"You were blind?" Astrid asked.

Zarek didn't answer. He couldn't believe he'd allowed that to slip out. It was something he'd never spoken of, not even to Jess.

Only Acheron knew and Acheron had thankfully kept the secret.

Unwilling to visit his past again tonight and the pain that waited there, Zarek left the den and returned to his room where he locked the door so that he could wait out the storm in peace.

At least alone he didn't have to worry about betraying himself or hurting anyone.

But as he sat in his chair, it wasn't images of the past that haunted him.

It was the scent of roses and wood, the clear pale eyes of a woman.

The remembered feel of her soft, cold cheek underneath his fingertips. Her damp tousled hair that framed features which were feminine and inviting.

A woman who didn't flinch from him or cringe.

She was astounding and surprising. If he were someone else, he might even go back to the den where she sat with her wolf and make her laugh. But he didn't know how to make people laugh. He could recognize humor, most especially irony, but he wasn't the kind of man to make jokes or nurture smiles from other people. Especially not a woman.

That fact hadn't bothered him before.

Tonight it did.

"Is he guilty?"

Astrid started at Artemis's voice in her head. Every night since Zarek had been brought into her house, Artemis had bugged her with that one question-over and over again, until she felt like Joan of Arc being tormented by voices.

"Not yet, Artemis. He just woke up."

"Well, what's taking so long? As long as he's living, Acheron is on edge and I positively hate it when he's agitated. Judge him rogue already."

"Why do you want Zarek dead so much?"

Silence descended. At first she thought Artemis had left her, so when the response came, it surprised her. "Acheron doesn't like to see anyone suffer. Especially not one of his Dark-Hunters. So long as Zarek lives, Acheron hurts, and in spite of what Acheron thinks, I don't like to see him hurting."

Astrid had never known Artemis to say such a thing. The goddess wasn't exactly known for her kindness or compassion, or for thinking of anyone besides herself.

"Do you love Acheron?"

Artemis's voice was sharp when she answered, "Acheron is no concern of yours, Astrid. Only Zarek is, and I swear if I lose any more of Acheron's loyalty over this, you will be very sorry for it."

Astrid stiffened at her hostile tone and threat. It would take more than Artemis to hurt her, and if the goddess wanted a fight, she had better come prepared.

She might not like her job anymore, but Astrid took it seriously and no one, most especially Artemis, was going to bully her into a premature verdict.

"If I judge Zarek too soon, don't you think Acheron would be angry and demand a rejudging?"

Artemis made a rude noise.

"Besides, you told Acheron that you wouldn't interfere, Artemis. You made him swear that he wouldn't contact me to try to sway my verdict and yet here you are trying to do that. How do you think he'd react if I told him of your actions?"

"Fine," she snapped. "I won't disturb you again. But get up with it already!"

Alone finally, Astrid sat in the den, thinking over what she should do next, how she could push Zarek to see if he would break again and turn more violent.

He had attacked her house, but not her. Sasha had attacked him, and though he had hurt the wolf, the wolf had hurt him much more. It had been an honest fight between them and Zarek hadn't tried to kill Sasha for the attack. He'd gotten the wolf off him and then left him alone.

Instead of seeking revenge on Sasha, Zarek had given him water.

Zarek's worst crime so far was belligerency and the fact that he had a truly frightening presence. Yet he did kind things that were at odds with his surliness.

Her common sense said to do as Artemis asked, find him guilty and run.

Her gut instinct told her to wait.

So long as he didn't strike out in anger at her or Sasha, she would follow this through.

But if he ever did strike out at them, then she was out the door and he was toast.

"There is no such thing as an innocent man..."

Astrid let out a tired breath. She'd said that to her sister Atty the last time they had spoken to each other. Part of her honestly believed it. Never once in all these centuries had she found someone innocent. Every man she had ever judged had lied to her.

All of them had tried to deceive her.

Some had tried to bribe her.

Some had tried to escape her.

Some had tried to beat her.

And one had tried to kill her.

She wondered which category Zarek would fall into.

Taking a deep breath for fortification, Astrid got up and went to her room to dig around in the clothes Sasha wore when he was in human form.

"What are you doing?" Sasha asked as he joined her.

"Zarek needs clothes," she said out loud without thinking.

Sasha nipped at her hands, and nosed his clothes back into the basket in the bottom of the closet. "He can get his own. Those are mine."

Astrid pulled them back out. "C'mon, Sasha, be nice. He doesn't have any clothes here and the ones he's wearing are ragged."

"So?"

She sorted through the pants and shirts, wishing she could see them. "You were the one who was complaining about having to look at a naked man. I thought you'd prefer to see some clothing on him."

"I also complain about the fact that I have to piss outside and eat out of bowls, but I don't see you letting me use the bathroom or tableware around him."

She shook her head at him. "Would you stop? You nag like an old woman." She picked up a heavy sweater.

"No," Sasha snapped. "Not the burgundy sweater. That's my favorite."

"Sasha, I swear. You are so spoiled!"

"And that's my sweater. Put it back."

She got up to take it to Zarek.

Sasha followed, complaining the whole way.

"I'll buy you a new one," she promised.

"I don't want a new one. I want that one."

"He won't hurt it."

"Yes he will. Look at his clothes. They're ruined. And I don't want his body touching something I wear. He'll contaminate it."

