Night Embrace

Chapter 18


Sunshine followed Zarek's directions to the Warehouse District, but getting there in the heavy traffic wasn't easy. They probably could have walked faster.
Normally the traffic wouldn't have bothered her; however, Zarek wasn't exactly friendly, and between his sour mood and the drunken revelers on the street who kept staggering out into the road, her nerves were pretty much fried.
She wasn't really sure why they had to go out tonight, but Zarek had assured her that Ash wanted her moved for safety's sake.
He'd promised her that Talon would be able to fight better knowing she was hidden away from Camulus and Styxx.
"So how long have you been a Dark-Hunter?" she asked, trying to do something to ease the tension between them.
"You don't care, so why do you ask?"
"Well, you're just Mr. Warm and Fuzzy, aren't you?"
He looked at her coldly. "When you kill things for a living, it tends to take the warm and fuzzy right out of you."
"Talon isn't like that."
"Well, bully for him."
She growled as she slammed on the brakes to avoid hitting a man dressed up like a bull. He pounded on the hood of her car and yelled, then dashed across the street.
Sunshine moved forward again, even more slowly, through the bumper-to-bumper traffic. "You don't like Talon, do you?"
"Wish him dead every time I see him."
She frowned at Zarek's blase tone. "I can't tell if you mean that or not."
"I mean it."
"He's an asshole and I've had enough assholes in my life."
"Do you hate Ash too?"
"Baby, I hate everyone."
"Even me?"
He didn't answer.
Sunshine didn't bother him after that. There really was something spooky about Zarek. Something cold and unreachable. It was as if he took pleasure in the fact that he shoved everyone away from him.
At least twenty minutes passed before Zarek shocked her by asking a question of his own. "You love the Celt, don't you?"
"Why? What is it about him that makes you care for him?"
She sensed Zarek was asking something much deeper than that. It was as if the concept of love were so alien to him that he was struggling to make sense of it.
"He's a good man who makes me laugh. He looks at me and I melt all over the floor. When I'm with him, I feel like I can fly."
Zarek turned his head away from her and watched the Mardi Gras crowd outside.
"Have you ever been in love?" she tried again.
Again, he didn't answer. Instead he directed her to a warehouse on St. Joseph Street.
The place was dark and forbidding. "Is this where we're supposed to be?" she asked.
He nodded.
She parked in an alley behind the building, and they left the car.
Zarek led her in through a back door and up a series of stairs. He opened a door at the end of the hallway and let her enter first.
Sunshine stepped inside. At first glance, she thought the tall blond man was Acheron with a new hair color. But when she saw Camulus standing by his side, she knew it wasn't.
It was Styxx who was standing between Camulus and a brunet man she didn't recognize.
Sunshine turned to run.
Zarek closed the door ominously and took up a blocking position before it. The look on his face told her that he had no intention of letting her pass through him.
"Come in, come in, said the spider to the fly," Camulus said.
Sunshine lifted her chin as she faced the men. Camulus was extremely handsome, but he had a smile that was pure evil.
Even more so than Zarek and that was hard to accomplish.
The man she didn't know was humongously tall with light brown hair and a goatee. He had an extremely refined, well-bred look to him.
"I'm going to take a wild guess that you are Dionysus," Sunshine said, remembering what Selena had once told her about the patron god of Mardi Gras.
He smiled as if flattered she knew him. "Guilty."
Camulus let out a long breath. "She's so bright. It's almost a shame to kill her. But... oh well."
"You can't hurt her," Zarek said from the door. "You promised me she wouldn't be harmed if I brought her here."
"So I lied," Dionysus said. "Sue me."
Zarek started for the god, but Sunshine stopped him. She wasn't really sure why she did that, it just seemed as if he were the closest thing to an ally she had in that room.
She turned back to Camulus, knowing exactly how he planned to hurt Talon tonight. "I'm not going to let you kill me in front of Talon."
They all laughed. All except for Zarek.
"You can't stop us," Camulus said.
Zarek glanced down at her, then did a double take as his dark gaze fell to her necklace. "Uh, gods, I think you've forgotten something."
Dionysus curled his lip. "We forget nothing."
"Oh, okay," Zarek said sarcastically, "then you must already know that she wears a Marking Medallion."
They sobered instantly.
"What?" Camulus snarled.
Sunshine pulled her grandmother's necklace out of her shirt and held it up to them. She couldn't really believe it might help her, but hey, anything at this point was worth a try. "My grandmother said that the Morrigan would always protect me."
Camulus cursed. "Oh, this ain't right." He cursed again.
"This thing really works?" she whispered to Zarek.
"More than you know," he whispered back. "He can't kill you without making the Morrigan angry."
