Ethon passed a friendly grin to Scorpio. “Hey, cabrón, they’re not really dogs. You can kill these without guilt, I promise.”
Scorpio pulled two swords out from the top of his boots and extended their blades. “Lo que son?”
Ethon unsheathed a sword of his own. “They’re what happens when the gods get frisky with the wolves. Their offspring make all kinds of sickening things. Right, Fang?”
“Blow me, Greek.”
“You’re not my type.”
Dev rolled his eyes. “The leucrotae were created as guardians to the gods. Their hide is supposed to be so thick it’s impenetrable to just about everything.”
Fang made a sound of utter annoyance. “I guess it’s too much to ask if anyone happens to know a way to kill them?”
Ethon laughed evilly. “Yeah, I think so. Ever play the old arcade game Joust?”
“Remember the invincible dragons?”
Dev grimaced. “The ones you had to stab in the mouth when it was open to kill them?”
“Exactly.” Ethon saluted them with his sword. “May your stab be straight, my friends. If not, I’ll see you in Tartarus…remember to avoid the grapes.”
The first hound to reach them went for Scorpio’s throat. Hairless and bloodred, the hounds had small heads and a bony ridge that ran all the way down their spine to the tip of the burred tails that looked like a pointed mace—a mace they brandished with evil intent. With the teeth of a saber-toothed cat, the leucrotae were a force to be reckoned with.
Sam felt completely helpless as Fang and Dev turned into animals to fight. Scorpio and Ethon hacked at the leucrotae and tried to drive them back into the dark abyss. One of the dogs came at her. Instinctively she tensed in expectation of the fight. But the hound went right up to her, sat on his haunches, then barked twice and returned to the fight.
Two more hounds repeated the gesture, before they went on to ignore her while they attacked the others.
“Lucky you.” Ethon growled as he tried to pound the one off his forearm where its teeth were shredding his flesh.
“Are they made of armor?” Scorpio asked in Spanish.
Ethon cursed. “Not supposed to be. I think their flesh is just that strong. Remember, their weakness is their eyes and the soft tissue of their mouths.”
Sam felt completely helpless as she watched them fighting the hounds. What could she do? She kept trying to hit them, but her arms were worthless.
An idea struck her. She summoned her telekinesis. Throwing her hand out, she mentally grabbed a nearby rock and held her breath, hoping this would work. She concentrated and tried to lift it.
Her heart pounding, she threw it at the hound that was on Dev’s leg. The rock hit it hard enough to knock the hound sideways. It yelped and growled, then returned to the fight as if nothing had happened.
Now that she had a way to fight against the hounds, she joined the fray. She was even able to pry the jaws open on the one that had Ethon.
“Bless you,” he breathed, wringing his arm out of its bloodied razor-sharp jaws. But as soon as he threw that one off, three more latched on. “Gah, whoever heard of piranha Cujo? I am never going to own a dog again or anything that even remotely resembles one.”
Scorpio laughed. “They’re not dogs, amigo. Is that not what you said to me?”
“I lied and now the gods are punishing me for it.” Ethon would be funny if they weren’t all in the process of getting maimed.
Sam used her powers to pull one off Dev. “You should have brought Chi for this.”
Ethon scoffed. “Oh, now why would I want to bring a demon expert into a demon realm to fight demons? Where would the challenge be in that?”
Sam glared at him. “Bite him, Cujo. Right there in the fleshy part of his thigh where it’ll really hurt.”
“Aigh!” Ethon cried as the dog did just what she told him to. He curled his lip at her. “That was wrong. Another inch and I’d be falsetto.”
She ignored his anger as she realized something…had that been a coincidence?
Or did the dogs actually understand her?
It did nothing to stop them. They kept gnawing, biting, and attacking her friends.
Maybe they don’t understand the command.
So she tried something that should make sense to them. “Leucrotae, stamata!”
The hounds let go of their victims and stopped just like she’d ordered.
