Tears fell down Astrid's cheeks as she felt the warm strength of his hand on hers; as she saw his long, tapered fingers twined with hers.
His hand was large, masculine and it enveloped hers with power.
Those hands had killed, but they had also protected. They had cared for her and pleasured her.
By this simple action, she knew she had finally made contact with him.
She had just reached the unreachable.
Then the contact was lost.
Zarek's face hardened as he jerked his hand away from hers. "I don't want to be changed. Not by you. Not by anyone."
Snarling in anger, he pushed past her and marched out the door.
Astrid did something she had never done before.
Damn him for not staying. Damn him for being so stupid.
"I told you, he's a hard-ass."
She turned to see M'Adoc standing behind her, staring out the door after Zarek who was trudging shirtless through the snow.
"How long have you been eavesdropping?" she asked the Oneroi.
"Not that long. I know when not to intrude on a dream."
She narrowed her eyes meaningfully at him. "You better."
Disregarding her and her unspoken threat, he moved to watch Zarek make his way across the snow.
"So what are you going to do now?" he asked.
"Beat him with a stick until he listens to reason."
"You wouldn't be the first one to try that," M'Adoc said dryly. "The thing is, he's immune to it."
She let out a long, weary breath. It was true.
"I don't know what to do," she confessed. "I feel so helpless where he's concerned."
Something sagelike flickered behind M'Adoc's pale glowing eyes. "You shouldn't have trapped him here or yourself for that matter. It's dangerous to stay in this realm too long."
"I know, but what else could I have done? He won't stay put and was determined to leave my cabin. You know I couldn't allow that." She paused and gave the Dream-Hunter a pleading look. "I need guidance, M'Adoc. I wish I could talk to Acheron. He's the only one I know who could tell me about Zarek."
"No. Zarek could tell you."
"But he won't."
He met her gaze. "So you're giving up, then?"
He gave her a rare smile that let her know he was siphoning off her emotions. "I figured as much. Glad to know you're no longer daunted."
"But how do I reach him? I'm open to any and all ideas and suggestions at this point."
M'Adoc held his hand out and a small, dark blue book appeared in his palm. He gave it to her.
Astrid looked at the copy of The Little Prince in her hands.
"It's Zarek's favorite book, too," M'Adoc said.
No wonder Zarek had been able to quote it to her.
M'Adoc stepped back. "It's a book of heartbreak and survival. A book of magic, hope, and promise. Strange that it would speak to him, isn't it?"
M'Adoc flashed out of the dream then and left her flipping through the book. She saw that M'Adoc had marked certain passages and paragraphs.
Astrid closed the door and took it to the comfortable recliner that had suddenly appeared in the cabin.
She smiled. All the gods of sleep liked to speak in riddles and metaphors. They seldom said anything outright, but made people work for their answers.
M'Adoc, the head of the Oneroi, had left her clues in this book.
If this could give her any insight into Zarek at all, she would read what he had marked.
Maybe then she might have a hope of saving Zarek.
Jess ducked into the small convenience store and shook himself like a wet dog coming in from the rain. It was so damn cold up here that he couldn't stand it.
How had Zarek survived in Alaska before central heating? He had to give his friend credit. A man had to be hard and dangerous to make his home here without any help from friends or Squires.
Personally, he'd rather be pistol whipped and thrown naked into a nest of rattlers.
There was an elderly gentleman behind the counter who gave him a knowing smile as if he understood why Jess had cursed as soon as he entered. The man had a thick head of gray hair and a salt-and-pepper-colored beard. His old green sweater had snags, but it looked good and warm. "Can I help you?"
Jess lowered the muffler from his face and gave a curt, friendly nod to the man. Manners dictated he remove his black Stetson while indoors, but damned if he'd do that and let even an ounce of his body heat escape.
He needed ever bit of it.
"Howdy, sir," he drawled all polite like. "I'm searching for some black coffee or anything else you've got that's hot. Real hot."
The man laughed and pointed to a coffeepot in the back. "You must not be from around here."
Jess headed for the coffee. "No, sir, and thank God for that."
The old man laughed again. "Ahh, stay up here for a little while and your blood will thicken up enough to where you don't even notice it."
He doubted that. His blood would have to be petrified not to feel this cold.
He wanted to get his butt back to Reno before he became the first Dark-Hunter in history to freeze to death.
Jess poured an extra large Styrofoam cup full and headed for the counter. He set it down and dug through the five million layers of coat, flannel shirt, sweater, and long johns to pull his wallet out of his back pocket to pay. His gaze fell to a small glass case where someone had placed a hand-carved statue of a cowboy on a bucking bronco.
Jess frowned as he recognized the horse, then the man.
It was him.
He'd e-mailed a picture to Zarek last summer of him saddle-breaking his latest stallion. Damned if that wasn't an exact copy of the photo.
"Hey," the old gentleman said as he noticed it, too. "You look just like my statue."
"Yes, sir, I noticed that. Where did you get it?"
The man looked back and forth from him to the statue as he compared their likenesses. "The annual Christmas auction we had last November."
Jess scowled at that. "Christmas auction?"
"Every year the Polar Bear Club gets together to raise money for the poor and sick. We have an annual auction, and for the last, oh I don't know, twenty years or so, Santa has been leaving a couple of huge bags of these one-of-a-kind hand-carved statues and figurines that we sell. We figure he must be a local artist or something who doesn't want to let anyone know where he lives. Every month a big money order comes anonymously to our post office box, too. Most of us figure it's the same guy doing it all."
"Santa, as in Claus?"
The man nodded. "I know it's a stupid name, but we don't know what else to call him. It's just some guy who comes around in winter and does good deeds. The police have seen him a time or two carrying the bags up to our center, but they leave him alone. He shovels driveways for the elderly and carves a lot of those elaborate ice sculptures you've probably seen around town."
