Dev held his breath as he watched Sam run to catch up to Aello. He’d known Sam was a fierce fighter, but this was without a doubt the most impressive display of skill he’d ever seen from anyone.
The first test was an open pit that had arrows shooting up from it in random spurts that had no pattern whatsoever. Aello hit it at a dead run. She launched herself into the air and flew to the other side as several of the arrows grazed her, but none did any real damage.
Safely across, she brushed at the bloody patches on her skin and kept going.
Sam took a second to put her bow over her head and shoulders so that it lay diagonally across her back. Tossing her spear to the other side where it embedded itself in the soil, she ran up a side bank and, jumping up, backflipped over to catch four of the arrows that the pit shot out before she landed on the far edge, facing him, right beside her spear. In one fell swoop, she winked at him, put her gathered arrows into the empty quiver on her back, and yanked her spear out of the ground. With a grace that the gods would envy, she turned and ran for the next obstacle.
“Damn,” Fang breathed in awe.
Dev beamed as a wave of fierce possessive desire tore through him. “That’s my girl.”
Ethon scoffed at both of them. “Trust me. You ain’t seen shit she can do. That was child’s play”—something she proved well at the next challenge. There, they had to launch themselves up from a small springboard made of moss to land on single poles jutting out of the ground that were barely as big around as their feet. In fact, they had to stand on their tiptoes to fit. The only problem was the poles weren’t stable and the moment their weight hit the tip, they wobbled, requiring superb balance to keep them from slamming down and crashing into sharp rocks lining the ground.
If that wasn’t difficult enough, Aello attacked her as soon as she was on one, using her spear as a staff. With her own staff in hand, Sam countered the rapid blows that came so fast, Dev heard them more than he saw them. Sam shoved Aello back, then moved to jab her with the tip of her spear.
Aello danced to the next pole and renewed her assault.
Sam followed and the two of them created a frightening ballet of lethal skill as they moved down the line while fighting like juggernauts.
Dev’s heart pounded as he feared for her. One sneeze…one subtle miscalculation and she would slam onto the rocks below and be killed.
Aello jabbed at her feet, requiring her to dance to one pole, then jump to the next. One pole crashed to the ground, splintering into pieces as the rocks rose up literally to devour it.
Without thinking, he took a step forward, intending to lend a hand.
The manticore in front of him reared up and forced him back. “Help her, Bear, and she forfeits.”
And they would all die….
But it was hard to sit back and watch as she risked everything for them.
Sam landed a vicious blow to Aello’s side. The Amazon wobbled and just when Dev was sure she’d go down, she flipped to the ground on the safe side. There, she ran to Sam’s poles and used her spear to start knocking them down before Sam could reach them.
Cursing, Sam ran as fast as she could while maintaining her balance. As Aello knocked over the last, Sam caught it with her foot and literally rode it to land beside Aello.
With a cry of fury, Aello tried to stab Sam. Sam caught her wrist and head butted her, driving her back. She sliced at Aello’s throat. The Amazon barely dodged it before she swung around with a cut Sam countered like pro. Then Sam lifted her leg and kicked Aello back.
Realizing Sam was the better swordswoman and fighter, Aello threw a dagger at her and ran to the next obstacle.
Sam caught the dagger and automatically moved to toss it at Aello. Dev saw her barely stop herself before she threw it. Most people wouldn’t have had the integrity to do that, especially given the way Aello had been cheating.
But Sam was better than that. She refused the cheap shot and he couldn’t be prouder of her.
The next obstacle had them climbing up a thick vine into a copse of trees they had to run across. The only problem was the trees were thin and some kind of prehistoric bird of prey that looked like a cross between a pterodactyl and an eagle kept attacking them.
Sam reminded him of a gazelle as she leapt through the trees with a sure foot that a satyr would envy. When the bird dove at her, she fell to her knee and pulled an arrow from her quiver. With perfect aim, she let fly the arrow that embedded in the place where the bird’s wing met its body. Not a mortal wound, but one that forced the bird to land and leave her in peace.
Aello paused to stare agape at the shot. But as soon as Sam was on her feet, Aello returned to the competition. Unlike Sam, she hacked and stabbed at the birds until she made her way across.
