Prepare to be burned (Gena Showalter) in this dark, sexy tale by the New York Times bestselling author of the Demonica series, perfect for fans of Kresley Cole, JR Ward, and Jeaniene Frost.
His name is Ares, and the fate of mankind rests on his powerful shoulders. If he falls to the forces of evil, the world falls too. As one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, he is far stronger than any mortal, but even he cannot fight his destiny forever. Not when his own brother plots against him.
Yet there is one last hope. Gifted in a way other humans can't-or won't-understand, Cara Thornhart is the key to both this Horseman's safety and his doom. But involving Cara will prove treacherous, even beyond the maddening, dangerous desire that seizes them the moment they meet. For staving off eternal darkness could have a staggering cost: Cara's life.
About the Author
A former meteorologist and EMT, Air Force veteran Larissa Ione now gets her daily dose of excitement from vampires, werewolves, demons, and the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. She lives in wintery Wisconsin with her U.S. Coast Guard husband, her teenage son, a rescue cat, and her hellhound, a King Shepherd named Hexe.
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Read an Excerpt
By Ione, Larissa
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Ione, Larissa
All right reserved.
Her name was Lilith, and she was an evil succubus. His name was Yenrieth, and he was a good angel.
After hundreds of years of seducing humans, Lilith got bored. So she set her sights on Yenrieth, the ultimate challenge. He resisted. She pursued. He resisted some more. This went on for decades, until the inevitable happened. She was, after all, beautiful, and he liked his wine a little too much.
No one knows what happened to Yenrieth after their night of passion, but nine months later, Lilith gave birth to four children, three boys and a girl. She named them Reseph, Ares, Limos, and Thanatos. Lilith kept the girl, Limos, with her in Sheoul, and she planted the males in the human world, exchanging them for the infants of wealthy, powerful families.
The boys grew into men, never suspecting the truth about their origins. At least, not until demons rose up, spreading terror and seeking to use Lilith’s sons against the humans. Limos escaped from Sheoul, found her brothers, and revealed the truth about their parentage.
By this time, the brothers had seen their lands and families destroyed by demons and, blinded by hatred and the need for revenge, Lilith’s children encouraged (manipulatively and forcibly, sometimes) humans to help them fight violent, never-ending battles against the underworld abominations.
This didn’t go over well in the heavenly realm.
Zachariel, an angel of the Apocalypse, led a legion of angels to Earth, where they met in battle with demon hordes. When the earth and waters ran red with blood, and humans could no longer survive on the poisoned land, Zachariel struck a deal with the devil.
Lilith’s children were to be punished for slinging mankind to the brink of doom in their selfish bid for revenge. Because they had nearly brought about the end of days, they were charged as the keepers of Armageddon. Defenders or instigators; the choice would fall on their shoulders.
Each of them was given a Seal, and with each Seal came two prophecies. Should they protect their Seals from breaking until the prophecy laid out by the Bible came to pass, they would save their souls—and mankind.
But should they allow the Seals to be broken prematurely, as written in the Daemonica, the demon bible, they would turn evil, and would forever be known by the names Pestilence, War, Famine, and Death.
And thus were born the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Six Months Ago…
“Mmm… I love the story about how you came into existence. Doesn’t it give you shivers when you hear it?”
Ares, seated at the bar in an underworld pub, tried to ignore the female behind him, but the rub of her breasts against his back and the slide of her dainty hands from his waist to his inner thighs weren’t easy to tune out. Her heat burned right through his hard leather armor.
“Yeah. Shivers.” Some idiot read the legend aloud from the plaque that hung on the wall every time he was in here… which was often. The tavern, kept in business mainly by Ares and his siblings, was his second home, was even known as the Four Horsemen, and for the most part, male demons melted into the background or scurried out the back door when Ares arrived. Wise. Ares despised demons, and that, combined with his love of a good fight, led to… bad things… for hell’s minions.
But the opposite sex was a little braver—or maybe hornier. Female demons, shifters, weres, and vamps hung out twenty-four-seven in hopes of getting their hands, paws, or hooves on Ares and his brothers. Hell, Ares couldn’t swing his dick without hitting one. Usually he was a little more receptive to drinking, gambling, and general mischief, but something wasn’t sitting right today. He was on edge. Twitchy.
He was never like that.
He was even in danger of losing the chess game he was playing with the pudgy pink Oni bartender, and Ares hadn’t lost any game of strategy in… well, ever.
“Oh, War.” The female Sora demon, Cetya, ran her tongue along the top of his ear. “You’ve got to know it makes us hot.”
“My name,” he gritted out, “is Ares. You don’t want to be around on the day I become War.” He moved his rook, tossed back half his ale, and was about to signal for another, when the female’s hand dropped between his legs.
“I still like War better.” Her voice was a seductive trill, her fingers nimble as they sought the opening at his groin. “And Pestilence… such a sexy name.”
Only a demon would think “Pestilence” was a turn-on. Ares peeled her red hand away. She was one of Reseph’s regular bedmates, one of hundreds of Horsemen groupies who called themselves Megiddo Mount-me’s. They even subclassed themselves according to who their favorite Horseman was; Ares’s groupies liked to be called Mongers. War Mongers.
The bartender made a foolish move with his knight, and Ares hid a smile in his mug.
The female, who looked like a cartoon devil, traced a long, black nail over the stallion tattoo on Ares’s forearm. “I love this.”
The horse was as much a part of him as his organs, whether Battle was on his skin or under his seat, and Ares stiffened at the sensation of both his arm and scalp being stroked. Any contact with the glyph sent a shock of sensation to the corresponding parts of Ares’s body, which could be a real pain in the ass. Or it could be inappropriately pleasant…
Ares spun his mug down the length of the bar top and slid his queen into striking position. Triumph sang through him, filling that space in his soul that was always hungry for victory. “Checkmate.”
