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Dark Immortal -- J.K. Coi

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Dark Immortal (Immortals Warriors, Book 3)

Diana freed Alric from his prison and the insanity that a hundred years of captivity inflicted upon him. She healed him with her passion, but now she lies broken after his failure to protect her. She’s locked deep inside herself where he cannot reach her.
 
The huge, muscled stranger leaning over her when Diana awakes is straight out of her worst nightmares. Nightmares full of blood and pain. But she still finds herself drawn to him, even as her mind struggles to find reason and order in a life she can’t recall.

Alric has no intention of giving up on the woman who never stopped fighting for him. His one hope is that time and his familiar touch will help her heal and remember…

But with a demon god poised for war in an attempt to tip the balance of power, time is not on their side, and sometimes love can’t heal all wounds.

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excerpt

Five Years Ago

Diana Latimer looked from her site plans to the glowing face of her watch. She had been working in this tunnel, hunched over these drawings with little light for…way longer than she’d originally intended.

She groaned and straightened, rolling her shoulders and stretching out the crick in her neck. She was almost ready to pack up and head back to the surface. But even then there’d still be a ton of work to do. Tugging on her simple ponytail to tighten the sliding elastic band holding her long hair out of her face, she closed her tired eyes. But just for a moment. It was hours before she could sink into her soft bed and sleep. This job would be the death of her.

But she’d known before applying for the position that it would be a big job. This subway tunnel excavation was her first project as lead site supervisor for the construction company, a position she’d fought dearly to get. Harder than any of the men who’d made supervisor ahead of her on previous contracts that was for damn sure.

She’d known going in that the job would mean a lot of extra hours double- and triple-checking every drawing, every test, every architectural and environmental report. Because nothing was going to go wrong on her project.

After rolling up her blueprints and packing her tools, Diana moved to the last tunnel and brought out her map, her mind already running down the extensive list of tasks she still had to complete tonight. Once she was done here, she would go back to the office and input the soil and rock samples and the air quality levels into the computer system, then run another set of calculations before preparing her final report to the general foreman. He wanted everyone ready to go first thing in the morning, so she had to be able to give him the green light.

Then there were calls to make. It would be late, but her instructions were to inform the subcontractors when they had the go-ahead, no matter what time of day. So she needed to contact the demo guys and the electrical team, and—

She hesitated.

What was that noise?

It sounded faint but close by. Where was it coming from? Everywhere and nowhere. She looked back over her shoulder. Unable to stifle her nerves, she swung her head to the left and to the right. There was no one else here. Just darkness. Nothing except darkness and quiet behind her. All around her.

She shuddered. “Ugh, rats.”

Her whisper echoed off the damp walls of the underground tunnels. For the first time, she stopped and felt the creepiness of it. She’d been too busy to care before, but now the shadows seemed thicker, every sound was louder. Closer. The dripping water from long-neglected pipes running over her head, the muted, motorized roar of subway cars zooming through the adjacent tunnels, maybe the scurrying of little feet beside her in the darkness…

No, this sounded different. It sounded bigger. Even bigger than big rats. Something else. Something almost sinister.

There. Again. A kind of fluttering. Like a sparrow frantically flapping its wings inside a steel cage. Goose bumps rose on the surface of her arms. She shook herself, trying to ignore the uneasy feeling crawling up her throat. All of a sudden, Diana just wanted it done. She turned her focus back to the map—this was the last section of tunnel she needed to inspect.

She looked from the drawings and back to the wall. Something didn’t look right. This wall wasn’t supposed to be here. Peering closer, she saw the problem. It wasn’t a wall, it was a rocky barrier of fallen rubble, and it had been around for a while. She could tell by the settled placement of the lower rock. The slide had come down just beyond the area designated for the new subway tunnel. It wasn’t on her plans, which meant that nobody had mapped this area.

“Damn it,” she muttered, rubbing her forehead. She was supposed to have backhoes and excavators in here by tomorrow. They didn’t have time to get the architects and engineers back down to look things over. It was probably nothing, but she should investigate.

Diana approached the wall, conscious of the strange voiceless whispering which no longer sounded quite like rats. It was getting more pronounced with each step she took.
Judging from the tightly packed debris, the obstruction had definitely been in place for a long while. She poked and prodded, searching until the dirt crumbled away from her fingers. Using the end of her flashlight, she dug at the pocket of weakness and realized the rock barrier wasn’t as deep as it had seemed at first glance. Within a few minutes, she’d managed to poke through to the other side.

Ignoring the dirt getting jammed under her fingernails, Diana clawed a hole big enough to see through. She aimed her flashlight and squinted into the darkness. Her head was killing her now. The whisper had turned into a constant thrumming that pounded away inside her brain.

She needed to find the source and get it to stop. Somehow, whatever lurked behind this wall was responsible. It had to be. She didn’t know how she knew that, but she felt it as a certainty.

She swung the light in a slow, horizontal slash, but the beam didn’t travel very deep before being sucked down to nothing by the impenetrable shadows.

Wait. Right…there. What was that?

