Standing behind him was an odd demonic woman with long blond hair, pointed ears, and large, batlike wings. She was cute in a very strange sort of way.
She stared at him without moving.
Instead of fighting, she turned with a squeak and ran for the back of the cave.
Zarek followed her, intending to stop her before she reached Astrid, but he couldn't.
The demon ran straight for her and to his astonishment she rushed behind Astrid and put her between them. The demon's wings constricted and folded in around her body as if to protect her.
The demon placed a hand on Astrid's shoulder as she eyed him cautiously. "Tell him to leave me alone, Astrid. Else I'll have to barbecue him and make akri angry at me. I don't want to make akri angry."
Astrid covered the demon's hand with hers. "Simi? Is that you?"
"Yes. C'est moi. The little demon with hornays."
Zarek lowered his claws. "You two know each other?"
Astrid frowned as she faced him again. "Don't you know her?"
"She's a demon. Why would I know her?"
"Because she's Acheron's companion."
Completely stunned, Zarek gaped at the small creature who did have odd eyes much like Acheron's. They were pale and glowing, but hers were rimmed with red. "Ash has a companion?"
The demon snorted. She stood up and whispered loudly in Astrid's ear. "Dark-Hunters are cute, but very stupid."
He gave her a peeved glare as Astrid choked back a laugh.
"What are you doing here, Simi?" Astrid asked.
The demon looked around the tunnel and pouted in a way that reminded him of a small child. "Feeling peckish. Is there any food? Something not too heavy. Maybe a cow or two?"
"No, Simi," Astrid said. "No food."
The demon made a rude noise as she stepped away from Astrid. " 'No, Simi. No food,' " she mocked. "You sound like akri. 'Don't eat that, Simi, you'll cause an ecological disaster.' What is an ecological disaster, that's what I want to know? Akri says it's me on hunger binge, but I don't think that's quite right, but that's all he'll say about it."
Disregarding both of them, the demon began searching through his weapons.
She grabbed a grenade and tried to bite into it.
Zarek snatched it away from her. "That's not food."
The demon opened her mouth as if to speak, then snapped it shut. "Why are you in a dark hole, Astrid? Did you fall?"
"We're hiding, Simi."
"Hiding?" She snorted again. "From what?"
"Pffft..." The demon rolled her eyes and waved her hand dismissively. "Why you hiding from that loser? He wouldn't even make good barbecue. Barely take the edge off my peckishness. Hmmm... How come there's no food here?" She looked speculatively at Astrid.
Zarek stepped between them.
The demon stuck her tongue out at him and returned to searching his supplies.
"Why are you here?" Zarek asked.
The demon ignored him. "Where's Sasha, Astrid? He'd make good barbecue. Something about that wolf meat. Very tasty once you get all that hair off. Barbecued hair not particularly tasty, but it'll do in a pinch."
"He's not here, thankfully. But why are you here without Acheron?"
"Akri told me to come."
"Who is akri?" Zarek asked.
Simi ignored him.
"Acheron," Astrid explained. "Akri is an Atlantean term for 'lord and master.'"
He scoffed at that. "Well, la-di-da. No wonder he has such a big head, with a pet demon following him around, calling him 'lord and master.'"
Astrid gave him an agitated look. "He's not like that, Zarek, and you'd best not insult him around the Simi. She tends to take such things personally, and without Acheron here to call her off she's deadlier than a nuclear bomb."
He looked over at the small demon with new respect. "Really?"
Astrid nodded. "Her race once held dominion over the entire earth. Even the Olympian gods were terrified of the Charontes, and only the Atlanteans were ever able to defeat and harness them."
Simi looked up and gave him a wide, toothy grin that revealed her fangs evilly. She licked her lips as if savoring some tasty morsel. "I would like to barbecue those Olympian gods. They are very tasty. One day, I'm going to eat that redheaded goddess, too."
"She doesn't like Artemis," Astrid explained.
So he gathered.
"The Simi hates her, but akri says, 'No, Simi, you can't kill Artemis. Behave, Simi, don't shoot fire at her, don't make her bald, Simi.' No, no, no. It's all I hear."
She glared at Zarek meaningfully. "I don't like that word. 'No.' It even sounds evil. The Simi tends to barbecue anyone dumb enough to say it to her. But not akri. He's allowed to say no to me; I just don't like it when he does."
