Xypher jerked her toward Jesse. “Both of you stay back.”
Simone wasn’t about to argue given the size of the creature headed toward them and the fact that his skin appeared to be boiling and smoking.
He was dressed in a flowing black cape that obscured everything but those creepy red eyes. He went for Xypher so fast, she could barely see it.
The two of them tore into each other.
Xypher flipped the demon, who rolled and shot a blast of fire at him. He deflected the fire, then flung his hand out as if to return it to Smokey the Demon.
It didn’t work.
The demon laughed. “Poor Xypher. Having trouble?”
“At kicking your ass, Kaiaphas? Never.”
The cloak vanished. In the darkness, the demon’s boiling skin articulated into something that looked like leather. His face mutated into that of a gargoyle while the cotton of his clothes tinned into sleek black armor that clung close to the muscular contours of his body. Still those eyes glowed like bright embers from a fire.
Kaiaphas pulled out a short sword and twirled it around his body before he lunged at Xypher who sidestepped the blade. A silver vambrace appeared on the arm that wasn’t wearing the bracelet. Xypher used it to twist the blade out of the demon’s hand. But before he could capture it, Kaiaphas caught it in his left hand and stabbed at him again.
Spinning around, Xypher shoved the demon. Kaiaphas staggered, then caught himself.
Kaiaphas lauglied. “You’ve improved.”
“Yeah, little boys grow up eventually.” Xypher lacked at him, but Kaiaphas caught his leg and snatched it up.
Xypher turned a midair somersault to land on his feet. He ran at the demon and caught him about the waist. They fell back, still fighting.
Simone wanted to run, but remembered that so long as she wore the bracelet she couldn’t go far without killing them both. “Find a weapon,” she whispered loudly to Jesse as she started looking around for a tree limb or something she could use to help Xypher beat back the demon.
Suddenly Jesse cursed.
Simone turned to look at the combatants to see what had caused Jesse’s reaction. Faster than she could blink. Kaiaphas twirled the sword in his hand and stabbed Xypher in the stomach so deep, the point of it came out his back.
Xypher gasped as blood pooled around the sword hilt and flowed over Kaiaphas’ hand.
The demon laughed. “Apparently your skills didn’t improve enough, eh?” He head-butted Xypher. The motion of it caused Xypher to stagger back. As he did so, the sword was jerked out of his body.
He fell to one knee on the ground while Kaiaphas lifted his sword for the coup de grace.
Simone ground her teeth as she saw her mother and younger brother dying in her mind all over again. An unfounded rage consumed her so that she could no longer think rationally.
In that moment, the demon became the focus of twenty years of hopeless frustration with a justice system that had failed her and a rage so bitter, she could taste it.
Her only thought to save Xypher, Simone grabbed the pepper spray from her coat pocket and ran at the demon. Shoving him back with all her strength, she held her breath and doused him with the spray.
Kaiaphas coughed and spat. His eyes flashing, he stalled for her.
Simons braced herself for his attack, intending to fight back with her bare hands. But before he reached her, something knocked him away.
A flash of blond hair confirmed it was Julian with a sword in his hand. He put himself between them and forced the demon away from her and Jesse.
While he engaged the demon, she ran to Xypher, who lay on the ground coveted in blood. His face was pale as he visibly shook. Blood poured over his hands without slowing.
“Shh,” Simone said, pulling his hand away so that she could see the jagged wound. “I’ve got you, Xypher. Don’t worry.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Jesse, pop the trunk and bring me my medical bag.”
Jesse ran to the car while she examined the wound in Xypher’s stomach. It looked gruesome. And the instant she touched it, he cursed. His nostrils flared and she was sure he’d hit her.
Fortunately for her, he passed out before he could make good on that unspoken threat.
She glanced up to see Julian engaged in an impressive swordfight. They moved so fast, all she could see was the sparks that flared whenever their blades met. The sound of metal on metal was deafening and drowned everything but their grunts and insults.
Then in one fluid motion, Julian dodged the demon and shoved him sideways before he stabbed him in the ribs.
Staggering back, the demon hissed, showing a full set of jagged teeth before he dissolved into the darkness. All that was left behind was die stencil of sulfur and something that reminded her of treacle.
Julian cocked his head as if trying to sense something. He turned in her direction at the same time Jesse brought the bag to her. She focused on stanching Xypher’s blood. It wasn’t easy, especially since she was starting to get light-headed herself.
“You okay?” Jesse asked.
“I’m not really sure.”
Julian knelt beside her. “We need to get him out of the public eye, if you take my meaning.”
She certainly did. They’d been lucky no car had driven by during their fight … or worse, that a neighbor’s dog hadn’t needed walking. “I couldn’t agree more.”
A heartbeat later, they were inside Julian’s house again, in an upstairs bedroom that was decorated in greens and cream and furnished with nice Victorian antiques.
She and Julian stood to the side of the queen-size bed while Xypher lay on top of it.
Jesse popped in a second later and wrinkled his nose. “That is one grody wound. It gotta hurt.”
Julian grimaced as he saw the blood pouring out of Xypher’s side.
Without a word, she lipped open Xypher’s shirt. She sucked her breath in and remembered one of the advantages to her job. Decedents didn’t bleed like this on the examination table. She hadn’t tended a living patient since she’d been an intern in college.
Julian looked over her shoulder. “How’s he doing?”
“That . . . thing, whatever it was, made a mess of him. The sword went all the way through his body.”
Julian grimaced. “Yeah, wounds like that seriously hurt. Had a few myself back in the day.”
She decided to let that remark pass without comment while she checked the blood flow as best she could. “I really need to take him to a hospital, but having worked in the ER for four years, I know the questions they’ll ask that we can’t answer.”
“Hang on, I’ll take you to one.” She opened her mouth to protest.
Julian held his hand up to silence her before she could even start. “It’s a safe place, called Sanctuary. The hospital ward was set up just for situations like this. It’s a place where those who aren’t quite human can go to for help. It’ll have everything you need, and there won’t be any questions about where either one of you came from.”
That made her feel much better. “Good. ‘Cause unless he starts healing by himself immediately, he needs surgery . . . quickly. Or he will die.”
Death was a possibility she’d like to avoid.
