Acheron Parthenopaeus was a man of many secrets and powers. As the firstborn Dark-Hunter and leader of their kind, he had set himself up over nine thousand years ago to be the buffer between them and Artemis, the goddess of the hunt, who had created them.
It was a job he seldom relished and a position he'd always hated. Like an errant child, Artemis loved nothing more than to push him just to see how far she could go before he called her down.
Theirs was a complicated relationship that hinged on a balance of power. He alone possessed the ability to keep her calm and rational.
At least most of the time.
Meanwhile she held the one source of food that he needed to stay human. Compassionate.
Without her, he would become a soulless killer even worse than the Daimons who preyed on humankind.
Without him, she would have no heart or conscience.
On Mardi Gras night, he'd bargained with her to exchange two weeks of his servitude so that she would release Talon's soul and allow the Dark-Hunter to leave their service and spend his immortality with the woman he loved.
Talon was liberated from hunting vampires and other demonic creatures who stalked the earth looking for hapless victims.
Now Ash was restricted from using most of his powers while he was locked inside Artemis's temple where he had to rely on her whims to keep him informed about the progress of Zarek's hunt.
He knew the betrayal Zarek felt and it gnawed at him. Better than anyone, he understood what it meant to be left completely alone, to survive on instinct and to have only enemies around him.
Ash couldn't stand the thought of one of his men feeling like that.
"I want you to call off Thanatos," Ash said as he sat on the marble floor at Artemis's feet. She lay across her ivory-colored throne that had always reminded him of an overstuffed chaise lounge. It was decadent and soft, a pure study in hedonistic delight.
Artemis was nothing if not a creature of comfort.
She smiled languidly as she rolled over onto her back. Her white, gauzy peplos displayed more of her body than it covered, and as she moved, her entire lower half was bared to him.
Uninterested, he lifted his gaze to hers.
She trailed a hot, lustful glance over his body, which was bare except for a pair of tight black leather pants. Satisfaction gleamed in her bright green eyes as she toyed with a strand of his long blond hair, which covered the bite wound on his neck. She was well fed and content to be with him.
He was neither.
"You're still weak, Acheron," she said quietly, "and in no position to make demands on me. Besides, your two weeks with me have only begun. Where is the subjugation you promised?"
Ash rose up slowly to tower over her. He braced his arms on each side of her and lowered himself until their noses were almost touching. Her eyes widened a degree, just enough to let him know that in spite of her words, she knew which of them was the more powerful, even while weakened. "Call off your pet, Artie. I mean it. I told you long ago that there was no need for a Thanatos to stalk my Hunters and I'm tired of this game you play. I want him caged."
"No," she said in a tone that was almost petulant. "Zarek is to die. End of symphony. The moment his picture became the nightly news event while he was killing Daimons, he exposed all the Dark-Hunters to danger. We can't afford to let the human authorities ever learn about them. If they ever find Zarek-"
"Who's going to find him? He's locked in the middle of nowhere per your cruelty."
"I didn't put him there, you did. I wanted him killed and you refused. It's all your fault he's banished in Alaska so don't blame me."
Ash curled his lip. "I'm not about to put a man to death because you and your siblings were playing with his life."
He wanted another fate for Zarek. But so far, none of the gods nor Zarek had cooperated.
Damn free will, anyway. It got all of them into more trouble than any of them needed.
She narrowed her eyes at him. "Why do you care so much, Acheron? I'm beginning to feel jealous of this Dark-Hunter and the love you have for him."
Ash pushed himself away from her. She made his concern for one of his men sound obscene.
Of course, she was good at that.
What he felt for Zarek was kindred brotherhood. Better than anyone, he understood the man's motivation. Knew why Zarek struck out in anger and frustration.
There were only so many kicks a dog could take before it turned vicious.
He, himself, was so close to turning that he couldn't fault Zarek for the fact he had gone rabid centuries before.
Even so, he couldn't let Zarek die. Not like this. Not over something that hadn't been Zarek's fault. The incident in the New Orleans alley where Zarek had attacked the human cops had been set up by Dionysus for no other reason than to expose Zarek to the humans and to cause Artemis to call out a blood hunt for the man's life.
