Destiny waits alike for the free man as well as for him enslaved by another’s might.
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.”
“I don’t care what you think he’s gonna do, I care about what the hell he did do.”
Nick’s booming voice echoed off the walls as Maelea followed Skyla down the hall in the medical clinic on the second floor of the castle.
“Nick, shit.” Orpheus’s voice now. Frustrated. “You know he didn’t intend to hurt you or Titus.”
“Tell that to Titus,” Nick said. “Or no, wait, you can’t, because he’s in frickin’ surgery.”
Skyla rounded the corner, but Maelea pulled up short. Shit. What was she doing here? This didn’t concern her. In a matter of hours, she’d have nothing more to do with these people. The best thing for her would be to turn right around and head back upstairs.
But just as she was about to, she peeked into the room. And caught sight of Nick sitting on an exam table, chest bare to reveal chiseled abs, a healer at his side stitching up his arm. His pants were bloody and ripped, and red lines streaked his skin, but he didn’t seem to care. His attention was focused solely on Orpheus across the room, and the don’t fuck with me expression on his scarred face piqued Maelea’s curiosity all over again.
Relief rushed over Orpheus’s features when Skyla stepped into the room, but he didn’t move to kiss her cheek as he normally did when he saw her in the castle, and Maelea had the distinct impression it was because Nick was watching them.
“Where is he?” Skyla asked.
“He’s fine,” Orpheus said. “He’s in his room.”
“Who’s with him?”
“Three of my men,” Nick cut in. “He’s not getting out, at least not until we kick him out.”
Orpheus turned toward the half-breed leader. “Nick—”
“What about Titus?” Skyla asked. “How bad is it?”
“Bad enough,” Nick answered as the healer placed a bandage on his arm and handed him his shirt. As he pushed off the table and mumbled a thanks to the female who’d stitched him up, he added, “He was barely breathing by the time we subdued Gryphon. Punctured lung, broken ribs, and a wound the length of my arm in his gut. Anyone else would be dead right now.”
Maelea swallowed back the bile as she listened. If it had been her or any of the other colonists…
“He didn’t mean it, Nick,” Orpheus said. “You both got in his way. He thought you were daemons.”
Nick swung his attention Orpheus’s way, and there was fire in his amber eyes as he tugged on his shirt, not even grimacing at the pain he must have been feeling in his injured shoulder. “He’s fucking out of control. If he can’t tell the difference between us and daemons, he’s got no business being out there. And he’s got no business being here either.”
Orpheus’s face paled. But before he could answer, Skyla asked, “What are you saying, Nick?”
Nick drew a breath, seemed to calm himself for her sake. “I’m saying he can’t stay. If I can’t trust him around me, I sure as hell won’t trust him around my people. Look, I know he’s been through shit no one should have to endure, but the colony come first. He’s not getting any better. It’s been two months. He still twitches, he still acts like he’s hearing things, and he scares most of the colonists on a good day. I won’t risk them. Not even for the Argonauts. He has to leave.”
Orpheus’s back straightened, and from the doorway, Maelea could actually see his defenses come up. She knew Gryphon meant more to Orpheus than a mere brother would. They weren’t just linked by blood, they were linked by the horror they’d both experienced and lived through. Except in Orpheus’s case, he’d come through unscathed. Gryphon was a changed man because of his time in the Underworld.
“Fine,” Orpheus said through his clenched jaw, “then I’ll leave with him.”
Skyla reached out to him. “Orpheus—”
“Theron won’t let you take him back to Argolea,” Nick said. “I already talked to him. He’s in the other room with Titus as we speak. And he’s more pissed than I am. Even he knows Gryphon’s become a liability.”
“He’s not a liability,” Orpheus snapped. “He’s just…struggling right now. I’ll get him through it.”
Nick frowned as if he didn’t think there was any hope, but his anger waned as he stepped toward the door. “I don’t know what the hell you’re gonna do for him that you haven’t already done. Some things can’t be saved, O, no matter how much you want them to be.”
Maelea dropped back into the shadows of the hall as Nick rounded the corner. When he caught sight of her, her adrenaline surged, but he didn’t acknowledge her presence, just as he never acknowledged her when he passed her in the halls. Instead he turned and headed out the front of the clinic, his boots echoing down the corridor in his wake.
The door on the far side of the exam room opened, drawing Maelea’s attention back inside. Both Skyla and Orpheus looked toward the massive blond male Maelea recognized as one of the Argonauts. “O? Theron wants you to come in now. Hey, Skyla.”
Skyla offered a weak smile. “Hey, Zander.”
The male disappeared again, and as Skyla reached Orpheus’s side, Orpheus grasped her hand and kissed it, whispering something Maelea couldn’t hear. Skyla brushed her fingers down his cheek. Then the two walked through the door and vanished from sight.
Skyla had obviously forgotten all about Maelea, evidenced by the way she didn’t even glance back, but that was okay with Maelea.
