Alexion pinned her with a menacing glare. "His guilt is what made Acheron went out of his way to make sure that all of you had servants and pay for your work. The Dark-Hunters owe that man everything, and I do mean everything. He pays in blood every time one of you wants to go free, and he suffers every day so that you can all live your cushy little lives of wealth and privilege."
His eyes literally snapped green fire at her. "And I have to say that every time one of you turns on him, it seriously pisses me off. Acheron asks nothing from any of you and that’s exactly what he receives. When was the last time one of you even said thank you for his help?"
A twinge of guilt went through her.
He was right. She’d never thanked Acheron for her training or anything else. She didn’t think to. If anyone was given thanks for their lives, it was Artemis.
"Why doesn’t Acheron tell us the truth?" she asked.
"It’s not his way. His ego doesn’t require worship or even acknowledgment. All he asks is that you do your jobs and that you don’t die."
A tic started in his jaw. "And now to know that Kyros, one of the first who was created, has turned on him… It angers me on a level you can’t even begin to comprehend. Of all the Dark-Hunters, he and Callabrax should know that Acheron would never use any of you in his own personal war."
Danger nodded. If Alexion was telling the truth, and to be honest, she was starting to believe him, then it must hurt Acheron to know that Kyros had turned oh him. "Kyros and Brax are legendary."
"Yes, and that is why I have to stop Kyros. More Dark-Hunters will listen to him than anyone else because he’s been around for so long."
He made a compelling argument, but she still wanted him to leave her out of it. As she opened her mouth to speak, he got that odd, faraway look again.
"They’re back," he said between clenched teeth.
Danger let out a weary breath. "Okay, Carol Anne, enough with the Poltergeist interpretation. If we can’t contact them and they’re not bothering us, I don’t want to know they’re watching us, okay?"
He ignored her. "Simi," he growled. "I have serious matters here. I don’t need you annoying me. I owe Kyros too much to watch him die, but I can’t save him if you distract me."
Danger frowned as two thoughts hit her simultaneously. "You sound like you’ve been talking to Simi all day."
"I have been. It must be her. She watches for a bit, then goes away only to come back again."
That sounded positively freaky to her, but whatever. "Did you not sleep?"
Again he didn’t answer, which played right into her second thought. "You said you owe Kyros. What do you owe him?"
He hesitated before he answered. "I owe him a chance to live."
Yeah, she believed that one… not. It didn’t even make sense. The sudden absence of emotion in his face told her he was hiding something.
And in that moment, she knew what it was. "You knew him."
Still the emotionless, blank stare. "I know all the Dark-Hunters."
Maybe, but she sensed more than that in him. "No. It’s personal between you two. I can feel it."
He moved away from her.
She followed after him. "Talk to me, Alexion. If you really want my help, give me an honest answer."
"I’ve been honest with you from the very beginning." He headed for the door.
Danger stopped and waited until he was almost out of the room.
She had a sneaking suspicion of who he might be and it was time to play her hunch. "Ias?"
He stopped to look back at her. "What?" He responded to the name automatically.
Her jaw went slack. She’d been right, and he realized it two seconds later.
His face turned to stone.
"Mon Dieu," she breathed as every weirdness about him suddenly made sense. That’s why he couldn’t taste food. Why he didn’t feel real emotions.
How it was that he knew what it was like to be a Shade…
"It’s true," she breathed. "You were the third Dark-Hunter created after Acheron. The first one who died."
"No I wasn’t, and Ias is a Shade."
She still didn’t believe him. Not about this. "And if I were to take you to Kyros right now, what would he say? What name would he call you?"
Alexion ground his teeth in aggravation at her ability to see through him.
There really was no point in hiding the truth from her. It wasn’t like she wouldn’t find out the minute Kyros laid eyes on him.
"He would call me Ias. But I wasn’t the first Dark-Hunter to die," he added, wanting her to know that he was telling her the truth. "There were two before me who were killed by the Daimons before Acheron learned of us."
He sensed that something inside her changed in that instant. For one thing, her face softened. She crossed the room to stand just before him. Her gaze searched his as she reached a hand up to touch his cheek.
That simple touch wrecked him. How could he have such emotions? For centuries he had felt nothing for anyone except Ash and Simi.
To feel such raw emotion now…
It was incredible.
Her dark eyes showed him her heart. "Shades aren’t supposed to have human form."
She caressed his cheek. "But you feel real enough to me."
Her touch aroused him to a painful level. In the past his encounters with women had always been brief. They’d lasted long enough for him to sate his lust and then the woman had vanished, never to be seen again. There had never been a tender touch like this one. A touch meant to comfort. It eased him and it burned through him like lava. "I’m different from the others."
He pulled her hand away from his face, unable to bear the unfamiliar tenderness any longer. All it did was make him ache for things he could never have. He was beyond human relationships.
Beyond human feeling.
"Acheron held himself responsible for my death," he explained quietly. "Had he not made a fatal mistake in judgment, I wouldn’t have become a Shade. For that reason, he gave me form and took me in to live with him and Simi."
"That is why you defend him?"
He nodded. "I assure you, living as a Shade is not something to take lightly. My short time as a true Shade taught me well that there is nothing on this earth or beyond worse. I’m grateful every day for Acheron’s mercy."
She could respect his loyalty to the man who had saved him, and yet it added a most macabre twist that he would damn other people to the fate that he’d escaped. "How many others have you and Acheron damned to Shadedom?"
