Dev stalked through Nick’s Bourbon Street mansion searching for a sign of the little prick. He had to have gone somewhere. It wasn’t like Nick had simply vanished into nothing. And this was still the most likely place to find him. No matter what, Nick would always return to his home. The fact he was here as a Dark-Hunter after only having died a couple of years ago said it all. Artemis normally required a minimum of a hundred years to pass before a Dark-Hunter returned to the city he’d been killed in—the idea was that after that amount of time any immediate friends and family would be dead and the memories wouldn’t be quite so harsh. But Nick needed his touchstone—this house and this city. He couldn’t function without them. It was like New Orleans fed his soul, which Dev could understand. And right now he was grateful for that because it would bring Nick back into his circle.
Yeah, Ethon had told him he’d stopped by earlier looking for him and he wasn’t here, but it wasn’t the same.
Ethon wasn’t out to kill him. He only wanted to hurt the Cajun.
Dev intended to use Nick’s entrails as shoelaces, but first he needed Nick’s fresh scent. No one betrays me. No one. There was too much history between him and Nick for Dev to let this one go. The fact that the little Cajun guttersnipe had brought Daimons into his home—no, his room—was a declaration of war. Nick had offered all of them up to the Daimons and Dev wanted a piece of him so bad he could already savor it. Not to mention the small fact that Nick had hurt Sam.
Yeah, the bastard was going to pay with his life.
But Nick wasn’t here and from the looks and faint smell of things, he hadn’t been in here in a couple of days. The house appeared to have been abandoned. The bed wasn’t slept in. There were no dirty towels or even a wet sink to say he’d brushed his teeth or bathed. His Jaguar XK-R was still parked in the garage. None of his clothes or shoes seemed to be missing.
Weird. Where could he have gone? Nick had told his guard Dogs that he was going to bed. No one had seen him since and that had been four days ago.
Leaving the immaculate bedroom, Dev paused in the upstairs hallway as he spied one of the pictures on the wall that made up a huge montage of Nick’s early life—something his mom must have placed here. While Nick could be an arrogant ass, he usually wasn’t conceited.
The photo that drew his attention was one of him, Nick’s mom, Aimee, and Nick, who’d been around the age of fifteen at the time. The women had been trying to get a good photo with him, but Nick had been Nick—goofing off and cutting up. So Dev had come up behind him and wrapped him in a headlock. Dev’s mom had snapped the photo that had Nick laughing while Dev pretended to choke him and Aimee and Nick’s mother had feigned shock. It was a really cute photo.
And that one moment made him take a step back from what was going on. How could that boy have grown into a man who’d threaten Dev’s family? Nick had fought on their side against the wolf pack just a few months back. Sanctuary was as much his home as this house was and while Nick wasn’t quite right anymore, he wasn’t that different.
Was he? Could he really have betrayed them all?
What if he didn’t and you’re wrong about him? What if he had a reason for what he’d done?
Something strange was going on. In his gut, he knew it.
Now that he thought more about it, Nick wouldn’t have breached Sanctuary without a damn good reason. The Cajun might be a lot of things, but he’d never been a turncoat.
“Boy, what have you gotten yourself into?”
“We have a problem.”
Acheron froze as Urian materialized directly in front of him. Thank the gods he’d pulled on a pair of pajama bottoms before he came into the kitchen to get his wife the bowl of Chunky Monkey ice cream she’d been craving. Otherwise Urian would now be blind and he’d be even more pissed at the interruption. “Were you raised in a barn?”
A loud knock sounded on the back door.
Acheron rolled his eyes at Urian’s sarcasm when it was obvious Urian had thrown the sound as a “screw you” to him. Lucky for you, I just had great sex with my wife that put me in such a happy place not even your assholishness can disturb it. Otherwise Urian would have been a flaming stain on the wall. “What’s up?”
“Dev’s not on crack.”
Acheron licked the back of the spoon before he set it in the sink. “Never thought he was…. Ketamine maybe, but never crack. Why did you?”
