IN THE BEGINNING, THE WORLD WAS MADE OF beauty and of magick. Before there were humans, there were gods and those who served them and did their bidding whatever their bidding was. At war with each other, the gods fought among themselves until a new breed was born out of their senseless violence. Chthonians by name, these new creatures came from the earth that flowed red with the blood of the gods.
The Chthonians rose up and divided the world between the gods-they split the world among themselves.
To maintain the peace, the soldiers of the gods were ordered to be put down. None were to survive. Chthonian law took pre ce dence and together they were able to bring peace to the world once more and to protect the new life-form of mankind.
But the Chthonians were not without corruption. Nor were they infallible.
It wasn’t long before they bickered, too.
And so time moved forward. Mankind matured and learned to dismiss the gods and the magick that existed in their world. Unable to fight on their own, mankind chose to ignore it.
“Poppycock.” “Hokum.” “Fantasy.” “Fairy tales.” Those were some of the many words man used to denigrate that which couldn’t be explained by their so-called science. Empiricism became its own religion.
There were no shadows stalking innocent victims. It was nothing more than a human mind playing tricks. An overactive imagination.
Wolves can’t turn into humans and humans can’t turn into bears. All the ancient gods are dead-relegated to mythological tales that we all know are untrue.
And yet . . .
What was that sound outside the window just now? Was it the howling of the wind? A stray dog perhaps?
Or something more sinister? Something truly predatorial?
The subtle hair rise on a neck could very well be nothing more than goose bumps. Or it could be the sensation of the dead walking near. The sensation of the hand of an unseen god or servant passing through.
The world is no longer new. It’s no longer innocent.
And the old ones grow tired of being ignored. The winds that whispered through the yard earlier weren’t the tender caress of a climate change. They were a siren’s call that can only be heard by certain preternatural species.
Even now, those forces gather and unite.
This time, they want something more than the blood of the gods and one another.
They want us . . .
And we are at their mercy.
STRYKER PAUSED AS HE LOOKED AROUND TARtarus. His father, the Greek god Apollo, had brought him here once, eons ago, when he’d been a small child to meet his great-uncle Hades, who ruled the Greek Underworld and oversaw the ancient dead. On that day his father had also bestowed a rare and beneficial gift on Stryker. The ability to come and go from the Underworld so that Stryker could visit his uncle. As a child, Stryker had been terrified of the dark god whose eyes had only softened when he looked at his wife, Persephone.
Luckily, Persephone was here with Hades now and the god was too occupied by her to notice the fact that there was an uninvited demigod in his domain. Hades could be extremely temperamental over such insults.
Especially when the uninvited demigod carried a vial of potent blood with him. More to the point, Typhon’s blood. The son of the primordial god Tartarus, whose name was given to this very part of Hades’ domain, Typhon was deadly and lethal. His power enough to take down even Zeus, the king of the gods. At least until the Olympian gods had banded together to trap Typhon under Mount Aetna.
“Thank you for not being able to kill him,” Stryker said, holding the vial up so that he could see the luminescent purple blood he’d taken from the trapped Titan. With this, Stryker could wake the dead and bring back the most potent of scourges.
Gripping the vial tightly, Stryker headed to the lowest part of Tartarus. This level was relegated to the beasts and gods that the Olympians had defeated. To the ones they feared above all others.
But it was the tomb in the back Stryker had accidentally found as a child that drew him now. In the darkness around him, he could still see the look of fear in his father’s eyes. . . .
“What’s that, Father?” Stryker had pointed up at the statues of two men and one woman.
Apollo had knelt down by his side. “They are what’s left of the Machae.”
“The spirits of battle.” Apollo had pointed to the tallest in back. Huge in stature and built like a warrior, the statue had made a seven-year-old Stryker gasp in fear of his coming to life to hurt him. “That is War. The fiercest of the Machae. He was created by all the gods of war to kill the Chthonians. It’s said that he and his minions pursued them to the brink of extinction. In one final battle that lasted for three full months, War held the last of the Chthonians down until they tricked him. Beleaguered, he screamed mightily as his powers were bound by spell and then he was cast into his current stasis. Here he remains until someone reawakens him.”
It had seemed a rather harsh punishment to Stryker’s boyish mind. Ignoble and cruel. “Why did the gods not kill him?”
“We weren’t strong enough. Even with our powers combined, we still lacked the ability to end his life.”
None of that had made sense to Stryker at the time. “I don’t understand why the gods fear the Chthonians so. They are human.”
“With the powers of gods, child. Never forget that. They alone can kill us without destroying the universe and return our essence to the primary source that birthed us.”
“Then why don’t the Chthonians kill all the gods and replace them?”
“Because when they kill us it weakens their own powers and makes them vulnerable to each other and to us. So instead they police us and we obey out of fear of dying.” Apollo had looked back at War then, his eyes harboring a morbid fascination. “War alone was immune to their powers. Unfortunately, he’s also immune to ours. When Ares and the other war gods realized how powerful he was, they decided it was best that he remain hidden here for the rest of eternity.”
“Did they not understand his power when they made him?”
Apollo had ruffled Stryker’s short blond hair. “Sometimes we don’t realize how destructive our creations are until it’s too late. And sometimes those creations we make turn on us and seek only to kill us even though we loved and succored them.”
Stryker clenched his teeth at the memory of his father’s words. How true they’d proven. Stryker had turned on his father and his son had turned on him.
Here they all were. At war.
War . . .
Stryker opened the dank tomb that smelled of fresh earth and mold. He held his hand up and used his powers to light the cobwebbed torches that hadn’t been lit in centuries. The light was bright as it flickered against the walls and the remains of the last three Machae.
He paused by the woman. Petite and frail in appearance, Ker was the personification of cruel, violent death. Merciless and able to multiply herself into numerous she-demons called the Keres, she’d once haunted battlefields and ripped the souls out of the dying. It had been her powers that had inspired the Atlantean goddess Apollymi to save the cursed Apollites and give them a chance to circumvent Apollo’s unjust curse.
All hail Ker for her powers. . . .
The next statue was the spirit Mache. Battle. The right hand of War. It was the plural of his name that had been given to all the spirits of conflict. He was their backbone.
But compared to War, he was weak.
Like Ker, he was only a by-product of the one destructive force that Stryker sought.
A slow smile curled his lips as he stepped past the two lesser beings to approach the one he needed to awaken. No longer a giant to him, War was actually several inches shorter-which, given the fact that Stryker was six foot eight, wasn’t surprising. War’s body was as heavily muscled as Stryker remembered from eleven thousand years ago. Even in stasis, War’s presence and power were awe inspiring and undeniable. Stryker could feel it in the air. Feel it from the chills that went down his spine in warning. This creature meant death to any who crossed his path. Dressed as an ancient soldier, the god wore a cuirass decorated with the head of Echidna.
Stryker reached out to touch War. The moment Stryker’s fingers brushed the stone, light flashed through the room, turning the white marble to flesh. The cuirass was made of steel overlaid with gold, and a gold-studded black leather battle skirt and cloak completed the fearsome ensemble. The sword in War’s hands that was halfway out of its black leather sheath flashed to steel.
Black eyes bored into Stryker.
Then all returned to marble. White. Cold. Eerily pristine. War was again asleep and yet Stryker could feel his consciousness rippling in the air around him. War was salivating for release.
“You want out,” Stryker whispered to the spirit. “I want revenge against a god I can’t touch.” He pulled the cork from the vial and lifted it. “From the blood of the Titans to the blood of the Titans, I, Strykerius, return you to form in exchange for one act against my enemies.”
He tilted the vial so that the purple blood only marked his fingertip. The feral power of it burned his flesh. Yes, Typhon’s blood was as potent as the once-feared god. His eyes narrowing, Stryker wiped the pad of his finger over the lips of the dormant spirit. “Do you accept my terms, War?”
The lips alone turned to flesh. “I accept.”
“Then welcome back to the living.” Stryker poured the blood into the spirit’s mouth.
The moment he did so, a violent shout rang out, extinguishing the torches and drowning them in darkness. “NO!”
Stryker laughed at Hades’ indignant cry. It was already too late. A vicious wind cut through the room as War came to life with a battle cry so fierce it echoed through the chamber and caused the caged damned around them to cringe. The torches exploded back to life, flooding the room with so much light that Stryker had to shield his eyes.
Hades appeared with Ares by his side. The gods tried to blast War, but it was futile.
War laughed before he returned their attack. The force of it sent them scattering to the ground like leaves in a storm. The joy in his black eyes said the spirit took great plea sure in his cruelty. His lips twisting into a smile, War turned to face Stryker. “Who do I kill for you?”
“Acheron Parthenopaeus and Nick Gautier.”
War sheathed his sword. “Consider it done.”
Stryker caught his arm as he started to vanish. “One word of caution, the world isn’t what it used to be.” He handed the spirit a small messenger bag that contained a pair of black jeans, a black shirt, and boots. “You might want to lose the skirt and armor. Just a thought.”
War sneered at him, but in the end, he took the clothes and vanished. Stryker turned toward the gods. Ares had been knocked unconscious while Hades shook his head to clear it.
The dark god of the Underworld glowered his dis plea sure and rage as he stood over Ares, trying to revive him. “Have you any idea of what you’ve unleashed?”
Stryker was ambivalent to his condemnation. “Cruelty, pestilence, wrath, violence, ultimate suffering . . . what other gifts did the gods bestow on him?”
“You hit the highlights. But before you released him, you should have bothered to learn that he always destroys the one who commands him. You won’t be an exception.” Hades gestured toward the room. “Look around you. This hole we call Tartarus is all that’s left of the primordial god. His death at the hands of War is what caused all the pantheons to combine their powers with the Chthonians’ to contain him. And that was back in the day when we were worshiped and held our full powers. We’re not that strong anymore.”
Well, there was something Stryker hadn’t bothered to contemplate. Not that it mattered. He was more than ready to lay down his life-provided he took his enemies with him. “Oops,” he said, his voice thick with sarcasm. “Guess I screwed up. Inability to see the consequences of our thoughtless acts must run in the family. So much for my father being a god of prophecy, huh?”
Hades’ eyes turned bright red. “He will destroy the humans.”
Stryker sneered at him. “I didn’t see you standing up to defend the Apollite race when my father cursed us to feed off each other’s blood and die painfully when we were only twenty-seven years old because a handful of Apollites had killed his worthless whore. As I recall, all of you turned your backs and left us to the darkness like rats you wanted to forget existed.”
Hades shook his head. “I would kill you, but a better fate is to leave you to the thing you just unleashed. I’ll see you back here when you’re no longer living.”
Stryker didn’t comment as he watched Hades rouse Ares. Bored with them both, he returned to Kalosis, which was where he’d go after his death. The Atlantean hell realm had been his home since the day he’d turned his back on his father and sided with the goddess who ruled this domain. Apollymi owned his soul. He’d gladly consigned it to her on the day his father had cursed Stryker’s entire race for something only a handful of soldiers had done.
Stryker wanted nothing to do with the Greeks ever again.
Bitterly amused by the fact that Apollymi would most likely enjoy his eternal torture even more than Hades, Stryker returned to his office, where he kept the sfora orb that would allow him to spy on his enemy. At least on Acheron.
As for Nick, Stryker could see through his eyes any time he wanted to. It was one of the perks he’d claimed when he bound the bastard to him. Unfortunately, though, there wasn’t much to see with Nick, as he’d taken to keeping himself isolated from the world and everyone Stryker wanted to spy on.
He was bored with Nick’s moping.
For now, Stryker wanted to see Acheron’s demise. Waving his hand over the orb, he watched as the clouds cleared to show him the one god he wanted most to bury . . .
Apollymi’s most precious son.
Stryker curled his lip as he found Acheron in a bizarro Norman Rockwell scene. How quaint. Acheron was at home on Katoteros, the Atlantean paradise realm, trimming a Christmas tree with his girlfriend, Soteria. There was something almost twisted about an ancient god humoring a human custom to placate his lover. The two of them looked so happy and sweet it was enough to make him puke.
That was all about to change.
Leaning back in his chair, Stryker waited.
“OOO, AKRI, CAN THE SIMI EAT THAT?”
Ash Parthenopaeus paused as he heard the voice of his demon behind him. Turning around, he saw Simi eyeing the glass angel in his hand.
Dressed in a black-and-red plaid Goth skirt and corset top, Simi had a Santa hat on her head that covered her small demon’s horns. Like Ash, her hair was solid black in color and fell all the way to her waist.
Before he could answer, Soteria gave Simi a sweet, tolerant smile that melted him. Her brown hair was pulled forward into two pigtails, and in total contradiction to Ash’s dark Goth style, she was dressed in a pair of winter white pants and a red sweater with white reindeer on it. Ash’s long-sleeved T-shirt was black with reindeer skeletons pulling a twisted sleigh.
“Um, please, Simi,” Soteria said, “don’t eat that. That’s been my angel on the tree since I was a little girl. I picked it out at a Christmas store in Greece with my parents.”
Simi pouted. “Then can I eat the chocolate?”
Simi squealed before she grabbed the Hershey’s chocolate bar Soteria had left on the coffee table near them and ran off to savor it.
Soteria laughed. “Dang. I was going to share that with you later.”
Ash put the angel on top of the tree, which given the fact that he was six foot eight in height was an easy reach for him. “It’s okay. I despise the taste of chocolate.”
Soteria pulled silver tinsel from the bear ornament in her hand. “I would ask for an explanation, but every time I ask why you have an aversion to something the answer always breaks my heart. So I’ll just make sure not to get you any for Valentine’s Day.”
Closing the distance between them, Ash pulled her into his arms for a quick kiss. His lips had barely touched hers before a bright flash blinded him. He drew a breath in to chastise his steward, Alexion, for the intrusion, but before he could speak something slammed into him and knocked him off his feet.
Soteria turned to face an intruder. Expecting to find the Greek goddess Artemis there, she was stunned to see a tall, extremely well-built man. The brutality on his face was only matched by its beauty. Dressed all in black, he walked past her as if she were nothing more than a piece of harmless furniture toward Acheron.
She summoned her powers to blast him, but when she tried, she found her powers worthless against him. It was as if she were human again. The blast left her and seemed to be absorbed somehow by his body.
The man seized Acheron from the floor and threw him against the far wall as if he were nothing more than a straw dummy.
Dear God, the man was going to kill Ash!
ASH COULDN’T BREATHE AS HE TRIED TO FIGHT and couldn’t. It was as if something had wrapped itself around him like a steel band, paralyzing him. Pain ripped through his body with potent talons. No one had been able to kick his ass this badly since he’d been human.
No sooner had that thought gone through his head than he had crystal clarity of who and what was attacking him.
War. The ultimate warrior.
