"I’m sure there are women you pay to see you nak*d. Perish the thought, but I’m not one of either group. Now hush while I think."
Stryker was amused by their bantering. He’d never seen Apollymi quite so animated. Or Savitar flustered. Any other time, he’d goad them into continuing, but they had too much to do for him to play Loki.
Jared stepped back. "While you plan and plot, I have a Malachai to kill." He vanished.
Savitar sighed. "I really don’t think Acheron is going to approve of that action."
"No," Apollymi agreed. "I would send you after him, but I don’t want Apostolos angry at me."
Savitar let out an elongated breath. "You know we have to stay on guard. War’s modus operandi is to divide and conquer. He turns all friends into enemies."
Stryker rolled his eyes. "Well, since the three of us hate each other, there’s not much more he can do."
Apollymi gave him a hard stare. "I don’t hate you, Stryker. I would have never brought you into my realm if I had." She vanished.
Stunned and uncertain about those uncharacteristic words, Stryker followed her. The one thing he’d learned over the centuries was that Apollymi was even less sentimental than he was.
Then again, there was another side to him in private that no one else saw, and it made him wonder what secrets she held.
She’d adjourned to her secluded garden that was walled in by marble. Black roses bloomed all around in memory and in mourning of the son she could never see. Her two Charonte bodyguards stood on the side like statues. But for an occasional blink, it would be easy to think them dead.
"What are you saying?" he asked her as she took a perch on the edge of the pool that flowed backward, up the wall.
"I’m tired, Strykerius." She got up to leave.
He did what he’d never done before. He pulled her to a stop. "I want an answer from you."
She shrugged his touch away. "How dense you are, child. In all your hatred have you never once thought through our relationship?"
"Believe me, these last few years I’ve done nothing but. You used me and then you cast me off."
She shook her head. "I adopted you, Strykerius. When your children died, I wept with you."
"The hell you did."
She pulled back the sleeve of her gown to show him her wrist. There were eleven black teardrops tattooed into her skin. It was the Atlantean custom to remember loved ones who’d died. "The one at the top is for my son. The rest are for your children."
He touched her arm, unable to believe her. "What about Urian? You told me to kill him."
"I told you your son had a secret that you should investigate. That he was keeping things from you. I never intended for you to kill him. You did that on your own."
"I don’t believe you."
"You don’t have to. I really don’t care anymore. I would end both our lives at this point, but until I know for a fact that War is contained and my son is safe, I’m stuck here."
Her silver eyes flashed in the dim light. But he saw the pain that she hid so elegantly. "I didn’t say that."
"Your tone did."
She let out an aggravated breath. "You are so blind. Everything is black or white. I either hate you or love you. But that’s not how it goes. Life is never that clear-cut. Emotions aren’t that clear-cut." She touched him softly on the cheek. "Think, Strykerius. You and I were an allied force for thousands of years. Us against your father and Artemis. Against her army of Dark-Hunters and the humans we both hate. The only one I ever forbade you to touch was Apostolos, and now you know why. He is my son. But even so, I sheltered you and yours. I brought you in and taught you how to steal the humans’ souls."
"So that you could hurt my father for killing Acheron."
She inclined her head respectfully. "That is true. Originally, I couldn’t see anything more than my own revenge. But I watched as your children grew . . . as you grew, and I watched as they died. Do you really think me so cold that never once did I care?"
"Yes, I do. You killed your own family. All of them."
Her face turned to stone. It betrayed no emotion or passion. "I held the same anger then that you held the night you cut Urian’s throat. No, I held even more. Their betrayal against me was far greater than what your son did to you. What Urian did he did out of love for a woman. He wasn’t trying to hurt you. He was only trying to find happiness for the two of them and he meant you no slight. What my family did to me was out of selfish fear. They united against me to imprison me and kill my son. That is unforgivable."
She paused as the pain in her eyes flared bright and he saw how much she still ached over what had happened. "But just like you, after they were all gone and I was alone, I grieved for what I’d done. I missed that family, sorry though it was, and I wanted to see them again."
She looked over her shoulder to where her demons were still standing at attention. "While I cherish my Charonte army, it wasn’t the same as my family." She turned her attention to him and her gaze softened. "And then this goldenhaired youth called out to me as he begged the powers that be for some way to save his small children from an unfair fate. He reminded me of my own son and so I offered to him what I’d never offered to another." The tenderness vanished under the cold countenance that was so familiar. "I bound my life to you in order to save you. The only time you and I were ever at odds was when I ordered you to leave Apostolos alone and you refused to do so."
"You failed to tell me he was your son."
"Because I knew it would hurt you," she said between clenched teeth. "Why else would I have kept that a secret?"
"You were trying to control me."
"I never," she snarled. "I turned you loose to wreak revenge against your father. I opened my entire realm to your kind and allowed you to take refuge here. Every Dark-Hunter you killed, every human life you destroyed, I took pride in it as any mother would."
Still, he refused to believe her. She’d been using him . . .
And yet he remembered the way they’d been over the centuries. She’d always welcomed him into her private chambers. Always welcomed his company.
He missed that more than he wanted to admit to himself.
"Why haven’t you told me this before now?"
She sighed. "Because I would rather you hate me for Urian’s death than hate yourself. No parent should ever know such grief."
"I don’t believe you."
"Then don’t. We both know compassion isn’t my strong suit. I barely understand it." She raked him with a cool glance. "I barely understand you." She gathered the skirts of her black gown and walked past him.