As the door clicked closed behind them and silence settled over the room, Maelea told herself that being forgotten was something she’d just have to get used to all over again.
Some things can’t be saved, no matter how much you want them to be.
As she turned for the front of the clinic, she couldn’t help but think that a truer statement had never been uttered.
* * * * *
He was nothing more than a caged animal.
Gryphon paced his bedroom suite. The pale blue walls were closing in on him. The heavy draperies made him want to scream.
And every time he looked out through the cathedral-style window toward the glimmering lake below, he had the uncontrollable urge to take a flying leap off the balcony and hurl himself through air and water to smash into the rocks and tree trunks lining the bottom of the lake.
He’d have done it, too, if he thought death would improve his situation. But he knew it wouldn’t. Even if his first trip to the Underworld had been a result of magic, he’d done enough shit there and since to know that if he died now, he’d wind up right back in Tartarus. This time to be tortured for all eternity. And he wouldn’t go back. The Isles of the Blessed…the resting place of the heroes…it was lost now to him until he found a way to redeem himself. And after what had happened today…
Bile welled in his stomach when he thought of Titus lying on the ground, unconscious from a blow to the head, blood oozing from wounds in his flesh. Even now, Gryphon couldn’t quite remember what had happened during that fight. But he remembered Nick gripping his bleeding shoulder, surrounded by mutilated daemons, screaming that Gryphon was nothing more than a fucking menace who needed to be locked away.
Gryphon closed his eyes. Fought the bile rising in his chest. Titus had to live. The guardian was strong. He couldn’t die. Not because of what Gryphon had done.
Come to me, doulas. Come home…
“No!” He grasped the ends of his hair and pulled so hard, his scalp burned. “Leave me the hell alone!”
The voice chuckled. And inside, Gryphon fought back the urge to listen. To do what it wanted. To draw him toward darkness for good.
A knock sounded at the door. His adrenaline lurched, he dropped his hands and whipped in that direction. Seconds later, Orpheus stepped into the room, and relief swept through Gryphon. But it was quickly quelled when he noticed Orpheus’s drawn features, his tight muscles, and his messy hair, all signs that said he’d been through hell and back in the last hour.
Considering Orpheus hadn’t looked this bad when he had come back from hell, Gryphon knew something was wrong.
No, gods. Not Titus.
“He’s fine,” Orpheus said, closing the door at his back before Gryphon could ask. “He came through the surgery okay. Callia had to do some major reconstructive work, but he’s going to make a full recovery.”
This time, the relief was sweet as wine. Gryphon dropped into a chair and cradled his head in his hands, thanking the Fates for Callia, the Argolean healer and Zander’s mate. But even as relief over Titus’s prognosis rushed through him, the darkness pressed in, telling him this was not good news. That good news would be to see the guardian die. To see them all die.
He pressed his fingers against his eyes, clenched his jaw to the point of pain. Skata, he was going nuts. The urge to claw his way out of his own skin consumed him all over again.
“Listen, Gryph,” Orpheus said, his boots scuffing on the floor near the door. “I gotta talk to you. For the time being, I think it’s best if you and I take a little trip.”
Gryphon’s head came up. Orpheus shoved his hands in the front pockets of his jeans and worked to keep his shoulders relaxed, but Gryphon saw the tension coiled beneath the tough exterior. “Just until you’re feeling better.”
Nick wanted him gone. Gryphon had expected as much—after all, the half-breed leader had never been jazzed about his being here in the first place. “I don’t want to go back to Argolea.”
“No,” Orpheus said, lifting one arm and rubbing the back of his neck. “No, we’re not going there.”
They didn’t want him either. Reality settled in, and the ramifications of what had happened earlier today hit full force. Theron, the leader of the Argonauts, had to be here by now. And even he wasn’t willing to give Gryphon the benefit of the doubt anymore.
A space in his chest opened wide as he stared down at his arms, covered in the markings of the Eternal Guardians. Serving with the Argonauts had been his life, his identity, the only thing he’d known since being inducted into the order. He’d bled for them, he’d fought for them, he’d have died for any one of his kin if needed. But even though he still had these markings, he wasn’t one of them anymore. His actions today proved he wouldn’t be one ever again.
Come to me, doulas.
He closed his eyes. Fought the emptiness creeping over him. And the voice. The wretched, evil, blathering voice.
“Listen, Gryph,” Orpheus said. “We’ll figure it out. Don’t…don’t worry about it. The rest of them…they don’t understand what you’re going through. I do. I’ll help you through this. We’ll get away from all of this and we’ll…we’ll find a way to help you.”
If anyone could help him overcome the voice, it would be his brother. Orpheus had learned to tame the daemon inside him. He’d fought and he’d won. But Gryphon wasn’t possessed by a daemon. What swirled deep in his core was something else. Something not even Orpheus could tame.
