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CHAPTER 11. Jericho watched the shock and panic play across Delphine's face
Jericho watched the shock and panic play across Delphine's face. He knew the look of someone having been caught red-handed and it disgusted him that he'd been so easily duped. How could he have ever believed in her?
"So it is true." Curling his lip, he jerked his hand away from her grasp. "I should have known."
As he started to get up, she shoved him back onto the bed almost roughly. He'd never seen her really fired up before, but right now her eyes smoldered. "Don't you dare take that sanctimonious high road and leave, you stubborn man. Yes, Zeus told me to seduce you. I won't deny it. And so did your sister, for that matter. But when have I ever listened to them? Zeus also told me to capture Arik, and I didn't do that, either, as you have seen."
"You did seduce me." He hated the note of pain in his voice that he couldn't suppress. Most of all, he hated the fact that he cared enough about her to be hurt. After all these centuries of trying to protect himself, she'd wormed her way past his defenses and had struck a blow to his heart that he wanted to hurt her over.
She looked aghast. "How? By being nice to you? Is that all it took? For some reason, I thought seduction was a lot harder than that."
That ignited his own wrath. "Don't you dare patronize me."
"I'm not the one patronizing you, Jericho. You are if you think I've seduced you. All I've done is treat you like a human."
"Then how pathetic am I that that's all it took?"
She hit his stomach. Not hard; it was more like she wanted to get his attention. But it was enough to ignite his anger.
"You're not pathetic," she growled. "You're not worthless. But you are hurt. Maybe even a little confused and probably a lot of deranged, but not pathetic."
"Well, you did barge into hell to save a woman who was dumb enough to get caught. . . how many times now? Personally I wouldn't have saved me after the first time. That to me says you're deranged."
Jericho wanted to yell at her. He wanted to deny her and be angry. To hurt and curse her very existence. Yet as he looked at her, all he saw was a perfect mouth that needed kissing and a beautiful smile that warmed his heart. He saw green eyes with flecks of gold set into a face that haunted him.
How did she do it? How could he want to strangle her one minute and then be fine the next? But her words cut straight through his anger, diminishing it until he was lost.
For the first time in centuries he didn't feel pathetic or worthless, and it wasn't because he had his powers restored. It was because she saw him as something more than that.
Most of all, he wanted to be the man she saw him
And before he could stop himself, he kissed her.
Delphine was stunned by his actions. How could he go from being so surly in one heartbeat to this?
"You're not right in the head, are you?" she asked as he nibbled his way to her ear.
"No. There's definitely something wrong with me." He pulled back to stare at her. "I want to hate you, but I can't even stay mad at you."
She narrowed her gaze at him. "You know, I think you're more in need of lessons on how to seduce than I am. Why don't you call me fat and ugly while you're at it?"
The sound caught her completely off guard. Deep and from the heart, it wasn't mocking or sarcastic. It was real. "What? Was that a laugh?"
He tried to sober. "No."
"Yes, it was. I heard it. Holy cow," she teased, "call Hermes to spread the news. I think I just started the end of the world . . . it has to be a sign of the apocalypse." Her teasing died as she caught a look of hurt that he quickly concealed. "Jericho, I was teasing you. I would never hurt you intentionally."
"Good, 'cause you live in a place inside me where only you can do me harm."
Delphine froze at the barely audible words.
His gaze locked with hers. "I hate you for that."
"You don't have to hate me. You know I'd sooner kill myself than hurt you."
He narrowed his gaze. "No, I don't know that. And you're asking me to trust in you when everyone I've ever known has betrayed me?"
"Nike hasn't betrayed you."
He scoffed. "Nike was the one who told Noir how to kill me."
Delphine was stunned. "What?"
"He projected the images of her telling him to me as he stabbed me."
She gave him a chiding glare. "Azura also told you that I was Zeus's favorite, which is absolutely not true. They're liars, Jericho. They wouldn't know the truth if it bit them in their privates. Believe me, if their lips are moving, they are lying. Guaranteed. Your sister loves you. She was adamant that you not be hurt. Why would she turn around and then tell him how to kill you?"