Julian looked down at the blood-soaked bed and winced. “I should have taken you there before I messed up the comforter. It’s what I get for trying to pass as a human all the time. Sometimes I forget my own powers.”
The next thing she knew, they were in what appeared to be a doctor’s office. The entire interior was made of steel, except for the white-tiled floors and white walls that were lined with glass-covered shelves of medicine. There was also a padded steel examining bed next to three trays covered with surgical and examination tools. As promised, it held everything needed to tend to Xypher.
Julian stood beside her, holding Xypher in his arms. No small feat since the man was a couple of inches taller than him.
“I’m so disoriented,” Simone breathed as a wave of dizziness hit her. She put her arm out against the case closest to her to get her bearings.
Ignoring her, Julian bellowed, “Carson?”
A door on her left opened to reveal a tall. Native American man who glared at them. His long black hair was pulled back into a severe ponytail and his features were sharp, reminding her of a bird of prey. “Don’t yell. I have extremely sensitive hearing.”
“Sorry,” Julian said quickly. “But we have a situation. Carson, meet Simone. Simone, meet Carson. He’s a surgeon.”
“Oh, thank God,” she said, grate fill there was another doctor here. “I only operate on the dead.”
Carson didn’t comment on that. Instead, his dark gaze went to Xypher. “And the guy bleeding would be . . . ?”
Carson’s jaw dropped at Julian’s answer, “They bleed on the human plane?”
“Apparently so and rather badly.”
Carson gave a curt nod before he crossed the room to open a door behind them. “Bring him in here and put him on the table.”
Julian didn’t hesitate to obey.
Simone followed Julian into a bare operating room. Like the outer room, it was clean and sterile with steel furniture and large lamps over the surgical table. It looked like any operating room she’d ever seen and she was impressed with the quality of the state-of-the-art tools and monitors. In fact, she knew several hospitals that would kill to be this up-to-date.
While Julian placed Xypher on the table, she headed to the small room on her right where a prep sink waited so that she could scrub down.
Carson entered right behind her. “You look like you know what you’re doing.”
“I’m an ME and I thought you might need an assistant for surgery.” She dried her hands on one of the green towels that were stacked on a table beside the sink.
He inclined his head before he began scrubbing his hands, too. “Good woman. My usual assistant is off today.”
Julian came to the doorway. His clothes were covered in blood. “If neither of you needs me, I’m heading back to my house to do damage control on the bed . . . and pray none of my neighbors saw the major battle we had in the street with our friendly neighborhood demon.”
Carson snorted. “Please, no more getting caught on videotape and God save us from Webcams. I swear I hate this modem age.”
Simone ignored his caustic comment as she met Julian’s gaze. “Good luck and thank you for all your help.”
Julian smiled at her, then vanished while Carson wheeled a table of instruments back toward the other room.
“Don’t we need a mask and scrubs?” Simone asked him.
He shook his head. “I wash my hands out of habit. Basically your friend here should be immune to the typical genus that can kill a human. What will infect him would be things we couldn’t protect against anyway.”
“Oh.” Simone moved to the opposite side of the table and helped to remove her temporary pressure bandage from Xypher’s side. She was a bit surprised that Carson didn’t remove Xypher’s jeans, but he seemed content to leave him partially dressed.
Since she’d never operated on anyone, never mind someone who wasn’t exactly human, she kept her backseat surgeon under wraps. Obviously the man knew what he was doing or Julian wouldn’t have brought them here. Not to mention, no one would have paid for all this equipment unless they knew how to use it.
She hoped so. Stepping back, she watched as Carson opened him up and started working on the wound. She cringed at the damage done. His arteries and tissue were a nightmare.
Poor man … or whatever he was.
A twinge of guilt went through her as she considered the way he’d put himself between the demon and her. He’d taken the brunt of the fight—just like he’d done in the alley so that she wouldn’t be harmed.
In spite of all his gruff bluster, he had heart and at least a basic code of decency. That realization softened her toward him. He actually wasn’t that bad. And as she stared at him, a part of her was warmed by his consideration.
Carson reached for a clamp on the stainless steel tray. “What was he cut with?”
“A short sword.”
He shook his head. “It looks more like a chain saw got him. Look at the damage here.” He held the skin back so that she could get a full view.
Simone reached for another clamp to hand him since Xypher was bleeding so badly. Carson was right. It was awful. “I don’t know if this helps or matters, but the man wielding the sword was some kind of demon.”
“Do you know from what pantheon?”
This had to be the most screwed-up conversation she’d ever had. There weren’t many people you could tell about a demon appealing in the street and then attacking you who would accept it with such a simple question. It should be interrupted with laughter.
And lots of alcohol.
“Uh, no. But Xypher called him Kaiaphas.”
Simone looked up at the unexpected anger the name caused. “You know him?”
“Part Greek, part Sumerian, all pissed off. It’s a wonder any of you survived. But the real question is, why did he attack you guys? It’s not his normal style.”
“What do you mean?”
“Kaiaphas is a doleodai. A bound demon. He can’t act on his own, he has to be commanded by someone.”
That was an interesting tidbit. Simone wanted to laugh at the absurdity of everything that had happened to her since lunch. “How on earth did I get caught up in this? All I wanted to do was check out a simple crime scene and go home. No … I take that back. All I wanted was to have a ham and cheese sandwich with an old friend. Now I’ve been dragged into the middle of some Greek-god conflict and it’s not even, dinnertime yet. I can’t wait to see what happens next.”
Carson smiled, “I’ve had those days.” “Sure you have.”
“No, really. You should follow me around and document all the weirdness I get dragged into.”
He took the clamp from her hand. “Well, there was the time Marvin, our former mascot monkey, ran from his owner. Wren—he’s a tiger that can take human form—and went upstairs to sleep with the dragon. Turns out our resident dragon is allergic to monkeys—who knew or could imagine that? Max broke out with a rash in areas I still cringe over, and if you mention the word ‘monkey’ to him to this day, he shoots fire at you. Then there was the time when . . . oh, I better not tell that. If Dev catches wind of it, he’ll rip my heart out and eat it.”
Simone stepped back at everything he was telling her. No … it couldn’t be.
“You have lycanthropes here?”
