Simone staggered back. No. It couldn't be. "That's not funny, Katra. I don't like to play those games."
"I wish I were playing, but I'm not."
Simone saw the look of honor and pity mixed on the faces of those around her and it snapped her back to when she was a child.
"The poor thing saw it all. Her mother and her brother died right before her eyes. It'll haunt her forever. "
It was the same expression they all had now- staling at her like she was a freak. And deep inside they were all grate fill it was her and not them. They wouldn't say it, they were too polite for that, but she knew the truth.
Jesse held his hand out. "Simone, are you okay?"
How could she be okay? Xypher was dead.
She felt that burning in her eyes that signaled they were changing to red. She wanted the blood of whoever had killed him. "Tell me what happened," she demanded, her voice a demonic growl.
"I promised him that I wouldn't. He wants you to live in peace and to go on with your life."
Go on with her life . . . She was tired of picking up the pieces and going on.
"Did he set his vengeance against Satara?"
Katra looked away sheepishly and suddenly Simone had total clarity.
"So that's it, then. He chose vengeance and death over coming back to me. At least he died happy. He got what he wanted."
Kat had to bite her tongue to keep from telling her the truth. But now she understood why Xypher had asked her not to. If Simone knew he'd given up his life to save hers, it'd kill her.
Just like it would kill Katra to lose her husband. To have him sacrifice himself for her would only hurt more and she would never have peace from that guilt and auger.
Simone looked to where Xedrix stood beside Kerryna, holding her hand.
She would never touch Xypher again. Drawing a ragged breath, she turned toward Gloria and Jesse. "I want to go home."
Acheron stepped forward. "I'll take you." "Thank you."
He held his hand out and she took it. The instant she did, they were all back in her house. No, not all of them. Xypher was missing.
"Is there anything I can do?" asked Ash.
She shook her head. "I should probably check on Kyle and see how he's doing."
"We already did. He's fine. He'll be recovering shortly7 and shouldn't have any lasting damage other than a couple of scars."
"That's good. I suppose that describes all of us, hull? Thank you for bringing me home, Acheron."
"You're welcome. My number is in your phone. If you need me for anything, call."
"I appreciate it."
Then he was gone.
Jesse and Gloria stood off to one side, watching her with a worried expression.
"I'm all right guys. Why don't you go and play records or something?"
Jesse swallowed. "You're scaring me, Simone."
She was scaring herself. She hurt so bad inside that she couldn't even cry. It was as if she'd been gutted and there was nothing left except an empty hole where her heart and soul had been.
Wanting to be alone, she pulled her coat off and dropped it on the floor on her way to her room.
The bed was still rumpled from their earlier play.
She shoved that thought aside. If she didn't mean any more to him than that, he certainly didn't mean it to her. Her anger simmering, she snatched at a pillow to make the bed.
And it was then the scent of Xypher hit her hard. She hugged the pillow to her chest and inhaled the warm masculine scent.
That was what shattered her numbness. Grief and anguish came boiling up until she wanted to scream out in pain.
Instead, she sank to her knees as racking tears assaulted her.
Xypher was gone.
"Damn you, you bastard. Damn you!"
But the problem was, she didn't want him damned. The thought of him in Tartarus being tortured . . .
It was more than she could stand.
Xypher stood in the center of a tell he knew even better than the back of his hand. Over the centuries, he'd counted every grain of sand. Had saturated them all with his blood.
Now he was back.
The chains came out of the ceiling and laced themselves around his wrists. For once he didn't fight as they lifted him from the ground. His arms burned from the weight of his body.
But that pain was nothing compared to the one aching in his chest. Simone.
I'm protecting her. He repeated those words aver and over again and they alone gave him comfort He would rather suffer eternal torment than have her hurt.
It was worth it.
The door of his cell opened.
Xypher braced himself as he saw the god of the Underworld. Tall and dark. Hades was dressed in black. He cocked his head to study him. "I didn't think you'd last a month out there. Looks like I was right."
"I'm in no mood to talk. Hades, Just start the torture."
"Interesting. My prisoners so seldom beg me to hutt them. And to think, right now, you could be in Simone's arms and not hanging here like so much meat."
"Leave her out of this."
"That, unfortunately, I can't do."
Fear gripped Xypher's heart. "What do you mean?"
"You know Xypher, I really hate you. Truly, I have to say torturing you has been one of my greatest pleasures: And now, just like always, you're pissing me off."
"I'm strung up here, waiting to be beaten. Tell me, how in the hell could mat possibly piss you off?"
"Because I have to let you go, you bastard." Disbelief coursed through hint. "What?"
