ZEPHYRA DIDN’T SPEAK AGAIN UNTIL DAVYN had left them alone. Stryker turned toward her on the bed and her gaze dropped to where she’d stabbed him earlier. He followed the line of her eyes. Though the wound was healing, it was still a nasty reminder of her temper.
And deadly aim.
“Looks like you’ll be getting your wish sooner rather than later, huh?” he said flippantly.
She clutched the sheet to her chest. “There has to be a way out of here.”
“Yes, but they have one advantage. The demons aren’t nocturnal. They can box us in day and night. We can only feed after dark.”
“Can you bring humans here?”
In theory, yes. But things were seldom so simple. “Only if they stumble into a bolt hole. Something much easier said than done. We usually only get kids with those traps, and a large number of Daimons, including myself, have trouble swallowing the soul of a child. Even if they are human cattle.”
Her gaze darkened with fury. “They’ve killed our children without flinching.”
Again, not so simple. “Their parents kill our children, not them. They’re innocent in this fight. My father forced me to be a monster when he cursed me to this life, but I refuse to lose all sense of myself to his lunacy.”
She shook her head. “You’re a warrior. Are you telling me that you’ve never slaughtered a child in battle?”
“I trained for war as a mortal, but I never battled until after I became a Daimon. So no, I’ve never taken the life of a child. Having been a father, I don’t know if I ever could.” He narrowed his eyes on her. “And that doesn’t make me a coward.”
Zephyra held her hands up in surrender at his hostile tone. She’d inadvertently struck a nerve when she hadn’t meant to. “It never crossed my mind.” At least not over his inability to harm a child. Other things he’d done . . .
That was another story.
As he got up from the bed, she saw the tattoo on his right shoulder blade that had escaped her attention while she’d been focused on their earlier play. It made her do a double take as the tattoo fully registered in her mind.
No, it couldn’t be. . . .
“Stop,” she said, pulling him back to examine it.
It was a broken heart with thorny vines twisted through it and a sword that plunged down its carmine center. But it was the ribbon and the name it contained that covered the tattoo that made her breath catch in her throat.
Beneath it were eigh teen small black teardrops that formed an intricate pattern. She traced them with her fingertip. “Who are these for?”
“One for each of my children and grandchildren. And one for each of my wives.”
But it was her name he’d put inside the ribbon. Hers alone that marked his broken heart.
She glanced up to meet his gaze as he looked at her over his shoulder. Memories of their past together and conflicted emotions ripped through her. He was so familiar and so alien.
“Who are you, Strykerius?”
“I’m a lost soul,” he breathed quietly. “I had a purpose at one time, but I stumbled on the path of it.”
His gaze narrowed dangerously. Seductively. “I see what I want again, but for the first time in my life, I’m not sure if I can claim it. I should have never left you and I know it.”
She laid her hand against the stubble of his cheek. “I’m a servant of Artemis. I owe her for taking me in when no one else would.”
“Haven’t you paid that debt a thousandfold?”
Zephyra paused. Had she? Artemis could be so fickle and cold. Over the centuries, Zephyra had executed countless humans for Artemis and others who’d defamed or offended the goddess. Strange how she’d never really thought about leaving Artemis’s ser vice before this. She’d been content to stay in the shelter of the goddess’s temple and merely exist. Her only goal in all these centuries had been to protect her daughter.
How could she not have had a goal other than that? Because her last goal had been to grow old and love a man who’d walked out the door and broken her heart. Her spirit. Her life.
After that, she’d vowed to never set herself up again for so much pain. Once had definitely been enough for her.
Stryker turned around on the bed to face her with a look so intense and raw it raised chills on her body. “Join me again, Phyra. Stand by my side and I will lay the world of man at your feet. We will find a way to break my father’s curse and take our place in the sunlight.”
“I haven’t touched daylight in over eleven thousand years. Not since the night we were warned of the curse.”
“I would give that to you.”