The bartender cursed, the Sora laughed, and Ares came to his feet. At nearly seven feet tall, he dwarfed the demon, but that didn’t faze her, and she plastered the entire length of her tank-topped, miniskirted body to his. Her tail swished on the hay-strewn floor, her black horns swiveled like pointy satellite dishes, and if her gaze grew any hotter his breeches were going to get real uncomfortable.
He despised his body’s reaction to demons, had never truly warmed up to females who didn’t at least appear to be human.
Some grudges lasted a lifetime.
“I’m outta here.” Despite the chess coup, his unease was becoming an itch under his skin, the way it did when a global war escalated. He needed to get back to the hunt for an ex-bedmate of his, a demon named Sin who had started a werewolf—or, warg, as they liked to be called—plague. Ares and his siblings had only recently determined that she was the key to a prophecy that, if it came to pass, would break Reseph’s Seal and turn him into the very thing Cetya wanted: Pestilence.
Sin had to die before a werewolf civil war broke out.
Unable to remain still any longer, he flung a gold Sheoulin mark at the three-eyed bartender. “A round for the house.”
With a firm grip, he dislodged the Velcro-demon and strode out of the tavern and into perpetual twilight. Muggy, hot air that reeked of sulfur filled his lungs, and his boots sank into the spongy terrain that defined the Six-River region of Sheoul, the demon realm in the Earth’s core.
Battle writhed on his skin, impatient to run.
“Out,” Ares commanded, and a heartbeat later, the tattoo on his arm turned to mist, expanding and solidifying into a giant blood bay stallion. Battle nudged him with his nose in greeting—or, more likely, for sugar cubes.
“You forgot this.”
Always ready to live up to his name, Battle bared his teeth at the Sora, who stood in the tavern doorway, her tail wrapped around the hilt of a dagger, which she dangled playfully. The blatant invitation in her sultry smile told him she’d plucked the weapon from Ares herself, but he knew that. He didn’t leave weapons behind.
Of course, he never got weapons lifted, either. The female was good. Real good. And even though he wasn’t normally into demons, he had to admire her talent. No wonder Reseph liked this one so much. Maybe Ares would make an exception to his no-demons-that-look-like-demons rule…
Grinning, he started toward her… and stopped dead.
The hairs on the back of his neck prickled in warning. With a furious scream, Battle reared up, and from out of the forest of shadowed trees a buffalo-sized hellhound leaped through the air. Ares zeroed in on the beast’s left side, seeking—and not finding—the jagged scar that would have identified the vile creature as the one Ares had been hunting for thousands of years. Disappointment rocked him even as he shoved the Sora out of the way, a stupid move that nearly landed him between snapping jaws.
Ares and his sibs were immortal, but hellhound bites were poison to the Horsemen, causing paralysis, and then the suffering really began.
He dove to the ground as Battle struck out with a powerful hoof, hooking the other animal in the ribs and sending it tumbling into the tavern door. The hound recovered so quickly that Battle’s blow might as well have been a fleabite, and it targeted the Sora, who scrambled backward on her hands and knees. Her terror was palpable, like little whips on Ares’s skin, and he had a feeling this was her first experience with a hellhound.
Hell of a way to pop that cherry.
“Hey!” Distract. Rolling to his feet, Ares drew his sword. Provoke. “I’m over here, you piece-of-shit mongrel.” Terminate.
Anticipation gleamed in the hellhound’s crimson eyes as it swung around, melting into an inky blur of evil. Ares met it head-on, with three hundred pounds of armored weight behind his blow. The satisfying crunch of steel meeting bone rent the air. An impact tremor shot up Ares’s arms, and a massive jet of blood spewed from the hound’s chest.
A bloodcurdling snarl ripped from the hound’s throat as it launched a surprisingly effective counterattack, slamming one huge paw into Ares’s chest. Claws raked his breastplate, and he flew backward, plowing into a stone summoning column. Pain lanced his upper body, and then the hellhound was on him, its jaws snapping a millimeter from Ares’s jugular.
Foul breath burned Ares’s eyes, and frothy, stinging saliva dripped on his skin. The beast’s claws tore at his armor, and it took every ounce of Ares’s strength to keep the hound from ripping out his throat. Even with Battle striking at the canine’s body, the creature did its damnedest to get a mouthful of flesh.
As hard as he could, Ares jammed his sword into the animal’s belly and yanked the blade upward. As the beast screamed in pain, Ares rolled, twisted, and brought the sword around in an awkward arc.
Awkward or not, the stroke cleaved the hound’s head from its shoulders. The thing fell to the ground, twitching, steam hissing from its gaping neck. The spongy ground drank the blood before it could pool, and hundreds of blackened teeth sprouted from the dirt, clamped onto the hound’s body, and began to chew.
Battle whinnied with amusement. The horse’s sense of humor had always been perched on the gallows with the crows.
Before the earth could claim the beast, Ares wiped his blade clean on its fur, giving repeated thanks to whoever was listening that the hound hadn’t bitten him. The horror of a bite was never-ending—the paralyzation didn’t stop the pain… or the ability to scream. Ares knew that firsthand.
He frowned as a thought spun up. The vile canines were predators, killers, but they generally hunted in packs, so why was this one solo?
What was going on?
Ares glanced over at the tavern door. The Sora had disappeared, was probably pounding shots of demonfire in the bar, and hey, wasn’t it great that no one had bothered to come out and help. Then again, no demon in his right mind willingly tangled with a hellhound no matter how much love he had for the slaughter—and most demons loved to slaughter.
Light flashed, and twenty yards away in a copse of black, twisted trees, a summoned Harrowgate shimmered into existence. Normal Harrowgates were permanent portals through which underworld creatures could travel, but the Horsemen had the ability to summon them at will, which made for easy surprise attacks and quick escapes.
Ares sheathed his sword as Thanatos emerged, throwing menacing shadows where there should be none. Both he and his pale dun mount, Styx, dripped with gore, and the stallion’s nostrils bubbled with blood.
It wasn’t an unusual sight, but the timing was too coincidental, and Ares cursed as he swung up onto Battle. “What happened?”
Thanatos’s expression darkened as he took in the dead animal. “Same thing that happened to you, apparently.”
