Talon took her back to the cabin, but he didn't speak to her. He wasn't sure what to say.
She didn't seem to mind the fact that he'd bitten her, which was a very good thing.
But he couldn't get it out of his mind.
It would haunt him forever.
Sunshine went to the bathroom to freshen up while he turned on his desk lamp.
A few seconds later, someone knocked on the door.
Talon pulled his srad from his boot. Visitors didn't come often to his house.
"Who is it?"
"It's Ash, Celt. Don't have a coronary."
"Is it Acheron or Styxx?"
"It's T-Rex and I'm not wearing sunglasses."
Prepared for a trick, Talon opened the door carefully. It really was "old spooky eyes" and he didn't look pleased.
"What are you doing here?" Talon asked.
"Fighting Daimons. What about you?"
He caught the sarcasm and the condemnation in Ash's voice. "There were Daimons here? Where?"
"They attacked the Katagaria den and I went to help Vane and Fang."
Talon winced at the news. He should have been here to help fight. Damn, he'd screwed up royally. "Are they okay?"
"No. Their sister and her pups were killed in the fighting."
Talon's heart clenched at the news. That was one pain he knew all too well. The brothers would be devastated over her loss. "Man, I'm sorry."
"So, where were you?"
Before he could answer, Ash answered for him. "Wait, I know this one. You were at Sanctuary showing off your powers to a busload of Japanese tourists who were armed with digital cameras and camcorders. Congratulations, bud, we just went global."
Talon covered his face with his hand. "Oh jeez, are you serious?"
"Do I look like I'm kidding?"
No, he looked really pissed off.
"I can't believe this," Talon said.
"You? You can't believe this? I'm the one who has to go to Artemis to save your ass. She was freaking out over Zarek, now how the hell do I explain to her that Mr. Cool-Calm-and-Collected was doing his impression of Spider-Man in a bar loaded with tourists and ended up as the main feature on Tokyo news as what's wrong with American culture?
"Question. How many rules did you break in less than a minute?
"Worst of all, I now have Nick calling me up, wanting to know why he has to keep everything secret while you guys are running around exposing yourselves at random. The little prick even wants a raise because he can keep a secret while none of you can."
"I can explain."
"Okay, I'm waiting."
Talon tried to come up with a reason for what he'd done.
There wasn't one.
"Okay, I can't explain. Give me a minute."
Ash narrowed his eyes. "I'm still waiting."
"I'm thinking about it."
Sunshine came out of the bathroom, then blanched as soon as she saw Acheron. She grabbed one of Talon's staves from the wall and went after him.
Acheron caught it in his hand as she swung it for his head. "Hey!"
Sunshine turned to Talon. "He's the one who kidnapped me!"
"I did not," Acheron said huffily as he tugged the staff from her grip.
"This is my boss, Sunshine. Acheron."
She formed a small O with her mouth. "Vane said you two looked alike. He wasn't kidding. Although now that I'm a bit calmer, you don't really look like him that much. He was scary, but you... you're really scary."
"If I had more time, I'd feel complimented." He handed the staff to Talon. "Outside, Celt, so we can finish our talk."
Talon didn't like being ordered about, but in this case he had no choice.
He had truly messed up and Ash had a right to vent.
Talon had put all of them in a very bad situation.
He went outside to stand on the dock where Ash was waiting with his hands on his hips.
Ash's face was mottled by fury. "You know, I've had a really wonderful night tonight. I got to tell Kyrian and Julian that Valerius is in town and spent, oh I don't know, three, four hours trying to keep them from going after the Roman. Then, just when I could relax and do my job, I find out there are Daimons in the swamp and no Talon to kill them. And why wasn't Talon here? Because Tarzan was swinging off a balcony to save Jane from Cheetah.
"Now all I can do is stand here and say, next fiasco, please, right this way."
Talon glared at him. "You don't have to be so sarcastic. I know I screwed up, okay?"
"No, screwed up is getting caught without your pants in Sunshine's apartment. This is a little bigger than just screwing up."
"I'm not going to apologize for what I did."
A tic beat in his jaw as Ash glanced away. "There are a lot of things that are still up in the air about tomorrow night. A lot of unknown factors. What we do know isn't good.
"I have Julian and Kyrian, who want to put Val in a pine box. Val, who doesn't want to lift a finger to help anyone not descended from the Romans. Two pissed-off wolves who are going to want revenge over what happened tonight. Zarek, who is mental on his best day, and who is currently wanted by New Orleans' finest. Nick screaming that he's quitting because he's tired of cleaning up after psychos. An angry goddess who is going to want everyone's head over this. And the only Hunter I have who is reliable is you."
