My brows rose as I glanced at Aiden. “Well, that’s not freaky or anything.”
“Yeah,” he said, his gaze darting over the tree line and the empty, narrow south lane.
Seth shut the Hummer down and climbed out. “I don’t feel anything, but then again, I’m not a Titan.”
Perses chuckled deeply as he walked toward the front of the vehicle. “I am never wrong about these things.”
Doors opened and closed behind us. “What’s going on?” Luke called, joined by Olivia. Both had daggers in their hands. Sentinels from the other cars were close behind them. “Are we just taking a potty break or something?”
Aiden turned toward them, his mouth opening to respond just as the ground beneath our feet trembled. He looked down, brows furrowing. “What the…?”
The vibration continued, growing in intensity, shaking the vehicles and rattling the trees that crowded the road. Asphalt cracked like an ear-piercing gunshot. A fissure spread along the side of the road, spreading toward the guardrail. I whipped around, following the progress of the crevice as it widened along the land, splitting open. Loose soil pebbled and rolled as giant elms shook until thick roots poked up from the ground.
“Deacon!” Aiden shouted, spinning. His brother was already out of the car, his eyes wide. “Stay near Luke!”
“Earthquake?” Olivia asked, one hand braced on the hood of the Expedition.
I shook my head. “I have a really bad feeling about this.”
“Ditto,” Seth said, joining us.
The trembling eased off and the earth seemed to settle, along with my stomach. The reprieve lasted seconds. From the wide crack in the ground, rich, dark soil spewed into the air like from a volcano. The earthy scent was overpowering as the dirt arced up and shot back down, landing in twenty or so different piles.
“Yeah,” Luke drawled the word out. “That crap ain’t normal.”
The piles of dirt swirled along the ground in circles, then rose up, rapidly taking form. Legs appeared, thick and well-muscled, followed by torsos, broad chests and shoulders, and finally heads.
I blinked once and then twice. “What in the hell?”
The things resembled human males—human males who could’ve easily been pro wrestlers in another life. Soil traveled down their arms, taking shaping over the hands. Axes appeared in their hands, blades sharpened into deadly edges. Like, axes bigger than what I imagined Vikings used to carry once upon a screwed-up time.
These things…they were made of dirt, but the axes were very, very real.
“The Spartoi!” shouted Perses. “Warriors born of soil—sons of Ares!”
“Oh, shit,” Aiden said, eyes flaring with recognition.
I had no idea what the Spartoi were, but seeing that full-grown men made of dirt had just popped out the earth heavily armed, and seeing that were sons of Ares, I was going to assume this was a very bad situation.
Their mouths opened in unison, letting out a heart-stopping battle roar that was matched only by the sound that came out of Perses’ mouth. He launched himself forward, over the crack in the road, and met the first Dirt Man head-to-head.
“Yeah, screw this,” Seth said, lifting his hand. The marks on his skin brightened and akasha blasted from his palm, striking one of the manifestations in the chest.
Dirt Man Two exploded outward, but all the tiny, million particles froze and then snapped back, reforming. The thing laughed, spewing tiny pebbles from its open mouth.
“Oh crap,” I said, my mouth dropping open.
“The heads,” Perses grunted, engaging his sickle blade. “You must remove their heads!”
I unhooked my sickle blade as Dirt Man Two threw his axe. It whipped through the air, narrowly avoiding Aiden, and smacked into a tree across the road, embedding deep. A second later, a red film covered the majestic elm tree, completely and utterly swallowing it whole. When the red haze disappeared, nothing of the tree remained.
“Holy crap,” Luke said.
Another axe appeared in Dirt Man Two’s hands.
Perses whirled, cleaving the head off of his Dirt Man’s body. The creature collapsed into itself, the axe disappearing along with it. The Titan’s laugh was disturbingly joyful.
Dirt Man Two charged forward, and I used the air element to fling him back against the trees. The thing shattered and came back together within seconds. Seth shot forward, avoiding the broad sweep of the axe as he brought the sickle around sharply, catching it under the chin.
“Two down,” Aiden said, springing to the side as another axe flew by our heads.
Luke grunted as he shoved Deacon back toward the rear of the Expedition. “Stay back, pretty boy.”
Deacon responded, but it was lost in the invasion of the Spartoi. One was heading straight toward me, a trail of soil chasing after it. I dipped down, engaging the sickle part of the weapon with a shake of my wrist. I sprung up behind the Dirt Man. The thing twisted as it swung the axe down. Heat flew off the weapon, causing me to jump back.
Dirt Man Three lurched at me. Darting to the side, I reached up and caught his arm. It fell apart under my hand, crumbling in a sheet of dry dirt. Ignoring the grossness of that, I swung it down and twisted hard, causing the creature to lose its grip on the axe. As it fell to the ground, I brought the sickle blade against the back of its neck.
“Three down!” I shouted, feeling a familiar adrenaline rushing inside me.
Olivia spun gracefully, relieving another of its head. “Four!”