Pausing, he glanced up at her. “Aren’t you a Squire?”
He sucked his breath in sharply and twisted his face up into a mask of aggravation. Growling, he reached for sutures. “You didn’t know about any of what I just said until it came pouring out of my mouth, did you?”
He cursed again. “I can’t believe I just did that. I assumed since you knew about Xypher and the demon, and Julian manifested you in here, that you knew everything about our world.”
No, but she was getting a quick introduction that was becoming scarier by the minute. In all her conversations with Tate, he’d never once mentioned lycanthropes.
“Appears I do now,” she said, trying to make Carson feel better about his slipup, “
“Yeah, and I just broke nine hundred rules. What say we keep all of this between us?”
“Believe me, baby, I ain’t talking. I value what little sanity1 have left, and the last thing I want is to be in the middle of what I’m in the middle of. Point me to the exit and Alice is out of the rabbit hole, back on earth, and happy to develop Alzheimer’s over this entire incident. In fact, I’m not even sure I’m here. I’m thinking a Daimon konked me on the head and this is all one big hallucination brought on by severe blood loss.”
“You ramble like that a lot?”
“Yes. I find it grounds me.”
He laughed as he worked on Xypher.
Simone paused as she realized something. “We didn’t give him anything to keep him knocked out. Shouldn’t we do that?”
“Nah. It wouldn’t do any good. Dream-Hunters are immune to those lands of drugs.”
He nodded, leaning closer for a better look at what he was doing. “They’re gods. Normal human medicine doesn’t work on them.”
“Then why are we operating?”
“Because he’s bleeding and unconscious . . . I’ve never seen a Dream-Hunter bleed before, especially not like this. But I figure if he bleeds, he could bleed out and die.”
On one hand that made sense, but on another . . . “Gods can’t die, right?”
“Sure they can. It just takes a lot and usually an immortal weapon of some land, which I’m going to lay odds was in the hands of Kaiaphas when he attacked.” He glanced up at her with a pointed stare. “Demons don’t usually attack a god or anyone else unless they think they’re going to kill them. It tends to piss off the target who then looks up ways to torture and kill the demon. Then it just gets messy as they go at each other. As a rule, the demon usually loses, especially when it’s a god who’s been angered, so demons tend to be a bit more circumspect than the usual predator. When they strike it’s usually quick and fatal.”
Simone let out a tiled breath at the simple truth of that statement. She looked down at Xypher as he lay in a deceptively peaceful repose. His body was honed and lethal A perfect specimen of male beauty.
Asleep like this, he looked like an angel, but then given his acerbic personality she could just imagine the list of people who might want him dead.
But to the point of calling out a demon to destroy him? That was harsh.
She didn’t speak any more while Carson cleaned, cauterized, and then stitched Xypher closed. By the time they were finished, Xypher was still unconscious, but sweating profusely. She put her hand to his whiskered cheek that was firm and, just as she suspected, feverish.
Feeling for him, she went to the sink to wash up and then wet a cloth with cold water. Hope-fully this would help. She took the cloth to him and laid it across his brow and was struck again by his good looks. He really was an incredibly handsome man. But since he was a god, that was probably to be expected.
All she really knew about him was that he was a jerk . . . and that he’d twice saved her life.
She looked up at Carson who was in the washroom as she remembered the term Xypher had used to describe himself. “What exactly are Skotos?”
Carson dried his hands on a small hand towel before he walked back over to her. “Where did you hear that term?”
She held her hand out to Xypher. “He told me that’s what he was.”
Carson nodded. “In ancient Greece, they had sleep gods. Centuries ago, one of them thought it would be funny to play in the dreams of Zeus The big guy didn’t have a sense of humor about it so he ordered everyone possessing even a drop of their blood to either be killed or stripped of all emotions.”
She remembered Julian pointing out that he was surprised that Xypher still had his emotions. “That was harsh.”
“Yeah, well, Zeus isn’t exactly known for his compassion.” There was a note in his voice that said he had his own axe to grind with the god long.
Carson indicated Xypher with a tilt of his head. “After Zeus’s curse, the Oneroi, or dream gods, were relegated to monitoring human sleep, and it was quickly discovered that while they were in a dream state, Zeus’s ban didn’t work. They could feel again. Terrified of being punished, the dream gods started policing themselves and making sure that they kept a check on their brethren, Even so, some of them started craving to emotions to the extent that they lost control of their appetite for it. Before long, they became dangerous to themselves and others.”
“Like an addiction …”
“Exactly.” He set the towel aside. “The dream gods who lose control and begin craving emotions are called Skoti or Skotos in the singular.”
Personally, she liked the idea of it being toe jam better, But at least now she understood what he really was. “Xypher also said he was dead.”
“Well, the theory goes that if the Skoti become too addicted, they’ll be executed and sent to Tartarus for eternal punishment.”
So that explained it. He’d been killed and then brought back. She wondered how that would be possible. Had he made a deal or something else?
It was scary to even contemplate.
Simone frowned as she noticed writing in a foreign script running down the length of Xypher’s arm. Curious, she took the arm in her hands, amazed by the steely feel of his skin, as she studied the flowing letters. “Can you read this?”
Carson came to stand beside her. “No, sorry. It looks like Greek and I only know French, Cajun, English, some Creole, and gibberish,”
She ran her hand over the dark red lettering, trying not to think about how strong the arm felt under her fingers. Why would he have it put here and what did it mean?
Releasing his arm, she looked Up at Carson. “Do you know anything about Xypher himself?”
“No. Never saw or heard of him until you guys brought him here. There are several thousand Dream-Hunters and most of them shy away from the human plane, preferring to hide out in dreams.” Carson paused. “You want to leave him here so you can go home?”
She looked down at her bracelet. “I wish I could, but I can’t. Aphrodite said that so long as we both wear these”—she held it up to his view— “we’re bound together. If we get too far apart we die.”
“Tell me about it.”
He indicated the door behind him. “I have a more comfortable room for the two of you then. It’ll give you a comfortable place to sit while he sleeps.”
Simone cringed at the very thought of flashing out again. “Please don’t disintegrate me. I’m feeling nauseated from the back and forthing, and am getting a whole new respect for Kirk and Spock.”
