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Chapter 3. Mother, Stryker repeated under his breath an instant before Kessar grabbed Zephyra's daughter






" MOTHER, " STRYKER REPEATED UNDER HIS breath an instant before Kessar grabbed Zephyra's daughter. The demon opened his lips to taste her throat. Stryker barely had time to call out to the demon before he killed her. " Stop! "

The demon's red eyes flared bright before he curled his lip and released her with a snarl. " Let them tear into you then. Not like I give a shit if you live or die."

Zephyra ran at Stryker, drawing a hilt that she extended to a sword to stab him. Stryker took a step back as he used his powers to manifest a sword of his own. He caught her blade with his. The sound of steel rang out, echoing through the room as she met him stroke for stroke. Every parry, every thrust. She was there as if she knew exactly what he was going to do.

Stryker smiled. It'd been too long since he'd fought someone other than Acheron who could match his skills. Yet here she was, the daughter of a peasant, fighting with the expertise of a trained soldier. He wondered who had taught her so well. " I always knew you were good at handling a man's sword, love, but I had no idea that extended to those made of steel, too."

She growled an instant before she kicked at him, catching him in the side.

Stryker grunted at the pain that simple move caused. But to be fair, she held her temper.

" At least this sword doesn't disappoint. I don't have to worry about it going soft on me."

" I never went soft on you."

She rolled her eyes as she blocked his slice. " Trust me, baby, you weren't that good. I was just a better actress than you were actor."

" Ew! " her daughter groaned as she gave them more room to fight. " No offense, Mum, I don't want to know who you've slept with. Kill the sexual bantering and him before I go deaf from it."

Zephyra's eyes darkened as one side of her mouth quirked up into an evil smile. " You shouldn't be so prudish, Medea. After all, you've always wanted to meet your father. Happy Birthday, baby. Sorry the reunion's so short. But trust me, he's no loss."

Stryker staggered under the weight of the news. His attention deflected from the fight, he glanced at his daughter and her startled expression to take in the subtle differences in her features from her mother's. That lapse cost him, as Zephyra stabbed him straight in his chest, narrowly missing his Daimon's mark.... Had she been a single millimeter up, he would have burst into dust.

As it was, it hurt like hell.

" Stop! " Medea cried as she ran at her mother and pulled her back.

Stryker cursed as he covered the wound with his hand and tensed against the pain.

Zephyra shoved Medea away, moving back toward him. He brought the sword up, ready to fight. Medea shot between them again and forced her mother back.

" Is he really my father? "

Zephyra threw the sword at him. Stryker quickly moved out of the way. He felt the heat of the blade as it skimmed his cheek to bury itself in the wall behind him.

Furious, he went at her.

Medea turned on him with an expression so purely Urian that it stunned him completely.

Urian. His most trea sured child. The one son who'd meant everything to him, and in that moment he knew that Zephyra wasn't lying.

Medea was his.

That one reality slammed into him and almost drove him to his knees. He had a daughter and she was alive....

Medea swallowed as she studied him. " Are you Strykerius? The son of Apollo? "

Stryker nodded.

She started for him only to have her mother grab her arm and pull her to a stop. " Don't you dare embrace him. Not after he left us for dead."

" I never! " he snarled. " You're the one who lied and told me you'd lost the baby."

" Because I didn't want to tie you to me. I wanted you to stay because you loved me. But I alone wasn't good enough for you, was I? You went belly-crawling to your father and for what? So he could curse everyone who held a drop of Apollite blood in their veins? I told you then your father didn't give a damn about you. You should have listened to me."

She'd been right, but that didn't excuse her lie. Her betrayal was every bit as great as his father's.

" You kicked me out."

She rolled her eyes. " You were always such an idiot."

Kessar laughed out loud. " Finally, someone who agrees with me."

Stryker glared at the demon, whose presence he'd completely forgotten about. " Why are you still here? "

" The entertainment value of this is beyond mea sure. I've never seen a man get his ass kicked so badly by a mere woman." He'd barely finished the words before Medea slung her arm out. Something black flew from her hand and it wasn't until it wrapped itself around Kessar's throat and dropped him to the floor that Stryker realized what it was.

Asfyxen. Reminiscent of a bolo, it was much smaller and much deadlier.

Medea stalked toward the demon with a warrior's lope. She snatched one of the golf-sized black balls and pulled the demon toward her while he choked and gasped, trying to loosen the wire that was strangling him. " Never underestimate a woman, demon. In this world, we rule."

Stryker felt a chill go down his spine. She was Urian...

Only female.

He couldn't be prouder.

Shoving Kessar back, she jerked the wire free with a graceful arc. " Next time, think before you lose your head."

Kessar's eyes glowed with his fury. " You and me, little girl, are going to dance again. One day soon."

She tucked the asfyxen back down her sleeve. " I'll bring the music."

Kessar vanished.

Medea turned back to face them with a satisfied smile.

Stryker hid his amusement. " You do know he is the most dangerous of his kind."

