Zarek cursed as the batteries died on his MP3 player. Just his luck.

He was still a good hour away from their landing and the last thing he wanted was to listen to Mike in the helicopter's cockpit moan and complain under his breath about having to chauffeur him back to Alaska. Even though a foot of solid black steel separated Zarek's sunless, lightless compartment from Mike, he could hear through the walls as easily as if Mike were sitting next to him.

Worse, Zarek hated being stuck in the small passenger compartment that seemed to be closing in on him. Every time he moved, he bumped an arm or leg into the wall. But since they had been flying through daylight, it was either the cube or death.

For some reason he still wasn't quite sure of, Zarek had chosen the cube.

He removed the headphones and his ears were immediately assaulted by the rhythmic pounding of the chopper's blades, rushing winter winds, and Mike's current conversation over the static-filled radio.

"So, did you do it?"

Zarek arched a brow at the anxious, unfamiliar male voice.

Ah, the beauty of his powers. He had hearing that would make Superman jealous. And he knew the topic of their discussion...

Him.

Or rather his demise.

Mike had been offered a fortune to kill him, and since the moment they had left New Orleans about twelve hours ago, Zarek had been waiting for the middle-aged Squire to either open the sealed windows and expose him to the deadly sunlight or to jettison his compartment and drop him over something that was guaranteed to take the immortality right out of him.

Instead, Mike was dicking around with him and had yet to pull the switch. Not that Zarek cared. He had a few more tricks to teach the Squire if Mike tried anything.

"Nah," Mike said as the chopper dipped without warning sharply to the left again and slammed Zarek into the wall of his compartment. He was beginning to suspect the pilot kept doing that just for shits and giggles.

The helicopter tilted again while Zarek braced himself for it.

"I thought about it, real hard, but you know I figure frying this bastard is way too good for him. I'd rather leave him to the Blood Rite Squires and let them take him out slow and painfully. Personally, I'd like to hear the psycho-dick scream for mercy, especially after what he did to those poor, innocent cops."

The muscle in Zarek's jaw started to tic in time to his rapid, angry heartbeat as he listened. Yeah, those cops had been real innocent, all right. If Zarek had been mortal, the beating they gave him would have either killed him or he'd be lying in a coma right now.

The voice spoke over the radio again. "I heard from the Oracles that Artemis will pay double to the Squire who kills him. You put that on top of what Dionysus was going to pay you for killing him and I personally think you're a fool to pass on it."

"No doubt, but I have enough money to pacify me. Besides, I'm the one who's had to tolerate the dick's attitude and sneers. He thinks he's such a badass. I want to see them take him down a notch before they cut his head off."

Zarek rolled his eyes at Mike's words. He didn't give a rat's ass what the man thought of him.

He'd learned a long time ago that there was no use in trying to reach out to people.

All it did was get him slapped.

He tucked his MP3 player back into his black duffel bag and grimaced as his knee connected roughly against the wall. Gods, get him out of this tight, cramped place. It felt like being in a sarcophagus.

"I'm surprised the Council didn't activate Nick's Blood Rite status for this hunt," the other voice said. "Since he spent the last week with Zarek, I would think he would be a natural for it."

Mike snorted. "They tried, but Gautier refused."

"Why?"

"I have no idea. You know how Gautier is. He doesn't take orders very well. Makes me wonder why they ever initiated him into Squirehood to begin with. I can't imagine any Dark-Hunter other than Acheron or Kyrian who could put up with his mouth."

"Yeah, he is a smart-ass. And speaking of, my Dark-Hunter is paging me so I better go to work. You be careful with Zarek and stay out of his way."

"Don't worry. I'm going to dump him out and leave him for the others to track down, then get my butt out of Alaska faster than you can say 'Rumpelstiltskin.' "

The radio clicked off.

Zarek sat perfectly still in the darkness and listened to Mike breathing in the cockpit.

So, the prick had changed his mind about killing him.

Well, bully that. The Squire had finally grown a ball, and half a brain. At some point during the last few hours Mike must have decided that suicide wasn't the answer.