The final challenge was to reach the girdle’s case.
What was she waiting for? She’d be first if she’d just run straight to it.
But Sam stayed back. And when she put the back end of her spear into the ground and it instantly disintegrated, he understood why. It was redsand. So named for the lives that had been lost to it. Unlike quicksand which was seldom deep or inescapable, redsand had been created by Hades to keep the damned penned in Tartarus. In the highly unlikely event one of them escaped, the sand would make sure they didn’t get far. It was like an acid that would eat through any form. Living. Dead.
Or in between.
All that would be left behind was your blood. Hence the name, redsand.
Aello laughed. “You give up?”
“Never.” Sam cupped her hands around her mouth and let loose a strange bird call. It came in pulses of three and was followed by a whistle.
Aello duplicated the sound.
Dev exchanged a scowl with Scorpio and Fang. Ethon however was grinning.
“What are they doing?” he asked the Spartan.
“They’re calling for Ares’s arpaktiko pouli.”
Dev rolled his eyes at a term he couldn’t even begin to wrap his lips around. “Dude, that’s all Greek to us. You ever notice there’s a reason why people pick on Greek?”
Ethon scoffed. “Only because they’ve never tried to speak Welsh. Trust me, we’ve got nothing on them.” Then he moved back to the important topic. “They are the war birds of Ares and were special to the Amazon nation.” He jerked his chin toward the women. “The Amazons used to keep them as pets.”
Dev looked back and sure enough there was a flock of giant black birds headed toward them. Yeah…that would be like keeping Nessie in a wade pool. How in the name of pickles could they have ever domesticated something bigger than a semi?
Fang sucked his breath in sharply. “This can’t be good. They won’t even have to chew before they swallow us. And I have to say that being wolf jerky sucks.” He slid a look over to Ethon. “I bet Dark-Hunter jerky is chewy though.”
Ethon shoved him.
Ignoring them, Dev prepared for war as the birds swooped down. Manticores or not, if those things went for Sam, he was going for them.
Sam picked up the bone necklace from around her throat. She placed it in her mouth and blew it sharply in a distinct pattern.
One of the birds cawed then ducked down and glided on the wind. Sam held her hand up as if summoning it like an old friend. The huge bird landed in front of her on the ground. Spreading its wings, it snapped its head back and made one last cry before it settled down. It leaned forward, brushing its beak against her cheek.
Sam caught it against her and gave a light pat.
There was no missing the gleam of respect in Aello’s eyes as she watched Sam swing herself up onto the bird’s back. The bird bristled ever so slightly before it became acquainted with Sam’s foreign weight.
“Ya!” Sam shouted, kicking the bird into flight. Spreading its wings, it shot to the sky with a velocity that made Dev’s stomach draw tight. He didn’t know how she stayed on its back, but she managed well.
Aello duplicated the gesture. Unsheathing her sword, she went for Sam.
Fang let out a low whistle. “Anyone know that Amazons could ride a giant bird?”
Ethon gave him a duh stare. “Those of us who fought them, yeah, we know. How you think they kept kicking our asses?”
“Cause you’re pansies. Everyone knows that.”
Ethon went for Fang, but Scorpio caught him. “He was joking, Ethon. Grab a sense of humor.” Especially since Fang’s sense of humor was close enough to Ethon’s that they should be relatives.
Ethon growled at Fang before he stood down.
Dev stayed focused on the fight in the sky. It was incredible to watch. Aello attacked and Sam countered as they circled in the air over the pedestal. How they could remain on the back of the birds and fight was beyond him, especially since neither had a saddle nor bridle. They guided their mounts with their knees and held on with one hand.
Dev glanced down at the manticores. He still wanted to help Sam, but he knew better than to try. They looked a little too eager to kill.
Aello circled around, then dove for Sam. In a maneuver that Dev would have called impossible, Sam twisted with the bird and went straight up, parallel to the ground, letting the blow miss them entirely.
However, it overextended Aello’s reach and unbalanced her. With one sharp cry, she slipped from the back of the bird and went tumbling toward the ground.
