Eternal Guardians, Book Nine

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“You’re awfully quiet, Talisa,” the queen said as she sat behind her pristine desk, her blonde hair falling around her shoulders. “Do you have anything you’d like to say?”

Talisa checked the urge to clench her jaw and glanced from her aunt up to her father, the leader of the Argonauts, standing just behind and to the right of the queen.

They were presenting a unified front, ganging up on her so she couldn’t fight back. And they were both eyeing her as if she was a threat.

Or as a five-year-old they expected to throw one major-ass temper tantrum at any moment.

Oh, she wanted to lash out. Wanted to tell them just where they could shove their so-called decision, but she knew doing so would get her nowhere. Not with these two. It never had.

“You made your decision without my input.” Talisa fixed a bored look on her face. “Voicing it now won’t change anything.”

Her father’s back stiffened. “Talisa—”

The queen held up a hand, cutting off Theron’s words. “I understand you’re disappointed, but the safety of our realm is paramount. It comes before personal wants and wishes. And your safety is important to us as well. You are not just the daughter of the Argonauts’ leader. You are a descendent of the Horae. Zeus has already tried to abduct your cousins and failed both times. He is not a god who gives up easily. We’re in a war, Talisa. A war that cannot end any way but with us winning. If you were to serve with the Argonauts, to cross into the human realm on missions, it would only be a matter of time before Zeus came after you. We won’t let that happen. We cannot let that happen. Too much is riding on us winning. Our fate, and the fate of humanity, rests on our decisions.”

Talisa had heard it all before. Her mother and two aunts were the modern day descendents of the Horae, the goddesses of balance and justice. Through the late king’s lineage, they all possessed gifts Zeus wanted for himself. Gifts that would give him a leg-up in their “war.”

After failing to capture one of the Horae for himself—mostly because they were all mated to Argonauts, warriors from their realm who protected both Argolea and the human world—Zeus had changed his tactic and gone after their daughters. First, sending his Sirens, his elite band of female warriors, to kidnap the queen’s daughter Elysia. Then, when that hadn’t worked, attempting to lure Zakara from their realm via the help of a dreamweaver.

Talisa, though, wasn’t as naïve as her two cousins. And she wasn’t just any female. She knew how to fight. She knew how to protect herself. She was as much a warrior as her father and the rest of the Argonauts.

As a descendent of the great hero Heracles, she’d been blessed with extreme strength, just like her father. And she’d been born with the Argonaut markings on her arms—the ancient Greek text that meant the Fates had chosen her as a warrior from her race. The only female ever to be born with those markings.

Which was the real reason the Argonauts didn’t want her to join them. It had nothing to do with this bullshit excuse that Zeus would try to come after her.

They didn’t want her to serve because she was female. Which forever in their eyes meant weak.

“So we’re done here?” Talisa fought back that familiar anger welling up inside her.

The queen’s blonde hair swayed as she glanced up to Talisa’s father, still watching Talisa with that stone-faced expression he was known for. Meeting Talisa’s gaze again, the queen sighed and said, “Yes. We’re done. You may go.”

About fucking time…

Talisa turned out of the queen’s office before her father could say something to stop her, her boots clicking like cannon-fire along the castle’s gleaming marble floor as she headed down the long corridor flanked by ornate columns.

She was desperate for fresh air and freedom. For space. For someplace she could scream out her frustrations and curse every damn one of the Argonauts.

Because they were the ones responsible for this decision. Not the queen. The queen would have gone along with anything the Argonauts decided as a group. And her father was the leader of that group. The one she was certain had put them all up to that fucking vote.

She barely made it a step out the front door of the castle before Maximus, Zakara’s older brother, moved up on her side. “Well? What happened? What did they say?”

Her jaw clenched down hard. Max was as big and blond as his father, the Argonaut Zander, and he had the Argonaut markings, same as Talisa. He’d been helping her informally train in the woods outside the capital city of Tiyrns for years, from the time she could hold a blade, and she was just as skilled and tough as him even if he was eleven years her senior.

She told herself it wasn’t his fault the Argonauts had willingly accepted him as one of their own so easily, but it grated on her last nerve. Because the only difference between her and Max was the fact she was female.