"Oh, good grief, Sasha. Grow up. You're four hundred years old and you're acting like a whelp. It's not like he has cooties or anything."

"Yes he does!"

She glared down her leg where she could feel him. He grabbed the sweater with his teeth and pulled it out of her hands.

"Sasha!" she snapped out loud, running after him. "Give me that sweater or I swear I will see you gelded."

The wolf ran through the house.

Astrid went after him as fast as she could. She relied on her memory as to where things should be.

Someone had moved the coffee table. She hissed as her leg collided with the corner of it and she lost her balance. She reached out with her hands to catch herself, only to feel the tabletop tilting. It gave under her weight.

The glass top fell sideways, sending things flying.

Something hit her in the head and something shattered.

Astrid froze, afraid to move.

She didn't know what had broken, but the sound had been unmistakable.

Where was the glass?

Her heart pounding, she cursed her blindness. She didn't dare move for fear of cutting herself.

"Sasha?" she asked.

He didn't answer.

"Don't move." Zarek's deep commanding voice shivered down her spine.

The next thing she knew two strong arms lifted her up from the floor with an ease that was truly terrifying. He cradled her against a body that was rock hard and lean. One that rippled with every move he made as he walked her away from the den.

She put her arms around broad, masculine shoulders that stiffened in reaction to her touch. His breath fell against her face, making her entire body melt.

"Zarek?" she asked tentatively.

"Is there anyone else in this house who can carry you that I need to know about?"

She ignored his sarcasm as he carried her to the kitchen and set her down on a chair.

She missed his heat instantly. It brought an odd ache to her chest that she neither expected nor understood.

"Thank you," she said quietly.

He didn't respond. Instead, she heard him leave the room.

A few minutes later, he returned and dumped something into the trash can.

"I don't know what you did to Scooby," he said, his tone almost normal, "but he's off in a corner lying down on a sweater and growling at me."

She stifled the urge to laugh at that image. "He's being bad."

"Yeah, well, where I come from, we beat things that are bad."

Astrid frowned at his words and the underlying emotion they betrayed. "Sometimes understanding is more important than punishment."

"And sometimes it's not."

"Maybe," she whispered.

Zarek turned on the water in the sink. It sounded as if he were washing his hands again.

Strange, he seemed to do that a lot.

"I got up all the glass I could find," he said over the sound of the rushing water, "but the crystal vase on your table shattered pretty badly. You might want to wear shoes in there for a few days."

Astrid was strangely touched by his actions and his warning. She got up from her chair and crossed the floor to stand next to him. Even though she couldn't see him, she could feel him now. Feel his heat, his strength.

Feel the raw sensuality of the man.

It shivered through her and down her body, enticing her with desire and need.

A foreign part of her ached to reach out and touch the smooth, tawny skin that beckoned her with the promise of primal heat. Even now she remembered the way his skin had looked. The way the light had played on it.

She wanted to pull his lips to hers and see what he tasted like. See if he could be tender.

Or would he be rough and forceful?

Astrid should be shocked by her thoughts. As a judge, she wasn't supposed to have this kind of curiosity, but as a woman, she couldn't help it.

It had been a long, long time since she'd felt desire for a man. Deep down there was even a part of her that yearned to find in him the goodness that Acheron believed in.

That was something she hadn't wanted to do in centuries either.

Zarek's kindness was unwarranted. "How did you know I needed you?"

"I heard the glass break and figured you were trapped."

She smiled. "That was very sweet of you."

She had a feeling he was staring at her. Her flesh warmed considerably at the thought. Her breasts hardened.

"I'm not sweet, princess. Trust me."

No, he wasn't sweet. He was hard. Prickly and strangely fascinating. Like a wild beast that needed to be tamed.

If anyone could ever tame something like him.

"I was attempting to give you some clothes," she said softly, trying to regain control of her body, which didn't seem to want to respond to common sense. "There are more sweaters in the bottom of my closet if you'd like to borrow them."

He scoffed at that as he turned off the water and ripped a paper towel off to dry his hands. "Your clothes won't fit me, princess."

She laughed. "They're not mine. They belong to a male friend."

Zarek couldn't breathe with her so close to him. All he had to do was lean down ever so slightly and he could kiss her slightly parted lips.

Reach out and he would touch her.

What truly scared him was just how much he wanted to touch her. How much he wanted to press his body to hers and feel her soft curves against the hard male lines of his.

He couldn't remember ever wanting anything more.

Closing his eyes, he was seared with an image of the two of them naked. Of him placing her up on the counter in front of him so that he could screw her brains out. Of sliding in and out of her heat until he was too tired to stand.

Too sore to move.

He wanted to feel the warmth of her skin sliding against his. Her breath on his flesh.

Most of all, he wanted her scent on his skin. To know what it felt like to have a woman who didn't show fear or contempt of him.

In all these centuries, he'd never screwed a woman he hadn't paid for. Most of the time he hadn't even had that.

He'd been alone for so long...

"Where's this male friend of yours?" he asked, his voice strangely thick as he thought of her with another man. It hurt in a way it shouldn't.

Sasha came into the room to stare at them and bark.

"My friend died," Astrid said without hesitation.

Zarek arched a brow. "Died how?"

"Mmm, he had parvo."

"Isn't that a dog's disease?"

"Yes. It was tragic."

"Hey!" Sasha said to Astrid. "I resent that."