“Have you heard from Reseph or Limos?”
Thanatos’s yellow eyes flashed. “I was hoping they were here.”
Ares threw out his hand, casting a Harrowgate. “I’ll go to Reseph. You check on Limos.” He didn’t wait for his brother’s reply. He spurred Battle through the gate, and the warhorse leaped, his big hooves coming down on a rocky shelf that had been scoured smooth by centuries of harsh wind and ice storms.
This was Reseph’s Himalayan hideaway, a giant maze of caverns carved deep into the mountains and invisible to human eyes. Ares dismounted in one smooth motion, his boots striking the stone with twin cracks that echoed endlessly in the thin air.
Instantly, the warhorse dissolved into a cloud of smoke, which twisted and narrowed into a tendril that wrapped around Ares’s hand and set into his forearm in the brown-gray shape of a horse tattoo.
Ares barged through the cave entrance, and he hadn’t gone a dozen steps when an electric current of ten-thousand-volt alarm shot up his spine.
Time to dance.
He was already in a dead run when he drew his sword, the metallic sound of the blade clearing its scabbard like a lover’s whisper during foreplay. It didn’t matter that he’d just engaged an enemy; he loved a good battle, craved the release of tension that hit him with the force of a full-body orgasm, and he’d long ago decided he’d rather fight than fuck.
Though he had to admit that after a good brawl, winding down with a lush, sultry female couldn’t be beat. Maybe he’d head back to the tavern after this and find a War Monger after all.
Adrenaline pumping hotly through his veins, Ares took a sharp corner so fast he had to skid into a change of direction, and then he burst through the doorway to Reseph’s main living area.
His brother, hand wrapped around a bloodied ax, stood in the middle of the room, which was painted in a fresh, dripping coat of blood. Reseph was panting, his shoulders slumped, head bent, white-blond hair concealing his face. He was motionless, his muscles locked up hard. Behind him, a hellhound lay dead, and in the corner, a very much alive hound let out a gravelly snarl, its gaping maw lined with razor-sharp teeth.
Ares’s brother didn’t move a muscle.
Fuck. He’d been bitten.
The beast swung its shaggy head toward Ares. Red eyes glowed with bloodlust as it gathered its hind legs under it. Ares calculated the distance to the target in a millisecond, and in one quick motion launched a dagger that impaled the hellhound in the eye. Ares pressed his advantage, heaving his sword in a horizontal side swing that caught the creature in the mouth, slicing its jaw clean off. The hound howled in agony and fury, but Reseph had already injured it and, weakened, it stumbled and fell, allowing Ares an opportunity to run his blade straight through its black heart.
“Reseph!” Leaving the sword impaled in the animal, Ares ran to his brother, whose blue eyes were wild, glazed with pain. “How did they get in?”
“Someone,” Reseph groaned, “had to have… sent them.”
That much was becoming clear. But very few beings could handle or control a hellhound. So if someone had sent the beasts, he was serious about putting Ares and his brothers—and maybe Limos too—out of commission.
“You should feel special,” Ares said, with a lightness he didn’t feel. “You got two hellhounds, and I only got one. Who’d you piss off?” Gently, Ares wrapped his arms around Reseph’s chest and lowered him to the ground.
Reseph sucked in a gurgling breath. “Last night… my… Seal.”
Ares went cold to the core, and with trembling hands, he tore away Reseph’s T-shirt to expose the chain around his neck. The Seal hanging from it was whole, but when he palmed the gold coin, a vibration, dense with malevolence, shot up his arm.
“The warg plague…” Reseph spoke between gritted teeth and rattling breaths. “Worse. This is… not… good.”
Not good was an understatement. As Ares held the medallion, a hairline fracture split it down the middle. All around them, the cave began to shake. Reseph screamed as his Seal cracked into two pieces.
The countdown to Armageddon had begun.
“The first Horseman of the Apocalypse has been loosed.”
Sergeant First Class Arik Wagner, one of two representatives for the U.S. Army’s paranormal unit, the R-XR, missed a step as he paced the length of the conference room inside The Aegis’s Berlin headquarters. The two agencies had worked independently for decades, but had recently joined forces to combat the ever-increasing underworld threat. Arik never took intel from The Aegis lightly, but he still had to run Kynan’s words through his brain a couple of times before he could make sense of the situation, let alone believe it.
As he inhaled a shaky breath, he concentrated on pacing without falling on his face as he slid glances at Kynan and the other eleven Elders who were sitting around the conference table. It was obvious that some were already in on the news, but the others… not so much, if the shock and fear in their expressions was any indication. The shock was expected; it was their fear that put Arik on edge. The Aegis was an ancient demon-fighting organization that had weathered end-of-the-world scenarios time and time again, so to see its leaders frightened… disturbing as hell.
“Damn.” Regan, a stunning, bronze-skinned woman who was way too young to be in any way called an “Elder,” flipped her long ponytail over her shoulder and played with the dark ends, a habit Arik knew she ran to when she was nervous.
Arik’s normally unflappable partner, Decker, had lost all the color in his face and was now relying on the doorframe to keep his big body upright. “When? How?”
“I just found out this morning.” Kynan’s denim-blue eyes flashed as he shoved the Daemonica, the demon bible, to the center of the table and opened it to expose a page near the back. “It’s all about this passage. She of mixed blood who should not exist, carries with her the power to spread plague and pestilence. When battle breaks, conquest is seal’d.” Tension put lines in his face as he looked around the table. “She of mixed blood is my sister-in-law, Sin. She started the plague that spread through the werewolf population and led to the conflict that broke out within the species a couple of days ago. As the prophecy indicates, when battle breaks, conquest is sealed. The warg battle is what broke the Horseman’s Seal.”
Arik kept up the carpet-wearing routine, his combat boots thudding like muffled gunshots. “So you’re saying that this is a demon prophecy?”
There was a long pause before Kynan delivered an ominous “Yes,” in his gravelly voice. He’d had his throat nearly ripped out by a demon back in his Army days, and he wore the scars and trashed voice like a badge of honor.
