Eternal Guardians, Book 5
The bloody voice was back.
Not that it ever completely went away, but most days he could deal with it. Today it was like a pounding drum, growing louder each and every second. The sound so intense, it left him wanting to stab his eardrums with a hot metal poker just so he didn’t have to listen anymore.
Come to me. Bring me what I seek. You know you can’t deny your destiny.
Gryphon twisted in the May sunlight, squinted through the trees, searched for the source of the voice that continued to torment him. But it wasn’t close. Not in this vast Montana forest, not in the remote village down the hill to his right, not among his warrior kin, who’d been eyeing him as if he were bat-shit crazy for the last two months. No, this lovely voice was in his head. Inside his body. Calling to him every hour of every day, drawing him toward a darkness he feared might soon consume him.
Panic and a need to break free tightened every muscle in his body, pushed him to do something. He couldn’t give in to the darkness. He wouldn’t let it have him. He’d seen its wrath firsthand, knew the horror it would unleash. No matter what, he had to keep fighting that voice. He couldn’t let go and…
“Gryph? Dude? You okay?”Gryphon startled at the gruff voice—the real voice—coming from Titus, his Argonaut kin, standing in the shadows of a large pine. A lock of wavy hair fell free of the leather tie at the nape of Titus’s neck, brushed his weathered cheek. The guardian tipped his head, narrowed his eyes, seemed to study Gryphon more intently. A descendent of Odysseus, Titus was the keenest of all the guardians, and he had the ability to hear others’ thoughts. Could he hear the voice too?“Gryphon?” Titus asked again, this time crossing the small clearing toward him, his knowing hazel eyes honed in on Gryphon’s face, his boots crunching over dried needles and broken sticks as he moved. “Maybe we should take a break.”
Oh, yeah, Titus could hear it.
Shame, fury, helplessness welled inside Gryphon. Before Titus reached him, he stepped out of the guardian’s way and beat feet for the hillside, where his brother Orpheus was scanning the small village with binoculars. “Stop treating me like a freakin’ five-year-old. I’m fine.”
Titus’s boots stilled, and he heaved out a heavy sigh. Without looking, Gryphon could see the you’re not fine, you’re fucked expression on his kin’s face.
He didn’t need the pity from Titus. He could barely handle the way Orpheus looked at him, as if he had some terminal disease. Did they think they were helping with their constant coddling and useless baby-sitting? Gryphon scratched at the back of his neck, dragged his hand down his chest, and clawed at the skin hidden under the thick henley and leather strap that cut across his torso. Things would be a helluva lot better for everyone if they’d just leave him alone. Couldn’t they see that?
Come to me, doulas. You know you want to. Stop fighting me.
He clenched his jaw, rubbed his ear against his shoulder. Flexed and released his hand so he didn’t draw his blade against the only threat out here he could see: himself. Stopping next to Orpheus, he tried like hell to ignore the voice and asked, “What do you see?”
Orpheus lowered the binoculars, shot him a way-too-fucking-concerned look. “Nothing. No movement. Looks like a ghost town. You okay?”
Gryphon ground his teeth at the question—and the worry he saw on his brother’s face—took the binoculars, scanned the distance. Saw the same thing Orpheus had, nothing but empty houses and swaying tree limbs. No humans, no Misos—half-breeds who often lived together in isolation—not even a damn dog roaming the empty streets.
He handed the binoculars back to Orpheus as he fought the need to strike out and kill something…anything. As Titus came up on his left, he caught sight of the ancient Greek text on the guardian’s arms. The same text that covered all the Argonauts’ arms, marking them as guardians of their race. He’d served with them for over a hundred years, but now everything felt different. It was his first mission since Orpheus had rescued him from the Underworld, and Gryphon knew Orpheus was responsible for his being included today. The other guardians—Theron, Zander, Demetrius, Cerek, Phineus…even Titus—they didn’t think he was ready. But Orpheus had argued that getting back into the routine of his old life, hunting Atalanta’s daemons as Argonauts had been doing for millennia, was an important step in his recovery.