Jess felt his jaw go slack, then he quickly snapped it shut before he exposed his fangs to the gentleman. Yeah. He had seen those sculptures.
It hardly seemed like something the ex-slave would do. His friend was crusty at best and downright ornery at worst.
But then, Zarek had never told him what he did up here to pass the time. Never said much of nothing to Jess really.
Jess paid for the coffee, then headed back out to the street.
He walked to the end of it, where one of the ice sculptures rested at an intersection. A rendition of a moose, it stood almost eight feet tall. The moonlight glistened off the surface that was so intricately carved that it looked like the moose was ready to break loose and run for home.
It just didn't seem right.
Jess went to take another drink of his coffee only to realize it had already chilled.
"I hate Alaska," he mumbled, tossing the coffee to the ground and then wadding up the cup.
Before he could find a trash can, his cell phone rang.
He checked the caller ID to see that it was Justin Carmichael, one of the Blood Rites Squires who was up here hunting for Zarek. It seemed once the Oracles got wind that Artemis and Dionysus wanted Zarek dead, they had immediately notified the Council, who in turn had sent out the orneriest bunch of Blood Rite Squires to hunt and kill the rogue Dark-Hunter.
Jess was all that stood between them and Zarek.
Born and raised in New York City, Justin was a younger man, about twenty-four, with a nasty attitude Jess didn't care for much.
He answered the call. "Yeah, Carmichael, whatcha need?"
"We have a problem."
"And that would be?"
"You know the woman who was helping Zarek? Sharon?"
"What about her?"
"We just found her. She was beaten up pretty bad and her house has been burned to the ground. My money says it's Zarek bent on revenge."
Jess's blood went cold. "Bullshit. Did you talk to her?"
"Trust me, she wasn't in any condition to talk when we found her. She's with the doctors right now and we're headed back to Zarek's cabin to see if we can find that bastard and make him pay for this before he hurts anyone else."
"What about Sharon's daughter?"
"She was staying at a neighbor's house when it happened. Thank God. I've got Mike watching over her in case Zarek comes calling again."
Jess couldn't breathe and it wasn't from the frozen bite in the air. How could this have happened? Unlike the Squires, he knew Zarek didn't have any part in this.
He alone knew where Zarek really was.
Ash had trusted him with the truth of what was going on and had charged him with making sure no one fubarred it until Zarek's test was over.
Well, things just went further south than a herd of geese in the fall.
"Don't move until I get there," he told the Squire. "I want to go to his cabin with you."
"Why? You planning on getting in our way again when we take him down?"
Those words rubbed him like a herd of porcupines. "Boy, you better take that tone and flush it. I'm not a Squire you're talking to; I happen to be one of the guys you answer to. It ain't none of your damned business why I'm going. You just don't move until I tell you to or I'm going to show you how I once made Wyatt Earp piss his drawers."
Carmichael hesitated before he spoke again. When he did, his voice was nice and cool. "Yes, sir. We're at the hotel and are waiting for you."
Jess hung up the phone and returned it to his pocket.
He felt awful about Sharon. She shouldn't have been in any danger at all. None of the Squires would have dared hurt her.
And in spite of what the others thought, he knew Zarek wouldn't have done it even if he'd been able to.
Zarek just didn't strike him as the type to go after those weaker than him.
But then, who else would have dared?
Astrid found Zarek alone in the center of a burned-down medieval village.
There were bodies, burned and unburned, scattered everywhere. Male and female. Every age. Most of them had torn throats as if a Daimon or some similar creature had fed off them.
Zarek walked among them, his face grim. His eyes tormented.
He had his arms wrapped around himself as if to protect him from the horror he was witnessing.
"Where are we?" she asked.
To her shock, he answered "Taberleigh."
"My village," he whispered, his voice angst-ridden and tight. "I lived here for three hundred years. There was this one old crone who saw me once when she was a young girl. She used to leave me things from time to time. A leg of dried mutton, a wineskin of ale. Sometimes nothing more than a note to say thank you for watching over them." He looked at Astrid, his face haunted. "I was supposed to protect them."
Before she could ask him what had happened to the village, she heard the muffled cries of an old woman.
Zarek bolted toward her.
The woman lay on the ground wrapped in torn clothes, her old body broken. She was covered in blood and bruises.
Astrid could tell by Zarek's expression that this was the woman he had spoken of.
Zarek fell to his knees beside her and wiped the blood from her lips as she straggled to breathe.
The woman's old gray eyes were piercing with accusation as they focused on him. "How could you?"
The life faded from the crone's eyes, turning them dull, glazed.
She went limp in his arms.
Zarek bellowed with rage. He released the woman and pushed himself to his feet. He paced a wide circle, raking his hands angrily through his hair.
Panting, he looked every bit as insane as everyone claimed.
Astrid hurt for him. She didn't understand what this was about. What he was reliving.
She followed him. "Zarek, what happened here?"
His face anguished, he turned around to confront her. Hatred and guilt burned in the midnight depths of his eyes.
He swept his arm out to indicate the bodies around them. "I killed them. All of them." The words came out as if torn from his throat. "I don't know why I did this. I just remember the rage, the craving for blood. I don't even remember killing them. Just flashes of people dying as they came near me."
His face was bleak. His eyes filled with self-loathing. "I am a monster. Do you see now why I can't have you? Why I can't stay with you? What if one day I killed you, too?"
Her chest constricted at his words as true panic and fear engulfed her.
Had she misjudged him?
"All men are guilty." It was her sister Atty's favorite saying. "The only honest men are those infants who haven't yet learned to speak lies." ,
Horrified, Astrid looked around at the dead bodies...
Could he really have been capable of something like this?
She didn't know what to think now. Whoever was responsible for this slaughter did deserve to die. It more than explained why Artemis wouldn't want him around people.
Astrid paused at that thought.
Wait a minute...
Something was wrong.
