She winced at a reality so harsh, she wondered how he could be sane. Then again, maybe he wasn’t. There were times when she doubted her own sanity. Times when the world kicked her so hard it left a permanent scar on her heart.
A heart that now wanted nothing more than to soothe him. "Has anyone ever just held you?"
He scowled. "What do you mean?"
And even that, he couldn’t comprehend. Of course no one had ever held him close.
Held him like he mattered.
"I’m sorry, Ren. It’s none of my business, I know. I’m just trying to imagine how hard it had to be on you growing up like you did." She winced as another wave of tears made her eyes water. "Did your father ever learn to love you?"
His features were as empty and blank as his tone. "No. He blamed me for the death of his wife. And he blamed my mother for the destruction of his homeland."
Something she was sure he took out on Ren.
"Why did he blame her for that?"
"He refused to believe that Apollymi came on her own to attack us. In his mind, my mother concocted all of it so she could have him."
How vain could one man be? "What? He thought your mother murdered Apollymi’s son and destroyed two continents just to sleep with him?"
"I never said my father was a bright man. Thank the gods I inherited my intelligence from my mother and not him."
With those words, another vision went through her head. She saw Makah’Alay as a boy around the age of ten. He stood in the doorway of a room, staring at a bed that was surrounded by people who had their backs to him. She recognized the priests and medicine men. It was obvious they were there to cure someone, and it couldn’t be his father since he stood at the head of the bed, looking down.
The oldest priest turned to face Ren’s father. "I’m sorry, Chief Coatl. There’s nothing left to do except prepare sacrifices in hopes the spirits will take mercy and leave Anukuwaya in this world."
Coatl’s gaze darkened as he turned to see the son he hated standing there, hale and whole. His rage and hatred were tangible. Cursing, he headed for Ren.
Ren’s eyes widened as he realized his father had become aware of his presence. He bolted for the hallway, but it was too late.
His father was on him before he could scurry away. He snatched the boy by his arm and shoved Ren against the stone wall. "What did you do to him?"
He backhanded Ren so hard that Ren fell to the ground. "Don’t you dare lie to me! I know you’re jealous of my son. That you covet his perfection." He grabbed Ren by the hair and wrenched him to his feet. Ren’s lips and nose were bleeding as he clutched at his father’s hand, trying to get him to let go.
"You better pray, boy, that nothing happens to my son. If Anukuwaya dies, I will gut you myself as an offering for his safe passage to the next realm. Do you understand? Now, whatever it is you have done to him, you better undo, or I will have your life as payment for it."
The vision vanished, leaving Kateri to stare into the eyes of the adult version of that little boy’s face. A face that still had bleeding lips from the battle he’d fought for her.
Overwhelmed by it all, she reacted without thought and pulled him into her arms.
Ren froze at the foreign sensation of being held by someone as she buried her face against his neck and tightened her grip around his waist. Her tears dampened his skin, raising chills all over him. He was so stunned that he didn’t know how to react to her fierce hug.
And in that one moment, something inside him shattered. It unleashed a long-buried dream that he knew better than to have. One where he lived a normal life with someone who would miss him if he was gone. Someone who would fuss at him if he was late and hadn’t called …
Closing his eyes, he inhaled her scent-a mixture of valerian and primrose. And all he could think about was being inside her. Of spending hours with her wrapped around his nak*d body.
Was this what it felt like to be loved? Not that he thought for one instant that she loved him. How could she? She didn’t know him at all, because if she did, she’d be terrified and running for the nearest hole to hide in.
But love or not, this was the first time anyone had ever held him like this. Like she cared about him.
She’d been right. In all his life, he could count every hug he’d ever received. They were so rare and brief that he’d actually committed them to memory.
No one had ever held him to comfort him. Ever. His head reeled from emotions he couldn’t even begin to name, and from the warmth her hug gave him. And here, for one single heartbeat, he allowed himself to feel that maybe, just maybe, he might be worthy of being loved by someone.
Don’t be stupid.
The last time he’d entertained that fantasy had been with Windseer.
To this day, he could hear her mocking laughter after he’d made the mistake of confessing his love for her. "You didn’t really expect me to say I love you, too, did you? While you are physically appealing and okay in bed, you’re weak. Pathetic. You let everyone walk all over you and then wipe their feet on you when they’re done. You cower into the shadows and shirk away every time your father draws near. Instead of being a man and standing up for yourself, you allow your brother to take credit for your skills and your kills. You’re just a mewling little boy. You won’t even accept the Grizzly Spirit’s offer because you’re too afraid to do so. How could any woman love something as pitiable as you?"
"I’m not p-p-p-p-p-p…" He’d been so upset by her attack that he hadn’t been able to get anything else out. He’d stood there sputtering like he was as mentally defective as everyone thought him to be.
"Try ‘nugatory’ or ‘inferior,’" she’d sneered at him. "Maybe you won’t stumble over those."
At that point, his fury had been such that he’d feared he was about to strike her. So he’d turned sharply on his heel and headed for the door.
"Wait, Makah’Alay! Don’t forget to take your meager p-p-p-pride with you!"
That had been the taunt that sent him over the edge. The one that gutted the hardest.
Intent on proving her and everyone else wrong, on proving to himself that he wasn’t the piece of shit everyone thought him to be, he’d left her and gone straight to the Grizzly Spirit to make his bargain.
That had been the last time he’d seen her, and those her last words to him. Once he realized she’d only been using him to free Grizzly, he’d vowed to himself that no matter what, he’d never again love any woman. That he would never, ever open himself up to that kind of pain and humiliation.
It just wasn’t worth it.
And he wasn’t so weak that he needed validation from another. He lived his life for himself and he preferred it that way. He didn’t need anyone else in his world.
