Wiping her eyes, Susan pulled back from him and gaped. "Best hope for what, Catman? Death? Bankruptcy? You know, my life was going along..." She paused as she considered what she was about to say. "Well, rather crappily, to be honest, but at least no one was trying to kill me and no one was dying around me. Since I met you, my life has taken the high road to Shitsville with no off-ramp in sight. My best friends are dead. I've seen you kill a total of five people in-"

"Four," he said, interrupting her. "You took the one out with the bat crack upside his head."

Did he have to remind her of that? "And why was I playing Hank Aaron, huh? Because I stupidly took a stray cat home. Now I'm out the eighty-two dollars it cost to spring you from the shelter, my house is destroyed, my car has become Swiss cheese, and I owe my neighbor God only knows what for the little fence she keeps around her petunia bed. Thanks, Puss in Boots. Really. Thank you."

He looked aghast at her. "I can't believe you're thinking about money at a time like this."

"What am I supposed to think about?" she asked, her voice cracking, "The fact that the two people who mean the most to me in this world are gone and I can't even go to their funeral because everyone thinks I killed them?"

She ground her teeth as grief and frustration overwhelmed her. "If I'd just listened to Jimmy and got them out of there, they'd be alive now. I should have never left them alone. They're dead and it's all my fault... Yeah. That's really what I want to dwell on." She fought the tears that stung her eyes and her heart. She couldn't afford to think about Angie and Jimmy right now. Not if she wanted to stay functional. That pain was too deep, too severe for her to cope.

She could see compassion in his eyes as he cupped her cheek in his warm, callused palm. "Look, I'm really sorry for what happened to them. But you're not responsible for it. You hear me? They're dead because Jimmy found out about the Daimons and was dumb enough to think he could run from them. Trust me, he wouldn't have gone far before they found him and killed him anyway. With the information he was carrying, he was dead before you ever got there."

She scowled at him. "If you're trying to make me feel better, it's not working."

"I know." And by the look on his face, she could tell he meant that as he stroked her cheek with his thumb. "You've had one hell of a shock today." She saw respect in his eyes and something in there she couldn't identify. "You're entitled to a momentary meltdown, but believe me when I say that a momentary one is all you can afford. You are in way over your head and you've got a long road ahead of you."

"And how is that?"

"You're used to dealing with humans who don't have psychic abilities. Well, baby, the world you know just got ugly. Everything Jimmy told you at the shelter is true. You just stumbled into a war that your kind isn't even supposed to know is happening. Forget everything you thought you knew about physics and science, and now imagine a world where mankind is nothing but food to a whole race of people who want to subjugate you."

She shook her head in denial. "I don't believe in vampires."

He opened his mouth to show her his vicious set of fangs. "If you want to live past tonight, you better learn to start. "

Susan wanted to reach out and touch his teeth just to make sure they were real, but she knew the truth. She'd actually seen them in action. "What are you? Really? You said a Dark-Hunter. What is that?"

Ravyn hesitated. Having spent three hundred years as a Dark-Hunter and taken an oath to never let those outside of their circle know anything about their world were deeply ingrained in him. But this wasn't the usual set of circumstances. The Daimons had dragged her into this and if he didn't give her the truth, she was defenseless against them. Whether she wanted to be in this or not, she was.

"No. Dark-Hunters are immortals who have sworn to protect mankind by hunting down the Daimons who prey on them."

"And Daimons are?"

He took a deep breath as he thought about the easiest way to explain it to her. "Long ago, in ancient Atlantis-"

"Atlantis is real, too?" she asked, screwing her face up.

"Yes."

She shook her head. "What next? Unicorns?"

Her spunk amused him. "No, but dragons are."

She narrowed those blue eyes on him. "I really hate you," she said in a voice that was laden with venom.

He offered her a kind smile while he let the softness of her cheek soothe the heat of his blistered fingers. He should be tending his own wounds and yet he wanted to soothe her first. That didn't make sense to him. It was contrary to everything that came naturally to him, and yet here he was, explaining to her a world that she would no doubt consider preposterous.

"I don't blame you. I'd probably hate me too if I were in your shoes. But back to Atlantis. There was a race of beings there who were called Apollites."

"God, I was really hoping they were some kind of diet apple drink."