" He's nothing to her, " Zephyra said proudly. " Medea has powers you can't conceive of. Not that it matters to you."

Before Stryker could open his mouth to respond, she head-butted him. He saw stars an instant before darkness took him under.

ZEPHYRA DREW THE DAGGER OUT OF HER BOOT as she knelt on the ground beside Stryker, intending to kill him. But as she plunged the knife down, Medea caught her wrist.

" What are you doing? "

Medea's determined gaze locked with hers. " He's my father. Could I at least speak to him before you kill him? "

Zephyra snorted. " Your father's an asshole, honey. Take it from someone who used to sleep with him. You're not missing anything, and if you don't let me kill him now, you'll only do it yourself later."

" Then let me do it later. I want to have at least five minutes with him."

Zephyra snatched her hand out of Medea's grasp. " Don't be ridiculous. Artemis wants him dead. But for her, you and I wouldn't be here now. Your father, " she spat the word, " abandoned us."

" I know. You've told me that enough that it's permanently seared into my brain. Still, he's a part of me and I'd like to have closure."

" You really need to stop watching Oprah. You're an abbadonrani, girl. Act like it."

In one swift, graceful move Medea twisted the dagger from her hand and had it pressed against Zephyra's throat. " You're right, Mum. Get up and step back. I'm taking custody of him."

Zephyra smiled proudly. Then she disarmed her daughter. " Just remember, sweetie, while you may command demons, you don't command this one." She tilted her head down as she felt her eyes shift from those of a Daimon to vibrant orange.

STRYKER CAME AWAKE TO A DEEP THROBBING ache in his head. For a moment, he couldn't remember what had happened to cause it. But as he opened his eyes to find himself chained to a wall, he had complete clarity.

His first wife had returned with a vengeance.

Furious, he pushed himself to his feet and yanked at the thick chain that held him to a steel anchor in the wall. There were bands on each wrist and ankle, and while he had freedom of movement, he couldn't go far.

But that was infinitely better than the man who was chained to the wall across from him. Tall and lithe, he looked like someone had put him through hell. Literally. Dirty, matted dark auburn hair fell just past his shoulders. Completely naked, his body was covered with bruises and bite marks. The fact that they were visible through the thick black tribal tattoos that marked his torso, arms, and thighs attested to just how deep and vicious they were. Unlike Stryker, he was held standing up, with his arms stretched high above his head. His finely boned face was covered by a thick, unkempt beard.

" What the fuck did they do to you? "

The man laughed as he twisted his hands in the chains holding his wrists and leaned his head back against the wall to stare at Stryker, who drew his breath in sharply at the sight of the man's yellow eyes ringed by a narrow band of bloodred. " They feed from me. My guess is you're their next course."

Stryker was confused. " You're neither Daimon nor Apollite. There's nothing to be gained from feeding off you."

He laughed bitterly. " Tell them that."

Stryker frowned as he noted the thin black band wrapped around the man's throat. It was a containment collar of some sort. " What are you? "

" I'm misery."

No doubt. The man more than looked the part. " Do you have a name? "

" Jared."

" I'm—"

" Strykerius, but you go by 'Stryker.' You hate the goddess you serve and you seek to kill her only son and claim vengeance on the former human who murdered your sister."

Stryker froze as the creature laid bare his plans. " How do you know that? "

" I know everything. I feel every heartbeat in the universe. Hear every scream for mercy and feel every tear of pain."

And he was spooking the shit out of him.

" Sorry, " Jared said. " I do that to a lot of people."

" Do what? "

" Spook them."

" Can you hear my thoughts? "

Before you have them, I hear them. This time, he didn't speak. His voice was loud and clear in Stryker's mind.

" Stay out of my head."

Jared gave him a taunting grin. " Believe me, I would love to. It's a mess in there. But you're too close physically to me for me to block it." He banged his head against the stone wall. " Pain is the only way to keep your thoughts out of my head."

" Is that why they beat you? "

He gave Stryker a cold " duh" stare. " Mostly they just do it for fun."

Stryker honestly felt sorry for the creature, who had to be in absolute agony. There was something about him that seemed familiar, and yet Stryker couldn't place it. " How long have they held you here? "

Jared let out a tired breath. " Medea is coming."

The words had barely left his lips before the door opened to show her. Dressed in a red blouse and jeans, she was beautiful. No father could ask for a more perfect child.

A more loving one, perhaps, but not one more beautiful.

Her gaze went to Jared, where sympathy flashed for an instant but was quickly hidden behind a wall of stoicism. Jared's look, however, was angry and defiant.

She turned her attention to Stryker. " I'm sorry about your current position."

Jared scoffed. " Yeah, she's a basketful of sympathy. One glance at me tells you exactly how deep it runs."

" Shut up."

A leather muzzle appeared over the lower half of his face. Jared growled as he tried to jerk free of his chains or remove the muzzle, but it was useless. His muscles bulged as he fought against his restraints.

" Is that really necessary? " Stryker asked his daughter.

She ignored Jared's shouts and Stryker's question. " You should be more concerned about your own well-being."

