“Hold on.” Aiden reached in the seat behind us and pulled out one of the sickle blades. “Just in case.”
Collapsed, it fit in my pocket with only half of it sticking out. “Thanks.”
His eyes met mine as he slipped me a couple of tens. “Don’t take too long, okay? Looks like Solos is going in with you.”
I glanced back. He was already waiting by the passenger side. Marcus was fiddling with the gas pump like he’d never used one before. “What do you want?”
“Surprise me.” He smiled. “Just be careful.”
Promising that I would, I climbed out of the Hummer and nearly ate the pavement as my foot slipped on a patch of ice. “Gods!”
“Alex?” Aiden called out.
“I’m fine.” I tipped my head back and closed my eyes, letting the tiny flakes of snow fall upon my face. It had been so, so long since I’d seen snow.
“What are you doing?” Solos asked, killing the moment.
I opened my eyes and forced them to his chest. “I like snow.”
“Well, you’re going to see a lot of snow where we’re going.” We started across the parking lot, mindful of the patches of ice that were bound and determined to take me out. “Probably have a foot or more in Athens.”
For a moment, I fantasized about snowball fights and sled rides. Stupid of me to do so, but it helped keep me from freaking out.
“You’re not what I expected,” Solos said as we reached the snow-covered sidewalk.
I shoved my hands into my pockets. “What were you expecting?”
“I don’t know.” He smiled, softening the scar. “Someone taller.”
A small smile pulled at my lips. “Don’t let my size fool you.”
“I know. I’ve heard tales about your many escapades, especially how you fought during the attack on the New York Covenant. Some say it’s because of what you are that makes you fight so well.”
“But I say it has more to do with your training than anything.” Solos glanced behind him and then his shrewd gaze settled on me. “You and St. Delphi seem to be very close.”
I schooled my expression blank as I shrugged again. “He’s pretty cool for a pure-blood.”
“Is that so?”
“Hey! Wait up!” Deacon hit a patch of thick ice and slid to our sides like a pro skater, eyes wide. “Lea wants to eat something. Luke’s going to stay with her.”
Saved by Deacon. “How’s she doing?”
Solos grabbed the door, holding it open for us. “She slept most of the way here,” Deacon answered. “Since she woke up, she hasn’t really been talking. Luke convinced her that she should eat something, so we’re going to share some Cheetos.”
I felt for Lea and understood her pain. So did Deacon. My presence probably wouldn’t be the best, but Deacon… he’d be good for her.
I shook off the snow once inside the warm, brightly-lit travel center. With the exception of the greasy-haired and scrawny cashier who was reading what looked like a smut magazine, the place was empty. Stomach growling, I headed toward the coolers. Aiden would want water, of course, but I was in need of some caffeine.
Solos stayed with Deacon, because if a random hillbilly daimon appeared, Deacon would be the one needing help. Grabbing a bottle of water and a Pepsi, I scanned the store. The cashier yawned and scratched his chest, never once looking up. Snow was starting to fall in larger flakes. Sighing, I ignored the desire to watch the snow and shuffled toward the chip aisle. The made-to-order sandwiches part of the store wasn’t open, so our options were severely limited.
A heavy musky, wet scent flooded the air. I sniffed, finding the smell oddly familiar. I passed Deacon with his arms full.
“You better hurry up. Solos is getting nervous about the mortal.”
I glanced back at the front of the store. “What? There’s only one guy in here.”
Shaking my head, I grabbed a packet of beef jerky and a bag of dill-flavored chips. I looked down at my goodies and decided I needed something sweet. After a quick stop in the candy bar area, I returned to the front.
“Nice of you to join us,” Solos muttered. A bag of peanuts and an energy drink were in his hands.
I ignored him as Deacon checked out. The cashier glanced up as I handed over my feast of calories, but said nothing. People were super-friendly around these parts.
“That will be $10.59,” the man grunted.
Good gods. What did I buy? I dug in my pocket for the cash Aiden had given me. Suddenly, the musky smell returned, but much stronger. And then I remembered that smell. It was the same mossy scent from the Underworld. The overhead fluorescent lights flickered once, then twice.
“Oh man,” I whispered, and my heart dropped.
Solos stiffened beside me. “What is it?”
“Y’all don’t worry,” the clerk said, glancing up at the lights. “It happens all the time with the snow. Drivers hit poles in that black ice out there. Y’all must not be from around here.”
The air thickened around us, filling with the same electricity that had enveloped Deity Island moments before Poseidon’s arrival. The mortal couldn’t feel it.
There was a pop and sparks flew. The security camera by the door stopped blinking red as smoke wafted from it.
“What the hell?” The clerk leaned over the counter. “Now I ain’t seen nuttin’ like that before.”
I ain’t seen nuttin’ like that, either.
Solos grabbed Deacon’s arm. “Time to go.”
Wide-eyed, Deacon nodded. “Whatever you say, man.”
Leaving my items on the counter, we started for the door. Food be damned. There was definitely something going on, something… godly.
