Strider, keeper of the demon of Defeat, burst through the towering front doors of the Budapest fortress he shared with a growing cast of friendsbrothers and sisters by circumstance rather than blood, but all the closer for itfighting a rush of undeniable pleasure.
He'd freaking done it, man. Done. It.
After chasing his enemy cross-continent, bargaining away one of the four godly relics needed to find and destroy Pandora's boxand yeah, he was gonna get spanked hard for thatthen, after being eaten alive by insects and at one point (cough) walking into a chick's knife (cough), he'd finally won. And damn if he wasn't ready to celebrate.
"I'm king of the world, bitches. Come in here and bask in my glory." His voice echoed through the foyer, expectant, eager.
No one returned the greeting.
Still. Grinning, he shifted the unconscious female draped over his shoulder into a more comfortable position. More comfortable for him.
She was the enemy he'd been chasing, as well as the chick who'd oh, so impolitely introduced his pancreas to the freaking hilt of her blade. He could hardly wait to tell everyone that he'd done what they hadn't. He'd bagged and tagged her, baby.
He called, "Daddy's home. Somebody? Anybody?"
Again, there was no response. His grin dulled a bit.
Damn it. When he lost a single challenge, he battled crippling pain for days. When he won, though
gods, it was almost a sexual high, energy buzzing in his veins, heating him, priming him. That kind of enthusiasm called for a playmate. And, hell, twelve warriors and their menagerie of female companions lived here, yet no one had waited around to welcome him home? Even though the grounds were now gated, monitored, and someone had had to punch him in, like, five minutes ago? Didn't that just figure.
But he deserved it, he supposed. Seven days had passed since he'd last texted or phoned. Technically, though, that wasn't his fault. He'd been a wee bit preoccupied, what with subduing his bundle of anything but joy. And on his last update, he'd been told the danger here had passed and everyone could return, so he'd stopped the I-have-to-know-how-everyone's-doing flurry of calls.
So, fine. No biggie. The fact that no one wanted to play actually did him a solid. Now he could take care of a little business. "Thanks, guys. You're the best. Really." And you can all suck it!
Strider surged forward. To console himself, he imagined his prisoner's expression when she woke up and found herself trapped in a four-by-four cage. Now that's the good stuff.
Then his gaze snagged on his unfamiliar surroundings, and the last vestiges of his grin fell away. He stopped abruptly.
He'd been gone only a few weeks, and he'd thought most of the others had, too, but in that time someone had managed to turn the rundown monstrosity they called home into a showpiece. Once comprised of crumbling stone and mortar, the floor was now brilliant white marble veined with amber. Equally deteriorated walls were now vividly polished rosewood.
Before, the winding staircase had been cracked; now it gleamed, not a flaw in sight, an unblemished gold railing climbing to the top. In the corner, a white velvet-lined chair was pushed against reflective paneling, and beyond that, priceless artifactscolorful vases, bejeweled trinket boxes, and aged spearheadswere perched behind glass cases.
None of which had been there before.
All these changes, in less than a month? Seemed impossible, even with Titan gods popping in and out at will. Maybe because those gods were more concerned with murder and mayhem than interior decorating. But maybe
maybe while Strider had been congratulating himself on a job well done, he'd entered the wrong house? It had happened before.
And talk about awkward. There was no way to explain the cut, bruised and soot-covered baggage he was hauling around. Not without a little jail time. Explaining the blood splatter on his clothing would be a real treat, too.
Nah, he decided a second later. This was the right place. Had to be. Along the staircase wall hung a portrait of Sabin, keeper of Doubt. Naked. Only one person had the balls to taunt badass Sabin with something like that. Anya, goddess of Anarchy and dealer of disorder, who just happened to be engaged to Lucien, keeper of Death. Odd pair, if you asked Strider, but no one had, so he'd kept the opinion to himself. Besides, better silence than the loss of a favorite appendage. Anya didn't take kindly to anyone second-guessing her. About anything.
"Yo, Tor Tor," he shouted now.
Torin, the keeper of the demon of Disease. Dude never left the fortress. He was always here, monitoring camera feed, ensuring the home remained invasion-free, as well as playing on his computers and making their miniature, by-invitation-only army a shitload of cha-ching.