Holy Zeus…it actually worked. “Ela!” She snapped her fingers to emphasize the “come here” command.
Like clockwork the hounds withdrew to her side. Several of them jumped up as if trying to reach her. “Kato!” True to the word, they settled down.
Ethan’s jaw hung wide open. “I can’t believe it. Sam’s queen of the Damned.”
Neither could she. It was a miracle.
Dev shifted back into human form. Her stomach clenched at the sight of the bleeding wounds on his body. Still, he was gorgeous with his cheeks flushed from the fight and his muscles rigid from the blood pumping through them. “What else can you tell them to do?”
Before she could answer, the ground under their feet began shaking again. The hounds howled, then bolted.
Fang gave a low whistle as he manifested back into a human. “Anyone else think it might be a good idea to follow them?”
Fang returned to his wolf body to chase after the hounds.
In human form, Dev started after him, then slipped as the dirt under his feet parted and sent him sliding sideways. A sharp, pointed boulder shot up from the ground, gouging his side while the black soil under him literally evaporated. There was nothing to hold on to. No way to catch his fall. He was going down.
He knew it.
Suddenly something wrapped around his wrist. Something that stung like a scorpion strike and jerked his arm so hard, he was amazed it was still attached. He dangled precariously over a deep cavern where flames danced, licking at his boots.
Looking up, he saw Scorpio’s determined grimace as he held tight to the whip he’d used to catch Dev before he’d fallen too deep to be saved. “Hold tight, Bear.”
Even though his wrist and forearm were bleeding and burning, Dev wrapped one hand around the coarse, braided leather and grabbed tight with the other. He wasn’t about to let go.
Sam came running. He saw the panic in her eyes that warmed him. Until the ground started shifting under Scorpio’s feet. Gasping, Sam jumped back out of habit.
He heard the sound of the hounds screaming after they fell into the pits and were consumed.
Sam wanted to cry as fear ripped through her. She had to do something. Closing her eyes, she reached deep into her powers to pull Dev up. Because he had his own powers and he was a living organism, it wasn’t as easy to lift him as it had been with the rock. It took a lot more power and she wasn’t used to it.
“Ay Dios,” Scorpio breathed as his feet started slipping. “I can’t hold him.”
The ground under Scorpio crumbled, sending dirt all over Dev. Sam wanted to scream as she saw images of Dev dying in the flames.
There was nothing she could do.
Out of nowhere, Fang shot forward. He knocked Scorpio sideways so hard that it cleared the shattering ground. But the jolt caused Scorpio to let loose the whip.
“Dev!” she screamed.
Ethon dove at the pit.
Sam couldn’t breathe as she closed her eyes. But she couldn’t be blind to Dev’s suffering. He was in this because of her.
I’ve killed him.
Her premonition came back tenfold as bile rose in her throat. Tears scalded her eyes.
“Damn, Bear…what did you eat? How much do you weigh? Ever heard of Weight Watchers? Dude, diet is not a four-letter word for someone who weighs in at a solid freakin’ ton.”
She forced herself to look while Ethon continued berating Dev. To her complete shock, he had the whip and was trying to pull him up.
Fang and Scorpion grabbed Ethon by the waist and added their power to his.
She bit into her knuckle so hard, it bled. Please, please, please…
For the first time in centuries, she felt like the gods were on her side as they hauled him up.
Dev slung his leg over the edge. Ethon grabbed him by the shirt and hauled him clear of the ravine. Then all of the men sprawled out on the ground.
Ethon let out a sinister laugh. “I think I need a vacation.”
Fang groaned. “I need a new backbone that doesn’t feel like someone did a two-step down it with steel-plated razor cleats.”
Scorpion sucked his breath in sharply between his teeth. “I need a belleza well tutored in massage.”
Dev rubbed his bleeding wrist. “I’m going with Scorpion. Except my bonita is unfortunately intangible at the moment, which doesn’t do me any good.”