Astrid looked at the bodies around them. Human bodies. Some of them children, most of them women.
Had Zarek done this, Acheron would have killed him instantly. Acheron refused to tolerate anyone who preyed on the weak and defenseless. And especially anyone who harmed a child.
There was no way Acheron would suffer a Dark-Hunter to live who could destroy and kill the people he'd been sent to protect. She knew that with every molecule of her body.
"Are you sure you did this?" she asked.
He looked aghast at her question. "Who else would have done it? There was no one else here. Do you see anyone other than me with fangs?"
"Maybe an animal-"
"I was the animal, Astrid. There was no one else capable of this."
She still didn't believe it. There had to be some other explanation. "You said you don't remember killing them. Maybe you didn't."
Rage and pain flared in his eyes. "I remember enough. I know I did this. Everyone knows. It's why the other Dark-Hunters fear me. Why they won't speak to me. Why I was banished to a place where there were no people to protect. Why I wake up every night afraid Artemis is going to move me away from Fairbanks into an area where there are even fewer people."
Part of her feared that he was telling the truth, but she discounted it.
In her heart she knew that the tormented man who could speak poetically and make beautiful pieces of art with his hands, who could care for an animal that had wounded him, would never, ever do this.
But she would need proof.
Gut instinct wouldn't be enough evidence to offer to her mother or to Artemis. They would demand proof of his innocence.
Proof that he wasn't capable of killing humans.
"I just wish I knew why I did this," Zarek growled. "What made me go so crazy that I could kill them and not even remember it."
He looked at her, his eyes bleak. "I am a monster. Artemis is right. I don't belong around normal people."
Tears welled in her eyes at his words. "You're not a monster, Zarek."
She refused to believe it.
Astrid pulled him into her arms, offering him comfort she wasn't sure he would take.
At first he stiffened as if he were about to push her away, then he relaxed. She let out a slow breath, grateful he'd accepted her hug.
His taut, strong arms held her against a lean body that rippled with muscles. She'd never felt anything like it. He was so steely and tender at the same time. Her cheek was pressed against his firm pectorals, her breasts against his ridged abs.
She ran her hand down his back, making him shiver in her arms.
Astrid smiled at this newfound power she had over him. Because she was a justice nymph, her femininity had had to take a back seat. There was no time to feel womanly or sensual.
But she felt that now.
Because of him. She was aware of her body for the first time in her life. Aware of the way her heart beat in time to his. The way her blood simmered from the sensation of his arms wrapped around her.
In that instant, she wanted to do something for him.
She wanted to make him smile.
Reluctantly, she pulled back from him and held her hand out. "Come with me."
Zarek hesitated. He only trusted people to hurt him. And they had never disappointed him in that respect.
Trusting someone to not hurt him was another thing entirely.
Deep inside, he wanted to trust her.
No, he needed to trust her.
Taking a deep breath, he placed his reluctant hand into hers.
She flashed him away from the village to a bright seaside beach. Zarek blinked and squinted against the unfamiliar brightness of the light.
He held his hand up, to cut the glare of the foreign sun he had all but forgotten.
He'd never been to the beach before. He'd only seen pictures in magazines and on TV.
And it had been centuries since he'd seen daylight. Real daylight.
The sun shone down on his skin, hot. Tingly.
He let the heat soak into his frozen body. Let the sun caress his skin and melt away the centuries of misery and loneliness.
Dressed only in black leather pants, Zarek walked over the sandy beach, looking at everything and focusing on nothing in particular.
This was even better than his stay in New Orleans. The surf roared around them as it pounded against the beach, the wind whipped at his hair. The sand was warm and clung to his feet.
Astrid ran past him, to the edge of the water.
He watched as she peeled her clothes from her body down to a small blue bikini.
She gave him an impish, hot once-over that made him shiver in spite of the heat. "Would you like to join me?"
"I think I'd look strange in a bikini."
She laughed at him. "Was that a joke? Can it be you made a real joke?"
"Yeah, I must be possessed or something."
Beguiled actually. By a sea nymph.
She came toward him with a determined walk.
Zarek waited, unable to breathe. To move. It was as if he lived or died by the sassy sway of her hips.
She stopped before him and unbuttoned his pants. The sensation of her fingers brushing against the thin patch of hair that ran from his navel to his groin rocked him. He hardened instantly, wanting to taste her again.
She slowly unzipped his pants as she stared up at him from underneath her lashes.
One small millimeter before she freed his erection, she seemed to lose her nerve. Biting her lip, she trailed her hands in the reverse direction, up toward his chest.
Zarek still couldn't breathe as she splayed her hands on his bare chest.
"Why do you touch me when no one else does?" he asked.
"Because you let me. I like touching you."
He closed his eyes as her tender caress seared him. How could something so simple feel so incredible?
She stepped into his arms and he instinctively embraced her. Her breasts brushed against his abs, making him even harder, making him ache.
"Have you ever made love on the beach?"
His breath caught at her words. "I've only made love to you, princess."
She rose up on her tiptoes so that she could capture his lips for a sweet, tormenting kiss.
Pulling back, she smiled up at him as she unzipped the last little bit of his fly and took him into her hand. "Well then, Frosty the Snow-Zarek, you're about to."
Ash sat alone in Artemis's temple, just outside her throne room on the terrace where he could look out onto the beautiful, multicolored waterfall. His golden-blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, he sat on top of a marble banister with his bare back against a ridged column.
Wildlife, safe from hunters and all other danger because of Artemis's protection, grazed in a yard where the ground was made of clouds. The only sound came from the rushing water and the occasional cry of a wild bird.
It should be peaceful here and yet for all his serene composure Ash was agitated.
Artemis and her attendants had left him to go to the Theocropolis where Zeus held court over all the Olympian gods. She would be gone for hours.
Not even that could please him.
