He’d chased her down only to apologize for scaring her.
Apologize. The son of a god to a common fishmonger dressed in rags. It’d been love at first sentence. Then when he’d taken his own cloak off to shield her from the stern sea breeze, she’d melted on the spot.
There for the briefest of times, she’d felt loved and cherished. She’d felt worth something more than dirt beneath other people’s feet.
Until Apollo had come in condemning their relationship on the grounds that she was garbage, unworthy of a demigod, and Stryker had sheepishly obeyed his father’s orders to leave her.
Anger tore through her from the memory.
"I don’t believe in fairy tales," Zephyra told her daughter.
"Yet you raised me on those stories."
Because she’d wanted her child to be a better person than she was. She hadn’t wanted to kill Medea’s innocence the way her own had been slaughtered.
"I love you, child," she whispered. "In all my life, you are the only thing that has brought me unending joy. You are the only one I would die to protect. I don’t love your father. I’m not capable of it anymore."
Medea inclined her head to her. "As you say, Mum. But I still see the light that comes on the moment he enters the room." She started to leave, then paused. "For the record, if by some miracle I could have Evander back in my life, I wouldn’t push him away. I’d hold him close for the rest of eternity."
"He didn’t abandon you when you were a fourteen-year-old girl pregnant with his child."
"True, but Evander wasn’t a fourteen-year-old boy whose father had the power to kill us both with a single thought."
Zephyra didn’t speak as Medea left her alone. It was true. Stryker had only been a boy himself and he had left her quite a bit of money to care for herself and the baby, but the shattered pieces of her heart refused to rationalize his behavior.
He should have fought for what he loved.
That was what she couldn’t forgive. Ever. No, what she couldn’t forgive was the way he’d made her feel like an insignificant worm unworthy of his love. She’d have rather he let his father kill her than to be that demoralized again. Everyone deserved dignity.
Except for Jared, and as she stood there she realized why she took so much joy in torturing him. He’d betrayed his own family, too. His fellow soldiers. When they had needed to band together, to fight for their survival, he’d been the one to hand them over to their enemies for slaughter.
She would forever hate him for that. Just as she would hate Stryker for his abandonment.
Sighing, she turned to reor ga nize the desk that she’d just or ga nized a few minutes ago. She’d only taken a step when a light flashed.
It was Stryker.
Damn if Medea wasn’t right. Her heartbeat picked up at the way he looked standing there. One lock of his black hair fell into his eyes. His features were steeled and perfect, and dusted by just the tiniest bit of whis kers. Nothing would give her more satisfaction than running her tongue down the line of his jaw and letting that shadow prick at her skin.
Anger ripped through her at the thought and the way her body betrayed the hatred she wanted to feel toward him. "What do you want?"
Stryker barely caught himself before the word "you" popped out of his mouth. It was what he wanted. All he needed. And right now, what he wanted most was to unbraid her blond hair and let it fall over his bare chest while she rode him the way she used to.
His c**k hardened painfully. That was the most difficult part about being around her. All he had to do was smell the slightest whiff of her lavender and valerian scent and he was rife with need.
Forcing himself to move on, he cleared his throat. "I need you and Medea to return with me to Kalosis."
"Do you really think that’s safer than here?"
"Since there’s an army of Charonte down there and a pissed-off goddess wanting blood, yes. Unless you know something about Artemis’s buried maternal instincts that I don’t. But honestly, I can’t see her rising to your defense any more than she’d rise to mine."
She glared at him. "I want you to know that I’m only agreeing to this to keep Medea safe. Otherwise I’d tell you to stick it where the sun doesn’t shine."
He gave her a wry grin. "Sweetie, I’m sticking you both where the sun doesn’t shine. Unlike here, there’s no daylight in Kalosis. Ever."
"You’re not funny."
"Really? I find myself quite entertaining."
Stryker didn’t comment anymore as she stepped around him to gather a few items, including makeup and lotion. A foreign tug went through him as he remembered the way she used to meticulously apply both in the morning. He’d lie in bed while she smeared the lotion on her face, then used kohl to line her eyes and a balm of henna on her lips.
There’d been nothing more pleasing to watch. It was so womanly and sweet.
"What are you staring at?" she snapped at him.
"Nothing." His voice was more curt than he meant for it to be, but he had no intention of letting her know just how tender his emotions were where she was concerned. It would give her a power over him that she didn’t need to know about.
Once she had her things gathered, he took them from her. At first she started to snatch them back. Then, without a word, she relented.
"I’ll get Medea."
"Is Davyn still in her room?"
She headed for the door. "He was walking around the grounds earlier, so I’m not sure."
He followed her down the hallway to Medea’s room and then froze as he found the two of them playing chess at her table that was set next to the window. Davyn’s face was bruised and swollen from his attack, but otherwise he appeared to be back in business.
Zephyra put her hands on her hips. "Should I be concerned that the two of you appear so cozy in here?"
Medea studied the board. "Relax, Mum. He’s actually nice for a Daimon."
Zephyra cast an arch stare at Stryker. "I think you should have a word with your man."
"He’s alone in your daughter’s bedroom with her."
"For now . . ."
Stryker laughed. "Relax, Phyra. I’d be more concerned if he were in here with my son than with my daughter. The biggest threat he poses is he might want to borrow her shoes."
Her lips formed a silent oh.
Davyn laughed as he moved his bishop. "You don’t have to worry about that, either, since she has the tiniest feet I’ve ever seen on a woman. Besides, just because I prefer men doesn’t mean I want to be a woman. Trust me."
