Dance With the Devil
Zarek woke up just after noon. He very seldom slept through the day. It was more like napping. In the summertime it was too hot in his cabin for him to sleep comfortably and in winter it was too cold.
But mostly it was because his dreams never allowed him to sleep for long. The past haunted him too much to give him peace, and while unconscious, he couldn't keep those memories away.
But as he opened his eyes and heard the wind rushing outside, he remembered where he was.
He'd sealed the curtains tight last night so he couldn't tell if it was still snowing outside or not. Not that it mattered. During daylight, he was trapped here.
Trapped with her.
He got out of bed and walked down the hallway, toward the kitchen. How he wished he were at home. He really needed a substantial drink. Not that the vodka could really chase away the dreams that lingered in his mind. But the burn of it was a bit distracting.
He turned at the soft voice that went down him like a silken caress. His body reacted instantly to it.
All he had to do was think her name and it made him rock-hard and needful.
"What?" He didn't know why he answered her when he normally wouldn't have.
"Are you all right?"
He snorted at that. He'd never once in his life been all right. "Do you have anything to drink in this place?"
"I have juice and tea."
"Liquor, princess. Do you have anything in this place with a bite to it?"
"Only Sasha and of course, you."
Zarek glanced down at the vicious cuts on his arm where her pet had attacked him. If he were any other Dark-Hunter those wounds would be gone now. But lucky him, they would be here for a few days more.
Just like the hole in his back.
Sighing, he reached inside the fridge and pulled out her orange juice. He opened the top and almost had the container to his lips before he remembered that it wasn't his and this wasn't his place.
The vicious side of him told him to go for it and drink it, she'd never know, but he didn't listen to that voice.
He went to the cabinet and pulled out a glass, then poured it full.
Astrid could only hear faint tell-tale signs that Zarek was still in the kitchen. He was so quiet that she had to strain just to make sure.
Walking forward, she headed for the sink. "Are you hungry?"
Out of habit, she reached out-and brushed her hand against a hot, naked hip.
It was smooth, inviting.
Stunned by the unexpected sensation of her hand on his bare flesh, she lowered her hand down his leg before she realized Zarek didn't have any clothes on.
The man was fully naked in her kitchen.
Her heart hammered.
He moved away from her. "Don't touch me."
She shivered at the anger in his voice. "Where are your clothes?"
"I don't sleep in jeans."
Her hand burned with the memory of his skin under her fingers. "Well, you should have put them on before you came out here."
"Why? You're blind. It's not like you could see me."
True, but if Sasha were awake, he'd been having a fit over this.
"I don't need you to remind me of my shortcomings, Prince Charming. Believe me, I'm well aware of the fact that I can't see you."
"Yeah, well, count your blessings."
"Because I'm not worth looking at."
Her jaw went slack at the sincerity she heard in his voice. The man she had seen through Sasha's eyes had been more than worth looking at. He'd been gorgeous.
As handsome as any man she'd ever seen.
Then she remembered his dream. The way other people had once looked at him.
In his mind, he was still the wounded wretch that other people had beaten and cursed.
And that made her want to cry for him.
"I somehow doubt it," she whispered past the tight lump in her throat.
She heard him walk angrily past her, down the hallway. He slammed his door shut.
Astrid stood in her kitchen, debating what to do.
He was so lost.
She understood that now.
No, she corrected herself. She didn't really understand him at all. How could she?
No one had ever dared treat her the way he'd been treated. Her mother and sisters would have killed anyone who dared look down their noses at her. They'd always protected her from the world, even while she struggled to get away from them.
Zarek had never known a loving touch.
Never known the warmth of a family.
He'd always been alone in a way she couldn't even begin to fathom.
Overwhelmed by her newfound emotions, she wasn't sure what she should do. But she wanted to help him.
She went down the hallway only to discover he'd locked his door. "Zarek?"
He refused to answer her again.
Sighing, she pressed her head against the door and wondered if there was any way she could ever reach him.
Any way to save a man who didn't want to be saved.
Thanatos was furious at the order from Artemis.
"Stand down, my ass." He had no intention of standing down. For nine hundred years he had been waiting for this directive.
Waiting for a chance to level the score against Zarek of Moesia.
No one and most especially not Artemis would stand in his way now.
He would have Zarek or he would die trying.
Thanatos smiled at that. Artemis didn't have as much power as she thought. In the end, it would be his will that won the day.
She was nothing to him. Nothing but a means to an end he was determined to claim.
Vengeance would finally be his.
Thanatos pounded on the door of the remote cabin. On the other side of the door, he could hear low, panicked voices-Apollites rushing to hide their women and children.
