The man, Nick, lay atop the woman, nibbling at her ribs while she drew circles over his back. Shoulder-length brown hair obscured the man’s face. The woman, however, was beautiful. Long black hair spilled across the pillows as she arched her back and kept her eyes tightly closed.
War paused at the sight of her nak*d, sculpted body. He hadn’t tasted a woman in centuries. Hadn’t felt a kind caress since . . .
The mere thought of that bitch threw his temper into overdrive. Wanting blood, he closed the distance between them. He grabbed Nick by his throat and threw him into the wall.
"Get out," he ordered the woman, who drew back with a scream.
"Go, Jennifer. Now!"
She didn’t hesitate. Wrapping the sheet around her, she scrambled from the large plantation bed and ran for the door.
Gautier straightened up to glare at him. He had three days’ growth of beard on his face, which was marked by a double bow and arrow mark. The sign of Artemis.
War frowned at its presence. And its significance.
Not that it mattered. He’d been born to piss off the gods.
"Who the f**k are you?" Nick asked. Throwing his arms out, he manifested clothes on his body.
War laughed. "Call me Death."
"No offense, I’d rather call you pathetic." He slung his hand out.
War tsked as he saw the shurikens headed for him. "Talk about pathetic." He flashed himself across the room and grabbed Gautier by his throat as the shurikens planted themselves harmlessly into the bedposts. War lifted him up from the floor and held him against the wall.
Nick choked as he tried to break the man’s hold on him. "What are you?"
"I told you. I’m Death. Now be a good little boy and die."
Nick’s breathing intensified.
War slammed him back against the wall three times, trying to crush his windpipe. The plaster of the wall cracked into a spiderweb pattern. War’s actions split Nick’s lips and the knuckles of the hand he held him by, causing their blood to mix. He tightened his grip, waiting for the light to fade from the man’s eyes as he died.
It didn’t. Instead, red laced itself through Nick’s dark pupils, turning them the color of blood before the red spread through the swirling silver of his irises.
Before War could move, Gautier slammed his hand against his arm, breaking his hold.
Shocked, War stumbled back.
Nick’s skin darkened three shades. Panting, he looked at War. "What’s happening to me? What’d you do?"
Gautier blocked his punch with his arm, then head-butted War hard. He staggered back as he realized the impossible.
He was about to seriously get his ass kicked.
STRYKER HAD ONLY TAKEN TWO STEPS TOWARD his room with Zephyra to release Medea when a bright light illuminated the hallway. No one should be able to breach the sanctity of this hall without his invitation. . . .
Frowning, he turned to find War, who looked extremely pissed as the spirit appeared before them.
"Is something wrong?" he asked War.
"Is something wrong?" he repeated. "Surely you’re not that stupid, are you?"
"Apparently I am, because unless Acheron and Nick are dead, I can think of no reason for your presence here."
War walked slowly toward him, nostrils flaring. "Dead? You fool, are you really so stupid?"
Stryker narrowed his eyes as his anger ignited. "At least I’m not the one wasting time with repetitious insults. Either explain yourself or get out."
"Fine. Let me try this in a manner that even an imbecile can comprehend. When you summoned me, you forgot to tell me a couple of extremely important facts. Acheron isn’t just a god. He’s Chthonian, protected by another Chthonian and a Charonte army."
Folding his arms over his chest, Stryker let out an agitated breath. Why would that matter to something like War? It was why Stryker had gone to him to begin with. If Acheron wasn’t so damned hard to kill, he’d have done it himself centuries ago. "You were created to kill the Chthonians. That shouldn’t be a problem for you."
"You should have warned me."
As if that would matter? "Trivial details. I thought you could handle it."
"I can kill him. It will just take more time."
"You neglected to tell me about Nick Gautier."
"What about him? He’s a Dark-Hunter. A worthless human who sold his soul to Artemis to serve in her army. Surely the great War isn’t afraid of the likes of him."
War scoffed. "Dark-Hunter, my ass. Gautier is a Malachai, you stupid son of a bitch."
Stryker bristled under the insult. "A what?"
"Malachai," Zephyra repeated, her tone reverent. "Are you sure?"
War turned his dark gaze on her and nodded. "In all the universe a Malachai is the only thing that can kill me."
Stryker made a sound of disgust deep in his throat. "You’ve got to be kidding me. I thought you were the most powerful of beings. Even the gods fear you."
"We all have predators," War growled. "The entire universe exists in a system of checks and balances. I just met my zero balance."
Stryker cursed. "Are you honestly telling me that the most powerful creature on this planet is a pathetic Cajun guttersnipe who offed himself because one of my men killed his mommy?"
His sarcasm was equally matched by War’s. "Unless you happen to have a Sephiroth just lying around here someplace sunning himself, yeah."
"What the hell’s a Sephiroth?"
Zephyra laughed as she came up behind him to place her hand on his shoulder. "Stryker, you poor baby, you have been living in this hole for far too long."
"What do you mean?"
"What I mean, dear man, is if you want Gautier dead, then come talk to Mama. It seems your negotiating power over me just ended. Oooo, baby, this is going to get good now."
NICK LAY ON THE FLOOR, TREMBLING AND IN A cold sweat as he tried to focus. It was no use. Everything swam before his eyes. His body felt like it was black asphalt at three o’clock on a late August afternoon in the French Quarter.
What was happening to him?
"Sh . . ." A tender hand brushed his sweaty hair back from his face.
Looking up, he found Menyara there. Tiny and beautiful, her Creole skin was the perfect cafe au lait color. Her green eyes watched him with concern. "It’s all right, mon petit ang," she said in a deep voice that had always reminded him of Eartha Kitt’s.
"What are you doing here?" he asked, his voice thick and scratchy.
"I felt your powers unlock and came as soon as I could."
