He was her fox who only left his den when he heard her footsteps.
She alone had tamed him.
He would never belong to anyone the way he did to her.
Astrid came again calling out his name.
Zarek quickened his strokes and joined her in bliss, his head spinning.
He lay on top of her panting and weak, listening to her heart pound against his chest.
There was no place he’d rather be than with her, letting the smell of her sweet, sweaty skin lull and soothe him.
He’d never been so warm. So sated.
All he wanted was to lie here nak*d with her and forget all about the rest of the world.
Unfortunately, it was the one thing he couldn’t do.
Kissing her gently, he pulled back. "We should get dressed. I don’t know if Thanatos will come here, but my money says he will."
Zarek hesitated as he saw the blood on her thighs from where he had breached her hymen.
Clenching his teeth, he turned away, ashamed of the fact that he had taken her on the floor like an animal after all. She didn’t deserve this.
She didn’t deserve him.
What had he done?
He had ruined her.
She sat up and touched his shoulder. The sensation of it tore through him. It was familiar.
It was sublime.
Why then did it make his stomach ache?
"Zarek? Is something wrong?"
"No," he lied, unable to tell her what he thought. She should never have lain with something like him. He was so far beneath her that he didn’t deserve her kindness.
He deserved nothing.
And yet she reached out and touched him. It didn’t make sense to him.
She leaned her cheek against his back and encircled his waist with her arm. He could barely breathe as she ran her hand over his chest in a comforting gesture.
"I have no regrets, Zarek. I hope you feel the same way."
He leaned back against her and tried not to let his aching heart overshadow what they had shared.
"How could I regret the best night of my life?" He laughed bitterly as he remembered everything that had happened since Jess had shaken him awake. "Well, except for the Terminator who’s after us and the goddess who wants me dead and-"
"I get the picture," she said with a laugh. She nuzzled his neck, sending chills over him. "It does seem hopeless, doesn’t it?"
He thought about that. " ‘Hopeless’ implies that at one time there was hope. And that’s another word I don’t understand. Hope only exists for people who have choices."
"And you don’t?"
He toyed with a strand of her blond hair. "I’m a slave, Astrid. I’ve never known hope. I just do what I’m told."
"Yet you never have."
That wasn’t exactly true. As a human, he had never dared open his mouth to protest anything. He had taken beating after beating, degradation after degradation, and done nothing.
It was only as a Dark-Hunter that he had learned to fight.
"Do you think Sasha’s okay?"
Her sudden change of topic surprised him. "I do. Jess is a whiz with animals. Even Katagaria."
She chuckled at that. "Why, Zarek, I do believe you are learning to comfort someone after all. I half-expected you to say you were hoping he’d be lying dead in a ditch somewhere."
He looked down at her small hand on his skin, resting just above his heart. It was true. She was taming him.
And it scared him more than the monster that was out to kill them.
Thanatos he could deal with, but these emotions…
He was helpless before her.
"Yeah, well, with any luck he’ll be beyond all help."
She laughed at that, then kissed him lightly on the back. She pulled away to dress.
Zarek watched her, his heart pounding. What was it about her that made him want to be something more than what he was?
For her, he actually wanted to be decent. Kind.
Things he’d never been.
Forcing himself up, he tossed his old clothes into the trash can and pulled new ones out of his wardrobe. At least he no longer had the hole in the back of his coat. He took a couple of minutes to button her into one of his old parkas.
"What’s this?" she asked as he draped it over her shoulders.
"It’ll keep you warmer than your coat."
She put her arms through the much-too-long sleeves while he gathered up gloves, hats, and scarves for them.
"Where are we going? Won’t it be dawn soon?"
"Yes and you’ll see. Sort of."
Once he had her dressed properly and had pulled on his insulated boots, he moved the wood-burning stove aside so that he could reach the trapdoor underneath it.
He helped Astrid down the hole, then climbed down after her and closed the trapdoor. Using his telekinesis, he moved the stove back into place.
"Where are we?"
Zarek turned his flashlight on. It was darker than a tomb down here and colder than hell. But they would be safe. For a little while, at least.
If Thanatos came back during daylight, he wouldn’t know about this place. No one did.
"What are the tunnels?"
"In short, my boredom. After I had carved up my cabin, I started digging under it. I figured it would give me more room to move about during the summer, and it’s not quite so hot down here in summer or so cold in winter. Not to mention I was always paranoid Acheron would come to kill me one day. I wanted an escape route he didn’t know about."
"But the ground is frozen solid. How did you manage?"
"I’m stronger than a human and I had nine hundred years to work on it. Being trapped and bored tends to make people do insane things."
"Like try to dig a tunnel to China?"
He led her down the narrow corridor to a small room where he had weapons stored.
"Are we staying here for the day?"
"Since I don’t want to spontaneously burst into flames from the sun, I think it’s the safest thing to do, don’t you?"
Once he had as much firepower as he could carry, he took her to the end of the longest tunnel. The trapdoor above them opened into the dense forest that surrounded his cabin. It would be a safe place to leave from after dark.
"Why don’t you go ahead and get some sleep?" he said.
Without thinking, he pulled his musk-ox parka off and made her a small pallet on the floor.
Astrid started to protest, then stopped herself. Acts of kindness were alien to Zarek. She wasn’t about to complain over his good deed.
Instead, she lay down on his coat.
But he made no move to join her. He walked around the limited space and seemed to be waiting for her to go to sleep.
Curious as to what he had planned, she closed her eyes and feigned slumber.