"Behave or I will give you parvo."

Zarek stepped away from her. "Do you miss him?"

She glanced in the direction of Sasha's bark. "No, not really. He was a bit of a pain."

"I'll show you pain, nymph. Just you wait."

Astrid bit back a smile. "So are you interested in the clothes?" she asked Zarek.

"Sure."

She led him to her room.

"You are so evil," Sasha snarled. "Just wait. I will get you back for this. You know that comforter you're so fond of? It's toast. And I wouldn't use my slippers again if I were you."

She ignored him.

Zarek didn't speak as she took him into her room, which was decorated in soft shades of pink. It was all feminine and soft. But it was the scent in the air that made him ache.

Roses and wood smoke.

It smelled like her.

That scent made him so hard and stiff, he hurt. His cock strained against his rough zipper, begging him to do something other than look at her.

Against his will, his gaze lingered on her bed. He could just imagine her lying there asleep. Her lips parted, her body relaxed and naked...

The pale pink covers wrapped around her bare limbs.

"Here you go."

He had to force himself to drag his gaze from the bed to the closet.

She stood back to give him access to the men's clothes that were folded neatly in a wicker laundry basket. "You can take whatever you want."

Now there was a loaded statement if he ever heard one. The only problem was that what he wanted most was definitely not in that basket.

So Zarek thanked her, then dug out a black sweater and gray turtleneck that shouldn't be too small for him. "I'll go change in my room," he said, wondering why he bothered. She didn't care if he left the room or not. It wasn't as if she could see him or anything.

At home he walked about half-naked most of the time.

But that wasn't civilized, was it?

Since when are you civilized?

Tonight, it appeared.

Sasha barked at him as he left the room, then the wolf ran into the room to bark at Astrid.

"Hush, Sasha," she said. "Or I'll make you go sleep in the garage."

Ignoring them, Zarek made his way to his room to put on the fresh clothes.

He shut the door and set the clothes aside as he stood there feeling very peculiar. It was just clothes she offered him. And shelter.

A bed.

Food.

He looked around the elegant, expensively furnished room. He felt lost here. Unsure of himself. Never in his life had he experienced anything like this.

He felt human in this place.

Most of all, he felt welcome. Something he didn't even feel around Sharon.

Like all the others he had known over the centuries, Sharon did what he paid her to do. Nothing more, nothing less. He always felt as if he were intruding any time he came near her.

Sharon was formal and cool, especially after he had ignored the pass she made at him. He always sensed there was a part of her that was scared of him. A part of her that would watch him, especially whenever her daughter was around-as if she expected him to go wild on them or something.

It had always insulted him, but then, he was so used to insults that he had shrugged it off.

But he didn't feel that with Astrid.

She treated him as if he were normal. Made it easy for him to forget the fact that he wasn't.

Zarek dressed quickly and went back to the den where Astrid sat sideways on the couch reading a book in braille. Sasha was resting on the couch at her feet. The wolf lifted its head and stared at him with what appeared to be hatred in its wolfish gray eyes.

Zarek, who had retrieved the paring knife from the kitchen, grabbed another piece of wood.

"So how did you end up with a wolf as a pet?" he asked, sitting in the chair nearest the fire so that he could toss the wood shavings into the hearth.

He didn't know why he talked to her. Normally, he wouldn't have bothered, and yet he found himself strangely curious about her life.

Astrid reached down to pet the wolf at her feet. "I'm not really sure. Much like you, I found him lying hurt and I brought him in and nursed him back to health. He's been with me ever since."

"I'm surprised he let you tame him."

She smiled at that. "I am, too. It wasn't easy to get him to trust me."

Zarek thought about that for a minute. " 'You must be very patient. First you will sit down at a little distance from me-like that-in the grass.' "

Astrid's mouth opened in shock as Zarek continued quoting one of her favorite passages. She couldn't have been more stunned had he thrown something at her. "You know The Little Prince?"

"I've read it a time or two."

More than that for him to be able to quote it so unerringly. Astrid leaned up again to touch Sasha so that she could look at Zarek.

He sat catty-corner from her while he whittled. The firelight played in his midnight eyes. The black sweater hugged his body, and though black whiskers covered his face, she was again struck by how handsome he was.

There was something almost relaxed about him as he worked. A poetic grace that warred with the hard cynical twist of his mouth. The deadly aura that enveloped him tighter than his black jeans.

"I love that book," she said quietly. "It's always been one of my favorites."

He didn't speak. He just sat there with his piece of wood held carefully in his hand as his long, tapered fingers moved gracefully over it. This was the first time the air around him didn't seem so dark. So dangerous.

She wouldn't call it peaceful exactly, but it wasn't as sinister as it had been before.

"Did you read it as a child?" she asked.

"No," he said quietly.

She cocked her head, watching him as he worked.

He paused, then turned to look at her with a frown.

Astrid let go of Sasha and sat back.

Zarek didn't move as he watched her and her pooch. There was something very strange here: every instinct he had told him so. He stared at Sasha.

If he didn't know better...

But why would a werewolf be in Alaska with a blind woman? The magnetic fields here would be hard on either an Arcadian or Katagari male who would have a difficult time maintaining a consistent form while the electrons in the air played havoc with their magic.

No, it wasn't probable.

And yet...

