Thanatos lay on a warm, comfortable bed in the house of a Spathi warrior. The Spathi, like the Spathi's family members (both Daimons and Apollites), were all asleep in their bedrooms, waiting for sundown when it would be safe to go out.
After he had lost Zarek's trail last night, Thanatos had searched until exhaustion overtook him.
The Daimons had brought him back here to rest, and though he was still tired, he couldn't sleep anymore. Not while his nightmares racked him.
He could feel the call of the Oracles trying to summon him back to his cage in Tartarus.
He refused to heel.
For nine hundred years he'd been waiting for this. Waiting for his vengeance.
The day Artemis had created him, she had promised him that he would be able to kill Zarek of Moesia. Then for some unknown reason, she had changed their bargain.
Nothing had gone the way she had said.
Instead of living in wealth and comfort, he had been confined to a tiny cell, forgotten and alone.
"No one can ever know you're alive," she'd told him. "At least not until I need you."
And so he had waited. Year after year, century after century, screaming at the goddess to either let him out or kill him.
She'd never answered.
And he'd learned that there were some things worse than the short life span that terrified his Apollite kin.
Immortality in a dark hole was far worse.
He would not go back. No one would ever cage him again. He would tear down the whole of Olympus first.
Artemis had been so afraid of her Dark-Hunters running amok that she hadn't thought ahead. There was no one who could stop him.
Something flickered through his mind. A fragment of a memory.
He saw himself as an Apollite... saw...
The image changed to that of Zarek killing his wife.
Thanatos roared with anger.
No, killing Zarek was too easy.
He wanted the man to suffer just the way he had.
For the first time in nine hundred years, he smiled. Yes. Zarek had protected a woman last night. He had cradled her against him on the snowmachine.
Thanatos rose to his feet and shrugged his coat on. Even though he was exhausted, he wouldn't try to sleep any longer. He dressed quickly, quietly.
He would find the Dark-Hunter. Find his woman.
She would die, but Zarek... he would live. Just as Thanatos had. In eternal pain, aching for his love who was lost.
Zarek paused as he looked down at Astrid, who had fallen asleep while they'd been talking.
He'd never thought to really do that with anyone. But then, he'd done a lot of things with her that he had never thought to experience.
Even asleep she looked tired. Her sweet eyes had circles underneath them.
He placed a kiss on her lips, and moved away so as not to disturb her.
The demon lay on the floor where she had been sitting. She was also sound asleep. One arm was curled under her head while the other hand was tucked under her chin. She reminded him of a little girl. No wonder Ash liked her.
He glanced back at Astrid. His strength.
Simi was Ash's.
And he had responsibility for both of them.
Feeling the full weight of that burden, Zarek grabbed an extra blanket and covered the demon.
She smiled in her sleep and said very softly, "Thank you, akri."
Zarek looked longingly at his coat, which was still underneath Astrid.
He took another blanket over to her and covered her, too. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the small items he'd collected when he'd ventured into his cabin a few minutes before to get food for Simi.
He set them beside Astrid and placed her hand over them so that she could "see" what they were when she awoke.
He let his hand linger on her face.
"I'll miss you," he breathed, knowing that even after he became a Shade she would torment him.
After all, he needed her more than he needed food or air.
She was his life.
Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers through her hair, letting it warm him. He imagined her fiery and soft in his arms. The way she looked when she came for him.
The way her voice sounded whenever she said his name.
Yes, he would definitely miss her.
It was why he had to keep her safe.
Forcing himself away from the comfort she offered, he left the two women.
He went to the end of the tunnel that led out into the woods.
Armed with as much firepower as he could carry, he opened the trapdoor, shivered as the cold air rushed over him, and left to find Thanatos.
Astrid jerked awake when a strange sound invaded her sleep.
"I like that Zarek. He quality people!"
She blinked her eyes open as she recognized Simi's voice. Astrid started to move until she felt something underneath her hand.
Some of Zarek's figurines lay there, and as she traced the lines of them with her fingers, she realized what they were.
Each one was a character from The Little Prince. There were six of them in all: the little prince himself, the sheep, the elephant, the rose, the fox, and the snake.
They were exquisite pieces that had been given even more attention to detail than the others she'd "seen."
"He even gave me a can opener so I don't have to use my fangs. I like that. Metal is hard on the teeth." Simi smacked her lips. "Pork and beans popsicle. Yummy! My favorite."
"Simi?" Astrid said, sitting up. "Where is Zarek?"
"I don't know. I woke up a few minutes ago and found this yummy food he left for me."
"Zarek?" Astrid called.
He didn't answer.
Of course, for him, that was typical.
"Simi, is he in the cabin?"
"I don't know."
"Would you please go see?"
"Zarek!" Simi shouted.
"Simi, I could have done that."
The demon gave a heavy, irritated sigh. "Okay, but don't let my beans thaw out." She paused, then added, "Akri said to protect you, Astrid, not to fetch for you. Zarek a big Dark-Hunter and he can walk about on his own."
Astrid felt the demon vanish.
After a few minutes she came back. "Nope, he not there, neither."
Astrid's heart pounded.
Maybe he had just gone for more food.
"Did he leave a note, Simi?"
Zarek kicked open the door to the first Apollite house he reached. The small community of Apollites had been here for several decades now on the outskirts of Fairbanks, but he'd left them alone.
Dark-Hunter Code forbade any Hunter from harming an Apollite until they turned into Daimons who fed off humans. So long as they kept to themselves and didn't harm humans and lived out their lives until they died at twenty-seven, they were afforded the same protection as any human being.
It was why, at least according to Simi, Zarek had been banished. To Artemis and the gods, killing an Apollite was as serious a crime as killing a human.
But at the moment, Zarek would gladly break that law and any other to keep Astrid safe.
