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CHAPTER 15. Zeus was laughing at Hermes when he felt a rush of malevolence




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  1. CHAPTER 1
  2. CHAPTER 1
  3. CHAPTER 1
  4. Chapter 1
  5. CHAPTER 10
  6. CHAPTER 10
  7. Chapter 10
  8. CHAPTER 10
  9. Chapter 11
  10. CHAPTER 11

 

Zeus was laughing at Hermes when he felt a rush of malevolence. It was so potent, it was tangible and it cut through him like a barbed knife.

Glancing around the hall, he tried to find the god or goddess who would dare feel that toward him. But he saw nothing. No one was even paying attention to him.

Was he hallucinating?

"Is something wrong?" Hera asked from her throne on the right side of his.

"Do you not feel that?"

"Feel what?"

Before he could answer, the door to the temple was shouldered open. Dressed in his full battle regalia, Jericho shoved the doors wide. The long black duster clung to his body, outlining every muscle that had been honed to kill. Sharp spikes stood up on each shoulder, curving in toward his face like a lethal frame.

His wings were wide as his long white hair flowed over his shoulders and down his back. Both of his hands were covered with sharp metallic claws that scraped against the gold of the door like nails on a chalkboard.

His black, silver-studded boots tapped an evil staccato as he walked across the marbled floor with a look of hell-wrath and merciless vengeance carved into his eerily perfect features.

No one moved.

No one dared. Only Zeus knew who his target was. The rest held their collective breaths in anxious fear lest Cratus call them out and they have to face him.

Undoubtedly they all remembered the last time he had boldly strode into this hall.

But today was different. . .

"Ares!" Zeus barked at his son, who was the god of war. "Protect your father! Take that dog down! Now!"

Ares covered himself with his armor, then jumped from his table into Jericho's path. Without hesitating, Jericho summoned his shield and sword before he lunged at the god. Their shields clanged loudly as Jericho used his to drive the god back.

Ares dug his feet in and leaned with all of his weight against the shield, but it wasn't enough to block Jericho. He was like a steamroller with only one destination in mind.

Zeus.

"Your blood won't appease me, Ares. Stand down or feel a wrath the likes of which you can't imagine."

Ares stabbed at him over the shield.



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 assholes 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."

"Thank you."

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."

"Why?"

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."

"Uh-huh."

"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?"

"They're testing a new venom on us to see if they can infect one of us during a fight without our knowing we're infected. So that once we return home, we can spread it to others."

How insidiousplus it would make them all suspicious of each other even after they'd fought.

Zarek cursed. "How do we fight this?"

"You have to kill the one who infected them."

They turned to Jared, who'd spoken in the most deadpan of tones.

"What?" Madoc asked incredulously.

"Zephyra discovered it," Jared explained. "If you kill the gallu who sired the zombie, the zombie reverts to normal."

Eros sputtered. "Well, that's just stupid. Who would have done that?"

"The Egyptian goddess Ma'at. The gallu invaded her domain centuries ago, and she modified them to give her people a fighting chance."

Madoc shook his head in disgust. "Peachy, just peachy."

"Yeah," Eros agreed. "By the way, no one here better tell Ma'at I said it was stupid. She has a nasty temper, and I don't need a smack-down from her."

Jericho ignored his random paranoia. "So how do we determine who infected her?"

Zarek shrugged. "Let's kill them all and let Hades figure it out."

Crossing his arms over his chest, Hades gave him an unamused glare. "For the record, I don't clean up after you bastards. And no gallu is coming near my domain. That's all I need is a realm full of infected dead. That has Cesar Romero all over it."

Eros held his hand up. "Uh, Hades, that's George Romero. Cesar's the one who used to play the Joker on the 'Batman' TV show."

Hades gave him a flat stare. "Do I look like I care? And how do you know that?"

"Psyche and I go to the movies with Acheron. He's a major zombie junkie."

Ignoring their sniping, Asmodeus stepped forward sheepishly. "I'll find out who infected her."

Jericho frowned at Asmodeus's offer. "What?"

"I can get in there without any suspicion. Hopefully, I'll find the gallu and kill it."

Delphine shook her head. "Asmodeus"

"Look, it's all right," the demon said, interrupting her. "I know it sounds corny as hell, but all of you have made me feel like part of a team. I've never had that before. And I want to do my part to help. If any of the rest of you go in, Noir will kill you. Me . . . he'll only torture. Maybe gut and insult. Maybe even some bitch-slapping. But I'm the only hope you've got."

Delphine passed a worried look to Jericho before she returned her gaze to Asmodeus. "We can't send you in there alone."