He glanced from them to the small anniversary clock on the mantel. It was almost four in the morning. For him it was still early, but not many humans kept his hours. "You always stay up this late, princess?"

"Sometimes."

"Don't you have a job you need to get up for?"

"No. I have family money. What about you, Prince Charming?"

Zarek's hand slipped at her words. Family money. She was even more loaded than he had suspected. "It must be nice not to have to work for a living."

Astrid heard the bitterness in his voice. "You don't like people who have money, do you?"

"I'm not prejudiced against anyone, princess. I hate everyone equally."

She had heard that about him. Heard from Artemis that he was coarse, unrefined, rude, and the most obnoxious jerk Artemis had ever known.

Coming from the Queen of Obnoxious, that was saying something.

"You didn't answer my question, Zarek. What do you do for a living?"

"This and that."

"This and that, huh? Are you a vagrant, then?"

"If I said yes, would you make me leave?"

Though his tone was level and emotionless, she sensed that he waited for her response. That there was a part of him that wanted her to throw him out.

A part of him that expected it.

"No, Zarek. I told you, you're welcome here."

Zarek stopped carving and stared at the fire, her words made him tremble unexpectedly. But it wasn't the flames he saw, it was her face. Her sweet voice resonated deep inside a heart he thought was long dead.

No one had ever welcomed him anywhere.

"I could kill you and no one would know."

"Are you going to kill me, Zarek?"

Zarek winced as memories tore through him. He saw himself walking among the bodies in his devastated village. The sight of them with their throats bleeding, their homes burning...

He was supposed to protect them.

Instead, he had killed them all.

And he didn't even know why. He didn't remember anything except the rage that had possessed him. The need he'd felt for blood and atonement.

"I hope not, princess," he whispered.

Getting up, he returned to his room and locked the door.

He only hoped she would do the same.

Hours later, Astrid listened to Zarek's heavy breathing as he slept fitfully. The house was quiet now, safe from his wrath. The air had lost its evil aura and everything seemed calm, peaceful-except, for the man, who seemed to be in the throes of a nightmare.

She was exhausted, but didn't feel like sleeping. She had too many questions on her mind.

How she wished she could talk to Acheron about Zarek and ask him what it was about the man that he thought worth saving. But Artemis had agreed to this trial only if Acheron stayed completely out of it and did nothing to sway the verdict. If Astrid tried to speak to Acheron, Artemis would end the test and kill Zarek immediately.

There had to be some other way to learn about her guest.

She looked at Sasha who was sleeping in wolf form on her bed. The two of them had known each other for centuries. He had been barely more than a pup when his patria had signed on to fight with the Egyptian goddess Bast against Artemis.

Once the war between the goddesses was over, Artemis had demanded a judging for all of those who had fought against her. Astrid's half-sister Lera had been sent in and she had found all of them guilty, except for Sasha who had been too young to be held accountable for following the leadership of the others.

His own pack had turned on him instantly, thinking he had betrayed them for absolution, even though he'd only been fourteen. In the Katagaria world, animal instincts and rules reigned supreme. The pack was always a unified whole and anyone who threatened the pack was slaughtered, even if it was one of their own.

They had almost killed him. But luckily, Astrid had found him and nursed him back to health, and though he truly hated the Olympian gods, he was usually tolerant, if not fond, of her.

He could leave her at any time, but he had nowhere else to go. The Arcadian Were-Hunters wanted him dead because he had once run with the Katagaria Slayers who had turned against the Olympian gods, and the Slayers wanted him dead because they thought he had betrayed his patria.

His life was precarious at best, even now.

Back then, he'd been feral and terrified of being ripped apart by his people.

So centuries ago, the two of them had formed an alliance that benefited them both. She had kept the others from killing him while he was a pup and he had helped her whenever she was without her eyesight.

Over time, they had become friends and now Sasha stayed out of loyalty to her.

His magical Katagari powers were far stronger than hers and he often used them at her request.

She considered that now.

The Katagaria could travel through time...

But only with limitations. No, she needed something guaranteed to have her back here before Zarek woke up.

At times like this, she wished she were a full goddess and not a nymph. The gods had powers that could...

She smiled as an idea struck.

"M'Adoc," she said softly, summoning one of the Oneroi. They were the gods of sleep who held dominion over Phantosis, the shadow realm between the conscious and subconscious.

The air around her flickered with invisible, powerful energy she could feel as the Oneroi appeared.

Standing close to seven feet tall, M'Adoc dwarfed her-something she knew from experience. Even though she couldn't see him right now, she knew exactly what he looked like. His long black hair would be so dark it barely reflected light and his eyes were so pale a blue they looked almost colorless and appeared to glow.

Like all of his kind, he was so handsome that for those who could see, it was hard to even look at him.

"Little cousin," he said, his voice electrifying and seductive and yet devoid of emotion-since emotions were banned from the Oneroi. "It's been a while. At least three or four hundred years."

She nodded. "I've been busy."

He reached out to touch her arm so that she would know where he was standing. "What do you need?"

"Do you know anything about the Dark-Hunter Zarek?" The Oneroi were often healers of the Dark-Hunters, both physically and mentally. Since Dark-Hunters were created from people who had been horribly wronged or violated, a Dream-Hunter was often assigned to newly created Dark-Hunters to help heal them mentally so that they could function in the world without hurting others.

