But when she came, she screamed out his name, and in that one instant he knew he would kill or die for this woman. She alone held that power over him. Joining her release, he growled in satisfaction as his body spasmed.
Collapsing against her, he held her tight. "I love you, Phyra," he whispered in her ear.
Then, in the lowest of tones, he heard the words that meant the most to him. "I love you, too."
MENYARA PAUSED AS SHE FELT ULTIMATE power behind her. It rippled in the air and made the hair on the back of her neck rise. "Why are you skulking about, Jared?"
He materialized before her. "I’m not skulking."
"Whatever you say, child. Whatever you say."
Stepping back, he narrowed his gaze on her. "Why are you protecting the Malachai?"
She ignored his question. There was no need to go there with him, not when she knew what was really on his mind. "I know the sorrow inside you and I know why it is you did what you did. But in spite of what you think, the death of the Malachai won’t give you solace. It won’t take away the torment or the guilt that weighs on your conscience."
He curled his lips at her. "Stop with the mojo bullshit. I’m not one of your neophyte disciples training for war. I’m a veteran of the apocalypse. I’ve been on both sides of hell and am sick of the shit. I want his life and I won’t be denied. Surely to the Source I’ve earned some kind of respite after all these centuries of abuse."
She shook her head. "The Source isn’t appeased even now. The only way to have the Malachai is through me."
Jared summoned his powers into a typhoon around him. The force of them swirled, lifting his hair up to fan around him as his wings spread wide and his eyes glowed a bright gold. "Then I will have your life."
Menyara brought her hands up to catch the blast he sent toward her and return it with one of her own. "You’re not a Chthonian and I’m not about to let you have him."
She heard a sharp laugh behind her.
"You can’t destroy her, Sephiroth. But I have no such restrictions."
Turning, she saw War smirking at her. "What are you doing here?"
"Making a deal with the dev il."
Menyara started to leave, but before she could, a loud boom echoed in her ears an instant before everything went black.
STRYKER LAY ABED WITH ZEPHYRA IN HIS ARMS as he listened to her soft snore. Smiling to himself, he traced the outline of her features with his fingers. She was so beautiful. Delicate. He’d missed her so much. And it felt so good to hold her again. There was nothing in his life that he’d ever cherished more than these quiet hours alone with her like this.
He was just dozing off when a sharp knock startled him. "Enter."
Davyn came in with a look that told him something was seriously wrong.
Davyn swallowed. "We were routing the gallu and . . ." He flinched and looked away as if terrified of continuing.
"And what?" Stryker growled from between clenched teeth.
Davyn swallowed hard. "War brought in reinforcements."
No shit. Why would that cause him to be so afraid? It was only to be expected. The surprise would have been for him to continue fighting alone. "We can get the-"
"They captured Medea."
Zephyra shot up in the bed, fully alert as a wave of rage singed him. "They what?"
"Took Medea," Davyn repeated, his voice hollow. He met Stryker’s gaze and the shame in his eyes would have touched Stryker had he not been so angry at the man. "War wants you to surrender to him or he will kill her."
Stryker’s curse matched Zephyra’s. "Rally our men," Stryker ordered.
Zephyra caught his arm as he started to leave the bed. "We can’t fight him. He’ll kill her."
Davyn nodded. "She’s right. War was clear. He wants you to come alone or her life is forfeit."
Stryker ground his teeth as he hated himself for putting his own daughter in harm’s way. He met Zephyra’s gaze and saw the fear that hid behind her anger. "I started this and I will finish it. I swear to the gods that I won’t let him hurt her."
"You’d better both return. I don’t like funerals." Her tone was a quiet whisper in the darkness.
Stryker pulled her close and kissed her forehead. No words had ever meant more to him. "Don’t worry. I’ve buried bigger ass**les than this and I intend to laugh on that bastard’s grave."
NICK COCKED HIS HEAD AS HE FELT A FOREIGN sensation flutter over his skin-like a delicate butterfly’s wings dancing against his flesh. He turned quickly to find a woman behind him. Tiny and lithe, she held a power to her that warned him she was as lethal as she was beautiful. "Who are you?"
An evil smile played at the edges of her lips. "Call me Ker. War sent me to tell you that we hold the goddess Menyara. If you want her returned, you’re to come unarmed and alone to the St. Louis Cemetery at midnight."
He scoffed at her. "Rather cliche, isn’t it?"
"Not really." She vanished.
Nick sat down slowly as he watched the skin on his arm change to the now familiar red and black pattern. He was stronger than he’d ever been before. His power felt absolute . . . if he knew how to control it. But the problem was, the strength was followed by great weakness. He could feel it, he just couldn’t really utilize it.
His heart heavy, he looked around the room of the tiny house Menyara had called home since the days of his childhood. Drawings and statues of ancient gods and goddesses were littered about and now he saw the writings of protection on the walls that had been invisible to his human sight. This was where she’d kept him safe . . . as a child and as the monster he’d become.
The humble shotgun shack was hardly fit for a goddess, yet this had been Menyara’s abode of choice. And it was here she’d partially raised him alongside his mother.
Wincing, he saw his mother’s lifeless body in his mind. Felt her cold flesh as he’d tried to revive her. Her blood had soaked him as his world shattered in one hollowed-out heartbeat. He didn’t know if he’d ever be the same again. The anger. The hurt. The betrayal. It was all still fresh. Still biting.
"I miss you, Mom," he whispered as bitter agony washed through him. She’d died because of him and him alone. He knew that. He just didn’t want to face that fact.
Now Menyara’s life was in his hands.
He could either swallow his pride and save her or he could charge in and watch her die . . .
The choice was his alone to make.