Everyone went silent as they became aware of the fact that Dev had just proclaimed her his. Publicly. Sam was stunned by his words.
“Oh, c’mon, people,” Ethon said in a mocking tone. “We’re all adults. Not like we didn’t know what was going on between them. You know Dev isn’t risking his jewels ’cause she plays a mean game of pool, for Zeus’s sake.”
Fang turned his head to pin Ethon with a gimlet stare. “That explains Dev. I’m here to keep his sister from beating on me if I let him get hurt. Neither of those explain why you two are signed up for this.”
Ethon scoffed. “Mine’s simple. Brain damage.”
Scorpion shook his head. “I just like to kill things.”
Ethon rolled over and pushed himself to his feet. “But not dogs.”
“Sí. No dogs.”
“Why?” Sam asked.
Scorpio didn’t answer as he flipped straight up into a fighting stance.
Dev got up and helped Fang to his feet. “You think there’s a rhythm to when the ground breaks on us or not?”
Sam shook her head. “It’s random.”
Ethon wiped at the blood on his forearm. “At least it got rid of our four-legged piranha problem.”
Yeah, but Sam wasn’t so sure it was a good sign. She glanced around the overexposed landscape. It had such a weird orang-ish hue to everything. It looked like hell had been superimposed over New Orleans. She could see the street that had surrounded their circle. Only instead of a road, it was a burned-out hole. A blistering wind swept against them, making her hair sting her cheeks as it slapped against her face. Weird that she could feel that when she could feel nothing else.
The men were on their feet now, moving toward the bank where water boiled against a dark purple shore. She had an overwhelming urge to hum a spooky tune. But she didn’t think the guys would appreciate it. Plus, they were a little jumpy and on edge as all of them waited for the next attack.
A whistle rent the air.
Dev reached out toward her instinctively. It was an action that made her heart catch. But she wasn’t the one in danger.
And all she wanted to do was wrap her body around his and shield him from harm. If only she could.
Fang turned around looking for the source. “What is that sound?”
Scorpio tucked his whip back around his waist and pulled out his swords again. “Is it just me or does that sound like wings?”
Sam fell quiet to listen.
He was right. It did have that swishing wing sound. Only these had to be huge wings to make the noise she heard.
This wasn’t good.
Dev ground his teeth as he looked for the next threat that was coming for them. His entire body was aching all the way to the marrow of his bones. All he wanted was to find the damn girdle and get out of here before one of them was killed. Most of all, he wanted to go back to when it’d been just him and Sam in her house. To that moment of perfect bliss when there had been no danger. No goal. And they’d been naked in each other’s arms.
Weird how he didn’t want to leave anymore and start over. He was perfectly content to stay, so long as she was with him.
But then life was insidiously evil in that it seemed to always be a study in how hard it could kick you down. Like the king Tantalus that Ethon had mentioned earlier. Life dropped you neck-deep into the water you craved most, then the minute you stooped to drink, it evaporated. It let you starve while succulent grapes hung over your head, so close your fingertips could brush them, then the instant you reached out for one, a phantom breeze would blow them right out of your grasp. All the while you could see your desires so clearly, you could reach out and almost touch them, but you could never have them.
That was what he hated most about it. Life was anti-happy.
He glanced to Sam. Right now, he couldn’t even touch her. She was completely intangible and yet there she shimmered in all her beauty. Calling out to him when he knew he couldn’t have her, couldn’t touch her. And right now, her features were pinched and strained with worry. Of everyone here, he knew exactly how much torture it was for her to not be able to really help them, and all he wanted to do was make it better.
“Mommy? Mommy? Where are you?”
Dev felt sick as he heard the voice of a little girl and saw the devastation on Sam’s face.
“Mommy? I’m so scared. Why did you leave me?”
She started forward.
“Sam!” he snapped at her. “It’s a trick. You know it is.”