As soon as the door crashed open, the female occupants of the house screamed and ran for cover while the men rushed him.
Zarek used his telekinesis to pin them to the walls.
"Don't even try it," he snarled at them. "I'm in no mood to deal with you. I'm here for Thanatos."
"He's not here," one of the men said.
"I figured as much. But then, I also figure you can get word to him. Can you?"
"He's going to kill us," a child's voice cried out from the rear of the house.
The fear in the child's tone calmed him, but only a bit.
Zarek released the Apollites he had pinned. "Tell Thanatos that if he wants me, I'll be waiting for him outside of town in Bear's Hollow. If he's not there in an hour, I'm coming back here and cleaning out the Daimons I can feel."
He turned and walked out the door.
Zarek paused a short distance away from them.
They bolted the door behind him and whispered among themselves until they had decided who should go fetch Thanatos.
Satisfied they would deliver his message, Zarek smirked and headed toward his snowmachine.
Getting on, he drove to the rendezvous and sat back to wait.
He pulled out Spawn's cell phone and called Jess.
The Cowboy answered on the third ring. "Hey, Eskimo, is that you?"
"Yeah, it's me. Listen, I left Astrid at my cabin."
"You did what? Are you-"
"Yes, I am insane, but they're safe where they are. I want you to wait for about three hours and then go get her. That should give me enough time."
"Enough time for what?"
"Don't worry about it. Enter my cabin and tell Astrid who you are. She'll be coming out of hiding with another woman. Be kind to the little one, she belongs to Ash."
"What little one?"
"In three hours?" Jess repeated.
Jess paused for a few seconds. "What about you, Eskimo?"
"What about me?"
"You're not doing something stupid, are you?"
"No. I'm doing something smart." Zarek hung up.
He tossed the phone into his backpack and pulled out his cigarettes and lighter. He lit up a cigarette while he waited and sat in the frigid cold missing his coat.
But as he thought of the coat, his thoughts turned to Astrid and he warmed up considerably.
How he wished he could have made love to her one more time.
Felt her skin on his. Her breath on his face. Her hands running over his flesh.
He'd never known anything or anyone like her, but then, she was a nymph after all. Wholly unlike anyone else in all the universe.
He still couldn't believe the way he felt about her.
How was she able to soothe the pain in him that he had thought would never cease.
Strange how she took his thoughts away from the past. Away from everything.
No wonder Talon had been willing to die for Sunshine.
It made total sense to him now.
But Zarek didn't want to die for Astrid. He wanted to live for her. He wanted to spend the rest of his immortality by her side.
Looking up at the mountains around him, he thought of Olympus. Astrid's home.
Mortals couldn't live there and gods didn't live on earth.
It was hopeless between them.
And he was pragmatic enough to know it. There was no starry-eyed side of him to think for one minute anything could unite them. Any optimism he'd ever felt had been kicked out of him before he was old enough to shave.
Still, he couldn't stop the part of him that ached with loss. The part of him that screamed out soul deep for Astrid to stay with him.
"Damn you, Fates. Damn all of you."
But then, they had. Long, long ago.
He heard the rumble of a snowmachine's engine approaching.
Zarek didn't move until it drew near and stopped. He sat sideways on his seat with his legs stretched out before him, his ankles crossed. His arms folded over his chest, he waited patiently for the rider to dismount.
Thanatos pulled his helmet off and eyed him as if he couldn't believe what he was seeing. "You really are here."
Zarek inclined his head and offered the creature a cold, sinister smirk. "Hair of the dog, baby. Sooner or later, we all dance with the devil. Tonight, it's your turn."
Thanatos narrowed his eyes. "You are an arrogant bastard."
Zarek dropped his cigarette to the ground and crushed it out underneath his boot heel. He laughed bitterly as he pushed himself away from his snowmachine.
"No, not an arrogant bastard. I'm nothing but a piece of shit who touched a star." He pulled both Glocks out from his shoulder holsters. "Now I'm the son of a bitch who's going to put you out of your misery."
Zarek opened fire.
He didn't expect it to work and he was right.
It did nothing more than make Thanatos stumble back. And make Zarek feel a little better.
He ejected the clips into the snow, reloaded and fired again.
Thanatos laughed. "You can't kill me with a gun."
"I know, but it's fun as hell just shooting you." And with any luck, it might weaken Thanatos enough to where Zarek could stand some chance of killing him.
It was all he had.
When he'd spent his last round, he threw his weapons at Thanatos and followed it up with two grenades.
None of it worked.
It barely made Thanatos pause.
Growling, Zarek rushed him.
They fell to the ground fighting. Zarek kicked and punched with everything he had.
Thanatos was getting bloodier, but then, so was he.
"You can't kill me, Dark-Hunter."
"If you bleed, you can die."
Thanatos shook his head. "That's only a myth humans tell each other to feel better."
Zarek kicked him back and unsheathed his retractable sword. He pressed the button in the hilt, extending it out to its full five-foot length. "Dark-Hunters are myths too but if you cut our heads off, we die. What about you? Can you reattach your head?"
He saw panic flicker in the Daimon's eyes.
"I didn't think so." Zarek arced the blade up.
Thanatos ducked and twirled away from him. He pulled a large, ornamental dagger from his belt.
Zarek's sword skills were a bit rusty, but as they fought, his memory came back to him.
Oh, yeah, he remembered well how to skewer things.
He cut Thanatos across the chest. The Daimon hissed and stumbled back.
"You look afraid, Thanatos."
He curled his lips. "I fear nothing, least of all you."
Thanatos attacked him before he could pull back. He caught Zarek's sword arm and twisted it. Zarek hissed as pain sliced through him.
But that was nothing compared to the stab wound Thanatos delivered to his left arm.
