In many parts of the world and in many religions, the concept of hell has long been one where the dead were punished for the evils they participated in or perpetrated while living.
In the Atlantean hell realm of Kalosis, there were wicked souls aplenty, but none of them were being punished for what they'd done while alive. Indeed, most of them had led calm, peaceful lives. As Urian-a Spathi Daimon who'd once called Kalosis home-so often said, "We're not the damned, folks, we're the categorically fucked."
And it was true. Those here were all being punished not for their transgressions, but rather for something a long-forgotten queen in Atlantis had done centuries ago to strike back at her former lover. In one fit of anger against the Greek god Apollo, she'd sent her soldiers out to murder his child and mistress. By doing so, she'd damned all of her Apollite people not only to a life spent in darkness but to a life span of only twenty-seven years. A life that would end on their birthday as their body slowly, painfully deteriorated over a twenty-four-hour period until there was nothing left but a faint dust.
It was a cold, callous fate that each man and woman here in Kalosis would have met had their leader Stryker not found the mythical portal that allowed him to descend from the world of man into this realm where he'd met another god. A god whose indignant fury had made a mockery of Apollo's.
Trapped within the hell realm by her own family who had feared her powers, Apollymi wasn't one to let Apollo get away with his cruelty. She had embraced Apollo's cursed son, Stryker, adopting him as her own before she taught him how to harvest and use human souls to elongate his life. It was a lesson Stryker had gladly shared with others of his race as he brought them here to serve not only his own code of vengeance but Apollymi's as well. Currently he commanded legions of Daimons who used the pathetic humans as cattle.
And even though he owed her so much, Stryker truly hated the goddess who had saved his life and adopted him.
Now, he sat in the banquet hall of her home and watched as his Spathi warriors celebrated their latest victory.
"Death to the humans!" one of his warriors shouted above the din.
"Fuck that," another replied. "We need them. Death to all Dark-Hunters!"
An echoing cheer rang out through the barren hall. Stryker leaned back in his cushioned throne as he watched the Apollites and Daimons congratulate each other on their most recent success-the capture of Ravyn Kontis. The darkened hall was lit only by candles as they poured Apollite blood-the only thing that could sustain their cursed bodies-from pitchers and spilled it all over themselves.
Like the other Spathis gathered here, Stryker envisioned a better world. A world where his people weren't condemned to die at the tender age of twenty-seven. A world where they could all walk in the daylight that he'd taken for granted as a child.
And all because his father had knocked up a whore and then gotten pissed when the Apollites had killed her off. Apollo had cursed them all... even Stryker, who had been the ancient god's most beloved son.
But that was eleven thousand years ago. Ancient, ancient history.
Stryker was the present and the Daimons before him were the future. If everything went as planned, they would one day soon reclaim the human realm that had been taken from them. Personally, he'd have rather started with another city, but when the human official had come to him with a plan for the humans to help rid Seattle of Dark-Hunters it had been a perfect opportunity to start aligning the race of man with the Apollites and Daimons. Little did the humans know that once the Dark-Hunters were cleared, there would be no one to save their souls. It would be open season on all mankind.
"How many Dark-Hunters are left in Seattle?" he asked his second in command.
Like the other Daimons who were present, Trates was tall and lean, with golden blond hair and dark brown eyes-the epitome of youthful beauty. He drew his brows together as he thought for a second. "Once Kontis is dead, we're down to seven."
Stryker curled his lips. "Then we're celebrating too soon."
Silence rang out at his words.
Stryker turned his head to see his younger half-sister approach his carved throne with a bold, determined stride. Unlike the Spathi Daimons who made this place home, she bore no fear of him. Dressed in a black leather catsuit that laced down the front and hugged her lithe, muscular body, she stepped up on the dais to lean against the arm of his chair. Her dark eyes were completely devoid of emotions as she arrogantly cocked a questioning brow.
"He's not dead yet." He spoke each word slowly, with careful enunciation. "I've learned when dealing with these bastards to take nothing for granted."
She gave a sarcastic half laugh before she pulled his cell phone off his belt and dialed it.
In theory, the phone shouldn't work in this nether realm. But never ones to let the humans get the better of them, his Spathis had found a preternatural wave that could carry the signal out of Kalosis and up into the human world. It was a dubious trick that served them well.
Satara gave Stryker a bored look as he heard the good Apollite vet in Seattle answer the phone. "Is he dead yet?" she asked, mocking Stryker's earlier tone.
He could only hear the faint muttering of the Apollite on the other end.
Satara gave an evil laugh. "Ooo," she said, wrinkling her nose in a seductive manner. "You're so nasty, gelding him before he dies. I like that."
