"Choo Co La Tah, Buffalo … I need your help."
"Did you kill your brother?" Buffalo accused as he saw the blood on Coyote’s clothes.
"No!" Coyote snapped. "We were hunting when Makah’Alay was attacked by a boar. I managed to kill it, but he’s badly wounded. I need help carrying him-"
Buffalo grabbed him by the arm and started running with him before he could finish his sentence. "Show us!"
Coyote took them to where Ren lay beside the boar that was riddled with arrows. The animal had torn him apart.
"Makah’Alay?" Buffalo breathed, reaching to see if he was still alive.
Ren moaned low, but it was enough.
Buffalo picked him up and carried him. "You killed the boar?" he asked Coyote.
"Then why do you have a quiver full of arrows and Makah’Alay has none?"
Coyote curled his lip and gestured to the injury on his own leg. "I was injured, too!"
Buffalo rolled his eyes. "From what? Climbing up a tree like a scared little bitch? You think we’re so stupid we don’t know the difference between the gash from a boar’s tusk and skinning your knee on tree bark?"
Coyote turned to the other man with them, who had retrieved Ren’s blood-soaked bow and quiver. "Choo, you believe me, don’t you?"
Choo Co La Tah sent a pointed stare at Buffalo. "A wise man does not question his future chief."
Buffalo snorted. "Between wisdom and loyalty, Choo, I pick loyalty and truth. One day, brother, you’re going to have to choose too. I hope when that day comes that you’re even wiser than you are today."
Coyote snarled at them both. "You may not believe me, but my father will."
"I’m sure he will," Buffalo muttered.
Kateri shook her head. Yeah, for all of Ren’s denials, Coyote wasn’t the one who had stood by him in her visions.
Only one man had never wavered with his loyalty.
"Your friend, Buffalo … why was he always so quick to defend you?"
"He was a fool."
She laughed at his deadpan tone. "I doubt that. Tell me, Ren. What did you do to make him see the truth?"
Crossing his arms over his chest, Ren let out a long breath before he spoke. "When I was fourteen, a bad epidemic ravaged in our town. It was one of the worst you can imagine. The priests couldn’t keep up with the number of deaths, and many of them were too sick to help anyone else, so bodies were piled in the street. People were starving and everyone was scared of catching it. Since I was one of the few who wasn’t ill, I’d go hunt and leave fresh meat for those who couldn’t feed themselves. One night, as I was leaving some for Buffalo’s family, he caught me before I could get away."
Kateri was baffled by his charity, especially given how young he was and how badly they’d treated him. "Why did you help them?"
He shrugged. "I felt guilty. I never had a cold of any kind. Not even a sniffle. I don’t know if it’s because my mother was a goddess or my nursemaid a demon, but I was always healthy. For weeks, my father and the priests had been sacrificing to no avail, and they blamed me for bringing the sickness to the town. I didn’t want the innocent punished because of me so I tried to help as best I could by leaving foodstuffs for the homes that were stricken the worst." He laughed bitterly. "Everyone thought it was Coyote who helped them. They regaled him for his charity for years afterward."
"You never told them the truth?"
Snorting, he shook his head. "No one would have believed me so I kept silent. The last thing I wanted was for my father to beat me for lying about it. When Buffalo finally recovered from the fever, he came to thank me. I told him to forget what he’d seen. Not to tell anyone what I’d done. He swore to me that he was forever in my debt, and that so long as he lived, he would be the most loyal friend ever known."
Now that sounded like the man she’d seen. "And he never told another soul?"
Ren sighed in disgust. "Stupid fool. He never listened to me about anything. He only saw the best in everyone. And he was a firm believer in the old adage that the truth was always the best course of action to take. So, he tried to tell the town who really left the food while they were ill."
"And?" she prompted when he failed to continue the story.
"His father beat him for lying."
She gaped at that. She’d ask if he was serious, but she could tell by the angry look in his eyes that he wasn’t making it up. "Why didn’t Coyote tell them you were the one who did it? He had to know he hadn’t done anything."
"He said if they knew it had been left by me, they wouldn’t have eaten it. They would have assumed it tainted. And I knew he was right. They would have, and rather than eat what I left, they’d have starved themselves to death."
Indignant rage for him darkened her sight. She really wanted to beat someone over it. "Your brother was not a good man, Ren. Had he been, he would have told your father the truth."
Still, he defended his brother’s actions. "You can’t tell the truth to someone who doesn’t want to hear it, Kateri. Every time Coyote tried, my father thought he was being kind to me, and humble, so all it did was elevate Coyote in his eyes while it lowered me. Coyote always apologized and felt badly for it, but there was nothing he could do. I never held any of it against him until Butterfly. She became the symbol for every slight I’d been given by every person, and it was her presence in our home that made me realize I would never have a life like other men. That no one would ever welcome me as a husband. That I was only a charity case to be pitied at best, ridiculed at worst. Her presence rammed home just how much of nothing I really was in the eyes of everyone."
"You weren’t nothing."
"Don’t patronize me, Kateri," he growled. "You weren’t there. You may have had visions about things that happened, but you didn’t really see it. You definitely didn’t live it. There’s no worse feeling than being trapped in a situation from which you can’t escape. In retrospect, I should have found the courage to walk away from all of them, but I was too afraid. I kept thinking that if this was how the people who were supposed to love me treated me, how much worse would a stranger be? Not to mention that those not related to me were every bit as cruel, if not more so. So even if I’d left, it would have been the same wherever I went. I’d be alone and outcast." His gaze cold, he dropped his voice an octave. "And I’ve since had eleven thousand years of moving from place to place to know just how right I was. Nothing ever changes except hairstyles and clothing."