Zarek frowned as he watched Simi hop along from box to box like a butterfly. She exclaimed giddily when she found his store of gold and jewels that Artemis paid him with every month.
"Look!" Simi said, scooping up a handful of diamonds. "You got sparklies like akri. He gives all of his to me." She held an emerald necklace up to her throat. "He say I look beautiful in sparklies, 'specially them red ones that match my eyes. Here, Astrid," she said, bringing another necklace over to them and fastening it around Astrid's neck.
"I know you can't see it, Astrid, but it is very lovely, like you. You need to wear that and then you have sparklies, too." She looked up at Astrid's head. "But still no hornays. We need to fix you up with hornays one day so you can be a demon, too. It's fun being a demon-except when people try to exercise you... Wait, that's not the right word. I forget, but you know what I mean."
There was something strangely charismatic about her, but she didn't seem to be quite right... in more ways than one.
"Is she okay?" he asked Astrid. "I mean, no offense, she sounds more mental than I do."
Astrid laughed. "You have to remember that Acheron, shall we say, indulges her a lot and Simi's not fully grown."
"Yes I am," Simi said in a tone that reminded him of a five-year-old child. She had a peculiar singsongy accent unlike anything he'd ever heard before.
"The Simi has needs," she continued idly. "Lots of needs. I need akri's plastic card, for one thing. It very nice. People give me lots of stuff when I hand it to them. Ooo, I really like the new plastic card he gave me with my own name on it. It blue and all sparkly and it says Simi Parthenopaeus."
She looked up like a giddy child. "Doesn't that have a nice ring to it? I have to say it again. Simi Parthenopaeus. I like that a lot. It even has my picture in the corner and I am a very attractive demon if I do say so myself. Akri says it, too. 'Simi, you are beautiful.' I like it when he tells me that."
"Does she always ramble on like this?" Zarek whispered under his breath in Astrid's ear.
She nodded. "Trust me, it's wise to let her ramble, too. She gets rather upset if you tell her to be quiet. She once ate a lesser god who did that."
Simi cocked her head as if another thought came to her addled mind. "And I particularly like men all of a sudden." She looked over at Zarek who involuntarily cringed. "But not that one. He's too dark. I like them blue-eyed people 'cause they remind me of my card. People like that Calvin Klein model Travis Fimmel who was on this big billboard in New York the last time akri took me there. He mighty fine and makes me want to do things to him other than flame-broil him. He makes me all warm and tingly."
"Okay, Simi. Warm and tingly. I think we need to switch topics," Astrid said.
Zarek wasn't sure if he should feel relieved or insulted by her comments about him. But he definitely agreed a change in topic would be nice.
Astrid turned to where she thought Simi might be, but Simi had already moved.
The demon seemed to have an aversion to sitting still.
"Simi, why did Acheron send you here?"
Simi pulled a sheathed dagger out of a box and examined it with a skill that made Zarek arch his brow. Childlike she might appear, but there was nothing childish in the way Simi handled his weapons.
She tested the balance of the blade like a pro. "To protect you from Thanatos so that your sisters don't get all freaky and destroy the world. Or something like that. I don't know why all of you fear the end of the world. It's not so bad, really. At least then akri's mama be free. Then she wouldn't be so cranky at the Simi all the time."
Zarek started at her words. "Ash's mother is still alive?"
She covered her mouth with her hand and dropped the dagger. "Oh, akri get mad whenever I tell that. Bad Simi. I not talk anymore. I need food."
Zarek rubbed his head as Simi went back to opening boxes. Oh, this was great. He had a nymph to protect, a psycho something out to kill them, and now a mental demon to contend with.
Oh, yeah, this got better and better.
He looked over at Astrid, who had her brow furrowed as if thinking over Simi's disclosures.
"Just who are your sisters, Astrid, that they can destroy the world?" Zarek asked.
Astrid cringed a tiny bit and shifted uneasily.
This was about to get worse.
He knew it.
Cringing even more, she whispered, "The Fates."
Zarek went cold. Oh, yeah, his life, as bad as it was, just went careening down to Shitsville and there was no off ramp in sight.