She shook her head in denial. “You promised me the world once before and then you threw it in my face.”
“I’m different now, Phyra. I’m not a scared child living in his father’s shadow. I’ve learned from my mistake and I swear that I will never again leave you.”
She wanted to believe that but didn’t know if she could. Promises were so easy to make and so hard to keep. It was a rare person who could carry through their execution. “And yet you’ll die in two days if we don’t feed you.”
“Even in death, I shall find a way to be by your side.”
Those words set her anger on fire as he reminded her of the vow he’d taken at their wedding. “How dare you!” she snarled, shoving him back.
“I don’t understand.”
“You mock me with those words.”
His expression was true bafflement. How could he not know? “How so?”
“You promised me love and you left less than a year later. How can I trust you now?”
“I never married again after my wife died. Not in all these centuries and not because of how I felt about her. It was the memory of you that kept me single. No woman has ever captivated me the way you did.”
And no other man had ever claimed her heart. None. Only Stryker had been able to break the shield she’d erected around herself.
It was why she hated him so much.
She looked at the door at the same time Medea slung it open. For once Medea didn’t react to seeing them naked in bed together. That alone told Zephyra how dire the news was.
“Kessar has sent an emissary to speak with Father. He needs to come immediately.”
Stryker’s clothes appeared on his body as he left the bed. Zephyra was just about to reach for hers when he dressed her, too. She scooted out of bed to meet Medea in the doorway.
Stryker took the lead.
Medea lifted one curious brow as she drew even to Zephyra, but said nothing as they followed Stryker down the hallway to the receiving hall. There in the dim light, the Daimons were gathered around a tall, lithe gallu female. Her long black hair was loose around her shoulders as she curled her lips in repugnance at the gathered Daimons.
Stryker didn’t speak as he walked past her to the dais where his black skeletal throne waited. It shimmered in the dim light and looked as menacing and lethal as the man who occupied it. Zephyra followed him up, expecting him to protest. He didn’t. With the presence of a god, he took a seat nonchalantly and stared at the gallu as if she were an insect on his floor he was about to step on. Zephyra took position on the right-hand side of his throne. She braced one hand on the top spindle that was carved into the image of a spine.
“You have word from Kessar?” Stryker asked the gallu.
“He offers you a chance to surrender.”
Stryker laughed aloud at her stupidity. At Kessar’s audacity. If they thought to make him blink, they were sadly mistaken. “I told him to quit sucking the blood of idiots. It’s now infected his own intellect.”
The female gallu snapped her fingers.
Two more gallu came forward with a Daimon in chains. It was Illyria, one of his Spathi commanders. Her pale blond hair was a stark contrast to her black clothing. True to her nature and station, she didn’t beg as they brutally forced her to her knees.
But she was weak. Her skin held that ashen, iridescent cast that came from waiting too long to feed. Her body was starting to age and decay. Already she looked older than twenty-seven. In a matter of minutes, she’d become middle-aged.
“Give them nothing, my lord,” Illyria spat, trying to fight the two gallu who held her.
“She will die if you don’t surrender.”
Stryker shrugged. “We all die, gallu. You should be more concerned about your own fate.”
She raked him with a cold glare. “Your skin shows that you need to feed, too.” She cupped Illyria’s chin in her hand. “Look at her aging. Her bones are becoming brittle. She won’t last out the hour. Even if you feed from one another, you will only die that much sooner.”
Stryker maintained his air of nonchalance. “I’m not Sisyphus trying to restrain death. Illyria is a soldier. If it’s her time, it’s her time. I’m not at war with Atropos. It’s her will to take us whenever she likes. My only goal is to die with dignity.”
Zephyra was impressed by Stryker’s demeanor and levelheaded negotiation. He wasn’t the same as the boy she’d known. The man before her was fierce and not willing to be intimidated.
She could appreciate that. Just as she saw the aggravation in the eyes of the gallu. The demon was about to slip up.