Zephyra clapped her hands together commandingly. "All right, I need the two of you up. Medea, gather your things. We’re going to stay with your father for a bit."
She was aghast at Zephyra’s declaration. "Why?" she asked Stryker.
He bristled under her tone. "I’m your father. You don’t question me."
She shot to her feet.
Zephyra sighed aloud. "Medea, stop your anger and do as he says." She turned to face Stryker with an evil glare. "And you need to remember that she’s the daughter you’ve never met. Not one of your soldiers to be ordered about."
Davyn rose more slowly. "If it makes you feel better, Medea, his tone was much nicer when he barked at you than when he barks at us."
Stryker cut a murderous look in his direction. "You need to stay out of this."
"Yes, my lord."
Medea paused by her mother’s side. "I don’t see why we have to run from demons."
"Not demons, love. War. And we’re not running. We’re strategically taking the high ground so that we can hold him off until we find his weakness. Now get your things."
NICK JUMPED AS HE WALKED PAST A MIRROR and caught sight of himself. "Holy shit," he breathed. His skin was blood red and covered with ancient black symbols. But it was his face that held him paralyzed.
His hair was black, streaked with red that came down into his face. Black lines cut across both his eyes and down his cheeks. His ebony eyes flashed red.
Stunned, he looked down to see his arms and hands were also red marked by black.
"What the hell is going on?"
"It’s your true form."
He turned to see Menyara, only he didn’t see the older woman who’d raised him. Now she was taller than him and looked to be in her early twenties. She was dressed in a black halter top with tight black pants, her long hair swept up into a stylized ponytail.
"Who are you? Really?"
Menyara tossed him one of the two staves she held. "I’ve been known by many names over the centuries. But you would know me best by Ma’at."
Nick’s heart skipped as he remembered the Egyptian goddess. She was the one who upheld the order of the universe. Goddess of justice and truth. Menyara had given him a statue of her on his seventh birthday.
"She will protect you from harm, Nicholas. Put her by your bed and no one will ever harm you while you sleep. She will watch over you. Always." He could still remember her telling him that.
Bitter anger swept though him. "For a goddess of truth, you’ve lied your ass off to me."
Menyara smiled. "Not lied, sweetie. I merely withheld a few facts from you and your mother. If it makes you feel better, I’m the reason Cherise was never suspicious of your Dark-Hunters. I kept her carefully shielded from all the paranormal events in her life. Just as I tried to do with you. But fate is a bitch who won’t be denied. You were meant to ascend to your powers and not even mine could keep you sheltered forever."
"I would say thanks for keeping my mother blind to my extracurricular activities, but that’s part of what got her killed." He tested the weight of the staff. "What am I supposed to do with this?"
She brought hers down across his face, forcing him to block the stroke with his staff. "You have to learn to fight."
"I was born fighting." This time, he barely countered her move before she hit his head.
"People, but not the powers who will come for you now." She swung at him again.
Nick blocked and twisted the staff from her grip. He smiled proudly as he disarmed her. "Told you. I’m the best there ever was."
She snorted at his arrogance. "And I’m a goddess of truth, not of war. Beating me shows you can defeat an old woman. Nothing more. Don’t get cocky."
Nick curled his lip. "You know, if you were going to shield me and my mother, you should have shielded us from poverty." Pain ripped through him as he remembered the defeated look on his mother’s face every time she brushed her hand through his hair, then took the stage to strip her clothes off so that she could feed him. She’d once told him that the only reason she took him to work with her was to remind her why she had to do what she did. Otherwise she would have run for the door.
Guilt ate at him. It always had. He’d ruined his mother’s life, and then his own stupidity had ended it.
Menyara held her hand up and snatched the staff from his tight grip. She shoved him back into the wall with one end of it. He grimaced in pain as she dug the tip into his chest.
"That poverty is what made you human, boy. Without it or your mother, you would be exactly as your father."
She opened her mouth to speak, then froze.
An instant later, a blinding light flashed through the room. Nick hissed as it cut across him, burning his skin.
Something ferocious slammed into him, lifting him up from the floor and pinning him to the ceiling. He tried to push himself away, but he felt like a roach under someone’s foot as they pressed it against the floor.
Suddenly he hit the ground.
Menyara ran to him as he groaned in pain. His ears buzzing, he tried to focus. Every part of him hurt.
Until he looked up.
There across the room was Acheron, and he was fighting a man who bore the same stylized patterns on his skin that Nick had. Only where Nick’s were red this man’s symbols were black and where his were black the man’s were red.
"Stay out of this, Atlantean," the demon thing snarled.
Acheron caught the blast sent toward him with his hand. "Menyara, get Nick out of here. Now!"
Before Nick could protest, she wrapped herself around him and everything went black.
JARED CURSED AS THEY VANISHED. "WHAT ARE you doing?"
"I told you. I am honor-bound to keep him safe and so I will protect him with my life."
"Are you insane?"
Ash took a step back as the Sephiroth stopped fighting him. "I’m an Atlantean god, Jared. I swore to his mother that no one would ever harm him. You know what that means."
Jared stepped back, too, as he calmed. His skin immediately returned to its human appearance. "So when I kill him, you die, too. Are you out of your freakin’ mind? Why would you do that?"
"Because I thought he was human and I owed his mother that promise."
"And now you know the truth. You are a Chthonian, charged with maintaining the balance of the universe. The Malachai must die."
Ash shook his head. "The order of the universe is for him to live so long as you do."
Jared laughed. "You don’t get it, do you? I want to die, Acheron. If I kill him, I will go with him." He shoved Ash back, then disappeared.