The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Born of a match between good and evil, four siblings stand between hell's minions and everything they want to destroy. They are the Lords of Deliverance, and they have the power to ward off Doomsday . . . or let it ride . . .
Thanatos, the most deadly Horseman of the Apocalypse, has endured thousands of years of celibacy to prevent the end of days. But just one night with the wickedly sexy Aegis Guardian, ReganCooper, shatters centuries of resolve. Yet their passion comes with a price. And Thanatos must face a truth more terrifying than an apocalypse-he's about to become a father.
Demon-slayer Regan Cooper never imagined herself the maternal type, but with the fate of the world hanging in the balance she had no choice but to seduce Thanatos and bear his child. Now, as the final battle draws closer and his rage at being betrayed is overshadowed by an undeniable passion for the mother of his child, Thanatos has a life-shattering realization: To save the world, he must sacrifice the only thing he's ever wanted-a family.
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By Ione, Larissa
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2012 Ione, Larissa
All right reserved.
Regan Matthews was going to die.
She knew it as sure as she knew the sky was blue. Knew it as sure as she knew the baby inside her was a boy.
Knew it as sure as she knew the baby’s father would be the one to end her life.
Screaming, she bolted upright in bed, her eyes focusing on the glow of the nightlight in the bathroom. It took a second to realize she was awake, safe and secure inside The Aegis’s Berlin headquarters.
The dream had come to her again, the one where she saw herself lying on a floor and covered in her own blood, too much blood. Thanatos, known to much of the human population as Death, fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, knelt next to her, blood coating his hands, dripping from his pale hair, and splashed across his bone armor.
She took a deep, calming breath, forcing herself to relax. Thanatos couldn’t touch her. Not here, in the apartment complex deep below the headquarters building that housed the twelve Elders who ran the ancient demon-hunting organization. Most of the Elders used their apartments only when they came to Germany for Aegis business, but Regan had called this spartan apartment home for years, and despite the fact that she was due to give birth in less than a month, she hadn’t done a single thing to prepare for the baby. There would be no decorating, no toys, no cribs.
She’d always hated pastels anyway.
Her hand, so pregnancy-swollen that she no longer wore her Sigil ring, trembled as she rubbed her belly through the cotton fabric of the maternity nightgown, hoping the baby would stay asleep. He was one hell of a kicker, and her organs were still recovering from his last round of hacky sack.
Regan fumbled in the darkness for the bedside table lamp. Her hand fell first to the hellhound-spit coated Aegis dagger all twelve Elders were required to carry as defense against evil Horsemen, and then to the bit of parchment next to the lamp. She allowed herself a moment to smooth her fingers over the inked lettering. The Latin words were a prayer of sorts, but that wasn’t where Regan found comfort.
No, as a psychometric empath, she could divine information with a touch or, more specifically, feel the emotions of the person who put ink to skin. This particular bit of writing had been penned while the author was feeling serene. Regan had kept the page with her for years, borrowing the emotions of the author like some sort of psychic vampire, and she’d needed it more than ever over these last few months.
With one Horseman turned evil, his Seal broken according to the prophecy in the Daemonica, the demon bible, Earth was falling into chaos. No Apocalypse promised a party, but Regan often wondered why they couldn’t be dealing with the Bible’s prophecy instead. At least in the biblical version, the Horsemen would be fighting on the side of good instead of evil.
But that was only part of why she’d needed the parchment. Her regret over what she’d done to Thanatos ate at her, and while she didn’t deserve anything less, for the baby’s sake she had to find peace where she could.
She allowed the parchment to soothe her for another thirty seconds, thankful to have it. The final page from a tiny book penned by an angel who had given her life to save a Guardian, it was beyond priceless. Regan’s fellow Elders had been after Regan to give it up for years, but they’d have to wait. She wasn’t giving it up until she was dead.
Which might be sooner than she’d like, if Thanatos got hold of her.
She lifted her fingers from the parchment, but before she found the lamp switch, a noise froze her. It wasn’t a loud sound, and in fact she thought the echo of footsteps might be in her head. But what she couldn’t dismiss was the trickle of awareness that filtered through her system, an internal alarm that made no sense.
No place on Earth was safer than where she was right now.
Still, she found herself fisting her dagger and easing out of bed. Heart pounding, she crept across the room and put her ear to the door. Nothing. So why was her entire body quivering with static undercurrents that warned of danger?
You’re just being paranoid. The nightmare about Thanatos must have freaked her out more than usual.
But it couldn’t hurt to check things out. Her Guardian instincts had never failed her, and she’d known more than one Guardian who had paid the price of ignoring that deep-down sense that something was amiss.
As quickly and silently as possible, she tugged on a maternity blouse and a pair of khaki pants, and at her hip she secured her pregnancy-modified weapon belt and cell phone clip. She didn’t go anywhere without being armed. She traded out the dagger with a stang, preferring the double-ended, S-shaped blade in battle.
Clutching the stang in a white-knuckled grip, she opened the door and slipped out into the hallway. The darkness, usually her friend, now became a liability without her Aegis ring, which would have lent a measure of night vision.
Regan put her back to the wall and moved toward the light switch outlined in a faint green glow. But when she flipped it, nothing happened.
“Just a burned-out bulb,” she whispered to herself. She even said it again, but a niggling sense of doubt joined the feelings of danger.
She glanced back toward her room, wondering if her smartest option was to go back inside and lock the door, but duh… anything that was a threat to her inside Aegis Headquarters wasn’t going to be stopped by even a thick slab of wood and a deadbolt.
Besides, she had a secret weapon, one she’d been forbidden to use—unless the baby’s life was in danger.
She crept forward, the hairs on the back of her neck prickling with every step.
“Who’s there?” There was no answer, but then, no demon would happily offer up his name.
The baby had clearly turned her brain to mush, and she’d become a classic horror movie dipshit who got killed in the first five minutes of the film. Awesome.
She thought she saw a flicker of movement ahead, near the entrance to the auditorium. Where was everyone? Even in the middle of the night, Guardians patrolled the building or spent shifts researching in the massive library or organizing worldwide operations. This was The Aegis’s nerve center, and it was never this quiet.
She moved closer, and as she reached for the door, her foot slipped in something warm and wet. Her stomach did a flip-flop. She didn’t have to look to know she’d stepped in blood, didn’t need lights to know that the dark lump against the wall was a body.
Not good. This was so not good.
Something rustled behind her. Instinct kicked in, propelling her forward through the auditorium doors. It was set up like a large college classroom, with several rows of stadium seats and two aisles of steps. She moved as fast as she could to the stage at the bottom. If she could get to the exit on the far side, she’d come out near the reception desk, where she could sound the alarm—
A soundless blur streaked past her. She pivoted, stang at the ready, adrenaline coursing in a hot rush. Crimson eyes stared at her, and she swore she heard the sound of saliva dripping to the floor.
“Whore.” The deep, masculine voice rumbled, and in her belly, the baby kicked.
“I don’t know who you are,” Regan said, “but you might think twice about insulting a Guardian inside her own house.”
Rumbling laughter accompanied a snap of fingers, and suddenly, the auditorium lights popped on. A vampire stood on the stage with her, over six feet of hulking, fangy, undead. His gaze fell pointedly to her belly.
“It isn’t an insult if it’s the truth.”