He laughed. “I understand.” He clicked the brake off the gurney with the toe of his boot. “I’ll wheel him over.”
“A thousand blessings to you.”
He paused to call for someone named Dev before he led her into an adjacent room that was furnished with antiques. The best of which was a long-size bed that had a bright red velvet spread. There were heavy drapes that made it very dark and yet strangely homey.
“Nice place,” she said, running her hand over the top of a beautiful dies sing table.
“Only the best for Mama.”
“Nicolette Peltier. She owns the place and everyone here calls her ‘Mama.’ “
Simone smiled, “That’s so sweet. She must be really caring.”
“She can be. She can also be a bear at times.”
A handsome man in his mid-twenties with long curly blond hair pushed open the door. “Whatcha need. Doc?”
Carson indicated Xypher. “Help moving him. I don’t want to jostle his side.”
A stern frown creased Dev’s brow as he saw Xypher on the gurney. “Who is he?”
Dev looked stunned. “They bleed?”
“Dang,” Dev said under Hid breath before he helped Carson to lift Xypher from the gurney onto the bed. Once Xypher was situated, Dev glanced at her, then wheeled the gurney away without another word.
Simone wasn’t sure what to make of him. “He’s standoffish, isn’t he?”
“Most of us are. Our survival hinges on secrecy.” “Which I have breached.” He nodded.
Simone wanted to let him know that she would never do anything to hurt them. Besides, who would believe her if she said there was a family of lyncanthropes calling New Orleans home? “Your secret really is safe with me, Carson. Believe me, keeping things to myself is a full-time occupation of mine. If the police department can trust me, so can you.”
“I know. Otherwise we’d just kill you and devour your body parts.”
She wasn’t sure if he was kidding or not, but something about him said he was dead serious.
He indicated the door behind him with his thumb. “If you need anything, I’ll be outside at my desk. Just make yourself at home.” He indicated a door to her left with a jerk of his chin. “The bathroom is in here.”
He closed the door.
Simone let out a long bream as exhaustion hit her. She was alone in a strange home—something she wasn’t used to. “Where are you, Jesse? I don’t like being alone.” Their years of friendship had made solitude a rare thing. She was so used to him that when he was gone, she felt it like a physical ache.
Feeling a bit lost and overwhelmed, she moved to the bed to cover Xypher with the spread. He didn’t look quite so fierce now, but there was still an aura to him that said he was lethal. She dropped her gaze to his hands and the scars that marred his knuckles. They were old and healed over, vet she could tell that they weren’t caused by a single injury. They’d been opened up and scared by many fights . . .
Yeah, there were times when her job told her way too much about a person. Not to mention there were numerous other scars marring his chest and arms. Strangely enough, the only scar on his face was a faint one at his right temple.
“Who are you, Xypher?”
She smiled at the sound of Jesse’s voice. He reappeared right beside her. “Where have you been?”
“You guys left me,” he said defensively. “Do you know how hard it is to trace a human through the ectoplasmic plane? No, you don’t. And trust me, you don’t want to learn. I’m just glad I found you this time and not the weird woman feeding Jell-O to her schnauzer.”
Now, there was an image . . . “Ooookay. Sorry about that.”
“You should be!” He narrowed his eyes on Xypher. “He doesn’t look good. Is he going to live?”
“I think so.”
“I would say damn shame except that until we find a way to free you, you’d die, too.”
“Glad you remembered that small fact.” She frowned as she looked at him and remembered his earlier tirade. “Ectoplasmic plane? What the devil is that?”
“It’s jargon from those of us who are corporeally challenged. It’s the great beyond where we bounce into each other like floundering atoms. It’s really land of gross—which is why I hang out with you. But only because you’re less gross than they are.”
Simone gaped at him and his criticism. “I beg your pardon. I’m not gross.”
“Grody to the max. Gag me with a spoon. I’ve seen you in the mornings. You’re not exactly well coiffed.”
She rolled her eyes at the old eighties expressions. “I really hate you.”
“Sure you do.” He grinned like the Cheshire cat. “It explains why you were so worried about me.”
He was way too astute at times. Simone huffed playfully at him before she turned back to Xypher.
It was a pity she knew so little about him and it made her wonder about his past. What had made him fight all the battles that had left such horrific scars on an otherwise beautiful body? “You think he has a reason to be so hostile?”
“Not really. I personally think he thrives on being an asshole. You know, there are a lot of those in the world.”
It was true. She’d certainly met more than her fail’ share of them, too, and yet . . . There seemed to be something more, A person didn’t hate to the extent that Xypher appeared to without having the ability to love to the same degree.
And his need to kill to the exclusion of all else spoke of extreme betrayal. The only person she’d ever really wanted to kill was whoever had taken her mother’s life…
“There can never be hatred without love.”
Jesse frowned. “What?”
“It’s something my mother used to say.”
He screwed his face Up. “Oh, man, no … don’t you dare.”
“Get that weepy-eyed look like you’re sympathizing with him.” He made an irritated noise in the back of his throat. “You are such a bleeding heart- Hello? This is the man who has you bound to him while he’s trying to descend into hell to kill someone. He doesn’t care about your sensibilities. Don’t you dare care about his.”
Simone waved his tirade off. “Oh, husk, you grump. I don’t even know him.”
“And you better keep it that way.”
She knew Jesse was right Even so, there was a part of her that was drawn to Xypher even against her common sense. She wasn’t even sure why. He just seemed lost somehow.
Oh, yeah, Mr. Badass temper was lost. . . Right. She was losing it. “Have you heard from Gloria?” she asked Jesse, trying to distract herself.
He shook his head. “Not even a groan. I’m thinking the Daimons ate her.”
Simone hated the very thought. No one deserved such a fate. “I hope not. She seemed really nice.”
“I hear you.” Jesse floated back toward the curtains. Suddenly, someone knocked on the door.
“Come in,” Simone called.
Carson entered the room carrying a small handsaw.
Simone took a step back, curious about his intentions. “What are you doing?”
He indicated her bracelet with the up of the saw. “I was wondering if this might work to get that bracelet off.”
She smiled in relief. For a second, she was afraid he was going to make good on his threat to silence her. “You are my favorite person on the planet right now. Yes, please fry it.”
