CHAPTER 12

STRYKER COULDN’T BREATHE AS HE SAW A FACE that had been relegated to his memories. Ethereal and pale, Tannis was as beautiful as her mother had been. White blond hair framed a face that was perfect and frail.

Unconsciously, he took a step toward her.

Ash caught his arm and pulled him to a stop. “It’s a trick.”

Nick shook his head as he started forward. “Mom?”

Ash let go of Stryker to grab at Nick. Furious, the man snapped around and moved to slug him hard. Ash ducked, then shoved him back. “Get a grip, Nick. War is playing on our emotions.”

“Why did you let me die, Acheron?”

Ash went completely still as he heard Ryssa’s voice speaking the flawless Greek of his childhood.

Her pale hair was caught up in blue ribbons that matched the ancient Greek gown she wore—the very dress she’d been wearing the night the Apollite soldiers had brutalized her and ended her life. “I called out for you to help me, akribos, but you didn’t answer me. You never came.”

Guilt shredded him. He tightened his grip on Nick’s shirt, needing the stability of his old friend to hold his resolve. “You’re not real,” he snarled.

She moved forward to touch him with a hand so warm it belied the paleness of her hollow form. “You’re still the child catching sunbeams in his hand, aren’t you? Come with me, Acheron. I can keep you safe from this world that wants no part of you.”

Bitter ache and loss welled up inside him as every part of his being wanted to go to Ryssa and have her comfort him. No longer was he a god of infinite power. That one touch reduced him to the boy who’d only wanted to feel the comfort of a loving touch. The boy who’d worshiped his older sister . . .

“Nicky?”

Ash winced at the sound of Cherise’s voice. Tears glistened in Nick’s eyes, but to his credit, he kept them from falling.

Dressed in the same creme dress they’d buried her in, Cherise stood quietly in the darkness. Her face showed no signs of the violence that had ended her life. She looked just as real and whole as the last time Ash had seen her waiting for Nick to come walk her home from work. “Come to your mama, cher. It’s been too long since I last held my baby boy.”

“Papa? Is that you? I’m scared, Papa. I don’t understand what’s happening to me. Please help me.”

Stryker shook his head to clear it as every paternal instinct he had demanded he comfort his child. This was the girl he’d held in his arms and rocked to sleep. The woman whose hand he’d held as she screamed for mercy the entire day her body had decayed into dust.

She ran at him. “Papa?”

Growling, he ducked and spun away from her. She stared at him in confusion.

“Are they real?” Stryker asked Acheron.

Ash was still holding Nick back. “I don’t know.”

Cherise touched Ash’s shoulder. “Of course I’m real, cher. Don’t be playing with me like this.” She tsked at Ash. “You still too skinny, child. You need some of my hash browns to fatten you up.”

“Mama?” Nick shoved Ash back so that he could wrap his arms around her. The moment he did, she screamed in agony and faded into the mist.

“Akribos?” Ryssa said as she approached Ash slowly. “Why does it hurt now?” Then she, too, screamed out.

Tannis’s cries joined hers as she fell to her knees and covered her ears with her hands.

“What’s happening?” Nick looked as bewildered as Stryker felt.

Without answering, Stryker ran to Tannis to help her, but she vanished before he could reach her.

Bitter laughter echoed around them. “You didn’t think I just held Menyara and Medea, did you?”

Stryker curled his lip as War materialized in front of them. “What is this?”

“This is the butcher telling the sheep to lie down at his feet.” He held his hand out and Ker appeared by his side with her wings spread wide as she smiled snidely at them. “I think you guys forgot that Ker is the goddess of cruel and violent death. Your women all died horribly—”

“And are subject to her.” Ash cursed. “That’s why we had to meet here. Ker’s a Greek goddess and couldn’t have touched them except in a cemetery where the doorway between this realm and their final resting places is an open channel.” He looked at Nick. “She’s pulled their souls out and is holding them.”

Stryker resisted the urge to be an “I told you so.” “What do you want?” he asked War.

A wry grin taunted them. “Simple, really. Your lives.”

Stryker returned that look with one of his own. “And you’ll release them.”

“Of course.”

All three of them shook their heads. They knew better. Stryker met Ash’s gaze, then Nick’s. He saw the same determination in their eyes that he was sure he had in his. As painful as it was, they weren’t here to fight for the dead.

They were here to fight for the living.

Inclining his head to Ash, Stryker held his hands up and blasted War with his powers. Ash joined him.

“Kat!” Ash shouted, summoning the others.

They appeared instantly.

War laughed as Ker multiplied and a bright flash lit the entire cemetery. The ground below them shook, knocking all of them off their feet.