He laughed, then cringed as a shard of pain went through him. "No, they're definitely not that. Their name comes from the fact that they were created by the god Apollo. It was his plan to have them dominate the humans, but as with all best-laid plans, it blew up in his face. The Apollites turned on him by killing his mistress and son and he cursed them all to die at age twenty-seven. Slowly. Painfully."

"I bet they loved that."

"Yeah. Needless to say, it wasn't to their taste, so a group of them somehow learned that they could kill humans, suck their souls into their bodies, and elongate their lives. Since that day, whenever Apollites near their twenty-seventh birthday, they have a choice-die or start preying on humans and become Daimons. The only problem with that is that the souls they feed on aren't meant for them. As a result, the soul starts to die as soon as they pull it into their body. If it dies and they haven't taken in another one, they die, too."

She stepped back from him and ran her hands over her face as the horror of that sank in. "So they're on a constant quest to keep killing in order to stay alive."

He nodded. "And now it appears they've been able to get some of your people to help them."

"Why?"

"I don't know. You have Hollywood to thank for that. Most humans who help them have the misguided belief that the Daimons can make them immortal by biting their necks and converting them. They can't. You're either born an Apollite or you're not. There's no way for them to pass along their powers or false means of elongating their lives to a human."

She shook her head as if she couldn't believe what he was telling her. "Have you any idea how hard this is to believe?"

"Yeah, well, you might not believe in Santa Claus either, but that doesn't mean someone isn't leaving presents for the kids on Christmas Eve."

She frowned at him. "What's that supposed to mean?"

"It means that behind every myth, there's usually some degree of truth."

Startled by the new voice, Susan turned to find Leo standing in the doorway behind her. She couldn't believe it, but she was actually happy to see him.

"Hi. Ravyn." Leo said in greeting.

Ravyn inclined his head to him.

Leo met Susan's gaze. "Patricia needs to get the lead out of Ravyn before he heals over it. Why don't you come out here with me while she works on him?"

His blase tone amazed her. Oh sure. Why not? After all, the man or Dark-Hunter or whatever the hell he was had more lead in him than her plumbing.

It was just such a normal comment...

Forcing herself not to roll her eyes, Susan followed Leo out of the room and passed the older woman in the hallway, who didn't speak to either one of them. It was obvious that Patricia wasn't any happier about all this than Susan was.

While Patricia entered the storeroom they'd just vacated, Leo led Susan up a back metal stairway to a large conference room. He turned on the lights and held the door open for her. The white walls and black ceiling gave the room a cold, contemporary feel that wasn't helped by the glass conference table and black leather chairs. It had all the appeal of an emergency root canal, and something about the room made her feel like a grade school student getting called into the principal's office.

"Have a seat," Leo said before he shut the door.

It wasn't in Susan's nature to follow anyone's orders, but she was too tired and upset at the moment to argue. She just wanted five minutes of peace so that she could lick her wounds and pull herself together.

"Are you okay?"

"Oh, I don't know," she said as she sat down. The leather creaked under her weight, which really just made her feel so much better about herself and her situation. "I woke up this morning, had my cornflakes and coffee as usual. Went to work for my sleazeball paper and saw my prized story had been butchered and turned to crap. Had my boss crawl all over my butt because I can't leave reality behind me. So to help me with that, he gives me this assignment to track down some kid writing about a catman who prowls the market. Then while I'm contemplating the total absurdity that is my life, my best friend calls and tells me she has a lead for a real story that could get my reputation back. Only that story turns out to be one about the cops helping vampires eat us. I adopt a cat that I'm allergic to because my girlfriend is paranoid. I take him home to have him become the very thing I'd been told to find by my eccentric boss. And the next thing I know, my house is blown to shit. The Catman eats a guy in front of me, and my two best friends on the planet are now dead."

She paused to pin an angry stare on that stone look of his. "Gee, I'm not sure how I should feel right now, Leo. If you have a clue could you please let me know? This isn't exactly within my scope of past experience. I'm tired, I'm stunned, and I just want to go to bed and have all of this be some really awful nightmare. But I have a bad feeling that when I do wake up tomorrow, it's just going to get worse."

Leo gave her a sympathetic smile as he neared her chair. He put a gentle hand on her shoulder. "I'm really sorry, Susan. But I wanted you-"

The door opened to show her a group of two men and one woman joining them. The first to enter was a tall, dark-haired man who had a lethal look about him. He was incredibly good-looking and dressed in an expensive gray sweater and black pleated pants. The man behind him looked every bit as dangerous, but his hair was a medium brown, while the woman was tall, athletic, and blond. Oddly enough, the woman looked a lot like Patricia and Alicia.