"The bargain I made with Kat . . . remember? I allow you to be human for a month and if within that month's time you find your humanity, you're free. You selflessly sacrificed yourself for another. And it didn't even take you a month. Damn you."
Xypher still couldn't believe what he was hearing. The chains uncoiled so fast, he fell to the floor. "Get out of here, Skotos. I can't hold you any more."
Simone was still rocking in the center of her floor when her phone rang. She looked at the number and saw it was Tate.
Drawing a ragged breath, she cleared her throat and answered. "There's another demon kill."
"Are you sure?"
"Absolutely. You know the drill . . . we're at the corner of Rampart and Esplanade."
"I'll be right there," She hung up and dried her eyes before she went to Jesse's room. She found him and Gloria necking on his bed.
They broke apart as soon as they saw her. "Um, we were just-"
"It's okay, Jesse. I'm meeting Tate and didn't want you to get worried. I'll be back shortly."
"Are you sure about this? Don't you need some time?"
"Life goes on, right?" It was the one lesson she'd learned. "It's not like I have a nuieral to plan or anything. Besides, I can do with the distraction." She shut the door and headed for her car.
You could use your demon powers.
Yeah, she could, but right now she didn't want to think about that part of herself She wanted her life back the way it'd been before Xypher had changed it. Most of all, she wanted to be free of the pain lacerating her heart.
It didn't take her long to reach the crime scene. The police lights were glaring in the darkness.
She got out and headed for Tate, who was standing alone, staling at the covered body. "Don't you ever take a day off?"
"Not when the kill is this freaky." He looked past her shoulder. "Where's-"
"He's gone. Let's leave it at that, okay?"
By his expression she could tell he was taken aback by the news, but he didn't press it. "Jane Doe. Same exact wounds as Gloria and our guy in the Market who had gas that spontaneously combusted him into flames. Want a closer look?"
"Like a screwdriver through my eye socket. Sure, let's have a look-see."
"Ooo, welcome back, Ms. Snark. I've missed you."
Simone didn't comment as he uncovered the body and she took a look at the poor woman. Tate was right, and as she bent down, an unmistakable trace odor hit her.
The woman's body reeked of the demon.
She closed her eyes as they began to turn and forced herself to calm down. So Xypher's brother had been the killer they were looking for all this time. Surely Xypher had smelled him, too. Why hadn't he told her?
She rose slowly to her feet. "You're going to need the body to spontaneously combust again, Tate."
"Yeah ... I need something better than that."
Simone looked up above them. There was a house with an eave that was loose.
That should do the trick.
She moved Tate back with her arm an instant before she used her powers to dislodge it further.
It came crashing down on the body, decapitating it. "Problem solved."
Tate gaped at her. He held his hand Up. "I don't want to know what you just did. My report is complicated enough."
Simone started to respond, but the sensation of being watched returned to her. It crawled over her skin with a malicious intent.
This time, because of her powers, she could pinpoint it. "You'll be fine, Tate."
She stepped back as the photographer came running to take more pictures. While Tate dealt with him and the police officers, she slipped away into the darkness toward the source of her discomfort.
"Kaiaphas," she called. "I know you're there."
He appeared directly behind her, sniffing her hair. "You smell like cattle and demon. Have you any idea how provocative that is?"
"Great. I have demon pheromone. Just what I've always wanted."
Kaiaphas laughed. "Xypher didn't tell you anything about your family, did he?"
"Your father, Palackas, was one of the most brutal killers we've ever known. Before he was enslaved, he was known to ravage entire villages, killing women and children and anyone who got in his way."
"No I'm not. Why do you think his master was so determined to have him back? He was too dangerous to ever be unleashed."
He was lying and she knew it. "My father wasn't like that. He was a good man."
Kaiaphas grabbed her by the head and whispered something she couldn't understand.
In her mind, she saw her father as a young man. No, not a man. He was a demon. His eyes were red as fire, his teeth tagged and sharp, as he stormed through an ancient village killing everyone he saw.
How could this be?
"I knew Palackas had spawned. I just wasn't sure it was you. You smelled like your mother . . . but there was no scent of Palackas on you."
"How do you know what my mother smelled like?"
"I was there, Simone. Don't you remember?"
She gasped as she went back to that night. She was again in the backseat, looking out the window.
There were two men . . .
No, there was a third. He'd leaned down and snatched her mother's necklace from around her neck. Then he'd turned as if sensing her. Frozen, she couldn't move. All she could do was pray that the headrest on the seat blocked her from his view.
Then the police sirens had pierced the air.
The men in the store had scattered.
No, they had vanished where they stood . . .
Unadulterated rage tore through her. "You bastard!"
