Growling, Jericho lifted the edge of his shield to deflect the strike, then returned it with a thrust of his own. His short sword curled around the back of his opponent’s shield and opened a gash in Ares’s upper arm.
Sick of the obstacle, Jericho threw his shield down and used his sword to pound against Ares’s shield. Faster than the god could counter, Jericho delivered slash and stroke after slash and stroke down on the gold shield, bending it fast and furious until it was melded to Ares’s arm. The god cried out as the gold pinched and bit into his flesh.
Jericho kicked him back, sending him sprawling across the floor.
He used his powers to wrench the sword from Ares’s hand and brought it into the grasp of his left claw.
Crossing the swords in an arc before he brought them down to rest at his sides, Jericho turned around, looking at all the gods and goddesses gathered. "Anyone else want to bleed for this bastard?"
Zeus hurled a lightning bolt at him.
Jericho deflected it with his sword. "I will submit to you no more."
Another one came at him. This time, he dropped Ares’s sword and caught the bolt in his hand. It sizzled against the silver claws, humming and throbbing. But it didn’t hurt him through his armor. "Are you mentally defective, Olympian? You never defeated me. I submitted to you, but never again."
Zeus pulled forth another bolt. "You have a human’s heart. You can be killed!"
Jericho threw the lighting bolt back at Zeus, who barely dodged it. "Then do it. If you or one of the blind fools who follows you honestly believe you can… bring it on. I’m in the mood for Slaughter. Killing and Murder, too."
Zeus’s eyes widened as he caught Jericho’s meaning and the source of his fury.
Athena, Apollo, Dionysus and several others stood up as if they would fight on Zeus’s behalf.
But before they could, Jericho felt a powerful presence at his back. Expecting an attack, he turned, ready to battle.
Then froze in place.
There behind him was Delphine, with Madoc, Zeth, Zarek, Astrid, Jared, Deimos, Phobos, Asmodeus and two dozen Oneroi. And they looked open for business and ready to defend.
He could barely comprehend what he was seeing.
The other gods backed down immediately.
Delphine and her group moved forward until they surrounded him in a protective arc. She gave him a mischievous wink. "You didn’t really think you’d be standing alone, did you?"
"Yeah, I did." Jericho was still aghast at their unfounded show of support. Never in his wildest imaginings would he have seen this coming.
Never would he have asked or expected it.
Madoc snorted. "It’s a new world, brother. And we, the downtrodden, are taking it back." He looked at Zeus with a feral snarl. "We won’t be tools for you or anyone else ever again. Consider yourself deposed."
Zeus growled low in his throat as he glared at each of them. "How dare you! Do you really think such a puny number scares us?"
Zeth snorted. "We scared you enough that you had our daughters slaughtered. What kind of god fears an infant?"
The Olympian gods whispered among themselves.
"It’s tme," Jared said. "He has twice commissioned the death of Delphine, and yet she lives."
Zeus sneered at Jericho. "By your own words, I own you. You swore that if I released the Oneroi’s emotions you would bow down to me forever."
Jericho shrugged. "Yeah, I did say that, didn’t I? You should have made me swear by my mother an unbreakable oath… oops. Sucks to be on your side today."
Zeus blustered angrily. "You can’t renege."
"And I never would have, had you not come after the only reason I made the bargain to begin with." Jericho retracted the claws on his left hand to take Delphine’s. "Had you not lied to me and gone after her, I would have left you to live in peace while I upheld my oath. But I will not serve someone who tried to kill the only person I’ve ever cared about. I will not bind myself to you and leave her vulnerable for you and your subjects to attack."
Delphine’s grip tightened on his hand.
Ares pushed himself up from the floor. His shield gone, he cradled his broken arm to his chest. "We can fight them, Father."
"You can fight," Jericho mocked, "but you will never win."
"Father?" Ares asked uncertainly.
Zeus glared at them. "I will not be your prisoner."
"You won’t have to be." Madoc moved to stand in front of Zeus. "We don’t want your position or your authority. The gods know, we definitely don’t want to have to deal with the whiny, petty bullshit the rest of you mess with on a daily basis."
Deimos snorted. "I don’t know. I thought it was kind of funny when Dionysus ran a Dark-Hunter over with a Mardi Gras float a couple of years ago. That amused me for days on end." He laughed like an evil cartoon villain.
Jericho rolled his eyes. His old friend had always been a bit off. It was why the two of them had once gotten along so well.
Eros and Psyche stood up from their table to Jericho’s left. With white wings and blond hair, Eros was the epitome of beauty. He was also dressed in a pair of black leather pants, a black shirt and boots like a human biker. Psyche’s red hair was pulled back from her face, and she was dressed like a biker’s moll. She tucked her hand into Eros’s.
Jericho tensed as they made their way over to him and his group.
But what stunned him most was when Eros extended his hand to him in friendship. "We’re not all ass**les here. And right now, I’m thinking we have a lot more to be concerned about with Noir and his crew. Consider us allies."
Zeus bellowed in rage.
"Don’t have an aneurysm, old man," Madoc said snidely. "What I propose is a truce. You and your court remain as you are, plotting and scheming against each other, while we are left alone to handle our affairs."
Zeus was aghast. "You would split this pantheon?"
Madoc shook his head in denial. "This pantheon was split a long time ago. We’re through being your lap dogs and living in fear of angering you. We have much more important things to focus on than your petty intrigues and dalliances." He looked at Jericho. "And with a Titan behind us, we now have the power to tell you to shove it where even Helios doesn’t shine."
Zeth lifted his head high to address the gods around them. "Any of you who are willing to fight Noir and Azura, we will welcome to our team. The rest of you can carry on business as usual."
