"Oh. Maybe we should put barbecue sauce on it. Everything’s better with barbecue."
Ash shook his head. "And on that note, we’re going to plan our strategy."
Tory moved to his side. "That I can do."
Yes, she could. Taking her hand, Ash led her and the others to Savitar’s office where they could outline their attack and share what each knew about War and his weaknesses.
KER TSKED AS SHE WATCHED THE MEN AND ONE woman adjourn to a paneled room where they sat plotting War’s demise. "How quaint. The mice are herding together in an effort to take us down."
War laughed at Ker. "I expected no less. But they underestimate us. By morning, they’ll all be dead, and with the blood of the Malachai, we’ll be able to revive our brethren. While mankind prepares for their Christmas Day, we’re going to celebrate with a feast of their souls. At midnight, the veil between the worlds is thin and Nick is going to open up a new era. Let the bloodbath begin."
Ker smiled brightly. "I can’t wait."
ASH CHECKED THE BLADES IN HIS BOOTS TO make sure they were working. He turned his head as he felt someone enter the room to his left. It was Urian.
"You’re helping my father?" It was more an accusation than a question.
Ash made sure to keep all emotion out of his voice. "We have to stop War."
"Stryker murdered my wife," Urian snarled.
Urian shook his head as his eyes flared with anger. "How could you help something like him?"
Ash had had enough with both the accusations and the self-pity. There was a lot more at stake here that just hurt feelings and past betrayals. "You helped him for centuries. Need I remind you of how many lives you took under his command? Lives who were related to you-you killed Phoebe’s mother and her sister."
He flinched at the truth. "I loved my wife. I never meant to hurt her."
No, but it didn’t change the fact that he had. Repeatedly. Urian had taken from his wife the very people she loved more than anything. It was hypocritical of him to hold that same action against his father. For too many centuries, Urian and his brothers had been a tool that Stryker had used more than effectively.
But times changed.
And it was time the man learned about Medea. "By the way, you have a sister."
Urian tensed. "What?"
Ash met his gaze levelly and kept his expression completely stoic. "It’s the life of your sister we’re going to protect. Not your father’s."
He shook his head in denial. "My sister died eleven thousand years ago."
"Medea is a half-sister."
That wiped the disbelief from his face and returned anger to his cold eyes. "And I should care, why?"
Ash held his hands up in surrender. "You’re right. You shouldn’t care at all. She’s nothing to you which is why I haven’t invited you to join us." Ash started past him.
Urian pulled him to a stop. His eyes were harsh and biting. They accused him even more than Urian’s words had. "How would you feel if my father had killed Tory?"
Ash answered honestly and without hesitation, "I would feel soulless. Lost and hurt beyond repair."
Urian looked away. "Then you understand me. And why I want him dead."
Ash pulled Urian’s hand off his arm. "He knows that too. But have you ever considered that he might regret what he did to you?"
"My father? Get real. The bastard has never regretted a single thing in his entire life."
Even as corrupt as Stryker was, Ash had a hard time believing that. "We all have regrets, Urian. Nothing that lives is immune from that nasty emotion."
"So what? You want me to go kiss and make up?"
"Hardly. But I want you to set aside your own hurt and anger to see clearly for a minute. This isn’t about you and your father anymore than it’s about me and Nick hating each other over something we can’t change. This is about saving the lives of a million innocent people. People like Phoebe who don’t deserve to be hunted and killed. If I can stand at the side of my enemies for the greater good, so can you."
Urian scoffed. "Well, I guess I’m just not as special as you are."
"No one knows their true mettle until it’s been tested. This is yours. Whether you pass or fail is entirely up to you. I can’t tell you what to do, but I know where I’ll be tonight . . ." He hesitated before he asked the most important question: "So what do you choose?"
Ash shook his head. "You stubborn bastards. Take it from someone who knows firsthand, there’s a lot to be said for forgiveness. Grudges seldom hurt anyone except the one bearing them."
"And there’s a lot to be said for knocking enemies upside their heads and cracking their skulls open."
Ash felt a tic start in his jaw over the man’s obdurate nature. "To everything there is a season, and tonight ours is to stand together or lose everything. I’m not fighting for Stryker or to save your sister. I’m fighting to protect the ones I love. The ones who will suffer most if War isn’t stopped . . . children like Eric and-"
"I get it," he snapped at the mention of his nephew.
Urian’s gaze hardened. "I will be there, but once our enemies are put down-"
"We fight each other. Understood."
Urian nodded. He took a step back, then paused before he stepped even closer to Ash. "I want the honest truth about something. Could you really fight with someone who did as much damage to you as my father has done to me?"
Ash met his gaze without blinking. "I subjugated myself to the goddess who drugged me to the point I couldn’t protect my sister and nephew the night they were brutally slaughtered, and they were the only two people in the universe who’d ever given two shits about me. Later that same day, she stood back and let her twin brother butcher me on the floor like an animal, yet within hours after that I sold myself to her to protect mankind. For the sake of the Dark-Hunters, I subjected myself to her cruel whims for eleven thousand years. So, yeah, Urian, I think I could manage to suck it up for an hour to protect the rest of the world."
Urian let out a slow breath. "You know you’re the only man alive I’d ever follow after what I’ve been through. You’re also the only one I respect."
"And you’re one of the extremely few I trust."
Urian held his hand up to him. "Brothers?"
"Brothers to the end," Ash said, taking his hand and clutching it tight. "Now before we get all girly and cry, get your ass upstairs and prepare for what’s coming."
STRYKER STEPPED BACK AS HE ADJUSTED THE brace on his left arm. It wasn’t often he wore the titanum-laced armor, but since they were about to be up against the gods only knew what, he wanted to be prepared.
