"Forget it, Jess," he said, using Sundown’s real name.
He turned and ran for the door.
Zarek made it back into the yard before Sundown caught him and pulled him to a stop. He bared his fangs at him, but Jess didn’t seem to notice.
Zarek punched him hard in the stomach. It was a powerful strike that made Jess stagger back and it brought Zarek to his knees. Any time one Dark-Hunter attacked another one, the Dark-Hunter who attacked felt the blow ten times worse than the one who received it. There was only one way to avoid this-for Artemis to lift her ban. He just hoped she hadn’t lifted it from Jess.
Zarek struggled to breathe from the pain of it and forced himself to his feet. Unlike Jess, physical pain was something he was used to.
But before he could go far, he saw Mike and three other Squires in the shadows. They were walking toward them with determined strides that said they were armed for Dark-Hunter.
"Leave him to me," Sundown ordered.
They ignored him and kept on coming.
Spinning about, Zarek headed for his snowmachine only to find its engine in pieces. Obviously they had been busy while he was at Frank’s.
Damn it. How could he have been so stupid?
They must have destroyed his generators to force him into town. They’d flushed him out of the woods like hunters with a wild animal.
Fine. If they wanted an animal to track, he would be one.
He slung his hand out and used his telekinesis to knock the Squires off their feet.
Unwilling to hurt himself again, Zarek dodged Jess and ran for town.
He didn’t make it far before more Squires fell in and opened fire on him.
Bullets tore through his body, shredding his skin. Zarek hissed and staggered from the pain of it.
Still, he kept running.
He had no choice.
If he stayed down, they would dismember him, and though his life seriously sucked, he had no intention of becoming a Shade. Nor would he give them the satisfaction of killing him.
Zarek rounded the side of a building.
Something hard hit his middle.
Agony exploded through him as he was flipped head over heels onto the ground. He came to rest on his back in the snow with the breath knocked completely out of him.
A shadow with cold, merciless eyes moved to stand over him.
At least six eight, the man held an unearthly masculine perfection. He had pale blond hair and dark brown eyes, and when he smiled, he revealed the same pair of fangs as Zarek.
"What are you?" Zarek asked, knowing the stranger wasn’t a Daimon or Apollite even though he looked like one.
"I am Thanatos, Dark-Hunter," he said in Classic Greek, using the name that meant "death." "And I’m here to kill you."
He seized Zarek by his coat and threw him against the far building as if he were nothing more than a rag doll.
Zarek hit the wall hard and slid to the street. His body hurt so badly that his limbs shook as he tried to crawl away from the beast.
Zarek stopped. "I won’t die like this again," he snarled. Not on his belly like some fearful animal waiting for slaughter.
Like a worthless slave being beaten.
His body fortified by his rage, he forced himself to his feet and swung around to face Thanatos.
The creature smiled. "Backbone. How I love it. But not as much as I love sucking the marrow from it."
Zarek caught his arm as he reached for him. "You know what I love?" Zarek snapped the creature’s arm and seized him by his neck. "The sound of a Daimon breathing his last breath."
Thanatos laughed. The sound was evil and cold. "You can’t kill me, Dark-Hunter. I’m even more immortal than you are."
Zarek gaped as Thanatos’s arm healed instantly.
"What are you?" Zarek asked again.
"I told you. I am Death and no one defeats or escapes Death."
Oh, shit. He was screwed now.
But he was far from defeated. Death might take him, but the bastard was going to have to work for it.
"You know," Zarek said, falling into the surreal calmness that had allowed him as a whipping boy to suffer through untold beatings. "I’ll bet most people shit their pants in terror when you hand them that line. But you know what, Mr. I-want-to-be-scary-and-am-failing-miserably? I’m not a person. I’m a Dark-Hunter and in the grand scheme of things you don’t mean shit to me."
He concentrated all of his powers into his hand, then delivered a powerful blow straight to Thanatos’s solar plexus. The creature stumbled back.
"Now I can sit here and play with you." He delivered another staggering blow to Thanatos. "But I’d rather just put you out of both our miseries."
Before he could strike again, a shotgun blast hit him square in the back. Zarek felt the shrapnel ripping through his body, narrowly missing his heart.
Police sirens sounded in the distance.
Thanatos grabbed him by his throat and lifted him up until he was forced to stand on his tiptoes. "Better yet, why don’t I just put you out of yours?"
Struggling to breathe, Zarek smiled grimly as he felt a trail of blood run out from the corner of his lips. The metallic taste of it suffused his mouth. He was hurt, but not daunted.
Smiling snidely at the Daimon, he kneed the bastard in the jewels.
The Daimon crumpled. Zarek took off running again, away from the Daimon, the Squires, and the cops, only he was nowhere near as fast as he’d been.
The pain made his eyesight blurry and the more he ran the more he hurt.
The agony of his body was unbearable.
Not in all his beatings as a child had he hurt this much. He didn’t know how he managed to keep going. Only that some part of him refused to lie down and let them have him.
He wasn’t sure when he lost them, or maybe they were right behind him. Zarek couldn’t really tell due to the buzzing in his ears.
Disoriented, he slowed, stumbling forward until he couldn’t go any farther.
He fell into the snow.
Zarek lay there waiting for the others to grab him. Waiting for Thanatos to finish what they had started, but as the seconds ticked by, he realized he must have escaped them.
Relieved, he tried to rise.
He couldn’t. His body just wouldn’t cooperate anymore. The best he could manage was to crawl forward three more feet where he caught sight of a large cabin-style house in front of him.
It looked warm and cozy and in the back of his mind was the thought that if he could just make it to the door the person inside might help him.
He laughed bitterly at the thought.
No one had ever helped him.