Once the Dark-Hunter was well mentally, the Dream-Hunter would then follow them through time and help heal them physically whenever they were wounded. That was why Dark-Hunters felt an unearthly need to sleep whenever they were hurt.

Only in dreams were the Oneroi effective.

"I know of him."

She waited for an explanation, but when he didn't elaborate, she asked, "What do you know?"

"That he is so far beyond help that none of my kind will aid him."

She had never heard of such a thing before. "Never?"

"Sometimes a Skotos will go to him while he sleeps, but they only go so that they can take some of his fury for their own. It is so intense that none of them can stand it for long before they have to leave, too."

Astrid was stunned. The Skoti were barely more than demons. Brothers and sisters to the Oneroi, they preyed upon human emotion and used it so that they could feel emotions again. Left unchecked, the Skoti were extremely dangerous and could kill the person they "treated."

Instead of soothing Zarek, a visit from one would only escalate his madness.

"Why is he like this? What fuels his rage?"

"What does it matter?" M'Adoc asked. "I am told he has been marked for death."

"I promised Acheron that I would judge him first. He will only die if I say so."

"Then you should save yourself the trouble and order his death."

Why did everyone want Zarek to die? She couldn't understand such animosity toward him. No wonder the man acted the way he did.

Did anyone even like him?

Not once in all eternity had M'Adoc ever spoken so harshly about anyone. "This isn't like you."

She heard him take a deep breath as he tensed the hand on her shoulder. "A rabid dog cannot be saved, Astrid. It is best for everyone, including the dog, for it to be put down."

"Shadedom would be preferable to living? Are you insane?"

"In Zarek's case, it would be."

She was aghast. "If that were true, Acheron would be merciful to him and wouldn't have asked me to judge him."

"Acheron doesn't kill him because it would be too much like killing himself."

She thought about that for a minute. "What do you mean? I see nothing similar in them at all."

She had the impression M'Adoc was probing her mind with his. "They have a lot in common, Acheron and Zarek. Things that most people can't see or understand. I think Acheron feels that if Zarek can't be saved, then neither can he."

"Saved from what?"

"Himself. Both men have a tendency to choose their own pain. They just don't choose it wisely."

Astrid felt something odd on hearing those words. A tiny stabbing ache in her stomach. Something she hadn't felt in a long time. She actually hurt for both men.

Most of all, she hurt for Zarek.

"How do they choose their own pain?"

M'Adoc refused to elaborate. But then, he did that a lot. Dealing with the gods of sleep was only one step less frustrating than dealing with an oracle.

"M'Adoc, show me why Zarek has been abandoned by everyone."

"I don't think you want-"

"Show me," she insisted. She had to know, and deep down she suspected it didn't have as much to do with her job as she wanted to think. Her need to know felt more personal than professional.

His voice was totally emotionless. "It's against the rules."

"Whatever the repercussion, I will bear it. Now show me. Please."

M'Adoc had her sit on the bed.

Astrid lay back and allowed the Dream-Hunter to seduce her to sleep. There were several serums they could use to make someone drowsy or they could use mist from Wink, who was a minor sleep god.

The Oneroi as well as other gods of sleep had long used Wink and his mist to control humans.

No matter what method they chose, the effects of it were almost immediate to whomever they tended.

Astrid wasn't sure which method M'Adoc used on her, but no sooner had she closed her eyes than she found herself floating to the realm of Morpheus.

Here she had her eyesight even while she was judging. It was why she'd always loved to dream during her assignments.

M'Adoc appeared beside her. His masculine beauty was even more striking in this realm. "Are you sure about this?"

She nodded.

M'Adoc led her through a series of doors in the hall of Phantosis. Here a kallitechnis, or dream master, could move through anyone's dreams. They could go into the past, the future, or journey to realms beyond human understanding.

M'Adoc reached a door and paused. "He dreams of his past."

"I want to see it."

He hesitated as if debating with himself. Finally, he opened the door.

Astrid led the way in. She and M'Adoc stood back from the scene, far away from any who could see or sense them.

Not that they really needed to, but she wanted to make certain she didn't interfere with Zarek's dream.

People who were dreaming could only see the Oneroi or Skoti in their dreams when the sleep gods allowed them to. She wasn't sure if she, as a nymph, was invisible to Zarek or not.

She looked about in the dream.

What struck her most was how vivid everything was. Most people dreamed in sketchy details. But this, this was crystal clear and as real as the world she had left behind.

She saw three little boys gathered in an ancient Roman atrium.

Ranging in age from what appeared to be four to eight, they held sticks in their hands and were laughing and shouting. "Taste it, taste it, taste it."

A fourth boy around the age of twelve ran past her. His black hair and blue eyes were striking, and he bore a remarkable resemblance to the man she had seen through Sasha's eyes.

"Is that Zarek?"

M'Adoc shook his head. "That is his half-brother, Marius."

Marius ran to the others.

"He won't do it, Marius," another boy said before he struck whatever was on the ground with his stick.

Marius took the stick from his brother's hand and poked at the lump on the ground. "What's the matter, slave? You too good to eat scraps?"

Astrid gasped as she realized it was another child on the ground. One who was dressed in rags that they were trying to force to eat rotten cabbage. The boy was curled into a fetal position, covering his head to the point that he barely looked human.

The ones with sticks kept poking and hitting him. Kicking him when he didn't respond to their blows or insults.

