Jess looked up to see the biggest herd of Daimons he'd ever beheld in his life. There had to be at least forty head of them, but it was hard to count-especially since he didn't think they were all visible. His Dark-Hunter sense told him more were still in the woods, acting as standbys.
Some wore leather, some fur coats. Some were male and others female. But they had a few things in common. Blond hair, fangs, and that unnatural attractiveness that was ingrained in their species.
Even so, one glance was enough to identify their leader. It was a Daimon he'd met already while he'd been after Zarek. But instead of fleeing from him like most Daimons did, this one had run after Zarek.
Pursuing Zarek even while they did.
The leader stood a head taller than the others and slightly ahead of them. Unlike the ones behind him, there was no fear in his gaze.
Only a raw, tangible determination. And a meanness that ran soul deep.
Syra let out a sound that was a cross between disbelief and humor. "What the hell is that?"
The Daimon leader smiled. "I would say 'Your worst nightmare,' but I hate cliches."
"Marone, you're real."
Everyone on the "good" side turned to look at Otto, who stared at the leader as if he were looking at a visitation from the Devil himself.
"You know this guy, Carvalleti?" Jess asked.
"I know of him, anyway," he said, his tone deep and heavy. "My father used to tell me about the Daimon called Thanatos when I was a kid. We always thought he was making it up."
"Making up what?" Bjorn asked as he looked back in Thanatos's direction.
"Tales of a Dark-Hunter executioner called the Dayslayer. It's a story that's been handed down through my family for generations. Squire to Squire."
"And you're telling me this asshole is him?" Bjorn asked at the same time Syra said, "Dark-Hunter executioner?"
Otto nodded. "Supposedly Artemis once set up a slayer for you guys in the event you turned rogue. He can walk in daylight and doesn't need blood to live. Legend has it that he's invincible."
Thanatos applauded sarcastically. "Very good, little Squire. I'm impressed."
Otto's eyes turned glacial. "My father said Acheron killed Thanatos about a thousand years ago."
"Not to be a smart-ass," Bjorn said, "but he doesn't look dead to me."
Thanatos laughed. "I'm not. At least no more so than you are."
Thanatos approached them slowly, methodically.
Jess tensed, ready for battle.
Thanatos folded his hands behind his back and offered Otto a wry smile. "Question, human, did your father ever tell you of the Spathi Daimons?"
Thanatos looked at the Dark-Hunters. "Surely you older Hunters remember them?" He sighed nostalgically. "Ah, those were the days... The Dark-Hunters hunted us, we slaughtered them. We made our homes in underground catacombs and crypts where the Hunters couldn't go without getting possessed. It was an interesting time to be Apollite or Daimon."
He looked over his shoulder at the herd of Daimons who eyed them nervously for the most part. There were one or two who had no fear and those were the ones Jess paid closest attention to.
He didn't know anything about warrior Daimons, but he did know how to execute any and all who wanted a taste of a human soul.
When Thanatos spoke again, his voice was dark, sinister. "But that was before we discovered civilization and modern conveniences. Before the human world developed enough to where we could exist at night under the pretense of being one of them. Apollites owning businesses and houses. Daimons playing Nintendo. What is this world coming to?"
Thanatos moved so fast that no one had time to blink. He shot a blast from his hands, knocking all the Squires off their feet.
He surveyed his chaos with a pleased look on his face. "Now before I allow my people to feed on all of you and I kill the Dark-Hunters, perhaps we should talk a bit, hmm... ? Or do you Hunters really want to battle me while you weaken each other?"
"Talk about what?" Jess asked, moving closer to Syra. Even though he knew she could take care of herself, it was just ingrained habit for him to protect a woman.
"Where Zarek is," Thanatos said between clenched teeth.
"We don't know," Syra said.
One of the unknown Squires let out a howl. Jess watched in horror as the man's arm was snapped in half by nothing at all.
Holy Madre de Dios, he'd never seen anything like that.
Thanatos caught him, and flipped him to the ground. He ripped open Bjorn's shirt to expose the bow-and-arrow mark of Artemis on Bjorn's shoulder.
Thanatos stabbed Bjorn's brand with an ornate gold dagger.
Bjorn disintegrated like a Daimon.
None of them moved.
