The son of a goddess who’d almost ended the world over what had been done to him.
Curious, she stepped into the living room and froze. She wasn’t sure what she’d expected to find, but it certainly wasn’t … this.
Yeah, okay, Lord King Badass had just entered the building. Her jaw went slack as she skimmed the ridiculous height of the latest man to join their party. Just shy of seven feet, he had short black hair framing a face that appeared to have been flawlessly chiseled from granite. He held an aura so dark and powerful that it made the hair on the back of her neck and arms rise.
Out of all the scary things in the room, he definitely put the others to shame, and that was not an easy thing to do.
Pinning her with a gaze that left her completely immobile, Acheron strode forward with the most predacious walk she’d ever seen. Something not easy to carry off when you considered the fact that he was physically very pretty and surprisingly young.
Probably no more than twenty or twenty-one, he was absolutely beautiful … almost angelic. Except for that aura of lethal authority that bled out of every molecule he possessed. Yeah, this was a man used to riding herd and having to cow warriors like Cabeza, Sundown, and Ren.
And she couldn’t take her gaze away from his spooky eyes. They literally swirled with a hazy silver color … and they were filled with the promise of death.
Swathed completely in black, he had his hands tucked into the pockets of a long leather coat. He pulled one hand out and reached for her.
She instinctively took a step back.
Luckily, he had a sense of humor about that. "I’m not going to hurt you, Dr. Avani. I promise. I only bite when given an invitation to do so."
And he had manners too….
He opened his huge hand to show her her grandmother’s necklace.
Stunned, she gaped at him…. Granted, she had to crane her neck to do so. "How did you know where to find it?"
"I have my evil ways."
Yeah, I bet you do. She took it out of his hand and for the first time really saw it for what it was. The thick gold chain was forged in such a way that it was much lighter than it appeared. But it was the fire inside the stone that was truly exceptional. As a kid, she’d had no idea whatsoever how rare a stone this was.
As a geologist she knew there were probably only a handful of stones ever created that came close to this perfection. Most fire opals were opaque like a regular gemstone. In spite of the name they bore because of their typical orange or red color, fire opals seldom showed the play of color other opals were known for. And in all her studies, she’d never seen one with the color play this one had. It really did look like it was a piece of the sun.
"Thank you," she breathed.
He inclined his head to her. "By the way, my wife had no idea what the writing on the seal was, she-"
"Your wife?" Kateri hated interrupting him, but he didn’t look old enough …
Yeah, duh, what was she thinking with this group? He was an Atlantean … older than dirt and dirt’s great-grandfather.
Acheron took her interruption in stride. "Dr. Soteria Kafieri Parthenopaeus."
The way he said that, it melted like chocolate on your tongue. It rolled so fluidly and with his accent …
Wow. His wife probably made him read everything out loud, including cans and cereal boxes, just to hear the cadence of it.
The downside was that his accent was so thick that at first she had no idea what he’d said, until it suddenly clicked. "Dr. Par … Par … Parthen … Par … yeah. Ancient Greek scholar. Fluent in many dead languages. Fernando e-mailed her a photo of the stone."
Acheron laughed, then nodded. "The real reason I fell in love with my wife. She can not only pronounce my last name without stumbling over it, she can actually spell it."
The men all laughed but Kateri felt awful.
"It’s okay, Dr. Avani," he said good naturedly. "My first name isn’t much easier, it’s why I usually go by Ash. It’s harder to trip over and it doesn’t take me an hour to write it out."
Thank goodness the man had a sense of humor about it.
"Did she recognize the language?" she asked, trying to divert the conversation to something less embarrassing.
That was the last thing she’d expected to hear. "Shut the front door! Really?" she breathed, then shook her head. "No. It can’t be. Biogeographists debunked that myth a long time ago."
He grinned at her, showing off a little bit of fang. "Yeah, well, they don’t know everything, do they?"
