Completely confused, she turned in a small circle, surveying her cousin’s house. Decorated in bright pinks and purples, it was completely out of synch with the overtly masculine man Sunshine had married. But he indulged her in everything. Even to the point that all of their towels were pink.
Sunshine sat on the couch to her right with her infant son, Declan, sleeping on her lap.
At Kateri’s sudden appearance, Talon shot to his feet. He took a step toward her.
Relieved, Kateri started for him, then remembered Ren had given her something. Glancing down, she opened her hand to find a small, white, opalescent, tumbled feldspar that was in the shape of a teardrop.
A moonstone. Her grandmother had carried a similar one in her degalodi nvwoti or medicine pouch that she kept either in her pocket or tied around her neck. Every morning when her grandmother awoke, she’d pull out her crystals and stones that she kept in her night stand and choose the ones her Spirit Guide told her she would need for the day. Whispering a prayer, she’d place them in her degalodi nvwoti and draw the strings closed so that she could bravely face whatever challenges the day would send for her. Every morning it was a new set, but the one stone that never changed was her sacred moonstone.
"Why do you always keep a moonstone with you, Eleesee?" she’d asked one day after her grandmother had taken it out of her degalodi nvwoti and held it as if in prayer.
Her grandmother had pulled Kateri into her lap and placed the moonstone in her palm for her to examine it. Even now, she remembered how beautiful the milky translucent stone had appeared as the bright sunlight made it flash blue. "It’s a stone of destiny that will help you see your future clearly so that you can better attain it. For that reason, it’s a strong wishstone-whisper your dreams to it and it will echo them to the heavens for the Great Spirit to hear. It can also heal and protect those who are in need. And it is a stone of new beginnings and good fortune. You should always carry one whenever you travel, Waleli. They are a most precious gift from Grandmother Moon, who guides us through the cycles of our lives and who watches over us while Grandfather Sun slumbers. In our darkest hours when our enemies are hidden from our sight and wish to do us absolute harm, it is she who will guide us to safety. She who will make us see truths we don’t want to face."
Tears choked her as she held Ren’s moonstone, and understood the significance of what he’d done for her. In their culture, gifts were never expected from others, not even on birthdays or at weddings or festivals. In fact, it was usually the one being celebrated who gave to the attendees, as a way of letting them know how much they were valued and how much the person being honored appreciated other people taking valuable time out of their lives to come be with them for the event.
The importance was never on receiving something. The importance was on the act of giving to another, especially when it came unexpectedly and from the heart. The monetary value of a gift was even less important. The most valued gifts of all were those that held personal or spiritual significance to the giver.
And Ren had sent her away with his protection and destiny stone-with one of his most sacred possessions that he’d thought enough of to have it with him-knowing that he stayed behind to fight for her without it to watch over him.
No one had ever given her anything more valuable.
"Teri?" Worry creased Sunshine’s beautiful brow. "Are you all right?"
Kateri couldn’t answer for the lump in her throat as she clutched at Ren’s most precious gift. A single tear for him slid down her cheek.
In that moment, she felt something grab her from behind.
Talon lunged for her.
It was too late. Whatever had grabbed her, sucked her out of the house and back into darkness.
"Grammy!" Kateri called, attempting to do what Ren had instructed her. She tried her best to stay focused on her grandmother. But it was useless. Her grandmother couldn’t help her stop whatever this was.
So instead, her thoughts turned to a tall, gorgeous man who always murdered her in her dreams.
* * *
Ren’s head swam from the pain he was in. It was so foul that it kept him from shifting forms to escape. He’d used up his reserves to send the woman to Talon. Worse, his Dark-Hunter powers were making him sleepy-something they always did whenever a Dark-Hunter was wounded. Asleep, the Greek dream gods could help them heal. But if he went down in this fight …
They’d kill him for the very blood he hated.
He felt so sick. And still the demons kept coming.
Just lie down and let them have you. Really, there was no reason for him to fight anymore. He’d more than made amends for his human atrocities. And he’d survived long enough to see his bargain with Artemis fulfilled.
It was time for his next adventure.
If you die without a soul, you will be in utter misery for eternity.
He laughed at the thought. How would that be a change from normal? Hell, he wouldn’t even notice the difference.
Kyatel shimmered in front of him. His demon’s eyes were a bright fluorescent purple. "You owe me your blood."
Ren sneered. "I owe you nothing."
The demon bared his fangs before he went for Ren’s throat. Ren caught him and swung him around. But instead of flying away from him, Kyatel embraced him like a brother. The demon sank five claws deep into Ren’s previously injured shoulder.
Ren cried out in agony of the additional wound.
"Remember your debt," Kyatel breathed in his ear.
Ren’s sight dimmed as that one word took him back to the distant past. Back to the time when he had ruled here as Grizzly’s overlord.
When he had owned everything …
It had been the only time in his entire life he had felt no pain. No shame. He had walked this realm with the knowledge that he was king. No one could touch him.
You are mine again. Grizzly laughed, the sound echoing through his head.
No! Ren struggled to hold on to his last shred of humanity. But it was impossible. No matter how much he denied it, he knew the truth in his heart.
He wanted to belong to something. Anything. Just once. No one else had ever wanted him. Evil had been the only thing that ever welcomed him to its bosom….
But this wasn’t belonging and he knew it. All of it had been a lie. The demons hadn’t welcomed his presence any more than his family or the world in general. And the only reason Grizzly had pretended to want him was so that he could use Ren’s body to get at his enemies.
As for Windseer …
She’d abandoned him as soon as she had her freedom. Ren had been just as lonely here as their overlord as he’d been in the human realm.
Nothing changed. He was a worthless throwaway then.