For that, Zarek would let him live.

But he would make him suffer for the privilege.

And may the gods help the rest who were coming for him. On the frozen ground that made up Alaska's interior, Zarek was invincible. Unlike the other Dark-Hunters and Squires, he'd had nine hundred years of arctic survival training. Nine hundred years of just him and the uncharted wilderness.

Sure, Acheron had visited every decade or so just to make certain he was still alive, but no one else had ever come calling.

And people wondered why he was insane.

Up until about ten years ago, he'd had no contact whatsoever with the outside world during the long summer months that forced him to live inside his remote cabin.

No phone, no computer, no television.

Nothing but the quiet solitude of rereading the same stack of books over and over again until he had them memorized. Waiting in eager anticipation for the nights to grow long enough for him to be able to travel from his rural cabin into Fairbanks while the businesses were still open and he could interact with people.

For that matter, it had only been about a century and a half since the area had been sufficiently populated for him to have any human contact at all.

Before that, for untold centuries he had lived up here alone without another human being anywhere near him. He'd only occasionally caught sight of natives who were terrified to find a strange, tall Caucasian man with fangs living in a remote forest. They would take one look at his six-foot-six height and musk-ox parka and then run as fast as they could in the other direction, screaming out that the Iglaaq was going to get them. Superstitious to the extreme, they had built up an entire legend based on him.

That left the rare visits of the winter Daimons, who would venture into his woods so that they could say they'd faced down the lunatic Dark-Hunter. Unfortunately, they had been more interested in fighting than conversation and so his association with them had always been brief. A few minutes of combat to alleviate the monotony and then he was alone again with the snow and bears.

And they weren't even were-bears.

The magnetic and electrical charges of the aurora borealis made it almost impossible for any of the Were-Hunters to venture so far north. It also played havoc with his electronics and satellite linkups, blacking out his communications periodically year round so that even in this modern world, he was still painfully alone.

Maybe he should have let them kill him after all.

And yet somehow he always found himself carrying on. One more year, one more summer.

One more communications blackout.

Basic survival was all Zarek had ever known.

He swallowed as he remembered New Orleans.

How he'd loved that city. The vibrancy. The warmth. The mixture of exotic smells, sights, and sounds. He wondered if the people who lived there realized just how good they had it. Just how privileged they were to be blessed with such a great town.

But that was behind him now. He'd screwed up so badly that there was no chance whatsoever of either Artemis or Acheron allowing him back into a populated area where he could interact with large crowds of people.

It was him and Alaska for eternity. All he could really hope for was a massive population explosion, but given the severity of the weather, that was about as likely as his getting stationed in Hawaii.

With that thought in mind, he started pulling his snow gear out of the duffel bag and putting it on. It would be early morning when they arrived and still dark, but the dawn wouldn't be far behind. He'd have to hurry to make it to his cabin before sunup.

By the time he'd rubbed Vaseline on his skin and had changed into his long johns, black turtleneck sweater, and long musk-ox coat and insulated winter boots, he could feel the helicopter descending toward land.

On impulse, Zarek sifted through the weapons in his duffel bag. He'd learned a long time ago to carry a wide assortment of tools. Alaska was a harsh place to be on your own and you never knew when you'd meet something deadly.

Centuries ago, Zarek had made the decision to be the deadliest thing on the tundra.

As soon as they landed, Mike cut the engine and then waited for the blades to stop spinning before he got out, cursed at the subzero temperature, and opened the door to the back. Mike raked a repugnant sneer over him as he stepped back to give Zarek enough room to vacate the chopper.

"Welcome home," Mike said with a note of gleeful venom in his voice. The prick was enjoying the thought of the Squires tracking him down and dismembering him.

Well, so was Zarek.

Mike blew his breath into his gloved hands. "Hope it's all you remembered it as."

It was. Nothing here ever changed.

Zarek flinched at the brightness of the snow even in the darkness of predawn. He pulled his goggles down over his eyes to protect them and climbed out. He grabbed his duffel bag, slung it over his shoulder, then waded through the crunching snow toward the climate-controlled shed where he'd left his custom-built Ski-Doo MX Z Rev the week before.