Sam wanted to believe it, but the voice…
It was Agaria. She would know that sweet, precious voice anywhere.
“Sam? Is that you? See, Ree, I told you Mommy hadn’t forgotten us. I told you she’d be back.”
Dev’s heart clenched, especially when he saw the pain etched on Ethon’s features. “Damn you, bastards!” Dev roared. “Stop with the cruelty.”
“Devereaux? Is that you, brother?”
Pain lacerated Dev as he heard Bastien’s voice in the strange shadows around him. Before he could stop himself, he’d taken a step toward it.
“Fang? Is that you?”
Fang swallowed hard. “Anya?”
Dev cursed at the name of Fang’s sister who’d been killed by Daimons….
Ethon was the first to come to his senses and completely reject the voices. “It’s the manticore, guys.” He moved to stand in front of them so that they couldn’t head toward the voices. “People, wake up! Listen to me. You’re under a spell. It’s the—”
His words died under an assault of arrows.
Dev hissed as one grazed his arm and laid open his biceps. “Take cover!”
Unfortunately, there wasn’t much cover to be had. One arrow landed deep in his shoulder.
Sam cursed as she saw Dev go down. Her powers dipped, but before they vanished completely, she raised the stones from the ground, giving her friends a modicum of shelter as the arrows rained down on them with such ferocity, she understood how King Leonidas had felt against the Persians. She controlled her rising panic as she heard the manticores drawing closer. They were growling like lions now as they continued to shoot arrows at them from their tails. It was the wickedest of weapons and one that was long range. Damn the gods for that.
And while the manticores had the bodies of lions, they all had the head of a human, which made them some of the deadliest of Greek monsters because they weren’t mindless animals. They could think and deceive and use their voices to mimic others.
Most of all, they could kill up to five hundred feet away. It was why so few people ever saw them. By the time you looked one eye to eye, death was already rattling in your chest.
True to his Spartan nature, Ethon laughed. “We should feel flattered that the gods sent these after us.”
Dev passed him a sneer that said he thought Ethon had been inhaling fumes. “Flattered?”
“Yeah. It means we’re bad ass even to the gods.” He pulled out a handful of shurikens. “C’mon, you bastards! Let’s dance.” He dodged out from behind the rocks to throw them.
Sam ignored him while she studied the arrow in Dev’s shoulder.
“I’ve got it,” Scorpio said, coming to tend the wound.
Dev hissed as Scorpio touched the arrow that was buried deep while Ethon fell back against a rock that shielded him, laughing in triumph.
Dev looked from Ethon to Sam. “Please tell me his brother had better sense.”
“Not really.” She laughed. “He just wasn’t as enthusiastic about his stupidity.”
Ethon tsked. “Ah, Sam, that hurt my feelings.”
She gave him a droll stare. “What are you talking about, E? You don’t have any feelings.”
“Oh yeah. I forgot. But if I did, they’d be aching right now.”
And still the manticores came closer.
“How do we defeat these things?” The words had barely left Fang’s mouth before the ground rumbled again.
With one clean, powerful yank, Scorpio pulled the arrow out of Dev’s shoulder and used his powers to heal the wound. “I’m growing bored with this ground trying to swallow us every few minutes.”
The ground must have heard him. Because this time, it didn’t open below their feet. It rose up like mountains, trying to spear them.
“Head north.” Fang returned to his wolf form.
They ran forward, but it was hard. The earth acted like a dirt geyser, spraying them with rocks and soil. Fang yelped as one foul spewage threw him into the air. He landed a few feet away on his side. Panting, he made no move to get back up.
Dev ran to him. The ground started rising. Tucking Fang under his arm, he pulled him to a safe area.
“Thanks, Scorp.” Ethon curled his lip. “Next time, could you wish for us to be attacked by cotton puffs or something?”
The ground heaved one more time, throwing all of them into the air before it calmed again.