“And what about Skyla?” Gryphon managed to say.
Orpheus shoved his hand back in his pocket and studied the ground. “Skyla will be fine. She understands.”
There was no way Orpheus would ever agree to leaving Skyla. The soul mates had only just found each other again. Not unless even he didn’t trust Gryphon. That realization cut sharper than knowing the Argonauts were abandoning him.
Silence stretched over the room. Then finally, Orpheus said, “We’ll leave first thing in the morning.” But there was no excitement in his voice. Only resolve. “Just…try to get some sleep tonight. I’ll be back for you at daybreak.”
As his brother exited the room, Gryphon caught sight of the three armed guards stationed outside his door. And beyond them, Skyla, her green eyes filling with tears as she rose on her toes and wrapped her arms around Orpheus’s shoulders.
The door snapped closed, blocking out the image of the two lovers embracing. And that emptiness swamped Gryphon all over again as he remembered what it had felt like to be trapped in the Underworld.
Helpless. Alone. Forgotten.
He wasn’t forgotten now. He was hated. Feared. The enemy. Orpheus had risked his life to save him, and this was the result. Only one thing was clear to him now: he was done being a burden and a responsibility. Done with the Argonauts. The brother Orpheus so desperately wanted to save was never coming back.
He looked toward the windows and the sun setting low over the lake. Tried to find some kind of joy in the view. Couldn’t. As the same emptiness he’d gotten used to living with the last few months swamped him, all he could think about was what he had to do next.
Come to me…
He would. All too soon, he would.
* * * * *
The castle was quiet when Maelea slunk out of her room.
Sconces lit the darkened hallway, illuminating the thick carpet runner, the paintings hanging on the walls, and the heavy doors, all closed and likely locked. Twisting her arm around, she pressed the backpack against her spine to keep the contents inside from causing too much noise. Her adrenaline soared as she tiptoed toward the end of the hall, every creaking board sounding like an alarm to her, announcing she was making her escape.
Nothing moved around her. The bedrooms on each side of the hall were silent. She’d been given a room on this floor, made up only of single females, when she’d first come to the colony, and she’d memorized her floor-mates’ sleeping patterns early on.
Except for Samara, who liked to stay up to watch Jay Leno, everyone else turned in by ten. And at this hour—just after one a.m.—they were surely all sound asleep.
Under the cover of darkness was her favorite time to roam the castle. When it was quiet, when people were locked away, when she was confident she wouldn’t be stopped. Orpheus had called her a ghoul because of it at first, but she didn’t care. She’d learned a lot about the people and their rituals by sneaking out during the night. And she’d learned just how to escape when the time was right.
She held her breath when she reached the end of the hall, pushed on the door, and waited for the hinges to squeak. To her surprise, they didn’t, and seconds later she was standing in the dimly lit stairwell alone, the door between her and discovery closed at her back.
One obstacle down. She only had about thirty more before she was out of here for good.
She checked her watch, realized she’d wasted too much time waiting for Samara to turn off the TV next door and fall asleep, and picked up her pace. Skipping stairs, she made it to the ground level, then paused to look out the rectangular window in the steel door and scan the courtyard.
This was where it got tricky. She could take the elevator down to the tunnels, but that would create noise that would undoubtedly rouse someone. She could continue down these stairs, but there were guards at the bottom she didn’t want to deal with. Her best option was to cross the courtyard and head for the armory on the far side. Weeks ago she’d found a door from the armory down to the tunnels, one seldom used and blocked off so no one would venture into the tunnels unaccounted for and get injured.
The key was to make it across the courtyard unseen. The moon cast a mere sliver of light. But the guards in the towers weren’t as dismissive as Hawk. Even with a virtual blanket of darkness, they could still spot her.
Maelea checked her watch again. One twenty-nine. In another minute, the guards would change shifts. She looked up, watched the tower to the south, and waited until she saw a shadow pass in front of the light.
She pushed down the nerves, slipped out into the darkness, and darted into shadows as she made her way around the central courtyard. Water gurgled in the fountain to her right. The air was crisp and cool, and her heart pounded in her chest as she eyed the base of the guard’s tower looming ahead like a sleeping giant.
Halfway there, her spine tingled, and she had the distinct impression she was being watched. Dashing into a patch of darkness, she looked up toward the tower and saw nothing but light, indicating the next guard had yet to take position. Glancing back toward the castle, she scanned the darkened windows, pausing when she reached the one she knew belonged to Gryphon.
He’d watched her from that window before. Several times she’d been out here in the courtyard, had felt her back tingle just like this and looked up to see him standing behind the glass, peering down at her with a haunted expression. The way he watched her was unnerving. But now that she knew what he was capable of…now it sent sickness sliding up her throat.
