He fought back his tears as he moved slowly forward until he could touch her. Still, she was silent.
Nick cried out in grief as he buried his hand in her soft hair and saw the paleness of her face. The vicious bite-wound on her neck.
"No, Mommy, no!" he sobbed as he knelt beside her. "Dammit, Mom, don’t be dead!"
Only this time mere was no comfort to be found in her touch. No soft, loving voice to tell him that men didn’t cry. They didn’t show pain.
But how could any man withstand this kind of brutal agony?
This was his fault. All his fault. He’d been the idiot who had befriended the Dark-Hunters. Had he ever told her the truth… She hadn’t stood a chance.
"Mommy," he breathed against her cold face as he rocked her in his arms. "I’m so sorry. I’m so sorry. I didn’t mean to hurt you. I didn’t. Please wake up, please. Oh, please, Mom, don’t leave me."
Then his rage took hold. It steamed through his veins and screamed out in shattering waves that tore him apart. "Artemis!" he shouted. "I summon you to human form. Now!"
She appeared almost instantly with her hands on her h*ps and in a pique.
At least until she saw his mother’s body.
"What is this?" she asked, curling her lip as if the sight of death disgusted her. "You’re Acheron’s friend Nick, aren’t you?"
Nick laid his mother back in her chair, brushed the tears from his eyes with the back of his hand, and rose slowly to his feet. "I demand vengeance on the Daimon who did this and I demand it now."
She made a rude noise of dismissal. "You can demand all you want to, human, you’re not going to get it."
"Why not? You give it to every other ass**le who demands it. Make me a Dark-Hunter. You owe it to me."
She cocked her head and arched a brow at him. "I owe you nothing, human. And in case you haven’t noticed, you imbecile, you have to be dead before you can become a Dark-Hunter." She let out a disgusted sigh. "Didn’t you learn anything from Acheron?"
Artemis took a step back, intending to return home to Olympus, but before she could, the human knelt to the ground and picked up a gun.
"Make me a Dark-Hunter," he snarled an instant before he pulled the trigger.
Artemis froze at the loud, echoing sound of the gunshot. She couldn’t breathe as she took in the sight of the man lying dead at her feet.
"Oh, no," she said breathlessly as her heart pounded. Acheron’s human friend had just killed himself… right in front of her!
What was she going to do?
Her panicked thoughts raced. "He’ll blame me for this." He’d never forgive her. Never. Even though it wasn’t her fault, Acheron would find some way to blame it all on her, to say that she should have known and should have stopped him.
She stared in horror at the gore that spattered the front of her white dress. She’d never seen such before.
"Oh, think, Artemis, think…" But she couldn’t think straight. All she could hear was the sound of Acheron in her head as he told her why Nick and his mother meant so much to him.
"You’ll never understand, Artie. They had nothing but each other and instead of blaming each other for ruining their lives, which many people would do, they bonded. Cherise’s life has sucked and yet she’s still kind and giving to everyone she meets. One day, Nick’s going to marry and give her a houseful of grandchildren to love. Zeus knows, they both deserve it."
Only now Nick lay dead at her feet.
Dead by his own hand, and he was Catholic.
She could smell the sulphur already.
"Acheron!" she called, allowing her voice to travel through all dimensions. She had to tell him before it was too late. Only he could fix this.
He didn’t answer.
"Acheron!" she tried again.
Again, he was silent.
"What do I do?" She was forbidden to make a Dark-Hunter from a suicide. But if she left Nick dead, his soul would be claimed by Lucifer and he would spend eternity in hell being tormented.
Either way, she would lose. Acheron would blame her for letting his friend suffer. He would think she’d done this on purpose just to hurt him.
And if she saved Nick…
The consequences didn’t bear thinking on.
But as she stood there in indecision, one image came and stayed in her mind. The look on Acheron’s face the day she had turned her back on his pain.
It was the only thing in her life that she truly regretted. The one thing she would change if she could.
There was no real choice here. She couldn’t hurt Acheron like that again. Ever.
Kneeling down, she pulled Nick’s body to her and restored him to what he’d been before the gunshot. She brushed his hair back from his face and spoke the forbidden words of a long-dead civilization.
The stone appeared in her hand. She felt its heat as his soul entered it
Two seconds later, Nick’s eyes opened. No longer blue, they were jet-black. He hissed as pain from the light pierced his now-sensitive eyes.
"Why didn’t you call for Acheron instead of me?" she asked him quietly.
"He was mad at me," he said, lisping from the fangs that he had yet to grow accustomed to. "He told me I should kill myself and save him the trouble of it."
Artemis winced as she heard those words. Her poor Acheron. He would never forgive himself for this.
Nor would he forgive her.
Nick pushed himself up. "I want my vengeance."
"I’m sorry, Nick," she whispered. "I can’t give it to you. You didn’t adhere to the course of the bargain."
Before he could say anything more, she raised her hand and sent him to a special room in her temple.
"Where are you, Acheron?" she whispered. The world was falling apart and he was nowhere to be heard.
It wasn’t like him to be so careless.
Afraid something bad had befallen him, she closed her eyes and searched for him.
Desiderius walked down the street as if he owned it. And why not?
He held his arms out and leaned his head back as he heard the screams of the innocent in his head.
"You should be here, Stryker," he said with a laugh. Only Stryker could truly appreciate the beauty that was this night.
But time was running out.
He had to return with the Hunter child by midnight or the Destroyer would revoke his body.
He turned at the sound of his son’s voice. "Yes?"
"Acheron is still missing, just as Stryker promised, and we’ve found our way in."
Desiderius laughed. At long last he would have his revenge on Amanda and Kyrian.
And as soon as he delivered up the child, he would finish off the main course with Tabitha for dessert.