Jess could barely breathe as rage suffused him. That had been way too easy for the Daimon. Up until now, the Dark-Hunters had been told that they could only die three ways. Total dismemberment, sunlight, or beheading.
Apparently, Acheron had left out one crucial, and extremely quick, way to die.
This wasn't good, and right now he was pissed that no one had warned them.
But that would have to wait. There were innocent people here and if he fought Thanatos in the presence of Syra, they would both be fighting with their hands tied behind their backs, while Thanatos would be fighting full strength.
"You want Zarek?" Jess asked.
Thanatos rose slowly to his feet. "That's why I'm here."
Jess was shaken by what he'd seen, and though he hadn't known Bjorn long, the man had seemed decent enough. It was a damn shame to lose a comrade, especially to Thanatos.
He'd grieve later; right now he wanted to make sure the Squires survived.
Jess slid his gaze to Syra and sent a mental projection to her. "Save the Squires. I'm taking Asshole for a run."
Aloud, he said, "Then follow me and bring all you've got. Zarek's going to enjoy slaying you."
Jess ran for his Bronco.
Zarek still lay naked in the surf, cradling Astrid against him. He couldn't count how many times they had made love in the last few hours. It had been so many times that he wondered idly if he'd be sore when he woke up.
Surely no one could be this acrobatic, even in dreams, and not have some physical damage to show for it.
He was exhausted from their lovemaking and yet he felt a peace the likes of which he'd never known.
Was this what other people felt?
Astrid leaned up. "When was the last time you had cotton candy?"
He frowned at her unexpected question. "What's cotton candy?"
She gaped in shock. "You don't even know what cotton candy is?"
He shook his head.
Smiling, she stood up and pulled him to his feet. "We're going to the boardwalk."
Okay, she really had lost her mind. "There's not a boardwalk."
"Oh, yes there is, just on the other side of those rocks."
Zarek looked over to see a pier that hadn't been there earlier.
How weird that it had popped into his dream at her bidding and not his. He eyed her suspiciously. "Are you a Dream-Hunter Skotos pretending to be Astrid?"
"No," she said, smiling. "I'm not trying to take anything from you, Zarek. I'm only trying to give you a pleasant memory."
Astrid sighed at the look on his face. Kindness was so far beyond his comprehension that he couldn't even understand why she wanted to make him smile.
"Because you deserve one."
"For what? I haven't done anything."
"You live, Zarek," she said, stressing the words, trying to make him understand. "For that alone, you deserve some happiness."
The doubt in his eyes stung her.
Determined to reach him, she "conjured" herself a pair of white shorts and a blue tank top, then helped dress him in a pair of black jeans and a T-shirt.
She led him toward the "dream" crowd.
Zarek was silent as they walked up the stairs that led to the old-fashioned boardwalk. He tensed visibly as people brushed too close to him. She had the distinct feeling he was one step away from uttering a vicious putdown.
"It's okay, Zarek."
He sneered at a man who came too close. "I don't like for anyone to touch me."
And yet he didn't say anything about the fact that she had her arm hooked in his.
It made her melt.
Smiling to herself, she took him to a small stand where a lady was selling hot dogs and cotton candy. She bought an extra large bag and dug out a handful of the light, fluffy pink sugar, then offered it to him.
"Here you go. One bite and you'll know what ambrosia tastes like."
Zarek reached for it, but she moved her hand out of his way. "I want to feed this to you."
Fury snapped in his eyes. "I'm not an animal to eat from your hand."
Her face fell at his words and her good humor was instantly dampened. "No, Zarek. You're not an animal. You're my lover and I want to care for you."
Zarek froze at her words as he stared at her lovely, sincere face.
Care for him?
A part of him snarled in anger at the idea, but another, alien part of himself jerked awake at her words.
It was a hungry part of him.
A yearning part. Needful.
A piece of him that he had sealed off and abandoned so long ago that he only vaguely recalled it.
Instead, he forced himself to lean down and open his lips.
She smiled a smile that burned him even as the strange sugar evaporated inside his mouth.
She placed her hand against his cheek. "You see, it doesn't hurt."
No, it didn't. It felt warm and wonderful. Joyful, even.
But it was a dream.
He would wake up in a short while and he'd be cold again.
The real Astrid wouldn't offer him cotton candy and she wouldn't hold him in the surf.
