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 caf? au lait color. Her green eyes watched him with concern. “It’s all right,
“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.
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.
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.
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
“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
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.