"Good Lord," Allen said. "He lives like an animal."
"No," Syra said as she walked over to the bookshelves to skim the titles. "He lives like a slave. For him, this would be a step up from what he was used to."
She met Jess’s gaze. "You know the man?"
"Yeah and you’re right." Jess had to duck out of the ceiling fan’s way as he moved around the room. He remembered that Zarek was a full two inches taller than him.
"Damn," he said as he turned the fan blade with his finger and remembered another thing Zarek had once told him.
"What?" Bjorn asked.
Jess looked back at the Alaskan Hunter who was inspecting Zarek’s pantry, which contained only a few cans of food and a ton of unopened vodka bottles. "How hot does it get up here in the summertime?"
Bjorn shrugged. "In the heart of the summer it can get in the high eighties and nineties. Why?"
Jess cursed again. "I remember talking to Zarek once. I asked him how he was doing. He said, ‘Baking.’ " Jess nodded at the small ceiling fan. "I just now realized what he meant. Can you imagine being trapped in this place in the dead of summer with no windows and no air-conditioning?"
Syra let out a low whistle. "We have round-the-clock sunshine. You’re lucky if you can leave for more than ten minutes a day."
"What does he do for a bathroom?" Allen asked.
Syra indicated a small chamber pot in the left corner.
"How long has he been here?" she asked Jess. "Eight, nine hundred years?"
She let out a low whistle. "No wonder he’s insane."
Allen scoffed. "With the money he gets paid, the idiot could have built himself a mansion."
"No," Jess said. "It’s not his way. Trust me, when you’re used to nothing, you expect nothing."
Syra walked over to the corner where a mountain of carved figurines were piled. "What are these?"
Jess frowned as he noticed the walls of the cabin and realized every single inch of them was covered with intricate carvings that matched the figurines.
Suddenly he recalled the wood sculptures he’d seen in the convenience store.
The ice sculptures he’d seen in town.
Poor Zarek must have gone loco time and again from boredom during the months he was confined to this tiny shed.
Hell, Jess had a bigger garage at home. "I would say it’s Zarek’s attempt to maintain a shred of sanity while he’s locked away up here."
Bjorn picked up a painted figurine that looked like a polar bear with its cubs. "These are incredible."
Syra nodded. "I’ve never seen anything like them. It hardly seems right that we kill someone who’s had to live like this all these centuries."
Allen snorted. "It hardly seems right that he was allowed to live after he murdered everyone in the village he was charged with watching."
Otto passed an interesting look to the Squire. If Jess didn’t know better, he’d suspect the man had second thoughts about killing Zarek.
Their gazes locked.
Nope, no doubt. In fact, he suspected Otto might have been sent along for other reasons… as he had been.
"Well, guys, it’s been fun," Bjorn said. "But my powers are waning from Jess and Syra and we still have a small matter of the Daimon migration to sort out. Anyone have any ideas why they would do this?"
They all looked to Syra who was the oldest.
"What?" she asked.
"Have you ever seen or heard of anything like this?"
She shook her head. "I’ve heard of Daimons teaming up. Back in the centuries before you guys were born, they used to have warrior Daimons. But no one has seen a Spathi in at least a millennium. All this beats me. It’s a pity we can’t reach Acheron. He might have more information."
Bjorn headed out of the cabin.
Jess pulled up the rear and looked back inside the shack one more time.
Damn. He felt real sorry for his friend and the life Zarek had been given.
He couldn’t imagine being stuck out in the woods all alone in temperatures that ranged from forty below to ninety.
No wonder Ash took such pity on Zarek.
Six of the squires went to the SUVs and unloaded gasoline containers.
"What are you doing?" Jess asked suspiciously.
"Burning him out," a redheaded Squire said. "You want to hunt, you-"
"Like hell!" Jess grabbed the container from the man’s hand and slung it toward the woods. "This is all he has in the world. No way I’m going to let you take it from him."
Allen sneered at him. "He beat up that woman."
Jess narrowed his gaze. "You have yet to prove it to me."
Allen rolled his eyes, as if unable to understand how he could defend his friend. "If Zarek didn’t do it? Who did?"
Jess looked up to see the biggest herd of Daimons he’d ever beheld in his life. There had to be at least forty head of them, but it was hard to count-especially since he didn’t think they were all visible. His Dark-Hunter sense told him more were still in the woods, acting as standbys.
Some wore leather, some fur coats. Some were male and others female. But they had a few things in common. Blond hair, fangs, and that unnatural attractiveness that was ingrained in their species.
Even so, one glance was enough to identify their leader. It was a Daimon he’d met already while he’d been after Zarek. But instead of fleeing from him like most Daimons did, this one had run after Zarek.
Pursuing Zarek even while they did.
The leader stood a head taller than the others and slightly ahead of them. Unlike the ones behind him, there was no fear in his gaze.
Only a raw, tangible determination. And a meanness that ran soul deep.
Syra let out a sound that was a cross between disbelief and humor. "What the hell is that?"
The Daimon leader smiled. "I would say ‘Your worst nightmare,’ but I hate cliches."
"Marone, you’re real."
Everyone on the "good" side turned to look at Otto, who stared at the leader as if he were looking at a visitation from the Devil himself.
"You know this guy, Carvalleti?" Jess asked.
"I know of him, anyway," he said, his tone deep and heavy. "My father used to tell me about the Daimon called Thanatos when I was a kid. We always thought he was making it up."
"Making up what?" Bjorn asked as he looked back in Thanatos’s direction.
"Tales of a Dark-Hunter executioner called the Dayslayer. It’s a story that’s been handed down through my family for generations. Squire to Squire."
"And you’re telling me this ass**le is him?" Bjorn asked at the same time Syra said, "Dark-Hunter executioner?"