Apollites who lived in fear of anyone who came seeking them.
"I am the light of the lyre," Thanatos said, speaking words only an Apollite or Daimon would know. Words that were used whenever a Daimon or Apollite sought another of his or her kind for shelter. The phrase was a reference to their kinship to Apollo, the god of the sun, who had cursed and abandoned them.
"How is it you walk in the daylight?" It was a woman's voice. One filled with fear.
"I'm the Dayslayer. Open the door."
"How do we know that?" This time it was a man who spoke.
Thanatos growled low in his throat.
Why did he want to help these people?
They were worthless.
But then he knew. Once, long ago, he'd been one of them. He too would have been hiding, afraid of the Squires and Dark-Hunters. Afraid of the pitiful humans who came for them in the light of day...
How he hated them all.
"I am going to open this door," Thanatos warned them. "The only reason I knocked was so that you could unlock it and then get out of the way of the daylight before I enter. Now either unlock it or I'll kick it down."
He heard the lock click.
Taking a deep, calming breath, he pushed the door open slowly.
As soon as he stepped inside and closed the door, a shovel came at his head.
Thanatos grabbed it and jerked hard, pulling a woman out of the shadows.
"I won't let you hurt my children!"
He took the shovel from her and gave her a peeved glare. "Trust me, if I wanted to hurt them, you couldn't stop me. No one could. But I'm not here for that. I'm here to kill the Dark-Hunter who hunts your kindred."
Relief washed over her beautiful face as she looked up at him as if he were an angel.
"Then you really are the Dayslayer." The voice was masculine.
Thanatos turned his head to see a Daimon male leave the shadows. The Daimon looked no older than his early twenties. Like all of his breed, the Daimon was a paragon of physical perfection. Beautiful in his youthfulness and physical bearing, his long blond hair was braided down his back. His right cheek was marked with three blood-red tears that had been tattooed there.
Thanatos knew his breed instantly.
The Daimon was one of the rare Spathi warriors Thanatos had come seeking.
"Are the tears for your children?"
The Daimon gave a curt nod. "Each was slain by a Dark-Hunter. And I in turn slew the Hunter."
Thanatos ached for the man. The Apollites had no real choice and yet they were punished because they dared to choose life over death. He wondered what the humans and Dark-Hunters would do if they were told they had one of two choices: die painfully in the midst of their youth, or take human souls and live.
As a mere Apollite, Thanatos had been prepared to die.
Just like his wife...
Zarek had taken even that option away from his family.
Insane, the Dark-Hunter had come through his village, laying waste to everyone in it. The men had barely been able to hide the women and children before Zarek had destroyed them all.
No one who had come into Zarek's path had remained alive.
Zarek had killed Apollite and Daimon indiscriminately. And for that crime his only punishment had been banishment.
Rage suffused him. How dare Zarek remain living in comfort all these centuries while the memory of that night festered eternally in Thanatos's heart.
But he forced that hatred aside. This was no time to let his anger rule him. It was the time to be as cold and calculating as his enemy.
"How old are you, Daimon?" Thanatos asked the Spathi.
Thanatos arched a brow. "You've done well."
"Yes, I have. I grew tired of hiding."
He knew the feeling. There was nothing worse than being forced to live in the dark. Living life confined.
"Have no fear. No Dark-Hunter will be after you. I'm here to make sure of it."
The man smiled. "We thought you were a myth."
"All good myths are rooted in reality and truth. Didn't your mother teach you that?"
The Spathi's eyes turned dark, haunted. "I was only three when she turned twenty-seven. She didn't have time to teach me anything at all."
Thanatos placed a comforting hand on the man's shoulder. "We will take this planet back, my brother. Rest assured, our day has come once more. I will summon the others of your kind and we will unite our armies. The humans have no one who can protect them now."
"What of the Dark-Hunters?" the woman asked.
Thanatos smiled. "They are bound to the night. I'm not. I can stalk them whenever I choose it." He laughed. "I am immune to their wounds. I am Death to them all and I am now home again with my people. Together, we will rule this earth and all who inhabit it."
Zarek woke up to the smell of heaven. He would have thought he was dreaming, but his dreams were never so pleasant
Lying in bed, he was afraid to move. Afraid the delicious aroma would prove to be a figment of his imagination.
His stomach rumbled.
He heard the wolf bark.
"Hush, Sasha. You'll wake our guest."
Zarek opened his eyes then. Guest. No one but Astrid had ever called him that before.
His thoughts turned to the week he'd spent in New Orleans.
