"How about this? I refuse to let you go."
She gave him no quarter. "What you say against this doesn’t matter. The die is cast. I’m here and as Thorn said, the clock’s ticking. So you either deal with me or you’re going to waste so much time that we’re both sunk."
Fang scratched the back of his neck as if their argument made him uneasy. "Damn, Dev, don’t you know anything about women? You leave her behind and she’ll only find another way to follow you and probably get hurt doing it. She goes with us, at least you have a chance to protect her and you can definitely watch over her."
He clenched his teeth, wanting to choke both of them, but Fang was correct. Sam’s obstinacy knew no boundaries. "All right. You said you know where we’re supposed to go?"
Dev lifted one brow. "The Greek god of the Underworld?"
She nodded. "In plain sight on the banks of the Champs-Elysees–that’s French for the Elysian Fields"–Duh, he knew that. He’d just temporarily forgotten it.–"which is in the Underworld, also known as Hades. The Underworld has five rivers running through it. I assume one of them has the banks where the girdle is kept."
That did make more sense than what he’d been thinking and if it was in the Underworld, there would most likely be a freak whirlwind and other hazards. "What about the rest of the riddle?"
"They must be clues we’ll find once we’re there. But you’ll need me to translate them."
Dev snorted. Yeah, ’cause he was too illiterate to figure it out.
And he still wasn’t sold on taking her with him. Her safety would be a big distraction for him…as would the fact that right now all he could really think about was kissing her–once he choked her.
Hard to think straight when her mere presence, even non-corporeal, gave him a flaming hard-on.
"Couldn’t we have taken Ethon and used him to decipher it?" he mumbled under his breath.
Sam grinned. "Ethon’s not as cute."
Yeah, but if Ethon died, Dev really wouldn’t care. Hell, he might even offer him up as a sacrifice if they needed one.
Which begged the next question he asked her and Fang. "So how do we get to Hades, anyway?"
They exchanged a confused stare.
Dev cursed as a wave of nausea went through him over that look. So much for all their bravado. "You don’t know. Miss I’m-Greek-and-know-my-legends, you don’t have a clue, do you?"
She made a face at him. "I have a clue. The Underworld is located beyond the western horizon. Odysseus reached it by sailing from Circe’s Island."
Dev was impressed. Maybe they stood a chance after all. "Which is where?"
She bit her lip before she answered in a low tone. "It kind of sank and was lost. No one’s sure where it was anymore."
So much for being useful. Dev let out a short "heh" sound. "That’s what I thought. We’re in the deep end with cinder-block shoes chained on our feet and no bolt cutter." He went to the desk and picked up his phone.
Sam moved to stand right behind him. "What are you doing?"
"I’m using my help line to call in the one real expert on this subject."
Sam widened her eyes. "Artemis?"
Dev would have laughed, but he knew better. It would only offend her and if she ever made it back into her body, she’d exact revenge on him for it–and she wouldn’t be nak*d when she did it. "I don’t think she’d take my call." He paused as his expert picked up. "Hey Ash…I have a situation here."
After Dev had explained what was going on, Ash manifested into the room between him and Fang. He leveled a killing glare at Sam before he swept them with the same chilling look. "Are you people out of your ever-lovin’ minds?"
Dev gave the collective answer. "Yes." He glanced over to Sam. "But at least me and Fang are still in our bodies." He jerked his head toward Sam. "Unlike some people I can name."
Ash growled deep in his throat as he held his finger up and kept a silent beat with it that made Dev think he was counting to ten before he spoke again. The look on his face said he was trying not to break Atlantean all over them. "At least the Daimons won’t get you there. Other demons and gods might eat all your entrails, but your souls are safe." His attention went to Sam. "You I expected better of." He turned his swirling silver gaze to Dev and Fang. "You two not so much."
Dev shrugged his anger aside. Not like Ash hadn’t ever done something stupid. Hell, he’d even witnessed a few of Ash’s more award-winning moments of dumb. "You want to play tour guide with us?"
Ash sighed. "Not that easy. I can’t enter there without negotiating with Hades, who isn’t exactly keen on letting me into his space."
"Politics, and right now with Persephone not around, only an idiot would try to negotiate anything with him. He’s not in the best of moods." His gaze went back to Sam. "And as a Dark-Hunter you’re not supposed to be around any god, you know that. They will destroy you on sight and that includes your semi-real state that you’re currently in."
Before she could respond, Dev broke in. "Can’t we avoid them? How many gods are there in the Underworld anyway?"
"Oh…tons." Ash’s tone was as dry as his stare. "Hades isn’t the only one with a grim Goth fixation. He has an entire court of gods and demigods who hang out with him. Many for the sole reason they get to torture the damned, which means they possess a total lack of empathy or regard for anyone else and they’re constantly on the move in the Underworld. Chances of running into one are pretty stellar and that’s without Murphy’s Law coming into play."
Dev scratched the back of his neck as that unwanted news put a crimp in their plans. "That settles it then. Sam stays behind."
Heat suffused her cheeks. "Like hell."
But he was in no mood to back down. "Like nothing."
Her eyes blazing with fury, she stood toe to toe with him. "You’re not going without me. I won’t allow it."
Dev growled, knowing she wouldn’t give even an inch. So he turned to a reinforcement she had to listen to. "Ash, tell her to stay put."
"Can’t." Ash had drifted to the desk to look over the riddle Dev had written down.
"What do you mean?" Dev asked.
Ignoring the question, Ash picked up the paper. "Are these your clues?"
Ash rolled his eyes and let out a short, bitter laugh. "Of course they are…" He locked stares with Dev. "Thorn set your ass up, Bear. You guys don’t have to search Hades for the girdle. I can tell you right now exactly where it is."