His arm numb, Zarek couldn't hold on to the sword.
Thanatos knocked him to the ground.
He put his knee on Zarek's spine and pulled his hair until his neck was exposed.
Zarek tried to buck him off, but there was nothing he could do except wait for Thanatos to cut his head off.
The dagger's blade cut into his neck.
Zarek held his breath, afraid to move lest he help the blade slice his throat.
Just as the blade cut into his neck, a blast of light flared across the snow, hitting Thanatos and knocking him back.
Zarek collapsed facedown in the snow.
"No, no, no," Simi said as she appeared in human form beside Zarek. "Akri said you can't kill Zarek. Bad Thanatos."
His body aching beyond belief, Zarek rolled over onto his back as Thanatos rose to his feet.
"What the hell are you?" Thanatos asked.
"Never you mind," she said, kneeling beside Zarek. She touched the cut on his brow and looked at his bleeding arm and neck. "Oh, no, you hurt bad, Dark-Hunter. Simi very sorry. We thought you'd come back but then Astrid got worried and made me come seek you. You don't look very good, though. You were much more attractive earlier."
Thanatos stalked toward them.
Zarek forced himself up and helped her to her feet. "Simi, go before you get hurt."
She snorted like a horse. "He can't hurt me. No one can."
Thanatos attacked with the dagger.
"See, watch." Simi turned around and let Thanatos stab her in the chest.
He sank the dagger in up to the hilt, then jerked it free.
The demon's eyes widened as she gasped in pain.
At first Zarek thought she might be playing until she staggered back. Tears were in her eyes as she looked up at Zarek in agonized disbelief.
"It's not supposed to hurt," she cried like a small child. "I'm invincible. Akri said so."
His heart pounded.
Blood trickled from her lips.
Zarek kicked Thanatos back and picked Simi up in his arms. Even though his injured arm trembled from the agony of it, he ran with Simi toward his snowmachine.
Thanatos stood back, waiting.
He watched them leave and smiled. "That's it, Zarek. Run back to your woman. Show me where you have her hidden."
Artemis felt the shock wave go through her temple like an earthquake. Something let out an angry, baleful roar.
Her attendants looked up, their faces white.
Artemis sat up on her throne. If she didn't know better she would think...
The door to her private chambers disintegrated. Pieces of it flew through the room as if propelled by a violent tornado.
Her women screamed and ran for the door that led outside, seeking shelter from the unexpected maelstrom. Artemis wanted to run, too, but her fear held her immobile.
It was extremely rare that she saw this side of Acheron.
She was too terrified of him to ever push him this far.
He floated out of her bedroom with his long black hair whipping around him. His eyes were blood-red, swirling like fire as his unnatural powers surged. His fangs were overgrown and large.
He was the very thing she feared most in the universe. In this state, he could kill her with nothing more than a passing thought.
She panicked. If she didn't get him calmed down the other gods would feel his presence and there would be hell to pay for everyone.
Most of all for her.
She used her powers to mask his, hoping to disguise his abilities as her own. With any luck, the other gods would assume she was having her own tantrum.
He cursed at her in Atlantean and held her back with an invisible wall. She felt his agony. He was in excruciating pain, but she didn't know why.
Everything in her temple whirled in the vortex of his powers and rage. The only thing still grounded were the two of them.
"Artemis? I have a problem."
She flinched as she heard Astrid's voice in her head. "Not now, Astrid. I have a situation here."
"Let me guess, Acheron is angry?"
"I am past anger, Astrid." His voice was low, deep, and evil sounding. Acheron's bloody gaze pierced Artemis. "How is it Simi is wounded?"
Artemis's fear tripled. "The demon's hurt?"
"Simi's dying." Astrid and Acheron spoke simultaneously.
Artemis covered her mouth. She felt suddenly ill. Sick. Horrified and scared beyond belief.
If anything happened to his demon...
He would kill her.
Acheron used his powers to pull her roughly to him. "Where did Thanatos get one of my daggers, Artemis?"
A tremor of guilt went through her with that question. When she had created the first Thanatos seven thousand years ago, she had granted him weapons to slay the Dark-Hunters. At the time she had thought it divine justice that he use one of Acheron's Atlantean daggers to kill them.
As soon as Acheron had realized a dagger was missing, he had gathered all his weapons together and destroyed them.
Now she understood why.
He'd done it to protect his demon.
"I didn't know your dagger would hurt it."
"Damn you, Artemis. You have taken everything from me. Everything!"
She felt his pain, his sorrow. She hated him for that. If she died tomorrow he wouldn't care at all.
But for the demon, he wept.
Why wouldn't he love and protect her like this?
"I'll go get it for you, Acheron."
Acheron stopped her from leaving his side. "Don't you do anything, Artemis. I know you. You're not to help or try to heal her in any way. You just pick her up and bring her right back here to me. Swear it on the River Styx."
He released her.
Artemis shimmered from her temple to where Astrid, Simi, and Zarek were hiding underground. The demon lay on the floor with Zarek and Astrid kneeling beside it.
"I want akri!" Simi sobbed. She was screaming and crying hysterically.
"Shh," Zarek said, soothing her. He held a tourniquet over her wound. Both the tourniquet and his hand were covered in blood. "You have to calm down, Simi. You're making it worse."
"I want my daddy! Take me home, Astrid. I need to go home now."
"I can't, Simi. That power is taken from me until I deliver a verdict to my mother."
"I want akri," she wailed again. "I don't want to die without him. I'm scared. Please, please take me home. I just want my daddy."
Zarek looked up as a shadow fell over them.
It was a face he hadn't seen since the day he'd become a Dark-Hunter.
Her long auburn hair curled around her lithe, beautiful body. She wore a long, white dress and her green eyes glittered ominously in the dim light of the tunnel.