And as Zephyra glared at the gallu, an idea came to her. It was bold but illuminating. She placed her hand on Stryker’s shoulder and leaned forward to whisper into his ear. “Drink from the gallu. . . .”
Stryker went still at her words. Gallu blood was infectious. It could convert anyone who came into contact with it into one of them and make that person a mindless zombie for them to control. Did Zephyra hate him so much that she wished that fate on him?
He met her gaze. She was beautiful there, by his side. It was where she should have always been. Yet he didn’t know if he could trust her. What she proposed . . .
It was suicide.
“Trust me,” she breathed in his ear, sending chills down his body.
Did he dare? She’d said it herself, women were vengeful to the end.
Her dark eyes seared him and told him nothing about her intent. She could be setting him up to live.
“Take the gallu’s soul,” she said in a tone so low he wasn’t even sure he heard it. “Kill the bitch and she can’t control you.”
Losing patience, the gallu cleared her throat. “You are completely cut off. We will take all of you down. Your only hope is to surrender and beg mercy from Kessar and the rest of us.”
The universe would shatter to pieces before he begged anyone for anything.
Stryker rose slowly to his feet. Zephyra still gave him no clue as to her mood or intent. If she was being honest. Or setting him up.
No matter, he wasn’t one to be bullied ever. Descending his dais, he walked toward the gallu. The two holding Illyria tightened their grips, ready to kill her should he move on them.
“Sriana ey froya,” he said in Atlantean to Illyria.
She stiffened instantly as her will was negated by the one blessing Apollo had forgotten to take from the Apollites when he’d cursed them.
They could control anyone with a weak will. It was that gift that allowed them to take human souls into their bodies. But the hard part was finding humans whose love of life was strong, but their minds were weak. In the case of the gallu, the two were synonymous.
Stryker held his hand out to her. “Come to me, gallu.”
She didn’t hesitate to obey.
A slow smile curled his lips as he pulled her close and then sank his fangs into her throat. She cried out as he drank and she bled.
Illyria followed suit on the gallu to her left while Davyn grabbed the one on her right.
Stryker’s head swam at the taste of power inside the gallu blood. At least until his stomach began to cramp and ache. Instinctively he started to pull away, only to find Zephyra there.
“Don’t stop,” she said, holding his head to the gallu’s throat. “Not until she’s dead.”
He pulled back enough so that he could speak. “I think I’m converting. I don’t feel right.”
“You will. Trust me.”
She kept saying that, but he still wasn’t sure if he should believe her. Honestly, he felt ill from the blood. As if he would vomit at any moment. But he kept his fangs in the gallu’s throat and continued to drain her until Zephyra pierced her between her eyes to kill her.
Then he felt it. That moment when the last gasp of life left and the body went limp in his arms. He held the demon’s chest against his heart—the center of his being—and waited for her soul to merge with his. Normally the absorption was a small shock that was followed by a sense of profound invigoration.
This time it struck him like a lightning bolt and caused him to drop the body and stagger back. He cried out as it ripped through him, blackening his skin. He struggled to breathe, but it was impossible. Over and over he saw lights flashing around him and heard the sound of his blood pumping through his veins. It was like staring at the fabric of the universe. The power coalesced inside him, heating his body and making his senses swirl.
He cast his gaze around the room and noted the way his men shrank back. Suddenly Zephyra was there.
She took his face in her hands. “Look at me, Strykerius. Focus.”
He did and as their gazes locked his heart slowed down. His vision and hearing cleared.
A slow smile curved her lips an instant before she ripped his shirt open. He frowned as she placed her hand over his heart, where there was no longer a black mark denoting where the soul exchange took place. Stryker stared at the unblemished skin in confusion. The moment an Apollite took a human soul into their body to elongate their life, a black mark appeared over their heart where the souls merged.
His was gone.
“I don’t understand.”
“When a Daimon merges with a demon, you have the strength of both species. They are immortal. Now so are you.”
He was aghast. “How is this possible?”