“No!” Ash shouted as Soteria started to attack War at the same time Simi manifested into the room by her side to fight. War would tear the two of them apart. “Take Simi and get out. Now!”
As Simi launched herself toward War, Soteria grabbed her. Tory gave him a look to let him know that she didn’t want to stand back, but that she trusted him enough to listen.
Alexion appeared with a sword that he tried to stab through the spirit. Instead, it went through War’s flesh and tore into Ash’s abdomen. Ash hissed as more agony poured through him.
Alexion’s face paled. “I’m so sorry, boss.”
He should try being the one with the gaping wound. But Ash wouldn’t hold that against his steward. The most important thing right now was to save all their lives. “Go! Take Danger, the demons, and Tory, and get the hell out of here.”
War seized him by his throat. Ash choked, trying to remove the tight grip. He met Alexion’s gaze. Loyalty gleamed bright, but his friend knew what Ash did. He couldn’t fight while distracted.
“I’ll meet you at Neratiti.” Gathering the women, Alexion disappeared.
Ash pounded at War’s hand, trying to knock his grip loose. When that failed, Ash shot a blast at the god that didn’t faze him in the least.
“What do you want?” Ash gasped.
War cocked his head in an impersonal gesture as he tightened his grip even more. “Your death.”
Ash’s ears buzzed as the airflow to his lungs was restricted. He tried to breathe, but it was futile. His grip on the spirit weakened as everything slid to black.
STRYKER SMILED AS HE WATCHED ACHERON turn blue and for once it wasn’t his natural skin tone. The bastard was one gasp away from death.
At least until the Chthonian Savitar flashed into the room with twenty Charonte demons to attack War and drive him away from Acheron. Stryker’s anger ignited as the winged demons attacked en masse. They lifted War up from the floor and slammed him against the wall even as he blasted at them.
Savitar ran to Acheron to revive him.
Damn. Why couldn’t the Chthonian bastard stay on the beach where he lived? No, Savitar had to bring a demon army out to defend Acheron.
Not to sound childish, but it just wasn’t fair . . .
And it seriously pissed him off.
“Strykerius!” Apollymi’s shrill scream ripped through the air, piercing his ear drums and making the hair on the back of his neck stand at attention. An instant later, she was standing in front of him with her white blond hair flying around her beautiful face. Like him and Acheron, her eyes were a pale, swirling silver. And they were filled with fury as she glared at him.
He should probably be scared, but it wasn’t worth the energy it would take to rise to the occasion. Besides, he’d had the worst things done to him. Torture, dismemberment, and death would be a welcome relief to his current state of nothingness.
“Is something . . . wrong?” he asked nonchalantly, knowing the tone would only enrage her more.
Apollymi wanted to shriek at his patronizing tone. She wanted to blast the bloodsucking Daimon lord before her into oblivion. If only she could. But for an act of weakness on her part centuries ago, she would free herself of him once and for all. However, he’d been fatally wounded by his father, and to strike back at Apollo she’d shared her blood with Strykerius and fortified him. While that act had saved his life, it had also tied their life forces together.
If he died, she died. It was why her son would never really harm Strykerius no matter how angry the Daimon made him.
It was why she couldn’t kill Stryker herself.
Ironic, really, she was a goddess known for lacking compassion and the handful of times she’d actually shown some had come back to bite her harshly.
There was nothing to be done for it now. Her real son was under attack and her adoptive one, Stryker, was most likely to blame for it.
“What have you done?” she demanded.
Stryker leaned back in his chair and folded his hands behind his head as he eyed her cautiously. “Mulling mostly coupled with a shot or two of reminiscing and a drop of regretting a few past decisions. Some might even call it moping, but I’d kill anyone so stupid as to suggest that of me.” He was more a plotting kind of Daimon.
Her hair rose even higher around her like ribbons twisting in a strong wind, letting him know she didn’t appreciate his sarcasm. “Apostolos is under attack. Did you provoke it?”
He didn’t know why it bugged the shit out of him for her to call her son Apostolos when the rest of the world knew him as Acheron, but it did.
And honestly, he hadn’t provoked dick. He’d directly caused it. Big difference.
However, he wasn’t stupid enough to tell her that. Their life forces might be tied together, but when it came to her real son and his well-being, Apollymi lost all self-restraint and sense of survival.
She’d kill them both to protect Acheron.
“No,” Stryker answered honestly. He slid his gaze down to the sfora that was hidden from Apollymi’s view. The moment Stryker focused on it, he saw War surrounded by the Charonte demons who were actually doing damage to the spirit. Acheron was on the floor coughing and wheezing. A little worse for the wear, but alive nonetheless. Worthless bastard. Savitar was shouting to the demons, but sound wasn’t available to Stryker while Apollymi was here.
Careful to shield his expression, he returned his gaze to Apollymi’s. “So what can I do for you, Matera?” he asked, using the Atlantean word for mother.
Apollymi drew a long, slow breath as she tried to detect the truth from him. Strykerius had always been a convincing liar. At one time the two of them had been a united force against Apollo. But those days were gone and now the two of them danced around each other in a complicated battle of one-upmanship.
She would cast him and his Daimons out of here, but for all their aggravation, they provided her with company and an army that allowed her to still have power to affect the human realm. Not to mention the small point that so long as they worshiped her, they fed her powers.
Unlike her small group of priestesses who still lived and served in the human world, the Daimons held much more power. They could provide her with a means to protect Apostolos.
“I want your Daimons to subjugate War. Immediately.”
“It’s daytime and until the sun sets he’s beyond our reach. You wouldn’t want one of us to die and deplete your strength now, would you?” “
She wanted to knock that smug look off his handsome face. Unlike the rest of his blond Daimon horde, his short hair was as black as his heart. Perfectly dyed to keep him from looking exactly like his father. “Protect him, Strykerius. Your existence hinges on his. Remember I will kill you to protect him.”
Stryker forced himself to wait until she was gone before he curled his lip in repugnance. He couldn’t believe that he’d ever been dumb enough to think that Apollymi loved him as a son. That she would protect and care for him the same way she cared for Acheron. And every year that had passed since the moment Stryker took his own son’s life to prove himself to her and had been forced to see the truth of his relationship with “his” mother had only made his bitterness grow.
“Tear him apart, War,” he said, glancing back to the sfora. He wanted blood. Unfortunately, there was nothing there. No sign of War, Acheron, or Savitar.
Growling in anger, Stryker slung the orb against the wall, shattering it. Where the hell had they gone?
“WAR’S BROKEN OUT.”
Artemis looked up at Ares’ angry declaration as he appeared in the center of the Hall of the Gods where she and the rest of the Greek pantheon were having a small feast.
Her father, Zeus, cursed as he rose off his throne. “What have you done?”
Tall and blond, with muscles honed by his daily training, Ares held his hands up in surrender. “I did nothing. It was Apollo’s son, Strykerius, who released him.”
Artemis felt the color fade from her face at the mention of her nephew. If Stryker was involved, there was only one target he’d have.
And like as not, Acheron’s mother along with Acheron would blame her for his attack. As if she’d dare . . .
Athena shot to her feet. She moved so fast that her actions startled the owl on her shoulder, causing him to take flight to the hall’s rafters. Gold armor covered her instantly as she turned to face Zeus. “We should summon as many of the other pantheons as we can muster. It won’t be long before War turns his sights on us again.”
Zeus nodded in agreement. “Fetch Hermes and send him to them. As for the rest of us, let’s prepare for war.”
Artemis ignored her father’s pun as she made her way out of the Hall of the Gods to her own golden temple. As soon as she was alone in her bedchambers, she used her powers to locate Acheron. He was alive but in pain. She let out a breath in relief.
Though he hated her and was planning to marry another woman in a few weeks and she wanted desperately to hurt him for that, she still loved him and the last thing she wanted to see was him killed after all they’d shared these past centuries. Their daughter’s heart would be broken if Artemis allowed him to die. But how could she protect him when he wouldn’t even speak to her?
No sooner had the question entered her mind than she knew how to stop Stryker once and for all. . . .
The demoness had taken refuge in one of her sanctuaries centuries ago, before Apollo had cursed the Apollite race. At first Artemis had wanted to turn her out, but sympathy for the woman had swayed her. She, too, had been betrayed by men, and at the time Zephyra had begged her for shelter Artemis had been angry at Apollo and had wanted to strike back at her arrogant brother. In a rare moment of sympathy, she’d allowed Zephyra to stay in Greece.
Little had she known how beneficial that decision would one day be.
“Zephyra?” she said, summoning the woman to her.
She instantly appeared in the room.
Where Artemis was extremely tall, Zephyra was petite. Even so, her preternatural powers gave her an advantage over any except those who were divinity. Her long blond hair was braided down her back, and to the uninformed she looked like any twenty-seven-year-old woman and not the eleven-thousand-year-old warrior she was.
She lowered her head respectfully. “My goddess?”
Artemis narrowed her gaze on the smaller woman. “I have a mission for you. One I think you’ll enjoy.”
“And that is?”
Lifting her chin, Zephyra’s black eyes widened. “The son of Apollo?”
He was also the man who had betrayed Zephyra centuries before. And while he was Artemis’ nephew by blood, she had no more love for him than he had for her. The two of them had battled too long and too hard for there to be anything other than hatred in their hearts.
It was time to finish it and him. “Yes.”
Zephyra’s obsidian eyes glowed with relish. “Show me where he is, goddess, and I will make you proud.”
STRYKER HELD THE BOLT HOLES OPEN, CALLING out to his Daimons the world over to summon them to Kalosis. Apollymi thought he did it in accordance with her orders to protect Acheron. The truth was Stryker intended to use them as pawns to get at Nick and Acheron. If nothing else, they’d keep the two of them occupied while War slit their throats.
Blood for blood.
Nick had killed Stryker’s beloved sister and Acheron had to die because it wasn’t in Stryker’s nature to let that bastard win after all these centuries. Apollymi had destroyed him. It was only fair he return the favor to her. She had taken Stryker’s son. Stryker would take hers.
Another flash of light denoted a new arrival. Stryker waited to see the mettle of this Daimon recruit. As typical, the Daimon landed flat on his back with a loud, “Oof!” Then the man actually whimpered like a child as he writhed on the floor, whining over his pain. “I think I broke my arm.”
Stryker let out a long, agitated breath. He missed the old days when the Daimons and Apollites were warriors. When they would appear in his hall on their feet, ready to battle. These new generations were almost as pathetically weak as the humans they fed on.
It was a supermarket world with a supermarket mentality. Since mankind no longer trained for war and huddled together in cities where loose morals made them easy pickings, today’s Daimons didn’t have to fight for food. All they had to do was stroll into any bar or nightclub, find a drunk woman or man, and take them outside to rip their stupidly willing soul out of their body to feed themselves. There was no fighting. No coaxing.
Fast food even for them.
The only challenge they had left was avoiding the Dark-Hunters and Acheron in particular.
It was why Stryker had trea sured his sister so much. Aggravating to the extreme, Satara had always been plotting something. Always trying to betray someone or screw them over. Even him. It had kept him on his toes and sharpened his skills.
Now he would grow as worthless as all the others.
Weary of their weakness, he turned to find Kessar approaching his throne. A Sumerian gallu demon, Kessar looked more like a human fashion model than the lethal killer he was. Even his brown hair was swept back from his red eyes in a manner so perfect he could run for po liti cal office. His features were finely boned and as razor sharp as the demon’s cruelty. Like Stryker, the demon used his good looks to his advantage whenever he stalked human prey.
Human women were weak. Susceptible. They would do anything for the attention of a handsome man. Gods, how he loved the weak-minded. They all deserved the painful deaths they got.
He looked over at Kessar. “If you want to make that one your lunch, I won’t stop you.”
A slow smile spread over Kessar’s face before he flashed across the room, grabbed the Daimon up from the floor, and ripped out his throat.
Survival of the fittest. Stryker’s people had been very Spartan in their beliefs. If you weren’t fit to fight, you weren’t fit to live. Simple and perfect. Just like Stryker’s new plan.
Kessar cursed as the Daimon he’d tried to feed on evaporated into dust. “I hate that gritty taste between my fangs-like feeding in a sandstorm. Not enough blood in the world to clear the palate after that.”
Stryker shrugged. “It’s what you get for being greedy. You know what happens when you kill one of us. You should have just drunk his blood and left him breathing.”
Kessar spat on the floor. “You’re in a foul mood. Someone piss in your blood?”
Before he could answer, the light flashed again. Stryker ground his teeth in expectation of the next round of Weak and Pathetic Losers.
At least that was what he thought until the blur of black landed on the floor in a deadly crouch. He could barely make out the fact that she was female before she attacked him with a ferocity and vigor that would have made a rabid tiger proud. Her first kick knocked him out of his seat. He barely had time to grab her wrist before she decapitated him with the oversized dagger in her hand.
She head-butted him hard, knocking him back. Stryker shook his head to clear it. She shoved him into the wall. He caught her arms and rolled with her, throwing her away from him.
Exposing his fangs, he was just about to rip her throat out when his swirling silver gaze locked with her black one.
In that one instant, he was taken back eleven thousand years ago to the day they first met. The sea air had been blowing her blond curls around her delicate face. Slender and small, she’d been as beautiful as a goddess.
And when he’d reached for her, she’d turned on him with a curse more foul than any man’s as she’d kneed him in the groin for daring to touch her without an invitation.
Which she again tried to do. But this time he was expecting it. He barely moved out of the way of her knee as emotions tore through him. Happiness. Anger. Joy. Confusion.
All these centuries he’d assumed her dead.
He could barely get his bearings over the reality of her being alive and well. She’d survived Apollo’s curse and managed to live out eternity . . . just like him.
“What are you doing here?”
She answered his question with a stroke of her dagger that narrowly missed his throat. “I thought we’d catch up on old times. Maybe play Parcheesi.”
Stryker caught her arm and spun with her, pinning her to the wall again. He tightened his grip until she was forced to drop her dagger. Closing one hand around her neck, he held her in place. “I can think of much better games to play.” He was about to say, Strip Poker, when something hit him hard across his back, knocking him away from Zephyra.
He turned with a feral growl on his new attacker, intending to kill whoever was dumb enough to interfere with him, then froze as shock riveted him to the spot. It was an exact duplicate of Zephyra. Same blond curls. Same black eyes. Same height and weight.
He would think her a twin sister, except that he knew for a fact Zephyra was an only child.
“Get your filthy hands off my mother.”
“MOTHER,” STRYKER REPEATED UNDER HIS breath an instant before Kessar grabbed Zephyra’s daughter. The demon opened his lips to taste her throat. Stryker barely had time to call out to the demon before he killed her. “Stop!”
