CHAPTER 7

STRYKER SUCKED HIS BREATH IN SHARPLY AS Zephyra leaned down to look into the sfora. She smelled so good, it literally made his mouth water. She traced the clouds with one long fingernail. Chills rose on his body as he imagined her running it over his skin. He was so hard and needy that it was all he could do not to grab her and pull her close.

She would kill him if he tried. Not to mention he’d never once rough-handled her. Men he would gut without hesitation, even many women, but when it came to her . . . he wasn’t sure if he could ever hurt the woman he’d loved so much.

Zephyra froze as she became aware of the sudden bulge in Stryker’s pants. The subtle changes to his breathing. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d taken a lover. But the experience had been poor enough that she’d decided she’d rather take matters into her own hands than be disappointed again.

Stryker had never once disappointed her. He’d been more than just a skilled lover. He’d been a considerate one.

Swallowing, she pulled back. At least until her gaze fell to his lips.

“I’ve missed you, too,” she breathed before she could stop herself.

Stryker froze. Those simple words seared him as he saw the way her eyes darkened. Unable to stand it, he pulled her toward him so that he could kiss her. The moment her lips touched his and her tongue swept across his teeth, he was blinded by need. Blinded by memories so sweet and precious that he’d never thought to experience them again.

Pulling her into his lap, he growled at how good she felt there. She was so tiny that she weighed next to nothing. The scent of her skin intoxicated him.

Zephyra groaned at how good he tasted. At how strong he felt and how hard his lean body was. She hated how much she’d missed this.

How much she’d missed him. But there was no denying it.

Eleven thousand years later, the man still set her senses on fire.

Needing him with a fury she didn’t want to understand, she straddled his lap and leaned back long enough to jerk his shirt over his head.

One corner of his mouth quirked up into a teasing smile.

She placed her fingertip over his lips. “One single word and I swear I’ll rip your tongue out.”

“So I haven’t won you over?”

She dropped his shirt to the floor. “This isn’t about winning anything. It’s about lust. I want you completely out of my system.”

“You think this will do it?”

“As soon as I realize how bad you suck in bed, I’ll never want to touch you again.”

He laughed as he rose up with her wrapped around him, then leaned her back against his desk. “Oh, baby, I’ve never in my life sucked in bed.”

She scoffed even though she knew from experience that he’d never disappointed her. Hopefully, though, his streak would end and he’d have gotten worse with age . . .

He dipped his head down to hers to kiss her again as he ran his hand over her body. She shivered in pleasure, especially as she felt the size of his bulge between her legs. She wanted him desperately.

Stryker reached for the button on her top at the same moment something struck his door. Frowning, he looked up to see the doors clatter open. Davyn hit the floor in a bloody heap before a group of twenty demons came through the threshold.

“Knock, knock,” Kessar snarled. “Looks like there’s a new power in town and it ain’t you.”

Stryker stepped back and pulled Zephyra from the desk. Returning his shirt to his body with his powers, he placed himself between Zephyra and the demon. “What the hell’s going on?”

“Natural selection.” Kessar blasted him.

Stryker hissed as pain flooded his body. But he wasn’t a callow youth unused to battle. Summoning his black body armor, he upturned his desk and blasted it toward the demon. Kessar ducked before he sent another blast at Stryker, who returned it with one of his own. Their powers tangled in an arc of sizzling color. But every heartbeat he blasted cost him physically. He could feel his strength draining, and given the number of demons coming in, a depleted Daimon was a dead one.

“Run, Phyra,” he ordered her over his shoulder.

“Not without you.” Before he could stop her, she added her own blast to the demons’, driving them back. “We need to get out of here. Now,” she said.

Stryker looked to where Davyn was still unconscious on the floor. “We have to get Davyn out.”

“Let him die.”

“I don’t leave my men behind.” At least not the ones who were actually loyal to him. The ones like Desiderius who had questionable loyalty he was more than quick to sacrifice. But Davyn had never given him any reason to doubt his ser vice, and for those men Stryker would die to protect them.

She growled at him, “Get him and hurry.”

The moment he moved toward Davyn, Kessar attacked. He caught Stryker about the waist and threw him to the ground. He cursed, kicking Kessar back. “You snide halitosis-breathing worthless shit sack. Get off me.”