Sam jerked her bird around and headed for her. Tucking its wings to its body, the bird looked like a black torpedo moving through the sky. They cut though the air, trying to catch Aello before she hit the ground. Just as Dev was sure Aello was a stain in the dirt, Sam caught her by the wrist and pulled the Amazon on to the back of the bird, draped on her stomach, in front of her. Sam guided the bird to the shore, then set Aello down in a safe area before she headed back to the pedestal.
At first Dev thought Aello would summon another bird and go after her.
They watched as Sam guided the bird to the pedestal and knocked the glass case from over the girdle. It landed on the sand and shattered, then dissolved. The cobras hissed and reared in protest of being disturbed. Sam diligently hovered above them, out of striking range. Using the tip of her spear, she very carefully hooked, then pulled the girdle up, taking care to shake off the cobras that tried to cling to it. Several of the snakes launched themselves at her and the bird from the pedestal. Sam had the bird pull back so that the cobras missed and fell to the ground. They were quickly devoured by the sand.
A minute later, it spewed out their bones which were quickly dissolved into a red puddle.
Dev grimaced at the gory mess.
Sam ignored it as she draped the girdle over her lap, then turned the bird back toward them. She flew over Aello’s head to land just in front of him.
Her smile was wide as she dismounted and held her grandmother’s girdle high. Dev couldn’t have been prouder for her win.
Aello came running at her back.
Before he could warn her, Sam turned around, prepared to fight.
But that wasn’t the intent. Aello skidded to a halt, then dropped to one knee in front of Sam. Clapping her right fist to her left shoulder, she bowed her head reverently. “My queen.”
Sam froze at a title she hadn’t answered to in so many centuries that it seemed odd to hear it now. And it along with the contest she’d just won awoke vivid memories, good and bad, of a time and place she’d never have again. A past that burned inside her.
At one time, she’d lived for competitions such as this one. They had invigorated her. Had proven her honor and her skills as a warrior. How important all of that had been to her then.
Now she knew that things like that, while they were nothing to shirk at, were not the most critical things in life.
Those were what people needed to battle for. To hold tight to until their knuckles blanched. Everything else was just an icing and while it tasted good, it wasn’t filling and it couldn’t sustain a person.
A life alone was hell itself.
Dev came up behind her and wrapped his arm around her shoulders. She trembled as foreign emotions swept through her. He was her present, and right now she needed him to ground her to reality. All she wanted was to feel him there, against her forever.
This was what mattered to her.
He nuzzled her hair before he laid a chaste kiss on her cheek that set her on fire. “You were amazing.”
Funny, she didn’t feel that way. She’d done what she had to. Nothing more. Nothing less.
Aello looked up at her. “Why did you save me?”
How could she not? How could she have allowed a woman like Aello to perish so horribly over something so petty? “We are sisters. Why would I allow my family to die over a difference of opinion?”
Even though her own sister had killed her for something that in the end amounted to nothing more than table scraps.
Aello took her hand and kissed it. “You do honor to Queen Hippolyte and it is with honor that you take her girdle. May you live a long, happy life.”
If the poor woman only knew….
Not wanting to taint her heartfelt wishes, Sam inclined her head to Aello before she turned to look up at Dev. “Anyone know how we get out of here?”
Aello rose to her feet. “You must fly the birds as far south as possible. Once there, when the ground breaks, let it take you home. But you must keep your thoughts focused on where you want to go or it will take you where they drift.”
Ethon scoffed. “Who says that’s a bad thing? I hear the south of France is incredible this time of year.”
Fang gave him an arch stare. “It’s also daylight there. Can you say Krispy Kritter?”
“Well there is that.” Ethon shrugged. “Fine. Take all the fun out of my dreams. You bastard.”
Sam summoned enough birds for all of them. Once they were mounted, she took flight. Something that wasn’t that intuitive to the men. Fang was the first to slide off. Then Scorpio.
Dev kept his seat….
Ethon held on, but only because he was low and had his legs locked like he was a terrified toddler.
Laughing, Sam circled back.
“Do these things have training wheels?” Fang asked.
“Unfortunately not. Just do what Ethon’s doing. Wrap yourself around them and they’ll fly on their own.”
