Suddenly, a snowmachine came flying up at the same time Zarek broke from Thanatos.
Zarek didn’t recognize the voice, and ordinarily, he wouldn’t have obeyed, but what the hell? He was tired of getting his butt kicked by this Daimon.
He hit the ground and rolled out of the way while the dark green snowmachine flew over him. The man on it was dressed all in black with a black helmet. The newcomer skidded to a stop and pulled out a gun.
A bright flash of light cut through the darkness. The flare hit Thanatos in the center of his chest and knocked the Daimon flying.
Thanatos roared. "How dare you betray me! You’re one of us."
The man slung a long leg over the snowmachine and reloaded his flare gun as he headed over to where Zarek was still lying on the ground.
"Yeah," he said bitterly. "You should have thought of that before you took out Bjorn." The newcomer fired his gun and knocked Thanatos back. "He was the only one of them I could ever stand."
The stranger reached down and helped Zarek to his feet. He pulled his helmet off and gave it to Zarek. "Get the woman and get out. Hurry."
The minute Zarek met the stranger’s eyes, he knew him.
This was the only Dark-Hunter he’d ever known who was even more hated than he was. "Spawn?"
The blond Apollite Dark-Hunter nodded. "Go," he said, reloading. "I’m the only one who can hold him off, but I can’t kill him. For Apollo’s sake, someone get a hold of Acheron and tell him the Dayslayer is out."
Zarek ran for Astrid.
"No!" Thanatos roared.
Zarek saw the blast before it left Thanatos’s hand. Acting on instinct, he cut back toward Spawn. The blast missed him, but hit Astrid’s wolf.
The animal yelped, then changed from wolf to man, back to wolf.
Zarek drew up short as he realized Astrid’s pet was a Katagari Were-Hunter.
Now why would a blind woman with a Katagari companion take in a rogue Dark-Hunter?
"Sasha?" Astrid called.
Jess ran to the Katagari to keep him covered while Zarek went to Astrid.
"Your were-buddy got zapped, princess."
Fear lined her brow. "Is he okay?"
He picked her up, and brought her over to Jess, then cursed as he realized Jess couldn’t get both her and the wolf to safety. After an energy blast, the Katagaria tended to flash in and out of their forms for a while.
Jess struggled to get the wolf-man to the safety of his Bronco. As soon as he could, Jess left.
Zarek put the helmet on Astrid’s head. "Looks like it’s just you and me, princess. No doubt you’re going to wish I’d left you here with the Daimon."
Astrid hesitated at the anger and hatred she heard in Zarek’s tone of voice. "I trust you, Zarek."
"Then you’re a fool."
He took her arm and led her away so she couldn’t hear Spawn and Thanatos.
Roughly, he helped her onto a snowmachine.
She expected him to lead her away from the sound of fighting. Instead, they headed toward it.
She covered her face instinctively as something crashed close to them.
"Get on," Zarek snapped. "Hurry."
She felt the seat dip, then they were rushing away from all the noise. Astrid’s heart pounded as she waited for something else to happen.
After what seemed like hours, but was probably only a few minutes, Zarek stopped the snowmachine.
Again she felt motion on the seat as someone got off. Since Zarek’s arms were still around her, she assumed it must be Spawn.
"Thanks," Spawn said. "I never expected Zarek of Moesia to come to my rescue."
"Ditto, Spawn. Since when do Daimons fight their own kind?"
Spawn’s voice dripped with venom. "I was never a Daimon, Roman."
"And I was never a f**king Roman."
Spawn gave a short, bitter laugh. "Truce, then?"
She felt Zarek shift behind her.
"Truce." Zarek seemed to turn around and look in the direction they had come from. "You have any idea what that thing after me is?"
"Think Terminator. The only difference is that he has the sanction of Artemis."
"What do you mean?"
"My people have a legend of the Dayslayer. It says that Artemis chose one of our own to be her personal guard. More beloved than any of her people, the Dayslayer has no known vulnerability. Once he’s unleashed, his goal is to destroy Dark-Hunters."
"So you’re telling me he’s the Bogeyman?"
"You doubt me?"
"No. Not after what I’ve seen."
She heard Spawn let out a long breath. "I heard that Artemis had called out a blood hunt for you. I figured it would be Acheron who killed you."
"Yeah, well, trust me, I’m not executed yet. It’ll take more than that thing to expire me." Zarek paused. "Just out of curiosity, what are all of you doing up here anyway? Did Acheron call for a reunion and not invite me?"
"Bjorn came because he was chasing a group of Daimons. I came because I felt the Summoning."
"The Summoning?" Astrid asked. In all honesty, she knew very little about the Apollites and Daimons. That was the domain of Apollo and Artemis.
"It’s like a homing beacon," Spawn explained, "and it’s irresistible to anyone with Apollite blood. I can feel Thanatos even now calling out to me. I think the only reason I can resist it is because I’m a Dark-Hunter. If I weren’t… Let’s just say you’re in for one hell of a scary time."
Zarek snorted. "Doubtful. So how do I kill him?"
"You don’t. Artemis made him so that he could track and kill us. He has no known vulnerability. Not even daylight. Worse, he will destroy anyone who tries to shelter you."
Again, Zarek’s mind flashed to his village.
To the old woman who’d died in his arms…
What was his brain trying to tell him?
"Has Thanatos ever come after me before?" he asked Spawn.
Spawn scoffed. "You’re still living so obviously the answer is no."
Zarek got off the snowmachine. "Here, take Astrid and-"
"Did you not hear me, Zarek? I can’t take her. Thanatos will kill her for sheltering you. She’s dead if you leave her."
"She’s dead if she stays with me."
"We all got problems and she happens to be yours. Not mine."
Astrid had the distinct feeling Zarek was flipping Spawn off.