"We need to get you something for your pain and wounds."
Kateri’s voice dragged him back to the present and to the fact that she was still holding on to him.
For a second, he thought she was talking about his memories, until he again felt the physical pain of his fight. Releasing her, he took a step back, brushing his hand over the worst of the wounds in his side. "There’s nothing to be done for them."
"What do you mean?"
"I told you, Kateri. I’m immortal. They’ll heal on their own."
"Don’t they hurt?"
Of course they did. While he’d beat the crap out of the demon, the demon wasn’t inexperienced. Little bastard had kicked the shit out of him.
But she was being kind, so he kept his sarcasm to himself and nodded.
"Then we can-"
"Nothing will take the pain away, Kateri. Dark-Hunter powers don’t work that way."
She frowned in confusion. "Dark-who? What?"
He rubbed his clean hand over his face as he remembered that she wouldn’t have a clue about his brethren, even though Talon had once been a member of their elite brotherhood.
Although technically, Ren wasn’t really one and never had been. He predated the first official Dark-Hunters by a couple thousand years. And because of that, he was the only one considered a Dark-Hunter that Acheron, their leader, hadn’t trained. In fact, Acheron hadn’t even known Ren existed until Cabeza had crossed over four thousand years ago, and the Atlantean had gone to train him for his Dark-Hunter duties in the Yucatan.
Acheron had been as shocked by Ren’s existence as Ren had been by his.
Unlike the other Dark-Hunters, Artemis had resurrected Ren only because of her promise to his mother that she wouldn’t let him die as a child-she’d sworn a sacred vow on the River Styx that she would watch over him.
To breach that oath would have cost her her own life.
Since Artemis was immortal and rather self-absorbed, she didn’t have the best grasp on what differentiated a human child from an adult. So she’d returned him to life out of fear that if she didn’t, she’d die, too.
And because of the dark powers she had to use to restore his life, it had "gifted" him with fangs and an inability to walk in daylight. Artemis told the other Dark-Hunters she’d created that those were a result of what they were pledged to hunt.
But once he’d been brought back, Ren had slowly learned the truth of his own birth and of the secrets of his mother’s Greek pantheon.
The power to bring the dead back to life was one Artemis had stolen from Apollymi’s son. As such, Artemis couldn’t control it entirely. But it didn’t matter to him. He’d been too grateful to come back and try to rectify his own stupidity that he wasn’t about to complain about hers.
Right now, he didn’t want to go into any of that with Kateri. Nor did he want anyone else to know how different he was from the others. The Dark-Hunters accepted him as one of their own, and since none of them knew his true age, they didn’t question his Dark-Hunter designation.
They assumed he was a lot younger than he was and he didn’t bother to correct them. Only Acheron knew the truth about him and only he knew the truth about who and what Acheron really was. A fact he kept from Acheron. Having lived his own crappy life, he wasn’t about to dredge up Acheron’s past that made Ren’s look like a walk through Disney World. Since both of them wanted their pasts forgotten, Ren was more than happy to oblige their Atlantean leader.
So he gave Kateri the simplest explanation. "Dark-Hunters are immortal warriors who protect humanity from the preternatural beings who prey on them."
Kateri frowned. This was one of the moments when a sane, rational person would throw down the bull caca flag on the field. But …
Sanity had waved bye-bye to her several hours ago. At this point, she was ready to go with space aliens, flying fat Elvi, and anything else someone wanted her to believe in.
Even Santa and the Tooth Fairy.
Heck, why not throw the Easter Bunny in for good measure.
And assuming that the Dark-Hunters were as real as all the other … things she’d met since she got up this morning, she had a few questions. "So how does someone get to be a Dark-Hunter? Are you born to do it?"
"No. They’re usually someone who dies during a brutal betrayal of some kind. One so violent and harsh that their soul screams loud enough to carry to Artemis’s temple on Olympus. When she hears it, she goes to make them a bargain. For a single Act of Vengeance against the person who hurt them, they give her their soul and spend the rest of eternity hunting down Daimons for her."
"Daimon as in demon?"
He laughed bitterly. "Another very long, complicated story. Suffice it to say, they’re soul-sucking vampires who serve the Atlantean goddess Apollymi. Since they collect souls and souls cannot live inside a body not their own, a Dark-Hunter is charged with killing the Daimon before the soul dies so that it can return to where it needs to be."
A shiver went down her spine at the thought of losing her soul. "You sold your soul to Artemis?"
"Trust me, it wasn’t much of one, and it was no great loss. I really haven’t missed it at all." There was a note of bitterness in his voice as he spoke.
But that got her to thinking…. "Then they’re not worth anything?"
"Not as long as you’re alive. But if you die without one, it makes your concept of hell look like a picnic."
Oh, okay, that didn’t sound so pleasant…. "But if you’re immortal, you can’t die, right?"
"Easily. There are certain things no one survives."
This she had to hear. "Such as?"
"Beheading. Total dismemberment. Heart removal. Basically anything that utterly destroys a body, such as fire, and of course my personal fave-letting sunlight touch you. We tend to spontaneously combust into flames whenever that happens."
"You want the lie or the truth?"
Kateri wondered what made him ask such a question. Who would want a lie if they could have the truth? But her curiosity did get the better of her. "Oh, what the heck, let’s live a little and hear both, shall we?"
One corner of his mouth twitched as if he started to smile, then caught himself. "Artemis tells everyone that it’s because of her brother, Apollo, god of the sun. It’s his curse that keeps the Dark-Hunters from daylight. But it stems from Apollymi. Since the Daimons can’t go out in sunlight, she made it so that the Dark-Hunters who pursue them can’t attack them unfairly. If the Daimons can’t walk daylight, the Dark-Hunters can’t walk daylight."