"Am I staying with you and Kyrian or Nick?"
"We thought it best that you have your own place."
Acheron's words had kicked something inside him he didn't even know he had anymore.
No one had ever wanted him near them.
He thought he'd learned to not care.
And yet Astrid's simple words touched the same foreign part of him that Acheron's had.
Getting out of bed, he dressed, then went to find her.
Zarek stood in the doorway, watching her as she made pancakes in the microwave. She was amazingly self-sufficient given her blindness.
The wolf looked at him and growled.
Astrid cocked her head as if listening to see if she could hear him. "Zarek? Are you in the room?"
"Doorway." He didn't know why he told her that. He didn't know why he was still here.
Granted, the storm was still ferocious, but he'd journeyed through many such storms during the centuries when he had lived up here without modern conveniences. There was a time not that long ago when he would have had to scrounge for food in the dead of winter. Melt snow so that he would have something to drink.
"I've made pancakes. I don't know if you like them, but I have blueberry and maple syrup or fresh strawberries if you'd rather."
He went to the counter and reached for a plate.
"Sit, I'll bring it to you."
"No, princess," he said sharply. Having been forced to serve others, he refused to have anyone serve him. "I can fix it myself."
She held her hands up in surrender. "Fine, Prince Charming. If there's anything I can respect, it's those who take care of themselves."
"Why do you keep calling me that? Are you mocking me?"
She shrugged. "You call me 'princess,' I call you 'Prince Charming.' I figure turnabout is fair play."
Giving her a grudging amount of respect, he reached for the bacon that was lying on a saucer by the stove. "How do you fry this when you can't see it?"
"The microwave. I just push the timer for it."
The wolf came over and started sniffing at his leg. It looked up at him as if it were offended and started barking at him.
"Shut up, Benji," he snarled. "I don't want to hear about my hygiene from someone who licks his own balls."
"Zarek!" Astrid gasped. "I can't believe you just said that."
He clenched his teeth. Fine, he wouldn't speak anymore. Silence was what he was best at anyway.
The wolf whined and yapped.
"Shh," she soothed. "If he doesn't want to bathe, it's none of our business."
His appetite gone, Zarek set his plate on the table and returned to his room where he couldn't offend them anymore.
Astrid felt her way to the table, expecting to find Zarek there. All she found was his plate of uneaten food.
"What happened?" she asked Sasha.
"If he had feelings, I would say you hurt them. Like as not, he went back to the room to find a weapon so he can kill us."
"Sasha! Tell me what happened just now."
"Okay, he put the plate down and left."
"What did he look like?"
"Nothing. He didn't show any kind of emotion."
That didn't help her at all.
She went after Zarek.
"Go away," he snapped after she knocked on his door and pushed it open.
Astrid stood in the doorway, wishing she could see him. "What do you want, Zarek?"
"I..." his voice trailed off.
Zarek couldn't speak the truth. He wanted to be warm. Just once in his life, he wanted warmth. Not just physical but mental warmth.
"I want to leave."
She sighed at his words. "You'll die if you go out there."
"So what if I do?"
"Does your life truly have no value or meaning to you?"
"No, it doesn't."
"Then why haven't you killed yourself?"
He snorted at that. "Why should I? The only enjoyment I have in my life is knowing I piss off everyone around me. If I were dead, it would make them all happy. God forbid I should ever do that."
To his surprise, she laughed. "I wish I could see your face to know if you were joking or not."
"Trust me, I'm not."
"Then I'm sorry for you. I wish you had something that made you happy."
Zarek looked away from her. Happy. He didn't even understand that word. It was as alien to him as kindness. Compassion.
Now there was a word that never entered his vocabulary. He couldn't imagine what others must feel.
For love, Talon had almost died so that Sunshine could live. For love, Sunshine had bartered her soul to free Talon.
All he knew was hatred, anger. It was the only thing that kept him warm. The only thing that kept him living.
So long as he hated, he had a reason to live.
"Why do you want to live here in this cabin alone?"
She shrugged. "I like having my own place. My family visits me often, but I'd rather be alone."
"Because I hate to be babied. My mother and sisters act as if I'm helpless. They want to do everything for me."
Astrid waited for him to say something more.
"Would you like to take a bath?" she asked after a brief wait.
"Do I bother you?"
She shook her head. "Not at all. It's entirely up to you."
Zarek had never really had to be concerned with things such as bathing. When he was a slave, no one cared whether or not he was clean, and in truth he'd stayed dirty so that no one would want to approach him any more than was necessary.