Carson laughed as he moved to take her wrist into his hand. He paused a minute to examine the bracelet. “It looks like regular gold.”
“Aphrodite said it was Atlantean. Something made by the gods.” He drew his breath in sharply. “Oh …” He pulled back. “Is that bad?”
“Maybe. I don’t know enough about them to even guess what trying to cut this off might do to you. For all I know, I could end the world.”
She pulled her arm out of his grasp. “Please don’t. There was a cliffhanger ending on
Her words seemed to surprise him. “You watch that?”
“Religiously. As an ME I’m morbidly fascinated by it.”
“Given my job and life, that’s a show I avoid as much as the Animal Planet network.” He backed away from her. “I’ll leave you two alone again.”
He’d barely stepped through the door before she heard the rumble of a deep voice behind her. “Where am I?”
“Wow,” Jesse said from the bed. “The dead has risen . . . again.”
Ignoring Jesse, she went to Xypher’s side. His blue eyes were rimmed with red and bloodshot. His skin still had a grayish cast to it and by his shallow breathing she could tell he was in a lot of pain. “You’re at Sanctuary.”
He drew a deep breath, men grimaced. “I smell Were-Hunter.” “Were-Hunter?”
He shifted slightly under the blanket before he spoke again. “Lycanthrope.”
“Oh.” It actually made sense to her. Dark-Hunters limited the Daimon vampires. Dream-Hunters limited dreams and . . . well, it made her wonder what a Were-Hunter would hunt.
Yeah. She forced her thoughts away from that. “I think a Were-Hunter may have helped carry you in here.”
Xypher tried to sit up, then hissed.
“Careful,” she said, rushing toward him. She put her hands on his chest, men pulled back as an electrical shock went through her. She didn’t know why, but touching his chest was extremely disconcerting, and it made her breathless. “You took a nasty stab straight through your body and Carson said we couldn’t give you anything for the pain.”
A tic worked in his jaw as he lay back on the bed and pulled the cloth from his forehead. He stared at it as if it were an alien form wanting to suck his brains out.
“You were feverish” she explained.
His scowl deepened. “You did this?”
She couldn’t understand his ire It was as if her kindness truly ticked him off. “I thought I was doing something nice for you. Sorry.”
“Why would you do something nice for me?” “Because you were hurt and bleeding.”
Still there was no reprieve in that cold, penetrating stare. “What do you care about that?”
“I went to medical school to help people. It’s why I do what I do.”
Never in her life had she met someone who had this much trouble accepting help. Dear Lord, what had they done to the poor man that something as simple as putting a cloth on his feverish brow made him this suspicious? “I’m sensing here that you have a problem with my being nice to you.”
“Yeah,” he said. “I do. People aren’t nice. Especially not to me.”
Something tugged deep inside her at those growled words. “Xypher –“
“I don’t want your pity.” He flung the cloth on the floor. “Or your kindness. Just stay out of my way and don’t get killed until I find some way into Kalosis.”
Wow. That just made her all warm and toasty inside. He was like an agitated porcupine in a balloon factory. “Why is it so important to you that you kill this person?”
Out of nowhere an image burned through her mind. It was Xypher. He was in a dark, dismal cave, hanging painfully by his arms. His black hair was matted with blood and dirt, and fell forward, over his face. Completely naked, his body was covered with bleeding wounds.
The agony in his eyes was sealing. He tried to escape or fight, but there was nothing he could do. Blow after blow from a steel-barbed whip rained over his flesh, tearing open new wounds and spinning him about. The two skeletons who beat him didn’t care what they hit so long as they caused him pain.
The more he bled, the more they laughed.
“Stop!” she cued, unable to bear it.
The images vanished as quickly as they’d begun.
Xypher gave her a look so cold it reached down inside her and made a part of her very soul freeze. “That is a ten-second glimpse of centuries of torture I have endured because of one person’s cruelty. Any more questions?”
She couldn’t breathe for the pain inside her. All she could do was shake her head. No wonder he was angry, It was hard to breathe past the lump in her throat
“Yeah,” she said after a brief pause. “I have only one. Having given this person who betrayed you so much already, why would you give them your life, too?”
He laughed bitterly. “Let me explain how I got here, human. I did a favor for a goddess who talked Hades into making me human for one month. One. Single. Month. Now, having lived in Tartarus all these centuries, I’ve learned that Hades doesn’t willingly let anyone go, especially not someone with my past, I’m headed back to hell, baby. No ifs, ands, or buts about it. The only undetermined factor left is whether or not I go alone, and I have no intention of doing that.” His eyes burned into her an instant before he pushed himself up from the bed. “Where’s my shirt?”
She couldn’t believe the sight of him upright given the severity of that wound. How could he even move, especially since he hadn’t had a drop of painkiller?
Then again, having seen what had been done to him in Tartarus, she figured he was probably so used to pain that it didn’t faze him now. Even as badly as they’d torn into him, he’d still been trying to fight them. “You can’t be moving around like that. You need to rest.”
“Fuck rest,” he snarled between his clenched teeth. “I have too much to do to lie in bed like some spoiled prince.”
She put herself in front of him to keep him from leaving. “You’re going to lip open your side.”
“So what? Are you insane?” He had to be. “Have you any idea how much that will hurt?”
He gave her a dry, cold stare before he turned around to show her his back. “Yeah, I have a pretty damned good idea.”
Simone covered her mouth as she stared at the honor of scars that marred the beauty of his skin. To say he’d been savaged was an understatement, She reached her hand out instinctively to touch him, but caught herself before she made contact.
Her hand hovered there, just above the marks. So close she could feel the heat rising from his feverish skin. The thought of his being beaten like that tore through her. What land of monster could do such a thing?
The fact he’d suffered it alone with no one to tend him made her even more sick.
He turned back to face her. “Now where’s my shirt?”
She had to clear her throat before she could answer him in a semihuman tone. “We cut it off you.”
He looked away as if her answer had sent a wave of fury through him. “Thanks a lot.”
Why was he so upset over a simple T-shirt? “We can go to your place and get another one.”
“I don’t have a place and I don’t have another shirt.”
Was he serious? “What do you mean?”