Stryker reached up and grabbed the phone from her. "You've done what?"
Even over the static of the line, he heard the Apollite sweating. "I... um... I'm planning to neuter him, my lord."
Stryker saw red at that. "Don't you dare."
"Why not?" Satara asked in an offended tone.
Stryker glared at her as he answered for both her benefit and that of the vet on the other end. "For one thing, I don't want Kontis out of that cage until after he's dead-he's too dangerous for that-and for another, I won't stand by and see a worthy opponent emasculated. He's earned the right to die with some dignity."
Satara scoffed. "Some dignity. His head's going to explode. Where's the dignity in having your brains splattered all over a cat box because you wanted to look up some human whore's dress? If he'd truly been worthy, we'd have never caught him so easily."
Stryker tightened his grip on the phone. "Trickery isn't worthy of our species."
"Oh, get out of the Stone Age, Strykerius. There's no such thing as noble duels anymore. This is a world where the better sneak wins."
Perhaps, but he remembered a time and place where things didn't work quite that way and after eleven thousand years he was too old to change his ways. "Even so, he is a cousin to us and-"
She sneered at him. "The Were-Hunters turned their backs on the Apollites and Daimons a long time ago. They don't consider you family anymore."
"Kontis doesn't," she shot back. "If he did, he'd have never been able to sell his soul to the Dark-Hunters and join their ranks. For hundreds of years he's hunted and killed your kind. I say geld the bastard and wear his shriveled balls as a trophy. "
Trates cringed at her words, as did several other males in the room, some of whom instinctively cupped themselves.
And Satara wonders why no man will date her...
"Leave him intact," Stryker ordered the Apollite over the phone while he glared at his sister. "I'll be there after sundown to check on him myself and he better be as he was when you captured him."
Before the Apollite could respond, Stryker hung up the phone and returned it to his belt.
Satara rolled her eyes. "I can't believe you would show mercy to an enemy. You who cut the throat of your own son to appease Apollymi."
Acting on pure instinct, Stryker reached up and grabbed her by the neck to silence her. "Enough," he growled as her eyes bulged. "Unless you want to see the exact nature of my mercy, you'll take a more respectful tone when you address me. I don't care who you serve. Let Artemis find another handmaiden. One more word and I'll silence you eternally." Shoving her away from him, he stood up.
Utter silence filled the hall as he scanned the gathered Spathis. Physically no older than twenty-seven, each member of their clan was as beautiful as an angel... of death.
And they were his to command.
Ignoring his sister, he addressed them. "We have been given a rare opportunity to work with the humans to bring about the end of the Dark-Hunters in Seattle and give us the foothold we need in their world. But don't think for one minute that this war is over. And as soon as Acheron realizes how many of his Dark-Hunters are missing, he will come here himself to see what's going on."
Stryker pinned a fierce look on Satara. "Are you ready to battle the Dark-Hunter leader?"
Her eyes flashed with bloodlust as she rubbed her throat. "With every breath I have."
Stryker scoffed. "Suicidal bravery will get us nowhere. Apollymi protects that bastard of hers. It will never be by a Daimon hand that he dies..."
"It'll be by a human one," Trates said from his right.
Stryker nodded. "And it will take a great deal of planning and careful execution if we're to do this. Kill Acheron and the other Dark-Hunters will be easy to manipulate or eliminate." He looked around the room as his army nodded in agreement.
"So who do we kill next?" Trates asked.
Stryker considered the seven Dark-Hunters who were left. Each one of them had been a fierce warrior in their human lifetime. There wasn't an easy target in the bunch.
But with the humans helping them for once they had a distinct advantage. Like the Apollites and Daimons, the Dark-Hunters couldn't survive in daylight but their human helpers could. What's more, the Dark-Hunters couldn't sense a human the same way they could an Apollite or Daimon. Humans could easily sneak up on them and deliver an unexpected death blow. Not to mention the small oath that all Dark-Hunters took to preserve human life even at the expense of their own...
It was an oath that would be their undoing.
"We'll let the humans choose. This is their war. We'll support them for now, but in the end, should they fail it'll be their funerals and not ours."
Susan knew better than to get her hopes up as she parked in front of the animal shelter. This could very easily be nothing more than a major waste of time.
Or it could be your ticket back-
"Oh, shut up, Pollyanna," she snapped at herself as she grabbed her purse. She hated that little bit of an optimist who still lived inside her. Why wouldn't it die?
But no, she always had to have hope even when it was pointless. What was wrong with her anyway? Other people got to be jaded... why not her?
I'm just cursed, I guess.
Sighing in disgust, she got out of her car and headed for the entrance. She pushed open the door to walk into a brightly lit reception area.