One of the other demons came at him. Stryker ducked and caught sight of Zephyra pinning one to the ground. “Don’t let them bite you. You’ll become one of them if they do.”

She laughed evilly as her eyes changed to a bright yellow laced with red. “You’re a little late with your warning.” She caught the demon closest to her and twisted his arm off. He dropped to the ground screaming before she stabbed him between his eyes and killed him. “Been there, done that, and am craving their blood more than they’re craving mine.”

Kessar and the others pulled back as they realized they were dealing with something more than just a regular Daimon.

“Got your buddy?” Her snide tone irritated Stryker.

Stryker lifted Davyn up from the floor and slung him over his shoulder. “I don’t run from crackheads like this.” He started after Kessar, then paused as he realized the hallway was littered with the bodies of his Daimon army. “What the hell is going on?”

“They’re converting your Daimons to demons. If you want to live, you better get out of here.”

“I don’t retreat.”

She grabbed him and forced him to face her. “Everyone retreats sometimes. Open the portal and get us out of here. Now!”

Stryker growled before he obeyed her. Until they knew better what was going on, he would listen to her even though he didn’t want to.

She pulled him out of Kalosis back to her temple, where Medea was. They appeared in Medea’s room, where their daughter was sitting at her computer.

“Put him on the bed,” Zephyra ordered Stryker.

“Excuse me?” Medea looked horrified by the prospect as she rose to her feet. “I don’t want an unknown man in my bed.”

“Those words do a father proud. Thank you for raising her right.” He flipped Davyn onto the pink coverlet and left him there.

Zephyra scoffed. “Don’t start on me. I might rethink tossing you back in with the demons.”

Stryker straightened to look at her. “Which brings me to the question of the hour. What exactly are you now?”

She let out a long breath before she answered. “Well, besides pissed, I’m part demon.”

Those words chilled him. She seemed so normal and yet . . . with demon blood in her, there was a lot she could be capable of. “How?”

She shrugged. “I was bitten by a gallu—the same one who owned Jared. He thought to make me his mindless sycophant, and what he learned is that I’m a lot stronger than I look. I killed the bastard.”

Medea sighed. “Why don’t you tell him the truth, Mum?”

“Truth?” Stryker asked with a frown.

Zephyra cursed as she glared at her daughter. Her eyes snapping fire, she turned toward Stryker. “Fine. I traded my humanity so that Medea would live longer than her twenty-seventh birthday.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Unlike you,” Zephyra sneered, “I didn’t have an Atlantean goddess willing to show me how to take human souls to live. I asked Artemis to intervene on Medea’s behalf and she refused. She told me she wouldn’t countermand her brother’s curse even for her own niece. After I’d already lost my grandson and son-in-law to the humans, I wasn’t about to let my own baby die because of Apollo. So I conjured one of the brokers and promised him my soul if he’d protect her.”

It sounded easy enough, but there was one problem. Demon brokers didn’t respond to Daimon requests. “You can’t do that. Only a demon can.”

She gave him a highly sarcastic look of appreciation. “You’re such a brainiac, baby. And to think, I thought I married you for those amazing abs. Who knew all that brainpower was buried under those bulging biceps?”

Medea made a choking sound before she spoke again. “She allowed a demon to feed on her and convert her so that she could summon a broker.”

The look of sarcasm mixed with annoyance was transferred to Medea.

Disregarding Zephyra’s prickliness, Stryker was amazed by her capacity to love. It touched him profoundly that she’d make so great a sacrifice to protect their child. It was that deep ability to care for her loved ones that had made him fall in love with her in ancient Greece.

“After I was converted, I turned on the demon and killed him. The beauty of the gallu. If you kill the one who bites you, you regain your self-control and keep the powers of the gallu to boot. It’s beautiful really, except for the annoying blood craving that was added to the one I already had due to Apollo. But life is nothing if not a series of trade-offs, eh?”

Perhaps. But it still left one unanswered question. “And Jared?”

“He was offered to me to keep me from killing the gallu demon. I took custody of him and then nailed the demon to the wall of his own home. No one threatens me or my child. Ever. And I’ll never be someone’s slave. No one controls me.”

He could respect all of that. He’d done worse things to the ones who’d killed his sons.