"Well, who knew?" she said, amazed by the knowledge. "Cool."
"Yup," Zarek concurred. "Better than a cross with Dracula."
She beamed. "Does it work against Dionysus too?"
He nodded.
Oh, this was good. Very, very good. "Okay, then, let's talk."
"Talk about what?" Dionysus hissed.
"Not you. Him." She indicated Camulus with a nod. "I want to talk about Talon's curse."
Camulus's eyes blazed at her. "What about it?"
"I want you to lift it."
She held her medallion out to him. "Do it or..." She gave Zarek a sideways glance. "Does this have any power to hurt him?"
"Only if he hurts you first."
Damn. What kind of protection was that? She needed to have a talk with whoever came up with these things.
A calculating glint lightened Camulus's eyes. He sighed as if bored. "Oh well, since I can't kill you, I guess I'll have to content myself with killing Talon instead."
Terror consumed her. "What?"
Camulus shrugged nonchalantly. "It's rather pointless to let him live happily ever after with you when my intent was to make him suffer. Since you can't die, he'll have to."
Her hand shook as she held the medallion in her suddenly sweaty grip. "Won't Artemis be mad if you kill one of her soldiers?"
He looked at Dionysus, who burst out laughing. "Artemis, darling that she is, would most definitely care. However, she won't start a war with the Celtic pantheon over it. Unlike me, Cam is safe from her wrath."
"Doesn't it just reek?" Camulus asked. His happy smile belied his dire words.
Sunshine wanted to cry. This couldn't be happening.
By saving herself, she had condemned Talon to die.
No! She couldn't let this happen. "Okay, there has to be another way."
Camulus narrowed his eyes as if thinking about the matter. "Perhaps there is. Tell me, Sunshine. How much does Talon's happiness mean to you?"
"Everything," she said sincerely.
"Everything. Well, that certainly is a lot." His look turned steely cold, frightening. "Does it mean as much to you as your own soul?"
"Sunshine," Zarek said. "Don't."
"You, heel," Dionysus snarled.
Zarek cracked his knuckles. "Don't tell me what to do. I don't like it."
Sunshine ignored them. "What are you saying to me, Camulus?"
He tucked his hands into his pockets and acted as cool as someone chitchatting about the weather, not sealing the fate of her immortal destiny. "A simple trade. I lift his curse. You give me your soul."
Sunshine hesitated. "That seems easy."
"It is."
"So what are you going to do with my soul once you have it?"
"Nothing at all. I'll keep it with me, just like Artemis keeps Talon's."
"And my body?"
"A body doesn't need a soul to function."
Zarek put a hand on her shoulder. "Don't do it, Sunshine. You can't ever trust a god."
"Sure you can," Styxx said. "Trusting them is the best thing I ever did."
"I don't know," she breathed, searching her heart and mind, trying to decide what she should do.
Acheron and Talon stood on the crowded street. There were people everywhere, most of them drunk as they celebrated Mardi Gras.
Talon did a double-take as a man danced by him wearing a large diaper and a fake pair of gold wings. His long blond hair was tied back in a gold cord and he held a crossbow in one hand and a bottle of Jack Daniel's in the other. Drunk, the man was arbitrarily shooting his golden arrows at the people he passed by.
"Eros!" Talon snapped, grabbing the bow from him. "What are you doing?"
"I'm celebrating."
Acheron raked a less than amused stare over Eros's "costume."
"What's with the get-up?"
Eros shrugged. "If you can't beat them, join them. They expect Cupid in a diaper, so here I am. Cute Cupid in a diaper." He threw an arm over Talon's shoulders. The god was so drunk he could barely stand on his own. "Hey, I found out something interesting. Dion has teamed up with another god for tonight's festivities. And would you believe, it's the same guy you were asking me about? What's his face, Camululu?"
Talon went cold at the name. "Camulus?"
"Yeah, him. I heard Dion saying they were going to party with your woman and that the psycho Hunter from Alaska was going to hand her over to them."
His blood boiling, Talon pushed Eros away and started back toward his car.
Acheron grabbed him. By the look on Ash's face, he could tell this was nothing Ash didn't already know. "Talon..."
"You knew!" Talon snarled at the betrayal. "How could you?"
Ash gave him a hard stare. "It's all right, Talon."
"Like hell it is." Rage gripped him hard. How could Acheron have betrayed him like this? How could he have turned Sunshine over into the hands of a man he knew was going to give her to the one god who wanted him punished?
"Damn you, damn you straight to hell!"
He punched Acheron in the jaw.
Ash took the hit without flinching, but when Talon moved to strike him again, he caught his hand. "This isn't accomplishing anything."
"It's making me feel better."
Ash grabbed him by the shoulder of his leather jacket and held him immobile. "Listen to me, Talon. The only way to save the two of you is to maintain your grip. Trust me."