She would look at him with fear and suspicion on her precious face. She would be protected by a white wolf that hated him as much as he hated himself.
The real Astrid would never spend the time it took to tame him.
Not that it mattered. He had a death warrant out on him. He didn't have time for the real Astrid.
Didn't have time for anything other than basic survival. Which was why this dream meant so much to him.
For once in his life, he'd had a good day. He only hoped that when he woke up, he'd remember it.
Astrid led him around the arcade, playing games and eating junk food Zarek told her he'd only read about online. Even though he never smiled, he was like a child in his curiosity.
"Try this one," she said, handing him a candy apple.
Astrid quickly learned eating candy apples with fangs wasn't an easy thing to do.
When he finally managed a bite of it, she looked up expectantly. "Well?"
He swallowed it before he answered. "It's good, but I don't think I'm willing to repeat that experience. Not good enough to make up for all the work it takes to get to it."
She laughed as he tossed the apple into a large white garbage can.
She took him inside the arcade so that she could teach him to play Skee-Ball, one of her favorites. He was amazingly good at it.
"Where did you learn to throw like that?"
"I live in Alaska, princess, land of ice and snow. There's not much difference between this and tossing a snowball."
She was surprised at that. She had a funny image in her mind of him playing in the snow, which would be completely out of character. "Who do you throw snowballs with?"
He rolled another ball up the ramp and into the center circle. "No one. I used to toss them at the bears so that they would get mad and come close enough for me to kill them."
"You killed little bears?"
He gave her a droll look. "They weren't little, princess, I promise you. And unlike rabbits, you can make more than one meal off them and it doesn't take as many hides to make a coat or blanket. In the dead of winter, there's not a lot to eat. Most times before there were grocery stores it was either bear meat or starve."
Astrid's chest tightened at his words. She'd known it wouldn't be easy for him to survive, but what he described made her want to reach out and hold him close. "How did you kill them?"
"With my silver claws."
She was aghast. "You killed bears with a claw? Please tell me there are easier ways to do that. Spear, bow and arrow, gun?"
"It was long before guns, and besides, it wouldn't have been fair to the bear. He couldn't attack me from a distance. I figured he had claws and I had claws. Winner take all."
She shook her head in disbelief.
She had to give him credit, at least Zarek was sporting about it. "Didn't you get hurt?"
He shrugged nonchalantly, then tossed another ball. "Better than starving. Besides, I'm used to being cut up." He gave her a mischievous look. "Want a bearskin rag, princess? I have quite a collection."
She didn't find any humor in his question.
Her throat tight, Astrid wanted to weep from what he was telling her. Images went through her mind of him all alone, wounded, dragging a bear that outweighed him by at least ten times through the arctic snow just so that he could eat.
And getting the bear home was just the beginning of it. He'd have to skin and butcher it before the other animals smelled his kill or their blood.
Then cook it.
No one to help him and no choice except to do that or starve.
She wondered how many days he'd spent with no food at all...
"What about food in the summertime when you have twenty-two hours or more of daylight? I mean, you couldn't preserve the meat for long and it wouldn't give you enough time to plant or harvest anything. What did you do then?"
"I starved, princess, and prayed for winter."
Tears welled in her eyes. "I'm so sorry, Zarek."
His jaw flexed. He refused to look at her. "Don't be, it's not your fault. Besides, the hunger wasn't as bad as the thirst. Thank the gods for bottled water. Before that there always were a few days when I couldn't make it to the well even though it's just a short walk outside my door."
He reached for another ball.
Astrid placed her hand on his to stop him.
He turned to face her, his lips slightly parted. She pulled him into her arms and kissed him, wanting to give him some comfort, some degree of solace.
Zarek crushed her to him. She opened her mouth to taste him fully and to let his strength wash over her.
He pulled back with a groan. "Why are you here?"
"I'm here for you, Prince Charming."
"I don't believe you. Why are you really here? What do you want from me?"
She sighed. "You are amazingly suspicious."
"No, I'm realistic and dreams like this don't happen to me."
She arched a brow at him. "Never?"
"Not in the last two thousand years, anyway."
She smoothed the line on his brow with her fingertip and smiled up at him. "Well, things they are a-changing."
Zarek cocked his head at that, not believing it for a minute.
Some things never changed.
He felt an odd tugging at his chest.