As a Dark-Hunter, he'd been completely alone even before his banishment to Alaska. And once here it had been so difficult to do anything as simple as bathe that he had all but forsaken it.
It had only been after Fairbanks had started being settled that he had bought a large tub that he used only when he knew he was going into town.
His brief stay in New Orleans had been a treasured delight of running hot and cold water and showers that could last for an entire hour before the water turned cold on him.
Had Astrid ordered him to bathe, he wouldn't have considered it. Because she had offered him a choice, he headed for the bathroom.
"The towels are in the hall closet."
Zarek paused at the closet right outside the bathroom and opened the door. Like everything in the house, it was well kept. All the towels were folded up neatly. Hell, they were even color coordinated to match the rest of the house.
He grabbed a large fluffy green one and went to bathe.
Astrid heard the water come on. She took a deep, fortifying breath.
Strange, until Sasha had mentioned it, she hadn't realized Zarek hadn't had a bath. He hadn't smelled or anything and he washed his hands so much that she just assumed the rest of him was clean, too.
She returned to the kitchen to find Sasha eating Zarek's pancakes.
"What are you doing?"
"He didn't want them. They were getting cold."
"What? It's not nice to waste food."
She shook her head at the wolf as she moved to make another batch for Zarek. Maybe he would be more sociable when he left the shower.
He wasn't. If anything he was even surlier as he gulped down the pancakes.
"He's disgusting," Sasha said to her. "He eats like an animal. Be thankful you're blind."
"Sasha, lay off the man."
"Lay off, my ass. He uses his fork like a shovel and I swear he shoved one entire pancake in his mouth at once."
Astrid would have been disgusted had she not been in his dreams. No one had ever taught him even the most basic form of manners. He had been relegated to a corner on the floor just like the animal Sasha called him.
In his human life, food had been scarce. And on the heels of that thought came another startling realization. Food when he was a Dark-Hunter would have been scarce, as well.
Unlike the others of his kind, Zarek didn't have a Squire to plant and grow his food in the daytime. To tend animals and make his meals. For centuries, he'd lived in Alaska's harsh climate where winter sources of food were seriously limited.
She felt suddenly sick at the thought. No doubt he would have starved to death as a human.
Dark-Hunters couldn't die of malnutrition. But they could suffer from it every bit as much as a human being.
She made another plate of pancakes for him.
"What's this?" he asked as she set it down near him.
"In case you're still hungry."
He didn't say anything, but she listened to him slide the plate across the table an instant before she heard him snap open the lid on the syrup.
"I can't stand watching him make pancake soup with the syrup again," Sasha said. "I'll be in the den if you need me."
Astrid ignored him as she listened to Zarek eating. How she wished she could see him.
"No you don't," Sasha said.
She had a feeling Sasha was overreacting. She knew the wolf well enough to know Zarek could have impeccable manners and Sasha would complain.
After Zarek finished eating, he got up from the table and rinsed his plate off.
No, he wasn't a pig. He was a lonely, hurt man who didn't know how to cope in a world that had turned its back on him.
She saw in him what Acheron did and her respect for the Atlantean grew immensely to realize that he could see what no one else did.
Now she just had to find some way to save Zarek from a goddess who was through with him.
If she didn't, Artemis would order him dead.
She listened to him tear a paper towel off the rack.
"I heard on the news that it's still storming. They have no idea when the storm will break. They said it was the worst snowstorm in centuries."
Zarek let out a long tired breath. "I have to leave tonight."
"I have no choice."
"We all have choices."
"No we don't, princess. Only people with money and influence have choices. For the rest of us, basic necessity dictates what we have to do to survive." He crossed the floor. "I have to go."
Astrid panicked. Since he was a Dark-Hunter he really could leave. Unlike the humans she'd judged, Zarek's life wouldn't be endangered if he left the cabin tonight. It would be cold and harsh, but he was used to that.
What was she going to do?
If she followed him, he would figure out very quickly that she was immortal, too.
For a second she considered calling on her sisters, then stopped herself. If she did that, they'd never let her forget it. She needed to handle this alone.
But what would keep him here when he was so determined to leave?
She turned toward the door and knocked over something on the counter. Picking it up, she felt a small bottle of spice that reminded her of the serums M'Adoc had given her.
A large enough dose of Lotus serum would keep Zarek unconscious for a few days...
But then he would be trapped in his nightmares with no way to wake up.
Such a thing could cause him to go insane.
Or she could direct his dreams like a Skoti might.
Dare she try it?
Before she could reconsider, she went to her room to get the bottle she had hidden in her nightstand.
Now she just had to find some way to get the serum into Zarek.