"Then who did?"
She shrugged. "There was a room full of gods when Zeus snarled it out. It could have been any of them."
Jericho scoffed at her blindness. It could have been Nike. It was possible. "How can you have faith in anyone after everything that's happened?"
"Because I choose to. I won't let people like Zeus and Noir ruin my life by making me suspicious of everyone around me. I won't give them that power. They're not worth it."
Jericho wanted to be like that, too, but it was so hard. He didn't know if he had it in him any more to trust. He'd been hurt one time too many.
She pushed him back down and covered him with the sheet. "You need to rest. While I've mended your wounds, you're still sore and wounded. Give your body time to heal completely."
"There's too much to be done. I need to know—"
He blinked at her, unable to believe she'd just told him no. Forcefully and rudely. "No, you d'in'."
"Yes, I di'id," she mocked. "Don't make me use my Jedi ninja mind tricks on you. I might screw up and fry your brains."
He couldn't suppress a smile at her unfounded threats. "I appreciate the concern, but Noir is still scheming and we need to talk to Deimos and M'Adoc. Maybe they know something we can use."
She bit her lip and cringed as if she didn't care for that thought. Gods, how he loved that fretful look. "You know the only way to see them is to go to Olympus. Is that really what you want?"
"No. But I want Noir's heart in my fist and if going there is what I have to do . . ."
"You want his more than Zeus's?"
She had a point. It was hard to decide who he wanted to murder more.
Both would be preferable. "Maybe."
She rolled her eyes at him. "I think you just like being angry."
"Not really." Anger just seemed to be his main sustenance. "But Noir is after us with a personal vendetta. This is no time to be squeamish or timid. The best defense is a good offense. We need to make the lion a rabbit and run him into the ground." "What if we can't?"
"I'm not going to think that way. Noir is ours and we're going to make him wish he'd never stuck his head out of Azmodea."
Delphine couldn't deny him the passion he felt. She just wished there was a better way. But if he was willing . . . "Then Olympus it is. But do try to behave. I know it's hard for you, but. . ."
He snorted. "I won't piss on the floor."
"It's not the floor I'm worried about. It's their cornflakes."
With a droll glower, he dressed himself in a black top and pants before they teleported to the Vanishing Isle, where Acheron and his people had taken the remaining survivors.
Delphine followed Jericho, bracing herself for a rough showdown. The one thing she'd learned about Jericho was that his temper would always get the better of him. And from what she'd seen of Deimos and M'Adoc, they didn't need anyone else beating on them.
They entered the temple hall—where the Oneroi gathered to feast, gossip or share information. Today the hall had been turned into a large infirmary. There were a few Oneroi tending the wounded.
But it was the demigod who'd been placed in charge of them that surprised her.
Zarek of Moesia had been born human. Even worse, he'd been raised as a human slave who'd been wrongfully convicted of raping his owner and then executed for it. For thousands of years, he'd lived as one of the Dark-Hunters who rode herd on the Daimons. At least in theory. In reality, Zarek had been one step this side of insane—and not even a full step. He'd been kept isolated from mankind for their protection.
A few years ago, Artemis had declared him a threat to mankind and had sent an assassin after him. But not before Acheron had petitioned the goddess Themis to judge him to see if he was worth saving. Unable to do so herself, Themis had sent her daughter, Astrid, in to judge. Astrid had not only judged Zarek sane, she'd saved his life and fallen in love with him.
Ever since then, the two of them had been inseparable.
Tall, blond and beautiful, Astrid was on the opposite side of the room with a female Oneroi she was assisting.
Zarek was directing the other attendants who were healing and moving the rest of the Oneroi and Dolo-phoni. Even though he was considered a god now, he still retained that feral human quality. It didn't help that his hair was short and jet black. The same color as his sharply trimmed goatee. There was just such an air of menacing power about him that it made the hair on the back of her neck rise.
He crossed the room as soon as he saw them. "Ash told me you guys wouldn't be joining us."
Afraid Jericho might say something to set Zarek off, Delphine stepped between them. "Change of plans. Why are you here?"