She wanted to deny it, but she knew in her heart that he was right. People could be unbelievably cruel, and in spite of what he thought, she wasn’t naive. She’d had her own share of insensitive comments over the years.
Still, there was much he wasn’t telling her. "So what did you do when they married?"
He shrugged. "They didn’t marry. She fell in love with Buffalo the moment he spoke up for me on the day of her arrival."
"Oh…" She cringed internally over something she hoped hadn’t been blamed on him. "I take it that didn’t go over well."
"No. It did not." Ren brushed his hand through his hair. "I destroyed all their lives. But for me, Coyote would have married her and they would have had a good life together."
She didn’t believe it. "Had you not saved him, your father wouldn’t have arranged the marriage. Butterfly would have married someone else anyway." She moved to lay her hand on his cheek. "They were responsible for their own lives, Ren. And all but Buffalo were cruel to you. You were in pain and none of them cared."
He started away from her, but she caught him again.
"You can trust me, Ren. You can. I would never take advantage of your heart."
Ren wanted to believe that, but as he’d said, nothing ever changed. He never changed. "I was born broken, Kateri. I’m not like other men. I can’t have what they have."
"You’re wrong. But I won’t push you." She rose up on her tiptoes to place a chaste kiss on his cheek. Then, she whispered in his ear. "And for the record, I think you’re the sexiest man I’ve ever seen."
Those words meant everything to him. Everything. This is just more torture for you.
It was true. Her presence. Her kindness. How cruel to have her here, knowing there was nothing he could do to keep her.
And he was tired of being kicked.
"We have to leave. We’ve been lucky that nothing has found us."
She nodded. "What do you need me to do?"
Stay with me. He wasn’t sure where that thought came from or why it was there. It’d popped into his head before he could stop it.
"Just stay focused. I think I’ve healed enough that I should be able to get us out."
Kateri inclined her head to him. "All right. Fingers crossed."
* * *
Cabeza barely made it to Talon’s before the sky unleashed a furious blood-red downpour. Thunder clapped so hard it shook the house, while lightning flashed again and again.
"You all right?" Talon asked as Cabeza took body inventory to make sure he hadn’t been singed by anything. Or that Chacu hadn’t ripped something off while he wasn’t paying attention.
"Si. Yeah." Cabeza turned to find Talon’s wife Sunshine on the black leather couch next to Acheron Parthenopaeus, who was holding her infant son. He did a double take on Ash’s short black hair as a sick feeling went through him. "Madre de Dios … it is a sign of the Apocalypse. What happened to your hair? Did someone scalp you?"
Never in all these centuries had he seen Acheron with short hair. No matter the fashion or time period, it’d always been down to the middle of his back.
"Relax," Ash said with a hint of laughter in his voice. "Tory and I donated our hair to Locks of Love on Bastian’s first birthday to show our appreciation for having a healthy baby. It’ll grow back."
Maybe, but this … this had evil written all over it.
"Hey," Sunshine said to Cabeza with a wide grin. "You should have seen it six months ago. It started out as a crew cut."
Bug-eyed, Cabeza was momentarily speechless as he tried to imagine the intrepid Dark-Hunter leader with a crew cut. "Out of all the shit I’ve seen in the last two days, that is the only thing that truly frightens me. I think we just sped up the final countdown."
Rolling his eyes at him, Acheron handed the baby back to its mother, then stood. His long, black leather coat settled down around his dark red Doc Martens. Though Acheron was the oldest of the Dark-Hunters by years, he physically was their youngest. He’d only been twenty-one when he’d died. And honestly, he looked more like a teenager until you saw his eyes. Only they betrayed his ancient age….
And his wisdom.
Rain came out from the rear of the house. He still had a black eye from where Cabeza had rescued him in Las Vegas. "Any word on Teri?" he asked Cabeza.
"It’s worse than we thought. They are in Xibalba."
Acheron cursed. "No wonder I couldn’t find them with my powers." He glanced over to Rain to explain. "I can’t see into another pantheon’s hell realm without going to it physically."
Talon let out a nervous laugh. "I try to avoid descending into hell realms as much as possible."
Ash scratched at the back of his neck as if that comment made him uncomfortable for some reason. "Out of curiosity, do you know what level they’re in?"
"As far as I can tell, the first."
Ash let out a relieved breath. "You think Ren knows better than to descend past the fourth level?"
Cabeza thought it over. Ash was right, if Ren and the Ixkib descended below the water level, there was no coming back. They would be in Xibalba forever. "Since it’s Mayan, I wouldn’t count on it. He might not even know where he is."
"Well," Talon said, "we can look on the bright side."
This, Cabeza had to hear. "And that would be?"
"No one can reach the time stone, right?"
Cabeza inclined his head to him. "True. But there is a problem."
"And that would be?" Talon explained.
"If she doesn’t make it to the temple by week’s end, the Daimons won’t be our worst fear, amigo. Imagine every known piece of evil from all pantheons unleashed simultaneously on this earth. Every demon and predator that has been put down by priests and shamans for centuries…"
Ash went completely still at those words.
"Is something wrong?" Talon asked.
Ash didn’t respond. Rather, he vanished from the room where they had gathered, and took himself to his own realm. Katateros. It was the Atlantean heaven realm where their gods had once ruled their island kingdom and made war against the Greek pantheon.
It was here that Ash’s mother, Apollymi, had destroyed her family over what they’d done to Acheron when she’d been forced to hide him in the human realm.
Using his god powers, he threw open the ornate doors at the main hall and walked across the foyer where the symbol of their power lay. The moment he did, his jeans and T-shirt turned into the ancient robes of his people and his own symbol of a sun pierced by three lightning bolts appeared on the back of it.