Leo straightened up and an air of authority literally settled onto his shoulders. No longer the quirky little boss she knew so well, he now struck her as a no-nonsense predator.

"Susan," he said, indicating each of the three in turn. "Meet Otto Carvalletti, Kyl Poitiers, and Jessica Addams."

She sighed. "Hi."

They didn't respond in kind. Instead, they took up stations around her in a mafia-like manner. As Susan lowered her gaze, she noticed something that they had in common with Leo... all of them had the same spiderweb tattoo on their hands.

A bad feeling went through her. But she wasn't about to let them intimidate her. She'd been through enough today without that. Rising to her feet, she gave them each her own take-no-shit glare. "What's going on, Leo?"

He ignored her to address the other three. "Knock off the Big Bad Scary, guys, and have a seat. We have a lot to go over and only a few more hours before the sun sets."

To Susan's complete shock, they actually obeyed him. It was extremely surreal and reminded her of a Chihuahua calling down a pack of Dobermans.

"What about her?" Otto jerked his chin in Susan's direction. "Is she secured?"

Leo sighed as he sat down beside her. "I'm really sorry that you got dragged into this, Susan. I never meant for you to find out about any of it. That's what I was trying to tell you when they walked in. I just wanted you to trace Dark Angel. You were supposed to keep living in your blissful ignorance, never learning that vampires exists."

Ah, God, it just kept getting better and better. "So all the crap we write about in the paper is real?"

"No," Leo said, to her surprise. "It's all, as you say, crap. I only run the paper to make sure that none of the true stuff gets out. I mean, let's face it, the 'I adopted a cat and he turned into a man in my living room' story isn't exactly something you call the New York Times about. You call papers like ours. For the last sixty years, my family has run the Inquisitor so that they would get first dibs on any story that could expose us to the public."

In a weird way that made sense, and the fact that it did truly scared her. "And the other reporters at the Inquisitor, are they like you, hiding the truth?"

"No," he said, his face earnest, "they're all pretty much insane. I usually hire crackpots because even if they stumbled onto the truth and tried to expose it, no one would believe them. "

Well, that explained so much about her coworkers and her own position. So much so that it cut her deeply. "You hired me because I'd lost all my credibility in journalism."

His eyes burned into hers. "No. I hired you because you were one of the few friends I had in college. Without your help, I'd have never graduated, so when you got into trouble, I offered you a hand-up... the fact that no one would ever again take you seriously was just an added bonus."

She glared at him. "Thanks a lot, Leo."

He brushed her anger aside with a wave of his tattooed hand.

"I'm not going to lie to you, Susan. I respect you too much for that."

"Yet you've been lying to me all this time."

He looked offended by that. "When? Have I ever denied that vampires were real?"

"You said it was bullshit."

"No, I said bullshit pays for my Porsche... and it does. I'm the one, as I recall, who kept telling you to embrace the ridiculous. To believe in the unbelievable."

He did have a point now that she thought about it. That had been his rant at her since the day she joined his staff. Sighing, she retook her seat. "So why did you send me after Ravyn if you didn't want me to find out the truth?"

"Because I was hoping it wasn't Ravyn that the student was talking about. I mean, let's face it-there are a lot of Were-Hunters in Seattle, and since they live for centuries, to the uninformed it might seem like they're immortal. I was hoping you'd go, get me a name and address, and then I could clean it up if it were real."

"Why not just go yourself?"

He scoffed at her. "I'm not an investigative reporter. I have all the subtlety of a brick, which is why I'm more of an enforcer. Besides, I knew that even if you found out the truth and saw it with your own eyes, you'd never believe it. Somehow you'd find a logical, legitimate way to explain it all away that I could then use with other people. See?" He looked past her, to the other three, who'd been eerily silent all this time. "Now we have a bit of a problem."

She snorted at Leo. "You have a problem? Try being in my shoes."

Leo rubbed the back of his neck nervously. "Yeah, well, you are the problem, Sue."

Her heart stopped beating. "How do you mean?"

"Civilians aren't allowed to know about us," Otto growled from his seat across from her. "Ever."

"Uh-huh," she said slowly. "You know with that sinister tone you should look into working for the IRS. I'm sure they're desperate for people who can cow others with a single growl."