"I'm tired of trusting you, Ash. Especially when you won't return it. Tell me what's going on here and why you sent Zarek to her knowing he was going to turn on her."
"It's the way things are meant to be."
Rage rolled over him. He wasn't some child to be lectured to about fate.
"Who the hell are you to say that? You're not a god, even though you pretend to be one with your vague-ass comments and spooky powers. You don't know the future any more than I do." Talon snarled at him. "If she dies, so help me, I'll kill you."
"Listen to me, Celt," he said sharply. "If you want to break Camulus's curse, the two of you have to confront him together tonight. This is the only shot you'll ever get to break free of him."
Talon didn't like any of this. Damn Ash for his secrecy. "Where are they?"
"They're in a warehouse. If you'll calm down, I'll take you to it.
"The night is far from over, Talon. Look inside you and find the peace you used to have. If you don't find it, you've lost even before you start to fight."
Talon did it, but it was hard. Nearly impossible. But he had no choice. He had to rein himself in or he would be useless to Sunshine.
When his head was clear, Acheron let him go.
"Maintain." The voice seemed to come from inside Talon's head.
Ash placed a hand on his shoulder.
One instant they were on Bourbon Street, the next they were outside a warehouse.
"What did you do?" Talon asked, wondering how many people had seen them vanish.
"I'm doing what I have to. Don't worry, no one saw us leave or arrive. I don't make those kinds of mistakes."
Talon hoped so.
Ash held the door open for him and Talon led the way into the building.
They were halfway through the main room when something akin to lightning flashed from upstairs. Screams rent the air.
Talon lost his calm as he sprinted for the stairs with Ash hot on his heels.
They rushed through a door and were almost run over by Zarek who was covered in blood and carrying Sunshine in his arms.
"What the hell?" Talon asked, terrified by the sight. "What happened to her?"
Before Zarek could answer, the door was blown from its frame.
"Run!" Zarek shouted.
No one had a chance. A swarm of hideous winged demons flew into the room. Talon cursed. He'd never seen anything like them. They were the color of rust and screeched like banshees as they flew at them.
They had three barbed tails that they wielded like whips.
Acheron held his hands up and blasted them with electrical energy. They recoiled, but kept coming.
"Get Sunshine out of here," Acheron ordered.
They headed back to the stairs only to find Daimons coming up from below.
Talon tossed two srads, taking out four of the creatures, but it didn't even slow them down. "We're surrounded."
Acheron spoke in a language Talon couldn't understand. The demons paused and flew around as if dazed by his order.
"It won't hold the demons for long," Ash shouted, his voice barely discernible over the ethereal flapping of wings and claps of thunder.
Ash threw his hands up and the Daimons ran into what appeared to be an invisible barrier between them.
Talon led Zarek down the hallway, hoping to find another way out of the building.
He shoved open a door to a smaller room.
"I think she's dying." Zarek's voice sent an electric chill through him.
"She's not dying."
"Talon, I think she's dying," he repeated.
The demons forgotten, Talon took her from Zarek's arms and laid her carefully on the floor.
Her face was so pale that it shook him.
"Sunshine?" he breathed, his heart pounding. "Baby, can you look at me?"
She did, but instead of the vibrancy he was used to seeing, he saw pain and deep regret.
"You're free, Talon," she whispered. "I made him break the curse."
"She traded her soul to Camulus so that he would set you free." Zarek curled his lip at him. "I told her not to do it, that it was a trick. She didn't listen and as soon as she agreed, the bastard blasted her."
Talon choked. "No!" he roared at both of them. "Sunshine, why?"
"He said he would kill you. I thought he would just take my soul, Talon. I didn't know he would do this. I didn't know he couldn't take possession of my soul without killing me first."
Talon tore the medallion from Sunshine's neck. "Damn you, Morrigan," he shouted, throwing it against the wall. "How could you forsake her too?"
She pressed her cold hand to his lips, "Shh, baby. Don't say that. It's my fault."
"I told her there's always a catch. But she didn't ask the right questions."
Tears flowed down Talon's cheeks as he watched her struggle to breathe. Over and over in his mind he remembered every moment of their time together, both in this life and her previous one.
He saw Sunshine's bright, tender face the first time they had made love. Saw her wrestling for her easel with Beth.
Heard her singing "Puff the Magic Dragon" as she doodled.
He took her hands into his and kissed them, with their smell of paint, turpentine, and patchouli. Hands that created breathtaking works of art.
Hands that could tear him apart with a simple touch...
"I'm not going to lose you again," he breathed. "Not like this."
Zarek came forward. "What are you doing, Celt?"
"Get away from me."