He left his room to find Zephyra in his office, staring into the sfora as she tried to locate Medea. It wasn’t working. Wherever War was keeping her was off limits to them.
"I’ll bring her back. I swear it."
Zephyra rose slowly as her gaze held his captive. "I wish you’d reconsider my offer."
"You won’t be fighting with a level head, and you know it. We don’t know what we’re walking into, but I’m sure War isn’t going to play by any rules. As Acheron said to his woman, I can’t fight if my attention is partially on you. I’ll need every advantage I can have."
Zephyra nodded in understanding. She reached up to brush a lock of coal-black hair back from his eyes. Her chest was tight with fear not just for Medea, but for him, too. How unfair to lose him now when she’d just found him again. "Will I be able to watch in the sfora?"
"Then know that I’ll be laughing at your ineptitude every time your enemies strike you, and if you fail to return with my daughter, I’ll have your heart and your head for decorations."
Stryker narrowed his gaze on her and would have told her exactly what he thought of that had a small glint on her hand not caught his attention.
It was her wedding band. The one he’d kept all these centuries in his room. That one ring belied and translated her words.
She didn’t want him harmed . . .
A slow smile curved his lips as he lifted her other hand to place a kiss on it. "Your words are noted, my most prickly rose. And I shall endeavor to keep your amusement at a bare minimum."
As he stepped away, she grabbed the buckles on the front of his armor and pulled him back to her lips so that she could kiss him.
Stryker growled at how good she tasted. "I want you here nak*d when I return."
"You return whole and I promise you a night you won’t soon forget."
"I intend to hold you to that, my lady."
Zephyra nodded and let him go even though all she wanted to do was hold him closer to her. Don’t get killed. The words hung in her throat as unimaginable pain ripped through her, but she wouldn’t say those words. She wouldn’t jinx him or let the Fates know how much he meant to her. If she did, they might kill him just for spite. So instead, she clenched her hands and watched him leave the room to join his enemies to fight for their daughter’s life.
Come back to me, please.
Stryker paused at the door to take one last look at Zephyra. Calm and composed, she didn’t appear to care in the least what happened to him. At least until he saw the way she clenched her fists. A small smile played at the edge of his lips as that warmed every part of his body. "I’ll be back, Phyra."
"And you better have our daughter with you."
The smile broke at her use of "our." "I will." Inclining his head to her, he slipped out the door and went to their rendezvous spot in New Orleans. It was the quiet alley on Pere Antione outside of the Ethel Kidd realty offices. In the shadow of the Cathedral, his plan had originally been to unleash his men onto humanity from this very place-give or take a few feet. Now, here he was fighting not only to protect the ones he viewed as food, but to protect his own.
Yeah . . . Fate was ever a capricious viper.
A bright flash made him squint as Acheron appeared before him. Dressed in a long black leather duster, jeans, and a My Chemical Romance t-shirt, the Atlantean’s eyes were covered by a pair of opaque sunglasses.
Nick Gautier flashed in a second later. His black clothing was much more reserved. A black button-down shirt and slacks. The only thing that made him stand out was the double bow and arrow mark of Artemis that was branded on his cheek.
Ash broke into an arrogant grin. "So are we going to continue glaring angrily at each other while we pose in our tough stances? Or use our time to work out a plan that hopefully doesn’t end with our mutual deaths?"
"I vote for mutual death," Gautier grumbled. "But only after Menyara is safe."
"And Medea," Stryker added. "I want you both to swear that regardless of what happens to me, you won’t allow her to die."
"I swear," Ash said.
They looked at Nick.
"She’s done me no harm. I’ll get her out of there if it’s at all possible."
Stryker nodded even though he wanted to gut the man who’d killed his sister. Then again, Satara’s plan had been to have Nick rape Ash’s fiancee. Instead Nick had stabbed her and taken Ash’s woman to safety. In all honesty, he could almost respect Gautier’s actions. Had it not been his sister Gautier had killed, he might even have considered them noble.
Still Satara had been his ally for centuries. Even though she’d been crueler and colder than any creature he’d ever known, it didn’t change the fact that Stryker had loved her in spite of her faults.
Turning his thoughts to Ash, he folded his arms over his chest. "What do you have planned?"
Before Ash could answer, Kat popped in. Stryker arched a brow at her appearance. Over six feet tall, she bore a striking resemblance to her mother, Artemis, right down to her bright green eyes. But she had Acheron’s blond hair and, lucky for them all, his temperament.
Her presence surprised him. "You’re bringing your daughter into this?"
Ash shrugged. "She has an interesting ability that I think will make War back down."
"And that is?"
Kat’s grin was identical to the one Ash had worn earlier. "I can siphon powers out of the gods."
"Really?" Stryker took a step back from her.
Kat laughed evilly. "You never realized how close to the edge you treaded when you insulted me, did you?"
"Apparently not. So how does this siphon work?"
She wiggled one threatening finger in his direction. "I have to be touching the person . . . Good thing I find you so repulsive I never wanted to do that, eh?"
Stryker rolled his eyes before he turned his attention back to Acheron. "What if we can’t get her close enough to War to touch him?"
"I’ll take her home," the deeply accented voice came out of the darkness.
Stryker turned to find Kat’s husband Sin behind him. Strange, he hadn’t heard or felt the Sumerian god’s appearance. That spoke volumes about Sin’s powers that he could mask them so completely. And it made him feel more confident that they could surprise War and his entourage, too.
Stryker pulled his pocket watch out to check the time. It was fifteen till. "Showtime, folks. Are we ready?"