"Your sisters are the Fates," he repeated, saying each word slowly and enunciating it clearly so that there could be no misunderstanding.
Anger enveloped him. "I see. Your sisters are the Moirae, the three Fates who are in charge of everything. Women who are known to have no mercy or pity on anyone. Women who the gods themselves fear."
She bit her lip. "They're really not so bad. They can be almost nice, if you catch them in the right moods."
"Oh, jeez." Zarek raked his hands through his hair as he struggled to keep his temper from exploding. No wonder Ash had sent Simi. If anything happened to Astrid, there was no telling what could happen. "Please tell me there was a family argument and you and your sisters don't speak to each other. That they can't stand the mention of your name."
"No, no, we're extremely friendly. I'm the baby of the family and they are more like three mothers to me."
Zarek actually whimpered at that. "So you're telling me that right now I'm responsible for Acheron's beloved pet and the favorite sister of the Fates?"
Simi widened her eyes. "Tell Fang-boy I'm not a pet. If he doesn't take a nicer tone to me, he's going to be really sorry."
Astrid ignored Simi's comment. "It's not all bad."
"No? Then by all means tell me something good, Astrid."
"They'll probably side with me when I judge you innocent."
She nodded lamely.
Zarek growled at that. Leave it to him. Whenever he got screwed by something it was never in a little way.
Astrid turned back to the demon. "Simi, why aren't you talking to Zarek?"
"Because akri said not to. He didn't say I couldn't talk to you, though."
"Do you do everything he tells you to?" Zarek asked her.
Simi ignored him.
"Yes, she does," Astrid answered. "But the good news is, Simi can't lie, either. Can you, Simi?"
"Well, why would I? Lies are too confusing."
Oh, yeah, like she wasn't. He'd never seen anyone or anything more confusing than this demon.
"Why did Acheron tell you not to talk to Zarek?"
"I don't know. That redheaded bitch-goddess got all angry when he told me to come protect you. It went like this..."
The demon flashed from her form into that of Acheron. "Protect Zarek and Astrid. Now."
She transformed into Artemis. "No!" she snapped. "You can't let her go, she'll tell Zarek everything."
Simi, looking like Artemis, put her hand against her cheek and whispered loudly to Astrid. "This the part where the redheaded goddess went on and on about what happened in Zarek's village and akri got all upset at her. Don't know why he won't let me kill her and get it over with, but finally he say..."
She flashed into Ash's body once more. "Simi, don't speak to Zarek but make sure Thanatos doesn't kill either one of them."
Simi returned to her small, slight demonic self. "So I said okay and here I am not talking to Zarek."
"Wow," Zarek said as she stopped her one-demon show. "She's a camcorder, too. How convenient."
She leveled a murderous glare at him, but directed her words at Astrid. "I miss the days when the Simi could pick off Dark-Hunters and no one noticed."
Astrid moved forward to find Simi who took her hand and faced her with a benign, sweet look. It was obvious the demon liked her.
"What happened in his village that Artemis doesn't want Zarek to know about?"
Simi shrugged. "I don't know. She's all paranoid all the time anyway. Afraid akri is going to leave and not come back, which I keep telling him to do. But does he listen? No." Her next comment came out in Ash's voice. "She's not your concern, Simi. You don't understand, Simi."
She made another rude noise. "I understand, all right. I understand the bitch-goddess needs the Simi to barbecue her until she learns to be nice to people. I think she'd be rather attractive on fire. I could make her look like that old sea hag or something."
"Simi!" Astrid stressed her name and took her by her arms as if trying to keep the demon on the topic. "Please tell me what happened in Zarek's village."
"Oh, that. Well, the Thanatos thing, not the one after you now, but the one who came before him, went all wild and killed everybody. Them poor people didn't stand a chance. Akri was so mad he wanted the bitch-goddess's heart for it, only I say she don't have no heart to take."
Zarek felt as if someone had just slugged him. "What are you saying? You mean I didn't kill them?"
Astrid's mind whirled with what Simi was revealing. If Zarek were innocent of destroying his village, then why had he been banished?
"Zarek didn't kill them?" she asked Simi.
"Of course not. No Dark-Hunter would kill their charges. Akri would eat them if they did. Zarek killed them Apollites- which made everybody mad."