From the hell of the Underworld.
The last thought sent a tremor through Gryphon’s entire body. A tremor that triggered a bitter hatred, turned his vision a blinding, glaring red and amped the need to annihilate exponentially.
“Gryph,” Titus said jovially—way too jovially—“why don’t we hang out up here while Orpheus goes down to see if Nick needs help.”
Nick was the leader of the half-breed colony where Gryphon and Orpheus had been living the last two months. He was already in the village below, looking for survivors of what they suspected was a daemon attack. And he had a tendency to eye Gryphon as if he had three heads too.
Fuck them all. Gryphon was sick and tired of being treated like an invalid. It wouldn’t stop until he showed them that he could hold his own, just as he had before. It wouldn’t stop until he proved he was the same guardian he’d once been.
Before Orpheus could agree, Gryphon stomped down the hill toward the silent village. And felt like screaming, because even he knew he wasn’t that ándras anymore. He twitched, he heard voices, he felt the need to claw himself free of his own skin every second of every day…nothing he did made any of it stop. Not the therapy the Argonauts made him go to, not the time or distance from the Underworld, not even being out here on a damn mission again. And after the things he’d seen and done when he was in the Underworld, he was starting to question whether he’d ever be that ándras again.
Only I understand you, doulas. Only I can ease you. Give in. Come to me.
He swiped at both ears with his hands, scrubbed his fingers through his hair, and pulled hard so he wouldn’t scream as he headed down the hillside. If he started hollering like a psycho, they’d surely lock him in a padded cell. And he wouldn’t go back to being imprisoned. Not even by them. Never again.
A growl echoed to his left just as he reached the bottom of the hill. Followed by a frigid burst of air that signaled daemons were in the area.
His adrenaline shot up. He reached back for his parazonium—the ancient Greek sword all the Argonauts carried—just as Nick stepped out of the shadows.
Screw that. This was Gryphon’s kill. His blood grew hotter with the promise of a knock-down, drag-out, blood-letting fight.
The first daemon came around the side of the house, stepping between Gryphon and Nick. The beast lifted his head—a grotesque mix of cat and goat and dog—and narrowed glowing green eyes on Gryphon. Then he drew in a deep whiff and growled, “You.”
“Me, you son of a bitch.” Gryphon lifted his blade. “And I’ve a message for you to take back to your bitch of a leader.”
Nick swore at the beast’s back. Up the hill, Orpheus shouted, “No!” Someone cursed as boots pounded across the earth. But Gryphon didn’t listen. He was already charging, already losing the voice, the pain, even himself, in the fight. As his blade met sword and flesh and bone, he was already proving he was more than the guardian he’d once been.
He was everything he didn’t want to be.
* * * * *
Tonight was the night. No more fooling around.
Maelea’s stomach churned with a mixture of apprehension and excitement as she sat at the long rectangular table in the two-story dining hall of the half-breed colony and only vaguely listened to the conversation around her. Part of her felt a pang of sadness that she’d soon be leaving. Another part was eager to get away. Even after two months, she was never going to be one of them.
Though Orpheus claimed she was safe here, Maelea knew she wasn’t. Those around her weren’t safe either. Hades was hunting her. He’d find her sooner or later. He’d do whatever he could to stop her from reaching Olympus.
And Olympus…well, that was something worth running for. Something worth fighting for. Something worth even dying for.
Maelea blinked, realized she was zoning out, and refocused. Looking down the table, she eyed the female who’d called to her. Dammit…what was her name? Harriet? Holly? No, Helene, that was it. Her gaze skipped from face to face before faltering on Skyla.
Though Skyla was no longer one of Zeus’s assassins, she had the senses of an elite warrior, and her eyes zeroed in on Maelea as if she were a hawk closing in on its prey.
Maelea glanced quickly away from Skyla’s knowing green eyes and looked to Helene. “What? I’m sorry. I didn’t hear you.”
“We were wondering if you would be willing to help out with the decorations for the festivities. Katia said you have a real eye for color.”
