"No!" they said in unison.
Simi stiffened. "No? I don’t like that word."
"We love you, Simi," Astrid said quickly. "We’re just scared of your goo."
Astrid hit Zarek in the stomach as he started to correct her about loving Simi.
"Oh," Simi said, "that I understand. Okay, you can live."
After ascertaining that there really was no food there, Simi sat cross-legged on the floor. She hummed to herself as she twirled a strand of hair around her little finger. "So, you got QVC?"
"Afraid not, sweetie," Astrid said.
"You got Soap Net?"
Zarek shook his head.
"You got any TV?" Simi continued in a voice that sounded like a petulant toddler’s.
"Are you kidding?" Simi rested her chin in her hand and looked up at him. "You boring people. A demon needs her cable. Akri done tricked me. He didn’t tell me I’d have to go without cable. Don’t you even have one of those itty-bitty TVs that has batteries?"
Yeah and on that note, he pulled Astrid away from Simi.
"It won’t work," she whispered.
"Pulling me away so she won’t hear. She hears everything."
He stopped. "Well, then, she’s in for an earful."
Zarek stood there looking at Astrid. Memorizing every line of her face, every curve of her body.
He didn’t know what to do to protect her. Jess couldn’t come get her in the daylight and he didn’t trust the Squires to get her to safety, either.
Not to mention the idea of letting them know of his hideout while they were out to kill him themselves didn’t seem like a brilliant move either.
There was no one to trust and the only way he knew to protect Astrid was to call Thanatos out and finish this.
Tonight, he would find Thanatos and one of them would die.
It was something he didn’t want to tell Astrid. She wouldn’t let him go if she knew.
"Look, we’ll need food tonight. I’m going to leave you and Simi here where it’s safe and I’ll go scout supplies."
"Why not send Simi? Nothing can hurt her."
Zarek slid his glance over to the demon, who was playing This Little Piggy on her bare toes.
"Yes, but I don’t think she should be let out on her own, do you?"
Astrid hesitated. "You may be right."
Zarek sank to the floor and pulled her down with him. He checked his watch to see that it was less than two hours to sundown.
Less than two hours to be with the woman who had come to mean so much to him.
Lying down, he closed his eyes as she laid her head on his chest and traced circles over him.
"Tell me something good, princess. Tell me what you’ll do when this is over."
Astrid stopped moving her hand in circles as she thought about that. What she wanted was to stay with Zarek. But how?
Artemis would have to let him go and she knew her cousin well enough to know Artemis didn’t share her toys.
"I’ll miss you, Prince Charming."
She felt him tense at that. "Will you really?"
"Yes, I will. What about you?"
"I’ll survive. I always do."
Yes, he did. In ways that astounded her.
Astrid traced the line of his jaw. "You should be resting."
"I don’t want to rest. I just want to feel you for a little while."
She smiled at that.
"Are you two going to kiss?" Simi asked. "Maybe I should go upstairs or something."
Astrid laughed. "It’s okay, Simi. We won’t kiss in front of you."
"Does she sleep?" Zarek asked.
"I don’t know. Simi, do you sleep?"
"Yes, I do. I have a lovely bed, too. It got dragons carved on it and this big old ivory-colored canopy over the top. Akri had it special made for me long time ago and it has a windup dancer on the headboard. When I was a baby demon, akri would wind it up after he tucked me into bed and I used to watch it until I went to sleep. Sometimes he would sing lullabies to me, too. Akri a good daddy. He takes good care of his Simi."
"What about you, princess?" Zarek asked. "Did your mother tuck you in as a child?"
"Every night, unless she was judging someone and then my sister Atty would."
Astrid didn’t ask Zarek who tucked him in. She already knew the answer to that.
She snuggled closer to him.
Zarek stared up at the jagged top of the tunnel. Funny how more than fifty years ago he’d dug this part of it never knowing that one day he would lie here with a lover by his side.
He had no business being with her. No right to touch her.
She was as close to heaven as a man like him was ever going to get.
And yet he didn’t want to give her up. Not now.
She was the one person in all of history he would die for.
No doubt tonight he would.
Thanatos lay on a warm, comfortable bed in the house of a Spathi warrior. The Spathi, like the Spathi’s family members (both Daimons and Apollites), were all asleep in their bedrooms, waiting for sundown when it would be safe to go out.
After he had lost Zarek’s trail last night, Thanatos had searched until exhaustion overtook him.
The Daimons had brought him back here to rest, and though he was still tired, he couldn’t sleep anymore. Not while his nightmares racked him.
He could feel the call of the Oracles trying to summon him back to his cage in Tartarus.
He refused to heel.
For nine hundred years he’d been waiting for this. Waiting for his vengeance.
The day Artemis had created him, she had promised him that he would be able to kill Zarek of Moesia. Then for some unknown reason, she had changed their bargain.
Nothing had gone the way she had said.
Instead of living in wealth and comfort, he had been confined to a tiny cell, forgotten and alone.
"No one can ever know you’re alive," she’d told him. "At least not until I need you."
And so he had waited. Year after year, century after century, screaming at the goddess to either let him out or kill him.
She’d never answered.
And he’d learned that there were some things worse than the short life span that terrified his Apollite kin.
Immortality in a dark hole was far worse.
He would not go back. No one would ever cage him again. He would tear down the whole of Olympus first.
Artemis had been so afraid of her Dark-Hunters running amok that she hadn’t thought ahead. There was no one who could stop him.
Something flickered through his mind. A fragment of a memory.
He saw himself as an Apollite… saw…
The image changed to that of Zarek killing his wife.
