- The Darkest Lie
“How were they able to amass and approach without our knowledge?” Torin’s eagle eye usually missed nothing. Helped that he could hack into any system, even the city’s, the government’s, and study areas from their cameras.
“They fucking appeared out of nowhere,” the warrior mumbled. “Which means someone flashed them. Lucien can only flash those he touches, so whoever did this is sickeningly powerful. I’ve summoned Cronus, but he—”
“Is here,” a hard voice finished.
Both Strider and Torin turned to find Cronus towering in the far corner. The god king strode forward, the hem of his alabaster robe dancing around his ankles. Interesting.
There’d been no flash of light, as the sovereign usually preferred. Like the Hunters, he’d simply appeared.
Was everyone off their game today?
Like Torin, he was in a state of disarray. His dark hair, now minus any gray, was a mop around his head. His tanned skin, no longer marred by wrinkles, was tight with his frown.
“What’s going on?” Strider asked. He didn’t mind fighting Hunters. In fact, he loved it. Lived for it. His demon did, too. Every victory was like injecting heroin straight into his veins, a high, an addiction. But this…
Some of his friends were gone. The fortress was filled to bursting with women. Some of them delicate, and in need of serious protection. Hell, Maddox’s female was pregnant. How was Strider supposed to win this battle and keep everyone safe?
Cronus stopped behind Torin, closer than anyone had dared get to the warrior in years. “Galen is out of commission for the time being, so my…wife—” he sneered the word “—is dealing directly with the humans. And she’s commanded them to storm this fortress, destroy it and everyone inside then steal your artifacts from the rubble.”
Damn. Damn, damn, damn. He couldn’t even rejoice that Galen was out of commission, for whatever reason. This was bad news, all the way around.
A growl rose from Cronus. “Her daring…offends me.”
“Kill her, then,” Torin suggested, deadly serious.
Strider seconded that motion.
Never had the god king appeared more wistful. “No. I cannot.”
The absolute conviction in his tone surprised Strider. “How about I do it?” Killing females wasn’t his favorite thing, but he’d had to do it before. Hunters were fond of using women to distract the Lords, to learn about them and ultimately betray them. He did what was necessary to protect his friends. Always had, always would.
Cronus shook his head, though he hadn’t lost his pensive glow. “No.”
What the hell was holding him back? “Do you love your wife or something? Even after all she’s done to you?”
“Love that whore? No!” A denial spat as if the greedy bastard had just been asked to abdicate his throne.
Kings, man. Worse than females. “Then let me end her.”
Cronus rounded on him, fury flickering black and gold in his eyes, and gripped a fistful of Strider’s shirt. “You will not touch her. Do you understand me?”
All systems go.
This was a challenge. One Strider couldn’t ignore. His demon roared to life, happy, eager to attack. There would be no saving the god queen now. Not without Strider suffering. And that’s exactly what happened when he lost. He suffered. And he would do anything to prevent such an outcome. He wanted the heroin.
The king must have realized his mistake. He released Strider, palms out. “My…apologies, Defeat. Do whatever you wish.” Though he didn’t sound apologetic, the words had the desired effect.
Defeat’s eagerness deflated. Challenge over, systems shut down. Disappointed, Strider nodded and smoothed his shirt. “So, you wanna explain? You don’t love her, but you want her alive. She’s causing you nothing but problems, yet you don’t want to end her. I’m drawing a blank on this one.”
He could imagine his head separating from his body in the ensuing silence.
Then, “If Rhea dies, I—” Cronus scrubbed a hand down his suddenly tired face. “What I’m about to tell you does not leave this room. If it does, I will know and I will retaliate.”
Strider and Torin shared a look, then both of them nodded.
Cronus closed his eyes. Several more minutes ticked by in that lethal silence. Then his shoulders slumped, and he sighed, facing them. “If Rhea dies…I die. We are…connected.”
Strider’s first thought after absorbing the news? Oh, shit, no. Not good. Not good at all. The Lords needed Cronus. For the moment, anyway. Bastard he might be, but that bastard was helping them in ways they hadn’t known they’d needed. He’d provided them with ancient scrolls that listed all the immortals possessed by one of Pandora’s demons, giving the Lords a chance to capture them before the Hunters did. He was able to whisk them wherever they wished to go—like the fiery pits of hell. He had given them necklaces that prevented other gods from being able to spy on them.