Leo sat forward. "Sue, don't taunt the cobra. He tends to bite."

And by the look on Otto's face she could see that Leo wasn't kidding. She looked back at Leo as Kyl handed him a shiny black folder. He opened it briefly, then set it on the table.

Leo drummed his fingers on it while he addressed her. "Normally, we recruit members who have skills we can use. But sometimes we have unexpected things come up, such as the last twenty-four hours, where innocent bystanders accidentally get caught up by mistake. Those mistakes have to be corrected." His tone was deadly and threatening.

Refusing to be intimidated, she crossed her arms over her chest and gave him an equally withering stare. "And how do you propose to correct me?"

"You have a choice," Kyl spoke at last. "Either you become one of us or..."

She waited. When he didn't finish, she gave him an arch stare. "Or what? You kill me?"

It was the woman who answered. "Yes."

"No," Leo said sternly. He looked back at Susan. "But we can't take the chance that you'll expose us. Do you understand?"

Was he serious? But then all she had to do was look at the doom squad to know that answer.

"And what are you in all this, Leo?" she asked, needing to fully understand what she'd inadvertently been sucked into. "Why do these guys," she indicated the other three at the table with her, "listen to you?"

"Because I'm the Squire Regis for Seattle, since my dad retired. I run the Theti branch which, by default, makes me the head of all the Squire branches in this area."

"Theti?"

"Blood Rites," Otto said in a low, guttural tone. "We do other Squire jobs as well, but we're the ones who are licensed to enforce the Council's mandates."

"And we use any means necessary to keep our world a secret." Kyl narrowed his eyes meaningfully on her.

This had to be the weirdest day of her entire life, and given the fact that she spent time with her grandmother, who swore that her female dog was Susan's reincarnated grandfather and wore her clothes wrong side out to keep the lightbulbs from fading the dye, and with her coworker Joanie, who had a penchant for putting Post-it notes over her desk drawer to keep the little men from leaving it, that said something.

They really meant to kill her.

"So what's your decision?" Otto asked. He looked just a little overeager for her to say no.

"What?" she asked, unable to resist teasing the cobra-it just seemed like a moral imperative. "Had a dry spell of killing people lately?"

His face completely stoic, he responded dryly, "As a matter of fact, yes. If it doesn't end soon, I might get out of practice."

"God. Forbid," she said in a mock tone of awe.

Leo cleared his throat, drawing her attention back to him. "Sue, I need an answer."

"Do I really have a choice?"

"No," they said in unison.

Leo's face softened ever so slightly. "You know too much about us."

Susan sat there in silence as the events of the day replayed through her mind. It was all too much to take. God, how she wished that she could just go crazy like her grandmother to get away from it all. But life wasn't being that kind to her at present. Her sanity was intact, because heaven forbid she have any escape from her sucky situation. "And this new life you're offering me. What does it entail?"

Leo glanced to the others before he answered. "Not much. Really. You swear an oath to us to keep your silence and you go on our payroll and into our system so that we can monitor you."

Those words, combined with his tone, sent a chill down her spine. "Monitor me how?"

"It's not as ominous as it sounds," Leo assured her. "We just keep a tab on you from time to time to make sure you haven't been talking to any civilians about us. So long as you maintain your silence, you get a lot of perks."

"Such as?"

Leo pushed the folder toward her. "Private planes. Exclusive vacations. A 401(k) and stock options to beat the band. Funds to start your own business if you want. " He paused to give her a stern stare. "And the one thing you've never had. A family that'll be there whenever you need it."

That last bit stung and Leo knew it. Her father had abandoned her and her mother when Susan was only three years old. She had no memory of him whatsoever, and her mother had never taken her to meet his side of the family. An only child like Susan, her mother had been close to her parents, but they, too, had died while Susan was a small child and then her mother had died in a car wreck three days before Susan turned seventeen.

She'd been alone ever since.

Family had been the one thing in her life that she'd always craved with a burning passion, and much like her respectability, it was as elusive as a unicorn's horn. It was the one carrot Leo knew to dangle in front of her.

Sighing, she flipped through the folder to see a contract and a list of phone numbers for different kinds of services. She closed it and pinned Leo with a frigid glare. "You make it all sound so rosy, but one thing I've learned: If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. So what's the catch?"

"There isn't a catch, promise." Leo made a cross over his heart. "You can go about your life any way you please. You'll just be privy to a lot of things that the average person is clueless about."