She ignored the barb that hit a little too close to home. “Who are you? How did you get in here?”
At some point, Regan had placed her hand over the baby, as if doing so would keep it safe. Idiot. The stang in her other hand would do more—but only if she could cut the bloodsucker’s head off.
The vampire moved so fast Regan didn’t see it until its backswing connected with her cheek. Pain ricocheted from her jaw to her cheekbone and up to her skull as she slammed into the wall, her left shoulder taking the brunt of the impact.
“Who I am won’t matter when you and the Horseman’s bastard are dead.” He hissed, his enormous fangs dripping saliva like a rabid dog.
There was something very… off… about this vampire. Not that most vampires weren’t “off,” but she’d noticed a subtle difference between Thanatos’s daywalker vampires and your everyday variety nightwalker. Namely, Than’s vamps seemed bigger, their fangs especially so.
“You’re one of Thanatos’s servants, aren’t you?”
He snarled. “I belong to no one. I’m not one of the Bludrexe’s neutered pets.” He came at her again, and as she struck out with the stang, she lost her balance and managed only a glancing blow that nicked his biceps.
The vampire’s hand snapped out, catching her around the throat. Smiling coldly, he squeezed, cutting off her breath.
Panic wrapped around her, squeezing as hard as the vampire’s fingers. She might have had a chance if she weren’t almost nine months pregnant, but even though she’d kept herself in excellent shape, she tired quickly, and her uneven weight made her awkward.
She couldn’t die like this. She couldn’t let this baby die. But as her lungs began to burn with a lack of oxygen, she knew this could be it.
Inhaling hard to find even a molecule of oxygen, she reached deep inside herself for the ability she’d kept tightly leashed for most of her life. The ability that had gone out of control the night she had gotten pregnant.
Not the time to dwell on that.
The tingle started low in her gut. Coaxing it as if it were a stray kitten, she called it forth, but it seemed to retreat, going from a pinpoint of light to a sickly glow. And then it snuffed out completely. What the—
“Die, bitch.” The vampire hissed in her face.
Shit! Her power… she couldn’t access it. Suddenly, the vampire inexplicably eased up on his grip, giving her a sweet gulp of air, and when he smiled, she knew why he’d done it.
To drag out her death.
“Fucker,” she rasped. She clawed at his shoulders and kicked at his shins, but he didn’t budge. Again she searched for her ability, the one that would drag his soul right out of him, but now it was as if it didn’t exist at all.
Her mind went sluggish, her struggles weakening as oxygen deprivation took its toll. Images flipped through her brain, but not the ones she’d have expected while on the brink of death.
People lied about your life flashing before your eyes, because all she could see was Thanatos. She remembered how he looked when he was coming, how his body strained and his muscles bunched and rolled. She remembered the sound of his voice, his laugh.
And she remembered the expression on his face when he realized she’d betrayed him.
She was going to die, and it would all have been for nothing.
In her belly, the baby kicked, harder and harder, as if it too knew the end was near. The vampire smiled.
“I can sense the life within you,” he said. “I’m going to enjoy feeling it snuff out.” His hand went to her swollen abdomen, and in her mind, she screamed.
“Could you two be any louder?” A stranger’s voice joined the scream in her mind and the thud of her pulse in Regan’s ears, just as a breeze whispered over her skin.
In the next instant, the vampire flew sideways and she was ripped out of his grip. She had only a split second to see the other vampire who had joined the party before he flung her aside. She hit the floor behind the podium and sat there, gasping for air as the newcomer, one she definitely recognized as one of Thanatos’s daywalker servants, attacked the vampire who had been trying to kill her.
The newcomer slammed his fist into the first vamp’s head, sending him reeling into the wall. Before he could recover, the new vampire shoved a splinter of wood—where he’d gotten it, she had no idea—into the other vamp’s chest. The first vampire hissed even as his body began to blacken and crack into dust.
The surviving vampire limped over to her, fury and pain mingling in his eyes. “You betrayed Thanatos,” he growled. “You betrayed us all.”
She wasn’t sure about the “all” thing, but the rest was true enough. “Then why did you save me?”
“Save you?” The vampire gestured to the ashy mess that used to be his brethren. “He was merely going to kill you. I’m taking you to Thanatos.” He grinned. “Trust me, I didn’t save you.”
The only thing worse than being paralyzed and trapped inside your own skull, unable to move or speak, was being kept like that by your own brother and sister.
For eight and a half endless, insanity-inducing months, Thanatos, fourth Horseman of the Apocalypse, had been kept in a bed with nothing but a TV for company. Well, every twelve hours he was visited by someone from Underworld General Hospital to inject him with paralyzing hellhound saliva, change his hydrating saline IV bag, and give him a humiliating sponge bath before changing his sweat pants. But usually whoever visited was wham, bam, thank you, ma’am and all business. And sure, his sister, Limos, third Horseman, and Ares, second Horseman, hung out with him, but Ares wasn’t all that talkative.
Limos was a chatterbox, but Than didn’t really give a shit about what color nail polish she’d put on that morning or how she and her husband, a human named Arik, were planning a European honeymoon after the Apocalypse was over.
And seriously, a honeymoon? Wasn’t it a little late for that? And it wasn’t as if Limos didn’t live on an island paradise anyway, so every freaking day was a honeymoon for them.
Bitter much, Than-boy?
Yeah, there might be some jealousy there. Because as sick as it sounded, the one thing that had kept Than sane over the thousands of years he’d been alive was the fact that Ares and Limos were as alone as he was. But now Ares and Limos were both married and happy, and he was left paralyzed, miserable, and ripping a massive hatred for the female who had put him here.
Ever since he’d been cursed as the Horseman who would become Death when his Seal broke, he’d believed that his Seal was his virginity. He’d guarded his dick like it was the freaking Hope Diamond. He might have been an unpinned grenade ready to blow with sexual need, but dammit, he’d kept himself all virginal and shit.
Until Regan came along, with her seductive body, her devious plot, and her drugged mead. She’d managed to get him naked, get him immobilized, and get him off. The why of it still wasn’t clear, since not once, in all of Limos’s and Ares’s ramblings, had they brought up the Aegis Guardian. And the fact that she was a Guardian, one of the human warriors who existed to rid the world of demons, only made her actions more mystifying.
Guardians didn’t want to start the Apocalypse, so either she was secretly working against The Aegis, or she hadn’t thought that fucking him would break his Seal.
But if it was the latter… why had she gone to extremes to get him in bed? As a larger-than-life legend, he might have starfucker appeal, and sure, he knew he was handsome, but resorting to drugs and her supernatural ability in order to get what she wanted?
Fury slithered through him, as hot as the lust he’d felt when he’d been beneath Regan, her wet heat clenching around his cock. God, it had been good. For centuries he’d fantasized about being with a female, had imagined all the ways he’d take her. His favorite fantasy had always been with her on all fours and him mounting her from behind, his chest sealed to her back by their sweat, his weight holding her steady for his thrusts.
For these past months, when his mind had drifted to sex, Regan had been that female on her hands and knees.
His cock jerked in response to the direction of his thoughts, pissing him off. His dick had no business getting hard for her, and on his arm, his stallion, Styx, kicked, sensing his master’s emotions. The horse, currently in a tattoo-like form, had been stuck on his skin, as paralyzed as Than had been—
Wait. His cock was hard, his horse was stirring… which meant the hellhound venom was wearing off.