He laughed, "Make it look like a human death, my master had said. If Palackas wants to live like one, he can die like one. And so he did. I killed his family knowing he wouldn't live without them. A mighty demon taken down by a single gunshot through his head . . . but you know that, don't you? You found his body."
Shrieking in outrage. Simone tinned on him and blasted him with one of die energy bursts Xypher had shown her.
Kaiaphas dodged it and laughed. "You didn't really think such a puny trick would work on me?" He slapped her hard. "You know why your mother never came to see you after her death? I ate her soul, just as I ate your brother's. And now, I'm going to taste yours,"
"Taste this." She head-butted him in the lips, splitting them open.
He staggered back. Letting the power she'd inherited from her father course through her, she scissor-kicked him, then punched him hard enough in the gut to lift him off his feet.
Kaiaphas's skin started boiling as those serrated fangs came out. He dodged her next punch and lacked her in the side.
Lifting her by the neck, he threw her down on the ground. Out of nothing, he manifested a sword.
Simone looked about for a weapon, a limb . . . something. There was nothing around. "Try this."
She jerked to hear the deep voice in her ear, and found a man there who had one vividly green eye and one brown one. He was gorgeous and he held a small sword out to her.
Not questioning anything, she seized the sword. The moment her hand touched the hilt, a shimmer of power went through her entire body.
She heard whispering voices in numerous languages.
"Simone." It was her father's voice.
"Close your eyes, little one, and we will guide you."
Trusting her father implicitly, she did as he said, and the moment she was blind, she saw everything clearly.
Even the wind was visible to the demon inside her.
Kaiaphas advanced and she parried. The harder he rained blows onto her sword, the easier she could parry them and fight him. The more she deflected, the angrier Kaiaphas became.
"You're going to beg me for mercy, just like your whore mother."
She ground her teeth until she heard her father again in her ear. "Anger is your enemy. Move forward not in anger, but with purpose."
And the moment she did, her blade sang true. It deflected Kaiaphas's thrusts and planted itself deep within his demon's heart.
"That is for my mother," she said, her eyes tearing. "And for my baby brother whose future you took. Burn in hell, you son of a bitch." She snatched her sword out of his chest, twisting it as she did so.
An instant later, he burst into flames. His cries echoed out in the darkness.
Suddenly, there was applause behind her.
Simone jerked around to see the man there who'd given her me sword. "Who are you?"
"Don't ask questions you already know the answer to."
He inclined his head to her in a mocking gesture.
She looked down at the sword that was unlike any she'd ever seen before. The black hilt was tinged with red. Black roses and vines were etched down the blade that curved ever so slightly. "Why did you bring me this?"
"I promised your father peace. I told him that no demon would ever hurt his last remaining child. As Xypher told you, I can't kill myself to fulfill a bargain. I can only provide a means."
She held the sword out to him, but he refused to take it.
"That belongs to your bloodline, demonikyn. Guard it well. A demon's sword is the best protection from others of its kind. With it, you can kill any demon who comes for you or one of yours."
He laughed. "Don't thank me. I do nothing that I haven't bargained for."
He started to fade.
He solidified in front of her.
Simone tried to speak, but words wouldn't come. She wanted to ask about Xypher and yet she couldn't.
"He gave himself up for you," Jaden said in a stoic tone. "What?"
"It's what you wanted to know, is it not? Xypher allowed Satara to kill him in exchange for her word that she would leave you alone. He gave up his vengeance to keep you safe."
"No, he took his vengeance."
Jaden placed a hand on her shoulder, and there in her mind, she saw Xypher in Kalosis. She heard the words spoken clearly and she watched as he died in Katra's arms.
"No!" she cried, unable to bear it. "You have to help him."
"There's nothing I can do."
"You make deals. Xypher said you have the power to do anything. Anything."
"What are you suggesting?"
"If you free Xypher from Tartarus, you can have my soul."
"Do you understand the bargain you're making? Once I take your soul from you, you are the property of whoever I give that soul to. You will be a bound demon, subject to the whims of your master. No will of your own. No future. Nothing."
"I don't care. Xypher died for me. I can't have him punished for that."
"He died to keep you safe."
"I'll be safe while I'm bound. He'll have what he wanted. Please, Jaden. I can't live knowing he's being tortured."
"Very well." He handed her a dagger. "Open a vein, sister."
Xypher flashed himself into Simone's bedroom, expecting to find her there.
It was empty.
Closing his eyes, he sensed for presences in the condo. There was no Simone, but Jesse and Gloria were in Jesse's room.
Without flunking, he flashed in there to find the two ghosts completely naked on the bed. "Oh, gods, I'm blind." He spun around to give them his back.
