She spat on the ground at his feet. "I’ll abide by my word, but you will never win me back. Believe me, in two weeks I will slice open your throat, drink from your blood, and then pierce your heart and laugh while your body explodes into dust."
"Beautiful imagery. You should write for Hallmark." He used his powers to dissolve the swords. "I want you to know that I fought you fairly. Equal to equal. I could have used my powers against you, but I didn’t."
She gave him extremely sarcastic applause. "Should I warm the oven and bake you a batch of hero cookies?"
He let out a long breath. "I have my work cut out for me where you’re concerned, don’t I?"
"Not really. Hate you today. Will hate you tomorrow. What say we don’t waste any time? Give me the sword and let me have your throat now. You told me once that you’d die for me. How about you keep that one promise?"
He scoffed at her rancor. "Why keep one now after I’ve broken so many?"
That brought color to her cheeks as her eyes glistened with her rage. "Just as I thought. A liar and a coward. You’ll never submit yourself to me in two weeks, will you?"
"This isn’t about promises. It’s a matter of honor. I’ve never sacrificed my honor for anyone."
"No, only your love," she sneered. "Tell me something, Strykerius. Was it worth it?"
That was always the one question in life, wasn’t it? One of the priestesses who’d tended him when he was a child had once told him the biggest regrets were those that hadn’t been done. And she was right. He wished he’d never left Zephyra.
His heart softened as he remembered the past. "I had ten beautiful children. Strong. Determined. And I loved every one of them. How could I ever regret that?"
"And your wife? What of her?"
She had been beautiful, too. Docile and quiet. Never questioning. A true lady of the ancient world. "She was dutiful and faithful. I would never besmirch the honor of or insult the mother of my children."
Her eyes flared an even darker shade. He’d struck her without meaning to.
And he would never take away from her what they’d had between them. "But she was never you, Phyra. Not in face, form, or passion. You were always the light in my darkness."
Zephyra moved toward him slowly. Cautiously.
His shoulder still aching and bleeding, Stryker tensed, expecting her to attack him again. Reaching up, she sank her hand into his hair and pulled his lips down to hers so that she could give him a kiss so feral and hot it set fire to his blood. His body roared to life as he returned it with every part of himself that had missed her.
Growling, she pulled back and glared at him before she shoved him away. "That is only to remind you what you gave up. My heart is dead except for Medea. She alone keeps that last piece of me."
"Then I will release her."
She snorted contemptuously. "Your tricks won’t work on me."
"No trick. You gave me your word and I’m giving you my faith. I trust you to abide by our terms and so I release her back into your custody."
Zephyra narrowed her eyes on him, not trusting him for a moment. He was smarter than any man she’d ever known. Cunning. He knew how to manipulate people to get what he wanted. He always had.
Everyone except his worthless father.
More handsome than any of the gods, her Strykerius had once made her body burn with insatiable lust. Now she only felt anger and hatred.
It was so strange to see him now with those eerie swirling eyes. As a mortal, his eyes had been the clearest blue. She’d wanted to bear sons and daughters with those eyes to remind her of how much she loved him.
Medea’s eyes had been green like hers, and while they’d been mortal she’d been grateful to the gods for that small mercy. Until the night Apollo had cursed every member of her race because a group of Atlantean soldiers had slaughtered his Greek mistress and bastard son.
It had been on Medea’s sixth birthday, and there while they celebrated Zephyra had watched her daughter’s eyes turn black. Unaware at that time of what had caused the curse, Zephyra had held her daughter as she had vomited food and started craving blood.
Once Zephyra understood what had been done to them-what they’d been cursed to-she’d hated everything to do with Stryker and his father, Apollo.
"Tell me. Do you still worship your father?"
Bitter disgust flared deep in his eyes. "I hate him with every breath I take."
"Then we do have one thing in common."
"We also have a daughter."
She curled her lip at his audacity. "No. I have a daughter. I won’t let you claim Medea when you were never there for her. She is mine."
Stryker shook his head. "Children are willful. No matter how much you love them and no matter how hard you try, they will have their own way. Parents be damned."
"But that wasn’t true of you, was it?"
He winced at the truth. "I was only a boy, Zephyra. My father would have killed me and you had I denied him his plan. Or at the very least he would have cursed us."
"He cursed us anyway, didn’t he?"
"He did and I watched as every child and grandchild I had decayed into nothing before my eyes. I held my daughter while she screamed for a mercy that was hours in coming. I should have killed her and saved her that, but I was young and kept hoping she’d turn Daimon like her brothers. But she refused until she finally turned to dust. One by one, every member of my family perished and suffered. I have nothing now. No one."
Zephyra wanted to insult him for his womanish maudlin. But the truth was it touched a part of her that she’d reserved only for her daughter. She actually wanted to comfort him for his losses. Her worst fear had been to watch her daughter age and die.
Luckily, Medea was stronger than that.
"Does Medea have any children?"
Zephyra steeled herself against the pain that innocent question evoked. The bitter memories that burned deep inside her. "She had a son." More beautiful than any baby ever born. Praxis had been precious and sweet. Always laughing. Always hugging.
"Where is he now?"
She forced all emotion out of her voice. "Dead."
Stryker’s eyes darkened at her monosyllabic answer. "Her husband?"
"Ironic really. Against my wishes, she and her husband were members of the Cult of Pollux." Those were Apollites who believed in doing nothing to circumvent Apollo’s curse. They lived peacefully among the humans, waiting to die horribly on their birthdays. Each member of the cult took a vow to harm no human or any other life-form.