“Stryker!” Ash shot a blast at him.

Instinctively, he rolled out of the way, thinking Ash had intended to hit him. It was only after it passed him that he realized Ash was aiming for a demon. Stryker flipped to his feet and ran for War.

He didn’t make it. Two of the Keres caught him about the waist and threw him back to the ground. There were hundreds of them. Overwhelmed, he glanced to Katra who was being beaten down by them. As she reached to drain one, three more would appear.

He felt the color fade from his skin as he saw the same realization on Ash’s face that he felt.

They couldn’t win this.

Not with Ker in the fight. Her ability to replicate negated anything they could do. The Greek gods were surrounded. Both Ash and Nick were pinned down every bit as badly as he was.

War laughed, his voice ringing out. “Bow down to me and I might let some of you live . . . as my slaves.”

ZEPHYRA CAME OUT OF HER CHAIR AS SHE SAW the imminent death of Stryker. “No,” she breathed, her heart shattering. She couldn’t lose him now. Not after she’d just learned to love him again.

She looked up at the ceiling as anger burned through her. The gods had played with their lives enough. “You bitches better back off my man,” she growled at the Fates.

Her resolve set, she went to Apollymi to do the one thing she’d sworn she’d never do . . . beg a favor.

TORY PACED THE SMALL AREA IN FRONT OF SAVitar’s office while Simi and Xirena watched TV. She had a bad feeling that she couldn’t shake. Something was wrong, she knew it.

A fissure went through the hallway. Turning, she hoped to find Acheron there. Instead, it was a woman whose head didn’t even reach Tory’s shoulders. Tory stepped back, ready to battle her.

“Relax,” the woman snapped. “My name is Zephyra and I’m Stryker’s wife.”

Tory gaped at the angry-sounding declaration. “Why are you here?”

“Our men are about to die, and if you’re even half the woman I’m sure you are, you’ll want to help me save them.”

She had a moment’s hesitation as she realized that this could very well be a trap of Stryker’s. But Zephyra’s demeanor was too sincere and there was fear in her eyes Tory was sure couldn’t be faked. “Absolutely.”

“Then come.” She held her hand out.

Tory didn’t hesitate to take it. In the next moment, they were in New Orleans again. That wouldn’t have been so bad had they not landed in the middle of a blood bath.

Gasping, she ducked as a screaming bird woman dove at her head.

Zephyra growled as she manifested a sword to fight the Keres with. “Jared!” she called, summoning her slave to her side.

He appeared instantly.

“Save Stryker.”

His eyes glowed red as he saw Nick fighting. He headed for him.

“Stop!” she shouted. “Leave him be. Your only focus is War and keeping Stryker and my daughter safe.”

His skin marbled red and black as he flashed to his true form. Snarling, he showed her his fangs. “The Malachai—”

“Obey me.”

Jared hissed, but in the end, he had no choice except to do as she commanded.

Nick did a double-take when he saw Jared heading for War. The Keres tried to bring him down, but instead of falling as the rest of them did, Jared stood his ground. He manifested a tall staff and used it to drive the Keres back.

Nick watched and then imagined a similar weapon for himself. To his amazement, it appeared. He felt the power of it vibrating down the wood. Acting on instinct, he swung it at the Keres. As soon as it connected, it dissolved them.

So this was one of his powers . . .

Stryker paused as he watched Nick taking out some of their enemies. At least until he saw Zephyra. Then he could think of nothing except getting to her.

Before he could take a step, War seized her and pulled her toward the Italian monument.

They were just about to head out of sight when Savitar appeared behind them and headbutted War. Zephyra turned on War with a kick so fierce that Stryker felt the impact of it. As War reached for her, Stryker was there to catch him and shove him back.

Ash grabbed him while he was off balance and Katra flashed in behind him. She kicked War.

Cursing, War slammed her to the ground and wrenched his arm free.

Stryker caught him. “Where’s Medea?”

He laughed. “Kill me and she dies, too.”

“Mache has them,” Ash said. “He’s the only one missing.”

Stryker slugged War. “Where?”

War kicked Stryker away from him as a dozen Keres moved in to attack.

“How do we stop them?” Stryker asked Ash and Savitar.

“We have to find the one true Ker,” Savitar said. “Stop her and the others will fall.”

Stryker scoffed. “Care to tell me which one she is?”

“That one,” Zephyra said, pointing to the one attacking Nick.

Stryker scowled. “How do you know?”

“Instinct.”

Perhaps, but it wasn’t until Ker headed for Tory that Stryker saw his opening. He exchanged a knowing look with Ash before they rushed Ker together.