The demon’s red eyes flared bright before he curled his lip and released her with a snarl. “Let them tear into you then. Not like I give a shit if you live or die.”
Zephyra ran at Stryker, drawing a hilt that she extended to a sword to stab him. Stryker took a step back as he used his powers to manifest a sword of his own. He caught her blade with his. The sound of steel rang out, echoing through the room as she met him stroke for stroke. Every parry, every thrust. She was there as if she knew exactly what he was going to do.
Stryker smiled. It’d been too long since he’d fought someone other than Acheron who could match his skills. Yet here she was, the daughter of a peasant, fighting with the expertise of a trained soldier. He wondered who had taught her so well. “I always knew you were good at handling a man’s sword, love, but I had no idea that extended to those made of steel, too.”
She growled an instant before she kicked at him, catching him in the side.
Stryker grunted at the pain that simple move caused. But to be fair, she held her temper.
“At least this sword doesn’t disappoint. I don’t have to worry about it going soft on me.”
“I never went soft on you.”
She rolled her eyes as she blocked his slice. “Trust me, baby, you weren’t that good. I was just a better actress than you were actor.”
“Ew!” her daughter groaned as she gave them more room to fight. “No offense, Mum, I don’t want to know who you’ve slept with. Kill the sexual bantering and him before I go deaf from it.”
Zephyra’s eyes darkened as one side of her mouth quirked up into an evil smile. “You shouldn’t be so prudish, Medea. After all, you’ve always wanted to meet your father. Happy Birthday, baby. Sorry the reunion’s so short. But trust me, he’s no loss.”
Stryker staggered under the weight of the news. His attention deflected from the fight, he glanced at his daughter and her startled expression to take in the subtle differences in her features from her mother’s. That lapse cost him, as Zephyra stabbed him straight in his chest, narrowly missing his Daimon’s mark. . . . Had she been a single millimeter up, he would have burst into dust.
As it was, it hurt like hell.
“Stop!” Medea cried as she ran at her mother and pulled her back.
Stryker cursed as he covered the wound with his hand and tensed against the pain.
Zephyra shoved Medea away, moving back toward him. He brought the sword up, ready to fight. Medea shot between them again and forced her mother back.
“Is he really my father?”
Zephyra threw the sword at him. Stryker quickly moved out of the way. He felt the heat of the blade as it skimmed his cheek to bury itself in the wall behind him.
Furious, he went at her.
Medea turned on him with an expression so purely Urian that it stunned him completely.
Urian. His most trea sured child. The one son who’d meant everything to him, and in that moment he knew that Zephyra wasn’t lying.
Medea was his.
That one reality slammed into him and almost drove him to his knees. He had a daughter and she was alive. . . .
Medea swallowed as she studied him. “Are you Strykerius? The son of Apollo?”
She started for him only to have her mother grab her arm and pull her to a stop. “Don’t you dare embrace him. Not after he left us for dead.”
“I never!” he snarled. “You’re the one who lied and told me you’d lost the baby.”
“Because I didn’t want to tie you to me. I wanted you to stay because you loved me. But I alone wasn’t good enough for you, was I? You went belly-crawling to your father and for what? So he could curse everyone who held a drop of Apollite blood in their veins? I told you then your father didn’t give a damn about you. You should have listened to me.”
She’d been right, but that didn’t excuse her lie. Her betrayal was every bit as great as his father’s.
“You kicked me out.”
She rolled her eyes. “You were always such an idiot.”
Kessar laughed out loud. “Finally, someone who agrees with me.”
Stryker glared at the demon, whose presence he’d completely forgotten about. “Why are you still here?”
“The entertainment value of this is beyond mea sure. I’ve never seen a man get his ass kicked so badly by a mere woman.” He’d barely finished the words before Medea slung her arm out. Something black flew from her hand and it wasn’t until it wrapped itself around Kessar’s throat and dropped him to the floor that Stryker realized what it was.
Asfyxen. Reminiscent of a bolo, it was much smaller and much deadlier.
Medea stalked toward the demon with a warrior’s lope. She snatched one of the golf-sized black balls and pulled the demon toward her while he choked and gasped, trying to loosen the wire that was strangling him. “Never underestimate a woman, demon. In this world, we rule.”
Stryker felt a chill go down his spine. She was Urian . . .
He couldn’t be prouder.
Shoving Kessar back, she jerked the wire free with a graceful arc. “Next time, think before you lose your head.”
Kessar’s eyes glowed with his fury. “You and me, little girl, are going to dance again. One day soon.”
She tucked the asfyxen back down her sleeve. “I’ll bring the music.”
Medea turned back to face them with a satisfied smile.
Stryker hid his amusement. “You do know he is the most dangerous of his kind.”
“He’s nothing to her,” Zephyra said proudly. “Medea has powers you can’t conceive of. Not that it matters to you.”
Before Stryker could open his mouth to respond, she head-butted him. He saw stars an instant before darkness took him under.
ZEPHYRA DREW THE DAGGER OUT OF HER BOOT as she knelt on the ground beside Stryker, intending to kill him. But as she plunged the knife down, Medea caught her wrist.
“What are you doing?”
Medea’s determined gaze locked with hers. “He’s my father. Could I at least speak to him before you kill him?”
Zephyra snorted. “Your father’s an asshole, honey. Take it from someone who used to sleep with him. You’re not missing anything, and if you don’t let me kill him now, you’ll only do it yourself later.”
“Then let me do it later. I want to have at least five minutes with him.”
Zephyra snatched her hand out of Medea’s grasp. “Don’t be ridiculous. Artemis wants him dead. But for her, you and I wouldn’t be here now. Your father,” she spat the word, “abandoned us.”
“I know. You’ve told me that enough that it’s permanently seared into my brain. Still, he’s a part of me and I’d like to have closure.”
“You really need to stop watching Oprah. You’re an abbadonrani, girl. Act like it.”
In one swift, graceful move Medea twisted the dagger from her hand and had it pressed against Zephyra’s throat. “You’re right, Mum. Get up and step back. I’m taking custody of him.”
Zephyra smiled proudly. Then she disarmed her daughter. “Just remember, sweetie, while you may command demons, you don’t command this one.” She tilted her head down as she felt her eyes shift from those of a Daimon to vibrant orange.
STRYKER CAME AWAKE TO A DEEP THROBBING ache in his head. For a moment, he couldn’t remember what had happened to cause it. But as he opened his eyes to find himself chained to a wall, he had complete clarity.
His first wife had returned with a vengeance.
Furious, he pushed himself to his feet and yanked at the thick chain that held him to a steel anchor in the wall. There were bands on each wrist and ankle, and while he had freedom of movement, he couldn’t go far.
But that was infinitely better than the man who was chained to the wall across from him. Tall and lithe, he looked like someone had put him through hell. Literally. Dirty, matted dark auburn hair fell just past his shoulders. Completely naked, his body was covered with bruises and bite marks. The fact that they were visible through the thick black tribal tattoos that marked his torso, arms, and thighs attested to just how deep and vicious they were. Unlike Stryker, he was held standing up, with his arms stretched high above his head. His finely boned face was covered by a thick, unkempt beard.
“What the fuck did they do to you?”
The man laughed as he twisted his hands in the chains holding his wrists and leaned his head back against the wall to stare at Stryker, who drew his breath in sharply at the sight of the man’s yellow eyes ringed by a narrow band of bloodred. “They feed from me. My guess is you’re their next course.”
Stryker was confused. “You’re neither Daimon nor Apollite. There’s nothing to be gained from feeding off you.”
He laughed bitterly. “Tell them that.”
Stryker frowned as he noted the thin black band wrapped around the man’s throat. It was a containment collar of some sort. “What are you?”
No doubt. The man more than looked the part. “Do you have a name?”
“Strykerius, but you go by ‘Stryker.’ You hate the goddess you serve and you seek to kill her only son and claim vengeance on the former human who murdered your sister.”
Stryker froze as the creature laid bare his plans. “How do you know that?”
“I know everything. I feel every heartbeat in the universe. Hear every scream for mercy and feel every tear of pain.”
And he was spooking the shit out of him.
“Sorry,” Jared said. “I do that to a lot of people.”
“Can you hear my thoughts?”
Before you have them, I hear them. This time, he didn’t speak. His voice was loud and clear in Stryker’s mind.
“Stay out of my head.”
Jared gave him a taunting grin. “Believe me, I would love to. It’s a mess in there. But you’re too close physically to me for me to block it.” He banged his head against the stone wall. “Pain is the only way to keep your thoughts out of my head.”
“Is that why they beat you?”
He gave Stryker a cold “duh” stare. “Mostly they just do it for fun.”
Stryker honestly felt sorry for the creature, who had to be in absolute agony. There was something about him that seemed familiar, and yet Stryker couldn’t place it. “How long have they held you here?”
Jared let out a tired breath. “Medea is coming.”
The words had barely left his lips before the door opened to show her. Dressed in a red blouse and jeans, she was beautiful. No father could ask for a more perfect child.
A more loving one, perhaps, but not one more beautiful.
Her gaze went to Jared, where sympathy flashed for an instant but was quickly hidden behind a wall of stoicism. Jared’s look, however, was angry and defiant.
She turned her attention to Stryker. “I’m sorry about your current position.”
Jared scoffed. “Yeah, she’s a basketful of sympathy. One glance at me tells you exactly how deep it runs.”
A leather muzzle appeared over the lower half of his face. Jared growled as he tried to jerk free of his chains or remove the muzzle, but it was useless. His muscles bulged as he fought against his restraints.
“Is that really necessary?” Stryker asked his daughter.
She ignored Jared’s shouts and Stryker’s question. “You should be more concerned about your own well-being.”
“Why? You intend to kill me?”
“I’m sure Matera will the first chance she gets.”
“Then why am I here?”
Folding her arms over her chest, she shrugged. “Curiosity. I want to understand where my powers come from and how to better channel them. I know I didn’t get them from my mother. . . . She was psychic, but she didn’t have the ability to summon the things I can.”
Her words intrigued him. What exactly were his daughter’s powers? “What kind of things?”
Me. He heard Jared’s voice in his head.
Medea turned toward Jared and shot a blast into his chest. He hissed in pain as a black circle smoldered and burned his flesh. His entire body drew tense and taut.
“Stay out of this.”
Stryker ground his teeth as a single red tear of pain slid down Jared’s cheek. How strange that he cried blood. Stryker had never heard of such a creature. But regardless of what he was, Jared didn’t deserve this.
Stryker glared at his daughter. “You know, as coldblooded as I am, I’ve never been one for torture. Either kill him or free him.”
She shook her head. “My mother would never allow that.”
“Then leave him alone.”
“You really don’t care for torture, do you?”
“No, I don’t. It’s one thing to strike out in anger, another to cause agony for the hell of it. I’m a soldier, not a coward.”
“Are you calling me a coward?”
He looked back at Jared, who was panting to cope with the agony of his wound. His chest was still smoldering as the blast continued to burn his skin. “You should always give your opponent a fighting chance. Let the best fighter win, and if it’s not you, then die with dignity.”
She arched a brow at him before she turned toward the other prisoner. “Jared? Is he lying to me?” She held her hand up and the leather muzzle vanished.
“No,” he said, his voice strained and weak. “He lives by a very screwed-up moral code.”
The creature and his powers intrigued Stryker. “What is he? Your personal lie detector?”
She gave him a flippant smile. “Something like that.”
Jared scoffed. “Why don’t you tell him the truth? I’m your pet dog you keep chained up so he won’t piss on your floor.”
She threw her hand out again and his muzzle returned to cover his face. “Why do you push me so?”
Jared jerked at his restraints as he shouted something indecipherable.
His strength was admirable. Stryker even noted the light of respect for the creature in his daughter’s eyes.
“You two lovebirds fight like this all the time?” Stryker asked her.
She snorted. “I don’t fight with him at all. He’s merely a tool I use.”
She didn’t respond. “Matera says I should let her kill you for abandoning us.”
“I want to understand how it is that you could leave the woman you loved and never once look back or regret it. I find that kind of selfishness baffling.”
Stryker froze as her accusation stung him deep inside. Not regret it? He’d regretted the loss of Zephyra every day of his life. But he’d been raised to believe that duty came before love.
His father had demanded he divorce Zephyra and marry a priestess to fulfill the destiny his father had planned for him and he’d done it. No, it wasn’t just that. Zephyra had all but kicked him out the door when Apollo told her what the god thought of her and her lowly birth.
“The daughter of a fisherman married to the son of a god? Are you out of your minds? There are whores for you aplenty, Strykerius. I didn’t save you from slaughter to see you marry this and beget worthless children from lesser genetic stock.”
Stryker should have defended Zephyra. He’d known it at the time. But at only fourteen, a prime marital age in the ancient world, he’d been scared of his father’s powers. Scared of disappointing the god who’d meant the world to him.
“Well?” Medea demanded. “Answer me. Why did you leave us?”
Stryker deadened his features. He was no longer a frightened youth. He was an eleven-thousand-year-old general. “I don’t answer to anyone, and I damn sure don’t answer to my daughter. What happened then is between me and your mother.”
“Are you willing to die then?”
“I’m a warrior, Medea. I accepted death as inevitable the moment I picked up my first sword to fight. I killed my own son for betraying me. It seems somehow fitting that my daughter should kill me for perceived similar actions. My only regret will be not knowing better the child who is so similar to me that she could execute me so swiftly and without regret or hesitation.”
She lifted her arm up. Stryker expected her to kill him. Instead, the chains holding him broke loose from his wrists and ankles.
“Come with me.”
Stryker followed her as a new plan formed in his mind. Little did she know he was no docile pup to be commanded by any person.
When he reached the door, he turned back to see Jared hanging limply from his restraints, his muzzle firmly in place. A wave of sympathy went through him.
Don’t feel sorry for me, Stryker. I didn’t choose to be here.
Those ominous words echoed through his head as he followed Medea out of the room and she closed the door, blocking his sight of Jared.
“Is he a prisoner?”
“No. He was a gift.”
She nodded without any further explanation.
“From?” he prompted.
She opened a door and led him inside a cold, austere room. “Jared’s presence isn’t something we talk about. Ever.”
Perhaps . . .
Medea started down the hallway. Now that Stryker was free of the room, he felt his powers soaring. There must have been some sort of dampening spell on the room. Now that it was gone . . .
Invigorated, he rushed to his daughter and grabbed her from behind.
Eyes wide, she gasped.
“I’m a leader, child. I follow no one.” Tightening his hold, he flashed her out of the building and back to Kalosis.
MEDEA SHRIEKED IN ANGER AS SHE TRIED TO flash herself out of Kalosis.
Stryker tsked at her. “I’ve closed the channel. You can’t get out until I open it again.”
