IN THE BEGINNING, THE WORLD WAS MADE OF beauty and of magick. Before there were humans, there were gods and those who served them and did their bidding whatever their bidding was. At war with each other, the gods fought among themselves until a new breed was born out of their senseless violence. Chthonians by name, these new creatures came from the earth that flowed red with the blood of the gods.
The Chthonians rose up and divided the world between the gods-they split the world among themselves.
To maintain the peace, the soldiers of the gods were ordered to be put down. None were to survive. Chthonian law took pre ce dence and together they were able to bring peace to the world once more and to protect the new life-form of mankind.
But the Chthonians were not without corruption. Nor were they infallible.
It wasn’t long before they bickered, too.
And so time moved forward. Mankind matured and learned to dismiss the gods and the magick that existed in their world. Unable to fight on their own, mankind chose to ignore it.
"Poppycock." "Hokum." "Fantasy." "Fairy tales." Those were some of the many words man used to denigrate that which couldn’t be explained by their so-called science. Empiricism became its own religion.
There were no shadows stalking innocent victims. It was nothing more than a human mind playing tricks. An overactive imagination.
Wolves can’t turn into humans and humans can’t turn into bears. All the ancient gods are dead-relegated to mythological tales that we all know are untrue.
And yet . . .
What was that sound outside the window just now? Was it the howling of the wind? A stray dog perhaps?
Or something more sinister? Something truly predatorial?
The subtle hair rise on a neck could very well be nothing more than goose bumps. Or it could be the sensation of the dead walking near. The sensation of the hand of an unseen god or servant passing through.
The world is no longer new. It’s no longer innocent.
And the old ones grow tired of being ignored. The winds that whispered through the yard earlier weren’t the tender caress of a climate change. They were a siren’s call that can only be heard by certain preternatural species.
Even now, those forces gather and unite.
This time, they want something more than the blood of the gods and one another.
They want us . . .
And we are at their mercy.
STRYKER PAUSED AS HE LOOKED AROUND TARtarus. His father, the Greek god Apollo, had brought him here once, eons ago, when he’d been a small child to meet his great-uncle Hades, who ruled the Greek Underworld and oversaw the ancient dead. On that day his father had also bestowed a rare and beneficial gift on Stryker. The ability to come and go from the Underworld so that Stryker could visit his uncle. As a child, Stryker had been terrified of the dark god whose eyes had only softened when he looked at his wife, Persephone.
Luckily, Persephone was here with Hades now and the god was too occupied by her to notice the fact that there was an uninvited demigod in his domain. Hades could be extremely temperamental over such insults.
Especially when the uninvited demigod carried a vial of potent blood with him. More to the point, Typhon’s blood. The son of the primordial god Tartarus, whose name was given to this very part of Hades’ domain, Typhon was deadly and lethal. His power enough to take down even Zeus, the king of the gods. At least until the Olympian gods had banded together to trap Typhon under Mount Aetna.
"Thank you for not being able to kill him," Stryker said, holding the vial up so that he could see the luminescent purple blood he’d taken from the trapped Titan. With this, Stryker could wake the dead and bring back the most potent of scourges.
Gripping the vial tightly, Stryker headed to the lowest part of Tartarus. This level was relegated to the beasts and gods that the Olympians had defeated. To the ones they feared above all others.
But it was the tomb in the back Stryker had accidentally found as a child that drew him now. In the darkness around him, he could still see the look of fear in his father’s eyes. . . .
"What’s that, Father?" Stryker had pointed up at the statues of two men and one woman.
Apollo had knelt down by his side. "They are what’s left of the Machae."
"The spirits of battle." Apollo had pointed to the tallest in back. Huge in stature and built like a warrior, the statue had made a seven-year-old Stryker gasp in fear of his coming to life to hurt him. "That is War. The fiercest of the Machae. He was created by all the gods of war to kill the Chthonians. It’s said that he and his minions pursued them to the brink of extinction. In one final battle that lasted for three full months, War held the last of the Chthonians down until they tricked him. Beleaguered, he screamed mightily as his powers were bound by spell and then he was cast into his current stasis. Here he remains until someone reawakens him."
It had seemed a rather harsh punishment to Stryker’s boyish mind. Ignoble and cruel. "Why did the gods not kill him?"
"We weren’t strong enough. Even with our powers combined, we still lacked the ability to end his life."
None of that had made sense to Stryker at the time. "I don’t understand why the gods fear the Chthonians so. They are human."
"With the powers of gods, child. Never forget that. They alone can kill us without destroying the universe and return our essence to the primary source that birthed us."
"Then why don’t the Chthonians kill all the gods and replace them?"
"Because when they kill us it weakens their own powers and makes them vulnerable to each other and to us. So instead they police us and we obey out of fear of dying." Apollo had looked back at War then, his eyes harboring a morbid fascination. "War alone was immune to their powers. Unfortunately, he’s also immune to ours. When Ares and the other war gods realized how powerful he was, they decided it was best that he remain hidden here for the rest of eternity."
"Did they not understand his power when they made him?"
Apollo had ruffled Stryker’s short blond hair. "Sometimes we don’t realize how destructive our creations are until it’s too late. And sometimes those creations we make turn on us and seek only to kill us even though we loved and succored them."
Stryker clenched his teeth at the memory of his father’s words. How true they’d proven. Stryker had turned on his father and his son had turned on him.
Here they all were. At war.
War . . .
Stryker opened the dank tomb that smelled of fresh earth and mold. He held his hand up and used his powers to light the cobwebbed torches that hadn’t been lit in centuries. The light was bright as it flickered against the walls and the remains of the last three Machae.