As soon as they had Ker on the ground, the others vaporized. War shrieked in outrage before he sent a blast at Tory. Jared intercepted it. He hissed as it smoldered through his body and sent him to his knees. Nick attacked then, rushing for Wars.

Ker bit Stryker. He reached for her throat, but before he could choke her, Ash had her subdued.

War was another matter. He wouldn’t go down. Not for any of them.

Ash shook his head at Savitar. “Three months to subdue him, you said.”

Savitar nodded.

Stryker cursed. “I don’t have three months.”

“Me neither.” Stryker frowned at the childish demon’s voice as Acheron’s demon Simi appeared. She slammed something against War, who snarled at her.

Stryker pulled the demon back before War could hurt her. War reached for him, but the moment he did, his hand turned to stone. Frowning, Stryker watched as it crawled up the god’s arm all the way to his body until he was nothing more than a frozen statue whose face was a mask of fury.

“What is that you hit him with?” Zephyra asked Simi.

“Aima,” Acheron answered. It was the same substance Stryker had once used to freeze him. Hopefully, War didn’t have any friends who’d be willing to bring him the antidote after this.

Wiping her hands together, Simi grinned. “Your mama-akra sent that to you, akri to hurt the heathen-god. Now it’s Dimonique time. The Simi can’t be bothered with no Greek god messing with the one who pays the plastic bills.” She held her hand out to Ash. “Can the Simi have that black metal card she loves so much?”

Ash pulled his wallet out with a short laugh. “Sure, baby.” He handed over the black American Express card.

“But where’s Medea?” Zephyra asked.

They all looked to Jared who held Ker on the ground.

“I’ll never tell you,” she snarled.

Zephyra’s heart stilled at those words and the thought of never seeing her child again. “Jared? Do something.”

She saw the re sis tance in his eyes before he let out a long, tired breath. “Nim? Human form.”

His demon pulled out from under his collar to take the form of a small adult male. The instant he saw Simi, he ran and tripped.

“Nim!” Jared snapped. “She won’t harm you.”

Nim looked less than convinced as he crawled on the ground to the other side of Jared. He crouched beside him. “What does Jared need?”

He met Zephyra’s gaze. “Find Medea.”

“Why can’t you just pull the information out of her?” Zephyra asked Jared.

“There are too many voices in her head speaking too many languages for me to differentiate any real words. She’s blocking me on purpose.” He looked at Nim. “Find Medea for me.”

“Nim’s eyes glowed red as he touched Ker and she shrieked in anger. “Medea in the hole with that god who died.”

“What hole, Nim?”

“Deep one in the ground.”

Sucking her breath in sharply, Zephyra started for the demon. “This is worthless.”

Stryker pulled her to a stop. “I think I know where they are.” He glanced past her to where Hades stood. “Tartarus.”

Her throat tightened as she realized the significance of that. Once taken there, no one could leave without Hades’s permission.

Zephyra turned to look at the god of the Underworld.

“I owe you nothing,” Hades spat at Stryker.

“But that’s not true of me,” Acheron said as he stepped forward. “Let them go, Hades.”

A tic worked in Hades’s jaw. “Ma’at I can’t keep anyway. Her soul doesn’t belong to me.”

Ash narrowed his gaze. “What about Medea?”

Hades growled. “Take her. But this clears our slate. Understood?”

Somehow that seemed too easy to Zephyra. “What about Mache?”

Hades laughed evilly. “If your demon is right and he’s in my domain . . . he will regret it.”

Jared rose with Ker. “What of her?”

Hades glared at the spirit of violent death. “Bring her down. I have plans for her.” And by the tone of his voice, those plans weren’t pleasant ones. “Bring her down.”

Stryker took Zephyra’s hand as they followed the Greek god out of the human world and into Tartarus. Ash brought the statue of War down and returned him to the place where he’d rested for centuries. Ker was taken to a small cell and locked inside.

“I’ll deal with you later,” Hades promised.

Ker spat at him and slammed her hand against the door. “This isn’t over. I’ll be free again and we’ll celebrate your funeral march.”

Stryker ignored her threats as he looked at Nim who was clutching a small stuffed pink bunny. “Where’s my daughter?”

Nim pointed to a small door.

Unsure, Stryker started toward it, then paused as he heard an explosion so loud it temporarily deafened him.

The door slammed into the far wall where it fell back and pounded a man into the ground.

“Stop!” Hades shouted.

The door slammed into the man three more times before it obeyed him.

As the smoke cleared, Stryker saw Menyara. With her arms folded, she left the room and cast a menacing glare at Mache who was bleeding profusely while the door held him in place. “That’ll learn him to keep his hands to himself.” She turned back to her cell. “Medea, love, your parents are here.”