Fang’s expression was filled with doubt. “What if it gets spooked?”
“You would be screwed,” Sam said in a dry tone. “Royally. Pray that doesn’t happen.”
Fang hissed at her before he pulled himself back up onto the back of the bird. Before he mounted, Scorpio used his whip to make a bridle. His bird fought it for several minutes, then settled down to take it.
He flashed a cocky fanged grin at her.
“Show-off,” Ethon sneered.
Laughing, Sam headed south with the men following behind her. It didn’t take too long to get to the border. There was a red haze around it that was so thin she could see the spot in New Orleans where they’d been.
Darker now on the human side of the veil, the haze made it look like infrared.
Sam urged her bird down so that she could dismount. The men quickly joined her as she fastened her grandmother’s sword belt around her waist.
Ethon tapped his fingers impatiently against his thigh. “Why is it when you want the ground to swallow you whole, it decides to stop trying?”
Fang sighed. “Watched Pot Syndrome.”
Sam ignored them as she heard something odd in the background. The birds chittered and danced, then flew off abruptly.
Dev met her gaze. “That can’t be a good sign.”
No, it couldn’t.
Sam glanced around as she tried to find the source of the sound…a sound that was steadily getting closer.
“Oh. My. God.”
She looked over at Ethon who was staring up at the sky to his right. Following his gaze, she gasped.
“It’s the attack of the flying monkeys.”
Only these weren’t the cute little bluish-gray monkeys from The Wizard of Oz that were dressed in adorable hats and jackets. These were huge with fangs that made hers look like plastic Halloween wear. With dark-gray leathery skin, their eyes were yellow and their tails were razor sharp.
They all drew weapons as the fire-breathing monkeys attacked.
Ethon dodged one that tried to blast him, then whirled and slashed at its wing. “You know, there are just some things you never expect to face even on this job. A flying primate that shoots fire out its nose is one of them.”
Scorpio snorted. “Yes but are they cercopithecoid or platyrrhine primates?”
Ethon glared at him. “Get your head out of the Discovery Channel and on the attack.”
“At least they’re not farting flames that would stink in more ways than one.” Fang ducked one monkey only to have another one attack him.
Sam threw her knife, catching the monkey between its shoulder blades before it could bite Fang. Shrieking, it fell to the ground.
That attack seemed to set off something fierce that called in more reinforcements.
Her stomach hit the ground. Yes, the men were fighting like demons and holding their own, but this was about to get ugly. The sky above them was darkened by the wave of incoming primates.
Just as that thought went through her mind, the ground below her shook. She started sliding.
“Think home!” Fang shouted to remind them.
Dev wrapped himself around her right as the ground below her opened and she plunged straight down. Sam held on to him with everything she had, grateful he was with her. She focused on his room in Sanctuary.
One minute they were plummeting and the next…
They were naked in Dev’s bed.
A wicked grin teased her. “You thinking what I was thinking or were my thoughts just that intense?”
Heat exploded over her cheeks. Honestly, this was exactly what had been in her mind. Laughing, she went to kiss him only to have her body fade back into her ghost form.
Dev cursed in anger. “I’m going to kill Thorn.”
“I would say it’s okay, but right about now, I’m with you one hundred percent.” She rolled over onto her back and stared at the ceiling. “It’s so unfair.”
Dev ached to kiss her. But he had to get her back into corporeal form first. “Let me take the girdle to Fang and then to Thorn. I’ll see you shortly.” He ran his hungry gaze over her body. “And I want you just in this position ten minutes after we get back.”
She laughed. “Yes, sir.”
Dev got out of bed and dressed himself in his jeans and a shirt before he went to find Fang. He pulled his phone out and rang Ethon.
“You make it back?” Ethon asked him.
“Yeah. Where are you?”
“Don’t ask. It’s too embarrassing. I’m headed back to Sanctuary as soon as I get cleaned up.”
Not that that brought up all kinds of images in Dev’s mind. “Exactly where are you again?”
“I told you not to ask. Cause I’m not going to say. Asshole.” Ethon hung up.
Dev called Scorpio.