“How is the demon prophecy different from human prophecy?” Decker had regained some color, which was good, because with his gray-blue eyes and blond hair, he’d resembled a reanimated corpse.
Kynan, in worn jeans and gray fitted tee, kicked back in his chair and folded his hands over his abs. “Apparently, if the Daemonica’s prophecy goes down, the Horsemen will embrace their demon halves and turn pure evil. If the prophecy from the Bible comes to pass, the Horsemen will take after their angel father and fight on the side of good.”
That stopped Arik in his tracks. “What? The Horsemen are evil. Have you read the Book of Revelation? They’re supposed to usher in the end of days, with disease, war, famine, and death.”
“That’s the most common interpretation of the Bible’s passages.” One of the senior Elders, Valeriu, who also happened to be distantly related to Arik by marriage, drummed his fingers on the oak tabletop. “But some scholars, including myself, think that the Horsemen’s Seals will be broken by Jesus himself, and the Horsemen will lead the way to the end of days, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.”
“Of course not,” Arik drawled. “Every Apocalypse is a party. Bring your own beer, pretzels, and semiautomatic weapons.” Regan shot him an annoyed glance. Apparently sarcasm wasn’t appreciated in Aegis headquarters. It wasn’t appreciated in the R-XR either, but mainly because Arik was still in the dog house for going AWOL a few days earlier instead of revealing his werewolf sister’s location. “So what does the first broken Seal mean to us? Can we repair it? Prevent the others from breaking?”
“I don’t know.” Kynan let out a frustrated breath. “We’re going to have to dig deep for theories, prophecies, any scrap of information we can scrounge up.”
Shit, Arik was going to need a stiff drink after this. “Do we know what will cause the next Seal to break?”
“All we have is what the next line in the prophecy says.” Valeriu flipped through the stack of paper in front of him and pulled out a single page. “An angel’s mistake shall bring about War, and her death shall break his sword. But be wary, a hound’s heart may yet defeat.”
Arik ran his hand over his military-issue haircut, and wasn’t it an odd time to note that he needed a trim. “What the hell is that supposed to mean?”
“It’s about the second Horseman, War.” Valeriu shoved his glasses up on his nose. “We don’t understand all of it, but we believe War’s agimortus is an Unfallen.”
An Unfallen… an earthbound fallen angel who hadn’t yet entered Sheoul and become irreversibly evil. Interesting. “Wait.” Arik shook his head. “Agimortus?”
“Yes,” Valeriu said. “A trigger for breaking a Seal. It can be a person, an object, or an event.”
“Pestilence’s Seal was broken by an event,” Kynan explained. “Sin was an agimortus whose actions put into motion an event that triggered the Seal to break. Killing her before the plague she started led to war would have prevented the broken Seal. But we believe War’s agimortus is a person. Killing this being will break his Seal.”
Arik paused in his pacing. “If you knew about the first prophecy, that Sin was an agimortus, why didn’t you kill her?”
Kynan inhaled a shaky breath. Sin was sister to his best friends—demon best friends. “In hindsight, it’s obvious. But at the time, we didn’t know. We were too close to it.”
“You were too close to it.” Regan stood, her tall, curvy body drawing Arik’s appreciative gaze. Not that he was interested—he liked his women a little softer and less I’llkill-you-where-you-stand—but she did remind him that he hadn’t seen any mattress action in a long time. Hard to hook up when you had to lie about everything from your name, to your job, to your entire life history.
Red splotches colored Kynan’s cheeks. “Yeah. I was. I’d read the prophecy a million times, so I should have seen that she was the agimortus as soon as the plague started. The thing we need to remember is that prophecies are obscure for a reason.”
Arik considered everything he’d been told. “The prophecy mentions hounds. Would hellhounds have anything to do with any of this?”
Ky’s dark eyebrows drew together. “Why?”
“The R-XR has received an unusual number of reports of hellhound sightings.”
The Guardians exchanged looks, and Val finally said, “We’ve noted an increase in sightings as well. Our Guardians have encountered more in the last week than in the entire year before.” Before Arik could ask, Val shook his head. “We don’t know why.”
“Okay, so we have to find a way to prevent War’s Seal from breaking. What about the other Horsemen? Can the Seals be broken out of order?”
“According to the Daemonica, Pestilence’s Seal had to break first, but the others can break in any order. And it gets worse,” Val said miserably, and oh, joy, all of this somehow got worse. Arik’s drink was going to be a double. With a chaser. “If any two Seals break, the others will fall as well, without any trigger. Once all four Seals are broken, we’re chin deep in Armageddon.”
Arik felt his thoughts being scattered like confetti in a windstorm. He had so many questions, and he had a feeling there weren’t nearly enough answers. “Are we looking at imminent breakage of the other Seals? Or is this something that could go on for centuries?”
“Technically, it could go on.” Regan’s gaze was somber, her husky voice grim. “But Pestilence being loosed is bad enough. All over the world, disease is springing up, water sources are contaminated with bacteria, and demonic activity is off the charts. Do we really want that going on for centuries?”
Val cleared his throat. “It’s written that the destruction of one Seal weakens the others. In effect, it causes events to occur that will hasten the breakage of the other Seals. An object needed to break a Seal, for example, might be found after thousands of years of hiding. And, no doubt, Pestilence, as pure evil, is actively trying to break his siblings’ Seals. The Horsemen are the most powerful underworld beings in existence, next to Satan himself. They will virtually rule the Earth if the Final Battle goes in favor of evil.”
“That’s just great,” Arik muttered. “So what’s the plan? Sounds like we need to either contain or kill these Horsemen so that if their Seals break, they can’t wreak havoc, or we need to work with them to keep any more Seals from breaking.”
“We don’t know that they can be contained or killed.” Regan shoved her coffee mug under the coffee dispenser. “We don’t know nearly enough about anything.”
“I’ll see what my in-laws know and can find out,” Kynan said. “They have a unique perspective on demonic lore.”
“Excellent idea.” Regan’s voice was more full of saccharine than her coffee. “Get demons to help.”