Her black eyes flared with fury, reminding him all the more of her mother. “Matera will kill you for this.”
He released her and took a step back. “She was going to kill me anyway. What difference does it make?”
“Her plan hadn’t included torturing you first. This . . . this will make her change her mind.”
He shrugged nonchalantly. “You wanted to spend time with your father. Here I am.” His features hardened as he met her gaze and showed her his resolve. “You should know one thing about me. I do nothing on other people’s terms. I am and will always be a commander. No one tells me what to do.” The last person he’d obeyed-his own father-had betrayed him. Since that night, he’d vowed that in the future his life was his own and no one else’s.
Medea curled her lip. “Matera was right. You are an asshole.”
Her anger amused him. “Not true. An asshole would throw you to his demons. I am your father, and honestly, I miss having my children with me. That weakness is the only reason you’re still alive after threatening me.”
He reached out to cup her face in his hand. The way she tensed, he was actually surprised she didn’t sink her fangs into his palm. Instead, she continued to glare her contempt at him. She reminded him so much of his daughter who’d died eleven thousand years ago. Only Tannis had never been a fighter. She’d never shared her brother Urian’s love of life. Not like Medea.
Tannis had blithely allowed herself to decay on her twenty-seventh birthday while Stryker held her in his arms, begging her to take a human life so that she could live another day. She’d steadfastly refused. And her screams for mercy echoed in his ears to this day.
Medea turned her face into his hand, then kneed him hard in the groin.
Cursing, Stryker caught her hand before she could hit him again and shoved her back. His body aching, he wanted to kill her for what she’d done. But she was her mother’s daughter.
Using his powers, he pinned her to the wall behind her. “You’ve no idea how lucky you are that I’ve been regretting killing my son for doing a lot less to me than you just did. But for that, you’d be dead already.”
“I love you, too, Dad.” The sarcastic tone was acerbic and cold.
But at least she wasn’t like Urian, telling him how much she hated his guts and wanted to kill him.
“Davyn!” he shouted, calling in one of his commanders. He stood upright and refused to let his man see the fact that he was in pain. No one would ever know his weaknesses.
Davyn entered the room. “My lord?”
He jerked his chin toward Medea. “Take our guest to my quarters and lock her in until I have time to deal with her.” He lifted his hand, letting her fall free from the wall before he manifested a pair of shackles on her wrists.
She sucked her breath in as she tried to break them. “I’ll get you for this.”
“And your little dog, too,” he added snidely.
Davyn wisely ignored their comments. “Yes, sir. I’m on it.”
Medea didn’t speak as the handsome man stepped forward. To his credit, he didn’t touch her.
“If you’ll follow me.” He held his hand out toward the door.
As if she had a choice? Bugger bastards!
Furious, she glared at her father before she allowed Davyn to lead her from the room. “You always obey him?” she asked as soon as they were alone.
Davyn glanced back at her over his shoulder. Tall and blond, he had short hair and a small goatee. “If I didn’t want to live, I’d stop taking human souls and expire. It would be a lot less painful than crossing Stryker.”
“So you fear him?”
Davyn snorted. “Everyone fears him. The man killed his own son.”
“So he keeps telling me.”
“Yeah, well, I was there when it happened. We were facing our enemies when Stryker walked up to him all calm and collected, hugged him close, then cut his throat and left him to die.”
That description actually sent a shiver down her spine. How could any father be so coldblooded? The fact that he was hers was even more chilling.
Davyn turned left and headed down another hallway. “Urian was one of my best friends and he loved his father more than anything. He’d served him for centuries with absolute loyalty. Believe me, he didn’t deserve what he got.”
What had her half brother done to cause so severe a punishment? “Why did Stryker kill him?”
“He married one of our enemies behind his back.”
She stumbled at his low words, unable to believe so slight an offense would be worth taking a life over, never mind that of one’s own child. “That was it?”
Davyn paused to open a door. “That was it.”
Unable to believe the man’s cruelty, Medea hesitated as she sensed something about her escort. “You’re Anglekos.” They were Daimons who only preyed on evil humans. Daimons who vowed to take only the souls that deserved to die. Pedophiles. Rapists. Murderers. The lowest of the low.
He blanched. “How do you know that?”
“I can sense the souls inside you. You took three kills recently.” It was then she realized another fact about him. He wasn’t like her father. He still had a heart that hadn’t been destroyed.
“I know why you pick the ones you do, but let me give you some advice. Those souls will wear you down. They will corrupt you until you become the very thing you feed on.”
Davyn watched her warily. “How do you know?”
That was one question she had no intention of answering.
STRYKER SAT IN HIS OFFICE, WATCHING ZEPHYRA pace furiously through his new sfora. That woman moved like liquid silver. Hot. Fluid. Graceful. It made every hormone in his body fire into overdrive as he remembered how she’d felt in his arms. How it felt to make love to such a hellbrand. Her scent and touch were seared into his memories.
He’d always loved it when she was angry. One time not long after they’d married, he’d pissed her off by flirting with another woman. When they’d returned home, she’d grabbed him and shoved him to the floor, then made love to him until he’d all but gone blind from the plea sure of it. He’d had rug burns on his knees for a solid week afterward.
“You ever look at another woman and I’ll claw your eyes out.”
Instead, she’d clawed most of the skin off his back as they made love the entire night. His heart raced at the memory of her skills and he was instantly hard as he ached for another taste of her.
Walking away from her had been the hardest thing he’d ever done. But had he stayed, his father would have mercilessly killed her. There was no way Apollo would have allowed them as mortals to defy his divine plans. He was even less forgiving than Stryker was.
And so he’d done the noble thing. The right thing. Rather than try to fight a losing battle that would have cost them both their lives, he’d left her alive, thinking that she’d be able to find a man worthy of her.
And in all these centuries since then, Stryker had thought of her every day and missed her. He’d regretted every moment they had been denied.
But he’d never regretted saving her life from his father’s wrath.
Unable to stand being away from her for another instant, Stryker flashed himself to her temple in Greece. One of the last remaining temples of Artemis that was still used to worship her, it was as cold and timeless as the goddess herself.
As soon as Zephyra felt his presence, she turned on him with the full weight of her fury. Her black eyes blazing, she snatched the dagger from its sheath in her boot and advanced toward him.
“Don’t,” he said calmly, even though his body was on fire for a taste of her. “Kill me and my men will destroy Medea.”
Zephyra’s grip tightened on the dagger as she froze before him. “You would use your own daughter as a bargaining chip?”
He shrugged. “Agamemnon killed his just to sail a ship to attack his enemy. We are ancient Greeks, are we not?”
“You were a half Greek pig. I’m an Atlantean Apollite.” She returned her dagger to its sheath, then straightened. Her tough stance let him know that she was more than ready to fight. “So what do you want?”
Before he stopped himself, he jerked her into his arms to kiss her.
Zephyra had thought she’d stab him the moment he touched her, but the instant his lips were on hers she remembered why she’d married him. Insufferably arrogant, dismally loyal, and unbelievably sexy, Stryker had always made her hot. No one kissed like he did. No one felt the way he did. His warrior’s body was sculpted by hard, taut muscles that moved like water. Muscles that beckoned to be stroked and licked.
And with his arms around her, she could forgive him anything.
She shoved him back. “That won’t work with me anymore, asshole. I’m not the little girl you left behind.”
His swirling eyes darkened. “No, you’re not. She was beautiful, but you . . . you’re a goddess.”
Retrieving her weapon again, Zephyra held her dagger against his neck, just below his Adam’s apple. She wanted to slice his throat and yet some foreign part of her couldn’t quite complete the task. What was wrong with her? She never hesitated. “Don’t come any closer.”
His gorgeous features taunted her. Gods, but no man had ever been born more handsome. Black eyebrows arched over a pair of pale swirling silver eyes. And his lips . . . all too well she remembered how well they’d pleased her and for how long. He’d been an insatiable, skilled, and thoughtful lover. One who’d never left her wanting.
“Would you really cut my throat?” he asked, his voice dropping an octave.
She stood strong against her volatile emotions. “Release my daughter and you’ll find out.”
He rubbed his neck against the sharp blade, letting it cut a fine line into his skin. Zephyra stared at the blood, her mouth watering for a taste of it. That was one of the things she hated most about what Apollo had done to them. The lure of Apollite blood was a madness that made them have to feed whenever they smelled it. It was a compulsion no one born of her race could deny.
Unable to stand it, she pulled the dagger back, grabbed Stryker by the hair, and drew him close.
Stryker sucked his breath in sharply as she clamped her fangs into his skin. Chills spread through his body while he welcomed her arms holding him close. The sensation of her breath on his neck heated his entire body.
“Gods, how I’ve missed you.”
She bit harder, drawing the blood into her mouth until it pained him. “I hate you with every beat of my heart.”
Those words hurt him more than her feeding. Yet he took plea sure from the pain. He deserved her hatred. “I wish I could go back and change the night I left.”
Zephyra pulled back with a curse. “You were always a coward.”
He grabbed her arm and jerked her closer. “Never a coward. A fool maybe, but I’ve never run from anything.”
“If you really think that, you’re even dumber than I thought. Now give me Medea.”
He shook his head. “My daughter stays with me.”
Growling, Zephyra went for his throat.
Stryker caught her and held her back. “Still so unreasonable.” But worse, she was delectable and he wanted her with a madness that was allconsuming. He leaned close enough to her hair that he could inhale the delicate scent of valerian mixed with lavender. That smell slammed into him. Gods, how he wanted her. “I’ll tell you what. You want me dead and I want to taste you. What say we settle this like the warriors we are?”
“We fight and if you win, you kill me.”
She cocked her head suspiciously. “If I lose?”
“You give me two weeks to win you back. If at the end of two weeks you still loathe me, I’ll let you execute me.”
Zephyra froze at his offer. She eyed him suspiciously. “How do I know I can trust you?”
“I’m a man of my word. Of all people, you know my honor means everything to me. If I haven’t won you back in two weeks, then I deserve nothing better than to die by your hand.”
“You know I’m not the same weak-kneed fool who couldn’t cut her own meat that you married. I will kill you.”
“Then I accept your terms.” She stepped back. “Now prepare to die.”
Stryker manifested two ancient Greek swords and handed one to her.
Her eyes glowing with anger, she took it from his hand and readied herself. Stryker saluted her with his.
She charged, slicing at his throat. He caught the blade with his and forced her back. Twirling, he changed hands to catch her on an upswing that almost succeeded in disarming her. But she was quick and strong. And like him, she changed hands, and drove him back with the ferocity of her attack.
“You’re incredible,” he breathed, impressed with her skill and passion.
“And you’re not.” She scissor-kicked him back and swung the blade at his neck.
Stryker felt the burn of it as he dodged left and dropped to the floor, where he swept her feet out from under her. Cursing him, she flipped to land back on her feet before she thrust at his outstretched arm. Stryker smiled in appreciation as he continued to press his attack. She feinted left, then right. He caught her blade with his and swung it high, out of her grasp.
She shoved him back, sank her teeth into his arm, then rolled on the ground so that she could scoop the hilt back into her hand and rise with the sword held at ready.
Stryker cursed as he covered the wound on his arm with his hand. “You bit me?”
“We use what we have.” She came at him swinging.
“That’s such a girl move,” he said, disappointed that she’d used those tactics.
“But it works. Maybe if you fought like a girl and not a stunted baboon, you’d actually win.”
His arm throbbing, he caught her blow and pressed her to his left. Out of instinct, he lifted his hand to strike her face, then stopped.
He would never lay hand to the mother of his child. Never lay hand to the woman he’d once loved more than his own life.
That hesitation cost him, as she jerked the sword free and laid open the skin on his shoulder. Hissing in pain, he staggered back. Like a true warrior, she pressed her advantage, slamming her sword against his over and over again.
The ferocity of her attack did more than just damage his injured arm. It cut him deep in his heart. “You really want me dead?”
“With every part of me.”
Unwilling to concede that to her, he renewed his attack, sweeping his blade under hers and then wringing it from her hand. It arced up.
Pushing her away, he yanked it from the air and then angled both blades at her throat.
Her eyes flared with anger. “I hate you, you bastard!”
“And I’ve won in all fairness. Concede the fight.”
She spat on the ground at his feet. “I’ll abide by my word, but you will never win me back. Believe me, in two weeks I will slice open your throat, drink from your blood, and then pierce your heart and laugh while your body explodes into dust.”
“Beautiful imagery. You should write for Hallmark.” He used his powers to dissolve the swords. “I want you to know that I fought you fairly. Equal to equal. I could have used my powers against you, but I didn’t.”
She gave him extremely sarcastic applause. “Should I warm the oven and bake you a batch of hero cookies?”
He let out a long breath. “I have my work cut out for me where you’re concerned, don’t I?”
“Not really. Hate you today. Will hate you tomorrow. What say we don’t waste any time? Give me the sword and let me have your throat now. You told me once that you’d die for me. How about you keep that one promise?”
He scoffed at her rancor. “Why keep one now after I’ve broken so many?”
That brought color to her cheeks as her eyes glistened with her rage. “Just as I thought. A liar and a coward. You’ll never submit yourself to me in two weeks, will you?”
“This isn’t about promises. It’s a matter of honor. I’ve never sacrificed my honor for anyone.”
“No, only your love,” she sneered. “Tell me something, Strykerius. Was it worth it?”
That was always the one question in life, wasn’t it? One of the priestesses who’d tended him when he was a child had once told him the biggest regrets were those that hadn’t been done. And she was right. He wished he’d never left Zephyra.
His heart softened as he remembered the past. “I had ten beautiful children. Strong. Determined. And I loved every one of them. How could I ever regret that?”
“And your wife? What of her?”
She had been beautiful, too. Docile and quiet. Never questioning. A true lady of the ancient world. “She was dutiful and faithful. I would never besmirch the honor of or insult the mother of my children.”
Her eyes flared an even darker shade. He’d struck her without meaning to.
And he would never take away from her what they’d had between them. “But she was never you, Phyra. Not in face, form, or passion. You were always the light in my darkness.”
Zephyra moved toward him slowly. Cautiously.
His shoulder still aching and bleeding, Stryker tensed, expecting her to attack him again. Reaching up, she sank her hand into his hair and pulled his lips down to hers so that she could give him a kiss so feral and hot it set fire to his blood. His body roared to life as he returned it with every part of himself that had missed her.
Growling, she pulled back and glared at him before she shoved him away. “That is only to remind you what you gave up. My heart is dead except for Medea. She alone keeps that last piece of me.”
“Then I will release her.”
She snorted contemptuously. “Your tricks won’t work on me.”
“No trick. You gave me your word and I’m giving you my faith. I trust you to abide by our terms and so I release her back into your custody.”