He held his breath, half-expecting her to kill him. No Dark-Hunter was ever allowed to be in the presence of a god.
Simi saw her and let out a terrible shriek. "Not her! The heifer goddess is going to kill me!"
"Shut up," Artemis snapped. "Believe me, I'd love to see you dead but if you die, I'll never hear the end of it."
Artemis picked her up in spite of her struggles.
She looked at Astrid and Zarek. "Have you judged him yet?"
Before Astrid could answer, the trapdoor behind them burst open.
Zarek cursed as he saw Thanatos coming through it.
He turned to order Artemis to take Astrid with Simi, but she'd already vanished.
He, alone, had to protect her.
Damn Artemis for this!
"Run!" he shouted at Astrid. He urged her toward the trapdoor that led into his cabin.
"Thanatos is here so unless you've got some god power that can kill him, run!"
Astrid gave a disgusted look, then did as he said.
As Zarek helped her up, Thanatos reached them.
Zarek kicked him back.
"You're not going to escape me, Dark-Hunter. But then, it's not really you I'm after."
His blood running cold at those words, Zarek glanced down to see Thanatos's gaze locked on Astrid.
Thanatos licked his lips. "Vengeance is a dish best served cold."
Once Astrid was clear of the basement, Zarek dropped back down the ladder and began to pummel Thanatos. "We're in Alaska, dickhead. Here everything is cold."
Zarek slammed him back into the wall, then made a dash for the trapdoor.
Once he was in the cabin, he shut and locked the trapdoor. Zarek slid the wood-burning stove over it, then reached inside to remove the mink and her kits. The mother bit the crap out of him, but he didn't flinch.
As gently as he could, he put them in his backpack and rushed from the cabin.
Astrid was just outside his door.
"Zarek, is that you?"
He kissed her.
"That better be you."
He snorted at that.
With no time to waste, he raced over to Thanatos's snowmachine and ripped a hose from it. He led Astrid to his vehicle. "You have to get out of here, princess. My powers can't contain him for long."
"I can't see to drive this thing."
Zarek stared at her, memorizing her face. Memorizing the way she looked up under the moonlight that was spilling through the clouds.
She was beautiful, his star.
Unlike any in all the universe.
He heard Thanatos breaking free.
Then he did something he had never done before. It was a power Ash had shown him centuries before, but one he'd never had a use for.
Tonight he did.
He kissed her passionately.
Astrid felt the warmth of Zarek's lips. As his tongue danced with hers, her eyes started to burn.
She pulled back from him, hissing, only to realize that she could see everything around her.
Her heart stopped.
Zarek stood in front of her, his eyes the pale, pale blue hers were whenever she lost her vision. His lips were swollen and bruised, one of his eyes was black and blue.
Dried blood was crusted around his nose and ear. His clothes were also torn and bloodied.
He had been beaten to a pulp and had never uttered a word to her about it.
She choked as she saw the blood that was still pouring down his arm from where Thanatos had stabbed him.
He handed her his backpack, then fumbled with the snowmachine until he had it started.
"Go, Astrid. Fairbanks is straight that way." He pointed down a pathway through the woods. "Don't stop until you get there."
"What about you?"
"Don't worry about me."
"Zarek!" she snapped. "I won't leave you here to die."
He offered her a sad smile as he cupped her face in his hands. "It's okay, princess. I don't mind dying for you."
He kissed her lightly on the lips.
Thanatos burst through the cabin door.
"Get on the snowmachine, Zarek. Now!"
He shook his head. "It's better this way, Astrid. If I'm dead he won't have a reason to hurt you."
Her heart shattered at his words. At the sacrifice he was willing to make for her.
She started to protest, but the snowmachine took off. She tried to brake it, but Zarek must have been using his powers to keep the gas on.
The last thing she saw was a blind Zarek turning around to face Thanatos.
Ash grabbed Simi from Artemis the instant she materialized in front of him.
He cradled his "baby" gently in his arms as he took her to Artemis's bed.
"Akri!" Simi wailed, nuzzling against his chest. "The Simi is hurt. You told me I couldn't get hurt."
"I know, Sim, I know." He held her close, half-afraid to pull back her makeshift bandage and see the damage done to her.
Her tears fell down her cheeks, making his own eyes well up. Out of habit, he started singing to her, an ancient Atlantean lullaby he used to sing to her when she was barely more than a hatchling.
She calmed a bit.
Ash wiped the tears from her cold cheeks, then pulled the cloth away.
His dagger had sliced through her, narrowly missing her heart, but the wound was clean and the blood flow had slowed. Thanks to Zarek, no doubt.
He owed the man more than he could ever repay.
Summoning his powers, Ash laid his hand over her wound and healed her injury.
Simi glanced around, then she looked at him. "Simi better?'
He nodded and smiled. "Simi all better."
Simi looked at her chest. She pulled her shirt up and looked underneath it, too, as if to verify to herself that she was okay.
Laughing, she threw herself into his arms.
Ash held her, grateful beyond measure that she hadn't died.
He held her close until she whined for him to let her go.
Kissing her brow, he released her. "Return to me, Simi."
For once, she didn't argue. In dragon form, she placed herself over his heart.
It was where she belonged.
Turning slowly, Ash faced Artemis.
In a pique, she stood with her hands on her hips and her body tensed. "Oh, come on, you're not still mad. I did the right thing. I brought it back to you."
"Her!" he barked, making her jump. "Simi isn't an it, Artemis. She's a her and I want for once to hear you say her name."
She stuck her chin out defiantly. Narrowing her green eyes, she forced herself to say, "Simi."
