Lords of Deliverance, Book 1
by Larissa Ione
Grand Central Publishing
eBook ISBN: 978-0-44658-445-6
Print ISBN: 978-0-44657-449-5
His name is Ares, and the fate of mankind rests on his powerful shoulders. As one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse and stronger than any mortal, he cannot fight his destiny forever. Yet there is one last hope: Cara Thornhart, the key to this Horseman’s safety and doom.
“War is hell.” — William Tecumseh Sherman
“Sherman was totally my bitch.” — War
Ares, also known as War, second of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse to much of the human and demon world, sat astride his stallion on the outskirts of a nameless village in Africa, his body and mind vibrating with energy. A battle raged here; two local warlords, their brains ravaged by an insect-borne disease, were clashing over what little water had puddled in the bottom of the village’s well. Ares had wandered the area for days, drawn to the hostilities like a drug addict to heroin and unable to pry himself away until the blood stopped flowing. It was a catch-22, though, because his very presence ramped up the violence, feeding into the bloodlust of every human in a five-mile radius.
No, not Reseph. Not anymore. The most easygoing and playful of Ares’s siblings, the brother who had held them all together over the centuries, had been gone for six months. Now he was Pestilence, and with the name and transformation came unholy powers that threatened mankind on a level they’d never seen. Pestilence was roaming the globe, causing disease, insect and rodent infestations, and mass crop failures with nothing more than a bite or a touch of his finger and a thought. As the disasters spread, more wars like this one broke out, and the more Ares was drawn to the battles and away from his most pressing task; locating Batarel, the fallen angel who held Ares’s fate in his hands.
As the current holder of Ares’s agimortus, if Batarel died, Ares’s Seal would break, unleashing War upon the earth.
Chased relentlessly by Reseph, as well as by any demon who wanted to usher in the apocalypse, Batarel had fallen off the grid, which, unfortunately, left Ares unable to protect her.
But then, even if Ares found her, his ability to defend her was limited, thanks to a fun addendum to his curse, which caused him to weaken in close proximity to his agimortus-bearer.
The battle before him finally began to wane, and the electric high that had held Ares hostage eased, replaced by the usual numbness. Women and children had been slaughtered, the few goats that had survived the blight had been taken for food, and fuck, this was just one of scores of similar scenes that were playing out on this continent alone.
His leather armor creaked as he fisted his pendant, closed his eyes, and concentrated. He should feel a distant buzz through the Seal, some clue as to Batarel’s location.
Nothing. Somehow, Batarel had masked her vibe.
A hot breeze blew the foul stench of blood and bowels across the parched earth, ruffling Battle’s black mane against his reddish-brown neck. Ares gave the beast a firm pat. “We’re through here, boy.”
Battle pawed the ground. The humans didn’t see any of it, not as long as Ares remained inside the khote, a spell that allowed him to travel invisibly around the human world, but the tradeoff was that he moved like a ghost, unable to touch them. Reseph had gotten off on popping out of the khote to flash humans and freak them out. Unlike Ares, Reseph’s presence hadn’t affected humans. Except the females. Reseph had definitely had a way with them.
Ares didn’t glance again at the gruesome remnants of the conflict. Instead, he summoned a Harrowgate, and Battle leaped through it, bringing them to the entrance of his brother Thanatos’s Greenland keep. The ancient castle, shielded by elemental magic that rendered it unnoticeable to human eyes, rose up from the craggy, barren landscape like a breaching whale.
Ares dismounted, coming down on the hard ice. “To me.”
The warhorse settled into Ares’s skin, and he strode into the richly decorated manor, waving away the bowing, scraping vampires who had served Thanatos for centuries. He found his brother in the gym, beating the hell out of a punching bag. As usual when he was home, Thanatos wore black workout pants, no shirt, and a black bandanna over his shoulder-length, tawny hair. With every punch, his tattoos danced on his deeply tanned skin, from the cracked, bleeding bones inked on his hands, to the various weapons that decorated his arms, to the depictions of death and destruction on his back and chest.
“Thanatos. I need your help. Where’s Limos?” He frowned at the dark stain on the floor behind his brother. “And what is that?”
“A succubus.” Than wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. “Reseph sent another one to tempt me.”
“He’s not Reseph anymore.” Ares’s voice rang out in the cold air like an avalanche breaking loose. “Call him what he is.” Easier said than done, since Ares hadn’t yet gotten used to it either.
Thanatos’s pale yellow eyes drilled into Ares’s nearly black ones. “Never. We can get him back.”
“Seals can’t be restored.”
“We’ll find a way.” Than’s tone was hard, final. He’d always been as uncompromising as the death he represented.