"Don't you knock?" Jesse said, until it must have dawned on him that Xypher was back. "Oh, my God, you're dead."
"Not as dead as you are, ghost-boy. Where's Simone?"
"She went out on a call."
"Didn't say. Call Tate and ask. His number's on the fridge."
Xypher left them to go to the kitchen where he quickly located Tate's busuress card. Picking up her cordless phone, he dialed the number.
He answered on the second ring.
"Tate? It's Xypher. Where's Simone?"
"She said you were gone."
"I was, but I'm back and I'm trying to find her,"
"Well, she was here a second a so. I see her car across the street so she must-"
Using his powers; to trace Tate's location, Xypher manifested in front of him before he could speak another word.
Tate looked around. "Damn, you're lucky no one saw you. Incognito, boy, in-cog-nito."
"I don't have time for that. I need to find Simone." "Hey, Doc? Can you come here for a second."
"I'll help you look in a sec," he said to Xypher before he went over to the officer.
Xypher growled before he felt that rift in the air. Jaden.
A bad feeling went through him as he honed in on it and went to search for him.
He rounded a comer and froze. No! That single word was branded into his mind as he saw Simone on the ground.
Terrified, he ran to her and gathered her up in his arms. But the moment he touched her, he knew.
She was dead.
He glared up at Jaden. "What have you done?"
"I didn't do anything. She did."
"Don't you dare play that bullshit game with me. What bargain was struck between you?"
"She wanted you out of Tartarus."
"You fucking bastard. I was already out of Tartarus."
"You knew and still you made the deal!"
He shrugged. "I wanted to know how far she'd go."
Impotent fury roiled through him. Unable to think, he lowered Simone to the ground and charged at Jaden.
Jaden caught him and swung him back, pinning him to the side of a house. "You better think twice, demon, before you come at me." The fury of hell burned deep in those dual-colored eyes. Jaden's fangs flashed as he spoke in sharp, clipped words. "Had Simone stayed alive, you would have watched her die of old age, while you continued to live eternally in your current form. Is that what you wanted?"
Xypher blinked in disbelief. "What?"
Jaden shoved him back, then released him. He pulled a small vial of a white substance from the inside pocket of his jacket. "She's free of her human life span now. She won't age and she won't die."
"But she's bound."
Jaden inclined his head. "So she is." He stared at her soul for a full minute before he held it out to Xypher.
"What's the price?"
"You two owe me a favor. One day, I'll be back to collect." He closed Xypher's hand over the vial, then vanished.
Xypher couldn't breathe as he stared at her soul in his hand. He couldn't believe what Jaden had done for them.
It was so against everything he knew about the demon broker.
Don't look a gift horse in the mouth. He knew what Jaden had known, there was nothing in this world or any other that he wouldn't have done to free Simone.
His heart pounding in joy, he took the vial to her body and released her soul.
She opened her eyes and looked at him. "Xypher?"
"Your worst nightmare has returned."
Jaden took a moment to glance back at Xypher and Simone, who held on to each other with everything they had.
He remembered a time when he'd done the same. "Whatever you do, don't betray each other."
The band on his neck heated and pierced him. Wincing, he left them and returned to his master. The blistering winds cut through his body as he stood, waiting.
"What did you do?"
A disembodied slash opened his left cheek to the bone. Jaden cursed at the pain of the wound.
"Worthless dog. You let the daughter of Palackas go?"
"I fulfilled a bargain that was struck in good faith."
Another slash cut across his torso so deep it forced him to his knees.
"Your compassion disgusts me."
"Yeah, well, you don't exactly thrill me, either." Jaden realized he should have kept his opinion to himself as he was thrown against the wall.
"One day, dog, you'll learn obedience."
Jaden swallowed as his clothes were stripped from him. He knew what punishment was to come and it was going to hurt like hell.
Yeah, Xypher and Simone owed him more than they could ever dream.
Xypher sighed as he collapsed against Simone who was still purring in satisfaction.
"I like demon sex," she said, rolling aver to pin him to the bed.
"I told you, you would."
She laughed, then kissed him senseless. "Thank you, Xypher."
"For trying to protect me."
"I'm not the one who bartered my soul for your freedom from hell."
"No, but you gave up your life to keep me safe. I think that makes us even."
He cupped her face in his hands. "I love you, Simone. And I swear with every part of me that you'll never doubt that."
She took his right hand into hers and kissed his knuckles. "Don't worry, I won't."
Simone smiled before she lay down over him and held him close. Closing her eyes, she realized that Xypher had given her much more than just his love. He'd given her a family and taught her things about herself she'd never known.
For the first time in her life, she had a real future to look forward to. And a family that would be with her no matter what.