Except for Urian.

Unwilling to think about that, he narrowed his gaze on Zephyra. “That explains your advanced age.” Demons, even if they were only half bloods or converts, were excluded from Apollo’s curse. “But what of hers?” He indicated Medea with a jerk of his chin.

Zephyra crossed her arms over her chest. “I had to trade my soul for her life, which is now tied to mine. Strange how the gods love to do that. Sadistic and cold, really. But no matter. Unlike us, she doesn’t have to feed on humans to live longer—she’s still an Apollite technically. She could even have more children if she could ever find a man who wasn’t worthless.”

“I did find one,” Medea said, her voice breaking. “The humans butchered him.”

Zephyra touched her lightly on the arm. “I know, baby. I didn’t mean to be so callous. I loved him, too.” She looked back at Stryker. “It’s why I made sure I slaughtered every descendent of the families who took his life and why I relished each and every kill.”

Stryker gave her a formal ancient military salute. “And that’s why I admire you so. A warrior’s code to the end.” Blood for blood. Tit for tat. Life for life.

It was the one thing they’d always seen eye to eye on.

Davyn groaned from the bed as he finally came to. Lifting his head, he focused on Stryker. “How many of our men did they kill?”

“I don’t know. What happened?”

“War.” His voice was weak and strained, as if pain had just ripped through him. He brushed his hair back from his face before he pushed himself into a sitting position. “He told the demons that they shouldn’t be subservient to you anymore. That they should rise up and kill us all to take over Kalosis. He said it would be the perfect demon haven, once all the Daimons were dead or converted.”

Stryker growled low in the back of his throat. “Treacherous bastard.”

Zephyra scoffed. “You’re the one who unleashed him.”

“To kill Nick and Ash,” he said defensively.

She arched one taunting brow. “What did you think he’d do after that?”

“I assumed he’d kill me, not my people.”

Zephyra laughed sarcastically. “The man’s name is War. Did that not clue you in about his personality? This would be tantamount to meeting Peone and expecting the goddess of retaliation to forgive you and blithely walk away to let you live a happy life.”

Medea frowned. “I thought that was Nemesis.”

Zephyra gave her a droll stare. “Keep to your Atlantean gods, sweetie. Peone is retribution for murder. Nemesis is a goddess of balance. She punishes those who have too much happiness or who get away with screwing people over. Big difference between the two.”

“Oh. Never mind.” Medea stepped back.

Stryker inclined his head to Zephyra. “I’m impressed you still remember the old gods. But it doesn’t change the fact that I need to get back to Kalosis and kick those assholes out.”

“Why are you so suicidal?”

“I’m not suicidal. Those are my people down there and I’m not going to leave them to die without my leadership.” He vanished.

Zephyra stiffened at his abrupt departure. “Did he just go back?” she asked Davyn.

He nodded. “My lord plays games, but not when it comes to invaders. He brought the demons in and no doubt feels responsible.”

She tried to flash herself to Kalosis, but since she didn’t have a standing invitation, she couldn’t. “Davyn, can you open a bolt hole?”

He closed his eyes, then shook his head. “Stryker must have locked me out.”

“Damn him. Jared!” she shouted, calling him back from his quest to find and kill Nick.

He appeared before her instantly. “Akra?” he asked, using the Atlantean word for own er and mistress.

“I need you to go to Kalosis and keep Stryker from dying. Help him drive the demons out.”

“Your will is mine,” he said in the most sarcastic of tones. She was actually amazed he was willing to obey without argument. But an instant later, he was gone.

Medea scowled in confusion. “I thought your intent was to kill Stryker?”

“Oh, honey, after all that man has put me through, I alone deserve the honor. Be damned if some demon by-blow is going to rob me of that pleasure.”

STRYKER USED A FIRE BLAST TO SEAR THE demons closest to him as he joined his men and women who were holding them off. “Where’s Apollymi?”

“Behind you.”

He turned to see her there with her eyes blazing red. “We need to get you to safety,” he told her, not wanting either of them to die until he took care of this.

She arched a brow at that. “Since when does my safety concern you? I thought you wanted me dead.”

It was true, he had. But not right now. “I want to renew my lease on life. At least for two more weeks.”