"I asked him to come," Astrid said as she joined them. "Not all of the Skoti are returning, so I was afraid of another attack. For some insane reason, a number of them are still siding with Noir."
Zarek inclined his head to his wife. "So if the punks come here, they're going to dance with the devil and get the short end of the horn."
Astrid smiled proudly as she wrapped her arm around his waist and squeezed him. "No one better than my Zarek to rip someone's head off." She looked at Jericho. "You two should get along famously."
Instead they were both suspicious as they sized each other up. It would be amusing if they didn't have so much riding on this.
"Where's Deimos?" Jericho asked.
Astrid pointed to the far comer. "Phobos went back to help the others and to save as many as he could."
"Thanks." Jericho led Delphine away from Zarek and Astrid over to where Deimos was resting. He looked down at Delphine as guilt consumed him. "I should be there, too, helping them."
"You can't." She patted the center of his chest, just over his heart. "Noir knows how to kill you. We have to take you out of the game or risk losing you."
"Fear doesn't control me."
She gave him a dry smirk. "I know, tough guy. But you have one hell of an off switch that I'm sure he's shared with everyone on his team."
"And the one thing I know is that everything in the universe has a weakness. He knows mine. We have to find Noir's."
Deimos scoffed as they reached him. He was bruised and still bleeding. Someone had bandaged his head and one of his eyes was covered by white gauze. "Find it, my ass. Look at me. They can't even heal me of the damage he's done. When was the last time you saw me busted up like this?"
Nonplussed by the question, Jericho shrugged. "Over a Thracian slave dancer. You and Phobos got into it until I had to separate you. You both looked like that afterward."
Deimos started to laugh, then cursed. "Only you would remember that."
"I'm sure Phobos hasn't forgotten it, either."
Delphine knelt beside him. The pain he had to be in . . . Unlike Jericho, she'd never seen him like this. "What is going on, Deimos? Why has Noir come at us like this after all of this time? I know he wants the Skoti, but why hasn't he attacked before this?"
He let out a long, tired sigh before he answered. "In short, it's because the Malachai is back. The moment the elder Malachai turned on Noir and ran, his powers began to weaken significantly."
She frowned. "I don't understand."
"You know how our powers weaken when we have no one worshiping us?"
That was the theory. However, she'd always wondered about it. "Yes, but the Oneroi powers never really have. Not like the other gods'."
"That's because Acheron started using the Dream-Hunters to help his Dark-Hunters cope and heal through the dream state. With their numbers and by needing you guys to help them heal, the Dark-Hunters helped the Oneroi to maintain the strength of their powers."
"Oh . . ." So that was why their powers had never really diminished. She was suddenly more grateful to Acheron than she'd been before.
"Well, a lot of Noir's power," Deimos continued, "is contingent on the Malachai and his loyalty. Azura was able to maintain some of her power because she feeds on Jaden, who in turn feeds from the demons and their need of him. But once Nick's father ran out, Noir began to weaken immediately. When Nick's powers were restored, it brought Noir out of a nearly comatose state. The more the Malachai uses his power, the stronger Noir becomes. It's why he needs the Malachai so badly, and it's why he keeps attacking us. He's hoping to draw the Malachai to him."
That made sense, and it explained where Noir had been all these centuries past. But there was one more dark power that had yet to rear its ugly head. "What about his sister, Braith?"
"Noir and Azura are looking for her. So far, they have no idea what happened to her."
Jericho answered for him. "Can they surf dreams and find Nick?"
Deimos nodded. "Plus the more gods who swear service to Noir, the more powerful he becomes off them. We're powerful when the humans believe in us, but when it's a god, it makes us twice as strong." He looked at Jericho. "You can drive him back and he knows it."
That was true except for the one fatal flaw caused by Zeus that made Jericho just a little too easy to kill. "What is Noir's weakness?"
Jericho scowled at the unexpected answer. "What do you mean?"
Deimos winced as if pain cut through him before he answered. "If we free Jaden, we can put both Noir and Azura down. He has the power, but right now he's enslaved to them and forbidden to do them harm."