Xypher moved to stand before her. He looked down at her and smirked. “Why can’t you follow this, human? I was let out of hell, not an amusement park. They don’t exactly send you into the world with a wardrobe and wallet.”
“But you’ve been here for a few days, right? Where have you been staying? How have you been eating?”
He didn’t answer as he pushed his way past her.
It was then she knew what he refused to say. “You’ve been sleeping on the street, haven’t you?”
“Who says I’ve been sleeping at all?” He opened the door.
Carson looked up from where he sat at a dark chewy desk as if expecting Xypher to intrude, He reached for a shirt that was folded on his desk and chucked it at Xypher, “You can have that one.”
Xypher took the shirt without so much as a thank-you. He was pulling it over his head when Simone joined him in the room.
Her cell phone rang.
Simone pulled it out of her pocket and looked at the ID. It was coming in as a restricted call. She flipped it open. “Hello?”
The voice that answered was deep and incredibly sexy and laced with a lilting accent that actually sent a dull down her spine. “This is Acheron Parthenopaeus returning Xypher’s call. Could you please hand the phone to him?”
Yeah, but she really didn’t want to. She’d much rather talk to this polite voice that was eerily soothing and peaceful. Reluctantly, she held it out to him. “It’s Acheron.”
In typical Xypher form, he yanked the phone from her hand. “Where the hell are you?”
Jesse leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “That would so make me want to help him. How about you?”
“Shh…” she said, stifling a smile at his honest words.
Xypher slammed the phone shut and handed it back to her. Another bright light flashed before a huge man manifested in front of them. Close to seven feet tall, he was lean with long black hair and an aura so lethal it made Xypher seem like a kitten.
He was wearing black Oakley sunglasses and a long, pirate-style coat over a black Misfits T-shirt. That being said, Johnny Depp had nothing on this man when it came to sheer sex appeal. Acheron oozed it from every pore.
He stood with his weight on one leg and had a black leather backpack slung casually over one shoulder. Simone frowned as she noticed his red-tinged black Dr. Martens combat boots that probably added two inches to his impressive height.
” ‘Bout time,” Xypher growled.
Acheron’s only reaction was one perfectly shaped black eyebrow that arched over the frame of the sunglasses. “While I respect suicidal tendencies on most days, you’d do well to remember who you’re addressing and, more to the point, what I can do to you. No one says you have to go back to Tartarus in one piece.” Xypher crossed his arms over his chest.
His mood lightening, Acheron turned toward her. “May I see your bracelet?”
Polite. Deadly. Gorgeous. Respectful. Sexy beyond human endurance. Oh, someone put a bow on this man, she definitely wanted to take him home. Swallowing as a shiver went down her spine, she did as he asked.
Acheron took her arm into his hands and held it up so that he could Study the locked catch. After a moment, he released her arm and looked back at Xypher. “You want the good news first or the bad?”
“Does it really matter?”
One corner of Acheron’s mouth turned up in a taunting grin. “Not to me . . . The bad news, I can’t touch this. I mean I can, but you both will die if I tamper with it.”
Xypher cursed. “Who the hell invented this?”
Acheron placed both hands on the shoulder strap of his backpack to anchor it over his jacket. “Archon, the king of the Atlantean gods. Trust me, he was a total prick.”
Simone let out a breath she hadn’t realized she was holding. This wasn’t looking particularly nice for them. “So what’s the good news?”
“Somebody has a key to it and no, you won’t wither and die because you have it on. In theory you can live for eternity bound together like this.”
“But?” she asked.
Acheron inclined his head to her. “There’s always a but involved, isn’t mere?”
Unfortunately. “And this but would be?”
“Whoever has the key won’t be giving it up easily since it’s in the hands of whoever summoned the bracelet, and I’m sure they didn’t send it to you guys as a gag gift. But wait, there’s more . . . the bracelets have a homing beacon in them.”
Oh, she so didn’t like the sound of that.
“You are shitting me,” Xypher said in a tone so low and deadly it made her shiver.
“Not on your best day. Since the idea of the bracelets is to target an enemy and bring them down, they are equipped with everything your enemy needs to kill you. The key master will not only be able to find you no matter where you go, but whatever weakness either of you has will be laid bare before him… or her.” Acheron glanced at Simone. “The Atlanteans played to win.”
“Which is why they’re all dead, right?” Xypher asked.
Acheron shrugged. “That’s the food chain for you. Even those at the top are a meal for someone else. Sooner or later, we all get eaten by something.”
Xypher turned his attention to her. “Look, the human didn’t do anything to be in this mess. Is there anything you can do to extract her out of this?”
Simone was stunned that he’d even ask.
Acheron gave her a wistful nod. “I wish. Believe me, nothing pisses me off more than seeing an innocent suffer. The only way to get her free is to obtain the key and open the bracelet.”
Xypher cursed again. “You know it’s probably in Kalosis, right? Any chance you can fetch it?”
Acheron laughed. “I assure you if I went in there to do that, you’d have a lot worse problems on your hands than just killing Satara.”
“Can you at least flush her out for me?”
Acheron scoffed. “Like she wouldn’t see that coming? You she fears. Me she actively hates.”
Xypher met Simone’s gaze and held it. For the first time, she saw something inside him that appeared human. A small chip in that nastiness he seemed to wrap around himself like a cloak.
“But there is something I can do for you.” Acheron reached out and touched Xypher’s shoulder.
Xypher let out a gasp as his body illuminated. He threw his head back and cued out as if lightning were moving through him.
Simone cringed at the sight of him shaking.
After a minute, he lifted his shirt to show that his injury was gone. Not even a scar remained to mar his flawless eight-pack. “Thank you.”
Acheron inclined his head, then looked past her, at Jesse. “You’re her best defense. Anytime a demon comes near them, there’s a small rift in the mortal plane. It feels like a tingle in your spine. You can give them a few seconds’ warning before they’re attacked.”
Jesse appeared as stunned as she was. “How do you know I’m here?” Acheron smiled. “I know lots of things.”
Jesse grinned widely. “Man, I like hanging with these people. They see and hear me. You have no idea how refreshing this is.”