Tonight his window was empty, though. Swallowing hard, telling herself she was just jumpy, she picked her way toward the tower. The pack bounced against her spine. The black pants and boots were sleek and made it easy to move—way easier than the long, full skirts she was used to wearing. Perspiration dotted her spine. When she reached the ten-foot-long patch of moonlight between her and the tower, she hesitated.
Once she was on the other side of the tower, she could easily disappear in the orchard, and from there make her way to the tunnel entrance she’d found on the backside of the armory. She just had to get there first.
This close, she couldn’t see the guards above anymore. But it was now or never. Holding her breath, she darted from shadow into light, nearly swallowing her tongue as she skidded to a stop at the base of the structure, her back pressing into the cool stone as she tried to catch her breath.
Her chest rose and fell as she worked to slow her pulse. And she almost laughed when she thought of what she must look like, slinking around in the dark. Two months ago, she wouldn’t have been so bold as to try to escape. But she’d changed in the months she’d been at the colony. Maybe more than she’d changed in all the long years she’d spent alone. And she knew the root of that change was spurring her to leave now.
Confident she could breathe again, she pushed away from the stone and took a step toward the orchard to her left, already thinking ahead to what she would do when she was out of the tunnels and on her own in the vast Montana wilderness. She had money. She knew how to blend in with humans. She’d find a place—hundreds, maybe thousands of miles away from here—and start over. And then she’d decide how she was going to make it to Olympus.
Rocks crunched under her boots as she walked. A voice sounded above.
Maelea’s heart lurched into her throat. She slammed back against the base of the tower, looked up. Couldn’t see anything except shadows and darkness. But she could hear them. Several voices now. Shouting words she couldn’t make out. And feet, pounding down the stairs inside the tower at her back.
They’d seen her.
Sweat dripped down her back to pool at the base of her spine. If she didn’t make a break for it now, she was screwed. Orpheus would never agree to let her go back to her old life.
The pounding footsteps grew in intensity. Drawing one deep breath, she gripped the straps of her backpack and darted for the orchard. The heavy, metal door on the north side of the tower screeched open. And a voice—a clear voice—yelled, “Stop!”
Maelea pushed her muscles to the max. Just as she stepped past the end of the tower, a hand snaked out and wrapped around her mouth. A muffled yelp slipped from her lips, then the air rushed out of her lungs as she was pulled back against a body that felt like it was made of solid steel.
“Don’t move. Don’t even make a sound.”
Maelea’s heart raced beneath her breast and her adrenaline jumped into the stratosphere. She didn’t know who held her, but if she didn’t get away from him soon—like now—her one shot at freedom would shrivel and die.
She’d never been good with weapons, but over the last few months she’d participated in self-defense classes taught by the colony’s guards. She still wasn’t any real threat, but she knew enough to defend herself—something she’d never known before.
Her hand slinked down the outside of the black pants, and her fingers found the snap on the holster at her thigh. Even through the pack strapped to her back, she could feel the push and pull of air in his lungs against her spine. The beat of his heart thumped through the canvas, strong, steady, nowhere near as fast as hers. As voices echoed around the front of the tower, her hand trembled, but she flipped the snap anyway and wrapped her fingers around the handle of the blade.
The voices drifted away, and near her ear, the man whispered, “They’re leaving.”
He seemed relieved. Was he not one of the guards? She didn’t care. Whoever he was, he was still an obstacle between her and freedom.
The hand over her mouth dropped, and as soon as he loosed his grip on her waist, she pulled the knife and whipped around, ready to strike out. But there was just enough moonlight to make out his face. Light hair, a long, straight nose, rugged jawline, and piercing blue eyes. Unfriendly, searching eyes she’d seen peering down at her from a high window too many times to count.
Gryphon. Orpheus’s brother. The guardian who’d mutilated those daemons today, who’d nearly killed one of his own in the process. The guardian, rumor ran in the colony, who was psychotic.
Fear burst in the center of her chest. Arm outstretched, she moved backward, her boots echoing off rocks as she stumbled into the moonlight. The blade in her hand shook, and every instinct in her body said run, but she couldn’t turn her back on him. This close, she was afraid that if she did, she’d never even reach the trees. She wasn’t immortal like her parents, only ageless. And because she’d been cursed by Hades at birth, there was no afterlife for her. If she died now—before finding her way to Olympus—she’d simply cease to exist. No one to even remember who or what she’d been.
“Don’t…don’t come near me,” she managed.
He didn’t move a muscle, just stared at her with those haunted eyes, watching her as he’d done for months now from the isolation of his room. Except this time his brow was furrowed as he studied her, and a perplexed expression grew slowly across his features the longer he watched her.
Her heart rate picked up speed. Was he going to kill her? Would she even see him move? Her puny knife was nothing against a warrior as skilled as he was.
Voices grew louder toward the front of the tower again. As he turned to look, she knew it was her only shot. She tore off toward the darkness of the trees and ran with everything she had in her. If she could reach the passageway she’d found before he did, she could bar the door. She could still get away.