She smiled evilly. “Gallu blood is potent. Whatever it is that makes it infectious merges with our DNA and strengthens us. You’re free from having to take souls in.”
He turned to look at Davyn and Illyria, who were now standing over the bodies of the gallu they’d killed. “We’re not gallu slaves?”
Zephyra shook her head. “Not once your master is killed. It’s a new world, Stryker. A new dawn.”
And Zephyra had given it to him. Nothing could have meant more.
“The only thing that will kill you now is decapitation.”
He wanted to shout out in joy. “How many Daimons can we convert with one gallu? If we feed the blood to several and then kill the demon, will it convert all and then free them when we kill it?”
She shrugged. “There’s only one way to find out. Try it and see.”
Stryker laughed as he looked around at the Spathi who’d gathered. “You heard the lady. Let’s hold an experiment and see what happens. If it works, we feed from and then kill them and we no longer have to take human souls to live. I think it’s time we had open season on the gallu.” He laughed again at the very idea of turning the tables on Kessar and his people. “Who’s hungry?”
A roar went up.
Stryker turned toward Davyn. “Open a bolt hole and let’s grab us one more gallu to test my lady’s theory.”
Davyn bowed his head and saluted him. “As you wish, my lord.” He motioned for Illyria and two more Spathi to join him.
Stryker returned to his throne, where he sat with a whole new outlook on the future of his people. The dawn of the Daimon was just beginning, and he intended to rain hell on the humans before all was said and done.
Gazing down, he curled his lip at the three gallu bodies on the floor. They were as repugnant to him as his father. “Could someone clean up the mess? Take those outside and burn them.”
A small group came forward to obey him as Zephyra ascended his dais.
Ignoring his people who watched, he took her hand into his and kissed her knuckles. “Thank you, Phyra. You could have kept that bit to yourself and allowed me and my people to die.”
She cast her gaze to the room. “Regardless of how I feel about you personally, I am Atlantean and an Apollite.” She swept her hand out to indicate his soldiers. “We are the last warriors of our kind. Be damned if I’m going to stand by and watch the gallu prey on us. They’re inferior maggots. We are the children of the gods. We bow to no one.”
Stryker smiled at the confusion on the faces of his people. “It just occurred to me that no one knows who you are, my love.” Standing up, he turned her to face the crowd. “Daimons. My brothers and sisters, allow me to introduce Zephyra. My queen.”
Zephyra tensed at his proclamation. “Aren’t you being presumptuous?” she asked under her breath.
He leaned forward to whisper in her ear. “If you kill me, my people will need a leader. After this I trust you will do what’s best for them. Whether married to me or not, you are my queen and my equal. There is no one else I would trust to lead and protect my people.”
She inclined her head to him.
Stryker held his hand out toward Medea. “And this is my daughter. I trust you will all show Medea and Zephyra the respect and deference they deserve.” He quirked a wry grin. “If not, I’m sure they’ll painfully make you regret any slight you give them.”
Medea looked less than pleased by the cheers that rang out around her. But Zephyra didn’t seem to mind their adulation.
As Stryker took a step toward his daughter, Davyn returned with a gallu. He threw the demon toward the two Daimons who’d accompanied him. They set on the gallu with a fervor born of desperation and were joined by three more Daimons who helped in the feeding. The demon did his best to fight, but he was no match for the Daimons who held him down and preyed on him.
Stryker watched with a morbid fascination as the Daimons started converting. Would this work? Or would they have to put his men down?
The answer came as Davyn killed the gallu. The demon gave one last scream of pain and then died on the floor below. The first Daimon, Laeta, grabbed the soul and took it in. Her eyes glowed red as she leaned her head back and cried out.
An instant later, she rose to her feet and lifted her shirt. Her Daimon’s mark was gone.
And so were the marks from the others who’d fed on the gallu.
Stryker wanted to shout out in joy as he realized they’d found the key to their survival. The key to their salvation.