“Hey! Where y’all going? You didn’t—”
A deep growl cut off his words. We halted about ten feet from the door. My heart leapt into my throat. The smell of wet dog grew strong, and the fine hairs on my body rose. I turned around slowly, my gaze darting over the store. I reached down, wrapping my hand around the handle of the sickle blade.
Beside the display of Twinkies and cupcakes, the air shimmered. Distinctive shapes of large, booted footprints appeared, blackening the vinyl flooring, filling the air with wisps of smoke and sulfur. The white travel star painted on the vinyl bubbled and smoked.
Two leather-encased legs, then narrow hips, and a broad chest appeared out of thin air. By the time my gaze traveled to his face, I think I’d stopped breathing. “Darkly handsome” didn’t do him justice. “Sinfully beautiful” wasn’t even in the ballpark when trying to describe this raven-haired god. The smell of sulfur and smoke gave away his identity.
Hades was sort of hot for a god, and I was sure he was there to kill me.
A shotgun blasted, deadening my ears and causing me tojump.
“I don’t want none of this bad shit up in here.” The clerk cocked the gun again. “Next time I won’t—”
Hades raised a hand, and the clerk’s eyes rolled back into their sockets. He hit the floor without so much as another word. Hades smiled, flashing a perfect set of ultra-white teeth. The Underworld had a hell of a dental plan.
“Now, we can do this the easy way or the hard way,” Hades said, charmingly enough. Weirdly, he seemed to have a British accent. “All I want is the girl.”
Solos edged Deacon back against the counter, blocking him in, and casually placed his peanuts and energy drink down. “That’s going to be a problem.”
Hades shrugged. “Then this will be the hard way.”
THE HARD WAY DIDN’T SOUND OR LOOK FUN WHEN Solos tried to get Deacon out of the convenience store and found that the doors wouldn’t open. On the other side, Aiden and Marcus desperately tried to open the doors, going as far as to try to throw a bench at the reinforced glass, but to no avail.
Things went from bad to really screwed-up within seconds. Hades wasn’t alone—not that we’d forgotten the smell and animalistic growl from earlier. Behind Hades, the air shimmered before two massive, three-headed dogs appeared.
One was black and the other was brown, but both were as ugly as hell. Matted hair covered everything but their long, hairless snouts. Each head had a mouth on it that could swallow a baby whole and their claws looked vicious and sharp. Six sets of eyes glowed ruby red. At the end of each rat-like tail was what looked like a military flail—a morning star type of weapon, rough and full of spikes.
They flanked Hades, snarling and snapping at the air.
We were so screwed.
“Meet Death,” Hades gestured at the black dog, “and Despair. Cerberus is a proud papa to his two boys.”
“Nice names,” I croaked, and then released the two sharp edges of the sickle blade.
“You wanna play, luv?” Hades cocked his head to the side.
“Not really.” I wasn’t sure which of them I should keep an eye on.
“It’s really nothing personal,” Hades said. “But we cannot allow the First to become what has been feared. He’s already made his choice, and now we must make ours.”
Trying to kill me was as personal as it got. I saw Hades’ chin go up about an inch and I jumped to the side just as Despair charged me. Darting down the candy aisle, I hoped that Solos was able to protect Deacon. I grabbed hold of a rack and threw it to the floor. Despair went right over the numerous candy bars, his claws ripping through wrappers and chocolate. Hanging a quick right, I glanced over my shoulder.
Despair lost his balance and slid into the standup cooler, crashing through the glass. Bottles of soda flew through the air, fizzing upon impact. Taking advantage of the situation, I spun around and brought the sickle edge down on the closest head.
The blade went clean through muscles and tissue, and a yelp later, Despair became a two headed dog… until the stump started to grow into another freaking head. Fully restored, Despair bared his fangs and pawed at the ground.
I backed up. “Nice doggy. Good doggy.”
Despair crouched, each of his mouths snapping at the air.
“Bad doggy!” I took off running, knocking over cases of beer and anything I could get my hands on. Over the shelves I could see Deacon backed up against the front doors, Aiden and Marcus’ horrified expressions on the other side. Solos was squaring off with Death, dispatching heads left and right.
And Hades, well, he was just standing there in his big bad god glory.
“Go for the heart!” Solos yelled over the chaos. “The heart in the chest, Alex!”
“Like I don’t know where the freaking heart is!” I just didn’t want to get that close to the thing. I picked up speed when I saw the dining area, getting an idea—not a good one, but better than running laps around the store with a mutant pit bull chasing after me.
I leapt over the set of chairs and landed on the table. Spinning around, I grabbed the metal chair and held it, legs up. Despair jumped, clearing the mess of chairs and landed on top of me. He shrieked and thrashed as the metal legs embedded themselves deep into his underbelly. The impact busted the table and we both went down, his claws narrowly missing my face. All three heads snapped inches from my nose, its hot, putrid breath setting off my gag reflex.