Thanatos’s heartbeat went double-time as hope shot through him. Maybe his siblings were finally allowing him to be free. Oh, man, if so… he had serious plans. First, he was going to kick Limos’s and Ares’s asses. Then he was going to have sex.
Lots and lots of sex.
Before Regan, avoiding sex hadn’t been difficult because he hadn’t known what he was missing. But now he knew, and his body craved it almost as much as it craved revenge. And wasn’t revenge going to be sweet. He couldn’t decide if he was going to kill Regan or fuck her. Maybe both. Not in that order, though. He wasn’t a complete sicko.
The door creaked open. Ares’s heavy footsteps were accompanied by Limos’s whisper-light ones and the click of hellhound claws on the floor.
“Hey, bro,” Limos chirped, as if Thanatos was hanging out for fun. His hands began to clench, but quickly, he locked up his muscles, forcing himself to remain still.
Ares changed the channel on the TV they’d mounted above his bed. “Sorry about that,” he grunted. “Someone must have bumped the remote. A cubic zirconia-fest on the Home Shopping Network couldn’t have been too exciting.”
Oh, no, really. I was just thinking about how great a gold filigree necklace and teardrop earrings would look on me, and at seventy-five ninety-nine plus shipping, it’s a freaking steal. But damn, I missed the deal because, oh, that’s right, I’m fucking frozen.
Limos’s hand came down on Than’s biceps, and he struggled to keep from twitching. “Hey… look… we have to tell you something.” Her voice was low and serious, and shit, this couldn’t be good. “I know you can probably feel the disruption in the world, and it’s gotta be making you crazy.”
Crazy? Try ceiling-licking, rabies-frothing, dish-ran-away-with-the-spoon in-fucking-sane. Limos and Ares had been keeping him up to date on Pestilence’s exploits, but they hardly needed to. Thanks to his curse, Than could feel mass casualties around the globe, was drawn to them like a junkie to heroin. Obviously, being paralyzed had put the brakes on his ability to travel to them, but the pull was still there, swirling around his insides like smoke from a crematorium.
“It’s about to get worse,” Ares said. “Pestilence’s plagues have caused war and famine and death all over the globe. It’s why we haven’t been around much. We’ve been spending way too much time at the sites of the worst of it.”
Limos and Ares suffered similar curses as Than; Ares was drawn to scenes of large-scale battles, and Limos was tugged to famines. And yeah, Than had noticed that they hadn’t been around to keep him entertained. At least Cara, Ares’s wife, had been there. She read to Thanatos a lot, and he didn’t think he could ever thank her enough for that.
So why is it about to get worse? He wanted to scream at them, could feel his left hand, which was concealed at his side, begin to curl into a fist.
“Last week, Pestilence claimed Australia in the name of Sheoul.”
Oh, shit. Demons who were normally bound to Sheoul—what humans called hell—could now occupy Australia. A country that size could host millions of demons and allow for them to set the stage for a massive global attack. Demons had, since the beginning of time, desired to kick off the Apocalypse in order to defeat mankind and take the Earth as a trophy, and with Australia in their pockets, they’d just lobbed the ball that much closer to the end zone.
What about the humans?
Limos, who had always been in sync with his thoughts, answered as though she’d heard him. “Any humans who didn’t evacuate are… lost.”
“We got a few out.” Ares’s voice turned bleak. “Kynan, Limos, Arik and I got a few.”
“It’s bad,” Limos said. “But the good news is that The Aegis found a way to close the hellmouths. It’s temporary… the magic they’re using is being eaten away by demon countermagic, but it’s slowed mass demon movement.” She patted his arm. “Be patient, Than. Only a couple of weeks left to go, and we’ll release you.”
A couple of weeks? Why then?
Ares squeezed Than’s foot. “Someone will be here in a couple of hours for your next injection. We’ll be back when we can.”
He and Limos left, and hell, no, Thanatos wasn’t planning to be around for the next injection. For some reason, he could move again, and he was getting the fuck out of here.
Summoning all his willpower, he rocked his body until he built up enough momentum to roll out of bed. Hitting the floor hurt like a son of a bitch, but the pain only spurred him on. Something was tugging at his insides. Danger. Death. Both. Except the pull toward danger was a different sensation than anything he’d ever felt. It was almost as if he was the one in danger… but the feeling was distant. Whatever it was, it called to him, and he had to go.
He ripped the IV catheter out of his hand and dragged himself to the sliding glass door. Grunting, he shoved onto his hands and knees and crawled outside. Death and danger still yanked at him, two distinct ropes pulling him in opposite directions. The danger rope seemed more… urgent, but in his current, weakened state, he couldn’t risk dropping himself into what could be one of Pestilence’s traps. Death, however, filled him with energy.
Right. Death first, danger second.
Letting the tug to death guide him, he opened a Harrowgate and lurched through it. Instantly, hot, humid air hit Than like a furnace blast. The stench of rotting flesh and burning wood stung his nostrils. Weakly, he lifted his head and frowned at the sight of scorched earth and fallen trees. Than’s internal GPS was telling him he was Down Under, but he’d never seen it like this before.
So much death. Explained why he’d been drawn here.
“Hey there, man.” Thanatos jerked his head around to the shirtless male in skin-tight pants that kept shifting colors to blend in with the smoky gray and black background.
“Hades.” His voice sounded like he’d swallowed shards of glass. “Is this… Australia?”
“Yeppers.” Hades strode several feet, his boots crunching down on charred bones that appeared to be both human and demon. “Since it’s been claimed in the name of Sheoul, I can hang out here.”
Of course. Hades was as bound to Sheoul as a demon, although for a very different reason. A fallen angel, he’d been forced to run Sheoul-gra, the place where demon and evil human souls were kept, unless Azagoth, also known as the Grim Reaper, allowed him out.
“Azagoth let you… leave Sheoul-gra?”
“He gave me an hour,” Hades said, his voice degenerating into a sarcastic drawl. “His generosity knows no bounds.” He nudged Than with his boot. “Now I guess I’m stuck helping you. Recover quickly. I want to hit one of those new succubus whorehouses before I have to head back to the Gra.”
A million pinpricks stabbed Than’s muscles as he struggled to prop himself against a fallen tree. The blue-haired bastard just stood there and watched.
“Why… help… me?”
Hades’s face went as hard as the landscape around them. “Because your fucking brother is pissing me off. While I can appreciate what he’s trying to do, starting an Apocalypse and all, I get ticked off when he noses in on my business.”
Thanatos wiggled his toes, relieved to feel them again. “What are you talking about?”
The blue veins that spiderwebbed Hades’s pale skin grew brighter and started to pulse. “He’s trying to dismantle Sheoul-gra and destroy Azagoth.”
“Oh, shit.” Without a Sheoul-gra, any demon or evil human killed in the human realm would be free to wreak havoc in their phantom form.
There was also a running theory that Azagoth might be the Horsemen’s father, but so far, no one had been able to verify that. Until the rumor could be confirmed, Thanatos would rather the guy not be killed.
“Oh, shit, is right. Who’d have thought your screwball brother could have gone so serial-killer fucktwat insane?”
And that was the big problem. Reseph had been the kindest, most even-tempered of all of them. For him to have turned so evil did not bode well for Ares, Limos, and Than.