“I’m in the bar. Where are you?”
Dev was impressed. “I’m at Peltier House. Is Fang with you?”
Fang stepped out of his bedroom and jerked his chin toward Dev’s door. “Looks like you had the same thoughts I did.”
God, he hoped not. The thought of Fang with his sister made him sick. Not that he was stupid enough to think they weren’t having sex, he just couldn’t mentally handle the concept of his baby sister with any man.
Get out of my head….
“Take me to Thorn.” Dev hung up on Scorpio.
Fang placed his hand on his shoulder and teleported him from the hallway to the door outside of Thorn’s office.
This time when Shara answered, her expression was impressed. “You’re not dead.”
Shara withdrew from the steel and opened the door to admit them into the room, which seemed unearthly chilly given the fact that the fire burned even brighter in the fireplace than it had earlier.
Thorn was on his feet, waiting for them. Still impeccably groomed and dressed, his hands clasped behind his back. He glanced to the clock that was still ticking.
Dev’s jaw dropped as he saw the time. No. It couldn’t be…. One minute more and he’d have missed the deadline. “What the hell trick is that? It hasn’t been twenty-four hours yet.”
Thorn arched one perfect brow into the most arrogant and disdainful expression Dev had ever seen. “Oh? Did I fail to tell you about the time? It travels differently on the other side. You’ve missed an entire day here while you frolicked with some of my friends.”
Anger erupted inside him. “You bastard!”
Thorn’s eyes glowed vibrant red. “Don’t push me, Bear. You have your belt and you’ve won. For now. Take your prize and be grateful I didn’t change the rules on you.” He turned his attention to Fang. “Get them home.”
All of a sudden he and Fang were in a small room where Sam was pacing. The sight of her there…of her safe and sound and in corporeal form again.
Those feelings slammed into him so hard, he was amazed his legs didn’t buckle. It was only now that he was with her that it hit him just how much he’d expected Thorn to keep her in spite of everything they’d done.
But now that she was with him again…
Her face lit up in a way no one’s ever had before and it turned his emotions inside out. If he could have anything in the universe, it would be to always have her look at him like that. It was obvious she was as delighted to see him as he was to see her. She ran and launched herself at him.
Catching her leap, Dev staggered back as he held her close and inhaled the scent of her soft hair. The warm floral smell made him hard and aching. It was all he could do to not take her right here and now with Fang watching them.
But he would never shame her.
Sam knew she shouldn’t be doing this. Especially after everything Thorn had told her about Dev’s future if they stayed together.
She had to let him go.
Yet right now, she just wanted to feel him close to her. To have his arms soothe her fears and uncertainties. Gods, she’d forgotten just how good it felt to hold him like this.
“You okay, baby?” he breathed in her ear.
She laughed at that deep, precious voice that sent a shiver over her. “Yeah.” It was only then she realized just how she’d wrapped him up in her body. Her legs were around his waist and he completely supported her weight. Heat stung her face at what she’d instinctively done, especially as she became aware of the sizable lump under his jeans that was pressing into her and making her wet.
Fang cleared his throat. “I think it’s safe to say she’s glad to see you, huh, Bear?”
Dev gave her a quick kiss to her cheek as she unwrapped her legs and slid to the ground in front of him even though that was the last thing she wanted to do. “I don’t mind it in the least. Kind of nice to feel welcomed.”
Fang cleared his throat. “Especially after what we just went through…. Everyone still have all their fingers and toes?”
Sam held up both hands and wiggled her fingers. “Think so.”
“Good.” Fang gestured to the door over his shoulder. “Let’s all head home before Thorn changes his mind and decides to keep us here where time apparently has no meaning to anyone but him.”
Sam couldn’t agree more. Like Fang, she wouldn’t be surprised in the least if Thorn stopped them.
Or sent another round of flying monkeys after them—just for shits and giggles.
Dev took a minute to secure her grandmother’s girdle around her waist. Sam looked down at it. Originally designed to hold a sword, it looked like any thick belt with heavy embossing. She had a sword at home that was kept in the matching scabbard that would hook onto the girdle. Without that piece, no one would ever guess it to be of any real significance—that it was the prized belt of the Amazon nation that Hercules had crossed a sea to claim for a foreign princess. Never mind know that it was something people would kill to possess.