"Who are all these boys?" she asked.

"Zarek's half-brothers." M'Adoc pointed them out. "Marius, you know. Marcus is the one dressed in blue with brown eyes. He is nine, I believe. Lucius is the baby, who just turned five and is dressed in red. The eight-year-old is Aesculus."

"Where is Zarek?"

"He's the one on the ground with his head covered."

She flinched, even though she had suspected as much. To be honest, she couldn't take her gaze off him. He still hadn't moved. No matter how hard they struck him, no matter what they said. He lay there like an unmovable rock.

"Why do they torture him?"

M'Adoc's eyes were sad, letting her know that he was siphoning some of Zarek's emotions as he watched the boys. "Because they can. Their father was Gaius Magnus. He ruled everyone, including his family, with a harsh fist. He was so evil that he killed their mother one night because she dared smile at another man."

Astrid was horrified by the news.

"Magnus used his slaves to help train his sons for cruelty. Zarek had the misfortune of being one of their whipping boys and, unlike the others, he wasn't lucky enough to die."

She could barely understand what M'Adoc was telling her. She had seen plenty of cruelty in her time, but never anything like this.

It was unimaginable that they would be allowed to treat him this way, especially since he was family.

"You said they are Zarek's half-brothers. How is it he is a slave when they are not? Was he related through their dead mother?"

"No. Their father brutally sired Zarek on one of their uncle's Greek slaves. When Zarek was born, his mother bribed one of the servants to take Zarek out and expose him so that he would die. The servant took pity on the infant, and instead of killing him, she made sure the baby went to his father."

Astrid looked back at the boy on the ground. "His father didn't want him, either." It was a statement of fact.

There was no doubt that no one in this place wanted the child.

"No. To him Zarek was tainted. Weaker. Zarek might have his blood in him, but he also bore the blood of a worthless slave. So Gaius turned Zarek over to his slaves, who took their hatred for his father out on him. Every time one of the slaves or servants was angry at Zarek's father or brothers, the boy suffered for it. He grew up as everyone's scapegoat."

She watched as Marius grabbed Zarek by the hair and pulled him up. Her breath caught in her throat as she saw the condition of his beautiful face. No older than ten himself, he was scarred so badly that he barely looked human.

"What's the matter, slave? Not hungry?"

Zarek didn't answer. He pulled at Marius's hand, trying to get away. But he didn't utter a single word of protest. It was as if he either knew better or was so accustomed to the abuse that he didn't bother.

"Let him go!"

She turned to see another boy close to Zarek's age. Like Zarek, he had black hair and blue eyes, and bore a strong resemblance to his brothers.

The newcomer rushed Marius and forced him to release Zarek. He twisted the older boy's hand behind his back.

"That is Valerius," M'Adoc supplied for her. "Another of Zarek's brothers."

"What is the matter with you, Marius?" Valerius demanded. "You shouldn't prey on those weaker. Look at him. He can barely stand."

Marius twisted free, then backhanded Valerius, knocking him to the ground. "You're worthless, Valerius. I can't believe you bear grandfather's name. You do nothing but dishonor him."

Marius sneered as if repulsed by the boy's presence. "You're weak. Cowardly. The world belongs only to those who are strong enough to take it. Yet you would pity those too weak to fight. I can't believe we came from the same womb."

The other boys attacked Valerius while Marius returned to Zarek.

"You're right, slave," he said, grabbing Zarek by his hair. "You're not worth cabbage. Dung is all you deserve for your food."

Marius threw him toward...

Astrid pulled out of the dream, unable to bear what she knew was going to happen.

Used to feeling nothing for other people, she was now overwhelmed by her emotions. She actually shook in fury and pain for him.

How could this have been allowed to happen?

How could Zarek have stood living the life he had been given?

In that moment, she hated her sisters for their part in his childhood.

But then, not even the Fates could control everything. She knew that. Still, it didn't ease the ache in her heart for a boy who should have been coddled.

A boy who had grown into an angry, bitter man.

Was it any wonder he was so harsh? How could anyone expect him to be otherwise when all he'd ever been shown was contempt?

"I warned you," M'Adoc said as he rejoined her. "That is why even the Skoti refuse to visit his dreams. All things considered, that is one of his milder memories."

"I don't understand how he survived," she whispered, trying to make sense of it. "Why didn't he kill himself?"

M'Adoc eyed her carefully. "Only Zarek can answer that."

He handed her a small vial.

Astrid stared at the dark red liquid that bore a strong resemblance to blood. Idios. It was a rare serum that was made by the Oneroi that could enable them or someone else, for a very short period of time, to become one with a dreamer.

It could be used in dreams to guide and direct, to allow one sleeper to experience another person's life so that he could better understand it.

Only three of the Oneroi possessed it. M'Adoc, M'Ordant, and D'Alerian. They most often used it with humans to dispense understanding and compassion.

One sip and she could become Zarek in his dreams. She would have total understanding of him.

She would be him.

And she would feel all of his emotions...

It was a huge step to take. Deep down she knew that if she took it, she would never be the same.

Then again, she might find there was nothing more to Zarek than rage and hatred. He might very well be the animal the others accused him of being.

One sip and she would know the truth...

Astrid removed the stopper and drank from the vial.

She didn't know what Zarek was dreaming about now, she only hoped he'd moved forward out of the dream she had just witnessed.