He became aware of a branch biting into his back, and at the same time, a low-level vibration started in the pit of his stomach. His body was coming to life.
And it was hungry.
Along with the hunger, the tug toward danger grew stronger, became a pulsing awareness in the back of his brain. What the hell was it?
“He grows stronger every day, Thanatos. The souls I watch over are starting to reincarnate at rates I’ve never seen.”
Than frowned. “You think Pestilence is responsible for that?”
“Maybe not directly, but as the Apocalypse grows closer, souls are leaving me faster than they’re coming in. Pestilence is getting a big boost in the demon population, and I’m growing weaker. You need to kill him.”
Thanatos rocked his head back against the tree trunk. “I intend to repair his Seal, not kill him.” Than had found evidence that Reseph’s Seal could be repaired, but only if Than stabbed him with a specific dagger at a specific time. Problem was that he hadn’t figured out the “time” detail.
“Criminy. Whatever. Just do something. My very life comes from those souls. I need them.”
“Criminy?” Than stared. “Seriously? Big, bad, mohawk-haired demon says ‘criminy’?”
“Yes, criminy.” Hades rubbed his bare chest. “And, fuck off.”
Than closed his eyes. “That’s better.”
The vibration in Than’s core became a gnawing hunger, threaded with malevolence. The scent of blood hit him, and he snapped open his eyes. Hades was on his haunches next to Than, a knife in his hand. Blood flowed from his slit wrist, and Than’s fangs punched down as the starvation that had been kept at bay for eight months roared to the surface.
He lunged at Hades, but the male caught him around the back of the neck and slammed his bleeding wrist against Than’s mouth. Thanatos’s brain blanked out as his body was hijacked by fierce hunger and pure animal instinct.
“Ow, fuck.” Hades’s rough voice was a mere buzz in Than’s ears.
At this point, he didn’t give a hellrat’s ass if he was savaging the male’s arm. All that mattered was filling the hole inside him that, when emptied, led to indiscriminate feedings and a lot of death. Fortunately for Than, Hades was one of the few people who knew about Than’s need, although he didn’t know the extent of it.
Time swirled in multi-colored circles until finally, Hades pulled away and left Than leaning back against the tree, his body completely charged. The hunger was gone, but the other, odd tingle of impending danger still vibrated at the base of his skull. It was like a homing beacon, screaming at him to go.
“Thanks, man.” Shoving to his feet, Than flexed his muscles, testing them after so many months of disuse. Out of the corner of his eye, he saw a flicker of movement in the burned-out forest, and knew he’d get a good workout in a minute.
They had company.
“No problem. I owed you one.”
Keeping one eye on the creatures slinking from out of the shadows, Than casually flicked his finger over the crescent-shaped scar on his neck, and instantly, his bone armor snapped into place. Next, he summoned his scythe. “More than one. I’ve sent you a lot of souls, asshole.” He was about to send Hades more.
“Yeah, fuck you.”
He started to flip out his standard response of, “Can’t have sex,” but he remembered that yeah, he could. Thanks to Regan and her betrayal, he knew he could. But Hades was a dude, and Than wasn’t that desperate.
But the urge was there, so powerful he suspected that it was similar to what Ares felt, a coil of tension that, if not released, resulted in death and destruction.
Good thing then, that Thanatos was in the mood for a little D&D, and not the role-playing game.
“So, what are you going to do now that you’re not frozen solid?”
“First, I’m going to kill those demons and that fallen angel behind you.” The scorpion tattoo on his throat began to sting his neck, its tail moving like a pulse, reminding Than that death was what he was meant for. Never one to argue with fate, he swung the scythe in a powerful arc, lobbing off one of the demons’ two heads. He glanced back at Hades, who was looking like he might want popcorn to go with the action. “Then I’m going to do the same to the woman who betrayed me.”
Regan sat on the floor, staring at the vampire who had saved her from one threat and was planning to deliver her into the hands of another.
“You can’t take me to Thanatos. He’s incapacitated—”
“Stupid female,” he barked. “I’m taking you to his keep until he returns. Several of us have come up with a plan to get him back.” His voice softened. “And there are things you need to know, warnings I can’t tell you here—” Blood spurted from his mouth, and he jerked forward, catching himself on the podium.
A crossbow bolt pierced his sternum.
“Get away from her!” Lance, one of Regan’s fellow Elders, rushed toward them, crossbow in one hand, wooden stake in the other. More Guardians followed on his heels, including Suzi, who had moved into headquarters to assist Regan in her final months of pregnancy. From the side entrance, Elders Kynan and Decker burst through the doors.
“Don’t kill him!” Regan shouted, but Lance ignored her, driving the stake through the vampire’s heart.
“Dammit, Lance!” Kynan rounded on Lance as the vampire smoldered. “That’s not how we do things.”
“That’s not how you do things,” Lance said. “Not everyone in The Aegis agrees with your squeaky clean new way of treating the enemy.”
Suzi crouched next to Regan. “Are you okay? Should I call your doctor? Oh man, I should have been with you—”
“I’m fine,” Regan assured her, but Suzi wrung her hands, worry bleeding from her pores. “But you know, I could use a cup of your awesome honey chamomile tea.” Suzi grinned, clearly relieved to be able to help. As she took off, Regan remained on the floor, gathering both her thoughts and her breath. “Why were Thanatos’s vampires here? How did they get in?”
Juan, another Elder, kicked at the remains. “We captured them a couple of weeks ago. We needed to see the daywalkers ourselves. Somehow they escaped their cells.”
“You morons,” Regan snapped. “Don’t you think we’ve done enough to Thanatos?”
“We didn’t do it to the Horseman,” Lance said, his expression so smug she wanted to slap him. “It was your report that brought his vamps to our attention. We needed to study them.”
Oh, damn. Once again, she’d managed to screw Thanatos, just in a different way. Her guilt manifested into bitter anger, which she aimed at Lance.
“The Apocalypse is on our doorstep,” she growled, “and you wasted time with vampires? Nice.”
Lance scowled. “You’re the one who volunteered to take over as vampire expert when Jarrod died last year. You should have known that when you discover a new breed, we’re going to want to dissect it.” He cast her a nasty glance. “You aren’t going to cry about it or some shit, are you?”
God, she hated when he did that. He and a couple of the other Elders seemed to think that as a woman, she’d break down into tears about every little thing. They’d been the negative voices when Regan’s promotion into the Sigil was on the table, and now she never passed up an opportunity to show them she was just as capable as they were. She didn’t have a chance to rip into him though, because Kynan intercepted and steered them back on topic.
“Dissect it.” Kynan shoved his stang blade into its slot on his hip belt. “We have standard operating procedures for new species, and those include informing other Elders about plans to capture. They don’t include dissection.”
“You’ve been busy with your happy little demon family,” Juan said. “We didn’t see the need to make a big production out of capturing a couple of bloodsuckers.”
Regan fought the urge to scream in frustration. “What if the Horsemen see this as yet another betrayal? Did you think of that?” The Aegis’s relationship with Limos and Ares was already strained, thanks to what had gone down between Regan and Thanatos, and this could only make things worse.
“I’m more concerned about the impending Apocalypse than what the Horsemen think, but the fact that the vampires escaped is definitely troubling.” Lance nodded at Juan. “Let’s check the cells to make sure no other nasties are loose.”
As they took off, Decker glared after them. “I hope they get eaten,” he muttered.