But it wasn't Astrid doing it.
"Is something wrong?" Astrid asked.
It was a man's voice calling to him. One that seemed to come from miles away.
"I feel suddenly strange."
"Strange how?" she asked.
The clear boardwalk turned dark. His sight began to dim, his head to spin.
Zarek felt himself drifting away from Astrid. He fought with all his strength to remain with her.
To remain with his dream.
He didn't want it to end. Didn't want to wake up in a world where no one wanted him.
He had to get back to her.
Please, just one more minute...
"Zarek! Damn it, boy, don't make me have to slap you. The last thing I need right now is a concussion. Now get up!"
Zarek came awake to find Jess leaning over him, shaking him hard.
Cursing, he kicked the cowboy back, into the wall.
Jess's foul oath matched his own as Jess rebounded off the wood. Zarek's back and arm throbbed in response to Jess's injuries.
But he didn't care. He intended to add so many more injuries to the cowboy that neither one of them would be able to walk without limping.
He owed the bastard for the shot in his back.
And he always paid his debts in full, with interest.
Zarek came out of the bed snarling, ready for battle.
"Whoa, Z!" Jess said, ducking the punch Zarek swung at him. "Calm down."
Zarek stalked him like a lion eyeing an injured gazelle. One that intended to make the gazelle its dinner...
"Calm down? You shot me in the back, you son of a bitch."
Jess's face turned to stone and he gave him a cold, chilling stare. "Boy, don't you dare insult my mama, and you better stop and think about that one for a minute. I was a paid killer since I was old enough to hold a gun. Had I shot your dumb ass, you wouldn't have a head right now. Having been shot in the back by a friend, I sure wouldn't want to return that favor to anyone. Not even an ornery cuss like you. And why the hell would I hurt myself just to get to you anyway? Lord, boy, use your head."
Zarek still wasn't ready to believe him. Though mostly healed, his back was a sore reminder that someone had tried their damnedest to kill him. "Then who shot me?"
"One of them idiot Squires. Hell if I know which one. They all kind of look alike when they're not yours."
Zarek hesitated as he tried to sort out everything that had happened over the last few days.
Everything was a bit fuzzy in his mind. The last thing he really remembered was trying to leave Astrid's cabin...
He frowned as he looked around, realizing he was still here.
Jess had awakened him while he was lying fully dressed in a bed he didn't remember climbing into.
He frowned as he saw Astrid lying in that bed, too.
The dreams he'd had...
What the hell?
Jess reloaded his shotgun. "Look, I don't have time for this. Do you know who Thanatos is?"
"Yeah, we met."
"Good, 'cause he's already killed one Dark-Hunter tonight and he's right behind me. I need you up and running. Fast."
Zarek's stomach went south at his words. "What?"
Jess's face was grim and lethal. "He took out a Dark-Hunter without breaking a sweat. I've never seen anything like it in my life. Now Thanatos is coming for you, Z. It's time to make like a fox and get the hell out of Dallas."
What did that mean? If Zarek's head hurt before, it was nothing compared to the ache he felt trying to decipher that last bit of cowboy colloquialism.
"Whatever you do," Jess said, his voice deep and thick with warning, "don't let Thanatos near your bow-and-arrow mark. Apparently it works like the Daimons' ink blot in the center of their chests. One tiny stab and we're dust."
Zarek scowled at his words. "What bow-and-arrow mark? I don't have one."
Jess scoffed. "Of course you do. We all have one."
"No I don't."
Jess looked up from his gun, his face completely un-amused. "Maybe it's in a spot you don't look at. Like your butt or something. I know you got one. It's where Artemis touched you when she captured your soul."
Zarek shook his head at him. "Artemis never touched me. She couldn't get near me without cringing so she used a stick to make me a Dark-Hunter. I swear to you, there's no mark on me."
Jess's jaw dropped in disbelief. "Wait, wait, wait. Are you telling me they stick you out here where there are no Daimons and you don't have a weak spot? What kind of shit is that? I live in Daimon Central with one hell of an Achilles' heel that no one ever bothered to mention, and you live where there's no danger to you and yet you don't have one?"
Jess paced the floor. It was a habit Zarek had learned about during one of their late-night phone conversations. Once Jess started on a rant, it was hard to get him off it.