Ash paused and gave him a stern glare. "And buddy, no offense, but you haven't been reliable in days."
"I'm okay, T-Rex."
"No, Talon, you're not. You were swinging from the rafters and punching out innocent humans because of Sunshine. You risked not only yourself, but all of us and the Peltiers just to protect one woman from hurt feelings. Where was your head?"
Anger tore through him. "I'm not a child, Ash. I know how to prioritize."
"Normally, you do. But you're thinking with your heart, not your head, and that will get us all killed. We're Dark-Hunters, Talon, we don't feel."
Any other time, he would agree with that, but at the moment Talon was feeling a whole lot of frustrated rage. He didn't need this lecture. He knew the risks and the dangers even better than Ash did. He more than understood everything at stake.
"I've got it under control."
"Do you?" Ash asked. "Because from where I'm standing, you don't. You have directly disobeyed me when I told you to keep Sunshine here. You have made pacts with the Katagaria and with Eros, and that's not your place. You don't make those kinds of obligations, Talon. Have you any idea how that can play out?"
"I had to do it. I have to protect my wife. I don't care what it costs."
"Your wife?" Ash shook his head. "Talon, look at me."
Ash stared at him intently, his gaze cold and unfeeling. "Your wife is dead. She died fifteen hundred years ago and was buried in your homeland. Sunshine isn't Nynia."
Talon roared with his anger and pain. It wasn't true. Sunshine was his wife. He felt it. He knew it. She was all that mattered to him.
All that mattered.
Before he could think twice, he attacked Acheron. He caught the Atlantean's throat between his hands and shook him, trying to make him understand.
"She's not dead!" he snarled. "Damn you, she's not dead."
Ash broke his hold and used his powers to immobilize him.
Talon hissed and snarled as he tried to break free, but it was useless.
And in that moment, he realized just how far gone he really was.
I've attacked Acheron.
The thought sobered him. Ash was right. If he didn't calm down and get a hold of himself, he could get them all killed.
All of them.
Ash took a deep breath and released him. "Talon, you have a decision to make. Dark-Hunters don't have wives. We don't have families. At the end of the day, we have no one but ourselves. Our responsibility, our only responsibility, is to the humans who can't protect themselves from the Daimons. You've got to get your head straight."
"I know." Talon breathed raggedly.
Ash nodded. Then his eyes turned a strange, deep silver.
"Tell me what you want to do. Do you want me to petition Artemis for your soul?"
Talon thought about it. Right now, he stood on a precipice that he had never thought to face. Not once in his entire Dark-Hunter existence had he ever dared to dream Nynia would be back.
That she would...
He closed his eyes and winced.
Nynia wasn't back. Acheron was right.
Nynia was dead.
The woman in his cabin right now wasn't his wife.
She was Sunshine. A vibrant, caring woman who had fire and spunk.
She might have his wife's soul, but she was someone else. Someone he didn't want to live without.
Someone he didn't dare keep.
He felt as if his heart were being shredded. Sunshine was human. In time, she could forget him and have another life. Someone else to love.
The thought pierced him, but he had to do this.
Either way, he would lose her. At least this way, she stood a chance for happiness that wouldn't kill her.
"No," Talon said quietly. "I don't want to reclaim my soul knowing that I'll lose Sunshine to Camulus's wrath. I don't want my freedom at that cost."
He nodded, then shook his head no. "Honestly, T-Rex, I'm not sure about anything anymore." He looked at him. "Have you ever loved anyone?"
Acheron met his gaze stoically, and didn't respond to the question. "You know, the thing about life and love is that they are both ever-changing while people seldom are. If you know this woman and you really love her, isn't it worth the chance for freedom to have her?"
"But if I lose her..."
"That is an if, Celt. It seems to me the only certainty is if you don't at least try, then you will definitely lose her."
"But if I let her go, she'll at least be alive."
"The way you've lived since the day Nynia died?"
"That's not fair."
"I'm not paid to be fair. I'm paid to kick Daimon ass." Acheron let out a tired sigh. "You know, I met a wise man centuries ago in China who said to me, 'He who lets fear rule him, has fear for a master.' "
"No, Minh-Quan. He was a fisherman who used to sell what I'm told was the best zong zi ever made."
Talon scowled at the unexpected comment. That was the thing about Acheron, you never really knew what you were going to get out of him.