He had.

Zarek was now at the age of fourteen.

At first, Astrid thought her own blindness had returned until she realized that she was "seeing" through Zarek's eyes. Or eye, rather. The entire left side of her face hurt every time she tried to blink. A scar had fused the lid to his cheek, making the muscles in his face ache.

His right eye, while somewhat operable, had a strange haze over it similar to a cataract and it took her several minutes before his memories became hers and she understood what had happened.

He'd been beaten so badly two years before by a soldier in the marketplace that the lining of the cornea of his right eye had been severely damaged. His left eye had been blinded several years before that by another beating at the hands of his brother Valerius.

Zarek wasn't capable of seeing much more than shadows and blurs.

Not that he cared. At least this way, he didn't have to see his own reflection.

Nor was he bothered anymore by people's scornful looks.

Zarek shuffled across an old, crowded street in the marketplace. His right leg was stiff, barely able to bend from all the times it had been broken and not set.

Because of that, it was somewhat shorter than his left leg. His was a jarring gait that caused him to not move as swiftly as most people. His right arm was much the same way. He had little or no movement in it and his right hand was virtually useless.

In his good left hand, he clutched three quadrans. Coins that were worthless to most Romans, but they were precious to him.

Valerius had been angry at Marius and had slung Marius's purse out the window. Marius had forced another slave to pick the coins up, but three quadrans had gone uncollected. The only reason he had known about them was because they had hit him in the back.

Zarek should have surrendered the coins, but had he tried, Marius would have beaten him for it. The eldest of his brothers couldn't stand the sight of him and Zarek had learned long ago to stay as far from Marius as he could.

As for Valerius...

Zarek hated him most of all. Unlike the others, Valerius tried to help him but every time Valerius had attempted to do so, they had been caught and Zarek's punishment had escalated.

Like the rest of his family, he hated Valerius's tender heart. Better Valerius should spit on him as did the others. Because in the end, Valerius was forced to hurt him all the more to prove to everyone else that he wasn't weak.

Zarek, following the scent of baking bread, limped his way to the baker's stand. The scent was wonderful. Warm. Sweet. The thought of tasting a piece of it made his heart soar and his mouth water.

He heard people curse him as he drew near. Saw their shadows scurry away from him.

He didn't care. Zarek knew how repulsive he was. He'd been told so since the hour of his birth.

Had he ever been given a choice, he would have left himself, too. But as it was, he was stuck in this lame, scarred body.

He just wished he could go deaf as well as blind. Then he wouldn't have to hear their ringing insults.

Zarek approached what he thought might be a young man, standing over a basket of bread.

"Get away from here!" the young man snarled.

"Please, master," Zarek said, making sure to keep his blurry gaze on the ground. "I've come to buy a slice of bread."

"We have nothing for you, wretch."

Something hard hit him in the head.

Zarek was so accustomed to pain that he didn't even flinch. He tried to hand his coins to the man, but something hit his arm and knocked the precious coins from his grasp.

Desperate for a piece of bread that was fresh, Zarek fell to his knees to collect the money. His heart pounded. He squinted as best he could, trying to find them.

Please! He had to have his coins! No one would ever give him any more and there was no telling if or when Marius and Valerius would fight again.

He searched frantically through the dirt.

Where was his money?

Where?

He'd only found one of the coins when someone hit him across the back with what felt like a broom.

"Get out of here!" a woman snarled. "You're driving off our customers."

Too used to beatings to notice the broom strikes, Zarek searched for his other two coins.

Before he could find them, he was kicked hard in the ribs.

"Are you deaf?" a man asked. "Get out of here, you worthless beggar, or I'll call the soldiers."

That was one threat Zarek took seriously. His last encounter with a soldier had cost him his right eye. He didn't want to lose what little sight he had left.

His heart lurched as he remembered his mother and her scorn.

But more than that, he remembered the way his father had reacted once they had returned him home after the soldiers had finished beating him.

His father's punishment had made theirs seem merciful.

If he were discovered out in the city again, there was no telling what his father would do. He didn't have permission to be outside the grounds of their villa. Let alone the fact that he had three stolen coins.

Well, only one now.

Gripping his coin tightly, he ambled away from the baker as fast as his ravaged body would allow.

As he headed through the crowd, he felt something wet on his cheek. He brushed it away only to discover blood there.

Zarek sighed wearily as he felt his head until he found the wound above his brow. It wasn't too deep. Just enough to hurt.

Resigned to his place in life, he wiped at it.

All he wanted was fresh bread. Just one piece of it. Was that so much to ask?

He looked around, trying to use his blurry eyesight and nose to find another baker.

"Zarek?"

He panicked at the sound of Valerius's voice.

Zarek tried to run through the crowd, back toward their villa, but didn't get far before his brother caught him.

Valerius's strong grip held him immobile.

"What are you doing here?" he demanded, shaking Zarek's bad arm roughly. "Have you any idea what would happen to you if one of the others found you out here?"

Of course he did.

But Zarek was too frightened to answer. His entire body shook from the weight of his terror. All he could do was shield his face from the blows he was sure would start at any moment.

"Zarek," Valerius said, his voice thick with disgust. "Why can't you ever do as you're told? I swear you must enjoy being beaten. Why else would you do the things you do?"