"Not on your best day, Greek," Spawn said, confirming her suspicion.
Zarek sat back down on the snowmachine.
"Hey, Zarek?" Spawn asked. "Do you have a cell phone with you?"
"No, it went down with her house."
She heard Spawn’s footsteps crunching in the snow as he returned to them. "Take this and call Acheron when you’re safe. Maybe he can help you with the woman."
"Thanks." The word was more inflected with belligerence than gratitude. "But what are you going to do without a phone or the snowmachine?"
"Freeze my ass off." There was a small pause. "Don’t worry about me. I assure you, I’ll be fine."
Zarek’s arms surrounded her again. She heard him turn the snowmachine back on.
"Where are we going?" she asked him.
"Up Shit Creek sans the paddles."
"Well," Astrid said, her tone every bit as sarcastic as his, "I hope you have a map. I’ve never been there before."
"Trust me, I know it like the back of my hand. Been living there most of my life."
Unsure if she should laugh or groan, Astrid held fast to the tank before her as Zarek pushed the snowmachine to the limits. It vibrated so badly that she half-expected it to disintegrate underneath them.
"Cap’n," she said in her best Scotty accent. "I don’t think she’ll hold. The warp engines can’t take any more. It’s going to blow apart."
If she didn’t know better, she’d swear she actually heard a rumble of laughter from Zarek.
"She’ll hold," he said, his deep, penetrating voice in her right ear. It gave her chills that had nothing to do with the freezing temperature.
"I think I may be grateful for my blindness, after all," she said. "Something tells me that if I could see the reckless speed you’re driving at, I would probably have a stroke."
She rolled her eyes at his ready agreement. "You have no idea how to comfort anyone, do you?"
"In case you haven’t noticed, princess, social skills aren’t my forte. Hell, you’re lucky I’m housebroke."
Oh, he was an evil one.
But there was something almost charming about his caustic retorts. They were angry and biting, but seldom mean-spirited, and now that she had seen the real Zarek, the one he kept hidden from everyone, she knew those barbs for what they were.
They were sent out to keep everyone away from him. If you let no one into your heart, then you never had to be hurt by betrayal.
She didn’t know how he stood living like that. In constant pain and loneliness. Letting hatred guide everything he did or said.
Zarek was a harsh man filled with more venom than the nine-headed Hydra. But even the Hydra had eventually met its match.
Tonight, Zarek had met his and it wasn’t Thanatos.
Astrid wasn’t going to give up on him.
They rode until her ears buzzed and her body was cold all the way to her bones. She wondered if she’d ever again be able to thaw out.
Zarek, who seemed oblivious to the freezing weather, continually zigzagged their course, as if trying to keep Thanatos from following them.
Just when she was sure that the concept that immortals couldn’t die of frostbite was a myth, Zarek finally stopped.
He turned off the engine.
The sudden silence was deafening. Oppressive.
She waited for Zarek to get up and help her off the snow-machine, but all he did was tug the helmet off her head. He pitched it away with a curse.
She heard it hit the ground, then silence returned and was broken only by their breathing.
Zarek’s rage reached out to her like a tangible menace. It was vibrant and frightening.
Part of him wanted to hurt her, she could sense it, but underneath that she felt his pain.
"Who are you?" Zarek’s voice was demanding and every bit as cold as the arctic winter. He kept his arms around her and his voice was right in her ear.
"I told you."
"You lied to me, princess," he growled. "I might not be able to read minds, but I know you’re not what you appear. Human women don’t have Katagaria companions. I want to know who you really are and why you were dicking around in my dreams."
She was shaking from nervousness. What would he do with her now?
Would he leave her for Thanatos?
She was scared to tell him the truth, and yet lies weren’t something she practiced unless she had to.
He had a right to be angry at her. Not that she had lied to him; she’d only neglected to tell him a few things. Things such as her real purpose, why she had helped him, and the fact that the wolf he hated could become a man…
Well, she had lied about Sasha being dead, but Sasha had deserved it.
And she had drugged him.
Yeah, okay, so she wasn’t up for Miss Congeniality this year, but then, neither was Zarek.
Especially not in his current mood.
Zarek’s warm breath fell against her exposed cheek. "What are you?" he repeated.
Astrid decided the time for deceit was over. He deserved to know the truth, and since Artemis had already broken the agreement and sent in Thanatos, what was the point of shielding the goddess any further?
"I’m a nymph."
"I hope you just left an important syllable off that word, princess."
"Excuse me?" It took a second for her to understand what he meant. When she did her face flamed. "I am not a nympho! I’m a nymph. Nymph. No o!"
He didn’t move or speak for several minutes.
Zarek let out his breath slowly as he considered the woman in front of him and tried for once to rein in his fury.
A friggin’ nymph. He should have known it was something like that.
Oh, yeah, right. Like the idea of a Greek nymph in Alaska was something that should have occurred to him. Her kind usually hung around beaches, oceans, and forests or stayed on Olympus.
They didn’t pop in during a blizzard and drag a wounded Dark-Hunter into their homes.
His stomach shrank as the reason for her presence slammed into him.
Someone had sent her here.
He gripped the handlebars fiercely, unwilling to let go for fear of what he might do to her. "What kind of nymph are you, princess?"
"Justice," she said quietly. "I serve Themis and I was sent here to judge you."
"Judge me?" He let out an extremely disgusted sound. "Oh, you’re un-friggin-believable."
Zarek had never wanted to hurt anyone so much in his life. Getting up from the snowmachine before he yielded to his temper, he put space between them.
Was this his luck or what?
He’d finally found someone whom he thought didn’t judge him and she really was a judge whose sole purpose was to pass judgment on him and the way he lived.
Oh, yeah, he really knew how to pick them.
The gods were still laughing at him. Mocking him.
All of them.