If Thanatos or the Squires killed Zarek, then Zarek would become a bodiless Shade who was doomed to walk the earth for eternity. Forever hungry and suffering.
Forever in pain.
Ash winced at the memory.
Unable to stand the thought of it, he headed for the door.
"Where are you going?" Artemis asked.
"To find Themis and undo what you've started."
Artemis suddenly appeared in front of him, blocking his way to the door. "You're not going anywhere."
"Then call off your dog."
"Fine." Ash looked down his right arm at the she-dragon tattoo that ran from his shoulder to his wrist. "Simi," he commanded. "Take human form."
The dragon lifted itself from his skin, shifted its shape into that of a young demonic woman, no taller than three feet. She hovered effortlessly to his right.
In this incarnation, her wings were dark blue and black, even though she usually preferred burgundy for them. The darker color of the wings combined with the color of her eyes told him just how unhappy Simi was to find herself here on Olympus.
Her eyes were white, rimmed in red, and her long yellow-blond hair floated around her. She had black horns that were more beautiful than sinister and long pointed ears. Her flowing red dress wrapped around her lithe, muscular body, which she could mold into any size from one inch to eight feet tall in human form or as large as eighty feet as a dragon.
"No!" Artemis said, trying to use her powers to contain the Charonte demon. It didn't faze Simi, who could only be summoned or controlled by Ash or his mother.
"Whatcha want, akri? Simi asked Ash.
Simi flashed her fangs as she rubbed her hands together gleefully and cast an evil smirk at Artemis. "Oh, goodie! I get to make the redheaded goddess mad!"
Artemis looked desperately at Ash. "Put it back on your arm."
"Forget it, Artemis. You're not the only one who can command a killer. Personally, I think it would be interesting to see just how long your Thanatos would last against my Simi."
Artemis's face paled.
"He won't last long, akri," Simi said to Ash, using the Atlantean term for "lord and master." Her voice was quiet but powerful and had a singsongy quality that was quite musical in tone. "Thanatos is barbecue." She smiled at Artemis. "And I like my barbecue. Just tell me how you want him, akri, normal recipe or extra crispy. I'm partial to extra crispy myself. They crunch louder when deep-fried. Reminds me, I need some bread crumbs."
Artemis swallowed audibly. "You can't send it after him. It's uncontrollable without you."
"She does only what I tell her to do."
"That thing is a menace, with or without you. Zeus forbid it should ever go out into the human world alone."
Ash scoffed at that. "She's less a menace than you are and she goes out all the time on her own."
"I can't believe you'd unleash it so carelessly. What are you thinking?"
While they argued, Simi floated around the room, making a list in a small leather-bound book. "Ooo, let's see, I need to get my spicy barbecue sauce. Definitely some oven mitts, 'cause he's gonna be hot from being flame-broiled. I need to get a couple of them apple trees to make wood chips so the meat be nice and appley tasting. Give it that extra yumminess, 'cause I don't like that Daimon flavor. Ack!"
"What's it doing?" Artemis asked as she realized Simi was talking to herself.
"She's making a list of what she needs to kill Thanatos."
"It sounds like it's going to eat him."
Artemis's eyes narrowed. "It can't eat him. I forbid it."
Ash gave a sinister half-laugh. "She can do as she pleases. I taught her to waste not, want not."
Simi paused and lifted her head up from her list to snort at Artemis. "The Simi is very environmentally sound. Eat everything except for hooves. I don't like those, they hurt my teeth." She looked at Ash. "Thanatos don't have hooves, do he?"
"No, Simi, he doesn't."
Simi gave a happy cry. "Ooo, good eating tonight. I get a Daimon for barbecue. Can I go now, akri? Can I? Can I? Can I, please?" Simi danced around like a small, happy child at a birthday party.
Ash stared at Artemis. "It's entirely up to you, Artie. He lives or dies by your word."
"No, akri!" Simi whined after a brief, stunned pause. She sounded as if she were in pain. "Don't ask her that. She never let me have no fun. She a mean goddess!"
Ash knew how much Artemis hated it when he won an argument with her. Her eyes smoldered with barely leashed fury. "What do you want me to do?'.'