At first, there was no reply, only another echo of his voice, and Strider began to worry. Had something catastrophic happened? A total demon wipeout? If so, why was he
still here? Or had Kane, keeper of All Kinds of Bad Shit, had a crappy week and
Footsteps pounded, closer and closer, and relief flooded him. He looked up the staircase, and there was Torin, standing on a zebra-print rug Strider also didn't recall seeing before, his white hair shagging around his devil's face, his green eyes bright as emeralds. He wore black from neck to toe, his hands covered by soft leather gloves. Fashion-wise, those gloves were overkill. To save mankind, though, they were kinda necessary.
"Welcome home," Torin said, adding, "You shithead."
"You don't call, you don't write, and you want hearts and flowers?"
"Yeah, I do."
A single touch of Torin's skin against another's, and hello plague. Guy's demon pumped some kind of disease in his veins, that single touch all that was needed to spread it. Even to Strider. But immortal as he was, Strider wouldn't die from a little cough/fever/vomiting of blood. Not like humans, who would be ravaged, perhaps worldwide, the infection becoming nearly unstoppable. Strider would
give the illness to everyone he touched in turn, though, and as he moderately enjoyed seducing humans, he relied on skin-to-skin action.
"So, everything good here?" Strider asked. "Everyone fine?"
"Now you want to know?"
"Figures. Well, for the most part, alls well. A lot of the guys are out hiding artifacts, and looking for the last one. Those who aren't are hunting Galen." Torin took the stairs two at a time and stopped at the bottom, remaining out of striking distance. As always. His gaze flicked to the female, and amusement expanded his pupils, hiding whatever emotion had been banked there before. "So you're the next of us to fall in love, huh? Sucker! I thought you'd have more sense."
"Please. I want nothing to do with this raging bitch." A lie. During their seemingly eternal trek, he'd found himself desiring her more and more. And hating
himself more and more. She might be sex walking, but she was also death waiting.
Too-pretty-to-be-male lips curved in sheer delight. "That's what Maddox said about Ashlyn. What Lucien said about Anya. What Reyes said about Danika. What Sabin"
"Okay, okay. I get it." Strider rolled his eyes. "You can shut up now." While he would admit the girl's punked-out style appealed to him, he'd never be dumb enough to try and tap that.
He liked his women compliant. And sane.Liar. You like this one.
He wished he could blame his demon for that admission, but
Even now, simply thinking about her, his body was tensing, readying.
Torin crossed his arms over his chest. "So what is she? A human with a supernatural ability? A goddess? A Harpy?"
The guys here did
have a propensity for choosing females of "myth" and "legend." Females far more powerful than their demons. Ashlyn could hear voices of the past, Anya could start fires with her mind (among other things), Danika could see into heaven and hell, and Sabin's wife, Gwen
well, she had a dark side you saw just before you died. Painfully.
"My friend, what I've got here is a bonafide Hunter." Strider slapped her ass as if a fly was perched there and he couldn't live another second without smashing it. The action was a reminder that she meant nothing to him. Although why he didn't tell his friend which
Hunter she was, when he'd been so excited before, he didn't know. Actually, he did know. Fatigue. Yeah, he was tired, that was all, and didn't want to have to deal with all the praise. Tomorrow, after a nice long rest, he'd spill everything.
The girl offered no reaction to his slap, but then, he hadn't expected her to. He'd repeatedly drugged her as he'd dragged her from one corner of the world to the other. From Rome to Greece to New York to LA and finally to Budapest, leading her brethren on a merry chase as they attempted to save her.
Something they would never do.We won!
his demon laughed.Damn right we did.
He shivered in delight.
"Hunter?" All amusement fled his friend's face, the light dying in his eyes, turning those emeralds into sharp, deadly blades.
"Afraid so." Hunters. Their greatest enemy. The fanatics who wanted to destroy them. The bastards who considered them evil, beyond redemption, and the scourge of the earth. The assholes who blamed them for all the world's heartache. Best yet, they were the militia Strider was going to send to the hottest depths of hell, one soldier at a time. Or, with grenades, a few hundred at a time. Depended on his mood, he supposed.
"You should have offed her already," Torin remarked. "Now Sabin will want to talk with her."
"Talk" equaled torture in Sabin's mind. "I know he will. That's why she's still alive." She knew things about the gods pulling their strings, and could do things, impossible things, like cause weapons to materialize from thin air. Something only angel warriors could do. Or so he'd thought. Problem was, she wasn't an angel. And not just because she lacked wings. Girl had a temper.