"You're a strange man, Acheron Parthenopaeus. Tell me, what you would do if you were me?"
Acheron folded his arms over his chest. "I would never presume to be anyone other than myself, Talon. I'm not the one who has to bear the consequences of your actions. That's for you, alone, to do."
Talon sighed. "Is it possible to fight a god and win?"
His eyes turned dull. Talon watched him curiously. There was something in Acheron's past that his question brushed on. Something deep and dark, judging by the look on Acheron's face.
"Celtic and Greek gods are very much like people. They make mistakes. And those mistakes are what will either make us or break us in the end."
"You're sounding like an Oracle now."
"Scary, isn't it?"
"Not scary, just irritating." Talon started away from him.
He stopped and turned back to face Acheron. "To answer your question. Yes, you can win battles with a god. But it's much easier to negotiate." Acheron's tone told him that he spoke with the voice of experience.
"How do you negotiate with a god who wants you to suffer for all of eternity?"
"Very carefully, little brother. Very carefully." Acheron glanced away, into the swamp. "You know, I think you may be losing sight of something really important."
"And that is?"
"Very few of us are ever given a second chance to reclaim what we've lost. If Nynia came back to you, maybe there's a reason for it."
Acheron unfolded his arms. "You have my number, Celt. If you change your mind about the petition, let me know. But you need to make your decision fast. I need your mind clear by tomorrow night."
"Why are you giving me a choice when you didn't give Kyrian one? You petitioned Artemis and gave his soul to Amanda without his knowing it."
Acheron shrugged. "Kyrian didn't have a choice to make. Without a soul, Desiderius would have killed him. Your life isn't in danger if you don't get your soul back, Talon. Just your heart is. And as you well know, you can live without your heart. But do you really want to?"
There were times when he seriously wished Acheron was the twenty-one-year-old snot-nosed kid he appeared to be, and not an eleven-thousand-year-old wise man.
This was definitely one of those times.
"I'm going to take Sunshine back to town with me."
"No," Talon said automatically. "She stays here so I can protect her."
"It wasn't a question, Celt. You need time away from her to think. Time to clear your thoughts before tomorrow night."
He started to argue, then realized Ash was right.
He was going to have to let her go anyway. He might as well do it now.
It would be easier for both of them.
"Okay, I'll go get her."
Sunshine knew something was wrong the minute she saw Talon come through the door.
His face was haunted, his eyes dark.
"What happened?" she asked.
"Acheron's going to take you back to your loft." His voice was so dispassionate that it made her stomach tight.
"I see. And do you agree with him?"
"I do. I think it's for the best."
But she didn't want to go. The depth of how much she wanted to stay startled her. "I see."
Woodenly, she started gathering her things. But inside, inside she was dying.
Talon couldn't stand seeing her like this. He wanted to grab her and run away to a place where no one could find them. To hold her safe.
The only problem was, no one could hide from a god.
Sooner or later, Camulus would find them and then she would die.
He took her backpack as she reached for it. "I've got it."
She nodded, her eyes bright and shiny.
Neither one of them spoke as he led her outside to where Acheron was waiting. He handed her backpack to Ash.
"It's, uh... it's been fun, Talon," she said. "Will I see you again?"
He looked at Ash, who watched him with an arched brow as if he wanted an answer to that one himself.
"No," he said slowly.
She cleared her throat, but didn't speak. Instead, she walked over to Acheron. "I'm ready."
Ash stepped back and let her lead the way to the catamaran. "Celt," he said, "if you change your mind about our discussion, call me."
His heart breaking, he watched Sunshine strap herself in. Ash started the boat and then headed them out into the swamp.
It was over.
She was gone.
I am Darkness. I am Shadow.
I am the Ruler of the Night.
I, alone, stand between mankind and those who would see mankind destroyed. I am the Guardian.
The Soulless Keeper.
Neither Human, nor Apollite, I exist beyond the realm of the Living, beyond the realm of the Dead.
I am the Dark-Hunter.
And I am Eternal... unless I find that one pure heart who will never betray me. The one whose faith and courage can return my soul to me and bring me back into the light.
If not for Camulus...
"Not all of us are given a second chance to reclaim what we've lost. If Nynia came back to you, maybe there's a reason for it."
Aching, he turned his back on the sight of Sunshine leaving him and walked back into his cabin. He shut the door and looked about.
There was so much emptiness here now that Sunshine was gone. She had filled his home with happiness. Most of all, she had filled him with happiness.
His gaze fell to her pink cosmetics bag on his desk. She had forgotten it along with her hairbrush and hair ties.