Zarek frowned. He didn't remember anything about Apollites. There had never been any around his village. "What Apollites?"
Astrid repeated his question.
Simi spoke slowly and carefully as if they were the ones who had trouble sticking with the conversation. "The ones that Thanatos gathered to use for cannon fodder. Jeez, don't you people know nothing about the Daimons and Apollites? Thanatos can summon them up and make them do things for him. He can do it with people too sometimes.
"He was sent by Artemis to kill some Dark-Hunter up in Scotland, then after he did that, he went after all the other Dark-Hunters so that he could destroy them and all the Apollites could live in peace and feed off the humans without worrying about any of you guys."
Astrid shivered at Simi's words as she remembered where she had been nine hundred years ago. "Thanatos is the one who killed Miles in Scotland?"
"Yes," Simi confirmed.
"Then he went after Zarek?"
Simi made an agitated noise. "He's a Dark-Hunter, isn't he? Are you two having some sort of strange human thing that you can't follow what I'm saying?"
Astrid patted Simi's hand hopefully to calm her a bit. "I'm sorry, Simi. You're just telling us some things we knew nothing about."
Simi cocked her head and looked at Zarek. "Oh, I guess that's okay then. Still... you should know something about Thanatos. Him being able to kill you and all."
Astrid sensed Zarek was about to speak. She gave him the kill signal while she continued to question Simi.
"Simi, why doesn't Zarek remember the first Thanatos coming after him?"
" 'Cause he's not supposed to. Akri had to kill Thanatos in front of him and he made it so that Zarek wouldn't remember anything about all that mess."
Zarek let out a slow breath as her words seeped in. Ash had made it so he wouldn't remember.
"Acheron scrambled my brains?"
Astrid's face filled with relief. "You're innocent, Zarek."
Rage tore through him. "So I was banished to this godforsaken hellhole because Acheron killed Thanatos? What kind of bullshit is that?" He paced the floor angrily. "I'll kill that bastard."
Simi shifted instantly into the shape of a "small" dragon.
One that was wedged into their tunnel. Her eyes blazed angrily as she hissed at him. "Did you insult my akri?"
Ready for battle, Zarek opened his mouth to tell her yes and found Astrid shielding him. She stood between them and held him behind her.
"No, Simi. Zarek has a right to be angry. He's been exiled for something he didn't do."
Simi shifted back into her humanoid form. "No he wasn't. He was banished because he killed the Apollites."
Simi took on the form of Artemis. "See, I told you, Acheron, he's insane. He knew better than to kill them."
She became Acheron. "What was he supposed to do? They were throwing themselves at him, trying to kill him. It was self-defense."
"It was murder."
"I swear, Artemis, you kill Zarek over this and I will walk out of that door and never come back."
She transformed back into herself. "See. That's why he was banished. The bitch-goddess didn't want akri to leave her so she agreed to let Zarek live here just so long as other people weren't around him."
Simi looked around the dismal tunnel. "Honestly, I think I'd rather be dead myself. This place more boring than Katoteros and I didn't know it could get more boring than Katoteros. I stand corrected. The next time akri tell me it not so bad at home, I might believe him. You don't even have decent food here. No TV, neither."
Zarek stepped back and stared blankly at the wall as he tried to remember the past while Simi rattled on without pausing.
He could still hear screams from the villagers, but now he wondered...
Whose screams did he really hear?
Astrid felt her way toward him. The warmth of her presence seeped into him. She touched his arm, making him burn reflexively. Something about her touch always rocked him and made him want to turn into her.
Made him want to touch her.
"Are you all right?" she asked.
"No, not really. I want to know what happened to me that night."
She nodded as if she understood. "Simi, is there anything that can undo what Acheron did to Zarek's memory?"
"Nope. Akri infallible. Well, except for a couple of things, and we don't talk about those 'cause it makes akri cranky. I like that word 'infallible.' It just like me. Infallible."
"Then it's hopeless," Zarek said under his breath. "I have no proof that I'm innocent and I'll never know what happened there."
"I'm not so sure," Astrid said, smiling at him. "Don't give up on me yet, Zarek. If we get proof of what she says, then my decision will stand. You're innocent. No one will be able to argue against it. My sisters won't let you be judged wrongfully."
