the back of his mind, he knew his friends and their mates had heard the commotion and come running, intending to break up the fight. To help him. The beast didn’t care. Kill…kill them all…they’re too strong, too much of a risk. Evil like the beast had no friends, only enemies. The group is dangerous to the rest of the world, but not to me. Never to me. These people would die for me.

Die…yes, they must die… William kicked the door closed, blocking the others from Baden’s view. “You focus on me, Red. Understood? I’m the biggest threat, so do us both a favor, take your arthritis medication and hit me.” Yes. Biggest threat. Hit. Rage gave him added strength as he unleashed a new stream of punches. William blocked the first few, but couldn’t dodge the others. Baden failed to dodge his retaliation. The brutal fight propelled them around the room, bouncing off walls and furniture as if they were animals in the wild, vying for position of King of the Jungle.

Pick up another piece of glass. Cut through the warrior’s ribs. Yes. The perfect finish. But as Baden swooped down, William flashed behind him—moving to a new location with only a thought—and punched him. He twisted as he stumbled, capturing the male’s hand when he attempted to deliver another strike. Baden purposely dropped, sinking to the floor, taking William with him. Midway down, he wound his legs around the bastard’s neck, applying enough pressure to choke a rhino. The moment they crash-landed, Baden tossed William over his head. Thud.

His opponent smashed face-first into the pile of glass shards. He grinned and drew himself up to straddle Willy’s back. Punch. Punch. William’s skull cracked—and cracked Baden’s knuckles. Before he could deliver his next blow, the low-down-dirty-sneak flashed again—but it was too late to halt his fist. Punch. A wood panel on the floor splintered. Pain vibrated up his arm and pooled in his shoulder. William laughed with delight and, as if the sound opened a magical portal to calm, the beast quieted.

“There.” Willy ruffled Baden’s hair. “You feel better now.” A kind statement rather than a smug question. He performed a danger-check, just to be sure, and nodded. “I do.” Even his throat had healed. “Now we can have a conversation without you eyeing my trachea like it’s a gummy worm.” “Conversation can wait.” He stood, grimacing as he noted the condition of his room.

Holes in the wall, broken glass on the floor, furniture overturned and missing pieces. “I’ve got some cleaning to do.” “You’d choose a broom over information?” “Depends on the information being offered.” “If I said the serpentine wreaths and their side effects…?” “I’d turn your pretty face to pulp.” Baden loved the wreaths, but he also hated them. They were a gift from Hades, ancient and mystical, and they were responsible for his corporeal form. Hades and Keeley—the mate of Baden’s friend Torin—had come to him in what he’d thought was a dream. Through some kind of supernatural power, they’d removed the bands Lucifer, his jailer at the time, had forced on him and replaced them with bands that belonged to Hades. As long as you wear my wreaths, Hades had said, you will be seen…touched. The friendly gesture of an ally he supported in the war of the underworlds? He’d thought so in the beginning.

Now he wondered… The trick of an underhanded foe? Soon after Baden had donned the gift, William had looked at him with pity and said, “Have you seen Pet Sematary? Sometimes dead is better.” William wasn’t wrong. By that point, Baden had already begun to change. Not physically—maybe physically—but definitely mentally. Once even-tempered, he struggled for control, and he despised anyone who might be stronger than him. As proved. Memories plagued him, but they weren’t his own. They couldn’t be. He’d never been a child, had been created fully formed, an immortal soldier tasked with protecting Zeus, and yet he clearly remembered being around ten years old, running through an ambrosia field set aflame, thick smoke choking him. A pack of hellhounds tracked him, fed on him and dragged him into a cold, dank dungeon, where he’d suffered, alone and starved, for centuries.

With the first memory, a horrifying truth had struck Baden. The wreaths weren’t just an object, but a being. The beast. Not a demon, but worse. An immortal who’d once lived and now expected to continue living through Baden. A monster who always teetered on the brink of rage, violence and distrust. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Baden. “Well.” William pretended to be offended. “Try to do a man a favor.

” Concentrate! “Yesterday you said you knew nothing about the wreaths.” A hike of his broad shoulders. “That was yesterday.” “And today you know…what, exactly?” “Only everything.” He waited for the warrior to say more. “Do you require another beating? Tell me!” “Beating is too strong a word for what transpired. I’d go with massage.” William buffed his nails. “Just so you know, the wreaths’ side effects are numerous and horrifying.” “I figured the horrifying part out on my own, thanks.

” Removing the wreaths wasn’t an option. They were fused to him, and he would have to amputate his arms with a meat cleaver. Before his death, his arms would have grown back. Now? He wasn’t sure and wasn’t willing to experiment. Well, not on himself. His hands were his first line of defense. “Give me specifics,” he demanded. “For starters, if you want to keep your new temper tantrums at bay, you’ll need sex and a lot of it.” The pronouncement was a joke. Had to be.

Baden arched a brow. “You offering, oh great and randy one?” William snorted. “As if you could handle me.” To be honest, he couldn’t handle anyone. When he wasn’t fighting, he avoided any kind of contact, the sensitivity of his skin too great. Every brush of flesh against flesh was excruciating, like a dagger being raked across exposed nerve endings. “You’re going to leave Budapest today,” William said. “You’ll go…somewhere else. You’ll collect a harem of immortal women, and you’ll spend the next decade or two concerned only with pleasure.” Leave his friends? After they’d only just been reunited? No.

He was here to help them, to guard their backs the way he’d longed to do for centuries. “I’m going to pass.” “And I’m going to insist. You can’t beat the darkness.” “I am the darkness.” The warrior canted his head in agreement. “Here’s the rub. Maddox and Ashlyn have children. Both Gideon and Kane have a pregnant wife. Not to mention the other females living in the house.

And what about the traumatized Legion? The vulnerable Gillian?” His voice roughened with her name. “You go after any of the females the way you went after me, and your brothers-by-choice will gut you. No matter how much they love you. I will gut you.” “I would never—” “Oh, princess. You so would.” A new rage sparked. He slammed a fist through the wall and cursed, proving William right. The beast took advantage of him at every opportunity. “All right.

I’ll leave.” The words pained him, but he even added, “Today.” “Your IQ just jacked to the next level.” William beamed at him. “Any idea where you’ll go?” “No.” He had very little experience with the modern world. A sigh. “I’ll probably regret this later,” the warrior said, stroking two fingers over his jaw, “but what the hell. We only live twice, right?” Baden waved a hand, a silent command to carry on. “For the bargain price of a favor to be named later, I’ll give you one of my homes and even set up a carnal buffet for you.

And don’t worry. By the time I’m done, even a man with your lack of game will be able to score a ten.”

.

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