He wanted to know what was happening with Zarek's test. Something was going wrong, he knew it. He could feel it, but he dared not use his powers to investigate.
He could take Artemis's wrath, but he would never unleash that onto Astrid or Zarek.
So here he sat, his powers restricted, his anger and frustration leashed.
"Akri, can I come off your arm for a little while?"
Simi's voice took some of the edge off his raw emotions. Whenever she was part of him, she couldn't see or hear anything unless he spoke her name and gave her an order. She was even immune to his thoughts.
She could only feel his emotions. Something that allowed her to know whenever he was in danger, the only time she was allowed to leave him without his permission.
"Yes, Simi. You may take human form."
She pulled herself off and manifested beside him. Her long blond hair was braided. Her eyes were a stormy gray and her wings pale blue.
"Why are you so sad, akri?"
"I'm not sad, Simi."
"Yes you are. I know you, akri, you gots that pain in your heart like the Simi gets whenever she cries."
"I never cry, Sim."
"I know." She moved closer to him so that she could rest her head on his shoulder. One of her black horns scraped against his cheek, but Ash didn't mind. She draped her arms around him and held him close.
Closing his eyes, he embraced her tightly, cupping her small head in one of his hands. Her hug went a long way toward easing his troubled spirit. Only Simi could do that. She alone touched him without making physical demands on him.
She never wanted anything but to be his "baby."
Childlike and innocent, she was the balm he needed.
"So, can I eat the redheaded goddess now?"
He smiled at her most-often-asked question. "No, Simi."
She lifted her head and stuck her tongue out at him, then flounced over to sit on the railing by his bare feet. "I want to eat her, akri. She a mean person."
"Most gods are."
"No they're not. Some, true, but I rather like the Atlanteans. They were very nice. Most of them. You never met Archon, did you?"
"Now, he could be mean. He was blond, like you, tall like you, well, taller than you, and good-looking like you, but not quite as good-looking as you. I don't think anyone is as good-looking as you are. Not even them gods. You are definitely one of a kind when it comes to looks... Oh-" She started as she remembered his twin. "Well... you're not really one of a kind, are you? But you cuter than that other one. He a bad copy of you. He only wishes he was as cute as you are."
His smile widened.
She placed her finger against her chin and stopped for a minute as if trying to gather her thoughts. "Now where was I going with that? Oh, I remember now. Archon didn't like a lot of people, unlike you. You know that thing you do whenever you get really, really mad? The one where you can blow stuff up and make it all fiery and chunky and messy and all? He could do that too only not with as much finesse as you. You got a lot of finesse, akri. More than most.
"But I digress. Archon liked me. He said, 'Simi, you a quality demon.' Have you ever seen a non-quality demon, though? That's what I wanna know."
Amused, Ash listened as she rambled on about gods and goddesses worshiped in his mortal lifetime. Gods and goddesses long dead now. He loved to listen to her nonlinear tales and logic.
It was like watching a small child as it tried to sort out the world and remember something. There was no telling from one minute to the next what would come out of her mouth. She saw things clearly, like a child.
If you had a problem, you killed it.
End of problem.
Subtleties and politics were beyond her.
Simi just was. She wasn't amoral or vicious, she was just an extremely young demon with godlike powers who had no comprehension of deceit or treachery.
How he envied her that. It was why he shielded her so carefully. He didn't want her to learn the hard lessons that had been dealt to him.
She deserved to have the childhood he had never known. One that was sheltered and protected. One in which no one was allowed to hurt her.
He didn't know what he would do without her.
She'd been nothing more than an infant when she'd been given to him. Barely twenty-one himself, the two of them had pretty much raised each other. They were both the last of their kind on this earth.
For more than eleven thousand years it had been just the two of them.
She was as much a part of him as any vital organ.
Without her, he would die.
The door of the temple opened. Simi hissed, baring her fangs, letting him know Artemis had returned early.
Ash turned his head for confirmation. Sure enough, the goddess was striding toward him.
He let out a tired breath.
Artemis pulled up short as she saw Simi sitting at his feet "What is it doing off your arm?"
"Talking to me, Artie."
"Make it go away."
Simi huffed. "I don't have to do nothing you say, you old heifer cow. And you are old. Really, really old. And a cow, too."
"Simi," Ash said, stressing her name. "Please return to me."
Simi cast an evil glare at Artemis, then became a dark, amorphous shadow. She moved over to him and laid herself over his chest to become a huge dragon on his torso with fiery spirals that wrapped around and down both of his arms.
Ash laughed darkly at the sight. It was Simi's way of hugging him and tweaking Artemis at the same time. Artemis thoroughly hated it whenever Simi covered so much of his body.
Artemis let out a disgusted sound. "Make it move."
He crossed his arms over his chest. "Why are you back so early?"
She instantly became nervous.
His bad feeling tripled. "What happened?"
Artemis walked to the column at his feet, wrapped her arm around it and leaned against the marble. She played with the gilded edge of her peplos as she worried her lip.
Ash sat up straight, his stomach knotted. If she was this evasive something had gone mind-blowingly wrong. "Tell me, Artemis."
She looked exasperated and angry. "Why should I tell you? You'll just get angry at me and you practically stay that way anyway. I tell you, then you'll want to leave and you can't leave and then you'll yell at me."
The knot in his gut tightened. "You have three seconds to talk or I'm forgetting about your fear that one of your family members will discover I'm living in your temple. I will use my powers and I will find out what has happened on my own."
"No!" she snapped, turning to look at him. "You can't do that."
A tic started in his jaw.
She moved back, putting the column between them. She took a deep breath as if for strength, then spoke in the voice of a small, frightened child. "Thanatos is loose."
"What!" he roared, lowering his legs to the floor and coming to his feet.
"See! You're yelling."
"Oh, trust me," he said between clenched teeth, "this isn't yelling. I haven't even come close to it yet." Ash pushed himself away from the banister and paced angrily around the long balcony. It took all his strength not to lash out at her. "You promised me you would recall him."