And freeing him would be next to impossible. By now Noir would have clamped down on his prized pet.
Jericho looked at Delphine before he spoke again. "So the easiest thing to do to keep Noir from gaining more power is to kill the Malachai."
Deimos snorted. "You would think. But there's a major problem there. His life is tied to Acheron's. You kill him and Acheron drops right after him."
Delphine let out a frustrated breath. "If Acheron dies, the Destroyer is released and the world ends."
Jericho cursed. "Who thought that was a good idea?"
"Ash, when he didn't know Nick was the Malachai."
Flippin' figured. Jericho would condemn him for his stupidity had he not done dumber things himself. Starting with having saved the woman next to him.
Well, maybe that wasn't so dumb after all. . .
"So what are we going to do?" Delphine asked.
"Right now the most pressing thing is to either kill or reclaim the Dolophoni, Oneroi and Skoti working with Noir. So long as a single one serves him, we're screwed."
Yeah, the last thing they needed was to be that vulnerable while they slept. No one needed a Freddy Krueger reenactment.
Jericho crossed his arms over his chest. "How many do they have on their side?"
"About a hundred."
Delphine glanced up. "But we have more. We can fight and bring them home."
"Or kill them," Jericho added. Personally, he preferred the latter. If they hadn't come over willingly, in his mind they couldn't be trusted. Better to take them out than take them in and be sorry.
Delphine gave him an irritated glare. "We need to launch another attack on them."
"You'll need a leader," Zarek said as he joined them. "One massive, concentrated attack from the hall of mirrors to catch them while they're in the dream realm, and another for those who are awake."
Jericho nodded. "It'll be bloody, but Zarek's right. We have to sober the Skoti and heal the others so that we can finish this."
Delphine shook her head as she considered it. She wasn't sure they stood a chance as the situation was currently. "But who's going to lead? M'Adoc—"
"He's not a military commander," Deimos said, interrupting her. He looked up at Jericho. "You're the best shot we have. You can monitor the Source for activity and ride herd on Noir and Azura when they draw from it. Plus you have command experience and know how to best comer enemies and execute them."
Zarek looked less than pleased. "He can't do it alone. How many Source gods do we have?"
Astrid answered. "Four. Jared, Acheron, Nike . . ." she paused as she cut a sideways glance to him, "and Jericho."
"There are two more," Deimos said. Astrid frowned. "Who?"
'The Sumerian god Sin and his twin brother, Zakar."
Now it was Delphine's turn to be baffled. "Why would they fight with us?"
"Sin is Acheron's son-in-law."
"Oh," she said as she understood. That changed a lot. "That might work, then."
Zarek scoffed. "Or it'll blow up in our faces."
A devious glimmer lit Jericho's eyes. "Well, the other alternative is to wake a few Titans and break ass on all of them."
Zarek's evil laughter rang out as if he had a good image of that in his mind. "Zeus would shit kittens."
Jericho shrugged. "Do any of us care?"
Delphine and Astrid raised their hands.
Astrid cleared her throat. "In case you guys forgot, the Titans are just a tad upset about their eternal imprisonment. You let them out now, and I think we'll have a worse problem than just Noir. Plus there's a lot more of them."
Delphine nodded. "What she said and then some."
"I have a better idea." M'Adoc flashed in beside them.
Delphine was surprised to see him here and even more that he'd been eavesdropping on their conversation.
But he was still unsteady on his feet and didn't last long before he collapsed.
Jericho caught him before he fell and helped him sit on the floor.
M'Adoc took a second to steady himself before he explained his idea. "Our weakness was the Skoti. Noir got to them by promising to restore their emotions. Once there—"
"He's been drugging them," Delphine finished, remembering Zeth's warning to her and the biting effects of the food.
M'Adoc nodded. "So long as he keeps them like that, they can't fight him. But if you get Zeth sobered, we can reunite the Skoti with the Oneroi. With our emotions intact, the indignant fury of what's been done to us will fuel our tight. And more than that, Noir will have nothing more to offer them. Especially since he's now attacked all of us."