No, this was his fate. There was no use fighting it, and in truth, he was tired of struggling alone in the world.
Closing his eyes, he drew a long, ragged breath and waited for what was inevitable.
Astrid sat on the edge of the bed as she checked the wounds of her "guest." For four days now, he had lain in her bed unconscious while she watched over him.
The tight muscles under her hands were firm and strong, but she couldn’t see them.
She couldn’t see him.
Her eyesight was always forfeit when she was sent to judge someone. Eyes could deceive. They judged things very differently from the other senses.
Astrid must always be impartial even though at the moment she didn’t truly feel that way.
How many times had she gone in with an open heart only to be fooled?
The worst case had been Miles. A rogue Dark-Hunter, he had been charming and amusing. He had dazzled her with his vibrancy and ability to make everything a game. Whenever she had tried to push him to his limits, he had laughed off her tests and shown himself to be a good sport about everything.
He had appeared the perfect, well-balanced man.
For a time, she had even fancied herself in love with him.
In the end, he had tried to kill her. He had been completely amoral and ruthless. Cold. Unfeeling. The only person he had been able to love was himself, and while he was nothing but scum, in his mind, he had been wronged by mankind so it was okay to do whatever he wanted to them.
And that was Astrid’s biggest problem with Dark-Hunters. They were humans who were usually recruited from the sewers. Spat upon by others from the cradle to the grave, they were hostile to the world. Artemis never took that into consideration when she converted them. All she wanted was a soldier under Acheron’s command. Once they were created, Artemis washed her hands of them and left them for others to monitor and maintain.
At least until they crossed whatever line Artemis had drawn. Then the goddess rushed to have them judged and executed, and though she had no proof, Astrid suspected Artemis only followed that protocol to keep Acheron from being angry at her.
So Astrid had been called multiple times over the centuries to find some reason to allow a Dark-Hunter to live.
She never had. Not once. Every one she had judged had been dangerous and raw. A menace who threatened mankind more than the Daimons they pursued.
Olympian justice didn’t operate quite the way human justice did. There was no assumption of innocence. On Olympus, once accused, the defendant must prove himself worthy of mercy.
No one ever had.
The closest Astrid had ever come to clemency had been Miles, and look how that had turned out. It terrified her to think of how close she had come to judging him innocent and then having him set loose on the world again.
That experience had been the last straw for her. Since then, she had pulled herself away from everyone.
She wouldn’t let a man’s beauty or charm trick her again. Her job now was to get to the heart of this man on her bed.
Artemis had said Zarek had no heart whatsoever. Acheron had said nothing. He had only given her a piercing look that told her he was depending on her to do the right thing.
But what was right?
"Wake up, Zarek," she whispered. "You only have ten days left to save yourself."
Zarek came awake to a pain that was indescribable, which given his brutal background as a whipping boy and slave was hard to believe. Especially since as a human being, pain had been the only certainty in his life.
His head throbbing, he shifted, expecting to feel cold snow and ground underneath him. Instead, he was struck by how warm he felt.
I’m dead, he thought wryly.
Not even his dreams had ever left him this warm.
Yet as he blinked open his eyes to find a fire blazing in a hearth and a mountain of quilts over him, he realized he was very much alive and lying in someone else’s bedroom.
He looked around the room, which was decorated in earth tones: pale pinks, tans, browns, and dark green. The log-cabin walls were the upper-crust kind that denoted someone who wanted the look and feel of a rustic cabin, but who had enough money to make sure it was well insulated and cozy, and not drafty and cold.
His bed was an expensive iron reproduction of the large beds from the end of the nineteenth century. To his left stood a small nightstand where an old-fashioned pitcher and washbowl rested.
Whoever owned this place was loaded.
Zarek hated wealthy people.
Zarek frowned at the soft, melodic voice. A woman’s voice. She was down the hall in another room, but he couldn’t quite pinpoint her location through the pain in his skull.
He heard a soft canine whine.
"Oh, stop that," the woman chided with a gentle tone. "I didn’t really hurt your feelings, did I?"
Zarek’s frown deepened as he tried to make sense of what had happened to him. Jess and the others were hunting him and he remembered falling down in front of a house.
Someone from the house must have found him and dragged him inside, though why anyone would bother he couldn’t imagine.
Not that it mattered. Jess and Thanatos would be after him, and it wouldn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out where he was, especially given how much blood he’d been losing as he ran. No doubt, there was a trail that led straight to this cabin’s door.
Which meant he had to get out of here ASAP. Jess wouldn’t do anything to hurt those who’d helped him, but there was no telling what Thanatos was capable of.
His mind flashed to a burning village. To the horrid sight of people lying dead…
Zarek flinched at the memory, wondering why it would haunt him now.
It was a reminder of what he was capable of, he decided, and a reminder of why he had to get away from here. He didn’t want to hurt someone who had been nice to him.
Forcing himself to forget the pain of his body, he sat up slowly.
The dog instantly came running into his room.
Only it wasn’t a dog, he realized as it stopped by his bed and growled at him. It was a large, white timber wolf. One that appeared to hate him.
"Back off, Scooby," he snapped. "I’ve made boots from bigger and badder wolves than you."
The wolf bared more teeth as if it understood his words and was daring him to prove them.
Zarek froze as the woman appeared in his doorway.
She was incredible. Her long blond hair was the color of honey, and it fell in soft waves around her thin shoulders. Her skin was pale, with rosy cheeks and lips that had obviously been protected very carefully from the harsh Alaskan climate. She stood close to six feet in height and wore a white cable-knit sweater and jeans.
Her eyes were a pale, pale blue. So light that at first glance, they were almost colorless. And as she came into the room with her hands stretched out as she moved slowly and methodically, trying to locate the wolf, he realized she was completely blind.