"What's not fair with this picture?" Jess railed. "And then Ash asks me to come up here to save your ass and here we are dropping like flies while you're Teflon.
"No, I have a problem with this. I love you, man, but da-yam. This just ain't right. I'm up here freezing my balls off, and you, you don't need protection. Meanwhile I have a bull's-eye on my arm that says, 'Hey, Daimon on steroids, kill me right here.'"
Still Jess rambled. "Do you realize, I put my keys in my mouth to pull out my wallet to pay for gas and they froze there? The last thing I want to do is die up here in this godforsaken place at the hands of some freaked-out something no one has ever heard of before except for Guido the Killer Squire from Jersey? I swear I want someone's ass for this."
Jess took a breath but before he could start ranting again, the front door to the cabin burst open.
The entire house shook from the force of it.
Zarek felt a cold, familiar shiver up his spine.
A faint trace of a memory flashed through his mind. It was vague and disconcerting.
He'd felt this before...
With no time to contemplate, he used his telekinesis to slam and lock the bedroom door.
He shoved Jess toward the window. "She has a wolf somewhere in the house. Find him and get him out."
Something struck the door forcefully.
"Come out, Zarek," Thanatos growled. "I thought you liked to play with Daimons."
"Yeah, I'll play with you, you bastard." Zarek blew out the window with his telekinesis and pushed Jess through it while Thanatos continued to assault the door.
Crossing the room, Zarek grabbed Astrid, who was still sound asleep on the bed, and handed her out the window to Jess. "Get her out of here."
Jess had barely taken Astrid from him before the door blew apart.
Zarek turned around slowly. "Didn't your mother ever teach you it's not nice to intrude?"
Thanatos narrowed a cold, harsh glare at him. "My mother disintegrated when I was only a year old. She didn't have time to teach me anything. But you, on the other hand, taught me well how to hunt and kill my enemies."
Zarek was so shocked by the words that it left him open to the first attack.
Thanatos caught him with a blast straight to his chest.
Zarek rolled with it, taking strength from the pain.
He was good at that.
As he braced himself to attack, a gunshot rang out twice. Thanatos staggered forward, then turned around with a snarl.
Zarek's eyes widened as he caught sight of two bullet holes in the back of the Daimon's skull. Bullet holes that healed instantly.
Jess cursed from the hallway. "What are you?"
"Jess," Zarek snapped. "Get out. I can handle this."
As Thanatos went for Jess, Zarek ran at his back and knocked him into the doorframe.
"Go!" he shouted at Jess. "I can't fight him with you here. I need all my powers."
Jess nodded and ran for the front door. Zarek heard him pause long enough to get the wolf out.
"Alone at last." He laughed as Thanatos shoved him back against the far wall. "Oh, the pleasure of the pain."
Thanatos raked him with a disgusted sneer. "You really do suffer from insanity, don't you?"
"Hardly. I have to say I enjoy every minute of it." Zarek let his powers surge through him until his hands burned from the heat of them. He channeled the ions in the air and charged them full, then directed them at Thanatos.
The blast knocked him halfway down the hall.
Gathering more power, Zarek knocked him back again, into the den. He kept hitting Thanatos until the man landed on the floor by the hearth.
If Zarek were smart, he'd take advantage and run.
But he wasn't that smart. Besides, Thanatos would just come after him and he was too old and too damned pissed to run.
Thanatos regained his feet.
Zarek blasted him again, knocking him over the sofa where he landed in a heap.
He shook his head at the Daimon, who was no longer moving. "Tell you what, why don't you look me up when you're ready to play with the big boys?"
Zarek walked out of the house and summoned his powers to lock the door behind him. He could hear Thanatos pounding on the door, trying to break out.
Without a backward glance, Zarek walked to the snow-machine that must belong to Thanatos. He opened the gas tank and made sure there was plenty of gas in it.
He snapped a hose from the engine, then used it to siphon the gas into his mouth.
Walking back to the cabin, he pulled his lighter out of his back pocket.
He lit the lighter, then spewed gas at the house and watched as the door caught fire.
After several more trips, he stood back and surveyed the flames that were quickly consuming Astrid's house.
It was a good thing she was rich.
Looked like she was going to need a new place to live after this.
Zarek pulled a cigarette out of his coat pocket and smiled. Underneath his breath, he sang the Talking Heads' classic song, " "Three hundred sixty-five degrees... burning down the house.'"