Zephyra narrowed her eyes on him, not trusting him for a moment. He was smarter than any man she’d ever known. Cunning. He knew how to manipulate people to get what he wanted. He always had.
Everyone except his worthless father.
More handsome than any of the gods, her Strykerius had once made her body burn with insatiable lust. Now she only felt anger and hatred.
It was so strange to see him now with those eerie swirling eyes. As a mortal, his eyes had been the clearest blue. She’d wanted to bear sons and daughters with those eyes to remind her of how much she loved him.
Medea’s eyes had been green like hers, and while they’d been mortal she’d been grateful to the gods for that small mercy. Until the night Apollo had cursed every member of her race because a group of Atlantean soldiers had slaughtered his Greek mistress and bastard son.
It had been on Medea’s sixth birthday, and there while they celebrated Zephyra had watched her daughter’s eyes turn black. Unaware at that time of what had caused the curse, Zephyra had held her daughter as she had vomited food and started craving blood.
Once Zephyra understood what had been done to them-what they’d been cursed to-she’d hated everything to do with Stryker and his father, Apollo.
“Tell me. Do you still worship your father?”
Bitter disgust flared deep in his eyes. “I hate him with every breath I take.”
“Then we do have one thing in common.”
“We also have a daughter.”
She curled her lip at his audacity. “No. I have a daughter. I won’t let you claim Medea when you were never there for her. She is mine.”
Stryker shook his head. “Children are willful. No matter how much you love them and no matter how hard you try, they will have their own way. Parents be damned.”
“But that wasn’t true of you, was it?”
He winced at the truth. “I was only a boy, Zephyra. My father would have killed me and you had I denied him his plan. Or at the very least he would have cursed us.”
“He cursed us anyway, didn’t he?”
“He did and I watched as every child and grandchild I had decayed into nothing before my eyes. I held my daughter while she screamed for a mercy that was hours in coming. I should have killed her and saved her that, but I was young and kept hoping she’d turn Daimon like her brothers. But she refused until she finally turned to dust. One by one, every member of my family perished and suffered. I have nothing now. No one.”
Zephyra wanted to insult him for his womanish maudlin. But the truth was it touched a part of her that she’d reserved only for her daughter. She actually wanted to comfort him for his losses. Her worst fear had been to watch her daughter age and die.
Luckily, Medea was stronger than that.
“Does Medea have any children?”
Zephyra steeled herself against the pain that innocent question evoked. The bitter memories that burned deep inside her. “She had a son.” More beautiful than any baby ever born. Praxis had been precious and sweet. Always laughing. Always hugging.
“Where is he now?”
She forced all emotion out of her voice. “Dead.”
Stryker’s eyes darkened at her monosyllabic answer. “Her husband?”
“Ironic really. Against my wishes, she and her husband were members of the Cult of Pollux.” Those were Apollites who believed in doing nothing to circumvent Apollo’s curse. They lived peacefully among the humans, waiting to die horribly on their birthdays. Each member of the cult took a vow to harm no human or any other life-form.
“Her husband was killed by the same angry humans who feared his fangs. He tried to distract the humans so that she and their child could get to safety. They beat him down and ripped his heart out of his chest, then they captured her and tortured her for days. They tore her son out of her arms and killed him before her eyes.” Indignant rage burned deep inside her. “He was only five years old. And they would have killed her, too, had I not found her in time. It’s what made her the warrior she is. She hates all humans for their cruelty, just as I do. They are all animals fit for nothing but slaughter, and I enjoy wholeheartedly playing the butcher.”
Stryker understood those sentiments. He’d seen their cruelty firsthand against his people and his children. It was why he had no sympathy for mankind. Why he had no mercy on them. Why should they live in peace while his own people had no future?
But her words confused him as he looked around the stone temple where the walls were decorated with peaceful scenes of women dancing with deer. This was where Artemis’s human worshipers still paid tribute to her. “Yet you live here with them?”
“Only a small group. Servants to Artemis who gave us shelter when we needed it. They have watched over us for centuries, and so we let them live.”
He scowled. “Why would the goddess do that?”
“Artemis has always been good to us. And in return for her shelter, I do a few odd jobs for her.”
Humor flickered in his eyes as he drew near her. “Back to that, are we?”
“We will always come back to that.”
“Fair enough.” He sighed. “Come, Phyra, let’s find our daughter.” He held his hand out to her.
She curled her lip in repugnance. “You can keep that”-she sneered at his proffered hand-“to yourself.”
He tsked at her. “There was a time when you would have kissed my palm with loving tenderness. But in all honesty, I have to say that I’m surprised at you. A clever enemy would kiss my hand, then stab at my back while I was distracted.”
She scoffed as she shoved his hand to the side. “A coward’s action. Truly. Don’t insult either one of us with such a suggestion. I don’t believe in petty juvenile attacks. I go after what I want, and when it’s the life of an enemy I don’t want there to be any mistaking my intention. If you’re worth my hatred, then you’re worth my letting you know that I’m coming for you.”
Stryker smiled at her angry words, grateful to hear them from her. “A true warrior’s code.” He respected her all the more for it. “Take my hand, Zephyra.”
She spat at it.
Unamused, Stryker grabbed her and pulled her close. He wanted to strangle her for her obstinacy. Most of all he wanted to kiss her.
“I’m going to gut you,” she warned.
He wiped her spittle off on her shirt even while she slapped at his hand. “So long as you do it naked, you’ll have no complaints from me.”
“You’re a faithless pig.” She moved to slap him.
He captured her hand in his and met her challenging glare. “And you are a beautiful shrew. One who should be grateful that I’m nostalgic enough to not do to her what I would to anyone else who spat on me.”
Zephyra held her breath as she saw the raw fury in his eyes. He was one step away from hitting her, and though a part of her wanted him to, his restraint surprised her. In the world where they’d been born, a man had a right to beat a woman. Yet he’d refrained from striking her with his hand even in their fight.
Even in the year when they’d been married in ancient Greece, he’d never harmed her. Never lifted a finger against her while he was merciless to others. It was what she’d loved most about him.
He’d made her feel safe. Protected. If anyone had so much as glanced askance at her, Stryker gutted them.
She missed that stupid little boy whose eyes had glowed with love every time he looked at her.
The man before her was formidable. This wasn’t a callow youth trying to please her. He was an accomplished warrior with eleven thousand years of survival training behind him. Of commanding an army of the damned that waged war against mankind and the immortal Dark-Hunters who protected them.
Though she’d wanted to kill Stryker many times over the centuries, she’d never been able to get to him until now. All these years, he’d been holed up in Kalosis and the only way in was an invitation from either Stryker or Apollymi.
So long as she served Artemis, Apollymi would have nothing to do with her. And asking him for it would have ruined her surprise attack.
However, his reputation among their people was legendary. The Apollites worshiped him and his band of elite Spathi warriors. Even she respected him for his battles.
But it didn’t change what he’d done to her and Medea. To this day, Zephyra could see him turning around and slinking out of their cottage to be with the woman his father had wanted him to marry. However, she’d given him her word to stay her fight and be damned if she’d break it. She was better than that.
“I hate your hair black,” she snarled before she took his hand.
Stryker laughed at her capitulation and barb. She wasn’t giving in and she didn’t hesitate to let him know it. Closing his hand around hers, he took her into Kalosis, where he ruled.
As soon as they were safely in the hell realm, she snatched her hand away as she turned around the dark room where he held court over all the Daimons who called this place home. “Rather glum, isn’t it?”
“It works for me.”
She didn’t comment as she returned to face him. “Where’s Medea?”
“In my chambers. Come and I’ll take you to her.”
WAR PAUSED AS HE MATERIALIZED IN THE BACK hallway of a mansion that reminded him of an old Greek villa. The dark gray shutters were drawn tight against an unforgiving sun that spilled through the slats to highlight the breezy distance. White walls held old photos of a young boy and a very attractive woman with blond hair and laughing blue eyes.
A strange sound of foreign music drifted through the walls, along with laughter and cars from outside. But there was no laughter inside. All was silent and still.
Closing his eyes, War searched the house with his powers until he found the one he’d been sent to kill.
But he wasn’t alone. There was a woman lying in bed with him. Both naked. Both sweaty from sex.
Centuries ago, War would have slaughtered the woman without hesitation.
No doubt he still should. . . .
Lowering his head, he walked through the walls until he came to the room where a large four-poster bed housed the two of them. They were entwined in black silk sheets. A tray holding a bottle of half-empty wine was on the nightstand, where red roses were strewn as if they’d been tossed down.
The man, Nick, lay atop the woman, nibbling at her ribs while she drew circles over his back. Shoulder-length brown hair obscured the man’s face. The woman, however, was beautiful. Long black hair spilled across the pillows as she arched her back and kept her eyes tightly closed.
War paused at the sight of her naked, sculpted body. He hadn’t tasted a woman in centuries. Hadn’t felt a kind caress since . . .
The mere thought of that bitch threw his temper into overdrive. Wanting blood, he closed the distance between them. He grabbed Nick by his throat and threw him into the wall.
“Get out,” he ordered the woman, who drew back with a scream.
“Go, Jennifer. Now!”
She didn’t hesitate. Wrapping the sheet around her, she scrambled from the large plantation bed and ran for the door.
Gautier straightened up to glare at him. He had three days’ growth of beard on his face, which was marked by a double bow and arrow mark. The sign of Artemis.
War frowned at its presence. And its significance.
Not that it mattered. He’d been born to piss off the gods.
“Who the fuck are you?” Nick asked. Throwing his arms out, he manifested clothes on his body.
War laughed. “Call me Death.”
“No offense, I’d rather call you pathetic.” He slung his hand out.
War tsked as he saw the shurikens headed for him. “Talk about pathetic.” He flashed himself across the room and grabbed Gautier by his throat as the shurikens planted themselves harmlessly into the bedposts. War lifted him up from the floor and held him against the wall.
Nick choked as he tried to break the man’s hold on him. “What are you?”
“I told you. I’m Death. Now be a good little boy and die.”
Nick’s breathing intensified.
War slammed him back against the wall three times, trying to crush his windpipe. The plaster of the wall cracked into a spiderweb pattern. War’s actions split Nick’s lips and the knuckles of the hand he held him by, causing their blood to mix. He tightened his grip, waiting for the light to fade from the man’s eyes as he died.
It didn’t. Instead, red laced itself through Nick’s dark pupils, turning them the color of blood before the red spread through the swirling silver of his irises.
Before War could move, Gautier slammed his hand against his arm, breaking his hold.
Shocked, War stumbled back.
Nick’s skin darkened three shades. Panting, he looked at War. “What’s happening to me? What’d you do?”
Gautier blocked his punch with his arm, then head-butted War hard. He staggered back as he realized the impossible.
He was about to seriously get his ass kicked.
STRYKER HAD ONLY TAKEN TWO STEPS TOWARD his room with Zephyra to release Medea when a bright light illuminated the hallway. No one should be able to breach the sanctity of this hall without his invitation. . . .
Frowning, he turned to find War, who looked extremely pissed as the spirit appeared before them.
“Is something wrong?” he asked War.
“Is something wrong?” he repeated. “Surely you’re not that stupid, are you?”
“Apparently I am, because unless Acheron and Nick are dead, I can think of no reason for your presence here.”
War walked slowly toward him, nostrils flaring. “Dead? You fool, are you really so stupid?”
Stryker narrowed his eyes as his anger ignited. “At least I’m not the one wasting time with repetitious insults. Either explain yourself or get out.”
“Fine. Let me try this in a manner that even an imbecile can comprehend. When you summoned me, you forgot to tell me a couple of extremely important facts. Acheron isn’t just a god. He’s Chthonian, protected by another Chthonian and a Charonte army.”
Folding his arms over his chest, Stryker let out an agitated breath. Why would that matter to something like War? It was why Stryker had gone to him to begin with. If Acheron wasn’t so damned hard to kill, he’d have done it himself centuries ago. “You were created to kill the Chthonians. That shouldn’t be a problem for you.”
“You should have warned me.”
As if that would matter? “Trivial details. I thought you could handle it.”
“I can kill him. It will just take more time.”
“You neglected to tell me about Nick Gautier.”
“What about him? He’s a Dark-Hunter. A worthless human who sold his soul to Artemis to serve in her army. Surely the great War isn’t afraid of the likes of him.”
War scoffed. “Dark-Hunter, my ass. Gautier is a Malachai, you stupid son of a bitch.”
Stryker bristled under the insult. “A what?”
“Malachai,” Zephyra repeated, her tone reverent. “Are you sure?”
War turned his dark gaze on her and nodded. “In all the universe a Malachai is the only thing that can kill me.”
Stryker made a sound of disgust deep in his throat. “You’ve got to be kidding me. I thought you were the most powerful of beings. Even the gods fear you.”
“We all have predators,” War growled. “The entire universe exists in a system of checks and balances. I just met my zero balance.”
Stryker cursed. “Are you honestly telling me that the most powerful creature on this planet is a pathetic Cajun guttersnipe who offed himself because one of my men killed his mommy?”
His sarcasm was equally matched by War’s. “Unless you happen to have a Sephiroth just lying around here someplace sunning himself, yeah.”
“What the hell’s a Sephiroth?”
Zephyra laughed as she came up behind him to place her hand on his shoulder. “Stryker, you poor baby, you have been living in this hole for far too long.”
“What do you mean?”
“What I mean, dear man, is if you want Gautier dead, then come talk to Mama. It seems your negotiating power over me just ended. Oooo, baby, this is going to get good now.”
NICK LAY ON THE FLOOR, TREMBLING AND IN A cold sweat as he tried to focus. It was no use. Everything swam before his eyes. His body felt like it was black asphalt at three o’clock on a late August afternoon in the French Quarter.
What was happening to him?
“Sh . . .” A tender hand brushed his sweaty hair back from his face.
Looking up, he found Menyara there. Tiny and beautiful, her Creole skin was the perfect cafe au lait color. Her green eyes watched him with concern. “It’s all right, mon petit ang,” she said in a deep voice that had always reminded him of Eartha Kitt’s.
“What are you doing here?” he asked, his voice thick and scratchy.
“I felt your powers unlock and came as soon as I could.”
He frowned in confusion. “What?”
Menyara shook her head as she gathered him into her arms and held him like she’d done when he’d been a scared little boy afraid of the neighborhood bullies. “My poor Ambrosius. You’ve been through so much already. Now there’s something I’d hoped I’d never have to tell you . . .”
“I DON’T UNDERSTAND.” STRYKER SHOOK HIS head, trying to make sense of what Zephyra and War had told him. “How can Nick Gautier be this supremely powerful creature? He’s a worthless gnat.”