“How are you feeling?” Kynan offered her a hand, but Regan refused it and pulled herself to her feet on her own. She’d had enough of being touched tonight.
“I’m feeling surprisingly good.” She winced as a tiny foot caught her in the ribs. “When I’m not being kicked.”
Kynan unzipped his leather bomber, revealing a weapons harness loaded to kill an entire legion of demons. “Gem said the same thing when she was pregnant.” Ky’s daughter, Dawn, was almost a year old now, and the cutest little dark-haired thing ever. Regan wondered what color hair her child—a boy, she’d learned a couple of months ago—would have, given that Thanatos’s hair was blond and hers was dark brown. “I know we talked about this before, but if you need someone to talk to about pregnancy stuff, Gem is there for you.”
Ugh. This had been an uncomfortable subject ever since Juan had brought up the fact that Regan didn’t have a mother to share the experience with or to ask for advice. No, Regan’s mother had committed suicide-by-demon after giving birth to Regan. As Lance had once put it, “You should feel lucky she didn’t off herself the second she found out her demon-possessed lover knocked her up.”
He was such a dick.
Regan offered a polite smile. “Thanks, Ky, but I’ll be fine.”
He nodded. “Offer still stands. When’s your next doctor appointment?”
“Tomorrow. Dr. Rodanski is concerned about the baby’s size, so he’s going to do another ultrasound and decide if we’re going to do a C-section instead of a natural delivery.”
“You really should see—”
“No.” She cut Kynan off before he could suggest allowing a demon doctor from Underworld General to take care of her. It was one thing to be working with demons to prevent the Apocalypse, but allowing one to touch her intimately? Not unless things got dire. Way dire.
“Regan,” Ky said. “Your body reacts badly to medication. You can’t have a C-section without meds and pain management.”
“Rodanski said he’d figure it out.” She hoped so, because what Ky, a former Army medic and physician at Underworld General, mentioned was a huge concern. The baby’s delivery could be potentially dangerous. Still, she wasn’t ready to deal with demon doctors and their alternative therapies.
Her stomach growled loud enough for Decker to hear. “Want me to get you something to eat?”
“I don’t suppose you have a chocolate milkshake in your back pocket.” She’d always been a bit of a health nut, but pregnancy had given her a major craving for all things ice cream.
He wrinkled his nose. “That crap will kill you.”
An image of Thanatos popped into her head, and no, it wouldn’t be the milkshakes that killed her.
“So,” she said. “Tell me why you’re here at this hour of the morning.” The boys exchanged glances, and her gut twisted. “What is it?”
Beepers went off, three at once. Decker grabbed his phone first. “It’s Lance. Fuck. Demons loose in the building.”
Instantly, Ky and Decker drew weapons and closed rank around Regan. “What the hell is going on? If we hadn’t come to discuss rousing Thanatos, Regan could be dead.”
Regan gripped the podium so hard her nails dug into the wood. “You were thinking about rousing him? Now?”
“Long story, but yeah. We came across new information. We need to consider waking him right away.”
“You’re a little late for that, Aegi.” The deep, rumbling voice from the doorway drained every drop of blood from Regan’s face. She broke out in a cold, clammy sweat as she looked up to see Thanatos at the auditorium entrance, his big body radiating danger even his armor couldn’t contain.
And she knew, without a doubt, that her nightmare was about to become reality.
Regan couldn’t breathe. Couldn’t swallow. All she could do was stare death—literally, Death—in the face. Thanatos was going to kill her. His yellow eyes drilled into her, but when he spoke his words were for Ky and Decker.
“Listen to me, Thanatos,” Kynan began. “If you have a beef with someone, it should be me—”
“Shut up.” Than’s voice echoed through the auditorium, carrying as if he was talking through an amplifier. “Leave now. Last warning.”
He moved toward them, his boots thumping like death knells on the carpeted floor, the bone plates of his armor clacking, the sword at his hip more menacing than she remembered.
“Go to hell, asshole,” Decker drawled.
Regan reached out to grasp Deck’s shoulder in warning, but it was too late. Shadows rose up around Thanatos, the souls of those he’d killed. Once released from the prison of his armor, they were deadly, nightmarish weapons Regan had no desire to encounter again. She had no idea if one of them could kill Kynan, seeing how he was immune from harm by anything but fallen angels, but Decker would be easy prey.
So would she. Her ability to rip souls out of a person… or to defend against an attacking soul, seemed to have been affected by the pregnancy. The loss would have been a relief not long ago. Now it left her vulnerable in a way she hadn’t thought possible.
“Go,” she said softly, never taking her eyes off those swirling souls. “I’ll be okay.” She hoped. Kind of doubted, really. But she would not be responsible for Decker’s death.
“We’re not leaving,” Kynan said.
Thanatos smiled, and Regan shuddered. “I just killed a fallen angel.” He threw out his hand, and one of the souls, its inky form sprouting wispy wings, darted toward Kynan. It halted mere inches away, straining as if tethered by invisible chains. “He can suck the life right out of you, human.”
“Dammit,” she hissed. “You guys go. Hang out in the hallway, but please… go!”
Ky and Decker both glared in stubborn defiance, but finally, they stalked off. When Ky got to the door, he turned around and shot the Horseman a deadly cold look. “You’ve got five minutes.”
Five minutes? That would be an eternity, given that Thanatos could end her in under a second. The moment Ky and Decker were gone, Thanatos struck, wrenching her away from the podium and pinning her against the wall with his upper arm across her throat. She couldn’t even reach for her handy-dandy anti-Horseman dagger.
“You betrayed me.”
“Please,” she whispered.
“Please.” His voice was guttural. Low. Downright evil. “Say it again. It won’t help, but I want to hear you beg before I kill you.”
She would never beg for her own life, but she’d do anything for the child. She licked her lips, but she had no moisture on her tongue. “Please don’t do this.”
Closing his eyes, he inhaled, and a wicked smile curved his mouth. “The scent of your fear is intoxicating. How does it feel to be restrained and helpless, Regan?”
Horrific. It was horrific. “Do what you want to me,” she rasped, “but don’t… don’t hurt the baby.”
His eyes popped open. For a moment, he stared at her, his blond eyebrows pulled low over golden eyes. “Baby?”
How could he have missed the fact that she looked as if she’d swallowed a watermelon? The baby kicked, as if aware he was being talked about, and Thanatos looked down.
“What the—?” Thanatos leaped away, eyes wide and glued to her belly. “When?” He swallowed audibly. “Who’s the father?”
Now she had to tread carefully. The plan had been to wait until after the baby’s birth to rouse Thanatos and tell him about it… the hope being that if he came after Regan in a murderous fury, at least the baby would be safe. Now… shit. She wasn’t sure what to do. Weird, since she’d always been able to think on her feet.
“Listen to me—”
She inhaled a shaky breath. “I’d feel better if Kynan was here—”
“Kynan?” Thanatos let out a godawful snarl, and she swore she saw the flash of fangs. “The Aegi is the father? He dared to touch you?”
“Kynan!” His roar shook the entire building, and then his sword was in his hand and those creepy shadows were circling his feet.
“It’s not Kynan,” she blurted, but Than wasn’t listening.
“Kynan is a dead man.”
“Thanatos! Yo, deaf Horseman. It’s not Kynan. It’s you.” She smoothed her hand over her belly. “This baby is yours.”