Otto nodded. "Supposedly Artemis once set up a slayer for you guys in the event you turned rogue. He can walk in daylight and doesn’t need blood to live. Legend has it that he’s invincible."
Thanatos applauded sarcastically. "Very good, little Squire. I’m impressed."
Otto’s eyes turned glacial. "My father said Acheron killed Thanatos about a thousand years ago."
"Not to be a smart-ass," Bjorn said, "but he doesn’t look dead to me."
Thanatos laughed. "I’m not. At least no more so than you are."
Thanatos approached them slowly, methodically.
Jess tensed, ready for battle.
Thanatos folded his hands behind his back and offered Otto a wry smile. "Question, human, did your father ever tell you of the Spathi Daimons?"
Thanatos looked at the Dark-Hunters. "Surely you older Hunters remember them?" He sighed nostalgically. "Ah, those were the days… The Dark-Hunters hunted us, we slaughtered them. We made our homes in underground catacombs and crypts where the Hunters couldn’t go without getting possessed. It was an interesting time to be Apollite or Daimon."
He looked over his shoulder at the herd of Daimons who eyed them nervously for the most part. There were one or two who had no fear and those were the ones Jess paid closest attention to.
He didn’t know anything about warrior Daimons, but he did know how to execute any and all who wanted a taste of a human soul.
When Thanatos spoke again, his voice was dark, sinister. "But that was before we discovered civilization and modern conveniences. Before the human world developed enough to where we could exist at night under the pretense of being one of them. Apollites owning businesses and houses. Daimons playing Nintendo. What is this world coming to?"
Thanatos moved so fast that no one had time to blink. He shot a blast from his hands, knocking all the Squires off their feet.
He surveyed his chaos with a pleased look on his face. "Now before I allow my people to feed on all of you and I kill the Dark-Hunters, perhaps we should talk a bit, hmm… ? Or do you Hunters really want to battle me while you weaken each other?"
"Talk about what?" Jess asked, moving closer to Syra. Even though he knew she could take care of herself, it was just ingrained habit for him to protect a woman.
"Where Zarek is," Thanatos said between clenched teeth.
"We don’t know," Syra said.
One of the unknown Squires let out a howl. Jess watched in horror as the man’s arm was snapped in half by nothing at all.
Holy Madre de Dios, he’d never seen anything like that.
Thanatos caught him, and flipped him to the ground. He ripped open Bjorn’s shirt to expose the bow-and-arrow mark of Artemis on Bjorn’s shoulder.
Thanatos stabbed Bjorn’s brand with an ornate gold dagger.
Bjorn disintegrated like a Daimon.
None of them moved.
Jess could barely breathe as rage suffused him. That had been way too easy for the Daimon. Up until now, the Dark-Hunters had been told that they could only die three ways. Total dismemberment, sunlight, or beheading.
Apparently, Acheron had left out one crucial, and extremely quick, way to die.
This wasn’t good, and right now he was pissed that no one had warned them.
But that would have to wait. There were innocent people here and if he fought Thanatos in the presence of Syra, they would both be fighting with their hands tied behind their backs, while Thanatos would be fighting full strength.
"You want Zarek?" Jess asked.
Thanatos rose slowly to his feet. "That’s why I’m here."
Jess was shaken by what he’d seen, and though he hadn’t known Bjorn long, the man had seemed decent enough. It was a damn shame to lose a comrade, especially to Thanatos.
He’d grieve later; right now he wanted to make sure the Squires survived.
Jess slid his gaze to Syra and sent a mental projection to her. "Save the Squires. I’m taking Asshole for a run."
Aloud, he said, "Then follow me and bring all you’ve got. Zarek’s going to enjoy slaying you."
Jess ran for his Bronco.
Zarek still lay nak*d in the surf, cradling Astrid against him. He couldn’t count how many times they had made love in the last few hours. It had been so many times that he wondered idly if he’d be sore when he woke up.
Surely no one could be this acrobatic, even in dreams, and not have some physical damage to show for it.
He was exhausted from their lovemaking and yet he felt a peace the likes of which he’d never known.
Was this what other people felt?
Astrid leaned up. "When was the last time you had cotton candy?"
He frowned at her unexpected question. "What’s cotton candy?"
She gaped in shock. "You don’t even know what cotton candy is?"
He shook his head.
Smiling, she stood up and pulled him to his feet. "We’re going to the boardwalk."
Okay, she really had lost her mind. "There’s not a boardwalk."
"Oh, yes there is, just on the other side of those rocks."
Zarek looked over to see a pier that hadn’t been there earlier.
How weird that it had popped into his dream at her bidding and not his. He eyed her suspiciously. "Are you a Dream-Hunter Skotos pretending to be Astrid?"
"No," she said, smiling. "I’m not trying to take anything from you, Zarek. I’m only trying to give you a pleasant memory."
Astrid sighed at the look on his face. Kindness was so far beyond his comprehension that he couldn’t even understand why she wanted to make him smile.
"Because you deserve one."
"For what? I haven’t done anything."
"You live, Zarek," she said, stressing the words, trying to make him understand. "For that alone, you deserve some happiness."
The doubt in his eyes stung her.
Determined to reach him, she "conjured" herself a pair of white shorts and a blue tank top, then helped dress him in a pair of black jeans and a T-shirt.
She led him toward the "dream" crowd.
Zarek was silent as they walked up the stairs that led to the old-fashioned boardwalk. He tensed visibly as people brushed too close to him. She had the distinct feeling he was one step away from uttering a vicious putdown.
"It’s okay, Zarek."
He sneered at a man who came too close. "I don’t like for anyone to touch me."
And yet he didn’t say anything about the fact that she had her arm hooked in his.