Stryker moved to stand next to Urian. He draped an arm over his son’s shoulders and kissed him on the cheek.
Urian scowled at the action and grew rigid.
"Children are the very thing we live for, aren’t they?" Stryker asked. "They bring us joy. Sometimes they bring us pain."
Urian frowned even more as his father played with the leather laces holding Urian’s blond braid.
"Of course, you’ll never understand the pain I mean, Wulf. Your son won’t live long enough to betray you."
Before anyone could move, Stryker slashed Urian’s throat with his hand that wasn’t human anymore. It was the shape of a dragon’s claw.
He shoved Urian away from him. Urian fell to the floor gasping, holding his hands against his neck to stanch the blood flow while his father faced the Dark-Hunters.
"You didn’t really think I was stupid enough to fall for this trick, did you?" His gaze bored into Wulf and when he spoke, it wasn’t Stryker’s voice he heard… it was the voice of Cassandra’s father. "I knew you would never bring me the baby. I just needed to get the guardians away from Elysia for a while."
Wulf cursed at his words as he moved to attack.
Stryker vanished into a black cloud of smoke while the Daimons attacked.
"Ak’ritah tah!" Acheron shouted.
The portal opened.
One of the Daimons laughed. "We don’t have to go through-" Before he could finish the sentence, the Daimon was violently sucked through the opening.
The others quickly followed.
Ash ran across the floor to where Urian lay in a pool of blood. "Sh," Ash breathed, covering Urian’s hands with his own.
Urian’s eyes were filled with tears as he stared up at Acheron.
"Breathe easy and shallow," Acheron said, his tone soothing and deep.
Wulf and the others watched in stunned silence as Ash healed the Daimon.
"Why?" Urian asked.
"I’ll explain later." Acheron stood up and lifted the hem of his shirt until his lean, well-defined stomach was exposed. "Simi, return to me."
The baby shot out of Wulf’s hands immediately. She turned from an infant into a tiny dragon, then laid herself over Acheron’s skin until she became a tattoo over his left ribs.
"I always wondered how your tattoo moved," Kyrian said.
Ash didn’t speak. Instead, he raised his hands.
One second they were in the Inferno, the next, they were in the middle of Elysia.
More than hell had broken loose since Wulf and Kat had left earlier. Unending screams rent the air. There were scattered bodies of Apollite men, women, and children everywhere. Apparently, they didn’t disintegrate like Daimons did unless they died on their birthdays.
Dread and fear tore through Wulf.
"Phoebe!" Urian cried, running for his apartment.
Wulf didn’t bother to call out. No one could hear above the screams. So he ran as fast as he could toward his wife and son.
Several Daimons tried to stop him. His gaze glazed by fury, Wulf cut through them.
No one would get between him and his family.
He got to the apartment to see the door had been kicked open. Shanus’s dead body was lying just inside the living room.
Wulf choked on fear until he heard fighting from his bedroom. Best of all, he heard his son’s angry squall.
Running through the room, he reached the bedroom and paused. Chris stood in the farthest corner, holding Erik against his chest. Chris’s two Apollite friends, Kyra and Ariella, stood in front of him as if they were a barrier to protect him and Erik.
Stryker and three more Daimons were attacking Kat and Cassandra, who were fighting them off with admirable flair and skill.
"You can’t hold your shield forever, Katra," Stryker growled.
Kat looked at Wulf and smiled. "I don’t have to hold it forever. I only had to hold it long enough for the calvary to arrive."
Stryker hesitated, then looked over his shoulder at the same time Wulf attacked.
Wulf killed one Daimon, then went for Stryker. Stryker turned around and blasted Wulf with a god-bolt that knocked him back into the wall.
Hissing in pain, Wulf saw movement out of the corner of his eye.
It was Ash and Zarek.
Kat immediately vanished while Stryker cursed.
Wulf and Zarek went after the last two Daimons while Ash and Stryker faced each other.
"Go home, Stryker," Ash said. "The war is over."
"It’ll never be over. Not so long as my father"-he spat the word out-"lives."
Ash shook his head. "And I thought my family was dysfunctional… Let it go. You’ve already lost. My God, you just killed your own son, and over what?"
Stryker roared with anger, then attacked Ash.
Wulf grabbed his son from Chris at the same time Zarek pulled Cassandra behind him. Wulf wanted to get them out and to safety, but they couldn’t reach the door while Ash and Stryker fought in front of it.
Stryker shot a god-bolt at Ash who took it without flinching. Instead, he gave the Daimon a blow that knocked him up into the air and slammed him against the wall.
Wulf whistled low. They all knew Ash was powerful, but he’d never seen the Atlantean do something like that.
Stryker attacked again. But for some reason, Ash didn’t kill him. The two men slugged it out as if they were humans and not…
Whatever the hell the two of them were.
His face bloody, Stryker shot another blast at Ash.
He deflected it. Ash raised his hand, and as he did so, Stryker was lifted from the floor.
Stryker shot a bolt at him that caused Ash to stagger back and release him.
The Daimon hit the ground running. He wrapped his arms around Ash and rammed him into the wall.
But before he could strike Acheron again, a yellow-fleshed demon appeared out of nowhere. Her eyes flashing, she wrapped her arms around Stryker and then vanished into nothingness.
Acheron snarled at that.
"While you’re at it, Apollymi," Ash shouted. "You better keep him there."
"What the hell are you?" Wulf asked Ash as he turned to face them.
"Don’t ask questions you don’t want answered," Zarek said. "Believe me. You’re so not ready to know the truth."
"Is Stryker gone?" Cassandra asked.
Cassandra hugged Wulf, then took Erik from his hands and held him against her shoulder to quiet him. "I know, baby," she cooed. "But the scary man is all gone."