Thanatos had lived during the days when being poleaxed wasn’t just an expression. He’d managed to avoid it… until now.
Now he knew exactly how it felt as he stood there like a dolt, staring numbly at Regan’s belly. He dragged his gaze upward, to breasts that seemed larger than before, to her slender throat, and finally, he met her hazel eyes. They were as beautiful as he remembered, bright, with a warrior’s hard ice behind fire. But they were also tinged with fear, proving she wasn’t stupid.
When he’d first entered the auditorium, he’d been prepared to kill her. Now he just wanted a stiff drink.
He was going to be a father.
From virgin to dad in zero to sixty.
The door burst open, and both Kynan and Decker were there, pistols trained on Than. Bullets wouldn’t penetrate his armor or kill him, but they’d hurt like hell if they struck exposed body parts. Like his head.
“Fire those guns,” Than said quietly, “and every Aegi in the building will pay for it.”
“We don’t want any trouble,” Kynan said. “Leave now.”
“Leave?” Than laughed even as the souls in his armor spun like thousands of little tornadoes. Thousands? Why would there be so many? Didn’t matter. Not right now. He took Regan’s arm before she could scoot away. “I’ll leave. But she’s coming with me.”
Decker’s finger slipped from his pistol’s trigger guard to the trigger. “No way in hell.”
“It’s all right,” Regan said quickly. “I’ll be fine.”
“Presumptuous, don’t you think?” Than said, and then felt like an asshole when she paled.
“Regan, you don’t have to protect us.” Kynan stepped closer, and Decker moved with him, their bodies in practiced sync. “Let’s talk about this, Horseman.”
“Stall until you can summon my brother and sister? I don’t think so.” He dragged Regan to the door at the other end of the auditorium, and when he slammed it open he wasn’t surprised to find over a dozen Guardians, all armed to the teeth, waiting for him. Well, one female held a dagger and a menacing-looking cup of tea.
“First person who moves against me dies,” he told them. “Second person gets you all killed.”
Regan remained stiffly at his side. “Stay back, everyone. I’m going willingly.”
All but one obeyed, and the one, the idiot who dared to swing a skinny blade at him, found out how fast Thanatos could launch a soul from his armor. The other slayers found out how loudly humans screamed when they were having their souls ripped from their bodies.
“Stop it,” Regan yelled, but it was too late.
“I warned them,” he said, as he hauled her out of the building. “And I’m not in the mood for second chances, Regan. Keep that in mind.”
The second they were outside headquarters, Than threw a gate and tugged Regan through it. They came out at his Greenland keep in a marked-off area set aside specially for gates—the things had a tendency to slice people in half if they materialized next to or on top of someone.
Wind roared across the dark, barren landscape, carrying with it the faint tang of the nearby ocean and smoke from the fires inside the keep. Regan’s ponytail fluttered as she stepped onto the grass, her cheeks pinking up from the cool breeze. It might be summer, but it was still cold, cloudy, and wet.
“Why are we here?”
He took her elbow and marched her toward the door. “I live here.”
“I know that,” she ground out. “But I figured you’d want to go someplace less obvious. Especially since you’re now going to have the entire Aegis organization after you for kidnapping me and killing a Guardian.”
“You figured wrong.” He shoved open the door, and immediately his vampire servants came running.
“Master!” Viktor’s dark eyes were wide, a grin splitting his face. “You’re back. We didn’t know or we’d have prepared—”
“It’s okay. I’ll be back to talk to you later.” He led Regan down the stone steps to his dungeon, and when she resisted halfway, he swept her up and carried her. Oddly, where her belly touched his armor, her heat burned right through the bone plate.
“Let… me… go.” She struggled in his arms, and he cursed, gripping her tighter while trying not to hurt her.
“Stop it. You’ll injure yourself or the baby.” A glint of silver flashed, and he blocked the blade before it bit into his cheek. With a snap of his wrist, he broke Regan’s grip on the dagger and it clattered to the stone steps. “Let me guess. Coated in hellhound venom? Nice try.”
“It’s also imbued with a locator spell, you giant ass. The Aegis will be able to track me.”
“Right,” he drawled, “because they won’t guess that you’re at my place. Seeing how I took you.”
She sank her teeth into his hand and he yelped, but he didn’t put her down until they reached the first cell. Quickly, he shoved her inside before she bit him again. Not that he was opposed to biting, but there were more appropriate times for that.
Oh, look… you got laid once and you’re already making everything about sex.
“You’re just going to leave me here?” Regan asked, incredulous.
He slammed the cage door. “Yes.”
Crimson splotches colored her pale cheeks, and she hugged herself, rubbing her bare arms. “Can I at least have a blanket?”
Fuck. Now he felt like a heel. She was dressed for summer in a gauzy white blouse, khaki capris, and bare feet, but it was freezing down here year round, and while it didn’t affect him, she was human, and she’d succumb to hypothermia. He shouldn’t care. In fact, he didn’t. But he wasn’t going to let her die while his baby was inside her.
“Well?” When he didn’t say anything, because he was actually considering taking her back upstairs, she sighed. “Look, I know you’re angry—”
“Angry?” he spat. “You drugged me, restrained me, took my virginity, and then left me so pissed off that my siblings had to imprison me for over eight months. Angry doesn’t even begin to cover it. Were you trying to start the Apocalypse? Does The Aegis know what you did, or were they in on it?”
“I didn’t know you were restrained, Than. I lost control of my ability, and I didn’t realize it was attacking you.” She shivered… or maybe it was a shudder. “And I didn’t drug you. I mean, obviously, you were drugged, but it wasn’t my idea. One of your vampires gave me that wine.”
“None of my vampires would betray me.”
“Well, I hate to tell you this, but one did.”
She shrugged. “Maybe he got tired of your grumpy ass and decided you needed to get laid. How the hell should I know?”
He ground his teeth. “They knew sex was off-limits for me. They wouldn’t have done it.”
“Fine. Whatever. Ask Ares or Limos. They know. The wine drugged me, too.” She winced and palmed her belly, and before he even knew what he was doing, he was inside the chamber, his hands on her shoulders.
“Are you okay? Is it the baby?”
She blinked in surprise. “It was just a kick. Ponyboy is really active.”
Again her cheeks colored, but this time with a soft, feminine blush. “Well, you’re a Horseman… the father… so… Ponyboy.”
He wanted to smile at that, but then he remembered he hated her and forced his expression to remain neutral. “I’ll get you a blanket.” He started for the door, but she stopped him with a hand on his forearm.
“I have to pee.”
He gestured to the corner. “There’s a chamber pot.”
“Seriously? Eew.” She recoiled in horror at the dusty clay vessel.
“Humans of your day are ridiculously spoiled. What do you think people did before toilets?”
“I don’t really care. We do have toilets now, and I’d rather use one.” She wrinkled her nose. “If I try to squat down on that, I’ll never get back up.”
“Fine,” he muttered, taking her wrist. “You’re a terrible prisoner, you know that?” She wisely kept her mouth shut as he led her back up the steps and to his bedroom.
When she saw where he was taking her, she ground to a halt just outside the door. “Um…”
“Would you prefer the dungeon? Your choice.”
Her eyes flashed, and she shoved past him. “This will be fine,” she said, as if she were a guest at a hotel who was dismissing the bellboy.