" Why? You intend to kill me? "

" I'm sure Matera will the first chance she gets."

" Then why am I here? "

Folding her arms over her chest, she shrugged. " Curiosity. I want to understand where my powers come from and how to better channel them. I know I didn't get them from my mother.... She was psychic, but she didn't have the ability to summon the things I can."

Her words intrigued him. What exactly were his daughter's powers? " What kind of things? "

Me. He heard Jared's voice in his head.

Medea turned toward Jared and shot a blast into his chest. He hissed in pain as a black circle smoldered and burned his flesh. His entire body drew tense and taut.

" Stay out of this."

Stryker ground his teeth as a single red tear of pain slid down Jared's cheek. How strange that he cried blood. Stryker had never heard of such a creature. But regardless of what he was, Jared didn't deserve this.

Stryker glared at his daughter. " You know, as coldblooded as I am, I've never been one for torture. Either kill him or free him."

She shook her head. " My mother would never allow that."

" Then leave him alone."

" You really don't care for torture, do you? "

" No, I don't. It's one thing to strike out in anger, another to cause agony for the hell of it. I'm a soldier, not a coward."

" Are you calling me a coward? "

He looked back at Jared, who was panting to cope with the agony of his wound. His chest was still smoldering as the blast continued to burn his skin. " You should always give your opponent a fighting chance. Let the best fighter win, and if it's not you, then die with dignity."

She arched a brow at him before she turned toward the other prisoner. " Jared? Is he lying to me? " She held her hand up and the leather muzzle vanished.

" No, " he said, his voice strained and weak. " He lives by a very screwed-up moral code."

The creature and his powers intrigued Stryker. " What is he? Your personal lie detector? "

She gave him a flippant smile. " Something like that."

Jared scoffed. " Why don't you tell him the truth? I'm your pet dog you keep chained up so he won't piss on your floor."

She threw her hand out again and his muzzle returned to cover his face. " Why do you push me so? "

Jared jerked at his restraints as he shouted something indecipherable.

His strength was admirable. Stryker even noted the light of respect for the creature in his daughter's eyes.

" You two lovebirds fight like this all the time? " Stryker asked her.

She snorted. " I don't fight with him at all. He's merely a tool I use."

" Use how? "

She didn't respond. " Matera says I should let her kill you for abandoning us."

" But? "

" I want to understand how it is that you could leave the woman you loved and never once look back or regret it. I find that kind of selfishness baffling."

Stryker froze as her accusation stung him deep inside. Not regret it? He'd regretted the loss of Zephyra every day of his life. But he'd been raised to believe that duty came before love.

Always.

His father had demanded he divorce Zephyra and marry a priestess to fulfill the destiny his father had planned for him and he'd done it. No, it wasn't just that. Zephyra had all but kicked him out the door when Apollo told her what the god thought of her and her lowly birth.

" The daughter of a fisherman married to the son of a god? Are you out of your minds? There are whores for you aplenty, Strykerius. I didn't save you from slaughter to see you marry this and beget worthless children from lesser genetic stock."

Stryker should have defended Zephyra. He'd known it at the time. But at only fourteen, a prime marital age in the ancient world, he'd been scared of his father's powers. Scared of disappointing the god who'd meant the world to him.

" Well? " Medea demanded. " Answer me. Why did you leave us? "

Stryker deadened his features. He was no longer a frightened youth. He was an eleven-thousand-year-old general. " I don't answer to anyone, and I damn sure don't answer to my daughter. What happened then is between me and your mother."

" Are you willing to die then? "

" I'm a warrior, Medea. I accepted death as inevitable the moment I picked up my first sword to fight. I killed my own son for betraying me. It seems somehow fitting that my daughter should kill me for perceived similar actions. My only regret will be not knowing better the child who is so similar to me that she could execute me so swiftly and without regret or hesitation."

She lifted her arm up. Stryker expected her to kill him. Instead, the chains holding him broke loose from his wrists and ankles.

" Come with me."

Stryker followed her as a new plan formed in his mind. Little did she know he was no docile pup to be commanded by any person.

When he reached the door, he turned back to see Jared hanging limply from his restraints, his muzzle firmly in place. A wave of sympathy went through him.

Don't feel sorry for me, Stryker. I didn't choose to be here.

Those ominous words echoed through his head as he followed Medea out of the room and she closed the door, blocking his sight of Jared.

" Is he a prisoner? "

" No. He was a gift."

" A gift? "

She nodded without any further explanation.

" From? " he prompted.

She opened a door and led him inside a cold, austere room. " Jared's presence isn't something we talk about. Ever."

Perhaps...

Medea started down the hallway. Now that Stryker was free of the room, he felt his powers soaring. There must have been some sort of dampening spell on the room. Now that it was gone...

Invigorated, he rushed to his daughter and grabbed her from behind.

Eyes wide, she gasped.

" I'm a leader, child. I follow no one." Tightening his hold, he flashed her out of the building and back to Kalosis.

 


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