Stryker watched her as her words echoed in his ears. She might not understand compassion, but she did know how to love. Her uncompromising protection and sacrifice for Acheron was beyond reproach. It was what had set Stryker’s jealousy off and made him turn against her.
He’d wanted her to love him like that.
Stryker winced at the undeniable truth. He’d been taken out of his mother’s womb before he was born and given over to Apollo’s priestesses to raise. While they’d never been cruel where he was concerned, they’d all been afraid of him. He’d never known a real mother.
Not until Apollymi.
Even so, he wasn’t sure if he could trust her. Did he dare? But for all her malice, he’d never known her to lie. She might omit things, but she didn’t come straight out and lie. . . .
Closing his eyes, he ground his teeth as pain assailed him. It was hard to be responsible for so many and to have no one he could fully trust.
Gods, how tired he was of being alone in the universe. Of standing strong all the time.
Not wanting to dwell on that, he left the garden to return to where his men were still tending to the wounded and killing those who were converting.
"Are we at war, my lord?"
He looked at Ann, a small, beautiful blond Daimon female, and nodded. "The demons are no longer welcomed here. We extended our hands in friendship and they repaid us in bloodshed." Little surprise really, a demon was a demon. He should have known better than to think they could ever combine forces with the gallu. "But that’s all right. What we lack in numbers we make up for with vicious and cunning. We are Daimon and we are Spathi. Now let us show those bastards what we can do."
His men shouted in approval.
Savitar laughed behind him.
Stryker cast him an angry glare. "You find something funny, Chthonian?"
"Yeah, I do. I find it hysterical that your new lease on life is named War."
He gave Savitar a look to let him know what he thought of him-not much. "At least I have a lease."
"True, but you do know what the problem with a lease is?"
"They usually run out sooner than later. And if you’re not paying close attention to the fine print, you always get burned."
"You’re not scaring me."
"Don’t want to scare you. But if I were you, I wouldn’t leave my women out in the open too long while I trifle down here. War has a nasty way of spilling over into peaceful areas, if you catch my meaning."
A bad feeling went through Stryker. Surely War wouldn’t . . .
Of course he would.
His heart hammering, Stryker knew he had to get to Medea and Zephyra before it was too late.
ZEPHYRA LOOKED UP FROM HER DESK AT THE sound of a light tapping on her door. "Come in, love," she said, knowing by the sound of it that it would be Medea.
Sure enough, she pushed the door open to peer into the room. "Am I disturbing you?"
"No, baby. I was just straightening up a bit."
Medea arched one brow at that. Zephyra couldn’t blame her. She was, after all, horrifyingly tidy on her worst day. But it was a ner vous habit she had. Whenever things were confusing, she had a compulsive need to clean what she could.
"How’s our guest?" she asked, trying to distract her daughter from that bold scrutiny.
"Eyeing a couple of the priestesses for dinner. I’ve already warned him that they’re off the menu even though he thinks they’d be quite tasty."
"Good. I don’t want to fight Artemis on that."
Medea entered the room and closed the door. "You still love him, don’t you?"
"Love who?" she asked, trying to make light of the question. "Davyn? I don’t even know him. The only thing I love about him is his absence."
She hated how pointed Medea could be at times. "I don’t love him, either," she said dismissively. "I can barely stand his presence."
"And yet you light up every time he looks at you."
Zephyra put a stack of papers into the garbage can. "Don’t be ridiculous."
Medea stopped her as she started for her desk again. "I know you, Matera. You’ve always been very calculated and cold. For centuries I’ve worried that my stupidity had killed something inside you."
She frowned at her daughter. "What stupidity?"
"Living with the humans. Being naive enough to think that so long as we didn’t harm them, they wouldn’t harm us. I still remember what you said to me a few weeks before they attacked us. ‘You can’t tame a wolf and expect it to lie before your hearth in harmony. Sooner or later, the nature of the beast sets in and it does what its instincts tell it-it kills.’ I thought then that you were talking about us, but you weren’t. And after we were attacked-after you were almost killed trying to save me-something inside you died. That piece of sympathy for others. The ability to have mercy."
It was true. Any belief she’d had in the world, in kindness or so-called humanity, had died alongside her grandson. Kill the monster. Rip out his heart so he doesn’t kill us.
Five years old . . . no monster. Just a child, screaming for his parents to save him. For his grandmother to make them stop hurting him. She’d done her best to protect them all and the sad truth was her best hadn’t been good enough. They’d dragged him down and clubbed him to death.
Her baby’s baby.
She had died that night, and it was a sad, hollow core that was now her heart.
"Life is hard," she said with a calmness she didn’t really feel. She’d known it even before then. As the daughter of a fisherman, she’d been raised with hunger and poverty gnawing at her belly and dignity while her father had tried to eke out a living from the sea. His failure to do so had caused him to turn on his own family. It’d turned him into a bitter drunk who blamed them for his own failings. Blamed them for the fact that he’d had them and that they depended on him for their support. He’d hated them all and he’d never failed to show them that.
In all her life, she’d never known respect or kindness until a lean, handsome boy had stopped her on the docks.
Even now she could see the sun highlighted in his blond hair. See the admiration in those beautiful blue eyes as he’d looked at her. He’d been wrapped in the purple chiton of a nobleman that set off his young warrior’s body that was already showing the promise of the man he’d grow into.
Thinking he intended to accost her as many others had before him, including her own drunken father, she’d kneed him in the groin and run.