“Don’t try anything, Regan,” he warned. “I’m going to have a guard at the door.”
“How long are you going to leave me here?”
“Until I figure out what to do with you.” He bent to look her directly in the eyes. “But be clear on this; your life is now mine.”
A full hour after Regan had been snatched, Aegis Headquarters was still in a state of chaos. Kynan was supposed to be heading home to New York to meet his wife and daughter so they could join their in-laws at Underworld General for the weekly family summit.
Today Kynan was going to be late. Shit, if he made it at all it would be a miracle.
“How did those vampires and demons escape, and how the hell did that Horseman find our headquarters?” Ian, one of The Aegis’s Elders, was shouting. “We’ve never, in all our thousands of years of existence, been found. What happened?”
Kynan wanted to point out that The Aegis’s headquarters had nearly been located by the enemy half a dozen times over the course of their history, and had they not moved locations, they would have been, but he kept quiet. Ian was a hotheaded asshole who wouldn’t back down from any argument, and Kynan wasn’t in the mood to knock him the fuck out.
Chad, another Elder with an attitude problem, rounded on Kynan and Decker. “And how could you have let that bastard just waltz out of here with Regan?”
“I didn’t see you steppin’ up to the plate yourself,” Decker drawled, his usually faint Texas twang vibrating with every word. The more pissed off he was, the redder his neck got, as he liked to say.
“The Horseman couldn’t have touched Kynan.” Chad shot an accusatory look Ky’s way. “You should have done something.”
“Thanatos came prepared to deal with me,” Kynan said, and damn if that didn’t rankle. The guy had been smart enough to kill a fallen angel, and while Ky wasn’t sure the soul of one could harm him, he hadn’t been about to take any chances with his life or anyone else’s… especially not Regan’s.
“So what now?” Decker asked.
Ky eyed the coffeemaker, wondering if he should caffeinate. It was going to be a long day. “Valeriu, Lance, and Juan are already on the way to the UK to check out a site for our new headquarters.” Now that Thanatos knew their current location, it, along with all of their libraries, secrets, artifacts, and weapons, was in danger if his Seal were to break.
“Hey!” Suzi burst through the door, even more frantic than she already was with Regan missing. “There’s another Horseman here. I think it’s War.”
“Ares,” Kynan muttered. He could never get it through these people’s heads that the Horsemen would only be known as War, Death, and Famine after their Seals broke. “And it’s about time.”
Ian’s green eyes nearly popped out of his head. “You told another one how to find us? Why don’t you just put a neon sign on the building and upload our address to Yahoo?”
“I called him while Thanatos was still here,” Kynan ground out. “I was hoping he’d be able to talk his brother down.”
These fools truly had no idea how important it was to work with the Horsemen. Not only were they the only beings powerful enough to deal with Pestilence, but if humans pissed them off enough, they could wipe their hands of the fight altogether. Hole up in their residences and let humans fight Pestilence and his demons on their own.
Chad snorted. “Good plan. Maybe if you’d—”
Chad broke off with a strangled sound as huge hands came down on Suzi’s shoulders to move her aside gently but firmly. Ares filled the doorway, his broad shoulders brushing the frame as he strode inside, a mountain of leather armor and attitude.
“Where is my brother?”
Kynan met the ancient warrior halfway into the room. “He left. Took Regan with him.”
A river of curses fell from Ares’s mouth. “How was he behaving?”
“Like he was in need of a rabies shot. He killed one of our Guardians.”
“Just one? You caught him on a good day.”
Ares was probably right. Than could have taken them all out and made it seem effortless. “I thought we’d agreed to keep him immobilized for a little while longer.”
“We did, human.”
“Then how did he get free?”
“I don’t know.”
Kynan scrubbed his hand over his face. “How helpful.” Ares stared at him. “Just get Regan back for us.”
“I’ll do what I can.” Ares spun around on his heel and started out of the room, halting when Decker called his name.
“Your brother,” Decker said. “He won’t hurt her, will he?”
Ares’s big shoulders rose and fell slowly, as if he were taking a deep, calming breath. When he spoke, his voice was deceptively soft.
“I hope not,” he said. “For his sake, and the sake of mankind, I hope not.”
Thanatos’s chest was tight, his skin twitching as he paced the length of the great hall. His vampires had tried to bring him food and drink, had asked him if they could fetch him books, groom Styx—and currently, one of them was kneeling, exposing the throat that he’d slit by his own hand.
“Take it, sire.” Artur, his oldest daywalker and the one who had been with Thanatos for over forty-five hundred years, watched him expectantly.
Fuck. “I’ve already fed.”
“Then let me do something,” Artur begged, his willingness to serve going into hyperdrive. Than’s absence must have done a number on him. “Would you like me to tend to Regan?”
No one was going near Regan. Not even his most trusted servant. It was an irrational decision maybe, but right now Than was feeling pretty damned irrational. He yanked Artur to his feet. “If you want to do something for me, clean up the mess you made on the floor.”
The vampire nodded. “Right away.” He actually looked happy to have something to do. No doubt they were all hanging out in the kitchen, waiting nervously for Thanatos to explode.
He was close. Which was why he’d gotten away from Regan, who was one hell of a fuse.
He stopped in front of the fireplace and braced his fists on the mantel as he stared into the dancing flames. His mind was whirling in a stir of a thousand thoughts, and he couldn’t focus. It seemed like every time he captured one, it led to another, and another. There was too much in his head, from the baby to Regan to The Aegis, to his siblings, to… everything.
It didn’t help that his body vibrated with all the deaths around the world. He felt it all, like a million knives carving his muscles beneath his skin. And alongside the tremors that made him want to gate himself to the scenes of death and kill whoever was still standing was a spiraling storm of need that intensified in Regan’s presence.
Always before, when he was worked up from death and destruction, his instinct had been to kill. The dark desire was still there, a throbbing, malevolent urge, but he also wanted sex. He wanted to drop Regan to the floor and drill into her until he didn’t have the energy for violence.
She’d awakened something in him the night she’d taken him, and there was no putting it back to sleep.
The sound of footsteps rang out… heavy ones, which meant Ares had arrived. And he was armored. More footsteps, softer, but with the distinct click of hellhound claws on stone.
Drawing his sword, Than swung around. “Keep the mutt away from me, brother.”
Ares’s expression was stony. “Where is Regan?”
“Go to hell.” The hellhound, a shaggy black beast that, only about half-grown, was still the size of a wildebeest, bared its teeth and crept forward. “I said, keep Hal away.” The last thing he wanted to do was fight the hound. If he hurt Cara’s beloved mutt, she’d have his ass.
“Then you need to go back to Greece with me.”
“So you can lock me down again? Not happening.”
“It’s for your own good.” Ares’s tone was matter-of-fact, as if keeping his brother prisoner was no big deal. But then, Ares had always been a soldier, trained from birth to do anything and everything to win a battle at any cost… even if the price was his brother’s life. Ares was fully prepared to put an end to Pestilence and had been from the beginning, so holding Than captive had no doubt been easy for him.
“My own good?” Than gritted out. “I spent eight months trapped inside my own head, going insane with boredom.”
“That’s why we gave you a TV. Movies. Music. Limos and Cara read to you—”
“You think that’s enough? Do you know how many episodes of Jersey Shore you can watch before you want to gouge out your own eyes? I do, and it’s probably a lot fewer than you’d guess.” Than breathed deeply and paced, because the alternative would end in a lot of blood… both his and Ares’s. “What were you thinking?”