“We need all the help we can get.” Kynan laced his hands behind his head and gazed at the medieval painting behind Arik, the one depicting a battle between angels and demons. “And we need it from the Horsemen.”
“Is that wise?” Decker asked. “Do we really want to get cozy with these guys? If they’re evil, we don’t want to be on their radar.”
Kynan shook his head. “According to the Aegis histories, they used to work closely with us.”
“Why’d they stop?”
“Modern stupidity. Around the time of the Middle Ages, The Aegis went a little fanatical with religion. Hell, The Aegis is behind the witch persecutions. There was a huge shift in thinking, which led to the belief that everything supernatural is evil, including the Horsemen.” Kynan gave everyone a stern look. “It’s only been in the last couple of years that we’ve started to return to the original path.”
Arik bit back a grin at Kynan’s tacked-on, in-your-face last sentence. Though he’d met with a lot of resistance from the Elders, Kynan was largely responsible for The Aegis’s new line on underworld creatures. Not only was he married to a half-demon, but he also carried angel blood in his veins. Then there was the fact that he’d been charmed by angels and was fated to play a role in the Final Battle, and Ky wasn’t afraid to use his status to get the Elders to see things his way.
“So basically,” Arik said gruffly, “we need to ask for help from guys who might hold a grudge against The Aegis and who have the power to usher in the end of the world.”
Kynan’s smile was pure twisted amusement. “Welcome to everyday life in The Aegis.”
“War is hell.”
—William Tecumseh Sherman
“Sherman was totally my bitch.”
Ares, also known as War, second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to much of the human and demon world, sat astride his stallion on the outskirts of a nameless village in Africa, his body and mind vibrating with energy. A battle raged here; two local warlords, their brains ravaged by an insect-borne disease, were clashing over what little water had puddled in the bottom of the village’s well. Ares had wandered the area for days, drawn to the hostilities like a drug addict to heroin, unable to pry himself away until the blood stopped flowing. It was a catch-22, though, because his very presence ramped up the violence, feeding into the bloodlust of every human in a five-mile radius.
No, not Reseph. Not anymore. The most easygoing and playful of Ares’s siblings, the brother who had held them all together over the centuries, had been gone for six months. Now he was Pestilence, and with the name and transformation came unholy powers that threatened mankind. Pestilence was roaming the globe, causing disease, insect and rodent infestations, and mass crop failures with nothing more than a bite or a touch of his finger and a thought. As the disasters spread, more wars like this one broke out, and Ares was drawn to the battles and away from his most pressing task—locating Batarel, the fallen angel who held Ares’s fate in his hands.
As the current holder of Ares’s agimortus, if Batarel died, Ares’s Seal would break, unleashing War upon the Earth.
Chased relentlessly by Reseph, as well as by any demon who wanted to usher in the Apocalypse, Batarel had fallen off the grid, which, unfortunately, left Ares unable to protect her.
But then, even if Ares found her, his ability to defend her was limited, thanks to a fun addendum to his curse, which caused him to weaken in close proximity to his agimortus-bearer.
The battle before him finally began to wane, and the electric high that had held Ares hostage eased, replaced by the usual numbness. Women and children had been slaughtered, the few goats that had survived the blight had been taken for food, and fuck, this was just one of scores of similar scenes that were playing out on this continent alone.
His leather armor creaked as he fisted his pendant, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He should feel a distant buzz through the Seal, some clue as to Batarel’s location.
Nothing. Somehow, Batarel had masked her vibe.
A hot breeze blew the foul stench of blood and bowels across the parched earth, ruffling Battle’s black mane against his reddish-brown neck. Ares gave the beast a firm pat. “We’re through here, boy.”
Battle pawed the ground. The humans didn’t see any of it, not as long as Ares remained inside the khote, a spell that allowed him to travel invisibly around the human world, but the tradeoff was that he moved like a ghost, unable to touch them. Reseph had gotten off on popping out of the khote to flash humans and freak them out. Unlike Ares, Reseph’s presence hadn’t affected humans. Except the females. Reseph had definitely had a way with them.
Ares didn’t glance again at the gruesome remnants of the conflict. Instead, he summoned a Harrowgate, and Battle leaped through it, bringing them to the entrance of his brother Thanatos’s Greenland keep. The ancient castle, shielded by elemental magic that rendered it unnoticeable to human eyes, rose up from the craggy, barren landscape like a breaching whale.
Ares dismounted, coming down on the hard ice. “To me.”
The warhorse settled into Ares’s skin, and he strode into the richly decorated manor, waving away the bowing, scraping vampires who had served Thanatos for centuries. He found his brother in the gym, beating the hell out of a punching bag. As usual when he was home, Thanatos wore black workout pants, no shirt, and a black bandanna over his shoulder-length, tawny hair. With every punch, his tattoos danced on his deeply tanned skin, from the cracked, bleeding bones inked on his hands, to the various weapons that decorated his arms, to the depictions of death and destruction on his back and chest.
“Thanatos. I need your help. Where’s Limos?” He frowned at the dark stain on the floor behind his brother. “And what is that?”
“A succubus.” Than wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Reseph sent another one to tempt me.”
“He’s not Reseph anymore.” Ares’s voice rang out in the cold air like an avalanche breaking loose. “Call him what he is.” Easier said than done, since Ares hadn’t yet gotten used to it either.
Thanatos’s pale yellow eyes drilled into Ares’s nearly black ones. “Never. We can get him back.”
“Seals can’t be restored.”
“We’ll find a way.” Than’s tone was hard, final. He’d always been as uncompromising as the death he represented.
“We have to kill him.”
All around Thanatos, shadows swirled, moving faster the more agitated he became. He’d always been the quickest of the four of them to lash out, but then, thousands of years of celibacy would do that to a guy. It was also why he lived in the middle of nowhere; a flash of temper could kill every living thing in the human realm for miles around.
“Do you not remember how Reseph was always traveling the world to find the sweetest apples for our horses? How he never came over without bringing a gift? How, when any of our servants were injured or fell ill, he searched for medicine and nursed them back to health?”