Talon placed his hands over her chest wound and closed his eyes. He forced himself to calm down, forced his emotions to leave him, and then he summoned his Dark-Hunter powers, and let them wash through him. His immortal strength flowed, surged. It swelled up and moved from his hands into her body.
His arms burned as he, in turn, absorbed her injury into his own chest.
Normally, it would hurt when he did this. Tonight, the pain was crippling because this wound wasn't a small injury.
It was mortal.
Gasping from the wrenching agony of his heart being pierced, Talon fell back, away from her.
Sunshine lay still, waiting for the pain to return.
It didn't.
Afraid she was already dead, she reached up to touch her chest where Camulus's blast had struck her. There was no longer a wound there.
"Talon?" She sat up to see Zarek staring at him.
"Oh God, no!" she shrieked as she saw Talon lying on the floor, bleeding. She scrambled to his side and pulled him into her arms. "What have you done?"
"He took your injuries into his own body," Zarek explained. "Now, instead of you dying, he will."
"No, Talon, no! Please don't die," she begged.
"Shh," Talon said quietly. "It's okay."
Ash came running through the door, took one look at them and cursed. "What happened?"
"The Celt absorbed her injuries." Zarek's voice was scarcely more than a whisper and filled with disbelief.
Something struck the door. Hard.
"Don't worry," Ash said. "I have a shield on the room. The gods can't pop in here until they breach it."
"Yeah, but at the rate they're going, they'll have the door knocked down any second," Zarek said. He pushed Ash toward Talon. "Go, get him out of here. I've got your backs."
"You sure?" Ash asked.
Zarek nodded.
"So help me, Slave," Dionysus snarled from the other side of the door. "I'll see you obliterated for this."
Zarek laughed coldly. "Come get some."
Ash opened the door on the opposite side of the room.
Sunshine was terrified. She didn't know what was happening. She still couldn't believe Zarek had turned around and helped them. Nor could she think past the sight of Talon covered in blood.
Everything was happening so fast that she wanted to run away and hide. But she couldn't.
Talon needed her to be strong for him and she refused to fail him.
As she started away from Zarek, he called out to her. "Hey, Sunshine?"
She looked back at him.
"Thanks for the bowl." Then he turned around to wait for the gods to break through Ash's barrier and the door.
Amazed by his actions, Sunshine ran to help Ash carry Talon down the hallway and into the last room on the left.
Ash laid him carefully on the floor, then used his powers to seal the room.
Sunshine's hand shook as she knelt beside Talon. He was pale and trembling. His entire body was coated with sweat and blood. "Hold on, baby," she whispered, not sure if he could even hear her now.
"He's immortal, right?" she asked Ash. "He'll be fine."
Ash shook his head. "His heart is pierced. When it stops beating, he'll die. Again."
His face grim, Ash looked up at the ceiling. "Artemis!" he shouted. "Get your ass here, right now."
A flash of light almost blinded Sunshine as the goddess appeared beside her.
Artemis gave Acheron a furious glare. "What is your problem?"
"I need Talon's soul. Now."
She laughed incredulously at him. "Excuse me, Acheron, but you haven't paid the price for it"
"Dammit, Artie, he's dying. I don't have time to negotiate."
She shrugged. "Then heal him."
"I can't and you know it. It's a mortal god-bolt wound. I'm not allowed to interfere with that."
Sunshine felt an electric ripple flow through the room.
Rage darkened her sight as she stared at the selfish goddess. Sunshine started to lunge at her, but Ash caught her and pulled her back.
Sunshine trembled in fear and anger.
"Give it to me, now." Acheron's deep voice sounded like thunder. "Do it and I'll give you a week of total submission."
A calculating gleam darkened Artemis's eyes. "Give me two."
Sunshine saw the fury and resignation on Ash's face. "Done."
Artemis held her hand out and a large maroon stone appeared in her palm.
When Ash went to take it, Artemis pulled it out of his reach. "You will come to me at dawn."
"I will, I swear it."
Artemis smiled in satisfaction, then handed the stone to Ash. Ash returned to Talon. Then, he met Sunshine's gaze. "Sunshine, you're going to have to take this into your hand and hold it over the brand mark until his soul is released back into his body."
She reached for it, but Talon caught her wrist. She hadn't even known he was still conscious until she felt his weakened grip on her arm.
"She can't, Ash."
"Talon!" she said, angered that he was stopping her. "What are you doing?"
"No, Sunshine," Talon whispered, his voice strained. "If you take that, it will scar your hand. It could leave you unable to draw or paint ever again."
Her greatest fear.
She looked into Talon's pain-filled eyes.
Her greatest love.
There was no contest.
She grabbed the stone from Ash's hand, then cried out as it seared her flesh.
