Zarek walked among them, his face grim. His eyes tormented.
He had his arms wrapped around himself as if to protect him from the horror he was witnessing.
"Where are we?" she asked.
To her shock, he answered "Taberleigh."
"My village," he whispered, his voice angst-ridden and tight. "I lived here for three hundred years. There was this one old crone who saw me once when she was a young girl. She used to leave me things from time to time. A leg of dried mutton, a wineskin of ale. Sometimes nothing more than a note to say thank you for watching over them." He looked at Astrid, his face haunted. "I was supposed to protect them."
Before she could ask him what had happened to the village, she heard the muffled cries of an old woman.
Zarek bolted toward her.
The woman lay on the ground wrapped in torn clothes, her old body broken. She was covered in blood and bruises.
Astrid could tell by Zarek’s expression that this was the woman he had spoken of.
Zarek fell to his knees beside her and wiped the blood from her lips as she straggled to breathe.
The woman’s old gray eyes were piercing with accusation as they focused on him. "How could you?"
The life faded from the crone’s eyes, turning them dull, glazed.
She went limp in his arms.
Zarek bellowed with rage. He released the woman and pushed himself to his feet. He paced a wide circle, raking his hands angrily through his hair.
Panting, he looked every bit as insane as everyone claimed.
Astrid hurt for him. She didn’t understand what this was about. What he was reliving.
She followed him. "Zarek, what happened here?"
His face anguished, he turned around to confront her. Hatred and guilt burned in the midnight depths of his eyes.
He swept his arm out to indicate the bodies around them. "I killed them. All of them." The words came out as if torn from his throat. "I don’t know why I did this. I just remember the rage, the craving for blood. I don’t even remember killing them. Just flashes of people dying as they came near me."
His face was bleak. His eyes filled with self-loathing. "I am a monster. Do you see now why I can’t have you? Why I can’t stay with you? What if one day I killed you, too?"
Her chest constricted at his words as true panic and fear engulfed her.
Had she misjudged him?
"All men are guilty." It was her sister Atty’s favorite saying. "The only honest men are those infants who haven’t yet learned to speak lies." ,
Horrified, Astrid looked around at the dead bodies…
Could he really have been capable of something like this?
She didn’t know what to think now. Whoever was responsible for this slaughter did deserve to die. It more than explained why Artemis wouldn’t want him around people.
Astrid paused at that thought.
Wait a minute…
Something was wrong.
Astrid looked at the bodies around them. Human bodies. Some of them children, most of them women.
Had Zarek done this, Acheron would have killed him instantly. Acheron refused to tolerate anyone who preyed on the weak and defenseless. And especially anyone who harmed a child.
There was no way Acheron would suffer a Dark-Hunter to live who could destroy and kill the people he’d been sent to protect. She knew that with every molecule of her body.
"Are you sure you did this?" she asked.
He looked aghast at her question. "Who else would have done it? There was no one else here. Do you see anyone other than me with fangs?"
"Maybe an animal-"
"I was the animal, Astrid. There was no one else capable of this."
She still didn’t believe it. There had to be some other explanation. "You said you don’t remember killing them. Maybe you didn’t."
Rage and pain flared in his eyes. "I remember enough. I know I did this. Everyone knows. It’s why the other Dark-Hunters fear me. Why they won’t speak to me. Why I was banished to a place where there were no people to protect. Why I wake up every night afraid Artemis is going to move me away from Fairbanks into an area where there are even fewer people."
Part of her feared that he was telling the truth, but she discounted it.
In her heart she knew that the tormented man who could speak poetically and make beautiful pieces of art with his hands, who could care for an animal that had wounded him, would never, ever do this.
But she would need proof.
Gut instinct wouldn’t be enough evidence to offer to her mother or to Artemis. They would demand proof of his innocence.
Proof that he wasn’t capable of killing humans.
"I just wish I knew why I did this," Zarek growled. "What made me go so crazy that I could kill them and not even remember it."
He looked at her, his eyes bleak. "I am a monster. Artemis is right. I don’t belong around normal people."
Tears welled in her eyes at his words. "You’re not a monster, Zarek."
She refused to believe it.
Astrid pulled him into her arms, offering him comfort she wasn’t sure he would take.
At first he stiffened as if he were about to push her away, then he relaxed. She let out a slow breath, grateful he’d accepted her hug.
His taut, strong arms held her against a lean body that rippled with muscles. She’d never felt anything like it. He was so steely and tender at the same time. Her cheek was pressed against his firm pectorals, her br**sts against his ridged abs.
She ran her hand down his back, making him shiver in her arms.
Astrid smiled at this newfound power she had over him. Because she was a justice nymph, her femininity had had to take a back seat. There was no time to feel womanly or sensual.
But she felt that now.
Because of him. She was aware of her body for the first time in her life. Aware of the way her heart beat in time to his. The way her blood simmered from the sensation of his arms wrapped around her.
In that instant, she wanted to do something for him.
She wanted to make him smile.
Reluctantly, she pulled back from him and held her hand out. "Come with me."
Zarek hesitated. He only trusted people to hurt him. And they had never disappointed him in that respect.
Trusting someone to not hurt him was another thing entirely.
Deep inside, he wanted to trust her.
No, he needed to trust her.
Taking a deep breath, he placed his reluctant hand into hers.
She flashed him away from the village to a bright seaside beach. Zarek blinked and squinted against the unfamiliar brightness of the light.
He held his hand up, to cut the glare of the foreign sun he had all but forgotten.
He’d never been to the beach before. He’d only seen pictures in magazines and on TV.
And it had been centuries since he’d seen daylight. Real daylight.