Very true. Case in point, she stood in front of a giant from Atlantis who was flanked by a cowboy, Mayan prince who had carried off a lycanthrope, ancient Greek vampire, and a real Keetoowah whose mother was a Greek goddess. Yeah….
"Guess not," she said, returning his smile.
"Did you have any trouble getting the stone?" Ren asked.
Ash hesitated. "Define ‘trouble.’"
Ren cursed. "What happened?"
"Tiva. Our little time bitch broke out early and she was hellbent on using the stone to lock down her brother. Luckily, I was more hellbent on keeping her away from it. I’m thinking when the first gate was breached."
Ren and Cabeza paled. "When did the first gate go down?"
"While you were in Mayan hell. We’ve had our hands full on this side. May the gods have mercy if another gate opens. And since you’re most likely not aware of how much faster time travels on this side … tonight at midnight. Reset the ‘damn’ calendar ’cause I don’t want to spend eternity cleaning up your mess." He looked over at Urian. "And you’ll have to sit it out."
"You’re related to a Greek god. You hit the Valley and you’ll be real sorry for the last few minutes you’re alive."
Urian pointed to Ren. "He’s a cousin."
"Who is also Keetoowah. They’ll let him in. He’s an exception."
"Well, that sucks. What if I wanted to go sightseeing?"
"I’d suggest an online tour." Ash met Ren’s gaze. "As a heads-up, I waited to bring the kinichi, as it is a beacon to all kinds of paranormal creatures who want to control time." He turned to face Kateri. "Your grandmother was one powerful woman to keep that under wraps. I am very impressed."
"Thank you. She was exceptional."
Ash stepped back. "And on that note, I’m off to help hold the gates."
Just as he started to leave, another light flashed in the room.
Cursing, Ren grabbed Kateri and pulled her behind him. His eyes turned vivid red as his armor reappeared. His hands exploding into fireballs, as he faced what must be another demon.
Ash, Urian, and Cabeza, however, didn’t react to this new presence at all. Except for Ash who reached out to lower Ren’s arm. "Stand down."
"He’s a demon. High level."
Ash gave him a bland stare. "Yeah, well, his highest level is functioning as a perpetual pain in my ass." He turned his attention to the newcomer. "What do you want, Nick?"
Kateri wasn’t sure what to make of this man. At least six foot four, he had a bow-and-arrow mark on his left cheek that was identical to the one Ren had on his hip. But even with that mark, he was incredibly handsome.
"I was asked to come here."
Ren exchanged a bemused frown with Kateri. "Why would she ask that of you?"
A wry, evil smile curled his lips. "I am a messenger, after all. It’s what I was created to do."
The way he said that shivers over her. And in that moment, she flashed to Nick’s real form. His skin should be black and red, with glowing eyes and gold armor. In his true body, he was a winged demon. One of the highest level. He was evil in its purest, rawest form.
And she didn’t trust him even the slightest bit.
Ash shifted his weight to one foot and assumed a total power stance that said, boy, don’t make me kick your ass all the way to the state line. ‘Cause I will. And no, you won’t enjoy it. "You still haven’t answered my question. What are you doing here? And to stop the semantics game … what missions or message did Artie put you on?"
"I’m to protect Artemis’s blood and make sure the gates stay sealed tonight."
Acheron appeared stunned by those words. "Really?" His tone dripped with sarcasm. "I would think you’d have a vested interest in seeing them opened."
Nick snorted. "You don’t know me as well as you think you do."
Acheron swept his gaze over them. "Guys? Will you give us the room, please?"
One by one, they filed out.
Ash didn’t speak until he was alone with Nick and he was sure none of the others could hear their discussion. "Cut the shit, boy. I know what you want, and why you want it, and you can’t have it."