"I tried, but he got away."
"I don't know. I wasn't there and now he refuses to heel."
Ash glared at her.
Thanatos was on the loose and the only one who could stop him was under house arrest in Artemis's temple.
Damn her for her tricks and promises. There was no way he could leave here. Unlike the Olympians, once he gave his word, he was bound by it.
It would kill him to break his oath. Literally.
Anger roiled through him. Had she listened to him the first time, they wouldn't be reliving this nightmare. "You swore to me nine hundred years ago when I killed the last one that you wouldn't re-create Thanatos. How many people did that one kill? How many Dark-Hunters? Do you even remember?"
She stiffened and returned his glare. "I told you, we needed someone to corral your people. You won't do it. You won't even control your demon. It was the only reason I made another one. I need someone who can execute them when they misbehave. You, you just make excuses for them. 'You don't understand, Artemis. Waa, waa, waa.' I understand, all right. You prefer to tend to anyone but me so I created someone who listens when I speak." She glared meaningfully at him. "Someone who actually obeys me."
Ash counted to ten three times while he clenched and unclenched his fists. She had a way of making him want to lash out and hurt her that came dangerously close to breaching all of his control.
"Don't get me started on that one, Artie. It seems to me 'obey' isn't a word that belongs in the same sentence as your executioner."
Driven mad by his confinement and thirst for vengeance, the last Thanatos had ripped through England with such force that Ash had had to fabricate stories of a "plague" to keep the humans and Dark-Hunters from learning the truth of what had actually destroyed forty percent of the country's population.
Ash raked his hands over his face at the thought of what Artemis had unleashed onto the world again. He should have known when he asked her to recall it that it was too late for her to do so.
But like a fool, he had counted on her to do as she promised.
He should have known better.
"Damn you, Artemis. Thanatos has the powers to gather Daimons and make them do his bidding. He can call them from hundreds of miles away. Unlike my Hunters, he walks in the daylight and is impossible to kill. The only vulnerability he has is unknown to them."
She scoffed at him. "Well, that's your own fault. You should have told them about him."
"Told them what, Artemis? Behave or the bitch-goddess will unleash her insane killer on you?"
"I am not a bitch!"
He moved to stand before her, pressing her back against the column. "You have no idea what you have created, do you?"
"He's nothing more than a servant. I can recall him."
He looked at her trembling hands and the beads of perspiration on her forehead.
"Then why are you shaking?" he asked. "Tell me how he got loose."
She swallowed. But wisely gave him the information he sought. "Dion did it. He was bragging in the hall about it right before I came to tell you."
Ash cursed himself this time. He shouldn't have removed the god's memory of their fight in New Orleans. He should have let the idiot know exactly what he was dealing with. Left Dionysus so scared of him that the Olympian god would never again dare to confront him or any of his men.
But no, he'd sought to protect Artemis. She didn't want her family to know who and what he was.
To them he was only her pet. A human curiosity, easily discarded and dismissed.
If they only knew...
He'd removed enough of everyone's memory of that night so they would only recall that a fight had happened and who the winners were.
Not even Artemis remembered everything.
Artemis had promised him Dionysus wouldn't go after Zarek for retribution. But then Artemis had thought to kill Zarek herself.
When would he learn?
She could never be trusted.
Ash moved away from her. "You have no idea what it does to someone to lock them away. To place them in a hole where they're forgotten."
"And you do?"
Ash fell silent as suppressed memories flooded him. Painful, bitter memories that haunted him whenever he dared to think of the past.
"You'd best pray that you never learn what it feels like. The madness, the thirst. The anger. You've created a monster, Artemis, and I'm the only one who can kill it."
"Then we're in for a bit of a problem, aren't we? You can't leave."
He narrowed his eyes.
She stepped back again. "I told you, I will contact the Oracles and have them bring him home again."
"You better, Artemis. Because if you don't get him under control, the world is going to become the very thing that makes you wake up screaming at night."
Zarek lay on the beach, still inside Astrid, as the waves ran over their bodies. This dream was so real and intense that he never wanted to wake from it.
What would it be like to have her for real?
But even as he thought about that, he knew the truth. A woman like Astrid had no use or need for a man like him.
It was only in his dreams that he could be wanted. Needed.
He moved to her side so that he could watch the water run over her naked body. Her hair was wet, plastered to her skin. She looked like a sea nymph that had just swum ashore to bask in the warm sunlight and seduce him with her curves and silken skin.
She looked up at him with a sweet smile that made his heart pound as she ran her hand over his arms and chest.
Astrid lay in silence, watching him, too. Zarek looked so lost now, as if their lovemaking had left him confused.
She wondered what it would take to tame this man, just a little. Only enough so that other people could see what she saw.
At least now he let her touch him without cursing or withdrawing from her.
It was a start.
She trailed her hand lower over the hard planes of his chest, down the perfect definitions of his abdomen. Hunger ignited in his eyes as she moved her hand lower.
Astrid licked her lips, wondering if she dared be even more bold with him. She still wasn't sure how he would react to anything.
She played with the small, crisp hairs that ran downward from his navel, raking her fingers through them. He was already starring to harden...
Zarek held his breath as he watched her. Her hand felt wonderful on his body as she drew circles around his navel and trailed her fingernail down the short, light dusting of hair on his stomach.
Already he was craving her again.
Then she moved her hand lower.
He growled as she cupped his sac in her palm. Her warm hand enclosed him, squeezing him exquisitely.
His groin jerked, and all the blood rushed back into the region, making him hard and aching for her.
She ran her finger down his shaft to the tip, where she toyed with him. "I think you like it when I do that."
He answered her with a kiss.
Astrid moaned at the passion he showed. He throbbed in her hand while his tongue danced with hers, exciting her to the highest level of need.