"Watch Talon's eyes." She heard Ash's voice inside her head. "And for Zeus's sake, please don't let go of his soul. Focus..." She did and the pain lessened, but still she could feel the fire of the stone searing her hand.
Time stood still as she stared into Talon's jet-black eyes. Memories of this life and of their former one merged in her mind. She flashed back to her own death, to Talon holding her close.
She leaned down and kissed him. "I'm with you, love."
Talon took his last breath and relaxed. Her own heart stopped beating as raw terror consumed her.
Please, please, let this work!
Ash placed her hand over Talon's bow-and-arrow brand mark. Slowly, the heat faded and the stone turned dull in color.
Still, her hand burned.
When it was completely cold, she dropped the stone and waited.
Talon didn't move.
He didn't breathe.
He lay there, completely still and unresponsive to her.
"Talon?" she asked, her entire body shaking with the fear that he was gone.
Just when she was sure he was dead, he drew a deep breath and opened his eyes.
Sunshine let out a joyful cry as she saw his amber eyes. She hugged him close as the door behind them flew open.
The Daimons, the demons, and the two gods spilled into the room. There was no sign of Zarek anywhere. She only hoped they hadn't killed him.
Talon jumped up and put himself between Sunshine and the others.
Ash rose to his feet, ready to fight.
"It's midnight," Dionysus said with a laugh. "Let the show begin."
The demons moved aside and out of their midst appeared Acheron's "twin."
"Hello, Acheron," Styxx said in a tone that was neither kind nor welcoming. "It's been a while, hasn't it? Eleven thousand years or so?"
Talon held his breath. He couldn't believe what he was seeing.
He had suspected as much, but now the reality of it came crashing down on him. Ash had had a twin brother all this time.
Why had he hidden it? And how could Styxx still be alive and not be a Dark-Hunter too? It didn't make sense.
Styxx approached Acheron.
"Stand down, Styxx," Ash said sternly. "I don't want to hurt you, but I will if I have to. I won't let you release her."
Styxx met Talon's gaze and laughed. "It's like some bad soap opera, isn't it? Good twin, bad twin."
His furious gaze returned to Acheron. "But then, we're not really twins, are we, Acheron? We just happened to have shared the same womb for a while."
Styxx moved to stand behind Ash who tensed noticeably. It wasn't like Ash to allow anyone to do that to him and yet he appeared to be frozen by some unseen force.
Styxx was so close to him that barely a hand separated them.
They didn't touch.
Styxx leaned forward to speak in a low tone near Ash's ear. "Shall we tell him who the good one is, Acheron? Should I tell him which of us lived his life with dignity? Which of us was respected by the Greeks and Atlanteans and who was laughed at?"
Styxx reached his hand around Ash's neck and placed it in the exact spot where Ash's scar often resided.
He pulled Ash back against him so that he could whisper in Ash's ear in a language Talon couldn't understand.
Ash panted as if in the throes of a nightmare.
His eyes were haunted and glazed, his breathing ragged. Still he didn't move to break Styxx's hold.
Talon watched, unsure of what he should do. Surely Ash could handle this. He'd never known of anything Ash couldn't handle.
"That's it, Acheron," Styxx said in English, between clenched teeth. "Remember the past. Remember what you were. I want you to relive it all. Relive every foul thing you ever did. Every tear you made my parents weep for you. Every moment I had to look at you and feel ashamed that you bore my face."
Talon watched as tears filled Ash's eyes and he trembled. He didn't know what secrets Ash hid, but they must be hideous to affect him like this.
Personally, he didn't care what Ash had done in his past. For fifteen hundred years, he had never known Ash to be anything but caring and decent.
Secrets or not, the two of them were friends.
"Let him go," Talon ordered.
Styxx cocked his head, but he refused to release Ash. He tightened his grip on Ash's throat. "Do you remember when Estes died, Acheron? The way my father and I found you? I have never been able to forget it. Every time I have ever thought of you, it's the image I have. You're repulsive. Disgusting."
"Kill him," Dionysus ordered, "and open the portal."
Styxx didn't seem to hear him, his attention was fixed on Ash.
Camulus started toward them with a dagger. Talon rushed him and they fought for the weapon.
The demons attacked as Styxx continued to taunt and insult Ash.
"Kill him, Styxx," Dionysus ordered again. "Or we'll miss the portal."
Styxx pulled a dagger out from underneath his coat.
His fight with Camulus forgotten, Talon tried to reach them.
But he couldn't make it.
Styxx raised his hand and sent the dagger straight into Ash's heart. He buried it all the way to its hilt.
Ash gasped and arched his back as if something had possessed him. The dagger shot through the air, bouncing off a wall above Dionysus's head. Light poured out of the wound, then seared it closed.
