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 nak*d, 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."