Oh, yeah, now this was the subfreezing temperature he remembered, the arctic air that bit so fiercely, every piece of his exposed skin burned. He clenched his teeth to keep them from chattering-something that wasn't pleasant when a man had long, sharp fangs in place of teeth.

Welcome home...

Mike was heading back for the cockpit when Zarek turned around to face him.

"Hey, Mike," he called, his voice ringing out through the cold stillness.

Mike paused.

"Rumpelstiltskin," he said before he tossed a live grenade underneath the helicopter.

Mike let out a fetid curse as he loped through the snow as fast as he could, trying to reach shelter.

For the first time in a long while, Zarek smiled at the sight of the irate Squire and the sound of the snow crunching under Mike's harried feet.

The helicopter exploded the same instant Zarek reached his snowmachine. He slung one long, leather-encased leg over the black seat and looked back as pieces of the twenty-three-million-dollar Sikorsky helicopter rained fiery metal over the snow.

Ahh, fireworks. How he loved them. The sight was almost as beautiful as the aurora borealis.

Mike was still cursing and jumping up and down like a small angry child as he watched his custom-built baby go up in flames.

Zarek started his engine and rode over to Mike, but not before he dropped another grenade to detonate the shed, thus preventing the Squire from using it.

As the snowmachine vibrated in idle beneath him, he pulled his scarf down enough so that Mike could understand him when he spoke. "Town is four miles that way," he said, pointing toward the south. He tossed Mike a small tube of Vaseline. "Keep your lips covered so they don't bleed."

"I should have killed you," Mike snarled.

"Yeah, you should have." Zarek covered his face, and revved his engine. "By the way, if you happen upon wolves in the woods, remember, they really are wolves and not Were-Hunters on the prowl. They also travel in packs so if you hear one, there's more behind him. My best advice for that is to climb a tree and hope they get bored before a bear comes along and decides to climb up after you."

Zarek spun his machine around and headed toward the northeast where his cabin waited in the middle of three hundred acres of forest.

He should probably feel guilty over what he'd done to Mike, but he didn't. The Squire had just learned a valuable lesson. Next time Artemis or Dionysus made him an offer, he'd take it.

Zarek rotated his wrist, giving the snowmachine more power as it bucked over the rough, snowy trail. He still had a long way to go to get home and his time was running out.

Daybreak was coming.

Damn. He should have ridden his Mach Z in. It was sleeker and faster than the MX Z Rev that he was on now, but not nearly as much fun.

Zarek was cold, hungry, and tired, and in a weird way all he wanted to do was get back to things that were familiar.

If the other Squires wanted to hunt him down, so be it. At least this way he was forewarned.

And as the helicopter and shed had shown, forearmed.

If they wanted to take him on, then he wished them luck. They were going to need it and a whole lot of reinforcements.

Looking forward to the challenge, he flew his snowmachine over the frozen terrain.

It was just before sunrise when he reached his isolated cabin. More snow had fallen while he was away, blocking his door. He pulled the snowmachine into the small shed that was attached to his cabin and covered it with a tarp. As he started to plug in his warmer for the engine, he realized there was no power in the outlet for either the MX or the Mach that was parked beside it.

He snarled in anger. Damn. No doubt the block for the Mach had been cracked from the subzero temperatures, and if he wasn't careful the MX's engine would crack, too.

Zarek rushed outside to check his generators before the sun rose over the hills, only to find both of them frozen solid and not working.

He snarled again as he struck one with his fist.

Well, so much for comfort. Looked like it was going to be him and the small wood-burning stove today. Not the best source of heat, but it was the best he was going to get.

"Great, just great," he muttered. It wasn't the first time he'd been forced to endure a cold sleep on his cabin floor. No doubt it wouldn't be the last.

It just seemed worse this morning because he'd spent the last week in New Orleans's mild climate. It had been so warm while he was there that he hadn't even needed to use the heat at all.

Man, how he missed that place.