She focused the stream of light. Hollywood images of skeletal remains and buried treasure flickered through her head. She forced a laugh. It came out sounding like a frightened squeak.

Wait. Holy hell, was that movement?

Something had moved. She would swear it.

“Just a rat. That’s all it is. Probably just a rat.” She murmured. She’d seen enough of them in these tunnels since starting the job three weeks ago, and even though they still squicked her out, she could deal with rats. What she couldn’t deal with was a delay.
She was going to have to get inside for a better look, afraid it was a bad idea even as she pulled away more of the rock. When there was enough of an opening to see through, she realized it seemed to be the entrance to some kind of underground cavern—or at least what had been an underground cavern at one time. But not recently. From the looks of it, not for a very long time.

Diana continued until the space was large enough to crawl through, and when she got on her knees and squinted inside she had a pretty good idea why this place had been sealed up all nice and tight.

Shit. Is that what it looks like? There was a body in there.

Propped upright and spread-eagled against the inner stone wall of the cavern. No, not propped, hung. Chained to the wall.

Shit. Shit. Shit. Why me?

She let her flashlight droop, trying to keep from seeing any more, although the picture had already been sandblasted into her brain.

Wait a minute…this has got to be another practical joke.

As the only woman on the team, she’d put up with a lot of anonymously expressed teasing. Granted, this was sicker than plastic wrap on her toilet seat or a tool box stuffed with tampons designed to fall open in front of the whole crew. Still, Diana wouldn’t put it past them to have set this up. Everyone had known she would be here alone while they went to finish another job across town.

It looked damn real, though. She’d have sworn this section of tunnel hadn’t been touched in several decades.

She squinted into the darkness again, training her flashlight on the mannequin against the back wall. It had to be a mannequin or a dummy from a prop shop, but the longer she stood there, the less she believed that. Diana had been in the presence of death before, and this place reeked of it.

She groaned, closing her eyes and massaging her forehead. Her headache raged, the fluttering in her mind no longer reminding her of a bird flapping at the walls of its cage, but a thousand bat wings beating over her head. And they were right in this tunnel with her. She started to think that the environmental test results on this tunnel were inaccurate. There must be a leak somewhere. Gas. Maybe too much methane and carbon dioxide leaching into the tunnel from the other lines.

Because of the slim possibility that this was not a sick joke, Diana examined the scene more closely—at least as best she could from her position.

The body was indeed chained to the wall. The beam of her flashlight glinted off the steel chain links. Tattered clothing covered the body, preventing her from having to see any bare bones.

Thank God for that, at least.

The corpse’s head drooped. Long, stringy hair covered its face.

Damn. What was she going to do? This was looking more and more like a crime scene by the minute.

Do I really want to go in there? No, she really did not.

What she wanted to do was go back up to the surface and find someone else to dump this disaster on.

This is my job, my responsibility. She gazed into the cavern and shuddered. Too bad, because I don’t want it.

Diana turned to leave, but the pain in her head intensified, causing her to stumble. Out of the corner of her eye she thought she saw the shadows move again. She thought she heard a scuffling noise and something else that sounded unmistakably like a low groan. Her heart jumped into her throat and tore a small shriek from her lips.

It had come from inside the cavern.

No, it couldn’t be. Was that thing alive?

The pain in her head spiked to an unbearable level, forcing Diana to her knees.

She dropped her flashlight and pressed the heels of her hands hard against her temples. “Ah. Stop. Stop. Stop…please,” she moaned. The body inside that darkness. She knew it. It called to her. Insistent, unrelenting, demanding.

Diana fought her way back to her feet and tripped over her fallen flashlight. Bending to pick it up, she shone the beam through the tunnel’s opening once more. Her hand shook and her vision blurred, making it even more difficult to see through the shadows.

Had the figure really moved? Was it her imagination, or was the head now raised, looking toward her? She couldn’t see its eyes, but she could feel its stare burning into her with an angry, hungry glow.

Alive.

“Release me.”

This wasn’t happening. The body in that cavern could not be alive. There were only two possibilities she was willing to consider—Hallowe’en practical joke or ancient mausoleum. Living skeletons in the darkness just didn’t happen. Diana had pulled away that barrier herself, and nothing alive had been in here for many years. Perhaps she was being accosted by a ghost. She didn’t necessarily believe in ghosts. Actually, she’d never really thought about ghosts at all, but right now the idea sounded a hell of a lot better than the alternative.

Her head about split. Steady, sharp pain. If she just went back up to the surface—

“Release me!”

“Oh God… I can’t…stand it anymore. You have to stop.” Falling back to the ground, she clutched her stomach and heaved up what was left of the chicken sandwich and green salad she’d scarfed down as an early dinner, back when she’d been eager to get down here and get to work.

She crawled through the tunnel entrance on all fours. Sharp bits of stone dug into her hands and knees and dust fell into her hair and clogged the air, but it didn’t matter. Nothing mattered except getting that sound out of her head. Even if it meant going inside for an up close and personal look to convince her psyche that all this was nothing more than delirium caused by fumes filtering into the air from the active subway lines.

