It was Davyn. He took one step into the room, then paused as he saw Stryker nak*d while she was beside him. He quickly averted his gaze. "My lord, I wanted to report that we’re having another bit of a problem."
"And that is?"
"We can’t feed."
Stryker exchanged a frown with her before he addressed Davyn. "What do you mean?"
"War and the demons have us locked in. If any Daimon leaves here to feed, they either kill him or convert him. We’re trapped."
Stryker let out a foul curse. "How long until you need to feed again?"
"I fed last night, so I’m good for a few weeks. And you, sir?"
He glanced at Zephyra.
She went cold as she understood that look. "I’ve taken blood from you twice. . . ."
He nodded. "I’ll be good for a couple of days."
She swallowed in fear of his dry tone as a sense of dread went through her. "How many?"
And then he’d be dead.
ZEPHYRA DIDN’T SPEAK AGAIN UNTIL DAVYN had left them alone. Stryker turned toward her on the bed and her gaze dropped to where she’d stabbed him earlier. He followed the line of her eyes. Though the wound was healing, it was still a nasty reminder of her temper.
And deadly aim.
"Looks like you’ll be getting your wish sooner rather than later, huh?" he said flippantly.
She clutched the sheet to her chest. "There has to be a way out of here."
"Yes, but they have one advantage. The demons aren’t nocturnal. They can box us in day and night. We can only feed after dark."
"Can you bring humans here?"
In theory, yes. But things were seldom so simple. "Only if they stumble into a bolt hole. Something much easier said than done. We usually only get kids with those traps, and a large number of Daimons, including myself, have trouble swallowing the soul of a child. Even if they are human cattle."
Her gaze darkened with fury. "They’ve killed our children without flinching."
Again, not so simple. "Their parents kill our children, not them. They’re innocent in this fight. My father forced me to be a monster when he cursed me to this life, but I refuse to lose all sense of myself to his lunacy."
She shook her head. "You’re a warrior. Are you telling me that you’ve never slaughtered a child in battle?"
"I trained for war as a mortal, but I never battled until after I became a Daimon. So no, I’ve never taken the life of a child. Having been a father, I don’t know if I ever could." He narrowed his eyes on her. "And that doesn’t make me a coward."
Zephyra held her hands up in surrender at his hostile tone. She’d inadvertently struck a nerve when she hadn’t meant to. "It never crossed my mind." At least not over his inability to harm a child. Other things he’d done . . .
That was another story.
As he got up from the bed, she saw the tattoo on his right shoulder blade that had escaped her attention while she’d been focused on their earlier play. It made her do a double take as the tattoo fully registered in her mind.
No, it couldn’t be. . . .
"Stop," she said, pulling him back to examine it.
It was a broken heart with thorny vines twisted through it and a sword that plunged down its carmine center. But it was the ribbon and the name it contained that covered the tattoo that made her breath catch in her throat.
Beneath it were eigh teen small black teardrops that formed an intricate pattern. She traced them with her fingertip. "Who are these for?"
"One for each of my children and grandchildren. And one for each of my wives."
But it was her name he’d put inside the ribbon. Hers alone that marked his broken heart.
She glanced up to meet his gaze as he looked at her over his shoulder. Memories of their past together and conflicted emotions ripped through her. He was so familiar and so alien.
"Who are you, Strykerius?"
"I’m a lost soul," he breathed quietly. "I had a purpose at one time, but I stumbled on the path of it."
His gaze narrowed dangerously. Seductively. "I see what I want again, but for the first time in my life, I’m not sure if I can claim it. I should have never left you and I know it."
She laid her hand against the stubble of his cheek. "I’m a servant of Artemis. I owe her for taking me in when no one else would."
"Haven’t you paid that debt a thousandfold?"
Zephyra paused. Had she? Artemis could be so fickle and cold. Over the centuries, Zephyra had executed countless humans for Artemis and others who’d defamed or offended the goddess. Strange how she’d never really thought about leaving Artemis’s ser vice before this. She’d been content to stay in the shelter of the goddess’s temple and merely exist. Her only goal in all these centuries had been to protect her daughter.
How could she not have had a goal other than that? Because her last goal had been to grow old and love a man who’d walked out the door and broken her heart. Her spirit. Her life.
After that, she’d vowed to never set herself up again for so much pain. Once had definitely been enough for her.
Stryker turned around on the bed to face her with a look so intense and raw it raised chills on her body. "Join me again, Phyra. Stand by my side and I will lay the world of man at your feet. We will find a way to break my father’s curse and take our place in the sunlight."
"I haven’t touched daylight in over eleven thousand years. Not since the night we were warned of the curse."
"I would give that to you."
She shook her head in denial. "You promised me the world once before and then you threw it in my face."
"I’m different now, Phyra. I’m not a scared child living in his father’s shadow. I’ve learned from my mistake and I swear that I will never again leave you."
She wanted to believe that but didn’t know if she could. Promises were so easy to make and so hard to keep. It was a rare person who could carry through their execution. "And yet you’ll die in two days if we don’t feed you."
"Even in death, I shall find a way to be by your side."
Those words set her anger on fire as he reminded her of the vow he’d taken at their wedding. "How dare you!" she snarled, shoving him back.
"I don’t understand."
"You mock me with those words."
His expression was true bafflement. How could he not know? "How so?"
"You promised me love and you left less than a year later. How can I trust you now?"
"I never married again after my wife died. Not in all these centuries and not because of how I felt about her. It was the memory of you that kept me single. No woman has ever captivated me the way you did."
And no other man had ever claimed her heart. None. Only Stryker had been able to break the shield she’d erected around herself.
It was why she hated him so much.