“Nothing I haven’t heard before.” She didn’t slow her pace, didn’t stop when she reached the wall, just signaled the guard and blew right through the castle gate as soon as it opened.

“Ah, Tali.” He kept pace with her. “I’m sorry. For what it’s worth, I tried to get my dad to talk Uncle Theron into letting you in.”

Max wasn’t taking the hint that she didn’t want company. And she couldn’t stand to hear how he’d tried to influence any of the Argonauts.

She didn’t need favors, dammit. She deserved a place with the Argonauts because it was her destiny. Only they were denying her that destiny because they were misogynistic assholes. Just like their forefathers.

“I need a fucking stress reliever,” she mumbled, stopping in the cobblestone square in the fading afternoon light and late September warmth, where Argoleans milled around the great fountain of Heracles and the original seven heroes that fronted the castle gates.

Skata, Tali.” Max’s voice took on a worried edge she knew well. “Not tonight. Come on. You know it’s not safe. And if they find out—”

“I don’t give a flying fuck if they find out.” She’d had it with family and Argonauts and people telling her what to do. “And I am sick to death of people shoving the word ‘safe’ in my face.”

When Max sucked in a breath, she glanced over her shoulder at his shocked silver eyes and reminded herself none of this was his fault. He was her best friend, not her punching bag. But the fact he was male, and Argonaut, and in was firing all her triggers tonight.

“Look.” She forcibly gentled her voice. “I know you mean well, but I don’t want to hear it. This has nothing to do with you. It’s about me and what I need. And what I need right now is space and some time to chill the hell out before I go insane. Warnings and a conscience and you being a cock-blocker because you don’t approve of my choices are not things that are going to help me. So give me some space, okay? I’m not stupid. I know how to take care of myself. I’ll be back before anyone even realizes I’m gone.”

He didn’t reach out for her. Didn’t try to stop her. And as she closed her eyes and pictured the witches’ tent village in the Aegis Mountains where the secret portals were hidden, she was thankful because tonight she needed exactly what she’d said.

She needed a stress reliever.

And there was one place in the human realm where she knew she could find it.

* * *

He was playing with fire. But then, considering he’d already been tortured in the flames of Tartarus, he wasn’t easily deterred.

Zagreus scanned the writhing bodies in the middle of the dark club from the shadows where he stood, growing more frustrated by the second. The only nymphs who’d wandered into the otherworldy bar had been tagging along behind a couple of satyrs. And those nymphs had looked scared as shit and completely overwhelmed.

His gaze narrowed on the two nymphs cowering under the pulsing lights of the basement club in an old warehouse on the outskirts of San Francisco. Both were smaller and more petite than the satyrs. Attractive and submissive. Perfect prey for someone like him.

Neither was what he was searching for, though.

He looked over the crowd again. He sensed other creatures in the bar tonight, many using glamours to hide their real appearances—Amazons, witches, Misos, dryads, a couple of bloodsuckers, even a lycanthrope—but none of them interested him either.

Even though many of the otherworldly beings were enemies of each other, they were of no worry to Zagreus—or one another. It was easier for them to let down their guards here than in the presence of humans, which was why this club was so popular. The satyrs, however, were another matter.

Zagreus had no doubt the bastards were searching for him, which was why they’d dragged the timid nymphs along—as bait. His proclivity for nymphs was well known throughout the realms. Obviously, his recent activities had not gone unnoticed.

His gaze swung back to the satyrs, both brawny and hairy and at least six feet in height with tree-trunk legs and meaty arms. Their heads were shaved, their horns virtually nonexistent. They wore leather pants to hide their fur-covered legs, and long trench coats that flapped behind them as they moved.

He couldn’t be sure from this angle, but he was fairly certain they weren’t any of his satyrs—at least not any of his former satyrs. His lair in the Yucatan had been demolished some twenty-eight years ago. Most, if not all, who’d served him then had been killed in the destruction. But the hair on his nape tingled with the knowledge they could be hunting him. And if so, it meant they’d joined forces with Zeus or even Hades himself.