Twenty yards into the darkness of the orchard, he slammed into her from behind, knocking her off her feet. The air whooshed out of her lungs. Her backpack went sailing. The knife flew from her fingers. She hit the ground on her side, her shoulder and hip taking the brunt of the impact. A grunt left her mouth. But even before pain registered, she scrambled to her feet, tried to push herself up, the flight instinct roaring in her blood. He flipped her to her back before she could find her footing, though, and pinned her hands easily with one of his. Then he slapped his free hand over her mouth and used his weight to still her struggling.
“Stop moving, dammit,” he whispered. “They’ll hear you.”
He outweighed her by at least a hundred pounds, and this close, she could feel the corded muscles beneath the thin, long-sleeved shirt he wore. He was warm where she felt cold, hard where she was soft, and his breath, mere millimeters from her ear, heated the skin of her neck and sent shivers of fear racing down her spine.
And yet…the darkness inside her that was a result of her link to the Underworld vibrated with excitement. It pulled on something in her chest, drew her toward him—a pull she’d felt before but resisted because she didn’t understand it.
Now she did. Now, the reasons he watched her made sense. Still to be radiating darkness like this, here in the human realm, he had to have been cursed.
Hades had already tried to kill her numerous times. He could very well have let Gryphon free to finish the job. Her need to get away from him shot into the stratosphere.
Her mind was a blur of frenetic activity. But when she realized he was listening to what was happening around them, she tuned in to her surroundings.
The voices had separated. One seemed to be coming from her left, another from her right. From far off in the distance more shouts echoed, more voices heading this way.
There were more than the two tower guards out here. Earlier, when she was with Skyla, she’d heard Nick say Gryphon was locked in his room, under armed guard. They had to be looking for him, not her.
Hope resurged. If she could get away from him, if she could signal the guards as to his location, they’d forget all about her. He’d be locked up and she could still escape in the resulting chaos.
Dogs barked in the distance, and another voice—a voice Maelea recognized as Nick’s—boomed from the direction of the castle.
“Fucking find him. He couldn’t have gotten far.”
Gryphon lurched to his feet and hauled her up next to him. “Run.”
“But my pack,” she started, pulling on the hand wrapped around her bicep, hoping it would be enough to get him to take off without her.
“Forget the damn pack. I said run!”
Maelea gasped as he dragged her forward, a death grip on her arm. Her feet went out from under her, but he yanked her close to his side, kept her from falling. As she found her footing, she tried to pull away, but he wouldn’t let go. His legs were longer than hers, and she struggled to keep up with his pace. Her adrenaline surged. Her muscles screamed in protest. She couldn’t see a damn thing out here in the darkness of the orchard, only the lights of the towering castle fading in the distance.
He jerked them to a stop and finally released his hold. Maelea’s lungs blazed as she bent over, and even though instinct said to keep running, to get as far from him as possible, she couldn’t. She needed a second to suck back air.
“Through here,” Gryphon said. “Quick.”
Hands braced on her knees, Maelea looked up only to realize he’d found her exit, a door hidden behind twisting vines that led into the hillside behind the armory. Hope dropped like a cement block into the bottom of her stomach.
“Go, dammit!” Gryphon pushed her inside the darkened tunnel that led straight down.
She stumbled. Her hands slammed into the rock wall of the tunnel. The heavy steel door clanged shut behind them, followed by the groaning of metal against metal and then nothing at all as the tunnel was blanketed in utter darkness.
Fear leaped in Maelea’s throat, followed by a heavy weight pressing in from every direction. She twisted around, could hear the dim voices in the orchard and the barking dogs, searching for their trail. She opened her mouth to cry out, but Gryphon’s big hand covered her lips, and then his enormous body pressed against hers, pushing her spine into the cold rock wall at her back.
“Don’t you dare make a sound,” he whispered near her ear.
She froze, unable to see anything but the whites of his eyes. But she heard everything—the pounding of her heart, the rapid pace of his, the push and draw of air from his lungs so close to her own, and the muffled voices in the orchard, the orders being shouted right and left, the boots clomping over soft spring earth.
Tears burned her eyes. There was an army of men searching just beyond that door. An army ready to bring Gryphon down. An army that didn’t know she was with him.
A scratching sound echoed against the metal door. Gryphon turned his head, his lips brushing Maelea’s cheek as he twisted.
Realizing his face was closer than she’d expected, shards of heat—heat she didn’t want—ricocheted through her body, followed by a resurgence of the darkness inside her, and finally a jolt of fear that paralyzed her limbs.
“Here!” A muffled voice called from beyond the door.
Gryphon pressed harder against her mouth with his hand.
“Open it!” another said.
“I can’t. It’s bolted from the inside.”
“Sonofabitch.” That was Nick’s voice. Maybe there was still a chance… “This entrance leads into the tunnels, right?”