Knowing his time before sunrise was growing critically short, he trudged back to his snowmachine and packed its engine with his parka to help keep as much of the heat around it as he could. Then he retrieved his duffel bag from the seat and went to dig his door out so that he could get inside his cabin.

He ducked as he came through the door and kept his head bent down. The ceiling was low, so low that if he stood up straight the top of his head would brush it, and if he wasn't paying attention, his ceiling fan in the center of the room would decapitate him.

But the low ceiling was necessary. Heat in the heart of winter was a valuable commodity and the last thing anyone wanted was the bulk of it gathered under a ten-foot ceiling. A lower ceiling meant a warmer place.

Not to mention that nine hundred years ago when he'd been banished here, he hadn't had very long to build his shelter. Sleeping in a cave during daylight, he'd worked on the cabin at night until he had finally constructed Home Crappy Home.

Yes, it was good to be back...

Zarek dropped his duffel bag beside the wood-burning stove. Then he turned and placed the old-fashioned wooden bolt into its cradle over the door to bar it from the Alaskan wildlife that sometimes ventured too close to his cabin.

Feeling his way along the carved wall with his hand, he found the lantern that hung there and the small box of lucifer matches that was attached to it. Even though his Dark-Hunter eyesight was designed for nighttime, he couldn't see in complete darkness. With the door closed, his cabin was sealed so tightly that no light whatsoever could permeate its thick wooden walls.

Lighting the lantern, he shivered from the cold as he turned around to face the interior of his home. He knew every inch of the place intimately. Every bookshelf that lined the walls, every hand-carved, ornamental notch that decorated it.

He'd never had much in the way of furniture. Two tall cupboards; one for his handful of clothes and one for his food. There was also a stand for his television and his bookshelves, and that was pretty much it. As a former Roman slave, Zarek wasn't used to much.

It was so cold inside that he could see his breath even through the scarf and as he looked around the small space he grimaced at his computer and television-both of which would have to be defrosted before he could use them again.

Provided no moisture had gotten into them.

Unwilling to worry about that, he made his way to his food pantry in the back where he kept nothing but canned goods. He'd learned a long time ago that if the bears and wolves smelled food, they would quickly pay him an unwanted visit. He had no desire to kill them just because they were hungry and stupid.

Zarek grabbed a can of pork and beans and his can opener and sat down on the floor. Mike had refused to feed him during their thirteen-hour trip from New Orleans to Fairbanks. Mike had claimed that he didn't want to chance exposing Zarek to sunlight to feed him.

In reality, the Squire was a jerk, and starvation was nothing new to Zarek.

"Ah, great," he muttered as he opened the can to find the beans frozen solid inside. He considered pulling out his ice pick, then changed his mind. He wasn't so hungry that a pork and beans popsicle appealed to him.

He sighed in disgust, then opened the door and tossed the can as far into the woods as he could.

Slamming the door shut before he let the dawn light in, Zarek rooted through his duffel bag until he found his cell phone, MP3 player, and laptop. He tucked the phone and player down into his pants so that his body heat would keep them from freezing. Then he set his laptop aside until he could get the wood-burning stove lighted.

He went to the corner across from the stove and grabbed a handful of the carved wooden figurines he had piled there and moved to place them inside the stove.

As soon as he swung open the small iron door, he paused.

There was a tiny mink inside with three newborn kits. The mother, angry at being disturbed, hissed a warning to him as they stared at each other.

Zarek hissed back at her.

"Man, I don't believe this," Zarek mumbled angrily.

The mink must have come down the stovepipe and moved in while he'd been gone. It had probably still been warm when she found it and the stove was an extremely safe place for her den.

"The least you could have done was bring about fifty of your friends with you. I could use a new coat."

She bared her teeth.

Aggravated, Zarek closed the door and returned the kindling to the pile in the corner. He was a dick, but not even he would toss them out. Being immortal, he would survive the cold. The mother and young wouldn't.

He picked up his laptop and zipped it inside his coat to keep it warm and went over to the far corner where his pallet was. As he lay down, he thought about going to sleep underground where it was warmer, but then, why bother?