She looked at the door at the same time Medea slung it open. For once Medea didn’t react to seeing them nak*d in bed together. That alone told Zephyra how dire the news was.
"Kessar has sent an emissary to speak with Father. He needs to come immediately."
Stryker’s clothes appeared on his body as he left the bed. Zephyra was just about to reach for hers when he dressed her, too. She scooted out of bed to meet Medea in the doorway.
Stryker took the lead.
Medea lifted one curious brow as she drew even to Zephyra, but said nothing as they followed Stryker down the hallway to the receiving hall. There in the dim light, the Daimons were gathered around a tall, lithe gallu female. Her long black hair was loose around her shoulders as she curled her lips in repugnance at the gathered Daimons.
Stryker didn’t speak as he walked past her to the dais where his black skeletal throne waited. It shimmered in the dim light and looked as menacing and lethal as the man who occupied it. Zephyra followed him up, expecting him to protest. He didn’t. With the presence of a god, he took a seat nonchalantly and stared at the gallu as if she were an insect on his floor he was about to step on. Zephyra took position on the right-hand side of his throne. She braced one hand on the top spindle that was carved into the image of a spine.
"You have word from Kessar?" Stryker asked the gallu.
"He offers you a chance to surrender."
Stryker laughed aloud at her stupidity. At Kessar’s audacity. If they thought to make him blink, they were sadly mistaken. "I told him to quit sucking the blood of idiots. It’s now infected his own intellect."
The female gallu snapped her fingers.
Two more gallu came forward with a Daimon in chains. It was Illyria, one of his Spathi commanders. Her pale blond hair was a stark contrast to her black clothing. True to her nature and station, she didn’t beg as they brutally forced her to her knees.
But she was weak. Her skin held that ashen, iridescent cast that came from waiting too long to feed. Her body was starting to age and decay. Already she looked older than twenty-seven. In a matter of minutes, she’d become middle-aged.
"Give them nothing, my lord," Illyria spat, trying to fight the two gallu who held her.
"She will die if you don’t surrender."
Stryker shrugged. "We all die, gallu. You should be more concerned about your own fate."
She raked him with a cold glare. "Your skin shows that you need to feed, too." She cupped Illyria’s chin in her hand. "Look at her aging. Her bones are becoming brittle. She won’t last out the hour. Even if you feed from one another, you will only die that much sooner."
Stryker maintained his air of nonchalance. "I’m not Sisyphus trying to restrain death. Illyria is a soldier. If it’s her time, it’s her time. I’m not at war with Atropos. It’s her will to take us whenever she likes. My only goal is to die with dignity."
Zephyra was impressed by Stryker’s demeanor and levelheaded negotiation. He wasn’t the same as the boy she’d known. The man before her was fierce and not willing to be intimidated.
She could appreciate that. Just as she saw the aggravation in the eyes of the gallu. The demon was about to slip up.
And as Zephyra glared at the gallu, an idea came to her. It was bold but illuminating. She placed her hand on Stryker’s shoulder and leaned forward to whisper into his ear. "Drink from the gallu. . . ."
Stryker went still at her words. Gallu blood was infectious. It could convert anyone who came into contact with it into one of them and make that person a mindless zombie for them to control. Did Zephyra hate him so much that she wished that fate on him?
He met her gaze. She was beautiful there, by his side. It was where she should have always been. Yet he didn’t know if he could trust her. What she proposed . . .
It was suicide.
"Trust me," she breathed in his ear, sending chills down his body.
Did he dare? She’d said it herself, women were vengeful to the end.
Her dark eyes seared him and told him nothing about her intent. She could be setting him up to live.
"Take the gallu’s soul," she said in a tone so low he wasn’t even sure he heard it. "Kill the bitch and she can’t control you."
Losing patience, the gallu cleared her throat. "You are completely cut off. We will take all of you down. Your only hope is to surrender and beg mercy from Kessar and the rest of us."
The universe would shatter to pieces before he begged anyone for anything.
Stryker rose slowly to his feet. Zephyra still gave him no clue as to her mood or intent. If she was being honest. Or setting him up.
No matter, he wasn’t one to be bullied ever. Descending his dais, he walked toward the gallu. The two holding Illyria tightened their grips, ready to kill her should he move on them.
"Sriana ey froya," he said in Atlantean to Illyria. Succor them and destroy them. He glanced at Illyria and felt his eyes change. No longer silver, he knew they were now glowing red. He was calling forth the god powers inside him. Turning back to the gallu, he locked gazes with her.
She stiffened instantly as her will was negated by the one blessing Apollo had forgotten to take from the Apollites when he’d cursed them.
They could control anyone with a weak will. It was that gift that allowed them to take human souls into their bodies. But the hard part was finding humans whose love of life was strong, but their minds were weak. In the case of the gallu, the two were synonymous.
Stryker held his hand out to her. "Come to me, gallu."
She didn’t hesitate to obey.
A slow smile curled his lips as he pulled her close and then sank his fangs into her throat. She cried out as he drank and she bled.
Illyria followed suit on the gallu to her left while Davyn grabbed the one on her right.
Stryker’s head swam at the taste of power inside the gallu blood. At least until his stomach began to cramp and ache. Instinctively he started to pull away, only to find Zephyra there.
"Don’t stop," she said, holding his head to the gallu’s throat. "Not until she’s dead."
He pulled back enough so that he could speak. "I think I’m converting. I don’t feel right."
"You will. Trust me."
She kept saying that, but he still wasn’t sure if he should believe her. Honestly, he felt ill from the blood. As if he would vomit at any moment. But he kept his fangs in the gallu’s throat and continued to drain her until Zephyra pierced her between her eyes to kill her.