Nick rolled his eyes. "I’m tired of fighting with you, Ash. I know what you think of me and I really don’t care. But let me tell you a few things you don’t know about me, Lord Omniscient to most. You’ve asked why I’m with Artemis. It’s the one place I can go where Stryker can’t see through my eyes. Well … he could see, if he wanted, but since the sight of his aunt sickens him, he withdraws from me the minute I enter her temple. And I finally have a modicum of peace."
Damn. Nick did have it bad if dealing with Artemis’s tantrums and moods was his idea of serenity. Ash almost felt bad for the Cajun. "There are ways of blocking him."
"No, there’s not. Not the way your mother has him trained. Thanks for that, by the way. You could have slaughtered Stryker and you passed."
Ash shrugged. "I could have slaughtered you, too."
"Can’t tell you how much I appreciate that kindness."
Ash took a step toward him. "Nick-"
"Don’t Nick me. You have no right. You brought back Amanda and Kyrian. You left my mother dead."
Ash winced at a truth that burned him as much as it burned Nick. "I know. But I couldn’t bring her back, Nick. Not really."
"Because she didn’t want to be here anymore. I know. She was sick of her God-awful life and happy to be dead. You felt sorry for her and so you left her dead to keep her from suffering. Thanks for the consideration. I deeply appreciate it, cher."
Ash heard the anguish underneath those words and it scorched him. At one time, he and Nick had been best friends.
No, they’d been closer than that. He considered Nick his brother, and he hated to see Nick in this much pain. "Your mother loved you. You were her life."
"Apparently not. But I’ve accepted that."
"Then why do you want the time stone?"
Faster than Ash could react, which said a lot about Nick’s skills, Nick grabbed him into a headlock.
Ash started to fight until he realized what Nick was doing. While Ash could see into the future, he could never see the lives of anyone who’d become close to him.
But Nick was able to use his powers to show him what Nick was going to become.
And it was terrifying. Through Nick’s eyes, Ash saw Nick’s true demon form and the army he led against the world. Gone was the fun-loving boy who used to tease Ash. The one who had wormed his stupid way into Ash’s heart, and taught him a lot about human life and normality. Damn, how he missed their friendship.
"My mother is the only thing that kept me human, Acheron," Nick growled into his ear while he continued to share his bloody and brutal destiny with him. "Every single day I live without her, I lose more of my humanity. There’s nothing that anchors me now. Do you understand?" He released him.
Ash struggled to breathe as the images began fading. "I thought you hated me."
"I hate every f**king body. Don’t you understand? I can’t help it. Welcome to the club. Now let’s light the sign that we’re open for business." He raked a sneer over Ash’s body. "Newsflash, Atlantean-you’re really nothing special to me. Hatred is who and what I am now. It rules me entirely. Menyara has tried everything, as has Artemis. Nothing works. Without an anchor, I can’t stop the metamorphosis." He gestured toward the door the others had left by. "You’re afraid of the gates? I pick my teeth with the bones of better evil than anything those gates guard. When I become the Malachai, there is nothing that can stop me."
Nick shook his head. "I’ve seen me kill him. Jared is weakened by his past and guilt, and by the weight of a conscience I am losing day by day. When I no longer have mine and he still has his?" He shrugged. "You don’t want to know how easy he dies. Remember, he’s like my mother. He wants to die. He’s long done with this world and everything on it. He even tried to kill me so that he’d be released."
Ash swallowed as he remembered the past. Nick was right. Jared wouldn’t put up a fight, and without that …
Nick would destroy everything.
While Ash was considered a final fate god, he wasn’t the only one. Almost all pantheons had at least one god of fate. They all basically balanced each other out. But Nick wasn’t a god. While Nick’s predecessors had been created from the same primal source of power that fueled the gods, Nick’s species had been created as a servant for Ash’s mother.
To end the world.
Ash was the only person who walked among humanity who knew the real origins and role of Nick’s demonic race. Back before time itself, there had been six gods who sprang from the primal source. Three who clung to good and three who craved evil. Three gods of creation and three of utter destruction.