Jericho was still skeptical. It seemed somehow too easy. "Are you sure about that?"
M'Adoc nodded. "We need their sense of loyalty and fairness restored. With the ban lifted, we'll be back as we were."
"Can we do that?" Delphine asked. "I thought once a curse was given it was eternal."
"Not always. But it has to be removed by the god who delivered it. Besides, this one's already weakening. The emotions you have, Delphine, haven't you noticed they've grown stronger?"
"I thought it was residuals from battling the Skoti."
M'Adoc shook his head. "Zeus isn't the power he used to be. As with Noir, the fewer people who worship him, the weaker he's become."
Deimos nodded. "And unlike Apollo, he doesn't have a race of Daimons believing in him to feed his powers."
"Exactly. He has the ability to rescind the curse. Unlike Apollo's, his isn't fatal and can be undone."
Jericho stepped back. "Then I'll go have a word with thunder-ass."
Delphine turned on him with a panicked expression that warmed him. "You can't. He'll kill you."
"Does it matter?"
"It does to me."
Jericho smiled as he cupped her cheek in the palm of his hand. No words had ever meant more to him, and it stunned him that she was so sincere. "It'll be all right." He nudged her next to Zarek. "Keep an eye on her until I'm back."
"You know," Deimos said, pushing himself up to sit. "I'm thinking she might not be too far off. You might want to have some backup before you go talk to Zeus."
Knowing the bastard, that would just piss him off more. Zeus didn't like an audience whenever he was wrong. This would take some serious finessing that would only work if there was no other witness to it. "I stood at his right-hand side for centuries. I know how to talk to the man."
Deimos snorted derisively. "You also got yourself one of the harshest punishments from him."
"Which means I know how to push him too far. Don't worry. I won't make that mistake again."
Delphine turned a worried look to M'Adoc. "M'Adoc, talk him out of it."
"I don't know if I can, Delphine. You'd have a better shot than me."
"And not even you can." Jericho started to leave, but Delphine stopped him. "You be careful. Please."
Treasuring those precious words, he inclined his head before he teleported himself from the Vanishing Isle straight into Zeus's private temple.
Jericho went cold as old memories assailed him. He and his siblings had once stood guard here while the father god bathed or slept with whatever nymph or goddess had caught his fancy. Only a tiny handful of other gods had ever been admitted here.
And in all these centuries nothing had changed. It was still the same cold, marbled hall it had always been.
Closing his eyes, Jericho reached out with his powers to locate Zeus.
He was in his bath, hopefully alone.
Jericho took a moment to return the patch to his eye and manifest his body armor. He articulated the fingers of his right hand back to his metallic claws and freed his wings.
There wouldn't be any begging. He was here merely to state his case and argue it if need be.
If Zeus wanted a fight, there would be a fight.
Jericho left his hair to flow freely down his back as he made his way through the golden-and-white marble hall to the back of the temple. The bathing room was a huge atrium with a waterfall at the far side that fed the tub, which was the size of a, pardon the pun, Olympic-sized pool. Steam floated off the water, letting him know it was hot and soothing.
Zeus lay on the opposite end of the waterfall with his eyes closed while a nymph sat on a nearby stool playing a lyre for him. From this vantage point, he looked completely relaxed and unaware of the fact that Noir was basically one step away from his throat. Stupid bastard.
The nymph looked up and gasped at the sight of Jericho.
Zeus jerked upright. Cursing, he turned in the water to face him. "What are you doing here?"
"I've come to visit. . . Father."
Zeus curled his lip before he barked at the innocent nymph. "Peia, leave us."
The nymph vanished instantly. Her lyre fell to the ground and rang on an off-key note.
Zeus reached for his long robe and tied it around him while he was still in the pool. Using his powers, he rose straight up before he stepped on the concrete so he could approach Jericho. "Have you lost your mind?"
Jericho ignored his snarling tone. "It feels like that some days. But no. I'm sane and I'm here to talk to you."
"What you're going to do."
Zeus narrowed his eyes threateninglv. "And that is?"
"Free the Oneroi."
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