Stepping closer to Simone, Acheron pulled a leather bracelet from his wrist and snapped it on her left arm. “This will give you the strength of a demon should one attack you. What it won’t do is make you a better fighter and it won’t keep you from dying. However, if you bash a demon on the head with something, I assure you they won’t laugh at your attempts.”
He leaned down to whisper in her ear. “There is something inside you, Simone, that scares you. You’ve hidden it your entire life, but you know it’s there. Lurking and aching to be free. I know you run from it. Don’t. It’s the one thing in this that will save your life. Reach inside and embrace what you really are. When you’re ready, you won’t need my bracelet to help you.”
And with that he vanished.
Her arm still tingled from where he’d touched it. She looked at Jesse. “What on earth was that?”
Jesse held his hands turned outward and shrugged.
Her gaze went past him to Xypher and there for a heartbeat she caught a glimpse of his vulnerability. There in his eyes was regret, sadness, and a pain so profound it made her breath catch. She wanted to reach out to him, but feared how violently he might react to such a gesture.
Carson cleared his throat. “I don’t mean to be rude, guys, but I think it best you leave. The idea behind Sanctuary is to be a haven. The last thing we need is to have a demon bursting in here who isn’t bound by our laws.”
That evaporated all the emotions in Xypher’s eyes except a grim determination, “Don’t worry, I won’t sully your pristine palace with my presence.”
The next thing she knew, they were outside, standing on Ursulines Street. Lucidly no one seemed to have seen them just pop in out of nowhere.
Jesse joined her. “I wish you’d stop doing that.”
“You wish?” she asked. “Try being in my shoes. It’s making me sick.”
Xypher narrowed a threatening glare at her. “Life makes me sick, but notice, here I am. No one gave a damn what I thought about it before they brought me into it.”
Simone hated to see them back to this. “Xypher, truce, please. I get it. You’re bitter. You know, you’re not the only one who feels shafted by the rod of life. Believe me. I was orphaned at age eleven and spent three years in a children’s home before I was finally adopted. We’re all survivors of a callous universe. The only buffer we have is other people.”
He scoffed bitterly at her. “Gods, you’re naive. The only buffer we have is ourselves and how much pain we can tolerate before it finally breaks us.”
Simone felt sorry for him if that was the best he could do. But then she remembered a time when she’d felt exactly like he did. Jesse was the only reason she’d kept herself together. She wasn’t sure she’d have made it out of that dark hole she’d lived in after her parents’ deaths without him.
It was obvious Xypher had never had another person to rely on. Not even a ghost.
Her throat tight in sympathetic pain, she started walking down Chartres Street. Her condo was over on Orleans, not too close, but not that bad a hike, either. The walk would be quicker than trying to get a cab.
And at this point, she couldn’t even remember where she’d left her car. Okay, not true, she’d left it at Julian’s. But she just needed a few minutes at her place where everything was familiar. She needed something to ground her before the next round of lunacy assailed her.
As they neared the Hotel Provincial, she saw the way Xypher slowed down as a whiff of something good hit them. His gaze went longingly toward the Restaurant Stella. He didn’t say a word, but then he didn’t have to. His expression said it all.
“When was the last time you ate?”
He didn’t answer.
Simone pulled him to a stop. “Xypher? Food. When was the last time you had some?”
“What do you care?”
It was then she understood what those four words meant when he said them, No one in his life had ever cared before. Why should she, a stranger?
“I’m going to get something to eat.” She held the bracelet up for him. “I suggest you follow me.” She headed for the small Mediterranean cafe across the street that would be much quicker than an upscale restaurant.
Xypher wanted to curse as he followed her. But the truth was, he was starving, It was another one of Hades’ sadistic pleasures that Xypher could manifest weapons with nothing more than a thought—but not clothing, food, or money. Nor could he heal himself.
His stomach had been cramped with hunger even before Hades had dumped him here. For the last week he’d been eating things he didn’t even want to think about in an effort to at least get his stomach to stop burning so badly.
Even so, he wasn’t the land of creature to take charity. No one had ever given him anything. He was used to it.
Damned if he was going to beg.
Simone paused at the entrance until a woman in a white shirt and black pants came forward. “How many?”
Xypher looked at Jesse, who grinned at him. “I’m never counted. But I’m always here.”
The woman grabbed two menus and led them to a small table in a comer, Xypher didn’t miss the way Simone very discreetly pulled a chair out for Jesse while making it appear she was using it for her jacket.
Ignoring Jesse, Xypher considered putting Simone over his shoulder and earning her out of here. Honestly, he couldn’t stand the thought of smelling all this food and not having any.
But then he was used to torture.
He sat down with his fury barely leashed. The woman handed him a menu and left. Xypher set it aside and stared out the window.
It was so strange to be back in the world after all this time. So many things had changed. Last time he was here, horses had been the best mode of transportation. There had been no electricity. Mankind had been afraid of the dark. Afraid of the dreams Xypher and his brethren gave them.
Now they mostly feared themselves and well they should.
Simone frowned as Xypher sat back, not even glancing at the menu. “Aren’t you hungry?”
The look he sent her chilled her to her bones. “I don’t have any money.”
“Well, you don’t think I’d eat and leave you to starve, do you?” The sad thing was, he most likely did.
She picked the menu up and held it toward him. “Order something or I’ll order for you.”
“Do you know what happened to the last person who took that tone with me?”
“Let me guess . . . Disembowelment. Probably painful. Definitely slow.” She wagged her brows at him. “Lucky for me you can’t kill me so long as I have the bracelet on.” She gave him a smug smile. “I’m having the shrimp cocktail and blackened chicken Alfredo. What about you?””
For the first time, she saw a humble look about him as he pulled the menu toward him like a sullen child.
“Kindness makes you uncomfortable, doesn’t it?”
He didn’t respond as his gaze skimmed the menu.
She let out a tiled breath before she exchanged a frustrated look with Jesse. She couldn’t believe she had an easier time talking to ghosts than she did talking to a flesh-and-blood . . . something seated in front of her.
What had they done to him to make him so closed off from everyone?
Xypher wasn’t sure what to order. Everything looked good and his stomach was burning. Not to mention he felt extremely awkward sitting here . . . like a civilized human.
No one had treated him like this. Ever.