“Yeah,” someone else said. “I don’t know where, though.”
“Well, fucking find out,” Nick hollered. “Get me blueprints of this damn castle. Keep working on that door. And someone wake up Theron and Orpheus. I want this sonofabitch caught before he gets outside the colony’s borders.”
Gryphon’s free hand gripped Maelea’s wrist. Without letting loose of her mouth, he pulled her away from the wall and shifted her around so her back was plastered to his front and his big, hard body was pushing her forward.
“Walk,” he said in her ear. Hot breath ran under the collar of her jacket. “I know you’ve been in here before. I’ve seen you when no one else is watching. You know exactly where this tunnel lets out. We’ve got minutes before they figure it out too. If you want to live, you’ll get me the hell out of here. And you’ll do it fast.”
Orpheus jolted from the erotically charged dream involving him, Skyla, and vat of Jell-O he’d just as soon have continued exploring.
Glancing toward the clock on the nightstand, he caught the time. Just after two a.m. Against his chest, Skyla lay softly snoring, her heat warming him where she’d passed out after they’d made love for the third time.
His chest pinched. Gods, he did not want to leave her in the morning. But there was no way around it. Nick wouldn’t let Gryphon stay—not after what he’d done—and Orpheus wasn’t abandoning his brother to the outside. He ran his fingers through Skyla’s long blond hair and remembered the way she’d stood up for him, even knowing all the dumb shit he’d done in this life and the previous one. If Orpheus could be saved, then there had to be hope for Gryphon.
She wanted to go with them, but no matter what, he wasn’t letting Gryphon anywhere near her. She’d tried to argue about it last night, but he’d successfully distracted her with his mouth and hands and the rest of his body—several times. In the morning she’d likely try again, and she’d be pissed when she found out he wasn’t relenting, but he’d rather have her alive and pissed than dead.
He’d meant it when he said he wasn’t losing her. Not again.
A pounding echoed through the room, and lifting his head from the pillow, he realized that was the sound that had woken him.
As he pushed up on his elbows, Skyla stirred. Grunting once, she lifted sleepy, sexy eyes his way. “What’s wrong?”
“I don’t know.” He slid out of bed, pulled on the jeans he’d tossed on the floor earlier, and crossed the room toward the glass door. Embers still burned red in the fireplace, and shards of moonlight shone through the windows on four sides of the hexagonal room in one of the highest towers of the castle. Beyond the glass door, a male figure loomed. A figure Orpheus recognized one of Nick’s men.
Skata. Please tell me Gryphon didn’t attack someone else.
Orpheus pulled the door open. The guard’s face was flushed from running, and he drew a breath before saying “He’s gone. Tower guards spotted him crossing the courtyard, heading for the orchard. If he gets to the tunnels—”
“How in the bloody hell did he get out?” Skyla asked from across the room, already standing near the bed, the sheet wrapped around her luscious body, her hair a wild tangle around her worried face.
The guard glanced toward her, then looked quickly away when he realized she was all but naked. “We think he went out the window and scaled the building.”
“Son of a bitch,” Orpheus said. “Where’s Nick?”
“Already searching. He requested you and Theron join him.”
“I’ll be right down.”
The guard nodded. As he left, Orpheus shut the door and searched for his boots. Near the bed, Skyla dropped the sheet and shimmied into her own clothes. “He can’t have gotten far,” she said.
It wasn’t how far Gryphon could get that worried Orpheus. It was what his brother would do to anyone who got in his way that sent fear racing down his spine. And what Nick’s sentries would do if they found him first.
They dressed in record time and made it down to the main hall just as Theron, the leader of the Argonauts, Zander, and Demetrius were stepping off the elevator. With Titus’s injury yesterday, all the Argonauts had gathered in a show of solidarity. All except Gryphon, who’d been locked in his room.
“Where are the others?” Orpheus asked.
“Cerek and Phin already went down to start looking,” Theron said.
“What about the girls?” Skyla asked. She was dressed in black pants, a black long-sleeved top, and her signature goth boots, which Orpheus knew housed her weapon of choice: a bow and arrow that would expand to full size when used, one patterned after the bow she’d carried when she was a Siren. “They might be able to tell us where he’s at.”
“The girls” were the queen of Argolea—Isadora—who was also Demetrius’s new mate, and her two sisters, Callia and Casey. As all three shared the same father, the late king, and were descended from the Horae, the ancient Greek goddesses of balance and order, they had the ability to channel their gifts and see into the present. Maybe even see where Gryphon was right this moment.
“I already sent word to Argolea for Acacia and Isadora to join us,” Theron said. “Callia’s in the clinic seeing to Titus. When they get here, I’ll call her up.”