Overcome by happiness, he snatched Zephyra up and twirled around with her. “You are brilliant!” he said, laughing.
Zephyra couldn’t breathe as she saw the boy she’d loved inside the man she loathed. This was the same Strykerius who’d stolen her heart. Closing her eyes, she savored the feel of him holding her. It felt so good to be held again. To feel like she was a part of something and not just going through the motions of life. For so long she’d been numb.
But right here, right now, she felt whole. Like she’d given something to the world that mattered. And to the Daimons who no longer had to scrounge for souls she had.
She’d given them life.
And now they, like Stryker, cheered her name. It was the headiest of combinations.
Smiling, she looked down into his silver eyes that shimmered with a life force equal to her own. Part of her wanted to hold on to him forever and the other wanted to beat him for not being there for her when she needed him. For not holding her hand while she struggled to bring their baby into the world. Not teaching Medea how to walk and talk.
He’d missed everything.
The war inside her was harsh and it was painful. How could he make her feel so torn?
And while he held her, all she could remember was how safe she felt in his arms. She was strong, stronger than she ever needed to be, and yet he made her weak in the knees and the heart. Made her want to lean on him even though she was more than capable of surviving alone.
Surviving. That’s exactly what she did without him. She survived.
But with him, she lived.
In this moment, she surrendered herself to that sensation. To the sound of his laughter in her ears and the feel of his arms holding her close to that hard, perfect body. Growl ing with the ferocity of her need, she kissed him.
Stryker felt as if he could fly. He didn’t know what it was about this woman, but she set fire to his soul. She always had.
“Didn’t you two just get through doing that?” Medea asked in a surly tone.
Stryker pulled back with a laugh. “Are you going blind again, Daughter?”
“Scarred for life, thank you very much. I’m definitely going to need counseling.”
Stryker traced the shape of Zephyra’s lips before he gave her one more quick kiss. Then he looked back at his people. “Now that we know what we can do, let’s tear those bastards apart. Davyn, open the bolt holes.”
* * *
WAR STEPPED BACK AND LAUGHED AS HE watched the Daimons and the gallu tear into each other. It was absolutely beautiful.
“You are positively evil.” Ker draped one long, graceful arm over his shoulder as she watched with him. “I love it.”
It was so good to have her and Mache with him again.
“We still have the Malachai to deal with.”
She sighed nonchalantly. “We will find him. Ma’at protects him, but she can’t stand alone. I’ve been wanting a piece of her for quite some time. Have no fear. We’ll both be appeased.”
He watched as she split into ten beings.
“We’ll find him,” they said, their voices echoing. Then they took flight, leaving him alone with their source.
He sucked his breath in sharply at her ability to do that. It’d always made him hot. But there would be time for sex later. Right now they had to secure their freedom.
“Our fellow Greek gods are pulling together from other pantheons to come after us.”
“Mache will handle them. He’s already back with Eris, stirring them up against each other.”
Eris . . . the goddess of discord. War had spent many a night in her bed, too. Though not an official member of his band, she’d been useful to him from time to time.
He stiffened as an idea struck him. “Get Eris. I have a job for her.”
“And that is?”
“We need her to feed the Greek paranoia where Ma’at is concerned.”
Ker frowned. “I don’t understand.”
“We convince the Greeks that she’s going to use the Malachai to destroy them. As much as they hate anyone with ties to the Egyptians, they’ll turn on her in a minute.” He laughed again. “Think about it. Why else would she protect a Malachai unless her goal was to destroy the rest of the pantheons?”
“Because he’s the balance.”
War rolled his eyes. “You know that and I know that. But Eris can stir them up to where they won’t think of it. Now go and feed their frenzy.”
She vanished and left him to savor the scent of the bloodbath going on as the Daimons and gallu continued to clash.
This was what he’d been bred for.
It was a new world he was creating and it would just be a matter of time before he would have all of them dancing to his whims.
Now he just had one more thing to deal with and then the world would be his.