He was worthless now.
Closing his eyes, he waited for the demon to end him.
"Let. Him. Go."
At first, Ren couldn’t place that angry tone. And even once he’d identified it, he couldn’t believe his eyes as he saw Kateri standing behind Kyatel.
And she was pissed at the demon holding him. As incredulous as it was, she appeared ready to tear the demon apart. He wasn’t sure who was more shocked by her reappearance. Him or the demon.
That being said, Kyatel recovered first.
Ren took advantage of the distraction to stab the demon. Too bad, it couldn’t kill him. But the blow to Kyatel’s carotid would weaken him. Kyatel would have to stop the bleeding and replenish the missing blood, or he’d be too weak to fight. Something no one could afford to be in this realm.
Kyatel’s eyes glowed a deep vibrant orange that obliterated their normal purple hue. "This isn’t over."
Ren gave him a taunting grin. "It is for now."
As the demon vanished, Ren turned to grab Kateri’s arm. "What are you doing here? I sent you away."
"I don’t know. I was at Talon’s and then I vanished … and came back."
Ren cursed. Kyatel was stronger than he’d been before. Much stronger. But for her timing, he’d have probably been killed. And now, thanks to the wound in his shoulder, he was even weaker than he’d been before.
Which meant she was in extreme danger. If something attacked her, he was in no condition to put up much of a fight. And if it came for him, he wouldn’t be able to keep it from getting her.
"You shouldn’t have come back here."
Kateri didn’t respond to that. Her attention was diverted by the amount of blood on his clothing. His arms had cuts all over them. And his left shoulder looked as if someone had tried to shred it. "You’re hurt."
"I’ll live." He leaned his head over to glance past her shoulder, where more creatures were piling in on them. "We need to leave."
"And go where?"
Ren hefted his club up, over his uninjured shoulder. "Preferably some place they’re not."
"I couldn’t agree more." She followed him out of the room, down a long hallway where there were more demonlike creatures, but they didn’t attack. Rather, they stayed to the shadows, watching with an eerie intentness that made her extremely uncomfortable. "Where are we?"
He twisted his club around on his shoulder before he answered. "Someplace neither of us needs to be … The first level of the West Lands."
Kateri scowled at the term. "Why does that sound familiar to me?"
"It’s where our ancestors locked away the worst evils of the world to keep them from preying on humanity."
Oh yeah …
Her eyes widened as she remembered her grandmother’s stories about the Guardian who’d been chosen to keep mankind safe. Benevolent and kind, he’d sought to protect the first humans by banishing all threats. Unfortunately, mankind had been tricked and, like Pandora in Greek mythology, had cracked open the door to release just enough evil to keep them from having a life free of pain and suffering.
It’s just a legend.
That thought died as another demon turned around and viciously hissed at them. Huge, green, and smelly, it was as real as she was.
This wasn’t playtime and that definitely wasn’t make-believe. As much as she wanted to deny it, she couldn’t. These things were real.
Baring his own fangs, Ren angled his club at the beast, letting it know what would happen should it attack. It shrank away in fear. He put her in front of him while he rushed her through the building, and away from the rest of the creatures.
Too grateful to argue or even question Ren’s peculiar dental problem right now, she rounded a corner, then pulled up short as she saw three divergent hallways. With no idea where they were going, she allowed Ren to choose the correct direction.
He headed left with huge predacious strides.
Kateri practically ran in order to keep up with him. One of his strides equalled two and a half of hers. "How did we get here, anyway?"
Ren winced at a question he didn’t want to answer. He couldn’t stand looking stupid or being mocked. But apparently, his sole purpose in life was to serve as the poster child of imperfection and incompetence.
Thanks, fate. Appreciate the consideration.
So rather than hide it like a coward, he told her the truth. "I was trying to take us to Sin’s and somehow I landed us here. I know it was a stupid mistake, okay? I’m doing my best to fix it as quickly as possible."
"Hey." She pulled him to a stop. "It’s all right. You were trying to help me. I’m not about to complain when you saved my life, especially since you bled to do it. What kind of person do you think I am? And by the way, thank you. For everything." She rose up on her tiptoes to place a quick, chaste kiss on his cheek.
Ren couldn’t speak as those words echoed in his head and his skin burned from her soft lips. Lips that left him swollen and aching for a much more thorough physical exchange.
Honestly, he was baffled by her. No one had ever given him the benefit of the doubt before. In the past, whenever he screwed up, he was held accountable, and usually rather rudely. "I should have known better."
She snorted. "I don’t think knowing has much to do with it. Besides, we were a little preoccupied with our near-death experiences. Give yourself a break. Out of everything that has happened in the last few hours, this isn’t so bad." She gestured to his club. "At least we’re armed and ready to battle. Well … you are, anyway. Thank goodness."
Her generosity of spirit charmed him. He’d often heard it said that people had good hearts, but he’d so seldom seen them that hers caught him off guard. The majority of people he’d dealt with had been self-serving and cold.
And that had been his family.
Ren slowed down as they left the building. The moment they were through the door, the glamour spell was broken and instead of appearing as the Ishtar Casino he’d thought it to be, it took on its true form-an old gray stone structure that looked weathered and aged, in a town full of similar buildings. They were burned-out hulls against a dark landscape of utter misery. There was nothing inviting or beautiful about this place.
Worse than that, he hated to be back here where he was forced to face the memories he’d wanted to keep buried. The First Guardian was right. He flogged himself more than any torturer ever could.
And that thought reminded him of the first time he’d met Acheron-the immortal who led the Dark-Hunters. Though Acheron appeared physically young-he’d barely been twenty-one when he was killed-he was one of the oldest and wisest men Ren had ever known.