Dance with the Devil (Page 2)

Dance with the Devil (Dark-Hunter #4)(2)
Author: Sherrilyn Kenyon

Ash rubbed his hand over the small burn there that he always felt whenever Simi left or returned to his skin.

Artemis stared with malice at Simi’s new form. Then, she stepped around him and leaned against his back as she brushed one hand over Simi’s image. "One day I’m going to find a way to rid you of that beast resting on your arm."

"Sure you will," he said, forcing himself to endure Artemis’s touch as she breathed across his skin while she leaned against his back. It was something Ash had never been able to tolerate with ease, and it was something she knew he hated.

He looked at her over his shoulder. "And one day I’m going to find a way to rid myself of the beast resting on my back."

Astrid sat alone in her atrium reading her favorite book, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. No matter how many times she read it, she always found something new in it.

And today she needed to find something good. Something to remind her that there was beauty in the world. Innocence. Joy. Happiness.

Most of all, she wanted to find hope.

A soft gentle breeze floated off the lilac-scented river, through the marble Doric columns and across the white wicker chaise where she sat. Her three sisters had been here for a little while, but she had sent them away.

Not even they could comfort her.

Tired and disillusioned, she had sought solace in her book. In it, she saw goodness, a goodness that was missing in the people she’d known in her life.

Was there no decency? No kindness?

Had humanity finally managed to destroy both?

Her sisters, as much as she loved them, were as ruthless as anyone else. They were completely indifferent to the pleadings and suffering of anyone not related to them.

Nothing touched any of them anymore.

Astrid couldn’t remember the last time she had cried. The last time she had laughed.

She was numb now.

Numbness was the curse of her kind. Her sister Atty had warned her long ago that if she chose to be a judge this day would come.

Young, vain, and stupid, Astrid had foolishly ignored the warning, thinking it could never happen to her.

She would never be indifferent to people or their pain.

Yet now it was only her books that brought her the emotions of others. Even though she couldn’t really "feel" them, the unreal and muted emotions of the characters comforted her on some level.

And if she were capable of it, that would make her weep.

Astrid heard someone approaching her from behind. Not wanting anyone to see what she was reading lest they ask her why, and she be forced to admit she’d lost her compassion, Astrid tucked it beneath the chair’s cushion. She turned to see her mother crossing the well-manicured lawn where a small group of three dappled fawns grazed.

Her mother wasn’t alone.

Artemis and Acheron were with her.

Her mother’s long red hair was left to curl becomingly around a face that looked no older than thirty. Themis wore a tailored short-sleeved blue shirt and khaki slacks.

No one would ever take her for the Greek goddess of justice.

Artemis was dressed in a classical Greek peplos while Acheron wore his typical black leather pants and a black T-shirt. His long blond hair was loose around his shoulders.

A chill went down her spine, but then, it always did whenever Acheron came near. There was something about him that was compelling and irresistible.

It was also terrifying.

She’d never known anyone like him. He was alluring in a way that defied her best abilities to explain. It was as if his very presence filled everyone with a desire so potent that it was hard to look at him without wanting to rip his clothes off, throw him to the ground, and make love to him for untold centuries.

But there was more to him than his sexual appeal. There was also something ancient and primal. Something so powerful that even the gods feared him.

You could even see that fear in Artemis’s eyes as she walked beside him.

No one knew what the relationship was between the two of them. They never touched each other, seldom did they look at each other. And yet Acheron came often to see Artemis in her temple.

When Astrid had been a child, he used to come and visit with her, too. Play games with her and teach her how to manage her very limited powers. He’d brought her countless books both from the past and from the future.

In fact, it was Acheron who had given her The Little Prince.

Those visits had all but ended the day she hit puberty and had realized just how desirable a man Acheron was. He had pulled away from her then, leaving a tangible wall between them.

"To what do I owe the honor?" Astrid asked as the three of them surrounded her.

"I have a job for you, dearest," her mother said.

Astrid made a pain-filled face. "I thought we agreed that I could take some time off."

"Oh, come on, Astrid," Artemis said. "I need you, little cousin." She cast an evil glare in Acheron’s direction. "There’s a Dark-Hunter who needs to be put down."

Acheron’s face was impassive as he watched Astrid without comment.

Astrid sighed. She didn’t want to do this. Too many centuries of judging others had left her emotionally bankrupt. She’d begun to suspect that she was no longer capable of feeling anyone’s pain.

Not even her own.

Lack of compassion had ruined her sisters. Now she was afraid it was going to ruin her, as well.

"There are other judges."

Artemis let out a disgusted breath. "I don’t trust them. They’re bleeding hearts who are just as likely to find him innocent as guilty. I need a hard-nosed, impartial judge who can’t be swayed from doing what’s right and necessary. I need you."

The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Astrid slid her gaze from Artemis to Acheron, who stood with his arms folded over his chest. His gaze unwavering, he watched Astrid with those eerie swirling silver eyes of his.

This wasn’t the first time she’d been asked to judge a rogue Dark-Hunter and yet she sensed something different about Acheron today.

"You believe him innocent?" she asked.

Acheron nodded.

"He’s not innocent," Artemis sneered. "He’d kill anyone or anything without blinking. He has no morals or concern for anyone other than himself."

Acheron gave Artemis an arch look that said those words reminded him of someone else he knew.

It almost succeeded in bringing a smile to Astrid’s lips.

While her mother stayed back a few feet to give them room, Acheron squatted down by Astrid’s chaise and met her gaze levelly. "I know you’re tired, Astrid. I know you want to quit, but I don’t trust anyone else to judge him."

Astrid frowned as he spoke of things she hadn’t told anyone else. No one knew she wanted to quit.