Valerius was torn between his loyalties and his duties. The Dark-Hunter in him wanted to find Acheron, but the man inside refused to leave Tabitha, who was keeping vigil in her sister’s store until the coroner, Tate, arrived.
One by one, she’d contacted her family and assured herself that they were safe.
She hesitated on the last number to be called. "I can’t call my mama and tell her," she said, her tears welling. "I can’t."
The phone rang.
By the look on her face as she saw the caller ID, he had a good idea of who it was.
Valerius pried the cell phone from her hand and flipped it open. "Tabitha Devereaux," he said quietly.
"Who is this?" the woman sounded a bit frantic.
"I’m…" He hesitated at giving her his full name since she would no doubt register it as the name of an enemy and panic even more. "Val," he said firmly. "I’m a friend of Tabitha’s."
"This is her mother. I need to know she’s okay."
"Tabitha," he said, gentling his voice as he offered her the phone. "Your mother wants to know if you’re okay."
She cleared her throat, but didn’t take the phone from his hand. "I’m fine, Mama. Don’t worry."
Valerius put the phone back up to his ear. "Mrs. Devereaux-"
"Don’t say it," she said, her voice breaking. "I already know and I need my baby girl home with me. I don’t want her to be alone. Could you please bring Tabitha here?"
She hung up.
Valerius ended the call, then returned the phone to Tabitha, who slipped it into her pocket.
He felt completely helpless against her grief, and he hated that most of all. It seemed like there should be something that he could say at such a moment and yet he knew from personal experience that there wasn’t.
All he could do was hold her.
"Hey, everyone?" Otto’s voice called out over the Nextel intercom. "I’m at Nick’s house. The front gate was open and something really bad went down here. I need a head count immediately."
Kyr came back right away, as did Talon and Janice. Julian answered in next, followed by Zoe and then Valerius.
They all waited for the next one to check in.
No one did.
"Nick?" Otto called. "You out there, Cajun? Come on, buddy, answer me with something smart-ass."
Valerius went cold.
"Jean-Luc?" Otto asked.
A feeling of severe dread ran through Valerius as Tabitha gave him a panicked look.
They knew the next name before Otto spoke it. "Kyrian? Kassim?" Only static filled the line.
Valerius pulled the Nextel off his belt and pushed for Otto alone. "What happened at Nick’s?"
"Cherise is dead and there’s no sign of him. I found his gun lying in a pool of blood by his mother’s body with one round missing, but it’s not what killed Cherise."
Valerius ground his teeth as he understood Otto’s meaning. "Daimon attack?"
Tabitha cursed, then bolted off her stool. "I have to get to Amanda."
"Otto, meet us at Kyrian’s." He opened the line back out to the group. "Janice? Talon? Zoe? Can you start searching for Jean-Luc?"
"Who left you in charge, Roman?" Zoe sneered. Valerius wasn’t in the mood for this bullshit as he went after Tabitha. "Stow it, Amazon. This isn’t about my heritage. This is about your brothers-in-arms and their lives."
Julian came back at him. "I’ll meet you at Kyrian’s."
"No, please. Stay with your wife and children. Make sure they’re safe."
"All right. Let me know what you find out." Tabitha was already in the driver’s seat of her Mini Cooper. Valerius got inside and slammed the door shut.
She threw it in reverse and didn’t bother to open the wooden gate. She crashed through it as she squealed off into the street.
Valerius braced himself against the dashboard while she careened them through traffic at a deadly pace, toward her sister’s house.
Once they reached it, she didn’t stop at Amanda’s tall iron gate, either. Valerius held his arm up to shield his face as she drove straight through it and tore the iron posts off their stone facings.
Tabitha skidded to a stop just in front of the door and launched herself from the car without even turning it off.
Valerius didn’t hesitate to follow.
From the outside of the house, everything looked normal. The lights were on, and as Tabitha kicked open the front door, they could hear a television somewhere upstairs.
"Mandy?" Tabitha screamed out in a shrill tone.
Her sister didn’t answer her.
"Hey, Dad?" someone called from upstairs. "Your dessert’s here."
Artemis paused outside the cemetery where she sensed Acheron’s presence. She shivered in revulsion. She’d always hated such places, while he seemed to prefer them.
"Acheron?" she called as she walked through the stone wall.
The dark ground was uneven, making it hard for her to walk. So she floated through the area.
A flash of fire shot near her head.
Artemis ducked and moved to return the blast until she caught sight of Acheron’s pet. She curled her lip at the demon until she saw Acheron lying in its arms. He looked terrible as he writhed there as if in the throes of torture.
"What have you done to him?" Artemis demanded of the creature.
The demon hissed at her. "The Simi did nothing, you heifer-goddess. You the one who hurts my akri. Not me."
Any other time, Artemis might argue with it, but Acheron lay there as if he were in excruciating pain.
"What happened to him?"
"It’s the souls them Daimons are eating. They scream when they die and there are too many of them tonight. The Simi can’t make it go away."
"Acheron?" Artemis tried again as she knelt beside him. "Can you hear me?"
He recoiled from her.
She tried to reach for him only to have the demon lunge at her.
"Don’t you touch my akri!"
Damn the Charontes! The only one who could control them was…
No, there were two people alive who could control them.
"Apollymi?" she spoke to the mist around her. "Can you hear me?"
Evil laughter echoed on the breeze. The Atlantean goddess couldn’t come out of her prison in form, but her powers were so great that she could extend her will and voice even through her limitations. "So, you speak to me, bitch. Why should I listen?"
Artemis clamped her temper down before she answered insult with insult and drove the older goddess away. "I can’t help Acheron. His demon won’t let me. I need your help."