After slamming down hard, Dev lay on his back, panting. Fang was a few feet away. Groaning with a pain they all felt, Scorpio pushed himself up and went to Fang to examine his left leg, which had been injured.
Sam was ill over everything that had happened.
Because of her.
She walked slowly to Dev and sank down beside him. “I’m so sorry I got you into this.”
“Oh please.” He sat up with a light groan. “It’s risk my life here or pick my nose at the door, waiting for some dumbass human to think he can punch Remi or pinch Aimee on the ass. Don’t apologize. I haven’t had this much fun in centuries.”
Sam laughed even though she thought he was insane. “You are so not right.”
Dev smiled at her, wishing he could brush the curls back from her beautiful face. “True, very true.” Only an idiot would fall in love with an Amazon Dark-Hunter.
Dev was startled by that random thought. At first it terrified him until he realized just how true it was.
He loved her.
It defied all logic. It made no sense. And yet it was absolutely true. All he wanted was to protect her. To keep her from harm and make sure nothing in the world ever hurt her again.
No wonder Remi’s insane.
For the first time in his life, he fully understood his brother and why Remi was so angry at the world. Only Remi had it worse. While Dev would have to be man enough to watch Sam go her own way and leave him, he wouldn’t have to see her mated to his own identical brother. See her every day of his life and know that but for a freak accident of mistaken identity she would have been his.
The worst part?
Quinn didn’t love Becca. They were friends and mates, and they took care of each other and their children, but nothing more. There was no passion between them. None of what Dev felt for Sam whenever he looked at her.
What a sick twist of fate that had been.
Too young to know the differences between them, Becca had waylaid Quinn, thinking he was Remi. In Quinn’s defense, he had no idea Remi loved her—Remi never shared things like that. All Quinn had seen was a warm body pawing at him and he’d done what most men would do when a woman showed up naked in their bed. He’d slept with her. Within the hour and just after Becca had realized her mistake, their mating marks had come in and Remi had been forced to step back and watch his brother claim the woman he’d fallen in love with first. The woman who loved him with everything she had, who’d been trying to mate with him and not his identical brother.
Remi had never emotionally recovered from that tragedy.
And while Dev had thought he understood Remi’s pain, it was only now he really got it. The strength of Remi’s character was unfathomable. To have stayed with the family and witnessed their relationship all these years. To have never once cheated on his brother with the woman he loved…
That was what real love was. The ability to put someone else’s happiness above your own no matter how much it killed you to do so.
It was the sacrifice his mother had made. She’d died to keep Aimee from losing her mate.
Remi made that sacrifice every day. While a Were-Hunter male could never cheat on his mate, women could. It would have taken nothing for Remi to cuckold Quinn. And Dev knew for a fact Remi never had. As big of a bastard as his brother could be, Remi had honor and he loved his family even though he still wanted to break Quinn into pieces.
How do you do it? How could Remi have walked away and not killed Quinn? Because right now the thought of not having Sam was more than he could bear.
All he wanted to do was kiss her, even though they were one step away from death.
Dev looked up as a pack of manticores launched out of nowhere to land all around them.
The men pushed themselves up, then put their backs to each other as the manticores circled them while barking and hissing.
“Why aren’t they attacking?” Fang asked.
Ethon shook his head. “It’s like they’re herding us for something.”
Yeah, but what?
Sam moved to hover by Dev’s side. The manticores flicked their tails as they eyed them warily. She swallowed as she watched the arrows swim up their tails. The arrowhead would peek out of the ball of fur on the tip and then slide back down only to head back to the tip as if waiting for it to be flung at a target.
With the faces of men and women, they were creepy-looking.
“You should not be here,” one of the females snarled.
“We’ll be happy to leave.” Ethon flashed a grin at her. “Just let us pass.”
The female hissed at him.
Dev inched closer to the manticores until they turned on him. He stepped back and they retreated. “What do you want with us?”
“They want nothing with you.”