He'd have to move the stove to reach his hidden basement and that would just upset the mother mink again.

This time of year daylight was short. It would only be a few more hours until sunset, and he was more than used to this frozen wasteland.

As soon as he could, he would go to town for supplies and a new generator. Pulling the quilts and furs over him, he expelled a long, tired breath.

Zarek closed his eyes and let his mind wander over the events of the past week.

"Thank you, Zarek."

He ground his teeth as he recalled Sunshine Runningwolf's face. Her large dark brown eyes were incredibly seductive and she was a far cry from the skinny model types most men favored; she had a lush, round body that had made him hard just to be around her.

Man, he should have taken a bite of her neck when he'd had the chance. He still wasn't sure why he hadn't tasted her blood. No doubt it would have kept him warm even now.

Oh, well. Chalk it up to another regret he had on an infinite list of them.

His thoughts returned to her...

Sunshine had shown up unexpectedly at his New Orleans town house while he had been waiting for Nick to take him to the landing site to leave.

Her black hair had been braided and her brown eyes had held a friendship in them that he'd never seen before when someone looked at him.

"I can't stay for long. I don't want Talon to wake up and find me gone, but before you left I had to thank you for what you did for us."

He still didn't know why he'd helped her and Talon. Why he had defied Dionysus and fought against the god while the god had sought to destroy the two of them.

For their happiness, he had consigned himself to death.

But as he had looked at her yesterday, it had seemed somehow worth it.

And as he allowed sleep to overtake him, he wondered if he would still think it was worth it when the Squires found his cabin and burned it to the ground with him inside.

He snorted at the thought. What the hell? At least he'd be warm for a few minutes before he died.

Zarek wasn't sure how long he'd slept. By the time he awoke, it was dark again.

Hopefully, he hadn't slept so long that his snowmachine would have had a chance to freeze. If he had, it would be a long, cold hike into town.

He rolled over and grimaced in pain. He'd been lying on his laptop. Not to mention the phone and MP3 player that were biting into something even more uncomfortable.

Shivering against the frigid cold, he forced himself up and grabbed another parka from his wardrobe. Once he was dressed for the weather, he went outside to his makeshift garage. He put the laptop, phone, and MP3 player into his backpack and slung it over his shoulders, then straddled the snowmachine and unwrapped the engine.

Luckily it started on the first try. Hallelujah! Maybe his luck was turning after all. No one had toasted him while he slept and he actually had enough gas to make it into Fairbanks where he could get some hot food and thaw out for a few minutes.

Grateful for small favors, he headed across his land and turned south for the long, bumpy trip that would take him into civilization.

Not that he minded. He was just too damned grateful there actually was civilization now to head into.

Zarek arrived in town shortly after six.

He parked his snowmachine at Sharon Parker's house, which was walking distance from the town's center. He'd met the ex-waitress about ten years ago when he'd found her inside her broken-down car late at night on the side of a seldom-traveled back road in North Pole.

It'd been close to sixty below and she had been crying, huddled under blankets, afraid that she and her baby would die before help arrived. Her seven-month-old daughter had been sick with asthma and Sharon had been trying to get her to the hospital for a breathing treatment, but they had refused her admittance since she didn't have any insurance and no money to pay.

She had been given directions to a charity clinic and had gotten lost while trying to find it.

Zarek had taken them back to the hospital and paid for the baby's care. While they waited, he'd found out Sharon was being evicted from her apartment and couldn't make ends meet.

So he had offered Sharon a bargain. In exchange for a house, car, and money, she provided him with someone friendly to speak to whenever he came into Fairbanks, and a few home-cooked leftovers or meals-whatever she had lying around.

Best of all, in the summertime when he was completely locked inside his cabin during the twenty-three and a half hours of daylight, she would swing by the post office or store and bring him books and supplies and leave them outside his door.

It had been the best deal he'd ever made.

She'd never asked him anything personal, not even why he didn't leave his cabin in the summer months. No doubt she was just too grateful to have his financial support to care about his eccentric ways.