Urian watched Ash return the ice cream carton to the freezer. “I just came away from a chat with one of my old friends.” A term Urian reserved to describe one of the Daimons who still served his father. At one time, Urian had been Stryker’s right hand. But that had been before Stryker had cold-bloodedly murdered Urian’s wife and cut Urian’s throat, then left him for dead. And to think, Urian was such a rotten bastard that he carried a grudge against his father for that.
Stryker was seriously lacking a screw in his drawer.
“He told me that the Daimons are able to take gallu demon souls into their bodies and that Stryker is converting his army with their blood.”
Acheron froze at those words. The Sumerian gallu powers were intense. The ultimate in evil, one of them in a Daimon’s body would make one hell of a weapon. More than that, gallu bites turned the victims into mindless drones. One could make thousands.
Crap. A Daimon would now be able to make more of their kind.
Ash could take one down without breaking a sweat, but a normal Dark-Hunter…
That would be bloody indeed. If not fatal.
“What’s Stryker planning?” he asked Urian.
He gave Ash a stare that doubted his mental functionality. “What he’s always wanted. To kill my grandfather and subjugate the humans.”
Ash returned the “duh” expression. “I didn’t ask for the goal, Urian. I’ve known that. What I need is the game plan. Why is he converting his people?” Ash’s phone rang. He started to ignore it until he saw it was from Ethon.
Sighing, he looked at the bowl of melting ice cream on the counter. Tory hated ice cream soup. He refroze it then flashed it upstairs to where she waited in bed for him while he answered his call. Good thing his wife was used to his weirdness and would understand why he didn’t deliver it himself.
However that didn’t stop the fact that he felt like whimpering over the interruption of what he’d planned on doing with the ice cream and his wife….
Some days his job seriously sucked. Why couldn’t humanity clean up after themselves?
He flipped open his phone.
“Nick is working with the Daimons,” Ethon said without preamble.
“Nice hearing from you too, Spartan. Care to tell me why you think this?”
“’Cause the little shit tried to kidnap Sam out of Sanctuary. He was there in all his glory, offering her up to our enemies.” Ethon continued speaking after that, but Acheron didn’t hear a single word of it.
Instead he saw images in his head that he couldn’t quite place. Something was profoundly wrong with this entire scenario. He knew that Nick was tied by blood to Stryker, but Nick had been fighting that bond….
Had something happened to put him back under Stryker’s command?
No. No way. Nick was too stubborn for that. Not even Ash could control him.
He hung up the phone and met Urian’s curious gaze. “Get over to the Charonte Club and ride herd on Dev and Sam. Anything comes at her, I don’t care who or what, you protect her.”
“Okay. What’s going on?”
“Just do it.” Ash didn’t explain himself to others. Ever. He honestly had no idea why Stryker would want Sam, but whatever the reason it had to be diabolical. Stryker didn’t move without purpose and precision. And because Stryker’s actions directly affected Ash, he couldn’t use his powers to see what the hell the bastard was doing.
Ash summoned his Charonte protector, who currently resided on his biceps in the form of a dragon tattoo. Simi peeled herself off to take human form in front of him. Appearing around the age of nineteen, she was only slightly shorter than his six-foot-eight stance even though she could pick any height she wanted. Her long black hair with a red stripe in the front matched his and she was dressed in a short plaid skirt, tall biker boots, and a black leather corset.
She flashed a set of happy fangs at him. “Hola, akri. We going to the movie now with Akra-Tory and Marissa and N.J.? The Simi wanna see that tall green ogre man ’cause he reminds her of her uncle—”
“Not quite yet.” He hated to interrupt her word flow, but Simi had a tendency to babble on forever at times. Which he loved, and it was usually humorous as hell, but right now they had to stay focused. “I need a favor, Sim.”
Her eyes lit up as she rubbed her hands together in excitement. “I get to eat something you don’t like? Can I eat the bitch-goddess finally? She be tasty with the right sauce! Take the bitter right out of her meat.” She grinned widely.
Ash laughed before he kissed her on the forehead. “Not quite. I want you to go upstairs and guard Tory for me.”
Simi gasped. “Akra-Tory okay? Our baby not hurt, is it?”
When he’d first told Simi Tory was pregnant, he’d been terrified Simi would be jealous since she was technically his baby and had been for eleven thousand years. Instead, she’d been as thrilled about it as they were and now she claimed part ownership.