There was a perky blond teenager standing behind a counter where the girl was tucking papers into file folders. "Hi," she said, glancing up at Susan. "Can I help you?"
"Cats. I'm here looking for cats."
The girl gave her an odd look. Not that Susan blamed her. There couldn't have been less enthusiasm in her voice if she'd tried. For that matter, she might even have been curling her lip as she said it. She wasn't quite sure. It was hard to hide as much distaste as she had for the creepy four-legged creatures who'd made her miserable as a child.
The girl pointed to the left. "They're over there."
"Thanks." Susan headed toward the light blue door that was marked ironically enough with the word Cats.
She pushed it open and had to fight the urge to run back to her car as her sinuses immediately clogged. And this after she'd taken Benadryl half an hour ago in expectation of such misery.
"Good grief," she said, pulling a Kleenex from her purse while she pretended to peruse the evil allergy beasties. Her eyes were even starting to swell, she could feel it.
She sneezed loudly, then dabbed at her nose. "Where are you, Angie?" she asked in a low whisper from between her clenched teeth.
She was just about to abandon the thought of sticking this out when she caught sight of the strangest cat she'd ever seen. Long and lean, it looked as if someone had shrunk a leopard into the size of a house cat. But more than the beauty of its small body was the blackness of its eyes. She'd never seen a cat with black eyes before.
And it looked really angry.
She cocked her head to study it. There was something about the cat that seemed highly intelligent. "Hey, Puss in Boots, you unhappy here?" She sneezed again. Cursing and wiping her nose, she sniffed as her eyes started tearing. "I can't blame you. I'd rather be hit in the head with a tack hammer than stay here."
"Hi there. Can I interest you in a cat?"
She jerked around at Angie's voice. Short with black hair and brown eyes, Angie looked about nervously and by that she could tell Angie didn't want anyone to know they were friends. Catching the cue, Susan looked back at the cat and could have sworn it had one eyebrow raised as it waited for her response. Yeah, the Benadryl was working on something besides her sinuses. "Sure."
"Let me show you to a room where you can play with him for a few minutes." It was obvious Angie had been practicing that speech for a while.
Good thing Angie was a vet and not an undercover agent- she'd be shot in a heartbeat. But Susan didn't say anything more as Angie gently took the miniature leopard out of the cage and put it in a cat cage before she led her toward another blue door that opened into a small petting room.
Pausing outside the door, Angie handed her the cage and gave her an artificial smile. "Take your time. You really want to make sure you know the cat before you take him home."
"Will do," Susan said in the same stilted tone. She took the box, holding it as far away from her body as she could, and entered the windowless room, which she thought was empty until the door closed and she saw Angie's husband standing behind it. A detective, he'd been a friend of hers for years, too.
He put his finger to his lips. "Keep your voice down. Someone could be outside. Listening. Why do you think I had Angie tell you to meet me here? I can't afford anyone to see me meeting with a reporter after what happened last night."
Ooo, he'd gone seriously paranoid.
"Someone like who?" she whispered. "What happened last night?"
He didn't respond. Instead, he took the cage from her outstretched hand and set it right beside the door before he pulled her to the farthest corner, where a small bench rested. "You don't know what I've seen, Sue," he whispered. "What they're capable of. My life, your life... all of us. It means nothing to them. Nothing."
Her heart picked up its pace at his fearful muttering and the panic she saw in his light blue eyes. "Who are they?"
"There's a major cover-up going on and I have no idea just how high up the food chain it goes, but it does go up."
Susan leaned forward eagerly. Exposing high-level cover-ups had once been her specialty. "Major cover-up for what?"
"Remember those missing kids I told you about? The college students and runaways that we've been getting reports on? I've found a couple of them. Dead. Now I've been pulled from the cases and told that they're being handled by a special task force that doesn't exist. That I shouldn't worry about them. "
A chill went down her spine at those words. "Are you sure?"
"Of course I am," he said angrily. "I found evidence... and when I went to report it, I was told that it would be in my best interest not to do any more investigating. So I did a little more of it with my partner Greg and now he's missing, too, and..." He swallowed hard. "They're after me now."
"You wouldn't believe me if I told you. I don't even believe it and I know the truth." His eyes were round in fear. "I'm taking Angie tonight and we're leaving town."
"Where are you going?"
"Anywhere but here. Anywhere there's no people in league with the devil."
Susan went cold at his words as a wave of suspicion went through her. "And who's the devil?"