"And that would be?"
"Down the street."
That news hit Dev like a punch. "Excuse me?"
Ash read the clues out loud. "In plain sight on the banks of the Champs-Elysees, the girdle lies hidden away. At the brink of the darkest night, the location fills your sight. To see what can never be found, look for the circle round. To reclaim that which the gods rescind, you must face mightiest Whirlwind." He turned his gaze to Sam. "You should know who the mightiest Whirlwind is. At one time, she was the guardian of the girdle."
He inclined his head to her.
Dev was more confused than ever. "Who’s Aello?"
"My grandmother’s right hand and bodyguard. She was the first one to fight Herakles when he came for the girdle and she was the first one he killed."
Dev gestured for her to elaborate. "And that’s important to this how?"
Ash returned the paper to the table. "She’s basically invincible."
"Apparently not if Hercules handed her her lunch."
Ash followed the line of his eyebrow with his middle finger. "That’s because he was wearing the skin of the Nemean Lion at the time. Anyone care to venture where they think that trophy currently is?"
Dev didn’t need to guess. He already knew. "Somewhere not good or handy and I’m sure retrieving it would be a death-defying act of courage."
Ash sarcastically rang an invisible bell with his hand. "Ding, ding, ding. Give that boy a trophy." He crossed his arms over his chest. "And without it, you won’t be wearing a cloak of invincibility when you face her like old Herc was, and I should probably add that you won’t be fighting her while she’s human…. She’s now a man-hating, angry spirit who craves blood and can’t be killed."
Dev rolled his eyes. "Well, thank you Mr. Cranky Pants, but right now, I think a more optimistic outlook would be more productive. Unless you know some way to schmooze Thorn into freeing Sam and letting me off the hook, we have to try something and as bad as this is, it’s all we got."
Ash rubbed his head like he was contracting Dev’s earlier migraine. "Yeah, that’s not going to happen. Thorn’s not real fond of me…. Fine. There’s nothing to be done until sunset."
Dev didn’t understand that. "You said it’s just down the street. Why do we have to wait?"
"In another dimension, Sparky. One you can’t access until sunset, hence the darkness line on your page."
Oh, that made sense…now. Funny how riddles seemed easy when you knew the answers. And since Ash was being so chatty…"Anything else we need to know?"
"Yeah. The circle round part?"
"What about it?"
"It refers both to the location you’ll need to travel to and to the shifting cycle."
Dev’s gut clenched at something he was sure wasn’t going to be pleasant for them. "Shifting wha–?"
Ash glanced at each one of them before he came back to Dev. "You guys are going to head into a trap maze that will constantly shift and you’ll have to navigate it to the center where Aello will be waiting to battle. Think of it like a bad video game. Just when you think you’re all right, the floor will drop out from under you and the walls will shift and leave you dizzy…or dead…and all without the extra life points."
Fang rubbed his hands together. "And will you be joining us on this fun suicide run?"
"Love to, but can’t."
"Why not?" Sam asked.
"If I go, Thorn will cry foul and refuse to honor his part of the bargain by saying you cheated with me."
Dev frowned. "Won’t he do that with Fang?"
"No. Fang’s not omnipotent. There’s a good chance Fang could get killed. With me, not so much."
Sam screwed her face up. "That’s just sick."
Ash shrugged. "No one’s going to argue anything else. Thorn doesn’t exactly have many friends."
"I’ve noticed," Fang said under his breath.
Ash inclined his head to Dev. "Remember, you have to get to the center and defeat the guardian."
"How do we get back?"
"No idea. I’ve never been inside the maze."
Dev sighed. "This would be funny if it wasn’t pathetic."
Ash cut a wide grin. "Welcome to my existence. Now if you’ll excuse me?"
"Wait!" Sam stopped him from leaving. "We still don’t know what to do to get there. You said it’s another dimension?"
Ash nodded. "Drive to the end of Elysian Fields where it connects to UNO. There’s a circle there. Stand at the outer edge, facing Pontchartrain and–"
"Won’t the Research and Tech Park interfere with the view?" Fang asked, interrupting him.
"Not for long."
Dev was still baffled. "But there’s nothing in the circle. It’s empty."
Ash held his hands up in surrender. "I didn’t create the hole. I’m just telling you how to access it. Face the park and the moment the sun sets below the horizon, the way will be shown. It’ll only last for sixty seconds. Move fast. Once the door closes, it won’t be open until the next sunset."
"Which is out of time for us," Sam said under her breath.
Ash nodded. "Good luck, guys." This time he vanished before they could ask him anything else.
Fang blew out an elongated breath before he looked over at Dev. "Since there’s nothing we can do for the next few hours, I’m cutting out of here to spend time with my wife…just in case I don’t make it back."
Sounded like a good plan to him. Fang left the room through the door. A weird move for a Were-Hunter but sometimes in their chaotic paranormal existence you just needed to be normal.
Now alone with Sam, Dev wished he could touch her. She looked so sad that it made him ache for her and all he wanted was to see her smile again. "We’ll get the girdle, babe. Trust me."
Sam wanted to believe him, but she couldn’t get her premonition out of her mind. Over and over, she saw Dev dead. It was so clear. So torturous. What would she do if he went down?
Would she be able to survive it?
"I wish you hadn’t made this bargain with Thorn."
Dev offered her the kindest, gentlest smile she’d ever seen. "We’re both fighters. You know what I do. We won’t go out lightly and we’ll find some way to defeat her. Believe in me."
If only it were that easy, but she knew the ferocity of her people. Yes, the Amazons were women and physically weaker than men. However there had never been a more skilled set of warriors assembled and Aello had been one of their best.