"You say Zarek is unfit to live, that he poses a threat to others. All I ask is that you have Themis judge him. If her judge finds that Zarek is a danger to those around him, then I will send Simi after him myself to end his life."
Simi bared her fangs at Artemis as they exchanged venomous sneers.
Finally, Artemis looked back at him. "Very well, but I don't trust your demon. I will have Thanatos stand down, but after Zarek is judged guilty, I will send Thanatos in to finish him."
"Simi," Ash said to his Charonte companion. "Return to me."
She looked disgusted by the mere thought." 'Return to me, Simi,' " Simi mocked as she shifted forms. "Don't go frying the goddess. Don't go frying Thanatos." She made a strange horselike snort. "I am not a yo-yo, akri. I am a Simi. I hate it when you get me all excited about going to kill something and then tell me no. I don't like that. It boring. You don't ever let me have any fun anymore."
"Simi," he said, stressing her name.
The demon pouted and then flew to the left side of his body and returned to his arm in the shape of a stylized bird on his biceps.
Ash rubbed his hand over the small burn there that he always felt whenever Simi left or returned to his skin.
Artemis stared with malice at Simi's new form. Then, she stepped around him and leaned against his back as she brushed one hand over Simi's image. "One day I'm going to find a way to rid you of that beast resting on your arm."
"Sure you will," he said, forcing himself to endure Artemis's touch as she breathed across his skin while she leaned against his back. It was something Ash had never been able to tolerate with ease, and it was something she knew he hated.
He looked at her over his shoulder. "And one day I'm going to find a way to rid myself of the beast resting on my back."
Astrid sat alone in her atrium reading her favorite book, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery. No matter how many times she read it, she always found something new in it.
And today she needed to find something good. Something to remind her that there was beauty in the world. Innocence. Joy. Happiness.
Most of all, she wanted to find hope.
A soft gentle breeze floated off the lilac-scented river, through the marble Doric columns and across the white wicker chaise where she sat. Her three sisters had been here for a little while, but she had sent them away.
Not even they could comfort her.
Tired and disillusioned, she had sought solace in her book. In it, she saw goodness, a goodness that was missing in the people she'd known in her life.
Was there no decency? No kindness?
Had humanity finally managed to destroy both?
Her sisters, as much as she loved them, were as ruthless as anyone else. They were completely indifferent to the pleadings and suffering of anyone not related to them.
Nothing touched any of them anymore.
Astrid couldn't remember the last time she had cried. The last time she had laughed.
She was numb now.
Numbness was the curse of her kind. Her sister Atty had warned her long ago that if she chose to be a judge this day would come.
Young, vain, and stupid, Astrid had foolishly ignored the warning, thinking it could never happen to her.
She would never be indifferent to people or their pain.
Yet now it was only her books that brought her the emotions of others. Even though she couldn't really "feel" them, the unreal and muted emotions of the characters comforted her on some level.
And if she were capable of it, that would make her weep.
Astrid heard someone approaching her from behind. Not wanting anyone to see what she was reading lest they ask her why, and she be forced to admit she'd lost her compassion, Astrid tucked it beneath the chair's cushion. She turned to see her mother crossing the well-manicured lawn where a small group of three dappled fawns grazed.
Her mother wasn't alone.
Artemis and Acheron were with her.
Her mother's long red hair was left to curl becomingly around a face that looked no older than thirty. Themis wore a tailored short-sleeved blue shirt and khaki slacks.
No one would ever take her for the Greek goddess of justice.
Artemis was dressed in a classical Greek peplos while Acheron wore his typical black leather pants and a black T-shirt. His long blond hair was loose around his shoulders.
A chill went down her spine, but then, it always did whenever Acheron came near. There was something about him that was compelling and irresistible.
It was also terrifying.
She'd never known anyone like him. He was alluring in a way that defied her best abilities to explain. It was as if his very presence filled everyone with a desire so potent that it was hard to look at him without wanting to rip his clothes off, throw him to the ground, and make love to him for untold centuries.
But there was more to him than his sexual appeal. There was also something ancient and primal. Something so powerful that even the gods feared him.
You could even see that fear in Artemis's eyes as she walked beside him.