"I told you, you wouldn't believe it. I don't and I saw it. Do you understand? They're out there and they're coming for all of us." Jimmy-
"Sh. Don't lecture me on this. Get out of this town, Sue, while you can. There are things here that aren't human. Things here that shouldn't be alive, and we're the food for them. "
She pulled back with a grimace at his bizarre turnabout. "What the hell is this? A bad joke?"
"No," he snarled, his nostrils flaring. "You can be stupid if you want, but this isn't a game. I thought it would be safe to talk to you here in this shelter of all places. And then I find out that one of them is working with Angie. Working here. Right here in this clinic. He could be listening in on us right now and reporting back to the others that I'm on to them. None of us are safe."
He swallowed hard. "The other vet. Dr. Tselios. He's one of them. "
Susan ground her teeth as she fought the urge to roll her eyes. It was a battle she was amazed she won. Surely, Angie and Jimmy wouldn't be so cruel as to play this game with her. Not when they knew how much she loathed her job at the Inquisitor. "Jim-"
"Don't you think I know how crazy I sound?" he hissed, cutting her off. "I was just like you, Sue. I thought it was all bullshit, too. There's no such thing as vampires, right? We're the top of the food chain. But that isn't true. They're out there and they're hungry. If you know what's good for you, you'll get the hell out of here. Please write it up to let other people know before they kill them, too."
Now that was just what her bloody reputation needed. More wounds. Thanks, Jim.
Jimmy's eyes narrowed on her as if he knew what she was thinking. "It's your ass now, Sue. I did my best to save it. You can do what you want, but I'm out of here."
Before she could say anything more, he left her standing alone in the room... and returned the cat cage to the floor by her feet.
As she dabbed at her nose, the door opened to show her Angie, who stared at her with a frown. She entered the room and shut the door behind her. "What did you say to Jimmy?"
"Nothing really. Why?"
"He wants me to leave with him right now."
Susan sighed at the fear in her friend's voice. "Did he tell you what was going on?"
She shook her head. "Not exactly. He said too many people were missing and dying and that he's terrified that the ones responsible will come after him next. He wants us to head out for his parents' house in Oregon."
"Did he also tell you about the vampires?"
"The what?" By Angie's face, Susan could tell that Jimmy hadn't shared that bit of information with his wife.
"Yeah. According to him, the vampires are out to kill all of us off. No offense, Ang. I think Jimmy needs some help. Has he been doing a lot of overtime?"
Anger flared deep in Angie's eyes. "Jimmy's not crazy, Sue. Not by a long shot."
Maybe, but she didn't want to argue with her friend. "Yeah, well, thanks for the hot news tip."
As she started for the door, Angie stopped her. "Here. Take the cat with you."
She gaped. "Excuse me?"
"Please. For whatever reason, Jimmy is terrified. Take the cat to keep up appearances and I'll come by and pick him up after work."
Sue cringed at the thought, but she would do anything for her best friend. "All right, but you owe me. Big-time.'"
Growling low in her throat, Susan picked up the box and followed Angie to the counter out front.
Angie handed her some papers while she wrote out a check for the adoption fees. "Now don't forget to spend time with him until he gets used to you." She was back to being stilted and odd again.
"Hope you enjoy your new pet," the receptionist called.
Yeah, when pigs fly. "Thanks," Susan said with a smile so fake, it would make a politician proud.
Sneezing again, she headed for her car and set the cage in the backseat. "Thanks a lot, Puss in Boots," she said as she eyed him with malice. "I hope you seriously appreciate the misery I'm enduring for you."
Angie watched as Susan pulled out of the parking lot and headed south toward her house. Releasing a relieved breath, she turned to see Jimmy motioning for her on the other side of the door that led to the employees only area of the shelter.
One minute, she mouthed to him.
She was just about to grab her coat from behind the counter when she saw Theo heading straight for her. His handsome face was paler than normal as he slammed the door shut from the cat room. Two seconds later, his assistant, Darrin, came out of the cat room just behind him.
Theo's dark brown eyes were flaming angry. "Where is he?" Theo demanded as he stopped in front of her.
Angie was baffled by his anger and accusing tone. "Who?"
"The cat." He spat those words at her as if they were evil. "The one that was brought in early this morning. Where the hell is he?"
"Is that the one that was just adopted?"
Angie cringed as the receptionist spoke. "Is there a problem with him?"
Theo and Darrin exchanged a hostile glare. "Yes. He's feral."
"Oh." Angie started to say she'd go get the cat back when she saw Jimmy making odd gestures at her through the door. It looked like he was telling her to run toward him. She frowned at her husband.
Theo turned to see what she was looking at. Jimmy dropped his hands and tried to look nonchalant.
Something dark descended over Theo's face as it turned to stone. "Darrin?"
"Lock the door and shut the blinds."