“She’s fine, Sim. I just don’t want to leave her alone while I do something.” And if anyone was dumb enough to come at his wife and powerful enough to break the shield he’d put around his house, he wanted Simi here to tear them to pieces.
Simi was the only person he trusted with his wife.
“Tell Tory I had an emergency and that I’ll be back real quick.”
Simi cocked her head suspiciously. “Where akri going the Simi can’t go with him?”
“Out, Sim. Now please protect her and remember, anyone tries to hurt her, don your mitt, baby, and feast on their entrails.”
She saluted him before she vanished.
Ash summoned his street clothes—a long black leather coat, black jeans, and a T-shirt—before he flashed himself from their small modest house in New Orleans to Artemis’s temple on Mount Olympus. From the outside the temple was beautiful. Made of gold with forest and nature scenes emblazoned all over it. But it, like Artemis, was definitely a case of skin deep.
His gut twisted in anger as he was forced to go to the place where the bitch-goddess had once tortured him. He hated this temple with a passion that burned as deep as a thousand suns. Now that he was free of Artemis and had discovered what being with someone who really loved him was like, it was hard to go back even for a visit.
He forced eleven thousand years of bitter resentment down as he walked through the gilded doors then pulled up short.
The temple was completely devoid of people. Not even Artemis’s handmaidens were in attendance. Oh, this ain’t good. He felt sick as he recognized what that meant.
Nick, you poor sonofabitch. What are you doing?
That boy had always possessed a suicidal streak in him and it made Acheron sick to see how badly he and Artemis had screwed up Nick’s happy-go-lucky life. Guilt gnawed at him, but there was nothing he could do about the past.
This was about the future.
“Artemis?” Ash called. His deep voice echoed through the marbled room.
She instantly appeared in front of him. Perfect in a way only a goddess could be, she was dressed in her customary white sheath dress that hugged her voluptuous body. Long red hair framed a face so perfect it was hard to even look at it. Yet his centuries of being under her thumb robbed him of the ability to appreciate anything other than her absence, and that he was truly grateful for when it came.
She chewed her long, red thumbnail as she shifted from foot to foot. Ash let out a long-suffering sigh. By the nervous way she was twitching, he knew it was going to be bad.
“What’s going on?”
She bit her lip before she answered, and tried to look innocent. She failed miserably. “What do you mean?”
“Dammit, Artemis, don’t play this shit with me. I’m done. Where’s Nick?”
Growling, he grabbed her arm and pulled her toward him. Yes, it was rougher than it should have been, but she’d brutally beaten him for centuries and then tried to kill his wife. She was lucky he was a forgiving god, otherwise…
“I know he’s here. I traced his powers. You seem to forget I’m one of the handful of gods who can do that.”
She swallowed before she gestured to her bedroom.
More nausea consumed him as he realized what that meant. “You tied him to you?”
She shrugged his hand off her arm. “What business is it of yours? You left me, remember?”
It amazed him that she made it sound like he was the one in the wrong given what she’d put him through. But she was right about one thing. It wasn’t his business. Nick was a grown…what ever the hell he was.
Still, this was beyond the pale. She’d now aligned herself to one of the beings who wanted him dead.
Great. Just great. He saw this train wreck coming and unfortunately, his foot was caught in the rails.
“You are such a piece of work,” he snarled. Stepping past her, he used his powers to sling open her bedroom doors. They made a resounding crash as they hit the walls.
The moment he entered her room, he froze.
As expected, Nick was naked on her bed. However, he was in the throes of some kind of fever. Completely unconscious, his entire body glistened with sweat. But what concerned Ash most was that Nick whispered in a language Ash didn’t know. As a god, there wasn’t supposed to be a language he couldn’t speak or comprehend.
He had no idea what Nick was saying. Was it gibberish? And yet it sounded too precise and formed to be random. The hairs on the back of his neck stood tall.
Ash glared at Artemis. “What have you done to him?”
Artemis shrugged as she moved to stand a few feet from the white ivory bed that was shrouded by sheer gold drapes. “Nothing. He’s been cooling down for over a day now.”