Strider wanted to know how much she knew and how she did what she did.
More than that, he hadn't been able to do his jobaka dispose of Hunter trashwhen he'd been alone with her. Every time he'd tried, he'd looked at her beautiful face and hesitated. The hesitation had given way to desire, and he'd started battling urges to kiss her rather than "off" her.
Sabin wouldn't let him get away with that shit. Sabin would ride his ass until he acted. Strider would have no choice but to step up to the plate and knock the ball out of the park. Because.His hands curled into fists. Because this woman, this walking atrocity.
His teeth gritted, and his jaw clenched so tightly the ache shot through his temples and straight into his brain. He experienced the same reaction every time he considered what she'd once done. This woman had helped decapitate his friend Baden, once keeper of the demon of Distrust.
Strider could never
forget or forgive that fact.
The savage beheading had taken place thousands of years ago, but the pain inside him was as fresh as if it had happened this morning. Along with his friend, a piece of his own soul had died that day, and as the girl had learned during their trek to this fortress, a good portion of his heart had withered, too.
Mercy wasn't something he possessed. Not anymore. Most especially not for her.
He thought he'd killed her in vengeance already, all those centuries ago. Recalled the slash of his blade, the crimson tide of her blood, and the metallic stench of death wafting on the air. The sound of her body slamming into rock, her last gurgle of breath. Yet here she was, alive and well and driving him flipping insane.
Maybe he had
killed her. Maybe she'd been reborn. Or maybe her soul had been stuffed inside another body. Or maybe this chick was more immortal than as he was and had somehow healed after the unhealable beheading. He didn't know, didn't care.
All that mattered was that she was
Hadiee of Ancient Greece. Well, she called herself Haidee now. From Had-e-ay to Hay-dee. Evidently she'd changed the spelling and pronunciation for "modernization." Not that he gave a shit. He called her Ex, short for Demon Executioner, and that was that.
The proof of her crimes rested in her eyes. Those wintry, callous gray eyes. In the pride that dripped from her voice every time she spoke of that fateful nightI just loved the way his head rolled. Didn't you?
and the stark tattoos etched into her back. Tattoos that kept score. Haidee 1. Lords 4.
She deserved everything he and Sabin would do to her.
"I'm taking her to the dungeon," he said, and he'd never heard such a combination of relish and regret in his own voice before. Once again he started forward, throwing over his shoulder, "If you'd be a sweetheart and let Doubty-Poo know."
"No can do, Stridey-man. There's, uh, something you gotta see." A blast of fear mixed with dread and grim expectation accompanied the words.
Strider halted, one foot raised mid-air. He straightened, still-sleeping baggage nearly sliding to the ground. Slowly he turned, adjusting Ex, and faced Torin, his own sense of dread sprouting as he spied his friend's now pallid skin. White dusted with tiny rivers of blue. "You said everything was fine. What's wrong?"
Torin shook his head. "No way to explain until you've seen. And I said everything was fine for the most part.
Now come on."
"Bring her. She'll be guarded, you'll see." A wave of Torin's hand, and he was racing up the stairs, taking them two at a time.
Dread increasing, Strider followed, Ex bouncing on his shoulder. If she'd been awake, she would have lost her breath, over and over again, grunting from the pain of having her stomach repeatedly slammed into his bone. She also would have fought him with a skill matched by few.
Too bad the drugs had been so potent. A good fight would have settled his nerves.
What was so important that Torin didn't want him taking a few minutes to lock an abominable Hunter away?
His thoughts splintered the moment he hit the landing.
All he could do was gape. Angels. So many angels. No wonder the house had been redecorated. Divine intervention and all that. Angels did like them some pretties.
They stood along the wall, the only space between them filled by the arch of their wings. White feathers laced with gold, the wings of warriors. Their scents perfumed the air, a collage of orchids, morning dew, chocolate and champagne. They ranged in height, though none were shorter than six foot three, and though they wore girly white robes, their muscle mass rivaled Strider's.
Most were male, but all were demon assassins trained to hunt, to destroy, and when warranted, to protect. Since they didn't rush at him, ripping swords of fire from the air, as he knew they were very capable of doing, he assumed they were here for the latter.
--This text refers to the
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