Astrid came awake to a roar. Her lack of eyesight momentarily stunned her until she realized she'd been pulled from her drugged sleep.
Both she and Zarek should sleep for at least another day.
She could tell by the sounds and upright position of her body that she was no longer in her bed.
It felt like someone's car.
"Zarek?" she asked hesitantly.
"No, ma'am," a deep voice drawled in a thick Southern accent "Name's Sundown."
Her heart pounded. "Where's Zarek? Sasha!"
A hand touched her arm comfortingly. "Easy now, darling. Everything's going to be all right."
"Where's my wolf?"
By the way the air in front of her face stirred, she could tell Sundown was waving his hand about an inch from the tip of her nose.
"Yes, I'm blind," she said irritably. "Tell me where Sasha is."
"He's the furry thing at your feet."
She let out a small breath of relief, but that was only half her concern. "And Zarek?"
"We left him behind."
"No," she said, her heart hammering once more. "I'm not supposed to leave him."
"We didn't have any-"
Astrid didn't hear the rest of his statement. She was too busy trying to open the car door.
A strong hand pulled her back. "Whoa, little lady, what I'm doing here is dangerous. I've got to get you as far away from the cabin as I can. Trust me, if anyone can handle this, Zarek can."
"No he can't," she said, trying to stand up. "I have to go back to him. If anyone finds out that I'm not with him, he's dead. Do you understand?"
She brushed away his hand. "Thanatos will be sent for him. I have to go back."
"You know about Thanatos?"
Astrid reached out, trying to find Sundown's mouth to feel for fangs.
He dodged her hand.
"Do you work for Acheron?" she asked.
"Answer me. Are you one of his... men?"
He hesitated before he answered. "Yes."
She breathed a sigh of relief. Thank Zeus for small favors. "I'm Zarek's judge. If I leave him unchaperoned, Artemis will call out Thanatos to kill him."
"I hate to break it to you. She already did. I just left the two of them at your place to have it out."
Astrid's head spun. How could this be?
"You're sure it was Thanatos?"
"That's what he said and after the way he tore through us Hunters, I tend to believe him."
Astrid felt ill at the news. This couldn't be happening.
Why would Artemis breach their agreement?
She knew Artemis had been anxious for a verdict, but still...
"You've got to get me back. Zarek can't kill him. None of you can."
"What do you mean?"
"Only Acheron has the power to kill Thanatos. Only Acheron. None of you stand a chance against him."
Sundown cursed. "All right. Hold tight and I pray God you're wrong, lady."
Astrid felt Sasha stirring as Jess turned the car around in a move that reminded her of a carnival ride.
"Shhh, Sasha," she said, reaching down to touch and soothe him.
"Where are we? What happened?"
She felt him shifting slightly to look up at Sundown. He let out a low growl.
"And who the hell is this refugee from A Fistful of Dollars? "
"He's a friend. So be nice."
"Nice? Fine. I won't bite him. Just yet." Sasha settled back a bit. "Why am I in a truck? How did I get here? And why does my head feel like it's about to explode?"
"I drugged you."
She had a distinct feeling Sasha had his eyes narrowed at her and his teeth bared. "You what?"
She flinched at the anger in his voice. "I had no choice. But yell at me later. We have a problem right now."
"And that is?"
"Thanatos is loose. And he's already after Zarek."
"Good, the Dayslayer has taste."
"I can't help it. You know I don't like the psycho-beast."
Sighing, she buried her hand in Sasha's fur and used his eyes as her own. He climbed into her lap so that he could look out the window for her.
After a few miles, she recognized the scenery as they neared her cabin.
But what scared her was the sight of a huge fire off in the distance.
Sundown cursed and accelerated.
As they came closer, she saw her cabin burning. There was a lone shadow in front of it, but she couldn't tell if it was Zarek or Thanatos.
Terrified, she held her breath, hoping it was Zarek who was still alive.
It wasn't until Sundown pulled to a stop that she could tell for sure.
She went weak with relief. It was Zarek silhouetted by the fire. Letting go of Sasha, she opened the door and ran toward where she had seen him.
Astrid had no idea how he had survived Thanatos or where the Executioner was. All that mattered was getting to Zarek.