“Burning up, Artie. The words are ‘burning up.’” Why couldn’t she ever get her colloquialisms straight?
“Oh, what ever.” That lackadaisical attitude made him want to choke her. Nick could have died and her only care would be how to dump his body without the other gods seeing her.
Trying not to think about that, Ash lifted Nick’s eyelid to see that his eyes were demon red. His skin burned like the fires of hell. Nick’s fangs were longer than normal. Serrated.
What was going on? Was he mutating into something else?
Most of all, who or what had control of him?
“How long has he been like this?” He made a sound of disgust before she could answer. What a stupid question. Time had no meaning to Artemis. “Did he say anything before he fell ill?”
Aggravated, Ash used his powers to delve into what had happened between them. All he saw was them having sex and then Nick falling back in pain.
He hadn’t moved since. But as Ash delved deeper, he went from this Nick to other Nick incarnations. And there he saw…
Artemis jumped. “What?”
Ash ignored her as he jolted Nick with a vicious god bolt straight to his heart.
Nick came out of his coma swinging. Especially once he saw it was Ash who’d hit him. He moved to grab Ash, but Ash spun away, out of his reach. Nick let out a furious grunt. “What the hell are you doing here, asshole?”
Ash put a little more distance between them. Not out of fear of Nick hurting him, but out of fear he might hurt Nick. “I would ask the same thing about you.” He glanced to Artemis. “I would have thought you knew better.”
Nick lunged at him.
Ash shielded his body so that Nick couldn’t come near him—again for Nick’s protection. The Cajun had a way and a mouth on him that eroded all of Acheron’s patience and motivated him to violence faster than Artemis stalking him.
“Do you remember what happens when a demon masquerades as someone?” Ash asked.
Oblivious to the fact he was completely naked, Nick sneered at him. “What kind of stupid question is that? Of course I do.”
The victim being duplicated was left comatose…
Ash narrowed his gaze on Nick. “What was the last day you remember?”
Ash shook his head. “It’s Saturday, Nick. You’ve been in a coma for three and a half days.” He used his powers to pick up Nick’s hand and rub it against the whiskers on his cheeks that confirmed what Ash was telling him.
That finally took away some of his bluster. “What?” Then he stiffened. “Quit playing with my hand, you friggin’ perv.”
Ash released him and manifested a blanket over him. “Dude, I’m not the one standing with my schlong hanging out. Have some dignity.”
Nick flipped him off before he wrapped the blanket around his waist.
Ash ignored his hatred. “Just so you know, Gautier, I have a couple of Dark-Hunters and Were-Hunters who want a piece of your ass because they think you attacked Sanctuary.”
Nick gaped. “I haven’t been near it since the wolves attacked.”
“I know. I’m just updating you on what’s going on since you were kind enough to loan your body to someone who’s been masquerading as you and turning your protectors against you.”
Nick cursed, then glanced at Artemis as if remembering her presence. He actually blushed before he returned to glaring at Ash. “I’m going to kill Stryker.”
“Stay away from him. You haven’t mastered enough of your powers yet to even think about taking him on. Trust me. All you’d do right now is make him a nice mincemeat pie.”
Nick fell silent before he said something to betray himself. He had more abilities than Acheron knew about and for some reason they seemed to be growing exponentially. He wasn’t the weak-kneed neophyte. But Ash didn’t need to know that.
Nick flinched as a peculiar surge went through him. He’d been getting them a lot lately and he didn’t know why. Sharp and intense, they took his breath. Another one shot up his spine, driving him to his knees.
“Nicky?” Artemis ran to his side.
Nick held her back as weird images danced in his head. He saw things from his past rearrange…. People he didn’t know and others who’d died…
“You all right?” Ash asked.
No, but he wasn’t about to admit that to Ash. No one would ever again know his weaknesses. What was going on was his business. Ash had already betrayed him once. He wasn’t about to give him another chance to damage his life, such as it was.
And in his head, he heard the voices that had been getting louder lately. Voices that wanted him to hurt the people around him. They were so seductive and with them came a power so fierce it was hard to resist.
He felt his eyes turning red.
There was a raw, primordial power coming and it was out for blood. The only question was, whose?