"I assure you, it’s not something either of us does lightly. Those who died because they were preying on helpless humans are left to wander. The ones who die in the line of duty are given a paradise of sorts to spend eternity in. They don’t suffer. Acheron won’t allow it."
Danger frowned at his disclosure. That was something that no one had ever told them before. They were all left believing that if they died in the line of duty, they suffered the same as all the other Shades.
There wasn’t supposed to be any way back from Shadedom.
"Why doesn’t Ash tell us this?"
"Because a Shade, unlike a Dark-Hunter, can’t go back to being human. Any hope of a future incarnation is gone. They have no hope for ever having a normal life again."
That didn’t make sense to her. He was real. He had flesh and form. "But you-"
"I’m not in a human body, Danger." He looked down at himself with an anguished grimace. "This form that you see, that you touch, has an expiration date on it. In a few days, I have to return to my realm or perish completely. Acheron is afraid that if the Dark-Hunters ever learned that they could be spared the torment, they would become more reckless and not fear death. But believe me when I say there are things out there far worse than dying."
The misery in his eyes singed her, and when he spoke, she knew it was from personal experience. "Living out eternity alone with no hope of release. You have no idea how lucky you Dark-Hunters are that in the back of your mind is always the knowledge that one day you might go free again. You still have your hope."
Danger’s throat drew tight at his words. He had been one of them once. He was the whole reason they had an out clause at all. If not for him, Artemis would never have made provisions for the rest of them. How awful to know that you had given such an incredible gift to others that was now forbidden to you. "I’m sorry for the way I treated you."
He looked confused by her apology.
"You should have told me you were a former Dark-Hunter."
"Why does it matter?"
"It matters," she said, lightly stroking his arm. "If you’re telling me the truth and I’m sure that you are, then I know Stryker was lying."
His face went pale at the mention of the Daimon’s name. "Stryker? The Daimon?"
"You know him?"
Alexion cursed. He looked up at the ceiling. "Acheron! If you can hear me at all, get your ass here right now, boss. We’ve got a serious problem."
When nothing happened, he cursed again. "Acheron!"
"What is going on?" Danger asked.
Alexion looked ill. "I don’t even know where to begin explaining to you how f**ked we are if Stryker is here and Acheron isn’t."
"He’s just a Daimon."
"No," he said, in a deep warning tone, "he’s a god, a very vicious one who hates Acheron with an unreasoning mind."
Now that didn’t sound promising at all. Fear swelled inside her. If someone as powerful as Alexion was afraid of this guy, then there was definitely something to fear. "Are you serious?"
"Do I look like I’m kidding?"
No, he looked all too earnest and that left her cursing too.
Alexion shook his head like someone trying to shake off an annoying insect. "Simi," he snapped. "Stop watching me and go get akri. I need him."
Barely five seconds later, Danger heard a voice that made her sigh in relief.
"Danger? Alexion?" Acheron said from her hallway.
"Thank goodness," she said, moving toward the door.
"No!" Alexion snapped as she reached for the knob. He ran at her and knocked her back at the same time the door splintered. Pieces of it rained all over the room.
Danger’s eyes widened in numbed terror as she saw what appeared to be a demon of some sort entering the room. Completely bare except for a small black loincloth, it had deep, dark green skin marbled with black. Probably no taller than four feet, it flew into the room with a pair of large black, oily-looking wings. It held glowing yellow eyes that stared at them with open hatred. The dual set of fangs flashed as it hissed at Alexion.
Danger gulped. "Please tell me that’s the Simi person you’ve been calling."
The creature arced toward the ceiling as if it were preparing to swoop down and attack them.
Alexion’s green gaze mirrored the horror she felt. When he spoke, the words went through her like hot shrapnel. "It’s definitely not Simi."
Alexion stared in complete stupefaction of the Charonte demon as it flew at them. Where the hell had it come from? Simi was supposed to be the last of her kind, and yet there was no denying that this demon was a Charonte. Nothing else on this earth or beyond looked like that.
"What is it?"
He didn’t respond to Danger’s question as he moved away from her to keep the demon’s attention on him. "Qui’ esta rahpah?" he asked the demon, wanting to know where it had come from.
Pausing momentarily, the demon showed its own surprise that Alexion spoke its native language. But that didn’t stop him from attacking.
Before Alexion could move, it dove down, seized him by his throat, and slung him to the floor. He hit the ground so hard that had he been human, every bone in his body would have shattered.
The demon tore at him with its claws. Alexion brought his leg up to kick the demon off.
It didn’t work.
He flashed away from it, but somehow the demon anticipated the action, and when he reappeared, it grabbed him again. This time it slammed him facedown on the floor. His teeth rattled as the demon seized him by the hair.
From the corner of his eye, he saw Danger grab a sword that she had hidden beneath her sofa.
"Stay back!" he shouted an instant too late. The demon caught her with his tail and knocked her off her feet. There was no way to win a fight with a Charonte. Not unless you were a god; and though Alexion could call upon Acheron’s powers, they weren’t really his.
That left him with one serious disadvantage.
The demon rolled with him. Alexion flashed out again only to have the demon seize him while he was invisible.
Give it up, Lex. The damned thing can obviously see you transmutate. Damn.
He punched at the demon, who didn’t feel his blows at all. But Alexion did. His hand throbbed as if it were broken. The demon laughed at him as it grabbed him up, dropped him to the ground, and slammed his head painfully against the floor. It felt as if his brains really did rattle in his skull. He could taste the blood in his mouth, feel it running from his nose.
If he didn’t get the demon off him soon, it would kill him. And this time, Acheron wouldn’t be able to bring him back.