Strider, keeper of the demon of Defeat, burst through the towering front doors of the Budapest fortress he shared with a growing cast of friendsbrothers and sisters by circumstance rather than blood, but all the closer for itfighting a rush of undeniable pleasure.
He'd freaking done it, man. Done. It. After chasing his enemy cross-continent, bargaining away one of the four godly relics needed to find and destroy Pandora's boxand yeah, he was gonna get spanked hard for thatthen, after being eaten alive by insects and at one point (cough) walking into a chick's knife (cough), he'd finally won. And damn if he wasn't ready to celebrate.
"I'm king of the world, bitches. Come in here and bask in my glory." His voice echoed through the foyer, expectant, eager.
No one returned the greeting.
Still. Grinning, he shifted the unconscious female draped over his shoulder into a more comfortable position. More comfortable for him. She was the enemy he'd been chasing, as well as the chick who'd oh, so impolitely introduced his pancreas to the freaking hilt of her blade. He could hardly wait to tell everyone that he'd done what they hadn't. He'd bagged and tagged her, baby.
He called, "Daddy's home. Somebody? Anybody?"
Again, there was no response. His grin dulled a bit.
Damn it. When he lost a single challenge, he battled crippling pain for days. When he won, though gods, it was almost a sexual high, energy buzzing in his veins, heating him, priming him. That kind of enthusiasm called for a playmate. And, hell, twelve warriors and their menagerie of female companions lived here, yet no one had waited around to welcome him home? Even though the grounds were now gated, monitored, and someone had had to punch him in, like, five minutes ago? Didn't that just figure.
But he deserved it, he supposed. Seven days had passed since he'd last texted or phoned. Technically, though, that wasn't his fault. He'd been a wee bit preoccupied, what with subduing his bundle of anything but joy. And on his last update, he'd been told the danger here had passed and everyone could return, so he'd stopped the I-have-to-know-how-everyone's-doing flurry of calls.
So, fine. No biggie. The fact that no one wanted to play actually did him a solid. Now he could take care of a little business. "Thanks, guys. You're the best. Really." And you can all suck it!
Strider surged forward. To console himself, he imagined his prisoner's expression when she woke up and found herself trapped in a four-by-four cage. Now that's the good stuff. Then his gaze snagged on his unfamiliar surroundings, and the last vestiges of his grin fell away. He stopped abruptly.
He'd been gone only a few weeks, and he'd thought most of the others had, too, but in that time someone had managed to turn the rundown monstrosity they called home into a showpiece. Once comprised of crumbling stone and mortar, the floor was now brilliant white marble veined with amber. Equally deteriorated walls were now vividly polished rosewood.
Before, the winding staircase had been cracked; now it gleamed, not a flaw in sight, an unblemished gold railing climbing to the top. In the corner, a white velvet-lined chair was pushed against reflective paneling, and beyond that, priceless artifactscolorful vases, bejeweled trinket boxes, and aged spearheadswere perched behind glass cases.
None of which had been there before.