"Eh, I'll be all right. Noir hates me anyway."

"But if he suspects you, he'll kill you."

The demon shrugged. "Who wants to live forever? Well, for the record, I do, but I want to do this for you."

Jericho stopped him before he left. He slid the ring off his finger and handed it to him. "Take this."

Asmodeus curled his lip as he shrank back from it. "I'm not about to marry your ugly ass, boy. No offense, but you ain't my type. I like my dates with less body hair . . . and with female parts attached by nature."

Jericho let out an aggravated growl. "It's not a wedding ring, asshole. It's Berith's ring. You get into trouble, you can summon him to help you get out of there."

That completely changed his attitude. "Oh, hey, that could be worth an engagement to you." Asmodeus grinned as he palmed it. "If I'm not back in a few hours . . . well, I don't want to think about that. I might change my mind about doing this. I'm thinking happy thoughts. Creamed dog innards and rotten steak. Yeah. Yum." He vanished.

Delphine wrapped her arm around Jericho's and did her best not to think about Asmodeus's parting imagery or the fact that he might really call that cuisine. She didn't know why, but she strangely liked the demon. He was like their socially stunted illegitimate . . . cousin. "You think he'll be all right?"

"He's not the one we should be worried about."

They turned toward Hades. "How so?"

"You're not done with Zeus. I'm sure of it. He won't attack today, but you guys have publicly embarrassed him and if there's one thing I know about my brother . . . he doesn't deal well with that."

"It's all right," Madoc said. "We're going to solidify our place here."

"And you will need to cage us," another of the Skoti said. "We've done enough damage on Noir's behalf. We don't want to do any more."

Jared and Madoc caged them while Delphine considered everything that was happening. She wanted it to slow down, but there was nothing she could do.

It was getting scarier by the minute.

"I'm so sorry about Nike."

Jericho stared at her, his eyes sad. "Me, too. Dammit, I shouldn't have been distracted. I should have stayed in Azmodea until I located her."

"You can't blame yourself."

"Then who do I blame? I was the one who left her there."

"Because you were worried about me," Delphine whispered. "Had I not been there, you wouldn't have gotten sidetracked."

He pulled her against him. "This is definitely not your fault, baby. I made the decision and I abandoned her. I have to have faith in Asmodeus."

Hades approached them. "I'm returning to the Underworld. Let me know if you need me."

"We will. Thanks."

Hades inclined his head before he vanished.

Jericho watched as the others set about cleaning the hall and restoring it to its former beauty. But it was the sadness in Madoc's eyes that bothered him.

Releasing Delphine, he went to check on the Oneroi. "You okay?"

Madoc started to nod, then shook his head. "I miss my brothers. I've never been here without them and I keep wondering what D' Alerian would do if he were here. What he'll say when he comes back."

If he comes back. But Delphine had taught him not to be callous enough to say that out loud.

"You're doing a great job." Delphine came over and patted Madoc's arm. "Really. No one could do better, and I know D'Alerian would be proud of you and what you've done to protect us."

"Thanks." He looked down at her and smiled sadly. "By the way, I spoke to Zeth about what Jericho suggested. We'd like for you to be our third leader."

Delphine was surprised by his offer. "Me?"

Madoc nodded. "But for you, none of us would be here now. You're the one who saved Jericho and helped to liberate us. Without you, I'd still be chained to the floor."

Maybe, but Delphine wasn't used to being a leader of any kind. "I don't know."

"You'd be great at it," Jericho said with a confidence she definitely didn't feel.

She didn't know why, but coming from him, the praise meant more than anything. "All right. I'll try it. But if I screw something up, one of you better help me fix it."

Madoc laughed. "And we're going to try something else a little different."

"What?"

Madoc looked over to Zarek. "We're going to add two generals. Zarek and Jericho."

"Oh, goodie," Eros said sarcastically. "Could you have chosen two surlier people?"

"That's why they'll be in charge of our army. May the gods have mercy on whoever pisses them off, because Zarek and Jericho will have none for them."

Zarek cleared his throat. "You'd better be glad I'm flattered by that. Otherwise I'd gut you."

Jericho agreed with an angry glower. "Ditto."

Delphine was smiling as Astrid appeared with a crying toddler. He had eyes so bright a blue she would have thought him a Dream-Hunter had he not had Astrid's blond hair and looked just like his father . . . minus the goatee.

Her face distressed, Astrid handed him off to Zarek. "Menoeceus wants his father."