He scoffed. "I was innocent when I was stoned to death, too, princess. Excuse me if I don't have a lot of faith in justice or your sisters."
Astrid swallowed. It was true, the innocent often suffered, too. Her mother and sisters dismissed that fact as the way of the universe, even though her mother did strive to give justice to everyone.
Sometimes unfair things did happen. There was no way around that.
Zarek was a perfect example.
Still, he needed to know the truth about what had happened to him. He deserved that much.
"Simi? Is there any way you can show Zarek what happened that night?"
Simi tapped her forefinger against her cheek as she thought that over. "I suppose so. Akri didn't say I couldn't 'show' him anything, he only said I couldn't talk to him."
Astrid smiled. Simi had always been extremely literal in her interpretation of everything Acheron ordered her to do.
"Will you? Please?"
Simi walked over to Zarek and took his chin in her hand.
Zarek started to protest, but something seemed to seep into him from her hand. It held him paralyzed.
Simi angled his face until he could stare into her now red and yellow eyes and there he saw the past.
Everything faded from around him and all he could focus on was Simi's eyes. The images flickered across her pupils, then straight into his mind. He didn't remember any of it having happened. It was like watching a movie of his own life.
He saw the fires of his village burning to the ground. The bodies scattered. Things that had haunted him for centuries. But that wasn't all he saw this time.
There was more...
Forgotten images that had been taken from him.
He saw himself stumbling upon the village. Bewildered. Angry. The damage had already been done; he wasn't responsible.
Someone else had come to the village before him.
He saw the old crone, whom he took into his arms as he always did. Only this time she said more than her usual accusation. "Death came looking for you. He killed everyone because he wanted us to tell him where you lived. We didn't know and it made him angry." Her old eyes had burned with hatred and condemnation. "Why didn't you come? It's all your fault. You were supposed to protect us and it was you who killed us. You killed my daughter."
He saw the old woman's face. Felt his fury again as he saw what the Daimons had done...
Zarek's heart pounded as he realized the truth.
He was innocent of killing his charges.
None of it had been his fault. He'd been making his normal rounds when he had spotted the fire and he'd rushed to them, but by then it had been too late.
Thanatos had come to the village during the daylight and destroyed it. There hadn't been any way for him to save them.
As he watched her eyes, Simi took him through his forgotten five-night trek to the Apollite village where he'd gone to seek those responsible for the deaths at Taberleigh.
He had fought the Spathi Daimons every step of the way, and one of them had told him of the Dayslayer who would unite their people and destroy the Dark-Hunters. The Spathi had laughed as he died, telling Zarek that the reign of the Dark-Hunters was over.
The Dayslayer would take back the human world and then they would take down the Olympians.
As each night passed and the Spathis increased in number, Zarek realized exactly what the world was facing. Every human village he passed was destroyed. The people dead. Slaughtered. Consumed by the Daimons who didn't want to die.
He'd never seen such devastation. Such waste.
Had he possessed a Squire, he would have sent him on to warn the other Dark-Hunters or to find Acheron and bring him here to help fight. As it was, there was only him and he wanted to stop the destruction before anyone else suffered.
Cold and hungry, Zarek had fought his way to the Apollite village that protected the mysterious entity who had slain his people.
Zarek had arrived only an hour after sundown. As was typical, the Apollites had made their homes underground. The catacombs had been dark and frigid and completely devoid of any souls. Back then, the Apollites had often made their homes near the dead so that they could take the bodiless souls if they needed a quick pick-me-up. In addition, it provided them with a shield. Since Dark-Hunters were comprised of soulless bodies, those souls who needed bodies had a nasty tendency to want to possess them. So catacombs and crypts made the best hiding places for Apollites and Daimons.
Since all the souls had been stripped before his arrival, Zarek had easily found his way through the catacombs.
As he searched the corridors and rooms of the underground lair, he discovered there weren't any Apollite or Daimon families present, only evidence of them having left in a hurry.
In one room, he found a woman with an infant who was weeping.
She looked up at him with a gasp.
"I won't hurt you," he said.
She started screaming for help.
Zarek had backed out of her home and shut the door.
His thoughts had been focused on only one person.
The thing the Spathi had told him had been sent by Artemis to kill all the Dark-Hunters. She who was their creator had betrayed them and created an invincible monster.