A dark shadow rolled through Zagreus at the thought of his malicious father. The god who hadn’t just cursed him, but who’d sent him to a hell no one—not even him—deserved. If it was the last thing he did, he was going to make Hades pay for every miserable thing the god-king of the Underworld had done to him.

Which was exactly why he needed to stick to his plan and not draw attention. He was close to that goal. He already had one major piece of the puzzle. He just needed to lie low until things cooled off. Then he could put the rest of his plan in motion.

But only if he forgot about this stupid obsession and got the hell out of this pathetic club.

He turned away from the crowd and glanced to his left where his companion, Rhen, stood waiting with a hood pulled over his head, hiding his features, even in the dark. Rhen was like a silent shadow. A loyal one. Not a thing like the satyrs Zagreus used to employ.

The male caught Zagreus’s eye, nodded at their silent communication, then turned for the back door.

Zagreus moved to follow, but a shiver rushed down his spine, causing him to stop. His skin tingled—everywhere—and a familiar pressure grew in his chest. One he hadn’t felt in years.

Nearly five hundred years, to be exact.

Heart thumping, he swiveled back toward the crowd of writhing bodies, moving to the rhythmic beat under the pulsing lights, and quickly scanned faces again.

They were all the same ones he’d already dismissed. But the pressure was still there. In fact, it was growing now, making his chest feel full instead of hollow. Making him feel… alive, not dead and empty and forsaken inside.

His pulse raced as his gaze shot toward the two nymphs again. He tuned into his senses, but still picked up nothing special from them. Nothing that told him either was—

Every thought came to a whirring stop as his gaze landed on a tall, dark-haired female standing near the bar, looking out over the dance floor.

She wore chunky-heeled, knee-high boots and tight black pants that fit her like a glove. Her hips were slim, her waist narrow and cinched in by a black, leather, underbust corset, her breasts full and round beneath the thin, white, long-sleeved, off-the-shoulder blouse that showed a hint of cleavage and luscious tanned skin. She had striking features—plump lips, high cheekbones, a cute, slightly upturned nose—and her face was framed by jet-black hair that was pulled back in the front and fell like a river of silk to the middle of her back.

She could have been a Siren—she had the same drop-dead gorgeous body and model-worthy face all of Zeus’s elite female warriors possessed—but while her looks definitely intrigued him, they weren’t what drew his attention. No, his attention zeroed in on her eyes.

Her violet eyes. Like shimmering amethysts, catching the light. The color so striking, so unique, so familiar, he could see them all the way across the dark club.

She blinked those mesmerizing eyes, then turned away from the dance floor, moving toward the bar.

Zagreus took one step to follow her, only to falter again when he realized…

She wasn’t a nymph.

She was Argolean. A descendant of the greatest heroes in all of Ancient Greece.

His brow dropped. Most Argoleans didn’t venture into the human realm these days because Zeus had all but declared war on their queen. They kept to their own realm, a world the Olympians couldn’t access.

But this female wasn’t hiding. As she slid onto a barstool, tossed her silky hair over her shoulder and chatted with the bartender, Zagreus realized she didn’t even seem the slightest bit apprehensive about where she was or who could be watching.

He scanned the room for other Argoleans. Didn’t sense any.

The female smiled at something the bartender said. As the male made her drink, she glanced back at the dance floor once more, searching for… something.

She didn’t look Zagreus’s way, but those amethyst eyes caught the light again, and the familiar sight hit Zagreus like a punch to the gut, causing that pressure in his chest to cinch down even tighter.

It couldn’t be her. She always came back as a nymph. Always.

And yet…

He knew those eyes better than his own. He’d looked into them hundreds, no thousands of times. The rest of her might change, but her eyes—those shimmering gems that were the gateway to her soul—always, always remained the same.

His pulse beat hard and fast. Indecision warred inside him. He needed to go, to disappear before he drew attention, but he had to know the truth. He’d been burned before and knew the consequences. Yet, even if exposing himself now destroyed the carefully constructed plan for revenge he’d finally set in motion, he had to know if it was her.

His mono mia.

Before he could stop himself, he stepped out of the shadows and into the pulsing lights of the club.

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