Acheron shook his head as he took Tory’s hand into his. “Feeling rather stupid for having worried now.”

“Don’t,” Menyara said. “Until you negated War’s powers, we were stuck here. That poor fool didn’t realize until it was too late and I had a chance to hurt him back.”

Zephyra ran to her daughter and grabbed her into a tight hug before she pulled back to make sure nothing had happened to her.

Nick stepped forward, his face troubled. “What about my mother? What did War do to her?”

Hades put his hand on Nick’s shoulder. “There’s nothing he could do. Ker could show you the souls to weaken you, but they have no power over them. Your mother is back where she belongs, as are the others.”

Ash cast his glance in the direction of the Elysian fields.

“Ryssa thinks of you,” Hades said quietly. “And she’s happy, Acheron. She doesn’t blame you at all. That was Ker playing with your emotions.”

“Thank you.”

Hades inclined his head before he looked at Stryker. When he opened his mouth to speak, Stryker held his hand up.

“I only want to know if she’s with her husband and children.”

“She is.”

“Then I’m at peace.”

Zephyra frowned at the catch in his voice that belied those words. But perhaps he was right. He couldn’t change anything, so why torture himself?

His head hung low, Nick turned to leave. Menyara went with him while Jared hung back, glaring after them.

“If he kills Nick, Jared will die, too,” Menyara’s voice echoed around them.

“What?” Zephyra said.

Menyara paused. “It’s true. So think before you send him after my Nick again.”

Zephyra narrowed her gaze on Jared. “Why didn’t you tell me that?”

His features were blank and hollow. “You know why.”

Because he wanted to die, too, and that was one thing she could never allow him to do. “For that you won’t have a moment’s freedom for your ser vice.” Zephyra squeezed Medea’s hand. “Take him to Kalosis. I’m sure your father has a hole adequate for his punishment.”

Nim took a step toward Jared, but Simi stopped him. “Wait.”

He stepped back, his face a mask of fear, unsure of her intent.

Smiling gently, she pulled a small bear out of her coffin-shaped purse and held it out to him. “It’s a Teddy Scare,” she said. “Much more fierce than your bunny.” She placed it in his hand before she flounced toward Acheron. “QVC time, akri.” She disappeared.

Jared stared after her as if amazed by her act of kindness. “You should go with Acheron, Nim.”

Nim shook his head defiantly, then returned to Jared’s body. Jared cursed. “I really hate demons.”

Medea’s gaze held a trace of sympathy before she placed her hand on his arm and took him back to his captivity.

Tory peered into the room where the statue of War was now encased. “Do you think he’ll go free again?”

Hades cut a chiding glare to Stryker. “I’m sure there’s another asshole out there who’ll free him.”

“But not this one,” Stryker said. He looked at Ash. “Thank you for your help.”

“I would say anytime, but . . .”

Stryker held his hand out to him. “Enemies forever.”

“Or at least until you learn to leave the humans and Dark-Hunters alone.”

“When you leave my Daimons alone, I’ll stop, too.”

“I can’t let the Daimons kill the humans.”

“And I can’t stand by and watch my people die over a curse my father gave them. So long as the curse stands, we hunt.”

“Then our war is far from ended.” Ash shook his hand, then took his leave with Tory.

Stryker draped his arm over Zephyra’s shoulders. “You ready to go home?”

She nodded.

Without another word, he took her back to his palace in Kalosis. As soon as they were alone, he glared at her. “You were supposed to stay out of the fight.”

“And let you get my daughter killed? Never.”

Your daughter?”

She folded her arms over her chest. “My daughter.”

“So we’re back to that, are we?”

“Absolutely. Besides, I had no intention of watching you die.”

Stryker arched a brow at that. “No?”

“No. I would much rather kill you myself.”

MENYARA PAUSED AT THE PICTURE OF CHERISE holding Nick on his first day of school. The frame was set on his nightstand next to his bed. “Your mother was so proud of you.”

Nick didn’t speak.

Turning, she watched as he grabbed a bottle of Scotch and opened it. “Did you learn anything tonight?” she asked.

“Such as?”

“How much you need to know your powers.”

He took a deep swig before he answered. “I knew that before the fight, Mennie.”

“Yes, but are you willing to learn now?”

He paused. “What do you mean?”

Her resolve shone in her eyes as she cornered him. “You are part demon and part human. In order to function in this world, you will have to be taught by someone who has powers similar to yours.”

“And that is?”

“Acheron.”

Nick scoffed. “Ash is a god.”

“Yes, but before he was a god, he was half human and half Charonte. Only he has the powers to help you.”

Stunned, Nick dropped the bottle straight to the floor where it shattered.

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