Including her own sister.
“You ready?” Dev asked.
She nodded even though it wasn’t entirely true. Her earlier encounter with Thorn had been brief, but traumatizing. He was one scary SOB. And his warning about Dev stood loud and clear in her mind. If she stayed with him, he would die.
And she couldn’t be responsible for his death. Not after she’d killed Ioel.
Dev held her hand as Fang took them not to Sanctuary or the Charonte Club as she expected, but to a room she’d never seen before. All the windows were shuttered closed and there was a massive plantation style bed in the room with an antique styled blue silk comforter over it.
She looked at Fang with a frown. “Where are we?”
Before he could answer, Nick Gautier materialized in front of them. The dim light cast an evil shadow over his face. His whiskers were thickening—like he’d gone several days without shaving and his eyes held a wicked gleam to them. “Welcome to my nightmare, Princess.”
By the look on Dev’s face she could tell he wasn’t expecting to be here anymore than she was.
She scowled at Fang “Why did you bring us here?”
Fang shrugged. “It’s what Ash told me to do when I talked to him before we went questing for you. I figured Mr. Omniscient knows best about keeping his people safe—” those words were interrupted by Nick giving a rude scoff that Fang didn’t even pause for—“so I didn’t argue.” He inclined his head to her and Dev. “Now if you’ll excuse me, I have a Lady Bear I haven’t seen in a day and I don’t want her to kick my ass for leaving her high and dry.”
He left before anyone could say another word.
In the silence that followed, Sam felt suddenly awkward. True it hadn’t been the real Nick who’d tried to kidnap her out of Sanctuary, but still.
There was an aura of pure evil around this man and it set her hackles on edge. Whenever Nick looked at her, she had the feeling he was sizing her up for a body bag and it made her blood run cold.
“Relax,” Nick said in a soothing tone as if he felt her unease toward him. “I don’t want your blood. Since it’s a rogue demon after you, Ash and I decided this would be the best place to hide you where the fewest lives would be threatened by your enemy.” He gestured to the room. “Make yourself at home. Everything’s been sanitized so it shouldn’t give you nightmares or images to touch it.” Something Nick knew about since she’d told him that when she’d started guarding him. How ironic for the tables to now be turned. “If you need anything, there’s an intercom on the wall.” He gestured to the unit that was just inside the door. “Call and I’ll answer. And…” he pointed to the nightstand. “Ash sent over your cell phone so that you wouldn’t be without it. There’s a message from Chi who’s been worried about you and pissed off that the guys didn’t invite her to rescue you. I don’t envy them. Ethon in particular was promised a major ass-whipping.”
Sam frowned. Nick didn’t look well. When she’d first met him on this assignment months ago, he’d been well coifed and gorgeous—except for the bow and arrow mark on his face. Now he looked pale and exhausted. Shaken. Like something had him in a vise grip and he couldn’t breathe for the pain of it.
If not for the fact that Dark-Hunters couldn’t get sick, she’d think he was about to hurl.
“Are you okay?”
“I’m always okay.” His bitter tone denied those words.
Sam wanted to touch him and see what the truth was, but her inner alarm told her that she didn’t want to see what ever demon had its claws into him. When you stare into the darkness, sometimes it stares back….
And those mirrored images were often the most terrifying and threatening.
Nick paused in the doorway to look back at them. “By the way, I should warn you. It’s almost noon here and Stryker’s mounting his attack to take you into Kalosis. I don’t know when he’s planning to strike, but I’m sure it’ll be before dark since you’ll be at a disadvantage in the light. My house is technically shielded, however Stryker’s powers are such that I don’t know if it’ll hold against him.”
Sam narrowed her gaze dangerously as her suspicions about him mounted. “How do you know what Stryker has planned?”
When Nick answered, it wasn’t with his mouth. She heard his voice loud and clear in her head. The same way I know you love Dev, little girl. And if you do, send him home before nightfall. He won’t survive otherwise.
And with that he walked out of the room and closed the door without touching it.