War took a deep breath before he spoke in an impatient tone. “When the Primus Bellum was fought, the darkest power-the Mavromino-created the Malachai to bring down the Sephirii. Guardians and consorts of the first order of gods, the Sephirii were soldiers who enforced the original laws of the universe. When the Mavromino turned against the Source and thought to end all creation, the Sephirii were unleashed to kill him. Most of them flew into traps. But enough Sephirii survived to declare war on the Malachai, and they would have destroyed them had they not been betrayed by one of their own.”
“There’s always one, isn’t there?” Stryker asked rhetorically. In every house, there was always one malcontent jealous prick out to destroy everyone else just for spite. The entire history of the earth was written in the blood of those betrayed by the very people they’d foolishly trusted.
He looked at War. “So how many Malachai are there now?”
“There should be none. When the truce finally came, both sides agreed to execute their own soldiers. All of the Malachai and Sephirii were then put down.”
“Except for one,” Zephyra said, stepping forward. “The Betrayer who’d helped Mavromino was to live on to suffer and to see what he’d done. His powers were bound and he was to be forever shamed and enslaved.”
War nodded. “Checks and balances. Apparently when they allowed the one Sephiroth to live, the primal order allowed a Malachai to escape as well. And today, I met the last of their breed.”
Fucking figured. Stryker should have known it wouldn’t be so easy to kill off the two men who aggravated him most. But then, on the bright side, it made him feel better that War was having as hard a time bringing them down as he had. At least it wasn’t a question of his lacking skill.
The universe just basically sucked and blew.
“Where is this Sephiroth?” Stryker asked Zephyra.
“In Greece. In the last functioning temple of Artemis.”
Stryker snorted as realization stung him. He knew instantly who the Sephiroth was and why he’d been so abused. “Jared.”
She inclined her head in a sarcastic gesture. “Jared.”
Which begged one extremely important question. “And just how did you happen to come into possession of him?”
She refused to answer. “All that matters is that I own him and he will do whatever I say without question.”
Yeah, right. She seemed a little too optimistic for his mental health. “He didn’t seem so compliant when I met him.”
“Perhaps not, but he will do as we want. Trust me.”
Stryker was less than convinced. Still, he noted her peculiar choice of pronoun. “We?”
“You want Gautier dead. I want you dead. Personally I don’t care if this Gautier lives or dies, but if he is a threat to my Sephiroth, I want him terminated, too. Best to catch him before he learns to use his powers.”
Stryker smiled. “A woman after my own heart.”
For once her look was seductive and it made him hard just to see it. “You’re absolutely right about that. Nothing would please me more than ripping that organ out of you and feasting on it.”
War arched a brow at her open hostility. “Mmm, a woman I can relate to. Please tell me you’re unattached.”
“She’s my wife,” Stryker snapped.
“Was,” Zephyra corrected quickly. “You seem to have forgotten an important verb tense.” She looked up at War. “He divorced me.”
War lifted her hand to his lips and placed a tender kiss on her knuckles. “Pleased to meet you, my lady. What name do I apply to one so fair and vicious?”
“Like the wind. Soft and gentle.”
She gave him a sly smile. “And capable of utter destruction when riled.”
He sucked in his breath in sharp appreciation. “I commend you, Stryker. You have excellent taste in women. Too bad you weren’t man enough to hold on to her.”
Against his better sense, Stryker shoved him away from her. “Zephyra is mine. You’d do well to remember that.”
War looked less than intimidated as he turned to address Zephyra. “After you kill him, give me a call and I’ll show you what a real man is capable of. In the meantime, if we’re going to kill the Malachai, and I definitely am in for that, we need to get started. Every second we delay, his powers grow.”
“Then back to Greece to release my Sephiroth.” She looked at Stryker. “Return me to my temple.”
JARED SIGHED AS HIS BLOODIED AND RAW WRISTS throbbed in utter agony. How he wished he could die. But this was his fate for all eternity.
It’s what you deserve, traitor.
Perhaps it was. But at the time he’d done it, he’d made the only decision he’d been able to.
Leverage. Life was all about leverage and the balance of power had never been with him. All creatures were victims of their births and families. With all the power he commanded, not even he had been immune. Disgusted by that, he tensed as he felt a foreign ripple through the air around him. He knew that sensation . . .
An instant later, clarity came as the door opened to admit his bane Zephyra and two men. One was the Daimon demigod again. The other . . .
Bravo that. They needed the spirit of war awakened like he needed a hot poker shoved up his ass. Keep that idea to yourself, boy. You don’t need to give Zephyra any more suggestions on how to make you suffer.
True enough. She lived to make him beg her for mercy.
Jared met Zephyra’s hostile glare and knew instantly why they were there. “It never fails to amaze me what people will do to have their way. I won’t kill him for you. You know better than to ask that of me.”
Zephyra tsked as she pulled a dagger out of her boot. “Why do we have to play this game, Jared? You know my thoughts. I know you’re already in my head reading them. Now be a good boy and do what I say.”
He was so tired of following orders. Of having no will of his own. It was time he stopped serving and took control of his miserable life. “I don’t care what you do to me.”
She ran a deceptively tender hand down his grizzled cheek, making him ache for a real caress. One that wouldn’t turn vicious on him. “I know you don’t. But we both know you don’t feel that way about your little friend. Him you would die to protect.”
He tensed at the mention of his demon companion. “Nim’s not here. He left.”
“Of course he did.” Her tone was mocking.
“Nim?” Stryker asked.
Zephyra glanced at him over her shoulder. “An inutile slug demon Jared adopted.”
“I did no such thing.” Nim had adopted him, and he’d been trying ever since to get rid of him. The demon was a liability he didn’t want or need to carry. Honestly, he was sick of Nim hanging around and complicating his worthless life even more. All the demon did was get him into trouble. And worse, Nim got him tortured.
She dragged the dagger’s tip down the divine markings on his left arm. At one time he’d worn them with pride. Now they only reminded him of his humiliation. They marked him as a slave. The last of his kind.
“Is he here?” she asked.
He hissed as she laid open the length of the tattoo. His blood beaded under the line, trickling down his flesh. Stryker turned away as if the sight sickened him.
Zephyra wasn’t so kind. “Looks like I guessed wrongly.”
Jared met her gaze without flinching as his anger snapped. “I told you he left.”
“Really?” She trailed the dagger over his collar bone. “I’ll bet he’s hiding on your back.”
Jared gasped as she plunged the dagger deep into his shoulder, through the tattoo that was there. Pain seared him.
“Zephyra, stop!” Stryker snapped. “There’s no need for this.”
“Trust me, it’s the only way to get his compliance. But don’t feel bad for him, Stryker. He slit the throats of his own people, didn’t you, Jared? Those he didn’t kill, he led to the slaughter.”
Pain and fury mixed inside him. “Shut up!”
“Why? It’s the truth. You’ve never cared about anyone but yourself. So give us the demon and let me end your suffering where he’s concerned.”
Against his will, he jerked as she trailed the knife over the tattoo that wasn’t branded into his skin. It merged with the others, but it wasn’t his . . .
“Aha, found the little bugger, did I?” She clenched the dagger tight, pressing it into his skin where Nim was resting.
Jared ground his teeth. If she stabbed Nim while he slept on his body, it would kill the demon.
“Shall I liberate you from your annoyance?” She pressed the tip in, drawing blood.
Jared tried to pull away, but he couldn’t. The chains held him tight and gave him no choice. “Stop!” he growled. “Don’t hurt him.”
“Kill Gautier and I’ll let your demon live.”
“And if I can’t kill him?”
She jerked his hair hard, slamming his head back into the wall. “You don’t want to find out. Trust me.” Snapping her fingers, she used her powers to open his shackles.
Jared fell back against the wall and slid to the floor, his entire body aching. He couldn’t remember the last time he’d been freed. From the sensation of his stiff muscles, it felt like centuries and it probably was.
Zephyra stood over him, looking down. “Clean yourself, dog. Bring me the head of the Malachai and I’ll give you two days to wench and drink before I call you back. Betray me and you will think these past centuries were paradise.”
Jared laughed bitterly. “Your mercy is beyond reproach, my lady.”
“Sarcasm . . . such sweet music to me.” She kicked him hard in the ribs. “Now go and carry out your orders.”
Stryker met Jared’s searing gaze. Hatred burned bright, but something told him the hatred was directed more inwardly than out. The poor creature. It would be kindest to kill him.
“Are you sure he can do this?” Stryker asked Zephyra as she sheathed the dagger back into her boot.
She led him out of the room and into the hallway. War pulled up their rear. “Don’t let his sniveling fool you. He was created to kill.”
“So was the Malachai.”
“Yes, but the Malachai is half human and new to his powers. Jared should make easy work of him.” Pausing in the hallway, she looked past Stryker to War. “Keep an eye on Jared. Make sure his little demon doesn’t go free. That stupid slug is the only way I have to really control him.”
Stryker watched as War inclined his head to her before he returned to the room where Jared had been left. “How do you know he’s not going to rebel and kill War?”
She snorted. “So what if he does? Are you two friends?”
“Hardly, but if War is gone, Jared could come after you.”
“So long as he wears that collar, Jared is my property. He can’t kill me anymore than I can kill him. I can make him bleed and suffer, but the collar won’t allow him to attack his own er in any manner. In fact, if I’m under attack, he has no choice except to defend me whether he wants to or not.”
That had to be one of the cruelest things he’d ever heard of. He couldn’t imagine a worse punishment than being forced to protect someone he hated. Someone who tortured him.
And it made him take a hard look at the woman in front of him. She was so familiar and at the same time so foreign. What had happened to the woman he’d married? “I remember this beautiful girl who wouldn’t even allow me to have a cat in the house because she didn’t want it to hurt the mice. A woman who made me carry any insect outside to set it free rather than kill it.”
Her black eyes met his, and there inside he saw a hatred so potent, it stole his breath. “And I remember the sounds of my grandson screaming for mercy as he was viciously killed for being different and I was powerless to help him. I’m not that little girl you left behind, Stryker. I’m a vengeful woman at war with the world that did her wrong.”
“Then you understand me. I didn’t ask for this existence and I want the blood of everyone who took part in damning me to it. My father, Apollymi, Acheron, and Nick Gautier.”
“What of Artemis?”
“I have no love for her. But there’s no real hatred for her either. So long as she stays out of my way, I don’t care what happens where she’s concerned.”
Zephyra looked up at him. His black hair contrasted sharply with his swirling silver eyes. He looked nothing like the boy who’d stolen her heart. The boy she’d wanted to grow old with. In those days, she’d expected to spend forty years with him, if they were lucky, before death separated them.
Eleven thousand years later, here they stood. Toe to toe. Enemy to enemy.
It was ironic really. At fourteen, she would have sold her soul to spend eternity with him. Now she only wanted to see him die miserably.
How the world changed . . .
“Now, are you going to fulfill your word and release Medea?”
Stryker wondered at her sudden change of subject. “Absolutely.” He held his hand out toward her again, expecting her to slap it away.
She narrowed her gaze on it as if the thought was in her mind. Just when he was sure she’d knock it away, she reached out and took it gently in hers.
Stryker didn’t know why that made his heartbeat increase, but it did. Her skin was so soft. Her hand dainty and small. He could crush every bone in it and yet this one hand had once held enough power to bring him to his knees. “I’d forgotten how small you are.”
She’d always seemed larger than life. But with her near, he remembered just how good she’d felt snuggled up to him at night.
“I’m big enough to kick your ass.”
He lifted her hand so that he could place a kiss on her palm. “I look forward to it.”
Her eyes darkened. “Are you delaying me on purpose?”
“No.” He placed her hand in the crook of his elbow and flashed them back to the receiving room in Kalosis. “I will keep my promises to you. Always.”
“I might buy that had you not already broken the most significant promise a man can make to a woman. At the first test of your father, you fled. Call me jaded.”
“There’s no need to be jaded, my love.” He led her to his chambers where an extremely irate Medea was waiting for them.
As soon as he opened the door, Zephyra left him to make sure no harm had come to their daughter.
Medea glared hatefully at him. “You’re right, Mum. He is a prick.”
Zephyra laughed. “Eleven thousand years and you still don’t listen to my wisdom.”
“You’re only fourteen years older than I. It doesn’t really give you much of an advantage now, does it?” Medea looked past her mother. “Why’s he still breathing?”
“We’ve made a warrior’s pact, he and I. For the next two weeks we have to suffer him and then I can cut his throat.”
Stryker let out a deep breath at their rancorous reunion. “You two do realize that I’m still present?”
Zephyra gave him a haughty stare. “We know. We just don’t care.”
“Oh. Well, as long as we’re straight on that . . .” He rolled his eyes. “Why don’t I have one of my servants show Medea to her own set of rooms?”
“What about me?” Zephyra asked.
A slow smile spread across his face. “You’ll stay here. With me.”
Zephyra folded her arms over her chest. Stryker was being just a hair overconfident where she was concerned. While she had to admit he was a handsome man, it didn’t change the fact that she hated him. “You’re awfully sure of your charms.”
“I’ve had time to hone them.”
Medea curled her lip. “Gag reflex on the daughter, parents. Please respect the fact that vomiting up blood is disgusting and unless you two want to be hosed down with it, I’ll take those rooms now, please.”
“Davyn!” Stryker called.
His Daimon appeared instantly. “My lord?”
“Show my daughter to Satara’s rooms. Make sure she has everything she needs.”
Davyn inclined his head to him. “Is she free to come and go?”
He looked to Zephyra. “Are you going to send her to kill me?”
“No. I gave you my word, and unlike you, I stand by it. You’re safe, coward. I would never send a little girl in to do her mother’s work.”
He didn’t respond to her insults. “Give her access to the boltholes.”
“Yes, my lord.”
“Medea?” Stryker waited until she’d looked back at him before he spoke again. “Don’t worry. Satara’s rooms are far enough away that you won’t be subjected to the sounds of our wild monkey sex.”
Medea looked much less than pleased. “You were right, Mum. I should have allowed you to cut his throat.” She faced Davyn. “Get me out of here as quickly as possible.”
Davyn’s eyes danced with humor as he shut the doors behind them.
As soon as they were alone, Zephyra shook her head. “That was a cruel thing to do to her.”
“I couldn’t resist. Besides, you should have taught her to never let anyone know her weaknesses.”
“We’re her parents. We’re supposed to love her and not slash at her weaknesses.”
“And yet here we sit plotting the death of my father and aunt.”
“You’re plotting their deaths. I’m only waiting to kill you.”
“True, but the point is . . . family today, enemies tomorrow.”
“And that has always been your problem, Stryker. I believe in family forever. As they say, blood is thicker than water, and in the case of Apollites, it’s even more true.”