He paused by the woman. Petite and frail in appearance, Ker was the personification of cruel, violent death. Merciless and able to multiply herself into numerous she-demons called the Keres, she’d once haunted battlefields and ripped the souls out of the dying. It had been her powers that had inspired the Atlantean goddess Apollymi to save the cursed Apollites and give them a chance to circumvent Apollo’s unjust curse.
All hail Ker for her powers. . . .
The next statue was the spirit Mache. Battle. The right hand of War. It was the plural of his name that had been given to all the spirits of conflict. He was their backbone.
But compared to War, he was weak.
Like Ker, he was only a by-product of the one destructive force that Stryker sought.
A slow smile curled his lips as he stepped past the two lesser beings to approach the one he needed to awaken. No longer a giant to him, War was actually several inches shorter-which, given the fact that Stryker was six foot eight, wasn’t surprising. War’s body was as heavily muscled as Stryker remembered from eleven thousand years ago. Even in stasis, War’s presence and power were awe inspiring and undeniable. Stryker could feel it in the air. Feel it from the chills that went down his spine in warning. This creature meant death to any who crossed his path. Dressed as an ancient soldier, the god wore a cuirass decorated with the head of Echidna.
Stryker reached out to touch War. The moment Stryker’s fingers brushed the stone, light flashed through the room, turning the white marble to flesh. The cuirass was made of steel overlaid with gold, and a gold-studded black leather battle skirt and cloak completed the fearsome ensemble. The sword in War’s hands that was halfway out of its black leather sheath flashed to steel.
Black eyes bored into Stryker.
Then all returned to marble. White. Cold. Eerily pristine. War was again asleep and yet Stryker could feel his consciousness rippling in the air around him. War was salivating for release.
"You want out," Stryker whispered to the spirit. "I want revenge against a god I can’t touch." He pulled the cork from the vial and lifted it. "From the blood of the Titans to the blood of the Titans, I, Strykerius, return you to form in exchange for one act against my enemies."
He tilted the vial so that the purple blood only marked his fingertip. The feral power of it burned his flesh. Yes, Typhon’s blood was as potent as the once-feared god. His eyes narrowing, Stryker wiped the pad of his finger over the lips of the dormant spirit. "Do you accept my terms, War?"
The lips alone turned to flesh. "I accept."
"Then welcome back to the living." Stryker poured the blood into the spirit’s mouth.
The moment he did so, a violent shout rang out, extinguishing the torches and drowning them in darkness. "NO!"
Stryker laughed at Hades’ indignant cry. It was already too late. A vicious wind cut through the room as War came to life with a battle cry so fierce it echoed through the chamber and caused the caged damned around them to cringe. The torches exploded back to life, flooding the room with so much light that Stryker had to shield his eyes.
Hades appeared with Ares by his side. The gods tried to blast War, but it was futile.
War laughed before he returned their attack. The force of it sent them scattering to the ground like leaves in a storm. The joy in his black eyes said the spirit took great plea sure in his cruelty. His lips twisting into a smile, War turned to face Stryker. "Who do I kill for you?"
"Acheron Parthenopaeus and Nick Gautier."
War sheathed his sword. "Consider it done."
Stryker caught his arm as he started to vanish. "One word of caution, the world isn’t what it used to be." He handed the spirit a small messenger bag that contained a pair of black jeans, a black shirt, and boots. "You might want to lose the skirt and armor. Just a thought."
War sneered at him, but in the end, he took the clothes and vanished. Stryker turned toward the gods. Ares had been knocked unconscious while Hades shook his head to clear it.
The dark god of the Underworld glowered his dis plea sure and rage as he stood over Ares, trying to revive him. "Have you any idea of what you’ve unleashed?"
Stryker was ambivalent to his condemnation. "Cruelty, pestilence, wrath, violence, ultimate suffering . . . what other gifts did the gods bestow on him?"
"You hit the highlights. But before you released him, you should have bothered to learn that he always destroys the one who commands him. You won’t be an exception." Hades gestured toward the room. "Look around you. This hole we call Tartarus is all that’s left of the primordial god. His death at the hands of War is what caused all the pantheons to combine their powers with the Chthonians’ to contain him. And that was back in the day when we were worshiped and held our full powers. We’re not that strong anymore."
Well, there was something Stryker hadn’t bothered to contemplate. Not that it mattered. He was more than ready to lay down his life-provided he took his enemies with him. "Oops," he said, his voice thick with sarcasm. "Guess I screwed up. Inability to see the consequences of our thoughtless acts must run in the family. So much for my father being a god of prophecy, huh?"
Hades’ eyes turned bright red. "He will destroy the humans."
Stryker sneered at him. "I didn’t see you standing up to defend the Apollite race when my father cursed us to feed off each other’s blood and die painfully when we were only twenty-seven years old because a handful of Apollites had killed his worthless whore. As I recall, all of you turned your backs and left us to the darkness like rats you wanted to forget existed."
Hades shook his head. "I would kill you, but a better fate is to leave you to the thing you just unleashed. I’ll see you back here when you’re no longer living."
Stryker didn’t comment as he watched Hades rouse Ares. Bored with them both, he returned to Kalosis, which was where he’d go after his death. The Atlantean hell realm had been his home since the day he’d turned his back on his father and sided with the goddess who ruled this domain. Apollymi owned his soul. He’d gladly consigned it to her on the day his father had cursed Stryker’s entire race for something only a handful of soldiers had done.
Stryker wanted nothing to do with the Greeks ever again.
Bitterly amused by the fact that Apollymi would most likely enjoy his eternal torture even more than Hades, Stryker returned to his office, where he kept the sfora orb that would allow him to spy on his enemy. At least on Acheron.