In return, Zarek had never taken any of her blood or asked her anything personal. They were just employer and employee.

"Zarek?"

He looked up from plugging in his block warmer on the snowmachine to see her sticking her head out of the front door of her ranch-style house. Her dark brown hair was shorter than it had been a month ago when he'd last seen her-she had a blunt cut that swung around her shoulders.

Tall, thin, and extremely attractive, she was dressed in a black sweater and jeans. Most any other guy would have probably made a move on her by now, and one night about four years ago, she had insinuated that if he ever wanted something more intimate from her she would gladly give it, but Zarek had refused.

He didn't like people getting too close to him, and women had a nasty tendency of viewing sex as meaningful.

He didn't. Sex was sex. It was basic and animalistic. Something the body needed like it needed food. But a guy didn't have to promise a steak he was going to date it before he ate it.

So why did women need a testament of affection before they opened their legs?

He didn't get it.

And he would never become involved with Sharon. Sex with her was one complication he didn't need.

"Zarek, is that you?"

He lowered the scarf over his face and shouted back. "Yeah, it's me."

"Are you coming in?"

"I'll be back in a minute. I have to go buy a few things."

She nodded, then went back inside and shut the door.

Zarek made his way to the store down the street from her house. Frank's General Store had some of everything in it. Best of all, it had a wide variety of electronics and generators. Unfortunately, he wouldn't be able to use the shop much longer. He'd been a fairly regular customer for about fifteen years now, and though Frank was a bit dense, he had started noticing the fact that Zarek hadn't aged in all that time.

Sooner or later, Sharon would notice it too and he would have to give up his only contact in the mortal world.

That was the big drawback of immortality. He didn't dare hang around anyone for long or they'd find out who and what he was. And unlike the other Dark-Hunters, every time he had requested a Squire to serve him and protect his identity, the Council had denied it.

It seemed his reputation was such that no one wanted the duty of helping him.

Fine. He'd never needed anyone anyway.

Zarek entered the store and took a minute to pull his goggles and gloves off and unbutton his coat. He heard Frank in the back talking to one of his clerks.

"Now listen up, kid. He's kind of a strange man, but you better be nice to him, you hear me? He spends a ton of money in this store and I don't care how scary he looks, you be nice."

The two of them came out from the back. Frank stopped dead in his tracks to stare at him.

Zarek stared back. Frank was used to seeing him with a goatee or beard, his sword-and-crossbones earring, and the silver claws he wore on his left hand. Three things Acheron had ordered him to abandon in New Orleans.

He knew what he looked like beardless and he hated it. But at least he didn't have to look at himself in a mirror. Dark-Hunters could only cast a reflection when they wanted to.

Zarek had never wanted to.

The elderly man smiled a smile that was more habitual than friendly and ambled toward him. Even though the people of Fairbanks were exceedingly friendly, most of them still tended to cut a wide berth around Zarek.

He had that effect on people.

"What can I get for you today?" Frank asked.

Zarek glanced at the teenager, who was watching him curiously. "I need a new generator."

Frank sucked in his breath between his teeth and Zarek waited for what he knew was coming. "There might be a bit of a problem there."

Frank always said that. No matter what Zarek needed, it was going to be a problem to get it, hence he would have to pay top dollar for it.

Frank scratched the gray whiskers on his bearded face. "I've only got the one left and it's supposed to be delivered to the Wallabys tomorrow."

Yeah, right.

Zarek was too tired to play Frank's haggling game tonight. At this point, he was willing to pay anything to get the electricity back on in his house. "If you'll let me have it, there's an extra six grand in it for you."

Frank scowled and continued to scratch his beard. "Well now, there's another problem. Wallaby be wanting it real bad."

"Ten grand, Frank, and another two if you can get it over to Sharon's house within the hour."

Frank beamed. "Tony, you heard the man, get his generator loaded up." The old man's eyes were light and almost friendly. "You be needing anything else?"

Zarek shook his head and left.

He made his way back toward Sharon's and did his best to ignore the biting winds.