If only he could believe in that. But it had never been proven true in his experience. All family did was provide an inroad for enemies. “When has my family ever stood by me?”
“I think the real question is when have you ever stood by them? I would have been there for you. Forever. But you never gave me the chance.”
In spite of the hurt and betrayals of his past, he was piqued by her words. He wanted so much to have someone he could trust beside him. Just once. Only Urian had been there for him, and it was why he’d been so angry when he’d learned that Urian had kept secrets from him. That his son had gone behind his back . . .
Did he dare trust Zephyra?
“I’m giving you that chance now.”
Zephyra stepped away. “It’s too late. Too many centuries have passed. There was a time when I lived only to hear a kind word from your lips. But that ship sank under an assault of bitterness that no amount of charm or guile will recover.”
Stryker dipped his head down to where their lips were almost touching. “The fierce rhythm of your heart tells me that you’re lying. You still want me.”
“Don’t mistake my wrath for lust. It’s your blood I want, not your body.”
He didn’t believe that. Not for a minute. “Tell me honestly that you’re not thinking even a little bit about what I look like naked. That you’re not remembering the way we made love to each other.”
She reached down to carefully cup his erection in her hand. “You’re a man, Stryker. I know that’s what you think about.” She clenched her hand tightly, making him gasp and double over as pain ripped through his groin. She sank her nails into his scrotum. “But I’m a woman, and as the great poet so cleverly wrote, hell hath no fury as a woman scorned. Consider me your personal hell.” With one hard jerk, she stepped away.
Stryker wanted to blast her, but his body hurt so much that all he could do was glare at her as she turned and left him alone in his room.
“This isn’t over, love,” he growled painfully. He was going to reclaim her and make her beg for his forgiveness. No matter what it took, he would have her.
Then he would kill her himself.
“HOW’S HE DOING?”
Tory looked up from where Ash was lying on the bed, resting, to meet Savitar’s lavender gaze. Strange, she could have sworn his eyes were green earlier. . . .
He was out of his wet suit and dressed in a pair of white linen pants with an open beach shirt that showed off his sculpted torso. His long brown hair was swept back from his handsome face.
“War tore him up pretty badly, but-“
“I’ll live,” Ash said, rolling over to look at them. He propped himself up on the pillows and then brushed his black hair back with his fingers. “Believe me, I’ve had worse beatings. Just not recently.”
Tory gave him a chiding stare. “I don’t know, you did get run over by a car not that long ago. . . .”
Ash snorted as he laced his fingers with hers. “In my defense, I was preoccupied by a certain”-he gave her a meaningful glare-“human having a near-death experience. That doesn’t count.”
Savitar ignored his jibe. “Well, the good news is we routed him. The bad news is-“
Ash finished the sentence for him. “He’ll be back.”
Tory swallowed as fear seized her. “Should we start making preparations here?”
Savitar looked completely offended by her question. “Punk-ass won’t come to my island. He knows better. You don’t tap on the Dev il’s shoulder unless you’re willing to dance to his tune.”
Ash cleared his throat and gave Savitar a droll stare. “Actually, Tory, there’s a reason the island moves all the time. Sav is a bit paranoid, so the island is heavily shielded from paranormal types. You can’t get to Neratiti without a special invitation from our host, which is why Alexion brought you here. We knew it would be the only place War couldn’t get to. Me and mine have a standing invitation that doesn’t extend to the rest of the known universe.”
Savitar bristled. “And even if he could find it, he wouldn’t dare bring his loserness here. I’d kick it back to the Stone Age,” Savitar said with humor dancing in his eyes. “And don’t knock my paranoia, grom. It’s what saved your hide, now isn’t it?”
“Yes, and thank you.”
Savitar inclined his head to him. “You’re welcome. But don’t get into trouble again. Your mother has turned nagging for pain into an Olympic sport and she’s been making my head ache over you. I’d tell you to go let her sit on you until you hatch, but I don’t want the world to end. Suck ass though it is. However, if the nagging persists, I might change my mind and take you to her myself.”
Ash laughed. “I’ll keep that in mind. So any leads on who woke up our new friend and told him to come play with me?”
Tory gave them a sullen look. “My money’s on Artemis.”
Savitar made a buzzer sound. “I’ll take that bet, because you lose. Word from Artipou herself. She didn’t do this, which is more good news for you two since it seems she’s acclimating to the idea of not being Ash’s girl anymore. Not happy about it, but she’s not issuing death warrants on you two, either. Small victory, true. But better than none at all.”
Tory frowned. “Then who-“
“Our boy Stryker unleashed him.”
Ash cursed. “Figures. Where is War now?”
“Off the grid, which means he’s probably back in Kalosis to report his spectacular failure to Stryker.”
Ash’s eyes narrowed with concern. “Is my mother safe?”
“Judging by the noise in my head over you, that’s a definite affirmative. But don’t worry. I had the Charonte rally around her. She’s not happy about it, but for once she’s being reasonable. Her main concern is your safety. And she said for you to do what you have to to keep yourself healthy. Her life be damned.”
Ash snorted. “I’m not going to kill Stryker and then bury my mother. Why the hell did she tie their life forces together?”
Savitar shrugged. “She lacks our ability to see the future. Her powers are destruction, not prophecy. I’m sure had she known he would one day threaten you, she’d have killed him herself. And now you know why I take pity on no one. All compassion does is come back and bite the fat of your arse.”
Ash pulled the covers back from the bed and started to rise.
Tory caught him and pushed him back toward the pillows. “You should rest.”
He kissed her hand. “I can’t. There’s a lunatic on the loose and probably hiding in my mother’s home.” Closing his eyes, he manifested clothes on his body. “We have to prepare. Find a place where we can face War without a high bystander body count.”
Savitar rolled his eyes. “Little brother, I don’t mean to be a downer, but we’re talking about War here. There’s no way to mitigate damages. He won’t let us. I was there with twenty-five Chthonians to fight him and he spanked our hides like we were Lemurian slave women. Two of us had our hearts ripped out and shoved down our throats while he laughed, then he licked the blood clean from his fingers and came at the rest of us. I barely survived and it took me two de cades of human time to recuperate from those wounds. Don’t think I fear the bastard, I don’t. I just want you to fully understand what it is we’re dealing with.”
Ash frowned at his words, but his resolve was set. They had to defeat War one way or another. “How did you trap him last time?”
“Ishtar, Eirene, Bia, and the Gigantes came to our rescue. Out of that list, the goddess Eirene is the only one left alive. And we’re down to only eight surviving Chthonians. That number includes you.”
Even so, Ash refused to believe it was hopeless. “There’s always an off-switch. We have to find it.”
“We will try. In the meantime, you should know that your boy Urian got word from the other side. Stryker is pulling in Daimons from all over the world, amassing numbers that would make Cecil B. DeMille proud.”
“Stryker’s planning to rain hell on the humans come Christmas day. Of course Urian said you could probably offset that by offering yourself up as a sacrifice. Stryker might be willing to call the attack off if you surrender yourself to War and die a painful death.”
Tory’s gaze narrowed angrily on Ash. “Don’t you dare. I swear, Acheron Parthenopaeus, if you even think about it, I’ll beat you down until you beg me for mercy.”
Ash tightened his grip on her hand. “Don’t worry. Even if I turned myself in, he’d still go after the humans. It’s his nature, and I’m not stupid enough to think he’d ever show mercy. What is it you’re always saying? It’s not the hand you’re dealt that matters. It’s how you play the cards you hold.” He rose from the bed. “Sav, I need you to take up residence with my mother.”
He choked at the suggestion. “Are you insane? That woman hates my guts. No, she doesn’t hate me. Hatred for her would be a step up toward possibly liking me someday.”
Which was something Ash had never understood, but it didn’t change the fact that he couldn’t leave her alone with Stryker and War. “Take Alexion and Danger with you and stand by her side to make sure they don’t hurt her.” She’d tolerate them around her a lot easier than she would Savitar. “Otherwise I’ll have to do it, and since the point of this is to avoid the apocalypse, my presence in her home would be extremely counterproductive.”
If Ash were to ever step foot in Kalosis, his mother would destroy the earth even faster than Stryker and War. “You’re the only one I trust to keep her safe from Stryker, War, and Kessar. Even though my mother and I don’t always get along and we’re on opposite sides of this war, she is my mother and I don’t want her hurt.”
Savitar looked like he’d rather be gutted. Not that Ash blamed him. His mother could be extremely . . . temperamental and difficult to deal with . . . and she loved him. Savitar she barely tolerated.
“All right,” Savitar relented. “I’ll go. But you owe me. Major owe, so if I ever need something, no matter what it is, I own you.”
Ash snorted. “She’s not that bad.”
“How you figure that, grom? Your mother’s the Destroyer. It’s a title she not only earned, but one she relishes. And you’re sending me in with only a few Charonte as backup. What did I ever do to you?”
He laughed. “Man up, Sav. You’re whining like a little girl.”
“If your mother has her way, she’ll turn me into one, and I look like shit in pink. Thanks, kid.”
Ash shook his head as he watched the Chthonian vanish. As Ash started across the room, he found Tory firmly planted in his way. She stood like a military commander ready for war-which boded bad for him. “What?”
“Where are you going?”
“To see Nick.”
She scoffed. “Do you really think that will be productive? The man hates your guts more than Stryker does. You’ll be lucky if he doesn’t pull your spine out through your nostrils.”
“Nice to have Miss Merry Sunshine back again. Any other Eeyore outlooks you’d like to share?”
“Just one. If you leave here, War can find you again. What are you going to do if that happens?”
“Leave bloodstains on his best shirt.”
Her eyes darkened. “You’re not funny, Ash. You said it yourself. This island is the only place safe from War.”
“And I’m not a wimp, baby. I’m a god. I’m not going to hide out here because I’m afraid of getting hurt. I have to warn Nick that he has an enemy after him. I owe him that much.”
She folded her arms over her chest and gave him a determined glare. “Then I’m coming with you.”
Like hell. He’d tie her down before he allowed that. While she had some of his mother’s powers, she didn’t have them all, and unlike him she wasn’t used to battling for her life. “I’ll take Xirena with me. But you will stay here and not argue with me.”
She growled at him. “You stubborn man.”
He gave her a charming smile he hoped would melt some of her ire. “I learned from the best.”
“Yeah, I know. I’ve met your mother.”
LEAVING THE DEMON XIRENA OUTSIDE TO KEEP her safe should a fight break out, Ash paused inside Nick’s house as he felt for the Cajun’s presence. There was no heartbeat to be heard.
But there was an undeniable power here. Ancient and cold, it set off every warning in Ash’s body.
Ready to battle, he flashed himself upstairs to Nick’s bedroom, where it felt the strongest. As soon as Ash manifested, a tall, lean redheaded man turned toward him. Eerie yellow eyes were filled with torment and power, and set in a face so delicately chiseled it bordered on pretty. His shoulder-length red hair framed his face perfectly. Dressed in black Goth, like Ash, the man was someone he hadn’t seen in centuries.
The Sephiroth inclined his head respectfully. “Long time no see, Atlantean.”
“Why are you here?”
Jared sighed before he set one of Nick’s Voodoo dolls back on his dresser. “Probably the same thing that you’re doing here. Looking for Nick Gautier. I suppose my only question to you is if he’s your friend or foe.”
“Does it matter?”
His face steeled. “Not really. I just want to know how angry you’re going to be when I kill him.”
Jared sighed. “Damn shame, that. But it changes nothing.” He walked around the room, absorbing Nick’s essence so that he could track him.
Ash used his powers to shield Nick so that Jared couldn’t get an accurate reading. “Why are you so interested in Nick?”
Jared flicked at the black leather containment collar around his throat with his thumb. “Not my place to question why. I’m merely here to obey like the mindless supplicant they’ve forced me to become.”
Ash flinched at the reminder of slavery. A common bond they shared and one he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy. He would give anything to free the being before him, but Jared’s kind of slavery was never-ending.
“Can I ask a favor of you?” Jared said in a tone that told him how much he hated to ask for anything.
Even so, Ash was cautious. Favors seldom turned out well for anyone. “Depends on the favor.”
Jared gave him a tight smile as he pulled his black leather coat off and exposed the dragon tattoo on his forearm. “Nim. Human form. Now.”
Ash watched as the dark shadow twisted up from Jared’s arm to manifest into a young man before him. No taller than five-eight, the demon was dressed like a steampunk, complete with large goggles that rested on his mop of black dreadlocks and a small goatee. His fingernails were painted as black as his eyes and clothes. The only color on his body came from a small pink stuffed bunny that he had chained to his hip.
Nim’s black eyes fastened on Acheron and widened. He darted behind Jared’s back to hide. “Friend or foe?”
Jared let out an aggravated breath. “Friend. And a good one at that.”
Nim peeked around like an unsure child. “He reeks of Charonte demon.”
“I know and I want you to go with him.”
“No!” the small demon barked. “Nim stays with Jared. Always.”
Jared cursed. “Could you help a brother out, Acheron? I need you to take custody of Nim and keep him safe for me.”
“No!” Nim snapped, even more determined than before.
Jared growled in response. “Damn it, Nimrod. For once in your life, do what I ask and go with Acheron.”
The demon clutched the small pink bunny to his chest and frantically shook his head no. “Nim stays with Jared. Those are the laws.”
A muscle twitched in Jared’s jaw. “I should have never saved your life.”
Ash felt his pain and understood what Jared was doing. Since Ash had a demon of his own, he knew what a weakness they could be. And what a responsibility. Even though the demon appeared to be around the human age of twenty, his actions said he was even younger than Ash’s Simi. “Nothing worse than adolescent demons.”
“You have no idea.”
“Actually, I do.” Ash approached Nim slowly, like he would a small toddler. “Nim, you can come with me and I promise nothing will hurt you.”
Nim gave him a mean, sullen stare. “I don’t know you.”
Jared tried to push him toward Ash. “He’s a good man.”
Nim bared his fangs at both of them in a vicious hiss. “He’s been with the Charonte and they hate me. They hurt Nim and make him bleed. I want to stay with Jared.” Nim immediately returned to sleep as a small dragon tattoo on Jared’s neck.
Jared let out a long, aggravated breath. “Is there any way to get him off me like this?”
“Figures.” His eyes shimmered with gold flecks that flipped until his eyes were a solid golden amber. “One day my master is going to kill him if I don’t find him a new home.”
“I think you need to tell him that.”
“He says he’d rather be dead than leave me. According to him, we’re family. I guess that makes me the psycho uncle no one wants to talk to. And he’s the kid with only imaginary friends for company. Normal Rockwell, here we come.”
Ash smiled at his twist on the paint er’s name. Honestly, Ash felt for Jared, but there was nothing either of them could do. “Then it’s his decision.”