He frowned in confusion. "What?"
Menyara shook her head as she gathered him into her arms and held him like she’d done when he’d been a scared little boy afraid of the neighborhood bullies. "My poor Ambrosius. You’ve been through so much already. Now there’s something I’d hoped I’d never have to tell you . . ."
"I DON’T UNDERSTAND." STRYKER SHOOK HIS head, trying to make sense of what Zephyra and War had told him. "How can Nick Gautier be this supremely powerful creature? He’s a worthless gnat."
War took a deep breath before he spoke in an impatient tone. "When the Primus Bellum was fought, the darkest power-the Mavromino-created the Malachai to bring down the Sephirii. Guardians and consorts of the first order of gods, the Sephirii were soldiers who enforced the original laws of the universe. When the Mavromino turned against the Source and thought to end all creation, the Sephirii were unleashed to kill him. Most of them flew into traps. But enough Sephirii survived to declare war on the Malachai, and they would have destroyed them had they not been betrayed by one of their own."
"There’s always one, isn’t there?" Stryker asked rhetorically. In every house, there was always one malcontent jealous prick out to destroy everyone else just for spite. The entire history of the earth was written in the blood of those betrayed by the very people they’d foolishly trusted.
He looked at War. "So how many Malachai are there now?"
"There should be none. When the truce finally came, both sides agreed to execute their own soldiers. All of the Malachai and Sephirii were then put down."
"Except for one," Zephyra said, stepping forward. "The Betrayer who’d helped Mavromino was to live on to suffer and to see what he’d done. His powers were bound and he was to be forever shamed and enslaved."
War nodded. "Checks and balances. Apparently when they allowed the one Sephiroth to live, the primal order allowed a Malachai to escape as well. And today, I met the last of their breed."
Fucking figured. Stryker should have known it wouldn’t be so easy to kill off the two men who aggravated him most. But then, on the bright side, it made him feel better that War was having as hard a time bringing them down as he had. At least it wasn’t a question of his lacking skill.
The universe just basically sucked and blew.
"Where is this Sephiroth?" Stryker asked Zephyra.
"In Greece. In the last functioning temple of Artemis."
Stryker snorted as realization stung him. He knew instantly who the Sephiroth was and why he’d been so abused. "Jared."
She inclined her head in a sarcastic gesture. "Jared."
Which begged one extremely important question. "And just how did you happen to come into possession of him?"
She refused to answer. "All that matters is that I own him and he will do whatever I say without question."
Yeah, right. She seemed a little too optimistic for his mental health. "He didn’t seem so compliant when I met him."
"Perhaps not, but he will do as we want. Trust me."
Stryker was less than convinced. Still, he noted her peculiar choice of pronoun. "We?"
"You want Gautier dead. I want you dead. Personally I don’t care if this Gautier lives or dies, but if he is a threat to my Sephiroth, I want him terminated, too. Best to catch him before he learns to use his powers."
Stryker smiled. "A woman after my own heart."
For once her look was seductive and it made him hard just to see it. "You’re absolutely right about that. Nothing would please me more than ripping that organ out of you and feasting on it."
War arched a brow at her open hostility. "Mmm, a woman I can relate to. Please tell me you’re unattached."
"She’s my wife," Stryker snapped.
"Was," Zephyra corrected quickly. "You seem to have forgotten an important verb tense." She looked up at War. "He divorced me."
War lifted her hand to his lips and placed a tender kiss on her knuckles. "Pleased to meet you, my lady. What name do I apply to one so fair and vicious?"
"Like the wind. Soft and gentle."
She gave him a sly smile. "And capable of utter destruction when riled."
He sucked in his breath in sharp appreciation. "I commend you, Stryker. You have excellent taste in women. Too bad you weren’t man enough to hold on to her."
Against his better sense, Stryker shoved him away from her. "Zephyra is mine. You’d do well to remember that."
War looked less than intimidated as he turned to address Zephyra. "After you kill him, give me a call and I’ll show you what a real man is capable of. In the meantime, if we’re going to kill the Malachai, and I definitely am in for that, we need to get started. Every second we delay, his powers grow."
"Then back to Greece to release my Sephiroth." She looked at Stryker. "Return me to my temple."
JARED SIGHED AS HIS BLOODIED AND RAW WRISTS throbbed in utter agony. How he wished he could die. But this was his fate for all eternity.
It’s what you deserve, traitor.
Perhaps it was. But at the time he’d done it, he’d made the only decision he’d been able to.
Leverage. Life was all about leverage and the balance of power had never been with him. All creatures were victims of their births and families. With all the power he commanded, not even he had been immune. Disgusted by that, he tensed as he felt a foreign ripple through the air around him. He knew that sensation . . .
An instant later, clarity came as the door opened to admit his bane Zephyra and two men. One was the Daimon demigod again. The other . . .
Bravo that. They needed the spirit of war awakened like he needed a hot poker shoved up his ass. Keep that idea to yourself, boy. You don’t need to give Zephyra any more suggestions on how to make you suffer.
True enough. She lived to make him beg her for mercy.
Jared met Zephyra’s hostile glare and knew instantly why they were there. "It never fails to amaze me what people will do to have their way. I won’t kill him for you. You know better than to ask that of me."
Zephyra tsked as she pulled a dagger out of her boot. "Why do we have to play this game, Jared? You know my thoughts. I know you’re already in my head reading them. Now be a good boy and do what I say."
He was so tired of following orders. Of having no will of his own. It was time he stopped serving and took control of his miserable life. "I don’t care what you do to me."
She ran a deceptively tender hand down his grizzled cheek, making him ache for a real caress. One that wouldn’t turn vicious on him. "I know you don’t. But we both know you don’t feel that way about your little friend. Him you would die to protect."