Katia… Maelea glanced back over the table and remembered she’d helped the female decorate a nursery for one of the other colonists. But for the life of her, she couldn’t remember what festivities they all were talking about. “Um…”
“Nick’s favorite color is blue, so I was thinking we’d use that as our starting point,” Katia said from across the table. “He’s going to be so surprised. A hundred and fifty years. Hard to believe, isn’t it?”
Right. The celebration to commemorate the one hundred fiftieth year of Nick’s leadership. Maelea had heard a few of the other females in the castle talking about it last week. As it was a surprise for Nick, everything was hush-hush, but Maelea had a hard time imagining Nick being surprised—or excited—about anything. The Misos leader always had a stoic expression. And with that scar down the side of his face…
Maelea shuddered. He was downright scary looking. The man had no use for her, had made it more than clear he wasn’t happy Orpheus had brought her here. So she stayed as far from him as she could.
Just another reason it was good she was finally getting out of this place.
“Well?” Helene asked. “Can you help?”
Maelea nodded and worked up a smile. “Sure. Why not.”
“Wonderful.” Helene turned back to the others and dove into the party plans.
A whisper of guilt rushed through Maelea. By tomorrow she’d be gone. If things went as she hoped, in a few hours she’d be nothing but a memory. And though she knew that was the best option—for everyone—a tiny place deep inside couldn’t help but wonder what it would be like to be a real part of this community. Part of a family. She’d never had that. Not in all her three thousand years. Before coming here, she’d spent most of those years alone. And the few times she hadn’t, well, those times she’d learned the loss of love was a thousand times worse than not having it in the first place.
She’d gotten a small taste of family these past few months. And she liked it, more than she should. The longer she stayed, the harder it would eventually be on her when it all ended. And no matter what Orpheus claimed or how safe he and Nick thought they could keep everyone, she knew reality. She didn’t want to be the reason all of this finally came to a screeching halt.
As the females talked, Maelea’s gaze drifted to the wide, arched windows that looked out to the blue-green lake and the majestic mountains beyond. Dusk was just settling in, making the lake look dreamy and inviting, but to Maelea it was one more barrier to her escape. The colony was nothing more than an enormous castle built by a Russian prince on an island in the middle of a glacial lake in the wilds of Montana. That prince, whose wife was Misos, had been killed before either reached the protection of the castle, and Nick’s people had come to inhabit it after their colony was destroyed somewhere in Oregon. The hows and whys didn’t much matter to Maelea—but even she recognized the safety this location provided.
It would be a thousand times safer once she was gone.
Silverware clinked against the old wood table, and as conversation continued around them, the female to Maelea’s right leaned toward her friend on her other side and whispered, “Did you hear they took him out today?”
“Who?” the other female whispered back.
“The blond Guardian. The one they keep locked on the third floor.”
Maelea’s interest piqued. They were talking about Gryphon, Orpheus’s brother. She tried not to look like she was listening, but inside something jumped to life.
“The crazy one?”
“Yeah. He went out hunting with Nick and Orpheus and one other. Have you seen him? There’s something not right about him.”
“I heard a rumor he was quite the playboy…before,” the other said, her voice lowering. “That females in Argolea used to flock to him.”
Before. Before being sent to the Underworld. Before being rescued by Orpheus and Skyla. Before coming to live at the colony.
The first lifted her plate and pushed back from the table. “Well, he’s no playboy now. Any female would be stupid to get within fifty feet of him. He’s unstable. I’m really hoping they don’t let him out for the celebration. Can you imagine what would happen?”
Maelea watched the two walk toward the end of the room to deposit their dishes, and even as relief that dinner was finally over rippled through her, so did a wave of trepidation. If Hades caught her, the same fate that had befallen Gryphon awaited her. Only she wouldn’t survive the Underworld. She was sure of it.
Her determination resolidified, Maelea scrambled for her own plate. She’d found the way out days ago, had just been waiting for the right moment to bolt. Tonight the sentries would change shift at two a.m. And Hawk…he wasn’t as observant as some of the others. If she timed it right, she’d be past him before he even saw her.