He inclined his head in approval. "As for the right thing... no, Artie. The right thing would have been to not steal from me. The right thing would have been to listen to me when I told you not to create another Thanatos. What you did today was the smart thing. Because of that, I'm not going to do the wrong thing and kill you. But Thanatos is another matter."
"You can't leave here to kill him."
"I don't have to leave here to kill him."
"You bastard!" Thanatos roared as he knocked Zarek aside.
Zarek tried to push himself to his feet, but his body no longer responded.
There was no part of him that didn't hurt. Didn't ache.
He was still using his powers to keep the snowmachine going in the right direction.
Depleted, he had nothing left to fight with. Not to mention the fact that he couldn't see Thanatos anyway.
The blows seemed to come at him from every direction.
Just as they had when he'd been human.
"What is so funny?"
Zarek lay in the snow, freezing and bleeding but continuing to laugh. "You. Me. Life in general, and the fact that I'm freezing my ass off as usual."
Thanatos viciously kicked his side. "You are psychotic."
Yes, he was. But most of all he was weary. Too tired to get up and move. Too tired to fight anymore.
He thought of Astrid.
Fight for her...
For once in his life, he had something to live for. A reason to pick his blind ass up and fight.
Squeezing his eyes shut he tried to summon up some of his faltering powers to use against the creature.
Zarek heard the sound of a dagger leaving its sheath.
"Zarek..." Ash's voice whispered in his mind.
Zarek flinched as his eyesight came back unexpectedly. "What the hell?"
Five shining claws appeared on his left hand.
Zarek smiled at the sight of them as he balled his hand into a fist and felt the sharp ends of his finger caps biting into his palm.
Ash had always known him just a little too well.
"There's a crescent moon between Thanatos's shoulder blades," Ash's voice whispered. "Stab it and he's dead. Artemis never creates anything without an off switch."
Zarek flipped himself up to stand.
Thanatos arched a surprised brow. "So you do have more fight in you."
"Looks like the devil just hiked his ass up to Alaska to see the snow. C'mon, punk, let's dance."
Zarek hit him, and Thanatos flew back.
It appeared Ash had given him more than his claws. Strength and power surged through him unlike anything he'd ever experienced before.
Zarek took a deep breath as all the pain he felt vanished.
Thanatos struck him across the face.
Zarek laughed as the pain came and went. It didn't even faze him.
"Yeah, you should be scared." He knocked him back. "It sucks when you're not the baddest thing out here, huh?"
Zarek picked him up and tossed him.
Thanatos rolled in the snow. He tried to get up and fell back.
Zarek stalked him.
It was time to put an end to this.
He placed his foot on Thanatos's back to hold him down and ripped open his coat and shirt to reveal the crescent sign.
So Ash hadn't lied.
"You can kill me, Dark-Hunter, but it won't take away the fact you should die for killing Dirce. She was innocent and you slaughtered her."
Zarek hesitated. "Dirce?"
"Do you not even remember her?" Thanatos tensed in rage as he twisted to look up at him accusingly. "She was only twenty years old when you cut her down."
Zarek's thoughts flashed to what Simi had shown him in her eyes...
The blond woman Thanatos had impaled on his sword.
"She was yours?"
"My wife, you bastard."
Zarek stared at Thanatos's mark.
He should kill him.
But he couldn't.
Both of them had been screwed by the same person. Artemis.
And it wasn't fair that he should kill Thanatos for wanting revenge.
Vengeance was something he understood all too well. Hell, he'd sold his own soul for it. How could he fault Thanatos for doing the same?
Zarek heard the sound of a snowmachine headed back toward him.
He knew without looking that it was Astrid. No doubt she'd turned around the instant he'd been distracted by the fight.
He used the powers Ash had given him to bind Thanatos to the ground.
The Daimon screamed for release.
He screamed for death.
Zarek knew the sound of both. Many nights he'd lain awake doing the same thing.
If he were merciful, he would kill him. But that wasn't his job.
He was a Dark-Hunter, and Thanatos...
Zarek would leave him for Acheron to deal with.
Astrid parked the snowmachine and came running up to him.
Her eyes were a deeper blue now that she could see.
"Is he contained?"
She threw herself into his arms. Zarek stumbled backward.
"Easy, princess. The only reason I'm standing and not sitting is mere strength of will."
Astrid looked past Zarek and saw Thanatos on the ground, cursing both of them. "Why didn't you kill him?"
"Not my place. Besides, I'm through being Artemis's lapdog. It's time I told the 'heifer goddess' to get lost."
Astrid went pale. "You can't just leave, Zarek. She'll kill you."
He smiled grimly. "Let her try. I'm in the mood to fight." He snorted at that. "Then again, I'm always in the mood to fight."
Astrid held her breath at his words. They gave her hope.
"What about us?" she asked.
For the first time she could see the anguish on his face as he looked at her, see the pain in his midnight eyes. "There is no us, princess. There never was."
Astrid opened her mouth to argue, but before she could, her mother appeared with Sasha, who was in his human form.
Astrid gave her a droll look. "You're a little late, Mom."
"Blame your sisters. Atty told me to stay put. I came as soon as she would let me."
Sasha curled his lip at Zarek who glared back at him.
"Sorry, Scooby, I'm all out of LivaSnaps."
Sasha curled his lips. "I really hate you."
Zarek gave him a matching sneer. "Feeling's entirely mutual."
Themis ignored the men as she addressed Astrid. "Have you judged him, daughter?"
"He's innocent." She pointed to Thanatos, who was still cursing them. "There's the proof of his mercy and humanity."
An ear-piercing shriek sounded. It was followed by total silence.
"What the hell was that?" Zarek asked.
"Artemis," Astrid said in unison with her mother and Sasha.
Themis sighed. "I wouldn't want to be in Acheron's place tonight."
"Why?" Zarek asked.