Thanatos roared with anger.
No, killing Zarek was too easy.
He wanted the man to suffer just the way he had.
For the first time in nine hundred years, he smiled. Yes. Zarek had protected a woman last night. He had cradled her against him on the snowmachine.
Thanatos rose to his feet and shrugged his coat on. Even though he was exhausted, he wouldn’t try to sleep any longer. He dressed quickly, quietly.
He would find the Dark-Hunter. Find his woman.
She would die, but Zarek… he would live. Just as Thanatos had. In eternal pain, aching for his love who was lost.
Zarek paused as he looked down at Astrid, who had fallen asleep while they’d been talking.
He’d never thought to really do that with anyone. But then, he’d done a lot of things with her that he had never thought to experience.
Even asleep she looked tired. Her sweet eyes had circles underneath them.
He placed a kiss on her lips, and moved away so as not to disturb her.
The demon lay on the floor where she had been sitting. She was also sound asleep. One arm was curled under her head while the other hand was tucked under her chin. She reminded him of a little girl. No wonder Ash liked her.
He glanced back at Astrid. His strength.
Simi was Ash’s.
And he had responsibility for both of them.
Feeling the full weight of that burden, Zarek grabbed an extra blanket and covered the demon.
She smiled in her sleep and said very softly, "Thank you, akri."
Zarek looked longingly at his coat, which was still underneath Astrid.
He took another blanket over to her and covered her, too. Reaching into his pocket, he pulled out the small items he’d collected when he’d ventured into his cabin a few minutes before to get food for Simi.
He set them beside Astrid and placed her hand over them so that she could "see" what they were when she awoke.
He let his hand linger on her face.
"I’ll miss you," he breathed, knowing that even after he became a Shade she would torment him.
After all, he needed her more than he needed food or air.
She was his life.
Taking a deep breath, he ran his fingers through her hair, letting it warm him. He imagined her fiery and soft in his arms. The way she looked when she came for him.
The way her voice sounded whenever she said his name.
Yes, he would definitely miss her.
It was why he had to keep her safe.
Forcing himself away from the comfort she offered, he left the two women.
He went to the end of the tunnel that led out into the woods.
Armed with as much firepower as he could carry, he opened the trapdoor, shivered as the cold air rushed over him, and left to find Thanatos.
Astrid jerked awake when a strange sound invaded her sleep.
"I like that Zarek. He quality people!"
She blinked her eyes open as she recognized Simi’s voice. Astrid started to move until she felt something underneath her hand.
Some of Zarek’s figurines lay there, and as she traced the lines of them with her fingers, she realized what they were.
Each one was a character from The Little Prince. There were six of them in all: the little prince himself, the sheep, the elephant, the rose, the fox, and the snake.
They were exquisite pieces that had been given even more attention to detail than the others she’d "seen."
"He even gave me a can opener so I don’t have to use my fangs. I like that. Metal is hard on the teeth." Simi smacked her lips. "Pork and beans popsicle. Yummy! My favorite."
"Simi?" Astrid said, sitting up. "Where is Zarek?"
"I don’t know. I woke up a few minutes ago and found this yummy food he left for me."
"Zarek?" Astrid called.
He didn’t answer.
Of course, for him, that was typical.
"Simi, is he in the cabin?"
"I don’t know."
"Would you please go see?"
"Zarek!" Simi shouted.
"Simi, I could have done that."
The demon gave a heavy, irritated sigh. "Okay, but don’t let my beans thaw out." She paused, then added, "Akri said to protect you, Astrid, not to fetch for you. Zarek a big Dark-Hunter and he can walk about on his own."
Astrid felt the demon vanish.
After a few minutes she came back. "Nope, he not there, neither."
Astrid’s heart pounded.
Maybe he had just gone for more food.
"Did he leave a note, Simi?"
Zarek kicked open the door to the first Apollite house he reached. The small community of Apollites had been here for several decades now on the outskirts of Fairbanks, but he’d left them alone.
Dark-Hunter Code forbade any Hunter from harming an Apollite until they turned into Daimons who fed off humans. So long as they kept to themselves and didn’t harm humans and lived out their lives until they died at twenty-seven, they were afforded the same protection as any human being.
It was why, at least according to Simi, Zarek had been banished. To Artemis and the gods, killing an Apollite was as serious a crime as killing a human.
But at the moment, Zarek would gladly break that law and any other to keep Astrid safe.
As soon as the door crashed open, the female occupants of the house screamed and ran for cover while the men rushed him.
Zarek used his telekinesis to pin them to the walls.
"Don’t even try it," he snarled at them. "I’m in no mood to deal with you. I’m here for Thanatos."
"He’s not here," one of the men said.
"I figured as much. But then, I also figure you can get word to him. Can you?"
"He’s going to kill us," a child’s voice cried out from the rear of the house.
The fear in the child’s tone calmed him, but only a bit.
Zarek released the Apollites he had pinned. "Tell Thanatos that if he wants me, I’ll be waiting for him outside of town in Bear’s Hollow. If he’s not there in an hour, I’m coming back here and cleaning out the Daimons I can feel."
He turned and walked out the door.
Zarek paused a short distance away from them.
They bolted the door behind him and whispered among themselves until they had decided who should go fetch Thanatos.
Satisfied they would deliver his message, Zarek smirked and headed toward his snowmachine.
Getting on, he drove to the rendezvous and sat back to wait.
He pulled out Spawn’s cell phone and called Jess.
The Cowboy answered on the third ring. "Hey, Eskimo, is that you?"
"Yeah, it’s me. Listen, I left Astrid at my cabin."