“We have to kill him.”
All around Thanatos, shadows swirled, moving faster the more agitated he became. He’d always been the quickest of the four of them to lash out, but then, thousands of years of celibacy would do that to a guy. It was also why he lived in the middle of nowhere; a flash of temper could kill every living thing in the human realm for miles around.
“Do you not remember how Reseph was always traveling the world to find the sweetest apples for our horses? How he never came over without bringing a gift? How, when any of our servants were injured or fell ill, he searched for medicine and nursed them back to health?”
Of course Ares remembered. Reseph might have been an irresponsible playboy with the females, but with those he considered family, he’d been attentive and thoughtful. He’d even worried about their two Watchers when they didn’t pop in every few months. Reaver, an angel who represented Team Heaven, and Harvester, a fallen angel who played for Team Sheoul, hardly needed Reseph’s concern, but he’d always been relieved to see them.
It had been that way ever since their original Sheoulic Watcher had done more than simply “watch” the Horsemen. Eviscerator had suffered for months before dying in a manner befitting his name for revealing the material used in the making of Limos’s agimortus without permission.
“None of that has any bearing on our current situation,” Ares said.
“We won’t kill him.”
There was no point in arguing. Not only did they not have the necessary tools to end their brother, but Than would never budge on the issue, and Ares’s jaw still throbbed from the last time they’d discussed it. It wasn’t as though Ares wanted to kill Pestilence, but he also wasn’t going to let him lead the charge to Armageddon.
“So you would rather see the Daemonica’s prophecy be the one that comes to pass?”
The human prophecies, though they varied, still favored humans in the Final Battle and left room for the Horsemen to fight on the side of good. Should the demon prophecy reign, evil would hold all the cards.
And evil dealt from the bottom of the deck.
Than gave the punching bag a final, knockout blow. “I’m not a fool, brother. I’ve been hunting Reseph’s minions, and I’ve managed to…convince…one of them to talk.”
“Convince, torture, whatever.” Ares crossed his arms over his chest, his armor’s hard leather plates cracking against each other. “So what have you learned?”
“That I need to find a minion who’s privy to more information,” Than grumbled. “But I did find out that Reseph has sent teams of demons to search for Deliverance.”
“Then we need to beat him to it,” Ares said.
Thanatos grabbed a towel off the weight bench and wiped his face. “We’ve been looking for the dagger since the 1300’s with no success.”
“Then we look harder.”
“I told you–“
Ares cut off his brother. “Having Deliverance doesn’t mean we have to use it. But it’s better to have it and not need it than the other way around. If Res–Pestilence locates it first, he’ll make sure we never get our hands on it.”
Thanatos strode toward Ares, and Ares braced for battle. Didn’t matter that they were brothers; Ares lived to fight, and even now his adrenaline was singing in his blood, obliterating that damned numbness.
“When we get the dagger,” Than growled, “I hold onto it.”
Frustration put an edge in Ares’s voice, because dammit, he wanted possession of Deliverance. It was the one thing that could kill Pestilence, was the weapon for the war of wars, and like any good commander, he wanted complete control over his arsenal. “We’ll discuss it when we have it.”
“What,” came a deep, amused voice from the doorway, “are you two arguing over now?”
Ares whirled to Reseph, who stood in the doorway, his tarnished armor oozing a black substance from the joints. He held a severed female head in his gauntleted hand.
Ares’s stomach plummeted to his feet. “Batarel.” He fumbled for the coin around his neck. Relief that it wasn’t broken collided with fury and confusion and the need to kick his brother’s ass.
It was a real fun stew of what-the-fuck.
“Obviously,” Reseph said, “since you aren’t sporting shiny new fangs that make all the ladies hot, your Seal hasn’t broken. The idiot fallen angel transferred the agimortus to someone else.”
Reseph dropped the idiot fallen angel’s head to the floor. Batarel’s body should have disintegrated upon her death, which meant that she’d been killed either in a demon-built or Aegis-enchanted structure, or on land owned by supernatural beings.
On Ares’s arm, Battle stirred in agitation, his emotions tied to Ares’s. “Where did you find her?” Ares ground out.
“Cowardly bitch was holed up in a Harrowgate,” Reseph said, which explained why Ares hadn’t been able to sense her. “I had to send out spiny hellrats to find her.”
Of course. Reseph could communicate with and control vermin and insects, which he used to spread plague and pestilence throughout the human population. And, apparently, he used them as spies.
Thanatos moved toward their brother, his bare feet silent on the stone floor. “Who did Batarel transfer the agimortus to, Reseph?”