"The drawback is you'll have a lot more days like today," Jessica said in an emotionless voice. "As a Squire, the Daimons will be drawn to you and they will come after you from time to time."

"But we'll train you," Leo added. "You won't be left alone to fight them."

Oh, joy! Who in their right mind would ever turn this down? It was all she could do not to laugh at their offer. "Is that it?"

Otto gave her a dry grimace. "Isn't it enough?"

"Oh, yeah," she said with a humorless laugh, "it's enough and then some." Susan grew quiet as she considered everything Leo had just dumped into her lap. But in the end, she knew what they did...

She had no choice.

Her heart heavy, she looked over at Otto. "Looks like I'm going to ruin your day, Big Boy. I choose to live my crappy life a little longer."

"Damn." Otto let out a long-suffering sigh.

Leo appeared relieved. "Welcome aboard."

Funny, she didn't feel welcomed. She felt ill. A condition that wasn't improved when Leo paused and said, "Oh, and one more thing."

This she couldn't wait for.

"As Squires, we're all answerable to the Dark-Hunters. To the men and women like Ravyn and in particular to their leader, Acheron. In essence, we're their servants who help them and who guard them from the public."

She widened her eyes in feigned happiness. "Oh gee, golly, goodie, Mr. Leo! Can I have my eyes gouged out, too?"

Otto actually laughed. "You know, I think I'm really going to like you."

Well, at least the pit viper thought she was amusing. Leo, on the other hand, looked less than amused as he shook his head at Kyl and Jessica.

Sobering, Susan picked up her folder and addressed her biggest concern now that certain death at Otto's hands had been avoided. "So what happens to me now? How are you going to hide me while I'm wanted by the cops?"

"We'll worry about that," Jessica said. "The police are the least of our problems. It's who's pulling their chains that concerns us."

"The commissioner?" Susan suggested.

Kyl rolled his eyes. "Think outside human parameters."

She gave him a droll stare. "Yeah, but if there's a cover-up, someone in the police department is helping out, right?"

"Yes," Leo said in a strained tone, "but right now that's not a big deal. What we need to know is who's targeting us. If they're able to take out a Dark-Hunter, then we're nothing but fodder to them."

"Speak for yourself," Jessica said smugly. "I assure you, I'm not at the bottom of this food chain."

Otto snorted at her bravado. "Knock it off, Jess. When Kyl and I were in New Orleans a year ago, there was a major Daimon uprising led by a Spathi named Stryker."

Susan frowned at the unfamiliar term. "Spathi?"

"A special warrior class of Daimons who are old," Kyl said. "Really, really old. They're a lot stronger than the typical Daimon who roams around looking for an easy target to suck dry. "

"Yeah," Otto agreed. "These usually have a serious ax to grind against the good guys and humans. Last year, we lost a lot of Dark-Hunters in Northern Mississippi and New Orleans to them. The last thing I want to do is lose any more."

Kyl turned toward Otto. "You think we should call Kyros or Rafael and see if they can help us. They got a lot closer to the Spathis than anyone else... and unlike Danger, Euphemia, Marco, and the others, they actually survived the encounter. Maybe they can remember something that could help expose a weakness we could exploit. "

Otto nodded. "Good idea."

"I'll ring them," Jessica volunteered.

"And I'll call Kyrian," Kyl said. "Any of you know where he is at present?"

Otto answered, "He never left New Orleans. None of the Dark-Hunters, current or former, evacuated for Katrina. They got their families out, but they stayed behind to help. Last I heard, even Amanda and the kids were back. "

"Cool. I'll buzz him then and see if he knows anything more concrete about Stryker or the others."

"What about Ash?" Leo asked.

Jessica shook her head. "He's been MIA for the last few days now. Last I heard, he was in Australia anyway. "

You know, Susan thought wryly, it would really help if I bad a clue as to who and what they were talking about. But they were so absorbed and earnest, she didn't want to interrupt them. Besides, what they were discussing seemed to be far more important than her ignorance and no doubt, if she lived, she'd begin to understand all of it soon enough.

Leo let out a frustrated breath as if he was way too tired. He turned toward Susan. "By the way, were you able to find anything out about Dark Angel before all this went down?"

"Yes. She's a snotty little booger."

Leo looked ill at her description. "Oh gawd, it is Erika."

Otto frowned. "What are you talking about now?"