She pulled away reluctantly, desperate to give him what was unknown to him.
The word caught in her mind. She knew she didn't love him. She barely knew him, and yet...
He made her feel again. Touched the emotions she had feared were forever lost. She owed him much for that.
Kissing his lips lightly, she scooted down his body.
Zarek frowned at her actions. He didn't know what she had planned until she laid herself over his stomach. Her bare back was exposed to him as she continued to stroke him with her hand.
He ran his hand through her long, wet blond hair, trailing it over her bare back while her breath tickled his hip. Her skin was so soft, so tender. There wasn't a blemish anywhere on it.
She moved lower.
Zarek gasped as she took the tip of his shaft slowly into her warm mouth.
He was frozen by pleasure. The feel of her lips and tongue caressing him was unlike anything he'd experienced before. No woman but Astrid had ever touched him there. He'd never allowed it.
But he doubted he could deny her anything after this. She had laid claim to him in a way no one ever had.
Astrid moaned at the salty taste of him. When her sisters had told her about this, she had always considered it obscene and nasty. At the time and for centuries afterward, she couldn't imagine herself ever doing something like this with a man.
But she did it for Zarek; there was nothing obscene about the feelings inside her. Nothing obscene about the way he tasted.
She was giving him a rare moment of pleasure, and strange as it seemed, she enjoyed it, too.
He gripped her shoulders and groaned in response to every lick, nibble, and suckle she gave him. His warm response urged her on. She really wanted to please him. To give him all the things he deserved.
Zarek arched his back, letting her have her way with him. It amazed him that he allowed her to do this. Never before had he trusted a lover with his body. He'd always been in complete control.
The woman didn't touch him. Ever.
She didn't caress or kiss him.
He bent her over, did his business, and walked off.
But with Astrid it was different. He felt as if he were sharing himself with her. As if she were sharing herself with him.
It was mutual and wonderful.
Astrid started as she felt Zarek's fingers slide down her cleft. Opening her legs for him, she gave him access as she continued to pleasure him with her mouth.
Zarek turned more to his side all the while his fingers stroked and delved.
She shivered at the warmth of his touch as the cool surf rushed around them. The heat of the sun on her skin was nothing compared to the heat his touch provided.
He made her burn.
He nudged her legs farther apart.
Astrid moaned as his mouth covered her.
Her head swam in pleasure as he ran his tongue over the center of her body where she craved more of his touch. His tongue flicked across her, spearing her. Enticing her.
His hands gripped her hips as he pressed her pelvis closer to him so that he could torture her with more wicked delights.
Zarek shook at the sensation of tasting her while she tasted him. This was so much more than sex they shared.
She was right, they were making love to each other.
And it shook him all the way to his missing soul.
They took their time with each other, stroking, caressing, making sure that they were both sated. They came together in one pure burst of emotion.
Astrid pulled back as Zarek continued to tease her.
So intent on her, Zarek wasn't paying attention to the water. Not until a large wave rolled over them.
He sputtered as he swallowed a large amount of water.
The wave rolled back, leaving both of them choking and gasping.
Astrid laughed, the sound dulcet and vibrant. "Now that was interesting."
He kissed his way up her body so that he could smile down at her. "More aggravating, in my opinion."
She reached her hand up to touch his cheeks. "Prince Charming has dimples."
He stopped smiling instantly and looked away.
She turned his head back toward her. "Don't stop smiling, Zarek. I like this side of you."
His eyes flared angrily. "Meaning you don't like the other side of me?"
She made a disgusted sound at him. "You are so surly." She ran her hand down his back until she could cup his naked butt in her hands. "After today, haven't you realized I'm rather fond of all sides of you? Even though some are more prickly than others." She ran her hand over his whisker-covered cheek to emphasize her point.
He relaxed a degree. "I shouldn't be with you."
"And I shouldn't be with you. Yet here we are and I am very happy about it." She wiggled her bottom against him, making him groan in response.
He looked at her as if he couldn't believe she was real, and in his mind she wasn't. She was only a dream.
Astrid wondered how he would react when he woke up. Would any of this help or would he withdraw further from her?
She wished she could strip his bad memories from him. Give him a happy childhood filled with love and tenderness.
A life of joy and friendship.
He laid his head down between her breasts and stayed there quietly as if content to feel nothing more than her under him while the sun warmed them both.
"Tell me of a happy memory, Zarek. One thing in your life that was good."
He hesitated for so long that she didn't think he would answer. When he spoke, his voice was so soft that it made her ache. "You."
Tears gathered in her eyes. She hugged him with her body, cradling him, hoping that in some way she soothed his troubled, restless spirit.
Astrid knew then that she would fight for this man, and in the back of her mind came a frightening realization.
She was falling in love with him.
For a moment, she couldn't breathe as the notion hung in her thoughts like a frightening specter.
But there was no denying what she felt for him, the lengths she would go to see him safe and happy.
His breath teased her nipple while his heart thudded against her stomach.
No one had touched her the way he did and it wasn't just the sex. He made her feel soft and womanly. Desirable.
He didn't baby her and yet he did such kind things to take care of her.
Closing her eyes, she let his weight and the water soak into her. Let his slick, cool skin soothe her.
What was she going to do? Zarek wasn't the kind of man to let anyone love him.
Especially not a woman who had been sent to pass judgment on him.
If he ever learned what she was, he would hate her.
That knowledge ripped through her, stealing the happiness of the day.
But eventually, she would have to tell him.
Jess left the black Ford Bronco and slid his sawed-off shotgun out from under the seat.
Just in case.
The night winds were frigid, the moonlight bright and eerie as it reflected off the snow. He adjusted his sunglasses, not that they made much difference.
The Alaskan climate was hard on a Dark-Hunter's sensitive eyes.
Zarek's house was dark and empty, but a bright red snow-machine was parked in front of it Jess's Squire, Andy Simms, who had come up here with him from Reno, ambled out of the Bronco and eyed the snowmachine suspiciously.