He knocked on her door before he shouldered it open and entered. Oddly enough, the living room was empty. This time of night, Sharon's daughter Trixie was usually running around, playing and screaming like a demon or doing homework under extreme protest. He didn't even hear her in the back rooms.

For a second, he thought maybe the Squires had found him, but that was ridiculous. No one knew about Sharon. Zarek wasn't exactly on speaking terms with the Squires' Council or other Dark-Hunters.

"Hey, Sharon?" he called. "Everything okay?"

She walked slowly down the hall from the direction of the kitchen. "You're back."

A bad feeling settled over him. Something wasn't right. He could sense it. She seemed nervous.

"Yeah. Is something up? I didn't crash a date or anything, did I?"

And then he heard it. It was the sound of a man breathing, of heavy footsteps leaving the kitchen.

The man came down the hall with a slow, methodical walk-like a predator taking its time getting the lay of the landscape while it patiently watched its prey.

Zarek frowned as the man stopped in the hallway behind Sharon. Standing only about an inch shorter than Zarek, he had long dark brown hair pulled back into a ponytail and he wore a Western-style outback duster. There was a deadly quick aura around the man and as soon as their eyes met, Zarek knew he'd been betrayed.

This was another Dark-Hunter.

And there was only one out of the thousands of Dark-Hunters who knew about Sharon and him...

Zarek cursed his own stupidity.

The Dark-Hunter inclined his head toward him. "Z," he drawled in a thick Southern accent Zarek knew only too well. "Me and you need to talk."

Zarek couldn't breathe as he stared at Sharon and Sundown together. Sundown was the only person he had ever opened himself up to in his entire two thousand plus years of living.

And he knew why Sundown was here.

Sundown alone knew Zarek. Knew his haunts, his habits.

Who better to hunt him down and kill him than his own best friend?

"Talk about what?" he asked gruffly, narrowing his eyes.

Sundown moved to stand in front of Sharon as if to protect her. That he would think for even an instant that Zarek would threaten her hurt most of all. "I think you know why I'm here, Z."

Yeah, he knew all right. He knew exactly what Sundown wanted with him. A nice, quick death so that Sundown could report back to Artemis and Acheron that everything was right again in the world, and then the cowboy would return home to Reno.

But Zarek had gone quietly to his execution once before. This time, he intended to fight for his life, such as it was.

"Forget it, Jess," he said, using Sundown's real name.

He turned and ran for the door.

Zarek made it back into the yard before Sundown caught him and pulled him to a stop. He bared his fangs at him, but Jess didn't seem to notice.

Zarek punched him hard in the stomach. It was a powerful strike that made Jess stagger back and it brought Zarek to his knees. Any time one Dark-Hunter attacked another one, the Dark-Hunter who attacked felt the blow ten times worse than the one who received it. There was only one way to avoid this-for Artemis to lift her ban. He just hoped she hadn't lifted it from Jess.

Zarek struggled to breathe from the pain of it and forced himself to his feet. Unlike Jess, physical pain was something he was used to.

But before he could go far, he saw Mike and three other Squires in the shadows. They were walking toward them with determined strides that said they were armed for Dark-Hunter.

"Leave him to me," Sundown ordered.

They ignored him and kept on coming.

Spinning about, Zarek headed for his snowmachine only to find its engine in pieces. Obviously they had been busy while he was at Frank's.

Damn it. How could he have been so stupid?

They must have destroyed his generators to force him into town. They'd flushed him out of the woods like hunters with a wild animal.

Fine. If they wanted an animal to track, he would be one.

He slung his hand out and used his telekinesis to knock the Squires off their feet.

Unwilling to hurt himself again, Zarek dodged Jess and ran for town.

He didn't make it far before more Squires fell in and opened fire on him.

Bullets tore through his body, shredding his skin. Zarek hissed and staggered from the pain of it.

Still, he kept running.

He had no choice.

If he stayed down, they would dismember him, and though his life seriously sucked, he had no intention of becoming a Shade. Nor would he give them the satisfaction of killing him.

Zarek rounded the side of a building.

Something hard hit his middle.