“In that case . . .” She slung her arms out and formed a whirlwind around the demons. They shrieked and screamed as it enveloped them and lifted them from the ground.

A hole appeared in the room, sucking them into the center of it. An instant later, they were all gone.

Now that was one seriously handy skill. “And that, my friends, is the difference between a full-fledged goddess and a demigod,” he said under his breath.

Her expression unamused, she turned to Stryker. “And that, unfortunately, won’t last because someone”—she pinned him with an angry glare—”gave them access to my realm. Perhaps I should feed you to them after all.”

“Give me a couple of hours before you do. Right now, I need to take inventory of the damage done to my men.”

“Since when do you care what happens to them?”

He didn’t answer. It was true he liked to pretend he had no feelings whatsoever. That he was above anything as petty as emotions. But he knew the truth.

He ached and he cared even when he didn’t want to. No matter how hard he tried, he was still a man.

“My men need me.” He walked past an angry Savitar, who was heading toward Apollymi.

“Why didn’t you stay put?” Savitar snarled at her.

She gave him a cold, haughty stare. “I’m the goddess of destruction. Did you really think I’d stay put while they ate their way through my home?” She curled her lip. “I need you to get Sin after them. He’s a Sumerian god, he should police the creation of his own pantheon and clean up their mess.”

Savitar snorted. “You know if I do that, your granddaughter will be fighting right along beside him, don’t you? The last time she fought the gallu, they almost converted her into one of them.”

She hissed at him, “Why did she marry that noaccount Sumerian god? Fine. Don’t tell them.” She looked around the debris. “Strykerius, I expect you and your men to clean this mess up.”

Stryker started to snap at her, then caught himself. Pissing her off wouldn’t accomplish anything and they had a lot to do. “You know this isn’t over. War will be back.”

“Yes, I do know that. Thank you for reminding me. In the meantime, we should make some preparations. Anyone know a good exterminator?”

No sooner had those words left her lips than Jared, looking much better than he had last time they’d met, appeared beside Stryker. Dressed in a black leather jacket, black buttondown shirt, and black jeans, Jared’s eyes were covered with a pair of opaque sunglasses. His auburn hair had been pulled back into a sleek ponytail.

The Sephiroth glanced around with a frown. “Looks like I missed a party. Good. I wasn’t really in the mood to off demons this eve ning. Haven’t had my coffee yet.”

Savitar grimaced. “You drink coffee?”

His face was stoic. “No, but it was my pathetic attempt at humor.”

“What are you doing here?” Apollymi asked him. It was obvious from her tone that she didn’t appreciate an uninvited creature popping into her domain.

“I was ordered to protect him.” He jerked his chin toward Stryker.

Apollymi folded her arms over her chest. “Well, I asked for an exterminator and look who appears. Want to take out War for us?”

“I can’t.”

She looked less than pleased by his response. “Why not?”

“Primal Source,” Savitar said drily. “Jared was created to protect those powers. No one can make him kill them.”

Jared nodded. “Exactly. Not even my own er can command that.”

Apollymi frowned. “I don’t understand. You can kill the Malachai. Weren’t they born of the same powers?”

Jared sighed. “The Malachai declared enmity on the Source, thereby severing those ties. Because they threatened the Source, the Sepherii were able to attack and kill them. Until War makes a like threat against the primal powers, I can’t touch him.”

One corner of Savitar’s mouth quirked up. “Well, don’t you suck?”

Jared’s features softened. “Oh, believe me, I couldn’t agree more. Just be grateful it’s not contagious.”

Stryker ignored them as he considered what he’d inadvertently set into motion by wanting revenge. How simple it’d all seemed. War killed Ash and Nick, then him. Now there was a lot more going on here. “We have to find some way to contain War.”

Savitar gave him a droll glare. “You’re the one who unleashed him.”

“Yeah, well, let’s move on from the blame game. I was having suicidal thoughts and it seemed like a good idea at the time. In retrospect, not so much.”

“Most major mistakes do,” Apollymi said quietly. “Not many people carry out thoughts they know going into it are stupid . . . morons not included.”

Savitar laughed. “Then that leaves you out, huh, Stryker.”

He glared at Savitar. “For the record, we’re not friends.”

“For the record, I don’t care.”