Poor Sunshine, she was forever forgetting things.
He turned sharply to see Ceara beside him. "Lurach, are you here to judge me too?"
"Nae, my brathair, I am here only to speak with you."
She reached out for him and then dropped her hand when she remembered they couldn't touch. "I just wanted to tell you before I leave that I have agreed with the god Bran to be reborn."
Talon's lungs seized.
He couldn't move.
He couldn't breathe.
Nae! The word tore through him.
She couldn't leave him. Not now. Not after all this time. She was the only solace he had left to him.
And at the same time, he couldn't bring himself to say that to her. To let her know how much he wanted her to stay.
How much he needed her to stay.
If he did, she would do as he asked and give up her future...
He could never be so selfish.
"What made you agree to it finally?" he asked, taking care to keep his voice level and smooth.
"It is time, Speirr. I want to live my life again. To find all the things I didn't have the last time. Love. Children. Even a job and a mortgage."
He couldn't smile at her attempt at humor, not while the pain inside him was so raw. So debilitating.
But he knew in his heart that she was right. It was time she had the things that had been denied her all those centuries before.
He wanted her to have all that and more. She deserved every happiness life could bring her. "I will miss you."
"And I shall miss you too, my brathair."
He offered her a smile that he knew was hollow. "I wish you all the best, lurach. I send my heart with you."
"I know, Speirr. I love you too, but you have Nynia now. You won't be alone without me."
Yes, I will. Because I can't keep her either.
He nodded stoically. "I'll always remember you, Ceara."
Her eyes sad, she sighed regretfully. "I had best be going. Goodbye, Speirr."
Talon choked on his goodbye. He couldn't say the word. It hurt too much to say it. Saying it would make it real and he desperately didn't want this to be real.
He wanted this to be a bad dream he could wake up from.
But it wasn't. It was real. All of it.
Sunshine was gone.
Ceara was gone.
He had no one.
Feeling forsaken, he watched Ceara fade out of the room.
His heart shattered, he sank to the floor on his knees and did something he hadn't done since the day Nynia had been buried.
In his mind, he could see his father cut down by the Saxons while the boy, Speirr, had kept his mother and sisters safe from the murderous warriors.
He saw his mother and sister sick from a ravaging pox. Saw him working for Gara as hard as he could while the old woman took pleasure in making him suffer. At night, he'd cared for his sisters. And during those last few months of his mother's life when she'd been too ill to care for herself, he'd taken care of her too.
He saw Ceara as an infant who had been inconsolable as he tried everything to care for her. He remembered Gara turning them out into the dark night while they had no place to go.
It had been snowing that night too, and all he could think of was keeping his sister alive.
She was all he had.
And so he had carried her through the snowstorm while she screamed and howled. Through the leagues of frostbitten land until he had found his mother's people.
For his sister, he had begged and pleaded and allowed them to beat him until he couldn't stand.
He had never asked anything for himself.
Not until he found Nynia.
He had taken her and made her his, and by his own stupidity he had lost her.
They could never be together. Never.
I am solitude.
I am sorrow.
Talon bellowed in anger.
Suddenly, something to the right of him caught his attention. Talon frowned.
There was something sticking out from under his bed.
He moved toward it and pulled it out.
His heart stopped beating. Then it began pounding.
Sunshine had left them for him. There were three paintings of his cabin and dock and the view from his porch.
He stared at the vibrant, crisp colors that captured the scenery in the light of day.
They were beautiful, but nowhere near as beautiful as the woman who had given them to him.
A woman who had given him the greatest gifts of his life.
He found a note sandwiched between two of the paintings.
Opening it, he felt his stomach knot.
This is the swamp as I see it, but what I can't capture on canvas is you as I see you.
No brush or paint will ever show the hero that you are. It will never be able to portray the sound of your voice when you whisper my name. The way my skin tingles when you touch me.
The passion of you inside me.
I love you, Talon. I know that I can't keep you. No one can ever tame a wild beast.
You have a job to do and so do I. I only hope that when you think of me, it'll bring a smile to your face.
He reread the note four times.
For centuries, he'd loved Nynia. But what he felt for Sunshine was so much more.
"Yes, you can win battles with a god." Acheron's words hovered in his mind.
Talon drew a ragged breath.
Yes, he could win. He would go out tomorrow night and take care of Mardi Gras for Acheron.
But once it ended...
He was going to summon Camulus and end this once and for all.
By Wednesday's dawn, either he or Camulus would be dead.