Unless he stopped it first. He had hated Artemis then. Hated her not only for creating Thanatos, but for unleashing something like this on the world without warning anyone.
As he moved through the catacombs, Daimons and Apollites attacked him. He fought them off, killing anyone who came at him with a sword. No, he hadn't cared if they were Daimon or Apollite. It hadn't mattered.
Only his vengeance had.
He'd found Thanatos down one of the longer corridors. He'd been with a dozen of his people in a chamber where the Apollites stored textiles.
Zarek had counted five Apollites there and eight Daimons.
But what had given him pause was the lone Apollite woman who had been standing beside Thanatos. She was dressed like the Spathis and stood ready to fight.
Thanatos had smiled evilly at him.
"See," he had said to the Apollites and Daimons gathered. "He is but one while we are many. The Dark-Hunters are not so fierce. They can't combine their numbers without it weakening them. We can kill them as easily as they kill us. Pierce his mark and he dies just like the rest of you."
They had rushed him then.
Zarek had tried to fight his way through them. But they had fought with more strength than he'd ever encountered before. It was as if they were drawing power from Thanatos.
They had overtaken him and thrown him to the ground while they ripped at his clothes trying to find his mark.
He'd already been wounded by previous fights. Weakened by his hunger.
It didn't stop him from fighting with everything he had.
"He doesn't bear the mark of Artemis!" one of them had cried out.
"Of course he does." Thanatos had come forward to see.
Zarek had taken the opportunity to get loose. He had gone for Thanatos's head with his sword.
Thanatos had stepped back and shoved the woman in front of him to protect himself.
With no time to react, Zarek stood there helplessly as she was impaled on his sword.
When she didn't explode, he realized she wasn't a Daimon after all. She was an Apollite.
Horrified, he had met her gaze and saw the tears in her eyes. He'd wanted to help her. To soothe her.
The last thing he had ever wanted was to see her hurt.
Never had he harmed a woman before... not even the woman who had accused him of raping her.
He'd hated himself then even more than he hated Artemis, hated the fact he hadn't been quicker. That he hadn't killed Thanatos instead.
One of the Apollites cried out.
A man. He rushed forward to take the woman and cradle her as she died.
The man looked up at him with hatred and rage.
It was the face of the new Thanatos.
Zarek tried to break away from Simi as he saw that. But she held him fast.
Forced him to watch his past play out.
Thanatos had grabbed him by his throat and shoved him against the wall. "Mark or no mark, you can still die if I dismember you."
Guilt-ridden over the woman, Zarek hadn't even bothered to fight. He'd just wanted it to end.
But as Thanatos went for him, Acheron had appeared out of nowhere.
"Let him go."
The remaining Daimons and Apollites had scattered in fear. Only the one man holding his now dead wife had remained.
Thanatos had turned slowly to face Ash. "And if I don't?"
Ash shot a blast from his hand into Thanatos, who instantly let go of Zarek. Zarek fell to the floor gasping for air through his swollen esophagus.
"It wasn't a choice," Ash said.
Thanatos had rushed to attack.
Ash's eyes had turned a deep, dark red. Darker than blood, they were filled with a swirling fire.
At the point where Thanatos would have attacked him, the invincible assassin disintegrated into dust.
No one had touched him.
Ash had stood there without moving, without flinching.
The lone Apollite had charged him then. Ash had whirled him around and trapped the man in his arms with his back to Ash's front. The Apollite had struggled for release, but Ash had held him effortlessly.
"Shh, Callyx," he'd breathed in the Apollite's ear. "Sleep..."
The Apollite collapsed.
Ash lowered him to the floor.
Shocked, Zarek didn't move as Ash approached him. He didn't know how Ash had known the Apollite's name or how he'd killed Thanatos so easily.
None of it made sense.
Ash didn't try to touch him. He squatted down beside him and cocked his head. "Are you all right?"
Zarek had ignored his question. "Why does Artemis want us dead?"
Ash had frowned at him. "What are you talking about?"
"The Spathis told me. She's creating an army to kill us. I was-"
Ash held his hand up. It felt as if something had paralyzed Zarek's vocal cords.
Indecision played across Ash's face as he stared at him. He swore he could feel the Atlantean in his mind, searching for something.