In the next instant a shock wave went through the room, knocking everyone off their feet. Styxx was hurled to a far corner while the gods were pinned to the ground.
Acheron rose from the floor, to hover spread-eagled several inches above it.
Unable to stand upright against the unseen force, Talon crawled to Sunshine and held her close so that he could protect her from whatever was happening.
No one could stand. Not even the gods.
Lightning bolts shot through Acheron's body, blowing out the windows and the lights. Electrical energy snapped and hissed all around. Acheron laid his head back as bolts of light pierced his eyes and mouth. They seemed to shoot through him and then out, into the room, emitting bright flashes of light.
The Daimons and the demons exploded in one bright flash.
A winged dragon seemed to come out from under Acheron's sleeve and wrap itself around him as if it were protecting him.
Or perhaps devouring him.
In all his life, Talon had never seen anything like this.
"What the hell is that?" Camulus asked. "Styxx, what did you do?"
"Nothing. Is this from the portal opening?"
"No," Dionysus said. "This is something else entirely. Something no one told me about." He looked up at the ceiling and shouted, "Artemis!"
Artemis appeared and was immediately pinned to the floor with the rest of them.
Talon tightened his grip on Sunshine, who clutched him fiercely as she trembled against him.
Artemis took one look at Acheron and her face went flush with anger. "Who's the idiot who pissed off Acheron?" she demanded.
The two gods pointed to Styxx.
"You fools!" she snarled. "What were you thinking?"
"We needed to kill an Atlantean to raise the Destroyer," Dionysus said. "Acheron's the only one left."
"Oh, you are so stupid!" Artemis snapped. "I knew your plan had to be a bad one. You can't just kill him with a dagger. In case you haven't noticed, he's not human. Where was your brain?"
Dionysus curled his lips at her. "How was I to know your pet was a god-killer? What kind of idiot ties herself down to one of his kind?"
"Well, gee, what was I supposed to do?" Artemis shot back. "Hook up with Mr. All-powerful God-killer or get myself a Mardi Gras float and hang out with him?" She pointed to Camulus, who looked extremely offended by her comment. "You're such a moron," she said to her brother. "No wonder you're the patron god of drunken frat boys."
"Excuse me," Talon snapped at them. "Could you gods focus for a sec? We have a bit of a situation here."
"Oh, shut up," Dionysus snapped. "I knew I should have backed up when I ran you over."
Talon's jaw went slack. "That was you who hit me with the float?"
"Damn, boy," Camulus said to Dionysus. "You've fallen a long way down. Yesterday Greek god... today incompetent float driver. Sheez, and I hooked up with you? What was I thinking? Artemis is right, what kind of idiot picks a float to mow a guy down so that he can go home with his dead wife? You're lucky you didn't kill him then and blow the entire plan."
"Hey, have you ever tried to drive one of those things? It's not exactly easy. Besides, he's a Dark-Hunter. I knew it wouldn't kill him. I just needed something that would hurt him enough to make her take him home. Need I remind you that it did work?"
Artemis growled at them. "You're so pathetic. I can't believe we share a common gene between us."
Shooting a nasty glare at her brother, Artemis struggled against the invisible force that held them down. Like the rest of them, she couldn't reach Ash.
"Acheron!" she called. "Can you hear me?"
Disembodied laughter filled the room.
Ash leaned his head forward and more lightning flowed through him. The dragonlike beast tightened its grip around him and hissed a fiery breath at the goddess.
Artemis tried to climb up his leg, but she was forced back, away from him.
"You know, folks," Camulus shouted. "The idea was to kill Acheron, free Apollymi, and reclaim our god status. Not piss him off and end the world. Personally, I don't want to be ruler of nothing. But if someone doesn't stop this guy, that chant he's making is going to undo life as we know it and un-create the world."
"What are we going to do?" Sunshine asked Talon.
Only one thing came to his mind.
He had to bring Acheron to his senses.
Talon kissed her lips, then moved away from her. He hadn't gone through death to get her back, only to lose her now.
He summoned his remaining powers and allowed them to cocoon him. He no longer had his Dark-Hunter immortality, but he did retain all the psychic powers that had been given to him.
Hopefully they would be enough.
He rose slowly to his feet.
A lightning bolt came at him.
Talon deflected it. He moved slowly through the maelstrom until he reached Ash's side. So long as he stayed calm, he seemed to be shielded from Ash's wrath.
"Let it go, T-Rex."
Ash spoke to him in a language he didn't understand.
"He says to back off or die," Styxx translated. "He's summoning the Destroyer."
"I can't let you do that," Talon said.
The laughter echoed again.
Wanting to distract Acheron from what he was chanting, and not knowing anything else to try, Talon rushed him.