He was a Phobatory Skotos. He’d spent his life making everyone around him tremble in fear as he gave them nightmares. Even the gods. He was evil incarnate. Even other Phobatory Skoti feared him.
And this woman had dared to order him around . . . She was actually quite pretty and more tempting than any woman should be while he had a goal so important. Until now, he hadn’t thought about how long he’d been without a woman. But her gentle hazel eyes set him on fire.
“Are you having trouble deciding?”
He blinked at her question. “How do you do that?”
“Talk to me like I’m normal.”
She frowned at him. “Well, you don’t make it exactly easy. But I remember a time when I was angry at the world, too. All I wanted was to lash out and make everyone around me as miserable and angry as I was. That . . . need burned like a fire inside and obliterated everything else. Then one day I realized that the only one I was really hurting was myself. I might piss off other people, but within a few hours they forgot me. I was the only one who lived in perpetual hell. So I made the decision to let the anger go and move on.”
How easy she made it sound. But it wasn’t that easy to just let go. “Yes, but you had a future to look forward to.”
She shook her head. “It didn’t feel like that at the time. You have to remember that I saw my brother killed when he was only seven years old.” She clenched her teeth as the familiar pain lacerated her. “He thought he had a future, too, and in one blink of an eye it was gone. So were my mother and my father …”
Her pain reached out to him; it was something he could relate to. But what surprised him was the little twinge inside him, a part that actually . . . no, it wasn’t caring. He wasn’t capable of that. It was . . .
He couldn’t place it.
“What happened?” he asked her.
She held her hand up. “I know I brought it up, but I really can’t talk about this right now, okay? Just because it was a long time ago doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt still. There are some pains that time doesn’t numb.”
“Then you understand me.”
Simone froze at that simple statement from him as she realized she really did. No matter how many years it’d been, the agony of their death was still raw and fresh. “Yeah. I guess I do. And if yours is even a pittance of mine, then I’m really sorry.”
Xypher looked away as those words touched a part of him that hadn’t been touched in centimes. He didn’t even know why. It was like they had a connection through their pain.
“Do you like seafood?”
How did she do that? Such a simple question and yet it touched him. It made him feel . . . he couldn’t describe it. “I don’t remember. I haven’t been able to really taste food in centuries.'”
She laid her menu down on the table. “What have you been eating while you’re here?”
“Whatever I could find.”
Simone’s heart clenched at his words. “We’ll get you the gyro platter and oyster plate. Between the two of them, you should find something tasty.”
Xypher didn’t know what to say. Usually he was violent, wanting to lash out and hurt anyone around him, but sitting here like this . . .
He was calm and calm was something he hadn’t tasted in so long he’d forgotten how it felt.
Glancing away, he was tormented by old memories, Even before his emotions had been stripped, he’d been angry and bitter. Lashing out at everyone around him. He’d been raised among Sumerian demons, not humans or the gods on Olympus.
His mother’s people had been harsh and unforgiving. And in the beginning, he’d welcomed Zeus’ curse of feeling nothing at all.
Until Satara. She’d shown him other things. Laughter. Passion. For a time, he’d even deluded himself that he loved her.
In retrospect, it was enough to make him laugh. What did the son of a demon and the god of nightmares know about love? His own parents had been incapable of it. Love wasn’t in his genetic makeup.
But vengeance . . .
That was something he could sink his claws into.
A waitress came over, eyeing him as if she could sense his malevolent thoughts. She quickly tinned her attention to Simone who ordered for him.
Xypher listened to the melodic accent that made Simone’s voice seem softer and more gentle than any he’d ever heard before. Her dark brown hail’ hung in ringlets around her face while her hazel eyes reflected intelligence, curiosity, and an innate zest for life.
She wasn’t as skinny as the waitress who was leaving them. Rather she was robust. Healthy. And for the first time in centuries, he felt his body stilling with lust.
A mischievous glint sparkled before she took a sip of water, then spoke to him. “You’re being quiet, which is making me nervous.”
She looked at Jesse before she answered. “There’s an old saying that the tiger lies low not out of fear but for better aim. It reminds me of
She sighed as she cupped her glass in her hands. “You really like to scare people, don’t you?”
“I was bred for it.”
Jesse laughed. “Clan I sign up for lessons? I feel really shafted that I didn’t get to come back as a poltergeist.” He held his hands Up at Simone. “Ooo, I’m coming for you.”
Jesse let out a sound of disgust. “See. Laughter. I want, just once, to induce actual fear.”
Xypher cut a look to the ghost to remind him that he could reach out and hurt him. Jesse immediately shrank back.
Simone leaned her head against her hand as she watched him. “You don’t have to do that, you know?”
“Grimace and yowl at everyone around you. Take a breath and relax.”
“Relax?” Xypher was incredulous at her words. “You do know they’re going to be coming for us? You let your guard down—you relax—you die. Trust me. I have firsthand experience with that.”
“Yeah, you said you were dead. What happened?”
Xypher fell silent as her innocent question dragged him back to the fool he’d once been. “I was betrayed by the only person I made the mistake of trusting.”
“Don’t be. I’d rather have died than lived an eternity with a lie.”
“Well?” Satara asked as Kaiaphas materialized in front of her.
“He’ll be dead soon.”
She shrieked before she started pacing the small space that made up Stryker’s office. “That’s not good enough.”
“Then I suggest you kill him.”
“Don’t you dare take that tone with me.” She snatched up the bottle on Stryker’s desk that held Kaiaphas’s soul inside. She lightly tapped the side of it against the desk, not hard enough to shatter it, but hard enough to sound like it might. “In one flick of my wrist, I could end your existence.”
She saw the shimmer of fear in his eyes, but to his credit, he didn’t show any other concern over her threat. “Xypher was protected by a son of Aphrodite wielding the sword of Cronus. There was no way to defeat him and finish off Xypher.”
Satara let out a disgusted breath. Relying on someone else was what had gotten her into this mess. Her only saving grace was the deamarkonian Stryker had given her. With that, Xypher could be found with little effort.
That was if the worthless demon before her was capable of it. “I want his head delivered to me, Kaiaphas. And if not his, I will take yours …”
He bowed low before her. “Your will be done, my mistress. My brother’s head will be yours.”