Finally Acheron sighed. "You've seen too much. Look at me, Zarek."
He had no choice but to obey.
Ash's eyes were once again their strange, swirling silver color. Everything became hazy then, dark. Zarek struggled against the oppressive heat.
The last thing he heard was Ash's voice. "Take him home, Simi. He needs to rest."
Simi released Zarek then.
He stood there motionless as her replay of the events that night filled in the sketchy details of his memory.
He was stunned by what he'd seen. What he'd learned.
"How did you show me all that?" he asked her.
The demon shrugged.
This was getting annoying. Damn Ash for giving her the order not to speak to him. "Astrid, please ask her my question."
Simi looked at him as if he were dense. "Nothing ever goes away in the human mind. It just get misplaced, silly." She said to Astrid as she walked her fingers through his hair, "I just pulled the pieces out so I could see them and then he saw them too when he looked at me. Easy."
Numb from all he'd discovered, Zarek looked over to Astrid who was waiting patiently for them to finish.
"What is Acheron?" he asked her.
"I don't know," Astrid said.
Zarek stepped away, his mind whirling as he tried to remember New Orleans. "He did something with my mind again in New Orleans, didn't he?"
Simi whistled and looked around the room.
"Simi, did he?" Astrid asked.
"Akri only does it when he has to. There were some things in New Orleans that were bad. Things them Dark-Hunters and Olympian gods don't need to know about."
Zarek clenched his teeth. "Such as?"
Astrid repeated his question.
"I said none of you don't need to know."
He wanted to choke the demon, but after what he had just seen Ash do, he thought better of it. "Why does Acheron hide?"
Simi hissed at him and in her anger forgot Ash's order. "Akri hides from no one. He don't need to. Anyone hurt my akri, I eat them."
Zarek ignored her. "Is he human?" he asked Astrid.
Astrid let out a long breath. "I honestly don't know. Whenever I have mentioned his name to my sisters, they become evasive and quiet. He alone seems to frighten them. I've always wondered why, but no one on Olympus will talk about him much. It's really very odd."
Her expression speculative, Astrid turned in the demon's direction. "Simi, tell me about Acheron."
"He's great and wonderful, and he treat me like a goddess. Goddess Simi. That's me."
Astrid winced a bit at that. "I mean, tell me about his birth."
"Oh, that. Acheron was born in 9548 b.c. on the Greek isle of Didymos."
"Who was he born to?"
"King Icarion and Queen Aara of Didymos and Lygos."
Zarek could tell that the answer surprised Astrid, but it didn't surprise him. He'd always suspected Ash was nobility. There was something inherently regal about him. Something that said, "I am the master, you the servant. Bow down and kiss my ass." It was why Zarek had never cared for him.
"Ash isn't a demigod?" Astrid asked.
Simi laughed uproariously at her question. "Akri a demigod? Puh-lease."
Zarek frowned as he realized what Simi had revealed. "Wait, I thought Ash was Atlantean?"
Astrid shook her head. "From the extremely rare rumors I've heard, they say he was born in Greece but raised in Atlantis. Rumor has it he's one of Zeus's sons. But like I said, most people are unwilling to say much of anything about him."
Simi laughed again. "Does he look like old thunder-butt? No. Son of Zeus? How many insults can my akri have?"
Zarek considered that for a minute, and then something else occurred to him. "Can Simi communicate with Ash right now?"
"Then tell him he'd better get his ass here and protect you."
Simi's eyes glared. Her wings flapped.
"Simi," Astrid said quickly. "He didn't mean it like that. Can Ash come here?"
She settled down a bit. "No. He promised the evil heifer goddess that he would stay on Olympus for two weeks. He can't break his oath."
"Then how do I kill Thanatos? I'm going to go out on a limb here and say Ash is the only one of us capable of just looking at him and making him go 'poof.'"
"Simi can kill him."
"No, I can't. Akri said so."
"Then how do we stop him?" Astrid asked.
Simi shrugged. "If akri would let me, I could barbecue him, but since you don't breathe fire it might be kind of hard for you to do that."
"I have a flamethrower."
Astrid snapped her head toward him. "You have a what?" she asked incredulously.
It was his turn to shrug. "It pays to be prepared."