He caught Ash about the middle and knocked him to the floor. The dragon arched up, shrieking.
Talon ignored it as he slugged Ash.
Sunshine held her breath as she watched the two of them fighting. The entire building felt as if it were going to break apart.
The floor beneath her shook.
They were locked together like two great primal beasts and the fate of the world lay in who would win and who would lose.
She whispered a prayer as she watched them, awed by the morbid beauty and grace of their battle.
Zarek came through the door, bleeding, and was immediately thrown backward, against a wall.
Artemis tried again to reach Acheron and again he tossed her back while he fought with Talon.
"I'll give the boy credit," Camulus said. "He always was a fighter."
Talon stopped fighting as he heard those words.
"You never could learn your place, Speirr. You never knew when you should just lay down the sword and play nice."
Camulus had been right. Up until now, Talon had never known when to fight and when to withdraw.
Being calm was what had allowed him to reach Ash.
Then, he remembered what Acheron had said to him on the night he'd become a Dark-Hunter. "I can show you how to bury that pain so deep inside you that it will prick you no more. But be warned that nothing is ever given freely and nothing lasts forever. One day something will come along to make you feel again and with it, it will bring the pain of the ages upon you. All you have hidden will come out and it could destroy not only you but anyone near you."
He wondered now who those words had really been meant for. Him or Ash?
He looked up at Acheron and saw the fury of the man who was attacking him. This was what Ash had meant that night.
Both of them had kept such a leash on themselves for so long that their fury blinded them to reason. It made them attack when they needed to withdraw and rethink the line of battle.
Closing his eyes, Talon summoned the soothing calm, as Acheron had taught him.
Ash rushed him again.
This time, instead of fighting, Talon embraced him like a brother.
Possessed of a strength and power Talon had never known before, he cupped Ash's face in his hands and tried to make his old friend see him.
Ash's features were no longer handsome or human. They were those of a twisted demon. His eyes were blood-red and yellow, and there was no mercy in them. They were cold. Vicious.
The colors swirled and danced like fire.
Talon had never seen anything like this before.
Who knew Ash had this kind of power?
But he had to stop him.
One way or another.
"Acheron," he said calmly, slowly. "Enough."
At first he didn't think Ash had heard him. Not until Acheron turned his head to see Sunshine on the floor.
"Talon," he rasped hoarsely. Ash's eyes flickered, then he looked back at Talon.
Suddenly, another shock wave shot through the room, this one in the reverse direction from the first. It was as if the unleashed power were drawing back into Acheron.
The dragon shot up toward the ceiling, then vanished.
Ash's features transformed back into the face of the man Talon had known these centuries past.
Ash blinked his now silver eyes and looked around as if he were waking up from a nightmare.
Without a single comment, Ash stepped away from Talon, wrapped his arms around his chest, and walked across the room as if nothing had happened.
As he passed Artemis, she reached for him, but he dodged her touch and kept walking.
Artemis turned on her brother with a snarl. "Just you wait till Dad gets his hands on you."
"Me? He knew what I had planned tonight. Wait until I tell him about Acheron!"
Artemis curled her lip. "Oh, shut up, whiny boy." She held her hand out and zapped him out of the room.
Styxx shrank back as Artemis turned her gaze to him.
"You," she said, her tone thick with loathing.
Styxx gulped audibly. "How can you protect something like him? After I died, I was sent to the Elysian Fields while he was-"
"No concern of yours," she said, interrupting him. "You and your precious family, you turned your backs on him and condemned him for something that wasn't his fault."
"Not his fault? Please." Styxx tried to say something more, but his voice vanished.
"That's better," Artemis said. "Funny, the two of you sound alike and yet you whine. Thank Zeus, Acheron doesn't have that repugnant quality. But then, he was always a man and not a sniveling little child."
She backed Styxx against the wall. "I can't believe you. I gave you a perfect existence. Your own island, filled with everything you could ever desire, and what did you do? You've spent eternity hating Acheron, plotting ways to kill him. You don't deserve mercy."
"You can't kill me," Styxx squeaked out. "If you do, Acheron dies too."
"And I curse the day the Fates bound your life force to his." She narrowed her eyes at him as if she wanted nothing more than to splinter him where he stood. "You're right. I can't kill you, but I can make living a worse hell than anything you can imagine."
"What are you going to do to me?" Styxx asked.
She smiled evilly. "You'll see, little human, you'll see."
Styxx vanished.
Artemis turned to face them. She took a deep breath and seemed to calm down exponentially.
"Take care of your soul, Speirr," she said to Talon. "Know that it was purchased for you at a very dear cost." Then she too vanished.
That left them alone with Camulus.
"Well," Talon said to the Celtic god. "It appears your friends have abandoned you."