Athena and Hades stepped forward. As always, Athena stood tall in a flowing red dress and black hair. The goddess of war and wisdom, she carried herself with all the fluidity of a Grace.
Hades, on the other hand, was dark and sinister. The god of the Underworld, he only had patience for his wife, who was notably absent. "We’re with you."
Zeus let out a deep sound of disgust. "Have you lost your mind, Hades?"
"No. Rather I’ve found my soul. Noir and Azura declared war on us. The least we can do is offer a resistance they won’t soon forget. . . brother."
"Then welcome." Madoc turned back to Zeus. "We will leave you in peace, and you will return the favor to us."
"Yeah!" Asmodeus shouted, puffing his chest out.
Zarek leaned forward and whispered, "You might not want to do that, big guy. The angry man on the throne doesn’t have much of a sense of humor."
"Oh." Asmodeus hid himself behind Jared.
Zarek laughed until he realized other people were looking at him. He immediately sobered back to an "I’ll kill you and dance on your grave" stance.
"Do we have an accord?" Jericho asked.
Zeus glared at them, but in the end, he knew it was the best offer he would get without a war. A war he might very well lose. "We have an accord."
Could he have said that with less enthusiasm? But the point was he had said it.
Madoc inclined his head to Zeus and the other gods before he turned and led their group out of the room.
Jericho released Delphine and retrieved his shield from where it had landed at Artemis’s feet.
Slender and elegant with vibrant red hair, she looked over to Delphine, who was waiting for his return. "If you really love her, Cratus, let her know it every day. And always put her before you and your wants just as you’ve done here today. Take it from someone who knows. Love lost is the hardest burden to shoulder, and it’s one you can never get under." Those words spoken, she manifested his bow and quiver of arrows that he’d given to her all those centuries ago. He was amazed she’d kept them. "My gift to you. Your aim will always be true and your quiver will never be empty so long as you carry them."
She inclined her head to him and stepped back.
Jericho returned to Delphine’s side and followed the others back to the Vanishing Isle.
As soon as they materialized, Delphine cornered him outside the hall. "Were you really willing to give up your freedom for me?"
He looked away sheepishly.
"Jericho." She turned his face back toward hers. "Why would you do that?"
Her question irritated him. He didn’t like to be questioned and definitely not over something so… personal. "Why do you think?"
She glared at him. "Because I’m a bossy hag and you’d rather be enslaved to a man you hate than deal with me."
That made his anger snap even harder. "You know…" He paused as he realized she was teasing him. His anger turned into aggravation. "You’re not funny."
"I think I’m hysterical and I want to hear from you why you would have made such a bargain."
Jericho tried to move past her, but she wouldn’t allow it. She needs to hear it.
She cupped his mouth in her soft hand. "C’mon, sweetie, you can say it." She moved his mouth playfully. "You don’t suck, Delphine," she said in a faked deep voice. "I. . . you. C’mon, Jericho. I only bite in the bedroom. You can do this. I know you’re not really mute."
But why did he have to say it? Wasn’t it obvious? What more would he have to do to show her how much she meant to him?
But he knew she wouldn’t give him a reprieve.
Not until he put into words what she wanted to hear.
"Because I love you… hag and all."
"Hag!" She went for him, but instead of hurting him, she tickled his ribs.
Jericho laughed, amazed at her play. No one had ever been so cavalier with him. He caught her against him and kissed her solidly. "Thank you for coming in to back me."
"No," she said, sobering instantly, "thank you for defending me." She poked him sharply in the chest. "But don’t you ever do that again. I never want you to put yourself at risk on my account."
She met his gaze, and the sincerity in those hazel eyes scorched him. "Because I love you, too, and I couldn’t stand being the reason you were hurt or killed."
He lifted his hand to her lips. "Don’t worry. I won’t ever leave you alone. You get into too much trouble without me."
She growled at him. "Oh, please. I never got into trouble until you."
"Urn, guys," Phobos said, sticking his head out of the door, "I hate to interrupt whatever weirdness you two are partaking in, but we have a situation in here you might want to check on."
Frowning, Jericho led the way into the room to find a new group of Skoti.
Baffled by their appearance, he looked at Madoc for an explanation. "What’s going on?"
Madoc held his hands up and shrugged. "We’re not sure. They just appeared."
Another burst of light startled them as Nike flashed into the middle of the Skoti. Her back to him, she stood at an awkward angle with her wings drooping.
Jericho took a step toward her, then froze as she turned to face him and he met her gaze.
Nike was gallu.
Madoc and Phobos cursed as they manifested swords to attack.
"No!" Jericho snarled, shoving them away from her. "She’s my sister."
Madoc looked at him as if he were one pint shy of a gallon. "She’s infected. She’ll kill all of us."
"I don’t care." She was still his sister. Jericho armored himself before he approached her.
Snarling, she came at him like a wild animal, slashing at him with her hands and trying to bite him. Her wings fluttered out, but he managed to catch her from behind and hold her there even while her wings slapped at him. She screamed and kicked, then tried to head-butt him.
Even though he was armored, he could still feel her kicks against his shins.
"I need a cage," he grunted.
Delphine made one the size of a small closet. But it was large enough to hold Nike until they could find some way to help her. "Here."
Jericho shoved his sister into it and winced at the sight of her white eyes and serrated teeth. Bubbles foamed from her mouth as she reached through the bars to get to them.
Eros and Zarek exchanged a concerned look before they glanced to the Skoti.
Eros scratched his chin. "I’m thinking we should cage them, too, before they go Linda Blair on us."
One of the younger Skoti stood up. "We’re infected. But with us, it’s slow-acting."
Jericho scowled. "What?"