Zarek waited several minutes before he picked up the cell phone Spawn had given him. He climbed up the stairs and opened the trapdoor to the forest so that he could get some reception for the phone.
He made sure not to let the predawn light in.
Zarek didn’t know if this would work or not, but he had to try.
He dialed Ash’s number and pressed send.
"Come on, Acheron," he said under his breath. "Answer the damn phone."
Astrid lay quietly, knowing the cell phone would never ring where Ash was. Artemis wouldn’t allow it.
But then, Artemis didn’t control everything.
Using her limited powers, Astrid "helped" the signal.
Ash jerked awake the instant his phone rang. Out of habit, he rolled over in bed to reach for his backpack, only to remember where he was and that he wasn’t allowed to answer his phone while in Artemis’s temple.
Come to think of it, his phone shouldn’t be ringing at all. It wasn’t as if there was a cell tower on Olympus to carry the signal.
Which meant it had to be coming from Astrid…
But if Artemis caught him talking to the nymph, she’d go ballistic on him and recant their deal. Not that he cared what she did to him, but he wasn’t about to unleash Artemis’s temper on Astrid.
Grinding his teeth, he pulled his phone out and let his voice mail answer it while he listened to the message.
What he heard made his eyesight dim.
It wasn’t Astrid. It was Zarek.
"Dammit, Acheron, where are you?" Zarek growled, then a few seconds of silence followed. "I… I need your help."
Ash’s stomach tightened as he heard the four words he’d never expected Zarek to utter.
It must be bad for the ex-slave to ever admit he needed anything from anyone. Especially him.
"Look Acheron, I know I’m a dead man and I don’t care. I’m not sure how much you know about my situation, but there’s someone with me. Her name is Astrid and she says she’s a justice nymph. This thing, Thanatos, is after me and he’s already killed one Dark-Hunter tonight. I know if he gets his hands on Astrid he’ll kill her, too. You have to protect her for me, Acheron… please. I need you to come get her and keep her safe while I fight Thanatos. If you won’t do it for me, then do it for her. She doesn’t deserve to die because she tried to help me."
Ash sat up in bed. He held the phone so tight it bit fiercely into his hand.
He wanted to answer it. But didn’t dare. Fury and pain surged through him.
How dare Artemis betray him yet again.
Damn her for it.
He should have known she wouldn’t pen Thanatos up as she had promised. What was one more life extinguished to her?
Nothing. Nothing mattered to her except what she wanted.
But he cared. He cared in a way Artemis would never comprehend.
"I’m at my cabin with Spawn’s phone. Call me. We need to get her out of here as soon as possible."
The phone went dead.
Ash threw back the blankets and willed his clothes onto his body. Furious, he shoved the phone into his backpack and threw open the bedroom doors with a clatter.
Artemis sat on her throne with her twin brother, Apollo, standing in front of her.
They both jumped as he entered.
No wonder Artemis had told him he needed to rest.
She knew better than to let him and Apollo be in the same room together. They got along even "better" than Artemis and Simi did.
Apollo charged him.
Ash threw out his hand and knocked the god back. "Stay away from me, Sunshine-boy. I’m in no mood for you today."
Ash headed for the door only to find Artemis blocking his way again. "What are you doing?"
"Out of my way, Artemis. In the mood I’m in, I just might hurt you if you continue to stand there."
"You swore you would stay here for two weeks. If you leave Olympus, you will die. You cannot break your word, you know that."
Ash closed his eyes and cursed at the one tiny thing he’d forgotten in his anger. Unlike those of the Olympian gods, his oath was binding. Once he uttered an oath, he was bound by it no matter how much he willed it otherwise.
"What is he doing here?" Apollo growled. "You told me he didn’t come here anymore."
"Shut up, Apollo," he and Artemis said in unison.
Ash glared at Artemis as she took a step back. "Why did you lie to me about Thanatos? You told me he had been penned again."
"I didn’t lie."
"No? Then why was he loose in Alaska last night, killing my Dark-Hunters, after you told me you had him penned again?"
"He killed Zarek?"
He curled his lip. "Wipe that hopeful look off your face. Zarek is alive, but someone else was killed."
Her face fell. "Who?"
"How would I know? I’m stuck up here with you."
She stiffened at the way he said that. "I told the Oracles to pen him after Dion had freed him. I assumed they had done so."
"Then who let him out this time?"
They both turned to look at Apollo.
"I didn’t do it," Apollo snapped. "I don’t even know where you house that creature."
"You better not have done it," Ash growled.
Apollo gave him a snide smirk. "You don’t scare me, human. I killed you once, I can do it again."
Ash smiled slowly, coldly. That was then, this was now, and they played on a whole new field with a brand-new set of rules he would give just about anything to introduce to the god. "Please try."
Artemis stepped between them. "Apollo, leave."
"What about him?"
"He’s not your concern."
Apollo looked as if they both repulsed him. "I can’t believe you allow something like him into your temple."
Her face flushing, Artemis looked away, too embarrassed to say anything to her brother.
It was what Ash expected of her.
Ashamed of him and their relationship, Artemis had always tried to keep Ash away from the other Olympians as much as she could. For centuries now, the other gods knew he came to see her. Gossip abounded over what they did together and how long he stayed with her, but Artemis had never confirmed a relationship between them. Had never deigned to touch him in the presence of any other person.
Odd how even after eleven thousand years it still bothered him that he was her dirty little secret. That after everything they had shared and done, she could hardly stand to look at him whenever others were around.
And yet she bound him to her and refused to let him go.
Their relationship was sick and well he knew it.