Zarek glared at her. "Bob is crying because he wants his mother to stop calling him that crap-ass name." Zarek cuddled the small boy to him as he rocked him gently against his shoulder while he continued to wail. Loudly. "It's all right, Bob. Daddy's got you now. I'm saving you from Mommy's bad naming taste. I'd be crying, too, if my mom named me after an idiot."

"Menoeceus is a great name," Astrid said defensively.

Zarek snorted. "For an old man or a feminine hygiene product. Not for my son. And next time I get to name the kid and it won't be something that sounds like meningitis."

Astrid stood with her hands on her hips, toe to toe with her husband. "You keep that up and next time you'll be the one birthing it, and don't mess with me, bucko, I have connections in that department. A pregnant man is not an impossibility in my neighborhood."

She started away from him.

"Yeah, well, I'll be glad to birth it if it means I can name him something normal," Zarek called after her.

"Yeah, yeah. This from a man who whines like a two-year-old when he stubs his toe. I'd like to see you survive ten hours of childbirth."

"I am not a wimp!" Zarek cast a menacing glare at all of them. "I have the damn scars to prove it."

"You the man," Eros said. "Not that whining over a stubbed toe is anything to be unmanned about. I do it myself."

Still the boy cried as if his heart was broken.

Bob? Delphine mouthed the name to Jericho, trying not to laugh at something that was obviously a sore spot for Zarek and Astrid. The name was as unlikely for the small golden-haired cherub as the gentleness of the fierce man holding him while he rocked him.

"I want my fluff-fluff!" Bob wailed.

Zarek looked panicked. "Fluff-fluff. . ." He handed the toddler to Jericho. "Hold him for a sec."

"I don't think" Jericho paused as Zarek literally tossed the kid at him. Terrified, he had no choice but to take it.

Holding the toddler out in front of him, he wasn't sure what to do with it. He hadn't held an infant in centuries. Eyes wide, he stared at the little guy, who was as startled by him as Jericho was by Bob. The kid was absolutely silent.

"Look what you did," he snapped at Zarek. "I broke it."

Delphine laughed. "You didn't break him. He likes you."

Jericho wasn't so sure about that. Swallowing hard, he brought it in a little closer and tried to duplicate Zarek's rocking motion.

Bob pulled his hand out of his mouth and slapped it against Jericho's scarred cheek.

Jericho made an awful face. "Oh, gah, I've been slimed."

Bob laughed.

Laughing, too, Delphine reached up to wipe his cheek dry. "It's not slime. It's a baby kiss."

"It's slime," Zarek said as he returned with a light blue blanket that had the head of a lamb on one corner of it. He angled the head toward Bob. "Hello, little Bobby," he said in falsetto. "I'm the big bad lamb come to get a hug from you. Mwah!" He made a kissing noise.

Squealing happily, Bob grabbed the blanket and kissed it.

Delphine was aghast at the sight of two huge, fierce men coddling such a tiny child.

"We need that for YouTube," Astrid said with a wink.

"Most definitely."

Zarek took Bob back so that his son could cuddle the blanket. The little guy tucked the blanket under his cheek, which he rested on his father's shoulder. "See, he just needed his fluff." Zarek gave Astrid a teasing once-over. "I'll be needing some of mine later, too."

Astrid gave Delphine a dry stare. "I'm really going to strangle him."

Zarek kissed his son on the top of his head as he handed him back to Astrid. "Any time you need an expert parental hand"

"I'll find Jericho."

Jericho looked horrified. "Um, could you at least wait until that thing's housebroken?"

Zarek laughed. "You know, that's how I felt, too. You should have seen my face when she told me she was pregnant. I honestly had a moment of total hara-kiri, but once the shock passed and after a few months went by, I actually got used to the concept. Believe it or not, they actually grow on you. Slime and all."

Delphine wrapped her arms around Jericho's waist. "Oh, come on, Jericho. Don't you want a little miniature you running around?"

"Not really, and I can't imagine you'd want another one of me, either."

She shoved at his back playfully before she went to join Madoc.

Zarek and Astrid left him to tend to Bob.

Alone, Jericho went back to Nike. "We're getting help for you, Nike. I promise."

She hissed at him.

"C'mon, Asmodeus," he whispered. "Don't fail me."

"Oh, little brother, that incompetent demon is the least of your concerns."

Jericho started at the sound of Zelos's voice behind him. He turned, intending to greet his brother. But the moment he did so, Zelos buried a dagger deep into his chest. All the way to the hilt. . .

Through his human heart.

Gasping, he staggered back, into Nike's arms.


 


: 2015-09-13; : 4;







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