ASH STOOD ON THE BALCONY OF SAVITAR’S walkway, which overlooked the great hall below. Hidden by shadows, he watched as Tory, Danger, and Simi laughed while they ate ice cream sundaes. Indescribable emotions tore through him. But the one thing he could name was the feeling of warmth he had every time he saw them. The feeling of family.
Not once in his life had he ever thought to have this sensation of peace and happiness. To know the gentle touch of a woman who truly loved him. A touch he could trust to never turn painful or brutal. Truly, it was a miracle.
Tory looked up as if she sensed him and smiled a smile that struck him like a hammer. He took a step forward, then froze as he felt the last presence he would have ever expected.
Ash didn’t move as he sensed Nick at his back and waited for him to attack.
He didn’t. Instead, Nick let out a deep breath before he spoke in a low, lethal tone. "I trusted you, you bastard, and you let me down."
"I know," Ash said quietly as he tightened his grip on the banister. "I should have told you about Simi and I didn’t. But then, I knew how you were around women."
"I would never have touched her had I known she was your daughter."
Ash turned to face him. "We both f**ked up, Nick. We were both trying to protect ourselves from harm, and in doing so, we ruined the very things we wanted to shield. I should have trusted you more, but my past has never lent itself to such openness." He let out his own tired sigh. "So are you here to fight me?"
Nick’s eyes sparkled red in the shadows. "Believe me, nothing would give me more plea sure than killing you. But I need a favor and I don’t have anyone else to turn to."
Ash arched his brow at that. He knew the bitter pill Nick was swallowing and the last thing he would do was make it burn more. "What’s happened?"
"War took Menyara. I need to know his weakness so that I can help her."
Ash let out a light laugh at the irony. "You are his weakness."
"At full strength. Maybe. But I can’t stop him like this, can I?"
Ash shook his head.
Nick took one step closer to him. "Then tell me what I need to do."
Ash stepped back to look down where Tory was calling him. If he’d thought Nick was a shock, it was nothing compared to what waited for him there. He had to blink twice just to make sure he wasn’t hallucinating.
"Damn. Lucifer must be sitting on icicles today." Ash glanced back to Nick. "Stay here for a few."
"Trust me, Nick. Stay hidden and I’ll be right back." Ash flashed himself down to the table where Stryker was standing next to Tory.
The Daimon looked less than happy to be there, but that was nothing compared to Ash’s feelings, especially since the Daimon stood practically on top of two of the six most important people in Ash’s world.
Ash narrowed his gaze. "What are you doing here?"
"Savitar sent me to speak to you."
Ash arched a brow, but he knew Stryker wasn’t lying. There was no other way for him to have gotten in here unchallenged. "So what’s up?"
Stryker’s features were completely blank. "War has taken my daughter and is holding her." There was a crack in his voice to let Ash know the man wasn’t as ambivalent as he was trying to appear.
Ash shook his head. "There seems to be a lot of that going around suddenly."
"Has he taken Kat?"
Ash laughed at the very thought of War trying that award-winning act of stupidity on his daughter . . .
But that thought scattered as he realized how simple the solution to all their problems was.
Kat. There was a weapon War wouldn’t see coming and by the time he realized it, he’d be defeated and back under their complete control.
Deadening his expression, Ash folded his arms over his chest as he met Tory’s gaze and winked at her. She, Simi, and Danger were completely composed and silent as if waiting to see whether they should attack Stryker or let him live on in peace. "I assume you’re here to beg a favor."
"I beg for nothing. I’m merely proposing a temporary truce."
Ash scoffed. "A truce to deal with the very thing you unleashed in an effort to kill me?"
Stryker shrugged nonchalantly. "Why bicker over split hairs?"
"True. After all, we have much larger grudges against each other than that."
Stryker’s eyes turned dark, his expression deadly. "Then you refuse?"
"No. War has to be stopped, and it will take the whole of us to do it."
"The whole of who?"
Before Ash could answer, Nick appeared beside them.
Curling his lip, Stryker stepped forward to attack him.
Ash forced Stryker back and put himself between the two. "Think of your daughter. You kill him, we’re screwed and she’s dead."
Stryker cursed. "Fine. But once War is put down, I’ll be after the two of you again."
Grinning snidely, Ash let go of Stryker and stepped to the side of the two men. He held his hand out. "Works for me. For the ones we love, today we’re allies. Tomorrow we resume our natural order of mortal enemies. Gentlemen, and I use that term loosely for all of us, have we an accord?"
Nick covered his hand with his own. "I’m in."
Stryker hesitated. "For Medea." He placed his hand over theirs.
Tory gave a light laugh. "What a freaky alliance this is. So what do we do now?"
Ash didn’t hesitate with his answer. "You stay here."
She growled at him. "Acheron-"
"No arguments, Sota. I swear, it’ll be fine."
"We’ve had this macho discussion before, and you normally lose."
It was true, he did have a hard time saying no to her, but for all that, she was more than reasonable, which was why he loved her. "And I know you’re fully capable of holding your own. The gods know, I’m not strong enough to stand against you for long, but in this, I need a clear head which means I need you out of harm’s way."
"Fine. But anything goes wrong and I’m coming in."
"Nothing’s going to go wrong."
She looked at Nick and then Stryker before she returned her gaze to him. "You are such an optimist. My Spidey-sense is tingling all over the place."
He leaned forward and kissed her forehead. "That’s from eating the ice cream. Relax."
Danger snorted. "Relax. Trust me. It’ll be all right. Isn’t that how I ended up dead?"
Ash grimaced at the reminder. "Stop feeding her anxiety."
Simi perked up at his comment. "Anxiety. The Simi’s never eaten that before." She looked at Danger. "Is that tasty?"