“No idea.” Reseph grinned, a real cat-that-ate-the-canary, revealing his “shiny new fangs.” “But I’ll know soon. Maybe after I let rip a few new plagues. The cool kind, with of boils and incontinence.” He opened a Harrowgate, but paused before stepping inside. “You all should stop fighting me. I have the backing of the Dark Lord himself. The longer you stall the inevitable, the more those you care about will suffer.”
The Harrowgate snapped shut and, cursing, Ares spun, drove his fist into the punching bag, and damn, what he wouldn’t give for that to be Pestilence’s face right now. Reseph had never been cruel or callous, had lived in fear of succumbing to his evil side. And if he was that bad now that his Seal had been broken…Ares was screwed.
“Give me your hand.”
Ares swung around to Thanatos, who handed him Batarel’s eyes. Just the eyes. And an ear.
Ares had stopped being grossed out by his gift a long time ago. Closing his palm around them, he let the vision come.
“What do you see?” Than asked.
“Reseph’s sword.” The huge blade had filled Batarel’s vision, the last thing she’d seen. Ares waited as the visions worked in reverse, until…there. Batarel’s ear vibrated, and audio joined the visuals. “A blond male. Name’s Sestiel. He’s screaming. He doesn’t want the agimortus.”
“Duh. Who’d want a bull’s-eye on their ass?”
The agimortus wasn’t a bull’s-eye, exactly, but yeah, it did make whoever hosted it a target for Pestilence’s blade. Strange though, that the host was male. Was the prophecy wrong? Had it changed?
One of Than’s vampire servants hustled to clean up Batarel’s remains, and he bowed before Ares. “May I take those body parts from you, sir?”
So polite. Of course, most beings were pretty kiss-ass to the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse.
Probably wise. No, not probably. Definitely.
Suck up now, world, because once the Seals broke, it would be time to bend over.
# # #
Nothing good ever came of a knock at three o’clock in the morning, and as Cara Thornhart shuffled down the hallway to her front door, she had a very, very bad feeling.
The pounding became more urgent, every blow on the wood kicking her heart into a stuttered rhythm.
Breathe, Cara. Breathe.
“Thornhart! Open the fuck up!” The slurred voice was familiar, and when she put her eye to the peephole in the door, she instantly recognized the man standing on her porch as the son of one of her past clients.
Ross Spillane was also one of the many twenty-something jobless delinquents with six kids by six different women. Apparently, the one drugstore in town didn’t sell condoms.
Cara shoved up the sleeves of her flannel pajamas and stared at the two deadbolts, the chain, and the regular door lock. A flicker of dread skittered up her spine. She lived in the country, the middle of nowhere, and while she doubted Ross was an ax murderer, she’d always had a reliable sixth sense, and right now, she was sensing trouble.
Or maybe you’re just being paranoid. Her psychologist had said it was normal to have moments of panic, but that had been two years ago. Shouldn’t she be able to open her door without trembling like a frightened rabbit by now?
“What’s wrong, Ross?” she called out, because she still couldn’t bring herself to work the locks.
“Open the goddamned door! I fucking hit a dog.”
A dog? Crap. “I’m not practicing anymore. Take it to the clinic.”
No, of course he couldn’t. Ross sounded drunk, and the town vet just happened to be married to the town’s chief of police. The vet was also a corrupt bastard who overcharged, took shortcuts with care and materials, and he’d been known to refuse help to any animal that was rude enough to be sick or injured after office hours.
“Dammit, Thornhart. I don’t have time for this.”
Help the dog. Suck it up, and help the dog. Sweat dampened her temples and palms as she flipped all the locks and opened the door. Before it swung all the way in, Ross shoved the pitch-black canine into her arms, knocking her back a step.
“Thanks.” He started down the porch stairs.
“Wait!” Awkwardly, she shifted the dog’s weight, which had to be a good seventy pounds. “You shouldn’t drive.”
“Whatever. It’s a mile.”
“Bite my fine ass,” he muttered, as he headed down her gravel walkway toward his old Ford pickup.
“Hey!” She couldn’t stop him, she knew that, but he had a passenger, a petite blond who looked like she might still be in high school. “Is your friend able to drive?”
He opened the driver side door and tossed the keys at the girl. “Yup.”
As he stumbled around the front of the truck, and the girl climbed out, Cara called, “Why did you bring me the dog?” Subtext: Why didn’t you let the dog die on the side of the road?
Ross stopped, hooked his thumbs in his belt loops, and looked down at his cowboy boots. When he spoke, Cara had to strain to hear him. “No mutt has ever stabbed me in the back.”
Cara stared. Go figure, she’d always been judged harshly by people who didn’t know her, and she’d just gone and done the same thing to someone else.