"Her husband was killed by the same angry humans who feared his fangs. He tried to distract the humans so that she and their child could get to safety. They beat him down and ripped his heart out of his chest, then they captured her and tortured her for days. They tore her son out of her arms and killed him before her eyes." Indignant rage burned deep inside her. "He was only five years old. And they would have killed her, too, had I not found her in time. It’s what made her the warrior she is. She hates all humans for their cruelty, just as I do. They are all animals fit for nothing but slaughter, and I enjoy wholeheartedly playing the butcher."
Stryker understood those sentiments. He’d seen their cruelty firsthand against his people and his children. It was why he had no sympathy for mankind. Why he had no mercy on them. Why should they live in peace while his own people had no future?
But her words confused him as he looked around the stone temple where the walls were decorated with peaceful scenes of women dancing with deer. This was where Artemis’s human worshipers still paid tribute to her. "Yet you live here with them?"
"Only a small group. Servants to Artemis who gave us shelter when we needed it. They have watched over us for centuries, and so we let them live."
He scowled. "Why would the goddess do that?"
"Artemis has always been good to us. And in return for her shelter, I do a few odd jobs for her."
Humor flickered in his eyes as he drew near her. "Back to that, are we?"
"We will always come back to that."
"Fair enough." He sighed. "Come, Phyra, let’s find our daughter." He held his hand out to her.
She curled her lip in repugnance. "You can keep that"-she sneered at his proffered hand-"to yourself."
He tsked at her. "There was a time when you would have kissed my palm with loving tenderness. But in all honesty, I have to say that I’m surprised at you. A clever enemy would kiss my hand, then stab at my back while I was distracted."
She scoffed as she shoved his hand to the side. "A coward’s action. Truly. Don’t insult either one of us with such a suggestion. I don’t believe in petty juvenile attacks. I go after what I want, and when it’s the life of an enemy I don’t want there to be any mistaking my intention. If you’re worth my hatred, then you’re worth my letting you know that I’m coming for you."
Stryker smiled at her angry words, grateful to hear them from her. "A true warrior’s code." He respected her all the more for it. "Take my hand, Zephyra."
She spat at it.
Unamused, Stryker grabbed her and pulled her close. He wanted to strangle her for her obstinacy. Most of all he wanted to kiss her.
"I’m going to gut you," she warned.
He wiped her spittle off on her shirt even while she slapped at his hand. "So long as you do it nak*d, you’ll have no complaints from me."
"You’re a faithless pig." She moved to slap him.
He captured her hand in his and met her challenging glare. "And you are a beautiful shrew. One who should be grateful that I’m nostalgic enough to not do to her what I would to anyone else who spat on me."
Zephyra held her breath as she saw the raw fury in his eyes. He was one step away from hitting her, and though a part of her wanted him to, his restraint surprised her. In the world where they’d been born, a man had a right to beat a woman. Yet he’d refrained from striking her with his hand even in their fight.
Even in the year when they’d been married in ancient Greece, he’d never harmed her. Never lifted a finger against her while he was merciless to others. It was what she’d loved most about him.
He’d made her feel safe. Protected. If anyone had so much as glanced askance at her, Stryker gutted them.
She missed that stupid little boy whose eyes had glowed with love every time he looked at her.
The man before her was formidable. This wasn’t a callow youth trying to please her. He was an accomplished warrior with eleven thousand years of survival training behind him. Of commanding an army of the damned that waged war against mankind and the immortal Dark-Hunters who protected them.
Though she’d wanted to kill Stryker many times over the centuries, she’d never been able to get to him until now. All these years, he’d been holed up in Kalosis and the only way in was an invitation from either Stryker or Apollymi.
So long as she served Artemis, Apollymi would have nothing to do with her. And asking him for it would have ruined her surprise attack.
However, his reputation among their people was legendary. The Apollites worshiped him and his band of elite Spathi warriors. Even she respected him for his battles.
But it didn’t change what he’d done to her and Medea. To this day, Zephyra could see him turning around and slinking out of their cottage to be with the woman his father had wanted him to marry. However, she’d given him her word to stay her fight and be damned if she’d break it. She was better than that.
"I hate your hair black," she snarled before she took his hand.
Stryker laughed at her capitulation and barb. She wasn’t giving in and she didn’t hesitate to let him know it. Closing his hand around hers, he took her into Kalosis, where he ruled.
As soon as they were safely in the hell realm, she snatched her hand away as she turned around the dark room where he held court over all the Daimons who called this place home. "Rather glum, isn’t it?"
"It works for me."
She didn’t comment as she returned to face him. "Where’s Medea?"
"In my chambers. Come and I’ll take you to her."
WAR PAUSED AS HE MATERIALIZED IN THE BACK hallway of a mansion that reminded him of an old Greek villa. The dark gray shutters were drawn tight against an unforgiving sun that spilled through the slats to highlight the breezy distance. White walls held old photos of a young boy and a very attractive woman with blond hair and laughing blue eyes.
A strange sound of foreign music drifted through the walls, along with laughter and cars from outside. But there was no laughter inside. All was silent and still.
Closing his eyes, War searched the house with his powers until he found the one he’d been sent to kill.
But he wasn’t alone. There was a woman lying in bed with him. Both nak*d. Both sweaty from sex.
Centuries ago, War would have slaughtered the woman without hesitation.
No doubt he still should. . . .
Lowering his head, he walked through the walls until he came to the room where a large four-poster bed housed the two of them. They were entwined in black silk sheets. A tray holding a bottle of half-empty wine was on the nightstand, where red roses were strewn as if they’d been tossed down.