Barely six feet in height with black hair and brown eyes, Andy had just turned twenty-one. He'd only worked for Jess a few months and had come in after Andy's father retired last spring.
Jess had known the pup since the day he was born, and tended to look on him like a little brother.
Pesky and all.
"Is that another Squire?" Andy asked, indicating the snow-machine with a nod.
Jess shook his head. The Squires were in the two SUVs pulling up behind them.
They made more noise than a herd of nervous cattle as they left their four-wheel-drives and gathered round him.
There were twelve of the Squires altogether, but Jess only knew a couple of them.
Otto Carvalletti was the tallest of the group. Standing a cool six feet five inches, he had jet-black hair that was a bit long, but well styled, as if the man spent a lot of time on it.
He glared penetratingly at all times, and Jess figured if the man ever did manage to smile, it would crack his face.
One half of Otto's family was Italian Mafia while the other half was one of the oldest Squire families known. A real blue blood, Otto's grandfather had once headed up the Squires' Council.
Tyler Winstead came to them from Milwaukee. Barely five feet seven, the blond man was wholesome looking until you caught sight of his eyes. There was nothing wholesome in his gaze. Only intensity.
That left Allen Kirby. Another multi-generational Squire, Allen had been called out from Toronto for this hunt. Since Otto never spoke two words, Allen was the smart-ass of the herd.
But, something told Jess, Otto could easily outdo Allen's biting comments if he chose to do so.
"I knew he'd be here," Allen said as he eyed the snow-machine with pert malice.
Jess passed a bored stare at him. "It's not Zarek. Believe me, red isn't his color."
But he suspected the snowmachine did belong to a Dark-Hunter. He could feel the drain on his powers already.
"How do you know it's not him?" Tyler asked.
Jess rested the shotgun on his shoulder. "I just do."
He ordered the Squires to stay put and ambled up the driveway toward the snowmachine. Using his teeth, he pulled the glove off his left hand and placed it on the engine.
It was cold but that meant nothing in this subzero temp, he realized all of a sudden, and he felt like a jackass for even bothering. The snowmachine could have been here five minutes or five hours. In this kind of cold, even a raging fire would be chilled within minutes of going out.
So who did it belong to?
He looked left and right and saw no sign of anyone.
Until he heard a soft thud to his left. He barely had time to pull his gun off his shoulder before four Daimons broke through the foliage.
They paused at the sight of him, then put their heads down and ran headlong toward him.
Jess caught one with a shotgun blast to the chest, then flipped a second one up and over using the stock of his gun.
A crossbow bolt shot past his face, narrowly missing him and striking one Daimon as Jess killed the one at his feet. The last one attacked, but didn't get more than a step before another bolt landed square in his chest and he burst into powdered dust.
"Nasty bloodsucking rats."
He arched a brow at the soft, feminine voice that preceded the appearance of a tall, well-built woman.
Her long, black hair was braided down her back and she wore a tight black leather pantsuit that reminded him a bit of Emma Peel from The Avengers. Only it was much more devastating on the woman approaching him.
A second Dark-Hunter came out of the woods behind her. He was a good four inches taller than Jess with white-blond hair and a predator's lope that said "mess with me and get hurt." He was dressed in a long fur coat and he seemed extremely comfortable in the arctic chill.
The woman paused by Jess's side and offered him her hand. "Syra of Antikabe."
Jess inclined his head and took her hand. "Jess Brady, ma'am, pleased to meet you."
"Sundown," the other Dark-Hunter said as he joined them. He kept his hands in his pockets. "I've heard a lot about you. You're a long way from home."
Jess eyed him suspiciously. "And you are?"
He inclined his head in turn to the Viking warrior. Rumor had it Bjorn had been one of the original Norsemen who had invaded Dark Age Normandy.
"I've heard of you," he said to Bjorn, then he turned to look at Syra. "But no offense, ma'am, you I don't know."
"Sure you do. The assholes on the loop call me Yukon Jane."
He smiled at that. Yukon Jane was an Amazon warrior from the third or fourth century b.c. She was rumored to be almost as ill-tempered as Zarek. She loved to hunt and kill, and was stationed in the Yukon because she'd once maimed a king who annoyed her.
"Well, now," Jess drawled with a wicked grin as he gave her elegant pose an appreciative once over, "all I can say is none of them that insult you have ever had the pleasure of your company, Miss Syra. Otherwise, they'd be calling you Queen Jane."
She smiled warmly at that. "You are a charmer and polite, too. Zoe was right."
Jess's grin widened.
Allen cleared his throat. "Well, Lord Debonair and Lady Lethal, if we can have a minute of your time, we do have a psycho to hunt."
Jess glared over his shoulder at Allen, but before he could comment, Syra shot another bolt from her crossbow.
Allen went flying and landed flat on his back in the snow.
Syra walked over to him and stared down. "I don't particularly like Squires and I really hate the Blood Rites. So save yourself some pain and don't speak to me again. Or next time I'll use a Daimon bolt on you."
She reached down and picked up the flathead bolt she'd used.
Jess laughed. He liked a woman with gumption.
And a deadly aim.
"So," she said, turning around and eyeballing the lot of them. "I've been chasing a group of Daimons for the last four days as they headed toward Fairbanks. Bjorn followed a tribe of them up from Anchorage. That explains why we're here. What about the rest of you? Jess, did you trail Daimons from Reno to Alaska?"
Otto moved out of the group of Squires and paused in front of Syra. "We've come to kill Zarek of Moesia, and if you get in our way, little girl, we're going to kill you!"
"I'll be damned," Jess said, pulling his sunglasses down low on the bridge of his nose to stare at Otto. "He speaks. Or rather growls."
"But not for long if he doesn't watch his mouth." Syra gave Otto a mean and lethal glare. "For the record, Squire, it would take more man than you to even scratch me."