With her flashlight clutched tightly in one hand, Diana braced her arm against the stone walls of the cavern as she forced her legs under her again. She stood, but her thighs quivered like jelly and she remained unmoving for several moments, just breathing. One breath, then another. Finally, she forced herself to focus beyond the pain still battering away at the insides of her temples, and see what was going on in this little tract of hell.

Her beam of light waned as the batteries started to weaken, but there was still enough glow for her to see one step ahead, enough light to cast larger shadows behind and beside her. It almost convinced her she’d stumbled into a pit, and wouldn’t ever be able to escape, yet she couldn’t turn back.

Diana found her way to the bundle of rags that was indeed…a body.

But is it alive?

By the light of her dying flashlight, she could see more than before. More than she wanted to. She could see the chain links made of heavy metal, tunneling out from the rock. She saw thick steel manacles wrapped around bony wrists attached to gnarled, claw-like hands. She could see through the veil of grimy hair to protruding cheekbones, and a face that was not a lifeless skeleton…yet.

He opened his eyes.

Diana shrieked, but she couldn’t move. She was caught by his eyes. Caught by those deep pockets of crystallized pain. Pain that she felt all the way to her soul.

“Release me.”

Had he spoken out loud? She shivered and tried to tear herself away from that stare, focusing instead on the chains binding him to the wall.

Oh, lord. Who would do such a thing? How long had he been trapped here?

Long enough that he should be dead.

Most of his face was covered by a scraggly beard, and his matted hair fell well past his shoulders, though it couldn’t disguise the harsh angles of his face or the thin, white skin stretching taut across his cheekbones. The sight reminded her of a statue she had seen once of the Emaciated Buddha during her one and only real vacation—a trip to Japan when her sister had been there teaching English. Looking at that Buddha, Diana had understood the significance of the image and tried to feel the kind of awe and reverence she was sure it deserved, but she kept thinking the Buddha must have been insane. Such acute starvation and the isolation of extreme meditation—or in this case, imprisonment—would cause a person to go mad.

Madness. It was there in those eyes. They focused on her with such intensity, glittering with rage and pain while pleading with her for help—no, demanding it of her.

Diana felt such sorrow at the signs of his suffering. She understood now that the pain in her head was his, that she was sharing it with him, or he was projecting it onto her somehow. It made her heart pound and she felt a sense of desperate urgency. She had to get him out of here.

He flinched and hissed when she reached to examine the cuffs around his wrists. She forced herself to go slowly. No sudden movements. No loud noises.

“Shhh.” She reluctantly met his eyes again. They tracked her relentlessly, fathomless pits that turned her blood cold. His growl was a constant rumble of mistrust.

“I won’t hurt you, I promise.” She tried to see him as a wild animal in pain—a wolf with its foot caught in a trap. He was dangerous. He could turn on her in an instant.

Take it easy, take it slow.

Almost instinctively, she used her mind to send soothing reassurance, forced herself to pretend to be calm, to transmit thoughts of patience. She needed him to know that she only wanted to help.

They faced off for long moments until he blinked. He didn’t lower his gaze, but he stopped growling at her. She took a real breath for the first time in minutes as the psychic barrage in her head let up just a little bit.

He didn’t move when she touched his wrist this time, but he watched her. She got the distinct impression that even though he was the one confined, one false move and her life would be in real danger.

She kept up a mental mantra of reassurance as she tested the chains that bound him. They were secure. Tight on his wrists even as wasted as they were, with the opposite ends wedged firmly into the rock.

“Damn,” she muttered. She would have to go up top to find some help.

Diana tried to keep the fear and fatigue out of her voice. He wasn’t going to like this. “I have to go for help—”

The pain ratcheted up again, igniting an inferno even worse than before. She fell to her knees again, retching, and still the agony intensified. “Stop,” she whispered.

“Stop. Stop!” She raised her head and glared up at him, though the pain had rendered her vision a filmy red haze. “If you…kill me, then I really won’t be able to…help you.”

He seemed not to hear, or not to care, because the horrible assault continued.

I’m going to die. But then the pressure eased slightly. Just enough for her to take a deep breath. She shook all over, kneeling on the ground at his feet.

“Release me.”

“I’m trying.” She swiped at her nose with her sleeve, and groaned when it came away stained with her blood. “But you have to trust me.”

It wasn’t going to work. He was too far gone to understand. If he didn’t let her go, he would kill her here, in this dark place that already stank of death, then surely die soon after as well. There had to be another way to get through to him.

Diana tried to think what tools were in her box out in the tunnel. What she really wanted was a heavy-duty set of bolt cutters, but she didn’t have anything like that here. “We need help,” she said again.

His eyes pierced her with their intensity, silver shards of glass glittering in the darkness.

“What if I promise to get the tools from my truck and come right back?” She hesitated. “Alone. I’ll come alone. I swear it.”

Silence.

Utter silence. No demands, no more pressure inside her poor, hemorrhaging brain. He was going to let her go.

Diana let out a sigh of relief and carefully pushed herself to her feet.

“I’ll come back. I promise.”