Was it twisted that we were counting? I guessed not, because within a few minutes, we were down to ten. Even Perses was calling out numbers, but he seemed to be having a hell of a lot more fun than we were. A wide smile was on his face as he stalked a Dirt Man, easily avoiding the axes lobbed at him. It was like Christmas morning for the freak.
Turning at the waist, I found myself nearly losing my own head when one of them swung an axe. I had two of them, coming from both sides. I started to summon the air element again, but Aiden appeared in front of me.
In a graceful move, he spun and lopped off the head of one of the Spartoi. I wanted to take a moment to recognize the beauty of the way he moved, but another was running straight for me. Rushing forward, I met it with the sharp side of the sickle.
Drop! Seth’s voice shouted in my head.
Without thinking twice, I hit the ground half a second before Seth’s blade cut through where I’d been standing, taking out a Dirt Man that had been really close to putting the hurting on me. None of these things could kill Seth or me, or at least that was what I was banking on, but they could put us down long enough for Ares to swoop in.
Rising, I nodded at Seth. “Thanks.”
He said nothing as he joined Luke in cornering two more of the creatures. Looking around, I saw that Deacon was safe and Aiden was now a few yards in front of him. Nothing would get past him.
I started toward another Dirt Man when a ball of flames landed about two feet from me. Fire licked over the ground. Startled, I spun, and my stomach dropped. Cresting the hill above us was one of the worst possible things we could’ve seen at this moment.
Horns, dark matted hair, and long, flat snouts that sloped into mouths full of strong teeth came into view. Their thick thighs and large hoofs made of titanium were next.
Perses shouted another battle roar, and the rush of adrenaline coiled tight around my heart. I spun and darted out, reaching the Dirt Man closest to me. The thing dove forward, but I ducked under its arm. Swinging around, I swung the blade down, dispatching another one of the freaky creations.
Something inside me clicked off as I ran toward the cars, dodging the axes and fireballs. We had to get rid of the Spartoi first. There were only a few left, so that was completely doable, and Perses was charging toward the bulls to keep them at bay for a while.
Hearing pounding footsteps behind me, I whirled and jerked to the side, narrowly avoiding another axe. Springing into the air, I spun and delivered a nasty kick that would’ve been so damn good if my foot hadn’t sunk through the thing’s chest.
We went down in a burst of dirt and rocks. Dust flew into my mouth and nose. I gagged, trying not think about the fact that I just swallowed some of the Dirt Man as I rolled away from him. He swung his axe through the air and brushed my thigh. A slice of pain shot down my leg as a thin slit formed in the pant leg. The Dirt Man roared to its feet, heaving the axe like a Viking straight from Valhalla.
Summoning air, I blew the S.O.B. back, slamming it into the Hummer. I popped to my feet and raced after it, taking it out. Through the smoke and clouds of dirt, I saw Aiden engaging an automaton. Like the Spartoi, the heads had to be removed.
One of the automatons lit up from the inside, like a blue x-ray, before exploding in a shower of sparks.
Or Seth could use akasha. That would work, too.
With the automatons coming closer and closer, our group was scattered. Perses was making short work of the monsters, but the falling flames were making it difficult to pay attention to any one thing.
A burst of flames shot from where Aiden and Deacon were, smacking into the nearest automaton. Flames spread across the ground, and I darted around the blaze. Springing up, I caught a Dirt Man before it launched its axe at Luke.
Perses slammed the pointed end of the weapon into the chin of an automaton. Silvery blood sprayed the Titan in the face and chest. He didn’t even blink as he yanked the blade to the side. He turned, and his smile was gory with blood.
In that moment, I understood the Olympians’ distaste of Perses. To enjoy battle and war was one thing. Twisted, yes, but there were a lot of aggressive people out there. Perses didn’t just enjoy it, though. The Titan got off on the violence and bloodshed.
For a moment, the Titan transfixed me. The way he dispatched the enemy with that level of glee would make serial killers across the nation happy.
A little sickened, I joined Seth and tapped into primitive, raw energy. Power rushed through me, and my skin tingled with the appearance of the marks. Using akasha, intense blue light erupted from me. Arcing through the air, it struck its target, reducing it to nothing but a pile of shimmery dust.
Out of the corner of my eye, I saw Olivia dart to the side to avoid an incoming fireball. My heart kicked in my chest as a Dirt Man let loose his axe. I shouted at her—I thought I did as I pushed off the ground, rushing toward her. In my head, I was screaming, but I wasn’t sure any sound was making it past my lips. A horrible, terrifying feeling of déjà vu settled in my stomach. In a split second, I saw Lea in my head, but this wasn’t Lea.
No—no no no. This couldn’t he happening again.
A flicker of recognition shot across Olivia’s face a second before the Dirt Man’s axe struck her in the chest. She hadn’t even tried to move. I think, in that tiny second, she knew it was already too late.
“No!” I screamed, and then I screamed again.
Olivia stumbled back a step. The red film spread out from her chest, quickly slipping over her. In a heartbeat, she was gone.
Another hoarse scream tore through me, scratching my throat and darkening a part of my soul. Olivia was gone. She was gone. Just like that. Nothing in this world left of her.