Then Ross whooped, slapped the young blond on her Daisy Dukes, and spit a wad of tobacco on the ground, once again reinforcing a stereotype, but hey…at least he liked dogs.
Cara closed the door, awkwardly locking it, and carried the limp bundle of fur to a room she’d shut up tight two years ago.
“Dammit.” Her curse accompanied the creak of unused hinges as she wedged open the door with her shoulder. The stale air reeked of failure, and no matter how hard she tried to tug up her big girl panties and be brave, her hands still shook as she laid the dog on the exam table and flipped on the light.
Black fur matted with blood covered its entire body, and one hind leg was twisted awkwardly, the broken end of a bone piercing the skin. The dog needed a real vet, not her. Not someone who healed through vibes that even she sometimes doubted were real. The only physical medical experience she had was as a veterinary technician, and that had been eight years ago, when she’d been a teen working in her dad’s practice.
She did a u-turn before she went too far down that dark road, snapped on gloves, and when she turned back around, she recoiled. The pup — at least, it had the rounded, cute-ish features of a young puppy despite its size — was looking at her. And its eyes were…red.
Blood, it’s got to be blood. Which didn’t explain the eerie glow behind the irises.
The pup’s lips peeled away from extremely sharp, extremely large, teeth. What breed was the thing? It looked like a cross between a wolf and a pit bull, with maybe a little great white shark thrown in, and by her best guess, it was approximately four months old. Except that it was the size of a full-grown Siberian Husky.
And those teeth. Those eyes.
There was a military base nearby, and since the day she had moved to this rural South Carolina town, she’d heard rumors of experiments, of strange creatures the government was breeding. For the first time, Cara considered the possibility, because this dog was not…natural.
The pup shifted on the table, yelping in pain at the smallest movement, and suddenly, it didn’t matter where it had come from or if it was a lab creation, a genetic mutation, or an alien from outer space. She hated seeing an animal in pain, especially when there was so little she could do.
“Hey,” she whispered, reaching out her hand. The pup regarded her warily, but he allowed her to stroke his cheek. And yes, it was a he. She didn’t have to look…she just knew. She’d always been able to sense things about animals, and although the vibes coming from this creature were odd…disjointed…she was still getting them.
Slowly, so as not to startle the dog, she slid both hands down his body. Right now, the most she could do was triage, keep him alive until she could get him to Dr. Happs. The jerk would only put the poor dog to sleep if no one would pay for its care, which meant that Cara would have to choose between paying the vet bills and paying her mortgage.
Her fingers dipped into a puncture wound, and the pup screamed in pain, his body trembling. “I’m sorry, boy.” God, it was a bullet hole. Someone must have shot the dog before he was struck by Ross’s truck.
Whimpering, the pup writhed in misery, and Cara felt his pain all the way to her marrow. Literally. It was part of what made her different from everyone she knew, this talent that had been both a blessing and a curse.
She’d sworn to never use her ability again, but seeing the dog suffer was too much. She had to do it, no matter how hard her mind was screaming against it.
“Okay,” she murmured, “I’m going to try something. Just hold on.”
Closing her eyes, she placed both hands over his body, her palms hovering an inch from his fur. She forced herself to relax, to concentrate until her emotions and energy centered in her head and chest. She’d never been formally trained in the arts of spiritual or energy healing, but this had always worked for her.
Until it had killed.
She shook her head, clearing her thoughts. Gradually, she a tingle condensed and expanded inside her, until it pulsed with its own heartbeat. She visualized the energy as a purple glow as it streamed from her chest and into her hands. The pup calmed, his breaths slowing, his whimpers tapering off. She couldn’t fix broken bones or ruptured organs, but she could slow the bleeding and manage pain, and this poor guy needed everything she had.
The energy built, vibrating through her entire body as though it was eager to be let loose.
Just as it had done that night.
The memory tore through her brain like a shotgun blast, hurling her back in time to the night when her gift had warped into something sinister and surged not into a dog, but a man. His terror-filled eyes had bulged as blood spurted from his nose and ears. His screams had been silent, but those of his buddies had not.
Stop thinking! Her power cut off, snuffed by her fear. The room spun and her legs wobbled, all carnival funhouse. Without the fun. A whine yanked her out of the trance, and she stumbled to the antique chest where she kept all the traditional medical supplies that belonged to her father.
“Sorry boy,” she rasped. “We’re going to have to do this the old-fashioned way.” She hadn’t gone to vet school, but she’d worked with her father for years, and she knew damned good and well that this dog was going to die if she didn’t act.