Strider fingered the necklace in question. A butterfly with blade-tipped wings, exactly like the one tattooed on the left side of his hip, dangled from the center of an unbreakable chain. What would they do without Cronus’s aid?
Return to a life of being ignored by the gods? Sounded good in theory, but what if someone else, someone who didn’t want them to succeed, took an interest in their cause?
Torin stopped typing and swiveled in his chair, peering up at the king. “But Rhea’s helping Galen. And Danika—” the All-Seeing Eye “—predicted Galen would kill you. If Danika was right, Galen will also be responsible for Rhea’s death. So why would your wife aid him?”
Good point. They’d known for months that Galen would make a play for Cronus’s head, but they hadn’t known why. Until a few weeks ago, when Strider and a few of the others had finally gotten the surly deities known as the Unspoken Ones to cough up some answers. Whoever presented the Unspoken Ones with the god king’s head would be given the Paring Rod, the last of the artifacts needed to find Pandora’s box.
Only problem? Each of the Unspoken Ones was part man, part animal and all venom, and he didn’t trust them.
They were slaves to Cronus—slaves that would be freed upon his death—and would say anything to gain release. Hell, they may not even know where the Rod was.
Besides, there was no telling what kind of havoc they’d wreak if they were loosed. They liked to eat humans, after all. As in, chomp them out and spit out their bones.
The Rod wasn’t worth risking the end of the world. Yet.
“Since Rhea flashed the Hunters here,” Strider said to Cronus, “can you flash them elsewhere?” He could have patted himself on the back for that one. Someone should probably dub him Master Strategist.
A shake of the king’s head dashed his hopes for such a prestigious (and brilliantly invented, if he did say so himself) award. “She’ll simply flash them back. Perhaps inside the fortress next time.”
“Okay,” Strider replied, thinking aloud. “Currently we’re missing a chunk of our forces. Which means we won’t have an edge if we fight these Hunters. Which means we could lose. Which means it’ll be best if we split up. I can take one of the artifacts. Reyes can take Danika, and Lucien and Anya can take the remaining artifact. We’ll all go in different directions. The Hunters won’t be able to track us all. And with our new necklaces—”
“I prefer manlaces,” Torin said, sounding more like his old, irreverent self.
“Fine.” Damn. Why hadn’t he thought of that? “With our new manlaces, even Rhea won’t know where we are.”
Cronus stroked his chin, seemingly lost in thought.
“What about the others?” Torin asked, clearly recognizing a phenomenal idea when he heard one.
Strider started designing a Master Strategist plaque for his room. “Maddox can take Ashlyn somewhere. As protective of her and that bun in her oven as he is, he’s probably already built a bomb shelter in the city. Now that Gwen’s back from her trip to the clouds, she and Sabin can take care of themselves. They aren’t in any danger. Aeron’s off on his mission to hell and Olivia’s taken Gwen’s place in the sky, from what I can tell. The others, well, Kane, Cameo and Paris, can stay here with you and defend our home. Gideon can help when he returns.” If he returns.
He will. Strider wouldn’t believe otherwise.
A moment passed in heavy silence, but at least there was no cutting edge to this one.
“What about the fourth artifact?” Cronus asked, returning to the conversation. “Who’s going to look for it?”
Bottom line was, they couldn’t allow the Hunters to get it. Even at the expense of Cronus’s head. “I can,” Strider said. “I’ll take the Cloak of Invisibility with me. That way, I won’t have to fight anyone if I find it. I can just grab it and go.”
Torin arched a black brow at him, green eyes glowing. “Do you have any idea where to start looking?”
Yeah. He did. The Temple of the Unspoken Ones.
Cronus must have realized the direction of his thoughts, because he gave another growl.
“I’m not going to betray you,” Strider assured him, palms raised in a mimic of Cronus’s earlier gesture. Like Gideon, he could easily lie. Whether he was lying or not, though, he didn’t yet know. “I’ll remain invisible and listen. If the Hunters arrive, if the Unspoken Ones mention anything about the Rod, I’ll be there. I’ll find it first.”
Cronus relaxed somewhat. “Very well. You may go with my blessing.”
“And, uh, we had best get everyone on the same page and on their way,” Torin said, his voice hard once again. “The Hunters are on the move.”
Strider’s gaze returned to the monitors, and sure enough, the groups of Hunters were closing in on the fortress. “You tell everyone what’s going on,” he said to Torin in a rush. “I’ll grab the Cloak and kill as many of those bastards as I can on my way out.”