Of course Ares remembered. Reseph might have been an irresponsible playboy with the females, but with those he considered family, he’d been attentive and thoughtful. He’d even worried about their two Watchers when they didn’t pop in every few months. Reaver, an angel who represented Team Heaven, and Harvester, a fallen angel who played for Team Sheoul, hardly needed Reseph’s concern, but he’d always been relieved to see them.
It had been that way ever since their original Sheoulin Watcher had done more than simply “watch” the Horsemen. Eviscerator had suffered for months before dying in a manner befitting his name for revealing the material used in the making of Limos’s agimortus without permission.
“None of that has any bearing on our current situation,” Ares said.
“We won’t kill him.”
There was no point in arguing. Not only did they not have the necessary tools to put an end to their brother, but Than would never budge on the issue, and Ares’s jaw still throbbed from the last time they’d discussed it. It wasn’t as though Ares wanted to kill Pestilence, but he also wasn’t going to let him lead the charge to Armageddon.
“So you would rather see the Daemonica’s prophecy be the one that comes to pass?”
The human prophecies, though they varied, still favored humans in the Final Battle and left room for the Horsemen to fight on the side of good. Should the demon prophecy reign, evil would hold all the cards.
And evil dealt from the bottom of the deck.
Than gave the punching bag a final, knockout blow. “I’m not a fool, brother. I’ve been hunting Reseph’s minions, and I’ve managed to… convince… one of them to talk.”
“Convince, torture, whatever.” Ares crossed his arms over his chest, his armor’s hard leather plates cracking against each other. “So what have you learned?”
“That I need to find a minion who’s privy to more information,” Than grumbled. “But I did find out that Reseph has sent teams of demons to search for Deliverance.”
“Then we need to beat him to it,” Ares said.
Thanatos grabbed a towel off the weight bench and wiped his face. “We’ve been looking for the dagger since the 1300s with no success.”
“Then we look harder.”
“I told you—”
Ares cut off his brother. “Having Deliverance doesn’t mean we have to use it. But it’s better to have it and not need it than the other way around. If Res—Pestilence locates it first, he’ll make sure we never get our hands on it.”
Thanatos strode toward Ares, and Ares braced for battle. It didn’t matter that they were brothers; Ares lived to fight, and even now his adrenaline was singing in his blood, obliterating that damned numbness.
“When we get the dagger,” Than growled, “I hold on to it.”
Frustration put an edge in Ares’s voice, because dammit, he wanted possession of Deliverance. It was the one thing that could kill Pestilence, was the weapon for the war of wars, and like any good commander, he wanted complete control over his arsenal. “We’ll discuss it when we have it.”
“What,” came a deep, amused voice from the doorway, “are you two arguing over now?”
Ares whirled to Reseph, who stood in the doorway, his tarnished armor oozing a black substance from the joints. He held a severed female head in his gauntleted hand.
Ares’s stomach plummeted to his feet. “Batarel.” He fumbled for the coin around his neck. Relief that it wasn’t broken collided with fury and confusion and the need to kick his brother’s ass.
It was a real fun stew of what-the-fuck.
“Obviously,” Reseph said, “since you aren’t sporting shiny new fangs that make all the ladies hot, your Seal hasn’t broken. The idiot fallen angel transferred the agimortus to someone else.”
Reseph dropped the idiot fallen angel’s head to the floor. Batarel’s body should have disintegrated upon her death, which meant that she’d been killed either in a demon-built or an Aegis-enchanted structure, or on land owned by supernatural beings.
On Ares’s arm, Battle stirred in agitation, his emotions tied to Ares’s. “Where did you find her?” Ares ground out.
“Cowardly bitch was holed up in a Harrowgate,” Reseph said, which explained why Ares hadn’t been able to sense her. “I had to send out spiny hellrats to find her.”
Of course. Reseph could communicate with and control vermin and insects, which he used to spread plague and pestilence throughout the human population. And, apparently, he used them as spies.
Thanatos moved toward their brother, his bare feet silent on the stone floor. “Who did Batarel transfer the agimortus to, Reseph?”
“No idea.” Reseph grinned, a real cat-that-ate-the-canary, revealing his “shiny new fangs.” “But I’ll know soon. Maybe after I let rip a few new plagues. The cool kind, with boils and incontinence.” He opened a Harrowgate, but paused before stepping inside. “You all should stop fighting me. I have the backing of the Dark Lord himself. The longer you stall the inevitable, the more those you care about will suffer.”
The Harrowgate snapped shut and, cursing, Ares spun, drove his fist into the punching bag, and damn, what he wouldn’t give for that to be Pestilence’s face right now. Reseph had never been cruel or callous, had lived in fear of succumbing to his evil side. And if he was that bad now that his Seal had been broken… Ares was screwed.
“Give me your hand.”
Ares swung around to Thanatos, who handed him Batarel’s eyes. Just the eyes. And an ear.
Ares had stopped being grossed out by his gift a long time ago. Closing his palm around them, he let the vision come.
“What do you see?” Than asked.
“Reseph’s sword.” The huge blade had filled Batarel’s vision, the last thing she’d seen. Ares waited as the visions worked in reverse, until… there. Batarel’s ear vibrated, and audio joined the visuals. “A blond male. Name’s Sestiel. He’s screaming. He doesn’t want the agimortus.”
“Duh. Who’d want a bull’s-eye on their ass?”
The agimortus wasn’t a bull’s-eye, exactly, but yeah, it did make whoever hosted it a target for Pestilence’s blade. Strange, though, that the host was male. Was the prophecy wrong? Had it changed?
One of Than’s vampire servants hustled to clean up Batarel’s remains, and he bowed before Ares. “May I take those body parts from you, sir?”
So polite. Of course, most beings were pretty kiss-ass to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Probably wise. No, not probably. Definitely.
Suck up now, world, because once the Seals broke, it would be time to bend over.