It was Sasha who answered. "Never piss off a goddess. There's no telling what she'll do to him for getting you off the hook."
Zarek felt ill as he remembered some of the things Acheron had said to him in the past that hinted at the fact Artemis took her anger out on him. "She doesn't really punish him?"
The looks on their faces gave him the truth.
Zarek winced as he remembered all the times Ash had asked him to make it easy on him. All the times he had told Ash to burn in hell.
Sasha made his way to Thanatos.
"What's to become of him?" Zarek asked.
Themis shrugged. "It's up to Artemis. He belongs to her."
Zarek sighed at that. "Maybe I should have killed him after all."
Astrid used her sleeve to blot at the blood on his face.
"No," her mother said. "What you did for Simi and my daughter along with the mercy you showed Thanatos is why I'm allowing her verdict to stand even though she violated her impartiality oath."
Astrid smiled up at him, but he didn't feel happy with the way things had turned out.
"Come, Astrid," her mother said. "We need to go home."
Zarek couldn't take his eyes off her as those words wedged into his heart like a knife.
Let her go...
He had to.
And yet every molecule of his body was screaming at him to keep her. To reach out and take her hand in his.
"Have you anything to say about that, Dark-Hunter?" her mother asked.
He did, but the words wouldn't come.
Zarek had been strong all his life. He would be strong tonight. He would never bind her to him. It wouldn't be right.
"Sometimes stars do fall to earth."
He heard Acheron's words in his mind. It was true. They did and then they became commonplace like the rest of the dirt on the planet.
His star was one of a kind.
He would never allow her to be like any other. Never allow her to become common or sullied.
No, her place was in the sky. With her family.
With her stinking pet wolf.
Never with him.
"Have a nice life, princess."
Astrid's lips trembled. Her eyes were filled with unshed tears. "You too, Prince Charming."
Her mother took her hand while Sasha collected Thanatos. In the blink of an eye they vanished.
Everything was the way it had been before she came.
And yet nothing was the same.
Zarek stood in the middle of his yard alone. There was no wind. Everything was motionless.
Everything except for his heart, which was breaking.
Astrid was gone.
It was for her own good.
So why did he feel so brokenhearted?
As Zarek hung his head, he noticed the blood that was dripping from his arm.
He'd best tend the wound before any bears or wolves caught its scent. Sighing, he went into his empty cabin, shut the door and bolted it. He crossed the room to his cupboard and opened it.
There was really no way to tend the wound here. Since his generator had never been delivered, the water had frozen in the cold and there was no heat to thaw anything out.
Even his peroxide was frozen solid.
Zarek cursed and put the peroxide back in his pantry, then grabbed a bottle of vodka instead. It was slushy and thick, but still liquid.
He heard a faint ringing coming from outside. Going back out into his yard, he retrieved his backpack that Astrid had left. The mink and her kits were still inside and still cranky.
Ignoring them, Zarek pulled his phone out. "Yeah?" he said, answering it.
"It's Jess. I just got a call from Acheron telling me and Andy to go home. I wanted to check in with you first, make sure you were still alive."
Zarek took the mink and her kits into his house and set them back inside the safety of his stove. "Since I answered the phone, my guess is yes, I'm still living."
"Smart-ass. You still need me to come get Astrid?"
"No, she's..." He choked on the word. Clearing his throat, he forced it out. "She's gone."
Silence hung between them.
After a few seconds, Jess spoke again. "By the way, did anyone ever tell you about Sharon? In all the commotion, I didn't have time."
Zarek paused, his hand on the stove. "What about her?"
"Thanatos hurt her trying to find you, but she'll be okay. Otto is going to stay up here for a few more days to make sure she gets a new house and has someone to take care of her when she comes home from the hospital. I just thought you'd want to know. I... uh... I sent her some flowers from you."
He let out a slow breath. It pained him that she'd been hurt and he hadn't even known. He ruined everything he touched. "Thanks, Jess. It was a kind thing you did for me. I appreciate it."
Something struck the phone's receiver. Hard. It caused Zarek's ear to ring.
"Excuse me?" Jess asked in disbelief. "This is Frozen Zarek I'm talking to, right? Not some weird pod person?"
He shook his head at Jess's joking. "It's me, dickless."
"Hey, now, that's way too personal. I don't need to know that much about you."
Zarek gave a halfhearted smile. "Shut up."
"All right, then. I'm going to head out and let Mike take my ass out of here while I still got some of it left unfrozen... Oh, hey, by the way, Spawn headed out a while back. Said to tell you not to worry about returning his phone. You know, he's not half-bad for an Apollite and he's not that far from here. Maybe you ought to call him sometime."
"You playing matchmaker?"
"Um, no. Definitely not, and again you're freaking me out with that entire train of thought. I've heard enough stories about you Greeks and all that. In fact, tell you what, forget I said anything at all about Spawn. I'm out of here. You take care, Z. I'll see you online."
Zarek hung up the phone and turned it off. Might as well. Jess was the only person who ever called him anyway.
He stood in the center of his cabin, aching so much that he could barely breathe.
Alone now, he needed Astrid in a way that defied his ability to comprehend. He wanted something of hers.
No, he needed something.
Sliding the stove aside, he went back to his tunnel where he could remember holding her. Down here in the darkness, he could pretend she was still with him.
If he closed his eyes, he could even pretend she was in his dreams.
But it wasn't her. Not really.
Zarek let out a ragged breath and picked his coat up from the ground. As he started to pull it on, he caught a whiff of roses.
He clutched the coat to his skin, burying his face deep in the fur so that he could capture her scent.
He held it in trembling hands as emotions and memories crashed through him, racking him.
He needed her.
Oh, gods, he loved her. He loved her more than he'd ever imagined possible. He remembered every touch she'd given him. Every laugh she'd had around him.