Valerius grabbed him roughly by his damaged shoulder and shoved him toward their villa.

Zarek stumbled and fell.

His last coin rolled from his grasp and tumbled across the street.

"No!" Zarek gasped, crawling after it.

Valerius caught him and hauled him to his feet. "What is wrong with you?"

Zarek watched a blurry child scoop up his coin and run off with it. His stomach clenched from hunger pains; he was completely defeated.

"I just wanted a slice of bread," he said, his heart broken, his lips quivering.

"You have bread at home."

No. Valerius and his brothers had bread. Zarek was fed the scraps that not even the other slaves or dogs would eat.

Just once in his life, he wanted to eat something that was fresh and untasted by someone else.

Something that no one had spat into.

"What is this?"

Zarek cringed at the booming voice that always went through him like shattered glass. He shrank back, trying to make himself invisible to the commander who sat on horseback, knowing it was impossible.

The man saw everything.

Valerius looked as panicked as Zarek felt. As always when addressing his father, the youth stuttered. "I-I-I w-was..."

"What is that slave doing here?"

Zarek took a step back as Valerius's eyes widened and he gulped. It was obvious Valerius was searching for a lie.

"W-w-we were going to the m-m-market," Valerius said quickly.

"You and the slave?" the commander asked incredulously. "For what? Were you hoping to buy a new whip to beat him with?"

Zarek prayed for Valerius not to lie. It was always worse on him when Valerius lied to protect him.

If only he dared to speak the truth, but he had learned long ago that slaves never spoke to their betters.

And he, more than the others, was never allowed to address his father.

"W-w-well... I..."

His father growled a curse and kicked Valerius in the face. The force of the blow knocked Valerius down where he lay beside Zarek with his nose pouring blood.

"I am sick of the way you coddle him." His father dismounted his horse and stormed toward Zarek, who fell to his knees and covered his head, waiting for the beating that was to come.

His father kicked him in his still-sore ribs. "Get up, dog."

Zarek couldn't breathe from the pain in his side and the terror that consumed him.

His father kicked him again. "Up, damn you."

Zarek forced himself to stand even though all he wanted to do was run. But he'd learned long ago not to. Running only made the punishment worse.

So he stood there, braced for the blows.

His father grabbed him by the neck, then turned to Valerius, who was now on his feet as well. He grabbed Valerius by his clothes and snarled at him. "You disgust me. Your mother was such a whore that it makes me wonder what coward fathered you. I know you didn't come from me."

Zarek saw pain flash in Valerius's eyes, but he quickly masked it. It was a common lie their father uttered whenever he was angry at Valerius. One had only to look at the two of them to know Valerius was as much his son as Zarek was.

His father slung Valerius away from him and hauled Zarek by his hair toward a stall.

Zarek wanted to place his own hand over his father's to keep his hold from hurting so badly, but didn't dare.

His father couldn't stand for him to touch him.

"You're a slaver?" his father asked.

An older man stood before them. "Yes, my lord. Can I interest you in a slave today?"

"No. I want to sell you one."

Zarek gaped as he understood what was happening. The thought of leaving his home terrified him. As bad as things were, he had heard enough stories from other slaves to know that life could get significantly worse for him.

The old slaver looked at Valerius gleefully.

Valerius stepped back, his face pale.

"He's a handsome boy, my lord. I can get a pretty fee for him."

"Not him," the commander snarled. "This one."

He shoved Zarek toward the slaver who curled his lip in disgust. The man covered his nose. "Is this a jest?"

"No."

"Father-"

"Hold your tongue, Valerius, or I'll take him up on his offer for you."

Valerius passed a sympathetic look to Zarek, but wisely stayed silent.

The slaver shook his head. "This one is worthless. What did you use him for?"

"A whipping boy."

"He's too old for that now. My clients want younger, attractive children. This wretch is fit for nothing except begging."

"Take him and I'll give you two denarii."

Zarek gaped at his father's words. He was paying a slaver to take him? Such a thing was unheard of.

"I'll take him for four."

"Three."

The slaver nodded. "For three, then."

Zarek couldn't breathe as their words resonated inside him. He was so worthless that his father had been forced to pay to be rid of him? Even the cheapest of slaves was still worth two thousand denarii.

But not him.

He was every bit as worthless as everyone claimed.

No wonder they all hated him.

He watched as his father paid the man. Without another look at him, his father grabbed Valerius by the arm and hauled him away.

A younger version of the slaver came into his blurry sight and expelled a repulsed breath. "What are we to do with him, Father?"

The slaver tested the coins with his teeth. "Send him in to clean out the cesspit for the other slaves. If he dies of disease, who cares? Better he clean it than someone we could actually sell for profit."

The younger man smiled at that.

Using a stick, he prodded Zarek toward the stalls. "Come on, rat. Let me show you to your new duties."

Astrid came awake from the dream with her heart pounding. She lay in her bed, surrounded by the darkness she was used to, as Zarek's pain washed over her.

She'd never felt such despair. Such need.

Such loathing.

Zarek hated everyone, but most of all, he hated himself.

No wonder the man was insane. How could he have lived with such misery?

"M'Adoc?" she whispered.

"Here." He sat beside her.

"Leave some more of the serum for me and Lotus serum, as well."

"Are you sure?"

"Yes."




Line : 989

Most Popular

readonlinefreebook.com Copyright 2016 - 2020