Nothing good ever came of a knock at three o’clock in the morning, and as Cara Thornhart shuffled down the hallway to her front door, she had a very, very bad feeling.
The pounding became more urgent, every blow on the wood kicking her heart into a stuttered rhythm.
Breathe, Cara. Breathe.
“Thornhart! Open the fuck up!” The slurred voice was familiar, and when she put her eye to the peephole in the door, she instantly recognized the man standing on her porch as the son of one of her former clients.
Ross Spillane was also one of the many twenty-something jobless delinquents with six kids by six different women. Apparently, the one drugstore in town didn’t sell condoms.
Cara shoved up the sleeves of her flannel pajamas and stared at the two deadbolts, the chain, and the regular door lock. A flicker of dread skittered up her spine. She lived in the country, the middle of nowhere, and while she doubted Ross was an ax murderer, she’d always had a reliable sixth sense, and right now, she was sensing trouble.
Or maybe you’re just being paranoid. Her psychologist had said it was normal to have moments of panic, but that had been two years ago. Shouldn’t she be able to open her door without trembling like a frightened rabbit by now?
“What’s wrong, Ross?” she called out, because she still couldn’t bring herself to work the locks.
“Open the goddamned door! I fucking hit a dog.”
A dog? Crap. “I’m not practicing anymore. Take it to the clinic.”
No, of course he couldn’t. Ross sounded drunk, and the town vet just happened to be married to the town’s chief of police. The vet was also a corrupt bastard who overcharged, took shortcuts with care and materials, and he’d been known to refuse help to any animal that was rude enough to be sick or injured after office hours.
“Dammit, Thornhart. I don’t have time for this.”
Help the dog. Suck it up, and help the dog. Sweat dampened her temples and palms as she flipped all the locks and opened the door. Before it swung all the way in, Ross shoved the pitch-black canine into her arms, knocking her back a step.
“Thanks.” He started down the porch stairs.
“Wait!” Awkwardly, she shifted the dog’s weight, which had to be a good seventy pounds. “You shouldn’t drive.”
“Whatever. It’s a mile.”
“Bite my fine ass,” he muttered, as he headed down her gravel walkway toward his old Ford pickup.
“Hey!” She couldn’t stop him, she knew that, but he had a passenger, a petite blonde who looked like she might still be in high school. “Is your friend able to drive?”
He opened the driver’s-side door and tossed the keys at the girl. “Yup.”
As he stumbled around the front of the truck, and the girl climbed out, Cara called, “Why did you bring me the dog?” Subtext: Why didn’t you let the dog die on the side of the road?
Ross stopped, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, and looked down at his cowboy boots. When he spoke, Cara had to strain to hear him. “No mutt has ever stabbed me in the back.”
Cara stared. Go figure. She’d always been judged harshly by people who didn’t know her, and she’d just gone and done the same thing to someone else.
Then Ross whooped, slapped the young blonde on her Daisy Dukes, and spat a wad of tobacco on the ground, once again reinforcing a stereotype, but hey… at least he liked dogs.
Cara closed the door, awkwardly locking it, and carried the limp bundle of fur to a room she’d shut up tight two years ago.
“Dammit.” Her curse accompanied the creak of unused hinges as she wedged open the door with her shoulder. The stale air reeked of failure, and no matter how hard she tried to tug up her big-girl panties and be brave, her hands still shook as she laid the dog on the exam table and flipped on the light.
The dog’s black fur was matted with blood, and one hind leg was twisted awkwardly, the broken end of a bone piercing the skin. The dog needed a real vet, not her. Not someone who healed through vibes that even she sometimes doubted were real. The only physical medical experience she had was as a veterinary technician, and that had been eight years ago, when she’d been a teen working in her dad’s practice.
She did a U-turn before she went too far down that dark road, snapped on gloves, and when she turned back around, she recoiled. The pup—at least, it had the rounded, cuteish features of a young puppy despite its size—was looking at her. And its eyes were… red.
Blood, it’s got to be blood. Which didn’t explain the eerie glow behind the irises.
“Um… hey, fella.”
The pup’s lips peeled away from extremely sharp, extremely large, teeth. What breed was the thing? It looked like a cross between a wolf and a pit bull, with maybe a little great white shark thrown in, and by her best guess, it was approximately four months old. Except that it was the size of a full-grown Siberian husky.
And those teeth. Those eyes.
There was a military base nearby, and since the day she had moved to this rural South Carolina town, she’d heard rumors of experiments, of strange creatures the government was breeding. For the first time, Cara considered the possibility, because this dog was not… natural.
The pup shifted on the table, yelping in pain at the smallest movement, and suddenly, it didn’t matter where it had come from or if it was a lab creation, a genetic mutation, or an alien from outer space. She hated seeing an animal in pain, especially when there was so little she could do.
“Hey,” she whispered, reaching out her hand. The pup regarded her warily, but he allowed her to stroke his cheek. And yes, it was a he. She didn’t have to look… she just knew. She’d always been able to sense things about animals, and although the vibes coming from this creature were odd… disjointed… she was still getting them.
Slowly, so as not to startle the dog, she slid both hands down his body. Right now, the most she could do was triage, keep him alive until she could get him to Dr. Happs. The jerk would only put the dog to sleep if no one would pay for its care, which meant that Cara would have to choose between paying the vet bills and paying her mortgage.
Her fingers dipped into a puncture wound, and the pup screamed in pain, his body trembling. “I’m sorry, boy.” God, it was a bullet hole. Someone must have shot the dog before he was struck by Ross’s truck.
Whimpering, the pup writhed in misery, and Cara felt his pain all the way to her marrow. Literally. It was part of what made her different from everyone she knew, this talent that had been both a blessing and a curse.
She’d sworn to never use her ability again, but seeing the dog suffer was too much. She had to do it, no matter how hard her mind was screaming against it.
“Okay,” she murmured, “I’m going to try something. Just hold on.”
Closing her eyes, she placed both hands over his body, her palms hovering an inch from his fur. She forced herself to relax, to concentrate until her emotions and energy centered in her head and chest. She’d never been formally trained in the arts of spiritual or energy healing, but this had always worked for her.