"Well," Simi said. "Those are nice for toasting marshmallows, but they'll only make Thanatos mad. Regular fire won't hurt him. I have this really neat gelatinous goo that comes out with my fire and it squirts my victims so that it don't come off. Wanna see it?"
"No!" they said in unison.
Simi stiffened. "No? I don't like that word."
"We love you, Simi," Astrid said quickly. "We're just scared of your goo."
Astrid hit Zarek in the stomach as he started to correct her about loving Simi.
"Oh," Simi said, "that I understand. Okay, you can live."
After ascertaining that there really was no food there, Simi sat cross-legged on the floor. She hummed to herself as she twirled a strand of hair around her little finger. "So, you got QVC?"
"Afraid not, sweetie," Astrid said.
"You got Soap Net?"
Zarek shook his head.
"You got any TV?" Simi continued in a voice that sounded like a petulant toddler's.
"Are you kidding?" Simi rested her chin in her hand and looked up at him. "You boring people. A demon needs her cable. Akri done tricked me. He didn't tell me I'd have to go without cable. Don't you even have one of those itty-bitty TVs that has batteries?"
Yeah and on that note, he pulled Astrid away from Simi.
"It won't work," she whispered.
"Pulling me away so she won't hear. She hears everything."
He stopped. "Well, then, she's in for an earful."
Zarek stood there looking at Astrid. Memorizing every line of her face, every curve of her body.
He didn't know what to do to protect her. Jess couldn't come get her in the daylight and he didn't trust the Squires to get her to safety, either.
Not to mention the idea of letting them know of his hideout while they were out to kill him themselves didn't seem like a brilliant move either.
There was no one to trust and the only way he knew to protect Astrid was to call Thanatos out and finish this.
Tonight, he would find Thanatos and one of them would die.
It was something he didn't want to tell Astrid. She wouldn't let him go if she knew.
"Look, we'll need food tonight. I'm going to leave you and Simi here where it's safe and I'll go scout supplies."
"Why not send Simi? Nothing can hurt her."
Zarek slid his glance over to the demon, who was playing This Little Piggy on her bare toes.
"Yes, but I don't think she should be let out on her own, do you?"
Astrid hesitated. "You may be right."
Zarek sank to the floor and pulled her down with him. He checked his watch to see that it was less than two hours to sundown.
Less than two hours to be with the woman who had come to mean so much to him.
Lying down, he closed his eyes as she laid her head on his chest and traced circles over him.
"Tell me something good, princess. Tell me what you'll do when this is over."
Astrid stopped moving her hand in circles as she thought about that. What she wanted was to stay with Zarek. But how?
Artemis would have to let him go and she knew her cousin well enough to know Artemis didn't share her toys.
"I'll miss you, Prince Charming."
She felt him tense at that. "Will you really?"
"Yes, I will. What about you?"
"I'll survive. I always do."
Yes, he did. In ways that astounded her.
Astrid traced the line of his jaw. "You should be resting."
"I don't want to rest. I just want to feel you for a little while."
She smiled at that.
"Are you two going to kiss?" Simi asked. "Maybe I should go upstairs or something."
Astrid laughed. "It's okay, Simi. We won't kiss in front of you."
"Does she sleep?" Zarek asked.
"I don't know. Simi, do you sleep?"
"Yes, I do. I have a lovely bed, too. It got dragons carved on it and this big old ivory-colored canopy over the top. Akri had it special made for me long time ago and it has a windup dancer on the headboard. When I was a baby demon, akri would wind it up after he tucked me into bed and I used to watch it until I went to sleep. Sometimes he would sing lullabies to me, too. Akri a good daddy. He takes good care of his Simi."
"What about you, princess?" Zarek asked. "Did your mother tuck you in as a child?"
"Every night, unless she was judging someone and then my sister Atty would."
Astrid didn't ask Zarek who tucked him in. She already knew the answer to that.
She snuggled closer to him.
Zarek stared up at the jagged top of the tunnel. Funny how more than fifty years ago he'd dug this part of it never knowing that one day he would lie here with a lover by his side.
He had no business being with her. No right to touch her.
She was as close to heaven as a man like him was ever going to get.
And yet he didn't want to give her up. Not now.
She was the one person in all of history he would die for.
No doubt tonight he would.