Leo let out another weary sigh. "Someone local has been Hogging that she works for an immortal shapeshifting warrior who hunts vampires. I had Sue check her out."

Otto looked even more perplexed. "Erika's not a Squire."

"Not technically," Leo said, "but while her father's off on his honeymoon, she's subbing for him and running errands for Ravyn."

"Well, if you really think it's Erika then why didn't you have Tad run a trace on the blog?"

Leo cocked his head in an offended manner. "Because that would involve me actually talking to Tad now, wouldn't it?"

"Yeah, and?"

Clearing his throat, Leo became sullen. In a low, almost embarrassed tone, he said, "I owe him money."

Otto gave him a droll stare. "What has that got to do with anything?"

Leo narrowed his eyes. "I owe him a lot of money."

"Good God, Leo," Kyl said angrily, "given how much you have, how much could you be into him for?"

"Everything, and I mean everything. Hell, I even owe him my Porsche."

Otto's jaw went slack. "You jeopardized us because of debt? You've got to be kidding me."

"Do I look like I'm joking?" No, he looked completely pissed. "Besides, it's not my fault. He cheats at cards."

Kyl made a disgusted noise. "You've been playing poker with him? Are you insane? That man's brain functions like a computer."

"Now you tell me."

Otto disregarded his outburst. "And because of that you put a civilian on a case that should have been turned over to one of us? Jeez, man, what were you thinking?"

Leo rose to his feet. "Get off my back, Otto. I'm the one in charge here in Seattle."

Otto sat back with his arms folded over his chest in a demeanor that said he answered to no one else. "Not if I kill you for incompetence."

Jessica gave an evil smile. "Need us to turn a blind eye?"

Leo narrowed his eyes on her. "Ha, ha. But that doesn't change the fact that we still need to find out definitively if Dark Angel is Erika. And if not Erika, then we need to know if Dark Angel is another one of us, or just a local lunatic."

Otto shook his head in disgust. "I'll check into it."

Leo looked less than convinced Otto could handle it. "And what are you going to do, Otto?"

"What you should have done. I'll simply ask her."

Leo laughed. "You haven't met her, have you?"

"No, why?"

He laughed even harder.

"Wear a Teflon jockstrap," Jessica said under her breath.

Otto rolled his eyes. "Oh, please."

"Please nothing," Leo said, "she's a vicious piranha. She looks all cute and cuddly, then she opens that mouth and lets loose so much venom she could double as a nest of scorpions."

Still Otto looked less than intimidated. "I think I can handle her."

Leo glanced over at Kyl. "Add a call in to the florist to send flowers to either his hospital room or funeral parlor."

Otto shook his head before he stood up. "It looks like we all have our marching orders. Should we reconvene later tonight?"

Leo nodded. "Eight thirty. Be here."

Susan got up to leave with the others only to have Leo pull her to a stop.

"I'll get a handbook from Patricia for you. You'll also be stuck here for a while."

"Okay." Her gaze dropped down to his hand where the tattoo was. "Do I have to get one of those, too?"

He snorted. "No." He flexed his hand. "These are used solely for Blood Rites."

"Is that like special ed?"

"Hardly."

She still couldn't believe it. Oddly enough, it was easier to buy into the vampires than it was to believe Leo could hurt anyone. "Uh-huh, you who calls me into your office to kill spiders because you're squeamish?"

"That's different," he said defensively. "Those are disgusting."

"And yet you expect me to believe you'd kill a human?"

His eyes turned dark and forbidding. "I took an oath a long time ago, Susan, and I will abide by it. Whatever it takes. What we deal with is bigger than spiders. It's bigger than you and me."

For the first time, she saw the man behind the teasing friend she'd known all these years. And in truth, she missed the old anal-retentive, smarmy boy she'd befriended in college.

"You know what I want, Leo?"

"Your life back."

She nodded. "I really need a do-over on this day. Then again, I could really use one for the last five years."

"I know." He gave her a gentle hug. "But it'll be okay, Sue. I promise. We take care of our own and you're here with us now. Don't worry. You're safe."

Stryker came to his feet as a rage so raw, so potent, went through him that he wasn't sure how he managed to maintain himself.

"Kontis did what?" he asked in a low, calm tone that belied his turbulent mood.

"He escaped us, my lord," the Apollite vet, Theo, explained as he stood cringing before Stryker's throne in Kalosis. Wearing a blue, blood-spattered lab coat, the half-Apollite should amuse him, but there was nothing amusing about the man's news.