The way she'd made him human.
And he didn't want to live without her. Not for one moment. Not a single one.
Zarek fell to his knees, unable to deal with the thought of never seeing her again.
Holding his coat that smelled of her, he wept.
Ash pulled away from Zarek, giving him privacy to grieve.
Artemis was outside in the temple courtyard, having one of her screaming tantrums over the verdict while he was alone in her throne room with Simi safe on his chest.
"What fools these mortals be," he breathed.
But then he too had been a fool for love. Love made fools of everyone. Gods and man alike.
Still, he couldn't believe Zarek had let Astrid go any more than he could believe Astrid had left.
Artemis materialized before him. "How is this possible?" she railed. "Never in the entire history of her life has she judged a man innocent!"
He looked at her calmly. "Only because she's never before judged an innocent man."
"I hate you!"
He laughed bitterly at that. "Oh, please don't get my hopes up. You almost gave me a hard-on with that thought. At least tell me this time your hatred will last more than five minutes."
She tried to slap him, but he caught her hand. So instead she kissed him, then tore away from his lips shrieking.
Ash shook his head as she vanished again.
She would calm down in time. She always did.
But he had other things to worry about at the moment.
Closing his eyes, he breached the distance between Olympus and the human world.
There he found what he was looking for.
Zarek jerked his head up to find himself in the middle of a white and gold room. It was huge, with a gold-domed ceiling embossed with wildlife scenes. The room was encircled with white marble columns and in the center sat a large ivory settee.
What surprised him most was to see Acheron standing in front of the settee, staring at him with those strange swirling silver eyes.
The Atlantean had long, golden-blond hair and looked strangely vulnerable-which for Acheron was an impossibility. He was dressed in a pair of tight black leather pants and wore a long-sleeved black silk shirt that had been left unbuttoned.
"Thank you for Simi," Acheron said, inclining his head toward him. "I appreciate what you did for her when she was wounded."
Zarek cleared his throat, rose to his feet, and aimed an angry glare at Acheron. "Why did you fuck with my head?"
"I had to. There are some things people are better off not knowing."
"You let me think I had killed my own people."
"Would the truth have been any easier on you? Instead of the old crone's face, you would have been haunted by the face of a young woman and her husband. Not to mention you would have had the knowledge to kill any Dark-Hunter who got in your way, including Valerius, and had you done that, I wouldn't have been able to save you. Ever."
Zarek flinched at the mention of his brother. As much as he hated to admit it, Ash was right. He might very well have used his knowledge to kill Valerius. "You have no right to play with people's minds."
Acheron's agreement stunned him. "No, I don't. And believe it or not, I seldom do. But that's not why you're really mad, now is it?"
Zarek tensed. "I don't know what you mean."
"Yes you do, Z." He closed his eyes and cocked his head as if listening to something. "I know every thought inside you. Just as I did that night you slaughtered the Apollites and Daimons after Taberleigh. I tried to give you peace of mind by eliminating your memories, but you wouldn't take it. I couldn't stop your dreams and M'Adoc wouldn't help. For that I apologize. But right now you have a much bigger problem than what I did to you when I tried to help."
"Yeah? What's that?"
Acheron held his hand up and projected an image from his palm.
Zarek's breath caught as he saw Astrid weeping. She sat in a small atrium with three other women who were holding her as she cried.
He walked toward the image, only to remember he couldn't really touch it.
"It hurts so much," she sobbed.
"Atty, do something!" a blond woman said, looking at the redheaded woman who appeared to be the eldest. "Go kill him for hurting her."
"No," Astrid wailed. "Don't you dare. I'll never forgive you if you hurt him."
"Who are those women with her?" Zarek asked.
"The three Fates. Atty, or Atropos, is the one with red hair. Clotho is the one with blond hair holding Astrid, and the dark-headed one is Lachesis, or Lacy."
Zarek stared at them, his heart breaking at the pain he'd caused Astrid. The last thing he had ever wanted was to hurt her. "Why are you showing me this?"
Acheron answered his question with one of his own. "Do you remember what I said to you in New Orleans?"
Zarek looked at him wryly. "You said a lot of shit to me then."
So Acheron repeated it." ' The past is dead, Z. Tomorrow will become whatever decision you make.' "
Acheron's gaze burned into him. "With Dionysus's help you blew it that night in New Orleans when you attacked the cops, but you bought yourself another chance when you saved Sunshine." Ash indicated Astrid. "You have another crucial choice here, Z. What will you decide?"
Acheron closed his hand and the image of Astrid and her sisters vanished. "Everyone deserves to be loved, Zarek. Even you."
"Shut up!" he snarled. "You don't know what you're talking about, Your Highness." Zarek spat the title out. He was so sick of people lecturing him when they were ignorant of what he'd been through.
It was easy for someone like Acheron to tell him about love. What did a prince know about people hating him? Despising him?
When had anyone ever spat on the Atlantean?
But Acheron didn't speak.
At least not with words.
Instead, an image came into Zarek's mind. One of a blond teenager in chains in the middle of an ancient Greek home. The boy was bloody while being beaten.
He was begging those around him for mercy.
Zarek's breath caught as he recognized the youth...
"I understand you in a way no one else can," Acheron said quietly. "You have a rare chance, Z. Don't fuck it up."
For the first time ever, he listened to Acheron. And he looked on him with a newfound respect.
They were far more alike than he could have guessed and he wondered how Acheron had found the humanity that had abandoned Zarek so long ago.
"What if I hurt her?" Zarek asked.
"Do you plan on hurting her?"
"No, but I can't live here and she-"
"Why don't you ask her, Z?"
"What about her mother?"
"What about her? You were willing to fight Artemis for Thanatos. Isn't Astrid worth just as much?"