“We were thinking it would keep you from going atomic.”
“You wanna see atomic?” Than snarled and brought his fist down on the trestle table, putting a seismic crack in the ancient wood. “You kept a big secret from me, Ares. A secret the size of a baby.”
Ares paled, which was pretty damned satisfying. “Than… what did you do?”
Nothing much. I threatened to kill the mother of my child and half the Aegis Elders. “It’s none of your concern.”
“Where is she?”
Gripping his sword so hard his hand hurt, Than ignored the question. “Why didn’t you tell me? For months, you and Limos sat at my bedside. And not once in that time did you say anything like, ‘Hey, by the way, you’re going to be a father,’ or ‘Yo, you knocked up the Guardian.’ Would have been good to know.”
Ares blew out a frustrated breath. “Dammit, Than. That’s not something you say to someone who can’t react. You’d have laid there with no way to ask questions and with who knows what going through your head.”
“And whose fault is that?” he shot back.
Flickering light from the fire danced in Ares’s dark eyes, obscuring any telltale hints of what his brother was thinking. “The plan was to wait to rouse you until the baby was born. At that point, we were going to decide what to tell you.”
“Decide what to tell me?” Thanatos frowned, and then sucked in a harsh breath as realization dawned. “You weren’t going to tell me, were you?” He felt the ground shift beneath him as the magnitude of Ares’s and Limos’s betrayal rocked him. “You weren’t going to tell me I was a father.”
“Yes we were, but the rest of the plan isn’t about you.” Ares held up his hands in a soothing gesture that was so not soothing. “If Pestilence finds out about Regan’s pregnancy, the child’s life will be in danger.”
Son of a—Okay, yeah, there was that. He’d been out of his mind for a while there, but Ares was right. “Pestilence would love to hurt me through a child.”
“More than that,” Ares said. “We think the baby is your agimortus.”
Of course. Than had spent the last months wondering why his Seal hadn’t broken and trying to figure out what would break it. And now the warmth he felt when he was near Regan made sense. He was feeling his agimortus.
“How did you get free?” Ares asked. “You weren’t due for another dose of hellhound venom for a couple of hours.”
Thanatos glared at Hal, and he swore the mutt smiled. “I felt a pull that seemed to neutralize the effect of the venom. Turns out it was the baby.” Than nearly stumbled over the baby word. So… foreign. “I didn’t know what it was until I got to Aegis headquarters and found Regan. There were demons loose, and she and the baby were in danger.”
“So you sensed the child?”
“Apparently.” The sense had dulled now that the immediate danger had passed, but inside, he definitely vibrated with an awareness that had been with him for months but that he hadn’t been able to identify. “You’ve always been able to sense your agimortus. Must be why I can feel the baby.” He gnashed his teeth, frustrated by pretty much everything that had happened today. “By the way, I saw Hades. He said Reseph has his sights set on destroying Azagoth and Sheoul-gra.”
“Not much we can do about that. We’ve got enough on our plates in the human realm. Underworlders are on their own. Now, where is Regan?” Ares repeated.
“She’s safe. That’s all you need to know.”
“Shit,” Ares muttered. “You need to return her to The Aegis. That’s the only way she’ll be safe.”
“You think I can’t protect her?”
“My temper is under control,” he roared, and yep, that display surely convinced Ares.
Ares smoothed his hand over the hound’s head, calming the beast. What a huge change, given that only a year ago Ares had been gunning to destroy every hellhound in existence.
“You don’t remember, do you?” he asked quietly.
Uh-oh. “Remember what?”
“The reason we incapacitated you in the first place.”
Than’s stomach turned over. He didn’t want to know. He really didn’t. The scorpion started stinging his neck, letting him know that what he’d done was poison to his very soul. “What… shit, what did I do?”
“You nuked the island, almost killed Arik, and very nearly damaged Reaver and Limos permanently.”
Thanatos’s mind spun with confusion. “What island?” The look on Ares’s face said it all, and Than stumbled back a step. “No. Not this island. Oh, Jesus. How… how bad?” Than asked, but deep down, he knew. Vampires were immune to his death blasts, but few others were.
“Angels intercepted the shockwave, but they couldn’t save many. You left few alive.”
It all came back in a rush, a broken dam releasing so many memories. The thousands of the souls in his armor went crazy, evidence of what he’d done.
If a million angels descended on him right now and cast a million lightning bolts at him, the punishment wouldn’t be enough. If it went on for centuries it wouldn’t be enough.
“I was so angry at Regan… at her betrayal. The Aegis fucked us over, and then Reseph…” Thanatos had been riding Styx hard, chasing Regan across the frozen tundra, and Reseph… no, Pestilence… had come out of nowhere, had beaten Than to a bloody pulp and nearly killed Styx. If not for Cara, the stallion would be dead.
“That’s why we didn’t want to tell you about Regan and the baby. We mentioned her name once, outside the bedroom door. You must have overheard, because you let out a mini death wave that killed two of my Ramreels.” Ares’s voice warbled, just a little, but for him, that was a major show of emotion. “We didn’t know what you’d do if we actually tried to talk to you about her.”
“Shit, Ares. I’m sorry.” Thanatos rubbed his sternum, but it didn’t relieve the heavy crush of guilt. “Why did The Aegis do it? Regan claims she didn’t drug the wine—”
“She didn’t. The Aegis is still at the heart of it, but no, Pestilence arranged for the wine.”
“He replaced Atrius with a doppelgänger. We found the doppelgänger dead.”
Which meant that Atrius was dead, too. Doppelgängers and the being they were created to replace shared life forces. Damn it! Atrius’s sense of humor had lightened up the keep, and he’d been instrumental in keeping the rivalry between the nightwalker and daywalker vamps in check. Than would miss him.
“So Pestilence must have killed Atrius after the deed was done.”
“Or one of your staff killed the doppelgänger, but they all denied it. We tested the rest of your staff to make sure no one else was a doppelgänger.” When Than lifted a brow in question, Ares expounded. “We pulled a fang from each vamp. They all grew back.”
A fang removed from a doppelgänger wouldn’t be replaced. Than scrubbed his hand over his face.
“Speaking of fangs—”
“Don’t.” Thanatos cut off his brother. “Don’t go there.”
“I am going there, Than,” Ares growled. “Reseph grew fangs when he turned into Pestilence. You grew fangs after your nuclear meltdown. Or after sex with Regan. Something’s up, and I’m not letting it go.”
“You have to. I won’t discuss it.” Ares was so wrong about when Than had gained his fangs, but Than couldn’t tell his brother that he’d had them since they were cursed as Horsemen. It was a secret he was forbidden to share, even with his own siblings. He changed the subject, although he knew Ares wouldn’t be deterred for long. “Do you think Regan is lying about being drugged, too?”
If Regan had truly drunk the wine instead of merely pretending, as he’d suspected, then much of his anger was misplaced. He hadn’t been able to stand up to its aphrodisiac properties; a human stood no chance. And if she was telling the truth about losing control of her gift that incapacitated him… shit. Now he didn’t know what to think.
Excerpted from Lethal Rider by Ione, Larissa Copyright © 2012 by Ione, Larissa. Excerpted by permission.
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