Acacia, or Casey as everyone but Theron called her, was Theron’s mate, a half-breed, and Callia was Zander’s mate, a healer who tended to the queen and the Argonauts when needed. Since Atalanta was hunting the Horae, it was never smart for them to be in the human realm, but in this instance Skyla was right—they might be the Argonauts’ best chance at finding Gryphon before Nick’s sentries did.
“Zander, D,” Theron said, turning toward the guardians, “head down to the tunnels, see what you can find out. Orpheus, Skyla.”
Theron looked their way as Zander and Demetrius both headed back for the elevator that would take them down. “Why don’t you two hit the orchard. Nick’s men have probably already messed with Gryphon’s trail, but maybe you can use some of those super Siren tracking skills Skyla has left and see what you can find. I’ll go try to talk some sense into Nick before one of his men kills Gryphon. He’s pissed about what happened yesterday, and in his mood I don’t think he’d stop them if they tried.”
Orpheus’s gut hitched at that thought, but it warmed at the fact that even with the incident yesterday, the Argonauts weren’t abandoning his brother. There was a bond there, among all of them, one that couldn’t be broken even by the Underworld.
“Okay,” Skyla mumbled, already in Siren mode, heading for the hallway and the stairwell that would lead out to the courtyard.
Before Orpheus took two steps to follow her, Theron grasped his sleeve. “O, wait.”
When Orpheus turned to face the leader of the Argonauts, Theron glanced toward the elevator doors that were closing, then toward the hallway where Skyla had already disappeared. “I didn’t want to say anything to the others, but there’s something else.”
Orpheus’s nerves jumped another notch. “What?”
“What do you mean, missing?”
“No one’s seen her since she retired for bed last night, and she’s not in her room.”
“That’s nothing new. She likes to wander at night.”
“Right,” Theron said, “and that’s my concern. If she happened to come across Gryphon while wandering…”
“Gryphon’s not thinking clearly,” Theron went on. “There’s no telling if he’d see her as a threat or bargaining chip if he found her while trying to escape. And it’s no secret none of us even know what he has planned…even you.”
Dread welled in the bottom of Orpheus’s stomach. He’d dragged Maelea into all of this. He’d gone looking for her because, with her ability to sense energy shifts on earth, she’d been the one person who could tell him where the Orb of Krónos was being used, which he’d needed to reunite Gryphon’s soul with his body after he rescued Gryphon from the Underworld. Hades already hated her simply because she was Persephone’s daughter. And now Hades knew she’d helped the Argonauts find the Orb, that she’d played a hand in rescuing Gryphon from Tartarus. Outside these castle walls—if she made it that far—Gryphon wasn’t the only threat to her safety.
Guilt seeped in to mingle with the dread. Because of Orpheus, she’d lost her home and her freedom. And because of him, she could very well lose her life now too.
Urgency pushed at Orpheus from all sides as he headed for the doorway at the end of the hall. “We’ll find her. We’ll find them both.”
“Let’s just pray they’re not together,” Theron mumbled at his back.
As Gryphon guided Maelea forward, her spine pressed against his chest and her ass bumped into his groin every time she hesitated in the darkness. She was smaller than he’d originally thought, but the baggy clothes he’d seen her wear from his window had hid muscles he didn’t know were there. Dressed in the slim black pants and long-sleeved shirt so no one would see her making her escape, and plastered tight against him in the dark tunnel, he also realized how many curves she’d kept hidden under all that fabric.
“Which way?” he growled in her ear when she hesitated at the fork in the tunnel. He’d let go of her mouth so she could breathe, but he kept a firm hold around her waist, not for a second risking the chance that she would bolt.
“I…I’m not sure. I—”
Her words cut off and she sucked in a breath as he pressed his fingers into her hip. “Don’t lie to me, female. Which way?”
“Right,” she managed. “To the right.”
He released his hold on her hip, steered her that direction. “This will go a whole lot smoother if you don’t fight me.”
She didn’t answer as they moved ahead through the tunnel, but he could feel the anger and fear radiating from her. That and the light. The same weird light that had drawn him to the window each and every time she’d been in the courtyard. The same light that had told him she was out tonight, that she might be his ticket out of this place.
A voice echoed from ahead, deeper in the cave. She hitched in a breath. Wrapping his free hand around her mouth, he pulled her back against the cave wall and held her still. The voice grew louder. His adrenaline jumped. Taking a step back the way they’d come, his spine slid from solid rock to air, then rock again, and he realized the wall opened here. Not much, a gap really, but if he turned sideways, enough to squeeze through. As the voice continued to grow in intensity, he knew it was his only shot. He twisted Maelea, shoved her through the gap, then shimmied in after her.
She grunted under his hand. The gap turned to the left. When his body came up flush against hers, he realized she’d reached the end.
“Shh,” he whispered, not letting go of her mouth. She’d shifted around so her face was mere millimeters from his. His arm snaked down to her hip to hold her still, his leg pressed between both of hers, and he used his weight to push her into the wall and keep her quiet. They’d been walking for a good ten minutes. They had to be close to the main intersection. In the central space deep below ground, tunnels extended in various directions, several of which would lead him to freedom. He just had to figure out which ones.