Agony exploded through him as he was flipped head over heels onto the ground. He came to rest on his back in the snow with the breath knocked completely out of him.

A shadow with cold, merciless eyes moved to stand over him.

At least six eight, the man held an unearthly masculine perfection. He had pale blond hair and dark brown eyes, and when he smiled, he revealed the same pair of fangs as Zarek.

"What are you?" Zarek asked, knowing the stranger wasn't a Daimon or Apollite even though he looked like one.

"I am Thanatos, Dark-Hunter," he said in Classic Greek, using the name that meant "death." "And I'm here to kill you."

He seized Zarek by his coat and threw him against the far building as if he were nothing more than a rag doll.

Zarek hit the wall hard and slid to the street. His body hurt so badly that his limbs shook as he tried to crawl away from the beast.

Zarek stopped. "I won't die like this again," he snarled. Not on his belly like some fearful animal waiting for slaughter.

Like a worthless slave being beaten.

His body fortified by his rage, he forced himself to his feet and swung around to face Thanatos.

The creature smiled. "Backbone. How I love it. But not as much as I love sucking the marrow from it."

Zarek caught his arm as he reached for him. "You know what I love?" Zarek snapped the creature's arm and seized him by his neck. "The sound of a Daimon breathing his last breath."

Thanatos laughed. The sound was evil and cold. "You can't kill me, Dark-Hunter. I'm even more immortal than you are."

Zarek gaped as Thanatos's arm healed instantly.

"What are you?" Zarek asked again.

"I told you. I am Death and no one defeats or escapes Death."

Oh, shit. He was screwed now.

But he was far from defeated. Death might take him, but the bastard was going to have to work for it.

"You know," Zarek said, falling into the surreal calmness that had allowed him as a whipping boy to suffer through untold beatings. "I'll bet most people shit their pants in terror when you hand them that line. But you know what, Mr. I-want-to-be-scary-and-am-failing-miserably? I'm not a person. I'm a Dark-Hunter and in the grand scheme of things you don't mean shit to me."

He concentrated all of his powers into his hand, then delivered a powerful blow straight to Thanatos's solar plexus. The creature stumbled back.

"Now I can sit here and play with you." He delivered another staggering blow to Thanatos. "But I'd rather just put you out of both our miseries."

Before he could strike again, a shotgun blast hit him square in the back. Zarek felt the shrapnel ripping through his body, narrowly missing his heart.

Police sirens sounded in the distance.

Thanatos grabbed him by his throat and lifted him up until he was forced to stand on his tiptoes. "Better yet, why don't I just put you out of yours?"

Struggling to breathe, Zarek smiled grimly as he felt a trail of blood run out from the corner of his lips. The metallic taste of it suffused his mouth. He was hurt, but not daunted.

Smiling snidely at the Daimon, he kneed the bastard in the jewels.

The Daimon crumpled. Zarek took off running again, away from the Daimon, the Squires, and the cops, only he was nowhere near as fast as he'd been.

The pain made his eyesight blurry and the more he ran the more he hurt.

The agony of his body was unbearable.

Not in all his beatings as a child had he hurt this much. He didn't know how he managed to keep going. Only that some part of him refused to lie down and let them have him.

He wasn't sure when he lost them, or maybe they were right behind him. Zarek couldn't really tell due to the buzzing in his ears.

Disoriented, he slowed, stumbling forward until he couldn't go any farther.

He fell into the snow.

Zarek lay there waiting for the others to grab him. Waiting for Thanatos to finish what they had started, but as the seconds ticked by, he realized he must have escaped them.

Relieved, he tried to rise.

He couldn't. His body just wouldn't cooperate anymore. The best he could manage was to crawl forward three more feet where he caught sight of a large cabin-style house in front of him.

It looked warm and cozy and in the back of his mind was the thought that if he could just make it to the door the person inside might help him.

He laughed bitterly at the thought.

No one had ever helped him.

Not once.

No, this was his fate. There was no use fighting it, and in truth, he was tired of struggling alone in the world.

Closing his eyes, he drew a long, ragged breath and waited for what was inevitable.




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