“Enough, children,” Apollymi said between clenched teeth. “In case you haven’t noticed, we have a major situation playing out. We have to find and stop War, corral the gallu, protect Apostolos, and get Savitar out of here.”

“Why the latter?” Jared asked.

“Because I hate his guts.”

Savitar shook his head. “I hate you, too, precious.”

She sneered at him. “Put on some real clothes. What is that you’re wearing and does it come in adult sizes?”

He looked highly offended by her attack on his wardrobe. “Cargo pants and a Hawaiian shirt are real clothes.”

“Not in my realm they’re not, and button that shirt.”

“Hey!” he snapped as the shirt closed itself. “You know there are women who would pay to see me naked.”

“I’m sure there are women you pay to see you naked. Perish the thought, but I’m not one of either group. Now hush while I think.”

Stryker was amused by their bantering. He’d never seen Apollymi quite so animated. Or Savitar flustered. Any other time, he’d goad them into continuing, but they had too much to do for him to play Loki.

Jared stepped back. “While you plan and plot, I have a Malachai to kill.” He vanished.

Savitar sighed. “I really don’t think Acheron is going to approve of that action.”

“No,” Apollymi agreed. “I would send you after him, but I don’t want Apostolos angry at me.”

Savitar let out an elongated breath. “You know we have to stay on guard. War’s modus operandi is to divide and conquer. He turns all friends into enemies.”

Stryker rolled his eyes. “Well, since the three of us hate each other, there’s not much more he can do.”

Apollymi gave him a hard stare. “I don’t hate you, Stryker. I would have never brought you into my realm if I had.” She vanished.

Stunned and uncertain about those uncharacteristic words, Stryker followed her. The one thing he’d learned over the centuries was that Apollymi was even less sentimental than he was.

Then again, there was another side to him in private that no one else saw, and it made him wonder what secrets she held.

She’d adjourned to her secluded garden that was walled in by marble. Black roses bloomed all around in memory and in mourning of the son she could never see. Her two Charonte bodyguards stood on the side like statues. But for an occasional blink, it would be easy to think them dead.

“What are you saying?” he asked her as she took a perch on the edge of the pool that flowed backward, up the wall.

“I’m tired, Strykerius.” She got up to leave.

He did what he’d never done before. He pulled her to a stop. “I want an answer from you.”

She shrugged his touch away. “How dense you are, child. In all your hatred have you never once thought through our relationship?”

“Believe me, these last few years I’ve done nothing but. You used me and then you cast me off.”

She shook her head. “I adopted you, Strykerius. When your children died, I wept with you.”

“The hell you did.”

She pulled back the sleeve of her gown to show him her wrist. There were eleven black teardrops tattooed into her skin. It was the Atlantean custom to remember loved ones who’d died. “The one at the top is for my son. The rest are for your children.”

He touched her arm, unable to believe her. “What about Urian? You told me to kill him.”

“I told you your son had a secret that you should investigate. That he was keeping things from you. I never intended for you to kill him. You did that on your own.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“You don’t have to. I really don’t care anymore. I would end both our lives at this point, but until I know for a fact that War is contained and my son is safe, I’m stuck here.”

“With me.”

Her silver eyes flashed in the dim light. But he saw the pain that she hid so elegantly. “I didn’t say that.”

“Your tone did.”

She let out an aggravated breath. “You are so blind. Everything is black or white. I either hate you or love you. But that’s not how it goes. Life is never that clear-cut. Emotions aren’t that clear-cut.” She touched him softly on the cheek. “Think, Strykerius. You and I were an allied force for thousands of years. Us against your father and Artemis. Against her army of Dark-Hunters and the humans we both hate. The only one I ever forbade you to touch was Apostolos, and now you know why. He is my son. But even so, I sheltered you and yours. I brought you in and taught you how to steal the humans’ souls.”

“So that you could hurt my father for killing Acheron.”

She inclined her head respectfully. “That is true. Originally, I couldn’t see anything more than my own revenge. But I watched as your children grew . . . as you grew, and I watched as they died. Do you really think me so cold that never once did I care?”

“Yes, I do. You killed your own family. All of them.”