Her heart raced beneath her breast, so loud in the quiet he was afraid the guards might hear it. But the thump, thump, thump was drowned out by the heat from her body, circling around him in the confined space, and the scent of…jasmine.
The same scent he’d noticed in the orchard. Only this wasn’t from any tree or flower, it was coming from her. He looked down. Couldn’t see even an inch in front of his face. But she was there. Against his skin, her breasts pushed into his chest as she drew each labored breath, her lips hovered against the palm of his hand, and that intoxicating fragrance mixed with her body heat to leave him lightheaded.
Footsteps pounded somewhere close. Gryphon turned his head to listen, held his breath. Against his hand, Maelea drew in a startled breath, the effort forcing her breasts tighter against his chest. Breasts, he couldn’t help notice, even now when they were about to be discovered, that were firm and plump and warm against his chilled skin.
Tingles raced over his flesh where they touched, fanning out to spread tiny tendrils of heat all across his body. It had been months since he’d been close to a female. Months since he’d let anyone touch him. Most days he couldn’t even stand the feel of cloth against his skin, but this—her body against his, soft where he was hard, warm where he felt frigid—this didn’t bother him. It relaxed him. Heat pooled in his stomach, trickled lower, brought every nerve ending to life.
“Nothing,” a voice said from the tunnel beyond. A male voice. One Gryphon didn’t recognize. “I don’t see any sign of them.”
“They had to have come this way,” another voice said.
Maelea sucked in another breath, held it. Her nipples pressed into his chest, stiff points hardening against the fabric of his shirt.
His stomach tightened at the contact, and without thinking, he shifted his hand from her hip to her rib cage, then higher, to the edge of her bra.
A strangled sound echoed in the back of her throat.
“Did you hear that?” the first voice asked.
Gryphon’s hand froze. In the darkness his palms grew sweaty. He looked down at where he’d almost touched her, still couldn’t see shit.
Skata, what the hell was he doing? He wasn’t here to get hot and heavy with the female. He only needed her to get away.
Dammit, he really was going bat-shit crazy if he was trying to feel her up out here in the dark, when they could be discovered at any moment.
He lowered his hand back to her hip. Knew if he didn’t do something right away, she’d ruin his chance to escape. She stiffened as he leaned close and his lips brushed her ear, but he ignored the reaction. And he fought the shards of heat touching her like this sent ricocheting to his belly when he said, “Make another sound like that and I’ll kill them both.”
Her body shook against his, a mixture of fear and hatred, but to her credit she didn’t utter another sound. And in the silence, he felt his control resolidify. Several seconds passed before the first voice said, “Whatever it was, it’s gone now. Let’s split up. You keep on going, I’ll double back.”
Footsteps pounded away. Gryphon waited a good minute before his heart rate slowed enough so he could put some venom in his voice. “Don’t test me, female. I guarantee if you do, you’ll lose. All I need from you is to get me out of these tunnels and away from the colony. If you do that, no one will get hurt, you included. Do you understand? Nod once if you do.”
Silky hair brushed his cheek as her head bobbed. She drew in a breath through her nose, one that lifted her chest all over again and pressed those wicked breasts tighter to him, dimming all other sound until the beat of her heart was all he heard. A sound he was sure he could now pick out in a crowded room, even with drums and trumpets blaring.
It had been months since he’d heard anything as clear as this. The voice usually overrode everything. But right now, the voice was nothing but a dull buzz somewhere far off in the background.
He stepped away from Maelea, stared down at her in the darkness. He still couldn’t see her, but his other senses—smell, hearing, touch—were alive and vibrating with the need for…more. More of whatever the hell she was doing to him.
He had no fucking idea what was happening, but since returning from the Underworld, the only constant he’d grown to expect was that when weird shit happened in his head, it meant something bad was about to go down. Case in point, what he’d done to Titus and Nick out there in those woods.
Skata…he really was losing his shaky grasp on reality. Before that happened for good, he had to get out of these fucking caves.
And he needed her to get him there.
He pulled her out of their hiding place and back into the tunnel, harder than necessary. A yelp slipped from her lips. He turned her around again so her back was once more plastered against his front and whispered, “Okay, nice and slow. Your fate and the fates of those in this tunnel are in your hands now. Understand?”
She nodded again, swallowed beneath his hand, then cautiously stepped forward.
And in the silence, he told himself that if he was too hard on her, if she was afraid, it was a good thing. Because she should be scared shitless. There was no telling what might set him off or what he’d do next.
Gods, please don’t let me kill her. Just let me get away.
“Good girl,” he managed, reassuring both of them at the same time. “This will be over soon, Maelea. Just do as you’re told and in a few minutes, we’ll both be free.”