Camulus sighed. "What a pity. Excess, War, and Destruction. Together, we would have had a high time on earth. Oh well. I shall just have to content myself with taking her from you again. After all, she gave me her soul and now I wish to claim it. And of course, the fun thing about souls, they can only be claimed from a dead body."
Camulus started for her.
Talon pulled his srads out ready to do battle.
Out of nowhere, a bright flash lit the room. It faded into a form that was almost as dear to Sunshine as Talon's.
"Grammy?" Sunshine asked in disbelief.
Her grandmother stepped between them and Camulus. She faced the Celtic god with a stern glower. " 'Fraid not, hon. You don't own bupkis."
Camulus was aghast at her appearance. "Morrigan? What are you doing here? This doesn't concern you."
"Oh yes, it does." Her grandmother transformed from a little old lady into the beautiful war goddess Talon had met in his days as a mortal man.
Talon went cold.
Sunshine sputtered. "Excuse me? What is this?"
Her grandmother looked at Sunshine apologetically. "I didn't mean for you to find out this way, Little Bit, but Acheron and I had to stop them from unleashing Apollymi. And to get Talon free, we needed the two of you here to face Camulus."
Talon gaped.
Ash had known all about this? Why hadn't he told him?
The Morrigan turned back to Camulus. "Sorry, Cam. For once you forgot to read the fine print. You agreed with Bran to let Nynia be reborn to mortal parents for your scheme. You never specified that her grandparents be mortal too.
"Since I couldn't help Speirr escape your curse and his bargain without declaring war on you and Artemis, I figured the least I could do was return his wife to him in the body of someone you couldn't touch. Nynia now reborn as Sunshine is flesh of my flesh, blood of my blood. When Speirr drank from her neck, he took my blood into him and now he, too, has my protection."
Camulus cursed.
Her grandmother wrinkled her nose. "It just reeks, doesn't it? You can't kill her or him unless you want to fight me."
Talon exchanged a stunned look with Sunshine.
"One day, Morrigan. One day..." Camulus flashed out of the room.
The Morrigan took a deep breath, then turned around to face them. "Congratulations, kids."
"I'm free?" Talon asked, still unable to believe it.
The Morrigan nodded. "With your Dark-Hunter powers intact."
Sunshine hesitated. "Is he still a Dark-Hunter?"
"No," her grandmother said. "Artemis released him from his vow when she gave up his soul. Once psychic powers are bestowed on someone, they remain with them forever."
Sunshine smiled. "So he can go out into daylight now?"
"Yes." The Morrigan looked suddenly uncomfortable. "By the way, there's something I need to tell you two."
"What?" they asked in unison, both of them afraid of what she might say.
"Because of the way our pantheon works, the two of you are..." She bit her lip and wrung her hands.
"We are what?" Talon prompted, terrified of what was coming next. When dealing with a god, one could never be too careful.
"You're immortal unless you renounce it."
Sunshine blinked. "What?"
Her grandmother cleared her throat. "You and your brothers were born immortal, sweetie. It's why you still look like a baby even though you're pushing thirty."
"Does that mean Mom's immortal too?" she asked.
"No. Since your father isn't, she decided that she would give up her immortality to age with him. But since it was my blood that gave her immortality, it was passed on from her to you and then from you to Talon."
Joy ripped through Talon. "You mean I never have to watch her die again?"
"Never. Not unless you choose to."
"Oh hell no," Talon said, laughing.
"I figured as much." The Morrigan stepped back. "Well, I'm sure the two of you have a lot to do. Like plan a wedding. Go make lots of babies." She took their hands into hers and then pressed them together. "I expect a large number of great-grandkids from you two."
The Morrigan vanished, leaving them to stare at each other in wonderment.
Sunshine licked her lips as she stared up at him. She couldn't believe everything that had happened tonight.
Most of all, she couldn't believe she had Talon for her own. "So what's our first course of action?"
That familiar look came into his amber eyes. "Try to make a baby?"
She laughed at him. "Sounds good, but it'll probably take us the rest of the night to get back to your cabin."
"True, but your loft isn't that far away..."
Sunshine smiled. "No, it isn't."
He kissed her hand and then led her from the room.
They left the building and blended into the monstrous crowd of Mardi Gras celebrants who were heading home. Sunshine's heart was light as they walked hand in hand, until they reached the street.
Gasping, she pulled Talon back as a giant float narrowly missed him. Then she burst out laughing. "What is it with you and the Mardi Gras floats?"
"It's not the floats, love, it's you. Whenever you're around, everything else fades from my notice."
She bit her lip impishly. "You keep talking like that and I'll definitely take you home, lock you up, and throw away the key."
"That's fine with me, just make sure you're naked when you do it."