As quickly as her shaking hands could manage, she loaded a cart with tools and supplies, and rolled it over to the dog, who was lying still, his breaths more labored than they’d been just moments before. In the area of the gunshot wound, the flesh was swelling rapidly, and when she looked closer, she gasped. Before her eyes, the muscle and skin was dying. If she hadn’t seen the progression herself, she’d have estimated that the wound had festered for a week. Gangrene had set in, and the stench of dead flesh filled the room.
“My God,” she breathed. “What’s happening?”
Afraid to waste even another second, she grabbed the scalpel and hoped the dog wouldn’t bite, because this was going to hurt.
Carefully, she made a small incision at the site of the bullet hole. The pup whimpered, but remained still as she mopped up pus and blood and then palmed the forceps. “Hold still, baby.”
Cara held her breath and prayed for a steady hand. Do it. Do it now…
She worked the forceps into the wound, cringing at the squishy sound of the metal passing through rotting flesh. Though she hadn’t summoned her power, a trickle she couldn’t stop ran down her arm and into her hand. Don’t panic. Somehow, she kept it together until she felt the forceps bump against the bullet. Though the dog yelped when she clasped the slug, he didn’t move…or bite.
As gently as possible, she eased the bullet free. Odd…it was silver. She placed the forceps on the tray, grabbed the bandages and turned back to the dog.
The pup was standing on the exam table, head cocked and tongue lolling out as if he had been happily romping in a park and not minutes from death. The only sign that he’d ever been injured was blood matted in his fur and pooled on the floor and table.
Reeling from the impossibility of the situation, Cara’s legs gave way beneath her, and the cold floor rose up to meet her body. Her skull cracked on the tile, and the next thing she knew, the pup was beside her, his crimson eyes glowing. His tongue slathered across her face and mouth, and oh, yuck, his saliva tasted like rotten fish. Weakly, she pushed him away, but he came back and slammed his heavy body down on her.
He panted, his breath so toxic it worked like smelling salts, and she gagged even as she became alert.
“Ugh.” She wheezed, waving her hand in front of his mouth to ward off his stench. “We have to do something about your halitosis from hell.” God, she was talking like this was even real.
It wasn’t. Couldn’t be. She was probably still in her bed, and this was a dream.
Suddenly, Halitosis was on his feet, crouched over her, a growl vibrating his deep chest. Not a normal growl, either. It was smoky, serrated, something she’d expect to hear from a dragon. Or a demon. Freaky.
The door burst open in a crash of splinters, and four men filed through the doorway.
A scream welled in her throat, but lodged there, blocked by terror. Not again, not again. Memories of the home invasion that had ruined her life collided with current events, and she froze up, so paralyzed that even her lungs couldn’t expel her held breath.
There was a gunshot, a snarl…and then godawful screams. Blood splattered on the floor, the walls, on her…and she broke out of her paralysis to scramble to her feet.
Hal slammed one of the men to the floor, his claws — which somehow had extended like a cat’s — tearing into the man’s chest as the other two slashed at him with strange bladed weapons.
Cara scanned the room for a weapon of her own, anything at all. She lunged for a heavy glass jar of cotton balls but reeled back at an explosive, blinding flash of light. A beautiful blond man appeared in the middle of the room. Flames erupted from his fingertips as a ball of fire flipped into the air, bursting into a gold net that fell on Hal, who went down in a tangle beneath it.
“No!” She dove for the dog, but someone grabbed her from behind. Hal went crazy, a mass of teeth and claws as he struggled to get out of the net.
Curses flew, and someone fired a shot at the newcomer, who took the bullet in the chest with no more reaction than if he’d been stung by a bee. He scooped up the net, Hal with it, and in another flare of light, he was gone.
The man tightened his arms around Cara, and one of the men limped toward her, his left arm dangling, his face mottled with rage. “What are you?”
She blinked. “W-what?”
“I said,” he snarled, “what are you?”
“I don’t understand.”
His hand lashed out so fast she didn’t see it until her cheek stung from the blow. “What kind of demon are you?” he screamed, his spittle spraying her face.
Oh, God, these men were crazy. This whole situation was crazy. This was Crazyland, and she was the queen.
“Why…” She sucked in a ragged breath and tried to stay calm. Wasn’t easy when the man holding her in a vise grip against him was squeezing the air out of her lungs. “Why would you think I’m a demon?” Maybe they were religious fanatics, like the ones who had accused her of practicing witchcraft before she learned to hide her healing gift.
Her theory was blown out of the water when the third guy, the one who had been kneeling next to the dead man on the floor, stood and picked up the bullet that had been lodged in the dog. He held it out to her. “Because,” he said, in an eerily calm voice, “only a demon would heal a hellhound.”
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