No one knew what the relationship was between the two of them. They never touched each other, seldom did they look at each other. And yet Acheron came often to see Artemis in her temple.
When Astrid had been a child, he used to come and visit with her, too. Play games with her and teach her how to manage her very limited powers. He'd brought her countless books both from the past and from the future.
In fact, it was Acheron who had given her The Little Prince.
Those visits had all but ended the day she hit puberty and had realized just how desirable a man Acheron was. He had pulled away from her then, leaving a tangible wall between them.
"To what do I owe the honor?" Astrid asked as the three of them surrounded her.
"I have a job for you, dearest," her mother said.
Astrid made a pain-filled face. "I thought we agreed that I could take some time off."
"Oh, come on, Astrid," Artemis said. "I need you, little cousin." She cast an evil glare in Acheron's direction. "There's a Dark-Hunter who needs to be put down."
Acheron's face was impassive as he watched Astrid without comment.
Astrid sighed. She didn't want to do this. Too many centuries of judging others had left her emotionally bankrupt. She'd begun to suspect that she was no longer capable of feeling anyone's pain.
Not even her own.
Lack of compassion had ruined her sisters. Now she was afraid it was going to ruin her, as well.
"There are other judges."
Artemis let out a disgusted breath. "I don't trust them. They're bleeding hearts who are just as likely to find him innocent as guilty. I need a hard-nosed, impartial judge who can't be swayed from doing what's right and necessary. I need you."
The hairs on the back of her neck rose. Astrid slid her gaze from Artemis to Acheron, who stood with his arms folded over his chest. His gaze unwavering, he watched Astrid with those eerie swirling silver eyes of his.
This wasn't the first time she'd been asked to judge a rogue Dark-Hunter and yet she sensed something different about Acheron today.
"You believe him innocent?" she asked.
"He's not innocent," Artemis sneered. "He'd kill anyone or anything without blinking. He has no morals or concern for anyone other than himself."
Acheron gave Artemis an arch look that said those words reminded him of someone else he knew.
It almost succeeded in bringing a smile to Astrid's lips.
While her mother stayed back a few feet to give them room, Acheron squatted down by Astrid's chaise and met her gaze levelly. "I know you're tired, Astrid. I know you want to quit, but I don't trust anyone else to judge him."
Astrid frowned as he spoke of things she hadn't told anyone else. No one knew she wanted to quit.
Artemis turned a jaundiced gaze to Acheron. "Why are you being so accommodating with my choice of judge? She's never found anyone innocent in all the history of the world."
"I know," he said in that rich, deep voice that was even more seductive than his incredible good looks. "But I trust her to do the right thing."
Artemis narrowed her eyes at him. "What trick have you planned?"
His face was completely impassive as he continued to watch Astrid with an intensity that was unnerving. "Nothing."
Astrid considered taking on the mission only because of Acheron. He'd never asked anything of her before and she remembered well just how many times he had comforted her when she'd been a child. He'd been like a father and a big brother to her.
"How long do I have to stay?" she asked them. "If I go in and the Dark-Hunter is beyond redemption, can I pull out immediately?"
"Yes," Artemis said. "In fact, the sooner you judge him guilty the better for all of us."
Astrid turned to the man beside her. "Acheron?"
He nodded in agreement. "I will abide by what you decide."
Artemis beamed. "We have our pact then, Acheron. I have given you a judge."
A small smile played at the edges of Acheron's lips. "You have, indeed."
Artemis looked suddenly nervous. She glanced from Acheron to Astrid, then back again. "What do you know that I don't?" she asked him.
Those pale, swirling eyes cut through Astrid as Acheron said quietly, "I know that Astrid holds a deep truth inside her."
Artemis put her hands on her hips. "And that is?"
" 'It is only with the heart that one can rightly see. What is essential is invisible to the eye.' "
Another chill went down Astrid's spine as Acheron quoted the exact line from The Little Prince that she had been reading as they approached.
How did he know what she'd been reading?
She glanced down to make sure the book was completely hidden from their view.
Oh, yeah, Acheron Parthenopaeus was one frightening man.
"You have two weeks, daughter," her mother said quietly. "If it takes you less time, so be it. But at the end of a fortnight, one way or another, Zarek's fate will be sealed by your hand."