"What grabbed the Daimon?" Kyra asked. "Where did they go?"
Ash didn’t answer. "You’re safe now, guys. At least for a little while."
"Will he be back?" Cassandra asked.
Ash gave an odd half-laugh. "I don’t know. He’s one of the few creatures beyond my powers. But like he said, it’s not over. He might be back in a few months or a few centuries. Time passes differently where he lives."
Kyrian, Talon, and Julian came into the room.
"The Daimons have all vanished," Talon said. "We killed some, but the rest…"
"It’s all right," Ash said. "Thanks for the help."
They nodded, then walked out of the bedroom, into the chaos of the living room.
"Man, it’s going to take days to clean this up," Chris said, looking around in disbelief.
Then, before their eyes, the destruction was cleared. All that was left behind were the bodies.
Zarek snorted. "You better stop while you’re ahead, Acheron."
"I’m not ahead, Z. I can’t fix what was really damaged here tonight." Ash’s gaze went to Shanus’s body.
Wulf shook his head as he picked up Shanus to carry him to the town’s center.
There were Apollites everywhere, crying and screaming over their dead.
"They didn’t deserve this," Wulf said to Acheron.
"Who does?" Ash asked.
A woman came up to Wulf. She had the bearing of royalty and it didn’t take much to ascertain who she was.
"Shanus?" she said, her eyes filling with tears.
Wulf laid the body down for her. "Are you his wife?"
She nodded as her tears glistened in her eyes. She cradled his head in her lap and wept quietly.
Cassandra moved forward. "I’m so sorry."
The woman looked up, her eyes filled with hatred. "Get out. All of you! You’re no longer welcome here. We helped you and you destroyed us!"
Zarek cleared his throat. "That might not be a bad piece of advice," he said to Wulf, looking around at the others who were directing killing glares toward them.
"Yeah," Ash agreed. "You guys help Wulf and his family get out of here. I’m going to see about someone."
Wulf knew he meant Urian. "Do you want us to wait for you?"
"No. There’ll be a couple of SUVs waiting for you topside. Head home and I’ll catch up later."
"SUVs?" Kyrian asked.
"Again, I repeat, don’t ask questions you don’t want answered," Zarek said. "Just accept the fact that Acheron is a freak of nature and let it go."
Ash cast him a droll glare. "I may be a freak, but at least I don’t throw lightning bolts at my brother."
Zarek laughed evilly at that. "At least I haven’t struck him with one… yet."
Ash watched as Zarek led the group out of the city.
He stood in the center, surveying the damage around him. He started to clear it out just as he’d done with Wulf’s house and the apartment, then stopped. The Apollites would need something to focus on other than their pain.
Rebuilding the city would take their minds off their grief. At least for a little while.
Deep in his heart, he wept along with them.
Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should…
He forced himself to walk down the corridor without yielding to the need inside to fix everything.
By the time he’d reached Urian’s apartment, Ash was disgusted by the bloodshed Stryker had wrought in the name of Apollymi.
There was no sense in this, but then she was the Goddess of Destruction. And it was why he had to make sure she was never released from her prison.
Ash found Urian on his knees in the center of the living room. The man held a small gold locket in his hands as he wept silently.
"Urian?" Ash said in a low, steady tone.
"Go away!" he snarled. "Just leave me alone."
"You can’t stay here," Ash said. "The Apollites will turn on you."
"Like I care." He looked up and the empathetic pain Ash felt from Urian made him take a step back. It had been a long time since Ash had come into direct contact with so much hopeless grief. "Why didn’t you let me die too? Why did you save me?"
Ash took a deep breath as he explained it to Urian. "Because if I hadn’t, you would have sold your soul to Artemis over this and killed your father."
"You think I’m not going to kill him over this?" He turned on Ash with a growl. "There’s nothing left of her. Nothing! I don’t even have anything to bury. I…" His words broke off as he sobbed.
"I know," Ash said, placing his hand on Urian’s shoulder.
"You don’t know!"
Ash gripped his chin and lifted it until their gazes locked. "Yes, Urian, I do know."
Urian struggled to breathe as he saw images flickering through Ash’s swirling silver eyes. There was so much pain in them, so much agony and wisdom.
It was hard to maintain eye contact with him.
"I don’t want to live without my Phoebe," Urian said, his voice breaking on the words.
"I know. For that reason, I’m giving you a choice. I can’t lock on to your father to monitor him. I need you to do that. Because sooner or later, he’ll be back after Apollo’s lineage."
"Why would I protect them? Phoebe died because of them!"
"Phoebe lived because of them, Urian. Remember? You and your father were responsible for killing her entire family. Did you ever tell Phoebe it was you? You? Who killed her grandmother? Or her cousins?"
Urian looked away shamefaced. "No. I would never have hurt her."
"Yet you did. Every time you, your father, or one of your Spathis killed one of her family, she felt the pain you feel now. Her mother’s and sisters’ deaths tore her apart. Isn’t that why you saved Cassandra to begin with?"
Ash stepped away from him while Urian wiped his tears away.
"You said I had a choice?"
"The other is that I will erase your memories of everything. You’ll be free of all of this. All your pain. The past, the present. You can live as if none of this had ever happened to you."
"Will you kill me if I ask it?"
"Do you really want me to?"
Urian stared at the floor. To most people, his thoughts would be unknown. But Ash knew them. He heard them as clearly as he heard his own.
"I’m no longer a Daimon, am I?" Urian asked after a brief pause.
"No. Nor are you an Apollite, exactly."
"Then what am I?"
Ash took a deep breath as he spoke the truth. "You are unique in this world."
Urian didn’t like that any more than Ash liked being unique. But some things could never be changed.
"How much longer will I live?" Urian asked.
"You’re immortal, barring death."
"That doesn’t make sense."
"Most of life doesn’t."