Jared gave him a harsh stare. “Would you feel that way if it were Simi?”
“You know the answer.”
“And you know why I have to get him off me.”
True enough. There was nothing worse than having an exposed weakness that those around you preyed on. One they used to control your actions and subjugate you. Ash knew that better than anyone. And he felt sorry for Jared’s situation.
Sighing, Ash changed the subject to something he could perhaps control. “So why were you ordered to kill Nick?”
Jared shrugged his coat back on. “He’s the last of the Malachai bloodline.”
Ash laughed at the absurdity of that idea. “Nick Gautier is a Malachai? C’mon, Jared. Lay off the crack.”
“I’m not joking. He’s the last of their breed.”
Stunned, Ash actually gaped. Nick Gautier? And yet as ludicrous as that seemed, it strangely made sense. Nick’s unfounded powers. Ash’s inability to control him . . .
How could he have missed it?
You weren’t looking for it. Who would have? They were an extinct breed.
“Don’t feel so bad,” Jared said softly. “His powers were bound and hidden much the way yours were when you were human. It wasn’t until War attacked him that they kicked in.”
“Does Nick know what he is?”
Jared shook his head. “My job is to kill him before he learns it.”
“I can’t let you do that.”
“You have no choice and neither do I.” He vanished before Ash could even draw breath to speak.
The Sephiroth ignored him completely. “Damn it!” If Jared found Nick before he did, the boy was deader than five o’clock roadkill.
“YOU’RE LOOKING ENTIRELY TOO SMUG WITH yourself.”
Stryker glanced over his shoulder to see Zephyra eyeing him. “I have you here. Why shouldn’t I be pleased?”
“I can think of a million reasons, starting with the fact that I want to kill you more than I want to breathe. As for the others, would you prefer them in order of importance or alphabetically?”
He laughed. “Tell me honestly . . . didn’t you ever miss me?”
Those words struck him hard. “Not once?”
She folded her arms over her chest. “You know what I remember about you, Stryker? It was the last words you said to me. ‘There’s no reason for me to stay.’ Then you walked out of my house and never looked back. No reason for you to stay, you said. None.” She narrowed her eyes dangerously at him. “You severed my heart with those few words. I’d have rather you hit me.”
Stryker paused as he saw that night so clearly in his mind. She’d stood before him with tears in her eyes. Not a single one had fallen. A tribute to her strength. He’d wanted nothing more than to pull her into his arms and tell her that he didn’t give a damn about his father. That she was the only one he loved and that he’d die to protect her.
Had he stayed with her, his father would have killed her, no doubt. And if Apollo hadn’t, he would have sent Artemis in to do the honor as Zephyra birthed his child and then he would have lost them both. Apollo was grotesquely vindictive that way. Stryker had tried to explain it to Zephyra, but she’d refused to listen.
“Then I will die loving you.” That had been her answer to his arguments.
It’d been a sacrifice he hadn’t been willing to make. He thought it best that she hate him and live rather than she love him and die.
If only he’d known then what was waiting for them in the future.
“I didn’t mean those words.”
She scoffed. “Of course not. You were thoughtless, et cetera, et cetera. I really don’t care anymore.”
“If you really didn’t care, you wouldn’t remember them.”
“Don’t flatter yourself. I wrote you off the same way you wrote me off. Unlike Medea, I don’t need closure. I just need you dead.”
“So we’re back to that.”
“We will always come back to that.”
Stryker would curse and rail, but honestly, it was what he deserved. She was right. He’d walked out and never looked back.
No, that wasn’t true. He had looked back. Often. He’d remembered their time together. Remembered the way she looked first thing in the morning when she’d been snuggled up beside him. The way she’d shyly glance at him as if she could eat him alive.
He’d hated himself for giving that up. For giving her up.
Sighing, he moved toward the door. “I have duties to attend. Should you need anything, call for Davyn.” Without another word, he was gone.
Zephyra watched as he left her alone in his room. The look of hurt in his silver eyes had made her ache, and she hated herself for that weakness. Why did she still want to hold him after what he’d done to her?
Yes, she wanted to claw out his eyes and stab him until he was dead.
But underneath that anger and hurt was the part of her that still loved him. The part of her that she tried so hard to bury and ignore. He was a beast and a coward.
He’s the father of your daughter.
So what? A biological donor who’d left them. That didn’t make him a father. It made him an asshole. Her fury renewed, she glanced about the room that he slept in. It was rather plain. Burgundy coverings on the bed. No windows. A small chest of drawers and nothing hanging on the walls.
“You live like a bear in a cave.”
There wasn’t even a book on the nightstand. Which begged the question of why he had one. Then again, the top drawer was slightly cracked open. Perhaps there was one inside. Curious, she walked over to it and opened it.
Her breath caught in her throat.
In the bottom of that drawer was the last thing she had ever expected to see again. It was the hand-painted tile that he’d commissioned of her as a wedding present. Memories slammed into her as she stared at the faded image of her in ancient Greek clothing, her blond hair bound up as curls fell around her face. Large green eyes were set in the countenance of utter innocence. She’d forgotten all about this tile’s existence.
But Stryker hadn’t. In spite of everything, he’d kept it. And underneath it was another tile and pictures of men who bore a striking resemblance to him. One picture in par tic u lar caught her attention. It was three men, similar in face and form, dressed in clothes from the 1930s. They had their arms slung over each other’s shoulders as they smiled happily.
Over and over, she found pictures of them.
The only other tile in the drawer was that of a girl who looked almost identical to Medea. A chill went down her spine as she ran her finger over the faded writing in the lower right hand corner. Tannis. She must have been his daughter, too.
She flipped it aside to find the most recent photo in the drawer. From the looks of the quality of the picture and the black clothing, she would guess it was no more than ten years old. It was of a young man with white-blond hair that was pulled back into a ponytail-the middle of the same three brothers from the 1930s. Even though his features were masculine, they were so close to Medea’s as to be eerie. And as Zephyra tilted the photo in the light she realized something.
The stains on it were from tears.
“No,” she breathed, unable to imagine Stryker crying over anything. He’d always been rigidly unsentimental. She’d seen him brutally wounded in sword practice and his eyes hadn’t even misted.
The only time she’d known them to cloud was . . .
The night he’d left her.
And yet as she ran her hand over the stains, she knew nothing else would have caused them. Who, other than him, would have held this photograph in his room and cried? No one. They were his and he’d kept all of this in a place where he thought no one would find it.
“Dear gods.” The bastard had a heart. Who knew?
“I will love you forever, Phyra. Never doubt that or me.”
Her throat tightened as she looked down at the tile of herself that she’d put on the tabletop. Had he really missed her? Pined for her?
Don’t be ridiculous. He probably planned this for you to find.
Planned it? He’d thought her dead. Why would he hang on to her image all these centuries unless she meant something to him? She certainly had kept nothing of his.
“Don’t you dare weaken,” she snarled at herself. “He’s nothing.” Determined to stay hard, she put the pictures back, then froze as she saw something she’d missed earlier. It was a small green frayed ribbon.
The same ribbon she’d worn twined through her hair on the tile. And there, tied in the middle of it, was the wedding ring she’d thrown in his face when he’d told her he was leaving.
Her eyes teared as she saw the ancient carving on the band. S’agapo. “I love you” in Greek.
“Damn you,” she growled as she weakened even more in the face of his obvious love. He had cared about her. Through all these centuries, he’d kept her as close to him as he could.
Unable to stand it, she left his room and went in search of his study. She hadn’t gone far when Davyn appeared.
“Can I help you?”
“I want to see Stryker. Now.”
“He doesn’t like to be disturbed when he’s in his study.”
“I really don’t care.” She stepped past him.
Davyn sighed heavily before he passed her and then led her to the correct destination. He knocked on the door. “My lord?”
“What!” Stryker barked.
Zephyra stepped around Davyn and threw open the door to find Stryker sitting at his desk, looking into a small round ball. No, not just looking, he was fixated by it.
“What are you doing?” she asked, her voice rife with her agitation that she used to cover the tender feelings inside her.
He glanced up. “Trying to find Gautier. What are you doing here?”
Truthfully, she wasn’t sure. She didn’t want to be here and yet . . . “I wanted to see you.”
“Leave,” he ordered Davyn, who obeyed instantly. As soon as they were alone, he looked back at her. “I thought you’d seen more than your fair share of me.”
She had and . . .
He’d kept a tile of her. How could something so insipidly stupid weaken her? She’d always thought herself above such petty sentimentality.
Apparently she was wrong.
Before she could stop herself, she moved to his side. “Why didn’t you go after Gautier yourself?”
“I tried. The little bastard is fast and extremely resourceful. Not to mention his powers aren’t anything to laugh at. I stupidly thought he received most of that from our blood exchange. Now that I know what he is, it makes even more sense why I was having such a hard time controlling him. I should have been feeding from him and taking his powers.”
“You couldn’t tell?”
“No. Whoever bound his powers did one hell of a job. Case in point, I can’t find him anywhere. Even though we’re supposed to share sight, he’s off my radar completely.”
He gave her a dry “duh” stare. “I know that. Yet here I am, completely blind to him.”
She stepped around his desk to look into the sfora. “When was the last time you had a visual?”
He looked aghast at her. “Are you helping me?”
She refused to give him the satisfaction. “Shut up and answer my question.”
A slow smile spread over his face and the teasing gleam in his eyes set her ire off. “You are helping me.”
“Don’t get used to it. I’m a woman of my word, and since I can’t kill you it’s not in my nature to crochet and do nothing. Why are we going to kill this man anyway?”
“He murdered my sister.”
That was a good reason. “Bastard scum.”
Stryker nodded in approval. “I had him in my sights a couple of hours ago before War went after him.”
“Then he’s probably in hiding.”
“My thoughts exactly. But where?”
“The best place to hide is in plain sight. The bugger is there. We just have to figure it out.”
NICK RAKED HIS HANDS THROUGH HIS HAIR AS he stared at the tiny African-American woman before him. She was a woman he’d thought he’d known his entire life and here in the last few minutes he’d learned that he had never really known her at all.
“I don’t understand this. My father was a psychotic criminal who beat the hell out of my mom whenever she was dumb enough to let him into our apartment between his unfortunate incarcerations.”
Menyara shook her head. “Your father was a demon who preferred prison because it was the last place the people who would kill him would think to look for him. Not to mention it allowed him to feed off their evil energy. He drew power from all their negativity.”
Nick refused to believe it. It just wasn’t possible. “You’re wrong. My father was human.” A corrupt, mean, and vicious man, but human through and through.
She shook her head again. “Listen to me, Ambrosius. I was there when you were born. I’m the one who delivered you and used my powers to keep you hidden from the rest of the worlds-those seen and those unknown. I knew the power you would one day wield and it terrified me even then. Why do you think I’ve watched over you so closely all these years?”
“I thought it was because you loved me and my mother.”
“I do love you and I did love Cherise. She was a good woman with the heart of an angel. Never did she harm or think ill of a single person. It was why Adarian was able to seduce her. Why he was so attracted to her even when he shouldn’t have been. He chose her for the sacred honor of being the mother to his legacy. What he never counted on was me and the degree to which your mother’s purity would affect you.”
“You’re so full of shit, Menyara, you ought to be a cow pasture.”
She angled one bony finger at him. “You better check that tone, boy. You’re not so big I can’t spank you like I did when you were young.”
“I’m all-powerful. Isn’t that what you told me?”
“And I bound your powers once. Don’t think I can’t do it again. Believe me, you’re not the most powerful creature in this universe. There are many who can take you down.”
Nick pulled back. Attacking her was pointless and it made him feel like his father-something he’d always despised. She was right. She’d been there all of his life, like a second mother to him. “I’m sorry, Mennie. I’m just having a hard time with all this. No offense, but it’s a little hard to swallow.”
She placed her hand against the bow and arrow mark of Artemis on his cheek. “You tried to sell your soul to a goddess for vengeance. How ludicrous is that?”
“Point taken, and I might add it turned out really bad. I just wish I understood more about all of this.”
She dropped her hand to his shoulder. “What do you remember of your father?”
“Only the back of his hand as it fell across my face. He had ‘hate’ tattooed on the fingers of his right hand and ‘kill’ on those of his left. I don’t even really remember what he looked like. All I see is a mountain of a man with eyes filled with hatred.”
She sighed gently. “The Malachai. Corrupt. Angry. Bitter. Demons all. They were created from the worst of the universe to fight against those who were pure and caring. In spite of his flaws, your father survived longer than any Malachai before him. But he knew his time was growing short, which is why he fathered you. Each Malachai is allowed only one single son to carry on his legacy. You are it.”
“And I killed myself, so it’s all over.”
She shook her head. “You have a means to return from the dead. You can reclaim your soul and be reborn.”
“To what purpose?”
She smiled at him. “Only you can answer that question. Only we, ourselves, can define our purpose in this world. Your father’s was to hurt and punish. Mine has been to protect you. Your goal . . . ?”
“To kill Acheron Parthenopaeus.”
“And will that truly fill the bitter hole you’ve placed in your heart?”
Nick snarled at her, “I didn’t put that hole there. He did.”
“Look at me,” she barked. “You tell Menyara the truth, boy.”
Nick ground his teeth as bitter emotions swelled inside him. “Ash killed my mother.”
“A Daimon killed your mother because you came late to her job to walk her home. You know the truth, Ambrosius. Admit it to yourself. Ash would have never allowed her to die had he been able to get there. He was under brutal attack that night. Even though he was angry at you, he would have given his life to protect hers. To this day, he visits her grave to honor her even more than you do.”
Tears stung his eyes as pain tore through him. He wanted his mother back. To see her one more time. To feel her hand on his cheek as she smiled at him with pride in her kind eyes. He wanted to go back in time and save her from the vicious murder. She’d been the best mother anyone could have and she’d died brutally in the hands of his enemies.
She hadn’t deserved that.
And she hadn’t deserved a son like him, who’d been unable to protect her from harm.
Still Menyara goaded him. “You’re the one who put her in danger. Not Acheron. It was you who failed her. You who killed yourself.”
Nick roared as fury flowed through his veins. Throwing his head back, he let out the pain in what shook the room like a sonic boom. His vision changed. . . . No longer could he see colors. Rather he saw the universe for what it was. Heard the fabric of life that surrounded and bound every living creature.
He’d never known such power. Such rage and hatred. He could taste it on his tongue.
Menyara looked at him without fear or trepidation. “You now have the power to kill Acheron. Will you?”
He bared his fangs at Menyara as fire emanated from his hands and ran up the length of both his arms. “Hell yes.”
At long last, Acheron Parthenopaeus was about to die.