She headed for the end of the dining hall. The china nearly slipped from her fingers when Skyla sidled up next to her.
“Volunteering for the decoration committee. Look at you getting all involved, Maelea. I barely recognize you anymore.”
Maelea bobbled the plate in her hand, worked to keep her expression neutral. “I don’t know what you mean.”
They reached the end of the room. Skyla set her utensils on the high counter after Maelea. “Sure you do. You’re different since you’ve been here. In a good way. Dare I say it? More human.”
Maelea steeled her nerves as she faced the blond Siren. Most days she liked Skyla. Skyla had become more than an unexpected ally, she’d become a friend, and she made Orpheus happy, which gave Maelea at least a little bit of hope that there was happiness out there—not for her, but at least for others. But the Siren was too perceptive. And right now Maelea didn’t need anyone probing into her intentions. If Orpheus got one whiff she was planning to run, he’d do everything he could to stop her. It was way past time Orpheus stopped feeling responsible for her. He had plenty of other things to worry about—most importantly, his brother.
“I’m not human, Skyla. We both know that. If I’ve changed, its only because I’m working hard to fit in. That is what you and Orpheus asked me to do, isn’t it? Fit in? And stop being such a…what was it Orpheus called me? A ghoul?”
A slow smile crept across Skyla’s face. “He’s such a smartass.”
Yeah, well, he was also right. Hades had cursed her to walk this world alone for all eternity, and that’s exactly what she’d done, not only for her safety, but for the safety of those around her. And the fact she was willingly going back to that now, after experiencing life at the colony, depressed her more than she liked.
“Look,” she said, desperate to get away from Skyla before she gave anything away, “I promised some of the children I’d read them a few stories in the library before bed. Are we done here?”
Skyla’s face softened, but those knowing eyes of hers didn’t lessen in intensity. “There you go, being all involved again.”
Involved. There was a word Maelea had never expected anyone to use to describe her. The colony was the first place she’d felt safe enough to risk getting involved. Only now she knew her safety was in jeopardy. The continual hellhound sightings in the Pacific Northwest told her that Hades had not given up searching for her. That he’d never stop hunting her.
As that depressing thought sank in, Maelea turned for the hallway. But before she reached the threshold, her chest constricted as if a heavy weight had been dropped on top of her.
“What’s wrong?” Skyla asked, her hand brushing Maelea’s long-sleeved shirt.
“I…I felt something weird come into the castle. Something dark. Something…evil.”
Concern morphed to alarm in Skyla’s eyes. Skyla knew Maelea could sense energy shifts on the planet—a gift of being caught between two worlds. Just as Skyla opened her mouth to answer, the cell in her pocket hummed.
She pulled the phone from her jeans, lifted it to her ear. “Orpheus, thank gods…Where are—? No, Maelea and I are—” Her face paled. “Oh shit. I’ll be right there.”
“What happened?” Maelea asked as Skyla stuffed the phone back in her pocket.
“Something bad,” Skyla answered, crossing the gleaming hallway floor toward the elevator. “It’s Gryphon.”
Maelea stopped with Skyla at the elevator, watched as the Siren frantically pushed the call button. “Is he hurt?”
“No. Worse.” Skyla looked up at the wood-paneled doors. “Where the hell is that damn car? In Zimbabwe?”
“What could be worse than being hurt? He’s not dead, is he?” Why the thought of his death disturbed her, she didn’t know. She didn’t even know the guardian. Hadn’t once talked to him in the months they’d both been here.
“No,” Skyla answered, a frown cutting across her mouth. “But he might be soon, if Nick gets a hold of him.” Her voice lowered so no one else could hear them. “Orpheus said he mutilated an entire horde of daemons. And then he wouldn’t stop. Titus and Nick are both getting stitched up in the medical clinic as we speak.”
Maelea’s eyes grew wide. “What happened?”
“According to Orpheus, Gryphon attacked them.”