Stryker met Satara's disgusted stare before he narrowed his eyes back on the worm who dared to deliver such news to him. "I told you, Theo, that you only had one thing to do. Keep him in a cage until I arrived."

Swallowing hard, Theo wrung his hands. "I know and I did just as you said. I swear it. I didn't take him out of the cage. Not once. We just wanted to have a little fun with him until your Spathis killed him." He glanced up with imploring eyes. "It was the human I work with who took him out while I was speaking to you on the phone earlier. By the time I found out about it, he was already gone."

Did the fool honestly think that by indicting a human as an accomplice he would get leniency? These stupid tools were getting dumber and dumber every year.

Stryker curled his lip. "Where is Kontis now?"

"He was taken home by another human. The other vet we killed said her name was Susan Michaels. We have a team of humans out, looking for the two of them now. "

Stryker ground his teeth as all of his dreams of easily grabbing Seattle as a home base came sliding down around him. By now Kontis had no doubt notified all the other Dark-Hunters in Seattle. Every one of them would now be on high alert. So much for the element of surprise. Their job would now be a thousand times harder.

He wanted blood for this. "Do you have any idea what this means, Theo?"

"I do, but we still have enough daylight left that we should be able to get to him before he reaches the others."

Stryker scoffed. He knew better than that. Ravyn was like him-a survivor. If they wanted to take the city, they'd have to move quickly.

He turned toward his sister. "Gather Trates and the Illuminati."

"You're planning to hunt?" Theo asked, his eyes sparking a degree of relief and hope.

"Yes," Stryker said slowly.

"Good. I'll get my team ready."

"Don't bother, Theo."

His nervousness returned tenfold. "My lord?"

Stryker approached him slowly, methodically. He reached out and cupped the man's cheek in his palm. It was smooth and supple, as were all of theirs. Perfect. That was the beauty of never growing old.

Theo might be stupid, but he was as beautiful as the angels that many of the humans believed in. "How long have you served me now, Theo?"

"Almost eight years."

Stryker smiled at him. "Eight years and in all that time, tell me what you've learned about me."

He could feel the man shaking as he answered. The scent of fear and perspiration hung heavy in the air-gods, how he loved that smell. It was like an aphrodisiac to him.

"You're the Daimon King. Our only hope."

"Yes." He stroked Theo's cheek. "Anything else?"

Theo glanced nervously toward Satara before he returned to frown at Stryker. "I don't know what you mean."

He sank his hand into Theo's blond hair and balled his fist tightly in the strands so that the half-Apollite couldn't escape him. "The one thing you should have learned, Theo, is that I don't accept failure in any shape, form, or fashion. Your first mistake was letting the Dark-Hunter escape. Your second one was being stupid enough to come tell me about it."

Theo tried to pull away, but Stryker held him in place. "P-please, my lord, have mercy. I can find him! I can!"

Stryker smirked at his pathetic cries for clemency. "So can I. In fact, I intend to find more than just Ravyn. Before I'm through tonight, I intend to hunt and feed to my heart's content. But it won't be human." He licked his lips as he stared at the throbbing vein on Theo's neck. "Tonight I feast on Apollite blood and carnage... On you and your entire family."

Before the man could speak again, Stryker sank his teeth into Theo's neck, ripping out the carotid as he drank his fill.

Theo only fought for a second, before death finally claimed him. Stryker let Theo's limp body fall to his feet before he wiped the blood from his lips with the back of his hand.

"You didn't take his soul?" Satara asked incredulously.

Stryker scoffed. "Why bother? He was too weak to even whet my appetite."

"So what is our plan then?"

Stryker walked down the steps of his dais to stand beside his half-sister. "To run the bastards to ground. Ravyn has a Squire, right?"

She nodded.

"Then let's put the fear of us into the Squire and he or she is bound to lead us straight to Ravyn."

"How do we do that?"

"Simple, sweet Satara. You're not a Daimon. You can enter Ravyn's house and then invite us in. Trates and the others will go for the Squire, and she will run to Ravyn for protection."

Satara considered that for a moment. "What if you're wrong? The Squire might run to others of his kind."

Stryker shrugged nonchalantly. "Then we eat our fill of Squires. At best, it'll put fear into the other humans who serve the Dark-Hunters and it'll be an emotional blow to them. At worst, we just have a stomachache from the blood."



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