Artemis turned a jaundiced gaze to Acheron. "Why are you being so accommodating with my choice of judge? She’s never found anyone innocent in all the history of the world."

"I know," he said in that rich, deep voice that was even more seductive than his incredible good looks. "But I trust her to do the right thing."

Artemis narrowed her eyes at him. "What trick have you planned?"

His face was completely impassive as he continued to watch Astrid with an intensity that was unnerving. "Nothing."

Astrid considered taking on the mission only because of Acheron. He’d never asked anything of her before and she remembered well just how many times he had comforted her when she’d been a child. He’d been like a father and a big brother to her.

"How long do I have to stay?" she asked them. "If I go in and the Dark-Hunter is beyond redemption, can I pull out immediately?"

"Yes," Artemis said. "In fact, the sooner you judge him guilty the better for all of us."

Astrid turned to the man beside her. "Acheron?"

He nodded in agreement. "I will abide by what you decide."

Artemis beamed. "We have our pact then, Acheron. I have given you a judge."

A small smile played at the edges of Acheron’s lips. "You have, indeed."

Artemis looked suddenly nervous. She glanced from Acheron to Astrid, then back again. "What do you know that I don’t?" she asked him.

Those pale, swirling eyes cut through Astrid as Acheron said quietly, "I know that Astrid holds a deep truth inside her."

Artemis put her hands on her hips. "And that is?"

" ‘It is only with the heart that one can rightly see. What is essential is invisible to the eye.’ "

Another chill went down Astrid’s spine as Acheron quoted the exact line from The Little Prince that she had been reading as they approached.

How did he know what she’d been reading?

She glanced down to make sure the book was completely hidden from their view.

It was.

Oh, yeah, Acheron Parthenopaeus was one frightening man.

"You have two weeks, daughter," her mother said quietly. "If it takes you less time, so be it. But at the end of a fortnight, one way or another, Zarek’s fate will be sealed by your hand."

Chapter 2

Zarek cursed as the batteries died on his MP3 player. Just his luck.

He was still a good hour away from their landing and the last thing he wanted was to listen to Mike in the helicopter’s cockpit moan and complain under his breath about having to chauffeur him back to Alaska. Even though a foot of solid black steel separated Zarek’s sunless, lightless compartment from Mike, he could hear through the walls as easily as if Mike were sitting next to him.

Worse, Zarek hated being stuck in the small passenger compartment that seemed to be closing in on him. Every time he moved, he bumped an arm or leg into the wall. But since they had been flying through daylight, it was either the cube or death.

For some reason he still wasn’t quite sure of, Zarek had chosen the cube.

He removed the headphones and his ears were immediately assaulted by the rhythmic pounding of the chopper’s blades, rushing winter winds, and Mike’s current conversation over the static-filled radio.

"So, did you do it?"

Zarek arched a brow at the anxious, unfamiliar male voice.

Ah, the beauty of his powers. He had hearing that would make Superman jealous. And he knew the topic of their discussion…

Him.

Or rather his demise.

Mike had been offered a fortune to kill him, and since the moment they had left New Orleans about twelve hours ago, Zarek had been waiting for the middle-aged Squire to either open the sealed windows and expose him to the deadly sunlight or to jettison his compartment and drop him over something that was guaranteed to take the immortality right out of him.

Instead, Mike was dicking around with him and had yet to pull the switch. Not that Zarek cared. He had a few more tricks to teach the Squire if Mike tried anything.

"Nah," Mike said as the chopper dipped without warning sharply to the left again and slammed Zarek into the wall of his compartment. He was beginning to suspect the pilot kept doing that just for shits and giggles.

The helicopter tilted again while Zarek braced himself for it.

"I thought about it, real hard, but you know I figure frying this bastard is way too good for him. I’d rather leave him to the Blood Rite Squires and let them take him out slow and painfully. Personally, I’d like to hear the psycho-dick scream for mercy, especially after what he did to those poor, innocent cops."

The muscle in Zarek’s jaw started to tic in time to his rapid, angry heartbeat as he listened. Yeah, those cops had been real innocent, all right. If Zarek had been mortal, the beating they gave him would have either killed him or he’d be lying in a coma right now.

The voice spoke over the radio again. "I heard from the Oracles that Artemis will pay double to the Squire who kills him. You put that on top of what Dionysus was going to pay you for killing him and I personally think you’re a fool to pass on it."

"No doubt, but I have enough money to pacify me. Besides, I’m the one who’s had to tolerate the dick’s attitude and sneers. He thinks he’s such a badass. I want to see them take him down a notch before they cut his head off."

Zarek rolled his eyes at Mike’s words. He didn’t give a rat’s ass what the man thought of him.

He’d learned a long time ago that there was no use in trying to reach out to people.

All it did was get him slapped.

He tucked his MP3 player back into his black duffel bag and grimaced as his knee connected roughly against the wall. Gods, get him out of this tight, cramped place. It felt like being in a sarcophagus.

"I’m surprised the Council didn’t activate Nick’s Blood Rite status for this hunt," the other voice said. "Since he spent the last week with Zarek, I would think he would be a natural for it."

Mike snorted. "They tried, but Gautier refused."

"Why?"

"I have no idea. You know how Gautier is. He doesn’t take orders very well. Makes me wonder why they ever initiated him into Squirehood to begin with. I can’t imagine any Dark-Hunter other than Acheron or Kyrian who could put up with his mouth."

"Yeah, he is a smart-ass. And speaking of, my Dark-Hunter is paging me so I better go to work. You be careful with Zarek and stay out of his way."

"Don’t worry. I’m going to dump him out and leave him for the others to track down, then get my butt out of Alaska faster than you can say ‘Rumpelstiltskin.’ "