The sun shone down on his skin, hot. Tingly.
He let the heat soak into his frozen body. Let the sun caress his skin and melt away the centuries of misery and loneliness.
Dressed only in black leather pants, Zarek walked over the sandy beach, looking at everything and focusing on nothing in particular.
This was even better than his stay in New Orleans. The surf roared around them as it pounded against the beach, the wind whipped at his hair. The sand was warm and clung to his feet.
Astrid ran past him, to the edge of the water.
He watched as she peeled her clothes from her body down to a small blue bikini.
She gave him an impish, hot once-over that made him shiver in spite of the heat. "Would you like to join me?"
"I think I’d look strange in a bikini."
She laughed at him. "Was that a joke? Can it be you made a real joke?"
"Yeah, I must be possessed or something."
Beguiled actually. By a sea nymph.
She came toward him with a determined walk.
Zarek waited, unable to breathe. To move. It was as if he lived or died by the sassy sway of her hips.
She stopped before him and unbuttoned his pants. The sensation of her fingers brushing against the thin patch of hair that ran from his navel to his groin rocked him. He hardened instantly, wanting to taste her again.
She slowly unzipped his pants as she stared up at him from underneath her lashes.
One small millimeter before she freed his erection, she seemed to lose her nerve. Biting her lip, she trailed her hands in the reverse direction, up toward his chest.
Zarek still couldn’t breathe as she splayed her hands on his bare chest.
"Why do you touch me when no one else does?" he asked.
"Because you let me. I like touching you."
He closed his eyes as her tender caress seared him. How could something so simple feel so incredible?
She stepped into his arms and he instinctively embraced her. Her br**sts brushed against his abs, making him even harder, making him ache.
"Have you ever made love on the beach?"
His breath caught at her words. "I’ve only made love to you, princess."
She rose up on her tiptoes so that she could capture his lips for a sweet, tormenting kiss.
Pulling back, she smiled up at him as she unzipped the last little bit of his fly and took him into her hand. "Well then, Frosty the Snow-Zarek, you’re about to."
Ash sat alone in Artemis’s temple, just outside her throne room on the terrace where he could look out onto the beautiful, multicolored waterfall. His golden-blond hair pulled back into a ponytail, he sat on top of a marble banister with his bare back against a ridged column.
Wildlife, safe from hunters and all other danger because of Artemis’s protection, grazed in a yard where the ground was made of clouds. The only sound came from the rushing water and the occasional cry of a wild bird.
It should be peaceful here and yet for all his serene composure Ash was agitated.
Artemis and her attendants had left him to go to the Theocropolis where Zeus held court over all the Olympian gods. She would be gone for hours.
Not even that could please him.
He wanted to know what was happening with Zarek’s test. Something was going wrong, he knew it. He could feel it, but he dared not use his powers to investigate.
He could take Artemis’s wrath, but he would never unleash that onto Astrid or Zarek.
So here he sat, his powers restricted, his anger and frustration leashed.
"Akri, can I come off your arm for a little while?"
Simi’s voice took some of the edge off his raw emotions. Whenever she was part of him, she couldn’t see or hear anything unless he spoke her name and gave her an order. She was even immune to his thoughts.
She could only feel his emotions. Something that allowed her to know whenever he was in danger, the only time she was allowed to leave him without his permission.
"Yes, Simi. You may take human form."
She pulled herself off and manifested beside him. Her long blond hair was braided. Her eyes were a stormy gray and her wings pale blue.
"Why are you so sad, akri?"
"I’m not sad, Simi."
"Yes you are. I know you, akri, you gots that pain in your heart like the Simi gets whenever she cries."
"I never cry, Sim."
"I know." She moved closer to him so that she could rest her head on his shoulder. One of her black horns scraped against his cheek, but Ash didn’t mind. She draped her arms around him and held him close.
Closing his eyes, he embraced her tightly, cupping her small head in one of his hands. Her hug went a long way toward easing his troubled spirit. Only Simi could do that. She alone touched him without making physical demands on him.
She never wanted anything but to be his "baby."
Childlike and innocent, she was the balm he needed.
"So, can I eat the redheaded goddess now?"
He smiled at her most-often-asked question. "No, Simi."
She lifted her head and stuck her tongue out at him, then flounced over to sit on the railing by his bare feet. "I want to eat her, akri. She a mean person."
"Most gods are."
"No they’re not. Some, true, but I rather like the Atlanteans. They were very nice. Most of them. You never met Archon, did you?"
"Now, he could be mean. He was blond, like you, tall like you, well, taller than you, and good-looking like you, but not quite as good-looking as you. I don’t think anyone is as good-looking as you are. Not even them gods. You are definitely one of a kind when it comes to looks… Oh-" She started as she remembered his twin. "Well… you’re not really one of a kind, are you? But you cuter than that other one. He a bad copy of you. He only wishes he was as cute as you are."
His smile widened.
She placed her finger against her chin and stopped for a minute as if trying to gather her thoughts. "Now where was I going with that? Oh, I remember now. Archon didn’t like a lot of people, unlike you. You know that thing you do whenever you get really, really mad? The one where you can blow stuff up and make it all fiery and chunky and messy and all? He could do that too only not with as much finesse as you. You got a lot of finesse, akri. More than most.
"But I digress. Archon liked me. He said, ‘Simi, you a quality demon.’ Have you ever seen a non-quality demon, though? That’s what I wanna know."
Amused, Ash listened as she rambled on about gods and goddesses worshiped in his mortal lifetime. Gods and goddesses long dead now. He loved to listen to her nonlinear tales and logic.