Otto returned her glare with a flirtatious smile. "I live for a woman who scratches. Just make sure you keep it on the back, baby. I don't like scars."
Otto brushed past her.
"I really hate Squires," Syra snarled. She pulled another flat bolt out and loaded it, then shot it at Otto.
Moving so fast he could hardly be seen, the Squire turned around and caught it without flinching. He held the bolt up to his nose and inhaled it lovingly. "Mmm," he said. "Rose. My favorite."
Jess exchanged a knowing look with Andy. "Perhaps we should leave you two alone."
"Yeah," Allen said with a short laugh, "this does remind me a bit of the mating rites of the mean and the surly. All we need now is Nick Gautier."
Otto slung the bolt at Allen who grunted as it made contact with his stomach.
Syra's face was beet red as she glared at Otto, who ignored her and sauntered toward the cabin.
"Do you have a Squire, Jess?" she asked as she and Bjorn walked beside him.
He nodded toward Andy. "Raised that one from a whelp."
"Does he listen?"
"You're lucky. I shot my last three." As she headed toward the cabin, Syra added, "And it wasn't with the flat bolt."
Well, at least things were a mite more amusing with the two new additions to their crew.
But as Jess entered Zarek's cabin behind Bjorn, Syra, and three of the Squires, his humor died.
The rest of the group had to wait outside since no one else would fit in the small square space.
This wasn't a case of the cabin being bigger inside than it looked outside. It was just the reverse.
Inside, the place was well kept, but cramped and dismal.
The Squires held halogen lanterns up, illuminating the stark interior. There was a pallet on the floor with an old, worn-out pillow and a few threadbare blankets and furs. The television was set on the floor and the walls were lined with bookshelves. The only pieces of furniture in the house were two cupboards.
"Good Lord," Allen said. "He lives like an animal."
"No," Syra said as she walked over to the bookshelves to skim the titles. "He lives like a slave. For him, this would be a step up from what he was used to."
She met Jess's gaze. "You know the man?"
"Yeah and you're right." Jess had to duck out of the ceiling fan's way as he moved around the room. He remembered that Zarek was a full two inches taller than him.
"Damn," he said as he turned the fan blade with his finger and remembered another thing Zarek had once told him.
"What?" Bjorn asked.
Jess looked back at the Alaskan Hunter who was inspecting Zarek's pantry, which contained only a few cans of food and a ton of unopened vodka bottles. "How hot does it get up here in the summertime?"
Bjorn shrugged. "In the heart of the summer it can get in the high eighties and nineties. Why?"
Jess cursed again. "I remember talking to Zarek once. I asked him how he was doing. He said, 'Baking.' " Jess nodded at the small ceiling fan. "I just now realized what he meant. Can you imagine being trapped in this place in the dead of summer with no windows and no air-conditioning?"
Syra let out a low whistle. "We have round-the-clock sunshine. You're lucky if you can leave for more than ten minutes a day."
"What does he do for a bathroom?" Allen asked.
Syra indicated a small chamber pot in the left corner.
"How long has he been here?" she asked Jess. "Eight, nine hundred years?"
She let out a low whistle. "No wonder he's insane."
Allen scoffed. "With the money he gets paid, the idiot could have built himself a mansion."
"No," Jess said. "It's not his way. Trust me, when you're used to nothing, you expect nothing."
Syra walked over to the corner where a mountain of carved figurines were piled. "What are these?"
Jess frowned as he noticed the walls of the cabin and realized every single inch of them was covered with intricate carvings that matched the figurines.
Suddenly he recalled the wood sculptures he'd seen in the convenience store.
The ice sculptures he'd seen in town.
Poor Zarek must have gone loco time and again from boredom during the months he was confined to this tiny shed.
Hell, Jess had a bigger garage at home. "I would say it's Zarek's attempt to maintain a shred of sanity while he's locked away up here."
Bjorn picked up a painted figurine that looked like a polar bear with its cubs. "These are incredible."
Syra nodded. "I've never seen anything like them. It hardly seems right that we kill someone who's had to live like this all these centuries."
Allen snorted. "It hardly seems right that he was allowed to live after he murdered everyone in the village he was charged with watching."
Otto passed an interesting look to the Squire. If Jess didn't know better, he'd suspect the man had second thoughts about killing Zarek.
Their gazes locked.
Nope, no doubt. In fact, he suspected Otto might have been sent along for other reasons... as he had been.
"Well, guys, it's been fun," Bjorn said. "But my powers are waning from Jess and Syra and we still have a small matter of the Daimon migration to sort out. Anyone have any ideas why they would do this?"
They all looked to Syra who was the oldest.
"What?" she asked.
"Have you ever seen or heard of anything like this?"
She shook her head. "I've heard of Daimons teaming up. Back in the centuries before you guys were born, they used to have warrior Daimons. But no one has seen a Spathi in at least a millennium. All this beats me. It's a pity we can't reach Acheron. He might have more information."
Bjorn headed out of the cabin.
Jess pulled up the rear and looked back inside the shack one more time.
Damn. He felt real sorry for his friend and the life Zarek had been given.
He couldn't imagine being stuck out in the woods all alone in temperatures that ranged from forty below to ninety.
No wonder Ash took such pity on Zarek.
Six of the squires went to the SUVs and unloaded gasoline containers.
"What are you doing?" Jess asked suspiciously.
"Burning him out," a redheaded Squire said. "You want to hunt, you-"
"Like hell!" Jess grabbed the container from the man's hand and slung it toward the woods. "This is all he has in the world. No way I'm going to let you take it from him."
Allen sneered at him. "He beat up that woman."
Jess narrowed his gaze. "You have yet to prove it to me."
Allen rolled his eyes, as if unable to understand how he could defend his friend. "If Zarek didn't do it? Who did?"