Until it had killed.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. Gradually, a tingle condensed and expanded inside her, until it pulsed with its own heartbeat. She visualized the energy as a purple glow that streamed from her chest and into her hands. The pup calmed, his breaths slowing, his whimpers tapering off. She couldn’t fix broken bones or ruptured organs, but she could slow the bleeding and manage pain, and this poor guy needed everything she had.
The energy built, vibrating through her entire body as though it was eager to be let loose.
Just as it had done that night.
The memory tore through her brain like a shotgun blast, hurling her back in time to the night when her gift had warped into something sinister and surged not into a dog, but a man. His terror-filled eyes had bulged as blood spurted from his nose and ears. His screams had been silent, but those of his buddies had not.
Stop thinking! Her power cut off, snuffed by her fear. The room spun and her legs wobbled, all carnival funhouse. Without the fun. A whine yanked her out of the trance, and she stumbled to the antique chest where she kept all the traditional medical supplies that had belonged to her father.
“Sorry, boy,” she rasped. “We’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.” She hadn’t gone to vet school, but she’d worked with her father for years, and she knew damned good and well that this dog was going to die if she didn’t act.
As quickly as her shaking hands could manage, she loaded a cart with tools and supplies and rolled it over to the dog, who was lying still, his breaths more labored than they’d been just moments before. In the area of the gunshot wound, the flesh was swelling rapidly, and when she looked closer, she gasped. Before her eyes, the muscle and skin was dying. If she hadn’t seen the progression herself, she’d have estimated that the wound had festered for a week. Gangrene had set in, and the stench of dead flesh filled the room.
“My God,” she breathed. “What’s happening?”
Afraid to waste even another second, she grabbed the scalpel and hoped the dog wouldn’t bite, because this was going to hurt.
Carefully, she made a small incision at the site of the bullet hole. The pup whimpered, but remained still as she mopped up pus and blood and then palmed the forceps. “Hold still, baby.”
Cara held her breath and prayed for a steady hand. Do it. Do it now…
She worked the forceps into the wound, cringing at the squishy sound of the metal passing through rotting flesh. Though she hadn’t summoned her power, a trickle she couldn’t stop ran down her arm and into her hand. Don’t panic. Somehow, she kept it together until she felt the forceps bump against the bullet. Though the dog yelped when she clasped the slug, he didn’t move… or bite.
As gently as possible, she eased the bullet free. Odd… it was silver. She placed the forceps on the tray, grabbed the bandages, and turned back to the dog.
The pup was standing on the exam table, head cocked and tongue lolling out as if he had been happily romping in a park and not minutes from death. The only sign that he’d ever been injured was blood matted in his fur and pooled on the floor and table.
Reeling from the impossibility of the situation, Cara’s legs gave way beneath her, and the cold floor rose up to meet her body. Her skull cracked on the tile, and the next thing she knew, the pup was beside her, his crimson eyes glowing. His tongue slathered across her face and mouth, and oh, yuck, his saliva tasted like rotten fish. Weakly, she pushed him away, but he came back and slammed his heavy body down on her.
He panted, his breath so toxic it worked like smelling salts, and she gagged even as she became alert.
“Ugh.” She wheezed, waving her hand in front of his mouth to ward off his stench. “We have to do something about your halitosis from hell.” God, she was talking like this was real.
It wasn’t. Couldn’t be. She was probably still in her bed, and this was a dream.
Suddenly, Halitosis was on his feet, crouched over her, a growl vibrating his deep chest. Not a normal growl, either. It was smoky, serrated, something she’d expect to hear from a dragon. Or a demon. Freaky.
The door burst open in a crash of splinters, and four men filed through the doorway.
A scream welled in her throat, but lodged there, blocked by terror. Not again, not again. Memories of the home invasion that had ruined her life collided with current events, and she froze up, so paralyzed that her lungs couldn’t expel her held breath.
There was a gunshot, a snarl… and then godawful screams. Blood splattered on the floor, the walls, on her… and she broke out of her paralysis to scramble to her feet.
Hal slammed one of the men to the floor, his claws—which somehow had extended like a cat’s—tearing into the man’s chest as the other two slashed at him with strange bladed weapons.
Cara scanned the room for a weapon of her own, anything at all. She lunged for a heavy glass jar of cotton balls but reeled back at an explosive, blinding flash of light. A beautiful blond man appeared in the middle of the room. Flames erupted from his fingertips as a ball of fire flipped into the air, bursting into a gold net that fell on Hal, who went down in a tangle beneath it.
“No!” She dove for the dog, but someone grabbed her from behind. Hal went crazy, a mass of teeth and claws as he struggled to get out of the net.
Curses flew, and someone fired a shot at the newcomer, who took the bullet in the chest with no more reaction than if he’d been stung by a bee. He scooped up the net, Hal with it, and in another flare of light, he was gone.
The man tightened his arms around Cara, and one of the men limped toward her, his left arm dangling, his face mottled with rage. “What are you?”
She blinked. “W-what?”
“I said,” he snarled, “what are you?”
“I don’t understand.”
His hand lashed out so fast she didn’t see it until her cheek stung from the blow. “What kind of demon are you?” he screamed, his spittle spraying her face.
Oh, God, these men were crazy. This whole situation was crazy. This was Crazyland, and she was the queen.
“Why…” She sucked in a ragged breath and tried to stay calm. It wasn’t easy when the man holding her in a vise grip against him was squeezing the air out of her lungs. “Why would you think I’m a demon?” Maybe they were religious fanatics, like the ones who had accused her of practicing witchcraft before she learned to hide her healing gift.
Her theory was blown out of the water when the third guy, the one who had been kneeling next to the dead man on the floor, stood and picked up the bullet that had been lodged in the dog. He held it out to her. “Because,” he said, in an eerily calm voice, “only a demon would heal a hellhound.”
Excerpted from Eternal Rider by Ione, Larissa Copyright © 2011 by Ione, Larissa. Excerpted by permission.
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