Sam looked up to see a beautiful woman in the leather and gold armor of the Amazon nation. Her flaming red hair glowed in the overexposed light. Her hair was braided and held back from her face by a feathered leather headband. Matching feathers made up the white and brown mantle she wore over her armor as she eyed them with a warrior’s gleam.
This was Aello. There was no doubt she was the girdle’s protector.
“Why do you come here?” Aello demanded.
Ethon held his hands up. “The scenery. My God, have you ever? I mean really. I had a choice. Spend a day in Rio or come to the back door of hell. What can I say? Hell won out.”
Aello angled her spear at his throat. “Are you mocking me?”
Sam used her powers to push the spear away. “Don’t take it personally. He mocks everyone.”
That brought Aello’s stare firmly to rest on Sam. Her green eyes glowed in the strange light. “I know you.”
“No. You died before I was born. I’m the granddaughter of Hippolyte and I’m told I favor her.”
Suspicion hung heavy in her eyes as she measured Sam from the top of her head to the tip of her feet. “You want the girdle.” It was a statement, not a question.
Sam nodded. “It belongs to me. It’s part of my inheritance.”
“And are you Amazon?”
She lifted her chin in pride and indignation that Aello would dare to question her heritage. “I was queen.”
Aello lowered her spear. “Then you know nothing in our tribe is ever freely given. You must earn the right to wear your grandmother’s girdle.”
Ethon scoffed. “Couldn’t we just buy a Playtex?”
“Silence!” Aello jerked the spear and would have beheaded him had he not ducked.
Ethon grabbed the lance and jerked it from her hands. “I’m not—”
Before he could finish, the spear turned on him and beat him down without anyone touching it. It swept his feet out from under him and once he was on his back, it kept slapping the ground on each side of him until he stopped moving. Then it hovered threateningly right above his neck.
Aello called the spear back to her. With a feral grimace at Ethon, she returned her attention to Sam. “Do you accept my challenge?”
Like she had any choice? “I do indeed, but I have no corporeal form, which puts me at a disadvantage.” Something no self-respecting Amazon would accept. There was no dignity in winning over a lesser opponent. Only in defeating the absolute best.
Aello grabbed her and jerked her forward.
Sam’s breath caught as she was transformed back into her body. Not just that, but she no longer wore a T-shirt and jeans. She was now in her warrior’s battle armor.
She’d forgotten how heavy it was. Still, it was a good weight. A familiar weight. And it came complete with all of her weapons.
Oh yeah…with this she could do damage.
Bring those mutant lions forward now and she’d show them the business end of her toys.
Aello nodded in approval. “Now you look like what you claim.”
The armor invigorated her as it reminded her exactly who and what she was. “I am what I claim.”
“We shall see.”
The manticores pushed the men back as Aello moved forward to pull Sam away from them. “The test is simple.” She gestured toward the water.
The dark boiling waves receded. From the sand a pedestal arose. On top of it, in a glass case that held a nest of cobras, was Hippolyte’s shimmering gold girdle.
Aello’s smile didn’t reach her eyes. “You race me to the girdle. She who dons it, owns it.”
“And if I lose?”
Aello didn’t hesitate with her answer. “You all die.”
The manticores laughed happily.
Sam looked at Dev and she saw the concern in his beautiful blue eyes for her. She had no choice in this. If she refused the challenge, Aello would still kill her.
She met Aello’s gaze without flinching and delivered the code of their people. “I am the steel and the hammer that forged a nation never defeated. My arm is without equal and my judgment pure. My heart is fierce and this challenge is met. I will not be defeated. Not by you. Not by anyone. I am Amazonia.”
Aello smirked at her. “Spoken like a true queen. But let’s see if your skills match your tongue.”
Sam gripped her spear with her right hand and her bow with her left. And as Aello sprang forward into the obstacle course without notice, she remembered something crucial about her people.
Amazons always cheated.