Her face turned to stone. It betrayed no emotion or passion. “I held the same anger then that you held the night you cut Urian’s throat. No, I held even more. Their betrayal against me was far greater than what your son did to you. What Urian did he did out of love for a woman. He wasn’t trying to hurt you. He was only trying to find happiness for the two of them and he meant you no slight. What my family did to me was out of selfish fear. They united against me to imprison me and kill my son. That is unforgivable.”

She paused as the pain in her eyes flared bright and he saw how much she still ached over what had happened. “But just like you, after they were all gone and I was alone, I grieved for what I’d done. I missed that family, sorry though it was, and I wanted to see them again.”

She looked over her shoulder to where her demons were still standing at attention. “While I cherish my Charonte army, it wasn’t the same as my family.” She turned her attention to him and her gaze softened. “And then this goldenhaired youth called out to me as he begged the powers that be for some way to save his small children from an unfair fate. He reminded me of my own son and so I offered to him what I’d never offered to another.” The tenderness vanished under the cold countenance that was so familiar. “I bound my life to you in order to save you. The only time you and I were ever at odds was when I ordered you to leave Apostolos alone and you refused to do so.”

“You failed to tell me he was your son.”

“Because I knew it would hurt you,” she said between clenched teeth. “Why else would I have kept that a secret?”

“You were trying to control me.”

“I never,” she snarled. “I turned you loose to wreak revenge against your father. I opened my entire realm to your kind and allowed you to take refuge here. Every Dark-Hunter you killed, every human life you destroyed, I took pride in it as any mother would.”

Still, he refused to believe her. She’d been using him . . .

And yet he remembered the way they’d been over the centuries. She’d always welcomed him into her private chambers. Always welcomed his company.

He missed that more than he wanted to admit to himself.

“Why haven’t you told me this before now?”

She sighed. “Because I would rather you hate me for Urian’s death than hate yourself. No parent should ever know such grief.”

“I don’t believe you.”

“Then don’t. We both know compassion isn’t my strong suit. I barely understand it.” She raked him with a cool glance. “I barely understand you.” She gathered the skirts of her black gown and walked past him.

Stryker watched her as her words echoed in his ears. She might not understand compassion, but she did know how to love. Her uncompromising protection and sacrifice for Acheron was beyond reproach. It was what had set Stryker’s jealousy off and made him turn against her.

He’d wanted her to love him like that.

Stryker winced at the undeniable truth. He’d been taken out of his mother’s womb before he was born and given over to Apollo’s priestesses to raise. While they’d never been cruel where he was concerned, they’d all been afraid of him. He’d never known a real mother.

Not until Apollymi.

Even so, he wasn’t sure if he could trust her. Did he dare? But for all her malice, he’d never known her to lie. She might omit things, but she didn’t come straight out and lie. . . .

Closing his eyes, he ground his teeth as pain assailed him. It was hard to be responsible for so many and to have no one he could fully trust.

Gods, how tired he was of being alone in the universe. Of standing strong all the time.

Not wanting to dwell on that, he left the garden to return to where his men were still tending to the wounded and killing those who were converting.

“Are we at war, my lord?”

He looked at Ann, a small, beautiful blond Daimon female, and nodded. “The demons are no longer welcomed here. We extended our hands in friendship and they repaid us in bloodshed.” Little surprise really, a demon was a demon. He should have known better than to think they could ever combine forces with the gallu. “But that’s all right. What we lack in numbers we make up for with vicious and cunning. We are Daimon and we are Spathi. Now let us show those bastards what we can do.”

His men shouted in approval.

Savitar laughed behind him.

Stryker cast him an angry glare. “You find something funny, Chthonian?”

“Yeah, I do. I find it hysterical that your new lease on life is named War.”

He gave Savitar a look to let him know what he thought of him—not much. “At least I have a lease.”

“True, but you do know what the problem with a lease is?”

“What?”

“They usually run out sooner than later. And if you’re not paying close attention to the fine print, you always get burned.”

“You’re not scaring me.”

“Don’t want to scare you. But if I were you, I wouldn’t leave my women out in the open too long while I trifle down here. War has a nasty way of spilling over into peaceful areas, if you catch my meaning.”

A bad feeling went through Stryker. Surely War wouldn’t . . .

Of course he would.

His heart hammering, Stryker knew he had to get to Medea and Zephyra before it was too late.

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