She wanted to touch him, to make sure he wasn't hurt.
Halfway there, a fearful, masculine scream rent the air.
Astrid slid to a stop as she tried to pinpoint where it came from.
She heard the snow crunching to the side of her and she assumed that was Sundown, heading for Zarek. Sasha came up from behind and nosed her hand with his muzzle.
It didn't seem to have come from any of them.
Then all of a sudden, an explosion sounded.
She dropped to her knees and used Sasha to see what was happening.
Her house had blown apart. Fire and debris shot high into the air, blending ominously with the aurora borealis.
Out of the midst of the fiery remains came Thanatos. Unmarred and undamaged.
Not even his hair was singed.
It was a horrifying sight.
Zarek cursed. "Don't you ever die?"
Thanatos didn't answer. Instead, he moved to slug Zarek who ducked the blow and delivered a staggering one back.
Sundown moved toward her. "I've got to get you-"
She took off running before Sundown could finish the sentence.
"Sasha," she called. "Attack."
"Like hell!" Sasha snapped. "I may be your guardian but that is Artemis's pet. I can't kill it. I'll be lucky to even faze him. And you know what people do to injured wolves... They shoot them."
Astrid panicked. She couldn't see. She could only hear the grunts of the men fighting, the sound of flesh striking flesh.
Someone grabbed her and threw her to the ground, then covered her body with theirs.
"Stop it!" Zarek snapped.
He rolled with her, then pulled her up and pushed her forward.
"What's going on?" she asked as he kept moving her forward.
"Not much," he said in a bored yet breathless tone. "Some invincible asshole is trying to kill me. And you're not supposed to be here." He let go of her. "Get her out of here, Jess."
Zarek curled his lip. Had he been able to afford the drain to his powers, he would have slugged Jess for that.
Instead, all he could do was whirl around to face Thanatos who was stalking him relentlessly.
"What's the matter, Zarek? You afraid to die?"
He snorted as he pushed Astrid toward Jess. "Dying's easy. It's living that's hard."
Thanatos paused as if the words caught him off guard.
It gave Zarek just what he needed. Pulling the Daimon dagger from its concealed sheath inside his boot, he rushed forward and embedded it in Thanatos's chest where a stain that looked like an ink blot should have been. Normally the strike would release the human souls trapped inside a Daimon's body. The force of their exit was usually enough to blow the Daimon apart, causing instant decomposition.
This time, it didn't work.
Thanatos pulled the dagger out and reached for him. "I'm not a Daimon, Dark-Hunter. Don't you remember? I was an Apollite until I met you."
Thanatos grabbed him by his collar and held him tight. "Do you remember my wife you killed? My village you destroyed?"
Memories flashed through his mind. Zarek saw nothing but his own village.
No, wait. He remembered something...
A flash of an invincible Daimon, but not the man he faced.
This one had red, glowing eyes.
No, that had been someone else.
His thoughts turned to New Orleans.
Why couldn't he remember?
He recalled Sunshine Runningwolf in the warehouse room with him as he told Dionysus and Camulus to shove their orders up their sphincter, and then the next thing he remembered was leaving Acheron on the crowded street.
A flash of lightning went through his head.
He saw something...
Was it Acheron?
Was it himself he saw?
Zarek struggled to put the memories straight.
Ah, screw it. The only memory he needed was this one.
He kneed Thanatos in the groin.
The Daimon doubled over.
"Dead or alive, the balls still hurt when kicked, huh?"
The Daimon hissed and cursed in response.
Zarek slammed his combined fists down across Thanatos's back. "If anyone has any suggestion on how to kill this guy, I'm open to it."
Jess shook his head. "I'm out of dynamite. You got any grenades?"
"Not on me."
Thanatos righted himself. "Say die, Dark-Hunter."
"Fine. Die, why don't you?" Zarek lowered his head and charged him. They locked arms and hit the ground.
Thanatos rose up from him and ripped open his shirt. From the way he moved his hands, Zarek could tell he was looking for the bow-and-arrow mark Jess had mentioned.
"Surprise, dickhead, Mama forgot to tell you a few things about me."
In the distance, Zarek heard the approach of an engine. He heard its drone over the sound of Jess urging Astrid to leave and Astrid's refusal while Sasha barked and pushed at her.
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 fucking 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."