"More." He met Ash's gaze with fired determination. "Where is she?"
Before Zarek could blink, he found himself in the atrium Acheron had shown him.
Atty looked up with a hiss. "No man is allowed here!"
The one Acheron had called Clotho started to attack him. But she pulled up sharply as Acheron appeared beside him.
Zarek ignored them as he concentrated on Astrid who sat there with tears in her eyes, staring at him as if he were an apparition.
His heart pounding, he walked over to her and knelt down before her chair.
"Stars aren't supposed to cry," he whispered so that only she could hear him. "They're supposed to laugh."
"How can I laugh when I have no heart?"
He took her hand into his and kissed the tip of every finger. "You have a heart." He placed her hand over his. "One that only beats for you, princess."
She offered him a trembling smile. "Why are you here, Zarek?"
He brushed the tears from her cheeks. "I'm here to collect my rose, if she'll come home with me."
"Don't even go there," Atty cried. "Astrid, please don't tell me you're going to listen to that drivel?"
"He's a man, baby sister," Lacy chimed in. "If his lips are moving, he's lying."
"Why don't the three of you stay out of this?" Acheron said.
Atty stiffened. "Excuse me? We're the Fates and-"
A sideways glare from Acheron cut her off midstream.
"Why don't we leave them alone?" Atty said to her sisters. The three of them hurried off while Acheron watched Zarek and Astrid with his arms folded over his chest.
Zarek still hadn't taken his gaze off Astrid. "You going to be a voyeur, Ash?"
"Depends. You going to give me something to look at?"
"If you keep standing there, I am." He looked over his shoulder then.
Acheron inclined his head to him and turned around to leave. As he did so, the breeze caught a portion of his shirt and blew it back, showing a flash of one shoulder.
Zarek started at the red welts it revealed. Welts he knew from experience came from a whip.
"Wait!" Astrid said, stopping Acheron. "What about Zarek's soul?"
Acheron stiffened ever so slightly before he called out, "Artemis?"
She shimmered in beside him.
"What?" she snarled back.
He nodded toward them. "Astrid wants Zarek's soul."
"Oh, like I care, and what is he doing here anyway?" She narrowed her eyes at Astrid. "You should know better than to bring him here."
Ash cleared his throat. "I brought Zarek here."
"Oh." Artemis calmed instantly. "Why did you do that?"
"Because they belong together." He smiled ironically. "It's fated."
Artemis rolled her eyes. "Don't even go there."
Astrid came to her feet. "I want Zarek's soul, Artemis. Return it to him."
"I don't have it."
They were all stunned by her words.
"What do you mean you don't have it?" Acheron asked, his tone sharp and angry. "Don't tell me you lost it."
"Of course not." She looked over at Zarek and Astrid, and if Zarek didn't know better, he'd say she looked embarrassed. "I never really took it."
All three of them stared at her in disbelief.
"Come again?" Ash asked.
Artemis curled her lip as she looked at Zarek. "I couldn't take it. That would have involved my touching him and he was disgusting back then." She shuddered. "There was no way I would have put my hand on him. He smelled."
Open-mouthed, Acheron looked at Zarek. "You lucky bastard." Then he turned back to Artemis. "If you didn't touch him, how has he been an immortal Dark-Hunter all this time?"
Artemis gave him a haughty sneer. "You don't know everything after all, now do you, Acheron?"
He took a step toward her and she squeaked, putting more distance between them.
"I injected him with ichor," she said quickly.
Zarek was stunned. Ichor was a mineral found in the blood of the gods that was said to make them immortal.
"What about his Dark-Hunter powers?" Acheron asked.
"Those I gave to him separately, along with the fangs and such so that you wouldn't realize he wasn't like the others."
Acheron gave her a tired, repugnant stare. "Oh, I know I'm going to hate the answer for this one. But I have to know. What about the sunshine, Artemis? Since he has his soul my guess is he was never banished from daylight, was he?"
The look on her face confirmed it.
"You bitch!" Zarek snarled, rushing toward her.
To his surprise, it was Acheron who stopped him from reaching her.
"Let me go. I want to rip her throat out!"
Astrid pulled him back. "Leave her alone, Zarek. She has her own problems."
Zarek hissed at Artemis, baring his fangs.
Fangs that instantly vanished.
Zarek ran his tongue over his human teeth.
"A gift," Acheron said.
Zarek calmed a degree and then even more when he realized Astrid had her arms wrapped around his waist. Her front was tight against his back so that he could feel her breasts against his spine.
Closing his eyes, he savored the feel of her.
"You are free of Artemis, Zarek," Astrid said in his ear. "You've been judged innocent and you're immortal. Tell me, what do you want to do with the rest of eternity?"
"I want to go lie on the beach someplace warm."
Astrid's heart caught at his words. She'd foolishly thought he would say something about her.
"But most of all," he said, turning in her arms to face her, "I want to piss off everyone."
"Everyone?" she asked, her heart breaking even more.
"Yeah," he said, granting her a rare smile. "The way I figure it, if I leave you, only me and you are unhappy. If I take you with me, everyone but us is pissed, especially that mangy thing you call a wolf. That has serious appeal for me."
She arched a brow at that. "If you're trying to woo me with that one, Prince Charming, you've-"
He stopped her words with a kiss so supreme that her toes curled. Her heart pounded.
Zarek nipped her lips, then pulled back to stare down at her. "Come away with me, Astrid."
"Why should I?"
His gaze burned into hers. "Because I love you, and even if I'm lying on the sun itself I'll be freezing there without you. I need my star so that I can hear laughter."
Laughing with excitement, she gave him an "Eskimo" kiss. "Bora Bora, here we come."
Zarek finished her words off with a real kiss.
A really l-o-n-g one.